Before the Dawn
Death Eaters poured into England over the next two months despite the Order's attempts to slow them down. An extra three thousand followers of the Dark Lord now lived on the island, swelling their numbers to over five thousand according to Charlie.
And then, a week ago, their arrivals stopped.
As did all Death Eater activity.
Silence after such a build-up meant the Zânǎ was right. The final battle for Britain was coming, and Harry was under no illusion he could stop it by himself. He needed help, but getting it meant first learning where Riddle intended to start his push for Hogwarts.
Harry set his thoughts aside as he approached Aber Falls. The magical hamlet was tucked into the hills of what is now the Coedydd Nature Reserve in Western Wales, two miles due south of Gorddinog. The hamlet took its name from a spot along the nearby Afon Goch river where water plunged a hundred and twenty feet over lava rock.
Inside the hamlet, fifteen ancient halls served as homes. The original owners built them in three haphazard but concentric circles that surrounded a park the size of Gryffindor's common room.
Harry approached the hamlet through the forest, lit by bright stars and a waning crescent moon that hung in the predawn sky. Despite the clear May night and Harry using his Invisibility cloak, a shiver slithered up his spine.
He stopped at the edge of the forest and settled in for the long wait. Hopefully, the Death Eater he questioned the previous night hadn't led him astray. If he had, well, Harry couldn't do anything about it now, not unless he wanted to gather the body parts and reanimate them.
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
In a dingy house hundreds of miles away, Fleur had sprawled out under her sheets enjoying the rare chance to sleep in. Of course, that meant her door opened long before she wanted to wake up.
"Fleur?" whispered her sister.
Fleur squinted in the harsh light of the early morning. "Didn't you move in down the hall?"
Gabrielle shut the door. "Neville's gone, and I can't sleep in there alone."
"So, you jump into someone else's bed?"
When Gabby didn't answer, Fleur sat up on an elbow. "Hey, you okay?"
Gabrielle flopped down next to her. "Do you remember those first few days with 'Arry before you came to France?"
Did she? There was almost nothing she wouldn't give to have them back again. "Sure, why?"
"When you pushed your magic into him, did he still dream about things that would make him cry out in his sleep?"
Fleur took a second to connect the dots. "Neville?"
"I can't stop his nightmares. Is it because . . . Did something inside me break?"
Gabrielle nodded. "When the Death Eaters took me, they said I deserved what was coming because I threw my magic at everyone." Gabrielle looked up at Fleur with water-filled eyes. "What if I'm holding back because deep down, I believed them?"
Fleur grabbed her sister by the arm and squeezed. "You did nothing to deserve what they were threatening you with, and I think you're smart enough to know that."
"I don't know," Gabrielle answered. "I mean, what if they were right?"
Fleur sat straight up on the bed and pulled her sister up by the shoulders to face her. "No one, ever,deserves what they were going to do to you."
"But if I didn't use my magic—"
"If you didn't use your magic I would have died in the wand shop," Fleur reminded her. "We're in a war, and you did what was necessary. The only mistake you've made since the day we arrived in Diagon Alley was overextending a move that allowed the Death Eater to catch your leg. And, that has nothing to do with you deserving something so hideous as rape."
A sigh escaped Gabrielle's lips. "Somehow, I think I knew that. But, I needed to hear it from someone else."
Fleur palmed her cheek. "Good."
"So . . . If that's true, why can't I help Neville?"
"You are helping him," Fleur reminded her. "But it won't be easy. He stepped into a dark place in his soul that night. I felt it in my magic when it happened."
"But, he did it for me," Gabrielle said. "So, the least I could do is help him, and I've tried. I've done almost everything I can think of."
Fleur's eyebrows raised. "Everything?"
"Almost everything," Gabrielle corrected, shaking her head. "I'm not ready for that. I don't mind holding or even kissing him, but after what happened that night . . ."
A wave of relief washed through Fleur, followed by a touch of sadness. "It really messed you up, didn't it?"
Gabrielle laid down again and pulled the covers up to her chin. "I was so scared . . ." she trailed off, staring at the far wall until the smallest smile broke through. "And then, I felt your magic. My big sister was coming to rescue me, and you did.
"And, Neville was there, too. He carried me up all those stairs onto the roof. His emotions were so strong. I felt the darkness in him, but I also sensed the only thing he cared about was making sure I was okay, even if he had to die. That's why I could go to Neville's room that same night. He was safe."
"At least he's not the type to push you."
"He's not," Gabrielle agreed. "And, it's not like I don't want to, but I have this fear in the back of my mind of Death Eaters punishing me for letting my sexuality loose."
Fleur cursed at herself for letting Gabrielle get captured that night. "That'll go away with time, or with the end of the war."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then, we'll get help. I'll make sure you get the best mind-healers money can buy if we need to."
"Thanks. I—" Gabrielle stopped and wiped at something in her eye. "I need to get better. Neville needs all the help he can get."
Fleur's eyebrow raised for the second time. "And . . . Why are you the one to help him?"
A blush colored her cheeks. "I'm, well, I think. . . I'm falling in love with him."
"You think, or you know?"
"I know." Gabby closed her eyes. "That's why it's my responsibility to help him."
Fleur wondered how she suddenly landed on the opposite side of the same conversation she had with her mother a little over a year ago. "Be careful," she started. "As Veela, the deeper you fall in love with someone, the more it will feel as though it consumes your soul. We're different than humans in that way. Our avian nature drives our love, and the more intimate the relationship, such as sex or marking your mate, the worse it gets."
Gabby rolled onto her side. "Well, we haven't had sex, nor have I marked him."
"No, but you've pushed your love into Neville as I did Harry, and in some ways, that's even more intimate. So, whatever comes of your relationship with him, just be careful. And more importantly, do not lose yourself in him. Be your own person. If it's meant to be with Neville, it will be. Oh, and one more thing. I don't think you could have found a better wizard."
"Thanks," she said. "And thanks for talking. I'm scared to think what this conversation would have been like with Maman."
Fleur couldn't help but laugh. "I know exactly what she would have said. 'You're not a trophy in Britain's magical shooting gallery nor are you Neville's nightly penis holster and personal nurse.'"
Gabrielle blinked, then blinked again. "She didn't!"
"She did. Right before I went to the Mazkānāka for the first time. There was also a moment she looked so dangerous I thought she would pluck 'n' pack me before I could bare my wand."
The incredulous look on Gabby's face was precious. "What?"
"With everything that's happened since your transformation, you really haven't gotten to know her as an adult. But, I promise you, there's more to that witch than you have ever imagined."
"I hope I get to know that side of her."
"Me too." Fleur stretched and climbed out of bed. "Might as well start my day. Are you still going to sleep for a while?"
"If I can get my brain to stop spinning." Gabrielle fluffed her pillow and rolled onto her back. "Can we spend time together after I wake up? Neville left this morning and will be gone all day and, as much as I'm glad we're here, I still miss it being just the two of us."
Fleur leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "I miss it too. I'll wake you up in a couple of hours."
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
Azzurra never enjoyed waking up, but this was ridiculous. She felt herself swimming against magic trying to drag her back into slumber's grasp, whispering promises of peace and safety and a lack of pain. But she knew she couldn't listen.
She latched on to the voice.
"Can you hear me?"
With a mighty effort, she forced her eyes open to find Jaleena leaning over her. Worry lines creased the German Veela's otherwise unblemished skin. "How are you feeling?"
Azzurra tried to answer, but her mouth felt like someone had grown a cotton patch in it.
"Here." Jaleena gently forced a straw into her mouth. "Not too much at first."
She took a sip and swished the water around until the desiccated tissue soaked it up. "Where am I?"
"How did . . ."
Wait . . . MARKUS!
Her magic surged and, try as she might, there was no way to restrain it. Limb by limb, organ by organ, the magic felt as though it were trying to rip her apart.
"Azzurra!" Jaleena dropped the cup and knelt on the bed, taking her by both hands. "Azzurra! Control your magic. Focus!"
"Yes! You can!" Jaleena's fists tightened around Azzurra's hands. "You need to do it, now!"
"I'm trying, but—oh God, it hurts!"
Behind Jaleena, the hallway door slammed against the wall as a half dozen Zekēnōt tasked as healers poured into the room. Their combined magic crashed against hers and doubled her pain.
"She's not responding!" a healer announced. "We need to put her under again."
"It'll finish her!" another said. "I have an idea, back up!"
A different wave of magic washed over Azzurra, this one demanding her submission.
Azzurra's magic flared. She rolled off the bed, rising to meet the attack, but Jaleena grabbed her.
"What are you doing?"
"Move!" Such intense magic backed her command that it forced Jaleena to the floor, head bowed. But Azzurra was already moving past her, using the side of the bed as leverage. She called on her magic to drive the weak-quilled hen to her knees. The Asian Flock Leader stepped back under the assault, but instead of going down, she ramped up her own magic.
Two other Flock Leaders threw their magic at Azzurra as well, trying to establish their own place in the pecking order. A three-on-one attack blatantly violated Veela mores, and it pissed Azzurra off.
She called on all her magic and drove it straight at the strongest Veela.
The Asian Heeler's legs trembled, and she remained standing only a few more seconds before falling to the floor in submission. Then, the other two Veela trying to establish dominance stepped forward, but it took just a moment longer before they, too, found themselves crushed under her magic.
Azzurra spun to face the other three Healers, but the room didn't stop turning when she did. It made two full rotations before blackness engulfed her world.
The next time she woke, it was with a much clearer mind, which meant she slept without the aid of magic. Unfortunately, it also meant the crushing weight of Markus's death could make itself known.
Her breath caught in her chest and her eyes felt as though they were swimming with tears. At least her magic remained under her control.
"Oh, thank God!"
Azzurra turned to find Médée sitting in the same chair Jaleena had occupied earlier in the day. Médée pressed Azzurra's hand against the French witch's lips before speaking again. "We were all so worried about you."
"How long have I . . . ?"
"Five months." Médée readjusted herself in the chair. "They barely got you here in time for the Zekēnōt to put you in stasis. They woke you a month and a half later but put you under again in less than thirty seconds."
"It was that bad?"
"Your human magic spun out of control as well. It took three weeks to fix the first room after they moved you, and the second time was worse, so when they put you back in stasis, they extended it. Jaleena called me when you woke up this afternoon." Médée sat on the edge of the bed and retook Azzurra's hand. "We thought we lost you."
Azzurra squeezed it. "I'm alive, but . . . Markus isn't. Not anymore." And then, what was left of the emotional dam crumbled.
Médée kicked off her shoes and lay on the bed next to her, pulling Azzurra into her chest.
Later that night, Azzurra lay in bed emotionally exhausted, but for the first time since stasis, she could think clearly.
The Asian Flock Leader had saved her life. Had she not led the other Veela to try and prove dominance, Azzurra would have lost complete control over her magic.
Whoever that Veela was, she, and by extension, her flock, wasn't nearly as powerful as Azzurra; but damn if she wasn't quick to fly straight.
Azzurra decided to mention her to her mother. Sophia Sala could use good counsel. Then again, would my mother even listen? she wondered.
Five months and the Zekēnōt still hadn't moved on England's Dark Lord despite France's request and the committee set up to handle it, according to Médée.
Several of the committee's members, including Petra, had expressed their concerns the Horcrux would turn Harry into another Dark Lord.
However, since they returned a month ago, Petra hadn't been the same, and tensions had grown between her and Azzurra's mother.
Azzurra shifted and faced the wall, careful not to wake Médée. It surprised her at the effort it took. At least her muscles hadn't atrophied thanks to the stasis, but they would still be stiff for a while.
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
Neville couldn't keep the grin off his face as he approached the back of an old house built over a thousand years ago. Inside it lay another step in his search for vengeance. A search he could continue thanks to Tonks's discovery that morning.
Somehow, she had learned a Death Eater had information they needed. So, Neville and Charlie went to find him. Three dead wizards later, they now knew a dear old friend was waiting here for a special delivery.
Charlie had promised Neville two minutes alone with the wizard, and he planned on using the time well.
At the back door, a quick spell identified no wards, but the surrounding neighborhood was magical, and new Protection Charms going up might cause someone to ask questions. One thing was for sure, Voldemort's inner circle had grown cautious since the death of the entire Malfoy family.
With a single kick, the door ripped from its hinges and crashed to the floor.
~ . ~ . ~
Movement caught Harry's eye. To his right and a hundred fifty feet away, a big son of a bitch broke the forest line and approached one of the houses. Shadows played across his face so Harry couldn't see much, except for the cold smile that promised a whole lot of hurt for someone very soon.
Bloody hell! Now, who's that?
~ . ~ . ~
Just as Neville had expected, the house was a long hall divided into two floors. An open kitchen was tucked into the far end. A quick look told him the room was empty, which meant his target was upstairs.
Neville wanted him on the ground floor.
A Blasting Spell split the coupling holding the center beam to its column, shattering the central weight-bearing support for the upper level.
The structure let out an ear-splitting crack before the entire floor came crashing down. A fast flick of Neville's wand conjured a shield just in time as a thick support beam clanged off it. All around the room, the upper-level furniture broke through the rotted wood of the ground floor. A couch landed on its end and snapped in half. And then, the entire building slid off its foundation. Walls wavered, causing trinkets from the previous owners to dislodge from shelves and shatter against whatever broke their fall.
Brilliant! he mocked himself. A voice that sounded suspiciously like his grandmother scolded him for not planning this better, but he ignored it. Tonight wasn't about well-laid plans. It was about letting loose the monster called Chaos on Bartemius Crouch Junior.
Neville tried to peer through the dust, but a self-supporting upper floor fireplace built into the wall cast shadows at disorienting angles. Great, how am I going to find him in this?
Thankfully, a groan in the middle of the room relieved his concern. With three Blasting Spells, Neville cleared a path and slowly approached.
Crouch most likely had been thrown from the broken couch and landed awkwardly as his left leg was now bent outward at the wrong angle, right below the knee. It was his only injury, but Neville was sure he could add more.
"Who . . ." Crouch began.
"Maybe this will remind you," Neville answered. "Crucio!"
He watched as Crouch's back arched against the curse, all other pain ignored for the moment. Neville kept the spell on him until blood spilled from Crouch's mouth, tracing a line through his dust-coated jaw.
"That was for my father. The next one will be for my mother."
"Long—Longbottom?" The question came out in gasps.
Neville closed the remaining distance, stopping when he was astride Crouch's broken leg. "You get one chance. Tell me everything you know about Riddle's plans."
"Do your best," Crouch challenged through gritted teeth.
Neville rested the toe of his boot on the break in Crouch's leg. "As you wish." A quick shift of weight and a twist of his foot made Crouch scream.
He pressed harder, taking a perverse joy in the sound before letting up.
"A shame I didn't let Rabastan live long enough to warn you how I've taken a liking to the way Muggles torture people. It's more . . . hands on."
Without another word, Neville grabbed the broken leg and twisted, grinding bone against bone.
Another shriek rattled through the house before Crouch blacked out.
"Torture isn't so enjoyable when you're on the receiving end, is it?" Neville asked the unresponsive Death Eater. "Rennervate!"
When Crouch came to, Neville started again. "Let's begin with something easy. Why this house? What did you do to the family that lived here?"
"Nothing," he answered. "They cleared it before I arrived."
"And by cleared, you mean your friends in black robes and silver masks killed them. Right?"
Crouch swallowed. "Yes."
"The Dark Lord's orders. He wanted the hamlet."
What would Voldemort want with a Hamlet in the middle of nowhere? Neville wondered. Wait, an entire hamlet? They murdered everyone?
A rage spun up from within, but before it could surface, someone else stepped through the door. "Neville?"
~ . ~ . ~
Harry watched as the stranger kicked in the door and disappeared into the house. A few seconds later, the windows exploded, and the entire building slid off its foundation.
The sounds of destruction brought Death Eaters out of the other houses.
So much for best-laid plans, Harry thought. He raised his wand and sent two Killing Curses and an Immobilizer racing across the open space at the nearest three Death Eaters who had just exited the closest home. The two closest wizards took the green curses in the chest and tumbled backward. The third dropped to the ground, unable to move.
With another cast, a summoning spell whisked the bound Death Eater toward Harry. He stepped to the right and let the tree next to him break the wizard's momentum. Another quick cast had the robed wizard chained to the ground.
Harry needed answers, and fast. So, after casting a Compulsion Charm, he pushed into the wizard's head. A week ago, they had marched every family in this little community to the small park and executed them in preparation for visitors arriving tonight. Tomorrow, they would leave to meet with Riddle in Scotland and march on Hogwarts. It was all the confirmation he needed.
Harry withdrew from the wizard's mind, grabbed him by his hair, and tilted his head back to expose his throat. A single Cutting Curse opened the wizard's artery.
"I suggest you make peace with whatever deity you believe in before you bleed out."
The wizard worked his mouth, but no words escaped, only a rasping that faded into a sigh. Harry waited and watched until death's vacant stare replaced what life had remained in the man's eyes.
Only then did he gaze out over the hamlet to find more Death Eaters had exited the surrounding buildings. Upturned hands and shoulder shrugs punctuated their communication.
Harry was preparing to meet them when he noticed someone else had stepped out of the forest, headed for the same house as the first stranger. And, despite the shadows and faint light, the ginger hair and stout build of a former Dragon worker was plain to see.
Charlie! Harry needed to reach him and let him know the attack on Hogwarts was coming tomorrow night.
~ . ~ . ~
"Over here, Charlie," Neville answered, never taking his eyes off Crouch.
Charlie picked his way a few feet into the room. "A carriage-load of Death Eaters are coming this way rather soon. Get what you need from him and let's go."
Neville turned his attention back to Crouch. "You best tell me now, what does your precious Dark Lord want with this hamlet?"
"An overseas Portkey is due to arrive later." But, it wasn't Crouch who answered. Neville looked up to find an imposing figure standing in the doorway. "They're moving on Hogwarts tomorrow night."
Neville noted Crouch's involuntary jerk of surprise. "It seems as though you might be right."
"I am." The shadowed figure stepped further into the room, allowing the light from the upstairs fire to illuminate his features. "Who do you have there?"
Recognition came quickly, followed by a single thought. A Carriage-load of Death Eaters versus Harry and me? Let them come!
"Say hi to our former Professor for Defense against the Dark Arts, in his true form." Neville pressed the toe of his boot against the break in Crouch's leg again, rolling it back and forth. "And one of the four who tortured my parents into insanity."
The new noises Crouch was inventing didn't bother Harry. Something outside had his attention. "We need to go."
Neville reached down, and with one hand, lifted Crouch off the floor by the robes until they were eye level. He reared back and with a single punch, crushed Crouch's windpipe.
Together, they all watched as Crouch flopped on the floor like a fish trying to get back into the water. The twitches and jerks slowed until the putrid smell of released bowels filled the air.
Harry turned and left without a word. Neville gestured for Charlie to go next, and then he followed, but no sooner had he stepped out when the familiar squelching sound of Apparition wards zipped across the hamlet.
"Go right," Neville said to Harry. "I'll go left. Charlie, stay back and make sure they don't encircle us."
"No," Harry interrupted, turning to Charlie. "Go. Clear the anti-Apparition charms and inform the Order Riddle and his Death Eaters are headed for Hogwarts tomorrow. If they win, Magical Europe descends into war within a month, and Muggle Europe won't be far behind."
"I am not leaving you—"
"Harry's right," Neville countered as Death Eaters appeared at both corners of the house, ending any more discussion.
~ . ~ . ~
"Go!" Harry shouted before raising his wand high. A fire-beasty formed in midair. With a sweep of both arms, it raced forward, opening its mouth to engulf the first set of Death Eaters.
He turned, expecting curses from behind, but Neville had impaled three Death Eaters on exposed beams that had punctured the wall of the house when the second floor came down.
Deciding Neville could take care of himself, Harry raced to the end of the house and turned the corner, only to find two more Death Eaters almost on top of him. Too close to complete a cast, Harry struck out with a straight, openhanded jab at the nearest wizard, sending him to the ground with a broken nose and tears in his eyes.
However, the punch opened him up and Harry took a right cross to the chin. The shock traveled into his legs and loosened his knee joints, causing him to fall back against the house. But, he took advantage of the opening space between him and the other wizard and let loose a Blood Expander.
And then, without wasting another second, he ran. Harry had stayed too close after casting that curse once before. It later took him three hours to clean what remained of the dead wizard from his hair and clothes, and that was with magic.
Harry reached behind him and launched the Killing Curse at the Death Eater still holding his broken nose, then slipped around the corner to the front of the house. There, he found several others standing in the small park where they had executed the families.
Well, if the park was good enough for one execution, it'll sure as hell be good enough for a second one.
Harry started towards them, allowing his eyes to turn red as waves of blackness roiled off of him.
That got their attention.
"Who are you?" The nearest Death Eater yelled.
It was the same annoying question every time, and he knew the answer by heart.
"I am Death." His voice echoed off the homes surrounding the small park.
"And, I am Chaos," came a second voice to Harry's right. "Welcome to your execution."
Okay, that was new!
Harry swallowed his humor and reached behind him with both hands, squeezed, and then thrust them forward. Wood from the ancient homes ripped from their places and whistled through the open air toward the park, impaling a third of the wizards standing there.
Then, to his surprise, the planks rose again into the air, inverted, and shot toward the ground, piercing another half-dozen Death Eaters, and pinning them in place. The bodies of the original victims now hung from the top of the wooden planks like fifteenth-century victims of Vlad the Impaler.
But Harry didn't have time to admire the view. Even as the last plank impaled a Death Eater, the entire village rumbled, as though several small mountains had landed in the clearing. He looked up to find the last Portkey travelers had arrived.
"Merlin's arse!" Harry cursed. He'd had enough of this hamlet already and didn't want to deal with a dozen Giants.
Neville agreed. "Burn them all!"
Unfortunately, Harry had a memory from Tom Riddle that informed him is his fire-beasty would only anger them.
Neville, however, was one step ahead. A spell sizzled into the nearest home, and it exploded in flames. Then, with a wave of his wand, he yanked the closest Giant off the ground and launched him into the burning building. With another spell, he collapsed the entire building into the flames.
Unintelligible screams ripped through the night.
Three minutes later, all that remained of the giants, and the hamlet of Aber Falls, were a dozen funeral pyres burning bright enough to paint the entire surrounding forest in an eerie orange glow. Those homes not already destroyed, Harry and Neville dropped to the ground and used them as fuel to make sure no giants survived.
"Bloody hell," sounded a voice behind him.
Harry spun, wand gamboling in the air, but he stopped as Charlie came into view. "You were supposed to leave."
"I tried, but a half-dozen Death Eaters tried to stop me. Just finished with the last one a minute ago."
Charlie looked around again. "This hamlet stood for thirteen hundred years. Then you two come along and raze it to the ground in under four minutes." He paused and scratched at his left ear for a moment. "On second thought, I'm disappointed. My dragons could have done it in two."
Harry ignored him. "Someone has to inform the Order."
"We're not due to meet until the day after tomorrow," Neville said before looking to Charlie. "We'll have to split up to get the word out if we want to make it back to Hogwarts by tomorrow night."
"You can't send a Patronus?" asked Harry.
"No," Charlie answered. "We think they learned how to trace them. Two cells south of London were using them to communicate. We lost them both in a single night." He turned to Neville. "I'll take care of the older members of the Order. You get the others. Susan can relate the message to Amelia. She'll gather what's left of the Aurors and their group. Oh, and make sure Fleur informs her father."
With one last glance at the destruction, Charlie spun on the spot and Disapparated.
"You're an arsehole."
Harry faced Neville. "Oh? And why is that?"
"You've known Fleur was here since Charlie told you months ago." A stiff finger poked Harry in the center of his chest. "Why didn't you go to her?"
"And what is it to you?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "Besides, she doesn't need me, not like this."
"She sure as hell needed you when she lost Gabrielle to the Death Eaters."
Harry's heart dropped through his stomach. "Gabby's—"
"Alive. No thanks to you." Neville leaned forward, his finger again poked Harry in the chest. "You're coming with me to see Fleur before she leaves for France. You owe her that much, at least. If you don't, and we both live through tomorrow night, we will have words."
Harry set his jaw. "No."
Whatever Neville's problem was, Harry was not going to meet with Fleur. Not now. If any doubts had remained about his path, tonight sealed it. And, despite the person standing before him, Neville was once his friend; there was no way he'd force Neville to darken his soul by coming after Harry to kill him like they agreed so long ago.
"The draw to the arts is too strong, and I've indulged for too long. So, either I die tomorrow night, or Britain will soon have another Dark Lord."
Neville mocked him with a laugh, then swept his arm in a grand gesture to indicate the entire hamlet. "You're able to accomplish all of this, and yet, deep down inside, you're nothing more than a fecking coward."
Harry's wand flashed into his hand again, but he stopped himself—and was silently impressed that Neville had matched him in speed.
Neither a movement nor a word passed between them for thirty seconds.
Harry finally pocketed the wand. "Don't you need to run off and get the Order together?"
"Probably." Neville continued to stare at him as he lowered his own wand. "If you're too scared to face Fleur, the least you can do is go to Hogwarts. Help the elves hold off Riddle if he gets there before us."
With a quick dip of the head, Harry brought up an image of a spot outside Hagrid's cave and prepared to Disapparate but stopped. "You were right about one thing."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"If, by some chance, we're both alive after tomorrow night, you and I will be having words."
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
Neville stared at the now-empty space. What happened? Well, beyond Harry's stupid little speech about descending into the Dark Arts. He wasn't the only wizard losing that fight. Neville knew the origins of his desire to torture and kill. Had Charlie and Harry not interrupted him, Crouch would still be alive, to his great displeasure. And that scared Neville, as did the power he saw unleashed tonight from both himself and Harry if truth be told.
Neville looked around one last time at the destruction they had caused. "Four minutes. And now, a thirteen-hundred-year-old village is gone."
That thought haunted him until he reached the safe house. Without wasting a moment, he gathered everyone into the main room.
Neville took his seat on a couch facing Adrian and Jaycinda. To his left were Susan and Fleur—until Susan left to inform her aunt. To his right, Cho and Oliver Wood shared another couch.
Gabrielle sat next to him. He could tell his magic was making her edgy—something that would happen occasionally, but he ignored it as he finished. "And, Fleur, I need you to head back to France and let your father know."
"I don't know if it'll help, but I'll also inform my Flock Leaders." Fleur shrugged. "Most likely, our extended family and a few others from our flock will join, but, maybe they'll surprise us."
All eyes turned to Gabrielle.
"Stay and help Neville, then get to 'Ogwarts. You're better with charms and whatever other spell-work they might need. I'll get Papa and the others."
She backed the commanding undertone with strange magic, and it surprised Neville, even more so that Fleur didn't put up a fight.
"You should get going, then," Fleur said. "Or, did you forget what day it was?"
Neville turned to Gabrielle. "What?"
"The family heads of our Flock meet tonight before the Zekānōt begins their new session. It's tradition throughout Veela culture."
"Exactly." Fleur pushed herself off the couch. "Do you have your Emergency Portkey?"
"Your what?" Cho interrupted. "Why didn't you use it when the Death Eaters had you?"
"I had to get clear of the building in case there were charms to stop the Portkeys. I almost made it, too, but when I woke up again, they had stripped my clothes, which meant I no longer had the Portkey." Gabrielle pulled out a bottle cap. "Fleur made this one for me the next day."
She turned to Fleur. "Although, I'm not sure I want to use it. It'll scare the magic out of Papa if I come crashing through the Protective Charms on the house."
"Hand it over," Fleur instructed. She passed her wand over it twice before giving it back. "Now, it'll drop you in the Apparition circle outside the charms. When you get there, call Froisse. She'll take you right to Papa."
"Okay." Gabby retook the bottle cap and pocketed it.
When her hand appeared again, Neville took it and led her into his room. A mattress and box springs sat next to a broken dresser, and a single, yellowed windowpane on the opposite wall. A spell blocked anyone from seeing in.
Neville dropped her hand and faced her, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. "I already know your answer, but I have to ask. Could you stay in France tomorrow night, please?"
Gabby stepped forward and put a hand against his chest, her jaw set firmly. "You're not keeping me away from this fight, or from you. Do you understand me, Neville Longbottom!"
"But, we're so close to it being over, and if I lost you tomorrow . . ." Neville felt his chest tighten. "I don't know what will happen when this war is finished. I don't even know who I am, anymore; but the one thing I do know is that you make me want to find a way forward. If I lose you . . ."
Gabby slid both hands up to palm his cheeks. "Are you saying you want to be with me? Even when this war is over?"
Neville's heart pounded against his rib cage. And, for a few seconds, he was that little boy sitting on the stool again, waiting for the Sorting Hat to place him in a house. His hands grew wet and his head, fuzzy. "Of course, I do. The real question is, do you want to be with me?"
A bright smile answered his question. "I want you to be absolutely honest with me. You want to be mine, and mine alone until the day I die, yes?"
Neville's throat constricted. "Don't mention that."
"Answer the question," she whispered.
"Yes, if you can stand to be with me. I know my presence irritates your magic, but if you still want me . . ."
Gabrielle stared into his eyes. "Are you going to continue in the Dark Arts after this war?"
"Not if I can help it," he said. "But their draw is strong."
Very little space separated them, but Gabby closed what remained. "We'll fight them together. I promise." She reached up and touched her lips to his. Her slender hand wrapping around his neck.
The kiss was more innocent than Neville expected, but it was also deeper and more intense than he thought possible. When she pulled back, Neville could swear a faint light emanated from her body.
"But, we must finish this first. Together. Gather everyone and get them to Hogwarts. I'll meet you there." She palmed his cheek again. "One night apart and a final push before it's all over. And, we will win."
They joined the others in the front room to find Susan had rejoined them.
"Neville," she called. "Give her the buttons."
Neville's eyes widened for a moment, although it made complete sense. He ran back to his room and swept a dozen buttons off his dresser, then came back and handed them to Gabrielle. "They're Portkeys to an Auror staging area."
Susan stepped forward and waved her wand over them. "And, they're now set to activate at 4:45 pm."
"That late?" Oliver asked.
"They need as much time as possible to get the word out," Susan said over her shoulder. She turned back to Gabrielle. "My aunt made them a month ago and gave them to Neville. She's the only one that knows their destination. It's as safe as we can make it."
Gabrielle pocketed the Portkeys before taking Neville's hand and exiting into the small backyard. Days ago, they had cast spells reinforcing the protections to stop prying eyes and detect intruders. The area was free of Apparition and Portkey protections though, as they often acted as a flashlight at night, announcing wizards and witches lived in the area.
Fleur walked with her sister and Neville to the middle of the yard. "Gabby, thank you."
Gabrielle looked up at her. "For what?"
"For everything. For being my sister. For loving me enough to come with me and stay with me even after everything that has happened to you." Fleur stepped forward and hugged her. "Tell Papa and Maman that I love them."
She stepped away and faced Neville.
"Last chance for you to stay there," he said.
"Not on your life." She pulled herself up to his lips by the front of his shirt and kissed him again, letting her lips linger on his longer than might have been appropriate in front of others, but Neville didn't care at the moment. "When this is over," she started after finally pulling away, "come to France with me, at least for the summer. We can figure things out from there."
"I'll go wherever you want me to." He kissed her again, and then backed away and stood next to Fleur. Together, they watched Gabby activate the Portkey and disappear.
Neville turned to leave, but Fleur grabbed him by the robes. "Hold on."
She stared at him for a second before violating his personal space, a confused expression marring her features. "What is that . . ."
She leaned in and sniffed. "Oh, no, she didn't!"
Before Neville could process her words, Fleur took him by the head and kissed him on the lips, only to back off and spit on the ground. "My God that tastes awful!"
She conjured a glass and filled it with water, then washed out her mouth. Half a minute later, she banished the glass and faced him again. "Tell me you agreed."
"Agreed to what?" Neville asked, completely lost. "And what did you—"
"Verification," she interrupted. "You and Gabrielle had a talk about the future, yes?"
"And if we did?"
"She finished it with a kiss both innocent and deeply passionate. Didn't she?"
"Oh, that . . . How did you know?"
"Because she just marked you, and, in traditional Veela culture, that means you're engaged."
Despite only being sixteen—seventeen in a couple of months, Neville couldn't fight the smile pulling at his lips, which was why he was surprised at the fierce glare Fleur now leveled at him. "Do not die tomorrow."
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
Gabrielle put her feet out, knees bent and landed just outside the Protection Charms of her home in France. A rush of emotion engulfed her. The familiarity of her surroundings, the safety of home, it brought back so many memories of better, safer times. But, it was all false. At least three different approaches to the home could be exploited, and a team like Neville's could kill everyone living here in less than a minute; forty-five seconds if she and Fleur were with them.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and pushed aside the thought. "Froisse."
Froisse arrived with a pop. "Mademoiselle Gabrielle?" She looked around. "Mademoiselle Fleur not being here? Is her being okay?"
"She's fine. I need you to get me into the house to speak with Papa, quick."
Froisse touched her hand, and the familiar countryside vanished, replaced by the even more familiar surroundings of the smaller sitting room.
Five seconds later, Papa appeared from the hall. "Gabby?" He stopped. Then, seemingly deciding it was his daughter standing before him, Papa closed the distance and crushed Gabrielle in a hug. "Where's Fleur? Are the two of you okay?"
Gabrielle hugged her father back. "We're okay, and she's helping the others get ready."
"Ready?" Papa stepped back. "Ready for what?"
"Has France decided what to do about Magical England?"
He cocked his head slightly to the side. "War has been declared, but we're not sure yet what we can do at the moment."
"Then, let me help." Gabrielle dumped half the buttons on the small table next to the couch. "Gather everyone, Your Aurors, Hit Wizards, even your secretaries if they can point a wand without hurting themselves. The Portkeys will take you to the staging grounds—"
"Gabby, slow down." Papa took a seat on the couch. "I need you to tell me what's going on."
"It's happening. Tomorrow night. Voldemort is making his final push for Hogwarts, and if he wins, he's coming for Europe next. Every Order member is convinced that if he does, the entire continent, both Magical and Vulgaire, will descend into war."
"Son of a bitch!" Papa took a deep breath and closed his eyes before facing her again. But, something had changed. Sitting before her now was the wizard who had fought one war already, and a man who knew he was about to help lead France into a second war—this one on foreign soil. "Gabrielle, I need to know where you got this information, and how old it is."
"I got it from Nev."
"Neville Longbottom—Chaos. We've known for a while the final push was coming, but Neville and Harry broke up a meeting tonight and confirmed it. They pulled it from a Death Eater."
"And they trust the information?"
Gabrielle stared at him for a moment before realizing Papa wasn't challenging her or Neville or Harry. Instead, he was treating her as an adult—an adult whose information may lead to hundreds of deaths of French wizards and witches, and, if rumors were right, maybe some Vulgaire ones as well.
"I wouldn't be here if we didn't. Neville and others are pulling together what is left of the resistance. 'Arry is already at Hogwarts, setting up defenses with the elves and preparing to hold off Voldemort and his Death Eaters until everyone arrives."
"Where are you headed now?"
Gabrielle pointed to the fireplace. "Maman is at the flock meeting, yes?"
"Then that's where I'm headed."
"I don't know yet, it depends on what happens there, but I'm heading back as soon as I can."
Papa looked at the Portkeys again, then back at her. "Well, come here then." He closed the distance and hugged Gabrielle tight. She had to admit, Papa holding her again felt good. Safe. And it was so tempting to stay there and forget everything, but the days of hiding in his arms were long over, and besides, it wasn't his arms she really wanted around her. "I should get going."
"So should I. Tell your mother I won't be here when she gets back. If Magical France is going to war, I have a month's worth of work to accomplish in the next twenty hours."
"Fourteen hours," Gabrielle corrected. "Those Portkeys activate at 4:45 tomorrow afternoon."
"Fourteen hours," he agreed, leaning in and kissing her on the head. Then, he did it a second time. "Pass that one on to Fleur. Now, I have to get dressed and head back to the office."
She watched him start out of the room before remembering she had one last thing to tell him. "Papa!"
She raced over and hugged him again, then kissed him. "That's from Fleur. She told me to tell you she loves you."
He held her for another moment before letting go and disappearing into his bedroom to get dressed.
Gabby made her way to the fireplace and pinched a bit of Floo Powder from the bowl, then tossed it in and called out the address to her Flock Leader's house.
The Floo Network shot her straight into a room full of Veela, both full and partial. She recognized most, even if she didn't know all of their names.
"Gabby!" A pair of hands grabbed her. "What are you doing here?" Susanne asked.
"I need to see Anastasie."
A single moment passed between them before Susanne inclined her head slightly. "Let's go." She took Gabby through a long hallway with soaring ceilings and tile floors. It opened into a dining room full of ornate furniture and a vast dining table laboring to withstand the weight of hors d'oeuvres and bottles of various wines and other drinks that sat on it. On the other side, a Veela Gabrielle didn't recognize was standing in front of a black door.
They stopped before her. In the room beyond, Anastasie was meeting with the Franco-Celtic Flock Leaders, which always included Grandma Guillory and her daughters, for some reason.
"Matreesa, my cousin needs to speak with Anastasie."
The full Veela didn't bother looking at Gabrielle. "Tradition allows no one to enter until they break."
Gabrielle stepped forward and noted that she stood eye-level with the hen. "I've just come from Britain where my sister and I are fighting Voldemort and his Death Eaters. I don't have the time to play games, so let me in."
Matreesa finally turned to her. "I know who you are. You and your sister both."
"Good, then move so I can speak with Anastasie."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "Pardon me?"
"I said no, Now—"
Gabrielle's hand shot forward. She grabbed Matreesa by the neck and slammed the back of her head into the door. "I wasn't asking, bitch!"
She quickly reached around Matreesa and turned the doorknob, then stepped forward and threw the Veela to the floor as the door opened.
Inside, the Flock Leaders rose from their chairs, as did several heads of the Veela families including Grandma Guillory and Maman.
"Gabrielle, what—?" Her mother began with a face of utter shock.
"Has the Zekēnōt decided, yet?" Gabrielle stepped over Matreesa and into the room just as ancient, regal magic flooded it.
"Decided what?" Anastasie rose. Her magic wasn't aggressive, yet; but if Gabrielle intended harm, her time in this room—and probably in this world—would be short-lived. "And what are you doing in here."
Gabrielle ignored the last question. "Whether they will fight."
"No. The Zekānōt will debate it later this summer."
Her jaw clenched. "By then, the resistance will be dead, and five thousand Death Eaters will be destroying every magical European community from here to Kiss-my-ass-istan, Veela included. And, trust me, I have personal knowledge of what they'd like to do to us."
From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother flinch, but her grandmother rested a hand on Apolline's shoulder.
"Gabby," grandma said, getting her attention. "Why don't you start from the beginning."
And so, she did. Gabrielle explained everything she knew. How the Death Eaters were coming in droves and then stopped. How Harry and Neville learned the final push for England was coming tomorrow night at Hogwarts. And, how Tom Riddle was planning to use the school as a place to form Death Eater teams and dispatch them all over Europe until the entire continent fell under his control.
After further questioning, she explained Fleur's and her involvement with the Order in general and Neville's group in particular. It wasn't until she finished that Gabrielle realized every Veela in the house had packed into the room—about twenty percent of all the Veela in the Franco-Celtic flock.
In the resulting silence, Gabrielle refused to look at anyone but Anastasie. Especially her mother or grandmother. She wasn't sure if her strength would hold up if she did.
Another French Flock Leader cleared her throat. Gabrielle didn't know her except for a few rumors she'd overheard from her cousins.
"What is it with the Guillory line of Veela? Always so thirsty to wage war and shed blood."
Gabrielle turned to her with a reddening face and white knuckles, but her grandmother interrupted. "Better a few feathers plucked now than all of them later."
Grandma Guillory turned to Anastasie. "We could force a War Council in the opening session."
Anastasie shared a glance with Maryse and the other Flock Leader. Gabrielle didn't know who it was, which meant she was new and from one of the eastern French flocks that seldom took part. "The three of us will discuss it," Anastasie announced. She turned to Apolline and her mother. "Go, spend the few moments you have with your daughter and granddaughter."
Apolline came forward and took Gabrielle by the hand, but she didn't utter a word or even look at her. Out of the room they marched, back through the kitchen—the food on the table untouched and forgotten—and into another, smaller hallway that opened into a secondary Great Room. Gabrielle had only taken two steps into the room when her mother threw both arms around her and pulled Gabrielle tight into her chest.
"My wonderful, beautiful, daughter. I'm so proud of you!"
Gabrielle had barely wrapped her arms around her mother when the burden finally overwhelmed her. Another pair of arms encircled her from behind. The soft touch of Grandma's magic washed over her. Several seconds passed before her mother gently pushed her back to arm's length.
"When are you meeting up with Fleur and the others?"
"It depends. I'd prefer to go back tonight, but if I'm needed here to help get everyone together and lead them back, I will."
"If you go tonight, I'll go with you," Apolline said.
"You can't," Grandma interjected. "If Anastasie and the others take this to the Zekēnōt, they'll need you to go with them and finish what you started the night she came to question Fleur about marking Harry."
Gabrielle looked up to see both of her aunts entering the room and most all of her cousins filling in behind them. The younger aunt kissed her on the cheek. "And we can't go either, at least not until we submit under the auspices of the Magical French government." She turned to Gabby's mother. "Speaking of which, is Jacque home?"
"He was when—"
"No." Gabby faced her aunt. "The Portkey took me home. I told Papa most of what I shared with you, then used the Floo Network to get here. Papa's already at the Ministry.
"Then, we will go to him," the older sister said before stepping forward and combing her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "Be proud, you are so much like your mother and grandmother. You and Fleur, both."
Both aunts excused themselves and stepped into the Floo Network to meet with Jacque, and in their absence, the cousins piled around Gabrielle.
However, the room took on an uneasy buzz. Gabrielle looked around, trying to find the source.
And then, she did.
Magic thrust the other cousins aside as Danielle and Gabrielle stared at each other. Gabrielle's magic flared, and the need to force her cousin into submission almost overwhelmed her.
She also felt Danielle's magic flare, and even without releasing it, Gabrielle could tell the power was immense. She might match it for a brief time, but there was no way she could keep it up long enough to force Danielle into submission.
Danielle looked almost apologetic as Gabrielle inclined her head. The older cousin stepped forward and lifted it back up by the chin so they could look each other in the eye. "Magic does not trump experience."
Gabby lifted Danielle's fingers off her chin and squeezed them gently, thankful for her cousin's soft words. Then, she grew aware of the rest of her family in the room—or, more accurately, aware of their magic, starting with Grandma Guillory. And, it left her surprised that Danielle was the only one to stand between her and her Grandmother.
After Gabby was Susanne, who was so close to Fleur they'd have to throw their magic at each other until one of them drove the other into submission. Paige was after them, and then Apolline. The rest would sort themselves out from there.
"Our magic is preparing us." Grandma Guillory said. "You have all chosen to fight." She turned to Danielle and Gabrielle. "And, if you two had full access to your magic, you would take Anastasie and Maryse's place as our Flock Leaders very soon."
"But, what about the other families?" Gabrielle asked. "I'm sure there's plenty of Veela stronger than us."
Maman took her by the shoulder. "We are the natural leaders of the Franco-Celtic flock. Our drive to protect and fight for our family is an instinct tied into our magic that no decision by the Zekēnōt can change."
Footsteps approached the room. Gabrielle looked up to see Anastasie and Maryse. "It has been decided," Anastasie announced. "I have consulted with the rest of the heads of the families. We agree the Franco-Celtic Flock shall go to the Zekēnōt and demand a war council. And!" she continued, turning to Gabrielle's cousins, "That means none of you will go to Britain under France's banner until we have sent word the Zekānōt has decided against the war."
A dozen voices sounded at once, but Anastasie let out just enough magic to suggest they keep silent. "That is not a request. If you go before the council convenes, it will be a breach of trust. Not only will they reject our request, but they could punish our whole flock."
"What about me?" Gabrielle asked. "You don't expect me to stay here, do you?"
To her surprise, Anastasie chuckled. "Are you asking me if I expect a Delacour Chicken to abide by a Flock Leader's request?" She grew serious again. "No, I expect you to go back to Britain as soon as possible. While I cannot speak for the Zekānōt and Veela nation, I wish you to inform them the Franco-Celtic flock will fight under the banner of France if we must. Your two aunts are seeing to the details of that as we speak."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said. And, she felt the words deep in her heart as she spoke them. "In that case, I have to leave now to let them know." She pulled the rest of the buttons from her pocket. "These are the Portkeys. They'll take you to the staging ground at 4:45 tomorrow afternoon."
Anastasie took them from her. "We will put them to good . . . use." Strangely, she lifted one to her nose and sniffed. Blond eyebrows crinkled, and then, she snatched Gabrielle's arm and sniffed it as well.
"You have the smell of the young man that gave you these Portkeys. A young man, I dare say, you have marked."
The weight of every eye fell on her.
"Gabrielle?" Her mother crossed her arms. "Who is it?"
She turned back to her mother. "Neville Longbottom—the one they call Chaos."
Apolline Delacour dropped her forehead into the palms of her hands. "Of course it is."
"Then, go back to your intended," Anastasie said. "And, tell him we'll be there soon enough."
From Gabrielle's right, Paige pushed forward. "I'm going back with her tonight."
Anastasie opened her mouth, but Paige didn't give her a chance. "You just made her an official messenger of the Franco-Celtic flock. According to our law, messengers warrant a traveling companion in times of war."
The low rumble in Anastasie's throat sounded like a growl before she turned to Apolline and Anne-Marie, but Gabrielle could hear a hint of laughter in it as well. "You two, come with me. We must now consider our strategy for tomorrow."
They hugged and kissed Gabrielle and promised to see her soon.
Once they left, Paige pushed her way forward and took Gabrielle's hand. "Are you ready?"
She nodded. "Do you need anything?"
"Just for you to follow me." Paige led them out of the back door and into a yard. "How is Fleur? Did she find 'Arry?"
"No. But, he'll be there tomorrow. He and Neville destroyed an entire hamlet of Death Eaters in Wales tonight. According to Neville, 'Arry's pretty messed up, and if Neville's saying that, it has to be bad."
Paige opened her mouth, then closed it. "I see. How is Fleur taking it?"
She shrugged. "You can ask her yourself in a few minutes."
They reached a circle someone had burnt into the ground. Paige guided her to it, but Suzanne and Danielle stopped them. The latter took Gabrielle's hands and kissed her on the cheek. "Stay strong, Gabby, you and Fleur both. It's almost over. Just like Anastasie said, we'll be there tomorrow, regardless of what the Zekēnōt says."
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
Apolline awoke early the next morning in an empty bed. She hated that fact, but it had to be. Jacque, she knew, was doing everything he could to get ready for tonight.
She cleaned up and grabbed a quick breakfast, then had Froisse make a second one she took to Jacque, who she found sleeping on the couch in his office at the Ministry. A quick check with the secretary outside the door wasn't too informative as she had just arrived a few minutes earlier. However, a note sat on the secretary's desk to wake him at half-past seven.
It was a few minutes early, but Apolline decided it would be okay to wake him. She needed to say goodbye before leaving for the Mazkānāka.
With a gentle shake, he rolled over. "Wha . . . ?"
"I brought you breakfast. Froisse made your favorite."
He sat up. "Did you see Gabby last night?"
Apolline took a fresh Brioche from her bag and sliced it, then slathered jam over a few of the slices and handed it over to Jacque with a cup of coffee.
"I did. She made quite the entrance."
Apolline prepared a slice of the sweet bread for herself. "You know how it's tradition to have a Veela always standing guard?"
"To hear Suzanne tell it, Gabby demanded an audience with Anastasie. When Matreesa said no, Gabby picked her up by the neck, opened the door, and threw her into the room."
"She what!" Jacque had to sit his coffee down before he spilled all over himself. "Did you see it?"
"Only the end—Matreesa thumped to the floor with a Gabrielle-sized handprint on her throat. Anyway, I got to talk to Gabby after the meeting. She said Fleur's doing okay, but they have had no contact with 'Arry."
Jacque took another sip of his coffee. "Thanks for breakfast. When are you headed to the Mazkānāka?
"We're meeting in an hour at Anastasie's house, then traveling together." She finished her slice of bread and brushed the crumbs off of her blouse. "If it doesn't work, what are your thoughts about us entering the fight?"
Apolline rolled her eyes. "That's not what I meant. How should the flock approach the school?"
"I'd rather you came with us. We don't know what we're getting into, but at least there'll be someone waiting for us that knows the situation—I hope. Otherwise, it will be a mess."
~ . ~ . ~
Three hours later, the ring of crystal against crystal caught Apolline's attention. A plethora of Veela surrounded her, and behind the dais in the front sat the Zekānōt leaders, including Azzurra's mother, waiting to begin the opening session.
Conversations of four hundred and fifty or so Veela continued to buzz in the room. Each flock, Apolline knew, had one Flock Leader who remained at home for emergencies, and it was a good thing as there seemed to be no vacant chairs left. Usually, the chamber was only half full, even at the opening session, but Apolline suspected rumors of the Franco-Celtic flock's intended request had spread throughout the Veela nation thanks to the work of her Flock Leaders and her own mother.
The Veela present today represented every geographical region of the world: Europe; Oceana; Africa; North, Central, and South America, Asia—both central and far; the Middle East; and even a flock from the sub-continent of India; they numbered forty-seven flocks in all.
Crystal banged against crystal again, followed by a slight wave of magic that requested obedience to the stronger Veela in the front. Apolline disliked the feeling, but she also appreciated the restraint. They could have demanded silence.
When the last Flock Leader took her place, the Veela in the middle holding the mallet opened the floor for recognizing the flocks in attendance and their purpose for being present. No particular order existed, but traditionally, the first three flocks were those from which came the three Veela on the dais.
The first to rise was the Italian flock, which included Veela from all along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and even Greece. The flock had been established in the days of the Roman kings and expanded with the later Empire.
The second Veela in the Italian flock's Pecking Order introduced the rest of the Flock Leaders present, then stated their business, which was to "keep abreast of Veela affairs and to support the Veela nation." It was the standard statement repeated almost verbatim forty-five more times.
When a Singaporean Flock Leader finished, a heavy weight settled over the gathering.
Only one flock remained.
With a resigned sigh, the middle Veela on the dais asked, "Are there any other flocks present?"
Anastasie rose. Her robes were white with majestic purple trim. "I am Anastasie Pendant of the Franco-Celtic flock. With me is Flock Leader Maryse Martyn—"
Apolline, sitting on the very back row and looking across several concentric circles at her Flock Leader, could see the Veela's nervousness build. But to her credit, Anastasie straightened her back and continued.
"Our business today is grave. I am accompanied by representatives of our familial lines, and together, the Franco-Celtic flock demands a War Council."
The mallet struck crystal so hard Apolline feared it might shatter as the Second-Seat Veela glared at Anastasie. "This matter of war is already under consideration. We will not waste our time considering it today."
Apolline held her breath. Her work over the last sixteen months would succeed or fail in the next few seconds.
On the far side of the room, the Russian Flock Leader rose, and Apolline had to fight the smug expression that threatened to break out. Her mother had been working on this Veela for six months, gaining support only after supplying her with Harry's memories three separate times.
"I declare a breach."
The room came to a standstill again as all eyes looked to the third Veela on the Dais. The Third Seat Veela handled the rules ordering the meeting.
"Someone has declared a breach." She opened a thick tome and searched through a half-dozen of its pages. "I confirm the breach." She flipped back one page and read. "A Flock Leader may call for a War Council if representatives from seventy-five percent or more of her flock's familial lines are present and in agreement. If accepted, a War Council shall proceed immediately provided a majority of Flock Leaders from eighty percent of the flocks are present. Otherwise, a date shall be set for the War Council, beginning no later than one week thereafter."
The Third Seat Veela shuffled several papers, then raised her voice so the entire Zekānōt could hear her. "The Franco-Celtic flock is present with over seventy-five percent of their familial lines represented. All from the aforementioned flock who agree with this action, rise."
Apolline stayed seated, but next to her, her mother rose, representing their` familial line.
The Veela in the front counted, then reshuffled her papers before looking up. "I declare the Franco-Celtic flock has met their seventy-five percent requirement. Furthermore, eighty percent of the flocks making up the Veela nation are present with majority representation. A War Council must proceed immediately."
The Second Veela slammed the mallet against the table. "I will not be a part of this!"
Sophia Sala turned to her. "Antiope, I beg you, don't do this."
But the Second Veela ignored her. "I renounce my position as Second Veela." She stood and walked off the platform to sit with the Flock representing northeastern Europe.
The Veela sitting Third Seat let out a shaky breath. "The Second Seat has been vacated. By tradition, I should move into it; but given today's discussion, and with the approval of the Zekānōt, I will remain in the Third Seat. Now is not the time for someone to learn the ins and outs of the rules and procedures."
Sala reached for the gavel. "Unless otherwise opposed, Flock Leader Minori will retain the Third Seat by Unanimous Consent."
After five seconds of silence, the gavel struck the crystal again. "Flock Leader Minori retains Third Seat. Next in line for a seat on the dais is Flock Leader Samwit of the Nubian Flock. All who wish to challenge her for Second Seat by Veela magic, please rise."
Three Veela stood, but after a few seconds of fierce whispering from the surrounding Flock Leaders, they retook their seats. It didn't surprise Apolline as Samwit's Veela strength was becoming well known and the Flock Leaders who rose weren't regular attendees of these meetings—even the opening sessions.
And that meant there was a faction who was trying to pack the benches with no votes for war. It took only a glance at the Veela who surrounded them—and now chastised them—to see who it was, too.
"Are there any challengers?" Sala asked again. When no one stood, she banged the gavel one more time. "Flock Leader Samwit of the Nubian Flock now occupies Second Seat."
Samwit stood. "I temporarily accept Second Seat until this session is complete, upon which time I will abandon it to Minori and take my rightful place in the Third Seat."
Minori, the Japanese flock leader whose robes blended her island's traditions with Veela style, inclined her head towards Samwit, then scooted her seat forward as the Nubian Veela passed her and sat in the vacated chair. Then, Sala stood. "We will take a five-minute recess before we begin the War Council unless the Franco-Celtic flock opposes." She glared at Anastasie, who didn't argue.
Samwit, now sitting Second Seat, declared a five-minute recess with her first strike of the mallet.
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
A banging on the door to Azzurra's room woke her. She tried pulling the sheets over her head, but it didn't help. Whoever it was, they were determined to get her out of bed.
She trudged to the door and yanked it open. "What!"
Médée and Jaleena stared at her, Médée in mid-knock.
"Hurry up! Get dressed," Jaleena said. She ignored Azzurra's question of why and pushed her way into the room, then sifted through the only dresser.
Azzurra crossed her arms and watched. There were only three or four changes of clothes in it, so it didn't take long.
"Here." Jaleena threw some clothes on the bed. "Put this on. We'll help you to the chambers."
"You still haven't told me—"
"Médée's flock just demanded a war council, and it passed."
"They what!" Azzurra's voice shot through three octaves as she turned to Médée, but Médée just shook her head.
"Don't look at me. Our family hasn't been actively involved in the flock since the French Revolution.
Jaleena took Azzurra's arm and led her to the bed. "Are you strong enough to dress on your own, or do you need help?"
Azzurra let them dress her as she pondered what was going on. "Why now?"
Jaleena held a shirt open for Azzurra. "Why what?"
"The War Council. Why did the Franco-Celtic flock call a council now?"
"Give me your foot." Médée pulled on a sock, then grabbed her other foot and did the same before handing her a pair of pants to put on.
Azzurra stood and buttoned her denim pants—they weren't proper for stepping into the Zekānōt in full council, but they were all she had at the moment.
Jaleena handed her a pair of trainers. "Fleur's grandmother and mother are here. I heard them saying Gabrielle interrupted their flock meeting last night."
Azzurra froze. "She did?"
"I didn't know about this." Médée turned to Jaleena. "When did you find out?"
"While you were talking to Petra. By the time I got back to my seat, the session had started."
Médée shook her head. "That's why you didn't look surprised."
"I figured something was up."
"Let's go, then!" Azzurra walked to the door, then stopped and steadied herself against the wall. She didn't feel right, yet, but there was no way she was missing the War Council. Not only was it history in the making—the last Veela War Council occurred over four hundred years ago—Azzurra somehow knew she had a role in it this afternoon. "Come on!"
X ~ X ~ X ~ X
Apolline looked on as crystal rang against crystal again in the marbled room where the Zekānōt were meeting.
At the front, Flock Leader Sala rose from her chair. "The Franco-Celtic Flock has called a War-Council. I remind all here that under such a council and any action of war that results, the rules of the Zekānōt give way to the Hierarchy of Dominance."
As she spoke, ancient, regal magic flooded the room. Apolline felt her magic connect, and then align behind her Flock Leaders. Their magic followed, aligning behind those even stronger than them. If by some miracle, the Zekānōt chose war, the Hierarchy of Dominance—Pecking Order in common parlance—would direct them in battle. The hierarchy would align and realign with the death of each Flock Leader until none were left, then, it'd start with the full Veela. When they were all dead, it would move to the partial Veela, until every last Veela was killed.
"However, as is the custom among the Zekānōt, we seek agreement and common ground, not forced obedience while this council is in session."
She turned to her right where Anastasie had taken a seat for this meeting. "Rise. Present your case for war."
Anastasie obeyed and stepped into the center of the room before the three-seat dais. She turned to face the gathered Flock Leaders. "Four months ago, the magical French government officially requested us to join them alongside the French and British Vulgaire governments in a secret alliance against Magical Britain and its current leader known as Lord Voldemort.
"While the Zekānōt debates this request, the war continues to rage in Britain and even now spills onto the continent. Last night, however, we received word that Lord Voldemort is preparing his final push on the island. If successful, he will turn his eye towards the continent. Magical Europe, and most likely, Vulgaire Europe will be plunged into war."
Murmurs ran through the crowd of sitting Veela. Samwit had to call for order three times before Anastasie could continue.
"If a pureblood war sweeps the continent, there'll be no hiding. Veela after Veela. Flock after flock. This self-styled Lord Voldemort will come after us all unless we choose to stand with the wizarding governments tonight!"
Anastasie began to glow.
"So, let us arise! Let us once again take up the roles of our ancient matriarchs! Let us stand side-by-side with the wizards and witches of France and Britain preparing for a final stand against this dark lord. The Franco-Celtic flock calls on the Zekānōt to lead the Veela nation to war!"
Chills ripped along Apolline's spine. If she had any doubts her Flock Leader was entirely on board, they had just disappeared. And, all around her, she could feel the magic of the various Flock Leaders. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon it grew stronger as arguments for and against going to war reverberated of marbled walls until someone questioned the source of Anastasie's information.
Anastasie rose from her chair. "We were visited last night by one of our own who is already involved."
"And, who is that?" asked another Veela.
Apolline didn't know who had asked, nor did she care. "My daughter. She has a year's experience in Britain, and six months' experience fighting alongside the British resistance and the one they call Chaos."
"Your daughter, Fleur?" Sophia Sala leaned back and crossed her arms. "May I remind everyone in this room Fleur Delacour stood not twenty feet from where her mother is now and renounced her Veela heritage."
Apolline jumped in before anyone could process what she had said, "I'm sorry, Flock Leader Sala. It was not Fleur, but my younger daughter, Gabrielle."
Sophia's nostrils flared in anger, and she flung both hands above her head. "Great, so on the word of a young chicken just growing her tail-feathers, we're supposed to go raze a land? This is ridiculous, and it is wasting the Zekānōt's time. As the Hierarchy of Dominance governs this debate, I am declaring this War Council closed unless someone wishes to challenge my decision through magic!"
Echoes of her decree faded into silence, and all Apolline could do was grind her teeth together in a spitting rage at the cowards surrounding her. Anastasie was waving at her to sit down, and her mother was gathering what few things she had brought with her, preparing to leave as soon as the gavel struck.
Apolline spun on her heel as the words and magic washed over her and radiated across the chamber. All eyes turned to the back of the room where Azzurra, with the aid of Médée and Jaleena, walked down the middle aisle.
Her mother came off the dais. "Azzurra, you should still be in bed."
"Do not approach me!" The power of Azzurra's magic stopped her mother like a hammer to her chest. "I have come to counsel my Flock Leader against the idiocy she is now displaying!"
"Azzurra, you just woke up—"
"And you and many of this Zekānōt are still asleep!" Azzurra pulled herself away from her friends. "Fleur Delacour, the warrioress of Britain's purity wars stood in this chamber last spring and warned you what was coming. And, you did nothing. My own intended died fighting Death Eaters, and you did nothing. Now, Fleur's sister and mother warn the threat is imminent, and yet, you still do nothing! I can no longer stand and watch you lead the Italian Flock and the Zekānōt along the path of peace at all costs."
Her mother stepped away from the dais, her own magic growing more intense and focused on her daughter. "Azzurra, please, do not do this. I have no desire to force your submission, not after all you've been through."
"And I have no desire to see any more of my friends die. I challenge not this decision, but your position as Flock Leader!"
No sooner had Azzurra spoke the words then magic ripped through the open space between them. The bloom of magic caught the Flock Leaders closest to the combatants and drove them to their knees. Only the strongest, such as those on the dais, remained standing, but Apolline could see their struggle. Two rows ahead of her, Anastasie and Maryse had fallen to their knees, but Apolline proudly noted her mother was still on her feet.
Azzurra ratcheted her magic higher. Then, with a surge of magic, her warrior form emerged. Blank eyes burned white and platinum blond hair flowed over the alabaster leather breastplate highlighted in Tyrian purple she had chosen as part of her war raiment. And not a moment later, her mother also changed, almost a mirror image of Azzurra except for a single gold line that dropped from the top left to the bottom right of her own breastplate.
A new wave of magic flooded the room, and Azzurra's legs bowed and her back bent, but she resisted. And then, with a great push, she hurled another wave of magic at her mother.
The older Veela stumbled backward. Shock made itself known in her wide eyes and mouth opened wide, lips forming an O. She hit the modesty wall sitting before the first row and used it to support herself. Then, once she had gathered her legs under her and forced herself upright, and with one last effort, Azzurra's mother threw her hands and all her magic forward and screamed, "Submit!"
Azzurra's legs wavered. She held up for a second longer, but, her mother's magic finally overpowered her and drove Azzurra to her knees, her head bowed.
The magic ceased.
Apolline, on her knees as well, looked up to find Azzurra's mother hanging onto the modesty wall, her chest heaving, and her face drenched in sweat.
Before her, Azzurra was still on her knees, unable to stand. Apolline assumed it was due to her recent condition rather than a desire to remain submissive, and her assumption was proven when her two friends had to help her back to her feet.
"Why?" her mother asked.
"I told you."
Sophia glared at her daughter before turning to Samwit. "Let us recess for lunch—"
All eyes turned to Apolline, who found herself fighting her own transformation as she hastily concocted a plan in equal parts daring and dangerous and downright stupid. "We only have a matter of hours! A call to recess equals voting against war!"
"Are you, a half-Veela, challenging me? We are still under the rules of the Hierarchy of Dominance." Sophia tried to stand up a little straighter. "And, who are you to come here and lecture me, Apolline Delacour? We shall recess on my command. Now." Sophia emphasized the last word with a touch of Veela magic. The effort caused her knees to slacken.
Crystal banged against crystal again. "As Second Seat Veela, I align my magic with Flock Leader Sala against any challenge"—Betrayal washed over Apolline at Samwit's announcement. Her hastily concocted plan was destroyed by the move. In Sophia's current state, someone could have challenged her again, and most likely, they would have won. Now, however, they'd also have to challenge Samwit—"as long as Flock Leader Sala agrees to reconvene for a special session in one hour, at which time we will hear the report and debate the committee's recommendation concerning the French request for an alliance."
Sophia Sala morphed into her human form. Exhaustion caused her eyelids to droop and her skin to hang slack. But, it didn't stop her from scowling at Samwit before bowing to the inevitable. "Fine."
The sound of crystal rang once again. "A special session for the debate of Allying with Magical France against Wizarding Britain shall commence in one hour."
Disgust rolled off Apolline. The Zekānōt would debate all afternoon and throughout the next day, long after the last battle would be over. She turned and marched from the Zekānōt.
Apolline Delacour wasn't about to lose another second among these wastes of estrogen. Her daughters—and their intendeds—needed her in Scotland. Nothing would stop her from being by their side, and she didn't care what banner or flag she had to fight under to do so.
AN 1: Well, when I said I didn't know how long it'd be before the next update, I didn't imagine it'd be almost two and a half years. Nevertheless, here it is. The time in between the last chapter and this one has been filled with writing a dissertation and defending it as well as a couple of shoulder surgeries and other things. Also, I'll be posting the rejected material from this chapter either later this afternoon or tomorrow. I completely changed Harry and Neville's introduction as well as the battle in Aber Falls. Honestly, it was pretty bad, which is why I didn't publish this chapter until I had time to fix it (the chapter's been done for almost a year). I also heavily edited Fleur's discussion with Gabrielle at the beginning, although the core of that scene is the same. In fact, I may just post the entire pre-edited chapter so you can see the differences.
AN 2: Taking Umbridge. I now have several chapters of that story posted. And, I'm proud to say, it has been voted into the DLP library. Give it a read and let me know what you think.
AN 3: As always, please leave a review. It's a fanfiction author's only currency. And, as always, by review I mean both positive and constructive criticism.
Thank you everyone, and once again, this story will not be abandoned. Updates might slow (very slow!) but I won't abandon it.