Chapter Nine: Folly Breeds Wisdom

"Anybody there?"

I looked down to see only my face reflected in the handheld mirror - the one that Hopkirk had given me before the mission started. A line of cerulean shot across the surface as I called the Head Auror's name, but it merely fizzled out once more as the connection was lost. Pressed again by my companions for an answer, I shook my head negatively, trying not to sound hopeless. "Nope," I said, placing the small black compact back into my equipment bag, which resealed itself as I withdrew my hand. "Nobody home." A brief groan from Lurch was expected, as was the sarcastic laugh from Craft.

"The plot thickens, yet again," he stated in a grandiose manner, sounding overly ominous; Craft received a stiff punch in the arm from his best friend for his troubles. Still annoyed that my attempt at contact with Hopkirk had failed, I ignored the two men as they continued discussing the relatively shitty situation we were in. Zeller had been gone for far too long, and so had my patience.

"Damn you, Zeller," I mumbled under my breath, stumbling for the hundreth time over a tree limb sticking out of the snow. Out of three of us, Craft was the only auror without an injury, and even he was more miserable the further he walked. It was certainly the first time I'd willingly run into a snowstorm, but unfortunately, we had no choice but to brave the bad weather, as Zeller had followed some enemies deeper into the forest and we were currently playing the world's coldest game of fetch. We had been following the older man's footsteps for the last half-mile, but the steadily falling snow was starting to erase any trace of our friend, and the laborious walk was degrading our attitudes and energy as well.

With the sharp, biting wind blasting us in the face every few seconds, it was tremendously difficult to keep track of our own whereabouts, let alone Zeller's. Burke had made an attempt at marking our return path through the trees, but I immediately put a stop to it, realizing that any potential enemies could follow us using the same markings. Lawrence understood the need for secrecy enough to let his complaints die in his mouth.

For my own part, I'd tried a few different ways of tracking Zeller, but they had brought us very little success. My Patronus, Prongs, had run headlong through the trees in Zeller's apparent direction, but I had no way of telling if my message - stay still, we're coming for you! - had been received, as the stag merely stayed gone a few seconds before it returned to my side, bowing before me and disappearing. Zeller had told me once about a ward that actually kept Patroni from finding their target. Thankfully, it could only be cast on a wizard - imagine how difficult dementors would be if Patroni couldn't touch them! - but back then, I had wondered aloud what the point of such a spell was. Now, I had a distinct feeling Xavier had cast it; if he was hiding, as I suspected, I was sure that my Patronus would alert them to his presence. However, recasting the spell periodically gave us a vague direction to walk in, which was better than strolling around with our wands up our arses.

"Expecto Patronum!" I shouted, for once surprised it had even worked; I had sounded rather bored with it, even to my own ears. Sure enough, Prongs took a leap into the trees and immediately disappeared, leaving us alone with wind and snow once again.

"I hope he's alright," Craft said, between breaths, sounding uncharacteristically solemn under the circumstances. He cleared his throat a moment later, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. "He still owes me ten galleons from the last World Cup..."

Burke smiled ruefully, struggling not to laugh at Craft's off-color remark. "If anyone could survive a giant invasion in a snowstorm," he said, "it would be Zell. I just wish he'd put a flare up or something so we could get out of this damned snow!" He paused, sneezing spectacularly, before wiping his dirty hand on Craft's sleeve. took a few steps forward, slipping and falling to his knees in the thick snow. Growling, he added, "He should know better than to leave us."

I initially agreed with Lurch - proper auror protocol dictated that you never leave your teammates during a battle, and also, that if someone was lost, an orange flare should be cast at a forty-five degree angle into the sky - but in the brisk wind and heavy snow, Zeller could have been standing right in front of us and I doubted we'd even notice such a spell. To make matters even more tricky, drawing attention to himself out here might reveal him to our enemies rather than lead him to safety. "Nah," I said shortly, shaking my head. "It's much more likely the giants would find him before we did. Knowing Zeller, he's probably still in the thick of things, hiding in plain sight."

It was true that our oldest teammate was no slouch when it came to illusions. On one of my first missions, attempting to arrest an arsonist in Cardiff, Zeller had ducked into a phone booth to disguise himself as a popular Welsh footballer before simply strolling into an apartment building and knocking on the culprit's door. When the young man gleefully recognized Ryan Giggs, he immediately asked for an autograph, receiving only a fist full of justice as a souvenir.

"C'mon, Z... give us the signal," I said to myself, falling back from the other two men. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait much longer, as it became apparent just where Zeller was.

The countryside erupted, a violent blast shocking the three of us into stunned silence. Burke and Craft took up positions on either side of me, replicating the same three-man formation that Zeller had led earlier in the afternoon. In an instant, we were running forward, sloshing through the snow as fast as possible, and through the trees I could see an orange burst of light that set the entire forest aflame. I knew instinctively that Zeller had cast his flare, creatively using it on the trees themselves rather than wasting it in the sky. It was also very likely that there were enemies on his tail when he did it, and in another moment of ridiculous half-genius, half-madness, I knew just how to reach him in time.

"Ascendio!" I said, rocking my hips forward in order for my flight to send in me Zeller's direction rather than straight up in the air. While the spell had been created to push the wizard straight up, and casters were taught not to do what I was doing, there was no quicker way to gain ground over the forebidding terrain. The two men to my left and right looked equally flabbergasted as I left them alone, running in the deep snow, trying their best to catch up to my massive, magic-propelled strides. Each lunge with the climbing spell sent me flying ten meters or more, and the exhilarating flight never ceased because I recast it as soon as my feet touched the ground. In moments, my two teammates had been left behind and I had drawn close enough to the brightly burning fire to feel its blaze against my skin - which felt absolutely amazing considering I had been freezing for the last hour.

As I soon discovered, Zeller had used destruction as a diversion to get away, as he nearly collided with me in his haste to flee. "Whoa," he yelped, whipping his wand in front of him before realizing just who had jumped in his way. "Potter!" I had never seen an old man so excited to see me, as he immediately hugged me around the shoulders; strangely, he did not let go when I went to push him away, and he tackled me to the ground a moment later, throwing both of us to the ice and sending me spinning sideways. "GET DOWN!" he yelled in my ear, rolling to his left to defend.

A pink-tinged shield popped into place just to the right of me, swiping a vivid red curse out of the air and redirecting it into the burning foliage. I looked up from the ground wearily, but I could see why Zeller had tackled me - a contingent of five wizards had Apparated into the area and were obviously well-versed in teamwork; the men were arranged in what our trainers had commonly referred to as the 'Boomerang'. In the center of their formation, one man was repeatedly casting quick, hard to defend offensive curses, while the two closest to him were standing just a few meters ahead of him, defending against Zeller's return fire. On each end of the line, the aurors were running forward at great speed, advancing on us and casting strategic spells to stop our retreat.

Fortunately, Zeller and I both knew how to shake that formation up and render it virtually useless; however, I knew that the odds were stacked in their favor unless we retreated to Craft and Burke's position. Noticing that the wizards on the outside of the line were piling up snow to keep us from running, I aimed powerful blasting curses at their feet, knowing that the two defenders wouldn't be able to react in time. Sure enough, their organization slipped as the outside attackers turned into defenders; Zeller cast a steady stream of burdening curses, putting pressure on all four of the men that were shielding. Despite the sudden chaos, their center attacker was still furiously casting spell after spell and I felt a cutting curse nip my left forearm. Ignoring the pain building from the cut, I turned my attention to the icy formation behind us. "Incendio!" I shouted, burning a large gap in the massive pile of snow. I didn't spare a moment to heal myself, instead yelling at the top of my voice, "Retreat!"

I tried screaming it twice, but Zeller was so busy fiercely attacking that he didn't notice my call to fall back; unwilling to waste any more time, I knew I had to act, and I hoped that Zeller would forgive me for my next move. "Accio!" I snarled, and my friend slipped through the gap in the snow, sliding just out of danger. Getting angry, I grabbed Zeller by his gear and hauled him onto his feet with one arm. "MOVE!"

A blast of heat from behind us highlighted the importance of getting the hell out of dodge, and Zeller wasted no more time; the two of us ran headlong into the bushes, arms over our faces and narrowly avoiding the fiery blaze. I felt the sharp tug of the shrubs against my exposed skin, groaning as it likely tore little cuts across my face, and I paused, catching my breath as Zeller continued to run. After a moment's hesitation, and a quick incantation, I followed him, glancing backward to see my new favorite spell in action.

Again, the ground erupted as if a landmine had gone off, and the aurors following us were blown backwards by the force, their pantomime gymnastics sending Zeller into raspy laughter. "That's Moody's old spell," he said, after catching his breath for a moment. "Damn good execution, too..." He snorted. "It's almost like he taught you himself..."

I refused to look at Zeller in that moment, and it was a good thing too; spellfire came rushing through the smoke, and some of them were sickly green - a sure sign we needed to be running, and not discussing technique or potential mentors. Apparently, these guys were a lot more talented than the others we had faced, as it didn't look like they had suffered at all from the explosion; the first wizard came bounding through the burning bushes, but Zeller caught him in the jaw with a bludgeoner, blasting him backwards into the person running behind him. "Glacius!" I snapped, a spear of ice flying through the air and impaling the first man through the shoulder. As he grunted in pain, his companion pulled him just out of range, hiding behind a tree trunk before I could attack.

"Come on, we need to find-"

I looked up to see another familiar face as Craft jumped into the clearing before I could finish my statement, a crackling spark of energy spiralling into the tree trunk the two men were hiding behind, splitting it in two and leaving bark flying from the sky like hard rain. The previously uninjured man had taken the brunt to the chest and screamed incoherently, but we didn't have time to follow up, as the other three men were on us immediately.

Opportunely, we now had the upper hand in numbers, and we pressed forward with a fierce efficiency that exceeded my expectations of the group when the mission first started. Slowly but surely, we made ground on the three men, coming within range for each spell to reach its target within seconds, making for one hell of a multi-wizard duel. Their three men had the better terrain, as they had spread themselves out behind a series of trees, and were partially hidden behind the flames but, fortunately, I had joined Burke in defending while Zeller and Craft focused on attack, so our three opponents could not mount enough of an offensive to deal a fatal blow.

In fact, the battle was soon at a stalemate, spells bouncing off of each other in midflight and leaving the previously frozen landscape covered in shrapnel and a growing fire. The men who had escaped behind the tree trunk made their presence known once more and, even though they were carrying debilitating injuries, I knew that the additional spellfire could bring us a swift defeat.

I sacrificed the additional defense to hopefully distract our enemies, casting a spell Hermione had once used as a 'pick me up' after Ron had half-broken her teenage heart. "Avis!" I cast, and a flock of doves appeared in front of me, happily unaware of their soon-to-be tragic fates; in a flash, an engorgement charm magnified their size twenty times or more, leaving the pint-sized pigeons larger than albatrosses. I directed them to attack, but more than half of them were reduced to feathers in seconds; of course, this was all part of the plan, as I used the wall of winged-wreckage to make one additional move.

"Duro!" I said, jabbing my wand forward at the multitude of falling debris before banishing the hardened bits of wings and bones at our adversaries. I could tell by the panicked looks on most of their faces that they had not expected that, and many of them had to put their hands over their head to stop the endless barrage of rocklike particles assaulting them.

My team quickly dispatched all but one of them, as the man who had taken half a tree to his chest was wheezing heavily and cowering in fear. Once the raining debris had settled down, he rose wearily on his hands and knees, trying to control his breathing. Craft looked ready to capitalize on the fallen man's hesitation by permanently taking him out the battle, but I blocked his well-aimed bludgeoner and yelled, "Wait!" Kelly paused, the fierce look on his face melting into slight frustration. "Petrificus Totalus!" The man on the ground made a fine demonstration of a ladder, as his body snapped into place and remained curiously upright in a rather torturous-looking position.

I moved in to investigate the bodies, hoping to find some clue as to where these men had come from, and what their intentions were - besides the obvious, which was mass murder and quite possibly world domination. I slowly stepped in front of the masked man, using my wand to end his masquerade. "Let's see who we have here..."

Suddenly, at the same time that I dislodged the mask from his face, he screamed, an unholy, piercing, pain-stricken sob that could be heard clearly even through the powerful body bind; his pale cheeks began burning for no apparent reason, and in a matter of moments he was completely unrecognizable as a man, and before the four of us could react - we were just as surprised as the man himself - the poor wizard was decisively deceased, his entire body having been consumed by a raging magical fire. Another minute passed with my team looking on in equal parts confusion and disgust before I recovered enough to make sense of it all; while I had my suspicions on what had taken place - it was obviously linked to his mask - I had never heard of a spell that would cause such deliberate chaos.

"Okay," I muttered, trying not to gag at the sickening sight. "That's a new one to me. Zeller?"

He shook his head. "I've never seen it firsthand, but I heard that Voldemort devised a spell during his first war that burned his followers if their masks were removed by anyone other than Voldemort or, obviously, themselves. As far as I know, the spell lost him one of his inner circle members - Avery, Sr. if I'm not mistaken - and its use died along with him."

"Anyone get a good look at 'em?" They shook their heads negatively, despite the fact that we had all been staring at the boy's face, and I had to wonder if Voldemort's spell just burned bodies, or whether it actively erased them from one's memory. In any case, it was a brutally efficient way to ensure your henchmen weren't recognized, and I could see someone like Voldemort using it on his followers without their knowledge.

"I've got an idea," Craft muttered, walking up to the closest wizard, who was knocked out cold, face down on the ice. "Imperius," he intoned, no hint of a smile on his curiously dark visage. I glanced at Zeller, who seemed to be the one having the most trouble with ignoring the fact that our teammate was using an Unspeakable. Still, it was a credit to the situation we were in that he didn't do much more than frown heavily. Within seconds, the previously uncooperative wizard was sluggishly removing his mask with his hands, and though his jerky movements made it seem like he was fighting the spell, Craft's magic was too powerful for the man to escape.

"Good," I muttered, stepping in front of the wizard and glancing down at his ashen face. I nodded at Craft, and he released his hold over the man, who blinked confusedly before snarling at me. Reflexively, I kicked snow in his face, causing him to splutter uncontrollably rather than scowl at me.

Unfortunately, multiple attempts to coerce the man into speaking were futile; without a doubt, the man was fluent in French curse words, but I doubted he knew a lick of English, so even the small vile of Veritaserum hidden in my equipment bag would be useless without a translator. I immediately thought of Patricia, but any contact with her would have to wait. Craft frowned heavily, beginning to get frustrated and seemingly on the verge of using a few curses of a different nature; sensing that the situation was deteriorating, I stepped in, taking control before any more blood hit the snow. "That's enough, Kelly." The man took a few seconds to react to my statement, but he did pull back, Lurch slapping him on the back roughly once he relented.

I only knew one way to read a person's mind, and Legilimency, while brutal, was extremely advantageous to us, as I sincerely doubted language issues would keep us from seeing the faces of the culprits involved. "Legilimens," I said, snarling as I met some resistance; unfortunately, it seemed that our first interrogatee had some rather strong Occlumency abilities - at least, in comparison to my admittedly poor Legilimency. For a few moments, I tried navigating the pathways of his mind, but it was to no avail; giving it up as a lost cause, I cast a stunner on the man and backed away. "Forget it, he's fighting too hard." I said, glancing around wearily, rubbing my temples as my head throbbed angrily. "Let's take him and Apparate back to camp," which was met with groans, "and see if we can't find Patricia and James so we can all get some answers and get the hell out of here." Of course, the last part of my statement was met with a deadpanned cheer from Craft.

Zeller spoke up, ignoring Craft. "Why don't we try Apparating to where we originally Portkeyed to, rather than where we went the last time we went to camp." The gray-haired man glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, looking grim, per usual. "As you recall, it didn't work out so well."

"'Course," I muttered. Kelly and Lawrence spun on the spot, and I waited patiently for Xavier to leave, but, after a few moments, it became apparent that Zeller had something private to say.

"Something doesn't feel right, Harry," he muttered, running his dirty, sweaty fingers through his long gray mane of hair. He was fit for his age - somewhere in the late fifties - but his eyes made him seem significantly older in the moment. "We need to keep our wits about us, because I doubt that's the last of them. I saw the giants retreating when they could have overwhelmed us back there. I... they've got to have something up their sleeves."

I knew he was probably right, but there wasn't much we could do, and the longer we sat there chatting idly, the more likely it was that our teammates were going to be in trouble. I looked down at the incapacitated young man in front of me and sighed. "I know, Z. Let's just keep our eyes open and hope for the best," I said, attempting to sound encouraging, though it fell rather flat on Zeller, who merely nodded sharply and Apparated away before I could continue. I waited a few seconds, focusing on side-along Apparating our newest team member, the fallen Frenchman. I grabbed him around the shoulder and hefted his limp form onto his feet, groaning under the weight, and finally, I felt the oppressive magic swarm around us.

The world blurred, scenery changing before my eyes in a variety of colors and abstract shapes. I landed on top of my captive, revealing ice right in front of my face, which slapped into the ground forcefully. Momentarily dazed, I lied there for a few seconds with my lip busted, unsure what had just taken place. Groaning in irritation, I stumbled to my feet, only to have my arms kicked out from under me; I smacked the ground face first again, this time feeling real, powerful anger build in my temple like a dam holding back a massive river. Unfortunately, with Zeller's black boot on my back, I didn't have anywhere I could go.

"What the f-" I yelped, cut off as Zeller's foot pushed my face back into the snow, crushing my mouth into the ice with sharp, stinging intensity. Just when I thought I wouldn't be able to breathe any longer, he let me up, grabbing me by my hair and yanking me to my feet. My wand fell to the ground, and was summoned into his hands. "You fucking traitor!" I yelled, snow flying from my mouth along with saliva and a surprising amount of blood. I spat sideways at my former friend, immediately recognizing how we had been set up, and I took a small amount of enjoyment from wiping the smile off of his face as blood and spit splashed against the side of it.

Completely shattered by my friend's treachery, I didn't know what to make of the situation. A quick, wild glance around showed that we were certainly not alone in the large clearing, and the treeline was far enough away that no one would be able to use them to their advantage. Craft and Burke had been tied up some distance from me and disrobed like I had been earlier, leaving them in the same thin long-sleeved shirt and pants that I was wearing. Their mouths had been sealed with a curse, as neither of them had lips from my vantage point, but that didn't stop them from making their best attempts at cussing out their assembled captors. Patricia was also present, eyeing me with full-on panic painted pink across her face. It was an emotion I felt clearly, as my entire body instinctively rebelled against the old man ripping the hair out of my scalp with the force of throwing me to the ground. Conspicuously, Withey was absent, and I began to fear the worst for our youngest teammate.

"Ah, ah, Harry," Zeller said as I recovered, his voice thick and his face set in a rigid, Snape-ish sneer. "So clever, but not nearly clever enough." He laughed, pulling me up from the ground by my hair, but he had left my arms free, so I swung my elbow around quickly enough to catch him in the jaw, sending him flying to the snow in a heap. In half a second, I climbed on top of him, smashing his face with my fists as hard as I could swing, all of my anger focused on the man I had always called a friend. Dimly aware of the others behind us, I was surprised, and then sickened, as I found they were laughing uproariously; glancing backwards, I could see one smirking face that instantly had me clenching my teeth to keep from screaming in rage.

Pierce Moissan stepped forward slowly, putting just a bit of space between himself and the other aurors, seemingly enjoying every moment of this debacle. He was not alone, as everyone had seen me violently injure one of my best friends, who was slowly recovering from the multitude of welts littering his cheeks and forehead, his eyes still looking foggy despite the fact that Moissan had flicked his wand, removing the Imperius curse. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were enjoying that," Moissan said smoothly, drawing laughter from the gathered crowd. There were only six men, not counting Moissan, but somehow I knew this would be where the battle was won or lost - Pierce wouldn't allow me to escape again and risk the convoluted, nefarious plan he had obviously been concocting for some time.

"I'm so sorry, Zell," I said, shaking my head sadly, but the older man was unresponsive, causing a few tears to build behind my eyelids. I surreptitiously cast a wandless healing spell, which did little more than stop some of the bleeding coming from Zeller's face. I climbed off of my knees onto my feet and slowly turned to face the others, knowing that if I moved too fast or made any attempt to escape, I would be stunned and then bound tightly. In any case, there wasn't much I could do with a half-dozen wands trained on me...

Pierce moved in closely, and the others followed suit, cutting off any view I had of Patricia and my teammates. He smiled tenderly at me, as if commiserating with my fate but still wishing me well on 'the next great adventure' - though both were, quite frankly, bullshit.

"Aren't you sick of your little games, Moissan?" I said, hoping to infuriate him and goad him into making a mistake. Even a moment's lapse of concentration could be used against him, but he did nothing more than smile lazily, seemingly unconcerned. "I don't see how you gain anything from delaying the inevitable. Tie us up, and then lose us in the trees, just to come back around and capture us again? Foolish, futile, and most importantly, fucking stupid." His irritating smile slipped, revealing clenched teeth. "When Shacklebolt finds out you've got us held hostage - if he hasn't already -"

Pierce laughed, the momentary frustration already disappearing from his face. The long, brown-haired man walked toward me with a confident stride, but he unfortunately kept his distance - with good reason, considering the result of my barehanded fight with Zeller. Despite the skin on my hands being torn noticeably, my knuckles itched to strike Moissan's jaw, which formed a tight-lipped smile. "There's no help coming. I can guarantee we've made sure of that."

"Then prove it," I said, my own, slightly broken lips matching his smile. "You think you have us beaten, but I know better. Even without a wand, I've got the upper hand." I waved my right hand mockingly, placing it far above my head for the all of his men to see.

"Prove it, you say..." he looked thoughtful, strangely glancing at one of the taller men near the back as if he needed reassurance or permission. The masked man nodded, stepping forward, and a feeling of trepidation ran through my stomach. "Fair enough. I should have expected that you'd have to know everything, and by Merlin," he laughed, "now that I think about it, I want you to know everything!" He turned and spoke briefly to his companion, who removed his white mask with a flourish; as I saw who it was, my blood-boiled in my chest, and if looks could kill, surely Moissan and the treacherous bastard to his right would have combusted on the spot.

Pierce, on the other hand, looked like Yuletime was here already. "What's wrong? Not so confident now, are you?" he joked, his humor never breaching the cold knot that had formed in my stomach. My adverted glance showed that Burke and Craft were absolutely furious - not to mention flabbergasted - and even Patricia seemed more frightened.

"I'd like to say I'm sorry, Harry," Kingsley Shacklebolt began, his rumbling voice filling the clearing, "but, honestly, I've been itching for this opportunity for years." He placed his hand on Pierce's shoulder convivially, his long fingers gleaming from the golden rings encircling them.

"Well," I sneered, trying to contain my emotions in the face of one hell of an emotional situation. It wasn't working very well, judging by the scream that erupted from my throat. "What took you so fucking long?"

Laughter found my ears, but the blood rushing in them made it seem very far away; Shacklebolt's cultured voice, however, was clear as a bell. "Patience is a virtue, even for the most powerful man in Britain. Don't take it as an affront that I tried to kill you," he said snarkily, "in fact, it's the greatest compliment of your skills I can offer. Most of my opponents are handled before tea time. That it took this long to set you up, why... you truly would have been a remarkable Head Auror."

Moissan laughed, followed by Shacklebolt, before swiftly taking over for his apparent ally. "You see, Harry, we know you only too well. What would you have done if you became the department head? Unite the people under common goals, perhaps? You probably think you could make sweeping changes with your influence, and restore belief in a Ministry that you think has stagnated, saving the world - once again!" He scoffed audibly. "We know better. Your good intentions would further divide our crumbling society. Purebloods would leave the country as the Mudbloods take over en masse, as all government officials recognized the need for a change to a happier, less confrontational, less fortified Ministry, allowing for only mayhem and chaos in its stead. You'd be a shoo-in for the next Ministerial elections, such is your popularity, and... of course, Shack here, he'd be out of a job."

The tall dark-skinned man smiled, my ire growing the longer he stood there explaining the keys to my downfall. "I don't consider myself an evil man, but you don't survive as long as I have in this position without a few skeletons in the closet. You must understand, I don't do this because I dislike you, Harry - in fact, it's quite the contrary. I admire you for your accomplishments, and I've determined that, as a truly powerful wizard, you are the greatest threat to my leadership." His smile fell, but only a bit. "I hate that it comes to this, but the benefits far outweigh a few sleepless nights at your expense."

It was almost laughable how clinically the two men went about explaining their actions. If I didn't know any better, I'd say they were having me on, but the blood trickling down the side of my face made it plain that my time was running short. However, I had been simultaneously dreading and welcoming this moment since the last time I visited Hogwarts, saying a prayer outside Dumbledore's memorial - ironically commissioned by Shacklebolt a few years after the events on the Astronomy tower. Recalling something my great mentor had said, a brief smile crossed my battered face.

"You certainly seem to have taken care of all the loose ends," I slurred, my lip feeling about the same size as a grapefruit. "Can't make contact with Hopkirk, the Portkeys probably won't work, we're outnumbered and unarmed, and I'm sure you'll wipe everyone's memories clean after I'm dead - that is, if you don't off them as well." I laughed humorlessly, spitting on the ground when the copper taste assaulted my mouth. "Hell, judging by the smirk on Moissan's face, I'm sure he'll kill me right in front of Patricia and then somehow blame it on her."

He shook his head, offering information freely once again. "Actually, I thought I'd kill you both and leave you by yourselves for your fiancee to... what's the phrase? Do the math? It's a much bigger scandal, and it'll ensure that nobody looks into your untimely death too hard. It was just a fling that spiraled out of control - not that far from the truth, eh, Harry?"

His smile grew a touch more demented, but rather than incense me further, his plot merely made me want to laugh, as it all began to unravel right in front of me. "Wow, I didn't even think of that. Truly, you are an expert strategist," I said offhandedly, knowing that it would irk Pierce. His ego was far too big not to puncture it with a sharp barb or two. "I guess it's not a bad idea in theory..."

Again, Moissan stepped forward, a few meters in front of Shacklebolt, who remained stock still, watching our interplay with idle curiosity. "What do you mean in theory?" he said, his infuriating laugh once again sending an unpleasant shiver down my spine. "It's plain as day. You're fucked."

I smiled, suddenly supremely confident in myself. "You seem to be laboring under the delusion that I am going to," I sneered, "what's the phrase? Come quietly..."

Shacklebolt had heard that before, judging by the way he went for his wand immediately. However, before he could cast a spell, I grinned cheekily; tightening my right hand imperceptibly around the Elder Wand, which had obeyed my call even across the vast distance, I cast the most powerful offensive spell in any good wizard's arsenal. "Bella Ignis!"

Fiendfyre erupted from the wand, speeding remarkably quickly toward Pierce, who was far too close to me to defend against the untamable fire. He screamed and tried to scramble away, but it was too late; a dragon's maw formed behind the running wizard, and scorched his legs and back, flinging him arse over tea kettle into a mound of snow. He slid across the ice and came to a rest, unmoving.

Normally, I wouldn't wish that kind of pain on anyone. In this case, I hoped he was dead.

Inwardly I cheered, but outwardly, I was still fighting to control my spell; with the Elder Wand, it was far easier than it had been with my holly wand, but it still took a wizard of great concentration to keep Fiendfyre from engulfing him in flames - as Vincent Crabbe could attest, if he was still alive to talk about it. Unfortunately, Shacklebolt wasn't in the mood for a battle, as he immediately fell to one knee and slapped a hand to his chest plate, mouthing the words to set his emergency Portkey into motion. Growling, I shifted the magic so that it rushed toward the other men Moissan and Shacklebolt had brought. Screams of fear and agony were interspersed with confused, belligerent yelps, as the men ran for the trees with great haste. More than one of the men succumbed to the rushing fire, but I couldn't feel any sorrow for them, as they'd have laughed accordingly if the roles were reversed.

Once I had been left alone, I forcefully ripped the magic apart, wavering a bit on my feet as the torrent of fire died in the air. Turning my attention to my teammates, I cast the counter-curse to the 'Lip-Zipping' spell twice, and Craft and Burke immediately began yelling. "Look out!" they chorused, and my eyes widened as I swung around to find the hills filled with enemies.


There were at least a dozen giants standing about halfway up the mountain, and many of them were double the size of the ones we had fought earlier; unfortunately, none of them looked ready to invite me over to eat rock cakes in their cabins. Worse, there were three times as many wizards standing behind them, and though they were all some distance away from us, I knew we'd only have a few seconds before the proverbial manure hit the fan. Thinking quickly, I silently banished Zeller's limp body over to the two men, hoping they would be able to wake him up, then I took a running leap to Patricia's side and freed her as well. She gawked fearfully at the giants, but otherwise seemed glad to have her restraints removed.

Shakily, she said, "What do you need me to do?" Her confidence was encouraging, but, as I glanced briefly at her expertly-manicured fingernails, I had a sinking feeling she wouldn't be much help to us unless we were looking for a good nail salon. I shook my head to clear it, reminding myself that we could use her help, however limited her abilities.

"Stay close to me and try to shield... well, as much as you can," I said dismissively. I was quickly moving toward the other men, who were assisting Zeller as he climbed weakly back to his feet. A glance at him showed that his knee - injured earlier in the afternoon - was giving him trouble, and I knew that we'd need to give him some cover to alleviate the stress of moving out of the way of curses. Burke and Craft worked well in tandem with Zeller, so I decided to keep Patricia with me so that they wouldn't have to worry about her. Armed with the Elder Wand, my confidence was sky high, and I had a feeling that, despite the odds being extremely stacked in their favor, I was about to kick some serious ass.

But first, I had to remove Patricia's thin hand from my forearm. "Wait, Harry," she said, drawing my full attention for the first time in hours. Her lip, split evenly down the middle, was bleeding a bit, and her forearms were bruised purple, but she was obviously full of energy and willing to help. "I can do this," she assured me. "Just... give me a chance." She sounded desperate, as if she had to help me or she would be miserable with herself. Her eyes zeroed in on my own, and for a moment, it felt like we were far away, discussing my fiancee over a cup of tea.

Thoughts of that night must have been swirling in her head as well, as her hand shakily traveled up to my cheek, tenderly wiping some of the blood away. Without thinking, I pressed my lips against hers, our tongues touching as a torrent of emotion ripped through my abdomen. Feeling the attention of the men on my make out session, I cut it short, stepping away from Patricia and turning back toward the oncoming giants. We had less than a minute before they were close enough to fight us outright, so I knew I had to act.

"Right. You know Glacius?" She nodded slowly, and I sighed. "Are you sure?"

"Yes!" she snapped, before trying to cover up her attitude with a muttered, "sir," that caught me off-guard. I snickered, shaking my head roughly and forcing myself to get back to business.

"Aim for their eyes. If you see a wizard in range, go back to shielding. Okay?"

She didn't look pleased with the small role she was playing, but she had no idea how useful I was going to make her. "Okay," she said, and I repeated her statement, walking toward the others. "Wait," she said again, and despite the kiss we had just shared, I couldn't help but be a bit annoyed.

"We don't have time for this-"

"I'm sorry, Harry," she rushed to say, sounding heartbroken. "For what it's worth, I've botched everything up for you, and I've pretty much been a heartless bitch about it. You've put your life on the line for me too many times today, so... I guess what I'm trying to say is..." she trailed off, again making eye contact with me. "Thank you."

Despite it all, the corner of my mouth quirked upward in a genuine smile. "Don't mention it. Boys!" I called, switching my focus to my team; Craft and Burke snapped to attention, while Zeller remained stony-faced and leaning heavily on his companions. I used the Elder Wand to conjure a Muggle walking stick, which I silently banished toward Zeller, who caught it in his right fist with a grimace.

"Thanks," he said sarcastically, vanishing the offensive object; instead, he chose to further doctor his knee and his face magically, even as the approaching giant hoard hit level land, and the first spells left the enemies' wands. Craft and Burke deflected most of the incoming barrage, and Zeller finally stood up, trying out his knee and apparently finding it a bit more flexible.

"You three stay together. Patricia and I are going to play a little game of chicken." Her aghast face nearly made me laugh, but I had a feeling drawing the bulk of the attention off of my teammates may end up putting the situation back in our favor. Patricia and I were the ones they wanted dead, the others were just collateral damage. The Elder Wand felt fantastic back in my control, and though I loathed using it unnecessarily, there was no doubt that this was the time; otherwise, the town half a kilometer away from us was just as damned to destruction as we were. We had each dedicated our lives to protecting British citizens, but my commitment to saving Saint Pierre d'Entremond was just as strong. "There's no doubt this is going to be the biggest battle of the day. Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir!"

Even Patricia screamed our rallying cry, and I smiled grimly, quite literally going to take on a giant task. As I stood there in a defensive stance, I paused to collect my thoughts. It was funny how many things could change in the span of a few hours; from Shacklebolt's treachery to Patricia's affections, it had been a bewildering day to say the least, but my confidence in our eventual victory wasn't shaken. I knew I would come out on the other side even stronger, and I also knew that if I didn't...

I was going to die trying.

-end of Chapter Nine-