Title: The Absence of War
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: Harry Potter
Genre: Drama, Family, Het, Kid!fic, Slash
Relationship(s): Sirius Black/OMC, OMC/OFC
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Minor character death, homicide, off-screen child abuse, and off-screen torture
Author Notes: I use the term dverger for the species of magical creature that runs Gringotts.
Word Count: 117,000
Summary: Arcturus Black uses the last moments of his life to change the circumstances of his grandson, Sirius black, in Azkaban in a way that no one could ignore. The ramifications of his choices change everything for both Sirius Black and Harry Potter.
Severus Snape had decent mental security when conscious, but he didn’t have a single scrap of personal warding, which Armand found very surprising. He wondered if the Dark Mark interfered in such magic or working at Hogwarts prevented it. He’d never really paid all that much attention to the wards on the school. He shared a look with Ito, who had spent most of the morning studying the currently inactive Dark Mark on Severus Snape’s arm.
As such, it was now clear he wouldn’t have to take Lucius Malfoy out personally. When they destroyed all the horcruxes, Riddle would drain the magic out of all of his followers due to his spectral existence and the connection he had to the dark marks. Armand was honestly kind of disgruntled about it. While he didn’t enjoy murdering someone—the satisfaction of a job done thoroughly wasn’t one to be dismissed.
Ito shot a spell at Snape with his wand, and the man woke. His head jerked around as he took his surroundings, and Armand merely raised an eyebrow at him.
Snape glared. “What are you doing?”
“Intelligence gathering,” Armand said honestly. “You’re sitting in a chair heavily spelled for honesty. You won’t be capable of lying to me.”
Snape scoffed. “No such spells exist.”
“Because you mastered occlumency?” Armand questioned. “That may be true of most truth spells but not the ones you’re currently enveloped in. Hiro invented this magic for the World Court of Magic hundreds of years ago, and I’m sure you’ve heard how robust their witness stand is.”
Snape’s mouth pinched together. “I won’t be interrogated.”
“I’m sure you believe that to be true,” Armand agreed. “But what you believe isn’t as important to me as what you know.” He glanced toward Ito and nodded.
Hiro cast a compulsion charm on Snape designed to make him want to answer questions. The younger wizard stiffened against the spell but had no ability to block it or fight it off despite his mental training. Armand wasn’t entirely certain he could fight off a compulsion charm from Ito.
“What do you know about Tom Riddle’s current existence?”
“I don’t know anyone named Tom Riddle,” Snape said with a frown.
“Voldemort,” Armand said. “Where is Voldemort?”
“The Dark Lord isn’t alive.”
“Clever,” Armand acknowledged. “Where is Voldemort’s wraith?”
“Where does Albus Dumbledore think Voldemort’s spirit is hiding?”
Snape swallowed hard and twisted in the magical bindings of the chair. “Albania.”
“Dumbledore went there last year.”
“Yes, he was verifying a pet theory,” Snape sneered.
“What do you know about Voldemort’s horcruxes?”
Snape grew visibly paler as he stared at him in shock. “He made horcruxes?”
“Yes, several,” Armand said. “He didn’t entrust you with one?”
“He didn’t trust me,” Snape murmured, his expression fell blank as he looked away. “My status as a spy made me distrusted on both sides.”
“Don’t act like you made some sacrifice for the bloody Light,” Armand ordered. “You serve no one but yourself, and you played both sides, so either way, you’d walk free. I’d actually be astounded you fooled Dumbledore if I didn’t already know what a self-absorbed twat he is.”
Snape opened his mouth briefly then just shrugged as much as he could.
“Are you aware of any plans Albus Dumbledore has for Harry Potter-Black?”
“Potter-Black,” Snape repeated flatly. “As if the little beast needed to be more offensive.”
“What bothers you most about the boy?” Armand asked curiously. “His survival or the mere fact that he exists proves beyond any doubt that Lily Evans chose James Potter instead of you?”
“She never had a chance to correct that mistake.”
“Harry has her portrait—it’s clear she didn’t consider making a family with James Potter a mistake in any single way,” Armand said evenly. “Not even when the birth of her son led to her death.” He paused when Snape stiffened and hummed under his breath. “What do you know about the prophecy that concerns Voldemort and Harry Potter-Black?”
“It was witnessed by Albus Dumbledore and…” He strained against the chair. “Me. I heard part of it. I took what I knew to the Dark Lord, but I didn’t know…I didn’t know it would make Lily a target.”
“What did you tell your so-called Dark Lord?” Armand demanded. “Tell me the exact words you delivered.”
“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies,” Snape ground out through clenched teeth.
“You made no effort to protect Lily.”
“That’s not true,” Snape denied. “I told Dumbledore as soon as I realized he was going to target Lily. I begged the Dark Lord to spare her, and he agreed! He agreed to spare her for me.”
“Spare Lily but murder her husband and child?” Armand questioned. “Do you think she would’ve thanked you for that, you sick piece of shite?”
“She could’ve had other children—better children with me,” Snape said.
“More and more, I’m coming to realize you brought me to this fucking country to make me permanently furious,” Ito said conversationally. “Do you need anything else from this sorry excuse for a wizard? I’ll need several hours to memory charm him considering his limited bit of mind arts education.”
Snape glared at him.
“Or, we can kill him and leave him on Knockturn Alley,” Hiro said. “At this point, I’m not at all picky.”
“We can’t kill him—it’ll put Dumbledore on guard, and I can’t have that,” Armand said. “He’ll barricade himself in that school and be out of my reach.”
Legally disowning Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy was far easier than he’d anticipated. His grandfather had already set everything up at the bank, and all Sirius had to do was sign a few pieces of parchment as far as the legal requirements were concerned. The magical parts would have to wait until he was in a better position health-wise.
“When will you complete the ritual requirements regarding disownment?” Razel asked.
“It’s a simple process, but my healer doesn’t want me interacting with the family magic on that level until I’m fully recovered,” Sirius explained. “Is it required legally for Bellatrix?”
“No,” Razel said. “The terms of her trust vault are very clear—it belongs to the House of Black, and all of the contents will be returned to the Black Trust. She never took on a personal vault.”
“She didn’t want the marriage to Lestrange,” Sirius said. “She probably kept everything she had in her trust vault to prevent him from accessing it. I heard, through others, she even confiscated the dowery and threatened to murder him if he had a problem with it.”
Razel snorted. “Honestly, her insanity is a shame. She was quite entertaining as a young woman.”
“In more ways than one,” Sirius agreed. “And Narcissa?”
“She doesn’t have a trust vault—she closed it shortly after her marriage and moved all the assets to a private vault in her name only.”
“Savvy,” Sirius murmured. “She doesn’t trust her husband, either.”
“With good reason,” Razel said. “You have two guests in the bank. I’m unsure of how they found out you’d be here today on business, but I’ve let them both know that if you have no wish to see them, then they will be asked to leave.”
“Who?” Sirius questioned as he stacked the parchments he’d signed together and handed them back to the dverger. He checked his watch as he’d promised to try to return home before tea, and the meeting he’d had with Tyson McGregor had run very long due to various issues with the Wizengamot and his lawsuit.
“Amelia Bones and Augusta Longbottom,” Razel said.
“I told Augusta I would be here this morning,” Sirius said. “Do you know why Amelia Bones is with her?”
“I’m not the Longbottom account manager, so I don’t know the specifics, but there was an altercation yesterday that resulted in the DMLE arresting Algernon Longbottom in the lobby,” Razel explained. “The Daily Prophet reported in a short column in the legal matters section that he’d been arrested for attempted line damage, and I imagine that’s just the start of charges.”
Sirius couldn’t help but agree. “Neville sent Harry a letter and mentioned in that letter that he was worried about getting invited to Hogwarts, which I found startling considering what I knew about him as a toddler. I contacted Augusta, and it appeared she had no memories at all of Neville before his parents were attacked.” He turned to Quintin and Walker Deadmarsh. “If you’d search through the contents of Bellatrix’s vault before it is transferred back into the Black Trust, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want any dark objects so they can be destroyed outright.”
Shortly after parting ways with the Deadmarsh brothers, Sirius was escorted into a conference room where Augusta Longbottom and Amelia Bones were waiting. They had a generous tea service between them, and Sirius allowed himself to be prodded to the table by Augusta. In short order, he had a cup of tea and a plate of little sandwiches. He wondered what sort of gourmet fair Nia was plying Harry and Zale with at Thestral Downs.
“My husband’s brother was plotting to take the title for his own son,” Augusta said crisply. “I’ve been memory charmed repeatedly to forget nearly every single incident of accidental magic Neville has ever done. In fact, the only incident I remember had multiple witnesses, and I suppose he didn’t think he could contain it. He did work, however, to minimize the incident and had most of the family convinced that Neville was barely magical and probably wouldn’t get an invitation to attend Hogwarts.”
“I don’t know the details regarding the attack on Frank and Alice,” Sirius began quietly and winced when Augusta paled and averted her gaze. “But I had a discussion with a very educated and experienced healer who told me that such damage done by the Cruciatus Curse starts to heal within five years if the afflicted lives that long. The more magical a person, the more quickly they should recover.
“Per my partner, Zale Wright, your brother-in-law was essentially forced to retire from St. Mungo’s just six months ago. Zale told me that Algernon was very involved in the care of Frank and Alice. From the outside, it would look like someone working to take care of their family, but considering what you’ve just said, I’m left to wonder if he hasn’t been interfering with their care and healing.”
“Who is this healer you speak of?” Augusta demanded.
“His name is Hiro Ito, and he’s from Japan.”
“The oldest War Mage on the planet is here?” Amelia Bones questioned in shock. “Hiro Ito is here in Britain? Why? We weren’t notified of his arrival. Is he here as part of the ICW investigation?”
“He’s here for personal reasons, Amelia, and not for any political purpose that I’m aware of,” Sirius said. “He’s staying at Thestral Downs and working with Master Deering on several matters involving the Glain Neidr that I’m not privy to.”
Bones frowned and sat back in her chair. “You’re not concerned about their activities? In your home?”
“Armand Deering has rearranged his entire life to help me, Amelia,” Sirius said evenly. “His wife is here, having set aside her lucrative private practice, to dedicate herself to attending Harry’s mind healing. Master Deering could move his entire conclave into my manor if he wishes. I owe him every single consideration.”
“I heard that young Harry bought a snake in the pet shop,” Augusta said. “And that he’s a parselmouth.”
“Is that a problem?” Sirius questioned.
Augusta shook her head. “Not necessarily. Is the snake an arsehole? It’s been my experience that elemental vipers are very temperamental and prone to dramatics. We have quite a few snakes on the property for pest control, but no vipers at this time since my husband passed.” She paused. “He was a parselmouth, though that was not well-known. I was hoping that Neville would have the gift as we depend on snakes to help protect our potion ingredient crops. I hire a translator once a quarter to come to the estate to handle the care of the snakes currently.”
“I’m going to engage in a large-scale propaganda campaign dedicated to destroying the bad reputation parselmouths have merely for existing. Perhaps you’ll be able to hire a herbologist after that with the gift,” Sirius admitted and grinned when she lifted an eyebrow.
“During Algernon’s interview, it came out that Albus has encouraged him several times to assume the title to protect the family magic,” Augusta explained. “I’ve heard, though various sources, that you aren’t giving that old git the time of the day I wanted you to be aware of it. He’s clearly been trying to undermine Neville’s position within his own magical house. You know about that foolish prophecy, I assume?”
“I do,” Sirius said. “We had it removed from the Hall of Prophecy some time ago, Augusta. It’s not about Neville, but I believe that Dumbledore still considers him a viable option.” He focused on Amelia. “I think you’ll find that Algernon Longbottom has been influenced by Albus a great deal. The prophecy declares that a child born will be Voldemort’s equal. Through research, we’ve learned that Tom Riddle grew up unloved and abused in a Muggle orphanage. He arranged for Harry to live with someone who hated magic, but he couldn’t control Neville’s guardianship, so he manipulated his uncle to create an abusive situation.”
“To make one or both of the boys equal to Voldemort,” Amelia Bones said flatly. “That’s…the cruelest thing I’ve…and it’s foolish as fuck! Like Fate needs his help!” She huffed and shoved a whole biscuit in her mouth.
Sirius focused on Augusta. “Harry would like to meet Neville in person. I apologize for declining your invitation without an expressed reason, but I must exercise all due caution where Dumbledore is concerned. Would you be willing to visit Thestral Downs soon? We’ll be having a birthday party for him in July, and he’s made a list of children he’d like to see invited.” His gaze drifted to Amelia. “He’s included your niece in that list.”
Amelia blinked in surprise. “You did tell him that the House of Bones isn’t noble, right?”
“He knows and doesn’t care about such things at all,” Sirius said. “He’s already made a Muggle-born friend he met on Diagon Alley, and she’s been invited to his party. I suspect that Harry will continue to ignore any protocol or social expectation that he finds foolish. Which is to say, most of them.”
Sirius walked out of his closet and curled his toes briefly into the thick carpet before pulling on his robe, which he left unbelted over his pajamas. He walked through his suite and across the hall to the open door of Harry’s suite. His son was at his desk, as he often was, with a large book open in front of him. Zale was on the sofa near the fireplace, already dressed for bed, writing in a journal.
Harry looked up from his reading. “Hogwarts sounds like a death trap.”
Zale laughed and set aside his lap desk. “No one’s died on the school grounds in decades.”
“Not comforting,” Harry declared. “Did you have fun disowning people at the bank, Daddy?”
“It was just a lot of parchments to sign,” Sirius reported and dropped down on the sofa beside Zale. “It ran long due to some dark objects in one of the vaults. I had to sign off on curse-breaking for the vault itself since both of the Deadmarsh brothers declared the contents unsafe to move magically. What have you done today?”
“I had a new letter from Neville, and I sent another off to Hermione,” Harry explained. “We’re all reading Hogwarts, A History, and Neville is determined to sort in Gryffindor, which is disappointing, but it’s important to him, so I’m trying to be supportive. He’s afraid he’ll end up in Hufflepuff, but I don’t personally see anything wrong with being perceived as loyal and hardworking. I said as much, but he said his reputation as a peer would suffer if he doesn’t sort as people believe he should.
“Hermione thinks that’s nonsense and that people put way too much stock into the house system at Hogwarts. It’s silly. I mean—our brains aren’t even mature, so how is the school determining what sort of adult we’re going to be at eleven? Hermione says our brains don’t mature until we’re 25.”
“Closer to 30 when magic is involved,” Zale said and smiled when both Sirius and Harry focused on him. “Magic slows down quite a few things and ramps up others. You’ll go through puberty faster, which is why 17 is considered the age of adulthood in our world. That being said, magical channels in the brain don’t fully settle around our 30th birthday barring any magical interventions.”
“Like what?” Harry questioned.
“There are cases where a wizard or witch would force their first magical maturation. This first maturation normally happens gradually between 17 and 18.” He paused. “In some extreme situations, you might choose to go through a maturation ritual at fifteen to claim your title legally. I don’t see that being a need for you, but the option exists. Several hundred years ago, it was common for a young heir to go through several rituals to claim titles and take control of their estate if the event of the loss of their patriarch.”
Sirius didn’t really want to go into that whole discussion and was relieved when Harry just nodded and closed his book. “What part of the school is a death trap?”
“The whole thing,” Harry declared. “Moving staircases, trick stairs, no solid, dependable floorplan, a giant squid, and a whole forest full of creatures that may kill me. How am I supposed to know where stuff is if it’s constantly moving? Also, why is the school next to a “dark” forest? How is that a good thing?”
“When the school was first built, the forest was part of the security measures,” Sirius explained. “But over the years, it’s been overrun and mismanaged because the school doesn’t have the funds to employ a keeper for it.”
“Then there should be some sort of fundraising effort for the school,” Harry announced and rocked in his chair. “We have plenty of money—maybe we should start a trust for the school to take care of things that the ministry won’t or can’t. It’s kind of weird, actually, that the only boarding magical school in the country is under the control of the government. It really should stand independently.”
“It used to, but the original trust for the school was absconded with, and, to remain open, they had to strike a bargain with the ministry.” Sirius paused. “You’ve been looking at other schools?”
Harry shrugged. “Just a little, in case Dumbledore is still there. Neville’s already said he won’t go if the headmaster is still there when his letter comes. He’s got applications in for several different day schools. We sent Hermione the information as well, but she’s looking forward to Hogwarts. She did suggest we ask Master Armand to get rid of Dumbledore.” He paused. “Honestly, I don’t think she cares how he accomplishes it either. She’s kind of mercenary. I’m pretty sure the only thing standing between her and Slytherin sorting is her blood status.”
“It is rare for a Muggle-born to be sorted in Slytherin,” Zale acknowledged. “But it has happened to their own detriment. It’s not an ideal house for either Muggle-borns or half-bloods due to blood politics and the disgusting ideas that some pure-blood parents put in their children’s age.”
Harry yawned. “Hermione and I are considering some low-grade parental alienation. Her term, not mine, and I don’t really know what it means. But I think she plans to cram other kid’s heads with so much information about genetics, science, and Muggles that they don’t have room for the bigotry their parents taught them. She has a full campaign planned, and Neville and I were conscripted.”
“Sounds fun,” Sirius said in amusement.
“But speaking of Hermione, I think she needs an owl. I mean, I think basically her parents need an owl for when she’s in school. Plus, she’s been using Hedwig to send Neville letters as well, and that’s increasing the time between communications and slowing down our whole planning thing. So, I thought maybe we could just go to the owl store and pick out one for her parents as a gift.” He focused on Sirius. “Maybe we could try to find one that would be extra nice to Muggles? Is that possible?”
“We’d need one that has very good social skills,” Zale said. “I’ll go shopping tomorrow and see if I can find an owl that suits those needs. Probably a barn owl, they usually have the best manners. Plus, they’re beautiful and less intimidating due to how attractive they are.”
“Probably get a boy,” Harry said and yawned again. “So, they won’t have to worry about the owl getting broody. I don’t know even know how they’d handle that. I don’t know how I’m going to handle that. What if Hedwig wants babies? Do I have to do anything?” He paused. “What if Flux wants babies?”
“Flux won’t have any more children,” Zale said. “She would’ve laid her eggs shortly after her first maturation, which was hundreds of years ago. As to your owl, she’ll let you know when and if she wants to mate. She’ll probably bring potential mates to meet you and gauge their viability based on how they interact with you as she clearly considers you her first child.”
Harry made a face. “Is that why she’s always trying to groom my hair?”
“Yes,” Sirius said with a laugh and glanced toward the clock. “It’s time for bed, lad.”
Harry nodded and scooted back from his desk. “Do you suppose we could have pain perdu for breakfast?”
“Sure, Nia makes great French toast.” Sirius guided Harry toward the bedroom. “Patrice is ruining you.”
“Food sounds better in French,” Harry declared.
Harry scrambled up the stairs beside his bed after shedding his robe and snatched up his unicorn. “Can you open Flux’s egg house? She should be done with her thing.”
“Thing?” Sirius questioned as he opened the egg on the nightstand. Flux flowed out and curled around Harry’s wrist as soon as she reached him.
“Magical communion,” Harry said. “She’s been doing it a lot. Healer Dyson says she leeching dark magic out of my curse scar, and it’s okay. It’s just part of our bond, and it’ll be better after Master Armand treats my scar.” He scooted down in his blankets. “That’s going to happen soon, right?”
“When they’re ready,” Sirius murmured. “Ritual magic shouldn’t be rushed unless there is no choice, and we have plenty of time at the moment to do things exactly as they should be done.” He fussed with the covers for a bit and smiled when Harry hugged his unicorn closer. “Sleep well. Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
Harry nodded. “Good night, Daddy.”
Sirius dimmed the lights at the door with a brush of his fingers over a series of gold runes embedded in the doorframe. He lingered for a long moment, watching Harry settle down in his covers and hiss softly to his familiar. With a flutter of wings, Hedwig left her perch and flew across the room to sit on the headboard. She settled down and made a soft chuffing sound before closing her eyes.
Zale was at the front of the suite, waiting when he finally forced himself to leave. “You’re troubled.”
Sirius considered that and found he couldn’t lie, so just nodded. Together they walked across the hall into his suite, and he shut the door. “I never much worried about my legacy before Azkaban.”
“You were a very young man,” Zale said. “And who had room for that kind of worry in the face of the war?”
“Some were very concerned—considering the number of children born during that time period.” He slouched down on the nearest sofa and stared at the empty fireplace for a moment before drawing his wand and throwing a spell at it. “I only agreed to the blood adoption to be closer to James.”
“I know,” Zale said. “It’s not really a surprise.”
“Don’t get me wrong—I pretty much fell head over heels for that kid the moment I saw him, but I’d already agreed to the adoption at that point. James’ motives weren’t really clear at the time, but now it’s easy to see he was creating family and connections for Harry because Voldemort had wiped the Potter family out almost entirely in the two years before.” He shifted as Zale joined him on the sofa. “Today, I started the disownment process for Bellatrix. I remember when she was small—younger than Harry and full of innocent mischief. I don’t even know who to blame for her insanity at this point, but I can’t say my aunt or uncle were ever proper parents.”
“How can I help?”
Sirius focused on him. “Honestly, that’s all you do—is help me. I feel like I’m not doing my part with this whole thing. You’ve been this calm, safe place in my life since practically the moment I was removed from Azkaban. Dyson told me how you’re treated at St. Mungo’s and why you ended up being the only healer assigned to my case. It’s clear that you could have a career elsewhere or even in private practice. Why do you stay?”
“Because not everyone can afford a private healer, and there are conditions and situations that really need the work of a parselmouth. My direct supervisor is an old, narrow-minded bigot who can’t stand me for several reasons, chief among them the fact that I’m a parselmouth. I take great comfort in the fact that with bonuses for dealing almost exclusively with dark magic issues, I get paid three times what he does, regularly.”
Sirius nodded but frowned. “It’s just… I want you to be valued and treated well.”
“My patients, for the most part, more than make up for putting up with an old man. Besides, he’s due to retire in a year, and I’m the only healer on staff in my department with the requirements to be the next supervisor. I’ve already been told I’m taking his place as the head healer for the entire spell damage ward. Though, I did hear through a friend that Dumbledore complained to the director that I shouldn’t be allowed to gain that position because of the fact that I’m a parselmouth.”
“Dumbledore tries to meddle in every single thing he possibly can,” Sirius muttered. “I know he’s not going to survive to September. I mean, Armand hasn’t said it in front of me, but he clearly plans to kill him.”
“Surely,” Zale agreed. “Here’s hoping he’s somewhat subtle about it, or we’ll be doing a lot of clean up for him after the fact.”
“Maybe Patrice will plan it,” Sirius said.
“Merlin, I hope not,” Zale muttered. “She’s honestly worse than him and likes to set an example. She’d have Dumbledore’s head on a pike in the middle of Diagon Alley with a list of misdeeds listed on her best stationery.”
Sirius laughed and took a deep breath. “At least it would be entertaining, and it isn’t like he doesn’t deserve it. He’s a monster.”
“Certainly,” Zale agreed. He curled his hand into Sirius’ and laced their fingers together. “You’re very worried about something.”
“Harry,” Sirius admitted. “The horcrux situation. The prophecies.” Sirius waved a hand. “I’m not at all prepared to deal with any of this, and I feel like I can’t protect him. Is there a point in my future where I only have to worry about him being reckless on his broom?”
“Of course,” Zale soothed.
“I can’t see it,” Sirius confessed. “The worry I have for him is overwhelming sometimes. I can’t lose him, Zale.”
“No one can make that promise,” Sirius said wearily and rubbed his face with a free hand then placed a quick kiss to the top of Zale’s hand when the man frowned at him. “Maybe this is what it means to be a parent. The world is too big, and he’s so small. There aren’t enough protective charms in existence to make me feel better about him leaving my sight. I’m trying to be good about it because I don’t want him to end up being a neurotic mess, but…” He huffed.
“Well, there’s nothing for it,” Zale declared and stood. He pulled Sirius from the sofa. “You need to get laid, and, fortunately for you, I’m the best lay on this whole bloody island.”
Sirius laughed but allowed himself to be pulled into the bedroom. He shoved the door closed and managed to activate the rune lock as Zale released his hand to start shedding his clothes. He took off his robe and let it fall to the floor. They finished undressing quickly, and he let himself be pushed onto the bed. He trembled when Zale straddled him.
Zale grinned. “You’re beautiful,” he murmured and pressed a hand against Sirius’ chest. “I’ve always thought so.”
Sirius hesitantly cupped Zale’s hips and took a deep breath.
“Relax,” Zale murmured. “You can have this. It’s okay.”
“I’ve had nothing for a decade,” Sirius confessed. “More than—I never really let myself have this. I’ve only had a few partners, and none of them were special, much to my shame.” He flushed at the confession.
“Hell, Sirius, you went to prison at 21,” Zale said roughly. “If it were me, at that age, I’d have gone to Azkaban a virgin.”
“Two days before my 22nd birthday,” Sirius admitted. “I was so crazed with grief; I didn’t even realize my birthday had passed until I heard one of the guards discussing celebrating Yule with their family.”
“Let’s just take this slow,” Zale suggested.
Sirius huffed. “Not that slow.”
Zale grinned and wrapped his hand around Sirius’ cock. “Just slow enough?”
Sirius nodded his agreement and hoped his kid slept through the night as his lover leaned down to kiss him.
“We’d like to talk to you about your scar.”
Harry frowned and fiddled with his quill before setting it aside and focusing on Master Deering. “Okay.”
“Let’s sit on the sofa, lad,” Sirius suggested.
“Is it really bad?” Harry questioned. “I haven’t had a headache in weeks, so I thought maybe the healing was working.”
He glanced toward Patrice as she settled on the sofa his godfather was guiding him toward. He took a seat and tried to relax between them. It wasn’t often that they gathered around him outside of meals. The fact was that he liked his space, and it was relief that all the adults in the house got that without having a discussion because he really didn’t know how to define his personal space with words.
“It’s something we can fix,” Armand said.
“That’s not a real answer to my question, though,” Harry pointed out. “You don’t normally give half an answer to any question so…”
Armand sighed. “I wish you were less like your mother.” He grinned when Lily huffed from the portrait but focused on Harry. ‘The scar itself is what it is—a scar created by the backlash of a dark curse. Its shape is merely a mirror of the wand movement used to perform the spell. Though most adults who master the Unforgiveables learn to perform them with no movement at all.”
“As a terrorism tactic?” Harry questioned. “Can they be cast silently?”
“Certainly, but I believe that for some part of the thrill of casting the Killing Curse is actually saying and seeing the fear in their victim’s face,” Armand explained. “One reason why parselmagic is so feared is that when you cast in parseltongue, most of the people around you have no idea what you’re saying. They cannot gauge your intent or the potential outcome of the spells you’re casting. It can be horrifying—more so to some than even having someone cast at them silently.”
“I suppose it might be creepy to be hissed at,” Harry said. “But the easiest way to fix that problem is just to not pick a fight with a parselmouth. I think a lot of problems could be solved in Britain if people were just a bit more polite.” He wet his lips. “If my scar is just a scar, then what’s the problem?”
“The Killing Curse is a soul-violator. Your mother sacrificed herself and her magic to protect your soul. It was her magic that deflected Riddle’s curse that night and left you alive but injured, both physically and magically. You suffered a minor core fracture that allowed a piece of Riddle’s soul to lodge itself in your magic. The core fracture healed, but the piece of Riddle’s soul remains trapped in the protective magic your mother created. Your scar, at this point, merely represents the past physical and magical trauma you suffered.
“Part of the man who murdered my mum and dad is living inside of me,” Harry said. “Dumbledore left a dark wizard’s fucking soul in me for a decade?”
“Language, lad,” Sirius murmured and brushed through Harry’s hair with gentle fingers.
“That’s the least offensive thing I have to say about it,” Harry said hotly and crossed his arms over his chest. “This is dragonshite!” His magic stirred in his chest in a way he’d rarely felt in his life and took a deep breath as it surfaced on his skin. “Where does that old, vicious jerk get off?” He launched off the sofa before either his godfather or Patrice could say anything.
Armand Deering caught him before he could leave the grouping of chairs and held him fast by the shoulders. “Harry James Potter-Black, calm down immediately.”
He took a deep breath. “You…he…why is he so bloody terrible? How does Dumbledore fool so many people? Who leaves a part of an evil wizard’s soul in a baby?”
“Albus Dumbledore is honestly the darkest wizard I’ve ever met, and I’m including both Tom Riddle and Gellert Grindelwald in that,” Armand said frankly. “He plays deeply ugly games with the lives of everyone around him and has ambitions that remain elusive to me. I used to think it was about creating his own legacy. Plenty of people in Britain basically consider him the second coming of Merlin.”
Harry huffed. “Grandpa Phineas thinks Dumbledore is just a crazy bastard.”
“Watch your mouth, lad,” Armand told him sternly, and Harry felt his cheeks flush. “Your anger is justified, but you know full well that a temper tantrum doesn’t serve you or your health. While I don’t think you’re magically fragile, if we allow you to throw a complete fit—you’ll exhaust yourself and give yourself a monstrous headache, which will allow Riddle to intrude on your magic more than he already has.”
“That’s what my headaches are?” Harry demanded. “What about my nightmares with the green light?”
Armand cleared his throat. “Take a deep breath, then calm your magic down, and I will answer your question as honestly as possible.”
Harry swallowed hard and blinked back tears of anger and frustration as he touched his magic the way Healer Dyson had taught him. It was like a storm inside of him, but after a few moments of concentration, it stilled.
“Good lad,” Armand said. “It is our belief that the severe headaches you’ve gotten most of your life are a result of Tom Riddle leeching your magic through the soul fragment to fuel his current wraith-like state.” He took a deep breath. “And the nightmare is a memory—a traumatic magical memory that your conscious mind ignores but your magic cannot. When Riddle intrudes on your magic, you have a nightmare about the only memory you share with him.”
“A memory of what?” Harry asked, but he found he really didn’t want to know the answer to that question after it left his mouth.
“The Killing Curse is a bolt of green light,” Armand said gently.
“Oh.” Harry took a deep breath as the older wizard rubbed his upper arms gently. “I’m fine.”
“Ah, lad, you are far from fine,” Armand said gently. “And it’s okay to be upset. We’re all upset about this, and we’ve been working hard to find a solution.”
“Why do I remember him killing her and nothing else?” Harry asked. “It’s not fair.”
“It is the nature of trauma,” Patrice said and joined them. She knelt on the floor beside Harry. “You were just fifteen months old when they perished, Harry, and most of us don’t have distinct memories of that time in our lives. My first active memory is going to a spring renewal ritual that my mother’s coven conducted. I was three years old.”
“When I try to think back,” Harry started, “I just remember the cupboard. It was cold a lot, and I only had a little plaid blanket.” He glanced toward his godfather when the older man made a noise of shock. “What?”
Sirius rubbed his face briskly. “The blanket—it’s what I wrapped you when I took from you from the house in Godric’s Hollow. Your mum made it when she was pregnant with you. It was a mess, and the stitches weren’t straight, but it was the first time she’d ever made using a sewing charm. It was rather charming to see her do something badly.”
Harry took a deep breath. “Aunt Petunia threw it away when I was five because she said it was ugly. I got a blue one after that—it was thinner than the first one, but it was bigger so I could fold it in half, so it was kind of warmer.”
“In the spirit of transparency, I want to murder your aunt and uncle,” Armand said roughly and released him.
Harry laughed though he was pretty sure he shouldn’t have, but he appreciated Armand Deering’s honesty. Also, he was pretty sure that most of the adults he knew the magical world wanted to murder Petunia and Vernon Dursley.
“What they’re suffering is better than death, you know,” Harry said as he dropped back on the sofa with his godfather and shifted as close as he could. Sirius responded by wrapping an arm around him. “Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were very invested in their reputations and their belief that they were normal, good people. Now, they’re both in prison, and everyone knows why. When they get out, Dudley will be an adult who hopefully will have learned how to be a good person. I hope he’s horrified by his parents, embarrassed to be related to them. I certainly am. When they get out—they won’t have anything really. Aunt Petunia will leave prison first, probably, and she’ll have nothing but her small, cruel mind and a criminal record. Her life is ruined, and I’m okay with that.”
“You’re going to sort into Slytherin,” Sirius said sadly and sighed dramatically.
Harry shrugged. He had a plan for the sorting and figured he’d get his way. Hermione would sort first so he’d go wherever she went, and he was campaigning with her already for Ravenclaw. Grandpa Phineas had made it clear that the sorting mechanism would take their desires into consideration.
He focused on Master Deering. “How do we get this thing out of me? When can we do it, and will it hurt?”
“We’ve prepared a ritual with the entire conclave,” Armand explained. “The ritual space is ready as if late last night, and I’ll do everything I can to make it as painless as possible. Master Ito will be joining the Glain Neidr in this ritual, and he has experience with working with fractured soul pieces.”
In the back of his mind, the ancestors were muted, but he could feel their curiosity and irritation. Finally, Grandpa Arcturus voiced their concerns to him, and Harry considered it before asking, “Did Riddle fracture his soul on purpose?” He paused. “How many pieces are there?”
Armand grimaced and focused on Sirius. “I thought you were going to talk to those bloody portraits?”
“I did!” Sirius exclaimed. “They told me to mind my own business.”
“We don’t know how many times he split his soul, but we’ve already located several pieces with research and an astounding amount of luck.”
“Or Fate,” Harry said and shrugged when the older wizard looked at him in shock. “Aunt Elladora says that luck is almost always manufactured either through intent, magic, or some supernatural force like Fate or Zirnitra.”
Sirius groaned. “I’m going to have another talk with that portrait. I told her, explicitly, not to fill your head with religion.”
Harry laughed. “I asked. They really don’t chat at me directly a lot, I just get impressions unless I specifically address them. It’s not intrusive or anything. Sometimes, if I can’t sleep, Aunt Elladora tells me stories.” He focused on Armand Deering. “Like the stories from The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The story about the Deathly Hallows was really interesting, and Grandpa Phineas says I’m probably related to the three brothers, but none of them know if the story is actually true or not.”
Armand made a face. “Let her know I’ll do things my own way and to stop interfering if she still wants that new dress I promised her.”
Harry laughed. “I don’t think you should promise a witch something and not deliver it—even if she is dead. I can’t imagine how that would go well for you.”
The bank was the most interesting place he’d ever got to visit so far in the magical world. Harry stayed close to his godfather as they left to the apparition point. He’d had to dress up in full dress robes, which was annoying since he’d also been presented with a little ritual robe and told he’d have to wear only that for that ritual. He was pretty sure that was the rudest thing he’d ever heard.
Since they wanted to keep his participation in the ritual a secret, he wouldn’t be getting to meet anyone new or a dverger at all. The ritual space they’d paid to use was private, underground, and only available by apparition based on contractual permission. Harry had no idea how that magic worked, but he appreciated the security as he didn’t want the general public to know he’d hosted the soul fragment of the darkest wizard ever.
There were only 27 men in the Glain Neidr, but Master Deering had told him that at one time, there had been over a hundred men involved. Parselcraft was a fading art, but more importantly, many hid out of shame or fear of persecution. Harry figured that being out of the parselmouth closet was just one of the bravest things a wizard or witch could do socially speaking. He’d done it by accident really, but he regretted nothing. The ritual space was entirely made of granite, and there were a series of circles carved into the floor. Runes were already glowing. He took off his cloak and frowned as he was escorted to a shallow bowl along the back wall.
“I have to get naked and stand in that?” Harry asked flatly as he stared at the cleansing pool. “This is beyond the pale, Daddy.”
Sirius snorted. “It’ll be fine, lad. It’s just the business of being magical.”
“Public nudity?” Harry questioned.
“Well, yes, but I meant ritual magic.” Sirius shed his own cloak and placed it on a narrow table tucked up against the wall near the pool. “Body shame really isn’t a thing for magicals.”
“I don’t have body shame,” Harry protested. “I just have…this is honestly a deep afront to my dignity.”
“You adorable little Puritan,” Sirius said with a laugh. “I’ll cast a privacy charm for you, okay?” He paused. “The boy’s showers at Hogwarts are open with just stalls and no doors.”
Harry made a face. “That’s terrible.”
“Ravenclaw’s have their own rooms with ensuite bathrooms,” Zale offered from his place in the pool next to his. “Each house tailors itself to suit the students sorted there.”
“I’m definitely going to Ravenclaw,” Harry declared. “Or the first thing I’m going to learn is a privacy charm!”
“First thing I learned was a lubrication charm,” Walker Deadmarsh called out from across the ritual chamber.
Harry looked toward his godfather as several wizards and laughed. “What’s that used for?”
“Never you mind,” Sirius said sternly. “Walker, I’m going to kick your arse!”
“He’s a liar anyway, the first thing he learned was a hair charm because he’s a vain git. Aunt Patrice taught it to him the day he got his wand,” Quintin reported.
Harry considered that and wondered if she could teach him some hair charms. He turned to his godfather, and the older man drew his wand to cast the privacy charm. A little cloud of magic formed all around him, and when Harry looked around, he couldn’t see the rest of the ritual chamber. Satisfied he wouldn’t get starkers in front of everyone, he nodded, and his godfather left him with a shake of his head.
By the time he’d stood in the cleansing stream the instructed amount of time and put on the black ritual robe he’d been given, everyone else was already standing in places around the altar. Harry wondered how it was decided where everyone would stand but figured he should’ve asked that earlier. The members of the conclave were in the space to work, so he didn’t want to throw anything off.
His godfather was in the center of the circle next to the alter having a conversation with Healer Wright. He was wearing a black robe as well. The members of Glain Neidr were wearing dark green, but the members of the inner circle had black trim on their robes. Harry wondered what it meant to be part of the inner circle and how that impacted the magic the conclave did. It was clear that Master Deering entrusted his inner circle with tasks and information the rest of the conclave was not privy to.
Master Deering focused on him. “Ready, lad?”
“I guess,” Harry said and waved a hand at his robe. “As I’ll ever be.”
“Come on then,” he said and patted the altar. “We’ll handle this and still have time for dinner.”
Harry swallowed hard and took a deep breath as he stepped across the boundary and onto the ritual circle. The runes under his bare feet flickered, and everyone in the room focused on him at the same time. He wet his lips and took another deep breath as his magic swelled in his chest.
“It’s fine,” Armand encouraged. “That’s just your parselmagic responding to ours. A ritual circle built on parselmagic is especially powerful.”
Harry nodded and walked across the granite floor. “Another reason to fear us?”
“Yes, of course,” Armand said. “Sirius?”
“I’m going to have to pick you up, lad,” his godfather said in warning, and Harry nodded.
Harry shifted slightly as his godfather put him on the altar and released him. He pressed his fingers against the granite surface. “It’s not very hard.”
“Cushioning charm,” Sirius said and brushed a lock of hair from his face. “Armand will be interacting with the soul piece during the ritual.”
“I assumed so,” Harry admitted.
“We don’t know how it will react and what you will see,” Sirius continued. “Just try to remember whatever it might show you or say to you that he’s not here, and he can’t hurt you.”
“What if he shows me mum’s murder?” Harry asked as he couldn’t imagine anything worse than that.
Sirius took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “The Killing Curse doesn’t hurt. She died for you—an act of magical sacrifice and love. If the soul piece wakes that memory for you, just know that whatever his intentions were that night, hers were the purest possible.”
“What does he look like?” Harry asked.
“He…” Sirius made a face. “He corrupted his physical and magical existence with dark magic. As a result, his appearance started to mutate as he got older. By the time he died, he had the facial appearance of some sort of snake-human hybrid.”
Harry’s mouth dropped open. “Are you having me on?”
Harry huffed and focused on Armand. “How did anyone take him seriously? He sounds like a silly cartoon villain. Did he show up places and give long-winded speeches about his grand plans and superiority, too?”
Armand laughed abruptly. “As a matter of fact, yes.”
Harry huffed. “We can’t let Hermione know how dumb some magical people are—she’ll never come to Hogwarts, and I’ll lose my first friend.”
“Pretty sure that little witch already assumes most people are dumb no matter their ability to do magic,” Sirius said wryly.
Armand patted the altar. “Your head should be pointed toward the north.”
Harry settled down on the surface as instructed and curled his toes. “Can I have a warming charm?”
“Absolutely,” Armand said and drew his wand. “Jacob, did you want to start your diagnostic now?”
“Yes, sir,” Healer Dyson said and came to stand on Harry’s left, so Harry turned to stare at him. “During the ritual, I’ll monitor your magical core and your heart. There may come a point, during the extraction, when your heart starts to race or even pound quite violently in your chest. You needn’t be concerned about it, okay?”
Harry figured that was going to be impossible, but he just nodded. He did trust that Healer Dyson wouldn’t let anything hurt him if he could help it, so Harry hoped he could at least pretend to ignore the whole heart thing if it got freaky.
“I would greatly prefer that you sleep through this,” Armand said. “I imagine it would be easier for all of us if that were possible. However, I need you to be able to hear me and answer questions if something unexpected happens. I need you to be very honest with me throughout the ritual about how you feel, Harry. Do you understand?”
“Feel about what?” Harry questioned.
“The soul fragment might intrude on your active mind,” Armand explained. “You could feel emotions that are not your own. One reason we had you meditate for an hour this morning was to hopefully allow you enough mental space to recognize an intrusion.”
“Could it possess me?” Harry questioned.
“A spiritual possession requires permission,” Sirius said. “You have to want it both intellectually and magically; otherwise, the spirit will be ejected from the body of the would-be host.”
Harry nodded. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road.”
Armand inclined his head and stepped away. “Sirius, you’ll stay with him to provide a focus should he need it. Let me know if you get physically uncomfortable. It isn’t often we have a non-parselmouth in our circle during a ritual unless they’re the subject in some fashion or another.”
“I understand,” Sirius murmured, and Harry turned his head a little so he could focus on him. “It’ll be fine, lad.”
“Grandpa Arcturus says that the will of Fate is a supernatural force that cannot be denied but merely delayed,” Harry said. “I wonder if Tom Riddle knows that.”
“He will learn,” Armand said. “Guardian of the West, I invoke thee, let air lend us strength in our time of need. Guardian of the North, I invoke thee, let water nourish us. Guardian of the East, I invoke thee, let earth embrace and guide us in our task. Guardian of the South, I invoke thee, let fire bring with it warmth and safety.”
Harry shuddered as magic drifted over him, and the altar warmed under him. Light flickered around the room, and the magic grew heavy like a blanket. It felt safe and comfortable, so he closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing. Distantly, he heard Master Deering confirm with Healer Dyson that everything was going as expected. Dyson’s response was a mere murmur.
“,” Armand said, and magic seemed to push deep into his body.
Harry shuddered and lifted his hand off the altar.
“Easy, lad,” Sirius murmured. “Just take a deep breath and clear your mind.”
His scar stung, and liquid ran down the side of his forehead.
“The scar’s bleeding,” Sirius said.
“It’s fine,” Dyson said. “And expected.”
“I hate the way blood smells,” Harry admitted and kept his eyes closed.
“,” Dyson murmured, and spell drifted over his face. “Relax, lad, just a mental defense spell.”
“Do you feel any pain, Harry?” Armand questioned.
“No,” he answered as he shifted on the altar. “I feel warm.” He paused. “Safe.”
“,” Armand hissed. “There it is.”
Harry wished desperately he could keep his eyes closed, but the desire to see what had been lurking inside him for years was overwhelming. A cloud of black smoke was swirling over him, light flickered in it every once in a while, like tiny fireflies. He reached out but a hand wrapped around his wrist immediately.
“Easy,” Sirius murmured and gently lowered his arm. “It’s okay.”
“The lights are nice,” Harry admitted and focused on his godfather. “Is that okay, Daddy?”
“It’s fine,” he assured, but he looked worried as he turned his head. “Armand?”
“It is fine,” Armand said. “The lights are the remnants of his mother’s magic. Even in death, Lily is protecting him from Tom Riddle. I’ve never seen sacrificial magic so profound in my life.”
“I wish she hadn’t had to do it,” Harry said.
“It is a parent’s job to sacrifice for their children,” Sirius soothed. “She regretted nothing in the last moments in her life, but the fact that she would not be here to love and protect you.”
“Can I keep her magic?” Harry asked, his gaze flickering over the sparks. “Don’t send it away with his evil spirit, please.”
“I’ll do my very best,” Armand said, and a warm hand touched his forehead briefly. “Close your eyes, lad, this next part will be very ugly. You need not carry it with you.”
Harry closed his eyes and tried to relax, but his whole body felt tense, coiled up like a snake. He wished they’d let him bring Flux to the bank, but Armand had insisted that she go into her egg house to sleep during the ritual to keep her safe from the soul fragment.
“,” Armand hissed, and Harry felt a pull deep in his body in a place he’d barely reached in meditation.
“Oh.” He wet his lips and took a deep, shuddery breath as he felt the fragment pulled from his magic.
“Hurting?” Sirius questioned
“No, it’s just weird,” Harry reported. “Like…” He had no frame of reference, really. “Like a string being pulled out of my belly sort of.”
The string hooked then, and his chest clenched up like he’d been punched, but there was no pain. Uncle Vernon had punched him once in the chest, and it had been agonizing. The memory of that moment filled his mind despite his best efforts, and he wondered if the fragment had latched onto the memory to hurt him. Harry pushed the memory away as hard as he could, and a scream echoed through the ritual chamber.
“Harry Potter—I see deep into your mind. I know what you fear.”
“I know what you fear, too,” Harry murmured. “Judgment and death, but no man can escape it.”
“You can’t defeat me, child, give in, and accept defeat.”
“I’m not the one that runs from death,” Harry said and took a deep breath as the pull of Armand’s magic increased. “You hide from it like a coward.” Light crackled like lightning behind his eyelids, but he kept his eyes closed. “Fate sees you, Tom.”
His heart started to pound.
“Not Harry! Please… have mercy… have mercy…”
Harry knew his mother’s voice very well thanks to the portrait, and hearing her beg for his life was like a sharp knife in his mind. He pushed it away because he didn’t want that memory. It was a cruel, vicious thing that lurked in his magic that he didn’t ever want to fully remember.
“Your mudblood mother begged me,” Riddle hissed.
“You’re pitiful, Tom,” Harry said, and in the back of his mind, his Grandpa Arcturus murmured his approval. “You desperately clutch at powers beyond your scope because, at the end of the day, you’re just another half-arsed wizard pretending to be more than Fate will ever allow. Fate got it wrong, you know, there’s no way you’re my bloody equal.”
Riddle screamed, then there was a swooshing sound, and magic swept around him like a storm, but Harry squeezed his eyes shut. Then everything went strangely quiet save for the heavy breathing of the wizards of the Glain Neidr. His racing heart slowed, and he took a deep breath.
“Okay, lad, you can open your eyes,” Armand said.
Harry opened them, blinked against the rainfall of sparkling gold magic falling on him. It disappeared as it touched him, and the bone-deep exhaustion that had been creeping up on him disappeared completely.
“He’s fine but for a small core fracture that is rapidly repairing itself,” Dyson said. “The soul fragment was obscuring part of his magic. He has an open magical channel.”
“Purpose?” Armand questioned.
“It’s a bloody siphon,” Castius Arnou responded when Dyson appeared to hesitate. “We’ve got an elemental archmagus on our hands.”
“What’s that mean?” Harry questioned.
“That you were right to call Tom Riddle a half-arsed wizard,” Sirius said with a small laugh. “Relax while Armand closes the circle.”
“Mum’s magic is safe?”
“Inside you,” Armand murmured. “Where it belongs now. It’ll become part of your magic you as mature, and it will protect you all of your days from dark magic.” He cleared his throat and continued, “Guardians of the West, North, East, and South, I release thee with deep gratitude. May the circle be open but unbroken at the will of our beloved Lady Magic. So mote it be.”
Sirius helped Harry sit up, and Healer Dyson directed a spell at his face. The wetness on his forehead disappeared along with the smell of blood. Master Deering released all the members of the conclave save the ones that were living at Thestral Downs.
Harry looked around the chamber and found everyone who was left staring at him. “What?”
Zale shook his head at him. “You did very well.” He inclined his head. “And you were also right—Tom Riddle is no single way your equal. Though the prophecy did not say as it such explicitly if you’ll remember.”
“Marked as an equal,” Harry said. “Assumption is, honestly, probably the mother of all arrogance on this planet.”
He focused on the ritual knife Armand had used to hold the soul fragment. It was a plain device and far from the sort of elaborate thing that he figured Tom Riddle would’ve chosen. “The other ones will be fancy—important.”
“What?” Armand questioned.
“The other soul fragments,” Harry said and focused on Armand. “He’ll have put them in important objects—historically important to something he values a lot.”
“Do you suppose he made a specific number?” Armand questioned intently.
Harry considered that. It was kind of weird how much his answer seemed to matter to the wizards around him, but he cleared his throat. “He believes in prophecy, so he’s probably superstitious to a degree. Grandpa Arcturus says that anyone who would act so swiftly in the face of half-known prophecy would be the sort to be a great deal of stock in divination and something called arithmancy.”
“Three or seven,” Zale said and focused on Armand.
“Seven then,” Master Deering murmured. “At least that would’ve been his goal. We have five—the cup Walker and Quintin pulled out of Bellatrix’s vault was Helga Hufflepuff’s cup. He also used a locket once owned by Salazar Slytherin.”
“Objects once owned by the founders of Hogwarts are historically and magically valuable,” Sirius murmured as he helped Harry down from the altar.
“Did he have a familiar?” Harry questioned around a yawn. He felt magically energized but physically tired. It was weird. “I’m starving.”
“We’ll have a proper meal shortly,” Armand promised. “And yes, he did have a familiar—a death adder named Nagini. After his supposed death, members of my conclave searched for her extensively. We had hopes that we could cleanse her of his influence and end her life humanely.”
“Why?” Harry asked. “If her magic was cleaned, wouldn’t it be okay if she lived?”
“Nagini isn’t an ordinary snake,” Armand said. “And death would give her peace which she does not enjoy in her current state. It would be a genuine mercy to end her life.”
“Okay.” Harry nodded.
“Why did you ask about his familiar?” Zale questioned.
“It’s just I trust Flux a lot,” Harry explained. “My magic trusts her even more, so I figure if Nagini is smart like Flux, then she might be a good source for information. Flux tells me all about her previous companions, so it isn’t like familiar magic guarantees loyalty or secrecy.” He shrugged. “I just hope I don’t ever do anything epically stupid because I’ll never live it down as long as Flux is around to tell someone about it.”
Master Deering snorted then started to laugh loudly, so Harry counted that for a win.
Perhaps assumption really was the root of many of society’s problems, Armand thought as he watched Albus Dumbledore leave his brother’s pub without a single concern. Their public feud was largely a front, and he’d never been sure which brother it served to continue the farce. Though he couldn’t figure out how anyone bought it, considering Aberforth had opened his business as close to his brother as he possibly could. He glanced toward Ito and found the older wizard looking a cross between offended and furious. He’d been like that for days, and Armand didn’t have any hopes of an improvement in the man’s disposition in the weeks to come.
“It’s honestly insulting,” Ito said as he glared at Dumbledore, meandering his way back toward Hogwarts. “I’m the biggest fucking threat on this planet, and he knows I’m in the country.” He leaned against the building. “And I’m just standing here with a notice-me-not charm that any adult wizard of half his power should be able to outright bloody ignore.”
Armand pursed his lips to keep from grinning. “Maybe he’s investing his magic in something else.”
“A glamour,” Ito suggested. “But it would have to be a fairly expensive one. Dumbledore is quite powerful in his own right.”
“Some sort of personal warding?” Armand theorized and frowned as he considered that possibility. “We’ll soon find out.”
Ito nodded his agreement. Armand waited another moment, then disillusioned himself, and Ito disappeared beside him. They apparated to the spot they’d already picked outside the Shrieking Shack and watched Dumbledore continue his trek back to the school. The fact that Dumbledore made the same trip back and forth to Hogsmeade every single Sunday was another irritation. The old bastard was the current Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, and he didn’t have any sort of security measures in place as far as they could tell. It was just an unfortunate fluke that some dark wizard hadn’t already taken the old meddler out for them.
A stunning spell hit Dumbledore from Armand’s left, and he watched the older wizard crumple to the ground. He shook his head, despite the fact he was invisible. “I’m, honestly, ashamed to be British right now.”
Ito snorted. “Just now? Are you serious?”
Armand huffed. “You’re such an arsehole.”
“You come from a country steeped in a history dedicated to subjugating and controlling the entire fucking planet,” Ito pointed out.
“Fuck you,” Armand muttered and tossed the rope they’d turned into a portkey on Dumbledore’s body. It wound around him like a snake and activated with a flash of magic. “That was far too easy.”
“Arrogance,” Ito said. “I’ll meet you in that shit hole Sirius Black calls a house in a half-hour. Arnou should have the compulsion drought ready.”
Armand felt more than heard Ito’s departure. He apparated a few meters away and watched the area of witnesses for several minutes. The night was cool, but his cloak had enough warming charms to keep him comfortable. When it was clear there was no one lurking about, he apparated. He landed in the center of the kitchen of Grimmauld Place and shed his cloak.
His house elf appeared and glanced around. “Master back in this dirty house.”
Armand sat down at the kitchen table. “Thank you for cleaning the kitchen. How are things going at Thestral Downs?”
“Nia be very good elf—she not need my help,” Reg reported. He snapped his fingers, and a tea tray popped gently into place in front of him. “Madame Patrice returned from bank with news. She say not to fuck about with Dumbledore.”
Armand grinned. “Tell my wife I only fuck about with her.”
Reg huffed. “I not be flirty messenger!” He popped away with a scowl leaving Armand laughing.
He took his time preparing his tea and eating a few biscuits. It was best if he didn’t allow himself to be alone with Albus Dumbledore. They needed to get information from him, and that meant he couldn’t afford to be given the opportunity to vent his considerable temper on Albus Dumbledore.
The old bastard was the architect of such misery that it was hard to fathom how he’d survived as long as he had. Ito appeared at the single apparition point in the house. They’d locked it down temporarily to run their operation though no one had tried to enter the house since Walburga Black had died.
“Patrice sent tea,” Armand murmured. “And she has new information on the Albania situation.”
“Good.” Hiro sat down at the table and poured himself some tea, which he sweetened lightly before picking up a small sandwich to eat. “I’d like to handle this Riddle business as quickly as possible.”
“Eager to return home?” Armand questioned.
Ito offered him a brief glare. “No. I’ll be staying in Britain indefinitely. The boy needs a mentor.” He paused. “An impartial one and not a damn one of you is capable of treating him like a student. You certainly couldn’t ask anyone in your conclave to teach him either—they would go easy him because he’s your grandson.”
Armand took a deep breath because Hiro Ito was the most annoying son of a bitch on the planet, and also, he wasn’t wrong about any of it. No one in the Glain Neidr could do it, and he knew he couldn’t be the one. Teaching someone as powerful as Harry parselcraft was an immense endeavor.
“Teaching one such as him is an honor as much as it is a burden,” Hiro said. “One must pay one’s dues to Magic, Armand. I am not immune to such duties. I’ll be joining Jacob Dyson in his private practice as a healer, and I’ve signed a contract with Ragnok to work as a curse-breaker as needed.”
“When will you offer Harry mentorship?” Armand questioned.
“After his first year of education,” Hiro decided. “Formal magical instruction will open up his mind and his magic to learning. Moreover, he doesn’t trust me, so I need to cultivate a relationship with him outside of our current circumstances.”
“I’ll stop being an asshole to you in front of him,” Armand said roughly.
“And I shall do the same,” Ito agreed. “I have one condition going into this conversation with Dumbledore.”
“I’m listening.” Armand picked up another biscuit and took a big bite.
“He doesn’t leave this house alive—no matter what he knows or says. There is no valid reason for that old bastard to survive another damn day.” Ito raised an eyebrow. “Agreed?”
“I don’t disagree, but my reasons are very personal as you must have guessed. What are yours?”
“I was gifted with my bloodstone shortly after I turned seventy-one,” Hiro said. “A gift for my works as a healer. I’d heard rumors of such stones in the past, created from the very fabric of magic through alchemy. The shaman who gave it to me was a visionary—gifted in such a way that his grasp on reality was precarious. I don’t know how old he was. When I asked, he laughed at me and told me to mind my own business. In all honesty, Armand, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out he’d lived as much as twenty thousand years.”
Armand was pleased that he managed to keep his mouth closed. “Pardon me?”
Ito just shrugged. “There was something about him that was ancient and beyond my comprehension. It was my honor to spend the last hundred years he lived with him. He taught me many things and shared his visions freely—some were horrific, but others were amazing. On his last day, he told me that no life was eternal and that possessing bloodstone wasn’t permission to live forever. He’d had many students during his time, but I was the first he believed he could trust with the power he’d been gifted with.
“I asked him where he got the bloodstone, and he looked at me for a long moment then said with all sincerity that Lady Magic herself had placed it in his hand.”
“Did you believe it?” Armand questioned.
“It was the truest thing I’d ever heard,” Ito admitted quietly. “I asked him why he’d been so gifted by our maker, and he told me that it was not a gift but a duty that he undertook on behalf of all magical kind. It was a duty he passed onto me. The stone I have is the motherstone, Armand.”
“Motherstone?” Armand questioned. “What does…that even mean?”
“There are two other bloodstones on the planet—one France in the care of Nicolas Flamel and another in South America. Through my stone, I know when and how they’re used as those stones are merely shards knocked free of mine. I also know that both of the shards are nearly depleted.”
“Legend says that Flamel made his own,” Armand said.
“He found it in a cave in France when searching for potions ingredients,” Ito said and shook his head. “Tafari traveled extensively once he left Africa. I met him in South America, and he returned to Japan with me. He spoke once of living with a group of humans in a large cave in France.”
“You’re fucking serious about that twenty thousand years, aren’t you?” Armand said and huffed.
“Very serious,” Ito admitted. “I’ve lived for 4036 years.” He took a deep breath. “It’s time, I think, to consider my own magical legacy in the world.”
“Harry doesn’t deserve that kind of pressure, Hiro,” Armand said wearily. “I certainly won’t make the decision for him but to be your legacy…” He huffed. “It’s a bullshite thing to do to any wizard.”
Ito laughed. “I’m not looking to make him my legacy, you old fool, because I agree it would be a terrible thing to do to someone who already has more fame than they can tolerate. No life is eternal, old friend, and the motherstone will pass from me to Harry Potter-Black, the Master of Death.”
Armand huffed. “You…how did you…”
“You think I didn’t recognize the bloody Elder Wand?” Hiro drew an herbal from thin air and lit it. “Fuck you.”
“Give me one of those,” Armand ordered.
Hiro pulled another herbal out and passed it to him. “You have the Resurrection Stone with the other horcruxes. Do you intend to try to clean it?”
“And the cloak?”
“A Potter family heirloom that Dumbledore borrowed from the vault. He probably has it on him, and if he doesn’t, I’ll have it retrieved by the bank,” Armand explained. “As far as I’m concerned, all three artifacts belong to Harry, and I’ll see them all returned to the care of his family.” He paused. “Did your old mentor speak of Harry, Hiro?”
“Tafari told me once I’d meet a deeply magical wizard with the fate of the world on his shoulders, and then I would know my time was coming to a close. He told me that he’d had such visions of me his whole life, and it was a relief to finally meet me as he’d grown quite tired of the wait.” Hiro cleared his throat. “He called the wizard—the Lightning Child.” He took a long drag on his herbal and blew out smoke. “3965 years later, I set eyes on Harry Potter-Black and realized that my own wait was over. I will not allow Albus Dumbledore to continue to be a threat to the boy.”
Armand didn’t really know what to say to that or how Sirius Black would react to such information. “Are you tired?”
Two wands, a pouch of potions, and the Cloak of Invisibility were all they found when they rifled through Dumbledore’s ridiculous robes. They’d strapped him to the chair but had yet to wake him. Ito was reviewing the potions to make sure the compulsion drought they were going to give him wouldn’t react adversely with whatever he was dosing himself with.
“Well?” Armand prodded.
“Calming potion, Pepperup, Draught of Peace, Wit-sharpening, memory enhancement, Vitamix, a half-gone vial of Girding potion, and the bloody Elixir of Life,” Hiro said roughly. “The calming potion vial is spelled to refill after every use. There’s no telling how much he has in his system. It can be habit-forming for magicals in his age bracket.”
“Can we use the compulsion potion?”
Hiro paused to consider, then nodded. “Let me take a blood sample and do a quick diagnostic.”
Armand nodded and walked across the room to check the temporary ward stone they’d used to shield the room. Keeping out a phoenix took a lot of work, and he wasn’t entirely sure they’d succeeded completely. He was prepared to take Fawkes out temporarily if necessary, but he hated the thought of it. The bird’s loyalty to Dumbledore, considering the man’s crimes, was bordering on suspicious. Still, he fully expected the creature to show up as soon as the old bastard regained enough consciousness to summon him.
“The bird might be able to enter the room, but he won’t be able to leave without our help,” Ito said as he appeared at his side. “Nothing unaccounted for in his blood. He’s addicted to the calming potion, as I suspected, and he’s taken two doses of the Elixir of Life. He must have gotten the unused dose recently. Moreover, the Draught of Peace is being used to manage some sort of mental defect and is subduing his magic in a horrific fashion.”
“A dose of that size would extend his life by a decade,” Armand said. “I wonder why Flamel gave it to him.”
“Considering the waning properties of Flamel’s shard, I have to think Dumbledore stole it. Flamel wrote me five years ago and asked for another piece, which I refused. I told him to get his affairs in order and accept the depletion of his stone. I doubt he or his wife parted with the elixir willingly. I’ll send it back to them.” He paused. “Unless you want it?”
“No, I’d prefer to get any I need from you,” Armand said. “My only goal with it is to grow old with my wife, Hiro. I’ve no wish to leave her side in this life before the moment I must. I wish, honestly, for her to go first. A veela suffers unimaginably when their mate dies.”
“I’ll keep you alive for her sake,” Ito stated. “Let’s wake this old bastard up and get it over with, so we can return to the manor in time for dinner. I was promised Beef Wellington as the main course. I’m looking forward to watching Harry figure out how to skip the appetizer without causing a scene.”
Armand grinned. “I saw Nia prepping the escargot this morning. I suspect that will be his limit on polite dinner behavior. The look on that kid’s face when Patrice explained Foie Gras—I nearly hurt myself, not laughing.”
Hiro drew his wand, pulled the compulsion charm from his dimensional store, spelled it directly into Dumbledore’s stomach then woke their prisoner with a sharp jabbing spell. “Albus Dumbledore, you will not try to escape. Leave Fawkes out of this. You will be civil. You will answer all of Armand Deering’s questions fully without artifice.”
Armand noted that Dumbledore’s eyes were slightly glazed. “How do you feel, Albus?”
“You should be,” Armand admitted. “It was the work of nothing to kidnap you. I’m actually chagrinned by the whole thing as I made Hiro Ito wait out in the cold and snow with me because I figured you’d put up a fight, and I’d need the backup.”
“I can’t say I’m thrilled with either of you,” Hiro said dryly as he walked away from them. “Foolish Englishmen have been making my life difficult for over five hundred years.”
“He loves us,” Armand said.
“I don’t think so,” Albus admitted. “What have you given me?”
“A compulsion draught illegal all over the world,” Armand explained. “It took Castius Arnou five full days to brew, and two-thirds of the ingredients are illegal to grow on an international level. It’s considered a crime against magic.”
“Why?” Albus questioned.
“It’s doesn’t fade and doesn’t have an antidote,” Armand explained.
“Why would you…” Albus trailed off. “You’re going to kill me.”
“You set my godson up to be executed by Tom Riddle,” Armand said. “You allowed Harry Potter-Black to be abused for almost a decade because you’re an evil son of a bastard. You’re goddamned right I’m going to murder you.”
Dumbledore nodded thoughtfully. “Tom Riddle made horcruxes. I don’t know how many, but he’s the son of Merope Gaunt, so you’ll want to check the ancestral property.”
“I know about the horcruxes,” Armand said. “And have retrieved the Gaunt family ring. We’re preparing a ritual to identify how many times he’s foolishly spread his soul over different objects. Why did you travel to Albania?”
“Tom is there—lingering in his familiar, Nagini,” Albus explained. “I wanted to make sure I knew exactly where he was so I could direct Professor Quirrell to the right place.”
“I must see if Tom and I made the right choice in 1981. Harry will meet his spirit in his first year, and if the right choice was made, I will prepare him to meet his destiny.”
“And it didn’t cross your mind to capture his spirit yourself?” Armand questioned. “There are more than ten different spells you could’ve used to entrap a wraith and contain it nearly indefinitely. You could’ve taken him to the ministry and tossed the wraith through the Veil of Death. Without a wraith feeding them magic on our plane, the horcruxes would’ve gone inert. You could’ve spent your golden years searching for the pieces and destroying them at your leisure.”
“It’s not my duty to rid this world of Tom Riddle,” Dumbledore declared. “It’s Harry Potter’s.”
“He’s ten,” Armand snapped.
Dumbledore shrugged. “The choice wasn’t mine.”
“Has it crossed your mind, at all, that you witnessed the prophecy because it was your duty on this world to stand in defense of the chosen one?” Armand questioned.
“No.” Dumbledore paused and seemed to consider it. “I must guide Harry Potter to his fate.”
“That’s dragonshite,” Armand hissed and took a deep breath to control his temper. “Tell me what you know about the horcruxes Tom Riddle made.”
“Tom discovered the information regarding horcruxes from Horace Slughorn. I don’t know the specifics of their conversations. There’s one in Hogwarts,” Dumbledore said. “I can feel it, but I’ve never been able to locate it. Tom grew up in an orphanage, so there stands to reason he might have left one near it. He went to Godric’s Hollow to make one—he’d prepared in advance. I believe he was thrown from his body during the curse backlash because of this.”
“How many do you think he made?”
“Tom believed in divination and the magic of the number seven,” Albus said. “He coveted knowledge of the future. That’s why he invested himself in recruiting the Black family and why he never directly attacked Arcturus Black—he feared his gifts but also wanted to have them for himself in whatever fashion he could. I think he meant to make his sixth that night, and in a way, he did since Harry Potter carries a horcrux.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“It’s upsetting that the boy has to die,” Albus said. “I’m not a dark wizard, Master Deering. I would do whatever could to spare him.”
“I removed the horcrux from Harry Potter, Albus.”
Dumbledore paled. “No.”
“You’ve made a grave error,” Dumbledore said. “The horcrux protected Harry Potter in its own way. It was his fate to carry part of Tom Riddle’s soul until he could defeat him. You’ve intervened in matters that were none of your concern.”
“You’re a dumb bastard,” Ito muttered.
“I thought we were going to be civil,” Dumbledore complained.
Armand snorted. “He’s not wrong. You are definitely a dumb bastard. First, Harry Potter wasn’t carrying a part of Riddle’s soul. He was hosting a connection. There are two soul fragments, Albus. The wraith and Riddle’s first horcrux. All Riddle did with the other rituals was spread the fragment he carried within himself thin over multiple objects. That’s why he was disembodied that night in Godric’s Hollow. I have that first horcrux, by the way. It was a diary held by Lucius Malfoy. If I destroyed it—it would prevent Riddle from returning through magical manifestation. That’s the traditional method of returning from the dead via horcrux. It will leave him but one option for returning—physical resurrection.”
“It’s Harry Potter’s duty,” Dumbledore said. “I’d do nothing to defy Fate, Master Deering.”
“It appears that Tom Riddle isn’t the only superstitious one around here.” Armand relaxed in his chair. “James’ boy is not going to face Tom Riddle, Dumbledore. I’ll tear this fucking country to pieces first. He’s going to have a sweet, gentle life full of magic and love. He’ll never know the fear and devastation his father knew in the last moments of his life if I have a damn thing to say about it.”
Dumbledore shook his head.
“Why did you have James’ cloak?” Armand questioned.
“I borrowed it from him before he went into hiding.”
“You borrowed one of his best defenses.” Armand frowned. “When you knew Riddle was hunting him? Are you fucking insane? Why did he agree?”
“He didn’t agree at first,” Dumbledore admitted. “I had…to use a spell to make him part with it. It was for the best—he didn’t deserve to own a Hallow, and if he’d had it might have been able to defy his own fate.”
“I’m immensely relieved that my wife has already given me permission to murder you,” Armand said tightly and Ito snorted. “Is there anything you don’t want to tell me, Albus?”
“I told Severus Snape he could kill Sirius Black, and I would help him if he got caught,” Dumbledore blurted out.
“And you say you aren’t a dark wizard,” Armand said. “You’d take Harry’s only parent from him? It would break his heart—he’d never really recover from such a thing.”
“He doesn’t need anything to live for. How can he meet his fate if he has anyone? Love is a weakness, Master Deering. I know that better than most. Harry Potter can’t afford any distractions from his destiny. It’s tragic, but it’s for the greater good.”
Armand drew his wand only to have Ito wrap a hand around his wrist. “Hiro.”
“You have more questions, do you not?” Ito asked and raised an eyebrow. “Besides, we agreed on a natural death.”
“Just one,” Armand said and focused on Dumbledore once Ito had released him. “What do you know about the horcrux in the school?”
“Tom left it behind when he interviewed to be a teacher,” Dumbledore explained. “He also cursed the defense position because he was denied a job.”
“Why haven’t you lifted the curse on the teaching position?” Armand asked curiously.
“It’s better if the general populace is not so eager to defend themselves. It makes it easier to lead and control them for my purposes.” Dumbledore made a face. “I don’t like this potion you’ve given me. I wish you’d stop asking me questions.”
Ito laughed. “It’ll impact your portrait if you’ve had one made.”
“What a cruel thing you’ve done,” Dumbledore said gravely. “I carry many secrets—it’ll ruin lives.”
“Some lives deserve to be ruined,” Armand said evenly. “Why are you dosing yourself with Draught of Peace?”
“I thought you only had one more question!” Dumbledore protested but took a deep breath and blurted out, “The calming potions aren’t enough anymore.”
“How long have you had a problem controlling your behavior?” Ito questioned.
“Since…since Gellert and I killed my sister,” Dumbledore whispered hoarsely and let his head fall forward. “Ask me no more. Let me die in peace.”
“Don’t seek pity from me,” Armand said evenly. “It’s the last thing you deserve for the crimes you’ve committed.” He stunned him first then used a memory charm to remove the last day of the old bastard’s life from his memory so the portrait wouldn’t wake up with memories of the kidnapping.
“His death will make international news,” Ito said. “My country expects me to be named the next Supreme Mugwump. I’ll have to evaluate the situation to see if I’m willing to take the position on.”
“It could benefit us long term,” Armand pointed out and shrugged when Hiro grimaced.
Armand pointed his wand at Dumbledore and sent a low-grade magical current spell directly into his heart, causing cardiac arrest. The old wizard slumped in the chair. The stillness in the room was no comfort. Armand stood and walked away from the body.
“I need you to promise me something, Hiro.”
“I’m listening,” Ito said.
“Promise me that Harry won’t face Voldemort.” He turned to Hiro. “I can’t bear the thought of it.”
Hiro met his gaze and, after a long moment, nodded. “We have an accord.”
“No matter the cost,” Armand said.
“No matter the cost,” Hiro agreed.
“I don’t think my palette is sophisticated enough for whatever this is,” Harry said as soon as the appetizers appeared.
Armand took a sip of his wine and watched Patrice’s mouth quirk up in a small smile. Honestly, every moment in her presence, he grew more besotted with her.
“Escargots á la Bourguignonne.”
“Snails,” Harry said. “Don’t make it pretty like it’s not snails, Miss Patrice.”
She grinned. “Will you at least try it?”
“I want to know why it’s even a thing for French people,” Harry said as he picked up his fork and poked at one of the two shells arranged on a bed of coarse salt in a dish in front of him. “Who hurt you guys? Who made you do this?”
Hiro started laughing, and Harry huffed at him.
Armand stabbed the first piece of his own appetizer and lifted it out of the shell. “It’s good, lad. It mostly tastes like salt and garlic.”
“Neither of those things is terrible on other things,” Harry said, and cautiously poked the shell again. “Daddy, do you like it?”
“I do,” Sirius admitted. “Your grandfather, Christopher Potter, adored it. It was often served at Potter’s Field when I lived there. Your father hated it, though. He was deeply opposed to anything but beef, really. He rarely even ate chicken.”
“That’s crazy, chicken is great,” Harry declared and stabbed a snail which he put in his mouth with no apparent hesitation.
“Well?” Armand questioned as the boy chewed.
Harry swallowed it and shrugged. “It’s not…all that special. Why is it a delicacy?”
“Rarity and demand,” Patrice said. “Rare things of all kinds always cost more and thus have more value to certain people. I just happen to like to eat it. It’s a staple for my kind.”
“Then why don’t we eat more of it?” Harry asked. “Shouldn’t you eat it a lot if you need it for nutrients?”
Patrice ruffled his hair with a smile. “I do eat it—several times a week. No worries, love.”
Harry ate his second piece and put his fork down. “You were gone for lunch, Master Armand. We had prawn sandwiches.”
“I had unfortunate business,” Armand said. “Did you get the letter you were expecting from young Neville?”
“His uncle is going to prison,” Harry declared. “Which is for the best because Flux offered to go over there and take care of him. I let Neville know, and he said he’d keep her in mind if his uncle gets out of Azkaban before we’re adults. I told him about my future campaign against Azkaban, and he offered to be part of my voting bloc, whatever that is. I agreed because it got Grandpa Arcturus all excited, and not much does since he died. He said the House of Black and the House of Longbottom have never been aligned in the Wizengamot. We’re going to ruin lives, which Aunt Elladora says is the best hobby one can cultivate.”
Armand laughed at the grin the boy offered him. “I don’t disagree.” He glanced toward Sirius, who gave him a nod. They’d discussed the Dumbledore situation before they’d all been called to the meal. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Okay,” Harry agreed. “Is it about your unfortunate business?”
“It is,” Armand said as the appetizers were cleared and soup appeared. “How many courses, love?”
“Just three—the entry is quite hearty,” Patrice said. “And Harry insisted we have roast potatoes with it.”
“You’re all welcome,” Harry said cheerfully and grinned at the laughs he earned for himself. “So, what has Dumbledore done?”
“He died,” Armand said simply. “His body was discovered just outside of Hogsmeade. The wards transferred to Minerva McGonagall at the school, which caused her to contact Amelia Bones for help in searching for Dumbledore.”
“Oh.” Harry frowned and focused on his soup. Flux appeared on his neck and rubbed her triangular head against the shell of the boy’s ear. “Will there be an investigation?”
“Not much of one,” Armand soothed. “He appears to have died of natural causes. He was nearly 110 years old, so it’s not unexpected, and while some wizards can live upwards of 200 years without magical assistance, that is very rare.”
Harry concentrated on his soup briefly but then focused on Armand with bright green eyes. “Did you get what you needed from him?”
“He didn’t take any necessary information with him,” Armand said and hoped it was enough of a truth to satisfy the boy. He didn’t think Harry was naïve enough to believe that Dumbledore actually died of natural causes, but he hoped he would accept it.
Harry nodded but then frowned. “I don’t think he should just get to die without everyone knowing what a dark, irredeemable git he was. He did a lot of terrible things, and that shouldn’t be hidden.”
“Good.” Harry turned to Patrice. “Can we have ice cream with the apple tart tonight?”
“Of course, love,” Patrice said with a smile.
The Daily Prophet had dedicated the entire front page and more than twenty pages inside to the life and death of Albus Dumbledore. Sirius hadn’t bothered to read much more than the headline, which claimed the whole nation was mourning the old bastard. Zale had made a face at the Prophet and had chosen to grab a copy of the Magical Times, which had also given Dumbledore the front page.
“How did Harry sleep?” Armand Deering questioned as he fixed is tea at the counter.
“He didn’t leave his bed once I tucked him in,” Sirius said. “Don’t think I’m questioning your choices here, Armand, because I know you did the right thing with this, but was this the only solution?”
“Yes,” Armand said simply. “He was dangerous, reckless, and he knew enough about everything to get in the way and perhaps even prevent us from gaining all the horcruxes. Especially since one of them is at Hogwarts. I need you to be careful for the time being—Dumbledore gave Severus Snape his blessing to murder you. Snape might hesitate to follow through without Dumbledore around to back him up, but we can’t take that risk.”
“I’m not afraid of that greasy git,” Sirius muttered.
“He’d curse you in the back,” Armand said flatly. “The man’s a Death Eater, Sirius, and don’t ever doubt the depravity those motherfuckers are capable of.”
“Wow.” They all turned and found Harry in the doorway of the kitchen still dressed in his pajamas. The boy rubbed the back of his head and yawned. “We need a swear jar.”
“No, we don’t,” Armand said. “I’m an adult.”
“Grandpa Arcturus says actions speak louder than words, and you should never have to tell anyone what you are,” Harry said as he climbed into a chair at the table. “Nia, can I have hot chocolate?”
“Of course, Master Harry,” Nia snapped her fingers, and a cup appeared in front of him.
“Tell your grandfather to kiss my—”
Patrice cleared her throat. “Armand.”
Harry laughed a little and picked up his cup with both hands. “I think Miss Patrice is the only adult in this whole place.”
Sirius grinned when Armand sent him a look. “I’ve never claimed to be an adult. It always sounded like a terrible time.”
“Thank you for allowing us to come to the school so late in the evening, Minerva. My condolences on the loss of your mentor.”
Minerva McGonagall regarded Armand with a cool-eyed look that made him want to apologize. She’d always had that look about her, which had been very amusing when she’d been a young woman.
“Albus’ death was shocking,” Minerva said. “But not unexpected. It was clear his health was suffering quite a lot due to the stress of the Azkaban situation. He was deeply disturbed to discover just how many Crouch, Sr. put in prison without a trial. Then, Barty Crouch, Jr’s body was found in Hogsmeade.”
Armand barely refrained from smirking. Having his nephews dispose of Crouch, Jr in Hogsmeade had been just another way to poke at Dumbledore, and he was glad that it worked.
She turned and focused on Sirius. “Lord Black.”
“Professor, please,” Sirius said. “None of that, it’s just Sirius for you.”
She inclined her head and shook her head. “I should’ve asked questions—you were so loyal to James Potter that you might as well have been a Hufflepuff. I don’t know why I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
Armand figured she’s been charmed multiple times over the years to ignore or even participate in Dumbledore’s dragonshite, but there was no need to increase the woman’s grief and trauma.
“It’s fine,” Sirius murmured. “You weren’t alone in that. Is Mr. Filch ready to meet with us?”
“He’s not pleased, but yes,” Minerva admitted wryly. “He doesn’t remember you fondly. Though, honestly, he never remembers any student fondly. He’s talking about retirement now that Albus is gone, and I think that’s probably for the best.” She motioned them to follow her up the stairs. “Armand, you requested in your letter that Severus Snape not be present in the castle for your visit. May I know why?”
“I have reason to believe he is a direct threat to Lord Black’s life,” Armand admitted. “Above and beyond their childhood animosity.”
She nodded. “Severus never really grew up emotionally, and Albus ignored his immature behavior. I made it clear I would not, and he quit on the spot. I’ve had to borrow a potion’s master from the Department of Mysteries to finish out the school year.”
“That’s good to hear actually,” Sirius said. “I wasn’t sure I could send Harry here if Snape was teaching. I can’t imagine he would treat my son well at all.”
“No, I think you’re right about that,” Minerva said as they turned a corner and reached a large wood door. “How are his broom skills?”
“Great, actually, but he’s probably going to sort into Ravenclaw.”
Minerva huffed. “Sirius Black!”
“I know,” Sirius said. “It’s a tragedy.”
She glared at him briefly and knocked briskly on the door. Argus Filch opened the door and glared at them all before motioning them into his office. Armand had attended Hogwarts long before Argus Filch was even born, so he had no experience with the man though he had heard he was deeply unpleasant to be around. Not a surprise as squibs weren’t treated well in Britain as a rule.
Filch was focused on Sirius.
“Good evening, Mr. Filch.”
“Lord Black,” Filch said stiffly. “How can I help you?”
“First, I wish to apologize for my behavior here at Hogwarts. I often made your job difficult just by being myself. While I never intentionally created situations that led to more work for you—I also never went out of my way to prevent it when it came to pranks and the like. I was a self-absorbed little git, and I know it. It’s a condition that I’m sure you’re very familiar with considering how long you’ve worked here. I have no excuse for my behavior.” Sirius’ cheeks were flushed pink. “You were the first squib I’d ever encountered, and I can’t say my parents taught me to treat non-magicals well at all. They hated practically everything and everyone that wasn’t family. That’s how they ended up married to each other despite their somewhat close familial relation. I don’t remember specifically speaking to you directly, but I’m sure I did, and I wasn’t kind.”
“Why don’t you remember?” Filch asked roughly.
“Azkaban caused me to lose some memories—most of my early childhood is a blank, and there are large patches of Hogwarts that I don’t remember at all. I’ve had to reteach myself over a hundred spells that my body remembers, but my brain does not.”
“Wasn’t right what they did to you,” Filch said. “You were a terrible kid, but no one deserves that. You didn’t come here just to apologize to me.”
“No, during my seventh year, you confiscated a piece of parchment from James Potter and me. I don’t remember the event specifically, but James’ portrait told me about it. Do you still have it?”
Filch frowned at him. “I don’t normally return the things I confiscate.”
“It’s a great policy considering some of the things these kids can get up to,” Sirius agreed. “But I need it for a very important situation that involves the safety of my own child.”
“That would’ve been ’78,” Filch muttered and walked away from them. He went to a box in the back of the room and pulled off the lid. “May, perhaps.”
“Certainly late in the school year. We apparently didn’t have time to plot to steal it back.”
Filch grunted. “Little gits.” He pulled out a piece of parchment from the box and frowned at it. “What is it?”
“It’s a ward-based magical map of the school,” Sirius explained. “James and I created it for a class in our fifth year. We worked on it off and on until you confiscated in our seventh year.”
Filch nodded. “Guess it doesn’t hurt to give it to you.” He crossed the room and passed it to Sirius. “Tell your boy to be good when he comes and not to break the rules.”
“I will,” Sirius said. “But he’s got the worst of it from James and me so I apologize in advance for his somewhat moderate shenanigans. He thinks he’s sorting into Ravenclaw.”
Armand allowed himself to be prodded out of the cramped office by McGonagall. Sirius and Zale followed.
“Thank you for your help, Argus,” Minerva said. “Please don’t speak of this visit to others.”
“I mind my own business,” Filch said and shut the door with a sharp snap as the headmistress left.
“Pleasant fellow,” Armand muttered.
“Beat down by a lack of magic and too stubborn to try to make a life in the Muggle world,” Minerva said. “I’ve never agreed with discarding squib children, but there should be a better system in place to educate them and prepare them for a life without magic.”
“The ministry has never put resources into helping squibs,” Zale said. “They aren’t interested in doing the right thing ever.”
“Your bitterness is showing,” Armand said mildly and grinned when Minerva snorted. “Well, show me how it works.”
Sirius unfolded the parchment and said, “I solemnly swear I’m up to no good.” Ink spread over the paper, and a floor plan of the school appeared.
“Smart lads,” Armand muttered. “You said there were secret rooms?” He passed the parchment back to Sirius.
“Yes, we kept them hidden on the map to be unlocked with our magical signatures,” Sirius admitted. “An extra secret for the two of us because neither Peter nor Remus helped with the map. Peter thought it was boring, and Remus didn’t want to get caught with it.” He cleared his throat and brushed his fingers over the upper left corner of the map, and it shifted. “The first is the Room of Requirement, and the second is the Chamber of Secrets. Considering Riddle’s history, he might have gone down into the chamber. James opened the entrance once because it requires a parselmouth, but honestly, we were both afraid of what might be lurking in there, so we closed it again.”
“If Riddle had opened the chamber again in the 60s, people would’ve died,” Armand said quietly. “It’s long been speculated that Slytherin’s beast is a basilisk.”
“Are you bloody telling me there’s a basilisk under my school?” Minerva demanded.
“Yes,” Armand said and focused on her. “I offered to investigate the matter shortly after Dumbledore became headmaster, and he told me to mind my own business. I’ve heard rumors of it off and on for decades, but this is the first time I’ve been allowed on school grounds since I was a student.”
“I can feel her,” Armand said roughly. “Sleeping but full of ancient parselmagic. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life, Minerva. I didn’t know enough about parselcraft to understand what my magic was telling me when I was a student here, which is fortunate because I was a foolish arsehole and would’ve sought her out. I’ll arrange to come back over the summer and investigate more thoroughly with a full team. We can’t risk waking her while there are students here.” He turned to Zale. “Can you feel her?”
“No,” Zale admitted. “I remember once when I was in school, I thought I heard something. It was a distant voice that woke me from a dead sleep. I didn’t have and still don’t have the experience to compare it to. I only ever heard it once.”
“Perhaps the very day that James opened the chamber entrance,” Armand murmured as he reviewed the parchment Sirius had returned to him. “Sirius, did you ever go into the Room of Requirement?”
“No, we couldn’t get the entrance to open,” Sirius admitted. “We found a few references to the room in several history books and figured that the space on the map couldn’t be anything but the ROR.” Sirius shrugged.
Minerva sighed. “I’m honestly appalled you lads didn’t figure it out.” She rolled her eyes and motioned them to follow her.
“Quite rude, Professor,” Sirius muttered as he followed her. “That troll tapestry wouldn’t answer any of our questions.”
“Since when do trolls ever cooperate?” Minerva questioned. “Never would’ve mistaken you for a Ravenclaw.”
Armand laughed as they headed up the stairs. One benefit of walking with the headmistress was the stairs behaved themselves all the way to the seventh floor. Shortly, they were standing in front of a tapestry of dancing trolls. He remembered it vaguely from his own time at the school.
“Now, why do you need to get into the room?” Minerva questioned.
“Does it matter?” Armand asked.
“The room shifts and changes itself to meet your needs,” Minerva explained. “If you need a place to sleep when the door opens, you’ll have a fully furnished bedroom. If you’re looking for something specific, then you must be specific.” She motioned toward the trolls. “Walking back and forth in front of it three times explicitly thinking of what you desire the room to be for you.”
Armand passed the map back to Sirius, who murmured a phrase to it, folded the parchment up, and tucked it into his cloak. He stared at the tapestry for a long moment as he considered what he knew about Tom Riddle. Briefly, he pressed down on his magic, and his core shifted inside him.
“Sir?” Zale questioned.
Armand opened his eyes as his aura receded. “Just checking on the snake, lad. She’s definitely asleep and has been for quite a while. Riddle probably did succeed in waking her up while he was a student, but his control over her would’ve been minimal at best. He wouldn’t have been able to fool her for very long regarding his lack of parselmagic.”
“Would he try to approach her in his wraith form?” Sirius questioned and ignored Minerva’s gasp of shock.
“No, certainly not. A creature as old as the one under this school wouldn’t agree to share her body, and that is the only reason he would seek her.” Armand frowned and focused on the tapestry again. “He hid something away—something very important. It wouldn’t have been the first time Riddle had been in the room. He probably found it as a student and figured out how to use it. Perhaps he even used it to research.” He turned to Minerva. “Would the room produce books?”
“Certainly, any magical book you can conceive of would appear in the room if the room believed you needed it to fulfill your requirements,” Minerva explained stiffly. “What are you searching for Armand?”
“It would be a terrible secret to hold in your heart,” he responded. “I would have to ask you to never speak of it to anyone outside of those currently present.”
“Does it involve Voldemort?” she asked.
She pursed her lips and looked away from them. “Albus didn’t believe he was dead. He said that Voldemort had done a very dark thing to achieve a form of mortality. I didn’t want to believe it.”
“He mistook a soul-rending ritual with immortality,” Armand said. “He created horcruxes.”
Minerva blinked in surprise. “More than one? Who’s dumb enough to think that’s a bloody good idea?”
“Someone very dark and corrupted by the magic he was using that he didn’t understand,” Zale said. “After the first one, he met the definition of clinical insanity. I’d be curious to know how he found out about such magic at that age.”
“What age?” Minerva questioned.
Armand cleared his throat, and she focused on him. “He created his first horcrux here at Hogwarts when he was a student.” He focused on Zale. “And Horace Slughorn told him.”
Minerva paled and reached out to brace herself against the wall. “Within the wards?”
“Wherever Myrtle Jones was found dead,” Armand murmured. “Minerva, do you need to sit?”
“Albus was already Deputy Headmaster at that point,” Minerva murmured and took a ragged breath. “Dippet was struggling to maintain control of the wards—Albus told me years later that he’d shouldered the wards for the school since 1931 with the permission of the Board of Governors. There’s no damned way he didn’t feel someone conduct a ritual in the school.”
“I can’t speak to what he knew back then, but he was aware of the horcruxes and had been for a very long time,” Armand said. “He seemed content to watch and wait for Tom Riddle to do whatever he planned to do. I can’t pretend to know why.”
“He was very stressed of late,” Minerva said. “He had several tantrums—destroyed his office in a fit after…after he met Harry at the ministry. He said that you had ruined his plans and turned Harry against him. I asked him why the loyalty of a ten-year-old mattered to him, and he glared at me with such fury that I actually feared him for the first time ever in my life.”
“Did he hurt you?” Sirius demanded.
“No, but he was very angry with me and told me that I’d never understand the burdens he carried. He said your interference would be the death of us all and that Britain would fall to Voldemort because Harry Potter would never meet his fate with you in the way.” She cleared her throat. “It was clear he expected Harry to die for us. He said…he said that the boy was born to make the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us.”
“The son of a bitch,” Sirius whispered. “He really did set James and Lily up—perhaps Alice and Frank as well all so he could direct and control the so-called child of prophecy.”
Minerva focused on Armand. “Open the door, and let’s hope you get it right the first time, or we’re going to be here a very long time.”
“I…” Armand frowned. “He’d have found the room the first time when he was fifteen or sixteen. He might not have even realized it was the Room of Requirement. He wasn’t a pure-blood and wouldn’t know much about the lore of the school unless he invested himself in reading the history.”
“He might have,” Zale cautioned. “After all, he did find the Chamber of Secrets.”
“Slytherin’s chamber,” Armand agreed. “He was clearly invested in his connection to Salazar Slytherin through the house of Gaunt. He’d have researched all the founders—his obsession with the school is well-known and not at all rational.”
“Many children come to consider Hogwarts their home,” Minerva said. “I imagine Tom Riddle was no different when he first came here. Unfortunately, he chose to go down a dark path.”
“Let’s just ask the room to give us the bloody horcrux,” Sirius interjected.
Armand focused on him. “What?”
“We require the horcrux,” Sirius said. “The room has it, and we just need to ask for it.” He waved a hand at the tapestry.
“Can it be that easy?” Armand questioned.
“He hid one of his bloody horcruxes in a gold box under a floorboard of an old shack,” Zale said flatly.
Armand snorted. “Let’s give it a try then.”
Sirius gamely walked back and forth in front of the tapestry, muttering to himself that he needed to find the hidden horcrux, and a door appeared in short order.
Armand turned to Minerva and said, “While I don’t want to see smart evil wizards released into the world, it would probably be a good idea to teach these kids some critical thinking skills.”
Minerva grinned and shrugged. “Some of these children are a lost cause.”
Armand put his hand on the door and turned to Zale. “They’ll be more vulnerable to the effects of the horcrux than the two of us, and there’s no telling how powerful it will be. It’ll be largely based on whatever artifact he used.” He focused on Minerva. “I’d like you to stay by the door.”
“Are you implying something, Deering?” Minerva demanded.
“Nothing—I’ve no doubts regarding your magical power nor your mental fortitude, but this is like nothing you’ve ever encountered before, and you have no experience with curse-breaking,” Armand said. “And one of the best curse-breakers I know was nearly killed by one of these things already.”
Armand pulled the door open, and they were confronted with a room floor to ceiling full of junk. He sighed. “Son of a bitch.” He turned to Minerva. “I’ll need to bring in a few others.”
“Certainly,” she said with a frown of disgust. “Let them know I’ll meet them at the gate—I’ll launch the wards on this corridor to barricade it away from the students so you won’t get any surprises on that front. I’ll also need to wake up Filius to help monitor the halls, but he won’t require more information than I wish to give.”
He pulled his mirror to contact his wife.
Armand dropped down on the sofa they’d cleaned off to use for rest periods and accepted the glass of water he was offered by Jacob Dyson. “How long have we been in here?”
“Eight hours and counting,” Dyson muttered and wiped his face with a handkerchief. “We’ve been making a pile of things for the school to sell—McGonagall mentioned that her funds are a lot shorter than she expected them to be. Nothing so far has been conjured, so we should be able to remove it all from the room with no issues.”
Armand nodded. “Did she ask one of you to handle that?”
“Carter is going to do it,” he said and stretched his neck. “He’ll make sure she gets the most possible out of the sales. He has a lot of connections abroad as well. There are a lot of magical devices in this room that have no business ever being in the school.”
Armand hummed. “Hidden things. Do you suppose the room harvests all the things people hide for safekeeping and forget about?”
“Merlin, I hope not,” Dyson said then laughed. “Let’s hope it contains itself to Britain if that’s the case. Otherwise, Hogwarts might be guilty of multiple felonies across international borders.”
“Confidentially, I think Rowena Ravenclaw really was the most powerful of all the founders,” Armand said.
“Smart and powerful,” Jacob murmured. “Deadly combination for a witch of any period.” He paused. “Where did you sort?”
“Slytherin,” Armand said. “A family tradition of sorts, I suppose. I’ve not thought about such things in a very long time.”
“No, I’d suppose not,” Jacob said. “It’s been a very long time for you and your social circle in Paris couldn’t care less about such things.”
“Truly,” Armand said. “Though I’ve always thought that people put far too much stock in the sorting here in Britain. It means so little in the scope of things and more so for the fact that most people aren’t even educated here. The elitism is quite disconcerting. There was a time when this school sent invitations to every magical child in the UK. Now, just forty hand-picked children are invited each year. Some are chosen before they can even walk.”
“How big do you suppose this room is?” Jacob asked.
“Easily 200 square meters,” Armand muttered. “I tried measuring it earlier, and the spell spun like a fan and fizzled in the air. Moreover, I think the room is moving things around. I’m pretty damn sure that coat rack is following me around the room.” He flicked a hand toward the tall wooden structure in question. “Either it has a corrupted collection charm and wants my jacket, or it has a crush on me.”
“You’re quite dashing for your age,” Zale said as he crossed in front of them to the refreshment table. He poured two glasses of water. “Sirius and I need to go home, so we’ll be there when Harry wakes up.”
“Agreed,” Armand said. “We’ll start moving in and out of the manor in shifts, so he doesn’t suspect something terrible is going on. Sirius won’t have to come back unless we have to work with the map to search more of the school, and that might have to wait until summer.”
“This thing is hiding from us,” Dyson murmured as Zale left them. “And you know it.”
“I do know it,” Armand agreed. “It might have revealed itself to a vulnerable person. The artifact itself is quite intelligent, and it’s feeding the horcrux.”
“Whatever it is—the horcrux has corrupted it beyond redemption.”
“Unlike the others,” Armand murmured. “The stone in the ring can barely stand to host the horcrux connection.”
“Smart but not wise,” Dyson said. “That can really only mean one thing if we’re still considering the founder’s objects.”
“The diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw,” Armand murmured. “Wit beyond measure—believed to enhance the knowledge of the wearer. What did it find in the horcrux?”
“Greed and darkness the likes of which neither of us will ever know. The death energy of an innocent is required to create a horcrux,” Dyson reminded. “I’ve rarely encountered anyone so innocent as that outside of a child.”
“You’re saying all of his horcruxes were created through child murder,” Armand said and felt sick at that thought.
“Surely you’ve already considered it. He came prepared to make another in Godric’s Hollow in 1981. The moment Pettigrew revealed the Potter’s location, Tom Riddle started to plan the murder of a toddler. Perhaps Harry would’ve been his youngest victim, I don’t know, but he certainly didn’t seem to hesitate. I can’t fathom it, really.”
“You’re a healer to your core, Jacob,” Armand murmured. “Murder is beyond you in any form. I worried when you were younger that you might even hesitate to defend yourself.” He stood. “Let’s go talk to Carter about Ravenclaw’s diadem. He’s our resident Ravenclaw now that Zale has gone off to coddle Sirius and Harry.”
“Honestly, it’s a toss-up whether I find that whole thing charming or disgusting,” Dyson said. “I can’t deal with that much sweetness regularly, Armand, it’s bad for my disposition.”
Armand grinned. “You and me both.”
Long after breakfast came and went, Armand was downing this fifth energy potion when Hiro Ito found the diadem. They gathered around the statue were the horcrux was perched precariously and stared at it. Armand was certain he’d passed by the thing multiple times during the night.
“I think I almost picked that bloody thing up around ten last night,” Dyson said.
“We’ll all need to take some cleansing draughts,” Walker said and yawned. “And get health scans. Aunt Patrice will probably have to do the basics on all of us since we’ve all been compromised by proximity. Uncle?”
“How is it worse than the diary?” Armand questioned. “We know it’s just a connection—not even a real horcrux in the truest definition.”
“The diary isn’t magical, nor does it have any innate intelligence of its own,” Ito said and drew a pouch out of his dimensional store. “Let’s get this put away. We need a significant rest period, then we’ll do a magical search to see if there are any missing connections beyond the wraith.”
Armand nodded. “Walker, Quintin—it’s time to go to Albania. Find and capture Nagini. Dumbledore believed Riddle is using her as a host, so be prepared to contain the wraith as well.”
“What if there is another piece out there?” Dyson asked wearily. “What do we do then?”
Armand drew his wand and levitated the diadem from the statue and into Ito’s sack. “I believe he intended on seven, but we don’t know where he was on that mission when he was disembodied. Dumbledore didn’t have a firm idea of what they were or even how many there were. He had all these years to gather information and find horcruxes, and he did nothing.”
“He waited,” Ito said. “He waited, just like Riddle did, for Harry to come to Hogwarts. Dumbledore believed himself superior to Riddle, but in the end, they’re cut from the same cloth. They both let prophecy lead them to a place of destruction and immorality.” He passed the pouch to Armand and made a face. “I require a bath.”
“We’ll take care of the organization of the objects we’ve selected to sell,” Quintin offered. “Should make the school a very tidy sum. We can always come back and excavate more as needs arise.”
“I’ll speak to Minerva about it,” Armand said and stored the pouch in his bracelet.
He left the Room of Requirement quickly as the immense amount of junk in the room had started to get on his nerves. He walked to the headmistress’ office, and the gargoyle opened before he could request entrance. Minerva was seated at the desk when he finished the climb up the stairs and lifted her head as he came completely into the room.
“Yes, the room was starting to get to me,” Armand said as he walked across the room and sat down. He glanced at the empty spot on the wall where Armando Dippet’s portrait had once hung. “Making room for Dumbledore?”
“I took his portrait down,” Minerva said tightly. “Dippet will be put back in place shortly.” She motioned across the room, and he saw a frame wrapped in parchment. “He’s still asleep, but I’m not going to let that old bastard manipulate me even in death.”
Minerva’s mouth tightened. “I had a friend come earlier in the morning to test me for manipulative magic. I grew very concerned about my past interactions with Albus. There were conversations that we had that made no sense in retrospect. I was put under several different compulsions over the years—potions and charms. He’s preparing a cleansing drought for me personally.”
“Let me know if you need a ritual cleansing,” Armand said. “I’ll dedicate the whole of my conclave to the process.”
“Thank you.” Minerva frowned and swallowed hard. “Tell me something.”
“If I can,” Armand agreed.
“Whatever you’re doing—it’s to take care of Voldemort permanently. I know there is a prophecy that involves Harry and I…no child should face such a thing. I tried to tell Albus that, but each time…my memories of the conversations are cloudy.”
“Certainly,” she said tightly. “I remember, specifically, setting up charms on Privet Drive to tell me if Harry wasn’t treated well, but they never went off. There were times when I was certain I went to check on him, but upon reflection, I don’t think I was allowed to.”
“Did you know that Dumbledore had Arabella Figg living in that neighborhood with Harry? Just two streets over, she often babysat specifically for Harry.”
Minerva exhaled. “No, I had no idea. I can’t say I’ll be kind to her if we ever cross paths again.”
“Amelia Bones is looking to arrest her, but she’s been gone from her house since Harry was removed from the Dursley home. I didn’t find out about her until much later, and Dumbledore had time to move her. He probably sent her out of the country.”
“Son of a bitch,” Minerva muttered.
“But to answer your question, yes, I intend to take care of Tom Riddle. He’ll never get another chance to hurt Harry Potter-Black.”
She smiled then. “I updated Harry’s records here and at the ministry to reflect his full, preferred name so there would be no hurt feelings when his letter goes out.”
“Good.” Armand stood and stretched. “Can I use your floo? I’m not sure I trust myself to apparate. We have an open floo connection in the guardhouse.”
“Certainly, would you…” She flushed. “Could you ask Lord Black if I could see Harry?”
“I’ll ask, but don’t be hurt if he says no,” Armand cautioned. “He’s rightfully very protective of the boy, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. One day that kid is going to realize that a hit wizard took him clothes shopping, and Sirius Black is going to have some explaining to do.”
She grinned. “One of your nephews then?”
“Quintin,” Armand said and sighed when she laughed. “Patrice had a good time.”
“Tell your wife she’s welcome here for tea at her leisure,” Minerva said and motioned toward the floo. “The incoming password is catnip. I’ll add her to my visitor’s list.”
Armand nodded and looked around. “Where’s Fawkes?”
Minerva raised an eyebrow. “It stuns me that Albus managed to keep it a secret, really, but Fawkes left him shortly after Sirius Black was brought to trial. I’m not sure if it was because of Sirius or because of Harry’s circumstances. I’ve not seen him and was surprised that he did not attend the funeral. The Board of Governors wanted to bury Albus on the property, of all things, but they feared protests due to the Azkaban situation. Aberforth chose to bury him with his parents and sister.”
Armand considered that and wondered where the bloody phoenix that had basically haunted Hogwarts for nearly a thousand years would go and when he would return. “Keep his perch handy. I suspect he’ll return sooner rather than later.”
“I’m considering making Filius house him,” Minerva said. “I honestly can’t stand that bird.”
Armand laughed and shook his head as he went through the floo.
The ritual space felt somewhat disappointed in the wizards he’d assembled. Armand considered it and used his barefoot to brush over the runes along the outer circle closest to him. He frowned.
“Anyone else feel it?”
“Yeah,” Zale said wearily. “The adder stone wants Harry.”
“She’s clearly enamored with his magic,” Armand said as he walked across the space and focused on the adder stone embedded in the floor. His conclave had been using the ritual room in the bank for decades. It was a dimensional space that they could reach from all over the world as needed from various bank branches. “Walker, would you ask if Chieftain Ragnok is available for a conversation?”
He focused on the stone as his nephew left the ritual room. It had been covered by the altar when they’d removed the horcrux connection from Harry, so he hadn’t seen how she’d reacted to the boy’s presence in the circle. A mistake, perhaps, but the ritual circumstances had required a certain setup. Ragnok entered the room and crossed over into the circle with no apparent hesitation. Armand appreciated the dverger’s faith and confidence in the circles he’d created.
“Chieftain,” he began and cleared his throat. “It appears our adder stone has a crush on Harry Potter-Black.”
“Not quite a surprise,” Ragnok said. “I took note of his visit to the bank. The moment he arrived, the wards vibrated gently with excitement. The mere brush of his magic as he passed through them was enough to catch my eye. It’s not often a burgeoning archmagus comes into the bank. In fact, I’ve not felt such in over a hundred years.”
Ragnok focused on the stone and walked a slow circle around it. “Of course, that witch was never allowed to become all that she could be.”
“Ariana Dumbledore,” Armand murmured. “A great loss for her generation.”
“Yes, the most powerful of Percival and Kendra Dumbledore’s children,” Ragnok said. “Albus was very jealous of her potential. I often wondered if he allowed the attack to happen. It would explain the guilt he carried for the life she led and her eventual death at Gellert Grindelwald’s hands.”
“So, you believe he did kill her by accident?” Armand questioned. “I often wondered if that stray curse came from Albus himself—he saw her as a burden.”
“He punished himself the rest of his life for the attack on her as a child,” Ragnok said. “I’m in no single way defending Albus Dumbledore. He was a real bastard in every single way. The one time I agreed to meet with him, he called me a goblin. I threw him out of my office and never agreed to take another meeting with him despite his political rise. I do think he was ultimately relieved by her death, but only because he didn’t have to look on the evidence of what his childish jealousy wrought. His brother Aberforth likes to get drunk in his own pub late at night and ramble on about his gifted sister and his brother Albus. More than one of my employees have brought such stories to me and have for decades.”
“Should I be concerned about the adder stone’s disappointment in us?” Armand asked.
“She won’t be placated,” Ragnok said. “I realize the boy is not ready to be an active member of your conclave, not even as an acolyte, but the stone doesn’t know or understand that.” He glanced around. “I suggest you bring the boy in and introduce him formally so she’ll understand his place in your life and in the conclave.”
“He has no role in the conclave,” Armand said wearily. “I’ve not inducted him and honestly had no intention of such a thing for decades. A conclave is a magical burden.”
“No need to add him in that fashion,” Ragnok said. “She just needs to know that one day he’ll be here to lead her.” He focused on Armand. “She’s picked your replacement, old man.”
Armand considered that and wasn’t all that offended by the possibility. He glanced around to the men present—the room was full of curiosity and amusement. He sighed and pressed his toes against the glowing edge of the adder stone. “All right, old girl, have it your way.” He turned to Zale. “Will you ask Sirius and Harry to visit us for a moment?”
Zale grimaced. “I’m not sure he’s going to appreciate this.”
“Sirius can’t control how magic reacts to his son,” Armand said. “And the wild magic in this adder stone recognized something she likes in Harry.”
“I’ll try to soften it,” Zale murmured as he left.
“Harry’s magic isn’t fragile, Armand,” Jacob Dyson said. “You’ve nothing to worry about with this.”
“The future of our conclave apparently rests on the very small shoulders of an abused child who knows little to nothing about magic,” Armand said. “I think he could come to fear it and his potential. He already associates magic with the murder of his parents.”
“We need to give him better associations,” Walker said. “He’s curious about magic and specifically magical creatures. Flux helps with that, and the heir ring is doing a lot of work on our behalf as well. The ancestors of the House of Black are very determined to have a strong future earl to hold fast to their family magic, which has been weakened by Tom Riddle’s stranglehold on some of the still-living members. It won’t even start to heal until Lord Black can push out the destructive members of his family.”
The door opened, and Zale escorted Sirius and Harry into the chamber. The boy was frowning. Armand considered the look on the kid’s face and grinned. He walked across circle and Harry didn’t seem to hesitate to come to him.
“Do I have to take off all my clothes again?” Harry demanded and flushed when several people in the room laughed.
“You don’t, no, but it would be great if you took off your shoes.”
“Okay.” Harry agreed and toed off his trainers then pulled off his socks, which he tucked into the discarded shoes. “Zale says you’ve got someone to introduce me to.”
“The Glain Neidr, my conclave, is built on shared magic which we’ve been pooling into a living adder stone for over three hundred years. I first encountered this stone when I wasn’t much older than you when my grandfather was the high warlock of the conclave. It may interest you to know that one of the founding members of the Glain Neidr, almost five hundred years ago, was a man named Ignotus Peverell.”
“He was my ancestor; Aunt Elladora says he was a butthole, but I find she doesn’t like most wizards. I told her she might have had a better time if she’d have stuck with witches when she was alive since she liked both,” Harry said and shrugged. “Is there a problem with the stone?”
“She’s very interested in you,” Armand explained and offered Harry his hand. “We’re going to introduce you.”
“Are all adder stones female?” Harry questioned as he took Armand’s hand.
“I’ve never encountered one that wasn’t,” Armand said. “But that means very little as I’ve only been in the presence of three living stones. I’ve seen many null stones, but they perished so long ago that nothing can be sensed from them.”
Harry stepped over the outer circle and fully into the ritual space. He curled his toes against the stone and tilted his head. “Why is she interested in me? Did I do something wrong during the ritual?”
“No, of course not,” Armand murmured. “You did very well. Your parselmagic is rich in your core, Harry, and as a result, some instruments built on wild magic will seek to know and perhaps even embrace you as you grow older. For the most part, this is nothing to be concerned about.”
“But I should be leery because not every instrument built on wild magic is pure of purpose,” Harry said.
“Quite so,” Armand agreed and led him across the circle to the adder stone. It had started to glow quite brightly in the dimly lit room.
“Does she have a name?”
Armand cleared his throat and shared a look with Sirius Black, who was leaning against the wall with an amused expression on his face. He relaxed at that, pleased with the younger man’s trust. “No.”
“That’s rude, isn’t it?” Harry questioned. “She works hard for the conclave and isn’t even acknowledged with something so basic as a name? She’s sentient, right?”
“Yes, but not sapient.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A sentient creature is capable of perceiving and feeling—it is a matter of self-awareness. Most living creatures have some level of sentience. Sapience is a matter of intellectual ability—wisdom and rational thought.”
Harry raised an eyebrow as Armand released his hand. “So, not all wizards are sapient?”
Armand grinned. “Certainly not, in my opinion. You’ll find quite a few people in this world, lad, who barely meet the definition of sentient much less have progressed so far in life to have achieved genuine sapience.”
“Right.” Harry focused on the adder stone and tilted his head slightly. “If she can’t tell us what her name is, then we should name her.”
“Should we?” Armand questioned. “Is it important?”
“It’s a matter of respect,” Harry said and took a deep breath. “My Uncle Vernon never used my name—he called me Freak. I know it isn’t quite the same, but it feels wrong and weird.” He made a face and twisted his heir ring on his finger. “The ancestors are having a vote like they get a say.” He rolled his eyes, and Armand laughed. “I don’t know why any of them argue with Aunt Elladora. She always wins.”
“She had quite a reputation in her day,” Armand admitted.
“How do you introduce me to the stone?”
“I think she would like you to touch the surface,” Armand murmured. “Are you comfortable doing that?”
“Will it hurt?”
“No, lad, of course not.”
Harry shrugged. “Life hurts—it’s the first thing I ever learned.”
Armand swallowed back fury and took a deep, steadying breath. He didn’t dare look at anyone else for fear that seeing his anger reflected would only fuel the fire. Harry knelt by the stone, and Armand found himself following suit. Thankfully, his ritual robe had built-in comfort charms, or his knees would’ve started screaming in protest to being introduced to the stone floor so abruptly.
Harry reached out a steady hand and touched the stone gently before settling on the surface, palm down. Armand allowed himself to relax as he felt the stone’s agitation start to recede. He ignored the murmur of conversation taking place around them and focused on Harry, who looked rather amused at the moment.
“What?” Armand questioned.
“She’s got an attitude problem, did you notice?”
“Yes, a very long time ago,” Armand said. “I’m unsure as to why the founders of our conclave chose such a contrary stone.”
“Her strength, surely,” Harry said. “There is comfort in her enduring presence. I feel my family magic here—Healer Dyson has been teaching me to touch it in my core.”
“Several of your ancestors have served in the Glain Neidr throughout the years. Does it bother you to feel their magic in the stone?”
“No.” Harry shook his head. “It feels reasonable even if she doesn’t. She wants me in the conclave, right?”
“Yes, but you’re not ready for that,” Armand said. “It’s not a reflection of your ability but of your knowledge. You don’t know enough to truly consent to such a magical endeavor.”
Harry nodded then gently patted the stone. “She’ll wait. I don’t expect she’ll be patient about it, though.”
Armand laughed. “No, not at all.”
Harry lifted his hand magic shifted over the surface of the stone and crackled gently. The boy put his hand back on the stone with a sigh. “I can’t just sit here with you, you know? The conclave has important business to do. At your age, you should be much more mature about such things.” He patted the stone again. “Grandpa Arcturus says your name should be Nerys—it means lady in Welsh.”
Armand’s mouth dropped open as the sweetest joy he’d ever felt drifted through the room from the adder stone. He took a deep breath and focused on Quintin, the oldest of his nephews, and found him staring in shock. “She likes it.”
“Yeah, I think so,” Harry said happily and lifted his hand again. Magic cracked through the stone one more then a shard of crystal slid down the side and dropped to the floor beside the boy. “Should I pick that up?”
“Yes,” Armand said and sighed. “It’s for your wand.”
Harry picked up the shard of adder stone. The green crystal-like pebble glowed with magic. “It feels like she doesn’t care what either one of us thinks about me joining the conclave.”
“Certainly,” Armand agreed.
Harry shrugged and drew his wand. He casually placed the bloody Elder Wand on Nerys and tilted his head as tiny green flames erupted across the surface.
“Armand?” Carter Meyers questioned.
“Easy, lads,” Armand murmured. “This decision is beyond even me; it seems.”
Harry put the shard of adder stone on the handle of his wand, and it sank down in it with a flash of magic. The flames disappeared abruptly, and Nerys settled down completely, content that her will had been done. Harry picked up his wand and holstered it. “I have a question.”
“Just one?” Armand asked in amusement.
“For the moment, the ancestors are in a tizzy and coordinating some sort of research project with the help of my mum.” He paused. “So I get the whole ritual robe thing—they’re made of special magical material.”
“Why hasn’t anyone made pants out of this material?” Harry demanded and huffed when his godfather burst out laughing. “Daddy, this is serious.”
“Hell, lad, I never wear pants,” Armand declared. “Why would I commission magical ones?”
“That’s appalling,” Harry declared and stood.
Quintin appeared at Armand’s side immediately and offered his hand. Armand glared at him but took the hand. “I’m not infirm.”
His nephew helped him to his feet. “Of course, not, sir.”
“Sarcastic little shite,” Armand muttered and focused on Harry, who was staring across the room at Ragnok. “Pardon me, Chieftain Ragnok, I…have no excuse whatsoever. Please meet Harry Potter-Black, the Baron of Gryffindor and Heir to the House of Black. Harry, this is Chieftain Ragnok of the clan Blacklock.” He started to say more, but the boy did something so unexpected that he was rendered mute.
Harry offered Ragnok his hand. Ragnok blinked but stepped forward and took the hand in greeting.
“I’m pleased to meet you, sir, even if you don’t have wings.”
Ragnok raised an eyebrow, then laughed and released Harry’s hand. “Windrider.”
Harry sighed. “When Grandpa Arcturus told me that was your earned name, I was just sure it meant wings, but he said you don’t have any fey heritage at all.”
“I’m trying to send all three of my sons to Rome to court members of the Ironfist clan. They have four different lines with Fey blood in them.”
“Aunt Elladora says the Ironfists are very pretty,” Harry said and shrugged when Ragnok laughed. “She’s a terrible influence. She’d also like me to remind you that you owe her ten galleons for the World Cup of 1745.”
Ragnok huffed. “You tell that witch that she can continue to hold her breath on that issue and that I am most certainly not going to honor that bet because she cheated.”
Harry laughed and shrugged then turned to Sirius. “She bet him there would be two deaths at the World Cup that year, then she killed two people who had it coming.”
“I’m going to take that woman’s portrait out of the matrix,” Sirius said and shook his head as Ragnok laughed.
“Personally, I think she provides the lad with a very valuable perspective,” Walker interjected. “There are plenty of people who don’t deserve the air that regularly fills their lungs.”
Harry laughed then yawned. “Can I go? I’m tired.”
“Thank you for your time, lad,” Armand said. “I’ll let you know when Nerys wishes to visit with you again.”
“She’s in my wand now,” Harry said and focused on the stone. “I think that’s what she wanted—to be part of the wand. Flux says the wand is growing more loyal to my bloodline due to the prolonged separation with my family.” He focused on Ragnok. “What do you think of that?”
“The line of Godric Gryffindor will always be welcome in Gringotts,” Ragnok said simply. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to your ritual. Armand, let me know if you need me.”
“Thank you, sir,” Armand said and focused on Harry as soon as the dverger leader was gone. The doors of the ritual chamber shut gently. “It’s been hundreds of years since Ragnok of the clan Blacklock willingly touched a human being until today.”
Harry’s cheeks flushed. “Did I make a mistake?”
“No, lad, you offered respect, and he accepted it,” Sirius said and came forward. He cupped Harry’s shoulder and gently prodded him toward the door. “Let’s head home. You’ve done quite enough astounding things for the whole week. I expect you to be exceedingly boring for the next five days, at least.”
“I can try, but Grandpa Arcturus thinks I’m too awesome to be boring,” Harry declared.
Armand laughed and shook his head as the door shut on Sirius and Harry.
“Only the High Warlock of the conclave carries a piece of the adder stone in his wand,” Walker said. “The same piece has been passed from one wizard to another since the Glain Neidr began, Armand. Now there are two shards of her out in the world. What does that even mean?”
“Nerys wanted a magical connection with him,” Armand said. “It’s certainly not our place to control that, Walker.”
“Yes, but…” Walker frowned but then focused on the stone. “I’ve always thought that when the time came that Quintin would take your place as High Warlock.”
“No, brother,” Quintin murmured. “That’s not my future in the Glain Neidr and never has been. Zale has the stronger magical claim for it any rate—at least he did until today. The adder stone…I mean, Nerys has always had a strong preference for him.”
Armand watched both brothers focus on Zale Wright.
Zale cleared his throat. “At one time, I did believe it would be my future to lead the conclave.” He paused when several men outside of the inner circle murmured their agreement. “But we can’t ignore Harry’s potential, nor can we ignore the wishes of Nerys. Chieftain Ragnok is right—she’s chosen Armand’s replacement, and we must honor that unless Harry decides later on that he wants no part of such magic.
“To attempt to take that decision from either of them could be the end of us as a brotherhood, and that would be a shame. Harry doesn’t understand the workings of a conclave, but he did demonstrate tonight that his magical instincts are far more refined than we have the right to expect at his age. When the time comes, I will have no issues, whatsoever, in following Harry wherever he may choose to lead this conclave.”
Armand drew his wand and activated the altar configuration for the adder stone. Nerys shaped herself to his will instantly, and he found relief in that. “Tonight, we gather to seek the darkest magic that can be created. This ritual is to not be discussed in any fashion outside our circle. I’ve already gathered a horcrux and several erroneous connections Tom Riddle has created.”
“He tried to create more than one horcrux?” Phillipe Bardon demanded roughly. “What sort of dumbarse shite is that?”
Armand focused on the oldest member of the conclave outside of himself and shrugged. “Horace Slughorn was Riddle’s source regarding horcruxes.”
“That arsehole doesn’t need that kind of knowledge, clearly.”
“Clearly,” Armand agreed and resolved to find Slughorn so he could memory charm the fuck out of the old git. “I’ll have him interrogated and taken care of at a later date. We can’t be sure that Riddle was the only person he shared the horcrux process with.”
“You think he shared the actual process?” Bardon grimaced.
“The dverger have worked hard over the last few hundred years to remove such knowledge from public consumption,” Armand reminded. “Without speaking to him, we don’t know for certain where Slughorn came upon the information, but I’m left to think it was passed down through family oral tradition.”
Armand spread the objects out on the altar and wasn’t surprised when only Bardon came forward to study them. The Frenchman made a face and used his wand to poke the diary.
“Where’s the second half?”
“We believe the wraith is in Albania,” Armand said. “I’ll find out for certain tonight, and we’ll work on retrieving it.”
“Riddle’s knowledge of esoteric magic is a bit of a disappointment,” Bardon said. “I expected better considering how much of a threat he presented himself to be.”
“A terrorist is only as powerful as the belief in them,” Armand said. “As you well know, Phillippe and Riddle’s stranglehold on this country was nothing more than a terrorist campaign that the masses bought into out of fear and ignorance.”
Bardon nodded and took a step back. “You didn’t need the full conclave for this search.”
“No, but I would if I accidentally wake one of the horcruxes during the spell casting,” Armand said dryly. “I’m not so full of myself, Phillippe, that I believe I could handle such a thing by myself. Horcrux magic is nothing to trifle with no matter what I think of Riddle’s abilities.”
“You are pretty full of yourself,” Bardon muttered and grinned at the laughs he earned himself. He walked over to the single bench in the room and sat down. “Get on with it, old man. I’ve got a fresh pie to eat at home. I might eat half.”
“You might as well,” Armand agreed and pulled his wand. He focused on the diary and cast the spell with a soft hiss, “.”
The spell hit the diary, and tendrils of magic flowed off the surface of the book. It connected with the other objects one at a time—the ring, the locket, the cup, the diadem, and finally, the athame they’d used to host the connection that Harry had once carried. A single stream of magic shot out of the room, but the connection to the objects appeared to be stronger than the ones attached to the diary.
“Oh, that fucking moron,” Armand muttered. “He’s spread the active half of his soul across the other faux horcruxes.”
“Slughorn either sabotaged him or misinformed him by accident,” Walker proposed. “Considering the source, I’m going to assume it was an accident, or the stories passed down in his family were corrupted over time.”
“What does this mean for the wraith?” Zale questioned.
“That his grasp on life is precarious, to say the least,” Quintin murmured. “He probably took a hit when he lost the connection with the lad—the only living, magical faux horcrux he had.” He walked around the altar and touched the line leaving the room with his wand. “If he’s using his familiar as a host, then he’s probably stuck in her at his point. Without Harry’s magic, he doesn’t have the power to leave her.” He let his fingers trail through the tendril and frowned.
“What?” Armand prodded.
“He’s furious. We’re fortunate that he can’t leave that snake currently, or he’d be here in Britain seeking a wizard host to take action against you.”
“Me, specifically?” Armand questioned. “Does he recognize me by name?”
“Unsure,” Quintin said and took a deep breath. “But he can sense his horcrux and knows that it’s no longer in Malfoy’s hand. He probably doesn’t understand why he can’t reach out to the others.”
“If we destroyed the diary, would his wraith be unmoored from our plane?” Bardon questioned. “And cast into the afterlife?”
“We thought so, but in the wake of this new information, I must say no, the faux horcruxes are actually providing him with a safety net,” Quintin said. “The snake’s magical circumstances are also giving him a power boost. I don’t think destroying all of the objects would unmoor him at this point. He’s been a part of the fabric of this world as a wraith for far too long. Riddle has created a unique magical existence that even the creator of the horcrux spell wouldn’t have considered. Perhaps there are other dark arts at play? We haven’t considered the depth of his infiltration of his follower’s magic through the dark mark either.”
“Perhaps,” Armand agreed. “It’s clear he wanted a lot of insurance. Most would’ve been satisfied to create one horcrux and secret it away in such a fashion that it could never be found without their permission. There are stories of horcrux creation driving the castor insane.”
“Some would say that to even think to create a horcrux is an act of insanity,” Phillippe murmured. “We can’t overlook the disgusting ritual circumstances that must take place before the horcrux spell can be performed. The fact that he did it at such a young age speaks volumes about the depth of Tom Riddle’s depravity.”
“Looks like we’re heading to Albania, brother,” Walker said and joined Quintin by the dark green line of magic shooting out of the room. He brushed through it with his fingers. “I loathe Albania.”
“It could be worse,” Quintin said dryly. “It could be fucking Norway. There aren’t enough warming charms in existence to traipse around a forest in Norway this time of the year.”
Without Patrice in the manor, they’d all retreated to the kitchen to eat meals. Armand figured that she’d have something to say about that when she returned from Albania since the formal dinners were for Harry’s education. Harry had taken the trip in stride as far as he could tell and hadn’t asked a lot of questions about it.
The boy was currently plowing through a second bowl of spiced apple porridge that Nia had made specifically for him. Armand had overheard the house-elf telling Sirius that it was the first time Harry had specifically requested a particular food. He figured that spoke to the success of the boy’s overall healing, and Sirius had appeared very pleased with the information.
“What’s on your agenda for the day, Harry?” Armand questioned.
“I have to finish my education assessments so we can plan for summer tutoring if I have issues that need to be addressed before Hogwarts since there are no language arts or maths classes there.” He paused. “Which is crazy since there is no magical primary school either, and a lot of magicals don’t have the resources to send their kids to Muggle schools. It’s shortsighted. What if both parents work and they don’t have the time to homeschool their children? What if it’s a single-parent household and they don’t have time to tutor their children? It’s all very vexing. Though there are a lot of irritating things about Hogwarts—Grandpa Phineas says that the school is meant for the best and most deserving children but who judges that?” He huffed and shoved a spoonful of porridge in his mouth.
“There was a time when every magical child in Britain was invited to attend Hogwarts,” Armand said. “But over the years, the ministry purposefully shrank the budget of the school to create a situation that is steeped in elitism.”
“I’m gonna change that,” Harry decided. “The school shouldn’t have to depend on the ministry for funding at any rate. Aunt Elladora says that politicians shouldn’t get to make decisions about what children learn because that’s how you get a country full of sheep who don’t have the skills or the critical thinking skills to defend themselves or others.”
“I look forward to your campaign,” Armand said and laughed when Sirius sent him a sour look. “Everyone needs something to rail against, Sirius, it keeps us young at heart.”
Harry pushed aside his empty porridge bowl. “What happened at the bank last week that made Miss Patrice leave with the Walker and Quintin?”
“They’re in Albania.”
“You said,” Harry said. “But you didn’t explain what they were doing.”
“If I told you I thought you were too young to hear about it, what would you think?”
“I would think that neither Fate nor Tom Riddle cares how old I am,” Harry said. “And if whatever they’re doing has something to do with Tom Riddle, then I should probably know about it.”
“Ah, lad,” Armand said and took a deep breath. “Fate might not care that you’re ten years old, but I certainly do. I’m trying very hard to keep you as far away from the situation as possible. Magically, there are things in play that require your participation, but it would be my preference that you know as little as possible about the matter of Tom Riddle.”
Harry pushed back from the table, and Armand noted a spark of magic snap off his heir ring. “I think that’s exactly what Albus Dumbledore would say to me.” He glared at him. “Because I’ve never been more than a tool to him.”
Armand started to respond, but Harry turned and left the room at a near run. He took a ragged breath and closed his eyes when Sirius left the table and followed. “I got that wrong, then.”
“Certainly,” Zale murmured. “I understand your desire, Armand. I even agree. I wish he didn’t have to know a bloody thing about Tom Riddle, ever, but what right do we have to keep information regarding his own fate from him?”
“I don’t bloody appreciate being compared to Albus Dumbledore,” he muttered and picked up his coffee. “How can I tell him that old git meant to lead him down a path straight to suicide? Dumbledore wanted to throw that boy at Tom Riddle and hope for the best. I’d…” Armand took a deep breath. “I’ll stand between Harry and Tom Riddle for the rest of my life if need be.”
“Then he needs to be told the whole truth of it,” Zale said. “You needn’t go into the depravity of the rituals Riddle undertook to become what he is, but Harry needs to know what is out there and what we will face for him in ritual when the others return from Albania with Nagini.”
“Right,” Armand said and stood. “Fuck.”
“Put on your game face, old man,” Zale said mildly. “As much as Harry depends on Sirius Black for his emotional security—he wholeheartedly believes that you keep him safe.”
Armand turned to Nia, who was slowly, and manually, cleaning off the table. “Nia, where are Harry and Sirius?”
“Master Harry be on his balcony, talking to Miss Hedwig. Master Sirius is on his way back,” Nia said primly. “Master Harry have delicate feelings. Master Harry not like being misled.” She scowled at Armand. “Master Harry be future Earl of Blackmoor and deserve respect.”
“Right,” Armand said and stood as Sirius entered the room.
“He’s upstairs telling his owl his problems and asked me to give him space,” Sirius complained and slouched down in his chair. “I think he likes that creature more than he likes me, which isn’t fair since he started out being sort of horrified by owls.”
“She is a source of comfort that won’t judge him for what he thinks,” Zale said. “Well, she might be judging the hell out of him, but he doesn’t speak her language, so he has no clue.”
Armand laughed abruptly. “Let’s not tell him that.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll go do my best to sort him out.”
He left the kitchen quickly and headed toward Harry’s suite. He suddenly missed his wife more than usual. Since their marriage, they’d rarely been separated for more than a few days at a time due to individual obligations. Magically speaking, she was the best situated to cast the spells to contain the wraith of Tom Riddle, and she’d been opposed to him leaving Thestral Downs with her for Harry’s sake.
Armand understood and even agreed, but his wife was far more attuned with the boy’s emotional landscape, and he could use her advice. He briefly considered pulling out his mirror, but he couldn’t risk distracting her while she was hunting for the wraith of a violent, dark wizard.
The main door was open, and both James and Lily were in the portrait over the fireplace. He stopped in front of it. James quirked an eyebrow, and Lily sighed.
“I’m crap at children,” Armand said baldly. “Remember?”
“Some of my fondest childhood memories feature you doing very badly at trying to relate to me,” James said and laughed when Armand huffed. “I asked my father once why you never had children.”
“What did he tell you?” Armand questioned.
“That you’d devoted yourself to magic as a very young man and had no intention of ever marrying. He told me that you met Patrice Delacour late in your life, and she told you that you were her mate, and she’d have no wizard but you.” James grinned then. “He also told me that you turned tail and ran from her half-way across Europe. She responded by setting up house in your Paris flat.”
Armand laughed. “I came back to a home when I’d left a place to sleep behind. She told me that I didn’t have to marry her or even share a bed with her, but her life wasn’t complete without me and also that I wasn’t allowed to lie to her ever again. I’ve never known such devotion before.” He paused. “Or stubbornness. She saw the heart of me despite my best intentions. The moment I set eyes on her—she changed my very magical existence. I was, rightly, furious, and appalled.” He cleared his throat. “Your son has that quality about him. Magic shifts around him, responds to him in a way I’ve rarely seen before in my life.”
“All we ever wanted for him was a normal life,” Lily said. “But Dumbledore and Fate took that from him, Armand.”
“I’ll get as much of it back as I possibly can,” Armand said and cleared his throat. “I’m about to have a very difficult conversation—probably more difficult than that whole hour I spent all those years ago telling Patrice about my feelings.” He sighed when both Potters laughed at him.
Armand walked through the sitting room and into the large bedroom. The balcony doors were open, but he paused just short of the balcony. Harry was seated on a lounge, and his owl was perched on the arm. She was staring intently at him, but Harry was just staring at the morning sky.
“Considering a broom ride?”
“Daddy says I’m too reckless to fly without him around to catch me if I act like a fool,” Harry said and sighed. “He has a healing session this morning, so I didn’t want him to postpone that just because I worked myself up.”
Armand sat down on the lounge, and the owl ruffled her feathers briefly then flew away. “I meant to have this conversation with you when we had the meeting about the prophecies, but you were very upset that day.”
Harry frowned and picked at the seam of his pajama pants. “The last one was really horrible. I never expected to hear something like that. I mean, I knew it would be bad because my parents were killed because of it, but I…I don’t want to kill anyone.”
“You won’t have to,” Armand assured. “I’ve already taken steps to prevent that.”
“The prophecy orb still glows—no dark spots,” Harry said. “I checked after the ritual while everyone was busy getting ready for the Albania trip. Whatever you did—it’s not enough to keep me from my fate.”
“I put a security seal on that box,” Armand said. “You shouldn’t have been able to open it.”
“Oh, well.” Harry pursed his lips. “It resisted a little if that helps.”
Armand laughed a little. “It’s…fine, but in the future, try to have a little respect for the privacy of others.”
“The box is mine,” Harry said. “I wouldn’t have opened if it belonged to someone else.”
Armand couldn’t argue with that, so he looked out over the grounds of Thestral Downs and blew air out noisily. “You are very much like your mother. It’s pretty frustrating.”
Harry laughed. “Sorry?”
“No, there’s no need to apologize for being your mother’s son,” Armand murmured. “Nor your father’s, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The ritual I performed last week was merely a verification process for the knowledge that we’d already gathered.
“Tom Riddle created circumstances through dark magic that has allowed him to cheat death in the most base fashion possible. This magic is called a horcrux, but I would ask you to never speak of it outside of the confines of the Glain Neidr.”
“Does Daddy know about them?”
“Yes,” Armand assured. “Of course, I’d never keep such information from your only living parent. A horcrux is a very dark piece of magic that splits a magical person’s soul. Tom Riddle attempted to do this multiple times to avoid death. I’m unsure if he seeks immortality or some greater circumstance that only exists in the depths of his insanity.
“In a normal circumstance, a horcrux tethers a magical person to this plane through their soul. In reality, your soul can’t be rendered into separate physical pieces. It’s not a physical separation at all though most don’t understand that. Tom Riddle didn’t, or he’d have never bothered to try to make more than one.”
Harry frowned and twisted his ring. “Aunt Elladora says that he’s basically been spreading his soul out like butter on metaphysical toast.”
“Yes, except he’s buttered several pieces of toast at this point,” Armand said dryly and smiled when Harry laughed briefly. “He either received very bad information, or he’s insane.”
“Or both,” Harry responded.
“Probably both,” Armand agreed and focused on him. “Do you remember the wording of that last prophecy?”
“I wish I didn’t,” Harry said. “I can’t get it out of my head.” Tears welled in his eyes, but he rubbed his hand across his face harshly. “It echoes in my brain, and I can’t make it stop.”
“That is the power of a genuine prophecy,” Armand admitted. “But, in the end, that prophecy is deeply ambiguous and open to several different interpretations. With study, Patrice has come upon a solution that we believe will allow me to stand in your place against Riddle.”
“He’s very dangerous,” Harry said.
“Oh, lad,” Armand murmured. “So am I.” He smiled when Harry focused on him. “I’ll be 147 in the autumn; did you know that?”
“Miss Patrice told me she was 91, and I was really surprised.”
Armand grinned. “She is, indeed, 91 years old. In fact, she celebrated her birthday about a week before we came to Britain. A full-blood Veela can live over 300 years, and she’s in very good health. When I asked her to marry me, I swore that I would do everything I could magically stay at her side until her very last breath. That’s how I came to know Hiro Ito. He has a bloodstone.”
“Aunt Elladora told me all about Master Ito and his bloodstone,” Harry said. “I’m glad you’ll be around for a long time.” He cleared his throat. “What did Miss Patrice decide was best?”
“The prophecy says that either must die at the hand of the other,” Armand said. He offered his hand to Harry then. “I would very much like to be your hand in this matter, Harry.”
Harry frowned and took his hand. “I…what does that mean?”
“There are special duties that an individual can undertake on behalf of another. One of these is a position of oath-bound fealty called a vassal. As your vassal, I would be able to act against Riddle as your agent.”
“As my hand,” Harry said and glanced down at their hands. “I…” His face crumpled, and tears fell. “I thought…” He pulled his hand free of Armand’s and turned away from him. “This is duty, right? My duty to magic.”
Armand hesitated as Harry’s shoulders started to tremble. “Lad?” He reached out and touched him. “Come now, it’s not so bad as that. I swear to you that Tom Riddle won’t be the end of me.”
“I thought that…” Harry sniffled loudly.
“If there is anything worse than a snot-nosed kid…” Armand began and grinned when Harry laughed a little. “You know, not to toot my own horn here, but quite a few people would be right chuffed to have me swear a fealty oath to them. In some circles, I’m very respected.”
“Necromancer circles?” Harry questioned and raised an eyebrow.
“Certainly,” Armand admitted. “I’m practically a king amongst that sort, but I’ve never done harm to anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
“I didn’t think you had,” Harry admitted. “I guess I’m honored and stuff that you want to be my vassal, but I kind of hoped you’d be…” His cheeks darkened with a blush. “You were my dad’s godfather, so that kind of makes you my grandpa? Right? I don’t have a living one, and that doesn’t seem all that fair.”
“Well, nothing would make me happier,” Armand said gently. “And a little thing like a vassal oath wouldn’t make that impossible.”
“No, of course not,” Armand murmured.
“And I don’t have to boss you around and make decisions and stuff?” Harry asked skeptically.
“Ah, lad, your little arse will never be old enough to boss me around.” Armand ruffled his hair while Harry dissolved into helpless laughter.
“I met her once in 1910,” Armand murmured. “She came to me in Paris, seeking a cure for her condition. Of course, there is no cure for what she is.” He circled the cage. “Maledictus. Honestly, until I’d met her that day, I believed such family blood-curses to be little more than myth.” He focused on his nephew. “Did she put up a fight?”
“Riddle is burrowed in her magical core like a parasite,” Walker said roughly. “Nearly all of her magic is invested in hosting him. When we came upon her, I thought perhaps she’d entered some sort of brumation despite the fact that she’s not a genuine death adder.”
Armand squatted down beside the cage, and Nagini shifted in her confinement and lifted her head. “Has she loss all sapience at this point?”
“I doubt she remembers her life as a witch,” Patrice said. “I don’t know if that is a comfort or not considering her condition—being enslaved and turned into a pet for a racist. The most humane thing we can do for her is to end her life. Her circumstances are beyond our ability to rectify.”
“She was an enchanting young woman,” Armand said with some regret and stood. “Put her stasis, Walker, there’s no need to let her suffer another moment of consciousness. If she is to find mercy, it will be in the embrace of Hekate.”
He retreated to the kitchen of Grimmauld Place and sat down in a chair. There wasn’t a long wait for his wife, who swept into the room, removing her cloak. “Harry asked me if he could call me grandpa.”
“Ah, that must have been very emotionally taxing to you,” Patrice declared as she picked up a kettle. She used her wand to add water and cast a heating charm. “And your response?”
“How could I deny him such a thing?” Armand questioned.
“Deny yourself, you mean,” Patrice responded and focused on him. “It’s forgiveness, isn’t it?” She leaned against the counter and inclined her head. “At least for you, I don’t suspect Harry ever thought you needed to be forgiven for anything.”
“He lived in a cupboard while we lived in very luxurious circumstances in Paris,” Armand said quietly. “He was fed scraps while I ate gourmet meals.” His eyes stung briefly. He blinked and cleared his throat. “I feel unspeakably old, love.”
“Well, you still have a great arse,” Patrice said as she filled her little metal ball with tea leaves.
“I was reminded this morning of our first meeting.”
“When you declared me too young and too silly to know my own mind?” Patrice questioned. “When you told me to ignore my instincts?” She brought the kettle to the table along with a pair of cups. “When you were living in that barren, badly decorated flat without a single dish on which to eat a meal?”
“No, I mean that time you stalked me and moved into my flat while I was away like some crazed fangirl.”
“You don’t have fangirls,” Patrice scoffed and slid into his lap. “And I hadn’t moved in! You always tell people that.”
“I had a few fans in my day,” he muttered and pinched her arse. “Yours is still brilliant as well.” Armand buried his face against her hair briefly and inhaled the fresh scent of her shampoo. “Fortunately, for you, I was more amused by the fact that you got past by my security and hung up curtains.”
“Curtains?” She huffed. “I was honestly surprised to find you managed to put a single sheet on that small, stingy mattress that wasn’t even on a bed frame! You were 64 years old, and you didn’t even have a proper tea set.”
“You set my life to rights,” Armand agreed. “I’d be lost without you.”
“You’d still be sleeping on a half-bed under a single blanket in a flat with no damn curtains is what you’d be.”
“Your tea is going to over steep.”
“The ball is charmed to prevent that, you savage,” Patrice murmured and pressed a kiss against his temple.
Having dinner in the formal dining room was worth the hassle since Patrice Delacour had returned to the manor. Harry still didn’t know what she’d gone to Albania to do, but she hadn’t come back injured, so he wasn’t going to ask any more questions about it. Dinner had been a subdued affair, and he wasn’t sure why since he figured the return of the Deadmarsh brothers would be entertaining. They were normally very funny to be around, but both looked kind of exhausted and sad.
By the time dessert hit the table in the form of cheesecake, Harry was honestly quite bored with the whole thing. He did like cheesecake, though, so that at least made up for it. Flux curled around his neck, and Harry realized she’d made herself visible when his godfather sighed.
“You brought your snake to dinner?” Sirius questioned.
“Flux decides where she goes,” Harry said simply. “I’m not old enough to boss her around, Daddy. She doesn’t think anyone in the whole house is old enough to boss her around, not even Master Ito, because I did ask just to be certain.”
Sirius sat back in his chair with his wine and stared. “Is that so?”
Harry shrugged. “I mean, you could try to boss her around, but I just don’t think it would work out for you or anyone else. Grandpa Arcturus says that magical creatures of Flux’s age and ability are beyond the will of man or law, and we should just be grateful she’s not apparating people she doesn’t like into volcanoes or worse. Though I’m not sure what could be worse than suddenly appearing in an active volcano.” Harry shrugged and laughed when his godfather just took a deep sip of wine in response. “I don’t think she’d do it to someone who didn’t deserve it, though, so it’s fine.”
After dinner, Harry found himself in the conclave meeting room on the second floor, which he avoided as much as he could. He regretted opening the prophecy box and checking the orbs as it had only increased his worry over the whole situation. He took the chair he was directed to and tried not to pout. He figured it wasn’t working since he was getting quite a few looks that looked like amusement. He crossed his arms and rolled his eyes.
Armand laughed. “We need to talk about the vassal oath.”
“Grandpa Arcturus says that it’s pretty simple,” Harry said.
“Normally they are, but this one must be made in ritual,” Armand explained. “We’re here to plan that ritual.”
“Why what?” Armand prodded.
Harry swallowed back a huff of frustration as he really wasn’t in the mood for an etiquette lesson. “Why does the vassal oath have to be done in ritual?”
“So I can take your place in the prophecy,” Armand said. “The oath must have all the magical weight it possibly can. It will be an oath bound by magic and blood.”
In the back of his head, his Aunt Elladora started to speak to him, but he pushed the voice away with his magic. She withdrew without complaint, which he appreciated because the ancestors sometimes got a little bent with him if he didn’t want to listen to what they had to say.
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“Not going to let me beat around the bush, are you?” Armand asked and sighed. “This oath, once bound, will be enforced by the God of Sorcery, and my life will be forfeit if I fail in my duty as a vassal.”
“This sounds terrible,” Harry said frankly. “Is this really the best solution?”
“Yes,” Ito interjected.
Harry focused on Hiro Ito and frowned. “How can you be sure?”
“Because absolutely no one else in your life owes you the sort of debt that Armand does. That debt is both a burden and, in these circumstances, a boon.”
“But he doesn’t owe me anything,” Harry protested.
“I do,” Armand said. “I owe you for every single miserable moment you spent on Privet Drive, Harry, and I’ll never truly make that right. I could stand between you and a hundred Tom Riddles, and it will not ever be enough.”
“Isn’t that for me to decide?” Harry asked. He rubbed his chest and tried to ignore the way his breath was hitching. “It wasn’t even that bad.”
“It wasn’t that bad?” Armand demanded. “Are you fucking serious?”
Harry jerked back in shock. “It…it was just…I survived, didn’t I?”
“I hope one day you’ll realize that mere survival is not…enough,” Armand said roughly and left the table.
Harry watched the older wizard stalk from the room and turned to his godfather. “Daddy?”
Sirius cleared his throat and cupped Harry’s head gently. “Do you understand that your aunt and uncle abused you? Emotionally and physically?”
Harry took a deep breath. “Yes. Do I have to talk about it?”
“Eventually, it would be best if you did,” Sirius said. “I learned the hard way that keeping terrible things to yourself can make it hurt more in the long run. I have to think that if I’d really addressed my childhood and what I went through with my parents that I wouldn’t have been so reckless and out of control the night your parents were killed. I didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with anything much less the loss of two people so very dear to me. You know where they led me—where that led us both.”
“Shouldn’t you have been able to trust the ministry to treat you fairly?”
“Of course, but my trauma and the ministry’s incompetence collided horrifically.”
“You mean corruption,” Harry corrected. “It was corruption that put you in Azkaban. To say it was incompetence implies there was no evil involved, and we know that’s not true. It seems like the ministry is just full of hateful people.”
“Corruption,” Sirius agreed and sighed. “You can’t control how other people feel about your years on Privet Drive, but that doesn’t mean you have to make their feelings your burden.”
“Did you ever ask yourself if Dumbledore would’ve saved you from Azkaban if I’d died in Godric’s Hollow like he expected me to?” Harry questioned and watched the blood drain from his godfather’s face. “Because I do.”
“You aren’t supposed to start breaking my heart until you’re a rebellious teenager,” Sirius told him hoarsely and pressed a kiss against his forehead.
“No, we’re supposed to express our stupid feelings or something,” Sirius said wryly and slouched back in his chair. “Who wants to go find him and bring him back for the meeting?”
“I suppose I should,” Harry admitted. “Since I made him storm off in the first place except, I don’t want to be in this stupid meeting, to begin with.” He pushed back from the table and stood. “I suppose he’s retreated to the garden balcony to smoke.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Sirius said.
The garden balcony was the biggest the manor had on offer, but it wasn’t Harry’s favorite since it was on the ground floor. Armand was seated on the steps leading out into the formal garden, so Harry joined him.
“I don’t think the warming charms on my trousers are going to stand up to this stone step.”
Armand blew out a ring of smoke that shifted into a snake before it slithered away. “I cast a charm on the step—your arse will be fine.”
“It’s not really my bum I’m worried about,” Harry said and fiddled with the sleeve of his sweater. “Grandpa Arcturus gave me a big lecture about my reproductive health and protecting my bollocks that I’d rather not have repeated.”
Armand snorted. “For fuck’s sake.”
“I know,” Harry said and sighed. “Did you want to talk about Privet Drive?”
“I still want to murder your aunt and uncle,” Armand said casually.
“Well,” Harry started and shrugged. “I can’t say they don’t deserve it because they’re horrible people, but they aren’t worth your time. I’m pretty happy with the results of Madam Bones’ investigation. If they were dead, their misery would end, and why should they have a single ounce of mercy?” He rubbed his hands together, and Armand shot a warming charm at him with a flick of his fingers. “Will I be able to do wandless magic?”
“Absolutely,” Armand said. “You’ll be able to do feats of magic far beyond the average magical person with and without a wand. Perhaps after your maturation, you’ll even be able to master a staff. A staff isn’t for every witch or wizard, no matter their magical power, so we won’t know until we try.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Harry said.
“Thinking about what?” Armand questioned.
“I think living in France has made you really emotional in an extremely unBritish fashion.”
Armand huffed and laughed. “Shut up.”
“I’m serious, though. I don’t think you’re capable of keeping calm and carrying on at all, and it’s worrisome.”
“The first time I saw one of those posters…” Armand trailed off and took a long drag off his herbal cigarette. “It was the spring of 1941. Patrice and I came to Britain to attend your grandfather’s 25th birthday party. Your great-grandfather, Charlus, was in quite a state actually as he hated parties but was deeply invested in making his son happy.”
“Why didn’t you ever have children?”
“Shortly after I left Hogwarts, I encountered a witch in Romania who was as gifted as your grandfather Arcturus Black in the arts of divination. She told me in rather explicit detail that if I ever had a child—that he would become the darkest of wizards and he would, no matter my efforts, be utterly irredeemable. He would cause the deaths of many thousands of people all over the world.”
“Like Tom Riddle.”
“Yes,” Armand said. “I was engaged to be married at the time. I came back to Britain and ended that relationship, which broke my girl’s heart. I cursed myself with infertility so I could never, ever father a child, and lived a life of solitude until I met Patrice.”
“What happened to that witch you…dumped?”
Armand sighed. “Ah, lad.” He sighed. “Her name was Elsbeth, and she married a man named Oscar Potter. He was a bit older than her, but he adored her. They had one son whom they named Charlus. She asked me on her death bed to watch over her boy, and I did. One might say it became a habit to watch over the Potter family.”
“So, you dumped my great-great-grandmother,” Harry said. “And got stuck with the family she married into.”
Armand laughed. “Something like that. I regret that I hurt her, but I wouldn’t change the choice I made when I was eighteen.”
“Divination is such a terrible thing,” Harry said. “But I guess it was better that you had a choice about whether or not you were willing to father… the devil incarnate.”
“Did your aunt take you to church?”
“No, but she often called me the devil,” Harry said. “She said she couldn’t take me to church because I was evil, and it would probably burst into flame if I managed to get through the doors.” He rubbed his boot against the step. “I don’t blame you for not coming to get me when my parents died. I doubt Dumbledore would’ve allowed it to happen anyway. He wouldn’t tell Grandpa Arcturus anything about me.”
“The difference between Arcturus Black and me is that I wouldn’t have allowed Albus Dumbledore to tell me no,” Armand said roughly.
“We’re going to have a real hard time making happy memories when you’re busy thinking about the past,” Harry said. “Wouldn’t it be better if we just put it all behind us?”
“Grief doesn’t work that way,” Armand said. “As I know Patrice has told you. If we don’t confront what hurts us, we’ve no room in us for growth.”
“Look, I have to, apparently, discuss my stupid feelings with Miss Patrice, but there really needs to be a hard limit on that for everyone else,” Harry said hotly and huffed when Armand laughed and threw an arm around his shoulders. “Seriously. Why can’t we be proper Englishmen about this?”
“Because that level of repression is deeply unhealthy,” Armand said. “Apparently.”
“So, what does this ritual do?”
“It will bind the vassal oath magically in such a fashion that we hope it will allow me to fully take your place as far as the prophecy is concerned,” Armand said. “Fate will turn to me to deal with Tom Riddle.”
“Is fate a person?” Harry questioned.
“A goddess,” Armand explained. “The daughter of Zir and Hekate. Her given name is unknown, but for as long as magical people have walked this earth, she has been here to guide us. She weaves our fate into the very magical fabric of our world.”
“Have you ever seen Zir or Hekate?”
“Hekate has not set foot on our world in over ten thousand years as far as I know,” Armand murmured. “Zir stands in her defense, and yes, I’ve seen him once. To be honest, he scared the shite out of me.”
Harry laughed. “How old were you?”
“It happened during my induction into the Glain Neidr, so I was just twelve. He has appeared a time or two for rituals in the past, but no one expected him to show himself for such a simple ceremony for an acolyte. To many in the conclave, it was a sign that I had a great destiny within their magical body. Of course, not a single one of those wizards is alive today.” Armand took a deep breath. “He didn’t speak. He just appeared within the circle, and when I knelt before him, he put his hand on my head. It felt like such a blessing that I couldn’t help but cry.”
“You’re not a light wizard.”
“No, Harry, I’m not,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Aunt Elladora told me that people call you a dark wizard. She said that people in Britain are really wrapped up in labeling people light and dark, but most of the time, it’s based on nothing more than fear of a person’s magical power. She said they create self-fulfilling prophecies in a way. They label a young witch or wizard dark, ostracize them, and deny them basic respect, then pat themselves on the back for being right when that so-called dark person acts out in response.”
“That’s true enough, but across the world, the definition of such things is much broader. I’m not a light wizard because I study the dark arts, and more importantly, I’m a student of Death herself.”
“Necromancy,” Harry said quietly. “Do you expect me to study that?”
“I expect you to do exactly as you please and study as you wish,” Armand said. “I’ve no such vanity regarding the passing on of my knowledge. My nephews followed me down that path magically of their own accord.”
Harry checked his watch. “Do you think we’ve been out here long enough to avoid getting a lecture about healthy communication from Miss Patrice?”
“Rarely do I avoid getting a lecture from my wife when one is due,” Armand admitted.
“Why’d you come out here anyway?”
“To avoid losing my temper with you,” Armand said honestly. “I don’t want to be someone who reminds you of Vernon Dursley.”
“Miss Patrice says that arguments are normal and even healthy in some cases, so I’m trying to not be afraid of them,” Harry admitted. “Uncle Vernon yelled at me a lot, but it was different. I could tell you were angry for me instead of at me.”
“Good. I suspect I’ll stay in that condition for quite a while since no one will let me murder those two vicious Muggles.”
Nerys had started to sparkle as soon as Harry entered the ritual room. Armand watched the conclave continue to adjust to their future with some amusement. The inner circle knew the boy best, so they appeared to be the most comfortable with the way the adder stone responded to him.
“Yes, sir.” Harry released Sirius’ hand and took a deep breath like he was steadying himself. He stepped into the circle, and the adder stone shifted of her own accord to form the platform they’d need for the ritual.
Armand shared a glance with Zale, who was doing a great job of keeping the shock off his face. Nerys had rarely adjusted to the needs of a ritual without instruction and hadn’t ever done it for Armand.
“Is there a problem?” Harry questioned.
“Nothing,” Armand assured and stepped up onto the adder stone.
Harry hesitated. “Are you sure she’s okay with us standing on her? It seems rude.”
“Nerys is at her happiest when she is serving a magical purpose,” Armand said. “You will learn in time what she finds insulting and what she does not.”
“I didn’t lay on her during the removal ritual.”
“No, we brought in a special altar used for healing in case there were issues with your core. It would’ve helped us contain your magic if a breach had occurred.”
Harry nodded, and after another moment’s hesitation, stepped up onto the adder stone. He flexed his toes against the still sparkling surface and smiled. “She’s amused.”
“Yes,” Armand agreed. “And pleased to see you. I don’t think she expected to see you back in the chamber any time soon.”
Harry took a deep breath as Armand knelt. They’d argued over that part for nearly twenty minutes during the planning meeting as Harry was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of anyone kneeling for him in such a fashion. He laughed when the boy made a face then unholstered his wand, which he placed on the altar between them.
“I still think this whole kneeling thing is just some dumb ceremonial thing built on ego and has no ritual benefit,” Harry declared, but he took the hands Armand offered.
“Then we thank you for indulging us in our ego-centric traditions, lad,” Armand said and grinned when Harry flushed. “Remember, your magic may stir in your core, but there is no need for alarm. All of the protections for the circle are active, and Tom Riddle will never find purchase within your magic again.”
Harry nodded. “I understand.”
“I, Armand James Deering, do solemnly swear on my life and magic that I will be faithful to the Harry James Potter-Black, the Baron of Gryffindor, and never cause him harm. I will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in times of war and peace without deceit. So mote it be.”
Magic spun out of the adder stone, and Armand kept his focus on Harry whose eyes widened. He gave him a firm nod.
Harry cleared his throat. “I am honored to accept your oath—so bound in blood and magic, Armand James Deering. May our lady, Hekate, bless you all of your days.”
Armand took in a shocked breath as he hadn’t expected that particular wording and found that Harry’s skin had a faint glow. In the distance, he heard Jacob Dyson casting a spell, but magic swept up around them from the adder stone, and he found himself still in body and magic in a way he never had been before.
“Are you trying to cheat Fate out of her due, Armand Deering?”
Armand’s grip tightened briefly on Harry’s hands when the boy jerked a little. “Easy, lad.” He took a deep breath and looked around the room. Zir had not appeared in body, but his magic and voice were clearly felt by everyone in the ritual chamber. “No, my Lord, I merely present myself as a weapon.”
“What do you think, Daughter?”
“The boy’s fated enemy made war on him before he was ready, Father.”
“Do you understand the consequences should you fail, Armand Deering?” Zir questioned.
“You turned your back on a destiny foretold,” Fate said in a voice so beautiful it felt cruel to hear it as Armand doubted he’d ever hear it again.
“I made the best choice I could.”
“Magic requires balance, Armand Deering, and you denied the world that balance. In your denial of your own fate, you forced the living magic on this world to seek out another way to find that balance,” Fate said.
“Are you blaming him for Tom Riddle?” Harry demanded. “What did you expect him to do? Father a devil and kill his own son when he could no longer control him?”
“And if I did?” Fate questioned.
“I would not be surprised,” Harry admitted. “As Fate is the cruelest thing I know of.”
She appeared then—beautiful and horrific in the same moment and walked around the adder stone casually as if she had no care in the world, and perhaps she didn’t. Armand had never, ever wanted to see Fate embodied in any single way. His wand rattled on the adder stone between them.
“You believe me cruel, Harry Potter?” She questioned. “Because of your parents?”
“Because of Tom Riddle,” Harry responded. “What did he ever do to be used as a tool for your balance?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Tom Riddle’s corruption started before his birth because his mother used love potions to seduce a man. He was doomed to be exactly what he became, and I saw him in a path to magical balance, so I took it. Then I waited for the right time and place for you to be born—his free will led us here.”
“Why me?” Harry asked.
“Because you are everything Tom Riddle is not,” Zir responded. “Dumbledore twisted Riddle’s path as much as he twisted yours. He escalated events and created circumstances where many thousands of people died who would not have. If he’d left things alone and lived his own meager little life—Tom Riddle wouldn’t have begun his campaign of violence to take over Britain until you were in your 20s. Instead, it started before your parents were born.”
“Be at ease, little mage,” Fate said and offered Harry a bright smile. Armand noted that her teeth were sharp like a mermaid’s. “I never meant for you to have this burden at such a young age. I accept Armand James Deering as your hand in this matter.” She reached out and brushed a lock of hair from Harry’s forehead, revealing his scar. “This scar will fade in time as you don’t deserve to carry Riddle’s mark all of your days, but you will always bear mine, deep in your soul. Do you understand?”
“I get it,” Harry said. “You’re not done with me.”
She laughed. “You’ve always been my favorite.”
“I’d hate to see how you treat the ones you don’t like,” Harry returned tartly and scowled when she disappeared with a snap of magic.
“We’ve got to talk about your smart mouth, lad,” Sirius Black said hoarsely from outside the circle.
Armand laughed but shook his head when Sirius started to say more. Fate might have left, but her father remained in the circle. He focused on Harry and found the boy was no longer glowing, which was a relief all on its own. Magic shifted around them again.
“Fate and Magic have asked much of you both, and your choices along the way have shaped the world around you.”
“I’m not old enough to shape the world,” Harry protested. “I’m just ten.”
“And yet, you’re trusting another with your magical duty. This is no small thing you’ve agreed to, Harry Potter,” Zir chided. “Lives will change because of what you’ve agreed to. Some will live when they would’ve died, and others will die when they would’ve lived. Even the decisions of a child can have immense consequences, don’t forget that.”
Magic shifted again, and Armand allowed himself to relax when Zir’s presence lifted off the chamber and disappeared. He focused on Harry. “I need you to rein this whole Harry Potter factor in a bit. I’m an old man.”
Harry bit down on his lip and shrugged before starting to laugh. “Sorry.”
“You little git,” Armand muttered and squeezed his hands. “Why did you invoke Hekate’s blessing?”
“Grandpa Arcturus told me to,” Harry said simply. “Was it wrong?”
“No, it was fine,” Armand promised. “You did very well.” He released his hands. “Next time Arcturus has advice about a ritual—please share it in advance, so I don’t have a heart attack.”
They left the adder stone together, and Harry rocked on his feet. “Can I stay for the big ritual?”
“Harry,” Armand said. “Tom Riddle is no longer your concern. It would serve no purpose for you to be here. You are far too young to be exposed to what will happen next in this room. Please allow Sirius to take you home. I will attend to this matter.”
Harry frowned and looked down for a moment. “All right.”
“When you’re much older,” Armand began, “I will share the memory of this night with you. Will that do?”
“How much older?” Harry asked.
“Ha!” Harry crossed his arms. “17.”
“After you achieve your mastery,” Armand retorted.
Harry quirked an eyebrow, grinned, and threw out his hand. “Deal.”
Armand shook his hand. “Deal.”
He turned to Walker as Harry left the chamber with Sirius. “What’s the record on achieving a mastery?”
“A young witch in Japan just received what many to believe her first mastery at the tender age of 14,” Hiro Ito said with a laugh.
“Fuck me,” Armand muttered. “Quintin, activate the second set of runes. Walker, bring Nagini.”
Sirius wanted to protest, but he found his breath stuck in his throat as Harry carried the box full of prophecies out of the conclave’s office space. He followed his son, silently, up the stairs and into the boy’s own suite, then watched as Harry settled down at his desk.
“I can’t watch the ritual, but I can watch the orb,” Harry declared. “I think this is my duty, Daddy.”
“All right,” Sirius murmured and shed his cloak. “We’ll watch it together.” He picked up a chair and placed it close to Harry’s and glanced toward the portrait. James and Lily were staring. “The ritual oath went…well. There were a couple of unexpected guests.”
“Who?” Lily asked curiously.
“Zir and Fate,” Sirius said and shrugged at the obvious shock neither portrait could hide. “I know.”
“I don’t like Fate,” Harry declared. “I don’t want to talk to her ever again.”
Sirius took a deep breath. “Yes, well, just be polite as possible if she decides to visit again.”
“I don’t think I can worship Zirnitra,” Harry said quietly as he stared at the still closed box. “Is that okay?”
“Zir doesn’t require worship,” Sirius soothed. “And neither does Hekate for the record. Offer them the respect they are due, and you’ll never need to worry about their wrath.”
“I told Aunt Petunia, once, that I didn’t believe in God because of how she treated me and allowed Uncle Vernon to hit me. She said I was going to hell.” Harry took a deep breath. “I told her that I didn’t expect hell would be all that different than living in a boot cupboard. She didn’t feed me for two days, but it was worth it to see the look on her face.”
He reached out and unlatched the box then flicked open the lid despite the security wards that Sirius could see on it. The orbs looked the same as before. The one that he believed to be about Pettigrew was still in the same semi-cloudy state. The other two were shining brightly. Sirius stilled the urge to smash them and sat back in his chair.
“Nia?” The house elf popped into place beside his chair. “Can you bring tea tray? Whatever snacks you have readily available will suffice.”
“Of course, Master Sirius,” she said cheerfully and disappeared after a curious glance toward the orbs.
As soon as the tray appeared, Harry reached out and grabbed a chicken sandwich from the platter, and the glass of milk Nia had provided. Sirius fixed his tea and sat back in his chair. “You needn’t be worried. The Glain Neidr has a lot of experience in dealing with dark magic. Honestly, Tom Riddle isn’t a threat to the group of them in any single way. It’s one reason why he avoided them during the war and never came near Armand Deering. Had he known that James was Armand’s godson, he would’ve thought twice about coming to Godric’s Hollow.”
Harry made a face. “It’s difficult, you know?”
“What?” Sirius questioned.
“Living in a world full of people who ignore evil unless it knocks on their door. I know it wasn’t the Glain Neidr’s job to take care of Riddle, but it must have been clear to pretty much everyone that the ministry wasn’t going to do anything about the Death Eaters. I think a lot of people expected Dumbledore to protect them and take care of Riddle and his followers, but that was never on his agenda.” Harry took a big bite of a sandwich. “The ministry is terrible, and the amount of apathy in this country is really difficult to wrap my head around.”
Armand watched with a heavy heart as his nephews moved Nagini so that she lay coiled up on the adder stone. Nerys accepted the burden of the death adder with no protest, which he appreciated. Nagini’s tainted magic was hard to stomach, so he couldn’t imagine what the adder stone was getting from the snake. He closed his eyes.
“Are you well?” Ito questioned lowly from his left.
“Yes, it’s just difficult to be in her presence.”
“Very,” Hiro agreed and nodded.
Armand removed the portable vault he’d started using to contain the horcruxes and placed it on the altar. Laying them out one by one didn’t feel like a victory, not that he expected it would. His failure regarding the matter of Tom Riddle would haunt him the rest of his days, and he’d accepted that after many long talks with his wife. He would live with it and make sure that neither Riddle nor Dumbledore tainted Harry’s life any more than they already had.
He started to raise his wand to open the circle but a gentle chime letting him know he had a visitor sounded. Armand shared a look with Ito, who drew a staff in response. They were on dverger land, and no one picked a fight if they could avoid in Gringotts, but considering their current agenda, security around the whole ritual process had been very robust. Only a precious few should know they’re in the bank. He stepped down off the ritual platform and walked across the chamber to the door and touched the security runes that opened it.
Walker stepped forward and opened the door to reveal Ragnok.
“Sir.” Armand raised an eyebrow. “How can I help you?”
“You don’t think you’ve brought multiple dark objects into my bank without my notice, right?” Ragnok questioned.
“I did wonder at your ward’s ability to notice them since you housed a pseudo-horcrux for decades in Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault,” Armand admitted.
Ragnok scowled. “It was brought into the bank when I wasn’t here, and my uncle was in charge of the wards—during the birth of my youngest child, to be exact. He’s been punished severely for his greed as she bribed him personally to overlook her activities.” He took a deep breath. “Once inside her vault, her possessions were not subject to our magical monitoring. I’ll be adjusting bank policy going forward on this issue.”
Armand nodded. “Understood. I assure you, I have no intentions tonight other than the proper destruction of the horcruxes.”
“Your ritual craft is your own business, naturally,” Ragnok said. “And I certainly trust you to undertake such an endeavor without my oversight, but I would like to stand witness to this matter.”
Armand considered that. Nothing he knew of Ragnok indicated that he couldn’t be trusted. In fact, he had more faith in the dverger chieftain than he did most of the humans he knew. “Why?”
“Voldemort is a threat to all magical kind,” Ragnok said roughly. “Not just wizards and witches. Over these last few months, I’ve watched you wage a quiet war on behalf of Harry Potter. You kept this matter close, which I respect, but I wish you to know that I would’ve stood with you in this fight.”
“You are always welcome within my circle,” Armand said and stepped back so Ragnok could enter. “Do you wish to look at the horcruxes before I begin?”
“Have you gathered the two central pieces?” Ragnok questioned. “It took a few of your trips through the wards for me to realize that Riddle also created anchors for his horcrux. I’ve never felt anything like that. Soul anchors aren’t common today, but as you know, we find them often in tombs. But to mix anchor magic with horcrux magic speaks to insanity.”
“I believe him insane, yes,” Armand admitted. “Probably since he was a very young man. The diary was created while he was at Hogwarts.”
Ragnok huffed. “Dumbledore needs to be dragged out of the grave, reanimated and killed several times over. How could a student create such a thing in the school without his notice? He’s had control of the wards since Riddle was a bloody first year!”
Ragnok’s ritual robe was made of spun mithril. Armand had rarely seen anything so fine in his life, and such craft was beyond a wizard or witch. It glittered with magic as he walked across the chamber. He stopped briefly to stare at Nagini, still coiled and still on the adder stone before going to the altar. Armand watched his stop and study each object until he stood in front of the ring.
“Ah, there is it is.” Ragnok tilted his head. “I felt this, too.” He focused on Armand. “It’s for the boy.”
“Yes, of course. All three Hallows belong to Harry Potter-Black,” Armand said. “He’ll have all three in his possession by the time he’s an adult. Sirius and I agree that the magical burden of such a thing can wait until then. Do you disagree?”
Ragnok focused once more on the Resurrection Stone. “It’ll take a few years for the stone to shake off Riddle’s taint after you’ve removed the anchor. It may need to be cleansed, but perhaps Death, herself, will take care of that once you’ve done your part in cleaning it. Regardless, adulthood seems perfectly reasonable to me. I currently see no reason why we’d ask a child to claim domain over death magic.
“Lenore has seen various futures for us, Armand, and some of them are unspeakably dark. She started to look—delve deeper into the possibilities—after the ritual you conducted on the child. We were relieved to see that the anchor was removed from his magic with no harm done. It was buried so deeply that at first glance, I mistook it for dark magic residue from the Killing Curse. In fact, I might not have ever looked deeper if you hadn’t prepared for such an advanced ritual.”
“Does she see me fail in this?”
“She sees you dead in some futures—cut down in the street by Death Eaters before Harry Potter-Black goes to Hogwarts. But that future disappeared from her third eye shortly after your wife came to Britain. Other futures were just as bleak, full of war and death that left your godson’s child alone and bereft of any support that he could truly trust. Sometimes he has a shining light in his life in the form of a loyal little witch. Lenore tells me he’s met her already. Make sure he treats that friendship with all the respect it is due—in many, many futures she was the difference between life and death for him.”
“I will,” Armand said hoarsely and shared a glance with Zale Wright, who just nodded. “Are we on the right path, Chieftain?”
“You are,” Ragnok assured. “I would’ve already interfered if you were not. Lenore has made it clear that neutrality won’t always serve the Horde and that I must make decisions that I’d rather not to ensure our survival.” He left the altar and then the platform. “I’ll observe unless you get into trouble. Though, I trust that Hiro will have that well in hand.”
“I’d never turn down such learned and powerful help, Chieftain,” Ito said graciously. “It is always an honor to fight at your side.”
Ragnok’s attention once more centered on Nagini. “She asked us for help once—there was nothing we could do for her. I’d hoped… let myself believe that she’d have ended her own life before allowing herself to be trapped as she’s currently trapped.”
“If she survives the ritual, it was my intention to end her life,” Armand said. “Do you disagree?”
Ragnok tilted his head briefly as he stared at Nagini. “There is nothing of the witch she was in this creature, Armand. The creature that is left has been tainted beyond hope by Tom Riddle. Give her back to Hekate and hope that in the embrace of our lady, she will find peace and comfort.” He walked across the platform to stand with Ito.
Armand resumed his place in the inner circle and took a deep breath to steady himself before he cast the opening spell with a sweeping movement of his wand. Nerys responded immediately, and smokey green magic flowed off of her like water. He waited until the magic settled around them all and focused on the diary. Breaking the horcrux was paramount in forcing Riddle from their plane and into the hand of Zir.
“Et metunt eos.” The spell cracked like lightning when it hit the diary, and Riddle’s soul fragment rose out of it in a cloud of near-black magic.
He’d rarely in his life been in the presence of something so dark. Armand tightened his grip on his wand as Walker cast a spell to trap the soul fragment. The diary disintegrated as Walker’s spell settled, and Armand focused on Nagini. He noted that her eyes were open despite the still active stasis charm on her.
“Sir, be careful,” Zale murmured. “She’s close to breaking through that spell.”
“Not her,” Ito cautioned. “Him.”
Zale shifted closer to the adder stone and directed a spell at Nagini. “I can hold her in place.”
“Watch your output, she’s strong as fuck,” Dyson muttered but joined him and used an incarceration spell to bind the snake.
Armand focused on the ring as he believed it was the first anchor and certainly the most magical of all the objects Riddle had used. “Secare abest.” The Resurrection Stone glowed with gold magic as the anchor was ejected then fell free from the setting of the ring, then the metal crumbled. He’d believed that the native magic of the Hallow would preserve the structure of the stone, and he was relieved to be right.
There was no room for hesitation, so he turned his attention to the diadem and cast the spell. Magic glinted on the diadem briefly, then it shattered with a harsh, brief sound. The cup rattled before he even pointed his wand at it, which made Hiro Ito draw his staff.
“He’s reaching out to his followers,” Armand observed. “I wouldn’t be surprised to be told that more than one Death Eater is currently being compelled to come to the bank.”
“Fortunately, a pseudo-horcrux doesn’t do much beyond tethering a magical soul to this plane,” Ito said, but he moved closer, and Ragnok joined him.
“Chieftain?” Armand questioned.
“Riddle is grasping for control of the situation and failing,” Ragnok said.
Armand focused on the cup, broke the anchoring magic, and the cup tipped over but remained intact.
“Helga Hufflepuff was very magical,” Ragnok observed. “I can cleanse the cup and return it to the school anonymously?”
“Yes,” Armand agreed and waited while Ragnok retrieved the cup. “The athame contains the horcrux we transferred from Harry.”
“It’s very weak,” Ragnok observed. “Accidental?”
“Formed, I think, out of desperation at the moment he was disembodied in 1981. I’m not sure even sure he was truly aware of the anchor he created in the moment of his death until we transferred it out of Harry,” Armand said.
“And his followers?” Ragnok questioned. “Beyond the compulsion, they currently have to pick a fight with the Horde that I hope they all refrain from doing.”
“The exorcism will free or kill them,” Armand said and shrugged. “C’est la vie.”
“He could be communicating with them,” Ragnok cautioned. “You could be making enemies of them all.”
“Let them come at me,” Armand said huffily and frowned when Ito laughed. He slashed his wand at the athame and the ritual knife melted into a puddle on the glossy surface of the altar.
He walked over to adder stone and focused on Nagini. After a moment, he squatted down, so he was eye level with the death adder. “I don’t know if you can hear me, lass, or if you remember me. Historical data and our own diagnostics tell us that you’ve been lost to the blood curse that plagued your magical house. I want you to know that after meeting with you in Paris all those many years ago that I spent more than a decade trying to find a cure for you. I’m sorry that I failed. I didn’t tell you I was searching because I couldn’t bear to give you hope in those circumstances.
“Had I ever suspected you would fall to this and be made the slave of a wizard, I would’ve sought you out and taken your life to prevent it. Perhaps that is merely a comfort to me, I don’t know. I can’t pretend what you would’ve chosen and how much your own survival meant to you. I don’t know how painful this will be, but I’ll endeavor to make it as quick as possible for your sake alone.” He stood and took a deep breath before pointing his wand at her. “Secare abest.”
She screamed—more animal than human, and since snakes weren’t capable of screaming, it was disconcerting as fuck. Armand felt, more than saw, three different men leave the ritual platform. Mentally, he marked them all for removal from the conclave. He couldn’t afford to have men so weak in the magical body he would one day hand over to his grandson.
Riddle’s wraith rose out of Nagini slowly, a dark cloud of smoke and magic. Nagini’s body disintegrated into a pile of ash, and Armand pushed aside the relief at that as he’d had no wish to physically end her life. He focused on the wraith and watched it assess the situation. Even disembodied, Riddle was formidable.
Armand raised his wand and hissed, “Exorcismus!” The spell jolted out of his wand like a crack of lightning and hit the wraith. Riddle screamed, and the cloud of magic exploded into ash.
Armand jerked back as the remnants of Riddle’s physical existence dusted across his face. A heavy magical presence he’d have rather not ever felt again settled on his ritual space.
“Well done, Armand James Deering,” Fate said. “You’ve saved the lives of thousands—here’s hoping you didn’t save the life of someone who could turn out to be worse than Riddle ever wished to be.”
He’d never ever wanted to tell a woman to fuck off more in his whole, entire life. Armand lowered his wand and inclined his head. “I’ve got a couple hundred years left in me, so let them come.”
Fate laughed, and her magical presence disappeared.
“Son of a bitch,” Walker muttered.
Harry sat back in his chair and stared at the dark orbs. All three had gone entirely black in nearly the same instant. He took a deep breath and reached out to shut the box, and his gaze connected with Patrice Delacour’s who’d joined them in the office shortly after tea had arrived.
“Armand is tired but quiet all right,” Patrice assured. “We are bonded twice over so I would know in an instant if he’d come to any sort of harm.”
“It’s over, then?” Harry questioned and turned to Sirius. “It’s over, right?”
“The prophecies went dark, didn’t they?” Sirius reminded. “Congrats.” He ruffled Harry’s hair. “You’re no longer the chosen one.”
Harry made a face and latched the box. “Well, now what?”
“We’ll start planning your birthday party,” Patrice said and stood. She picked up her bag with her knitting. “We can pick out a design for the invitations in the morning, so you get your list ready.”
“Just like that?” Harry asked as he focused on his godfather. “Really, Daddy?”
“Just like that,” Sirius said and offered him a relieved smile. “How crazy is that?”
August 1, 1991
Sirius Black held open the door and prodded the herd of children he’d been saddled with out of the wand shop. Harry already had a wand, so they’d gone to the shop specifically for Susan Bones, Hermione Granger, and Neville Longbottom. Harry had purchased a new wand holster after a rather pointed discussion with the wandmaker over the fact that he didn’t need a wand. Sirius had let him handle it and had brushed aside Ollivander’s unease without speaking.
They’d had lunch with Augusta Longbottom and Amelia Bones, who’d decided to stay on the patio of the cafe and drink wine while Sirius guided the children around the alley. He wasn’t sure if he was gratified by their trust or irritated by the fact that he hadn’t been invited to drink wine with them, but Zale had. His partner had declined with a laugh and was currently crossing the street to join them. He had a bag in hand.
“What did you buy?”
“Patrice requested some new paints,” Zale explained. “Thanks for letting me skip the wand shop.”
“He’s weird,” Sirius said. “But I don’t understand your dislike of Ollivander.”
“He tries and often fails to give parselmouths weak wands,” Zale murmured. “He was probably very invested in getting Harry to buy one of his wands, right? He’d have probably given him a holly wood wand even though such wand wood rarely works properly for a parselmouth.”
“The arsehole,” Sirius muttered. “And yes, he tried, but Harry wasn’t remotely interested in trying. You can check over their purchases, right? To make sure they were all matched properly?”
“Of course,” Zale said and offered Sirius his hand. “Where to next?”
“Merlin help us, it’s time for uniforms,” Sirius said roughly. “I sent Walker ahead to make sure the place wasn’t too crowded though he seems to be doing better on that front.” He focused on the children and found Quintin Deadmarsh keeping pace with Harry, who was chatting with Neville. “He’s happy, right?”
“Certainly,” Zale assured and looked around. “It’s weird, isn’t it?”
Sirius glanced around the alley and watched the crowd milling around. “Is ignorance bliss?”
“I never thought so,” Zale murmured and took his hand. “But perhaps the people of Britain are better served by never knowing what truly happened to Tom Riddle or the fact that all of his followers dropped dead ten years after he disappeared.”
“Yeah.” Sirius cleared his throat. Even Peter Pettigrew’s body being found in Devon had barely caused a stir at all when it had been reported in the Daily Prophet. “Uniforms then.”
“Let’s save the bookstore for last,” Zale suggested. “We’ll probably have to pry Hermione out of it as is.”
“Certainly.” He looked up and took note of the fact that Hermione and Susan were now dragging the boys toward Madam Malkin’s. “I think she’s good for him.”
Zale hummed under his breath. “Certainly a shining light.”
“What?” Sirius asked and turned on him.
Zale smiled. “Just something Ragnok said—that Harry would have a shining light in his life. No less than he deserves, surely, after the life he’s led.”
“Surely.” Sirius tightened his fingers around Zale’s.