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Harry twisted the top off the vial, breaking the wax. The Felix Felicis swirled, gleaming like molten gold, and the clock he’d bought Salazar chimed for eight in the evening.
‘To the ouroboros.’ Harry gave the empty outline over the door a wry smile. ‘Never-ending and self-devouring.’
The Felix Felicis burst in his mouth like sparks from a fire, fizzing on his tongue like bright fireworks. Sharp clarity seized him, warm as a friend’s hand on his shoulder and gentle as their whisper in his ear.
A broad grin spread across his lips. This is going to go perfectly. Harry tossed the vial into the pool and strode from the chamber. But where to go first? He weighed up his choices. The Great Hall, I think. I’ve a good feeling about the Great Hall.
Harry drifted through the hurrying huddles of students dashing back to their common rooms before curfew and sprawled across Dumbledore’s throne upon the dais. He twirled his wand over and over in his fingers, enjoying the rushes of warmth.
Won’t be long. He tilted the chair backward and swung back and forth. If he’s out sneaking, he’ll come once everyone’s cleared off. Harry rested his heels on the table and smiled, watching the stars twinkle upon the enchanted ceiling.
A thin figure slunk through the doors at the far end, creeping along the far wall beneath the windows.
‘Draco,’ Harry called, flicking his wand at the doors.
The colour drained from Malfoy’s face. ‘Potter,’ he muttered, tugging out his wand.
The doors thudded shut behind him.
‘What do you want, Potter?’ Malfoy demanded.
‘What do I want? What do I want?’ Harry swung his feet off the table and let the chair bang back to the ground. ‘To return some lost property.’ He turned the table and chair to dust with a touch and stepped through the swirling remnants. ‘Funny, how your misplaced property ended up around my friend’s neck.’
Malfoy sneered. ‘You don’t scare me, Potter. I’ve stood before the Dark Lord.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harry strode down the hall, sweeping the tables out of his way. ‘It’s not your fear I want.’
Malfoy drew himself up. ‘So what now, Potter?’
Harry gave him a thin, cold smile. ‘Now, we duel.’ He dipped from the waist.
A red beam crackled over his head and burst against the wall.
‘A stunner… And you forgot to bow.’ Harry imbued the air with his magic and wrapped it about Malfoy, bending his spine down into a full bow. ‘It’s only polite.’
Malfoy glared and fired a handful of spells at him.
Harry flicked them aside. ‘Draco are you even trying?’
Malfoy hurled his wand to the floor, sending it skittering across the stones to Harry’s feet. ‘Kill me, then. I’ve been dead for days, for months, what does it matter who does it or how?’
‘Realised Voldemort doesn’t much care for his servants, have you?’ Harry placed his right heel on the surrendered wand and twisted, splintering it into fragments. ‘Must’ve been a shock for you.’
‘I hope you all die, Potter. You, Dumbledore, who protects only those he deems pure, and Voldemort, who set me up to die whether I managed to kill Bell or not.’ Malfoy’s shoulders sagged. ‘At least this way it’s just me.’
‘It’s not just going to be you.’ Harry levelled his wand at Malfoy’s heart. ‘You took someone I cared about away from me, so I’ll do the same to you. Your father. Your mother. Pansy. Everyone. You don’t get to pretend there’s anything noble in your choice. You die alone, slowly, knowing it was all for nothing.’
Malfoy sagged to his knee. ‘Would it make any difference if I begged? I will.’
‘Beg,’ Harry ordered.
‘Please,’ Malfoy pleaded with dull, tired grey eyes. ‘Not my parents, not Pansy, just me. Let it just be me.’
‘Just you, then.’ Harry wrapped the air around Malfoy and swept him up against the Slytherin banner so hard his ribs crunched. ‘You’ll be my message. So Voldemort knows what’s coming.’
He let out a dull groan. ‘It’s just pain, Potter. I’m still not scared of you.’
‘I don’t want your fear.’ Harry ripped Malfoy’s robes from his shoulders and tore away the shirt beneath. ‘Cadent a latere mortem.’ He etched runes of purple flame into Malfoy’s skin and watched him writhe and scream as the scent of burnt flesh filled Harry’s nose and faint wisps of smoke curled from the letters. ‘Consumed by death.’
‘Pain doesn’t mean much to me either, Potter,’ Malfoy gasped through clenched teeth. ‘I’ll be dead soon anyway.’
‘I don’t much care about your pain.’ Harry levitated the opal necklace up before Malfoy’s eyes. ‘This… belongs to you.’
Malfoy grit his teeth. ‘Just do it.’
Harry looped the glittering opal necklace around Malfoy’s throat, holding it a finger’s width from his skin. ‘Oh and Draco… About your parents and Pansy. You’ll see them very soon.’
Malfoy’s breath caught and despair twisted his face.
Bright, hot triumph coursed through Harry’s veins. That’s what I want. Harry released the necklace and watched Malfoy’s head drop with a small smile and a quiet sense of satisfaction. For there to be no dreams left.
A bright bead of crimson hung from Malfoy’s earlobe; it dripped to the floor, spattering across the ground.
Now for Dumbledore and the stone. Harry slipped his wand into his sleeve and left him hanging there, striding away through to the gargoyle before the Headmaster’s Office. And then. Katie’s voice echoed up in the back of his head. The storm.
‘Acid pop,’ he murmured.
‘You remembered the password, Harry.’ Dumbledore beamed as Harry stepped into the office, a smile stretching across his pale skin to tired eyes. ‘Well done.’
Fawkes eyed Harry up, trilled and hopped across his perch toward Dumbledore.
Dumbledore draped a green and purple-chequered travelling cloak about his shoulders. ‘I hope you do not mind if we leave straight away?’
‘The faster the better, sir,’ Harry replied. ‘I don’t want to be out too late after curfew.’
Dumbledore chuckled and tapped the rim of the bowl of sherbet lemons. ‘Would you care for a Sherbet Lemon before we go?’
‘Thanks, professor.’ Harry plucked one from the bowl and paused, seized by a strange urge for another couple. ‘Some for later, if you don’t mind, sir?’
‘A splendid idea, Harry.’ Dumbledore proffered his arm.
Harry dropped the extra sweets into his pocket, stepping around the desk and taking a firm grip on Dumbledore’s wrist. ‘Where are we going, professor?’
‘The seaside,’ Dumbledore replied. ‘Even if it’s sadly not quite the best time of year for it.’
An almost imperceptible snapping sound echoed across a thin strip of sand beneath limestone cliffs.
‘There is a cave that holds particular sentiment to Tom behind this bluff here,’ Dumbledore said, striding along the seaweed scattering the high tide line. ‘It was not easy to find.’
‘Why is it important to him?’ Harry avoided Dumbledore’s footsteps in the sand, picking his way through the thin foam of the surf as it washed back and forth up the beach.
‘Because it is here that Tom took his first step onto a very dark path. I told you that I believed he was mistreated, loathed even, before he came to Hogwarts, and once, maybe in the beginning, this behaviour was unwarranted.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘Children have amazing minds, Harry; they learn so fast, but, unfortunately, they can only learn what they are taught. Tom learnt to retaliate in kind. One day, when he and his fellow orphans were taken to this beach, he discovered this place.’ Dumbledore stopped at the edge of a ravine and pointed down to where the waves dashed themselves between the two narrow bluffs. ‘He lured two of his fellow orphans in here and while they never spoke of what occurred, they were no longer the same afterward.’
‘How did he find it?’ Harry peered into the spray for a hint of dark. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘It has grown harder to reach as time has passed.’ Dumbledore counted his steps from a misshapen limestone spur back across the crest of the bluff and stared across the waves. ‘Without magic it may now be nearly impossible.’
‘Over there, sir?’ Harry asked, squinting down at the foam-spattered rocks. ‘It looks… damp.’
‘I’m afraid so.’ Dumbledore peeled off his bright gloves and tucked them into his pocket. ‘I do not think it wise to attempt to apparate across to the doorway, Tom will have likely created formidable defences to guard this horcrux.’
‘How about this, sir?’ Harry bent down and touched the tip of his wand to the water and let the cold well up.
The waves froze. Frosted froth flaked and fell onto the twisted mass of ice spanning the narrow inlet.
‘Not how I would have done it,’ Dumbledore said, adjusting his glasses. ‘At my age one starts to worry about falling a little more than is necessary, but effective enough.’
Harry stepped onto the ice and strode across beside Dumbledore, who picked his way through the frozen surf with one eye on the surface.
‘Ah.’ Dumbledore stepped onto a thin ledge and pulled his pale wand from his sleeve. ‘Most ingenious.’
A complex pattern of runes washed across the limestone, bathing them both in purple light.
Blood magic wards. Harry studied them. If you spill blood and agree, you may enter, for a price. Otherwise, you have to break them. A good thing Voldemort used my blood in his restoration. Just as he is immune to the blood magics that were bound to my blood back then, so should I be to any that were bound to his at the time.
‘A sacrifice, I believe,’ Dumbledore said, baring his palm. ‘The intent of the runes is complex, but I got the impression there was a price to be paid and as this is blood magic, one would assume that price is blood and magic. Crude, but, once again, Tom seeks to weaken and trap trespassers, rather than bar them from entering.’
The blood and magic isn’t the price, it’s the pledge. A strange little urge caught the words on his tongue. Dumbledore will discover what he’s pledged himself to.
‘Coming, Harry?’ Dumbledore drew his wand tip across his hand and smeared blood across the runes. ‘I suspect Voldemort’s attempt to nullify your mother’s protection will result in you being able to step through.’
So he’s aware the blood wards at Privet drive are useless against Voldemort. I knew it.
A violet flash seared at Harry’s eyes. ‘After you, professor.’ He blinked the green afterimages away and followed Dumbledore into the dark.
An eerie green glow permeated the mist hovering over the surface of a vast dark lake, throwing distorted shadows across its surface.
Dumbledore pointed at a small island in the centre. ‘That would appear to be our destination.’
Harry bent and touched his wand tip to the water. Magic radiated off it like steam from boiling water. ‘I hope you can swim, professor. Voldemort’s spent a lot of effort enchanting this place.’
‘I think this will suffice.’ Dumbledore tapped a rusted length of chain with his wand. ‘I’ve never been a particularly keen swimmer.’
A small rotten dinghy drifted from the mist.
‘That doesn’t look very safe.’ Harry tested it with one foot. ‘Sir?’
‘I suspect a great deal of this venture may not be entirely safe, Harry,’ Dumbledore replied, stepping down into the boat. ‘Tom does not give up his treasures lightly.’
No choice, I suppose. Harry stepped in and stared down into the dark water as the dinghy floated toward the island. Almost there.
‘Fascinated by your reflection again, Harry?’ Dumbledore asked.
‘It’s not as interesting as some, but far less dangerous than others,’ Harry said. ‘I am glad the Mirror of Erised is back in the Department of Mysteries.’
‘You found it there?’ Dumbledore peered at him with sharp, bright blue eyes. ‘Forgive an old man’s curiosity, but did you see your parents again?’
Harry smiled back at him, buoyed by a rush of confidence. ‘I saw a thick, woollen pair of socks, professor. One never can be too careful about the cold.’
‘Ah,’ Dumbledore murmured. ‘I do not, despite what I once told you, see myself with a new pair of socks, Harry, but I did not wish to burden you with heavy things at such an age. No, I see the things that should’ve been.’
‘Oh?’ Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘No Voldemort?’
‘My sister, Ariana,’ Dumbledore whispered. ‘Alive. Well. Restored. My father and mother, too, with Aberforth, my brother.’
‘Your family, sir?’
Did we once see the same thing?
‘Not just them. I had such grand ambitions as a boy and they’ve not completely faded. I still wish to see the world I dreamt of, but know now there’s a deep, bloody gulf between realism and idealism.’ Dumbledore ran his fingers through his beard and peered down into the water with a faint frown. ‘Gellert is there, my partner in ambition, my dearest friend, but he is as he should have been, rather than as he became.’
‘Grindelwald,’ Harry mused. ‘Strange to hear you call him Gellert.’
‘We were very young and believed we were the only ones able to change the world into what it should be. After Ariana died, I had to grow up, but Gellert clung to our dream. He wished to make a perfect world.’
‘Wishes like that don’t come true,’ Harry murmured.
‘Not for a price worth paying,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Some sacrifices, Harry, are too dear to be borne.’
So you let others make them instead. Harry watched Dumbledore from the corner of his eye, tracing his wand tip through the water as he searched for something to say.
A pale hand thrust up from the lake and Harry flinched back into the boat.
‘Best not to disturb the water,’ Dumbledore chided.
Harry stared beneath the side. Hundreds of rotting, swollen corpses floated in the dark, circling like sharks.
They may be a problem.
He grimaced. ‘Voldemort doesn’t want us to leave, does he?’
‘Tom prefers his treasures remain secret.’ Dumbledore rose to his feet as the boat bumped against the island and stepped onto the circle of stone.
Harry jumped onto the rock, keeping one eye on the dark forms drifting through the water around them.
Clear, sparkling liquid filled a shallow basin and a heart-shaped silver locket emblazoned with a serpentine S lay on the marble beneath its surface.
‘I believe,’ Dumbledore said, poking the liquid within the basin with his wand, ‘that this has to be drunk, truly intended to be drunk, no less, else the liquid will remain in the basin.’ His brow creased. ‘Perhaps there was more to that price than just blood. I must admit, Tom’s knowledge of these magics surpasses mine.’
‘In one go, professor?’ Harry conjured a glass pitcher.
‘I suspect it is not meant to kill, but to weaken, once more.’ Dumbledore dipped the pitcher in and the potion flooded into it. ‘We will find out.’
As long as he intends to drink it, I can break the jug and prevent it. He raised his wand, but the words faded from his lips. But why should I?
Dumbledore drained the liquid in one smooth motion and collapsed with a groan. ‘Ariana,’ he whispered. ‘Gellert, why? Why?’
Harry watched him moan, spinning his wand in his fingers, admiring the green light of the lake gleaming upon the gold band on Dumbledore’s finger. Just a little longer.
‘Water,’ Dumbledore gasped, flopping to the edge of the island and ducking his head into the lake.
The floating, bloated figures froze, then surged toward the surface. Harry dragged Dumbledore out of the water.
‘Fire, Harry.’ Dumbledore hauled himself up on the basin, water dripping from his soaked beard. ‘Use… fire.’
A rotting corpse trailing tattered black robes clawed its way from the water. Lank, coal-black hair hung over a cracked, engraved silver mask.
Harry banished the inferius back into the water and shoved Dumbledore into the boat. He thrust his wand at the plinth, burying the island in a torrent of scarlet Fiendfyre, shaping the flames into the form of the basilisk and sending it across the lake, incinerating the inferii.
‘Fiendfyre,’ Dumbledore croaked, tapping the chain with his wand. ‘And far too well controlled to be the first attempt.’
‘The Triwizard Tournament,’ Harry replied, grimacing as the ache of sustaining and fettering the magic started to sap his strength. ‘That maze.’
‘For the hedges.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘It is not a spell I would’ve hoped to find you capable of casting, Harry. The hatred necessary to want to destroy anything that badly poisons a soul. However, it is capable of destroying horcruxes and I don’t think I have strength to cast the magic I used to destroy Tom’s family ring, so, in this instance, a necessary evil.’
I’m sure you didn’t want me to be capable of anything. Harry scowled and smothered the Fiendfyre with a slash of his wand as the boat bumped against the shore. Martyrs need nothing but faith.
Dumbledore staggered out onto the shore, stumbling from the cave and apparating down onto the beach with a loud crack. Harry followed him in a soft snap.
‘One less horcrux, sir,’ he said.
Harry’s gaze fell to the band of gold and dark stone on Dumbledore’s finger. Which means there’s only one thing left to do.
‘All things considered, I think this time went considerably better than last time, Harry.’ Dumbledore shivered in the sea breeze. ‘It’s a bit chilly, but I’ve yet to rashly grab anything cursed.’
A fierce certainty seized hold of Harry and he thrust his wand into his pocket, lacing the lemon sweet within its wrapper with the Withering Curse.
‘Sherbet Lemon, sir?’ Harry held the paper-wrapped sweet out on his palm.
‘Very kind of you, Harry.’ Dumbledore untwisted the wrapper and tugged it off.
The flesh of Dumbledore’s good hand tightened, shrinking back to the bone. His blue eyes widened. ‘Harry, why? Why?’
‘Why?!’ Harry let free the freezing fury in his breast. ‘How could you ask that? How dare you ask that?’ He ripped Dumbledore’s wand from his sleeve with a flick of his own and snatched it from the air. ‘I am not your sacrifice. I have no intention of martyring myself for selfish, shallow people who only cared about me if I saved them!’ He took a deep breath. ‘But I wasn’t going to kill you for that. Not unless you forced me to.’
Dumbledore’s gaze darted to the pale wand in Harry’s fist and dropped to where the flesh of his forearm withered back to sinew and bone. ‘Then why?’
‘Because you let Katie die,’ Harry whispered. ‘You let Malfoy kill her, just so I had one more reason to die.’
‘Katherine was a mistake,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Draco’s target was me. Severus said so.’
‘His target was Katie. He said so. Voldemort’s retribution for Bellatrix.’
Dumbledore crumpled to his knees and collapsed on the sand, rolling over onto his back. ‘You killed Draco. And Bellatrix.’
‘And more. You tossed your unwanted living horcrux into danger every year, hoping my heroic death and sacrifice would destroy Voldemort. You’ve got more blood on your hands than anyone I know.’
Harry bent and ripped the ring from Dumbledore’s finger. ‘And I wanted this, so I could see them again.’
‘You knew…’ Dark veins crept up Dumbledore’s neck and his breath turned thin and hoarse.
‘About both horcruxes and hallows long before you told me anything,’ Harry hissed. ‘You let Katie die, you would’ve let Fleur die. You would’ve reduced me to nothing, let the emptiness swallow up all that’s left of me.’ He clenched his fist around his wand. ‘I won’t be that again. Never.’
Tears trickled down Dumbledore’s cheeks and into his silver beard. ‘You don’t understand. You have to die or else Tom never can. I had to get you to die, I arranged everything.’
‘I understand just fine,’ Harry snapped. ‘You wanted to wind me up ‘round some idea of love, then let me throw away my dreams to save the same people that spite me after I save them!’
‘Thirteen years of planning lost,’ Dumbledore whispered, staring up at the sky as the black veins spread across his face. ‘Every time I set you against Tom to make him believe you were his greatest enemy. Every time I hardened my heart and put you in harm’s way when I would have given anything not to, just so Tom would one day decide to take your blood for the ritual that would be his only chance at restoration once Nicholas’s stone was gone.’ He took a thin, rasping breath. ‘Your sacrifice for others would have been enough to destroy Tom once you were his only remaining horcrux and because he took your blood, your mother’s blood magics, you would have lived, Harry, and the fragment of his soul sacrificed in your stead. But you could not know, because you had to truly intend to die, to survive.’
Thirteen years of planning. Harry’s anger guttered out and his blood ran cold. He always intended for everyone else to live, right until the very end.
Dumbledore closed his eyes. ‘Neither can live while the other survives, Harry. There is no greater act than to die for those we love. All it takes is the courage to do what’s right.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Harry watched the flesh of Dumbledore’s throat wither away as guilt churned in his stomach, writhing like a barrel full of snakes. ‘I can’t lose her. I can’t endure without it. It’s all there is. The last perfect wish. If it dies, there’ll be no more dreams.’
Dumbledore’s lips crooked in a gentle smile and he raised a finger, tracing, in white flame, the Peverells’ crest. He blinked, turning the triangle into a shining silver stag, the stone into the ring in Harry’s hand, and the line into a familiar, pale wand.
The Elder Wand. Harry stared down at it. All three. Mastery of the last enemy.
Dumbledore’s bright blue eyes caught his. A faint impression of hope fluttered through the barbed tangle of feeling coiled about Harry’s heart and a flash of Fleur dancing with him in her shimmering silver dress spun before his mind’s eye.
You don’t understand. I’m not a horcrux anymore. Harry watched the light fade from Dumbledore’s eyes. And Fleur doesn’t want me to die for her. She wants me to live.