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Fleur’s fingers slipped into his. Harry clung to their warmth against the cold pebbles beneath his feet, the chill of the wind whistling across the Black Lake, and the sharp claws of the emptiness within.
‘You could not have known,’ Fleur said. ‘This is the price for keeping so many secrets.’
A gathering of students, staff and the witches and wizards brave enough to attend bowed their heads as Dumbledore’s eulogy ended.
‘I don’t know whether I should be victorious or sad,’ Harry said. ‘He would’ve sent me blindly to my death, but he would’ve done it so I could live freely afterward.’
‘I would mourn the loss of a great wizard, one of the few unselfish people amongst the crowd of shallow ones.’ Fleur squeezed his fingers. ‘But I would also be relieved, because you weren’t a horcrux and if he’d succeeded, our perfect wish would’ve been snatched away.’
White flames rose high above the bier, sending swirling spirals of smoke shivering across a clear, cold sky. Fawkes flashed into the air above the crowd with a burst of red flame and a low, mourning keen that twisted like a knife in Harry’s heart.
Sorry, Fawkes. I didn’t want to take him away from you. It’s their dreams or ours.
A single, bright crimson tail feather floated to fall at Fleur’s feet and the phoenix vanished in a final flash. The white flames flared bright, scattering the smoke, and Dumbledore’s figure vanished beneath cold, white marble.
‘A phoenix’s feather,’ Fleur murmured, tugging on Harry’s arm as she bent to retrieve it. ‘These aren’t given lightly.’
‘It’s a farewell gift for you, I think. Not for Albus Dumbledore.’
‘Are you listening?’ Harry asked.
‘I am not so good as Gabby,’ Fleur whispered as the crowd began to leave. ‘But the magic of a phoenix is strong, emotive, and easily sensed.’
‘What do you feel?’
‘It is hope. Your first wand, it had a phoenix feather, non?’
Harry nodded. ‘It did.’
‘The shards of the heart of your first partner, consumed by basilisk venom,’ she murmured. ‘This is for a new wand. The phoenix hopes you’ll choose to be who you were.’
But it wasn’t real. Harry picked the feather from her fingers and drifted toward the tomb, abandoning his invisibility as the last of the crowd left. Playing hero was never real. I just thought it was what I was supposed to be. It’s what everyone wanted me to be.
Fleur’s fingers tightened their grip and she faded into view, a soft gleam in her blue eyes. ‘Leave the feather behind, mon Amour. Heroes don’t really get to walk off into the sunset. They die.’
‘I know.’ Harry placed the feather on the top of the tomb and watched it crumble to ashes.
The tomb shivered, shimmered, and reformed. A gleaming coffin of crystal encased Dumbledore, throwing rainbows over his peaceful expression.
‘My parents’ shades apologised for leaving me alone,’ Harry said. ‘They thought it would be better than being dead.’
‘Isn’t it?’ Fleur asked.
‘I think they’re the same thing, really.’ He slipped the ring from his finger and stared down at the Peverell crest upon the dark stone. ‘It’s just that death lasts forever and loneliness might end.’
‘Are you going to summon them?’ She stepped back. ‘I will wait at home if you are. I think it’s a moment for you and them.’
Harry nodded and Fleur vanished.
He turned the ring over in his hand three times. ‘Salazar Slytherin.’
‘You found it!’ Salazar’s shade shook his snake in the air with a triumphant smile. ‘I knew you would succeed where I had failed.’
‘It’s not what I hoped it would be,’ Harry replied. ‘I’m starting to think the only thing worse than having this stone would be to have it and lose it.’
‘The echoes of souls are small comfort, little more than memories.’ Salazar dropped his serpent back onto his shoulders. ‘But a small comfort is better than none, and the strong echo of a soul is only a step away from a soul itself.’
‘A ghost cannot return, it can only linger.’ Harry sighed. ‘Even if I found a way to bring that echo to life, it wouldn’t be the same, especially not now I know it’s merely an echo I’d be creating.’
‘I don’t wish to return, Harry.’ Salazar gave him a fond smile. ‘I was your sacrifice, not mine. I would’ve liked to see your legacy outshine mine, as all parents wish to see their children outgrow them, but my time is done. It was done a very long time ago.’
A hot lump rose in Harry’s throat. ‘I’ve got a long way to go to outshine you.’
‘Not as far as you think. And you’ll get there.’ Salazar’s shade rested its hand on his shoulder with a faint chill. ‘Don’t call on me again if you can help it, Harry. Let me go. Dreaming of the dead is no way to spend your life.’
‘I’ll try,’ he whispered, blinking away the tears prickling at his eyes.
‘Harden your heart, Harry,’ Salazar said. ‘Say farewell. Step forward. Don’t turn back. Don’t even look back.’
‘Farewell.’ Harry let Salazar’s shadow vanish and stared down at the stone.
Katie. He turned the ring over with shaking fingers.
‘Harry!’ Katie’s smoke-like, silver shade shivered into being and stepped close, so close only a finger’s width kept them apart. ‘I missed you so much.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry whispered, holding his palm up before hers until the cool wisps of mist at the edge of her echo brushed his skin. ‘I should’ve kept you safe.’
‘I think it’s better like this.’ Katie’s bright smile strained her lips and a sadness rose in her eyes. ‘I’m not in the way now. I didn’t want to be in the way of you being happy.’
Harry’s heart wrenched and hot tears stung his eyes. ‘You were never in the way.’
‘But you have your perfect dream,’ she murmured. ‘And I’m not part of it. Little by little, you would’ve left me behind, until, one day, someone would’ve said my name, and you’d’ve realised it’d been years since you’d even thought of me. And I could’ve lived with that. I just wanted you to be happy, even if it wasn’t with me and you never thought of me again.’
‘I will never forget you,’ Harry promised. ‘Never.’
Tears trickled down her cheeks in slender, silver lines. ‘You will, but now I don’t have to watch.’ Katie blinked her tears away and clutched at his arm, her hands fading through him. ‘Not unless you summon me and make me.’
An awful emptiness clawed its way up inside, tightening its grasp on his heart, and tears slid down his face. ‘I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I can’t do it.’
‘Don’t send me away,’ Katie begged, her fingers curling through his like smoke. ‘I don’t want to leave you. Don’t make me leave. Keep me with you just a little bit longer.’
‘I have to say goodbye,’ Harry whispered. ‘I can’t bring you back.’
‘I know.’ She closed her eyes and squeezed fresh tears from her lashes. ‘I wish I’d not ruined everything for us. I wish it more than anything.’ Katie smeared her tears away with the heel of her hand and gave him a bittersweet smile. ‘But we both know that wishes like that don’t come true.’
‘I don’t want to say it.’ Harry pressed his fingertips to his ribs, pushing them in until they turned white and throbbed with pain, but the ache in his chest drowned it, smothering the breath in his lungs and snaring the words on his tongue. ‘I don’t think I can.’
‘Then don’t say it.’ She stepped close, until all he could see were her bright, silver eyes, and tear-filled lashes. ‘I dreamt one day you’d kiss me,’ she whispered. ‘But I knew you never would.’ Her lips brushed through his, the faintest chill upon his skin, and the ring slipped from his fingers into the dirt.
The cold crept in from all around him, biting deep, but unable to pierce the numbness.
Harry bent down and scooped the ring back up, Salazar’s words ringing in his ears. Don’t turn back. Don’t look back. He took a deep breath. I can’t do that again. I can’t endure that twice. Fleur and I, we need a final victory.
He apparated back into their kitchen and dropped the ring into Fleur’s palm. ‘I need something to do, so I’m going to go test the wand.’
‘You can test it with me.’ Sirius stuck his head in through the door.
‘Voldemort’s going after your mother’s sister and her family,’ Sirius said. ‘Greyback’s the one he sent.’
‘If we know this, it’s because he wants us to know,’ Harry said. ‘Greyback is bait.’
‘It’s another trap,’ Fleur said. ‘Don’t go. You owe them nothing.’
It’s a test. Harry smothered a flare of cold fury. Dumbledore’s gone and Katie’s been taken away. Voldemort wants to see what I will do.
‘It would be useful to kill Greyback, without him Voldemort loses his hold over the packs,’ Sirius said. ‘And if it’s anything like last time, what’s left of the inner circle might turn up.’
‘We could wipe them all away,’ Harry muttered. ‘Take them all away from him. It’d just be him and the snake left…’
‘I can’t come with you,’ Fleur said. ‘The polyjuice potion for Gringotts needs to be finished today.’
‘I’ll keep Harry safe,’ Sirius said. ‘We duelled our way out of the Ministry together, we can handle one werewolf and his lackeys.’ A grim snarl spread across his face and the shadows clustered in his grey eyes. ‘I’ll get ready.’
Fleur tugged Harry close. ‘Sirius isn’t even close to fully healed,’ she murmured. ‘Take no risks.’
‘I will test the wand, kill Greyback and anyone else, then return,’ he said.
Her eyes darkened. ‘Don’t lie to me, mon Cœur.’
‘Voldemort will be there, he’ll come himself, to see me, even if he doesn’t decide to fight.’
‘Why?’ Fleur demanded.
‘He is curious,’ Harry whispered. ‘He’s sacrificed everything. He wants to see what I’ll become if he can make me do the same.’
‘If you’re right,’ Fleur murmured, ‘Sirius, Neville, and I will be next.’
‘He will be dead before he ever comes close to harming you, and if he’s not, then he’ll have to step over my body to try.’ Harry smothered a stab of panic at the image of Fleur lying beneath the same white sheet Katie had, reduced to bones and flesh and blood, a cold husk of clay. ‘I can’t let you die—’
Fleur pressed her lips to his. ‘Then don’t.’
Sirius’s footsteps creaked across the landing above and thudded down the stairs. ‘Let’s go.’
Harry apparated them both onto the street before Privet Drive.
The Dark Mark hung in the sky over the house, green and ghastly before a full, bright moon. The neat hedges that’d once caged him among the roses threw dark shadows across the neat lawn.
He slipped the Elder Wand from his sleeve and felt a clear, sharp thrill wash through him. ‘Homenum revelio.’
Almost thirty red outlines shone around them, skulking in the shadows of the streets, lurking behind bushes, bins, fences and hedges. A small cluster held back, waiting at the far end of the street.
‘We’re quite outnumbered,’ Harry said.
‘The more the merrier,’ Sirius said. ‘Greyback’s followers don’t use wands, they revile wizards, but they’re very strong, very fast, and quite bitey.’
‘Don’t get bitten,’ Harry said. ‘I’m not going to walk you every full moon.’
The red figures hurled themselves forward with gleeful howls.
‘I already like my steak rare.’ Sirius grinned and hurled curses at the charging werewolves.
A handful went down, pierced through by fist-sized, smoking holes. Another stumbled to a halt, clutching his belly and screaming as his entrails burst out and looped around his neck. Sirius’ wand gushed vivid purple fire, lashing thin streams of it out each time one darted forward.
Harry thrust his magic into the air, imbuing it with his will, drawing it back toward himself, and swatting the remaining werewolves away down the street.
‘Where are you, Greyback?’ Sirius yelled. ‘Come out and face me, coward.’
‘I’m right here.’ A deep voice growled from the Dursley’s porch.
Harry whirled and unleashed a piercing hex.
Greyback twitched his head out of its path, sneering down at them. ‘You are good at killing weak wolves.’ He tossed a corpse from the roof to the street with a wet thud. ‘I do not care for killing weak things. Or muggles.’
Harry spared the body a glance. Dudley.
‘They have no magic. They cannot become one of us.’ Greyback dropped from the porch to the street and leered. ‘Some are fun to hunt, but nothing more, and that one, that one did not run very fast or very well.’
‘You killed Remus,’ Sirius hissed.
‘The Lupin boy.’ Greyback ran a claw through the gaps between his teeth and flicked away a scrap of flesh. ‘He was the strongest child I ever turned. The stronger the magic in the child, the greater the wolf, but he was a disappointment.’
‘He was a greater man than you will ever be!’ Sirius hurled curses at Greyback. ‘You’re barely human.’
‘He was pathetic,’ Greyback snarled. ‘He tamed his wolf, caged it, burying strength he should’ve embraced. He challenged me as a man and lost. The wolf barely stirred.’ Greyback ran his tongue over his teeth and bared his fangs. ‘Not even when I ripped out his throat.’
Sirius let out a raw yell and splashed purple flame across the front of Number 4. Windows melted, bricks burnt, and Petunia’s prize rose bushes turned to ash. Greyback walked through it with a snarl, his skin smoking, blistering and burning; he healed as the flames died.
Voldemort carried out a ritual on him.
Sirius banished him back into the burning building with a snarl. ‘Greyback is mine.’
‘I’ll deal with the others.’ Harry shifted his grip upon the Elder Wand and a shudder of power rippled up his arm.
Werewolves hurtled from the shadows, sprinting on all four elongated limbs, yellow eyes gleaming. Harry closed the air around them like a fist. They burst into a red pulp of splintered, snapped bones and mashed flesh.
The wand shivered in his fingers.
Aspect of death indeed.
Greyback’s smoking hulk smashed its way out of the house. Melted, twisted, seeping flesh and blackened bone surrounded his burning yellow eyes. Sirius unleashed a volley of orange curses at the werewolf, a wet stain spreading across his ribs.
‘Time to go, Sirius,’ Harry called.
Four distinct cracks echoed down the street.
Two blank white masks and two engraved silver ones gleamed from beneath the hoods of dark robes. Two short broad figures and two slender ones levelled their wands at him.
Inner circle. Harry took a step toward them. Someone to take away from Voldemort.
‘Avada kedavra,’ the nearest of the two short ones growled.
Harry sidestepped the beam of green light, summoning his swarm of butterflies and disillusioning himself. He transfigured the butterflies into steel spikes a few at a time, sending them hissing toward the Death Eaters, impaling the neat, white-painted fences, tearing through straight-edged shrubbery, and smashing shards from hard brick walls.
Strike from hiding.
He apparated behind them with a soft snap and abandoned his concealment. ‘Lacero.’ Harry cast a wordless, motionless piercing hex in the instant between unleashing his cutting curse and bending his wand into the wand motion for the bone splintering curse.
The silver-masked wizard deflected the cutting curse away into an azalea bush, but the piercing hex tore through his thigh and the bone-splintering hex shattered his ribs.
‘Fuck,’ the Death Eater groaned. ‘He’s fucking fast. Rookwood, use that mind you’re so proud of.’
‘Legilimens.’ Rookwood’s voice echoed from beneath the other silver mask.
Dark brown hair burnt to dust before Harry’s eyes, bright brown eyes faded to a dull gleam, warm, pink skin turned cold and pale, and glimmering opals hung in the dark like the moon in the night sky.
How dare you.
Rookwood flinched. Harry dragged them both down into the emptiness and despair.
Drown, like I drowned.
Rookwood shrunk into a ball on the tarmac, wrapping his arms around his chest. He stared at his wand and tossed it away. ‘If there’re no dreams left, then what’s the point?’
Harry put a piercing hex through his skull.
‘Shit.’ The other silver-masked Death Eater stumbled backward and shoved the nearest of the others forward. ‘Goyle, get fucking stuck in. Pin him behind his shield.’
Goyle unleashed a barrage of bright orange curses and Crabbe added a hail of yellow ones. Harry deflected them back, sweeping a wave of purple fire over them both and setting the line of cars alight.
The three Death Eaters stumbled from the flames, tearing off burning robes.
Harry thrust the tip of the Elder Wand at the half-molten, charred chassis beside them, tearing it into sharp metal tendrils with a grating screech and lashing them at Crabbe and Goyle. Crabbe dived to the floor, but the metal vines thrust through Goyle’s stomach and ripped him in two, spattering the road with gore.
‘Dolohov!’ Crabbe rolled away across the tarmac, dodging the lunge of sharp metal vines.
Dolohov melted the vines to a puddle and banished the debris away. Crabbe scrambled back to his feet and tore the white mask from his face, hurling it aside and unleashing a torrent of Fiendfyre.
Harry forced his magic into the flames, drowning Crabbe’s hate with his own and sending it rushing back. Dolohov poured his own Fiendfyre into it and the conflagration exploded between them, melting the tarmac into a thick black pool. Harry closed the air around Crabbe, forcing him down into the boiling, bubbling tar, and squashing the Fiendfyre with a slash of his wand.
‘Fuck,’ Dolohov swore, mopping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. ‘How the fuck are you not exhausted?’
Harry allowed himself a small, thin smile, releasing his control of the air and drawing bright white sparks spiralling about the Elder Wand in a crackling rush of sharp ozone. ‘Because I’m stronger than you are.’ He whipped the arc of lightning ‘round as it flashed from his wand, slicing through houses, lamp posts, Dolohov’s copper barrier, shield charm and legs.
Dolohov howled as he tumbled to the floor and clutched at the smoking cauterised stumps.
Harry disarmed him and crushed his wand beneath his heel. ‘See?’
‘The Dark Lord assured us the four of us would be enough,’ Dolohov gasped. ‘He said—’
‘I think he lied,’ Harry said. ‘I think he wanted to see what I’d do to you after you failed him once too often.’
‘I’m inner circle,’ Dolohov spat. ‘I’m not as expendable as those other idiots.’
‘You all look quite expendable to me.’ Harry glanced back over his shoulder as green light flashed off the windows of the houses and Greyback slumped to the floor.
‘Crabbe and Goyle were inept.’ Dolohov sneered. ‘Rookwood thought his skill at the Mind Arts and his knowledge of the Ministry made him worthy, but he was weak.’
‘You’re all just sacrifices,’ Harry said, drawing a fresh wave of white sparks to the tip of his wand.
A soft snap echoed across the street as Sirius limped to Harry’s side, one hand pressed to the spreading dark stain on his robes.
Voldemort’s form curled together like wisps of smoke on the far side of the street. ‘Unfortunately for you, Antonin, Harry is right.’
‘Fulminis.’ Harry unleashed a violent, white flash of lightning.
The street lamps burst, scattering small shards of glass across the street, Dolohov scattered into ashes, and a warped, melted silver mask clattered to the tarmac.
Voldemort apparated to it with a soft snap, summoning the smoking mask to hover above his hand. ‘I gave these to those who swore themselves to me. I would lead them, give them power, fame, and influence, all they dreamt of, and in return they’d stand beside me until death. After death, even.’
Harry glanced at Sirius, who leant forward, then shook his head.
‘Antonin betrayed me,’ Voldemort whispered. Shivers of heat washed across the few feet that separated him from Harry. ‘I, the greatest wizard who has lived, offered him a chance to stand beside me, and he lied to my face, indulging himself whenever he pleased, harming whoever he wished, ignoring my instructions, my orders, and the loyalty he owed me.’ He cast the mask into the burning house of Number Four. ‘I despise traitors.’
‘Have you not seen what you wished to see?’ Harry asked, gesturing around him.
A glimmer of amusement flickered through Voldemort’s crimson eyes. ‘I did not expect the old fool to die. The younger Malfoy made his choice, succeeded, and faced the fate he chose, but Dumbledore… I said nothing about him. His death was no work of mine.’
‘A withering curse,’ Harry said, throwing a firm look at Sirius. ‘I learnt it where you learnt it.’
‘Without Dumbledore, there’s nobody with even the slightest chance of stopping me.’ Voldemort’s lips curled into a cold smile. ‘I have won, Harry. The Ministry bleeds away in London and I only have to reach out my hand to take Hogwarts. Magical Britain is mine. I will rebuild it. The former colonies it still protects will be the start of my empire and with its power I will do something so great the world never forgets what I accomplished.’
‘They’ll still hate you.’ Harry readied himself to apparate, flexing his fingers on his wand. ‘You’ll never be great, only terrible.’
‘Let them hate me,’ Voldemort hissed. ‘It doesn’t matter so long as they fear me. To be great is to be powerful, to be powerful is to be feared, and none of them dare to even speak my name anymore.’
‘Voldemort.’ Harry tore down the wards caging them and Sirius vanished with a loud crack.
‘Avada kedavra.’ Voldemort cast a beam of green light through the space Sirius had stood in. ‘I will take them all from you eventually. When they’re gone, we’ll see if you’re truly my equal.’
Harry drew a rush of white sparks to the tip of his wand. ‘I’ll be your better.’
Voldemort released a soft, cold laugh and matched Harry’s spell. ‘Your lies did not and will not deceive me, Harry, and they will not help you deceive yourself. There is no veela girl waiting for you in France. Your smokescreen may have fooled other, lesser wizards and witches, but I knew better and now the girl is dead. I will tear the rest away, too.’ Voldemort’s crimson eyes gleamed with a cruel, curious light. ‘We will see then what power you have that I know not.’
‘Fulminis,’ Harry hissed.
White lightning arced between them in a blinding flash and he was hurled back across the street, bouncing over the hard stone until he smashed into a hot husk of a van.
Harry rolled onto his knees, leaping to his feet and summoning the Elder Wand back into his hand, ignoring the throb of pain as his grazes crept closed and bruises faded.
‘Run, Harry.’ Voldemort rose to his feet and called his wand back to his fingers, staring past the burning ruins of the house Harry had never called home. ‘Flee from death. I will see you soon enough.’