ccix. like a thunderbolt
Harriet passed Elara as she returned to the sidelines.
"Don't let him bully you," she said softly, her back to Slytherin. "He's going to hit you with a barrage like he did to Bragge. Don't—don't try to shield. Dodge. He'll pin you down otherwise and—and he's using silent magic. We don't know what to shield against." Harriet turned her head and chanced a glance in Elara's direction. Their eyes met. "Be careful."
Slytherin cleared his throat, and Harriet faced forward, leaving the ring. Hermione reached out for her, and she could feel how sweaty her friend's hand was.
"Oh, that was nerve-wracking," she said, squeezing Harriet's fingers until they felt like they might break. "I was so scared, and you're bleeding—."
"I'm all right," Harriet told her. "It's just a little scratch, see?"
It was more than a little scratch, and Professor Sinistra—returned with Theodore from administrating the Cure for Boils—had to heal her leg as Elara and Lestrange stared one another down. Slytherin took his time before giving the countdown, almost as if he enjoyed the heavy, malicious tension lingering between the two.
"One. Two. Three—."
Elara had already thrown herself into motion before the countdown began, so when the blast of gray light flew toward her, it hit the floor and left a strange, spiraling smudge. She clasped hold of one of the pillars to catch her balance when she dodged the second silent spell, and then had the good sense not to try hiding behind the thin barrier for the third. She lunged for the next column, unable to do anything aside from dodge Lestrange's barrage.
However, he couldn't maintain the same level of casting forever. Not with the power he infused into his spells or with the frustration shown sharp and glinting in his dark eyes. On his last spell, he barked out the final syllable of the incantation as his concentration wavered, and he dragged in a ragged breath—but Elara didn't know to press the advantage. She hesitated, then jerked forward, snarling—
"Oscausi!" A white blur came for Lestrange, but he lurched out of the way, sending the spell flying upward. It left a black streak on the ceiling's ribbing and chipped one of the stone snakes.
Lestrange retaliated, snapping, "Declinatio!" It wasn't a spell Harriet recognized. A lethargic purple jet sailed toward Elara, and she dodged as she had before—but suddenly, the spell flung itself in a new direction, striking Elara in the side. She hit the floor and rolled, scrambling to regain her footing.
The beige mist that came from Lestrange's wand coalesced over Elara's shield—then came down hard like a stomping boot. It repeated the motion again and again as Lestrange held the spell, wand steady, and Elara buckled under it onto one knee.
No! Harriet had told her not to block him for this very reason. "Move!" she shouted, the golden barrier snapping and sparking against her arms as she leaned into it. "You have to move!"
With a grunt of effort, Elara let her shield fall and tried avoiding the spell, though it clipped her shoulder and sent her sprawling into the floor again. Before she even attempted standing, Elara jerked her head up, her hair mussed and robes dirty, and snarled, "Inhaere!"
Something like a ghostly red net came from Elara's wand. Lestrange's eyes widened and he jumped back a second before the net could snap him up in its weave. Harriet hadn't a clue what the spell did, but Lestrange looked enraged, and Professor Slytherin called out, "Mind yourself, Miss Black!"
"Someone's been into the family library," Lestrange sneered at Elara as they stood facing one another, breathing heavily. Elara's lip curled as she flung a Stinging Hex toward his eyes.
Lestrange stepped to the side. "Comprimo!"
The dust-like mist returned, and Elara moved instead of shielding, but then—.
"Declinatio!" Lestrange used the purple spell again, and it darted in one direction, then another, making its trajectory hard to predict. It caught Elara in the chest, and Lestrange hit her again with the pressing cloud, slamming her into the floor. She barely had a chance to breathe before Lestrange snarled, "Spasmos!"
Another spell Harriet didn't recognize. She looked on in confusion—and fear—as the narrow red beam flicked to the center of Elara's torso, and her arms and legs suddenly jerked and curled in toward her chest as she shrieked.
She shrieked again, the noise struggling to leave her lungs, and Lestrange let up. Elara gasped. "I forf—."
"Stop it!" Harriet shouted, pressing against the barrier despite the ache in her palms. "She's forfeited, stop!"
Slytherin must have heard her, but he didn't move to intercept Lestrange, who kept up the spell until he couldn't hold it any longer. Panting, he lowered his wand and laughed as Elara rolled to her hands and knees and vomited.
Harriet's arms trembled with rage, her face curiously numb and her eyes wet with tears. Elara had only entered this competition because of her. She'd entered to increase Harriet's chances of winning, and the only reason she was on the floor right now, sick, was because of her.
"Harriet—." Hermione had a grip on her robes, yanking her as much as possible in their limited space. "You're burning your hands!"
Harriet let her pull her away, feeling the sting of new blisters on the pads of her fingers as she clenched her hands into fists. Elara forced a short, clipped surrender, choking, "I forfeit," before Lestrange could muster another spell. Harriet pressed against the barrier again, but it didn't relent.
Snape crossed the room, cloak trailing across the scarred floor as he came to kneel at Elara's side. He vanished the sick, then waved his wand over her as Elara struggled to sit up. "You're not dying, Black," he griped, taking her by the arm to lever her upright. Elara wheezed. "To the hospital wing with you."
"Do not even think of being difficult—."
Elara bared her teeth, and Harriet noticed a pink tinge to her teeth, guessing she'd bitten her tongue or the inside of her cheek. "Not until Harriet makes him bleed."
Snape's only response was an aggravated grunt as he yanked Elara to her feet. He started inspecting a scrape on her palm—but Harriet noticed how his chin dipped, the muscle in his jaw twitching as the black curtain of his hair swung forward to obscure his face. Harriet knew what he was doing. He was whispering something.
He broke away a moment later and dropped Elara's wrist, allowing her to limp over to Harriet and Hermione.
"If her lips turn blue, Granger," he snapped in passing. "Drag her from the room."
Hermione could only nod, helping Elara step over the barrier's lip. Elara grabbed Harriet's shoulder and jerked her closer, her mouth nearly touching the shorter witch's ear.
"Snape said to not be fair. Break his bones." She leaned away. "You can do it, Harriet."
That was all well and good to say in theory, and Harriet would gladly oblige if she could—but after watching Accipto fight, she didn't know if she could win. He knew more magic than her, moved quickly, and didn't have any compunction against hurting someone. Despite her anger, and despite her dislike of the wizard, she didn't know if she could "break his bones" without hesitating, and if she hesitated, he would defeat her.
"Miss Potter," Professor Slytherin called over the din of speculating voices. He'd allowed enough time to pass for Elara to leave the ring and for Lestrange to regain some strength. Harriet forced herself to look at him across the room, his frame cast in shadow by the fire at his back, though his eyes still gleamed red like garnets. "If you would join Mr. Lestrange."
Her ears buzzed and her hands stung. She sucked in a shaking breath and stepped over the barrier, feeling every inch of the exhaustion she'd stored in her body over the last few days. She hadn't eaten, she hadn't slept. Her nerves felt fried, taut as a fishing line, and she almost wished she could forfeit before the bout even began.
Coward, an unhelpful voice in her mind said. You're a coward, Harriet Potter.
"This will be the last round, children," Slytherin told the room at large. He folded his hands together in his lap and tipped back his head, observing Lestrange and Harriet with his eyes half-closed in contemplation. "Whoever wins, I will take on as my apprentice. I wish you both the best of luck."
Lestrange turned to glower at Harriet, and she took a step back, forcing more space between them. She could barely recall what she and Snape had speculated about him in the Aerie. He'll try to hurt me, she told herself. Winning is secondary to that—and what did Snape say? No originality will make him lose?
What was that supposed to mean?
Her hand felt sticky with sweat on her wand.
Pure reflex spared Harriet a spell to the face as Lestrange jumped the countdown. She flung herself to the side, jumping to avoid a second curse aimed at her legs. She raised her wand. "Baubillious—!"
She tried to blind Lestrange as she had Pucey, but she should have anticipated him watching her duels and learning what she'd do. A black cloud swallowed her spell whole before it could burst. She aimed a jinx at his ankles, but Lestrange's answering Shield Charm extended to the floor.
Harriet urged herself into a run, and Lestrange reciprocated, the pair of them circling the perimeter of the ring. The barrier hummed like a lightning storm at Harriet's back.
He used the same crushing spell he had on Elara, trying to force Harriet into the same mistakes. She dodged—.
The strange purple spell that acted like a Knockback Jinx came, but Harriet shouted, "Protego!" and tossed the Charm directly at the incoming beam without slowing. It pushed it from her path. "Aguamenti!"
The surging funnel of water went straight through Lestrange's conjured shield and doused him. He sputtered and staggered. "What the hell is this, Potter?" he demanded. "I'm not interested in playing in a paddling pool with you!"
Harriet didn't answer. She snapped, "Flipendo!"
And Lestrange said, "Protego!"
So Harriet threw herself into the next spell as quickly as she could. "Glacius!" She knew it would pass through a normal Shield Charm, just as she knew someone would use a normal Shield Charm to block a run-of-the-mill Knockback Jinx. As expected, her first spell bounced on the ward, and the Freezing Spell passed right through. Lestrange shrieked as his wet clothes froze to his skin.
Harriet grinned—but it hadn't worked as she'd intended. Instead of being frozen immobile, Lestrange shifted, and the weak ice encasing him snapped and crunched. A look of rage descended over his features like a falling curtain. "Confrigo Maximo!"
Fire and soot erupted from Lestrange's wand, and the spectators gasped and shrieked as it filled the arena like the falling plume of an erupting volcano. Eyes widening, Harriet used a Fire Shield and ducked behind it, the heat scalding where it passed her by, the sparks stinging in her eyes—.
The targeted explosion came whizzing from the gathered clouds, and Harriet had just enough sense to leap out of the way before it could take off her leg. She choked on cinders, and her eyes watered.
It came again from a different direction, and Harriet realized he was using the lingering cloud from his Blasting Curse as cover. She tried to listen, to anticipate where he'd come from, but the crowd was too loud, and Harriet's ears rang. She panted, coughing—.
Where? Where, where, where—?!
Her arm trembled under the force of the blast. She tried to blink the debris from her eyes but couldn't. She knew there was a spell meant to clear the air, but she didn't know it, hadn't had time to learn it—.
The incoming force rattled Harriet's teeth.
She went down on one knee, gasping, the edges of her shield splintering—.
The compressing force of Lestrange's final spell shattered Harriet's shield and slammed her face-first into the stone floor. She tried to breathe, but it felt as if a gargoyle had come to sit on her back, and it pressed upon her lungs like a forty-stone weight—.
Lestrange appeared from the thinning plume, his face rippling beneath a Bubble-Head Charm.
It was the same spell he'd used on Elara, and when it hit Harriet, every muscle in her body seized with terrible cramps, pain rippling inward from her limbs as her hands spasmed and her legs kicked, but she refused to scream. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction—.
Her wand slipped from her aching fingers—
"Accio Potter's wand!"
—and flew into Lestrange's waiting grasp.
Harriet watched it go with dread, peeling her cheek from the wet floor.
"That's checkmate, Potter," Lestrange said as he twirled her wand and then held it between his hands, grip tight, threatening to snap it. "I'll give you more mercy than I did Black. I'll give you one chance to forfeit."
No. She couldn't lose. It—this had been planned. Months of effort, training, Professors Snape and McGonagall and Dumbledore devoting time to her, to this, so she could become Slytherin's apprentice and learn how to protect herself. So she could be useful.
It couldn't end here, not like this. Harriet wouldn't live down the shame.
Her eyes flicked toward her leg. She had her mother's wand there—but could she grab it before Lestrange saw? She doubted it, and Snape had warned her to use it only in life-or-death situations. She was not meant to let others know she had it. She couldn't bring it out in front of her entire House—and definitely not in front of Slytherin.
There was a puddle between her and Lestrange. Harriet couldn't remember where it'd come from at first, having smacked her head against the floor hard enough to shake her brain, but then she realized it was from her Water-Making Spell. It seemed as if that had happened a lifetime ago and not just a handful of minutes. Movement in its reflection caught her attention, and Harriet looked toward the ceiling.
There was one of those carved serpents above Lestrange's head. In the wavering firelight, Harriet thought it blinked.
"I'll give you a countdown, Potter. Just for you," Accipto said. Someone on the sidelines shouted for him to hex her, some laughed, and a younger voice cried for him to leave her alone. "One. Two. Three—."
He paused when Harriet held up a wavering hand, no doubt thinking she meant to surrender. But, no—Harriet had all of her attention centered on the slender stone head pressed to the ceiling's ribbing as it had been for a thousand years. She was back in that barren room with Professor Dumbledore and the bust of Barnabus. She was standing in front of it, knowing what she wanted, what she needed, but not having the words.
Harriet extended her shaking hand and narrowed her eyes, throwing forward every last drop of her will—.
"Wake up," she hissed, spit flying through her clenched teeth. "Wake up. Listen to me. You are needed. Wake up."
Lestrange took a startled step back. "What in the hell are you—?"
Harriet didn't care that the room had gone deadly quiet or that somewhere outside of her vision, she knew Professor Slytherin was watching her with his cold, hateful eyes. "Wake up," she ordered the serpent. "Wake up, wake up—."
The spell struck Harriet, and she yelped, but Lestrange couldn't hold it for long, too exhausted by the repeated use of it throughout the evening.
"Wake up," Harriet continued to hiss through ragged breaths. "Wake up, wake up—."
"Are you touched in the head?" Lestrange demanded, his own chest rising and falling in heavy gasps, his eyes wild in confusion and no small amount of fear. "Stop it! I said stop—!"
Overhead, the mortar cracked and crumbled, and a collective gasp rang in the common room as the stone serpent peeled itself from the ceiling and lunged for Lestrange. He jumped back with a shocked exclamation, but not before the snake collided with the floor, its coils cracking and breaking as it bent unnaturally to move. It hissed and sank tiny fangs as sharp as daggers into Accipto's thigh. He screamed.
Harriet flung herself from the floor like a Seeker caught in mid-dive and leapt, her hand closing around her wand, shoulder knocking Lestrange's away. She twisted, coming face to face with his pained, shocked expression, and pointed her wand between his eyes.
The force of the spell threw Lestrange from her, and he crumpled, the snake's stone head still attached to his leg. The rest of the creature's body shattered and broke, whatever paltry spark of Harriet's magic that had animated it not enough to give it proper form or longevity. It crumbled like so much charred soot.
Swaying where she stood, she looked down at the broken pieces, the gray bits splintered to nothing under her feet, centuries-old craftsmanship gone in an instant. The emerald chips in its eyes dulled.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, still breathing hard. The air still tasted of smoke and ash. "I'm sorry."
Lestrange didn't move.
A chair creaked, and robes rippled. Harriet turned, limping, to see Professor Slytherin rise from his seat, his gaze boring into her like the sharp edge of a sword hanging above her throat. No one said a word until Slytherin stirred, his tongue wetting his lower lip in an agitated gesture.
"It appears Potter wins. Congratulations, Apprentice."
She had won. She had done it—but Harriet felt no elation, no joy. She simply felt tired.
Cheers erupted, tinged with groans and boos from Lestrange's friends and lackeys, though Harriet hardly heard them. Professor Slytherin had crossed the barrier and was coming toward her, his red eyes blazing with rage.
Harriet glanced again toward the broken statue on the floor and felt her heart stop beating.
A/N: Title from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, "Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt."
I hope you all enjoyed the duels! Those are a lot of work to write aha. Honestly, I feel like Lestrange would have used more silent magic, BUT it would be rather dry to read. And I 100% wanted Livius there, but I worried it'd be a bit too deus ex machina or plot armor-like, y'know?
I also played around with the idea of Harriet losing, but Slytherin still choosing her just to prove it's his game, he makes the rules and can break them if he wants. In the end, I decided he wouldn't have taken her on: whatever shape he's in, Voldemort is hell-bent on his followers proving themselves. He wouldn't accept an apprentice—meant to be an extension of his will, a weapon in essence—who just lost in front of him.
Harriet: "Finally, this nonsense is behind me!"
Harriet: *realizes the reality of being Slytherin's apprentice*
Harriet: "LESTRANGE, I'VE CHANGED MY MIND."