cclxii. crux horrificus

Autumn fell across the highlands in a pall of colorful leaves and cold, northern squalls.

Life found a pattern at Hogwarts as it always did despite the hardships its occupants faced. Harriet kept an ear out for rumors, but she heard nothing about any further use of Umbridge's special quill in detentions. The witch did hand out a few detentions, but those were fulfilled with Filch polishing toilets or with Sprout preparing the greenhouses for winter. Mostly, Umbridge contented herself making sure everyone adhered to her petty rules, and following Harriet like a bad smell.

She didn't appear the morning after Slytherin's punishment, though she was there the next, claiming to have suffered a bad fall in her office that required recuperation. Whatever the case, she resumed her usual activity and didn't pay Harriet—or Slytherin—more mind than typical. Slytherin's Memory Charm had caused her to forget all recollection of the Hogsmeade trip. Harriet couldn't meet the woman's eye, and the tortured screaming added new ambiance to her bad dreams. In her worst nightmares, she enjoyed it.

She had detention with Professor Snape every night, which was less of a punishment and more of a chance to catch up on the obscene amount of homework assigned by the professors. Some evenings, they reviewed Slytherin's lessons, either by revising the material or practicing in mock-duels, and sometimes Snape strove to teach her new spells. On a few rare occasions, she served an actual detention, either disemboweling toads or sorting beetle eyes—and it never failed that would be an evening when Umbridge came sauntering through. Harriet didn't know how Snape anticipated her surprise inspections.

More often than not, Snape sat at his desk, neck-deep in work. Slytherin would come by, but rather than looking for Harriet, he would spend the time lounging in a conjured armchair like an indolent gargoyle, and he would complain to Snape. Harriet would sit in the corner, pretending to work on her homework, and she would listen to Slytherin monologue while Snape occasionally added comment and generally agreed with anything he said. Harriet concluded Slytherin needed to hear himself speak more than he needed to breathe, and the Potions Master suffered the brunt of it.

Twice, Snape glimpsed the thin bandage she kept wrapped around her hand, and he made as if to ask about it, but Harriet hid her hand in her robes, and the subject was dropped.

Hermione's personal project continued apace, or so she told Harriet. Whatever the case, no more burglary was required, and no Auror showed up to send anyone to gaol. Owls continued to pelt Hermione with post in the morning, and she read her letters with a smug expression over her morning tea.

Life wasn't ideal, but it settled like sand in the bottom of an hourglass, and Harriet stopped looking over her shoulder for emerging dangers at every turn.

She found new enjoyment in tutoring the younger students, immersing herself in their problems rather than her own. They had petty issues with one another that Harriet could solve simply by listening or giving a spot of advice. Once or twice, she needed to flick a bully between the brows and remind them to knock off their rubbish.

She wished everything could be so easy.

xXx

Harriet smothered yet another yawn into her robe's sleeve.

Sunlight filtered through the library's tall windows in reluctant bands of yellow and gold, setting dust motes alight in sleepy puffs and plumes that hung in the air. The wooden chair beneath her rump creaked as she leaned into the back of it, her wand resting against her lap.

It was a Saturday, and the smarter students had gone outside to enjoy one of the final warm days Hogwarts would experience until the new year, but Harriet was in the library among the dusty shelves, seated at the head of the longest table available. The failing heat outside made it stuffy, and Harriet felt like she might be coming down with a bit of a head cold.

"Potter?"

She sighed through her nose, then redirected her attention to the group of eager faces turned toward her. She forced a smile.

"Did you lot finish reading the chapter, then?" she asked. The cluster of Slytherin third-years nodded, joined by their fourth-year counterparts. "Okay. Then let's start with the proper form."

Harriet stood up and stepped around her chair so it wouldn't screech on the floor. "Your hand needs to start in the position like this—and I know the text tells you to arch your wand this way, but that's rubbish. It brings your arm out of alignment, see? When you're doing a spell like this, you want it to be in sync with the earth element. So that means you have to use the right rune…like this…so it lights all the proper pathways in the body. You gotta end it, right here, and—orchideous!"

Brilliant flowers sprung into existence—tangles of red columbine and edelweiss, bursts of goldenrod and lavender sprigs. Harriet caught the bouquet in her free hand, wincing at the sharpness of the stems.

"Whoa!"

"You make it look so easy," another complained.

"I don't understand why it has to have that flick at the end," Tasa Char complained, rubbing her cheek. "Professor McGonagall doesn't do it like that."

"Well, that's cos' Professor McGonagall's a genius, innit?" Harriet told her. "Insofar as her Transfiguration ability. When you do a certain spell enough times, your magic starts anticipating it. It's like we've all got big reservoirs of water inside of us, and when we practice magic, it starts forming creeks. The longer we practice, the creeks become more like rivers, right? So, for Professor McGonagall, she can make shortcuts, a bit." Harriet grimaced, wondering if she was explaining it right. It was part of the long, winding explanation Snape had given her about how witches and wizards could perform wordless spells. Part of it was learning how the words helped actuate the magic in your body and learning how it moved. Don't think this lot would appreciate me poorly reciting that mess.

"But why should we move our wand like this—." Rowan Mortuary mimicked how Harriet had shifted her hand, though not without hesitation. His arm wobbled. "Instead of how it's done in the textbook?"

"It's easier that way. Orchideous is aligned with the earth element, right?"

"Huh?"

She sighed again, setting the bouquet on the table. "Spells are inclined toward certain elements. Sometimes they're more obvious, and sometimes they're not. The Flower Conjuring Charm is all about plants, yeah? So it's safe to assume it's earth-inclined. That's why you use Jera in the movement." Harriet repeated the motion, a quick series of flicks. "Or you can use the alchemical rune instead. Sometimes one or the other works better."

Quills scratched over parchment, copying Harriet's words.

"You lot ready to try again?"

"Yes!"

Harriet gave them a moment to ready their wands, counted to three, and repeated the spell. Perhaps she should have reconsidered, especially given where they were—because next she knew, twenty-odd bouquets burst into being, a veritable explosion of greenery that spilled over the tables and chairs as students whooped and laughed. Madam Pince swept down upon them with a vengeance and kicked their lot from the library. Only Harriet's frazzled, repeated explanation about it being a practice session gone awry kept her from being permanently banned for the rest of the term.

Pince eventually ran out of steam and started clearing the foliage. Ivy had started climbing the table legs. Shouldering her bag, Harriet hurried for the doors. Should have anticipated that happening.

"You are a good teacher."

Harriet froze upon hearing the familiar voice, but she forced herself not to stiffen, to turn her head and look toward Madam Pince's receiving desk. Viktor Krum stood there, his shoulders slouched and his stance a tad awkward as he held a stack of tomes. He was waiting for Pince to return.

"I vatched you teaching," he continued, shuffling his feet. "You are very patient vith them. It is a good trait."

"I could probably do better," Harriet admitted. "Sometimes their questions can be irritating and I get a tad short."

He snorted, a soft huff through his large nose. "Da, but it is their job. All children are irritating, at least a little bit." Krum shook his head and leaned his elbow on the desk to take more of the weight in his arms. "But your mistake vas doing these lessons in the library. Not a good place."

Harriet grimaced. She couldn't disagree with him there. She wanted to say it hadn't been a lesson—but really, who was she fooling? These small tutoring sessions had turned into full-blown lessons, and she'd started giving serious thought to what Hermione had said before about teaching the younger students important magic. Stuff that could save their life if they ever got cornered by a Dark wizard on a lonely night.

It didn't save Terry, she thought, a pang going through her chest. But maybe it could help somebody else.

"Have you considered offering help to more than just the Slytherins?" Krum asked.

"I do. Or, well, I have, in the past." Harriet shrugged. "It gets a bit difficult when everyone's a different year and wants to work on different stuff."

"Hmm." Krum's brow furrowed as he thought, a slight frown on his mouth. Harriet studied him again, making note of all the differences she saw between him and Barty Crouch Junior. Krum had a certain calmness to him, an assurance Crouch lacked, the Death Eater always still but buzzing with discomfort. Krum scowled more, and he didn't much appreciate the fans who followed him around the school. Harriet once heard him telling an overzealous sixth-year, "It is very flattering, but I am here to learn. I vill not sign autographs unless I am on the pitch." Crouch had gotten a kick out of it.

"I could help you vit that."

"What?" Harriet asked, startled from her inspection.

"Vit the tutoring? If you find a better place than this." He tipped his head from one side to the other to indicate the library as a whole. "And let the younger ones of other Houses come. I vould assist the teaching."

Blinking, all Harriet could ask, "But why would you do that? Isn't that a waste of your time?"

"I am needing the—what is it called? Revisions?" His mouth pulled to one side, and Harriet noticed several of the books he held weren't meant for a seventh-year. "Hogwarts and Durmstrang have different curricula. Vat might be on my N.E. here is not vat is necessarily taught there."

"Oh," Harriet said, realizing what he meant. "So you have to revise everything from the beginning of first year? Bloody hell."

"It is a task." He nodded. "But in my revising, I could help others who need to learn."

"That—that'd be great," Harriet replied, meaning it. She did enjoy assisting others, but sometimes she found herself running short on time, especially this year, what with her O. looming and Slytherin's exacting schedule sucking the life out of her. Having help would be excellent. "I'll let you know if I find a better place for the lessons."

"Good. I vill vait."

Harriet departed the library, eager to leave before Madam Pince came screeching from cleaning up the mess at the long table. As she walked, she considered Krum's request again, humming in thought under her breath. Hogwarts had no shortage of open classrooms, but none Harriet would feel comfortable using. It'd be silly for her to be at the front, behind a lectern, like a real professor—and so many rooms weren't the kind that lent themselves to open spellcasting. There wasn't enough room, and Harriet worried about what might have found a home in those dark, dusty crevices. She didn't need to terrify children with a rampant Boggart or Bugbear.

She shoved her hands into her pocket, her posture abysmal, and she walked. She was alone in the corridor, but ahead in the main stair vault, she could hear voices echoing and bouncing off the stone walls. She'd nearly made it there when a persistent tugging against her ankles slowed her steps.

Harriet clenched her jaw. "What do you want?" she muttered, glaring toward the floor. Her shadow thickened, and one of Set's long, bony arms stretched across the floor toward the opposite wall. Harriet looked at it, and her eyes narrowed behind her spectacles.

Her path to the stairwell had brought her past a mirror—a particular mirror made of a particular element, fused to the wall by a particular Founder. Harriet grunted, but she followed Set's pointing finger, and she walked over to the Moon Mirror. She stood there for a long moment and considered her reflection as she tried to recall the exact password and where this mirror should go. The young woman reflected on the silver surface was like a stranger to Harriet: her robes dark and bespoke, white cord against her chest, her hair carefully managed, purple circles hanging below dull, flat eyes. She felt old—aged.

"Despina," she said, and when she placed her palm against the mirror, it sank through.

The familiar stale air inside the Aerie filled Harriet's nose when she reappeared, and she twitched it, never quite able to fully shake the unease she'd felt here since her second year, at least not when she first stepped inside. Her disquiet faded as she looked about and found nothing out of the ordinary.

"Well, what do you want me to do?" she said to the floor, hands on her hips, not needing to hide her voice. "Because if I don't know where I'm going, I'll end up wandering for an hour and getting nowhere."

Set swirled for a moment, almost as if uncertain. Then, he pulsed, rising from the floor to stand before her. The hair on Harriet's nape stood on end as she peered into the black, featureless face, the planes of it too long and too uncanny to belong to anything human. Then, he gestured for Harriet to follow, and she did so despite the chills rolling down her spine like tumbling Nifflers.

Apparently, with Set leading the way, the Aerie followed his will instead of Harriet's as they passed from the corridor through the arch into a new room. It was filled with books, just like most of the Aerie, though a tangible dread hung above them like a dim, damp veil. Harriet shivered when she realized these were most likely Dark texts.

Set dissipated back into the shadow that had formed him, and he reached past the unfading magelights to one of the shelves. Harriet picked her way closer through the crooked, looming stacks—but when she stood before Set's selection, she couldn't bring herself to touch it. The feeling oozing from its surface buzzed in her teeth and burned her neck.

Set slipped beneath the tome's thick, gray spine and jostled it closer.

"All right, all right," Harriet grumbled, searching through her robe pockets. Most students her age had learned to carry a simple pair of single-layer dragonhide gloves, given all the nasty things they might encounter in lessons. She hoped they would be enough to protect her.

Gloves on, the magic imbued in the pages still boiled against her skin and turned Harriet's stomach, but she managed to gingerly take the book in hand. She allowed it to fall open, jostling the hand-stitched signatures until the front section exposed itself.

"And of the arte possessing weorth, that which brings man closest to God and His divine nature," she read, muttering the words as her finger hovered above the old, crumbling page. "We encase upon parchment the noble sanction, the crux horrificus, or as it may be assimilated, the Horcrux—."

Harriet's breath left her in a sharp, shuddering exhale. Below her, Set sank into the floor, vanishing from view, and the book seemed to grow all the more threatening for his disappearance.

This is about Horcruxes. About how to make them. She eased the tome shut, seized by the sudden desire to throw it as far as she could—to set it ablaze, to curse or just bloody laugh. She did none of those things, standing quiet and stoic with a look of thoughtful disdain on her face as she held a book that would see her locked up in Azkaban if found on her person.

In all her studying and practicing with Snape, Dumbledore, and McGonagall, Harriet had come to understand the necessity of learning things she didn't necessarily care about simply to know how they could be undone. Snape, in one of his more loquacious moods, had spoken on the intricacies of potion brewing, particularly in identifying how a brew might go wrong.

"Potions is nothing but memorization and patience. Instinct comes with time, but knowing the ingredients and learning how they interact will tell you anything you wish to know about a brew."

"But what's the point in that, then?"

"The point is knowing how to counteract whatever nonsense you and your classmates manage to bungle in my lab, twit."

Harriet chewed on her lip, her heart thumping a bit faster in her chest.

If this tells someone how to make a Horcrux, can I use it to know how to destroy one?

Holding the book in both hands, Harriet strode out of the dusty, eerie room Set had led her to, and she reentered the corridor beyond. Closing her eyes, she concentrated, then stepped back across the threshold. Rather than reentering the room, she found herself in the portrait study she, Elara, and Hermione had taken over as their own, the place where the Atlas stored its ever-expanding pages. Harriet continued through the space, still holding the book, and pointedly didn't look to see if the Founders were in their frames.

Instead, she pressed on, and when she reached Ravenclaw's workshop, Harriet fussed around until she found a sturdy, if dated, trunk. She dropped the book inside with little fanfare, then threw the latch shut, layering on the ward she preferred for her own luggage in the dorms. She tucked it under Ravenclaw's workbench for safekeeping.

"That'll be a nice, depressing read later," she said to herself, adjusting her satchel. "Though, I'll have to figure out an excuse for how I found it. Hermione and Elara will have kittens."

Whistling, Harriet made her way to the nearest Moon Mirror. As she went, she couldn't help but remark. "You know, this wouldn't be a bad space for lessons…."