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Chapter Ten—Foiled Harvests
"I d-don't know who he was."
Lucius withheld his impatient snarl. He knew, and would have known without Legilimency, that the Muggle woman was telling the truth. She didn't know who had come and taken Harry Potter, a child who would have sustained multiple purebloods on the harvests to be drawn from him.
Of course, Lucius didn't deny himself the pleasure of ripping her mind apart anyway. But the image that he received in return was less than satisfying. A ripple of dark robes and a grey blur for a face. But the man hadn't carried his wand openly, and she retained no exact memory of his voice. There was nothing to go on.
Lucius closed his eyes. It irritated him that he had nothing to go on, particularly as what had previously been a minor issue had escalated in importance in the last several days.
Lucius glanced over his shoulder. Behind him, Walden Macnair, clad in the dark red robes of Dangerous Beast Control, smiled and inclined his head a little. The heavy axe of his office stood next to him, gleaming.
"Would you give her to me, Minister?" Macnair locked his eyes on the Muggle woman, who slumped drooling in the chains that bound her to the floor in the Interrogation Chamber.
"What for, Macnair?" Lucius asked, curious. "She can provide you no satisfying figure to execute." Macnair lived for executions and eliminations, but he practiced his art solely on goblins, hippogriffs, and the like. All of them were savages who had no place in a proper pureblood society, however much they might be tolerated within certain bounds, and all of them stepped out of line and showed that savage nature sooner or later. Macnair's department was growing monthly.
"That young Nundu is growing listless, sir."
Lucius laughed. Of course; he should have known. Muggles had some uses, after all, and Nundus preferred their prey living. "Go ahead and do it, Macnair. I would give you the husband and the boy, too, but I'm afraid they've already succumbed."
"I think she'll still have the wit to run," Macnair said happily, and waited patiently while Lucius unlocked the chains that bound the Muggle spread-eagled, then used his wand to float her into the air. She banged her leg on the doorway as she went through it, and whimpered, which made Macnair laugh exultantly. She could still feel pain, and that meant she would be excellent prey for a Nundu.
Or so Lucius assumed. Creatures weren't his area of expertise.
Sighing, he left the interrogation room, with its polished stone floor and ceiling and walls that acted as mirrors to reflect any attack made on the interrogator back on the one making it, and made his way to the nearest lift. It was time to visit St. Mungo's, and although he didn't carry good news with him, he hoped that he might soothe the man waiting there anyway.
Arthur leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed. His little Evangeline's hand was hot and sweaty in his. No change, the Healers had told him.
The same thing that they'd told him yesterday. And the day before that.
Evangeline was sunken deep enough in a protective coma that she didn't feel any pain, but Arthur could feel it for her. The fever was raging through her body, eating up her magic. It was an ailment that happened—sometimes—to young children born through the recently-discovered fertility methods. Their magic fell out of harmony with their bodies and worked like this. Some of them died.
Some of them woke Squibs, and given the state of their world lately, Arthur honestly wasn't sure which one was worse.
Arthur jumped, and let go of Evangeline's hand. "Minister Malfoy, sir." He stood up and bowed hastily, but couldn't help casting a glance back at his daughter, her red hair spread out over the pillow. "Thank you for coming."
Malfoy studied the girl in the bed for a moment, then sighed. "A pity. I am sorry to have to tell you, Arthur, that the treatment we were counting on is not forthcoming. The child that would have been powerful enough to provide it is missing from his home."
Arthur shuddered and put his hand over his eyes, for once not caring about looking weak in front of Malfoy. He had only managed to get Molly to go home and sleep and see Ginny because the Ministry's Aurors had reassured him the cure would be forthcoming.
How can you even think of that cure as a good thing? You know where it comes from!
But Arthur didn't care, not right now. His own children were the most precious people in the world to him. He couldn't do anything for Mudbloods and half-bloods, but he could save Evangeline, if they could find a child of great enough power to harvest and add some of that magic to hers.
"Is there—is there anything else we can do?" he whispered, and flinched a little when Malfoy touched his shoulder.
"There are other children who can be harvested," Malfoy acknowledged slowly. "But they were being saved for some particularly worthy servants of mine. You know that if I harvest one of them to save your girl, the price will be higher."
"I know that." Arthur licked his lips. They tasted dry. And he knew the real price would be falling deeper and deeper into Malfoy's debt, and giving up some of the moral clarity that he had always thought he possessed, when—when Albus was alive.
"Then I'll give the orders. As long as you understand."
Arthur turned back to Evangeline, lying motionless in the bed. "I do. I'll—do whatever it takes."
I have to, he told himself, as Malfoy left the room. I can't do anything for random Mudblood kids or the one that'll be harvested for her, but I can do something for my own children. And what kind of parent would I be if my own children weren't the most important people in the world to me?
"You are ready, Mrs. Malfoy?"
"I am." Narcissa smiled at the Unspeakable who had brought in the chosen Mudbloods. The woman gave a deep bow to her and stepped back.
They were in the Transformation Room at the center of the Department of Mudblood Control, a large place sheathed in red stone streaked with black. Narcissa had always thought that such colors provided a good background to cast her magic against, and with a spell as delicate as this one, she needed all the advantages she could get.
If only my wayward cousin had not…
But Narcissa put the thoughts from her head. She had only managed to secure house arrest for Sirius in the first place because he was her cousin. If he chose to give up on that option and run away to his death, far be it from her to take a risk for him.
Pure blood, alas, also had to be spilled from time to time.
The Mudbloods crouching in front of her in chains whimpered. Narcissa caught hold of that whimper and blended it with her memory of casting this spell the other times, and the stone around her sang subtly in answer.
The magic rose in her, circled the center of her chest, and spread outwards.
The spell broke from her wand as Narcissa opened her eyes and became three pointed and sparkling spears of light. They traveled straight towards the Mudbloods, who tried to flinch away from them but couldn't, because of their bonds.
When the spell touched them, they began to scream, despite the gags in their mouths.
Narcissa watched with a calm, expert eye as the power bent and reformed them, molding them into their new shapes, the ones they would wear until death. Bones broke and splintered, and then flowed back together, stronger than before. Their faces elongated to form the powerful jaws and long noses they would need. Strong new teeth pushed through their gums. Their skin rippled into patterns of black and red that echoed the stone around them—not necessary for their task, but ensuring they resonated more easily with the magic Narcissa had used, and that they would be able to use more power for their duties and less for growing a full coat of fur, which was unnecessary.
Narcissa smiled as their voices twisted and their brains changed last of all, becoming burning balls of rage focused around their prey.
"Sirius Black," she said, as the Unspeakable waved her wand and broke the chains that bound the new Hounds. "He is your target."
The one on the left howled first, and then the one on the right, before the one in the middle joined in. Their voices soared and tangled together, and then they sprang forwards, large clawed hands and feet lying flat on the floor.
Their bodies blurred, and they ran through the wall. Such barriers would not stop them or slow them down. And they would run faster than any mortal creature, propelled by the magic that locked them onto Sirius, that made them hate him, a variant of the seeking magic that post-owls used.
No matter where he hid, Sirius could not shed his name. It made a better tie than any scent, which might be washed away or confused.
Narcissa sighed a little as her sense of the Hounds faded. That was the one disadvantage of the spell, that the creator could not remain in contact with the dogs as they sped along the hunt.
But Sirius would have, at the most, an ill-suited wand that he would have found somewhere and wouldn't have mastered, and even if he could Apparate, or if he left the country, it wouldn't matter. He would have to stop and rest. The Hounds didn't.
Her cousin was as good as gone. And all because he hadn't tried hard enough to fit into the world where being a pureblood would have given him such an advantage.
Narcissa dismissed her concerns as she had dismissed Sirius the moment she found out about his escape, and turned her attention to other things.
The first howl woke Sirius out of a sound sleep.
He bolted to his feet, already in dog form, and elevated his sensitive ears to listen. For long moments, he thought he had been mistaken. He was in the Forest of Dean, one of the places he had thought he would be able to go without being immediately found, and there were distant calls and noises from a variety of wildlife and even Muggle vehicles if his senses reached far enough. He'd burned up the one wand he had access to escaping his prison house, and he couldn't Apparate, but a dog could endure journeys on foot that his human form wouldn't.
Then he heard it again. And he knew what it was, this time. The Daily Prophet he'd still been allowed to receive during his years of imprisonment had described the sound exactly: the train whistle of the Hogwarts Express, crossed with the howl of a werewolf.
Sirius stood and felt the despair well inside him. He had thought—well, that they wouldn't bother to pursue him. Not that much. That they wouldn't care, since he was a pureblood. That they would, at the most, send Aurors out to do the job.
Aurors, he could have evaded.
Sirius tightened his muscles against the thought. James and Lily hadn't given up, even when they'd thought matters were hopeless. He wouldn't, either. He wouldn't just lie on the ground like helpless prey and wait for the Hounds to find him.
He whirled and began to run.
"They're using Hounds on him."
Tom glanced sharply at Lupin. They had searched around the outside of the house that Black had been imprisoned in, and only managed to locate a raveled place in the wards that had been worked over by the wands of experts. And now they were in the middle of the Forbidden Forest, where Lupin thought Black might have come to hide because of old memories he had shared with his schoolboy friends.
But Lupin's head was lifted and his attention directed far outside the Forest, from the angle of his head. His nostrils were flaring, and his chest rumbling as if someone had started a forge inside it.
"How do you know?" Tom asked. He knew perfectly well what Hounds were, but he had never heard of anyone who wasn't their prey sensing them from a distance. The Hounds were designed to be audible and visible only to the one they were hunting, at least until they were close enough that they would pursue on foot instead of by blurring across distances. That, of course, was on purpose; it wouldn't do to disturb the Muggles and the "good" citizens of the magical world living in the spaces the Hounds might have to cross, or to have someone standing up in a doomed and heroic effort to save the one being hunted at the last minute.
And it also meant that the last moments of the "prey" would be lived in terror.
Lucius had been the one to create the spell. Tom had created a special punishment just for him, in return.
"I'm a werewolf," Lupin said shortly. "Those things disturb the canine fabric of the country. Put too much weight on it."
Tom determined that he would ask what this "canine fabric" was later. For now, he held out his hand. "Can you Apparate us?"
Lupin glanced at him even as he clasped Tom's arm. "You intend to kill one? Do you know how hard it is?"
"Yes." Tom smiled at him. "I've done it before."
Lupin's golden eyes narrowed in consideration, and then he nodded, and they were gone.
Sirius ran. And ran.
And ran, when it felt as if his paws would drop off and his jaws could no longer close over his lolling tongue.
But he couldn't stop, and he couldn't slow down, and the triple howls behind him continued to move closer, hauntingly. Sirius's ears were picking up, now, the sound of paws other than his own in the leaf litter, but he didn't know if that meant the Hounds were right behind him, or if they were sending the noise of their running ahead of them as a taunt. It sounded like the sort of consequence the spell to develop them might have come up with.
His ribs shuddered with the bounce of his heart as he toiled up a small hill and down into a hollow that was half-filled by an old fallen tree. Leaves crunched under his paws. Sirius slowed down, because he had to, in the shade of the log, long enough to draw in one shuddering breath.
The Hounds crested the hill.
They were wild, twisted creatures, running on four legs that all looked like human arms with wicked claws at the ends of them, red-and-black skins that weren't clothed in fur rippling and stretching. But their heads, with the thick fangs set close together in crocodile-like mouths, were what Sirius needed to worry about, and he didn't see any weaknesses in them.
Sirius gave a single warning bark, which the Hounds ignored, as he had suspected they would. He backed up and put his tail to a tree. He would try to sell his life as dearly as possible, the way he had been prepared to when he and Remus went after the murderers of Lily and James.
The nearest Hound reached the bottom of the hill and paused to howl. Sirius shuddered from the amount of hatred in the sound. He had sometimes wondered whether the spell made Hounds confuse their prey with the people who had transformed them.
He supposed he would never know, now.
The Hound's eyes fastened on him, and bubbling snarls slid past its teeth. It tramped towards him, while the others came down the hill behind it and spread out in a triangle formation. Sirius's flanks heaved with his panting. He would remain in dog form, as he had a better chance of fighting them this way, but it was inevitable he'd lose.
The sharp cracks of Apparition rang through the air, then, and Sirius jerked his head up. Had the Hounds' handlers come to see the kill?
Not that it would matter if they had. The Hounds were utterly focused on the one they hunted once made. They wouldn't turn to their handlers and wag their tails or fawn on them or anything else.
Sirius turned his head to see who had come to him—taking his eyes off the Hounds for a moment wouldn't really matter one way or the other—and then gasped sharply as he saw a wolf leaping its way from underneath a pile of robes. Bigger than the Hounds, the wolf hit the nearest one in the side, tumbling it over and over. The Hound sprang up and tried to get to Sirius around the bulk of the wolf, but Remus (it was him, it had to be him) hit it again, and clenched his jaws around its shoulder.
The other man who had Apparated in was unfamiliar to Sirius, but the power snapping about him attracted even the Hounds' attention, for a moment. The man, his dark eyes narrowed, waved his wand and conjured a whistling whirlwind of sharp-edged, transparent shards. Sirius blinked. Glass?
Then the nearest Hound leaped for his throat, and Sirius had enough problems of his own to stop him from paying attention to others for a while.
As always, joy overwhelmed him when he tasted the blood.
Remus sprang back from the Hound, staring for a moment at the shoulder-wound. The Hound wasn't paying attention to it, its blazing eyes still fixed on Sirius, trying to circle around Remus even now. So that meant Remus could stand there for a moment and let the keenness, the expansion of his senses, swamp him, without fearing that he'd lose the fight because of it.
The creature's blood tasted awful, more like acid than the liquid that ran in the veins of a deer or boar. It didn't matter. Remus was alive, now, and the Hound was on the verge of no longer being so.
The twisted creature tried to leap above him. Remus jumped to meet it, and they twisted in midair for a heart-gripping moment before they sprawled on the earth again. The Hound snarled and snapped at Remus, forced to give him some attention before the end, and Remus howled in rage and sank his teeth home.
When he tore his head to the side, the Hound's throat tore with it. Remus rose from the death splattered with blood and ignored the instinct to feed on the corpse, whirling about to deal with the others.
Tom crashed his whirlwind of ice into the Hound that was second in line for Black, behind the one that had already jumped. Tom would deal with that one in a moment, once he was sure there was no chance of catching Black in the strike.
The ice gripped the Hound and constricted inwards, bending bone as if forcing the creature back into human shape. Tom had actually attempted that once, but that one attempt had been all he needed to learn that the Hounds went mad when transformed. No matter what he did, he couldn't reclaim their humanity for them.
But the ice-storm that sheathed the Hound's body a second later would at least be a quick death. Tom admired the thick layer of blue, transparent ice for a moment, then conjured a sledgehammer in the air. It swung through a huge arc before smashing into the Hound and scattering the frozen pieces of its body in a spout like sparks from a firework.
Tom turned to find that Lupin had dealt with one of the Hounds and was stalking towards the third, which was worrying Sirius Black's dog form by the throat. Tom narrowed his eyes in irritation. You had better survive, Black.
Sirius whined in desperation as he discovered his windpipe crumpling under the assault of the Hound's teeth. He had bitten its shoulders and legs and got his hind feet into position to rake its belly like a cat, but it wasn't paying any attention to those minor injuries. Hounds were made to kill their prey before anything else, and that was what was happening now.
Blackness spun around his eyes, and Sirius let his head fall back, surrendering to the pain. He wondered, for a moment, if he would see James and Lily, and how they would feel about him failing their son.
Then the weight was suddenly gone. Sirius rolled onto his side and lay there, panting so hard he couldn't move further.
It didn't matter, not when he was in the perfect position to see Remus grip the Hound's tail and toss it away like a toy. It corkscrewed back onto its feet, of course, unnatural thing that it was, and Remus charged and hit it with an explosion of grey fur and black-orange skin.
A literal explosion. Sirius cowered despite himself when a sharp shower of blood struck his face, and turned it away. But not before he saw the third Hound's severed halves lying on the leaf-strewn floor of the clearing like discarded rags.
He glanced at the man he didn't know. He wasn't sure what had happened to the second Hound—there was no trace of it that he could see—but it wasn't here, and that was good enough for him.
"Black. Can you understand me?"
Sirius glanced up as the man crouched in front of him. Sirius considered him for a long moment, and decided there was nothing to be gained from playing the mindless dog. He moved his tail and head at the same time, then laid his head back down again with another whimper.
"That one nearly tore his throat out, from the looks of it," Remus said. He was in human form again, and Sirius would have barked in astonishment if he could have. The last time he'd seen his friend, Remus hadn't been able to switch back and forth so fast, even though he'd thoroughly embraced his wolf by then. Remus even had his robes already slung around him. "I'd like him looked at by a qualified Healer."
"There's one at Fortius."
Sirius blinked and would have barked a question if not for Remus's restraining hand on his flank. Then this was a professor at the school where Harry was probably located now? He looked closely at the man and decided that there was a likeness from some of the newspaper photographs he'd seen.
I'll remember in a moment, Sirius told himself, and then the man waved his wand, and the tidal wave of sleep that claimed him didn't allow him to think anymore.
Tom frowned thoughtfully as they came out of the Apparition near Fortius's gates. Black was, on the one hand, a liability because he was a pureblood, and an escaped convict. And although he had managed to become an Animagus at a young age, and that augured impressive magical strength, he didn't have the cunning to make proper use of that power, from all Tom had ever heard of him.
On the other hand, Black had access to knowledge and spells that would make him formidable—or would make the one who used them in his place formidable. And he was a chain on both the affections of Harry Potter and Remus Lupin, two individuals Tom would make sacrifices to keep at Fortius. That was probably enough reason to shelter him.
"How much did blood politics matter to your friend?" he murmured to Lupin as they guided Black into the wide, airy infirmary, built like marble, as were many buildings at Fortius. An enchantment on the windows imbued every breeze that came in with a fraction of healing magic, so the touch of air on a patient's body could make them stronger, soothing burned skin and mending broken bones.
Lupin stared at him over the floating stretcher that held Black's canine form. "As much as they do to me. We'll slaughter any pureblood supremacists who get near us."
Tom made a small impatient noise. "I know that. Did he ever have moments of arrogance that can be attributed to his blood? I know how he grew up, and the influence of a few years of Hogwarts schooling—"
Healer Awi Kapadia interrupted him, stepping up to the stretcher with her wand extended. "I am not usually expected to heal dogs."
"He's an Animagus," Tom said. "Do you want us to turn him back to human form? I didn't know if he was too badly wounded to make the transition without bleeding more."
Awi ran her wand above Black's ribs, ignoring the way that Lupin snarled at her. Many of Tom's professors had no particular prejudice against werewolves, but only Awi was comfortable enough with them not to jump at the sound; her sister was one. "No, that was the right decision at the time," Awi muttered, shoving a fold of her robe out of the way. "But now we'll have to change him. Step back, please."
Tom retreated willingly, but Lupin stared at the Healer. "Why?"
Awi glanced at him. "Your eyes don't frighten me."
Lupin blinked, and some of the golden glow died.
"Because I know that you're emotionally compromised, and you'll get in the way and try to pin him down or some such nonsense when he starts flailing." Awi snapped her wand in a circle punctuated with jagged swishes, and Black trembled and melted back into an emaciated, dirty man covered with matted dark hair. Tom shook his head. Black could have kept his hair trimmed in captivity, but presumably he'd chosen not to.
"Emotionally compromised." Lupin wasn't snarling, but he hadn't moved far away from Black, even as Awi decanted him onto a regular infirmary bed.
"Torn throat, long-term malnutrition, fractured ribs," Awi said, and studied Black for a moment longer before she turned sharp brown eyes to Tom. "You'll need to make sure that you grant me free rein with him, sir."
"Granted," Tom said at once. Awi had two sets of treatments for her patients, one less stringent than the other. But for chronic cases like the malnutrition Black had endured, Tom had no qualms with giving her all the freedom she needed.
"What does free rein mean?" Lupin asked. Now he sounded closer to snarling, but at least he had eased away from the bed. He watched intently as pink ribbons of light curled out of Awi's wand, covering Black until it looked as if he was tied to the bed and completely obscured from sight.
"She'll work up a complete treatment plan for him, and cast any diagnostic scans she feels are relevant," Tom said, and urged Lupin towards the door. When he seemed disposed to linger, Tom rolled his eyes and cast a spell of his own devising on Lupin's feet, one that sent him surging along as if on roller skates in the direction Tom desired. Lupin caught himself, flailing, on the doorway, and Tom canceled the spell. "Otherwise, she'll hold back to respect patients' privacy. Some of our students here value their privacy greatly enough for that, or would need their parents' permission for certain kinds of healing."
"You're not granting Sirius that privacy."
"No, because he's an outsider," Tom said. "He could be a threat to my students, and I'll take no chances with them, Lupin. Even if he gets back on his feet fast enough to suit me, I'll insist on psychological investigation. There's no telling what ten years of solitary confinement did to him."
"He wouldn't hurt Harry."
"And the other students? Would you give the same surety for that?"
Lupin hesitated. Then he said, "I would give the same surety for Sirius that I would for myself."
"But you haven't been imprisoned for a decade. You haven't had to spend all your time brooding on the fact that you might never walk in free air again."
"I'm a werewolf."
Tom walked a few steps, then turned around and sighed impatiently when he realized that Lupin was standing behind him, staring at him and waiting for something. Condemnation, likely. "Lupin, haven't I managed to convince you that that by itself doesn't matter to me? It's how you behave that does, and the same for Black and anyone else that I allow access to Fortius and my students."
"Not everyone would have your patience. Or your distrust of Sirius."
Tom stared evenly back at him. "Do you want to leave?" They wouldn't be allowed to take either Harry or their memories of this place, but Tom wasn't in the habit of keeping prisoners, either. It was too dangerous to his continuing work.
Lupin gave a tight shake of his head. "I—forgive me. After running without allies for so long, it's easier to think of them as something that only happened to me in the past, not the present."
Tom considered that, then nodded. "Very well. You will want to go to your quarters, I think. You're too tired to be making decisions with long-lasting effects right now."
"I hoped I might meet Harry."
"Not with blood on you," Tom drawled, gesturing to the long splatter that decorated Lupin's robes.
Lupin stared down in a stillness that told Tom he truly hadn't noticed, and then shook his head. "I will clean myself."
"Good." Tom turned and led Lupin across the grass to guest quarters. Always best to make sure that the man didn't get lost along the way.
Remus shifted to wolf the moment he was done casting the spells that cleaned the blood off his robes. There was a bit of it clinging to his leg when he'd transformed, but he licked it off, slowly and thoughtfully, flicking his ears back and forth as the distant sounds of the school came to him. He listened for Harry's voice, but couldn't pick it out among the sounds of closing doors, laughter, yells, singing winds, and clanging bells.
Perhaps he didn't have to. As he curled up on the bed and settled into a light doze, maintaining enough connection with the world around him to react instantly in the case of a threat, Remus thought he might have come the closest he could to peace in this world.
He had Sirius back. Soon they would have Harry.
And perhaps this "revolution" that Riddle was intent on pushing would have some beneficial effects for them all.
Sirius woke with a gasping cry and stared at the ceiling. Then he frowned. It wasn't the familiar sight with the dotted, glowing stars of his father's name constellation that he had seen every day for the last ten years, but an arched, gleaming stone vault that looked as if Polishing Charms had been used on every rib.
Then he remembered.
Sirius closed his eyes and lay still. He could feel, if he simply listened and turned his head from side to side, how much larger this healing hall was than the room he had spent so much time in. How much larger the entire grounds of Fortius were than his house, in fact.
If he wept in relief, there was no one there to see and condemn him.