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Chapter Forty—Strange Alliances
"I'm sorry, Professor Riddle. I was sure that I'd have the runes figured out by now."
Tom shook his head. "Miss Johnson, the failure isn't yours. If the best runemasters and scholars that we have here can't figure it out, that's our problem."
Angelina gave him a grateful smile before putting her head down on the table and simply going to sleep. Nora looked in from the doorway, and Tom nodded, gathering up the scroll on which Angelina had written down the runes she was working with.
"Yes, yes, I'll leave her to sleep. You needn't be afraid that I'll keep her up all night."
"I'd be happy if you checked the wards near the gates," Nora said coolly, and walked over to smooth her cousin's hair back from her forehead. "Something passed them a while ago, I think, but not something that triggered alarms."
Tom nodded. He hadn't felt that himself, and he thought that Nora's magic might simply be reacting to a student or professor who had come too near the wards, but it would provide a distraction from the bitter unease curdling in the bottom of his stomach.
He had heard nothing from Andromeda since her terse description of Narcissa proposing a Render would be built on the backs of a bunch of sacrificed people. And while that might not have bothered him if he had still been able to trust in intelligence reports from Narcissa, he hadn't had those in some time. The Elder Wand had found out about his Imperius Curse on her and severed it even before Lucius's death.
Tom stepped out onto the grounds and stared up towards the clouds. They towered overhead, racing towards the east. Tom felt a few slaps of raindrops on his face, and shivered. They wouldn't be even that gentle for long.
He turned his head abruptly towards his office. Someone was waiting for him there, and he didn't know how he knew. Perhaps the brush of magic that Nora had felt over her senses.
Tom extended his own senses towards the gates, just to make sure that no one was really walking along them or trying to break in, and felt nothing. He broke into an abrupt jog towards his office.
Professor Riddle wasn't in, and the longer Harry waited, the more nervous he became. If Professor Riddle was already awake in the middle of the night, he might have a worse emergency to deal with, and wouldn't appreciate Harry just showing up.
You have no need to be afraid of him. You are a war wizard, and you carry me.
Harry just shook his head grimly. The cloak could talk all it liked, but it had never been human and had a relationship with a mentor.
The cloak was just starting some tale of a time that it had belonged to a student who'd been mentored by the Headmaster of Hogwarts when the door to the office was flung open. Harry started to his feet. "Sir?" he asked. Professor Riddle's hair was wet, and he looked pale and wild.
"I felt a power in my office that I didn't understand." Professor Riddle's eyes swept across Harry and then came to rest on the cloak. "But now I do. You found the Deathly Hallow that Andromeda's foretelling said would be associated with you."
"It came and found me, really," Harry said, a little helplessly. "It wanted me to warn you that the Elder Wand has corrupted Draco Malfoy and taken over someone in Malfoy Manor who was feeding you information."
Professor Riddle's eyebrows arched. "It is a little behind the time. I did have Narcissa Malfoy under the Imperius and feeding me information, but she hasn't done so for some weeks now. The Wand cut the connection so that she could become a better servant to it and not undermine her husband's plans, I think."
I meant Andromeda Tonks, the cloak said, with a shiver that made Harry feel as if his magic was dividing in the bottom of his belly. He did his best to ignore the squirming sensation and told Professor Riddle what the cloak had said.
"Of course it did," Professor Riddle said, with a small, hard smile that made Harry more uncomfortable than the cloak had. "Well. I will not trust any report that Andromeda sends me. I wonder…" He tilted his head, then shrugged. "Well, no need to worry about that until some more time has passed."
The cloak rippled on Harry's back, and its words rippled into his mind. Harry sighed. "It claims the Elder Wand is corrupt, sir. It wants to confront the Wand along with the Resurrection Stone and end that corruption."
"And it thinks to use you as that tool?"
"I don't think it has much of a choice, sir. It says that it was bound to the Potter line and tried several times to escape my family's, er, control, but some kind of force prevented it each time. There was a wizard who was supposed to claim the Resurrection Stone or something and get to know Dumbledore, but that didn't happen."
Professor Riddle's face went perfectly blank. Harry had no idea what he was thinking, and just stood there. The cloak shifted around and forth and back, until Harry reached up and nipped a fold of it between his fingers to keep it still.
"Sir?" Harry finally asked. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Professor Riddle said slowly, staring into the distance. "I only had an idea—" He broke off abruptly and glanced at Harry. "Are you all right working with the cloak to counter the Elder Wand?"
Harry frowned, but nodded. It seemed to him that there probably wasn't any other way to get rid of the cloak or the wand. And if it meant that his spells could be used just to counter the wand…well, realistically, not everything was going to be like the battle at Fortius's gates, with his allies and his enemies clearly separated. He was still wary of what might happen if he unleashed his magic over a place where there were people he didn't want to hurt. Maybe this would make better use of his skills.
It will, it will, the cloak whispered, and rustled, and stirred restlessly around him. From the way one of Professor Riddle's eyebrows rose, it was making parts of Harry's arms and shoulders disappear. Harry patted at it to get it to stop, embarrassed.
"Then you should decide early on how you will do so," Professor Riddle said, and stood. "I have something else to attend to."
"Are you all right, sir?" Professor Riddle's face still looked wrong to Harry. He didn't have as much expression as he should, and his fingers were tapping and surging out rolls on the chair next to him.
"As all right as I can be at the moment," Professor Riddle said, and smiled briefly. "As I said, I have something else to attend to." Then he hesitated. "But I meant what I said about only wishing you to combat the Elder Wand if you are comfortable with this, Harry. I will not spend your life in battle needlessly."
Harry was touched, although he did notice the implications of those words. Professor Riddle wouldn't spend Harry's life needlessly. He would probably still spend it if he needed to and thought other goals could be accomplished by it.
"I'm all right, sir," Harry said quietly. "Please go take care of whatever it is that needs to be taken care of."
Professor Riddle nodded once, as if he had needed Harry's reassurance, and then turned and left.
I do not like him, the cloak murmured.
"I don't think you like a lot of people. Including me."
That is true. Humans are too disruptive of the grand pattern.
Harry rolled his eyes and went back to Gryphon House to catch what sleep he could. He had a feeling he wouldn't be sleeping much or for long once he and the cloak started the push to destroy the Elder Wand.
It was nothing, Tom thought. Just a flash of insight that couldn't even be called that. After all, there were many people in the world who could have inherited a stone, or been supposed to have inherited a stone, and some of them would have met Albus Dumbledore before he was imprisoned. Dumbledore had been famous all over Europe and in demand for consultation on problems or magical solutions to them.
But all the same, he was remembering the ring that had been on his uncle Morfin's finger the only time Tom had met him, and the space where the stone should have been. And Morfin's description of the stone as "the blackest thing you ever saw."
It was silly to think that the wizard was Tom himself, that the stone had been the Resurrection Stone. But Tom could not dismiss the notion, not when similar flashes of insight had saved his life before or turned the war in a certain direction.
So he went to the goblins and waited in one of their anterooms for nearly two hours before the doors of gold and bronze opened and a goblin stood staring at him without a word.
Tom rose and bowed his head. "I am willing to pay as much gold and blood for a Fate-Divination as the person performing it needs."
There was a little silence, although Tom could feel the surprise running through the goblin like lava. Then she turned around, still without a word, and led him further into the bank. Tom followed, and saw the way that the goblins' eyes followed him. The pureblood, or mostly pureblood, customers in front of them appeared to notice nothing.
Still, appearing not to notice and truly not noticing were not the same thing, and Tom couldn't afford to have someone start a rumor that would hurt his protection of Fortius. He kept his hood up and his stride steady, as seemingly as much on business as any of the other clients of Gringotts.
And, in truth, he was. The most important business in the bank that morning.
His silent guide opened a silver door leading into a wide room. Tom stepped into it and looked around. There was a huge, empty basin in the center of the space, hollowed out into the floor. The basin, like the door, appeared to be made of pure silver. Tom had a feeling he knew what would fill it soon.
The guide left. Tom stood and waited for five heartbeats before the door on the far side of the room, and the basin, opened.
The goblin who stepped through was a tall one, and carried a jagged knife as long as she was tall. She came to a halt and pointed one claw at him. "What have you come for, Tom Marvolo Riddle?"
Tom felt the magic judder into life around him, and hoped that he hid his sigh of relief. The ritual had begun when the goblin addressed him by name, and that should mean it was impossible for anyone to stop or block.
Tom did not want to underestimate the power of the Deathly Hallows.
For now, though, he held the gaze of the goblin with the knife and said softly, "I have recently come into possession of information that says a certain force opposed artifacts so powerful that they should have been able to do whatever they wanted, and that my family's past was somehow involved in that force. I seek knowledge of the force, what it is, how strong it is, and how I can aid it."
The goblin was as silent as the one who had led him here for endless moments. Tom felt them tick past, and tried to keep from glancing at the basin. It was hard not to.
Finally, the goblin said, "What is the name of these artifacts you think powerful enough to create their own path?"
"The Deathly Hallows."
The goblin made a shrill whistling sound, spinning the knife in her fingers, and for a moment Tom feared that he'd somehow trespassed on a goblin taboo. Maybe they feared the Deathly Hallows or held them sacred, and wouldn't think they could oppose them.
But it seemed the whistle was merely a noise of astonishment, because after long moments, the goblin nodded and leaned forwards. "You know what the ritual requires from you."
"Gold and blood."
"We will take the gold from your vault."
"And the blood from your veins."
Tom nodded and stared at the enormous basin in the floor. "Yes. Will you feed me Replenishing Potions so that I can continue to shed blood enough to fill it up?"
The goblin laughed, a crackling noise that reminded Tom of branches breaking and raised the hair all along his spine. "We have no need of human-invented potions for our deepest magic," she said, and held up her blade. "When I bleed you, this steel will create new blood so that you continue to shed it."
Tom nodded and took a deep breath, then shucked his robe. "From the arms? From the neck?"
"From all over," said the goblin, her smile bright and jagged. "You will carry the scars of this shedding and this Fate-Divination all your life, Tom Marvolo Riddle. That is the price of what you ask."
Tom just nodded. If the Deathly Hallows had simply wanted to be reunited and had taken one of his best warriors off the field of battle so that they could deal with the Elder Wand, he would have accepted the price without demur. But the fact that the Resurrection Stone had been tangled with his own family's past, that things had changed already from the Hallows' plan and more than once, and the silver runes that Andromeda's foretelling about the Stone had guided them to…
Tom didn't intend to let the Hallows control everything when it might mean risking the fate of his people.
The goblin sang a high, piercing note, and Tom closed his eyes and shuddered as he dropped his robes to the floor. That note seemed to cause all his blood to rush to the surface of his skin and hover there, as if eager to be collected by the blade. He turned over his left arm and bared it.
The goblin stepped over the basin in a single, eye-blurring moment, and slashed across his arm.
Tom swallowed as he watched the first blood drain out and flow towards the basin. The knife seemed to jab not just pain but more eagerness deep into his arm, and he felt what he supposed was the blood regenerating so it could be collected by the same blade.
It was beyond strange.
But he would have the Fate-Divination he'd wanted, because he could pay the price.
"And you tell me that you have absolutely no knowledge of where Minerva McGonagall went?"
"I do not," Severus said stiffly. He disliked the way that Carrow kept questioning him, as if it was only natural that he would know where Minerva had gone. He didn't know if she had noticed them spending some time together when Minerva was still at Hogwarts, or if she had simply decided that since they were both half-bloods, of course they would have to be friends and have something in common.
"But you spent time together before she fled."
"We sat together at the High Table, yes, Headmistress." Where you put us, Severus did not say. He stared at the Headmistress with his eyes blanker than they used to be when he spoke with Lucius. "But we spent little time together. I know well enough that my own half-blood status disadvantages me. Spending time around the Head of Gryffindor House…" He shook his head. "I did not want to tarnish my reputation."
"But did you not think Minerva McGonagall a rather unusual half-blood, Severus?"
"Yes, in that she had the talent to survive despite being a Gryffindor," Severus said. "Of course, I assumed that part of that came from her usefulness to the administration. If they were not going to dissolve Gryffindor House completely, then they had to have a Head for it, and it would be a problem to find a non-rebellious one."
"She was rebelling."
"Rebelling all this time. Even when I made a push to make sure that she would be spared some of the consequences of her actions…"
As Carrow stared at one of her office's enchanted windows, Severus thought he understood. Carrow had invested herself in doing, as she saw it or pretended to see it, "good things" for Minerva. And Minerva had ungratefully (as Carrow would see it) rejected her efforts and fled.
Carrow must be wondering how she had missed those subtle signs of rebellion, how she had failed to anticipate Minerva's next move.
Severus concealed his smile as he bowed his head. "The duplicity of some people is beyond the ability of more rational actors to guess," he murmured.
"Yes, I suppose that is the truth." Carrow continued to stare out the window for a moment, and then turned and looked at him. "And you do not find yourself discontent in your position here, Severus?"
"No, Headmistress," Severus said. It wouldn't have been true a few years ago, but now, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was contributing to Riddle's rebellion. And the potions he carried with him at all times, merely waiting for the chance to attune them to a particular target's thought patterns, clinked and rolled in his robe pockets when he shifted his weight a little.
His time would come. He was content that Riddle had plans for Hogwarts and he would not be forgotten.
He would have his revenge, for himself and for students like Theo Nott and even for students like Draco Malfoy, who could have grown into a much finer person if not for the influence that his father had. For the subtle and unsubtle slights and insults flung Severus's way over the years. For the looks of pity. For the self-satisfied sniffs of ignorant purebloods, so sure that they were above him that most of them didn't even assume he had important skills.
"You may go, Severus."
Severus half-bowed his head and stood. Even the bows had grown easier to make of late, he thought as he went down the stairs from the Headmistress's office.
He stepped out into the corridor beyond the gargoyle and paused when he saw Draco walking towards him. He had thought the boy weeks from returning, given that his father's funeral had been held just a few days ago. In truth, he had believed Draco would stay home and finish out the Hogwarts term by correspondence.
Draco halted and looked up at him.
Severus felt a cold shiver grip him. There was something more than the boy looking at him through those eyes. They were darker and brighter, at once, than they had been, and a thrum of power traveled up through the floor into Severus's feet.
"Hello, Professor." Whatever wore Draco's skin was apparently trying to sound innocent. "Are you surprised to see me?"
"Well, yes, I am," Severus said, deciding at once to treat this opponent the way he would a dangerous fellow Legilimens, and not tell any outright lies. He fell into stride beside Draco, who was heading for the Slytherin common room. "I thought that you would stay home for the rest of the term. I know that you're a good enough student to succeed by owl correspondence, and when one loses such a father as yours…"
"Yes. I lost my father."
For a second, Severus was sure that he was hearing Draco's real grief, leaking through his voice like water through a sieve. Then he shook his head and glanced at Severus.
"But I didn't know that you thought I was that good a student."
"You are my best one in Potions," Severus said, and he was being honest. "It's true that I don't know all the specifics of your other classes, but I assume someone would tell me—"
"Because you're my Head of House?"
"Yes." Severus decided that he must not act as if he could sense the difference in the child and fear it. That would probably only get him marked out by—whatever it was—as an enemy. He turned and faced Draco, adopting a look of concern. "Are you falling behind in a class? I know Transfiguration has been woefully-taught since the ungrateful half-blood fled."
Draco looked at him, and smiled, a cold, mirthless thing. Severus forced himself to stand in place stolidly, and Draco inclined his head a moment later and shook it slowly back and forth.
"Not—as such, Professor."
"Then you are falling behind in some other manner?" Severus adopted the most teacher-like look he could under the circumstances, since Draco would have known him as less than helpful to other students. "Perhaps you will come to my office and we can discuss it?"
A moment passed when Severus could feel subtle currents of power thrumming through his own body and the stone under his feet, and probably the body of the young man in front of him, although he wasn't sure what they were. Then Draco inclined his head in a slow nod that also wasn't the gesture he would have given before.
"Of course, Professor. Say, tomorrow at two?"
Tomorrow was Saturday, a day Severus usually dedicated to marking and brewing, but he nodded. At the moment, he had the impression that was this was more important than any of the private labors he might carry on.
"Excellent, Professor. I will see you then." And Draco went down the corridor without a hint of his own easy stride. This one was mechanical, precise, like a soldier's.
Severus stared at the stone wall in silence for a moment, wondering if his own time at Hogwarts was coming to an end, much the way Minerva's had.
"You understand, now?"
Tom lay on the stone next to the basin, gasping aloud and staring at the ceiling. But in response to the goblin's question, he nodded and rolled slowly to the side so he could see her. He flinched as his new scars came into contact with the cold stone, but that was something he would just have to endure.
"Yes," he whispered to her, watching as she held the blade glistening up with his blood up before her eyes. "I understand that there were forces at work. One, the Hallows, could be thought of as fate. That was things as they could have happened. They are interfering now to guide the world back onto what they think of as the right path."
"What caused the world to forsake that path?"
"My own actions," Tom breathed. It was a humbling and terrifying thing to know. "Because I did not myself become the force of fate that the Hallows thought I ought to be, that I would have become with the Resurrection Stone on my finger."
"And the other?"
"I thought it was another force of fate, at first," Tom said. "But now I can call it history, or inertia. It is things as they have happened. The choices that we made which led us to this point. The Hallows want to reverse them. The force, or the mindless idea, is leading us forwards, however, in the direction that our choices have pointed to."
"We goblins call that force by another name."
"What is it?"
Tom blinked and stared at her. She nodded.
"There are forces in the world that no mere mortal can fight," she said. "But there are also forces that only approximate the greater ones—powers that can still be fought. The Deathly Hallows are part of that group. We will not surrender to them." She snarled and gripped her knife. "We will not give ourselves up to them. We will fight for our freedom."
Tom smiled as he reached down and traced one of the new, thick scars that ran up his left arm. "Then you will join me?"
"Yes, indeed, Tom Marvolo Riddle." The goblin snapped her teeth, and sparks leaped off and scattered into the far corners of the room. "Yes, indeed."
"Are you all right, Draco?"
Draco had walked into the fifth-year boys' bedroom without looking left or right or saying anything to anyone. Ron had wondered if he should be relieved about that. It might mean that Draco had forgotten the argument they'd had before he'd left for his father's funeral, and Ron could be safe in Slytherin again.
On the other hand, it might mean that Draco was still angry at him.
Draco turned around and gave Ron a bright smile. Ron started. There was something wrong about that smile, but he wasn't sure what it was.
"I've never been better," Draco said. "I have a way to get revenge for my father."
"Oh. Um. Does that mean that the twins weren't involved in his death, after all?"
Draco looked momentarily thrown. Then he snorted and waved his hand. "No, I should have known better than to think they could be. Father had a grand death. A spectacular one. Far beyond what they could have achieved." He gave Ron another smile. "My revenge is going to be spectacular, too."
"Oh. Um. Good?"
Draco smiled at him again, winked with one eye like a spark going out, and slapped the curtains around his bed shut.
Ron lay back on his own bed and thought about the way Draco had smiled, and the glances that some people in Slytherin House had continued to throw him, and the Portkey his mother had sent him.
Draco lay behind the curtains where no one could see him, and gently touched the Elder Wand, and thought to it, I am ready.
The walk through the school did not change your mind?
No. You were right. None of them can understand me, even when they pretend they can. Their lives don't matter to me.
The Elder Wand shone in his thoughts, and said, It will take some time and work. But we have the first, and we have the will to create the second.
Yes, Draco sighed. Yes. Let their parents suffer the way I did. Let them know what it is to lose their children.
Hogwarts would be the perfect place to create the Render.