He had always hated wearing armor. It was not the protection that he despised. It was the limited mobility that the suit placed on him. He had always liked to move when the battle raged around him, and the armor constrained that movement. So when the machine-smiths had come to him for measurements, he had only asked for a breast plate, forged from steel and strengthened by his own magic. Even then, he had toyed with the idea of abandoning it, leaving it on the field or selling it to the scrappers that hunted the aftermath of every battle.
Now, he was glad he kept it.
His eyes drifted across the field and settled on the lines of red and black. The warriors of Khador were as tough and harsh as the winter that haunted their ice swept lands. He could see regiments of Winter Guard, rigid and unmoving in their seemingly innumerable ranks. He could see the squads of Man-o-Wars in their bulky power armor, halberds held proudly aloft in a forest of spears. Behind them the warjacks prowled, each a picture of Khadorian fury, blood red armor clad on hulking, mechanized frames.
This was no skirmish in the waiting, no lesser fight that plagued all wars. This would be the battle that ended the war.
A small smile crossed his features. Again, he was glad he had kept his armor.
His gaze roamed back to his lines, where men and women of regal blue stood at attention. The Cygnarans had pushed far into Khador territory, smashing aside the hurried resistance that had rushed to waylay them. It was a daring move, orchestrated by a commander that was as shrewd as she was bold. Victoria Haley had led the Cygnaran force in well-coordinated marches that left Khador confused and flummoxed. She had taken three cities and annihilated four defending armies. In a lightning blitzkrieg, she had struck deep at the soft underbelly of Cygnar's rival nation and carved a bloody wound that left Khador howling in pain. But Khador was large and its resources many. Like a wounded bear it had struck back, and the army that faced them now was that strike, primed to deliver a vengeful blow at the enemy that had dared harmed their nation so. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and far from their supply lines. Defeat loomed, its heavy pallor settling on the Cygnaran camp.
And then he had come.
No one had called for him. The Cygnarans were stranded far behind enemy lines and their communications had been almost entirely cut off. The Khadorians had tried to force him to bend knee and when that failed had asked for him to serve. That was years ago, and his reply had made no mistake of what he thought of the men of the North. But now he was here, arrived in the night with his entourage in tow, bypassing the Cygnaran sentries who looked on in awe.
His steps had taken him to the command tent where Haley had been in one last conference with her commanders. The woman had glanced up as he entered, and as her subordinates rose in surprise, her lips had parted in a grim smile.
"Now we can win," was all she had said.
There was no boasting in those words, for they were the truth. He did not know how he came by his power, but was as natural to him as breathing or eating. He could control the elements within him, manipulate them. It was magic, he was sure of it, and though it was a different type of force that bound warjack and warcaster together, his sufficed just as well. Better even. The magic that sang in his blood melded him with the cortexes of the war machines that tread in his wake, making them malleable to control, obedient to his every command. Where his mind directed, warjacks strode fluidly, their motions more man-like than machine. Where his conscience focused, they angled to attack, coordinating with each other in flawless perfection. And where his fury gathered, the warjacks would strike, green fire pooling behind metal visors, their mechanical arms fueled by anger that was not their own.
That had earned him attention, of course. To control a warjack required an innate talent that one had to be born with. Even then, rigorous training was a must. The iron will of a machine was not easily persuaded, and years of dedicated practice was required to conquer its war spirit. Maintaining the link, the connection between man and machine, took longer to learn. And exercising that link in the confusion that was battle, even longer. Those that succeeded became warcasters, the most valuable resource a nation could own.
He could do all of this naturally. Without training. Without practice. And so he had earned their attention.
Khador had been the first. Their pelt clad emissaries reached him on doughty horses whose heavy fur spoke of a lifetime roaming the frozen steppes. They had demanded he bend knee to the Ice Throne, kneel to the queen that was the heart and soul of Khador. He had refused, and they had left, cursing his name. They would return, this time with a contingent of Winter Guard and a squadron of heavy warjacks. If he would not kneel in obedience then they would make him by force. He slew them all with nothing but two light jacks at his command. The infantry were easy prey, but the jacks were not. Clad in thick, riveted plate, they withstood both cannon and blade. He had to maneuver his lighter machines into their flank, stabbing at their unprotected sides and hamstringing them from behind. In the end he had accomplished it, and bodies of steel and oil joined those of flesh and blood. From their mechanized corpses he would salvage his first heavy jack, a Berserker, its hulking form a testament to Khadoran brutality.
Cygnar had been more diplomatic in their approach. They had sent out summons for him to appear in the king's court, and when that failed, offered higher and higher commissions in their army as his fame grew with every deed. And when he was still not persuaded, the Cygnaran envoys, instead of dispatching a war party to attack him, had gifted him a Defender chasis in the hopes he would wear the blue. From that he had created a Cyclone, and while he would never don the colors of Cygnar, he would at least help them in thanks for this gift. Wherever he walked, Cygnar rallied, and his name became a household saying for victory.
Menoth had tried to convert him. A party of Knights Exemplar and scores more of Flameguard approached him while he rested after a lull in the fighting. At their head a Confessor strode, flanked by towering warjacks clad in tabards of white. The Confessor had warned him of his sins and extolled the virtues of the one true faith. He had laughed and they had taken offense. It should have been a lopsided fight. The Flameguard were zealous, and the martial prowess of the Exemplars were near unmatched. The Menonite jacks were sturdy and tenacious. But he had his Berserker, and he had his Cyclone, and while the Berserker tore apart the Protectorate heavies with axe and fist, the Cyclone massacred the Flameguard with hails of lead from its chain cannons. The Exemplars had charged him then, swords held high in righteous anger. His light jacks had sprung forward to defend, and together with the Berserker, cut the knights into pieces. From the bodies of priests and the corpses of machines the Crusader had risen, his third creation, its armored frame a mockery of the faith it once defended.
The Cryx had tried to dissect him. They laid an ambush for him in the swamps, and when he walked by with his jacks in tow, they had emerged from the waterways, their unholy skins streaming rivulets of mud and water. Mechanithralls, their graying, decayed bodies augmented by scavenged machine parts swarmed around them in cackling packs. Helljacks, hunch-backed carapaces resembling that of carnivorous insects, shot at them with needle-like weapons that spewed streams of green acid. And behind all of them, watching from the shadows, the Iron Lich lurked, surveying the scene behind its skull-faced mask. He had flung them back. All of them. And when they chose to retreat, he chose to pursue, littering the marshland with broken bodies and ruptured hulls. The Iron Lich escaped, but missing one of its skeletonized arms, firmly in the grasp of his Berserker, who blared out its victory on top a pile of undead corpses. From the wreckage he had forged his last jack, a chitinous thing of hell-forged steel powered by necromantic energies. This one had been the hardest to conquer, for its very existence was a blasphemy upon creation.
The Berserker was unruly, and always hungry for war. The Cyclone's soul was far less temperamental, but no less hungry for violence. The Crusader held an innate sense of nobleness within it, mixed with a streak of zealotry. The Reaper just reeked of death. Death and decay. And wherever the former Cryx jack walked, all living things recoiled, sickened by the miasma that seemingly permeated from every part of its gunmetal body.
He knew these things because they told him. He knew these things because they replied to him, pulsating their base emotions through the link that was enhanced by his own magic. He knew these things because he was different, and the way these jacks, his jacks, responded to him far outclassed the bond between man and machine.
He was a prodigy at warcasting. His talents had brought him fame and recognition. And yet, as he watched the Khadoran lines start to advance, he still felt as though he didn't belong, shouldn't belong, in this place. It had always been a niggling doubt, a pang of… something… that existed in the back of his mind. It had haunted him when he was young, and still haunted him now, despite how he had aged and matured. He would have dismissed it long ago as sense of déjà vu, but sometimes…
Sometimes he would dream in the thick of night of a beautiful woman with long red hair and a grinning man with flashing green eyes. The woman would coo at him, a soft smile playing on her lips. The man would wink at him, waving over the shoulder of the woman. He would reach for them, longingly, and they, like every time before, would disappear, fading away in haze of lost memories. Then, he would wake, and the only sound that would accompany him would be the rumbling snarl of resting war machines.
Emmeline Vance was dead. Her body had been found in Knockturn Alley, cold to the touch and devoid of life. No evidence of foul play had been discovered. Nor were there any traces of dark spells found within the vicinity. The aurors were classifying it as a natural death, but those gathered around the table knew better. The Dark Lord's followers were many, and as his influence grew, so did those who sought harm to the order.
Lily Potter blinked wearily. They had been discussing the issue at hand since midnight. She was not alone in her weariness. The rest of the order wore equally exhausted expressions. She did not blame them. The news had hit them hard. Emmeline was well respected amongst them and well-liked by the children. Lily remembered how the older witch had always kind words to say towards her children, and Rose had affectionately called her an aunt ever since the day she could speak. And now she was dead, murdered by those that bore the Dark Mark. Angry tears threatened to spill from her eyes at the thought. She curbed it with difficulty. She would not allow the others to see her moment of weakness. Not even her husband, who was staring down at the table as he listened to Dumbledore speak.
They had aged. All of them. From James to Remus, and even Sirius, whose once youthful face now spilled tired lines. Ever since Voldemort had returned, the stress had been too much. The Dark Lord's influence wormed itself into every department of the ministry. His supporters whom the order had thought long dead or disappeared were popping up everywhere. Sightings of the Dark Mark were no longer uncommon. Lily sighed. Their numbers were simply too few to deal with these threats, and with Emmeline's death, had further dwindled. It had been simply too much. McGonagall's hair now carried streaks of grey. Hestia Jones looked like she was twenty years older than her real age. Mad-Eye Moody had grown even more haggard, if that was at all possible. Even Dumbledore did not carry the strain with grace. The old headmaster no longer smiled, preferring instead to frown, and his eyes did not twinkle nearly as much as it did before. In fact, Lily could not recall a time in the past six months when the ancient wizard seemed remotely happy.
Momentum favored Voldemort. Every day the Light grew dimmer and the Darkness spread. Even if they would not admit out loud the Dark Lord was winning, the thought still lurked painfully in the back of their minds, mocking them with the sheer blasphemy of it.
Lily dragged herself from her thoughts as she heard her name being called. She looked up to see Dumbledore staring at her with serious but not unkind eyes.
"I'm sorry, Headmaster," she said softly, "I was thinking about other things."
Dumbledore nodded gravelly.
"Emmeline's death has affected us all," he said mournfully, "Some, more than others."
Lily winced as the old wizard gaze flickered upwards, where Rose had locked herself in her room earlier when she heard the news. She had probably cried herself to sleep since then.
"She still holds herself accountable for Cedric's death," Lily replied with a faint shake of her head, "And now this…"
"Poor child," Molly murmured.
Beside her, James took her hand in his and squeezed. She sent a small smile towards her husband in response.
"Rose is not responsible for Cedric's death," Dumbledore stated firmly, "She displayed great courage when Voldemort sprang his trap, and even more so when she carried Cedric's body back to his parents."
"Yes," Lily nodded, "We have told her that, but she still blames herself."
"She is too honorable," Moody growled out and peered at them with his magical eye, "That will get her killed someday."
James stiffened, and it took a placating hand on his arm from her before he bit back his retort.
"We have already suffered one death today," Dumbledore said warningly, "Let us not speak of another."
The grizzled ex-auror grunted, but remained silent. Turning, the headmaster addressed the sole person that was standing in the room.
"Severus," Snape grimaced as the order's attention shifted to him, and rose from his slouching position against the wall, "what have you learned from Voldemort's camp?"
The spy crossed his arms across his chest and scowled.
"Nothing that is not already known to us, headmaster. The Dark Lord has grown more and more secretive. He has withdrawn to his quarters on multiple occasions, leaving Lucius and Bellatrix to coordinate in his stead. Whatever plans he has, not even the Inner Circle is privy to them. I warn all of you though," Snape's eyes flashed, "he is growing stronger. Every week more and more dark families bow to him, further strengthening his ranks. Nor are the neutral families innocent in all of this. A few days ago, I saw the Davises on their knees in the manor, pledging their loyalty to him."
Mutterings broke out amongst the order. Lily frowned. Adrian Davis had always carefully kept his house from being affiliated to either faction. She did not think he was the type of man to change sides so quickly.
"Traitors!" Moody spat.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow.
"Need I remind you, Alastor," he said quietly, "that the Davises took no sides in First War? They made no move to help us, that is true, but neither did they aid Voldemort."
"Well, they're aiding him now, aren't they?"
"There must have been a reason," Dumbledore furrowed his brows, "Adrian, I do not think, would tread the dark path if there were alternatives to him. That, or I have gravely misjudged him."
"You're right," Snape issued a short, humorless laugh, "the Dark Lord had their children taken away from them as bargaining chips. Reeducating them, is what Lucius calls it."
Everyone in the room shook their heads in disgust. Dumbledore nodded gravelly.
"It is as I feared," the old wizard murmured, a sad expression crossing his face, "Every day our enemies multiply while our list of allies shortens," his gaze focused back on the spy, "Thank you, Severus. Was there anything else?"
For a moment, the black-haired man hesitated, and his eyes flickered in her direction. There was almost an apologetic look in them.
"I have heard of a rumor," he said slowly, "that the Dark Lord plans a 'celebration' on that day. He wants to celebrate the day he…" Snape swallowed, "…vanquished… one of them."
A surge of rage shot through her, and she stood up, fingers clenching the edges of the table.
"If he wants to spit on the image of Harry," she was surprised at the venom in her own voice, "I will kill him."
They were all staring at her now, expressions of sympathy mixed with those of alarm.
"If Harry wasn't there to protect Rose," she whispered fiercely, "I would have lost two children instead of one."
"Lily…" Molly moved to dab at the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief. Besides the Weasley matriarch, McGonagall sent her a compassionate look.
"We don't know what happened," Moody said gruffly, both his real eye and magical eye careful not to meet her gaze. She rounded on him anyways, "We don't know if he protected her or not."
"Are you saying that Harry just up and left?" she all but hissed.
"Lils," this time it was James that calmed her, rising from his seat and wrapping an arm around his wife's shoulders, "It's alright. Don't think about it too much."
She sat back down, but continued glaring daggers at Moody, who had the grace to look chagrined.
"The mystery of the Girl-Who-Lived," Dumbledore said softly, his tone booking no argument, "and the Boy-Who-Vanished has never been solved. Nor do I think it will be solved, even in the future."
Lily nodded, but her heart had railed against that statement. She knew, just knew that he was out there, somewhere. The dreams that assailed her mind when she was asleep were too common to be a coincidence, and they were always the same. Yet they were vague and fuzzy, and she could not recall all of the details once she awoke. But there were some things about them that were so lifelike, so real, that she just could not discount them. And later that night, when the order finally left and she closed her eyes besides her husband, she would dream of a boy with a lightning shaped scar and the war machines that followed him.
"You lack a purpose," she had said to him when all the others had left. Her blue eyes bore into his. He did not flinch back, nor did he reply. He hated replying when she was right.
"You have always lacked a purpose," she had continued, the steel in her voice matching the iron in her gaze, "So you would always search for one, a purpose, and when you found one, you would take it as your own, lifting the banner as though it belonged to you. But it wasn't. It was always someone else's purpose, someone else's ideals. And when that purpose was completed, done, you would look for another, then another, and another," she leaned back, eyes still upon him, "This quest of yours has no end."
"And yet this quest has brought me here to you," he had finally replied, "Perhaps you should be grateful for that."
"Perhaps," she said. A thin smile had developed across her features, "Do you still work for her? The mercenary princess?"
"She is Queen now," he met her gaze with iron of his own.
"But you do not wear the colors of Llael."
He had frowned at that.
"She has pressed the issue, but I have refused. I will not swear to the colors of any nation."
"It is good that you haven't," she fixed him with another impenetrable gaze, "She is using you, you know that? Once the surviving Khadorans are pushed from Llael's borders, she will have no need of you, and will discard you. You are a hero to Llael, but a queen needs no heroes when she rules. Just subjects."
He had chosen not to reply.
"The respite for Llael will not last long," she muttered, hand cupped around her chin as she thought. He was used to that, her mannerisms, from the times he had stood beside her, "Khador has lost much in these past few months, but they will be back. They will sit on their haunches and lick their wounds, and then they will be back, terrorizing the lesser nations like the beasts they are. Llael must defend herself when that time comes, with or without Cygnaran aid. She must hold, and not fall like a stack of cards like the first time."
He had nodded.
"The Queen understands this. All funds that have not been set aside for rebuilding are being used to maintain and expand Llael's standing armies."
"Llael said that the first time. Then Khador came, and Llael fell."
"That was Llael's politicians speaking," he replied evenly, "They are no longer in a position to say or do anything of value. The Queen says she will rebuild and strengthen the army. So Llael will rebuild and strengthen her army."
"Years ago and she was nothing but royalty without a home," the woman wore a piqued expression, "Wandering from place to place and selling her sword to survive. And now you take orders from her as though her words are law."
"She is Queen," was all he had offered in explanation.
"Quite," she turned to him again, gaze inscrutable. Then her eyes had softened, "I hear there are offers of marriage from the noble houses of Llael. Noblemen's sons asking for her hand.
A flicker of annoyance had crossed his face. He had hoped she wouldn't catch it, but knowing her, she probably did.
"Yes," he grunted, peeved that her words had barbed him so, "The nobles rally to her cause. It is no surprise that there will be families who wish to solidify their positions through marriage to royal blood."
"I did not know that so much of Llael's nobility survived," she confessed, "Khador is usually unmerciful. I would have expected their agents to root out the ruling class and slaughter them like they did to every other nation they conquered."
"When Khador came, the nobility ran," distaste had infiltrated his voice, "And when they couldn't run, they hid. The only blood that was spilt by Khadoran soldiers were that of the common citizenry."
"Llaelen nobility," his disgust seemed to amuse her, for what she said next was accompanied by a half-smile, "Pompous, preening bastards and worth shit fucking nothing."
He had remained silent because he agreed.
"If she has chosen the likes of these as her advisors, and one among them as her consort," she had continued, "then Llael will fall, stronger army or not."
He shot her an annoyed look.
"For an ally of Llael, you do much to disparage her queen."
She let out a small laugh at his irritated tone.
"I have fought besides Ashlynn on a number of occasions. She is a warcaster of exceptional ability. I do not doubt the strength in her blade or the courage in her heart. It is her ability to rule that I doubt," she frowned, "She is a dreamer. An idealist. What Ashlynn seeks is a return of Llael to the days before Khador invaded. She ignores the fact that Khador invaded precisely because Llael was weak. If she returns her country to the status quo before the war, then all that will happen will be a repeat of history. Khador will invade again and Llael will require a second hero," her gaze had switch to him then, eyes filled with hidden meaning, "That, and she disregards what is perhaps her most valuable resource, despite him having served her faithfully for so long."
He spread his arms wide and bowed mockingly.
"Though it is good to see that my deeds have not gone unnoticed," he had replied dryly, "I do not think that is the only reason."
"You are right. There is another reason," she said primly, her voice settling into a more business-like tone, "Every battle you fight for Llael is a battle that should have been won for Cygnar. Every town you liberate for Llael is a city that should have been taken for Cygnar. Every day you serve Llael is a day you do not serve Cygnar," her eyes flashed, and the steel within them returned, "And I will see that you serve Cygnar."
"I serve no nation."
She ignored his protest entirely.
"What is it you want? Fame? Your history will be recorded in our annals and your deeds celebrated amongst the common folk. Recognition? I have the authority to grant you a field commission as forward commander right now if you are willing to wear the blue," when he shook his head, she stared only harder, "Then what is it you want? Money? Women? Men?"
He met her gaze stoically.
"I remember a time," he had said slowly, "when a girl would try to persuade me with tenets such as loyalty and honor instead of men's baser desires."
A flicker of emotion had passed across her face. A bare glimmer, but it had been there.
"That girl is dead," she replied quietly, "And in her place is a woman who has witnessed too much bloodshed and seen too many of her comrades die. I am tired of these unending wars," her arm swept towards the empty seats in the tent, "and tired of leading young men and women to their deaths. I want peace, but it has to be a Cygnaran peace. My king dreams of a day when the armies of Cygnar will march into Khador and subjugate the northern steppes. I wish for that dream to become a reality. Then, and only then will there be a lasting peace."
"Peace through war," he said mildly, "That sounds like something only a Khadoran would say."
"Join us," she had made it sound almost like an order, "Wear the blue. Command beside me as a warcaster of Cygnar. You cannot deny that it will be for a noble purpose. Is that not why you are here?"
"I came because I thought an old friend might have needed my help," the woman seemed slightly surprised at those words, "And it turned out I was right."
"Llael did not send you?"
"Her majesty would have preferred me to remain in the capitol city. She requested I stay. I came anyways."
A familiar warmth had appeared in her eyes, and he was reminded of younger and happier days, when the woman in front of him smiled more readily and teased instead of lectured.
"What would your queen say if she knew you left because of a woman?" her tone had grown mischievous.
He offered a small smirk in return.
"If it were any other woman, she might have questioned me. But seeing that it is you, she would not have protested. Even the Queen of Llael respects the name of Victoria Haley."
"I wonder if she will respect me if she learns I tried to recruit her champion."
"Probably not," he admitted.
"And what of my request? Will you not wear the colors of Cygnar?"
It had been a tempting offer. But he knew already that he would refuse. As did she.
"I will dwell on it."
"You always say that," she had sighed, more defeated than angry, "At least think about it."
"I would rather think about the Khadoran force that sleeps just bare miles away from us. I hear they have been gathering strength from all the holds north of Volningrad. Who leads them?"
"Harkevich? Kratikoff?" the woman answered with a grimace, "I don't know. They caught up to us fast. Faster than I expected. Had our forward scouts not reconnoitered the area in advance, they would have ambushed us while we were in marching columns. I didn't have time to scry for information. We barely had time to set up camp and dig in as is."
"Your men are tired. They will need rest before they can fully commit to the fight."
"Rest that the Khadorans will not give us. They will attack tomorrow morning, noon at the latest, and seek to drive us back with their fresher forces."
Their gazes met.
"I will take the vanguard."
Haley smiled grimly.
"I was hoping you would say that. How many jacks have you brought with you?"
"The usual four and whatever light jacks I managed to scrape up. They aren't in the best of conditions."
She had nodded at his reply, and a certain hardness had set on her face.
"Our push into Khadoran territory was not entirely bloodless. We have lost good warcasters. Good men and women. The jacks they commanded I will cede to your control. Use them well."
She had made that promise to him at night, when the air was chill and men slept fitfully in their tents. In the morning, he had found she had done considerably better than that.
He had brought with him five light jacks, two mercenary and three of Menonite make. The mercenary jacks he had scrounged up from Llael's armories, what little the war torn country had left to offer that were not assigned to the army. The Menonite engines he had been fortunate to salvage, and he was glad that his Berserker had not done enough damage to make the battered war machines beyond repair. In total that brought his force up to nine warjacks, including the heavy ones he always kept by his side. It was a significant force, but it would not be enough to break through the Khadoran lines.
Haley had supplemented his battlegroup of light jacks to a full dozen. Chargers, Lancers, even a rare Firefly, whose cackling lightning field was bane to both man and machine. And unlike the ones he had brought, which displayed wear and tear across their abused hulls, the Cygnaran jacks were near pristine, resplendent in their regal blue colors.
Suddenly the odds didn't look so dire. Just bad.
He watched impassively as the Khadoran field army began its assault. First were the Winter Guard and assorted infantry auxiliaries, marching in dressed ranks, their red and brown uniforms heavy on their frames and giving them a tough, frayed look. In between the lines, field artillery were being pushed, their crew stripped to the waist as they worked the heavy guns. Further back were regiments of Winter Guard clutching rifles in lieu of axe and handcannon, polished bayonets socketed to dull black gun barrels. This would be the first punch of the Khadoran armored fist, a mass assault by well-equipped melee infantry supported by rifle companies and artillery squadrons.
They almost looked like ants, he mused, an army of red ants that consumed everything in their path.
Marching to the rear of the Winter Guard were the heavy infantry, the elite core of Khador's armies, clad in suits of powered armor. The lack of resources in the frozen steppes meant that Khador could produce only a limited number of cortexes in a season. Compared to industrialized Cygnar and her client kingdoms, Khador simply did not have the resources or technology to compete in a jack building race. But the men of the North did not accept defeat easily. They continued to field their heavy jacks but stopped production of the lighter ones, deeming them a waste for the rare supply of cortexes they had. Still, they needed a substitute for the light jack's role, a medium combatant that, while weaker than the behemoth that was a heavy jack, could still hold its own against both man and machine. The solution had presented itself soon enough. What Khador lacked in resources it made up for in manpower, and it did not take long for its mechaniks to begin attaching warjack-grade plate onto human soldiers. Man-o-Wars were the result of this mating, veteran warriors suited in steam-powered armor that were impervious to conventional light weaponry. And there were a great many of them. He could see their bulky, reinforced frames marching in tandem behind the Winter Guard, great two-handed hammers bristling alongside stub-nosed cannon and heavy halberds. Beside them, Iron Fang Pikemen strode in tight ranks, their blasting pikes held high in gauntleted hands. On the flanks were detachments of Uhlans, armored cataphracts that rode on equally armored war steeds.
Here was the second fist, covered in steel and powered by steam. If the infantry could not break the enemy, then infantry clad in power armor surely would. The Man-o-Wars would wade into the Cygnaran force, demolishing everything they touched and the Iron Fangs would support, hunting the warjacks that were the only danger to the hulking suits of armor.
This was not last wave, however. The Khadorans always kept their most valuable and dangerous weapons in reserve. Men were expendable. Cortexes were not. He scowled as he watched the massive, lumbering machines begin to move, treading after the infantry, their mechanized frames swaying with each forward step. They were near uniform in appearance. The Juggernaut chasis had served the northmen well, and little had been done to alternate the design from its conception so many years ago. Each was a three times the height a man was tall, shielded from harm by thick slabs of crimson steel. Bronze plated smoke stacks protruded from their backs, belching coal-fired smoke into the pristine air. Only their weaponry differed, and even then it was not by much. Wide-barreled cannon, enchanted ice axes, piston-driven battering rams, all bristled at the Cygnaran lines, each as menacing as the last.
If the infantry were the fists, then the warjacks were the sledgehammer, designed to smash aside what resistance remained with simple, brutal force. This, he hated to admit, the Khadorans were very effective at. The men of the North did not conquer vast swathes of the Iron Kingdoms through sheer dumb luck. They did it because they possessed the mightiest army in Immoren, and their tactics, though simple and repetitive, worked damned well. Few could stand before the avalanche that was a Khadoran infantry wave. Fewer still when the Man-o-Wars joined the fray. Even fewer when the heavy jacks slogged in to smash and pulverize with their fists. He could count on one hand those who could withstand all three.
And yet, that was exactly what was required of them today. Stand your ground against overwhelming numbers. Fight against all three waves. Win against all odds. The chances were low, he understood that. The Cygnaran soldiers were tired from weeks of campaigning. Some had not had a hot meal for days. Many of their warjacks were in bad condition, almost as bad as the ones he had brought with him. A flash of gratefulness lit up inside him at the thought of that. Haley had made sure the jacks she gave him were the least damaged out of the lot. Their freshness would be needed for what she required of him.
"You will be the vanguard," were her words to him as they met one last time to survey the forming Khadorans, "Strike hard, strike fast, and strike without mercy. Open a hole in their lines. We will follow."
The vanguard. The first into battle. The last to leave. The Khadorans were excellent in attack, but mediocre in defense. He would plunge into their battle lines before the northmen could gather their full momentum, and the Cygnarans would follow the gap in their ranks, driving a wedge between their formations, and shattering it from within. If that did not break them, then he would seek out the enemy commander and slay him in combat. And if that did not work, then he would be dead, and everything else would matter little.
He would have been nervous had he not done this before.
The first wave was nearing artillery range, and he saw the Khadoran crews begin to unlimber their heavy guns and start loading them with shot and shell. The Cygnarans had very little to respond with, most of their own artillery having expended their ammunition in taking the two cities. If he wanted to attack, now would be the best time.
He closed his eyes and concentrated. Magic coursed through his veins, blazing through his blood, forming links of pure energy that he tethered to each cortex. The response was immediate and gratifying. All four warjacks beside him came to life.
The Berserker was the first to wake. Its massive frame shuddered as it rose to its feet, an ice axe clutched in each hand. It saw the advancing ranks of Khadorans and boomed a challenging roar in their direction, daring them to attack. The Cyclone was next to activate, and a series of clicking sounds signified fresh shells being loaded to the chain guns strapped below its wrists. The former Cygnaran jack looked almost regal as it stood amongst his host; the blue on its plate matching with the light jacks Haley had gifted him. The Crusader was third, rising from its kneeling position, and brandishing the inferno mace in its fist. Fierce fire gleamed behind its knightly mask, and a rumbling growl rose from its gullet as it viewed its surroundings. The Reaper was the last. Its hunchbacked body made no sound of acknowledgment as it stood, but beneath the metal hide an unholy hunger lurked, vast and voidless.
He could feel their minds melding with his own, becoming flickers of intelligence in his own conscience. He ignored them and focused on the light jacks, activating each in turn until the flickers became a myriad of twinkling stars, each resembling a connected cortex. Then he gave the order, slamming the word into every engine's mind with all of his considerable power.
Snarling joints and hissing pistons responded to his command, and the war machines began to move. The Crusader and Berserker strode in front of him, their bulky frames looming in a protective manner. The Cyclone and Reaper brought up the rear, where their ranged weaponry could devastate with impunity before combat closed to hand to hand. He moved with them, jogging to keep up with their long strides. The light jacks though, outpaced them all. Loping forward on long, mechanized legs, they were faster and more agile than their heavier brethren, having sacrificed armor and staying power for mobility. However, in a grinding melee they would not last long, and rare were the occasions a light jack would triumph over a heavy one. Nevertheless, he flung them out in a wide arc, ordering them in a skirmishing screen and sent them hurtling towards the Khadoran army. He could not count on them to last, but he could count on them to disrupt the enemy.
Dimly, he could hear the Cygnarans cheering. It was an easy sound to ignore. Instead, he turned his attention to the sea of red before him, and was glad that he did.
Already the Winter Guard were forming up in defensive positions, reacting to his unexpected charge by breaking their assault formations and gathering in thick lines. There was an uncertainty to them now, and even at a distance he could see the sudden doubt that had swept through their ranks. The reason was simple. The Khadorans were the masters of aggression. They wore their enemies down with continuous waves of brutal attacks until nothing was left. On defense, however, they fared poorly. Their soldiers hesitated when they were forced to defend, and their officers floundered when the initiative was seized from them.
A fist could readily punch but poorly could it be used to parry.
He watched as the Khadoran field guns began to swivel towards his light jacks, their crews working double-time in response to this new threat. He heard the first cannon fire, a loud, thunderous discharge and seconds later a plume of dirt rose into the air, showering his advancing machines with debris. It had missed, but that did not surprise him. Artillery was better suited for targeting city walls and the slow-moving forms of heavy jacks. His heavies were being screened by his lighter engines, forcing the artillery to target them in fear of being overrun, and it was proving to be a futile affair. Trying to hit a light jack in full stride with a stationary field gun was near impossible, and it didn't help that he was forcing them to jink and change direction randomly to offset the gunners' aim. The field full of smoking craters behind him and not a single one of his jacks touched was proof that the tactic was working.
They were closing the distance now. He could see the Winter Guard riflemen leveling their stocky guns at his warjacks, aiming for the joints and exposed areas where a heavy caliber bullet could potentially severe vital tubing or lodge itself in vulnerable machinery. He frowned. The northmen were good marksmen, but even this was a long shot. The volley came, thick and buzzing like a swarm of stinging insects. They connected, and pattered off foundry-tempered plate like rain. A few rounds crashed into his cluster of personal jacks, bouncing off chests and off heads. The Berserker growled in annoyance.
A second volley leapt out, accompanied by hissing streaks of fire. Winter Guard Rocketeers, handling man-portable launchers, barraged him with explosives, lighting the ground on fire, sending shrapnel ricocheting off armor, punching holes into the earth where they landed. A rocket struck one of his light jacks, more by chance than by aim, tearing off a pauldron in a flash of shredded metal and hissing sparks. The engine staggered, righted itself, and continued the charge, missing half its shoulder.
They were close enough now for him to see the rising panic amongst the enemy. There were no more synchronized volleys. The riflemen were shooting wildly, reloading and firing as fast as they could, not even bothering to aim. Predictably, their shots went wide or grazed off impenetrable metal. The artillery had gone quiet. At this range the shells risked catching their own men in their explosive radius. All along the line Khadorans were unsheathing their war-axes, bracing for the inevitable clash.
Not that it would have mattered. The soldiers of Khador were said to be the finest infantry in all of Immoren. Tough. Brave. Disciplined. The soldiers of Khador were all of that and more. But they were still men. And against five tons of tempered steel and coal-fueled fire that was a warjack, they might as well not have existed.
Blood fountained into the air, accompanied by hideous screams as the light jacks rammed the charge home. The front rows of Winter Guard simply ceased to be. Entire platoons were erased in an instant, reduced to gore stained streaks under mechanical feet. Whole squads were cut down by sword, mace, and axe, their sundered bodies all but unrecognizable. Like water from an unleashed dam, the war machines broke through the Khadoran ranks, scattering fur clad men and women like ninepins, trampling over their panicking forms and into the ranks further back.
He watched as a Devout class plough through a rifle company, its white armor singed black from the Khadorans' desperate volleys. The former Menonite jack wielded its halberd in a two-handed grip, sweeping left and right, cleaving through dozens of soldiers at a time like a scythe through wheat. He saw a Charger maul a retreating squad of Assault Kommandos, dual cannons stuttering with fire, blasting men from their feet. Those that lagged behind were battered aside by the light jack's battle hammer, flung through the air to land in jumbled, unmoving heaps. To his left, a Vigilant upended a Khadoran field gun, smashing the heavy cannon into the ground and rendering the artillery piece into scrap. Then it tore into the crew, butchering them with its bare fists. A Renegade lifted a struggling Winter Guard officer into the air, feet kicking wildly, and then bisected the man into two screaming halves. Lightning danced where the Firefly walked. Garlands of electricity crisscrossed the jack's metal hull, and every now and then it would stop to expel its volatile payload. Those that remained in its killing field jerked and spasmed as lightning forked into their bodies, bursting organs, cooking flesh, frying men into blackened crisp.
He could feel the blood thirst welling up within each jack as they killed, flooding the cortexes with primal emotion. He allowed it. The lighter jacks were there as a distraction. Letting them rampage through the lines was part of the plan. It was the heavier jacks that were meant to be the main threat, and he kept those tightly chained to his psyche, preventing them from slipping the leash of discipline.
An anguished howl tore his attention away. The Charger had been too zealous in its pursuit. The Cygnaran jack had chased the fleeing Kommandos into a braced formation of Iron Fang Pikemen and transfixed itself on to their blasting pikes. The Khadorans surrounded the flailing war machine, thrusting their polearms into the gaps in its armor where the explosive spear heads would prove most fatal. The Charger roared as an Iron Fang ducked beneath its lanky frame and stabbed his pike into the armature that connected shoulder with arm, igniting the spear's blasting charge in a detonation of fire and molten metal. The battle hammer fell limply to the ground, arm still attached.
He turned away. There would be no saving this one. Instead, he pooled his magic and poured it into the dying jack's core, saturating the machine's frame with his own power. The warjack shuddered as he overloaded its cortex, turning the control sphere into an improvised time bomb. He counted to three, and when another squad of Khadorans joined the fray, charging into the immobile jack from behind, he detonated it, feeling the sudden pull as both the Charger's weakening conscience and the magic that he had stored within it vanished from his mind.
The resulting explosion cremated everything within a hundred yard radius.
The light jacks were expendable, but he still disliked losing one, especially one that had been loaned to him by Haley. He frowned when he saw more Iron Fangs emerging from the smoke, their shields locked tightly together in a solid wall, spears bristling outward like the armored hide of a hedgehog. Beyond the advancing pikemen he could see the Winter Guard reforming, addressing their savaged ranks behind the protection of their heavier armored brethren.
With time they would reinforce the Iron Fangs, and behind the refuge of power armor they would make the Cygnarans pay with blood for every inch of ground they gained with volleys of lead.
He would not give them that chance.
He sent a mental command to the light jacks that still roamed, calling for them to fall back before they shared the Charger's fate. They had protested that. They wanted more blood. More violence. Their machine spirits burned with rage, and their rudimentary brains filled his mind with angry feedback. He clamped down on them, flooding their cortexes with his magic, dominating the neural command nodes that were the anchor for each warjack's intelligence. They halted, some bare meters away from the Iron Fangs' pikes, and then retreated, loping back to form a defensive half-circle in front of him.
At the same time, he sent out another mental command, this time stronger and purer than the first. In response, one of the four broke ranks from beside him and strode forward, shoving aside a Revenger as the lighter jack returned to its warcaster's side.
Its massive frame was colored in Menoth white, but the symbols that adorned its body had long ago been worn away by battle. Golden studs trailed down its shoulders and sides, running down its arms and ending in brutal, spiked fists. Twin smoke stacks towered above its arched back, each an outlet for the hungry furnace that burned within. A knightly helm jutted from its torso, low-slung and menacing. And behind the visor of burnished bronze, two orange eyes burned, alight with righteous fury.
He smiled as the Crusader stalked towards the Khadoran ranks, its armored body shaking with barely contained wrath.
Had the Crusader been human, then the sound that emitted from its throat would have sounded like laughter.
He had always had an affinity with warjacks.
He discovered early in life, that when he poured his magic, his willpower into the war machines, they became more responsive, more alert. It was partially why he was so good at controlling them. Even more interesting, was when he poured enough of his power into the jack, the results would often be as unexpected as it would be spectacular. Other warcasters could also call upon an affinity, but that required years of experience and working with the same warjack through many campaigns. Eventually the bond would become something more than just a simple relationship between controller and the controlled, and the affinity would develop, some sort of nascent power that could only be used with that specific jack. For him, it was natural. He had always suspected it had something to do with the warjack's cortex reacting to his own magic, somehow mixing to create this unnatural fusion. This secret he had told no one, not even his fellow warcasters when they fought by his side.
For the Crusader, his affinity with it was fire. Wrathful, vengeful fire.
It made sense in a way. The Protectorate of Menoth forged their war machines with holy flame, sanctifying each in the purifying embers of their temple factories. Day in and day out their vassal mechaniks toiled and slaved at their stations, singing praise to the Creator of Man as they shaped metal into engines of destruction. Fresh from the assembly line and into the parade ground the warjacks would march, standing in rigid ranks to await the Choirs of Menoth who would bless them with the divine words of the one true god. On the battlefield, this translated to a righteous hatred for all things heretical, alongside the mechanical anger that all warjacks innately possessed.
He could feel that hatred now, throbbing in his head, pulsating through the mind link as though it were his own. The anger was there too, a bestial thing of raging emotion that involuntarily made him snarl. He let the emotions wash over him like a wave, relishing in the Crusader's bloodlust, delighting in the way it wanted to maim and destroy. And then he inundated the link with his own magic, flooding his power into the warjack like pouring water into a reservoir.
Anger and hatred were, by themselves, volatile emotions. His magic lit them up like a bonfire, fanning the flames until they became a raging inferno.
The Crusader roared as its body caught fire. Flames shot from the crevices of its armor, spread into its arms and legs, washed over its shoulders and draped down its back. Jets of fire blasted from the vents that loomed above its frame, spewing through the holes in the heavy pipes, contorting in serpentine motions. From afar it almost looked like the warjack had grown wings, fiery pinions that jutted from the iron edifices towering over its spine.
The Khadorans shrank back. The heat from the war machine's frame emitted outwards in suffocating waves, buffeting the gathered soldiers like a tempest gale. Even the Iron Fangs, whose powered suits were normally proof against such things, flinched as the Crusader drew near, their shield wall wavering as the paint on their armor crinkled and flaked in response to the heavy jack's advance.
The Crusader did not charge into combat. It walked. Striding forward like some indomitable giant, it shouldered itself into the Khadoran ranks, unmindful of the blasting pikes that poked and stabbed at its armored skin. Those spears that did detonate, it shrugged off, the blasting charges exploding harmlessly off thick, ablative plate. No mere light jack this monster was, no mere engine that was to be used and discarded. It was a god made into machine form, righteous anger caged in a metal frame, fed by magic that fueled its fury into a towering rage, and its wrath was terrible to behold.
Every swing from the massive inferno mace it in its hand was a kill. The heavy spiked weapon belched fire wherever it struck, and those not slain outright by blunt force trauma was consumed by magical flames that melted armor and ate flesh with equal vigor. Where the mace struck ground, plumes of fire would erupt, setting alight those that were near it, turning them into screaming, flailing torches. With its free hand the Crusader continued the slaughter, slapping aside armored and unarmored men alike as though they were toys.
Through it all, it laughed, a steely, booming sound, bellowing its war bred mirth for all to hear.
A particularly vicious blow crushed into an Iron Fang's chest, impaling the hapless man onto the weapon's cruel spikes. Before the warrior could so much as cry out, his killer had already lifted the mace up, the smoking, punctured body still attached, dangling like a broken doll. Heedless of the new ornament that adorned its weapon, the warjack resumed its rampage, wading deeper and deeper into the Khadoran lines.
He saw the Iron Fangs giving way to the Crusader's brutal assault, the shield wall now broken and disorganized. He saw the gap opening, a corridor of bloody, burnt corpses left by the engine's relentless advance. He saw the opportunity, and he grasped it.
A mental command and the Cyclone was striding forward, gatling cannons whirring in anticipation. Twenty paces before the Khadoran lines and the warjack opened up, heavy guns flaring repeatedly with discharge. At this range, there was no missing. Entire ranks of men were scythed down in an instant, shredded by rapid-firing cannon, turned into blood-red mist as explosive shells found their mark. What the Crusader did with its mace the Cyclone copied with its guns, carving great, bloody channels into the Northmen ranks. And then it was in them, the Cygnaran jack surging deep into the lines of red, battering aside the opposition with its gun-limbs, tearing men from their formations, pulping them in its fists and hurling the crushed remains back into the faces of their comrades.
The same command sent the Berserker rampaging towards the melee, hot on the Cyclone's heel. Not exactly a creature of subtlety, this beast was. The earliest Khadoran jacks were more experiment than finished product, and the Berserker could be counted as one of the oldest. Its armor was lighter than engines of the same weight class, an echo to an age when Khador was still in the midst of reforming its army. The cortex that it relied upon was all but obsolete and prone to malfunctioning when under stress. Yet amongst these drawbacks lay the Berserker's strength. Lighter armor meant it could add speed to its charge. An obsolete cortex meant only simple orders could be relayed to its primal intelligence, but that was all that it needed. For that's what the Berserker was. Simplicity in itself. It was a machine that required next to no direction from its warcaster. All that it required was an enemy it could unleashed upon, and it would do the rest.
The Crusader's hatred could be directed. The Cyclone's anger could be tempered. Even the Reaper, which he still kept by his side, could be controlled, though the Cryx engine occasionally fought with him to sate its unholy hunger. Not so, the Berserker. In comparison, it was a howling storm, a raging tempest of emotion powered by an intelligence more beast than man. And all that held it back was the thin line of magic that tethered the beast's cortex to his own will.
He severed that connection the moment the Berserker slammed into the Khadoran lines. A guttural roar blasted from the engine's throat as the chains that had kept it in line, kept it pacified, was broken. Without control, without a leash to hold its primitive mind in check, the warjack reverted back to its most primal form.
It charged forward.
There was no élan in its movements like the Crusader, who despite its heavy bulk, still fought with a semblance of knightly grace. There was no mechanical precision in its decisions like the Cyclone, who picked out targets from the crowds of soldiers that surrounded it and killed those that were more threatening. It was simplicity defined. It charged, and men died. It ploughed into the Iron Fangs whose braced formation of shields might as well been paper. It crashed into their lowered pikes and weathered the ripple of explosions that followed without a hint of breaking stride. It swept into the Winter Guard who shot at it with rifles in close range and hacked at it with axes of their own. It charged, and charged, and when there was none left to bloody the ice axes it clutched in its fists, it plunged again into the next formation. It charged, and the Khadorans fell back.
The Crusader had created the breach when it first smote into Northmen. The Cyclone widened it. The Berserker bulldozed another path and joined the first two. Together, they smashed a hole into the Khadoran ranks, forcing the lines of men to bend back to accommodate the warborne giants in their midst.
He could feel the atmosphere changing. The confidence that had been prevalent as the Northmen marched to attack was long gone. In its place was trepidation, uncertainty, and a little bit of fear. They had expected their superior foot soldiers to engage tired and worn infantry. They had not expected a sudden charge by warjacks, an attack that their own infantry were ill-equipped to deal with. A good commander would have rallied the men while they were still semi-organized at this time. A good commander would have withdrawn the savaged Winter Guard and depleted Iron Fangs to reform behind the Man-o-Wars and heavy jacks. A good commander would have used these fresh forces to contain the breach and then order the infantry back in once their formations were dressed. The Khadorans had good commanders, great ones even, and no doubt this field army contained a significant amount of them. What they didn't have was time. Time to countermand the initial orders. Time for the new orders to reach frontline captains and lieutenants. Time for the infantry to actually reform. They didn't have time because he didn't give them any.
He flung his light jacks into the fray, blasting the command into their conscience with all the subtlety of an oncoming freight train. They jerked into motion, dashing from their defensive circle around him, weapons raised. Halberds swept in great disemboweling arcs. Hammers smote down and turned men into smears on the churned ground. Swords cut and hewed. Lances in gauntleted hands thrust and impaled. Like jackals the light jacks descended on their prey, tearing great chunks from the distracted formations of red-clad warriors.
The line buckled. The Khadorans wavered.
Then the Cygnarans were there, surging around him and into the breach, a deep, joined hurrah rolling from their throats. The drab brown uniforms of Trenchers flooded forward, bayonets lowered in rows of gleaming knifepoints. Stormblade infantry charged alongside them, great two-handed swords swinging over their shoulders, each a nimbus of cackling lightning. Precursor Knights, silver armor polished to a terrible sheen, lumbered for the Khadoran line, chanting litanies of devotion as they advanced. And then the jacks, towering beasts of metal and steel. A Defender class, stepping over fur clad corpses, cannon discharging fire and smoke as it poured fire into the reeling mass of red. An Ironclad, Quake Hammer carried in both hands, shouldering past the infantry, eager to get to grips with the foes its master so hated. The hulking behemoth that was a Centurion, shield held resolutely in one arm to deflect bullet and shell, a Piston Spear clutched tight in the other poised to stab and rend. And the light jacks, numerous as they were varied, hunchbacked frames loping forward like packs of feral wolves.
He smiled. He could not help but be caught up in this oncoming wave. Haley had chosen her timing well.
In a great blue wedge the Cygnarans slammed into the gap made by his warjacks and everything dissolved into chaos.
Perception faded, as it often did in war, replaced with a series of flickering images that came moment by moment. All around him men in blue and red grappled with one another, their bodies made indistinct by the close press of melee combat. Bayonets flashed as they stabbed into fur and then the flesh behind. In return axes cleaved down, biting into shoulders, arms, and heads. Mighty war engines reaved their way through the tight mass of struggling men, leaving trails of carnage behind their destructive wake. Vaguely he was aware of his own warjacks returning to him, maintaining the protective cohesion of a battlegroup now that they were no longer required in the vanguard. It hardly mattered. No longer was this a general's battle of formations and soldiers in neat, tidy ranks. It had turned into the grunt's scuffle, a brawl of raw strength against raw strength. It was hectic, chaotic, and above all else, a warcaster's worst nightmare.
Magic was the lifeblood that connected a warjack to its master, but magic required concentration, and to maintain that link doubly so. When combat raged around you, it was so much harder to focus, so much more effort required to concentrate. He knew this. He had experienced it all before. Junior warcasters often made the mistake of trying to keep their focus on the jacks they marshalled, concentrating solely on the war machines they commanded. It was a fatal error. To be in the midst of battle meant that one had to be aware of one's surroundings. All too often he saw warcasters being picked off by solitary soldiers or specialized assassins, their attention diverted on the battle their warjacks fought instead of the battle at large. He had been guilty of doing the same himself on more than a few occasions. The scars on his body attested to that. Even now, after a lifetime of battle, it was hard, hard to stay detached and wary while his jacks did the fighting. But it was not without its benefits.
From the corner of his eye he could make out Iron Fang Uhlans careering for him, skirting around the masses of soldiers embroiled in combat. Spikes adorned the armor of their steeds, steel ornaments studded on blood red carapace. Their blasting lances were held high in resting position, spear tips pointing to the sky. Their aim was clear. Their intent, more so. They would charge him with lances couched while he was unaware and if that did not finish him, at least they would have the vulnerable backs of his warjacks as a target for their explosive spears. It was a sound tactic, and one that was not limited only to Khador. Cygnar employed their Storm Lances much to the same effect, and even the zealous Exemplar Vengers of Menoth knew the method of 'Hammer and Anvil'. After all, cavalry were fast and agile. And unlike the considerable bulk of a light jack, they could maneuver through the tight spaces between troop lines with relative impunity.
Fifty paces away and he could see their lances drooping until each was held horizontally, pointed tips fixed upon him. Their plate encased steeds broke out into a full gallop, hooves thundering across the ground. He kept up the illusion of not noticing, keeping his head facing straight and away from the oncoming horseman. Twenty yards away and the lead Uhlan let out a victorious shout, a sound his fellows mirrored. He could almost see the triumph in their eyes. Then he gave the order, and the Cyclone that had been so busy slaughtering its way through a platoon of Winter Guard abruptly stopped and swiveled on its chassis. The gatling cannons flared into life, multiple barrels stuttering with repeated discharge. The Uhlans didn't register its presence, so intent they were on him, and when they did, they were already riding into a hail of lead. Man and horse jerked and twitched as multiple shells found them, falling and tumbling together in intertwined jumbles of broken limbs as the Cyclone walked its fire through them. Blood misted in the air as the bodies that held them ruptured and split. Armor became nothing more than a redundancy. Less than that. Not even jack-grade plate could protect its wearer when the very air seemed to be alive with buzzing rounds. Swiftly, the formation ceased to be, disintegrating as the warjack raked the charging Uhlans with its chain guns.
The last rider was catapulted from his steed, his horse smashing into the dirt as bullets ripped its forelimbs from its torso. The Khadoran fell heavily and rolled to a stop before him, blood seeping from holes rent in his armor. From the cracked faceplate he could make out a solitary eye staring up at him, wide in shock. Then, he stepped over it, over the convulsing body, moving forward without a backwards glance. The sound of splintering plate a second later told him the Reaper had crushed the man underfoot.
Dimly, he followed the flow of battle, reacting to every change and hurrying to act when said change threatened to turn the conflict against them. A faint throb in his head and the sudden disappearance of a mind link told him he had lost another one of his light jacks some time earlier. He disregarded this information. It had been one of the mercenary engines he took from Llael's armories. The arduous journey to meet with Haley had taxed the already worn machine. He was honestly surprised it had last this long.
Gradually, the Cygnarans were pushing their opponents back, the sheer momentum of their charge giving them the advantage over superior numbers. Not even the arrival of the Man-o-Wars who had finally reached the beleaguered Winter Guard and the Juggernauts who tried to engage their Cygnaran counterparts through the tight press of men, could turn the tide. The Northmen were being overwhelmed, slowly but surely, and as realization of that fact struck, panic jolted through their ranks. He was not sure when it first happened. Even in his heightened state of awareness some aspects of the battle still escaped his attention. But the sudden lessening of pressure to the front of him told him all he needed to know. They were running. A few at first, then a slow trickle as it became apparent that the Cygnarans had the upper hand. That trickle became a flood as their opponents pressed the advantage, cutting swathes through the Khadoran ranks, weakening the already crumbling resistance. And then the lines of red collapsed, fully collapsed, overtaken by surging waves of blue, entire companies disappearing as they were overrun. It was too much. Just too much. The flood turned into a full on rout, and he saw soldiers throw down their weapons, their armor, anything that would weigh them down as they ran.
A thundering cheer broke out from around him, lifted from each and every Cygnaran's throat. They roared their victory to the sky and he saw that some had tears in their eyes. And then Haley was there to the front, her personal warjacks surrounding her, armor dented and scarred from recent blows. She pointed her spear in the direction of the fleeing army, lightning coursing across the span of the blade.
"After them!" he heard her shout, "Pursue them! For the King! For Cygnar!"
The cheers sounded again, and then they were surging forward once more, the Cygnarans, chasing after their hated foes with weapons clutched in vengeful hands.
He was about to join the pursuit when a wheezing gasp stopped him.
"Abomination!" the man's chest was a bloody ruin, weeping lifeblood onto the muddled ground, "You… You do not belong here…"
The arcane sigils inscribed over the Khadoran's robes told him he was a Greylord, the sorcerer-equivalent to Cygnar's own Tempest Mages. Through some inhuman effort, the wizened man was still standing even as his life left him in pain-wracked coughs.
"Anathema! Monster!" the Greylord continued to rant, "Begone from Khador's blessed soil! Go back to your own realm, demon!"
He shrugged, for it was all one could do when faced with a madman.
"And yet here I still am," he could not help but say.
The sword in his hand was aimed for the Khadoran's heart and balanced to thrust. He stepped into range.
The man's eyes lit up with victory. He started and looked down at his feet. The crimson glare of hexagrammic runes told him all he needed to know. They crisscrossed the area encompassing where he stood and where his personal warjacks stood.
An uncharacteristic growl erupted form his throat. He lunged for the Khadoran sorcerer and felt the blade connect.
The Greylord grinned at him through blood-flecked lips.
And everything disappeared in a flash of white light.
They should have known that the death of Emmeline Vance was more than just a warning.
The Order had dispersed after last night's meeting, with half including Dumbledore heading back to their own homes and the other half deciding to continue the meeting at the Potter residence. The only warning they received was Severus flooing in, disheveled and panting.
"They're coming," the man had said, eyes filled with dread.
And then the wards had come crashing down.
It had been a blur ever since then. Lily recalled ushering a confused Rose up the stairs even as she demanded to fight alongside her parents' side. And then she had rushed out onto the yard, intent on defending her home and family. The odds were poor from the very beginning. The Death Eaters outnumbered them by at least five to one. Voldemort had risen and the Dark Lord was keen on finishing what he had started all those years ago.
Lily was dueling alone with three of his followers, exchanging spells and hexes at frantic speed. None amongst the Order could help her. The Death Eaters had ganged up on them from the very start and what they lacked in experience and power they made up for in numbers. Powered up Diffindos blazed past her and she was forced to swerve aside to avoid a hastily cast Reducto. Before she could fully turn, one of the masked men smashed into her Protego with a high-power Blasting Curse.
Her Shield Charm could not take the full brunt of the blow and shattered. Magical backlash ripped into her. She staggered and fell to one knee. Her wand fell from nerveless fingers.
One of the Death Eaters advanced. Behind the mask, his eyes gleamed with triumph.
Lily heard James screaming her name, but found herself too exhausted to care. Perhaps it was better this way. If it ended like this, maybe she could see him again. To hold him again.
The explosion of magic threw them all off their feet.
Lily gasped as she felt herself land. The light blinded them. Vision returned in blotches of rearranging color. What she saw made her stare, made all of them stare.
In the epicenter of the blast, colossal forms loomed. They were giants of metal and steel. Massive hulking golems that belched fire from the smoke stacks on their backs. Iron wrought jaws and snarling faceplates discharged gouts of hot steam in great shuddering breaths. Armored hands grasped killing weapons far larger than they had any right to be. Predatory malice emanated from the group like a thick miasma.
Lily ignored all of them even as Order members and Death Eaters alike were rooted to the ground in shock. Her attention was riveted to the lone figure standing in the golems' midst, small and seemingly inconsequential compared to the giants around him.
Emerald eyes, her eyes, flickered back and forth between the two sides. Then they narrowed.
The boy barked an order, in a foreign tongue she could not understand.
The golems moved and then all around her Death Eaters began to die.
His bearings return to him in a riot of color. The links to his warjacks continue to throb in his head. The war engines fan out instinctively in a protective circle around him. They display nothing to the enemy except for battle-scarred hulls and snorting, snarling faceplates.
It takes but a split-second for his senses to re-orientate. His vision steadies. His hearing expands. Reflexively, his hand tightens over the grip of his sword.
He regards his surroundings with a clinical eye. The environment has changed. The terrain has changed. What constitutes an ally and an enemy has changed.
Others might have panicked had they been in his place. To be wrenched so suddenly across time and space. He does not. The warcaster in him has already taken control. The cold rhythm of battle logic clamps down on any wayward hint of emotion. He analyzes. He scans. He bases conclusions off what he sees and hears and not what the fallible mind wants him to see and hear.
Two sides. Locked in combat. One side contain familiar faces. He recognizes them from the dreams that haunt him and the memories that plague him. Sentiment threatens to bubble forth. He shunts it aside. Compartmentalizes it deep inside him until it is an afterthought.
Battle first. Questions can come later.
The other side are plainly enemies. It is laughably obvious. The pale white masks. The dark, billowing cloaks. Whatever joke Fate has decided to play on him has at least clearly differentiated between what he is supposed to kill and what he is not supposed to kill. That, and the ones wearing the masks are threatening the faces familiar to him.
The decision is made. The command is given.
He is still angry with himself for falling into the Khadoran trap. Therefore there is a physical component to the command when usually a mental one would have sufficed.
"Engage," he hears himself growl.
Unlike most wizards, Sirius Black was familiar with muggle technology. His friend, Arthur Weasley, was what wizarding society termed a "muggle-lover" or someone with an unhealthy fascination with muggles. This fascination involved topics ranging from their culture to their mannerisms to their technology. Especially their technology. Though Sirius held no distinct interest in the subject matter, Arthur's close involvement with the Order had, over the years, instilled within him an appreciation for how the magic-less made do. On one occasion, he even allowed himself to be led by the elder Weasley into a muggle museum dedicated to the past few centuries of warfare. And while he walked away none the wiser about how muggle technology worked, he at least left with an idea of what they were.
So when the giant metal thing swiveled to face him, the barrels of the gatling cannon under each arm distinctly speeding up, Sirius knew he had to duck.
The heir of Black hurled himself to the ground.
The Death Eaters who were fighting him held no such compunction. The men behind the masks were purebloods in the truest sense of the word. They did not understand what was about to happen even as it was happening. They stood their ground and continued to stare at the blue and grey machine with a form of horrified fascination.
The chain guns opened up and suddenly the Death Eaters were no longer standing.
A single sustained volley scythed them down. Cloaked figures jerked and twisted as the fusillade found them. Blood fountained into the air. Limbs were torn from shoulders and hips. Bodies crumpled, then came apart as fist-sized holes were blown through them. The exit wounds were so large and gaping that Sirius could see the sunlight shining through them.
The older man rolled out of the metal monster's path as it advanced. It was firing in bursts now. Picking out individual Death Eaters and gunning them down with practiced ease. Shot and shell kicked up clouds of dirt and debris. Spent brass casings cascaded on to the ground like rain.
Sirius stared after it. His stunned mind had finally started to process information in detail. The giant war machine striding unflappably through their midst. The three others just like it, similarly huge yet visually different. The boy who advanced alongside them, barking curt commands in some indecipherable tongue. The boy who was so young yet wore armor and combat harness fit for men many times his age.
The boy who looked so like James Potter that it was painful.
He had so many questions to ask and not enough time to ask them. So he asked the most pertinent one.
"Where the hell did they come from!?"
The Death Eater turned back to Lily, intent on what finishing what he started. His wand hand rose again.
The spear burst out of his chest like a spike hammered through a rotten fruit. The man looked down in disbelief. He reflexively pawed at the lance hideously transfixing him. A wet, gurgling sound escaped his throat.
Lily snatched up her own wand from the ground. In the time it took for her to do so she realized that the spear was not so much a spear but a harpoon. The barbed serrated tip was as long as her arm. Complete with a length of chain that extended away from the stricken Death Eater and towards the most sinister looking of the four golems.
The Death Eater locked gazes with Lily. Behind the vision slits on his mask, the man's eyes were wide open from traumatic shock. The harpoon had split his chest apart at the seams and exploded his ribcage out the front of his body. Nonetheless, he still seemed to be dimly aware of what was going on.
The chain grew taut and the doomed man was jerked back with bone-snapping force. He hurtled away from Lily, reeled back like some catch by a demented fisherman. He screamed all along the way. Screamed as he was bounced him painfully off the ground at uneven angles, screamed even as the chain finally dragged him to the hunchbacked, carapaced form of his captor.
He was still screaming when the golem raised a massive, mantis-like forelimb and jabbed the sharpened end directly into his stomach.
The monstrosity lifted the spasming body towards its tusked face. It huffed in predatory curiosity. Then it flicked the Death Eater's corpse away like it was nothing more than a broken toy doll.
If this was any other circumstance, Lily should have been horrified. She should have been horrified by the massive hulks of steam and metal as they tore their way through Voldemort's followers. She should have been horrified by the manner in which the Death Eaters died, for they were anything but clean.
But she was not. She had only eyes for the boy.
Figures in black cloaks continued to accost her but she blasted them back with hexes and curses she didn't think she knew.
Getting to him was all that mattered.
James spun on his heel, his mind reeling. The speed at which things had changed shocked him. A minute ago and they had been fighting a losing battle. Now they were still fighting, but it was an entirely different type of battle.
What were those things? Where did they come from? What was happening?
The Death Eater he had been dueling took advantage of his disorientated state and tried to hit him with a Confringo. Auror training kicked in and he blocked it with a reflexively cast Protego. His own wand twirled in his hand. The hex was on the tip of his tongue.
The great flaming mace came out of nowhere.
The weapon's head was adorned with brass spikes. Orange fire licked hungrily from the gaps in its surface. It smashed into the Death Eater in an overhead arc and turned the hapless man into an unrecognizable smear against the ground.
The monster lifted its weapon from the pulverized floor. A loud squelch followed. Pieces of liquefied Death Eater dribbled down the cruel, punishing thorns.
The monster itself stood twelve feet tall. Massive ablative plates ran down its shoulders and body. The smokestacks on its back billowed out twin streams of choking smoke. It was as though some crazed mechanist had taken what a medieval knight was supposed to look like and replicated it on an armored bipedal chassis.
The thing lunged, impossibly fast for a being of its size, and backhanded an oversized gauntlet into another cloaked figure. The Death Eater careered away with an undignified squawk before smashing into the side of Potter Manor. The woman's broken body slid down the brick stone wall and crumpled into a lifeless heap below the crater her impact had made.
And then the boy was there. In front of him, sword bared and coruscating with tendrils of lightning.
James had dreamed of what his long lost son would look like. Every year without Harry and he had envisioned the missing twin aging, changing. He would have been fifteen this year. Fifteen. His feverish mind had tried to imagine what Harry would have looked like at that age. Not yet a man but so much more than a child.
Now a spitting image was staring him in the face.
"H-Harry?" he croaked out, not daring to believe.
The boy looked at him strangely, then grabbed him by the hem of his robe.
I am aware of the similarities between our facial structures.
He grabs the man's robe.
But now is not the time.
And tugs him back from the angry red beam of light that was a millisecond away from connecting with his head. The man staggers and he lets him fall. There are more important matters to attend to.
He advances on the masked form. Whatever these men and women are supposed to be, they are not the disciplined soldiery of the Iron Kingdoms. There is none of the élan of Cygnar's Stormblade Knights in them. Nor is there the doughty bravery of Khador's Winter Guard. Not even the fire and brimstone zealotry of the Protectorate's Exemplars. They act like individuals rather than a cohesive whole. They behave like opportunistic wolves rather than a unified pack of hounds. And when they try and cast their spells from the wands in their hands, they unwittingly telegraph their movements to him.
Which makes it absurdly easy for him to dodge.
His enemy tries to hit him with the same spell. The angry red beam shoots out the wand tip. But where the wand is pointing gives it all away. He swerves to the side and the spell hits the area where he was instead of where he is.
The cloaked figure tries again. This time the hue of the spell is fiery orange, the same color as the fires from his Crusader. He tilts his head and allows the hissing beam to whizz harmlessly past his cheek.
And all this time he is closing the gap in measured, purposeful strides.
The man is panicking now, backpedaling from his inexorable advance. The last spell is cast out of desperation but the distance has now close enough between them that dodging is no longer an option.
His sword comes up. It's of Cygnaran make. Based off the ancient blades the revered order of Caspian Sword Knights still used today. He has layered intricate runes inside the mechanikal housing and on the surface of the runeplate itself. He has tuned the arcane capacitator to the flow of his own magical core through years of unstinting use. It has turned the sword into a spell-killer as much as a man-slayer.
He whips the blade up and deflects the curse away in an explosion of sparks and incandescent light.
And then he is there, in front of his quarry. The sword flashes down.
The man sinks to the ground. His hand instinctively clutches at the massive gash cleaved into his shoulder. The blow has collapsed his clavicle into his internal organs. Thick arterial spray spews out of the gory wound like oil from a perforated drum.
He steps past the man. He is as good as dead. Ergo he is no longer a threat.
The Reaper, always his shadow, comes up from behind him. It slams its helldriver spike repeatedly into the dead body in a fit of murderous pique.
He frowns slightly. The correct terminology for Cryxian heavy automata was not warjack but helljack. The necrotech forges beneath the Scharde Islands imbued necromantic energies into the armored frames of their creations to mass-produce hellish engines that were an anathema to all things living. And while he had purged his personal helljack of the worst of the Cryxian corruption, a lingering, vindictive malice still resided within the metal shell of its hull.
The mechanikal sword in his hand hisses as it emits faint trails of steam. The lightening field surrounding the blade is evaporating the blood coating the runeplate surface.
His mind recalculates priorities. The immediate threat is neutralized. This gives him time re-orientate himself with the battlescape. He gauges ranges and judges distances. He issues new target algorithms to his warjacks via the cortex-brains installed beneath layers of thick, jack-grade steel.
His presence is a dynamic combat shift. It is a fundamental paradigm change. It's not his skill with a blade or his innate ability to command warjacks. It's not even the warjacks themselves. It's the simple fact that no military force, large or small, can ignore a warcaster and the multiple twelve ton behemoths he commands when they are present on the battlefield. You can't wish such a potent force away. You can't ignore it either. You have to do something about them.
And what the masked figures are doing is apparently dying in droves.
He does not understand. Where are the steam-powered armored suits most journeymen warcasters wore into combat? Where are the enemy warjacks, the massive hulks of steam and anger matching his own? Where are the massed ranks of common soldiers arrayed in formation, protecting the most valuable resource in any Iron Kingdom field army, the warcasters themselves?
The enemy has none of these things, so they die ignominiously and ignobly.
They are caught between the hammer that are his war engines and the anvil that include the ones he has dreamed about for the past fifteen years of his life.
He nods to himself, satisfied. An impulse command powers down the arcane capacitator in his blade.
His personal participation in this battle is no longer required.
Lily was scant seconds from reaching him when the distinct cracks of multiple Apparitions sounded into her ear.
Albus Dumbledore, along with the rest of the order, emerged out of thin air. On the aged headmaster's face was an expression of fury that Lily had rarely seen before. Looking at him now and it was easy to remember that this was the man who had brought low the Dark Wizard Grindelwald and saved both the wizarding and muggle world.
The Death Eaters, reduced to a paltry few, did the only thing that was left for them to do.
"Albus!" Lily heard Sirius shout, "They're going to Apparate!"
Behind his spectacles, Dumbledore's eyes flashed. The venerable wizard flicked his wand wordlessly and Lily felt something clinch shut inside her. Whatever the old headmaster had done, something told her that Apparition was no longer a possibility for the time being.
The Death Eaters realized it too. The half a dozen that still lived. They huddled together, eyes wild and desperate. The way their bodies jerked when they moved suggested they were approaching a state of catatonic shock. The sudden and abrupt way the battle had changed course had shattered their illusion of invincibility.
Nonetheless, they point their wands back at the Order of the Phoenix.
Dumbledore stepped forward.
"Surrender," he said firmly, but not unkindly.
The Death Eaters' hands shake, but the direction of their wands didn't change.
Lily idly wondered what Voldemort could have possibly promised these men and women for them to stare in the face of such odds and remain defiant.
"Surrender," Dumbledore said more resolutely, "and there need not be any more bloodshed."
The lead Death Eater growled out something incomprehensible. His wand hand looked like it was about to move. And then his entire body seemed to burst as the fusillade of rounds tore into him. His companions twisted and lurched as the sustained volley scythed them down. Successive impacts from the hail of lead kept their corpses standing for much longer than necessary. The incessant retorts of rotor cannons firing on full auto was akin to the continuous booms of an enraged thunderstorm.
Merciful silence fell. Some of the Order members lowered the hands they have instinctively clamped over their ears. All of them stared at the one responsible.
The chain guns attached to the metal golem's arms cycled slowly to a stop. Spent gunpowder smoke snaked out each of the multiple, steel barrels.
The boy stared back at them. His emerald eyes, her eyes, gave nothing away.
He shrugged at them.
Words they couldn't understand came from his mouth.
How could they not see it? It is as plain as day.
The old man in grey robes is obviously a powerful caster. The magic that emanates from his aged frame is palpable. He has brought reinforcements to the battle as logic dictates. It's what he's trying to do with those reinforcements that is all wrong.
They have cornered the enemy against some invisible magic barrier and yet the enemy has made their defiance clear. He can tell from the caged, animalistic tension in their body movements and the way their eyes dart desperately behind their masks.
The old man says something again with no discernable effect.
He sighs. If they weren't going to finish it, then he would on his own terms.
He tilts his head towards his Cyclone.
The Cygnaran warjack lets out a rumbling growl of acknowledgement. The Metal Storm Chain Guns affixed to its arms wind and spin.
The results are as bloody as they are predictable. The masked men twitch and jerk before they fall. When the work is done, there is a tangible mist of blood in the air that takes several full seconds to dissipate.
They are all staring at him now. The ones his intervention has saved.
"They weren't going to surrender," he tells them.
They had relocated back into Potter Manor. The entire warding system and much of the charms and runes hiding the house from sight would need to be replaced before it could be considered fully secure once more.
Albus Dumbledore was already deep in thought as the rest of the Order members finished filing in.
It had been such a near thing. Had Severus not risked his cover and by extension his life, the attack on the Potters would have gone flawlessly. It was by the skin of his teeth that the double agent managed to get a warning out in time. Had Snape failed, then the consequences were too dire to think about.
The Dark Lord had been aggressive ever since his rebirth. First the hit-order on Emmeline Vance. Now a planned assault on an Order safe house by over twenty Death Eaters.
What alarmed the old headmaster was not the attacks themselves, but the short span of time between them. It seemed like Voldemort's plan from the very beginning was to seize the initiative from the Order of the Phoenix. To strike repeatedly and frequently so the Order would be left with little time to organize and conduct a coordinated defense. To inflict a siege mentality on the resistance members so that they would be mentally broken and helpless before the final assault inevitably came.
Dumbledore was familiar with the tactic. Grindelwald had used a similar strategy to coerce and intimidate his enemies. Voldemort's method, however, was far more refined and precise in its implementation.
And unlike Gellert, whose support all but vanished with his defeat, Voldemort had maintained a strong base of followers that had steadily grown in number and zealotry even after his "death".
It was perhaps unsurprising then that after Riddle was revived his base of support had only grown.
Much of this was due to his own miscalculation, Dumbledore knew. After Grindelwald's downfall, the purges carried out by vengeful wizarding governments had been extensive and widespread. Many innocents and those only tangentially related to Gellert's followers had been caught in the Aurors' nets. To avoid this same mistake from repeating in history, Dumbledore had advised mercy and compassion when Voldemort's Death Eaters had finally been caught. He had hoped years spent in normal society without Riddle's influence would slowly cure whatever prejudices or hatreds were infesting in their hearts.
He had hoped that the cancerous tumor afflicting Great Britain's wizarding society could be healed benignly and would not have to be directly cut out from its flesh.
Yet, by advising lenient sentences, he had also inadvertently allowed these former Death Eaters to worm their ways back to their original positions of influence. And with predictable results.
When Voldemort was reborn, the Ministry of Magic had instantly been paralyzed. The acting minister, Cornelius Fudge, was not an evil man but was criminally incompetent. Had the circumstances been different and not involved the rise of a Dark Lord, the man's term in office might have been decidedly average. Just another middling politician in a long line of mediocrity. However, with the situation as it was, Fudge's ineptitude had lost him control of the government. It was rumored that entire branches of the Ministry were controlled from the shadows by either Death Eaters or Death Eater affiliates. Fudge, it seemed, had barricaded himself in his office and only came out to attend daily press conferences reassuring the panicking populace that there was no Dark Lord and no Death Eaters.
With the government in such a stricken state, basic services had started to shut down. The Aurors had been run ragged trying to placate the restless population. Voldemort had used the disorder among the law enforcement to begin anew the terror attacks that had so infamously characterized his first reign.
It was a general testament to the state of affairs that the attack on the Potter residence, despite being forewarned, had still nearly succeeded. It would have succeeded, had it not been for the intervention from a most unlikely source.
That source was currently sitting in the middle of the dining room, surrounded by stunned members of the Order. He was clad in a simple brown cloak, frayed and utilitarian. A solid metal breastplate, well-worn yet also well-maintained, protected his chest and abdomen. The winking blue lights around the steel edges told Dumbledore the armor had been rune-inscribed and enchanted. A pair of workman's goggles, the lenses dirty from overuse, sat perched on top his head. Behind this bizarre choice of attire, the aged headmaster caught glimpses of metal tools slotted in place on a leather belt.
Every time the boy shifted in his seat, the steel instruments hidden by his cloak clinked together like wind chimes.
Dumbledore's expression softened.
He had always suspected that Harry Potter had survived that fateful night fifteen years ago. There had been no body and Dumbledore's own deep understanding of magic had led him to form his own theory on the matter. But wizarding society at the time had desperately needed a hero and though Dumbledore had expressed his personal doubts, the story of the Girl-Who-Lived and the Boy-Who-Disappeared had become a household tale throughout magical Britain.
The Boy-Who-Disappeared and now who had apparently reappeared.
His companions, if they could be described as companions, waited for him outside. Their massive frames would simply not fit through the normal, human-sized doors of Potter Manor.
Dumbledore hesitated on calling them golems, like Lily had done. Golem implied a creation fashioned out of magic itself. These… things… looked like they had come out of a factory's assembly line. Yet, Dumbledore had felt the magic emanating from their bodies. So then, what was the correct word to use? Automata? Anima?
The rest of the Order had given the Potters space to reconnect with their long lost son. But reconnect was an easy thing to say and so much harder to do. The two sides had not seen each other for the better part of two decades. What could they say to each other without making it sound awkward? How could they express their feelings and thoughts without making it appear shallow and forced?
Lily sat face to face with him. The old headmaster could feel the pain and hope weighing on her shoulders as though they were his own. In intermittent intervals, her shaking hand would raise towards the boy's face before abruptly dropping back to her side.
James stood at his wife's side. The Auror Captain had reflexively gripped the wooden back of Lily's chair. His face displayed a range of emotions beginning with wonder and ending in fear. Wonder that something like this had happened. Fear that somehow it would all disappear before he fully realized it had happened.
Rose was the only one who seemed to stand apart. Unlike her parents who had already formed an attachment, the girl only knew her twin through stories and reputation. She fidgeted in place, seemingly knowing what was transpiring was important, but not understanding her role in it.
The boy, for his part, seemed content to sit in his seat and wait for his family to make the first move. Occasionally, his gloved hand would trace the edge of the strange sword lying in his lap. His eyes bored into theirs with such intensity that sometimes they had to look away.
Dumbledore had on occasion seen both Lily and Rose in moments of anger. When they were furious, their eyes glinted like the sides of a cold cut emerald. The boy's eyes were different. They burned. Burned like balefire. Burned like the way the machines standing outside burned fire out the smokestacks on their backs.
The tension in the room had grown to an almost unbearable level. The emotional wall built between the Potters and their son seemed insurmountable. For a split second, Dumbledore was afraid that this would continue on indefinitely and the two sides would never be able to speak.
And then suddenly, breaking the silence, a gasp.
The boy had taken Lily's hand and placed it on his own cheek.
He does not understand their hesitancy.
At first he thinks it is because they do not recognize him. The irony amuses him. For a cosmic force to hurl him back into his original timeline and for the inhabitants to have simply forgotten he existed. What a joke that would be.
Then he realizes that he is thinking solely from a warcaster's perspective.
It has always been rumored by those not gifted with the touch of the Mechanika that due to a lifetime spent working alongside machines, warcasters would slowly lose their humanity over time. That they would become more like the warjacks that marched by their side until they were no different from the engines that served them.
This was, of course, patently untrue.
Warcasters were flesh and blood, and contained the same vices and iniquities that made human beings explicitly human. However, a semblance of truth persisted in the rumor. A lifetime spent bonded to the cortexes of their mechanik thralls inevitably changed the thought processes of a warcaster. They approached problems from a more logic-based perspective and discounted outlooks based on emotion and feeling.
He has to shift perspective and re-approach the problem by viewing it through an additional, emotional layer. Then he understands.
It's not that they have forgotten him, lost to some memory. It's not that they're caught up in some dream that has no place for him.
It's because they are afraid of losing him again. It's because they are afraid that seeing him is, in itself, a dream, and disturbing it in any way would break that dream into a million pieces.
He looks at the woman and she looks demurely away. His gaze switches to the man standing behind the woman and whose grip on her chair is so tight that it seems almost painful. He focuses on the girl who out of the three, is the only one unfamiliar to him. She has not appeared in his dreams. He wonders why.
The girl shares his features. Unlike the others, she does not look away. He inclines his head towards her in a courteous gesture. She gives a half-smile in return.
The woman's hands are bothering him. In random intervals, she would make to reach out for him and then suddenly snatch her hand back. It is as though she thinks touching him would somehow shatter the illusion.
She does this for some time before his patience nears its end.
He sighs and grabs the woman's wrist before it can retreat again. He ignores her startled gasp and brings her trembling hand to his cheek.
"I am real," he tells her.
He knows they will not understand the words but hopes the implication behind the act will get through.
"Oh, Harry," is what she says back to him.
And then her arms are around him, pulling him into a tight embrace.
His shoulders stiffen automatically. He did not expect this sudden outburst of emotion. He is unused to such close physical contact.
"Ma'am," he says when the embrace continues on for quite some time, "You're suffocating me."
"Oh Harry! I knew you were still alive! All these years and I've never given up hope!"
The man joins the embrace and to his faint chagrin, begins tousling his hair.
"Lily, help me with this. I… I don't know what I should say… But all that matters is you're safe with us, Harry."
"Sir," he says politely back, "You're suffocating me too."
"Mom. Dad," the girl looks at her parents with mild embarrassment, "I think you need to give him some space."
Both the woman and the man release him. He nods gratefully at the girl. Whatever she just said to them has obviously worked.
The girl wearing his likeness steps closer. She peers at him warily. He cannot help but notice just how closely her eyes resemble his own in color and hue.
"It's really you, isn't it? My twin. Mom and dad said the reason you disappeared was because you protected me from Voldemort. So thanks, I guess."
Her face grows mischievous.
"Though if you really were my twin, you'd tell me what you did to those Death Eaters out there. The rest of the Order won't tell me."
"Rose!" the woman exclaims, scandalized.
"The Death Eaters," the girl ignores her mother's warning and makes a motion mimicking the act of taking off a mask, "What did you do to them?"
He believes he understands. She is trying to ask the status of the foe outside.
There is no point in explaining in words so he copies her attempt to speak through gestures.
He taps a finger on the sword resting in his lap and then makes a slitting motion across his throat. It is the standard callsign for Llaelese resistance fighters when they wanted to signify the complete annihilation of the enemy.
Ever since his participation in their ranks, the Llaelese Resistance had more cause than ever to use that sign.
The girl grins at him fiercely.
"Yup! We're going to get along just fine!"
He ignores her friendly outburst. His eye for detail has picked out something incriminating on her features.
He directs a single finger towards her face, pointing to the faint red imprint that is unmistakably a scar. A scar shaped in the form of a single lightning bolt.
"Ah, that. Voldemort left it. I get a little self-conscious about it at times, but what can you do?"
Something in her tone tells him the confidence behind the words is not exactly assured. But that is not the reason why he has directed his attention to the scar.
He removes the mechanist goggles sitting above his head. The hair above his crown springs free. He parts the bangs to reveal what has been unintentionally hidden from their sight.
The same lightning bolt scar etched across his forehead.
"What do you make of all of this, Albus?" Minerva was saying.
The boy had gone outside to tend to his machines. If he noticed the consternation his revelation had cause, he certainly didn't show it.
Dumbledore stroked his beard in thought.
"I am not sure, old friend. What happened that night had always been a theory. We do not currently possess the methods to either prove it or disprove it," he turned to Lily, "You mentioned that when he first appeared, there was a tremendous magical explosion?"
"Yes," the woman, still emotional, said back.
"We felt it, Dumbledore," Sirius spoke up, "The magical backlash. We all did."
Sitting by Sirius's side, Remus nodded.
"And the language barrier?" the old headmaster pressed, "Have any of you heard of such a language spoken before?"
They all shook their heads.
"Neither have I and I have traveled extensively in my youth. It is a language that is unheard of in this world."
"What are you implying, Headmaster?" James asked.
"I am implying there is a possibility," Dumbledore said simply.
Realization slowly dawned.
"If all of this is true," Arthur Weasley swallowed, "Then the Department of Mysteries will want to be involved."
"The Department of Mysteries is rumored to be infiltrated by Death Eaters," growled Moody.
"I cannot confirm or deny those rumors," Shacklebolt said calmly, "But with current events as they are, it would be foolish to assume otherwise."
"I won't let them take my son," Lily looked up at them fiercely.
"What makes you think he'll let them take him?" Moody grinned darkly.
The old headmaster raised an eyebrow.
"What do you mean by that, Alastor?"
"You saw what happened out there. What he did to those Death Eaters. The boy's strong. Those metal clunkers of his aren't bad in a fight either. We could damn well use the help."
James glared at the ex-Auror.
"Our son just came back to us and you're already wanting to involve him in this war?"
"He certainly didn't mind involving himself, did he?" Moody shot back.
"I was hoping a more nuanced conversation would happen before any talk about the Order could occur," Dumbledore said mildly.
"We don't have the time."
All eyes turned to figure leaning against the wall. Snape scowled back at them.
"You think this recent attack was it? That somehow he'll stop after this? He has more attacks planned. And they will get harder and harder to stop until all of us are dead. We've already denied him the first time. The second time… He's going to try his damndest to make sure the second time won't be like the first."
The double agent glared at them before slouching back against the wall.
"We don't have the time," he repeated.
Lily had escaped the confines of the room for a breath of fresh air. The argument had grown heated and she no longer wanted to be a part of it. Not when the subject was her son.
She made her way towards where she knew he would have gone.
Even though she could not speak with him, just watching him at a distance was enough for her.
He was standing in front of his golems. Lily noticed that he had taken off the traveling cloak and the armored plating covering his front. A rumpled undershirt was all he wore over his upper body.
What she saw on his bare arms and back made her forget about anything else.
He has stripped to his waist to combat the relentless heat.
The coal furnaces and steam boilers that are the heart and lungs of each warjack also makes working near them a sweltering experience. The temperature radiating from their mighty frames was hot enough that it could cause heat strokes to those unused to such hostile operating conditions. But he had learned to endure just as all warcasters had learned to endure.
Out in the field, warcasters were expected to perform the rituals of maintenance and repair themselves.
And this, technically, counts as out in the field.
He pulls a wrench out of the holster from his belt. The Crusader has taken some superficial hits in the skirmish with the masked figures. There is no outward sign of damage but he wants to make sure.
He raps the head of his wrench against the warjack's side.
"Kneel you old bastard. I can't reach you."
The Crusader swivels to stare at him. Through its steel and brass faceplate, it gives a warbling growl of complaint.
"Yes, so you say. Knights only kneel to lords. Well, I am your warcaster so I am, by definition, your lord. So kneel."
The warjack lets out a huff but obliges him. It sinks to one knee.
He ducks under the arm holding the Inferno Mace and opens a bolted panel directly under the Crusader's immense shoulder. Inside, he can see grinding pistons and hissing pneumatic engines furiously at work. The inner walls within the armature shine with arcane sigils.
He nods, satisfied.
Some of those runes he has inscribed himself into the Crusader's towering frame. They link the magic controlling and operating the warjack to his own magical core. Thus far there has been nothing to suggest arcane decay within the runic command system.
He closes the panel and rebolts it shut. The Crusader is still staring at him. A questioning grunt sounds from the warjack's brass face grille.
"Nothing's wrong with you," he replies and taps the Crusader on the head with his wrench, "You're just too old."
The response he receives is a jet of warm steam blasted directly into his face.
He smiles as he bats away the fumes. He pats the warjack's side affectionately before moving on.
He will need to perform the same diagnostic check on the rest of his engines to guarantee operational stability.
He turns at the voice. It is the woman's. He is not yet used to the idea of calling her anything else despite the all evidence to the contrary.
"James! Come quick!"
He frowns as the woman grinds to a halt in front of him.
"Is something amiss?" he enquires, knowing she would not understand but figuring it was polite to ask anyway.
The frenzied way the woman's eyes dart across his body almost makes him want to take a step back. Her hands grasp his shoulders.
"Harry, what happened here? Please tell me!"
He gazes at the spot where she is indicating. The area below his left shoulder, now exposed after shedding his armor and outer clothes. The flesh there is warped and ugly. Extensive tissue damage has left the skin permanently scarred.
He looks back at the woman.
"Khadoran war-axe. It bit deep. I had to self-cauterize the wound before I bled out."
By this time the man and the girl had also come out of the house, along with some of the others he had seen in the room.
"Lily, what's wrong?"
"Look at him, James! Just look at him!"
"Harry?" the man begins to say before his eyes drop down, "What… What happened, son? Who did this to you?"
He looks down to where the man is staring. His right arm, pockmarked with scars. He nods.
"Field gun emplacement. It missed me but I was caught within the radius of the blast. My armor protected me from the worst of the shrapnel, but some managed to get through."
"Merlin, Harry! You have more scars than Mad-Eye," the girl's tone suggests she is trying to make light of the situation, but the concern radiating from her body dispels the notion, "What happened to you when you were away?"
He blinks. Their behavior puzzles him. He does not understand why they are hounding him about his scars. He had taken wounds during his career as a warcaster, yes, but didn't all soldiers inevitably take wounds on the battlefield? Was there something abnormal about the amount or scope that caused them to be in such an elevated emotional state?
His confusion turns to annoyance when the woman grabs his shoulders again. It looks like she might honestly start crying.
His irritation translates over to the bond he shares with his warjacks. They are attuned to his magic via the cortex-controllers implanted in their hulls. They feel what he feels and behave accordingly.
The Crusader growls low in its throat. The Cyclone clenches and unclenches its fists. The Berserker stomps its foot into the ground. Snorting noises, like those of an enraged bull, emits from its gullet.
The Reaper stares at their audience and tilts its head. The insectoid mandibles located directly under its tusked face clack together in a vaguely intimidating way.
The threat-signals displayed by his warjacks cause most of those present to back away.
His family do not. It is strange to use that term to describe them but it is technically the correct one.
He holds a hand up in midair. His engines immediately fall still.
Again, he tries to rethink things from a different perspective.
It's not that they are worried about the damage itself. They are worried because the damage has been done to him.
Such a minute variance in the equation and yet it makes all the difference.
Gently but persistently, he pries the woman's hands off his shoulders.
"I am a warcaster," he sweeps his arm towards the behemoths of steel and steam standing at his back, "This is what I do."
"For your crimes against the nation of Llael, her Queen and the people she represents, you are sentenced to die."
The man sneers because it is all he can do.
"Does that make you feel good, boy? Saying those words? You think you belong now? You think now that you're her executioner, you somehow have a purpose?"
The words bite, but they do not wound.
"Do you have anything to say before the sentence is carried out?"
"Aye, I have something to say. Not to her. But to you."
He tilts his head. He is mindful of the wrathful engines behind him and the anger that is barely contained.
"I am listening."
The man grins at him.
"I pity you, you know that? I honestly pity you. You are a dog without a master. You are a killer who doesn't understand why you must kill. You are a broken, miserable thing. And the only thing that makes you forget that are the broken, miserable things you do."
He smiles even though there is nothing remotely funny to smile about.
"You are not wrong."
The man pounds a fist against his desk. Hatred, pure and undiluted, radiates from his face.
"My wife and children are dead because of you."
"For your crimes, they had to die."
"I did nothing but protect the people of Llael!"
"By serving Khador. By identifying Resistance members to kayazy Eliminators. By protecting the people of Llael, you have sold out their very heart and soul."
"And where was your Queen then? Where was she when the nation ended and Llael crumbled all around us?"
"It does not matter where she was then. All that matters is that she is here now."
"Yes. Which is why you are behind that desk and I am in front of it."
The man leans back into his chair. He straightens his coat and tie. It is the act of a dead man preparing to die.
"Do your worst then."
He nods and steps aside, revealing the spinning barrels of two identical rotor cannons.
The Cyclone fires.
He wakes when it is not yet time to wake.
Propped up against the Cyclone's leg, a blanket covering his lower half. They had offered him a bed, but he had refused. He is not yet comfortable in their presence to do anything but respond with rejection. He has also grown used to the experience of sleeping out in the field when on campaign.
Reflexively, he looks up at the night sky. A thousand blinking stars in a hundred different constellations wink back at him.
He understands what has just happened in his mindscape. A ghost of the past. A replay of memory. A nightmare.
He finds it curious that in his original world, the only dreams he could dream was a single memory of the past, fragmented and imperfect. Now in this new world, he dreams the same memories, but from a different past.
He stands because there is little else to do after one wakes.
This will not be the last thought he will have on this subject. This will not be the last nightmare he dreams.
Fleur Delacour exited the floo. Clear green eyes waited for her, alight with impatience.
A year ago, those same eyes belonged to a competitor in a multi-school event called the Triwizard Tournament. Now they belonged to a friend.
"Took your sweet time, didn't you?" Rose Potter said.
The French witch smiled. Once she had considered the Girl-Who-Lived brash, impulsive, and generally unbearable. After the Second Task, she had been forced to revaluate her opinion. By the Third Task, the two had become close. What happened after the Third Task made the Champions grow even closer.
"Oui," the quarter-Veela said primly before turning serious, "I heard what happened. Are you alright?"
"As alright as someone who just survived a Death Eater attack could be."
Fleur looked at her in concern.
"You sound angry."
"I am angry. They wouldn't let me fight with them, Fleur. Not even when the danger was right there. I faced Voldemort in that damned graveyard and they still don't think I'm capable."
"Zey are concerned for you."
"Maybe so. But enough about me. How's the job search going?"
At this, Fleur's expression darkened. Ever since Voldemort's return, race supremacists and pureblood ideologues had seemingly sprung up all over Europe. While none of them had as much clout as those in magical Britain, they too had started worming into positions of influence. For a quarter-Veela freshly graduated from school, this meant a lot of doors had suddenly and inexplicitly been shut in her face.
She had written to Rose about this very subject, and much were the angry and frustrated letters the two had exchanged. In fact, it was the very reason she was here.
"Not well. I had hoped my letter to Bill asking for a recommendation to work as a Curse Breaker at Gringotts would go zrough. Even an internship would do. But I have not heard from him for weeks."
Rose looked at her sympathetically.
"That bad huh?"
"I can't explain it! It is as zough everyone has gone mad! It is as zough… as zough…"
"It is as though a Dark Lord just rose from the dead and started blabbering about pureblood nonsense all over again."
"Well, if my parents and the Order actually started training me, maybe this Dark Lord problem will go away sooner rather than later."
Some of the frustration faded from the quarter-Veela when she heard her friend's own frustration leaking out.
"Zey are worried about you. Zey have already lost one child. They don't want to lose anozzer."
A peculiar look appeared over Rose's face.
"Yeah… about that… I don't think they have to worry about that anymore."
Fleur blinked at the strangeness in the girl's tone.
"Has somezing happened?"
"Oh something happened alright. My brother. He's back."
"He's back," repeated Fleur, not quite understanding.
"Yup! Caused quite a scene too."
"I don't understand. You have anozzer brother?"
"Nope! Just the one. You know, my twin?"
The quarter-Veela blinked again. Then started.
"Your twin? Ze-Boy-Who-Disappeared? I zought he… you know… disappeared?"
"You and the entire magical population of Britain," her friend deadpanned.
Rose looked Fleur dead in the eye.
"Would you believe me if I said he appeared in a magical flash of light with four giant mechanical robots?"
"Well, he appeared in a magical flash of light with four giant mechanical robots."
The scars on his shoulder and back had made her redouble her efforts.
Lily had spent what had been a mostly sleepless night working on it. At first glance, it was an unobtrusive thing. A thumb-sized silver pendant, attached to a stainless steel chain. The simplicity of the item hid the true nature beneath. She had woven a latticework of powerful charms and spells into the amulet's very fabric. Spell theory had been one of her strengths when she was a student at Hogwarts and the concept behind her latest creation called upon every late night she had spent in the dorms pouring over ancient tomes and going over scrawled notes.
The theory behind it was sound. Now she only needed to test it.
She hurried down the stairs. Molly, bless the woman, had elected to cook breakfast while she was preoccupied. As the rest of the Order filed in, Lily sat next to the one the amulet was meant for.
He had eschewed the everyday clothes they had set aside for him. The smell of machine oil and coal dust clung to his frame. Lily pressed the pendant towards him.
"Harry! Please wear this!"
The boy looked at the item in her hands dubiously. A single raised eyebrow was enough to convey his skepticism. She had to push the amulet towards him again before he gingerly picked up the talisman by the chain and secured it around his neck.
"Harry?" Lily said breathlessly, "Can you understand me?"
Her son's brows furrowed. The frown was still apparent when he looked up.
"I can…" his voice was the voice of mute man who had just rediscovered the ability to speak, "…understand you."
Lily laughed in delight and hugged the boy.
"It worked! Thank Merlin it worked!"
"Way to go, Lils!" James whooped.
The Order of the Phoenix displayed similar outbursts. Seeing the smiling and happy faces around her, Lily realized that it had been far too long since they had anything to feel positive about.
The sole difference was Harry, who had remained stoic and unresponsive while in her embrace. The boy's eyes were riveted to the amulet dangling around his neck. A contemplative expression had formed over his features.
"How are we able to communicate?" he asked when she let him go, "Is this… mind-magik?" the way he said those words lowered the temperature in the room by several degrees.
"No, Harry," Lily hastened to explain, "It's just magic. I used a wide variety of charms and spells to produce the effect and enchanted the amulet to retain it. If everything works, the amulet should take what you are saying in your language and translate it into our language. It doesn't affect the mind at all. Just what happens after the mind has already made a decision."
Professor McGonagall looked immensely proud after she had finished her explanation.
Harry took the clarification at face value. He glanced down at the pendant one last time.
"If what you say is true," he said slowly, "then this is powerful magic."
Lily smiled then felt suddenly nervous.
"Harry," she ventured, "maybe… maybe it would be alright if we introduced ourselves? Properly, that is."
The boy thought for a moment before inclining his head.
"This is agreeable to me."
An expectant hush followed. Lily knew that her proximity to him would mean that she would be the first.
"Harry," she said hopefully, "I'm your mother. Lily Potter."
"Lily Potter," Harry repeated.
Lily was disappointed that there was no affection in his tone. Reflexively, she knew what she asked for was impossible. Fifteen years had passed without sight or sound of her son. There was no emotional connection and if there ever was to be, it would need to be built slowly from the ground up. Nonetheless, she desperately wanted to hear him call out for her in the same way all sons instinctively called out to their mothers. Instead, when he spoke her name, his voice never rose an octave above polite dispassion.
She swallowed her disappointment and gestured to the girl sitting opposite of the boy.
"Harry, this is your twin sister, Rose Potter."
Harry nodded at her.
"Rose Potter," he said with firm civility.
Rose waved back but didn't say anything at all. James, sitting next to her, tried his best to put on a fatherly mien.
"Harry, I'm James Potter. Your father."
"Drain Potter," the boy said politely back.
"It's James, Harry. James Potter."
"Drain Potter," Harry said again.
James looked helplessly at his wife.
"It must be the amulet having problems interpreting names," Lily reasoned, "Many English names have their origins in ancient languages like Latin or Anglo-Saxon. If the language Harry is speaking does not have the same roots, then the enchantments I've put on the amulet will struggle with translating the meaning correctly."
"Then how did he get your name right?" asked Sirius.
"Both Lily and Potter are not just names but also words in English. Same with Rose. It's the names that don't have a corresponding meaning in English that will cause trouble."
"That's a lot of names," Remus murmured by Sirius's side, "and a lot of uncertainty."
"I guess the only way to know for sure is to try," Sirius turned to Harry, "Well pup, my name is Sirius Black. Rogue, handsome, and by chance most definitely your godfather!"
The boy again inclined his head, this time in greeting.
"A Siren's Back."
Remus sputtered into his cup. Snape grinned into his cup. Sirius managed to retain some of his dignity by turning to face Lily.
"Black isn't just a name. Last time I checked, it also had an actual meaning. Unless someone recently changed the English dictionary when I wasn't looking."
Lily wrung her hands sheepishly.
"Some of the charms may be influencing the thought process behind the word formation. They may be translating what they think is the correct interpretation instead of the actual interpretation. There was no other way."
Remus looked at the circle of amused faces.
"Nothing should be worse than A Siren's Back, right?" he asked no one in particular.
"How does a siren's back even work?" muttered Sirius under his breath.
Remus smiled encouragingly at Harry.
"I'm Remus Lupin, Harry. I'm technically also your godfather."
"Tree Musk Loop Inn," the boy said courteously back.
A second of complete silence passed.
"It was worse," Rose said flatly.
Remus hid his face in his hands to avoid the grins being directed his way. Sirius patted his friend's shoulder in brotherly comfort.
"You know, Tree Musk old pal, the more I think about it, the better A Siren's Back is starting to sound."
"Am I saying your names wrong?" Harry suddenly interjected.
Rose looked at him oddly. The whole room looked at him oddly.
"You mean you can't tell?"
"I have so far followed the instructions to the letter. However, your behavior indicates otherwise."
"If he can't tell he's saying our names wrong, that might be a problem," James said.
"We can slowly teach him the correct pronunciation," Lily responded, "It may take some time to adjust, but eventually the amulet will be working with him instead of against him. In the meantime, the only thing we can do is continue the introductions."
"Then I suppose it's our turn," Molly said with a happy smile, "I'm Molly Weasley, dear, and this is my husband Arthur Weasley. It's so good to see you back with your family again."
"Jolly Weasel. A Third Weasel."
Molly looked stunned. Arthur coughed into his hand.
Harry noticed and cocked his head to one side.
"Did I say it wrong again?"
The Weasley matron managed a half-smile in response.
"That's quite alright, dear. I'm sure you'll get it down eventually."
From the looks on everyone's faces, Lily sincerely doubted that would be true.
The introductions continued on. There was a brief uproar when her son pronounced Severus Snape "Severed Snake" but the rest of the introductions proceeded without incident. By the time they reached Dumbledore, the old headmaster's eyes were twinkling.
"I am Albus Dumbledore, Harry," the aged man said, "and dare I say it has been a most interesting experience meeting you."
"A Bus's Dumbbell Doors," he said to the greatest wizard in recent memory.
Fleur had watched with a form of horrid fascination as Harry Potter had seemingly and effortlessly butchered the names of everyone around the table. It wasn't the fact that the pronunciation itself was wrong. It was the fact that the boy voiced each wrong syllable with the strength of uttermost conviction.
And then all too quickly, it was her turn. Fleur honestly didn't know what to expect. So she did as the others had done before him.
"Fleur Delacour," she said and graced him with a polite bow of her head.
The boy looked at her seriously. His strange choice of attire, the segmented armor plating covering his front, the dirt-streaked goggles sitting above his head, all of them made the whole experience entirely surreal.
"Flower Décor," he said back.
There had been a time when Fleur would have bristled at the words and the insinuation contained within. But her less than stellar performance during the Triwizard Tournament and her own growing ability to self-reflect had changed and reshaped her perspective.
She had, as her friend Rose Potter had described it, gotten over herself.
"Zat is…" she paused, thinking, "…remarkably accurate."
It should have ended there, would have ended there, had her friend turned enemy, Rose Damned Potter, not opened her mouth.
"It's not Flower, Harry," the Girl-Who-Lived grinned brilliantly, "It's Fleur."
"That's what I said."
"No, you said Flower. It's Fleur. Fllleeeeeeuuurrrr."
Harry nodded when his twin had finished. The expression on his face was one of firm solemnity. He turned and fixed Fleur with burning, emerald eyes.
"Floor," he said, as though the complete annihilation of human names was something that ought to occur in the course of normal conversation, "Nice to meet you, Floor Décor."
After that, they told him everything they knew. A rundown of wizarding society. The divide between wizards and muggles. A short history of all that had transpired in the years that he had been gone. It took several hours and through all of it he remained silent, green eyes flickering to whoever was speaking but never speaking himself.
"So," he finally said after everything had finished, "You are losing this war."
Lily blinked. Out of all the things they had told him, he had chosen this particular facet to initiate conversation.
The boy's eyes traveled slowly across everyone present in the room.
"What is the disposition of the enemy?"
"I'm sorry?" James exchanged glances with his wife, equally unsure.
"What is the nature of the foe?" their son expanded, "Troop numbers. What is the quality and type of opposition you will face? Armament types. What is the possibility of heavy weapons deployment? Logistic situation. How well is the enemy supplied? Morale factors. How much more are they willing to kill you than you are willing to kill them?"
"Harry, I don't think-" Lily began to say.
"Most of them will be Death Eaters," Snape interrupted her. To Lily's surprise, the usual sneer in his voice when talking to a Potter was not present, "I don't know the exact numbers but Voldemort has been heavily recruiting. The werewolves have already joined him. There is also talk of giants being sworn into his service."
"The Death Eaters are the ones I encountered earlier?"
"Correct," growled Moody.
"They are an unprofessional rabble. A warband. A haphazard collection of individuals thrown together by a greater force. I would not consider them fit for any form of military duty."
"Also correct," Moody growled again, though this time the ex-Auror had the beginnings of a grin on his face.
"The werewolves," the boy pressed on, "if they are anything like the beasts I know, will be a harder task to handle. I am unfamiliar with giants, but I have seen enough gargantuans in my life to know that this will present an out of the context problem. Are you equipped to deal with these threats?"
"The Order of the Phoenix is doing its best to combat Death Eater activity," McGonagall said simply, peering disapprovingly over her glasses.
"I am not asking for your opinion on how you are combating these threats," Harry's response was curt and to the point, "I am asking you how you are combating these threats."
"The Order is keeping track of Death Eaters all across magical Britain," Sirius spoke up, slightly bemused at the direction of the conversation, "We warn muggleborn families if they are being targeted and help them escape."
"So you are not combating these threats."
"And how did you come to this conclusion?" Snape scowled.
The boy's eyes flickered towards him.
"Because you are warning them to run instead of warning them to fight."
"The Order of the Phoenix is dedicated to saving lives," said McGonagall, "not spending them."
"You do that by winning the war."
The silence that followed was not because of the bluntness in the words, but because there was a glimmer of truth in them.
All eyes eventually turned to Albus Dumbledore. The old headmaster had steepled his fingers under his chin. He looked thoughtfully at the boy in question.
"Harry, may I ask why you are so interested in this subject?"
"You are in a war. I am a warcaster. I would, by the definition of the word, be automatically interested."
"And what is a warcaster?"
The boy frowned slightly.
"I do not know what the title would mean in this world, but the closest approximation would be war-wizard. Battle-mage. The label is different but the purpose is ultimately the same."
"Wizard?" James perked up at the insinuation, "Does that mean you know magic?"
"But we haven't seen you cast."
"In my world, one does not need to cast a spell to be considered magical."
A murmur arose from the room.
"Does it have something to do with those… things, outside?" asked Remus.
"They are called warjacks," Harry said, "and it has everything to do with them."
"Are we just assuming that the boy just appeared out of another world?" Moody grumbled, "It all seems so far-fetched."
"There is no evidence to suggest otherwise," Shacklebolt said musingly.
"For someone who just jumped out of another dimension, you're taking this very well, Harry," Sirius joked.
"I understand," the boy nodded, "It requires an altered perspective. The current possibility of what has transpired does not align with reality. It is a paradigm change. A fundamental shift in the underlying assumptions of how the world works. But the impossible has already happened, so what is the use of pondering it?
"I appreciate your pragmatic approach, Harry," Dumbledore smiled faintly, "But surely there must be some explanation?"
"Yes. There is. I was involved in a great battle. A decisive one. We won, but before the end, an enemy sorcerer used a..." Harry paused, seemingly trying to search for the right word, "…a malificar on me. A truly dangerous and ancient spell. It served as the catalyst. Magic did the rest."
Lily closed her eyes. The evidence was there but she didn't want to believe it. She needed to hear it from him.
"What you did out there, Harry," she said softly, "to the Death Eaters. Is that something you have done before?"
Her son locked eyes with her.
"Yes," he said without the slightest hint of hesitation.
"But you're just fifteen…" James murmured.
Harry looked at them blankly.
"War can happen to anyone. Including those my age. In that regard, I am not unusual."
"But to actively participate in war at your age," Dumbledore said neutrally, "Would you agree with me to say that is something entirely different."
The boy acquiesced to the point by dipping his head.
"In that I am more unusual than most."
"And what do you believe your role would be in our war?"
Lily started. She did not like where this was going at all.
The old headmaster raised a placating hand.
"Lily, please. I would like to hear the answer from Harry."
Her son drummed his fingers on the table in thought. It wasn't so much that he didn't have an answer. Something about the way his fingers tapped rhythmically against the table edge suggested he had too many answers and was thinking of the most correct one.
"All wars escalate," he finally said, "It is the nature of conflict. One side escalates and the other must do the same. The side that fails to escalate loses. Your enemy has already escalated. You need to counter. I am that counter."
"He's right," Fleur looked slightly stunned at herself that she had spoken out loud, "About ze escalation part. Already in France zere has been a rise in pureblood sentiment. What is happening in England is also causing ze beginning of ze same zings in France and even ze rest of Europe."
Dumbledore took in the information silently. His next words, though, were for Harry.
"And you would do this? Without understanding our cause? Without knowing the reason behind the Order's creation?"
The boy shrugged.
"There is a saying in my world. An axiom to describe the profession. A sword cares not where it falls, only that it is swung."
"Is that just a saying, Harry," Dumbledore said quietly, "or is it a personal philosophy?"
The boy glanced at the aged wizard. It was as though he was judging if the question itself was deserving of an answer.
"It is a purpose," he said at last.
They followed their son outside to where the golems stood ready and waiting. Lily saw that they had been shut down, though their definition of shut down seemed to differ from the muggle machines she was accustomed to. The once fiery eyes were dull and no movements came from the articulated limbs, but there was still a sense of life beating from underneath their metal hulls.
When Harry stopped to a halt in front of them, it pained her to think that they, the boy and his warjacks, looked more like a family than the ones related to blood standing opposite of him.
James saw it too and when he spoke there was a rawness to his voice that Lily had seldom heard before.
"Harry, I know this is as sudden for you as it is for us, but I want you to know that we're here for you. If there's anything you need, anything at all, you just tell us."
Harry glanced at him. A considering look appeared over his face.
"Yes," he finally said, "There is something you can assist me with."
James brightened visibly.
"You got it, son. Anything at all."
"In all truth, I needed these items yesterday but with the language barrier in place," the boy played with the amulet around his neck absentmindedly, "I could not explain in detail. Do you have a pen and paper ready?"
"No, but if you tell me now I can write it down later."
"Very well," Harry nodded, "I require a full assortment of warjack-grade mechanist tools, ten gallons of machine oil and lubricants, five tons of coal, and twenty thousand rounds of Metal Storm Chain Gun ammunition."
They stared. Then they started talking at once.
"What are warjack-grade mechanist tools?" asked James, wondering.
"Why do you need twenty thousand rounds of live ammunition?" asked Lily, alarmed.
"What are you going to do with the oil and lubricant?" asked Rose in interest.
"I require the tools to repair my warjacks," the one being questioned replied, "I require the ammunition to feed my Cyclone's guns. I require the oil and lubricant for maintenance purposes."
"Oh so it's that type of maintenance," Rose waggled her eyebrows.
"Rose!" Lily exclaimed.
"Yes," Harry confirmed, "That type of maintenance," he tilted his head to one side, "Is there another type of maintenance done on this world? If so, I would like to learn how."
Rose's face ran a gamut of emotions before settling on mild disappointment.
"It was… It was a joke… Never mind. You just ruined it."
James leaned in and jabbed his elbow lightly into his daughter's side.
"I thought it was fairly good, myself."
Lily smiled despite herself before turning back towards Harry.
"I don't think getting these things will be a problem. But… it will be expensive."
"We can try and get some of them," James scratched the back of his head awkwardly, "The tools and the oil, but it will put a dent into our savings. Don't get me wrong, Harry, we want to help you but we don't have the means right now. The Potters were once a powerful and influential House in magical Britain, but by my father's time, our fortune had dwindled a lot. Most of what remains is going to funding the Order and whatever is left is for Rose's school expenses."
"So it is not a problem of supply but a problem of expense," Harry deduced.
James looked like he wanted to explain further but stopped himself.
"Yes. That is one way to put it."
"It is a hindrance," the boy admitted, "but not a large one. As long as supplies can be sourced, the logistics issue can be mitigated. I have enough fuel and ammo for one more extended operation. I will solve the question of expense during that time."
"How do you plan to do that?" Rose enquired.
Harry looked at her neutrally.
"Warcasters enlisted into the military are paid by their respective nation-states. The maintenance and repair of their warjacks is subsidized by the national treasury. The warjacks themselves are owned by the state. For those warcasters unaffiliated with a nation, the onus is on us to keep our engines in working shape. Contracts of employment during wartime is common and expected. Should the monetary amount in the contract not be sufficient enough for a battlegroup's upkeep, then suitable methods will be used by the warcaster to appropriate the funds he or she deems necessary."
James was the first to realize the implication.
"That sounds like-"
"Yes," Harry stopped him with a single word, "It sounds exactly what it sounds like."
The mansion was, even by the standards of pureblood superiority, ostentatious.
Lucius had expedited the construction ever since his master had returned. The crystal glass ceiling. The gothic, crenelated towers. It was a landmark all by itself, but that was the point. This mansion was meant to be center of rule for Dark Lord Voldemort. He would hold court here, dictate laws and orders to the Ministry once it fell under his sway, and receive foreign dignitaries, all from this one seat of power.
Lucius had spared no expense in building this homage to the Dark Lord. Partly because the elder Malfoy had hoped that the luxury he was heaping into Voldemort’s lap would spare him the punishment for abandoning his master after the First Wizarding War.
Snape knew that it was going to be a futile effort. The Dark Lord did not simply forget disloyalty.
Snape also knew that if everything went according to plan, the Dark Lord was going to be punishing a lot more of his followers in the immediate future.
The double agent had Portkeyed into the forest on the outskirts of the manor. He slowly counted to ten.
Four massive forms appeared out of thin air. Their plated, iron-riveted bodies made them appear entirely out of place among the thick under foliage.
The boy walked through the gap his engines left. Emerald eyes flickered to the mansion off in the distance and then to Snape.
“This is it?”
“This is it.”
“Looks enticing,” Harry said.
Snape scowled at him.
“If this doesn’t work…”
“It will work.”
“You don’t know that!”
“I don’t. Which is why I know exactly it will work.”
The potions professor glared at the boy, who if it had not been for a twist of Fate, would have most likely sat in one of his potions classes in the dungeons beneath Hogwarts.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“If I don’t know the results of a particular course of action, then neither will the enemy,” Snape watched as he detached what looked to be a pole from a storage unit on the back of one of his warjacks, “Therefore, the battleground is even. Nothing is predetermined. Which means I will have the initiative. I will be able to dictate the battle flow and the subsequent events that come after.”
“That doesn’t make any sense either.”
Harry made a noncommittal noise. He drew his sword and socketed it into the mounting couple on top of the pole. He turned the sword effectively into a spear.
“In short, it will work because I will make it work.”
The boy noticed the look Snape was giving the weapon in his hands.
“For reach,” he explained.
“A boy, a spear, and four metal machines against the most powerful Dark Lord since Grindelwald and his followers,” the double agent couldn’t help but remark, “Who would you bet on?”
“Probably the Dark Lord,” Harry replied.
“That’s comforting,” Snape said snidely.
“Because you’ve made an error in your equation. That boy is me. That spear is mine. And those four metal machines are my warjacks.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Certainly. The difference is the difference between victory and defeat.”
To Snape’s chagrin, the boy then knelt. The spy watched, confused, as he took off his combat gloves and scooped up a handful of dirt. Harry began rubbing the soft loam into his palms and between his fingers.
“What are you doing?”
“Consecrating the ground,” the boy said patiently, “It is an old Morrowan tradition. A rite of preservation, if you will. There are many ways to perform it and this is just one. I don’t practice myself, but a blessing before battle never hurts.”
“Practice,” Snape repeated, “Blessing? You’re talking about religion?”
“Yes. The worship of Morrow is just one religion among many in the Iron Kingdoms.”
Snape looked at him oddly. Then he looked back to where the hulking, steam-belching monstrosities waited in silence.
“Everything about you is strange,” the potions professor admitted, “First these damned warjacks of yours. Now you’re talking about worship and gods as though they were real. You know that in this world many religions were started because wizards who had nothing better to do decided to play some tricks on some muggles?”
“Doesn’t surprise me. Shouldn’t try that in my world though.”
“Because the actual gods will probably do something about it.”
The boy rose. He brushed off the dirt on his hands and tugged on his combat gloves. He retrieved his spear and tested the grip. The blade at the end began cackling with obscene amounts of electricity.
He looked at Snape.
“Let us begin.”
Shock has always been the most important aspect of warfare. This, he knows and understands.
In the Iron Kingdoms, centuries ago, shock warfare was performed by the cavalry arm of each faction. Armored lancers, astride massive destriers, thundering down on the poor, unfortunate souls who made up the infantry line. The initial impact of thousands of pounds of horseflesh and armored rider inflicted such horrendous damage, such psychological shock, that entire formations of men would break and run.
The invention of the percussion cap rifle turned that equation on its head. Now, infantry had a way to dilute the charge by inflicting casualties from afar. The impact of shock was lessened then negated entirely as the mass proliferation of firearms took hold of each kingdom. Further advancements such as the rifled cannon and the chain gun reduced the role of cavalry into just one branch of the military instead of the decisive branch.
For a while, the armies of the Iron Kingdoms waged war by maneuvering ranks of line infantry into position and exchanging repeated volleys of musketry.
Then came the first warjacks, modified laborjacks given primitive weapons to wield. And once again the equation was turned on its head.
Massed volley fire from the most accurate rifles could do nothing to thick layers of ablative plate. Cannon fire was better but was liable to miss a jack when it moved at full stride. Magic did nothing at all for inside the armored frame of a warjack lay intricate protection runes that negated the worst effects of sorcery. It took a special type of magic that could interfere with these runes and scramble the complicated command nodes in the central cortex, but those types of spells were rare and barely used.
He has seen the type of damage a lone warjack can do to unprotected infantry. In many cases, he has done the damage himself.
The key was to layer shock on top of the already imposing stature of the warjack. To build up the sense of invulnerability around this beast of steel and steam while tearing down the opposing side’s confidence of victory. To inflict so much psychological and physical damage that the enemy will be fundamentally incapable of continuing the combat.
So when the Cyclone bursts through the walls of Voldemort’s manor, twin rotor cannons blasting on full auto, he inflicts shock on the cloaked figures milling around the lower levels of the antechamber.
The sustained volley kills twenty men. The Death Eaters are grouped together. They are socializing. They are drinking and toasting to their imminent victory and what they believe to be the resurgent rise of their lord and master. Never in a thousand years would they have thought that an eight-ton behemoth would explode out of the wall and rake them with automatic weapons fire.
Twenty men. Dead. Gone. Just like that. The fusillade scythes them down like wheat. It pops human extremities like balloons and hurls shredded bodies against the chamber’s intricately decorated walls.
The Death Eaters turn. There is at least a hundred of them in the antechamber. They have not yet realized that whatever celebrations they intended to have in this manor are about to be cut hideously short.
The Berserker bursts out of the opposite wall. Wooden paneling explodes outwards in a hail of splinters. It has hit the side of the manor at a dead run. The entire antechamber shakes with its titanic footsteps. The war axes it clasps in each fist are jack-grade weapons. They can do horrendous things to another warjack. They do far worse to the smaller organic shell that is a human body.
The Berserker leaves a trail of bifurcated corpses behind its path. Wherever its arms swing, cloven human body parts fall around it in a gory rain.
The Death Eaters are reacting. They are reacting in the same way people unfamiliar with being assaulted by warjacks operating at full-tilt would react. By shouting, screaming, and running around in general confusion.
The Crusader shoulders through. It uses its massive bulk to upend furniture and smash apart tables. Just killing the enemy is not enough. He needs to systematically rearrange the landscape to send a message. He needs to make the opposition know that there is no place in this world they can hide where he will not find them and annihilate them. The Inferno Mace pounds the masked enemy into bloody craters on the immaculate floor. The Crusader pivots and smashes down a marble pillar supporting the glass ceiling. The ornately carved beam falls and crushes the milling figures roiling around its base.
The Death Eaters are finally doing the correct thing. They are casting Shield Charms to protect themselves and offensive spells and curses at the warjacks. But the shock has afflicted them. The sheer atrocity of what is being done to them has turned the ability the human brain possesses to logically reason upside down.
The Protegos come out as brittle things or collapse as soon as they are summoned. The spells and curses miss his warjacks entirely or hit the Death Eaters’ own comrades in the pell-mell confusion.
The Reaper completes the ensemble. Its gunmetal form stalks like a perverse predator amid the running, screaming foe. It chooses the juiciest morsels and pins them to the floor with its helldiver spike. The Death Eaters impaled this way wriggle like caught worms. The screams that come from behind their masks are loud and high-pitched.
Killing the enemy is good. Killing the enemy in the most brutal ways possible is better. The shock factor becomes multiplicative.
He steps through the hole the Reaper has made. Compared to the absolute carnage his warjacks are causing, his presence is a minor detail amid the mayhem.
That is about to change.
He has eyes only for the figure on the top level of the antechamber, surrounded by members of his Inner Circle. The only path to him is an elaborately decorated staircase, wide enough to fit all his jacks on. Whoever designed this mansion clearly intended for guests to be dazzled as soon as they entered.
The part of his mind not calculating new battle algorithms and ramming them into the cortexes of his warjacks thinks that after today, there most likely will not be new guests visiting this mansion anytime soon.
He moves towards the staircase. At the same time, he rears back his head and shouts out the reason why he is here.
He has practiced the pronunciation with members of the Order. He has made sure through repeated attempts that the name will not come out jumbled and disorganized.
For there is power in a name. There is power in saying the name correctly and succinctly. There is power in saying the name of your enemy while looking him in the eye and telling him you are going to go up those stairs and you are going to kill him dead.
Crimson pupils stare back at him, wide with surprise. Voldemort lifts a skeletal digit towards him and screams something at his followers. His Inner Circle doesn’t move. The shock has afflicted them too. Whatever elite status they enjoy in the Dark Lord’s employ pales in significance compared to the unparalleled slaughter happening below.
They are paralyzed with indecision. They are rooted to the ground by fear.
That’s fine. He’ll come to them.
He estimates that it will take ten seconds to move from his current location to within striking distance of his spear. He plans to make the journey in nine.
His pace is measured as he gains the first step. He doesn’t run. He doesn’t charge. He advances. The purpose is to convey the message that death does not need to rush to reach you. It will come for you on its own sweet time.
A command-impulse forces his warjacks to converge on his position. They surround him on all sides, shielding him with their bodies. He has cast an Arcane Shield over himself as soon as he entered the mansion, but the addition of thick, jack-grade plate into the equation means a second layer of protection.
The armored wedge, with him at the center, advances up the staircase. Spells hammer in from all sides, but most go wide. Others rebound harmlessly off sloped plate.
The first objective of his plan has already succeeded. He has inflicted so much psychological trauma to the immediate enemy that it has ceased to function as a cohesive fighting force. He has done so much physical damage to the Death Eaters that whatever pitiful remains that are left have ceased to be an effective threat.
The second objective waits for him atop the stairs. To kill a snake, one must cut off its head.
Voldemort is screaming incomprehensibly now. He is dragging his own Inner Circle from their places by his side and pushing them into the path of his warjacks.
One Death Eater, by some miracle of a chance, stumbles through the gap left by the Crusader and the Berserker. The man has a heartbeat to raise his wand. Then the bladed edge of his spear comes down in an overhead swing and splits the man in half from the top of his head to the bottom of his groin. There is no blood whatsoever. The lightning field housed by the mechanikal blade, when toggled on to full power, automatically cauterizes whatever it touches.
The Death Eater comes apart like a chopped log. Two equal, diametrically perfect halves flop to the ground.
He walks through the space between the two halves before they can fully fall.
“Voldemort!” he grins up into the face of the horrified foe.
The dark wizard’s wand is pointing towards him. A green burst of light explodes out the tip. He knows what it is. The Killing Curse, the most unforgiveable of the Unforgiveable Curses.
The Order has informed him on the modus operandi of this Dark Lord and the types of spells he employs. He has no doubt that his Arcane Shield, as efficient as it is, will not fully protect him from the effects of such an ancient and malefic curse.
It’s a good thing he has something that will.
The Reaper takes the hit in full stride. The helljack instinctively moves forward and blocks the hissing green beam with its body. The Killing Curse impacts against one of the engine’s immense shoulderplates and dissipates, as he assumed it would.
For how could you kill what is already dead?
He mounts the top of stairs. Allowing the Reaper to block the curse has, at most, caused a one second delay to his ten second estimation.
Voldemort’s Inner Circle scatter before him. They don’t want any part of this. From the way the Dark Lord screams in fury, he guesses that this is not the first time his followers have abandoned him.
He is close enough now to see the fear, true fear, in the dark wizard’s eyes.
This is the other aspect of shock warfare. To make the enemy believe you are fundamentally unstoppable despite all evidence to the contrary. To make him believe there is nothing he can physically or mentally do to resist you. Despite the scope of damage he has caused, there are still methods they can employ to halt his advance. But they are not used. He has so overwhelmed their sense of rationale that they believe him to be functionally invincible. His attack has happened so quickly and so decisively that they believe they have already lost.
The spear rises in his hands, a nimbus of cackling electricity.
“Voldemort!” he shouts out the name of the man he is about to kill.
The speartip descends on empty air. The sudden crack he hears tells him that he will not accomplish his second objective today.
To escape the death coming for him on swift wings, Lord Voldemort, the darkest wizard since Gellert Grindelwald, has apparated out of his own manor.
More cracks sound around him. The Inner Circle, as well as the Death Eaters that are still alive, join their master in fleeing from the celebration that was supposed to herald their rise as the undisputed rulers of magical Britain.
“You did it,” Snape said flatly as he approached.
The boy’s breastplate was streaked with blood. Holes had been burnt into his utilitarian cloak by hastily cast spells. Besides that, nothing else suggested that he had just single-handedly shattered a Death Eater task force at least a hundred strong and sent the most powerful Dark Lord in recent memory fleeing for his life.
His warjacks followed him down the steps like trained hounds trailing behind their master after a successful hunt.
“I did,” Harry said when he grew close, “but I was also fortunate. They were wholly unprepared. The circumstances were also extremely favorable to me. They did not expect this type of engagement and suffered for their negligence. Had this been a field battle where they were given time to prepare, the outcome would have been very different.”
Snape stepped gingerly past a prone body and the gradually widening pool of blood spreading from beneath it.
“On open ground, there would have been more space to maneuver. They would have surrounded me as my battlegroup plunged deeper into their ranks. They would have bombarded me with spells from all sides and though my warjacks possess a certain degree of resilience, one spell would have eventually found me. But in an enclosed space like this,” emerald green eyes roamed the antechamber with dispassionate interest, “they fed their own slaughter. Their indiscipline further buried them.”
“And you knew all of this beforehand?” Snape asked in disbelief.
The boy shrugged.
“I made an educated guess based on what I have heard and seen of the enemy and assumed a particular set of behaviors they would enact under extreme duress. I was almost right. Only one factor did not match my battle plan.”
“And that was?”
Harry looked at him.
“Voldemort. He ran sooner than I expected.”
Snape snorted. The double agent, in some ways, still couldn’t believe he was having this sort of conversation.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Good in the sense that running proves he is a coward and cowards can be expected to make mistakes on the battlefield. Bad in the sense that running also proves he is smart and smart people don’t tend to make the same mistake twice. This type of attack will most likely not work again.”
Snape nodded and reached into his robe. The potions professor produced a piece of parchment and handed it to the boy.
“Here’s the list of children currently being held hostage. They will be gathered in the upper atrium. They are locked in there,” Snape glanced at the massive oversized weapons being held by each warjack, “but I suspect that’s not going to be a problem for you.”
Harry accepted the parchment wordlessly. He gazed at its contents before gazing at Snape.
“You are prepared then?”
The man swallowed, but put on a brave face.
“And the issue of blood loss?”
“I drank a Blood-Thickening Potion earlier today, like we discussed.”
“Will Voldemort believe it?”
“My Occlumency shields will divert his attention when he tries to open my mind. It will make him believe I took the wound during the fight.”
A look of distaste crossed the boy’s face.
“You wizards rely too much on your mind-magik.”
Snape couldn’t help himself. The statement begged for a comeback.
“And you warcasters rely too much on your warjacks.”
One corner of Harry’s mouth curled upwards into a half-smile.
“You have a point.”
The spear thudded into Snape’s chest a second later.
It was an extraordinarily good blow. The boy had been standing there one second, conversing with him like normal. The next second the spear point had entered his body without a hint of warning. There had been no threat suggestion. No indication that what was about to happen would happen. The movement had been instantaneous or as near instantaneous as the human brain could perceive it to be.
Snape gasped as he felt cold steel slide between his ribs. Besides being too fast to see, the blow was also well-placed. The bladed point of the spear had penetrated deep into his flesh but missed all the vital internal organs, just like they had intended all along.
“My apologies,” Harry said, not sounding apologetic at all.
He removed his spear from Snape’s side. Blood jetted out, spraying in a wide arc. Had he not taken the Blood-Thickening Potion, Snape knew that the wound would have robbed him of consciousness within minutes.
The potions professor sagged to his knees. His hands instinctively clutched at his side. He looked up into the eyes of the strange boy in his strange armor and saw only ruthlessness there. It was not the cruel type of ruthlessness. There was no malicious streak in it nor a callousness towards human suffering Snape had grown used to seeing in his years spent at Voldemort’s side. It was the same type of ruthlessness that an experienced blacksmith might display when beating out the impurities in a particularly obstinate blade. It was the same type of ruthlessness that a veteran workman might show when hammering down a particularly stubborn set of nails.
It was the same type of ruthlessness that could topple a Dark Lord from his seat of power and bury him six feet underground.
“Don’t lie,” despite the pain, despite the blood bubbling out between his fingers, Snape still grinned, “You’re not sorry.”
Harry tilted his head to one side.
“Not at all,” he said and rammed the butt end of his spear into Snape’s face.
He watches the spy fall forward. Lying face down on the ground, his body is indistinguishable from the rest.
Behind him his engines wait impatiently for new orders. Their blood is up from participating in the wanton slaughter. It is a strange phrase to use considering that warjacks do not possess any form of arterial liquid in the heavy cabling inside their hulls but defining these beasts of steel and steam with human characteristics is just another consequence amid the long process of becoming a warcaster.
He has long ago accepted that these changes to his thinking would happen, have happened and have riven them from his mind.
A mental command refocuses the cortexes in each warjack. His engines immediately straighten, wary and alert.
He wheels on his feet.
“Come,” he tells them, “We have more work to do.”
She couldn’t hear the sounds anymore.
Inside the magically sealed atrium, Daphne Greengrass turned.
“It’s quiet again,” she said to her friends, Tracey Davis and Blaise Zabini.
The two Slytherins nodded back.
“I thought I heard explosions,” Tracey said.
“Maybe they were celebrating with fireworks,” Blaise guessed.
“I thought I heard screams too,” Tracey added.
“Maybe they were really happy about the fireworks,” Blaise said darkly. He rubbed his arms ruefully.
Daphne understood the meaning behind the act. She, Tracey, Blaise, and the seventeen other children in the room were waiting for the main event to be over, whereupon they would be escorted to the antechamber and forced to publicly declare their family’s loyalty to Lord Voldemort by taking the Dark Mark on their arms.
Daphne Greengrass believed in pureblood superiority. She, along with her family, believed that pureblood wizards and witches were superior to half-bloods and muggleborns when it came to aspects such as wizarding culture, magical knowledge, and social behavior. Because of these advantages, it was therefore the duty of purebloods to guide and nurture half-bloods and muggleborns until they became adept at functioning on all levels of wizarding society. In this way, new blood can be brought in to replace failing bloodlines and magical civilization could continue to flourish.
She did not believe for a second that being a pureblood made you better at magic than those of less pure blood. She had seen the proof herself in muggleborns like Hermione Granger, who could outcast and outstudy Seventh Years in the middle of their N.E.W.T.S. Indeed, her years spent at Hogwarts had only strengthened her beliefs.
And now she was about to swear loyalty to a cause that spat all over those beliefs.
She did not want to take the Mark. None of the people in the room wanted to take the Mark. Not even Blaise, who occasionally roamed the halls of Hogwarts with Draco and his gang.
For it was one thing to call someone a mudblood to her face. It was something else entirely to believe that certain someone should be wiped off the face of the earth.
Daphne, like all the other children in the room, had dreams. Perhaps one day she would take over her father’s business and expand it into other locations. Perhaps one day she would take a sabbatical from work and travel the world. None of her dreams involved magically stamping the skull and serpent sigil of a Dark Lord into her skin.
Daphne was under no illusions that if she took the Mark, none of her dreams would ever come true. But she would still take the Mark, for if she did not, her family would suffer repercussions. Even worse, if she did not take the Mark, it would be her sister, Astoria, who would have to take the Mark.
With no other alternative, she did the one thing no Slytherin would ever do. She hoped.
“Maybe someone is coming to rescue us?” she dared to suggest.
Even Tracey, the one who shared beliefs closest to her own, looked askance at her.
“Why would they do that?” Blaise asked.
The question was self-depreciating, but Daphne understood where it came from. Not all Slytherins believed in pureblood supremacy but enough of them did that all of them were tainted by association. Just like how not all snakes were venomous but because some were, all serpents were now automatically affiliated with the sinister and the ominous.
She was about to give a retort when she heard faint sounds coming from the outside corridor.
They sounded like footsteps. In fact, they sounded like a great many footsteps.
And unlike the soft, almost secretive way Death Eaters carried themselves, these footsteps were heavy and clunking.
She hurried to the rune-locked door.
“Hello?” Daphne called out, “Is anyone out there? Can you let us out?”
She looked back to her friends for support. Tracey looked hopeful. Blaise looked like he was trying very hard not to look hopeful.
For a few seconds nothing happened, and Daphne felt her hope slowly ebb away. Then the voice answered, made low and muffled by the thick wooden barrier between them.
“Step away from the door.”
Daphne hesitated before obeying. She took several steps back and rejoined her friends.
“It’s locked by an advanced system of runes and charms. You’ll need to---”
A massive iron fist smashed through the door. Splintered wooden chips flew in every direction. One of them, a sliver as long as Daphne’s arm, buried itself in the table behind Tracey and Blaise.
They all stared at the spiked gauntlet protruding into the room. It was larger than all three of their chests put together.
Whatever was on the outside pulled the fist back and the door came off with it, torn clean off its hinges by some tremendous, irresistible force.
“Or that,” Daphne said in a very small voice.
What next peered inside the room was decidedly not human.
Its head was shaped entirely out of metal. The immense steel casque, with a lower facegrille of wrought bronze, made its appearance synonymous with that of a bulldog. Burning, coal-fired eyes stared at them through the tiny vision slit on its helm.
A low guttural growl came from its throat as it vented warm steam into the room.
Some of the lower years made noises very close to whimpering.
“You’re blocking my way,” the familiar voice returned.
The monster’s head retreated from view. In its place, a boy stepped through. He was dressed in the most outlandish attire Daphne had ever seen. The worn breastplate, four centuries out of fashion. The tattered, hole-strewn cloak which looked like it had just had more holes strewn into it. The dirty, grime-streaked goggles sitting above his head, making him appear as though he was the protagonist from some cheap muggle novel.
Daphne would have considered the entire thing outlandish had she not noticed the freshly-spilled blood splashed over his clothes.
The boy glanced at them impassively. Then he produced a piece of parchment of all things from his cloak. He peered at it, brows gradually furrowing. Daphne wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard him say “bloody wizard names” under his breath.
Then he looked up, fixing them in place with the intensity of his stare.
“Daffodil Green Grass?”
Daphne was painfully aware of an entire room’s worth of gazes burning into her back. Slowly, tentatively, she raised her hand.
Emerald green eyes flickered towards her before flickering back to the parchment.
“Tray See Day Whiz?”
Tracey swallowed. She looked like she wanted to correct him but wasn’t sure how.
The boy nodded at her and then went back to scrutinizing the parchment. It was then that Daphne Greengrass realized that this wasn’t some mock comedy gone awry or some cosmic entity deciding to have a laugh at their expense. The boy was being completely and utterly serious.
Their savior looked up again, face set into an expression of cold professionalism.
This continued until he had ruthlessly and relentlessly butchered all twenty of their names. The last unfortunate soul, a third-year girl with auburn brown hair, looked slightly dazed at just how wrong her name had been pronounced.
The boy nodded to himself when it was all done and slid the parchment back into his cloak.
“Good. We are all accounted for then.”
“Excuse me,” Tracey said gingerly, “but who are you?”
She winced when the boy looked at her blankly.
“My first name has always been Harry,” he finally said, “Didn’t use it much but it is what it is. My last name, as I have found out in the past few days, is Potter.”
A moment of silence passed as twenty pairs of eyes stared at him incredulously.
“You’re Harry Potter,” Daphne said flatly.
“You actually want us to believe that?” Blaise snorted.
“Good joke,” added Tracey.
The boy cocked his head to one side.
“Did I make a joke?”
“Yeah,” Blaise sneered, “as if the Girl-Who-Lived’s disappeared twin is magically going to show up after fifteen years and rescue a bunch of Slytherins.”
“One, I would share a similar sentiment if I were in your place. Two, I do not require you to slither in anywhere in my presence. A simple thank you will suffice.”
The way Blaise’s mouth worked soundlessly up and down, Daphne noted, resembled a nutcracker’s jaws set to crack nuts in perpetuity.
The boy turned and left through the shattered doorway. He returned with a bundle of cloth bags. He set them on the table behind Tracey and Blaise.
“You’ll be needing these.”
Blaise glared at him.
“What are those for?”
“They’re bags. For holding things.”
The Slytherin rolled his eyes.
“I know that! What I meant is why are you giving them to us?”
“You have been here longer than me. It is highly likely you will have recognized items considered to be high value within these halls. You will assist me in locating these items and appropriating them.”
“Stealing,” Daphne said tonelessly, “You’re asking us to help you steal things from the mansion.”
“It is not called stealing,” the boy said back, “It is called requisitioning.”
“Whatever you want to call it, what makes you think we’ll help?” demanded Blaise.
“Because if you don’t help me I will not give you the port keys that will take you away from this place and reunite you with your families.”
They stared at him. Then they stared at the bags on the table.
“You have forty-five minutes,” said Harry Potter.
They paused when they reached the main antechamber. A scene of absolute carnage awaited them. Toppled pillars. Upended furniture. It looked like a hurricane had swept through and turned everything upside down.
“I thought you said all the Death Eaters had vacated the premises,” Blaise’s voice was missing its usual pureblood bluster.
“They have vacated the premises,” came the matter-of-fact reply.
“These ones haven’t,” Tracey said quietly, eyeing the multitude of prone bodies lying still on the floor.
“They have vacated the premises, spiritually,” the boy amended.
He made his way down the steps. They had no choice but to follow him. The sacks they were alternatively carrying and levitating were filled to the brim with magical artefacts and heirlooms. In retrospect, Daphne was surprised just how efficiently twenty people could pillage an entire mansion when sufficient motivation was applied.
They moved down the stairs.
As they grew nearer to the bodies, it became apparent just how each Death Eater had died. Some had been smashed into a pulp against the floor or walls. Others lay slumped, riddled with holes. Still others had been cleaved entirely in half. Bare human anatomy was laid open for all to see.
Some of the lower years looked positively ill as they descended with the group.
A low groan made them stop. One of the Death Eaters was still alive. His left leg was twisted at a horrendous angle. His right leg was missing from the thigh down.
Harry strode in his direction. The boy lowered his spear and expertly flicked the blank silver mask off the man’s face. A rough unkempt face was revealed, complete with shallow cheekbones and haunted eyes.
Daphne stopped. Hatred welled within her heart.
“Antonin Dolohov,” she said out loud.
The man glared wildly at them. His face was pale from the extent of his wounds but that did not prevent his ability to scream.
“The Dark Lord will take you all! He will take you and break you!”
Harry ignored the outburst.
“You know this person?” he asked her.
“He said that if I did not take the Dark Mark, he would make my sister... And then he said… I would not like the way he made my sister.”
“Race-traitors! Mudblood-lovers! None of you are worthy!”
The boy’s eyes bored into her.
“What are you going to do?”
Daphne didn’t respond. Her wand had automatically found its way into her palm. Her hand shook but she nevertheless pointed her wand at the ranting Death Eater’s face.
Harry nodded. In an act she will be forever grateful for, he turned towards the others.
“Look away,” he told them.
“You sanctioned these killings?”
The woman glances up from the stack of papers on her desk.
“Yes. And this is the only first batch.”
“There were hundreds of names on that list, Ashlynn.”
“I know. I signed off on each name myself,” the woman holds her hands out in front of her. She looks down at her palms as though if she isn’t sure if they were truly hers, “What kind of Queen am I, when the first thing I do when I gain the throne is to put my countrymen on hit lists to be killed?”
He looks away. He is unused to seeing her in this state.
“It had to be done. They were traitors to Llael. They weren’t your countrymen anymore.”
“Had to be done,” she repeats, “Every day I tell myself that and still it hurts.”
He shifts uncomfortably. She notices and smiles a bitter smile.
“I wish the Resistance never retook the capitol. I wish we were out in the countryside again, throwing off the yoke of Khadoran rule one township at time. You, me, and a few hundred Resistance fighters.”
“You can’t change the past. Llael is yours now.”
The woman nods. Her short blonde hair, once unburdened, is now crowned with a golden circlet glimmering with diamonds. He will never get used to the sight of her in a crown.
“And with it comes responsibilities I do not enjoy. These reprisal killings. The sentences I heap on my own people. It shouldn’t be like this. The rebirth of a nation should be a celebrated thing. Instead, the entire city is cloaked with an aura of fear.”
“You had to know something like this would have happened. Llael would not have fallen so quickly if Khador did not have inside help.”
“I know. And that is why I have called you back from the field.”
She hands him a brown folder stamped with the Royal Seal of Llael.
“This…” he glances over the contents, “…This is the former Minister of the Interior.”
“A loyal, stubborn, foolish man. He was old guard. Devoted to the previous king. When all the other nobles fled, he alone defended the capitol with his household guard. He only surrendered when the Khadorans threatened his family with execution.”
“Yes. You have extolled his virtues before. Even when he served as the head of the puppet government set up by Khador.”
“He softened the brutality directed towards the common citizenry. I have always wondered how he accomplished that. Now I know. The Highborn Convenant has provided evidence that he sold information on the Resistance to Khador. He sold the lives of my soldiers to save the lives of my people.”
“If that is the case, his name should be on the list.”
The woman shakes his head.
“No. I will not let him be dragged through the streets like a common criminal. He deserves more than that. I will allow him the dignity of dying in his own hearth and home. My Royal Guards have already sealed off all roads and accessways to his estate. What is needed is someone to deliver the death sentence.”
He looks at her, not quite sure what he is hearing.
“That’s why you called me back? To commit sanctioned murder?”
“It is not murder. The courts decided the verdict under the rule of law.”
“Those same courts would have found us guilty of treason against Khador just a year ago!”
“You do not need to understand why it must be done, only that it must be done.”
“I would prefer knowing why, thank you very much.”
“I’m not asking you to do it for Llael, the Highborn Convenant, of anyone else. I’m asking you to do it for me.”
His fingers clench into fists by his side.
“Don’t say that. You don’t have a right to say that.”
“No,” she says quietly, “I have the right. You are the Sword of Llael. And as the Queen, I am in need of my blade.”
She panted from exertion when everything had finished.
Unlike the others, her friends had not looked away. Tracey had come to stand by her side. Blaise had placed a hand firmly on her shoulder.
Now, more than ever, Daphne was glad to have the support of her friends.
A faint sob made them all look down.
Antonin Dolohov was still alive, though the definition could only be used loosely.
She had thrown every spell, curse, and hex short of the Unforgiveables at him. What remained twitching on the floor was not so much Antonin Dolohov as it was the sack of flesh that was once Antonin Dolohov.
Daphne stared at the devastation she had wrought, feeling equal parts satisfied and equal parts guilty. Satisfied that what needed to be done had been done. Guilty that she needed to do it in the first place.
She started when the spear came down. Splatters of blood sprayed on the ground in front of her feet. The quivering ruin that was Antonin Dolohov finally stopped quivering.
The boy wrenched his weapon free. The motion that accompanied the act suggested cool indifference, but the way his eyes burned was anything but indifferent.
“If anyone asks what happened here today,” he said to them, “I killed this man.”
Fleur Delacour was taking a stroll on the outskirts of Potter Manor when the faint pop of an activating portkey made her turn.
“Hello, Floor,” the boy said to her. Behind him, his warjacks materialized out of thin air. Their larger than normal size made the sounds that accompanied temporal displacement much louder than they had any right to be.
Fleur inwardly cursed Rose even as she offered a polite smile in return.
More faint pops signified new arrivals. They were familiar faces. The quarter-Veela recalled seeing them sitting at the Slytherin table during her time at Hogwarts.
Some of them were carrying or levitating… All of them were carrying or levitating what appeared to be large sacks of loot over their shoulders.
Fleur noticed that the expressions each student wore was one of acute confusion, as though they were not quite sure what had happened had just happened.
Fleur could sympathize. She was currently wearing a similar expression.
“Is the Order of the Phoenix still in?” the boy’s eyes had never left her face.
She wordlessly pointed in the direction of Potter Manor.
“My thanks,” Harry said and led the procession of mechanical automata, looted goods, and rescued children away.
Albus Dumbledore looked at the assortment of Slytherin students currently gathered in the dining room of Potter Manor. He then looked at the one responsible for bringing them in.
“When I said you had my tacit approval in aiding the Order, Harry,” the aged wizard said, “I didn’t mean for you to commit a full-scale assault on Lord Voldemort’s manor.”
“You didn’t,” the boy-turned-warcaster said back, “I decided on my own that it was the correct course of action.”
“We are going to have a talk about that.”
The old headmaster turned to the crowd of children. Most of them were staring at their rescuer as though they were trying to decide if being rescued by him was either a good thing or a bad thing.
“You have been through much these past days. Please rest with the knowledge that you will be safe and under the Order’s protection until you are reunited with your parents,” Dumbledore glanced at the adults currently in the room, “James?”
The Auror Captain stood up from his position leaning against the wall.
“I’ll contact their parents to pick them up.”
“What? And have the Death Eaters kidnap them all over again?” Harry interjected, “No. You’re going to put them in an Order safehouse and hold them there until the situation has changed significantly for the better.”
James looked at his son unsurely before looking back at Dumbledore.
“How does that make us any different from the Death Eaters?” Sirius asked.
“One,” the boy held up a finger, “you are not kidnapping them with the intention of making them carve giant skull-snakes on their arms. Two, you are not holding them against their will, but for their own protection. Three, their parents will feel far more secure knowing that their children are being held by the Order rather than a bunch of people who have carved giant skull-snakes on their arms.”
“It’s called the Dark Mark, Harry,” Remus said, trying hard not to look amused.
“I know what it’s called, but it looks like a skull-snake.”
“The Death Eaters carve it on their bodies to show their loyalty to the Dark Lord,” Lily explained further, also trying hard to not look amused.
“I know a place where they can carve it where the sun doesn’t shine,” Rose muttered darkly from her place sitting on the dining room staircase.
“In which case the snake part would become very lively indeed, wouldn’t it?” said Harry seamlessly.
Everyone present stared at him. Then the entire room burst into sniggers, giggles, and barely-suppressed mirth.
“He’s right,” Daphne said after the laughter had died down. A ghost of a smile had flitted over her face, “Even if we did go back to our parents, there’s no guarantee the Death Eaters won’t be back to make us take the Dark Mark again. Also, if we’re being held by the Order, then the Death Eaters can’t do anything to our families because technically we’re being held hostage.”
“Yes,” Harry gestured at her, “Listen to Daffodil.”
“Daffodil?” grinned Rose from her vantage point, “Really?”
Daphne glared up at her with all the pent-up fury of five years spent in the midst of Slytherin-Gryffindor rivalry.
“Don’t make me come up there, Potter.”
“But I’m right here?”
“She wasn’t talking to you,” said Rose.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Daphne at the same exact time.
Both girls looked briefly surprised at what the other had said before they resumed glaring at one another.
Dumbledore’s eyes had not stopped twinkling ever since the boy mentioned skull-snakes. Nevertheless, the old headmaster held up a hand for attention.
“I agree with Harry. At the moment, it is still unsafe for these children to be returned to their families. For the time being we will keep them safe in an Order affiliated residence. Sirius, is Grimmauld Place still available?”
“Would you mind setting up the children there temporarily? Visitation with their parents can be arranged after.”
“Works for me,” the man grinned, “Maybe now that there will be some ‘real’ purebloods in the house, dear old mom will finally shut up.”
A low rumbling growl made them all focus on Blaise Zabini. The boy looked mildly embarrassed.
“Sorry about that… It’s just that we haven’t eaten yet. We were locked in that stupid atrium for an entire day.”
“Oh, you poor dears,” tut-tutted Molly, “Come with me to the kitchen. I’ll whip up something for you right away!”
The children followed her out of the room, but not before Tracey elbowed Blaise in the side.
“Hear that Zucchini? You’re going into the kitchen with the rest of the vegetables.”
“It’s Zabini,” the boy complained under his breath.
Dumbledore watched them file out. The old wizard’s expression had turned serious once more.
“May we have that talk, Harry?”
“Very well,” the boy stood up and followed Dumbledore up the staircase.
Rose was still seated on the top steps, waiting for them. She gave her twin brother an inscrutable look.
“How did you beat him?”
Harry paused and regarded her silently.
“How did you beat him?” he asked back.
“We shot spells at each other. They connected by chance. Priori Incantatem. The memories of the people he killed. They helped me,” the Girl-Who-Lived stared into the eyes of the Boy-Who-Disappeared, “What about you?”
Harry returned her gaze stoically.
“I rammed four heavy warjacks down his throat, killed sixty of his followers in pitched battle, and stole everything of value not bolted down in his mansion.”
The corner of Rose’s lips twitched.
“Yeah, I like your way better.”
“I thought you might,” he said and stepped past his sister.
“I will not ask why you decided on this course of action,” Dumbledore said as soon as they closed the door, “But I will ask what you hoped to accomplish.”
“The primary objective was to seize the initiative,” Harry replied without breaking stride, “The Order is currently on the defense. The recent attacks performed by Death Eaters have inflicted a siege mentality upon its members. My assault was designed to upturn this status quo. To inflict so much lasting damage upon the enemy that they will think twice before launching another attack. To even the balance, so to speak. The secondary objective was to kill Lord Voldemort.”
“Do you think it will be that easy, Harry, to kill one of the most powerful dark wizards in the magical world?”
“Probably not,” the boy looked contemplative, “If he is anything like the dark beings where I came from, he would have most likely split his soul into separate portions through some arcane ritual and sealed them into magical artifacts littered around the world,” he turned towards Dumbledore, “Is my assumption correct?”
The old headmaster blinked.
“Yes,” he said for a lack of better things to say.
“In which case we will either need to send a separate task force to find these magical artifacts and destroy them or we kill Voldemort enough times that the spiritual backlash of his continued resurrections erodes his mind to the point of insanity.”
“I was aiming for the first one,” said Dumbledore.
“The second one will work just as fine,” Harry shrugged.
The aged wizard looked at his counterpart with interest.
“It sounds like you’ve done this before, Harry.”
“I have. When I was younger, I played a support role in the hunt for an athanc shard. It was a multi-nation effort incorporating thousands of men and hundreds of machines. We failed. The dragon that we hoped to hunt had created a false shard and lured the expedition into a fruitless chase for months. We returned empty-handed and without half of our starting force.”
“A dragon?” Dumbledore mused, “The First Task of the Triwizard Tournament involved besting a dragon. Your sister completed that task with flying colors, I might add.”
“Is that so?” Harry looked mildly impressed, “How did she dispose of the heartstone? I’m assuming that after the dragon fell to the ground she had to carve open its chest and tear the athanc from its still beating heart.”
“She… ah… flew circles around it on a broom.”
The boy stared stonily back at him.
“I’m assuming,” he finally said, “that this world’s dragons don’t spontaneously mutate their surroundings into twisted parodies of themselves with their mere presence.”
“This world’s dragons don’t do that,” confirmed Dumbledore.
“That makes what she did slightly less impressive.”
“Just slightly,” said the aged wizard with a small smile.
Harry stood up.
“If that is all then?”
“Wait, Harry. Might you have time for another question?”
The warcaster inclined his head.
“What you said in the beginning. When you spoke of objectives, it sounded very formulaic. Perchance, is what the Order currently experiencing something you have experience in?”
“It is very formulaic because it is indeed something I have experience in.”
“There is precedent, then?”
“Yes, the Liberation of Llael.”
“The initial plan was executed in three distinct phases. Phase One was the reestablishment of Llaelese control over the countryside. This was done by wresting control of the smaller townships and enclaves from their Khadoran garrisons. Once Llaelese Resistance was entrenched in these smaller population centers, it would take a sustained effort from Khador to remove them. Which led directly to Phase Two. The complete annihilation of three full Khadoran field armies. The enemy was safe whenever they were based in the main cities of Llael, but once they were outside, Llaelese resistance fighters would cut supply lines, ambush patrols, and make life generally unpleasant for them. On three separate occasions, Khadoran forces launched field expeditions to take back townships controlled by the Resistance. And on three separate occasions, resistance fighters, backed by partisans, converged on these troop columns from all sides and erased them off the face of the map.”
“Erase…” Dumbledore murmured, “…That is a very strong word to use, Harry.”
“I use it because it is technically the correct word. The Resistance, while supported by the common population, could not spare the resources to care for prisoners of war. There was also the intimidation factor. The Resistance wanted to send a message. The more soldiers you send, the more we will kill. Therefore, all Khadoran affiliated captives were summarily put to death after they surrendered.”
The old wizard furrowed his brows but motioned for the boy to continue.
“Phase Three culminated in the conquest of Llael’s capitol city. This last stage involved the entire Llaelese Resistance, seconded Cygnaran field elements, detachments of Crucible Guard from the Order of the Golden Crucible, and no less than eighteen different mercenary companies hired by the Highborn Convenant. The Khadorans were bled dry from guerilla operations but they had entrenched in the city for years. It was a grueling battle. To dislodge the enemy, the fighting had to be done street by street, block by block. Progress was recorded not by how much area was taken, but by how many houses were cleared.”
“Is this how you see the struggle with Lord Voldemort will play out, Harry?” Dumbledore said quietly.
The boy shook his head.
“No. The three phases I described were, metaphorically speaking, the easy part. There was a fourth phase. One that no one foresaw. I was actively involved in all three phases of the war, but this last one not even I could have prepared for.”
“What was it?”
For a split second, the old wizard thought he saw a flicker of something pass over Harry’s face.
“Llael was heavily compromised by Khadoran infiltrators before it was invaded. Years spent under foreign occupation only increased this malign influence. The circumstances were as such that you could not tell if the common person walking on the streets was a patriot or an informant. If Llael was to ever function again as an independent nation, this issue would need to be resolved decisively and thoroughly. This was Phase Four. The systematic purging of treacherous elements within the Llaelese government, her military, and at the very end, her people.”
Dumbledore closed his eyes. Memories of the war with Grindelwald surfaced in his mind.
“The Order of the Phoenix is currently at Phase Four,” said Harry.
The old headmaster looked sadly at the Potter twin, the one he should have done his utmost to protect.
“Did you participate in the last phase as well?”
The boy returned his gaze neutrally.
“It was… difficult work. I did not particularly enjoy what I had to do. No one did. But it had to be done.”
“I heard those words said too many times during the Global Wizarding War,” Dumbledore said softly.
“Yes,” Harry’s eyes bored into his, “And you won that war. Now you’re losing this one. Perhaps hearing it too many times wasn’t the problem, but hearing it too few.”
“What you are proposing, Harry,” said Dumbledore after a few seconds of silence, “will require a regime change in the wizarding government.”
“Correct. It will require a fundamental shift in how the wizarding government functions besides the regime change. The institutions may remain in place but the people operating those institutions will need to be removed.”
“And have you accounted for the human cost in all of this? The lives that will be inevitably lost in the conflict to come?”
“Taking decisive action will always cost lives. Taking no action at all will always cost more.”
Dumbledore smiled slightly.
“Was that directed at me, Harry?”
“It was directed at the situation at hand,” said the boy politely.
The old wizard stroked his beard in thought.
“The Order of the Phoenix was not created to instigate regime change. It was created to protect innocent people from ideals like those belonging to Voldemort. But I am beginning to realize that by allowing Voldemort to thoroughly control the government, I am, in fact, harming the very people I am trying to protect. Still, I have my doubts,” Dumbledore looked at his counterpart and sighed, “A great wizard once thought similarly like you. A great wizard but a terrible one.”
“Whom do you refer to?”
Harry stared wordlessly at him, waiting for him to continue.
“So many great things were done to end the Great War,” the aged headmaster said dejectedly, “Great, but terrible. The enemy was once a dear friend of mine, which made the war all the more terrible. Eventually, his cause grew to be so diametrically opposed to ours, to all of wizarding society’s, that it felt right to do all that was possible to stop him. It was a great rush to fight his army for we believed in the righteousness of our cause, but when the battle ended, when we gazed upon the fallen bodies of both friend and foe alike, all we felt was emptiness. Such a thing must not happen again. It must never happen again.”
Dumbledore gazed forlornly at the boy.
“What would you say to an old wizard who thought like that?”
No emotion showed on Harry’s face, but understanding was alight in his eyes.
“You move on. You accept that bad things happen, as they will inevitably happen in war. You do what you can to limit them but realize that you cannot stop them. You accept that these things will happen and you move on,” he bowed his head slightly towards Dumbledore, “Because it is all you can do.”
He walks towards the line of prisoners, his warjacks in tow.
“Six,” answers the Llaelese sergeant-in-arms accompanying him, “We nabbed them in an ambush on a supply column.”
“Their commanding officer?”
“Shot himself to prevent being taken alive.”
The sergeant grunts.
“Quite so. Saved us the effort.”
He approaches the captives. They have all been bound by their arms. Most of them look glumly at the ground.
“They’re getting younger,” the detail does not escape him.
“Noticed that myself,” the sergeant scratches at the stubble on his chin, “Wonder what that means.”
“It means they are running out of real soldiers to send.”
“So it’s true then,” the man grins, “Rumor has it that the Cygnarans have opened a second front. There’s also talk of Cryx harvesting fleets running roughshod over Khador’s coast due to their manpower being sent elsewhere. Never thought I’d ever thank those undead bastards for anything.”
“Because you never should. Every soul they harvest, regardless if they are Khadoran, Cygnaran, or Llaelese, is another mechanithrall added to their armies.”
“Right. Sorry, sir,” the sergeant has the decency to look ashamed, “Forgot myself.”
The first Winter Guard is the oldest out of the bunch. There is a worn, veteran look about him. A career soldier. The man glances up as he halts in front of the procession.
“When are we to die?”
“Tomorrow,” he replies.
The Khadoran nods and resumes looking at his feet.
The next prisoner in line is the direct opposite of him in both age and sex. There is a paleness to her that can only come from a lifetime spent in the frozen hinterlands. She is, by the standard and metric of her people, beautiful.
“How old?” his Khadoran is not nearly as fluent as his Llaelese or Cygnaran. The words come out far cruder than he intended them to be.
The girl looks back at him. Her long blonde hair has been twisted into a military braid favored by women employed in the Winter Guard.
“Why are you here?”
Her eyes are as blue as winter ice. There is no hatred in them. Only resignation.
“The motherland sent me to die,” she says quietly, “so here I am.”
He nods. It is as about good as an answer as he can expect.
He turns towards the Llaelese sergeant.
“Mark her down.”
One of the prisoners in the line lets out an ugly bark of laughter.
“Shouldn’t have told him anything, girl. Now you’re going to get it. Once these Llaelese bastards are done with you, you’ll wish you had a bullet in the back of your head.”
The Llaelese soldier guarding him smashes the butt of his rifle into the Khadoran’s face. The Winter Guard reels back, spitting teeth.
The girl’s shoulders shake, but she makes no other sound.
He moves on. He doesn’t stop again until he reaches the last one in line. The boy is older than the girl, but not by much. Perhaps seventeen or eighteen. Unlike the others, he has been staring at him all this time.
“You’re the Sword of Llael,” it’s not so much a question as it is a statement of fact.
He inclines his head.
“I have been called that.”
“I have a request to make of you.”
“Tomorrow, when the deed is done… I want you to be the one to do it. That way… That way when I go to my ancestors,” the boy smiles sadly up at him, “at least I can tell them I died at the hands of a hero.”
“It will be done.”
He turns to the sergeant.
“Mark him down as well.”
James had known that it would not be easy to convince someone who was unfamiliar with magical society on the merits of wizarding culture. This was the reason new witches and wizards from muggle families were always guided through the process at first. To alleviate the culture shock. To lessen the impact of seeing a magical world come alive before your very eyes when all you were used to was the mundane.
So when his own son had requested that he be taken to wizarding society’s version of a financial institution, James had felt that it was only right for him to be the guide. Whatever talk Harry had with Dumbledore must have gone alright for the old headmaster had agreed with the boy’s plan on principle. Lily had volunteered for the expedition as well, but it had always been a dream for James to take their long-lost son on his first trip to Diagon Alley.
However, it soon became apparent that Harry was not at all interested in the sights and sounds of what many considered to be their first view of magical society. He passed by Flourish and Blotts without a second look, walked past Eeylops Owl Emporium without commenting on the various breeds of pets displayed behind its windows, and didn’t say a word towards the Firebolt showcased in front of Quality Quidditch Supplies. He marched towards their ultimate destination with an almost dogged determination.
It was perhaps the most uneventful trip to Diagon Alley that James had ever participated in.
The elder Potter realized what it was midway into their trip. The problem was not that his charge was unused to magical society. The problem was that his charge was already used to a different magical society and predisposed to believe in the merits of that culture rather than this one’s.
Which was why they had spent the last five minutes arguing over the virtues of goblin transportation amid the vaults of Gringotts Magical Bank.
“Harry, get into the cart,” the older wizard had said with the tones of infinite patience.
His son looked at the cart. Then he looked at James.
“I’m not getting into the cart.”
“Harry, it’s perfectly safe. There are charms in place that will protect the rider from falling out.”
Compunction Spells had been cast over the boy’s form to make the average bystander ignore him after a cursory look. They did absolutely nothing to hide the expression of skepticism etched over his face.
“You can stick a charm in the seat that will root a colossal in place and I’m still not getting into the cart.”
“May I ask why?”
“It looks like it’s going to fall apart midride.”
James frowned at goblin trolley. The depth they were about to descend to meant that the usual pristine carts that ferried witches and wizards to their personal vaults near the surface were unavailable. The one that was chosen to take their place was an especially old and antique specimen of its kind.
“Appearances aside, I can assure you that we will be perfectly safe while we’re inside the cart.”
“Why? Are you certified to be a cart operator?” before James could reply, Harry had turned to the goblin manning the controls, who for the past five minutes had been watching their conversation with no small hint of amusement, “Is he certified to be a cart operator?”
The creature raised a bushy eyebrow.
“Only goblins are certified to be cart operators, sir,” it drawled.
Harry turned back to James.
“Are you a goblin by any chance?”
“If I was,” grinned James, “I’m pretty sure Lily would have noticed by now.”
“Right,” Harry said, “Because you are not a goblin, you cannot possibly be certified as a cart operator. Therefore, your assurances mean absolutely nothing.”
“Well, if you’re worried about the danger, it shouldn’t be too different from those machines of yours, right? I mean handling those warjacks can also be unsafe, so this shouldn’t really bother you.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Warjacks are perfectly safe to handle once they have been certified by the mechaniks involved in their production. Even when they have been pushed to their limits and are in the midst of catastrophic overheat, they only explode ten percent of the time! This thing looks like it will fall apart as soon as you step into it!” the boy turned to the goblin operator again, “No offence meant.”
“No offence taken, sir,” the diminutive figure said back, “You are quite right. Some of the older service carts in Gringotts are in dire need of upgrade. Fortunately, the next batch of upgrades are in the works and have already been approved by bank management.”
“And when is the next upgrade?”
“There are other parts of the bank that are prioritized for renovation and refurbishment, but for this specific part of the Vaults, the next batch of upgrades is expected to be on schedule in approximately three hundred and fifty-four years.”
Harry nodded. He looked back at James.
“I will come back and ride this cart in three hundred and fifty-four years.”
“Harry, you said it yourself,” the older wizard tried a different tactic, “We need to do this. To win the war, we need to do everything possible to make sure the advantages are on our side. And this is something that will help.”
The boy glared back at him. Then he glared at the cart.
“Very well,” he stepped into the trolley, “But I must make it clear that I do this in protest.”
James smiled and stepped in after him. Both Potters sat down. Harry began looking around as soon as he was seated.
“Where are the restraints?” he asked.
“Safety harnesses. Throne fetters. Seat belts.”
“The Ministry does not require Gringotts bank carts to have seat belts,” the goblin said helpfully from behind them.
“That means we will be traveling at speeds where seat belts are not required?”
“At these depths, goblin-operated carts only move at two speeds, sir,” their operator supplied, “Fast and very fast.”
The trolley lurched into motion. The metallic squeal of wheels rasping against the tracks did not help the situation in any way, shape, or form.
“How do I keep myself secure if we’re traveling fast?” Harry all but growled.
“If the method of locomotion is disagreeable to you, it is recommended that you hold the side of the cart tightly to stabilize yourself.”
“How do I keep myself secure if we’re traveling very fast?”
“It is recommended that you hold the side of the cart very tightly.”
The trolley began accelerating. The last sight James had of his son before their surroundings started to blur was Harry holding on to the side of the cart with both hands so tightly they turned white.
“Morrow preserve us,” James heard him say.
The goblin’s name was Griphook. They sat in the creature’s office, watching him pour over the samples they brought him from the personal stash of Lord Voldemort.
“These are very good,” the goblin peered at the various jewelry, trinkets, and gemstones that were laid on his table through a magical magnifying glass, “Very fine quality. As one would expect from their source.”
James beamed from his place seated in front of the creature’s desk.
“I knew you could help us, Griphook.”
The creature leaned back into his chair.
“I said these were of very fine quality. I didn’t say anything about helping you.”
The older wizard frowned.
“I thought you agreed when I described the situation.”
“I did. But you didn’t tell me that the items in question were stolen, which these quite clearly are. And Gringotts does not deal with stolen property.”
“Griphook, I mentioned that in our last conversation. I know I did.”
“Gringotts does not deal with stolen property,” the goblin smiled back.
James looked flustered and ready to argue further when a hand reached out to stop him.
“What he is saying,” said the boy seated beside him, “is not that the notion is disagreeable, but the terminology is.”
Harry turned to look at Griphook.
“These items were not stolen. They were requisitioned.”
“Requisitioned?” the goblin splayed his fingers together, “Perhaps the better word to use would be repossessed?”
“Whatever you wish to call it.”
“Are you insinuating that the ownership of these items has passed from their previous owners and onto you?”
“I am confirming it.”
Griphook swept his arms out in an inviting motion.
“In which case, how can Gringotts assist you, Mr. Potter?”
James looked at his son and then looked back at the goblin.
“Was all of that really necessary, Griphook?”
The creature’s smile turned unpleasant.
“You don’t know half of it, James. The Ministry is pressuring the bank on all fronts. Very soon those guards outside my door won’t be goblins, but wizards. Maybe even Death Eaters. There’s also talk that the ultimate goal is to have goblins working for wizards and not the other way around. Gringotts management has become very sensitive about these issues. The bank has resigned itself to this fate and has no wish to expediate the process.”
“Then why are you willing to help us now?”
“I said we were resigned to this fate,” Griphook replied with a slight sneer, “I didn’t say we had to like it. The plan now is to make the process as painful and prolonged as possible. You wand-wizards will discover very soon that certain administrative issues can cut just as deeply as a blade.”
“I’m sorry about this, Griphook,” James murmured, “All of this.”
The creature snorted.
“Goblinkind is well used to wizard apologies. We have a word for it in our own language. You won’t like the literal translation,” the goblin lost some of his sneer when he looked at the elder Potter, “I know you had no part to play in this, James, but your society has continuously degraded and mistreated ours. This isn’t the first time wizardkind has taken what goblins created and made it your own, and it won’t be the last. But back to how we make the takeover of Gringotts Magical Bank as painful as possible for the Death Eaters. You will be wanting to open a vault, yes?”
“Not a vault,” Harry replied, “Vaults are physical locations holding tangible things. They can be repossessed just as easily as the items I requisitioned. I need something different.”
“This is true,” Griphook said thoughtfully, “Should Gringotts be fully aligned with the Ministry in the immediate future, it is highly likely that vaults not affiliated with the Dark Lord’s followers will be scrutinized in detail and perhaps even sealed to prevent their further use by his enemies. That would make a vault a liability and not an asset. If that is the case, maybe a credit line will be more suited for you.”
“What? Like a credit rectangle? Was that it? Lily told me that’s how it works in the muggle world.”
Griphook stared at James.
“Sometimes I wonder how wizards came to rule the magical world, before I remember you can do magic out of little sticks of wood.”
The older wizard smirked slightly.
“If it helps, I’m beginning to doubt the superiority of wizardkind in this magical world when in another magical world wizards use their magic to power multi-ton fighting machines.”
Harry shrugged his shoulders.
“If that was directed at me, I have already come to the conclusion that there is no logic at all in this magical world as both wizardkind and goblinkind have apparently agreed that building a long, winding set of tracks underground is somehow more conductive to transportation rather than a simple flight of stairs.”
Griphook looked at the boy before turning to James.
“He’s your son, alright.”
“How could you tell?” the older wizard looked faintly proud, “Was it because that he looks like me or was it because he looks like me?”
“The attempts at humor made in the most inopportune of times has something to do with it.”
“That’s a Potter trait,” said James.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Harry frowned.
“Not knowing when to be funny and having it come out funny anyways is also a Potter trait.”
“Back to the issue at hand?” growled Griphook, “I can open an account with for you without a vault assuming that you will be selling these items directly to Gringotts. I will warn you though you won’t get full price. We’re a goblin banking institution, not some old collector’s shop. If there’s no profit for us, there’s no point in doing the work.”
“I figured as much,” the boy replied, “However, in exchange, I expect the account to be kept secret. No transactions can be recorded. For all intents and purposes, this account must never exist in public record.”
“The financial term for this is shadow banking,” the goblin looked Harry dead in the eye, “Do you believe a vaunted and famous financial institution like Gringotts would perform services related to shadow banking? Go on. Ask the question.”
“How am I phrasing the terminology?”
The creature’s smile showed teeth.
“Phrase it first as though everything was normal.”
Harry inclined his head.
“Does Gringotts offer shadow banking services assuming that there isn’t a Dark Lord out there who would very much like to take over your bank.”
“Gringotts Magical Bank is disallowed by Article Fourteen, Section One Hundred Eighty-Five of our founding charter to perform any services related to shadow banking as that would be strictly illegal in both a goblin and wizarding court of law,” answered Griphook, “Now ask me the question again knowing what you know.”
“Does Gringotts offer shadow banking services assuming that there is a Dark Lord out there who would very much like to take over your bank.”
“Welcome to Gringotts Magical Bank, Mr. Potter,” the goblin spread his arms wide again, “How can we serve your shadow banking needs today?”
The doorbell of 4 Privet Drive rang on a normal sunny day in the perfectly average town of Little Whinging located in the perfectly average county of Surrey. Which suited Vernon Dursley just fine, thank you very much. There was absolutely nothing strange or mysterious about the Dursleys because that was nonsense, and they just didn’t want anything to do with nonsense.
“Can you get that, dear?” Petunia simpered from the kitchen, “These muffins are taking far too long!”
“Of course, love,” Vernon heaved himself up from his favorite seat near the television and shuffled towards the door.
He swung it open and all his dreams of normalcy was spontaneously shattered.
“Y-You…” he sputtered.
The man on his porch smiled back awkwardly.
“Hello there… ah… brother-in-law.”
The only thing that prevented Vernon from shutting the door in the man’s face was the boy that looked almost identical to him standing by his side.
“Vacant Door Key, I presume,” the miniature version of James Potter said politely, as though butchering names was a perfectly average and normal thing to do.
“I understand that you are the manager of a manufacturing company.”
Vernon glared at the boy, though the tacit recognition made him puff up his chest.
“I am the Director of Grunnings,” he growled back, “But what’s that to you?”
Seated by Vernon’s side on their good couch, Petunia put a soothing hand over her husband’s arm.
“If you are the director of a manufacturing company, you must have contacts with other manufacturing companies. Armament factories. Weaponsmiths. Steel mills.”
“I grew some of those clients myself,” Vernon confirmed, “But again, what’s it to you?”
“We would like to meet those clients.”
Vernon’s face twisted into an ugly expression.
“If you think I’m going to let my clients meet up with a pair of trumped-up, amateur magicians---”
“We will make it worth your while,” the boy interrupted him.
“How?” Petunia narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
The boy nodded at his father. James looked unsure but nevertheless lifted a heavy brown suitcase onto the table. He undid the locks and swiveled the hefty case until it faced the Dursleys.
Both Vernon and Petunia stared at the contents.
“The wizard to muggle exchange rate was… extremely favorable,” said Harry Potter.
The door to Potter Manor slammed open with a bang, revealing a figure that was far too large to fit through.
“Lily! James! I came as soon as I ‘eard!”
The giant of a man had to stoop to get in the doorway.
“Where is he!? I got ter see ‘im with me own eyes!”
The upstairs lights flicked on. James emerged from the bedroom.
“Hagrid! You’ve returned from your mission!”
Lily followed him and smiled warmly down at their old family friend.
“I came back as quick as I could! Is it true, James? Has he really come back?”
“Who has really come back?” the backdoor opened with a clatter, revealing the boy in his strange armor.
Harry stepped into the house and then halted at the sight before him.
“What---” he managed to say before burly arms lifted him off the ground and smothered him into a great bushy beard.
“Harry! It’s you! It’s really you!” Hagrid blubbered.
The boy squirmed uncomfortably in the half-giant’s arms.
“Lily, Drain,” he said calmly, “this very large and very hairy ogrun is trying to crush me to death.”
Hagrid loosened his grip, but only slightly. The giant of a man peered down at the Potters’ long-lost twin through teary eyes.
“Merlin, Harry! Yeh look so much like yer father! And you’ve still got yer mother’s eyes! You don’t look a bit different from when I held yeh all those years ago!”
And then actual, giant-sized tears began to fall from Hagrid’s eyes and onto Harry’s face. The boy tilted his head to one side to avoid the worst of the waterfall.
“Lily, Drain,” he said again, “this very large and very hairy ogrun is now trying to waterboard me to death.”
James smiled slightly as he came down the stairs. Behind him, Lily dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Can you… ah… let our son down, Hagrid?”
“O’ course, James!”
Harry slid free from the embrace. Hagrid gazed happily down at him before turning towards the Potters.
“Have yeh told ‘im everything yet? ‘Bout us and our world?”
“We haven’t had time to tell him everything yet,” James said, which was in retrospect, perhaps the wrong thing to say.
Hagrid looked astounded.
“Yeh mean you haven’ told ‘im yet!?”
The Potters looked both amused and bemused at the same time.
“What haven’t we told him, Hagrid?” Lily asked.
“Never mind that!” Hagrid exclaimed, “I’ll do it!”
The giant man knelt in front of Harry. Even in this position, Hagrid towered over him. The half-giant placed his enormous hands firmly on both sides of Harry’s shoulders. Earnest brown eyes stared resolutely into confused green ones.
“Yeh’re a wizard, Harry!”
The boy looked at Hagrid. He looked down at the breastplate covered with winking runes protecting his chest. He looked further down at the sword swirling with arcane sigils sheathed at his hip. He looked back over his shoulder to the doorway he had entered from, where four obviously magical machines stood outside waiting for him.
He looked back at Hagrid.
“Yes,” said Harry, “I noticed.”
“Is what you say true, Rubeus?” Albus Dumbledore stared at the man over his moon-shaped spectacles, “Have the giants decided to fully align themselves with Voldemort?”
“I dunno wha’ happened,” Hagrid said through a mouthful of porridge. Molly had fixed a quick meal for the large man on account of his long journey, “Las’ year all they wanted ter hear was what you had ter say, Dumbledore. But somethin’ changed. They drove me straight outta their camp when I went to meet with their leader!”
“The Dark Lord must have upped his offer,” growled Moody. The Order had been called into an emergency meeting to hear what their envoy to the giants had to say. None of it was good.
“What I don’t understand,” Sirius said slowly, “is why join him in the first place? They have to know that having Voldemort in charge won’t do them any good. He’s not going to give them anything they don’t have already. He’s certainly not going to give them better treatment. Knowing all that, what could he offer them that would make them want to join him? Just a chance to see the world burn? That doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
“That is precisely the reason why they would want to join him.”
All eyes turned to the new voice. The boy didn’t sit with the others around the dining room table. He sat on a nearby windowsill, back leaning against the wall. His fingers fiddled idly with the strange sword in his lap. His arcane breastplate was still misaligned from when Hagrid had hugged him earlier.
“Would you care to explain, Harry?” Dumbledore asked tiredly.
“I am not well-versed in your society’s laws and traditions,” the boy-turned-warcaster began without preamble, “But I have gleaned a basic understanding over these past days. The various disparate magical races do not enjoy the same level of rights and protection under the wizarding government. In fact, there are laws in place that prevent exactly that sort of thing from happening. Am I correct in my understanding?”
“Some have tried in the past to change these laws,” Lily said with a sad sigh, “But yes, you’re correct, Harry.”
“If that is the case, then this isn’t their world. This is the wizarding world. A wizarding world that so far seems to be keen in shutting them out. Why then, would they care if this world burned or not?”
“I know we haven’t done the best we can for the other magical races,” Sirius shook his head, “But can’t they see that what Voldemort will do to them will be worse?”
“Oh, they see it just fine. But can you say for certain that it will be worse? They have no rights, no protection, and no say in the way they are governed. From their perspective, it is choosing between one bad choice and another bad choice. And if I were them, I would choose to hurt the bad choice that has hurt me for as long as I can remember,” Harry’s fingers stopped playing with the edge of his blade only to start drumming rhythmically along the hilt, “Voldemort will never offer them anything remotely close to sharing power. But he will offer them a chance to hurt the one thing that has hurt them. And that, more than anything else, is what will draw them into his ranks.”
“I’ve heard similar sentiments being whispered in the werewolf enclaves I’ve visited,” Remus said softly.
“There you go,” the boy said before tilting his head in Dumbledore’s direction, “You should probably think about abolishing those laws when the Order starts running the government.”
It took a full second for the implication to sink in. And then a murmur rose from within the room.
“Albus?” McGonagall glanced unsurely at the old headmaster.
“Harry and I have decided that the best way to combat Voldemort would be to tackle it with a two-pronged approach,” the aged wizard said serenely, “One would be strictly on military terms and that would primarily be Harry’s responsibility. The other approach is political in nature and that will be the Order’s responsibility. We will use our years of experience in subterfuge and clandestine operations to slowly bring the Ministry back in alignment with our values while at the same time expunging Voldemort’s followers from high-ranking positions within the government.”
“How do we accomplish that?” James asked.
“By working closely with likeminded individuals on the floor of the Wizengamot, by persuading the voting population on the merits of our cause, and by changing the laws within the rule of law,” said Dumbledore.
“By forming shadow coalitions, by buying votes to prevent unfavorable amendments from being passed, and by tainting Death Eater aligned politicians with manufactured scandals,” said Harry at the same time.
The Order looked at Harry and then back at Dumbledore.
“We… haven’t fully figured out the details yet,” admitted Dumbledore.
“I’m not sure I agree with all of this, Albus,” McGonagall murmured, “I know that in order to defeat Voldemort, we need the help of the Ministry. But if we’re interfering this much in government affairs, then we are actively interfering with the choices made by the people.”
“The people?” Harry made an undecipherable sound, “The choices made by the people are half the reason you’re in this mess.”
McGonagall’s nostrils flared.
“I understand that you come from a different world and a different society, Mr. Potter, but please understand that in our wizarding society, it is the voice of the people and the choices they make that dictate the steps taken by our government. Yes, I admit that sometimes the people can be persuaded to vote against their own interests, but it is part of the process that makes our system of government fair. We operate on the premise of compromise and we certainly do not manipulate our people and the officials they elected just because they make decisions that some of us don’t agree with!”
The boy smiled thinly. The rest of his expression, however, remained unfalteringly polite.
“So, we’re doing it this way. Very well,” he turned towards the rest of the Order, “Who is the current Minister of Magic?”
“Cornelius Fudge,” said Sirius at once.
“And how’s he doing given the current circumstances?”
“He’s doing a good job of fudging everything up,” Sirius said again.
Harry inclined his head at the choice of words before directing his gaze back to Order.
“Who ran against him?”
“Last time it was Rufus Scrimgeour,” said James.
“What did he run on?”
“Tightening security, broadening the scope of magical enforcement, rewriting discriminatory laws, and enhancing relations with other magical races.”
“What did Fudge run on?”
“Keeping everything exactly the same,” Remus said.
“Fudge did,” said Sirius, not at all sure where this conversation was going, “By a landslide. That’s why he’s Minister of Magic.”
“And what does that tell you about your choice of government, the standards of your society, and the people who voted him in?”
Awkward silence descended on the occupants in the room. None wanted to be the one to answer that particular question.
All heads turned to the one who had. The girl leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms defiantly over her chest.
“Thank you for that concise explanation, Rose,” Dumbledore said solemnly, though his eyes twinkled.
“There is also the issue of compromising when the basic underlying assumption behind compromising has gone unchallenged. You compromise with people who are willing to compromise. How do you compromise with people who fundamentally believe that you are inferior to them?”
“You can’t,” said Fleur, who besides Remus, had more experience with magical prejudice than any other in the room.
“If you can’t compromise, then you must fight. And if you fight, you must fight to win. And to fight to win, you must use every underhanded tactic available to erode the enemy’s advantages while building up your own.”
“That sounds like something I’ve read out of a book,” Lily perked up, “It was called the Art of War, I think. It was written by a muggle.”
“A muggle wrote this?”
“Yes,” Lily looked at her son, “A muggle warlord or general. He wrote it some two thousand years ago.”
“Then the muggles are two thousand years ahead in thinking compared to you,” said Harry.
“I… understand that we are not in the best situation,” McGonagall murmured, “But I still cannot fathom the Order of the Phoenix having influence over the Ministry.”
“Why?” the Boy-Who-Disappeared stared at her blankly, “It should have been done the first time you won the war.”
“You don’t think there is anything wrong with the victors having absolute say over the defeated?” Shacklebolt looked like he was honestly interested in Harry’s reply.
“In my world, I watched a resistance movement in an occupied land grow from a ragged band of no more than a hundred men to become a self-sustaining military force numbering in the tens of thousands. And when this resistance movement finally took back their country, their leader became its queen. And those who were with her from the very beginning? They are now her ministers, her generals, her dukes and duchesses, and her counselors. So, yes. The victors should have absolute say over the defeated. That is what is natural,” emerald eyes looked slowly around the room, “What is unnatural is allowing the defeated to dictate terms to the victors. That’s why you’re in this second war. Because you never won the first.”
“The boy may have taken a fall through a different dimension,” Moody grinned, though his scarred face made it appear more like a leer than a grin, “but he is making a surprising amount of sense right now.”
“I agree,” Dumbledore said resolutely, “I have, in the past, mistakenly believed that by granting leniency to his followers, Voldemort’s influence could slowly be removed from our society. I now have reason to believe I may have been too lenient. And this had led us to where we are now. Voldemort’s control of the government will only grow if we allow it to. And I would rather have a Ministry focused on helping us prevent his rise than a Ministry already doing as he bids. If we do not do this, then the alternative will be much worse.”
James pounded his fist into the table.
“How do we start?” the man’s eyes glinted with determination.
“Start with families of the children I saved,” said Harry, “They owe you. For that alone, you’ll wrangle some concessions out of them.”
“Those are dark families, Harry,” Sirius warned.
“They are dark families who, when the darkest wizard in recent memory demanded their allegiance, did their utmost to stay neutral in the war. That makes me wonder just how dark they really are.”
“The Order of the Phoenix working with families who are one step away from taking the Dark Mark,” Moody glared appraisingly at the one who had offered the opinion, “What would you call that, boy?”
“Your society already has a word for it,” Harry looked at McGonagall whose lips twitched ever-so-slightly, “It’s called compromising, I believe.”
“That thing is falling apart.”
The resistance fighter scoffs and makes a shooing motion with his hand.
“Go away, kid. We don’t have the supplies for a vagrant and his pet scrapjack.”
He ignores the insult. He can no longer be hurt by words after what he has been through.
“I’m here to join you.”
The man rolls his eyes.
“Like I said, we don’t have the supplies to feed a vagrant and maintain his pet scrapjack.”
“It’s not a scrapjack,” a lonely figure walks up to them. The woman is in full battledress. The tired way she carries herself suggests that the entire world has suddenly and inexplicably been forced onto her shoulders, “It’s a Nomad. And it has seen its fair share of war.”
The woman lifts a delicate hand to touch the warjack’s doughty, battered head. The Nomad snorts in response.
“Is this yours?” she asks.
“It was once somebody else’s,” he says quietly, “Now, it’s mine.”
The woman nods. She turns to the resistance fighter.
“Let him join.”
“Milady. He’s just a kid!”
“He’s a kid with a warjack,” the woman says as she walks away, “and that means one more warjack we have that the enemy doesn’t think we have.”
The resistance fighter stares after her. He then looks back at him and shrugs.
“Welcome to the Resistance, kid.”
The boy had stripped to his waist to repair his warjacks. Fleur could see the latent scar tissue forming on his arms and shoulders where the simple undershirt did not cover. They made for interesting patterns when they crisscrossed over his skin.
Rose sat on the drafting table Harry had scrounged up from somewhere. Her legs dangled aimlessly over the wooden edge.
The two girls were present, albeit for different reasons. One was there to begin the slow, drawn-out process of reconnecting with a long-lost brother. The other one was there because she had nothing better to do.
If Harry knew the underlying reasons for their presence, he showed no indication. The boy had opened the top paneling on one of his warjacks and had been preoccupied with what was inside for the past twenty minutes. The way he was perched on top of the twelve-foot behemoth reminded Fleur of some out of place ornament on top of a Christmas tree.
“Can you toss me that wrench on the table?” he finally broke the silence.
Rose looked at Fleur and shrugged. The Girl-Who-Lived flicked her wand and levitated the tool in question up towards her brother.
Another one of his machines, the one with the multi-barreled gun under each arm, snatched the wrench out of the air before it could reach Harry. It glared at the tool fully encompassed in its massive fist suspiciously before handing it to its master.
The warjack turned back towards the two girls and let out a challenging growl.
“What was that for?” Rose’s eyes were wide.
“It does not yet fully trust you to be in my presence,” came the boy’s voice from behind the metal panels, “It will continue to display threat behaviors towards you until it no longer deems you to be a threat.”
“Right, but does it have to act like a guard dog though?”
“You may not know it, but a guard dog is almost exactly how warjacks are programmed to act once they are fully bonded to their warcaster.”
“Does it bark too?” joked Rose. Fleur smiled slightly at the attempt at humor.
“No, but other qualities such as loyalty and obedience are highly valued on the battlefield. For a warjack to pass muster, its connection with its warcaster must be flawless. The warcaster must be able to direct the warjack as though it was an extension of his or her own arm. The magic that binds man and machine together is a complicated thing. There are entire tomes devoted to the underlying theory, but in practice, the central cortex allows for the warjack to feel what the warcaster feels and make autonomous decisions based off of them. Going back to your original question, it does not fully trust you because I do not fully trust you.”
“Well, that’s one way to start the conversation,” the Girl-Who-Lived muttered under her breath.
“Are you surprised?” the question carried no judgment nor malice in it. It was just a question, and perhaps that, more than anything else, was what made Fleur raise her eyebrow, “We have not seen each other for fifteen years. We have been separated, quite literally, by time and space. You do not know me, and I do not know you. There will be awkwardness between us. Maybe even hostility. It is only natural. Expected. Perhaps as time goes on we will gradually become more comfortable in each other’s presence. Reacquaint ourselves, so to speak. But that time is not now.”
Fleur wondered if her expression showed how stunned she was. There was being blunt and there was being this blunt.
Rose’s expression did show how stunned she was.
“If it helps,” Harry continued, “I have not yet found you to be disappointing.”
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, Harry,” the Girl-Who-Lived said sarcastically.
“You’re welcome,” the boy replied, missing the sarcasm entirely.
Rose gazed strangely at him.
“You’re not at all what I imagined my brother would be like.”
Cranking sounds coming from behind the metal panels told them Harry had found a use for the wrench.
“What did you imagine him to be like?”
“Someone who… well… someone who was like me. Someone who liked what I liked and liked doing things I liked to do. But you don’t act or talk that way at all.”
“It’s the culture shock. It’s to be expected. You are used to your culture and I am used to mine. Differences will naturally follow.”
“Mom and dad don’t think so,” Rose said quietly, “They think you’ll fit right in after spending time with us. They’re still caught up in a dream. For the longest time, I was part of that dream. They always put your memory up on a pedestal. Did you know that, Harry? Ever since I was little, it was always ‘Harry wouldn’t have done this’ or ‘Harry would have known better’ when I got in trouble. It was only when I started attending Hogwarts that they started looking at me as their own daughter rather than Harry’s sister. I thought we were in a good place after that. Even with Voldemort lurking in the background. And then you came back.”
“And you wish I never came back?”
“I wish you didn’t have to come back,” the Girl-Who-Lived said softly, “I wish you were here with us from the very beginning.”
The cranking sounds stopped. When the boy next spoke, Fleur thought she detected a hint of melancholy in his tone.
“What is the past is in the past. What matters now is the present. Because what happens in the present will dictate the future.”
“Is that why you’re helping us with Voldemort?”
“That’s one facet, yes,” Harry said as shut the top paneling back into place, “The main reason though, is that in my culture, what he is trying to accomplish here would most likely get a multi-nation crusade declared on him.”
“Why is zat?” Fleur couldn’t help but ask.
“My world’s version of wizards don’t take kindly when a dark being suddenly decides he knows how the world ought to be run and starts putting people in graves because they won’t listen to him,” the boy leapt down from his warjack’s back, clearly finished with the repair work, “The obsession with magical blood purity, the propensity to torture innocents for the fun of it, and the fixation on the belief that being magical makes you inherently superior to those that are not magical are merely egregious compared to that.”
“That’s what I tell everyone every day,” the Girl-Who-Lived threw up her hands, “but nobody listens!”
“I find messages of that nature are better conveyed when you have the strength to back it up,” said Harry as he strode towards them. The boy tossed his wrench back at Rose, who caught it with a slightly surprised look, “Power doesn’t from words. It comes from the barrel of a gun attached to a multi-role combat chassis. The more guns, the better. More armatures wouldn’t hurt either.”
“Well, I didn’t have those things when I was trying to convey my message,” Rose muttered under her breath.
“But now you do,” the boy looked pointedly in her direction.
“Were you serious about overturning some of ze discriminatory laws in magical Britain?” Fleur suddenly asked.
Harry turned to stare at her. The quarter-Veela felt slightly uncomfortable being the target of those burning green eyes.
“Yes,” he said.
“It will be… hard to do. Many of zese laws have been in place for a very long time. Many will oppose you because zey are comfortable with zeir status in society and will not want to see zat change. In France, our government is more liberal but zhere are still laws like those in Britain.”
“That’s where the power coming from the barrel of a gun comes in,” the boy said back. He gestured for Rose to get off the drafting table which she did with a slight grin.
“So what? You’ll force ze issue?”
“I call it persuasion through military means.”
“Forcing the issue by pointing many guns at it.”
Fleur blinked in response.
“You are saying some very outrageous zings right now.”
“Good,” Harry nodded, “It’s about time I’m the one saying the outrageous things and not the other way around.”
“Hey!” Rose picked up the hint instantly, “What’s so outrageous about us?”
“Your society delivers mail by tying them to the legs of a larger-than-average avian species, believes transportation should be done by riding on broomsticks, and hoard literal piles of gold in underground vaults when paper money and bank notes already exist. And when faced with an existential crisis like Voldemort, you elected a man whose last name is synonymous with a baked good.”
“This is coming from the guy who programmed his giant magical robots to act like guard dogs,” Rose shot back.
“I didn’t say my society wasn’t outrageous,” Harry leaned over the drafting table, “I just said yours was.”
“Does your society not have… ah… magical discrimination?” Fleur pressed, “You speak like ze very idea is distasteful to you.”
“There will always be prejudice against the unknown,” the boy said offhandedly, “It is the natural order of things,” he picked up a pencil and twirled it absentmindedly in his hand, “But if you are asking if there is systematic discrimination towards other magical species in my world, then of that, there is comparatively little. The Iron Kingdoms are fairly cavalier in their regard to interspecies relations. If you have talent, especially if it pertains to matters related to war, then you have value. Cygnar is perhaps the best example of a human kingdom that follows this reasoning. It has numerous port-cities that conducts trade with nations such as Rhul whose population are not human at all. This has steered Cygnaran culture to become rather cosmopolitan, which in turn has attracted other species to live within its borders. You’ll find entire dwarven clans operating within the main cities of Cygnar, while trollkin and ogrun alike serve ably and valuably in the Cygnaran military.”
“That sounds like a nice place to live,” the quarter-Veela murmured.
“Yes,” said Harry as he began sketching on the large piece of parchment fastened to the table, “Besides the hordes of slit-nosed pain fetishists trying to gut it from the east, the swarms of undead mechanikal abominations trying to harvest it from the south, the masses of obsessively angry northmen trying to subjugate it from the north, and the occasional civil war to decide the rights of royal succession, Cygnar is indeed a nice place to live.”
Fleur turned towards Rose and wrinkled her nose.
“Is he being serious? I can’t quite tell.”
“I have no idea,” the Girl-Who-Lived deadpanned.
“Why do you want to know?” the boy said above the faint, methodical scratching his pencil produced, “Why are you interested in what my society thinks about magical beings?”
A mischievous look appeared over Rose’s face.
“Fleur here can’t find a job because of magical discrimination,” she said for the quarter-Veela.
“Zat’s not all of it,” Fleur huffed, “Veela are treated as objects to be stared at by wizards. Witches also don’t trust us because zey zink we steal their boyfriends and husbands. Zough I have only a quarter of ze bloodline, I have encountered similar treatment before. It has only gotten worse after ze Dark Lord’s return,” she sighed, “But I wouldn’t say no to a job right about now.”
“Is that so?” Harry muttered. He had produced a ruler and compass from somewhere and was using both to draw geometrically perfect shapes on the parchment.
“Yes. My mother has warned me before about some of zis treatment, but I did not take her seriously until now. My father has in the past lobbied for better treatment for magical races but hasn’t had any success. He is a mid-level government official in ze French Ministry and is seeking higher office to try and push some of zese laws through. No one is willing to back his candidacy, however. Since everyone seems to be asking for your opinion,” the quarter-Veela sent the boy a good-natured look, “what would you do in his situation?”
One thing Fleur Delacour was about to learn about Harry Potter was not that he was quite good at multi-tasking, but he was alarmingly proficient at it. The boy immediately launched into a ten-minute dissertation that began with her father slowly gathering support from disaffected voting blocs and ended up with him as Minister of Magic of France and literally sitting on top of a throne made up of his defeated enemies. And all the while continuing to draw on the parchment tacked onto the drafting table as though it was a perfectly natural thing to do while discussing the toppling of established government entities.
“And that’s what I would do if I were in your father’s situation,” Harry finished. Emerald eyes flickered up towards her, “You’re taking notes,” he observed.
Fleur blushed slightly. She had taken out a small notebook sometime halfway through his speech and had begun writing into the pages.
“Some of zose ideas are actually very good,” she told him, “Zough I can do without ze… ah… predetermined assassinations of political enemies part.”
The boy-turned-warcaster set his pencil down.
“Those are contingency plans. If your father follows phase one through eight thoroughly, there will not be any need for any assassinations.”
Rose looked at her brother and then at Fleur.
“Harry, did you just come up with a plan to overthrow the French Ministry of Magic while drawing a picture of your giant magical robot?”
“It is not just a picture,” said Fleur as she stared at what was displayed on the parchment. She could quite clearly see the specifications listed beside the drawing.
“Correct,” Harry replied, “This is a schematic. A blueprint. For a specific type of warjack chassis. The various kingdoms produce their own types of warjacks with each having their own role to play on the battlefield. I am familiar enough with all of them to have a rough idea of what they should like on the inside.”
“How many types are you planning to draw?” asked Rose.
It was then that Fleur noticed there was a significant amount of parchment waiting to be used on the drafting table.
“All of them,” said Harry.
“I can’t believe we pulled that off!” the resistance fighter says eagerly.
“You made that old Nomad of yours dance!” another pats him on the back.
“Two Juggernauts against an old tin can like yours and you still made them eat dirt!” a bearded old veteran grins, “Damndest thing I ever saw!”
“We’ve got our own warcasting prodigy is what we got,” the resistance fighter says through the mouthful of rations he’s shoved into his mouth.
Around him, dozens of dirty, bedraggled soldiers sit amongst the ruins of the destroyed Khadoran supply convoy. For many, this will be the first full meal they’ve had in weeks.
The noise dies down as the woman approaches. The fierce battlelight he has seen shining in her eyes has faded to a dim glimmer.
He rises to greet her. Out of courtesy but also out of respect.
The woman reaches out with a gauntleted hand and tousles his hair affectionately.
“Be more careful, next time,” she tells him before walking away.
The noise returns once she is out of earshot, but it is a different kind of noise.
“You’ve got the Queen’s approval now,” the resistance fighter winks at him.
“The Queen?” he asks.
“She’s not queen now,” another soldier answers him, “but she will be when we take back our country.”
“There’s no other choice,” a third soldier nods.
“And none better,” a fourth declares.
“Now that you have her approval,” the resistance fighter says, “we’ll need to call you something else. We can’t keep calling you ‘kid’. Not after what you’ve done today,” the man snaps his fingers, “I’ve got it. Our queen was a duelist before this war and a duelist always needs her sword. We’ve already got a Queen of Llael. Now we’ve got a sword. The Sword of Llael!”
The soldiers around him get to their feet. They are tired, defeated men with no country and no home. Nonetheless, they pump their fists into the air.
“The Sword of Llael!” they cheer the name, as though it was worth anything to cheer about.
“I hope you’ll forgive me if I say all of this is very peculiar,” the company executive scratched at his slightly balding scalp, “Don’t get me wrong, our company welcomes your business, but you have to understand this isn’t something we usually do. The ammunition won’t be a problem,” the man nudged his head towards the Metal Storm Chain Gun shell sitting on his desk, “I’ve never seen a round in this caliber, but we’ve got contractors who can rebore their machines. They can start churning them out tomorrow if you’d like. But those schematics you sent me… I’m sorry, but what were you trying to use these things for again?”
“For a steamed bun amusement park,” James immediately said.
Seated next to the wizard, Vernon gripped the armrests of his extravagantly decorated chair so hard they creaked.
“For a steampunk amusement park,” the portly man amended with a faint growl.
“Right, that’s the part that confuses me. If it’s just amusement park attractions you want made, the far easier route is to go with animatronics. There’s no real need to go this much into detail.”
“No,” said Harry from his place seated between James and Vernon, “There is a real need to go this much into detail.”
The company executive held up his hands placatingly.
“Hey, far be it from me to tell you how to spend your money. If you want us to go into detail, we can go into detail. Heck, we can even replicate all those strange markings you want done on the inside of the hulls. All I’m saying is that if you’re just trying to scare some kids on a ride, you can do it cheaper with animatronics.”
“I am not looking for cheaper. I am looking for quality. What comes out your factories must match my specifications exactly.”
The man shrugged.
“Music to my ears. It’ll be expensive. That’s my only warning to you. Especially those odd devices you want made in a separate batch. What were they called again?”
“Right. Those cortexes will be half the production cost alone. You can source high quality steel from any steel mill these days, but the rare earth minerals you requested to be part of their construction will be harder to obtain.”
“But it can be done?” Harry looked the man in the eye.
“Oh sure. Lots of countries sell rare earth minerals. We’ll have to import most of them and pay duty fees on top of shipping fees, but if price isn’t an issue, then I don’t see a reason why we couldn’t get it done. Though I got to say, with the amount of orders you’re wanting us to complete, why, it’s almost as though if you’re trying to build an army of these things!”
“Yes,” Harry said, missing the humor in the man’s voice entirely, “That is exactly what I’m trying to do.”
“For the amusement park,” Vernon said quickly.
“Yes,” James nodded along, “For the punk steam amusement park.”
“Still can’t wrap my head around that,” the company executive smiled, “And you’re wanting weapons to be mounted on these things too?”
“Will that be a problem?” Harry enquired.
“Not at all. Plenty of militaries around the world have surplus sales each year. It will be a relatively simple affair to source small arms for your project. Larger armaments may be an issue, but if you’re serious about all this, I’ve got a contact in the Ukraine who may be of help. Ever since the Soviet Union broke apart, their various armies have been trying to get rid of their excess military stock. Cold War goods. Automatic rifles, light machine guns, mortars, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, heavy ordnance. You name it, they got it. And all for pennies on the dollar too. Only place I know where if you buy five tanks they’ll give you one for free.”
“I would like to visit this place,” said Harry with a glint in his eye.
“Not a problem. It can be arranged at a later date and I’ll be happy to take you gentlemen.”
“And these weapons will work once they are mounted on the armature itself? I do not want compatibility issues to occur after the manufacturing process is complete.”
“You can field check the weapons yourself. Doubt there will be any issues though. They’re real weapons,” an amused look appeared over the man’s face, “What? Are the amusement park attractions going to start shooting at people?” he joked.
“Of course not,” Vernon chuckled sycophantically.
“Definitely not,” James laughed along, though he looked like he wasn’t sure what he was laughing about.
“Only if they deserve it,” said Harry seriously.
The executive looked at the boy in bemusement before turning to the two older men in the room.
“I like your kid. He’s got a sharp sense of humor. Reminds me of me and my pa. Back in the old days, we started a company together and sold it off to some bigshot corporation out in New York. Landed me the position where I’m at today. It’s good to see another successful business being run by a tight-knit family. Keep it in the family, I always say. Isn’t that right, Vernon? That’s what your old boss told me you did.”
“Yes. That’s exactly it,” said Vernon, relieved, “We’re a family business. I’m the director, of course.”
“Exactly,” added James helpfully, “We sell grills together. At Drummings.”
“We sell grills together at Drummings to the steampunk amusement park,” said Harry Potter.
“That’s… a weird business model,” the executive said with a slight frown.
“Because we’re very tight-knit,” Vernon hastily said, “We make it work. Because we’re so close.”
“Very close,” James emphasized, “In fact, we’re so close that every year when my daughter is about to leave for school, Vernon is there to see her off at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Isn’t that right, Vernon?”
“Yes,” Vernon said through gritted teeth, “Every year I go to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters to wave goodbye to my niece and all the frea… interesting people.”
The executive nodded, clearly satisfied.
“That’s what I like to hear. Extended family is still family. And obviously you’re making it work if you can afford a project of this scale.”
“How soon can you start?” Harry asked the man when he was finished.
“Well, that’s the thing. We are currently in the bidding process for a few government jobs and so far, we’re expecting to get them. It’s all high-grade stuff and they will take precedence over your project. One of our principle clients will be the United States Armed Forces, for example. Accounting for that in our schedule, and I think we can start on a working prototype within a full calendar year. If you are pleased with the prototype, industry standards predict that mass production will usually occur within two to three years.”
The boy looked at James and then at Vernon. He nodded at both of them.
At the signal, James lifted the heavyset suitcase by his feet and placed it on the executive’s desk. He unlatched the locks and swung the case around.
The man stared at the contents.
“He has more of these cases in the back of the car,” Vernon said sourly.
The executive looked back at them.
“How soon can you start?” Harry repeated.
“At once,” the man said.
She knew what she did would eventually plant a target on her back.
When the First Wizarding War ended, she had spent much of her time and most of her political influence haranguing the upper echelons of the Ministry of Magic to further persecute the Death Eaters. She had failed. In an act of unprecedented mercy, the judiciary branch of the Ministry had granted either full or partial clemency to many of the Dark Lord’s followers. Some went to Azkaban, but far more, especially the wealthy and influential, walked free. Bartemius Crouch, an old ally, had been apoplectic.
She had always suspected Albus Dumbledore had a hand in all of this. The great wizard had never publicly stated his intentions towards the remnants of Voldemort’s inner circle, but his commitment to leniency was known to all. It was an act she would never forgive him for, not even when the aged headmaster had reached out years later to try and set things right. That man, as she had come to call him privately, had tried recruiting her into the reorganized Order of the Phoenix, an offer she had rebuffed with scathing words that came inches close to insulting.
The old Order had taken her brother from her. Killed in battle at the height of the war. For his meritorious service, the Death Eaters had come into his home and murdered his wife, his son, and his family. Her family.
She had watched the bodies of her loved ones be carried out by Aurors off the steps of their own manor. She idly wondered who would be the ones to carry her body down those same steps.
The fact that the wards in her rune-secured home failed to warn her didn’t surprise her in the least. Betrayal was rife in the Ministry these days. Besides being paralyzed with indecision over Voldemort’s return, there was the unspoken but very real threat of infiltration by his followers. As far as she was concerned, it had already happened.
There were steps taken to prevent this outcome, of course. As the next Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement after Barty Couch, she had done all she could to make her organization an oasis of competency and efficiency amid the bureaucratic quagmire that was the British Ministry of Magic. And unlike Couch who used the department only as a platform to increase his own popularity, she had focused on hiring good people, promoting skilled ones, and building a team spirit rarely seen in other divisions of the Ministry. The quiet competence of Magical Law Enforcement had restored the confidence of the people in the government, but an arm of the government was still only just that, an arm. If the head, body, and organs of the government decayed, there was little one extremity could do besides watch the flesh around it rot.
Cornelius Fudge and previous unqualified ministers and deputy ministers like him were the rot. Complacency and the resistance to change within the wizarding population were the diseases causing the rot. And Voldemort? All Voldemort needed to do was to swoop in once the entire system had collapsed and pick up the pieces.
This was what galled her the most. That despite doing everything correctly and as it should have been done, the wizarding government would still fall due to the actions of others. That despite carrying her position with the efficiency and grace as one would expect from her station, other officials elected by a forgetful populace would gradually outrank her and undo the hard work she and her department had done.
What galled her was that she would most likely go to her grave knowing that she had done all she could do within her power to prevent a repeat of Voldemort’s rise and still fail solely because of factors outside her control.
The footsteps grew louder as they moved from the top of her manor’s staircase towards her bedroom hallway. There was no attempt at silence. These were not the footsteps of would-be assassins furtively sneaking into her home for an attempt on her life. These footsteps were confident. Assured. They were the hallmark of a dedicated kill squad knowingly intruding into her manor with the express purpose of finishing their assignment.
She sighed and rose from her bed, still in her nightclothes. A flick of her fingers turned on the lights. The footsteps didn’t cease when the lights came on. If anything, they became faster.
She reached for the cane next to her bedside table. Her back had started hurting ever since she learned of Voldemort’s resurrection and no remedy magical or nonmagical had worked. Perhaps it was premonition of things to come. Perhaps it wasn’t. She doubted she would ever have a chance to find out.
Tired of having her Aurors delegated to tasks unbefitting of their profession, she had rammed through legislation that would given the elite Dark Wizard catchers sweeping powers and complete independent from the normal branch of Magical Law Enforcement. It was legislation not unlike those that were proposed by Couch all those years ago. Couch had the benefit of a government thoroughly desperate for an answer to Voldemort’s terror, however, and while the current Ministry was just as cowed as it was before, there were certain elements within its ranks who were very much interested in pretending the Dark Lord’s resurrection had never happened.
The law she was pressing the Wizengamot to pass would take weeks of debate on the floor. And by parliamentary members who had a vested interest in keeping it from being passed.
She didn’t have weeks. She didn’t even have minutes. By forcing the issue, she had made the target on her back much larger.
This was why they were here. This was why they were outside her door.
The door to her bedroom flew open with a bang.
She would not give them the benefit of catching her unprepared.
As the assailants flooded into the room, it was to see an old woman seated primly on the edge of her bed, both hands clasped firmly over the top of her cane.
“So you’re finally here,” said Amelia Bones to the Death Eaters pointing their wands at her, “Let’s get this over with.”
More masked faces greeted her when she came down the stairs. Three dozen Death Eaters, their forms still besides the occasional flutter of a tattered cloak, waited for her in the atrium of the Bones Family Manor. They watched her through the slits in their masks, silent as the grave.
“It appears I’ve drawn quite a crowd,” Amelia said offhandedly.
“Shut it,” one of the Death Eaters growled beneath his mask.
Amelia felt the tip of his wand dig deeper into her back.
“There’s no need for that,” she scolded him, “I can walk on my own.”
“Do as she says,” another admonished, “She’s a respected foe, not some muggle garbage you take out with the trash.”
“The Dark Lord---” the rude Death Eater threatened.
“The Dark Lord was clear that she be treated as the descendant of an Ancient and Magical House,” the polite one snapped back, “So either stop with your bullheaded threats or answer to him personally.”
The wand at Amelia’s back gave way. She nodded in the direction of the more helpful of the pair.
“Of course, Madam Bones,” the man who would very likely be her executioner inclined his head.
With the help of her cane, she began to descend down the steps. The Death Eaters at the bottom waited in eerie silence. They way their heads followed her every movement resembled a pack of jackals anticipating the last breath from some dying herd animal.
They parted ranks as she approached, giving her room. She stopped when she was in the middle of them, a lone, solitary figure in the center of a circle of sworn enemies. Blank masks stared at her from all directions.
“So, this is how it ends,” she said to no one in particular.
“It didn’t have to end this way,” the polite Death Eater who was clearly their leader said. His tone was almost apologetic, “The wizarding world will miss a witch of your caliber and ability. The Dark Lord believes it to be a shame that you were never able to see eye to eye with him.”
“Your Dark Lord murdered my entire family,” Amelia smiled tightly, “Seeing eye to eye with him is the last thing I will ever to do.”
“The Dark Lord regrets that some actions had to be taken to guarantee pureblood supremacy,” the masked figure replied evenly, “But to create a world where the magical is ascendant over the nonmagical, some things had to be done. The Dark Lord grieves that you will not join him in ushering this new age. You could have done great things at his side, Madam Bones. Your magical prowess and bloodline are both things he respects greatly.”
“Is that why he sent forty of his underlings to the home of an old woman?”
“The Dark Lord wishes to convey his respect for you through this show of force. Your death shall be at the hands of an army, not a meagre hit squad.”
“Or the rumors are true and your Dark Lord got embarrassed enough in his own mansion that he’s afraid of doing anything without the assurance of overwhelming numbers.”
Amelia enjoyed the way the Death Eaters around her twitched ever so slightly.
“I can assure you that rumors are only just that, rumors,” their leader managed to maintain the evenness in his tone, “Now, if everything is in order, are you prepared for what is to come?”
“Tell me one thing first,” Amelia said with a faint tilt of her head, “How did you get past my wards? Only myself and some of my closest allies know how to deactivate them.”
Her executioner shrugged.
“There’s no harm in telling a dead woman the cause of her death,” he made a beckoning motion and one of the Death Eaters stepped into the circle, “Someone as revered and respected as you, Madam Bones, deserves to know the reason behind your failure.”
The newcomer removed his mask. Amelia looked him in the eye and sighed.
“Wilkins,” she said to her assistant, “You stupid boy.”
The young man’s handsome features were flushed with guilt. He ran a nervous hand through the tussles of his brown hair.
“I… I tried Madam Bones. I tried to turn you to our side. All the suggestions I made, hoping you would pick up on them. All the insinuations I tried to make you understand. But you were too stubborn! You were just too stubborn! The Dark Lord is creating a new world order! He’s creating something great for the wizarding world! He wanted me and you to be a part of it. But you refused! I just couldn’t let you stand by and refuse!”
Amelia’s gaze never left her assistant’s face.
“You stupid boy,” she repeated.
“Don’t say that, Madam Bones! I didn’t want this to happen! I didn’t want any of this to happen! But the Dark Lord is unstoppable! His power is immeasurable! He will take over the Ministry and then the magical world! He will usher in an age where the magical will rightfully control the nonmagical! We have the blood of ancient bloodlines coursing through our veins, Madam Bones! We deserve ascendancy over muggles because we are already ascendant over them! We deserve better because we are already better than them!”
Amelia reached out with a trembling hand and touched the young man’s cheek.
“Stupid boy,” she murmured.
Her assistant jerked back. His face lost the guilty look and became ugly with vehemence.
“You don’t have a right to say that! I’m the smart one! I saw early on which was the winning side and joined them! But you! You’re just a relic of the past! And the Dark Lord’s new age doesn’t have any places for a relic of the past!”
“Oh, Wilkins,” Amelia smiled sadly at him, “Can’t you see what you’ve done to yourself?”
The young man’s face contorted in honest confusion and for a moment Amelia forgot about his betrayal. All that was in front of her was the bright-eyed, innocent youngster fresh from Hogwarts and eager to make his mark on the world.
“Madam Bones? I-I don’t understand.”
“Now that you’ve done everything they told you to do, what more use do they have for you?”
The man’s eyes widened in realization. The green flash of the Killing Curse smashed into his back a split-instant later. Time seemed to slow. Her assistant slowly, slowly began to pitch forward, eyes perpetually wide in shock, eyes that will never close naturally again. Amelia fought the human urge to catch him as he fell. Her own eyes were closed when the dull thud of his body hitting the floor reached her ears.
When she opened them again, her assistant was lying face first on the ground in front of her.
“The Dark Lord,” the leader of the kill squad said, “has no need for servants who betray their masters.”
“For that,” she looked up from the body at her feet and into the faceless, blank mask, “I am going to kill all of you instead of just some of you.”
“Yes,” she could almost hear the smirk in the Death Eater’s tone, “That is why the Dark Lord sent us. For you to expend your last vestiges of wrath before the inevitable end. You will go down fighting, Madam Bones. History will record it so. But you will go down fighting knowing that all your efforts are for naught and you have achieved nothing in preventing His rise.”
She smiled slightly at the arrogance emanating from the words.
“All these years, and the Dark Lord’s lackeys are still the same. Brash, imprudent, and missing any form of tactical sense,” her gaze travelled calmly around the atrium, “Has it ever crossed your mind that I am in this sorry position because I allowed myself to be?”
The lead Death Eater started. He took an instinctive step back.
Amelia tapped her cane against the floor three times.
She may have distrusted Dumbledore for his leniency towards their shared foe, but she would be a fool to disregard him entirely. In better days, that signal would have been carried through hidden runeways in her home to alert the Order of the Phoenix. In better days, she could have expected Order members to be Apparating in within seconds, wands out and ready for a fight. Great wizards and witches like the Prewetts and her own brother, Edgar, willing to sacrifice their own lives and ended up sacrificing their own lives to defy Voldemort’s tyranny.
But alas, those were better days. And with the Order of the Phoenix having been all but sidelined by the resurging tide of darkness, the most she could do with this last act was to warn Albus Dumbledore of her impeding death. All she could do was to buy several seconds of confusion from her foes, seconds she would use to inflict as much possible damage as she could before the sheer volume of wands being pointed at her tore down whatever magical protection she could conjure.
“Poor Susan,” was her last thought as her wand slipped into her palm. The name of the first curse was already on her lips.
And then she felt it. A tremendous swelling of force. A great distortion in the magical runeways. Something answering her warning.
There was no distinctive pop that came with a normal human Apparation. It was a gut-deep boom that shattered the windows of her manor and upended furniture with its sheer concussive force.
The first construct materialized out of thin air.
It was a towering giant, twelve feet tall from the bottom of its mechanical feet to the top of the belching smokestacks on its back. Fiery, intelligent eyes burned on a face of wrought iron and bronze, and as it Apparated fully onto the hardwood floor of Bones Manor, it splintered the wooden paneling like it was kindling.
Below each of its two enormous fists, multi-barreled muggle cannons began to spin.
The Death Eaters around her backed away in alarm. Just in time for the second construct to materialize into reality.
Unlike the first, which possessed a sliver of élan, this one was all brute aggression and belligerence rolled into one hulking, mechanical frame. The bulldog head, slung beneath its massive shoulders, shook with barely suppressed violence. The massive axes it clenched between its gigantic fingers looked like they could hack through the thick bulging neck of a Ukrainian Ironbelly.
The deep, growling sounds that came from its iron gullet sounded like laughter.
The Death Eaters around her fell back from this new monstrosity and some, in their haste, tripped over the hems of their own robes.
The third made no noise as it shook off the effects of temporal displacement. One of its arms was given way to an immense harpoon launcher. The other was an enlarged stabbing implement, shaped and fashioned like the serrated scything talons of a preying mantis. Its sloped back, bare and sleek, resembled the hardbody shell of some oversized crustacean.
Drops of viscous oil or what may have been drool oozed from its clacking, insectoid mandibles.
The Death Eaters around her made simultaneous noises of dismay.
The last construct landed closest to her. By chance, it Apparated an armlength away from her, a colossus of belching steam and coal-fired wrath. The mace that was its armament of choice bristled with spikes and as the machine-construct reared up to its full height, gaps left within the massive weapon lit up with magical fire.
Amelia stood her ground fearlessly as the titan swiveled its head to glare at her. The motion, jerky and mechanical as it was, still vaguely parodied the fundamentals of human movement.
“Well,” she said to the behemoth’s brass and steel face, “aren’t you the ugliest bastard I’ve ever met?”
The reply she received was a blast of warm steam that buffeted her entire body. Amelia nodded and tapped her cane lightly against the automata’s plated chest.
“Quite so,” she tossed her head back towards Voldemort’s followers, frozen in fear, “Nonetheless, it seems I have a Death Eater problem. I don’t suppose you’ll be the one to lend me a hand, would you?”
“No,” the voice answered her.
The boy emerged from the ranks of shocked Death Eaters. His breastplate shone with a hundred winking runes and his frayed cloak was woven in a way that no wizarding cloak would ever be, yet his presence was rendered merely ordinary by the giants he had brought with him. As he stepped out of the circle of masked figures, he flicked his sword downwards in a dispassionate gesture.
Splatters of blood landed on the immaculate floors of the Bones Family Manor.
The Death Eaters nearest to him dropped to the ground like marionettes whose strings had been suddenly cut.
Emerald green eyes flickered upwards to meet Amelia’s own.
“But I will.”
“That was your son?”
James floundered slightly under Madam Bones’ gaze. All wizards and witches did. Amelia was a legend. Not only for the things she did during the First Great War, but also for the things she did after. It was pillars of strength like her and Dumbledore who managed to pull together the shattered remnants of the wizarding government into something resembling a cohesive governing body. Many within magical society would try to follow her footsteps and inevitably fail.
She was also the only one to make it clear to him in no uncertain terms that he would not receive any preferential treatment for being the parent of the children who had vanquished the Dark Lord.
She had no idea how much his esteem for her shot up after that.
“Yes,” James said for a lack of better things to say.
“And explain to me one more time how he went from the Boy-Who-Disappeared to the Boy-Who’s-Suddenly-Here?” there was only a slight undercurrent of sarcasm in Amelia’s tone.
“Well, we were in a nasty fight with Death Eaters when good old Harry decidedly that it would be a grand time to show up with his four warjack buddies.”
James didn’t try to correct his friend’s embellishments because for the most part, they were true.
“Warjacks,” Madam Bones repeated, “That is what those things are called.”
“From what we gather,” James replied, “they are.”
“And you don’t find it worrying that a boy barely in his teens runs around with four dangerous constructs built clearly for the sole purpose of war?”
“I find it immensely worrying,” the eldest Potter said, “and so does my wife,” by his side, Lily bit her lips, “But at the same time, something tells me Harry wouldn’t agree if I told him to ah… stop running around with his warjacks.”
“Something tells me he wouldn’t agree if you just called him a teenager either,” murmured Remus.
“Yes,” Amelia said bluntly, “I know what he is. A soldier. A child soldier,” the woman sighed at the Potters’ expressions, “I know you don’t like the phrase, James, but that is exactly what he is right now. A child whose profession is dedicated to making war.”
“I am… still struggling with the concept,” Lily admitted.
“You might struggle with it, but the fact of the matter is that child soldiers are not an unknown concept to us. Despite how much it repulses us today, it is only in recent history that we began to do away with the practice entirely. The muggles still had children in their armies up until the turn of the century. Some countries still do, if I’ve caught up with my muggle news. Isn’t that right, Lily?”
The woman started before slowly nodding.
“You’re right… Some countries… Rogue states if you will, still use child soldiers. The U.N. is trying to do something about it, but in most cases, their hands are tied.”
“Seeing that you are more familiar with the subject, what do you make of your son?”
“I… I don’t know,” Lily wrung her hands wearily, “He hasn’t opened up to us. He still sleeps outside. With his warjacks.”
Amelia sighed again and James noticed that some of the earlier harshness on her face had started to fade.
“Soldiers are all like that. They like to keep to themselves. Sometimes they like to keep too much to themselves. I had classmates who joined the Global Wizarding War. Some who joined Grindelwald’s side and some who joined Dumbledore’s. Bright young witches and wizards fresh out of schools like Hogwarts. Many never returned. Those that did… They never were completely the same again.”
“We will try our best,” James vowed and Lilly nodded vehemently by his side.
“Sometimes your best isn’t good enough,” Amelia said softly.
“And what?” James bristled, temporarily forgetting that the woman he was arguing against was his superior in every sense of the word, “We should just stop trying entirely? Is that what you’re telling us to do, Madam Bones?”
“Not at all,” his counterpart replied evenly, “and I would think less of you if you did. But forcing him to adapt to our ways and to an extent forcing him back into your family will not be effective in the long run. What kind of world must he have endured where commanding these warjacks is necessary? What kind of culture must he have come from where war using these mechanical constructs is to be expected? What kind of parental figures must he have had to turn him from what he was before into what he is now? Those are the questions you should be asking. He’s a boy-soldier. A boy and a soldier. Don’t think you can divorce one from the other. You won’t be able to and chances are he won’t let you. But try to understand where he comes from, try to understand his point of view, and you’ll get farther than most,” Amelia looked at him meaningfully, “Get to know the soldier and you’ll get to know the boy in good time.”
“I… understand, Madam Bones.”
“I know you do, James,” the woman patted his arm reassuringly, “And on that note, you can tell Nymphadora she’s not fooling anyone under that Invisibility Cloak.”
James managed to keep a straight face as a slight rustling noise arose from behind them. A sheepish looking Nymphadora Tonks emerged from beneath the silvery sheen that was the Potters’ family heirloom.
“Uhhh… Wotcher, everyone?”
Sirius stared at Amelia, impressed.
“How could you tell?”
The woman made a huffing sound.
“I know all my Aurors like the back of my hand, Mr. Black. Especially when one of them has been taking repeated sick leaves to go on secret missions for the Order,” Tonks quailed slightly at the hard look she was being given, “I also know that as one of the few potential allies he has left, Dumbledore would have wanted me watched and guarded at all times. You’re too high-profile for that type of work, James. It had to be someone young and unknown, preferably someone freshly inducted into the Auror ranks.”
Tonks winced at each word as though they were physical blows.
“How long have you known I was tailing you?”
“Since the day you started,” Amelia nodded and then smiled slightly at the Metamorphmagus’ crestfallen expression, “Not to be insulting dear, but you sound like two trash bins crashing together under that Invisibility Cloak.”
“That’s my cousin in a nutshell,” Sirius teased.
“I told Dumbledore I wasn’t suited for this job,” Tonks muttered.
“Dumbledore doesn’t have the manpower to pick and choose who to send on missions,” Amelia reprimanded her, “And he still won’t when I requisition one of his Order members for my personal use.”
“Oh,” said Tonks when she realized what the sentence meant, “Oh,” she said again when she realized what it actually meant.
“After the events of tonight, I find myself in need of a new assistant,” the Head of Magical Law Enforcement glared appraisingly at the young woman standing in front of her, “Congratulations, Nymphadora. You’re it. You can expect no increase in pay, long hours, and the gift that keeps on giving in the form of working with the Ministry bureaucracy.”
“Ah… Madam Bones…” stammered Tonks, “It’s not that I’m not honored… I’m actually totally honored! But I need to inform Dumbledore of what’s happened before I can make a decision!”
“If Albus Dumbledore learns that you gave up an opportunity to become the direct assistant of the Head of Magical Law Enforcement with the ability to relay everything you see and hear back to the Order of the Phoenix, he’ll throw you out the Order himself. Now pick and choose, Nymphadora. I don’t have all day.”
The Metamorphmagus turned to her fellow Order members for support who shrugged back at her. She turned back to Amelia.
“Good,” the woman flicked her wand over her shoulder and a vanilla-colored folder soared out from a nearby desk into her new assistant’s surprised hands, “Now be a dear and help me fill that out.”
Tonks opened the folder hesitantly to find a quill already located within. Her eyes widened as they roamed over the contents.
“Madam Bones… This is…”
“I know what it is, and you should as well. You should have filled out something very similar when you joined the Aurors.”
“I think I know where you’re going with this, Amelia,” James interrupted, “and I’m not sure I like it.”
His superior regarded him coldly.
“Tonight, a Death Eater hit squad just tried to murder me in my own bed. The wards that had kept them out of my house and incidentally Nymphadora out as well, failed to do anything whatsoever. The architect of my betrayal was my own personal assistant, who I treated and trusted like a son. If the Death Eaters swayed him to their side, then I can only surmise that the entire Ministry has been compromised. There may be turncoats within our department, as far as I’m concerned. Can you imagine such a thing, James? Death Eaters and Voldemort-sympathizers within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.”
“I… understand our plight, Madam Bones, but Harry…”
“Is a soldier. He’s your boy and he’s your son, but he’s a soldier. The Dark Lord, in his own words, sent an ‘army’ to execute me out of some perverted notion of respect. I saw your son and his constructs cut through that same army like a hot knife through butter. It’s a muggle saying but I believe the meaning is applicable here. Even as we speak, that boy and his warjacks are running to ground the remnants of that army in the forest at the back of my estate. Those same wards that let those Death Eaters in are now what’s keeping them from Apparating out.”
Some of those present shivered at the grim satisfaction that had crept into Amelia’s tone. James closed his eyes and thought of an answer he could give that would satisfy both parties.
“I think this will be Harry’s decision,” he finally sighed, “and not ours.”
Amelia nodded, respecting his choice.
“Then let us ask the boy directly, shall we?”
They heard the constructs first before they saw them. The hiss of mechanical servos and the stomp of mechanized feet were unmistakable. Harry emerged from one of the several warjack-sized holes smashed into the walls of the Bones Family Manor. His cloak and lower garments were stained intermittently with mud, dirtied from pursuing the Death Eaters in the thick undergrowth of the forest. Looking at his son now, James was reminded of an old hunting tradition his father had once told him the muggles used to employ. Of how trackers would set trained bloodhounds on hapless prey until their quarry was backed helplessly into a corner. He wasn’t sure why he made the comparison now, but it seemed apt.
Out of all the Order members present, only Tonks had not yet seen the Boy-Who-Reappeared. The young Metamorphmagus’s eyes danced with mischief as she addressed the newest arrival.
“Wotcher, Harry,” they became much less mischievous at the sight of what followed him, “Wotcher… ah… Harry’s warjacks.”
James was familiar by now with the menacing automata that shadowed his son’s every movement to at least know their names and classification. First came the Crusader with its great flaming mace. Then came the Berserker, grunting like a maddened bull. Third was the Cyclone, whose true killing power came not from its massive fists but the gatling cannons attached below. Last was the Reaper who James liked the least, solely for the fact that its design and appearance was so radically different from the rest.
Over one of the Crusader’s broad shoulders was slung a human form. At Harry’s gesture, the giant machine unceremoniously dropped the body from a height of at least ten feet. Everyone present except for Amelia flinched.
“This one might be useful,” Harry indicated the unconscious Death Eater he had dumped in front of them, “He was their leader.”
“What happened to the others?” Sirius looked like he didn’t want to know but felt compelled to ask.
“Grunts never know anything besides who employed them and what they’re being paid. It was not worth the extra effort to capture them alive.”
“And you know this from experience?” Remus questioned.
The boy looked at the man who technically was still his godfather.
“Yes,” he said.
“See what I mean?” she said to the others before turning to Harry, “Nymphadora, the folder please.”
Tonks handed the binder back to who now was her direct superior. Her gaze, however, remained riveted on the enormous hulks of steam and steel.
“I filled out most of it, Madam Bones, but there are still some spaces left.”
“It will do for now,” the woman replied before gracefully offering it to the boy in question, “Harry Potter, contained within this folder are the application forms to join the Auror Task Forces of Magical Britain. In normal conditions, you would be far below the legal minimum age to be accepted into such an elite and dangerous organization. However due to extenuating circumstances, I have decided to waive that age limit with the power invested in me as the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. As such, you will possess a temporary rank within the independent enforcement branch of the Ministry. In addition, due to your… talents… in these trying times, you will be afforded a range of wide-sweeping powers that are normally not given to Aurors. I remind you that this position and the powers that come with it are only temporary, unless you specifically choose to complete a magical education suitable to a person of your age, in which case they become permanent. I expect this application to be filled out and on my desk first thing in the morning.”
Harry took the binder from her hands. He looked at it and then at her. He turned towards his family.
“I like her.”
The corners of Amelia’s mouth quirked slightly upwards.
“The feeling is mutual, Mr. Potter. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must attend to my affairs at the Ministry. Those that still care about the fate of Magical Britain must know of the attack on my manor. James, I trust you know what to do with this Death Eater?”
“Standard interrogation procedures, ma’am,” James returned smartly, “I’ll see to it that it gets done swiftly and efficiently.”
“Very good,” Amelia nodded, “Now come along, Nymphadora. There are many things you’ll need to know if you want to keep your position as my assistant and the best time to learn was yesterday.”
The younger woman eagerly trailed after her.
“Um, I know it isn’t in my place to ask, Madam Bones,” they all heard her say, “But would it be possible for you to call me Tonks? I just prefer it over my full name.”
They also all heard Amelia’s reply, brief and concise, as it always was.
“Not in your lifetime, Nymphadora.”
The two disappeared with a crack as they Apparated out the manor, leaving behind a few flummoxed members of the Order, four heavy warjacks and their master, and one very unconscious Death Eater.
“Well, that just happened,” summarized Remus.
“Does this make you the youngest ever person to join the Aurors or the youngest ever person to be drafted by the Aurors?” Sirius’s tone suggested he was only half-kidding.
James took the folder out of his son’s hands good-naturedly.
“If you outrank me…” he opened the binder and then closed it just as quickly, “Yup. You outrank me.”
“Don’t worry, Drain,” said Harry Potter in complete seriousness as he took the folder back from his father’s hands, “I won’t make you call me ‘sir’ until after the rank becomes permanent.”
He holds the girl to his chest, rocking her in his arms.
“It is strange, but I don’t want to leave her.”
The old warcaster takes out the flask at his hip and takes a long chug.
“That’s not the girl who greeted us this morning.”
The retired soldier leans on the barrel of his rifle.
“You think he doesn’t know that?”
His hand trembles over where pale flesh ends and blackened, rusting metal begins.
“The Cryx turned her. She’s one of them now. Mercy kill her before she wakes up as just another soulless Mechanithrall.”
His head jerks up.
“Do it, boy, and be quick about it.”
“That’s cruel, old man,” the retired soldier laughs humorlessly, “even for you.”
“I can’t,” he presses the girl’s frail body closer to his own, “I can’t do what you’re asking me to do.”
“You’ll do it because I told you to do it.”
“Come on old man. You don’t have to make him do it.”
The old warcaster pulls out the dagger strapped to his thigh.
“You will do this or I will leave you here with the dead.”
“Why?” he hates the way his voice cracks, “What’s the point? Why can’t we just let her be?”
“I’ll do it,” the retired soldier says and sockets a bayonet to the end of his rifle, “Just don’t make him.”
“No,” the old warcaster pushes him away, “The boy does it. He needs to learn.”
He looks up at them, not understanding.
“What do I need to learn?”
The old warcaster kneels by his side. He presses the dagger into his palm.
“That sometimes these things happen.”
The girl waited for them as they exited the floo into Grimmauld Palace. Her long blonde hair had been tied into an uncomplicated ponytail. Clear blue eyes narrowed as they glared into emerald green ones.
“Greengrass,” Rose sneered at her.
“Potter,” Daphne sneered back.
“Yes?” said Harry as he emerged from behind his sister.
“Not you,” both girls snapped at the same time.
The boy frowned before looking at the two other Slytherins in the room.
“Is there a reason these two detest one another?”
“They have a history together,” said Blaise with a faint grimace.
“A long, long history together,” Tracey expanded.
“In ze year I spent at ‘ogwarts,” Fleur said as she emerged from the floo, “I spent ‘alf of it listening to Rose complain about a very specific Slytherin.”
“Aww,” Daphne mocked, “Did you envy me that much that you had to gossip about me to your French friend?”
“I don’t envy anyone who once thought Gilderoy Lockhart was dreamy,” Rose shot back.
Daphne’s cheeks flushed slightly.
“That was three years ago!”
“And I still remember it like it was yesterday!”
“You know what I remember just like it was yesterday? You chasing after Viktor Krum like some lost puppy wagging its tail!”
This time, it was Rose’s turn to blush.
“At least Viktor won multiple Quidditch trophies! What has Lockhart won except awards for looking at himself in the mirror!?”
“Gilderoy Lockhart won Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile Award five times in a row!”
“That’s the same exact thing!”
Harry gazed quizzically from one girl to the other.
“Is this a Slithering-Indoors thing?”
All eyes turned to him. Even Daphne and Rose stopped glaring at one another to stare at Harry.
“A what now?” Blaise blurted out.
“A Slithering-Indoors thing?” Harry repeated.
“Do you mean a Slytherin-Griffindor thing?” Tracey ventured.
“That’s what I said.”
Blaise looked at the others.
“You mean to tell me he doesn’t know when he’s mispronouncing things?”
“It’s the magical translating amulet,” Rose bit out, “Sometimes it malfunctions.”
“Sometimes?” said Fleur who had been called Floor way too many times over the past week.
“Alright. Fine. It malfunctions all the time. Happy?”
“I would be happier if he could actually say my name right,” the quarter-Veela groused.
“So the reason he calls me Daffodil instead of Daphne is because he’s thinking he’s actually pronouncing Daphne but the translation is… lost in context?” Daphne asked.
“Yes,” Fleur said, “Zat is ze reason.”
“No,” Rose said at the same time, “He calls you Daffodil because it suits a fragile flower like you.”
The Slytherin girl glared back at her Griffindor counterpart.
“Your name,” she said through clenched teeth, “is literally a flower.”
“Yeah, and we all know that roses are better than daffodils,” Rose planted her fists at her waist, “Isn’t that right, Harry?”
The boy in question frowned slightly.
“I am not well-versed enough in the art of botany to give you a definite reply,” said Harry Potter.
“Oof,” winced Tracey, “Not the right answer.”
Rose rounded on her newfound brother with a look of abject betrayal.
“Harry, you’re supposed to be on my side! I’m your sister, for Merlin’s sake!”
“Yes,” Harry nodded, “I am aware of our blood relation. And from a geometric perspective, based off where we are currently standing, I am already on your side.”
“Also not ze right answer,” sighed Fleur sympathetically.
“Look,” Blaise skillfully interrupted before Daphne could gloat, “as much as I enjoy another bout of Griffindor-Slytherin rivalry, I think we should do that while we’re actually at Hogwarts and not in a stupid, antiquated safehouse managed by the Order.”
“For your information,” Rose huffed, “my godfather’s house is awesome and filled with cool stuff, thank you very much!”
“Everything is old!” complained Daphne, “And unfashionable! And out-of-date! And old!”
“There is a portrait of a very ancient woman on the ground floor who constantly screams at us,” Tracey said uncomfortably.
“I see you’ve met Sirius’s mother,” the Girl-Who-Lived smirked.
“It got better when we told her we were purebloods,” muttered Blaise.
“Then she started going on and on about how real purebloods behaved back in her day,” Tracey grimaced.
“So it got worse,” summarized Daphne.
“But that’s not why we’re here to greet you,” Blaise admitted, “I’m not very good at these sorts of things, but here goes,” the dark-skinned boy swallowed, as though his next words would personally cost him, “Harry Potter, we owe you a Wizarding Oath. For what you did in that mansion. So thanks… I guess.”
“What is a Wizarding Oath?” Harry inquired.
“In the past, it was a magically binding oath that witches and wizards took with one another,” Tracey explained, “If you broke the oath, the repercussions could get very bad. I’ve read stories of magical folk losing their magic because they broke their oaths. Nowadays, it’s a lot less extreme. Think of it as the wizarding equivalent of ‘we owe you big time and we’ll return the favor someday’.”
Blaise peered at Harry warily.
“You’re not going to make me run down the halls of Hogwarts screaming ‘I love Griffindor!’ are you?”
“Of course not,” the Boy-Who-Turned-Warcaster said confidently, “In all likelihood, I would use this magical oath to make your families perform an act of sacrificial service in the war against Voldemort.”
A moment of silence passed before Blaise finally nodded.
“I take that back. Please use my Wizarding Oath to make me run down the halls of Hogwarts screaming ‘I love Griffindor!’.”
“Too late now, Zucchini,” Rose grinned, “You’ve given him an idea.”
“Is… Is that a bad thing?” Tracey ventured.
“Ze last idea he had,” sniffed Fleur, “involved overthrowing ze French Ministry of Magic and installing a new regime just because it did not suit his definition of competence.”
Daphne looked at the quarter-Veela and then at Harry.
“Why can’t you have normal ideas?”
“To me,” the boy replied, “this is a normal idea.”
“Overthrowing foreign governments is a normal idea to you?” Blaise stared disbelievingly at him.
“In my profession, it is an openly kept secret that mercenary companies prefer chaotic working environments over stable ones. Governments that are close to collapsing or have devolved into open chaos offer many opportunities for the unscrupulous man looking to get rich. I have known several instances when powerful mercenary companies have either manipulated or directly interfered in the local political climate just so that it would suit their interests,” Harry shrugged at the types of looks he was being given, “If your sole ability to put food on the table is war, then why would you want to put an end to a good thing?”
“You’re not going to do something similar to us, are you?” Daphne looked slightly alarmed at the thought, “Manipulating our government I mean… into open chaos and things…”
“There is no need,” the boy seemed unaffected by the sighs of relief that spontaneously erupted around him, “Because as I understand it, your government is already in open chaos.”
The motion is out of instinct. Pure reflex.
His hand is on the grip of his sword before he can rationally think the action through. Muscle memory tugs the blade halfway free from its sheathe.
The creature backs away from him, spitting in fear.
“Harry!” the voice calls him back to reality, “What’s wrong!?”
The snarl that has inadvertently crept onto his features matches the aggressive combat stance he has adopted.
“Nasty brat! Trying to frighten Kreacher! Mudblood-lover! Blood-traitor!”
The words come out shrill and afraid, but that does not make him lower his guard. Not in the least.
“What is this… thing?”
“Oh, that’s just Kreacher. He’s Grimmauld Palace’s resident house-elf.”
His eyes follow the creature as it hobbles away. His hand remains firmly wrapped around the grip of his sword.
“This is your world’s example of an elf?”
“Uh, yeah… Why?” Rose looks back to the others and receives only nonplussed expressions in return, “Does your world have elves too?”
Slowly, hesitantly, he allows his blade to slide back into its sheathe.
“Oh? What kind?”
He turns towards them and sees the similarity they think they see. He is like them. Alike in age. Alike in stature. Alike in what they believe to be the norms and behaviors of any fifteen-year-old in the monolithic precincts of a cultured, civilized society.
But some things can only be mimicked on the surface.
“The genocidal kind,” he tells them.
“So, this is the boy who’s going to save us all,” the sarcasm in the man’s tone matched his demeanor. Cold blue eyes stared regally from an aquiline face, features twisted in derision, “Should we all get down on our knees and beg for your generosity?”
“No,” came the brusque reply, “but if you are seeking a place to bow and scrape,” those same twisted features relaxed briefly in surprise before contorting again into an altogether different emotion, “the Dark Lord’s mansion is that way.”
“Harry,” admonished Dumbledore from his position seated across two more figures, “This is a diplomatic meeting.”
“I am aware of the sensitive matters being discussed today. Which is why I am being polite.”
“If this is polite,” growled a burly man with dark brown hair, “then I’d hate to see your definition of impolite.”
“That definition would be the Death Eaters lying strewn around the mansion’s floor, I suppose.”
Silence reigned, laden with tacit recognition. The man who had spoken first broke it, leering towards the ones who shadowed the boy’s back.
“It seems your son needs a lesson in manners.”
James narrowed his eyes but said nothing. Sirius crossed his arms over his chest, a trickster’s grin playing over his features.
“Tell you a secret, Greengrass. When my godson materialized out of Merlin-forsaken nowhere with four of mechanical golems at his back, I didn’t know what to make of him. I still don’t know what to make of him. But now? Now, I’m finding I’m liking him a great deal.”
“Gentlemen,” Dumbledore interjected mildly, “is all of this really necessary?”
“I am in the court of my enemy, speaking with ones who would betray my ideals, and you ask me if all this is necessary?”
“As opposed to being in the court of another enemy, speaking with ones who have already betrayed your ideals,” said Harry Potter.
“He’s got a point there, David,” the burly man drawled.
“The only reason I’m here, the only reason,” the aristocrat who bore David Greengrass’s name reiterated with a deep breath, “is because you ventured into that nest of snakes and came out with my daughter. For that, I am willing to entertain whatever offers the Order will make. Within reason.”
“So there is a heart under all that pompous ass,” smiled Sirius.
“Careful now, Black,” cold blue eyes became hateful slits, “Careful.”
“Or what? You’ll go back into hiding with your family and your wealth while men less fortunate than you die in a war they didn’t start?”
A hand reached for a wand while another was already grasping one.
“Enough!” Dumbledore’s voice was thunder and lightning rolled into one, “You may fall into old habits of bickering wherever you wish but not here! Not today! Am I clear?”
Sirius looked away, as did the Head of Greengrass.
“As you wish.”
“We are in unprecedented times,” the old wizard’s tone had grown softer, but the tumultuous storm in his eyes continued to roil unabated, “Unprecedented. The Ministry has been gripped by indecision while the Dark Lord roams free to terrorize the civilian population. Lives have already been lost and more will continue to be lost with every second we spend arguing amongst ourselves. There is no time for old rivalries to resurface. There is no time!”
“What are you proposing then, Albus?” the last figure in the room made herself known, “I hope it’s something not so simple as an alliance or we will have all wasted our time.”
“Is the thought so unthinkable Cassandra?” James asked, “An alliance, even if a temporary one, against a greater evil?”
The way the dark-skinned woman’s lips curled just served to make her all the more beautiful.
“I sometimes forget just how naïve our friends from the other side can be.”
“This goes far beyond schooltime rivalries,” the brown-haired man leaned back into his seat, “There are decades worth of bad blood between us. For years your side has mocked our beliefs and our traditions. For daring to uphold our views, we have been lumped in with the Dark Lord’s followers and our children treated with hostility and contempt. Now you expect us to cast aside these grievances just like that?” Adrien Davis shook his head, “No. We are more enemies than friends, and no one here is fool enough to truly believe that an enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
“And you would be fooler still if you believed that all enemies are the same,” an entire room’s worth of gazes focused on the speaker, “Some enemies can be reasoned with. Respected even. They will treat you with honor in victory or in defeat. Other enemies are nothing more than rabid dogs who will bite all the harder for every inkling of kindness you show. I have fought against both and I can tell you a reasonable foe is far more preferable to a mad one. Which one do you think Voldemort is?”
Everyone in vicinity recoiled save James and Dumbledore.
“Don’t say his name like that, boy!” David Greengrass hissed.
Emerald green eyes stared impassively into worried blue ones.
“Do you even know what that name means---” Adrien Davis began to say.
“It means fear,” he stopped at the impassive words, “Cold, unshakeable fear. It is a title as much as a name. A title purposefully said to invoke fear. Fear of pain. Fear of death. Fear of the unknown. Fear that if you say his name, he just might show up on your doorstep next.”
“If you know all that,” growled David, “then why say it?”
“Because there is power in saying that name,” Harry continued without emotion, “There is power in saying it without being afraid. How can you defeat a foe if you cannot speak his name? I say his name because I am not afraid of him. I say his name because saying it means I have power over him. I say his name because in the end, I will be the one who kills him.”
“Confident, are we?” Cassandra pursed her lips together.
“Yes,” the boy stated, “I am.”
“Even if we wanted to aid you,” Adrien looked like he was trying very hard not to look interested, “How can you guarantee we can win?”
“A mansion full of dead Death Eaters is a start,” Sirius grinned.
“Saving the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is another,” added James.
“I believe there was a mansion full of dead Death Eaters involved in that as well,” Dumbledore mused.
“Not exactly a mansion full, Headmaster,” Sirius shrugged nonchalantly, “Half of them got away.”
“They died in the forest,” James explained.
The three Slytherins in the room stared at one another.
“We do not doubt these results,” David allowed, “But how can you ensure that this was not a one-off? I am a businessman by nature. I do not deal in trades that have no return and no future. How do I know you won’t leave me out to dry when things start going south? How do I know you won’t leave me and my family to the Dark Lord’s dogs as soon as our cover is blown?”
“Did you think I did this just so a merchant like you can haggle over prices?” everyone present shuddered at the sudden directness, “Did you think I persecuted the raid on Voldemort’s estate just to rescue your sons and daughters? As if they were somehow more important than all the sons and daughters lost in war. For whatever reason, you are under the impression that your family and your well-being are of significant value to me. Allow me now to disabuse you of that notion.”
The boy stepped forward, hand resting comfortably over the pommel of his sheathed sword. The air of authority clung over his shoulders like a general’s cloak.
“The only purpose your existence serves is to become a hidden asset in the Dark Lord’s camp. Once you are exposed, your value as an asset becomes nonexistent. You effectively become worthless to me. That is the principle of this meeting. All of you are mistaken in the belief that this assembly would involve some form of negotiation where you could barter your value to an interested party when in reality the terms have already been set. Should you refuse these terms today, then you have, by default, chosen to side with the Dark Lord and against the Order of the Phoenix. By extension, that makes you, my enemy. In which case, why do you think you will be allowed to leave this room?”
Three pairs of wide eyes stared into resolute green ones.
“That’s a threat!” Adrien was the first to come to his senses. He looked to Dumbledore, who could always be counted on to inject calm rationality into the subject at hand, “Headmaster, you’re actually allowing this?”
The old wizard smiled serenely back, the picture-perfect of composed neutrality.
“Given the circumstances, Adrien, that is exactly what it is.”
In the silence that followed, Cassandra rose slowly and elegantly from her seat.
“They’re here, aren’t they? Those… machines?”
Harry tilted his head. The motion was accompanied by a sound so faint, so minute, that they almost missed it. Yet the unmistakable purr of engine servos suddenly being ignited somewhere floated ominously into the room.
“A warcaster may be distant with many things but his warjacks are always near.”
“And what?” Adrien stood up with a snarl, “You’re going to kill us all for disagreeing? Murder us in cold blood for the crime of putting our families first?”
“Hasn’t your criticism towards the Order always been we were too soft?” Sirius said quietly from besides James. Both men looked distinctly uneasy, but their eyes were hard. The grips on their wands were harder still.
“I can’t believe we’re here listening to this!” the Head of Davis ranted on, “You’re insane! You’re all insane! If you think we’re going to be threatened like this just because you rescued--”
“What happens if you win?”
The question came from the only one among the three who was still sitting. David Greengrass had steepled his fingers under his chin. His stare was long and considering.
His fellow pureblood rounded on him in confused fury.
“David! How can you actually consider this?”
“I want to know,” the man’s gaze remained locked on the only figure that mattered, “What happens if you win? Do we go back to our lives before the Dark Lord’s return? Pretend like none of this ever happened? Live in constant fear of Him appearing again to finish what He started? What of His followers? Do they get a light slap on the wrist like last time? Plead the Imperius and go back to a society so desperate to escape Him that it’ll welcome His servants with open arms?”
The boy met his gaze. Unafraid. Undaunted.
The gaze of a man who had nothing to lose was hard but the gaze from a warcaster was a harder thing altogether.
“What makes you believe I will let that happen?”
The head of Greengrass made a derisive noise.
“You are one man. One boy. Trying to play soldier. Yes, I’ll admit that you’re good at it. Those dead Death Eaters prove that you’re good at it. But there are enough fools out there who think they can change the world.”
“But if that fool had backing,” Dumbledore spoke up softly, “If he had the means to convince the general public. If he had the winners of this war back him both politically and legally while ensuring that the vanquished would never again hold power…”
David shook his head.
“What you are suggesting would require the reconstitution of not only our current government but our society as a whole.”
Again, all pairs of eyes turned to the one figure that mattered.
“Yes,” said Harry Potter.
“Ludicrous,” snorted Adrien, “Preposterous!” he said again, “We’re not considering this,” the Head of Davis looked confidently to his fellow Slytherins for support only to see David still contemplating and Cassandra… Cassandra had sat back down, “We’re… actually considering this?”
“What if we agree with this vision?” David had leaned forward, all pretenses of superiority gone, “What do we get out of it if we join?”
“Annndddd we’re actually considering this,” sighed Adrien.
“We assumed you would have conditions for agreeing to an alliance,” Dumbledore said mildly.
“Not a condition. A price.”
“Name it,” said Harry.
“I want a position in this new government.”
“Done,” the Boy-Who-Disappeared agreed.
David blinked before narrowing his eyes.
“I want a position high enough where I can influence things. An office with real power.”
“Done,” the Boy-Who-Disappeared-And-Reappeared-As-A-Warcaster said again.
The Head of Greengrass paused before blinking a second time.
“My price is the Minister of Finance or whatever is equivalent in your new government. I’ve had enough of Lucius running things all by himself. I’ve got ideas of my own on how to expand our economy. If you want the Greengrasses in this shadow alliance, you secure me that position first.”
Harry turned to Dumbledore.
“Would this arrangement work?”
The old headmaster stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“The seat for the Minister of Finance is a highly sought-after office. It requires contenders to have a great deal of both political experience and business acumen. I have no doubt that David is qualified for the position on account of his business ventures, but for someone who has never entered the field of politics himself except to vote in the Wizengamot… the general population will not be confident about his credentials for candidacy.”
“Then we need to manufacture those credentials.”
“If the potential candidate was to immediately apply for the position of Deputy Commissioner of Taxes and Magical Fees,” Dumbledore transitioned seamlessly, “It is a position that serves directly under the Minster and Vice Minister of Finance. The current seat is open as the original Commissioner has resigned in fear of Death Eater attacks. Once the rest of the term has been served, the experience and knowledge David will gain will make all arguments against his candidacy effectively irrelevant.”
“But the Minister of Finance has always been a position that is voted on,” the pureblood growled, “How can you guarantee me the office without guaranteeing me the votes?”
Dumbledore made a musing sound.
“We would have to present an opposing candidate so fundamentally ignorant of wizarding traditions and so comprehensively lacking in political acumen that the general population will automatically disregard his campaign.”
Everyone in the room turned to stare at Sirius. The man frowned back.
“What are all of you looking at me for?”
“This man in question,” the Head of Greengrass had developed a calculating grin, “would have to be so incompetent on the campaign path that the general populace would automatically assume him to be an idiot.”
Everyone stared at Sirius again who frowned for a second time.
“Seriously, stop doing that!”
It was Dumbledore who responded, a thoughtful look on his aged features.
“Sirius, what do you know about the ergonomics behind the successful operation of a wizarding economy?”
“Absolutely nothing,” the former Marauder said cheerfully.
“Good,” Harry took over, “You will be running against Mr. Green Grass for the position of Minister of Finance in the foreseeable future.”
“Sure,” the man nodded, then sputtered, “Wait, what?”
“Oh, I’m going to enjoy this,” the grin on David’s face had turned positively feral.
“Now, now, David,” Sirius held his hands up in a placating manner, “I know that in the past we chased after the same woman and had a little spat over it. But I swear to you I didn’t know she was already your fiancé when I kissed her at that ball.”
“That woman is now my wife and the mother of my children,” the pureblood snarled.
“In my defense, I was very drunk at the time.”
James turned to Dumbledore.
“Are we sure Sirius is the right man for the job?”
“Yeah,” Sirius nodded hurriedly, “Are we sure I’m the right man for the job?”
“As much as I’d like to embarrass Black on the public stage,” David agreed with a faint scowl, “he’s got a point. What if the wizarding population votes him in anyways?”
“Then the wizarding population is even stupider than I originally imagined,” said Harry Potter.
Adrien looked at the boy and then at everyone else.
“Should I be insulted? I feel like I should be insulted.”
“Why?” Harry glanced in his direction, “Did you vote for Fudge?”
The Head of Davis coughed into his hand.
“I’m... not going to answer that question.”
“Even if Sirius carries the election,” Dumbledore dragged the conversation back on track, “he is still a member of the Order. If the need arises, a scandal can be manufactured at our behest that will paint the false candidate in a negative light. Should that occur, the voting population will naturally select the other candidate to replace him.”
“Since when did the Order of the Phoenix seek to actively place candidates favorable to them on the stage that is political theatre?” Cassandra raised an eyebrow.
“Since Voldemort forced us to,” James replied somberly.
“And all this time I thought we were talking about kicking down His door with wands blazing.”
“That worked too, if you recall,” Sirius said smartly.
“Nevertheless,” the woman dusted off the hems of her robes, “I find myself suitably impressed. The Order of the Phoenix could have been a potent political force had its master not leashed it so,” Dumbledore smiled serenely at the implied insult, “Now that the leash has snapped, it will be illuminating to see just what is in store for us all, even if the candidate in question is both unsuited for the position and unwilling to fulfill it.”
At this, Sirius simply shrugged.
“Believe it or not, this is actually one of the less outlandish things I’ve done for the Order.”
Cassandra ignored him and turned her attention to the Boy-Who-Turned-Warcaster.
“If you want another noble family in your coalition, then I too have a price.”
“Name it,” said Harry.
“The investigations into my household by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. I want them to stop.”
The boy’s head swiveled automatically to the two Aurors in the room.
James met his son’s gaze apologetically.
“I’m sorry Harry, it’s classified.”
“Understood. As your direct superior in the Aura Branch of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, you may now de-classify it for me.”
In the stunned silence that followed, no one even realized that the boy had pronounced “Auror” wrong.
“Did your own son just pull rank on you?” Adrien asked, amazed.
“I think he just did!” sniggered Sirius.
“If you find something amusing about the situation, Aura Black, then you may be the one to enlighten me.”
Sirius immediately stopped sniggering.
“Ah… Well… You see, Harry… I mean sir… Oh Merlin’s sake I don’t even know what to call you now…” the man glanced at Cassandra furtively before letting it all out, “Cassie here is under investigation by the department for the death of her husband. The death of her seventh husband, to be precise.”
“And has the investigation turned up anything conclusive?”
“No,” James answered, “Neither did the other six for that matter.”
“If we have found nothing conclusive then why are we are continuing these investigations?”
Both Aurors shrugged their shoulders helplessly.
“The general public wants an answer. At least, that’s the reason being given by our higher-ups. You have to admit, Cassandra, it looks suspicious. Especially when everyone thinks your Gringotts vault gets larger after every husband’s death.”
“Lies and slander,” for the first time since the meeting began, an undercurrent of anger could be detected in the woman’s tone, “I was already well-off before I married. Three of my husbands were less wealthy than me. My last husband was a janitor who worked at the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes! Ah, poor Victor… Do you even know what all these rumors are doing to me? To my Blaise?”
“We know,” sighed James, “and for the record, we don’t believe them either. But the public wants a scandal. And the Department of Magical Law Enforcement has always been beholden to the public.”
“The same public whose response to the Dark Lord’s reemergence was to collectively stick their heads in the sand,” said Harry Potter.
Everyone in the room winced.
“Now I know I should be insulted,” Adrien muttered.
“You’re not the only one,” Sirius shuddered, “I actually felt that.”
The boy turned to the heiress.
“The investigations will stop.”
Cassandra accepted the statement with a graceful smile.
“If this was anyone else, I would be skeptical. But from you, I will believe it. Consider the Zabinis as part of your pact.”
Which left only one of the three unspoken for. Adrien glared back at his audience, though the earlier resentment had faded.
“I’m not a businessman, like David. I don’t have nearly the wealth of Cassandra. What I do have is a family. One that I love and cherish. And He almost ruined it. Do you understand, boy? He made me kneel before Him with my family. I had to bend my knee in front of those mask wearing bastards. Bow my head to a man I hated. I had to kiss His hand and smile when He demanded my child as a hostage. Grin and bear it when He told me my daughter would make a fine pureblooded bride for one of His followers… You make sure my family never goes through that again, and we are yours.”
Harry met the man’s gaze evenly.
“It will be done.”
Silence reigned as the magnitude of what had just occurred settled over everyone’s shoulders. Sirius broke it, just like he always did, with a trickster’s grin on his face.
“And just like that, we’re all friends.”
“Not friends, Black,” David huffed, though like Adrien, most of the anger had gone, “Allies. Acquaintances. We only become friends when my position in your new government is secure.”
“Speaking of positions within the government,” Dumbledore began without preamble, eyes suddenly twinkling.
“Yes,” Harry took over curtly, “It is my understanding that all ancient households within wizarding society are owed a representative seat in the main parliamentary body within your government. What was this parliamentary body called again, Headmaster?”
None missed the way the boy had said the title and not the name.
“The Wizengamot, Harry,” the old wizard had started stroking his beard.
“Yes. The Wise Marmot,” the way those emerald green eyes snapped to one person in particular made sure there was no wave of amusement that followed the mispronunciation, “It is also my understanding that some of those seats that could have been filled with individuals of likeminded loyalties and compatible thinking are inexplicably empty. In fact, I have been informed that the only reason these positions of power are not occupied by allies of the Order is because those certain individuals have simply chosen not to sit in them.”
James actually swallowed.
“Ah… Well, Harry… It’s just… It’s just that I was never very good at politics.”
“So instead of becoming better at it, you chose to vacate a seat of high power within your own government capable of passing laws and legislation that could have prevented the rise of the very Dark Lord you now seek to defeat.”
“Well… If you put it that way…”
“Please put it in a way that would make you seem less responsible for this utter idiocy.”
James scanned the room desperately for help and received only nonplussed gazes in response. Both Adrien and David had looks of horrified fascination on their faces, as though they could not quite believe what they were seeing. Cassandra simply arched an exquisite eyebrow. Sirius had… Sirius had placed both his palms on the back of his head and was whistling innocently to himself. The former Maurader’s gaze roamed everywhere except his friend.
“Even if I took up my ancestral seat at the Wizengamot,” James tried to deflect, “I would be useless! I’ve missed so many sessions, I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”
Harry’s gaze merely flickered back towards Dumbledore.
“How long until the next legislative session?”
“In about two weeks, Harry.”
“Then you will have two weeks’ worth of time with the Headmaster who will make sure you know where to begin.”
James gaped at the two figures, one of whom was his son and the other whose eyes had started twinkling even harder.
“But I wouldn’t even know what to vote for!”
“When has not knowing what to vote for ever stopped the Wizengamot from operating?” David snorted.
“An extra seat leaning our way would be helpful,” Adrien rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
Both men had lost their earlier stunned expressions and had developed calculating looks.
“But… You know what? Fine…” James accepted defeat with a sigh, “I’ll do it. If it’s for the sake of defeating Voldemort, I’ll do it.”
“Good,” Harry nodded before switching his attention to a certain individual who had, throughout the course of the conversation, been steadily inching towards the exit, “And just where do you think you’re going?”
Sirius’s face resembled that of a hippogriff who had just had a particularly high-powered Lumos cast upon it.
“Oh hey, cub! I was just… you know… leaving the room for a breather! You guys are obviously busy discussing um… government matters, so I’ll just show myself out!”
“You also have a seat in the governing body,” Harry’s expression, in contrast, was absolutely merciless, “so you’ll be joining him.”
“Oh, no,” Sirius threw out his hands in front of him, “You might have browbeaten your father into sitting in sessions at the Wizengamot, but you’re not getting me into a room full of those old fogies!”
The boy’s method of reply was a stare so withering that all those present recoiled as though they had been struck. Sirius recoiled as though he had actually been struck.
“D-Don’t look at me like that! I’ll do anything but sit in a room with those old bats! I’ll even help you with your warjacks! Arthur taught me all there is to know about muggle tools! Like wrenches and stuff! All you have to do is to hit things with them. That’s how muggles repair their gadgets! How ‘bout it, cub? You don’t make me bore myself to death in that stuffy chamber and I’ll help you hit your warjacks with wrenches!”
Eyes harder than cut gems narrowed ever so slightly.
“N-No… Alright! Alright! I’ll do it! Merlin, it’s like disappointing the old man all over again!”
The three Slytherins in the room looked at one another.
“All of sudden, I’m feeling a lot better about this alliance,” David admitted.
“Why’s that?” Adrien couldn’t quite tear his eyes away from the scene being played out in front of them.
“Because we won’t be the only ones getting this type of treatment,” Cassandra said primly.
“I can’t believe you did it,” was the first thing Blaise said.
“You’re talking to the guy who dove into Voldemort’s lair and dragged all of you out,” snorted Rose, “Of course he could do it.”
They had surrounded him in one of Grimmauld Palace’s many living rooms, watching him with bated breath.
“I’m not surprised he’s the one who did it,” Tracey murmured, “I’m surprised at how he did it.”
“How did you do it?” wondered Fleur out loud.
“I dragged the two sides together, forced them to air their concerns, then addressed them one by one,” the boy ignored their incredulous gazes. His attention remained on the mechanikal blade in his lap, which he was cleaning with an oil-stained rag, “The threat of annihilation by my warjacks may or may not have been involved in the conversation. Standard protocol when it comes to negotiations.”
“This is standard for you?” muttered Blaise.
“Harry,” Daphne looked him in the eye, “Do you have any idea what you just did? The Slytherin-Griffindor rivalry goes back centuries. We’re supposed to hate each other. Even our parents don’t get along.”
“I am aware of the petty rivalries embedded within your society,” came the steady reply, “My own culture is no stranger to them. However, what differentiates your society from mine is your seeming inability to get over them. When a threat like the Dark Lord emerges in my world, the various disparate factions set aside their differences and unite to face it. Once the threat has been destroyed, they go back to hating one another. Your society seems unable to move past that first step.”
“Wow, Harry,” Rose wrinkled her nose, “Tell us how you really feel.”
“I just did,” the boy frowned.
“Is no one else weirded out at how well this is going?” Blaise raised his head to look at the others, “I mean I appreciate I’m no longer a hostage in the Dark Lord’s dungeons, but is anybody else weirded out just how well everything is going? What’s next? We all hold hands and banish the Dark Lord through the power of love or something?”
“Oh, stop being such a vegetable, Zuccini,” Rose snickered, “Don’t be so skeptical all the time.”
“We’re Slytherins,” Daphne answered for Blaise, “We’re supposed to be skeptical.”
“I understand your skepticism,” Harry had finally stopped wiping his blade, “My advice to you is to take these blessings for what they are worth. There will be plenty of time in the future to wallow in the consequences of your failures.”
“And you’ve done that before?” Blaise challenged, “Failed before?”
“Yes. I have failed before. Many times, in fact.”
“How many is many times?”
The-Boy-Who-Turned-Warcaster smiled but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“You see that man?” rough calloused fingers grab his chin. They force him to stare at the comatose body, lifeless and still, “He’s dead.”
He doesn’t fight the old warcaster’s grip. The shame prevents him from doing so. The tears don’t help either.
“You were on watch. You didn’t see what you were supposed to be watching. Now he’s dead because of you.”
The words burn him in a way the cold never will.
The old warcaster pushes him away. He doesn’t try to regain balance and eats a mouthful of snow as he falls face first into the ground. The tears that streaked down his cheeks now leak past his lips.
They make the snow taste like salt.
“He’s dead because you didn’t do your job.”
He doesn’t respond because he doesn’t have any right to respond.
The soldiers don’t respond either. They lean on their rifles and watch mutely. There’s no anger in their eyes. There’s no blame either and somehow that makes it even worse.
They don’t blame him for what happened even though they should.
The old warcaster seizes him by the collar and hauls him upright. The man’s gaze is as cold as the icy wind whipping into his face.
“Now we’re down one man and the contract isn’t even half finished. One more mistake like this and we’re all dead.”
He waits for the blow to land. The verbal lashing to continue. Something to punish him for the fault that was entirely his own.
Instead he feels something heavy being shoved into arms.
He looks down.
It’s the dead man’s rifle.
One of his hands instinctively clutches the pitted, worn-down barrel. The other grasps the stock.
He looks up into his mentor’s eyes and sees nothing resembling what he wants to see.
“You killed this man,” the old warcaster repeats, “Now you do his job.”