25 July 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Fourteen: Azkaban



Significant Digits, Chapter Fourteen: Azkaban


The infinite resignation is the last stage prior to faith, so that one who has not made this movement has not faith; for only in the infinite resignation do I become clear to myself with respect to my eternal validity, and only then can there be any question of grasping existence by virtue of faith.
--  Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

July 14th, 1992
The office of Headmistress McGonagall, Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

"Don’t go!  No, no, no, don't go, don't take it away, don't don't don't… Please, please, I can't remember my children's names any more..."

And that was the end to the memory.  A ghostly boy with terror and pain on his face stood stricken, visible beneath the translucent drape of the Cloak of Invisibility, pointing his wand at a placid and skeletal Bellatrix Black.  They were frozen in a stone corridor, standing before a heavy metal door with a simple lock, lit by a glowing humanoid figure, and deep in the foulest hell made by man.

Hermione pulled herself free, wrenching herself out of the liquid memory in the Pensieve with an effort of will, and vomited on the floor.

Harry felt the acid burn of vomit in the back of his own throat as he watched her.  When she looked up at Harry, Hermione’s eyes were as dead and dry as stones.

“But… you’re in charge now, Harry,” Her voice was very small.  “Just close Azkaban.  Have it destroyed.  Free everyone, Harry.  Do...  do something.”

She hung her head like she was broken.  “Fix it.”

“I can’t,” he said, his voice as heavy as his heart.  Even though he knew what was going to come next, and that hope fluttered deep in his soul like something winged, and even though he knew that she had to know if she was going to do… he was hurting her.  He was hurting her again, even though it was good for her and good for the world and utterly necessary.  “I just… this is…” Harry had prepared words, but now they sounded grossly inadequate.  “Almost all of the prisoners are gone, except for the… the worst.  But I couldn’t end it… I couldn’t fix it… and I can’t go myself.  I actually can’t.  I’m too...”  Important.  I’m too important, now.  I can’t risk myself and the future of the world.  Not while the path to the scorpion and the archer… not while… But the words died on his tongue.  The Vow and all logic could stop him from acting, but they couldn’t touch his shame.

“They wouldn’t close it.  They don’t understand… not really,” he said.  Hermione’s fingers clutched at the stone beneath her.  Her fingernails clawed spasmodic tracks into its surface, dusting their brilliance with grey.

Harry had made speeches and he had made threats on the floor of the Wizengamot.  He had demanded and received the greatest political cunning of Amelia Bones and the most clever plotting of Alastor Moody and the sheer moral weight of Minerva McGonagall's pursed lips, and yet the vote had failed.  There had been bribery and blackmail and hissed words, and though many dire opponents were already lying headless on slabs as an example… and the vote had failed.  At the climax of the debate, the Wizengamot -- desperate to find some accommodation that would satisfy the Boy-Who-Lived, who was now clearly one of the most powerful figures in the country -- had coalesced around an alternative proposal to have the dozen remaining prisoners executed instead of freed.  Harry had rejected that outrage, and by a margin of three votes, Azkaban remained open.

Dementors still fed.

“But there is something that can fix it,” he said.  Hermione stayed on her hands and knees, heaving with shuddering breaths, and Harry knelt down next to her.  “If we destroy the Dementors, then… that will be an end to Azkaban.  No more torture.  No more… that.”

A word tore from her throat, ragged and loud.  “How?!”

“There is a way to cast the Patronus Charm… a different way.  A way that can destroy Dementors.  They’re not unkillable… it’s why they were afraid of me, in the Wizengamot.  It can… do other things, too.  It can fix this.  You can fix this, if you learn it.”  Harry shifted in position a little bit, moving a fold of his robes from beneath one knee.  “There are a dozen people left in Azkaban that I couldn’t save.”  He put a hand on her back, felt it move in heaves as she sucked air in and out, overcome with what she’d seen.  Harry knew how she’d felt… remembered when he was in that nightmare, and the depth of his feeling had nearly drained the life out of him through his Patronus.  He leaned in, and hated himself for this manipulation.  But he remembered the concussive shock to his soul that it had taken for him to see through the illusion… to see the death behind the fear.  To understand.  He had to bring her to that point, or he’d be betraying her.  His voice was almost a whisper as he said, “But you can.”

She looked up at him, and her eyes were alive again, eagle-bright and demanding.  “Tell me.”


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Take a child by the hand.  Lead them to a dark place… the basement they fear, perhaps, or the alley that scares them so much that they cross the street when they need to walk past.  Look them in the eyes.  There’s someone hurting in there, child, you say.  They’re hurting so much.  They hurt all the time, and they scream, and there’s no one to help them.  There are things in there that eat them.

Take that child by the shoulders and point into the darkness.  Look there, you say.  Look into that darkness.  Someone is hurting and someone is screaming and someone is being eaten, and no one can help them.

No one but you.

You’re the only one who can do it, you say, taking their hot little hand in yours and squeezing it.  Only you.

All you have to do is fly.

That’s all.  I know you can do it.  I have faith in you.  I believe in you.  Just… fly.  Lift off into the air.  Rise up into the sky, and swoop down into that darkness.  That person is being eaten, all alone, and you just have to go there and take them by the hand and lift them out.

No one but you.  You can do it.

Then turn that child towards the darkness and give them a push.  A little shove -- they stagger forward a bit.  And their face is determined and they clench their fists and they leap

But they can’t fly.  Of course they can’t fly.  You’re asking the impossible.  And they will fall to the ground and skin their knees, and scramble to their feet and try again, and fall again but jump right back up and try and try and try and try.  They will scream with frustration and stretch out their hands towards that basement, that alley, that darkness.

They believed you.  They believed you when you said that they could do it.  That someone was there in the dark, alone and in pain and in need.  They believed that they were the only ones who could do it.

And how terrible

it is

to fail.


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Hermione couldn’t do it.  She couldn’t cast the Patronus Charm.

She spoke intently with Harry for hours, and studied physics and philosophy for hours.  She practiced, over and over, for hours.  Six, ten, fourteen hours a day, sometimes.  She had a Time Turner, and she used it every day.

Every hour she could spare from studying for her Ordinary Wizarding Levels or from working in the odd little hospital that Harry had set up, in that tower room with shabby couches and a few chairs and full-wall windows all around, guarded by a handful of bemused aurors and an intricate passageway of Alastor’s wards and traps.

Every hour she could spare from auror training, even though that already left her exhausted enough to break down in tears, keyed up and nervous and ready to DODGE and CAST and DUCK and SHIELD and everything all surprises until she was ready to collapse from nerves.

Every hour she could spare from healing people in the tower and dealing with all the myriad mysteries and emergencies of her new role.  Lesath Lestrange went missing from his bed in the Slytherin dormitories, and Hermione was so exhausted that she was barely able to join the search for six hours before she had to retreat to her bed -- not that she could sleep once she’d gotten there.

Every hour she could spare from visiting dignitaries and nobles and emissaries, going to every member of the Wizengamot and two-dozen Confederation representatives and doing everything she could -- throwing herself and all her small childish dignity and every ounce of fame she possessed -- the Girl-Who-Revived, how she loathed that name now, since she was a mockery and there were people in Azkaban -- and she would persuade and threaten and beg them into committing to close the prison, but that was too much to ask of the Wizengamot.  Harry and Hermione did what they could: two more prisoners were released.  One died.  But nine remained, despite everything.  Nine people were being eaten.

She spoke to everyone she could.  There was almost no one she could really tell, not without destroying their own ability or capacity to cast a Patronus.  A middling Occlumens at this point, she had to be careful about many things.  But she spoke around the problem, and sought inspiration and guidance.  For one memorable evening, she’d talked with Draco all through the night and into the dawn, and wept in his arms.

They formulated plans: maybe they could recruit all the trusted people they could, those who could cast Patronuses, and attack that way.  Hold off the Dementors while the ten victims were taken away, and then herd them off to some other isle.  Keep them there by standing guard in shifts.  With all of Harry and Hermione’s money and will and fame, there were fully a hundred wizards and witches who could be enlisted.  A Dementor zoo, until such time as they could be abolished.  A Dementor prison.

But Dementors must be fed.  Even a Patronus will not restrain them if they are not fed.  Not forever.  And it would mean open rebellion against the Wizengamot and the law, and that would hurt matters as much as help.

Harry told her all he knew of the true nature of a Dementor.  He told her of his absolute rejection of death as the natural order.  He told her about his dreams for the future, about how death was a thing that would be overcome one day in the distant future -- heck, they had the Stone, it might not even be that distant.  She read Heinlein and Asimov and Sagan and Vonnegut and Adams and a thousand other books.  He took her through it, over and over.  He arranged to bring in a Dementor, and she tried the Charm in its view and right in front of it and with a Patronus protecting her and without one protecting her and every other way they could think of.  He did it with her and talked her through, and stood behind her and held her hand and everything else.  Over and over, until she broke down, and then she would still make herself go on.  And she failed, every time.  Completely.  Not even a silver mist.

In her room -- a private room, she needed it, she had to have it so she could study and practice and plan -- she would read and practice and think and cast:

“Expecto Patronum!”

But she barely even heard herself when she cast the charm, even after thousands and thousands of tries.  All she heard were the words in her head:

"No, I didn't mean it, please don't die!"

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, Harry thought one night in the library, looking at her collapsed in exhaustion in front of a book.  You’re the bravest person… you’re the best person.  When a Dementor was eating me, you ran towards it to save me.  When Voldemort tempted you with every cleverness he could devise, you never wavered from the good.  And you know science… you were raised with science.  Not like me, but you know the possibilities.  You are brave and good and smart -- smarter than me -- and wise… how can this be the way things are?  How can I have… have broken you so badly?

It was unfair, to expect this of her.  It was so unfair that they tried everything else they could think of, but the truth was that no one was willing to be the deciding vote to release a serial rapist or mass-murderer from the only unbreachable prison in the world.  Everyone knew the story of Godfrey of Sontag, a Dark Lord who had been released and pardoned by the Wizengamot in the tenth century for his service in the war against Lord Foul the Despiser -- a villain who had been one of the great evils of that time, whose evil had bound the Founders of Hogwarts into a companionship sworn against him.  Godfrey had taken his pardon and had gone on to carve out a kingdom for himself in the Basque Country in Spain, and had done unspeakable acts, out of reach of all law, for fifty years… acts that were, in truth, too monstrous for any thirteen-year-old girl of sound mind to dwell upon.  But she dwelt on it, and agonized, and wondered if this was why she couldn’t cast the Patronus… since she was striving with all her heart to free nine people who were truly vile.  Logic could have trouble touching the heart.

But it was not given to Hermione Jean Granger to give up or to give in.  Maybe that was a flaw.  Maybe that was why she had once fallen victim to a careful plot to convince even her that she was a murderer.  She could not let herself stop.  She couldn’t forgive herself.  She tried, and failed, and wept.  In time, and despite all the magics in her flesh, her eyes grew as hollow as any of the Demented.

She was undergoing a special kind of torture, you see.  There were people being eaten in the darkness, but Hermione could not fly to save them.


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

December 23rd, 1992
Eight months since Hermione’s death.
Six months since Professor Quirrell’s final exam and Hermione’s resurrection.
Five months since that day in the office of the Headmistress.
In the Tower.

They were talking about her.  She could hear them.  Her hearing was better than average, especially with high frequencies -- she wasn’t sure why, but she suspected that the cause was the continuous regeneration of the stereocilia in her inner ears.

“Ms. Granger is going to kill herself if she continues at this rate, and it will be on your head,” Headmistress McGonagall said to Harry, in a low but angry voice.  She was sitting with a rigid back on a bench next to him, as he held a wand to an unconscious girl-child’s chest.  “Even she cannot do this, not at this pace, not for so many months… what cannot continue forever must eventually stop, and I fear the consequences when it does.  You have to do something.  She won’t listen to me.”  McGonagall leaned in closer and spoke some more, but Hermione could only make out the words, “poisoned her mind.”

Hermione grit her teeth, and returned her attention to the middle-aged man in front of her.  He’d had Dragon Pox last year, and it hadn’t been treated properly, leaving him with weeping sores all over his skin.  She concentrated on transfiguring them into healthy flesh.

For his part, Harry remained silent and grim.  He didn’t look at Hermione -- he probably knew she could hear.  He just shook his head at McGonagall and kept working.  Eventually, he placed his hand on the child in front of him, placing the special glove he wore on the girl’s chest.  The glove concealed the Stone, which was almost entirely buried in a specially-made Extension Charm on the palm.  One last precaution, notwithstanding all of Alastor’s traps in the entrance corridor and the strict limits on who was even allowed to be here and the fact that everyone was supposed to be stunned or sleeping.  Harry had to touch all of their patients, and expose the most valuable and powerful artifact in the world to them when he did.  This was their best solution to that dilemma.  It wasn’t perfect: they were healing a dozen people a day, now, but Harry wanted to increase that by an order of magnitude.  They’d need a new solution, soon.  Hermione felt weary just thinking about that.

After a while, the headmistress left.  Hermione tried to put it out of mind, and called out, “Harry.”  Without needing further prompting, the boy with the lightning scar rose from the bench where he was sitting and walked over to her.  He put his hand on her patient’s chest, and left it there.

“What did the headmistress want?” she asked him, keeping her voice level.

Harry didn’t take the bait, and kept his attention on the man in front of him.  “Just about the schedule for the Science Program.  It makes her nervous… she’s worried that the first few years of graduates won’t get any kind of proper education -- leaving the standard Hogwarts curriculum and going to our untested new one.  And she told me off again about the Houses thing.”

Harry had floated the notion of the Science Program being resorted into new groupings, to build new loyalties and break the bad old patterns.  He’d said that it was important to have the right kind of heroes, and had proposed Talleyrand House, Newton House, and… two others.  She was tired, and couldn’t remember which other Muggles he’d suggested.  It didn’t matter.  Harry was literally the only one in any of the planning meetings for the Program who’d thought this was a good idea.  McGonagall had been downright offended, in fact.  Hermione had expressed her disagreement for the added layer of complexity with a John Gall quote: “New systems mean new problems” (Systemantics, page 29, her brain automatically supplied).

She didn’t want any new problems.  Her life was a single difficulty, sharpened down to a point and stabbing her through the heart.

“Fine,” she said.  She avoided his eyes.  “I think I’m done for the day.  I’m going to go to the library.”

“Try to rest,” Harry said, quietly.

She nodded, but she wasn’t tired.  Not physically.  She felt a… moral exhaustion, she supposed.

This must be, she thought as she walked down the corridor, something like what charitable adults must feel.  If you make £20,000 a year, how much did you give away?  Maybe you keep enough to live comfortably, and then donated the rest.  Keep £18,000 and donate £2,000 to OxFam.  But why not £2,001?  Why not £10,000 -- you could live well-enough on the other half of your income, and those thousand of pounds might save a life.  Where did it end?  When did you relax and say that you’d done enough?

There was always room to be a little bit more ethical, Hermione thought.  Just like in Harry’s hospital -- the “Tower,” as she’d heard the aurors call it synecdochally -- there was always going to be room to heal more people.  Certainly they were never going to be able to heal everyone in Britain, much less the world… but Harry kept pushing to increase the number of people who were portkeyed in, every day.  He urged more from the pairs of aurors at St. Mungo’s and Godric’s Hollow, where they chose the desperate cases who needed Harry’s unique healing ability.  He had grand plans for expanding the staff and hiding the Stone… he was always pushing.  Trying to be a little bit better.

But Hermione had a different worry.  It was the worry that drove her to twenty-eight-hour days for weeks at a time, and that led her to wrack her brain for every possible trick or thought or fact that might serve her.  Because in the meantime, minutes were ticking away.  Minute after minute after minute… and in those minutes, people were suffering.

Hermione worried that she hadn’t done enough.

She should have been able to cast the True Patronus spell, by all reason and reckoning.  There was no excuse.  She could let herself forget about donating to OxFam since she had no income -- and because she was directly helping to save lives -- but there were nine people who were being tortured, and that was on her shoulders.  Hermione hadn’t been able to do what she should be able to do, and the time was past when she could shrug off that responsibility and turn to her elders.  Alastor almost certainly couldn’t learn the True Patronus.  Nor could the headmistress, or Madame Bones, or any of the aurors, or Neville, or the twins.  Trying to teach them would have destroyed their Patronuses, and probably failed to teach them anything new.  To look squarely at death without flinching… to see it as a thing to be overcome and surpassed… to reject death on some fundamental level... it was a way of thinking that even she could understand only in theory.  She couldn’t pretend differently.  She couldn’t pretend this was anyone else’s responsibility.

So Hermione drove herself.  To devise new strategies and ways of thought, or to sway the Wizengamot on another of the prisoners -- she knew all of the remaining victims by name and foul deed, with such intimacy that she felt she knew them, though they seldom had the strength to even speak to her when she visited -- to try to do just one more thing to fix it.  Those minutes were ticking away, each of them agony, each of them one more minute she might have been able to stop.  If she hadn’t failed.

She was back in her rooms.  When had that happened?  She’d intended to go to the library.

Hermione sat heavily on the bed, instead.  She felt as if she were going mad.  But she couldn’t do that, either.  She didn’t have that luxury.  Minutes were passing.  Minute after minute.  One more minute, every minute, that she wasn’t fixing this.

At some point, she fell into a sleep that was so deep that it was like plunging into a pit.  She was drawn down into it, and knew nothing.


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Hermione dreamt.

She was climbing a mountain with her son.  She knew that fact, somehow, in the way of dreams -- a knowledge that was in her bones.  Her beard was long, and she had seen nearly a century’s worth of suns, but those things were not what made her steps heavy.  It was despair.  She was leaden with sorrow.  Was this real?  Had this ever happened?  It didn’t seem to matter.  Sand shifted under her sandals, and they climbed the mountain under the hot sun.

(and Hermione, who had only ever been to mass once -- at Guildford with her grandparents when she was six -- but whose reading had been all-encompassing, stirred uncomfortably in her sleep, and murmured to the cold and empty room)

There had been something terrible asked of her, and she knew that she didn’t have the strength for the task.  They climbed the mountain anyway, since what else could she do, and she laid a hand on her son’s back from time to time, in her affection for the child of her old age.  When she thought of her wife, it was like a blade in her side that made her gasp, because there had been something terrible asked of her.  And she knew that she would fail.

(she moaned quietly again, and the muscles of her legs tensed, and when she rolled a bit onto her side, her hair stuck to her face in dark ringlets)

The dark-stained stone was on the southern peak, and as they mounted up to the top of the dusty trail, she tripped and fell.  Her boy caught her arm and held her up, and she found her feet and squeezed his forearm in her hand for a moment, in gratitude, before she let go.  He smiled at her, looking at her with his strong good looks beneath his sun-blonde hair.  Where is the sacrifice, Father, he asked her.

(she was thirteen and too much had been asked of her, too much and it wasn’t fair, and even asleep she knew it, but she fell into stillness once more, four soft words on her motionless lips, unspoken)

Something terrible had been asked of her, but she could do naught but each next necessary thing, until the moment came when she could do no more.  She quieted her child and they prepared the wood, setting it in place, sweet-smelling fig wood from their grove.  She took the boy and she bound him with strong cord, silencing him with a sad and stern glance when he protested.  And the knife was in her hand now, without ever being drawn, as a dream may do.

(tears on dark lashes)

But now was the time to do right and to be strong, and she had not the will.  For she knew that she should disobey -- that by every law of heart and soul she should disobey -- but she had built her life on obedience and she could not relent now, that was an extravagance beyond her ability, she who had thought of herself for decades as the one who obeyed.  For what would her life be, if she turned away -- turned to a new path, alone?  How much would her family suffer?  What price would they pay in consequence of her choice?  She knew what was right -- she knew she should throw down the knife and go out by herself, and damn the consequences damn the consequences -- she knew the right thing but she could not do it.  She must obey.  The knife.  It was raised.

(four words on her lips)

But at the last, at the last--

(four words on her lips)

--she looked at the bright knife.  She paused.  She found that there was mettle within her, hard and strong--

(four words on her lips)

--and there was only one way to pay, to hold true to everything, and so she tore her son’s bonds away and raised the knife and plunged it into her own breast, and there was no pain but only the exhilaration, at last at last at last, and she called to the mountain with a roar of defiance as it shook around her, “Despise not this sacrifice -- I will pay all debts!”  There was a hole in her but no blood poured forth, instead there was light, there was fire…

And Hermione awoke, jerking upright with a frenzy, pawing at her chest and shrieking into the stillness of the ancient school the four words on her lips, the ones that lay in her heart under the weight of frustration and pain and sadness and exhaustion.

Not one more minute!”

And the call of a bird answered her from the night sky, beyond, piercing and pure like the voice of a god.

Hermione sat upright, panting.  She was fully clothed, her robes were muggy with sweat, and she felt filthy.  But she felt… okay.  She’d made a decision, and now it didn’t matter how bad things got.  She would be alone, but she would be okay.

It was like being a little kid and playing outside in the hot sun, running around and getting sticks in your hair and dirt all over your face, but knowing that when you were done, you could leap into the pool and it would be cool and clean and none of that would matter.

Once you just committed, you didn’t have to worry.

Hermione scooted to the side and swung her feet down from the bed, her breath slowing.  She stood up, tugging her robes away from her neck and loosening them, as she walked to the window.  She knew what she would see.

Guilt had hung heavy on her for months, and it was a relief to have certainty at last.  She wasn’t religious -- didn’t even know how that would work in a magical world -- but she believed fiercely in doing the right thing, no matter what.  In her dream… well, that analogy from her subconscious was imprecise, but the emotions were right.  The decision was right.  She had a plan… one she’d floated last month, in desperation.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum, in the words of Lord Mansfield.  Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.  She would go and try and be damned.  They’d tried everything they could think of, after all.  There was just one last step to take.

Hermione pulled the window up and open with one hand, and leaned out.

He was the size of a swan, perhaps.  His feathers were scarlet and gold, thrusting bright sparks into the moonless night with each mighty beat of his wings.  His beak was black and nearly straight, with no raptor’s hook to it.  Flames gamboled in his warm wake, careless and free.  His eyes were kindness.

Don’t be afraid, Hermione Granger, the Sorting Hat had told her, more than a year ago.  Just decide where you belong.

She backed away from the window, and the phoenix streamed through with a swoop like a sudden dawn.

The phoenix called again, and in the small room it was huge and proud.  It said the first word from every phoenix to every chosen person:

Come.

Hermione smiled.  She picked up her wand and pouch, and reached out her hand.  The flames kissed her palm, and then there was a great clap of fire and passion.

Granville… his name is Granville, she thought with a flicker of amusement.  They vanished.


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

“Mr. Potter!  Wake up!  In Merlin's name wake up!”

Harry looked up from his book.  “I wasn’t asleep, Headmistress,” he said, quietly.  “Has Hermione gone?”

“She has!”  The Scottish voice that spoke from the glowing cat had a hard edge to it.  “What do you know of this?”  Minerva McGonagall had lost so very many of her friends over the years, and so often it happened with strange events in the night.  She’d lost her greatest friend of all, not too long ago.  He shouldn’t keep her in any suspense.

“I heard a phoenix, Headmistress,” he said around the lump in his throat.  He blinked rapidly, his eyes filling with tears.  He'd known immediately.  “Hermione is going to Azkaban.  She couldn’t wait any more, I think.  Draco told me… I didn’t know what to do.  I had to let her decide… you said it yourself before, she was killing herself...”

“To Azkaban?!  Alone?!

“Send to them and tell them to go and...  No, tell them to stay with their Patronuses.  They can do that much… just in case.  That’s for safety.  But… they must let whatever is going to happen, happen.  We can’t...”  He trailed off, and the argent cat flared with light.

“Mr. Potter!”

“We can’t take away her choices!”


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

December 23rd, 1992
11:00 p.m.
Azkaban

She came in fierce tempest… in thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove.

Ten aurors sat in the command room at the top of Azkaban, that black place of death and despair.  Ten aurors who were venal enough to take a despised and voluntary assignment, scorned by Shacklebolt and Bones and Moody.  If none would agree to guard that place, it might have been another reason to close it… it might have made the difference.  But it was quadruple pay, and some wizards and witches were able to make excuses to themselves.

Five slept and five gambled.  But they were all alert soon enough, as Azkaban began to shake.

Hermione didn’t know how much weight a phoenix could bear with its flame -- when it vanished from one point in a fit of fire and reappeared elsewhere.  Granville himself didn’t know.

But whatever Granville’s limits might be, they encompassed great grey spars of rock, selected from Azkaban’s salt-sprayed shores.  The stones were ten or twenty tonnes apiece, dropping from the sky from a kilometer above.  The grim rock and metal of Azkaban endured, but cracked and danced.

Azkaban was an artificial place.  It had been built by a Dark Lord centuries ago, and the Dementors had come to feast on the suffering he wrought.  It was a place of eternal darkness, crafted from pain made solid stone.  When he was defeated, the wizards and witches of Britain had made it a prison, to seize upon the opportunity.  But the essential nature of Azkaban remained.  The sun never rose.  Whatever attack was happening, it was hidden by the night from their sight out the windows.

“What in Merlin’s name?!” shouted Nicomedius Salamander, clutching the head of the bed as he lurched to his feet.  The metal floor of the room screeched as it rolled underfoot, one edge coming free of the VeriWeld and curving upward from the stress.

“Call it in,” barked Hortense Hood.  “Call it in!”  She struggled to the Vanishing Cabinet that linked them to the DMLE, wrestling with her robes to find the key.

Gregor Nimue and Holly Nguyễn were already on their brooms and in the air, the latter calling out, “It’s from above!  Keep the Patronuses up!”  Rescues had been tried before, and most of them relied on the Dementors themselves.  Distract or stun the aurors, and the Dementors would take care of the rest when the Patronuses dropped.  It had never worked, but it was still clever.

“Alarum!  Alarum!” called Salamander into his mirror, as more thunder crashed into the fortress.  “We’re under attack!”

A face appeared in the mirror, a wide-eyed young man that Salamander didn’t know.  “You’re… what?!  Oh Merlin… I’ll get s--”

The man was cut off abruptly and the viewpoint of the mirror whipped around, showing a crazy zigzag of desk and floor and someone’s shirt, and then Salamander was looking at Kingsley Shacklebolt.  The man scowled bitterly.  He was unshaven and missing his trademark kofia.  “Get out of there.  Get out of there and into the air, everybody!”

“Sir, the Dementors!  We can’t… the prisoners!”  Salamander shouted, astonished.  There was another thunderous crash, as twenty tonnes of stone hit Azkaban’s roof with the force of an explosion, and the room rocked violently again.

“Keep your Patronuses active and down there, but get out of there!  We know who it is!”  shouted Shacklebolt.  “Get out man, I say!

Salamander clutched the mirror and shoved it into his robes as he staggered across the room.  “Shacklebolt says to get in the air.  Patronuses active and left here, but everyone up in the air!”  He snatched a broom from the wall rack and threw it to Hood, who had gotten the bars off the Cabinet, then threw another to a second auror.  “Up, up, up!  Get out!  They know who it is -- there’s some plan!”

They were airborne and out in two minutes, eight of them joining the two already aloft.  Hood had paused only to activate the Vanishing Cabinet, but no one had come out.  Protocol was… what had happened to protocol?!

They joined Nimue and Nguyễn in the standard pattern above the Azkaban, two hundred meters up and away, out of reach of the bounce of any crashing meteors.   Wind and rain whipped them until they had charms up.  Comfort was almost out of mind, given what they were witnessing. Nguyễn had her mirror in hand… she must have called in as well.  That was why they weren’t attacking.  That was why they were just… watching.

Something was flitting in and out of existence with roars of flame, leaving a welter of sparks in its wake as it sprang into the sky, and down to the shore, and up, and back, and everywhere from moment to moment.  There might have been a shape there, but it was lost in rain and distance.  “What is that?!” shouted Salamander to Nguyễn.  “Who is that?!”

“I don’t know,” returned the Muggleborn witch, her voice almost too low to be heard over the storm.  “It look like… it’s...”  But she caught herself, and didn’t finish the thought.  Lightning flashed and thunder boomed.

A new pattern had settled in.  One immense spear of rock was being used again and again -- the mysterious flash of flame plucking it out of existence and then stabbing down with it from above, it looked like two kilometers now, hurtling it into one part of the prison’s sloping walls over and over -- in Merlin’s name, was that a phoenix?! -- was Albus Dumbledore here, back from where he’d gone? -- and then struck such a blow that the projectile cracked in half -- but now Azkaban was cracked, the ceiling gaped wide and the walls on that side were falling away in great chunks of metal and stone.  It was unbelievable, quite literally unbelievable, and Salamander performed Jackson’s Disbelieving Test just to see if he was being confunded, but it was still happening.

“The Dementors!” cried Nimue, jabbing his finger at the prison.

A stream of black cloaks was visible, rising from the center of Azkaban, illuminated by flashes of fire and the slashes of lightning that cut through the night.  Several Patronuses yet remained near the top of the building, but their effect was diminished with distance and the creatures were hungry.  He expected it was only natural for them to seek out the disturbance, to feed on it and punish it.

Salamander felt a twist in his guts.  He didn’t know how to feel… didn’t know who this was… didn’t know what was happening.  It was an uncertainty not common to an auror.  He steadied himself against the wind and turned to look at Hood, but she looked stricken, as well.  This was… too big for them…


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Hermione had thought she wouldn’t be afraid, but that was silly.  Of course she was afraid.  She might very well die.  She’d just realized… well, that wasn’t as important as it might have seemed, that’s all.

If they wouldn’t close Azkaban, then Hermione would break it.

She wasn’t certain, but she thought she could use her expectations like a weapon -- like Harry had told her and demonstrated -- to restrain the Dementors while she did this, even if she couldn’t destroy them.  She would batter this prison open, expect the Dementors to leave, and rescue the nine people on the bottom level.  The aurors could guard the rubble she would leave behind, if this place meant so much to them.

Granville clutched her back, easily bearing her weight, his talons gripping the back of her robes firmly and pulling them tight against her chest.  That part didn’t make much sense, of course: biology would suggest that Granville was far too small to do that -- he wasn’t a Haast’s Eagle, for goodness’ sake.  But magic and flame kept them aloft, and the phoenix was so happy and so proud that it shrieked out great glorious cries as they swooped and vanished with cracking bursts of flame.

They would hold for a moment in the air, and she would point at a stone -- did she even need to point? -- and then there would be a wash of heat through her body, as though she were being consumed by fire in a peculiarly pleasant way… and they would be where she’d pointed.  Granville would swoop down, and Hermione would clutch the boulder she’d chosen, spitting out the sea’s salt as it was whipped into her mouth by the wind, and then they’d be burning once more as Granville took them away, vanishing from the world for a thought’s span.

She couldn’t actually lift the rocks, but that didn’t seem to matter: they were scooped up along with Granville and dropped back into reality, a kilometer above Azkaban, to plunge down and smash into the prison.

They did it a dozen times, two dozen times, before she started choosing even larger rocks, and they began appearing even higher up.  Hermione couldn’t see how much damage they were doing, with the lashing rain and little light, but she could see the prison shake and shudder.  She was afraid to get closer for an inspection, even if it was only for a flame-filled moment… she was afraid to get too close to the Dementors.  She was expecting them to stay cowering in the bottom for now, expecting that behavior as hard as she could -- a peculiar feeling, to try to force yourself to believe in a future prediction -- but she didn’t trust that.

There were aurors still down there, she thought; she could see three small creatures of glowing silver.  No, they were there, on brooms.  They weren’t interfering… she’d known -- she’d hoped that they would stand down.  Though they agreed to stand this guard, nonetheless they were the type of person who could cast a Patronus Charm.  There was good in them.  And here, while they watched, they would expect the Dementors to stay in the pit, where they always stayed.  That would help.

Granville didn’t seem to be getting tired… she didn’t know if phoenix travel would ever tire him, or if the burden mattered.  His joyful cries had no trace of weariness or fear. Phoenixes had a purpose, unlike any evolved creature.  Their purpose was right action, regardless of consequences or danger.  Granville looked upon the black bitterness of Azkaban and burned with joyful war.

She saw a thick finger of rock like a spear -- too dark and wet to see what exactly it was made of -- and Granville took her there, holding her firmly, and swooping down from a few feet away, the warm wash of his golden light illuminating everything.  She bumped against the rock and grabbed onto it, her fingers digging into the stone until the crushed grit filled the space under her nails -- and they were gone again, burning up with joy and flame, the whole world reconfiguring in a scarlet eyeblink to place them hundreds of meters above Azkaban… two kilometers or more, now.

Hermione released the stone the instant they appeared -- could she have held on, and dragged the phoenix down with her? -- and it plummeted straight down like a blade, and hit Azkaban with a cracking boom -- Cra-KOOM! -- bouncing away from the impact and bounding down the steep sides of Azkaban’s cliffs, end over end.  That was good.  Again.

They snatched up the finger of rock, now scarred with impact, and repeated the procedure.  Cra-KOOM!  Again and again.  Cra-KOOM!  They could hit twice a minute or so, now, girl and phoenix working in unspoken harmony, united by the battlesong in their hearts.  Cra-KOOM!

They could have done this six months ago, she realized, gritting her teeth as she reached out her arms to clutch the spear-stone.  Minute after minute had passed for six months, and they could have acted immediately after the Wizengamot vote failed.  If you could control where the Dementors went with your expectations, then it didn’t even matter that she couldn’t destroy them, and they could have done this six months ago.  Maybe not without help, and Harry couldn’t have been seen to help if he wanted his plans to stay on track, but she could have taken it on herself.  She could have found others.  She could have done this months ago.

She would never wait again.  Never allow suffering when she could stop it.  Not one more minute.

Cra-KOOM!  went the stone, and Azkaban broke.  She could see it from here, thrust one fist out at the sight, and Granville shrieked a cry of joy that thrilled her to her core, and she shouted wordless exuberance into the wind.

But the Dementors came.

The breaching of the walls had brought them -- or rather, the breaching of the walls had made the aurors expect them to attack.  It was natural, and obvious, and Hermione felt very stupid as she scrubbed the water out of her eyes with her sleeve.  Lightning flashed, and fluttering black cloaks rose from Azkaban like soiled bits of paper caught in the wind.

Granville wheeled, her thought and his joined as one will, and climbed away, soaring quickly as she craned her head back around to see.  Ribbons of flame followed in their wake, and the Dementors rose in a column to pursue.  It didn’t make any sense that the Dementors flew around rather than -- no, what was she doing, why would she even start to think about that, never mind.

She guided Granville up and into the sky as she thought, ignoring the storm and taking a moment’s comfort in the warm touch of her phoenix’s light.  They’re slow and they’re moving in a swarm… I just need to keep my distance.

She focused on a spar of rock on the other side of the island, one blocked from sight now but that she’d noticed before.  A rush of flame burned through her, erupting within her flesh and igniting her clothing, and Granville brought her there.  Looking up, Hermione could see the Dementors following.  She waited… waited… almost a full minute as they swept down in a black cloud of nightmare, and then she seized the rock, and Granville took her away with a tide of fire.

Hermione let the rock fall, so high now that she couldn’t even see the Dementors, and they hung there for a minute, listening to the cacophony of the boulder’s impact.  Granville beat the air with crimson wings, sparks flickering out all around them with each stroke.  I can do this all evening.  Let them chase me... I’ll batter their home until it gapes open, then we’ll fly down and rescue the prisoners, one by one.  She knew intimately where each was located, had been to visit each cell many times (though she hadn’t gone in each one… for a few of them, that had been too much).  And then I’ll crush this hell to dust.

She waited until they could see the Dementors streaming up at them once more, and barked a short, harsh laugh that would have surprised her friends, and then Granville took her in flames to Azkaban’s base, and hung there, beating sparks down and crying a great caw into the storm.  You are death and you can fly, but we are life and we can teleport.  When the fluttering black cloaks descended on her out of the night, highlighted by flashing lightning, she seized the rock and Granville covered them over and through with fire, and they were gone again.

An instant of flame later, they were back in the world.  The dark and terrible world of storm, rushing around them with battering wind and rain.  A world of pain and madness.  No joy, not really, since it all had an end.  An end where you were alone.  Every living thing dies alone.

The phoenix heat in Hermione’s heart flickered and went out as though it had never been.  The boulder fell from her nerveless fingers, but she didn’t even realize it.  Granville made a strangled cry, and his golden flames dimmed.

Distantly, Hermione remembered that aurors were trained to flank their enemies.  To anticipate their movements.

They expected it.

Granville turned them in place, with two faltering beats of his wings, and she saw the Dementor behind them.  A dozen of them had spread across the sky.  They’d been waiting.

The Dementor rushed them, and now Hermione could really see it, and it was a rotting corpse, fingertips peeled away into bone talons, mouth agape with lust and hunger, black cloaking billowing out in the wind behind it.  It had eyes, and they held a promise in them as they met Hermione’s gaze.

Granville shrieked in defiance once more, and beat his wings strongly, but the moment of hesitation had been too long.  The Dementor washed into them and over them and through them, and Granville crumpled in on himself.  His golden flames dulled and his cry caught in his throat, and they were

falling.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Salamander gasped, and it was then he knew what he’d been hoping.  He realized he’d been cheering for that faceless figure of flame and joy, as it smashed Azkaban over and over until the stone flew.  He knew there were good reasons to keep the place open -- he never would have wanted to release Dolokhov or Sarian or the others -- but… to see this…

The golden glory of fire that had burned like a small sun over the prison had faded into faintness, and dropped out of sight.

Hood and Nguyễn shouted as well, and Salamander wasn’t sure if they felt the same as him.  Nguyễn looked stricken, though, when Salamander looked over at her.  She looked sick.


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

There was a moment’s relief -- a few second’s respite as they plunged further away from the Dementor.  Hermione spun and tossed in the wind, and screamed.  Granville’s light flooded back, gold and crimson illuminating them once more, and he caught himself back up into flight with a beat of his wings.  Hermione fell, and Granville pulled into a dive after her.  Dementors surged towards them, their cloaks whipping behind them as they plunged towards their meal.

Hermione fell for six seconds.

It was long enough for her to snatch her wand from its holster in her sleeve, to pull it free.

It was long enough for Granville to call out, shrieking with a cry that split the night as surely as any lightning.

It was long enough for her to remember.

I’m not sure I really believe that death will ever end, she thought, as she fell towards Azkaban.  There will always be accidents, even if we get to the point where we sail the stars and forget about age.  And I think I’ll always be afraid of dying alone, and no happy thought is ever going to put that out of mind.

Her robes whipped wildly as her wand came to hand.

I don’t really reject death as the natural order, since it’s a part of the universe in a deep way.  Even if humanity evolves past it, there will be suns and galaxies that die and are reborn.  In time, there would be an end to the world, and its magic, and that would be a death even if humans survived it to soar out into space.  And there will always be people who want to die… just to leave pain behind.

I don’t agree with Harry, not exactly.

Her fingers slid along the wand, just the right way.

Harry’s thought isn’t my thought.  But I have my own.  Since I do think death shall be mastered, if not ended.  I have my own thought.  Just like everyone has their own way to do the regular Patronus.  The True Patronus is about defeating death… believing that we will overcome it… death as a thing to master and leash to our will…  we just need to work together… we can do it… I can do it…

Because even if it seems impossible now...

Her hand thrust forward.

I can do anything if I study hard enough.

And she whispered into the wind.

“Expecto Patronum.”


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Salamander’s breath caught in his throat when he saw the light which erupted from the tiny falling figure.  It began as an argent glow to join the phoenix flame which had surged down to catch the caster.  The silver light of a Patronus, shining and proud, and giving him hope again.  .

But it wasn’t right… because it was neither mist nor animal.  It was just a roar of silver light, blooming brighter and brighter until Salamander couldn’t even look at it anymore.  He looked away, and saw the dark waters of the shore illuminated by argent.  It was unlike anything he'd ever seen.  It was like a story of old.

The light began like a bright star, dropping down into the prison, but in moments it had flared up -- it flooded forth with argent power...

And for the first time in all the centuries since the vile fortress had been hewn from hatred and had risen from the ocean, dawn had come to Azkaban.

The silver light covered the world.

It washed over the aurors with peace and happiness and possibility, and it felt comfortable on Salamander's soul -- it felt like the parchment of a well-loved book.  It touched everything with a comforting hand.  It was day: a day of beauty and silver and joy.

When it receded, the Dementors were gone.  Even though that was impossible.

And Azkaban had fallen.  Even though that was impossible.

Entire floors had cracked and peeled open and pulled away, leaving only the jagged stub of the bottom three levels.  Rubble and metal gaped open.  Azkaban had fallen.

The light shrank back down to a bright star of joy, and then its fall was arrested as it mixed together with the scarlet flames of the phoenix.  The twin lights caught each other and joined and flowed into a single glow of laughter and justice.  The united glow climbed back up into the sky, and hung there like a new polestar.

Though it was his place to obey and to guard, nonetheless Salamander felt joy.  He had to feel joy… he didn’t think anyone could be touched by that light and feel anything else.  He saw that all the others felt the same, as he glanced around, squinting against the wind.  There were smiles on everyone’s faces, mixed with astonishment or outright awe.  He blinked rain and tears out of his eyes, and wondered at what they'd seen.  Wondered at what that was: that new light in the sky.

He saw Nguyễn mouthing something, and this time he understood it perfectly, despite the rain and night and tumult.  It was his answer.

“Goddess,” Nguyễn said.  “It’s a goddess.”
















And death shall have no dominion.

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
-- Dylan Thomas

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