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        He saw Ron’s silver terrier burst into the air, flicker feebly, and expire; he saw Hermione’s otter twist in midair and fade; and his own wand trembled in his hand, and he almost welcomed the oncoming oblivion, the promise of nothing, of no feeling. . . .

        And then a silver hare, a boar, and a fox soared past Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s heads: The dementors fell back before the creatures’ approach. Three more people had arrived out of the darkness to stand beside them, their wands outstretched, continuing to cast their Patronuses: Luna, Ernie, and Seamus.

        “That’s right,” said Luna encouragingly, as if they were back in the Room of Requirement and this was simply spell practice for the D.A. “That’s right, Harry . . . come on, think of something happy. . . .”

        “Something happy?” he said, his voice cracked.

        “We’re all still here,” she whispered, “we’re still fighting. Come on, now. . . .”

        There was a silver spark, then a wavering light, and then, with the greatest effort it had ever cost him, the stag burst from the end of Harry’s wand. It cantered forward, and now the dementors scattered in earnest, and immediately the night was mild again, but the sounds of the surrounding battle were loud in his ears.

        “Can’t thank you enough,” said Ron shakily, turning to Luna, Ernie, and Seamus, “you just saved —”








        With a roar and an earth-quaking tremor, another giant came lurching out of the darkness from the direction of the forest, brandishing a club taller than any of them.

        “RUN!” Harry shouted again, but the others needed no telling: They all scattered, and not a second too soon, for next moment the creature’s vast foot had fallen exactly where they had been standing. Harry looked round: Ron and Hermione were following him, but the other three had vanished back into the battle.

        “Let’s get out of range!” yelled Ron as the giant swung its club again and its bellows echoed through the night, across the grounds where bursts of red and green light continued to illuminate the darkness.

        “The Whomping Willow,” said Harry, “go!”

        Somehow he walled it all up in his mind, crammed it into a small space into which he could not look now: Thoughts of Fred and Hagrid, and his terror for all the people he loved, scattered in and outside the castle, must all wait, because they had to run, had to reach the snake and Voldemort, because that was, as Hermione said, the only way to end it —

        He sprinted, half believing he could outdistance death itself, ignoring the jets of light flying in the darkness all around him, and the sound of the lake crashing like the sea, and the creaking of the Forbidden Forest though the night was windless; through grounds that seemed themselves to have risen in rebellion, he ran faster than he had ever moved in his life, and it was he who saw the great tree first, the Willow that protected the secret at its roots with whiplike, slashing branches.








        Panting and gasping, Harry slowed down, skirting the Willow’s swiping branches, peering through the darkness toward its thick trunk, trying to see the single knot in the bark of the old tree that would paralyze it. Ron and Hermione caught up, Hermione so out of breath she could not speak.

        “How — how’re we going to get in?” panted Ron. “I can — see the place — if we just had — Crookshanks again —”

        “Crookshanks?” wheezed Hermione, bent double, clutching her chest. “Are you a wizard, or what?”

        “Oh — right — yeah —”

        Ron looked around, then directed his wand at a twig on the ground and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!” The twig flew up from the ground, spun through the air as if caught by a gust of wind, then zoomed directly at the trunk through the Willow’s ominously swaying branches. It jabbed at a place near the roots, and at once, the writhing tree became still.

        “Perfect!” panted Hermione.









        For one teetering second, while the crashes and booms of the battle filled the air, Harry hesitated. Voldemort wanted him to do this, wanted him to come. . . . Was he leading Ron and Hermione into a trap?

        But then the reality seemed to close upon him, cruel and plain: The only way forward was to kill the snake, and the snake was where Voldemort was, and Voldemort was at the end of this tunnel. . . .

        “Harry, we’re coming, just get in there!” said Ron, pushing him forward.

        Harry wriggled into the earthy passage hidden in the tree’s roots. It was a much tighter squeeze than it had been the last time they had entered it. The tunnel was low-ceilinged: They had had to double up to move through it nearly four years previously; now there was nothing for it but to crawl. Harry went first, his wand illuminated, expecting at any moment to meet barriers, but none came. They moved in silence, Harry’s gaze fixed upon the swinging beam of the wand held in his fist.

        At last the tunnel began to slope upward and Harry saw a sliver of light ahead. Hermione tugged at his ankle.

        “The Cloak!” she whispered. “Put the Cloak on!”







        He groped behind him and she forced the bundle of slippery cloth into his free hand. With difficulty he dragged it over himself, murmured, “Nox,” extinguishing his wandlight, and continued on his hands and knees, as silently as possible, all his senses straining, expecting every second to be discovered, to hear a cold clear voice, see a flash of green light.

        And then he heard voices coming from the room directly ahead of them, only slightly muffled by the fact that the opening at the end of the tunnel had been blocked up by what looked like an old crate. Hardly daring to breathe, Harry edged right up to the opening and peered through a tiny gap left between crate and wall.

        The room beyond was dimly lit, but he could see Nagini, swirling and coiling like a serpent underwater, safe in her enchanted, starry sphere, which floated unsupported in midair. He could see the edge of a table, and a long-fingered white hand toying with a wand. Then Snape spoke, and Harry’s heart lurched: Snape was inches away from where he crouched, hidden.




        “. . . my Lord, their resistance is crumbling —”

        “— and it is doing so without your help,” said Voldemort in his high, clear voice. “Skilled wizard though you are, Severus, I do not think you will make much difference now. We are almost there . . . almost.”

        “Let me find the boy. Let me bring you Potter. I know I can find him, my Lord. Please.”

        Snape strode past the gap, and Harry drew back a little, keeping his eyes fixed upon Nagini, wondering whether there was any spell that might penetrate the protection surrounding her, but he could not think of anything. One failed attempt, and he would give away his position. . . .

        Voldemort stood up. Harry could see him now, see the red eyes, the flattened, serpentine face, the pallor of him gleaming slightly in the semidarkness.

        “I have a problem, Severus,” said Voldemort softly.

        “My Lord?” said Snape.

        Voldemort raised the Elder Wand, holding it as delicately and precisely as a conductor’s baton.

        “Why doesn’t it work for me, Severus?”

        In the silence Harry imagined he could hear the snake hissing slightly as it coiled and uncoiled — or was it Voldemort’s sibilant sigh lingering on the air?











        “My — my Lord?” said Snape blankly. “I do not understand. You — you have performed extraordinary magic with that wand.”

        “No,” said Voldemort. “I have performed my usual magic. I am extraordinary, but this wand . . . no. It has not revealed the wonders it has promised. I feel no difference between this wand and the one I procured from Ollivander all those years ago.”

        Voldemort’s tone was musing, calm, but Harry’s scar had begun to throb and pulse: Pain was building in his forehead, and he could feel that controlled sense of fury building inside Voldemort.

        “No difference,” said Voldemort again.

        Snape did not speak. Harry could not see his face: He wondered whether Snape sensed danger, was trying to find the right words to reassure his master.

        Voldemort started to move around the room: Harry lost sight of him for seconds as he prowled, speaking in that same measured voice, while the pain and fury mounted in Harry.

        “I have thought long and hard, Severus. . . . Do you know why I have called you back from the battle?”

        And for a moment Harry saw Snape’s profile: His eyes were fixed upon the coiling snake in its enchanted cage.









        “No, my Lord, but I beg you will let me return. Let me find Potter.”

        “You sound like Lucius. Neither of you understands Potter as I do. He does not need finding. Potter will come to me. I know his weakness, you see, his one great flaw. He will hate watching the others struck down around him, knowing that it is for him that it happens. He will want to stop it at any cost. He will come.”

        “But my Lord, he might be killed accidentally by one other than yourself —”

        “My instructions to my Death Eaters have been perfectly clear. Capture Potter. Kill his friends — the more, the better — but do not kill him.

        “But it is of you that I wished to speak, Severus, not Harry Potter. You have been very valuable to me. Very valuable.”

        “My Lord knows I seek only to serve him. But — let me go and find the boy, my Lord. Let me bring him to you. I know I can —”

        “I have told you, no!” said Voldemort, and Harry caught the glint of red in his eyes as he turned again, and the swishing of his cloak was like the slithering of a snake, and he felt Voldemort’s impatience in his burning scar. “My concern at the moment, Severus, is what will happen when I finally meet the boy!”

        “My Lord, there can be no question, surely — ?”

        “— but there is a question, Severus. There is.”

        Voldemort halted, and Harry could see him plainly again as he slid the Elder Wand through his white fingers, staring at Snape.











        “Why did both the wands I have used fail when directed at Harry Potter?”

        “I — I cannot answer that, my Lord.”

        “Can’t you?”

        The stab of rage felt like a spike driven through Harry’s head: He forced his own fist into his mouth to stop himself from crying out in pain. He closed his eyes, and suddenly he was Voldemort, looking into Snape’s pale face.

        “My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter. Twice it failed. Ollivander told me under torture of the twin cores, told me to take another’s wand. I did so, but Lucius’s wand shattered upon meeting Potter’s.”

        “I — I have no explanation, my Lord.”

        Snape was not looking at Voldemort now. His dark eyes were still fixed upon the coiling serpent in its protective sphere.

        “I sought a third wand, Severus. The Elder Wand, the Wand of Destiny, the Deathstick. I took it from its previous master. I took it from the grave of Albus Dumbledore.”

        And now Snape looked at Voldemort, and Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.










        “My Lord — let me go to the boy —”

        “All this long night, when I am on the brink of victory, I have sat here,” said Voldemort, his voice barely louder than a whisper, “wondering, wondering, why the Elder Wand refuses to be what it ought to be, refuses to perform as legend says it must perform for its rightful owner . . . and I think I have the answer.”

        Snape did not speak.

        “Perhaps you already know it? You are a clever man, after all, Severus. You have been a good and faithful servant, and I regret what must happen.”

        “My Lord —”

        “The Elder Wand cannot serve me properly, Severus, because I am not its true master. The Elder Wand belongs to the wizard who killed its last owner. You killed Albus Dumbledore. While you live, Severus, the Elder Wand cannot be truly mine.”

        “My Lord!” Snape protested, raising his wand.

        “It cannot be any other way,” said Voldemort. “I must master the wand, Severus. Master the wand, and I master Potter at last.”

        And Voldemort swiped the air with the Elder Wand. It did nothing to Snape, who for a split second seemed to think he had been reprieved: But then Voldemort’s intention became clear. The snake’s cage was rolling through the air, and before Snape could do anything more than yell, it had encased him, head and shoulders, and Voldemort spoke in Parseltongue.











        There was a terrible scream. Harry saw Snape’s face losing the little color it had left; it whitened as his black eyes widened, as the snake’s fangs pierced his neck, as he failed to push the enchanted cage off himself, as his knees gave way and he fell to the floor.

        “I regret it,” said Voldemort coldly.

        He turned away; there was no sadness in him, no remorse. It was time to leave this shack and take charge, with a wand that would now do his full bidding. He pointed it at the starry cage holding the snake, which drifted upward, off Snape, who fell sideways onto the floor, blood gushing from the wounds in his neck. Voldemort swept from the room without a backward glance, and the great serpent floated after him in its huge protective sphere.

        Back in the tunnel and his own mind, Harry opened his eyes: He had drawn blood biting down on his knuckles in the effort not to shout out. Now he was looking through the tiny crack between crate and wall, watching a foot in a black boot trembling on the floor.






        “Harry!” breathed Hermione behind him, but he had already pointed his wand at the crate blocking his view. It lifted an inch into the air and drifted sideways silently. As quietly as he could, he pulled himself up into the room.

        He did not know why he was doing it, why he was approaching the dying man: He did not know what he felt as he saw Snape’s white face, and the fingers trying to staunch the bloody wound at his neck. Harry took off the Invisibility Cloak and looked down upon the man he hated, whose widening black eyes found Harry as he tried to speak. Harry bent over him, and Snape seized the front of his robes and pulled him close.

        A terrible rasping, gurgling noise issued from Snape’s throat.

        “Take . . . it. . . . Take . . . it. . . .”

        Something more than blood was leaking from Snape. Silvery blue, neither gas nor liquid, it gushed from his mouth and his ears and his eyes, and Harry knew what it was, but did not know what to do —

        A flask, conjured from thin air, was thrust into his shaking hands by Hermione. Harry lifted the silvery substance into it with his wand. When the flask was full to the brim, and Snape looked as though there was no blood left in him, his grip on Harry’s robes slackened.

        “Look . . . at . . . me. . . .” he whispered.

        The green eyes found the black, but after a second, something in the depths of the dark pair seemed to vanish, leaving them fixed, blank, and empty. The hand holding Harry thudded to the floor, and Snape moved no more.










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