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Wormtail was knocked backwards upon the floor, he put his hands over his head to protect his face as the enraged stallion rose above him. Moon Fire was deep in a red rage, all he could see was Harry lying limp on the floor, and smell the sharp bitter tang of blood from a cut upon his head. The stallion slammed his hooves down, kicking Pettigrew hard in the ankle and also in the ribs. Wormtail screeched in agony and tried to roll away. Moon Fire whistled loudly in warning and he froze, sobbing and blubbering like a cowardly fat baby.

Gradually the red mist started to clear and the professor's mind began to assume control of the horse shape. He recalled everything that had happened while in his horse form then, and he knew that if he did not change back, he might kill Pettigrew too quickly. And he wanted to make him suffer, as payback for all the little rat had done. So he forced himself to turn away and not smash Peter's head in.

He did, however, stamp upon the little rodent's wand and smash it to bits.

"No! Not my wand!" wailed the Animagus, peeking out from between his fingers. He began to moan and rock back and forth, crying whether from the pain of his injuries or from losing his wand, Severus didn't know or care.

Moon Fire bared his large teeth and the rotten Animagus whimpered and quit trying to get up.

Harry stirred and tried to sit up, groaning at the pain in his head.

Moon Fire abruptly transformed back into Severus.

Wormtail had his hands over his face still and Snape quickly cast a Full Body Bind on him before turning to kneel before his stricken ward. "Harry, lie still. You hit your head pretty hard, don't try and move yet." He gently slipped an arm about Harry's neck and supported the woozy child.

"S-Severus . . .I mean Professor . . ." The green eyes blinked in confusion and one hand lifted.

"Hush." He caught Harry's questing hand and gently placed it on his chest. "Don't touch, you've a cut on your scalp that's bleeding pretty badly." As he spoke, Severus muttered a Blood Halt spell and tapped Harry's head. "Now, let's see about fixing your head. You have a knot the size of a goose egg back here." He carefully eased Harry onto his side and said, "Don't move, I need a minute or two."

Harry groaned but obeyed. "Ohhh . . .feels like I've got hammers pounding my skull and my stomach . . ." He sucked in a breath, began to cough, and then he threw up.

Severus held his head, murmuring, "All right, son. Easy. Breathe. Damn, I wish I had a potion to give you."

Harry retched again, the throbbing in his head making him nauseated. "Sorry . . . don't mean to be so much trouble . . ."

"Stop apologizing, for heaven's sake! It's not your fault, you're lucky you're not unconscious, or in a coma." Severus scolded very gently. "Foolish boy! All right now?"

"Yeah." Harry said shakily.

He heard Severus murmuring a Healing Charm and then felt the warmth and light of the spell flow over him, mending and restoring. He let out a gasp of relief and turned over. Severus helped him sit up. "You're back! I didn't think you would ever—not after what happened and what that bloody rat bastard did to you—are you healed?" Abruptly, he hugged his guardian.

Startled, Severus froze, for this was the first time Harry had voluntarily done that. Then he awkwardly hugged his ward back. "Not . . .completely. I'm still quite sore." He recalled Harry leaning his face into his mane and whispering, "I love you." The Potions Master patted Harry's back. "I'll be fine."

"What about Wormtail?" Harry asked, glaring at the frozen wizard. "Now he knows . . .I-I called your name . . ."

"That won't matter," Severus said grimly, a hard look coming over his features. He rose to his feet and helped Harry up. "Here." he handed Harry a wet handkerchief.

Harry wiped his mouth with it and shook his head. Snape must have a handkerchief store inside his pockets. "Why won't it matter? Are you going to . . .kill him?"

"I should. He deserves to die, but I have a debt to settle with him first. What goes around, comes around, Wormtail." Severus declared coldly. He snatched a whip from a hook on the wall. "I remember every cut you gave me with this, you skulking cowardly bugger. Now it's my turn."

"Professor, are you going to . . .?"

"Leave, Harry. You don't need to see this."

"I'm no coward, sir."

"Do you want to watch?"

"No."

"Get out."

He waited until Harry slipped out the door before using a charm to lock it. Then he freed Pettigrew from the Body Bind.

"You . . .you're letting me go?" squeaked the other.

"Hardly. I just don't like tying someone up when I punish them. You're free to duck if you can." He pointed his wand and cast a Silencing Charm. Then he raised the whip.

Harry huddled outside, after he had rinsed out his mouth, and he wondered what was going on in the barn. Oh, he could guess, and it wasn't that he didn't think Pettigrew deserved it, but it made him feel . . .uncomfortable. He wondered why he couldn't hear Pettigrew crying then remembered Silence spells.

Five minutes later, Severus emerged. He looked pale and drawn, but his eyes gleamed with a sort of savage satisfaction. "My secret is safe, Harry."

"You killed him?"

"No. I did worse. Have a look."

He swung the door wide and Harry gasped.

Moon Fire stood in the stall, covered in whip cuts, his eyes rolling.

"But that's . . .how did . . .?"

"I Transfigured him into Moon Fire, and since he can't speak in that form, no one will know who he really is. Whatever Lucius was going to do to me will be done to him instead. I believe he wished to feed me to a flying tiger. A fitting piece of justice, yes?"

Harry whistled. "Merlin, professor but that's so . . .wickedly clever!"

Severus smirked diabolically. "I thought so." He started to walk up the path to the manor.

Harry caught his sleeve. "Hey! Where are you going?"

"To remove Draco and Miss Granger from that house of misery. Are Lucius and Bellatrix still there?"

"Yeah. But Professor Snape, you can't just walk in there! You'll give yourself away as a spy!" Harry warned him.

Snape halted. "Blast it all! How could I have been so stupid? It's not time to take the mask off yet." He drew a hand over his face. "Thank you for reminding me, Harry. I think my brain must be muddled by the aftereffects of the transformation back to myself." He also had a colossal headache.

"Nobody's perfect," Harry told him.

"I try though," sighed the other. "Much good it's done me. Very well, Mr. Potter. That means you need to go into the manor and get Draco and Miss Granger and bring them back out here. I'll be waiting in horse form. Think you can do that?"

"Sure I can," Harry assured him. "I've been sneaking around there for days and nobody knows except for Draco and Hermione."

Severus' mouth twitched into a reluctant grin. "A neophyte spy, who would have thought? Be careful. If you need me, call."

Harry lifted his hand in a wave.

Severus watched as he disappeared into the manor, then he transformed back into his stallion form and galloped over to the small hayshed where Jasmine was and blurred back into human form. He unlatched the door and released the mare from her cramped quarters and Jasmine whinnied in greeting and followed him out the door and towards the stable.

Then he transformed back into Moon Fire and grazed lightly, he was hungry and still feeling a bit tired from the magic he had cast. Together, the faithful Arabian and he would wait for his ward's return. He hoped Harry would come back soon. But if he didn't, Severus was going in there after him, and to hell with his cover. He wouldn't let anything hurt Harry, not on his watch.

HPSSHPSSHP

Harry crept up the stairs and went to unlock the door to the attic first and wake Hermione. He would never forgive himself if something went wrong and she remained a captive of these sadistic bullies. He lit the room with a small light spell. He found her curled on her side, the attic was like a furnace, she had beads of sweat dripping down her face because there was no air condition and no window to let in a night breeze.

Bloody turds! They're lucky she hasn't gotten heat stroke or something, being cooped up in here this way! The heat and musty old scent brought to mind the way the cupboard used to stink in the summer and how awful it would be when he had to go to sleep at night. I used to pray for a breeze to come through the house . . .

He bent to shake her shoulder. "Mione? Wake up."

"Huh?" she gasped as he put a hand over her mouth.

"Shhh. It's me, Harry. It's time to get the hell out of Dodge, if you know what I mean." He removed his hand and lit up the room more.

"Harry? What are you doing?"

"Breaking you out of prison, obviously," he drawled.

She was dressed in just a T-shirt, it had been too hot for her to sleep fully clothed. Blushing, she drew the sheet up and whispered. "Turn around, please. I'm not . . . decent."

Harry immediately turned around, also blushing. Though a part of him wondered about how she looked without her jeans on . . .

Hermione dressed quickly, it didn't take long. "Is Moon Fire better?"

"Yeah. He's remembered himself. I'll tell you everything later." Harry whispered. "We have to go wake Draco. He knows how to get your wand back from Lucius."

"Okay." Then she hugged him and kissed him full on the mouth.

For one moment he froze, and then he was kissing her back. She was hot and slick with sweat and her hair was frizzing out all over the place, but to Harry she had never looked more attractive. He could have kissed her all night, but then he recalled his mission and reluctantly drew away.

Then he recalled she shouldn't be seen and flung the cloak over her as well.

She clasped his hand and grinned up at him. "Now why do I get the feeling of déjà vu?"

"We've been down this road before . . .but at least here there's no mangy cat to trip us up."

"And we don't have to fear Professor Snape catching us out after curfew. Oh, Harry, I'm so glad he's come back to us. Because we could . . .we really need his help."

"I know. Shhh. From the sound of the snores, Bella's asleep, but better safe than sorry."

They crept down the attic stairs and into the hall, locking the door behind them.

Hermione gulped great lungfuls of cool air. It felt so good on her flushed cheeks and neck. She suddenly wished she could jump into a pond or a cold shower right then, she felt so grubby and grungy. She hoped she wasn't sweating like a horse, because that was so unattractive.

I'm such a ninny, worrying about how I look . . .and smell . . .when we're running for our lives. Get it together, Granger! She gave herself a mental shake and then concentrated in keeping time with Harry's footsteps. Luckily he wasn't that much taller than she was.

They reached the door to Draco's room, and Harry turned the knob and entered.

Draco was dozing, he was hot as well, though his room was much cooler than the attic. Harry supposed something had gone wrong with the air condition, or the cooling spells or whatever. Draco slept all sprawled out, wearing only a pair of boxers. His skinny chest was marred with a few white lines that Harry knew instinctively hadn't come from normal scrapes.

"Draco! Psst! Wake up!" Harry shook his shoulder.

Draco opened his eyes and stared at Harry. "Potter! D'you know what time it is?"

"Time to get your arse out of bed and help me. We're leaving. You coming?"

"I thought we were going to wait a few days?"

"No. Plans have changed. Come on. We need to get Hermione's wand back."

"Give me a minute." Draco grabbed his wand off his dresser and waved it over himself. His clothes flowed on and then he pulled on his shoes. "Is she out?"

"In the hall, under my cloak."

Draco nodded, then led the way into the hallway. "Stay here, Potter. I'll be back in a second."

He carefully walked over to Bellatrix's room and unlocked the door.

"Here," Hermione handed Harry the cloak. "I need my wand back as soon as possible." She then went and followed Draco.

Harry slipped on the cloak and wished he had a spare one for his friends.

Inside Bellatrix's room, Draco lit his wand by the merest bit and crept over to the lockbox his father had placed beneath Bellatrix's bed. He had discovered its hiding place while snooping about a few days before. He carefully dragged it out and then he paused.

"What are you waiting for?" Hermione hissed in his ear.

He nearly fell over.

"Cripes, Granger! You wanna wake her up?" He indicated Bella, who was snoring like a stuck pig, covered only in a light sheet, her curly hair draped over her shoulder. "Shhh! Let me think!"

Hermione mouthed a "Sorry", then backed away.

Draco hesitated so long that Hermione feared they were going to be there all night. Then he muttered a quick prayer to Selene and tapped his wand in a certain sequence before he chanted a series of Latin numbers. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard a faint "click" and the lid of the box sprang open. He waved his wand in a complex detection charm and found no more spells inside the box. Only then did he reach in and take the wand.

He handed the wand to Hermione and whispered, "Next time keep hold of it. Then he winked at her.

Hermione took her wand and just held it for a moment, feeling a surge of power jolt through her system. She hadn't realized how powerless and well, naked, she had felt without it. She could feel her magic awakening in a glorious sweet rush and her skin tingled with the feeling. Now, Sweet Selene Singing, I am whole! She grinned inwardly at her choice of words, she had seen that phrase used a lot when she had read The Path of Mysteries and it had remained stuck in her head.

Draco shut the box and stood, pushing it under the bed.

Just then, Bellatrix let out a huge snore and turned over.

Both of them froze, not daring to move.

Hermione felt a frission of fear crawl down her spine and her eyes fastened upon the sleeping witch who had been her tormentor for over a week, who had humiliated and degraded her in the worst way, who had tortured her parents to death before her eyes. Oh, how I hate you, Bellatrix Lestrange, you evil, nasty, hag! If I could, I would do to you what you did to them! She felt bile rise in her throat as she remembered that awful night. She would never forget it.

She began to shake. Her hand gripped her wand. Her enemy was asleep, helpless. And Hermione . . .she was free at last.

"Granger, you okay? Come on, let's get out of here. You don't want to wake my aunt, trust me. She's a bitch on wheels when she's woken up."

"Really? Well, so am I." Hermione's mouth firmed. She remembered how many times Bella had taunted her and spit on her and acted as if she were dirt. Then she did something she rarely did. Hermione lost her temper.

She pointed her wand and muttered something Draco didn't catch. A yellow light shot out of her wand and hit Bellatrix in the head.

"Granger, come on! What are you doing?"

"Teaching her what happens when you mess with a Muggleborn, Malfoy!"

Bella stirred and began to moan and . . .growl in her sleep.

Draco stared at his aunt in horrified fascination. "Holy hells! What did you do to her?"

Hermione smirked. "There's a dog that comes around here and barks like a berserker sometimes. I used to hear it."

"It used to belong to the groundskeeper but he died. The Dark Lord killed him." Draco recalled. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"I Switched Bellatrix's mind with the dog's."

"You mean . . .the dog is inside her body?"

Hermione nodded. "She used to always call me a Mudblood bitch. So I made her one. Literally. It won't wear off either, until someone figures it out and Switches her back. Which won't happen for quite awhile. And in the meantime . . .she'll act just like a dog . . .in every way . . .I could have done much worse. Like . . .the Cruciatus."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because . . .I don't want to become like her." Hermione said honestly. "She's a psycho bitch. I'm not." She tucked her wand beneath her arm. "Now let's get out of here."

"Makes sense." Draco said. He had to admire the girl's style. She had cunning as well as bravery. "That's very Slytherin of you, Granger."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

They crept towards the door.

Bellatrix abruptly woke, and started to bark.

Loudly.

"Aww, hells!" Draco swore. He started to run down the stairs.

At that precise moment, Lucius's door swung open as he came out to investigate the racket.

Draco slammed into it and was knocked down.

"What in blazes is going on here?" Lucius snarled.

He stepped into the hallway and saw Draco and then he saw Hermione. His eyes narrowed. "Draco Malfoy, what is the Mudblood doing out? I thought I told you to stay away from her?" His cane was in his hand and he prodded Draco with it.

Draco stood up fast, and stepped in front of her. His heart was pounding and he was thinking Bugger, bugger, bugger! He saw the cane and instinctively flinched. But he didn't cower and he didn't run away. He sensed that here was the chance he was waiting for—the chance to show his father once and for all where his loyalties lay. He pointed his wand at his father and took a deep breath. Selene, be with me now.

I am here, my dragon.

Courage and strength flowed through him and he straightened and looked Lucius in the eye.

"You did, Father. But I'm through listening to you and obeying your orders. I don't care if you are my father, you don't own me. I'm my own person and I don't want to be like you."

Lucius' jaw hung open. "Move aside, you disrespectful whelp!" He raised his cane.

Draco caught it in his hand and shoved it down. Gray eyes met blue. "No, Father. I'm done with you hitting me. I'm not a child that you can spank anymore. I'm almost an adult and I choose my own path. I'm not a Death Eater, I never will be." There was a proud glint in his eyes. "I am Selene's child."

"You dare defy me? After all I have done for you? You dare choose those craven arselickers who dance under the moonlight over me? You are a disgrace! I shall cast you out, you will get nothing more from me, not so much as a cracked Knut! You can beg in the street, grovel in a ditch for all I care! You shall be dead to me! Do you hear me, you little bastard? Dead!"

"I already am, for you killed any respect I used to have when you beat me." Draco said through gritted teeth. He struggled against Lucius' attempt to raise the cane.

"What did the little whore offer you?" spat the irate Death Eater.

"Self respect. Something you never could, for all your pureblood ancestry." Draco returned, fire in his eyes. He was actually standing up to his tyrant father. And it felt so damn good!

"And that's Muggleborn to you!" Hermione snapped.

"Don't you call her a whore!" Harry yelled, but his voice was drowned out by Bellatrix, as she charged down the hall on all fours, barking and howling like a demented werewolf.

For a single moment, nobody moved.

Bellatrix was barking, her eyes all excited and her hair flopping every which way. She had on a skimpy black teddy that was showing white flashes of skin every time she moved, especially when she bounded into the air.

"Arf! Arf! Rr-r-rooww!"

Harry took advantage of Lucius' thunderstruck expression to cast a swift Stunning Hex. In a duel or battle, always seize the element of surprise, Severus had told him. So Harry did.

Lucius went down like a broken-legged nag, hitting the carpet with a dull thud, his cane flying out of his hand to land at Draco's feet.

Bellatrix raced up to Lucius and danced all around him, wagging her butt in the air and then licking the prone Lucius on the face. Slurp! Slurp!

Harry gaped. "What the hell? Has she gone mental?"

Hermione started to giggle. "No. She's a dog. In her mind."

"What? You're not making any sense."

"She Switched Bellatrix's brain with a dog brain," Draco explained, also snickering. "Sit!" he ordered the witch.

Bella sat and then started panting.

"Mione, you're bloody brilliant!"

She beamed at him. "Okay, now it's time to go." She hurried down the stairs.

Draco started to follow, shoving Lucius' cane out of his way with a toe.

"Wait, Malfoy!" Harry called. "I've got an idea. He deserves payback too."

Draco turned. "What do you have in mind?"

Ten minutes later, they had levitated the unconscious Lucius into his bedroom, where they then proceeded to tie him hand and foot to the bed, face down. Draco charmed the serpent-headed cane to whack the Dark Lord's right hand on his bare arse if he so much as twitched. "There's payback for you, Father!" the boy spat. "Let's see how you like it!"

Meanwhile, Harry coaxed the panting Bellatrix up onto the bed. "Come on, Bella! Good doggy!"

Bellatrix jumped up on the bed and made a beeline for the comatose Lucius, jumping on top of him and wriggling and licking.

Harry nearly collapsed laughing. "Man, I never knew she had the hots for him!"

"She's more his type than my mother." Draco said, sniggering.

Bella's gyrations caused Lucius to move, and that triggered the charm upon the cane.

The cane whacked Lucius hard and Bella started barking and howling.

The two boys left the room, clutching each other and laughing fit to die.

They made it down the stairs at last, and Draco muttered, "Damn, I should have woken him up! So he could feel it."

"I'm sure he won't stay Stunned for that long and he'll feel it then." Harry predicted. "Is it possible to die of humiliation?"

"We can pray it is. Too bad that charm on the cane only lasts fifteen minutes. That was a good idea, Harry. Although maybe I should have tossed him into the cage with the winged tiger." Draco said. "Maybe we ought to let it out? Why should it remain trapped there?"

"We've got no time." Harry said. "Besides, the tiger can eat Pettigrew." He told Draco what had happened to Peter, leaving out the fact that the one who hexed him was Severus.

Draco shot him a pleased look. "You sure you're really a Gryffindor, Potter? Because those ideas are worthy of a Slytherin. I think you were Sorted into the wrong House."

"Maybe," was all Harry answered. "Hurry up, Malfoy. I've got Moon Fire waiting at the stables and Jazzy too."

"I hope Granger remembered to saddle them." Draco remarked as they headed out the door.

The boys were pleasantly surprised upon reaching the stables that Hermione had saddled Jasmine, but Moon Fire she left wearing only a halter. "I couldn't put a saddle on him, Harry. He still has lacerations."

"Oh, right." Harry cursed himself for a fool. He wished he knew Healing Charms like Severus.

Suddenly, Moon Fire threw up his head and let out a clarion call.

The stallion's bugle hung in the still air and all three young wizards jumped.

A thunder of hooves and an answering whistle came out of the darkness beyond the pasture and they heard the unmistakable sound of something large galloping towards them.

"What's that?" Hermione cried, her wand in her fist.

Harry grinned. "Wait and see."

A moment later a great white shape appeared, hooves flashing, coat shining like diamond dust as the moonlight struck it, horn glowing.

"OH!" Hermione cried in awe. "It's a . . .unicorn!"

"His name is Amicus," Harry murmured.

Amicus halted a few feet away and tossed his head. Brother, are you in need of my horn?

Moon Fire whinnied an affirmative and stepped over to the unicorn. The two sniffed noses and then Moon Fire bowed.

Amicus touched his horn to the black horse's back and hindquarters. A golden light spilled from it and ran in rivulets down the stallion's hide. When it faded, Moon Fire was thoroughly healed. Even his injured tendon was mended.

Moon Fire straightened, whickered a thanks to his horned brother, then trotted back to stand in front of Harry. Well? What are you waiting for, a personal invitation? Mount, Potter!

Harry stroked the stallion's nose and then he threw the lead rope over Moon Fire's withers. "Uh, Draco, give me a leg up?"

Draco knelt and made a cup with his hand, helping Harry mount the big horse.

Harry settled atop Moon Fire with an easy familiarity that no one else could match.

Draco turned and was about to mount Jasmine, when he hesitated. "Hey, what horse is Granger going to ride?"

"Uh . . ." Harry wondered if Moon Fire would consent to carry double.

Before he could suggest it, Amicus came forward and bowed to Hermione.

His wise eyes met hers and suddenly she felt a strange connection between herself and the unicorn. "You . . .want me to ride you?"

Amicus tossed his head. Yes, child. Mount! Time is flying and we must away ere break of day!

Hermione set a hand upon the unicorn's mane.

No sooner had she done so then she felt the world spin and the next thing she knew, she was astride the great stallion. She shifted in her seat and gripped instinctively with her knees. She had never ridden bareback before and yet she was not afraid of falling off. She sensed that would not happen. She wound her fingers in the unicorn's silky mane and waited to follow Harry and Moon Fire out of the grounds and into Sherwood Forest, which bordered Riddle Manor along one side.

Moon Fire threw his head back and shrilled a wild cry, a cry of joy and freedom. He half-reared, Harry clinging to his back like a limpet, and then he was running, hard and fast, into the safety of the forest, with Amicus a length behind and Jasmine bringing up the rear.

Behind them, a small brown and white Jack Russell terrier scratched and yelped futiley at the front door, trying to get inside.

Hours later, the dog that held Bellatrix's mind was able to accomplish her mission when the master of the estate arrived early, having concluded his business with the Giant King sooner than expected, along with a few more of his faithful followers. Little did he know the surprise that awaited him inside.

There is a reason all three were left alive . . .for now. You'll learn why in a future chapter.
 

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