Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I’m just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
< P>The late afternoon sun shone weakly on the Scottish hills surrounding Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. February’s chill permeated the village of Hogsmeade, and icicles dripped slowly onto the cobblestone below. As usual during these days of political unrest, the village was nearly deserted. No one wanted to risk being seen in public lest Voldemort’s supporters should strike. The Wizarding world at large was in hiding, holding its breath, awaiting the next calamity.
The ground around the gates of Hogwarts was muddy and puddle-filled. The iron gates blended seamlessly with the cold gray sky. A loud popping sound disturbed the stillness, causing a few stray birds to caw and flutter from their branches. Hermione and Ginny appeared a short distance from the gates. A moment later, Ron arrived, clutching an unconscious Harry.
Harry slumped to the ground upon impact, and both girls rushed toward him. He groaned as his eyes fluttered open, struggling to fight off the confusion and disorientation. His head throbbed painfully, and he raised his aching arm to shield his eyes from the sun.
"What happened?" he slurred.
"Harry, are you all right?" Hermione cried, sounding panicked. "Was it Voldemort? That hasn’t happened in a really long time. This isn’t good."
Ginny placed her hand on his head and gently smoothed back his hair. "Can you stand?" she asked gently.
Grunting, Harry lifted himself onto his elbows. "I’m fine – just a headache. We should get inside the gates."
Ron reached down to help him stand, but before Harry managed to steady himself on his feet, several more popping sounds rent the air. A handful of Death Eaters, fully robed and masked, stood between the four teens and the gates of Hogwarts.
"There," one of the men cried, pointing.
All four teens dove for the cover of the trees that aligned the road. Harry’s head throbbed painfully, but he ignored it as he drew his wand. He counted five of them before a series of Blasting Curses began hitting the trees where he crouched, splintering the wood. Staying tucked down, he quickly moved back to where Hermione was hidden.
"Are you all right?" he whispered.
She nodded. "Ron and Ginny are on the other side of the road, but I can see two Death Eaters checking over there, as well."
Harry cursed when the tree where he was hidden was struck with a red beam of light, missing his head by inches. He aimed his wand and successfully struck the first Death Eater with a powerful Stunning Spell. The man fell to the ground in a heap. The second one managed to raise a shield before also taking cover behind the trees.
A volley of sparks ignited on the other side of the road as either Ron or Ginny traded Spellfire with one of the masked Death Eaters. Harry saw another robed figure entering the woods in search of them.
"There’s still one guarding the gate," Hermione whispered.
"We’ll Apparate into Hogsmeade and take the tunnel beneath Honeydukes to get back," Harry said. "We’ve just got to let Ron and Ginny know where we’re going."
"Didn’t they block the tunnels last year?" Hermione asked, keeping her wand pointed at the trees behind Harry’s back.
"We’ll worry about that when we get there. We’ll still be safer away from those Death Eaters," Harry said.
Sparks ignited in the trees across the road once again, and he heard Ginny shout, "Stupefy."
Uncertain where the other three Death Eaters were hidden, Harry didn’t want to risk sprinting across the road. He’d either have to leave Hermione behind, or drag her into the open to become a moving target. He couldn’t risk either option. An idea suddenly occurred to him.
He waved his wand in the air in the same pattern he’d seen Tonks use once before, concentrating intently on the message he wanted to send. Prongs leaped from his wand and sauntered across the road, disappearing into the trees.
Harry’s head throbbed, and he had to grab the tree to stay steady. The Death Eater chose that moment to swing out from behind a tree.
"Diffindo," he snarled.
Harry ducked, but he heard Hermione gasp in pain.
"Stupefy. Reducto. Tarentallegra," Harry cried in short order.
The Death Eater managed to block the first two, but had to roll away from the third. While he was dodging, Harry turned and grasped Hermione’s bleeding arm. He Apparated them both into Hogsmeade, directly outside Honeydukes. Ron and Ginny were already waiting there.
"Hermione!" Ron said, reaching for Hermione’s wounded arm.
"It’s all right," she said, wincing. "Let’s get out of here."
"How did they follow us?" Ginny asked, tugging at her necklace. "There isn’t a way to instantly trace Apparation coordinates like that."
"Unless they knew where we were going," Ron said grimly.
Harry’s eyes met Ron’s serious blue ones, a silent communication passing between the two.
"Watch it," he said, pulling the others deeper into the shadow of the store’s entrance as two wizards ran past them on the street.
"I got word that they were just seen at the gates, but they Disapparated. They have to be around here somewhere if they want to get back inside the school. Martin is guarding the gate. We need to start searching the shops," one said to the other.
"That’ll take forever," the other complained. "What are you doing here anyway, Busby?"
"I’ve been assigned here by the Dark Lord himself," the other said, straightening importantly. "Now, go. You, take that side of the street; I’ll start on this one."
Once they were out of sight, Ginny grasped Harry’s hand and tugged him into the sweet shop. "We’d better hurry. It won’t take them long until they search Honeydukes," she said.
"Harry, that was Busby Goyle," Hermione said, her eyes shining brightly.
"I know," he replied, trying to tamp down on his excitement.
"We’ll work out what that means later. For now, let’s just get back inside Hogwarts," Ron said, still trying to stop the bleeding on Hermione’s arm.
Despite his throbbing head, Harry could see pain reflected in Hermione’s eyes. Ron was right. Getting everyone safely back inside the protection of Hogwarts had to take first priority.
"Episky," he said, pointing his wand at Hermione’s arm. "My healing spells aren’t very good, but it should hold for a little while."
"You need to slow down and calm your own heart rate before using the Spell," Hermione said. "I read it in one of those medical journals after I lost my hair."
Harry smirked. "I don’t think I have the temperament to be a Healer," he said wryly.
He led the way into Honeydukes, glancing warily around the interior before allowing Ron and Hermione to shut the door behind them. The store had always been crowded during Harry’s previous visits. The lack of customers made it impossible for the four to sneak into the storeroom unnoticed.
"Children! Blimey, Hal. There are children in the store," an elderly woman cried, hurrying towards them. "Oh, it’s been a right shame since the school didn’t open this year. Parents in town won’t let their little ones outside, and even the mail order business has been right slow. What can I get you? We got a whole new shipment of Sugar Quills just yesterday."
"That’s exactly what we were hoping to find," Ginny said, smiling brightly. "We’ll take a box."
Harry just stared at her, dumbfounded. She elbowed him in the belly.
"We can’t just trick her without buying something," she hissed under her breath.
Harry would never understand her logic, but he paid for the Sugar Quills as Ginny rolled one of Fred and George’s Whiz Bangs behind the counter. It exploded with a burst of thick smoke, knocking several items off the shelves.
"What in the blazes? Hal!" the woman shouted, already picking up jars of sweets and returning them to their proper place.
Harry grabbed Ginny’s hand and led the others into the back storeroom, quickly moving toward a barrel on the floor. Ron helped him push it aside, revealing the hidden trap door.
Ron pulled up the handle, and Harry led the way down the stairs and into the tunnel below. The scurrying sound of small animals moving away from the sudden light filled the silence, causing Ginny to shudder and move closer to Harry.
"What is this?" she asked.
"Secret tunnel into Hogwarts," Harry replied, leading the way into the dark tunnel, his wand held in front of them for light.
"It’s how Fred and George always supplied the Gryffindor Quidditch parties," Ron replied, smiling fondly.
"Fred and George knew about this?" Ginny asked, frowning. "How come they never told me?"
"They didn’t tell me, either," Ron replied, appearing a bit disgruntled by the memory. "They told Harry."
Ginny raised her eyebrow, and Harry fancied he saw a bit of accusation there. "It was during my third year when I was barred from Hogsmeade. I think they just felt sorry for me," he said, hoping a bit of that sympathy would extend to the younger Weasleys.
They were silent for a while as Ginny digested this new piece of information. Harry had forgotten how long the journey was, and they were all panting with exertion by the time they reached the slide that would deposit them by the statue of the hump-backed witch. Harry thought the slide appeared much smaller than it had the last time he’d used it.
He placed his wand against the wall where the opening should appear and said, "Dissendium."
"It’s been sealed, Harry," Hermione said, leaning against the wall. She was pale, and her forehead was damp.
"Alohomora," he said, certain a simple unlocking charm wouldn’t work, but he tried it anyway.
"No, it can’t be something that just anyone could do if they found the tunnel," Ron said. "McGonagall’s smarter than that."
"I suppose I could send a Patronus telling someone to let us out," Harry said, not fancying the idea of having to ask anyone in the Order for help. He supposed there was nothing else for it…the entrance was probably sealed with a spell he didn’t know.
Suddenly, another idea occurred to him.
"Dobby!" he bellowed.
The little house-elf appeared beside him instantly, grasping his hand with glee. "Harry Potter, sir! Dobby is delighted to be seeing Harry Potter safe inside the castle. His Missus Wheezy has been in a right state wondering where Harry Potter and her other Wheezies have gone," Dobby said, his large eyes roaming over each of them and counting them off as he did.
"Dobby, d’you think you could help us out of here? We need to get Hermione up to the hospital wing, only the door’s been sealed," Harry said.
Before the words were even completely out of Harry’s mouth, the wall in front of them dissolved, revealing the opening into Hogwarts.
"Thanks, Dobby!" Harry said, grasping the little elf’s hand.
"Dobby is very good at blocking and unblocking barriers," Dobby said proudly.
"Yeah, I remember," Harry replied ruefully. "Thanks loads, Dobby. I owe you one."
"It is Dobby that owes Harry Potter, sir," Dobby cried, affronted. "Harry Potter saved Dobby and gave him his freedom. Dobby would give his life for Harry Potter."
"Don’t say that," Harry snapped, more harshly than he’d intended.
The others all looked at him, and he turned away from the sympathy in their eyes.
"Do me one more favor, Dobby, and inform Madam Pomfrey that we’re on our way," Harry said, helping Hermione out of the opening. Once all four were in the corridor, Dobby resealed the entrance and disappeared with a ‘pop’.
"You need to let Madam Pomfrey look at you, too, Harry," Hermione said, wincing slightly. Her arm had begun to bleed again despite Harry’s Healing Spell.
"I’m fine," Harry replied, squinting as his head gave a particularly painful throb.
"You’re not fine, Harry. What happened back there? That hasn’t happened in a really long time," Hermione asked, frowning.
Harry shook his head. "Actually, it did. It happened the night the Death Eaters attacked Grimmauld Place."
"What? Why didn’t you say anything?" Hermione shrieked.
"I forgot. There was a lot happening that night. I’ve been thinking about what happened today, though. I think Voldemort was trying to find out where I was," he said, speaking slowly. "He looked through my eyes like I’ve sometimes done through his."
"At that exact moment?" Ron asked incredulously. "Sounds a bit dodgy to me."
"I think he knows I’m staying here in the castle, and I think he knew that I’d left," Harry said. "Pansy and Draco watched us leave."
"You think Malfoy is spying?" Ginny asked, her color heightening.
"I don’t know, but don’t you think it’s odd? How easy would it have been to just send an owl telling Voldemort that I’d left? It would certainly help to put Malfoy back in his good graces, wouldn’t it?" Harry asked.
"I overheard a conversation between them the night Voldemort seized control of the Ministry," Ginny said, absently rubbing Harry’s arm. "Malfoy sounded really panicked about it…I suppose he could have done something desperate."
Harry frowned. "Malfoy might be rash, but he’s not stupid. He knows how Voldemort works. Even if he were to bring me to him on a platter, Malfoy would still end up dead for what Voldemort would see as a betrayal. He isn’t a forgiving sort."
"What about Pansy?" Hermione asked.
"She’s as much of a snake as he is," Ron said, scowling. "But what does she have to gain from spying? Voldemort killed her father. If I were her, I’d want revenge."
Harry shrugged. "I can’t even begin to understand their reasoning for some of the things they do."
"Maybe she thinks she can save Draco by getting Voldemort what he wants," Ginny said, her eyes widening. "I have to admit, I felt a strange connection to her when I heard how worried she was about Draco’s survival. I could understand how she feels – wanting to do anything to help."
"You’d never make a bargain with Voldemort, Ginny," Harry said vehemently.
"Of course not," Ginny said, rolling her eyes. "But I was never on his side in the first place. It would never occur to me that he might let you survive."
They had to stop talking when they entered the hospital wing. Both Madam Pomfrey and Mad-Eye Moody emerged from her office. The matron was as brisk as ever, although her hair was unraveled from the bun she wore at the base of her neck, and her cheeks appeared rather flushed.
"What have you done to yourselves now?" she asked, grasping Hermione’s shoulders and leading her over to a bed. She lightly pushed Hermione down and pulled the curtains around them.
"Afternoon," Mad-Eye greeted them in a remarkably chipper mood for the disgruntled old Auror.
Harry bit his tongue, attempting to hold back a bark of laughter. Ron wasn’t able to do so and began sniggering behind Harry’s back. Only Ginny managed some semblance of control.
"There are a bunch of Death Eaters down by the front gates," she said. "They’re looking for us, and I don’t think they’ll leave without finding us."
Mad-Eye’s magical eye spun, and Harry had no doubt he was somehow peering at the gate.
"I’ll get some Aurors on it at once," he said, shuffling towards the door. "How did you get past them?"
"We used one of the tunnels. Dobby let us in and resealed it," Harry replied.
Moody scowled, but nodded.
"Mr. Moody," Ginny said sweetly. "You have something…lipstick, I think…just there," she said, pointing at his jaw.
Harry and Ron roared as Ginny let her giggles consume her. Moody shot them a wicked grin.
"I’ll take care of that, lass," he said without making any move to wipe it as he thumped from the hospital wing.
Madam Pomfrey emerged from the curtains surrounding Hermione’s bed a moment later. Her cheeks were extremely pink, but she briskly moved through them without making any eye contact.
"You next, Mr. Potter. Miss Granger tells me you tumbled down some stairs," she said, grasping Harry by the elbow and frog-marching him toward another empty bed. Harry struggled to straighten his features. No use hacking her off when she had the ability to subject him to untold medical ‘tests’.
"I’m fine," he mumbled, not meeting her eyes.
"Certainly," she replied shortly. "Aren’t you always?"
Several embarrassing minutes later, Harry was declared fit, and Madam Pomfrey left them in the hospital wing without another word. She slammed her office door with a bang.
"Well, that was certainly awkward," Ron said, guffawing.
"I can’t believe you said that to Mad-Eye," Hermione said, scolding Ginny. "I couldn’t even look at Madam Pomfrey while she was Healing my arm. It was so embarrassing."
The other three chuckled again.
"Mad-Eye went to get some Aurors to check the gates," Harry said.
"Harry, Busby Goyle was in Hogsmeade. He said he was on a special assignment from Voldemort," Hermione said.
"Yeah. I noticed," he replied.
"D’you think whatever it is he’s guarding is in Hogsmeade somewhere?" Ron asked.
"It would explain why Tonks never had any luck tracking him," Hermione said, lowering her voice when she mentioned Tonks’ name.
"Bugger!" Harry said, slapping his head. "It’s not in Hogsmeade. It’s here. It’s in Hogwarts."
"Do you really think so?" Hermione asked, apparently not all that surprised. She didn’t even tell Harry to mind his language.
Harry nodded vigorously. "He couldn’t get inside Hogwarts to guard it directly, so he must have been watching the gates. Maybe that’s how Voldemort knew we were staying here. That’s how the Death Eaters knew to follow us back."
"And he could have seen us leaving, as well," Hermione mused.
"We also don’t know if Voldemort didn’t sense something from me in the first place. I’m really not very good at Occlumency," Harry replied sheepishly.
"About that, Harry…" Hermione said, biting her lip.
"Don’t start, Hermione," Harry said, groaning. "I can’t do it. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work for me." He ran his hand through his hair in frustration.
"I know that, Harry," Hermione said, resting her hand on his arm. "What we have to consider is how we’ll work around that fact before you face Voldemort."
"Huh?" Harry asked, nonplussed.
"What good is it to come up with a plan, only to have Voldemort counteract your every step simply by peering into your mind?" Hermione asked.
"What do you suggest?" Harry asked, narrowing his eyes.
Hermione took a deep breath before stating, "You’re going to have to trust us."
"Trust you? Of course I trust you," Harry replied, blinking.
"No, Harry. I mean, you’re going to have to trust us to know something you don’t. I know you care for us, and you need us," Hermione said, holding up her hands before Harry could interrupt. "I’m not saying that you don’t, but you tend to keep the planning to yourself. I realize that you only had yourself to depend on while growing up, so of course that’s how you respond. For this to succeed, however – you’re going to have to have complete faith in us and that we know what we’re doing. You’ve always been the leader-"
"But the leader has to know how to use the best abilities of all his people in order to win. That’s strategy," Ron said, moving to stand next to Hermione. Ginny joined the two as they all stood facing Harry.
"What are you planning?" he asked warily, not certain he liked the sound of this at all.
"Don’t worry about it, Harry. Just trust us. You go ahead and save the rest of the world – let us save you," Hermione said, her eyes filling.
Harry’s throat grew very tight, and he suddenly had the strong urge to run from the room. He forced himself to remain still and face them. "I don’t think you can," he whispered.
Taking a deep breath, he decided on the spot that they at least deserved the truth about what he planned to do. "It has to be done at the same time – that’s why I think the final battle should take place at the Department of Mysteries. I can use the Veil where Sirius…that Sirius went through." He cleared his throat uncomfortably, battling with himself to keep eye contact.
"How do you plan to get Voldemort there?" Ron asked, rubbing his chin, his ears turning bright red – the only indication of his discomfort.
"How hard can it be? He used my own mind to find me when we were at the Riddle House. I don’t see why I can’t make that work if I just open my mind to him," Harry replied, shrugging.
"It might work," Hermione said, and Harry had the uncomfortable feeling there was something she wasn’t telling him.
"It still doesn’t explain what you’re planning, Harry," Ginny said, fear evident in her eyes.
He didn’t want to hurt her, but he had to come to accept that she’d be hurt no matter what he did. Taking her hands in his own and swallowing against a painful obstruction in his throat, he whispered, "We’d both have to go through together."
"No!" his friends all cried in unison.
"It’s the only way," Harry snarled, blinking back tears of his own. He didn’t want to think about this. He wanted to run and hide from it until after he’d found the last Horcrux. He didn’t want them to make him deal with it now.
"Harry!" Ginny said, shaking her head as tears began sliding down her cheeks.
"I want you all to have the chance to live! If I have to, I would die for you, Ginny," he said, his voice cracking slightly.
"I know, but that’s not going to happen – not if I can help it," Ginny said, viciously swiping her eyes and raising her chin in defiance.
"This is the trust part, Harry. You continue working on your plans for Voldemort and let me continue with our plans. You just need to prepare yourself to trust us when the moment arrives," Hermione said, wiping away her own tears.
"I’ll try. I’m going to see if Mad-Eye had any luck capturing those Death Eaters," he replied. The desperate need to get away finally won out, and he nearly sprinted from them. He had to clear his head and think.
He left them in the hospital wing but stopped outside the door and rested his head against the wall, needing to collect himself. What were they planning, and how much danger would it put them all in? He couldn’t allow them to be hurt. He couldn’t.
Hermione’s raised voice, heavily choked with tears drifted out to him in the corridor.
"We have to try! I don’t care if my only job turns out to be reminding Harry that he’s not alone in this world. If that’s what it takes, that’s what I’m going to do."
Harry shut his eyes and hurried away from them – their love for him filled him more completely than they’d ever know – but he couldn’t allow them to be hurt because of him. He wouldn’t.
I wish I could think of something to say to make this easier for you. I can stand to die, but I can’t stand knowing that I’m leaving you in pain. I’m so sorry.
Believe me when I say I know how you feel.
I’m certain no one really knows how you feel, but I hope, in time, you’ll remember me fondly. I want you to go on, Ginny. I want you to be happy, to fall in love again and someday have a family of your own,
no matter how much I hate thinking about that. I want everything for you, Ginny, because you gave me everything. You not only showed me how to love…you showed me how to live.
Wherever I am, I know that I miss you, Ginny.
And I always will. I’m leaving you my dad’s Invisibility Cloak. Use it well – that’s what the note said when it was given to me. It’s the one thing I have left from my family, and I know you’ll take care of it – like you took care of me.
Harry pushed the letter away, scrubbing his hand across his blurry eyes. He didn’t want to have to say goodbye to Ginny. He didn’t want to say goodbye to any of them. A loud snore echoed across the dark dormitory, causing Harry to let his head fall onto his desk with a thump. As the snore was answered with a chorus of even louder snores, he repeatedly banged his forehead on top of the letter he’d been unsuccessfully trying to write.
He’d managed to fall asleep that evening before the Weasley symphony had begun, but his sleep had been marred by a dream. Not a nightmare, not a hormone-fest as his addled brain had been wont to do of late, but a normal dream. He and Ginny had been walking hand in hand along a sandy beach. A warm summer breeze ruffled their hair, and their two footsteps were the only thing marring the sand as they enjoyed the sunshine.
For such a brief scene, the dream had lasted for what seemed a very long time, and Harry wasn’t certain why that bothered him so much. Perhaps it was his subconscious wishing for things that were never meant to be. Perhaps it was the hope that Hermione’s words had flared within him. He’d begun to hope that maybe he could survive this fight – and he knew he couldn’t afford the luxury of such thoughts – not if he was going to remain strong enough to do what had to be done.
It wouldn’t do to dwell on dreams – no matter how pleasant the dreams might be.
He still had one more Horcrux to find before he could even think about the final battle.
Hermione had said he’d have to trust them.
Trust them? Didn’t he? Dumbledore had said that this great power of his was love. Could that love mean learning to trust in his friends implicitly? …To know that someone else would actually be there to catch him if he fell?
Harry lifted his head from the desk and ran a shaking hand through his unruly hair. He just didn’t know, and he was too tired to think about it anymore.
He felt angry and had nowhere to direct that anger at present. With everything else Voldemort had done to him, did he have to leave a piece of himself behind, too? Was it just to gloat?
And how could Harry have been so stupid to have never seen it? Did other people see through the eyes of people who’d Cursed them? Did they feel their attackers’ emotions? How could he have missed it? Dumbledore had practically laid it out for him in his second year when he said that the reason Harry could speak Parseltongue was because Voldemort had transferred some of his own powers to Harry when he’d tried to kill him as a baby – he’d transferred some of himself.
Picking up Marvolo Gaunt’s ring from out of his backpack, he rolled it in his hands, studying the lightning bolt crack in the stone. The crack looked remarkably similar to Harry’s scar.
He lightly traced it with his finger.
He’d assumed the stone had become cracked when Dumbledore had destroyed the Horcrux within the ring, but what if that wasn’t the case at all? What if the scar had been there from the moment Tom Riddle had placed a piece of his soul inside it. What if the shape marked the item as a Horcrux?
Harry scrounged through his trunk, not caring how much noise he made in the silent room. Finally locating Helga Hufflepuffs cup, he pulled it out and examined it. It was blackened and scorched, so he used one of his socks to try and clean it up. After some time, his diligence paid off. It was difficult to see, but there, on the inside rim was the same lightning bolt mark.
If he still had the locket, he’d bet he’d find it there, too.
So…the item he was seeking was inside the castle, had most likely once belonged to Rowena Ravenclaw, and bore a lightning-shaped mark.
It certainly helped, although the task was still mind-boggling. Hogwarts was a big place, and there were rooms that even the Map didn’t know about – like the Room of Requirement.
They’d spent the past several weeks searching and had barely made a dent in the vast number of rooms within the castle. Hell, there was no guarantee it was even in a room. It could be one of the hundreds of things in the hallways for all he knew. After six-and-a-half years living here, he was still finding corridors he hadn’t known existed.
They’d started in the most likely place – the Ravenclaw common room, but they’d finally conceded there was nothing there. They searched the Slytherin common room next, both Harry and Ron feeling an odd familiarity upon entering the dungeon dormitory.
Harry had watched and re-watched the memory of Tom Riddle returning to Hogwarts to apply for a teaching position and being turned away. He was convinced that Riddle had used that trip to hide his Horcrux inside the castle. He’d known Dumbledore would never give him the job – there had to have been another reason for his visit. Harry had even made an unsuccessful return visit to Dumbledore’s portrait to ask his former Headmaster if he remembered anything else.
February had progressed into March, and all of them were feeling discouraged. They’d come so far…but this last hurdle was wearing them all down worse than the rest of the hunt.
They’d taken time out to celebrate Ron’s birthday by having a feast in the Great Hall reminiscent of the feasts they’d grown accustomed to during the school year. According to Ron, he couldn’t have had a better birthday if he’d picked it himself. The Aurors staying at the castle joined in the celebration, as did the Slytherins, although the latter group sat at a table secluded from the others.
Perhaps the highlight of the night was the arrival of a small group of Aurors bringing a thin and haggard-looking Kingsley Shacklebolt. Madam Pomfrey had ushered him off to the hospital wing before he’d even managed to say hello. Still, it was a small victory for the Light side.
The time since had been spent searching the castle to no avail.
Another chorus of loud snoring shook the room, causing Harry to fling his belongings back inside his backpack with disgust. There was no use trying to sleep here tonight. Pulling his woolen blanket around his shoulders to combat the night’s chill, Harry padded down the stairs toward the common room.
As he passed the room that Draco and Dudley were sharing, he could hear them arguing in harsh whispers. Staying hidden in the shadows, Harry cautiously peered into the room.
The two boys were sitting cross-legged on one bed, a deck of Muggle cards splayed out between them.
"So, this Imprus Curse can make anyone do anything you want?" Dudley asked, leaning forward.
"Imperius," Draco said, sneering, "and yes, that’s the idea. The Ministry deemed it an Unforgivable after the last war, but I’m certain the Dark Lord has changed that."
"Im-per-i-us," Dudley said slowly.
"How can three of one card possibly beat two separate matches?" Draco asked, scoffing. "Are you making these rules up as we go along?"
"No. I’m not making it up," Dudley replied, exasperated. "It’s Poker. Three of a kind beats two pairs. Everyone knows that. It makes more sense than that game you showed me that explodes in your face no matter what card you use."
Draco chuckled, obviously relishing the memory of Dudley’s introduction to Exploding Snap. "Fine. If that’s the way you’re going to play," he said, rolling his eyes and aiming his wand at his cards.
Dudley flinched and shut his eyes.
"There," Draco said, laying his cards between them.
"That’s not fair," Dudley shouted. "That’s cheating. You can’t use magic in Poker!"
"I think I just did," Draco replied, folding his arms behind his head.
"It’s not possible to have two sets of three of a kind," Dudley shouted, his face turning alarmingly red.
Harry pulled his head out of the door and continued toward the common room. He had to shake his head several times to process what he’d just seen. Who would’ve ever imagined that Draco Malfoy and Dudley Dursley would become mates? Harry was certain it was only due to circumstances, but still…
Dudley had adapted much better to life at Hogwarts than Harry would have imagined, although his fascination with the Dark Arts, while expected, was alarming. The teachers who had remained behind had all taken him under their wing, and he was receiving a private magical education while he was in hiding. The rift between Dudley and his parents appeared to widen everyday. Harry wondered what would happen when this war was finally over and everyone went back to their own lives. What would happen to Dudley?
Scratching his head, Harry stopped in front of the one and only empty room left in the boys’ dormitory. What would it hurt if he just slept in there instead of using the couch again? He slipped inside the dorm and plopped down on one of the empty beds, pushing the thoughts of Dudley from his mind. He neither cared nor felt responsible anymore. He didn’t want the Dursleys to be killed in all his mess, but he didn’t feel any desire to know their future plans, either.
Curling into a ball, he tossed and turned before finding a comfortable spot and once again fell into an uneasy sleep.
On a mid-March evening, Harry once again sat in the library with Ron, Hermione and Ginny, reviewing their notes about which parts of the castle had been searched. Harry had brought his backpack with the Pensieve stored inside, and they’d viewed the memory of Tom Riddle’s visit to Hogwarts.
Yet again, they’d come up with nothing. When Harry moved to put the Pensieve back in his backpack, Ginny assisted him by moving several items out of the way. As he lowered the heavy basin into the magically-enlarged backpack, he heard Ginny gasp.
"What is it?" he asked, turning to face her.
She was staring at the small portrait of the Founders that he’d found in the attic at Grimmauld Place.
"I don’t believe it," Ginny said, her eyes widening.
"What?" Hermione asked, peering over her shoulder to look at the portrait.
"We’ve been searching through book after book to see if Rowena Ravenclaw was pictured more than once with a particular item, and it’s been right under our noses the whole time," Ginny said, her face reddening.
"What has?" Ron asked, perplexed.
"Look! On her head – it’s Auntie Muriel’s tiara – or rather, the original," Ginny said, pointing.
"You think the Horcrux is in Auntie Muriel’s tiara?" Ron asked. "But it’s not even real. It’s worthless, really."
"Not Auntie Muriel’s, you dolt," Ginny replied, smacking him on the back of the head. "The original. Why couldn’t it be the tiara that he used if it was significant enough that a copy was made of it?"
"Oww," Ron said, rubbing the back of his head. "Mental, you are. So what if it is the tiara, we still don’t know where to find it, do we? Have you seen a tiara lying loose around the castle anywhere?"
"Yes!" Harry said, sitting bolt upright, his heart hammering in his chest as his excitement mounted.
"What?" Ron asked, dumbfounded.
"You have?" Hermione asked.
"Where?" asked Ginny.
"In the Room of Requirement, when I hid the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions book from Snape. I hid it in there and put the tiara on top of a statue so I could find it again," Harry said, recalling the panic he’d felt that day so long ago.
"You touched it?" Hermione asked.
"Yeah," Harry said, pushing back his chair so quickly it toppled over. He began taking long strides toward the library door.
"Wait, Harry. How do you know it was one if you touched it and nothing happened?" Hermione asked, running after him.
"I don’t," Harry replied. "But I’m going to find out."
"Maybe that’s why you picked it in the first place," Ron said, the only one not panting in order to keep pace with his stride. "Maybe you were doing that sensing thing you do even then without realizing it."
"Maybe," Harry said curtly. "I wasn’t thinking much about it at the time. I was more worried about what I’d just done to Malfoy, and what Snape was going to do to me for doing it."
"Or maybe it’s like the wardrobe in the Hufflepuff museum," Ginny said. "Maybe it only reacts negatively if the magic senses you intend it harm."
By the time they’d reached the entrance to the Room of Requirement, they were all panting slightly – excitement and adrenaline reflected in their expressions. This might be it.
Harry paced back and forth in front of the tapestry three times.
I need to go where my Potions book is hidden.
Harry recited the phrase three times but nothing happened – the door did not appear.
"What’s wrong?" Ron asked.
"I don’t know," Harry said, his frustration building.
"Do you remember what you asked for when you hid it?" Hermione asked, frowning. "Try using the same phrase."
Harry searched his mind to remember what he might have said. He’d wanted to get rid of his Potion book.
I need a place to hide my book.
Harry repeated the phrase three times. He knew from the gasps of the others that the door had appeared. Opening his eyes and wrenching it open, he led the way inside.
"Bloody hell," Ron said, pulling up short as the sight of the massive city-sized room full of hidden stuff. "Look! There’s tons of Fred and George’s stuff here."
Harry turned to see a pile of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes products haphazardly thrown in a corner, as if the owner had been in an extreme hurry and simply dumped the stuff inside. Harry could picture someone being chased by Filch and trying to get rid of the evidence.
"Harry, how do you possibly expect to find it in here?" Ginny asked incredulously. "This is massive."
"I know," Harry replied, lurching down the center alley. "I used some landmarks."
He could hear Hermione in full prefect-mode tut-tutting about all the forbidden objects.
"Some of these things are dangerous," she said, appalled.
Harry turned right at the stuffed troll but came to a sudden stop when he reached the Vanishing Cabinet that Draco Malfoy had used to lead the Death Eaters inside Hogwarts on the night Professor Dumbledore was killed. Its door hung open obscenely, and it was moved slightly into the aisle, evidence that it had been used in the not-so-distant past. Professor McGonagall had said she’d had Professor Flitwick cast a Charm to seal it so that it could never be used again.
Harry clenched his jaw and continued moving, the others right on his heels. The silence amongst them hung heavy in the air. They’d all recognized the significance of that cabinet. He didn’t stop until he’d reached the cupboard with the bust of an ugly old warlock perched on top. A wig and a tarnished tiara crowned the bust.
Before taking the bust down, he opened the cupboard and reached behind a cage with some unidentifiable remains left inside.
"Eww. What is that?" Ginny asked, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
"Dunno," Harry replied, pulling his beat-up old Potions book from inside and flipping through the pages.
"What do you want with that?" Hermione asked, raising her nose in the air and scowling her disapproval.
Harry shrugged, stuffing the book in his pocket. "It might be useful. Now that we know it was Snape’s," Harry said, spitting the word like a swear, "it might give us a clue how to find him."
"That’s highly unlikely, Harry. Even if it did have an address somewhere, it would be his childhood home, not his current address," Hermione said.
Ignoring her, Harry reached up and took the bust off the top of the cupboard, placing it on a rickety old table with uneven legs. He started to lift the tiara off its head, but Ginny grabbed his arm, stopping him.
"Don’t touch it!" she cried.
He shrugged. "I touched it to put it on there and nothing happened."
"Even so…it can’t be you who touches it now. Just in case something goes wrong," she said, wincing slightly.
"She’s right, mate. You have to be the one go on," Ron said.
Harry balked. "Don’t be ridiculous. We have to look at it," he snapped.
"Let me do it," Ron said.
"No!" Harry said, reaching out and grabbing the tiara in his hands. Nothing happened, the metal was cool and extremely dirty.
"Har-ry," Hermione said, stamping her foot. "What have I said about trusting us to do our part and not acting impulsively? Have you been listening to me?"
Harry scowled, knowing she was right yet unable to stop himself. It would only make them angry to know he had no intention of letting any of them get hurt in his place. Closing his eyes, he let his magic flow, feeling the weight of the heavy metal in his hands. His ears were ringing and chills ran up his spine.
"This is it," he said, feeling both nervous and excited.
Ron pulled the Spell Detector from his pocket and placed it on his nose. "Blimey," he muttered. "It’s loaded with Dark Magic."
"Let me see," Hermione said, ripping the Detector off Ron’s face and examining the tiara herself.
"It looks just like Auntie Muriel’s," Ron said, grimacing. "See how those patterns look like spiders?"
Harry used his sleeve to try and polish it, looking for the lightening bolt shape. It was pointless, however, it was too badly tarnished and would need a good cleaning.
"So…if we can hold it without a problem…how do you suppose we’re going to destroy it?" Ron asked, still frowning at the jewel-encrusted piece.
"I wonder…" Hermione said, drumming her fingers on the table.
"What?" the others chorused.
"Well, it’s meant as decorative headwear…perhaps it needs to be placed on your head," she said, cringing.
Harry shrugged, lifting the tiara towards his head. This time, Ron stopped him.
"No, Harry. You have to be the one to battle Voldemort – everything depends on it. You can’t risk an injury. I’ll do this one," he said grimly. "Fred and George used to make me wear Auntie Muriel’s all the time."
"Ron," Hermione said, grabbing his arm.
Harry felt panicked. He didn’t want to let Ron do this, but he didn’t know what else to do. He locked eyes with his friend and solemnly nodded.
With shaking hands, Ron raised the tiara and placed it atop his head, wincing as he did. Although they all held their breath, nothing happened.
"I thought for certain that would work," Ron said shakily.
Hermione grinned, leaning against him. "You do look frightfully cute with that on your head though," she said. "Do you have any other pieces I might want to borrow?"
Scowling, Ron ripped the tiara off his head while Harry and Ginny chuckled.
"What now?" Harry asked, staring at the tiara in Ron’s hands.
Hermione took it from Ron, staring at it in silence for several moments. "I suppose…" she said slowly.
"What?" Harry asked, desperate for an idea.
"Maybe it has to be worn by a woman," she replied.
"What?" Ron asked sharply. "Why would you think that?"
"Well…it did belong to Rowena Ravenclaw and despite your stunning appearance, tiaras are traditionally worn by women. I think Voldemort is sadistic enough to force anyone finding the Horcrux to sacrifice his mate," Hermione said, frowning.
Both Ron and Harry stared at her, gaping.
"Well, do you have any other ideas?" she snapped. "I’ll just put it on, and we’ll see what happens," she said, swallowing heavily.
"No, Hermione," Ginny said, grasping Hermione’s arm. "If something goes wrong, you’re better at figuring out how to fix it. We need you for that. You know it. My magic didn’t register before, so maybe it won’t trigger this – or at least not as strongly as intended."
"No," Harry said, shaking his head. This was getting out of hand.
Ginny scowled at him. "You’ve both tried, and it hasn’t worked. Do you have any other suggestions?"
Harry gaped, wishing inspiration would strike, but he somehow knew they wouldn’t be able to remove the tiara from this room.
"It’s either me or Hermione, and I think she’s the bigger risk on this one," Ginny said firmly. She stuck out her chin, but Harry could see it tremble slightly. For all her bravado, Ginny was as frightened as the rest of them.
Taking a deep breath and flashing an unsteady grin at Harry, she placed it on her head. For a moment it did nothing, and Harry thought they were back at square one, but then it began to shimmer, growing brighter and brighter until the glare was so blinding that he had to shield his eyes.
He gasped, feeling his chest constrict as if he was being crushed. He had the unmistakable impression he was traveling, although it felt nothing like a Portkey or Apparation. He tried to hold out his arms for balance, but found he was completely immobilized.
The room shifted around them, and he felt as if he were spinning out of control. Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, it stopped. His head still spun, but his vision cleared, and a bone-chilling cold swept over him.
Harry blinked several times and noticed that they’d been transported to some kind of ice palace. The cathedral windows with the heavy draperies that had been in the Room of Requirement were still in place, but the walls and furnishings were completely made of ice. The thick shrubbery he could see outside the ice caused him to think they were somewhere in the Forbidden Forest, but he’d never seen anything like it.
Goose bumps arose on his flesh as his eyes frantically sought out Ginny and the others. Ron and Hermione each stood looking around with the same gobsmacked expression he was certain covered his own face, but Ginny remained perfectly still, her mouth frozen in a silent scream.
"Ginny," Harry said, his voice hoarse.
She didn’t respond, but the tiara she still wore shimmered again before transforming into a hissing serpent, coiled around her head. It was black with an obscenely large head and deadened opaque eyes.
Harry froze, while Ron shouted and took a step toward her.
"Don’t move," Hermione hissed, grabbing Ron by the arm.
The snake raised its head, swaying from side to side as if ready to strike.
Ginny’s eyes rolled back, and she collapsed to the floor, her body stiff and shaking violently.
"She’s seizing," Harry said, panic overwhelming him. Sprinting towards her, his Seeker-reflexes allowed him to dart his hand out and seize the snake around its neck before it could bite. Try as he might, however, he couldn’t pry it from her head. He wrapped both hands around the smooth, soft skin, but the snake wouldn’t budge, instead wrapping itself tighter around Ginny’s head and causing her to groan. Harry could see small trickles of blood leaking out from beneath the snake’s body.
Ginny finally stopped seizing and her head lolled lifelessly to the side. Ron grabbed her hand and tried to wake her, but she remained unresponsive.
"Where the hell are we?" Ron asked, panic stricken. "We have to get her out of here."
"I know. I think we’re in the Forbidden Forest, but I can’t get this snake to let her go. I’m afraid to try Cursing it in case I hit her," Harry said, his teeth chattering from the cold.
"You can’t cast any spell at it, anyway," Hermione said. "That…snake is still the Horcrux, however it’s enchanted. There’s no telling what you might do to Ginny if you try a Spell."
"So what do we do?" Harry asked, his eyes wild. He tugged again at the snake.
"Harry, you have to calm down. We won’t do her any good if we panic," Hermione said, her own voice sounding rather hysterical.
Before Harry could even take a deep breath, Ron was tossed into the air and flung several meters across the room. He crashed onto the icy floor and slid into a table made of ice.
Hermione screeched, and Ron barely had time to rise to his hands and knees before the invisible attacker again hurled him into the air. He landed with a crash, shattering an ice pedestal that contained some kind of sculpture. His head began to bleed, and he blinked in confusion, obviously dazed.
"Ron," Hermione said, her breath visible in the icy air. She sprinted towards him, cradling his head in her lap and wiping away the blood as her body began to visibly shake.
"Hermione, don’t move," Harry said, but it was already too late.
His glanced around wildly but knew he was trapped. If he released the snake, it would strike either him or Ginny, if he didn’t, they were both sitting targets for whatever else was in the palace with them.
Hermione’s scream caused him to look up in time to see an ugly gash appear on the side of her face. She hissed in pain and pulled Ron more securely underneath a raised platform.
In the next instant, Harry felt excruciating pain in both legs as something pinched them, yanking him into the air. He was forced to release the snake from the force of the tug, but fortunately, whatever had him moved so fast, it pulled him away just as the snake’s fangs snapped in front of his face.
Harry shouted as the thing released him, dropping him to the floor with a thud. How could he fight something he couldn’t see? He was struck in the chest by a powerful blow and then knocked in the other direction. Whatever it was had multiple arms.
Ignoring his aching ribs, he raised his wand and aimed it in the general direction from where he’d just been thrown.
"Sectumsempra," he shouted. He hoped if he could at least make it bleed, he’d have a better chance of seeing it.
Ice flew in bits and shards around him as several more pedestals were shattered. Harry was struck again, skidding backwards and slipping on the slippery floor. He slid until his body connected painfully into the platform sheltering Ron and Hermione.
He groaned, his ribs aching too much to ignore.
"Diffindo," he snarled, rolling on his side. Nothing happened, and he still had no idea where the creature was.
"Stupefy," Hermione said, aiming her wand behind him.
A high-pitched squeal filled the chamber, causing Harry to cringe and Hermione to slap her hands over her ears. The platform shielding Ron and Hermione splintered into a thousand pieces. Screaming, Hermione used her body to shield Ron’s.
"Leave them alone," Harry shouted, firing yet another Cutting Curse in the general direction he suspected the creature to be.
Sharp pinchers grasped him around the thigh, drawing blood and causing him to swear violently. He was dragged across the floor as the pressure around his leg tightened. He could see the smeared trail of blood across the ice from where he was dragged.
Trying to pull his leg free, he reached out and grasped onto the pincher, shuddering as he felt something hard and thin and slightly furry. The creature flung him in the air and tossed him again. He landed, slightly dazed, beneath one of the high, arched windows. Harry used the heavy burgundy drape to pull himself up, his leg screaming in protest beneath him. His weight was too much for the curtain and it tore off its hanging, bunching in a pile around him.
Dragging it with him, Harry crawled back into the center of the room.
"Come on," he said, panting. "Come and get me now, you bloody wanker."
"Harry! What are you doing?" Hermione cried.
"Shh," he hissed, motioning her to be still. "Come on. I’m right here."
Harry felt something brush against his arm before the cruel pinchers dug into his shoulder. He gasped in pain, but bunched up the heavy drapery and flung it high in the air. It fluttered down and landed on top of the creature, forming the unmistakable outline of a very large spider.
Ron, still delirious, panicked completely. He began kicking his legs as he tried to stand, but couldn’t get his grip and kept slipping on the ice.
"Spider. It’s a spider," he repeated frantically. "Have to get Ginny. Have to get her out of here. Spider."
Hermione desperately tried to calm him, as Harry turned his attention back to the spider.
"Incarcerous," Harry bellowed.
The burgundy material wrapped itself around the struggling spider several times, trapping it in place with heavy binding. He watched as the creature’s struggles finally slowed with its exhaustion.
Grunting in pain, Harry pulled his abused body across the floor and crawled back to where Ginny still lay, unmoving. Frost had built up in her hair, and she was trembling from the cold.
His own teeth chattering, he pulled his torn and bloody robe off his shoulders and wrapped it around her as best he could, careful to stay out of the snake’s reach.
It watched him with cold, emotionless eyes, hissing and testing the air with its forked tongue, although it made no move to strike. Harry conjured a stick and tried again to unravel it from her head, but the snake wouldn’t budge.
Harry’s body ached, and his injured leg throbbed, but the worst agony came from his chest. How was he going to get this off of her, and what was it doing to her in the meantime? He never should have allowed Ginny to help him. He knew this would happen. He knew it.
Ron and Hermione joined him on the floor in front of Ginny, Ron leaning heavily on Hermione, his expression still dazed and confused.
"What are we going to do?" Harry asked, looking at Hermione hopefully and feeling very much like a small child.
Hermione’s worried gaze raked over her three companions, all of them battered and in various states of distress.
"First step is to get that snake off her head," she said, placing her wand to Ron’s temple. "Episky."
The bleeding stopped, and the wound sealed remarkably tightly. Ron groaned and raised his hand to his head. "What did you do?" he asked.
"Just a Healing Spell. I’ve got rather good at them," she said quietly. She turned to look at Harry’s shoulder, but he jerked away.
"Ginny first," he said.
"Harry, I don’t-"
"Ginny first," he insisted, feeling hysterical. "What’s that?"
He pointed to thin red streaks appearing along Ginny’s temple and running down her face. One of the streaks had nearly reached her neck.
Hermione gasped, looking up at Harry with wide, panicked eyes. "Oh, no. I think it’s poisoning her."
A/N: I know, I know – another cliffy. They move the story along though and keep everything tense. I promise you get a reprieve next chapter, but after that – things really begin to snowball.
Thanks to Sherylyn for being so speedy and getting this out even quicker than I’d hoped. I can’t keep up with her! There’s lots of RL things happening at the moment (a move in particular) so updates occasionally get pushed. I promise to stay within the 7-10 day range, but that’s honestly the best I can do. Thanks also to Kathy, Dianne and George for all the help and inspiration.
Thanks so very much for the Silver Trinket Nods - they are very appreciated :) We're back to Action/Adventure in this chapter, which is what people seems to like the most!