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.
Ginny suddenly slammed her book shut, shuddering. Glancing out the common room window at the darkening sky, she rubbed her hands up and down her arms, feeling chilled. She’d been intent on her revising when a feeling of unease had overcome her. Something was wrong.
Shaking her head and chiding herself for her paranoia, she took a deep breath and attempted to calm her racing heart. Opening her book again, she took a deep breath and tried to re-read the paragraph on Human Transfiguration that had been giving her trouble all evening. Her nerves were frayed from all her revising – not to mention everything else going on – and she was certain she was overreacting.
In addition to the huge amount of makeup work she’d had to do after her lengthy illness, she was terrified for Harry and his coming fight. Grasping her necklace and rubbing the stone in her fingers, Ginny forced her eyes back to the book. After reading the same paragraph three times yet retaining none of it, she conceded it was useless. Nightmarish images of Harry’s imminent battle preyed upon her mind.
They all knew it was approaching like a thick mass of menacing storm clouds shrouding the horizon. The mood felt much as it did before a storm – everything was still and oppressed, and all living things had hunkered down for cover. Ginny knew it was on Harry’s mind more than he’d admit, and she could see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he tried to discern the best way to keep the rest of them safe.
Stupid, noble, wonderful prat.
She’d never realized it was possible to love another person the way she loved him. She only wished that he’d put half as much effort into saving himself as he did trying to save everyone else. Tracing her fingers along her lips, she remembered the passionate kisses they had shared the previous evening…nearly every evening this week, as a matter of fact.
Ginny frowned and sat up straight, her heart hammering in her chest. Her mind raced as she pieced together the events of the past few days. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? It was so like him to spend all this extra time – all these stolen moments – with her just before he ditched her to go do what he felt he had to do.
If he’d left her behind to go and battle Voldemort alone…Tom wouldn’t get the chance to do anything to him, because she was going to kill him first. He’d promised not to do anything rash. He’d promised!
Pushing back her chair, she left her books scattered across the table as she sprinted to the window. After she’d begged off from going back to their beach this evening, Harry said he was going to say hello to Hagrid. Actually, at first he got that disappointed little boy expression on his face that nearly changed her mind. Merlin help her if he ever realized the full extent of his charm. In the end, however, she’d stood firm and told him she had to revise.
Why her mum was insisting that Ginny prepare for the end-of-term exams was beyond her. Usually the Ministry administered the exams to all home-schooled students, but it wasn’t as if the Ministry was exactly functioning normally these days.
Try telling that to her mum, however. Truly, Ginny had ulterior motives for wanting to complete her sixth year studies. If she successfully finished them, she’d be in the same position as the trio and perhaps they could all return for their final year together – after Voldemort was finished. Ginny clung to that dream like a talisman. The alternative was too heart-wrenching to consider.
Shaking her head to dispel the dark thoughts threatening to overwhelm her, she peered out the window. She could see a dim light burning in Hagrid’s hut. Perhaps Harry was still there chatting with his friend…or perhaps he was secretly saying goodbye. Abandoning all hope of continuing with her revising, Ginny decided to find Ron and Hermione and drag them both to see Hagrid. Perhaps they could all try and convince Harry that they needed to confront Voldemort together – that he couldn’t do this alone.
Leaving the empty common room, she hurried down the main stairs, her feet barely touching the steps. Stopping on the third floor, she maneuvered through the empty corridors until she’d reached a broom cupboard hidden behind an armored knight.
Panting slightly, she wrapped her arm around her stomach, trying to catch her breath. She had no time for her body’s weaknesses. Jerking the door open and shutting her eyes tightly, she stuck her head inside and hissed, "Come on out of there, you two. I need your help."
"Ginny!" Ron bellowed, his voice echoing in the empty corridor.
Ginny pulled her head out of the cupboard, shutting the door and crossing her arms around her chest.
"I kept my eyes shut, and I really don’t care if you have your knickers on or not right now," she said crossly. "We need to talk to Harry."
If worry for Harry weren’t clawing at her insides, Ginny might have found the situation funny. She ignored her momentary stab of guilt over interrupting them. Ron certainly wouldn’t have hesitated to drag her and Harry out of that cupboard if they had been the ones engaged inside. He probably would have tried to knock Harry’s head off for less.
The cupboard knocked and banged for several moments before the door swung open and Ron climbed out, his shirt un-tucked and ears blazing red. Hermione followed him, hiding behind her boyfriend while she clutched her robes tightly. She refused to meet Ginny’s eyes.
"What are you on about, Ginny?" Ron demanded, towering over her and advancing menacingly.
Un-intimidated, Ginny poked him in the chest, hard. "Don’t get shirty with me. This is important."
"And it couldn’t wait?" Ron asked, scowling.
"I think Harry is planning on confronting Voldemort alone," Ginny said, watching Ron deflate before her eyes.
"What?" he asked blankly.
"What did he say, Ginny?" Hermione asked, finally moving out from behind Ron, concern replacing her embarrassment.
Ginny gestured impatiently for them to follow her, explaining as they walked. "It’s more the way he’s been acting all week. It suddenly occurred to me that he’s been trying to say goodbye," she said, feeling a painful lump form in her throat. She wasn’t going to go act like a girl and cry. She wasn’t! She had to pull it together.
"He’s going to ruin everything if he slips off without us," Hermione said, hurrying her pace. Ron’s longer legs had him several steps in front of the girls.
"Well, since he has no idea what we’re planning, he’s kind of a wild card, isn’t he?" Ron asked. "Since when has Harry ever done what he’s supposed to do?"
"He’s gone to Hagrid’s – we can still catch him there," Ginny said, grabbing Hermione’s elbow and stopping her progress.
Hermione impatiently turned toward Ginny with questioning eyes.
"Your blouse is on inside out," Ginny whispered with a smirk before hurrying to catch up to Ron. She heard Hermione yelp before a quick rush of air let her know Hermione had cast a spell to set her clothing to rights.
They slipped outside and hurried down the worn path to Hagrid’s hut. Ron banged on the door, which was opened surprisingly quickly by a disgruntled-looking Hagrid.
"Oh. It’s you," he said, turning his back and retreating inside.
Ron, Ginny and Hermione followed him. He sat at his massively large wooden table in front of a bowl of squirmy black things that he was in the process of shredding. The smell inside the hut was intolerable and nearly forced the three teens back outside.
"Bloody hell, Hagrid!" Ron shouted, scrunching up his face. "What is that?"
"Eh? Ah, it’s nothin’. Jus’ sommat I’m makin’ for the vegetable garden. Helps the plants ter grow nice an’ big," Hagrid said. "What can I do for yeh?"
"Is Harry here?" Ginny asked, glancing around the small hut at the sparse furnishings. It appeared empty.
"Nah. I saw ‘im talkin’ ter Pansy by the forest earlier. Thought he might stop by fer a visit, but he didn’t," Hagrid said sadly. Ginny noticed two unused teacups by the sink, along with an uneaten plate of Hagrid’s rock cakes.
"Pansy?" Ron asked. "What was he doing with Pansy?"
"Dunno. Like I said, he never came ter call," Hagrid replied, staring at all of them with confusion.
"Where could he be?" Ginny asked, alarmed. Her heart had started that painful pounding again, and her palms began to sweat. She just knew something was wrong. She held tightly to the aquamarine stone on her necklace. It felt warm and comforting.
"What does Pansy have to do with Harry going after Voldemort?" Ron asked.
"What?" Hagrid asked, alarmed. "He wouldn’t."
"I don’t think the two are necessarily connected, Ron," Hermione said, biting her lip. "Let’s go back up to the castle and get the Map. That will tell us where both Harry and Pansy are."
"Was Malfoy with them?" Ron asked, his face reddening. "If he’s done something to Harry-"
"Ron! Let’s not jump to conclusions. Come on," Hermione said, tugging on his arm.
"I’m goin’ with yeh. If summat’s happened ter Harry, I want ter help," Hagrid said, following them out the door.
As they raced back to the castle, they found Aberforth Dumbledore pacing in the entrance hall.
"There you are," he said crossly. "I’ve been looking for you."
He was staring at Hermione as if she’d been purposely hiding from him.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Dumbledore?" she asked politely.
"Here," Aberforth said, handing Hermione the Romanian book that Harry had been trying to transcribe.
"Where did you get that?" Ginny asked suspiciously.
"Harry gave it to him when you were ill. I’d forgotten you had it," Hermione said, staring at Aberforth.
"I showed it to Albus’s portrait. He can read Romanian, you know," Aberforth said. "There’s one section that really interested him. He wants to see you."
"Of course!" Hermione said, gasping. "Why didn’t I think of it? Dumbledore can speak loads of languages – even Mermish."
"Hermione – the Map," Ron said, impatiently. He was already on the bottom stair.
"You and Ginny go get the Map. I’ll go see what Professor Dumbledore’s portrait has to say," Hermione said breathlessly. "I’ll meet you outside Professor McGonagall’s office."
"What about me?" Hagrid asked. "What can I do?"
"Can you check the forest where you saw Harry and Pansy, Hagrid? See if there’s any sign of a struggle," Hermione said.
Hearing Hermione say it out loud – knowing there was a chance that Harry was in real trouble – caused Ginny to race up the stairs past Ron. She’d get the Map and find his name somewhere. There had to be a reasonable explanation for why he never went to see Hagrid, and what he was doing with Pansy in the forest. There had to be.
When the Portkey released him, Harry crumpled with a thump onto a cold stone floor. Sparing no time to orient himself, he scrambled to his feet, dropping Pansy’s wand and brandishing his own. Hoping to reverse the Portkey, he quickly reached for Pansy’s wand once again, but nothing happened. He had a moment to notice that he was in a small, stone cavern with a dank, moldy odor, causing him to suspect that he was underground.
Then all hell broke loose.
Half a dozen Death Eaters surrounded him, all firing spells instantaneously. Harry quickly created a shield to block the first barrage, and three of the Death Eaters fell to his Stunners before more of them entered the room. His shield began to weaken under the heavy fire, and several of the curses broke through. He felt a Slicing Hex slash deeply into his upper arm, causing his fingers to tingle. Before he had a chance to raise another shield, his legs were slammed with a Bludgeoning Curse, dropping him the ground.
Gritting his teeth, he managed to hang onto his wand, but one of the Death Eaters cast a Petrificus Spell, immobilizing him. He lay on the floor, battered and bruised, staring at the menacing faces surrounding him. Some of them were unmasked, their hard faces showing a mixture of anticipation and excitement at having captured him. Others simply glared, leering as if they were finally given the opportunity to settle an old grudge.
Harry swallowed heavily. He didn’t see a way out of this one. He had to control his fear and keep his head. Lying on the floor, useless and discarded, was what was left of Pansy’s wand. It had transformed into one of the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes rubber chickens.
Damn! Pansy had thoroughly deceived him.
"How nice of you to join us, Potter," a sly, oily voice murmured from the corner of the room.
The hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stood on end. He could only move his eyes, but he could clearly see Snape standing above a cauldron, slowly stirring its contents with extreme care.
"We’ve been expecting you," he said silkily.
Harry’s eyes widened in surprise. Expecting him? But he’d only come across Pansy by chance…hadn’t he? Harry’s mind worked furiously, trying to piece together the events of the evening.
Squinting his eyes against the dimness of the room, he looked around the chamber again. Beneath a perch near the open doorway lay Errol, the Weasley family owl. Harry didn’t know if he was dead since Errol usually fell unconscious after a long journey.
"It’s the most unreliable creature I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet," Snape said, noticing Harry’s observance of the owl. "It passes out after each simple delivery. What more can be expected from those lowly Weasleys of whom you appear so fond?"
Harry wanted to spit at Snape, but Petrified as he was, he could only glare at his former professor. His eyes flashed with suppressed fury as he desperately tried to release the spell. So, Errol’s frequent absences weren’t merely the result of old age. Pansy must have been using him to communicate since the time they were all back at Grimmauld Place.
Snape glided across the room, leaned over, and plucked Harry’s wand from his slackened hand. He tucked it into the pocket of his robes, patting it condescendingly.
"You won’t have need of that," he said. He aimed his own wand, causing Harry to flinch inwardly. "Finite Incantatem."
Harry felt the spell being removed, and he sat up quickly, crab-walking away from Snape toward the wall. He only stopped when his back hit the stone.
"There’s nowhere for you to go, Potter," Snape said, returning to his cauldron, unconcerned. "Alecto, inform our lord that his guest has arrived."
The blonde sneered menacingly at Harry before leaving the room. Another Death Eater grabbed Harry by the collar, roughly dragging him to his feet. When Harry tried to pull away, the man slammed his meaty fist into the side of his face, knocking Harry’s head against the wall and causing him to see stars.
"You’ll find your fame and unearned glory mean nothing here. I’d suggest you keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told. There is nothing these fine witches and wizards would like more than to give you a lesson in manners," Snape said, caressing his measuring stick as he stirred his potion.
Harry tried to blink the black spots from his eyes, refusing to be goaded by Snape. He could feel blood trickling down his chin from a cut on his lip, and he tried to concentrate on that to block out the pounding in his skull. His left hand was still tingling, and he was having trouble making a fist. His legs felt bruised, but they were holding his weight. He wasn’t in the best shape to face Voldemort, but it could be worse. At least, that’s what he tried to tell himself.
"What’s this? Nothing to say, Potter? No glib comment or sarcastic words to bolster your false bravado?" Snape asked, sneering.
Harry smiled humorlessly. "I’m just saving my lines for the big show. No need to waste them on the warm-up act."
Snape flushed, and Harry was backhanded again by one of the Death Eaters, knocking his glasses askew.
"You were warned to watch your tongue," Snape said silkily. "Fernando, show him how insolence is treated here."
A masked Death Eater turned toward Harry, raised his wand, and hissed, "Crucio."
Harry was struck square in the chest, intense pain spreading from impact out to all his nerve endings. He dropped to the ground, writhing and trying to contain his scream. He bit down on his already torn lip, the salty taste of blood filling his mouth. The pain built, overloading his senses and turning all his bones to liquid fire. The scream that was finally ripped from him felt as if it were tearing out his throat.
When the curse was eventually lifted – after what felt like an eternity to Harry – he lay on the ground, panting and feeling blood trickle from the corners of his mouth. Spitting it out, he raised himself up on shaky arms, staring defiantly at Snape and the Death Eater who had just cursed him so painfully. The man grabbed his arms, pinning them behind his back. The stone he wore tucked inside the rope bracelet that Ginny had given him for Christmas dug painfully into the underside of his wrist.
"I can see that lesson did little to control your arrogance," Snape said, sneering. His eyebrows raised thoughtfully as his head turned imperceptibly toward the door. "Perhaps the Dark Lord will prove a better teacher. He’ll at least enjoy breaking your spirit."
Before Harry had the chance to reply, the other Death Eaters got down on their knees, bowing their heads. The temperature in the room plummeted as Voldemort swept into the room, his red eyes instantly zeroing in on Harry. His misshapen white head gleamed, and his eyes glowed hungrily. He slithered rather than walked into the room, and Harry’s scar exploded with pain.
His hands were still held tightly behind his back, so he was unable to cradle his head. Instead, he tossed it from side to side as he attempted to shake off the pain. Harry did his best not to let his terror show, but his heart was pounding so fiercely that he thought the others were certain to hear it.
"Welcome, Harry. How nice of you to join us," Voldemort said, his eyes raking over Harry’s wounds dispassionately. He slowly raised a finger to adjust Harry’s glasses back onto his face. Harry jerked away from his touch.
"Yeah, it’s been a real pleasure," he spat. "If you don’t mind, I think I’ll be going now."
Voldemort smiled lazily. "I think not," he said, fixing him with a stare that caused Harry’s blood to chill. "Is the potion ready, Severus?"
"Almost, my Lord," Snape answered, bowing his head.
"Excellent," Voldemort hissed, and then he actually smiled. His skin was too tight to smile properly, so the expression caused his teeth to protrude from his mouth. The smile was so hideous and out of place on Voldemort’s snakelike face that Harry thought if evil could be captured, his face was exactly what it would look like.
Harry glanced uneasily at Snape, wondering for the first time exactly what it was that the Potions master was brewing.
"You’ve been destroying some of my precious possessions," Voldemort said, raising a long, sinewy finger toward the gaping cut on Harry’s arm. His fingernails were long and perfectly trimmed, yet they looked rotted and decayed.
"I can’t allow that to go unpunished," he said, his voice soft and menacing.
Harry swallowed, warily watching the finger as it moved closer and closer to the open wound. He let out a hiss of pain, groaning slightly when it first made contact, brushing lightly against the edge of the cut.
"I thought they were the possessions of the Founding Fathers’ of Hogwarts," Harry said through gritted teeth.
Voldemort paused briefly before jabbing his finger deep into the cut, causing Harry’s blood to coat his hand. Harry screamed, twisting his head and trying unsuccessfully to pull away. Voldemort kept up the pressure until Harry began to see black spots on the edge of his vision.
"You’ve been nothing but a thorn in my side since your birth," Voldemort hissed in Harry’s ear, his breath warm and much too close. "You’re like salt in an open wound. Do you know how that feels, Harry?"
Harry shook his head, gasping and unable to fully concentrate on Voldemort’s words. His stomach began to roil, and he thought he might be sick.
At last removing his finger from Harry’s cut, Voldemort flicked his wand, and Harry felt a stinging sensation inside the wound. Soon his entire arm burned with painful intensity. Tears sprung to Harry’s eyes as he gasped, fighting the pain.
"It’s a raw burning, is it not? It distracts you and leaves you unable to focus on anything else…anything more important, perhaps. That is what your existence has become to me," Voldemort said, still whispering in Harry’s ear.
Harry bit down on the inside of his cheeks, feeling sweat drip into his eyes. His back was drenched, and his legs began to shake. He had to find a way to get his wand and end this now.
"You’ll have no need of your wand," Voldemort said, running his finger along his chin, smearing Harry’s blood on his own face. "I think it’s time I put a stop to your interference…permanently."
"What are you waiting on then? Go on and do it, if you can," Harry said, snarling. "You haven’t had much luck yet."
Voldemort’s flat nostrils flared, his eyes glowing. Harry felt reckless. If he could enrage Voldemort enough for him to lose control and simply kill Harry now, at least he’d be mortal. Perhaps someone else would then be able to kill him. He’d run out of other options.
"There you are, Potter," a familiar nasal voice rang from the doorway, distracting them all. "I bet you’re sorry you underestimated me, now."
"What are you doing here, Miss Parkinson?" Snape asked, taking a step toward the door and placing himself between Pansy and Voldemort.
With a casual flick of his wand, Voldemort pulled Harry from the Death Eater’s grip and bodily slammed him against the wall where he left him, hovering above the ground, spread-eagled, as if caught in a giant spider’s web. Harry could move his head, but nothing else.
"Miss Parkinson, thank you for joining us," Voldemort said smoothly, his attention shifting to the newcomer.
Pansy visibly cringed, shrinking away from the malformed creature now stalking toward her. Her dark eyes were wide, panicked, and Harry was certain she’d never actually seen Voldemort before now.
"I…I d-did what you asked. I g-got Potter here, just like we planned," Pansy said, desperately looking at Snape. "I did everything you told me to do."
"You used the fake wand as a Portkey. I saw it here when Potter arrived," Snape said, casually flicking his hand toward the discarded wand. "You did well, Miss Parkinson, but why did you follow him here? That wasn’t part of the plan."
"After the Portkey took Potter, I was still in the forest, and I had to walk all the way to the gate," Pansy said, pouting. "I wanted to see what happened to Potter."
Voldemort threw back his head and laughed. "This one has the heart of a true pureblood," he said, circling her appraisingly as he paced.
Harry’s heart pounded as he desperately sought a way to release the spell holding him. His back scraped against the stone as he fought to get free.
"We did what you asked of us, so now Draco is free, right? You’ll grant him your pardon?" Pansy asked, visibly trembling.
Harry froze, his eyes widening into saucers. Draco? Draco was in on this? Had he really decided his chances were better with Voldemort after all? Bile rose in Harry’s throat over his own stupidity. He’d actually believed the Slytherin git.
"Young Mr. Malfoy didn’t complete the task I’d set for him and him alone. He’ll have to be punished for his failure," Voldemort said, tilting his head to the side. "Certainly you can understand that he cannot be allowed to get away with insubordination. It would set a bad precedent," Voldemort said, watching Pansy closely.
"I understand that he’ll need to be punished, and he’ll gladly accept that fate," Pansy said, obviously feeling more confident. "I simply want the promise that you’ll allow him to live in order to make up for his mistake."
"Indeed? And does Mr. Malfoy agree to his punishment as cavalierly as you seem to do?" Voldemort asked, amused. The tension in the room was thick – none of the Death Eaters had moved or barely even breathed.
Harry gritted his teeth. He certainly felt no kindness or empathy for Pansy – it was her fault he was in this mess in the first place – but he hated seeing anyone being toyed with this way. He knew Voldemort had no intention of keeping his end of the bargain, why couldn’t Pansy see that?
"Draco will do anything to get back in your good graces, my Lord," Pansy said, bowing low to the ground.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Malfoy’s deeds are far too great to allow his life to be spared," Voldemort said easily, as if growing bored with the conversation.
It took a moment for his words to register with Pansy. When they finally did, her face dropped. "What? B-but…that’s not what we agreed," she wailed, desperately looking at Snape.
"I’m afraid I’ve had a change of heart on the matter," Voldemort said in a falsely conciliatory tone.
"Miss Parkinson, remember your station," Snape said, grabbing Pansy by the shoulders and trying to lead her from the cavern.
"You promised!" Pansy moaned, turning on Snape. "I did everything I was supposed to do so Draco would be free. You promised!"
"Get control of yourself," Snape hissed.
"Severus, leave her alone," Voldemort commanded. "Your compassion for the young ones will yet be your undoing."
Snape bowed stiffly and reluctantly moved a few steps away from Pansy.
"I do apologize that we cannot grant your first request, Miss Parkinson. You have, however, performed admirably, and I would like to offer you a place amongst my ranks," Voldemort said, inclining his head slightly, his delight in tormenting the girl obvious.
"I don’t want to live without Draco," Pansy said, burying her face in her hands and sobbing. "I can’t. It’s all been for him."
"So be it," Voldemort said coldly, casually flicking his wand. "Avada Kedavra."
"No," Harry gasped, watching the sickly green light as it whooshed towards Pansy.
Quickly lifting her face, her eyes widened in horror as she watched the curse speed toward her with a terrible rushing sound, apparently realizing she was about to die for her misplaced trust. The curse struck her in the stomach, and she crumpled to the ground.
Snape’s head fell to his chest, his shoulders drooping.
"You are no longer their teacher, Severus," Voldemort hissed. "Stop trying to spare them life lessons. You spent too long in the company of that dithering old fool, Dumbledore. He’s corrupted you - made you soft."
"Yes, my Lord," Snape replied, returning to his potion.
Harry could barely contain his snort of disgust. There was nothing soft about Snape and even insinuating that Dumbledore had made an impression on the greasy git was insulting to the Headmaster’s memory.
"Now that Harry is about to become my permanent guest, I’m ready to move on to the next phase in my rise to ultimate power," Voldemort said.
Harry raised his head, eyeing Voldemort warily.
"I imagine you are curious about my plans for your stay, Harry," he said, grinning evilly.
"Not particularly," Harry said through clenched teeth. "I really don’t plan on staying long."
Voldemort tossed his head back and laughed mirthlessly. "Always the comedian. Unfortunately, your fate has no use for your delightful sense of humor."
"My fate?" Harry asked, certain he didn’t want to know the answer.
With a wave of his wand, Voldemort summoned a long wooden packing crate – a crate large enough to hold the body of a not-quite-fully-grown man.
Oh, no! No, no, no!
"Is the potion ready, Severus?" Voldemort asked.
"Almost, my Lord," Snape answered, his eyes glinting when he caught Harry’s panicked expression.
"Why don’t you have the honor of explaining the future to young Harry," Voldemort said, clearly pleased with the proceedings.
"If you’d paid any attention at all during your time in my class, you would have already realized which potion I’m brewing," Snape said, using that same silky voice that he’d always used in class. "Since I’m well aware of your dismal potion-making abilities, allow me to explain it to you. The Draught of Living Death is a NEWT-level potion, and its antidote needs to be administered immediately upon completion of brewing. That means it would have to be brewed right here in this room in order to awaken you before attempting an escape. A highly unlikely probability, is it not, Potter?"
The Draught of Living Death! Of course. Voldemort couldn’t kill him outright or he’d destroy his own Horcrux. This potion would essentially keep Harry alive but still incapacitated and out of the way. It was a win-win situation.
Voldemort smiled at Harry’s horrified dismay. Using his wand, he released Harry from the wall and levitated him across the room to the crate. Harry’s struggles were for naught; he couldn’t break the spell. The crate’s lid lifted like a coffin, and Harry was roughly dropped inside. His breathing became labored as he tried to control his panic. This couldn’t be happening.
"While Severus continues to brew the potion, listen closely to my orders, Harry. Listen to my plans to destroy the last of your strongholds – the last of your protectors," Voldemort said, his voice thick with anticipation.
Harry shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to rise.
Voldemort turned to face the gathered Death Eaters. "Bellatrix," he hissed.
"Yes, Master," the hateful voice replied.
"You and Fenrir take our forces and claim Hogwarts as ours. Now that I have the Potter boy, it’s time for Albus Dumbledore’s last stronghold of power to fall, thus completely marking his failure and my rise to glory. I believe the Aurors who abandoned their posts at the Ministry are there. Kill them all. Kill the Order members who are there, as well, but bring Mr. Malfoy to me. Do what you will with his mother and the remaining Parkinson women."
"Yes, my Lord," Bellatrix replied, cackling with glee.
Harry struggled vainly against the invisible bonds holding him.
"I’ll join you as soon as I see Mr. Potter’s eyes close for the final time," Voldemort said, smiling.
Harry watched helplessly as Bellatrix and the other Death Eaters filed out of the room. Once it was empty, Snape turned toward Voldemort.
"It is ready, my Lord."
Ron raced into his dormitory and dropped to the floor by Harry’s bed. He grabbed the rucksack from underneath and quickly began rummaging through Harry’s belongings. Finding the familiar piece of worn parchment, he bolted back down the stairs.
Ginny was waiting for him in the common room, her face taut with concern. When he found Harry, Ron was going to give him hell for worrying his sister so badly. Ginny wasn’t prone to overreacting – he was more likely to do that – although he’d never admit that to her. Seeing her so obviously distraught caused the hairs on the back of Ron’s neck to stand on end. If Ginny felt Harry was in trouble, he more than likely was.
Ron hated not knowing what was happening – he never could stand feeling out of control. How was he supposed to watch out for his friends if the plan kept changing? He’d promised himself that he would see Harry through this to the end, and he’d be extremely disappointed in his friend if he’d cut Ron out at the last minute. It would be so like Harry, however. He’d want to slip away quietly so he could avoid saying goodbye.
The common room was full and loud. Charlie had returned from Romania, and he was regaling Fleur, Shannon and Iris with tales of his dragon exploits – embellishing as only Charlie could. The girls appeared enraptured with his story, while Bill and the twins stood back with their arms folded across their chests. Ron could tell by the disgruntled expressions on Fred and George’s faces that Charlie was due for a severe pranking.
His parents sat by the fire. His mum had her knitting needles, but he could see that they were both quietly listening and chuckling over Charlie’s tales.
"Oi! Ron! Where’s the fire?" Charlie called across the common room as Ron hurried toward Ginny. "Aren’t you going to come and say hello? You’ll love this one."
"He’ll listen to your tall dragon tales later, Charlie," Ginny answered, dragging Ron by the arm. "I’ve got a story of my own I need to share with him right now."
She didn’t give Charlie or any of her brothers a chance to respond before she pulled Ron out the portrait hole. They quickly walked down the corridor until the came to a secluded archway. Ginny pulled Ron inside.
"Open it. D’you see him?" she demanded.
"Hang on, give me the chance to get it opened," Ron said, feeling stressed. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."
They watched as the Map revealed itself, and Ron was struck by how few dots there were compared to when Hogwarts had been in session. Most of the dots were converged in the Great Hall where the Aurors must be having some sort of meeting.
He traced his fingers along the outline, methodically searching for Harry’s name.
"There!" Ginny said pointing.
"You found him?" Ron asked, relief washing over him.
"Not Harry – Malfoy. He’s in one of the classrooms in the Charms corridor with Dudley. I don’t see Harry anywhere," she said, her voice rising. She was clutching his arm so tightly, he suspected her nails were drawing blood, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her to let go.
"I don’t see Pansy, either," he said grimly. "Let’s go talk to the ferret."
Taking Ginny’s hand, Ron sprinted ahead, tugging her along as he ran. Ginny was panting by the time they stopped at the closed Charms door, and she had to lean against the wall to catch her breath.
Ron turned the handle on the door; it was locked.
"Hey! Let us out!" Dudley whined from inside the classroom.
"Pansy, if that’s you, I demand you open the door and release us at once," Malfoy said, sounding extremely angry.
"Alohomora," Ron said, but the door didn’t unlock.
"Is that you, Weasel?" Malfoy asked. "Don’t you think we tried that already? Unlocking spells aren’t working. I can’t imagine how Pansy learned to do that."
"Move back, Ron," Ginny said, pushing him aside, her eyes blazing
"What are you going to do?" Ron asked, warily doing as she’d asked.
"Move away from the door, you two," Ginny said. "I’m going to try a Blasting Hex."
"It won’t work!" Malfoy shouted, sounding as if he was moving away anyway. Obviously he’d learned from experience not to trust Ginny’s temper. "I’ve already tried it."
Ron turned his head from side-to-side, desperately evaluating his options.
"Dobby!" he shouted, remembering how the house-elf had helped them re-enter the castle after their trip to Little Hangleton.
"Yes, Harry Potter’s Wheezy," the little elf said, appearing by their side. He was wearing the mismatched socks Harry had given him for Christmas the previous year.
"Dobby, Harry’s cousin is locked inside. D’you think you could let him out?" Ron asked.
Dobby stared at the door suspiciously. "Dobby thinks the great Harry Potter would like it if his nasty cousin was locked inside," he said, crossing his arms. "Dobby likes him locked inside, too."
Ron groaned, unwilling to mention that one of Dobby’s former abusive owners was also locked inside the classroom. "Dobby, any other time I’d agree with you and would probably ask that you help me lock Harry’s cousin in there, but I think Harry’s in trouble. I need your help. Harry needs your help."
"Dobby will do anything to help Harry Potter," Dobby said, his eyes wide. He reached out and easily pulled the door open as if it had never been locked. "How can Dobby help Harry Potter?"
Draco Malfoy and Dudley Dursley charged into the hallway, looking both ways and appearing agitated. Both were rumpled, and Dudley was sweating profusely.
"You!" Dobby shrieked, pointing a bony finger at Malfoy.
Draco’s eyes widened in surprise. "Didn’t you used to work for my father?" he asked, frowning.
Dobby turned his wide, mistrustful eyes on Ron. "Draco Malfoy is a bad boy. What does he have to do with Harry Potter?" he asked.
"I think he might have some information, Dobby. Information that could help us help Harry," Ron replied, enjoying the disgruntled expression on Malfoy’s face despite the dire situation.
"What is he doing here, and what do you mean, help Potter? What’s going on, Weasel, and what does this have to do with me?" Malfoy asked, clearly annoyed.
"Where’s Harry?" Ginny demanded, moving to stand in front of Malfoy. Her hair was wild, and her eyes blazed fiercely. Ron noticed Malfoy taking an almost imperceptible step away from her.
"How should I know? I’ve been stuck in that bloody classroom since well before dinner. I have no idea where Potter is. It’s Pansy I need to find," Malfoy said, regaining his composure and moving to pass Ron and Ginny.
Dudley remained against the wall, his face puzzled as he tried to follow the conversation. He kept fingering his wand, caressing it as they spoke.
Ron grabbed Malfoy by the arm. "You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what I need to know."
"Take your filthy hands off me," Malfoy said, sneering.
"We can’t find either Harry or Pansy, Draco," Ginny said, taking a deep breath. Ron knew from years of experience that she was desperately trying to control her temper. He also knew Malfoy was in big trouble if Ginny lost the battle. His mum got the same expression on her face before she exploded.
"Hagrid saw them speaking with each other by the forest, but now both are missing," Ginny replied in a stiff, measured tone.
"Missing?" Draco repeated blankly. "Pansy locked us in that room. She said she had something she had to do and wouldn’t say anything more."
"What does Pansy have to do with Harry going off to face Voldemort alone?" Ron asked Ginny, perplexed.
"What? Facing him? If Pansy gets hurt because of Potter’s stupidity, I’m going to- Ouch!" Malfoy yelped, grasping his lower leg and hopping around on one foot.
Dobby, who had remained silent during the entire exchange stood in front of Malfoy scowling, his arms folded across his chest.
"He kicked me!" Draco said incredulously.
"And Dobby will kick the bad Malfoy boy again if he keeps speaking about Harry Potter that way," Dobby said.
"Great. Another one," Malfoy mumbled, rubbing his leg and rolling his eyes.
"What if Pansy caught Harry trying to leave?" Ginny said, addressing Ron and ignoring Malfoy completely.
"Why would she lock them in the classroom, though?" Ron asked, jerking his thumb toward Malfoy and Dudley. "What was it she had to do? Something doesn’t follow."
"Potter better not have taken her with him just to keep her quiet," Malfoy said. His words were cold, although his concern was obvious. "I’m going to ask Iris if Pansy said anything to her."
No one moved to stop him as he hurried away. Dudley stood looking between Ron and Ginny for a moment before following Malfoy back to the common room.
"What do you think, Ron?" Ginny asked in a small voice.
Ron thought she looked very young and vulnerable, and he suddenly wanted very much to tell her everything was okay, but he couldn’t form the words. This was bad.
"Let’s go find Hermione and tell her Harry’s not here," Ron said, gulping. He knew there was nothing Hermione could do to find Harry, but if anyone had a good idea what to do next, Hermione would.
"He’s gone to the Ministry," Ginny whispered, her eyes filling.
"We don’t know that," Ron said firmly, trying to control his own frantic heart rate. "We need to talk to Hermione."
Harry’s labored breathing filled the nearly silent chamber. The only other sound he could hear was the steady drip of water somewhere in the distance. He remained stuck inside the packing crate, unable to break the Immobilization Spell that Voldemort had cast upon him. He’d hoped it would have weakened and given him the opportunity to escape, but it remained as strong as when it was first cast.
"It’s finished, my Lord," Snape’s silky voice echoed against the stone walls.
Reeling, Harry’s heart raced, and he felt sweat break out on his forehead. Visions of Muggle horror films about people being buried alive flitted through his mind until he felt his panic would overwhelm him. How was he going to get out of here?
His eyes frantically scanned the room, quickly moving past Pansy’s body, which remained sprawled on the floor. The only way out that he could see was through the opening behind Voldemort, but his wand remained stuck in Snape’s pocket.
They were going to permanently incapacitate him and leave him in that box.
"Excellent," Voldmort said, his crimson eyes flashing. "The potion is very quick-acting. Would you like to hear what’s going to happen to you?"
"Go to hell," Harry snarled, feeling bile rise in his throat.
Voldemort’s grin widened. "In order to go to hell, one must actually die – a fate which is not going to happen to either of us. After Severus administers the potion, your limbs will grow stiff and heavy. It will feel as if giant weights have been attached to them. You’ll try to fight the exhaustion, of course, but you’ll be powerless to do so. Your internal organs will shut down one by one until finally your heart rate will begin to slow. You should fall unconscious at just about the time the first wave of my attack begins on Hogwarts."
Harry swallowed, clenching his teeth. "You appear extremely confident in your Death Eaters. Funny that, since they haven’t been at all that successful against the Order in the past," he said.
Voldemort’s grin faded. "Give him the potion, Severus."
"Yes, my Lord," Snape said, filling a phial with the thick black liquid.
Her mione climbed down the moving staircase from Professor McGonagall’s office, her head spinning with all the information her former headmaster had given her. She found Ron and Ginny waiting at the bottom. Both were pacing like caged animals.
From the looks on their faces and the fact they were here alone, Hermione knew they hadn’t found Harry. It was just what she’d feared. Ginny looked as if she was about to cry, and Ron wrung his hands nervously.
"He’s gone, isn’t he?" Hermione stated, choking on the words. Oh, Harry!
"He’s not anywhere on the Map, Hermione," Ginny said, her eyes filling. "Neither is Pansy. We found Draco and Dudley locked in a classroom. They said Pansy left them in there." Her lower lip began to tremble, and Ron wrapped his arm around her protectively.
"Pansy is missing, too?" Hermione asked, her curiosity overriding her panic.
"She’s not on the Map," Ron replied, his eyes pleading with her for an answer.
Hermione wished she had one.
"He wouldn’t have taken her with him," she said, chewing on her lip.
"What did Professor Dumbledore’s portrait say?" Ginny asked, sniffling and obviously making a tremendous effort to pull herself back together.
"Oh!" Hermione exclaimed. "My suspicions were correct. The act of murder always splits the soul, but it doesn’t always create a Horcrux. Usually the murderer’s soul is fractured within his own body. Professor Dumbledore said it changes a person, and perhaps that’s the reason it appears to get easier for someone to murder again after the first time.
"He said creating a Horcrux is different. There needs to be intent, and the object must be held in your hand at the time of the murder."
"So how did Harry become one then? Was Voldemort actually holding him?" Ginny asked, aghast.
Hermione shook her head. "I suspect simply having his hand on him would have sufficed, and I can imagine Voldemort doing something like that just to torture Harry’s mother," Hermione said, shuddering. She didn’t like to think how awful it must have been for Lily Potter to see this madman laying his hand on the child she would die to protect.
"The way to create a Horcrux is to focus your intensity on the hatred, and the act of murder splits the soul. In contrast, I think an act of love should shield an object and hold it together," Hermione said, her excitement bubbling in her chest. "I think it can work."
"Not if we’re already too late," Ginny said frantically.
"We have to get to the Ministry," Ron said, and Hermione could see that he was just as panicked as his sister.
Hermione suspected there was something she was missing, but the situation felt too urgent to dwell on it. They needed to get to the Ministry and stop Harry from doing anything foolish if he had charged ahead without them.
"All right, let’s go," she said, clutching the small round object in her pocket. It had been Professor Dumbledore’s idea, and Hermione thought it would work perfectly with Harry – if only they weren’t too late.
As they barreled down the stairs into the entrance hall, they found Draco Malfoy standing alone by the front door looking frantic.
"She’s not here. I can’t find her anywhere," he said. "Iris said she hasn’t seen her since dinner."
"Get out of the way, Malfoy," Ron said, bodily pushing the Slytherin aside.
"Where are you going?" Draco asked, his eyes narrowing. "You’re going after them, aren’t you? I’m going with you."
"Not a chance," Ron said hotly.
"You?" Ginny asked, surprised. "It’ll be dangerous, Malfoy."
"I can handle myself," Draco spat. "While you three go after Potter, who’s going to rescue Pansy? I’m going with you until I can get her out of there, then you’re on your own."
Hermione was surprised by the depth of the feelings Malfoy obviously had for Parkinson. She hadn’t expected that. He’d never been one to willing put himself in any kind of danger. He usually let others do that. Perhaps Draco had grown up more than she’d given him credit for doing.
"You’re not going anywhere with us. There’s no way you’re messing this up," Ron snarled, hot-headed as ever."
"Oh, stop it. You can decide who plays the role of the alpha-male later. We have to hurry before we’re too late," Ginny said, pushing past both of them to exit the building.
The others followed in her wake, sprinting for the Hogwarts gates. A large, looming figure emerged from the side of the road as they reached it. Hermione gasped as Ron drew his wand.
"Oi! It’s me," Hagrid boomed, his face showing in the moonlight as he came closer. "There’s no sign of a struggle in the forest."
"Thanks, Hagrid," Hermione said, relaxing. "We’re going after Harry."
"I’m goin’ with yer, then," Hagrid said, nodding resolutely. He pushed open the gate, and they left the safety of Hogwarts grounds.
They hadn’t gone very far when the unmistakable "popping" sounds of Apparition filled the night air. Dozens of masked Death Eaters appeared outside the gates, all of them with their wands pointed toward the school.
Hogwarts was under attack.
"Ju st relax, Potter," Snape said, his eyes glinting. "Aside from some thirst as the potion dries up your bodily fluids, you shouldn’t feel a thing. I do hope I brewed it correctly or else the results could be quite…painful."
Harry clamped his mouth shut, struggling with the invisible bonds. It couldn’t end this way. Dumbledore, Sirius…Remus…all of them would have died for nothing. The Weasleys and his friends were being attacked unawares. He couldn’t let this happen!
A bone-chilling cold born of sheer terror overwhelmed him. He was suddenly struck by the realization that that the first time they’d found a Horcrux, Hermione had been hurt, then it had been Ron, and finally Ginny. It had been as if Voldemort had been trying to separate them because they were stronger together. But this time he had succeeded. This time, Harry was alone.
Snape lifted the phial, swishing the ugly, thick, black liquid inside the glass.
"Bottoms up, Mr. Potter," he said, roughly grabbing Harry by the neck and forcing his head back.
Harry refused to open his mouth, and Snape hit him twice. Dizzy, Harry managed to keep his mouth closed.
"You have a penchant for Muggle dueling," Snape said, obviously still feeling bitter over their last encounter. "How does it feel to be on the other end? I could easily knock out some of your teeth. You won’t be needing them."
Harry’s mind raced. He had to stop this somehow. Ron and Hermione must be wondering where he was by now, but how would they know where to find him? What if they’d already been attacked and killed? Harry couldn’t bear the thought. They had to be all right. Ginny! She had to survive.
Snape cast a spell, and Harry felt his jaw being forced open. He fought it until his entire body shook, but it was no use. His mouth opened, and Snape moved the phial toward his open lips.
No! No, no, no! Ginny, help me!
Smiling vindictively, Snape tipped the contents of the phial into Harry’s mouth, allowing the thick substance to ooze slowly inside.
A/N: And there we go! Harry’s in big trouble now, but they’ve been mentioning that Draught since book 1, so I figure it has to come into play sometime ;)
Thanks so much to Sherylyn for all her help, suggestions, and quick turnaround. She knows the ending now and is helping me deal with my panic over it. (Those of you who followed PoE and CotD know I always panic about the endings, lol).
Our full move is on for this weekend, so I’m not really sure if I’ll get online right away. Review responses might be limited – sorry.
Thanks so much to those who have nominated me in the Silver Trinket Award Categories. I really appreciate it, and get a thrill every time that little message blinks!