There was no means of steering. The dragon could not see where it was going, which was a deeply unnerving thought. If it turned sharply or rolled in midair they would find it impossible to cling onto its broad back. As we climbed higher and higher, London unfurling below us like a gray-and-green map, I he clung tight to the metallic scales, and the cool breeze was soothing after the heat of the tunnels. The dragon's wings beat the air like the sails of a windmill. Ron kept swearing at the top of his voice, and Hermione seemed to be sobbing.
The dragon seemed to crave cooler and fresher air. It climbed steadily until we were flying through wisps of chilly cloud, and I could no longer make out the little colored dots which were cars pouring in and out of the capital. Mildly, I wondered if the Dursleys were down there somewhere.
On and on we flew, over countryside parceled out in patches of green and brown, over roads and rivers winding through the landscape like strips of matte and glossy ribbon. I had to admit, this was a gorgeous way to tour England, if not for the constant fear of plummeting to one's death or being eaten.
"What do you reckon it's looking for?" Ron yelled as we flew farther and farther north.
"No idea," Harry bellowed back.
"A hot lady dragon? A boat full of really choice sirloin?" I offered with a manic giggle. "Who knows!"
Riding a dragon was definitely a top ten experience of my life, but there was the small downside of the dragon not being aware we were in its back, and it really not caring whether or not we were able to dismount. My hands were numb with cold but I did not date attempt to shift my grip. My arms ached from clinging to the dragon for so long, but I didn't dare to let go and fly alongside, either as a bird of a human, for fear the dragon would decide I looked like a delicious snack. For not, it seemed content to just keep flying the direction of somewhere without nasty goblins and hot swords.
The sun slipped lower in the sky, which was turning indigo. Still the dragon flew, cities and towns gliding out of sight beneath us, its enormous shadow sliding over the earth like a giant dark cloud.
"Is it my imagination," shouted Ron after a considerable stretch of silence, "or are we losing height?"
Below us were deep green mountains and lakes, coppery in the sunset. Really, where were Colin Creevey and his camera when you needed them? The landscape seemed to grow larger and more detailed as I squinted over the side of the dragon. I wondered whether it had divined the presence of fresh water by the flashes of reflected sunlight. It still had to have some sense of sight, otherwise it wouldn't have been able to fly so well.
Lower and lower the dragon flew, in great spiraling circles, honing in on one of the smaller lakes.
"I say we jump when it gets low enough!" Harry called back. "Straight into the water before it realizes we're here!"
"Are kidding me?" Hermione shrieked, her voice impossibly high.
"You got a better idea?" Ron challenged, and Hermione squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, looking like she dearly wished she did.
"Ten points to Gryffindor if you manage to do a flip!" I offered cheerfully, heart pounding. I could see the dragon's wide yellow underbelly rippling in the surface of the water.
"Now!" Harry bellowed.
Harry slithered over the side of the dragon and plummeted feetfirst toward the surface of the lake, the first one to go. Ron and Hermione followed quickly and I leaped off last, catching myself ad hovering over the top of the water, just above the surface. My toes dipped down, brushing the water, and I smiled. I could see enormous ripples emanating in circles from the places where Ron and Hermione had fallen, and Harry had managed to surface already.
"That's not fair," Harry concluded when he saw me hovering, and I laughed as he turned and started swimming for the shore as Ron and Hermione surfaced. I shot towards the bank and set down, looking out at the three figures approaching, standing up when they reached shallower water and staggering through plants with their clothes weighing them down. The dragon did not seem to have noticed anything. It was already fifty feet away, swooping low over the lake to scoop up water in its scarred snout. As they clambered onto the bank the dragon flew on, its wings beating hard, and landed at last on a distant bank.
Hermione collapsed, coughing and shuddering. Harry drew his wand and started casting the usual protective spells around us as I raised mine and started casting blanket healing spells and drying spells. The others' clothes dried on their bodies and I winced as I saw the angry red burns all over them, their clothes singed away in places. I quickly repaired the damage there as well before applying cooling charms as well to take some of the heat out of the burns while they healed.
Hermione reached into her beaded back and pulled out essence of dittany, sloshing some onto a handkerchief before passing it on. They were wincing as they dabbed essence of dittany onto their many injuries, hastening the work of my spells. Hermione handed Harry the bottle, then pulled out four bottles of pumpkin juice she had brought from Shell Cottage.
"Well, on the upside," said Ron finally, sitting and watching the skin on his hands regrow as he gulped his juice, "we got the Horcrux. On the downside-"
"-no sword," said Harry through gritted teeth, as he dripped dittany onto an angry burn on his arm.
"No sword," repeated Ron. "That double-crossing little scab… Good job on selling him out to the other goblins, Lorena."
I smirked. "Well, we did promise to give it to him, but we made no mention of whether or not we'd let him keep it."
Harry pulled the Horcrux from the pocket of his jacket and set it down on the grass in front of us. Glinting in the sun, it drew our eyes as they swigged our bottles of juice. It really was a shame, I mused, that we had to destroy so much magical history to take Voldemort down.
"At least we can't wear it this time, that'd look a bit weird hanging around our necks," quipped Ron, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. I chuckled and reached into my pouch, carefully summoning out a basilisk fang. It flew up into my waiting hand and I offered it up on a flat palm.
"ho wants the honors?" I asked, looking between the others. Hermione was closest, I presented it to her. "'Mione? You want a go?"
Hermione quickly shook her head and held up her hands. "No, no I shouldn't. It should be you or Harry."
"We've already done some," Harry replied with a smile. "Go on, Hermione, it's great stress relief."
Hermione's mouth turned up a little in one corner and she hesitantly raised the fang in the air over the cup. Suddenly, the badger etched on the front twisted and shifted. It changed into the shape of Voldemort's face, his reflection glowing behind it. Black mist oozed from the mouth of the cup, pouring over the grass.
"Hermione Granger, so desperate to prove yourself in a world you know you can never be part of," the reflection of Voldemort crooned, and Hermione's eyes flashed.
"Oh, hush up you!" she snapped, and brought the fang down. The sound of tearing metal drove into my ears and I winced as the horcrux began to scream, the mist and ooze coming faster but in stuttering gasps like the dead throes of an animal. The goblet toppled over and spun wildly across the grass, still spilling filth out. Finally it shuddered to a stop, leaking a thick, black substance like the locket had. It looked almost as though it was bleeding.
"That was… anticlimactic," I concluded.
"Er… working through some stuff, Hermione?" Ron asked, glancing at her. She was panting and wild-eyed, the fang still buried deep in the grass. Hermione slowly released it, pulling her hand back and flexing her fingers.
"I am not going to be talked down to by tableware," Hermione said a little hysterically. "No matter what it has to say." She cleared her throat. "Maybe I feel like an outsider sometimes, but I have just as much right to it as anyone else, and no dish is going to make me doubt myself."
"Good for you," Ron cheered, and thumped her heartily on the back. Hermione giggled and little and raised the bottle of pumpkin juice to her mouth.
"You were right, Harry, that felt good," she admitted before taking a shy sip.
"Better than punching Draco in the face?" I asked her curiously, and Hermione grinned.
"Well, now we know not to get on Mione's bad side," Harry concluded, and Ron shook his head.
"Mate, we knew that anyway. You remember SNEAK?"
Harry laughed heartily. "Oh, yeah, that was great."
Hermione looked across the lake to the far bank where the dragon was still drinking. "What'll happen to it, do you think?" she asked in concern. "Will it be alright?"
"You sound like Hagrid," sighed Ron, "It's a dragon, Hermione, it can look after itself. It's us we need to worry about."
"What do you mean?"
"Well I don't know how to break this to you," Ron explained slowly, "but I think they might have noticed we broke into Gringotts. "
All of us started to laugh, and once started, it was difficult to stop. My ribs ached and I felt lightheaded, but I lay back on the grass beneath the reddening sky and laughed until my throat was raw, with my brother doubled over doing exactly the same thing next to me.
It happened suddenly. Harry stopped laughing with a choking sound. I glanced over and saw his eyes were unfocused. Hesuddenly slapped his palms to the ground like he needed help staying upright. His face screwed up in pain and I knew it was his scar, that he was seeing through Voldemort's eyes. Hermione hastened to grab the pumpkin juice his sudden motion had knocked over to keep it from spilling as I jerked onto my knees and crawled over to him. I knelt in front of my brother, cupping his cheeks between my palms.
"What is it, Harry?" I asked him sharply, eyes roaming over his face
"H-He knows," Harry jabbered, eyes still unfocused behind his glasses. "H-H-He knows. He's hurting them…" Harry's mouth dropped open and his eyes screwed up against the pain. I could tell he was fighting to come out of the vision, his focus goin in and out. He went sheet white and locked eyes with me for a moment. "He knows," Harry hissed, and my stomach dropped. One of our main advantages was that Voldemort had no idea what we ere doing. But now that he did, he was at perfect liberty to go pick up his remaining horcrux and drop it off somewhere in the Tibetan Alps if he wanted.
"He's killing them," Harry continued, panting. "They failed him." He shook his head. "There's one at Hogwarts, I knew it…. The snake… he's keeping her close…"
Harry's eyes flew open as he wrenched himself back to the present. I guided him down as he slumped so that he was lying on the bank of the lake in the setting sun. Ron and Hermione came to his side, looking down at him. I looked down at him worriedly, swiping the cold sweat that had broken out on his brow away with my sleeve. Harry struggled up, shivering, and looked around weakly.
"He knows," he repeated quietly. "He knows and he's going to check where the others are, and the last one," he was on his feet, "is at Hogwarts. I knew it. I knew it. "
"What?" Ron was gaping at him.
Hermione sat up, looking worried. "But what did you see? How do you know?"
"I saw him find out about the cup, I - I was in his head, he's-" Harry looked haunted; people were dead. "-he's seriously angry, and scared too, he can't understand how we knew, and now he's going to check the others are safe, the ring first. He things the Hogwarts one is safest, because Snape's there, because it'll be so hard not to be seen getting in. I think he'll check that one last, but he could still be there within hours-"
"Did you see where in Hogwarts it is?" asked Ron eagerly, now scrambling to his feet too.
"No, he was concentrating on warning Snape, he didn't think about exactly where it is-"
"Wait, wait!" cried Hermione as Ron caught up the now ex-horcrux and Harry pulled out the Invisibility Cloak again. I was already climbing to my feet and whipping out my mirror. "We can't just go, we haven't got a plan, we need to-"
"Hermione, when have any of our plans ever actually worked?" Harry demanded in exasperation. "We plan, we get there, all hell breaks loose." Hermione faltered at that and Harry pushed on, "Can you imagine what he's going to do once he realizes the ring and the locket are gone? What if he moves the Hogwarts Horcrux, decides it isn't safe enough?"
"But how are we going to get in?"
"Hogsmeade," I replied swiftly. "We go, we break into Honeydukes, we sneak in through the cellar."
"It might be blocked-"
"It's not, Daphne Greengrass told me," I said, and this had the duel purpose of shutting Hermione's concerns down and summoning the girl herself to the mirror. She must have been alone, as she should have been at this hour, because she picked up immediately. "Theodore Nott," I added as her face swam into view, and seconds later his appeared as well.
"Potter, what's going on?" Daphne asked sharply. "You don't usually call us both."
"Situation demands it," I replied flippantly, trying not to show how terrified I was.
The chances that we could find the horcrux in the whole of Hogwarts castle in the few hours it would take Voldemort to check on his other horcruxes were minimal at best. Which meant that we, Voldemort, and Nagini would be in Hogwarts along with more backup than we could shake a stick at. It was the best shot we'd probably ever have at the pair. Three horcruxes, all in one place – we could end it all tonight. We would end it all tonight, because Voldemort getting away with the horcrux would be a death nell for our missions given that we didn't even know what it was.
"And what precisely is the situation?" Nott asked slowly.
"He's coming," I said bluntly, and the way Daphne's jaw dropped and Nott's eyes widened proved that they knew exactly who I was talking about. "There's something at Hogwarts that we need, something that he hid there, something that can help kill him. He knows we're after it, but he's got other places to check first. We've got to find it now, before he can move it."
"Lorena, come on, we've got to move!" Harry called from coser to the lake. I turned and glared over my shoulder.
"They have to be warned, Harry!" I snapped. "We're going to be there at the same time as him in all likelihood, don't you understand what that means?"
Hermione got it first, as per usual. Her eyes widened and she went deathly pale. "A fight. Between you and him."
"But on our turf," I insisted, eyes glowing. "Hogwarts is ours, no matter what he thinks. Warn the DA," I added to the two in the mirror. "Warn whatever teachers you can get to safely. Get the Basilisks ready to mobilize. Ready the potions. Tell the professors that we're coming, and after we're in, they should set off as many defenses for the school as they can. I have no idea if he'll come with force. If I was him, I would."
"Potter," Daphne said shakily. "You're acting like… like this is it."
I couldn't explain the feeling in my gut, a sort of knowing that it all came down to this. But I could feel it in my bones, that tonight would decide for good or ill the fate of us, of our school, of the Wizarding World. It was all lining up too perfectly. All of the horcruxes and Voldemort himself in one place, and of course it would happen at Hogwarts. Why had I ever thought this would end anywhere else but right at home, at the core of all of our identities? Hogwarts was home to we three and we were willing to fight for that place of first sanctuary, of first home, of first safety. It was the only place that made sense.
"I think it is," I said softly, and clicked the mirror shut. I opened it once more and whispered, "Severus Snape."
"No!" Ron growled, but it was too late. Snape was sitting in Dumbledore's office behind his desk. He raised an eyebrow at my disheveled appearance.
"What sort of foolishness have you been up to now, Potter?" he drawled.
"Oh, you know, breaking into Gringotts, escaping on a dragon."
"I beg to differ-"
"He's coming, sir," I said swiftly, and Snape's eyes darkened. "He's after the horcrux at Hogwarts and we're coming to try and find it before he can."
Snape nodded. "The first priority is the students. I'll come up with some way to gather them all up so they can be easily evacuated and the halls will be cleared for you."
"I need you to warn the Order, get them there in case this all goes sideways or he has backup," I explained, and Harry called once more,
"I'm sorry sir, I've got to go, just… get whatever you can ready," I finished, voice strained. Before I closed the mirror I raised it a bit and whispered, "And be safe." The latch shut with a click and I tucked it into my pocket with one hand, reaching out to take Harry's hand with the other. I was enveloped in the crushing sensation of Apparition as we were dragged away from the edge of the lake, colors smearing and lungs bursting and head swimming, it was all so much all at once…
My feet touched road. We stood in the achingly familiar Hogsmeade High Street. I remembered walking down this very street with Draco nearly a year ago, disguised so that we could go out together. All of it seemed from a simpler time. The dark shop fronts, the outline of black mountains beyond the village, the curve in the road ahead that led off toward Hogwarts, light spilling from the windows of the Three Broomsticks.
The air was rent by a scream that sounded like someone was murdering a cat with extreme prejudice. It was the unmistakeable sound of a Caterwauling Charm, and it was our appearance that must have caused it. I quickly cast a Disillusionment Charm and stepped from under the cloak. Without four of us crammed under there it was only feet and ankles visible instead of the entirety of our lower legs.
As I stepped out, the door of the Three Broomsticks burst open and a dozen cloaked and hooded Death Eaters dashed into the street, their wands aloft. I gripped a fold of the Cloak to keep track of the others.
"Don't try a spell," I whispered, knowing that trying wouldn't do us much good. There were three Death Eaters to each of us and the moment we cast they'd know exactly where we were.
One of the Death Eaters waved his wand and the scream stopped, still echoing around the distant mountains.
"Accio Cloak!" roared one of the Death Eaters.
I seized its fold tightly, praying I'd be able to keep it in place, but it made no attempt to escape. The Summoning Charm had not worked on it. I frowned at the Cloak in surprise. It was magical, yes, but it was still an object and the spell should have worked…
"Not under your wrapper, then, Potter?" yelled the Death Eater who had tried the charm, and then to his fellows, "Spread out. They're here."
Six of the Death Eaters ran toward them. I felt the Cloak shift and moved with them. We backed as quickly as possible down the nearest side street. I held my breath and the Death Eaters missed us by inches. We waited in the darkness, listening to the footsteps running up and down, beams of light flying along the street from the Death Eaters' searching wands. It was the most high stakes game of hide and seek I'd ever played and the thought made me smile ever so slightly in the alley.
"Let's just leave!" Hermione whispered. "Disapparate now!"
"Great idea," said Ron, but before anyone could reply a Death Eater shouted,
"We know you're here, Potter, and there's no getting away! We'll find you!"
"They were ready for us," whispered Harry. "They set up that spell to tell them we'd come. I reckon they've done something to keep us here, trap us-"
"We go now, we lose the opportunity, maybe forever," I replied sharply. "You wanna run, Hermione, go on, but the rest of us are staying." Maybe it was cruel but this wasn't the time to be dithering back and forth on what to do. This was the time for confidence, and, well, bravery.
"What about dementors?" called another Death Eater. "Let 'em have free rein, they'd find him quick enough!"
"The Dark Lord wants Potter dead by no hand but his-"
"-an' dementors won't kill him! The Dark Lord wants Potter's life, not his soul. He'll be easier to kill if he's been Kissed first!"
"What about his sister, though, her he wants intact!"
"He'll forget her if we deliver Potter!"
I scoffed. I doubted that highly, but fine, if they wanted to try dementors, let them. IT would be annoying to deal with, but we'd handled them before. Still, though, the idea of their creeping cold and rattling breath began to sink in. The world before me flickered between the darkened street to the cells of Azkaban, freezing stone surrounding me on all sides. The rattling was louder, it was right behind me-
"We're going to have to try to Disapparate, Harry!" Hermione whispered, and her words yanked me out of the hallucination. I shook my head and snarled silently.
Even as she said it, he felt the unnatural cold begin to steal over the street. Light was sucked from the environment right up to the stars, which vanished. Hermione's hand wormed out from under the cloak and latched to my arm. I felt the yank as they turned, but nothing happened. The air through which we needed to move seemed to have become solid. The Death Eaters had cast Anti-Disapparation charms.
The cold was biting deeper and deeper into my skin, raising goosebumps along my arms. I was trying to muffle panting as the sound of Voldemort's words began to fill my ears.
"You may wonder why I let you live. It was not an act of mercy but a curse upon you. When I rise to power once more – and make no mistake, I shall rise even farther than I did before – when your brother is dead at my feet, when Dumbledore and all who would oppose me have been crushed… When that day comes, you will still be alive.
Hermione dragged me down the side street, groping their way along the wall, trying not to make a sound. Then, around the corner, gliding noiselessly, came dementors, ten or more of them, visible because they were of a denser darkness than their surroundings, with their black cloaks and their scabbed and rotting hands.
"Do you know why? You're a bright girl, I can see it here in your mind. You are intelligent. Can you guess? No? Then Lord Voldemort will tell you."
It was like they could sense fear….
"I allow you to live so that when I stand at the pinnacle of Wizardkind no one will dare oppose me again. You will be the symbol of my supremacy – the last of the hopelessly brave and good Potters alive, kneeling at my feet. You will be my prize, my trophy, the head mounted on the wall."
They seemed to be coming more quickly now, taking those dragging, rattling breaths I detested, tasting despair on the air, closing in —
"You, kneeling at my feet, will be the sign of my triumph."
The silver stag burst from Harry's wand and charged. The dementors scattered and there was a triumphant yell from somewhere out of sight.
"It's him, down there, down there, I saw his Patronus, it was a stag!"
The dementors had retreated, the stars were popping out again, and the footsteps of the Death Eaters were becoming louder; but before we could make a move there was a grinding of bolts nearby, a door opened on the left-hand side of the narrow street, and a rough voice said, "Potter, in here, quick!"
The four of us hurtled through the open doorway. If nothing else it was a better option than the dementors.
"Upstairs, keep the Cloak on, keep quiet!" muttered a tall figure, passing us on his way into the street and slamming the door behind him.
I had had no idea where we were in the frantic fleeing. By the stuttering light of a single candle, the grubby, sawdust-strewn bar of the Hog's Head Inn was revealed. We ran behind the counter and through a second doorway, which led to a rickety wooden staircase that we climbed as fast as we could. The stairs opened onto a sitting room with a threadbare carpet and a small fireplace, above which hung a single large oil painting of a blonde girl who gazed out at the room with a kind of vacant sweetness.
Shouts reached us from the street below. Still under the spell, I crept toward the grimy window with the others and looked down and looked down. Their savior, whom I now recognized as the Hog's Head's barman, was the only person not wearing a hood.
"So what?" he was bellowing into one of the hooded faces. "So what? You send dementors down my street, I'll send a Patronus back at 'em! I'm not having 'em near me, I've told you that, I'm not having it!"
"That wasn't your Patronus!" snapped a Death Eater. "That was a stag, it was Potter's!"
"Stag!" roared the barman, and he pulled out a wand. "Stag! You idiot — Expecto Patronum!"
Something huge and horned erupted from the wand. Head down, it charged toward the High Street and out of sight.
"That's not what I saw-" protested the Death Eater, though with less certainty.
"Curfew's been broken, you heard the noise," one of his companions informed the barman. "Someone was out in the street against regulations-"
"If I want to put my cat out, I will, and be damned to your curfew!"
"You set off the Caterwauling Charm?"
"What if I did? Going to cart me off to Azkaban? Kill me for sticking my nose out my own front door? Do it, then, if you want to! But I hope for your sakes you haven't pressed your little Dark Marks and summoned him. He's not going to like being called here for me and my old cat, is he, now?"
"Don't you worry about us," retorted one of the Death Eaters, "worry about yourself, breaking curfew!"
"And where will you lot traffick potions and poisons when my pub's closed down? What'll happen to your little sidelines then?"
"Are you threatening-?"
"I keep my mouth shut, it's why you come here, isn't it?"
"I still say I saw a stag Patronus!" shouted the first Death Eater.
"Stag?" roared the barman. "It's a goat, idiot!"
"All right, we made a mistake," recanted the second Death Eater, clearly not all that excited to keep yelling at the belligerent barkeeper. "Break curfew again and we won't be so lenient!"
The Death Eaters strode back toward the High Street. Hermione moaned with relief, wove out from under the Cloak, and sat down on a wobble-legged chair. Harry drew the curtains tight shut, then pulled the Cloak off himself and Ron. I released my spell and slumped against the wall wearily, lowering my eyes to the floor. The cold from the dementors was in my bones, the fire in the grate wasn't helping. I shuddered.
I could hear the barman down below, rebolting the door of the bar then climbing the stairs. He entered the room and announced gruffly, "You bloody fools," looking from one to the other of us. "What were you thinking, coming here?"
"Thank you," offered Harry. "We can't thank you enough. You saved our lives."
The barman grunted. I tryied to see past the long, stringy, wire-gray hair and beard to find his features. He wore spectacles. Behind the dirty lenses, the eyes were a piercing, brilliant blue. The sort of blue that I knew very, very well.
"It's your eye I've been seeing in the mirror," Harry said bluntly, and the mirror balanced on the mantle below the painting of the blonde winked at me. I recognized it. Sirius had given its mate to Harry years ago. He'd shattered it after Sirius died, but I'd seen him turning a shard over and over in his fingers as he stared into the fire at Grimmauld Place some nights.
There was silence in the room. Th barman nodded and turned away, lighting lamps with prods of his wand, not looking at any of them.
"You're Aberforth," said Harry to the man's back. It had clicked for me too when I saw the eyes. Dumbledore's eyes, goats… it all came together to form the image of the great Albus Dumbledore's disappointing disgrace of a younger brother.
Aberforth neither confirmed nor denied it, but bent to light the fire.
"How did you get this?" Harry asked, walking across to Sirius's mirror.
"Bought it from Dung 'bout a year ago," explained Aberforth, and I scowled. So the bastard had sold off more of my inheritance. "Albus told me what it was. Been trying to keep an eye out for you. Help when I can. But this one's been doing a good job of that, when she's not captured." Aberforth nodded to me. I inclined my head in acknowledgement and made a long, lingering moment of eye contact with Dumbledore's brother. I'd hated the headmaster, but the barman had done nothing to me.
Still, looking into the same eyes, it was hard not to be irrationally suspicious of him.