EARLIER THAT DAY

It's a clear day, the skies above blue and cloudless, and there isn't so much as a whisper of wind. The mountains that overlook Hogsmeade tower over the hillside path that looks down over the village, and there is the soft sound of birdsong in the distance.

Evan Rosier stands alone, looking carefully around. According to Death Eater sources, Gilderoy Lockhart's troupe are holed up somewhere in the vicinity of Hogsmeade, so he has to take care, but he hunted boar as a child, on the grounds of the Rosier Manor in the North of England, and he hears even the slightest movements in the distance. It would be impossible for someone like Lockhart to take him by surprise; his senses are too carefully cultivated.

That aside, Lockhart is not Evan's current priority.

Making his steps carefully, Evan ensures he doesn't brush any undergrowth as he moves. He's using an old-fashioned hunting charm that keeps him hovering six or seven inches above the ground: it makes a platform around the hunter's feet, allowing him to move as he ordinarily would without worrying about leaving tracks or stepping on twigs. Silence is of the utmost importance, given what he is searching for.

He is not, alas, in his lord's graces, but his lord has trusted him with this particular task, and it is one in which Evan excels. Moving slowly through the thicket and woods upon the hillside, he searches carefully for evidence. Last year, the Acromantula that had for so long inhabited the Forbidden Forest had fled, moving away from the Hogwarts grounds and instead moving out into the magical woods of this small mountain range. The Forbidden Forest is kept within the Hogwarts grounds, an invisible barrier protecting the land from outside attack, but these forests are deeper and thicker, and have much nastier beasts within.

Ever more so, with the sudden emigration of the Hogwarts Acromantula.

Evan remembers the last war well, and they had alliances with giants, with werewolves - he had even heard rumours, just before the war had come to its abrupt close, that the Dark Lord was cultivating the interest of an actual dragon, speaking to it with the power of his Parseltongue. The Acromantula had been impossible to reach, buried as they were within the Forbidden Forest, but now they are in the mountains outside of the castle, where the forests are unfenced and unwarded... Well, they would most certainly be valuable.

"My lord," Evan had said, softly. "You would have me kill myself in this manner?" He had dropped his knees, dropped to the cool, stone floor of Malfoy Manor's ballroom, and bowed his head: "My apologies, my lord, if I have so displeased you, allow me to die here. I will land the blow myself, I offer only my humblest sorrow at having displeased you." His lord arched a naked brow, leaning back upon his throne, and Evan had spied the flicker of his serpent's tongue upon his lower lip, tasting the air, tasting for Evan's loyalty, perhaps.

"You shall not kill yourself, Evan," he had whispered. "When you discover evidence of the Acromantula's nests - the slightest bit of webbing that might lead to their king - return here, to me. We shall assemble a party, and I shall meet the spider king myself. Acromantula are strange beasts, but with the correct coaxing, we might make them our allies. I ask only of your tracking ability." The Dark Lord had stood, coming forwards, and Evan had bowed his head, his lips upon the leather toe of the tight boots fastened about his lord's feet: he had been so, so grateful. The mudblooded scum of the world, the blood traitors, think of the Dark Lord as some idle king, dressed as the traitor Dumbledore, with long skirts and wide sleeves, but for as long as Evan has known him, served him, the Dark Lord has dressed as a duellist, with leather clasps and robes designed for quick movement.

When the Dark Lord had gently cupped Evan's jaw, forcing him to meet his lord's red gaze, Evan had felt rushing excitement, adoration, and felt as he had at only seventeen, when he had first kneeled at this man's glorious feet.

Evan smiles as he ducks beneath a willow branch, feeling its weeping leaves brush his hair as he passes. He has reached the edge of a wide gully, carpeted thickly on its every side. Fifty feet below, he sees a stream winding through the dirt. Thanks to lacking rain, it is depleted, but in the winters, Evan imagines it is a powerful, white-washed river. He looks up to its mouth, where the stream comes from a crack in the grey-washed stone. Some twenty feet above that crack, however, is a cave mouth. He cannot see within, but webbing coats the area of stone around it as heavily as moss, and even as he watches, a brown monster of a spider, as large as a horse, slips within.

Excellent.

Turning on his heel, he makes his way as fast as he can back to the path. He shouldn't like to Apparate directly from here, where his magic might be tracked; better to do so nearer the village, where the evidence of his Apparition will blend in with the ghosts of other such spells. As he slips beneath a yew's wide umbrella, however, he hears the sudden crack of a branch, and he freezes at the noise as a rabbit might. Evan's very breaths are silent, and he hugs the trunk of the yew, listening carefully. These woods are heavy with magic, and any manner of beastie might have thought to track him, so it is vital he is quiet, that it might reveal itself.

There is another tell-tale crack, and Evan stiffens as he hears the underbrush give way, but then the offender passes him by at speed: a young boar, out in the woods despite the late hour of the morning, and Evan almost laughs to himself as he hear its clumsy rush down the hillside. Shaking his head, he takes a step out from the yew, and he feels his Hunter's Stealth charm give way. He loses his balance, his feet hitting the actual ground suddenly, and he stares down at his feet, taken quite by surprise.

What-

"Hello, Evan," says a smooth, theatrical voice. Evan looks up, staring at the face of Gilderoy Lockhart. He looks older than he did when Evan last saw him; Lockhart's hair is longer, tied at the back of his neck, like Lucius Malfoy's was at school, but much thicker, curlier. The wound Evan had given him some months ago has scarred, he sees: the mark runs in purple-pink over the left side of Lockhart's jaw, and he feels his lip twitch in satisfaction. As Lockhart purrs, "How good to see you!", arrogant even now, Evan grasps hold of his wand.

"You're looking well," says a voice to his left, and Evan's head whips toward it. Sara-Dean Smith is dressed in rider's robes, her hair hanging straight and loose about her youthful features.

"He is, isn't he?" says a third voice.

"Better than Chad, anyway." Two older women Evan doesn't know stand together, arm in arm, wands raised. How could they have done this? How could they all have come toward him like this, so silently? Evan raises his wand higher, but he knows already, feeling the oppressive magic of an anti-Apparation ward upon his skin, that it is too late.

~ ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ ~

"How can you possibly jump to the idea that this might mean war?" Molly snaps out, her tone so sharp that Kingsley actually recoils on the other side of the table, his eyes widening slightly. "It was terrorism, yes, but we can't jump to war. War means battles, it means the deaths of our children... The start of the last war was that skirmish on Henry's Walk, down in Cornwall, don't any of you remember? I remember! Arthur and I were actually there, which is more than I can say for you, Mad-Eye, or for you, Kingsley! And you, Hestia, you hadn't even passed your Auror training yet!" Harry watches her slap her hands upon the table, feeling his eyes sting with tiredness.

"This is unusual for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," Kingsley admits, his tone smooth and low and calm. "He would usually send his Death Eaters to kill somebody, but Harry is not a usual case. Harry, whether he means to be or not, is a symbol for the wizarding world: he ended the last war, and the intention was likely that he would begin this one."

"There hasn't been enough preparation on his part," Narcissa argues, keenly. Harry wonders where Draco is - in his room, perhaps? Or is he somewhere else entirely, somewhere away from Grimmauld Place, where he cannot attempt to eavesdrop? Hermione had stayed with her parents, immediately insisting they go home. "The last war, the Dark Lord spent years slowly accumulating resources, alliances, planting his men in the Ministry... Why would he jump so abruptly to a war?"

"Because people remember the first war," Cecilia Hayworth snaps, irritably; Harry can see the offence on Narcissa's face, from her angry eyes to her pointed nose, and he wonders if she's calling Cecilia a Mudblood in her head. "There are people already out there who will flock to his side, who would have considered Harry's death a signal that the war was over before it even began. He's meant to be dead."

"Cheers, Celia," Harry says. It's the first time he's spoken as everyone in the room has argued and argued, but before anyone can retort a hushed silence rings through the room. Dumbledore is here, with Flitwick at his side - McGonagall is nowhere to be seen. "Took you long enough. What, had something better to do?" Snape's hand moves so fast Harry can barely see it: the slap upside his head stings, and he lets out a hiss of pain... But even he would admit it was deserved.

"Have we been debating?" Dumbledore asks, his tone quiet and kind. "What are the sides, hmm? Was this a declaration of war, or not?" Harry turns his head slightly. Since Harry had taken a seat at the table, Snape had stood at his elbow, and now, Harry meets his gaze. Snape's expression is grim.

"It doesn't matter," Harry says quietly, while the hush is still in place. "I know this doesn't match with what he's done historically, but Celia is right. I am meant to be dead, and this was supposed to be a power play. We can argue what precisely started the second war after it's definitely over; this isn't the time to pro-actively write our history books." Harry stands up from his chair, flicking it under the table, and then says, "We break the connection with Voldemort's followers, we kill the man himself. That's the goal: everything else is irrelevant."

"Irrelevant?" Arthur asks. He looks positively betrayed, and Harry feels the guilt pit in his belly. "Harry, if this is war, it's war. There are no easy goals. Haven't you given a thought to how many people that You-Know-Who will kill?"

"Yeah," Harry says. "I have. But as for action... There's nothing we can do but fight." He slips out of the room, into the kitchen. He is unsurprised to see Sirius and Remus have followed him, and when Dumbledore steps inside a moment or two later, Harry says, "I've got something to talk to you about, sir. We'll want Professor Snape and Moody, too."

Dumbledore's expression is serious, but he gives a small nod of his head, and the six of them meet upstairs in one of the drawing rooms, where the windows are wide, and look down on the streets of Muggles below.

"What is it, Potter?" Mad-Eye asks. "Something about when you went down?" Harry nods his head. Sirius is pacing the room, unable to remain still, and Mad-Eye leans back against the unlit fireplace; Dumbledore, Remus and Snape all stand together, Snape looking cartoonishly short between Remus' lanky form and Dumbledore's tall, colourful one.

Harry sighs, and relates what he had felt after the Killing Curse had hit him, explaining in as much detail as he can the strange, sickly room, the odd feelings it gave him, even the laugh of the shade. Sirius, his expression horrified, sinks into one of the chairs at the side of the room, and Remus walks over to him, his hand gently resting on Sirius' back. As he explains everything that had happened, however, every single one of them remains silent, not interrupting Harry at all.

"And then, somewhere between running down the corridor and reaching the end, I woke up. My mouth tasted stale, but my heart was beating and my lungs were working, so I just threw myself into working. Got photographs of the Death Eaters, let people see I was up and about... What do you think it means, Headmaster? Was it just a dream?"

"Perhaps," Dumbledore says, in a measured tone. His blue eyes have a faraway look in them, glassy, as if he is working out some complex calculation inside his head.

"Given the Dark Lord's connection with his servants," Snape says quietly, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, "It would not surprise me to learn that he somehow left a piece of himself in you, Potter. It would explain the connection that necessitated your Occlumency training, would it not?"

"I wonder, Harry," Dumbledore murmurs, thoughtful. "I wonder, are you still a Parselmouth?" Harry looks around the room, seeing that there is a snake carved into the mirror, and he stares at it a moment, imagining its coils moving, its head shifting.

"Am I?" he whispers. He hears his own hissing clearly, and meets Dumbledore's gaze. The glassy look is gone now, replaced with a sharp attention.

"Curious. You retain your ability to speak Parseltongue, and yet I would wager your connection with Voldemort himself is severed. Can you still feel him?" Harry shakes his head. He feels the strange levity to his every Occlumency shield, and he had even searched for Voldemort inside his mind earlier, trying to get hold of the link between them, but it had been gone entirely. He had only his memories of being in Voldemort's head.

"What does that mean, then? That I'm not a Parselmouth because of Voldemort?"

"Parselmouths have been known to occur randomly," Snape says musingly, with a great disinterest. "Young Nymphadora is a Metamorphagus, and yet there is no history of such abilities in the Black line."

Dumbledore nods, and then adds, "Or when you defeated Voldemort's shade... It is possible you somehow digested what was left of it. Unsavoury, perhaps, but not a conscious action on your part. Magic has a set of rules it is bound by, such as those that support a Life Debt, and it works, at times, in ways we do not expect." Harry flicks his hand toward the fire, muttering an Incendio. Nothing happens; he feels a slight strain inside himself, but no actual magic.

"Mmm, shame I couldn't have a bit of his wandless magic," he says, and takes his wand to light the fire. As he drops to his knees below the fire, adding some coals to the grate, he listens to Dumbledore behind him.

"The way in which one places fragments of one's soul within an object... It is a rarely tested magic, and is usually performed only once. Perhaps Voldemort wished for more tethers to this world, but felt he ought have some added stability. In placing fragments of his soul alongside living souls, he might have believed he was making the process more stable, more sustainable. The placement of this fragment within you, Harry, may have been quite incidental, a matter of his magic working reflexively to protect him, just as yours did this afternoon."

"So," Harry asks, "If we cast the Killing Curse on a Death Eater, we might save them from Voldemort's influence without actually killing them?" Mad-Eye barks out a laugh.

"The boy's onto something!" Mad-Eye slaps his broad hand upon his wooden thigh, then takes a sip from his hip flask. Fred had once managed to pickpocket it last year, and had informed Harry and George that it smelled of nothing, but tasted like gin.

"Harry." Dumbledore's tone is stern, deeply reproachful, and Harry meets his gaze. "This is no matter to joke about."

"I'm not joking," Harry says, voice hard. "Sir, what other way do we have to break the connection?"

"Yours was a special case," Dumbledore says quietly. "Harry, Voldemort has likely bound his soul with that of his followers, ensuring they cannot be parted. The Killing Curse would only kill."

"So we're back to our previous solution of killing all the Death Eaters, then?"

"That is not a solution."

"Harry," Dumbledore speaks in a very gentle tone, "Murder-"

"Yes, yes, I know. It's terrible, it's terrible - but what if it's just me? What if I kill them? Sir, there's no other solution: we need those Death Eaters dead before we can kill Voldemort. How can you be okay with me killing him, but not the rest of them? They've killed people too. They've revelled in it." Dumbledore's expression is just sad, and Harry feels so impatient - why can't he just understand? "Sir, he Apparated into Diagon Alley, shot a Killing Curse at my head. He could have done that to dozens of people, to hundreds... Do you want that blood on your hands?" Desperately, he adds, "Do you want it on mine?"

Dumbledore's hand alights on Harry's shoulder, very gently, but before he can speak, there's a stiff knock, and the door opens. Cecilia steps inside, and hands two papers to Snape, which he takes, looking cursorily over them. She slips from the room without a word, closing the door behind her, and Mad-Eye limps up behind Snape to get a better look at the Prophet and Gazette respectively.

Harry can read the headlines from here: BOY-WHO-LIVED IMMUNE TO DEATH? is quite expected, but the other one makes him frown. ROSIER STRUNG UP.

"This morning," Snape says, seeming mildly amused, "It would seem that Mr Rosier had a run-in with Lockhart and his band of merry men. They replaced the sign on the old tavern on Helga's Square, The Hanged Man, with his corpse. How very poetic."

"If you were right before, Harry," Remus begins, and Harry looks to him. Sirius is leaning his head on Remus' hip, Remus' arm around his shoulder. "About Lockhart, I mean, ordering the death of Shunpike... There's no need for you to step in. Lockhart's troupe is becoming surprisingly competent."

"There are at least thirty Death Eaters, the worst of the worst, crazy people- You think they have a chance against them?"

"A better chance than you, Harry," Sirius says, his tone soft, and Harry sighs. He'd wanted to make everyone think with Shunpike, just think that if someone had killed him, maybe more wouldn't matter... And what the bloody Hell does Lockhart know? Rosier was a personal case, they didn't kill him because he was a Death Eater.

"If I might suggest, Albus," Snape says, "Potter ought be sent to his bed. Look at the boy: he barely stands." Harry opens his mouth on instinct, ready to argue, but he realizes, in that moment, that Snape is right: he's swaying on his feet, and feels fit to faint with lack of food and sleep. Closing his mouth with a quiet click, he wipes his hand over his face. All he feels as he passes Snape by is mild gratitude, and he lets it overpower his more complex emotions.

~ ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ ~

Severus sits beside the fire, feeling its pleasant heat against the side of his leg. The door opens, and Lupin enters, looking mildly harried; he and Black had followed Potter from the room, but now, Black doesn't seem to be returning with him. "Where is he?" Severus asks. He needn't do so. Potter is safe in this house, certainly, and yet a part of him still bleeding with guilt thinks, but you must know where he is! You must be vigilant!

"On a sofa in the library," Lupin murmurs. "I left the room to get him a blanket, but when I came back, he was always asleep. Sirius is out, too, in the armchair next to him." Some watch dog, Severus thinks, bitterly, but he voices neither the thought nor the pun. "What I said about Lockhart... Do you think I'm right? Alastor, Albus...?" Lupin has turned from Severus now, speaking to the other men in the room: Severus is, as always, the outsider, within the very room, and yet somehow without.

"Harry's theory as to Shunpike makes some sense," Moody says lowly; even though his normal eye rests on Lupin and Dumbledore, his magic one retains its gaze on Severus the entire time. Where else might it roam, after all? "On the Knight Bus, you meet Muggles, sure enough. He's had his issues with 'em, and Arthur Weasley'll tell you he's been written up a time or two, so he can definitely hold his own, like. But how would Lockhart figure all this out, even with his advising council of biddies?"

"The file clerk, Dorian-" Lupin becomes.

"Dorian Keats had no connection with Lockhart's troupe before I requested he ingratiate himself," Dumbledore says, patiently. Does he lie like that when people test him on Severus, Severus wonders? So simply, so easily? It had been Severus who had caught Keats, after all, coming down to Hogsmeade one evening after a meeting up the mountain. Of course Keats would be taken in by a man like Lockhart: even at school, Keats had been shy but serious, easily led astray by attractive men.

Severus has made his errors, but at least his mistakes were lead by ego rather than lust. And Lockhart, at that - a dunce if ever there was one!

"Lockhart needs no knowledge of Voldemort's link to his followers in order to take offence to them," Dumbledore muses. "Shunpike might have personally offended them, just as Rosier did."

"I'm going back to Sirius and Harry," Lupin says, and Dumbledore nods his head. Moody follows the werewolf from the room, and when Dumbledore closes the door behind them, Severus sits very still in his chair beside the fire, and feels trapped.

"I didn't know," he says immediately. Dumbledore's eyes are forget-me-not blue, but they are icier than Lucius' ever were, despite the flint-like colour to Lucius' own. "Albus, you must believe me... I had no idea we were to be summoned, let alone to such a purpose! I would never, never-" Albus' wizened hand rises, his fingers together, the palm flat, and Severus feels his tongue still in his mouth. Does Dumbledore hate him, Severus wonders? Despise him? He surely must, for all of Severus' sins, but Severus only wishes he would show it. He is well-used to people hating him, but it is those that keep it hidden he cannot trust.

"Worry not, Severus. You cannot know everything." Severus wishes he did. Severus wishes he had known, wishes he could have done something, even if it were to cast Fiendfyre on their troupe as soon as they were all gathered together at Malfoy Manor - a way to kill them all, and the Dark Lord, all at once!

At least Severus would be dead, then.

"Recount the summoning to me, Severus. Spare no detail." Severus sighs, puts his head in his hands, and sighs a second time, longer, harder. He thinks of Black and Lupin, watching over their charge in the library as he sleeps on the sofa, finally free of his connection to this monster Severus remains shackled to, and all of his own fault.

"I felt the first twinge only minutes before the actual pull," Severus murmurs quietly. "This was some time past seven, as I had to remove my cauldron from the boil..." The rest of the tale slips from his tongue with ease, but he knows it gives no idea as to the Dark Lord's own thoughts, but that he thought to kill Potter. And when, Severus wonders, will the summoning come, when he wishes to punish his followers for the boy's survival?

Soon, no doubt.