Disclaimer: By the power of JK Rowling, I compel this story to LIVE!
A/N: Okay, so I promised I wouldn't abandon this story, and I haven't. As proof, here's a new chapter! However, I have decided to shift it over to my list of "inactive" stories. This is not a complete hiatus, but it means that, like most of my other stories, there will be no set update schedule, and I'll post new chapters as the inspiration strikes. Basically, I'm focusing my efforts on finishing the Arithmancer series and backing off from committing to anything else.
I apologise for the slowdown in my writing. I've been dealing with a lot of issues in my life over the past year that have made things more difficult. One of these is having a real job for the first time instead of just being a student, not to mention an exhausting job-related travel schedule this summer in particular. In the meantime, I haven't had as clear an outline for this story as I did for my earlier work, which slows down the process more than I expected. But as I said, this story is not dead, nor are my others, so keep watching.
Harry repeated his assessment from a few weeks earlier. Some days, it just didn't pay to get out of bed.
Boxing Day was intended as a day to relax from the Christmas excitement, and true, the Grangers were expecting some guests. However, those guests were not supposed to be there in the morning. When Dan answered the door, backed up by Harry, he was surprised to see Dora standing there.
"Hello, Dora. We weren't expecting you," Dan said. "What's up?"
"Wotcher, Dan, Harry," she replied. "I'm on security duty again."
"Is something wrong?" Harry asked worriedly.
"Probably not here. This is just in case. Apparently, Fan Tong's been making prophecies all week about something big happening today—something about an immovable object and crushing a bailiwick and the fall of a great tower…or something like that. It's hard to tell with her. We think You-Know-Who might be making a play for Hogwarts, so the Aurors are on high alert there, but they wanted me standing guard here in case you go out."
"Ah, well, you're welcome to stay for the day today, Dora," Dan said. "We're not really planning on going anywhere, although we will be having company over later."
"You will? Who?"
"Our friends Paul and Tiffany," Harry said. "You met them last summer."
"At the cinema, right? I seem to remember that not going so well."
"I know, but Hermione and I wanted to try to reach out to them for the holiday—as an olive branch, you know? Things are getting so dangerous, and we get so few chances to talk to them…"
"Yeah, I see where you're coming from," Dora agreed. "This isn't a time to hold grudges. That's fine, then. I'll just be here in case any dark wizards show up."
"Um…thanks for the help, I guess?" Harry said. Really, if the Death Eaters did come to call, there wouldn't be much they could do but hold out for the Aurors or escape through the Floo, but three wands were better than two.
Paul and Tiffany arrived in the late afternoon—separately, this time. They'd apparently made a clean break in their relationship, seeing as they didn't get too awkward around each other. Indeed, it was a much more awkward for them interacting with Harry and Hermione over dinner.
"So you just came over for the holidays, Dora?" Tiffany asked.
"Yep. Wanted to see my adorable cousins."
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Well, you were adorable when we first met. You remember how they were at that age, don't you?" she asked the guests. "And compared with Cousin Sirius, they definitely—"
"Wait, isn't Sirius your godfather?" Paul said. "The one who was in prison?"
"Exonerated," Dora said.
"It's complicated," Harry said at nearly the same time. "Dora's a cousin from my birth family. I don't know if we mentioned that to you before. And Sirius—you don't want to know what his family tree looks like. It's not pretty."
"Wow, sounds like your whole family were real characters," Paul said.
Harry thought back over the stories of the Marauders' antics and said, "Yeah, kinda."
They talked about their holidays for a while, and what Paul and Tiffany had been up to (things had been going well enough for them) but Harry and Hermione naturally avoided the topic of Hogwarts. Even though the muggles knew a little, it wasn't something they wanted to talk about much, although it was inevitable that it would come up sooner or later.
"So how have things been at Hogwarts School for Gifted Youngsters?" Paul asked.
Tonks choked on her Christmas ham a little bit.
"Ah, some good, some bad," Harry said. "A lot of really vicious rumours going around about me up till Halloween."
"Really? Like what?"
Harry fixed Paul and Tiffany with a feline stare. "You don't want to know," he said.
Their friends were a little taken aback. Tiffany looked at him and his sister uncomfortably and said, "Harry, is it really that bad?"
"Yeah, they were. Trust me, you don't want to know."
"Not just the rumours. I mean—everything," she said. "I know your friend was killed, but…you're not like you used to be—neither of you."
"Yeah, no alien invasion yet, mate?" Paul said. Tiffany groaned and smacked him in the arm.
Harry said, "Well, there was a giant on the grounds a few weeks ago. Luna taught me his language." But his heart wasn't in it.
"Harry!" Dora exclaimed before she realised she was drawing more attention than he was. Hermione whispered something to her, and she shut up.
"Look, it's just been a crappy year," Harry said. "It's like one thing after another has gone wrong…Um…we saw a great play yesterday, though. There's this small theatre company that always does a nice Christmas play. This was an in-house drama about the Battle of Hastings…it was a lot more interesting than it sounds."
"Oh? I didn't know you were that into theatre," said Tiffany.
"Some," Hermione said. "This place does mostly fantasy—a little on the amateur side, but they're pretty good. One of our classmates' family owns it."
That was enough of an icebreaker for Harry and Hermione to give a sufficiently vague account of the plays they had seen. They changed a number of the elements to more traditional muggle fantasy ones—Dora knew enough muggle literature to understand what they were doing—and conflated the Arthurian elements of The Battle of Hastings with the other play the Theatre had done about Merlin two years ago, but the muggles found their descriptions entertaining and surprisingly interesting.
After dinner, the conversation had grown easier as they talked about lighter matters. The subject of muggle films came up, and apparently, there had been quite a few good ones besides Braveheart this year.
"It'd be nice to go see another one together just as friends," Hermione said. "Do you think there's still time to see Toy Story?"
"Toy Story?" Paul said, wrinkling his nose. "Not Magic Island or Jumanji?"
"Not Jumanji," Harry said softly. "Don't really care for monster movies these days."
Paul looked like he wanted to say something, but he held his tongue and shook his head.
"Look, it's just that we've had a bad year, and I think we need something light and fluffy," Hermione said, but with a grin, she added, "Although personally, I think Harry's just never got over Jurassic Park."
Everyone laughed except for Harry, although even he chuckled a little. That wasn't the reason, although the T-Rex had been inordinately scary on the big screen.
Suddenly, Harry, Hermione, and Dora all stopped laughing and froze. That sat bolt upright and looked at each other.
"Crap!" they said.
"Anti-Apparition Wards!" Dora yelled. She, Harry, and Hermione all jumped from their seats and ran to the windows and pulled small, carved sticks seemingly out of nowhere. Dan and Emma jumped up just afterwards.
"What?" Paul and Tiffany said worriedly.
Dan and Emma had already sprung into action, Emma grabbing emergency supplies and Dan loading a shotgun.
"What the hell?" Paul said.
"How many?" asked Dan.
"I've got four Death Eaters on this side," Harry said peeking out a window.
"And four more over here," Hermione added.
"Crap. There's too many to fight," Tonks said. She produced a silvery light from her stick, which flew through the wall. "We'll have to evacuate through the Floo if we don't get help fast."
"What's going on?" Tiffany cried.
A rumble like a rockslide came from outside as spells began to impact on the wards. Both of the muggle children jumped in fright.
"How long will the wards hold out?" Hermione asked.
"What are you talking about?" demanded Paul.
"Dumbledore set them. A few minutes, at least—plenty of time if you hurry up getting your things."
"Guys, seriously what's going on?" Tiffany said fearfully. She glanced out the nearest window. "What's with the guys in cloaks?"
"Keep away from the windows!" Dora said.
"And why does that big black guy have glowing tattoos?" Paul added as he looked out the window in the front door.
"WHAT?!" Dora yelled, and she ran to look, pushing him out of the way. Her reaction was a tirade of profanity that was impressive even for her. Something that sounded like a massive explosion shook the house. "New plan!" she yelled. "No time to pack! We've gotta get out of here now!"
"Open the Floo!" Hermione said. "Accio emergency kits!"
An even louder explosion shook the house and made plaster fall from the ceiling. The two muggle teens screamed, but the Grangers were moving with determination. Supplies flew down the stairs to Harry and Hermione, who were waving their little sticks like Dora. Meanwhile, Emma threw a handful of something into the fireplace and shouted "Hogwarts!" Green flames appeared within and a voice began to speak.
"Boss, we've got eight Death Eaters and Kinani Ngeze here!" Dora cut the voice off. "We're coming through and bringing two guests."
"Quick, get in the fireplace!" Harry told Paul and Tiffany.
"What?!" they said in horror.
Another explosion hit, and they could hear something crash upstairs.
"Dan, Emma, you first," Dora called, and to the guests' horror the Grangers ran into the green flames and vanished.
"Just do it, and we'll explain later," Harry said. He and Hermione started to push them towards the fireplace, but they resisted. Suddenly, their friends gestured oddly, and they felt themselves be pushed by a much stronger force that came from nowhere—striking them hard in their chests and throwing them back into the green flames. They screamed again.
BOOM! The front window blew in as the wards shattered. The Death Eaters surged forward.
"Dora, hurry!" Harry yelled. BOOM! The front door blew in, slamming against the opposite wall. He and Hermione were already running, holding up Shield Charms and sliding through the Floo with their own emergency supplies one after the other.
Dora dove out of the fireplace and into Dumbledore's office just before a blast of hot, orange flames and debris blew through behind her, and the Floo immediately winked out. A half-dozen of the Headmaster's instruments were upended and smashed on the floor by her entrance and the billowing fire.
"What happened?" Dumbledore asked sharply. He seemed to have lost the demeanour of a pleasant old man and became a battle-hardened warrior before their eyes as they came through.
"Ahhh!" came a scream.
"What the hell?"
"Where are we?"
"How did we get here?"
"What's going on?"
"Are you aliens?"
Paul and Tiffany had come to their senses and were clinging to each other and crouching low, their eyes darting around the office like a pair of frightened animals. Harry could guess it was a horrible shock, being thrown into a raging fire and winding up somewhere else.
"Look, guys, I'm really sorry about—" Harry started.
He froze. "What?" he said in confusion.
"Don't you see where we are, mate?"
Harry looked around the room, befuddled. "Um…an office?" he ventured.
"An office?" Paul said in horror. "How the hell—? Harry, we're on this crazy rickety platform like two hundred feet in the air!"
"It's the Anti-Muggle Charms," Dora said suddenly. "They're making them see the castle as a ruin—a ruin where this tower isn't even here, so they see it as a platform."
"Alright, Paul, Tiffany, listen," Harry took charge. "Stay there. It's going to be alright." He made a show of stepping towards them very carefully across the floor. "Things aren't as they appear here."
"Harry, please, what's going on? Where are we?" Tiffany said, on the verge of tears.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Harry said. "You have to see it. Professor, do you have any spare Anti-Anti-Muggle charms?"
The two muggles turned around and for the first time noticed the old, white-bearded man dressed as a stereotypical wizard standing behind them on what seemed to be rotting floorboards that couldn't possibly support his weight. "Who the hell are you?" Paul said.
"Albus Dumbledore, my boy," the old man said, "and under the circumstances, yes, I think we can make an exception." He mimed opening an invisible drawer and rummaging around inside it. Then, he pulled two medallions seemingly out of thin air and tossed them to Harry, who caught them expertly.
"Look, guys," Harry told them. "This is a lot to take in, but the short version is, magic is real."
"Just put the necklaces on, and you'll see."
He held out the medallions. Paul looked very confused, but he slowly took one, examined it, and placed it over his head, followed by Tiffany. Their eyes grew to the size of saucers as the scene changed from a rickety platform amid a stone ruin to a magical room filled with activity and impossible things.
"Bloody. Buggering. Hell."
"Yeah, that's what we thought the first time," Harry said. "Welcome…to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
"Hogwarts…" Paul started.
"…School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?" Tiffany finished.
"This is where we've been going to school for the past four years," Hermione explained. "It's invisible to people without magic. The necklaces let you see it."
"So you're…you're a…" Tiffany stammered.
"A witch, yes. And Harry's a wizard."
"But…how?" Paul said.
"We were born that way," Harry said. "Magic is genetics, as far as we know."
"Magic. Bloody hell…Bloody hell!" he exclaimed when he made the connection. "So all those crazy stories you used to tell…?"
"And…and your friend?" asked Tiffany.
A fierce, feline snarl crossed Harry's face. "Murdered by an evil wizard—an evil wizard who was trying to get to me."
Paul's and Tiffany's eyes grew wider, and they took a step back from Harry, bumping into Dumbledore's desk. "Is that what happened tonight?" Tiffany asked quietly. "He came for you again?"
"Yes—well, not exactly. Those were a bunch of his lackeys," Dora said. "You-Know-Who wasn't there himself."
"Who?" the muggles said.
Harry sighed and rolled his eyes: "His name is Voldemort, but most wizards call him You-Know-Who because they're scared to say his name. Whole lot of nonsense."
"Speak for yourself, Harry," Dora said. "Not all of us can be as brave as you are."
"Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself, Nymphadora," Dumbledore said.
"Don't call me Nymphadora," she told him.
Paul's and Tiffany's mouths dropped open. "Nymphadora?" Paul said.
"Don't call me that!"
"Your name is Nymphadora?" Tiffany asked.
"I said don't call me that!" She raised her wand, and her hair flashed red.
Paul didn't give up. "Seriously, Nymph?" he said.
"I will seriously jinx you! It's not muggle-baiting if you already know about magic."
"Dora!" Hermione hissed, forcing her arm down. "This isn't the time."
She relented, lowering her wand. The attention shifted back to the two "guests". Dumbledore regarded them carefully and told them, "I apologise for the circumstances of your arrival. The revelation of magic can come as a shock to those who do not know of it. Now, you are Mr. Talbot and Miss Morley, if I don't miss my guess?"
"Er…yeah, how did you know?"
"A wizard has his ways, Mr. Talbot…" Dumbledore said with a mysterious air, and the pair flinched, "but in this case, it was easy to guess from what Harry and Hermione have said about you. Now, I wish to welcome you to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I am Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster."
"Um…pleased to meet you," they said, and they both shook Dumbledore's hand.
"Okay, then, from the top," Paul said, looking back at Harry. "Magic is real?"
"Yes," everyone said.
"And you said it's like…genetic, and stuff?"
"As far as we can tell," Dan said. "It can skip a few generations at times, but most of the time, it's passed from parent to child."
"My grandmother was a witch, you see," Emma explained, "but my mother and I never had magic. And Dan—we think he had a third cousin a few generations back who was a famous wizard, but that's it."
"But Harry and Hermione are a wizard and a witch?" Tiffany asked.
"Yes," Harry said.
"And we were just attacked by evil wizards?"
"Yes…" he said softly. "There's sort of a civil war going on in our world."
"A war?" Paul exclaimed. "How many of you are there?"
"Not many by mu—non-magical standards. About ten thousand in Britain."
"We know. It surprised us, too," Hermione said. "We keep ourselves secret. Technically, we shouldn't be telling you any of this, but considering our…" Her voice cracked. "Considering our house…was just blown up…we have more important things to worry about."
"Oh my God, your house," Tiffany gasped. "I'm so sorry, but…how? Why?"
"It's…not as bad as it sounds," Emma said. "We were prepared in case something like this happened. We moved everything that can't be replaced out of the house months ago, or else we had it in our emergency kits."
"Yeah, plus I inherited enough money from my birth parents to buy a new house once the war's over," Harry agreed, though he sounded just as shaken up as the others.
"And they were…wizards, too?" asked Paul.
"Uh huh. Er…my grandfather invented a top-selling hair care potion."
Paul and Tiffany opened their mouths and then shut them again, looking pointedly at his and Hermione's hair. It was pretty obvious that neither of them used any such "potion"—as if that were the most surreal part of this situation.
"Look, we should explain what happened," Dora said seriously. "There are a gang of wizards called the Death Eaters who hate muggles—that's what we call non-magic people—and hate witches and wizards whose parents are muggles, like Hermione—think they're not 'magic enough'."
"They're basically wizard Nazis," Harry said. "And they're trying to take over the country. Their leader calls himself Lord Voldemort, and he hates me personally because he was nearly killed in an incident when I was a baby involving my birth mother and a dark ritual gone horribly awry."
Paul's and Tiffany's eyes grew wide as they made the connection. "So that's when…" Tiffany started, but she trailed off. Harry nodded. "And the people who attacked us…"
He nodded again: "Death Eaters. And I'm sorry. They were after me, at least mostly."
"Are our families safe?" she said.
"I…don't see why not. They probably didn't even know you were there. And not many people know who our muggle friends are."
"I agree," Dora said. "By the way, the black man was Kinani Ngeze, a powerful dark wizard from Rwanda who was mostly responsible for the war there—and the Ebola epidemic. He's apparently an ally of You-Know-Who, now."
The pair gasped. The Ebola epidemic was still raging in Zaire, and cases were cropping up in travellers closer and closer to British shores. To them, that was almost worse news than the Grangers' house being destroyed.
"Yeah," she agreed.
Dan cleared his throat, and everyone turned to him. "Professor Dumbledore, there are two other people who might be in danger…my parents. And I know we weren't strictly supposed to, but we told them about magic before the kids came to Hogwarts. If the Death Eaters found our house, they could find theirs, too."
"A very good point, Mr. Granger," Dumbledore agreed. "I will notify the Aurors. If there is no trouble tonight, given their specific situation, I think one of us should escort you to their house tomorrow morning to explain the situation."
Suddenly, there was a chime, and Dumbledore waved his hand to open the door. Professor McGonagall hurried in. "Albus, I've got—" she said; then, she stopped and stared. "Mr. Potter? The Grangers? What's happened?"
"I'm afraid the Grangers' house was destroyed by Death Eaters not many minutes ago, Minerva," Dumbledore told her. "These two muggle children were with them at the time."
"The Grangers' house, too?" McGonagall gasped.
"Too?" the Grangers all said.
"That's why I came up here," she said. "Albus, Augusta Longbottom is at the front door, and she is not happy. She said her family had been attacked at their manor. Neville, Frank, and Alice are at St. Mungo's with half a dozen Aurors."
Dan, Emma, and Hermione all turned to look at Harry as the colour drained out of his face. "Oh, no," he said. "Luna." He turned to Dumbledore. "Professor, someone has to check on Luna."
"I'll handle it, Harry," Tonks said. "If they're under attack, they'll need Aurors." She grabbed a handful of Floo Powder and called out, "Ministry of Magic, DMLE Office." And in a whoosh of green flames, she was gone.
"Um…" Paul said. "So do you…travel through fireplaces, then?"
"Yes, among other methods," Dan said.
"Please pardon me, Grangers, guests, but I think I will need to speak to Madam Longbottom forthwith," Dumbledore said, "and likely tend to some other errands. Minerva, did she say how her family is doing?"
"Not in serious danger," Minerva said, "at least if St. Mungo's isn't attacked, which is hardly a guarantee on a night like tonight."
"Neither Voldemort nor his allies are foolish enough to mount a frontal assault on a hospital," he replied. "Any attack would come in the form of a subtler assassination attempt. But I am sure Madam Bones knows this. Good evening."
Dumbledore walked out, leaving McGonagall to face the Grangers. After a minute's silence, she spoke up: "My condolences for the loss of your house. And these two—" She motioned to Paul and Tiffany. "—muggle friends of yours?"
"Yes, ma'am," Harry answered. "This is Paul and Tiffany. They've been our friends since I started at Hermione's primary school. They were with us tonight."
"I see. Well, it's a pleasure to meet you," she told the pair. "I only wish it were under better circumstances. I am Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress and Professor of Transfiguration."
"Transfiguration?" Paul said. "Is that some kind of magical religious class?"
"No. Transfiguration is what we call the art of changing one thing into another."
"Like turning someone into a newt?"
McGonagall pressed her lips together. She probably got this with quite a few muggle families, and she did not seem amused. "Yes, although such is frowned upon," she said. "Now, what is your current situation? Professor Dumbledore said you fled from the Grangers' house. Do you need to return home or contact your parents?"
Paul and Tiffany blanched. "Oh my God," Tiffany gasped. "Our parents! What happens if they come to get us and find the house destroyed?"
"We'll have to call them right away," Paul said. "Can we use your phone, Professor?"
"I'm afraid there are no phones in Hogwarts, nor easy access to any nearby."
"You don't have phones?" he gasped.
"Magic disrupts electricity," Hermione said. "Phones don't work here."
"But how do you talk to people?"
"Letters, mostly. And we have…er, we have a few faster ways, but none of them could connect to your parents direct."
"We have to get hold of them somehow."
"I believe your best bet would be to take the Floo to the Leaky Cauldron in London and use a pay phone near there," McGonagall said. "However, you will need an escort. With multiple attacks tonight, there is no telling what will even be open, much less safe."
"Sooner would be better, Professor," Dan spoke up. "We don't want to terrify them any more than necessary. Hmm, the police should find that the house was empty, right? We could say we made a last-minute trip to the cinema. That would give us an excuse for a delay, too."
Paul grumbled: "I guess it's better than nothing, but please, we need to call them soon, ma'am."
"I'll see what I can do. For now, I fear you will have to wait."
Professor McGonagall stepped out as well, and it was half an hour before she returned. The Grangers and their friends were left alone in Dumbledore's office, although the portraits were instructed to summon one of the other Heads of House if there were any problems. Paul and Tiffany were a little disturbed when they saw that the paintings could talk and carry on a conversation, but that was hardly the strangest thing to happen tonight.
The Grangers answered some of Paul's and Tiffany's questions about magic, but they weren't as enthusiastic about asking now that they were preoccupied with getting home, and Harry hadn't said much of anything since he found out that Luna might be in danger.
"We don't know for sure that she was attacked," Hermione tried to assure him. "The Lovegoods aren't as prominent as the Longbottoms are."
"Her dad's in the press, Hermione," he snapped, "and everyone knows we're together."
She glanced at Paul and Tiffany and leaned closer and whispered, "But Neville's also covered by the prophecy."
"I don't think that's why they went after him."
"I'm sorry. I'm just trying to help."
"It won't help anything until I know Luna's safe," Harry said.
Paul was eyeing the pair of them uncomfortably. It probably wasn't helping his and Tiffany's screwed-up relationship that they were left clinging to each other here, waiting for news. After watching a minute longer, Paul broke off and approached. "Harry…" he said. "You really like that girl, don't you?"
Harry drew a deep breath and resisted the urge to shout at his friend. "Yeah, I do," he answered.
"I'm sorry for what I said last summer," he told him. "Tiffany already told me I was being an arse, but I really feel like one now. I hope she's okay."
"Thanks," he said.
Harry didn't say anything else, and the others stayed quiet for a while longer. When Professor McGonagall returned, however, she wasn't alone. Rufus Scrimgeour was with her. The Grangers immediately stood to meet him.
"Auror Scrimgeour," Dan said. "We weren't expecting you so soon. What's happening out there?"
"Quite a lot, I'm afraid, Mr. Granger."
"Have you heard from the Lovegoods yet?" Harry cut in. "Auror Tonks went to check on them."
Scrimgeour gave Harry a sharp look, but he answered, "I haven't heard back from Ottery St. Catchpole yet, Lord Potter. I have more pressing concerns at the moment."
"But—" Harry started, but Hermione elbowed him to keep quiet.
"As of right now—"
"Wait, you're a Lord?" Tiffany said.
Scrimgeour cleared his throat loudly to cut off her question, and she fell silent. "As of right now," he said, "there have been four confirmed attacks: you, the Longbottoms, the Minister's house, and Director Bones. So far, there haven't been any confirmed fatalities, but the Director's niece is in the hospital. The Minister and his wife got out by private Floo connection."
"Do you know if Voldemort was at any of them?" said Harry. "Kinani Ngeze showed up at out house."
Scrimgeour hissed at Voldemort's name. "You-Know-Who," he stressed, "was not seen at any of the attacks. Nor was La Pantera. I have Aurors investigating what they were up to tonight." He turned to Paul and Tiffany. "Now, are these the two muggles you mentioned, Professor McGonagall?"
"Yes, they are, Auror, and they will need to contact their families soon," she said.
"Yes, we do," Paul agreed. "Er, who are you?"
"Rufus Scrimgeour, Head of the Auror Department."
"Aurors are like magical police," Hermione said.
"More like a Specialist Firearms Officer," Dan corrected.
"The closest we have to a military," Harry suggested.
"It's complicated," Hermione said.
Scrimgeour levelled a hard stare at the family. "I'm afraid there's been another complication, Lord Potter," he said. "The muggle police are already at the scene of the attack on your house, and they have ruled it a firebombing, not a gas explosion. Since they have been made aware of certain terrorist activities, it wasn't a hard connection to make."
Paul's face paled: "So they think we got firebombed?"
"Technically, we did," Harry said unhelpfully.
"Do our parents know yet?" ask Tiffany.
"I cannot say one way or the other," Scrimgeour told them. "However, we will need, at minimum, the two of you and Mr. Granger to come to the police station in Crawley and make an acceptable statement to the muggle authorities. I will escort you personally. Depending on what we find, we may send you home, or take you into protective custody on a temporary basis."
"You aren't going to erase their memories are you?" Hermione asked.
"What?" Paul and Tiffany gasped.
"Miss Granger," Scrimgeour said in a low voice. "Not in front of the muggles."
"They could still be in danger. They need to know what's happening."
"We will consider our options when the current crisis has passed. Mr. Granger?" He motioned for him to follow, then turned back to Paul and Tiffany, but they took a fearful step back, Paul moving in front of Tiffany protectively. He sighed: "I will use no magic on you without your permission until we can fully discuss the situation. That's the best offer I can give you. Now, I must insist you come along quickly."
The two muggles looked nervously to Mr. Granger.
"Come along," he said. "I'm in the know. I'll make sure there's no trouble. He's right. We should hurry."
The four of them left. It was about another half hour before a chime sounded, and Professor McGonagall stood from Dumbledore's desk. She looked out the window and then grabbed a telescope from a nearby shelf to get a closer look. When she did, she sighed with relief. "Perhaps you should come down with me, Mr. Potter," she said. "Professor Dumbledore and Auror Tonks have just returned with the Lovegoods."
Harry leapt up and practically ran down the stairs, leaving his mother and sister and McGonagall to hurry after him. He was halfway down the stairs when he changed to cat form to run faster and took off like a missile.
"Mr. Potter!" McGonagall called before she changed as well and ran after him.
Harry ran down the four flights of stairs to the base of the clock tower at top speed and met the Lovegoods in the courtyard, changing back just in time to stand up and wrap Luna in his arms.
"Thank God you're alright," he sighed. "I was so worried." It was only then that he noticed she was crying. "Oh, no. Did they come for you?"
Luna nodded sadly. "Our house should be salvageable," she said. "But it won't be safe for us to go back there."
"Damn. I'm so sorry, Luna," Harry said. "They were trying to get to me."
She shook her head: "They were probably trying to get to The Quibbler too, Harry."
"But they came after me. They know we're together—"
"And they went after others, Harry. It's not all about you, you know."
Harry laughed a little and held his girlfriend close. As awkward as it could be, Luna always seemed to know what to say.
Professor McGonagall untransformed behind Harry and tried to catch her breath: "That was most unnecessary, Mr. Potter."
A shaggy, brown otter ran up behind her and changed back into Hermione, who was still faster on four legs than two, but show was even more out of breath than the Professor. "I just couldn't turn into a land animal, could I?" she muttered. "Luna's house too, then?"
"Yes," Professor Dumbledore spoke up. "I'm afraid it's starting again."
"What's starting, Professor?"
"In the last war, it became all but impossible for members of the Order to stay in their homes," he said. "The average with or wizard on the street was safe enough if they kept their heads down and their parentage was acceptable, but anyone who spoke up was targeted and forced into hiding in short order."
Harry shivered. It certainly looked like things were going that way, and if they could get him at home, they could get almost anyone. "What happened with you, Professor?" he asked. "How are the Longbottoms? What about our other friends."
"Recovering well enough, as are the Boneses, Harry. I contacted Sirius and Remus, and they are safely ensconced at Grimmauld Place. They will be ready to move at a moment's notice, but I advised them to shelter there for the night. I met Auror Tonks at the Ministry, where she was processing Xenophilius and Luna, and once I was informed that Auror Scrimgeour had everything else in hand, I decided to return with them."
"Right. He was here. Our house has been ruled a firebombing, apparently. Dad and our friends went to clear things up with the police."
"A firebombing?" Luna said.
Harry looked back at her: "Yeah…our house was completely destroyed. We saved everything irreplaceable, but…"
Luna hugged him tight. "I'm so sorry, Harry," she said softly. "Do you know where'll you go?"
"No, we don't know much of anything yet."
Emma finally stumbled out the doors and joined the group. "Harry, Hermione, you can't go running off on me like that," she said when she caught her breath. "Luna, Mr. Lovegood, are you alright."
"We made it out," Xenophilius answered wearily.
"That's good to hear. It was close for us," she said. "That African wizard, what's-his-name showed up."
"Ngeze," Harry said. "Was Voldemort at your house, Luna? Or Pantera? Ngeze showed up at ours."
"Oh! No, neither of them were there. That must have been terrifying."
"Uh huh. They pulled out all the stops for Harry," Dora said. "If You-Know-Who didn't want Harry alive, I don't know if we would have made it out."
Harry nodded: "Yeah. We had to run fast when he started hitting the Wards. Actually, I'm surprised a Dark Lord like Ngeze couldn't take down the Floo, too."
"I believe that was because I myself set up the private connection," Dumbledore said. "Granted, it is very hard to disrupt a Floo connection from the outside. Even I do not know the full details of how it works, and I strongly suspect that critical details are held under a Fidelius Charm. However, if it had been an ordinary connection set up by the Ministry, Ngeze may well have had a counter for it."
"What I don't understand is how the Death Eaters tore through the Wards at Longbottom Manor," Hermione spoke up. "I can understand our house, or the Lovegood's, but a old manor house like that should be designed to stand up to a siege."
"That is something I am still investigating, Miss Granger. It may be that Voldemort or La Pantera was there unbeknown to us and aided them in breaking through, or else they had some other tactic to get through. Any wards can be broken with enough effort, of course, but with wards that strong, it is usually infeasible to do so before help arrives."
"I see. And our dad?" she said.
"I will stay in contact with the Ministry to ensure that nothing goes awry with Rufus's assignment. For now, I think, it would be best if you get some rest. With family members here, I think we can open up some private quarters…"
It was a restless night for everyone involved, at best filled with fitful dreams. It was full daylight the next morning by the time Dan, Paul, and Tiffany trudged up the path leading to the castle. Harry and Hermione were surprised to see their friends return, and rapidly grew worried when they saw Paul with his arms wrapped protectively around Tiffany, who was crying into his shoulder. Their father looked shell-shocked and stared at the ground.
"Oh my God, what happened?" Harry said when he saw them. "Your families…?"
Tiffany squeaked and clung tighter to Paul, but he shook his head no, and Dan did the same. That only made them more worried.
"Dan, who died?" Emma gasped. "Your…your parents?"
"No," he croaked. "No, they're in protective custody. So are their families." He inclined his head towards the two kids. "They…they saw what happened…"
"To the house?" Hermione said in confusion.
"No. Not the house," he said. "Hermione, Harry, I'm sorry…It was your karate teacher."
His children gasped. Hermione clapped her hands over her mouth. "Sensei John?" she squeaked.
"Yes. It was…it was bad."
"It w-was…h-h-horrible," Tiffany squeaked.
"But…how? Why?" Harry said.
"I'm…I'm not sure you should know."
Harry's breath caught. Was it that bad? "Dad, we need to know. They already saw it. This war isn't going away. We need to know what we're up against."
Dan sighed. "I…I just…it was something you should never have to see."
"Harry's right, Dad. We need to know," Hermione agreed.
Dumbledore stepped forward. "Mr. Granger, as much as it pains me to say it, I'm afraid your children are right. While we all wish we could shield our the next generation from this war, the war is upon us. I think you should explain so that we can understand these events."
Dan swallowed hard, and he slowly nodded his head. "Okay…okay, I'll try. John, was…his head…" Hermione gasped again, and Paul covered Tiffany's ears. "His head was mounted in the middle of a traffic circle for everyone to see," he said. His breath came out in shaky gasps. This had to have been worst sight he'd ever personally seen. "It had a bar driven through it sideways and clamped onto a lamppost…His body was…just thrown in the middle of the street like rubbish. His heart had been cut out of his chest, his body disembowelled, and…they're still examining it, but the police say it looks like it was half-eaten by dogs before they dumped it there."
"My G-God…" Emma breathed, tears welling in her eyes, and Dan took her and held her. Hermione started crying openly and clung to Harry. Luna stood by, a frightened look on her face, and Harry extended a shaking hand to pull her closer. He tried to be strong for both of the girls, but he felt the bile rising in his own throat. It was almost too horrible to picture, and yet, that very thought made him see it in his mind's eye: a friend and mentor tortured and murdered in the most gruesome way possible, and all to get to him.
"That's…that's sick!" Dora spat. "I thought I'd seen some awful stuff in my line of work, but that?"
Dumbledore took a deep breath and surveyed the room, his face very grave. "I recognise the pattern," he said. "It was an Aztec sacrificial rite—the kind that was once done regularly by the Aztec priests, but is now the purview of the darkest of witches and wizards like Pantera."
"But why?" Harry shouted. "What horrible ritual could call for that?"
"There are a great number of such rituals, I'm afraid, Harry. Many of them relating to the weather, but that is only one possibility. Knowing Pantera, she may well have invented a new one whose purpose is unknown…If it's any consolation…the disembowelment and mutilation most likely occurred after his death. If she followed the Aztec rite, she would have cut out his heart first, before the rest of it."
That wasn't much consolation, not with the implications it left. "They did that to get to me," he said. "It's always because of me."
"This was not your fault, Harry," Dumbledore insisted. "I admit they most likely targeted your teacher because of his connection to you, but La Pantera performed this ritual for a reason—a reason we must ascertain if we can. If it had not been him, it would have been some other unsuspecting muggle. As it is, those who are closest to you in both worlds are now protected. You cannot save everyone, Harry, but we are doing our best to ensure such a serious blow does not happen again."
Harry tried to collect himself. His parents and grandparents, his closest friends in the muggle world, and their families. It would be too much to continue on to people who were less connected to him than that in the muggle world. He hated to admit it, but it was true. That only left…He looked up at Dumbledore. "Aunt Petunia and Dudley?" he asked. He couldn't care less about Uncle Vernon.
"I have already taken steps."
"Good," he said, barely loud enough to hear.
"Mr. Granger," Dumbledore addressed Dan. "If I may ask, did the police determine how the…body came to be where it was found, or when? It could be important to understanding the ritual that La Pantera performed."
"They…they don't know exactly," he said. "They estimated the time of death around midnight, and they say the body must have been placed sometime between four and five in the morning, when no one would be out. A lorry driver spotted it and called the police at first light."
"I see. I will have to investigate this. In the meantime, I think the rest of you should stay here until we are sure that things are safe."
Harry nodded. He wasn't about to argue with that.
Lord Voldemort watched the sunrise as he played with balls of fire wandlessly in his hands. He was in a good mood this morning. Even though his Death Eaters hadn't killed any of their targets last night, it was a small matter. That had not been his main objective. The message had been sent. More importantly, his personal message to Potter had been sent in excellently public fashion—Potter's champion-teacher, a mere muggle, but no doubt dear to him, and no doubt someone he had thought safe—sacrificed to fuel the ritual that repaired his imperfectly fractured soul. And most importantly of all, it had worked; he was in top fighting form again. He felt better than he had since he'd resurrected—stronger, healthier. A weight on his shoulders he hadn't known was there had lifted. It didn't matter that his enemies still lived. He would pick them off at his leisure.
"A complete success, naturally," La Pantera told him, looking very smug. "Your soul is patched up and stable. I can certify you to use your full repertoire of dark magic. Just don't go splitting your soul again. This isn't likely to work a second time."
"I assure you I will refrain form such risky endeavours, Lady Pantera," Voldemort replied. "Your payment is here. You are free to return home, although I may consider calling on your services again."
"A pleasure doing business with you," she said. "Hell, if you're going to do that, I might put in the effort to arrange a faster mode of transport from there to here. Besides, I might want to look in from time to time. This war of yours could be entertaining to watch."
He suddenly remembered how infuriating this woman could be. He turned to face her, his eyes flashing with fire. "Perhaps I was not clear, Lady Pantera," he said. "I may have interest in retaining your services, but I do not require them. Be gone from my presence before I change my mind that it is worth keeping you alive."
"Ha! As if you could take me," La Pantera sneered.
In a blink, Voldemort drew his wand and snapped off an Entrail-Expelling Curse at the dark lady while throwing a wandless fireball with his free hand, but she parried both with her magical dagger. The Death Eaters scattered as they both started blasting lethal curses all over the stone circle in which the ritual had been performed—all but one.
"My Lord!" Bellatrix shouted.
Both of the dark mages stopped, surprised that an underling would dare interpose herself in this duel.
"Yes, Bellatrix?" Voldemort said warningly, sparing her only a sidelong glance.
Bellatrix hesitated, but she spoke, "If I may, my Lord, might I suggest that this is not the ideal time to open a second rivalry—not when we are planning our major offensives against Dumbledore and Potter."
Voldemort inclined his chin slightly, not taking his eyes off of La Pantera. "Yes, it is unwise to fight a war on two fronts if one can help it," he said, remembering the wars of his own youth. "A detente, then, Lady Pantera?"
"I can live with that," she said, slowly lowering her dagger, still smiling.
"Very well. Your counsel is of course valued, Bellatrix." He turned to his faithful servant. "And your assistance with the ritual was much appreciated."
"I live to serve you, my Lord," she replied. "And I must admit, that ritual was…" She glanced over at La Pantera with a flicker of something approaching awe. "…inspired."
Voldemort frowned. Yes, someday, when his position was more secure, he would wipe that smug grin off of La Pantera's face.