THE AFTERMATH

Description: What if Hermione had accidentally Disapparated along with Ron during the hunt? How would Harry have managed to defeat Lord Voldemort alone? Does he still have the power to take on the most powerful Dark Lord in recent history or will he crumble from within? Watch as the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One, takes a bold step forward with determination and new allies. The dark clouds cannot hide the light from shining through forever.

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. It belongs to JK Rowling.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Harry and Ron glared from either side of the transparent barrier as though they were seeing each other clearly for the first time. Harry felt a corrosive hatred toward Ron. Something had broken between them; permanently.

"Leave the Horcrux," Harry said quietly.

Ron wrenched the chain from over his head and cast the locket into a nearby chair. He turned to Hermione.

"What are you doing?"

"What do you mean?" asked Hermione shakily.

"Are you staying, or what?"

Hermione spluttered like a fish out of water. "R-Ron we promised to s-stay, remember? We –"

"I get it," said Ron roughly. "You choose him."

"No!" said Hermione, panicking. "No – please listen – Ron, come back!"

Harry stood perfectly still and silent as he listened to Hermione begging Ron not to leave. His eyes were closed, heart thumping in his chest. He waited for a minute and just as he heard a crack, Hermione's voice was suddenly gone too. Green eyes snapped open when the eerie silence washed over him. A lone tear trickled down his cheek. Harry slowly went towards the edge of the tent and was not surprised to see that there was no one outside.

"Homenum Revelio," he whispered.

Nothing; both Ron and Hermione had left him. He was alone; just as he had always been his entire life.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Unfortunately for Ron and Hermione, they had Apparated right into a group of snatchers. The group was quite stupid, so they didn't recognise two of the most wanted witches and wizards in the country who were known to be best friends with Undesirable Number One, but they were still questioned until finally, through pure desperation, Hermione managed to reclaim their wands while Ron knocked out the snatcher holding him. The two had then immediately Disapparated.

"Hermione, I – I," Ron stammered, his skin milk-white due to fear, making the freckles on his face stand out prominently. Only now, far away from the tent, did he realise the magnitude of what he had done. The snatchers had driven the reality of war back into his brain.

"I can't deal with this," snapped Hermione, her entire form trembling due to shock, fear and anger. "I can't believe we actually left him. How? How could you leave, Ronald? You decided to leave Harry all alone knowing the burden he bears on his shoulders. If we don't get back to him, I don't even want to think about what could happen. Harry can't do this by himself, you know that! Professor Dumbledore gave us a job to always be there for him, Ron! And what did we do? We abandoned him!"

Ron swallowed as he remembered the meeting he and Hermione had with Professor Dumbledore in the summer before their sixth year. The headmaster had revealed the existence of a prophecy that tied their best friend and the Dark Lord together in destiny. Dumbledore had also explained to them about the burden which Harry carried. Further, he requested them to stand by Harry's side so that their friend could fulfil his destiny when the time arrived. But now, they had left the younger boy all alone … and if something were to happen to Harry …

"We have to get back there immediately," Ron said frantically.

"Glad you realise that! And when we get there, don't pick a fight with him, alright?"

Ron scowled, but decided not to argue with her for now. There were more pressing matters to attend to. Taking each other's hand, they Disapparated, only to find nothing at the place where they had set up their camp.

"Where is he?" asked Hermione as she scanned the area with her wand. Her hands were trembling. Had Harry left already or were her protective enchantments really that good? She didn't know for sure, but now, Hermione was cursing herself for not learning how to detect the wards she had put up. She had only learnt to cast the protective charms, not how to counter them.

"We'll have to call out to him and maybe search the area," Ron suggested, hoping it was a good idea. "Maybe he will hear us."

But it was futile; after two days, it was clear that Harry Potter had disappeared.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Seventeen-year-old Harry Potter walked around in a large circle as he muttered under his breath, putting up the standard protective enchantments around the tent, his Invisibility Cloak lazily draped over his shoulder. Unable to bear the memories of the place, he had left barely twenty minutes after Ron and Hermione had Disapparated. The sound of waves hitting the shore rent the air. Unfortunately, his peaceful surrounds did not act as a balm to his wounded heart. Ron's words kept echoing in his mind, piercing every inch of his skin as if they were equal to the effects of a Cruciatus Curse.

"We thought you knew what you were doing!" shouted Ron, standing up, and his words pierced Harry like scalding knives. "We thought Dumbledore had told you what to do, we thought you had a real plan!"

"Don't lie!" Ron hurled at Hermione. "You said it too; you said you were disappointed, you said you'd thought he had a bit more to go on than –"

"It's all right for you, isn't it, with your parents safely out of the way –"

Harry gritted his teeth in anger. What did the ginger idiot know? Dumbledore had told him nothing on how to find and destroy the Horcruxes. It was just like always; he would set up a test and see if Harry would sink or swim. His opinion of the late headmaster had dwindled significantly over the past few months. Harry could understand now that he had been completely unprepared for this mission. Did Dumbledore tell him where he suspected the Horcruxes were? Did the old man tell him how to destroy the foul things? Did he even bother to train Harry on what to do? No; as usual, he messed it up by showing useless memories throughout the year and Harry, being the idiot that he was, had thought the headmaster was infallible and believed in him. Now tens of thousands of witches and wizards were dying or were already dead because he, the so-called Chosen One, didn't know how to proceed.

The metal locket that housed Lord Voldemort's soul, hanging from around Harry's neck, was slowly becoming ice-cold as his mind was tormented with negative emotions.

What to do? He was alone now, without money or resources. Harry snorted bitterly. He didn't even have money! Only now did he realise that money, information and allies were crucial during a time of war. He had no allies. Any knowledge of what was going on outside his bubble was non-existent. As for money, Hermione had taken a little Muggle money before she had left her parents' house, but they realised pretty quickly that it was not enough. Harry knew that he had his parents' vault in Gringotts that would have certainly alleviated their financial strain, but how was he supposed to go to the goblin bank when the Order kept making sure that he was at the Dursleys like a good little boy?

Harry's scar began to prickle again, but he paid it no mind. Voldemort's mood swings were not worth dealing with right now.

He needed allies, but who would be willing to help him? The entire wizarding population in Magical Britain was terrified of even uttering a single word against the new regime that had taken control of the Ministry of Magic. Hundreds of families, thousands of people had been ripped apart over the past year and a half. He had to do something, but what?

'Alone, like you always were as a child, aren't you Harry? Uncle Vernon was right. A freak like you does not deserve happiness. It can all be over very soon. You can run away … you can kill yourself instead … then you would be able to see your parents and Sirius again … your wand is right here … do it!'

White hot anger erupted in his mind as the Horcrux began to whisper things to him again. Harry yanked the locket from around neck and threw it towards the other side of the tent where it landed on the floor. How dare that stupid locket remind him that he was alone as always? How dare the locket remind him of the blasted Dursleys again? Harry had never felt this furious in his life! He wanted to destroy the locket by any means necessary. He would make Voldemort pay.

His scar was burning and he found his vision blurred due to the pounding headache.

Harry approached the bejewelled locket which was innocently lying on the floor. His green eyes were glowing eerily. The expression on his face showed immense fury. Ron and Hermione's betrayal had been the last straw. He had finally snapped after too many people betraying him.

Harry glared at the locket as he gripped the handle of his wand tightly. "Open," he hissed in Parseltongue.

The golden doors of the locket swung wide with a little click. Behind both of the glass windows within blinked a living eye, dark and handsome as Tom Riddle's eyes had been before he turned them scarlet and slit-pupiled.

Then a voice hissed from out of the Horcrux. "I have seen your heart, and it is mine."

"Really?" Harry hissed back in dark amusement as he smirked at the locket. His eyes were unfocussed and he looked deranged. The people of Magical Britain had finally pushed him too far. Ron Weasley had proved to be the catalyst that had finally managed to break the innocent soul of Harry Potter.

"I have seen your dreams, Harry Potter, and I have seen your fears. All you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible …"

Harry laughed a loud, maniacal laugh that carried throughout the tent. How predictable of Voldemort. The man really needed more material if he was going to taunt people. He had said similar things in Harry's first, second, fourth and fifth years.

"Oh, my poor naïve Tommy boy," mocked Harry. "Such a pitiful existence after your Mummy didn't want to raise you. Daddy didn't care about you because of what you were and that left you with issues. Tsk tsk; what a shame, Riddle. What happened to the noble line of Slytherin?"

In response, Sirius Black, James Potter and Lily Potter emerged from the locket. The younger boy stumbled back in surprise as they loomed over him.

"You're the reason I'm dead," hissed Riddle-Sirius angrily. "If your stupid mind could have realised that it was a trap, I would still be alive. My death was your fault!"

"What about us?" said Riddle-James snidely. "It is this little bastard's fault that we died so young. Why were you even born? I should have killed you the second we found out about the prophecy!"

"You took my husband away from me," spat Riddle-Lily, her eyes red. "You tore my life apart! If you have any remorse for what you did to your parents, you would kill yourself!"

Harry stared at them with anger burning in his eyes. Not for a second did he allow himself to be tricked by the Horcrux's words. He had been fooled by Voldemort before. Not again. White-hot anger coursed through his veins as the three spectres continued to torment him. He pointed his wand at the locket and let all the anger flow. His eyes were glowing bright emerald green as he snarled for the first time in his life –

"Avada Kedavra!"

The jet of green light flew from the tip of Harry's wand and hit the locket perfectly. There was a clang and long, drawn out scream. Harry stood there, breathing hard, and slowly collapsed on the ground. With a flick of his wand, he summoned the locket from the other side of the tent and saw, to his immense relief, that the Horcrux had been destroyed.

"Had I had known this would work, I would've done it sooner," whispered Harry as he blacked out.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Several hours later, Harry woke up hearing the patter of raindrops on the roof of the tent. He groaned as he opened his eyes. His gaze suddenly caught sight of Salazar Slytherin's locket. Even without a detection charm, he could feel the difference, with the lack of the oppressive, dark aura it usually gave out. And for the first time in months, Harry smiled.

"One Horcrux down," he chuckled to himself.

He picked himself off the floor and threw himself on a chair, his shoulders sagging with relief. He had found a means to destroy the Horcruxes. He didn't need the Sword of Gryffindor anymore, for the Killing Curse would be enough. He vaguely remembered the fake Alastor Moody in his fourth year explaining that the Avada Kedavra curse actually impacted the soul. He wondered why he hadn't made the connection before. On the other hand, why hadn't Dumbledore used the Killing Curse too? Or had he been unable? Harry would never know.

As he was pondering the next course of action, his stomach grumbled, reminding him that he hadn't had a good meal in days. While he was a good cook, Harry wasn't used to preparing food using magic, and there were no Muggle equipment here that could help him. He bit his lip. Calling Kreacher was out of the question because Grimmauld Place had been compromised.

Kreacher …

Harry's eyes widened as he remembered something … Kreacher was not the only house-elf he could summon. But was it safe? Could he risk it? Had Hermione been here, she would have no doubt thrown a fit, but without her present, Harry was free to think things through. Finally, after debating with himself for over five minutes, he decided to act.

"Dobby?" Harry called out hesitantly. Much to his relief, the house-elf in question appeared before him with a crack and immediately hugged him by grabbing his legs.

"Harry Potter sir! You be safe! What can Dobby do for the great Harry Potter?" Dobby asked excitedly.

"Dobby, I need your help," said Harry quietly. "Will you stay with me here?"

Dobby bounced on his feet excitedly. "Oh yes, Dobby will always serve Master Harry Potter. Dobby be Master Harry's elf now!"

"Wait, what?" Harry exclaimed in shock. "You're now bonded to me? How? Why?"

"Master said that he wanted Dobby and Dobby accepted! Dobby has wanted to be Harry Potter's elf for a long time and he be finally accepting Dobby!"

"Dobby, I thought you wanted to be free? Besides, why do house-elves need to bond, anyway?"

"Dobby needs a master, Harry Potter sir. House-elves need wizard magic to stay alive. Dobby be using the magic at Hogwarts, but it be not the same as a real master," he confessed. The little elf was practically beaming with happiness as he exclaimed, "But he now has Master Harry and Dobby is the happiest elf in the world!"

Despite the grave situation, Harry couldn't help but smile at the house-elf. Pausing, his mind once more drifted to something he had realised recently. The incident with Kreacher and the cave filled with Inferi was eye-opening. House-elves could travel to places that were inaccessible to most witches and wizards due to protective enchantments. If Voldemort was anything to go by, his followers would surely underestimate the power of Elvin magic as well. This could prove to be useful.

"Dobby, I'm happy that you're my elf," Harry said slowly. "But I want to know something. Can you Apparate me with you like you do it yourself? Can you sneak into different places even if they were protected by Ministry personnel?"

Dobby thought for a moment and nodded slowly. "Dobby thinks so, Master Harry. But Dobby never be trying to go to other houses before."

"Tell me something … is Winky still available? Are there any more free elves you know of?"

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

It had been nearly two weeks since they left Harry. Ron and Hermione were miserable as they sat in the living room of Shell Cottage. Bill and Fleur had been gracious enough to let them stay for a while. Their thoughts still lingered on their friend and what might have happened to him. There were outrageous rumours flying around and the duo didn't know what to do.

Ron was tinkering with the wireless when they finally heard a voice.

". . . apologise for our temporary absence from the airwaves, which was due to a number of house calls in our area by those charming Death Eaters."

"That's Lee Jordan!" gasped Hermione.

"– it is my sad duty to inform you about the deaths of Ted Tonks and Dirk Cresswell, along with a goblin named Griphook. It is believed that Dean Thomas, their travel companion, escaped with a second goblin, but there is no proof of that yet. Sadly, I must also report the death of Andromeda Tonks, the wife of the late Ted Tonks. Evidence revealed that she was tortured by her older sister, Bellatrix Lestrange, before being killed, but sources from the Order of the Phoenix tell me that she put up a brave fight before she died."

The broadcast of Potterwatch continued, but they reported no sightings of Harry Potter.

"But there is some good news, listeners; we have received reports that a dozen snatchers led by Fenrir Greyback were killed near Dover. We were unable to find out who launched the counter-attack against the new regime, but we can all finally celebrate the death of the notorious werewolf and Death Eater. The snatchers were not spared and many of them were killed quite horribly. The reports we received said that they were the victims of dark cutting curses, Blood-Boiling curses and Organ-Liquefying curses. Whoever is responsible for this, I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

"Until next time, listeners; the password for the next broadcast is 'Lily'. Take care, be vigilant, and may Merlin keep you safe."

Rebel witches and wizards all over the country were slack-jawed when they heard that someone had taken a stand and killed Fenrir Greyback, the international criminal and notorious werewolf.

"Who could have done this?" Hermione whispered. "Not even Bill managed to defeat Greyback during the attack on Hogwarts. Who –"

"No idea, but it must be a Death Eater," said Ron darkly. "Can you imagine someone using such curses? Only those bloody Slytherins learn such spells."

Hermione was too distracted to listen to him properly or chastise him that his theory made no sense. A Death Eater wouldn't kill one of Voldemort's allies. But if Ron was right … she swallowed in fear. Hermione hoped that Harry was safe and never encountered the one who killed Greyback.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Harry winced in pain as Winky tended to the wounds on his body. Calling Dobby had been the best decision of his life. The former Malfoy elf had contacted several of his companions who were in a similar predicament as he and now, Harry was the proud master of twenty very happy house-elves. Of course, many of the elves that had come to him were horrible looking and quite unhealthy. But once bonded, Harry could see that his magic had indeed strengthened them. He had sent many of them outside to gather intelligence.

However, just a week into his solo mission, he saw a group of snatchers walking around the place Harry had set up the tent. Not wanting to waste such an opportunity, especially after he recognised the voice of Fenrir Greyback, Harry had attacked, using several Sectumsempra curses as well as a few other deadly curses he found in a book given to him by Kreacher that had once belonged to Regulus Black. Harry had not escaped uninjured, but the risk had proved to be fruitful. The element of surprise had definitely worked in his favour as the group of snatchers were killed. That would surely send a message to Voldemort and the Death Eaters. He and the elves had immediately moved and set up camp elsewhere.

"Master be recovering in no time at all," smiled Winky. The bond had done wonders for the elf, so Harry was quite happy about this, though he knew that Hermione would throw a fit if she were to find out. However, he couldn't bring himself to care what his female best friend thought. They were at war and he needed every advantage he could get.

The rational side of him knew he couldn't blame Hermione because she had obviously Disapparated without knowing about it, but the bitterness from last year still remained. She had spent the entire year hounding him after that stupid Potions book, acting as though he was beneath her, and not once had she listened to his concerns about Draco Malfoy. That had resulted in Albus Dumbledore's death.

The world was spinning … Harry felt nauseous and before he could prepare for it, the pain from his scar overtook all other senses. Suddenly, he was looming over a trembling figure who had dared to bring him this news.

"What did you say?" he hissed angrily.

"M-My Lord, we don't know who. T-They killed Greyback and –"

With a scream of rage, the familiar flash of green light impacted the unsuspecting man, making him fall to the ground, dead. Who would dare kill Greyback? He thought he had crushed all opposition, but apparently, he was wrong. Greyback was important; he was the leader of the werewolves that served under his command. He would have to talk to those filthy beasts and ensure their cooperation. A few deaths would ensure that the dogs learn who their true master was. If they didn't want to cooperate, he would obliterate them all.

He kicked the useless minion's corpse as he exited the throne room.

Harry gasped for breath as he sat up, his face white as a sheet.

"Master Harry, what happened?" asked Winky worriedly.

"I'm fine, Winky," Harry croaked out. "Scar."

The former elf of the Crouch family snapped her fingers at the scar as she cast a detection charm. She gasped in fright.

"Winky detects dark magic in the scar, Master Harry! It smells like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!"

Harry frowned. This was the first time someone had actually scanned the scar. His frown deepened. Actually, why had he never consulted anyone about the scar before? Couldn't a healer do anything about it? Why hadn't Dumbledore done something? Wasn't it widely accepted that he was the most knowledgeable wizard in several generations? Surely the link could have been severed many years ago, right?

"Winky, what exactly is my scar? Can you tell me?" asked Harry curiously.

Winky whispered to a few other elves and Kreacher, being the oldest and most experienced, came forward to cast his own spells to find out more. After a few minutes, the aged elf's eyes widened in shock.

"Master, your scar is having the same magical signature that was present in Master Regulus' locket."

Harry's face paled rapidly. No, it couldn't be. That was not possible.

"Kreacher are you absolutely sure?" he whispered, his voice breaking.

"Yes, master. Kreacher recognises the magic as he spent many years trying to destroy it."

His scar was a Horcrux. Harry gripped his head and pulled his hair. Things finally clicked in place. This was the reason he had never been given any training. This was the reason Dumbledore always gave him tests at the end of every year. This was the reason the prophecy existed.

'Neither can live while the other survives …'

He was never meant to survive. Dumbledore had meant for him to die. It was so simple. Voldemort could not be killed as long as Harry was alive, making him the only person to kill the Dark Lord.

'Either must die at the hand of the other …'

It fit perfectly. After he died, the prophecy would be fulfilled. Once he was dead, anyone could kill Voldemort without interfering with fate. Was that Dumbledore's plan all along? Was that why he had faced so many challenges at Hogwarts and Dumbledore had never helped him?

Tears stung his eyes as he realised what fate had in store for him.

"We'll deal with this later," Harry said in a raspy voice. "I need to know more about the next Horcrux."

Harry drew a chart about where the Horcruxes could be. The ring had been in the old house of the Gaunts; the locket had been in the cave where Tom had tormented those orphans, showing his superiority; the diary had been given to his faithful follower, Lucius Malfoy …

Harry's head snapped up. Why Lucius? Wasn't there someone Voldemort trusted more than Lucius? And even if he had given it to her, where could she have hidden it?

"Like I said, Yeh'd be mad ter try an' rob it," said Hagrid. "Safest place; except for Hogwarts"

"Kreacher, get me a sheet of parchment and quill."

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Overlord Ragnok was in his office, looking through the investments of his biggest clients. The war had taken a toll for the worse. When news reached his ears that Lord Voldemort had risen again, he had hoped the idiot wizards would get rid of their Dark Lord soon, but that was not to be. The goblins had taken a stand to be neutral so as to not get involved. After all, this was a wizards' war. They had no stake in who won, but that didn't mean that they wouldn't like to get rid of the Dark Lord and let business go back to normal. After all, the magical British economy was in a state of recession. The brainless Death Eaters didn't realise just how badly their violence could affect their businesses. Most of them had invested in the domestic market and they were seeing a rapid decline in financial returns. Of course, the black market was flourishing, but that could be put to an end only through the Ministry. There was nothing Gringotts could do about that.

At least some of their clients had listened to sound advice and had invested abroad. Britain was all but closed to the rest of the world. Everyone knew that the Ministry was compromised, but even the I.C.W. wasn't willing to step in. They all had enough with the British Ministry's arrogance. Due to his pompous attitude and show of self-importance, Cornelius Fudge had destroyed all diplomatic relations with Britain's immediate neighbours, namely France, Germany and Spain, which had resulted in them increasing the number of Aurors. They had also strengthened the magical sensor net around their borders. That was the reason, Ragnok mused, the Death Eaters had not gone abroad to seize power. They would be slaughtered and they knew it. Besides, he doubted Voldemort would take the war to Europe before he had killed Harry Potter.

Ragnok shook his head in disgust. The only reason Gringotts still stood was because goblins regulated the economy internationally. The goblins were outstanding bankers and their wards were such that theft was near impossible. The Dark Lord knew that he couldn't antagonise the goblins without risking an economic shutdown. Still, that didn't mean that Voldemort hadn't tried to take over the bank. There were several wizards operating as security at the entrance and in the marble hall to ensure that their targets couldn't get in.

Crack!

Picking up his sword with surprising speed for someone his age, the Overlord of the British Goblin Nation took an offensive position, only to frown when he saw that it was a house-elf.

"What do you want, elf?" barked Ragnok. No house-elf other than those registered at Gringotts could breach the wards. "Who is your master and why is he wasting my time?"

The elf bounced on his feet in fear as he squeaked, "Dobby is sorry, Master Goblin sir, but Dobby was Lucius Malfoy's house-elf before being set free. Now Dobby is serving the great Harry Potter. Master has a letter for you, Master Goblin sir."

Rangok was surprised. Harry Potter was writing to him? He had wanted to speak to the boy ever since his godfather's death, but Albus Dumbledore, acting as magical guardian, had interfered. He had been expecting the wizard to come to Gringotts on his seventeenth birthday to claim his inheritance, but considering what had happened the next day, he was not surprised that the Potter scion hadn't shown up.

"Give it to me," ordered Ragnok. He opened the envelope and unfolded the letter.

To,

The Chief of Gringotts Bank, London.

Sir,

My name is Harry Potter and I am a client of your bank. I apologise for contacting you as I know that under the new regime, I am a wanted criminal. Unfortunately, I had no choice as I'm in need of your help. I understand that Gringotts has chosen to remain neutral in his conflict, but I beg you to let me speak to you face to face as this is a matter of great importance. I sincerely hope that your neutrality also covers my visit as I don't want the Ministry of Magic or Lord Voldemort to know that I want to seek a meeting with you.

Please consider my request.

Yours respectfully,

Harry James Potter

Ragnok narrowed his eyes. What could be so important that Harry Potter wanted to speak to him personally?

"Elf, tell your master to come to the bank tonight," he ordered. "Bring him via Elf-Apparition and he is to come here directly. I will ensure the wards around my office are down precisely at midnight. He is to come alone and no other wizard is to come with him. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Master Goblin sir," replied Dobby as he Disapparated with a crack.

Ragnok snapped his fingers as various protective enchantments took effect, barring anyone else access to his office. He had to prepare for the meeting. No one was to know that the most wanted man in the country was coming here, not even the other goblins.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Just a few seconds after midnight, there was a crack and the elf and human appeared in the middle of the office. The wizard looked around frantically, ensuring that it wasn't a trap. He calmed down slightly, but his eyes were still focussed.

"Welcome, Mr Potter," Ragnok announced, keenly observing the teenager in front of him. The boy looked quite haggard. "Prove your identity before we begin our meeting. Your blood should suffice."

Harry looked at the stone in front of him wearily. He took the small knife which was placed on the table and sliced a thin line on his palm, letting a few drops of blood fall on the stone. The stone glowed gold in colour and Ragnok nodded in satisfaction.

"What can I do for you, Mr Potter?"

"I immensely thank you for letting me come here, sir," said Harry gratefully. "I don't want to waste your time, so I will come directly to the point."

He waited for Ragnok to nod and then took a deep breath. "Director –"

"My name in Ragnok, Mr Potter," said the goblin calmly, "and I am the Overlord of the British Goblin Nation. I do not hold any other title."

Flushing in embarrassment, Harry continued. "I apologise, Overlord Ragnok. As for why I'm here, I'd like to begin by saying that I have not been hiding for the past several months without anything to do. I'm searching for things that will ensure Vol – Riddle's destruction. I am here –"

"Who is Riddle, Mr Potter?" interrupted Ragnok, frowning. He had never heard that name before.

Harry smiled thinly. "Tom Marvolo Riddle, the bastard son of the House of Gaunt, is the resident Dark Lord who is currently after my blood."

"Gaunt?" Ragnok exclaimed as he threw his head back and laughed loudly; it was quite unnerving. "It's no wonder he changed his name. The Gaunts were the most disgusting and ostracised family in the country. They claimed to be the descendants of Salazar Slytherin, but they used up their fortune centuries ago. Gringotts had to close their account two hundred years ago due to them being declared insolvent."

Harry nodded, hoping he was doing the right thing by trusting the goblins. "Anyway, I am here because there are – objects – which Riddle created that enabled him to cheat death. I am trying to find these devices so that I can destroy them before Riddle realises what I am doing."

"Objects to secure immortality?" Ragnok snarled. "That useless, cowardly wizard! Does he have any idea what he has done?"

Harry swallowed. Taking the goblin's anger as a good sign, he continued. "I hope we are on the same page, Ragnok. Yes, I am talking about Horcruxes."

Ragnok's fist tightened. "How do you know about this?" he asked suspiciously. "I doubt the Dark Lord would have told you."

"No," he breathed out. "Albus Dumbledore figured it out and told me. The reason I'm here is because I believe one of them might be in your bank."

Ragnok's expression was thunderous. A Horcrux was something goblins hated on principle. It defied the laws of Mother Magic and also contaminated old, priceless relics.

"Mr Potter, I hope you realise what a bold statement you have just made. It is highly illegal to bring such a filthy device inside goblin territory much less store it in one of our vaults!"

Harry gulped. He had never interacted with goblins except for the few times in his early Hogwarts years where he had to take money from his vault. History of Magic was quite useless in giving instructions on how to deal with an angry goblin.

"I apologise, Ragnok, but isn't Gringotts the safest place to keep a priceless artefact? It makes sense that Riddle would keep it in the vaults of one of his most trusted Death Eaters. I may be wrong, but I have a strong suspicion that I'm right. If there is one here, please let me destroy it. I do not seek material gain, Ragnok, please believe me. I am here solely to destroy the Horcrux. I have no future. He will kill me in the end, but all I am trying to do is take him with me. If I can manage it, when he kills me, it would kill him too."

Ragnok eyed the boy speculatively. Truthfully, their scanning devices should have picked up something like a Horcrux, but he knew it was possible for a goblin to have been forced or even bribed to keep the Horcrux in the vault during the last war. Harry Potter also seemed unusually determined that he was going to die; there was something strange about his tone.

"Why do you say that you are going to die, Mr Potter?" asked Ragnok curiously.

Harry took a deep breath. "I can only answer that to quench your curiosity because there's no help for me. But please, will you help me retrieve the Horcrux if it is indeed in the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange? I have a hunch that it is here. I can't explain it. I just know that it is here."

Ragnok thought about it for a minute. Bellatrix Lestrange never came to Gringotts to check on her vault. If there was something there, they could always replace it and Bellatrix would be none the wiser. However, considering the situation the country was in, was it worth helping the boy?

"Please, Ragnok," begged Harry. "Thousands of people have died because of him. Muggle-borns are sent to camps where they are tortured and killed. I know that two of your own employees, Griphook and Gornuk, have fled. Please, Ragnok. Help me. I will pay compensation for it. My vault does not have too much money as compared to people like Malfoy, but you can have it. I don't need it anymore. I have barely spent any money at all, so Gringotts can take it as compensation for services rendered. Please, I beg of you."

"Calm yourself, young one," said Ragnok softly. "I will assist you. But you're wrong in claiming that your vault doesn't have enough money. You are our biggest customer as of this moment."

"Excuse me?" Harry exclaimed. "How is it possible for me to be your biggest customer? I only have a small vault. Granted, it has a lot of money as compared to the Weasleys, but –"

Ragnok laughed loudly. "The Weasleys? Please, Mr Potter. Do not compare yourself to the Weasleys. The vault you are talking about is your personal vault, created by your father when you were born and contains fifty thousand Galleons. It is to be used for your school and other purposes until you reach seventeen, at which time, you would become the head of the Potter family and would gain access to the family vault."

"Family vault?" Harry repeated incredulously.

From reading about his family history in the Hogwarts library, he knew that the Potters were a very old family and were one of the few who had remained since the time of King Arthur and Merlin. It was only for that reason that a few select families such as his had been granted a hereditary seat on the Wizengamot, while most members of the governing body continued to be elected by the people or was comprised of Ministry department heads and holders of Orders of Merlin. Every sitting member of the Wizengamot, whether they inherited the seat or were elected, was known as Lord or Lady. Harry had never bothered with it until now, mostly because there was nothing he could do until he finished school, but never had he realised that there was more to his family fortune than his personal vault. In hindsight, maybe he should have.

Ragnok grimaced. "I've wanted to meet you ever since your godfather, Sirius Black, died. Unfortunately, your magical guardian Albus Dumbledore restricted any contact with you, which is why we couldn't meet earlier. I have a lot of things to go over with you. But first, I will check if Madam Lestrange's vault indeed contains a Horcrux."

"It might be Helga Hufflepuff's cup," said Harry helpfully, "or something belonging to Rowena Ravenclaw."

Ragnok paused and nodded. He snapped his fingers and food immediately appeared on the table. "Eat, Mr Potter. I'll be back in a few minutes. It won't take long for me to verify your claim."

The goblin soon left, leaving Harry in his solitude.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Fifteen minutes later, Ragnok was seething as he walked back to his office. "You were right, Mr Potter," he spat. "The foul woman has brought that contaminant into our bank. If you really do stop the war, her vault would be confiscated because she broke the terms of the contract that governs Gringotts Bank and its clients."

Harry exhaled in relief.

"However, all is not good news. As a client to one of our oldest and highly secured vaults, you have to realise that we take our protection seriously. The vaults are guarded by blood wards, among other things. Goblins cannot take the treasures inside because of our oaths. That is the reason our bank is so highly trusted globally. That being said, you won't be able to enter the vault because you are not a Lestrange by blood or marriage."

Harry's head drooped as he closed his eyes. Just when he thought he was successful …

"But there is something that can help us overcome this problem."

Harry opened his eyes and saw the aged goblin grinning. "You have to remember that Madam Lestrange is a Black by birth. The House of Black were a paranoid bunch and didn't ever take kindly to someone tarnishing their name. That is the reason why they always had sub-clauses inserted in marriage contracts so that they could make their in-laws pay if something – undesirable – happened."

Harry frowned. "And how does that help us?"

"And that is where your late godfather comes in," he said. He snapped his fingers and a large cylinder appeared in which Harry guessed, contained blood. It was quite big and Harry was sure it contained at least three litres of blood.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

"S-Sirius wanted to adopt me?"

"Yes," answered Ragnok. "Since he was never convicted, we saw no reason to bar him access to our bank. He came to us in April 1996 to update his will. He also gave us his blood in case he died before the procedure. You see, while you do have Black blood in you which you inherited from your grandmother, Dorea, the next person the title and fortune were supposed to go to was Draco Malfoy. But since there is a dispute, the Malfoys are not able to access the vaults, much to their annoyance. The situation is quite tricky due to the nature of such magical Wills and contracts."

"But is it legal?" Harry inquired, remembering Hermione, just a year ago, telling him that blood rituals were considered dark magic. "I thought blood rituals are illegal."

Ragnok scoffed. "Whoever said that doesn't know the basic system about how the magical world operates. Everything operates through blood. Magic itself flows in blood. Your identification tonight was done through blood; the wards around our high-security vaults are powered through blood. If the Ministry were to ban all blood rituals, more than half the population would be up in arms. This is not the Muggle world, Mr Potter. Blood is highly sacred to all magical species. Yes, the darker rituals are illegal, but not the adoption ritual. It has not been done recently but is very much accepted in society. Due to the nature of the ritual, such adoption means that you are essentially a child born to your adoptive parents. Your grandparents themselves considered blood adopting an orphan before your father was born."

"But how will the adoption help me?"

Ragnok grinned, showing his pointed teeth. "Once you are adopted, you can banish Bellatrix Lestrange from the Black family and brand her a blood traitor. That would make subsection 12, clause b activate in her marriage contract. You can then recover the dowry from her with interest. I'm sure Hufflepuff's cup can be included in that."

Harry's posture finally relaxed and he exhaled heavily.

"So now that the Horcrux problem is solved, care to explain to me why you think you won't survive the war?"

Harry bit his lip as he pondered on how to answer the question. He took a deep breath and said, "I believe the scar on my forehead contains one of Riddle's Horcruxes."

Ragnok was silent. "That complicates matters," he finally muttered under his breath.

"Since I have to die anyway –"

"Not necessarily," Ragnok interrupted, taking Harry by surprise. "We have encountered Horcruxes before in Greece and Egypt while recovering treasures. We have an ancient goblin ritual that destroys the Horcrux while leaving the container unharmed, but it has never been performed on a living being."

Harry's heart skipped a beat. Was there a way to do it?

"What does the procedure entail?"

"It is a procedure that identifies the soul component and banishes it. But since you have two souls in your body, the initial stages have to be done carefully and there is no guarantee that you will make it through alive. I'm also positive that it will be painful. Sometimes it can take days for the soul piece to be extracted if it is attached for too long."

"Is it possible to do the ritual before the blood adoption?" asked Harry. "I want to try it, Ragnok. I'm willing to pay any monetary compensation that is required."

Ragnok nodded in approval. The boy had proved himself to be honourable. It would worth the risk in helping him.

"Follow me, Mr Potter," said Ragnok. He led the boy to the large ritual room. After about fifteen minutes, a few very old goblins entered as well.

"We don't know how long this would take, Mr Potter," said Ragnok firmly. "This is all based on your determination in overpowering the soul piece. Keep your mind focussed on destroying it and it will happen. We cannot interfere once the ritual has started."

Harry nodded. The other goblins surrounded him and explained what needed to be done. Harry removed glasses and all his clothes. Trying not to be modest, he stepped inside the ritual pentagram and lay down on the stone floor.

"Ready," said Harry softly.

The goblins began chanting, moving around in a circle. Harry felt his scar beginning to prickle. It became red hot and he was fidgeting as the sensation soon became uncomfortable. The volume of the chants increased and after ten minutes of uncomfortable moaning, Harry screamed.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Voldemort frowned suddenly in the middle of the meeting with his Death Eaters. Something was wrong. He grabbed his head and hissed in pain. White hot anger erupted as he pointed his wand at the nearest Death Eater and snarled, "Crucio!"

Severus Snape fell to the floor as he screamed himself hoarse. With one more curse, Pettigrew screamed, but it wasn't long before Voldemort himself was thrashing about, clutching his head.

"MASTER!" shouted Bellatrix in concern. "Snape, do something!" she shrieked, but the headmaster of Hogwarts was in no position to even get up as he was twitching on the ground from the Cruciatus exposure.

The faces of the Death Eaters were writ with terror as they watched their Dark Lord scream in pain in the middle of his throne room at Malfoy Manor. They didn't know what caused him pain, but each of them knew that they were all of them going to pay for it when it finally stopped.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Harry flinched as he woke up, a soft groan escaping his lips. He felt as though his entire body was on fire. He opened his eyes and realised where he was. Just as he got to his feet, Ragnok appeared with a flash of light along with three other goblins.

"Good to see that you are awake, Mr Potter," said Ragnok. "How do you feel?"

"F-Fine," Harry croaked out, but his throat burned and his voice came out hoarse. "H-How long have I been here?"

"Six days," answered the second goblin. "Your vocal chords have taken a lot of strain from the constant screaming, but that is nothing a few potions can't fix. The good news is that the soul piece has been destroyed without killing you in the process."

"This is an amazing discovery," exclaimed another goblin. This started a heated argument between the aged goblins, but Harry paid them no mind. He was startled to discover the drastic changes that had taken place since the soul extraction ritual. For one, his vision was now corrected. He could see perfectly without his glasses. He tentatively got up and looked at himself in front of the shiny granite wall. The lightning shaped scar on his forehead was no longer prominent and instead of looking red and inflamed, it looked like a faded version of its former self.

A slow smile formed its way to Harry's lips as he realised something else. The ritual seemed to have benefitted him immensely. He felt calm and content. On top of that, his mind seemed to be swirling with memories he knew were not his own.

He could remember watching Voldemort scream in his throne room, and as usual, he had been able to tap into the Dark Lord's thoughts during the ritual. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for the Dark Lord, the magic used to sever the connection between the two seemed to have wretched most of the Horcrux's memories before being banished. They were now part of Harry's mind. Harry could feel his memories organised and uncluttered and he was more at peace with himself than he ever was before.

Was this how one felt after they had mastered Occlumency?

"Thank you," Harry said sincerely, addressing the group of goblins. "I will compensate you in any way possible for helping me get through this unharmed. What about the blood adoption?"

"I think it is better we do it immediately," replied Ragnok. "The adoption will take about twelve hours as your adopted parent's blood will be merged with yours, essentially making you a Black by birth. It's good that you do not want to waste time. Let us begin."

The goblins, being the efficient beings that they were, had already converted the corner of the room for this procedure once they were sure that Harry would make it out of the Horcrux removal ritual alive. Harry looked at the stone bathtub on the ground and slowly lowered himself into it.

"The merging process will be completed by tonight," said Ragnok as the other goblins filled the tub with Sirius' blood.

Harry tried not to throw up as the smell of the blood reached his nostrils. Instead, he recalled how much Sirius meant to him and how the man had tried his best to take care of Harry. His eyes brimmed with tears as he recalled some of the heart-felt moments he had shared with his beloved godfather.

"Yes ..." said Sirius. "But I'm also – I don't know if anyone ever told you – I'm your godfather."

"I'll understand, of course, if you want to stay with your aunt and uncle," Sirius said quickly. "But ... well ... think about it. Once my name's cleared ... if you wanted a ... a different home ..."

"Of course I want to leave the Dursleys! Have you got a house? When can I move in?" asked Harry, excitedly.

Sirius' gaunt face broke into the first true smile Harry had seen upon it. The difference it made was startling, as though a person ten years younger were shining through the starved mask; for a moment, he was recognisable as the man who had laughed at Harry's parents' wedding.

"We'll see each other again," he promised. "You are truly your father's son, Harry. I'm so proud of you, and I'm sure James and Lily would be too."

"Never mind me, how are you?" asked Sirius, looking at him worriedly, eyes full of concern, eyes that had not yet lost the look that Azkaban had given them – that deadened, haunted look.

"Thanks," said Sirius gratefully, opening it, grabbing the food, sitting down on the cave floor, and tearing off a large chunk with his teeth. "I've been living off rats, mostly. Can't steal too much food from Hogsmeade; I'd draw attention to myself."

"Sirius what are you doing here?"

"Fulfilling my duty as godfather," Sirius answered, gnawing on the chicken bone in a very doglike way.

"I don't care … I'll breathe freely again when this tournament's over, and that's not until June."

"Sirius what if I'm becoming more like Voldemort? What if I'm becoming bad?" exclaimed Harry in a panicked tone.

"Hey," said Sirius patiently. "I want you to listen very carefully, Harry. You are not a bad person. You are a very good person to whom bad things have happened to. The world is not split into Light and Dark, or good people and Death Eaters. What matters is the path you choose to walk on. That's who you really are."

"When all this is over, we'll be a proper family; I promise," Sirius assured as he hugged his godson tightly, and Harry couldn't help but shed a few tears into his godfather's shoulder.

Thinking about how much he loved Sirius, Harry passed out. The runes carved on the stone bathtub activated as the merging process began. Slowly, his head disappeared into the pool of blood.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

It was past eight in the night when Harry woke up. He blinked his eyes and was surprised to discover that the pain inflicted by the Horcrux extraction ritual was mostly gone. He examined his surroundings and realised that the blood all around him had disappeared, leaving his naked body unblemished. Tentatively walking out of the tub, he scrutinized his appearance in front of a mirror that was set on the side of the room.

Harry certainly had changed due to the adoption ritual. He had grown several inches taller, standing 6'3" in height, and had filled out some as well, taking care of any lasting effects of the malnutrition he had suffered throughout his life thanks to the Dursleys. But the most noticeable changes, other than his height and slight increase in body mass, were the features on his face and his hair.

A low chuckle escaped his lips. His moderately long raven-black hair, once an untidy mop, had soft waves that fell elegantly to the side of his face. His cheekbones were higher and more pounced and his nose straighter. Harry still did look like the son of James and Lily Potter, but there were some features on his face that bared an uncanny resemblance to his late godfather. He realised with a jolt that the changes were minimal, but enough to alter his appearance so that no one could identify him at first glance. No longer did he resemble a clone of his birth father, James.

Summoning his clothes, he got dressed in silence after casting a slight enlargement charm on them, and just as he was ready, Ragnok appeared with a flash of light.

"Ah, you're awake, Mr Potter-Black," said Ragnok. "I see the ritual has worked perfectly, as I knew it would. Follow me; I think we still have some unfinished business to deal with."

Harry silently followed the goblin and sat down in the familiar office again. Ragnok placed two small but bejewelled boxes in front of him and said, "These are the signet rings of the Potter and Black families. Nearly every family in the magical world commissions them for their members because not only can be they enchanted to one's specifications, they also serve, to a certain degree, as a proof of one's identity."

"I understand," Harry answered. He remembered that the Weasleys too wore such rings, as did most pureblood and half-blood students at Hogwarts.

"Once you wear them, you're the rightful head of the Potter-Black Clan, and once you claim your Wizengamot seats, you shall be known as Lord Potter-Black; the Lord of the Most Ancient and Noble Clan of Potter-Black. The two families have been merged due to your unique condition of already being the scion of an Ancient House."

Harry nodded. Now was really not the time to discuss politics of the Wizengamot. He wondered if the legislative body of Magical Britain even existed; Voldemort would surely have dissolved it by now, right?

As he extended his hand towards one of the small boxes bearing the Potter crest, the lid melted, showing a large red diamond ring placed on a velvet cushion, seamlessly set on a gold band. Picking it up, he wore the ring on his right ring finger. There was a flash of light and the ring resized to fit him perfectly. He did the same for the Black ring as well, which was a large black diamond ring set on a platinum band, now on his left ring finger.

"Very good, Mr Potter-Black," said Ragnok. "You should have received the knowledge of the family properties and members through the rings. I know there are more important things to do right now, so I will say that both the Potter and Black investments are doing quite well. The investments in Britain have dwindled significantly, but that is to be expected due to the current climate, but the investments and landed properties abroad are giving above average returns."

"What about the Horcrux, Ragnok?"

Ragnok removed a file with several sheets of parchment in it. "You will need a reason for casting her out of the family," he explained. "Point your wand at her name and say these words."

Harry took a deep breath as he recalled the Black family's motto – 'Toujours Pur', meaning 'Always pure'.

"I, Harry James Potter-Black, the Head of the Most Ancient and Noble Clan of Potter-Black, do hereby disown the eldest daughter of Cygnus and Druella Black, Bellatrix Lestrange, from the family for consorting with the half-blood bastard known as Tom Marvolo Riddle. She has brought shame to the family by murdering my father and the previous Head of House, Sirius Orion Black. She has also betrayed her blood by killing her sister Andromeda Tonks and has not stood for the family ideals. For this, I banish her forever from the Potter-Black Clan!"

The betrothal contract between Bellatrix Black and Rodolphus Lestrange glowed briefly before turning jet black. The deed was done. Ragnok barked instructions to another goblin who nodded and left immediately.

"The cup will be here soon," said Ragnok.

"There is someone else I wish to cast out too," Harry told him, his face dark with anger. Picking up the betrothal contract of the another daughter of the family, he pointed his wand at it and recited, "I, Harry James Potter-Black, the Head of the Most Ancient and Noble Clan of Potter-Black, do hereby disown the youngest daughter of Cygnus and Druella Black, Narcissa Malfoy and her son Draco, from the family for consorting with the half-blood bastard known as Tom Marvolo Riddle. They have brought shame to the family for the atrocities they have committed and for their actions, they shall be banished from the Potter-Black Clan!"

There was a flash of light as the betrothal contract between Narcissa Black and Lucius Malfoy was reduced to ash. Ragnok nodded. "I'll have it done," he said. "The monetary contents from both the Lestrange and Malfoy vaults shall be transferred to yours in accordance with the contract."

"Ragnok, please don't transfer the vault contents immediately," said Harry hurriedly. "For all we know, they might come to Gringotts to collect money and should they be made aware of the changes, it could put you at risk. I do not want to place you or any of goblins here at the bank in any danger because of my actions. You have helped me tremendously and I promise you, I will do my best to pay back the debt that I owe you."

Ragnok observed Harry with unblinking dark eyes. "You really are a strange boy, Harry Potter," he said slowly. "I must confess that I have never met a wizard such as you in my life."

A goblin subordinate brought a box into the room and Harry could immediately sense the oppressive darkness that emanated from the Horcrux.

"Do you mind if I destroy it?" asked Harry.

"Go ahead," Ragnok frowned. "But be warned that any attempt to harm us will be taken as an act of war."

Harry pointed his wand at the cup, letting all the hate and anger consume him as he snarled, "Avada Kedavra!"

The pale jet of green light flew from the tip of his wand and impacted the cup which rattled and screamed loudly. The occupants of the room could immediately feel the difference as the oppressive darkness disappeared.

"Thank you, Ragnok," Harry said, bowing with respect to the aged goblin. "Please return the cup to the Lestrange vault. I have no use for it now. Kindly take the entirety of my personal vault as monetary compensation for your services. I shall take my leave."

"Dobby!"

The house-elf in question appeared in the room. Taking his master's hand, the wizard and elf Disapparated with a loud crack, leaving the goblins behind.

"Interesting boy," Ragnok mused as he stared at the spot where Harry had disappeared. "Very interesting indeed."

"Overlord?" asked the second goblin quietly. "I do not understand. Why did we help the boy?"

Ragnok chuckled. "I think we have gained a very useful ally, Narfok; and I believe the Dark Lord is in for a very nasty surprise indeed. The fact that he survived that ritual is a testament to how powerful and determined he really is. I think I made a good decision in helping him. It would greatly benefit us in the future if he were to survive the war."

"Yes, you're right. After all, he is our wealthiest customer. This was nothing but a business transaction."

Ragnok laughed loudly.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

After a truly delicious meal prepared by his house-elves, Harry sat down and meditated, wanting to explore more of the memories he had gained during the Horcrux extraction. He saw, much to his astonishment, that he seemed to have developed some sort of unconventional Occlumency barriers. The soul piece being extracted had left his memories cluttered, but his inherent magic had responded so as to keep his sanity intact.

Harry's magic, as always, responded at the time when he was in a dire need of help; the numerous broken bones that had healed at the Dursleys during his childhood was proof of that, not to mention the time when he had killed Quirrell with his bare hands at the end of his first year at Hogwarts. The Horcrux was a piece of Voldemort's soul which contained his personality and memories. If Harry's magic had not reacted in protecting his mind, it would have left him insane due to the extraction from a body that contained two souls. Distinguishing each of them had been crucial to saving Harry's soul and identity. The magic of the goblin ritual helped him form an unorthodox form of Occlumency that protected his mind.

Concentrating hard, Harry saw brief flashes of Voldemort's memories that revolved around his Horcruxes. Much to his joy, he found the hiding place of the last Horcrux – the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts. He had always known that a Horcrux was at Hogwarts, but Ron, being the git that he was, had never believed him. It was good that he now knew where it so that he could grab it. There was something else which Voldemort's memories showed. Harry spent several hours viewing the Dark Lord's recent memories, until he finally stumbled upon Voldemort's obsession.

"The Elder Wand?" Harry repeated loudly. "What in Merlin's name is that?"

"Master?" interrupted Winky. "The Elder Wand is from a children's story from the Tale of Three Brothers. Winky be reading it to Master Barty when he was a child."

Harry cocked his head to the side and frowned. Why would Voldemort be after something that was described in a children's story?

"Tell me everything you know about this, Winky."

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Voldemort groaned as he regained consciousness. His anger intensified as he saw his Death Eaters scramble for cover, knowing that he was awake. He hated that he had lost control in front of them all.

"Severus?" he asked silkily, addressing one of the two people who were brave enough to stay in the room. "What happened?"

Snape gulped as he remained still, kneeling down in front of the Dark Lord. He clearly remembered the previous dose of the Cruciatus Curse and he didn't want to experience it again.

"I'm not sure, My Lord," answered Snape in his usual monotonous voice. "However, I have prepared several potions that I believe would help you."

Voldemort's red eyes glared at the Death Eater, but he didn't say anything. Bellatrix was kneeling down too; she might like being tortured, but she knew where and when it transformed from pleasure to pain.

"Leave me," he said in a high, cold voice.

Snape and Bellatrix quickly scrambled to exit the room, leaving Voldemort in his solitude as he stared at the wall. What in Salazar's name had happened to him? He accessed his memories and saw that it had started with a blinding pain in his head which had resulted in him falling unconscious. He spent the next several minutes trying to understand what was happening when suddenly, his eyes opened wide and he screamed in rage.

The blasted boy was destroying his Horcruxes! There was no other explanation. His soul-piece being destroyed would be the only logical explanation for his current state. He would have to return to each of his hiding places and redouble the protections around them. The hunt for the Elder Wand would have to wait. He still wasn't close to finding out who the thief was, but his Horcruxes were more important right now.

But how could the boy know of his secret? He hadn't confided it with anyone!

As cold fear tore through his heart, his mind thankfully still remained calm; the diary. Dumbledore must have suspected it after he saw the diary. Dumbledore must have realised that he had created Horcruxes. Slughorn was another loose end. He should have taken care of the man sooner, but his respect for him had won out. No longer was he going to be merciful. He would destroy every last man, woman and child if they threatened his life.

Even if the boy knew of his Horcurxes, how in Salazar's name could he or Dumbledore ever hope to find them? He had hidden them in places which no one in the world could find, with protections none could breach. However, that begged the question. If his Horcruxes were safe, what caused the pain that he, Lord Voldemort, felt that rendered him unconscious?

No, it was a Horcrux's destruction that caused this. Of that, he was sure.

But surely the boy must have only destroyed one Horcrux. Yes, that was the reason he felt pain. He, Lord Voldemort, would know if one of his precious soul-pieces was destroyed. But which Horcrux was compromised?

How could the boy know about the Gaunt shack or get past the deadly enchantments that he had painstakingly set up? No seventeen-year-old wizard could get past those defences. No, it wasn't the ring.

And how could the boy or anybody else know about the cave or penetrate its protection? The idea of the locket being stolen was absurd. Of course, there was no way the boy could have entered Hogwarts or Gringotts without being detected. That was impossible and ludicrous to even think about.

Then there was Nagini, but she was safe in Godric's Hollow. So which one? A cold unease flickered inside him. Dumbledore had known his middle name. He might have traced his ancestry to the Gaunts. Yes, the one probably destroyed was the ring. But a smile made it to his lipless mouth. Maybe there was a chance that Potter was dead? The curse on the ring was something so deadly that he doubted even he, Lord Voldemort, could undo it. The loss of one of his precious soul pieces could be chalked off as collateral damage if it had indeed killed Potter in the process.

Yes, he would go check on the ring once he had recovered. Potter's dead body was sure to be in the Gaunt shack.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

One month … it had been four weeks since Ron and Hermione had abandoned their best friend. Weeks of constant worry about Harry, the war and the Horcrux hunt haunted their dreams. Unable to confide the problem with Bill and Fleur, they had turned their anger and frustration towards the only person available – each other.

"But I was right, wasn't I? Harry didn't have a plan. We were going in circles and hadn't achieved anything in months!"

"It doesn't matter. You should never have fought with him in the first place!" Hermione shot back angrily. "Then none of this would have happened!"

"It wasn't my fault," said Ron defensively. "It was that bloody locket! Besides, you were disappointed in him too!"

"That's not what I meant!" Hermione lied, her cheeks pink with embarrassment and rage. She didn't want to reveal it to him, but if she had the courage to search her feelings, she knew that Ron was right. Hermione too felt that Harry should have been more prepared for the Horcrux hunt, believed that Professor Dumbledore had given him the tools required for the task. They hadn't been productive enough during their mission. But her conscience wouldn't let her blame Harry alone for their problems. Ron was equally at fault for their falling out.

"Don't think I will excuse your actions because of the effects of the locket. I wore it too, you know."

"It affected me more than you or Harry," exclaimed Ron. He sighed. "We'll find a way to him soon, I promise."

Mentally, Ron was panicking. Having left Harry all alone, there was no one to administer him the love potion. Back in the summer before their sixth year, Molly Weasley had decided that it was time for her youngest children to make their romantic interest known to Harry and Hermione. Ginny was only too happy to do so, for her crush on the Boy-Who-Lived had never faded. Ron too was game because he did harbour feelings for his bushy-haired best friend. The only problem was that Molly suspected that Harry and Hermione might be secretly attracted to each other. Normally, she would have no problems with it and would be quite happy for them – she did have to admit that the two would make a great couple – but she was also mature enough to realise that such a relationship would wreak the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione.

There was also the issue of Ron and Ginny, both of whom needed stable partners in their lives. With that in mind, Molly had decided to nudge the children's paths in a different direction, with a small doze of love potion as the catalyst. It wasn't anything strong like Amortentia, but it did ensure that the drinker was constantly thinking about the boy or girl the potion was keyed to. Unfortunately, since the love potion was so diluted, it had to be ingested frequently, the responsibility for which had been entrusted to Ron.

After about a month, just before they left for Hogwarts, Molly had decided to stop feeding Hermione the love potion. Ron, in a surprising stroke of observation skills, had realised that his Muggle-born friend had lost her romantic interest in Harry after Dumbledore had revealed the contents of the prophecy to them. It was human nature. After all, Ron was much safer to be with while Harry's future was uncertain.

It had worked out perfectly, with Hermione becoming increasingly attracted to Ron throughout the year and Harry falling for Ginny. But Ron was panicking because he was worried about Harry's feeling for Ginny. Without the potion, would he not be attracted to his sister anymore? The incident in the tent where the younger boy and Hermione were chummy together didn't sit well with him at all.

The bloody git had everything, and he still wanted Hermione? Ron fumed at that. Harry had money, fame and magical power, all in proportions that were considered very much above average. It was only natural that Ron would snap at his friend for taking Hermione too. After trying his best to step out of his best friend's shadow, Harry would do this.

Well, it was only a matter of time. Harry would surely come begging for his forgiveness once they found him, and Ron would forgive him graciously. The love potion would once more take effect, and after Ginny got married to Harry, the Potter scion would surely give Ron plenty of money from his vault in Gringotts. After all, they were best friends, right? He would finally be free of the dark clouds and the world would see him, Ronald Weasley, for who he was – a great wizard, not just the side-kick of the famous Boy-Who-Lived.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

He was standing in a snowy lane under a dark blue sky, in which the night's first stars were already glimmering feebly. Cottages stood on either side of the narrow road, Christmas decorations twinkling in their windows. A short way ahead of them, a glow of golden streetlights indicated the centre of the village.

"I'm coming, Mum, Dad," whispered Harry as he removed the Invisibility Cloak and walked quickly towards the graveyard of Godric's Hollow. He didn't sense someone watching him as he hurried down the snow-covered road.

This was the moment he had been pining for … he was finally here to see the graves of his parents. He recognised some of the names like Abbott and Fawley; even Dumbledore's mother and sister seemed to have been buried here. At least some of Rita Skeeter's facts about Albus Dumbledore seemed to be true. The Dumbledores had lived in Godric's Hollow and some of the family members had died here as well. Harry swallowed his bitterness as he moved past the graves of Kendra and Araina Dumbledore; the headmaster had been his guardian. The least he could have done was bring Harry to see his parents' graves. The fact that both he and Dumbledore had lost families here meant that each could understand the other's pain. But that had obviously not happened.

Memories of the late headmaster of Hogwarts only seemed to frustrate and anger him, so he chose not to think about Dumbledore as he continued to search for his parents' graves. After several minutes, his search bore fruit.

It was made of marble, just like Dumbledore's, and it gleamed under the moonlight. The names were crisp and clear, as if they had been carved just yesterday, but he knew that the gravestone was not new. No, it had been sixteen years since James and Lily Potter had died. Tears trickled down Harry's face as he rested his forehead against the cool marble, sobbing silently.

"Hey Mum, hey Dad," Harry said softly, his voice breaking due to raw emotion. "It's me, Harry. I –"

He paused. What could he say? During his childhood, he had always dreamed of having parents who loved him and took care of him. He had even written letters to them as part of a school assignment, but all that seemed so long ago. Harry's lips were firmly pressed together as he breathed deeply. He had to pull himself back together.

"I'll make you proud," he vowed. "I'll end this war once and for all. I swear to you."

He waved his wand in the air and conjured a bunch of lilies. Gently placing them on the grave, he got up and walked away quickly, unable to handle his still volatile emotions. Just as he exited the gate, he stiffened in panic. Someone was watching him.

Harry turned to his left and narrowed his eyes to see who was observing him. It was an old woman whom he recognised from the picture on his A History of Magic textbook; she was Bathilda Bagshot.

"Mrs Bagshot?" asked Harry tentatively, feeling strangely uneasy. Somehow, there were warning signs in place, but if she was Dumbledore's old friend as his mother's letter claimed, not to mention a celebrated historian who lived in the birthplace of Godric Gryffindor, she might have the fabled sword with her. The late headmaster might have entrusted her with it; it was a long shot, but then again, who could possibly understand the workings of Albus Dumbledore's mind? He didn't need the sword to destroy the Horcruxes anymore, but that didn't mean that it wasn't useful. A basilisk venom imbibed blade would be helpful in taking down more Death Eaters.

The woman grunted and gestured for him to follow. Harry frowned when he saw that she was acting strange, not speaking at all. Was that because he was the so-called Undesirable Number One? They walked in silence for several minutes until they reached her cottage. Harry fought the urge to gag when he entered the house; it stank badly.

"Mrs Bagshot, do you have something for me?" he asked loudly. The woman in question motioned him to follow her upstairs. However, Harry didn't comply. Something was not right. Her behaviour did not seem normal. No one invites a stranger to their bedroom, especially without a conversation of any sort.

"No, I won't be going upstairs; this is your house, not mine," said Harry firmly as he eyed the door. "Again, do you have something for me?"

She nodded and pointed to the other side of the room. The moment Harry moved away from the door, she acted. Within a second, her body collapsed and the great snake emerged from where her neck must have been.

Harry's eyes widened in shock, but he didn't lose his nerve. He was face-to-face with one of Voldemort's most treasured Horcruxes. He could not let this opportunity slide.

Knowing that the snake would strike at any moment, Harry acted, pointing his wand at the snake whose mouth was wide open and shouted, "AVADA KEDAVRA!"

The jet of green light struck Nagini perfectly. A cutting curse followed, separating the reptile's head and tail. A strange screeching sound emerged from the snake's body as the Horcrux was destroyed. Just as Harry was about to leave the house, he saw the furious red eyes of the Dark Lord.

Voldemort was here and he was apoplectic.

"AVADA KEDAVRA!"

"SECTUMSEMPRA!"

The two beams of light collided again, but this time, both of them were prepared. The moment the golden thread appeared, Voldemort cut the connection, but Harry flung Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder at the Dark Lord and Disapparated, just as he heard a scream of fury from Voldemort.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Harry materialised out of thin air with a crack in the middle of the Forest of Dean but Disapparated again so as to throw off his scent. There was only one more Horcrux left, but before he could deal with it, he needed answers.

Harry removed the snitch from inside his pouch and stared at it. The Elder Wand was one of the Deathly Hallows. He understood now why Voldemort was obsessed with it. He also remembered the large black stone with strange markings on it, embedded to a band and had been converted into a Horcrux, which he guessed, was in this snitch. According to Winky and Kreacher, it was the symbol of the Deathly Hallows. It was extremely useful to have elves that grew up in the household of pureblood families. They were a goldmine of information about magical culture.

I open at the close

What could that mean? His eyes narrowed in calculation as he pondered on what Dumbledore must have planned for him. Not for a second did he believe that the late headmaster had not realised that Harry's scar housed one of Voldemort's Horcruxes. Therefore, it was not impractical to assume that Dumbledore meant for him to die. Surely if the old man had known of a way to destroy the soul-piece without killing him he would have done it in an instant. But Dumbledore's lack of action led Harry to believe that at some point, his former mentor had expected him to sacrifice himself. It made sense, for Harry was willing to accept his fate the moment he found out about the true nature of his scar.

Accept his fate …

A grim smile made its way to his lips. The word 'close' was a metaphor.

"Death," whispered Harry as he held the snitch in his hand, close to his mouth.

The snitch opened, revealing a black stone. He took the stone and turned it three times, just like it was described in the tale.

Albus Dumbledore suddenly appeared before him, looking not quite alive, but not dead either. The blue eyes of the late headmaster displayed immense pain and sadness.

"Harry, please let me explain –"

"Shut up, Dumbledore," said Harry coldly. "This time I'll be the one asking questions and don't you dare even attempt to hide the truth from me."

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Voldemort was burning with rage as he held the corpse of Nagini. Potter would pay for this. He would destroy the boy and each of his allies for killing his beloved familiar. Was Nagini a target because Potter knew that she was a Horcrux or because she was a threat to his life when she attacked the boy?

He would have to mobilise the Death Eaters. He wasn't going to stand for this. Several attacks on innocent witches and wizards would make Potter surrender. He would also have to warn Snape that the boy might try to enter Hogwarts. But for now, he would have to check on his remaining Horcruxes. He fumed as he vanished Nagini's corpse.

As he crossed the threshold of the living room, his sharp gaze caught something of interest; a picture frame containing the photographed portrait of a young man. The blond boy was the thief who had stolen the Elder Wand. A feeling of euphoria coursed through his veins as he immediately recognised the boy from Gregorovitch's memories. Conveniently, Rita Skeeter's book that detailed the life of Albus Dumbledore was on the table, gathering dust. He put the pieces together.

Gellert Grindelwald.

That meant the person who last defeated Grindelwald had the Elder Wand.

The wand was in the grave of Albus Dumbledore.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Harry's feet touched the snow-covered ground of the familiar wide street of Hogsmeade. He could see the outlines of Hogwarts Castle from here. Hate boiled in him as he realised that he had been here several months ago, carrying Dumbledore. No amount of apologies could make him forgive the late headmaster. The lying, conniving old bastard!

Just as he took another step, there was a scream throughout the village. Harry stiffened; he had been detected. He tried to Disapparate, to no avail. He tried the Portkey on his signet ring, but it didn't work. The air seemed quite solid; anti-Apparition and anti-Portkey wards.

A dozen Death Eaters burst from the door of the Three Broomsticks and pointed their wands at where he was standing.

"Accio Cloak!" yelled a Death Eater.

Harry seized the folds, but there was no need for it. The summoning charm didn't work.

"Not under your wrapper, then, Potter?" the Death Eater spat. The man turned then to his fellows and said, "Spread out. He's here. Cast spells all over the area; one of them is bound to hit him."

"Stupefy!"

Jets of red light flew in all directions as the Death Eaters tried to corner him. Harry barely dodged them as he stumbled to the Hogs Head. He realised with panic that Voldemort must have realised that he was hunting Horcruxes. He must have informed them that Harry was coming to Hogwarts!

"Release the Dementors!" yelled the Death Eater. Harry's eyes widened. Dementors couldn't be fooled by the cloak and he had no way of escape. He could run, but the footprints on the snow would give him away and so would casting magic. The Death Eaters had been prepared for this. The Dementors glided towards him and Harry tried to fight the memories and the cold but it was no use. With no option left, he raised his wand and whispered, "Expecto Patronum!"

The silver stag burst from the tip of his wand and charged at the dementors, giving his position away. Just as he was about to go the other way to escape, the door to his left opened and he heard a voice say, "Potter, get in here, quick! Go upstairs and be quiet!"

Harry obeyed and went inside the Hog's Head just as the barman went outside to deal with the Death Eaters. Harry could hear the commotion outside.

"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," said the second Death Eater. "Break curfew again and we won't be so lenient!"

Harry waited patiently as the old barman entered the room above the pub.

"You bloody fool," said the man in a gruff voice. "What the hell were you thinking, coming up here?"

Harry took in the barman's features and most importantly, the eyes; a striking blue he had seen many times before at Hogwarts.

"Humph, it looks like you've changed your looks over the past few months, Potter," said Alberforth Dumbledore snidely. "I can sense that it's not a glamour; cosmetic surgery during war time?"

"Thank you for saving me, Mr Dumbledore," said Harry quietly. "But I need to get inside the castle quickly. Can you suggest a way? Elf Apparition won't work, I know, but besides that."

"Don't be stupid, boy! Do you have any idea of the number of protective enchantments they have erected around the castle? It is suicide –"

"It is imperative that I go inside, Mr Dumbledore. I have a job to do and for that, I need to –"

"A job, eh?" smirked Aberforth. "How nice. Let me guess; it was my brother that set you up, right? Forget it, Potter. My brother –"

"– was the biggest manipulative old bastard of the century, yes, I know," said Harry bitterly. He still hadn't fully come to terms with Dumbledore's betrayal; it stung badly. "I don't give a damn about your brother anymore. I know exactly what kind of game he loved to play, but I am very close to defeating Riddle. I just escaped him in Godric's Hollow after delivering a crippling blow to him. It could be all over very soon, but for that, I need to get inside the castle before he does!"

Aberforth stared at Harry for several moments. A low chuckle escaped his lips.

"I underestimated you, Potter. You certainly have managed to surprise me. I never thought you would get over your hero worship of Albus, but you did. Fine, I'll help you."

He looked at the portrait of a young woman and nodded at her. The girl smiled and walked away. "There is only one way for you to get inside," Aberforth explained. "The secret passageways are all sealed. But be warned. Just because it is the winter holidays doesn't mean the students have gone home. It was one of Riddle's ideas to keep them at the school during Yule break so that the parents would be more afraid of him."

The young wizard gratefully accepted a plate of sandwiches as he waited, wondering how Aberforth would get him inside the school. Five minutes later, Araina's portrait opened wide to reveal a large cavity and a heavily scarred Neville Longbottom stepped out.

"Harry?" Neville exclaimed in disbelief.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Headmaster Severus Snape received a message from the Death Eaters outside. He cursed the incompetent dunderheads; the brat had escaped. He had to be prepared.

"He's here, Albus."

Albus Dumbledore's portrait nodded gravely. "You'll have to tell him soon, Severus, but I believe it is too early. The boy has not lived up to my expectations. I thought my plan would work, but apparently, I was mistaken," he said, with disappointment clear in his voice. "Harry should never have come to Hogwarts this soon."

Snape's eye twitched in annoyance. He still didn't like being kept in the dark about what Potter was up to, but he had come to realise that he simply didn't care. After all, from the looks of it, Potter wouldn't win anyway.

"I told you it was stupid of you to trust the brat, but you never listened," Snape sneered. "I have to warn the others. I was told he would try to sneak into Ravenclaw Tower."

With that, Severus Snape walked out of his office, his robes billowing about him. He sent a Patronus message to Alecto and Amycus Carrow, warning them to be vigilant. The Dark Lord had specifically ordered them to capture the boy. Failure was not an option.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

"Damn, Harry, you've changed," said Neville as he took in his friend's new features. "But where are Ron and Hermione?"

Harry snorted. "They left me when the going got tough; well, Ron did, and Hermione went with him while trying to stop him," he replied. "The carrot-topped idiot couldn't think of anything other than his stupid stomach and his supposed feelings for Hermione. Is that something you think about during a time of war when people are being massacred every day?"

Neville was stunned. "They left you?" he asked incredulously. "Ron and Hermione? But why would they –"

"Seems surprising, doesn't it? I've been thinking about the same thing over the past four weeks and I've yet to reach the right answer to that question. Hermione wasn't really at fault, but Ron … let's just say that he was less than pleased with our living conditions during our mission."

"I heard rumours that you were up to something, but no one would say for certain. What have you been doing since this past summer?"

"I needed to get rid of a few things, Neville," answered Harry quietly. "I just came back from a confrontation with our resident Dark Lord in Godric's Hollow. He is going to be here soon. It is time we finally took a stand. I don't want to ask anyone to fight but –"

"You needn't ask," Neville interrupted. "We're all behind you, mate. If You-Know-Who wants a fight, we'll give him one."

Harry couldn't help but smile faintly at the newly improved and confident Neville Longbottom. It was a stark contrast to the shy, insecure boy he had met at the age of eleven. As they made their way through the tunnel, Neville filled him on what Hogwarts had turned into over the past few months. Harry clenched his fists as he craved for vengeance; how anyone could treat children like this was beyond him!

The tunnel finally led them to another door from where Harry and Neville exited, only to be surrounded by several screams and yells.

"Hey everyone, Harry's back!" yelled Neville, beaming with happiness.

"HARRY!"

"It's Potter, it's POTTER!"

Not knowing where they were, Harry took an offensive stance as he pointed his wand at them, a paranoid gleam in his eye. When he realised that he was amidst friends, he lowered his wand.

"Where are we?" asked Harry, confused.

"The Room of Requirement of course," Neville replied, grinning broadly. "Changed, hasn't it?"

The muttering and whispers didn't fade as everyone in the room stared at the Boy-Who-Lived, the most wanted man in the country. Most of them seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, for their leader had arrived. To the rebels, Harry Potter was the sole beacon of light amidst a sea of chaos and oppressive darkness. To see him in person, wand in hand, was like Mother Magic herself blessing them with victory.

The members of the D.A. were also quite surprised by the subtle changes in the Chosen One. The short, bespectacled teenager was replaced by a tall, slightly muscular-looking young man, whose emerald green eyes were glowing with barely suppressed magical power. Quite a young woman was eyeing him with interest. Harry certainly looked very handsome.

"Is it possible for all of you to exit the room for a while?" Harry asked quickly. He needed everyone to leave before asking the Room of Requirement to change in order to reach the Horcrux.

"Exit the room?" exclaimed Seamus in shock. "Why? We're here to escape the Carrows. If we leave –"

Harry exhaled in frustration.

"Mate, do you really need to reconfigure the room?" asked Neville softly.

"Yes, Neville. It's very important."

"Then maybe you should tell them about You-Know-Who. He is coming here, right? Then we need to prepare, Harry."

When the younger boy opened his mouth to protest, Neville beat him to it. "You can't stop us from fighting," he said. "You don't have to do everything alone. This is our fight too. Let us help you."

Harry realised that his friend was right. He didn't have a choice in the matter. Taking a deep breath, he turned towards the assembled group and announced, "Voldemort is on his way here." Most of them gasped and screamed in fear, but Harry continued, "I need everyone to vacate this room. It is imperative that you do. Also, we have to barricade the castle before he arrives. Where's McGonagall?"

"She's probably in her office," said Neville.

"Prepare yourselves, everyone. If you want to fight, this is the chance. Call for reinforcements. We're going to need it soon."

After his announcement, Neville quickly ushered Harry towards the exit. He donned the Invisibility Cloak and silently walked towards McGonagall's office when he suddenly heard muffled footsteps. Harry stiffened as he palmed his wand. He should have consulted the Marauder's Map.

Fortunately for him, it wasn't a Death Eater. Professor McGonagall was walking towards him, her eyes vigilant. When Harry emerged from beneath his cloak, he nearly gave her a heart attack. When he explained that Voldemort was on his way, she thankfully listened, but they were soon interrupted; his presence had been detected. Harry turned to face the man he loathed as much as Voldemort.

Severus Tobias Snape.

"How wonderful to finally join us, Potter. Why didn't you inform me that you were planning to visit? We could have certainly been prepared. The spawn of James Potter would no doubt enjoy a welcoming party," said Snape, in his usual velvety voice.

"Oh, hello Snivellus," Harry shot back, smirking at the sallow-skinned man. "How has it been up in the Head's office? Nice chat with Dumbledore's portrait?"

Snape's eyes flashed at the mention of the name given by James Potter, but before he had an opportunity to taunt the boy, Harry and McGonagall chose to attack. Battling two against one with Flitwick, Sprout and Slughorn coming to their rescue, Snape decided to flee.

"COWARD!" screamed Professor McGonagall at the retreating form of the former potions master of Hogwarts.

"Professor, he's coming; get on it!" Harry reminded her. He paused to think. What to do? Should he grab the wand first or should he get the diadem? His actions now could shape the battle tonight.

Horcrux or Hallow?

Should he grab Ravenclaw's diadem, Voldemort's last Horcrux, or should he take the Elder Wand, the only weapon that even remotely guaranteed success against the Dark Lord? Harry didn't even have to think too hard; the answer was obvious. Even with Voldemort being a mortal, the Dark Lord was still an extremely powerful wizard. And Harry knew without a doubt that he, a seventeen-year-old wizard, was no match for his enemy's knowledge of magic and duelling skills.

The Horcrux would have to wait.

With that in mind, Harry donned the Invisibility Cloak again and rushed towards the grounds, not listening to McGonagall and Flitwick's ramblings on how to strengthen the wards around the school. Several minutes later, Harry appeared near the grave of Albus Dumbledore. With a flick of his wand, the white marble tomb split open, revealing the body of the old Headmaster. Within was the wand, buried with him. Harry took it, just as the wand gave off multiple sparks, ready to serve a new master at last.

'Who is the true master of the wand?' Harry wondered. From what he had been told by Dumbledore when he summoned his spirit, according to legend, the person who defeats the previous owner becomes the master of the wand. The late headmaster believed that death wasn't necessary for passing ownership. Dumbledore's plan had been to destroy the power of the wand since his death had been planned between him and Severus Snape. Unfortunately, he had been disarmed before Snape could kill him.

Harry straightened his back with determination. He had to become the master of the Elder Wand. And for that, he needed to defeat its current master – one Draco Malfoy.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

"Harry is at Hogwarts," Bill announced. "I got a message from Professor McGonagall. Apparently, You-Know-Who is on his way to the school. They're all preparing to fight."

"What about the rest of the Order?" inquired Hermione. Along with her, the entire Weasley clan, with the exception of Percy, was at the Burrow.

"They must have been informed too. Let's go."

"No! I forbid it! You're all children!" screeched Molly.

"You can't stop us, Mum," George said grimly, no trace of humour on his face.

"Not this time," Fred agreed. "George and I would never forgive ourselves should we watch from the sidelines."

"We live in Diagon Alley, we know the true impact of the war. Fred and I are going to help stop this once and for all."

"Arthur, stop them!" Molly screamed. Her husband smiled sadly but knew that the twins were right. Molly shook her head and sobbed. All hands on the family cloak pointed towards mortal peril.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP

Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, the Carrows had been dealt with by Professor McGonagall. After taking possession of the Elder Wand, Harry entered the Great Hall in order to search for Draco, since that was where students from all four Houses were assembled. He noticed that the members of the Order of the Phoenix present as well.

"What about our things?" called a girl at the Ravenclaw table. "Our trunks, our owls?"

"We have no time to collect possessions," said Professor McGonagall. "The important thing is to get you out of here safely."

"Where's Professor Snape?" shouted a girl from the Slytherin table.

"The cowardly former headmaster of this esteemed institution has, to use the common phrase, done a bunk," replied Professor McGonagall, and a great cheer erupted from the Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, and Ravenclaws.

Just as McGonagall was finishing her sentence, they were interrupted by a loud voice that echoed throughout the castle, making people scream and whimper in terror.

"I know that you are preparing to fight. Your efforts are futile. You cannot fight me. I do not want to kill you. I have great respect for the teachers of Hogwarts. I do not wish to spill magical blood."

"Give me Harry Potter," said Voldemort's voice, "and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter, and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter, and you will be rewarded."

"You have until midnight."

There was pin-drop silence as people stared at Harry, many of the taking several seconds just to recognise him. Suddenly, there was movement from the Slytherin table. A figure slowly stood up. Pansy Parkinson raised a shaking arm and screamed, "But he's there! Potter's there! Someone grab him!"

There was another massive movement; most of the Gryffindors had their wands out, pointing them at the Slytherins, their backs facing Harry. Their actions mirrored those of the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs. Utter fury and revulsion were etched on the lines of nearly every face as they showed the Slytherins their might.

Harry stared at the students of Slytherin House and observed the expressions on most of their students. The younger years were crying softly while the others looked shaken up. Things had probably not been smooth in the snake pit in the past several months. He wouldn't be surprised if girls had been raped there. Only now did he realise that apart from Malfoy and the Quidditch team, never had he interacted with anyone else from Slytherin. They too looked beaten and battered like the rest of the school.

Should one-quarter of the population of Hogwarts be blamed, branded as evil at the tender age of eleven, just because of people like Voldemort and the Death Eaters?

If Gryffindor as a whole wasn't blamed for Peter Pettigrew's actions, if Ravenclaw didn't shoulder blame for Barty Crouch Jr's actions, then why should innocent people in Slytherin be held responsible too? Especially when they had been oppressed so badly?

Harry realised that they needed to be strong from within should they emerge victorious in this battle. The divide caused by the Houses of Hogwarts had torn the country apart; no longer!

"Thank you, Miss Parkinson," said Professor McGonagall in a clipped voice. "You will leave the Hall first with Mr Filch. If the rest of your House could follow."

"No," Harry said loudly, turning the attention of everyone back towards himself. "This is what is being done to us; can't you see it? We are crumbling from within, just like he wants us to, all because of that mad fool. I will not let every person in Slytherin be targeted just because some of them are loyal to Voldemort. Those who want to stay and fight, you may do so. This is the time to pick a side. This moment will decide your fate forever. If you want to listen to the propaganda spouted by that monster, go ahead, but keep in mind the hundreds or maybe thousands of people who died just in the past year and a half."

"Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin; what's the big deal about the Houses, anyway?" asked Harry to the whole room where everyone was listening. "Who cares about them? Why are you all insistent on branding people as good or evil based on a sorting? The Founders of Hogwarts lived over a thousand years ago; their lives ended a long time ago and we should not let their experiences and behaviour affect us a millennium later! Our lives are our own. Look at yourselves! Aren't we all the same? Why can't you see it? I was nearly sorted into Slytherin myself, so am I evil?" he spat, ignoring the gasps from many of the students. "If you don't believe me, ask the Sorting Hat. Slytherin was the first choice for me. But it is time you all realised something."

"Sonorus!" said Harry as he pointed the Elder Wand to his throat. His voice echoed throughout the castle and the whole of Hogsmeade could hear it.

"Lord Voldemort. You are nothing but a snivelling coward. I remember what you said to me when I was eleven. You claimed that there is no good or evil; that there is only power and those too weak to seek it. I tell you now that you are wrong. Achieving great power is a worthy objective, but it is the means of acquiring it which define us. You are nothing but the epitome of evil who deserves to be put down like a rabid dog. Do you all want to know who Voldemort really is? His name is Tom Marvolo Riddle. He is a half-blood, spouting pureblood propaganda to further his goals to achieve power. He graduated from Hogwarts in 1945; Head Boy and the so-called, self-proclaimed heir of Salazar Slytherin. He is a bastard son of the disgraced House of Gaunt. His mother, Merope, was a squib. She used a love potion on a Muggle named Tom Riddle and got herself pregnant. When she stopped using the love potion on her Muggle husband, he ran away, leaving her helpless. This is your precious Dark Lord; a child of that union."

"He opened the Chamber of Secrets both times, trying to kill Muggle-borns because he had a lousy time with Muggles at his orphanage when he was a child. He was bullied in Slytherin House for being a Muggle-born when he was sorted but he rose through the ranks by intimidating people with his abilities in Parseltongue. Tell me, if he really is interested in pureblood supremacy, why does he kill so many purebloods? Shall we count the number of families that have been wiped out because of him? The Gaunt family is extinct; he killed his own uncle. The McKinnons are extinct. He killed nearly twenty purebloods that night including defenceless children. He killed twenty-three members of the House of Bones, a family as old as any in our country, not counting Amelia Bones herself, one of the greatest witches of her generation. He killed the Prewetts; he killed Fenwicks; the Dearborns; the Meadows; he is the cause of the near extinction of the Longbottom, Bones, Potter and Black families, all of which are ancient pureblood Houses. If he loves purebloods so much, why does he kill so many?"

"He doesn't even respect his own followers. He called you all his servants. I thought proud purebloods bow down to no one, but your own master is the son of a Muggle who loves to torture you. You kiss the robes of a half-blood while you call the rest of us filthy. You have been blinded for so long and you have nearly destroyed our society because of it. You fools; if we are exposed to the Muggles, a war would be inevitable! There is a reason the International Statue of Secrecy was implemented and why every country in the world enforces it so rigidly! Muggles have devices used for mass destruction you cannot even imagine! There are billions of Muggles out there! What are you going to do? Kill them all? It isn't possible! Think, you idiots!"

"If you still want proof about your master's ancestry, watch this," said Harry. He used the same Flagrate spell Riddle used in the Chamber of Secrets and drew in mid-air.

TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE

With a flick of his wand, the letters rearranged themselves to form –

I AM LORD VOLDEMORT

"Voldemort is a made up name made by a teenager with inadequacy issues," Harry announced, his voice still echoing throughout the castle and the surrounding village. "Tom Riddle, I speak directly to you now. You have used these people like cattle, branding them with your mark. I am not Albus Dumbledore. I know the crimes you have committed and the crimes your followers have committed. I am not a person to give second chances. If you come with wands blazing to kill innocent children just because they stand in your way, I will hunt you down and kill you, just like how I put down your pet werewolf, Fenrir Greyback. You have been warned."

"Quietus!"

The Great Hall was silent as the grave, with people gaping at Harry, looking stunned. Ron and Hermione were wondering what had happened to their best friend over the past month. When had he gained enough confidence to taunt Voldemort like that? Also, how could he bring himself to do this? None of the Horcruxes had been destroyed yet! There was no point of it all. Innocent blood was going to be shed because Harry had taken a stand when they weren't ready yet. Besides, Harry had killed Greyback and those snatchers?

Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. "Thank you for that speech, Mr Potter. Students who are underage, please follow Mr Flich; he'll lead you to safety. All those students who wish to leave, Slytherin or otherwise, you know who you are, leave now before we make you."

There was movement from every House. Harry saw that few people from Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw too joined the group of Slytherins as they left the hall, still dazed at what Harry had said, though Pansy continued to throw filthy looks at Harry. Nearly one-quarter of Slytherin House had left, leaving the others behind.

"It is time to put your differences aside here and now," said Harry firmly. "When the fighting starts, don't use stunners; they're useless. Use Reductor curses, cutting curses, anything that is lethal. If you stun people, they will just get back up with the help of their fellow Death Eaters. I repeat, stunning spells are useless, so don't use them! These bastards are here to kill you. They are here to murder innocent children. Show no mercy."

"But we can't do that!" cried Hermione. "Harry, we can't kill people just because they're Death Eaters. Professor Dumbledore –"

"– is dead and it doesn't matter what he wanted because it isn't him fighting here with us tonight," finished Harry flatly. "This is war, people. It is either kill or be killed. If you stun a Death Eater, it will haunt you forever, reminding you of your failure in preventing the deaths of numerous innocent people, just because you chose to cast a spell that a second-year student could neutralize. If you don't wish to kill, incapacitate them. Cut off their wand arm or use bone-breaking curses. Anyone who has knowledge of healing spells and others who don't wish to fight, report to Madam Pomfrey. Once the battle begins, we can use all the healers we can get. Kingsley, please take over."

Kingsley Shacklebolt nodded to Harry, respect shining in his eyes as he addressed everyone, explaining his battle strategies to them. Harry quietly exited the Great Hall and headed towards the Room of Requirement. Once he finished destroying the last Horcrux, he would deal with Draco.

Just as he entered the corridor to the Room, he saw that there were only three people standing there – Ginny, Tonks and a regal looking woman who Harry recognised as Neville's grandmother.

"Tonks?" asked Harry incredulously. "What are you doing here? I thought you were at home with Teddy?"

Ted Lupin, Remus and Tonks' son, had been welcomed to the world just a couple of months back. The two of them had gotten together during the Yule holidays of Harry's sixth year, after he decided to help Tonks when he found out that she had fallen in love with Lupin. Their surprise pregnancy had quickly led to marriage and Harry had been quite bewildered when they asked him to be the godfather of their then unborn child when he had arrived at the Burrow several months back. He didn't know why they had asked him because quite frankly, he didn't know either Remus or Tonks very well, but he had accepted it none the less. The very existence of Teddy was a very private affair, known only to the members of the Order; a werewolf fathering a child was unheard of, and they decided to keep it quiet, lest the population of Magical Britain, along with the Ministry of Magic, decided to intervene in family matters due to their fear and bigotry.

"Watcher, Harry. He's at the Burrow with Molly," Tonks answered distractedly. "She'll look after him. Where's Remus?"

"You'll have to ask Kingsley; he's the one organising people. You'll find Neville in the Great Hall too, Lady Longbottom," Harry replied.

Tonks and Augusta Longbottom nodded and hurried away.

"Ginny, I'm sorry but you'll have to leave the room."

"Finally," muttered Ginny under her breath. Her mother had been quite insistent on her staying in the Room of Requirement. She looked at Harry and couldn't help but throw her arms around his neck.

For his part, Harry felt very uneasy and uncomfortable. Why he felt this way was beyond him, for only a month back, he was sure about his love for Ginny.

"Ginny, now is not the time."

"I know," she whispered. "Good luck, Harry."

She kissed his cheek and left quickly. Harry watched her leave, a frown dominating his features. Somehow, he felt like he wasn't romantically attracted to the daughter of the Weasley clan. Shaking his head to clear such thoughts, he decided to focus on the matter at hand. Just as he began pacing before the entrance to the room, he was interrupted.

"HARRY!"

Harry groaned when he saw Ron and Hermione running towards him.

HP*THE AFTERMATH*HP