Strange days

Prologue

The Dark Lord had overreached himself. Certainly, his plan to sow confusion and terror at the heart of resistance against him – the wizarding school, Hogwarts – had the advantage of boldness, simplicity and nearly certain success. But he did not expect the leader of all his enemies, and his promised bane, to simply disregard all the chaos and suffering he had unleashed on their home, and to come after him, leaving everything else to sort itself out, on a once-pays-for-all gamble to destroy him for good or die trying; and he did not realize that the very spell he had unleashed to create chaos at Hogwarts would give his eldest enemy the one pointer he needed.

And so, as the wizened, already decayed corpse of their enemy lay before them, Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter stood, both lost in silent thought. Maybe the death of the sorcerer would undo his spells; but Dumbledore, at least, did not feel much hope. Indeed, if the death of a sorcerer undid all the spells that he or she had created, the whole wizarding world, woven out of the million of spells of past wizards and witches, would in all likelihood not exist.

They looked around themselves, and were just in time to catch the fading of the last Death Eaters to flee, after incredulously witnessing the downfall of their lord and master. These slaves, bodyguards and fighting troops of the fallen enemy had been selected for power and cruelty, and the fact that their master was now certainly, without any possibility of equivocation, dead, did not make them stop being dangerous. They would have to be tracked down and neutralized; but tonight there was no time. The crisis at Hogwarts called Dumbledore – if not Harry, who could do little to help – back, with an urgency that allowed not so much as one last look at their fleeing enemies. But they did remember to take the corpse with them, lest anyone should use it in necromantic rituals.

All the way back, Dumbledore was grimly silent; only as the walls of Hogwarts came back into sight, he turned to Harry with an expression that the young man – who knew his Headmaster better than most – had never seen before: grimly ironical, bitter, even self-despising.

"Well, Harry," he said, "it seems that Tom has proved it at last." Proved what, thought Harry, though unwilling to say anything. "He has proved himself mightier than me after all. I could not have done what he did tonight."

"But you have beaten him, Professor. You are the victor."

"Yes... by using Dark Magic – which I was supposed to be too good to do, and that is probably why he was surprised. And even so, I would not have won; he could have reached within himself and repaired all the damage, if you, his promised slayer, had not been present with Godric Griffindor's sword." He looked at the long, jewelled blade in Harry's right hand, still dripping with something that looked more like machine oil than blood.

"But... I mean, Professor, this was still your plan and your knowledge! You still proved the better man."

"What I proved is that Tom Riddle had left a dangerous weakness at the core of his being by leaving some of his original, male, human being within himself. He probably never even thought of it... but when I reached into him to give him some of the same medicine he had inflicted on Hogwarts, it precipitated the collapse of his whole inner system. And even so, I repeat, he could have repaired himself, if you had not been present to strike him at his moment of maximum weakness... for one thing, he clearly knew the sex-reversal spell much better than I do."

"Professor," asked Harry, suddenly realizing his luck, "how come it hasn't affected you? Or... or me?"

"I suspect that it was too weak to affect the stronger magic users in the castle. Dammit, Harry, there's a limit to everything! A spell that affects six or more hundred people cannot also have the focus and power to affect the strongest among us? At a guess... I would say that every teacher is protected, and Madam Pomfrey as well. As for the students... you, Hermione – obviously – at least half a dozen people in Ravenclaw, a couple each in Slytherin and Gryffindor... And that is about it, Harry." The two people, old wizard and young hero stopped at the gate, as though unwilling to enter Hogwarts and deal with what they were to find inside. "And still I don't have the power to undo it. Even at my strongest, I could only do it person by person... it would take years."

"I could do it, Harry. But how do I pick who is going to be disenchanted first, and who last? By the time I reach the last of the line, they will have been in a changed identity for years... They may have got used to it. How do I return to them the life they have had stolen?"

Visibly forcing himself, Dumbledore started walking again, crossing the border of his castle; Harry followed him by reflex, the sword still drawn in his hand, and still dripping with his enemy's dark fluids.

The gates of Hogwarts opened before them, to reveal a scene of chaos. At a time of night when the school would almost certainly have been asleep, hundreds of students were milling and clamouring in the garden, clearly beyond the power of teachers to control; and, even to an unaware eye, they gave a picture of confusion and strangeness – for one thing, almost all their clothes seemed grossly ill-fitting, either too large or too small.

The teachers, and a few senior students, were unaffected. But every other person who lived in the castle had suffered a sudden and permanent change of sex.