This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros. Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.


CHAPTER 24

A Dark Tide


Harry was first to tumble out of the fireplace. Almost immediately he had his wand out and ready. The only light in the room came from the flickering green flames in the fireplace behind him, but he easily recognized his surroundings. He'd arrived just where he had expected: the small arrival hall in the Gatehouse of Oras-maisus. However, it was obvious that quite a bit had changed since he and his friends had used it on their way to confront Grigore Tarus.

Most importantly, it seemed completely deserted. He searched the shadows for any sign of movement, though he hadn't decided whether the apparent emptiness of the room was really a good sign. His left hand reached into his pocket to fish out a small leather pouch. He crouched down and waited nervously for someone to jump out of a darkened corner or burst through the doorway.

A flare of green flame behind him illuminated the room and announced Hermione's arrival. In the brief moment of light Harry saw a harrowing view of the room he was standing in. The furniture had been broken and tossed about. A large tapestry hanging from one of the walls had been ripped in half. Just before the light faded, he spotted the lamps which had once lit the room. They were shattered, ripped into pieces, and strewn across the floor.

"It's empty?" Hermione whispered as she pulled her wand and backed herself against the nearby wall.

"I think so," Harry answered.

"And the Portkey? Is it ready?"

"It will be." Harry clutched at the leather pouch in his left hand. In it was a Portkey which would return them to the Atrium at the Ministry. The Castle had anti-Apparation wards which were even stronger than the ones at Hogwarts. Considering the power Evelyn had wielded, a Portkey might be their only way of escaping a difficult situation.

However, there was a risk as well. Since Grigore's failed attempt on Harry's life, the Brotherhood had opened a number of connections to other fireplaces on the Floo Network. The one they were using came from Vienna. It saved them a long train ride, but it wasn't as quick as the trip from Oradea. That meant that if the first person through was attacked, they would have to defend themselves on their own.

Unfortunately, it was even more complex than that. There would be no way for the first person through to warn the second of any danger. As the first person through, Harry's job was to keep himself safe and get the Portkey ready for use. Lupin told him it should take no more than a few seconds, but it would require his full attention. However, to use it, he had to wait until all four of them had arrived or leave one or more of them behind. Since Ginny was the last, there would be no chance of that happening. Hermione was there. If the situation got bad, she would protect him while he prepared the Portkey.

"Have you heard anything?"

"Nothing," answered Harry.

"Were you able to see anything?"

"Not much," he replied quietly. "It wasn't encouraging. You'll see for yourself. Ron should be along any second."

Just as Harry predicted, a burst of flame announced Ron's arrival moments later. Instead of watching Ron, he took another opportunity to survey the room. He ignored the most obvious changes, focusing instead on whatever details he could find that would tell him what had happened. The light lasted for two seconds at most, but it was enough for Harry to notice a number of dark patches around the room. Many of them were small, no larger than a hand print. They appeared to be the blasts from powerful spells. A pair of other spots was on the floor. They were larger and abnormally shaped. The one closest to Harry had a shape along its edge which looked like a hand print. Four dark streaks led away from it toward the door.

"Harry?" hissed Ron. "Hermione?"

"We're here, Ron," answered Hermione. "The room looks abandoned, but— keep quiet, anyway."

In the dim light, Harry watched Ron's shadowy outline shuffle toward the sound of Hermione's voice. Had she seen what Harry had? The room told a rather grisly tale. He hadn't told the others much about what he'd learned from the Seer at St. Mungo's, but he also hadn't expected it would be quite as bad as things now looked. It wasn't just the room. It felt as though the entire Gatehouse was empty. Hermione felt it, too.

"Something's not right here, Harry," she whispered. "Guards are supposed to be here. There are alarms. This room isn't supposed to be abandoned."

Harry's response was quick and to the point: "I don't think it was voluntary."

Seconds later, the fire flared one last time and Ginny tumbled across the floor. Harry's eyes had already adjusted to the dark and he was able to watch her clearly as she struggled to push herself onto her feet and pull her wand out at the same time. Ron approached in attempt to help her, but she quickly spun away from him and leveled her wand at his chest.

"It's alright, Ginny," Harry announced. "The room is empty. No one was here."

"And none of you thought of lighting the place up a bit?" she snapped in frustration.

"I think it might be better if we didn't," mumbled Ron.

"Harry, I—" Hermione began, "This is all wrong. We shouldn't be here. Get the Portkey out. We should leave."

Harry refused. He walked to Ginny's side and took one last moment to search the shadows for anything that might pose a threat. Finding nothing, he pointed out the broken lamps on the floor and asked her to repair and light them. As she did that, he slipped off to the side, and waited for anyone to come through the door.

As the first lamp flickered to life behind him, he heard a pair of gasps. The second lamp was never fixed. It wasn't needed. One was more than enough to fully understand what had happened in the room.

Harry noticed the doors first. There were cracked and their hinges were bent and twisted. Smears of blood could be seen down the center where the two doors had met, and a small part of a larger pool was visible on the floor stretching underneath them. It was now dried and dark. Whatever had caused it had happened some time ago.

As he turned around, he saw the full extent of the events that had taken place there. The two large spots he'd seen before were also blood, but they weren't the only ones. The walls and floor were covered with crimson streaks and darker spatters. Dark scorch marks dotted the walls.

"What happened here?" Ron asked in shock. "The... the Brotherhood did this?" he asked looking at Harry and Hermione.

"No," Harry answered. "I expect someone else did this to the Brotherhood."

The four of them took a moment to stare at the room. Harry forced himself to remain focused. There was no point in dwelling on the horror of it. He needed to know when it happened and who had done it. The broken remnants of a table near the doors suggested that whoever had been in the room had known of the attack long enough to attempt to barricade themselves in.

"Harry?" Hermione called out from the center of the room. She was kneeling by the pool of blood trailing off to the doors. "There are some... troubling scratches here." He walked over to where she was pointing.

"What the bloody hell are those?" asked Ron.

"It looks like a creature of some sort," Ginny offered in explanation. "They look like claw marks." She tilted her head, trying to get a better view. "Maybe a Hippogriff or... a small dragon?"

"Whatever it was, the pool of blood was dry when it made these marks," Hermione explained. "This wasn't a single attack."

Harry began looking around the room again. Slowly, patterns started appearing in his mind. "There were at least three attacks," he guessed. "Maybe four or even more. It's impossible to tell." He walked to the wall opposite the door. "Look at these marks," he said, pointing at the blast spots on the wall. "There are quite a few here. They came from the doorway, and they were wizards. I doubt they would have brought a huge creature with them. There are no claw marks here, anyway."

"So which side were we cheering for?" Ron asked.

"The losing side, I'd guess."

Harry walked over to the fireplace and noted how the area was ringed with black scorch marks, broken furniture and cracked walls. "I'd guess that a couple of wizards stood here with Shield Charms or something similar. They were..." His voice trailed off as he turned around and found himself staring at the fireplace. "They were trying to keep the way open. They were trying to make sure we'd be able to come here."

Ron frowned. "And now we're here, and they're, what... dead?"

"Or worse," Harry replied, though he didn't explain just what worse fate he imagined. "Whoever attacked them didn't want to stop us from arriving. They just wanted to stop us from having any help."

"Harry, this is a trap," Hermione announced. "Get the Portkey. We need to leave."

"We knew this would be a trap when we left Vienna."

Though it was true, Harry didn't want to have to remind them of it. Of the three of them, Ginny was the one who seemed to be taking it the best. She didn't appear overly confident, but her face was stern and determined. Ron remained as confused about their mission as he had the moment Harry had returned to Sirius's old house and there was a hint of suspicion in his eyes, suggesting that he still hadn't made up his mind about what was about to happen.

Hermione was the most troubling, though. She didn't say anything; she just stared at him with an accusing expression on her face. She knew something she wasn't telling anyone. Their eyes met and he suddenly recognized the look in her eyes. It was the same odd mix of emotions she'd had the day of the match at Cornwall.

His eyes immediately traveled down to her left hand. She had used the winter weather as an excuse to wear a pair of long black gloves. Unlike the others, she had not taken them off since leaving London. Ron had only questioned her once about them. Now Harry noticed that her left hand had begun to twitch occasionally. Realizing what Harry was looking at, Hermione scowled and shoved her hand into her pocket. It merely confirmed what Harry already suspected. Whatever had been controlling Evelyn wasn't far away.

"We need to go," he announced.

Hermione threw him a sharp glare. "Go? Go where?"

"To the Castle. That's where this started."

"And it looks like this is where it ended. I'd rather get an idea of just what sort of trap this is before we jump into it."

"We don't have time."

"This room has been empty for days, Harry," said Hermione. "The only thing that might change in the next hour is our understanding of what happened here." Harry scowled at her, but she didn't back down. "If I'm the only one, then I'll shut up and go quietly."

Harry turned to look at Ron and Ginny. Both of them appeared slightly surprised and confused, but Ginny was the first to speak up.

"I don't know what happened here," she began quietly, "but I know that Josef needs us and I trust Harry to know what needs to be done."

All of them turned to look at Ron, who seemed rather uncomfortable with being put on the spot so suddenly. Hermione said nothing to him, but their eyes were locked on each other as if they were having some sort of silent argument.

"I trust Harry, too," he started hesitantly, "but I don't like not knowing what I'm facing. That didn't work out so well last time." He gave Harry an apologetic look. "Sorry, mate. I'd rather know what killed these poor blokes so I know what I'm running from. It's been weeks since this started. What would another hour or two matter?"

Harry clenched his teeth and nodded. "Fine," he growled. "An hour. No longer. After that, we're leaving."

Ron, Hermione and Ginny exchanged troubled looks, though none of them voiced any specific concerns. They gathered the few things they'd brought with them and checked their Shield Cloaks one last time. Harry slipped the small bag holding the Portkey back into his pocket, but first made certain that the knot tying it closed was not too tight.

He approached the door and tried to open it quietly. Quick attempts at magic failed completely. Despite being partially open already, the charms which once protected remained in place and it refused to budge. After wrestling with it for some time, Ron stepped up next to him and they tried to force it open together. At first, it seemed just a resistant to force as it had been to magic, then they were rewarded by the faint whine of metal twisting free.

"Harry!" Ginny cried out in a hushed voice. "Watch out, it's—"

It was too late. With a piercing clang, the door broke free of its top hinge. The bottom hinge could not support the sudden increase in weight, and it groaned and then snapped just as suddenly. Harry and Ron reacted instinctively, throwing their weight against the heavy wood in an attempt to keep it from crushing them. They succeeded, but in the worst way possible. The bottom of the door ground against the floor, then it slowly fell away into the corridor. Harry had just enough time to understand what was coming. Ron saw it, too, and they both dove behind the remaining door and pressed their hands against their ears.

A thunderous noise shook the stone floor as the door came crashing down. The echoes took seconds to fade away, giving the four of them plenty of time to think about what had happened.

"I think I'd like to change my vote," whispered Ron. No one objected.

With his wand held firmly in one hand, Harry strode through the doorway and out into the corridor. The rest of the Gatehouse was just as dark as the last room had been, but there was no longer any purpose in trying to remain stealthy. Hermione quickly conjured a small blue flame and held it in the palm of her left hand. Harry had seen it done a number of times, but this time it was slightly different. Where the flames touched her gloved hand, they took on a noticeably greenish hue. A warning glance from Hermione reminded Harry to say nothing and keep moving.

The doors to the rest of the city weren't far, but all of them remained cautious. If anyone was waiting for them, they must know where they would be headed.

They reached the large intersection in the middle of the Gatehouse. Harry paused a moment to check the path to the doors before continuing on. It was too dark to be certain, but there was still no sign of anyone else. They proceeded with a little more speed.

"Harry," Ron whispered. "Can you hear that?"

Harry slowed his pace, but kept walking toward their destination. He strained his ears against the thick silence surrounding them. "No," he replied under his breath. "What did you hear?"

"Er, I don't really know," Ron said as he walked slightly ahead of Harry. "Whispering, perhaps. It was... sort of like a quiet rustling."

"We're not far from the door. It's probably just the wind."

As they continued walking, Harry couldn't help but start hearing all sorts of unidentifiable sounds. The slightest difference in one of Ginny's footfalls or the rustle of Hermione's cloak against her heavy robes made him twitch. As the large gates became visible through the inky haze, he began to wonder if the whispers he could hear were the same thing Ron had heard, or if his mind had simply created them.

Without him noticing, Ginny had sped up to walk next to him. "Harry..." she said in a low voice. "Something ahead of us just moved."

Hermione seemed to have noticed it as well. She slowed down slightly, and had raised her wand from her side. With a quick movement, Harry caught Ron's attention and he spotted it, too. Something was hiding behind a pillar halfway between them and the gates. As they continued walking, it shifted again, almost like an animal preparing to strike.

"Do you have any bad feelings you'd like to share, Hermione?" he whispered as they continued to gradually slow their walking.

"This whole place feels bad," she muttered, "but it's worse ahead of us than it is behind us."

"Alright then, you keep an eye on the door," he told her. "Ron, you make sure no one comes up behind us. Ginny— You just do whatever seems right."

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm going to greet our friend," he whispered. "Hermione, I don't think we'll need that light anymore."

Taking the hint, Hermione tipped her hand, letting the ball of flame drop to the floor. It splashed into a thousand sparks and faded quickly. Before the light had even died, Harry had made a dash for the wall. In a matter of seconds he'd covered the distance to the pillar. Harry ducked down and spun around the pillar, pointing his wand directly at the face of a terrified wizard.

He covered his face with his arms. "No— Don't— I—" the man stammered as Hermione ran past them and crouched down facing the large gates leading the courtyard. Ron was standing on the other side of the corridor looking back where they came from. Ginny was standing next to him, but watching Harry.

"Who are you? Speak!" Harry demanded.

The man pulled his arms from his face, and Harry recoiled slightly. His eyes were bloodshot and seemed to be bulging out of his face. He looked thin and weak and his skin was pale with red blotches. Harry squinted at the man's robes. They weren't grey or purple but green. He was just a common wizard.

"I am Mihai Stanescu," the main said with raspy tones. "I— I cast... charms."

"What are you doing here?"

The man began shaking as he stared at Harry's wand. "I was... The Minister called me to repair the wards— They were broken, you see. I didn't— I didn't know why."

"Where is everyone else?" Harry asked harshly.

"Dead," the man replied, "—or— or changed."

"And how did you survive?"

"She let me live... She said I was special." The man turned to look at Ginny and Ron and his expression turned to one of fear. "She said I had a job. I was supposed to explain... what happened here."

Harry saw Ginny walking toward him, but he didn't look away from the wizard. "Who is she? Who did this?"

The wizards stared up at Harry with wide eyes. "The red witch," he answered. Seeing the question in Harry's eyes, he continued: "Her robes were always bright red... like blood. She looked like a young woman, a beautiful woman, but... the things she did— And her eyes... they were the brightest green I've ever seen."

"Evelyn," Harry announced.

The man's eyes filled with awe. "She... has a name?" he asked. "You know of her?"

"Evelyn did this?" Ron called out. "Who else was helping her? Was it that bastard, Reynard?"

"I— I never saw anyone else. Not with her," the man said. Harry slowly lowered his wand but kept it ready. If the man was going to attack them, he would have done it already. However, he let Ron and Hermione remain on guard for any ambush.

Harry let the man speak, but he encouraged him to do it quickly. Despite their fears about announcing their presence, nothing had happened and the man seemed to have valuable information. As he explained what he knew, Harry felt his stomach clench. The man said that the first disappearances had started before he had arrived, but that the first stories of wizards being brutally attacked by a witch in red robes had started in mid-November. Harry closed his eyes as the memories flashed before his eyes: Evelyn had been showing off her red robes to him when he delivered her book to her. She had been smiling. She'd seemed happy.

"For a long time, no one would believe it was happening," the man said. "Guards reported seeing the red witch walking around, but no one remembered talking to her. They even accused me of helping her by sabotaging the charms, but I didn't," the man declared. "The first time I saw her... I— I told the guards, but they didn't believe me. And the next day they were found in the East Corridor and the North Corridor... and the just outside the gate," he added with a disgusted expression.

"I went to leave," he said, the memory of fear filling his voice. "I didn't care what any of them said. No one's life is worth this. They said the fireplace wasn't working, but there was no other way out. I went to the end of the West Corridor and—" He paused to look around the pillar. "The guards were dead and she was there. She... she—" He swallowed and stared down at his leg. Harry hadn't even noticed it before. Thick bandages were wrapped from the man's ankle to his knee and darkened with old blood stains. "The bone," the man said sadly, "it's— They said there are only splinters left."

"She let you live?" Ginny asked suspiciously.

The man let out a bitter laugh. "You make it sound like mercy," he said flatly. "She said that I had a job to do. I was supposed to live and wait. She said that some day..." He stopped and looked down at the floor. "—some day, two wizards and two witches would come through the fireplace, and I was supposed to tell them what happened here. I was supposed to tell them... what they had caused."

"She said four of us would come?" Harry asked. The wizard nodded weakly.

It was a troubling thought. How could Evelyn have known that? Wasn't she convinced that he would leave Ginny for her? Why would she expect that they would ever come to Romania? Harry tried not to think about the old wizard at St. Mungo's. He'd said similar things. They couldn't have been linked somehow, could they?

"The next day... she just disappeared," the man continued. "There weren't many of us were left. Maybe twenty or more. All the healers were dead, too. A few of the guards tried to fix my leg, but... nothing worked. Dragomir tried to organize what was left of us, but... they were in the Castle and we were in the Gatehouse. No one was willing to take the High Street. A few of the guards found an old tunnel and were trying to clear it but— Then he came. Now I'm the only one left here. He— I never knew anyone could— I haven't heard anything from the Castle either."

"Who is he?" Ginny asked.

"I— I don't know," the man said weakly. "He wore a dark cloak. I've never seen him before, but some of the guards knew his name —the powerful ones, the ones in purple. They were the first to...to..."

The man didn't need to say much more. Harry had heard enough to understand what had happened. "We're going to the Castle," he told them man. "Stay here, and we'll come back for you when we're done."

The man leaned around the pillar again. "No, you won't," he said with finality. "There is no path. The tunnel is blocked. The High Street is... Evil things live there, now. It isn't safe. Nothing is." The man leaned closer to Harry and dropped his voice: "Not even this corridor."

Harry froze. "What do you mean?" he whispered, slowly raising his wand in case the man attacked him.

"You are being followed," the man hissed.

Harry turned to look at Hermione. She shook her head silently. Waving, Harry caught Ron's attention and nodded back toward where they'd come from with a questioning expression. Ron took a moment to search, but turned back a moment later and shrugged. He didn't see anything.

"My eyes have not seen the sun for a week," the old man croaked as he looked around the pillar, "and neither have theirs."

Harry leaned out to stare into the black emptiness of the corridor. He felt his chest tighten as the faint whispers he'd heard earlier returned. He turned to look at Ron and found a similar look of surprise on his face.

Harry looked into the man's eyes. "How many of them are there?"

"It doesn't matter."

"How many?"

"Two, though it might as well be one or a hundred," the man replied defeatedly. "They will not die. Not at night. The guards tried everything. There's no point. They were following you before you found me. You'll never make it to the Castle."

Hermione tapped Harry on the shoulder. "We've got to go," she said. Ron was slowly crossing the corridor. His wand was out and pointed toward a pair of faint shadows which were slowly getting closer to them.

"Remember when I said we should stay and find out what happened?" he whispered. "That was a mistake."

Harry stood up and walked to the center of the corridor. He told Ginny and Hermione to start walking to the gate. Ron tried to pick up the man, but he shoved Ron away. "It took me a whole day to get here," he told Ron. "I wouldn't make it ten feet with them following me, and neither would you."

"You'd rather stay here and die?" Ron snapped.

"Rather die alone than take you with me," the man said with a shaky nod.

The shapes walking toward them became a little more distinct. "Harry!" Hermione called out. "We need to go, now!"

Ron pointed at the crippled man. "We can't leave him!"

Harry already knew what had to be done. The look in the man's eyes just confirmed it. He didn't blame Harry for what needed to be done. He knew he had died a week ago. He'd probably been allowed to live until Harry arrived. Now that he had, there was nothing to protect him. His job was finished.

Harry pushed the thought from his mind. There was nothing he could do about that. For the moment, he just needed to escape. Whoever was following them didn't seem to be in any hurry. The gate wasn't far away. If they could reach it quickly, they might be able to lock it from the outside. Of course, it didn't sound like things were any safer on the other side, but that was a situation they could face later. Harry decided quickly on a course of action. If they were going to run, the least he could do was make it a little harder to spot them. He raised his wand and pointed it at the advancing silhouettes, causing them to pause briefly.

"Lumos Maxima!" he shouted.

Blinding white light streamed from his wand filling the corridor. Standing some distance away were a pair of figures that looked to have been wizards once. Their robes were dark and torn, with the shreds of their sleeves and sashes hanging down to the ground. In places, they were torn away completely, revealing deathly pale skin covered with patches of dirty red. Harry had hoped to blind them with the light, but it didn't seem to have any affect at all. They just stared back at him mechanically through black, soulless eyes.

"Harry, run!" Ron shouted as the two wizards both began walking toward them quickly.

Harry didn't take time to think of any other plans. Hermione and Ginny were already sprinting as fast as they could. The distance to the gate was not far, but it felt like it was taking an eternity. Before she reached it, Hermione slashed her wand toward the door and to Harry's relief it began creaking open.

Hermione was the first one through, followed quickly by Ron. Ginny wasn't far away and Harry was right behind her. Just before they reached the door, Harry heard a loud hiss, followed by a sharp tug on his cloak. One of the wizards had caught up and was now trying to pull Harry back. Quickly reaching for the cord which kept it closed, he untied it, but not quite fast enough.

The force of the attempt to pull it from him twisted him about, making him trip over his own legs. He stumbled forward into Ginny, forcing her to lose her footing as well. The opening wasn't much further. Harry clutched at Ginny and regained his balance just long enough to make one last push for the gates. As he leaped for the gap between them, burning hot pain sliced through his ankle. His eyes shut tightly against the agony, preventing him from seeing the slight change in his course.

With a second burst of pain, his shoulder slammed against the edge of one of the gates, spinning him around again. His momentum drove him forward, forcing him to tumble onto the ground outside the gateway. A few inches of firm snow cushioned his fall, but it wasn't enough to spare him the agony tearing at his lower leg. He heard himself cry out, but a second voice rose over it.

"Ginny!"

It was Ron. Harry twisted on the ground, trying to push himself up as quickly as he could. While he had managed to stumble through the doorway, Ginny hadn't fared so well. She had fallen a few feet short of the gateway. She was now lying on her back and staring into the black as she tried to push herself through the gates. The terrified look on her face told him just how far away their pursuers were.

The two wizards emerged from the shadows a moment later. There was no urgency in their movements. They were cold and controlled, like a pair of hunters who had just cornered their prey. Ginny continued pushing herself away from them, and they followed slowly. For a moment, Harry thought they might simply let her leave, but as soon as she started to get back on her feet a voracious hunger filled their eyes.

She tried to scream, but the closest wizard was too quick. One of his arms shot out, gripping her jaw and covering her mouth with bloodstained fingers. The other clamped down on her shoulder and pulled her to her feet. The wizard just held her for a moment as a malevolent smile spread across his mouth. Then, slowly, his lips curled back and his jaw opened to reveal a set of black teeth, flanked by a pair of long pointed fangs.

They were vampires.

The realization struck him like an icy wave. The world around him seemed to come to a halt. He needed to do something. He couldn't just lay there and watch as they killed Ginny. Ron and Hermione were already reacting, but Harry didn't have much hope that their efforts would have much effect. There was something different about these two vampires. Harry had seen a number of them, but these felt different. They were rawer, wilder. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he began crawling for his wand.

He heard Ron shouting something incomprehensible. He paused to see Ron jumping forward to try and rescue Ginny. His attempt was even less effective than Harry would have expected. Before he could manage a single hex, the second vampire had lashed out, tossing Ron back onto the snow and sending his wand flying. Hermione shouted a quick spell and a blinding light erupted from the end of her wand. It struck the vampire who'd attacked Ron, creating a burst bright enough to light up the entire courtyard. Unfortunately, it had little other effect. The vampire looked dazed and off-balance though otherwise unharmed.

The vampire holding Ginny was even less affected. Harry saw its black eyes glaring at him, gloating at their failure to rescue her. With the same slow, confident motion it had shown earlier, it pushed Ginny's head back, exposing her neck. Ginny's arms clutched at it, trying to push it away, but there was no sign that any of her struggling had any affect. The creature's fangs glistened in the moonlight as it bent down to her neck.

He had to do something. He tried to focus, but his mind seemed to be working hopelessly slow. Were the vampires doing that? Could they do that? His wand was still a few feet beyond his reach, but it was the only chance he had. He pushed himself forward and pain exploded in his ankle again. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself onward. Whatever pain he felt was minor compared to what would happen to Ginny if he didn't reach his wand.

It was just a little further. There was no way to tell just how much time had passed. It felt like minutes, but he knew it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. Why weren't Ron and Hermione doing anything? A shrill, panicked scream split the night air, spurring Harry forward the last few inches. His fingers wrapped around his wand and he quickly twisted to aim it directly at the vampires.

He paused. Something was wrong. The vampire's face was against Ginny's neck, but she was still struggling. It hadn't bitten her. It was just holding her. Hermione's wand was pointed at them as well, but like Harry, she had held back, waiting for some explanation. Ron took the opportunity to retrieve his wand as well.

The vampire's black eyes stared at Harry like two empty holes in the night, and then the scene was suddenly broken. The vampire slowly pulled away from Ginny. One hand peeled itself off her shoulder and flexed with restrained rage. The other hesitantly let go of her jaw and quickly curled into a threatening fist as the vampire growled and gave her a baleful glare.

What had happened? Harry asked himself as he forced himself to his feet. His left leg wouldn't take much weight, but he looked even less threatening while lying on his side. The vampires gave no reaction. In fact, they didn't seem to care about Harry at all. Ginny was the only one that mattered to them. They were snarling and baring their fangs at her, but . They were standing startlingly close to her, baring their fangs and snarling, but they were unwilling to touch her for some reason.

"Step back, Ginny," Harry called out in an uneven voice. "Do it slowly."

Harry's voice seemed to wake her from her shock. She took a small step back, inching toward the threshold of the gateway. The vampires followed her, keeping their distance. She took another, this time slipping a hand into her pocket to fetch her wand. When she pulled it out, the vampires hissed furiously at her, yet they still didn't attack.

Ginny took another step back, then another. She had passed through the gateway and was only a few feet away from the threshold of the gates. The vampires stalked after her, crouching down slightly like predators preparing to strike. From the corner of his eye, Harry caught Hermione making gestures at Ginny. He understood. The vampires couldn't be allowed to leave the Gatehouse. Without knowing what had stopped them, there was no telling when the vampires might suddenly turn on them again. Harry glanced over at Ron and saw him raise his wand.

"Ginny, run!" he shouted.

As quickly as she could, Ginny turned and bolted away from the two vampires. Understanding the plan, Harry spun around and aimed his wand as well. There was no need for incantations. A simple shutting spell would do. The two creatures attempted to leap through the doors, but they weren't quick enough. With the force of three powerful spells driving them, the door slammed shut. A second later, the gates shivered as they were struck with a blow of inhuman force. A second and third blow fell, but the doors held. Hermione quickly found the set of steel beams used bar the gates and set them in place. The sound of the next hit was dull and unimpressive. Only silence followed it. The attack was over.

Ginny collapsed onto the snow. "What— I—" she panted. "Why did they stop?"

Harry limped toward her, wincing in pain. "Are you alright? Are you sure they—"

"Lie down, Harry," Hermione snapped, "before you injure your leg beyond anything I can heal."

Harry ignored her and continued making his way toward Ginny. She was staring at the barred gates and shaking visibly. As Harry hobbled over to her, she seemed to wake up. Her eyes locked onto his and she stopped breathing altogether. She was completely terrified.

"Did it—" she gasped in fright, "I— I couldn't feel—" She stopped talking abruptly, dropped her wand into the snow and twisted her neck as her hands frantically searched the spot where the vampire's mouth had touched her.

"I can't feel anything," she cried out in a panicked voice. She ran her hand down her neck, then held it out to look at it. Unsatisfied, she clutched at Harry's cloak and pulled him closer. He stumbled and groaned at the spike of pain in his ankle, but Ginny didn't seem to care.

"Is there any blood?" she shouted. "Is there a cut or— or anything?" Harry struggled to keep his balance and examine her neck at the same time. When he failed to respond quickly enough, Ginny lashed out. "Harry!" she barked as she tugged at his robes again. "Is there any blood?"

"No," he answered through clenched teeth. She immediately let go and fell back into the snow gasping for air.

The sudden shift in weight caused Harry to shuffle his feet again, eliciting yet another shout of pain. Before he'd fully regained his balance, he saw a ball of light streaking toward him. It struck him in the ribs, forcing him to the ground not far from Ginny. The landing was softer than it would have been without the snow, though far from comfortable.

He tried to push the stabbing sensation in his leg out of his mind. What had happened? Someone had attacked him and he'd dropped his wand again. Ginny hadn't even noticed, she was just staring up into the night sky, her chest rising and falling rapidly. Pushing himself up on one arm, Harry searched for the source of the spell. All he saw was a large dark cloak and a dark colored boot coming right for him. Before he could react, his arm was kicked out from under him and he fell back onto the snow.

"I told you to lie down!" scolded Hermione. "This is no time to be stupid, Harry." She quickly crouched down next to him. With one hand she pinned him to the ground, while the other waved her wand over his injured ankle. Ron came running up a moment later and knelt down next to Ginny. Harry could hear him talking to her, but couldn't quite make out what they were saying.

"You're lucky," Hermione murmured. "It's relatively minor, though I expect it doesn't feel that way."

"Oh, it doesn't."

"Good," she said. "You should be more careful. I'm not a Healer. I fix sprains and minor fractures, but there's not much I can do if you decide to be a moron and injure yourself by walking around on broken bones."

"I'm sure you'd do alright if you tried," he said with a wince as Hermione tapped his ankle with her wand.

"That's not the point," she whispered sharply. "I can mend this quick enough, but it's going to take time for the pain to go away —time we don't have."

"That door will hold for quite a while," Harry told her. "It was made to hold back things much more frightening than a pair of vampires."

"I'm more worried about what's on this side of the gates," she whispered. Harry felt a warmth enveloping his leg and slowly driving the pain from it. Hermione leaned closer and lowered her voice. "Harry, we're not alone."

Pushing himself up a little, Harry's eyes swept around the courtyard. It was broken and burnt. There were no bodies, but he recognized the signs of battle. Several had been fought there. Then, slowly, as his eyes began to adjust to the dark, he saw them: silhouettes in the background, flitting from one shadow to another. There were quite a few of them, a dozen or more, and they were all watching the four of them. Harry looked over at Ron and saw him giving the shapes sidelong glances as he whispered to Ginny.

"More vampires?" Harry asked Hermione.

Hermione held out a hand. "No, I don't think so," she said as she helped him back to his feet. "I'm afraid it's much worse than that."

"What's that?"

"They're refugees," she whispered. "They're here because it's the safest place they could find."

As Harry stared at them, he saw more of them poking their heads out of windows and doorways. In the silence, he heard faint voices whispering to each other in Romanian. He couldn't tell what they were saying, but he didn't need to know the language to hear the emotion in their voice. They were frightened.

"They can't leave."

"The whole city is a trap," Hermione answered. "No one can get out."

"You can feel it, can't you?" Harry asked, finally expressing a feeling he'd had for some time. "That's how you knew what was happening at Cornwall. That's why you left Hogwarts to get help. You could feel that Evelyn was there."

Hermione nodded faintly.

"What do you feel now?" Harry pressed her. "Where is it?"

Hermione's gaze was hollow. "It's everywhere," she whispered. "It's been waiting. It knows we're here and it's coming for us."

"What are you two talking about?" Ron interrupted.

"We need to get moving," Harry announced. Ginny was on her feet again and looking a little more calm. He walked over to her, clenching his jaw at the dull throbbing in his foot. She insisted that she was alright but he could tell that there was something troubling her. Something in the way she looked at him said that there was more on her mind that she wasn't willing to discuss at the moment. He wanted to find out just what it was, but Hermione was becoming even more insistent about the need to leave.

"Where are we going?" Ron asked as they stepped over the remnants of the broken arches which had once stood over the entrance to the courtyard.

"The Castle," Harry answered. "That man, Mihai, said that there were other wizards there. That's where Dragomir will be."

"How do we know they're still there?" Ron asked. "We already know they couldn't keep Evelyn out before. Why should we believe she didn't sneak in and kill them all?"

"Because that man said Dragomir had tried to gather all of them after Evelyn disappeared. He must have known that Evelyn had left. That was when he sent the message. He would have known that the Castle needed to be held at all costs, but he kept the Gatehouse guarded as well. It was the only way we could get here quickly."

"And that didn't seem to work too well, did it?" commented Ron. "How will we know that we're not walking into an even bigger trap?"

"It's all we've got," said Harry. "We'll never know until we get there. I have to believe the Brotherhood hasn't failed completely."

"Why is that?"

"If they have, then things are going to go very badly."

As if to accentuate this observation, a group of screams rang out behind them. They all turned around and saw flashes of light coming from the courtyard they just left. Another longer scream was cut short suddenly, punctuated by an unsettling sound somewhat like the mixing of a howl and shout of agony.

Ron pulled out his wand and started running back to the courtyard, but Harry quickly put out an arm to stop him. Ron turned to glare at Harry.

"We've got to help them!" he shouted. "Those vampires are going to—"

"It's not the vampires," Hermione interrupted in a hollow voice. Like Harry she had made no move to help the people.

Ron was outraged. "I don't care what it is! We can't just let them— Ginny," he said, pleading with her, "we saved you. We can—"

"No," Ginny said, cutting him off, "you didn't save me. I don't know what saved me." She gave Harry a sidelong glance, but continued speaking to Ron. "Whatever is back there, it's not what we came for."

"So we let them die?"

"We do what we have to, Ronald!" she shouted back at him. "Don't you see what's happening here? Everyone in the Gatehouse was killed because someone knew we were coming. That man was only allowed to live in order to let us know what had happened here. Those people back there, they're being attacked because we were there. We might be able to stop this attack, but what about the next, or the one after that? We have to stop the cause, Ron, and we can't do that back there. If we try to help them, we might cause an even stronger attack."

The shocked expression on Ron's face seemed to express Harry's thoughts as well. Turning away from the fading screams, Ron pocketed his wand and reluctantly followed the rest of them as they started up the gentle incline of the High Street leading to the Castle.

As they walked, Harry led the way with Hermione at his side. If she was able to somehow sense approaching danger, he wanted to know as quickly as possible. Ron and Ginny walked some distance behind them. This put them far enough away to keep them out of any traps or ambushes which might have been laid for them, but close enough to be able to help should anything happen. The longer they walked, the better this idea appeared.

All of the buildings they passed as they continued along the street were darkened; however, some of them were much darker than others. Harry had walked the city enough to spot the empty spots where shops used to be. In some cases, you could still spot broken beams or piles of rubble where they had once stood. He knew some of the buildings. Some he even remembered hiding or buying supplies in.

"Harry," hissed Hermione. "Up ahead of us. I saw... something."

Harry paused for a moment, just long enough to glance back at Ron and Ginny. When he turned back around, the street was empty. He wanted to question Hermione to see if she was certain of what she'd seen, but the look on her face said everything. When she told him, she had been certain. Now she was questioning herself, too.

Harry decided to keep moving. The street was far too quiet. It was normally teaming with people far into the night but now the four of them were the only people he could see anywhere. The fact that Hermione had even thought she'd seen something moving was suspicious. They continued on, and the scene around them began to deteriorate into something that looked more like a horrific disaster than any sort of attack. The damage was extensive and indiscriminate. Debris was littered across the street, mixed with the occasional shapeless lump. Harry slowed down to take a closer look, but Hermione quickly pulled him away.

"It's a corpse, Harry," she said in a tense voice. "Just keep walking."

Harry balked. "It might be able to tell us what happened here."

Hermione's response was cold and sharp. "If you don't keep walking, I'm sure you'll find out." As she spoke, her eyes darted over to one side of the street, then the other. Harry followed her gaze and immediately reached for his wand.

"Just—keep—walking," Hermione growled.

Perched atop the broken roof of a nearby building was the dark shape of a man in a cloak. It was hunched over as though peering down at them. Another was crouched low and climbing a set of stairs on the other side of the street. Harry did as Hermione told him. Before long, he'd spotted more of them: a pair of shadows in an alleyway simply standing and watching them pass.

"What are they?" Harry whispered to Hermione.

"I don't know," she replied.

"More vampires?"

"That word doesn't seem to fully describe them."

"Where did they come from?" Harry asked, though he didn't honestly expect an answer. "There's no way they could have been hiding in the city all this time. They must have come in from somewhere. Evelyn said she didn't have trouble sneaking in but she's just one person. This amount of devastation would take an army. There's no way they all slipped past the guards without being noticed."

Hermione looked troubled but said nothing.

Harry tried not to make it appear as if he were paying any attention to them. It was difficult to believe that the shapes and figures they saw lurking about were the same sort of people they had spotted in the courtyard. These moved with an eerie confidence. They weren't afraid or trying to escape. The conclusion seemed obvious: They had been the ones who had attacked the refugees in the courtyard.

Harry forced himself to continue. There was nothing else for him to do. The shapes seemed to disappear as quickly as they appeared. He might spend hours trying to track down just one of them. Continuing toward the Castle was their only option.

The street ahead of them was getting slightly lighter, but it wasn't the cold, clean light of the moon. A dirty, ominous glow was filling the air, staining the night sky a rusty orange. Off to his left, Harry spotted the source. A large tumbled building was hiding the smoldering flames of what must have been a huge fire. The smoke had risen to choke out the moon and fill the air with suffocating fumes. Harry slowed down to keep Ron and Ginny in sight behind him.

A light wind was driving the smoke from the fires down and across the raised street, making it rather difficult to see much of anything in front of him. As they crept forward, he spotted another clump of corpses lying in the middle of the street. They approached slowly, picking a path to skirt the clump of bodies without getting too close to the dark buildings on either side.

Behind him, Ginny gasped suddenly. Harry froze and immediately spun around to see what had happened. Ginny's eyes were wide in fear as she raised her arm slowly to point back toward the center of the street.

One of the bodies was moving. Harry lowered his wand and was about to rush forward to help them, but Ginny and Hermione quickly grabbed him. Through the smoke, he saw the shape of a woman slowly standing up. Her robes were charred and stained with several prominent tears, one of them starting near her hip and extending all the way to the hem. Her exposed leg was pale, with a deep gash running the full length of her thigh. It looked deep and recent, but there was no sign of any bleeding.

Once standing, she turned to face them. Through a curtain of tangled blonde hair, her inky black eyes stared over his shoulder at Ron and Ginny. Her head twitched slightly to glare at Harry. Narrowing her eyes in malice, she bared a set of black, pointed teeth and let out a faint hiss. In an instant, Ron was at his side with his wand aimed directly at her. She gave no reaction to this and instead turned to look at the bodies on the street with something reminiscent of remorse. With a final hiss, she walked away, ducking into a narrow alley between two buildings, leaving them alone again.

"Someone was really angry here," Ron commented as he looked around them. Harry did the same and quickly realized that there were more bodies than he cared to count. Many of them looked to have been dead for some time. Others, like the one the female vampire had been kneeling over, were much more recent.

"Harry," Ginny said weakly, "I recognize this place. I remember that alley."

Suddenly, memories fell into place and he remembered it as it once had been: one of the more picturesque points along the High Street, flanked by tall buildings, one of them a popular and well respected inn. The alley led to one of the better markets in the city. Harry had been there several times. It was a great place to slip away from any pursuers. He had used it for just that purpose on the day when Ginny finally found him. The flickering glow of flame make it obvious just what state it was in now.

"I need to talk to Harry," Ginny announced. Ron and Hermione shared worried glances and remained silent. Without waiting for him to answer, Ginny began walking, making her way through the smoke. He quickly followed her, leaving Ron and Hermione to take up the rear guard. After a minute or so, the smoke thinned and he and Ginny increased the distance between to Ron and Hermione.

"What is it?" he asked.

"They're not attacking us," she whispered.

"I can see that."

"Why not?"

Harry took a moment to think of an answer. "It's as if they are being drawn to us and repelled at the same time. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out what's drawing them. The mystery is what's keeping them away." Ginny's lips tightened and she looked away for a moment.

Keeping her eyes fixed on the path ahead of them, she spoke quietly. "Is it you?"

"What?"

"Are you stopping them?" she said in a forceful but hushed voice. "Are you... making them stay back? Is that what happened back—"

"I— No— I don't even—" stammered Harry. He stopped to think. "No," he finally answered. "No, it's not like the other times. They didn't stop attacking you when I wanted them to. They didn't react to me. They only reacted—"

"—To me?" she said, finishing his thought. "You think that I'm doing it?" Her voice sounded angry, but Harry could hear the fear and confusion in it.

"No, that's not what I meant," he said, trying to calm her. "All of this is tied together. The Veil, Grigore, Mira, Evelyn, the attack at Cornwall, these vampires," he said, waving his hand at another dark shape clinging to a nearby rooftop. "It's all the same. I know that I've got some part to play in all this, but so do you."

"And just what part would that be?"

"I haven't figured that out just yet," he replied. Grigore had, though. From the very first moment he met Grigore, he had insisted that Harry stay away from Ginny. He insisted it would keep her safe. Had it been a lie? How long had he been watching her? In the end, he'd valued her life over his own. What knowledge had he taken with him? What did he know about Ginny? He must have known about whatever dark force was hiding behind the Veil. How much control did he have over his actions? Was he trying to save her from it, or bring her to it?

These thoughts troubled him as they continued past the blasted and charred remains of the small potion shop Harry had told Ginny to go to when Grigore had let Ginny look into the Veil. She'd told him that she'd seen Tom Riddle. He'd never figured out what it meant. Why hadn't she seen what he had? He wanted it to be an illusion, but his heart told him there was more to it.

Memories of the conversation he'd had with the Seer at St. Mungo's filtered through his mind. He said Harry wasn't ready for the answers. Harry disagreed, but he thought he was starting to understand what the man meant. As they walked, he stole glances at Ginny. Every time he looked at her, he could almost feel the answer to his questions, but he could never quite get a grasp of them.

The force that had been stalking them wanted Ginny for some reason. How did it even know about her? Mira had said something about it mistaking Ginny for someone called the Angel. While it could explain some things, it didn't explain why Ginny was so important. Mira looked very much like a younger version of Ginny, but she had been attacked and tortured and killed.

Something about Ginny was special. Somehow, this thing knew her. The Seer said it couldn't be Voldemort. Who else could have such a strong connection to her? There was one other possibility, but Harry refused to let himself even think about it. It's not possible. It was just an illusion, he told himself. It was trying to get me to doubt myself.

"Harry!" Ron called from behind him. "Something's happening up ahead."

Harry woke himself from his thoughts and scanned the last few blackened shops between them and the gates to the Castle. His eyes couldn't find anything out of the ordinary, but his ears could. Off to the right, in one of the stone guardhouses flanking the gate, he heard the sound of breaking wood and some sort of struggle. Harry put his hand on Ginny's shoulder to hold her back as he stepped forward with his wand.

He managed to take only a few steps before the door to the gatehouse exploded, showering the street with splinters of wood. A large shape burst out of the doorway an instant later, tumbling across the street. In the moment that it struggled to get onto its feet, Harry began to wonder just what it was. It wasn't another vampire. It appeared to be a creature of some sort, but it moved more like a man. The remnants of a robe and dark-colored cloak still clung to its shoulders, obscuring its shape. Harry finally got a better look at it when it turned to snarl at him.

It was covered in fur and had a roughly wolf-like face, but it wasn't really a werewolf. It looked more like a man caught halfway in the transformation to wolf, yet there was no sign that it was going to be changing. There was, however, quite a bit of evidence that it didn't suffer from the same reluctance to attack them that the vampires had shown.

Before Harry could even aim his wand, the thing leaped forward. He heard Ginny scream and Ron shout something from behind him. A jet of sparks shot past him, just inches away from his shoulder. It struck the creature, exploding into a burst of smoke and orange sparks. The creature let out a howl of pain and fury, but it didn't have any other effects.

"Stupefy!" Harry shouted with all of his concentration.

With unnatural speed, the wolf-like creature dodged the red beam of light and sprang forward. Harry felt a flash of terror as it closed the distance between them in an instant. He could see the long teeth lining its jaws and its malevolent, yellow eyes. Instinctively, he bent his knees and began twisting away. If he could deflect the first attack and give the others a clear shot, they stood a pretty good chance.

However, as soon as he began dodging the creature, he knew he had made a critical mistake. A long, clawed hand swung around, slamming into his chest, tossing him further in the direction he'd been trying to dodge. For the second time, he felt himself land on the cold ice and snow, but he didn't even feel the pain. He was focused on the creature, its short muzzle opened wide in an enraged howl as it ran forward, completely ignoring Harry.

The world seemed to slow down. Harry's stomach clenched painfully as white hot rage flared inside him. He'd been so stupid. He should have expected it. It had never meant to attack him. It was headed right for Ginny. Apparently still in shock over seeing Harry thrown down, she was still raising her wand.

With a roar, the creature wrapped a furry hand around her arm, bending it toward the darkened sky and making her cry out in pain. Her wand dropped to the street as it twisted her arm further. A pair of shouts rang out, but Harry could barely recognize them. His ears were filled with a great rushing sound as his anger overflowed.

Ginny dropped to the ground in an attempt to wrench her arm free and give Ron and Hermione a chance to help her. The creature's grip held and it dragged her across the street, hurling her against a nearby building. She struck the stone wall and collapsed onto the snowy ground, coughing and gasping for air.

Harry scrambled to his feet as a pair of spells struck the creature. Neither of them seemed to have any affect. It continued on its path toward Ginny, snarling in fury. A large ball of flame struck it next, engulfing one of its arms in flames. It howled in agony, quickly raising the burning arm and swinging it downward to slash at Ginny as she cowered on the ground. Another hex struck it in the back with little effect.

The creature was crouched over Ginny now, clawing and slashing at her. She seemed to be fighting back, but there was little that she could do without a wand. Harry knew what he had to do. All thoughts of hesitation or restraint drained away. He raised his wand and focused on the sound of Ginny's screams. He loved her. He had to save her. He had to stop it.

A crackling bolt of green light shot out of his wand and slammed into the creature's back. It was thrown into the stone wall, causing the masonry to crack and rain down broken chunks of rock and small bits of mortar. The creature fell back to the street, only feet away from Ginny but too stunned and shaken to continue the attack. To Harry's amazement, she began crawling away.

The creature reacted immediately, reaching out toward her foot. Without thinking, Harry's wand slashed through the night air. One of the broken shards of stone shot off the ground and into the creature's arm, pinning it to the wall behind it. It let out a long, mournful cry and collapsed onto the street, pawing at the wound with its other hand.

"What the bloody hell is that thing?" Ron asked as he walked up next to Harry, keeping his wand pointed at the creature's chest.

"It's a werewolf... almost," Hermione said. "Harry, look at its cloak."

Harry had already noticed it. Though it was torn and covered in dark stains he didn't want to identify, it was easy enough to see that it was one of the purple cloaks worn by the city guards. The thing let out a tortured whimper and tugged at its arm in a futile effort to escape.

After managing to put a few more feet between her and the creature, Ginny had stopped and now she stared at it with a look of disgust and pity. "Is that where they went?" she asked. "Is that what happened to the Brotherhood?"

Her voice pulled Harry's thoughts away from the creature. With sudden urgency he ran to Ginny's side. Icy panic flowed through his veins as he quickly inspected her. After quite a bit of looking he sat back, dumbfounded. There wasn't a single scratch on her.

"I— I don't know how," she said, reading the question in Harry's eyes. "It was right on top of me, but... It was almost as if—"

"Harry—" Hermione called out.

"In a second," he snapped. "Are you certain? It didn't bite you? Not even a little?"

She didn't answer. She didn't even seem to have been listening to him. Instead, her eyes were looking over his shoulder and down the street where they had come from. "We need to go, Harry," she whispered.

Harry helped Ginny to her feet. Slowly walking up the street was the blonde vampire they had passed earlier. Though her expression was filled with hatred and fury, her movements were smooth and restrained. Two more vampires were following some distance behind her.

"If we make it to the gate, can we lock it?" Ron asked quietly.

"I think so," said Harry. "Everyone, start walking toward the gate," he commanded.

A high pitched howl cut through the air and Harry turned just in time to see the werewolf pull his arm free with a sickening snap. With superhuman speed, it launched itself toward Ginny. Harry reacted without thinking. He slashed his wand through the air, drawing a wide arc across the shape of the werewolf as it ran. A chorus of sharp cracking sounds echoed off the burnt walls of the buildings flanking the street. The creature let out a horrible tortured howl as it collapsed onto the ground not far from Ginny's feet and lay still.

Harry spun about to face the advancing vampires, but they had already stopped. The woman in the lead tilted her head and hissed at him, but made no move toward him. After a moment, they began retreating without any reason or explanation. Satisfied that any attack they might have been planning had been foiled, he turned back to the werewolf. Both of its legs were bent and twisted in unnatural positions and a number of broken ribs were clearly visible where its robes had been torn away.

Harry stepped closer and aimed his wand at the creature's head, trying to gather the force of will to end its existence. He had been prepared for one final attack, but it never came. It simply lay there on the icy street, its jaws slack and its eyes staring emptily at Harry as it struggled to take in each breath.

Then a glint of light caught Harry's eye. Something on the street near its neck was reflecting the moonlight, giving off a warm glow. Looking closer, Harry saw that it was a talisman made of a simple gold ring passing through three silver spheres. It was confirmation of a fact he'd already guessed. The more troubling part was the rather distinctive pair of golden chains it was hanging from. Harry knew of only one wizard who'd worn such a thing.

"It's... It's Andros," he muttered as he stared down into the creature's eyes. It let out a single mournful wail.

"What are you going to do, Harry?" Hermione asked.

"Nothing. We've got other things to do."

"He was a good wizard. He was your friend," she said sharply. "He risked his life for you. You can't just leave him here."

"He also attacked us. We can't trust him. If he can't follow us, he can't hurt us or himself. That's all I care about at the moment."

Harry turned to walk away, but Hermione drew her wand and strode toward the thing that used to be Andros. Before Harry had a chance to stop her, she was already shouting an incantation.

"Venenus letalis!"

A slow plume of yellowish mist shot out of the end of Hermione's wand and floated down toward the creature's face. Tendrils of the vapor swirled around eventually being inhaled as the creature fought for air.

"What did you do?" Harry shouted, but it was all too clear. The creatures labored breathing became more erratic. Its eyes widened and its breathing became shallower until its jaws were opening and closing helplessly as it choked on the night air. Harry watched in horror as its broken limbs flailed uselessly.

"You poisoned him?"

"Someone had to!" she shouted. Then, as the creature was still gasping in vain, she stepped on the arm closest to her, pinning it to the ground. Quickly, she jabbed her wand into its chest, shouting, "Congelo!"

Almost instantly, it began struggling less. After a few more gasps, it gave one last shudder and then lay completely motionless on the stone street.

Ginny and Ron came running forward. "What did you just do?" Ron asked in shock. "You just... killed it? Just like that? Why didn't you do that earlier?"

"It doesn't work from a distance, Ron," she answered flatly. "I would have ended up poisoning Ginny, too."

"You shouldn't have killed him," Harry said, trying to control his anger.

"No, Harry, I shouldn't have," she replied. "You should have."

"He was no threat to us anymore! He's a werewolf. He can't control himself. Would you have killed Lupin if he attacked us?"

Hermione's face flushed with anger. "Of course not, but that's not a werewolf," she shouted, pointing at the corpse nearby. "Look at the moon, Harry."

He looked up and understood what she meant. The moon was bright, but it was little more than a half moon. The full moon was more than ten days away.

"Now look at him," she continued. "Any third year knows that's not a normal werewolf. He shouldn't even be changing at all without a full moon. That wasn't a temporary state. That was torture. He was a good wizard and I gave him the death that he deserved. He risked his life for you. You owed him that. You know what did this. You knew how his life would end. You owed him a normal, restful death."

Harry's eyes found hers and in them he saw both disapproval and a quiet plea that he would remember this lesson for a future that neither of them wanted to think about.

"He was just like Mira," Ginny commented as she looked at the body. "He knew what was happening, but he couldn't end it himself." She looked up and found Harry. "That's why he attacked me. He knew someone would have to stop him. It was the only way he could make it stop."

Harry began to understand what the Seer had meant when he said that he had hoped that Evelyn would live to find a more wholesome death.

"Hold on," commented Ron. "You all knew this bloke, and he attacked us hoping that we'd kill him?"

"It wasn't really him," Harry replied in an emotionless voice. "It was, but only just enough to be recognizable. Hermione was right to kill him. It was what he wanted. He always had a strong will. He used the last of his strength to show us what had happened here. He wanted to make sure we knew what needed to be done."

"And just what is that?" Ron asked as he waved a hand back toward the direction they'd just walked. "You sort of left that part out. You said we needed to come here. You said that Dragomir needed your help. You've never really said how exactly we're supposed to do that."

"There's no time," replied Harry. "We need to move. It's not safe here." He ushered Ginny away from Andros and up the street toward the large gates at its end. Ron followed close behind with a disgruntled expression.

Harry had hoped to find the Castle gates locked and guarded by whatever was left of the Brotherhood. The eerie silence as they approached told a different story. They passed into the shadows under a tall arch and stopped in front of a pair of heavy doors. Instead of being shut and barred, one of the doors was slightly ajar, leaving just enough room for someone to slip through. Harry had a bad feeling, but he ignored it and cautiously stepped through the gap.

As Ron, Hermione, and Ginny followed, Harry looked around at the small courtyard just inside the gate. It looked just as it had any other night. There were no charred blast marks, no cracked or broken stones, no burnt trees and no bodies. It was simply empty. The sound of slamming gates echoed through the courtyard. He spun around and found Ron pointing his wand at the gates.

"Why are we here, Harry?" Ron asked rather forcefully.

"Because Dragomir needs help —and so does Josef."

"Well, I hate to sound pessimistic, but take a look around," Ron replied. "This place is deserted. That message was sent quite a few days ago. Whoever you were hoping to help either fled or died —or worse. You said Josef was hunting the Brotherhood. It looks like they're gone, so why are we still here? I think it's time you tell us what we're here to do."

"You've seen what's causing this. You've seen what it can do," Harry replied. "Someone has to stop it."

Harry saw the restrained anger in Ron's eyes. "I know that. We knew that after the attack at Cornwall. Evelyn just confirmed it. What are we supposed to do about it? You said it was imprisoned here. You said it couldn't escape. Shouldn't we be looking for Josef?"

"I was wrong. It will escape unless we find some way to stop it. Maybe it already has."

"And how do you know that?" Ron asked suspiciously. "The only message the Brotherhood sent you didn't say anything about that. You couldn't have known all this time. You would have done something. You learned something at St. Mungo's, something you didn't know before."

"It's not—"

"It is important, Harry," said Ron. "Nothing you would have said would have stopped me from coming here. I don't care if we've got to fight a Dark Lord, a dozen of those creatures or a hundred doxies. All I ask is for some honesty and trust."

Harry looked into his eyes and saw that he was telling the truth. Ginny and Hermione had a better idea of what they were facing. Ron had only seen the start of the attack at Cornwall, yet when Harry had said he meant to go to Romania, Ron hadn't hesitated. After surveying the area and finding nothing remotely threatening Harry decided that Ron had a point.

"When I went to visit Evelyn," Harry began, "there was a man in her room. We talked for some time. There are things he... just knows. He knew about the attacks. He knew about the amulet. He showed it to me."

"He had it?" gasped Hermione. "But how—"

"I don't know."

"And how do you know that this wizard wasn't the one behind all the attacks?" asked Ron.

"I don't know how to describe it. I could feel that Evelyn wasn't herself," Harry tried to explain. "He was different. He was kind, humble, almost... sad. He didn't like knowing the things he did."

Ron's eyes narrowed in confusion. "He didn't— What sort of things?"

"He knew what Evelyn was doing. He knew the Brotherhood was being hunted. He knew that we would come here to stop it."

"How could he know that? You hadn't left yet."

Harry frowned. "I think he is a Seer."

"A Seer?" Ron said with obvious skepticism. "Well, did he see how we'd stop this thing?"

"No."

"Typical. So what did he say?"

Harry knew what he should have said, but he couldn't lie to Ron. Before he had a chance to think of anything better, he heard himself say: "It doesn't matter." Ginny and Hermione turned to stare at Harry, while Ron just stared at him as if he were waiting to hear something more.

"It doesn't matter?" Ron repeated when he got nothing more. "You trusted him enough to bring all of us here, but it doesn't matter what else he said about it?"

"I thought you didn't believe in Divination."

"I don't," replied Ron stiffly. "Tell me anyway."

"Ron, we don't have time for this," he said. "He said a lot of things that didn't make sense. I don't think he even understood all of it. There's no point in trying to guess what it would mean."

Ron stared at him sternly. "What did he say, Harry?"

Harry didn't answer. There was nothing he could do. After a moment of silence, he could read the thoughts in his friends' eyes. All of them had come to the same conclusion. He'd expected them to be angry at him for his refusal to tell them, but they just stared at him resignedly. They understood. They knew the news wouldn't be good and it was better to leave it unspoken.

"We need to get moving," Harry announced softly. None of them said anything more. Ron let out a deep sigh and nodded.

"Alright, let's go then."

He began walking across the courtyard to the main door to the Castle. As he reached out to push the door open, he heard the old man's words echoing in his mind:

You will try, and you will fail.

HR

The interior of the Castle had the same feeling as the courtyard. There were no signs of any fighting at all. In fact, most of the doors were left open. At first glance it looked almost as if the place had been evacuated extremely quickly. It took only a little while for Harry to see that it was more than that.

As they followed the open doors they found themselves walking further and deeper into the castle. It wasn't a path that he was familiar with, but there was little doubt where it was headed. Ron, Ginny and Hermione seemed to understand it as well. They followed in grim silence, clutching their wands.

They followed the path that had been laid out for them. Some of the places were more familiar to Harry. They passed the room where he had slept for three months and a deserted hall filled with toppled chairs where he had eaten with the rest of the Brotherhood. After descending a few more flights of stairs, they passed through another wide hall. It had been one of the places he'd met with the other members to teach them things that Grigore hadn't been willing to. He could still see the scratches on the wall where he'd taught Josef Sectumsempra.

They continued to wind their way through the halls and Harry began to wonder if there was some point to all of it. It felt as though he was being led along a path which would force him to remember his time with the Brotherhood. Who had done it? Dragomir or Josef? What could it mean? Was there some clue he wasn't seeing?

They descended another set of stairs and followed a long corridor. At its very end was a junction with two other corridors and yet another flight of stairs. As Harry looked down the stairs, a piercing pain shot through his scar. He let out a sharp gasp.

"I feel it too," Hermione commented quietly.

"Feel what?" Ron asked.

"It's not much farther now."

Harry gritted his teeth and began walking down the stairs. He recognized them quickly. They ended in the large round hall just before the antechamber of the Veil Chamber. It was as far as Evelyn said she'd gotten. Holding his wand out in front of him, he continued down the stairs.

The large hall was empty but lit by a number of torches. At the far end there was a passageway leading down. He knew that they would need to go investigate, but a strong sense of foreboding filled him.

"If any of you start... hearing or feeling anything strange," he whispered, "turn around and run as fast as you can. Don't listen to it."

They slowly crossed the hall and stopped briefly at the top of the passageway. It was completely dark. He lit his wand and tried to shine some light down into the antechamber, but it was impossible to see anything. As if he understood what Harry was going to do, Ron stepped forward and began creeping along one side of the wall. Harry took the other, and they advanced slowly toward the darkness blocking the end of the passage.

The floor leveled out under their feet and though the light from his wand didn't seem to help much, he could feel that they had reached the antechamber.

"Inflamare!" Ron shouted. A pair of torches flared to life.

The light of the torches had a little more luck than Harry's wand, but even they struggled to fill the room with light. It was as if some invisible fume hung in the air, choking and swallowing any light. However, there was one observation which became obvious despite the low light.

"It's not filled in," Ron said as he looked at the lightly engraved doors at the other end of the small hall. "Someone cleared it out."

"No," replied Harry. "It was never filled in at all."

"Very good, Harry," called out another voice. Everyone turned back toward the passage to find a cloaked wizard walking toward them with an oddly disturbing smile visible through the shadows under his hood. "You're getting better. Your timing isn't though," he said bitterly. "I was hoping Dragomir would be here to explain it all to you. He proved to be both weaker and stronger than I expected." The wizard slowly pulled back his hood and stared at them with eyes that glowed and flickered as though they were filled with bright green flames.

"Josef—" Ginny cried as she tried to run forward. Harry quickly caught her and pulled her back.

"It's not Josef," he said. "He's being controlled. That's what it does. It takes control of people and makes them do its bidding."

Josef smiled and let out an eerie laugh. "You have come a long way, Harry, but you still have quite a bit to learn. I wonder how you came upon your newfound knowledge. Was it the Priest? Alekseyev? Or their new apprentice?"

Harry had no idea what Josef was talking about, but he didn't want to admit that. "Does it really matter?" he replied stiffly.

"In the end: No," Josef said with a faint smile. "All roads lead to the same destination. All of the choices have been made, save one. There is no point trying to change it now."

"I don't believe in fate," Harry commented contemptuously.

"Of course you don't," laughed Josef. "Do you believe in history?"

"History has no control over the future."

"A common enough sentiment," Josef replied, "though, in this case, it is completely false. History is the key to understanding your future, Harry. Your inability to grasp that fact is the cause of all of this. Even the other Brotherhood members understood their folly when finally faced with the truth. They committed thousands of crimes in the name of forestalling a fate they knew they couldn't prevent, but when the inevitable end came for them, they opened their eyes and realized the uselessness of their struggle."

"And to prove them right, you murdered all of them."

"The Brotherhood was created to serve one purpose. They are no longer needed. I have not murdered all of them, but they have been disbanded," Josef announced. "I suspect that you met a number of them on your journey here. I can't say I know where the rest are. I know the girl killed quite a number of them. She is quite a spiteful creature. I normally prefer more subtlety in my actions. Her methods were messy and time consuming. I found it much simpler to have them hunt each other."

"And the note?" asked Harry. "Did you send it as well?"

"No, though I knew what Dragomir had planned. I believe he tried several times. His owls kept dying. I think the last one was eaten by Andros," Josef added with a chuckle. "He was very upset, but their friendship wasn't what it used to be. I think he finally managed to send it with a wizard by giving him one of the last brooms in the city. I never did find out for certain. He threw himself from the tower before I was able to... ask him."

"I think you're lying," Harry said. "If you knew we were coming, why the confusion? Why let us get this far? If that was your intention, why were we attacked? Or do you not have as much control over your slaves as you want us to think you do?"

Josef's eyes narrowed angrily. "Your arrival here was expected, I assure you. Any other events are irrelevant. I knew you would come. That was unavoidable. I even knew you would bring them with you, though I cannot see why."

"Him I can understand," he said, pointing at Ron. "A follower with such loyalty is a powerful ally. Pity he is so untrained. However, her presence here is more questionable," he continued, throwing a sharp glance toward Ginny. "You claim you care for her, though your actions suggest something quite different. Have you convinced her you are protecting her? She doesn't even suspect what is really happening, does she? She doesn't realize that the thing you're really protecting is the truth. You're terrified of the day when she might find all the dark secrets you've hidden from her."

"I won't play your game," Harry replied. "We won't listen to your lies."

"Lies? You want to talk about lies?" Josef snarled. "What about the lovely Miss Granger?" he said. A dangerous smile spread across his face as he stared at Harry. "You haven't told them, have you? The two of you kept it a secret. How long did you expect it could last? You must have known it would be impossible to hide."

Harry and Hermione exchanged frightened looks, and Josef began laughing. "I expect it felt easy, didn't it? Miss Granger keeps hundreds of secrets. What is one more? Or two?" He paused to raise and arm to point at Hermione. "Those are fine gloves, Miss Granger, but I assure you the room is quite comfortable. Why don't you take them off?"

Hermione did nothing. She simply stood where she was with a defiant expression on her face. From where Harry was standing, though, he could see the fear building in her eyes.

"Do not be impolite, Miss Granger. I am your host and I asked you to take off your gloves." With a flick of his finger, Hermione's arm was tugged forward. She fought back, but it was useless. With another flick, a long gash was torn in her gloves and sleeve.

"Stop it!" Harry shouted. Ron stepped forward and raised his wand.

"No, Harry!" yelled Josef. "It is time for the truth." His fingers curled into a fist and with a twist, the glove was pulled free. Ginny and Ron let out a gasp as they looked at Hermione's arm. The dark grey patch had spread and the dark streaks had grown all the way to the tips of her fingers. Her fingernails were already a deep, sickly purple.

"Curious," Josef commented with obvious enjoyment. "It seems that you are the one who has been lying, Harry. I wonder what other lies you have been keeping from her. You worked so hard to bring her back to you. I can only imagine what you've told her to cover up thing things you've done."

"I'm not ashamed of what I've done," he replied. "I'm not proud of it, either. At least I did them myself. I didn't force some puppet to do them for me."

Harry needed more time. He had to think of some sort of plan. He hoped that goading Josef into an argument would help with that. Evelyn had been let go when she fell. Perhaps all he needed to do was seriously injure Josef. Whatever force was controlling him would be forced to flee, giving them time to seal the room permanently.

"Whatever you're planning, Harry, it will not work. You have neither the will nor strength to stop me."

"I'm more powerful than you realize," Harry said.

"No, Harry, it is you who do not realize the extent of your power. Even if you did, you would have no hope to master it. It is everything which you are not."

"Perhaps you'd like to see just how much control I have," Harry said. "You will not win. If I must, I will bring the entire castle down on us all."

"Enough of this pointless discussion," Josef sneered. "I have waited long enough. The path is set. There is no more point in chaining myself to this restrained form. It is time to correct an ancient crime. I will take what was promised to me. Stand aside and you will live. Interfere and you will condemn the world to a darkness you cannot imagine." Josef turned and began walking toward the doors to the Veil Chamber. In a clear voice he began chanting.

Across the endless wastes and timeless sands
I seek the primal source and final end

As he spoke, the faint etchings on the door blazed with an unnatural green light. There was no time to think. Harry reached into his pocket, pulled out the wrapped Portkey and handed it to Ginny. It had refused to attack her many times before. She seemed to be the safest choice of any of them.

"Get it ready," he whispered.

Harry lunged forward, stabbing his wand through the air and focusing all his thought on forcing Josef away from the doors. He must have sensed the imminent attack. At the very last moment, he twisted and held out a single hand in an attempt to shield himself. A thunderous clap and a flash of light filled the chamber, leaving Harry's ears ringing and blinding him for a moment. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light again, he found Josef standing just where he had been. Brilliant green light streamed out of his eyes.

"Impudent child!" he hissed in Parseltongue. "You dare wield my own power against me?"

He raised his other arm, jabbing a finger at Harry. A jet of oily, black smoke shot out, crossing the distance to Harry in an instant. It struck him with amazing force, tossing him backward onto the stone floor. Before he could get back to his feet, Josef was at the doors. A faint tremor shook the floor, and a malevolent voice echoed through the room.

In my shadow, all life is without hope
In my light, only darkness will remain

Harry sat up and found Josef slowly opening the doors. His scar throbbed, sending waves of searing pain through his head.

"Harry!" Ginny cried. He looked up and found Ron, Hermione, and Ginny standing close together. Hermione and Ron had their wands out and appeared to be casting Shield Charms. In one hand, Ginny was holding the pocket watch which was acting as their Portkey. Her face was pale and filled with fear. "There's no time, Harry!"

Ignoring the pain in his head, he stood up and stumbled toward his friends. Ron stuffed his wand in his pocket and reached out to help Harry back to his feet. As quickly as he could, he reached out to grab a hold of the watch's chain just under Ron's hand. At the other end of the room, Josef had given the doors a mighty shove. As the swung open, they were swallowed up by a thick darkness inside the Veil Chamber.

Josef turned around, green light still pouring from his eyes. "The time has come."

"Do it now, Ginny!" Ron shouted.

Ginny raised her wand to tap the face of the watch. Even as Harry felt the first tug at his stomach, a wave of thick dark smoke billowed out of the doorway, engulfing Josef and rushing toward them as a wall of boiling vapor.

The tugging became more insistent and the world around them became suddenly dark. For a moment, Harry thought they had failed, but after a few seconds of howling wind and flashes of light, the four of them fell onto the polished wooden floor of the Atrium at the Ministry of Magic. His head still throbbed, but the worst of the pain was disappearing quickly.

He sat up, but kept his eyes on the floor and just focused on breathing. Memories of what had happened filled his mind and flooded him with too many emotions to feel at one time. When he finally looked up, he found Hermione sitting nearby. Ron was crouched down next to her, but they weren't speaking or even looking at each other. Instead, Ron's gaze was locked on the dark streaks running from under her sleeve to the tips of her fingers.

Ginny was on her hands and knees a little farther away. In one hand she still clutched the watch. Tears were running down her cheeks.

"We couldn't have saved him, could we?" she asked shakily.

Harry didn't know what to say. "It's better to think that he was already dead."

"I hope so," she replied. "He deserved better than that."


Author's Notes:

Well, that's the end of 'Amulet of Stone'. Sorry for all of you who love cliffhangers. I wanted to end the story on one, but this was the best I could do. I'll try harder in the sequel: 'The Jewel of Darkness', which, by the way, has its first chapter already uploaded and ready for you to read.

As always, I welcome comments and questions via email, especially if your name is Voakands.

Sorry for the delay, everyone. Ending stories and starting stories takes time, and I was doing both. Combined with the complicated lives of me and my beta, that left everyone waiting a bit. Sorry. Chapters should pick up again in the future.