Disclaimer: Story based on characters and plot owned by J. K. Rowling, Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books, Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. I wrote this for pleasure; no money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Update: This story won Best Overall and Best Drama in the SIYE Deathly Hallows Challenge.

Hallows and Pathos

by Perspicacity

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore dipped his quill into a crystal inkpot and scratched a shaky line onto the parchment before him. He blotted the ink, then blew on it, a habit picked up a century before. Atop his desk were three items next to a carved, wooden box. Next to it was an envelope addressed to his brother, Aberforth, executor of his will.

He glanced at the clock--the conventional one, not the one with twenty-three hands. The time was seven thirty; Harry would be by in half an hour for their session together. He placed the first item, his Deluminator, into the box, then followed with a weathered copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, one which had been gifted to him by Gellert so long ago.

He hesitated for a moment, then removed the book from the box and opened it to The Tale of the Three Brothers. On a nearby perch, Fawkes ruffled his feathers and gave the man a disapproving look.

Dumbledore sighed. "I fear, Fawkes. I fear in my heart for the future and that I've not done enough. They shall require all the assistance I can provide." He removed a slender wand the color of ivory from the breast pocket of his robes.

Fawkes, seeing this, trilled a discordant note.

Dumbledore chuckled sadly. "Dear friend, I share your reticence over compulsion charms and I agree that Miss Granger is a most capable witch, but surely you do not think it indulgent of a dying man to help matters along a bit?"

Fawkes squawked and fidgeted.

"Then I shall add disappointing you to my long list of failures."

He closed his eyes and fought again with the dark desires that had plagued his soul of late. Since donning Cadmus Peverell's Ring, the compulsion to seize the third Hallow from his protegé and unite the Hallows had increased manifold, becoming almost irresistible in these late days. He knew that as his health continued to fade, his resolve would crumble and he would be driven to violence or madness. It was fortunate, "sheer dumb luck" as his Deputy was fond of saying, that the Headmaster had asked the young man to carry his cloak with him at all times, as it removed his temptation to pilfer it from the boy's belongings.

Phoenix song, bright and soothing, dispelled the malice from the wizard's thoughts. A minute later, the Headmaster sighed and nodded his thanks to his familiar.

"I only hope you can forgive me someday, Harry." He incanted a mild compulsion charm, one that would ensure that the tale received the requisite attention from the brightest of the three in the dark days ahead. Motes of white glittered about the book and a faint brace of silver runes faded into being at the bottom of the worn pages.

Unseen in the dim light of the office, the ring upon the man's finger started to pulse with a faint glow and smoky tendrils formed in the air. As the Headmaster's spell ended, they settled upon the page and the third-to-last rune changed in the subtlest of ways.

The world would never be the same.

Hermione retrieved her wand from the receptionist and stood in the queue for the lift as she ran through her mental checklist one last time. She fretted with the edge of her robes and repositioned the battered satchel on her shoulder, wondering again if she should have replaced it for the interview. Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to part with it, her trusted companion since her O.W.L. year at Hogwarts.

She opened the bag and checked its contents, ensuring that everything was within reach: her notebook, a filled application for employment with the Ministry, O.W.L. scores, N.E.W.T. results a month old, Order of Merlin citation, copies of the articles she had written on the nature of magic... her copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard. She reached into the satchel and retrieved the book, thumbing it open automatically to the page she'd committed to memory so long ago.

She'd debated with herself over which branch of the Ministry to join after Hogwarts. Unlike her fiancé, who had joined the Auror Academy at the first opportunity, she had organized her possibilities, listed the pros and cons of each, and, after a careful selection process, had narrowed her choices to two: Researcher within the Department of Mysteries and Member of the Restructuring Commission for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Initially, her heart was set on the latter, with the power to enact reforms of the type she'd dreamed of when she had founded S.P.E.W., but a letter from a researcher with the Department of Mysteries had changed all that.

The bell rang and she stepped onto the lift with several Ministry employees, all of whom were staring at her, yet she paid them no mind. Her eyes fell upon the words of the children's tale and, as had happened so often when she thought of the Hallows, the rest of the world faded into irrelevancy. There was something seductive about the story that she just couldn't let rest.

"Floor nine: Department of Mysteries." Alone on the lift and still reading, she stepped into a large, circular room, all in black. Several identical, handle-less doors lined the walls and blue candle flame flickered in sconces set high between them. A silent Lumos lit the end of her wand. Without looking up, she walked up to the second door to the right of where she had entered and touched her index finger to its smooth surface.

"Shinigami," she whispered, saying the pass-phrase she'd been given, and the door creaked open into a large, dimly lit, rectangular room. Concentric stone tiers led down to the center, where a wide arch stood with a tattered curtain. She sat upon one of the upper tiers and continued to read, knowing that her appointment wasn't for several minutes yet.

An indefinite period of time passed and she heard a rustle of fabric behind her.

A voice broke the silence. "An interesting book, is it not?" She looked up, seeing an ancient man with a wrinkled, colorless face, white hair, and milky eyes. He sat beside her on the stone bench and gently pried the book from her hands. She instinctively gripped tighter for a moment, then released, feeling a little foolish with herself.

He placed square pince-nez upon his nose and read, "The Tale of the Three Brothers." He tilted his head forward and fixed her with a stare over the rims, his eyebrows raised. "Do you know what this is about, child?"

"The Hallows," she said.

"Indeed. So you are Miss Granger." He offered his hand.

Hermione shook the man's hand. "Yes sir. Spellmaster Brocklebury, it is an honor to meet you, sir."

"Call me Davos, and the honor is mine, to meet one of those who succeeded in uniting the Hallows. So I gather you found our offer intriguing?"

"Very much so, sir. Ever since I heard of the Deathly Hallows, I've been very interested in learning more about them."

He patted her on the hand. "You shall make a worthy apprentice, Miss Granger. Together, we shall uncover the greatest mystery of the cosmos, the very nature of Death itself." He handed her back the book and stood up formally. "Come, let me show you your new office and my library, the likes of which you will find nowhere else in the world."

At his mention of the library, whatever reservations she may have had were forgotten.

"I got your owl, Hermione," Harry said, kissing his friend on the cheek. Her skin felt slightly oily on his lips, a sign of her having cleaned too often with charms and not a proper bath. Ron was right—she'd moved from merely working "too hard" to "far more than is healthy." He set mugs of Butterbeer on the table and cast Muffliato and Notice-Me-Not spells about them. Although it was mid-afternoon and the pub was mostly empty, the delicacy of their conversation required it.

Hermione took the mug and sipped sweet froth from the warm drink. "Thanks."

Harry nodded and took a seat across from the witch, his arms folded.

Hermione folded her own arms in reply and stared back at him. "It's about time, you know. I've been trying to contact you for weeks. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were avoiding me."

"I've been busy." He shrugged, then gestured to her wrinkled robes. "It looks like you have too."

"Well of course. I'm on the verge of a major breakthrough, one that will change the way the world looks at magic of the soul..."

He raised his hands to stop her, knowing what would happen if he let her get started. "Spare me. I had enough to do with that soul magic dross after Tom."

She harrumphed. "It's not 'dross'; it's real and it's about healing. If anyone's in need of what this can do, it's you." She reached for his hand. Her skin felt cold and a little clammy. "We've all been affected by Voldemort's horcruxes--me, Ron, Ginny from the diary... You worst of all."

"I get by okay," he said, looking away.

"It's not about 'getting by.' It's about leading a full life. We deserve that much after what we've done."

Harry sipped his Butterbeer in silence, then nodded.

"Ginny says you've been restless and preoccupied. She's worried about you." Harry started to protest, but she interrupted, "...We all are."

He smirked. "Pot, meet kettle."

"Touché. She's just concerned. Anything you want to talk about?"

"I'm fine, really. It'll pass—it's... nothing I haven't dealt with before." He pulled his hand back. "On that subject, Ron says you're working too hard again."

She crossed her arms again. "Well, I have to. This is really important."

Harry steeled himself to raise the point as he'd promised his best mate and partner. "More important than your health? Than your marriage? You know Ron's a forgiving bloke and all..." She snorted. "Well, maybe not. But you can't just neglect him. It's not fair to him... or to you."

She was pensive, her eyes on the table in front of her, and she squeezed the leather-bound book on her lap. When she spoke, it was little more than a whisper. "If what I've discovered is true, it's more important than any of us. I--I think I can heal us. All of us. Your cloak and the other Hallows are the key, I'm sure of it."

Harry stared at her, then placed a small box upon the table. "Against my better judgment, I've brought it." Her eyes had a flicker of hunger and she reached for it a little too quickly, but Harry slid it back from her. "But it's dangerous. I didn't realize before when we were in school, but it is, so you have to agree to some ground rules. Nobody but you can study it and when you're not using it, you need to put it back in this box. And, you can't bring it near any of the other Hallows."

A brief flash of annoyance crossed her face before she schooled her expression into neutrality. "Why not?" she asked. "The interaction among the Hallows could reveal..."

"This is all a mistake. Forget it—I'm taking it back. You shouldn't be near the Hallows; nobody should. You just don't understand their nature or the danger they represent."

"I'd like to think I know better than anyone, Harry. It's my field of research, after all," she huffed. "Besides, have you listened to yourself? You've never healed, Harry, from V-Voldemort or the horcruxes. You need this."

"I'd rather suffer than see you corrupted." He reached for the box.

She slapped her hand on top of the box, stopping him from taking it. "I could still get it, you know. The law is going to pass."

He answered coolly, "I don't care if your ruddy law passes or not. I'll violate it to keep the Hallows to myself if I have to. Swear to my terms or neither you nor anyone else will see the bloody things again, 'soul healing' or not. It'd be for the best, I assure you."

There was an awkward silence and they eventually broke eye contact. Harry looked around, relieved that the charms were effective and that none of the other patrons were staring at them.

Hermione raised her wand. "I, Hermione Granger, swear on my magic that I will not knowingly bring the cloak into contact with the other Hallows created by the brothers Peverell and that I will uphold the other restrictions Harry Potter has placed upon its study." Harry lifted his hand from the box and she took it, holding it close to her chest.

"You can't be so preoccupied with death that you forget to live, Hermione." He tossed a few Sickles onto the table and walked away.

Harry backed away from the headstone, his feet crunching on the gravel before the Headmaster's memorial. Even two years after Tom was killed, he continued to find himself standing before the tomb with a blank spot in his memory on he had arrived. His fists clenched as he fought the urge to exhume the body and recover what was rightfully his. He checked the wards, ones he'd commissioned as much to protect the tomb from himself as from vandals. They were intact, for now anyway.

A familiar wash of darkness passed over him and he felt a chill in his heart. The episodes had started that night, the night he died, and marked a silent, private struggle against the worst aspects of himself. Private except for her. Only his beloved knew of the temptation and the battle he faced to maintain sanity. He knew his soul was tainted with an evil, ancient and pernicious, that dwarfed the influence of Tom's little mark. Had the world realized how near he was to the precipice, they'd curse his name rather than toast it. He considered yet again taking his life and embracing the peace of his passing versus struggle against the mantle of Death begging to be claimed.

An owl ghosted overhead, wings canted to bend its glide into a wide spiral. Harry was reminded of the golden eyes of his lost familiar. The cold ache of loss brought a stinging to his eyes and a faint ticking sound to his head.

He blinked. In the back of his mind, he felt a presence, that of the black, winged being that had haunted his dreams.

The raptor plummeted from the sky, feathers trailing behind in a streamer of grey. It struck the ground and exploded into nothingness. A solitary breast feather floated to Harry and landed upon his shoulder. He blew on it and it suspended for a second into the breeze, then crumbled into dust. He shook his head, dispelling the vision—or at least what he hoped was a vision.

A moment later, or perhaps an eternity, he saw that he was in the Forbidden Forest, feet gliding through the underbrush on their own accord. A breeze rustled through the leaves of a tall willow beside him. As he watched, its limbs dropped drying leaves and the branches dessicated, then bleached to white, as bony fingers grasped for the sky.

He swallowed heavily.

His feet continued, following a narrow path that he knew that he himself had made, then stopped several paces into a clearing. Below was a glint of gold, his hand reaching for it.

"No!" Harry gritted his teeth, arresting his shaking fingers inches from the treasure. A swirl of black threads splayed out from it and struck him in his torso. His throat tightened and pain arced through his heart. A tug on his hand pulled him violently to his knees before the ring. It became his focus, the urge to claim it and its power, the center of his world. He curled his fingers into a fist and wrenched control of his body from the item, stumbling to his feet. He stepped back a pace, then another. Perspiration soaked his shirt as he stepped to the edge of the clearing, his limbs moving slowly, as if through treacle.

From his robes, he withdrew a golden box he had been carrying for this purpose. Setting it before him, he drew his wand. Moments later, he levitated the stone and secured it behind a blood seal.

Ginny stretched the sleeve ends of a loose-fitting jumper over the palms of her hands and lifted a mug of tea to her mouth. She looked out the window at the sapling, now almost four years old, that the family had planted the day Fred had been laid to rest. This day always brought her thoughts to her brother, the one who had convinced her, when she was three, to use Spell-o-Seal to glue her thumb to her navel...

"Ginny dear?" her mother said just as she started to sip, startling her into burning her mouth and spilling onto her lap.

"Mum!" She stood and blotted at her leggings with a tea towel.

"Sorry," the older woman said, turning around and wiping floured hands on her apron. "Can you do me a favor and get a tin of peaches from the cellar? I always make cobbler for Fred on his birthday."

"Um, okay," she said, mostly to herself. Her mother had turned back to the counter where she charmed a pair of knives to peel and slice carrots. She started humming as she kneaded the dough for the tarts.

A minute later, peaches in hand, Ginny passed her father in the hallway outside the kitchen.

"She's not any better?" she whispered. Her words were a statement as much as a question.

"She has her good days and her bad." Arthur ran his fingers through thinning auburn hair. "This is a bad one."

"Any word from St. Mungos?"

He sighed and shook his head. "Her healers still can't identify the curse that struck her that night. They say that at this point, it's not clear how much is the curse anymore and how much is her own compensation... I hope you never have to bury a child. Nothing compares to that."

Ginny hugged her father. "She thinks Fred's coming to dinner."

"I know."

"It's been four years, Dad. George isn't even coming. He can't take another birthday like the last one, when Mum called him Fred all night."

"Oh dear."

She rested a hand beneath her navel, where she had the start of a bulge. "Ron's on duty tonight. Hermione said she'd be here, but I sort of doubt it with how she's been lately." She looked concerned for a moment. "Harry will come, though."

"Really?" her father asked, surprised, then said a little too quickly, "How is he?"

She sighed. "Under a lot of stress and it's getting worse."


"Sort of," she equivocated. "Can you help with Mum when he's here?"

He smiled weakly. "I'll do what I can. I appreciate you're being here, especially today." She looked at her father and saw a tired man, one driven nearly spare with his wife's needs. She hugged him tightly, then went to the kitchen with a fake smile plastered on her face.

Her mother smiled back, eyes twinkling, and she took the peaches and set them on a counter where a magical opener worked at the tin.

"Thank you. You're such a nice girl." She pinched Ginny's cheek and winked. "You'll make a lucky boy a great wife someday."

Ginny swallowed. "Mum? I'm engaged, remember?" She held up the ring Harry had given her and her other hand went to her abdomen. She felt a tickle of life inside her; at four months, she was beginning to show.

"Engaged! When did this happen?"

She spoke very slowly, her heart breaking at the confusion she saw on her mother's face. "Three months ago. You were there, remember?" A stubborn tear fell from her eye.

"Oh... oh!" she said, pretending to remember. "And when were you going to get married to..."


"Harry! Oh, that's wonderful. I'm so happy for you." The elder woman hugged her daughter, then blotted her eyes with the back of her wrist. "When were you and Harry going to be married?"

"June second." She paused for a moment. "We're going to hold the ceremony at Harry's grandfather's cottage. Just like we discussed?" Tears dropped from her eyelashes.

"What? Not here?" Molly asked, her arms akimbo, and Ginny groaned at having to fight this battle again.

Arthur came in and sat on the corner of the table. "It's because it will be a small, private ceremony, only a few of us there. We felt it was best with... how things have been," he said.

"Nonsense. This is our daughter's wedding, Arthur." She flicked her wand and summoned a parchment and quill. "Of course it's going to be beautiful. Now we need to get the flowers and arrange a cake and decorations-- Great Aunt Muriel's tiara will look lovely on you, dear. Who do you want for your bridesmaids?"

"Luna and Mabel."

"Only two? And Mabel Pearlybutton? Not Hermione?" she asked, confused.

"Hermione is married to Ron now," Arthur said, giving his daughter a look.

Molly's mouth gaped open as she processed this, then her face turned red. "That rascal! I should box him about the ears, eloping with such a nice girl! What would her parents say?"

Ginny blurted out, "Mum, you were here, you were at their bloody wedding! How could you not remember--it was outside in the garden..."

Molly blinked, looking outside at the window, her confused eyes falling on Fred's sapling. "It was?" Her husband stood and took her hand. A tear rolled down her cheek. "Why don't I remember any of this, Arthur?"

"Please, dear, why don't we sit down and look at the photographs again. I'm sure they'll help your memory." He tried to lead her into the sitting room, but she resisted. At that moment, the Floo flared and Harry stumbled out of the green flame, his mood dark and preoccupied.

"Harry!" Molly said, rushing forward and hugging him tightly.

He returned the hug, frowning at her tears and those of his fiancée. "Uh, how have you been, Mrs. Weasley."

"Fine, fine." She smiled at him. "So you're going to be marrying Ginny?"

Harry blinked and stepped back, stumbling over the right words to say to the woman of questionable sanity, sometimes asking that he call her "Mum," while at others, forgetting that he and Ginny were even engaged. He caught a meaningful look from his fiancée. "Yeah, it's brilliant. I can't wait to be a Dad, er, Mum."

She beamed at him and pinched his cheek, much to his annoyance. "Who are you planning to have stand with you again?"

"Ron and George," Harry said quickly, before he noticed Arthur shaking his head.

"Not Fred?"

"Um..." A pained look crossed Harry's face and his eyes darkened.

Ginny stepped between him and her mother and said gently, "Mum, Fred died almost four years ago in the Battle of Hogwarts."

Arthur sighed as he watched the life drain from his wife's face.

"My little boy is... dead?" she asked, settling awkwardly into a chair.

Arthur placed his hands on her shoulders. "He died a hero, Molly."

Molly covered her face with her hands and her shoulders shook as she wept. After several minutes, she looked up and gasped, "I remember."

"Subject is highly resistant to four of the five third-rank revealing charms, including variants C and D, which specifically target compositional and thaumaturgic components, however E did reveal something : the handle and shaft are of elder wood; the grain is straight and exceptionally uniform. On opposite sides of the shaft are ligatures of cypher runes set about a staff bindrune. The placement of maòr and lögr within the cypher as well as the Elder Futhark character set date its creation to no later than 800 CE, predating the earliest known stories of the Peverell brothers and matching the inscriptions upon the runic arch currently residing in the Department of Mysteries. A likely explanation is that the Elder Wand was indeed found and not created by Antioch or any of the other brothers, a hypothesis supported by earlier analysis of the Cloak of Ignotus."

A Dict-a-Quill hurriedly scratched the witch's words into a notebook. As each word was written, a second notebook, open on the desk before Hermione, showed a copy of the word. Hermione waited impatiently for the words to finish transcription—she was eager to continue, having finally gotten access to the Headmaster's wand.

The quill stilled. "Page turn." A page in each book turned and she began again. "Magical resonance imaging will be employed to determine the nature of the core."

She placed a ceramic dish of quicksilver before her on the desk and tapped its rim with her wand. A hazy image appeared in its surface, one which sharpened with a second tap to reveal an impression of the wand. She gave her own wand a subtle twist and the image zoomed closer. Canting her wand downward made the image darken into a reverse image resembling a medical x-ray. The edges of the wand showed up as faint lines. Inside was an image of the core, a brilliant shaft of white which over-exposed the image.

She twisted her wand to apply a filter. Even at higher settings, the resonance generated by the powerful core overwhelmed the system and she found her wrist unable to twist beyond a certain point owing to the feedback received from the device.

"Damn," she said, biting her lower lip.

The wand started to hum and tiny ripples formed on the scrying surface. Hermione brought her left hand to the shaft of her wand and wrenched it hard clockwise with both hands, forcing the magical filter to its maximum setting. She caught a glimpse of an image inside the bowl before it exploded in a spray of mercury and shards of ceramic. The force of the small explosion knocked Hermione onto her back and tipped over a shelf and a nearby table.

"Mistress?" A female House Elf popped in.

Hermione sat up and dusted off her robes. "Dipsy, what did I say? Please call me Hermione."

"Whatever you say, Mistress Hermione." She dropped her eyes and stepped back in a curtsey.

"Dipsy, could you please get me a broom so I can clean up this mess?"

"Please Mistress Hermione. Let Dipsy clean. House Elves is good at cleaning." The Elf snapped her fingers and a broom and dustbin appeared. Hermione paced, her mind on what she had seen just before the explosion, her conscience bothered slightly by allowing the Elf to clean for her.

"Aha!" she said, rushing to the wall and pressing a panel that opened to a Pensieve. She wrenched the memory from her mind and slapped it into the basin, then dove in. After four times replays, she spotted it.

A feather--the core was a feather of some kind she didn't recognize.

Leaving the Pensieve, she rushed to her desk and dictated her finding. A minute later, the rush of her discovery waning, she sighed and drummed her fingers on her desk, staring at her foil, the white wand sitting placidly upon a pillow nearby.

"All done, Mistress Hermione. And it's six o'clock. Mistress Hermione asked Dipsy to remind her that she needs to be going." The elf was carrying a piece of shimmering fabric toward the wand.

"Thank you, Dipsy," she said, glancing at her watch. She'd promised Ginny... but she was so close! She noticed what the elf was carrying. "Dipsy, wait!"

"Mistress?" the elf asked, turning and dragging the edge of the robe over the surface of the wand.

Hermione could feel a subtle change, as the air took on a heaviness and coldness that wasn't there before. She whispered a spiritual scrying spell and touched her wand to her left eyelid, covering her right eye. In her enchanted eye, all she saw was dark, save for the timid glow of the Elf and livid red blotches about the Wand and Cloak.

The door to her workshop banged open and a gust started to blow throughout the wide, circular room.

"Mistress?" Dipsy said, shivering, as she dropped the cloak into the wand.

Fascinated, Hermoine twisted her wand, increasing the acuity of the spell, and she saw that surrounding the two Hallows were writhing tendrils of yellow-white, which also forked downward and at a diagonal from the two Hallows. The wind started to pick up and moan softly as it blew across the desks and tables. A couple of smaller parchments were caught up in the breeze and fluttered about the room. Despite the growing chaos, she couldn't help but smirk, knowing well what lay in the direction illuminated: Gringotts.

"Nice try, Harry. No wonder I couldn't locate it around Hogwarts--you had it in your vault."

In her scrying spell, she noticed blackness growing about the Hallows that displaced the gold from before. "Dipsy, move away!"

The Elf took a step, but was stopped as a large, black being with bird-like wings and eyes of solid gold rose before it. It knelt before the Elf and touched a finger to the her forehead; Hermione heard Dipsy's body fall, yet to her left eye, she stayed standing. She uncovered her right eye and saw two images of the Elf—a lifeless body upon the floor and an image of her soul, standing and facing the being before her. The winged creature, invisible in her right eye, stood suddenly and disappeared in a flicker of black flame.

"Azrael," she whispered, then remembered her fallen servant. She rushed to the tiny, glassy-eyed corpse, her eyes rimming with tears, and cradled the body. Her left eye saw Dipsy's soul look at her with sadness, then curtsey and fade from view. She wept, both for the loss of life and the realization that despite the pain, she'd be reviewing this memory in her Pensieve within the hour. This tragedy had given her insight into the nature of the Hallows and a new direction for her research.

A black feather, invisible to her unspelled eye, lay at her feet.

"It's not your fault, Harry," Ginny whispered, giving his hand a squeeze. Molly had shaken off Arthur's comfort and was now preparing their meal with a vacant, haunted expression. The only sounds in the kitchen were the "tick-tick" of the family clock and an occasional clatter of pans.

Harry nodded stoically, then kissed his fiancée on the forehead and left the kitchen to be alone. Hanging haphazardly on the walls of the hallway were several black and white Wizarding photographs showing Weasleys at different stages in their lives—Bill's departure for Hogwarts, an exhausted Molly holding twin baby boys, Ginny as a toddler on a training broom being guided by her father. Molly homeschooling a toddler Fred...

Fred. Another for whom he felt guilty. His thoughts darkened as he cursed again his decision not to seize the Deathstick when he could have. It may cost him his soul, but he would have faced Voldemort holding all the Hallows. Had it come down to the Master of Death versus the Flight of Death, the former would have prevailed, horcruxes or no.

For some reason, the photograph of Ron's and Hermione's wedding drew his eyes, though it didn't warm his heart. He saw himself there as Best Man, scowling and distracted, much like today. Ron and Hermione were beaming, obviously smitten with one another. In the image, Ginny wrapped an arm about him with a mischievous look and he smiled back—or tried to, anyway.

Ginny's Great Aunt Muriel stormed into the photograph and started berating the image of Harry, as she had that day, and cursed him. He could almost hear her words, acerbic and cruel, that he had slain Fabian—meaning Fred—and that he would never truly be a part of their family. How she knew his thoughts was a mystery, but her words echoed the blackness in his heart.

His breath caught as he noticed a vague ticking noise rose in the back of his mind.

No, not now—not here! He shook his head, hoping to dispel the growing dread. Death had claimed Fred. His partner, Danner. Remus. Tonks. Colin. Justin. Mandy. Terrance. Lucinda...

An indefinite period of time passed and Harry opened his eyes again to the image of Aunt Muriel, who was clutching desperately at her throat. Black, tarry froth billowed from the image's mouth, covering shoulders, chest, and arms. The inky substance dripped downward, peeling away flesh and sinew, leaving only bleached bones behind. The supercentenarian's body dropped motionless at the feet of the wedding party, the lower half of her face and torso dissolved. She stared at him blankly, her face a grim, skeletal leer.

Glass shattered as the photograph crashed onto the stained pine floor. Harry's legs buckled and he slid down the wall to its baseboard. Half-crouching, half-sitting, he blanked out for a time.

"Harry!" Ginny exclaimed from the kitchen and she rushed to help him, but he shrugged her off and stood, holding the photograph, now free from its frame, and bleeding from a few shallow cuts on his hands. His world was spinning and darkness swirled in the air about him.

In the kitchen, Arthur's low tones were muffled as he answered the Floo. A moment later, he ended the call and approached the two.

"Aunt Muriel is dead. It was very sudden—they don't know how."

The photograph crumpled in Harry's hands. Before Ginny could stop him, he had Apparated away.

Harry growled the incantation for Fiendfyre and a brilliant cone of white sprayed from his holly and phoenix feather wand. The ray condensed into wriggling, winged sprites of flame that flapped toward his target, an oval-shaped stone before him on the ground. They swirled and danced in a torrent of blistering heat that melted the rocky Scotland shore into green glass and charred the small boulders of basalt. Moments later, the heat lapsed as Harry dropped his spell. The sound of blood pounding in his ears abated, leaving only the murmur of distant waves and the faint sea breeze.

Harry's scream shattered the silence. The thinning smoke revealed that nothing, not even the Killing Curse or Fiendfyre, had worked. The most potent of the Hallows remained intact.

Some time later, he replaced Cadmus's stone in its gold container and closed it with a blood seal, one which only he or one of his bloodline would be able to open.

He was about to Apparate to Gringotts when he spotted a familiar white owl with golden eyes gliding toward him on the salt wind. He blinked, not trusting his heart or sanity at the sight of his familiar alive again. He wondered whether it was a side effect of his proximity to the Resurrection Stone.

"Hedwig," he whispered as she settled on his shoulder. With a shaking hand, he reached for the message fastened about her leg. Magic flared about him in a diffuse haze of blue-grey. The Glamour charm about Hedwig's plumage dulled and she turned into a common brown owl of the nondescript type favored by the Ministry.

"Dammit!" Since Hermione's law had passed, he had avoided contact with any owls, lest he be formally served a summons to produce the third Hallow. As much as he loved his best friend, he knew he couldn't trust her. Not with this.

A disembodied voice intoned, "Harry James Potter, you have been officially served notice to surrender an item of unique historical and/or magical value to the Ancient Magic Retrieval Office of the Ministry of Magic. This request is authorized under the Ancient Artifacts Preservation and Recovery Act, Section seven, paragraph B; said artifact shall be held by the Ministry for study over a period not exceeding one hundred eighty days. Until you have complied with this legal request, any work you may do, salaried or contractual, for the Ministry of Magic shall be suspended. Nor shall you receive services or moneys from same, nor withdraw contents from your Gringotts vault or any other storage facility registered with the Ministry. Should this request go unheeded for a period in excess of ninety days, you shall be placed on fugitive status and your properties subject to confiscation."

A second scream broke the April gloaming.

Harry kicked the ground hard, sending up a spray of sand, his curses as nasty as they were impassioned. "She knows how much Hedwig meant to me!" Harry ground his teeth and stared at the impostor, his eyes darkening to a near-black. He heard a loud ticking sound in the back of his mind, and he turned violently, snatching the gold box from the ground and Apparating away in a loud crack.

Behind him, the owl fell over and dissolved in a small pool of black liquid.

"...Even from those humble beginnings, it was clear that she was destined for great things. It was a privilege to be her Professor, but an even greater one to be named among her friends. Her citation reads, 'For profound contributions to the science of Soul and Spiritual Magic and for the discovery of a new, unified theory of Nigromancy.' Please join me in acknowledging the newest and youngest ever Fellow of the Royal Academy of Magic, Spellmistress Hermione Granger. Spellmistress?"

Polite applause and camera flashes followed the witch to the narrow podium, where she accepted a plaque and a hug from an uncharacteristically emotional Professor McGonagall.

She turned to the audience and applied a silent Sonorous charm to her throat. "Thank you, Professor and Spellmistress McGonagall. Before I begin, I wish to acknowledge my late colleague and dear friend, Spellmaster Davos Brocklebury, who passed away tragically this summer. The work I will present has been a collaborative effort and I would not be speaking with you today I have had it not been for his mentorship. Moreover, the Ancient Artifacts Preservation and Recovery Act, which has been invaluable to my study by ensuring timely access to magical artifacts, was his brainchild.

"At the risk of sounding provincial, let me begin by saying that Soul Magic is among the most beautiful and complex disciplines of magical theory, with surprisingly deep ties to both arithmancy and the muggle mathematical subdiscipline, differential geometry..."

She continued with the speech she had memorized and rehearsed several times over, her eyes drifting to her husband, his pride apparent from his wide grin. The years since Hogwarts had been kind to him, as he'd matured, learning to acknowledge and accept her ability without jealousy. She'd regretted neglecting him these past months, and she vowed to change that in the time ahead.

"With respect to Professor Snape's memory, while Soul Magic cannot brew glory or stopper fame, one can divine and even repair the existential connections among all ensouled beings, magical and mundane..."

Beside, her sister-in-law sat, wearing maternity robes and looking much bigger than the last time Hermione had seen her. Harry's seat beside her was empty. Hermione sighed on the inside--Harry had avoided her since the episode three months before. He was a fugitive now, unable to attend her Fellowship ceremony, lest he risk arrest. Despite their differences, she missed her friend and had hoped he would be there.

"This is its promise. Fractured souls can find solidity; the troubled can find peace. In these times of rebuilding and rebirth, such a discovery is especially p-poignant... "

She stumbled over the word as her eyes landed on a black figure in the back of the auditorium. Taking a deep breath, she nodded to an undercover Auror in the back row, who turned toward where she had indicated, but didn't seem to see Harry, staring over his head instead.

Her eyes met Harry's. Set in dark sockets, green, almost black eyes pierced her and she shivered at the feeling that her secrets, including the very big one she carried, were being laid bare. She paused to sip some water and reinforce her Occlumency. She couldn't detect him reading her thoughts, yet somehow she knew that he knew them.

She returned to the podium and continued her speech, but with a quaver in her voice. When she recovered the courage to look at him again, she caught only a glimpse of black robes disappearing in the doorway at the rear of the auditorium.

The part of her that still loved her friend was deeply touched that he had found a way to be there for her. The other part of her, the one that wanted—no, needed—the last Hallow, cursed his audacity.

Ron pushed through the swinging door into the main room of the Three Broomsticks, a pub he'd not visited since his sixth and final year at Hogwarts. His eyes scanned the tables and he saw several people he knew, but not his friend. Then again, he'd have been surprised if he had seen him.

Casting a quick charm to determine where the most north-northwesterly table was, he walked to a blank, nondescript spot in the room, ignoring Hagrid's calls to join him over a tankard of ale. After a moment, he felt confused, unable to recall why he was there. He continued to walk into oblivion, knowing that the person he sought was almost certainly not there, that he was wasting his time and he'd be much better off going somewhere else. He really should go home—there was something there that he should be doing that was terribly important. His skin started to crawl at a growing feeling of anticipation and dread. Being there was wrong, terribly wrong and he feared for his life—for his very soul. He was risking his immortal soul by just being there...

Then, a table appeared before him and the feelings quelled, except for a faint echo of the last. Harry was seated and nursing a butterbeer, his fingers tented in front of him.

"Blimey, mate. That's a wicked repelling charm."

His best mate shrugged at him and Ron noticed several new creases on his face and that his temples had picked up a light dusting of grey. "Maybe you're just getting soft?" he joked. "Does Hermione like the new, pudgier you?"

Ron made a rude gesture and sat down. "Ginny's going spare, you know. You might want to stop by her flat before she pulls out her amateur Voodoo kit. Tomorrow would be good--our crew's on 'Harry Watch' all day." Both knew that he meant Aurors still loyal to Harry and who wouldn't prosecute the Ministry's demands for his arrest.

"Yeah. I'll do that." His smirk had a hint of lasciviousness, the kind which might have gotten a rise out of Ron before. Now, all it earned was a raised eyebrow.

"You'd better. Pregnancy's hard enough, mate, but remember, she's a Weasley too, so she's got a temper on top of the wicked hormones. She'll likely hex your bits off, then jump them. Or maybe the other way around..." He was gratified to see his best mate blush.

There was a quiet pause as the conversation had turned awkward. Ron broke it. "Anyway, I've got it."

Harry's eyebrows shot up. "How?"

Ron tossed a bone-white wand onto the table before Harry, where it clattered, then rolled onto his lap. "Staged a break-in into the flat. Hermione had it on her, so I just stunned her from behind and took it off her."

Harry nodded, then closed his eyes, holding the wand to his chest. Before Ron's eyes, it seemed his friend grew both more content and more deadly than before.

After a long time, he spoke. "You know, she'll kill you if she ever finds out."

Ron shrugged. "Then she'd have to actually spend time with me. Anyway, it was dark and she didn't see her 'attacker.'" He had a playful grin. "Hey, does that make me its master now? 'Ron Weasley, Master of the Elder Wand.' I like the sound of that..."

"Be careful what you wish for, mate. No, I'm still it—I can feel it. She never actually won it off me, just nicked it from Dumbledore's grave."

"Grindelwald stole it too, though, didn't he?"

Harry shrugged, tucking the wand into the pocket of his robes and sipped his Butterbeer. "Who knows how these things work. Anyway, I'm still its master. She still obsessed as ever?"

"Worse, especially after being named to the Mucky-Muck Society of Magical Somesuch. It's like she's got this burning need to solve problems that don't need fixing."

Harry nodded grimly, not meeting his eyes. Again, Ron felt as if his best mate were keeping something from him.

Ron spoke, studying the reaction shown by his brother-in-law-to-be. "She thinks the horcruxes did something to us out there. I mean, I'll be the first to admit that wearing the locket wasn't a holiday, and yeah, I did step out for a bit, but it didn't affect us that bad, did it?" He saw Harry flinch slightly.

Harry paused, choosing his words. "No. I doubt Tom's soul is the problem. It was dark magic, but no worse than half of what we found when your Mum had us clean out Number Twelve."

Something clicked in Ron's head. "The bloody Hallows. That's what this is about. That's why you wanted the Wand and Cloak back so badly."

Harry nodded. "They're more than they seem. Far more..."

"Have you tried destroying them?"

"Won't work. Confundus, Reducto, Confringo, Fiendfyre, Killing Curse... Hell, I even tried the Imperius on the Stone, hoping I could gain control over it. Nothing."

"Figures. You know, the friend in me wishes you'd keep 'em as far away from her as you can, but the husband in me wants you to give her the bloody thing and be done with it. I want my wife back, not this... whatever she is now."

"I can't," Harry sighed. His eyes darkened and when he looked up, his stare sent a chill into the Auror. A moment later, Harry closed his eyes tightly and shook his head. "Bloody things. I'll do whatever I have to to keep them out of her hands. She still thinks that she can do some great good with them, but it's not in their nature."

"You don't need to convince me. Bloody annoying things, they are."

"They're worse than that. The role of the Master of Death is to create death, something I've had enough of."

Ron nodded, not quite understanding the point his friend was making. "We all have, mate, and thanks--if getting ahold of two Hallows could do this to her, three would drive her spare."

"They'd drive anyone spare. Though I was their master, I only ever had two Hallows together at once. I threw away the Stone before I got the Wand. All three together..." He shivered. "I don't think I could avoid becoming what they want me to become."

"Keep the wand on you, mate. There's no telling when she'll figure out what happened and come after it."

"I will. And thanks," Harry said.

"Any time. Let's get this behind us and move on with our lives. You've got my little sister to spoil." Ron soft-punched his friend's shoulder as he stood up.

"Yeah." Harry affected a thin smile. Ron couldn't help but notice that it didn't quite meet his eyes.

Two figures in black hooded robes stepped off the main thoroughfare in Diagon Alley into a side alley, seeking a nondescript way to get to Gringotts. The taller of the two held the arm of the shorter and they moved slower than they would have liked, the shorter having a very severe bulge about her middle that marked a third trimester of pregnancy.

Ahead, three men stepped from the shadows into the alley, blocking their path. Another two entered the alley from behind, blocking any escape. Each had a wand out.

"Potter," one of the three said, stepping forward. He was a man in his mid-thirties, with brown hair and a dark complexion. Harry vaguely recognized him from his days in the Ministry as an operative for the Unspeakables.

"So sorry, I don't remember your name." He said through clenched teeth, backing slowly to the side of the alley, where he pulled Ginny between him and the wall to protect her. A faint aura of black, almost imperceptible in the dim light, started to swirl around Harry.

"My name isn't important," the man said, settling into a dueling stance.

"Harry!" Ginny whispered loudly. "Let's get out of here."

Harry grasped her hand and reached into the pocket of his robes with the other hand, finding the brass owl figurine. "Woolen stockings," he said, whispering the pass phrase for the portkey. Nothing happened, aside from a brief flash of blue above—an anti-Portkey ward—and amusement among their assailants. Ginny cursed under her breath, then stopped as she saw a faint pair of black wings rise from her fiancé's back.

"What do you want?" Harry asked the man, who was now only a dozen paces away. He heard a faint ticking noise in the back of his head.

"A duel. And, when we defeat you, the Elder Wand."

"I don't have it," Harry said quickly.

The man smirked at him. "Do you take me for a fool?"

"Fine. You can have your duel, just let her go first."

"I am not leaving, Harry!" Ginny said.

"Sorry, love, but you're in no condition to fight and I don't want our daughter hurt." He glared at the men and the ticking sound in his mind became louder, almost to the point of distraction. The air in the alleyway chilled and darkened and took on a palpable feeling of menace.

"I don't think so," the man said. "Draw your wand and let's settle this."

Harry's eyes narrowed as he reached into his robes for his wand.

The black aura about Harry increased in intensity. Time seemed to slow as the first curses flew from from the wands of his attackers. In response, his own wand flashed a trio of bright green bludgeoners in rapid succession. Then time stopped and something shattered in his mind.

Five thick fibrils of black snaked from Harry's wand, absorbing the stationary curses of his enemies and whipping about each of his attackers' torsos. A sixth arced forward, then bent back toward his fiancée. Wide-eyed, Harry threw all of his force of will into deflecting its course. It obeyed in the last moment, scoring the wall inches from her head instead.

Time sped up again. The five fell to their knees and pawed at their throats as they spat black froth from their mouths. Bludgeoner spells connected with three of the bodies, shattering them into a spray of bone fragments and blood. The other two fell to the ground, devoid of life.

Harry shouted at his fiancée, dragging her past the dying men as fast as he dared.

"Merlin," she gasped as the carnage registered.

As they neared the end of the alley, she stopped and bent over, emptying the contents of her stomach onto the ground. A moment later, she looked up and Harry felt a lump in his throat at what he saw in her eyes.

Ginny, his beloved, was terrified of him.