Author's Note: This story begins on August 2, 1995, at the start of events occurring in Order of the Phoenix. Harry helps someone who seems in need, and discovers that being a Good Samaritan can have interesting — and unexpected — consequences. If you've ever read any Star Brand comics, either from the 1980's or the later versions, you'll probably recognize one of the characters you meet in the first chapter.
The Potter Brand
"A Stranger Appears"
Harry Potter walked aimlessly along Magnolia Road with almost no conscious thought of where he was going. Like the temperature this early August evening, his temper was hot — he'd run from his aunt and uncle's house on Privet Drive minutes earlier, after they'd berated him for secretly listening to the news from under their open living room window. According to them, Harry thought scathingly, he should be more like their son, Dudley, who didn't give a fig about the news. Imagine, a teenaged boy wanting to watch the news, instead of staying up in his room, hidden away from the rest of the world! But then, according to Vernon and Petunia Dursley, the less seen of Harry, the better. They only knew that if Harry wanted to know something, they wanted him kept away from knowing it.
What Vernon and Petunia Dursley didn't know, didn't want to know, was that Harry was as desperate to know what was going on in the Muggle world, if not more so, than they were. He had been feverishly trying to find out whether anything unusual or strange that might be happening around Britain because of what had happened, just over a month ago.
Lord Voldemort had returned.
Not that anyone in the Wizarding world seemed to be paying attention, however. Harry had been reading the Daily Prophet headlines for the past month, waiting for news of Voldemort's return to appear, but amazingly, infuriatingly, there'd been no mention of it. Just as infuriating, his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger were both "busy somewhere," and couldn't spare a moment to write and tell him what they'd been up to since they'd returned from Hogwarts. He'd received vague, pointless letters from them, and equally useless notes from his godfather, Sirius Black, about their activities since returning home, all of them promising to see him "any day now." Ironically, his devil-may-care, risk-taking godfather had advised him to "be careful, and don't do anything rash…"
The only rash Harry had was the one on his legs from lying on the ground beneath his aunt and uncle's living room window night after night, trying to hear to the news. Tonight, finally, something had happened, but not on the news — there'd been a weird cracking noise as he'd tried to crawl away after the news, and he'd jumped up, believing someone was trying to Apparate into the house. He'd hit his head on the window sill and his uncle had caught him and yelled at him for not being a normal teenager, wanting to listen to news rather than running all over the neighborhood, like his cousin, Dudley, vandalizing stuff — not that his parents would believe a word of anything like that — they believed ickle Diddy was a perfect angel. Harry had left before he began shouting and got himself into more trouble than he already was.
Walking up Magnolia Road, Harry found himself by the play park that was about a quarter-mile north of Magnolia Crescent. The gate was locked, but Harry vaulted it easily and walked across the parched grass to the swings, one of which Dudley and his gang hadn't yet managed to break. He sat there in the gathering gloom, frustrated and angry by the injustice of his situation. Ron and Hermione were off somewhere, doing who-knew-what, probably with Ron's parents or even Dumbledore himself, all the while advising him to sit tight, keep his head, down, and above all, be careful.
Would they have advised him to "be careful" when he fought Tom Riddle in the very shadow of his father's grave? Would they have told him to keep his head down when he recovered Cedric Diggory's body, to return it to his parents when his ghost (or memory, or whatever it had been) had materialized for a short time, from Voldemort's wand, as they fought? If Harry had not taken these risks and escaped from Voldemort, they would not even know that he was alive again!
Looking up into the clear night sky, Harry wondered when somebody — anybody — was going to come collect him from Little Whinging so they could start doing something about the Dark Lord. Surely at least Dumbledore, who had been utterly convinced by Harry's description of what had occurred in the graveyard in Little Hangleton, was planning something. Why wasn't he including Harry?
Suddenly, Harry realized that something strange was happening above him. A point of light high in the sky was growing steadily brighter, though there were no stars or planets that should be as visible as this one now was. As he watched, the light became even brighter, then dazzling — Harry shielded his eyes, yet all he could see was a brilliant flash, and felt a shudder run through the ground below him. Had a meteor struck the earth directly in front of him? There had been no explosion — only the flash of light and a shaking sensation.
Then Harry's eyes adjusted to the darkness once again, and what he saw made him gasp. A human figure knelt on the ground a dozen yards away — a being who seemed to shine by its own light, it was so pale — just as Voldemort had been, when Harry had first seen him revived in the Little Hangleton graveyard!
Harry's wand was out in a moment and pointing towards the figure. He approached slowly, his hands trembling. The being was unclothed — it seemed naked and defenseless — but looks could be deceiving, especially if this was Voldemort. It did not move at his approach, but remained on one knee, its arms at its sides, its head bowed.
Now, only a few feet away, Harry could see that the grass surrounding the figure had been scorched black; it was darker even than the parched brown grass of the play park, which had not been watered for many days now. It was a man, Harry could see, and he was as white as Voldemort had been when he'd returned completely to life. But it wasn't Voldemort, Harry saw at last.
"Who — who are you?" he asked. The man did not move. "Are you okay?" Harry asked. The man raised his head slowly. His head and face, like the rest of his body, were completely hairless — not even an eyelash or eyebrow was visible. Looking into his eyes, Harry somehow felt a sensed of weariness there, an emotion he shared in not knowing what was happening in the world outside Little Whinging. "Can — can I help you?" Harry asked him.
The man nodded slowly, then crossed his hands over his chest. A black material seemed to spread out from under them, covering and clothing him in some kind of jumpsuit. Could this man be a wizard, Harry wondered. He had wandlessly conjured the clothing he was now wearing, though it was like no wizard's robes he'd ever seen.
"Is this Earth?" the man asked, his voice barely a whisper.
Harry thought he'd heard incorrectly. "Pardon?"
"Am I on Earth?" the man said, more clearly. Harry nodded.
The man sighed, visibly relieved. "I thought I might have missed it," he explained, getting slowly to his feet. Standing, he was impressively tall —well over six feet in height, and smoothly muscled. He stared slowly around him. "Where on Earth am I?"
"This is Little Whinging, in Surrey," Harry told him, as the man began to look around more alertly. "It's southwest of London."
"What year is it?" the man asked, staring off into the distance.
"Uhhh…" That was an odd question for a wizard to ask, Harry thought. "It's 1995. August 2nd, 1995. How can you not know the year?" he asked. "Aren't — aren't you from Earth?"
The man looked down at him. In spite of the strangeness of his appearance, his expression was calm and there was a small smile on his lips. "Are you afraid of me?" he asked Harry, placing a white hand gently on his shoulder.
"No," Harry said automatically, but he'd flinched as the man touched him. Then, "Well, yes. A bit. I don't understand how you got here." Harry pointed upward. "There was a star up there, a white light getting brighter and brighter."
"There was?" the man said, looking upward. "Really?"
Harry looked up as well. He searched the sky for a several seconds. "It's gone now. And here you are. I thought at first you were hurt…"
"I was nearly drained," the man admitted, looking back toward Harry. "I used a significant amount of energy decelerating when I landed. To answer your earlier question, Harry Potter, yes, I am from Earth. But I have been away for some time."
"How — how do you know my name?" Harry asked, with a combination of curiosity and apprehension. Had the man recognized his lightning scar?
"I read your thoughts just now, when I touched you," the man said, letting go of Harry's shoulder. "I apologize for the intrusion, but it seemed simpler than spending time asking questions — time is a luxury we don't have much of, at the moment."
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, confused. "Why don't we —"
"Oi! Potter!" The shout came from across the play park, where a group of boys on the other side of the gate were staring at them. It was Dudley and his gang, Harry realized, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Piers Polkiss, one of Dudley's cronies, had called out his name. "What're you doing?" Polkiss continued. "Having a date with your boyfriend?" The others laughed uproariously at this, and the group jumped over the gate in ones and twos and began walking toward them, laughing and joking crudely about Harry with one another.
This was not good, Harry thought, becoming even more upset. When he'd been alone, he was angry and frustrated enough to welcome a fight with Dudley's gang, especially with Dudley at the head of it. Dudley would have to act the big man in front of his friends, but Harry knew his cousin was terrified of him and his "thing," his wand, even if Harry wasn't supposed to use it outside of school. He moved his wand so it was behind him, out of view of Dudley's gang, as they walked toward them.
Now he could see the nervousness on Dudley's face as the group approached. Dudley wasn't happy to find Harry here in the play park; his gang had just assumed he would want to bully Harry, even if he wasn't alone. Harry also believed the stranger was a wizard of some kind, but possibly confused about who or where he was. Perhaps he had escaped from St. Mungo's, the wizard hospital, though that didn't easily explain why he was in Little Whinging. In any event, Harry couldn't let Dudley's gang harm the man, even if he had to use magic to protect him. Surely the underage restrictions would allow at least that much latitude in the use of magic in front of Muggles!
The group of boys came to a halt a few yards from them. Piers was smirking at both of them. "What do you reckon they were doing, Big D?" he drawled, looking at Dudley, who was trying to appear cocky and in charge but was failing on both counts. "Out here in the play park, alone, this late at night?"
"I wouldn't want to guess," Dudley said, covering his apprehension with a sneer. "Potter," he said, trying to change the subject. "Did you see a flash of light around here a few minutes ago? It looked like something fell out of the sky."
"Nothing fell around here, Dudley," Harry said, shaking his head.
"Who's your friend, then?" Dudley wanted to know. "I thought maybe you finally wised up and got yourself a bodyguard. Or something," he added with a nasty grin.
"No," Harry shook his head. "He's just someone who was in the park when I got here. He's like me," he added, hoping that suggestion would discourage Dudley from tormenting them. If not, he would probably have to use his wand, whatever the consequences.
"Like you?" Piers sniggered. "You mean he's a foul little weasel, like you, Potter? Well, I guess he can't be little like you, can he?" Even though Piers was thin and weedy, and the stranger taller and more solidly built than him, the evening darkness and having four large boys behind him had made Piers bold. The stranger had said nothing so far, and Piers, emboldened by this silence, swaggered up to him. Harry tensed, ready to use his wand if Piers or any of the other boys did anything violent.
"So what're you supposed to be, some kind of albino ninja or something?" Piers sneered, tugging at the black material covering the stranger's chest. "You got any chop-sockey moves to use on me, eh?" When the stranger didn't reply, Piers put his hand on the man's chest and pushed. The man didn't move.
"Aaah," Piers snorted. "You're not even worth knocking down. Right, big D?" he said over his shoulder, to Dudley.
"Right," Dudley said, a sneer in his voice, although Harry knew he was relieved Piers hadn't pressed for a fight. "Come on," Dudley said. "I'm getting bored with this. Let's go." The gang walked away, looking back at Harry and the stranger and laughing, then vaulted the gate and continued down Magnolia Road.
Harry relaxed when they were finally out of view. "That was lucky," he said to the stranger.
"It was not luck," the stranger told him, surprisingly. "I wanted them to talk to us; I wanted to see how other people here acted in your presence. You did very well, Harry Potter, anticipating that they might attack and yet, trying to deflect any such attack by avoiding aggressive behavior.
"My name," the man continued, "is Kenneth Connell. I was born on Earth, in Oklahoma, on July 31, 1980."
"Really?" Harry said, with a small smile. "I was born on that day, too."
"I know," Connell said. "I learned that when I read your mind, earlier. I also learned that you are a wizard, a human capable of using magic."
"Yes," Harry agreed, holding up his wand. "I thought you must be a wizard as well, to do the things I've seen you do. But you don't have a wand with you, do you?"
"I don't have a wand, it's true," Connell said, "I do have something much, much more useful, however.
"Where I came from, originally, there was no magic such as you are able to use, which means that my journey home is not yet complete. Yet, I sense that you and I are kindred spirits, Harry. Like you, I once saw a bright light in the sky, which brought me something I could not have imagined before I saw it. Having read your thoughts, I know your need is great, and your situation here is grim, with the return of the being you call Lord Voldemort." Harry nodded, surprised at how much the man had learned from him with a simple touch.
"Now, give me your right hand," Connell told him, extending his own. Harry stuck his wand in his back pocket and clasped hands with the stranger, wondering what to expect. "You need not be afraid, Harry. This will not hurt."
"I'm not afraid of that," Harry said. "I —" But before he could finish his statement, there was a bright flash between their hands, and Harry felt everything beginning to go gray, then black…
When Harry awoke, he was lying on his back, still in the play park. It was still dark; there was no way to tell how much time had passed. A blur on his left came into view, then resolved itself into the man who'd called himself Kenneth Connell. He reached down, helping Harry sit up.
"How do you feel, Harry?"
"Fine, I guess," Harry said, still a bit disoriented. "What happened? What — did you do?"
"The Brand normally causes unconsciousness when you first receive it, so I've been told," Connell replied. "But I was already unconscious when that happened to me, so I hadn't had any firsthand experience. Until now."
"The 'Brand'?" Harry repeated, uncomprehending. He looked down at himself. Had Connell branded him somehow, magically? He didn't feel like he'd been burned anywhere — though there was a peculiar, buoyant feeling running through him, like he'd eaten a particularly good bar of chocolate and was getting a good sugar rush. "What do you mean?"
"Look at your hand," Connell said. Harry looked, then stared, at the image he now saw in his hand. Eight black lines radiated outward from the center of his palm, each one tapering to a point. The lines running from his wrist to his fingers, and across his hand, were the longest; the other four lines, running diagonally, were a bit shorter. Joining seven of these lines was a crescent shape, its open end pointing left, about the same width as the lines. Harry touched it with his other hand — it felt warm to the touch, warmer than his flesh, but it was not scribed in ink or paint or anything he could discern. It seemed to be part of him, now.
"That is what I've learned is called the 'Star Brand,'" Connell told Harry, as he studied the symbol in his hand. "I first received it on March 1, 2006" — Harry looked up as Connell mentioned the date — "when a friend and I were out talking one night, on a hill outside Optima Springs, Oklahoma. We fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, that mark —" he pointed to the symbol in Harry's palm "— was branded on my forehead. And, an image of that symbol had been scorched into the grass around me."
"There was no sign of my friend," Connell went on, his voice becoming subdued. "The only thing I found of hers was the pair of shoes she'd been wearing the night before. I still don't know if she's alive or dead."
"I'm — I'm sorry," Harry said. He knew full well how much thing that affected him could affect others around him as well. The return of Voldemort had been ample testament to that. "What did you do? And why give this to me? What does it do?"
"A lot of questions," Connell smiled. "I had a lot of questions myself, when I first got the Brand, but there was no one around to answer them for me. So, I won't leave you in the same lurch I found myself in.
"For your first question — well, I've been doing a lot since that day. You probably noticed the date I mentioned this happened — it's nine years in the future from the date you mentioned earlier. We don't have much time so I'll be brief here — I eventually ended up in a galaxy several million light-years from here, and I've had to make my way home. It's taken me several thousand years to return."
"Galaxy? Millions of light-years?" Harry was flabberghasted. "We've studied such things in Astronomy class, but I never really thought about the size of such things. And how can you have lived so long a time?"
"I won't go into that now," Connell said. "As I've said, time is short. To your second question: I've given you the Star Brand, Harry, because I see a need here, on this Earth, for a person with the qualities you have to possess a tool like this. You look surprised by that, but don't be. Just as your wand is a tool to help you focus your magical abilities, the Star Brand will help you focus the almost limitless power at its disposal."
"But what does it do?" Harry asked again, looking at the symbol in his hand.
"Ah, the final question." Connell seemed to stare into the distance for a moment, then looked back at Harry. "I must be brief. Basically, the Star Brand can do anything you can imagine."
"Anything?" Harry repeated. "I'm not sure I understand."
Connell gave him a wry look, a strange expression on a man with no facial hair. "I think 'anything' is a pretty inclusive term, Harry. If you can will a thing be done, it shall be done. For example: Hold up your left arm, and put your right palm on your forearm." Harry did so, then: "Now, will the Brand to move to your forearm." Harry concentrated for a second, and there was a glow of light under his palm. When he took his hand away, the Brand was now on his arm. The hair where the mark now showed had been burned away, though there had been no pain. "Now, reverse the process," Connell said, and a few seconds later the Brand was back in Harry's palm. There was a Brand-shaped patch of bare skin on his forearm.
There is only one thing you cannot do with the Star Brand, Harry," Connell cautioned him. "You cannot transfer it to an inanimate object. It must be bound to an intelligent being. To do otherwise would be disastrous. Do you understand?"
"Y-yes," Harry nodded. "But I still don't understand what this is —"
"For now," Connell said, cutting him off, "just think of it as a potential solution to your problems. I'm going to leave you, Harry Potter, but I will return, to determine whether you are worthy of keeping the Brand, or whether someone else should wield it. Also, you should find your cousin Dudley — he is about to be in some danger at the moment. Farewell." Then, to Harry's astonishment, Connell turned and leapt into the sky, soaring away from him. Within seconds, he was out of sight.
Harry stood stock-still for several moments, trying to assimilate everything Connell had told him. This was all too fantastic, even more unbelievable than it had felt five years ago, when Hagrid had told him he was a wizard. Harry was quite willing to believe this was all a dream.
But, on the off-chance it wasn't, he should go find Dudley, and quickly, to see what kind of danger he was in, if any. Harry could hardly imagine anything more dangerous in Little Whinging than Dudley himself, and his gang. Still… he jogged across the park to the gates, vaulting them easily, then ran down Magnolia Road to Magnolia Crescent. He saw Dudley ahead, walking slowly; he was near the entrance to the alleyway between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk, where he'd first seen Sirius. He turned, running toward his cousin. Normally he'd start to be winded by now — in the past, he had run from Dudley, not toward him, but he hardly felt winded at all. "Hey, Big D!" Harry shouted, just as Dudley turned into the alleyway.
Dudley stopped, looking back to see who was coming, then grunted when he saw it was Harry. "Oh, it's you," he said, dully. "What happened to your boyfriend?"
"He was just some guy I thought needed some help," Harry said, getting annoyed. "Turns out he didn't need any."
"Right," Dudley snickered. "Didn't want any, more likely."
"So how was tea with your mates tonight, Big D?" Harry asked, irritated. Both of them knew perfectly well that the "teas" he told his parents he was going to were lies — Dudley and his gang were out vandalizing the play park or terrorizing younger kids.
"Shut it," Dudley said, and turned away.
"So who'd you beat up tonight?" Harry went on, enjoying Dudley's discomfort. "Another ten-year old? I heard you did Mark Evans two nights ago —"
Dudley looked back at him, scowling. "He asked for it — he cheeked me. Just like you're cheeking me now."
"But you're not going to try and beat me up, are you?" Harry taunted him. "No matter how much you want to, eh?"
"Don't tempt me."
"What's to stop you? Here I am, what's stopping you?" In his irritation, Harry had forgotten that his cousin was supposed to be in danger. Well, maybe he was, if he planned on hitting Harry. Yeah, Harry would like to see him try it!
Dudley's ham-like hands were clenched into fists. It looked like it was taking all his self-control to keep from hitting Harry. "You think you're a big man, do you, carrying that…thing?" Dudley snarled, after a few seconds.
"You know — that thing."
Harry grinned. He pulled out his wand. "Oh, this thing, you mean. My wand."
"You're not allowed to use it," Dudley said at once. "You'll get expelled from your freak school."
"You think? Well maybe I'm allowed to use it, if someone attacks me — say, if you take a swing at me. You'd like to do that, wouldn't you?" Harry was enjoying this immensely.
"No," Dudley said. It was obvious he was lying.
"Why not?" Harry sneered. "Won't I be as much fun as a ten-year old? Not much fun hitting someone who'll hit back, is it, Dudley?"
"Not this brave at night, are you?" snarled Dudley, stopping and glaring at him.
Harry snorted laughter. "This is night, Big D. It's what happens when the sun goes down and it get dark."
"I mean when you're in bed!" Dudley snapped.
What was Dudley gibbering about? "What d'you mean? Am I supposed to be scared of pillows or what?"
"I heard you last night," Dudley said, his voice turning triumphant, as if he'd found Harry's weak spot. "You were talking in your sleep, moaning."
Harry's stomach plunged. He'd dreamed last night about Voldemort being reborn, in the Little Hangleton graveyard. "What d'you mean?"
"'Don't kill Cedric! Don't kill Cedric!'" Dudley mimicked, in a high-pitched voice, mocking Harry. "Maybe Cedric's your boyfriend, then!"
"You're lying," Harry snarled, but he knew Dudley spoke the truth. How else would he know about Cedric Diggory being killed? Harry's wand was pointed at Dudley before he realized he'd done so. Fourteen years of being taunted and beaten by his cousin was pounding in his brain. And now he was mocking Cedric's death! It was almost more than Harry could bear.
Dudley's eyes were wide. "Point that thing somewhere else!"
"Don't ever talk about that again," Harry snarled. "D'you hear me? I'm warning you!"
"Point it somewhere else!" Dudley shouted.
"DO YOU HEAR ME?" Harry roared.
"POINT IT SOMEWHERE ELSE!" Dudley roared back.
As the words to a curse tickled his tongue, Harry realized with a start — Dudley was in danger — from him! His anger evaporated, and he lowered his wand.
Dudley, seeing the wand no longer pointed at him, turned and bolted down the alleyway. Harry nearly laughed to watch his cousin's vast bottom jiggle as he ran, but before Dudley had run a dozen feet he stopped, gasping. Just as Harry started to ask him if he'd run out of breath already, a sudden, unnatural coldness descended upon him, while the stars and surrounding lights went out.
It was as if he'd been suddenly thrown into a pitch-black freezer. Along with the cold and darkness came a sensation of impending doom, a feeling like he'd never be happy again. Harry gasped.
There was only one thing that made you feel this way.
"What — what are you doing?" Dudley gasped. "Stop it! I'll tell Dad!"
"Get a grip, Dudley!" Harry snapped. "I'm not doing it!" If he was right about what was causing this, both he and Dudley were in danger. He started moving toward the sound of his cousin's voice. "We need to get out of here, Dudley!"
"I can't see anything! I'm blind! Make it stop!" Dudley moaned. "It's awful!"
"I'm not doing it!" Harry said again. He had gone blind as well. "Just shut up and let me find you —"
One of Dudley's ham-like fists had caught Harry on the side of his head, knocking him to the ground.
"Damn it, Dudley!" Harry shouted. "Stop it! I'm not doing it!" Dudley began screaming, and Harry said "Lumos!" The tip of his wand erupted in light, and he could see Dudley flailing sightlessly, a dozen feet away. He also heard something, a sound that made his heart nearly freeze with dread: the raspy, rattling breath of a dementor, the creature that had caused their vision loss and the coldness that had fallen. The sound had come from beyond Dudley, out of range of his wand's light.
Then he heard the rasp again, this time behind him. There were two of them! Harry lurched to his feet, spinning around and holding his wand high, just as the dementor from behind him came into view: a hooded, towering figure of black, it glided, faceless and footless, toward him. Harry pointed his wand and shouted, "Expecto Patronum!"
A wisp of silvery mist sprayed from the tip of his wand, slowing the dementor slightly, but he'd spoken the charm automatically, without putting intent behind the words. It was nearly upon him, and Harry tried to move away, but tripped and sprawled on his back. He tried to roll, but a pair of hands — gray, slimy, scabbed hands — slid from under the dementor's robes, reaching for Harry's throat. He needed to concentrate his will —
His will! If you can will a thing be done, it shall be done. As the dementor's hands gripped his throat, Harry pointed the wand where its chest would be, and exerted his will. "EXPECTO PATRONUM!"
A flash of silver light blasted from his wand, dazzling Harry. His vision blanked out for a second. When it cleared, a moment later, the dementor was gone. Harry stared around wildly, trying to find it, but it was as if it had never been there. There was a shuddering wail behind him.
Dudley! Harry leaped to his feet, racing down the alleyway. He'd only gone a dozen steps before he found his cousin, curled up on the ground, his hands clamped across his face, as the second dementor, its gray, scabbed hands on Dudley's wrists, slowly prised them apart.
"Expecto Patronum!" Harry said again, this time with more control, and a silver stag burst from the tip of his wand, bearing down on the dementor. The light shining from it was dazzling, and the dementor immediately released Dudley and zoomed away, the stag galloping after it until it rose into the sky, disappearing into the gloom. A moment later, the silver stag dissolved, and the unnatural darkness that had enshrouded them since the appearance of the dementors faded, restoring the night sky and sounds of Little Whinging to normalcy.
Whatever the symbol on his hand was, Harry realized, it had been, at least in part, enabled him to create a Patronus and escape the dementors. Dudley, laying on the ground, whimpering and shaking, hadn't been so lucky. The warm evening was back, but Dudley's skin was cold and clammy to the touch, Harry discovered, kneeling beside him. He was going to have to get his cousin home, somehow.
And now Harry heard footsteps from beyond the end of the alley, only a few yards away. He held his wand up, ready in case of a new threat, but saw it was only Mrs. Figg, their batty old neighbor, coming panting into view. Her hair, gray and frazzled, poked out from under the hairnet she constantly wore. A string shopping bag hung from her wrist, and her tartan carpet slippers flapped on her feet as came toward them. Harry made to put his away, in his back pocket, but she flapped her arms at him.
"Don't put your wand away, boy!" she hissed at him. "What if there are more of them around? Oh, I'm going to kill Mundungus Fletcher!"
"What?" Harry said, startled.
"That old berk," she moaned, wringing her hands, "left you! Said something about buying a batch of cauldrons that fell off a broom. Told him I'd flay him alive if he left his post, and now look what's happened! Dementors — here! Lucky I put Mr. Tibbles on the case! But never mind that now — we've got to you two back home! Oh, there's going to be trouble for this, mark my word!"
"Wait a minute," Harry said. Things were happening too fast. The fact that his batty old cat-crazy neighbor knew about dementors was as amazing to him as meeting two of them in an alleyway. "You — you're a witch?!"
"No, you silly boy!" she snapped at him. "I'm a Squib — which Mundungus knew full well! He knew I couldn't help you if he left, but he skived off anyway, leaving you completely without cover when I warned him —"
"So this Mundungus bloke," Harry cut over her, "he's been following me? I heard someone Disapparate from my aunt and uncle's flower bed, earlier tonight!"
"Yes, yes, yes," she snapped. "Luckily I stationed Mr. Tibbles nearby, just in case. He came and warned me, after Mundungus left, but by the time I'd gotten to your house, you'd already left. I don't know what Dumbledore's going to say, but I hope he does a right job on that blasted sneak-thief!" She nudged Dudley with a slipper-shod toe. "Come on, you! Get your fat bottom off the ground, quick! We have to move in case they come back!" She reached down and, taking one of Dudley's arms, tried to heave him to his feet.
But Dudley seemed in no condition to move. He was still half-curled into a ball, trembling and ashen-faced.
"I'll do it," Harry said, reaching down to take Dudley's arm. He pulled upward, but Dudley was heavy, even after a year of hard dieting. Harry took a deep breath, to try again, then remembered what Connell had told him earlier. I am strong enough to pick up Dudley, he told himself, then lifted once again. This time he brought Dudley to his feet effortlessly.
"You're stronger than you look, boy," Mrs. Figg told him. "Now hurry up! We have to get you both back to your home!"
She led them along Wisteria Walk, all the while gibbering at Harry to keep his wand at the ready and not worry about the Statute of Secrecy now, with all the trouble there was bound to be. Truthfully, Harry couldn't even think about such rubbish; there were larger questions to be answered. Whatever the stranger, Connell, had done to him, it had made him more powerful, both physically and in his command of magic. One dementor had seemingly vaporized in the light of his first Patronus Charm, the second had run away the moment his Patronus appeared; the silver stag had been the largest and brightest he'd ever conjured. He was now supporting his cousin, who outweighed him by maybe a hundred pounds, with one hand and almost no effort. Connell himself had flown away after putting the mark on him; surely, that meant he could fly now, with it?
A few minutes later they were in front of number four. Mrs. Figg had been alternately bemoaning their situation and cursing the name of Mundungus Fletcher, and now she ended with, "…Well, it's no good crying over spilt pumpkin juice, I suppose…all right, Harry, get inside and stay there. I expect someone will be in touch with you soon enough." She raised her voice. "If that dratted Mundungus has been listening to me, and gone to tell Dumbledore!"
"What are you going to do?" Harry asked her, as she turned to leave.
"I'm going home," Mrs. Figg said firmly, looking around the darkness apprehensively. "I'll wait there for more instructions. Good night."
"Wait a minute!" Harry said. "I want to ask you something! Wait!" But Mrs. Figg had already trotted away, spry for a woman of her age, and hadn't looked back. Sighing, Harry turned back to number four, and made his way, supporting Dudley, to the door, then rang the bell.
Mrs. Dursley answered the door, looking reproachfully at her son. "Diddy! It's about time, it's late! Diddy, what — what's wrong?"
Harry sensed what Dudley was about to do and spun around, holding his collar so he was at arm's length as Dudley leaned forward and vomited all over the doorstep.
"Diddy!" Petunia shrieked. "Oh Diddy, what's the matter? Vernon! VERNON!" Harry's uncle was there in moments, shouldering Harry out of the way (almost dropping Dudley into the sick in the process) as he and Petunia walked him slowly back into the house and toward the kitchen. Harry had slipped inside, and watched Dudley's parents negotiating him toward the kitchen.
"What happened, son? Did Mrs. Polkiss give you some foreign tea?"
"Where you mugged, Diddy? Oh my lord, Vernon! That must be it!"
"He's covered in mud, he must've fought them off! Tell us who did this, son. We'll get them, don't worry!"
Dudley had stopped in front of the cupboard door, and Vernon and Petunia watched him anxiously. Harry, for his own part, was slowly moving up the steps toward his room. One of Dudley's arms shot out, suddenly, pointing toward the staircase.
Harry froze. Trust Dudley, he thought in frustration, to blame him after Harry had as much as saved his life.
"BOY!! GET DOWN HERE, NOW!!"
Repressing his anger, Harry turned and walked back down the steps. This wasn't going to be pleasant for anyone. He followed them into the kitchen, where they put Dudley in a chair, then turned on him.
"What did you do to my son?" Vernon said, his voice a dangerous growl.
"Nothing," Harry replied, tightly, "except bring him home."
"What did he do to you, son?" Vernon asked, without turning around. His beady eyes narrowed even more, and he pointed a finger at Harry. "Did he use his — his thing?"
Dudley nodded, slowly, and Petunia wailed in horror while Vernon balled his fists menacingly at Harry.
"I didn't!" Harry said at once, watching Vernon's fists. "It wasn't me, it was —"
But before he could finish, an owl suddenly swooped in the open kitchen window, dropping a large parchment envelope in its beak at Harry's feet as it executed a graceful arc and flew back out the window.
"What the bloody —?" Vernon shouted. "I will not have owls in my house!"
While Vernon ranted and slammed the window closed, Harry ripped open the envelope and read. It was from the Ministry of Magic, the Improper Use of Magic Office, and was a notification that he was expelled and that Ministry representatives would be coming to his residence shortly to destroy his wand. He read the letter again, turning away at one point because Vernon was shouting something near his ear. It was distracting, and he needed to collect his thoughts and decide what he was going —
Harry dropped to the floor, thinking vaguely this was the third time that night he'd been hit in the head, and it was getting rather tiresome. There was a ringing in his ears, gradually being replaced by his uncle's enraged voice.
"— had bloody well better listen to me when I'm speaking to you, boy! Now get up off that ruddy floor and put my son right again, or I'll box your ears again, d'you hear me?!" Vernon leaned forward, to grab Harry from the floor, but pulled back suddenly as Harry pointed his wand at him.
"Don't ever do that again," Harry said, carefully holding the side of his head where'd Vernon had hit him. It hurt. Harry grimaced, wishing for the pain to go away, and suddenly it was gone. He stood slowly, still pointing his wand at Vernon, who was watching him, and the wand, warily.
"You need to put him right," Vernon said, pointing at Dudley. "And stop waving that bloody stick around — we know you're not allowed to use it."
"If I can't use my wand, there's not much use in telling me to help Dudley, is there?" Harry pointed out.
"That's different!" Petunia said angrily. "You hurt Diddy, now you have to help him!"
"Didn't," Harry insisted. "It was dementors."
"What this codswallop?" Vernon blustered. "What the bloody hell are these — these 'dementoids?'"
"They guard the wizards' prison, Azkaban," Petunia said without thinking, then froze as a horrified expression came over her face, as if she'd been caught saying a disgusting swear word. And in a way, she had — Vernon was staring at her, gobsmacked. She looked at him imploringly, trying to find words to apologize.
There was a crack at the window. Petunia screamed and Vernon ducked, with a yell. But Harry was already moving toward the window; he'd seen what had caused the noise: a barn owl was sitting outside, on the sill, shaking its head dazedly. Harry wrenched the window open and pulled a parchment note off its leg. He'd no sooner done so than the owl ruffled its feather and disappeared again into the night.
Harry read the hastily-written, blotchy note. It was from Arthur Weasley, telling Harry that Dumbledore was trying to sort things out at the Ministry and that Harry should not leave the house or surrender his wand under any circumstances.
"What's going on?" Petunia asked. "Why are they sending you all these letters?"
Harry looked at his aunt. She obviously knew something about magic — she'd remembered about dementors, after all. "The first letter I got was from the Ministry of Magic," he said. "They expelled me from school."
"For what?" Vernon growled.
"For doing magic," Harry admitted, after a moment.
"AHA!" Vernon pounced on that detail. "So you did do something to Dudley!"
"Yeah," Harry snapped. "I saved him from the dementors."
"What was it doing to him," Petunia gasped, her eyes wide. "He's not a — not a…" she couldn't bring herself to say the word.
"Not a wizard?" Harry finished for her. "Dementors can suck out your soul whether you're a wizard or a Muggle."
"Suck out your soul?" Vernon repeated, as Petunia gasped again.
"They — they didn't…" she looked desperately at Harry.
"No," he shook his head. "I stopped them. With this." He held up his wand. "That's when I did magic, and that's why the Ministry's expelling me."
"Well what do you expect, boy, when you break the rules?" Vernon said, nastily.
"Right, even though the alternative was for Dudley and me to get our souls sucked out," Harry said, flatly.
"Why did these — these demembers come after you anyway?" Vernon wanted to know. "To take you to that weirdos' prison, for doing — things?"
"I hadn't done anything when they came!" Harry snapped. He realized just what the reason must be. "It must've been Voldemort who sent them…"
Vernon's piglike eyes narrowed. "Hold on. I've heard that name before. Wasn't he the one who…"
"Who murdered my parents, yeah," Harry finished, dully.
"Wait a minute," Vernon said, remembering an older conversation. "He's gone. That giant bloke told us so. He's gone."
"He's back," Harry said, his voice heavy.
"Back?" Petunia whispered.
At that moment there was a double distraction as two owls suddenly flew into the house—one through the open kitchen window, the other down the kitchen fireplace. Both of them dropped letters at Harry's feet and soared out again, as Vernon exploded.
"No — more — effing — owls!" he shouted, going over and slamming the kitchen window shut as Harry opened the first letter. It was from the Ministry again, from the same witch as before, notifying him that a decision regarding both his expulsion and the destruction of his wand would be decided at a hearing on the 12th of August, at the Ministry of Magic.
Well, that was better than being expelled on the spot, Harry decided, though his fears weren't completely allayed. The second letter was not in an official envelope; he hoped it would be from Dumbledore, explaining what had been going on — with the dementors, with Mrs. Figg and that Mundungus bloke, and why the Ministry seemed to be out for his blood, when Minister Fudge had been practically bending over backwards to avoid an inquiry over his underage magic use, not that long ago.
But the letter was only a short message from his godfather, Sirius: "Arthur's just told us what happened. Don't leave the house again, whatever you do." There was nothing else on the parchment. Harry snorted angrily.
"Boy, I'm warning you," Vernon was saying when he looked up again. "I want to know the truth! If you saved Dudley from these dementoids, then why are you expelled? You've done something wrong, admit it!"
"I've already said," Harry said flatly, crushing the letters he held in his hand. "They expelled me because I did the Patronus Charm to stop the dementors. It's the only thing that works on them!"
"And what were they here for, in Little Whinging?" Vernon demanded. "If not for you?" Harry had no answer for that, except what he'd said before — that Voldemort had sent them to attack him.
"But — but —" Aunt Petunia said, after he'd repeated that. "He c-can't be back. He was killed."
"Apparently not," Harry shrugged. "I saw him restored to life."
Vernon's beady eyes were moving back and forth between his wife and Harry. "So it's you he's after, then. Well, that settles it! You can leave this house right now, boy!"
"What?" Harry said, though he wasn't truly surprised.
"You heard me. Out you go! I won't have you here, endangering my wife and son! You can just go the same way as your useless parents! OUT!"
Harry didn't move. "I'm supposed to stay here," he said, calmly.
"I don't give a bloody fig what you're supposed to do," Vernon snarled at him. "I'm telling you, you'll be out the door this minute, or I'll throw you out myself!"
Petunia gasped. "Vernon, we can't just —"
"Quiet, Petunia!" Vernon bellowed, and both she and Dudley jumped at the ferocity in his voice. "I've had quite enough of this — this freak business — to last me the rest of my life! Marge was right — why we ever kept you in the first place I'll never know, it should have been to the orphanage straightaway! So go on, then, boy — get out, and never darken our door again!"
"I can't leave," Harry said, resolutely, "until I hear from my friends. And you can't make me."
"Oh no?" Vernon growled, his fist raised threateningly.
Harry glanced at the fist, but he'd already imagined himself as being impervious to any force his uncle could muster against him. Seeing the defiance in Harry's eyes, Vernon's patience snapped again, and he swung his fist into Harry's jaw.
The first time he'd struck, Harry had been distracted and looking away, not even paying attention. His uncle's fist had knocked him off his feet. This time, however, the only crack they heard came from Vernon's hand as several bones broke. Vernon yelled, pulling his hand back, then staring at it in shock and pain.
"Vernon! What happened?" Petunia cried.
"Bones — broken," Vernon said, through clenched teeth. "Not — not changing my mind, though, Potter," he said, as Petunia ran cold water into a towel and wrapped it around his fractured hand. "We'll have the police here and then we'll see what you say, you'll be — OWLS!"
A fifth owl had soared in through the chimney, a fifth envelope in its beak, and Harry held out his hand to catch it as it fell. However, the owl passed by him, flying toward Petunia, who shrieked and tried to duck away. The owl dropped the envelope, which was red, onto her head then flew back up the chimney.
The letter had fallen to the floor, and both Vernon and Petunia goggled at the name on it. "It's my name!" Petunia said, horrified. "It's addressed to me!"
Harry had recognized the letter as well. "You'll probably want to open that pretty quick," he advised. "That's a Howler, so I'm going to hear what it says anyway."
Petunia looked at Vernon, who shook his head violently. "Leave it be, Petunia! It could be dangerous!"
The red envelope began to smoke. Petunia looked at it, growing more and more terrified. She looked around, about to bolt from the room, but the envelop suddenly burst into flame.
An eerie, awful voice filled the kitchen, echoing strangely even in the small room,
"REMEMBER MY LAST, PETUNIA."
Petunia had pressed herself against a wall, looking utterly terrified. Harry and Vernon both stared at her curiously — even Dudley, only half-recovered from his encounter with the dementor, gaped at her.
She raised her head, looking at her husband, then at Harry. She gulped, then stood upright, and said, "The boy will have to stay, Vernon."
"What?" Vernon said, utterly nonplussed.
"We'll have to keep him here," she went on, slowly regaining her composure, her manner becoming brisk and snappish again. "The neighbors will talk. They'll ask awkward questions we don't want to answer. He stays."
"But, Petunia —"
She ignored her husband, turning to Harry. "Go to your room," she said. "Don't leave the house."
"Who was that Howler from?" Harry asked.
"I'm taking Vernon and Dudley to the emergency room to be looked after," she said, ignoring his question. "Go on to bed."
"Do you know any wizards?"
"What did I just tell you? Go to bed!"
"But how come —"
"YOU HEARD YOUR AUNT!" Vernon bellowed. "NOW GO TO BED!" Harry shrugged and followed his aunt upstairs to his room, where she put him inside then locked the door behind him and went downstairs. A minute or so later, he heard the car start, then watched from his window as it pulled into the street and drove away, leaving him alone.
That suited Harry just fine; he needed some time alone, to think. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he stared at the mark in the palm of his hand. So far, what Connell had told him about it was true — anything he was able to think of doing, he could do. He'd been able to manifest the most powerful Patronus he'd ever made. It had also called down the Ministry upon him, but that would have happened anyway.
So what was he to do now? The Dursleys would be gone for some time. It would be a perfect opportunity for someone to come here and collect him! Hedwig's cage was empty on his desk, she was out hunting; Harry flung himself into his chair, pulled out three pieces of parchment, and wrote the same message three times: I've just been attacked by dementors. I've gotten letters from the Ministry saying I might get expelled from Hogwarts. Please write back and let me know when I'm going to get out of here. Even better, come and get me, immediately!
He would send one of these to Ron, one to Hermione, and the third to Sirius. He expected three replies; hopefully, between them, they should be able to fill him in on what was going on! He stood, pacing back and forth in his room, waiting for Hedwig's return. It was late — he'd been up since five a.m., when he'd paid the owl for the morning edition of the Daily Prophet — but Harry was no longer tired. In fact, he felt more energetic than he had in a long time. He looked at the mark in his hand again. Could it have something to do with how he felt?
What if —? Harry had never Apparated before, but the idea, as explained by Fred and George, who'd both turned 17 a few months before, was that you focused upon your destination with the proper determination, then made a deliberate choice to occupy that destination.
There were things Apparition couldn't do, mind you, Harry knew. You Apparated to a destination, not to a person, so you had to know where someone was before you could Apparate to them; the ability to Apparate didn't confer any ability to track anyone. In fact, from what Fred and George had told him, you couldn't track anyone when they Apparated, unless you held onto them as they Disapparated. Therefore, trying to Apparate to where Ron and Hermione were, wasn't going to work. On the other hand…
Harry looked again at the mark in his right hand, the black star-shaped symbol the man who'd called himself Kenneth Connell had said was a Star Brand. If he could imagine being able to travel instantly to where, say Ron, was, he would be able to. So that was what he was going to do, Harry decided.
Before he did that, however, a bit of preparation. His trunk was in the room, at the foot of his bed. Harry spent a few minutes tossing the few items he'd taken out of it over the past month back in. As he was doing that, Hedwig returned from hunting, a dead frog in her beak.
"About time," he muttered as she settled onto the desk, looking up at him. "Hurry up with your dinner, we're leaving." Hedwig returned to her cage, swallowing the frog, then watched as Harry looked around, checking that he'd gotten everything he wanted. "Right," he said. "Time to go."
He didn't know where Ron would be right now, but wherever he was, he imagined appearing right next to him. Placing his hands on Hedwig's cage and his trunk, he thought, I am there.
There was a tug, and a flash of light. It was a bit like the Portkey he'd experienced last year, traveling to the Quidditch World Cup site, but without the whirling color whooshing around. Harry blinked, and the next thing he knew, he was standing in front of his friend Ron Weasley, who jumped back about three feet, shouting "Bloody hell!" and sprawled backward over a bed behind him.
Harry looked around. He was in a bedroom, evidently Ron's, though it was nothing like his room at the Burrow. In fact, Harry had never seen a room like it before: dark velvet covered the walls of the room, with dark wood molding, elaborately carved, along the floors and ceilings. There were old paintings of witches and wizards, and gas lamps lining the walls. A black wardrobe stood in the corner, with an old bed and bedside cabinet across from it. Ron, lying on his back on the bed, hitched himself up on his elbows and stared at Harry in astonishment.
"Blimey, Harry!" he said, jumping up again. "When did you get here? And when did you learn to Apparate?!"
"Just now," Harry said coolly. "And I haven't learned to —"
"Harry!" There was a squeal as he spun around, and his vision was suddenly full of bushy brown hair as Hermione leapt onto him with a tight embrace. "I can't believe you got here so quickly!" she was saying in his ear, speaking so fast he could barely make out the words. "I know you must be furious with us — I'd be furious too, if my friends were writing me letters and not telling me what was going on, but Dumbledore made us promise not to say anything to you! We've got a lot to tell you, and — oh, those dementors! We've got to hear what you did to them!
"Give him time to breath, Hermione," Ron said, with a grin.
Now that he'd seen both of them, Harry realized he was rather annoyed with both Ron and Hermione for not finding some way of telling him what had been going on the past month. "Where are we?" he asked, to deflect the conversation away from himself.
"You don't know?" Hermione looked startled. "Didn't someone in the Order give you a note, from Professor Dumbledore?"
"Maybe Dumbledore told you himself," Ron suggested.
"I haven't seen Dumbledore since I left Hogwarts, a month ago," Harry said, frowning at them. "I haven't seen much of anything, lately. Except, oh, for the odd dementor attack," he added, with heavy irony. "That was a bit of a treat."
"Oh, Harry! You should have seen how angry Professor Dumbledore got when he heard Mundungus Fletcher had left you unguarded!" Hermione said, breathlessly. "It was scary!"
"I can imagine," Harry snorted. "Though I only had to deal with two manky old dementors, not the great and powerful Albus Dumbledore."
Hermione gave him a reproachful look. "Harry, Professor Dumbledore is only trying to do what he thinks is best for you, to keep you safe."
"Oh, yeah?" Harry said, struggling to keep himself calm. "Well, it would've been nice if he'd let me in on what he was doing, don't you think? For that matter," he said, pointing an accusing finger at her, "it would have been better if you or Ron had found a way to let me know what was going on, instead of leaving me stuck on Privet Drive rooting around in dustbins for papers to try and find out what was up, out here in the rest of the world!"
"Harry, we wanted to!" Hermione cried, her eyes beginning to fill with tears. Behind her, Ron nodded vigorously. "Dumbledore said we couldn't!"
"Well — so — bloody — what?" Harry snapped at her, his patience finally gone. "Since when does a teacher telling us we can't do something mean we can't try anyway?! If I only did what teachers told me to do, I'd probably be dead by now!"
The door to the room suddenly flung open. The three of them spun around as several people piled into the room, wands drawn. At the front of the them, Harry saw, was Mad-Eye Moody, his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher from the previous school year. Except, he remembered, the man who had taught them all those months hadn't been Moody at all, but a Death Eater named Barty Crouch, Jr., who'd taken his place using Polyjuice Potion for the entire school year, as part of a plot to restore Lord Voldemort, then murder Harry. Behind him was Remus Lupin, their teacher of the same class from the year before Moody. Next to Lupin, there was a young woman, with violet hair and an open, heart-shaped face that Harry didn't recognize. Behind them, Harry saw with a start, was the black-haired, sallow-complexioned features of the school's Potions teacher, Severus Snape, his black eyes boring into Harry's with a hatred Harry returned in equal measure.
"None of you move!" Moody snapped, his wand pointed at Harry's chest. "You," he said, pointing toward Harry. "Tell us who you are!"
"I'm Harry Potter," he said at once. "Who else would I be?"
"Don't know," Moody replied, levelly, "but you can't be him."
"It is him!" Hermione cried.
"That's Harry!" Ron shouted.
"Why can't I be?" Harry asked.
"Hermione, you of all people should realize this can't be Harry," Remus said, urgently. "We won't even be ready to go get Harry from Little Whinging for several days yet."
Snape pushed past Lupin, pulling out his wand. "We should not take any chances," he said, imperiously. "Dumbledore will want him for questioning. I will bind him —"
"No, you won't," Harry said, holding out his hand. Snape's wand shot from his hand, flying into Harry's.
"Expelliarmus!" Moody shouted immediately, but no bolt shot from his wand. He looked at it, in shock.
Remus stepped forward, as did the violet-haired woman, but Harry said, "Stop!" and both of them halted, uncertain how to proceed. Behind Harry, both Hermione and Ron had drawn their own wands.
"Stop!" At the deep-voiced command, everyone turned to the doorway, where Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, stood. He moved into the room, and the others parted to let him move closer to Harry. "Mr. Weasley, Miss Granger, you may lower your wands, please," Dumbledore said, and both Ron and Hermione dropped their arms, still looking on tensely. Dumbledore turned to Harry, who noticed that the headmaster was looking, not at him, but at some point over his head. Why wouldn't Dumbledore look him in the eye?
"Harry," Dumbledore said quietly, still looking off to one side of him, "do you recall what I mentioned to you about enchanted sleep, in my office, some time ago?"
"Yeah," Harry said, sighing. "You said you'd put me into an enchanted sleep if it would help me to postpone the moment I'd have to relive Cedric's death, but that it wouldn't."
"And was anyone with us when I told you that?"
"Sirius was there."
Dumbledore nodded. "Indeed. This is the real Harry," he announced, and the adults relaxed. "Quite fascinating, Harry," Dumbledore went on, his face now alight with interest. "This is the first time I have ever known the Fidelius Charm to fail."
"What's the Fidelius Charm got to do with it?" Harry asked.
"The Fidelius Charm," Dumbledore replied, "was used to make the location of this house, number twelve, Grimmauld Place, the secret headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. I am its Secret-Keeper, and since I had not told you its location before you entered it, somehow, this constitutes something of a mystery."
"There's been quite a lot mystery going on for a while, now," Harry said, coldly. "For example, I have no idea what the 'Order of the Phoenix' is, even. I've just been sitting like a lump on Privet Drive, waiting for someone to come collect me for the past month."
"That was unavoidable, Harry," Dumbledore remarked. He turned away, gesturing toward the door. "But come, I'd like us all to go downstairs to our meeting room now, so we can fill you in on what's been happening."
Harry nodded, then he, Hermione and Ron fell into step behind Dumbledore as he led the group down to the kitchen where, Harry guessed, this Order of the Phoenix they were talking about held their meetings. The room was large, with rough stone walls and a long wooden table. A dozen chairs were scattered around it. The room was eerily lit, the only light in it coming from a large fire burning in the fireplace at the far end of the room. Dumbledore gestured toward the table and Harry sat down, as did Ron, Hermione, and the others who had followed them downstairs.
"Before we begin," Dumbledore said lightly, after everyone was seated, "I believe a few introductions are in order." He gestured to the young woman Harry hadn't recognized. "This is Miss Nymphadora Tonks, Harry; she recently joined the ranks of the Order, having been recruited by Alastor."
"Wotcher, Harry," the young woman said, giving Harry a wave. "Call me Tonks. Harry nodded toward her.
"I believe you know everyone else present," Dumbledore said. Harry looked around at the others seated around the table: as well as Tonks, Ron and Hermione, there was Remus Lupin, Alastor Moody, and Professor Snape. Harry turned to Dumbledore.
"Is this it?" he asked, "Is this everyone in your Order?"
"Oh, my, no," Dumbledore said, smiling. "There are quite a few others who aren't here at the moment. Also, Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger are not part of the Order, as both of them are not of age yet."
"We're not let in on the Order meetings, Harry," Ron put in, trying to explain. "We don't know everything that's going on with them."
"Only what you've managed to eavesdrop on, you mean," Snape sniffed. "With those toys your brothers concocted."
"Quite ingenious toys, really," Lupin said. "Very impressive."
"None of this is telling me what the Order is," Harry said, plaintively.
"The Order," Dumbledore said, formally, "is an organization formed to combat Lord Voldemort —" as usual, he ignored the winces of everyone at the mention of the name "— and his Death Eaters. It was first formed in the 1970's, during his first rise to power.
"After he disappeared in 1981, the Order disbanded," Dumbledore went on, as Harry listened with increasing interest. "But we've kept in contact during that time, mindful that Voldemort could return. And now that he has," the headmaster finished heavily, "I have seen fit to recall our members once again, as well as recruit new members."
The kitchen door opened at that moment, and Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, entered. "I thought I heard voices down here," he said. "Did you call a meeting and forget to — Harry!" he exclaimed, seeing his godson sitting at the table. "When did you get here? I thought we weren't going to pick you up until a few days from now."
"'Lo, Sirius," Harry said. He wasn't very happy with his godfather at the moment either, Sirius having been one of the people who could have written him about what had been going on in the past month, but chose not to. "Are you a member of the Order, too?"
"Of course," Sirius said, taking a seat across from Harry and, Harry noted, as far from Snape as he was able. "Haven't they mentioned yet? This is my parents' home. It's mine, now that they're dead, and I'm the last of the Blacks. I lent it to Dumbledore to use as Order headquarters, about the only useful thing I've been able to do." There was a bit of bitterness in his voice, Harry realized.
"We appreciate your sacrifice, Black," Snape said sarcastically.
"Thank you, Severus," Sirius said, his tone equally sarcastic. "At least at the end of the day, you get to leave this place."
"You have only yourself to blame for that," Snape shot back. "Breaking out of prison, breaking into the school, kidnapping, attempted murder — the Ministry would have a field day prosecuting you."
"'S more than they did the last time!" Sirius snapped. "If I got a trial I'd have a chance to clear my name!"
"Unlikely, if I were to testify," Snape said, silkily.
"Are you in touch with Voldemort, Snape?" Harry asked him suddenly. Silence fell immediately around the table. Remus looked at Sirius, who was grinning crookedly. Ron and Hermione looked at each other nervously, while Moody's electric blue eye whirled incessantly in its socket; his other eye was fixed on Dumbledore, who had not moved or reacted.
"It's Professor Snape, Harry," Dumbledore corrected, mildly.
"And it's none of your concern, Potter," Snape added imperiously. "Order business is something you will not be privy to, until you become a member. If you ever do."
"Do you know where he is?" Harry pressed. He had suddenly realized something about the existence of the Order of the Phoenix, and right now, he was angry enough and frustrated enough with this situation to do it, and never mind the consequences.
"I said, Potter," Snape growled, leaning forward and looking into Harry's eyes, "it's none of your concern. Now —"
"Thank you," Harry said, standing. Everyone else came to their feet with him.
"Everyone calm down," Remus said, holding out his arms in a warning gesture. "Harry, what are you doing?"
"I'm going to go take care of the problem," Harry said.
"What does that mean, Harry?" Dumbledore asked. Harry noticed he still wasn't looking Harry in the eye.
"It's what you want, isn't it?" Harry asked, sardonically. "Why else put together a whole group of people, dedicated to stopping Voldemort, unless its ultimate goal is his death?" He looked around. Hermione's eyes had gone wide, and scared, while Ron was staring at him in utter amazement. Lupin was shaking his head, while Snape scowled at him, probably trying to figure out how Harry had gotten the information from his Occluded mind. Only Sirius was smiling at him, and Harry already knew how reckless his godfather could be.
"I'll be back," Harry said, and vanished in a burst of white light.
Harry appeared a moment later in a narrow lane in Wiltshire, miles west of London, near a high, neatly-trimmed hedge. On the other side of the hedge, Harry knew, was the home of the Malfoy family. Somewhere inside their home was Voldemort.
Harry supposed that he could simply walk in and take care of things, but he didn't want to act without at least having a basic plan of attack. The first thing he would need was to know where in the Malfoy house Voldemort was located, and he smiled as he thought of a way to do that.
Harry held out his hand, the one with the Star Brand on it, and concentrated for a moment. A large piece of blank parchment appeared, which Harry opened, saying softly, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good." Instantly, lines and symbols began to appear on the parchment, along with the words at the top,
Mr. Harry Potter
Purveyor of magical mayhem
Malfoy Manor Map
Harry's eyes roamed across the parchment, identifying various sections of the house. It was quite large, as were the grounds surrounding it. As Harry had planned, there were notations indicating areas where magical protections might sound an alarm were he to move through them without the proper counter-curses in place. The interior areas appeared to be clear of most enchantments save an anti-Apparition jinx that pertained to everyone not a member of the Malfoy family. Not that such as precaution would matter. He could see Draco on the map, presumably in his room; Lucius Malfoy was in another section of the house that appeared to be his study. He located Draco's mother, Narcissa, in what looked like the master bedroom, lying on the bed. She appeared to be sleeping. Finally, in a large, open area, he found Lord Voldemort, identified on the map as Tom Riddle, Jr. It would be as simple, Harry thought, as appearing in the room next to Riddle, dispatching him, and leaving.
A place caught Harry's eye: a room beneath the room Voldemort was in, with a corridor and staircase leading down to it. He could appear there, then walk up the stairs and down the corridor to the room where Voldemort was. It would give him a little time to think about his mother and father, dead because of Voldemort. The parchment disappeared from Harry's hand; a moment later, he was gone in a flash of light.
Reappearing in the small room, Harry looked around. The place was totally dark but he imagined it filled with light, and immediately it was. The room was a rough cellar, with stone walls and floor. Nearby he saw the heavy wooden door that would lead him up to the room above him, where Voldemort was.
There was a prickling sensation in his forehead, the first time he had felt anything from it since receiving the mark on his right palm. Voldemort was aware he was here, Harry realized. Good, he thought. I want him to see me coming.
He heard footsteps approaching. They seemed to be coming downward; Harry could almost trace the motion of the man coming toward him, his long blond hair and robes flowing behind him. The wooden door swung open.
"You!" Lucius Malfoy exclaimed, staring at Harry behind his drawn wand. "How could you possibly have gotten in here, except — that cursed house-elf!" Malfoy snarled. "I'll have his head on a stick for this!"
"I'm here on my own, Malfoy," Harry said. "Dobby had nothing to do with me coming here. Now, step aside, and let me do what I came here to do, or suffer the consequences."
"How dare you!" Malfoy spat. "Impudent little brat! Cruci—!" But before he could complete the curse, the heavy wooden door swung into Malfoy, smashing him into the doorframe. It swung open, then smashed into him again, and again, until Malfoy dropped to the floor, unconscious and bloody. Harry gestured, and Malfoy's wand soared into his hand. Harry then walked past him, without a backward glance, and up a steep stairway, then down a shadowy corridor leading to the room where Voldemort was.
With Malfoy's wand in his right hand, Harry walked through the door, into a large drawing room, lit with a fire burning beneath a marble mantelpiece. The other furniture in the room had been pushed toward the walls, leaving most of the floor open. In front of the fire and silhouetted by it, Harry could see Voldemort standing there, his red eyes visible and his wand drawn. There was a cruel smile on his face. Harry heard a hiss nearby — a large snake lay on the floor behind Voldemort, near the fireplace.
"What a welcome turn of events," Voldemort said, in a high, clear voice. "I had expected to waste much time trying to find you, Potter, wherever that fool Dumbledore had hidden you. Instead, you've come to me. Now!"
"Expelliarmus!" a voice behind Harry cried, and Malfoy's wand flew from his hand, suddenly stopping in the air a dozen feet away. A moment later, a pale young man appeared as the Disillusionment Charm cast upon him was dispelled. It was Draco, Harry saw.
"So, Potter, you do have some guts, after all," Draco sneered, walking toward him, his own wand now pointed toward Harry, as was Voldemort's. "Not much brains, but guts."
"Why do you think he's come here, Draco?" Voldemort asked the young man.
"Truthfully, I don't know, my lord," Draco said, his voice sounding respectful as he addressed the Dark Lord. Or was it fear rather than respect, Harry wondered. "It cannot be that he expected to defeat you, somehow."
"Would you care to enlighten me, Harry," Voldemort said, pointing his wand at him once again. But he only gestured toward Draco. "If you would show Harry here how diligently you've been practicing the Cruciatus Curse, Draco."
Draco took a deep breath and pointed his wand toward Harry, shouting "Crucio!" as his father had done a few minutes earlier. Instead of Harry falling to the ground screaming, however, Draco's wand flew from his hand into Harry's.
"Run, Draco," Harry said. "Get out of here." Deprived of his wand, Draco looked at Harry in shock, then toward the doorway. After a moment, he lunged toward the door.
"Coward!" Voldemort screamed. "Avada Kedavra!" The green bolt hurtled toward Draco, but before it could strike him, the drawing room door moved forward, blocking the magical energy as it shattered into pieces. Draco ran down the hallway and out the front door.
Voldemort pointed his wand toward Harry, but it suddenly exploded in his hand, staggering the tall, thin figure. Recovering, Voldemort hissed, and Harry realized he'd spoken to the snake behind him, saying, "Kill."
The snake lurched toward Harry, rearing up and baring its fangs at him. Harry held his ground until the last moment, then suddenly made a slashing gesture toward the snake, which flopped to the floor in two bloody pieces. In Harry's hand a silver sword had appeared, rubies glittering around its pommel: Godric Gryffindor's sword.
Voldemort screamed, a cry of terror and anger mingled, and reached for Harry with hands whose fingers now seemed tipped in razor-sharp claws. But, at a gesture of Harry's left hand, Voldemort grew rigid and stiff, his hands forced down at his sides.
Harry regarded him almost impassively. "Not the way you expected this to end, did you?" he asked, hefting the sword as he walked around the motionless figure. "To be honest, I hadn't even been thinking about this until about 15 minutes ago, when I realized that it was the only reason for me to have been where I've been, all these years. Dumbledore was hiding me from your followers, keeping me from falling into their hands until you returned.
"You picked a pretty spectacular way to do it, too — having Wormtail use my blood, appearing in that cauldron, and calling all your followers back to you, like Lucius Malfoy. No telling what might have happened, if you'd killed me that night, like you planned.
"But you didn't," Harry said, standing in front of Voldemort, who watched him with red-filled, evil eyes. "Things didn't go as planned. And things really went strange a few hours ago, when I achieved your heart's desire, quite by accident." Harry held up his right hand, showing Voldemort the Star Brand in his palm. "This symbol gives me the power to do anything I can imagine. And it's made me immortal — oh, I see that's caught your interest," Harry smirked, as Voldemort's red eyes went wide. "The person who gave me this has been alive for several thousand years, he says, and he looks younger than you do, although he's nearly as white and hairless as you are."
Harry took the sword in both hands and swung it back. "Goodbye, Riddle." He swung it forward, leaning into the blow, and severed the Dark Lord's head from his shoulders. It flopped to the floor beside the decapitated snake, and the headless body fell over. Harry gestured at it and it burst into flames. The sword disappeared from his hand. Harry conjured a sack from the air, picked up Riddle's head, and tossing it inside.
Harry walked out of the manor and some distance away from the house, no longer caring about the wards and protections on the house. Who was there to hear them now, but Lucius, unconscious in the cellar and Narcissa, still asleep? He looked around, and both Malfoys appeared behind him: Lucius on the ground, still unconscious, and his wife, along with their large, four-poster bed, snoring gently. Harry turned back to the house and gestured one more time.
The entire house burst into bright flames, the fire roaring high into the sky. Narcissa Malfoy stirred sleepily, muttering drowsily, "Keep that racket down, Lucius, you know I hate getting up before — AAAAAAGGGH!" She bolted upright, completely awake and staring at her home in horror. "What —" she looked around, seeing Harry. "You!"
"I'm getting that a lot, lately," Harry said, shrugging. "You should look after your husband, Mrs. Malfoy, he's had a nasty accident, I'm afraid — he ran into a door. Several times." He disappeared in a flash of light, leaving a bewildered Narcissa Malfoy kneeling over her unconscious husband on the lawn of their estate, watching their home go up in flames.
Harry reappeared a moment later. "Don't worry about Draco, by the way," he told her. "He got out before the house went up. Voldemort wasn't so lucky, though." He held up the sack. "In fact, he's gone and lost his head over the whole thing." Laughing at his own joke, Harry disappeared again.
Harry reappeared in Grimmauld Square, outside his godfather's home. He marched unerringly across the square, straight toward where the entrance should be. The two houses on either side seemed to be right next to each other until the last moment, when he stepped on the front step, and the house suddenly sprung into being in front of him. He rang the doorbell, hearing a loud, clanging sound.
Several seconds passed before an excited Tonks answered the door. "Harry! Where'd you go? Come on in!" Tonks stepped back, gesturing for him to follow her inside; she quickly shutting the door behind them.
"HE'S BACK!" she shouted, making Harry wince slightly. "Sorry," she said, giving him a sheepish look. "But I have to yell, the others are probably trying to shut up Sirius's mum right now."
"Sirius's mum?" Harry looked surprised. "I didn't know she was still alive!"
"Oh, she's not," Tonks said, leading him down the hallway, where Lupin and Ron were trying to quiet the life-sized portrait of a woman who looked nearly as batty as Mrs. Figg, though she was much better dressed. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, as were the portraits all along the wall.
"Why don't they just take it down?" Harry shouted at Tonks.
"Can't!" she yelled back. "It's got a Permanent Sticking Charm holding it there!" Ron and Lupin were trying to force closed a set of curtains that were evidently used to cover up the portrait, but having little luck. Harry snorted, walked up to the portrait, and touched the frame.
In a flash of light the portrait disappeared. With the woman's screaming abated, the other portraits quieted down as well. Lupin and Ron were both staring at Harry with looks of apprehension. He ignored their looks and said, "Come on."
They followed Harry down to the kitchen, picking up Hermione along the way. Once down there, at the table, Harry asked Lupin to all everyone in the house down to the kitchen. Lupin took out his wand and said, loudly, "Expecto Patronum!" Three silver wolves burst from the tip of his wand and raced away, through the kitchen door. "Sirius and Severus will be here shortly. I've also sent word to Professor Dumbledore, who left right after you did, Harry."
"Where did he go?" Harry asked.
"He did not say."
Sirius and Snape joined them a minute or two later, appearing one after the other, as if they'd left space between each other while coming downstairs together. "Where did you go, Harry?" Sirius asked, as soon as he saw him, but Harry didn't respond. Snape said nothing but stared unblinkingly at Harry.
"We'll wait to see if Dumbledore's coming," Harry said, but after a few minutes he shrugged and said, "He'll just have to catch up later.
"Well, here's the news." Harry tipped the sack he'd been holding onto the table. Voldemort's head rolled out. Hermione screamed, and Ron jumped back about two feet. "That's what's left of him."
"Harry, oh my God, you did it!" Hermione cried through her hands covering her mouth. "You actually did it!"
Ron looked at him, both amazed and sheepish. "We thought — well, I thought you were having us on a bit — you know, playing a prank on us, like Fred or George, just pretending to be angry with us, earlier."
"I wasn't pretending," Harry said flatly. He watched as both Lupin and Snape examined the head carefully, to determine whether it was Voldemort's or not. After a moment, however, he turned away, no longer interested. It didn't matter whether they believed it or not — it was over. The war with Voldemort was finished.
"It is the Dark Lord," Snape said, a few minutes later. He looked at Remus. "Do you concur, Lupin?"
Remus stepped back, putting his wand away. "I do," he said. "Amazing!"
"'Amazing' is not the word I would use," Snape replied, staring at Harry — he could feel the Potions master's gaze boring into the back of his head. "What is the meaning of this, Potter? How could you have possibly taken the Dark Lord's head?"
"Isn't that what you wanted me to do?" Harry said, levelly.
Snape didn't reply. "He's got a point," Sirius said, a twisted grin on his face. "Doesn't this solve all our problems?"
"Not all of them," Lupin pointed out. "We still have his Death Eaters to contend with." Ron and Hermione both looked at Snape.
"They will not be of much concern," Snape said, ignoring their looks. "Without the Dark Lord present, and with a trophy such as this —" He pointed toward Voldemort's severed head. "— they will become even more fragmented and divisive than they've been for the past fourteen years."
"I wonder what Dumbledore will say?" Ron blurted.
Harry looked at him for a moment, then held out his hands. Voldemort's head leapt into Harry's arms. "I'll let you know," he said, and vanished.
He reappeared in Dumbledore's office, directly in front of the headmaster's desk, and dropped the head on the papers there. The headmaster, sitting there with quill in hand, looked at it, startled, then up at Harry.
"Can this be real?" he asked, as surprised as Harry had ever seen him. "Is this really the head of Lord Voldemort?"
"It is," Harry said. "I took it from him myself."
Dumbledore stood, walking around his desk to stand next to Harry. "Please don't misunderstand this question, Harry, but how could you possibly have defeated Voldemort?"
Harry sighed and folded his arms, giving the headmaster a resigned look. "Snape —"
"— Professor Snape, Harry."
"Whatever," Harry went on. "He asked me that same question."
"And how did you answer him?" Dumbledore continued.
"I didn't, but I'll answer you," Harry told him. He held up his right hand, showing Dumbledore the Star Brand on his palm. "A few hours ago, a man gave me this. He told me it would give me the power to do anything I could imagine. So far, that has been true."
"Who was this man, Harry?" Dumbledore asked, intrigued.
"He said his name was Kenneth Connell. He said he came from Earth, but — I didn't quite understand what he meant — he said didn't get the Brand until 2006, almost 10 years from now. He said he's had the Brand for thousands of years, but I don't see how that could be unless he was capable of time travel."
There was a knock on the door, and Harry looked at Dumbledore, surprised, then walked over to open it. A man with long, blond hair stood there, in a dark suit. "Hello, Harry," he said, in a familiar voice.
"Mr. Connell!" Harry said. "Come in. We were just talking about you!"
"I know," Connell said. He looked at head on Dumbledore's desk. "I see you've been busy. Well done."
"Um." Harry was suddenly ashamed. Whatever Voldemort had been, he was still human, at least in some sense, and Harry had simply executed him. "It was something that needed to be done," he said defensively. "Voldemort was a vicious killer — no one was safe while he was alive."
"Are they safe now that he's dead," Connell asked, "with you still alive?"
"I—" Harry hesitated, but what other answer could there be? "Yes, they're safe — or safer, at least."
"I hope so too." But Connell's expression remained worried. "Do you believe your behavior has been at its best these past few hours? Is your conscience clear on all counts?"
"I — I — think so," Harry said, uncertainly. "I know I've been — upset — a few times, but I think anyone would have been, under the circumstances."
"Really?" Connell said, his eyebrows (for he did have eyebrows, now) raised questioningly.
"I…don't know," Harry shook his head, wearily. "I can't decide. I — I'll do whatever you think best."
Connell nodded slowly, then faced Harry and raised his left hand. "I think you should return the Brand to me, Harry," he said. "Place your right hand against mine, please."
Harry stared at the mark in his hand for several long seconds, then looked at Professor Dumbledore.
"You must do what you think right, Harry," the Hogwarts headmaster told him. "It is either that, or choose what is easy."
Harry nodded, looking down at the floor, feeling shamed by his unworthiness in Connell's eyes. Slowly, he raised his hand, pressing against the blond-haired man's hand.
"You must will the transfer to take place, Harry," Connell told him. "The Star Brand cannot be taken — it can only be given."
Harry took a deep breath. It would be so easy to keep the Brand, he realized, if no one could take it from him. Easy — but not right. Hadn't he killed someone only a few hours after receiving it? Even if that someone was Voldemort, it said more about Harry that he felt comfortable knowing. Now that he was dead, if Harry kept the Star Brand it would be for his own selfish motivations, and he did not want to tempt himself further with such power. He concentrated, and there was a flash of light between their hands.
Connell nodded, but did not take his hand away from Harry's. Another flash of light blazed momentarily between their hands. Harry pulled his hand back, seeing the Star Brand visible in Connell's palm. But strangely, he felt no different than before.
Connell looked at him solemnly. "Look in your palm, Harry." Harry did, and was surprised to see the Star Brand still there. "My final test was to see if you had the strength of will to be given such power, and to return it willingly when asked, to prove your worthiness. You have passed that test."
Harry looked back at Connell wonderingly. "How — how did you know I would return it?" he asked. "What if I had decided to keep it?"
"When I touched you," Connell replied, "when we first met, it was to confirm what I'd already felt about you — that you are a very special person, Harry, one who does not easily fall prey to the allure of power. I felt your need to remove that evil wizard who has plagued your country for so long. And I felt that, when your need was satisfied, you would willingly give up the power you had been given.
"I also sense that this world needs someone like you, Harry, to protect it," Connell went on. "From what, exactly, I cannot say, for I do not know what the future will bring. I have divided the Star Brand power between us, Harry — half to you, half to me. There is more than enough power, even halved, that you will never find it lacking."
Connell turned to Dumbledore. "I also suspect Harry will need it again one day, given what I now understand about your adversary, Voldemort."
"I fear you are correct, sir," Dumbledore said, heavily.
"I will take my leave of you, then," Connell said, nodding to them both. He vanished in a flash of light, then reappeared a moment later. "Oh Harry, I meant to say, a very cool trick, this Apparition. It might even help me find my way home." Connell vanished once again.
Harry turned to Dumbledore. "What did you mean, you feared Connell was correct, when he said I'd need this power again?" He pointed to the head laying on Dumbledore's desk. "He's stone dead now."
Dumbledore sighed. "Harry, I believe you and I need to have a talk about — Horcruxes."