Chapter 141 –The Third Wave Forms

Albus was visibly concerned when Harry and Severus entered his office a few minutes later. Harry and Severus had walked quickly through the castle, and were surprised at the lack of panic among those they passed. As they rode the spiral stairs up to the Headmaster's office, they wondered if people did not know yet what had happened.

"How did you boys return from the Winter Lands? We are not to use any portkeys until the current situation was better understood. I thought your house elf was bringing you that word. Did he miss you?" Albus asked, as he stood from behind his massive desk and hurried to greet them.

"Dobby arrived as we were finishing lunch and just preparing to return. He informed us it was unwise to use the portkey, so we asked him to apparate us back. That's how he got up there to tell us," Harry explained. "And he was able to bring us back the same way."

Albus looked surprised, but it passed quickly as he shooed the others to chairs and joined them by the fire.

"Albus, as we walked here, we could not help but notice the lack of distress among those residing here. This event is not widely known?" Severus asked.

Albus scratched his beard idly as he stared at the fire. "Hogwarts has warded floo connections and no one in the castle was using the floo today, so we did not directly experience the event, but we received an urgent owl advising us to close all our floos down until this got sorted. The floo network is held together by an elaborate array of sigils, and they just went . . . I don't know the words to describe it. About an hour ago, people who entered the floo did not appear at their destinations. There was initial terrible fear that they were killed, or died in the malfunction. The last owl brought word that the floo addresses were jumbled, so people were exiting in the wrong grates, not killed or injured, just lost. Four children on their way home after visits with grandparents ended up in a particularly unsavory establishment in Knockturn Alley, and two members of the Chudley Cannons headed to a team meeting ended up in Arabella Figg's drawing room, things like that. The Ministry's arithmancers are all hard at work. They have to recalibrate the addresses and reconnect all floos back to the reconstituted network, and that will take time. Because we have so many Ministry workers here for the weekend with their families, our floos were a priority – one reconnection will enable nearly 100 people to report to work tomorrow. Our floos are already fully functional. The ban on the use of port keys was precautionary, but it has not yet been lifted."

While Severus was relieved to hear that this was not the devastating event it might have been, he wanted to know what had been done and by whom.

"Ah, Severus, that we do not know. Amelia's last owl indicated the problem was confined to the English floo network; we were worried it was world-wide, like the sleeping spell. She has a team of aurors working with some of the arithmancers and the Department that manages the floo network, to see if they can determine how this was done. Getting the floo network reconnected is all well and good. But if there is a point at which it can be disabled and that is not addressed, it can be brought down again."

Harry was aware that press coverage of the recent attacks on Ministry workers and their families had really ratcheted up the panic level (or, more accurately, Hermione was aware of this from the articles she'd read, and Harry and others had learned about this as a consequence of an argument she had with Draco about that panic level). "What will the press make of this," he wondered.

His question earned him a nod from Severus, and a rather sad look from Albus. ''Unfortunately, I do believe that several reporters and the staff photographer from the Daily Prophet entered the floo while the problem existed. One reporter was still missing, as of the last owl from the Ministry."

Severus and Harry both looked concerned by that statement. This was going to be bad. "I understand that the missing reporter is Miss Rita Skeeter," Albus added glumly.

"One aspect of this that really bothered me, Headmaster, was the fact that the ravens never mentioned this. They visited me today, probably just before this happened, and nothing even hinted at this. We went over that vision several times with great care; there was no whiff of this." While Harry and Severus had also discussed the fact that Severus had no perceptions or awareness of this either, no one looked to Severus for insights and Harry felt it was Severus' call to share that or not.

Albus looked very thoughtful at that news. "Most curious, Harry. No hint at all?"

Severus suddenly sat up a bit straighter. Thoughts had been circling around in his head, and with a start he had realized that perhaps he had an explanation, if not an answer, after all. "Harry, Albus, I've been thinking on something Harry told me, apparently a statement made by Miss Granger." Both men perked up at that news, curious as to what might this might be.

"She is said to have concluded that since these ravens were Odin's familiars, if they are sharing something, we must assume they do so for a purpose. Therefore, Harry's visions from them have meaning, even if it is not readily clear to us." Severus looked at Harry for confirmation, and Harry nodded; that was a good summation of her thinking that led to the group meeting to review the visions in the evenings.

"What the ravens share has importance, and perhaps, then, this most recent event, unheralded as it was by the ravens, might not be significant to the big picture, to the battle we know is coming."

Albus leaned back in his chair, reacting to Severus' statement rather than agreeing with it. "An act of sabotage that creates so much disruption, is so distracting and demoralizing to the wizarding population, not part of the plan?" It was clear that he was quite unconvinced.

Harry, on the other hand, was looking thoughtful.

"Headmaster, we began those extensive debriefs of my recent visions because there was nothing immediately obvious about the current situation in them. We knew there were attacks and raids going on from the news reports, but the ravens chose to focus, every day, on an encampment of some sort. This could well be more of the same, because the ravens brought me more scenes from the encampment probably just as this was unfolding."

Albus nodded benignly, but the lingering skepticism in his face made it clear to both Harry and Severus that he remained doubtful about the current visions.

X

Of course, no one at Hogwarts knew it, but Harry and Severus were correct. The sabotage of the floo network was not part of Voldemort's grand scheme.

A rambunctious younger member of the LeStrange family had travelled by floo to Knockturn Alley earlier that day, and had gotten into an argument with the proprietor of the inn whose floo connection he had used. Rather than settle the matter with the proprietor directly, the young man directed a series of vicious spells into the floo connection that was at the heart of their dispute. He'd actually intended to destroy the fireplace and sever the local floo connection there, wanting to inconvenience the man with whom he quarreled, and hopefully also hurt his business. Had the floo remained inactive, that would indeed have been the outcome, but the floo flared to life just as the spells hit it. The wizard attempting to enter the inn was bounced away, and the spells ran wild through the English floo system for several long minutes before finally dissipating. Those minutes were enough to wreak havoc on the floo network, however.

The young man had stormed from the inn after casting his spells, and was disappointed to learn that the floos at all the other establishments in Knockturn Alley, as well as places in neighboring areas, were all down. He finally apparated back to his home, and later joined his father and two older brothers in taking a port key to Riddle Manor.

As the assembled Death Eaters awaited the arrival of their Lord in the dining room that now served as their meeting room, there was much discussion about the difficulties with the floo that day. While the youngest LeStrange boy had a story of his own about not being able to find a floo to use to return from Knockturn Alley earlier that day, it never occurred to him that the spells he had cast were behind the trouble.

At last Lord Voldemort joined his minions.

"Welcome, my friends," he began, nothing in his voice expressing actual welcome or any expression of friendship. "I am glad you all were able to get here, given the problems our Ministry seems to be having today with its floo network." There were snickers around the table at that, but the meeting moved ahead.

"We have gathered a most impressive army of supporters up north, and will be joining them ourselves the day after tomorrow, to make the final preparations for our final assault on Harry Potter and the Light. This problem with the floo should be resolved by tonight, according to the latest Ministry release, so I trust that will not impede our plans. If we need to use portkeys, we will secure and distribute them tomorrow. You have all been assigned to tents in the various camps; I need lieutenants in each camp to keep an eye on things and assure that all our efforts are coordinated when I determine that it is time to strike."

There were some nervous glances around the table at that. The camps were cold and drafty, a poor substitute for their warm houses. There was also the matter that some of their Lord's supporters were a bit off-putting, to put it mildly. He had succeeded in recruiting a number of dark creatures, but those were not the sort of creatures with which his core group of Death Eaters wanted to actually associate.

As if reading their minds (although actually just looking at their nervous faces), Voldemort added, "Only my most reliable lieutenants can be trusted with assignments in the camps; I realize those assignments will be more difficult and uncomfortable, but trust I have chosen you well." This group loved a compliment, even a patently insincere one.

As he nodded to dismiss his minions, he added, "I just hope this disruption to the floo network is resolved quickly, lest it impede any of our progress in this grand mission."

X

Earlier that day, Lucius Malfoy had received an owl from Rufus, the barman in the small inn he favored for his extremely private assignations, bearing a cryptic note. "The gent wishes to speak with you this evening at 8."

He had to think for a minute, but realized the "gent" in question would have to be the rough character Mallory had directed to him. Instinctively, he checked his schedule to see if there were other plans that would have to be rearranged to accommodate this meeting. That was not really necessary. As Narcissa's pregnancy had advanced, their social calendar had been greatly curtailed and it was now a rare evening that they had plans. Given that all the information the man had shared the last time had checked out through his other sources, he would treat this meeting as a priority.

The mess with the floos gave him pause as the hour of the meeting drew closer. Most commercial floos had been reconnected to the network by the end of the workday, and while he had been able to have his house floo restored, too, his personal floo was a complication. No one actually knew about that one. It had cost Lucius a goodly pile of gold to have that extra connection made with no one the wiser. He was fully prepared to spend the money again for the convenience and privacy of such a connection, but such . . . delicate . . . work took time, and was simply not possible when all the Ministry wanks were fussing so with the network. He eventually decided to leave from home after an early supper with Narcissa, departing for a "business meeting" and heading to a public floo not too far from his solicitor's office. He could easily apparate from there to the inn, rather than brave the cold.

Lucius settled into his regular table in the inn's dining room about 7:30, and Rufus quickly brought over his preferred whiskey. Right at eight, the informant strode into the inn, again in his workmens' robes. He spotted Lucius immediately in the nearly deserted inn, and sauntered right over to his table, taking the chair opposite with a gruff "Good to see you again, Guv." Rufus had watched the arrival, and appeared moments later with a tumbler of whiskey for him, and the man took a deep drink as Rufus departed back to the bar.

"I'm glad that you came by this ev'nin', Guv. Been seeing some interesting things going on at Eastbrook this past month or so. Odd stuff. I thought it might be of interest."

Lucius ventured, "More weapons?"

The man chuckled and gulped down more whiskey, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Nah, Guv. Weapons are always being bought and sold, nothing like that. Other things – supplies is how I'd describe this lot. We sell this sort of stuff regular, nothing odd about it being bought. But not in the middle of winter. And not all going to storage barns within a two-mile area up north."

Lucius nodded, careful as always to give nothing of his interest away in his facial expression. Once again, he was aware of the folly of judging a book by its cover; this man was not the bumpkin he appeared. Spotting the weapons shipments as he did before could have been the sign of a sharp mind, or it could have been a lucky coincidence. That the man now saw a pattern in other purchases now suggested he was smarter than he looked. But Lucius wasn't sure what value there might be in tracking the sales of "supplies."

He leaned in to speak softly. "I might be interested." He slid a 100 galleon coin across to the man, commenting, "The same terms as before apply to this conversation. I appreciate your bringing this to my attention, but until I have a better understanding of what "supplies" you are talking about, I can only offer this good-faith payment."

His guest covered the coin with his calloused hand and slid it into his lap, slipping it into his pocket. With a gap-toothed grin, he allowed, "Fair enough."

The man leaned in and described the shipments of supplies he'd observed. Mostly, these consisted of hundreds of tents with extensive and some unique Wizard Space charms, as well as massive amounts of cooking supplies.

Lucius had a hand in arranging the Quidditch World Cup several years ago, and the quantities involved here seemed similar to the sorts of orders the Ministry of Magic was placing then. But there was no World Cup going on now, in Britain or elsewhere, and certainly no one would have any sort of event that relied so heavily on tents in this awful weather. He allowed a puzzled expression onto his face.

"Most curious, indeed. I'm sure if there was a Quidditch World Cup under way somewhere, we'd know about it, as these quantities seem similar to the supplies brought in for that. Nothing to suggest what this is for?"

His guest chucked. "Aye, if I knows that, the price is lots higher, Guv, i'nt it? No, I just noticed the orders coming through, out of season, if you know what I mean, and wanting immediate delivery, all of them. And all heading north, to Scotland, of all places. I don't know what, but somethin's up."

Lucius placed another large gold coin on the table, which quickly joined his prior offering in the man's pocket. "Another coin will join this if you can provide the location to which the shipments were sent."

A big grin now appeared on his guest's face. "Make it two coins, and I'll give you all the locations."

Lucius put the additional coins on the table, but blocked his guest's move to grab them. "Locations first, my good man. You see the money, and it's yours once you provide the information."

Again from his surprising memory, the man recited several addresses clustered in a remote, northerly part of Scotland. As he reached to claim his two coins, he added "A pleasure doin' business with you, Guv."

Lucius nodded absently, pondering the information he'd just been given. "If further information comes to your attention, Rufus can arrange a meeting as he did this time." He sat in the inn for a while, savoring the whiskey and waiting to be sure his guest had gone. He finally settled his bill and compensated Rufus for his role in setting up the meeting, before apparating back to the public floo by which he arrived in Diagon Alley.

Lucius was tempted to have this information verified as he did the last information provided by the man, but he kept focusing on the basic innocuous nature of the goods in question. Camping supplies. He pondered this on his way home, and decided it would foster the new relationship he was trying to create at the Ministry to drop in on Amelia in the morning and get her take on it. She was once an Auror, after all, and might see something in this. If it warranted the extra time to verify it, he had his sources to handle that.

The frostiness of Amelia's initial greeting when he swept into her office the next morning melted immediately when he described the information he'd come upon. Amelia herself had just spent an hour with the Ministry team tasked with identifying the location of the camp that the Hogwarts students thought was being described by the ravens to Mr. Potter. They were not making any progress – they were bickering among themselves, debating the students' interpretation of the information, arguing about minute details. Several members of the group clearly wanted to focus on the floo network debacle of the prior day as the more immediate threat, and had no interest at all in this project. They seemed to be doing everything but working through the clues provided to identify a manageable number of possible locations to check. While Lucius was qualifying his input up, down and sideways, he did indicate it came from the man who had been accurate in what he shared regarding the weapons stockpiling. She had not told him about the project to look for the site depicted in Mr. Potter's visions; it was possible that Draco had told him something, but it was just as likely the two hadn't spoken. Shipments of camping supplies, and the special Wizard Space charms, fit right into the scenario being investigated.

"Lucius, it was very wise of you to share this right away," she reassured him, "and not take the time to have it verified. You said the man was spot on the last time, and I'm willing to do some checking right away with our resources. We do suspect that forces are assembling in the north, and it is possible, perhaps even likely, that your information connects with activity for which we are already looking. These locations will enable us to focus quickly."

Lucius hoped to get some further details about these suspicions, and he prolonged the visit to see if he could wheedle any information from the Minister, but Amelia cagily held her tongue after that. With assurances that he would be pleased to pass along any other interesting tidbits that came his way, he finally left the Minister's office in defeat. He consoled himself with the thought that the quality and value of the information to which he alone had access was becoming known, the best way to cement his position going forward.

For her part, Amelia immediately summoned Auror Darmut and the leader of the Ministry team back to her office. "Gentlemen, I have gotten some information about massive shipments of what appear to be camping supplies to certain locations in Scotland. They are clustered within a two-mile radius, which ought to limit your search substantially. Does the Ministry team have any possible locations identified in the area of the shipments?"

A nervous-looking wizard with a bald head consulted a sheaf of parchments, and finally extracted one. "We do have one site in that area that someone thought was a "possible", but as we worked through more information, we dismissed it."

Amelia shook her head in frustration. "Well, Mr. Eccles, it appears that we now have new information that suggests it might be the most likely spot. Auror Darmut, assign your best to check out that site, as well as the area around it. Find out what is going on up there, and report back to me immediately."

X

The one good thing about the mess with the floo network was that the Aurors were free to pursue information about activities up in Scotland with no attention from the press.

The Daily Prophet featured blaring headlines and numerous articles (many by-lined by Rita Skeeter) about the sudden crash of the floo network and the ensuing panic as floo travelers found themselves in all manner of unexpected places. The Ministry insisted that the Prophet run an article (which it did, on page 22) that described exactly what had occurred: no one was harmed, just misdirected to the wrong floo, all were now safely at their intended destinations, and the floo network was once again fully and properly operating. However, the Prophet ran all manner of first-hand accounts full of drama and outrage on the first 21 pages of the issue about the crash. The Minister quietly encouraged her public relations staff to keep the focus on the crash of the floo network for a couple of days. It was a good diversion.

Hermione read the Daily Prophet over breakfast, chuckling into her oatmeal. Harry had told her and Ron the evening before what had gone wrong with the floo network, and that Severus now agreed (to the point of quoting her to the Headmaster!) with her position that the ravens were communicating for a purpose. She agreed with the Professor's interpretation that the fact that the ravens had said nothing about the presumed attack on the floo network suggested that this was not part of any plan, just an isolated event. The Prophet was getting people all worked up for nothing.

Unnoticed by anyone connected to the Daily Prophet was the departure of a large group of senior Aurors from their Ministry offices, all heading to Scotland. Small teams travelled by different routes, just in case anyone noticed, all eventually arriving at a designated Ministry-owned safe-house just a few miles from the area the Minister had directed them to check. Back in London, the team that had been working on the information provided by Harry's ravens had redoubled their efforts to find any spots in that area that might offer space for a camp of some sort and also have features that matched the clues Harry had gotten. While the team members who had dismissed this area before remained unpersuaded, the others were finally able to identify six remote farms that might accommodate all the known facts. The last arrival up in Scotland was the leader of the team, bearing the maps that pinpointed the likely locations of camps in this area.

It was bitter cold, and the Aurors were not happy to learn that their surveillance would have to be done by broom, at night. Even with warming charms, this was not going to be comfortable. As soon as night fell, groups of three Aurors each departed from the field behind the Ministry property to their assigned field. Even though they would be obscured by clouds and able to blend into the forests and uneven terrain, they still employed their best obscuration charms, and kept silent.

Those were all wise precautions, because all but one team returned with news of something significant going on in the field upon which they spied from the air. Even in the gloomy night, it was clear that at least five large meadows were now home to large encampments. The Aurors kept their distance and were careful to stay down-wind, as they surveyed the areas from the shelter of trees or rocks on the perimeters. There was one camp that seemed to be filled with giants, not surprising that they would be segregated from anyone else, given their notoriously aggressive natures. There were wizards in most of the other camps, but they were not alone. There were all manner of dark creatures in the various camps. The most awful sight reported was of a large pile of what appeared to be corpses, in the center of one of the camps. No doubt, these were Inferi awaiting the charms to mobilize them in the service of their masters.

Amelia was relieved, the following morning, to be able to offer up some actual information for a change, although this was certainly disquieting information. The team at the Ministry immediately dissolved itself so each member could go back to their usual work, largely relieved that at least the annoying people at Hogwarts hadn't solved this one. Amelia was bitterly disappointed in their lack of progress, but had to agree that each team member contributed more individually than they had working together.

Her visit to Hogwarts to update Professors Dumbledore and Snape, and Mr. Potter, had a similarly odd outcome. At least, this group was clearly pleased to learn that locations had been pin-pointed, but she was not really ready for the question posed immediately by the potions professor: were there house elves serving the wizards in their camps? She sputtered a bit at the apparently nonsensical question, but finally admitted she had no idea and would ask the teams in the north to check that for her. Albus had the castle expand the Ministry Annex and invited the Minister to make use of it for whatever activities needed to occur closer to the area where it appeared things would begin happening soon, so she went off to spend some time with Kingsley Shacklebolt, briefing him and preparing space to accommodate the Ministry workers who needed to be in Scotland.

And all signs began to point to the fact that something would be happening, soon.

Harry's visions that day ignored the camps, and showed him, for the first time, a battle. It was a vicious battle, and at least some of it was playing out on the lawn in front of Hogwarts. There appeared to be several dozen Death Eaters battling Aurors and members of the Order of the Phoenix with wands and swords, and beyond the wards, there was a tremendous bombardment directed at the castle using all sorts of siege engines. There were wizards among the attackers, but many of the attackers weren't human – there were giants, dementors, Inferi and all manner of creatures aligned with the Dark.

When the vision was over, Harry stood wobbly, panting and sweaty from the scenes he'd seen and then relived in minute detail under Severus' careful questioning. Severus enfolded his bondmate in a hug, holding the smaller man close, and willing some of his own strength to fortify Harry. Gradually, Harry calmed, and reached his own arms around Severus' middle, holding on as if for dear life.

"Oh, my God, that's it, isn't it?" Harry whispered into the wool of Severus' jacket. "But the duels were on the lawn, inside the wards. How . . .?"

Severus placed a calming hand on the back of Harry's neck, and took a steadying breath himself. That was exactly the image that had made the greatest impact on him, as well. How did Death Eaters get behind the wards?

"I think we need to discuss this with the Headmaster immediately, Harry. That was a significant change from prior visions, no doubt signaling important developments. I am also quite certain that this battle will occur within the week."

Harry leaned back and looked up sharply that that news. "Within the week?" he breathed. "So soon? How do you know?"

Severus wasn't too sure of that, himself. He shrugged, a look of discomfort on his face.

"Did Madam Bunswill teach you how to access your new magic? Were you able to do that?" Harry wanted to know.

"She did describe some techniques that I might employ to develop and refine the magic, but with all that has been going on, I have not truly focused on that. She did say that there would be some insights that were so powerful that they would express themselves even without any effort on my part. I am certain this battle is imminent."

Harry tucked his head back under Severus' chin, and held on as if for dear life. Severus, for his part, allowed them to stand in that manner until he was confident that Harry had regained his composure.

Albus was surprised when a house elf summoned him back to his office just as he was finishing up his lunch. And he was even more surprised to find Severus and Harry awaiting his arrival with very tense expressions on their faces.

"Sir, today's visit from the ravens was really different from what they've shown me other times. It was of battles raging here at Hogwarts. Death Eaters battling on the lawn of the castle, massive bombardment of the castle from just beyond," Harry began.

Severus immediately added, "And this appears to be imminent. I expect this will occur within the week."

Albus sat heavily at his desk, pointing his guests to chairs opposite.

"So, Harry, your ravens have begun showing something different from the camps. This attack – are you quite certain it was Hogwarts?" he began.

Severus' face clouded with impatience, but Harry politely nodded. "Yes, sir. Severus was with me, and we went through landmarks and such very carefully. The battle with the Death Eaters was on the front lawn of the castle, right past the front doors. Inside the wards. And there were massive stones, things on fire, launched from the siege engines on the land outside the wards, closer to Hogsmeade."

"And how do you know the timing, may I ask," Albus asked.

"Um, well, I don't really get a strong sense of actual timing," Harry began, only to be cut off by Severus.

"Headmaster, I knew as soon as Harry began his description of these events that they would occur within a week."

Albus leaned back in his chair. "I will have to alert the Minister, of course. She is aware of Mr. Potter's visions. Do you want me to mention your input, Severus?"

"Tell her this is imminent, of course, there is no time to waste. I doubt that attributing this insight to me would carry any weight with the Minister, or the Ministry; it might be a distraction." Albus nodded in agreement, and Severus smiled ruefully. "But if you can persuade them of the lack of time before this occurs by Mr. Potter's own sense of imminence, do so."

Harry wished he could stay longer, but lunch was long over and classes were about to resume. Reluctantly, he excused himself to get to his Charms class, sure Severus would discuss the issues of concern to them, as he did not have a class immediately after lunch. With a nod, and meaningful look directed to Severus, he left while his bondmate lingered for a moment.

Severus did not waste any time getting to his concern, but stated it clearly as soon as the door closed behind Harry. "Albus, both Harry and I specifically noticed that the vision showed Death Eaters fighting us within the castle wards. Your thoughts?"

Albus leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "I'm afraid that there are ways, even for those most unwelcome here, to get behind the wards, especially if they have a confederate within the walls to assist them. There is no way to assure that no one here will not provide that assistance. I hope you saw just a small number of Death Eaters, and not the entire army?" he asked.

Severus thought on that, and offered, "No, Harry was very clear that it was not more than a dozen Death Eaters battling near the castle. But surely the wards themselves will hold?"

Albus looked sad. "The Hogwarts wards are indeed powerful and strongly rooted to the stones and earth here, so I would not expect they will easily be pried loose, or brought down. I am relieved to learn that you saw just a few Death Eaters within the wards; that suggests they did not swarm through collapsed wards. But if there is a concerted attack, especially with combinations of magics, it might be possible to create small gaps or holes in the wards. I would not expect that there would be massive holes through which large number could press in, but it is possible that there could be some infiltration if there is an attack."

Harry and Severus returned to their rooms right after dinner that evening, Harry anxious to know what the Headmaster said about Death Eaters fighting within the wards.

"So, what the the Headmaster think about the fighting inside the wards?" Harry burst out as soon as the door closed behind them.

"To my chagrin, Harry, he did indicate that it would be possible for some small number of unwelcome guests to get behind the wards, especially if someone inside is assisting them. Small disruptions can also occur at the wards themselves, around the perimeter of the castle's land. What you saw in your vision did not involve a complete breach, with a flood of combatants, so I assume we can repair or hold the wards that surround the castle as the battle continues."

Harry shivered. He hated the idea of fighting so close to those who had huddled into Hogwarts for the safety they assumed it represented. "I don't think people have any idea that Death Eaters can get into the castle. I cannot imagine the panic when they see that."

Severus had no answer to that. He held Harry in a comforting hug for a moment, to be sure Harry was not going to become distraught at the image of terrified people in the castle. Sometimes, Harry allowed the images of those he could not help to overcome him, but Severus succeeded in averting that. With a deep breath, Severus finally stepped back.

"I have some work I must attend to this evening, and I assume you have your friends stopping by." Severus allowed a small smile to play across his mouth. Let the world go to hell in a handbasket – his bondmate was still one of the most beautiful creatures put on this earth, and he would remind the young man just how cherished he was. "I will see you later."

Shortly after Severus swept from their rooms, Hermione, Ron, Draco and Neville arrived and crowded into the kitchen. Harry briefed them on the latest vision, sharing what he'd been told about the wards. He was relieved to discover that it was as big a shock to the others, especially the wizard-raised, that the wards were not unbreachable.

While Hermione made her notes, because that's what she does, the group abandoned the use of parchments hung around the room. This new vision did not seem to be one out of which lots of small details needed to be teased, although there were questions.

Hermione asked a number of questions about the Death Eaters fighting inside the walls, keen to see if there were clues there about who might have allowed them in. Draco immediately bristled at what he thought was the insinuation that someone in his House did it. To avert an argument, Harry pointed out that there were many ways to enter Hogwarts, including a floo connection back to the Ministry. Even if all the other floos were disabled, the Ministry would keep its connection open to facilitate its role in the defense. Ron reminded them that portkeys could also enable some people to get into the castle.

Neville looked pensive and asked about the efforts to bring down the wards at the perimeter, and the efforts to damage or destroy the walls around the fences. Harry did his best to revisit that part of the vision again, prompted by Neville and eventually the others. When it appeared that Harry had exhausted all the details that he could recall, he posed a question of his own.

"But Dumbledore didn't think what I described suggested that anyone got through those breaches. He thought, if the Death Eaters were able to pull down the wards, they'd've swarmed in, but there were just a few inside. So the wards out there held, and the walls didn't appear to be damaged. Why the interest?"

Neville bobbed his head. "Nitrocris wants to come here, and help defend the castle. Her magical strength, the case for most witches and wizards in Egypt, is all about preservation. She can help keep the castle and the walls secure."

Harry's initial thought was to decline the offer; the last thing he wanted was for anyone else to be put in jeopardy because of his fight with Voldemort. But the look in Neville's eyes made him pause. Before he could make up his mind what he wanted to say to that, Neville stood to leave. "Gotta get a letter out tonight."

Ron watched his friend leave, and then asked into the silence, "So, this is it, then?"

Draco swallowed at the realization, but Hermione got a very steely glint in her eye. "We'll be ready," she reassured the others.

Neville stopped at the Gryffindor tower to pen his note and get a cloak for the walk to the Owlery, only to discover that there was no need to send a note: Nitrocris was settled into the Common Room already. She brightened noticeably when Neville entered, much to Seamus' dismay.

After a chaste kiss on the cheek for Neville, she said softly, "I felt in my heart that I needed to be here, now, to assist Harry Potter. I assume I may reside once again in the dormitory here?"

Neville gallantly agreed to speak to Professor McGonnagal to have the girls' dormitory enlarged to include her, and they quietly spoke in the corner for a while, as Neville brought her up to date on the current developments.

When Severus returned to his and Harry's rooms a few hours later, he had a steely glint in his eyes that reminded Harry of Hermione.

"Is everything alright, Severus? You've been gone a long time," Harry began as the man shook out his snow-encrusted cloak.

As Severus poured himself a brandy and took a seat by the fire, he answered. "Yes, actually. I went with your house elf friend, Dobby, up to the Winter Lands, for a chat with Tante."

Severus smiled at the look of confusion that appeared on Harry's face in response to that statement.

"We are going to ensure that the camps in Scotland experience the darkness that your visions reported. Tante knew of a dozen or so magical forsythia in the forest near her that are in protected areas and currently in bloom right. She and Dobby are harvesting them now, and he is going to plant them around the camps that the Ministry found – apparently, the house elves already knew where the camps were. He'll get them planted near the tents and cast a slight warming charm on them. We know the forsythia don't respond well to being moved, and will likely die within a day or two, but the warming charms will enable them to last that long. And then, there will be darkness in the camps."

"Brilliant!" Harry enthused. "Dobby thinks he can do that?"

"No one pays attention to house elves – you recall that even Albus seemed surprised that we apparated home with Dobby last weekend. There are house elves working in the tents that have been placed in all but one of the camps, and it is safe to assume that no one would recognize that the elf planting something in the camp wasn't one of the elves serving in a tent. Among themselves, Dobby is confident that none of the elves would object to him doing this, or think to report it to a wizard. His magic should enable him to get the plants moved to their new locations within a very short period of time."

"He'll be reporting in when he's done?" Harry asked, as he joined Severus and sat on the couch next to his fireside chair.

"I would expect that. So, what transpired here this evening?"

Harry shared the outcome of the small group's conversation.

"The young Pharaoh? Well, yes, I would imagine Egyptian magic would involve preservation. How else would the pyramids and Sphynx have lasted all those thousands of years? Very gracious of her."

Severus was about half-way through his brandy when Dobby popped into view. He looked nervous, and was worrying his tunic in his hands.

"Ah Sirs, Dobby is glad to see you both! Dobby got the pretty yellow flower plants from kind, wise Mrs. Tante, and has put them in each of the camps. As you instructed, Sir, Dobby tries to plant them spread through each camp. In one camp, though, the elf in charge of the big tent insisted that they be placed next to the entrance to the tent. He moved them when Dobby planted them, and threatened Dobby with grievous harm when Dobby tried to move them back. Dobby can return, if Sirs wish, and move the plants."

Severus could make a good guess as to who was going to be staying in the tent in question; Voldemort's house elves would realize that their Lord would want any adornments or decoration placed by his tent, for him to enjoy, and he'd be sure to notice this. It was even possible that the Dark Lord would want the plants moved inside the tent so he alone could enjoy the glowing blooms.

"Dobby, you did well to permit the other elf to position them as he felt appropriate, and to report back to us. Thank you for your assistance."

"Oh, Sirs can always count on Dobby! He will always be there for Harry Potter and for Harry Potter's Beloved Bondmate! Such kind and gracious wizards . . ."

The glare that appeared on Severus' face encouraged the little elf to apparate out before completing that thought.

Harry seemed not to understand the placement issue.

"I had asked your elf to place plants around the different camps, not clustered in one place. I felt that the panic and distress the sudden darkness would bring would be amplified that way. I suspect that it was Voldemort's elf who realized his lord would insist that ornamentation be placed near his tent, and not for general enjoyment. Not optimal, but not worth incurring any suspicion at this point."

Severus put his now-empty glass down on the hearth, and stood, reaching out to pull Harry to his feet.

"The chill from the Winter Lands has gotten into my bones, and was not eased by the brandy. I think a soak in a nice warm tub is in order."

Harry did not need to be asked twice. His nerves were on end; Ron's observation earlier had weighed on him. Something big was going to happen, and happen soon.

The two wizards enjoyed their soak, Severus warming up and Harry calming down. As he soaped Harry's hair, Severus noticed the tension in his bondmate's shoulders, and gently probed to ease it.

"The water is losing its heat, and we should get to bed," he observed, summoning fluffy towels as he stood and enveloped Harry in one.

Their love-making that night was tender and caring, Severus seeking to give Harry a brief respite from the worry and care of the impending battle. He knew the time was drawing near, and was not sure of what tomorrow would bring. He wanted the young man reassured now of the feelings his bondmate had for him.

X

Harry was pleased to see Nitrocris at the Gryffindor table the next day, although the way she had piled on several sweaters suggested she was not used to the exceptionally cold weather in England. And she was not the only new face in the crowd that morning.

Sirius and Remus had come to Hogwarts the night before, Sirius insisting he felt he needed to be there for Harry, and Remus only too happy to accommodate that. As the day progressed, several other witches and wizards felt compelled, for reasons they could not really define, to travel north to Hogwarts. Several students commented at the eclectic assortment of visitors, many of whom did not have children attending the school, and thus no current connection to Hogwarts. A few (besides Nitrocris) did not even hail from England.

Hermione was remarking about this at lunch, just as Neville had noted that his grandmother had sent him an owl to tell him that she was negotiating a short leave from her Auror assignment to the Queen's detail and would be at Hogwarts the next morning. Draco seemed equally unenthusiastic to report that he'd heard from his father that he would be at Hogwarts the next morning, as well. Harry caught sight of Nicolas Flamel and Mr. Olivander sitting together at the Head Table, and he realized that he knew the common thread among all these unexpected guests.

He'd met them all at the Calling.

He just hoped that similar numbers of very powerful witches and wizards were not at this moment arriving at Voldemort's camps farther north.

As guests were arriving at Hogwarts, the Dark creatures massing at the camps in isolated parts of Scotland were joined by those Death Eaters who remained loyal to Voldemort, even after the removal of the Dark Marks no longer enabled Voldemort to command their attention or milk their power. As Augusta Longbottom and Lucius Malfoy joined those gathering at Hogwarts, Lord Voldemort finally left the comforts of Riddle Manor for the large tent in the main camp. The crowds in the camps had swelled, as a strong sense of anticipation built, awaiting the arrival of their Lord, and a last, final assault on the Light.

His arrival signaled that the assault was soon to begin.

[A/N: My apologies for the long hiatus. As I mentioned to a few of you who checked in on me via PM, I live in an area that was hard hit by Superstorm Sandy. I had no power at all for two weeks and then had to deal with the time-consuming things that always follow a destructive flood in your home. Life was only getting back to semi-normal as Christmas arrived. I was thinking of where my story was going all the while, but I was not able to sit down and actually write it out until more recently.

There are a few more chapters to go. The battle is coming up, and then there will be at least two post-battle chapters. We're getting there, and I am so happy to have so many of you still with me on my journey. I've been bad about acknowledging your comments, but I really, really do appreciate everyone who takes a moment to offer one.

Finally, I've had a few comments asking if I would please include m-preg in this story. While I am not always entirely true to Josephine Darcy's vision, I did scour her story and author's notes before beginning this and have tried to honor the parameters of the world she created for this extended story. She was adamant that there was no m-preg in her world, and I am taking that path as well. She described another path for Harry and Severus to have a child, and that's the one they will use.

Belated best wishes to all for a happy 2013, and my sincere thanks to you for reading along.]