Chapter 38 – Visions and Prophecies

The rest of February passed by quickly, with little in the way of major events to note the passage of time. For the students of Hogwarts, though, life at school fell into a routine which was comfortable and reassuring. Not much was heard from Voldemort in those days as, since the breakout at Azkaban, the Dark Lord had seemed content to scheme in silence and not draw any further attention to his activities.

Of course Harry and his friends knew that Voldemort's silence was momentary and that his ultimate assault would be all the more terrible for his having planned it for so long. Regardless, the respite was welcome as there was much to do while they had the opportunity.

For Harry personally, his Occlumency lessons took up much of his time, and by the time March had rolled around, he began to feel somewhat more confident that Voldemort would not easily gain access to his mind without his consent. Or at least that was the hope—such connections as existed between them were not common, and while Fleur had claimed more than once that he was gaining proficiency quickly, there simply was no way to predict with any certainty how effective it would be against Voldemort, whether he was aware of the connection or not. At the very least, Harry did not find his sleep interrupted by visions of Voldemort's activities, nor was he inundated with his emotions. In all honesty, Harry thought that spying on Voldemort through the connection would be a very good way of gaining intelligence on what he was up to—a double-edged sword to be certain, as the risk of discovery was great, but still a potentially valuable tool. Not that he brought the idea up to Dumbledore or anyone else; he was already well aware of how they would react to such a suggestion.

The routine of school was welcome to Harry at that time, giving him something to keep his mind occupied instead of moping about the horcrux or worrying incessantly about what Voldemort's next move would be. And though Harry had never considered himself to be a studious person, he found himself enjoying his studying more than he had ever before. Perhaps it was the fact that he was learning more and had more to study for than he had ever had before. What a difference it made to Harry's level of commitment to not only have study partners who wanted to do well, but guardians who actually wanted him to succeed! Never before had Harry felt so much confidence in his ability to do well in his upcoming OWLs.

The last part of February also saw the second Quidditch match of the season for Gryffindor and it was against Hufflepuff. In truth, Harry felt a little sorry for the hapless Puffs, who had already been crushed by Ravenclaw, which figured to only be the third best team that year. With the death of Cedric, their seeker and leader, the Hufflepuff team was in considerable disarray. The replacement seeker was green, no challenge for Harry (maybe not even a challenge for Malfoy!), their chasers were ineffective, their beaters hardly knew one end of the bat from the other, and their keeper was adept at giving an impression of Swiss cheese! The Gryffindor chasers, the well-oiled machine that they were, ran up a large lead very quickly, when Angelina decided to sub Fleur and Ginny in for herself and Alicia, allowing them to have some fun and some playing time. Even with the replacements in, Gryffindor led by almost 400 points by the time Harry finally put Hufflepuff out of their misery by catching the snitch. It was an understated celebration that evening, as it was not so much a win, as a beat-down of epic proportions.

The other major activity taking up Harry's time was the continued meetings of the club, and the work he was doing to improve his own Defense skills. Both continued apace, giving Harry the impression that he was truly accomplishing something. He would not be a dueling champion by the time his fifth year ended, but he was becoming more confident that he could at least hold his own should he come into a situation where he had to fight. Even Voldemort himself would not find him to be as much of a pushover as he had previously. And the club was progressing as well, especially with the Patronus spell Harry had begun to teach them at the beginning of the year. Several of the older members were on the cusp of being able to produce a corporeal patronus—it would only be a matter of time before they succeeded.

Of Harry's relationship with Hermione and Fleur, it continued to deepen and strengthen, and Harry spent some time musing about the direction his life had taken. The two girls were, quite simply, the most important people in his life, and he wondered how he could ever have imagined life without either of them. Hermione's relationship continued to be an ill-kept secret—they did not confirm anything, as they had agreed on that Valentine's evening, but Harry was well aware that suspicion ran rampant in the school. Malfoy, however, was uncharacteristically silent about all of this—he avoided them wherever possible, and when interaction was unavoidable, he said little, and instead allowed his sneers and glares to speak in his stead.

February finally turned to March, and with it, winter began to loosen its grip on the Scottish countryside. The air was still cool and crisp, but hints of spring began to appear, cheering all who were holed up in the castle for the winter. It seemed like the promise of a new beginning, especially to those who had waited for further word on Voldemort's activities, dreading exactly what he was planning during that time he had remained silent. However, it was with this changing of the season that changes also happened in Harry's life. Or more specifically, another visit from Voldemort caused a new bout of worrying over the future, and his plans for them all.

Darkness. Stillness. Emptiness.

Blackness, so deep, so complete, that Harry does not know where he is. How did he get here? Where is here, anyway?
No answers. Just the black of the blackest night.

A whisper. A murmur of sound. From where? Unknown. There is no direction in the blackness.

Voices. A dim ray of light appears in the distance.

Intrigued, Harry begins to move in the direction of the light, thankful that a direction now exists.

Forms, indistinct in the gloom, appear and the area around him materializes. A long, dim room, containing rows upon rows of shelves. Each shelf in turn contains rows of dusty orbs, carefully immobilized so that they cannot fall. For the first time, Harry looks at the orbs, noting that most—the large majority—are dull and grey, like the morning of a cloudy and cold Scottish day. Only a few are different, appearing to have a cloudy substance swirling in them, lit with an eldritch light.

Stopping, Harry gazes around, recognizing in an instant the scene he had seen before. The last time he had seen this room had been in a dream when he had seen Mr. Weasley attacked by Nagini. So this is a dream? The forms in front of him catch his attention and though he still cannot see them clearly, one tall form immediately catches his attention. He is facing away from Harry, but if he turns, Harry is certain he will see the reptilian face attached to the completely hairless head. Voldemort.

Harry thinks about the situation. Is withdrawal even possible? Can he wake himself? Harry has no experience with such actions, and cannot imagine how he can escape. Perhaps more importantly, this is a golden opportunity to find out what Voldemort is planning. He can then immediately tell Dumbledore what he has seen. Voldemort in the Ministry is not an insignificant thing, and the man standing in the hall of prophecy where the prophecy about Harry resides is even more serious.

As had previously been the case, Voldemort is oblivious to Harry's presence, and the thought of gaining more information is certainly appealing. If he is careful, there should be no risk of detection, Harry thinks. Harry edges in closer, attempting to hear the conversation, but ready to flee at the first sign that his presence has been detected.

"…certain that this will not work, My Lord," a man is saying. He is facing Harry and Voldemort, who Harry has taken refuge behind and slightly to the side, and he gives no indication at all that he can see Harry there. The man is tall, has dark hair and piercing blue eyes, and holds himself with an aristocratic bearing. His eyes also appear haunted, like those of a soldier who has seen too much battle. If Harry was to guess, he supposed that this man was one of those freed from Azkaban.

"My knowledge of this prophecy is incomplete," Voldemort replies. "I must, therefore, obtain it, so that I may plan accordingly.

"You are certain the Dark Lord cannot touch the prophecy himself?"

Another figure swims into focus, and Harry immediately grimaces in distaste. The third man is none other than Lucius Malfoy, the father of his school nemesis. If Harry has his way, the man will be put away for life, given his suspected crimes. Better yet, simply feed him to a Dementor and be done with it.

"Unfortunately, I am completely certain," the first man says with some regret. "The ancient protections are most specific—only the subject of the prophecy may remove it. Simply being mentioned in the prophecy is not sufficient."

"Then it is well that we waited for your release, my friend, before we attempted to do this," Voldemort replies.

"This man certainly will not have any protection." The man gestures to a fourth man who stands to the side. "Not that the loss of the likes of him would be any great tragedy," he adds with a glare of open contempt.

Shifting slightly, Harry peers at the fourth man who stands on the opposite side of Voldemort. He stays stock still, paying no attention to the conversation occurring around him. His face is slack, and his eyes are glazed and unfocused. He is under the Imperius, Harry realizes with a start, and his presence here is undoubtedly to attempt to gain the orb for Voldemort.

"What will happen to him?" Voldemort asks.

"The enchantments on the orb will drive him to insanity, My Lord," the man replies.

"The Imperius will not protect him?" Malfoy asks. "He will not be doing it of his own free will."

"There is no mercy or extenuating circumstances for one who stretches forth his hand to obtain a prophecy which does not concern him."

"His fate does not concern me," Voldemort said, cutting off their conversation. "What is more important is the effect he will have on the enchantments. Will this break them?"

"There is no record of such a thing ever happening—" the man replies carefully.

But Voldemort cuts him off before he can respond further. "Your professional opinion."

The man shrugs. "I suspect not, My Lord. I doubt the ancient creators of this magic would have left such a simple method of getting around their protections."

Harry is disgusted. They are speaking about driving a man insane as though it is an insignificant consideration.

"That may very well be," Voldemort responds, "but we cannot pass up the chance. If I cannot gain control of the prophecy now, then we must devote time and energy to breaking the enchantments, resources that would be better used elsewhere. Have him take the orb, Lucius."

Grasping his wand, Lucius points it at the Imperiused man and commands him to take the orb. Almost as an automaton, the man jerkily approaches the shelf and stretches forth his hand.

A jolt of energy shoots out and impacts against the man's hand, and he jerks his hand away from the orb. For a moment, his eyes clear slightly, and he backs away from the shelf, cradling his hand and shaking his head.

But Lucius Malfoy points his wand and intones, "Imperio!" before the man can truly break free.

"A first warning?" Voldemort asks.

"Yes, My Lord," the man answers. "Placed on each orb to remind one of the consequences of trying to remove an orb which does not belong to you."

"It is of no moment. Proceed, Lucius."

"Take the orb!" Lucius once again commands.

The man hesitates for a moment, clearly fighting the compulsion to obey, but in the end the command is too strong. Against his will, he once again reaches out and this time, grasps the orb.

His reaction is instantaneous. He throws back his head, eyes wide and unseeing, every muscle taut. He then begins convulsing and a bloodcurdling scream issues from his throat, undulating and high pitched. The man thrashes and screams, and yet in his flailing paroxysms his hand is held fast to the orb.

A flash of green light erupts and the man is thrown away from the shelf, to land against the wall, his eyes still open, reflecting the horror of his last moments, his mouth frozen in a rictus of terror.

"A pity the orb was not removed from the shelf," Voldemort comments emotionlessly as he slides his wand back into his robe. "Are the enchantments still present?"

Harry has never wished more than at that moment to introduce Voldemort's head to Fred's beater's bat.

The first man steps forward and begins waving his wand while muttering under his breath. After a moment he stops and turned to Voldemort. "The enchantments are unaffected."

"Then I suppose we shall have to do this the hard way. I want you to take personal responsibility for this effort, Rookwood. The information contained in this prophecy is essential. It must be retrieved!"

"I understand, My Lord," Rookwood responds with a bow.

"Excuse me, My Lord," Lucius Malfoy interjects. He continues when Voldemort motions for him to speak. "If Potter is the only one who can remove the orb, then should we not arrange for him to do so?"

"That would a solution to our problem," Voldemort admits, "but I hardly think it likely. Dumbledore keeps a strict hand on his little weapon. I doubt we could engineer such a situation."

Though Harry bristles at being referred to as a 'weapon', he forces his pique down and concentrates on the conversation. "Could Severus not be used to deliver him to us?"

"Severus's position is not to be compromised," Voldemort responds. "Yes, this prophecy is important, but so is Severus in the belly of the enemy."

Voldemort pauses for a moment. "But perhaps it is worth pursuing, Lucius. I shall think upon it further. In the meantime, my orders stand, Rookwood. Find a way to break the enchantments."

Both men bow and Voldemort turns to leave. As he does so, he glances at Lucius. "Make certain you dispose of the body."

"What's wrong Harry?"

Startled, Harry looked up, only to see most of his friends regarding him, curiosity on most faces, though Fleur and Hermione's expressions were more concerned in nature. And well they might be, given the dream from the previous evening. There was relatively little Harry could keep from them at the best of times—his most recent visit to Voldemort's psyche was not one he would even attempt to keep from them. But the rest of their friends were not aware of his propensity to receive visitations in his dreams from a certain dark tosser, nor did they know what specifically had happened the previous night.

Plastering a smile on his face, Harry nodded in Tracey's direction. "Nothing. Just a little tired, that's all."

Tracey rolled her eyes in response to his obfuscation. "I think we know you better than that, Harry. Come on—spill. What's got your goat?"

"It's really nothing," Harry replied, looking at all of his friends. "I'm just worried. Voldemort's being uncommonly quiet now, and I've been wondering what he's up to."

To his friends' credit, there were very few flinches any more to his open use of the Dark Lord's name. Instead there were nods of agreement and commiseration—the topic had come up many times of late, and though most of those present did not know of his connection to the man, nor of the recurring dreams he had had, there was worry on more than one front that continued silence from their enemy could only be deemed as a bad sign.

In actuality, Harry was worried about the prophecy orb. The previous night's excitement had come near the morning hour, and as he was not about to sleep again that night, he decided that a trip to the Headmaster's office was in order. He had found Dumbledore in his office, though he had not been surprised to find that the elderly wizard was already awake.

"So Voldemort was in the Hall of Prophecy," Dumbledore mused once Harry completed his tale. "Nagini's presence the night Arthur was attacked suggested that he was interested in obtaining it, as her presence suggested she was scouting the building. But now we have proof."

"Would it be that bad for him to get his hands on it?" Harry asked. "The predictions have already happened for the most part."

Dumbledore gazed at Harry with an appraising eye. "Perhaps it has, Harry, but I can only imagine that he would revise his plans if he knew the extent of the prophecy. The part of him marking you would confirm to him of your status as his greatest enemy, which I will admit the first two lines already suggest. At least it is clear that he considers you his greatest threat—more dangerous than myself, given the number of times you have fought him to a standstill. But even more important is the following line. A cursory study of those lines suggests that it's either him or you—though the actual meaning is certainly a little more complex—and I assume you would not want him to know that."

A shudder was Harry's only response. "Exactly. So yes, I consider it essential that we deny him any knowledge he does not already have. Right now we have the advantage; it would be best if we kept it."

"Then why don't we just send someone in to smash it? We already know what it says—isn't that the best way to handle it?"

"The enchantments prevent that, Harry," Dumbledore replied. "Though that is excellent thinking, and rather a more simple solution than most wizards would conceive. Unfortunately, it will not work. The enchantments that protect the orbs from anyone other than the subject of their predictions retrieving them, also prevents any sort of damage from happening to them. You may consider a prophecy essentially impregnable until removed by the subject of a particular prophecy."

"Then why does Voldemort think he can get at it, then?"

"Because for any magic in existence, there is a counter," Dumbledore replied. "If you recall, I told you this when we discussed the existence of the horcrux in your scar." Harry nodded to acknowledge the point. "The magic protecting the prophecy spheres is ancient and extremely strong. However, Voldemort is a powerful, knowledgeable and gifted wizard, and he has extremely capable followers. You may not know this, but the other man there—Rookwood—was an Unspeakable before he was incarcerated. As such, he possesses a wealth of knowledge. It may take some time, but I believe they will eventually succeed in breaking the protections."

This reply caused Harry some agitation. If that was so, then sitting and doing nothing was inviting Voldemort to find a way around the protections. His discomposure was obvious in the slightly shrill manner in which his voice proceeded forth from his mouth. "Then I'll have to go and get it," he blurted.

"I believe we have some time yet," Dumbledore contradicted him.

Harry shook his head. "With all due respect, Sir, we don't know that. In order to keep it from him, we will need to go and get it."

Dumbledore sighed and regarded Harry patiently. "Harry, I would ask you to consider this. Any incursion into the Department of Mysteries would necessarily draw the attention of the Ministry, and the Minister himself. Considering how he is behaving now, do you really want the Minister to know of the existence of a prophecy tying you to Voldemort? What do you think he would do with such knowledge?"

"Maybe he'd finally admit Voldemort's back," Harry muttered with some resentment.

"Possibly," Dumbledore agreed. "But if you don't like your fame now and don't like the way Fudge is acting, consider a Ministry which would put you up as their champion against Voldemort. What kind of mischief could the Minister get up to with such information at hand?"

It was only true, Harry thought. There were many different paths the Minister could take with that information, and almost all would undoubtedly make Harry's life more difficult. With Malfoy whispering in his ear, who knew what he would get up to? And more importantly, if the Minister were to somehow get his hands on the text of the prophecy, it would not be long before Malfoy, and consequently Voldemort, knew it themselves. No, it was obvious that stealth would be required for any retrieval. Harry had the glimmerings of an idea begin to appear, but he was forced to concentrate again on Dumbledore, who was continuing to speak.

"No, the time to act has not arrived," Dumbledore was saying. "It may ultimately come down to you retrieving the prophecy, but for now, I believe we should sit tight and plan our next moves.

"However, before we go any further, I would like to discuss something else with you."

Nodding, Harry gazed back at the Headmaster, wondering what he was about.

"Your description of your dream gives me some concern about your natural curiosity. If you do not curb this inquisitiveness, it might get you into trouble."

"I'm sorry?" Harry asked, wondering what the Headmaster was talking about.

"Harry, how are your Occlumency lessons coming?"

Nonplused by the sudden change in topic, Harry replied. "Fine, I think."

"You are practicing diligently?"

"Yes, sir."

Dumbledore peered at him for a few moments before he nodded. "I believe you are. You may not realize it, but I have been probing you the whole time you have been in my office, and it seems to me that you have made great strides in hiding your mind."

That was a surprise. "You have?"

"Yes, and I must tell you that I have not had a hint of your inner thoughts, which leads me to believe that you are progressing quickly.

"But if that is so, why were you drawn into Voldemort's consciousness enough to see this event?"

Confused, Harry thought over the dream the previous night. He had ended up in the hall of prophecy without any conscious volition or design. And yet it almost seemed as though Dumbledore was suggesting that it was his own doing.

"I don't know, sir."

"Think back to what happened last night as you were sleeping," the Headmaster prompted. "How did you come to be in Voldemort's proximity?"

"I was in a dark place," Harry said, thinking furiously about what had happened. "I heard voices and saw a light and headed towards it. That's when I saw Voldemort."

"Exactly. Harry, I believe that this connection between you will always be a conduit for you each past the other's Occlumency. It seems as though you are almost… called, for want of a better term, to Voldemort when something important is happening. However, unlike your experiences in the past, this time effort was required on your part to enter Voldemort's presence, which suggests that your Occlumency can be used to mute even this connection between you.

"You must guard against this." The Headmaster's voice was very stern, and he was looking at Harry with a very serious expression on his face. "Now I know that you did not do this with conscious intent, but you must resist the temptation to try to see what he is up to. For him to discover this link between you could be disastrous."

Nodding his head, Harry realized that what the Headmaster had described was exactly what had occurred. Before, he had always been drawn to Voldemort in his dreams without any choice, whereas, he had made the decision to approach this time, whether it had been consciously or unconsciously done.

"Sounds like a great spy tool to me," Harry made an attempt at a joke.

Needless to say, it fell flat. "Harry, I cannot tell you how important this is. Your skill with Occlumency is now such that I think it would be difficult for him to overwhelm you from a distance. But he would make life miserable for you if he became aware of the connection—he would attack you without respite or mercy, and even the slip of a moment would result in the prophecy being lost to him. Any intelligence we could gain from your ability to see into his mind would is negated by the very great risk of discovery. I must ask you not to put yourself in this danger again."

When Harry gave his assurances that he would resist the temptation next time, Dumbledore sat back and clasped his hands and peered off into the distance, clearly introspective. "In retrospect, I suppose we should have ensured you were much more proficient in Occlumency before we shared this knowledge with you. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not put enough thought into the true extent of the connection between you." His eyes once again focused on Harry. "Regardless, you now have the knowledge and you must take great care not to open yourself up to intrusion. Remember, Voldemort might eventually gain access to the orb, but an equally viable solution for him would be to obtain it from someone else who knows its contents.

"Fortunately," he continued, "it's a well-kept secret known only to a few. He undoubtedly knows that I am aware of it, but he has never seen fit to challenge me directly, to say nothing of trying to access my thoughts. He probably believes that you do not know it, though even if you did, he does not have access to you.

"We must keep it that way. The connection between you must remain unknown to him."

"I understand, Sir," Harry replied. One more thing was bothering him, though. "Professor, what are we going to do about Snape?"

"Professor Snape, Harry," Dumbledore corrected gently. "I understand that his behavior toward you has not always merited your respect, but I will not have you openly disrespecting a professor."

When Harry nodded to indicate he understood the Headmaster's censure, Dumbledore continued, "And I am not certain to what you refer."

"Voldemort and Malfoy spoke of Professor Snape during my dream, suggesting that he could somehow deliver me to Voldemort. Sounds like he's a Death Eater, sir."

"I am well aware of the professor's background, Harry, and I know of his current loyalties."

"Then why is he still free?" Harry demanded.

Dumbledore's eyes flashed with displeasure. "I would ask you to modulate your tone, Harry. I understand your history with him is such that you have little reason to trust him. I would, however, ask you to trust my judgment in this matter. His story and how he came to be what he is today is not mine to tell, but I can tell you that I have bound him to the light by the strongest of chains. There is virtually nothing that he would not do to see Voldemort defeated."

Rarely had Harry ever had Dumbledore's displeasure directed at him, but he understood instinctively that further questioning on this matter would only land him in hot water.

"I understand. But you will forgive me if I don't trust him."

"I certainly appreciate why you feel the way you do," Dumbledore responded. "Please keep an open mind, however. Professor Snape also has a part to play, and you may be surprised by his role before the end."

As Harry mulled the conversation over in his mind, he forced any thoughts of Snape away, and concentrated on the dream, and consequences of his connection with Voldemort. He knew that Dumbledore was right. The trick would be to condition his subconscious mind to avoid approaching Voldemort even when he was asleep. How he would accomplish that, he was not certain.

And though he was not about to disobey the Headmaster and seek his nemesis out, the fact that he was often crossing the distance between them in his sleep begged the question of whether he could actually spy on the Dark Lord when he was awake. The circumstances suggested that he could, but given the lecture he had just heard from Dumbledore, it was not something he was about to try.

Conversation at the table had continued while he was lost in thoughts of his audience with the Headmaster that morning. Harry's attention was caught by Daphne's voice, as she spoke of the situation at her home. "His goons have stopped visiting my father."

"That's a relief," Tracey said with a snort.

"In some ways," Daphne allowed. "But it was almost better to be stringing them along, than for them to know that we have essentially chosen sides. This way, we'll never know when You-Know-Who might order an example to be made of us."

Harry was already aware of the change in the Greengrass family's stance. Daphne's father, acting as the spokesman for the neutrals, had met with Jean-Sebastian and Dumbledore and they had hammered out an agreement for the neutrals to lend their support to the light. Not all the neutrals had agreed—some preferred to try to cling to their neutrality, while some, though neutral in name, actually tended a little dark. Harry had always known that those families would not support him, regardless of how they dealt with the Death Eaters. But both Tracey's and Daphne's families were very firm in supporting this new alliance—the Greengrasses, likely because they leaned in this direction, and the Davises because they would not be acceptable to Voldemort anyway, Tracey's mother being a Muggleborn.

Enough of the neutrals had agreed to at least passively side with Harry, that the news had been received with a certain relief. Voldemort already had enough power with the Death Eaters he controlled and the Purebloods who passively or actively supported him—he did not need any more. Of course, their support had not come without a price. Dumbledore and Jean-Sebastian had been busily working out the details with the neutrals, with the goblins upgrading their wards in case the Dark Lord decided to try to make an example out of some of them. No wards were perfect, but the upgrades would at least allow them more time to escape should they be attacked. Safe houses, such as Grimmauld Place, had also been set up to receive those refugees who were required to flee.

"They didn't leave without making threats, of course," Daphne continued, "but they'll think twice about trying anything now that we have Dumbledore's backing."

"Unfortunately, I think we're getting to the point where that won't be a deterrent," Harry replied unhappily.

Daphne shrugged. "Probably not. But my family is much safer than they used to be. They can just escape if the Death Eaters try to go after them."

"What about your family business?" Hermione asked. "If the Death Eaters drive them into a safe house, won't they just confiscate all of your potions ingredients?"

"Perhaps they would if they could find them," Daphne said a little smugly. "My father has put our warehouse under a Fidelius. They may find a few things in our staging location, but our warehouse is locked down with my father as secret keeper, and he's only given the secret out to a few trusted workers who have submitted to Veritaserum questioning to ensure their loyalty, and have taken oaths to ensure their continuing allegiance. We'll still be in business even if the Death Eaters try to poke their noses in."

It was a very good plan, Harry reflected, and necessary in these troubled times. Part of the problem the last time around, Harry had learned, was that the magical world had by and large trusted too much in their wards and their contingency plans had been spotty at best. As Dumbledore was so fond of pointing out, any magic could be undone given enough time, and with wards, it was especially true. Ward breakers' techniques had apparently become rather sophisticated, such that a set of even moderately powerful wards could be brought down within a matter of moments. The more robust the wards were, the more difficult it became to bring them down, but even so, an accomplished team of ward breakers could bring them down in far less time than one could imagine.

A funny thing about wards, however, was the fact that the longer they were in existence, the more magical power they soaked up, and the more powerful and potentially deadly they became. Some of the older families, who had had wards throughout the centuries, possessed wards which would take an opposing force some time to disable, but among the most robust ward schemes, the most powerful and difficult to breach were those protecting Hogwarts and the Ministry. Those wards were ancient, had layers upon layers added to them over time, and were generally powered and strengthened by the activity which went on inside the buildings. Even they could eventually be overcome given enough time, but the problem was that both locations were so well defended, the time required would likely not exist. Hogwarts reportedly had several nasty surprises created by the founders which would undoubtedly decimate any attacking force.

That these wards protected Harry and the students of Hogwarts from him likely caused Voldemort no end of vexation. He would have to find some way around them, or some way to disable them before he would be able to achieve his ultimate victory, and the presence of Dumbledore at Hogwarts was undoubtedly a rather strong deterrent to his ultimate plans. But he had not achieved what he had by not being able to solve problems, and Harry did not doubt that Dumbledore would become a major target the further into this war they progressed.

The final piece about wards which Harry had recently learned was the fact that Hermione's house had been warded by Dumbledore. Unfortunately, as there was little ambient magic in the area, the wards would not prove to be a major obstacle, should Voldemort decide to attempt something with her parents. Again, however, they were not required to be an impregnable barrier. Elizabeth and William Granger had been supplied with a pair of portkeys which would whisk them away to a safe house, and instructed to keep them at hand at all times. But something was bothering Harry—something he had wondered about for some time.

"But what if the Death Eaters lay down portkey wards?" Harry asked, thinking that this might be a hole in their plans. "Wouldn't that make escape portkeys useless?"

"Portkey wards are not that simple, Harry," Daphne replied, to which several others nodded. "You don't just raise them with a wave of your wand, like apparition wards. Portkeys are physical objects, and require physical wards to prohibit their usage. Portkey wards require a set of runic stones set at various intervals, and they take some time to set them up."

"That's why portkeys are so useful as escape tools," Fleur added. "Most buildings of any importance have portkey wards in place and only specific people are authorized to grant the use of portkeys within their confines. Hogwarts is an example of such a location."

Daphne nodded and continued the explanation. "At my home, my father can authorize a portkey to pass through our wards. So no one can portkey into our home, but we can portkey out if we're threatened. As long as we keep our portkeys to hand, we can escape in an instant."

That was all very interesting, but something felt off to Harry. "But if that's the case," he began thoughtfully, "why was the portkey able to take me to Voldemort last year during the third task?"

"According to Papa, it is because Dumbledore delegated the responsibility to Professor Moody last year," said Fleur. "As you know, it was Barty Crouch using Polyjuice. The intent of the portkey was to return the winner to the stadium outside the maze, which it actually did when you took it a second time. It's likely that Crouch just layered the graveyard as a first destination on the existing portkey."

"But why would he do that?" Harry demanded. "If that portkey had only been one way, there's no way I would have escaped."

"Because there was always the possibility someone would have checked," Fleur responded. "There is no way to tell exactly where a portkey leads, but the Headmaster would certainly have known that it led outside the grounds had he merely replaced the destination. He did it that way to fool a cursory inspection."

It made sense, and Harry gleaned a very important fact from their conversation—escape was always possible, if the proper contingencies were taken in advance. Unless, of course, one was caught under the influence of previously existing portkey wards. And with the safe houses Dumbledore had set up under Fidelius charms, his allies would have safe locations to which they could escape and regroup. Incidentally, Harry wondered if Voldemort had set up a similar network of contingencies for himself and his followers.

The thought had Harry suppressing a derisive snort—Voldemort was much too arrogant for such things. He was the Dark Lord, after all, and had no need for such measures. He was exceptional. No doubt he thought the whole world would simply spare itself a lot of grief if they would all just bow down to the inevitable and fall down at his feet.

The conversation continued on, and though Harry listened with half an ear, he made very little contribution to it. The thought had crossed his mind that he was obsessing about the prophecy orb, and should not worry about it. He also considered the possibility that he was simply being paranoid about its safety. But he could not shake the conviction that time was much shorter than Dumbledore had indicated, and that they would have to take action sooner rather than later. If so, the only realistic option was for Harry to retrieve it. He just needed to figure out how to do so without alerting the Minister, or more importantly Voldemort himself, as to what he was doing.

In another part of the country, the same issues were being considered, though in conversation, rather than Harry's solitary reflections. Another Order meeting had been held that evening, and though tempers had begun to flare over the Minister's continued inaction and open obfuscation, there were no solutions as to what could be done about it.

More to the point, it was generally agreed upon that Voldemort's recent silence indicated his continued effort to build up his forces, and carefully plan the offensive he would almost certainly unleash upon the ignorant masses of the magical world. Those in the know, of course, understood that at least part of his recent low profile was due to his continuing efforts to obtain the prophecy sphere. This fact, however, was not known even to most of those in the Order, let alone to the world at large.

"You think Harry will try something?" Sirius asked as Dumbledore finished reciting the events of the morning.

"We all know how impulsive he can be," said Dumbledore with a sigh. "I have cautioned him against rushing in without a plan, but I am certain he is worried about it. Luckily, he seems to have taken to his Occlumency lessons quite well indeed—I probed him for several moments and could not find any weaknesses. Of course, we all know what would happen were he to fall in Voldemort's hands."

"Harry has matured substantially," Jean-Sebastian interjected. "I am certain he will act with more consideration than he has in the past."

Nodding his agreement, Sirius turned his attention back to the Headmaster. "Frankly, I am more concerned about this news of Voldemort's interest in the prophecy." Sirius still had a little bit of a shudder run through him when saying the name, but he was determined to shed his conditioning and refer to the scumbag without all of that You-Know-Who nonsense. The last time Harry caught him avoiding the use of Voldemort's name, he had reacted with an amusing amount of displeasure, telling Sirius that it was only a made up name for a jumped up pretender who had no business calling himself a lord. Even now, Sirius had to fight a smile at the memory of passionate affront that he would act like most others in the magical world and avoid the use of the Dark Lord's name. "Are you certain the prophecy is safe?"

"As certain as I can be," Dumbledore responded. "I am not an Unspeakable, nor have I ever been one, but I fancy I have managed to accumulate a certain level of expertise in obscure magics. The protection on the orbs is very old and very powerful. Unless Voldemort was to accidentally stumble on the answer, I suspect it will take him many months to discover a way to circumvent the protections, even more so because he will have to take great care not to be discovered. Unfortunately I cannot give you any further reassurance."

"Should we not have a contingency in place?" Jean-Sebastian asked.

"We should," Dumbledore conceded. "But the only contingencies which will have any effect involve Harry retrieving the prophecy. That is unfortunately not an option at this point in time."

"We should make it an option," Sirius replied, perhaps more bluntly than he had intended. "It seems to me that we cannot take the risk that Voldemort will succeed."

Dumbledore held his hand forward in submission. "Very well. I will attempt to come up with a plan that we can all agree on. However, we must take care—there is very great danger in exposing Harry to Voldemort, and almost as much in making the Minister aware of the existence of the prophecy."

"Will your Unspeakables not inform him?" Jean-Sebastian asked curiously.

"A bloody secretive lot they are," Sirius growled. "They don't let any information escape that they can prevent by any means, even to the Minister."

"Then we are agreed," Dumbledore replied, rising to his feet. "I am sorry, Sirius, Jean-Sebastian, but I must return to Hogwarts. I bid you good night."

Both Sirius and Jean-Sebastian turned to watch the Headmaster and exchanged a significant glance.

"Do you think he is being completely upfront with us?" Jean-Sebastian queried.

Sirius sighed. "I think secrecy is in his blood. He may not have told us everything he knows, but I at least believe that he has not kept anything from us which would harm Harry. He does have Harry's best interests at heart."

"I certainly hope so," said Jean-Sebastian with a certain dark shade to his voice. "If he hasn't, I will take Harry and my family and return to France. I won't fight a war and put my trust in those who can't be trusted."

"I'm with you, my friend. And I'll go with you too."

With that, their conversation came to an end, and Sirius followed Jean-Sebastian from the room. They passed through the parlor to see that a few of the members of the Order we still present, including Hestia who was standing speaking with Molly Weasley. She flashed him a grin as he entered the room, causing Sirius to respond in kind.

Since the occasion in which he had met Hestia, he had encountered her a few other times, and she struck him as a very down-to-earth person, intelligent and a fun conversationalist. It certainly helped that she was not exactly hard on the eyes, either, with her wealth of luxurious dark brown hair and light hazel eyes. As a teenager, Sirius had had a reputation for chasing anything with blond hair and blue eyes, so to be honest Hestia was a bit of a departure for him. Perhaps he had grown somewhat, though the eternal child in him rebelled at such a thought; looks no longer mattered so much, though he certainly could not complain about Hestia from that standpoint. Of course it was not as though they were any more than acquaintances at this point—but the years of solitude in Azkaban had caused him to crave a little companionship, and he was not about to complain if Hestia was interested in talking to him.

"So, secret meetings, is it?" she teased him as he approached. It was a running joke between them, as Dumbledore usually holed up with Jean-Sebastian at the very least, often with Sirius included, after an Order meeting. It was interesting, Sirius thought, amused at the situation. Jean-Sebastian had not even been a member of the Order only six months earlier, and Sirius was only two years removed from a lengthy stay in Azkaban, but now they were arguably Dumbledore's closest advisors within the Order. Dumbledore still led—his force of personality and experience warranted his position—but Sirius was happy to think that he had assumed a position of importance. It all really went back to his determination that he would not fail his godson again. Sirius was eager for the responsibility.

"You know how these things go," Sirius said with aplomb. "It seems Dumbledore can't do without me."

"Now someone's getting a big head," Hestia said mock seriously.

They laughed and agreed to head out and grab some dinner together. It was several hours before Sirius had to be back at Hogwarts, and he was looking forward to spending some time with his newly acquired friend. More and more as he became distanced from his time in Azkaban, he felt like a member of society, able to laugh and just go with the moment. The years in Azkaban and the pain of James's death were there and always would be. Now, however, he could see the path to a future—one which could be brighter than any he could have imagined only a few short months ago.

It was some days later when Harry walked through the halls of Hogwarts, his two ladies accompanying him, with purpose and determination. He had thought about the situation since the night he had witnessed Voldemort in the Hall of Prophecy, and he knew the time to act had come.

Dumbledore's advice and directions were reasonable and founded in good solid knowledge and understanding, but somehow Harry knew that the time to sit back and wait for events to happen was past. Dumbledore may be completely correct about the length of time it may take for Voldemort to find a way to circumvent the protections on the orb, but they could not take that chance. They had to do something to deny him the prophecy, and take action to change the dynamic of this struggle, which was rapidly becoming more slanted against them with Fudge's refusal to see reason. Harry was hopeful that they would be able to do both.

They stopped in front of the gargoyle entrance to the Head's office and were quickly granted entry. They climbed the stairs and entered through the open door to be greeted by the sight of the Headmaster watching them curiously as they entered his domain.

"Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, Miss Delacour," the Headmaster said as they entered. "What can I do for you this evening?"

"I think I know how to get the orb, and maybe get Fudge to admit Voldemort has returned," was Harry's simple reply.

Updated 05/24/2014