Chapter 75 – Counterattacks

Patrolling the hallways of Hogwarts, especially so late at night, was boring, but at least the scenery was nice.

Of course, the scenery he was stuck with that night came with its own set of unique disadvantages, Ron thought with some exasperation.

It was not that Lavender Brown was not a good person, or that he did not like her or anything. If Ron was to be completely honest with himself, the problem was more that he had been spoiled, and for that simple fact, Lavender Brown simply did not in any way appeal to Ron as a potential romantic interest.

"It's all Hermione's fault," Ron grumbled to himself as he walked down the hallways in the aforementioned girl's company.

Ron was, in fact, completely over his infatuation with Hermione. Thoughts of her together with Harry had ceased to bother him long before, and now he was only happy for his two friends. And furthermore, Ron was now aware of the happy escape he had made—as Hermione had noted, they were far too different to ever find true happiness together and he now accepted that, though some wistful corner of his mind at times indulged in thoughts of what it would have been like had their personalities been a little more complementary.

The problem was that knowing that Hermione was a great girl, even if she was not for him, and knowing what he had wanted from a relationship with her, he now found himself comparing every other prospective girlfriend with the girl he had never dated even once. And unfortunately for Lavender, she simply did not measure up. Perhaps it was melodramatic for him to think that Hermione had ruined him for any other girl, but the thought was certainly not without some measure of truth.

Lavender was a nice girl, and he did find himself enjoying time with her—she was funny and vivacious, and she was not without an intelligence of her own. But she was not Hermione. Lavender had a tendency to gossip, she had little other than fashion on her mind, she tended a little toward being silly—especially when she was trying to attract his attention—and the way she sized him up, as though he was a side of pork and she was famished simply made him feel uncomfortable. Hermione had never behaved that way around him; she was just not that kind of girl.

But Lavender apparently was. Oh, he did not think that she was the kind to dispense her favors indiscriminately, but she certainly was not shy about showing her interest. And her interest was making Ron feel decidedly uncomfortable. And after one blatant attempt by Lavender to catch his attention—she pretended to stumble, falling against him and breathlessly thanked him for catching her—Ron decided that he had enough of it.

"Let's check the bathrooms," he said gruffly, trying get away, without truly offending her.

"Why would we do that?" Lavender asked, puzzled. "It's not like anyone will be in them."

"We're to patrol this area," Ron replied, heading toward the boys' loo. "That includes the bathrooms.

"Look, I'll check the boys', while you check the girls'." Ron indicated the lavatory a little further down the hallway.

Lavender shook her head. "I don't think that's a good idea—Harry told us that when we're patrolling we shouldn't get separated."

Never had Ron hated his friend as much as he did in that moment.

"Why don't we check them together?" she tried again a little flirtatiously.

Ron laughed a little nervously. "I really don't think that we should be doing that. You never know who's going to be in there."

"I doubt that anyone's in there right now," said Lavender, as she batted her eyelashes at him.

"You wait here!" Ron said a little desperately, and he dashed into the confines of the boys' lavatory, leaving Lavender standing in the entrance.

In the bathroom, Ron made a perfunctory attempt to search the stalls and make sure no one was in the room, but in reality he was simply happy to have a few short moments away from the huntress. As he was beginning to feel a little punchy from the lack of sleep, he stepped toward one of the sinks and splashed some water on his face, grateful for the feeling of the cold water against his warm cheeks. He stayed that way for several moments, relishing the feel of the cold water against his skin.

"Oh, it's you!" a voice startled him from behind.

Ron jumped and turned, expecting to see Lavender standing there, but before him stood the pale form of a ghost. One he had seen before.

"Myrtle?" he asked, feeling a little stupid as his brain tried to catch up with his mouth. Grasping his wand, he cast a drying charm on himself, feeling the water as it evaporated and left his face dry.

"I remember you," said the ghost. "You and those other two came to my bathroom many times not too long ago. You even went down the tube to the depths of the school, though the girl didn't go with you."

"Yes, we did," Ron replied, looking at her with some confusion. Rarely had Myrtle left her bathroom willingly, that he could remember, though he did remember Harry telling him that he had encountered her in the lake during the second task of the Tri-Wizard the previous year. "Why are you here?"

The ghost become visibly distressed, fidgeting with her ghostly robes, and casting her eyes down with fright. "My killer is in my bathroom, and I simply couldn't stay there!" she wailed. "You can't understand—you've never been killed by someone."

"Your killer?" Ron asked with some confusion.

Then it hit him just exactly who that killer was. Feeling his heart drop to the pit of his stomach, Ron left the crying ghost behind and ran out into the hall, completely bypassing a surprised Lavender in the entrance with nary a word. And once he got there, another shock met his eyes.

Death Eaters, many dressed up in their fearsome robes, were surging out of the girls' bathroom into the hall, where they had begun to disperse into the various parts of the school. A little beyond the main mass of the invaders stood Voldemort himself, watching the activity impassively and presumably directing their actions. For the first time in his life, Ron met the eyes of the greatest dark lord of the age, and he almost collapsed in fear at the gaze which almost seemed to impale him as he stood.

Then sanity took over—Voldemort was on the other side of all the Death Eaters, and Ron knew that they had to escape immediately or they were done for. Grabbing Lavender's hand—she had followed him and now stood gaping at the mass of Death Eaters—he turned and sprinted down the hall away from certain death, hearing cries rise up behind him. They turned the corner quickly and heard the sounds of spells impacting the wall as the Death Eaters began to give chase.

"Where did they come from?" Lavender gasped with some difficulty as they ran.

"The Chamber of Secrets!" Ron yelled as they continued to run.

They ducked through several corridors, and when Ron was certain they were not being observed, he led Lavender into the dubious concealment of a small alcove which was hidden slightly behind a suit of armor, and Ron was grateful for the adventures he had had in Harry's company, which had allowed him a much greater knowledge of the castle than he might otherwise have had. A few moments later a number of Death Eaters raced by them in pursuit.

Ron waited for a few moments, then looked out to see if anyone was there, waiting for them to come out. The hall was empty.

"We need to get word to the command center," he said grimly.

Brandishing his wand, Ron called up a memory and, as loudly as he dared, called out, "Expecto Patronum!"

Within moments, the patronus was speeding off deliver its message. Now he only had to figure out how to get them both out of the alcove without running into the bulk of Voldemort's forces.

Death Eaters in Hogwarts. Voldemort leading them. Call Harry back.

As the message rang throughout the hall, cries of panic started to arise as the import of the message filtered down through the consciousness of those present. But Hermione was focused on one thing only—the still-impassive visage of Malfoy. The boy sat there, making no response at all to what was happening around him. Instead, his attention appeared to be focused right back on Hermione, and the expression he was giving her was not at all friendly.

Furiously, Hermione's mind worked over the problem. There had been no assault on the wards from without, so Voldemort must have found some other means of entering the school—one which would have had to bypass the wards completely. Hermione could not think of any way that he would have been able to accomplish such a feat, but she supposed at this stage, that it was truly a moot point. Somehow he had managed it, and they were in a horribly compromised situation. But at some point Dumbledore must realize that they had been tricked, and he would lead the Ministry forces back to the school.

Whether it was the way that they were watching him, or the manner in which Hermione was considering things furiously she did not know, but though these thoughts passed through her mind within an instant, Malfoy apparently saw enough in her to tell him that they were on to him. His wand snapped up, and eyes afire with hatred, he rose and stepped to the side, yelling, "Crucio!"

The spell almost caught Hermione by surprise, but she was able to dive to one side, narrowly avoiding the curse, which unfortunately, hit a third year standing behind her, who collapsed with an agonized scream.

Instantly Hermione's wand was once again trained on the Pureblood and she unleashed a torrent of spells, while moving around so that any counter-attacks would miss their target.

She might not have bothered. Within the first moments of the duel, Malfoy was reduced to trying desperately to avoid her attacks, finally losing when a body bind caught him in the side and dropped him to the floor heavily.

Panting slightly, Hermione stepped up to the boy, and with her heel, ground his wand into the floor, smiling grimly when it popped and split, then snapped with an audible, "Crack!"

Eyes bugging out of his head, Malfoy screamed, "I'll kill you for that, Mudblood!"

"You have no business making such threats, ferret!" she screamed back at him, flicking her wand and levitating him up until he was facing her. "What's happening here, you little bastard?"

"Like I'll tell you anything," Malfoy replied with a curl of his lip.

"Severus!" McGonagall called, as she strode forward.

As she moved her wand flicked out and massive double doors to the Great Hall slammed shut, with a sound not unlike that of a large boulder rolling to a stop in front of a crypt.

The bat-like potions professor was already moving forward, a small vial held in his hand. But whereas Hermione would have expected the professor to hesitate, if only because the boy had been his protégé, he was as quick as any of them, and his expression only held disdain for Malfoy.

"I knew you were a traitor!" Malfoy spat, glaring contemptuously at his head of house.

"Your master is the traitor," Snape replied evenly.

Though Malfoy thrashed and struggled, Snape immobilized his head and forced his mouth open. This only made Malfoy squirm all that much more, and his struggles became desperate.

"He dosed me with the counter-agent!" the boy squealed, tears streaming down his cheeks in his terror. "You'll kill me!"

Professor Snape stopped up short, his hand with the bottle held frozen in the act of dropping the serum into the boy's mouth. He looked down at Malfoy, and though Hermione still saw a healthy measure of contempt for the boy, she also saw what she thought was a last vestige of compassion and perhaps caring. He had protected Malfoy throughout the boy's years at the school—Hermione was almost certain that he didn't want to see the Pureblood dead.

"If he's telling the truth, we won't be able to get anything out of him," Snape said, turning to McGonagall.

"But if we don't get something from him, we won't know what we're up against," replied McGonagall, her countenance stretched with strain and worry. "We've got to find some way to force him to tell us what he knows."

"There is another way," Snape commented quietly.

Deftly, he put the stopper on the bottle of potion and handed it to Hermione. He then turned to Malfoy and, looking the still terrified boy in the eye, raised his wand and intoned, "Legilimens!"

Malfoy attempted to struggle and close his eyes, but by the time he realized what was happening, he was already caught in the professor's Legilimency probe. It was an agonizing few moments in which the professor sifted through Malfoy's memories, but when he ended contact between them, he was wearing an almost resigned expression on his countenance.

"He was given the counter-agent," Snape replied, turning to regard them all.

"And?" McGonagall demanded. "Why is he here?"

Snape took a deep breath, and then his gaze swept over all those who were assembled. "He is here to allow the Dark Lord access to the Great Hall."
McGonagall peered at him, aghast. "He plans to take over Hogwarts?"

"It appears to be so," was Snape's short reply. "Though Mr. Malfoy is not aware of the true scope of the Dark Lord's plans, it seems that the proposed attack on Gringotts was a smoke screen to hide his real target. Capturing the school and taking the students hostage would accomplish the same thing. It may even be better—most parents would place a higher value on their children, than on their money."

"What do we do?" Hermione asked, a feeling akin to panic welling up within her.

"Die," Malfoy said with some scorn, though he was still breathing rather heavily after his ordeal. "After you've provided a little entertainment, of course.

"And you, Professor," the boy continued, his contemptuous gaze affixed on the potions master, "I imagine the Dark Lord will have something extra special for you in mind."

The boy might have been talking about nothing more than everyday events—to him it was likely nothing more than the truth, after all. It was just the way it must be, and Hermione knew that most Death Eaters were no better, or even worse than he was.

"Silence, Draco," Snape said, waving his wand at the Slytherin, not without a measure of disdain of his own.

Though Malfoy could not say anything further, his glares spoke as clearly as though he had stood atop the Astronomy tower and shouted it with a Sonorus.

"Miss Granger," said McGonagall, taking charge of the situation, "send a patronus to Mr. Potter and the Headmaster informing them of these events. I will activate the defenses on the Great Hall and in the school."

Turning, McGonagall walked toward the anteroom, which Hermione knew housed the focus for the wards. Hermione snapped off the spell quickly and turned to the rest of the students standing by. Though they were mostly younger students, and therefore not as powerful or trained as the older ones, they appeared to be keeping a tight rein on their fear, which was encouraging to see.

"It looks like we're going to see some action here. Let's get some of these tables turned over so that we can have something to hide behind."

The club members set to work as Hermione turned and hurried to catch up to Fleur and Professor Snape, who were following the Transfiguration professor deeper into the hall.

The anteroom was small and unadorned, and held nothing more than a large crystal, set into a slender wooden stand. McGonagall stepped toward the crystal and put her hands up to it, her eyes closing with concentration. Within a moment, the crystal glowed with a light as bright as the sun on a summer morning, prompting those standing there to shield their eyes, before it faded to its normal dull glow.

"That will at least buy us some time," McGonagall said.

"How much?" asked the potions master. His tone was outwardly composed, but Hermione could sense an underlying tension in his manner.

"Against Voldemort? It's hard to say, but probably not much. The wards on the Great Hall were not exactly designed to hold off an armed assault. The ambient magic in the air will help, but not enough, I'm afraid.

"More than that, the walls and doors to the Great Hall have dragon bones embedded in them for strength. There was a time centuries ago when that wall formed the outer wall of the castle, and as wards did not yet exist, the strength was required to keep out those who wished the school harm."

"Dragon bones will give it strength and a certain amount of magical resistance," Hermione observed.

"It will," admitted McGonagall. "Unfortunately, it will not stand for long against a determined assault. The Headmaster will need to return quickly or Voldemort will break through and we won't be able to stop him."

"Then we have no choice but to make a final stand," the potions professor said in a matter-of-fact tone.

It was a rather Gryffindor thing to say, Hermione thought, though she declined to mention that fact to the potions master, knowing he would not appreciate it. Of course, he was correct. Unless Harry and Dumbledore received their message and returned quickly, there would be nothing left but Hogwarts under Voldemort's control to return to.

"In that case, we'd best get to it," Fleur stated, all business-like. She turned to Hermione. "You had better send patronuses around to the teams in the school so they can hide from the Death Eaters."

"And there are some other defenses in the castle that I can activate," McGonagall added, turning back to the crystal in the stand.

Though Hermione thought it unlikely that most of the club members would back down from a fight, she attended to that as McGonagall focused on the other defenses she mentioned, and Snape and Fleur left the room. Unfortunately, as most of the defenders left were the aforementioned younger club members, they were going to be seriously undermanned.

By the time Hermione had returned to the Great Hall, the closest tables were overturned and strengthened with impervious charms to give them a bit of strength, and Fleur was already positioning the defenders to give them the greatest chance of defending against the hordes which were about to descend upon them. Within moments, they were hunkered down behind their shelters, ready to sell their lives dearly to stall the Death Eater advance.

"Come on, Harry," Hermione exhorted under her breath. "Let's see some of that impetuosity. We need you!"

Fleur smiled at her in commiseration, but she said nothing, choosing instead to focus on the large double doors. A few moments later they began to hear some activity occurring around the doors, and then the wards were under attack. It would not be long now.

With the sound of a resounding crack lingering in the air, Harry materialized in Hogwarts environs, and though he was not exactly certain of how he had managed to traverse the distance, he was grateful that he had, impulsive though others would almost certainly call him. He did, however, have the presence of mind to crouch and bring his wand to bear. But the surrounding landscape was bare of any threats, and the school appeared to be peaceful. Or at least lights shining out the windows to the large edifice did not betray anything out of the ordinary in the darkness of the night.

It was not unlike the night he and Ginny had appeared back at Hogwarts after their adventure with Nagini.

Shaking such fanciful thoughts from his head, Harry turned in a wide circle, searching the gloom for any threats he had missed and, coming up with nothing yet again, he turned and began to make his way toward the courtyard.

He had hardly gone a dozen steps when heard the loud crack of apparition behind him. Crouching once again, Harry pivoted and faced the new danger, a curse upon the tip of his tongue.

"Harry!" a familiar voice called, stilling the words in his mouth.

Sirius jogged up to him, a severe expression affixed to his face. "Would you just wait a moment?" he asked, though it was more of a demand than a request. "Why do you always have to go haring off like that?"

Harry's reply was hot with the emotion of the moment. "How can you ask me that? Voldemort's attacking the school!"

"You don't know that, Harry," the voice of the Headmaster spoke up as he strode forward a little more sedately. "And even if he is, we can't go rushing in without knowing anything of the situation. That path is a quick one to a certain death. A little patience will serve us better in the long run."

Though he would have responded to Dumbledore with the same impatience he showed to Sirius, Harry's response was stilled by the Headmaster's kind words. "I do not intend to lose the school to Voldemort, but let us at least confirm your suspicions and try to gain some information before we go rushing in."

Though he would have liked nothing better than to do as Dumbledore had said and "go rushing in," Harry could only agree—albeit grudgingly—that what he said made sense. Dumbledore removed himself to the side where he went still. Given what he had heard of the night he and Ginny had been gone, Harry could only assume that he was querying Hogwarts' wards. It was interesting that the Headmaster could do it from outside the school, but Harry supposed that as long as he was in relatively close proximity and the wards were still tied to him, he did not actually need to be within the wards to access them. Meanwhile, Sirius stood to the side, his eyes roving the surrounding terrain, keeping a wary watch out for any danger.

"Where's Jean-Sebastian?" Harry asked. He would have thought that the man would have been right there alongside Dumbledore and Sirius in tracking him down.

"Back at the manor," was Sirius's short reply. "Someone needed to stay behind and organize our response, and Shacklebolt had gone up into the manor."

It was good thinking. In his fear for Hermione and Fleur and his haste to get to the school, Harry had not even thought about how to fight Voldemort and all his Death Eaters should he find them actually in the school. He imagined that later he would castigate himself for that oversight, but now he was only concerned with defeating Voldemort. Serious reflection could come later.

"Trust me—his first instinct was to come after you," Sirius had continued. "Dumbledore almost ordered him to stay behind and make sure we had back-up."

"How did you find me?"

Sirius chuckled. "An educated guess. We didn't think you were headed anywhere else, and the main entrance is closest to the Great Hall." Pausing, Sirius looked at Harry askance. "Where did you learn to apparate?"

"I didn't. I just needed to get here, so I did." Harry paused for a moment, considering. "In fact, I'm pretty sure I've done it before."

Sirius turned to him with a questioning glance. "I sense there's a story here."

"I'm not sure now is the time."

A glance at Dumbledore confirmed that the man still had not moved. "We're not moving until the Headmaster is done. We appear to have a few minutes."

Shrugging, Harry said, "There's not much to tell. Dudley and the gang were chasing me around the school and I needed to get away from them. The next thing I knew I was on the school roof, with no idea how I'd gotten there." Harry stopped and chuckled. "Though it wasn't funny at the time, Uncle Vernon turned as purple as I've ever seen him. I thought he'd popped multiple blood vessels in his head and was going to keel over dead, not that I would have considered that to be any great loss."

"Just another thing that Dursley has to account for," Sirius muttered, though Harry could clearly hear the man's words.

"I'm well rid of them," Harry said quietly. "I don't know that we need to do anything more. And besides, Dudley was actually showing signs of humanity when Jean-Sebastian and I were there last."

Sirius chose not to answer that. He merely continued his silent study of the area, until Dumbledore once again stirred and turned toward them. The grim look he sported told them all they needed to know.

"You are correct, Harry. There are many Death Eaters in the school, and though it is difficult to determine their movement patterns or exactly how many there are, they seem to be moving in the direction of the Great Hall, though I do sense a certain number of them in different parts of the school. They likely have orders to take some hostages as soon as possible, and are making for the common rooms."

"Can you get rid of them?" Harry asked.

"That's not the way wards work," said the Headmaster with a slight shake of his head. "Wards keep others from entering—they cannot evict someone already inside. I cannot at this point state how they managed to access the school, but they are in now and must not be allowed to take over the school, as Voldemort obviously desires."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Harry demanded.

"We are not waiting for anything. We must simply be cautious—I have reason to believe that our forces are being organized and will follow us here, but that will take some time. In the meantime, Voldemort has a veritable army at his command. The three of us cannot fight an army."

"But we can't just wait here," Sirius observed, cutting Harry off neatly, when he felt like he wanted to rail at the Headmaster for his calm rationality.

"We should try to find out exactly what is happening," Dumbledore responded. "However, we must be cautious." He stopped and peered at Harry. "You must stay with us and not go rushing in, Harry. To do so would be to alert the Death Eater forces to the fact that we are on to them. Stay out of sight, and do not do anything rash."

With difficulty Harry nodded, and the three set out for the courtyard, hoping against hope that they would arrive in time to thwart Voldemort's plans. He would tear the man apart piece by piece if even one hair on either of his girls' heads was harmed.

Ron was having problems of a different nature—namely, that of a frightened Lavender Brown who was approaching hysterics. Their flight from the Death Eaters and concealment in the alcove had been a success thus far, as though several more groups of Death Eaters had passed their position, none had seen them. But that would change very quickly if Lavender was not able to control herself.

"Lavender!" Ron hissed at the girl, and her shaking and whimpering stopped as she peered at him with surprise.

"You must calm down," Ron continued, taking care to enunciate each word clearly even as he spoke in a very quiet tone.

Lavender nodded jerkily and she visibly gained a little control over herself, though Ron could still see the whites of her wide eyes.

That little crisis having been dealt with, Ron motioned for her to silence before he leaned forward slightly to look out in the hallway to take stock of their situation. It was a fairly long hall, with no real distinguishing features other than the fact that it was lined by a series of the same suits of armor behind which they had taken refuge. Each was a full suit, and each held a weapon with a long, wooden handle and a wicked, curved blade affixed to the end—at some point in the past, Hermione had told him that they were called halberds. It was, of course, difficult to tell, but Ron fancied that the weapons were as sharp as the day they had been forged.

"What are we going to do, Ron?" Lavender whispered in his ear. By her tone of voice, he could tell that she was still frightened, and still almost on the verge of panic.

"Some Gryffindor she is," he groused to himself.

"We're going to stay hidden until help arrives," Ron whispered back.

"But You-Know . . ." She paused and visibly screwed up her courage before continuing, "But Voldemort's here."

"Yeah, and as soon as Dumbledore realizes that Voldemort isn't wherever he and Harry went, he'll be back here, along with Harry, and all the Aurors, and whoever else they can gather."

"You think they'll get back here in time?" Lavender's voice was slightly stronger than it had been before.

"They have to," Ron said, though he tried to keep the grimness out of his voice. "Dumbledore's not stupid. He'll know what to do."

This appeared to mollify Lavender a little and she lapsed into silence, and she seemed to be a little more introspective than was her wont. Ron had no time for her histrionics—rather, he was periodically leaning out to take a look at the hall, making certain that there were no other Death Eaters in view. And thus far, their luck seemed to be holding, as the hall had remained empty.

Of course, that was not to last. At length a group of about half a dozen Death Eaters appeared at the far end of the hall and began to make their way down toward Ron and Lavender's position. But rather than simply moving through toward whatever destination they had in mind, they were moving slowly through the hallway, peering in behind suits of armor and paying attention to everything in detail. Clearly they were trying to make certain that no one was hiding. It was also evident that Ron and Lavender would not remain hidden for long. As they progressed, Ron could hear snippets of their conversation floating up to him.

"I'd rather be in the middle of the fighting."

"What fighting?" This voice was heavily accented, and the sarcasm was unmistakable. "We're in a school full of children. I doubt they'll be fighting back."

"You just wait," Ron thought with dark amusement.

"Let's just get this done," said another voice. "I hear there are lots of Mudbloods in the school. The Dark Lord has promised to allow us to play with them."

"I like mine virginal and unwilling!" said another voice, and the rest laughed along, making cruder and more repulsive comments as they went.

Ron's gaze became flinty. "Not on my watch, bastard!" It would be a cold day in hell before Ron allowed the likes of the dregs of Voldemort's forces do anything to Hermione, or any of the other Muggleborns in the school.

Leaning back in the alcove, Ron peered at Lavender. She was still visibly frightened, but at least now she appeared to have some control over her emotions. Likely because the Dark Lord was not now directly pursuing her, Ron thought.

"Death Eaters are approaching us, and they're looking for anyone behind the suits as they go," he told her in a very soft tone. "We're not going to be able to remain hidden, so we'll have to make a run for it."

Nodding, Lavender peered back at him. "What do we do?"

"When I give the signal, we'll fire some spells at them. Choose spells which will do some damage. When they're distracted, we'll head out the other end of the hall."

"That's pretty risky," Lavender replied.

"So is staying here," Ron pointed out.

There was really no answer to his statement, so Lavender just nodded after a moment, and they both hefted their wands in their hands.

Turning, Ron peered back down the hall at the approaching Death Eaters, mentally picking out his target as a rather short and swarthy man with a thick, black beard who was in the lead and searching the side of the passage where Ron and Lavender were hidden. A few agonizing moments passed as Ron allowed them to move closer—close enough that he could get in a good shot, but far enough that the Death Eaters would not immediately cut them down as they attempted to flee.

Ron was just about to give the signal when something totally unexpected, yet entirely welcome happened. It happened in an instant and almost too quickly for Ron to see. The lead Death Eater that he had targeted was suddenly attacked by the suit of armor which he was passing. The halberd suddenly moved down with a flash, and Ron's speculations about the sharpness of the blade were proven correct as the blade cleaved through his skull, showering the other death Eaters with blood and gore. The man dropped to the floor like a marionette with its strings severed, twitching, and instantly the other suits came to life, attacking the remaining Death Eaters with abandon.

Lavender screamed at the gory sight before her, and Ron decided that it was time for them to move—if any Death Eaters remained after this, they would know that someone else was in the hall. Besides, Ron was not completely confident that the suits of armor would not attack Lavender and him as well. How could an inanimate object distinguish between friend and foe?

Taking Lavender's hand, Ron darted out from their place of concealment and sprinted from the hall, looking back once to make sure they were not being followed. The Death Eaters were far too busy to note their flight—there were only a couple left fighting desperately to escape. All the others were down, in various states of dismemberment.

"Where are we going?" Lavender asked as they cleared the hall and slowed so that they did not run into any other enemies in their haste.

"I'm not sure," Ron replied. "But we're going to have to find some place to hole up until it's safe."

"Maybe we should ambush the bastards."

Ron peered back at her with some surprise—not only had she been all but frozen with fear only a few short moments ago, but he had also never heard her speak in such language before. The scene they had just witnessed—and perhaps the words they had overheard—seemed to have jolted her from her fear, and now a cold fire burned within the depths of her eyes. If Ron was honest with himself, it was a little intimidating. The only other girl he had ever seen with a similar look had been Hermione.

"I think the most important thing we can do is to stay alive and free," Ron opined, though a little more diffidently than he had been speaking previously.

"That is true," Lavender agreed. "But we should also be ready to fight. Dumbledore will be back and he'll need everyone fighting against the Death Eaters."

Ron could not disagree with that. So they moved through the school, carefully avoiding Voldemort's forces—most of which appeared to be elsewhere—trying to contact other elements of Hogwarts' defenders. In the back of his mind, however, Ron was attempting to figure out a plan of attack. But it was almost impossible to do so. It all depended on Harry and Dumbledore realizing that Voldemort had eluded them and returning to the school. If that did not happen, then all was lost.

"So what do you think, brother of mine?"

"I believe that it is time to party, dear George."

Fred smirked. "Then we are in perfect agreement."

"I do so love it when our thoughts match each other so perfectly."

Daphne looked with some disgust on the Weasley twins as they grinned evilly at one another. "Can't you two be serious for even a moment?"

"Of course we can," George replied.

"This is perfectly serious," Fred added. "And we are seriously going to introduce Voldemort's forces to a few of our more interesting inventions."

George glanced at his brother and then grinned back at Daphne. "Just don't fall into the swamp. We've removed the safeties on it, and the crocodiles might get a little annoyed if you invade their territory."

"We wouldn't want them to feast on anything other than Death Eaters, you know."

Daphne peered at them, wondering if they were in earnest. A moment's thought, however, and she decided that it really did not matter. If they used their little pranks on the Death Eaters and it slowed them down, then that was all that mattered. Dismissing them for the moment, she turned back to Susan and Tracey who were standing close by, along with Professor Flitwick.

"What should we do with the Slytherins?" she asked the professor. "They won't hesitate to side with the Death Eaters if they're freed."

The half-goblin stroked his chin in thought for a moment. "Truss them up and hide them away where the Death Eaters won't find them."

Not certain where that would be, Daphne asked the professor as much, and the answer surprised her.

"Put them in a classroom," the Charms professor said indifferently. "I'll put a ward on the door using goblin magic. It will take them some time at the very least to break through."

Nodding, Daphne turned to the other members of the club standing by, and gave them instructions to place the incarcerated Slytherins into a nearby room. Many glared murderously at Daphne and her compatriots, but they paid them no mind—they had other things to worry about currently, and no one would take the time to coddle the whiny scions of old Slytherin houses.

The Slytherins had not really been that difficult. Once Fred and George's crew had relieved them, it had been a simple matter of numbers and skill, and they had overrun the positions the Slytherins had taken very quickly. Of course, having a professor with the talent and skill of professor Flitwick in attendance certainly had not hurt in that respect.

Turning back to the professor, Daphne addressed him again. "What do we do now?"

Flitwick was regarding them rather speculatively. "My first instinct is to hide you all away so that you're safe," he said in a rather pointed fashion.

"Like that's going to happen," muttered Tracey.

"We seem to be all that's standing in Voldemort's way," said Fred. The Weasley twin was as solemn as Daphne had ever seen him, and his brother echoed his demeanor perfectly.

"We can't allow them to take over the school," George added.

"We've been training for this all year," Daphne said to the Charms professor. "Though Harry and the Headmaster would have chosen to keep us from danger if possible, it appears that is not an option any longer. Hermione's patronus was very clear."

"That's the only reason why I'm allowing you to get involved." The professor gave them a toothy grin, clearly showing his half-goblin heritage. "Besides, it's not like I'm any less eager to give them some payback myself."

"That's the spirit, professor!" said George.

"They won't know what hit them," stated his brother.

The professor grinned back at them before his expression turned serious once again. "I am no stranger to combat, but I must warn you that I was a duelist—though I am conversant with strategies in such a forum, I am not exactly a master of strategy and tactics on a large scale."

The Weasley twins grinned at one another. "Leave that to us, professor."

Within short order, the patrols were organized and they began to make their way back toward the Great Hall. The Death Eaters would not be allowed to take over Hogwarts without any resistance. But Daphne was well aware of the fact that their fight was almost certainly doomed should the Headmaster not return.

Death Eaters in Hogwarts. Take cover until Dumbledore returns.

The words echoed around the corridor, and Neville was struck dumb by surprise. Death Eaters in Hogwarts? How could that possibly be? Dumbledore said that the school was locked down tight—surely Voldemort could not have overwhelmed the wards without anyone knowing about it.

"Neville," Ginny's shaky voice floated up to him, and he turned to look at his patrol partner. Ginny was quite obviously frightened—as well she might be, if the report was at all true.

But it must be. The otter which had warned them was Hermione's patronus, and she certainly would not be sending false reports out to them.

"What do we do?" Ginny asked, capturing his attention once more.

"We're near the common room," Neville replied after a moment's thought. "Maybe we should head back there. Voldemort's going to want some hostages, and I bet he will go after the common rooms pretty quick."

Though her fear did not seem to lessen to any great degree, Ginny nodded her head, and they started off for the common room. It was a tense few moments as they walked through the school cautiously, keeping a close watch on their surroundings, alert for any stray Death Eaters.

Within a few moments they had entered the corridor which led to the Gryffindor tower and had traversed approximately half the distance, when a group of Death Eaters appeared from the far side of the hall. The two groups stopped up short, each surprised to see the other.

Without a conscious thought, Neville's wand snapped up and he started to send curses down toward the Death Eaters—blasting curses, banishing curses, everything he could think of, hurtled down toward the Death Eaters, hitting the walls and floor, rending large gouges and showers of rock and debris toward the stunned enemies. They scattered, and there were several shouts of pain, which filled Neville with satisfaction.

"Come on!" he yelled, sprinting forward toward the Fat Lady's portrait. "We need to get inside before they recover!"

They sprinted forward, Neville's wand still barking out spells, and by this time Ginny appeared to have found her own tongue, and she was casting as she ran as well. Between the two of them, the Death Eaters stayed pinned down, and only a stray curse or two made its way back toward them.

"Fidelity!" Neville yelled as they approached the portrait hole, and the door swung open in response.

They dashed in through the opening just as the Death Eaters had begun to make a counter attack, and as the door was closing, they heard the sound of a wail, which was cut off suddenly. The Fat Lady's portrait had obviously been destroyed by a stray spell. The Death Eaters would need to break through the door to enter into the common room, but Neville did not think it would be long before they accomplished that.

"We need to get everyone who's asleep upstairs down here to help defend the tower," Neville told his companion.

Ginny nodded and raced to the stairs, to wake up any Gryffindors not part of the club, while Neville concentrated on the door. Almost immediately he began to hear the sounds of Death Eaters trying to enter through the door. Anyone entering would pay dearly for every inch of space, he promised with determination. Gryffindor house would not go down without a fight!

"I can still hear something moving out there."

Luna turned to Anthony Goldstein. "I don't expect that they'll go away just because we ask nicely."

"Maybe a reductor to the face would help persuade them," Padma Patil opined darkly.

Though she did not disagree, all of Luna's focus was on keeping the Death Eaters from the Ravenclaw common room. Knowing that the presence of Death Eaters in Hogwarts meant an attempt to take over the school and obtain some hostages, Luna had immediately headed back here to defend the common room when Hermione's patronus had arrived. She had made it just in time, ducking in through the opening just as the attackers had approached.

Padma, her partner, had received a couple of cuts from the rock splinters a couple of curses which missed their mark had generated, but they had only served to anger her and harden her determination. At least, she appeared to be eager for some payback.

"How did they get in?" Terry Boot demanded.

"Who cares?" Anthony responded. "They're in now. We need to figure out what to do."

"Defend the common room," Luna replied, watching the entrance keenly. "Dumbledore will be back as soon as he realizes that Voldemort's here. Voldemort will be in for a rude awakening then."

Though there were a few grumbles, there was really nothing else to be done. Their numbers were swelling by the moment as those Ravenclaws who had been sleeping were arriving in the common room, giving Luna hope that they would be able to defend effectively. Some were angry at having been awakened in the middle of the night, but the commotion occurring outside the doors quickly convinced them that they were indeed in danger.

"I'll ask the nobhoblins to assist," Luna said to no one in particular. "They hate Death Eaters with a passion."

Luna was not insensible of the rolled eyes and muffled chuckles of those around her—but she never was. She sometimes wondered why no one else could see the creatures that she could see quite clearly, but she decided that it did not matter. The nobhoblins would not buy them much time, but they would at least assist by tripping the Death Eaters up and making it more difficult for them to enter the room.

She just hoped that Neville was well. She had spent too much time molding him into proper boyfriend material to have him come to a messy end at some Death Eater's hands.

A moment later, however, she was forced to turn her thoughts to other matters, when the Death Eaters finally succeeded in blasting their way through the entrance. They had obviously expected to find little or nothing defending the common room, and a number were cut down by the defenders' response within moments of achieving the breach.

"Serves them right," Luna thought grimly, as she fired spell after spell into the opening, feeling very heartened as one of her invisible friends tripped up a Death Eater. He fell right into the path of one of her spells, and was out of the fight just like that.

It was not a good day to be a Death Eater, Luna decided. Serving Voldemort seemed to shorten one's life span considerably.

"That little bastard!" Voldemort raged as he glared at the massive doors to the Great Hall. The massive closed doors, to be exact.

The fact that those doors were closed indicated that the last Malfoy scion had failed in his mission, and the defenders of Hogwarts had been alerted to their presence. And that delayed his plans excruciatingly, not to mention being extremely annoying. Had the doors been opened, he could have simply marched in and taken over without much resistance. The doors being closed put his whole plan in jeopardy.

"The end of the Malfoy line is at hand," he thought coldly. When he had gained entrance into the hall and disposed of the defenders, her would turn his attention to Lucius's unfortunate son.

But his death would not be quick.

"Oh, no," thought Voldemort, his mind going through all the choice punishments to which he would subject the boy. "Failure is death. The boy cannot even execute a simple plan, so he is a liability."

And it had been simple. Take the identity of one of the Slytherin traitors, make his way back to the Great Hall, and ensure the doors were open and ready to receive the new lord of Hogwarts. But even that was beyond his abilities.

Thus frustrated in his designs, Voldemort began to probe the defenses, looking for kinks in the armor that he could exploit. It was a delay of only a few moments, he decided. Dumbledore was busy assaulting a mostly empty manor, and with him was Potter—neither would be able to interfere. And even if the boy had been left behind, he would be dealt with. Him and his Mudblood and the Veela. The thought of their screams filled him with satisfaction as he worked on the wards. Their time was coming.

The journey into Hogwarts and to the Great Hall was taking far too long, in Harry's opinion. Though intellectually he understood the need to take care and not go barging into a situation they did not fully understand, the more impetuous part of him burned with the need to get to his girls and make sure they were not harmed. And so as Dumbledore, Sirius, and Harry moved forward cautiously attempting to enter the school, Harry was itching to charge forward and wreak bloody vengeance on the Death Eaters and their master for daring to attack a school full of children.

"Whoa, Harry," Sirius said, once again pulling Harry up short. "Don't get too far ahead of us, pup."

Nodding, Harry once again swallowed his impatience and moved forward with Sirius. The older man looked at him with sympathy, but Harry paid him no mind—his focus was what lay ahead of them.

They had moved perhaps half the distance to the courtyard, when a patronus streaked out through the entrance and bounded up to Harry. It was an otter—Hermione's patronus—and Harry felt a lump inside of his throat, and tears pricked his eyes at the sight. At least she was still okay.

Malfoy captured at Hogwarts. Voldemort has penetrated the wards and is attacking the Great Hall. Hurry back.

"Malfoy?" Harry gasped with some anger. "How the hell could he be back?"

"Likely through the same means that Voldemort himself entered," Dumbledore responded. "Though at the moment I cannot fathom how he accomplished that."

Once again, Harry's mind went back to the conversation Harry had overheard between Voldemort and one of his followers. Though it had been cryptic, the man had spoken of being attacked and the danger of the path. He could not be certain, but it certainly fit the circumstances.

"I think they may have entered through the Chamber, sir," Harry said out loud, drawing the attention of his two companions. Quickly, he detailed what he had heard, and the conclusions he had come to that night, ending with, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it."

"I'm not sure I would have guessed it, to be honest," Dumbledore replied, stroking his beard. "And besides—there has been so much going on that it's understandable that you would have forgotten about it."

Harry was not precisely mollified—his girls and everyone else in the school were in danger because he had not seen what the Dark Lord was doing. It really was not his fault, he decided philosophically. That did not make it any easier to swallow, though.

"Unfortunately, the danger is much greater than you know," Dumbledore was continuing. "Voldemort is trying to gain access to the Great Hall, and if he does so, he can take control of the wards."

"Then he can shove us out and hold everyone hostage," Harry replied grimly.

"No," replied Dumbledore. "He cannot evict us, much as we cannot evict him right now. But if he manages to take over the wards before we can get our forces in, he can deny them access. Without the backup of our army, there is no way we could stand against them."

"And by the time our wardbreakers managed to bring the wards down, he'd already have his hostages," Sirius added.

There was no need to state what would happen then. It would not go well for every Muggleborn in the school, and Voldemort would demand the Ministry's capitulation in exchange for the safe return of the school's children. That and the lives of both Harry and Dumbledore, unless Harry missed his guess.

"Then what are we waiting for?" demanded Harry. "Let's go."

At that moment, a number of spells flew out from the darkness toward the courtyard, and Dumbledore hastily erected a shield to catch them while Harry and Sirius dove to the side to avoid those he could not deflect.

Rolling to the side, Harry crouched on one knee and saw several cloaked figures moving in their direction, their silhouettes outlined against the light coming from the castle beyond.

Finally able to exact some payback, Harry went on the attack, his wand spitting out curse after curse, noting as he did so that his companions were as quick on the draw as he was himself. The Death Eaters scattered, several desperately trying to avoid the incoming fire, with one being put out of the fight by means of a reductor, courtesy of one of the trio.

Harry faced off against two of the Death Eaters—there being about five in total—and the two kept him on the run with their constant attacks. But Harry, fueled by desperation and anger at the depraved bastards, returned fire grimly, heartened when the first went down to a stunner, and the second narrowly avoided his follow up blasting curse. The second Death Eater then made a fatal mistake; he turned to enervate his compatriot, and was caught by Harry's bludgeoning curse which caught him in the side, and sent him careening away with a cry. He fell and did not get up again.

Turning, Harry searched for any other foes, only to find that Sirius and Dumbledore had already taken care of all the other threats. The only sounds in the still air were the moans of injured Death Eaters. They could rot, as far as Harry was concerned.

"We will now make our way toward the entrance hall," Dumbledore said as he turned to them. "We must be quick, but we must also be careful. I suspect that this group of Death Eaters is only the beginning of what we will encounter on our way in."

Harry nodded, eager to be on his way, and Dumbledore appeared to take his agreement for what it was intended. He nodded, and began to walk toward the courtyard, and the entrance to Hogwarts which lay beyond.

"Stay close," his voice floated back to Harry as he began to follow the ancient wizard.

As they walked, they drew close to the wards, and though Harry had almost expected them to suddenly go dark and refuse them entrance, they passed through with no difficulty, and with almost no indication that they were actually there. Behind them, Harry began to hear several cracks in the air, likely the arrival of some of the Auror force which was now being mobilized behind them.

But Harry had no attention to spare for such extraneous concerns. All his being was focused on getting to the Great Hall and calling Voldemort to account for his deeds.

Updated 02/16/2016