Balance:  by rabbit

            Disclaimer:  All this belongs to JK Rowling, except the tiny bit I stole off of JRR Tolkien.  No money.  No time.  No life…

            Chapter 1:  Attack

            Summary:  We begin in media res

            Please see the Author Notes in the last chapter for revision history.


            They'd been told to go to the towers, all of them, to wait inside the dormitories until someone came for them.  It had been the shock of the prefects' lives when the stairs refused to lead anywhere but the highest reaches of Slytherin tower; and the second shock of finding a doorway that had never existed before, leading into the dormitory halls, was topped only by the third shock seeing all of the staircases turn away once the last student was safely on the landing.  The Slytherin prefects went to check the central staircase inside the tower that led down to the dungeons and the Slytherin Common Room, but they'd soon come back.  The news that the tower had sealed away those stairs  – so that there was no way down again but flying – had left even the Weasley twins quiet and worried.  

Once the Slytherins had gotten over their dismay (and had scattered to secure their possessions before letting the other students into their dorms), they had given in to the inevitable and even tried to be stiffly polite. Most of the students had started out willing to huddle inside, perched on beds or the stairs outside the dormitories, since the arrow slit windows didn't offer much of a view.  Harry, Ron and Hermione had been quick to follow the more adventurous souls up the narrow fire escape ladder to the top of the tower, to see what could be seen, ignoring the way that Draco Malfoy trailed suspiciously at their heels.  There were dozens of hand-holds and places to stand built into the roof, as well as a platform at the top, relics of the days when Quidditch had been played all around the castle instead of in the stadium.  Moreover, the roof seemed to change size to accommodate the crowd.  Hermione muttered something about fire escapes and magical size redistribution, but Ron just said the tower must be bigger on the outside than it was on the inside.  It was a good thing, too, because as the minutes turned to hours, even the Hufflepuff first years – known for their steadfast obedience – began to creep out onto the battlements to watch as the growing pillar of fire and shadow worked its way from the far edge of the Forbidden Forest toward the hillside and the lawns of Hogwarts castle. 

            Down in the castle foreyard, by the entrance that lead to the great hall, the students who were willing to hang over the castellations had seen Madame Pomfrey directing Filch, some ghosts, and half-a-hundred house elves in some kind of frantic preparation, the purpose of which only became clear when a party of the house elves dashed off into the forest and returned bearing stretchers with the crumpled figures of Professor Grubbly-Plank and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher on them. 

            "Well," said Lee Jordan, watching as Madame Pomfrey met the procession and she and Filch rushed the injured man inside.  "That's two homework assignment less to worry about."

            Everyone who was close enough to hear him laughed, albeit nervously.

            "I don't think they're dead," said one of the Slytherins, who'd fetched a pair of Omnioculars from the dormitories  "They're still breathing anyway."

            "What is it?" "What's happening?" the students on the other sides of the tower craned their necks and chattered, and Lee tapped his own throat with his wand and invoked the "Sonorus" spell and explained in an amplified voice.  Then he asked, "Has anyone else got Omnioculars?  Can you see what's happening in the forest?"

            "I've got a Televisus Spectacalus spell on my glasses," a third year from Ravenclaw said, "It's not as good as Omnioculars, but you can see a little."

            Instantly, everyone with glasses cast the spell, including Harry, and turned to look at the edge of the forest.  They were in time to see the Muggle Studies professor come limping out, bleeding from a bad cut to the forehead, to be met by Filch and some elves with a stretcher.  Beyond them the dark leaves fluttered in an unnatural wind, and smoke obscured more than glimpses now and then of someone flying or the sparks of a wand.  The students without glasses hastily exchanged information about Quidditch field spells with the younger students.

            Between the Slytherins' Omnioculars, binoculars and spells, every student was watching by the time the bats and birds flew out in a chaotic cloud from the burning trees, and the werewolves loped across the grass to dive into the tenuous shelter of the lake.  From time to time more junior faculty members appeared, or were pulled out of the forest as the smoke grew nearer.  The Arithmancy teacher, Professor Vector, went back twice to bring out colleagues before it was her turn to come out of the trees on a stretcher.  Even the Centaurs abandoned the Forest, herding deer and unicorns and other small creatures before them to the relative safety of the hillsides. The senior Prefects whispered to each other about trying to evacuate if only they could get to the school brooms in time, and fretted over the ring of stormclouds that loomed in a suspiciously perfect circle around the edges of the valley.

            "Even if we can get the brooms," Cho Chang pointed out, "how many of us would know how to fly through that lot?  The first years have only had a few lessons."

            "We could double up.  Good flyers take someone with them."

            "And then what?  There's lightning in those clouds, can't you see it?  And if it's a natural storm, what's holding it back on all sides?  I'd hate to find a magical barrier by flying into it at full speed."

            "How about if we try sending an owl?"

            Harry stopped listening, watching instead as the column of flame and shadow in the trees turned a rudimentary head and the shapes of horns and the gleam of flame red eyes showed through the smoke.  It was getting closer.  If it strayed much to the left it would come out of the forest close enough to endanger Hagrid's hut.

            Then the last of the faculty began to reappear at the edge of the wood, running.

            Hagrid was in the lead, carrying Dumbledore, and shielding him from a whip of fire that stretched out from the smoke and chaos.  The gigantic groundskeeper barrelled up the hillside towards the great gates that opened out from the curtain wall surrounding the grounds of the castle with Dumbledore looking like a small child cradled against his shoulder.   Moments behind them, coming past trees like a slalom skier, was Madame Hooch, Professor Flitwick riding pillion behind her on her broom.   Then Professor Trelawney appeared.  She ran like a scarecrow, her wild skirts hitched up into a practical knot at her waist.  Professor Sprout galumphed along beside her, tumbling once a complete turn but coming up to her feet and running again as if the contact with the ground had only strengthened her

            At the gate, they saw Dumbledore say something to Hagrid, and the caretaker stopped and put him down, and then stood there, arguing, as the other teachers in the group caught up and started to spread themselves out in a line along the wall.  Madame Hooch deposited Professor Flitwick on the wall itself, and then snapped her broom back in a move that made Harry feel a small pang of guilt for thinking how wonderful it would work in a Quidditch match.  She headed back for the forest.  Professor Sprout took position against the wall on the opposite side of the gate from Flitwick, so that Dumbledore was between them.

            Hagrid, reluctantly, stepped inside the gates, still shaking his huge shaggy head at Dumbledore.  He'd gotten as far as starting to close them when Hooch reappeared from the forest, with Professor Sinistra leaning against her back, eyes closed.

            Too many things happened at once to make sense of them just then.  Professors Sprout and Flitwick had turned to face the forest, and had started to glow.  Professor Trelawney was between the wall and the forest, pacing back and forth, and calling something.  Harry looked at Dumbledore and saw the Headmaster raise his arms, but saw too great Phoenix wings of spark and flame rise from the battered robes.

            "He's on fire!" someone groaned, but it wasn't true.  Harry tore his gaze away from Dumbledore and saw a great bluesmoke bird shape over Flitwick, and the head of a mistgrey badger where he knew Sprout was standing.  Somehow, the luminous, ethereal creatures were becoming part of the wall, and the wall was starting to glisten, slowly  growing higher.  Where Professor Trelawney was walking, he caught a glimpse of peacock feathers, and heard a distant, high screech of warning.

            Madame Hooch shot forward with her injured colleague, cutting past Dumbledore to skim inside the gates just before Hagrid closed them.  The wall of light flared and flickered, then steadied into a golden glow with the clang of the gates, but it grew no higher.  At the forest's edge, a small dark cat appeared, leaping impossibly fast across the ground even as it grew into both lion and Professor McGonagall.  Then Professor Snape appeared, running with a limp that somehow didn't slow him down, his black cloak snapping in the wind.  For a moment there was a suggestion of something reptilian about the Potions professor, but before it could be more than a suggestion a titanic creature, vaguely manshaped, but with horns on its head and long smoke-snake arms came out of the edge of the wood and blocked his way.  It seemed to define itself as it pushed past trees that burst into flame, growing more solid with each step.

            "What is that thing?"  More than one voice asked.

            "A balrog," Draco Malfoy's voice cracked on the word.  Harry spared him a glance.  Draco was usually pale, but now he'd gone dead white.  "I thought they didn't exist anymore."

            "There's a balrog in a Muggle book I know," Hermione said in a kind of awed squeak.  "It's a kind of a demon, isn't it?"

            "I think so." Draco said, staring at the combat.  And small wonder.

            Snape had turned desperately, flinging a small potion bottle at the feet of the balrog that shattered against a root.  Purple and green smoke billowed out surrounding the demon, and for a moment it faltered, but then a massive arm snapped out, flinging Snape back to collide with Professor McGonagall.  She fell, the lion fading, and Trelawney darted in between the balrog and its victims.  McGonagall recovered quickly, crouching to protect Snape and check on his condition as Trelawney absently dodged the balrog's blows and sent ineffective sparks of greengold at it with her wand. 

            "Funny," George Weasley muttered, turning his head away, "I should have thought I'd enjoy seeing Snape take the worst of it."

            "'S'all right, George," Fred reassured him.  "He's still moving.  Just… not… very fast."

            The balrog shook its head and took a step forward, ignoring Trelawney for the moment.  McGonagall came to her feet, her robes glimmering like armor of spun silver, as she took position between Snape and the demon.  She drew all eyes with her defiant dramatic pose, calling out something, her wand a brilliant orange, as she reached up into the air to extract a sword of flames from the shimmering heat waves of the balrog. 

When she swung it, the balrog staggered back.  For a long minute the flames of its being faded into embers, and it looked like it might be defeated. But then it reached out a great hand of shadow and pulled off the burning tip of a tree, shoving it into its mouth like a child with a favorite candy.  It's flames brightened again and it stepped forward to find McGonagall, now trying to help Snape get to his feet.  With a casual flicker of its whip it knocked them both to the ground again, and turned to pace towards the castle, leaving the shelter of the burning forest.

            Dumbledore flung up a barrier hand and cried out something so powerful that even on the battlements behind him the children could feel it's strength.  The wall of light pressed outward from the physical walls, blocking the balrog from moving forward, the ethereal phoenix, badger, and raven advanced with it, standing just inside the barrier, holding it upright as the balrog roared defiance and tried to force its way past.