Author's Notes: JKR could very well be a witch herself, and we'd never know...

- It's apparently Hermione's birthday today! (Sept 19) This is one of the facts never mentioned in the books- which is odd, considering how close a friend Hermione and Ron both were to Harry.

- It's also International Talk Like a Pirate day, which was invented in 1995... a year after the TWT, unfortunately.

Chapter 70: Biting Off More

Nobody would expect a British beach to be as enticing as those in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands, especially in mid-October. When Harry and Hermione arrived, it seemed to be especially miserable. Wind and rain pelted them immediately while waves of cold, salty water tried to soak their feet. Dryness spells had to be cast in order for Harry to even confirm they were in the right place.

The only times Voldemort had visited this place had been in the summer- once as a child on a trip with his orphanage, the other was a year after working for Borgin and Burkes. Decades had passed since then, but despite the weather, Harry could still recognize a few key features he pulled from Voldemort's memory. A few rocks had shifted, some trees had died, others had grown, some of the beach itself had eroded away... but there remained a familiar path, the one that led to the cave where Tom Riddle had lured two of his fellow orphans to experiment with his magic.

"This is it," Harry said, pointing. "It should be up those rocks and around the cliff. Probably safer if we fly." The two of them unpacked their brooms and slowly glided around the cliff face.

They scanned the rocky wall for any sign of a cave, but couldn't see anything. The rocky path got narrower and narrower, and yet the cliff remained solid. There was no way a group of ten-year-olds could have traversed this far. "We've passed it. It should have been only a few steps away from the sharp corner over there," Harry said.

"Probably charmed to be hidden from wizards. Let's double check," Hermione said, pulling her wand out. She repeatedly cast detection spells as they moved back along the path. "Aha! There it is," she said.

"Anything dangerous?" asked Harry.

"No. Just compulsions and illusions," Hermione said. With a final flick of her wand, the entire cliff face shimmered and revealed a narrow entrance to a cave. "There. Got it." The two of them flew inside, only to find that their brooms stopped working. Thankfully, they were close to the ground already, and both of them landed on their feet.

"Anti-flight wards?" Harry asked.

"And anti-apparition, too. I think the source is centered deeper in the cave, though."

They continued walking by the light of a lumos spell until they came to a dead end. At least, it would have appeared to be a dead end. The two of them recognized runes in the wall, cleverly disguised as ordinary cracks.

"Um-Gebo, Naudiz, Amn-Mannaz. Hm… this feels familiar for some reason," Hermione said.

"Yeah, it does," Harry said. "Path… wounded living… triggered flow…?" He tried to translate as much as he could in his head, but the fact that the runes were hidden made it much more difficult. He wracked his brain for deeper memories pulled from Voldermort, but he'd been so focused on finding the location he didn't get information about the traps and passkeys within.

"Oh wait, this is silly. It's almost like the blood runes we've got. That's why I thought it was familiar," Hermione said.

"Huh?" Harry took a closer look. Things were arranged differently, but there were definite clusters regarding the flow of blood to trigger stored magic. The main difference here was that it was activated by the presence of live blood. "Hm. Blood sacrifice for entry, then. How… cliché, Voldemort."

"Wait. It's still a bit of a puzzle," Hermione said. "The array's incomplete. I think you need the blood in the right place... give me a minute." She conjured up some parchment and began scribbling. Harry watched her work, careful not to interrupt her. "There. Draw a line connecting Jah-Rido and Naudiz-Um. Might work better as a curve, actually."

Harry cast a light cutting charm on his thumb, and made a long, curved swipe between the two runes. As he healed the small wound, the rocks began to shift and rearrange themselves to form an archway. "Right in one. You're brilliant, Hermione."

"Thanks. Let's not get cocky now. We have no idea what's inside."

Past the arch was a cavern that housed what could only be described as a small lake. Harry had to overpower his lumos and still just barely made out the far end of the cavern. Save for the small patch of rock they were standing on and an equally tiny island in the middle, murky water reached from wall to wall. The island had a podium in the center, clearly where they needed to go.

Hermione shot a Lumos Excan into the water, but the bright flare of light was snuffed out after travelling only a few centimeters. It was impossible to tell how deep the water was, or if anything was hidden below. She cast several more detection charms over the water. "Well, the water's definitely enchanted for opaqueness. It's hiding something. Also, the rune anchors for the anti-flight and anti-apparition wards must be somewhere at the bottom."

"Yeah, I'm not going down there." They looked over at a small rowboat floating innocently beside them. "And that just has 'trap' written all over it. Do you think the anti-flight ward works only against brooms, or living things too?"

"I don't know, but I'd rather have a method that lets us have our wands and armour working properly in case something happens," Hermione said.

"Good thinking." They both looked at the rowboat again. Harry cast a weak banishing charm on it, sending it slowly drifting towards the island. After floating for several meters, it spontaneously sank. "Knew it!" he cried triumphantly.

"That's not exactly something to cheer about, Harry." Hermione gave him a chiding look.

Harry just shrugged in response. "Try levitating me. It might evade the anti-flight ward."

"Wingardium Leviosa," Hermione chanted with perfect pronunciation. She could have done it silently, but she wanted the spell to be both perfect, and powerful. Harry didn't rise an inch.

"So much for that idea. There's always fumation," Harry said. He tried to concentrate on phasing his body into smoke, but felt completely off-balance. It was very much like his first fumation lesson all over again, having very little control over what parts of his body were dissociating. "I can't do it. There's some kind of ward against that, too. If I tried, I'd end up splinching myself."

"So, Voldemort's covered boats, fumation, levitation, and flight, mostly. There's one more thing I want to try before our animagus forms."

"I'm still not a very good swimmer," Harry commented as he stared at the water.

"I wasn't even going to suggest that," Hermione said. "Freezing charms! We could make a bridge out of ice!" Hermione suggested.

"That's a lot of ice we have to make. I think it'd be better just to risk flying over," Harry said, but began to help her freeze the water anyway.

The ice sank.

"Ice… doesn't normally do that," Hermione commented.

Harry conjured a lightweight rubber ball like the ones he used to play with at primary school. Or that Dudley took from him, at any rate. That one sank too. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the water here just isn't as buoyant as normal water," Harry said. "Looks like I'll just fly over there now as Bandit. If something jumps out of the lake to try to eat me… well, have a good, lethal charm ready to cast."

"We still don't know if that'll work yet!" Hermione cried out as he shrunk down to his feathery form. "Here, just fly up to me first."

With a few powerful flaps, he perched on Hermione's outstretched arm. With a satisfied chirp and a nip on her ear for good luck, he took off and flew smoothly to the island.

"Well, that was completely uneventful," Harry shouted across the lake. "We should have tried that first. Ready to come over?"

"I'm coming, I'm coming," she replied. As she made her way over, he took a look around the small island. It was completely featureless other than the single podium in the center. Built into the podium was a basin, filled with a liquid of some sort, with a locket sitting at the bottom. That's odd, Harry thought. Doesn't Slytherin's locket have more emeralds on it? It didn't feel like a horcrux, either. His mind was perfectly clear – no illogical desires to wear it or take over the world. At the side of the basin was an oyster shell. More runes were etched all over it. He cast several detection spells over the water, which turned out to be a potion of some kind. A few of the ingredients pointed to some kind of hallucinogen, nonlethal poisons that caused pain, and a few assorted herbs and fungi.

Not wanting to touch the potion, Harry conjured a stick and tried to fish out the locket. The stick hit the surface of the potion as if it were rock solid, despite the soft rippling. He spied additional runes along the edge of the basin, some of which matched up with the ones etched on the oyster shell. He scooped up some of the potion and poured it over the side several times, but the basin never emptied. The rocks he poured the potion on didn't even seem to get wet- it seemed to return itself directly to the basin.

He heard Hermione land softly and transform beside him. "What have you got?" she asked.

"Seems like this potion here is impenetrable other than by the oyster shell," Harry said. "And I think it can't be emptied other than by drinking. We'll save that as a last resort," he said.

"Let me see." Hermione checked over the runes herself, confirming Harry's interpretation of the array. Skipping over to the potion part, though, she paused for a second. "Okay, Voldemort either revolutionized the entire brewing industry while still in his teens, or…"

"What do you mean?" Harry asked.

Hermione fished out a bezoar. "Or this isn't really a potion, just water mixed with a few ingredients. You can't just add water to a pile of herbs and call it a potion. So Voldemort has to come here and brew a new batch of potion himself to keep this topped up, or he figured out a way to automatically brew potions without the very important component – the witch or wizard brewing it. Or this is just water and some leaves. The real issue is the power coming from the runes…"

"Which only allow it to be drunk," Harry said, staring at the locket at the bottom. "Beozar or no, that water's probably as healty as piss."

"Harry! Language." Hermione scolded. "Well, it's not like we could just conjure a camel or something."

"…we can't?" Harry asked, raising his wand and putting on a silly grin.

"Harry…" Hermione said with a stern look. They both knew that living transfigurations and conjurations were by far the most difficult of the art, and an animal large enough to drink all that water would be quite draining.

"Fine. Wait… there's got to be a simpler answer," Harry said. He put on his dragonhide gloves and grabbed the oyster shell again. This time, he dug as deep as he could into the potion, but the shell wasn't large enough to reach the locket before the gloves hit the seemingly rock-hard water. "Darn," he said.

He nearly dropped it when the shell grew three times larger in his hands. "Try it again," said Hermione.

He smiled, this time scraping the bottom of the basin and scooping up the locket with it. As he poured out the potion, it returned to the basin as it was designed to, but the locket clattered on the ground. "That seemed so simple," he said. "It's always after you solved it when the puzzles seem so obvious."

Wasting no time, he unwrapped the basilisk fang he'd brought with him and shoved it through the locket. The venom made quick work of the little trinket, as if there were no protections for it to burn through at all. When the fang poked through the opposite side, Harry yanked it off the fang. There was no smoke, no otherworldly scream, no little bit of soul dissociating from this plane of existence.

"Was this really the horcrux?" Hermione asked, staring through the hole in the locket.

"Didn't feel like one," Harry said. "Especially since this was supposed to be his very last one. I was hoping for something more exciting. You know, beam of light to the heavens, a good version of Tom's ghost giving us a 'job well done,' Death himself showing up and telling us he's had an itch for the past fifty years…"

"Don't tell me you're actually expecting any of that," Hermione chuckled.

"No," Harry quickly replied, laughing with her. "But I overhear a lot of when the Ravenclaws play Wizards and Wyverns in the Great Hall during holidays. Something fantastic always happens when they finally eliminate the big bad boss or find the last ancient treasure. Would've been helpful to know right away if we're actually finished or not." He dangled the locket in front of him and peered through the hole that the fang had created. "Wait… there's something inside of it!"

Harry opened up a locket, which contained a tiny piece of parchment, folded up. Due to the fang, most of it was burned through. Carefully, they opened up the locket and unfolded the parchment, which was already crumbling to pieces.

To th-
I kn- efore you-ecret. I
ha- destroy-ce
death-eet you - ortal
once more.


"I can't make heads or tails of this," Harry said. "I just dissolved ninety percent of the message in venom."

"I think it's pretty clear that this isn't the real Horcrux. I mean, aside from the lack of a soul departing, I don't think Voldemort would leave a note for himself. He doesn't seem to be the sentimental type."

"But who's Mr. R A? Friend? Foe?"

"He could already be dead. This could have been swapped any time in the past forty years. Nobody's checked up on it since. The real locket could be anywhere."

"Or maybe destroyed?" Harry suggested hopefully.

"Or in the hands of another Death Eater and making its way to Voldemort as we speak."

"Don't be so pessimistic."

"I prefer realist, thank you. That note could be for us. Maybe something like, 'To the attackers of the dark lord: I know you have not alerted the aurors. Therefore you are attempting this in secret. I have removed the horcrux you intend to destroy. Something something something, meet you and kill you all once we ensure that he is immortal once more.' It's not like there are many other people who extracted Voldemort's memories and have avian animagus forms coming by every day. Whoever did this probably had permission and instructions."

"Did any Death Eaters escape our raid that day? I thought we caught all of them. Killed some," Harry reluctantly admitted.

"Maybe that wasn't all of them. One or two could have been out of the house. Could be something as random as grocery shopping."

"We can worry about that later," Harry said. "Let's get out of here."

It was only after he morphed into an osprey, with its keen eyesight and instinct for fishing, that he noticed the barest of ripples underneath the surface of the water. He flew up to get a better look when he saw it- it was a human hand at the edge of the island. He let out a screech to warn Hermione. The little burrowing owl wasn't a powerful flyer, and Hermione herself didn't spend nearly as much time as Harry did in the air. She couldn't take off with as much speed or height as Harry did.

An unusually long arm shot out of the water and made a snatch at Stilts. She managed to evade it, but tumbled in the attempt. Another hand shot up trying to reach her again. Again, she had to swerve, this time losing even more height and nearly skimming the water. A surge of water rose up beside her and a skeletal form leapt out of the water, practically enveloping the tiny bird. Harry could only watch in horror as Hermione turned back into a witch, wand in hand as she sank below the surface, tackled by an undead monster.

Harry did the only thing he could think of. He returned to human form and cast a bubble-head charm as he was falling down. He needed another powerful lumos to see underwater.

Inferi. The lake was full of inferi.

They were swarming towards him, but there was another cluster already gathered around Hermione. He could feel the shockwaves as she cast bone-shattering curses and blasting hexes at her attackers. He transfigured his shoes into flippers as Hermione had done, and swam before he was overwhelmed himself. He chained together multiple bone-breaking charms, tried partially transfiguring some inferi into lead, and tying others up. He settled on a modified duelling combo involving a sticking charm, bone-breaker, and banishing charm let him rapidly immobilize and repel inferi.

Incredibly thankful for his experience in the Trial of Water, Harry began blasting away at inferi who were starting to overwhelm Hermione until he could reach her. There was no time for a happy reunion, though, as they both started fighting off inferi, back-to-back. Harry knew he needed something to take them all down before they tired. The sheer numbers of these things would take them all day to destroy one by one. Inferi were weak to fire, but they were underwater. Nice thinking, Voldemort. He had to grudgingly acknowledge his nemesis.

But there were always alternatives. He'd absorbed a few of Voldemort's memories. He had Fiendfyre- which would easily burn underwater, but not something he'd use with his girlfriend in the middle of the fray. The situation was growing desparate- it seemed like he had to risk being bitten to death or burned to death with uncontrollable fire. There had to be something he could use. Banishing charms and bone-shattering spells could only take out one at a time, and the horde seemed limitless.

Voldemort wouldn't have created a trap so deadly that he would have killed himself over it, would he? How did he deal with inferi that were out of control? Harry dug deep into the memories he'd pulled from Voldemort's mind. Fragments. Scraps. He'd been lucky enough to find the location of the horcrux in the mess of memories. Inferi- fiendfyre. More inferi- more fiendfyre. Voldemort was proficient enough at the deadly spell that he simply used the deadliest fire spell in existence on every whim. Damn.

Fire. Fire was the key. There were other types of fire- bluebell fire. Useless. Dragonfire. Useless underwater. He could remember now. Or, more accurately, Tom Riddle had remembered. A restricted textbook- detailing a unique type of fire spell. Riddle's memory jogged Harry's own- he'd skimmed over the same textbook at some point for the Triwizard Tournament, but decided it hadn't been useful – he'd only found it after the Trial of Water. Well, it was certainly worthwhile to try it now. There was nothing left to lose.

"Pyrkagio Filosof!" Harry cried out. Supposedly an easy spell, limited only by raw magical power and control. Greek fire, Philosopher's fire, Liquid fire- it had many names. But its defining characteristic was its ability to burn anywhere. It didn't have the ferocious temperatures or the semi-sentient nature of fiendfyre, but it certainly was versatile.

If he cast it correctly, that is. Only a sputter of flame, which didburn as it floated away, came out of his wand. He must have got the pronunciation wrong. "Malleossis! Epoximise! Depulso!" Harry chained together several basic spells to keep the inferi from advancing. He didn't have to kill every individual one now- once he got that Greek fire spell right, all of them would burn. He quickly let off a dozen spells to keep another wave of inferi from advancing, and tried again.

"Pyrkagio Filosof!" he yelled, altering the accent and emphasis slightly. This time, a short stream of flame came out, igniting to inferi. They continued to mindlessly advance despite the flames, so Harry had to banish them further away- but the important thing was that they did burn. He only had a few more chances perfect the charm before they were completely overrun.

He heard a muffled shout from behind him with a familiar sound. A quick glance told him Hermione was trying the same spell he was. It didn't surprise him that she knew the spell too, probably from one of the textbooks in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts – perhaps even the same textbooks Tom Riddle learned it from. It looked like she was having just as much luck as he was.

Still, some fire was better than none, and fire had the nice property of setting other things on fire. The first two inferi he'd lit up had ignited a few others as they sank. Harry cast the spell again as best he could, setting several more on fire. He tapped Hermione on the shoulder and pointed to the island- they had cleared enough space to swim to safety now. Hermione nodded in understanding, and they kicked as quickly as they could back to land, spewing as much fire as they could behind them as they could. Dozens more inferi burned in their trail.

Harry climbed out first, wand at the ready. He noticed Hermione wasn't climbing out nearly as fast.

"Hermione, are you alright?" Harry asked, bending down. He instinctively cast a levitation charm to help her, only to find it didn't work. Of course. He grabbed her arm with his free hand.

"OWWW! Wait, wait… I think that arm might be broken." Hermione winced in pain. The light armour had done its job for the most part, stopping scratches and bites, but several of them had been shaking and slamming her in the struggle. Harry held her under the armpits and quickly dragged her partway up, stopping to blast another few inferi that were starting to emerge. Hermione cast Greek fire on the surface of the water, forming a burning barrier around the edge of the island as she pushed herself back up.

"We haven't got any Skele-gro. You'll have to make do with an episkey. Can you get the armour off yourself?" Harry blasted away with regular incendiary charms at the inferi that were starting to make their way out of the water, adding more flames to the firewall around the lake.

"No. Not here. No time for proper treatment," Hermione said. "Do you have any Pepper-up left? I think most of my potions were smashed to bits as I was fighting."

"Here." Harry handed her a bottle while extending the burning perimeter some more. He could see the bottom of the lake emit a dull glow- it looked like the fires were still burning. There must have been a lot of bodies down at the bottom. Once he completed the circle of flame around the entire patch of land, he took a look at Hermione's shoulder.

Harry looked over it more carefully. It was swollen all around, and Hermione winced in pain no matter where he touched it. It looked like it would be better with a visit to the infirmary, nothing too bad to worry about. A more thorough scan of her body revealed a small gash at the back of the ankle near the Achilles' tendon- a small gap between the armour and her shoes which was bleeding. "You've been cut here! You could be infected!"

"What was that?" Hermione asked wearily while finishing off the bottle of Pepper-up. Her face was flushed, and her eyelids were droopy. Not the condition you'd expect right after downing that potion.

"Hermione? How are you feeling?" Harry had to delay his diagnostic charm to take down another two burning inferi. The air now had an acrid scent of burning flesh and smoke, but he ignored it as best he could. He didn't want to think about how badly it could be affecting Hermione.

"Really tired… got another Pepper-up? The first one didn't seem to do the job," she said, lolling her head.

Harry finally managed to get the diagnostic charm on the cut, and it revealed what he feared: she had a cursed infection. He couldn't tell what it was, so he splashed on an all-purpose medical potion on the wound and handed his remaining Pepper-up to Hermione. He cast an Enervate spell for good measure. "Hermione? Listen to me. You have to focus. Change into your animagus form, and I'll carry you out of here. I have to get you to Madam Pomfrey."

"What? Alright, Harry. Be gentle with me," she said, slowly shrinking into a burrowing owl.

"I'm sorry, Stilts," he whispered to her. "This might hurt a bit." Looking around, he could see more and more inferi step through the flames, unable to feel pain from the burning. Most of them collapsed to ash before coming within arm's length, but some of the faster ones came dangerously close to taking a bite. He cleared the area with the strongest flame whip he could, whirling it around and overhead. It only bought him a few extra seconds, but it was enough to transform into Bandit and carefully pick up Stilts into his claws. Normally anything in those sharp talons would soon be dead, but he was hoping for just the opposite now. He held her as gently as possible, but the last thing he wanted was to drop her into the water.

He took off before the next wave of inferi could reach him, leaving the island of burning flesh behind. and landed in the safety of the archway entrance. Turning back into a human, he picked up Hermione's tiny form in his hands. His talons had pierced her skin in a few spots, but hadn't dug deep, thankfully. She was completely unconscious now, but he could feel her tiny heart beating quickly. He cast episkey a few times, hoping it would be as effective on owls as it would be on humans, and then tucked her safely inside his shirt. Without a second glance at the cave, Harry apparated back to Hogsmeade.

The distinctive crack of apparition was a familiar sound within the wizarding world, one that most would tune out automatically without second thought. This year in Hogsmeade, there was so much extra traffic due to the Triwizard Tournament that nobody noticed a case of underage apparition.

Harry knew it would have been better to apparate into the back alleys, but he was so tired that he had to aim for the public apparition point instead. He needed to get medical attention for Hermione, secrecy be damned. The last thing she needed was a splinching. He received another spike of adrenaline when he heard the words, "-Harry Potter."

"We 'ave searched zis place so much, I think now know zis village better than my own 'ometown. Are you certain your students are not allowed to leave ze grounds?" The French giantess asked the Hogwarts runes professor. Both of them were facing the opposite way, paying no mind to Harry's arrival. He didn't bother announcing himself before taking off at full speed on his broom.

"Vat kind off broom was that?" Krum asked, trying to wave the dust away from his face. "I haff never heard of a broom vith so much kick!"

"Perhaps eet is ze Nimbus Company's response to ze Firebolt? Do zey test brooms 'ere?" Fleur asked.

"No, they don't," came a deep, elderly voice from behind them. "And to answer your question, Maxime, the students are not allowed to leave without a parent or guardian's permission. If you don't mind, I'm rather curious where he's been as well." Dumbledore walked past all of them towards the castle, tracking the tiny speck in the distance as it flew through an open window straight into the infirmary. The others looked at each other, and immediately began following the Hogwarts headmaster.

The sight of the three respective headmasters striding purposefully together along with their star pupils made others jump out of their way- but also drew a crowd. Their path was unimpeded until they reached the Hogwarts infirmary, where the school nurse stood with a hand on each door, ready to slam both of them shut.

"You can't all be injured. What's the disaster?" Pomfrey asked Dumbledore.

"Ah, Poppy. I was only wishing to speak to Harry Potter," he responded. "I fear he may have broken a few school rules."

Pomfrey could barely contain a snort of disbelief. She'd already seen Potter numerous times in her infirmary over the years for various types of rule-breaking, and the headmaster had never been particularly interested before. "Be that as it may, headmaster, my patients are allowed some right to privacy. And that does not fit the definition of privacy by any stretch of the imagination," she said, peering past the Headmaster at the crowd that had gathered.

Aside from the original group, there were now curious students, journalists, and even a few townsfolk from Hogsmeade, all wondering what the big fuss was about. Dumbledore turned to address them. "Ah. As fabulous as Madam Pomfrey's services are, I'm sure you can all find better-tasting brews at the Three Broomsticks or the Hog's Head. Now, unless you have pressing issues with one of the patients, I will have to ask you to remain outside while I-"

He was interrupted by the sound of oaken doors slamming shut.

"Poppy?" There was no response to his knocking.

In all the hubbub, nobody noticed a small green beetle skittering across the ceiling and into the infirmary just before the doors slammed shut. Rita Skeeter was immediately greeted with a tabloid-worthy sight, that of Harry Potter heaving into a pail as if he'd just downed an entire bottle of Firewhiskey. And since "speculative journalism" was one of her specialities, that scenario was as profitable as whatever the truth could be. She could have left and published a story with that alone, but she decided to stick around. The truth was useful on occasion.

"Calm down, Mr. Potter. Miss Granger is in stable condition now."

"Thank goodness," Harry said. "But it's not just her…rrRRKK!" He heaved into the pail once more, although nothing came up.

"My goodness, Potter. Don't tell me you've been hiding inferi wounds on your own body!"

Inferi? Now this could be juicy! Or horrific. Now, what would people want to hear more, The-Boy-Who-Lived saves us from an unknown inferi attack… or The-Boy-Who-Lived, dabbling in the dark arts and nearly killing his girlfriend in the process? Skeeter thought.

"No, it's not that, it's… the smell. Burnt flesh. It reminds me of an… unpleasant experience I once had," Harry said.

"I would think confronting inferi would be unpleasant enough!"

"Cutting them down wasn't too difficult. They were already dead," Harry croaked out. He shuddered a little. "Please, Madam Pomfrey. Don't tell Dumbledore about this."

"You know I have a duty to report any rule-breaking I come across, and I'm quite certain you didn't run into inferi in Hogsmeade," she answered. "But all he needs to know is that you left the grounds- the more personal details aren't important."

"Isn't being an animagus breaking a rule too?" Harry asked weakly.

"Not one of Hogwart's rules," Pomfrey replied. "When it comes to the Ministry- if they don't ask, I won't tell. Simple as that. You do know that the transformation is what's saved her life? Thank goodness the infection couldn't spread within an owl's body. She'll make a full recovery by the day after tomorrow."

Illegal animagus too? This is GOLD! I'm definitely going with the dark-arts angle now. After all, there's no news like bad news. The irony of the situation was entirely lost on Skeeter.

"There is a matter I must discuss with you, however. You've managed to hide those blood runes on your back quite well, but it would never escape a thorough medical checkup. What are they for, Harry? Why do both of you have them?"

The look on Harry's face told Rita all she needed to start writing. It was a shame she didn't have a bug-sized camera on her. Guilty, guilty, guilty. It's written all over him. Blood runes, illegal animagus… what's he going to do next? Threaten to kill that nurse?

His voice came out lower than usual, practically monotone from his efforts to calm himself. "Madam Pomfrey. Please drop the issue."

"Mr. Potter, these could have serious repercussions in the long term! I'm detecting a constant drain on your magical energy, for one."

"Yes, that's how they were designed," Harry continued, facing Hermione instead of Pomfrey as he spoke.

"Mr. Potter… Harry, I'm worried these could kill you in the long run! Blood runes have good reason to be categorized as dark magic!"

"Madam Pomfrey, I'd already be dead if it weren't for these. Now please drop the issue." The wand that silently slid into Harry's left hand, out of Pomfrey's sight, didn't escape Rita's notice.

Pomfrey could easily sense the imminent threat and backed down. "You're not the same boy I treated last year, are you?"

"No. No I'm not," Harry admitted easily.

"Was it the dementors?"

"I can't say they didn't play a part."

He's being too evasive to give any real answers. Well, everyone knows dementors were stationed at Hogwarts… so, let's say, Dementor Create Dark Lord Potter! No, wait, that's a little too outlandish. I need someone to blame for all of this. Fudge! He put the dementors there! Dementor Decision Darkens Britain's Brightest Boy! Nothing like a good dose of public outrage. Journalist of the year award goes to me! Rita, having heard enough, decided to look for the nearest beetle-sized opening in the room and scurry outside.

She looked for the nearest place to start writing before she forgot any of the details- that is, until she was suddenly trapped in an unbreakable glass jar.

"Well, well, what have we got here?" Rita couldn't recognize the voice, muffled by the glass. She did her best to play dumb. Walk around, wave an antenna, walk some more in a random direction…

"Skeeter. You're not fooling anyone. An illegal animagus? This could end your career, unless we make a deal. Now look at me." He held the jar up to his face. Rita caught a glance, but turned around quickly. It was that new staff member, what was his name? She couldn't recall; he didn't seem important at the time. It didn't matter. Just keep pretending to be a dumb little beetle.

"Skeeter, your other option is to be dipped in formaldehyde and pinned to my insect collection. Now look at me when I talk to you."

Rita turned around slowly and stared at her captor. Some man she'd probably seen before, passed by in the halls or streets or somewhere, utterly forgettable. He felt like one of a dozen people she'd met at a party and subsequently mixed up all their names and facial features. Was he another journalist? A new staff member at Hogwarts? One of the staff from the other schools? A Hogsmeade resident? The girl's father, perhaps? She didn't have a clue.

"I'll let you go this time, Skeeter. You can write on anything about the Triwizard Tournament as you see fit- but nothing on Harry Potter or Hermione Granger. Understand? Anything related to them, however remote, you hand over to me." He brought the jar close as he grinned ferally, his teeth taking up Rita's entire field of view. She had a feeling that this man really wouldn't mind chewing on bugs to make a point.

He vanished the jar around her, finally letting her return to human form. "Who are you?" she asked warily. "What are you doing here?"

"Those questions I only answer to those who need to know. And all you need to know is that if you don't give me everything you have on Potter and Granger, your life will become a living hell. Now show me what you've got," he said, putting out his palm as if he were expecting her to pass some notes along.

Skeeter stood her ground, unsure if it was fear, bravery, or stupidity holding her there. "Hey, if you didn't notice, I was a beetle this whole time. I haven't written anything down yet."

"That's not what I asked for," he said, raising his hand to cup her jaw. Once he stared straight into her eyes, she no longer had control of her memories.

Author's Chapter End Notes:

- I never really got around to cataloguing exactly how much Harry ripped out of Voldemort's mind last time they met...

- One thing I never really figured out is where Voldemort got all the bodies to fill that lake with inferi. From what I can tell, he created the whole thing before the war started, so it's not like he had a huge supply of dead bodies already. And if they were all muggles... well, that's like a small town's worth of bodies in the lake. Unless he really did wipe a town off the map. Hm...

- One proposal I've heard for the (canon) attempt on the locket: bring Fawkes. That would have made things so easy. Fawkes can lift heavy loads (carry Dumbledore and Harry over), heal Dumbledore after he drinks up the water (if conjured camels can't drink it for him), and sing his song to stop Dumbledore from being super-depressed. I guess that's what happens when you put game-breaking elements in your story and forget about them. Also, nearly problem in Harry Potter can be solved using Time Turners, so there's that...