Chapter 6 - Preparations

Disclaimer: Despite popular misconceptions, I do not in fact own Harry Potter or Negima.

Immediately upon entering the office, Negi felt a subtle trickle of magic surround him. Slowly, he began to rethink his plan for this meeting. Perhaps he'd been a bit hasty in determining Dumbledore to be an enemy, it was premature to rule him out as an ally. In fact, if he told him right now about-

Negi made small gasp as a sharp pain raced its way up from his foot, disrupting his chain of thought before he said anything. Glancing aside, he realized Chachamaru had inconspicuously jabbed him with a tiny blade protruding from her heel, and was now staring at him with a concerned expression.

Recognizing the mental suggestion magic at work, he reinforced both his personal mental shields as well as his developing Occlumency barriers, and sent a small telepathic message at Harry to do the same.

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Negi realized he was going to be up against a veteran in this game, one who had more experience magically and politically than both wizards combined. Negi at least hoped that the modest telepathic abilities he had been able to develop over the past weeks would come in handy here.

At this point the Headmaster made his opening move, eyes twinkling. "Harry, m'boy, it's such a relief to see you unharmed after all that happened two nights ago! And I see that you've brought some friends, as well. Ms. Granger, I trust you're feeling well? And two new faces, as well! I can't say I've seen you two around the castle, might I ask for your names?"

Steadying his breath from the aftereffects of the forced trust spell, Negi flatly stated, "Negi Springfield."

"Chachamaru Karakuri." She flatly intoned, the only person able to look the headmaster in the eye without danger.

"Ah, another Englishman and a visitor from the East, if I'm right?"

"Actually, sir," Negi corrected, determinedly focusing on Dumbledore's hat, "we both just recently moved from Japan to Britain."

"Oh? And I suppose this would be when you met the acquaintance of Harry here?"

Damn it, Negi thought, he knows full well where and how we met, but he's going to play this game instead. But… if we can play this right, we could make it out of here scot-free. Harry, he sent, the ball's in your court.

Nodding slightly, Harry spoke up. "Yep, Negi and I have known each other for a while now. Funny story there, really, because initially I met him as a business client, not a friend."

"Pardon?" Dumbledore asked. Internally, Negi was asking the same question.

"Yes…" Harry said, drawing out the word in what was obviously a way to buy time. "You see, Harry and Chachamaru are both independent security contractors, and I've hired them full-time. Basically, while I was looking at the newspaper while at the Dursleys' during spring break I happened upon one of their ads."

"Indeed," Negi added, catching on to what Harry was saying. "Normally we contract out to celebrities and political figures, of which Harry is both. Generally we offer protection on a per-event basis, but for Harry's case we decided to make a more comprehensive plan."

"You see, Headmaster," Harry continued, becoming more and more animated with his tale. "I've had… what, six or seven near-death experiences so far? Voldemort's got a few hits in, but then there've been Acromantulas, Dementors, basilisks – you get the idea."

"So you decided to hire some mercenaries out of a muggle newspaper?" Dumbledore asked, not looking very impressed.

"They did have a message underneath the ad – hidden from muggles, I would suppose – that they did offer services to magical clientele, so I figured I'd give them a shot. And what do you know, they save me from a Death Eater ambush a few months later!"

"I… see. And how do you plan to pay for their services?"

Harry grinned, "Well normally, I would ask why you'd even need to know about my financial business, but they allowed me an amount of credit once I described the size of my vault to them. Figured I could just pay them back once I turn seventeen, y'know?"

Chachamaru nodded. "Negi and I agreed this was an acceptable contract, given Harry's… extraordinary circumstances. Voldemort and his minions were a force he could never hope to fend off alone."

Feeling the air around him grow slightly more charged, Negi realized they probably shouldn't have mentioned that.

"So you believe that gives you a right to kill? To take the lives of men, without mercy or a chance at redemption?" As he spoke, the twinkle faded from Dumbledore's eyes and Negi realized this wasn't the Headmaster of Hogwarts, but the hero who vanquished Grindelwald. They'd have to tread carefully here.

"And that is where our ideologies differ. While you may believe while you are a headmaster of a school that no student is evil and deserves a second chance, that belief is simply incompatible with war. These Death Eaters and Voldemort are not soldiers to be captured and released at the end of the battle – they are terrorists that will continue to kill innocents until they are killed."

Rearing up to the challenge toward his authority, Dumbledore's eyes were almost sparking from anger. "I'm afraid I simply can't agree with that, Mister Springfield, you see, because I know without a shadow of a doubt that Death Eaters can be reformed. Severus Snape is just the first of many I will show the light to. Regardless of how your… method of income has twisted your mind, there is no doubt in my mind that each and every one of us is a fundamentally good person, if given the chance."

Negi sighed. "It's not that I dislike your beliefs, Headmaster Dumbledore, I cannot condone how you protect your enemies more than your allies. What of the two students that died last night? Would you tell their families that the murderers of their child are good people and will be given a second chance? If a known terrorist attacked me, or anyone around me with the intent to kill, showing mercy to them would not only endanger the people I protect, it would be an insult to my duty as a Magister Magi!"

"You act as if there is no way to protect people except by killing." Dumbledore said sadly. "It disappoints me that one so young would fall to such darkness. There is no imperative to respond to lethal with the same, especially after seeing the level of power you displayed against Tom's servants – I simply cannot accept that you would value so little a human life."

"Really?" Negi said, his smile turning colder. "And just what is it that makes us 'human'? Our physical bodies? But then you would call werewolves monsters because of a curse outside of their control. Our minds, perhaps, the capacity to think? Of course, that would mean that demons – true demons – would be deserving of your mercy even when their only thoughts and desires are to destroy and kill. Or maybe the answer is our 'soul', the ill-defined and mysterious substance that separates a doll from a so-called real person. And that is something I know from personal experience will never be the answer to whether anyone is or is not human. You see, headmaster, in this world of fantasy and reality the line between what is human or not is rather blurred, and simply saying 'killing humans is wrong' is hardly a valid or moral answer."

Negi caught Harry gaping at him openmouthed after that speech, and realized that perhaps he had become a bit too passionate in his clash of wills against a person he wanted to make an alliance with. After training, Master and I would occasionally have discussions on a wealth of topics. I guess it shows? Seeing Harry's rapid nodding, Negi chuckled quietly. He supposed that Master's thinking – or at least the level of it – had been rubbing off on him. At least it seemed to work out here.

Even Dumbledore looked impressed by Harry's rebuttals, his bushy eyebrows raised as he gathered a reply. "I see – I seem to have misjudged you, Mister Springfield. I have to admit I'm impressed by the depth you put in your… career. I hope that perhaps we can reach some sort of compromise, and avoid more conflict like this in the future?"

Negi nodded, "That was my hope as well; it wasn't as if I wanted to kill those Death Eaters, they were just threatening mine and my students' safety."

"I was wondering," Dumbledore began, "You always speak of your students in the plural, and I assume that Chachamaru is one of them. Is there any chance I will meet the other?"

"Ah, yes… well… I suppose I have been teaching Harry here some magic on the side, if only to make my job a little easier. It's much easier to protect a target who

can also reasonably protect himself, you see." Internally, Negi was berating himself for his habit of referring to his class. His cover wouldn't last long if he kept on making those mistakes.

"While it's not truly my business to know what you teach your students, is it anything I should be… concerned about?" Dumbledore asked questioningly.

Negi just laughed lightly, and Harry took the chance to answer. "No, Headmaster, Negi seems to share most of your opinions of dark magic. He figures I'd need another year of training before I'd even be able to think of using magic in the more gray area safely."

"It's true, it would take a miracle for anyone younger than an adult to experiment with dark magic and not come out… different. Mostly I've just been teaching him apparition and general spell improvement."

Dumbledore nodded gravely, thinking of a student of his many years ago, and was relieved that Harry's new friends seemed to be a good influence on him. "Now, one thing I believe all of us can come to agreement on is Voldemort. He needs to stopped, permanently. At one point, I thought I could dissuade him from his path, but…"

Harry shrugged, "He made his choices, just as we make ours. I agree entirely, as does Negi. There's one thing that's been bothering me though, ever since the Department of Mysteries." He lifted up his scar. "Although it hasn't hurt recently, after I told Negi and Chachamaru about it they performed a whole lot of diagnostic tests, and found some rather alarming results."

Gesturing to Chachamaru, she took over from there. "The area near Harry's scar contains residue from two different magic sources, both incredibly dark in nature. The first was the killing curse, which makes since considering what spell was used for to receive that scar. The second was much more obscure, and was only partially identifiable as having components similar to that of soul magic."

At Chachamaru's last declaration Dumbledore paled, and seemed to slump back in his chair. "I was afraid of this… Harry, I didn't want to have to burden you with this knowledge, but you've far exceeded my original expectations. I had a suspicion, ever since your second year, of how exactly Voldemort was able to cheat death, and I'm afraid you've just confirmed the answer."

He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself against his own words. "The exact name of the ritual Voldemort used has long-since been lost, but the effects of the ritual still exist in some of the darker tomes I have read. What Voldemort did was create a horcrux, and that is what allows him to revive himself after death, and keep himself from passing on."

Hermione frowned, seeing something strange in the headmaster's words. "Wait, so if a horcrux is what allows him to revive himself… and you've had that suspicion since our second year, with the diary and the basilisk… Are you saying that the diary Harry destroyed was a horcrux? And that there are more out there?"

"Astute as ever, Miss Granger." Dumbledore remarked, "Yes, the diary was the third clue I had about the method of resurrection Tom used, after him possessing Professor Quirrel and the creation of Harry's scar. Simply put, the horcrux is a vessel that contains a portion of the caster's soul, allowing the rest of the spirit to be bound to this world after death, never to pass on. That shade you encountered after you defeated Professor Quirrel, that was the remaining portion of Voldemort's soul."

Negi's eyes widened, "Wait, wait, wait, you said that Voldemort did this at least twice. Exactly how many times exactly did this guy split his soul? We could be searching for dozens of artifacts we would have to destroy or exorcise before he could be defeated!"

"While that is a small possibility, I am confident I know the number of Tom's horcruxes, at least. He was always one for numerology, and would choose a magically significant number of soul containers."

"So seven, then?"

"Yes. Well, six horcruxes actually, along with his mortal body. However, I believe that Voldemort unintentionally made a horcrux as well, bringing the total to seven."

"What?" Harry asked, "How could he…" Gasping in realization, he brought a hand to his scar. "Voldemort made me into a horcrux?"

"The residue of soul magic would confirm it." Dumbledore said sadly, "It's most likely the horcrux provides the connection to Voldemort that he has exploited these last years. However, Voldemort does not realize right now of the significance of your scar, and it would be best to keep it as such. If he knew you were a horcrux, you would be much more susceptible to his power and possessions."

Harry shivered. "Wow… that's just… wow. Having a piece of Voldemort in my head is really creepy."

"Well," Negi said, trying to lighten the mood, "You've had for like what, sixteen years? Probably won't give you more problems anytime soon."

"True that." Harry said, a small grin on his face.

"Anyway, the most important here is defeating Voldemort, right? And Dumbledore, you've been of the opinion that you need to destroy all of Voldemort's horcruxes before we kill him, yes?"

"Of course." Dumbledore said, frowning, "If we do not destroy all of his soul vessels, he will just be able to revive himself at a later date, when the world would be less prepared for another Dark Lord."

"While that certainly is the most straightforward way to go about it, and certainly the way expected for a hero to take…" He frowned, and continued more contemplatively, "Wouldn't it be better to destroy the part of Voldemort's soul that's actually bothering us, first?"

As the others gave him confused looks, Negi grew more confident about his plan. "I mean, it could take months to track down all his horcruxes, and we really wouldn't even know if he made another one, just for insurance. You're basically likening horcruxes to a kind of soul anchor, right? A vessel that keeps the spirit bound to this world. But if you destroy that spirit, then the anchors are meaningless, they just become some very cursed artifacts that can be tracked down at your leisure."

After a few seconds of silence, Dumbledore said, "I can't believe I never thought of that."

Negi shrugged. "It's a bit of a counter-intuitive solution, I'll admit: using soul magic to get rid of more soul magic."

Dumbledore looked up at this. "How much do you know of soul magic, exactly?"

"Just one spell, although I'd prefer not to use it here. I do have one idea on how to permanently get rid of him, but I'm not sure exactly how well it would work."

"Oh? Care to share your plan?"

"Nah, it's still pretty rough right now, and the more important objective at this point would be getting Voldemort to the point that we could safely deal with his soul. Beating him for a second time's going to be tough, and all of us are going to need more training to have a chance in hell of beating him."

"Yes, and I suppose you'd want to use my castle for your training." Dumbledore said, nodding gravely. "I accept – while I was going to train Harry later, I can see that there is no time to waste at this point. I'll have a separate room in the Gryffindor dorms for you and Miss Karakuri."

"That would be acceptable. Well, now that all that's over and done with, I'll be familiarizing myself with the castle grounds more."

"Wonderful, I wish you all the best of luck." Sinking deep in his chair, he said, "At long last, it seems like I'll be able to entrust this war to the next generation. It's been a long time, fighting for this world, the weight of society on my shoulders. I didn't want you to bear this responsibility so soon, but it's time for the next generation to step in." Eyes twinkling, he added, "Of course, I'll be expecting you keep up with your schoolwork as well."

"Yes, Headmaster." Harry groaned, earning a smack on the head from Hermione. Waving goodbye and travelling once more down the spiral staircase, Harry was rather surprised to find the last rays of sunlight streaming through the windows.

"Wow," he commented, "didn't even notice the time fly by."

"It helped that neither of you woke up until the late afternoon." Chachamaru added. "You'll show us the way to the dorms, then?"

"Of course! We'll need to tell everyone else in the tower though, right Hermione?"

Nodding, she said, "Might as well feed some more fuel for the rumor mill to run off of. At least it can't get much worse than what it already."

Negi laughed. "Definitely, the level of stares I've been getting is reminding me Mahora all over again. I'll come by to get you tomorrow for morning training, all right?"

"Sure, tomorrow should be a Saturday, if I've got my dates right. Hermione, you want to come with too?"

"O-oh? Sure, I guess, if you think it'll help."

"Great!" Negi exclaimed, "The more the merrier. Now, here's what I was planning to do tomorrow…"

The next week passed rapidly for the four budding heroes, each absorbed in preparing for the future. While training, they soon found that certain classes would be less than helpful in their ultimate fight against the Dark Lord, and even Hermione was reluctantly convinced that OWL's would have to take a back seat to the fate of magical Britain. Of course, with several handwriting samples Chachamaru made sure none of them would ever be missing a History of Magic essay, or Astronomy charts.

The only class that left a sour note was DADA, taught by Snape this year. Even then, the former Death Eater left them alone with occasional glares and pointed ignorance, which Harry was fine with. He was already learning more useful spells from his books, and it made Potions with the new Professor Slughorn all the more enjoyable.

Officially, the two new "students" had been introduced by Dumbledore as travelling hit-wizards here to both protect Hogwarts and win the bounty for the Dark Lord. Negi had been rather impressed by the headmaster at that, confirming later that, as Voldemort was confirmed beyond a doubt to be alive once more, the ten thousand galleon bounty placed on him in the late seventies was once more active.

Although the Ministry had its suspicions about the mysterious duo, their hands were currently tied due to the currently untouchable status of all four young mages. Word had spread far and wide of the Four Saviors of Hogwarts; even if they didn't have the public support they now enjoyed, anyone who could face the Dark Lord and live inspired a fearful admiration outside of the school.

Thankfully for the four, things had quieted down after the first several days of terrified and awestruck looks, their presence became a relatively normal occurrence. Naturally, it was then that the lovelorn schoolgirls of Hogwarts began to realize the once in a lifetime opportunity that having two teen celebrity wizards in one school.

Possibly the only thing holding them back was the persistent rumor that not only were Harry and Hermione and item, but the mysterious Negi and his companion Chachamaru were as well. Hermione's furious blushing and Chachamaru's staring non-answers when questioned did nothing to dissipate the wild gossiping, of course.

Now, the four had settled into a comfortable routine, more and more seeming to be a house unto themselves – not actively isolating themselves, but just left alone by the rest of the school. It was a surprise then, when after Transfiguration classes Neville approached Harry with a request.

Speaking guardedly, but not timidly like years past, he asked, "Harry, would you be able to start up the D.A. this year?"

"Really?" He seemed almost taken aback by the idea. "I thought we were only doing that while we had Umbridge. Snape's a git, but he at least teaches us well."

"It's not that." Neville said, looking more serious now. "Everyone knows that you and Hermione are training with Springfield to fight V… Voldemort, and the rest of us want some of that training as well."

Harry frowned, "I'm not trying to build an army here, no matter what our club's name might be. Honestly you don't have the time to get to the level we are, and we can't protect you all if you try to fight with us."

"I know that as well, but that's not what I'm asking. We're not planning on going to the front lines, we just need to protect ourselves. In case you haven't noticed, Harry, the school's become a pile of tinder just waiting to ignite. The House rivalry's reaching a breaking point, and there's going to be curses thrown around one of these days. We can all see the war coming, and I know less people are going to get hurt if the Defense Association can train us again."

Harry considered it for a moment, then nodded. "Spread the word, the first meeting will be this Saturday. I'll send the specifics through the coins. Since this'll be an official club this time around, there won't be any need for a secrecy contract."

Looking relieved, Neville walked off and started chatting animatedly with several other Gryffindors. Meanwhile, Harry went off to look for Hermione in the library. He'd need a lesson plan if they wanted to make the club work, and she'd definitely have some ideas.

"He seems to resemble you more and more." Chachamaru remarked offhandedly, sitting comfortably in the seats of the library.

Negi chuckled lightly, looking up from an ancient text, its faded letters reading Magicks of Life and Death. "Perhaps, but I also find myself thinking like him as well. A few months ago, I would never have been able to just jump into a fight like that, without fully understanding possible consequences and outcomes of each battle."

"Such are the effects of war – there is never enough time to think, only act. At least we're winning this one."

"Yes," Negi smiled, squeezing her hand, "that we are. I think I have a better understanding of the Veil now, at least the parts that were relevant to our transportation here.

"From what I can understand, the Forced Transportation spell Fate set off was meant to scatter us to all corners of Mundus Magicus, nothing more. Unfortunately, my trying to stabilize the spell caused abnormal fluctuations in the fabric of the spell and reality surrounding, creating a sort of energy potential to transport us across realities."

"And the reason only the two of us were transported was because you were the at the locus of the disturbance, correct?"

"Exactly. More importantly, it was just luck we happened to come through the Veil. I've found some cryptic references that imply the Veil was originally something other than a method of execution. In particular, the phrase 'veil to the netherworld' crops up a lot, which has all sorts of interesting connotations."

"You believe the Veil was used a method of transportation between this world and the afterlife?" Chachamaru asked, very interested at this point.

"Or what they believed was the afterlife, at any rate. In fact, the Veil is more of gate than anything, able to transport people between worlds for the price. Each activation of the Veil requires the sacrifice of a human life. I guess over the years it became forgotten that the Veil was a gateway between worlds. It makes sense, since the gate is open less than a minute when it's activated."

"I see." Suddenly pausing, she swiveled her head several aisles down. For a moment, her eyes gained the tell-tale glow of mage sight, scanning the area.

"Something wrong?"

She shook her said. "It was likely just the bookcases creaking. We haven't seen Malfoy for some time, so I've been keeping an eye out for him."

Negi frowned, as he'd been doing the same. No one had seen the Slytherin for several days now, just after the failed attack on Hogwarts. It put him on edge, knowing that there was a potential Death Eater within the walls of their most powerful stronghold. Just one of the many things he and Dumbledore would never agree on, he supposed.

Sooner than Harry would have imagined, Saturday came around. Sending a message to their modified galleons to meet in an hour, Harry arrived at the seventh floor hallway, intent on recreating the DA's headquarters.

Spying the tapestry that hid the Room of Requirements, he clearly visualized the room he required, and walked past the picture exactly three times.

So it went without saying that he was surprised when the wall of the corridor stayed exactly the same. Frowning, he decided to try it again, thinking he hadn't concentrated on his room enough.

And again, the result was the same.

"Damn it," he muttered, "what's going on?"

Hastily taking out the master galleon from his robes, he changed the location setting to an unused classroom several minutes from the Room, and proceeded to transfigure and charm the room and its furniture into an acceptable training area.

Eventually, members began to trickle in. Harry noted many familiar faces from the DA's previous run, and was happy to see even more new students looking around the room. He had to admit, the students here were actually a sizable chunk of the Hogwarts population. Of the sixty he saw here, he estimated perhaps half were Gryffindor, around ten or fifteen split between the Puffs and the Claws, and even half a dozen Slytherins were situated near a corner of the room.

Taking a quick glance at an empty corner of the room, Harry quieted the conversations with a crack from his wand. Using a weak sonorous charm, he began. "Good afternoon, everyone, I'm glad you could make it. As you may have heard, this is the Defense Association, formerly known as Dumbledore's Army."

As several mutters spread through the room, Harry quickly clarified, "Of course, that was then and this is now. Regardless of what rumors that may have spread of our actions last year, we are now a fully-sanctioned club operating under Hogwarts guidelines. The focus of this group is to learn how to defend yourselves from other wizards for your own protection, as the war against Voldemort progresses."

Nearly the entire room collectively flinched, and one student Harry couldn't see called out, "Why should we have to learn that? The aurors and Dumbledore have always protected us against dark wizards!"

"Tell that to Romilda Vane and Terry Boot." Harry said coldly, his voice cutting through the crowd. "No one's forcing you to be here, this isn't just another class where teachers spoon-feed you information. If you can't take this seriously, then you don't belong here."

He paused for a moment, then added, "To illustrate that point, I'll do a demonstration with one of you here." As the students began moving nervously, Harry pointed towards one of the far corners of the room. "Since you felt like showing up unannounced, Negi, you'll be doing a quick spar with me."

As all of the students watched in amazement, Negi slowly faded into view as countless faintly visible winds of energy dissipated from around him.

"Sorry," he said sheepishly, rubbing his head. "I just remember the first time I was teaching a class; I was hoping it'd go a bit better for you, that's all."

Harry raised an eyebrow, "And how do you think I'm doing, then?"

"Well… the class hasn't tried to molest you yet so I think you're doing pretty good."

Harry chuckled a bit. "Somehow that's less than reassuring. Well then, shall we start?"

Settling into a basic stance, Negi asked, "Any rules?"

"Just martial arts," Harry replied, "I want to let these guys know what we can do without our wands." A small nod later and blurred out of sight momentarily for their audience. They both appeared at the middle of the room, each blocking a kick from the other.

"'Just martial arts', huh?" Negi mused, kicking off back before employing a shundo to begin another round. "Hasn't kept you from supplementing your strength with magic."

"Just wanted to keep the spar going for more than a few seconds," Harry replied, not quite so effortlessly. His efforts to channel magic into his own body were rough right now, and he needed an edge while the wards of Hogwarts prevented apparition.

The two continued to trade punches and kicks at a rate quickly astounding all the young witches and wizards there, leaving more jaws gaping as the mock battle went on. Noticing their faces, Harry couldn't help but laugh, imagining it must have been close to how he looked like in the beginning of summer.

His eyes gleaming, Negi capitalized on his opponent's momentary distraction, making a quick sweep kick that left Harry tumbling over backwards, giving Negi time to flip overhead, transitioning to an elbow drop. Just before he hit Harry's stomach he caught himself, leaving only a tap in what would have been a very painful blow. "Yield?"

"Yeah, I yield, like always…" Harry sighed good-naturedly, accepting his proffered hand and got to his feet.

Clearing his throat, he began, "As you can see, there's quite a lot that can be learned, even outside the realm of magic. What Negi demonstrated here is that there's many more ways to fight and defend yourself than solely through casting spells. If you are disarmed, or your wand breaks, or in any other number of situations, you all need to be able to reasonably defend yourselves.

"Naturally, the martial arts are just one of many methods of self-defense, which could include boxing, or knife-fighting, or even just plain brawling. Not that I'm encouraging you to start fights, or anything of that nature. I'd just like you all to keep in mind in and outside of this club that you are not helpless without your wand."

There were some general murmurs of assent and enthusiastic nods, and Harry grinned. Not too enthusiastic yet, but he felt it went well enough for their introduction. "Now, the best way to avoid a curse is by dodging it, but if you can't manage that, your next best option is shielding against it. Move off into pairs, and we'll start by practicing using it against simple hexes. The incantation is 'protego', and the wand movement…"

"I still say you did spectacularly!"

"I will admit, they picked it up rather well after half an hour, although they didn't quite keep up that same intensity the rest of the time."

Negi waved it away, "That's teenagers for you. They can't help having short attention spans."

"Where does that leave us, I wonder?"

After their first DA meeting, the two young wizards were lounging around in the empty classroom, Harry occasionally flicking his wand to turn the room back to a proper classroom.

"Wish I knew the answer to that. Hermione back yet?"

"She was still with Chachamaru, last I heard. Still practicing using her artifact and going through the library at three times the normal speed. In other words, research," accenting the word with a grimace.

"Will I ever be able to convince you of the benefits of knowing the intricacies of magical theory?" Negi said, sighing.

"No, probably not. Anyway, did you find out what was wrong with the Room of Requirement when I tried to use it?"

Negi shook his head, "No, it worked fine when I used it. I did, however, require it to list all the reasons it could deny someone entry."

"Oh? What'd you find?"

"There were a few strange times when the room is inaccessible, like for the first thirty minutes of every third Christmas feast held in the castle and things like that, but none that should have coincided with the time you tried to use it. The only other real explanation is that someone else was using the room while you were trying to, unlikely as that may be."

"And it's too late now to try and find out who was using the room, too… Well, at least we know that if it happens again next club meeting. So did you find any information on soul magic in the Restricted Section?"

"Oh yes, there's a wealth of information to be found in Hogwart's library. Unfortunately, specific information about horcruxes was almost non-existent. Dumbledore wasn't kidding when he said that was considered some of the darkest of magics. So while we can't find out how exactly Voldemort was using that soul-connection to send you visions, there were various spells and rituals that could help block against future visions."

"I see. Something's better than nothing, I suppose," he said, fingering his scar. "About that plan of yours, the one to permanently get rid of Voldemort – we're going to need some big bait to get him where we want."

"It's admittedly one part that's I still haven't figured entirely. The prophecy orb would be good enough bait, but beyond that…"

"There's no way we can be sure he'll show up." Harry finished.

"Exactly. Well," Negi said, standing up, "We can focus on that part later. First and foremost, we need to make sure we won't be overwhelmed by Voldemort if we can actually make him show up. And for that, training and more training!"

Harry groaned. "Alright, I'll go get Hermione."

"Great! We'll need Chachamaru too; we can see how well Hermione's using her artifact now."

Meeting the two expectedly still in the library, Harry gave a start when he tried to drag her from her books as usual and she vanished without a trace. Worriedly calling her name, he blinked again as two identical Hermiones slowly made their way from different corners of the shelves, each carrying a small stack of books. Remembering the powers of her artifact now, Harry poked another of the Hermiones, catching the unsupported books before they hit the floor. The remaining bushy-haired witch stalked over to him, looking a tad annoyed.

"Honestly Harry, you can't just go around disrupting people's temporal displacements like that, it's quite rude!" She said, thinking she managed to keep a remarkably straight face. Unfortunately, Harry's cheeky grin was telling her otherwise.

"I'll be sure not to bother your weird time-clones again, then."

Hermione gave a small huff, "It's not that weird, the arithmancy actually makes sense when you consider each decision in an individual timeline as a branching of possibilities, where only one of which is normally-"

"It's not that I'm not interested in advanced arithmancy," Harry interrupted, "it's just that all the technical bits tend to go flying over my head. Normal words, please?" He asked, in the best puppy-dog expression he could muster.

Hermione rolled her eyes, "Fine. Basically, say I wanted to read these three books," she said, gesturing to the small stack she was holding. "Normally, I'd have to just choose one, and move on to the next ones after that. What Watchmaker's Apprentice does is that allows you to choose every option, by splitting your timeline to accommodate reading all three books. It's how the artifact works, but in magical terms that we're more familiar with."

Pausing, she added, "Well, one's that I'm familiar with, anyway."

"So… what you're saying is that you couldn't learn or train three times as fast with it, then."

"No," she said, waving towards Chachamaru as the three moved out of the rows of books. "I could research and take notes if I used parchment that didn't duplicate with me, but ultimately I'd only know what my remaining displacement knew. Luckily, I've thought of that and several other ways to work around that problem."

The green-haired gynoid caught up to them at that point. "Negi, Harry, I assume the Defense Association meeting went well?"

"That's right!" Hermione said, "I completely forgot about that, I was busy researching! No one gave you any trouble, did they?"

"Well… I don't know if Negi beating me yet again in a spar counts as 'trouble', but other than that everything met smoothly."

"Great! Where're we going now, Harry?"

"Training. Negi says we need a lot more experience, and you need to get used to the speed the contract brings."

Hermione nodded, blushing lightly as she fingered her card after a murmured "abeat".

"Well then!" Negi said brightly, "I saw a field over on the west side we could put some concealment charms around – we can get started then."

At the others' affirmation, all four left through the main gates of the castle, readying themselves for their inevitable confrontation.

Odd. Negi should have shown up for at least one of the gladiator matches so far; surely he hadn't been so hampered by the forced transportation? Or was it the spear that has been impeding him? No matter – his attendants reported the girls still had their precious artifacts, so he would turn up eventually.

A young white-haired boy sighed as he prepared a portal in a nearby puddle. The remains of his class managed to find Jack Rakan, of all the damned people, to train under, though he was still loathe to call them anything other than useless without their teacher around.

Just a few more weeks, and the festival at New Ostia would begin. His plans would proceed regardless, however boring they might be without him.

A/N: meterion has returned! To tell you sorry that Ala Ignis is actually on hiatus now! After taking care of some business that took quite a while and left me with some severe writer's block, I've lost _all_ the initial motivation I had in writing this story. If there's a time in the future when I can write this again, it'll update, but consider this story on hold for the forseeable future. New story updates begin immediately, and I don't expect the same thing to happen to that one. Sorry 'bout this.