A/N: Now that no one remembers what was going on, I present to you:
Chapter 3: Lesser of Two Evils
Such words did not give them justice as most of the remaining students recoiled at the exposed Mark on Harry's arm. A moment's delay, courtesy of shock, was replaced with a torrent of spell fire. Through the streams of magic flying past him, Harry angrily took stock of the situation.
He hated tipping his hand so soon.
Those he trusted, few that they were, looked appropriately stunned but they weren't fighting like the other zealots. His true friends had quickly escaped the fray and were off to the side while the idiots attempted to follow some righteous path.
'Fools, the lot of 'em.'
For several precarious moments, the Hogwarts contingent kept up their ferocious pace and Harry had to admit, their efforts were impressive. However, it didn't take very long for wizard and witch alike, those fighting and not, to notice what was really happening.
Harry stood straight and tall, spells too numerous to count flew directly at him but then at the last second diverted and harmlessly soared into the air before fizzling out. Tom was off to his side in a similar stance except Tom was guarding those who followed him.
The attackers grew tired eventually, their spells slowing and the power diminishing. Hermione, Luna, Neville and a handful of others were shaking, struggling to stay standing from the sidelines.
Hermione shook her head in equal parts disbelief and sadness, cursing herself for not seeing it sooner. Luna's eyes were wide as saucers with a touch of something else residing in those orbs; longing perhaps, but no one would understand. Neville was congratulating himself in choosing not to go against Harry and McGonagall was as white as a ghost. In all her long years, never had she bared witness to a power of such caliber, let alone two. Albus Dumbledore was the only one who drew close and even then, she wasn't sure who held the mightier wand.
Harry Potter gazed heatedly at those who opposed him, not a drop of sweat or a gasp of breath as a hideously powerful aura radiated off him. The effect was mind numbing, having seen his eyes flash green and then to black: a sign of the Dark Arts. Tom Riddle was beside him now and they stood together as equals. Their strength was unmatched, for in that moment, they complimented one another: Harry took the brunt of the spell work while Tom forged an invisible shield that guarded his followers while simultaneously adding support to Harry's efforts; all without an incantation or even a twitch of the hand.
Truly, these wizards were the strongest in centuries, but then the moment of cooperation was over and like two magnets repelling, their magics turned on the other.
Harry's gaze directed to Tom, whose own angry response created a crackle of energy between them. Pebbles from the ground rose into the air, some of them bursting from the dense magic and many of the onlookers suddenly felt sick.
"Harry!" Luna shouted, realizing what his shiver from moments ago now meant. A tear escaped her left eye but her face was firm, 'The Dark Arts... He's one of them.' Her voice cut through the haze and stunned both wizards, the powers they exhibited dying instantly. They shook their heads as if just waking up and each drew a steadying breath.
"Sorry," Harry mumbled. "Can't say I had that happen before."
Tom extended a similar reaction, "We should be careful, especially if we have to do that often."
"What. The. Fuck!" blabbered Ron and for once Hermione didn't correct him. Luna searched Hermione's face, identifying a look of crushing defeat and she then glanced at McGonagall, seeing that she too understood.
"They're Dark Wizards, Ronald," answered Luna with an even tone, "although Harry is a bit of an odd ball and I'm sure he wouldn't mind me saying." His smile in her direction lit the hope she still clung too. "When those skilled in the Dark Arts unleash their raw talents, opposing Dark wizards take an unkindly notice. It's a territorial display, so to speak."
"The girl is right," added Tom, eliciting a few raised eyebrows in his direction. "Potter and I become, more at odds, when we are distracted at the same time."
"DISTRACTED!? YOU! WHAT!?" Ron was shaking and Hermione quickly stunned him with the most powerful stunner she could muster given her current state. That particular surprise had everyone gaping at her and she glanced shyly in Harry's direction.
"What? He was going to blow another gasket and probably start attacking you again."
Harry blinked and the tension was destroyed a moment later with his full blown laughter. His friends shook their heads while the majority of those watching breathed a collective sigh of relief. No one noticed, save for Luna, the mirth dancing in the eyes of a particular wizard who had stepped back to stand with his followers.
"Hermione? Thank you," chuckled Harry and shot everyone a quick smile. "I know this is completely mental and way out of line but please. Trust me." The moment turned grim again as Harry glanced back at the decaying body, once again bringing to the forefront the crux of their problem.
"What does the Mark do?" asked Poppy, finally.
"It provides a vaccine and enhanced protections against the virus," replied Tom, quickly adding, "for now anyway. Should it mutate, we may have to revisit that concern."
Harry plowed forward, not wanting to lose momentum, "We can extend the same protections to the castle and once that's done we might be able to afford some rest," he glanced at Tom who confirmed.
"With luck, the virus won't spread. It will take effort to ready the magics to know for certain but we can still use that time to sure up the castle's defenses and heal ourselves. The coming battles, if they do indeed come, will make what I tried to do seem like child's play."
Poppy looked thoughtful for a moment, "Vol,"
"Tom," he replied quickly, earning a look of gratitude from Harry. "Call me Tom."
"Tom then, will you show me the runic composition of the Mark you, Harry and your followers wear? I wish to be sure of this so called vaccine before I allow it to be given to the students. I will also need several Oaths from you for confirmation; I'm sure you understand."
Tom nodded, "Of course. Shall we retire to the hospital wing? It may be more convenient in your study to show you."
"This way," said Poppy before glancing at Minerva, "assuming the Headmistress allows it?"
The students began to whisper as they waited for the response.
"You trust him?"
The nurse looked the self-proclaimed Dark Lord in the eye and then to Harry, "No, but I trust in Harry and he would never lead us astray."
Murmurs added a low hum to Minerva's clear voice as she gave allowances, "You will be escorted at all times, Tom Riddle," she earned a respectful glance from said man, "and so will your followers until such a time that we dictate. If there is so much as one move out of line then,"
"those involved will die," stated Harry and his steely gaze defeated any retort the she may have had. "Forgive me, Headmistress, but I did not come this far to risk failure now."
Tom smirked, "Agreed, Potter. I trust then you shall dispose of the refuse and escort my remaining Death Eaters," he grinned as several people shivered, "to their quarters. You're welcome to relay any further instructions you deem necessary."
McGonagall clapped her hands and candles appeared outside to light the way. Night was quickly falling on them. "All students move inside to the Great Hall. We shall clean up what we can before eating dinner and then retire for the night. "
She moved towards Harry as everyone made their way inside, "I leave them to you, Mr. Potter. See that they understand the circumstances they find themselves in and when you have a moment to spare, please come see me in my office."
Harry was actually surprised, "Headmistress?"
She had already started walking way but turned to face him, "Yes, Mr. Potter?"
"You saw me just now; I let some of it out. Am I not a similar threat that Tom is?"
Her gaze softened and like Luna before her, this reaffirmed the belief that despite his Darker nature, Harry was still Harry.
"There are many spells in which magic can be shaped, Mr. Potter. However, in my experience, it is the manner in which you use them that defines who and what you are."
She smiled warmly at him as a little bit of the light she knew so well returned to his eyes, "Thank you, Professor." She bowed slightly to him and left to go into the castle.
"Well that was interesting," whispered Dolohov.
"Quiet!" hissed Nott. "Do you really want to"
"What?" growled Harry as he turned around to face them, "Please continue, I'm curious to hear what Dolohov isn't supposed to be doing."
Narcissa, being of sounder mind then her companions, quickly pushed aside the two brutes and was on her knees , "Lord Potter, our Master has commanded we treat you as his equal. Please excuse those who are do not yet settled with their new commands."
Bella was just about to join her sister when she noticed Harry quickly glance behind. McGonagall had just shut the doors and the change in Harry's eyes brought her to her knees where she stood.
Bella realized as Dolohov fell to the ground that the words Harry spoke was a show of mercy in many ways; one, that he had even bothered to give warning and two, that Dolohov had not died out right. This was a very different Potter from before and she was beginning to wonder just how much truth Tom's words actually held.
'Perhaps my chances are not so good after all.'
His eyes burned an ember green-black as he slowly circled the man who was writhing on the ground. Bella counted during his pacing, nearly one-hundred and twenty seconds of uninterrupted Cruciatus.
"Finis Dolore," Harry whispered and those watching gasped as Dolohov stopped shivering and sat up as if nothing had happened. The silencing spell remained until Harry grabbed the man by the throat and hoisted him up.
"That was but a sting and I promise you far worse if you so much as look at her the wrong way. Do I make myself clear?"
"Y-yes, m-my Lord," Dolohov barely managed and then Harry released him.
"Show me the Marks."
They each quickly pulled back their sleeves and waited in abated breath as Harry studied them.
"I will give all of you, one chance. One chance each. I do not yet fully understand what it is we are up against but I do know this: your lives mean nothing to me. Their lives," and he pointed to the castle, "mean everything. Screw it up and I'll feed you to whatever it is we're fighting against."
"Yes, my Lord," they all intoned and Harry looked down at his side.
"Timber?" he called and an old elf wearing an even older flour sack appeared.
"Yes, Harry Potter?"
"Has the Headmistress made any indication to where Tom will be staying?"
"Yes, Sir. In an unused dormitory, close to Hufflepuff House."
"Very well then, please escort these people to their rooms aside of Tom's. They will behave, but should they not, bring them straight back to me."
"Understood, Harry Potter. Come," beckoned the elf and the remaining Death Eaters bowed to Harry once more and started to follow the elf. They were several feet away when,
"Lestrange. You wait here."
Narcissa looked back in worry for her sister before hurrying away.
Bella stood rooted in place the moment the words left his mouth. She could hear his footsteps as he came up from behind and she closed her eyes. Bella wasn't sure what he might do, Merlin knew she deserved it, but she at least wanted to show him that she wasn't the crazy psycho she had been before. So when Harry placed a firm hand on her shoulder she didn't try to stifle the sharp intake of breath nor the gasp when he forcibly turned her around.
His eyes were glowing again and she could see just behind him the burning body of an infected.
"A little nymph told me that you're an Animagus. A fox was it?"
It was a very subdued group of students and professors that went about cleaning the Great Hall. McGonagall gave various directions, splitting everyone into three separate functions: cleaning, restoring and building.
The younger years levitated any debris out of the way and into piles while the upper years tried to restore and or repair. Advanced students took the debris that was completely destroyed and molded it into new chairs or raw materials such as stone to be reworked into the castle. With everyone pitching in, it didn't take all that long to make the Hall presentable again and then everyone gathered around as Flitwick gave an impromptu lecture on the magics of the ceiling. They all watched in awe as the charms master repaired it, good as new and impossible to tell anything had happened at all.
By the time Tom and his followers entered the Great Hall for dinner, everyone was seated as they so desired. The war had completely torn down the House barriers and the Headmistress saw no reason to enforce any type of separation now that the student body had finally been united.
Tom's entrance was quickly followed by silence and various looks ranging from fear to disgust.
"Headmistress, where shall we sit?"
She said nothing and tapped her wand on the table. The result was a new table that literally grew out of the floor with benches off to the side of where the professors sat. Tom and his Death Eaters moved silently and sat down before quickly digging into the food that appeared. Most of them hadn't eaten a decent meal in awhile so they ate with gusto.
Ron had been reawakened and was still unhappy.
"Bloody wankers," he grumbled. "I don't know what McGonagall is thinking, let alone Harry. Did he get hit in the head or something?"
"Ron!" hissed Hermione. "Did his show of strength not mean anything to you?"
Ron's face darkened, "Yeah, he's one of them."
Hermione's mouth opened in shock while Neville sighed loudly, "I understand why you'd be upset and believe me, I'm unsettled by it too, but you saw how Harry acts or reacts as the case may be. Despite his obvious displeasure, he didn't kill anyone. He wields Dark magic, but he's not Dark himself, not totally anyway."
"I'm not convinced," growled Ron and the low tone of his voice shocked Hermione further. "History says differently. Look at any Dark Wizard there's ever been and regardless of how they started, they all went mad by the end. There's a reason we're told not to practice the Dark Arts."
Neville shook his head and took to eating his food instead. Hermione quietly did the same. Ginny, who sat next to Neville had listened intently but said nothing in Harry's defense, a point that Neville picked up on and he was sure Hermione did too.
His eyes scanned the student tables and a part of him was glad for the distraction that food could bring. If you didn't look at all the cuts, bruises and blood spattered clothing, one would almost think this was just another end of the year feast.
He glanced toward the table with the Death Eaters and had to stifle a surge of fury that threatened to overwhelm him. There, just several feet away, sat the source for years of pain, torture and death of countless wizards and witches.
Neville had grown leaps and bounds the past few years, his efforts in the war and the fighting in the last few days was just physical proof of that growth. Despite this, he found it difficult not to side with Ron's argument even though he had Harry to thank for most of the changes in him that occurred.
Maybe it was a part of him that wanted to listen and believe in Harry unconditionally, or maybe it was his new sense of self. Either way, Neville was (now that he'd calmed down) willing to allow Harry to speak his mind and see to the best course of action.
He involuntarily shuddered. There was no denying that thing was an abomination and if there could be more of them.
Neville banished the thought as best he could.
The entrance into the Great Hall opened and a troubled looking Poppy Pomfrey came through and wasted no time in going straight to the Head Table. Some hushed whispers between her and the Headmistress lasted only a few seconds before McGonagall stood.
"May I have your attention please?" The hall grew silent. "Madame Pomfrey has informed me that the vaccine in the form of the Mark has been verified. Based on the protections and the workings of the runic equations, Madame Pomfrey has recommended an immediate vaccination for safety purposes."
There was quite a bit of noise from that and McGonagall gave the students a few moments to collect themselves. Even she knew this was asking a bit much.
"I want everyone to please stand and form a line over by the wall. Tom will apply the vaccine to all of us and then we shall depart for bed."
Not one student got up, but McGonagall waited patiently. Tom was already moving over to where the start of the line would be and he too, waited.
Neville sighed to himself, 'For you, Harry. Gryffindors at the ready,' and he stood up. Without batting an eye, he rolled back his sleeve and Neville's footsteps echoed loudly as he approached the Dark Lord.
Wisps of what looked like white smoke ran past Harry's vision as he walked calmly through the thick haze.
Legilimens had a sort of trick to it and once you realized what that was, entering a mind was almost as effortless as breathing. Most people thought of the mind in terms of physical objects, books for storing things, castles for defending and a whole host of tricks and traps for various purposes. But the truth, as often is, was far simpler: the mind was nothing more than a lidded box, filled with magic.
This wasn't literally the case, but memories and feelings, emotions, all of these could be decomposed into various forms and disciplines of magic. Once you realized this was possible, one only had to retrain their mind to this line of thinking. It no longer became a matter of breaking into a mind, rather it was about identifying the magic associated with certain emotions or reactions. Doing so allowed you to 'catch a lift' on the magic and nudge open the lid of the box ever so slightly and once that happened, you were in.
A part of Harry wanted to try his skills against Dumbledore or Snape just to see where he ranked with them.
'Well, there's always Tom,' and just as he thought it Harry came to the memory he had been looking for.
'Bella, my sweet Bella.'
'Hello Love. Have you decided on a symbol yet?'
Harry's mouth formed a thin line as he watched what looked like two lovers talking to each other. Bella had indicated that there had been a romantic interest between them, even though she was 'contracted' to marry someone else. What really interested him though was what came next.
'I have, dear. Would you do me the honor of being the first to carry it?'
Harry noticed with a touch of pity how Bella's eyes shined momentarily before she nodded to him. Even from just looking at these specters of her memory, both Bella and Tom had been very different individuals back then. Well, Bella had.
Harry watched as Tom administered the first ever, Dark Mark, his stony look breaking and he snarled. The age difference alone between the two of them was cause for raising an eyebrow but as Bella received the Mark, with increasing pain by the looks of it, Tom let his true intentions shine through.
She had been thoroughly used.
The memories of the following year fast-forwarded before his eyes and he watched as Bella performed atrocity after atrocity. There was, curiously enough, one memory where Tom seemed rather confused and perhaps even slightly alarmed by the fact the Mark was having more and more radical effects on its host. Maybe at one time the wizard did care, in a strange twisted fashion but as the past clearly showed, Bella was telling the truth and Tom was as much of a bastard as Harry thought.
But the point was, Bella wasn't as crazy as they had been led to believe.
The world around him faded away and he found himself looking at an extremely pale and shivering woman. The moment the link was cut, Bella fell to the ground in a heap. Harry's look never faltered as he summoned Timber and had the woman carted off to the Hospital Wing. Admittedly, he had been a little, rougher perhaps then one normally would be when running through a long stretch of memory but Harry felt it justified.
She had killed his godfather after all, and Tonks, which in turn killed Remus. Really, he was letting her off easy, but then again, all of this was because of Tom.
Harry sighed and shook his head, 'Calm the hell down, Potter. Don't need to be losing your head again so soon.'
Armed with this new information and a sudden bout of fatigue, Harry trudged wearily into the castle.
As he entered the Great Hall something seemed... off. The students were entirely too quiet and many of them were clutching their arms or looking at them oddly.
'Ah,' Harry realized, 'Poppy moves quickly when she needs to,' rightly discerning that the entire student body all held similar Marks to his own. It was funny, in a macabre sort of fashion that after all this time, he felt safer for having his enemy's symbol branded on him then he did without. He could feel the protection actively working so he knew it was the real deal and now everyone had this added barrier.
Tom was the first to look up from his just about empty plate and upon seeing Harry draw near he motioned towards the Head Table where the Headmistress was watching Harry carefully.
"Mr. Potter?" she said in a calm voice. It broke most of the students from their dazes as many looked up to see Harry for the first time.
"I know I said at your earliest convenience but I'm afraid that we must both adjourn to my office immediately. There are some topics we must discuss before the protections that Tom has crafted can be put into place."
His stomach growled in protest but he ignored it, "Of course, Headmistress," and they both retreated out of the Great Hall. Much to Harry's surprise, McGonagall said nothing as they moved at a rather fast pace. They were past the gargoyle, up the stairs and through her office door almost before Harry could blink and no sooner had the door shut, it locked.
"Forgive me for the rush, Harry but I"
"Hello there, Harry. It certainly is good to see you again."
The twinkling eyes staring back at him did little to calm the unease that had crept into his gut. The esteemed Albus Dumbledore, wise that he was, happened to also be another fool. An honest fool, but a fool none the less.
Age had gotten the better of him in his waning years, as did his own weaknesses, a fact that Harry could appreciate. Albus had more or less signed his own death certificate with trying to wield a then horcrux-hallow. His tragic end did little however, to alleviate the many foolish mistakes he had made in regards to Harry's childhood and for the fate that met Sirius.
A better part of his godfather's remaining two years on this Earth were spent in the decrepit Grimmauld Palace. In reality it became just another prison, something that to this day Harry could not forgive Albus for.
He had found several of Sirius' diaries in the house when he had started the long arduous task of learning the Dark Arts. The words in those diaries had given him just a taste of the disgusting things Sirius had been exposed to during his decade long vacation in Azkaban. Only then to escape and be sentenced for his remaining years at Grimmauld.
Harry bit back the rising anger and latched it tightly behind an iron mask, "Is this part of what we needed to discuss, Headmistress?"
McGonagall knew what that tone of voice meant, "I'm afraid so, Mr. Potter. As you have probably guessed from the student's lack of attention, the Dark Mark has been administered."
Her voice cracked at saying that and Harry took pity on her, "I'm sorry, Minerva." he said quietly, rarely calling her by name unless they were alone. "It was a necessary evil."
"I know," she replied and surprised him by looking crossly at Albus' portrait, "and I'm afraid to say this is also a necessary evil."
"Minerva has briefed me on the happenings of the school, Harry. I hear Tom has taken residence, along with what remains of his Death Eaters."
"That is correct, Professor. We are facing a foe I do not yet know the face of. I've seen what it can do but one casualty of this nature hardly describes the feeding monster."
Albus stroked his beard, "Adequately put, which is why I've convinced Minerva to appoint an Arbiter."
Harry looked to her, "Arbiter?"
She took a deep breath, "In short, a guardian of the castle. One who watches over her and all those inside her walls."
"Isn't that what you do as Headmistress?"
Minerva seemed upset, "Yes, that is how it usually is, but..." She sat down and gestured for Harry to do the same and he did, feeling he might need it. "Harry, I will be frank. That thing we saw earlier, that Tom brought with him? I've never felt something with such horribly twisted magic. It makes you and Tom look like angels."
Harry raised an eyebrow, "You could sense it?"
"Not in a normal fashion, no. I could feel it, deep within my bones, a sort of instinctual reaction. What this creature represents is an evil that our world does not understand and I fear it will be too late before we finally do."
"Hogwarts," continued Albus, "has always had a Headmaster or Headmistress that governed the school body and led its students and faculty through troubled times. However on occasion, the strength and power of the Headmaster was not enough, thus in times of great need, an Arbiter was created."
"This is significant," said Minerva, "because the Headmaster or Headmistress admits his or her shortcomings and offers up her concerns to the castle. Should Hogwarts feel these worries have merit, it will approve of the selected Arbiter's appointment."
Harry sat quietly and thought for several seconds before responding.
"What can this Arbiter do that makes him so important?"
"In this case," replied Albus, "the Headmistress will secede her duties of protecting the castle to the Arbiter. Hogwarts will then be commanded by not the Headmistress but this individual and he or she will wield Hogwarts' might without restriction. If chosen poorly, the Arbiter could make life very difficult for Minerva as this position places him or her on equal rank with that of the Headmistress. There are also a few countable circumstances where the Arbiter's word will trump the decisions of the Headmistress in manners not relating to the school's defenses."
Harry stood slowly, casually walking back and forth several times in the office with his hands held behind his back. He stopped eventually in the middle of the room and looked poignantly at Minerva.
"How is this 'Arbiter' chosen?"
"By a ritual; I will offer the blood of the one I choose for this task to Hogwarts. If she approves of the one and finds need of him, Hogwarts will elect the one I suggest. It's never happened before, but she can choose someone else if the needs demand it and no matter what, we would have to abide by it. The castle's magic is binding and I cannot retract my plea for the Arbiter's presence until the Arbiter himself relinquishes his duties. The magics were crafted this way to stress upon the importance and dangers of such a decision."
Harry moved back to his chair and practically fell in it, "You do realize that if for whatever reason, Hogwarts doesn't choose me, there's a chance then that Tom could be the one?"
For the first time in his life, Harry saw what could only be described as a sour look on Albus' face.
"That is part of the reason why I asked Minerva to bring you here immediately. As the Arbiter, you would have full control over the castle's wards and it would easily allow you to extend the protections Tom is offering, but as you have stated, there is a chance he could be chosen instead."
Not knowing what else to do, Harry started chuckling, "Lesser of two evils, Minerva? What could possibly be another evil to that?"
Her frown deepened, "There is no other way to change the wards without either myself or the Arbiter commanding it. Although you may think differently, I no longer posses the magical prowess needed for such a thing and so the Arbiter is required. The only other option would be that I step down at which point, given the dangers we are all in, Hogwarts would choose another Headmaster immediately. An appointment that we would also have no choice but to abide by, but also one that we have no hope of influencing."
Harry blinked several times, "Lesser evil, indeed."
Thanks again to all who reviewed and my apologies for this taking so long. Life is hectic and will continue to be hectic for the foreseeable future. Case in point, the Beta was so busy, he couldn't look this over either (booo busy life!). Hopefully things will begin slowing down sometime in the future, but until then, see you later and have a Hallowed Halloween.