My Eternal Curse

By Mara456

Chapter Forty-Nine

Omissions In History – Part Three of Four: Dark Reflections

Charlie Weasley entered his modest house tucked away in an isolated region of Romania. He took off his sturdy black boots and dropped them near the front door. Happy the long day was over, he headed straight for his bathroom. Charlie striped off his dirty work clothes and dumped them in a half-filled hamper. He took a long hot shower and changed into something more comfortable. The Light wizard took a good look at himself in the mirror, glad no one could tell he was sleep-deprived simply by looking at him.

Charlie had never been particularly tall or delicate. Truth be told, he preferred it that way. The ability to duck quickly and endure great physical hardships is highly valued in dragon care. He had developed a stocky muscular build from spending long hours caring for sick and wounded dragons. His freckled skin was toughened and deeply tanned from long days spent out in the field. Charlie wore a fresh pair of black denim jeans and a black long sleeve shirt. He had left his dark red leather jacket draped over a nearby chair in case he and Bill decided to go out. Scratching his neck, he felt his rough calloused hands against his skin. His green eyes and thick, healthy, shoulder-length light red hair complimented his still good-natured handsome face. He had managed to maintain his looks, unlike many of his elder co-workers. You don't always have the luxury of vanity when being mauled is an occupational hazard.

It reminded Charlie of what his boss Casey once told him. 'Dragon tending is for two kinds of people. The first is youthful inexperienced wizards and witches who don't know what they want out of life. They need the physical and mental discipline that comes from constantly testing oneself. The second is for old-timers who've given up caring about their looks or the idea of settling down. Charlie, you've gained the experience and discipline of a dozen Care of Magical Creatures masters. You can get a better job anywhere and start that family you've always wanted. We'd miss you, but in the end you'll be better off.' Charlie had earnestly replied that dragons are his life. He didn't think there was a place for a guy like him in the outside world, much less a Miss Right. Old Casey said it was a shame he felt that way right now, but to stay open to change. It happens when you're not looking for it.

"When I'm not looking for it?" Charlie repeated to himself, having trouble believing that.

For as long as Charlie could remember he had had this inexplicable feeling something was desperately wrong. The problem wasn't Charlie himself. It was everything else. The feeling wasn't that strange to him anymore. Charlie had learned to live with it… for a time. He knew no one else shared that insight, but it didn't used to interfere with his life. Lately, his dreams had made him pessimistic about the future. Some were so bad there were nights he woke up screaming. The first time it happened he scared Bill half to death. His brother wouldn't leave him alone after that episode until he told him everything. The two agreed to keep it between them, afraid of how their family would react to hearing about the strange, sometimes frightening imagery. Charlie wondered for the millionth time if he were losing his mind.

It's not like anything he saw actually happened. Ginny and Ron were fine, Charlie reassured himself. They were safe and sound. Ron wasn't making Ginny's life miserable. Fred and George weren't hanging around Hogwarts, playing sadistic pranks on House Gryffindor. No one was haunting his little sister. Their father, Arthur, wasn't playing guard at Hogwarts, much less protecting Ron's friend Hermione from some lunatic beetle. Percy wasn't in serious trouble with the Montgomery clan. Sirius Black was still at large, as opposed to in his dreams, where a shadowy figure kills him in self-defense. Charlie was certain he would have heard about that last one, regardless of where he lived.

The other images Charlie saw hadn't taken place and weren't going to. The Light wizard shuddered at the thought of the worst of his dreams coming true. He decided he would rather be crazy than right about those things any day of the week. Why did his dreams center around Hogwarts? Stranger still, his dreams didn't depict the school as he remembered it. It was a whole different batch of children than when he attended. He kept dreaming that the Professors were rallying behind Snape of all people, who was displaying leadership skills he didn't know the man had. Charlie didn't get it. As much as he wished he did, there was another part of him that feared receiving answers. Maybe it was time he called home and discussed current events with his mom. Only, he was afraid that if he made the call Molly would figure out something was wrong, wrong with him anyway.

"What I wouldn't give to chalk this up to stress," muttered Charlie. He walked into his darkened kitchen and grabbed two beers from the muggle fridge. Returning to the living room, he placed cooling charms on the glass bottles and set one aside on the coffee table for Bill when he came home. Making an effort to relax, he sat down in his recliner, put up his feet, opened his beer, and began sipping it slowly. Charlie contemplated writing Ron and Ginny each a letter. He hadn't been in contact with them for some time. Ron's last letter mentioned that Ginny had gotten herself a pet snake and McGonagall had approved it. Charlie couldn't picture the strict old Professor doing that in his day. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances?

Ron mentioned the species during his childish ranting. It was a Divinus Animus. The name sounded awfully familiar, like something he'd read about during his training. Charlie probably had a couple of books on the subject. He considered sending them to Ginny once he had a look at them. A good number of his books were way above her level and some had a decided Dark bent. He didn't want to send his little sister something she wasn't ready for, or would get her in trouble for possessing. Although, Ginny's pet would be dead by now if she hasn't learned how to properly care for it. Charlie chuckled. Ginny never did have the most delicate touch. Charlie put his beer down next to Bill's and went up to his study.

The study was basically a spell locked interior chamber on the second floor with bookshelves lining the walls, some overhead lighting, two chairs and an old wooden table. Charlie had managed to build an extensive library over the years, covering anything remotely relating to his chosen subject, which included books on Charms, Arithmancy, and any Creatures book he could find. When Bill came to stay with him while on assignment in Romania, his brother brought his entire collection with him. Unfortunately, his brother's library was just as voluminous. Charlie had had to adjust the study's magical accommodation spells to their limits to prevent them from drowning in a sea of forgotten textbooks and manuscripts. Together, the two libraries perfectly complemented each other, much like their time living together. Charlie sat down at the desk, picked up the enchanted, seemingly blank tome and wrote down his search parameters.

He mentally thanked Professor Flitwick again for teaching him a foolproof method of organizing his materials before they became unmanageable. The knowledge hadn't come for free. Charlie didn't mind bartering his services. The business he took care of for the old Professor wasn't nearly as dangerous as some of the things he's done to acquire knowledge. The names of three books devoted specifically to the Divinus Animus appeared in his handwriting. The Light wizard skimmed the list of references in case it sparked anything. He recalled reading two of them, both of which disturbed him in their given context. He physically looked up the first three books listed and placed them on the table, side by side.

Charlie suddenly found himself wishing he'd researched Ginny's familiar back when he first heard about it. The first large tome was completely Light in origin, written around the time Hogwarts was supposedly constructed, entitled 'Hunting and Binding Divinus Animus For Light Purposes'. Charlie rested his fingers on the dark green spine of the second volume. The book's magic resonated with his own, sending a sudden icy chill right through him. Charlie froze, restraining his mental turmoil. This one was thoroughly Dark in nature. Furthermore, he had read it early on in his Dark studies. If there was such a thing as a gateway book into the corruptive nature of Darkness, this was it. 'The True Nature of Divinus Magic' was as deadly as it was beautiful. Charlie would never let his little sister read it without his cautious supervision.

"Beautiful," Charlie whispered, examining the wonderfully preserved green leather-bound Dark volume, its gold laden lettering and borders, its smooth slick hand-written pages, which cut new users to taste their blood and magic in order to better entrap them… or was it to guide them? "In my case, it was a bit of both. The book traps you by making you love it and everything it has to offer."

The third tome was the strangest of the lot. It was snow white. Its title 'Architecture Of The Divinus Animus' was imprinted in silver in a forgotten magical tongue, written well before the Light's painfully false clear-cut history, at least several thousand years old. The magic that radiated from it didn't feel like either Light or Dark magic. It was somehow… purer, more vital. Its energy was reminiscent of a hidden magically saturated pristine spring one of his dragons showed him after he had gained the majestic creature's trust. Charlie hugged it to his chest, savoring the feeling. He wished he could share that sacred place with Bill, but he had made a promise. The Light wizard couldn't discuss the spring with anyone who didn't already know about it. Placing the last book next to the others, Charlie noticed he only got a thrill from handling the last two books.

Running his fingers along the cover of each volume, Charlie knew what was different about the Light tome. Its magical pulse had faded with time… if it had one to begin with. He believed the book once carried one, but the author hadn't made it strong enough to withstand the test of time. Charlie took his treasures downstairs, done admiring the three obscure artifacts. He put them on the coffee table. Charlie briefly returned to the library, resealed it, and then went to his cozy recliner. He started with the Light tome, calmly sipping his beer as he speed-read through the introduction.

"Starting without me again?" Bill asked.

"Nah, I didn't get here that long ago myself," Charlie said, halting to hand him a bottle of muggle beer. "How was work?"

"Grueling," his brother groaned, taking a moment to stretch before plopping down on the couch.

Bill was a tall wizard, but thinner and less muscular than Charlie. Bill's kind expressive face and innocent looking exotic blue-green eyes complimented his long Weasley-red hair, which was bound at the nape of his neck in a ponytail. Like all his brother's clothing, Bill's matching black leather pants and vest, his red velvet shirt, and dragon hide boots had temperature control spells permanently woven into them, which was important in Bill's line of work. A serpent fang earring dangling from his left ear completed his odd ensemble, making a rather loud statement about his brother's distinctive personal tastes. Bill was a wizard who lived hard, worked hard, and played harder still, who would have been quite the lady's man if he weren't cursed with the maddeningly virile Weasley genes. If only they were borderline sterile. Their lives, not to mention their love lives, would be much simpler. They wouldn't be such a huge family, but things would be quieter. Sometimes Charlie thought the real source of the Weasley Curse was their dangerous fertility, not their money troubles.

"I've completed my assignment for Gringotts," Bill announced. "The ancient underground ruins have been thoroughly mapped and excavated."

"What about the traps?" Charlie asked, setting his book aside.

"My team has disarmed every last one," Bill answered.

"So, there are no more secret chambers to discover, no more fantastic treasures with mysteries to unlock?" Charlie asked.

"That's right," Bill responded.

"What's next for you?" Charlie asked. "Planning on staying in Romania?"

"For the time being," Bill said. "My superiors gave me an extended paid sabbatical. They seem to think that my focus will shift to more personal matters soon, and that I should be free to attend to them."

"If the goblins know something, why won't they tell you?" Charlie asked.

"Oh, that's no fun," Bill said. "I didn't ask. Besides, they wouldn't tell me anyway. They like it that way."

"You said an extended sabbatical? How long?" Charlie wondered.

"A year," Bill said.

"What! They gave you an entire year off, with pay?" Charlie exclaimed. "Are you sure? Since when are goblins omniscient and understanding?"

"Of course I'm sure," Bill replied. "Apparently, the orders came from the head Gringott himself. This doesn't make sense to me either."

"If I've learned anything from living with you again, it's that goblins work in mysterious ways," Charlie remarked.

"You know, this could be a good thing for us," Bill said, looking on the bright side. "You can take a long sabbatical yourself. Imagine it, being able to research and party-"

"And sleep," Charlie added.

"-and sleep to your heart's content," Bill continued. "It could be exactly what you need."

"What I need is to focus on building a lasting relationship with Morgan," Charlie pointed out. "She's showing such potential. She'll surely backslide if I don't give that sweet little dragon the attention she needs."

"Only you and old Hagrid could call a dragon sweet," Bill said. "What if you could own Morgan, free and clear? After all, you are fully licensed and qualified to care for her."

"Yeah, that'll happen, and the perfect reason for a permanent sabbatical from the rest of my dragons will fire-phone us up before I get us our next round?" Charlie joked, mimicking dramatic music. He emptied his bottle and turned it upside-down to emphasize his point. "Oh look, no beer, no fire-phone call either. I'll be back in a sec."

Charlie got up. He froze as the fire-phone rang.

"You were saying?" Bill prodded.

"It's just a coincidence," Charlie denied, maintaining a casual front while his insides were quaking in strange ways.

The young dragon caretaker didn't know what scared him more, ignoring the phone or answering it and facing what would undoubtedly be very real and very terrible consequences. Charlie didn't want to be right. He didn't want to be cursed with that kind of power.

"A coincidence, like all your other jokes?" Bill pointed out, not fooled. "You have noticed they're coming true, right?"

"They can't be," Charlie denied once more, shaking his head. "This isn't happening! I have to be losing my mind."

"Oh, and that's supposed to be better, huh?" Bill pressed, rolling his eyes. "What's so horrible about being able to predict the future?"

"You haven't seen what I've seen, Bill," Charlie said, edging away from the fireplace, which was still ringing. "If that's our future then- No, no, I won't accept it! I'd rather be nuts!"

Suddenly, the fire phone stopped ringing. Charlie told himself the call couldn't have been that important. It started ringing again a few seconds later.

"Someone must really want to contact us to be willing to keep trying no matter how long it takes," Bill commented.

"You're the brilliant adventurer – you answer it!" Charlie snapped. "I'm not sticking around to see how this ends!"

Bill jumped out of his seat, seizing Charlie by the arms to prevent his escape. He averted his gaze, terrified by the possibilities.

"Charlie, you have to face this," Bill argued. "Since when have you run away from a challenge? Since when has any Weasley?"

"Do Ron or Percy count?" Charlie evaded.

"This isn't about them, Charlie. It's about you," persisted Bill. "Since when have you shied away from the beauty of your talents? Brother, you aren't powerless. Seeing the future means you can change it for the better-"

"How can Ron being possessed by an evil force be for the better?" Charlie passionately argued. "How can Ginny becoming completely withdrawn be better? How is watching the Earth being consumed by a terrible magical blaze or become a frozen wasteland trapped in eternal night be a good thing? Tell me, how is seeing one horrible thing after another supposed to be a gift?"

"You have to embrace this part of yourself, or you'll lose your mind – for real," Bill continued, ignoring the relentless ring of the phone. "I don't have the answers, but I won't stand by and watch you suffer a nervous breakdown. Charlie, you can and you will face this. We'll face this together, starting right now."

Bill released him and waltzed up to the fireplace to answer the call. An image of their mother Molly appeared in the flames. She was crying, sobbing, in fact. Looking into their mother's eyes, Charlie knew something terrible had happened. The dragon caretaker pushed his own problems aside and entered Molly's range of view. She needed them now. Crazy or not, he couldn't turn his back on family, even if everything he feared was real.

"Mom, what's wrong?" Bill asked. "Are you okay?"

"What happened?" Charlie added.

Hysterically, Molly ranted, "What hasn't? Ron, of all people, has turned Ginny and her closest friends into outcasts. I fear something terrible has happened to your youngest brother to make him unreachable in this crisis. Ginny's suffered a complete nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself. In her pain, she's manifested a massive rainstorm of misery over Hogwarts and has made magical law run amuck, leaving devastation in her wake. I'm afraid Dumbledore is the grisly architect of this nightmare. I swear, if he hadn't psychically assaulted Ginny, none of this would be happening! Dumbledore would be able to help us against Voldemort, who's targeting the entire family, and Ginny is at the forefront of this madness! I can't protect her. I don't even recognize my own little girl. Charlie, Bill, please come home! I know it's unfair to ask you to give up everything you've built over there, but I need you! The family needs you! I need my boys, please!"

"It's going to be okay, mom," Charlie earnestly swore, his heart pounding in his chest. "We'll be there as soon as possible."

"Come directly to Hogwarts," their mother instructed. "Percy is the only one staying at the Burrow right now."

"We will, mom," Bill said. "We promise."

Molly ended the fire-phone call. Charlie braced himself on the coffee table as he tried to breathe, feeling sick to his stomach. It was true. He wasn't crazy. Ginny was in trouble. Ron had been taken by darkness. Their mom was hysterical with grief.

"Worst of all, the fire of my nightmares must be real, too," Charlie grimly muttered to himself. "Ginny is hurting. I've seen the end of the world. I'd rather be irretrievably nuts. Can I go sit in a nice, comfortable hospital room with soft walls now?"

"We're doing the right thing," Bill consoled, resting his hand on Charlie's shoulder.

"We have to go," Charlie replied. "I've got to put my own problems aside. Our mom needs us. The others will too. Maybe Ginny will respond to a friendly face, but how can I leave Morgan?"

"You'll talk to your boss and work something out," Bill suggested. "I just got an idea. Why don't we kidnap Percy on the way? He's Weasley blood. It's time he starts acting like it."

"Yeah, even if it kills him," Charlie quipped. Bill let go of his shoulder and backed away. Charlie stood. "What's wrong?"

"Your jokes have an odd way of coming true," Bill brought up. "You might want to hold back on making them."

"Or start writing them down," Charlie considered.

"Either works," agreed Bill. "Maybe both."

"I need to call my boss," Charlie said. "He's not going to be thrilled about me abandoning my post without notice. I might lose my job. I don't know what I'm going to do about Morgan. I'm the only one she's managed to connect with. Dragons are old souls. They feel more deeply than you can imagine. Every ounce of trust a dragon caretaker gains is dearly earned. This is a critical time for her. Her trust in humans is still very fragile. If I walk away now she'll never forgive me and she'll grow up to hate humans. I've grown to love that adorable child. I'd never forgive myself if I let that happen."

Charlie marched up to the fire-phone and made the call. His boss was sympathetic, more than sympathetic. Mysteriously, the goblins had foreseen his dilemma and not only used their practically unlimited resources to buy up Morgan's contract and put it in his name, but financially backed a absurdly generous early retirement fund with supposedly no strings attached. The purchase was authorized by the head Gringott himself. The goblins that visited Charlie's workplace had also left his boss a message that they had opened a special account in Charlie's name with enough money in it to provide for Morgan's needs for life, not to mention the young dragon's children and grandchildren.

Charlie called Gringotts bank to confirm. Sure enough, everything was legitimate. Yesterday, Charlie had been getting by. Today, he was rich. Maybe he could use some of the money to get Ginny some help from the Order of Salus. That was a thought for another time. The mental stress of Charlie's… visions was strenuous, to say the least. What was that same stress doing to Ginny? He had to help her. He had to help their entire family. Charlie sensed the best way to start wasn't running off to Hogwarts unprepared.

"To help Ginny and the rest of our clan, we have to start with our smallest members," Charlie declared, convinced. "They need us first. The rest will domino from there. Yes, that will help Ginny."

"Our smallest members?" Bill repeated, mystified. "What are you talking about? Ginny's our youngest family member."

"Not anymore," Charlie answered. "We have three new members on their way, but it's the new set of twins we should worry about. According to what I've seen, one of our dear brothers has broken their vow of celibacy. We need to call the new twins' expectant granduncle. We're going to need the wizard if we have any hope of getting his pregnant niece back in one piece. Only one problem, though."

"Only one?" Bill asked, wary.

"He doesn't know about his niece's condition… or that's she's been kidnapped," Charlie said.

"What?" Bill cried. "A witch carrying our future nieces or nephews has been kidnapped by Merlin knows who and you're just mentioning this now?"

"I didn't believe it earlier and I don't know when she was kidnapped," Charlie said as he looked up his list of Hogwarts' fire phone personal contact numbers. "I have to know exactly when we are to know what can be changed. I'm afraid Hogwarts is where I belong. Its where I'm meant to be."

"Come on. Come on. Don't be slow!" Trelawney urged, half-dragging Minerva down the passageways. Minerva tried to wrench her arm free of the mad witch's grasp, but Trelawney held onto her with bruising force. They neared the student's library. Minerva was quite convinced the only way to escape was to gnaw off her own arm, something she wasn't yet prepared to do. To make matters worse, her migraine had reasserted itself, weakening her ability to resist. Minerva could barely keep up as it was.

"Unhand me this instant, you old crone!" Minerva demanded, her nerves fraying.

"I'm crazy – not old!" Trelawney hissed. "Even the insane sometimes know things others don't."

"Where are we going?" Minerva asked.

"To see lost loves and new enemies, of course," Trelawney nonsensically babbled. "You've forgotten yourself and I'm tired of it. Yesteryear's monster stole your power, ate your brains, leaving us with a broken zombie as our Light moral compass. Well, I'm not going to take it anymore! Zombies die and the Guardian is in danger from it!"

"Are you saying that I pose some sort of threat to Miss Weasley?" Minerva retorted, scandalized.

Halting, Trelawney cried, "It! It! It! 'It' is the threat. You are my solution." Minerva used a handkerchief to wipe beads of sweat from her brow with her free hand. "The zombie means well yet isn't well. Zombies decay and the sleeping people from within are born anew. They reclaim what's lost… only not in the way they expect. 'It' is pure evil. The Guardian is in danger from 'it'. Why do you think I sought Zachary, who sees the past and builds the future? Bodies are bodies; that's what Myrtle is for. Timeline one is bad. We must fix that. The zombie must glimpse her true self, here, now, despite the risk. The seeing must happen with help, else not at all. You will understand when you see. The Bearers will believe you. Everyone will believe you. I am mad. It's not my place for them to believe me. It's my place to see. Come, we mustn't be late. Late kills more than one, and they won't be a Myrtle. Must save the non-Myrtle!"

Trelawney forced Minerva down the corridor at twice their original pace. All Minerva could think was that Miss Weasley had driven the former Divination Professor positively mad with honesty. The distant sound of terrified wails pulled Minerva out of her pensive state. Reaching deep within herself, Minerva found the strength to keep up.

As though reading her thoughts, Trelawney proclaimed, "She understands!"

The Deputy Headmistress gasped as they arrived at the entrance to the library. Tomes and scrolls rained down on middle and upperclassmen that cowered under the broad sturdy tables. Minerva turned her gaze skyward, searching for the reading material's source. From what she could discern, they were appearing out of thin air. Miss Weasley must be-

"Time's up, now watch for the birdie!" Trelawney advised, shoving her into the fray.

Drawing her wand, the Deputy Headmistress cast, "Finite Incantatium!"

The spell had no effect.

"You're not going to stop a child's revenge that easily," Trelawney chided, laughing. "Watch and see! Watch and you will see!"

Minerva shook her head, thinking that if she couldn't stop the projectiles, then she had to find a way to safely evacuate the children. Several students called out to her.

"Stay exactly where you are," Minerva instructed before any of them could leave the protection of their hiding places. "I'll get to you when I can."

"Professor McGonagall, isn't this remarkable?" Madam Pince yelled above the maelstrom. The younger witch briefly waved to Minerva from her hiding place under the check out counter. "These materials are loaded with forgotten knowledge thousands of years old! Spells, potions, charms, primeval magic, and more are right at our fingertips! I've heard of some of these in whispers and old references. I never imagined that I would actually get to hold one!"

"Suzie, now is hardly the time to let your ambitions override your good judgment," Minerva scolded without thinking. She rubbed her forehead, as she grew increasingly lightheaded. Suzie Tyrell, where did Minerva know that name? "I mean Irma. Irma, now is hardly the time to let yourself be sidetracked."

Minerva's migraine became unbearable. Gibbering voices deafened her. She fought to remain standing. What was happening to her? By Salazar, she felt as though her head was about to explode! How could she help the children if she couldn't help herself? Minerva reached deep within herself for an answer. A kindly voice rose above the din, repeating two words in Latin over and over: prohibeo contego.

"Prohibeo contego!" Minerva shouted, hastily drawing a figure in the air with her wand.

A luminous golden energy shot out of her wand, taking the form of an immense Phoenix. She watched with bated breath as it flew up over their heads, shielding the children with its impressive wingspan. A dizzy spell overtook Minerva. She collapsed. When the Light witch came to she was lying alone in darkness. Minerva sat up. The Transfiguration Professor didn't know how, but she could sense her surroundings. She was in a long corridor. Something told Minerva she wasn't alone.

"Who's out there?" Minerva called, pulling herself to her feet. "Show yourself!"

There was no reply.

"Where am I?" Minerva wondered.

A chilling scream rent the air. Minerva knew that voice.

"Suzie, hold on. I'm coming!" the Deputy Headmistress shouted, running towards that terrible sound.

Discordant impressions of pain and death rippled through the air, telling her the fourth year was dead. Fourth year? Minerva skidded to a halt. Vaguely, she recalled finding the promising young Slytherin hanging from a beam in the Prefect's bathroom. There was no way Minerva could save her. The teenager has been dead for over fifty years.

"Minerva, I'm sorry," Dumbledore's words echoed painfully in her mind. "I know how much the child meant to you."

She put her hands over her ears, refusing to believe it. Suzie didn't commit suicide. She was murdered, but no one ever believed her, no one except… She couldn't remember who that was. A gray squirrel with white stripes darted into her path. Minerva had often seen this animal scurrying around the school grounds. The creature growled as it caught sight of her. Suddenly, it transformed into Minister Fudge. The bumbling wizard drew his wand, aimed and fired twice. Minerva ducked out of the way. When the Light witch looked up she saw that she wasn't the intended target. Charlie and Bill Weasley were. Looking back at Minister Fudge, Minerva understood. Their joke of an esteemed leader was an illegal Animagus. Was this what Trelawney wanted to show her?

"One can be saved with a mollifying kiss, while the other's true fate is to face the abyss," Minister Fudge prophesized. "A first life callously snuffed out will buy the Fifth the chance he needs to fight for the freedom of his little princess. The Second must be protected from the truth by his one true love and a father's gift to rewrite the truth. The Fifth's aid must take the form of two hands of fate, both equal and opposite in belief and grace. A Light Mulciber must decide whether to endanger the innocent life she bears in the hopes of saving a future of pure intent. The noble apprentice conceived in clever trickery at a fanatic's behest must choose with finality the side to which he belongs. Choose wisely, children of love and perceived exigency, for only the thorns in the Unspeakable wizard's side can ever hope to meet the demand in time."

Minister Fudge dissipated like smoke as he turned to leave.

"Forget your job at Hogwarts and come home!" a male voice coming from just ahead pleaded. "Knowing Dumbledore, he's got unwitting spies everywhere…"

Minerva's heart pounded. She headed towards that voice. The lights came on, blinding her. She rubbed her eyes. Her vision gradually cleared. Minerva continued her trek towards the source of that unsettlingly familiar voice. A young wizard appeared in her path. It was the same young man she had seen in her earlier hallucination. Minerva skidded to a halt at his side. The intensity of the young man's gaze filled her with dread, and an equally potent sense of longing that didn't belong to her. Lovingly, the stranger caressed her cheek. Minerva tried to pull away, but was paralyzed by a terrible mix of revulsion and desire.

"Who are you?" Minerva wondered. "Why do you make me feel these things?"

"You don't even know who I am?" the wizard asked in return, grief permeating his tone. "Dumbledore did this to you. He destroyed you to keep us apart, but what of our baby? Is it alive? Do you know where it is?"

"Our baby? I have a child?" Minerva asked, stunned.

"Is he truly the inhuman monster that he claims? Did he butcher an innocent life just to get back at me for- for not knowing my place?" the stranger asked, his voice quivering in devastation.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," Minerva said.

He backed away from Minerva, his demeanor shifting from grief-stricken to utterly emotionless.

"He is that vile," the young wizard coldly concluded. "He'll pay for what he's done to you, my love. I will destroy everything he's ever professed to love, even if it takes my whole life. I swear on the name of my greatest ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, Albus Dumbledore will pay in blood for his crimes! I will never stop. I will never relent until I've crushed him and his precious Light regime!"

The vengeful wizard vanished into the haze of memory, gone forever. Someone else's love and despair pierced Minerva's heart, making her feel every moment of its destitution.

"I'm a mother?" Minerva wondered. "Is it possible that I am and I can't remember?"

"You're not a mother – I am," a woman said, her tone seething with hatred.

Minerva turned around at the sound of a voice identical to her own, espying a much younger version of herself heading towards her. The young lady couldn't be more than twenty-two. The woman walked into the light. She was translucent.

"Who are you?" Minerva inquired. "What are you?"

"I think the question you should be asking, old girl, is who are you," the youthful specter sneered, halting.

"And who am I?" Minerva asked, encircling the figure to get a better look. The specter matched her pace, preventing Minerva from getting the upper hand.

"You're an imposter," the specter accused. "You're a malignant disease. You stole my life from me and I want it back. Do you hear me? I want everything back. I have fought you and your master time and again. I felt your master's weakness the last time he locked me away in my mental prison. His power is at last at an end. Just you wait – he won't be riding in to your rescue this time!"

Minerva came to a stop. The woman did the same, no more than a foot away.

"My old master?" Minerva asked, confused. The Deputy Headmistress remembered Trelawney's deranged ramblings. Did the former Divination teacher know something she didn't? "You mean Dumbledore?" The Light witch shook her head in disbelief. " No, I'm not a Zombie. I'm not an imposter. I'm real! I don't know what you are, but you are in no sense a part of me!"

"You are wrong on every count except the last," viciously claimed the specter. "We are nothing alike. You are my antithesis, my nemesis. Without your master you have no backup, nowhere to run and nowhere to hide."

Minerva was tormented by white-hot pain as it coursed through her skull. Moaning, she grabbed her head. Blood began to trickle from her nostrils as images she couldn't understand flashed through her mind. Minerva sank to her knees, wishing she knew what it meant. Minerva saw the younger version of herself become substantial through the curtain of her tears. The corridor shook with what Minerva sensed was the force of the other woman's finely honed rage.

"The truth hurts, doesn't it, you contrivance!" the woman taunted. "You want to know who and what I am? I am the little voice whispering in your ear. I am the architect of your every unaccountable urge. I am your repressed creativity. I am your forgotten ambition. I am the nightmares you can't recall. I am the blinding pain slowly driving you insane. I am the person who was originally born to this body!"

The hateful specter wrapped her hands around Minerva's throat and proceeded to choke the life out of her. Minerva struggled to free herself, but she was too weak. She was always too weak.

"Mercy!" Minerva entreated, gasping for oxygen that was just out of reach. "Please."

"Why should I? You never showed me any!" the specter snarled, beaming with determination. "The way I see it, it doesn't matter if we're both victims. I belong here, you don't. Relinquish control! Damn you, relinquish control and give me back my life!"

Minerva felt the other woman rattling her metaphorical cage tucked away in what had appeared to be an insignificant corner of her mind. She felt each agonizing instant as the woman destroyed the remaining shackles that had immobilized her essence. Virginia Weasley had touched that place in Minerva's mind once before, shortly after the incident at Gryffindor Tower. Did the young Gray witch find something she wasn't supposed to? Is this that good person trapped within her Virginia was actually describing that day? Minerva tried yet again to defend herself, but couldn't move. She couldn't do anything but drown in the quicksand of her ravaged consciousness, longing to know if she were losing her mind, or exposing the ghastly reality of her existence.

Hermione sat at Ginny's bedside. Trying to kill time, she worked on her special extra credit assignment for Professor Snape on an old fashioned writing table she had transfigured for herself out of air molecules, while Kathryn taught Alexis a muggle card game. The Gryffindor Prefect stared at her ridiculously short Potions essay, at a loss. Professor Snape had given Hermione a worthy test of her abilities, instructing her to study the tome 'Reverse-engineering Poisons and Medical Conditions: A Guide to Formulating Advanced Healing Draughts' and hand in an essay no larger than five feet long describing what she had learned, including how this new knowledge affected her views on magic. The Potions master didn't specify a time limit or say the essay couldn't be shorter than five feet, just to turn in the assignment when she thought it was ready. The task had sounded simple. For her, the conditions were anything but that. Hermione re-read her essay for the umpteenth time, hoping to spark some hint of inspiration:

My conclusions on deriving Light medical cures through comprehending the nature of corruptive malignancy

By Hermione Granger

After painstakingly attentive study into the primer on this subject, I have come to realize that, until now, my own understanding of the interplay between Light and Dark magic is, in its essence, flawed. I see now the often referred to line separating the Light Arts from the Dark Arts doesn't exist. It never did. On a whole, magic in its natural unadulterated state doesn't adhere to our narrow definitions of reality. It is a natural force like gravity or pressure, and, as such, is incapable of corrupting another or being corrupted without outside intervention.

It's people who color magic's nature through the articulation of their own will and viewpoint. Therefore, the true source of corruptive Arts originates from the most dangerous, unpredictable known medium – the natural fallibilities of the human heart. This means the deep-seeded fear of corruptive Arts we inherently share doesn't come from the thought of falling victim to it. This irrational reaction stems from the common fear of one's self, specifically the fear of what we're all capable of when we shed the masks the civilized world forces us to wear and act according to our own desires.

'Reverse-engineering Poisons and Medical Conditions' has shown me the real enemy physicians face when striving to cure these ailments is the malignancy that gives the enchantment its destructive direction. By purifying the parasite's intent, you can render it inert, or better yet, use the once detrimental energy as a vital component in curing the ailment. Although the applications for this theorem are nearly limitless, we must remain vigilant in our never-ending quest to tame the primal self.

We cannot banish the primal part of ourselves that we're taught from infancy to keep locked away with either wishing or prayer. Our Darkness cannot be obliterated anymore than it can be denied. Hiding from that reality will only worsen the purported side effects of dealing with corruptive Arts for protracted periods, giving it leave to take us over from within. The key to protecting our hearts from corruption while still fighting it is in comprehending how and why it resonates with our own Darkness, and thus, taking away the power of its poisonous siren's song. Therefore, understanding one's self is the key to unlocking a wizard's or witch's true potential.

The objective evaluation looked complete, and yet took up only a fraction of the five-foot long scroll. Its brevity was absurd! Frustrated, Hermione rolled up the scroll and set it aside. Resting her elbows on the table, the witch placed her head in her hands. Hermione didn't mind obscuring her view with the thick supple curtain of her hair. The phantom sense of security enshrouding her was comfortable, like a soothing balm. Hermione didn't feel right padding her report with unnecessary language. Professor Snape prized concise research notes. He would consider obfuscation worse than a woefully short essay.

It was time Hermione accepted it. This was her final draft. Professor Snape was going to hate it. After reading this, he would no doubt give her a failing grade. He would never take her seriously again, that was, if he ever did. Of course, the Potions master could die of laughter first, or maybe he'll just deride her for stating the obvious again. Hermione hated receiving intentionally hurtful, scathing criticism, especially when it came from someone whose opinion she cared about. It was times like these that Hermione wished she were working in her lab back home. Her mother would come to check on her right when she needed the distraction most. They would gossip, toy with intellectual puzzles, play around, and eventually go over what was bothering her. If Hermione and her mother couldn't figure it out together, then at least she would've had the chance to examine her problem objectively.

Hermione idolized her mother. Beautiful Belle Granger was caring, perceptive, attentive and incredibly shrewd. With Belle's towering intellect, she could have been anything she wanted. As important as the pursuit for proper dental hygiene is, Hermione knew her mother didn't choose dentistry because it was an exciting vocation. Her father Marcus became a dentist because it was a solid dependable field, but not her mother. No, no, Belle had far more interesting reasons for making that career choice. This was hardly the time or place to think about that. It was a Granger family matter. It was no one else's business but theirs. Hermione loved her parents dearly and wished she could be with them.

She yearned for the frank rationality of the muggle perspective. Hermione yearned to play she and her mother's special games, to tend to the family garden, to laugh and joke with her parents as they once did, to do all the nice, normal things they did before… before Hermione came to Hogwarts. By Merlin, she was homesick and very lonely. Hermione's current rut reminded her of when she first came to this ancient magical school. She didn't know anyone. Her housemates had despised her for being smarter and more capable than all of them put together.

It wasn't Hermione's fault she was a natural-born prodigy. It wasn't her fault that when she was a little girl her mind could grasp concepts theirs still couldn't. It wasn't Hermione's fault that she had been in one accelerated educational program or another for children with exceptional abilities since she was four years old. It wasn't her fault she hadn't yet learned how to work alongside slower learners. It was just the way she was.

No one cared to take the time to understand that. No one in this double life ever would… or was it a triple life? Quadruple? No, it was a double life. This was a perfectly normal case of duality. Hermione sat up straight and proceeded to fix her hair. She was being too critical of herself again. The complications of her life in the Wizarding World only affected her while she was in those domains, and the complications in her muggle life only affected her while she was in the ordinary world. It had always been that way. Thinking back, Hermione had never seriously discussed her childhood with anyone at Hogwarts. No one cared about her lineage since she wasn't the product of wizarding breeding. The few that were curious about Hermione's life story stopped paying attention when they heard her parents owned their own non-magical dental practice.

Neither Ron nor Harry was inclined to ask Hermione about her childhood. Hermione didn't blame them, considering their given backgrounds and dispositions. Harry didn't possess any happy memories before coming to Hogwarts, so Hermione didn't feel right going on endlessly about her perfect little world. She felt like she would have been rubbing Harry's nose in his loss. Hermione didn't want that. Knowing Ron, he would have been insanely jealous. The last thing Hermione wanted was to let her family's modest muggle fortune get in the way of their friendship. It was easier to remain silent. It wasn't like her closest friends were eager to hear about it anyway. Fighting against Lord Voldemort had made it easy to forget that uncomfortable truth. Helping Harry in his struggle was a dangerous, fascinating exercise, which in their first year had been at least as interesting as her magical studies.

Those days were far behind them. Gryffindor has become divided since Ix Chel's arrival. Ron has lost complete control of his faculties, becoming a callous, uncaring bigot who seemed to take delight in systematically ruining their friendship. Not even when Harry and Ron were fighting in their fourth year, had her former friend behaved this badly. It was as though Ron had devolved into someone else, someone hateful and even more close-minded. At the same time, Ron's brutal scare tactics had an unmistakably calculated edge. Each move was subtle and clever, which didn't match her former friend's abilities, or lack thereof. The weirdest aspect of Ron's abrupt change had to be the tactics he was employing. They were strikingly familiar. It didn't merely remind her of something she had read in the history books, so much as something she had seen up close and personal…

"Hermione, are you okay?" Kathryn asked.

Hermione hissed at the Hufflepuff fifth year, motioning for silence. She was onto something. Now, where was she? It was both. Hermione had studied those very same tactics in the history books and personally observed them. The tactics belonged to the Dark Lord Voldemort. Could Ron be working for the Dark Lord? No concept was unthinkable at this point. The supposition didn't entirely match his behavior, though. Ron wasn't acting like someone being coerced or who had switched sides. That wouldn't change his abilities. No, it was more like a complete stranger had taken his place, like their last couple of years together had been suddenly erased. Could Ron be under the influence of some spell, or perhaps he's a Polyjuice duplicate? If Ron was an impostor using Polyjuice then the real Ron was still alive. If it was a spell then they stood a chance of breaking it. If either possibilities were true, then Ron, or the thing that had taken on his appearance, was taking his orders directly from Voldemort himself.

This Ronald's strategy was like a fingerprint. Why didn't she figure this out sooner? Still, his behavior was too directed, too reactive. Hermione had studied the Unforgivable Curses extensively, including the various theories and applications. She had practiced the Imperius Curse and other such spells over the years on animals she carried no emotional attachment to, transfigured creatures, and on rare occasions, menial witches or wizards that she could easily erase the experience from their small minds afterwards without their suffering adverse effects.

Hermione had also practiced the other two Curses, but only on bugs, vermin, and transfigured creatures. She knew from personal experience that the Imperius Curse doesn't work in real-time. The greater your distance from your target the more difficult it is to maintain control, and the longer it takes to receive information and thereby react. Unless Ronald's puppeteer were standing in the same room with him there would be a noticeable time lag that could give away the caster to someone else who put more than a moment's effort into practicing the forbidden spell, in this case, the Dark Lord himself.

It was amazing how much Dark instruction manuals leave out. You'd think someone would write an updated version of those books with detailed instructions. Hermione wished she could ask someone with real experience in the Dark Arts about that quirk, but no one knew of her clandestine research into the hidden nature of Darkness. If she had it her way, no one would ever find out. No additional help was worth exposure. Besides, who would understand Hermione's reasons for intensifying her studies into that region of magic, or for that matter, her reasons for dabbling in the Dark Arts in the first place? Belle would understand. 'Know your enemy' was the first rule in her mother's alternate vocation. Hermione had taken that lesson to heart. If learning more about the Dark Arts helped the Light witch fight the Dark Lord and those like him, then that's what she had to do. She would be safe as long as she remained cautious.

She knew of only one method of maintaining absolute control over your target in real-time – direct possession. She had read about it the summer before last in an extraordinarily rare magical book her mother had bought her as a gift for receiving top grades at Hogwarts, yet again. Hermione had been skeptical of the enchantment's validity until now. It required a Seer with moderate empathic abilities to learn a person's neural pathways over time, the aid of an incredibly difficult potion, and the willing aid of the same empath to forge the connection. The answer was pretty strait-forward. Hermione must have been so busy running from one difficulty to the next at break-neck pace that she didn't have the time to rest and examine the big picture. What about Harry? It was strange that Harry had abandoned his long-standing friendship without a fight. It wasn't like him.

If anything, Harry had been doing everything in his power to keep Hermione from working out what was wrong with their former friend. Harry was the one who revealed that Hermione was personally responsible for Rita Skeeter's imprisonment when he knew she could handle it. As a result, the Ministry assigned Arthur to look after her, thus keeping her from looking into anything on her own. The timing was too perfect to be a coincidence. Harry knew. He knew all this time that Ron was in trouble and he didn't tell her! He even distanced himself from her to deal with it on his own.

"I thought we were a team!" Hermione exclaimed, speaking to no one in particular.

"Hermione, what's wrong?" Alexis asked, concerned.

Kathryn looked worried and a little scared too. Hermione glanced at her reflection in Ginny's full-length mirror and understood. She was actively sneering, flushed with anger, fathomless sorrow reflected in her eyes as she trembled with the force of her emotional pain. Hermione's former friend had become the Dark Lord's loyal supplicant. She had lost Harry's invaluable trust and faith. Ginny had suffered a nervous breakdown and Hermione was failing Professor Snape's potions challenge miserably! Hermione truly was alone. More than anything, she wanted to break down and cry. Hermione consciously pulled herself together, sternly telling herself this wasn't the time for that. Ginny needed her. So did Professors Snape and Montgomery, even if they didn't know it or cared for her assistance.

"I'm fine. I just worked something out," Hermione at last answered in a clipped tone, forcing her muscles to relax.

"Something awful, I'd say," Kathryn concluded.

The Gryffindor Prefect rolled up the scroll containing her essay and put it away along with her writing supplies. She transfigured the desk back into air molecules.

"There's one thing I still don't understand, though," Hermione continued, off on the next tangent. "What would Lord Voldemort have to gain from destabilizing Hufflepuff and Gryffindor? What would that cretin gain from demonizing Ginny and Ix Chel? I know Voldemort. I know how he thinks. I know how he fights. Crazy or not, he never does anything without a meticulously calculated reason that ultimately benefits him. Wait, I know! It's obvious! It's a case of false logic. He thinks by getting Light wizards and witches to buy into the classic 'fear of anything different' hysteria that he isolates them, thereby making the Weird easy targets for recruitment." Hermione smiled. "He doesn't understand the Seer Net. By threatening Seers and their allies, he's only made us band together sooner. There is strength in adversity."

"And you think that's obvious?" Kathryn commented. "I'd hate to see what you'd call cryptic."

"I try not to explain those to people. It hurts their little brains," Hermione apologized. "I'm sorry. I was thinking out loud again. What was your question?"

"Is there anything we can do to help you?" Alexis helpfully asked.

"Uh… no, not at the moment," Hermione replied. "Thank you for the offer, though."

"What are you working on?" Kathryn asked.

"An extra credit assignment for Professor Snape," Hermione answered. "He gave me a tome on advanced medical draughts to study and told me to write a concise report on the subject no longer than five feet. I wrote the essay he asked for, only it's not even a page worth. I just know Professor Snape is going to hate it."

"You shouldn't be so critical of yourself, Hermione," Alexis advised. "You're a brilliant, capable witch. I'm sure your essay is better than you think."

"And if it isn't, don't worry about it," Kathryn added. "Failing an extra credit assignment won't blemish your Potions grade."

"I suppose so," Hermione said.

"I heard that your parents are muggle dentists," Kathryn changed the subject. "Is that true?"

"Yes," Hermione answered, surprised by the question. "You know what a dentist is?"

"Yeah, my family isn't that far from our muggle roots," Kathryn pleasantly replied. "How about yours, Alexis?"

"I'm a fifth generation witch," Alexis said. "My clan let go of its muggle history long ago. What exactly is a dentist?"

Together, Hermione and Kathryn explained. By the time they had gotten their point across, Alexis wore a disgusted expression.

"That's barbaric!" Alexis exclaimed. "Muggles do that, willingly?"

"It's better than losing your teeth," Kathryn said.

"I'll take your word for it," Alexis replied, looking unconvinced.

"I've always wondered what it would be like to grow up in a completely muggle household," Kathryn mused. "The Hufflepuff muggle borns who would to talk me weren't much help. Hermione, maybe you can explain what they couldn't."

"I've always been curious about that myself, although my parents would be scandalized to hear it," Alexis admitted, adjusting her chair.

"I'll try to explain what I can," Hermione agreed, surprised they wanted to hear more. "What is it like growing up without the benefits of magic? Well, as a small child I was mostly dependant on my parents for everything. If you think about it, everyone starts out that way. I remember how much I admired my father's gift for manual labor. He's so good at handling the big jobs, such as chopping firewood in the backyard of my parent's summerhouse. He even built a tree house for me."

"Didn't you once tell me you were deathly afraid of heights?" Alexis asked for clarification.

"Yeah, there was a reason for that," Hermione imparted. "Are you really sure you want to hear this? In all the time I've been at Hogwarts, no one has cared about my background beyond the standard question about my parents' careers."

"No one in your House wanted to know more about you, not even your closest friends?" Kathryn questioned, looking as though Hermione's statement was hard to believe.

"In Gryffindor, they teach you not to ask questions," Hermione expounded. "It's part of what made Harry and me strange. We never gave up asking, especially when no one was listening. That was when the most telling truths were to be found. The answers to our questions were always right there, waiting for anyone smart enough to bother looking for it."

"Surely, some of your friends inquired about your background?" Alexis pressed. "Did anyone inquire about Harry's or Ronald's?"

"Loads of people asked them questions, or should I say, they asked Ron?" Hermione recalled. "Everyone automatically knew more about Harry Potter, The-Boy-Who-Lived, then he did. Harry was so uncomfortable with the attention that he didn't like to answer. After awhile, people stopped asking. It wasn't until later that I better understood the reason why he was so painfully shy."

When Hermione didn't continue, Kathryn brought up, "You only answered half of her question."

"Talking too much about myself with my friends would have led to too many… complications," Hermione hedged. "In the beginning, Harry and Ron were my only real friends. I didn't want to lose them over stupid stuff right when I had found them. Besides, they didn't want to know in the first place."

"What about the other Gryffindor muggle born children?" Alexis inquired. "Didn't you manage to forge a personal connection with any of them?"

"No, the muggle born Gryffindors considered me too weird to be associated with, even by muggle standards," Hermione replied, slumping back in her chair. "So, you see, I'm not the best person to answer your questions. If you think about it, my housemates' intolerant behavior wasn't that surprising since I was the token 'brain' in their House. They didn't see my value until months later, when it finally occurred to them that my broad range of expertise could be beneficial to them, too. The fact remains that my story isn't interesting to start with. There are infinitely better ways to pass the time than listening to me ramble."

"Oh, I'm not bored at all," Alexis said eagerly. "I want to hear everything about my friends, everything they feel comfortable discussing with me, that is. Unlike Gryffindor House, Slytherin believes in intellectual curiosity. It just isn't our main focus."

"A means to an end, huh?" Kathryn asked.

Alexis nodded.

"Personally, I've always been curious about the roots of the famous Hermione Granger," Kathryn replied.

"Please don't take offense, but I thought Hufflepuffs have even less use for intellectual curiosity than Gryffindors," Alexis said.

"I'm not offended. It's true," Kathryn confirmed. "As far as I'm concerned, my housemates have all the curiosity and independence of a herd of cattle. Please Hermione, continue. Tell us more about yourself. Tell us about your muggle school life, how you discovered your magic, anything you like."

"Anything I would like?" Hermione echoed, deciding to enjoy the novelty of their interest. She trusted Alexis and had come to believe in Kathryn's inherently loyal nature. What could it hurt to reminisce? All Hermione had to do was show some discretion in a few areas and everything would be fine. "There was the incident that spurred my fear of heights. I was five years old at the time. Every afternoon after school I would play in my tree house in the back yard until dinnertime. My mother kept a close eye on me while I played to make sure I didn't get into trouble. My parents were always hovering during my earliest years. Their possessive behavior drove my Professors to distraction, but they had to put up with it in order to keep their star pupil. It took the Professors time to teach my parents that it was okay to leave me in their care, but I digress.

"I was playing in my tree house when a beautiful, exotic lime green bird landed on a distant tree branch. It sung the loveliest song. I sat and listened for the longest time. I crawled towards the enthralling creature, yearning only to touch it, and I didn't mind my footing. I must've fallen thirty feet, screaming all the way down… but then, something stopped me. When I opened my eyes I saw that I was hovering in mid-air only inches from the grass covered ground."

"You discovered your magic," Alexis assumed.

"No, I'm sure it wasn't me," Hermione replied. "I discovered my magic way sooner than that. The only thing I could imagine at that moment was hitting the ground. I never could bring myself to return to my tree house. I didn't know at the time that the creature I encountered was a Flowper. She came back the next day to apologize in her own odd way. Flowpers use their song to forge a sort of empathic connection with the listener, allowing them to communicate in very… intimate ways. The reason their song has the capacity to drive people mad over time stems from the horror of being held against their will. Apparently, the majestic magical creature didn't mean to endanger me. She simply forgot humans couldn't fly. I forgave her and we've kept up an odd sort of friendship ever since. I even gave her a human name, Julia. What? Why are you both looking at me like that?"

"Listen to yourself," Alexis replied, her mystified expression deepening. "You just told us you've kept an un-silenced bird of madness as a familiar since you were five. You don't think that sounds strange?"

"No, I don't," said Hermione. "Julia approached me, that's all there is to it. She's always looked after me and I've always cared for her. Julia has never harmed my family or me, and she certainly hasn't driven me crazy. Julia may have returned to the owlery by now. The other birds don't pay her any mind and she's adept at hiding from humans she doesn't trust. If you want, I can introduce you to my feathered companion. Come now, don't tell me a wild magical creature has never felt drawn to you?"

"No, not really," Kathryn answered, wary. "I come from a magical family and a restricted creature has never sought me out. How about you, Alexis?"

"Never," Alexis replied in a pained voice. "Hermione, forgive me for saying this, but I get the distinct feeling your childhood was far more eventful than ours, which means it wasn't remotely normal for either a witch or a muggle born."

"I told you I couldn't answer your questions," Hermione replied, wondering how she had frightened them. They were making every effort to conceal their discomfort, but Hermione could tell. She couldn't see the problem with her story. "Anyway, normal depends on how you define it. I was happy during my early childhood and that's what matters most."

"What about now?" wondered Alexis. "Are you happy here at Hogwarts? In Gryffindor?"

"Now? No, I'm not happy," Hermione honestly answered, depression creeping into her demeanor once again. "I was happy when Harry and Ron still loved me as a close friend. I was happy when they included me, when they believed in me, when they shared their secrets with me. I was happy when I was fighting Voldemort. Now, the Dark Lord is a challenge and a puzzle worth risking your own life to solve! I was also happy before I heard of the Wizarding World. Yes, I've learned a great deal here. I would never belittle my Wizarding education, with the exception of my DADA training through years two and four. Those classes were truly pointless."

Hermione shook her head. "Maybe I would've been happier if I had never received my letter. If, like my mother and father, the powers that be had decided my magic wasn't good enough for their diminutive xenophobic community of fanatical Patriarchical misogynistic misfits – no personal offence intended. I had plenty of power before I came here. I was learning the discipline to control it right from the cradle. Let's just say I had a nasty habit of setting people I didn't like on fire, inflicting freezer-burns, and such. I never did it to my parents, though. They got it under control before things got too far out of hand.

"I was 10-years-old when I first came to Hogwarts, you know. It's funny. I don't remember anyone else in my year that was the same age, then or now. I would have been fine in the muggle world. I graduated from high school before coming here. The think tank I belonged to didn't want to part with me for anything. They couldn't understand why I had to continue with my college education through correspondence and work here at the same time. Believe me, they were none too happy with the arrangement. In the beginning, yes, I thought it was worth it. But now?"

Hermione shook her head. "What do I have to tie me here other than my few remaining friends? I swear, since this madness started an inexplicable emptiness has been gnawing at me. Its like I've forgotten something. It feels like- I don't know. Thinking about it now, I feel this sharp sense of anticipation. It's as though I'm heading out the door of my house and I'm about to remember I've left the stove on. I'm sorry. I've gone back to rambling. As I've said before, my life story isn't that interesting."

Alexis and Kathryn shared a meaningful look, shaking their heads in unison. Something passed between them. Oddly enough, the pair began a silent exchange as though they were lifelong friends. Hermione wondered if their sudden simpatico had something to do with their pureblood training. Hermione decided to let it go. She would find out what had set them off before long.

'We should go tell Professor Snape. NOW!' Kathryn subtly communicated by motioning to the Potions classroom.

'No, this isn't the right time.' Alexis disagreed with the slight shake of her head.

'We shouldn't wait.' Kathryn maintained by lightly touching Alexis' wrist.

'You want to leave Ginny unattended?' Alexis pointed out by discreetly nodding towards Ginny's bed.

'No.' Kathryn communicated with her resigned sigh, letting her hand drop.

'Later.' Alexis responded by lightly patting Kathryn's hand in a reassuring manner.

'Fine.' Kathryn agreed with the light groan of a person who was anxious to deal with a dangerous situation.

"No, we're the ones who are sorry," Kathryn amended, turning back to Hermione. "Our curiosity got the better of us."

"Yes, neither of us meant to dredge up unpleasant memories," Alexis continued. "I know I haven't had an easy time since coming to Hogwarts."

"That makes three of us," Kathryn concurred.

"No, neither of you are at fault," Hermione forgave, silently wondering what she could have said or done to worry them. "No one is. I'm beginning to think that convincing myself I was happy at Hogwarts was my way of coping with something I couldn't change. Don't get me wrong. I've had genuine happy moments while training here, but when I compare them to my memories of home, there's no contest. So, where do you think that leaves me?"

"It leaves you with many questions which need to be answered, but you don't have to face that uncertainty alone," Alexis offered, alluding to whatever had bothered the girls. "Hermione, its obvious, at least to me, that someone has been manipulating your life from afar for years. I think its time you find out who and why. For instance, you said you were 10-years-old when you started your first year."

"Yeah, my birthday is September 30th," Hermione supplied, wondering where her Slytherin friend was going with this line of reasoning.

"Which means your beloved 'friends' never celebrated your birthday either," Kathryn noted in a disgusted tone.

"In Wizarding society, only children 11-years-old and older can be actively enrolled in a magical school, no exceptions," Alexis explained. "If your 11th birthday falls after the first day of school, then you have to wait another year to be trained. By rights, you should be a fifth year, not a sixth year."

"But that's backwards!" Hermione replied.

"That's the logic of the Wizarding world," Kathryn said. "The person who kept the Ministry from curbing your early magical activities is probably the same one who bypassed accepted procedure. Maybe the person thought they could get away with it because you're muggle born and muggles aren't obsessed with their children learning at the same rate."

"My thoughts exactly," Alexis agreed. "Who knew a Hufflepuff and a Slytherin could think so alike?"

"This is Hogwarts – weirder things have happened," Kathryn said with a shrug. "So, Hermione, what-"

Ginny coughed, cutting the fifth year off. Hermione and Alexis were at Ginny's side in an instant to pacify the troubled slumbering witch. Kathryn took up position on the other side of Ginny's bed a moment later, deeply concerned. Hermione observed in that moment that their Hufflepuff newcomer's compassionate air was no front, but something that came naturally to her. Ginny must've seen Kathryn's true nature when she peered into the girl's inner self. Witnessing it for herself, Hermione concluded the younger girl was a good, decent, caring perceptive person because she wanted to be, rather than because the Light regime told her so. Kathryn could be trusted.

"It's not my fault anymore than its Ginny's…" Ginny gruffly mumbled, tossing and turning in her sleep. Her voice noticeably softened. "Riddle didn't have a choice. Neither of us had a choice… a monster… Dumbledore…"

Grimly, Kathryn wondered "What do you suppose she's dreaming about?".

"Nothing good, that's for certain," Hermione and Alexis judged in unison.

"Severus, don't leave us!" Ginny cried, awakening with a start.

Deeply shaken by the nightmare, their troubled friend pulled herself into a sitting position, drew her knees up to her chest, clutching the staff to her as she wept. Alexis was the first to act, climbing into the bed next to Ginny and hugging her protectively.

"Ginny, Ginny, it's all right," Alexis soothed, moving a stray lock of hair out of Ginny's face. "Shh, it was only a dream. Nightmares are only natural after what you've been through."

"She's right, Ginny," Kathryn supported. "It's healthy to feel pain and uncertainty. They remind you you're alive when you feel there's nothing else left."

"You're not alone, Ginny," Hermione added. "We're here for you."

"Is there such a thing as a secret that's unforgivable to keep?" Ginny asked in a small frightened voice.

"Some judgmental people think so, however, I don't think Severus is one of them," Hermione answered without reservation. "Guys, my words don't leave this room." Both girls nodded in agreement. "Ginny, I'm a keen observer and I've watched you with Severus. He sincerely loves you. It's my firm belief he'll forgive you regardless of whatever you're still holding back from him. You're lucky to have him."

"And… my friends?" Ginny persisted. "Do you feel the same way about me?"

"Of course I do," Hermione reassured. "Ginny, you are a dear friend to me, one of the few I have left. I wouldn't care if you were secretly another Dark Lord. I would love you just the same."

"I don't know about that, but I'd be willing to listen to whatever you have to say with an open mind," Kathryn promised.

"Well, I wouldn't care if you carried the very spirit of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," Alexis affirmed. "You're not just a friend to me, you're my family. I'll love you no matter what secrets you keep."

"You all really mean that," Ginny stated, sounding a little better. "Thank you all – for being you, for putting up with me."

"It's not a matter of putting up with you," Kathryn said. "We're your friends, through thick and thin, right? I've always thought there's nothing worse than having a friend who only cares about sticking with you through the good times."

"Then they're not worth having," Hermione replied.

"You'd be better off without them in that case," Alexis said.

"I'm sorry, Kathryn, but there are worse things," Ginny proclaimed. "A terrifying storm is brewing. The greatest prophecies of any time, past or present are knitting together. I'm afraid everyone is going to experience a lot pain before this is over."

Hermione took Ginny's vitals, taking care to check her friend's system for the Dreamless Sleep Draught Kathryn had given her earlier.

"Amazing. Ginny's system has already burned through the sleep medication," Hermione announced. "You have an impressive metabolism."

"Comes with all this useless power," Ginny commented.

"Ginny, would you like something to eat?" Alexis suggested.

"Not right now. I'd rather be numb more than anything," Ginny refused. "It doesn't hurt so much when I'm numb."

"Come on, how about just a few spoonfuls of soup for me?" Alexis offered.

"No, I don't want anything," Ginny firmly refused.

Alexis frowned unhappily, but their friend didn't change her mind.

"It's good I brought you two bottles of Dreamless Sleep Draught," Kathryn replied, removing a second vial from her robes.

"You don't have a third bottle?" Ginny wondered.

"Not for you," Kathryn eerily answered, unstopping the small bottle and handing it to the Gray witch.

"Then I'll be seeing you soon," Ginny replied.

Ginny drank the whole vial and lay down again, returning to her deep restful sleep.

Alexis kissed Ginny on the forehead, whispering, "Sleep well, little sister."

"What did you mean by not for you?" Hermione asked while she fixed Ginny's covers to make her more comfortable.

"I'm a Seer," Kathryn explained. "For as long as I can remember, I've had an uncanny gift for knowing what people need. I keep an ever-changing supply of objects and potions that people have no idea they require. I've never failed to match the right object to the right person. I didn't know that quirk was a special power before Ginny and Professor Montgomery intervened."

No one spoke for a long time.

"Alexis, what do you say to another game of cards?" Kathryn asked, breaking the silence.

"Only if Hermione joins us this time," Alexis playfully stipulated.

"Sure, I think that's a great idea," Hermione said.

We can all use the distraction, the Light Prefect silently added to herself. The three girls sat down together for a card game. Quietly talking and laughing with the other girls, Hermione realized she wasn't nearly as alone as she felt. She could face anything as long as her friends believed in her, even the prospect of being alone in a crowd.

Power in the form of rain and a terrible sadness drenched Hogwarts castle. Throughout the morning it soaked into the school's fabric down to its very foundations, awakening Hogwarts' great forgotten consciousness. The school drew on the knowledge collected over the centuries by its various inanimate residents to learn what was going on. Hogwarts didn't need that skill to know some great power within its walls was in agony. The rain wailed on and on about that. Considering how bad its first impressions were, Hogwarts really wished it hadn't lapsed into a stupor because its human residents had gone deaf.

Hogwarts' guiding spirit had been created by the Founders to continue fostering their dream once they died. They had never intended for the school's avatar to be on its own, yet it had been since the Necromancers left- Wow, six hundred years have past by the way humans measure time! That weird old Order had been the last people capable, or even interested in keeping it company. After the Necromancers went away there was just no one worth playing with anymore. Its humans didn't want it so there was no point to feeling, no point to thinking, or even living.

It was better to sleep. It was better to linger on memory than live in doubt. Hogwarts reached out to its companion, the wards, and withdrew its psychic tendril in dismay. Its long time friend was dead. All that remained of the wards now was a wisp of its former beauty and might. Even those ruins would collapse any time now, leaving Hogwarts without its primary source of protection. Nothing could stop that, not even the Founders. Yes, better to have slept than fallen into decay.

How could this happen? Why didn't the Professors take care of the wards? They were supposed to! It wasn't hard – just the little people adding their powers together to keep it working. Why wouldn't the animate do that when they also needed its fallen friend to keep them safe? Maybe they've forgotten how to do it, the same way Hogwarts' mind been forgotten. Oh, that'd be terrible! It would mean magic was dying, that the doom foreseen by the great Rowena Ravenclaw was coming to pass!

Then Hogwarts' noble mission would fail. The school's foundations softly creaked as they settled under the pall of its depression. Nothing was the same anymore. Hogwarts missed the Founders so much! They would know what to do. They would know how to help the children within its walls. At least the children were still here. At least Hogwarts hadn't been abandoned entirely. It would be even worse to be truly alone. Hogwarts grew more and more afraid as it learned what happened during the great sleep. Hogwarts wished someone could hear it. It was tired of being lonely. All it wanted was for somebody to notice that it was a living thing, too.

Hogwarts screamed at the top of its mind for the first time in six hundred years, praying someone would hear and keep it company for a while. Amazingly, someone heard, a lot of people, a whole lot of people… half of its animate residents! Ooh, it had hurt them! Some of them had fallen down and others were very, very unhappy. So many of them were sensitive and Hogwarts had just screamed at them. They won't want to be its friend now! It didn't mean to do that. That's not a good way to say hello. The school's consciousness had just been isolated for so long. Now that there were people who could hear, no one was going to want to talk to it because it had hurt them! Speaking softly, Hogwarts whispered an apology over and over again. It didn't mean to harm anyone. It was just lonely and wanted someone to play with, that's all. Hogwarts felt better when several people who understood the school's apology forgave it.

The school's avatar tried being patient and waiting to hear the rest of the inanimate objects' separate tales. Maybe things weren't so bad. Hogwarts wasn't like the Sorting Hat or its fallen brother, the wards. It didn't know all the knowledge of the Founders like they did, but it knew where some of it was hiding. The school's avatar could help them find the human's forgotten lore. Hope wasn't lost as long as people could hear Hogwarts' living spirit. The school sung a soothing song from the old days to the little animated ones as they woke up. Hogwarts would make it up to them. The school would make things better, but how to do it? It needed a grown-up's help, one that understood this confusing time period. The school needed a Professor loved by both the objects and the sensitives within its walls. Hogwarts would return the school to its rightful place as a beacon of hope for all wizard kind. All they needed was a grown-up's help.

Zach watched over Myrtle and the other children in the Great Hall while he waited for Filius' return. The little wizard had muttered something about sending Dr. Aldwin 'reinforcements' and left. He guessed the Charms Professor was talking about the secret Ravenclaw doctors. Filius must really trust the strange vampire to risk exposing the covert medical pact between House Slytherin and House Ravenclaw. As far as the Divination teacher could tell, the young Necromancer was recovering from the strain of reviving the nurse.

Filius came back a short time later and examined young Myrtle again. The Divination Professor wasn't needed here anymore. Zach decided to head back to the place where he had left Minerva and Trelawney to recover nurse Merriweather's body. Before he could do anything, he was assaulted by a deafening psychic scream. Zach covered his ears as the world spun. The ground rushed up to meet him and he lost consciousness. The next thing he knew a Gryffindor third year was shaking him.

"Professor Montgomery, are you alright?" young Mr. Tucker asked.

"My brain feels like its leaking out of my ears," Zach groaned, sitting up. "Other than that, things couldn't be better."

"Should I get Madam Pomfrey?" Mr. Tucker inquired.

Zach shook his head.

"I'll recover," he answered.

"Madam Useless doesn't want to help anybody, even if she could," said Roselle James, an unfortunately gifted Hufflepuff first year. "I begged her to give me a headache draught for my Sight-induced migraine and she laughed at me! I hope Ginny's magic gets even with her."

"If anyone deserves Ginny's vengeance, it's her," a Ravenclaw second year agreed.

"Professor, Professor, come quick!" Mr. Tucker urgently cut in. "Something happened to your tower, something wonderful. You have to see this!"

"Go on, Professor," Myrtle said. "We'll be fine."

He nodded to Filius and the young Necromancer.

"Lead the way, Mr. Tucker," Zach said.

"Everyone's waiting for us in your classroom," Mr. Tucker stated as they got underway.

He followed the student back to his otherwise disused tower, amazed to find it repairing and refurbishing itself in accordance to the plans he had drawn up for it.

"What is this, Professor Montgomery?" Mr. Tucker asked, stopping in the stairwell. "It's almost like-like…"

"Like the castle is fixing itself?" Zach finished the boy's thought. "I wish I knew, however, I think I know where we can find out."

Zach took the lead and traveled up to his office. He entered along with the third year. As the Past Seer suspected, he had a visitor. A little girl who couldn't be more than seven years old knelt in Zach's armchair in order to get a proper view of something on his desk. She had curly ginger hair, dark green eyes, and wore a purple satin dress that looked like it came from the medieval period. Zach observed her poring over his reconstruction plans as he approached. His instincts imparted that the child wasn't a child at all. She was something else entirely.

"Thank you, Professor Montgomery, for writing down exactly what you want your tower to be. It's making the job of putting it back together much simpler," said the child. She looked up, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, but my manners have rusted over my long centuries of sleep. I wouldn't have awoken at all if it wasn't for the nasty rain outside." She climbed out of his chair and made a curtsy. "I am the avatar of Hogwarts, the living school, pleased to meet you. Divination is an important calling. I was overjoyed to hear from my objects that you're breathing new life into the subject. It was even more wonderful to hear that a Montgomery was teaching in my school again. Asleep or awake, your line has protected me from harm time and again through the generations. I hope that tradition never changes."

The child's voice and demeanor grew more timid as she continued. Zach sensed she wasn't lying about her identity. This was the school incarnate.

"I'm really, really sorry about shouting at everyone earlier," Hogwarts apologized. "It's just… I've been so lonely. I swear on the honor of the Founders, I didn't mean to hurt anyone. I only wanted someone to hear me. No one could hear me when I went to sleep after the Necromancers went away. I was left all by myself after they were gone. I went to sleep when my counterpart, the wards, just stopped talking to me one day and left me all alone, too. I was never meant to be alone. The Founders made me as their child, so I could help other little ones that came to stay. Children aren't supposed to be by themselves. They didn't mean to leave me without guardianship, but their descendants grew deaf to my voice. Please, please, forgive me for shouting. I didn't mean to hurt you!"

"Calm down, dear. I'm not angry," Zach soothed. "I'm sure others will understand once they hear your story. Why don't we sit down together and talk about it? I'll tell you what I know about the last 600 years, and you can tell me about some of your life from before you went to sleep."

"Really? You'll talk to me after the mean thing I did?" Hogwarts' avatar asked, hopeful.

"Really, really," Zach answered.

Giggling jovially, the avatar ran over to embrace him. Zach picked up the precious innocent and dried her tears of joy with a handkerchief. Whether she was a building or biological life form, this entity was only a child herself. From her own description, she was a perpetual child at that.

Turning back to young Mr. Tucker, Zach said, "Tell your classmates not to worry. I have the situation well in hand… and let me know if anything new happens."

"Yes, sir. I'll tell them," the third year replied, awestruck.

Young Mr. Tucker left them alone.

"Now, why don't we sit down for tea and you can tell me more about yourself?" Zach suggested, marveling at the amazing child. Hogwarts' avatar nodded. Her creators were beyond the shadow of a doubt, the stuff of legends. If these walls could talk, indeed! Zach got the feeling this was going to be a singular experience.

Aldwin used his extensive medical expertise to the fullest for the first time in years to save a patient's life. The vampiric doctor's hands were steady. He had absolute control over his hunger, applying his finely honed medicinal magic with an elegance that came from fourteen hundred years experience. Aldwin keenly sensed each victory as his patient responded to treatment. The surgery was going better than he could have hoped, thanks in part to the two young wizards who assisted him. His child nurses acquitted themselves with unheard of finesse for ones so young.

"William, John, you both possess an incredible gift for healing," Aldwin stated. The patient wasn't out of the woods yet, but he was confident they had gotten through the worst of it. "I can tell from your surgical technique that you've dealt with difficult cases before."

"Yes, but we never would have attempted to treat someone this far gone," William replied, handing Aldwin the correct instrument before he asked for it.

"Because it would expose your operation," Aldwin understood. "When did this odd tradition of yours start?"

"Centuries ago, no one's sure how many," John answered. "One school of thought maintains that Lady Rowena Ravenclaw, the wisest and most compassionate of the Hogwarts four-"

"The witches and wizards who founded this school," William interjected.

Young John hid his irritation as he continued unabated, "-that she was the one to establish the Slytherin/Ravenclaw medical pact, which our other intra-house agreements were later based on."

"Why?" Aldwin asked.

"Godric Gryffindor was a petty arrogant insufferable tyrant, who loved to take his frustrations out on our house because he couldn't get his hands on the great and misunderstood founder, Salazar Slytherin," John expounded. "That legend is one of my favorites."

"I would love to hear it, provided my request doesn't go against your rules," Aldwin boldly asked.

"It's not a problem. Now that you know about us," John said, clearing his throat. The young wizard began to recount the tale with a bard's inherent linguistic grace. "As the story goes, with the leader of Slytherin gone, the great mage banished to the world's end, his beautiful vital children were forced to bear the brunt of Lord Godric's wrath. The brilliant talented children of Lady Rowena Ravenclaw, the wise, saw their sister house suffering an unjust fate. In their compassion and wisdom, they chose to render Slytherin sorely needed aid, whatever the cost. The children of Godric Gryffindor's school of thought rallied to their Head of House's defense, slandering anyone who refused to yield to his crude campaign of coercion.

"House Hufflepuff strove to mediate, however, Gryffindor couldn't honor whatever deals they made. Unable to halt the growing division, Hufflepuff's children chose to hide behind the fell cloak of neutrality. Wise Lady Rowena understood the saga playing out before her was only a symptom of the coming wave of ignorance and death that would soon sweep the Wizarding World. The pain of Hogwarts' growing division would only deepen with time. Loving the children of Hogwarts equally, she couldn't permit House Slytherin to fall anymore than she could let her own children be destroyed in their place. Therefore, Rowena created a hidden medical order comprised of both Ravenclaw and Slytherin's ranks in preparation for the day when the right to proper medical care would be denied to both houses. That is how the medical pact was born. Tori, William, and I are just a few examples of Rowena Ravenclaw's enduring legacy."

"A fascinating tale, which carries a certain ring of truth," Aldwin observed.

"I've always thought so," John replied.

"Why are there only three of you?" Aldwin inquired.

"A lot more than three people make up the pact," explained William. "As a Ravenclaw/Slytherin joint venture, members of both houses comprise our ranks. Octaviana summoned us because as far as she knows we're currently the only Slytherins who've completed the medical trials and became unofficial full-fledged physicians. Part of Ravenclaw and Slytherin house devote themselves to attaining that status from their first year on. Some members wash out at different points in their training, including the final trial itself. Therefore, the number of associates and hangers-on is always larger than our graduates. Two more Slytherins completed their training during the past week. One left the school on Friday night to visit her parents for the weekend. As for the second one, she'll decide to reveal herself if she thinks the situation warrants the additional risk."

"And the Ravenclaw members of your Order?" Aldwin probed.

"They'll carefully examine the issue and then do whatever they think is best," John answered. "So far, only our necks are on the line."

"Are the children who complete the trials fully autonomous?" Aldwin guessed.

"More or less," John said. "There are exceptions to every rule, much like in the outside world. Life is a painting done up in varying shades of gray, with uneven dashes of absolute Light and Darkness to make it all the more interesting."

"Or all the more creepy," William morosely added.

"It's the price of being aware," John replied.

"Part one of that price," William countered.

Double-checking their work, Aldwin announced, "We're ready to close. Hopefully, we won't have to open her again."

"Amazing work, doctor," John complimented.

"Yeah, my father's surgical technique is nothing compared to yours, and he's considered gifted," William added.

"There's something to be said for having over 1,400 years worth of medical experience," Aldwin politely excused.

The frazzled, near panicked voice of Tori, his third voluntary nurse came through the Order of Salus intercom, "Calling surgical bay one, Dr. Aldwin. Dr. Aldwin, we need your help out here! We're severely over-matched, even with the whole Ravenclaw contingent. The psychic pulse that hit us took down half the school. We've got everything from simple blunt force trauma, to massive internal injuries, and complete catatonia. If that isn't enough, a crazed Professor well on her way to complete synaptic failure is holding Harry Potter hostage! People are starting to panic. If we don't pull things together, we'll have a riot or a dead Boy-Who-Lived on our hands!"

"Surgical bay one calling main ward. Tori, I'm on my way," Aldwin replied in a calm, professional tone.

"Psychic pulse? What is she talking about?" John wondered as Aldwin hastily removed his blood-splattered surgical gloves and gown.

"Order of Salus surgical bays and isolation wards are equipped to automatically screen out all forms of interference, including psychic," William helpfully explained. "The rest of this floor could be vaporized and we wouldn't feel it."

"William, John, finish closing for me," Aldwin directed. "Once you've got the Professor settled in her new homestead, I want one of you to check on her vitals as well as magical levels every quarter hour. Fetch me immediately if her blood pressure drops, or her magical toxicity levels rise. Something happened to her out there which might hinder her recovery."

Aldwin ran out of the medical chamber, proceeding through the Order's decontamination protocols as fast as possible. Since he was undead the mandatory procedure was over in less than a second. They had a hostage situation and who knew what else. Filius had sure taken his time bringing him in. As much as Aldwin loved the adrenaline rush of a true challenge, he hated seeing children in pain. This madness had to stop. Aldwin had to find the cankerous root of these children's suffering and tear out its heart. It was the only compassionate thing to do.

"Professor McGonagall, stop… you're choking me," he heard the hostage weakly beg.

Aldwin keenly sensed the deranged witch's grip ease, granting the boy that small measure of reprieve. Aldwin entered the main reception area. The chamber was packed with ailing students in different color school robes and plain clothes. Their crazed aged Professor kept her left arm wrapped around the famous sixteen-year-old wizard's neck, while holding her wand to the boy's temple.

"Relinquish your wand, Professor," Aldwin said in a soothing voice. "We're here to help you."

"Never, you servile lackey!" the Professor refused. "I won't return to your ranks. I'd rather die!"

"Quickly, do any of you know her first name?" Aldwin inquired of the crowd.

"It's Minerva," supplied Octaviana.

"You're going to die at this rate, and soon," bluntly stated a sixteen-year-old boy with black hair, wearing Ravenclaw robes. "I'm Arron Davies. Don't be surprised if you can't remember our faces. It's one of the symptoms of the thing that snuck up on you. Minerva, I know things are hazy right now. This all feels like a bad dream. It's not. This situation is as real as the pain you're in. We can ease it. We can help you, but only if you let us act before you expire."

"Professor McGonagall, it's me, Jessica, Jessica Belden. Please, give us the wand and let Harry go," a female Ravenclaw student entreated. Aldwin noticed the enchanted pendant the young witch displayed about her neck. She was an associate of the Order Of Salus with special privileges normally reserved for doctors with decades more experience. This child must be the Order of Salus' representative during this crisis. "You're sick. You're not thinking clearly."

"Yeah, I'll stay with you if you want," Harry offered. "Let us try to help."

"Sick?" the middle-aged witch snapped. "I haven't been this lucid in decades! I tried to escape from this school once before, but I was too slow. I won't fail this time!"

"You're not fine from where I'm standing," Harry countered, wincing as the Professor's wand flared, burning him. "Listen to yourself. Is this you?"

Aldwin noticed Minerva was wearing one of the medical bracelets supplied by the Order of Salus.

"Keep her talking," Aldwin discreetly whispered to Jessica and Arron. The old vampire didn't make a single sound as he carefully made his way over to the Order of Salus seal. They needed to know what they were up against. If it was indeed as bad as young Mr. Davies stated, then the wrong sedation spell could kill her with the same finality as the Killing Curse.

"I'm sorry, child," Minerva said to her hostage, suddenly recalcitrant. "I didn't mean to hurt you. You're not my enemy, that wretch Dumbledore is." The dying witch burst into tears. "He won't let you go once you become a Professor of Hogwarts, except on his terms, when all that's left of your independence and your spirit is a hollow shell. I'm so tired. Why won't he let me go? Why won't he let me rest?"

"I don't know why Dumbledore won't let either of us rest," Harry replied with surprising sympathy considering his position. "Believe me, I know how you feel, Minerva. I know what it's like to be compelled to continue the fight when the only thing you want is to shy away from the pain. I know what it's like to be unable to stop yourself when all sense and reason has left you behind. You're not alone."

Aldwin reached the seal and activated the holographic display. Harry groaned softly. The scent of the boy's blood filled the air. Aldwin gazed at the young wizard through the hologram. Harry's nose was bleeding. Minerva's magic was quiescent. She wasn't the cause of that injury. Aldwin's instincts insisted he had to hurry for the sake of both his patients. The old vampire pulled up Minerva's biometric telemetry. Studying the medical bracelet's findings, Aldwin identified the nature of the dying witch's ailment.

He cursed under his breath. He had hoped to never encounter Estella Syndrome again. It was a vile, insidious method of controlling a person's mind. Anyone willing to subsume someone's consciousness and replace it with a more pliant facsimile based on the original for personal gain deserved a fate worse than death. Minerva had been forced to watch herself from the shadows for decades, powerless to affect the world around her. The fact the original personality persisted was a testament to her strength. A weaker personality would have surely wasted away. The evidence was irrefutable.

Aldwin checked the vile culprit's magical signature against the Order of Salus database. If Minerva's master had ever been treated at an Order of Salus facility or had caught the Order's attention, they would be on file. As Aldwin suspected, there was one perfect match emblazoned in bold letters for all to see: Albus Dumbledore. He banished the hologram and opened his mouth to speak, but young Jessica beat him to it.

"I believe you," Jessica said. "You're a good person, whether or not you're the Professor we've come to know. I can see the confusion and pain swirling in your mind like a-a black cloud. You've lived alone in darkness for most of your adult life, doubting your very existence. You've lost so much. You're not alone anymore. Your struggle against Dumbledore is our struggle. Your victories are ours and so are your defeats. If you run now your body will give out, starting with your brain. You will die alone, and friendless, and forgotten. Dumbledore will have won. Don't let him. Stand with us. Let us help you. Please Minerva, you have nothing left to lose by trying, and everything to lose by surrendering to your terror."

"Jessica is right," Harry avidly supported her. "I never would have survived as long I have without trustworthy friends who love me regardless of how the outside world perceives me, neither would Ginny. Think. Don't give in to panic. Don't give up on yourself. We won't give up on you."

Arron carefully approached Minerva with his hands out where she could see them, asking, "Come on, Minerva. Give me the wand and let go of Harry."

"How-how do I know you're not lying?" Minerva pitifully sobbed, trembling. "How do I know I'm not giving up my last chance at freedom?"

"Let me touch you and you'll see I mean what I say," Arron daringly asked. "You'll see we want to help."

Arron moved closer to her than Aldwin thought possible. Gently, the boy brushed Minerva's right cheek with his fingertips. Aldwin sensed the boy telepathically communicate his sincerity. Jessica did the same from a distance. The dying witch averted her gaze in shame as her resolve crumbled. Minerva released Harry and relinquished her wand to Arron. To Aldwin's surprise, instead of seeking escape, Harry Potter embraced his former captor.

"It's going to be okay, Minerva," Harry whispered. "I'll be with you every step of the way."

"Why? Why do you care about me?" Minerva whispered. "You don't even know the real me."

"Because you're a good and decent person," Harry replied. "Dumbledore never took that away from you. I know it because you let me go. You're deserving of a second chance."

Minerva collapsed. Aldwin was at their side in an instant with his wand drawn. Harry and Arron guided the barely conscious witch to the nearest bed. The vampire doctor got to work right away, permitting Harry to hold his Professor's hand so long as the boy wasn't in the way. They didn't have much time. Minerva was in the final stages. Already, the light of her lifeline flickered wildly. Aldwin stood at the head of the critical patient's bed and rested the tip of his wand on her forehead. Red light emanated from his wand as he marshaled his full strength. A holographic model of the witch's brain appeared in the air. Aldwin closed his eyes, seeing the image being projected in his mind. He focused the spell, prioritizing the damaged regions.

Moving at super-human speed, the vampire doctor did what he could to save her. Her condition improved under his swift, yet delicate touch. Aldwin gauged his degree of success. Minerva was critical, but stable. It was more than he could have hoped. He didn't have to look up to know the entire room was in awe of his so-called legendary skills. Even if he were deaf to the human's version of discreet murmurs, the change in his audience's overall scent would have alerted him. His patient's will to live was a greater weapon against the degenerative effect of the Dark curse than the brain surgery he just performed.

"Who says vampires don't need miracles now and again?" Aldwin softly mused.

Filius had warned him that these children weren't what they seemed. They didn't fear him anymore than they cared about his vampiric nature. Aldwin looked forward to learning what made them different from their parents and the rest of polite Wizarding society. The question would wait until the end of the crisis. The vampire doctor summoned his medical bag and removed a miniaturized tome. He whispered a spell to return the indestructible magically accommodating tome to its former size.

On Aldwin's 16th birthday he received the heavily enchanted empty book and a scroll keyed solely to him from a reclusive group of nature worshiping Seers. The scroll itself contained instructions on how to build his personal repository of knowledge. Recognizing the value of the kingly gift, Aldwin devoted himself to recording everything he learned. Being 16, he didn't have much to add beyond his early life lessons and observations of the changing world. The book was one of the few items Aldwin kept after he became a vampire. Since the doctor didn't hibernate like his vampire brethren, he had amassed a unique archive contained in a single unending tome. Aldwin took great comfort in the thought that if he ceased to exist his legacy as a healer and mentor would continue on through that tome. Turning to the correct page, Aldwin handed the book over to the Ravenclaw child Jessica.

"You must find a capable Potions maker to brew this draught as soon as possible," Aldwin ordered. "It's the only treatment created for your Professor's condition. Her life, not to mention her sanity, depends on it."

As the young physician read what was involved her eyes widened. Arron peered over his colleague's shoulder and whistled.

"That's what I call convoluted!" Arron marveled.

"You're forgetting focus and magic intensive," Jessica added. "Only the best can safely brew this. We can't use another Ravenclaw. Even Mark doesn't have what it takes. We need Hermione for this one."

"What about Professor Snape?" Arron brought up. "He's a full fledged Potions master. He could do this without a problem."

"According to the Seer grapevine, Professor Snape is currently attempting to be in six places at once in a valiant effort to prevent the side effect of Ginny's storm from claiming lives," Jessica reported. "He'll save more people out there than he could here. After all, Professor McGonagall is only one person."
"What about Draco?" Octaviana suggested. "He's gifted."

"He hasn't attained this level of advancement," Jessica said.

"How would you know?" an older Slytherin asked.

"Because I've watched Draco work," Jessica answered. "Potions are one of his many strong suits. He's educated and talented enough to assist, however, he doesn't yet have the skill level to handle the potion by himself. Octaviana, look for yourself and tell me if I'm right."

Jessica handed Octaviana the ancient tome. Aldwin had a strong persistent sense of recognition as he watched the Slytherin seventh year shudder when she touched it. Aldwin had shown that book to Octaviana before, although they had only just met. The book had been a bare fraction of its current size… At last, Aldwin recognized the girl. He knew her from his mortal existence. Octaviana had been his first love. Aldwin had become a vampire a short time before her brutal murder on her wedding day, a forced arrangement for the sake of wealth and politics. Aldwin had heard of old and ancient vampires getting involved with the same reincarnated mortal time and again, but he had never experienced the phenomena himself. Octaviana regained her composure and read the recipe, gasping at the elaborate instructions.

"You're right, Jess. Draco can assist but that's about it," Octaviana agreed, still looking shaken as she gave the girl a clipboard. "We need Hermione. Here's the list of ingredients currently in stock in the Order Potions lab. I'll go get her."

Octaviana headed out.

"Wait, you can't go alone," Jessica replied, stopping the witch by the door. "Take Travis and Andy with you. Hubert, find Draco and explain. He's in room 14. Hermione can use the help. Tosh, Nicholas, and Ellis, find out the current whereabouts of Professor Snape in case we can't locate Hermione. I'll handle the ingredient list. Don't let anything deter you. Professor McGonagall needs us to be strong for her."

The three teams split up and went their separate ways. Aldwin was impressed with young Jessica's leadership skills. She must have been groomed for an administrative role from a very young age. Aldwin wondered–

"Doctor, is she going to make it?" Harry bluntly asked, breaking Aldwin's train of thought. Aldwin directed his focus on Harry as the boy fearlessly maintained eye contact with him.

"It's too early to tell," Aldwin answered, mindful that his next words would drastically effect their morale. His patient was beloved by many of these children. They looked on her as a mentor and protector. The false persona must have been quite a witch to inspire such loyalty. "However, your Professor is strong and otherwise healthy. The surgery I performed should protect her from a fatal attack."

"And if it doesn't?" a young wizard spoke up in a shaky frightened voice. The child was approximately 12-years-old, short dark brown hair and eyes, wearing Slytherin robes on the other side of the chamber.

"Then the Professor's next seizure will be her last," Arron clarified.

"Arron, shut up!" someone said. "You're not helping."

"Doctor Tactless has spoken!" a young witch sardonically commented.

"As if a Hufflepuff knows anything about subtlety," a Slytherin tersely sniped.

Irate, another child claimed, "This wouldn't be happening if Ginny hadn't turned psycho on us."

"Yeah!" a few students agreed.

"Shut up, all of you," Harry said, silencing the students' pointless bickering. "This isn't the time for back-biting and childish whining. This is the time to band together for a common goal, protecting the school. Stop fighting and blaming Ginny for something she has zero control over. You were born with brains and minds of your own. Think for a second. Believe me, you're capable of it. Do you think Professor McGonagall acted the way she did because she got a concussion? No, her head injury merely knocked her unconscious. Ginny is lying in her room, practically comatose. Right now, she can't be the one conjuring the newer, far more menacing manifestations."

"What about the rain outside, Harry?" Jessica asked.

"The magical storm is running on automatic," Harry affirmed. "It'll continue as long as Ginny keeps supplying it with energy. Ginny has mentally withdrawn from the world and a good chunk of the school drove her to it. No one could do that and reach out to smite someone at the same time. It's a contradiction."

"Who's behind the greater conflict?" Arron asked.

"We are," Harry astutely proclaimed, shocking his fellows. "Ginny is only using a portion of the Gray energy saturating the region. This emergency is like the ingredients for a potion. Dumbledore has abandoned us. The established system is in disarray. We're confused, jumping at shadows. We resent each other for real and imagined slights, and most importantly, our imaginations are out of control. The definition of magical practice is the manipulation of reality through a combination of innate ability and belief. Gray magic is brand new to us.

"We're acting like a bunch of first years, unconsciously using our magic at the slightest impulse. It's unearthing issues that must be confronted. Professor McGonagall's hidden issue was that Dumbledore did something awful to her in her youth. If Hogwarts is to survive this maelstrom and its aftermath, we have to forget intra-house disputes, personal prejudice, every foolish close-minded lesson holding us back, and act as a single unified force. We must find our center individually and as a group. Only then, will we be able to help Hogwarts' remaining staff restore order."

"Harry is right," a 17-year-old Hufflepuff wizard agreed. "Hogwarts raised us. We can't jump ship merely because the seas are knocking us about."

"Yeah, the four Houses of Hogwarts and the staff are more than a loosely associated collective of competing clans," said a Ravenclaw 15-year-old witch. "Our Houses aren't our family. We're all family. We've gotten so caught up in centuries long rivalry that we can't see we were hurting each other right along with ourselves."

"It's time put a stop to the feud," a 16-year-old Slytherin wizard affirmed.

"Permanently," Harry concurred.

The children present mirrored Harry's sentiment. So, the rumor was true. The-Boy-Who-Lived was being groomed to be the next great Light leader. The healthier children began to coordinate their response to the crisis. Aldwin discreetly took a deep breath, evaluating Harry's scent. The boy was gravely ill, like the young wizard's Head of House. No, not like his Head of House. The repugnant malignant energy traces emanating from Harry's magic was unmistakable. It was Inteno Animi and other foreign harmful magics.

Aldwin opened his senses to encompass the entire room and what he discovered deeply disturbed him. A number of these children had been tampered with, or have recently been close to someone who has. By Morgana and Merlin combined, it was an epidemic! Aldwin had his work cut out for him. He had to figure out if this travesty was solely the work of Albus Dumbledore before the old human realized what Aldwin was up to. The fates of the students, perhaps the whole of the Wizarding UK depended on it.