"Magic may seem like the answer to all of life's little problems, but even then it's meaningless if you're not willing to reach out and take it for yourself, my boy." -Horace Slughorn to Tom Marvolo Riddle, Hogwarts, 1941.

Chapter 23~

It was several seconds before Harry's breathing returned to normal.

Finding a person in a place where there simply wasn't supposed to be anything was more than surprising. But after the momentary alarm that came with seeing a potentially hostile wand in the hands of a person who had quite vocally threatened him, Harry also noticed that the man was somewhat snugly framed by a large rectangle of elaborately carved wood.

A portrait.

All at once the adrenaline left his body accompanied by a short sigh. Really now, he'd been getting quite jumpy lately. Still, he was at the heart of the school so it would be unwise to let his guard down entirely.

"So, you think yourself safe because I lack a dimension you do not?" the man asked, clearly amused.

"Never heard of a dangerous portrait before," Harry said warily, still not willing to move much closer to the man. Despite having been in the presence of so many unforgettable figures, none struck him with anything quite like he was now. Like he were the portrait, hanging up on some wall without a purpose. Even Voldemort recognized him as something.

"No doubt that is not the only thing you are ignorant of," the man said with a nod that seemed strangely more understanding than judging. "Regrettable, though not unexpected."

"They never said anything about there being a person down here," Harry said slowly, pushing his ire down in favor of getting information. The man simply smirked at this, stowing his wand and standing straighter.

"Of course they didn't. They never dreamed someone would get in here without their knowledge," he said condescendingly. "Their... unrivaled greatness. It was rather beyond them to do so. But then I put their legend to shame before I'd even discovered this place in my youth. You may not recognize my face, but I've no doubt you've heard of my name. I am Emrys Merlin."

Say what?

"...Merlin?" Harry repeated slowly. "As in the Merlin?" He nodded, making Harry let out a short breath. "Uh, wow. Nice to meet you then, I guess." It was more out of courtesy than anything that he added that last bit. There was absolutely nothing about being in the famous wizard's presence that made him feel pleased about the meeting. "What are you doing here?"

"I merely stand here and watch her. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Her? You call the castle 'her'?"

"The castle?" Merlin laughed lightly. "Perhaps. On a similar note, however, I myself am equally curious. You find yourself in the very heart of the castle. Certainly you did not get lost on the way to a class; and so I ask, what is your purpose here?" He spoke in such a way that it was clear he believed he would be told every detail. As though he deserved it.

Harry couldn't help but frown at the man, and not just because of how he was. There was clearly something going on he didn't know about for the most legendary of wizards to be in attendance, but he pushed past his misgivings and spoke anyway. He couldn't leave empty handed.

"Recently I… met a woman who claims to be Hogwarts."

"Did you?" Merlin looked intrigued for the first time. "And your assessment thus far?"

"I'm honestly unconvinced." True, the man rubbed him the wrong way, but if this actually were Merlin then in the end there probably wasn't anyone better to discuss this with. The stories of his knowledge and talents were beyond even the fantasy world he belonged to. "Everything points to yes," Harry explained, trying not to be too confusing, "but at the same time I can't accept that to be true. True life doesn't just come from nothing."

"And what makes you so certain she is true life?" Merlin asked.

"I… just a gut feeling, I suppose," he finished, fairly lamely in his own opinion. "If you stood in front of her you'd think the same thing, honest."

If Merlin thought his reasoning was weak he didn't show it. "I see. Her features?"

"Tall," Harry said immediately, thinking back to when he first met her. She was such a striking figure. "Fair skin, black hair, blue eyes. She's got…" he paused, looking for the right words, "soft features, I guess. I want to say she reminds me a tiny bit of an Elf, not that I've ever heard of them existing. Completely different from how she acts though. She's…"

"Beautiful, yes." Merlin's eyes were closed, a pleasant smile upon his face. "Elegance incarnate." He became silent for some time, eyes still closed, apparently lost in some memory. Eventually he spoke again. "So she retains her form, even now. Truly a remarkable phenomenon. Even I couldn't have predicted that much."

"You know her?"

"Yes, in fact I do know her. Allow me to shed some light on your personal mystery." Merlin paused for a moment before starting.

"Throughout schooling at Hogwarts, I was quite alone. This was not due to a lack of friends or other such things, but rather a sense of not belonging. Theirs, of course, not my own. I owned Hogwarts. More than even the Founders did. I was compared to them so often, though for what reason still escapes me. The Founders were, after all, but four friends with nothing but a dream to build a school. Individually they perhaps had a great deal they could have done, but instead decided to waste it on a place like this..."

Merlin motioned around himself, disinterestedly.

"I digress. As I was saying, I existed in a realm far above any my "peers" ever hoped to even glimpse. All but one."

At this Merlin was smiling, as if thinking of a fond memory, all the while his eyes fixed on the pillar in the center of the room. Meanwhile, Harry was watching the man with a mix of fascination and disappointment. This was Merlin? Truly?

"A young woman from my year, though not in my House, with a dislike of me to rival my own skill in magic."

"Can't imagine why," Harry mumbled, though the man clearly heard him from the chuckle he gave.

"Indeed, a mystery I shall never know the answer to. Regardless, she was simply magnificent."

"Sorry to hear it didn't work out."

Not really.

"Oh, but it did," Merlin smiled. "Her younger sister... she was so jealous; so overshadowed. So much less important. She was desperate enough to do anything to have what her elder sister had. It is ugly, Harry. Jealousy," he added at Harry's frozen expression. "The burning desire to possess what others have… It can ruin the very best of us, though I suppose in this instance it gave her a new life. In any case, with the younger sister's minor assistance I was able to bring her here. An entire year's planning all for a moment, and it worked flawlessly." He motioned to the walls around him. "I gave life to a dead castle."

"You-" Harry could get no more out than the single word, struggling to accept what he was being told.

"I gave her eternity. A magic I developed. I call it Tethering."

"You put her in the castle?" Harry breathed.

"I bound her soul to the castle, to be more accurate," Merlin corrected. "Impressive, no? This is magic beyond magic. Have you ever even considered such a feat? To tie something living to another that is not?"

Soul bound to the castle to keep it safe.

Soul taken from the body and placed in another object.

"This is no simple movement, it is ascendance to a different plane of existence! As close to the realm of Gods that mortals have ever achieved."

Horcruxes. The man just claimed to invent the magic that Horcruxes had been based on.

Tethering? Who the fuck cared what it was called!

"You're sick!" Harry seethed, the word hissing out from behind clenched teeth. "How could you do that to someone?!"

"You clearly don't understand, and I wouldn't expect you to. I made her endless, it is as simple as that."

"And the portrait?" he spat.

"My dear boy," Merlin began with a mocking smile, one that had Harry growling. "What is the point of getting something for all eternity, if you are not there to enjoy it for just as long? I am content to sit here and watch. Just as I always have been, just as I always will be."

"Incendio!"

A gout of flame erupted from the tip of Harry's wand, engulfing the portrait and the wall directly around it as the fire crashed into the flat surface. He held it for a few seconds, feeling the drain of the altered spell, before cutting it off. As expected, Merlin's portrait was unharmed, and the man himself was regarding him with an amused expression.

"Such fire," he said blandly, chuckling at his own words. "Hatred is not something that I am unfamiliar with, Harry Potter. Many hate, and fear, what they cannot understand. That which is beyond them, as I am beyond you."

"I don't know how I'm going to do it, but one way or another you're going to burn to ashes," Harry promised. Merlin just smirked.

"You are powerful. Not in the realm of myself, but for a typical wizard it is quite the difference. I can tell, even as a portrait; the raw magic that churns within you."

Harry remained silent.

"It would be unfortunate to snuff that out here, as much of a triviality as it would be. I'd see you grow to the full height of your ability, only to realize the sheer difference between you and myself. Please return at your leisure. After all..." He smiled that infuriating smile. "I have all the time in the world."

x~x

"That is-"

"Horrible…"

Silence permeated the small sitting room of Harry's trunk. He'd just finished recounting the entire conversation with the portrait of Merlin to the Founders and Narcissa.

"Ripping the poor girl's soul from her body and placing it in the keystone?" Helga looked stricken. "I can't even fathom… there is no way she could have endured that unscathed."

"Well, she didn't lose everything," Harry said with a grimace. "Merlin said she sounds the same as she used to when I described her, however that works."

"Perhaps she retained some sense of what it was like to be the young woman she was?" Salazar posed. "Even after all this time, wizards know next to nothing about the soul. It could very well be possible, as unlikely as it seems."

"Well if it wasn't that then how else did she get to looking like she does?" Godric added.

"I don't know but I will help her," Harry said fiercely, scowling at the cup in his hands. "I have to free her somehow. Besides, robbing that bastard of his 'prize' would be a great bonus."

"But how could you even do something like that?" Narcissa asked, looking completely lost at the thought. "Undoing something that took the most famous wizard of all time a year to do himself?"

"Voldemort could probably figure something out," Harry admitted, shaking his head. "Too bad he's busy being the enemy of my entire life."

"What about Dumbledore?" asked Narcissa. "He's frequently been called our time's modern Merlin, after all."

"Yeah…" Harry let out a small breath. He'd kept so much from the Headmaster in the past year, to only now bring up Stella… there had to be a point where the man would stop trusting him the way he did.

I can't keep doing this.

"I want to do some research first, but if nothing changes by Christmas I'll tell him," Harry said finally. "It's just a month away, anyway."

Xx~xX

The first step Harry took off the carriages into the recovered village of Hogsmeade was accompanied by a shallow drop in the pit of his stomach. Recovery from the attack just over a month prior had been quick, naturally, with magic to assist. In fact, if anything the village was looking extra festive for the season, as if to brush off what had happened with a laugh and a wave. Yet not even fully within the bounds of the village and he was already thinking back to Halloween. Spells flying through the air, injured and dead lying about, buildings on fire, and of course the werewolves. They'd still never figured out what the true motive of attacking the village had been. The inclusion of the werewolves suggested it was more than just a decoy of some kind but that was as far as they got. Even Snape had no idea, not having been around when the plan was made.

"Everything alright, mate?"

Ron's voice pulled him out of his thoughts and back to the two people who had come along in the same carriage as him.

"Yeah, Ron, I'm fine," he said quickly, avoiding the concerned look Hermione was giving him. "Just glad to see the damage has been taken care of here."

"Minister Diggory has made providing relief to anyone that's been attacked one of the top priorities of the Ministry," Hermione said automatically. "Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade were the first two locations to finish repairs."

Harry couldn't help but chuckle. Hermione really just couldn't help but fill gaps of knowledge if she had it ready.

"So," she continued tentatively, "was there anything you wanted to do?"

"Walk around a bit, I suppose," said Harry with a shrug.

"Well that works for me. Ron?"

"After you."

They walked off in a random direction with Harry at the lead, no particular destination in mind. He fully understood that they were still moving carefully so as not to potentially upset him, and while a part of him found it incredibly annoying, he was still grateful nonetheless. Not like they got very far before being disturbed.

"Well, look at that." Harry pulled up short at the new voice. "Finally decided to come out of your cave, Scarhead?" Malfoy was relaxing against a storefront, Crabbe and Goyle ever the present bodies they were. Interestingly enough they had their heads close together, talking over something quietly. They only afforded the commotion a single look before returning to their business.

"Piss off, Malfoy," Ron snapped, hand already halfway to his wand. Hermione was quick to stop him, but kept an eye on Harry as well, clearly expecting him to react badly. Harry however merely turned to face the blond teen, eyes dismissive.

"What do you want, orphan?"

Malfoy's eyes went wide with shock before narrowing in rage. "Careful, Potter," he said softly, dangerously even. "Keep talking like that and you might end up in a position you won't like."

Avada Kedavra!

Harry blinked a couple of times before frowning in disinterest.

"If you say so."

Malfoy just smiled hatefully. "I can't wait until the day I wipe that look off your pathetic, groveling face." Apparently finished, he turned to his House mates. "Let's go, I've got a schedule to keep."

With that, Malfoy began walking off, Crabbe and Goyle quickly following, though making sure to keep an eye on the Gryffindors. Harry just stood there in silence, watching them steadily until they were out of sight.

"Mate, normally I'd be the first person to stick it to him," said Ron eyes still lingering on the road they'd just disappeared down. "But he's been getting unstable lately if you ask me, and who knows what he might try one day, you know?"

"I hate to say it but I agree with Ron on this one, Harry," Hermione added. At Harry's amused look she continued, "We know he's taken the Mark. Who knows what Voldemort has taught him by now?"

"Nothing I bet," Harry said with a snort of disbelief. "He might be his father's son, but that's all he's got going for him. Just because he sees himself as more valuable than Bellatrix doesn't mean he ever will be."

"Well, yes, but still…"

They ended up chatting about the Death Eaters as they walked. Voldemort hadn't liberated his inner circle from Azkaban, and the death of Lucius Malfoy was an enormous secret. Still, there was no denying that Voldemort's followers were growing daily both in numbers and in strength. Actually it was becoming a serious problem for the Ministry, who while previously they could suppress any incident without too much difficulty, now it was becoming more frequent that a Death Eater could actually wipe out a squad of DMLE wizards. Reportedly, these Death Eaters were marked beyond the standard dark mark, though they knew just as little beyond that.

"Alright, I'll admit he doesn't look like the pushover he used to be," Harry said finally, rounding another corner that would bring them close to the main road once more. "I'll make sure that I don't spend any quality time with him," Ron just gave him a raised eyebrow, but at least Hermione was looking a little mollified.

"Good," said the girl with some ease. "It's not that I'm too worried you'll be hurt but… well no I guess I am. I'm sorry this whole thing makes me nervous."

"Nervous?" came a new voice from just ahead of them. A pair of familiar Slytherins were standing close together at the corner watching them approach. "Hopefully not about class. Then we're all doomed."

"Death Eaters, Daphne," clarified Hermione, giving the girl a half smile. "It's always Death Eaters. Having a good day out?"

"Only because of warming charms," was the quick reply.

"You too, Tracey?"

"What?" The blonde Slytherin gave a small start, pulling her gaze from Harry who was watching her silently. "Oh, yeah, absolutely. Hey guys."

Ron waved briefly but Harry moved forwards putting himself close to the girl. At this distance he noticed that the snow had left a circle at the top of her head untouched. Likely from a hastily applied, and therefore slightly uneven warming charm. It made him grin to say the least.

"Hey, Tracey, how are you?"

"Pretty good," she replied brightly, teeth showing in a sincere smile. "It's nice to see you up and about out here. You're looking better too."

"Thanks," he said, turning back to his friends. "Hermione-" but he cut off as he saw both Hermione and Daphne dragging an annoyed Ron off, the former of which gave him a small wave before redoubling her efforts. The three were swallowed up by a crowd shortly after. Now alone with the blonde Slytherin, Harry was unable to resist casting her a confused, albeit suspicious look.

"Maybe they're both trying to get him alone?" she tried, though not without a quickly stifled snort of mirth. Harry on the other hand let out a loud one.

"Not in a million years. Tracey-"

"It wasn't me!" she insisted, looking away after a second. She continued in a smaller voice, "Not complaining, but definitely not my idea."

"Really, that girl." Harry let out a sigh. "Daphne is in on it too?"

Tracey actually looked confused as well. "Should we chase after them?"

"Nah, let's get some food."

Xx~xX

Tracey's eyes flicked back and forth from the inside of her butterbeer mug to Harry's face. They were sitting in the Three Broomsticks, occupying the same table they'd taken while stalking Daphne and Malfoy's date, only this time her interest was solely on the teen sitting across from her.

They'd talked so little since Halloween. They passed each other often enough; she even sat a few seats away from him in some classes, but she just never knew what to say. It was so painful to watch him mourn, and she wanted nothing more than to do something for him. To help him.

But she was afraid. Something had clutched at her heart every time she tried to push herself to talk to him, and she didn't really understand what it was. Was she worried about being rejected? Maybe a little, but at the same time she knew, she knew, that he felt… something when he looked at her. After everything they'd done together, when she asked herself the question the answer never came back as no. Though was that actually true, or was she just convincing herself it was so?

If only someone had told her last summer that she'd be in this exact position in little more than a year, worried about what Harry Potter thought about her, from her looks to her smile. She'd probably have laughed until she cried. It was amazing what could happen in a year.

"So what do you think about it?"

Tracey quickly looked back up. It was the first thing he'd said since they'd sat down.

"Think about it?"

"Our best friends trying to set us up," he elaborated.

Oh, that.

"We don't know that for sure," she said automatically, tugging at a strand of curly hair.

Harry just gave her a skeptical look, taking a moment to down the remainder of his butterbeer.

She grimaced, looking back over the railing at the floor below. So many people wrapped up in their own conversations.

"I… don't mind it." Tracey's heart all but leaped at the words from her runaway mouth, but she didn't want to stop now. "We'd make a really good couple, I think. I know it's a Gryffindor-Slytherin one, but you know what they say about opposites attracting and I know I- um," she cut off when she realized she was beginning to ramble. Burning with embarrassment she forced out what she truly wanted to say. "I do like you a lot, Harry."

Harry let out a long breath, his gaze dropping to his empty mug, and Tracey was startled to see guilt on his face.

"Same."

A backflip. It honestly felt like her heart did a little backflip. It was such a weird, new feeling. She was thrilled, to be sure, but that look…

"What- what's wrong?"

"Tonks," he said simply.

Tracey paused as her brain processed the name. She'd recognized it easily enough as the person he'd been mourning since Halloween. Nymphadora Tonks, an Auror in the DMLE, according to the article in the paper, though her relationship with Harry was an unknown.

"You remind me of her a lot. The way you are, I mean," he continued in elaboration. "Warm, you know?" His gaze was somewhere over her right shoulder.

Slowly Tracey shook her head.

"Not… really. Sorry."

Harry shook his head, waving away her apology.

"Last year on the Hogwarts Express, Ginny said that I'd do well with a girl that's just a whole lot of good vibes." The corner of his mouth curved upwards slightly. "She was right."

Tracey blushed at this, multiple instances of people, including him, calling her too cheerful for her own good coming to mind immediately.

"I-" Tracey took a second to formulate her thoughts before continuing. "So I remind you of your friend who…" She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"Yeah, she's the one who was killed on Halloween." Harry let out a humorless chuckle. "Really not my day, that one."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Harry gave her such a strange look that Tracey couldn't help but think something had changed on her face.

"I was just thinking, it might help," she continued quickly, almost stumbling over the words in her haste to get them out. "I talked to Daphne about my Uncle when he died and it helped me, I think. You don't have to though!" she added, already dismissing the idea. "It's private after all. Really it's pretty rude of me to just assume that you would want to-"

"Tracey."

The girl cut off mid-sentence.

Harry was now looking down at the table without really seeing it. He looked back up, meeting the blonde's eyes. "You don't mind?"

Slowly a smile worked its way back onto Tracey's face.

"Not at all."

x~x

It was well over an hour later that Tracey managed to find Daphne and Hermione. They were, unsurprisingly, reading in the bookstore by the edge of the village. Predictably, Daphne was the first to look up at her entrance.

"Tracey! Did you have a good time? What…" but she cut off as Tracey simply walked past her and took the girl's seat, burying her face in her hands. "Uh, Tracey?"

"Is everything alright?"

Hermione had surfaced from her book as well, though her face was instantly concerned.

"Yes… No… Maybe?" Tracey apparently couldn't figure it out either.

"Did you two get together?" Daphne asked, deciding to get right to it. Tracey shook her head. "Did you even talk about it?" Nod. "And he said no?!"

I'm gonna kill him.

"Daphne, don't you dare!" Tracey was on her feet, staring her friend down fiercely. Her face was surprisingly void of any signs of crying, which by this point both girls had expected in some capacity. In fact, her face was furiously red from embarrassment.

"...Why don't you just tell us what happened," Hermione suggested peacefully. "Also, why is your face so red?"

x~x

Harry sat back in his seat, well aware of the number of stares that were still directed at him. And the giggling. And whispering.

That's what tended to happen when a girl gave a boy a quick kiss before positively running away in embarrassment. He'd been unable to say a word before she vanished out the front door.

Of course, he didn't care a bit about the attention. He'd gotten so much of it that people talking about something like this was actually a nice change. Instead his mind was fixed on what had just happened, and what exactly he would take away from it. To say he was conflicted would be a gross understatement.

Tracey really was a great person to be around. Spending time with her just now had significantly improved his mood over anything else since Tonks's death. There was no denying he liked Tracey a lot. The temptation at what looked to be a great deal of happiness was enough to take without question.

But he couldn't. He simply couldn't do it.

Guilt tore at him like a jagged knife to the ribs. He'd always treated his school life and the one outside of it like they were unrelated. Like he were two different people. The Gryffindor who found himself tangled up with a pair of Slytherin girls, and the boy who'd somehow snagged the attention of a young woman with so, so much going for her. Wasn't it his fault that he was so caught up on Tonks in the first place? His ridiculous buried hope in that stupid fantasy crush that got so incredibly carried away. She'd pushed him away in an attempt to prevent anything from happening yet he never truly considered letting things be. The metamorph had always seemed almost too perfect. Too amazing. How could he just let that go?

And now she was gone. Ashes. Her absence was an ever present void he just didn't know how to fill.

Did he even want to fill it?

With a great sigh Harry slumped into his arms, flat expression adorning his face. What a joke, he was sulking from girl problems. Actually full blown sulking.

If she were still alive, Tonks would probably be laughing her ass off at this.

Xx~xX

Tonks hissed as Voldemort removed his thumb from the inside of her right forearm. A tiny black snake now mirrored the more familiar Dark Mark on the inside of her left forearm. Voldemort payed her no mind as he moved to the next new Death Eater in the line, waiting to receive her Marks.

The former had been almost too easy to apply, she felt. The simplicity behind the process almost sickened her. How many times had Voldemort applied the Mark to others? How many lives had that simple act changed forever?

Dark Lord, Milly, he's the Dark Lord. At least for now.

Tonks, or Milly as she went by now, moved to where the remainder of the new Death Eaters were standing in silence, her own emotions locked behind willful steel. Some were inspecting the brands they'd received, but most were apprehensively watching their minder.

"Mistress Bellatrix, the young Malfoy has arrived," a short woman in a dark robe spoke to her, head bowed. To anyone else it probably looked like Bellatrix was disinterested in the news, but Milly knew that expression well from her own mother. A well concealed distaste.

"Bring him here," she said shortly, barely sparing the woman a glance who immediately scurried off.

"Bellatrix…"

The entire group froze as Voldemort's voice washed over them. At once Bellatrix turned to face him, bowing her head in submission.

"Yes, My Lord?"

"Give this group their instructions then send them on their way. Come find me when your tasks are complete."

"Understood."

Bellatrix didn't raise her head until Voldemort had walked off, the group of new Death Eaters relaxing slightly. There was no denying the Dark Lord had an overwhelming presence to most.

"Listen closely, as repeating myself will make me… unhappy," she said after a pause. The entire group stood straighter. "Now-"

"I've brought him, Mistress!"

Again, the short woman entered the room, slightly out of breath, though this time a familiar face accompanied her as well. Draco Malfoy was looking around, his face a mixture of uncertainty and excitement.

"Join the ranks," Bellatrix commanded, motioning to a spot that had opened up for him in the front. "As I was saying..." she turned her attention back to the entire group. Milly's eyes lingered on the back of her cousin's head before returning to her aunt. "Though you have been blessed by the Mark of the Dark Lord, you still remain unproven in your faith to serve him. You will do so by ending the life of anyone the Dark Lord has deemed as unworthy of our coexistence. A portkey will take you to the location where you will carry out the Dark Lord's will. When you are finished you will return using the portkey that you have been provided with. The keyword is safety."

Bellatrix paused once more, casting her gaze through the group briefly. She caught Milly's eyes and held them for a second before Milly dropped her head. By the time she looked back up, Bellatrix had continued.

"After you have done the deed, raise your wand to the sky and ask your Mark for the spell. It will provide it when needed. Kill any that oppose you. Now, place a finger on the portkey."

The group moved as one around the great wooden ring that was at their center. It had been specifically transfigured for this exact purpose. Milly found herself directly opposite Draco, his anxious face a weird mirror of her own, though for entirely different reasons. She would get around this, somehow. Dumbledore was wrong. She wouldn't have to kill anyone. Not-

"Portus."

A sudden yank at her navel, and the room they had just been in disappeared in a flash of whirling colors.

x~x

Quaint was the first word that can to Milly's mind as she looked around the plaza they had been deposited in. Small shops at the heart of what was likely a great deal of homes. Nearby a faint jingle came from the closing of a shop door, keys rattling as the worker locked the premises

"What are you all waiting for?"

The voice startled them all. A man in a mask and hooded robe watched them from nearby. In fact, now that she was focusing more, Milly could tell that there were a great number of Death Eaters surrounding them, watching in silence.

"Did you think you wouldn't be watched?" the man continued in amusement. "We are always watching. Carry out the Dark Lord's will and you will live. It is as simple as that." And they all vanished.

At least, they appeared to at any rate. Milly had been through more than enough training to recognize the majority of the tricks the Death Eaters were using to conceal themselves, and this only made her more anxious. She was being watched. There was no second way about it.

The group quickly split up, people moving in all directions. Perhaps out of morbid curiosity than anything, Milly tailed her cousin, still fairly surprised he was here. No doubt he'd taken the Marks over the summer, but to actually participate in the killing was something she'd honestly never thought he'd be able to do. He was still a student after all.

Eventually it was just her and Draco, the boy far too absorbed in his own thoughts to know he was being followed. She wasn't trying to hide or anything, she didn't want to appear suspicious to her minders after all. But following him was something to do. Anything, really, that wasn't hunting an innocent Muggle.

A sudden but distant scream moved on the air, coming from somewhere behind them. She turned quickly at the sound, looking back in the direction she'd come from. Another soon followed, this time accompanied by a Dark Mark, easily visible against the dark sky. Then another, and another, and another, and another…

Feeling sick, Milly turned back to her task only to find that he'd disappeared. He wasn't further down the street, had he entered one of the homes?

The wail of sirens from emergency vehicles added to the din, drowning out the intermittent screams. Fire was clearly spreading in the town and surrounding areas, getting closer every second. She could see Muggles in the distance running from their homes to their cars, trying to escape. Flashes of light that were no doubt spell fire. There was no doubt that the Ministry would be on the scene soon.

Oh but the screams… the screams. It was a nightmare come to life.

"What's going on out here?"

A man had stepped through the front door of his home, looking at the sky in bewilderment. A scream, this time from somewhere close by, caused both him and Milly to jump. The man had pulled a gun and was scanning the area slowly. The notice-me-not charm caused him to pass right over her, standing on the sidewalk.

"Will, close the door! Don't stand out there!"

His wife no doubt, face lined with fear.

"You're off duty! The other police will take care of it, come inside."

"Susan, get back inside, now!"

Milly barely listened to them argue, only now noticing that she'd leveled her wand at the pair. She was being watched. She had seen the poorly hidden Death Eater watching her from two houses back. Who knew how many others were in the area. She wouldn't be able to take him out! They were standing right there, still arguing.

"Avada-"

Her voice caught in her throat. She knew she couldn't strike them down.

"So, you can't do it?"

Milly's whole body tensed. How she was hearing her Aunt's voice of all things she had no idea, but the overwhelming sense of dread she felt was all too real. The sense of her death drawing close-

"Deflagratio!"

The spell jumped from her wand, striking the house a number of feet above the front door and exploding with all the force it was designed to. The couple were immediately crushed under the debris of the collapsed front of the house while the edges of the impact caught fire easily. With no magic to protect itself the house was as good as doomed.

"Oh… How brutal."

Milly barely heard the soft words, her free hand still on her open mouth. The spell had left her mouth so impulsively, flushed out by fear of her own death. Neighbors were running from their homes now, panicked cries thick in the air. They could see the destruction happening but not where it was coming from.

A sudden crash brought her attention to the corner of the house she was looking at. A young man had knocked over a rubbish bin in his haste to get away from something, one hand clutched around that of a woman who couldn't have been any older than he was. Their faces were struck with terror.

"Avada Kedavra!"

A green jet of light struck the man in the shoulder, dropping him like the lifeless corpse he'd so suddenly become. The woman was yanked to the ground with him, crying out as she hit the pavement hard. Scrambling to her hands and knees, she shook the man frantically to wake him, but naturally he didn't get up.

"Muggle filth! Avada Kedavra!"

The spell caught the woman in the chest, bringing peace to the street once more, nothing more than distant screams on the wind to keep them company.

Finally able to look away from the scene, Milly saw her now unmasked cousin, breathing heavily, eyes wide as they stared at his victims. Had he carelessly lost it or just not used it? As the seconds moved on the harsh breaths became laughing, the boy pulling up the right sleeve of his robe.

"I couldn't do it before, but with this…!" His voice was beyond ecstatic as he stared at his arm. Milly could tell, even at this distance, that the miniscule serpent that was on her arm was nothing like the one he sported now. His was many times bigger, taking up a good portion of his whole forearm. "I'll make you pay, Potter!"

Harry!

The thought jarred Milly out of her daze, enough that she was already slowly raising her wand to kill the boy before her. She couldn't let her unstable cousin get close to someone she cared so deeply about!

But before she'd even thought of a spell to cast Draco had gone. Only the quick Dark Mark he'd cast above the dead Muggles as proof he'd even been there. She hadn't expected him to be so quick about returning. A curse on her lips, she opened her mouth-

"…"

But no words would come. No words could come. How could any language be appropriate for the nightmare she'd joined? The nightmare she'd helped.

The nightmare she was.

Xx~xX

"I see, and what of Draco? He attended, did he not?"

"Draco murdered a fleeing couple without hesitation," Bellatrix said tonelessly. A small part of her was glad her sister wasn't around, it would have broken her heart. "This was in addition to another family whose house he broke into. I was-" but she cut off, making Voldemort turn to her in curiosity.

"Continue."

"Apologies, My Lord, I was saying that I also saw the kill from one of the women in the group," she said quickly. "Milly Harper, I believe her name was."

"It is unlike you to remember the name of a faceless follower," Voldemort observed.

"Ah, you are right," admitted Bellatrix, looking away. "She… I get the impression that she hates me, for some reason. Not that it is of any consequence."

"Perhaps she is jealous of your closeness to your Lord," Voldemort suggested in amusement. He turned away from the woman, now looking out of the nearby window to the darkened grounds beyond. "Mortals covet what they cannot have after all."

Xx~xX

Dumbledore let out a long breath as his office door closed for the final time of the evening. It was close to curfew now, and though he knew that Harry could get himself back to Gryffindor Tower without anyone the wiser, he still liked to send the boy on his way early. Perhaps if he were lucky, Harry would decide to go to bed soon and get a proper night's rest.

"You know, Dumbledore," came a slow drawl from one of the portraits that lined the perimeter of the room, "I'm not normally one to complain about something-"

"Perish the thought, Phineas."

"-but that boy makes sitting in here even more depressing than it usually is."

"Oh stuff it," said a witch to his left, sending him a glare. "Trust someone as self-centered as you to make noise about the poor boy's grief. Besides," she added, "he's come a long way from how he was earlier."

"Oh, I'd forgotten you were here, Antonia…" Phineas drawled. "How unfortunate."

Dumbledore ignored the byplay as it escalated, his thoughts still centered on his charge. Harry had gone through more life changing events in the past six months than most did in six years. And to lose Nymphadora on top of it all…

Another slow breath passed his lips. Harry would likely never forgive him whether she survived or not. Still, if it helped him end his suffering once and for all, he was more than willing to bear that hate, whenever the truth finally surfaced.

"I believe that will be enough for the night," Dumbledore said firmly, getting to his feet. The two ex-Headmasters cut off, settling for a final glare before returning to their vigil over the room. "Though now that I am thinking of it, do you have any news for me, Phineas? Word from Sirius?"

"Nothing in the slightest, Dumbledore," the Slytherin said in a bored voice. "It's been dead as a House Elf over there recently."

"Charming," Dumbledore chuckled, moving to the back of the office, his eyes lingering on the old ring adorning his forefinger. Cursed beyond Curses by Voldemort, stripped clean by Harry Potter, and now waiting with an eternal patience. He still had no proof that the ring was one of the Deathly Hallows, yet he'd done nothing to confirm it either. He was fearful, there was no doubt, but of it failing… or succeeding… he did not know.

With a small yawn, the Headmaster made his way through the nondescript door at the back of the office that led to his bedchamber. A simple switching spell had replaced his attire with his nightgown, another wand flick dimmed the lights. It was then with an almost defiant expression he turned the ring on his finger.

Nothing.

Dumbledore let out a small breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. Nothing. There was no denying the disappointment he felt. Decades upon decades of searching, only to be as far from his goal as the day he started.

Turning, his eyes went wide with alarm as he took an involuntary step back, hand moving to his heart.

"Arianna…"

The name left his lips as a whisper, barely more to it than the ghostly girl who stood before him with an expression on her face that mixed joy and sadness.

"Oh, Albus... my dear brother."

x~x

"It worked."

He didn't know what else to say, really.

"Yes, I suppose it did," Arianna replied, still looking him up and down. Mainly up, however, considering the height he had on her. Suddenly she chuckled. "You are quite old, Brother."

"It has been a long, long time," Dumbledore replied with a nod, having taken a small step forwards. His fingers passed through the girl's shoulder with absolutely no resistance. "Forgive me, I'd hoped…"

"I'm sorry, Albus. I'm not really here after all."

"No, no, it's quite alright," he replied automatically. "...I've missed you dearly these past years."

"I haven't," she replied, matter-of-factly, eliciting a stricken expression from the man. "Don't be like that, Albus, I haven't been in a state to be feeling anything."

"Nothing?" he asked, his question stemming both from a personal and academic heart.

Arianna just shrugged. "Who knows?"

"All things considered, I would think you," Dumbledore responded pointedly.

The ghostly girl frowned, hands brushing out nonexistent wrinkles from her dress. If he had to guess, Dumbledore would have said she were stalling for some reason, as unprovable as it would be. Head still angled down, Arianna caught his eyes under the fringe of her bangs.

"You expect a lot from something less than a shadow."

"Someone," Dumbledore said firmly. "You are my sister."

"Was."

"Are!" he insisted, voice increasing in strength. "I already possess the wand, and now the ring. It would be a simple matter to borrow the cloak from Harry as well. With the three Hallows I-"

"Enough!"

Dumbledore finally stopped, eyes moving back to meet his sister's. For the first time she was watching him with more than just a steady gaze. Even if just barely, he could see the change. He could hear it.

"I'm sorry but you need to stop this. You have to let me… this ambition of yours… you have to let it go."

"Arianna-"

"I am dead, Albus," she continued sadly, though her eyes never wavered from his. "Dead and gone. Even if you were to succeed I would be nothing more than a memory given form. I do not belong here. You know that."

Silence, then...

"Arianna..." He hesitated, but he knew he had to ask. "Did… was I-"

"Albus," Arianna said softly, though he could detect the exasperation in her voice. For an instant her collected demeanor had lifted. "There was a flash of light and that was it. Honestly, you are so annoying."

And she was gone.

It took more than a few minutes for Dumbledore to move, but before long, his mouth had formed a smile and he was chuckling.

"No more than you are, my dear sister."

Xx~xX

It was with a soft click that Harry closed the door to the Headmaster's office. Dumbledore was sitting at his desk as he usually did, though this time there was nothing to indicate what they might be doing that evening. In fact, for the first time in quite a while, the room looked like it usually did during the year, before they'd begun working together.

"Good evening, Harry, come take a seat.

"Good evening, Professor," Harry replied automatically. "I haven't seen you at meals lately, is everything alright?"

"As well as things can be," Dumbledore nodded. "I think you'll agree that in my position it is quite easy for things to come up. We occupy ourselves with Voldemort and the Ministry so frequently that it is easy to lose sight of things closer to home."

"You mean like friends?" Harry asked, automatically worrying that he'd been ignoring his own. He really had thought he'd been doing better about spending time with them, especially those not in his House...

"Indeed, though personally I was referring to the Board of Directors…"

"Better you than me," Harry said with a laugh. Dumbledore was a great Headmaster, after all. At least he certainly thought so.

"I do wonder…" Dumbledore's expression became pensive. "The Headmaster position is something I think that you could maintain well. A discussion for another time," he added quickly when Harry made to respond. "Today I wish for you to accompany me to one of the last remaining locations I believe a horcrux may be found at."

"Wha- really?" Harry said excitedly. "I didn't realize you'd found another." After all, the last one they'd searched for together had been mid-summer. It was now nearly the winter break.

"Possibly," Dumbledore said slowly. "I have been to the location multiple times, however I have never gone beyond a certain point for want of a little backup. I believe at this time that you've made sufficient strides in your studies to be able to manage that role well."

"As much as I don't really believe that, I appreciate it all the same, Sir."

"Nonsense, Harry! Now let us be off!"

It didn't take long for the two of them to clear the wards of the castle. They were out the front door and through the gates without anyone the wiser, one moment standing close together on the path leading off to Hogsmeade, the next… gone.

A second later and Harry drew in a quick breath, his hand moving to his chest. Dumbledore had apparated them just as he'd exhaled, something that was generally avoided considering the sense of suffocation apparating had to begin with.

"Apologies, Harry, I will give a short count next time if you desire it," Dumbledore said immediately, looking down at him.

Harry waved it away, instead looking about where they'd apparated to. A faintly familiar London street with an unremarkable building across from them, drearily separated from the rest of the buildings by a rusting iron fence. The few Muggles that occupied the street with them hadn't noticed them at all.

"This is…"

"The orphanage that Tom Riddle grew up in, yes." Dumbledore regarded the depressing looking building with a sad expression. "Not quite the Dursleys, but it does hold up in some regards nonetheless. I believe it still operates today, though not in any greater capacity than in the past."

"You think that he hid it here?" Harry asked, unable to keep the skepticism out of his voice. It's not like he'd have ever stashed a piece of his soul in the cupboard under the stairs. He also couldn't feel anything magical from the building at all.

"Not specifically on the premises, no," Dumbledore replied. "However I felt it appropriate to have a second opinion before moving on to our main objective for the night. Do you feel anything from the building?"

"No, not at all."

"Then let us be off. Once more, Harry..."

Harry placed a hand on Dumbledore's shoulder, making sure he had a full chest of air just before they apparated away, moments later emerging into salty air and the sounds of crashing waves. They were on a rocky outcropping, jutting out low from a cliff face stretching high at their backs.

"A lovely spot for an excursion, don't you think?" Said the Headmaster brightly.

Harry took one look over the edge of the rock before throwing the Headmaster an incredulous look.

"They brought the kids here? For fun?"

Dumbledore let out a chuckle which was almost instantly eaten by the crash of a wave on rock.

"Not here precisely, but close enough for one daring child to sneak off to."

"Professor we're at the bottom of a cliff, there's no way-"

"Don't forget, Harry, that Tom Riddle was never an ordinary child."

Harry sighed, relenting. "So where are we going from here?"

"A cave with an entrance at the water. It is always good to approach any potential location of such an artifact from some safety. This way, Harry."

They slowly made the remainder of the way down the cliff side, occasionally pausing for Dumbledore decide on the safest path. When they reached the water Dumbledore simply dove in with a short word to follow.

There was a small opening in the side of the cliff that led off into darkness. Dumbledore led the way, lighting his wand and holding it in his teeth as they went. Fortunately it wasn't long before the path rose out of the water, allowing them both to walk once more after drying themselves completely. It didn't escape Harry's notice that the cave walls and ceiling had the look of being frequently wet. He realized with a small shudder that they were walking into a place that was regularly underwater.

They continued further into the cave, only the dwindling sounds of waves and the pat of their footsteps filling the air around them. Harry remained quiet, silently debating whether he should ask the question still lingering in the back of his mind. It didn't look like they were very close to their destination at any rate.

"Professor," he finally started, causing the older man to incline his head to show he was listening, "you just said that the orphanage held up some to the Dursleys. What did you mean by that?"

"Can you not guess? You remember the memory, I am sure," was the rather predictable reply Harry received. Rolling his eyes, he continued,

"Probably, but nobody does exposition like you do."

"Oh ho!" Dumbledore broke out into a round of good natured chuckling, which echoed oddly in the space. "My dear boy, you've certainly developed your skill with backhanded compliments."

Harry just grinned sheepishly, knowing he'd toed the line a little heavily there.

"Alas, you are entirely correct," the Headmaster conceded. "Particularly after all the times I've 'filled you in' at the end of the school years. Good times, good times."

"Right, all the 'I'll tell you when you're older'-"

"What I meant, Harry," Dumbledore pleasantly interrupted, "was that like you have been influenced by the Dursleys, so has Voldemort by his days in the orphanage. I remind you that the young Tom Riddle had two ultimate goals. Immortality, and the dominance of magic in the world, with himself in charge I might add. Becoming Lord Voldemort was far more than just a new public image for him."

"Still seems excessive," said Harry, shaking his head. At this Dumbledore slowed, turning to better face him.

"Which is precisely why I said 'some regards' instead of 'every regard'. The key difference, apart from the lack of peers your age that you lived with, was the fact that you had the barest exposure to magic and its effects on how one could view the world. In fact, from what I'd been informed of, you'd displayed barely enough accidental magic at the Dursleys to confirm you weren't a squib."

"I- really?" Harry said with surprise. Sure he'd had about as much accidental magic stories to tell as Neville, but he'd never thought it had meant anything.

"Yes, seeing you performing well enough at Hogwarts was enough to put many of my initial worries to rest," admitted Dumbledore. "I believe we can reasonably say that you were beginning to come into your ability during your fourth year, with events following progressing things along significantly. Tom Riddle on the other hand was actively practicing difficult magic I would consider Dark in nature before I even met him, young as he was, demanding tasks even with a wand, which I will remind you he did not have." Dumbledore stroked his beard lightly. "I have often been compared to Merlin throughout my life, however I have always believed that Tom Riddle suited this comparison far greater than I ever could."

More than you'd imagine, Harry thought darkly.

"In any case, Tom Riddle naturally grew up not only believing that he was better than those who didn't have his gift, but seeing that he was better than them as well. That he could dominate their will, cause them pain if he desired… they became little more than animals before his eyes. In time he grew to understand that he needed to hide his feelings while under the scrutiny of certain individuals, but it was certainly something I could never forget. Something that I failed to cure."

"It's not your fault, Professor," Harry said immediately.

"Of course it isn't," Dumbledore agreed. "Yet that does not prevent me from wishing I could have done something more for him. Ah, here we are."

Harry could feel it as well. The apparent dead end they'd found themselves facing had a faint, lingering sensation of magic. Almost as if, and he felt silly for thinking it, something magical had sneezed on it.

"It's really faint," he said, focusing on the wall as he lightly touched the rock. Certainly felt like plain rock to him, as much as his magic told him it might be otherwise.

"It's rather impressive that you can tell anything at all," Dumbledore complemented, squinting at the wall through his half-moon spectacles. "Even I am finding it somewhat harder to understand the enchantments on this entrance. Hmm, perhaps antechamber is a more apt description?"

"Well unless we get it open it's just going to be a wall," Harry said with a grimace, redoubling his efforts at probing the wall with his sixth sense. Certainly he'd never be able to outperform the Headmaster, but maybe with an extra eye…

"Worry not, Harry, we have not been locked out," Dumbledore said brightly, fixing him with a smile. "It is simply the doorknob that has been hidden from us. Aha!"

A motion from Dumbledore's wand caused an arched outline to appear, bright white against the dark grey of the wet rock. Harry took half a step back, as of expecting something to jump out at them, but a moment later the outline was gone, bring them back to square one.

"Did it not work?" Harry asked after a moment.

"As I said, before we were looking for the doorknob," said Dumbledore, now peering at the wall as though he were reading something interesting. "Now that we have done so, it falls to us to provide an appropriate key to open the door. I believe… how unimaginative," he finished, clearly disappointed.

"Um, excuse me?"

Dumbledore gave Harry a rather unimpressed look. "Apologies, Harry, it appears Voldemort has done something rather predictable of his character. In order to open the door one must provide a sacrifice of blood. Nothing serious," he added at Harry's expression. "Likely no more than a palm full."

And so, Harry got to watch the Headmaster make a cut on his hand with his wand, placing it up against the rock immediately after. The blood ran down the wall by about a half a foot before the arch shone once more, however this time it didn't disappear, instead the stone beneath it simply vanishing.

"Sir, you really didn't have to do that, I could have easily-"

"Nonsense, Harry," Dumbledore chided, having already fully healed his hand in the same way he'd seen Poppy treat cuts before. "I believe in the grand scheme of things that your blood is worth more than mine. No point in spilling it needlessly. Now…" He took a step forwards. "After me, I think."

They stepped beyond the threshold, the enchanted entrance sealing itself once more and leaving them in an unnatural silence.

It was a cavern. A massive cavern, holding an equally massive lake. Even with the strong light coming from his and Dumbledore's wands, they barely managed to provide vision beyond twenty or so feet, the darkness feeling so much heavier than it should have been. Perfectly still water stretched out from the narrow path that hugged the walls in both directions and the oddly dome-like ceiling simply curved into the darkness out of sight. The only point of real interest Harry could really find was a faint greenish glow coming from far out over the water. All together it was unnerving to say the least.

"It would seem that our destination is clear," Dumbledore said softly, his voice filling the still air. Harry was certain that it could have been heard anywhere in the cavern, despite its size. "Therefore the question we must ask ourselves now is how to get there."

"I guess it would be too much to hope for a bridge or something," Harry joked weakly, causing the Headmaster to give an appreciative chuckle as well.

"While I firmly believe that nothing is impossible, I believe that wish would fall somewhere in the realm of the highly improbable," he agreed. "Now, we are faced with two paths. Again, do you feel anything that might cause you to go in a particular direction?"

"I can feel the wards," Harry said with a frown, causing Dumbledore to give an agreeing nod. The cavern was heavily spelled against all magical movement and a host of other things, only the most basic of which Harry recognized from magical buildings he'd been in. "They're… heavy. I can't feel anything like that though. It only ever happens when I'm close."

Dumbledore frowned, looking out at the ghostly glow out in the distance. "Perhaps because there were so many made?" He eventually shook his head lightly, a measure of finality coming to his voice. "Questions that, alas, we will never truly know the answers to. Come, Harry. Stay very close to me."

"Don't need to tell me twice," Harry replied, more than happy to comply.

With that he took the path to the left, walking as close to the wall without actually touching it. Harry followed his lead, doing his best not to stay too close to the Headmaster, lest he bump into him. He was finding it extremely difficult to remain calm in the cavern, as if every step he took filled his body with a cold foreboding. The lack of visibility certainly didn't help things either.

They walked for the better part of ten minutes in silence, all the while taking extra care as they moved. Harry had a feeling that the rim of rocky path actually completely followed the perimeter of the cavern, as little good as it did them in the end. He said as much too.

"You may be right," Dumbledore agreed. "However, we must remember that Voldemort is as human as you or I, and I feel it much more likely for us to have to walk less distance to our destination than more. Indeed I-" but he cut off, slowing slightly before coming to a full stop.

"What is it?" Harry asked quickly, looking ahead. Nothing seemed out of place on the path ahead. In fact, if someone had asked him to prove that they'd even been walking for a while just by comparing their surroundings he'd be unable to do it.

"So you do not feel it?" Dumbledore asked in interest.

"Feel what?" Harry retorted urgently. Was it too much to ask for him to take a break from his usual Dumbledore self every once in a while? At least in places where probably everything around them was prepared to kill them in some way.

"Peace, Harry," Dumbledore said calmly, still giving him a reassuring smile. "I have found our ride." And with that he reached out over the water and grabbed at the air, his hand closing on something that Harry couldn't see. "And now…" Dumbledore proceeded to tap the invisible thing with his wand, revealing it to be a chain that stood straight up out of the water. Another tap caused the chain to begin to slide through his fist like a snake, pooling itself on the pathway. Seconds later a tiny, ghostly boat emerged from the depths of the water, slowly drawing closer as the chain pooled up on the ground beside them. It bumped into the rock with a dull thud before coming to a rest. Harry noticed at once that the boat was oddly empty of any water, as if it had been atop the lake the entire time. There was something else as well that just didn't seem right about it all but-

"I am afraid we've reached our first major dilemma," Dumbledore admitted, regarding the boat with a frown.

"Do you think we'll be attacked on the water?" Harry asked, looking out over the glassy surface. Who knew what creatures the depths held?

"While we cannot dismiss such a possibility, I was actually speaking of the boat itself," Dumbledore explained.

"What?" Harry looked at him in confusion. "I know it's small, but we can both fit."

"Quite true, however I think you would agree that Voldemort would not wish more than one person crossing the lake at any time. He therefore would have taken measures to prevent such a thing from happening." Dumbledore paused, tugging on his beard lightly in thought as he continued to observe the small boat. "I believe that Voldemort has enchanted the boat to fail if more than a single magical presence enters it. An effective measure to take, certainly."

Harry frowned. "So we're stuck…"

"The enchantment has its weaknesses, of course," Dumbledore continued conversationally, as if Harry hadn't said anything. "If the difference in magical power is extreme I believe the smaller would not even register. However, recent events have left you… rather noticeable." Suddenly Dumbledore's face lit up. "Perhaps… Harry, do you have your invisibility cloak with you?"

"Of course," he replied immediately. There wasn't a time he didn't have it.

"Now isn't quite the time to go into details, but I believe your cloak to be rather unique among invisibility cloaks," he began. "It has the ability to hide the wearer from all enchantments and other targeted magic."

"Oh, that might actually work," Harry agreed, understanding where Dumbledore was going with this.

"Then let us not tarry. The sooner we are able to leave the better."

Receiving a final nod from the Headmaster, Harry covered himself in the cloak before carefully stepping into the boat. Interestingly, the boat did not lower into the water from his weight. Apparently satisfied, Dumbledore followed him in, taking extra care to not bump his invisible passenger. The moment that he sat down, the boat turned and began to move at a sedate pace towards the green glow.

"Professor, how does it look?" Harry asked after a minute. If there was one thing that Harry didn't like about the invisibility cloak it was that he had no magical perception beyond it when he wore it. It was the same the other way around, in that if say Hermione were to wear it he would be unable to sense her at all. They had actually done the experiment back in September. The cloth was very easy to see through, but the sudden magical blindness that came with it was discomforting.

"There is no sign of immediate danger," Dumbledore replied. "The water however contains inferius. A great deal of them."

"Wonderful…"

"We need not worry about them at the moment, though," Dumbledore continued, making Harry frown.

"At the moment?"

"Not while they are merely drifting peacefully below us," he said. "Once we take the horcrux however…"

"Snape's already taught us about how to fight them," Harry said quickly. "Fire spells."

"Do you know many?" Dumbledore asked. "I do not believe I have ever seen you use one during one of our duels."

"I can use Incendio in a couple different ways," Harry replied. "Other than that it's not something I've worked on much to be honest."

"No matter." Dumbledore's voice was filled with reassurance. "I know quite a bit more than Incendio."

Harry couldn't help but laugh at that.

"I'm sure you do, Sir."

It was after another five minutes of traveling that the boat finally arrived at its destination. A circular platform of smooth rock, no larger than the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts. It was completely bare but for the source of the green light at the exact center. A wide stone basin that came up to chest height.

"Be sure to keep the cloak on until you are fully out of the boat," Dumbledore reminded him as he got out.

"Way ahead of you," said Harry, pulling the cloak off more than a few feet away from the boat. It sat there patiently, waiting to take its passenger back to the entrance.

"Well then," Dumbledore looked at what must be their objective. "Shall we see what final obstacle Voldemort has left for us?"

Looking at the stone basin up close, Harry was immediately reminded of a pensive, though without the runes. After a small "excuse me" Dumbledore began to make a number of movements over the basin with his wand, causing the green light to intensify slightly, though nothing else. Frequently Harry looked around at the water that now surrounded them, half expecting there to be a body crawling its way onto the rock that was looking smaller and smaller as time went on.

"Anything?" Harry asked after a minute of silence.

"I was actually about to ask you the same question," Dumbledore admitted, giving Harry a curious look. "I am fairly certain that the horcrux is at the bottom of this basin. Do you not feel it at all?"

It took Harry a second to realize that Dumbledore was actually right. He couldn't feel anything coming from the basin beyond what the enchantments gave it. He'd been much further away from the diadem when they'd begun pulling at each other. The ring had been under a great deal of concealment magic to make the compulsion enchantment so powerful the moment someone found it. Was the same thing happening here?

"No there's nothing," Harry said honestly, frowning at the basin in confusion. "I was thinking it might be like with the ring?"

"I had thought that as well, however the containment of the two horcruxes is fundamentally different. This one is not protected in the same way."

"So the only way to figure this out-"

"Is by clearing this final task," Dumbledore finished, focus returning to the basin. "The potion within resists every form of magical manipulation I know. The same can be said for the basin itself. Additionally…" He suddenly stuck his hand towards the potion as if to submerge it only to stop completely an inch above the liquid. Harry let out a tight breath.

"Can you seriously stop doing things like that?" he grumbled as his heart rate returned to normal.

"I can only conclude that the potion is meant to be drunk," Dumbledore said with small nod. One conjured goblet later and Dumbledore was casually holding a portion of the potion at chest height in interest. Expression unchanging, he upended the goblet, allowing the liquid to spill to the ground. However, every drop that fell more than a few inches vanished. A second check showed the potion in the basin had risen back to its original height. Smiling, Dumbledore looked back at Harry. "Can you begin to see the scope of Voldemort's plan regarding invaders?"

"Uh…" Harry, long used to Dumbledore's tangents, and knowing that they usually taught him a lot when he went along with them, just scratched his chin in thought. "So Voldemort makes it so that only one person can get here, which means that you would need at least two people to actually steal this horcrux. Even if they got here they'd have to drink the potion which would kill them probably."

"Not kill, Harry, at least," Dumbledore amended at the look on Harry's face, "not right away. Do not forget that Voldemort believes himself to be the only one who knows about his horcruxes. He would instead want to incapacitate invaders who made it this far, so as to ascertain precisely why they were so intent on coming here and emptying that basin."

"But he'd also want to make sure that if anyone actually did get the horcrux that they'd never make it out of here alive," Harry added.

"Quite so."

"So one of us is going to have to drink that stuff?" Harry asked. To his surprise, Dumbledore shook his head.

"As a worst case scenario, yes, but I do not believe that we have exhausted all other options first." At Harry's confusion he continued, "You see, Harry, there is one more flaw that is consistent in every protection that Voldemort could ever set. One that no matter how hard he tries he could never avoid to include. It is also one that he is entirely unaware of existing. Can you guess what it is?"

"In everything?" How could he possibly guess that?

"Think, Harry, what is the one thing that Voldemort must ensure can pass through whatever protections he sets?"

Suddenly it was obvious.

"Himself," he said simply. Even Voldemort's most dangerous protections were fundamentally weak to himself. Else he'd never be able to move a horcrux if he needed to. But how did that-

Oh.

Harry's gaze darkened for a moment. "You mean me."

"As I've said before, I do not believe that you are in any way Voldemort," Dumbledore said forcefully, making Harry look up at him. Dumbledore gave him a small smile. "Still, I see no reason to take advantage of what you do have. It certainly worked to our advantage this past summer."

"And what about when I touch the horcrux?" Harry posed. "We know what will happen if I do."

Dumbledore blinked twice, and Harry knew he'd caught the Headmaster off guard.

"Forgive me, Harry, I had forgotten." Dumbledore frowned. "I'm afraid that drinking the potion is our only choice then." He lifted the goblet once more, but stopped when Harry spoke again.

"Professor, you said this horcrux is guarded differently than the ring was." Harry shifted his gaze from the basin to the Headmaster. "You're sure about it? That is isn't being concealed in some way?"

"From my probing I could not detect any form of concealment," Dumbledore confirmed. "Something that I would not place too much faith in, however. From your questioning, I am predicting you are about to do something entirely reckless."

Harry gave the Headmaster a flat look before plunging his hand into the potion and straight to the bottom. Immediately his hand came in contact with something metal, which he pulled out as quickly as his hand had entered. The moment he cleared the enchantments all traces of the potion on his arm and sleeve vanished. Both he and Dumbledore were frozen in place, waiting for something to happen, however the cavern was as peaceful as ever, and Harry had not been reduced to a pain ridden, soul… assimilating… thing. Dimly it registered that he was holding what looked like a locket.

"Well, that was anticlimactic," Harry said after a second of silence.

Not a moment later the crash of water surrounded them. Inferius burst forth from every direction, the green glow giving them a haunting look. Harry and Dumbledore both had their wands out in a heartbeat, moving back to back as they swept their wands as one.

"Incendio!"

Fire erupted on both sides, engulfing the animated corpses and extending over the water. It was only a moment later that Harry realized his mistake, as the now burning bodies were still speeding at them from all directions.

"Vi fluctus!"

Harry's whole body buzzed slightly as something passed through him from behind, rustling his clothing as is blasted every inferius outward over the water, going so far as to even cause the water to surge outwards, though only for a second before it lapped back. Just as suddenly as they'd been attacked they were alone on the stone once more.

"Woah!" Harry took long breath. "That was intense."

"Not an easy spell to cast, I assure you," Dumbledore said mildly, as if he hadn't just fended off dozens of flaming animated corpses on a dime.

Harry's eye flicked to the man's wand, which still seemed to be causing the air around it to warp. As rarely as he'd seen the thing, it always reminded him of a thin skeletal finger with far too many joints. The Headmaster gave it a quick upward flick, sending a ball of light above them where it stayed, casting the entire area and much of the surrounding water into relief. Visibility improved tenfold, a ripple suddenly drew Harry's attention to the rock edge as a pale hand emerged, grasping the stone. "Damn, there's more."

"I am afraid that is not the worst of it."

Harry's eyes followed Dumbledore's extended finger to the place where the boat was.

Had been, that was. It was gone.

Thoughts of being trapped were interrupted by an inferius that lunged at him from the side. A flash of panic was buried under the need to move, Harry ducked and spun around his attacker, borrowing a page from Dumbledore's book and slamming it in the back with a banisher that sent it flying into a group of others.

"Down, Harry!"

Harry dropped his body low, turning to face Dumbledore and sending another pair of banishers, knocking aside the two closest inferius to the Headmaster as thick ropes of water rushed past him, once more pushing the attacking inferius back into the lake. Still, there were so many behind him, drawing closer-!

"Professor!"

But it seemed his shout was unnecessary, as with a twist of his body and sweep of his wand a surge of water claimed them as well, returning the stone platform to peace once more. If only for moments.

"There's no end to them." Harry couldn't help but say it, even as he went back to fighting them off.

"Indeed, even I cannot last against an endless foe," Dumbledore said calmly, still as composed as when they'd arrived.

"Actually I think-" Harry cut off sharply as his breath caught in his throat, eyes locked over the shoulder of the short woman who was coming to take his life. He blasted her back, following it with a sweep of fire, before jumping slightly when something hard touched his back. He'd backed into the basin without realizing it.

"What is it?" Dumbledore moved to his side quickly, but there was nothing for Harry to say, not when it was so visible now.

Spined ridges were quickly cutting through the water in multiple places, slipping in and out of sight as they approached their island of stone. What they belonged to was a mystery, but there was no doubt to the thing's size.

"We are so screwed," Harry cursed.

If Dumbledore had intended to respond, he lost the chance as the creature finally emerged from the water after circling the rock. An enormous, dragon-like head, topping a blue-black scaled serpentine body with a spine down the entire back, rose ten- twenty- thirty feet above them, its body disappearing into the water below. The creature was massive, as were its teeth, and neither visitor to the cavern believed it to be smiling at them.

And it roared.

"Look out!"

Harry and Dumbledore barely dove out of the way in time as the sea serpent lunged at them, jaws wide enough to swallow them both whole. The serpent cleaved straight through the stone basin and its pedestal before crashing back into the water on the opposite side. Harry barely pushed himself out of the way of the cold hands of inferius that still crawled out of the water, eager to drag them below. The distraction was almost enough for him to not notice the creature's tail, which whipped through the air behind it, knocking away anything unfortunate enough to be in its path.

"Do not let the inferius touch you!" Dumbledore shouted, letting forth another wave of force that knocked the corpses back, though positioned as he was not all of them were pushed back into the water. The serpent rose from the lake once more, eyes fixing on Harry, who was still separated from the Headmaster.

Knowing what was about to happen, Harry did the only thing he could think of.

"STOP!"

Harry could barely believe it when the creature halted, as if confused, before roaring at him again.

"Do not attack us!" Harry continued, putting every amount of force into his words. If this didn't work, they were surely dead. "Leave!"

The monster moved sideways, eyes still fixed on Harry's as he kept up the staring contest. Of course, it wasn't doing what he wanted it to.

"Don't give up, Harry! Leave the inferius to me!" Fire followed the words, though Harry's eyes stayed locked on the monster's. Both reflected the light that burned the corpses.

"I said leave!"

Still nothing. If anything the thing moved closer.

"Fine, if you aren't going to leave then help us!" Harry hissed, the idea coming to him randomly.

The serpent darted in and snapped at him, though more as a sign of aggression than an attack, massive teeth coming within feet of where he was standing. Harry nearly stumbled backwards, but just managed to keep his feet under him. Something told him that if he let up for even a second, took a full step back, broke eye contact for a moment-

"You damn overgrown water snake!" Harry roared. His voice build up to such an intensity easily. "I said OBEY ME!"

And he knew that it had worked. Somehow he knew that he had some kind of limited control over the creature. How long it would last though…

"Now catch me!"

Harry took a running leap off the platform, clearing the reaching hands at the water's edge as the serpent darted in low, half submerged, to put itself under him. Harry nearly slipped as he landed, but grabbed one of the enormous spines coming from its back. Immediately he turned back to the stone platform.

"Professor!"

"Harry!"

Dumbledore was looking to him with his wand at the ready, clearly prepared to battle the serpent, but it dropped at once. Fire now covered the majority of the platform, eagerly burning the still struggling inferius.

"Get on its back!" Harry said quickly. "Let him on your back as well! Then take us both to the entrance!" With a lurch it moved alarmingly close to Dumbledore, though making no move to kill him. "Sorry, Professor, this is the best I could come up with."

"No matter, Harry, only death awaits us on this island," Dumbledore agreed, seeming perfectly okay with riding a murderous sea serpent across a lake of the dead. "We must escape quickly before anything else- Harry!"

Suddenly he was falling backwards. Harry was just able to catch a glimpse of the pale hand clutching his pant leg before he hit the water, a strangled shout his lips, rushing darkness overwhelming his senses.

It's so dark.

The world was muted around him as he slowly sank.

I need light.

Light bloomed, filling the space around him. There, from the tip of his wand, still grasped securely in his hand. The inferius were all around him, filling his vision. There was no doubt just as many were behind and below him. Everything just moved so… slow.

A sudden surge of water jostled him around as a shadow of terror engulfed him. However frightening the sea serpent was earlier, it was nothing to how it looked underwater. Especially considering how it was coming right for him. Suddenly it turned, curving around and under him where he crashed into something solid, dragging him along for the ride. Seconds later they broke the water's surface.

"Gah!" Harry coughed roughly as a hand steadied him. Disoriented, he clung to the serpent's back, coughing harshly as his lungs cleared the water that had entered them. His wand was still clenched tightly in his hand.

"Thank goodness," came Dumbledore's voice from above him. "We seem to be heading to the exit now. At this rate we will be there in less than a minute."

It took him a few seconds to reorient himself before he was able to take a position behind the Headmaster, firmly clinging to a spine once more. They were cutting through the water with ferocious speed. Suddenly the serpent wobbled, its movements becoming more erratic.

"Don't stop! Take us to the exit!" Harry shouted quickly, the hissing barely audible over the spray of water.

It seemed that the sea serpent heard him though, as they steadied out, speeding up further. Harry could see countless inferius bodies being thrown aside in the water as they charged through, too quickly for any to grab hold.

Five minutes later, Harry and Dumbledore were staring at blue sky once more, darkened by the setting sun. They'd not hung around to see how long Harry's compulsion over their monstrous helper would last.

"Don't know why he didn't just submerge the platform," Harry mused tiredly, sitting down on the rock. What a horrifying experience. "I'm pretty sure we would have been killed then. I barely managed the second task during the Tri-Wizard Tournament and I had gillyweed then."

Dumbledore let out a tired chuckle, casting the teen an amused look. "Let us simply be thankful Voldemort was not as clever as you are, Harry."

"Yeah, that would-" Suddenly it clicked. "Oh, ha ha."

"Did you manage to hold onto the horcrux?" Dumbledore asked, clearly eager to see what they had recovered.

"Yeah, it's here," Harry said, fishing the thing out of his pocket and passing it over.

"Excellent work," Dumbledore said happily. "I surely would not have been able to recover it myself."

"Thanks, Professor. So what is it?"

"This," the Headmaster began, holding the locket up before his half-moon spectacles, "is a moderately good replica of Salazar Slytherin's locket. Anyone who had seen the original would know immediately, of course," he added.

"Like Voldemort," said Harry.

"Precisely," Dumbledore nodded. "There is no way that Voldemort would have ever used this trinket as a horcrux. So we must ask ourselves how it ever got there."

"Well, doesn't that mean someone took the horcrux before us?" Harry thought it was rather obvious. "I mean how else…"

"Now you see the dilemma, do you not?" Dumbledore smiled. "How could such a thing have happened if no one knew about the horcruxes but Voldemort himself? This is what I am hoping the locket will tell us."

With that he tapped it with his wand, causing the thing to open with a click. Immediately Harry saw a small piece of parchment fly out of it, carried by the sea breeze right over the edge of their platform.

"Shit-!"

But just as suddenly the folded parchment reversed course, zooming straight back to Dumbledore's outstretched hand.

"Magic is quite useful, no?" he asked with an eye twinkle.

"Yeah, so does it say anything?" asked Harry, silently thanking the Headmaster for his quick response. He'd already stowed his wand away.

"Hmm…" Dumbledore scanned the parchment quickly, frowning as he finished, before passing it to Harry. He gave the Headmaster a quick glance before reading it aloud.

To the Dark Lord,

I know I will be dead long before you read this but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can. I face death in the hope that when you meet your match you will be mortal once more.

R.A.B.

"Wow."

"Indeed," Dumbledore agreed. "This is a remarkable revelation. However, I believe it would be better for us to continue this conversation elsewhere." He held out his arm. "One last time, Harry."

x~x

"Wha- London? I thought we were heading back to the castle?"

Indeed, Harry recognized the area being nearby his godfather's home.

"A moment, Harry, and you will understand. There is only one person of whom I know that could fit the mystery before us. It is difficult to believe, but the elimination of the obvious only leaves the unlikely."

"Who?"

"Sirius's' brother, Regulus Arcturus Black."

It was precisely for this reason that they were currently walking through Sirius's neighborhood on their way to Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. A few waves of his wand was all it had taken for the Headmaster to allow them to speak without fear of being overheard or spotted.

"His brother?"

"Yes," Dumbledore nodded. "Regulus was as perfect a son to the Blacks as Sirius was not. Intelligent, charming, Slytherin, and most importantly to us, eager to join Voldemort's cause. He did so at the age of sixteen I believe."

"But…" Harry frowned in confusion. "If we're right that he was the one who wrote that letter, then he must have switched sides at some point. I wonder what caused him to turn traitor."

"Who can honestly say?" Dumbledore agreed. "I think you will agree that there is simply too much that we do not know here. In such a situation, there is no better course than going to the source."

There was no need to wait at the front door as Dumbledore was one of the few Order members with a key. He quickly closed the door behind them before returning to Harry's side.

"Have you talked to Sirius recently?" the Headmaster asked, looking around for some sign of the man. It wasn't exactly late and he hadn't gone outside since the summer, so he should be… "Harry?"

Harry's entire posture was rigid, his wand clenched tightly in his hand.

"You can't… You can't feel that?"

The words sent alarm bells ringing through the Headmaster's head. A moment later his wand was drawn, senses straining to detect what had rooted Harry in place. However try as he might, he could find nothing beyond the usual magic that permeated the old home.

"It's here, Professor." Harry's voice was filled with a cold certainty. "So much stronger than any of the others I've felt. It's definitely here! Sirius!"

The shout rang out sharply against the silence of the house. Surprisingly the portrait of Sirius's mother didn't wake at all, the curtain unmoving. Feeling a sense of foreboding, Dumbledore slid the curtain aside with a flick of his wand, revealing the portrait.

Or what was left of it.

"What the-?"

Harry actually stepped back at the damage done to the portrait. The canvas itself seemed strangely untouched, while the picture itself was marred beyond recognition. Walburga Black's charred corpse lay at the bottom.

"Clearly, something terrible has happened here," said Dumbledore, slowly leading the way through the first floor hallway. "We must find Sirius at once. When did you last hear from him?"

"Not since the summer," Harry admitted. "Back in October, Nymphadora told me that he was avoiding me."

At this Dumbledore paused, looking back at his student.

"Truly?"

"Yeah, I think he's been really disappointed since I, you know, visited Azkaban."

"...I see."

"What are you doing here?"

Harry and Dumbledore turned in surprise to see Sirius behind them, having just stepped away from the bottom of the staircase.

"Sirius! What happened here?" Harry made to move closer to the man, but Dumbledore held him back.

"If you've got no reason to be here then you should leave," said Sirius flatly, already moving to the door. "Don't come back."

"Wha-"

"Where is the locket, Sirius?"

Dumbledore's voice cut across them all, his face as serious as it had ever been. Sirius paused, turning back to them.

"What are you talking about? I don't own a locket."

"We are not leaving without it," Dumbledore responded, his voice stony.

Sirius's eyes narrowed as his mouth curled into a snarl. A moment later his wand was drawn, pointing at them.

"Avada Kedavra!"

The Headmaster was already moving, pushing Harry through a door on the opposite side of the hall while ducking into his own, just in time to watch the death spell catch on the doorframe, splintering it.

"Sirius, what are you doing!?" Harry shouted, poking his head around the door, only to lean back as he was similarly attacked. "Professor!"

"I can only guess that Sirius has been possessed by the Horcrux," Dumbledore said to Harry, blind firing a couple of spells back in an attempt to give them some breathing room. They returned in equal measure and with greater precision, forcing him back into the room once again.

"Are you saying this is going to be like it was with Ginny?" Harry said, wide eyed.

"We cannot assume anything in this situation," said Dumbledore grimly. "Our only objective is to remove the locket from Sirius's body, wherever it may be."

Harry risked another look, dodging a spell by inches before pulling back once more.

"I won't let you take it from me!" Sirius shouted down the hall.

"I think it's around his neck," he said. "But what are we actually going to do about it? There's no way we can let you touch it, and if I do then…"

"Deflagratio!"

They both dove back further into their rooms as the man's favorite spell caused the space between them to explode. Wood splinters were thrown in every direction, the doors blasted off their hinges, small fires catching on what remained of the hall carpet and furniture that had been caught in the blast. Harry and Dumbledore had both covered themselves with a Protego which had prevented them from being outright killed, but there was only so much of the damage they could avoid, both being so close. Probably most fortunately of all, the house had more than enough protections placed on it to cause it to collapse. Even the fires weren't spreading well.

"Harry! Are you alright?"

A series of coughs had Dumbledore breathing easier as Harry finally responded, "Still in one piece, I think. Damn that hurt."

Pushing himself to his feet, Dumbledore moved back to the now greatly expanded doorway, his mind racing. How were they going to deal with this? With Sirius doing his all to kill them, it made things that much more difficult to save the man.

"You're only making this harder on yourself." Sirius's unnaturally cold voice rolled over them both. "You think I wouldn't be ready after that damn Elf tried to take it from me?"

Harry and Dumbledore exchanged silent looks. There was only one Elf he could have been talking about, and if Walburga was any indicator, Kreacher was likely dead.

"Are you ready, Harry?"

"Let's go!"

The pair rushed the hallway, side by side, firing spells at Sirius as fast as they could. Sirius was only able to hold up for a couple seconds before throwing up a large shield and retreating up the stairs.

"Damn, he keeps taking the better positions," Harry cursed, unwilling to go near the landing.

"In that case we will need to be more tactical about our movements."

x~x

"They're up to something…" Sirius scowled at the empty landing from his position. If he knew anything about his Godson, especially Dumbledore, they'd be trying to overcome his position with anything but brute force. They were both too crafty for that kind of action. Unfortunately for them he was well prepared already.

At the halfway point up the stairs he'd set a simple ward used for one thing, detecting magic. If anything even remotely magical crossed it he would know and be able to blast the spot immediately.

So much for your invisibility cloak, kid.

Movement behind him caught at the corner of eye, making him react in surprise, though it was far too late. He barely turned half way before Harry was upon him, appearing from air, one arm outstretched to his neck…! His locket!

"It's mine!"

"No!"

Diving backwards over the stairs, Sirius completed his turn, his wand glowed brightly, the deadly curse it held ready to be unleashed right at Harry's chest, barely inches away from its tip.

x~x

"Wait!"

Dumbledore's shout came at the same time as his spell, the body bind hitting Sirius right in the back. Immediately he went rigid, arms at his side, wand pointed at the floor. The spell Sirius had cast passed under Harry's legs harmlessly. Of course, that wasn't what he'd just shouted about.

It was like watching a scene underwater. Both were in the open air over the stairs, Harry reaching for the glint of silver just visible around Sirius's neck. Harry had been supposed to incapacitate Sirius from under the cloak so they could take care of the locket in another way and yet here they were. Dumbledore was struck, not by the fact that it were happening, but at the look of intense obsession on Harry's face. Was he even in control of his actions?

The two crashed and rolled down the steps to the very bottom, coming to a halt at the Headmaster's feet, tails of a broken silver chain trailing from Harry's clenched fist.

In that moment, the house was covered in pure silence.

Dumbledore fully recalled everything that Harry had told him about his experiences touching the different Horcruxes. Each and every time without exception he'd reacted in some, often showy, manner. Bursts of uncontrolled magic and pain were the common elements of them all. Considering how things had been going, Dumbledore had expected the largest outburst of them all when Harry grabbed the locket.

And yet there was silence.

Knowing this could only mean worse, Dumbledore prepared to cast a diagnostic when the stillness was broken with a groan.

"Dumbledore?"

Sirius groaned as he rolled himself onto his side.

"Ennervate!"

But it was no good. Whether Harry's own magic were preventing the spell from working or something else entirely, he was not regaining consciousness.

"I was… what's going on?"

"Unfortunately we do not have the time to discuss that at the moment, Sirius," said Dumbledore distractedly, his wand still moving over the unconscious boy. It had been so, so long since anything like this had happened to the Headmaster. Over a century of magical knowledge and experience, his own considerable talents excluded, and he had absolutely no idea what to do. No way of helping the boy before him in the slightest. It struck him deeply like nothing else could.

"Harry? Harry!"

Helplessness.

"Snap out of it, kid!" Sirius gave Harry a small shake before his eyes caught on the silver chains at the boy's hand. "Wait, isn't that-"

"Do not touch it!"

Dumbledore's words froze the animagus on the spot. Unable to do anything, Sirius rounded on him in anger.

"Dumbledore we can't just sit here thinking!" Sirius urged, still kneeling at his godson's side. It was clear he wanted to grab the boy again but just held himself back. "We need to get him help! Poppy! Saint Mungo's!"

"There is no one." Dumbledore's words were heavy. "Not a single witch or wizard on this entire continent has the knowledge or experience to possibly be able to help him. I have already been making extensive inquiries for months."

"Well then what about somewhere further? Anywhere?"

"I do not think…" but he paused, an idea forming quickly. Maybe there was someone who could help.

"Dumbledore?"

The Headmaster stood suddenly, ivory wand aloft as it seemed to crackle with restrained power.

"There may be one person who can help. Fawkes!"

A burst of fire announced the arrival of the Hogwarts resident Phoenix. He gave a trill that seemed to fill both men with courage.

"Sirius, there is a good chance that this will render me unconscious. Please take good care of me. I am not as young as I used to be."

There was a flash. A burst of flames followed by a harsh crack on the air! Sirius quickly moved to catch the Headmaster, who collapsed immediately, one eye still locked on where his godson had been moments before.

Harry was gone.

Xx~xX

Many thousands of miles away another elderly man was sitting placidly in a round walled office, leafing through the local paper for anything interesting to read. After a very full morning of meetings that had dragged somewhat deeply into the afternoon, he'd wanted nothing more than to sit back at his desk in peace. Unfortunately, given the nature of his work, peace and quiet tended to come less than frequently, no matter what he did to help it. Of course, if it really bothered him that much he'd not have taken the job for another four years in the first place.

The man was in the middle of turning the page when something in the back of his mind froze his movements. A moment later the room was filled with a burst of wind and a crack like a rifle being fired, throwing all the loose papers on his desk about in the air. Not two seconds later a door concealed against the far wall had burst open, two men in black suits entering, each carrying an unholstered handgun.

"Mr. President!"

But they stopped moving at a hand motion from the man behind the desk, who had finally lowered his paper so as to get a better view of the room. A teenaged boy with messy dark hair was lying unconscious on his back in the center of the open floor space in the room. What truly drew the man's attention however was the sole feather that rested on the boy's chest, its colors oddly reminiscent of flames.

"Hmm…" The man looked back at the two guards, who were waiting for instructions, guns still trained on the intruder. "Gentlemen, if you wouldn't mind fetching my wife, I believe I might be needing her rather immediately."

XXXXX

A/N: Chapter complete! If you ever want to have a lot of time to write, don't become a grade school teacher and also do extra graduate school at the same time. Teaching summer school as well T_T. On the story, I've got no idea where the horcrux magic is actually from (haven't really had the interest to dig either), but I'm pretty sure Merlin didn't do it. Obviously I've done my own thing here. Drop a review to let me know what you think, about anything really. Love to hear your thoughts.

Side note about Voldemort and Dumbledore. They are so interesting as opposite sides of the same coin called "beating death." Voldemort dedicates his life to preventing his own death. Dumbledore dedicates his life (well, we can roll with this one right?) to undoing the death of his sister. In pretty much every story I've read, the idea of Dumbledore and the Hallows never really got fleshed out, it was always about Harry becoming the master of death and not Dumbledore. I mean why would he be looking for the things for so long? Maybe it's obvious? It seems right to me, anyway.

Thanks again, to those of you who have stuck with this story from the beginning. Of course, similar sentiments to the newcomers. Still some distance to cross until the end (I'd predict 10 chapters, give or take), but it just gets more intense every step of the way.