Harry faces off against the Cognivores in the DoM, with a little help from his friends. Oh, and don't piss off Hermione.
Chapter 16 - Back to the Department of Mysteries
Harry watched in fascination as the camouflaged cognivore, now turned puppeteer, manipulated the old muggle balloon vendor. If not for the armor of his occlumency he would have been in a state of near panic. There were no less than six children and at least as many ordinary mums and governesses surrounding the old man, all completely unaware of the horror hidden in the midst of the cheerful streamers.
A breeze against his back gave him an idea.
With a slight flick of the wrist holster, Harry surreptitiously extended his wand and, holding it close to his side, conjured a good sized chunk of smoldering sulfur. Kicking the pungent rock into the gutter he approached the group.
"Sorry folks, but there's been a gas leak reported in the area, and we've been asked to clear the streets."
The unmistakable "rotten egg" smells that most people associate with natural gas leaks wafted over them at just that moment.
Wide-eyed mothers and au-pairs quickly shepherded their charges up the footpath, the children pinched their noses and whined, "Pee-you!"
Harry looked at the retreating children and their mothers and said, in a calm voice, "I can fry you like a chip before you can even think about attacking me."
"Whot?" the balloon vendor asked, wide eyed.
Harry reached out with a passive legilimens probe and verified the old man's thoughts and actions were not his own.
"Release the muggle, he's old and can't survive much longer under your control."
The face of the old man lost all expression and he fell to the ground, dead.
"That was unnecessary; the old man was no threat to you."
Red tendrils reached for Harry from the bundle of balloon ribbons.
With a desultory wave of his wand, Harry spun the balloons and ribbons and tendrils. The cognivore's body twisted into a tangle of festive colors and shiny helium-filled Mylar. A tendril gamely tried to extend beyond the tangle of toy balloons - Harry cut it off and then vaporized it on the spot.
He carefully levitated the old man's body along with the captive cog into the magically expanded Igloo cooler - he planned to investigate on behalf of the old man so that the body could be properly accounted and cared for.
As he stooped to lower the lid Harry did not see red tendrils extending down from the tree over his head.
Harry dove to one side the rolled to his feet, wand at the ready.
Hermione stood five paces away, her wand pointed at the branches above. A bright fat-fueled fire blazed in the tree.
"I made a portkey for the kids in the public loo, then followed you here. I had a feeling you might need a hand."
"Thanks, Hermione, you were right. I didn't see that one."
She scanned the trees on both sides of the street, then asked, "Do you think there are others?
Harry flipped open his signaling mirror,"Detective Stebbins?"
"How many cognivores are unaccounted for?"
"According to the records, three have gone missing since last Thursday. One was roasted during the stake-out, that leaves two gone missing, sir."
"I have one in custody, Detective Stebbins, and the other is burning as we speak."
"Sir, how soon can you get here?"
"Very good, sir, I'll have a report ready for you by the time you arrive."
"Good man, Stebbins. Is the area secure, can I bring a civilian?"
"All quiet here, sir."
Harry turned to Hermione, "We've just about got this all sorted out, would you like to come back to the Department of Mysteries with me?"
"I don't know, Harry. The last time we went there together, I got slashed by an angry Bulgarian."
"This time I don't plan to let you out of my sight, Hermione."
"In that case, Lieutenant, I accept."
They apparated to the lobby where Harry escorted Hermione through the public guard post. "Aurors don't have to check their wands." He explained
Hermione nodded, "I knew that."
They made an odd sight, the auror, in muggle attire, pulling a plastic cooler on wheels through the ministry halls.
They passed through two hastily constructed checkpoints, each manned by an auror Harry trusted.
"Any word from Detective Stebbins?"
"Only that they are waiting for you inside, oh, and be sure to wear your wellies."
"Hermione, please stay here with Auror Baldwin."
"What's wrong, Harry?"
"Perhaps nothing, but I want to go on ahead first to be sure."
Hermione couldn't see any duplicity in Harry, but then again, he was about as emotive as a golem, completely secured as he was within his occlumency armor.
"All right Lieutenant Potter, but if you're not out in ten minutes I'm going in after you."
Harry drew his wand and, pulling the bright blue and white cooler behind him, walked unhurriedly into the "Think Tank."
As he entered the chamber the walls of his occlumency were assaulted by multiple legillimency probes. His barriers held. With preternatural calm Harry cast a powerful locking charm on the only door into the room. Then he turned to face his attackers.
Inside he saw Upton Stebbins, Winston Hall and Nickolas Farkas standing near the brain tank.
Hovering above each of them was alevitating cognivore, red tendrils adhering to each of the wizard's heads and necks.
Even through his occlumency shields Harry muttered, "Oh shite!"
Hermione asked Auror Basic Elizabeth Baldwin if there had been any significant movement from the "think tank" that morning.
The AB shrugged, "Detective Stebbins told me just before you arrived to make sure no one else went into the brain room."
"How did he seem to you, Auror Baldwin?"
"A bit preoccupied, but with those spooky things in there, that's to be expected."
"Yeah, they are a piece of work. Iwonder why the Ministry keeps them?"
All the auror could do by way of an answer was to shrug again.
Both witches heard the squelching sound of a locking charm on the door.
Hermione paled, "Contact the remaining aurors, we need every advanced occlumens and legilimens down here, now!"
Hermione ran to the exit mapping out the fastest route to Harry's office in her head as she went. Wizards and witches and other magicals moved out of her way, such was her determination.
When she entered his office she looked about for anything that might give her, and her Harry, an edge against the threat looming below. She saw the chart taped to the wall that described all they had learned about cognivores thus far.
One fact made her smile.
It was a triumphant smile, one that did not bode well for the remaining cognivores.
Harry lowered his wand, then quietly lifted the cooler lid, releasing the cog back into its enclosure.
"Detective Stebbins, Upton."
The young auror turned to face his lef'tenant, with glazed, unfocused eyes.
"There are an awful lot of people in here, sir."
Harry nodded, "Anyone you recognize?"
"Cheryl is here, and Detective Sergeant Weasley, sir. Winston is here with Cheryl."
"How are you doing, Upton?"
"My occlumency barriers are firmly in place, sir, as are Winston's. Cheryl is beginning to weaken, she's been here too long I think."
"Tell her to hold on just a bit longer, then I'll send her and Winston off on a nice long, tropical holiday."
Winston Hall spoke for the first time,"She says it's a deal, if you throw in a promotion."
Harry smiled in spite of his suppressed emotions.
The first tendril reached tentatively toward Harry.
He didn't flinch.
He'd been expecting it.
As the red ribbon touched his forehead he allowed himself another small smile, the same one he used when he'd made agame winning move in chess.
Harry blinked at the bright light.
"Do not struggle, Harry Potter, your body belongs to me now. If you do not cooperate, I will cause your heart to stop."
Harry sighed, "Why do the bad guys always assume we are as stupid as they?"
The light coalesced into the shape of aswarthy, middle-aged man with long black hair and a beard, both streaked with grey.
"Sasha Karkaroff, I presume?"
The Bulgarian strutted around the room,"Do you like my domain? I built it from nothing, less than nothing."
"Where did the stones come from?"
"Quarried from the very bones of my prey, by the sweat of my brow, and put into place by my own hands, and later, by the hands of those who are joined to me."
"I remember you, Harry Potter; Iremember everything Weasley ever knew about you."
"You mean what he thinks he knows about me, don't you."
Karkaroff shrugged, "We all have our weltanschauung, our own, somewhat biased view of the world."
"Why did you kill my wife?"
"She was attacking me, her own brother. I think it was she who killed Weasley."
Harry shook his head, "No, she didn't kill Ron, she was defending her friend, but she didn't use deadly force."
"No matter. I made use of the mudblood, she is only good for relieving a man's needs and making babies - and she will have a strong, healthy baby boy for me."
"Then you're in for a disappointment, Karkaroff. Hermione's baby is a girl."
Karkaroff snarled, "No, it was to be a boy! Stupid pizdae couldn't even get that right!"
"So you won't want to 'upload' into a baby girl."
It wasn't a question.
"Never! I will be reborn a man, with all my memories intact."
"Ever since that day, years ago, when Weasley summoned me from my tank, my mind has been filled with thoughts of her. Her long, brown hair, those impossible chocolate eyes, her soft breasts and, after a while, the welcoming depths of her."
"When you attacked Ron, all those years ago, you left a bit of yourself inside him, didn't you?"
"First I listened to him, you call it'passive legilimency', then I joined with him. At first, I was only going to feed on him, but he was so easy to control that I left enough of myself in him to keep us, what is that word Kemp uses, ah yes, linked."
"Shards from your tendrils," Harry said, prompting a surprised nod from Karkaroff, "but none of your other victims had bits of you in their skin."
"The tendrils are like a shark's skin, smooth if you stroke it one way, but rough and prickly the other. I would not leave so much of myself in all those that I fed on."
"So the tendrils can be removed safely if you just follow the grain. I'm guessing young Ron Weasley panicked and tried to rip them off his arms. That would have pushed the shards even deeper into his arms."
"Yes," the Bulgarian agreed, "it became our link with one another. Every time he was with his 'Hermy', I was there too. But I was always in the background, never so much in control, except..."
"Except when he drank." Harry finished for him.
"Yes, when he drank, even a little, then I could come to the front of his mind, I could live again. And I did live! I sang, I danced, I drank and I fucked!"
"Leaving Ron with the hangovers and the remorse, you're quite a piece of work, aren't you Karkaroff?"
"More than you will ever know, Potter. The Mage Politzi thought they had me when they cored me and made me into one of my own creations, "poetic justice" they called it.
"But they didn't realize that I, who created the first cognivore, knew how to keep my mind from being wiped, hidden behind several layers of empty grey matter, and concealed deep within the cerebral cortex."
"So you are the only cog with its original memories and intellect, its soul, if you will, intact."
"You are very perceptive. Perhaps Iwill let you live, and you can give me the baby I need."
"I don't think so, Sasha."
"You cannot defeat me in my own realm. I created this world, and in it I am God."
"Perhaps, but I can bring your world crashing down around your metaphorical ears."
Karkaroff laughed, "All by yourself?"
Harry shook his head, "Upton, Winston, Cheryl."
The three DMLE officers appeared, flanking their lef' tenant.
"Oh, well, since there are four of you, I will have to surrender. Oh, wait," the Bulgarian said, snapping his fingers,"I am not alone either."
Ron and Paul stepped out of the darkness, and then the scores of others Karkaroff had assimilated over the years began to appear.
Harry allowed himself a smile.
"Ron, Paul, all you others, listen to me! Karkaroff has enslaved you, and he controls you."
Ron held out his hands, palms outward as if to say, "So, what can we do?"
"Listen you lot, there are dozens of you, but only one Karkaroff. And there is no way this one man," Harry said, pointing at the bearded wizard, "can control all of you at once."
Harry pointed at Paul Kemp, "You are acomputer network engineer, what can bring down a network?"
Paul's shade said, "A denial of service attack, where the file server is bombarded with demands for access, queries."
A small voice called out piteously,"Have you seen my dog?"
"Was that a query?" Harry asked.
Paul smiled, "Sounded like one to me."
Harry shouted, "Everyone, start asking questions, doesn't matter what the questions are, just keep asking, don't stop!"
"Harry! Take care of my family!"
"I will, mate, count on it!"
Then the random memories of Ron Weasley smiled grimly and began bombarding Karkaroff with questions pertaining to the Junior Quidditch leagues.
The noise grew louder until Harry had to draw the other aurors close in order to be heard over the cacophony.
"Time to go, ready Cheryl?"
"More than ready, sir!"
Harry pushed outward with his shields until he began to see the real world around him again, Winston and Upton blinked as if coming awake after a prolonged, enforced kip.
In St. Mungo's Cheryl Lighter sprang from her bed, then sat down. She'd been lying in that bed for several days and didn't need to be 'springing' anywhere. She carefully recovered her clothing and walked, gingerly, to the nearest floo. She needed to be in the DoM, now!
Harry showed the junior aurors how to remove the tendrils, "Push down and then away," he said, "if you try ripping them off they will leave bits of themselves behind and those can cause problems later on.
The aurors helped each other safely remove the offending appendages, then turned their attention to Farkas.
"He's too much in tune with the cogs, sir; all the queries are distracting him."
"I don't know how much Farkas is involved with Karkaroff's schemes, but I want him interrogated under veritaserum. In the meantime, let's put these remaining cognivores back in the tank."
The three aurors levitated the errant 'brains' back into the tank.
"Auror Hall, take Mr. Farkas into custody, please."
As Harry undid the locking charm on the only entrance door he was surprised to see a platoon of aurors waiting on the other side, all prepared to do battle with God only knows what.
At their head was one very determined Hermione Granger-Weasley, wand drawn, her expression grim.
"All right, Harry?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.
"Nevah bettah!" he responded cheekily.
"Its okay, officers, you can stand down. He's Harry.
"Are all the cognivores accounted for?"
"Good." She said, and then walked purposely into the chamber, pulling a small cart.
Once inside, she walked straight to the brain-filled tank and winced as a passive, yet powerful legilimens probe tried to divine her thoughts.
Hermione levitated the five deka-liter container until it hovered above the tank, then let it drop.
The water became agitated, and then everyone in the room felt the psychic screams of the dozen remaining cognivores as they threw themselves against the sides of the tank or tried to swim up and out, finding they couldn't pass through the magical barrier that Hermione had erected there. The squirming, writhing disembodied brains began to dissolve - slowly at first, then more rapidly until all that remained of the creatures were flat tendrils which littered the floor of the tank.
Hermione turned to Harry and said, by way of explanation, "Someone decided it was time to clean the cognivores habitat, of course, she didn't realize that the cleaning solution would completely dissolve the poor creatures in the tank."
Harry nodded, "Pity, that."
Hermione agreed, "Yes, a pity,"
Then she added, "Nobody, and I mean nobody threatens our family - and lives."
Harry nodded in agreement. There would be hell to pay over the loss of the 'potential resources' the cogniivores represented. And there was no way he was going to admit who had dropped the industrial strength 'de-greasing' solvent into the tank. The DMLE could have his badge for all he cared.
All he cared about in the world were Hermione, the growing life within her and their three children.
Harry bent down to kiss Hermione and asked, "Would you pick up the kids at Auntie Andie's?"
Hermione wrapped her arms around his middle and said, "Well, I was thinking, since the kids are already at their Auntie's, maybe we could..."
Harry said, "Normally I would jump at the chance, but I have to file the preliminary reports and then interrogate Farkas. It will be several hours before I can leave."
Upton Stebbins standing close to his lef' tenant, as was his habit, rolled his eyes.
"Lef' tenant Potter, do you think your training has been so inadequate that your partner can't handle the prelims and interrogation?"
Upton soldiered on, "And as Mrs. Granger-Weasley's closest family available, don't you think it is incumbent upon you to comfort her after this traumatic experience?"
"It's true, Harry," Hermione said, theatrically, "I feel the need for some comforting right about now."
She stood on her toes and kissed him, and as she did so she placed her palms on each of his temples.
They stood in Harry's mindscape staring at the imposing fortress that was the mental representation of his occlumency shields.
"This is going to take a while, Hermione." He said.
She smiled and tapped an odd, pie-shaped stone, "Not as long as you think, mister!"
The stone disappeared and the fortress shook, then shifted, then fell in on itself like a house of cards.
When the dust and debris settled agob-smacked Harry stared first at the rubble that had been his impenetrable shields and then at his best friend and lover.
"A keystone?" he asked, amazed.
She nodded, "I wanted a way to bring your occlumency down, just in case."
"That's why you offered to help me build them in the first place!"
Another smug nod of the head.
And the kiss broke.
To the applause and cheers of four dozen aurors.
Cheryl Lighter stood there, unsteadily, fanning herself with a sheaf of parchment, "That was one for the record books, sir. Now, if Winston, I mean Auror Hall and I can be dismissed? I think we're in need of some, ah, comfort as well."
"Detective Stebbins, you are the on-site commander for this investigation, I expect a full report on my desk first thing tomorrow morning."
A tug on his sleeve directed Harry's attention to the witch at his elbow; he looked down and saw Hermione wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"Um, make that tomorrow afternoon - late tomorrow afternoon."