The gang returns from the Horcrux Hunt, and learns many useful tidbits.
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A Locket Found, Lost, and Found Again
Narcissa let an almost silent sigh and put her book down. The others had been gone for nearly an hour and she couldn't help but wor... - 'be concerned,' she mentally corrected herself - about the errant group. The fact that she had not managed to find any references discussing Horcruxes had put her in a mood as well.
And then there was those looks.
While Andy and a couple of the other Order members had selected a few of the volumes from the expansive Black library and retired to their rooms to scan for information regarding Voldemort's attempt at immortality, Narcissa instead chose to gather a pile of old manuscripts and plant herself in her favorite chair from her youth. As her family could attest, the bookish Slytherin spent many an hour before the fire in this room, reading for either academics or leisure.
Unfortunately for Narcissa's plans, there was another bookworm in the house now, one with bushy brown hair.
Hermione Granger - or the scruffy mudblood, as her son often referred to her by - had also opted to remain within the library's domain. Unlike her husband, son, parents, and majority of her cousins, Narcissa had no real hatred of muggleborns in general. Granted, there were a few particular individuals from that social group who had severely vexed her back in her own days as a student, and true, there weren't all that many of them that she did like, but she didn't despise them just on principle.
This girl was definitely testing those boundaries, however. This made the sixth time in the last ten minutes that the woman-child had attempted to discretely inspect her, and it was frankly beginning to grate on Narcissa's nerves.
Catching the younger witch's eyes this time, Narcissa let a hint of her frustration communicate itself. Normally, she would be more than happy to let the nosy little twit know the full force of her displeasure, but she knew that Harry considered this girl a good friend and doubted that he would appreciate her verbally tearing the little twit into metaphorical pieces.
'Not even two days and he's already gotten to me,' she thought humorously.
"What?" she asked aloud sharply. The girl pasted a look of confusion on her face that might have fooled her - if she had not been a Slytherin. That thought, of course, brought up another mental image of the wizard who had been increasingly encroaching on her idle thoughts. Putting the welcome distraction to the side, Narcissa settled herself and asked, "Did you need something?"
The girl paused for a second before blurting, "Why are you doing this?"
'What...?' Narcissa blinked. "Perhaps because you keep staring at me and it's distracting?" she asked sarcastically.
"No, I mean, why are you here? Why are you helping us? Why does Harry-" Hermione fell silent.
Narcissa raised an eyebrow. 'So /that/'s what has got her wound up.' "Why does Harry do what?" she prompted.
The next few seconds passed in silence.
"Why does Harry trust you?" the girl finally asked quietly.
"Not that it's any of your concern," Narcissa said sharply, "but I am here because I have sworn, both to him and myself, to do all in my power to stop that monster, even if it costs me my life."
"I owe him that, at the very least," she finished quietly.
Hermione looked confused. "And why, exactly, is that?"
"What business is it of yours?" the older witch demanded. "Worried that I might take your boyfriend away from you?"
The other girl glared back while angrily letting a breath escape from behind clenched teeth - almost as if she had had to refute this argument many times before.
"Harry is not my boyfriend!" Hermione stressed. "But he is my best friend. Since we first met nearly six years ago, I couldn't have asked for a more caring friend than he. Even when I get irritable and want to be alone, he is always right behind me, just in case I need him. That's just the kind of person Harry is; he's so concerned about everyone else's welfare that he rarely considers his own."
The younger witch became - if possible - even more serious and said, "And that's where I come in. Harry has gone through too much and has lost too much, and I will not let anyone just waltz in here and use him for his or her own purposes. Nor will any of his other friends. That is why it is my business! Now answer my question! What did Harry do to essentially earn a life debt from you?"
"Because, girl, I was moments away from being tortured and ultimately murdered by my own husband and son when your friend stormed the manor," Narcissa confessed. "With only my sister and niece, he took out twice their number in Death Eaters before any of his enemies could even take in the situation. When he found out that Lucius had bound me to his own will and prevented my escape, Harry tricked Lucius into a duel of honor with his own freedom versus mine as the stakes. Lucius foolishly accepted and Harry had him incapacitated about five seconds later."
"Despite what you may think, I am not without honor. I owe him a life debt - arguably more than one -," Narcissa said sternly, "as does my sister, and we will repay our debt, at any cost."
"He didn't mention anything about that," Hermione said softly.
"Why would he?" the older witch returned bluntly. "I assure you; he's more than capable of watching after himself. It's not really anyone else's business but ours anyway, now is it?"
Hermione hesitated. "Well... no... but he's my friend!"
"That may be, and you're lucky to have a friend like him," Narcissa allowed, "but that does not require him to divulge every little thought he has for your approval, now does it?"
Hermione just huffed angrily. The blonde witch could not withhold a small smirk before she added, "Now, if you are quite finished with this prattle, then perhaps we can devote our time to something more useful."
Narcissa ignored the other witch's scowl and the sound of dry and dusty pages being perused filled the otherwise silent library once more.
Albus's unconventional portkey returned the six-person Horcrux team to the main entrance hall at headquarters to the accompaniment of two feuding squeaky voices. Much to everyone's amazement, all six mages remained on their feet, although it was a near miss for a certain metamorphamagus.
Following the high-pitched argument to the kitchen, Harry pushed open the door to reveal Dobby and Winky - the two house elves that Harry had requested earlier - having a tug of war with an old broom.
"Dobby is being Master Harry Potter Sir's personal elf!" Harry's elf friend of four years cried out. "Dobby is cleaning the kitchen!"
Apparently, the distraught female elf felt differently, however. "It was being Winky's job to keep the kitchen in order for Master Crouch! Winky is cleaning the kitchen!"
"No, Dobby is doing it!"
"Winky is doing it!"
"Dobby is thinking that Winky is confused about Winky's duties."
"Winky is thinking that Dobby is needing to stick his head in an oven."
Harry just shook his head at the two elves' antics. Ignoring the amused sniggers from behind him, he voiced, "Harry thinks that this house is dirty enough to keep two house elves more than occupied. What do you think about a compromise? The two of you split the kitchen duty, and the rest of the house, and everyone is happy?"
Four bulbous eyes suddenly jerked to the wizard standing in the open doorway. "Master Harry Potter Sir!" Dobby yelled.
Harry caught a brief glimpse of a short pile of hats charging towards him before he was bowled over by the hyperactive elf. It was only due to his ability to grab onto the doorframe in time that kept the besieged wizard on his feet.
"It's nice to see you, too, Dobby," Harry said wincingly as he hauled himself back to an upright position.
Dobby smiled widely before releasing Harry and craning his neck so they could talk face to face. "When Professor Dumblydore told Dobby that Master Harry Potter Sir is needing help keeping his house, Dobby is telling him that Dobby would love to help. Then Dobby told Winky and Winky wanted to come, too!"
"Well, thank you both," Harry replied. "Hello, Winky."
"Hello, Master," the suddenly shy female elf said.
"You can call me 'Harry', you know," the wizard prompted.
"Yes, Master Harry," Winky replied.
"No, just... never mind," Harry sighed, remembering all of the failed attempts to get Dobby to use his given name. "Do either of you need anything?"
Dobby shook his head no enthusiastically. "Mistress Black already told Dobby and Winky what to do," the elf proclaimed.
"Alright, carry on then. I'll be in the library if you need me," Harry informed the two elves.
Withdrawing back to the main hall, Moody and Dumbledore stated that they would investigate the stolen locket and attempt to catalog its properties. Bill Weasley took the opportunity to make his own escape and was seen carrying the Borgin and Burkes crate down towards the cellar. With the group now down to three, the two women decided to accompany Harry to the library to check on the others' progress.
Reaching their destination, the trio found both Narcissa and Hermione at opposite ends of the Black library, each surrounded by piles of discarded tomes.
"Any luck?" Harry asked the two witches.
Hermione breathed out noisily from between her teeth. "No!" she complained. "Out of all of these books, only four had a passing reference to Horcruxes, and none of them told me anything we didn't already know!"
"Calm down, Hermione," Harry coaxed. "We knew that it was an almost unheard-of subject in the first place. I'd have been amazed if you had found something, as little time as you've been looking."
Harry took in Narcissa's dissatisfied expression and asked, "I take it you didn't have any better luck, Cissy?"
"Unfortunately, no. I didn't learn anything of importance," the distinguished witch informed the others. "How did your efforts go?"
"Pretty well," Harry admitted. "We had a rough spot or two, but we got it in the end."
"If a 'rough spot or two' includes swimming through icy sea water and fighting an entire army of Inferi, that is," Bellatrix complained.
"What!?" Narcissa demanded.
Smiling mischievously, Tonks added, "Not to mention the whole 'you get to safety while I blow up the cave on my broom' stint that our own wizarding daredevil concocted."
"What!?" Hermione echoed Narcissa's earlier demand for information.
"Gee, thanks a lot, you two," Harry grumbled. "Now they'll never shut up." He couldn't help but notice that both Bellatrix and Tonks were looking distinctly unapologetic.
'Traitors!' he mentally cursed half-heartedly.
"It really wasn't that bad," Harry directed to the other two witches. "The locket was hidden inside a cave accessible only from the sea. Most of the cave held a giant lake, with the horcrux on a small island at its center. To safeguard it, Voldemort placed a... large quantity of Inferi in the lake."
"With 'large quantity' meaning thousands," Tonks piped up helpfully.
"It wasn't /thousands/!" Harry protested at the renewed glares he was receiving from both Hermione and Narcissa. "It was just a few hundred."
"A few hundred!?" Hermione shouted.
Harry winced while rubbing the offended ear. "It wasn't that big of a deal, really. We went in, Albus and I grabbed the Horcrux - which activated the Inferi -, then all of us returned to the cave's atrium. Albus threw up a fire barrier to keep the Inferi trapped in the cave, but when they started breaking through that, I ducked back in over their heads and blasted the ceiling until it started breaking loose. Then I left."
"Not a 'big deal'? You could have /died/, you idiot!" Hermione yelled again while making moves as if to throttle him.
Smiling, Harry said, "But I didn't. I'm perfectly fine, and we accomplished our mission. That's what matters, not these might-have-beens."
"Ooowwwhhh..." Hermione seethed before giving in to her first instinct and attaching herself to the object of her frustrations.
"Hey! I'm fine, see?" Harry assured the girl. "Or, at least, I was," he added, as the backache he had suffered from earlier made a reappearance.
"You witches seem to really have it in for my spine, you know that?" Harry complained after Hermione finally let him go.
"Sorry," the young woman said, though Harry was not very assured of her sincerity, either.
"Aww... Can Hawwy not fend off all the nasty witches...?" Bellatrix asked jokingly in the same irritating baby voice she used in the Ministry.
Harry glared at the violet-eyed witch. "Do you have any idea how annoying that is?" he demanded.
"Of course she does," Narcissa said resignedly. "I've certainly told her often enough over the years."
The woman in question looked very pleased with herself as the resident metamorphamagus made her own contribution to the 'make fun of Harry' celebration. Tonks screwed her face up as if in extreme concentration - or impersonating a constipated chipmunk, Harry was not entirely sure which. A second later, there was suddenly two Harry Potters in the library.
This situation was immediately compounded when the second Harry Potter struck a dramatic pose and began counting off on 'his' fingers, "Hi! I'm Harry Potter, and I can face down dark lords and death eaters and inferi and werewolves and giants and really big snakes and possessed teachers and rigged contests and deadly ambushes and rock slides and..." 'Harry' then pretended to look at 'his' audience.
"Ahh!" 'he' yelled. "Witches!" The doppelganger then jumped over the adjacent couch to gain some measure of protection. Unfortunately, the figure's velocity was sufficient to redirect the other Harry's landing spot onto the first row of bookcases, which obliging tipped over.
The real Harry just closed his eyes before directing his face heavenward. "Why do You hate me so?" he demanded in an aggrieved tone. "What grievous sin did I commit to deserve this?" As usual with such hypothetical questions, he did not receive any audible response.
"I'm okay!" Tonks called out shakily.
Harry looked over at the collision and could not keep a small smile off his face at the pathetic sight of the metamorphamagus lounging on top of the antique wooden shelves surrounded by dusty tomes. Bellatrix apparently found this scene amusing as well, considering that she was bent over and hugging her midsection, with her shoulders shaking rapidly.
What Harry found most amusing, however, was the almost offended looks that the two bookworms were directing towards the disheveled literature. Shaking his head at the situation in general, Harry went over and offered the incumbent witch a hand up.
"How do you blokes move about with centers-of-gravity like that?" Tonks demanded once she was standing again. "That was even worse than my usual morphs!"
Harry shrugged. "It must be a gift," he decided as he added his efforts to the others' in collecting the displaced books into piles. "Do you mean to say that your... missteps are due to an off-balanced morph?"
The shapeshifter nodded as she levitated a few books over to join the others. "Yeah, pretty much. My instincts are never sure of where my extremities are in relation to the rest of me unless I focus on it. Not to mention, if I do focus on it, I can't watch where I'm going and trip over things regardless. Just changing the shape of my face wouldn't alter it much - you wouldn't think - but it seems to be just enough."
The nature of this conversation seemed to interest the other three witches present, as Hermione was quick to ask, "So, is there anything you can do for it?"
Tonks nodded in the affirmative. "Sure, I could keep the same form for a few days until I regained an intuitive understanding of where my center of mass is. I'm not nearly as clumsy then."
"So why not just pick one form and remain in it?" Narcissa queried as she righted a bookcase and began refilling it.
"Aside from this skill being the main reason I was an Auror?" she asked.
"I wouldn't say that," Harry protested. "I'll be the first to admit that I don't know anything about your time in the Aurors or even much about your time in the Order. Neither do I know whether they only saw you as a quick means of infiltration or spying or whatever." Harry stopped his work briefly and looked right at the young woman. "I do know, however, that - aside from the metamorphamagus bit - you're a talented fighter; anyone at the Department of Mysteries can tell you that, and with all false modesty aside, I do know a thing or two about sizing up opponents. Not to mention, you certainly showed a certain amount of deviousness during our duel this morning; that took a great deal of both intellect and improvisation."
"He's right, you know. And you've got a great personality," Hermione added. "You're fun to be around, even without you changing your nose every five seconds."
Tonks smiled tightly before regaining her composure and readdressing her aunt. "To answer your question, when I'm asleep, I revert to my base form."
"So, to keep the same form for days would mean staying in your base form?" Narcissa inquired.
Tonks just nodded an affirmative.
"Why not just do that, then?" Bellatrix tossed in. "I mean, I can understand needing to change your appearance for some mission, but why not just drop it when you're off duty?"
The metamorphamagus frowned. "Honestly? I don't like my base form. Only my parents and a handful of healers and nurses have ever seen it."
Harry nodded slowly. "I can understand that. Merlin knows how much hassle my natural face earns when I go out in public. Such an absolute way of disguising oneself must be handy."
"Hmm... That's odd..." Hermione called out a few minutes later while brandishing yet another dusty tome. "It looks like this one was lying under the case, if this dust layout is right." Following her finger, the group could clearly see the dusty rectangular outline of one of the displaced bookcases. In the interior of this box, however, was a smaller rectangle void of dirt - approximately the size of the manuscript now in the girl's hands.
"It's so nasty you can barely read it!" Bellatrix protested. Yanking the book out of Hermione's hands, the dark haired witch strode to the adjacent table and began slinging the volume down against the desk's edge, dislodging the accumulated filth.
Narcissa was quick to reclaim the object - almost violently, he thought-, and Harry was very impressed that Bellatrix could ignore so severe a glare as the two being broadcasted at her for such obvious disrespect for old books.
Gently brushing the remaining dirt off the cover, the blonde-haired woman stated, "It's called 'Life, Death, and the in-between', by Edward Zalmon." She began turning the pages, slowly at first but then more rapidly. Hermione was quick to flit to her side and crane her neck around in attempts to read the text sooner.
"Here's a section on Horcruxes..." Narcissa muttered. "Let's see... they're the most evil and unnatural of the Dark Arts... the soul of the creator must be torn into at least two pieces to provide a portion of the soul to conceal within the object... it is torn by committing the ultimate act of evil, murder..."
"All of which we already know," Hermione pointed out disappointedly.
"But this is new," Narcissa pledged. "The Horcrux is believed to be a Slavic invention, possibly responsible for the tales of Koschei the Deathless from Russian mythology. In the tale, the evil Koschei placed his soul into a physical object, which was then protected by numerous safeguards. Koschei remained 'deathless' until someone retrieved the object and destroyed it."
"Does it say how?" Harry asked intently.
The blonde-haired woman shook her head. "No. The object was just a needle, though, and the hero wasn't reported to be magical. It's likely that the needle was just snapped." She flipped the page over. "There's another reference to Indian folklore regarding evil sorcerors who evaded death by sealing their spirits inside parrots, becoming invulnerable until someone destroys the parrot."
"Well, we had already guessed that they were susceptible to physical harm. I mean, Harry destroyed the diary with a snake's fang," Tonks pointed out.
"A /Basilisk/'s fang," Hermione stressed. "That's introducing a whole new piece of magic into the equation."
"True," Harry said finally, "but it would be easy to determine if they can be destroyed so easily. Is there any indication if he knows when we destroy one?"
The two witches looked back through the information. "It doesn't seem to say one way or the other. The only reference is a dark witch from the last century. She was apparently wearing a horcrux upon her person and was purported to be in great pain when it was destroyed. Whether that was due only to her watching its destruction or actually feeling the loss is uncertain."
"Wonderful!" Bellatrix groused, and Harry found himself agreeing with her assessment.
"There is some good news, though," Hermione piped up.
"Oh...?" Tonks asked hopefully.
"Yeah. Based on some firsthand accounts in here, there seems to be some evidence suggesting that a person loses power as pieces of their soul are destroyed," the young witch said.
Both of the Black sisters seemed to consider this idea. "That could explain his hands-off approach over the past couple of years," Narcissa finally allowed.
"What do you mean 'hands-off'?" Tonks asked.
Bellatrix answered this inquiry. "In the first war, Voldemort took part in almost every kill. He enjoyed being present in every battle."
"Especially when it involved the Ministry or the Order," Narcissa added. "It was unheard of him skipping one of those duels."
"But he dueled Albus in the Ministry just a few months ago!" the metamorphamagus argued.
Harry looked contemplative. "True, but the duel only lasted a couple of minutes, and Albus is far past his prime. Moreover, as soon as the situation was no longer in his favor, he fled. And if he was in such superior shape after their contest, then why not take advantage of Albus being temporarily out of the way?"
Harry thought over his experiences with the dark wizard with this information in mind. "You may have something, you know. He may bluster and threaten, but with the exception of an Unforgivable or two against a non-struggling target, he gets others to do his wand work for him. It also explains his penchant for using long, drawn-out and convoluted schemes with little probable success to try to kill me, instead of just storming Hogwarts or the school train to face me directly. In fact, this whole plan about contacting the hellspawn for aid suddenly makes more sense."
Harry looked at the gathered witches and asked, "Why would an all-powerful dark lord risk striking a bargain with such creatures? What could they offer him? He could recruit new members from other countries if England became too difficult; he doesn't need demon allies. He already believes himself immortal, so he can't be angling for that/. So, since we know the only thing he works this hard for is the pursuit of power, and if it's not /man/power he seeks, then it must be some /other power."
The women seemed to consider this theory for a few moments before satisfied smiles began to appear. Bellatrix even began to chuckle evilly, which seemed to damper Hermione's own enthusiasm slightly.
"Well," Narcissa proposed, "it seems to make sense to me, but let's see if the old man has any other ideas."
The wizard suddenly smiled dangerously. "Well, Voldemort's already down one piece of his original strength," Harry said with dark amusement before gesturing in the direction of the door. "Shall we knock the dark sod down another couple of notches before bed tonight?"
As the group began to move out, Hermione cautioned, "We still don't know if he'll feel the horcruxes being destroyed. He could gather the others and hide them more thoroughly."
"True," Harry said, "but a weakened Voldemort will be easier to deal with, even if we have to go to more effort to actually kill him for good."
"I'm with him," Bellatrix said happily. "If we have to kill the bastard a piece at a time, then that's fine with me!"
"Well said!" Harry praised.
The group came across the two in the living room - strangely enough - at the same time that the wizards in question were looking for them.
"Albus, Moody," Harry greeted the two older wizards, "we discovered something you'll just love to hear." He went on to give a brief summary of their discovery, as well as their preferred strategy of destroying each horcrux as it became available, ensuring that Voldemort remained as weak as possible.
"This is excellent news!" Albus exclaimed.
"Yeah," Moody grunted, "shame that we're gonna ruin it a bit."
"And why is that?" Narcissa demanded.
"Because this horcrux we went through so much trouble to get ain't a horcrux!" Moody growled. "Somebody beat us to it!"
"Are you sure?" Harry asked sharply.
"See for yourself," the wizened old Auror said simply in reply, chucking the locket at him.
Catching it easily, Harry examined the locket briefly. While a reasonable replica, he already knew that if this locket had belonged to the Slytherin family, then it had become so after his time. This was neither as large as the locket he remembered nor were there any markings upon it, such as the ornate S that was the Slytherin mark. He looked up at Moody inquiringly.
"Open it," the older man prompted.
Harry did so and found a scrap of folded parchment wedged tightly into the place where a portrait should have been.
Assuming that Moody had already checked the object for traps, Harry pulled out the fragment of parchment, opened it, and read:
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.?" Harry asked. "Any idea who that is?"
"None so far," Albus said quietly. "It appears to have been swapped a number of years ago, however."
"True," Harry said, based on the age of the parchment. "On the positive side, here's proof that Voldemort doesn't bother to perform any detailed checks on their safety. That nugget could prove useful somewhere down the line." He absentmindedly handed the note over when Narcissa began reaching for it.
Albus nodded. "Correct, but where should we continue look-"
"Regulus?" Narcissa questioned aloud.
"What?" Moody demanded.
"This note. I think that it's Regulus Black's handwriting," the blonde woman repeated more positively.
"Are you sure?" Tonks asked. "I mean, sure we found the very helpful book hidden in the 'Black' library, but that could be coincidence."
"Almost positive; we were home schooled together before attending Hogwarts and I saw his papers many times. Besides, he's one of only a few people who could have entered the house without permission of the owner," Narcissa argued. "Sirius would have burned the book on horcruxes if he had been the one to find it, and his parents would have been proud to own such a rare literary item. They most certainly wouldn't have thrown it under a bookcase. I doubt that Andy put it there, and I know neither Bella nor I did. Regulus is about the only contemporary Black left."
"The timing is about right," Hermione conceded. "Judging by the dust, that book couldn't have been there more than a couple of decades."
"And Regulus did disappear under strange circumstances," Albus recalled. "Defeating the locket's defenses could have very well cost him his life."
"This involves the unlikely assumption that Regulus wasn't a loyal death eater, which Sirius seemed to disagree with," Harry pointed out.
Narcissa replied simply, "He felt the same way about us."
"True enough," Harry allowed. "So, if Regulus did manage to steal the horcrux, what did he do with it?"
"Well... the book about Horcruxes was hidden here..." Bellatrix suggested.
"That could have been done before the horcrux was stolen, or even found," Narcissa immediately countered. "There's nothing to suggest that the locket ever even came here."
Hermione never took her eyes off the jewelry piece while this discussion was taking place, instead muttering under her breath. "Come on... think... where was it...?"
"Hermione...?" Harry asked after he noticed her distraction.
"Arrrg! I can't remember," the brunette fumed. Before anyone could ask what she could not remember, the girl explained, "I know I've seen this locket before, or one just like it, but I can't remember where it was!"
The group think-session was again interrupted, this time by the youngest two Weasleys. Apparently, Ron's stomach had decided to raid the icebox, despite the large dinner served just a few short hours before - at least, if their coming from the kitchen's direction was any indication. As they were passing through the room, the locket dangling from Harry's hand caught Ginny's eye.
"Hey, you got it open! How'd you do it?" the redheaded girl asked curiously.
"What...?" Harry said slowly.
"None of us could open it last summer, not even... Sirius." The last word was said as more of a whisper.
"Of course!" Hermione cried out. "There was a locket just like this thrown in with the other Black stuff that Sirius wanted rid of!"
"So it was here!" Bellatrix concluded.
"It could just be a similar locket," Narcissa pointed out. "What did Sirius do with the one you found?"
Ginny, noticing that this locket was an entirely separate piece, answered to the best of her knowledge. "He hauled all of it to the basement. But I'm sure it's been thrown away by now," she finished worriedly.
"No, it hasn't," Ron said. "I... err... caught Fred and George sneaking a few more examples for their shop out earlier."
"Well, at least it won't be too difficult to get it back from them if they got it by mistake," Harry said easily.
"Uhm... Mate, Mundungus kinda... went down there, too," Ron said carefully. "And left a few minutes later with a suitcase."
The rest of the group - or at least, those who knew of the notorious crook's pastime - looked at one another panicky before initiating a mass exodus to the cellar.
"Okay," Harry said a short time later. The group had torn the sacks apart and used numerous summoning charms - to no avail. They then repeated their efforts in Kreacher's boiler room with similar results.
Finally resigning them selves to the fact that it was no longer at Grimmauld Place, Harry spoke up, "We know that the suspected horcrux is no longer here, but it's in one of two places, so let's split up. Ron, Ginny, and Hermione can check with the twins easily." Harry waited until they silently agreed before continuing. "If either of them have it, I am sure that they will return it with no fuss. Albus, would you kindly make me a portkey to whatever rat's nest Fletcher calls home?"
"And what about the rest of us?" Tonks asked huffily.
"All of you can keep me from killing him if I find that he ate at my table - in my house - and then stole from me," Harry said grimly.
Albus suggested, "Perhaps just I should-"
A look at Harry's resolute face convinced him to abandon any ideas of convincing the younger wizard not to visit the thief.
"Very well," Albus said resignedly. While the other three teenagers went back upstairs to floo the Twins' shop, Albus began fumbling in his robes for the candy dish turned transport. Finally withdrawing the item, the elderly wizard charmed it for travel and held it out to the group. Harry quickly grabbed a hold of it, with the rest of the night's expedition - save Bill, who was apparently engrossed with his own research project - only a moment behind him. Surprisingly, Narcissa elected to accompany the group as well, despite her lack of enthusiasm for 'adventures'.
Harry was quickly forced to hide a sudden outpouring of humor, however. Judging from the sensations he was feeling from her, Harry could tell that the mundane - and possibly insane - selection of the lemon drop platter for the portkey object was irritating Narcissa's refined pureblood sensibilities.
Albus triggered the device and, with yet another uncomfortable moment, the group found themselves standing in the middle of a dingy street. Glancing around, Harry saw several low value houses, many of whom were in advanced states of disrepair. Leading the group, Albus approached one of the worst buildings. There was evidence to suggest that the ramshackle two-story structure was once white brick with brown furnishings. Now, however, everything was covered in a combination of mildew and weeds to the point that determining its exact size was impossible.
"Can you see anything, Alastor?" Dumbledore questioned.
The retired Auror seemed to stare off into space for a few moments before answering. "Yeah, he's here," the older wizard said grimly. "Looks like he's sorting through the stuff now."
"That's just creepy!" Bellatrix exclaimed, referring to Moody's extra visual abilities. "What's to stop him from spying on us in the shower, or even clothed?!"
"Relax, wench," Moody growled, "I have no desire to be staring at your purple knickers."
"What!" she yelled. "You-!"
"Shall we continue with why we're here?" Albus interjected quickly, in an attempt to keep the peace.
"Gladly!" Mad-eye said shortly before blowing the door down and stomping towards Fletcher's location. Just shaking his head at his old friend's enthusiasm, Albus hurried after him in an attempt to minimize the damage.
As the rest of the mages fell in behind him, Harry had the great honor of having a multitude of colorful expletives and other mental imagery being jammed directly into his consciousness, courtesy of the violet-eyed woman. Such an occurrence might explain why he could not resist looked over at the fuming Bellatrix and asked blandly, "Purple, huh? I had you pegged as more of a 'Black' kind of girl."
The woman made several choked noises. "They're not mine!" she finally blurted defensively. With great dignity, the witch added, "They're Cissy's."
"What!" the woman in question yelled, while proving that distinguished purebloods could blush just as well as everyone else. "I can't believe that you told him that!" While the two continued to argue, Tonks leaned in and asked, "So, is this ability to inventory women's lingerie another ancient wizard superpower?"
"Oh, yes," Harry said smoothly, "all we unbeatable heroes can do it."
"You mean unbearable?" the metamorphamagus demanded playfully.
"That, too," he said easily. "Why, are you wondering if I've been spying on your clothing drawers?"
"You're assuming that I wear any," she answered playfully. Becoming more serious, she locked her eyes with Harry's and said, "I wouldn't be against showing them to you one of these days, you know."
Harry blinked owlishly before intelligently responding, "Uh... right. Yeah." He quickly changed the topic. "Hey, look at that. They've gone after Mundungus!" The wizard quickly walked off, leaving the three women behind.
"That could have gone better," Tonks said glumly.
"Well, you can't expect too much from him; he is a guy, after all," Narcissa answered.
"Look at it this way," Bellatrix added helpfully, "you wouldn't have been able to unsettle him so easily if he wasn't interested."
"Yeah... I guess you're right," she said more positively.
"That's the spirit!" Bellatrix cheered. "Now, let's go see what the one-eyed pervert is doing."
As they soon discovered, the 'pervert' had the shorter man heavily restrained to one of the rickety chairs the house was furnished with. The squat, bandy-legged man with long, straggly ginger hair was turning his head in every direction; Harry was unsure whether this was in an attempt to take in the situation, or just an indication of his perpetual drunkenness. Covering the unstable dining room table was an ancient suitcase - open - and what looked like the entire contents of a junk shop window.
And in the midst of it all lay a simple golden locket, a nearly perfect twin to the one he had retrieved just this night. His eyes narrowing dangerously at the overwhelming proof of the thief's infidelity, Harry carefully placed the locket around his neck and tucked it beneath his robe. A violent gesture sent the scattered valuables back into the case, which promptly shut itself.
Giving the case's handle a sharp jerk, Harry hauled it along as he walked right up to Mundungus's restrained form and dropped the container. The thief jerked as the sound of fragile knickknacks shattering filled the air. Harry pulled down the man's gag before starting his interrogation.
"You took that from headquarters," Harry said flatly. He was almost nose-to-nose with Mundungus and was breathing in an unpleasant smell of old tobacco and spirits. "I saw the Black family crest on several of the pieces."
"I - no - what - ?" Mundungus spluttered.
"You stole from us," Harry continued. "You stole from /me/!"
"No, mate, really - it was all going to the bin anyway, right?" the short man said nervously at the wintry glare he was receiving. "A bloke's gotta scrape a living."
"Do you have ANY idea what you nearly did?" Harry demanded. "That locket that you were appraising just so happened to be one of Voldemort's horcruxes. Can you even begin to imagine the ramifications if you had actually managed to sell off a portion of Voldemort's soul?!"
"What?!" the little man squeaked. "I didn't know, honest!"
"Of that, I have no doubt. Personally, I'm surprised that you were sober enough tonight to remember what a horcrux is," Harry said bluntly. "And you're right. You don't have the skills to detect the likes of a horcrux. But that wasn't my point."
Harry threw out his hand and pointed right in the man's face. "You stole my property, right out of the Order's headquarters - which just so happens to be my house -, for your own selfish gain. I have to ask myself, what happens if you should need more money than what a few pieces of rubbish can earn? Would you start betraying our safety, the same way you betrayed our trust? If you were captured, would you turn all of us in to save your own skin? How can we know whether you haven't betrayed us already?"
The crook's eyes were getting wider and wider. "No, mate! It's not like that! Honest!"
Harry snorted at the honest remark. "Save it! I have no use for your drivel. This is thrice that you have failed your responsibilities; I have had enough! You are no longer welcome in my home. Should you be caught in Grimmauld again, you will sincerely regret it!"
Turning away in disgust, he caught Albus's attention and said, "He's your pet project. You take care of him!"
As Harry left the room, he could hear Dumbledore begin speaking. "Mundungus, I am extremely disappointed in you..."
'Yeah, like /that/'s going to do any good,' Harry thought jadedly as he made his exit.
"So, any ideas?" Harry asked hopefully.
After the group had returned from Mundungus's home, Dumbledore and Moody put the locket through a series of examinations to prove what Harry already instinctively knew. Moody had determined that the locket had some strange derivative of a concealment charm applied to it, which led to a closer study and Albus ultimately cracking the charm, leaving behind a locket that Harry knew all too well.
While this was going on, Harry's younger friends had returned with the twins in tow. They quickly confirmed that they did not have the locket, which Harry responded to by explaining exactly what they found at Mundungus's home. Once the others were caught up to speed, the mages set up their work area in the basement of Grimmauld place in an effort to minimize any potential disasters. After warding the area, the wizards placed the ring and the locket on the small utilitarian table in the center of the room.
Unable to recall any method of disenchanting a Horcrux, Harry polled the others present in the hopes that one of them might have a solution.
"Reductor curse?" Tonks suggested.
"That appears to be warded against," Albus replied, shooting down that idea.
"How about the Killing Curse?" Bellatrix asked. "That can't be warded against."
"He was the seventh horcrux, and he survived a reflected Killing curse fifteen years ago," Harry reminded her.
"Oh, yeah," the dark-haired witch said disappointedly.
"What other spells affect souls?" Narcissa questioned aloud. "There's the Patronus Charm. It works against malevolent spirits."
"A Patronus repels dementors; it doesn't destroy them," Moody pointed out.
"Right," Hermione confirmed, "we need something that will attack the object on both the physical and the ethereal planes simultaneously."
Ginny looked thoughtful. "What if you had several people hit it at once?"
"The spells still wouldn't be concentrated enough," Hermione disagreed.
Hermione's last comment sparked Ron's imagination. "What about a potion?"
At everyone's sharp look, the teenager said, "Sorry! Hermione just said it needed to be more concentrated and I thought about potions."
The twins stared at one another for a few moments. "Can this be?" Fred asked his other half.
"Did Ickle Ronnikins actually stumble across the right answer?"
"It shouldn't count; he had help, after all."
"Too true, brother mine."
Ginny reached up and smacked them both on the back of the head. "Is one of you idiots going to explain yourselves, or do we have to guess?"
"Relax, Gin-Gin," George coaxed, "we were just overwhelmed at dear Ronnikins intellectual prowess."
"Yes, quite shocked, I must say," Fred added. "You see, we have this basin-"
"A muggle charcoal grill, actually," George interjected. "Swiped it from Dad's shed months ago."
"Right, but this grill doesn't use charcoal," Fred continued. "After yet another display of my excellent potion brewing skills-"
"Actually, I believe that/ I/ brewed it," George submitted.
"Really?" Fred asked innocently. "I could have sworn that it was mine..."
George jumped back in the conversation. "Anyway, after a failed attempt at making Flatulence Fudge-"
"The lab was rotten for weeks," Fred confided.
George nodded in agreement. "Too right, but we discovered that our formula did something else even more interesting. We accidentally dropped a few of our animated Fudge action figures-"
"They bluster and mumble just like the real thing!" Fred threw in.
"Or they used to, anyway. When we fished them out, they were all dead," George reported. "Just like the muggle ones; no magic at all!"
"Wait a minute!" Hermione interrupted. "You mean that you accidentally came up with a potion that removes magic?!"
"No, of course not!" Fred protested noisily. "It does disenchant objects though," he added offhandedly.
George nodded happily. "Yep. Any spelled items are immediately returned to their original form. It doesn't work on innately magical objects like wands, but just about anything else is a go. It even dissolves other potions."
"You actually put your wands in an anti-magic potion?" Ginny said disbelievingly.
"Of course not!" Fred answered, while looking at her as if she said something extremely foolish, "we nicked Ron's!"
"Hey!" the aforementioned wizard protested.
George gestured magnanimously. "Oh, quiet down, Ronnikins. The Weasley Enchant-No-More wash didn't hurt your ickle wand one bit, honest!"
"Anyway," Fred concluded, "the potion kept eating through all our cauldrons-"
"Being as they're magical!" George piped up.
Fred nodded. "-and out of desperation, we threw the solution into this rusty grill that we had nicked from Dad's shed. Lo and behold, the stuff didn't eat through."
"You know," George theorized, "Dad might be on to something with all this muggle stuff."
"Quite so," his twin concluded.
"And why did you take this 'grill'?" Ron asked.
"Charcoal burns," they answered simultaneously. It was obvious that several people wanted to point out that this was not an answer. That is, until their personalities in regards to flamboyant material and explosions was considered. Suddenly, their three-syllable reply made a lot more sense.
"This is marvelous," Albus spoke up. "May we see this experiment?"
"Sure thing," George said easily. "Anything to poke ol' Voldemort in the eye!"
"Let's go fetch it, Fred," his twin added.
"Oye! I'm George. You're Fred!" George protested.
"Are you sure?" Fred asked disbelievingly.
"Well, I'm not positive, but I think I am," George admitted.
Harry just shook his head at their antics. "Tonight please, gentlemen?"
The two identical wizards turned at bowed obscenely in Harry's direction.
"Immediately, Master, if not sooner," Fred uttered in a servant-like tone.
"Although you'd get much better results if you didn't insult people like that," George noted cheekily.
Fred nodded. "'Gentlemen', indeed!" With identical snorts of disgust, they disapparated.
Bellatrix pulled lightly at Harry's sleeve. "Uhm... are they entirely sane?" she asked quietly.
"No," Harry said resignedly, "but they're both good people. You just have to watch what you eat around them."
"Or drink, say, touch, taste, see, hear, feel, or otherwise sense," Ginny added helpfully.
Ron did not have anything to add, as he was still giving his wand a close look-over after learning that his brothers had used it for an experiment.
The group passed the next few minutes by talking quietly amongst themselves.
The twins reappeared in the same spot that they had previously vacated, this time bearing a faded red grill, just as they had said. After setting the odd device next to the solitary table in the room, one of the twins - Harry wanted to say 'Fred', but he wasn't certain - took the lid off the pot, revealing a bubbling pink mixture.
"How fast do the effects occur?" Narcissa asked.
"Pretty fast," they admitted.
"We are unsure if Voldemort will be able to sense when these are ruined. If your... concoction works as you say, it might prevent him from even knowing that we are destroying them," Narcissa informed. "Will it meet our needs?"
The twins deliberated amongst themselves for a moment. "For an item as small as these are... I'd say it should be instantaneous. Wouldn't you agree, George?"
"I'm pretty sure it will," George admitted.
"Well, here goes nothing," Harry said after a few moments free of objection. Picking up both the ring and the locket, Harry dropped them one at a time into the muggle grill. The pink liquid bubbled and frothed, but demonstrated no more violent a reaction.
"How long do they have to be left in there?" Hermione asked curiously, after tearing her rapt gaze away from the unconventional vat.
"As long as you want, really," Fred offered.
George picked up his twin's thought. "But we can pull them out now, if you want." Reaching inside his magenta robe, the teenaged wizard pulled out a thick rubber glove and donned it. Holding his shielded hand over the grill, Fred held his wand above it and summoned the horcruxes one at a time. They flew out of the mixture and impacted sharply against his gloved hand. Catching his prizes, the young man laid the two items back on the table and stepped back.
Moody impatiently stomped forward, bringing his wand to bear. The old wizard tried several revealing spells in addition to his normal paranoid arsenal before stopping. "I can't pick up on anything, Albus. You try."
The Hogwarts headmaster performed his earlier diagnosis once more, verifying that neither object was emanating a magical signature, much less serving as a horcrux. "Congratulations, Messrs. Weasley. You have done us a great service this day."
"It's evening actually, Professor," Fred said calmly.
"But we're glad to help anyways," George added. "Now, if you'll excuse us," he said while capping the grill, "we must be off."
"Yes," Fred concluded. "People to see, places to go-"
"-Stuff to blow up!" George threw in.
"Goodbye!" they said in unison once more before noisily disapparating with their very useful experiment, leaving behind a collection of very satisfied witches and wizards.
Hello, all! I'm sorry that this chapter took so long to finish; my work load increased drastically - yet again - and it cut into my writing time.
Anyway, I hope this latest chapter was worth the wait. The next chapter will be tentatively schedule for a 5/1/06 post date, and will start the gathering allies story arc.
The explanation of Tonks' metamorphmagus powers is strongly based on Crys' Scion of Gryffindor, which can be found on FFA at http://crys.fanficauthors.net. Scion is definitely one of the better H/T fics out there, and I strongly recommend that you read it.
Feel free to drop me a review and let me know your opinion of this latest chapter, or the story in general.
Until next time!