Harry & Co venture into Diagon Alley, and launch a rescue mission.
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A Call for Help
'It must have been some party to leave a hangover this bad...' Bellatrix groaned to herself. At hearing a snicker, her head shot up and she glared at the smirking form of Nymphadora Tonks, who was sitting at a small table a few feet away. Not recognizing her surroundings, Bellatrix quickly jerked her head around in an attempt to determine her whereabouts. A light snore brought her intense gaze on the slumbering form of a physically-matured Harry Potter... 'Potter?!' Bellatrix exclaimed to herself. 'Why, in Morgana's name, is he here? Better yet, why am I here? Hell, for that matter, where is 'here'?! How did we wind up in this room?'
"I think we need to have a talk," was Tonks's uncharacteristically serious reply.
"Why are you...?" Suddenly, Bellatrix's memories from earlier that day came back in a rush: finding out Voldemort's master plan, capturing the unguarded object that her 'master' was so focused on, and tracking down Potter. The next few recollections were a little less clear: confessing how she had been nothing more than an abused puppet to both Potter and her niece, handing over the device she had stolen from Voldemort's fortress, and finally something involving the three of them in a green dome. After a lot of pain, she vaguely remembered seeing Potter, also released, come staggering towards them before she blacked out.
After taking a moment to get reoriented, Bellatrix turned back towards her niece and commented quietly, "That wasn't a dream, was it?"
"No," Tonks whispered back, "but let's not disturb him. He got hit the hardest by whatever that ball thing did." Nodding, Bellatrix followed her through the door and out into the hall, pulling the door softly shut behind her.
Leaning up against the wall, Tonks decided to start the investigation. "Now, would you like to explain exactly what that thing did to us?"
Sighing, Bellatrix replied, "I already told you: I DON'T KNOW! To my knowledge, the stupid thing has never done anything like that before. Not only Voldemort, but several members of his inner circle tried to access the orb but all in vain. They had tried every curse, hex, or charm they knew yet the orb just absorbed it. The only thing I can figure is that it was set to react only to a particular type of person, and Potter fit the bill. I don't know what it did, or why it did it."
"Well, why did it grab us then? It didn't react to you when you stole it originally, or when you brought it here."
"If you'll remember, it didn't actually affect us until we approached Potter. After that happened was when everything went to pieces," Bellatrix responded moodily.
"And what, in the name of all things holy, would that have to do with anything?" Tonks snapped.
"I-DON'T-KNOW!" Bellatrix bit out. "Right off the top of my head, and considering the fact that I now have you stuck in my head, I'd guess that we got pulled into some kind of magical bonding. But that can't be, since we would both have had to either perform a ritual or swear an oath. Since we did neither-"
"But we did swear an oath," Tonks stated. "It wasn't until we both said that we would help Harry that we got floored by that green dome thing."
"Maybe, but neither of us really went into enough detail to justify an oath, much less participated in a ceremony to define the terms of the deal. That thrice-damned ball must have rifled through our minds and acted on some impulse or unstated intention..." Bellatrix hypothesized.
"And what were those intentions, oh aunt of mine?" Tonks snapped back.
"Well," Bellatrix drawled, "since whatever the hell it was tied us both to him and each other, I'd say 'the same as yours', oh niece of mine. As I have said, I want to make Voldemort and his assorted misfits, lackeys, catamites, and pedophiles pay for what they've done both to me and my family. That maniac poisoned my parents' outlook on the world, and thoroughly ruined the lives of my sisters and myself. Not to mention what my parents in turn did to Sirius and your own family. Potter's the only one that's been doing anything to stop the dark morons, so I am going to help him in any way that I can so that he can take those worthless creatures down."
Deciding to accept her answer for the time being, Tonks began to ask another question but was cut off by Bellatrix. "And just what have you been doing with the Boy-who-can't-seem-to-die? Hmm...I can't help but notice that some of the things in this room aren't exactly what a teenaged wizard would own."
"If you must know, I am giving him some advanced defense lessons. As you might have noticed, Harry seems to have a gift for finding dangerous situations. Or rather, he has an ability to draw danger toward himself."
"And the Ministry just let you take all this time off because...?" Bellatrix questioned.
"The Ministry no longer has any say in it. They used me almost as badly as Voldemort and his... 'Assorted misfits, lackeys, catamites, and pedophiles,' I believe is the term?" At Bellatrix's faint smirk, Tonks continued, "Well, as badly as they used you. I sometimes think that the only reason I was ever accepted into the Aurors was because of my usefulness as a Metamorphamagus. Even though I've been a full Auror graduate for over four years, I have never been positioned as anything but another 'grunt'... In any case, after the fiasco a few weeks ago at the Ministry, Fudge went ballistic and attempted to fire all of us present. Most others had some excuse to be overlooked, but Fudge fired me. I was at my flat trying to plan my next move when I received a letter from Harry. I came here right away... ended up falling apart in his room. After he calmed me down, Harry offered me a place to stay and a larger income than I'd ever make with the Ministry if I'd just show him a few things I remembered from Auror training. That was yesterday. We were just getting started with the physical conditioning today when you found us." Trying to lighten up the rather depressing conversation, Tonks cracked the door open to check on Harry and commented, "Is it just my imagination, or does he look different to you?"
Looking through the crack in the door, the two witches observed that the slumbering young wizard had indeed changed a little from earlier that morning. Even in his reclined position, the two women could tell that he was perhaps a couple of inches taller than just a few hours before. In addition, while his muscular build was by no means massive, it did more closely resemble that of an athlete rather than the rail-thin structure he had been previously sporting. The single most noticeable change - perhaps miracle, even - was the mop of unruly hair atop his head. Or rather, what used to an unruly mop. Whatever powers that were exercised during the early morning episode, one was apparently able to break the Potter family curse, since now Harry had shoulder-length locks laying almost unnaturally straight alongside his head.
"Yes..." Bellatrix commented distractedly. Sensing her confusion, Tonks looked over at her with a raised eyebrow. "What?" she asked.
"This new look of his... he reminds me of someone, but I can't remember who," Bellatrix muttered, almost to herself.
"Was it someone recently?" Tonks asked curiously.
"No," Bellatrix finally answered, "it's been a long time ago. Maybe it was just a book, or a portrait, or something..."
"Well, regardless, I think the new look suits him. Objectively speaking, of course!" Tonks replied.
Snorting, Bellatrix responded, "Of course!"
"Any ideas on why he got a makeover, while we apparently were unchanged?"
"No clue whatsoever."
"So, what do we do now?" Tonks asked.
Whatever Bellatrix response was, it was drowned out by an angry bellow of "WHAT ARE YOU FREAKS DOING IN MY HOUSE?!?!"
Spinning around, both witches were treated to the sight of a puce-colored Vernon Dursley storming up the staircase from the living room. They both went for their wands before Bellatrix remembered with a curse that she had been disarmed before their earlier conversation, and that her wand currently resided in the pocket of the young man behind her.
In an attempt to buy some time so that they could explain the situation, Tonks cast a small trip jinx at the top of the stairs which caught the elephantine man as he reached the last step and deposited the man on the floor. Quickly regaining his feet, Vernon raised his fist and shouted, "YOU WORTHLESS LITTLE TART! I'M GOING TO-"
"You're going to lower your hand and speak to my friends with a civil tongue, Vernon, or I'm going to remove it from your otherwise empty head!" snapped a cold voice. Both the women whirled around to be confronted with a very awake - and angry - Harry Potter. However, this wasn't the Harry that they were familiar with. Unlike the usually affable young man, this Harry radiated such power and barely-restrained rage that even his muggle uncle could sense his tightly wound fury. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Vernon swallowed rather noisily and just nodded.
"Good," Harry purred, "I'm glad that we could resolve this little incident without any undue... unpleasantness." At Vernon's widened eyes, Harry smirked before continuing, "Now, I have something rather important to tell you and your family. So why don't you go back downstairs and gather your wife and son, and I will join you momentary. Okay?" Vernon nodded again and moved quickly down the stairs, his descent much quieter than his ascent.
Turning to Bellatrix, he handed her back her wand and said, "Sorry about keeping that. I meant to give it back to you before now, but I forgot."
"How did you know?" Bellatrix trailed off.
Chuckling lightly, Harry tapped his head and replied, "The link we share is apparently capable of transmitting broadcasted thoughts. I heard your rather... colorful... comments when you went for it just now, and I thought it best to return it immediately."
"You heard?" Bellatrix asked with a grimace.
"Oh, yes," Harry replied cheerfully, "Very creative, in fact. Although, I'm not sure that it's even physically possible to do that with a wand, not to mention the ethical issues involved."
At this, Tonks burst out laughing and then tried in vain to cover it with a cough when Bellatrix glared at her. Attempting to change the subject to a relatively safer topic, Bellatrix asked, "What did you want to say to the fat muggle?"
"Those Dementors that you spoke of yesterday will eventually discover that you have 'defected' and will then report this location directly to Voldemort," Harry explained, "And while we have never been -- and will likely never be -- a family, I owe it to my mother's memory to at least warn them of the danger."
"Personally, I would just as soon invite every Dementor I could find to this place, but they're your relatives; do what you want with them," Bellatrix replied.
"Thanks," Harry said dryly, "In the meantime, why don't the two of you gather whatever is worth salvaging from here and pack it? As soon as I finish with the Dursleys, we will need to leave ourselves."
"Where are we headed?" Tonks asked.
"Well, unless Bellatrix here has any other information that we should act on immediately, I think we should head to my home. We can regroup and make further plans from there," Harry answered.
"Aren't we in your home, Potter?" Bellatrix asked drolly.
"No, this place is nothing more than a lot of wood, mortar, and unwanted memories. I was referring to Hogwarts. You might have heard of it; big castle in Scotland that doubles as a magical institute for young wizards and witches?"
"Yes, it sounds vaguely familiar," Bellatrix shot back. "But won't the headmaster object to us just popping in on him? Not to mention my rather colorful reputation...?" She ended with disheartened frown.
"Oh, don't worry about Dumbledore," Harry assured, "I'm sure that we can reach an accommodation. Besides, we're going to need the Order's help to counter Voldemort's latest offensive, so it's best to explain the situation to him beforehand." Seeing that she was still worried, Harry continued, "We'll explain the circumstances to him. He won't imprison you, I promise."
"If you say so," Bellatrix replied, "Personally, I've never been comfortable around the man. And as for your other question, there are a few relics in Knockturn Alley that Voldemort seemed interested in, but they cost a small fortune and were too heavily protected to steal easily. Whether they have any bearing on his plan for recruiting hellspawn, I don't know. The last I heard, Lucius Malfoy was going to purchase them after presenting you to his master after the department of mysteries thing. You seem to have disrupted that little plan, though."
Harry smiled brightly. "I'm just lucky that way." Becoming more serious, he asked, "Do you know the particulars? Location, name, price, any agreed upon safeguards, that sort of thing?" Harry queried.
"Yes, but like I said, its no small amount of galleons. The cheapest item of the lot ran over one million," Bellatrix explained.
"No matter," Harry replied, "The Potter family vault alone has more than enough capital to cover their purchase; I discovered last year that my parents had made several lucrative investments years ago, and the dividends have been earning interest ever since. In short, I have a great deal of gold at Gringotts that I never touch, and I'll be glad to spend every last knut if it will cause Voldemort to have a bad day. Go ahead and pack all of this stuff up; we'll leave as soon as I chase off the muggles." At this, Harry did an about-face and sauntered out of the room and shut the door while whistling.
Tonks simply turned back towards their conjured closets and pulled out her wand. "Well, you heard him," she chirped.
Giving her head a shake, Bellatrix conjured a large trunk and began summoning various items into it. Still unable to reconcile the ordinary youth he had appeared to be with the extremely powerful wizard that just saved them from a confrontation with the fat slob, Bellatrix turned to the other woman who was packing several sets of clothes - /quite messily/, Bellatrix thought - and cleared her throat to gain the other witch's attention. When Tonks looked up, Bellatrix asked exasperatedly, "How can you ignore what he just did? You had to have felt the sheer power he was giving off? Even that muggle sensed it!"
"Yes, I felt it, too. What's your point? After all, he is the only one that has stopped Voldemort single-handedly at least five times already. Of course, he's more powerful than a typical wizard."
"My point/," Bellatrix interjected, "Is that he is nowhere even /near his magical majority. He shouldn't be able to project his aura at all for at least another two to three years, much less to the extent that he just did! I don't remember ever seeing that much radiated magic at once - not even from Dumbledore!"
"Okay, so Harry is stronger than anyone would expect him to be. I still do not see why that is a problem," Tonks restated.
Side-stepping the implied question, Bellatrix asked, "Is that why you immediately jumped to follow his orders? Is it because he is that strong?"
"No," Tonks replied with confusion evident in her voice, "He's my friend and Harry asked me to do him a favor. He didn't order me to do anything." The sudden comprehension was evident on her face as the underlying reason for her aunt's questioning dawned on her. "Wait," she said, "are you worried that you escaped one monster just to get pulled in by another one just like it?"
Her aunt looking into the trunk on the floor and fidgeting with the things on the top was her only response.
"Okay," Tonks said, "you need to understand a few things when it comes to Harry. First, Harry is my friend. I've gotten to know him rather well over the last year, both from talking to him and his friends, and I trust him completely. Second, while they may share the same abilities, Harry is nothing like that monster you were enslaved to. While he can be a little intimidating, especially when he's upset, Harry would never commit the atrocities that Voldemort's rage leads to; he simply doesn't have it in him. You seemed more than willing to join him not six hours ago; why are you so wary of him now?"
"Because I expected that by the time he reached this level of power, I would have ingratiated myself enough with him so as to have a little immunity against some of the 'services' that he might have otherwise wished of me. From what I just saw, I doubt I could last very long in a duel before he overpowered me, even if he used nothing more than tickling charms and tripping jinxes," Bellatrix responded resignedly.
"What on Earth are you talking about?" Tonks wondered. "What are you afraid of him asking you to do?"
Growling at her niece's apparent ignorance, she bit out, "Do I have to spell it out for you? He's a healthy young man; false modesty aside, I'm an attractive woman who's apparently magically bound to serve him; work it out!"
"Do you truly believe that Harry would do such a thing?" Tonks asked incredulously.
"It's happened before," her aunt replied tiredly.
"When I said Harry wasn't capable of things like that, I meant it. We could both jump starkers into his bed, and he wouldn't so much as touch us without our expressed permission. There's a reason that the hat sorted him into Gryffindor after all; he is honorable beyond a fault. I sincerely doubt that it has ever even crossed his mind that he could force a woman like that. He simply does not think that way," Tonks reassured her.
"All men think that way," Bellatrix said resignedly.
"Well, you'll be pleasantly surprised by this one. I know that orb did something to him, other than just changing his looks and giving us all a splitting headache. But he is still my friend Harry and I know that we are both perfectly safe from him," Tonks stated firmly.
"I'll just have to see that to believe it," Bellatrix muttered.
"You will," Tonks responded, "but right now we should get the rest of this stuff packed up. Harry should be finishing up with his relatives soon and we'll need to go."
"That's another thing," Bellatrix commented, "are they always that charming, or is it just me?"
"No," Tonks breathed out angrily, "they feel about magic the same way that the death eaters feel about muggles; as near as I can tell, none of them have ever had a civil word with anyone magical - ever."
"What about Potter? Do they act like that with him? His own family?" Bellatrix questioned.
"You're not the only one unfortunate enough to be unappreciated at home," was Tonks's answer.
"And he's lived here for practically his entire life?" Bellatrix asked. At her niece's nod, she commented, "And he hasn't killed them all in their sleep? Incredible! If I had to live in close quarters with that loud windbag, I would have done something rather permanent within a matter of days."
Smiling, Tonks said, "As I told you, Harry is just too good of a person to do such a thing. In fact, he ignores most every insult and threat towards himself. It's when you threaten his friends that he grows angry. If there is one thing about Harry Potter that you can count on, it's that he protects his friends." With that, Tonks resumed stuffing the clothes haphazardly into a bag.
Going back to her own work, Bellatrix couldn't help it as her mind continued to replay her niece's last comments over and over. 'Harry is just too good of a person... he protects his friends.' For reasons beyond her understanding, Bellatrix knew that Tonk's assessment of Harry was as true as the sun rises in the east. As equally beyond her understanding was why she felt so comforted by that knowledge.
In the Dursley living room, Harry had gone through a highly edited explanation as to why he now bore a 'hippy' haircut, as well as the increase in height, and had finally explained to his relatives - in small, simple words - why they were in danger and must leave immediately.
'Wait for it... wait for it...' Harry thought to himself. His uncle's face skipped straight past 'tomato' on the shades-of-red reference chart and settled on 'fire engine'. 'Here we go...'
"WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING AT, BOY? YOUR FREAK FRIENDS CAN'T STICK WITH SACRIFICING GOATS AND DANCING AROUND BONFIRES? HAVE TO BOTHER INNOCENT, HARDWORKING PEOPLE. HAH! INVISIBLE DEMENTOIDS AND RESURRECTED SNAKE MEN! LET ME TELL YOU, BOY, THAT..." Attempting to ignore his uncle's bellowing, Harry's tortured ears were bombarded with his aunt screeching something about having their throats slit, or being blown up. Being barely capable of speech, Dudley was moaning something about his friends and little kids, all whilst eating a bowl of ice cream.
Not even twenty four hours earlier, Harry would have already either fled or lost his temper. His exposure to his past experiences, however, helped him to keep this confrontation in perspective. But even experienced wizards have their breaking points, and Harry was quickly reaching his. Finally deciding that enough was enough, Harry took in a deep breath and yelled "SILENCE!"
Amazingly enough, the three muggles in front of him immediately ceased speaking and resumed their seats, even the usually unperceptive Dudley. Now, it was possible that they realized that they were acting like a bunch of three-year-olds and decided to behave like the civilized beings that they wished everyone to take them for. Equally likely was the possibility that they remembered that they had company in their home and finally decided to act accordingly. However, if Harry was the gambling sort, he would wager that the shaking walls, rattling glass fixtures, and the 'very irritated wizard' look that he was currently sporting had some small impact in their newfound behavioral capabilities.
"Now then," Harry uttered in a deadly calm voice, "here is how it's going to work; those creatures that attacked Dudley and I last summer will tell the evil wizard - who coincidentally hates and kills everyone who cannot do magic, such as yourselves - exactly where this place is located. He will come and destroy everything here. If you don't want to die, you will leave this place. Uncle Vernon, you said a few years ago how you all loved Majorca; now's an excellent time to see it. Since Dudley was expelled from Smeltings, you have the perfect opportunity to take a long vacation. However, if you wish to stay here, you may do so. I have fulfilled whatever responsibility our blood ties may have demanded, so I'm leaving now. With luck, this is the last time that we will ever see each other. I wish you good fortune, whatever you decide. Goodbye." Turning around, he began moving towards the stairs, but a squeak from his aunt brought his attention back to the cowed family on the couch.
"How long do we have before they get here?" she asked.
"There's not much telling," he replied, "but I advise you to leave immediately. Gather whatever possessions you wish to keep and leave this place today. As an added incentive, I'll arrange it so that you'll never be bothered by wizards again." He threw the last out when he saw that they were still not coming to a conclusion. The offer for a 'freak-free' life finally got the job done, and they quickly agreed. "Splendid," Harry exclaimed, "we'll just get our things from upstairs and be out of your way. Have a good life. Goodbye." With that parting comment, he quickly rose up the stairs and entered his room, leaving the wards intact. Seeing the room was back to normal and three trunks lying on the floor in front of the witches, Harry said, "Well, the Dursleys are going away for awhile, so our work here is done. Do either of you ladies have any reason not to leave now?"
"No! Let's get out of this muggle shack before I burn it down and save Voldemort the trouble!" Bellatrix groused.
"I think we've gotten everything, Harry," Tonks replied in a slightly calmer tone of voice, "We are ready when you are."
"Great! Let's get going then. We'll have to make a quick stop by Gringotts before we hit that shop in Knockturn Alley. Let's go," Harry exclaimed.
"Err...," Bellatrix interrupted, "you may want to consider changing out of the muggle jogger look."
Looking down at themselves, Harry commented, "Oh." A focused expression flit across his face before Tonks's clothes transfigured themselves into a set of robes he had seen her wear and his own jogging suit (more of Dudley's castoffs) quickly became a set of plain black robes with green trim on top of a black shirt and black trousers. "Better?" Harry asked.
"Much," Bellatrix choked out. Both of the women were more than a little shocked that the young wizard in front of them did two highly-advanced transfigurations without a wand, or even a voiced spell.
Decided that now was not the time to discuss this unexplainable phenomenon, Tonks said, "You forgot that you're still going to be drawing attention. Auntie Bellatrix here is a wanted fugitive, after all. And then you have the whole boy-who-lived thing going on."
"Good point," Harry conceded. "Bella, you didn't happen to inherit any metamorphamagus ability, did you?"
"'Bella'?" Bellatrix questioned while raising one eyebrow.
"Yes, well, 'Bellatrix' is the Amazon star and means 'warrioress', but 'Bella' is shorter and is Latin for 'beautiful', so you win either way," Harry replied honestly.
Choosing to ignore Harry's unintentional compliment, the newly christened Bella responded, "No. I have an animagus form, which eliminates any chance of another transfiguration gift like metamorphing." Continuing, she asked, "Does this mean I get to call you 'Harry'?"
Looking slightly confused at her needing to ask such a thing, he replied, "Yes. After all, we're going to be working together for a good while yet. We may as well be on a first-name basis." Blinking, he added, "You're an animagus? What's your form?"
"Err... a she-wolf," Bella replied, already bracing herself for the more obvious jokes that a female canine form had brought her in the past. She was slightly surprised, and secretly a little grateful, that the only response she received was a "Congratulations!" from her niece and Harry's raised eyebrow and statement, "Really? I bet that that form has proven useful!"
Getting a little embarrassed from all the praise, Bella just countered, "It is useful, but I can't use it to blend in at Diagon Alley, so it's no good right now."
"Hmm..." Harry mused, "and we can't just cover you in that black robe. Having to fight a mob attacking a 'Death Eater' is the last thing we need just now." Addressing Tonks, Harry said "You're great in disguises; do you have any suggestions?"
"Well, other than the standard disillusionment charm, the only thing I can think of is a human transfiguration. It's not the same as a metamorph, since it's vulnerable to 'finite incantatem', but it should do in a pinch," Tonks recommended.
"Okay," Harry said, "do you have any better ideas, Bella?"
"No, but I'm not that good at transfiguring myself into another human form," Bellatrix replied.
"I can do it for you," Tonks offered. "The techniques I use on myself are just as effective if I cast them on someone else."
"Is that okay with you, Bella?" Harry inquired.
"Yes," Bella confirmed, hiding a little shock at the fact that she was given the final say in the matter.
"Okay," Tonks said, "just stay still. This won't take but a second." Pointing her wand at Bellatrix's face and assuming a look of great concentration, Tonks intoned, "Cedere facies." Bella's entire appearance began to change; her hair, which had been a midnight black, began to lighten to a honey-brown; her figure began to fill out slightly, removing the noticeable effects of malnutrition left over from her imprisonment. Her most visible transformation, however, was her face. Bella now wore a shorter nose, and sported a more rounded face, rather than her normal, angular countenance. Finally, her striking violet eyes were now a chocolate brown, though they were no less intense.
When the tingling feeling left, Bellatrix glanced at a very pleased Metamorphamagus and an awe-struck teenager. "Well...?" Bella prompted.
"Nymph did a good job," Harry confessed. "If I hadn't watched, I'd have never known it was you." Conjuring a small mirror, he said, "See for yourself."
Gazing at the woman staring back at her, Bella could understand why Harry was temporarily struck speechless. She herself could hardly believe that she was seeing her current reflection. It would be almost impossible for any two women to be any more different. After a few more moments of admiring her disguise, Bella turned to Harry and asked, "Okay, that's me done. Are you going to do anything about your own appearance? Granted, you don't exactly look like you did this time yesterday, but you'll still be easily identified." At Harry's raised eyebrow, Bellatrix turned the mirror around and held it up for him.
As soon as he saw his reflection, Harry frowned. "That's... unexpected," he finally stated.
"What is?" Tonks asked confusedly.
"Hmm...?" Harry asked. At her repeated question, he distractedly answered, "Oh, nothing. It was just random thoughts."
Letting the question slide, Tonks began to turn away before frowning a second in thought. She turned her head sharply and glared at the wizard head-on. "Did you just call me 'Nymph'?" she asked heatedly. "You know how I feel about my given name!"
"Well, I didn't use your first name, actually, although it is a very nice name and you have nothing to be ashamed of. I called you 'Nymph', based on the Greek word that means 'young woman'. Nymphs were revered as the spirits of specific natural features - mountains, rivers, trees, that sort of thing. In fact, they were represented as lovely and eternally youthful creatures." At her dumbfounded look, Harry cocked his head to the side, studying her, before he waved his hand in front of her face. Drawing her attention to the matter at hand, Harry asked, "Can you do something similar for me?" Nodding her head, she followed the same procedure as with Bellatrix and Harry felt a tickling sensation spread encompass his head. It ended a few seconds later and he saw Tonks lower her wand.
Glancing at the mirror that Bellatrix still held outstretched, Harry observed his new appearance. His hair color was now reddish brown, and his features would not be out of place on a man in his late twenties. In short, he resembled an odd cross of Bill Weasley and Remus Lupin. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that his scar was still visible beneath his fringe. "Sorry, Harry, but I can't do anything about that scar. It seems to deflect any attempt to alter it," Tonks said.
"Its okay, Nymph," Harry replied, "I expected something like this anyways. You did a good job." Addressing both witches, Harry said, "As soon as we get to Gringotts, let's just get down to my vault, get enough to cover the cost of those items, and get out without drawing too much attention to ourselves; I don't personally feel like fighting off the reporter corps if our disguise fails."
"Fair enough," Tonks responded, "how are we getting there, Harry? The Knight Bus? Floo?"
"We can go that route if you wish, Nymph, but I thought that just apparating there would be easiest," Harry replied with a smirk.
"Apparating? Since when have you been able to apparate?" Tonks demanded.
"Yes, apparating, and that's a long story that I promise to tell you later; right now, we have a shopping trip to run," Harry responded. Walking over to Hedwig's cage, Harry opened the door and allowed his familiar to use his arm as a perch. Bringing the snowy owl to the window, he addressed his pet, "Hedwig, we're going to be gone for a couple of hours, then making our way to Hogwarts. Can you meet us there, girl?" At the owl's affirmative hoot, he opened the window and stretched his arm outside of the opening. "See you there, girl." Launching the owl into the air, Harry brought his arm back inside and closed the window. Turning around and waving his hand at the trunks gathered together, Harry quickly shrunk them and placed them in his pocket. Hearing a metallic clink, he reached back into the bottom of the pocket and retrieved a silver medallion with an emerald embedded in the center. Remembering that this was all that all that was left from the Chroniculus's explosion, he quickly placed it around his neck and hid it inside his shirt, where it quickly blended in with his skin tone so that it was barely noticeable.
This was apparently too much for Tonks barely-restrained curiosity. "Okay, Mr. Potter," Tonks stated, "that adds extremely refined wandless magic onto illegal knowledge of apparition, newfound physical and mental maturity, and whatever book you swallowed on mythological names and their background information. Oh, yeah, and that cool pendant thing. Anything you'd like to share?"
"Well, technically, knowing how to apparate isn't illegal, just the actual act of apparating without a license is penalized. And I promise to explain everything to the both of you once we reach Hogwarts. But we really need to get these artifacts that Voldemort wants off the streets as soon as possible. Okay?" Harry asked.
"Alright, fair enough," she conceded. "You know where the apparition zone is located?"
"I'm sure that I can find it," Harry replied offhandedly. "I'll meet the two of you there. Okay?" At the ladies' nods, Harry promptly envisioned the alley behind Gringotts, concentrated on a safe spot, and disappeared without even the slightest of 'pops'. After exchanging startled glances, the two women followed him, both making more noticeable noise.
Reappearing next to the young man, Tonks cried out, "Let's go!" and took off at a quick pace towards the bank's entrance. Harry and Bellatrix exchanged confused shrugs and quickly caught up to the hyperactive witch.
Approaching an available goblin, Harry requested an escort to his vault after proving his identity to the suspicious bank teller by way of his distinctive scar and his vault key. Once the goblin, Snotrag, was content that Harry was truly who he said he was, he replied, "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter, but as a minor, you cannot gain admittance to your family vault without the consent of your legal guardian. So, unless one of these ladies serves in that capacity, I cannot help you."
"No, Master Snotrag, they do not. As you know, my parents were murdered many years ago. Unfortunately, my godfather is also recently diseased, so I have no magical guardian at present. My only remaining guardian is my muggle aunt, who is currently unavailable. I realize that my request might violate a simple procedure, but I will greatly 'value' your assistance. To the tune of... a hundred galleons?" Harry asked.
Raising one eyebrow at the bribe, Snotrag replied, "Mr. Potter, such regulations have been enforced for many years, at your minister's request."
Not batting an eye. "Two hundred galleons," Harry replied calmly.
"Really, I couldn't do such a thing. Such a violation would impugn the honor of Gringotts itself," the goblin stated while shaking his head as if insulted by the thought.
"Five hundred, and that is my final offer," Harry answered with a smirk.
Jerking his head up to look Harry in the eye, Snotrag grinned and said, "Follow me, Sir. Misses."
At that, he hopped down from his stool and led Harry and the two amused ladies across the lobby and down a flight of stairs to the nearest cart. When their escort was far enough ahead of them, Tonks grabbed Harry's arm and spun him around. "Are you crazy?" she exclaimed. "Why did you bribe him? Not to mention HOW did you bribe him?"
Not missing Bellatrix's extremely amused expression, Harry replied, "Well, Nymph, I'm certainly not dragging the Dursleys in here, now am I? How else do you propose that I get in there? Call him by his name and hope against all logic that they prostrate themselves before me and call me 'Master'?" After shaking his head at the irrational notion, he couldn't resist chuckling as he turned around and began to follow the goblin. "To answer your other question, goblin society is based on one 'real' golden rule: 'whoever has the gold makes the rules.' For a large enough fee, a goblin will do just about anything. Why do you think that there were so many goblin rebellions? They make perfect mercenaries, as long as you keep them well paid."
A few steps behind the young wizard, Tonks muttered, "I don't know how many more surprises I can take today." Bellatrix only snorted in response, but was also secretly impressed at her new associate's negotiating skills.
Once the three humans had reached the carts and were seated, the goblin sent the cart careening around the tight corners at breakneck speeds as the party descended towards the Potter vaults. After several abrupt changes in direction - and one spectacular ejection of Tonks's breakfast - two definitely queasy witches, an amused goblin, and an absolutely exhilarated young wizard arrived at the storeroom of the Potter family, also known as Gringotts' Vault #134.
After assisting his two human companions in disembarking the cart - or, that bloody contraption, to quote a certain ex-Auror - Snotrag prompted Harry for his key. After finally locating the requested item, Harry handed it over to the goblin, who took the key and placed it into a seemingly neglected wooden door. However, upon turning the key in the ancient-looking lock, the door shimmered and then disappeared, leaving the three humans dazzled by the real entrance to the vault. Instead of the previous passage that was nothing more than an ordinary wooden door, there now lay directly ahead of the group a large stone arch, which reached nearly ten feet across, and over eight feet high. However, the most breathtaking feature was the glowing blue vortex that was trapped within the arch. At Harry's inquiring glance, the goblin explained, "Your vault entrance is heavily charmed to protect the vault's contents, Mr. Potter, by order of your parents. Only with your permission, as you have no other living family members to grant access, can entry to the vault's interior be gained. To enter, simply press your hand against the blue field. It will then deactivate until you re-enable it."
Nodding his understanding, Harry approached the portal and did as the goblin said. As soon as his hand touched the field, the blue shield flickered and collapsed. And for the second time in as many minutes, they were left shocked and speechless. As the contents of the vault now lay visible, they now could see a collection of family heirlooms, several books, and, as one would expect, several piles of gold.
These several -large- piles of gold, were bordering on mountainous.
"Well," Harry said, recovering before either of the women, "If you will wait right here, Master Snotrag, we will be back momentarily. Ladies?" With that, he entered the vault, closely followed by the two witches.
"Now, Bella, you said that the cheapest of those devices ran close to 1 million galleons. How much do you think all of them could be bought for?" Harry inquired.
"From what I heard, it would about 7 million for all three," Bellatrix replied.
"Okay..." Harry trailed off as he searched nearby for something to hold the coins. Seeing a few withdrawal pouches hanging near the door, he retrieved one and, after confirming that it was already enchanted to be weightless and bottomless, began scooping stacks of galleons into the bag. Within a few minutes, Harry finished gathering the required sum and pocketed the sack, while filling a second bag with the promised 500 galleons for the waiting Snotrag.
After giving the goblin his fee, Snotrag requested Harry to place his hand upon the archway and say 'finite'. Once Harry did so, the blue shield jumped back into being, followed only moments after by the illusion of the wooden door. Pocketing his key, Harry returned to the cart and they made their way back to the surface.
Leaving the bank, the trio made their way towards the entrance to Knockturn Alley. Upon arriving at the shady entrance, Harry motioned Bellatrix ahead, saying, "After you, Bella. Now, here is one way we can work this. Nymph, once we get there, you keep an eye on all possible entrances and exits. I'll make sure that there are no untoward surprises in the shop proper. Bella, you just concentrate on getting the devices; we'll make sure that there's no double-cross waiting for us. Are you both okay with that plan?" At the two witches' nods, Harry retrieves the sack of coins and hands it to Bellatrix. "Very well then, let's go."
A few minutes, two rather lonely old hags, and one very persistent peddler later, the trio found themselves outside Borgin & Burkes, proprietors of all things questionable. They immediately entered the store, with Tonks drifting towards an ideal spot to discretely monitor the only entrance, while Harry meandered among the aisles as if examining the merchandise while staying within earshot, and Bellatrix approached Borgin himself.
"Hello, my dear. How may I be of service?" the old shopkeeper asked in an oily voice.
Assuming the persona of cold disdain typical of the pureblood population, Bellatrix replied sharply, "You currently have three items on hand of a -questionable- nature. My master desires them. You will retrieve them now."
"Madame! I am sure that I do not know of what you speak!" the shopkeeper replied in a shocked tone.
"I believe that you do," Bellatrix replied. "They were originally to be delivered to Mr. Malfoy. As you may or may not know, he was recently detained. I am here in his stead."
"And did Mr. Malfoy pass on any comments for me?" Borgin asked in a seemingly disaffected voice.
"He wished to inform you that 'while lights may spark, flicker, or die, the dark remains constant'," Bellatrix replied.
"I see..." the old man trailed off, "and your friends?"
"They are to ensure that there are no -irregularities- during our transaction," Bellatrix answered with an evil smirk.
"Oh, course. Hmm, hmm... and the fee?" he asked.
Bellatrix removed the coin pouch from her robe pocket and tossed it on the counter. "And the merchandise?" she prompted
Borgin's greedy gaze never left the obviously loaded gold pouch. "Coming right up, Madam. Wait just a moment." With that, he quickly scurried to the rear of the shop, where he rolled up a rug to reveal a trap door. "This way!" he urged before lifting the door and descending the concealed staircase. "And bring that pouch!"
Sensing possible foul play, Harry signaled for Tonks to return to her post guarding the door. Turning back to Bellatrix, Harry winked at her right before concentrating on the spell demonstrated by Dumbledore four years prior and willing his self invisible. Catching on to his plan, Bellatrix smirked at him before resuming her previous mannerisms and went down the stairs after the decrepit old shopkeeper, with a silent and invisible Harry in tow. After reaching the bottom, Harry and Bellatrix found themselves in a dusty storeroom, stacked full of boxes, barrels, and crates of all sizes.
Borgin, watching the -apparently isolated- witch approaching him, gestured towards a large crate sitting on the floor near the foot of the stairs. "Here is your merchandise, milady. Would you like for me to open it for you, or do you want the honors?"
Not trusting the old man, Bellatrix quickly told him that -she- would open it. Reaching the box, Bellatrix smoothly drew her wand and pointed it at the crate before intoning "patefacio". However, the lid slid aside to reveal not the expected dark ritual paraphernalia, but a large -and apparently quite hungry- king cobra. As the snake uncoiled itself from the confines of the box and made to strike Bellatrix, she jumped backwards - unfortunately right into the disarming charm fired by a grinning Borgin. Before Bellatrix could respond, she was bound with conjured ropes, also courtesy of the shop keeper.
"Thought you'd get the best of ol' Borgin, did you? Guess you didn't know that Lucius dropped in himself, not three hours ago. Too bad for you, but you ought to make a fine meal for my friend here," Borgin crowed while gesturing towards the approaching snake. "Oh, and feel free to scream as loudly as you want - this whole room is silenced, so your friends won't even know what's hit 'em until it's too late."
Unfortunately for Borgin, this last comment was proved untrue as the still-concealed Harry quickly cast the same two spells on his target as the old man had put on Bellatrix. Once the old wizard was safely out of commission, Harry removed his invisibility spell as he freed the struggling witch from her binds. Finally turning his attention to the last urgency, Harry brought the snake to a halt in the most expedient manner. Much to Borgin's shock, he hissed, "Stay where you are, little one. The she before you means you no harm."
"A ssspeaker?!" the snake replyed. Immediately stopping, the cobra turned its full attention to Harry as it replied, "but I isss ssso hungry. Sssmelly man barely feedsss me."
"If you will wait just a moment, my friend, I will take you where you can eat your fill," Harry answered.
"Even a nice, juicy mouse?"
"As many as you wish."
"Asss you wisssh, Master," the cobra replied while it coiled.
Turning to a now terrified Borgin, Harry smiled coldly at the cowering man as Bellatrix skirted the snake and returned to Harry's side. "Now," Harry purred, "you mentioned that Lucius was out of Azkaban already, did you not? AND that he has already collected the merchandise?" Not giving the bound man the opportunity to answer the rhetorical questions, Harry's tone chilled a few degrees and he ground out, "You're going to tell me everything you know about the artifacts in question, as well as what Lucius plans to do next. And you WILL tell me exactly what I want to know, otherwise I will leave you to the tender mercies of my two friends here." Harry smirked as Bellatrix's grin became positively demented and the cobra, apparently understanding what was going on, slithered to Harry's other side and flared its hood.
The united show of force was enough to loosen Borgin's tongue and he began rattling off disjointed information. After a reprimand (in the form of a barked expletive and a swift kick) from Bellatrix, the man managed to stutter, "Don't hurt me! Lucius... he came in this morning... him and four others took the things and left. Said somethin' about 'taking care of that traitorous bitch' on his way out. Guess she's the one who helped get 'im in Azkaban or somethin'. That's all I know, I swear!"
When Borgin mentioned what Lucius had said, Harry looked at Bellatrix and saw her eyes widen significantly. Harry prudently stunned the weeping man at their feet before laying a hand on Bellatrix's shoulder. "Do you know who he was talking about, Bella?" Harry asked.
"Narcissa, it has to be my sister Narcissa," Bellatrix gasped out. "Several of us were at their manor for dinner one evening a few weeks ago when Kreatcher showed up. He started going on about 'the stupid mutt blood traitor' to Narcissa and Lucius overheard. That's what gave Lucius the idea of using... Sirius... to draw you to the Department of Mysteries. He must be blaming her for the plan's failure. We have to do something!" As she finished the last exclamation, she began to stride over to the stairs. Tightening his grip on her shoulder, Harry pulled her back around to face him.
"I know we do, but barging in there, wands blazing, isn't going to do her - or us - any good," Harry explained. "Let's finish here and get Nymph. We'll come up with a plan to save your sister; I promise. Okay?" Harry reassured.
Visibly deflating, Bellatrix replied, "Okay. But we have to hurry!"
"We will," Harry promised. After ensuring that Borgin was sufficiently restrained, he turned his attention to the waiting cobra. Conjuring several large mice, Harry spoke, "Here you go, my friend. I have one last thing to ask you. Can you watch over this man until one of my other friends arrives to take him? They will be wearing red robes, and will not bother you. If anyone else comes down here, feel free to bite them. Will you do this for me?"
A few moments later, the cobra replied, "As you command, Master."
With the disposition of the crooked shopkeeper arranged, Harry gently pushed Bellatrix towards the stairs. "Let's go, Bella. Our little friend here will guard Borgin until I can get an Auror to come arrest him. Let's go fill Nymph in on the problem."
Climbing the stairs, the two made their way over to Tonks, where Harry quickly explained the situation to the Metamorphamagus. Finishing explaining, Harry said, "So that's the situation. The three ritual implements are currently in the possession of Lucius Malfoy, who is most likely still at Malfoy Manor. Narcissa's life is most likely in jeopardy, and we have no way of knowing how many death eaters Lucius has with him. If we don't act now, the artifacts will be delivered to Voldemort, where we won't be able to retrieve them, and the world as we know it will be destroyed. Any suggestions?"
"Glad to know that there's no pressure," Tonks said sarcastically. "Where can we get some reinforcements?"
Bellatrix looked at her niece and asked incredulously, "Aren't you with Dumbledore's Order? Ask them!"
"It's not as if they have a task force on-hand," Tonks replied. "We could never get enough people assembled for a frontal assault before Malfoy leaves. Maybe we could get some of the Aurors?"
"Not any concrete evidence, Nymph," Harry stated. "Lucius has bought Fudge and several of the high-ranking Ministry officials already. We won't receive any help from that quarter, either. The only solution I see is the stealth approach: the three of us go in, locate Narcissa and the devices, then high-tail it out of there. You've been there recently, Bella. What's the best way to approach?"
"I've always just apparated to the main entrance, since I was always expected. I can tell you that the place is covered in wards to block just about everything, including apparition and portkeys. There's no doubt in my mind that Lucius is keeping them all up to prevent anyone discovering that he's no longer incarcerated." Looking distraught, Bellatrix said, "I don't know how we can get to her before its too late!"
Looking thoughtful for a second, Harry suddenly smiled mischievously. "I think I have a way," he said. "Lucius still keeps house elves, doesn't he?" The apparent non sequitur earned twin confused looks on the women's faces.
"Yes..." Bellatrix responded, "Why?"
"Wonderful!" Harry exclaimed, ignoring the question. Raising his voice, Harry called out, "Dobby! I need you!"
A few seconds later, there was a loud pop to signal the arrival of a very hyperactive house elf. "Mr. Harry Potter Sir called for Dobby?" Taking in the surroundings, Dobby asked, "Where is Mr. Harry Potter Sir?"
Realizing that he was still disguised, Harry cancelled the imposed transfiguration and returned his features to normal. "I am Harry, Dobby."
"Why is Mr. Harry Potter Sir here? This is a bad place! And why does Mr. Harry Potter Sir look so different?" the house elf asked.
"Err... I'll explain later, Dobby. Right now, we really your help," Harry mentioned.
"Anything for the great wizard Harry Potter. How can Dobby serve?" the elf inquired.
"Well, Dobby, your old master bought some things that will hurt a lot of people, and he is at his home right now. We also think that he intends to harm Narcissa," Harry answered.
"Mistress was always kind to Dobby. Mistress was telling Dobby about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's diary so that Dobby could protect Mr. Harry Potter Sir." Dobby frowned. "Bad man must not hurt mistress! What can Dobby do to help the great wizard Harry Potter?"
"We need a way past the wards and into Malfoy Manor, without being spotted. We also need a way to quietly find where Narcissa and those dangerous things are, and then get out again. Can you help us?" Harry pleaded.
"Dobby can carry Harry Potter and his friends to old master's house. Does Master Harry Potter Sir wish to go now?" the elf asked.
Glancing at both Bellatrix and Tonks and catching their nods, Harry turned back to the waiting house elf and said, "Yes, Dobby, take us there now. And be as quiet as you can! We don't want anyone to know that we're even there."
Dobby's face assumed a look of deep concentration and, with a snap of his fingers, the three humans and one elf found themselves in an old-fashioned bedroom, furnished in a very elaborate manner. Looking to the elf for confirmation, Dobby declared, "Dobby takes you to old, unused guestroom. Mistress's room is one floor above, at the end of the hall. If mistress is not there, mistress is being in the study, three rooms that way," pointing at the wall behind Harry.
Jumping from one foot to the other, Dobby kept looking around him before gazing back at Harry and asking, "How else may Dobby serve, Master Harry Potter Sir?"
Recognizing that the elf was nervous from being in his former home, Harry responded, "That's all. Thank you, Dobby, you may go. But keep an ear open; we may need you to help us escape shortly."
"Yes, Master Harry Potter Sir. Dobby will be waiting." With that said and another snap, the three mages found themselves alone in the room.
Turning away from his inspection of the room, Harry was accosted by two very pointed stares, as well as twin waves of intense curiosity along the part of his mind seemingly occupied with the ladies in question. "I promise that I'll answer any questions that you may have, just as soon as we leave here. Okay?" Harry asked.
"You'd better!" Tonks warned.
Bellatrix just nodded sharply before turning towards the door. She called over her shoulder, "Since this entire floor is rarely used, I think that we should check for Narcissa in the study first, before tackling the next floor. Now, let's go! Since I know the layout, I'm on point."
Exiting the guestroom, the trio made their way silently down the hall towards the study in question, with Harry and Tonks ensuring that no one sneaked up on them from behind. Drawing their wands, both Tonks and Bellatrix were preparing to break down the door and storm the room before Harry gently tapped both of them on their shoulders and signaled for them to allow him forward. Taking a step forward, Harry placed both hands upon the door and began muttering a phrase in Latin. Its purpose quickly became apparent when a section of the door at eye-level became transparent. "One-way mirror," Harry whispered in answer to Tonks' raised eyebrow. Quickly scanning the now-revealed room, the three quickly determined that the study was vacant. "Right then," Harry mumbled, "up we go. After you, Bella," Harry said, motioning for Bellatrix to head towards the stairs. Keeping their progress as quiet as possible, the party arrived at a set of old, spiraled steps. Taking the staircase slowly, the group winced at every creak as they made their way to the floor above them. Reaching the alcove, Bellatrix motioned the other two to remain silent. The reasoning for this was quickly discovered; at the opposite end of the hall, right where Narcissa's bedroom should be, were two familiar Death Eater guards. Stepping back out of view, the three huddled.
"McNair," Tonks breathed angrily.
"And Dolohov," Harry said quietly. "It's just a guess, but I'll bet that Lucius, his friends, the merchandise, and Narcissa are all in there."
"Well, how are we going to tackle them?" Tonks asked. "We can't attack from here; they'll be able to call for help before we take them down. We can't use a disillusionment charm and get closer; all these lights would give us away. I don't suppose either of you brought an invisibility cloak, have you?"
At this, Bellatrix glanced at Harry. Smiling wickedly, Harry said, "I'll be right back." Before Tonks could question him further, Harry once again willed himself invisible and quietly made his way down the hall towards his unsuspecting quarry. Raising an invisible hand and pointing at both Death Eaters, Harry whispered, "Stupefy," and grinned as twin scarlet beams sent the two guards to sleep. Dropping his invisibility spell, Harry motioned for the two witches to approach him. As they were approaching, Harry repeated his earlier spell and installed a one-way viewport into the until-recently guarded door; the revealed scene set his teeth on edge and his blood to boiling. If the sharp glares, murderous expressions, and grinding teeth were any indication, neither Tonks or Bellatrix appreciated the goings-on either. For within what Harry assumed was Narcissa's bedroom, the trio could see Lucius and his son, Draco, standing on either side of a rather large bed. But the part of this scene that really enraged the trio was the sight of a restrained Narcissa lying upon the bed, while her husband, son, and two additional Death Eaters observed her struggles with sadistic glee. From what they could observe, Lucius was taunting her about something.
"Okay," Harry said through gritted teeth, "let's take out the trash." Noticing Bellatrix's barely restrained rage, Harry added, "Try not to kill them; we could use the information." At the two women's sharp nods, Harry finished with, "on three, then."
"One." Both Bellatrix and Tonks stepped to either side of Harry, facing the door with their wands outstretched.
"Two." Readying himself for what might be required to subdue this latest threat, Harry drew his own wand and held it in a tight grip while pointing it directly at the door ahead of them.
"Three." With that, Harry intoned "Pello" and launched the heavy door into the two death eaters that Harry did not recognize, leaving only the two male Malfoys to face the three invaders. Harry took a second to ensure that neither of his projectile's recipients would be joining the fight. While Harry was doing this, Tonks caught the younger Malfoy completely unawares with a Conjunctivitis Curse, which had him falling to the ground in a fetal position while grinding his hands into his eyes and moaning. Before he could even begin to recover from the curse, Tonks had stunned him. Meanwhile, Bellatrix had already launched an assortment of painful hexes and curses in the moment it took Lucius to withdraw his wand from the top of his cane. Luckily for him, he had far better reflexes then his son and managed to spin away from this barrage. He managed to dodge most of the spellwork - until a judicially placed severing charm caught him in his lower leg, splitting his robe and leaving a heavily bleeding gash in the exposed flesh. Grimacing, Lucius narrowed his eyes as he spit out the incantation for the Entrails-Expelling Curse as his leg gave and he collapsed. Quickly casting a shield, Bellatrix blocked the highly damaging spell before it could strike her.
Harry, after securing his Death Eaters, looked up to see that Tonks had the younger Malfoy well in hand. Glancing over to the only duel in progress, he noticed that Lucius was definitely losing to Bellatrix, seeing as how his leg was heavily damaged and Bellatrix was still unharmed. The wound apparently didn't hit anything too vital, as Lucius pulled himself together and retaliated with a spell so malevolent that Harry could sense it from several feet away. Afraid that Bellatrix wouldn't be able to block the dark curse, Harry started to run towards her. His concerns were unfounded, however, as she managed to conjure a sufficiently strong shield that allowed the curse to dispel on its surface. While Harry did not recognize the exact spell used, it was obvious that Bellatrix did, at least if her twisted parody of a smile was any indication. As he reached her side, Harry heard her begin to cast, "Avada Ke-".
Reacting quickly, Harry reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling until her wand was now facing the ground. Turning to face him with a murderous look on her face, Harry answered sharply, "We're not Death Eaters. We're better than that. YOU are better that that!" Clenching her teeth, she repeatedly made and relaxed her fists in an attempt to calm down.
Seeing the opening, Lucius took aim at Bellatrix and shouted "Crucio!" Seeing the blue bolt of energy approaching from the corner of his eye, Harry jumped at Bellatrix and knocked her out of the spell's path. Unfortunately, the unforgivable curse connected with his shoulder and sent Harry to his knees in immeasurable pain. His torment however quickly ended, when twin curses from both Bellatrix and Tonks rendered Lucius unarmed and unconscious.
As one, the two witches grabbed hold of Harry and gently brought him to his feet and steadying him. "Are you okay?" Tonks asked worriedly, while Bellatrix gazed at him with an unreadable expression on her face.
"Just... peachy, Nymph. Give me a second to catch my breath." Swallowing, he continued. "It would probably be a good idea to disarm and bind our friends here. I'd hate for them to wander off," Harry recommended with a weak grin.
As Tonks went around the room summoning their enemies' wands and binding them with a disapparition jinx, Harry turned so that he faced the still-bound form of Narcissa Malfoy and said, "C'mon, Bella, let's go check on your sister." Reaching her bedside, both Harry and Bellatrix could see the terror and confusion in her blue eyes. Realizing that she was still disguised, Bellatrix cancelled Tonk's transfiguration, return her to her own appearance. Moving slowly so as not to frighten her, Harry touched his wand to her bindings and muttered, "Evanesco."
As soon as the ropes vanished, Narcissa jerked her hands up to her face and pulled the gag off. "Bella?" Narcissa questioned. "What's going on? How did you get here?"
"I got free and found out that Lucius was out of Azkaban and coming here," Bellatrix answered hurriedly. "We suspected that he had something planned for you, so we came to get you. Are you okay? Can you stand?"
"I'm okay, Bella. Really!" Narcissa reassured. "He was still gloating about what he was going to do to me when you burst the door down." Shifting her attention to Harry and Tonks, Narcissa asked in a wary tone, "and who is this?" In answer, Tonks cycled her hair through several colors before stopping again on her customary shade of pink. "Nymphadora? Is that you?" Groaning slightly, Tonks nodded. Harry's resulting chuckle brought Narcissa's attention onto himself. Frowning slightly, she cocked her head to the side and asked, "Do I know you?"
Smiling slightly, Harry replied, "We met a couple of years ago at the World Cup." Reaching up and brushing aside his bangs to reveal his world renowned scar, "Harry James Potter, at your service," Harry said finishing with a bow. At this, Narcissa's eyes widened even further as her gaze shifted between her sister, niece, and the boy-who-lived. Extending his hand to help her rise, Harry asked, "Now, are you able to walk? As soon as we pick up something, we do need to be going."
Accepting his hand, Narcissa allowed Harry to pull her to her feet. Quickly steadying herself, she replied, "Walking isn't the problem. I can walk just fine, but I can't leave this house. Believe me, I've tried. Several times."
"And why is that?" Bellatrix asked sharply.
"Because my /master/-" here, Narcissa spat out the obviously forced appellation "-forbade me from leaving the manor without his consent."
"And how could he enforce such a thing?" Tonks asked.
Narcissa opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. Her frustration began to mount as she repeatedly tried - and failed - to communicate some piece of information.
Putting the pieces together, Harry was the first person to voice what Narcissa was unable to say. "Lucius has you under some sort of compelment curse, doesn't he? And then made sure that you could not even speak of it, right?" Narcissa, eyes blazing, gave a choppy affirmative nod.
"But the symptoms of the Imperius Curse are nothing like this!" Tonks protested.
"True, Nymph, but there are several insidious methods of controlling others. The Imperius Curse just happens to be the most popular," Harry mentioned.
"How do we break this... whatever it is?" Bellatrix demanded.
"We have to find out what it is first. I wonder..." Harry trailed off.
"Wonder what?" Tonks questioned.
Ignoring her, he addressed himself to Narcissa. "Do you trust me?"
'Well, this is certainly not how I was expecting this afternoon to go,' Narcissa thought to herself. Not five minutes earlier, her poor excuse for a husband and her even poorer excuse for a son, along with a few unintelligent death eaters, had come bursting into her bed chambers - and she counted her blessings that she even had her own chambers - and had immobilized and restrained her before she could even draw her wand. Her husband then muttered something to a couple of the idiots about standing guard, who stepped out into the hallway and closed the door, leaving Narcissa to face her titular family and two other lackeys that Narcissa recognized from previous occasions.
Her husband stepped forward so that he was looming above her incumbent form. "Well, my dearest Narcissa, as you can see, I am no longer residing in Azkaban; no thanks to you. Before I completed a task for my master, I thought it only appropriate that I stop by to share a revelation that I had during my time there. When I thought about it, I found it a little odd that it was your elf that told us that the boy would run straight to the Ministry without informing anyone if his precious godfather were endangered. And yet, once we apprehend the brat, we find that he brought the old fool and a squad of Aurors! Now, I don't know how you managed to thwart my and my master's wishes plus warn Dumbledore, but such betrayal to the Dark Lord will not be tolerated."
"That thing's not MY lord, you little-" was all Narcissa blurted before Lucius gagged her.
Dropping his thin veneer of civility, Lucius spoke, "Very well, Narcissa. If you will not serve the Dark Lord willingly, we shall force you. Draco!"
"Yes, father?" the Death Eater-in-training asked.
"I think that it is time for you to prove your loyalty to the cause, my son. How about you begin the traitor's chastisement?" Lucius suggested.
"Of course, father," Draco replied. Looking down at the woman who gave him life, he smirked at the resignation and disappointment in her face. Pointing his wand at her chest, he uttered, "Cruc-". However before the unforgivable curse could be cast, the entire room was flung into chaos.
First, the heavily warded door exploded off its hinges and impacted the two lurking Death Eaters that had remained inside the room. Then through the open portal, Narcissa could see three figures rush into the room and then subdue both Lucius and Draco. Before Narcissa could completely come to grips with the situation, her restraints were destroyed and she realized that one of the attackers was her sister, Bellatrix. A quick round of introductions revealed the identities of Bellatrix's companions as none other than their niece, Nymphadora Tonks, and even more surprising was Harry Potter, the boy-who-lived. Potter, who was apparently leading this group, then pulled her to her feet and told her that they had come to rescue her and retrieve something. She tried to explain why she could not leave the manor, how that Lucius had somehow overrode her will with his own, but speaking of it proved to be as impossible as escape itself. However, somehow Potter managed to figure out what she was leaving unsaid. And then he further managed to completely confuse her by asking one simple question. "Do you trust me?"
'Do I TRUST you? I've hardly even met you!' Narcissa thought indignantly. Intending to convey this to him, she raised her gaze to his face to find his eyes staring right back at her.
His intense, emerald eyes.
Even as her mouth had started to form a negative response, Narcissa was struck dumb by what she saw in those jade pools. 'If eyes are the windows to the soul...' she thought to herself. Intellectually, she knew that the wizard she was gazing at was the same age as her failure of a son, and as such, should be just another immature teenager. But as she inspected Potter, she could not help but contradict this assessment. Narcissa could not help but feel how he practically radiated power and authority. Within this rather unassuming shell, Narcissa could sense a great reserve of strength, both in magic and character. The wizard before her seemed a perfect combination of the wise Dumbledore and the younger charismatic Riddle. With that realization, she concluded that this man - as she could not in good conscience refer to him as a boy - would prove either a most loyal ally or a very deadly adversary. As these thoughts swirled through her head, Narcissa knew - in her heart of hearts - that this man really could match the powers of the dark lord and prevail. And with that foremost in her mind, she made her decision.
"Yes, I trust you."
A small smile appear on Potter's face and he said, "Okay. Just relax, and look into my eyes."
Not removing her stare from his, Narcissa could feel another presence within her mind. Unlike the cold intrusion that always accompanied Voldemort's or Lucius's mental attacks, this occurrence was warm and reassuring. Surrendering to it, she felt the warmth spread out and encompass her entire form. In her mind's eye, she saw a glowing nebula of colored light with tendrils snaking to every part of her body. Suppressing a spike of shock, Narcissa realized that she was actually seeing her magical core. Before she could become lost on the tangent of how this was possible, the view altered, showing a dark net encircling her core. This encasement had a single, pitch-black offshoot that radiated malevolence. Trying not to become sick from the sheer wrongness of this alien presence, she observed that the tendril left her body and ended in that of her husband's. Feeling an irritation - no, rage - that was not her own, the view dissolved and she found herself looking at Potter's side profile, who was currently glaring murderously at the unconscious form of Lucius.
After obtaining her permission, Harry dipped into Narcissa's conscious mind, focusing his probe on her inner magical core. Quickly finding his target, he began to search for abnormalities. He quickly detected a dark presence on her otherwise light-oriented core. Seeing the evidence that it originated from Lucius for himself, he began studying this anomaly in an attempt to identify it. A few seconds later, his memory recalled encountering this particular curse once, long ago. Unable to contain a sharp burst of rage at his discovering the exact nature of the spell, Harry quickly severed the link to Narcissa's mind before he harmed her. Turning his full attention to the unprincipled monster lying before him, Harry fought to restrain the raw impulse to completely destroy all traces that the being known as Lucius Malfoy even existed. Engaging his occlumency skills, he siphoned off his rage in order to find a solution to this new problem.
Distantly, Harry heard Bellatrix ask Narcissa if she was alright. A hand laid gently on his shoulder jerked him out of his speculations and he followed it to a worried Tonks. "What is it? How can we dispel it?"
"It's an extremely old spell known as the 'Servus Corpus' or 'Body Slave' curse," Harry answered distractedly. "It differs from the Imperius in three main ways. First, this curse bypasses the mind entirely, binding itself directly to its victim's magical core. Secondly, it was deemed obsolete, since it only affects witches and can only be cast or held by a wizard."
"And third...?" a shaken Narcissa asked.
Swallowing, Harry continued, "Third, unlike the Imperius Curse, which can be broken without harm, severing this curse is fatal to its victim."
Stifling a sob, Narcissa asked, "So that's it? I'm either stuck to him for the rest of my life or die?"
Thinking quickly, he stumbled across a potential solution. Facing her, he attempted to console the distraught witch. "I may have a way out of this for you, but I will not do anything without your complete consent. Okay?" At Narcissa's nod, Harry continued, "I said it could not be broken. But with the caster's willing consent, the bond could be transferred to another. I think that I could offer him something tempting enough for him to turn you loose."
"But what could be tempting enough for Lucius to just let me go? He can buy just about anything that he wants," Narcissa protested.
"Then we offer him something that his money cannot buy him," Harry returned.
"And that is...?" Bellatrix asked.
At Harry's self-depreciating smirk, Tonks suddenly realized what he was suggesting and burst out, "I don't bloody think so! Not on your life, Harry James Potter!"
"C'mon, Nymph. He likes to consider himself honorable. And he's vengeful. If he stood to gain Voldemort's favor for bringing in 'The Harry Potter', not to mention his and his friends' freedom from here, he will be more than willing to gamble that one little request."
"What are you talking about?" Bellatrix asked bewilderedly.
"This self-sacrificing idiot is planning to duel that waste of space over there with his freedom versus Narcissa's as the stakes!" Tonks nearly shouted.
"You would risk your life to save mine?" Narcissa asked softly. "Why would you go to such extremes for a woman you hardly even know?"
"Because I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I don't believe that you deserve this affliction. And, unless one of these two-" Harry nodded towards Bellatrix and Tonks "-have something to share, I'm the only eligible male here. I'll swear on whatever oath you require that I will never violate your free will. If you agree to this at all, that is."
Taking a few moments to consider the alternative - being bound to a malicious monster that would happily torture and kill her - Narcissa readily consented to Harry's plan. "I agree. If you can help, I'll pay whatever you want," she pledged.
Waving the offer away, Harry looked back at a still-irritated Metamorphamagus and said, "It'll be okay, Nymph. I promise. Can I have his wand, please?" Accepting the cane from Tonks, he twisted the top portion and withdrew the polished length of wood hidden in the larger staff. Handing the cane back, Harry strode over towards Lucius and, after verifying that his restraints still held, enervated him.
As soon as the prone man regained consciousness, he quickly took in his condition. The fact that a visibly angry wizard was holding two wands to his unprotected head may have had something to do with his quick perception. "Hello, Lucy. How are you feeling?" Harry asked insincerely.
Uncertain grey eyes looked at him for a moment before comprehension dawned. "Potter," he spat, "how kind of you to visit my home. The Dark Lord will reward me greatly when I present him with you."
Smiling blandly, Harry countered, "Odd. That was the exact reason why I woke you up from your little nap. I have an offer to relieve you of your current predicament," nodding towards his fellow incapacitated Death Eaters and his own restrained condition.
"Oh?" Lucius wondered silkily. "And what is your munificent proposal?"
Grinning even wider, Harry answered, "It is quite simple. We duel until one of us is incapacitated. Should you win, you and your friends will be allowed to leave, with me in your custody. I'll even swear a magically binding oath to go along peacefully. As you have mentioned, Voldemort would pay handsomely to finally get one over on me."
Thinking over his options, Lucius continued, "Okay, I'll humor you. Should I choose to do such a thing and you win our little contest, what would you want?"
"Your release of any and all holds over your wife, INCLUDING the 'Servus Corpus'," Harry responded immediately. At Lucius's widened eyes, Harry confirmed smugly, "Yes, I know about your little... project. And, of course, I would require your magically-binding oath to those ends. Do we have an accord?"
Giving the proposal serious thought, Lucius asked, "Let me see if I have this correct. We duel; when I win, you will surrender without a fight?"
"IF you win; IF. And should I win, you will release Narcissa from any and all bonds that may be in force."
Seeing no other way out of his predicament, Lucius agreed. "Very well, Potter, you have a deal. If you would be so kind...?" he motioned towards his injured leg.
"Oh course," Harry continued the faux polite conversation. A murmured spell later and the leg was as good as new. Continuing, Harry said, "As challenger, I have set the terms. What do you choose for weapons?"
Seeing his opponent still holding his wand and suspecting foul play, Lucius saw an opportunity to win his freedom, gain favor from his master, and get in a little revenge all at the same time, Lucius made his decision. "Well, since we've already had that delightful magical duel a few weeks ago with your little friends-" Lucius was inwardly shocked and a little disconcerted that there was no visible reaction on his opponent's face at his comment "-how about we try something a little more interesting?" Smirking, Lucius continued, "I choose sabers. Winner is the first to draw blood from the torso." Nodding his head towards the adjacent wall, Harry followed his lead and saw the Malfoy family crest on the wall, framed by two of the mentioned sabers.
Harry just nodded his head. "Agreed," he said. Keeping his eyes on his opponent, Harry tossed the two wands he held towards the three witches. "Your oath?" Harry prompted.
"I, Lucius Octavius Malfoy, do so swear on my life and magic to abide by the terms and conditions of the duel as mutually agreed." Lifting an inquiring eyebrow, Lucius awaited his opponent's acceptance.
"I, Harry James Potter, do so swear on my life and magic to abide by the terms and conditions of the duel as mutually agreed," Harry answered.
"So mote it be," Lucius finalized.
"So mote it be," Harry repeated. With that said, a bright light flashed into existence around both Lucius and Harry for a split second as the air in the room grew heavy. Just as quickly as it appeared, the light faded and the room cleared, leaving no trace that a magically-binding agreement had been reached. "So," Harry asked, "do you have a place to spar?"
"Why not here?" Lucius countered.
"Fair enough," Harry agreed.
Crossing the room, Lucius retrieved the two mounted sabers from the crest and tossed one of the light swords to Harry, who deftly plucked the sword from the air as it passed him. Attempting to shake up his opponent, Lucius gradually moved closer towards the younger wizard and taunted, "I always enjoyed studying the art of Fence. Did you know that I practiced over four hours a day to master it?"
Smirking, Harry replied, "Truly? I have heard that it takes two lifetimes to master fencing - at the least." His grin became rather predatory. "At least I won't have to spar with an amateur."
Smiling coldly, Lucius responded, "Indeed," and, without warning, bounded towards his adversary. Seeing that the time for flowery courtesies had passed, Harry advanced to meet his opponent's charge, his face void of all expression. As soon as he was within range, Lucius launched a series of vicious blows at Harry's torso more suited for a maiming than the rather innocuous contest he had proposed earlier. Without any visible effort, Harry parried each stroke, completely immobile save his sword arm. Growing furious at the skill of the younger wizard, Lucius began using jabs as well in an attempt to defeat his rival. These, Harry either dodged or deflected, still staying solely defensive. Noticing this, Lucius stepped back and sneered, "What's wrong, Potter afraid to fight back?"
Grinning, Harry replied, "Hardly. I was just giving you a fair chance. But if it's my response you want..." Moving almost too fast for the human eye to track, Harry closed the distance between the two fighters and, using a corkscrew motion with his sword, sent Lucius's sword flying from his hand. A second blur of motion from the blade in Harry's hand and the room's occupants found the tip of a saber gently resting against Lucius's exposed throat.
It took the elder wizard a few moments to realize what just happened before he drew up in defiance. "Well," he bit out, "What are you waiting for?" Raising an eyebrow, Harry glanced down at his opponent's torso. Following his gaze, Lucius saw three lightly bleeding scratches centered on his chest resembling the world-famous scar upon the younger man's forehead.
"By the agreed-upon terms of engagement, I pronounce you defeated and claim what is mine." As soon as the last words left Harry's mouth, a dark tendril, evidence of the malicious control curse, appeared between Lucius's chest and Narcissa's. The strand of darkness began writhing between the two until Lucius's end broke. The broken end of the wisp, as if draw by a magnet, jumped immediately from the defeated man's torso and impacted against the younger wizard. As it came in contact with Harry, two other strands of pure white appeared alongside the relocated tendril and could be traced to the other two witches in the room. As the dark link began to settle down, it too began to change, until it resembled either of the adjacent bonds. Once the new connection stabilized, the three wisps flashed as one and disappeared, leaving one winded witch being supported by her sister and niece, one unconscious Death Eater lying on the floor, and one young wizard with an exceptional migraine in their wake.
Rubbing his forehead to ease the pressure, Harry looked over at the three women. "Are you okay, Narcissa?"
Nodding in reply, she said, "Very much so, Master. For the first time in a long time, I feel free of /him/. Thank you."
Unable to suppress a small groan, Harry replied, "Please don't call me that. My ego is not nearly that fragile. And you're welcome, Narcissa."
Looking mildly surprised, Narcissa responded, "As you wish, my lord."
Snorting, he said, "Or that! Look, just call me 'Harry'. I'm more or less accustomed to answering to it."
"Very well... Harry. What do we do now?" Narcissa asked.
"Well, first we are going to find whatever packages this idiot picked up from Knockturn Alley. Trust me; you really don't want them to end up in Voldemort's hands. Then we were planning to head towards Hogwarts. There are events in motion of which Dumbledore must be made aware."
With that said, Harry made his back over to the prone form of Lucius Malfoy and, absently summoning both his wand and his fallen enemy's and pocketing them both, began rifling through his robe pockets in search of the artifacts that Borgin had sold him.
"Erm... Harry...?" a subdued Tonks interrupted.
"Yes, Nymph?" he replied while investigating an inner pocket.
"What was that?" she continued.
"What was what?" Harry asked distractedly.
"The whole 'Mask of Zorro' thing," the metamorphamagus answered.
"Oh," Harry replied, "I discovered that I had something of a natural affinity for sword fighting when I was younger and I ended up learning a good bit about fencing in the process." Grinning, he continued, "I guess I should have mentioned that to Lucius earlier... here we go!"
In one of the secret inner pockets of Lucius' robe, Harry found a shrunken crate with the 'Borgin & Burkes' logo emblazoned on its side. Placing it on the ground, he cast 'finite incantatem' on the box, returning it to its normal size. Just in case there was any foul play, Harry magicked the lid off. Looking inside, he could see three separate objects, each in their own compartment. Two of the pieces looked like a broken half of an equilateral triangle, with an irregular cutout along the break line. Along the intact borders is some script that Harry was unable to identify. The third piece, a large sapphire gem, apparently fit into the cutout when the triangle was assembled. All three pieces positively radiated malice, and Harry could feel slightly sick just looking at them. Making a note to discover why someone went to such lengths to keep the pieces separate, Harry replaced the lid, re-shrunk the trunk, and placed it in his pocket. Turning around, he saw that his female acquaintances were also feeling a little queasy, going by the pale expressions on their faces and disquiet that he could feel floating along their bonds.
"What were those things?" Narcissa asked in a sick voice.
"Those 'things' are some artifacts that Bella warned us about. I think it's safe to say that they have some connection to Voldemort's plans for new recruits. Though I'm not an expert on demonology. Let's finish up here and get out. The sooner we get to Hogwarts, the sooner we can plan our next move."
"Okay," Tonks said bravely, "What now?"
Thinking for a second, Harry decided on a course of action. "Well, we need to gather up any other potential hazardous dark arts memorabilia that Lucius might have stashed around here. We can't afford for Voldemort to get any more help. Then we really should take these escaped prisoners back into custody," Harry mused.
"But they'll just escape from Azkaban again, either on their own or with their master's help. You know very well that the Ministry can't stop him," Bellatrix put in.
"True, Bella, but I didn't say we were going to turn them over to the Ministry, now did I?" Harry questioned while smiling innocently.
"Then what are you going to do to them?" Narcissa questioned.
"Well..." Harry drawled out, "I was thinking that Hogwarts had several unused dungeons, so..." He trailed off, but his intent was clear to all who heard him.
"Harry," Tonks said gently, as if talking to a small child, "you can't keep them imprisoned against their will, even if they do deserve it. It's illegal."
"It's okay; Nymph," Harry replied flippantly, "what they don't know won't hurt me. Besides," here, he smirked devilishly, "history is written by the victors. If we win, it will just be one more unpleasant but necessary course of action to win the war. If we lose... well," Harry shrugged, "I doubt any of us will really care at that point then, will we?"
Apparently deciding not to press the issue, Tonks acquiesced. "Okay, then. How do you propose to transport them all out of here?"
Harry looked deep in thought about the issue before he suddenly burst out laughing. Startled, the three witches looked at him with worried countenances. "I'm okay," he finally choked out, "it's just that Hermione gave me a solution for just this problem over a year ago. Just wait; you'll love this..." Absently flicking his hand, the other five stunned bodies flew through the air and dropped into a heap alongside Lucius. Pointing at the heap of Death Eaters, Harry spoke, "vicissitude maggot". Once the spell made contact, the six stunned humans quickly transformed into six stunned maggots. Another gesture sent the newly-formed insects into a conjured glass jar. This Harry pocketed while chuckling under his breath. Turning around, he met a variety of reactions ranging from amused (Bellatrix) to disgusted (Tonks) to somewhere in between (Narcissa).
Sputtering, Narcissa started speaking, "Y-you turned them into... into..." Here, she finally broke down, joining her sister in laughter.
Looking extremely pleased with himself, Harry finished, "...small, vile, insignificant insects? Yes, I did. It only seemed fitting..."
"Harry..." Tonks moaned, "did you have to choose maggots? Could you not come up with any other creature to transfigure?"
"Well," Harry admitted, "I suppose that I could have, but you have to admit that the whole larval insect thing is at least a little funny."
Tonks just stared at him for a few moments before shaking her head and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, "boys will be boys."
Quickly scanning the room for anything they left behind and not finding anything, Harry turned his attention back to the three waiting ladies and said, "Well, that's just about everything here. Let's go pick up dear Lucius's other toys and we can be gone." Smiling widely, he continued, "Narcissa, I've heard such lovely things about your drawing room. Shall we go inspect it?"
Matching his grin with one of hers, she said, "Of course, Harry. Right this way." Unfortunately, neither the wizard nor the three witches happened to glance behind them as they vacated the room and headed down the hallway. Had they done so, they might have noticed a shape dart out from underneath the wardrobe against the far wall.
It was a shape that looked suspiciously like a large rat with a silvery paw.
A/N: Sorry, people. As I've mentioned in my profile, real life caught up with me a few months ago, and I was unable to stay with the fan fic writing scene. This story will NOT be discontinued. To aid in communication regarding this and other works of mine, I have created a Yahoo group. The URL is in my profile. Thank you for reading.
I would also like to thank Yenom for his work on proofing this chapter, as well as the VERY helpful comments from cj-cold, Dragon Sword Master, FlameofShadows, and Alen. Those were fragments from previous versions that I missed prior to posting.