Harry meets with his school friends; Harry and company retrieve Locket Horcrux.
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As the majority of the Order members began making their way towards the exit, Harry walked over to Albus, who had remained seated and was discussing something with Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody. A few of the elder members, including the Hogwarts' faculty, were clustered in nearby groups.
"Albus?" Harry interrupted. When the two older men looked up at him, Harry said, "I need to discuss a few things with my friends. Will you all be ready to go in about fifteen minutes?"
"We should be, Harry," Albus Dumbledore answered. "I was just briefing Alastor now."
Harry nodded in agreement. "Alright. I'll meet you here in fifteen then." With that said, Harry spun on his heel and walked towards the door, beckoning the younger Weasleys and Hermione to follow him.
After the room was mostly empty, Mad-Eye locked both eyes - real and magical - on the elderly wizard and growled, "Okay, Albus. What are you up to now?"
"Yes, Albus," the nearby Minerva McGonagall added, "please explain this sudden camaraderie with Mr. Potter. I was under the impression that you did not wish for the children to become this involved."
"Involved?" Mad-Eye chuckled. "Hell! Potter was practically running this show, and you let him, Albus! Care ta tell us why?"
The venerable wizard sighed before steepling his fingers and reclining back into his chair. His eventual response, however, was not what his audience was expecting.
"Do you realize how old I am?"
"Old enough," Alastor grunted. "What's this got to do with anything?"
Albus smiled at the no-nonsense tones from one of his few surviving friends. "Patience, my friend. For your information, I recently turned 162 years old. In those 162 years, I have seen many terrible and wonderful things, but time eventually catches up with us all. It has become an ordeal merely to arise from my bed each day. My fondest wish is that I may see the end of Voldemort's reign of terror, spend a few more years at our school, and then quietly embark on my next great adventure without regret."
Those witches and wizards listening remained silent, having never recalled their friend and leader speaking in such a way.
"During the raid on the Department of Mysteries last month, I interrupted another confrontation between Harry and Voldemort and dueled with my one-time pupil once again," Albus explained. "Even though we fought to a draw, it took me the better part of a week to replenish my magical reserves."
Albus tilted his head in the direction of Severus Snape, who had remained in his seat and was staring intently at the tabletop. "If Severus's information is accurate, Voldemort was at - or at least, near - full power less than a day later."
He smiled slightly at the loud protests. "Yes," Albus confirmed, "had Voldemort pressed matters, I would have been defeated."
As expected, Alastor was the first to assimilate the material and return to the matter at hand. "That's very comforting to know, Albus," Moody said sarcastically, "but it doesn't answer our questions regarding Potter."
"No," Albus answered ruefully, "I suppose that it doesn't. I suppose you could say that I was forced to accept that I am an old man trying to compete in a young man's game. Additionally, I've realized that one of my worst mistakes was in trying to insulate Harry from the particulars of the situation. In my desire to protect him for the greater good, I fear that I only harmed him further in the end."
The old mage noticed the slight leer on his friend's face. "Yes, I know that you've long been a proponent of introducing Harry to the Order long before now, Alastor," Albus said resignedly. "Feel free to gloat, if you wish."
"No need, as long as you've finally seen some sense," the old Auror barked. "The lad needs to know what's out there. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!"
Holding her ear gingerly, McGonagall spoke, "I can understand why Harry should be included in some of our discussions, Albus, especially with the prophecy stating that Harry is the only who can kill You-Know-Who. I can even understand why you are now taking a more active role regarding his future studies, but is it wise to just throw him into the whole ordeal like this? He's just not ready!"
Albus smiled sadly and answered, "I disagree. Consider what Harry has accomplished in the few years he has been with us. He has a group of incredibly skilled friends, whose loyalties fall to him above all others. His study group, the D.A., is almost fanatically loyal to him as well, and they number close to thirty. With their successes this past year, I expect that their enrollment will quadruple in the first week of the term alone, should Harry choose to continue it. Half of the members of the Order are already willing to follow him - you saw that for yourself this very night. He was instrumental in aiding my research, and in planning our strategy in dealing with Voldemort's defenses."
Albus's smile became wider as he pointed out something else. "You've seen how discouraged several of our number have been these last few weeks, especially those too young to remember the last few dark campaigns. And yet, they left here livelier than I have seen them in months, because they now have hope that their efforts can make a difference; that Voldemort is not some invincible being, but just another man."
"But that was your words that inspired them, Albus" Minerva protested.
Moody stared at Dumbledore intently for a few moments. "It was the kid's plan, wasn't it?"
"It was his initiative that got tonight's meeting called," Albus replied. "I initially believed that the Order should remain available to meet the next attacks, but I now believe that the wiser choice has been made; our colleagues now have a sense of purpose that they have lacked thus far."
Shaking her head as if to clear it, the elderly witch returned to her previous topic. "So, what is to be done with Potter?"
"We decided that it would be more advantageous if I were to apprentice Harry directly. Not to slight any of your areas of expertise," Albus added hurriedly, "but we felt that, with his unique position, a more direct level of instruction might be called for. To answer your question, I will be introducing my apprentice into the role his position in our society requires. Ultimately, he should be an alternate if a situation arises and I am unavailable."
Several of those still in the kitchen were uneasy with the proposed plan, and McGonagall - the unofficial spokesperson - voiced their concerns. "Even with all that you've said, Albus, are you completely sure that Potter can even handle such a burden?"
Albus's eyes began to twinkle again as he mused, "Somehow, I don't think that he'll have any real problems bearing this responsibility."
"Yeah, Minnie," Alastor seconded, ignoring the witch's incensed glare at his nickname for her, "the lad's a winner - I knew that the first time I saw him. If Albus is this confident, then the kid'll pull through."
Turning his attention back to Dumbledore, Alastor continued, "Now, what were you going to tell me about this locket horcrux?"
While the older members of the Order were conferring in the kitchen, Harry led his own group back to the sitting room he and Albus had shared only a few hours ago. Sinking into a chair, Harry gestured for the others to do the same. One of the twins - 'Fred', Harry thought - shut the door as the rest of the group took up positions either in chairs or on top of the available crates. Barring those options, the rest collapsed onto the floor.
"Alright," Harry said resignedly after being presented with a unanimous collection of inquisitive stares, "let the interrogation begin." Noticing that his bushy-haired friend was squirming as if she had been seated atop a hot coal, Harry gave in and prompted, "Hermione, would you like to start?"
As Harry expected - and feared - Hermione took him up on his offer with her typical enthusiasm. "Harry, what were you talking about? What were you up to this summer? Why did you call the headmaster by his first name? Why did you treat the Order that way? When did you get on good terms with Bellatrix? What are-?"
The witch was brought to a stop at the round of laughter her antics brought about. Suppressing his own mirth, Harry said, "One question at a time, Hermione. Now, can we start over?"
Glaring at her long-time friend, Hermione said, "You not only looking different, you're acting different as well. What have you been doing this summer?"
"A lot of thinking, mostly," Harry answered, "about the war, life at Hogwarts, the reactions of the Wizarding public..."
"Sirius?" she asked hesitantly.
"Yes, Sirius, too," Harry admitted. "I suppose that the whole situation hit me while I was at the Dursleys. I mean, ever since the beginning, I've tried to keep my head down, to blend in. I wanted nothing more than to just be another face in the crowd, to be normal."
Harry shook his head disgustedly. "But I'm not normal. The Department of Mysteries drove that fact home very well. As much as I hate it, this whole mess is centered on me, and manages to drag me into it despite my wishes. To answer your question, Hermione, I just grew tired of it and decided that sticking my head in the sand wasn't going to make things go away, hence my wrangling with Albus."
"You know, Harry," Hermione chastised seriously, "you really shouldn't talk to the headmaster that way. He's only ever done what he thought was best."
Harry sighed. "That's part of the problem, Hermione. I won't argue that he had the best of intentions, but that doesn't mean that what he did wasn't wrong. It's very admirable to grant everyone an opportunity to atone for past mistakes, but an endless supply of 'second chances' is foolishness! Take Voldemort, for example. Albus knew how malicious of a bully Tom Riddle was at the age of eleven, and yet, he did nothing but sit back and watch! When Tom's classmates began following him around like a pack of attention starved dogs, Albus did nothing! When Myrtle was murdered, he did nothing! When Hagrid was accused of opening the 'Chamber of Secrets' and expelled, Albus raised not a finger to intervene. Before he disappeared for the several year period, Tom even came into Albus's office - right into Hogwarts! - and admitted his intentions! Voldemort was proud of the degradations he had wrought. And yet again, even with a freely given confession laid at his feet, Albus did nothing - Albus allowed that monster to leave, to build up his strength, and to unleash a reign of terror the likes of which haven't been seen in centuries. All of this, these seven decades of terror and bloodshed, because one old man harbored some fool hope that Voldemort could be redeemed!"
Forcing himself to calm down, Harry pinned his friend with a sharp gaze and said, "When the situation gets drug out this far, Hermione, it is no longer an act of nobility. It is an act of foolishness! I respect Albus as a skilled wizard and a helpful ally, but if he remains in complete control of the entire resistance and refuses to make any counterattacks, then we are doomed."
Making eye contact with each member at his rapt audience, Harry ensured that everyone there understood just how serious this problem was. "And that, my friends, is something that I will not allow, not while I have the power to change it."
"What are you planning to do, Harry?" Ron asked.
"Right now, Voldemort has no more resources than we do, a couple score of fighters at best against an entire race," Harry said in answer. "And yet, he has our entire world running scared? Why?"
"People are always scared of the unknown," Hermione said, her entire manner seeming subdued. "No one knows who Voldemort or the Death Eaters really are, or what they are capable of, or what their plans are."
"And we have teams of Aurors stationed all over the country, whose sole purpose is to counter threats like this," Harry rejoined. "There are far more Aurors than Death Eaters, after all. Why aren't they out searching door-to-door, or launching raids, or interrogating suspected Death Eaters?"
"The Ministry won't let them!" Ginny said, as if it were common knowledge.
"Yeah, everyone can see that Fudge is on the take," Fred said irritably. "When you've got the likes of Malfoy throwing up golden roadblocks all over the place..."
"If he's not gone over to the other side totally," George suggested darkly.
"But if the corruption in the Ministry is so obvious, then why hasn't the public done something about it?" Harry demanded.
He was answered with silence.
"The only reasons I can think of are fear or laziness," Harry answered himself a few moments later.
Making sure he had everyone's undivided attention, Harry said seriously, "So far, I've only been reacting to what Voldemort's been doing, and have ended up dragging you all along for the ride. A purely defensive stance won't win this war, so my tactics will have to change. Out of necessity, I will be intentionally entering dangerous situations, and some of those situations will most likely be messy. This is something I must do. You lot, however, have a choice. If you feel uncomfortably with the idea of a more hands-on approach, you may leave now. I won't hold it against you."
Harry waited for a few moments as they mulled his warning over. The twins, who had been conversing silently with each other, were the first ones to make a decision.
"There's no choice to be made, Mate," the twin Harry thought was George said.
"Too right," his doppelganger agreed. "As long as it stops the Death Munchers, then we're both fine with the plan."
"Yeah," George said, "We can do 'messy'. It's our speciality."
Ginny followed her brothers' comments with her own endorsement. "Hey, we did a lot of good back in the Department of Mysteries," the petite girl said. "I'm not turning back now."
"You know you don't have to ask me, Mate," Ron assured. "After all, someone's got to watch your back. It may as well be me."
Harry smiled at the red heads' enthusiasm before looking inquiringly at the brown haired girl to his side.
Hermione let out a sigh before responding. "Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Besides, there's no telling what sort of trouble you lot would get yourselves into with me!"
"Ah!" Fred exclaimed. "You're so sweet!"
"We love you, too, Hermy!" George professed.
The bushy haired witch glared at the twin troublemakers but, luckily for them, gave no further reaction to the nickname.
Shaking his head at the group's interaction, Harry addressed the five. "All right," he said, "if that's your decision, then your help with be greatly appreciated. Thank you."
Harry looked back at Ron. "You wanted to know what I was planning, Ron? I'm going to hit Voldemort where it hurts the most, by dismantling his war machine. Do you think that people will be nearly as scared of the 'immortal Lord Voldemort' when they find out that he's no more than a bitter seventy year old man who hates everyone and everything, and that he's no more immortal than they are? If we ousted Fudge and put someone competent in his place, how long do you think the Death Eaters could hide before being hunted down like the dogs they are and drug before a court of their peers? If we give the people a way to fight back against their oppressors, do you think that there's the slightest chance that they won't take it?"
"You have been doing a lot of thinking, haven't you?" Ginny half-asked, half-stated.
"I've had a month to iron out the details, and I know how we can go about doing all of this, but I can't do it all on my own," Harry admitted. "As accepting as the Order was tonight, I cannot trust their dedication. They might fight, but it will be for 'the Harry Potter', not me. I don't know them and they don't know me, and that means that I don't dare trust them with the more vital tasks."
Harry grinned slightly while waving his hand around to encompass the other five teenagers. "That's where you come in."
Ignoring their expressions of disbelief, Harry continued, "You five are among a small group of people that I can trust to do what must be done, and for the right reasons. Neville and Luna are a couple of others that I would like to include in that number."
"But what can we do, really?" Hermione asked. "I mean, we are just students, after all."
"I think you underestimate yourself," Harry answered with a half-smile. "True, you couldn't be expected to duel at an Auror's level of competency - yet - but you are far from helpless. For now, if you are willing, I would like to see about getting Moody, Shacklebolt, or Nymph to coach you in some of the finer points in dueling. Then, I hope that you can pass what you learn onto the D.A. - if things continue to spiral out of control, I fear that they will need to be an army in more than just name."
Ron looked confused. "But why can't you teach them?"
"That's something else I wanted to tell you," Harry confided. "I won't be attending Hogwarts this year - at least not consistently." Waiting for the expected clamor to settle down, he continued, "Albus has agreed to be my mentor, which will mean more of one-on-one lessons than classroom learning. Between those duties and all the time and effort that this war will require, I don't know how frequent I'll be in the castle. That's why I need you all to learn how to better defend yourselves and pass that information on. The upcoming generation needs to be able to defend itself when necessary, and I just can't see to it personally."
Seeing that while they did not like his having to leave them, they at least understood the reasons why, Harry continued. "There's also something you can help me with now, Hermione, and it should be right up your alley." At the girl's inquisitive look, Harry said, "We need to know everything there is to know about these Horcruxes, not just how to destroy or disenchant them. For example, will Voldemort know when a Horcrux is destroyed? Do we have to destroy them in the order they were created, or will any sequence work? You can coordinate with Cissy - she loves wading through libraries nearly as much as you. Between the two of you, I'm sure that you'll find what we need."
"Well, of course I can help with that, Harry," Hermione said patiently, "but when did you get so familiar with Mrs. Malfoy? Or Bellatrix Lestrange, for that matter?"
Harry clarified, "It's actually 'Black', now, for both of them. Sirius evidently managed to name me his heir, and I used that to nullify the marital contracts they were held to, as per their wishes. As far as why I trust them as much as I do..."
Harry trailed off as he thought on how best to handle this problem. Finally, he said, "The answer to that is very involved. In fact, it's tied into something else I learned this summer, something very important. I want to tell you the whole story, but I can't right now. Not because I don't trust you - because I do - but because I can't risk someone gleaning the information out of your minds. That's one of the reasons that I would also like for all of you to learn Occlumency as well. Once you do, I promised to explain everything, but for right now you will just have to take it on faith that they are trustworthy."
"I can live with that," one of the twin's said easily.
"Sounds fair to me," his counterpart confirmed.
The other three voiced similar agreements, even if they were less than enthusiastic about being put off.
"Is that why you didn't tell us that you heard the prophecy?" Hermione questioned.
Harry nodded. "Mostly. I needed some time to come to terms with it myself, you know. But mostly... yeah. Albus and I were going to try to keep the gist of it out of Voldemort's hands, but since Fudge screwed that up as well..."
Abandoning that thought, Harry said, "I'll see about bribing a couple Order members to tutor you, then. In the meanwhile, I need to step out for a little while. Albus and I are going on a field trip."
"What are you talking about?" Hermione asked.
"The two of us are going to drag Moody and Bill along with us to grab that third Horcrux tonight," Harry answered. Seeing their apprehensive looks, Harry smiled and said, "Don't worry. From what we've heard, it's not even heavily guarded - Voldemort just stashed it in an out-of-the-way cave, which Albus located earlier. We'll just pop in, grab the thing, and come right back here."
"When do you have to leave?" Ginny asked uneasily.
Standing up, Harry replied, "They're waiting in the kitchen for me right now. Don't worry - we should be back before you know it." Stepping out into the hall, Harry called back, "See you later."
Fred pointed his wand at the now open door and it shut back smoothly. Another quick spell restored the silencing charm around the room.
"Well," he said, "I didn't see that one coming!"
The other four found themselves in complete agreement.
Harry made his way towards the kitchen without interruption, at least until he reached the wooden entrance. Leaning up against the wall next to the door was Nymph and Bella, both of whom looked up as Harry closed the remaining distance between them.
"Did you ladies need something?" Harry asked.
"You're going after that locket horcrux now, aren't you?" Nymph questioned.
"Yes," Harry answered slowly. "Why do you ask?"
"Well then, we're going with you," Bella replied firmly.
"Oh?" Harry inquired. "And why is that? I'm already taking three members of the Order along."
"Voldemort could have left all kinds of traps in that cave, and I don't trust the Order to be competent enough to help you if you need it."
"We were talking earlier," Nymph admitted, "and we didn't think it would hurt to have an extra couple wands along - you know, just in case?"
Picking up on her niece's explanation, Bella added, "Besides, I told you that I would do anything I could to hurt Voldemort. Helping to capture and destroy a piece of his soul could really weaken him." Being as forthright as she could, Bella pleaded, "Please let us come."
"Well, I'm not sure if there will be much of anything for you two to do," Harry admitted, "but if you really want to go, I can't see what it'd hurt."
"Thanks, Harry!" Bella exclaimed, her face lighting up with expectation at the upcoming mission.
Ducking his head to hide a smile at the witch's enthusiasm, Harry pushed the door open and gestured for the two women to enter. "Come along, Xena. The night is young."
Looking confused, the dark haired witch asked, "Who is 'Xena'?"
"Ancient Greek folklore," Harry said resignedly, "never mind." The trio joined the waiting group and Albus produced a candy dish from within a pocket of his robes. At gathering a few odd looks, he explained, "I was able to pinpoint our target's location with Fawkes's help earlier today, so I took the liberty of creating a portkey."
Speaking for the group, Harry said, "I think that we all understood that part. Personally, I was wondering why you were carrying a candy dish in your pocket."
"Ah, I see," Dumbledore professed. "Well, the lemon drop is quite delightful," he explained.
"So you carry around an entire bowl full of them," Harry finished sarcastically. "That sounds perfectly reasonable to me."
"Quite," the old man confirmed happily. "Now, if you will all place a hand on the bowl, we shall be on our way."
Once the other five mages did so, Albus muttered the activation word and sent the group careening off into the night.
As with every other time he had used a portkey, Harry felt as though a hook just behind his navel had been suddenly jerked irresistibly forwards. His feet had left the ground; he could feel Nymph and Bella on either side of him, their shoulders banging into his; they were all speeding forwards in a howl of wind and swirling color; his forefinger was stuck to the candy dish as though it was pulling him magnetically onwards and then - His feet slammed into the ground. Just as he was silently congratulating himself on remaining on his feet, Nymph staggered into him and they both fell over.
The unmistakable feel of damp boulder greeted his shoulder abruptly, the sensation magnified to a degree with the addition of a metamorphamagus to his body weight. Harry took a little solace in the fact that the others, with the exception of Albus and Moody, were unable to keep their balance either.
Once everyone had regained their footing, Harry took in his surroundings. The portkey had deposited them atop a giant boulder that lay half-submerged in seawater. Adjacent to their landing zone was a towering cliff. Between the moon-lit sea and the star-strewn sky, Harry could see that the craggy surface possessed a series of jagged niches that would be excellent footholds to reach the top of the cliff.
"They brought the kids from the orphanage here?" asked Harry, who could not imagine a less cozy spot for a day trip.
"Not here, precisely," said Dumbledore. "There is a village of sorts about halfway along these cliffs. I believe the orphans were taken there for a little sea air and a view of the waves. No, I think it was only ever Tom Riddle and his youthful victims who visited this spot. No Muggle could reach this rock unless they were uncommonly good mountaineers, and boats cannot approach the cliffs; the waters around them are too dangerous. I imagine that Riddle climbed down; magic would have served better than ropes. And he brought two small children with him, probably for the pleasure of terrorizing them. I think the journey alone would have done it, don't you?"
Nodding in agreement, Harry asked, "So where is this cave entrance located? And how in the world did you find it so quickly?"
"Actually, we have Fawkes to thank for this good fortune. Once I discovered the village's location, I asked Fawkes to inspect the surrounding area for a cave such as Mr. Pettigrew described. Ultimately, he brought me here."
Gesturing for Harry to come closer, the two moved to the boulder closest to the cliff face. "Lumos," said Dumbledore, creating a thousand flecks of golden light to sparkle upon the dark surface of the water a few feet below where he crouched; the black wall of rock beside him was illuminated too.
"You see?" said Dumbledore quietly, holding his wand a little higher. Harry saw a fissure in the cliff into which dark water was swirling.
"Clever," Harry admitted grudgingly. "Well, people, it looks like it is time to get wet." Taking a look at the group they brought along, Harry saw one potential problem.
"Moody, are you going to be able to swim this?" Harry asked.
"Like a fish, Lad," the wizened Auror pledged.
"Very well, then," Albus said, "Let us take the plunge." And with the sudden agility of a much younger man, Dumbledore slid from the boulder, landed in the sea, and began to swim, with a perfect breaststroke, toward the dark slit in the rock face, his lit wand held in his teeth. Shrugging at the amazed looks of the old man's athletic prowess, Harry lit his wand as well before diving in after the elder wizard.
The water was icy; Harry's waterlogged clothes billowed around him and weighed him down. Taking deep breaths that filled his nostrils with the tang of salt and seaweed, he struck out for the shimmering, shrinking light now moving deeper into the cliff. The fissure soon opened into a dark tunnel that Harry could tell would be filled with water at high tide. The slimy walls were barely three feet apart and glimmered like wet tar in the artificial wand light. A little way in, the passageway curved to the left, and Harry saw that it extended far into the cliff.
He continued to swim in Dumbledore's wake, the tips of his benumbed fingers brushing the rough, wet rock. Then he saw Dumbledore rising out of the water ahead, his silver hair and dark robes gleaming. When Harry reached the spot, he found steps that led into a large cave. He clambered up them, water streaming from his soaking clothes, and emerged, shivering uncontrollably, into the still and freezing air. Moving out of the way for the others following him, Harry used a quick drying charm on his clothes. A few seconds later, he added a warmth charm for good measure. His creature comforts taken care of, Harry moved over to the old wizard.
Dumbledore was standing in the middle of the cave, his wand held high as he turned slowly on the spot, examining the walls and ceiling. "Yes, this is the place," said Dumbledore.
"What makes you say that?" Harry asked.
"It has known magic," said Dumbledore simply.
Harry looked around again. They were standing in a small enclosed chamber, with the only obvious entrance being the waterway they had just swam through.
"So what now?" Nymph spoke up, once she had joined them and set her own wardrobe to rights. Apparently, she didn't see the trick either.
"We go through that concealed entrance, Lass," Alastor grumbled, pointing at what appeared to be blank wall. "It looks like Voldemort's thrown up a few obstacles of his own."
Harry concentrated his efforts on the section of rough rock that Mad Eye had specified. He could just make out an arch shape, but it was carefully hidden behind a powerful illusion. Apparently, Dumbledore had picked up on the discrepancy as well, since he stepped back from the cave wall and pointed his wand at the rock. For a moment, an arched outline appeared there, blazing white as though there was a powerful light behind the crack.
"Oh, surely not," Dumbledore muttered. "So crude."
"It's not just a spell," Harry said while staring at the illusioned patch of stone. "He seems to have enhanced it with something."
"I rather think that we are required to make payment to pass," Albus said quietly.
Harry looked confused for a moment before comprehension dawned. "Oh, right. He had a fixation on blood magic."
"I said it was crude," said Dumbledore, who sounded disdainful, even disappointed, as though Voldemort had fallen short of higher standards Dumbledore expected. "The idea, as I am sure you will have gathered, is that your enemy must weaken him- or herself to enter. Once again, Lord Voldemort fails to grasp that there are much more terrible things than physical injury."
"What would you expect from someone whose greatest fear is mortal death?" Harry asked rhetorically as he stepped up to the wall. Extinguishing the lumos spell, Harry shook back one sleeve of his robe and drug the tip of his wand across his bared forearm and leaving a deep gash in its wake. Holding his arm against the rock, Harry allowed the wall's surface to be peppered with dark, glistening drops. Once the area around the entrance was sufficiently coated, Harry pulled the injured appendage back and passed the tip of his wand over the deep cut he had made in his own arm, so that it healed instantly.
"Simple enough," the ebony haired wizard stated, as the blazing silver outline of an arch had appeared in the wall once more, and this time it did not fade away. The blood-splattered rock within it simply vanished, leaving an opening into what seemed total darkness.
An eerie sight met their eyes.
They were standing on the edge of a great black lake, so vast that Harry could not make out the distant banks, in a cavern so high that the ceiling too was out of sight. A misty greenish light shone far away in what looked like the middle of the lake; it was reflected in the completely still water below. The greenish glow and the light from the various lit wands were the only things that broke the otherwise velvety blackness, though their rays did not penetrate as far as Harry would have expected. The darkness was somehow denser than normal darkness.
"Well, let's see what we're dealing with here," Bill said. Holding his wand aloft, he muttered something inaudibly and a bright spark shot out of its tip and headed into the dark void, leaving a glowing trail behind it. Seeming to conduct the illuminated particle, Bill swept his wand in a large circle. Just as if it were attached, the light followed his gestured course. Within a few moments, the glowing path had criss-crossed much of the cave between the entrance they stood upon and the far wall.
With the addition of adequate overhead lighting, the group could see that the green glow was emanating from an island in the middle of the lake. Surrounding this patch of ground, submerged beneath the subterranean lake, were a multitude of indistinct pale shapes.
"Any idea what those things in the water are?" Nymph asked.
"Nope," Harry said, "but since I've got a sneaky suspicion that our target is on that island, I'm sure that they'll prove to be a pain in the neck before we're done."
Albus voiced that his thoughts were along the same line, and Mad-Eye confirmed that he didn't see any other source of powerful magic.
"Joy," Bella said dryly. "First we had that relaxing dip in the icy cold ocean, and now we get to go wading in with the kelpies, or sprites, or whatever water demon Voldemort found amusing at the time."
"And to think," Harry smirked at the grumbling witch, "you volunteered for this!"
"Shut it, Potter, you're not helping!" she complained. This comment brought a round of laughter from her companions, even an abbreviated chuckle from Mad-Eye, before he caught himself.
"Albus," the old Auror said, "It looks like there's something hidden down that way." He gestured a distance further down the beach, but there was nothing visible.
Albus followed the other man's gesture in confusion for a few seconds before he seemed to nod in comprehension. "Fear not, Miss Black, I do not believe that we will be going into the lake," Albus assured the agitated witch. "Not unless we are very unfortunate, at least." With that said, the old wizard began striding along the shoreline towards some unknown objective.
"Aha," said Dumbledore when he stopped some fifty feet later. "I think I have found the place."
While there still was nothing evident to the naked eye that suggested this spot was important, Dumbledore seemed to have detected something special about it. Concentrating carefully on the area in front of him, Harry noticed a blurred shape in the air, which practically screamed 'magical concealment'.
"Here it is," the old man said happily, seconds later. Walking right to the water's edge, his hand clenching around something invisible to the naked eye in midair, Dumbledore raised his wand with the other and tapped his fist with the point.
Immediately a thick coppery green chain appeared out of thin air, extending from the depths of the water into Dumbledore's clenched hand. Dumbledore tapped the chain, which began to slide through his fist like a snake, coiling itself on the ground with a clinking sound that echoed noisily off the rocky walls, pulling something from the depths of the black water. There were a few gasps as the ghostly prow of a tiny boat broke the surface, glowing as green as the chain, and floated, with barely a ripple, toward the place on the bank where the group stood.
"Alright, I give," Nymph said finally. "How did you know that was there?"
"Magic always leaves traces," said Dumbledore, as the boat hit the bank with a gentle bump, "sometimes very distinctive traces. I taught Tom Riddle. I know his style."
"Is that boat safe?" Bill questioned.
"Oh yes, I think so," Albus said. "Voldemort needed to create a means to cross the lake without attracting the wrath of those creatures he had placed within it in case he ever wanted to visit or remove his Horcrux."
"So the things in the water won't do anything to us if we cross in Voldemort's boat?" the curse breaker confirmed.
"I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that they will, at some point, realize we are not Lord Voldemort," Albus admitted. "Thus far, however, we have done well. They have allowed us to raise the boat."
"But why have they let us?" Harry asked. "Would it not be better to move against us now, while we are still far away from that island they're guarding?"
"Voldemort would have been reasonably confident that none but a very great wizard would have been able to find the boat," Albus explained. "I think he would have been prepared to risk what was, to his mind, the most unlikely possibility that somebody else would find it, knowing that he had set other obstacles ahead that only he would be able to penetrate. We shall see whether he was right."
Harry looked down into the boat. It really was very small. "It doesn't look like it was built for more than one person. I wonder if it will carry multiple passengers in one go."
Dumbledore chuckled. "Voldemort will not have cared about the weight, but about the amount of magical power that crossed his lake. I rather think an enchantment will have been placed upon this boat so that only one wizard at a time will be able to sail in it."
"So who goes first?" Moody demanded.
Albus decided. "I shall. Once I reach the other side, see if you can pull the boat back to you."
"I don't like it," Mad Eye grumbled. "It's too risky, sending a man by himself into that."
Harry smiled and reached into one of his robe pockets. Thankful that he packed a few useful items for this mission, he withdrew a tiny broom. A reversal of a shrinking charm left Harry holding his prized Firebolt, which he had taken the liberty of reacquiring from Umbridge's dungeon cell a couple days ago. "Who said he would be going by himself?" Harry asked.
The others seemed nearly as shocked that Harry carried a broom in his pocket as they did with Albus and his candy dish. Moody seemed inordinately proud, however, as he growled out, "I'm glad to see that someone here remembered to practice CONSTANT VIGILANCE!"
The acoustics in the cave caused this exclamation to echo strangely off the walls, resulting in the others clamping their hands over their ears to preserve their hearing. Once the ruckus had died down, Harry said neutrally, "Thanks, Moody." Jumping on the broom and hovering a few feet off the ground, Harry addressed Albus. "Ready to go?"
The old wizard nodded and carefully climbed into the boat. Addressing those who were waiting their turn with the dingy, he cautioned, "Be careful not to touch the water."
As soon as he had sat down, the boat immediately began to move. As Harry silently paced the watercraft, there was no sound other than the silken rustle of the boat's prow cleaving the water; it moved without help, as though an invisible rope was pulling it onward toward the lighted island in the center of this great subterranean lake.
Harry looked down and saw the reflected gold of the conjured overhead light sparkling and glittering on the black water as they passed. The boat was carving deep ripples upon the glassy surface, grooves in the dark mirror... And then Harry saw it, marble white, floating inches below the surface. "Albus!" he said, and his startled voice echoed loudly over the silent water.
"Please tell me that I did not just see a human hand in the water," Harry entreated.
"Yes, I am sure you did," Dumbledore said calmly.
Harry stared down into the water, looking for the vanished hand. "Maybe it wasn't-"
But Harry stopped his supposition before he could finish; passing over a fresh patch of water, Harry saw a dead man lying face up inches beneath the surface, his open eyes misted as though with cobwebs, his hair and his robes swirling around him like smoke.
"They're Inferi!" Harry exclaimed. "A whole army of them!"
"Yes," said Dumbledore placidly, "but we do not need to worry about them at the moment."
"At the moment?" Harry repeated, tearing his gaze from the water to look at Dumbledore. "You're riding on top of hundreds of enslaved corpses who, for all we know, could be awoken and set against us by breathing too loudly and you don't think we need to worry at the moment?"
"Not while they are merely drifting peacefully below us," Albus replied.
"You were in Godric's House, weren't you?" Harry stated, not asked. "You just have had to be."
Albus looked mildly surprised. "Why, as a matter of fact, I was. How did you know?"
"Lucky guess," Harry said resignedly, before turning his attention back to the rapidly approaching island. "You do know," he added conversationally, "that they'll likely be much more lively once we get a hold of the Horcrux, don't you?"
"Yes," Dumbledore replied jovially. "I am sure that once we take the Horcrux, we shall find them less peaceable. However, like many creatures that dwell in cold and darkness, they fear light and warmth, which we shall therefore call to our aid should the need arise."
"Yep," Harry muttered disgustedly, "definitely one of Godric's."
"Nearly there," Dumbledore said cheerfully. Sure enough, the greenish light seemed to be growing larger at last, and within minutes, the boat had come to a halt, bumping gently into a small island of smooth rock in the center of the lake. The island was no larger than Dumbledore's office, an expanse of flat dark stone on which stood nothing but the source of that greenish light, which looked much brighter when viewed up close.
Harry squinted at it; at first, he thought it was a lamp of some kind, but then he saw that the light was coming from a stone basin rather like a Pensieve, which was set on top of a pedestal. After gesturing for the others to pull the boat back towards them, Dumbledore approached the basin and Harry followed. Side by side, they looked down into it. The basin was full of an emerald liquid emitting that phosphorescent glow.
"I'm unfamiliar with this device. Have you ever seen anything like this?" Harry asked quietly.
"I cannot say that I have," Albus said. "Something more worrisome than blood and bodies, however. I wonder-"
A yell from the opposite side of the lake drew the two wizards' attention.
"What is the matter?" Dumbledore called across the distance.
"The bloody chain is stuck, that's what the matter is!" Moody yelled. "It looks like the boat won't leave until you do!"
"Very well!" Dumbledore called back. "We shant be but a few moments longer."
Unintelligible mutterings met this announcement. Apparently through with the conversation, Albus turned his attention back to the odd stone artifact. Pushing back the sleeve of his robe, the old wizard stretched out the tips of his fingers toward the surface of the potion.
Since he was examining the boat's inability to leave the island unoccupied, Harry was only able to catch the last part of the old man's plan. "Albus! Don't touch-!"
"I cannot touch," the likely insane Albus said, smiling faintly. "See? I cannot approach any nearer than this. You try."
"It's a wonder you've lived this long! Do you have no sense of self-preservation at all?"
At received no response save a pair of twinkling eyes, Harry just shook his head and repeated the experiment. Just as before, he met with an invisible barrier that prevented him coming within an inch of it. No matter how hard he pushed, his fingers encountered nothing but what seemed to be solid and flexible air.
"Out of the way, please, Harry," Dumbledore said. He raised his wand and made complicated movements over the surface of the potion, murmuring soundlessly. Nothing happened, except perhaps that the potion glowed a little brighter.
"Hmm..." the ancient mage mused, "I am sure that the Horcrux is in this concoction, but how to reach it? This potion cannot be penetrated by hand, Vanished, parted, scooped up, or siphoned away, nor can it be Transfigured, Charmed, or otherwise made to change its nature."
Almost absentmindedly, Dumbledore raised his wand again, twirled it once in midair, and then caught the crystal goblet that he had conjured out of nowhere. "I can only conclude that this potion is supposed to be drunk."
"What?" Harry demanded. He irritably waved his own wand, destroying the goblet in a puff of smoke. "Have those lemon drops rotted out what was left of your wits? You've seen yourself that it is a potent magical potion, and you want to drink it for afternoon tea?" Harry demanded incredulously.
"Yes, I think so," Albus said calmly. "Only by drinking it can I empty the basin and see what lies in its depths."
"Now I see what Hermione was getting at about logic being so uncommon," Harry said under his breath. "Look," he grunted at the older wizard, who looked like he was going to conjure up a second glass, "if we can't go through the potion, then we'll go around it! Let's see if that stone basin is as resilient as its contents."
Brandishing his own wand, Harry cast a Reductor curse right at the rocky bowl. It glowed an angry red for a few seconds before the energy dissipated, leaving behind unmarked stone. There appeared to be no lasting effect.
Albus commented, "An admirable effort, Harry, but I believe-"
"There's one spell that I can be almost positive that he didn't ward against," Harry interrupted.
"And what is that?" Dumbledore questioned.
Harry gave no verbal response, but he leveled the thin Holly rod at the lower portion of the basin and intoned, "Avada Kevadra."
The bright green bolt of energy flew across the short distance and impacted the exact spot where Harry intended. Unlike his previous attempt, however, this curse succeeded in piercing the sink. As the two wizards watched, the basin developed a spidery pattern of cracks encompassing the entire object. Once the damage extended around its entire surface, the basin fell apart, dumping the green potion onto the island rock itself and leaving the locket resting atop the column.
"And people said there was no good use for the Killing curse," Harry said rhetorically. Scooping up the locket, Harry stowed it inside his robes and mounted his broom. Looking back at his companion, who was just staring at the destroyed container with a blank expression, Harry prompted, "Time to go."
"Ah, yes, of course," Dumbledore said, and moved for the boat. Unfortunately, before he could reach it, it disappeared beneath the water.
The surface of the lake was no longer mirror-smooth; it was churning, and everywhere Harry looked, white heads and hands were emerging from the dark water. Men, women, and children with sunken, sightless eyes were moving toward the rock; a literal army of the dead rising from the black water. A white hand slapped down on the stone right at the water's edge, which quickly followed by the head and shoulders of a recently awoken Inferi. Harry greeted it with a large fireball directly at its upper torso. Its lifeless head was separated from the rest of its body, and it fell backwards into the water with a splash.
Unfortunately for the defenders, many more Inferi were already climbing onto the rock: their bony hands clawing at its slippery surface; their blank frosted eyes upon them, trailing waterlogged rags, sunken faces leering.
Dumbledore regained his senses and raised his wand. Fire erupted, crimson and gold, etching a flaming ring that surrounded the rock so that the Inferi did not dare pass through the flames to get out of the water.
"Nice trick," Harry said in response to this reprieve. Holding out his arm to the older man, he said, "Can we get out of here /now/?"
Albus dipped his head and made his way to the hovering broom. "I think that that would be for the best," he said before grasping Harry's outstretched forearm. Harry swung the other man up behind him on the broom and cautioned, "Hold on!"
The firebolt soared over the flames and dark water, making a direct bid for the far shore. Unfortunately, the Inferi beneath them seemed to be able to sense the Horcrux's location, as several pale missiles shot out of the water in an attempt to grab the broom or dislodge its occupants. The rest of the Inferi began making their way slowly across the surface, following their objective as quickly as they were able.
As they got closer to the shore, Harry yelled, "Retreat to the entrance chamber! Flame any of the bastards who get too close!" The other four mages apparently took this advice to heart as they began scurrying back the way they had come, a few different fire charms being cast in the process. Following right behind them, Harry sent the broom diving through the archway before coming to an abrupt stop on the other side of the wall.
As the two dismounted, Albus helpfully cast another strong flame barrier to block the archway while they regrouped.
While he was ensuring that everyone else was unharmed, Harry noticed that the longhaired curse breaker was looking at the flame-covered opening with barely disguised eagerness. "Bill?" Harry prodded. When the redheaded man looked at him, Harry said, "Could you at least try to look less pleased about the Undead army in there?"
"Sorry," Bill said unconvincingly, "but it's so rare to find such a large collection of spelled Inferi like this! I mean, two or three mummies in the same tomb, okay, but-"
"Bill! Try to focus!" Harry interrupted. "Other than burning them, what else stops them?"
"Well, there's dismemberment - they'll stop moving if you take their heads. Any strong amount of electricity can stop them - Lightening bolts are a good one. But on this large of a scale...? I dunno... bringing the roof down on their heads and flattening them? Not that that's an option now..."
Harry looked around to see if the others had any ideas. "Does anyone else have a better suggestion?"
"Not off the bat, Lad, but we'd better think of somethin' quick," Moody suggested. "The fire's holding 'em at bay now, but they'll outgrow their fear of it soon if they can't get around it."
"Albus? Any ideas?" Harry asked.
"No helpful ones," Dumbledore admitted. "Caving in this section would be insufficient; there would be plenty more Inferi to dig themselves out, and then we'd have an epidemic. Unfortunately, we cannot spell the entire ceiling from here. It would have to be attacked from inside."
"But are there any settlements up top to prevent us from collapsing the cavern?" Harry pressed.
"Well, no-," Albus admitted.
"Good," Harry interrupted, "in that case, push the barrier back a few feet to open the top of the archway."
"I can do that, but why?" Albus inquired. "As I said, we would have to go back inside to inflict enough damage, which is unfortunately obstructed."
Harry waved the Firebolt back and forth as he pointed out, "Inferi can't fly."
Albus looked momentarily dismayed. "No, Harry, it would be far too dangerous for you-"
"You just got through saying that we can't leave them like this. Do you have a better idea?" Harry demanded.
"Not yet," the older man admitted. The conversation was interrupted as a pale hand reached through the fire before the limb was seared off. The group heard an unholy shriek come from the other side as the appendage fell to the ground.
"Time's up!" Harry said grimly as he swung one leg over the broom.
"You'll need something a bit stouter than a Reductor Curse to take a whole mountain down, you know," Moody pointed out.
Harry nodded. "I was planning to transfigure pieces of the stone into sand to weaken the ceiling and then hit it with Bombardment curses on my way out."
"That ought to do it," Moody agreed.
Not being able to think of a replacement strategy, Dumbledore said, "Perhaps I or someone else should-"
"Albus, I appreciate the sentiment, but I've got the most experience with this type of broom. Just make me an opening and get out; I'll be right behind you." Retrieving the locket, Harry tossed it to Dumbledore for safekeeping.
Sighing, Albus stowed the locket then modified his spell to provide just enough room for a broom and its rider to pass through the archway. "Be careful, Harry," he cautioned.
"Always," Harry called as he disappeared back into the cavern.
"Well, we'd better get out of here, unless you like boulders bouncing off of your heads," Moody cautioned.
"Wait! We're just going to leave him?" Tonks protested.
Moody just stared at her. "If you haven't noticed, Lass, none of us can fly over that pack of beasties. We've done all we can; the rest is up to him." Making an effort to soften his growling voice, he added, "The kid's been through a lot worse than this; he'll be fine."
As the first explosions started to sound off, small pieces of rock became detached from the ceiling and started falling around them. "If you can keep up that barrier from a distance, I think we should take this conversation outside... now!" Bill called.
At Albus's confirmation, the five mages apparated back onto the large boulder outside of the cliff. As they waited, a deep groaning noise and intermittent explosions joined the sound of the waves crashing against the rock. These distractions kept the group on edge, all anxious as to how Harry was progressing on collapsing the cavern ceiling.
After several minutes, the explosions finally ceased. For a moment, all was quiet from the inside. Suddenly, there was a large cracking noise reverberating out of the cliff entrance followed by the rushing noise of a sedimentary avalanche. To their horror, large chunks of stone was falling out of the top of the cavern's chambers, obscuring their view of the inner recesses of the cave.
As the roof caved in with tons upon tons of stone, Harry Potter was nowhere in sight!
As soon as he cleared the flames, Harry's eyes almost bugged out at what he found. The entire beach and most of the water's surface was littering with staggering Inferi, all intent on the group of humans on the other side of the blaze. Or, more specifically, the Horcrux accompanying the humans on the other side of the blaze. Fortunately for Harry, now that he was no longer in possession of the artifact, the animated corpses seemed to ignore him entirely.
'Which is fine by me,' Harry thought privately.
Flying over the crowded masses, Harry made his way back to the rear of the cavern. Holding his wand aloft and concentrating on transfiguring the stone into sand, Harry started slowly weaving back and forth across the cave's width, gradually making his way back to the front of the grotto. Fine sand began to sift down from the deep gash in his wake, slithering out of the spline crack. At first, it was only a trickle, but it steadily increased to the point of resembling torrents of water leaking out as the sand-flow increased.
The cave began to creak, and there were popping noises as the ceiling's integrity became increasingly affected. Staying up front near the entrance, Harry watched as the ceiling was now comprised of many stones resting awkwardly against each other. The sand was now pouring down out of the ceiling as it creaked and groaned and grated together, settling in a fraction of an inch at a time to replace the sand.
Judging that the cave was primed for a complete collapse, Harry began firing concussion spells into key points of the roof's unstable architecture. As each blast hit, Harry would prepare to fly through the exit with all due haste. Once he was sure that the ceiling would accommodate the latest damage, Harry would select another target and try once more to 'bring the house down'.
When it came, it came all at once. A large section of the overhead vault collapsed with the grinding clatter of falling rock and a large cloud of dust billowed down and throughout the chamber. Harry would have been crushed beneath hundreds of tons of solid stone - had he not immediately sent the Firebolt off at top speed at the first dropped stone.
Dodging the smaller pebbles as they pelted the area ahead of their larger companions, Harry weaved a frantic path to the still-lit archway. The cacophony of falling rock and shrilly-crying Inferi filled his ears as he ducked down and spiraled through the arch. Reaching the antechamber, Harry pulled up sharply and rolled to his right, aligning his course with the canal exit. Seeing the antechamber following its brother's example, Harry kept the broom at full throttle as he negotiated the tight turns leading to the open sea and safety.
Just a few feet shy of the exit, a large piece of the ceiling began to plummet, intent on blocking his only means of escape. Gritting his teeth, Harry dropped the broom as low as he dared, to the point that the toes of his shoes were sending flumes of water skyward in his wake. Narrowly avoiding the falling projectile, Harry erupted from the cliff face at the Firebolt's top speed of 200 mph. This velocity combined with his low altitude to create a small wave on the ocean's surface, which admirably enveloped the five other mages awaiting him.
Finally arresting its forward motion, Harry turned the broom around and made his way back to the others, who didn't seem to be too happy being mistaken for jetsam, if the incoherent yelling was any indicator.
Wiping the water out of her face, Nymph glared at him as he landed and said, "Listen here, you - whoa, Harry, you're on fire!"
"Um... thanks?" Harry said, not really following what the young witch was attempting to say.
"No, your robes! They're on fire!" she yelled.
Looking down, Harry saw that the trim of his robes must have not passed through the arch the last time quickly enough, since they were ablaze. Cursing, he aimed his wand at himself. Before he could extinguish the flame himself, however, Bellatrix came to his aid.
Assuming, of course, that having the equivalent of a ten-foot tidal wave thrown at you could be considered helpful.
Using his wand to set himself to rights, Harry looked at Bellatrix resignedly and demanded, "Was that really necessary?"
"Uh... I'm sorry?" she asked completely insincerely.
"I'll bet you are," Harry muttered. Choosing to drop the issue, he turned to look at his handiwork. The entire crevice that they had used to enter the subterranean cave was completely obstructed with rubble. To the best of his knowledge, the rest of the underground complex was in the same state.
Harry looked at Albus and saluted half-heartedly. "Team Potter: When it absolutely, positively, has to be destroyed overnight."
"And to think, people have the audacity to think that I'm senile," the old wizard said while sounding put out.
Harry shrugged. "Mostly because you are," he replied helpfully.
"I don't recall me ever racing through an underground cave full of Inferi on a broom in low light conditions trying to collapse the entire structure, Harry," Albus said firmly.
"Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it!" Harry exclaimed. Ignoring the strange looks he was garnering, Harry asked, "Are we good to go?"
At Albus's dip of the head, he said, "Good! Let's see that candy dish of yours then."
The old man did as requested and a few moments later found the area once more unoccupied.
A/N: I had hopes of posting this chapter a week ago, but between my job and FF.Net purging my story from their system, I was distracted. In any event, I hope you liked the 10,000+ word chapter, beta'd by Yenom. Please remember to review.
Since I have lost my reviews at FF.Net, I have no means of retrieving your questions posted from the Chapter 8 commentary. If I have not already replied to your inquiry, please ask your question again and I will do my best to answer it promptly.
Onto the Review Responses:
Sterling-Ag: I hope that this chapter showed Harry in a more human, down-to-earth light. Hopefully, I can get his character's profile more calibrated as we go along. As far as the incorporation of Ron and Hermione - I totally agree that they should not be ignored (as many FanFic writers are wont to do). While not the stars of the show, I do plan for the other two members of the Gryffindor Trio to have their own parts to play.