"Yes, My Lord," Lucius Malfoy replied, slipping his Death Eater's mask over his face and indicating that the others should do the same.
"She has made all of the required preparations," the Dark Lord stated.
"She has, Lord Voldemort," another masked figure confirmed. "You will find the Ministry to be open to us."
"Thank you, Dawlish," Voldemort said coldly. "Her loyalty has not yet been called into question, I trust?"
"No, my Lord," Malfoy replied, his silky voice betraying to clue that he had lost both son and wife just two short weeks ago. "She has aroused no suspicion."
"Imelda Arnold is above reproach - " Voldemort began, but he suddenly stopped, a malicious gleam lighting his snake-like red eyes. "I believe we have a guest," he said softly. "Potter has decided to join us."
The room was silent as the Death Eaters waited for their instructions, all of them contriving to hide their disbelief. A sixteen-year-old boy had successfully breached the Occlumency shield of the Dark Lord? It was preposterous…unheard of…and yet, it seemed that Harry Potter had done it. The only question was, how?
Voldemort closed his eyes and breathed in deeply from his slit-like nostrils. "Potter…" he whispered, and without any further warning, each and every occupant of the room was knocked to the ground with the force of the magic behind the Dark Lord's push against the Boy-Who-Lived.
* * *
It had been two weeks since Draco's death, two bleak weeks in which Narcissa Malfoy had been hidden away in a small bedchamber in one of the many towers of Hogwarts, mourning for her son and hating herself for not possessing the strength to die in his place.
It had only been recently that Narcissa had decided that she would not only forsake her former Master, but would betray him in every way she could. She no longer cared about the danger of her actions; the only emotion she now possessed was a reckless desire to make up for her weakness and to avenge the death of her son.
"Understand, Dumbledore, that I tell you this not out of loyalty to you, but to Draco," Narcissa Malfoy stated coldly as she perched on the edge of a chair in front of Dumbledore's desk, and there was no mistaking the raw grief still present in her eyes, if not in her voice.
"Yes, of course, Narcissa," Dumbledore said softly. "The love of a mother for her child is the most powerful magic that ever has been, or indeed ever will be possessed in the hand of humankind."
Narcissa's eyes clouded for a moment then, but whatever she was thinking, she did not choose to share it with the Headmaster.
"Imelda Arnold," she said plainly.
"Imelda Arnold?" Dumbledore repeated, his eyes widening slightly in alarm. "Do you mean to say that Imelda Arnold is a Death Eater?"
"Don't be stupid, Dumbledore," Narcissa replied bitingly. "Give the Ministry a bit more credit than to hire someone with the Dark Lord's mark emblazoned plainly on their forearm, although they don't deserve much more credit than that," she muttered.
"What has she to do with Voldemort?" Dumbledore pressed, leaning forward in his chair.
"You do not have to be a Death Eater to be a follower of the Dark Lord. Surely, Dumbledore, even you knew that."
"Of course," Dumbledore said. "What of his plans?"
"He is going to -"
The door to Dumbledore's inner sanctum flew open and Ginny Weasley rushed in, her hair wild and her pajamas and dressing gown flying behind her.
"Miss Weasley?" Dumbledore inquired, rising from his seat. Quite apart from being interrupted in the middle of such an important conversation, he was concerned about what would have caused Ginny Weasley to get into such a state.
"Harry's gone!" she said breathlessly. "The invisibility cloak's gone, too. We've looked everywhere, and I'm desperately afraid he's gone and done something stupid."
* * *
Harry encountered little resistance as he pushed his imagined beads of light into the mind of Voldemort, and he hesitated for only an instant when he knew he was close.
I should not be doing this, the small, reasonable voice inside his mind told him. Not without the others. It's too dangerous.
It's the only way, he argued with himself, knowing he could not remain suspended in his meditative state just outside of Voldemort's defenses for long. Even Remus thinks it's a good idea. I've got to find out what he's going to do with Ginny.
As soon as he thought of her, his decision was made and he pushed forward. To his great surprise, however, he was not required to once again pass through the spiked door to reach Voldemort's inner thoughts and plans. He heard them, in the Dark Lord's own chilling voice, just as he made his entrance.
"Imelda Arnold is above reproach - " the voice, which still did not fail to raise the hairs on the back of Harry's neck, hissed, but suddenly stopped and changed in tone. "I believe we have a guest," he said. "Potter has decided to join us."
Harry realized at once he had been detected and instinctively tried to draw the strength he knew he would need from his friends. Too late, he remembered that he had done this without the aid, or even knowledge, of any of them. He had only been trying to protect Ginny, to protect all of them, but as he felt the full force of the Dark Lord's retaliation, he knew why he had never been allowed or advised to do this on his own.
He was not even prepared to fight back. He made his best effort, and against most other wizards, that effort would have been sufficient. Against Lord Voldemort, who had turned his full power onto his sixteen-year-old opponent, it was simply not enough.
Harry's last thought before he fell into complete unconsciousness was that Ginny and Lupin had been right: he couldn't do this alone. Now, because he had tried he would not be able to pass on vital information, and he was afraid the side of the light would suffer a major defeat.
* * *
"Come, Miss Weasley," Dumbledore said as he rose quickly and hurried toward his door. He suddenly saw with scathing clarity exactly what he had done in not telling Harry about Narcissa, not telling him exactly what that other way to get the necessary information would be. "Narcissa, I am sure you will understand. This cannot wait."
His reasons, as always, had been sound. He had been intending to talk to Harry during their Tuesday lesson, after he had finally spoken to Narcissa Malfoy. He felt that it was a wiser course to keep Narcissa's whereabouts as private as possible, even among the Order, and he had not thought that Harry would so something so rash, so soon.
As he watched the small form of Ginny Weasley, her dressing gown flying behind her as she led him to Gryffindor Tower, he felt another of the familiar pangs of regret. I have overlooked, once again, one of the greatest attributes of youth, he thought, hurrying along behind her with surprising speed and agility. The ability to love so freely, so passionately, without the restraints of age and care, carries with it the compulsion to protect that love at all costs.
"Hurry, Professor!" Ginny urged, turning toward him, her face pleading. "Please!"
I gave Harry no choice, he realized as he climbed through the Gryffindor portrait hole to meet an anxious-looking Ron and Hermione.
He shook off his feelings of regret and self-doubt as he addressed the three young people looking at him with such hope in their eyes, as if he would be able to solve this problem with a wave of his wand.
"Have you any idea where he has gone?" he asked quickly.
"He's nowhere in the castle," Ginny repeated. "Neville woke up really early to go check on a Herbology project, and he was the first one to realize that Harry wasn't there. We've spent an hour looking in all his usual places. He's not here!" Her voice, though strong, was laced with no small amount of panic.
"What if he didn't stay here in the castle? Could he have flooed to Grimmauld Place?" Hermione asked anxiously.
"No," Dumbledore responded. "If the Floo network had been used, I would have been immediately alerted."
"Wouldn't you have been alerted if he'd left the castle any other way?" Hermione pressed.
"The wards are set in such a way that entrances are always noted but exits by means other than the Floo Network, Portkeys and the Forbidden Forest, while they may be seen if necessary, are not of as high consequence," Dumbledore said distractedly.
"So you didn't know he'd gone and you have no idea where or even if he left the grounds," Ginny said, forgetting to be respectful.
"I am afraid not, Miss Weasley," he replied.
"What's he on about, leaving so early?" Ron asked in a disgruntled voice.
"Isn't it obvious?" Ginny said bitingly. "He's gone to have another go at You-Know-Who, hasn't he?" She directed this last statement to the Headmaster, and felt the last bit of hope that he had just gone for a walk leave her heart when he nodded.
"We've got to find him!" Hermione exclaimed. "If he's on his own and is detected, the results could be disastrous!"
"Idiot," Ron muttered, kicking the carpet and hoping that nothing bad had happened to his best friend.
"I need all of you to think," Dumbledore said. "He could not fly to Grimmauld Place; it is too far."
"He could Apparate," Ron pointed out. "We got our licenses."
"Harry didn't," Hermione said. "Still, it is possible. He was as good at it as we were, even if he isn't seventeen yet."
"He wouldn't go to Grimmauld Place," Ginny said with conviction. "He hated going there; it always reminded him too much of Sirius."
The others looked slightly surprised, for Harry had not ever said as much to them. By now, though, even Ron was accustomed to the fact that Harry talked to Ginny more frankly than anyone else.
"Miss Weasley, is there anywhere else? Somewhere he would feel secure, somewhere with which he is familiar?" Dumbledore asked with a growing sense of urgency. If Harry had, in fact, attempted something of the sort, he needed to be reached, and quickly.
Ginny gasped. "Of course!" she said fiercely, angry with herself for not thinking of it until that moment. "The Shrieking Shack," she said definitely.
"The Shrieking Shack?" Ron repeated dubiously. "Why would he want to go to that old place? We haven't been there since…" he trailed off, remembering the last time he had accompanied Harry to the Shack. It had been during the October Hogsmeade visit, and it had been then that they had been told about the prophecy.
"Ginny's right," Hermione declared, with a sideways look at her friend. After-hours girl-talk meant that Hermione knew exactly when Harry had last been to the Shack, and she could understand why he would find it to be a place of comfort. He had met Sirius there, had told his friends his biggest secret and received their support there and most recently, he had been with Ginny there.
"How do you know?" Ron said with frustration. "He could be anywhere, really, couldn't he?"
"He's there," Hermione and Ginny said together, and all three looked to Professor Dumbledore.
"We must go immediately," he said, and none of them were comforted by his tone of voice this time. It told them exactly how dangerous what Harry had done was.
"Shall we get dressed?" Hermione asked in a small voice.
"As quickly as you can, Miss Granger," Dumbledore answered gravely, and watched as all three of them turned and raced back to their dormitories.
"What's Potter done, Professor?" asked a sleepy voice from the other side of a high-backed chair.
"Mr. Finnegan," Dumbledore said with some surprise. "I did not see you."
"I, erm, well, I wasn't trying to listen," Seamus stammered, looking down. Not being as well acquainted with the Headmaster as his roommates, he was quite intimidated to find him standing in the Gryffindor Common Room at such an hour.
"Indeed, it does seem as though we gain more information than we bargain for when we inadvertently hear the conversation of others," Dumbledore said seriously. "Harry has found himself in a dangerous situation, but it is my hope that any trouble will be resolved quickly."
"Does it, well, I mean, does it have something to do with…" Seamus trailed off, afraid of seeming too interfering.
"Lord Voldemort?" Dumbledore finished quietly. "Yes, Mr. Finnegan, Mr. Potter's troubles do seem to center around him, do they not?"
"I just, well, I remember what happened to him at the beginning of fall term," Seamus muttered. "I was worried, that's all."
"And you have found it hard to express your concern to your friends?" the Headmaster asked shrewdly. He had not failed to notice Seamus's absence from the group at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall.
"Yeah," Seamus answered. "But I don't want anything…bad to happen."
The conversation was halted as abruptly as it had begun, for Ginny, Hermione and Ron all came rushing down the dormitory stairs at that moment, dressed haphazardly but completely.
"Mr. Finnegan, stand close to your friends in these times," Dumbledore said quietly as the others joined them. "You will find that the bonds that tie us together have become more important than ever. Now, return to your dormitory for the present and find a few more hours' rest."
Seamus nodded and, avoiding the curious eyes of the others, went back up to the sixth-year boys' dormitory without another word.
"Are we ready?" Dumbledore asked the other three. When they all nodded quietly, their faces serious and worried, he picked up a library book from one of the tables, held his wand to it, and muttered, "Portus."
* * *
Dumbledore took a moment to shoot a silvery signal from his wand as they appeared in the parlor of the Shrieking Shack, the very same parlor which had played host to Lord Voldemort and Lucius Malfoy over the Christmas holidays.
Without speaking, Ginny turned and ran up the stairs. She knew exactly where he would be if he was in the house, and as the others followed her her shout of alarm was evidence to the fact that she had, indeed, found him.
"Professor!" she cried, tears pooling in her eyes and dripping down her face. "Professor Dumbledore! He's here!"
The Headmaster pushed quietly past Ron and Hermione and entered the room, immediately seeing the source of Ginny's distress.
Harry lay spread-eagle on the dusty coverlet of the ramshackle old bed, his eyes wide open but unblinking and unseeing. His skin was as pale as parchment and his lips were slightly parted, as if he had been about to say something when he had been struck. He was so still that for a moment even Dumbledore feared the worst.
"He's not breathing," Hermione whispered, raw terror lacing her voice.
Ron's horrified eyes were fixed on his best friend, searching desperately for some sign of life, not believing what seemed to be so obvious in front of them. Harry couldn't be…he just…couldn't be…
"Professor?" Ginny asked, holding Harry's left hand desperately. He felt so cold.
Dumbledore was leaning over Harry's prone form, examining him closely. Placing one wrinkled hand on the boy's cool face, the Headmaster breathed again when he felt the smallest movement of air between his student's lips.
"Harry is alive," he said quietly, and both Ginny and Hermione began to cry while Ron sagged against the wall, his face slack with relief. Dumbledore shot another signal from his wand before focusing on his student again, moving his wand in complicated motions over Harry's body.
With a gasp, Harry sat up straight, breathing heavily and looking around wildly, as though expecting to be attacked.
"Harry, calm down. Look at me," Ginny said, her voice strong and insistent, no sign of her tears from only a moment before present on her face. "Look at me, Harry, it's okay."
"Did Voldemort detect your presence, Harry?" Dumbledore asked quietly. "Did he know you were intruding upon his thoughts?"
Harry nodded slowly, fearing to look into the Headmaster's blue eyes, afraid of the condemnation he was sure he would find there. Ginny squeezed his hand.
"Can you stand?" Dumbledore asked. Harry nodded shakily.
"I want you all to go back to the school and wait for me in my office," Dumbledore said, and when he looked at Harry again, Harry was surprised to find understanding in those fathomless blue eyes rather than condemnation or blame.
"Back to the school?" Ginny repeated. "Professor, shouldn't he rest first? I mean, after the other times…"
"This was nothing like the other times, Miss Weasley, and it turned out better than it might have," Dumbledore assured her. "Voldemort obtained no information from Harry, nor did he cause him any lasting injury."
"Harry set himself like that, Professor, didn't he?" Hermione asked quickly. "I read about an Occlumens who could prevent any chance of intrusion by shutting down his mind almost entirely. It's risky, though," she added, turning to look at Harry. "There's the chance that the witch or wizard who attempts to do this could put themselves in an irreversible state of coma."
"Indeed, Miss Granger, although I do not know if it was intentional or if it was simply a lucky accident that Harry was able to raise such a powerful and unique shield," Dumbledore said. "However, we must continue this discussion at a later time. Please, all four of you, return to my office. I must go to the Ministry, myself, along with much of the Order."
Harry finally spoke. "Professor," he said, his voice croaky from his earlier exertion. "The Minister!"
Dumbledore held up a hand. "I am aware of it, Harry," he said quietly. "Our source has given us that bit of information, and I daresay she has more to offer."
"About Ginny?" he asked directly, but the Headmaster did not have a chance to answer him because several 'pops' sounded from around the house, indicating that the signals had been received and the Order had come into service.
"Harry, listen to me," Professor Dumbledore said urgently. "You must be extremely cautious. You are vulnerable after using your Occlumency shield in such a way; you will find it hard to defend yourself against Legilimency, and Voldemort will be aware of this. He will be searching for you."
"Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione, what are you four doing here?" a confused Mr. Weasley asked as he came into the bedroom, looking for Dumbledore.
"Harry went after You-Know-Who on his own," Ron answered.
"The Ministry, Albus?" asked McGonagall, who had just Apparated into a corner of the bedroom.
"Minerva, I will need you to stay behind at Hogwarts," Dumbledore said, and she nodded and Apparated away once again.
"All right, Harry?" asked Lupin distractedly, brushing an unfamiliar-looking powder from his robes and looking as though he had been right in the middle of something odd when the summons had come.
"All right, Moony," Harry answered, but by then, no one could hear anyone else from the din of several voices. They tried to listen in on many conversations at once, but none of them had had much luck by the time that Dumbledore appeared once again beside them, holding the library book.
"This Portkey will take you back to my office," Dumbledore said, handing the book to Ginny, his eyes twinkling slightly, as if he knew that they had every intention of staying as long as they were able. "Please, all four of you wait for me there. I hope I shall not be delayed long."
"Yes, Professor," she said, reaching to take the book from him.
When all four of their hands were touching the book, Harry felt a tug beneath his naval and the four of them journeyed at lightning speed back to Hogwarts.
As they landed with a "thud" in the middle of the Head's office, Harry realized immediately that he was going to have to answer to his friends for what he had done.
"What were you thinking of, Harry?" Ginny asked him immediately.
"You could have at least taken us with you, mate, even if the adults wouldn't go," Ron agreed.
"I -" Harry began to argue, but he realized that Ron had actually been exactly right.
"Did you not think we would be behind you, Harry, even if Dumbledore was against this?" Hermione asked quietly. "Aren't we always behind you?"
"You - " Harry began again, but this time, he was interrupted by a bright green blaze of flame and Percy Weasley's head showing up unexpectedly in Professor Dumbledore's fire.
"Percy?" Ron asked incredulously. "What are you doing here?"
"Never mind that," Percy said in the businesslike and pompous tone they had all been accustomed to before, but all four of them were a bit surprised now. In the past few months, the Percy who had once been so arrogant and ambitious had mellowed somewhat into a more caring, if still serious, young man, and he and George had even been known to have an occasional bit of fun together as they ran Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.
"What's happening?" Harry asked quickly.
"Professor Dumbledore wants you to come to London," Percy said quickly, scowling at the four of them as they exchanged glances.
"How are we to get there?" Harry asked.
"Apparate to the alley near the Visitor's Entrance to the Ministry of Magic," he said. "Quickly." Without another word, his head vanished from the fire.
Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione looked at one another uncertainly.
"Professor Dumbledore asked us to stay here," Hermione said. "He asked us not three minutes ago to wait for him here. He said he wouldn't be delayed long. How could he be in London?"
Harry quickly explained what we had seen in his short Legilimency connection with Voldemort.
"The Minister of Magic is a Death Eater?" Ron asked, horrified.
"That can't be possible," Hermione said hesitantly. "Surely they wouldn't let anyone with Voldemort's mark work for the Ministry. Surely, in these times, they check for that."
"Dumbledore said it was true," Harry said firmly. "That's where everyone was going. He and the Order were going to the Ministry to alert the Aurors and aid in Imelda Arnold's arrest."
"What about Percy, though?" Ginny asked. "He didn't seem like himself."
"Something must be going on," Harry said. "Dumbledore wouldn't call us there without a reason."
"We need to talk to Dumbledore himself, Harry," Hermione said. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Dumbledore's not going to have time to talk to us," Harry said. "We trust Percy, don't we?"
"Why Percy, though?" Hermione persisted. "Why not Mrs. Weasley or Professor McGonagall?"
"I don't know, Hermione!" Harry answered. "But Percy said Professor Dumbledore needed us now. What are we waiting for?"
"Harry, I can't Apparate," Ginny said, sounding uncertain. "I don't know how."
"You shouldn't -" Harry and Ron began at the same time.
"Don't you dare tell me I can't go!" Ginny exclaimed, stamping her foot.
Harry knew that tone, and he did not want to waste time arguing the point. If Dumbledore had asked for them, there had been a reason for it. He and the Headmaster had discussed possible offensive uses for his Legilimency skills, and he wondered if that had something to do with it.
"We'll use the Floo to get to the Leaky Cauldron," Harry said decisively. "We haven't got time for brooms. From there, we'll Apparate to the Ministry," he held up a silencing hand, knowing that Ginny was about to protest. "Ginny, have you ever side-along apparated?" he asked.
"Only once, when I was about three," Ginny said uncertainly.
"You'll go with me," Harry told her.
"Harry, don't you think we ought to tell Professor McGonagall where we're going?" Hermione asked tentatively.
"Dumbledore will have told her," Harry answered. "He will have used that signal that the Order uses to talk to each other."
"I don't know, Harry," Hermione said uncertainly. "It seems too much like…"
"Like last time," Ron finished for her. "The pieces aren't fitting together."
"This is nothing like last time," Harry said hotly. "Last time bloody Voldemort planted a vision in my head, and we couldn't find Professor Dumbledore! This time, Dumbledore's asking for us."
"Why would he, Harry?" Hermione persisted.
"There are certain things I've been practicing on in Legilimency," Harry said. "He thinks it could be used against Voldemort in the end. Maybe whatever's going on at the Ministry makes him think it's a good time."
"It's just doesn't sound like…" Hermione trailed off at the look on Harry's face.
"Didn't you just tell Harry we'd be behind him, no matter what?" Ginny said fiercely.
"I did, but…"
"Hermione, if Harry's going to try to use Legilimency again, he's going to need all of us. That's got to be what Professor Dumbledore wants him for; nothing else makes any sense."
"We've got to move," Harry said tensely. His scar had begun to hurt, and he remembered Dumbledore's warnings about his vulnerability as he tried to strengthen his Occlumency shields. "Something's happening; Voldemort's up to something. We've got to move!"
He strode over to the fire and took up the pot of glittering Floo powder from the mantle. He looked at the others, who nodded back at him, even Hermione, and followed suit.
Without a word or a note, the young man who was Wizarding world's only hope of defeating the Dark Lord left the safety of one of the most closely guarded castles in the world for the uncertainty that lay beyond the grate.
* * *
Lucius Malfoy was unsurprised with the bells attached to the front door of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes sounded, alerting him that someone had entered the store. He knew that Potter and his friends, though reckless, were not unintelligent, and he had planned for the possibility that they might stop by and check Percy's story before going to the Ministry.
He kept himself hidden, his wand trained on Percy, the strong Imperius Curse he had cast still in full effect.
"Percy!" Harry said as they walked in, all four of them with their wands drawn.
"What are you doing here?" Lucius Malfoy mouthed, hearing the words come out of his victim's mouth.
"You didn't seem like yourself," Ginny Weasley answered. "We just came to check…"
"Dumbledore wants you," Percy said. "I did not ask you to come here, I asked you to Apparate directly to the Visitor's Entrance to the Ministry."
Lucius Malfoy saw Potter suddenly become very focused, his eyes narrowed as he looked straight into Percy's eyes. He's using Legilimency, Lucius realized, but he had not yet had time to react when Harry suddenly shouted to the others.
"Ron, Hermione, Ginny!" he yelled. "Cover yourselves!"
With the quickness born of their training over the past year, the three of them formed a triangle, their backs to one another and their wands drawn.
"What's going on, Harry?" Ron called.
"Percy's been -" Harry started to answer.
"Put under the Imperius Curse," Lucius Malfoy finished in his silkiest drawl, coming out from behind the counter. "How very clever of you, Potter." He took his wand off of Percy and pointed it straight at the heart of the dark-haired boy who was now advancing on him, his face a mask of utmost loathing.
"Join the others, Percy," Harry said, knowing that Percy would not be an advanced dueler.
To his credit, Percy obeyed without a word. He was not sure what had happened, but he had the uncomfortable feeling that Ron, Ginny, Hermione and Harry were here because he had asked them to come. He, too, drew his wand as he joined his siblings and Hermione, who were on the lookout for enemies in all directions.
Lucius Malfoy began the duel, knowing that no reinforcements were coming, but feeling certain he could take the five young people with relative ease.
"Crucio!" he cried.
Harry ducked instinctively, raising his shield wandlessly and firing a quick succession of spells toward Malfoy, who raised a shield almost as effortlessly as Harry had. The two dueled for what seemed like forever, the others keeping watch but, at Harry's demand, not entering the duel themselves. All four had raised invisible shield charms.
It seemed like forever before a soundless curse hit Lucius Malfoy's wand arm, causing it to spurt bright red blood.
Taking all five of his opponents by surprise, Malfoy changed his strategy in an instant. All at once, he took his wand off of Harry and fired a strong Reductor Curse straight into the center of the others' circle, causing all of them to fall forward. He deflected Harry's curses as he dove toward them, and knowing that he was but speeding up the Dark Lord's original intentions in having Potter and his friends come to the Ministry, he grabbed Ginny and Apparated away.
Without wasting a moment, Harry followed suit, concentrating with all his might on Ginny. They had spoken of this in Apparation classes, although he had never before attempted it. It was possible to follow a person rather than naming a specific place as their destination, but it held much more danger of splinching oneself than traditional Apparation, and was thus frowned upon.
Ron, Hermione and Percy looked at one another in worry and astonishment.
"Where's he taking Ginny?" Ron asked.
"We've got to find Dumbledore," Hermione answered. "Harry's tried to follow them; I only hope he can."
"We've got to go, too," Percy said. "Malfoy will be taking Ginny back to Voldemort, hoping to lure Harry wherever they are. Harry can't go it alone, there will be too many."
Ron and Hermione nodded as Percy shot the Order's signal from his wand. "I've alerted Dumbledore."
"He's at the Ministry," Hermione told him. "They are arresting Imelda Arnold."
"The interim Minister?" Percy asked.
"She's a Death Eater," Ron supplied, running his fingers through his hair in agitation. "Damn it, we can't just sit here and do nothing! Where's George?"
"We'll wait for Dumbledore," Percy said. "We don't know where they've gone. There's nothing we can do right now, and George has gone to Edinburgh after ingredients for a new product."
"How can you be so calm?" Ron shouted, shrugging off Hermione's restraining hand. "He's got Ginny, or don't you care about that? Has it all been an act, Percy? Just a clever act to make us all think you're on our side now? You don't care about anyone but yourself!"
"Ron!" Hermione interjected.
"I know Harry is with her, wherever they've gone," Percy said quietly. "She could be no safer if she was with Dumbledore himself, and you know that. I've heard about what Harry has done, what he can do. He'll bring her back."
This statement stunned Ron and Hermione into silence for a moment, but they both felt the truth in Percy's words. Harry would not let anything happen to Ginny, but what if something happened to Harry himself?
The silvery form of Dumbledore's response came to them a moment later. "There is trouble at the Ministry and I suspect that Lucius Malfoy will bring her here. Come as quickly as possible."
"There's an Apparation Point at the entrance to the Ministry," Percy said, explaining how to get there. "You've both got your licenses?"
Ron and Hermione nodded, Ron barely restraining himself from rolling his eyes. Trust Percy to worry about licenses at a time like this.
"Right," Percy said. "Let's go."
With three loud 'pops,' they Disapparated.
* * *
Things were certainly not going well at the Ministry. Outside the Minister of Magic's suite of offices, a standoff was in place. Imelda Arnold stood, flanked by her staff, at the entrance to her office, boldly facing the line of Aurors and Order members who had so rudely demanded entrance.
"I know nothing of claims that I am in any way associated with the Dark Lord or his Death Eaters," Minister Arnold said loftily, holding out her left arm for evidence. As Narcissa had told Dumbledore, it was clear of the Dark Mark.
"Then I am certain you will not object to accompanying us to a more secure location while we verify that," Dumbledore requested politely.
"There are matters which require my attention, Dumbledore," Minister Arnold said.
"How do we know she's not telling the truth?" on young Auror asked another in a loud whisper.
"I have it on considerable authority that you have been taking orders from Lord Voldemort since well before you came into office," Dumbledore said calmly. "However, if this is not the case, I am sure you will not object to a search of your office?"
"Of course I will object to such measures," Arnold replied, training her dark eyes on Dumbledore.
"You will leave us with no choice but to arrest you by force, Miss Arnold," Kingsley Shacklebolt said in his deep voice, noting that Dumbledore had become momentarily distracted with taking an Order message and then sending one of his own in reply.
When the Headmaster next focused his attention on the interim Minister of Magic, Shacklebolt noticed that he looked even graver than before.
"It has been brought to my attention - " Dumbledore began seriously, but he was interrupted by the arrival of a young Auror apprentice, who ran straight to Kingsley.
"There is a disturbance above the Ministry, sir," she said breathlessly, and for a moment, the attention of every person in the room was on her.
"Above the Ministry?" Kingsley repeated. "You must be more specific."
"In Muggle London, sir," the young woman said. "Hyde Park, right above the Ministry."
"Hyde Park!" Arthur Weasley exclaimed. "At this hour on a Sunday, the park will be crawling with Muggles!"
Without speaking another word, Dumbledore waved his wand. Long ropes flew out of it and bound Imelda Arnold where she stood.
"See here, Dumbledore," one of her assistants shouted. "She has been convicted of nothing!"
"Time is pressing," Dumbledore said, his voice old and tired. "Contact any Order members you can raise, Tonks, and Kingsley - we will need to secure the perimeter of the park to prevent any more Muggles coming in than are already there. Arthur, Molly, come with me."
The crowd immediately dispersed, some heading to the Apparation point, others to the Floo Network.
Arthur and Molly followed Dumbledore toward the Minister's office, and he stopped and relayed to them Percy's message from a few moments before.
"Ginny?" Molly whispered.
"Harry has followed her, and I suspect they are the source of the disturbance in the park," Dumbledore said heavily. "I am afraid this is part of a larger plan, the pieces of which are only beginning to fall into place. Voldemort seeks something inside the Ministry, and, as always, he seeks Harry Potter. We must not become divided. Percy and Ron are on their way here, along with Hermione Granger. Meet them, and bring them into Muggle London with you. They must not remain here."
A flash of flame erupted in the air over their heads and Fawkes appeared, a sheaf of parchment in his beak.
"Go, Molly, Arthur," Dumbledore urged. "I have one matter of utmost importance I must attend to, and I will join you."
"What could be of more importance?" Molly asked loudly. "Albus?"
"Come, Molly," Arthur coaxed. "We have to go to our children."
With a scathing glance at Dumbledore, who was leaning over the desk scratching a note on the topmost piece of parchment, Molly hurried to the Apparition point to meet Percy, Ron and Hermione.
* * *
Several Muggles screamed as a black-robed man with long blonde hair suddenly appeared in their midst, restraining a struggling red-headed girl.
Lucius Malfoy smiled cruelly as he waved his wand over his head, casting a spell so powerful that several Muggles in his immediate vicinity fell to the ground with something resembling third-degree burns erupting over much of their bodies. As the air filled with screams, Malfoy barely heard the 'pop' as Harry Potter Apparated right behind him.
He felt Harry's wand-tip on his temple before he heard the low, growling warning.
"Let her go, Malfoy," Harry said menacingly, his heart pounding under his composed exterior.
"Very well," Lucius said easily, releasing Ginny, who stumbled over the unfortunate form of one of the screaming Muggles.
Harry was too busy checking Ginny over for injuries to stop Lucius Malfoy from casting the Dark Mark into the afternoon sky over London.
"Morsmordre!" he cried, watching with satisfaction as the Mark of his Lord materialized over the park, causing increased panic. Within seconds, at least twenty other Death Eaters appeared under the Mark. Without waiting for instructions, they began firing sells at will, killing Muggles as they screamed and tried to run in terror.
Harry shielded himself and Ginny just in time to deflect a barrage of dark spells which flew their way.
"I'm going to disillusion you," Harry whispered. "Get out of it as fast as you can!"
"Harry Potter, don't you -"
Ginny felt a sensation like cold water being poured over her head and she knew that Harry had performed the Disillusionment Charm.
"When I count three, I'm going to break with you," Harry said. "Put up a shield charm before I'm too far away. I'll do one too, with sound, to cover you. Once it's up, run as fast as you can. You've got to get to the Ministry to get help."
"I'm not leaving you," Ginny whispered as the spells continued to bounce off of Harry's shield.
"Ginny, go," Harry said insistently. "On three. One, two…"
"Three," Ginny finished resignedly, and the two broke contact.
"Protego!" Harry yelled with all his might, covering Ginny's much quieter spell. He sensed rather than saw her move to his right, and he began shooting spells at the Death Eaters as rapidly as he could in the other direction.
His distraction worked and Ginny escaped, but Harry was not faring quite as well.
Strong as his shield charm was, and great as his dueling ability had come, more Death Eaters were arriving by the minute to replace the fallen. Harry was injured badly by a strong Diffindo curse aimed from his back, and things would have begun to look very grim indeed had not several loud 'pops' announced the entrance of the Order and the Aurors to Hyde Park.
* * *
Knowing that even Harry would not survive long without help, Ginny ran as if Voldemort himself was after her, maintaining a moderately strong shield charm as she went.
She ran blindly, having never been to Hyde Park. She knew where the Ministry was, but until she reached the surface streets, she did not know in which direction it lay.
Just as she reached the edge of the park, a hot blast hit her back, stopping her in her tracks. Her blood ran cold as she heard the voice she had never thought she would hear again. Tom Riddle's voice had grown older, higher and had a hissing quality to it, but she would still have recognized it anywhere. After the memory of the sixteen-year-old Riddle had taken her into the Chamber of Secrets during her first year, his voice would be etched into her memory for the rest of her life.
"We meet again, Miss Weasley," Voldemort hissed, holding his wand on her.
With horror growing in her heart, Ginny realized that she was unable to move.
"That's a good little girl," he continued, advancing on her, seemingly oblivious to the screams in the park behind him and the haze in the air as spells were cast from nearly a hundred dueling wizards.
"You have always been attracted to attention, have you not?" he continued. "You craved it so during your first year, always coming to your beloved Tom's diary to receive bits of what you so wanted. And now, you are the lover of the Boy-Who-Lived. Is he willing to share the limelight with you?
"Oh yes, Ginevra," he said, circling around her slowly, looking at her disheveled form up and down. "I know of his great love of being the hero who 'defeated' Lord Voldemort when he was only a baby…but he has annoyed me far too many times. You silly girl, did you really think that Harry Potter stood a chance against me, the most powerful wizard of all time?"
Ginny stared straight into his evil face without a hint of fear and said, "Tom, you are nothing more than an old man with a twisted soul. Harry is better than ten thousand men such as yourself."
Voldemort laughed then, a high, cruel laugh which turned immediately into a snarl. "We shall see, little girl, we shall see. And in the meantime, we have plenty of time to deal with your lack of courtesy."
He raised his wand, and without a flicker of emotion in his voice said, "Crucio."
* * *
Harry's scar gave a painful twinge just as he saw Dumbledore Apparate into the battle, waving his wand and causing the Death Eaters surrounding him to fall without so much as a sound.
Harry continued battling with the two masked Death Eaters who had followed him around the edges of the fray. Although they knew Dark spells that he would never have dreamed of either learning or using, there was no question that Kingsley Shacklebolt, Albus Dumbledore and Nymphadora Tonks had taught their student well in the art of dueling. Harry maintained his solid gold shield wandlessly as he fired a torrent of spells at the other two, turning, feinting and dodging as though he had been doing so his entire life.
"Harry!" Remus Lupin shouted, having finally found his charge amidst the fray. "Get out of it!"
Lupin charged in to begin dueling alongside Harry, who was doing astonishingly well. Hermione had healed the gash on his back as best she could, and it did not seem to be slowing him down in the least as he hit one Death Eater with a strong Banishing charm, recovering and snapping his wand and leaving him to be picked up by the Aurors later.
"You've got to get close to Dumbledore!" Remus shouted. "He's trying to gather everyone!"
"Where's Ginny?" Harry shouted back, both he and his guardian still dueling furiously. "I sent her to get help when we were attacked."
Remus dodged a red jet of light from his opponent's wand. "I haven't seen her, Harry, but it's hard to find anyone in this. Hopefully she's out of sight!"
Just then, Harry's scar exploded with pain and he dropped to his knees, his shield disappearing. Just in time, Remus pushed him out of the way and quickly stunned the advancing Death Eater.
"He's here," Harry gasped, trying to ignore the pain and recast his shield. "He's here, and he's looking for me."
Just then, in a moment of unnatural silence, a shrill scream pierced the air, the scream of a young woman in excruciating pain.
"He's got Ginny!" Harry yelled, jumping to his feet, now oblivious to everything else.
"You don't know that, Harry! You're not ready to fight him!" Remus shouted desperately, following Harry, who was shooting spells wildly as he raced toward the source of the sound.
"I do know, Moony! He's got her and he's hurting her," Harry said furiously as he cast a Stunner at a Death Eater's back and rolled to avoid a spell cast from his right, sending a jelly-legs jinx into the wooded area in which he knew a Death Eater must be hiding.
He was on his feet and running when the second scream pierced the air. His heart broke for her as his anger mounted and he changed directions slightly, still easily fending off any Death Eater that dared approach him.
"Voldemort's got Ginny!" he said to Ron, Hermione and Percy, who were in the process of binding two more fallen Death Eaters for the Aurors to pick up later. "I need your help! Come on!"
As he ran, Harry had come up with a plan, something similar to what he and Dumbledore had discussed in their lessons, but he was going to need his friends to make it work. He didn't have enough power, but he had learned during his Legilimency sessions that he would be able to draw magical energy from them if they were in physical contact. He didn't know if it had a chance of working, but it was the best idea he had. He knew he was still no match for Voldemort in a duel.
"When we get to them, Percy, you get Ginny as quick as you can and get her out of there! Remus, you've got to keep the Death Eaters out of the way. I can't deal with them and Voldemort at the same time, and someone's got to find Dumbledore."
"Harry, do you know what you're doing?" Hermione shouted worriedly as Ron guarded her from behind.
"I think so," Harry called back to her. "You and Ron need to touch me with your free hands and keep your shields up with your wands. I'm going to need to draw from you just like I did when I was doing Legilimency."
Hermione was a bit worried, remembering what had happened to her the last time Harry had gone into Voldemort's mind. She wasn't worried about herself; she was simply worried about what would happen if Harry lost her support. You've got to be stronger, Hermione, she told herself fiercely. He's finally asking for help! You can't let him down now.
Remus and Harry still carried most of the defense of the small group as they made their way as quickly as they could across the battle and towards the source of the continuing screams.
When they arrived, they fell into the agreed formation around Voldemort and Ginny, who had been concealed somewhat by some shrubberies and trees, and Harry advanced on Voldemort, his face white with rage and determination, Ron and Hermione at his side.
* * *
Albus Dumbledore sighed inwardly as he saw Harry and his friends charge across the battlefield. He knew that the time had come: Harry was seeking Voldemort out directly, with the intent to end this if he could.
Dumbledore fingered the ring in his pocket with a shaky hand. It had been this, along with an important bit of correspondence that had kept him behind at the Ministry. It had only been the previous day that he had been able to locate this relic, and he knew that he must destroy it as quickly as he was able to do.
He surveyed the battlefield. Far too many were on the ground, masked faces stunned or bound with only small injuries by and large, and unmasked faces frozen forever in expressions of pain, both Muggles and Wizards. The count of the dead and the injured was going to be much higher this day than it had ever been.
The remaining Death Eaters had either been captured or had Disapparated, and Dumbledore knew what he must do. He strode quickly over the grounds in the direction in which he had seen Harry Potter lead his friends, pain spreading through his ringed hand as he began to mutter the words of a powerful incantation.
* * *
"So," Voldemort hissed triumphantly. "Harry Potter has finally come to the aid of his little girlfriend. I was growing tired of waiting."
Harry did not say a word; he simply drew his wand and held it at the ready. The moment Voldemort took his own wand off Ginny, Percy rushed forward and picked her right up from where she had been lying on the ground, curled into a ball in a fruitless attempt to protect herself. He kept his wand out as he helped his sister to her feet, and his eyes remained trained on the Dark Lord who had now focused his attention on Harry Potter.
"Take her," Voldemort said dismissively of Ginny. "She is of no further use to me."
As Harry and Voldemort circled one another, never once breaking eye contact, Percy tried to pull Ginny away from the battle. She would have none of it, however. Weak and shaking from the exposure to the Cruciatus Curse, she nevertheless joined Ron and Hermione at Harry's side, reaching out her free arm to touch his back and raising a shield with her wand.
Voldemort noticed the new wariness in his opponent's eyes, and he knew Harry had been trained. It was because of this, perhaps, that he chose not to toy with his quarry. Without warning, he struck fast and hard.
Harry's shield was up in time to deflect the curse, but just as he was preparing his planned strike, Voldemort disappeared silently, reappearing behind Harry's back and striking so rapidly that no one had time to react.
The jet of green light caught Hermione square in the chest, having passed through her shield charm as though it were nothing. With a soft cry, she fell to the ground, blood spurting from a deep wound in her chest.
"Hermione!" Harry, Ron and Ginny yelled together, although Ron and Ginny did not break their contact with Harry. Remus Lupin rushed forward, firing spells in quick succession at Voldemort, who simply conjured a solid silver shield and deflected them as though they were so many annoying flies.
Blue fire emerged from the tip of the Dark Lord's wand, catching Lupin even as he tried to dodge. The sleeve of his robes caught fire and would have quickly consumed him if Percy had not come forward, shooting a strong jet of water from his own wand to extinguish the flames.
With a bellow of rage, Harry leapt forward, only barely staying with Ron and Ginny. As he had planned, he used only the spell he had used the night of Voldemort's rebirth.
"Expelliarmus!" he cried, intentionally saying the incantation rather than casting it soundlessly. He wanted Voldemort to engage him, to take his attention away from the others.
Voldemort, however, had other plans. Instead of dueling with Harry, he simply allowed the disarming charm to bounce off his shield, requiring Harry, Ron and Ginny to duck to avoid the rebound.
As he stood straight again, Harry caught a glance of Hermione. Lupin was trying to pull her to the side with his remaining good arm, but she was pale and the front of her robes were torn and soaked with her blood. Harry's heart ached at the thought that he had once again led his friends into danger, and if he could not engage Voldemort, he knew that more of the same was bound to occur.
"Break off from me," Harry ordered Ginny and Ron. "Get away from me, and run as fast as you can to get help for Hermione and Moony. Percy, you go as well."
"We're with you," Ron said simply, not breaking his contact. Ginny said nothing, but he noticed that she didn't release her hold on him either.
"Go," he said urgently, never taking his eyes off Voldemort, who was watching them with detached amusement. "I need you to go. I can't move properly, and my plan isn't working."
Something in his voice convinced them to let go, and they broke apart just as Voldemort shot another jet of red light toward them. Diving in three different directions, they avoided the spell by mere inches.
Harry held his shield up wandlessly and had prepared himself to enter the duel when Voldemort stopped and gazed at a point somewhere behind him.
"So, your savior has arrived once more, Potter," Voldemort hissed.
"Stand aside, Harry," Dumbledore said calmly. "Tom, I believe I have something that will be of great interest to you."
Harry stood down, not knowing what Dumbledore had planned, but eternally grateful that he had shown up. He knew that Lupin had spoken the truth when he had said that Harry was not yet ready to face Lord Voldemort alone.
Voldemort's attention was on the Headmaster now, his eyes showing nothing but contempt. A moment later, however, the snake-like red eyes widened as Dumbledore drew his hand from the pocket of his robes.
Harry, who had been slowly trying to get to Hermione and Lupin, froze when he heard the sharp intake of breath from the slit-like nostrils of the Dark Lord. He turned to look at the Dumbledore, wondering what had caused this sudden sign of alarm.
Dumbledore was holding up his left hand, and even Harry was repulsed by what he saw. In place of the wrinkled hand with the long fingers that he was accustomed to seeing, the hand was blackened and withered, almost charred, and Dumbledore's arm shook as he held it up.
On the Headmaster's face was not one sign of the pain he had to have been feeling. He held the hand aloft and trained his wand on Voldemort as he began, once again, to mutter the words to one of the most powerful incantations that even he, known to be one of the greatest wizards of the age, had ever cast.
Harry did not understand one word of what Dumbledore was saying, but Voldemort's response told him that whatever was happening, the Dark Lord was afraid. This would be a good time to get the advantage, he realized.
"You fool, Dumbledore!" Voldemort hissed, his voice becoming higher with rage. He swung his wand in a wide arc, sending a pulse of dark energy towards Dumbledore, who merely raised a shield with his wand and continued muttering his incantation. His arm was shaking more severely than before, but no hint of pain or agitation was betrayed in his voice.
"This was a foolish thing to do, Tom," Dumbledore said. "Much too easily destroyed. Stand down, Harry! Your time has not yet come."
"Fool!" Voldemort replied. "His time will never come." He turned once again to face Harry, his wand raised high in the air.
Harry stood before him, his own wand at the ready. As Voldemort once again attempted to use the deadly Unforgivable Curse on his nemesis, Harry countered with a soundless Banishment charm.
As they had in the graveyard two years before, the wands connected, but this time, Harry had the advantage of knowing exactly what was happening. Determinedly, Harry summoned every bit of strength he had and pushed at the golden beads of light - so familiar now from his meditations - towards Lord Voldemort, but he went one step further. He looked at Ginny, huddled with Hermione, Remus and Ron near the edge of the small grove of woods, and pushed every bit of love he felt for her toward Voldemort along the golden beam of light.
Through it all, Dumbledore continued his incantation, now waving his wand over his ringed had, which was withering, if it were possible, even further.
The golden beads slid almost easily toward Voldemort, so distracted was he by Dumbledore's actions. They hit the Dark Lord's wand mere seconds after the connection had been made and he grimaced as his wand began to shake violently.
Harry persisted, but he, too was becoming distracted as he wondered just what was happening. The Headmaster was becoming gray-skinned with his effort, and the silver ring upon his hand had begun to glow a bright, Slytherin green.
With a howl of rage, Voldemort jerked his wand up and broke the connection, looking weaker than he had before. Whether this was a result of Harry's attempt to combine Legilimency with the connection between their wands or a result of Dumbledore's incantations, it could not be said, but there was no doubt that the Dark Lord was weakened.
He turned all of his attention upon Dumbledore, who had been his first introduction to the Wizarding world, his old Transfiguration teacher and one of the two wizards he had ever feared. The very land in the clearing suddenly shook, and Dumbledore's entire body was lifted off the ground as a pulse of deadly green light and tremendous magical energy emanated from the silver ring on his finger.
"You will pay, Dumbledore!" Voldemort screamed, advancing on the old man, who had come back into contact with the ground, his entire body shaking with effort as the ring on his finger burned white and dissolved into liquid, dripping onto the ground.
"No!" Harry yelled, running towards them, his wand drawn.
"Harry, it is not your time!" Dumbledore said, looking straight at him, those clear blue eyes fathoms deep but no longer inscrutable. Something in those eyes, in that tone, stopped Harry, for he saw no attempt at protection, no fatherly concern. For a split second, he saw the Headmaster's purpose and he knew that Dumbledore was right.
He stopped, his wand still drawn, his eyes glued to his mentor, who seemed to be standing under a power other than his own. Indeed, it seemed that whatever he had done with that ring on his hand had weakened him much more than it had weakened Voldemort.
With a hiss of malice and triumph, Voldemort raised his wand. Though it seemed as though the world went into slow motion, it all happened in a split second. Harry, following the Headmaster's enigmatic instructions that it was not his time, could not move fast enough to prevent it.
"Avada Kedavra!" the Dark Lord screamed, and as the jet of green light rushed towards Dumbledore's body, Harry fell to his knees.
Just as with Sirius the year before, it seemed to take an age for Dumbledore to fall. His eyes remained locked on Harry even as their light went out, and Harry read in them something he had never before known, or at least realized. The Headmaster had loved him.
"And now for you, Potter," Voldemort said, his face twisted with malice and his wand still drawn. He advanced slowly, taking advantage of the stunned disbelief on Harry's face. It could not have been clearer that he expected his victory to be complete.
"It's not your time, Harry," Remus whispered from behind him. "All will be lost if we lose you today. On my count, we will Apparate. Follow me, as will the others."
Harry did not respond, so consumed was he by guilt, grief and rage as he watched Voldemort approach him. He drew his wand, ready to end this, one way or another.
"No, Harry," Remus whispered again. "Do not let his death be in vain. Do not let it be for nothing."
Harry kept his wand raised.
"One," Remus counted.
Harry took a step toward Voldemort, who smiled his cruel, soulless smile as he saw that Harry meant to engage him.
Voldemort and Harry stopped, staring straight into one another's eyes, their wands raised.
As his guardian counted the last number, Harry's mind flashed with visions of Dumbledore, of Ginny, of Sirius, of Lily and James Potter…and with one last glare of rage at the man who had taken everything from him, he Disapparated.
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