With a soft pop like a chirping frog, Hermione Granger appeared on the road that led south out of Hogsmeade. The night was moon-lit, and a soft breeze sighed through the forest, rustling the remaining leaves and sending the branches clicking and clacking together. Gathering her cloak about her, she disappeared into the brush beside the road and silently tapped her wand on her head. A cool liquid feeling flowed over her body as she Disillusioned herself, and then she waited.
She was crouched on a high rise in the road that overlooked Hogsmeade. The small village on the outskirts of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was silent and dark. In the distance the towers of Hogwarts were dark blotches in the star-filled night sky. A few fluttering fires glimmered from the windows of one of the towers, but otherwise, the castle could have been an ancient ruin.
This was as close as she had come to Hogwarts since leaving it at the end of her sixth year. Back then, it had been a school. Now, it held Lord Voldemort and several dozen Death Eaters, as well as the foul brood of creatures that served him.
On her hands and knees, Hermione crawled through the dew drenched weeds until she could clearly see the road leading into Hogsmeade. Pulling out a pair of binoculars, she scanned the darkened road. The magical charms Fred and George had placed on them brightened the darkness to near daylight. She could not see anyone on the road or beside it, and the burnt out skeleton of Hogsmeade was home only to Dementors, rats, and birds these days.
Even through her binoculars, the streets were shrouded in the fog left over from the Dementors' breeding frenzies. Beyond the village, the gates of Hogwarts were locked tight, but two massive giants sat on either side of the gate, their heads lolled with sleep and massive clubs the size of juvenile dragons lay beside them.
Comfortable that the area was as safe as Voldemort's doorstep could be, she sank back into the weeds and angled her wrist so she could see her watch in the moonlight. She adjusted a few dials and pressed a button. Her watch flashed for a moment and then went dark. A moment later, there was a soft crack, and a man in a dark cloak appeared on the road a few feet from her. Hermione remained perfectly still. Too many people had died in the past years because of spies and compromised information.
"Miss Granger," the man said in a rough voice, "It is a fine night for mischief, don't you think?"
"Only if you're howling at the moon, Moony." Hermione stood up as she finished the code phrase, and Remus Lupin, the current leader of the Order of the Phoenix, Disillusioned himself and joined her in the brush.
"Any sign of Firenze?" he asked, taking out his own pair of binoculars and scanning the surrounding area.
"No," Hermione said. The centaur was supposed to guide them through the ward lines the Death Eaters had set up around Hogsmeade and the outskirts of Hogwarts.
"I see," Remus said. "How about Death Eaters?"
"There are a few fires along the south tower, but I don't see any activity beyond a two giants near the gate."
"Tom's too busy moving people into London for the attack on the Ministry tomorrow," Remus said as he stowed his binoculars.
"I still don't believe we aren't even going to warn the Ministry," Hermione said in a soft voice, trying hard to keep the anger and bitterness out of her words. The Order of the Phoenix had known of the plan to attack the Ministry on Halloween for nearly three months, but after weeks of deliberation, they had decided that the risk of warning the Ministry was too great.
"The Ministry made their own bed when they turned on Harry," Remus said. "If they are willing to send some poor kid Polyjuiced as Harry to his death and then coerce Percy into taking that kid's place, do you really think they would make any effort to help us?"
The Ministry was split on the Voldemort issue, and too many at the upper levels were sympathetic to the Death Eaters. If those people found out about the Order's knowledge, the months of planning would be for naught and Harry would not be able to kill Voldemort tomorrow. Unfortunately, the Ministry would be completely unprepared when almost all of Voldemort's four dozen Death Eaters attacked.
"It just seems like Harry wants the Ministry to suffer for all they've done to him," Hermione said.
"I made the decision to not tell them," Remus said. "This will be on my shoulders, not his."
"But he's the one who pressured for it and fought for it," Hermione said in frustration. "Everyone was against the idea until he decided that the Ministry could handle itself."
There was a few moment so silence before Remus sighed. "What are you trying to say, Hermione?" Remus asked. Although he spoke softly and almost regretfully, it still sounded like a harsh accusation to Hermione.
"I'm…" Hermione bit her lip and pressed the binoculars to her eyes. Harry was not the Harry she remembered from school. In the past years, he had become hardened and secretive and paranoid. It bothered her, especially with all the rumours and news that Harry was in league with Voldemort or trying to remove Voldemort so he could take Voldemort's place as a new Dark Lord.
"What?" Remus asked, sinking further into the weeds so that Hermione could only see the impression his body made.
Sighing, Hermione cast the Muffliato spell so they could talk without worry before she sank into the wet weeds. She stared at the spot where Remus was, wishing he was not Disillusioned. She hated not seeing a person's face during a conversation. It made talking awkward, like she was missing half of the information. And as Remus was Harry's biggest supporter in the Order, she really wanted to see his reaction.
Finally she gathered her courage and said, "I'm not sure Harry is thinking clearly anymore." She waited for a response, but none came. "After Hogwarts fell and Ginny was hurt, he became so focused and obsessed, but ever since he faced Voldemort at the Ministry two years ago, he's just been… well… inconsistent."
Again she paused and watched Remus' hiding place, but after he was quiet for a minute, Hermione became worried she had offended him and tried to explain. "I support him, Remus, I swear I do. I'm not the traitor, but, bloody hell, he did nothing for a year. He just let Voldemort sit in Hogwarts and cause terror, and we've just been struggling to prevent attacks." Hermione tried to keep her voice quiet, but her emotions were getting the better of her. "Damnit all, Remus. He was here! He was with Voldemort for three months and he never even tried to stop him or let the Aurors in or anything. No wonder everyone thinks he's some new Dark Lord!"
"Do you think he could be like Voldemort?" Remus asked. His voice was soft like a rustling breeze, and Hermione could barely hear him, but the implied infidelity incensed her.
"Of course not! Harry is not evil or anything else, but…" Hermione nervously plucked a few blades of grass and began twining them through her fingers. "He's just become so distant and paranoid. And this feud with the Ministry is not helping matters. And he never tells Ron and me anything anymore."
There, she had said it, the heart of her problem. "He doesn't confide in anyone but Ginny. Like he's scared any of us could betray him, or will, because we know too much. I don't even know who his secret keeper is!"
Hermione had lobbied hard for herself or Ron to be Ginny and Harry's secret keeper, but Harry had said no. He had told her that it was not that he did not trust her or Ron with his family's safety, but that the secret keeper had to be someone whom he trusted absolutely to do the job, and someone that none of them could figure out. She understood, but it hurt. It had been four and a half years since they had set out to find the Horcruxes, and they had gone through fire and ice for each other. It was a great deal of history to push aside even for the best reason.
There was a rustle in the weeds next to her, and Remus sighed again. "He's scared, Hermione. He's terrified."
"I know," Hermione said. "I'd be terrified too if Voldemort had a price on my spouse and son. But…"
"No, it isn't that, or at least, not completely that." Remus said.
"What do you mean?"
"I think the prophecy is finally getting to him," Remus said.
"But he's known about that for ages," Hermione said.
"You don't understand. He's terrified because the prophecy is only about him and Voldemort. It says nothing about Ginny and James, and that scares him because he looks at himself and his family, and he sees his parents and him twenty years ago."
The blood drained from Hermione's face as she gasped in horror. "Oh, Merlin. I… I never… he thinks that history is going to repeat itself?"
A dry crack in the forest to their left silenced them. Hermione pulled her wand and waited. A few moments later, a Centaur stepped out into the starlit night, his white hair glowing in the moonlight. "You can come out now, friends." Hermione recognized Firenze's voice and stood up. No Death Eater would ever try to impersonate a half-human creature like a Centaur, which made them the perfect go betweens and guides for the Order around Hogwarts.
"We are here, Firenze," Hermione said. "Are the others here yet?"
"I cannot see that," Firenze said. "But no one had arrived when I left." The moon slid behind a cloud, and the road and hillside were plunged into a deep darkness. "Come, we should not waste this opportunity."
Firenze trotted across the road and then down it a few hundred feet before disappearing into the woods. Hermione glanced at Remus and opened her mouth to speak, but the slight shimmer of his form moved onto the road, and she had no choice but to follow quickly behind him. The forest was even darker than the road, but Hermione could see the bobbing flash of Firenze's hair up ahead. He moved slowly, allowing the two humans to keep pace with him even in the tangling undergrowth.
Maybe a quarter hour later, an oppressive weight settled on Hermione's shoulders as she stepped across a fallen tree. Involuntarily shuddering, she glanced about and then looked toward the spot where she could hear Remus moving. "I think we just entered the Forbidden Forest," Hermione said.
"Yes, now stay quiet," Firenze said from up ahead.
For another fifteen minutes they walked deeper into the forest. There was no wind in the forest, but the air was cold, and Hermione shivered under her cloak. She hated the Forbidden Forest. It left her feeling helpless in the face of all the unknown dangers that lurked inside. But it was also the safest place to meet with the various magical creatures that Harry had gathered under his banner in the last six months. Centaurs and Goblins would be too conspicuous in the streets of London to visit any of the safe houses there, and the Burrow, even under the Fidelius Charm, was always watched. Ottery St. Catchpole had too many new residents that Kingsley knew to be Aurors for any wizard or witch to slip in undetected and meet there, much less a magical creature. So they met in small groups in the Forbidden Forest, plotting Voldemort's downfall right under his nose.
Eventually, a flickering glow appeared in the distance, and a few minutes later, the small group stepped through a briar patch and into an old creek bed with a small fire crackling merrily in the center. Two Goblins and another Centaur lounged around the fire. Hermione politely removed the Disillusionment charm as she walked toward the fire, and Remus shimmered into view beside her.
"Good evening, Elder Golburl and Elder Marfel," Hermione said as she bowed her head and held out her hands to the goblins. "I hope our time here is profitable."
"As do we, Miss Granger," Elder Golburl said, inclining his head politely and placing his hands over Hermione's.
"And, Ronan," Hermione said with a smile, turning to face the imposing Centaur. "The stars say much tonight."
"It is not an easy task to read them," Ronan said. "But Mars is especially bright. Yes, very bright tonight, don't you agree Firenze?"
"Yes, Mars is bright tonight," Firenze said.
The customary introductions continued around for a few minutes as Hermione waited patiently. Although the idea of gathering the Centaurs, Merfolk, and the Goblins to their side had been Harry's idea, it had taken Hermione months of research and negotiation to become comfortable enough with the cultures of the different races. In the end, it had paid off in their initial meetings. The Goblin Nation, the Centaurs of the Forbidden Forest, and the Merfolk of the Black Lake had offered their assistance to the Order of the Phoenix. However, their assistance was not free, and Harry had agreed to the terms without hesitation. After the war, he or someone of equal standing would need to take the steps to change the centuries old enslavement of the magic races.
"Well," Hermione said as they all settled around the fire, "is everything in place for tomorrow night, my friends?"
Elder Marfel nodded. "Our tunnelers broke through into the Chamber of Secrets last night. There were no wizards in the Chamber itself. We will have no problem sneaking your people inside."
"Excellent. Harry will be very pleased. Do you have the Portkeys that can bring us to the tunnel entrance, or will we need to travel through the forest?" After Voldemort took over Hogwarts, he had erected his own wards around the school that prevented all magical transportation in and out.
"Hexologist Weasley and his team have opened a space in the wards," Elder Golburl said with a toothy grin. "I have the Portkeys for you." He handed a bag to Hermione who took them with a gracious nod. Things were progressing well. Getting the thirty members of the Order of the Phoenix as well as the surviving members of the DA to the tunnel entrance had always been a weak point in the plan. With the wards gone, the operation would run much more smoothly.
"Thank you for all your efforts, Elder Golburl and Elder Marfel. It will never be forgotten," Hermione said and then turned to Ronan and Firenze.
"And what information do you have for me, Ronan?" she asked.
"I spoke with the Black Lake Tribe of the Merfolk earlier this evening," Firenze said, stamping his hoof in emphasis. "And other than a few guards, the Death Eaters have all left the grounds. There are two giants who still guard the main gate, and the Dementors' offspring still haunt the ruins of Hogsmeade."
"And the fully grown Dementors?" Hermione asked. As they had learned over the last four years, juvenile Dementors were very susceptible to light and the Patronus charm. Either could kill them quickly. However, despite years of research on captured Dementors, no one had been able to find a way to destroy them; at least not a way that did not take five or six wizards and several hours.
"They left last evening," Ronan said. "One of our foals saw them heading south after nightfall."
"That fits with the timing of the attack tomorrow night," Remus said, piping into the discussion for the first time. "It will take them a little over two days to reach London."
Tracking the movements of Dementors had become the easiest way to figure out potential Death Eater attacks. Dementors could not use Portkeys or Apparition, so affixing tracking charms to the Dementors during battles allowed the Order to see where they were located in England and anticipate attacks as they moved across the countryside. Of course tracking charms were limited in their duration, so diligence on the part of the Order was required to keep them in place.
"And inside the castle?" Hermione asked. "Have we heard any more information on who Voldemort still has with him?"
Ronan flicked his tail and stomped nervously. "I do not know why you trust those creatures," Ronan said. "We all must face our death at one point, and to remain behind is unforgiveable."
"I understand," Hermione said in an attempt to placate the Centaur. "I was simply wondering if any of the House Ghosts had spoken with the Merfolk or your herd." Centaurs considered ghosts and shades and poltergeists as affronts to life and the stars. As any ghost had passed into the realm of the dead, they no longer could have an impact on the world of the living, and so the heavens were blind to them. Unfortunately, this conflicted with the Order's best source of information.
The Ghosts of Hogwarts, including the four ghosts that belonged to the houses, could never leave Hogwarts. Their duties tied them to the castle as if they were part of the stone itself. As such they served the master of Hogwarts, usually the Headmaster or Headmistress. When he seized Hogwarts two and half years ago, Voldemort had tried to become the master of the castle, but Headmistress Minerva McGonagall had invoked the same protections Albus Dumbledore had when Dolores Umbridge tried to usurp his position. The ritual bound her into the Headmistresses office and those areas directly accessible from it. In return for her pledge of duty to the castle and the school, the castle itself protected her and sealed her office so that she remained the master of Hogwarts.
The move had infuriated Voldemort, and he had spent the last two years trying to break through the wards and gain complete control of the castle. Although his efforts had produced little gain, Minerva McGonagall could no longer leave her office as without her constant presence, the wards would fail. Still, the Ghosts of Hogwarts answered to her and told her all that happened within the castle. This information she passed on to the Order through the Floo connection in her office. Although no one could travel to the office through the Floo, they could speak with her and gain valuable information.
However, for the attack the next evening, the ghosts had been asked to report directly to the Goblins or the Merfolk in order to speed up communication.
"A Merfolk scout spoke with the shade of the Friar early this evening," Ronan said. "The Malfoy patriarch and his mate and offspring are still within the castle. The woman known as Bellatrix is also there, as is the former Potions Master."
"Thank you for your efforts, Ronan," Hermione said and then turned and looked at each member of the small group. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes," Elder Golburl said. "We found the remains of several dozen humans within the Chamber of Secrets."
Hermione swallowed and nodded, not trusting herself to speak. After Voldemort stormed Hogwarts, twenty-eight students and several teachers had gone missing. The same had happened to dozens of residents of Hogsmeade. Everyone had assumed they had died in the attack, but many, like Hermione, held out hope that their loved ones were just in hiding. Others simply prayed that they were prisoners or were being forced to serve Voldemort. However, Harry had spent three months as a prisoner of Voldemort within Hogwarts, and he had told Hermione that no one in the castle had been held against their will.
"Thank you, Elder," Hermione said. "We will deal with the matter after the attack. They have waited this long, and a few more days will not make their fate any worse." Elder Golburl nodded his acquiescence before Hermione continued. "But I would like to go over the plan one more time and make sure everything is prepared. Remus, will you please?"
Remus nodded and took control of the meeting and started going over the time tables for the attack the next evening. The plan, like all good plans, was simple. The Order of the Phoenix would be in place in the Chamber of Secrets when the Death Eaters began their attack on the Ministry. Hermione and Arthur Weasley had volunteered to watch the Ministry and send word when the attack began and then to keep them updated on the progress of that battle.
Once the Death Eaters were fully committed, she would send a Patronus, and the Order would rush into the castle while the Centaurs and Goblins took care of the two giants and the few guards who would remain outside. The Order would face token resistance within the castle while Harry sought out Voldemort himself.
Professor McGonagall and the Hogwarts' Ghosts had discovered that Voldemort and a few of his Inner Circle would not be participating in the attack on the Ministry. It was the opportunity that Harry had been looking for. Ensconced behind the wards of Hogwarts, no one could Apparate to help Voldemort nor could he escape. The Order could handle four or five Death Eaters, even those of the Inner Circle, while Harry went after Voldemort. While Harry killed Voldemort.
"It's really happening, isn't it, Remus?" Hermione asked in a whisper as they returned from the meeting a few hours later. Firenze's blonde hair shimmered and bobbed in the dim shadows ahead of them as he guided them out of the Forbidden Forest. The night air was cold and silent, and it left Hermione feeling pensive, which confused her.
She had read many fiction books as a child and after she started at Hogwarts. There were always celebrations and heartfelt confessions between the heroes the night before the final battle. But the arrangements for the attack had been boring to listen to, and now she was tired and worried and the entire night felt unreal.
"It does seem odd," Remus said. "I would never have believed that I would be planning Voldemort's downfall in the middle of the Forbidden Forest. But then, I never expected to be chaperoning you, Harry, and Ron all across Europe for a year hunting cursed artifacts."
"But what if this all goes wrong, Remus?" Hermione asked. "Harry could die as easily as Voldemort." Hermione stopped walking for a moment, fighting back a rising wave of insecurity and fear. Ron, Harry, her, and even Ginny had come close to death many times over the last few years. But always the moment was over before they had even realized the danger. And it was always followed by such a huge surge of relief that they would end up laughing or crying over it.
But tomorrow's events had been planned for three months. For thirteen weeks she had watched the days tick by and felt the fear bloom and spread and infest her like a cancer. "He's my best friend. Everything that is good in my life is because of him, Remus. He means so much to so many people."
With a gentle push, Remus urged Hermione along the path and they fell in step with each other. "I know how you feel," Remus said. "But Harry has to do this, and he is no longer a schoolboy. He can do things I don't think Dumbledore could have done. He has grown, Hermione. And you know he has. Besides, he has something to keep him here, something to fight for."
"I know, but I still worry," Hermione said, and there was nothing else to say. They walked for a time and soon they were outside of the wards and back on the road they had appeared on four hours ago. The night was more than half gone, but Hermione still had errands she needed to run.
"Thank you, Firenze," Hermione said. The Centaur dipped his head and then disappeared into the woods. After a few moments of watching the dark forest, Hermione turned to Remus.
"I should get back," Remus said. "Tonks will be guarding Ginny and James during the attack, and I want to spend some time with her."
He made to Apparate, and Hermione called out to him. "Wait." She wanted to know about his earlier comment, before Firenze had interrupted them.
"Yes?" he asked.
"About what you said, about Harry and the similarities to his parents…"
Her old professor was quiet for a moment, as if considering his answer carefully, or perhaps considering whether to answer at all. Finally, he said, "It's just coincidence, Hermione," and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. Hermione could smell the sweet tang of his cologne and that musk that she associated with the werewolf. "Things like this happen. There is no prophecy about James that I have heard of, and I think Harry would have at least told you if there was. Sirius knew about the original prophecy."
"I'm not sure," Hermione said. "He has been distant lately, and Ron and I have to pressure him to get information. It's like he doesn't trust us."
"He does trust you, Hermione," Remus said, squeezing her shoulder. "But having a child clouds things for people. James and Lily withdrew from Sirius and I after Harry was born. It wasn't intentional, but the war, the responsibility for a baby, and the prophecy weighed on them." Remus gave her a rueful smile. "It wasn't like being at school with the Marauders. But the times we did spend together were all the more precious. Isn't it that way with you, Ron, and Harry?"
Hermione nodded. She and Ron had been over to the cottage Harry and Ginny were hiding in just a week ago. They had spent a wonderful night laughing and talking and playing with young James. The war had disappeared, and for a time she thought they were back in Gryffindor Tower. "Yes, you're right. I'm just being silly."
"No, you are being a good friend," Remus said. "Go get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day."
"I will," Hermione said, but Remus had already Disapparated. Hermione considered all that Remus had said and what lay ahead the next day, and she decided that she wanted to talk to Harry before she went to bed.
AN: In case many of you are wondering, this is not a long project. This is something I started a month of two after HBP came out and I've just been playing around with it. This story encompasses a Prelude, 5 acts, and an epilogue. I plan to be done with it by the end of July, as only Act 2 and 3 have not been written.
I wanted to get most of this out before DH because it has a lot of the ideas I have had for writing a fanfiction Book 7, but decided not to do so. I am still working on Curse Breakers, and it is not going away. Chapter 6 is just very tricky and I am not happy with it at the moment, so I am reworking large parts of it and developing the correct flow. It just takes time. Anyways, hopefully this short project will tide you over for a while.
Also, one last thing. I don't speak Italian. So forgive me if my titles are off or incorrect grammatically. The last chapter will have all the titles and their meanings, but for now, you can look them up if you want.