They had spent the night in a dingy bed and breakfast outside Godric's Hollow. Harry had wondered whether the curse that supposedly afflicted Godric's Hollow was also in effect on the bed and breakfast, especially once they'd emerged from their cold, damp rooms for breakfast. Harry had never before encountered fried eggs so very solid, and as for the bacon... Harry winced at the thought. All in all, it hadn't been the best of omens for the start of their quest.
They had not wasted their time at Privet Drive, for the most part. On hearing of their plans to leave school, Professor McGonagall had sent them a small book of Dumbledore's.
I found this in his study, she wrote. Harry noticed that she still called it 'his study'. He has charmed it so that only you can open it, Mr. Potter. I do not know what is inside, only that he wished you to have it.
Indeed, the cover read: To Harry, with my sincere apologies that it is necessary, Professor Albus Dumbledore.
The book had contained many long written passages. Those passages in plain English detailed Dumbledore search for and destruction of Slytherin's ring, as well as a few notes on the destruction of Tom Riddle's old diary. The last page of English text had listed Dumbledore's attempts to find the next Horcrux, the locket that had turned out to be a fake. Harry's eyes stung as he remembered that evening in the cave by the sea.
Harry was loathe to discard anything of Dumbledore's in case it might be of use, but he found himself wishing that the headmaster had been more thorough in his recounting of his destruction of Slytherin's ring. While Dumbledore had described at length how he had reached the conclusion about Voldemort's choice of hiding place, he had seemingly only annotated the spells that he had used in the ring's destruction. The spells were, Harry assumed, massively complex – far beyond anything they had learnt at Hogwarts. But they were abbreviated to the point of uselessness, seemingly random letters that revealed nothing to the three teenagers. The damage done by the ring to Dumbledore's hand was dismissed as an irrelevancy, a short sentence at the very end of the section on the ring the only mention of it. Dumbledore's only comment was that he should have been quicker – but quicker than what?
Nonetheless, the three of them had pored over the book. The pages that followed the destruction of the ring had intrigued Hermione, who had tried everything she could think of, down to the Revealer she had bought before her second year, to make them yield any information that Dumbledore might have hidden there. But it was of no use – the pages were written in an archaic script, the yellowed parchment looking as faded as the brown markings it held. Harry had thought that strange, because the notebook had otherwise seemed quite new, and the pages holding the English writing were not at all yellowed.
"It must be some sort of elaborate code," Hermione said. "Dumbledore must have wanted to protect the rest of the information. If only he'd left you the key to unlocking it as well!"
Harry, who had developed a better understanding than most of the late Headmaster's idiosyncratic nature, had a feeling that when he truly needed the information, it would be available to him. That was how Dumbledore had always arranged matters – with the exception of revealing the Prophecy to Harry. He wasn't sure exactly how the information would become available, but he had enough trust in Dumbledore that he was willing to be patient.
Other than Dumbledore's book, they had read through endless reports from the Ministry and the Order, which Lupin and Tonks had managed to obtain for them. Harry had worried about the Ministry reports – Tonks' job would have been in danger had anyone caught her smuggling them out, but she cheerfully said that she had been doing it for the Order for over two years, so why would she stop now?
None of them knew what they were looking for in the reports. Mentions of old items brought momentary excitement, but they didn't really suspect that Voldemort would have left a Horcrux anywhere that the Ministry was likely to find it.
The Dursleys had been antagonistic to the point of open hostility during their short stay at Privet Drive. Eventually it had come to the point that Dudley and Ron had engaged in a brief fight when Dudley found them taking a brief break to enjoy the last of the sunshine one evening in the back garden. Dudley had insulted Hermione, and seemed surprised when a trio of fast, hard punches from Ron had left him flat on his back, with a matching trio of blossoming bruises on his face. He had staggered back to his feet and swung a fist at Ron, but Ron had ducked nimbly, his fists slapping into Dudley's stomach with a sound like a spade hitting wet cement, and then swung his right arm in a circle that finished with his hand hitting the bottom of Dudley's jaw, making his teeth click together loudly and sending Dudley crashing backwards into Aunt Petunia's prize begonias. Stunned, he lay there until Uncle Vernon came into the back garden. His bellow set off car alarms in Privet Drive and Wisteria Walk, and for a moment Harry thought that his uncle might actually have a heart attack. Then Ron had unfolded his tall, lean frame from the floor and towered over Uncle Vernon.
"Your son needs to learn to watch his mouth, Mr. Dursley," he said, before sitting back down. Harry wasn't sure what made Vernon angrier, being talked to like that by Ron, or seeing his son – the boxing champion – lying flat on his back, so comprehensively defeated.
On reflection, it was probably knowing that he was unable to punish anyone at all that drove Uncle Vernon so completely up the wall.
Neither the Ministry reports nor the Order reports were of much use. By the time they left Privet Drive – Harry slammed the door and walked away without looking back – they still had no idea where to begin their search for Voldemort's Horcruxes.
It was late one night, after another difficult day at the Burrow ignoring Ginny as much as was possible, that the idea came to Harry. He was laying in bed, watching the heavy purple curtains flutter slightly on the cool night time breeze, when he remembered following a younger Dumbledore through Muggle London to the orphanage where Tom Riddle had grown up. Surely, if Voldemort had hidden his Horcruxes away from him, one would be there.
Voldemort himself, the snake that he calls Nagini, the locket, Hufflepuff's cup, and something else. Ravenclaw's toasting fork, Ron keeps calling it. Voldemort won't be there if it's still an orphage, I bet, so it won't be Nagini either, and whoever R.A.B. is, they had the locket, so it's probably not that. It must be the cup – or the toasting fork.
Harry rolled over in his bed. He - they - had a place to start. It would do.
The Leaky Cauldron was heaving as they walked in from Diagon Alley. Harry recognised a few faces as they passed through as quickly as they could. He had found an old baseball cap at Privet Drive, the only thing he had taken that hadn't belonged to him. He wondered briefly whether the Dursleys had missed it, and whether they had called the police. He promised himself that he would post it back to them when he had the chance - although he wished that he could be there when it was opened, just to see the looks on their faces when they realised who it was from.
In the meantime, he kept the bill of the cap pulled down low over his eyes. He had grown since he was here last, fleetingly, the year before. He hoped that the Harry Potter in Tom the barman's memory was still the short, skinny thirteen year old he'd been before his third year. Still, the bar was so busy that Tom had no time to look at those just passing through, and Harry was able to make his way out into the bright sunshine again without incident.
"There seemed to be an awful lot of people there," Hermione said. Ron shrugged.
"Big trial today, isn't there?" he said. "That Stan Shunpike. It's his appeal."
Harry looked at him in surprise.
"Didn't you hear?" Ron asked, in surprise. "Dad was talking about it over dinner the other night. He reckoned it'd draw a big crowd."
Harry coloured slightly. He'd probably been trying not to show how much attention he was paying to Ginny at the time.
"A big crowd?"
"Yeah. It's in a public gallery. It's just a few of the Justices, not the full Wizengamot."
"Probably don't want to be there if he gets let off," Harry muttered, thinking of Minister Scrimgeour. "Have they actually caught any real Death Eaters?"
"Of course not," Ron said. "Seems like You-Kno..." he stopped at Harry and Hermione's angry glares. "Anyway, seems like the Death Eaters are better trained this time," he finished.
"Don't," Ron cut her off. "It's different for you two, okay? You weren't brought up to flinch any time someone said his name. I know that Ginny says it, too," he added, rounding on Hermione. "But I reckon she's got the right. She beat him, yeah?"
Hermione didn't say anything.
"Anyway, they're better now. Cleverer, quicker... Dad says that they show up, do what they're there to do, and get out before anyone's had a chance to call for help. Even when they do stay to fight, anyone who falls is killed."
"What?" Harry asked.
"Yeah. The Ministry don't make it public. Don't know why - I'd have thought it'd effect recruitment, wouldn't you? Any Death Eater who gets stunned or anything, another Death Eater will kill him if it looks like he'll get captured. It's only happened a few times, so some of the Aurors are saying it's accidental - that the Death Eater's are getting killed in a botched rescue attempt. But Dad reckons that they're just being ruthless. Half the captures last time were down to prisoners grassing on their mates. Guess they learned that lesson."
They fell into a troubled silence as they made their way through the crowded streets of London. Harry had done his best to remember Dumbledore's instructions to the young Tom Riddle on how to get from the orphanage to Diagon Alley. It wasn't hard: All of his experiences with Dumbledore in the Pensieve stood out clearly in his memory. At the very least, Harry thought that he would be able to put them in the right area.
"That's assuming that the orphanage is still there, of course," Hermione said. "A lot of that part of London has been redeveloped in the last few years.
"I reckon if he left this thing there, it'll still be standing," Ron said.
Ron was right. Although it took a little while to find the site, the orphanage was still standing, as stark and as grim as it had been sixty years before. The courtyard had long ago become part of a wide road along which sped fast cars, leaving the orphanage looking rather forlorn, with no one stopping. Harry wondered if it was his imagination, or whether the cars were actually accelerating to pass the building quicker. It certainly seemed that no one wanted to linger there – passing locals gave them odd looks as they stared at it.
As the three friends stood on the opposite side of the road, they could see a few children playing in the small garden to one side of the building.
"That's where he grew up?" Hermione asked.
"Yeah. Makes Privet Drive look like a palace, doesn't it?" Harry said. He shivered. The weather had taken a sharp turn for the worse almost as soon as they'd come in sight of the gloomy building. Storm clouds piled upon one another, as though fighting for the chance to rain on them. Without waiting for a response, he darted across the road amidst a break in the traffic, with Ron and Hermione trailing after him.
The door seemed to loom over them as they stood before it. Hermione looked at Ron and Harry, took a deep breath, and climbed the steps and rang the bell.
They waited for a long moment. Hermione glanced backwards at the others. Harry frowned. It seemed as though the orphanage had fallen silent at the sound of the bell, although it was difficult to tell for sure with all the cars roaring past.
"Maybe we-" Hermione began, but she fell silent as the door rattled with the sound of keys turning in locks, and bolts sliding back. Finally it swung open, and an elderly woman peered at them. She was almost bent double, a gaudy shawl wrapped around her shoulders the only colour in sight. Her hair was the same shade of grey as the clouds that seemed to be gathering around the orphanage, and her clothing, the shawl aside, was a shabby black that spoke of hard wear and many years.
"Yes?" she said.
"Oh, hello," Hermione said, smiling politely at the woman. "We're students from the university. We've been given a summer assignment to find out about someone who was raised locally, and our assignment is a Mr. Bishop who lived here as a child. Dennis Bishop – I don't know if you've heard of him?"
The woman stared at Hermione for a long moment, long enough to make her shift uncomfortably on the top step.
"The three of you, is it?"
"I suppose you'd better come in."
She led them down a gloomy hallway lined with pictures that had probably been drawn or painted by the children who called the orphanage home. In another place this might have made the hallway more cheerful. Here the children's pictures were grey and dreary. Ron shivered as he followed Hermione along the hall.
"Come in," the old woman said. She led them into a room that Harry recognised. Once it had been Mrs. Cole's office, now apparently it was this woman's. The furniture was a little newer than it had been, although the desk was noticeably more cluttered. A computer sat half-buried amidst the drift of files and papers. Ron eyed it curiously.
"Sit down," the woman said, gesturing at two chairs in front of the desk. Ron and Hermione sat together, leaving Harry to perch on the arm of a sofa, its covering long since worn shiny.
"Dennis Bishop, was it?" she asked, taking a seat behind the desk and peering short-sightedly at them.
"Yes. He lived here-"
"-sixty years ago, or thereabouts. Yes," the woman replied. "So did I. He was a nice boy, as I remember."
"Oh. Do you happen to know when he left?" Hermione asked.
"Oh, as soon as he could. We all did. Dennis left when he was eighteen, of course. He moved away and became a teacher."
"I see. Well, that may have been why he was chosen for us. Perhaps he worked with out lecturer at some point."
"I suppose it is possible," the woman said. "Did your lecturer say why he wanted you to look into Dennis?"
"Well, no. That's for us to find out – all we know is that he lived here as a child."
"I see." The woman sat back in her chair and eyed Hermione speculatively.
"Have you heard from Mr. Bishop since he left?"
"Do you know where he is? It might be helpful if we could speak to him."
Harry frowned. This wasn't what they had agreed on – Hermione seemed to be getting flustered by the old woman.
"I daresay it would help your project. But I'm afraid Dennis passed away some time ago. Funny your lecturer didn't know that."
"Oh, I'm so very sorry," Hermione said, as Ron made a choking sound.
"No need to apologise," the woman said. "But I'd like you to consider something, dear. I've worked with children for nearly fifty years. I can tell how old they are fairly well, and you don't look old enough to be at a university to me. I am also very good at knowing when I'm being lied to. Now, I have my finger on an alarm bell to the local police station. Unless you want to a great deal more trouble then you can deal with, please start to tell the truth."
Hermione and Ron sat frozen, staring at the old woman whose eyes now glinted sharply at them. Harry opened his mouth and, for the first time, found himself spitted by her gaze. She had eyes like sapphires, Harry thought, hard and unyielding.
"Amy Benson?" Harry asked.
"I am. And what are you – his grandson?"
For a dangerous moment, Harry's senses seemed to become incredibly sensitive. He could almost feel the woman's finger on the button under her desk. He swallowed tightly. There was only one person she could possibly have been talking about.
"I'm not related to Tom Riddle," he said.
Amy seemed to relax slightly, but she still held Harry in her gaze.
"You know him, though."
"I do. He... killed my parents," Harry said.
"He killed my husband as well," she replied.
The atmosphere was marginally more sociable in the office. Mrs. Bishop, who had indeed been married to Dennis before his murder, had one of the orphanage's servants bring a pot of tea to the office.
"It was hard for me to take in, of course. When he came, well, he didn't look anything like he used to – but I suppose you know that?"
Harry nodded. Where Tom Riddle had been a handsome, dark haired young man, he was now pale and skeletal, his body transformed by the ravages of magic to which he had subjected himself.
"He arrived late one night, when everyone was in bed. We were just locking up when the front door swung open. Magic, of course. He knew who we were immediately – laughed at us!"
Mrs. Bishop looked furious.
"It was hard to leave this place. Hard for us to go outside and learn what we needed to. And we came back to help. To make sure that no one else..." she tailed off.
"That no one else would be hurt as you were," Harry said, quietly.
She nodded defiantly.
"He wanted to do something here. He said that it started here, something started here. He didn't tell us anything, but Dennis wasn't having any of it. He gave Riddle a piece of his mind. And then..."
Harry said nothing. He could see it in his mind as clearly as if he had been there. The old man, defying the tall wizard; Voldemort's casual wave of his wand, and the horrible flash of green light that marked the end of another life at his hand.
"What happened then?" Hermione asked, gently.
"I... don't remember. It was the next morning before I remember anything. There was a tall man here, with long white hair and a beard."
"Dumbledore?" Harry asked.
"Yes," she said, nodding. "That was the name. He said that I'd had a scare, and that I wasn't able to remember anything. I thought, well... I thought that someone had used magic on me to make me forget."
She looked at them, questioningly.
"It sounds like it," Harry said.
"I'm sorry," Hermione added.
"Don't be, dear," Mrs. Bishop said. "If I was allowed to keep my memory of Dennis' death, I don't think I care to know what Tom got up afterwards. He was never a nice person – and it seems that life outside the orphanage didn't improve him."
"You don't seem very surprised about magic," Ron said.
"Well, it comes from growing up with him," Mrs. Bishop said. "Every school holidays he'd come back, and more and more strange things would happen. It wasn't nice," she said. Harry privately thought that she should have been given some sort of award for biggest understatement of the year.
"But... he shouldn't have been able to use magic outside of school," Hermione said.
"He found a way," Mrs. Bishop said. She left it at that.
"Did he..." Harry began, trying to think of a way to phrase the question he wished to ask. "Was there anything different about the orphanage after he came?"
"Well," she said, looking around the room and leading closer. "It was a few years ago, you understand? Before any of you were born, I'd say. It's hard to say - my memory's not what it was. Still, the children don't seem to enjoy eating in the dining room. It used to be that you couldn't get them out of there. Dennis..." she tailed off, smiling for the first time since they had arrived.
"I'm sorry," she said, after a moment.
"Liked his food, did he?" Ron asked.
"Oh yes," she replied, smiling again as she looked back across sixty years. "Steak and kidney pie was his favourite."
"Mine too. My Mum makes a great one. She puts a bit of sage in it - oh, it's magic, it really is."
"We have to make do with shop-bought stuff, of course," Mrs. Bishop said. "We can't really afford to have fresh supplies and things like that. Still, I shouldn't complain. Time was there were forty kids here that needed looking after. Now there's only fifteen or so."
"I bet my Mum'd love to make dinner for you," Ron said. He seemed to have taken a shine to Mrs. Bishop. "'Course, she might not be able to, but I'll have a word and see."
"That would be nice. It's been a long time since we've been able to put on a really good meal here. I try, but I'm not getting any younger. And it's been hard to keep help these last few years."
"Since Tom Riddle came back?" Harry suggested.
"Yes, I suppose it is. I never thought of it that way, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. That man was a curse on everyone." She shivered, and pulled her shawl more tightly around herself.
"That's why we're here, Mrs. Bishop," Harry said. "We're trying to stop him."
Mrs. Bishop looked closely at him. "Killed your parents, did he? Well, lad, I'm sorry to hear that. You look a lot like him, in fact. But there's something different about you. Yes, indeed."
"Oh, it's something I look for in all my children. You can always tell, I think. Or it may just be my fancy, I suppose."
"I'm... afraid you've lost me," Harry said, shifting uncomfortably beneath her steady gaze. Hermione was looking from one to the other as though unsure what to say. Ron was pouring himself another cup of tea, although by the redness of his ears, Harry rather thought that Ron knew what the woman was saying.
"Never mind, dear. It's nothing bad, believe me. Sad, yes. But bad? No. Never bad. Not at all. Shall I show you to the dining room?"
She moved from her chair and to the door much more steadily and quickly than she had moved before, Harry noticed. He wondered how many people were taken in by her portrayal of herself as a helpless old woman - right up until the point where she revealed how sharp she really was.
They followed her out into the gloomy corridor once more, and through a maze of twisting passages, all alike. Harry wondered how anyone found their way - but supposed that it wasn't too different to Hogwarts in that respect. At least here the staircases didn't move around depending on which day of the week it was.
He felt a pang of regret at the thought of Hogwarts. The school year would begin in a fortnight. Harry wondered how many students would actually return. He knew that Ginny would, and that Neville had said that he would, as well. Other than that, no one was prepared to commit themselves, it seemed. The Daily Prophet had reported an upsurge in home teaching manuals, while Lupin had mentioned at Bill and Fleur's wedding that Professor McGonagall saying that letters withdrawing pupils from the school had been increasing in number as the Death Eaters grew bolder in their attacks.
Ron and Mrs. Bishop chatted happily about steak and kidney pie while they tracked through the hallways. Hermione followed behind them, with Harry at the rear. Dimly, but growing increasingly clear, he became aware of a persistent clattering up ahead.
"That's the kitchen," Mrs. Bishop said. "The staff will be getting dinner ready. Would you care to stay?"
"I don't think that we'll have the time," Harry said, quickly. The more time that he spent in the gloomy orphanage, the quicker he wanted to be free of its hold on them. He knew that they were likely to face far worse situations before the hunt for the Horcruxes was finished, but the persistent grimness of the building was beginning to wear on him.
"Here, now," Mrs. Bishop said, stopping in front of a set of double doors. "This is the dining room. If you think it'll help you, you're welcome to look around as long as you like."
"Thank you," Hermione said, in a muted sort of voice. Harry suspected that she, like he was, was steeling herself to find a Horcrux.
Ron glanced back at them, and then pushed through the doors, Harry and Hermione close on his heels.
It was a large, wood-panelled room, much nicer than any other part of the orphanage they had seen. Long tables formed rows on both sides of the room, and a high shelf ran around the full circumference, several feet above floor level. On one side of the room the wall above the shelf was made of glass, allowing people in the corridor on the other side to look into the room below. Tall windows on the other side of the room looked out into a courtyard, and feeble shafts of light slightly illuminated the dust hanging lazily in the air. The room was two stories tall, and – Harry glanced upwards, almost unconsciously – just barely reminiscent of the great hall at Hogwarts, although on a much simpler scale. The ceiling was simple white paint, nothing magical about it. And yet...
Harry looked up again. Something had caught his eye.
"Chilly in here, isn't it?" Ron said, rubbing his arms.
The high shelf, Harry noticed, was laden with ornaments and keepsakes. It looked like rather a lot of them were remembrances of seaside trips. Harry shivered. His own trip to the seaside with Dumbledore was still fresh in his memory.
"Well, I suppose if you have to hide some sort of cup or something, you could do worse then to put it amongst all that lot," Hermione said, staring at the assortment of brightly coloured odds and ends that would have brightened up a normal room. In the huge dining room, however, they seemed pathetically small.
"See anything you recognise?" Ron asked, checking over his shoulder. Mrs. Bishop, it seemed, had no interest in whatever they were looking for. She had disappeared back into the warren of corridors, leaving them alone in the room.
"No, I... wait," Harry said, squinting up at a jumble of plates and figurines in one corner. "Up there. At least, I think it is."
The others followed where he was pointing. Half-hidden behind one of the plates was a golden shape. Harry wondered at how it had gone unnoticed for so long, if were indeed what they were looking for. Even in the faint light it gleamed brightly, and looked quite out of place among the cheap pottery ornaments.
"I need to get closer," Harry said. "Let's pull this table over."
They moved the nearest table closer to the corner, and Harry clambered up on top of it. He stood up rather unsteadily, for the table rocked underneath him. Straightening up, h e banged his head and swore rather loudly.
"What happened?" Ron asked.
"I must have banged my head on the shelf," Harry said, snappishly. He thought that it was rather obvious what had happened.
"No, you didn't," Ron said. "Your head wasn't anywhere it."
Harry stared down at him, and then looked up at the shelf. Ron was right – it was about level with his head, but his head hadn't been anywhere near it when he banged it.
Cautiously, he drew his wand and prodded the air in front of him with its tip.
"Here," he said, quietly. He looked up, the tip of his wand pressed firmly against the invisible barrier that seemed to encircle this section of the wall.
"It's Hufflepuff's cup," he added, staring at the engraving of a badger that faced him from just a few inches distance. The table shook violently as Ron and Hermione pulled themselves up onto it.
"By a barrier."
Hermione drew her wand and prodded the barrier herself. She muttered something under her breath while Ron stood back watching the two of them.
"Any ideas?" he said, after several minutes.
"Not me," Harry replied. "Dumbledore never taught me how to break a barrier. Hermione?"
"I think I recognise the spell. It's something the ancient Egyptians used to put on the pyramids, I'm sure of it. It usually holds some sort of curse in. If we break the protection, we'll release the curse."
"What sort of curse?"
"Well, not the Killing Curse, of course. No spell can protect against that, or hold it the way this spell does. But it won't be anything pleasant."
"If it's an Egyptian barrier, maybe an Egyptian curse? What about a bad luck jinx, something really powerful? Like what they put on the pharaohs' tombs. Bill reckons they still have to be careful of them when they break into the tombs, even now, and they were set two thousand years ago or more."
Ron looked pleased to have been able to offer some help, particularly as Hermione eyed the cup speculatively.
"You know, I wouldn't be surprised if that's right," she said. "Dumbledore said that no one knew what Voldemort had done after leaving Hogwarts, isn't that right?"
"Well, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he travelled the world, learning Dark magic like this from any source he could find."
"Grindelwald," Ron murmured. "Dumbledore defeated him a year or two after Riddle left Hogwarts, right? Well, maybe You-Know-Who learned a few tricks from him first."
"It's very possible," Hermione agreed. "I must say, I'm reluctant to just try and break this barrier without knowing what's behind it."
"What if we don't need to? Maybe we can just get a wand in there and destroy the cup," Ron suggested.
"I'm sure that Voldemort will have thought of that," Harry said. "Still, maybe not."
He thrust the tip of his wand straight at the centre of the barrier, as closely as he could judge. But the barrier just deflected the attack, nearly sending Harry sprawling as his arm slipped off to one side.
"It won't be anything obvious," Hermione said.
"Unless..." Ron said.
"Well, do you think someone dusts up here? I mean, Mum always reckons that ornaments and pictures and stuff are just dust magnets, but they don't look very dirty, do they?"
Harry looked closer. Ron was right: Although Aunt Petunia would certainly have turned her nose up at the light covering of dust on the ornaments and the golden cup, they certainly looked as though they had been cleaned in the last week or so.
"Well, maybe there's some sort of spell?" he suggested.
"Not really," Ron said. "You can cast a cleaning spell that'll last a few days, but not for years at a time – or Mum'd know about it. And I don't reckon that there's any Dark magic that'd do it, either."
"So..." Harry said, unsure of what to do next. Hermione, on the other hand, seemed to have no such qualms. She drew a small umbrella from inside her jacket and tapped it with her wand, transfiguring it into a feather duster.
"Well, let's see," she said, waving it tentatively at the barrier. To their amazement, it passed straight through, as though the barrier wasn't there. Harry reached out his hand, but was brought up short as the barrier blocked him.
"I can get it with the duster," Hermione said. She flicked it at the cup, which wobbled on its base, and then toppled over with a clatter. The lid fell off and dropped from the shelf. Ron reach out instinctively to catch it, and for a split second he smiled as it passed through the barrier as easily as the duster had, but then he swore and yanked his hands free, letting the lid fall to the table.
"Ron!" Hermione gasped, turning in surprise.
"It burnt," he hissed, through gritted teeth. "Get the rest of it."
Hermione looked rather more cautious, but with another flick of the duster, she managed to prod the cup off the shelf. Harry caught it in his jacket, wrapping it quickly in the heavy denim. Even so, he rather thought that he could feel the warmth it was giving off increasing. He set it quickly on the table, and used the sleeve of the jacket to pick up the lid and quickly put it back with the cup.
"That's the curse," Hermione said, waving her hand through the patch of air that the barrier had formally covered. "And look at Ron's hand."
Ron held out his hand, palm up. A circular burn mark in the centre of the palm was already beginning to blister over, leaving a black scar that looked all too familiar. Dumbledore's hand had looked almost exactly the same after he had destroyed a Horcrux one year ago.
"So, can we expect the same for all the other Horcruxes as well?" Harry asked.
"No, I doubt it. I mean, the locket wasn't protected that way," Hermione said.
Ron looked balefully at the cup.
"So, what now?"
"I don't know," Hermione said. "I had hoped that it would be obvious. Clearly the cup itself is fairly robust, to survive a thousand years or so without too much damage. And Voldemort will have added his own protections, of course. Perhaps Bill or someone can have a look at it? Harry?"
Harry wished that he knew the answer. Dumbledore had noted in the book that he didn't think that the same spells would work on all the Horcruxes. Indeed, the way he had written it suggested that he himself had not known how he would destroy it until he'd found it and had the chance to study it.
"Let's get away from here, anyway," he said. "When we destroy it, I don't want anyone around who might get hurt."
"Apart from us, you mean?" Ron said.
"Good. Alright, let's get out of here. Hermione, can you-"
But Hermione had already begun to wave her wand over the cup, casting an Imperturbable Charm that she thought would protect them from any protections Voldemort had placed on the Horcruxes, at least for a time.
"You know, Hepzibah Smith told Riddle that the cup had a lot of power," Harry said. "Do you think that we should just destroy it and lose all that? It could be really useful."
"Well, some vague unknown powers up against Voldemort's death? I don't think anyone would blame us," Ron said. "But we can keep researching it. It's safe with us, now, anyway."
"Yeah, you're right," Harry said. "Let's get out of here."
Hermione nodded, wrapping Harry's jacket around the Imperturbable Horcrux.
"We've made an excellent start," she said, handing it to Harry. "What shall we do next? Concentrate on destroying this, or start looking for the next one?"
Harry weighed the jacket in his hands. Although he knew that it was silly to feel a sense of accomplishment so early in their quest, he felt it nonetheless. "Let's go get some lunch and discuss it," he said. "All this talk about steak and kidney pie has made me hungry."
"Sounds good to me," Ron said. "One thing, though..."
"Do you have any idea how we're supposed to destroy this thing?"
(Author's Note: Finding one – easy. Finding the rest – not so easy. Destroying them – also not so easy. What's a Harry story without trials and travails for the poor lad?
And no, keeping him away from Ginny is *not* sufficient a trial... I'm evil, I admit it.)