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Harry Potter and the Last Horcrux [final]
Illusions Lost, Not Wisdom Gained
By Mike [FP]
Stories begun in 2006 (post-HBP)
This is the final, edited, complete version of Harry Potter and the Last Horcrux. Chapters 1 through 14 were completely written prior to publication of Deathly Hallows in 2008; chapters 15 through 19 and the alternate ending were in draft or outline form by that time.
Illusions Lost, Not Wisdom Gained
“Good morning, Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley. The passwords, if you please?” McGonagall said.
She must have died on the weekend, he thought. His former Professor wore modest but well-tailored dress robes with a tartan sash, and her hair fell loose about her shoulders. She was free of the sort of gaping wounds or deadly infirmities that visited many of the ghosts he had seen. Her expression was firm but lacked the sternness that Harry associated with her. He would never admit that she looked younger and more alive as a ghost than she had as his teacher.
“F-fortune favours the brave, Professor,” Ron stammered.
“Veni, vidi, vici,” Harry managed to say.
McGonagall gave a beneficent smile, both welcome and unexpected, and he could hear the whirring and clicking and grinding and pounding of the complex bars and locks turning on the other side of the doors. “You look well, Mr. Potter. Mr. Weasley, you do not,” she said.
“I suppose I don’t,” Ron said, and Harry had to admit that he was looking even paler than only a few minutes prior.
“We do receive word of ongoing events from time to time,” McGonagall said to Ron. “I am well aware of what happened to you – worth a Special Services Award, were we in session, I should say. You're worthy of some degree of the Order of Merlin, in truth. Such things must wait until a proper Ministry is restored, of course.” Her sigh had an oddly metallic undertone to it.
A tinge of red returned to Ron’s cheeks. “Thank you, Professor,” he said.
McGonagall gave an approving nod; she said, “You’ve become well-mannered in the bargain… Miss Granger has worked wonders on you, it would appear.”
Ron fidgeted; “Erm… sure… great girl, Hermione is…”
“Professor, um, we were looking over the grounds and we were trying to figure out what could have driven off the Death Eaters…” Harry began. The doors swung open a foot at a time, stopping and starting again with each turn of the great gears. They had only opened a crack when Harry saw the answer.
A sea of house-elves waited on the other side of the doors. A particularly familiar house-elf stood near the front and didn’t wait for the doors to stop before he burst through and encircled Harry’s legs in an unabashed hug. “Harry Potter has returned! Dobby is not breathing, he is so happy!” Dobby squealed. “And Harry Potter’s Wheezy! Oh, Harry Potter’s Wheezy is needing a proper meal! Where is Harry Potter’s Miss Wheezy, and Harry Potter’s Miss Granger?” When the doors finished opening, the other house-elves moved forward as a unit to encircle Harry and Ron with mutterings about “the Chosen One” and such things.
McGonagall let Dobby babble on for a short time before she clapped her hands. The house-elves stopped as one. “We are all pleased to welcome Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley back to Hogwarts, but Mr. Potter has important business to which he must attend. If you would be so kind as to prepare a modest luncheon, to be taken in Professor Dumbledore’s office?” she ordered.
Dobby’s head bobbed wildly. “Of course, Headmistress! We will be preparing all of Harry Potter’s favourites!” The rest of the house-elves shuddered in wide-eyed anticipation, and both Ron and Harry tried not to laugh.
McGonagall led them to the second floor. As they approached the girls’ bathroom, she asked, “How is Miss Granger faring?”
Harry looked to the knapsack that dangled from his shoulder. “She’ll be better soon,” he said.
Ron stopped, turned and leaned against the wall. “You’re really out of puff,” Harry said; “We can wait a bit.”
Ron said sheepishly, “I was about to mind the door, you know, in case any girls came along... don’t know what I was thinking.”
McGonagall gave a wry smile. “You were thinking like a proper gentleman, Mr. Weasley. Ten points to Gryffindor,” she said.
Ron returned the smile. “Points?”
McGonagall said, “Hogwarts seems to believe that I remain its Headmistress, for whatever reason. As you remain listed as a student in the last official record, ten points it is.”
Harry drew his wand and carefully opened the bathroom door. He entered and immediately scanned the room for anything out of sorts. “I hope you’ve docked Malfoy, then,” he said after he was sure that no one else was there.
“There are not enough points in the world, Potter,” McGonagall said flatly.
Harry stopped, satisfied that the bathroom was clear. “Um… Professor… how much do you know about what Ron and Hermione and me have been doing this year?” he asked.
“I have a very good idea,” McGonagall said; “Remus has shared what he can, and Albus has been forthcoming when he is able.”
“Wait!” Harry cried. “You mean Dumbledore is here, too? But… he could never become…!”
“I refer to the Headmaster’s portrait, not a spirit or spectre,” McGonagall said; “At any rate, I am aware of the essentials of your activities and of the results thus far. Your secrets are safe within these walls, Potter – it is true that the dead tell no tales.”
One of the toilet doors rattled. Harry and Ron’s simultaneous blasting curses reduced the door to dust and ash before it could open. A great splash of water erupted from the exposed toilet and cascaded across the floor.
Harry winced; “Erm… sorry, Myrtle…”
Moaning Myrtle’s head popped up from the bowl. “You’re not sorry,” she said sullenly; “No one’s ever sorry. No one comes to see me, not even that boy with the slick hair... no wicked girls to call me names anymore...”
“You know very well that no one is living in the castle now, Miss Bartleby, save the house elves,” McGonagall scolded.
Myrtle scowled. “Oh, look, it’s the Head Girl! Fat lot of good you were when those girls kept stealing my things. 'Buck up, Bartleby', you said. Ha! I hope you're miserable as I am!” The last came as a half-gurgle as she plunged into the water and disappeared.
A certain chill began to fill the air, and a voice called out from behind Harry, “I wondered if we would ever see you at Hogwarts again, and now you are here! Welcome to you, Harry Potter!”
Harry turned to see the smiling face of Sir Nicholas Mimsy-de Porpington, who added,“And welcome to you, young Mr. Weasley! Minerva has regaled us each time she has received post and I must say, you are truly a credit to your House.”
Ron took a sudden interest in his feet. “Thank you, Sir Nick,” he managed.
The mounting coldness was nothing like the coldness of Dementors, Harry thought; he was reminded of the Deathday party he and Ron and Hermione had attended. It was only then that he noticed the sheer number of ghosts who had descended upon the bathroom: all four House ghosts and many others that Harry had seen but never known, including a fair share of the Headless Hunting party it seemed.
“Sir Nicholas speaks the truth,” the Fat Friar chimed in; “You and Mr. Potter have been exemplars not just of Gryffindor House, but of the whole of Hogwarts.” He added with a hearty laugh, “Only a true Hufflepuff would have done as you did, Mr. Weasley. You’re one of us, like it or not!”
“I very nearly ended up being one of you,” Ron said quietly.
“Stuff and nonsense,” Sir Nicholas said; “You’re too brave to become one of us.”
“What about you, Professor McGonagall?” Harry blurted out; “I wouldn’t have thought you to be afraid of anything, not at all.”
“That’s kind of you, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall said, “although it isn’t true. One can suffer an ample amount of fear – even a strong fear of death – without becoming a spirit. Surely you know that there are other reasons –”
“– like unfinished business,” Harry remembered.
McGonagall said, “Yes, exactly so. I suppose that every professor who ever served a lengthy tenure here has developed a certain kinship with Hogwarts. As for me, Potter, I spent all but eighteen years of my life in these halls. Hogwarts has given me everything, and I simply couldn’t leave it, not in its hour of need: students needed saving, the library had to be preserved, there were the house elves to consider. I couldn’t leave, Mr. Potter, but I do admit that I didn’t expect Hogwarts to agree with me. Honestly, I don’t understand how or why the remaining wards continue to respond to me, or why the house elves still report to me. I am deceased, after all – there’s no disputing the fact.”
“May I remind you that the Sorting Hat also maintains you are the rightful Headmistress of Hogwarts?” Sir Nicholas said playfully.
“Indeed!” the Fat Friar chimed in.
“Headmistress, a house elf has informed me of corporeal visitors,” a bored voice intoned from the threshold. Professor Binns drifted forward slowly and squinted at Harry and Ron through his luminescent spectacles as he greeted them, “Plodder and… Westlake, is it? Yes, yes, the Headmistress is forever going on about the two of you and Miss… ahem… Gresham, I believe?”
“Professor Binns? Um… do you know that you’re…?” Harry ventured.
“Deceased? Yes, there is simply too much evidence to the contrary. You might say that I… woke up to the fact,” Binns said, punctuated by a tired laugh.
“Good morning, Professor Binns,” McGonagall said wearily. “Mr. Potter is here to dispose of an item belonging to Voldemort; he and Mr. Weasley will be off again before evening comes.”
“An item… Voldemort…” Binns mused; “The Dark Lord Voldemort was known to have a fascination with relics of the Four Founders, of course. It was that fascination that led me to suspect that Voldemort was actually one of the former Heads… Riddle, I believe his name was. You must have known him, Headmistress – he fell around your time, I’m almost certain. Mad for dark history, the boy was, and anything pertaining to Hogwarts itself and the Founders.”
McGonagall’s eyebrows rocketed upward. “Did you ever share this particular conclusion with Albus?”
“With Headmaster Dumbledore? Why, of course,” Binns returned; “He told me that the matter was in hand. I never gave it another thought until just now.”
Harry pushed aside fallen masonry with his foot. “Oh, sure, looks like everything was in hand to me,” he muttered.
“Potter...” McGonagall said sharply.
Binns glanced slowly around the bathroom and told them all, “Did you know that this bathroom is one of five places reputed to house the entrance to Salazar Slytherin’s secret chambers?”
“Now he tells us,” Ron sighed.
Harry walked to the sinks, found the tiny snake etched into one of the taps and hissed, “Open up!” Ron flinched at the sound and there were gasps from some of the assembled ghosts. One spectral horse reared up and bolted from the room as the entrance to the Chamber opened, nearly tossing its ghost rider.
“You are a Parseltongue, Mr. Plummer?” Binns said. “I don’t recall the last time we had a Parseltongue in attendance.”
The Bloody Baron drifted forward until he floated within arm’s reach of Harry. After a few moments of stillness, the Baron slowly bowed, then backed away a pace. Harry returned the bow and then opened the knapsack that had been slung over his shoulder.
“That is the horcrux, Mr. Potter?” McGonagall asked. Harry nodded.
“A horcrux…? Good heavens! Such a horrible business, horrible indeed! Wherever did you happen upon that?” Binns said with as much animation as Harry could ever remember seeing or hearing from him.
Most of the company of ghosts had descended into a flurry of muttering at the sight of the exposed pipe. In the midst of the ongoing kerfuffle, one glided forward: the Grey Lady. She reached out and ran a shimmering hand through the Grimoire and whispered something. It was a most peculiar sound indeed, one that Harry felt as much as heard. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make out the words – they were too faint, just out of reach.
“She asks if this is the Grimoire of Mistress Ravenclaw,” McGonagall said.
“The whole time we were here, I never heard the Grey Lady make a sound,” Harry said; “You could understood that?”
“I didn’t know that she spoke until I was named Headmistress. Even at that, I never heard her while I was alive. Only Ravenclaws can hear her, it seems, and not all of them at that. I’m surprised that you heard anything at all,” McGonagall said.
Harry looked closely at the Grey Lady for the first time in seven years. She appeared to be young, not much older than he or Ron. She had long thick hair – translucent like the rest of her, so it was impossible to guess the colour – and a pleasant face that shone with wisdom. He wondered whether she might be Ravenclaw herself, but he couldn’t imagine any of the Founders would have become ghosts. Then again, he would have said the same of McGonagall.
“Yes, it’s the Ravenclaw Grimoire,” he said to the ghost.
The Grey Lady reached forward again but this time she wrapped her hand around Harry’s. He recoiled against the cold and clammy sensation, but held fast. She whispered again and this time the words were clear: “The self-appointed Dark Lord has defiled this book. You will destroy it?”
“Yes,” he said. He began to shudder, but didn’t know whether it came from the touch of her hand or the sound of her voice.
“That which you need is within the Chamber?” she asked.
“I hope so,” he managed.
“The beast inside is connected to you and to another, one who is close to you,” she said.
“Y-yes,” he shivered.
“Destroy it and you shall sever the worst of the connection,” the Grey Lady said; “The greatest danger lies within, Harry Potter.” He knew in his bones that the last had nothing to do with the Chamber of Secrets, and it took everything in him to hold his place.
“Mistress Ravenclaw fashioned three grimoires. Two of those were crafted for her sons. The one given to Yorick, the elder son, disappeared long ago when the ancestral castle was sacked. The one you hold was for the younger son, Eldrick. These two grimoires contained only the family rituals and those things that the Mistress wished taught to others. The Mistress left her own grimoire – the Compleat Grimoire – within these walls upon her passing,” the ghost went on.
McGonagall snapped to attention; “Where? It might be needed to help Miss Granger.”
Harry's head felt as if it was being squeezed by a troll. He saw the hazy image of a large book shelved in the Restricted Section of the Library that contained another book hidden inside. The Grey Lady pulled back her hand and he fell to his knees. Energy slowly trickled back into him, seemingly from nowhere. The thought that Hermione had likely felt just as drained spurred him on.
“I have to do this,” he muttered as he tucked away the Grimoire and picked up his Firebolt from where he’d let it fall.
A warm hand fell on his shoulder. “Let’s go,” Ron said.
The pipe was a tighter fit than Harry had remembered. He had to lay along the length of his broom, clutch it with one arm and use the other to push off the sides of the pipe here and there as it twisted 'round. It was surely an uncomfortable ride for Ron but there were no sounds of complaint. As soon as they reached the dark stone tunnel beyond the pipe, he shook the slime from his fingertips.
“Here’s where Lockhart stuffed it up,” Ron said. Harry nodded and began to say something, but broke into a cough that was hard to stop. There wasn’t as strong a stench as he had feared, but the Chamber was even dirtier than the first time he had entered the place.
Ron raised his wand to cast the lighting charm but Harry hissed, “Torca ignis.” The wall sconces along the tunnel burst into controlled flames one after the next. The shed basilisk skin still sat there beside the rubble from Lockhart’s failure, drier now and more brown than green.
“It was clearly a... substantial basilisk,” McGonagall murmured from behind. Harry turned to see that Binns, Sir Nicholas and the Bloody Baron had accompanied the Headmistress.
“Has there ever been such a thing as an insubstantial basilisk?” Sir Nicholas mused aloud.
Harry led them forward as the tunnel turned and turned again, until they reached the entwined serpents with the emerald eyes. “Open,” he hissed, and the serpents parted to reveal the Chamber.
He moved from one serpentine column to the next, wand drawn, sorting the echoes of his steps from other sounds. He thought he heard the click-clacking of vermin and waited to vaporise the first rodent to show itself, but none came. With another hiss, the wall sconces in the Chamber ignited.
The basilisk was still there, sprawled across the stone floor before Slytherin’s gigantic open-mouthed stone face. Its head was hard to recognise at first, with ruined eyes and the puncture from the Sword of Gryffindor and five years of modest decay. He slipped off his outer shirt and wrapped it around his face for a spot of respite from the stench of rotten flesh. For his part, Ron cast a Bubble-Head Charm. Harry cringed and cast his own; it hadn't occurred to him.
Ron's voice was muffled but still audible: “Bloody hell, Harry, it just keeps going and going.”
“It was big. I was scared to death,” Harry admitted.
“You were only twelve years old, Mr. Potter… a mere second-year…” McGonagall said quietly.
The lower fangs remained in the great snake’s mouth, but they looked to be dry. There were dark bloodstains everywhere, but the rivers of basilisk blood had long since dried up.
“Where do you keep your venom?” Harry wondered aloud.
“The venom sacs of a basilisk, as with other great snakes, are recessed above the upper fangs,” Binns recited.
Harry sighed; he started, “It’s all gone. With both of the big fangs missing –” but stopped abruptly.
“Harry? What is it?” Ron asked, his wand at the ready.
“I used one of them to destroy Riddle’s diary. The other fang was still in its mouth when we took Ginny out of here – I know it was,” Harry said; “There’s only one other person who can open this Chamber!” He dashed toward the columns with his wand thrust forth like a sword.
“There is presently no one alive in the Chamber save yourself and Mr. Weasley. We ghosts have a sense of these things, you know,” Sir Nicholas called out.
“Damn it!” Harry shouted. There was no trace of Voldemort, of course. He was acutely aware of the knapsack now and he contemplated how else he could get basilisk venom. Black marketeers that dealt in such things would be terribly black indeed, he knew.
“Perhaps this would be a good time for you to speak with Albus?” McGonagall suggested.
“It can’t hurt... I suppose,” Harry allowed. He and Ron slowly followed a ghostly procession to the surface.
Harry had successfully side-stepped Dumbledore’s portrait for more than a year. It had been conveniently asleep the first time he had visited. It had been away during his second visit, and he hadn't come to the office during the third. Hogwarts fell just days later. He had hoped to avoid the portrait a fourth time because, after witnessing magical Britain's slide into dictatorship and then into chaos, Harry couldn’t say that he was Dumbledore’s man anymore.
At least Dumbledore had been right to hold Scrimgeour at a distance, because his people had turned out to be no more honest and even less just than Fudge’s crowd. The Order had been toothless until well after the Headmaster’s death, and the cost of inaction was still mounting. The old man hadn't left any sort of plan behind for opposition to Voldemort; that wasn't a great surprise, given Dumbledore's tendency to keep secrets from his own allies. As the world collapsed around them, Lupin, Tonks, Shacklebolt and Arthur Weasley stepped forward and cobbled together a real resistance. The resistance and its Ministry-in-Exile had saved thousands of lives in the last year, lives that had apparently meant little or nothing in the Headmaster's schemes.
Albus Dumbledore had left Harry and everyone else with little more than half-truths, riddles and vague notions. It didn’t seem right or even reasonable to expect much from the painted echo of such a man. As he and Ron to the Headmaster’s office, Harry decided that he would settle for the house elves’ best fare and get out as quickly as he could.
Dumbledore's painted echo was lightly snoring in his frame when they took seats at a small table. The house elves were silent and efficient; in moments, a week’s worth of glorious food covered the tabletop. Harry quickly and quietly downed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in hopes that once again the portrait would slumber through his entire stay. Ron nipped at fruit and bread and a spot of pudding and a bit of treacle; it was unnerving for Harry to watch his friend pick at food.
McGonagall drifted quietly back and forth across the room. As Harry was helping himself to a second serving, she floated up to Dumbledore’s portrait and ran silvery fingers across its width. The Headmaster stirred uncomfortably. “Albus, you have visitors!” she shouted. Harry’s fork clattered to his plate.
“Cease your caterwauling, woman!’ an adjacent portrait snapped.
“Hello, Phineas,” Harry grumbled.
Phineas Nigellus squinted across the dimly lit room. “My, this is unexpected! The Dark Lord of the day must be underwhelming indeed if you remain alive and at large, Mr. Potter,” he sneered.
Several of the assembled portraits grumbled at Phineas, and a couple voiced complaints more loudly, but McGonagall waved them off. “Albus was never willing to have you removed, Headmaster Nigellus. I now have available to me something lacking in recent months – two sets of corporeal hands with wands at the ready. I suggest, therefore, that you shut it,” she said.
Albus Dumbledore stood within his frame and stretched; he yawned, “Charming as always, Phineas.” He finger-combed his long beard for a moment and then froze in recognition and exclaimed, “Good gracious! Harry, my boy… and Mr. Weasley in the bargain! What a marvellous surprise! Have you done it, then? Has Tom been vanquished?”
“You should get out more,” Phineas muttered.
“Mr. Potter has been away for quite some time, Albus – more than a year, in fact,” McGonagall said. “He was not here for… certain unpleasant events.”
Dumbledore took off his silver-rimmed spectacles and cleaned them with the sleeve of his robe. “Minerva, you look deathly pale,” he said; “Is everything all right?”
“We’ve been over this, remember?” McGonagall said gently before she turned to Harry and whispered, “For some reason, it has been very difficult for him to retain current events.”
Dumbledore broke into a beatific smile and declared, “It is so good to see you, Harry, truly it is! I hope that someday you’ll see that it has all been worthwhile. I know you will, in fact. Everything has been for the best. Even the ugliest moments served their purposes. I…” He fished in his robes for a handkerchief, and dabbed his eyes, then finished, “I wish I was there to congratulate you myself, to bestow your awards, to watch you become the great man I know that you will be.”
“Yes, yes, all hail the conquering hero. Who would that be, again?” Phineas sneered.
“I can have you hung in the courtyard,” McGonagall snapped.
“Hmph… it's always the Headmistresses who are the prickly ones,” Phineas grumbled.
“The Owlery, perhaps?” McGonagall offered. Phineas met her scathing glare with a cold stare of his own but remained silent.
Dumbledore’s smile fell away; “Harry, the young ladies have not accompanied you. Please tell me that nothing untoward has happened?”
Harry blankly returned the portrait’s concerned gaze. “Young ladies, sir? It was just the three of us, as you know,” he said.
“The plural was intentional, Harry. Miss Weasley and Miss Granger, of course – surely they have survived?” Dumbledore asked impatiently.
Harry struggled to respond. It wasn’t one of the first questions he would have expected Dumbledore to ask, and he was still a bit shaken to hear the Headmaster’s voice again – to see Dumbledore not as the frail old man at the end but once more the powerful wizard who Harry had met seven years prior.
“We’re all still alive, Headmaster,” Ron answered in his place.
Dumbledore let out a sigh that dissolved into unexpected laughter; “Thank the stars! Never underestimate the power of love, I tell you!”
Ron looked askance at Harry, one brow lifted ever-so-slightly. Harry returned a subtle shrug; “I’m sorry?” he said.
“You deserve every happiness, Harry – all of you are deserving of this,” Dumbledore went on as though Harry hadn’t spoken. “I truly feared that you would not happen upon it in time, but… seeing you with Miss Weasley made my last days worthwhile. You found your own source of power at last, the thing that separates you utterly and irrevocably from Tom Riddle, and it has obviously been wielded. There was no knowing, of course, but I believed you would choose well in the end and you did so. Not only is Miss Weasley a charming young woman of good family, but a pureblooded witch of considerable power. Love and partnership are a powerful combination, Harry, one that will serve you well as you make your way in the wizarding world.” With a guilty but mirthful look that belonged on a schoolboy caught pranking, he added, “I do not regret my part in bringing you together – suffer no regrets, Harry! – but I do hope that all is forgiven.”
Harry had no idea what Dumbledore meant. “Forgiven? What part do you mean? Professor, what are you talking about?” he asked.
“Mr. Weasley, I trust that you and Miss Granger came together to aid Harry in his appointed tasks?” Dumbledore said to Ron; “You are a stronger wizard and a better young man for the liaison, I imagine? Miss Granger will lead a more fulfilling life in your company, certainly – with luck she will avoid the pitfalls that have befallen me and others attracted to the dusty tomes of wizarding’s ivory towers. Diametric opposition has its merits – sulphur and mercury, Mr. Weasley… sulphur and mercury…”
McGonagall frowned sharply and demanded, “What have you done, Albus?” Harry felt the creep of anxiety rising up his neck.
“Oh, dear… were you playing play wizard’s chess with wizards as the pieces, Dumbledore?” Phineas sneered.
“Quests are for the questor, Headmaster Dumbledore. They must unfold as they will – this is the simplest of alchemical precepts,” an unfamiliar portrait admonished.
“Are you lost, Harry…? Because I’m lost, see – I mean, I’m really lost,” Ron said.
“You’re not alone,” Harry admitted. The portrait brought out in Harry the same awkward mix of affection, loyalty, frustration and anger that its subject drew in life.
“There was no more time, Harry, I could wait no longer,” Dumbledore said. “I was dead already – Severus could do no more than he did – and you needed to know of the horcruxes – ”
Ron let out a nervous laugh. “It’s horcruces, right? That’s what Hermione always says,” he said.
Harry let out a guttural shush, and then said, “Dead already? I… I don’t understand…”
Dumbledore ignored him. His eyes twinkled – an improbable thing for a portrait, but there it was – and he chuckled, “Horcruces, you say? Miss Granger would insist on that, would she not?”
“We await an explanation, Albus,” McGonagall snapped.
Dumbledore went on, “As I was saying, you needed to understand the nature of a horcrux and I believed then as now that you had to understand how Tom Riddle came to be – how he was shaped by the very circumstances of his birth and the corruption of his heritage as well as the elements of upbringing that you regrettably share with him. It could have been all for naught, however. I knew that soon you would have to wield the power that you possess and that you would have to reinforce it yourself.”
Harry understood that much, at least. The protections at Privet Drive had fallen very vividly after his seventeenth birthday; his relations had survived, but at the cost of their home and all of their belongings. The anxiety spread toward his chest now, evoking a dim and familiar rumble. He exhorted Dumbledore on with a look – he had more questions than answers and the portrait seemed as if it might be inclined to answer them.
The Headmaster seemed almost amused by Harry's confusion. He said, “You remain unaware of what transpired, Harry? Truly? I should think that I would have been found out long ago, by Miss Granger or perhaps Miss Weasley… but reason is sometimes suspended when one is besotted. Ah, the compensations of youth…”
Ron sat bolt upright and blurted out, “You’re talking about bloody love potions! Everyone was on about love potions last year – the effin’ things were everywhere!”
“Language!” McGonagall chided.
Ron flushed but didn't yield. “They were everywhere, you know – that fourth-year bint poisoned me with one! My stupid brothers were making a fortune on them, too!” he protested.
“Don’t be absurd,” McGonagall said; “The Headmaster had better things to do than skulk around spiking the students’ evening meals with love potions. In any event, properly brewed and administered love potions – while patently in violation of any number of school regulations – are generally little more than a means for attention-getting. Your trip to the Hospital Wing was an aberration, Mr. Weasley.”
A death rattle bellowed inside Harry’s chest. “What about Amortentia?” he said.
“Amortentia? The very word isn’t spoken within these walls outside of the cursory lecture required for the NEWTs,” McGonagall said sharply.
“Professor Slughorn… he had a great cauldron of the stuff right there in the classroom, and Polyjuice Potion and Veritaserum, too,” Ron said slowly.
“Right there for the taking,” Harry added quietly.
“The smell of the stuff was really powerful,” Ron went on, “It was strange, too, how it formed up into things we knew. For me, it was a fresh pitch and Mum’s treacle tart and some sort of flowers and parchment, I think, lots of it – like the library.” He laughed, “That threw me for the longest time, the parchment. I mean, it’s not as though I hate books, but it seemed passing strange when I thought about it…” He trailed off and his face slowly fell.
“It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real, and you knew it,” Harry growled at Dumbledore’s portrait; “You couldn’t stop playing with my life, could you? Couldn’t leave it to me to decide… oh, no! Why start now, after all?”
“Harry,” Dumbledore sighed, “if you would consider for a moment the workings of –”
Harry was well beyond thinking; he roared, “HOW DARE YOU? IT WASN’T JUST UNFAIR TO ME, YOU KNOW? WHAT ABOUT GINNY? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO HER?”
Ron sat rigidly, his eyes unblinking in the same way that he watched a chess board. He said, “The fumes were strong, Harry, but they didn’t make me do anything differently than I’d have done otherwise –”
“Whatever, Won-Won,” Harry snapped.
“Oi, we didn’t need a potion!” Ron returned; “She was on me from the first of the year. Are you saying I shouldn’t have liked her being that way? The point is, the fumes didn’t put you on to Ginny.”
“If it wasn’t the fumes, then who fed it to me?” Harry demanded.
McGonagall’s hands were at her hips. “Albus, did you honestly allow that… that reprobate Slughorn to place a cauldron of Amortentia in a dungeon room with a group of sixteen-year old students who would hardly require encouragement? Of all the ill-thought, irresponsible…!”
Dumbledore wearily took a seat and doffed his hat. “May I speak?” he asked. Harry crossed his arms tightly and gave a reluctant nod. McGonagall seemed even more unyielding.
“To my knowledge, Harry, no one fed you Amortentia,” Dumbledore said; “Horace did, in fact, place the cauldron in the classroom. The potion was not keyed to a specific recipient. I insisted upon this, and verified it myself. A potion such as the one in question can be dangerous indeed if premised upon a specific target. I should think that the story of Merope Gaunt would have made that perfectly clear.”
“Then why?” Harry bit out.
“My intentions were simple and two-fold,” Dumbledore explained. “First, as I said, your protections were to expire or weaken dramatically. They were premised upon something that you had experienced far too little and that you showed no overt signs of seeking.”
“So you used a potion – ?” Harry started.
From the wall, Phineas snarled, “Oh, do shut up, Potter! Do you lack the most elementary understanding of magic? Powerful as it may be, base Amortentia cannot create something that does not exist. The poor suffering hero was dosed with fumes from the potion in question – not a ladle-full, nor a phial's worth, but fumes – and found himself in an unexpected and slightly obsessive amorous clinch, thusly the Headmaster’s Office is suffuse with botheration... oh, please! Amortentia vapours amount to a tap upon the shoulder, a smack upon the head, a pounding inside the chest – prurient interest is heightened, and nothing more. The response might seem a bit forced upon reflection, but it would certainly be rooted in pubescent pining. Secondly, this entire affair is trivial, boy – utterly and completely irrelevant! I, for one, do not care if you seek your gratification with the Giant Squid –”
“Phineas Nigellus! Enough!” McGonagall screeched.
“– provided that you carry out your responsibilities,” Phineas went on; “Nothing else matters! If Dumbledore was willing to allow your focus to descend into stuff and nonsense for the lion’s share of an entire year, then he – was – wrong.”
“Mr. Weasley, the necessary incantation is effigia eximere – mind the emphasis on 'eximere', if you please. The wand motion is like so. At the conclusion of the wand motion, you will touch your wand to the appropriate frame,” McGonagall angrily demonstrated. Ron looked nervously from McGonagall to Dumbledore’s portrait and back again, and kept his wand ready but stilled.
“It can’t make something from nothing, but it can turn it into something it wasn’t going to be,” Harry said bitterly. “I remember the lecture, I remember Slughorn warning about the power of ‘obsessive love’. People didn’t think I paid attention in class but I did, and I do remember that.”
“Your exposure was limited, Harry,” Dumbledore sighed. “While I disagree with the point that Phineas attempted to make, I do agree that this amounted to no more than strong prompting. Moreover, you are able to resist the Imperius curse. Professor Slughorn was uncertain whether exposure to the potion's essence would have the slightest effect upon you.”
Harry countered, “Maybe someone was slipping me the potion, or another potion? Malfoy and his goons surely got to the Polyjuice Potion, so why not the others? Maybe Slughorn thought the fumes weren't doing the job and slipped it to me?”
“Is it so hard to accept that you may have had a genuine prurient interest in the bint?” Phineas scoffed.
Ron snapped, “Oi! That's my sister! Er... he does have a point, though...”
“I don't think it was just the one potion. What I felt for Ginny, it was like something living inside of me – almost like a monster. Interesting that it sought out Ginny, Headmaster, considering what the two of us have in common?” Harry ploughed on.
“Yes, interesting indeed. You should have spoken of this, my boy,” Dumbledore said.
“Right, as if it would have bothered with anything I had to say. I still think you did more than you're letting on. After all, the feelings started to fade after Snape killed you…”
“Professor Snape set me free,” Dumbledore said serenely.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Harry asked.
“Severus Snape is no longer a Professor and shall not be referred to as such,” McGonagall coldly interjected; “He is, at best, a vile traitor. You've said nothing to persuade me otherwise, Albus.”
“Severus remained exactly where he needed to be,” said Dumbledore.
“I figure you’re wrong about that, as well,” Harry said, “just like you were wrong about practically every Defence professor –”
“It is difficult to anticipate the dimensions of such a powerful curse,” Dumbledore pointed out.
“That didn’t keep you from hiring Remus, did it, even though you knew the bloody job was cursed?” Harry snapped; “He hadn’t enough bad things in his life, was that it?”
“Cursed? The position truly was cursed?” McGonagall gasped.
“Remus Lupin is a werewolf. For all intents and purposes, every job he has ever held has been cursed,” Dumbledore returned.
“You were wrong about Nagini as well. She wasn't the last horcrux,” Harry said.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow and asked, “Are you certain of that?”
“I'm the last one,” Harry hissed.
“I had thought that you would lose the ability to speak Parseltongue... fascinating...” Dumbledore said as he stroked his beard in thought; “What was the last horcrux, if it was not her?”
“You know damn well who the last horcrux is,” Harry snapped, “and I’ve had enough of this.”
Dumbledore’s eyes widened; “You… have not vanquished him?”
“No, I haven’t ruddy well vanquished him!” Harry returned. “No wonder you were surprised to see me. I'm supposed to be dead, isn't that right?”
“Remember the prophecy, Harry –” Dumbledore began.
“Do you think that I can forget it?” Harry asked incredulously.
“Voldemort must be vanquished by your hand. You cannot simply eliminate the last horcrux and leave the final resolution to others,” Dumbledore finished.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” Harry demanded.
“There is a room, at the Department of Mysteries...” Dumbledore said.
“There are a dozen rooms or more at the Department of Mysteries, and the Death Eaters hold the place now,” Harry countered.
“There is a room…” Dumbledore trailed off.
Harry groaned, “I know there’s a bloody sodding room – what of it?”
The Headmaster’s portrait rambled, “I do wish I was there to help you… it wasn’t to be… Severus had to act, Harry, I was already dead… and in so doing, he served us both… must understand… you must understand…”
“Understand? Understand what?” Harry growled.
Dumbledore mumbled, “Still protected… thank Merlin, still protected by love... wherever she calls home… don’t underestimate love… Tom never understood, and look where that took him… potions did not matter, they never mattered, couldn’t make you something which you are not… hold onto what the potions gifted you, Harry... hold on and it will save you yet… hold onto it…” The Headmaster’s eyes fluttered oddly.
Harry demanded, “What do you mean, I’m still protected? Who is 'she'? The Dursleys are lucky to be alive! Did you do something to Ginny? What did you think you were doing, pushing me to Ginny? Did you do something to Hermione? What gave you the right? And what do you mean, you were already dead? Answer me!” When no response came, he shook the Headmaster’s frame as hard as he could manage and shouted, “ANSWER ME!”
“Mind that you visit to the Potions classroom... I believe you may find answers there… suffer no regrets, Harry,” Dumbledore whispered, “but I do hope that all will be forgiven.” The Headmaster's eyes closed tightly and then the entire portrait seemed to fade.
“My word!” one of the portraits shouted; “He’s gone! Dumbledore is gone!”
“Drained the magic right out of him!” cried another. Mutters of “impossible!” and “murderer!” filled the room.
“Quiet yourselves!” McGonagall ordered.
Phineas Nigellus rolled his eyes and sneered, “Mr. Potter certainly did not drain the magic from Dumbledore’s portrait – only ninnies and Hufflepuffs would believe him capable of such a feat. That portrait was never right from the start. The man was a revenant for most of a year before it was activated, after all.”
“A revenant? But that means… he was… he was telling the truth, then?” Harry asked.
While Phineas might not have believed that magic had been drained, he still shifted noticeably to the far side of the portrait as Harry approached. “Certainly he was telling you the truth! Dumbledore was for all practical purposes dead before your first lesson of that year,” the portrait snapped.
“And Snape used a potion to keep him... to keep him going somehow?” Harry confirmed. Snape’s boast that he could ‘stopper death’ in Harry’s very first potions class was fixed in his mind.
“Severus Snape is a brilliant fellow and a genuine credit to his House,” Phineas said with admiration, “unlike the contemptible poseur presently styling himself a Dark Lord.”
“Hear, hear!” someone called out from the wall.
McGonagall was shaking and seemed brighter than before. “I won’t have you lying to Mr. Potter, Phineas. Stop it, this instant!” she seethed.
Phineas Nigellus drew himself up and his eyes bored into Harry, so much so that it seemed he might leap from the frame. The portait sneered, “To think that Dumbledore put himself through that hell so that he could first see to your coddling for nine months and then coerce Severus to kill him in a foolhardy attempt to protect you from someone whom you should have been properly trained to defeat! If he was mad enough to believe that somehow ‘love’ was going to save you, then he should have simply told you to go forth and find it. ‘Oh, no, he mustn’t be told,’ Dumbledore said. ‘He deserves a window of happiness,’ he said. The fool should have decanted a phial of Amortentia to force down your throat, and then sent you to obsess over your ‘true love’ – if he truly believed in this power of yours. Better yet, he should have told you what he believed at the first opportunity. That way, you’d have had the opportunity to renounce this nonsense!”
“What’s gotten into you? I demand that you stop!” McGonagall roared.
Phineas’s eyes narrowed into slits as he pressed on, “People think you’re Dumbledore’s man, don’t they? I know better, especially after your reign of destruction in this very room. I know you’ve nothing to do with the young Weasley girl now – do recall that you and your friends were at Grimmauld Place last fall. I simply couldn’t bring myself to tell poor Dumbledore – an unexpected sentiment on my part, but there you are. You didn’t wish to tell him even now, did you? Goodness, you’ve becoming a skilful liar… cunning, ambitious, perhaps even powerful. How did you end up in Gryffindor, Mr. Potter? Did you lie to the Sorting Hat as well?”
“I… I…” Harry fell bonelessly into the chair behind the Headmaster’s desk.
“You leave Harry alone!” Ron demanded.
“Go on, ‘Chosen One’, go forth and love your Dark Lord to death,” Phineas snorted, “because that’s all Dumbledore ever wanted of you, isn’t it?”
“Effigia eximere!” Ron shouted, and he swung his wand at Phineas’s frame as hard as he could. The portrait flew across the room, with Phineas Nigellus shrieking all the way. Ron stalked after it, kicked it hard, and then cried, “Incendio!” The room exploded with protest as the portrait of Hogwart’s most hated Headmaster was reduced to ash. Ron whirled around, breathing hard; he yelled, “ANYONE ELSE WANT THE SAME?” and the walls went silent.
Harry slowly rose from the chair and said evenly, “You burned the wrong portrait, Ron. Thank you for your hospitality, Professor McGonagall.”
“Mr. Potter… Harry… Albus’s portrait wasn’t right – that much is true,” McGonagall said tentatively, “but if there was an open cauldron of Amortentia within this castle and with his full knowledge and cooperation… I… I understand why you would be offended by his actions… perhaps even shocked…”
Harry took a long, slow calming breath before he said, “I'm not shocked at all, Professor? Sad, isn't it?”
Ron still stood over the smoking ruin of Phineas Nigellus’s portrait. “At the end, he said ‘potions’, Harry,” he said, still breathing hard; “He said ‘potions’, not ‘potion’.”
“Phineas didn’t –” Harry started.
“Dumbledore… Dumbledore said it!” Ron snapped.
It took Harry a few moments to let that sink in. “One last lie, then… does it really matter?” he said at last.
Ron’s jaw was set and his face crimson; “He didn’t just mess about with you, Harry, he was doing it to Hermione and me – you heard him!”
“It’s done and he’s dead. Burn his portrait to ash as well, if it makes you feel better,” Harry fired back as he stormed toward the door.
“Wha… what? I shouldn’t have burned him up – is that it?” Ron shouted after him. “The Order has the other copy, you know? I’m sure they’ll let him lie to you and insult you all day – is that what you want? Do you want me to be sorry? Is that it? Damn it, I’m not sorry! He shouldn’t have said those things, Harry! It’s no different than with Sirius’s mum – he got what he deserved!”
“You meant well – everyone means well, don’t they?” Harry snapped.
“Potter… what else is to be done?” McGonagall asked.
“I’m going to the Potions classroom – might as well have a look,” Harry said; “I’m guessing that whatever Dumbledore thinks is there left the castle with Snape – ”
McGonagall added angrily, “ – or with Slughorn, that self-important, useless… he abandoned us a day prior to the attack, you know? A rather convenient decision on his part, I should say.”
“Do you want me to come along?” Ron asked.
“I just want to be finished with this,” Harry called out from the stairs. Ron didn’t catch up until just before Harry entered the classroom with a hail of spellfire.
Harry stepped over the smoking remains of the door and cast an absurdly bright lighting charm, courtesy of the Half Blood Prince’s scribbles. Spiders and dormice and glumbumbles and other things that go bump in the desks scattered into the few remaining shadows. Snape’s old private stores had been thoroughly pilfered. There were a few traces of Slughorn left in the teacher’s desk: a stray gold button and two crystallised pineapple slices in one drawer, a dog-eared copy of Borage's Advanced Potion Making in another. Harry tugged at the third drawer but it wouldn’t budge. He slowly backed away and began to check for hexes, wards, explosive potions and anything else that occurred to him.
“Is one of the drawers stuck?” Ron asked.
“It’s more than stuck,” Harry said, “but it doesn’t seem to be a trap, either.”
“Try an unlocking charm, then?” Ron suggested.
Harry shrugged. “Alohomora,” he said with a wave of his wand. He tried the drawer again; if possible, it was shut more tightly than before. He barraged it with a series of unlocking and opening spells, each more powerful than the next: Aperio, then Effringo, then Refractus, and even Dessectus – all with no effect. It was with the last that he saw something just above the handle. At first glance, it could have been a smudge. He had to kneel to make out the word ‘silencio’ scrawled on the wood in an all-too-familiar hand.
Ron peered over his shoulder; “Find something else, did you?”
“A message for me... seems he's been back in the castle after all,” Harry said darkly. He waved his wand once more with Alohomora clearly in mind, and the drawer gave an audible click; “Back away, Ron – there’s no telling what’s in here,” he added.
Harry carefully and silently cast the weakest summoning charm he could manage, just enough for the drawer to slide open. Nothing exploded, no creature sprang forth, and the room was not filled with noxious fumes – so far, so good, he thought. He whispered, “Wingardium leviosa,” and watched as the contents of the drawer very slowly rose into the air.
It was a tightly wrapped bundle of what looked like leather at first glance, tied like a fat scroll with a coarse green ribbon. “Solvo,” Harry said, and the ribbon came undone. The bundle wasn’t leather at all; it was dragon hide. Inside was a foot-long dagger, hewn from a horn or something similar. Harry could almost feel magic radiating from it, magic that didn’t come from the runic inscriptions.
“Harry, that looks like a tooth,” Ron whispered.
Beneath the dagger was a scrap of parchment inscribed with the same too-familiar script; it said:
With the Headmaster’s compliments.
The Dark Lord has the matching blade in his possession.
There was no doubting what floated before him. It was a blade formed from one of the basilisk’s fangs. Harry tried to figure how Snape could have possibly accessed the Chamber. Nearly all of the major damage to the castle had been inflicted from outside. He knew from reports that the the Death Eaters had briefly breached the castle proper, but both the Order and interrogated Death Eaters said that Voldemort himself had been unable to enter. The blade could have been fashioned before Dumbledore was killed, Harry thought, but the codeword made it almost certain that Snape placed it in the drawer after the killing... but Dumbledore's portrait had known it would be there for Harry to find. For that matter, Slughorn hadn’t made off with it either. None of it made sense, but there would be time enough to puzzle through it later.
“Let's get rid of the stupid book,” Harry told Ron; “I want you to leave the room, just in case... you know...” Ron didn't argue the point. As soon as his friend was in the corridor, he wrapped the roll of dragon hide around the haft of the dagger, held it tight with both hands, and drove it into the Grimoire as swiftly and deeply as he could.
The book let forth an inhuman howl that rent the air. Ink gouted from the dagger’s cut and the Grimoire pulsed and throbbed as though it were struggling, fighting to survive. Harry twisted the dagger and pulled it across until it severed the binding. He fell backward as the blade came free. The book flew open and the howl grew still louder before it died away. The basilisk blade slipped from Harry’s grasp and he pressed his hand against his scar. The room was a disaster, with the floor scorched black around the remains of the Grimoire and desks thrown about like children's toys. There was a grim satisfaction in knowing he was one step closer to the end.