Harry knew he had but scant minutes left of the hour Voldemort had set. At the Firebolt's speed, he estimated two minutes to reach the forest edge and effect his dissaparation back to the Blue Lyon Mill. Still it was going to be close. He had no more than cleared the forest when he landed, abandoned the broom, and in a swirl of robes, he was gone.

He reappeared almost instantly in the cemetery a short distance from the entrance door of the Blue Lyon Mill. At his arrival, Myrtle zoomed to his side and whispered, "Ogram says she understands your intent, but she will not allow any magic to be used against her charges in any case."

"That's all I can ask. Thank you, Myrtle. Let's go in, the same orders as the first time then," said Harry motioning toward the front door. He ran quickly though the trap-laden entrance and hall. He literally sprinted the required three times past the bare stretch of wall, while focusing on his desire to find Ron, and the heavy door appeared in the formerly empty wall. Setting his mind to the awful task ahead, Harry pushed through the door and into the room holding destiny.

As the door opened, Harry focused his mind-front on the exhaustion he felt, upon battle with, and success over acromantulas. He envisioned Aragog's dead body, legs motionless in the air, let the feeling of pain in his burning lungs fill his mind. He then tempered the thought with an immediate desire to get Ron and get away. Under the layers of mind-front Harry extended and strengthened the magic he had laid down upon his first arrival to the room. "Small, simple, insignificant," became his continuing mantra.

"Well Harry," said the familiar cold voice, "you cut it very fine. I see that your meager skills were barely adequate for the task at hand. Have you retrieved my prize or did you trade your life for nothing?"

The laugh that followed these words chilled Harry to the centre. He knew Voldemort had every intention of killing him tonight. Letting fear become the shield of his mind, he addressed Voldemort in a shaky voice, "We had an agreement. Let Ron go and I'll give you what you have worked so long and hard for, and what I have to admit, you have earned."

"What! At the end you have finally come to realize my power! You recognize my destiny! Truly a shame. I intended to spend some long hours breaking you to these facts, breaking your tired belief in the power of love. Now I find that you accept this fact without my painful reinforcement. You appear to have learned that my magic IS the most powerful force in the world!" Voldemort laughed. But it was not a cynical laugh it was a laugh of triumph, a laugh of ultimate victory.

Harry let the laugh fill his mind-front, let fear fill his thoughts. "One thing you have always been is a man of your word. Let Ron leave and we can finish this." Laughter from many places around the room met Harry's words.

"Nearly right, Harry," continued Voldemort's voice, "but you see, you offended me by calling me a man when I am so much more. I am the most powerful being that has ever roamed the Earth. I gain strength daily. I gain strength with the death of each of my enemies. Your friend...(and he used the word as if it were a foul, dirty thing)...your friend will live out this day. But it will not matter in the end because I have eternity to bring all under my subjugation. Those who escape today, and rest assured Harry Potter, you will not be one of them, will be hunted down and killed tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. I cannot be stopped. I will not be stopped."

Voldemort materialized directly in front of Harry. Harry let the thrill of impending doom saturate his mind. Voldemort laughed again as he paced around Harry, a jackal circling prey. With a wave of his wand, the tapestry was swept aside and the door Harry had known lay behind it flew open revealing the rubbish-strewn space between buildings. Ron, who had remained crumpled and still during Voldemort's pronouncement, was raised as if by invisible hands and thrown moaning into the night. The door slammed shut and the tapestry slid sideways once again concealing the opening. "Now Harry, to business. You see I have completed my end of the bargain without the slightest verification that you have accomplished your task. You might ask yourself why? I will answer. Because you have betrayed your own principals by simply returning to the forest and grounds. Your craven act of returning to search for what I had gained and then lost, your willingness to trade Dumbledore for nothing, seals his ultimate failure, and your ultimate humiliation. I could, through torture, bring you to the same point. But why not let you know the extent of your failure, why not let you torture yourself?" With that Voldemort turned from Harry and addresses the room, "Let us show Harry his failure!"

As if Voldemort's words were cue, more than a dozen masked Death Eaters became visible. To Harry's dread, each was holding a captive. Harry was shocked to see Fane and Ginny among them. "Yes Harry, your pathetic band of followers will provide entertainment for us all before you die." Without so much as a pause for breathe, Voldemort swept away from Harry, pointed his wand at one of the captives and shouted with exultant pleasure, "Avada Kedavra!"

"NO!" cried Harry in absolute horror.

The pitch of the Avada Kedavra spell was new to Harry and he had no time to act before the green light struck the captive. The Death Eater holding her released his grasp and let her crumple to the floor. Voldemort's eyes blazed red in the darkened room. Harry retched and his composure slipped as he recognized the greasy black hair of Severus Snape sheeting from under the Death Eater's mask. Snape stepped away from what was now a lifeless pile of clothes and flesh. The remaining captives reactions varied; one fainted, two matched Harry's reaction and vomited at their feet, four intensified their struggles to break free from their captors, the others seemed to shrink in resolute acceptance of their impending deaths. Voldemort walked purposefully to the inanimate form and turned her over with his foot. Brown eyes stared blankly at the ceiling.

"Leave her alone!" shouted Harry violently at Voldemort's back.

"Still the hero of the down trodden, Harry?" said Voldemort to echoed laughter from the Death Eaters. "Don't you yet understand that the seconds of your life are quickly running out? I have left you in the centre of this room unrestrained. You still have a wand. Do you want to fight me? Do you want to avenge your righteous anger, your friend's death? She was simply the first, it will get much worse before you die Harry Potter. I will see to that. Now for your end of the bargain. Imperio."

The spell was performed quickly but Harry recognized its gathering. As he mounted a silent defense, he prepared the act he knew necessary. He heard Voldemort's command to turn over the stone crucible. Harry determined that a bit of resistance would be expected. Accordingly, he fought momentarily and then, by purpose rather than pressure, he removed the adamant crucible from the case and placed it on the floor in front of him. He fell to the floor as the Imperious Curse was lifted.

"Harry, you do not seem to have much will left to fight," sneered Voldemort as he levitated the crucible into his long white fingers. "It is as I have always said... one or two well placed deaths, and the noble will fold, their ideals falling by the wayside. Look what you were willing to retrieve and give over to me at the mere threat of violence... all that remains of Albus Dumbledore. Now I will once and forever rid his interfering influence from my life."

"No! Wait!" implored Harry. "Spare just a moment of your immortal time. I have an offer that you may want to consider. A moment now may prevent an eternity of remorse."

"You are beginning to see," said Voldemort appraising Harry. "I do have forever, but you do not. Let me make this quick for you." A table and two stone chairs appeared in the centre of the chamber. "Sit, Harry, and we will talk." More laughter from the Death Eaters echoed around the room. Harry obediently walked to the nearest chair and sat down. Voldemort placed the crucible on the table and took a seat opposite Harry. A rasping, slithering sounded in the darkened room. With a start, Harry saw Nagini slowly circling the table. As Harry placed his hands on the stone chair's arms, chains slid around his arms, glowed gold, and held him fast.

Voldemort smiled an evil, leering smile. "Poetic justice, one might say. My Death Eaters were forced to endure the ignominy of a similar chair in the Ministry of Magic. When I crush the Ministry, those chairs will be made thrones for my faithful servants. You, however, will die here. A tragically unheralded death. The Boy Who Ceased to Exist."

Harry could hear one voice that rang above the rest in the laughter... Bellatrix Lestrange. He knew he was at the point for which he had trained so long and so hard. He forced a false desire to exact revenge to permeate his mind, to fill his being.

"Oh yes, I had forgotten that Bellatrix deprived you of your dear godfather, Sirius Black," said Voldemort peering into Harry's eyes. "I will reunite the two of you very shortly. Yes, Nagini, you will finally get to make meal of Harry Potter. You see, Harry you have been taken literally from the serpent's mouth twice in your life. I considered a plan for your death so many years ago. I thought to kill you to purpose, and then feed you to Nagini. Once again a bit of poetic justice. I would have enjoyed watching Nagini eat you alive as a baby so many years ago, but then technically, Nagini would have killed you and I need to be the one who had that distinction. That, as history bears out, did not go as I planned. The second time you were to be fed to Nagini, you escaped Little Hangleton graveyard by a fluke vagary of our wands. Tonight Nagini will get what she has longed for these many years. But first, let's see what is in your mind. You have surprised me before. No surprises tonight."

Harry steeled his mind-front. He projected terror. In the back of his mind he considered Nagini and continued his mantra..."small, simple, insignificant."

Voldemort raised his wand, "Legilimens!" he shouted.

Harry screamed, he could feel Voldemort sifting his terror. He could sense tremendous interest in the story of the recovery of the crucible. Harry took bits of his battle with Asgoth in the Triwizard maze, blurred them with the feelings of horror when confronted by Aragog's many children, and added a contrived scene of hiding from huge spiders in the debris below a web and accidentally finding the crucible as he struggled to free himself from the rotting remains cast off by the spiders. As the putrid remains flashed through his mind, Harry let his disgust fill him until he retched once more. With his arms chained to the chair, his vomit flowed down his robes and puddled in his lap. As he screamed and writhed, he once more let a shield of shame flood his mind.

Voldemort lifted his wand and addressed Snape. "It is as you have stated. He has once again gotten by on luck and chance. Or has he? Legilimens!"

Harry flowed with tears of loathing at Voldemort's mind intrusion but his practice had made him ready for the renewed onslaught. He produced an image of the struggle to get out of the spider's refuse pile, just brushing the edge of the vision with a glimpse of a desiccated form that could have been Fenrir Greyback. He once again let fear engulf his mind and broke into screams interspersed by wracking sobs.

"You are weak Harry Potter," said Voldemort in an amused voice. "Severus has long told me so, but I gave you the benefit of that accursed prophecy. You are correct; I do have the luxury of time, unlike you wretched mortals. I estimate that you have less than five minutes of life left. If you wish to waste your remaining time in a fruitless attempt to convince me of the error of my ways, by all means, squander your last breath. It will amuse me." Voldemort's laughter mingled with the Death Eater's laughter around the room.

Harry cringed mentally at what he was about to attempt. He let the noble purpose behind his words reinforce the image of his wavering commitment. Tentatively he began, "I know you saw Dumbledore's ethos as a weakness. But I also know you respected his magical ability. The portion of soul contained in the crucible has the ability to bring you back much of what you have lost in your quest for immortality. Dumbledore, or what is left of him, can aid you in that magic. I spent a bit of time with Dumbledore's Porcrux before it was damaged, and I can attest that he saw good in you when you were a boy and never gave up the last glimmer of hope for you as a man. Please reconsider what you are about to do. Your decision will affect you forever."

Voldemort pushed back his chair. "How noble. A sermon in your last moments of life! Yet I hear the belief you have in your words. I hear the truth through your pitiful fear. But you once again insult me by calling me a man. I answer you thus...!" Voldemort raised his wand high in the air and split the ceiling of the chamber with a tremendous spell. A dozen Dementors swept through the opening and surrounded the table. Voldemort slowly, almost lovingly, removed the lid from the adamant crucible and exposed the brightly glowing silver substance within. He then leaned back and the Dementors closed ranks. "Come my faithful friends and witness a long anticipated end." In answer to Voldemort's words, the Death Eaters dragged their captives into a circle just beyond the Dementors.

Harry, still seated at the table, could see exactly what the Dementors were about. Indeed he realized, Voldemort watching him with red eyes ablaze, wanted him to see what was to happen. Without the aid of a wand, Harry mustered a defense against the effect of the Dementor's presence but he understood their excitement and attention to be so focused on the crucible as to limit their effect on him. He watched in horror as the Dementors lowered their hoods and sucked, with rattling breath, at the air in front of them. Initially nothing happened. "Let it not work, let him reconsider!" pled Harry in his mind. "There still could be hope."

"No! Don't do it!" croaked Harry.

Voldemort laughed.

At the Dementors continued ministrations, the shimmering surface broke and started slow spirals away from the crucible. Each of the Dementors drew a strand of the glistening substance toward their grotesque maws and continued to suck. At length, and to Harry's horror, the crucible lay empty and dark in the centre of the table.

"Thus is the end of Albus Dumbledore!" said Voldemort in a coldly triumphant voice, "But to be doubly sure..." He twirled his wand in a circle and the Dementors were drawn together as if by a lasso. They were crushed more and more tightly together until it was impossible to distinguish individual creatures. Then with almost a casual flick of his wrist, Voldemort caused the black robed figures to explode upward in a bright white beacon. The concussion of the explosion was so immense that the roof of the building was sundered, leaving a gaping hole open to the dark night sky. The Dementors had been utterly destroyed.

"Some have claimed Dumbledore's powers exceeded my own. I have quite ended that claim," boomed Voldemort. "Now Harry, now that you have seen your complete failure, your time is also up. Nagini, my pet, come here. I have a long anticipated treat for you."

The huge snake ceased its circling and raised its ugly triangular head on level with Harry's face. It's forked tongue flicked out and tasted Harry's scent.

Harry readied his spell silently. "If Dumbledore and Nigellus are correct, I must be prepared for the effect of destroying a Horcrux. I must direct the energy straight upward."

The gigantic snake had begun a death-blow strike as a movement to Harry's side caused him to hold his spell.

Wormtail threw off his Death Eater's mask and dropped Verity. As the great snake struck, Wormtail caught it just at its throat in his shining silver hand. "Master," said Wormtail in a tormented voice, "as I have said before, the boy means nothing to me. Nothing. But you did promise him a chance to face Severus."

"You dare question my word!" bellowed Voldemort, the rage of madness thick in his voice. "I set the law! I AM THE LAW!" He pointed his wand directly at Wormtail.

"Master," said Wormtail, as he held the writhing snake. "I retrieved that very wand from the rubble of the Potter's home the night you set to kill Harry Potter as a baby. I stored it safely for you, knowing you would return. I ask you now to allow Harry a chance to confront Severus."

"Crucio!" shouted Voldemort, without even a breath's consideration of Wormtail's request.

Wormtail shrieked and fell to the floor, convulsing in pain. As his body twisted and writhed in agony, the snake in his silver hand was smashed repeatedly against the floor. Great spurts of blood issued from the snake's mouth. As Wormtail's pain increased so did his grip on the snake. As the huge snake's head was squeezed from its body, a blinding flash of light consumed both the snake and Wormtail's shining silver hand and sent a stream of bright white energy into the darkened sky.

« Chapter 51 - Friends Deceived   Chapter 53 - Evil Unmasked »


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