Harry left Lupin and pelted for the Room of Requirement. Once there, he slipped quietly into the arena. Neville and Luna were supervising twelve groups. Arrayed at intervals around the room were hoops and holes of varying sizes. The largest looked like Quidditch goals, the smallest barely larger than needle's eyes. Harry did not interrupt as he watched the D.A. members put through their paces. The participants ran along the openings, shooting magic through the assorted apertures. Neville and Luna were targets on the opposite side of the field. They negated and altered any magic that was successfully cast through the openings. Harry could see that the drill was well considered and enthusiastically engaged.
When the last of the groups had successfully completed the course, Luna called a stop. "Thank you. You've all done very well," she said in a disconnected voice. "But now we have our true instructor." She turned around to where Harry was standing at the door. Everyone went quiet.
"I'm impressed," said Harry. "I hated to interrupt. Luna was correct. You are doing very well. Neville and Luna, you showed tremendous skill in deflecting and diminishing the magic that was aimed at you." He turned to the D.A. "Let's show them our appreciation for their training!"
The entire D.A. looked as one to Neville and Luna, and applauded. Neville went bright red. Luna seemed bemused and surprised at the outpouring of approval.
The applause died down and Harry took charge. He duplicated the apertures and placed teams on opposite sides of the field. He led them through pressured drills where they not only had to force their magic though the small holes, but they also had to protect themselves as well. Teachers were added to the mix. Some of them needed the practice, Harry noted.
After another hour, he called a halt. "You have all progressed dramatically. Your focus is improving by leaps and bounds. One last drill and we'll call it a night. He lined up D.A. members on each side of the field.
"This will be similar to a gauntlet," he explained. "You will have the chance to focus your magic as well as protect against focused magic. If you are not comfortable with your ability to defend, and I don't want you to feel bad about that, you may go sit in the stands. Tomorrow's class will be all about defence."
Several of the younger students, and to Harry's surprise, several teachers, retired to the stands. From among the remaining candidates, he selected three at random, and placed them at one end of the field.
"Your goal is to get safely from one end of the field to the other. When you've made it to the other end, you go on offense and another trio will replace you." Harry smiled at the look of confidence on the faces of the three he had chosen. They banded together and headed into the gauntlet. He noted with satisfaction that they hadn't even considered going it alone.
The remaining hour was intense as they went from defence to offense and back again in a never-ending dance.
Finally Harry blew his whistle. "Well done. I think you will all be a surprise to anyone who thinks to attack you. Professors, if you could help get us divided into houses and escorted back to common rooms, I'd be obliged."
As the class put away wands and compared notes with other members, Luna and Neville approached Harry.
"We've been talking," said Neville. "And we'd like to thank you, it was almost like you trusted us with the class," finished Luna.
"I couldn't have done better myself. Your idea of different sized ports was brilliant!' exclaimed Harry.
"Thanks,' said Neville. "It was all Luna's idea."
"I don't think so," countered Luna in a matter-of-fact voice. "I couldn't have done it without you."
They left as Ginny came bounding up to Harry. "That was great fun! Although there may be repercussions."
"What?" asked Harry with concern.
"Look," she said motioning to Neville and Luna. They were standing very close together. Ginny giggled.
"I see," said Harry, marveling at the turn of events.
Colin Creevey, who had been watching from the stands, made his way to Harry and touched him on the arm, interrupting his inward smile. "Dennis told me what happened, how you risked your neck for me. Thanks."
"No big deal," said Harry. "You'd have done the same for me."
"I might have tried. And with a bit more training from you," said Colin motioning to the practice floor, "I might have succeeded. Dennis said he told you about our little club and about my avocation. He said something about a trade of information?"
"Yes," said Harry. "I would like to trade what I know about masking magic for what you have learned about dried potions. I have encountered both as protective magic. One I defeated, the other I merely circumvented."
"When would you like to trade?" asked Colin.
"As soon as you're up to it. But preferably before term ends," said Harry.
"I should be flush by tomorrow. Madam Pomfrey's skill is impressive," said Colin.
"Indeed," agreed Harry. "When is your first free period tomorrow?"
Colin explained his schedule, a deal was struck, and he left with the group of Gryffindor students.
"Harry I've noticed something about the D.A.," said Ginny. "They don't stick to house loyalties like in Quidditch."
"I've noticed that too, and I think it bodes well for Hogwarts. Do you remember when the Sorting Hat bemoaned the task of sorting new students into different houses? It said that the divisions made us weaker. I'm beginning to understand that more fully." He took Ginny's hand. "Let's go check on Ron and Hermione, shall we?"
They closed the Room of Requirement and headed for the hospital wing, ever vigilant for danger. They found Ron, much as they had left him, Hermione still holding his hand.
"How's he doing?" asked Ginny.
"About the same," said Hermione. "Although he does talk in his sleep." She blushed furiously but didn't explain. "Have either of you ever heard of "unicorn jumpers"? Only it's something that he mutters over and over."
"Sounds like the punch line to a really painful joke," offered Ginny. "Something Fred and George would have come up with."
"I've no idea," said Harry. "I assume we'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens to unicorn jumpers, although I can guess."
Ginny snorted. Harry smiled at her. "Are you coming back to Gryffindor tower tonight, Hermione?"
"Madam Pomfrey said I could stay, but I'm going to have to be a bit practical. I'd get no rest here, and she's right, I'm doing Ronald no good. Just let me say goodnight."
Harry and Ginny moved a respectful distance from Ron's bed and tried not to watch as Hermione bent to kiss him. Her bushy hair brushed his face as she leaned over and Ron reacted immediately.
"Down the hair...unicorn jumpers...watch it flow...look puddles...tee, he, he..." Ron tapered off into unintelligible sounds.
"See what I mean," said Hermione. "He makes no sense."
"I can tell you," said Harry, "as one who has taken that potion, I'm surprised that he can make a sound, let alone sense. When I woke up after taking a full dose, I couldn't remember a thing."
"Tomorrow then," said Ginny, looking at her brother in concern.
They left the hospital wing and as soon as they were safely in the common room, Hermione turned on Harry. "No late night tonight. Ginny needs her rest. She has to be able to stay alert tomorrow night when she takes her practical Astronomy O.W.L at midnight. And you have an appointment with Winky. We all need our sleep tonight."
Harry was a bit nettled at not being allowed to spend time with Ginny, but he saw the wisdom in Hermione's reasoning. They said a reluctant good night and turned in for a much needed sleep.
Harry awoke early, as had become his custom. He felt a bit patchy even after a full night's rest. Sitting on the edge of his bed he considered his day...Winky, Colin, Lupin, D.A. practice... it didn't seem to him like he had been exempted from study. If anything, there seemed to be more demands of his time and attention.
"You've done it to yourself mate," he whispered to the darkened room. He dressed and took his pack to the common room. Not having a way to get into the girl's dormitory without setting off an alarm, and not having arranged a morning meeting time with Ginny; Harry sat down in a remote armchair to wait.
He carefully considered where he was in his search for Voldemort's Horcruxes, the discovery about the Greyback pups, and his upcoming tests and trials; abruptly he came to himself and realized with spreading dread, he had unintentionally entered into a Gemynd trance. The common room was empty. The sun poking its fingers through the windows told Harry he had been inside the mind-ordering spell for some time. He looked at his watch and groaned in dismay. He was five minutes past the time arranged to meet Winky. Silently excoriating himself for spells without words or wands, he rushed from the tower to the Room of Requirement.
He arrived sweating and out of breath, to find Winky waiting impatiently in the corridor. Dobby, looking dubious, was at her side.
"Harry Potter is late," snapped the diminutive elf as soon as she saw him.
"Sorry about that," said Harry. "I'm ready now. Thanks for waiting." He made the three circuits of the hall while focusing on a location to practice fighting the elf. The polished door appeared and the trio went inside.
Upon entering, Harry almost canceled the practice. As he had come to see that the room decided what would be necessary to meet the petitioner's request, he was startled to see a fully cushioned room, with padded walls and cabinets full of healer's potions.
"Uh, Winky, just how do you envision this practice?" asked Harry uneasily.
"Harry Potter is wanting to be able to counter all magic that might be aimed at him by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Winky is to help test Harry Potter's limits."
Harry found he could not argue with the reasoning, but he was disturbed by the look of fear in Dobby's eyes.
"Harry Potter may want to start out practice against Dobby," offered the elf, twisting his ears.
"Harry Potter is wanting to battle against Winky!" exclaimed Winky vehemently. "Dobby will watch," she commanded.
Dobby continued to wring his ears, but stepped to the side of the room.
"I think we should start..." Harry had intended to say, "slowly," but the final word never made air.
Harry was hit by a blast of magic from Winky that knocked him first into a wall and then pinned him against the ceiling. Winky released the magic and Harry plummeted toward the floor. He had barely enough time to use a momentum-arresting spell. He staggered sideways and was hit again by an unheard, unseen spell. He was surrounded by a force that seemed to press in upon him, squeezing the air from his lungs.
He silently performed a shield charm, but it had absolutely no effect. He called up the protective golden orb and the pressure was reduced to a degree that allowed him to breathe. Knowing that he couldn't use magic from within the orb, he prepared to remove it and go on the offense, when the floor disappeared. He felt like he was falling into a bottomless pit.
Risking a small magic inside the sphere, he re-established his footing, but was immediately chilled by his magic. He dissolved the golden orb and faced a wave of bright orange magic. As the crest of the magic folded over him, Harry screamed. Fiery knives sliced up and down his nerves. Colours, sounds, and smells mixed in his brain. Direction, gravity, and purpose disappeared. All that remained was agony. The walls and ceiling seemed to be falling apart. He tried to focus and Slytherin's grimorie added additional mental turmoil to the whirling chaos. He searched for the channel of focused magic he had used against Capricio, but pain denied that internal examination. His entire universe was pain. He wanted to cry out to Dobby, but he couldn't speak, couldn't see, couldn't hear. As he resolved himself to death, the pain was cut off as if by a switch.
Harry fell forward onto his face. Released from the torture, his senses returned dented and dimmed. He looked up from the floor, and through a red haze, he saw a most singular sight. Standing between him and Winky was Ron Weasley.
Ron was pulling the full force of Winky's magic to himself. The power focused on him made him glow. His clothing incandesced.
"No!" croaked Harry as he attempted to stand.
Ignoring Harry's plea, Ron bound Harry and forced him behind, keeping Harry and Winky on opposite sides. Hampered by the overwhelming magic, Ron staggered heavily sideways, finally bringing Harry up next to Dobby.
As Harry was dragged toward Dobby, he saw that the elf was surrounded by the same orange magic that Ron was absorbing.
Harry realized what Ron was about. He was going to intersect the magic aimed at Dobby too.
"No!" cried Harry weakly, absolutely sure that the combined streams would kill Ron.
Ron again disregarded Harry and made the final step that placed him directly in the path of Winky's terrible magic.
As the magic surrounded Ron, Dobby fell free and immediately attacked Winky.
"This is madness," thought Harry as he struggled to regain himself.
With Ron absorbing Winky's magic, Dobby had enough leave to turn the wave of magic back toward Winky, finally forcing her to drop the spell or risk it enveloping her.
"Winky will not harm Harry Potter any more!" said Dobby fiercely.
"Winky is a free elf. Winky is doing whatever she wants!" retorted the elf angrily. "Harry Potter had the chance to save both of my masters. Harry Potter was with Master Crouch at the edge of the forest, and Harry Potter left him there to be killed. Harry Potter was with Master Barty. Winky saw him. Harry Potter did not raise a finger to help Master Barty. Harry Potter is as much at fault as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Albus Dumbledore has paid, now Harry Potter must pay!"
"You will not harm Harry Potter!" exclaimed Dobby. He directed his own magic at Winky and she was knocked from her feet.
Winky stared at Dobby and then around the room, as if seeing them for the first time. With a loud pop she disappeared.
Ron collapsed on the floor. Harry dragged himself toward Ron, smearing a trail of blood streaming from his broken nose. Dobby did not relax. His eyes darted around the room as if he expected Winky to reappear.
Just as Harry made it to Ron, screams erupted from the doorway as Hermione and Ginny burst into the shambles of a room.
Ginny rushed to Harry's side. Hermione seemed torn between helping Harry or going to Ron. The decision was made for her by Dobby.
"Miss must not touch Master Wheezy. Master Wheezy must be rid of the power he has absorbed." Dobby pointed at Ron who still glowed with intense light. Heat radiated off him like a furnace. Hermione stuffed her knuckles in her mouth and backed away, crying silently.
The elf turned his attention to Ron. Shielded by his body, Dobby did something that caused an immediate diminishing of the radiating heat and light.
Ron moaned. Hermione screamed again. "He's alive. I can't believe it!" She sank to the floor next to Ron but did not touch him.
Harry tried to get up, but reeled drunkenly. Every motion was intense pain. With burgeoning awe, he saw that the granite floor around Ron had melted and fused into a sheet of shiny black glass.
Ron stirred. "Quite the maiden voyage for new magic," he said weakly.
Hermione reached out and took Ron's hand in hers. She immediately released it and shook a clear, slimy substance to the floor.
Harry looked at Ron more closely. Every inch of his exposed skin was covered with the same glutinous liquid.
"That was not how I wanted to show you what I discovered," said Ron with a hint of his old smile peeking through.
"Thanks mate," said Harry through his pain. "You saved my neck. What was that all about?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," said Ron. "When I was released from hospital this morning, I went to Gryffindor tower. I couldn't find Hermione or Ginny. I went looking for you, and you were gone too. I assumed you were all here practicing with Winky. When I arrived, I find you and Winky going hammer and tong." He took Hermione's hand. She did not let go.
"Winky woke me and Ginny early," choked Hermione. "She said you had changed where you wanted to practice. She led us to the top of the astronomy tower and disappeared. We got suspicious when you were late. We came here as quickly as we could. She broke her attention from Harry and looked at Ron. "Ronald, are you all right?"
"Seem to be. Thanks to Dobby," he said, smiling at the elf.
"Master Wheezy is too kind," said Dobby. "Master Wheezy is a great wizard. The magic Winky used is very powerful. We elves avoids it because it runs away with us. We lose control. It is dangerous magic."
"Ron, how did you manage to come out of that in one piece?" asked Ginny.
In answer, Ron turned out the cuff of his Weasley sweater. There, woven into the fabric, glinting brilliantly white, was an array of unicorn hair.
"I've been tinkering with the unicorn hair Harry gave me. I found a way to insert the hair into this jumper mum knitted for me. It conducts magic like a hosepipe flows water. I've been working on it for weeks."
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "The magic must have had an effect on you Ronald. Harry only gave you the hair two nights ago."
Sheepishly, Ron pulled a gold chain from beneath his robes.
"A Time-Turner! Where did you get a Time-Turner?" she demanded.
"I believe I picked it up by accident in the Department of Mysteries after the brains got to me. I don't really remember great chunks of that evening. After I got back to Hogwarts, I found it in my robe pocket. I decided to keep it with me, thought it might come in handy. After Harry told us about his time-turning, I decide to expand my time to work with the unicorn hair."
"That explains why you were exhausted," said Harry cottoning on. "It may also explain why Capricio felt you were hiding something. He's very sensitive."
"Sensitive like a volcano," opined Ron.
"Let's get the two of you to Madam Pomfrey," said Ginny.
"Not bloomin' likely!" exclaimed Ron. "I just barely got away from her. I'd have to be daft to go back this quick."
"We may not have to," said Harry motioning to the cabinets lining the walls. Although the doors were broken by magic blasts, their contents seemed to have been protected.
Ginny went over to the nearest cabinet. The bottles were carefully labeled with instructions detailing the use and dosage of each curative.
Hermione and Ginny fussed about and finally determined the best treatments for the boy's maladies. Each took the proffered teaspoonful of amber liquid. Harry stopped shivering. The muscles that had been rigid in Ron's arms and legs relaxed.
"That's better," said Harry as he cleaned his robes and repaired his broken nose. Finished, he stood rubbing his hands together for warmth. "But I still fell like I've been run over by a cart horse pulling ice blocks."
"Harry Potter and Master Wheezy are very powerful," said Dobby with his eyes downcast. "Dobby could not overcome Winky's magic. Dobby's weakness almost let his friends die!" The elf broke into wracking sobs and floods of tears.
"Dobby, you tried to warn me," said Harry reassuringly. "I was the one too thick to listen. It's just like Treylon Baskin said, I was lured by my pride and arrogance. I've known for some time that the greatest danger comes from within a group. I've seen evidence of the power of elf magic, and yet I tried to go it alone. I trusted Winky. My mistake, not yours."
"It seems to me that Winky orchestrated this entire morning," said Ginny. "If I didn't know better, I'd suspect she had something to do with Ron ending up in the hospital."
"That's not fair," protested Hermione. "As much as you might like to blame Winky, Ronald was suffering from the effects of the Time-Turner. Winky just capitalized on that fact. Even if he had been here with Harry, Winky's magic would have overpowered him without the unicorn hair."
"I can't believe you're standing up for someone who just tried to do in Harry, Ron, and Dobby!" said Ginny. Anger tinged her voice and her cheeks had flushed patchily.
"I don't blame Winky," said Harry simply.
Ginny's anger wilted as she looked at Harry.
"I mean it," said Harry. "I can associate, at least in part, how traumatic it was for Winky to lose her family. I've been there. She controls great magic. In her despondency the magic has overwhelmed her. She may still be salvageable."
"Harry Potter is kind," said Dobby. "But Winky is gone. Winky has left Hogwarts."
"How do you know that?" asked Harry.
"House elves can tell when other elves is about." The elf looked suddenly frightened, as if he had let slip a great secret. "Winky and Dobby have been friends for years and years. Dobby knows."
"Will you go look for her?" asked Hermione as she knelt to match Dobby's height.
"It would do no good Miss," said Dobby. "If a house elf does not want to be seen, does not want to be found; we is not seen, we is not found. Not even by each other."
"Well I guess that's that," said Harry flatly. He turned to the elf. "Dobby, I feel a little off colour right now. How about coming back here tomorrow morning and helping me learn to protect against your style of magic?"
"Dobby does not want to hurt Harry Potter," he said, wiping his nose on his shrunken Weasley sweater. "But if it will help Harry Potter, Dobby will come."
"Tomorrow morning at eight then?" verified Harry, "and stay away from the soup."
Dobby nodded sadly, smiled a bit, and disappeared with a pop.
Harry turned to Ron. "Your discovery is remarkable. I dread to consider what would have happened if you had not intervened. I thought I was dead."
Ron blushed but recovered quickly. "You've saved my skin enough times. I guess it was my turn."
"I can see where Ronald's technique could help anyone fighting the Death Eaters. We should probably keep this a closely guarded secret. It might turn the tide against Voldemort and his followers." She beamed at Ron, pride evident in her eyes.
"I agree," said Harry.
"There's a bit more," said Ron hesitantly. "I don't want to crow, but I've managed to find another secret passageway out of Hogwarts. You remember my unicorn hair magic indicator. Well I've been exploring the castle in my "spare" time and I've found several interesting things."
"Brilliant!" exclaimed Harry. "Let's sit down and rest while we share what we have learned."
"Not here Harry, it's ghastly," said Ginny.
"Is it even safe here?" asked Hermione.
"It's much safer now than it was a few minutes ago," said Ron, and even though he had not intended the remark to be funny, they all laughed.
As the mirth subsided, Harry took charge. "I know the Room of Requirement, as it manifests right now, is not a pleasant venue for conversation. But I have come to believe that what happens in here stays hidden from the outside world. Remember how I couldn't find Malfoy on the Marauder's Map when he was in here? As safe as Hogwarts is, I think the Room of Requirement adds a layer of additional screening. The only way I could be absolutely sure is to take apart the magic. I'm in no shape to do that now. So I propose that we be very careful of anything we say or do outside this room."
"Mate, if this is the safest palce in Hogwarts," said Ron massaging his stiff muscles, "I don't know if I want to face the unsafe outside world."
"I know what you mean," said Harry sympathetically to Ron. "Why don't you show us the entrance to the passage you discovered? We've a bit of time before classes."
Ron nodded and led Hermione by the hand from the Room of Requirement. He shepherded them down through the castle, finally stopping at the Trophy Room.
"It was a close thing," said Ron, in explanation. "There's all sorts of magic in here. It confused my pointer. I had to be very careful about how I shielded it to get any reading at all."
"What do you mean?" asked Harry with interest.
"I couldn't charm the gold like you did, so I folded it flat. It's thin enough to keep in my pocket." Ron removed a flat rectangle of metal from his robes. Working it carefully with his hands, he restored it to the shape of an open-sided box. He reached into another pocket and withdrew the unicorn hair pointer. He placed it inside the box and it immediately floated free, spinning pointlessly. "See what I mean? It can't decide what is most potent. But watch..."
Ron moved the opening very close to the hodge-podge of trophies and awards. At times the indicator continued to swing wildly, at others it held rock steady.
"I've discovered that when the pointer is within a hand's breadth of something and the pointer still swings, there's not enough magic to keep it focused. When it's close and holds still, the magic is fairly potent."
Ron took the "lantern" to a dusty stone slab languishing in a corner of the room. The needle pointed to the monument without so much as a quiver.
Ginny made her way to the fore and read the inscription...
"Dangerous" Dai Llewellyn
Ravenclaw Quidditch Captain 1760-1767
Highest Individual Single-Game Score
Ravenclaw vs. Slytherin November 1766
Highest Hogwarts Career Score
Only First-Year Student to Captain
A Hogwarts Quidditch Team
He took more dangerous risks than
Any chaser who ever tossed a quaffle
And smart too
Drafted by the Caerphilly Catapults
"Blimey, I'd have liked to see him play. Imagine, professional Quidditch as a fifth year," fantasized Ron. "Any way," he said breaking from his reverie, "this monument covers the opening of a tunnel that leads to a hidden trap door on the Quidditch field. Want to see?" Ron looked at the others expectantly.
"We'd love to but we haven't the time," said Hermione. "We've got to be getting to classes.
"Let's skive off and explore," tempted Ron.
"Not a chance," said Hermione. "I've already given up one class today. I'm not missing any more. Neither are you."
Harry smiled at the argument. He felt things were returning to normal until he noticed Ginny wasn't moving. "What's wrong?" he asked in concern.
In answer, Ginny pointed. Unobserved, the wispy unicorn hair pointer had escaped the box and was floating purposefully across the room. Harry sprang into action, and as quickly as his injured body would allow, chased down the woven hair. Almost as if it knew of the pursuit, the hair sped up.
In a fleet of thought, Harry calculated that the hair would not respond to magical summons. It would have to be captured by hand. He pushed through his pain, and with lightning-quick reflexes, he caught the hair just as it was about to collide with a handsome bronze shield.
"Impressive," said Ron, "but why the fuss?"
"I've learned by painful experience not to let unknown magics collide," said Harry. "Sometimes it can be catastrophic." He handed the unicorn hair pointer back to Ron. He was about to agree with Hermione that they should be going, when he noticed that Ron's face had gone deathly pale.
"What's wrong Ron?" he asked quickly.
"I know that shield," he said pointing a shaking finger. "I polished it enough times. That's Tom Riddle's Award for Special Services to the School!"
"Don't touch it!" commanded Harry immediately. Instinctively, they all took a step away.
The others seemed to hold their breath as Harry examined the award. He looked at it from many angles and with all the devices at his disposal. Finally, disregarding his own warning, he picked it up. He turned it over in his hands and examined the back. Again nothing. He cast around the Trophy Room and finally found what he was looking for.
"Ron would you please bring me our Awards for Special Services to the School?" asked Harry indicating two identical bronze shields.
While Ron retrieved the awards, Harry conjured a set of fine brass scales. He took the offered awards from Ron and placed one on each side of the scale balance. The needle settled to zero. Harry took his shield off the scale and replaced it with Riddle's. Riddle's award sunk to the bottom stop and remained there.
"That doesn't prove anything beyond doubt," interjected Hermione. "The metal may be a different alloy or thickness."
Harry took his shield and added it to the cup holding Ron's shield. The balance pointer didn't move. He rummaged though his pockets and withdrew a handful of coins. He added one, two, three, four fat gold galleons before the scale even quivered.
"That's just not on," said Ron. "It can't weigh more than twice as much. They're exactly the same size and same design. The awards makers aren't very creative though, are they?"
"It's not about design," said Ginny with alarm in her voice. "It's about concealed magic. What are you thinking Harry?"
"I haven't told you," said Harry, "but Tom Riddle came back to Hogwarts to ask for a job after he graduated. A job that Dumbledore said Riddle knew he would be refused. I've always wondered why Riddle bothered. He knew Dumbledore's feelings about the Dark Arts. The only reason I could ever come up with was that Riddle was adding justification to his pile of reasons for hating Dumbledore."
Harry paced across the room. As he returned he kept his eyes on the unbalanced scale. "What if it was a ruse? Riddle couldn't have broken in to the castle by force. What if the interview was simply a ploy to get back inside Hogwarts? I saw the meeting in Dumbledore's Pensieve. Riddle came to Dumbledore's office unescorted. Who's to say he didn't stop off somewhere in the castle on his way to the office!"
Harry broke his gaze from the scales and resumed his pacing. "When I first met Hagrid, he took me to Gringotts Bank. He said Gringotts was the safest place in the world for anything you want to keep safe...except for Hogwarts. Hagrid thought Hogwarts was safer than Gringotts. What if he was right?"
Harry's pacing sped up in his excitement. "Riddle hid one of his Horcruxes here in the form of the basilisk. It was in the Chamber of Secrets and completely secure from the outside world. He intended another of his Horcruxes to come back to Hogwarts in the form of his diary."
Ginny shuddered at the mention of Riddle's diary. Harry stopped pacing long enough to give her a reassuring hug.
"A Horcrux would have to be placed in a location that is either very magically protected, is very secure, or where it would never be discarded," reasoned Harry.
"Everything gets thrown away eventually," countered Hermione. "Strong magic can be detected, and no place is completely secure. A remote location looks like the best bet to me."
Harry put his hand on Dai Llewellyn's award. "This is over two hundred years old. Some of these other awards date back almost a thousand years. I'd be willing to bet they never get thrown away."
"What are you trying to say?" asked Ron.
"I'm not entirely positive yet," said Harry, "but we may have just discovered one of Tom Riddle's Horcruxes."
"All the sudden, getting to class on time doesn't seem that important," said Ginny in a small voice as she looked at the brass scale.
"What should we do?" asked Hermione.
"Until I find out how to destroy a Horcrux, we need to hide this shield. Riddle may come looking for it. As I see it, the most secure places in Hogwarts are the Chamber of Secrets, the Room of Requirement, and the Head's office. I'm comfortable with the Chamber of Secrets, but Voldemort could get in there, the same could be said for the Room of Requirement. I feel less secure in the Head's office because of the portraits and the come-and-go traffic; but I believe Voldemort would have to dismantle the tower to force access. When I balance out my concerns, it appears that hiding this shield in the Headmistress' office is the better choice."
"We'll come with you Harry," said Hermione.
"No," countered Harry. "Ron and I will drop you off at your classes. Ginny needs to focus on something other than Riddle. Hermione, I know you don't want to miss Lupin's classes, even if you already know everything about Astronomy. We'll go straight to McGonagall's office and drop off the shield. Then we will come back for the remainder of the class."
"All right," said Hermione tentatively. "But why Ronald, and not Ginny or me?"
"Unicorn jumpers!" said Harry with relish. "Now that I know what happens to unicorn jumpers, I don't want to be without one nearby."
Hermione smiled and Ron shrugged. Ginny laughed.
Harry replaced both his and Ron's awards, and carefully slipped Riddle's shield into his pocket, he then conjured a duplicate and placed it in the dust-shadow left by the original.
Ginny and Hermione conferred while Harry made his preparations, and finally agreed to the plan. The four made their way through the castle and the girls were dropped off at their respective classrooms. Ron and Harry headed immediately for the seventh floor tower office.
They traveled much more cautiously than they would have ever admitted to the girls. The enormity of what they carried seemed to fill them with caution's speed. When they had passed the gargoyle, Ron breathed easy. When they were in the Headmistress' office, Harry finally relaxed.
Harry looked up to Dumbledore's portrait, but it was empty. He went to DePais' hidden closet and carefully placed the shield on a shelf, covering it with new canvasses.
"What is Potter up to now?" asked a sly voice.
Ron nearly jumped out of his skin. Nigellus laughed.
"At least you have decided to come at a respectable hour," said Nigellus scathingly.
Not wanting to waste a moment, Harry turned to Nigellus' portrait. "Headmaster Black, what can you tell me of the process to eradicate a Horcrux?"
"Well, well," said Nigellus sneeringly. "You seemed very willing to dismiss my advice regarding fledged masking magic. What makes you think I'm willing to share anything about the destruction of Horcruxes with you? Of course, that is assuming I know anything about such dark matters."
The other portraits raised a din. "You have been present, along with the rest of us," scolded the wizard called Everard, "when this very matter has been discussed. You know very well how to answer the boy's question."
"You have been present as well," said Nigellus snidely. "Why don't you enlighten him?"
"You know full well our limitations," responded Dilys. "Yours is a superior position to offer help. It is your obligation."
"I know my duty," snapped Nigellus. "I also know I can discharge that duty as I see fit." He turned to Harry and Ron. "I will tell you Potter...but in my own time. Now if your business is finished here, you should leave."
Harry saw he was going to get nowhere with Nigellus, so he gathered Ron and left the office. Harry paused in the hallway just past the gargoyle.
"To Lupin's class?" asked Ron questioningly.
"That depends on how you feel," said Harry shiftily.
"What have you got on your mind?" asked Ron in an equally shifty voice.
"You know how fierce Hermione is against using the Time-Turner, I was wondering if you have recovered enough from your stint in time and from Winky's drubbing to take a little trip or two?"
"To when exactly?" asked Ron, his interest building.
"I've actually been toying with three separate forays. One would be fairly quick. The other two may take a bit longer."
Harry explained what he had in mind and Ron whistled.
"Ambitious, I'd say," responded Ron to Harry's plan. "Let's start with the short trip and see how we feel afterward. We have plenty of time after all. No need to push it past reason."
"You're one to talk about pushing past reason," jibed Harry.
Ron's ears went pink. "I still say let's go."
"Excellent," said Harry. "Your Time-Turner or mine?"
"You've the most experience. Let's use yours," said Ron.
Harry removed his Time-Turner and looked at his pocket watch. It verified several "time" versions outstanding.
"What's the watch for?" asked Ron.
"I indicates how many time planes this Time-Turner is in. It helps me keep track of when I am."
"I don't have one of those," said Ron dejectedly. "I kept track on bits of parchment. It became a chore to remember "when" I was supposed to be. I gained a new respect for Hermione. She used a Time-Turner for an entire school year. Mind you, she did get a little out of sorts from time to time."
"Yes she did, but this will be quick," assured Harry. "Mostly it'll be just observation."
"Remember who you're talking to," said Ron with a smile. "It's hardy ever just observation with you."
Harry grinned. "We'll try and stay on task. Ready?"
Ron nodded and they were gone.
When the disconcerting feeling of time travel had subsided, Harry pulled two invisibility cloaks from his pack. "You're too tall for us to use the same cloak and walk comfortably. We're going out on the grounds and we can't be seen. I've found that Dumbledore's glasses can see through invisibility cloaks. We're going to be watching him, so we have to stay well concealed. I know it's hard to watch someone who is on a path to death, but we cannot interfere. Do you understand?"
Ron agreed hesitantly with a nod of his head.
We'll layer two magics. Hold still." Harry disillusioned Ron and himself. "Now use the cloak."
"How am I supposed to follow you when I can't see you?" asked Ron in dismay.
"Keep your hand on my shoulder," said Harry. "We won't go very far or very fast."
They left the castle silently and walked to the edge of the forbidden forest.
"We're not going in there, are we?" asked Ron in a desperate whisper.
"No, but I don't know exactly where we are going. If I've got the date right, Dumbledore and Snape will be meeting somewhere near here shortly. Hagrid told me about an argument between Dumbledore and Snape. I need to hear it."
Ron nodded but it did no good. Harry couldn't see him.
"We'll hide behind these trees and wait. It shouldn't be long."
It wasn't long. Soon, Snape came striding across the darkening lawn, his cape billowing behind. He walked into the trees about twenty feet from where Ron and Harry stood hidden. Within minutes Dumbledore had joined him. Ron and Harry listened intently.
"Why the secrecy Headmaster?" asked Snape.
"I believe there is a spy in the castle Severus," said Dumbledore mildly.
"Then why not meet in your office? Surely that is secure!"
Dumbledore ignored the rude tone Snape had used. "I even fear for security in my own office. But that is another matter. What I want to discuss is Draco Malfoy. Have you gotten the information regarding his assignment from Voldemort?"
"One does not just walk up to the Dark Lord and casually ask what he has tasked Draco to do. Compounding that problem, the Malfoys have been particularly closed-mouthed ever since the Dark Lord forced the story of the diary and the Chamber of Secrets from Lucius. The Dark Lord's wrath was tremendous upon discovering his diary destroyed. And I have the additional concern of the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy."
"It was unwise to enter into such a vow. I counseled you concerning such a situation. Entering into two Unbreakable Vows puts you in an extremely tenuous position. By fulfilling one, you may inadvertently violate the second. I..."
"You could release me from one of those vows," interrupted Snape.
"This I will not do. You agreed to the vow as a term of your avoidance of an Azkaban sentence. You were not forced," said Dumbledore.
"You may not have forced me in the conventional sense of the word, but it amounts to the same! I have given you much valuable information. I have put my life at risk. You ask too much. Release me!" Snape's words had grown in pitch until they were a shout.
A sound nearby made Harry's heart freeze. Something moving in the forest behind him had come to a halt when it snapped a tree branch at the exact moment of Snape's crescendo. He broke his attention away from Snape and Dumbledore and scanned the dark shadows. Ten feet away, holding a crossbow, was Hagrid. Harry relaxed a measure. He knew Hagrid couldn't see through the invisibility cloaks, and he remembered Hagrid saying he tried not to listen to the heated conversation. Harry turned his attention back to Dumbledore.
"The vow will not be rescinded. You will continue the attempt to acquire information about Draco's task. The only way I can protect all concerned, is to understand the undercurrent of what is unfolding."
"I can gain the information more easily if you release the vow," prodded Snape.
"The vow will not be rescinded Severus, for your sake as well as for mine." Dumbledore's words were not shouted, but the repetition carried the force of a whip.
"Very well! You leave me no choice!" spat Snape. He turned on his heel and stalked back toward the castle.
Dumbledore watched Snape leave, but instead of following, he gathered his cloak and strode into the forbidding trees.
Ron and Harry remained hidden. After several minutes, Hagrid seemed to think it was safe to move and headed off in the direction of his cabin.
Harry grabbed Ron by the sleeve and they walked up the lawn to the castle. Neither said anything until they were safely inside the front doors.
"Blimey! That was a waste of time," said Ron as he shook off the cloak.
"Not really," said Harry as he removed their disillusionment charms. "We know that Snape made two Unbreakable Vows. I just wish I knew what they encompassed."
When Ron did not voice opposition, Harry looked at him closely. He looked exhausted again.
"We're done here," said Harry. He conjured an apple apiece and time-turned them back to just after they left McGonagall's office.
"We'll go to Astronomy class. With the full moon near, Lupin will probably lecture rather than do anything extraordinarily physical. We can rest a bit during the class."
Ron mumbled agreement and ate his apple as they went to Lupin's classroom. Harry was pleased to see that they were only minutes late. He gave a hasty apology as they entered. Lupin motioned them to their desks and continued his lecture on planetary arrangements, focusing mainly on the gravitational anomalies encountered during syzygy. Harry listened closely, trying to glean tidbits that might add to his arsenal. He noticed however, that Ron had gone to sleep and was silently drooling on his textbook. Even Hermione seemed to be fighting a battle with drowsiness.
When the class ended, Lupin held Harry back. "Will I see you back here at two o'clock as we had scheduled?"
"Absolutely! Why do you ask?" questioned Harry.
"Ron's demeanor, and a similar exhibition earlier by Ginny, makes it appear you are working yourselves a bit hard. Practice can be postponed if you wish," explained Lupin.
"No. I'll be there," said Harry. "Remember what I said about finding a way to push me. Voldemort won't be kind, gentle, or patient. And I have a feeling time is running out. I need to be ready."
"Very well," said Lupin. "I do have an idea for our training. But right now you need to see to Ron and Hermione." Lupin motioned over Harry's shoulder to where Hermione was supporting Ron in a heavy lean.
"I see what you mean," said Harry. "I'll take care of it."
In halting fits, Harry helped his friends to the Great Hall for a meal. They were joined by Ginny and a host of other students coming in from classes.
"What's Ron about?" asked Ginny, covering a huge yawn.
Instead of eating everything within reach, Ron had pushed dishes and platters away and had fallen asleep with his head on his arms. Harry reached across the table and poked Ron in the head.
"What was that for?" asked Ron groggily.
"You need to eat," said Harry. "You've got a free period after lunch. Eat and we'll get you to the common room to rest. Ginny, the same goes for you," he said seeing her eyelids drooping.
"Harry, look," said Hermione. She motioned to the surrounding tables.
Harry saw immediately what she meant. The dinning tables, usually segregated by house colors, were variegated assortments, the students mixing freely across house lines.
"What's gotten into people?" asked Hermione.
"I'm not entirely sure," said Harry, "but most of the remaining students are D.A. members. They have been forced to build trust each other. In the D.A. they don't get the opportunity to separate into houses. They are building new friendships."
"The dawn...dawning of a new age," said Ginny and she yawned widely.
The contagion of yawn spread around the table. Harry found himself fighting his own desire to stretch and gape. He put down the urge and forced Ron and Ginny to eat. Full stomachs added to their lethargy. With much coaxing and prodding, Harry and Hermione finally got Ron and Ginny upstairs and into chairs in the Gryffindor common room. As soon as they were seated, they were asleep.
"Hermione, I have an appointment with Colin Creevey. I'm supposed to pick him up in the Great Hall. We will be practicing in the unused room just off the dungeon stairs in the entrance hall. I need someone to wake these two," and he motioned to Ron and Ginny, "and see to it they make it to their next class."
"I would rather go with you, but I'll do it," said Hermione. "Don't forget you promised to teach Ginny how to block troubling dreams from her mind. She confided in me that she is still has trouble sleeping. She needs some uninterrupted rest."
"The promise completely slipped my mind," said Harry apologetically. "Tonight in the common room. Help me remember."
"I will," said Hermione, once again her business-like self. "You'd better get to it."
Harry grabbed up his worn pack, smiled at Hermione, and made for his rendezvous with Colin.
He found Colin in the Great Hall waiting patiently with a group of fifth year students.
"Harry, this is the Galimatias Gemeinschaft," said Colin. "We formed the "G2" because we wanted to push some of the concepts we were being taught here, specifically potions. Each member of our society has specialized in a different area of potion making...brewed, distilled, tinctured, dried, antidotes, poisons, and gaseous mixtures. We would, of course, be honored to have you join our group."
Harry shook hands around the circle. "I'd be delighted to join, but time this school year is short. We'll have to see what the future brings. However, I would like to meet with Colin for a while. You're all welcome to come if it doesn't interfere with your classes. I figure about an hour for our initial meeting. We'll plan more meetings as time permits."
Schedules were compared and it was discovered that only three other individuals had the period free. They all committed to come along. Bidding goodbye to their G2 friends, they left the Great Hall and followed behind Harry.
Within a minute they were seated in the room Firenze used as a Divination classroom. Colin asked the first question. "Dennis said you defeated the magic surrounding our failed attempt to brew Felix Felicis. Please show us what you did. We had tried for ages and the magic just seemed to get stronger."
"It would have," explained Harry. "Hermione asked Professor Slughorn about what he meant when he said Felix was "disastrous to get wrong." Felix casts a magical aura around the user, an aura of invincibility and infinite possibility. If it's brewed incorrectly, that aura stays around the potion and becomes stronger by the day. Ultimately, it becomes infinitely invincible of its own accord."
"All good to know now," said Colin, "but what did you do to defeat it. It nearly killed me."
"I didn't defeat it," said Harry. "It's still there. All I did was distort it long enough to extract you. If it's left for much longer, it will permanently seal the passageway."
"Can you show us how?" asked Dennis.
"It comes down to focus. It's very much like what we practiced last night with the D.A."
Harry raised his wand and created a small magnetic bottle. He tinged it crimson so it could be readily seen.
"This magic," explained Harry, "is very similar to what you encountered, except it is not self protective."
He showed them how, by focus and delicate balancing of forces, a tiny hole could be opened. Each tried the intricate magic but only Colin succeeded in forcing a breach.
"Excellent for a first try," said Harry encouragingly. He taught them how to produce and dismantle the magnetic bottle. Only one protege lost a wand to the attractive force of the spell.
As soon as the wand was recovered, Colin called a halt to the practice. "You said you wanted to learn about dried potions. It's only fair to give you half of our time." Colin conjured a table and started taking a variety of packages out of his pockets. Harry was astonished at the quantity he removed. Seeing his surprised look, Colin explained, "Enlargement charm on my pockets. It keeps the teachers from asking too many questions." Harry smiled.
Colin told what they had learned about mixing potions in powder form. "The first thing we tried was making the potion and evaporating the liquid. That worked to an extent. It wasn't until we figured out how to extract the actual active ingredients in the potions that we began to have real success. We found that liquids served mainly to dissolve the potents from their constituents. When we found the active elements, we extracted them and mixed the potions dry."
"How do you administer a dry potion?" asked Harry.
"Ah, now that's an excellent question, and I'm afraid it's a bit of a wrench to tell you, but you did save my life... You remember that I'm Muggle born? Well my uncle is a large animal veterinarian."
"It doesn't mean he's a large animal," injected Dennis. "It means he takes care of large animals. Sort of a Muggle animal healer."
"Yes, exactly," said Colin. "Two summers ago when we were on holiday, I was helping him sort out a horse. It had strained a ligament in its leg during a foxhunt. My uncle started to rub in a liniment and the horse acted better immediately. It looked like magic to me. I actually thought for a few minutes that he had been holding out on us, that he might be a wizard. I asked him how it could help to rub the liniment on the outside of the horse's leg. He told me of several substances that absorb directly through the skin. Some start out liquid, but retain the ability to penetrate the skin even after they are dry. I saw immediate application for our G2 study. Most are chemicals of Muggle manufacture, but I found two natural substances that fit the bill."
He pointed to two small decanters full of powder. "One comes from the skin of a very specific toad, the other from the venom of a spitting cobra. Within the toad's slime and the cobra's venom, were very subtle solvents that allowed anything dissolved in them to pass through the skin. I learned to be very careful. Even a few flecks on the skin, and whatever had been dissolved in them was inside me. I had more than a few visits to the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey said I was "thin skinned," she never knew how close she was to being right."
"Do you have any potions mixed right now?" inquired Harry.
"Only one," said Colin. "We had intended to use it on that braggart Cormac McLaggen. We sorted out one of Fred and George's Canary Creams and found what makes them work, we added our solvent and viola." He pointed to a silver saltcellar.
"Is it safe?" asked Harry.
"I've tried it my self,' said Colin proudly. "It works faster than the Weasley version and it infuses into the blood so thoroughly that it takes about an hour to molt."
"Brilliant," said Harry. "May I?" he asked motioning to the saltcellar.
"Be my guest, but be careful unless you want to walk about the castle looking like a half-plucked bird." The G2 members laughed.
Harry levitated the silver container and surrounded it with a protective bottle. Calling up the magnetic spell, he focused it on the floating container. Dried potion streamed from the perforations in the cellar. They floated and formed a halo around the inside of the orb. Harry smiled. He refocused the magnetic energy and forced the powder back into its container before he removed the encasing spell.
"Wow!" said Dennis. "I've got to practice that!"
"It looks like we all have something to practice," said Harry. "G2 should be proud of what they have accomplished."
"You've only had a taster of what we've discovered. If we don't have time between now and the end of term, maybe we could meet during holiday and swap information," offered Colin hopefully.
"I can't make that promise yet," said Harry. "My holiday may be very busy."
"If you do find the time, use the D.A. galleon and we'll be there," said Colin. The others nodded their heads in agreement.
The school clock boomed out its beckon to class.
"We've got to go!" said Colin as he gathered up his assortment of potions. "Lots to learn!"
They left the classroom saying hasty goodbyes and were swept up by teachers ushering students to class.