Chapter One: Dealing with Death
Hermione was holding Harry's hand as they stood in a cool September mist along the grounds of Hogwarts with several hundred other witches and wizards. Though he was not Headmaster of Hogwarts at his time of death, the Ministry decided to honor Dumbledore's last request and have his body laid to rest in the grounds of Hogwarts overlooking the Black Lake.
Hermione could not help but reflect back upon the previous day's memorial that had honored the lives of two brave and deserving people, Frank and Alice Longbottom. The Wizarding world had all but forgotten the two souls that lived in St Mungo's for over the last decade. Their death was barely mentioned in The Prophet; a tiny footnote on the second page. The memorial turnout was nothing more than a small affair. If they had died at the hand of Bellatrix Lestrange all those years ago, their funeral would have marked a day of mourning for the loss of two great Aurors and the future Heads of the Longbottom Family.
A horn sounded in the distance and slowly, all those in attendance for Dumbledore's funeral were seated in rows of white chairs that were divided into two sections. As Hermione and Harry were seated, she got her first glance of the white tomb in which Dumbledore would be laid to rest. Bile rose in her throat at the thought of the former Headmaster being honored in such a way. In her eyes, he deserved none of this. Onlookers would interpret their facial expressions as those of grief, though she and Harry were far from it. She knew that Harry was filled with mixed emotions; however, she could only feel one thing—disgust.
The ceremony, of sorts, proceeded with all the grandeur that one would have expected from the passing of a great influential figure. Once his body was laid to rest in the white tomb by an Honor Guard, Hogwarts Governors and Ministry officials took turns lamenting the life of the departed Professor Dumbledore. As they did so, Hermione replayed in her mind the last moments of Professor Dumbledore's life; the things he chose to tell her – no, admit to her. He had chosen his last words none too carefully though, as he had expected her to accept what he had done for the "Greater Good".
The rest of the day ended in a blur for Hermione. She barely registered anything that anyone said or did around her until they arrived back at Grimmauld Place that evening.
"Survival is what I would call it," Harry said, leading Hermione into the sitting room by the hand.
Hermione knew that he was answering someone, but it wasn't until that moment that she realized that nearly the whole of the Alliance was gathered around them, filling the room to nearly an uncomfortable level.
"We know that Professor Dumbledore had made some bad choices Harry, but his death does present a problem," Neville interjected, an icy chill to his tone.
"How can you be so cold about Professor Dumbledore's death?"
"He has placed us all in this position, Angelina," Harry replied. "He knew where Hermione's parents were the entire time. He could have rescued them at any point. Instead, he forced us to act. In doing so, he opened himself up to a vulnerability that he did not see coming."
"Voldemort blackmailed my mum into attacking Dumbledore at the Ministry, Angelina," Ron added. "The bloody bastard wouldn't have had the chance to if Dumbledore had gone on the offensive the moment they kidnapped Ginny from the Ministry."
Sirius sighed, standing next to the fireplace. "We all agree that Dumbledore made some terrible choices. Now, he's dead—and there's nothing we can do about that."
"Or would want to."
Sirius gave Harry a hard stare but said nothing. Hermione knew that Sirius was concerned if Harry took too hard of a line against the memories of Dumbledore, he risked dividing the Alliance. Sirius had been preaching to Harry the need to strengthen the Alliance and gain the trust of the Order.
"So … what's next?" Ron asked, leaning against the back of one of the sofas.
"Next, the Ministry expects all students to return to Hogwarts on Halloween," Arthur replied as he entered the room. "The School Governors have been most persistent about it in meetings over the last few days."
"Why should we?" Neville asked, playing with one of the trinkets on the mantle. "Are we expected to just go back to school like good little children while the adults handle it?"
"That's exactly what they expect." said Bill, sitting next to Fleur. "Word from the inside is that while Madam Bones is attempting to focus Magical Britain's resources to the fight against Voldemort, she is being undermined from within. Several Wizengamot chairs are using their influence to underplay Voldemort's return."
"At first, I was against the idea of going back to Hogwarts as well." Harry now stood in the midst of the group, Hermione directly at his side. "Now that we've had several days to reflect, Hermione and I agree that it's the best option we have. I request that you all do the same."
Neville frowned, folding his arms. "Why?"
"It will serve as our base of operations." Hermione finally found her voice for the first time that evening. "It will provide us with a stronghold and a cover. We have ways to leave and return to the castle completely unnoticed."
"I still don't like this," Hermione's mum interjected, voicing her opinion from the far side of the room.
Hermione's dad placed a hand on her knee. "Dear, we've been over this. They can either fight or wait to be killed."
Hermione's heart ached to hear her mother worry so and see the anguish on her face.
"They won't be fighting alone," Sirius said firmly. "We will be with them all the way."
"Agreed." Hermione turned to see Professor McGonagall and Mrs. Longbottom entering through the doorway. "While the school defenses are being strengthened, there will also be a multitude of adult witches and wizards assisting our young Alliance—both inside and outside of the school."
Cassie walked over, taking Sirius by the hand. "Speaking of Hogwarts, what will become of Severus Snape?"
Hermione's blood ran cold again at the thought of Snape visiting her mum and dad while in captivity, offering them words of hollow comfort. Her face contorted in disgust, as though she had tasted something sour.
"The School Governors will be evaluating his post while the DMLE investigates whether there is enough evidence to arrest him," Professor McGonagall replied.
Harry squeezed the bridge of his nose with his fingers and Hermione knew that it was to prevent himself from shouting.
"Not to worry, Mr. Potter," Mrs. Longbottom added, spying Harry's reaction. "The School Governors will not be granting Severus Snape his return to Hogwarts on the thirty-first of October."
"How do you know?"
Mrs. Longbottom smiled for the first time in several days. "I know, Mr. Potter, because I have replaced Lucius Malfoy as a Hogwarts Governor."
"Brilliant!" Ron shouted, punching the air.
Harry clapped, "Congratulations."
"Thank you, Mr. Potter. And while it may be brilliant, as young Mr. Weasley puts it, we have several posts at Hogwarts that must now be filled."
Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. "Speaking of which, I'm hoping to fill Umbridge's post of Defense Against the Dark Arts and my old post today."
"Do we know these potential professors?" Harry asked.
"Absolutely. My niece and your godfather," Professor McGonagall replied, turning her gaze to Sirius and Cassie.
The whole of the room turned to stare at the dumbstruck couple in front of the fireplace. Hermione thought the idea was excellent, but she wondered if Sirius would consider based upon his facial expressions.
"Minerva, I don't know what to say …"
"I think we need time to think about it."
Professor McGonagall smiled. "Of course. Take your time. November will be here before you know it."
Hermione thought she heard Sirius growl before Cassie subtly yanked his arm.
"Not to be a spoil sport, but we need to discuss what to do about Charlie, Tonks and Ginny."
Sirius cleared his throat, coughing slightly. "Before we get to that, Bill, we need to eat something before some of us fall over from starvation. I've invited the Order over, minus Snape of course, to join us."
"I'm not so certain that is a good idea, Sirius. With Snape still at large and Dumbledore gone, we take a huge risk meeting."
"I agree, Arthur. That is why we will be taking this meeting elsewhere."
Sirius walked across the sitting room to fetch a small box from a shelf before returning to the fireplace. He grabbed a handful of floo powder and tossed it into the grate; the fire now glowing a bright green.
Mrs. Longbottom looked concerned. "Where are we going?"
"You'll find out," Sirius smirked. "I'll hand each of you a piece of paper. Read it, then step into the fireplace and repeat the last line."
Hermione's brow furrowed as she contemplated what the old Marauder was up to. She even saw the Weasley twins, who had been quiet and somber the entire time, perk up. One by one, they stepped forward and took a piece of paper from Sirius to activate the obvious Fidelius charm. She opened her paper and smirked as she read it.
Lord Sirius Black, king of the Marauders, humbly grants you access to:
Lord Black's Palace
Hermione knew that Sirius was trying to lighten the mood of the day, though for her this was an impossible task. It did seem to help others, as she heard Ron and the Weasley twins snort as they shouted, "Lord Black's Palace!"
Harry looked about in awe as he stepped out of the grate into a massive foyer, complete with chandelier and fountain. Hermione stepped out behind him, having to push him aside to keep from tripping.
"Did you know about this?" Hermione asked, looking around.
Harry shook his head, taking in the massive manor house. "No more than you."
"Greetings, Master Harry! Mistress Hermione!" Dobby greeted, bouncing up and down as he greeted them.
"Dobby, where are we?"
"Master Sirius' palace! Dobby has been helping Kreacher prepare the palace for Master's arrival!"
"The upstairs is as big as the down!" Ron shouted from above.
Harry looked up to the top of the grand staircase that sat at the far of the foyer to see Ron gawking from the banister.
"Ron! Show some dignity!"
"No worries, Arthur," Cassie chuckled, appearing behind them. "Sirius slid down the banister at least three times before he fell off and busted his—"
"Pride," Sirius interjected, stepping out of the fireplace.
"When and how did you find this place?" Harry asked, looking at his godfather in disbelief.
"Well … let's see, I suppose that you thought I sat and waited anxiously at home for my godson to need me. Reality is that I've had some catching up to do since being exonerated."
"Very nice manor house you have here, Sirius," Mrs. Longbottom said, looking around. "Somewhere in Scotland, I believe?"
"Correct, Aug. Not much larger than yours, but more than enough to suit me. It took me regaining my Lordship to regain possession of it. My father purchased this place as a way to elevate the family's stature, but my mother would never live here due to the fact that it was originally built by foreigners."
"Yes, your mother was a bit—narrow."
"Narrow? She was prejudice as hell."
"Glad you were able to regain ownership," Mrs. Longbottom said, ignoring Sirius' last statement. "Now, I presume that all the necessary protections are in place."
"Absolutely. Now, the others are waiting in the formal dining area and Kreacher has been slaving away to prepare a grand meal."
Sirius extended his elbow to Mrs. Longbottom, who bowed her head before accepting his arm.
"Never paid attention to high society goings, my arse," Cassie huffed, rolling her eyes as she followed Sirius down a hallway next to the grand staircase.
Harry was suddenly seized by a desire to explore the entire house but fought the urge as he knew that he'd have plenty of time to do so later. His concern at that time wasn't all the comings and goings as he followed Cassie into an indeed formal dining area that was a fourth the size of the Great Hall. He wasn't even bothered by seeing members of the Alliance and the Order gathered together only weeks after they all nearly died. What concerned him was the fact that Hermione had been acting very different.
Harry had noticed that ever since Dumbledore's death, Hermione had changed. She wasn't scared or nervous—she was cold. It wasn't that she wasn't affectionate or caring. Every night since the Battle at the Ministry, she had snuck into his room and snuggled with him as they went to sleep. It was since Dumbledore's death that she had gripped on to him as though he was her lifeline and pushed everyone else except for her parents away. It was disturbing for him to see her so insecure and so cold to people that she cared about.
Harry jumped as Hermione's voice stirred him from his own thoughts. He looked around to see everyone around the table staring at him. Truthfully, he couldn't even remember sitting down.
"I proposed a toast," Sirius said, looking at his godson with a pensive stare.
Harry then realized that everyone else was holding a goblet in their right hand. He immediately picked up his goblet and waited.
Sirius continued, "A toast then, to Dumbledore and to Frank and Alice Longbottom. May they never be forgotten for the good things they did."
"And may their deaths be avenged," Lupin added.
"Here, here," the group chimed, before taking drinks from their goblets. Harry noticed that Hermione's hand shook as she sipped her pumpkin juice.
The meal that Kreacher and Dobby prepared was delicious with everything from roasted ham to plum pudding. Harry truly thought that the Hogwarts house-elves would be envious. As expected, good food leads to better spirits, and better spirits lead to casual conversation. Before long the table was filled with mixed conversations ranging from Muggle medicine to Quidditch. There was little talk of Voldemort or danger, and Harry knew that there would be plenty of time to discuss that later.
"Now that we've all been fed, watered and sweetened, we can settle into discussing the harder topics."
Sirius fetched a bottle of fire whiskey and popped the cork.
Moody's normal eye followed the bottle while his magical eye spun about scanning the room. "And drink."
"We're still going to have a meeting tonight?" Ron asked, eying the clock that read, a quarter till ten.
"I believed that it was best to wait and discuss Alliance or Order business after the meal was finished. I invited everyone here tonight as a way to lift our spirits and celebrate life as is our custom after death."
"Why not invite the other Alliance members and their families as well?"
"Some topics that we will be discussing tonight won't be appreciated by certain families of the younger Alliance members, Ms. Johnson."
"Like Seamus' mum," Neville added.
"Unfortunately, yes," Professor McGonagall agreed.
Mr. Granger stood up. "We'll just retire back to Grimmauld Place then. We don't want to interfere—"
"Nonsense, Eugene. I believe that you two have every right to be here."
"I agree with Sirius." Moody's magical eye focused on Mr. Granger's face. "You may be able to give some insight, even if you're not aware of it. Something we say may spur a memory."
Mr. Granger nodded, sitting back down. "Well, if we're staying then pass me some of that fire whiskey."
Sirius happily poured Mr. Granger a goblet of fire whiskey who took a sip before smacking his lips appreciatively.
Moody drained a freshly poured goblet of fire whiskey. "Before we move forward with these talks, I believe that we need to elect a new leader."
"Harry's the leader of the Alliance."
"Mr. Potter may have formed your 'Alliance', young Weasley, but we need a real leader," Moody growled.
"Harry made the plan," Fred said, smacking the table angrily with the palm of his hand.
"That saved the Grangers," George added.
"And exposed Voldemort's return to the world," Fred finished.
"His plan was thin at best," Moody retorted. "There were too many risks … and we paid for them."
"How dare you sit there and blame Harry for anything!" Hermione shouted, rising from her chair. "If it wasn't for all the secrets Dumbledore kept—"
"Dumbledore kept secrets, and for good reason," Shacklebolt interrupted. "They kept people safe."
"Did they keep my parents safe? Did they keep Cho safe?"
"Hermione dear, calm down," Mrs. Granger pleaded. "We're here and safe."
"No thanks to the former Headmaster," Mr. Granger breathed, earning him a glare from his wife.
Harry stood up, extending his hand. "Hermione, let's take a walk."
Hermione would have nothing of his attempts to calm her. She shoved his open hand away.
"I don't need to be comforted. Dumbledore forced us to make choices and now we have to live with them. The battle at the Ministry would have never happened if he had chosen to be honest and forthcoming."
"Unfortunately, I agree with Hermione," Professor McGonagall said, drawing some looks of shock. "If Dumbledore had trusted Harry, this would never have happened."
"I also agree with Hermione," Sirius added. "Dumbledore may have done things with good intentions, but his judgment was highly impaired. He kept Snape in closest confidence while he pushed Harry away from the Wizarding world and kept me locked up in Azkaban for thirteen years. Then, after the return of Voldemort," Harry raised an eyebrow at the number of Order members that cringed "he chose to continue to keep all of us in the dark as to what was going on."
"I also agree vith Hermony," echoed a voice behind Harry that made him smirk. "Forgive me, Lord Black, for being so late. There vere things that I needed to tend to."
"No apologies necessary, Viktor," Sirius greeted. "I'm glad to see that you could make it."
Viktor nodded in Sirius' direction. "May I speak freely?"
"Thank you, Lord Black. Vhen I found out vhat the Hogvarts Headmaster had done, I vas appalled. Vhere I am from, ve have vitnessed such acts in the past before for the 'Greater Good'. As for Harry's plan, it vas a great plan. Choose whom you vill, I vill follow Harry Potter."
Harry was shocked to see Viktor there, let alone hear his vow of loyalty. He had secretly wondered from the moment that Viktor was included in the plans whether jealousy over Hermione might come into play. Sirius motioned for him and Hermione to sit back down. Viktor joined them at the table, taking a seat next to Neville.
"This isn't Quidditch, boy," Moody spat, staring at Viktor with both eyes. "You two may be great with a Snitch, but Potter is not an experienced leader. We need a veteran to take on Voldemort."
"Like yourself and Dumbledore?" Bill retorted.
"I don't believe that age has anything to do with being a leader, Alastor," Arthur interjected. "The greatest Wizards in history were mere teenagers when they rose to greatness."
Harry's eyebrows shot clear into his hairline. How could anyone compare him to the great Wizards in history? 'This Boy-Who-Lived stuff has gone way too far', thought Harry.
Lupin spied Harry's facial expressions. "Easy, Harry. No one is trying to thrust the mantle of Merlin on your shoulders. However, Arthur makes a good point. Age has nothing to do with it. Experience is the greatest teacher and you have it in spades."
Mrs. Longbottom slammed her goblet down on the table. "If I may, I would like to make it perfectly clear that my son and daughter's demise had nothing to do with Mr. Potter. That blame rests solely on the shoulders of the Death Eaters that murdered them."
"Well said, Aug. Now, it would be best if the Order and the Alliance can work together. You can bet that Voldemort and his followers will be ramping up their efforts now that the world is aware of his return."
The Order members all nodded in agreement with Sirius, even Moody.
"So how do we choose a leader?" Dedalus Diggle asked, sitting up fully in his seat so that he could be seen. "Does the Order choose its own leader and allow Mr. Potter to remain the Alliance leader, or do we all vote for one person to lead us all?"
"I think we need to let the Order choose their own leader. I for one, won't follow anyone save Harry. I dare say that the rest of the Alliance feels the same way."
"That won't work, Neville," Angelina interjected. "We need to be united against Voldemort."
"We're a large enough group. Why not elect two leaders—or generals if you will. Let them coordinate efforts between the two groups."
Sirius leaned forward. "I think that's a good idea, Lee. We need to have absolute trust in those we follow. Harry has already achieved the trust of the Alliance. The Order of the Phoenix needs to trust their leader completely as well."
Harry thought of how Dumbledore had named his resistance against Voldemort after his pet, Fawkes the Phoenix. As if on command, Fawkes appeared in the room, landing on the back of Harry's chair. The table fell silent, staring at Harry in awe. Harry reached up and stroked the bird's magnificent head.
"The bird doesn't get a vote," Moody sniffed, taking another swig of fire whiskey.
"Let's get on with the vote."
"You don't have a vote, Bill," Moody growled. "If I recall, you, your father, Sirius and Minerva all sided with Potter's Alliance."
Sturgis Podmore, a wiry looking wizard with straw colored hair, gasped. "Alastor! They're still members of the Order."
"I agree with Sturgis," Hestia Jones, a dark-haired witch with a kind but battle-hardened face added.
The other Order members, except for Moody, nodded in agreement.
"Very well," Moody growled. "We'll do this vote using the Clancularius Charm."
"It's like a secret ballot, Harry," Hermione explained automatically, answering Harry's confused expression.
"Correct, Ms. Granger," Moody growled, staring at her with his magical eye.
He placed an empty bowl in the middle of the table, filling it with liquid from a vial he withdrew from his coat pocket.
Moody's magical eye darted from face to face. "Now, all Order members touch the bowl with the tip of your wand at the exact same time and say, 'Clancularius'."
All the Order members withdrew their wands and touched the tip to the bowl. Sirius hesitated before withdrawing his wand and joining the group. Harry knew that his godfather felt betrayed by Dumbledore and resented the Order because of its founder.
Moody counted to three and the Order members recited the spell in unison. Immediately, the liquid within the bowl caught fire. In a matter of seconds, the fire consumed the liquid, leaving a name burned into the bottom of the bowl—Minerva McGonagall.
"Congratulations, Minerva. You're the new leader of the Order."
"Merely a formality, Alastor," Professor McGonagall said dismissively. "The Order will continue to be a unified group, sharing the same goal as the Alliance—the downfall of Lord Voldemort."
Moody nodded, but Harry wasn't sure that he agreed. It was obvious that Moody believed that he should have been chosen as the new leader, however the Order had thought differently. His thoughts were verified by Professor McGonagall directly addressing Moody and dismissing the importance of her new role.
"Well, now that the leaders are agreed upon, we can get to the meeting. I request that the first order of business for the night be that we decide what to do about my brother Charlie and Tonks."
"You said that your brother showed signs of working with goblins, correct?" Sirius asked, driving forward the discussion.
"That is correct, Sirius. While working with the goblins of Gringotts, I have witnessed different forms of their magic. Charlie used an old form of host magic that allows one to communicate with others through animals. In this case, a raven; ravens are known to be commonly used to this day by goblins for such tasks."
"Do you think that the goblins of Gringotts might be involved?" Shacklebolt asked. "And if so, what would be their motive?"
"The goblins of Gringotts would not support Charlie and Tonks' crusade. They stand too much to lose by involvement. They will retain their power over the bank, regardless of who runs the Wizarding world. Only once they have felt oppression will they revolt."
"Any ideas, Bill, as to who might be helping Charlie?" Cassie asked.
"I asked Director Ragnok, of Gringotts, and the only goblin or goblins that he knew that would have the resources for such a campaign was Belnork."
Harry intently followed the conversation. "Who's Belnork?"
Moody took another swig from his goblet. "He was an ally during the first Wizarding War with Voldemort. He provided Dumbledore with foreign intelligence and helped to slow Death Eater advances—financially."
"Unfortunately," Lupin sighed, scratching his chin "he's also an illegal trader. He and his goblin cohorts control all black-market trade, including Knockturn Alley. He'd sell his own offspring for the right price; thus, he cannot be trusted."
"How does a goblin control wizard run storefronts, like what's found in Knockturn Alley?" Neville asked, frowning hard.
"Simple really," Mrs. Longbottom replied. "Every witch and wizard in Knockturn Alley owes Belnork for something or they purchase goods from him for their stores. He also used to be the Director of Gringotts before Director Ragnok took over in the early 1970's." Neville stared at his Gran in awe at her knowledge.
Hermione was now chewing her lower lip. "How would Charlie have gotten involved with this Belnork?"
"Dragons," Mundungus grunted, sipping some fire whiskey. "Ol' Belnork's people are always looking for a way to move more dragon parts. A dead dragon is worth a fortune in the market."
Arthur slammed the table with his fist. "Dung, are you accusing my boy of illegally selling off dragons to the black market?"
"No!" Mundungus replied, his eyes wide. "I'm just sayin' that Belnork has a lot of people workin' for him! It's easily seen how he could have contacted your son. Maybe he convinced him that the best way to save his family is to go to work for him, stoppin' ol' snake face."
"Now that's established, what do we do about Charlie?" Bill asked, trying to hide his frustration. "He's requested a meeting with Harry."
"Let's do it then." Harry had been thinking about it ever since Bill had told him. "Let's hear him out and see what he has to say."
"If you do, Harry, make no deals with him," Moody warned. "If he is working for Belnork, then we cannot take such risks."
Professor McGonagall nodded. "I agree. Belnork cannot be trusted. I would suggest—"
What Professor McGonagall was about to suggest was never heard. For at that exact moment, Kreacher Apparated onto the center of the table; collapsing as he did so.
"Kreacher!" Sirius and Harry shouted in unison.
The whole of the table stood as one, withdrawing their wands and looking around quickly for danger. Mr. Granger placed a protective arm around his wife.
"Dobby!" Harry shouted, his voice cracking slightly.
"Master Harry summons Dobby?" the tiny elf asked before catching sight of Kreacher's collapsed form. "Kreacher!" Dobby hopped up onto the table and knocked over several goblets. "Master Harry, Kreacher is hurt bad!"
"Dobby, where was Kreacher?"
"Kreacher had gone back to Grimmauld Place to fetch some more copper kettles for the morning, Master Sirius."
Fawkes flew over Harry's head and landed next to the fallen house-elf. The bird gently nudged Kreacher over onto his back to reveal a deep slash across the chest. The toga emblazoned with the Black Family crest was now soaked with blood. Fawkes leaned his head over the wound and Harry saw tears drop onto Kreacher's chest. Puffs of smoke could be seen, the tears healing the wound right before their eyes.
Kreacher let out a sigh. "Bad wizards in Master's home."
The old house-elf did not open his eyes. He lay there, simply breathing. Venom poured through Harry at the thought of Snape or Bellatrix leading a party of Death Eaters into Grimmauld Place. His face contorted with rage and he could see his feelings being mirrored on the faces of those around him.
"How is this possible?" Hermione asked. "Sirius, didn't you break the Fidelius Charm and re-enact it once the Order vacated Grimmauld Place?"
"I did. Which means that we have a much larger problem if Voldemort's forces can penetrate Fidelius Charms."
"What's our move?" Ron asked, looking at Harry and Hermione.
Harry's rage gave him a strange sense of clarity. "Charging into Grimmauld Place is unwise. They could be lying in wait for us. We need approach with caution."
"I agree with Harry," Professor McGonagall said. "They probably allowed the house-elf to escape so that we would be alerted and make a mistake. Sirius, is there any way to see or hear into Grimmauld Place?"
"Maybe." Sirius turned his gaze to the Weasley twins. "Is the kitchen still under surveillance?"
"Bloody hell," the twins breathed in unison. "How?"
"The Black Family home? Kreacher found it right after term started."
Fred shook his head. "No good."
"In our trunks," George added.
"At the Burrow," the twins finished in unison.
Professor McGonagall glanced at the twins. "Small scouting team it is then. Moody, Sirius and I will floo to Grimmauld Place. We'll send word via the fake galleons if we need assistance."
"Remember to exit the grate firing," Moody instructed. "Step quickly to the left or right lest we curse each other."
Harry wiped his face with his hands. "I don't like this. If Grimmauld Place has been compromised, how do we know that any of our 'safe houses' are indeed safe?"
"We don't," Lupin replied, rubbing his hands together. "However, I doubt that even Voldemort has magic dark enough to shatter a Fidelius Charm. No, something else is wrong here. Sirius, are you still the Secret Keeper for Grimmauld Place?"
"I am," Cassie said, stepping forward. "Sirius decided that it was too risky having himself as the Secret Keeper for both Grimmauld Place and for here. If he died, it would leave both places vulnerable. He transferred the responsibility to me this morning."
"Are you sure that you performed the spell correctly, Sirius? If you misspoke the spell it could make everyone that knows of Grimmauld Place a Secret Keeper."
"We did it correctly, Aug. I'm sure."
"Can we discuss who made the mistake later?" Moody growled. "By now all the good Death Eaters will be gone and only the expendables will be left."
Harry paced in the foyer as they waited for Moody, McGonagall and Sirius to return. Cassie was doing the exact same thing on the opposite side of the fountain. They had only been gone ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity had passed. Hermione wasn't trying to calm him down either. Instead, she was pacing with him; vigorously attempting to work out how the Death Eaters had entered Grimmauld Place.
Dobby had taken Kreacher to rest in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Dobby fetched Winky from Hogwarts to assist in tending to Black Palace while he watched over Kreacher. The old house-elf had lost a lot of blood, but he would recover given enough time.
"Damn," Harry hissed, stopping abruptly.
"What's wrong?" Hermione asked, instantly pulling herself from her own musings.
"My invisibility cloak. I don't have it with me. What if they searched our trunks?"
"I have your invisibility cloak, remember? You gave it to me to hold on to before we went to the Ministry."
"Your purse," Harry breathed. "Excellent. I completely forgot."
At that moment the fireplace glowed green and Moody, Sirius and McGonagall stepped out into the foyer of Black Palace.
"Not a Death Eater to be found," Moody growled, sounding disappointed to the gathering crowd of Order and Alliance members.
Hermione frowned, "What happened to Kreacher then?"
"Oh, Death Eaters had most definitely been there. They left a message for us."
Harry did not like the ominous tone in which Sirius answered. "What kind of message?"
Professor McGonagall swallowed. "They placed the Dark Mark above Grimmauld Place."
"Wait … they only do that when they murder someone, right?" Neville asked, entering the foyer, Mrs. Longbottom right behind him. "Do they think that they killed Kreacher?"
"They don't value house-elves, boy," Moody snarled. "They only attacked the aged creature to keep him from alerting us, probably scattered when they weren't able to stop him from Apparating."
Harry pondered what had happened at the Quidditch World Cup. "Then why did they conjure the Dark Mark? Were they just trying to scare us?"
"No, Harry," Sirius replied, looking down. "They did murder someone. They left the body of a Muggle girl in the kitchen. They wrote on the wall, 'No Place to Hide' in the poor girl's blood."
"We suspect that she was a Muggle that just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Professor McGonagall added.
"Did she have any Muggle identification on her?"
"That she did, Aug. Her Muggle driver's license identifies her as Rose Dupree. We don't—Hermione?"
Hermione collapsed to her knees beside Harry, covering her face with her hands. Harry immediately dropped down to one knee beside her.
"Hermione, what's wrong?" Harry placed an arm around her back, the pit of his stomach squeezing tight as Hermione began to sob.
"M-My cou-sin! Th-That's m-my cousin's n-name! I-I haven't s-seen her in y-years!"
"Maybe it's another Rose Dupree."
Hermione dropped her hands and shot Harry a 'don't patronize me' look that made him swallow hard.
"Hermione dear? What's wrong?" Mrs. Granger shouted, as she and Mr. Granger came rushing down the stairs at the sight of their daughter on her knees crying.
"It's Rose!" Hermione sobbed, as her parents parted the group of Alliance and Order members to reach her.
Harry made to give space, but the firm hand of Mr. Granger on his back told him to stay where he was.
"Your cousin Rose? What's wrong with …"
Mrs. Granger's voice trailed off as she looked from Sirius to Professor McGonagall to Harry.
"Where?" Mr. Granger asked, staring at Sirius and looking murderous.
Harry could see the rage burning in his godfather's eyes. "A young girl's body with a Muggle driver's license identifying her as Rose Dupree is laying in Grimmauld Place."
"Take me there. If it is my niece, I can identify her."
"It's not a pretty sight," Moody warned.
"I've seen some awful things in my time, sir." Mr. Granger's face contorted with disgust. "I'll be able to take it."
"Whenever you're ready, Eugene."
"I'm going with you two. Some damn Death Eater may have come back or something. Besides, I want to start testing to see what wards are still in place."
Mr. Granger kissed his wife goodbye and moments later the three of them had flooed away, back to Grimmauld Place. Cassie recommended that the group adjourn to the large sitting room off to the right of the foyer. The sitting room was larger than the Gryffindor common room, with a ceiling that domed at least twenty feet high. Harry walked with Hermione and sat her down in one of the three lush couches in the room. Harry stood beside Hermione while her mother sat next to her.
"If the Death Eaters vant var, then let us give it to them!"
Professor McGonagall took a seat in a lush arm chair. "Easy, Mr. Krum. As awful as this is, we cannot go running off looking for Death Eaters to kill. We must work in secret lest we place ourselves at odds with the Ministry."
"That's fine," Ron said savagely, leaning against the back of one of the couches. "We'll kill Death Eaters in secret. Works for me."
"Mr. Weasley, if we go about murdering those, we suspect to be Death Eaters, what makes us different from them?"
Rage burned in Harry's chest. "What about those we do know to be Death Eaters, Professor? What damage is there to be done by thinning the heard of murderers we know about?"
"Harry, dealing a fatal blow in battle is one thing," Lupin warned, sitting in one of the four cushioned arm chairs that lined the corners of the room "but you're talking of hunting them down and murdering them in cold blood."
"You think that when confronted they will come quietly?" Hermione retorted coldly, her cheeks streaked and stained with tears. "They won't be defenseless like the Muggle girl and my parents that they tortured at Malfoy Manor or my cousin that they just murdered in cold blood!"
"We don't know yet—"
"We know, mum. We know because that is what animals like these Death Eaters do."
"Where would it all end if we started this hunt?" Shacklebolt interjected. "Dumbledore always had a plan and a goal."
Fred snorted, "And where did that get him?"
"Dead in a grand white tomb at Hogwarts," George replied.
"No thanks," the twins groaned in unison.
"The hunt vould end vith the death of every known Death Eater. Hermony is right. It is the only thing these animals understand."
"This may be the fire whiskey talking," Diggle piped "but I agree with Harry. If they have found a way to bypass our protective wards, do we just wait until they come to murder us in our sleep? No, I say that for once we take the fight to them."
"I think you're all bloody mad," Mundungus grunted, examining the fine china in a nearby case. "I for one, have no intentions of—"
"Mundungus, I do not have the stomach to listen to your cowardly excuses. We all know that the only reason that you signed up for the Order was to pay back a debt to Dumbledore."
"The only reason I'm still here, Arthur, is because I want to help! But if you no longer need me, I'll just—"
Professor McGonagall rose to her feet. "Let's all just settle down. Emotions are running extremely high and rightfully so, but we must not rush into anything. As much as I agree that we can no longer wait for Voldemort's forces to come for us, I think we need to wait until Sirius, Alastor and Mr. Granger return from Grimmauld Place. Then we can formulate a plan to counter attack."
"No need to wait any longer," Sirius said, walking into the sitting room with Mr. Granger and Mad-Eye Moody.
Mr. Granger made his way over to Hermione and her mum without wasting a moment. He dropped down to one knee to look them in the eyes and that was all it took. Both Granger women broke down immediately, Hermione gripping Harry's arm like an anchor. He could feel her emotions pouring out as his wand grew warm inside his robes; the strange connection still ever present. He felt no surprise when the most dominant feeling was cold anger.
"What did you find out?" Professor McGonagall asked quietly, trying to respect the Grangers.
"We were exposed to one weakness." Moody growled, unstopping a bottle of fire whiskey. "The Portus charm has been used several times at Grimmauld Place."
Harry noticed that Moody's magical eye was transfixed on him. Harry frowned, wondering what was going through the old Auror's mind.
"Impossible. The Portus charm can only create a portkey with a known destination. That is to say, the creator has to know the exact location of his or her intended target."
Moody huffed, "Correct, Remus. Snape could have very easily created a portkey before the Order left Grimmauld Place."
"I thought Sirius had all of the old protection spells removed and replaced them with his own protective wards?"
"I did, Bill, but I did not put in place any anti-portus wards. I, myself, was using a portkey to travel from Grimmauld Place to a remote private cottage."
Harry knew that Sirius was being cryptic in front of the Order members that were not aware of the McGonagall family cottage.
"Anti-portus wards are now in place … though a bit too late."
"What was the purpose of this … this demonstration?" Harry roared, his anger getting the best of him.
"Fear, Potter," Moody retorted. "Plain and simple."
"Maybe the Grangers would like to retire upstairs," Sirius offered, trying to be courteous of their feelings.
"I'm not going anywhere!" Hermione growled, her sobs expiring and growing very still against Harry's arm.
"We would like to hear your thoughts, Sirius," Mr. Granger said, his tone even and strong.
"Very well, Eugene. I believe that this wasn't just a message to all of us, but to Harry and Hermione specifically. We were able to rescue you and Danielle, so they're trying to prove that we can't save everyone. I believe that they're trying to prod us onto the offensive and lure us out. If I'm correct, this is a very different game than Voldemort played the last time."
Shacklebolt shook his head. "Why would he change his strategy now? Dumbledore is dead."
Moody stumped across the floor. "Exactly. With Dumbledore dead, he thinks we're vulnerable—and I agree."
Harry could feel his magic ripple over him. "Dumbledore may have been a great wizard, but he wasn't the only hope of stopping Voldemort and his Death Eaters."
"Course not," Moody growled sarcastically. "We have the Chosen One to lead us to victory."
The tension in the room suddenly became so thick that you could have cut it with a knife.
Harry clinched his fists. "I'm not the Chosen One!"
At that exact same moment, five vases on the fireplace mantle shattered in unison.
"Harry!" Sirius shouted. "Calm down now!"
"Bloody hell!" Mundungus shouted, jumping back. "Did Potter just do that?"
Harry glanced about the room to see that all eyes were upon him. The Alliance was watching their leader for his reaction while most of the Order looked at him in shock.
"It was just a bit of accidental wandless magic, Dung. Nothing uncommon, especially with tensions so high."
Moody was eying the Alliance members with his magical eye and Harry knew that he wasn't buying Sirius' accidental magic explanation, nor was the rest of the Order.
"It's been a long night. We need to tend to the matter of Mr. and Mrs. Granger's niece as well as—"
"Tend to the matter?"
"Forgive me, Mr. Granger, for sounding cold," Professor McGonagall apologized. "It's just that we'll need to contact the Ministry so that they can handle the Muggle authorities."
"I guess that we're going to have to act as though we know nothing."
"I'm afraid so. You are in hiding, after all."
Mrs. Granger sobbed. "It's not bad enough that we have to place our lives on hold, but now we cannot even pay our last respects to my niece!"
"Cruelty has always been what Voldemort does best. Please allow me to say that I feel for your loss. We all have suffered at the hands of this monster, and it seems that his tactics are becoming far more savage."
"That's why we have to act," Harry stared at Shacklebolt who nodded, his face growing hard. "Now that he is no longer hiding in the shadows, he will probably look to cause real havoc. If fear is his strategy, this is only the beginning."
"Will he attack the rest of our family?" Mrs. Granger asked, looking extremely worried. Her eyes darted from Harry to her husband.
"He won't be interested in murdering more Muggles. He needs the Ministry out of his way before he can move to mass terror."
"Vhat makes you so sure, Mr. Lupin, that he vill not seek out the rest of Hermony's family?"
"Sirius is right," Mr. Granger said, his voice cracking. "He's trying to lure us out. We need to be wise about this."
"I may not have magic, Mr. Moody, but I can understand military strategy. This Voldemort has declared war on your world and on my family. While I cannot fight against magic, I'll do whatever I can to help."
"Do you have any other family in Britain?" Professor McGonagall asked.
"Only my wife's sister and brother-in-law. All of my family lives in France."
"The Order will place protective wards over them immediately. Mundungus will keep a close watch on them."
"Me? Why me?"
"You said yourself that you wanted nothing to do with fighting," Professor McGonagall retorted, her tone clipped. "Well, here's your chance to be useful."
"Eugene, did your niece live with her parents?"
Mr. Granger simply nodded.
"Come along with me, Dung. We'll go place the wards up on their home and you can keep a close eye on them. Remember, constant vigilance."
Mundungus grumbled something inaudible as he disappeared with Moody. Harry noted that Hermione had remained rigid and still, though her grip upon his arm had not slackened.
Harry looked at Professor McGonagall. "I say that we begin coming up with a plan to isolate and take down by any means necessary all Death Eaters. Let's make these bastards regret the side they chose."
"I agree, Mr. Potter. We need to make sure that we avoid exposure to Death Eaters and Ministry Aurors alike. Madam Bones will not be forgiving if we are caught taking the fight into our own hands again."
"Remember Harry," Ron stressed, "Ginny is probably under the Imperious Curse. We need to make sure if they're wearing masks that it's not her."
"Of course. Ginny is like family to me and us." Harry pointed to members of the Alliance. "They could also be blackmailing her as well to do their bidding."
"Ginny is like family to us as well, Ron," Shacklebolt added, the rest of the Order nodding in agreement.
Harry pressed on, the moment giving him a strange internal strength. "Bill, arrange for a meeting with Charlie. Let's get this over with as fast as possible. We need to know who our allies are."
Bill nodded in agreement.
"Kingsley, please go inform the Ministry of what has happened. When you are done, please return immediately," Professor McGonagall instructed.
Kingsley Shacklebolt nodded before rising from his chair and leaving the room for the fireplace beyond.
Harry pulled away from Hermione for the first time and turned to face the room at large. "Okay then, how do we go about spreading some pain to Voldemort?"
The Order and the Alliance began sharing ideas on how to deal with the Death Eaters and the Aurors. Mr. and Mrs. Granger retired upstairs to one of the many bedrooms. Mr. Granger wanted to stay with Hermione and help formulate a plan, however Mrs. Granger needed him more. It was the wee morning hours before the meeting adjourned, a somewhat solid plan agreed upon.
Harry felt tired and weary upon reaching the room he deemed his for the night. The day felt like it had been a nightmare, the details of which were starting to blur. He did not even care to call for Dobby to bring him some pajamas. He knew that the tiny elf was probably tending to Kreacher still or sleeping. Either way, Harry was content to sleep in his clothes; though he did not know whether to expect a visit from Hermione. She was simply walking through the motions as he helped her to her room, adjacent to her parents' room. The day had left her a total shell of her normal self. She was very active in the planning portion of the meeting, though he knew that she was functioning on sheer adrenaline.
The last thing Harry remembered before succumbing to sleep was someone with bushy hair climbing into bed with him, pulling him close to her.
"They didn't choose me to be the leader of the Order," Moody said, taking a sip of fire whiskey while sitting at a small table in an ocean cottage.
"Whom did they choose?"
"Logical choice. Probably does not sit well with most to have someone with your 'vigilance' as the leader."
"They're going to take the fight to Voldemort. Potter is flexing his wandless magical muscles and that pigeon gives him clout. Granger's cousin's death did not help the situation any."
"Fawkes has chosen a strong wizard as his familiar. If Lord Voldemort wants a fight, Harry will not slouch from it. You must keep him safe."
"It's going to be all out war before it's over. You still think that it was a good idea to fake your death?"
Albus Dumbledore chuckled. "Absolutely. As an old friend once told me, it's much easier to drive from the back seat than it is to steer."
"Another of your bloody Muggle references," Moody snorted. "Granger is still leaving your 'murder' a mystery—even to Potter, I believe."
"As she should. Would do no good for her to tell him or anyone else."
Moody drained his glass. "Have any plans for a resurrection?"
"Not unless I absolutely have to. I can assume then that my funeral went smoothly?"
"As silk. No one even attempted to inspect your corpse. By now I'm sure that the Polyjuice potion has worn off, so hopefully none of your desperate admirers decide to visit and open the tomb."
"Whom did you pick to be my corpse?"
"Some Muggle homeless man."
"Sad as it may be, alas all for the 'Greater Good'" Dumbledore sighed, toasting one of his old friends.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed the first chapter of The Darkness Rising! I know that the ending of this chapter will draw mixed feelings from many, but please understand that this was part of my plot from the very beginning. How Dumbledore went into hiding was the only question I had until I started writing the final three chapters of The Falling.
I would like to give special thanks to Woahitsalice for being beta. She did, as always, a wonderful job. Please review and let me know what you think. Your reviews are the best part of writing FF!