Hello, my darlings. The angel on my shoulder said wait until later this week, like you planned. Work on your other story, like you said you would. The devil said it is later, and you did work on the other story-post. Then CJRed and Kari agreed with the devil. So here you go. Thanks for reading, reviewing, recommending, and any way you've supported this (not so) little story. I own nothing. One chapter to go.

Chapter 62

Rising tensions outside the castle, and within Slytherin house, caused many pureblood students to remain at the castle over Easter break. Others remained to enjoy the bliss of ignorance a bit longer. Sirius reported to both Harry and Hermione that the Death Eaters had begun targeting more muggleborn and muggle targets every day.

"Do you feel it?" she asked Harry one evening during patrol.

"What?"

"The impending sense that something is building, that we're almost to the breaking point?"

"Kind of, yeah." He looked over at her. "Any luck on the diadem?"

"Rowena claimed she lost it during summer travels across Wales around the time her daughter, Helena, disappeared never to return." "Hmm, I wonder if the Grey Lady knows anything about that? She is the Ravenclaw ghost."

"Why don't you do ask her?"

"Brilliant, Mione." Harry headed in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower. Hermione stared after him, then jogged to catch up. They climbed the stairs up to the area of the Ravenclaw common rooms. Down an empty corridor, they found the Grey Lady floating in place staring out a large bay window at the moonlit grounds. "Excuse me, ma'am," Harry started politely, "we wanted to ask you a few questions if we could."

The Grey Lady slowly turned, "You aren't Ravenclaws."

"No, ma'am, we're in Gryffindor. My name is Harry, and this is my friend, Hermione." He gestured to her in introduction.

"What can I help you?"

"We wondered if you knew anything about Rowena's missing diadem?"

The ghost huffed, placing her hands on her hips. "For centuries students have begged me for information about that damned tiara. I will not be fooled again." She started to leave.

"Wait," Hermione called out, "we don't need it to be smarter or wiser."

"Of course not," the ghost rolled her eyes, "you have a great noble purpose. You understand living in the shadow of someone else. I will never again tell anyone about mother's diadem."

"You're Helena Ravenclaw?" Hermione asked.

"Yes." she sighed. "In life, I despised the expectations placed on me by my mother and others. In a fit of jealousy, I stole her famous diadem and ran away to Albania. Embarrassed by my betrayal, Mother claimed she lost it. She sent a man who fancied himself in love with me to bring me home. When I refused, he murdered me, then killed himself. Now, we both haunt these halls."

"Who?" asked Harry.

"The Bloody Baron." answered Hermione. He looked at her. "We know how Sir Nicholas died. And do you suddenly think the Friar could kill himself, let alone someone else? That leaves the Baron."

"Yes, the Baron murdered me. And my mother's treasure was lost to the wilds of Albania."

"But you told a student about it." Harry didn't bother making it sound like a question.

He was so handsome and sympathetic." Helena said sadly.

"Then he recovered the diadem and desecrated it." Harry whispered.

"Exactly. I have no idea where it is anymore."

"What does it look like?" Harry asked.

"Follow me." The ghost led them to a deserted part of the castle atop a tower. "A nonmagical painting of the Founders." In the painting Ravenclaw proudly wore a bronze and sapphire crown.

"Now we know what we're looking for." Harry said quietly still looking at the image.

"Do you know where to look?" inquired the Grey Lady.

"We think we do."

"Then I wish you luck. You will need it."

"Thank you." Harry turned to Hermione, "We should get some sleep. Classes start back tomorrow."

"And we have to start hunting tomorrow."

Junk piles formed a twisting maze towering above them. Neville and Luna headed to the left, Draco and Harry went to the right, leaving Hermione and Theo to begin searching the center. "Things are even tenser than before the break. Vince broke down last night. Begged us to either join Riddle or kill him, he couldn't go home a failure again." Theo moved an ancient birdcage. "Father writes that the Dark Lord is willing to wait for our nuptials to mark me. They both think that will bring Lucius, Draco, and Sirius to heel."

"How so?"

"I have no idea. Riddle doesn't seem to be playing with a full deck anymore, and the rest might be as delusional as the rest. I plan on vanishing before graduation." Hermione froze. "Sweet, I know you hate that plan, but what choice do I have?"

"I don't like it, and I refuse to pretend like I am okay with it."

"No, I suppose you don't." He gave her a quick peck. "Once more into the fray." She rolled her eyes and resumed searching.

Systematically the six worked their way through the heaps of discarded rubbish, items broken beyond repairs, others shiny and brand new. Early on the searchers joked around, playing with items. As the days dragged on the mood changed, growing darker. The end of April loomed ahead, soon they would be left with only May and the beginning of June to search. And with NEWTs to study for, only Luna would be free to search soon. While they all thought it at one point, no one felt brave enough to suggest searching was more important than revising for NEWTs.

Six months after Halloween, April 30th, Walpurgisnacht night, the other time of the year when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead were the thinnest, Harry felt something, a pull, tugging him to a wig stand. There on the ugliest, most tangled wig Harry had ever seen, someone had placed Ravenclaw's missing diadem. "Guys, guys," he called out excitedly, "quick!"

The others converged on his position. Tangle reared out of Hermione's hair hissing angrily. "You found it!" Neville breathed, "You did it."

"We may have found it, but we still have to destroy them." Harry replied.

"We need to tell the others." Hermione remarked. Forcing themselves to walk, the group hurried to Professor McGonagall's office without drawing too much attention to themselves. Once she realized the importance of the object Harry held wrapped in a silk scarf, she summoned Snape and moved them to Dumbledore's office.

"Lemon drops." She gave the password, barely waiting for the staircase to finishing moving into place before climbing them. "Albus, Albus." She called.

Dumbledore limped into the room, the decay from Riddle's curse still slowly devouring him body and mind. "What can I do for you this fine afternoon?"

"We found them, Albus. We have all of his horcruxes."

"Horcruxes? Whose horcruxes?" Dumbledore sounded confused.

"Oh dear," McGonagall turned to Snape. "Summon the Order of Phoenix, time is off the essence."

"More so than you know." Theo spoke up. He held up a scrap of parchment. "Father just sent me a message to expect visitors at the gates. Ones who may not have a warm welcome."

Snape hissed and clutched his arm. "He's summoning me, most likely to allow his followers into the school."

Hermione flicked her wand over two metal disks on Dumbledore's desk. "Use this to tell us how long we have and how many are coming." She handed on to Snape. He nodded. Tangle zipped down Hermione's arm and onto his. "She says she's going with you. You need someone to watch your back." He nodded and departed.

"I will get Shaklebolt to summon the Order and the aurors. Once Professor Snape returns we will go from there." McGonagall turned to the fireplace.

"We'll go get the other staff members." Harry offered. She waved her agreement without turning around.

Separating, the six sped through the castle to rouse the other teachers. Upon hearing the news, they raced back to the headmaster's office. Dumbledore sat at his desk beaming bemusedly at the gathering. "Did I call a staff meeting?"

"No, Albus, Voldemort is invading the castle."

"Oh, we must stop him."

"We know, Albus." McGonagall fought to remain patient.

Hermione felt the disks burn as Order members began flooing in. She read aloud. "Thirty minutes. Ten follow in castle. Rest to forest. DL coming."

Professor Sprout frowned. "We need to evacuate the students."

"Those of age deserve the right to decide if they want to stay and fight." Draco said causing numerous adults to look at him curiously. "A lot of us want Riddle gone."

Trelawney's owl eyes widened even more in her fear. "Or join the other side."

Draco shrugged, "They'll do that either way when the fighting breaks out."

Professor McGonagall looked at the other House Heads, "Evacuate the school. Anyone of age that wishes to remain, may. We will assemble in the Great Hall. Quickly, people." The staff and everyone left but Harry and Hermione. "I will ready the school's defenses. Once the fighting begins the suits of armor will animate."

"We need to collect the horcruxes." Harry told her.

"I will leave you to it." She exited the office.

Harry moved to the secured cabinet containing the locket and the cup. "Harry, my boy, stop. You should be headed down to the hall to face Lord Voldemort. Only you can defeat him."

"As soon as we destroy the horcruxes."

"Yes destroying all the horcruxes is vital to ending the threat of Lord Voldemort." Dumbledore nodded. "Very vital. You must understand, Harry, my boy, it can only be one of you to end the other. In this instance, one must sacrifice for the greater good." Dumbledore sighed. "That horrible night, Lord Voldemort created an accidental horcrux. His unstable soul splintered again and the fragment attached itself to you."

"We figured that out months ago. That's why my scar never completely healed and always hurt in his presence." Harry told him.

"Then you understand why you must die."

"Balderdash!" cried Hermione. "The horcrux was destroyed when our French assailant nearly killed him."

"Did kill me." Harry corrected calmly, "By all standards, I was dead for twenty seconds. I chose to come back so that Neville wasn't forced to take my place as the 'chosen one.'"

"You never told me that." Hermione smacked his arm, annoyed at the news.

"I never told anyone. It didn't seem important at the time. What is, is that these are the last three hurdles between us and destroying Riddle." He again attempted to collect the contents of the cabinet.

Silently, Dumbledore re-locked the door. "Harry, you mustn't be afraid to die."

"I'm not. But I also don't have to, so, I'm not going to. I wish you would keep up."

Dumbledore sadly shook his head, "Oh, my boy."

Four things happened simultaneously. Dumbledore raised his wand, "Imperi..." Hermione stunned him before he could finish the unforgivable spell. Harry disarmed him. And a frazzled Snape burst through the door. Dumbledore's body slumped forward over his desk. Harry unlocked the cabinet and removed the other two horcruxes.

"Riddle will know his belonging is missing in about ten minutes. He will know of my defection in about fifteen. We must join the others." With a flick of his wand, he revived the headmaster. "Hurry, Albus, the Dark Lord is at the gates."

In the Great Hall, the Order of Phoenix and the mostly of age students assembled, whispering to one another in bunches. Hermione noticed all the Gryffindors had stayed behind, a third of the Hufflepuffs, a handful of Ravenclaws, and about three-fourths of the Slytherins. While their presence did draw attention, Molly Weasley provided the primary before battle entertainment as she berated Ginny for trying to stay behind.

"ENOUGH!" bellowed Snape. "The Death Eaters have surely reached the forest by now and are most likely making their way back to the castle. We do not have the luxury of time for this. Molly, Ginerva is as accomplished as several of the others present here. The only difference being a few months of age. I am sure a few more 6th-year students are hiding in the crowd. Let her stay and fight with her family." All the Weasleys looked stunned at Snape's near praise. He ignored them and continued.

"Riddle has nearly forty loyal followers with him. All savage wizards prepared to kill or die for his cause." He paused as Lucius and Narcissa entered the hall. "Some of you are closely related to these masked fighters. If you wish to change your mind and withdraw, no one will think the less of you."

"I will.." Everyone turned to look at the female leading more wizards into the room. Pansy grinned, "You didn't think we'd let you have all the fun, now did you?"

"This ends tonight." declared a determined looking Marcus Flint.

Harry nodded, "Agreed." Various people began arguing over different tactics, some favoring defense over offense.

"Oi," Ron yelled, "sometimes the best defense is a good offense. And the best offense is one the enemy doesn't see coming." Once he had everyone's attention he continued, "Let them into the castle, then box them in at the doors. We have the advantage of surprise, cover, and surrounding them."

Lucius nodded, "Once he sees he is losing, Riddle will demand Harry face him one on one, believing his superior power will grant him a swift victory."

"Then we need to hurry up and destroy the horcruxes." Hermione said. Shouts as the Death Eaters neared the castle could be heard in the distance.

"Yes, you do." Harry told her. "Professor Snape can support you just as well as I can. I have to be visible for Ron's plan to work."

Snape nodded, "Honestly, you have already surpassed my skill with fiendfyre, but if needs be, I can help you contain it."

"You'll need someone to guard you. Riddle will want his belongings back." Sirius pointed out, preparing to offer his services.

Hermione scanned the crowd, trying to determine someone skilled enough to protect them, but not so skilled their talents would be wasted babysitting. She smiled a mean little grin when the answer came to her. He would hate every second of it but would have no choice, making it all the more perfect. "Ronald Bilius Weasley, I, Hermione Celeste Malfoy call upon you to fulfill your life debt." A murmur of confusion ran through the crowd. "You will protect Professor Snape and me as we complete our mission." Knowing he had no real option to decline, Ron nodded and moved to her side. Hermione quickly hugged her family and Theo. "Be safe." Tangle slithered from Snape to Theo, silently promising to watch over Hermione's wizard.

"Come, we should remove ourselves from the immediate battle zone. You will need to concentrate." Snape led them towards the back of the castle. House elves swiftly removed any remaining furniture from the room Snape selected, leaving only the stone walls and stone floor. He instructed Ron to position himself inside the doorway where he could observe the corridor, but not be seen from the outside. Hermione quickly arranged the three remaining horcruxes in front of her. At her nod, Snape stepped between her and Ron. She created a small tongue of flame hovering above her outstretched hand. She reached out with her magic, feeding it until it burned hotter and glowed brighter. She imagined she could see figures dancing within the flames.

Concentrating, she held the flame to the items before her. Hideous screams issued forth from them. Oily smoke billowed from the locket, taunting her with her deepest fears. No one wanted her, no one loved her. They only wanted her brains and her family money. Sirius only wanted freedom from his responsibilities. "Focus, Hermione." Snape's voice broke the hold the dark thoughts had on her. She funneled more energy into her fiendfyre.

The sounds of fighting reached them, crashes and bangs echoing through the castle. She moved the fire from the charred remains of the locket to the cup. A flash of red flew past her. She ignored it. Ron grunted in pain. She was vaguely aware when Snape turned to assist Ron in the doorway. She blocked all of it out, focusing on the task in front of her. Drawing deeply on her magic, Hermione fueled the demon flame, scorching the stone beneath as first the cup, then the diadem melted and twisted, the soul fragments oozing free in an attempt to escape only to be consumed by the magic fire. She staggered for a second when she banished the flames. The adrenaline rush kept her on her feet. "It's finished."

Dispatching the two hooded figures, Snape looked back to her. "Can you continue?"

"I intend to see this through." She gripped her wand tightly, "Let's go finish these wankers, yeah?"

Nothing in her life before could have prepared her for the bedlam they encountered. Spells sizzled through the air. Peeves hurled pots of Devil's Snare and crystal balls at Death Eaters. Suits of armor ran people through with swords. A timely shield charm from Hermione protected Fred from a falling wall. He waved his thanks.

A booming voice filled the air. "Face me, Potter, wizard to wizard."

"Why should I?" shouted Harry, "My side appears to be winning."

"For glory, for honor, because we both know the words of the prophecy ordain we alone can end this."

"I never really put much stock in divination myself, but if you insist. Whoever wins, the other side surrenders."

"Agreed."

Harry stepped out from behind a pillar. He and Lord Voldemort bowed. Both began the duel feeling out the other's defenses. Youth and a flesh body gave Harry some advantages, while experience and ruthlessness better served Riddle. The sight of Hermione, Ron, and Snape brought a cocky grin to Harry's face. "Thinking of love, that vaulted power Dumbledore thinks I know not?" Voldemort sneered.

"No, though I do agree love is very potent power. I was thinking of a different secret."

"You have no secrets. I have traveled further into the ancient magics than any wizard before me. Where others have feared to tread. I am immortal."

"Not anymore. And here's a spell I learned from one of your most devoted followers. "Sectumsepra." The huge gash nearly severed the homunculus. "I also know you're just an animated clay vessel. Sectumsepra." The top half slid from the legs, splintering into a thousand shards when it hit the ground. A shadow swelled from the center.

"Harry," called Hermione, "catch!" She conjured a ball of fiendfyre and lobbed it through the smoky figure to Harry. He deftly caught it and burned away the last remnant of Tom Marvolo Riddle. Hermione grinned even as the darkness claimed her.