So, a quick note is needed to address a mistake I made in the last chapter. I forgot that the Carrow twins were Inquisitors and included them in the Slug Club Christmas party. In my original outline, they were not Inquisitors, but they are so creepy, I added them… without modifying the outline of the Slug Club party. 'Thundramon' and 'stealacandy' both caught it and I hastily removed the Carrows from the party as they had no other role than looking creepy. None of the Inquisitors will ever be students at Hogwarts again. What I have learned from this is that I need to slow down and be more careful.

DoD—

In the last Chapter, Harry is back at Hogwarts and finishing his training. He has learned a great deal from Filius on duelling and is now fully accomplished at dual wanded fighting. Additionally, he is learning battle magic from Dumbledore. After a few disturbing visions, Harry shifted his focus to physical training before trying to delve back into the deep Divinatory training that would tie him to darker magic.

Albus Dumbledore had accepted that he was dying and that Harry is far less forgiving than he was. Albus was nervous with how Harry might be affected if he gained all three of the Deathly Hallows but had come to accept the necessity. Ultimately, he saw Harry as an extremely dangerous and decisive young wizard that fortunately was protective, and kind to the people he cared about. He accepts Harry as his replacement and wished him the best as he picked up where he would have to leave off.

I do not own Harry Potter or any of the characters – they belong to JKRowling.

FASA owns the Earthdawn setting which has influenced many of the ideas in my stories.

DoD—

Special thanks to my Beta Reader, 'Just William' for the excellent feedback and diligent work in making the story better.

DoD—

Chapter 44, Changing of the Guard

Hogwarts

Room of Requirement

March 16, 1997

Sunday DA Meeting

Over the last two months, Harry had trained the group to use a set of simple but effective spell chains developed in collaboration with Professor Flitwick. Everyone was taught a basic but effective duelling style that worked with a spell chain that incorporated non-lethal but effective charms. Stunning, Disarming, and the Levicorpus spell fit nicely in the basic generic chain. Additionally, they were trained in spell chains they could use in a team to fill a specific role. The team role chains covered three basic areas: Offensive, Defensive, and an Area effect set of chains. The offensive chain used the Stunning, Disarming, and Bludgeoning spells. The Defensive chain focused on Shielding, Impeding, and the Repelling spells. Finally, there was the area of effect chains, focusing on Explosive curses and curses that effect multiple targets, like 'Flipendo Tria'. As a team, different members would focus on different chains in whichever role they played.

Privately, Harry had trained Ron, Seamus, Hermione, Padma, Ginny, and Neville to use more lethal spell chains. Harry still favoured the Piercing curse for its speed and effectiveness. Cast silently, it was brutal and hard to defend against. The Confringo blasting curse was another favorite, but it had to be cast carefully due to the heat of the Explosion. Usually, the Expulso blasting curse was a better choice within the school. Sectumsempra was the final spell Harry taught the smaller team, but he cautioned them to use it only in cases of dire need due to its lethality. He had learned that curse from the potions book Professor Slughorn had given him over the summer and it was brutally effective. Seamus struggled with it, so Harry switched it out with the Incendio charm, playing to the teen's strength with Pyrotechnics.

The more important training was in the form of situational awareness and how to avoid dangerous interaction. If Hogwarts were run by Death Eaters, laying low would always be the better solution. To that end, he taught them charms to detect poisons and potions. He made sure everyone had a Bezoar and never travelled alone. They even practiced how to move about as a group while making it appear that they were in no way connected. Usually, this meant one person ahead of two others.

Today was probably the last DA meeting before the Easter Holidays. Yesterday, Harry had trained the group on basic duelling and escape strategies and today was focused on small team activities. Harry had put together a series of Drills for different Teams to navigate a small maze in the Room of Requirement that resembled the hallways of Hogwarts. Different team members would have different roles. The roles would focus on the Precision, Defence, or Area Effect spell chains. These strategies came from both the Auror training guide and Charlus Potter's book from the Grindelwald war.

After four hours of training and observing, he was impressed at how far along the members of the Defence Club were. No, they were not on a level with trained Aurors or Death Eaters, but they were better than the majority of the Wizarding world. Certainly, they were better than the Inquisitors from last year. Working together in teams of three or four, most of the teams were probably a match for an individual Death Eater or two.

Harry waited as the last team managed to withdrawal from an ambush prepared by another team. They did well and after Harry's next trip to Fred and George's shop, they would add Peruvian Darkness Powder to the drills. They had already amassed a respectable amount of Healing Draughts and Creams. Hopefully, they wouldn't need it. Harry made a mental note to see about adding Pepper-up potions to the stockpile.

Getting everyone's attention, Harry said, "Great job. Now, break into groups of two and begin practicing the Patronus Charm. Hermione, Ron, and Padma have already achieved a Corporeal Patronus, so they'll be assisting each of you." Considering it further, he added, "No worries if you can't do it, it can take years to get this one right, but even a Patronus Mist can save your life where Dementors are concerned."

Harry was feeling particularly good about the progress made as he approached Lavender and Parvati. Parvati was getting the hang of it, but Lavender was struggling. He'd just have to help her think of something that brought her immense joy…

DoD—

Hogwarts Express

March 23, 1997

Harry and his friends found a cabin and settled in for the ride back to London. The last few months had been excellent. Harry was now holding his own in combat with Dumbledore and his work with Filius was more around fine tuning and balance. So much had happened in the last two years… Harry was looking forward to talking with Bill again. It was no secret how much he missed being in the field and breaking curses. But that was something he tried not to focus too much on.

Dumbledore had suspected his hand in injuring Theo and had adjusted their training schedule to make it near impossible for Harry to keep the boy in the infirmary. Once Professor Slughorn removed the boy from his class, Harry had no real contact outside of the great hall. Harry had to admit, the Headmaster kept tight surveillance, but would it be enough? Why wouldn't the old man just expel Theo and remove the risk?

Harry decided to focus less on Theo and more on the Defence Association, also known as the DA. Harry looked at Ron, Neville, and Hermione. "You guys did a great job getting the DA trained up last year. It'll make a difference." It was true, Harry added a level of ability to the group, but he mostly built on what they had already learned. Ginny squeezed his hand through her Dragon hide glove.

Ron seemed appreciative, "Thanks, mate. We appreciate all you've done this year." Neville nodded along.

Hermione asked, "What did you plan for the last three months of the year, Harry?"

Harry shrugged. "Reinforce the basics. Maybe train people to be sneaky and blend in. We have to prepare for the worst." Harry then changed the subject. "Neville, can you check on Luna at some point? I would, but the hospital gets nervous around my thorns. I've been asked to stay away…"

Ginny looked shocked and angry. "What? Are you kidding me? Harry, half of Magical Britain sends you letters and praise… Why would they keep you out?"

Harry looked at his thorns a moment. They were sharp and wicked looking. "The thorns are mildly poisonous. No one would die from them, but they would get sick without treatment. It's like rubbing Poison Ivy into a wound. And St. Mungo's is so tightly packed… I get it."

Ginny was still irritated. "I don't. They'll cry for your aid but won't let you in to visit a patient. Hypocrites."

Harry grinned in spite of the depressing topic. It was nice having someone care so much about him. The others did too, but Ginny was more… vicious in his defence. In a little over two weeks, the thorns would finally be gone. He could hold her…

Neville asked, "Sure thing, Harry. I'll be glad to check on her. Say, isn't your wand also kind of poisonous? You know, like your thorns?"

Harry winced. "My thorns are like… a paper cut. They'll result in an angry skin infection. My wand is a battle axe. It'll do more than make you sick." Harry knew how many times Gregorovitch was bedridden from working on the wand, and the wand maker had received medical aid. Everyone was looking nervously at him. Harry hated when he was in the spotlight. Like a freak at a circus.

The mail he started getting after the battle of the Ministry was starting to thin out a bit. It was mostly scared people looking for reassurances. Dumbledore caused a good bit of that when he made it clear Harry had defeated Voldemort without explaining the unusual circumstances. It still took him an hour to get through his mail each day… Dobby and Pipsey actually helped him out. Once and while he'd respond when it seemed appropriate. He began sorting through a small stack.

After a minute, Harry looked up and reminded everyone to practice over the break. "Remember, none of you have the trace anymore, make sure you don't get rusty."

DoD—

The Burrow

March 23 - April 6, 1997

Harry had spent the last two weeks between Grimmauld place and the Burrow. He had taken the time to reconnect with family and prepare for the ritual he was about to begin. Today was the last day of their Holiday and at 11AM, the Hogwarts Express would depart for school. He had crates of materials from Fred and George, all of which would be incredibly useful to the DA. Shield Cloaks, Headless Hats, Portable Swamps, Peruvian Darkness Power, and Decoy Detonators had a terrific amount of flexibility. He held a few back for his own use next year. He and Hermione also spent the time brewing a dozen new potions over the holidays. Hermione was ready to Confund Filch to get the 'contraband' through inspections.

On the last day of the Holidays, before dawn, Harry and Bill were now up before dawn preparing a secluded spot behind the Burrow for a Fire Healing Ceremony. This was an Elemental ritual that was designed to heal and cleanse. He intended to use it to burn away the thorns he'd had for the last year. He knew his friends all thought he was doing this after breakfast, but he didn't want any distractions. So, he and Bill would do it alone and surprise the others when they got up.

Harry and Bill finished preparing the area, it was time. Harry could barely believe a year and a day had passed since his ill-fated trip to Godric's Hollow. But, with the passing of a year and a day, Harry had begun to feel the thorns dying off and he knew he'd be peppered with scars if he didn't perform this ritual today. It used the healing aspects of the five elements to burn away wounds and injuries. As one would expect, fire was the primary element. The hardest part of the ritual was stepping into a raging bonfire at the end. But after the last two years he'd had, he knew he could manage.

Bill looked over at him. "Looks good, Harry."

He inspected one of the Runic Clusters Harry had carved. "Your Rune carving skills have really gotten better since third year!"

"Thanks, Bill. I had a good teacher." Harry saw his Familiar was watching intently. He knew the girls loved to watch him perform rituals. They looked hungry…

Harry remembered how rough his carving skills were when he took the Curse-breaker examination in Egypt. Yeah, he'd come a long way. At some point, he wanted to meet up with Julia and learn her technique of using clay and curing to make runic tiles.

Back to the present, the Runes were arranged in clusters at four equidistant quadrants around the fire. Harry reviewed the Rune stone clusters they had placed using Bill as the reference point. The element of Earth cluster was on the left side from where Bill was standing. The Air cluster was directly in front of him. Water was to his right and the Fire cluster was opposite the Water cluster, on the direct opposite side of the fire from Bill's position. All in all, setting it all up took about an hour and the sun was rising.

Good, Harry preferred using his Elemental magic at the break of Dawn. Given that the thorns were a form of blood magic, the sunrise was the perfect time to perform this ritual. He had taken his time to get this right as it was the first time he'd performed the ritual. His mother's incarnation had drilled it into him for weeks and he was certain everything was set correctly.

Looking over at Bill, "Ok, this should about do it." Bill had also set up a zone to prevent the Burrow's wards from extinguishing the fire. "Let's get this party started. You may want to stand back a bit, it's going to get extremely hot."

Harry silently cast an 'Incendio' and lit the wood in the fire pit. "Bill, I'm stating the obvious, but don't do anything to interrupt the fire. Just watch and let the ritual run its course. I'll be summoning pure Elemental fire."

Bill looked critically at Harry. "Are you sure about this, Harry." His concern was showing through.

Harry gave a short nod. "Completely."

Moving counter-clockwise, Harry began circling the fire just outside the runes. He very slowly made three rotations around the fire and rune stones. On the fourth rotation, as he approached the Rune stones in the Earth quadrant to Bill's left, Harry proclaimed, "Earth!" He channelled his magic, focusing on Earth as the element that is commonly referenced with strength and durability. But it is also representative of fertility, orderliness, sustenance, wisdom and being well grounded. The Earth Rune stones lit up and began glowing as Harry slowly proceeded to the next rune cluster.

Harry slowly approached the rune stones representing Water in the quadrant between Bill and the fire. He proclaimed, "Water!" He channelled his magic, focusing on Water as the element that is frequently attributed to healing and purification. It is also associated with dreaming, and devotion. It sustained aquatic life, and some attribute it birth. But it is also the destructive power of the Tsunami. The immense force and disaster of the flood. Water can relentlessly wear away stone and eat through activated the cluster of Rune stones representing water and watched them begin to glow with power.

Harry moved to the next quadrant. He once more proclaimed, "Air!" He channelled his magic and focused on Air as the element associated with perception and intelligence. But it is also related to communication, imagination, and harmony. It provided the oxygen we breathe and sustained our lives with. Air can be deadly and destructive as well. Tornados and lightning are also a part of the element of his magic, Harry activated the Air Rune stones.

Finally, Harry reached the last quadrant directly across from Bill, on the other side of the fire. "And then there is Fire!" At this, Harry activated the last Rune stones, they blazed unbelievably intensely. "Fire and Destruction! Aggressiveness! Passion, Excitement, Love, Courage, Creativity! Fire can destroy, but it also provides warmth and the safety of the Hearth. It gives heat for cooking raw food and protecting us from the cold. Fire can fuel Rebirth! Life!" At this Harry began glowing and actually stepped into the fire.

From within the flames, Harry was still chanting. Bill could just hear him over the sound of the roaring fire that had now reached extreme levels of heat and light. "Fire destroys but it allows for new Life. Rebirth! It can healand purifyas well as destroy and burn!"

Harry felt the fire engulf him completely. He was glowing with power and merging with the raw element of fire. It coursed through his blood, his veins, his bones, and his nervous system. He inhaled the flames and felt it cleanse his lungs. His thorns were burned away and were rendered as smoke.

The fire burned deeply, and the pain was exquisite! Harry knew words alone couldn't adequately describe what he felt. Pain, rapture, joy, all rolled into one. To merge and become one with the element of fire itself as the thorns were vaporised and the flesh melted over the evidence of their existence, leaving no trace that they had existed.

Stepping out of the fire, Harry completed the ritual, saying, "And tying them all together is Wood. It is the most important element of all. It grows in the earth and prevents erosion. It absorbs and oxygenates the very air we breathe. It consumes and filters the water of the earth. And it provides sustenance for the flame… Wood is the source of unity for the elements and the centre of the elemental wheel. It gives us balance!"

Harry began to cool down and he stopped glowing. He marvelled at the feeling of freedom and life that came from the ritual. For the first time in a year, he wasn't enduring the horrible pain caused by the thorns… He was healed.

Bill handed him a robe he had conjured. Harry realised all his clothes had burned off. His Familiar immediately slithered up to and around him.

The girls began talking to him all at once. § "Harry that was amazing… I'm never letting go of you… So smooth and warm… So beautiful…" §

They were wrapped around his neck and shoulders. Selene was rolling about in his hair while Hecate and Artemis nestled in over each shoulder and under his chin.

Harry whispered, §"I've missed holding you girls… so beautiful."§

Bill stared at Harry and saw just how powerful the young man had become. He had a nimbus of power that only a few Wizards or Witches would ever have. He was now whole and healed up. He still moved a bit awkwardly, as if he still had thorns, but he'd adjust.

"Harry let's get you inside. A shower and a big breakfast will go a long way to making this a great morning."

Harry laughed. "Right! And I have a girlfriend to be with!"

Bill gave Harry a somewhat conflicted look… "Yeah. Just remember, she's my sister."

Harry smirked back. "Didn't we already have this talk two years ago?"

Bill grimly responded, "Doesn't mean I want to hear about it."

DoD—

Hogwarts Express

April 6, 1997

Sunday Noon

Harry barely made it to the platform at Kings Cross on time. Now that the thorns were gone, he wanted clothes that actually fit, but on a Sunday, the options were limited. He had just enough time for a quick stop in Diagon Alley along with a few other families that were picking up a few last-minute items. Unfortunately, the trip resulted in his having a very public argument with Fudge and spilling ice cream all over himself. Fudge cornering him in Diagon Alley drew attention to him and so many people wanted to speak to him and get his reassurances that he almost missed the train.

The train ride started off brilliantly. Harry had a steady stream of people coming by their cabin to stop in and visit him. It seemed like everyone now knew he was healed up and they wanted to see him. But it got old very quickly. He went from feeling proud and happy around his friends, to nervous and withdrawn as other students also wanted to see him.

Apparently, there was a rumor around school that the thorns were permanent and the source of his sudden magical ability. A few people even inquired if he was a Squib again now that the thorns were gone. Katie asked if he would consider re-joining the Quidditch team. She had apparently forgotten he was kicked out of Gryffindor. But that wasn't the worst part.

The worst was how people kept wanting to touch him… He loved having his familiar coiled around him, and hugs from Ginny and Hermione were nice. But when he wasn't holding the girls, people kept touching his shoulder and brushing up against him. When he walked down the train to use the loo, he ended up rubbing against other people as they passed by each other. Had it always been like this? Before the thorns?

Then there was the way Ginny seemed annoyed with his Familiar. It wasn't over, but he picked up on a few cues. Before his training with Remus and Tonks, he would have missed it all together. Harry overheard her saying something about the 'they' being too possessive. Whenever Harry would talk to the girls in Parseltongue, Ginny seemed to tense up and look away. It was subtle, but definitely there. He'd deal with this later when they got to Hogwarts and had a bit of private time.

DoD—

Hogwarts

April 6 - 22, 1997

Once Harry and Ginny had time to talk in private, she admitted to feeling excluded when Harry was with his Familiar. Harry and Ginny had worked things out and after a couple of weeks and his Familiar seemed more willing to let Harry go about his day without their constant attention. One area the girls refused to budge on was the sleeping arrangement. The insisted on sleeping with him, saying they needed the physical contact for magical reasons.

While he didn't really believe the reason they gave, it brought him a great deal of comfort to feel them coiled about on him. Harry found it peaceful sleeping with them coiled around his arm and with their heads resting beside him on a pillow. Selene insisted on resting over Harry's head. She seemed to love the way his feathery hair felt.

Ginny didn't need to know about any of this.

He continued to use his 'anonymous' charm when he was moving about the castle, but he avoided crowded hallways where physical contact with others was a given. Harry vaguely remembered feeling like this in his fourth year when everyone was trying to Hex him. After a year of no real contact, he was even more bothered than he had been before.

Harry had publicly met with the New Minister to proclaim his support and encouraged Magical Britain to remain calm and support the ministry. He ad-libbed a bit emphasising the need to maintain constant vigilance and report anything that seems out of the ordinary. Mad-Eye Moody would be proud. Harry was shocked at the constant adoration he received whenever he was out in public without his 'Anonymous' Charm. People seemed to think he was going to just walk up to Voldemort and challenge the man to a duel. Some people actually seemed irritated he hadn't done it yet. Damn fools.

Harry began exercising more vigorously each morning to help burn off anxiety, and it helped. He also realised he was not in as good condition as he'd been before the thorns. Other than resistance training, most cardio resulted in his own thorns tearing him up. He took up running each morning and more aggressive calisthenics to get back into shape. Sadly, he realised it would take months… In fact, he probably wouldn't have time to get back to the same condition he had been in when he was living the muggle life. He just had too much going on. His only consolation was that he'd still put most Wizards to shame.

On April 22, Harry was eating in the Great Hall with his friends when he saw a familiar face enter. Luna Lovegood was returning today. Harry gave Ginny's hand a squeeze and a kiss on her cheek before rapidly approaching the petite blonde witch.

"Luna! I'm so happy to see you!" He then took her into a delicate hug.

"Hello, Harry." She pulled back after Harry released her from his hug and smiled at him. "Thank you for the letters Harry. It's nice to have friends."

Harry noticed she was looking at him oddly.

"Harry, you are both less prickly and pricklier all at the same time. How odd."

Not knowing what to say, Harry just shrugged. "I've never been accused of being normal…"

Before Luna could say anything, there were a dozen other students surrounding Luna. It was good to see her surrounded by so many people who cared for her. It was obvious how touched she was.

Harry felt a weird sensation of being watched. Looking quickly to his left, he saw Theo Nott staring at the group. He had a strange look on his face. He noticed Harry's gaze and looked away. Harry noted his face had new skin all over it and his eyes seemed to have been regrown without issue. A shame, really. But he forced himself to put his attention back on Luna. She deserved his time and affection.

DoD—

Hogwarts

Gryffindor Common Room

May 10, 1997 –

Harry tentatively approached the door to the Gryffindor common room. He could hear the noise down the hallway. Gryffindor had just won the Quidditch cup and he'd been invited to participate in the big party. After his rebuff of McGonagall's offer of friendship, the two had avoided each other. Now he was wondering if she'd be in the Common room. He was still sore from yesterday's training with Dumbledore and he was only here for Ginny's sake.

Harry stopped in front of the painting of the Fat Lady and waited for her to acknowledge him. She seemed intent on avoiding eye contact and went about her meanderings as if he weren't there. He sent a weak stinging charm at the painting to get her attention. She looked at him with both shock and annoyance.

She practically hissed at him, "What do you want?" Harry didn't remember her being so antagonistic before. Was it the effect of his expulsion or something else? With a roll of his eyes, he realised it didn't matter.

"Entry would be nice. 'Quidditch Cup' is the password." Seeing her glowering, he said, "Open up or I summon paint thinner." She glared at him as the painting opened up.

The noise was deafening as Harry stepped into the room. Sounds of celebration were all around him. He couldn't help but feel unwelcome and vulnerable as he looked about for Ginny. She had been the high scorer and had been the reason for the victory. Every time Ginny touched the Quaffle, she scored almost effortlessly. Her skill level was so far above the majority of the other players, it was almost comical.

Suddenly, he was in a hug between Lavender and Parvati. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but it seemed nice. Harry knew immediately McGonagall wasn't there. These two were clearly drinking something stronger than butterbeer and the old bat would never allow anything like that. Hermione and Ron found him next. They were both living it up and feeling no pain.

Suddenly, all eyes were on Katie Bell who was standing on a table near the fireplace. She was holding the Quidditch cup and was drinking something out of it. Again, not butterbeer. She raised her hands and the cup, resulting in the room quieting down.

"All right Gryffinnndoors! We came to winnit and wedone it!" She then shouted out "Whooop-Whoooooo!" The rest of the common room began cheering.

Harry suddenly hoped she didn't fall off the table. She was as inebriated as Trelawney tended to get during the Christmas feast. With a grin, Harry realised she'd earned it.

Katie raised her hand again. "And the proud MTV… No wait, VPM..." Katie stopped a moment and focused. "The proud MVP award goes to… Ginny Weasley, the best chaser I've ever seen and the next captain of the team!"

Ginny was helped up on the table with Katie and handed the cup. Pausing a moment, she grasped it and drank so deeply it spilled whatever was in it down the sides of her mouth. Harry laughed thinking how much she'd regret that in the morning… But the morning was a long way away.

Harry suddenly remembered he still had the fireworks he'd planned to set off after the OWLs last year. After he had been kidnapped and had to fight his way out of the Ministry, he ended up just leaving them in the… Where the hell did he leave them? Forget it… Still, he wanted to do something nice for Katie and Ginny.

His father has received an incarnation from a master illusionist and had passed that knowledge on to him. Harry withdrew his Phoenix feather wand and pointed it at the ceiling. This would be easy…Just a little focus… Create a loop…

Some people saw Harry and moved backwards nervously. Apparently, not everyone was comfortable around him. Not that Harry cared, he wasn't comfortable around most people in the castle either. Dismissing those thoughts, Harry created the illusion of a star filled sky with a massive fireworks display. It wasn't quite as good as the real thing, but it would still be perfect for the party.

The crowd grew wild again and Ginny came crashing into him. Before he knew it, they were kissing and there was more cheering. With a little concentration, the fireworks suddenly resembled a heart. Yeah, he planned to enjoy the party.

DoD—

Hogwarts

Headmaster's Office

May 22, 1997

Albus and Filius emerged from the Pensieve containing the last memory of Harry's training. Harry had bested Albus in four out of five battles. They both sat quietly a moment while tea was delivered by a house elf.

Filius looked at Albus critically for a moment. "Albus, were you holding back? I only ask because you seemed a bit… off."

"No, Filius. I was giving it my all." He stole a quick glance at his withered hand. "However, I must admit that my best has diminished in recent weeks." Albus wondered if it would have made a difference. Probably, but how much.

Filius nodded sadly. "I see. I'll be honest with you, Albus… Without the thorns, he's faster than I have ever seen you move. On par with images I've seen of Grindelwald in his prime… But with two wands, I think he even surpasses that Dark Lord for speed."

"No, Filius. I humbly would disagree with your deduction. Harry's speed, while quite impressive, isn't unnatural the way Gellert Grindelwald's was. He only appears to have enhanced speed because he uses his Animagus perceptions and his instinctive divinatory abilities in combat. This has resulted in near instant and occasionally precognitive reactions. Harry's actual physical speed is natural and enhanced with training. Impressively, after a brief period of adjustment, Harry's natural speed seems to have increased slightly since the thorns were removed."

Filius drank a little tea and picked up a biscuit. "I'd take reactions over speed any day, Albus. You're still far more experienced, but Harry is terrifyingly effective. Even if you were fully healthy, I think it would be a toss-up."

Albus sipped his tea sadly. "So, it would seem." He then added wistfully, "Although in my youth, I was terribly fast and quite powerful as well."

Filius chuckled. He knew it was true. "Do you think he can beat Voldemort? That's the question."

Albus wondered about that as well. "Maybe. There really isn't a lot more we can teach him. Perhaps we should switch gears and help him develop strategies to handle the killing curse more effectively. Focusing more on Transfiguration and dodging."

After biting into his biscuit, Filius shook his head in annoyance. "I just don't understand where the You-Know-Who gets all that power. Most Wizards and Witches can only manage two or three consecutive Killing curses before exhausting themselves. Yet 'You-Know-Who' just throws them out one after another."

Albus hadn't included Filius in his discussions with Harry and the Unspeakables. Perhaps now is as good a time as ever. "There is reason to suspect the Dark Mark gives him some means of controlling and drawing power from those who take the Mark. And, as you must suspect, he's almost certainly undergone blood rituals to increase his power."

Filius sat his biscuit down, his appetite lost. "Great Merlin… His followers are little more than batteries… How many rituals do you think he's undergone?

Albus tossed a lemon drop into his mouth. "It's impossible to say, but I'd guess seven. He always had a fixation with that number. But realistically, after three rituals there is a diminishing return to the gains one would get from additional rituals."

Filius looked at him curiously. Albus knew what he was thinking but not asking. Yes, he and Gellert had both performed three blood rituals under the other's watchful eyes. It had increased their natural power and ability… The first ritual improved their connection to their magic, the second increased their strength, speed, and stamina, and the third sharpened their minds tremendously.

Albus looked at Filius a moment and noted, "I can surmise what you are wondering. It's curious how Harry has performed as if he had undergone a magical ritual himself, while not showing any of the normal signs. Whatever means were used to repair his magic boosted him nearly to his natural limit. A limit that was already quite high. His physical and mental abilities, while well developed, are not at the level of someone who had bolstered themselves magically."

Filius smiled and chuckled. "I think we both know I wasn't wondering about Harry."

After it became clear Albus wasn't going to say anything, Filius stated the obvious. "He's ready. As you said, we can refine his abilities against the killing curse… and any other specific threats he may face. But it's time to also consider his little study group. I fear what will happen when you're gone, Albus."

"What do you suggest?"

"It's time I stepped in and took over some of the training those children are getting. I need to do more than assist through Harry."

Albus shook his head, "No, Filius. You must work through Harry to maintain the image of neutrality. If the war turns and Hogwarts is occupied, you and Minerva will have to be ready to protect your students. You must not give any reason for an occupied Ministry to demand your removal."

Filius raised his eyebrows, "Just me and Minerva, Albus?"

"You are the only two with the ability to engage Death Eaters directly, should student lives be in danger."

Filius challenged the Headmaster, "What of Severus?"

"That's complicated." Albus paused a moment before adding, "But well in order."

Filius gently shook his head. "Albus, you really don't do yourself credit with all these secrets." He then compassionately added, "I can only imagine how they must weigh on you."

Albus could only look at his friend and wonder how he had been fortunate to have met so many kind-hearted people in his soon to end lifetime.

Looking suddenly resolute, Filius proclaimed, "Just so you know, Albus. If Severus threatens a student, I'll kill him on the spot."

Albus nodded gloomily. "I would expect no less."

DoD—

Room of Requirement

May 29, 1997

Theo Nott had finally reached a point where he felt confident, he would complete his primary objective. He had been tasked with finding and repairing a Vanishing Cabinet in a magically hidden room to allow the Dark Lord to send his followers into Hogwarts and attack from inside the walls. After the winter break, Theo was sent a paradigm changing book on wards and how they affected enchantments. It was a very enlightening tome, and it changed the way he was approaching the repairs on the Vanishing Cabinet.

Theo now understood that part of the problem with the Vanishing Cabinet he had been working on was the Wards of Hogwarts and the immense number of ley lines that powered them. Once he understood this, he was able to begin adjustments on the enchantments to align them appropriately. It had been a long and drawn out process involving months of trial and error. Every week he was able to see real progress where before he only saw failure. By early March, he was ready to begin testing and fine tuning the enchantments.

The initial tests involved inanimate, but delicate, objects. Fine crystal and other easily shattered materials. He would send them through the cabinet, then the receivers would respond with a similar object. When he was able to send inanimate objects through the cabinet, be knew he had the basic enchantments aligned. To further fine tune the cabinet, he switched to plant life. Roses were his favorite.

By April, he was testing magical plants. The other cabinet would send a baby Mandrake, or some other magical plant and he would receive it and log the results. The one's that survived, were sent back. At first, none survived. Then they would survive for a few days and perish. Eventually, he received word that his last plant had come through unscathed.

Sending living animals was the final step to determine if the cabinets were aligned enough to use safely. Over the last five weeks, Theo had been sending doves, rats, and even a rabbit through the cabinet. The first tests were rather disgusting in their failures, but improvements were made each day. By mid may, the animals being sent back and forth between the cabinets were whole and healthy. But today was the real test.

Theo held his breathe while the door began to creak open. Then, out stepped a short and slightly fat man with only one hand. Theo recognised him immediately as Peter Pettigrew. It was obvious the man was both terrified and relieved. He was breathing hard and quivering in fear.

"Am I h-h-here? I-is this… Hogwarts?" The man was looking about in fright. He looked so much like a rodent… After spending most of his adult life as a rodent, it was no surprise he resembled one. Azkaban had not been kind to the man and after his testimony, he was despised by all the other Death Eaters as well.

Theo couldn't help but feel a bit of pity for the man. Forced to be a test rat… With a groan, Theo understood why Pettigrew had been chosen. The Dark Lord truly had a malicious sense of humour. If you need a test rat, use a man who was already part rat.

Theo nodded. "You're safe, Pettigrew."

The pathetic little man gathered himself and turned into a rat, then back into a man. He then took out a wand and cast a 'Lumos'.

Pettigrew then smiled and his relief was shown clearly in his face. "Good, good. Everything still works. Thank Merlin." He seemed pleased with the results. He then turned and stepped back toward the cabinet. His nervousness was apparent, but it had to be tested going both ways.

Pettigrew suddenly stopped and turned. "Well, back I go now… Oh, wait. You are to do nothing more until Hogwarts is vulnerable. When Dumbledore leaves the castle, send word and we'll join you."

The little Death Eater then entered the cabinet and slowly closed the door once more. It was clear how afraid he was, and Theo couldn't really blame him. But everything seemed to be in working order.

Theo took relief in knowing he was now done. He just had to watch and wait. He could even get a decent night's sleep now.

It would all be over soon enough.

DoD—

Harry's Dreamscape

June 16, 1997

Harry was meditating in the woods surrounding his parent's 'dream home'. He was visualising everything about the Owl that he had seen years ago at the zoo. He saw it so many years ago. He had been amazed to hear the bird could see and hear many times better than people could. The dark never bothered it. Harry had been scared of the Dark, living in his cupboard as he did. He remembered wishing he could be more like the Owl. The dark would be his friend… He locked eyes and they just seemed to understand each other. The memory was so old, but with Occlumency, he could recall it very well.

It was a Greater Sooty Owl, closely related to a Barn Owl and native to Australia. It was darker than a Barn Owl, being mostly dark brown with a few lighter areas. On a dark night, it would be nearly invisible. That was perfect, given that it was a nocturnal predator. Compared to other Owls, it was medium to large in size, but nowhere near as large as an Eagle Owl or Hedwig had been. Still, it felt… right. In his mind, he wasn't chasing a snitch, he was chasing his prey. Silent as death itself and incredibly lethal. He understood the hunt and the catch…

"Easy there, son. Just relax into it. Imagine the feel of the wind and the air… Let it happen… slow and easy… Don't force it."

His father's incarnation was guiding him through these exercises and they both believed tonight would be his first change. They had been at it for months, but Harry had already been partially transforming for years. His eyes and ears were now easily transformed at will and had been for years. His perceptions always sped up significantly whenever he willed it. Lily's incarnation had drilled that into him as a means of survival.

Harry's Runespoor was suddenly awakened to the impossibly loud and piercing downscale shriek that sounded like a falling muggle bomb, without the final boom of an explosion. Fangs were bared as his familiar recoiled from the horrible sound that had awakened her. The only thing that kept them from striking and killing the wretched bird that had appeared beside them was the bright Emerald Green eyes looking at them.

For the first time, Harry understood why people were a bit scared of his girls. They really could be frightening. For their part, Harry's 'girls' refused to speak to him for almost forty-eight hours.

DoD—

AN:

At this point, Harry was now free of his thorns and was adjusting to physical contact again. After a year of 'no touching' it's an understandable adjustment. Additionally, he is nearly finished with his combat training. He has finally found the Animagus form he uses in Casting Shadows and has achieved his first transformation. He was training the DA and planning for his seventh year being out of school. Dumbledore was preparing for his own demise and all paths lead to a final battle in the next chapter which will be ending year 6.

Some readers may wonder why the spell chains Harry is teaching to the majority of the DA are less than lethal. The way I am seeing it, most students aren't mentally ready to use lethal curses and even if they were, the response by the school under Voldemort's rule would be horrific. Casting effective but non-lethal spells is the smarter play when the goal is to survive and escape.

This chapter moved things along quickly and had a bit of a 'summary' feel to it, but the key points have been covered. With a little luck, I can wrap up the entire story by Chapter 50.

Next: Theo makes his move. Combat ensues.