Harry Potter & the Ritual of Merlin's Choice

Chapter 23

The Room sensed their different needs once Luna had destroyed the diadem, but Harry was deeply affected by the new shape it adopted. He swallowed a lump of pain as memories of the summer before his fifth year rose unbidden: the twins showing off their Extendable Ears, Mad-Eye Moody showing him a picture of the original Order of the Phoenix, Sirius arguing with Molly Weasley that Harry had a right to ask questions…

He shot a look at the present-day Sirius—the Sirius who had never spent thirteen years in Azkaban, and never would—and managed a half-smile. His godfather, who was laughing at something that James had just said, showed no indication that he recognized the Room’s new form—the kitchen at Grimmauld Place during an Order meeting. Then again, maybe he didn't recognize it. Walburga Black was still mistress at Grimmauld Place…

Shuddering, Harry shook his head, trying to banish the images that his imagination had conjured; he really didn't want to think about what the house looked like now, before the Order cleaned it up… He focused instead on the impossible scene before him: his parents, Sirius, Remus, and Dumbledore all alive and milling around the kitchen of Sirius' childhood home with him and Luna.

Unlike Sirius, Luna did seem to recognize the room. Smiling serenely, she leaned over and whispered in Harry’s ear, “All that’s missing is Kreacher.” Harry couldn’t help smiling as the memory of introducing Luna to Kreacher replaced the darker thoughts floating through his mind.

Finally, he cleared his throat, prompting the last of the group to take their seats at the table. "Sothat may have seemed a little anti-climactic," he began, referring to the speed with which Luna had vanquished the diadem Horcrux, "but, while Luna may have made things look easy, we only saw half the battle. Voldemort's Horcruxes attack your mind, and the longer you hesitate, the stronger they strike..."

He surveyed the group, but thankfully no one seemed inclined to disagree. "Okay, now that that's dealt with, we have four more Horcruxes to take care of..." Harry hesitated, glancing nervously at the headmaster.

He knew that, if they were going to make any further progress, he was going to have to share more information, but… how to do so without Dumbledore deciding to go off on his own and getting himself maimed or killed? Short of requiring magical oaths—which he would not do—there wasn't much that he could do.

Harry sighed. He couldn't keep putting things off, though; the headmaster was right about that. "So, yes, Voldemort's Horcruxes…" he began. "First off, there's his diary. Voldemort gave it to Lucius Malfoy for safe-keeping…" As he launched into an account of everything that he knew about it, the others listened attentively. The only other sounds were the scratch of Remus' quill as he took notes and the sound of James and Sirius snickering at the fact that Voldemort had kept a diary. Lily, who kept a diary of her own, glared at them indignantly.

The lack of significant interruptions was surprising, but Harry wasn't about to complain about it. He knew that it wouldn't last.

Indeed, it didn't. He was halfway through his description of Slytherin's locket, currently hidden somewhere in Grimmauld Place, when Sirius scoffed loudly and rudely interrupted, "What's my mother's house-elf doing with a piece of Voldemort's soul?" his voice dripping with derision.

Harry sighed, recalling the brave house-elf who had led Hogwarts' elves into battle, the elf who had burst into tears the day the two time travellers had bid him goodbye. He managed to keep his tone level, however. Sirius had no way of knowing, and, if Harry was completely honest with himself, he could remember all too well a time when he too had thought poorly of Kreacher.

He hesitated, not sure how to explain. "It was given to him to destroy."

"By whom? Why?" Sirius' tone was challenging, as if he felt that whatever Harry knew was a personal intrusion into his early family life.

Again Harry did not speak immediately, unsure how much to tell Sirius. "It was stolen from its original hiding place..." Harry's face darkened and his voice quietened almost to a whisper before he continued. "A very... very brave man had to sacrifice himself to do it."

Perhaps Sirius sensed what was to come would be unpalatable for his head dropped into his hands, his forehead nearly touching the table. Finally, he looked up, his expression tense, as if bracing himself. "Who?"

James came and stood at Sirius' side, making Harry feel even more uneasy. There was no easy way to say it.

"Your brother," he blurted it out quickly, before he could lose his nerve.

"You lie!" Sirius leapt to his feet and James took his arm to try to calm him. "My brother was an idiot and a coward! The Dark Lord had him killed when he got cold-feet about being a Death Eater!"

"Your brother was a hero!" shouted Harry. "He sacrificed himself to destroy the locket! Why would I make something like that up!?"

Sirius shook his head in denial. "No...no..." He leaned one hand flat upon the table as if he needed support and turned his head away.

Harry felt an arm around his shoulder and he thought it must be Luna, but James' expression told him it was his mother. He lowered his voice before continuing more calmly. "Regulus gave it to Kreacher to destroy, but he hasn't succeeded yet—mostly because he can't get it open without Parseltongue—and has been punishing himself ever since."

Sirius had sank down into his chair again. Beyond him, Luna shook her head and motioned Harry to back off.

He waited, giving Sirius time to adjust before continuing where he'd left off before the interruption. "Now when we were cleaning out the cabinets in the drawing room at Grimmauld Place—"

"Why were you at Grimmauld Place!?" asked Sirius, cutting him off, again.

This time, Harry didn't bother responding to the question, choosing instead to carry on as if he hadn't heard it, detailing everything that he could recall about the locket and its most likely current location.

He broached the subject of Hufflepuff's Cup next, stressing the fact that he really didn't want to break into Gringotts to retrieve it. If the dropped jaws and looks of horror—Lily had looked particularly appalled and terrified—that resulted from his story were any indication, neither did anyone else, though Sirius had seemed impressed by the fact that they'd gotten to ride a dragon to escape. But it wasn't Sirius's expression that worried Harry. No, he was more concerned about the headmaster—halfway through Harry's rendition his eyes had started twinkling, and he'd refused to explain why, except to say that he'd gotten an idea for retrieving it.

Much as Harry would have liked to, he didn't insist on an answer. After all, he wasn't being entirely forthcoming himself. He left Marvolo Gaunt's ring for last and, though Dumbledore pressed him for details, he refused to say anything more than, "The headmaster lost his hand recovering it, so we'll be leaving it for the end."

The Ministry of Magic Auror Headquarters was bustling with activity, dozens of interdepartmental memos flying to and fro, in and out of cubicles. And then there were the Aurors themselves, in their scarlet robes, rushing hurriedly about.

After ten minutes spent checking various cubicles for a trustworthy Auror who was also a member of the Order, James was ready to give up—he was surprised that no one had asked him yet what he was doing lurking around. Surely it would be simpler to just contact one of them at home, after hours, like they usually did. But Dumbledore had insisted on someone going immediately, and Harry had backed him up, this time. Apparently Malfoy wouldn't remain in custody much longer, and, once he was released, they'd lose a valuable window of opportunity—if nothing else, it'd be a heck of a lot harder to get a warrant to raid his house.

Just as he was about to turn around and leave—give up and try again later—James spotted Frank Longbottom, deep in conversation with another Auror, leaning on someone's cubicle, which was plastered with pictures of Bellatrix Lestrange.

"Aha! Just the man I was looking for!" exclaimed James, clapping Frank on the shoulder, as he approached the pair, "I realize you're all really busy, but I really need to talk to you about a certain order of business. Do you think we could step into your office?" he asked him, glad to have stumbled upon one of the few Aurors who actually had an office, as opposed to just a cubicle.

Frank's expression, which had first registered surprise at the interruption, transformed abruptly. "Yes, of course, of course, right this way..." he answered, all business, as he ushered James quickly towards his office, though he did take a moment to reassure his colleague, "Sorry, urgent matter, have to deal with it right away, but I'll get back to you about those reports."

Once safely behind the privacy wards on his office, the fake smile the Auror had pasted on faded away. "Dumbledore sent you?" he asked, worriedly, not even taking the time to offer the other wizard a seat. "Is something wrong? Alice and Neville? He doesn't usually try to contact me at work."

"No, no, nothing wrong," James reassured, smiling broadly at Frank's sigh of relief. "I'm actually here to ask you for a favour." He paused, not sure how to explain.

"Well go on..." prompted Frank, as he shuffled through a pile of parchment on his cluttered desk, his tone mildly impatient, "I am actually very busy."

"It's about Lucius Malfoy," James began. "It has come to Dumbledore's attention that he was amongst some of the Department's early arrests, on suspicion of Death Eater activities."

Setting aside the papers he’d been riffling through, Frank flopped into his office chair and grunted, in response. "Wasted effort, that," he complained, gesturing for James to sit down in the rickety seat across from him. "The bastard's already claiming Imperious. Mark my words; he'll be released before the week is out."

The chair, usually reserved for wayward junior Aurors getting a dressing down, creaked as James sat down. He grimaced, but resisted the urge to stand up and transfigure it into something more comfortable. "Yes, well…that's not particularly surprising, which is why Dumbledore asked me to share an anonymous tip he received. Apparently, the most incriminating Dark Arts articles in Lucius' collection are secreted in a hidden chamber below his drawing-room floor.

"Dumbledore was hoping you—or someone else we can trust within the Auror's Corps—could lead a raid on Malfoy Manor before he manages to get all the charges against him dropped. Might help you get the charges to stick..."

"How certain is this source?" asked Frank, "This the same person that provided the Order with intelligence on Death Eater attacks? Because, while some of those have been excellent, quite a few have been dead ends…"

"It's the same source, yes. But while the intelligence about the attacks was nebulous, this he's positive about." James had a hard time not sounding a little defensive in his explanation.

"Well, if you're certain," Frank agreed, "I'd sure like to be the one to find some definitive proof against Malfoy. Not sure how this constitutes a favour though..."

"I was getting to that," James smirked, leaning back leisurely despite the creaking chair. "The same source indicated that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named entrusted Malfoy with an artefact before his demise—a shabby blank diary with a black cover, inscribed with the name T.M. Riddle on the first page, which Malfoy has probably secreted with his Dark Arts stash. Though it'll likely appear harmless, in the wrong hands it could be used to bring He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named back to life."

"What!?" the Auror exclaimed in shock. He jumped to his feet, dislodging several rolls of parchment from his desk, in the process, and shaking his head in disbelief.

"Yeah," James answered, his expression, "I'm not really clear on the details, but you can understand why Dumbledore wants to recover it… It can't be destroyed by ordinary means, so if you could bring it to Dumbledore when you find it?"

Frank nodded grimly, shuddering as he replied, "Bad enough dealing with him once, we really don't need any of his Death Eaters trying to resurrect him… I'll see what I can do."

"Well, I suppose that's all then." James rose to leave, but he hesitated at the door. "Before I go…on a more personal note…you and Alice…Lily's been beside herself with worry ever since Alice brushed her off when she tried to warn her…"

Frank swallowed hard. He worried about his family more than he cared to admit. But, no, they would not, could not, hide from danger. When he finally responded, his voice was firm. "You can't expect us to hole up and hide. I'm an Auror. Alice is an Auror. We have a job to do. Even with the Dark Lord gone, there's still so much work to do..."

James held up his hands in defence, "I'm not suggesting you shirk your duties, but it wouldn't hurt to have a few contingency plans in place, just in case… Bellatrix Lestrange has taken an unfortunate and unnatural interest in you and Alice…"

Colour drained from Frank's face. Alice hadn't mentioned that particular detail in her account of her conversation with Lily Potter. Bellatrix Lestrange… unnatural interest… He shuddered. He'd seen what happened to wizards that Bellatrix Lestrange took an interest in…

When he finally responded, his voice shook a little, "Th-thanks for the warning, James. I'll discuss the matter with Alice. We'll figure something out... "

"Sorry to be the bearer of bad news." James smiled grimly. "You'll contact Dumbledore if you find the diary?"

"Of course, of course," assured Frank, as he let his guest out.

Two wizards met on a hilltop, where they had met once before. The scene cast by the light of day, was less forlorn than it had been for their first meeting, but not by much. The wind whistling through the leafless trees still added an element of despair to the setting, still masked the sound of the older wizard's arrival.

"You asked to meet me?" asked the younger of the two, as he braced himself against the cold November wind, his dark hair blowing wildly against his face.

"You once told me that you would do anything if I kept Lily Evans safe," responded his companion.

Severus Snape nodded warily. "I did," he confirmed.

"Lily is safe and Voldemort is banished, for the time being. Are you ready to make good on your promise?" asked Dumbledore.

Though Severus nodded resolutely, ignoring the cold shiver that ran up his spine, he was unable to hide his resignation, as he inquired, "What is it you ask of me?"

"Voldemort entrusted an artefact to Bellatrix Lestrange before his demise, a small golden cup engraved with a badger, which once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff. She has secreted the item in her vault at Gringotts. You must convince her that the cup is the key to Voldemort's revival—and in a sense it is," explained Dumbledore.

"I need you to convince her that you can brew a potion to bring Voldemort back, if only she brings you the cup from her vault," he continued, "Once she has done so, you must bring it to me, that I might dispose of it properly, for it is not an object easily destroyed."

"And how exactly do you propose I convince her of the existence of a potion that does not exist?" argued Snape, shaking his head in incredulity, "She is no Crabbe or Goyle, easily taken in by any tall tale. She may be lacking in sanity—but not intelligence.

"I'm not asking you to tell a bold-faced lie, just tweak the truth, shall we say," corrected Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling. "Given the measures that Voldemort has taken to avoid true death, such a potion does exist, and would most likely work with the cup as the final ingredient... I'm told it also contains bone of the father, blood of an enemy, and flesh of a servant. So, in essence, I'm not asking you to lie about the existence of such a potion, just about your willingness to brew it."

"And who will protect me from Bellatrix's wrath, when she realises I have double-crossed her?" inquired the Potion's Master; Bellatrix Lestrange was not a witch to trifle with. He shuddered as the wind blowing through the trees picked up briefly, seeming to echo the sentiment.

Dumbledore frowned at the younger wizard, his expression suggesting disappointment. "Do not attempt to convince me that you cannot hold your own against the likes of Bellatrix Lestrange, for I know you to be more than her equal. And... once she is imprisoned in Azkaban—which she will surely be soon enough, given her current level of fanaticism—you will have nothing further to fear from her.

"If, however, we do not get the cup out of her vault, and destroy it," Dumbledore continued, "Voldemort will rise again. That you can be sure of, as you can of the fact that he will not give up in his quest to destroy the threat he perceives in the Potter family—Lily included."

"Very well." The younger wizard bowed his head in defeat, thinking of all he would risk to keep Lily safe—even his life. "I will do as you ask."

It was simple enough for Sirius Black to gain access to Grimmauld Place. Though his mother had blasted him off the family tapestry and disowned him, she could not manipulate the wards to exclude him, given his status as last-remaining direct male blood-line descendant.

Sneaking into the drawing room, where Harry thought he was most likely to find the locket, was another matter. He hadn't taken more than a few steps into the house, before his luck ran out.

"You! Shame of my flesh!" his mother screeched at him from the top of the central staircase. She hobbled down the stairs, wand drawn and pointed at her son, "How dare you come in here and you befoul the house of my fathers!?"

Sirius' control of his temper wasn't much better than hers, and being yelled at did not help. "Shut up, you horrible old hag!" he roared, "I wouldn't be here if I could help it!"

"Then get out you blood traitor! No respect for your betters! Out! Out!" she continued advancing on him, wand still pointed menacingly. Her angry face, ablaze in her own flickering candlelight, so dominated his attention that the greying walls seemed to darken and close in around him.

Sirius drew his own wand. "Shut up!" he yelled back. "If you'll just let me speak to Kreacher, I won't be more than a minute!" He stamped his foot raising dust from the hallway's dull, lifeless carpet.

"So you can contaminate him with your treacherous philosophy!?" she asked, still enraged, "I think not! Get out before I curse you!"

"It's about Regulus, you old hag!" Sirius changed tactics—sort of, "Or do you not care to have his death avenged, you crazy egocentric bitch!?"

Walburga paused momentarily in her advance, before her face twisted into even greater rage. "You dare to besmirch my good son's name with your foul mouth!" she yelled, poking her wand against Sirius' chest, "Regulus is twice the man you'll ever be. Just you see, he'll come home and restore honour to the Noble House of Black! Now be gone!"

"Regulus is dead you old fool! Dead!" countered Sirius. He hesitated a moment then his eyes flashed and widened. "He sacrificed himself to help bring down the Dark Lord you're so fond of!"

His mother looked shocked for a few seconds, but the moment didn’t last. "Shut up!" she yelled back in denial. "Out!" she yelled a final time as she let forth a blast of magic forcing him out the front door, and halfway across the square.

Sirius wasted no more time, before Apparating away. There was no way he was going back into that house while his mother was still alive...

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