The Search for Life and Death

The Search Begins

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XIX

The Search Begins

The world around them was white, as though they were all standing on the blank canvas of an unsure artist. There was nothing to differentiate the ground from the sky except where they were standing, but only their stillness suggested that they were standing at all. They cast no shadows upon the world around them. It all seemed so… unreal.

Harry looked around at the others who were standing with him, surprised to find that there were quite a few people here. When he dreamed, he was almost always alone, but Ron and Hermione were here this time. Fred and George were here, as well, along with Ginny, Luna, Neville, and Malfoy.

This had to be the strangest dream he'd ever had. He was in a white world surrounded by people he went to school with. What in the world?

"Harry?" Dream-Ron asked, catching sight of him and hurrying over to his side. Dream-Hermione did the same thing, and they flanked Harry on either side, eyeing each other in confusion. "What's going on?"

Harry shook his head. He could hear Ron perfectly well, and it really did sound like Ron. Looked like him, too. Harry reached out and grabbed Ron's wrist, startling the redhead, who glanced down at his arm in confusion.

"All right, Harry?"

"This is a really weird dream," Harry muttered, and was briefly flummoxed by his ability to speak. Of course, he remembered being able to before, so he supposed it made sense that he could speak in his dreams.

Hermione's hand found his and she squeezed it gently. "I don't think you're dreaming, Harry, not really. I'm certain I'm real, and I'm here, so we can't really be dreaming." She frowned a little, as though she hadn't explained what she had meant in quite the convincing manner she had hoped. Harry, however, had spent the last four years learning not to be stunned by Hermione's intellect, and while this still seemed very dream-like to him, he suspected she was probably right. She usually was.

"How are we having all the same dream, then?" Ron asked, voicing the question they had all been thinking. "Last I remember, I was in the hospital wing, drinking something foul." He made a face at the memory.

"I-I was in the greenhouses," Neville said, sounding nervous as he wrung his hands. "I was planting." Harry watched in concern as that nervousness turned into distress. "I fell asleep. That plant has to be in soil or it'll die."

Luna stepped over to Neville, a vague expression on her face as she patted his shoulder. "I'm sure the Solstice Vein is well-covered, Neville," she said in that absent-minded voice of hers. "I suspect we were brought here with our safety in mind."

"I suspect the little Raven knows more than she's saying, Fred," George declared, studying the strange blonde girl.

"I suspect the little Claw might share her findings with some prompting, George," Fred replied, also watching Luna.

For her part, Luna ignored the fact that they had spoken at all and continued to pat Neville's shoulder. Neville glanced at her, his distress fading in the face of mild confusion and some concern for the odd girl.

"Well, if we all fell asleep," Hermione said, eyeing everyone to see if anyone objected to that having happened, "then I suspect we must be dreaming. We're just all dreaming the same dream." She glanced at Luna briefly. "Apparently caused by an outside force, so there has to be a reason we were brought here."

"A wise hypothesis, Cor's chosen." There was a breeze that brushed against their faces, the voice whispering like a song in the air, and they could all tell that there was someone else, a tenth presence, there with them.

Harry, who recognized the voice as belonging to the creature who has spoken to him at times before, tilted his head to the side. His eyes scanned the area around him out of instinct more than any thought to find the creature with his eyes. He'd never been able to before. "Who are you?" he asked, even as the others were still turning their heads, searching for someone they would not find.

"Who? Not what?" The creature sounded amused... or perhaps felt. There was a sensation against their skin, pressing against their bones, like the air was squeezing them, shaking in silent laughter.

"Would you tell us if we did ask?" Hermione demanded. She barely resisted stamping a foot in aggravation as she looked around but could find no face to focus on. The shaking of the world around them made her uncomfortable, and that made her angry.

There was a bright laugh and the release of it stilled the world. "No. You're not ready to know what I am. Not yet. But you will be. Eventually." The breeze fluttered again. "As for who I am, that, too, is beyond you for now. You may call me Phoenix, and you may know that I mean only to help you, and to help you help yourselves."

And each other, Harry thought, his mind finding the memory of his previous conversation with this creature, about the Tree of Bonds.

"Yes," the creature said, and Harry knew, somehow, it was replying to his thoughts. "In time, you will learn more about me. You may find some answers in your journeys within the Realm, for it is here that I have brought you, to search for your artifacts."

"You mean Orbis, the ring I've been dreaming about?" Ginny asked, clutching her hands together tightly.

"For you, Ginerva Weasley, yes – Orbis is the artifact you are meant to seek. Harry Potter will seek Lapis Verim, Ronald Weasley will seek Turris, and Hermione Granger will seek Cor. Frederick and George Weasley together will seek Paelius, Neville Longbottom will seek Gladius, and Draco Malfoy will seek Afa."

Ginny glanced over at her friend and then stepped over to put her hand on the blonde girl's shoulder. "What about Luna?" She looked around even though she knew she would not find a pair of eyes to meet.

Luna didn't appear concerned. She gave Neville's shoulder a final pat and then let her arms hang loosely at her sides. She was gazing at a spot just to her left as though she could see something there. The others looked, but there was nothing and they didn't bother to wonder what the girl thought she was seeing.

"I did not expect you to be brought here, Luna Lovegood. It was not my intention for you to follow, and I do not know for what reasons those who dwell Below have sent you into this Realm."

Luna smiled vaguely and her unfocused eyes moved, tracking something in the air that the others could not see. "I must be here for some reason," she said sagely.

"Indeed. You are welcome to stay and seek what you will. Each of you has your duty to perform, your artifact to find, but it is not only you who seek them. The Dark Lord Voldemort, too, has sent out his seven followers to find the artifacts, as well as Albus Dumbledore."

"Dumbledore's looking for the artifacts?" Ron asked loudly.

"He has sent seven of his own chosen to find them, but he himself has not come. He knows that the Dark Lord Voldemort seeks these artifacts and wishes to keep them from him, but those he has chosen do not have the strength to stand alone against this monster. This is why I have chosen you, for the artifacts call out to you. I hear them, as you each must surely hear them."

Ginny found herself nodding absently. In her mind, there was a gentle ringing, like bells tingling just beyond the reach of her conscious senses, drawing her in another direction. She wanted desperately to follow. As she looked around, she found that most of the others were nodding, as well.

"Albus Dumbledore and the Dark Lord Voldemort have sent their chosen into the Realm through use of a potion meant to limit their search to seven days, but they were not prepared for interference from outside forces."

"Outside forces?" Hermione asked, concerned by the implications. "You mean your interference?"

"In part, but not entirely. The potion brewed for the Dark Lord Voldemort's use has been altered by his own hand. In his attempts to increase the potency of the potion, he has negated the limitation. His chosen will seek for these artifacts for as long as it takes to find them, but Albus Dumbledore's potion still bears the seven-day limitation. Meaning that you must not fail in your search for the artifacts, for once the seven days are up, only the Dark Lord Voldemort's chosen and you will remain in the search."

"Can't you just take the limitation from Dumbledore's potion?"

"Not without risking the death of his chosen. The Dark Lord Voldemort cares not for those he sends into an endless hunt. Like Albus Dumbledore's chosen, his will remain trapped in the Realm until they are freed from the potion. There will be no time for them to care for themselves. There will be only the hunt."

Ron swallowed thickly. He couldn't imagine going seven days without being able to eat, among other necessities. He wondered how Dumbledore was going to handle those issues.

"And what about us?" Hermione demanded.

"You are my chosen, and thus under my protection. You will search until all seven artifacts have been found, but your search will be limited to your sleeping moments. When you are awake, you will go through life normally. You will eat, you will go to classes, you will keep yourself strong so that when you are in the Realm, you can continue in your duty.

"This is my first gift to you, the ability to continue your lives even as you search. My second gift is anonymity. You will be able to see the chosen of Albus Dumbledore and the Dark Lord Voldemort and they will be able to see you, but not as you are. Instead, you will make for yourself a new appearance, a mask to hide away your identity, so that you may encounter those you know and be unknown to them.

"This is all that I can give you, for my powers are limited while the artifacts and loose and free for the taking. All the rest – the strength, the will, the wit – must come from you as you seek and battle for your artifact. Good luck, my chosen, and seek swiftly, for time, though endless, is growing so very short."

There was another breeze, this one more powerful than the last, that blew against their backs and threw their hair into their faces. It was like a farewell, the presence leaving them, until the nine were alone in a world of white.

"Well, that was bloody useful," Ron growled, shaking his hair out of his face. "What are we supposed to do now?"

"We follow the song," Ginny said, as though it were obvious.

"What song?" Neville asked, looking at her curiously.

"Can't you hear your artifact singing to you?" She clutched her hands beneath her chin and her voice came out as a whisper as she spoke again. "I can hear bells."

Neville shook his head. "All I can hear is ringing, like metal hitting something hard. Stone, maybe."

"I hear a steady beating," Hermione said, and then her thoughtful expression turned to understanding, "a heartbeat!"

"It sounds like bubbling to me," Fred said, glancing at his twin. "And you, brother?"

"Definitely something brewing," George said, nodding as though they'd had this conversation before.

"I can hear a whipping sound, like something flying through the air." Ron scratched his head. "Broomsticks, maybe?"

"I can hear someone whispering," Harry muttered. "It's too low to make out, but it's obvious they're saying something."

"What do you hear, Draco?"

The others looked at Ron in surprise, though Ginny's eyes had narrowed and she looked pissed off that Ron had even dared to ask the other boy. Nevermind that he was being so familiar with the bastard, using his given name. She didn't say anything, though, and Draco lifted his head slightly to glance at the red-head from under bangs that had begun to grow longer and hide his eyes.

"I don't hear anything," he said, his voice almost too quiet to be heard.

"You mean it's not calling you?" Fred asked, crossing his arms and getting a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Oh, no, it's calling me," Draco said, and shivered slightly. "It's… it's song is a void… a sound of nothing I can hear… very clearly."

There were a series of grimaces all around. None of them spoke the fact, they were perhaps not even fully aware of it, but the call of their individual artifacts was a siren song they longed to hear. It seemed, almost, to be a part of them that did not want to be parted, and so called to them so that they would come and find this missing piece of themselves. No one fancied being in Draco's position and following an empty call to find his artifact.

"We better get moving," Ginny said after the silence dragged on for a while. "I want to get to Orbis before anyone else does."

There were a series of nods all around, but Hermione said, "We need to disguise ourselves, too. Create a new identity, like Phoenix said."

"And how are we supposed to do that?" Ron asked. "It's not like he explained."

"It's quite simple," Luna said, and the sudden clarity to her usually-vague voice startled them all to attention. "If I want to be someone else, then I simply stop being Luna Lovegood and I become… Pari Auttenberg."

And suddenly, Luna was gone.

In place of the tiny Ravenclaw, there was a tall woman with wrinkled skin and wise, strangely-golden eyes. Luna's messy blonde locks were gone. In their place was long white hair that reached nearly to her waist and fell over her face. She was dressed in dark grey robes with tattered edges and held a tall walking stick. Her wand still stuck out from behind her ear - a distinctly-Luna trait - but when she smiled, she was missing half of her teeth.

"Bloody hell!" Ron yelled, and Luna laughed a raspy cackling laugh.

"How did you do that?" Hermione asked, awed.

"I just decided to be Pari," Luna said, and her voice was as raspy as her laugh suggested. She gave a rather disturbing-looking grin, and then Pari was gone and Luna was back, looking the same as always and not even smug. She shrugged as though it really wasn't that big of a deal. "It's not hard."

There erupted a clamor of voices as they all tried to talk at once, discussing the amazing opportunity this offered them to interact with adults without being treated like children, or to confront Voldemort's lackeys without concern of being recognized. There was a rush of ideas about who they should disguise themselves as. More than one person mentioned Merlin and someone who wasn't Draco even suggested Salazar Slytherin. Other names, famous and not, were bandied about, and Ron eventually silenced everyone by suggesting they all disguise themselves as Harry. This earned him a swat from said suggestion, and then a bunch of them dissolved into laughter.

"I think we're going to have to think about it carefully," Hermione said. "The way Phoenix spoke, we only get one costume, so it will have to be something we're satisfied with, and something we can act convincingly. We don't want to give ourselves away or we'll have trouble outside of the Realm."

Harry nodded, thinking. He didn't know who he was going to disguise himself as.

Ginny was frowning when she turned to Luna and asked, "Who is Pari Auttenberg."

Luna shrugged with a smile. "Nobody. I made her up."

This silences the lot of them. Hermione, who had been thinking they needed to disguise themselves as someone specific, was suddenly confronted with an endless source of possibility. She very nearly squealed in delight.

"Definitely going to have to think about it," Ron murmured.

"We can think about it while we're searching," Ginny said, staring off into the distance as though looking at something. There was nothing but the vast white landscape. "I think we need to start going."

Draco nodded softly in agreement but didn't say anything. That sound of silence seemed to growing louder. The artifacts were calling almost desperately.

"All right," Harry said, "let's get started. Do you all know which way you're going?"

Everyone pointed in the direction the call seemed to be coming from. Fred and George obviously pointed in the same direction, but Neville was also pointing that way.

Hermione pulled out her wand and performed her Point Me spell, noting that the three of them were pointing south. She herself pointed west, same as Ron. Ginny pointed east and Harry nodded at her that his call was also coming from that direction. Draco pointed north.

Harry nodded. "Phoenix said we'll all be here until all of the artifacts are found. Why don't we meet back here once we've found ours? That way we know who is finished. Maybe we can help anyone who hasn't found theirs yet."

"A wise idea, Harry," George said, rubbing his chin.

"We went right with you somewhere," Fred said.

"How are we supposed to know where this spot is, though?" Ron asked. "Everything looks the same."

Hermione pulled out her wand and aimed it at the white space a few inches in front of her feet. "Incendio!" she shouted, and a flash of fire struck the white ground. A dirty soot mark marred the ground for a moment, and then faded away.

Hermione's mouth fell open in surprise and then she glared at the ground. "Incendio!" She demanded, but this soot mark fared no better.

"Perhaps all of us together could make it last," Luna said, and the vagueness was back in her voice.

Hermione glanced at her suspiciously, then shrugged. Taking their cue, everyone drew their wand and stepped over, forming a circle around the area Hermione had been intending to mark. "Ready?" she asked, glancing at all of them. "Now."

"INCENDIO!" they all shouted.

The combined flaring of fire was enough to make some of them skitter back, slapping at the burning hem of their robes. Ron sighed at the great hole in his robes where the flames had begun to eat away at it. He was distracted by Hermione's "Aha!"

"It worked," she said, and they all looked back to find a great black mark on the ground where their spells had struck. It didn't look like soot, however. It looked more like a crater they had dug in the white world, a mark that wouldn't - couldn't - fade.

"Right," Harry said, taking charge again. "So we'll all meet back here when we've found our artifact."

"Does everyone know Hermione's Point Me spell?" Ron asked suddenly, thinking of how they would manage to find their way back.

As it happened, only Harry, Ron, and Ginny knew the spell besides Hermione, so they took a few moments to teach the others.

"Pay attention to which direction you're going in and you should be able to find your way back," Ron said.

"We'll work on disguising ourselves as we go, and we can talk about this in classes, if we need any help." Harry eyes glanced briefly at Malfoy, thinking of him going his own way and not having anyone to walk with. He frowned, then looked at Luna. He was surprised to find that she was staring blatantly at him, and when he glanced at her, she nodded.

"Okay," he said. "Let's go." With a final glance around, he and Ginny turned and headed east. Fred and George each grabbed one of Neville's arms and ignored the boy's startled protests as they headed off. Hermione and Ron turned and went their own way, he giving Draco a brief nod that the reticent boy returned. Hermione didn't glance back.

Draco turned and headed north in silence, expecting no company. Behind him, Luna watched the others walk away before making her way over to the crater they had made in the ground. She crouched down in front of it and smiled.

Inside the small crater, at the center of the mark, there was a tiny little sprout. It was barely two inches high, thin and weak-looking, but it hadn't been there before. It was only just starting to grow, but if they nurtured it, it would become so strong.

Luna reached out and touched it briefly, a soft smile on her face, before she stood and went after Draco. She caught up to him with ease and ignored the startled look on his face by adopting her signature vague expression.

Her tone of voice was equally naive as she asked, "Do you suspect that Phoenix might be a Wrackspurt in disguise?"

Harry -

I'm penning this as I prepare to undergo a mission set by the headmaster. We're due to begin here in another hour. Sirius has just returned from visiting you in the Hospital Wing following the incident in Diagon Alley. We are both furious with the Ministry for not keeping a better hold on the Dementors, but neither of us are particularly surprised, to be honest. As you well know, they are foul creatures and I doubt anyone has sufficient power to keep them completely contained.

I am sorry that I was unable to come see you myself. Dumbledore has us all locked down tight in preparation for the mission. I can't go into detail about it, but know that I am not going into it alone. There are seven of us, though your godfather has not been permitted on this mission. He escaped briefly when news of Diagon Alley reached us, and I am glad he did. You may not remember that he was there, but we're always keeping an eye on you.

He is somewhere safe and you needn't worry for him. Nor for myself. I want you to focus on your schoolwork and remember what we talked about.

And one more thing. I want you to visit Madam Pomfrey and ask her to perform a diagnostic on your vision. Talk to her about getting new glasses. I've already spoken to her about this and she knows to expect you. Do this before the other students arrive. A new pair of glasses could mean a new look, if you want.

I will likely be unable to respond to any mail for some time, but you can keep Sirius company with a few letters. I am sure he would enjoy them. You would do well to employ a charm or two to protect against wandering eyes, however. You might ask Professor Flitwick if you have any trouble with it, but I think you could manage it yourself if you tried.

I want you to have a good term, Harry. Enjoy spending time with your friends and have fun. We will see you soon.

Love, Remus

Remus set the quill back in the ink bottle and read over the letter once more before waving his wand and quickly drying the ink. He then cast a spell over it so that no one save Harry and those he allowed could read the letter, and folded it. He then tucked it into an envelope on which Harry's name had been scrawled and sealed it to open at Harry's magical signature. Mentioning Sirius in the post was perhaps not the brightest of decisions, but not mentioning him would likely only hurt Harry more. Bad enough that the three of them were separated, Harry at Hogwarts (at least with his friends), Remus in Grimmauld Place preparing for his mission, and Sirius stuck in Remus' old family cottage, all alone.

The large owl that had settled itself with patience on the back of his chair gave a rather pointed hoot and Remus jumped, then shook his head. "Yes, yes."

The owl belonged to Sirius. She had arrived with a letter from him saying that he had arrived safely and unfollowed at Remus' cabin, and he promised to remain there until Remus joined him after the fulfillment of the mission for Dumbledore. Her name was Arianrhod and she was a large Grey Owl, with tiny golden eyes and a small curved beak set in a massive, round face. Striped black and white, she was a massive creature, even for her species, which seemed juxtaposed against her quiet demeanor. Sirius had purchased her "because he needed an owl to send letters to Harry" and she had made him think of Padfoot. The only thing she seemed to share with Sirius' animagus form was a gargantuan head, but Remus had long since stopped trying to understand his strange friend. Instead, he had simply accepted Arianrhod's place in his life, and decided to call her Hod for short, instead of Ari. This annoyed Sirius to never-before-reached levels, so Remus employed the nickname whenever he could while in Sirius' presence.

Sadly, Sirius wasn't here at the moment. He would have to send him a letter back, detailing how efficient Hod was in delivering letters.

"This goes to Harry, at Hogwarts," Remus said, no doubt unnecessarily, as he tied the letter to Hod's leg. The owl lifted the leg, checking that the letter was tied, and then took off with barely a sound. Remus watched her go quietly, thinking longingly of a restaurant set in a muggle city and the two people he loved most in the world.

A knock on the door startled him and Dumbledore poked his head in. "Remus, we're ready to begin."

Standing up, Remus nodded and followed Dumbledore into the room. The others were there, getting ready. Seven beds had been prepared in the room, set side by side against one wall like an infirmary. Remus found his, situated on the end, and sat down on it. Madam Pomfrey came over, her lips pressed in a thin line, and handed him a vial filled with what he knew to be the Slumber of Ages potion.

"Drink it all in one swallow, Mister Lupin," she said quietly.

Remus nodded and settled back on the bed until he was lying against the pillows. He glanced to his right, finding the others were situating themselves similarly. Nearest him was Nymphadora Tonks, a young auror and Sirius' cousin, who nearly shattered her potion when she tripped and crashed face-first into her bed. Remus smiled softly.

"Don't tell Siri about that," she murmured to him, grinning, and he laughed.

Settled properly, she raised the vial at him in a toast, and said, "See you in Dreamland," and downed it. Uncorking his own vial, Remus followed suit.

The potion burned.

Remus had suffered through SkeleGro twice in his youth, but they had nothing on this. The potion was liquid fire, scalding his throat as it went down until he was sure he was following strips of his own shredded skin along with the potion. The burning lit up his nostrils and he felt himself rear back in an attempt to escape the pain.

Someone was yelling, he realized, and he heard swearing voices. Someone else retched and he sympathized. He had the vaguest sensation of pained tears on his cheeks, and then the fires cooled, the potion becoming a balm against his burning throat, chilling and becoming the soft of pillow-down, and Remus felt himself ease back until he was lying on the bed.

There were feathers in his throat, goose-down, and someone was singing a lullaby. Remus sighed softly in contentment, rubbed his face against the pillow, and was asleep.

Harry stepped through the door to the Hospital Wing nervously. He had just been released the day before and was not too keen on returning so soon, but Remus had said he ought to ask about new glasses and that was something new. He'd never had a new pair of glasses in his life.

"Mister Potter," Madam Pomfrey said, stepping out of her office as briskly as she managed all of her actions. "It's nice to see you coming in here while conscious for once."

Harry grinned sheepishly, feeling a bit of a blush at his attraction for trouble and hospital-inducing accidents. He glanced down at the journal in his hands as Madam Pomfrey spoke again.

"I received a letter from Mister Lupin explaining that you needed to have your eyes checked again, and a better prescription on glasses. I must admit, I was somewhat surprised, as I checked your eyes when you were first brought in here. I was sorry to see how badly your vision has been affected by… recent events."

Harry frowned and glanced up at the matron, confused. His vision was fine. Well, no, not fine, obviously, but it was certainly no worse than it had ever been. Madam Pomfrey seemed to read this confused admittance on his face, because she said "Your glasses are nowhere near the prescription your eyesight requires, Mister Potter."

Understanding, Harry nodded, and fished his self-inking quill from his pocket. He scribbled quickly in his journal.

My aunt never bought me glasses to fit my prescription. She just picked up a used pair.

Madam Pomfrey read this messily-scrawled note with the practiced eye of someone who has spent years treating children with deplorable handwriting, and working among healers, who have even worse.

"Used?" she asked, almost to herself. "You've never had a replacement pair?"

Harry, catching sight of this question, shook his head even as she continued with "How are they still functional? As many of your bones as you have broken, Mister Potter, surely you should have broken your glasses at least once."

Harry thought that writing Hermione's name would probably have been sufficient to explain, but out of politeness, he wrote, "Hermione fixed them on the train before my first year. After the fourth time she fixed them, she taught me the spell to do it myself."

"I see. I suppose I should have guessed such a thing. May I?" Madam Pomfrey held her hands out for the glasses and Harry handed them over. Immediately, the whole world went fuzzy and he realized with some annoyance that he couldn't even read what was in the journal. He hoped Madam Pomfrey wasn't asking him anything, because he wouldn't know it to answer.

Madam Pomfrey was busy waving her wand over the glasses, analyzing them as she hadn't when she had previously checked Harry's vision. She had thought that the glasses had been given to Harry based on the prescription that he'd needed and that his deplorable eyesight had been caused by the head trauma he had suffered at his uncle's hands not long before. If he was being honest and his eyes were in fact no worse than they had been prior to this summer, then that gave her hope that he might yet recover from this.

She glanced at him and noted the very minute shaking of his hands. Her spirits fell a little. Perhaps it would just be delayed in the long run.

She could hope.

Madam Pomfrey waved her hand at the lenses and then flicked her wand at Harry. A small field flashed into being before his eyes like a window with prescription glass. Harry blinked in surprise at suddenly being able to see properly again.

"Now, Harry, I'm going to alter your lenses to match the prescription you require. Would you like me to make an alteration to the frames, as well?"

Harry read the words in his journal quickly and blushed, nodding emphatically and thinking on Remus' words in the letter about a possible new look. Harry hated those thick glasses. They were a constant reminder of being punched in the face by Dudley. He'd love to have a pair that he picked out.

"Do you want circular frames or rectangular?"

"Rectangular," Harry mouthed, feeling a thrill at the idea of glasses that were completely different. Something that he was able to choose, instead of something chosen for him.

Madam Pomfrey asked him a few more questions as her wand flicked and danced and tapped the frames, changing shape and size and color until what she held in her hands looked nothing like the glasses he had walked into the Hospital Wing with. She handed them back to Harry, who studied them through the prescription window.

They were rectangular, but the edges were rounded instead of sharp. The wire frame was thin and Gryffindor-gold, the edges that tucked behind his ears the crimson of his House's other color.

Stomach quivering in excitement, Harry slipped the glasses on in the same instant that Madam Pomfrey cancelled the prescription window. And then he stared around in awe.

Everything was different!

Not really different, no, but it all looked so much clearer, sharper. Suddenly, Harry could see like he had never realize was possible. Colors seemed brighter, things against the far wall were clear, everything was in incredible focus. How hadn't he realized he was missing out on so much?

Harry only realized he was missing Madam Pomfrey speaking to him when she touched his shoulder. He glanced back to find her smiling at him, holding a small mirror in her hand. He glanced into the mirror.

He looked so different with these new glasses. The light-colored frames didn't stand out so starkly against his skin and the rectangular frames made him look less like a child of twelve. He glanced up at Madam Pomfrey with a grateful (and probably somewhat goofy) smile on his face, emphatically signing "thank you" to her.

"You're welcome," she said, still smiling. "They may take some getting used to and you may have a headache tonight, but if you have any problems, come back and I'll see what I can do." She made a shooing motion. "Now go on, and do me a favor. Stay out of the Hospital Wing this year if you can help it."

Harry sighed a quick "sorry" in advance, thinking of the unlikelihood of that, and saw Madam Pomfrey roll her eyes. He was still grinning when he stepped out of the Hospital Wing, and his good mood followed him through the portrait hole into Gryffindor Tower, where Hermione and Ron were both surprised by his new look.

"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed, startled. "Is that why you had to go see Madam Pomfrey?" She hopped up from where she had been sitting and came over to meet Harry, studying the glasses.

Harry nodded, letting her look before coming over to sit next to Ron on the couch so he could see. The redhead was half-asleep, still drowsy from the potion he had been given for the pain he was in. His arms had been dipped in a thick blue potion and wrapped in bandages up to his elbows, which were then hardened with a spell to keep from being jostled too badly. He was allowed out of the Hospital Wing provided someone was with him at all times. Hermione had stayed with him while Harry ran down to the Hospital Wing, but for the most part, the three of them were almost always together, along with Ginny.

Harry glanced around the Common Room, surprised that the girl wasn't present, and frowned at Hermione. Ron, who could barely focus through his potion-induced wooziness, said, "I love the new look, Harry. Seekers're gonna be after your glasses."

Hermione rolled her eyes and ignored Ron's drugged mumbling. "Ginny ran to the kitchens to get some sandwiches." She made a face at the thought of house elves but decided not to bring it back up yet. S.P.E.W. hadn't gone well last year and she needed to rethink her approach. "She should be back soon."

Just then, the portrait hole opened and Ginny walked back in, a large picnic basket in her arms. She peeked her head around it. "Who wants to have a picnic outside? Oh, Harry! I love your new glasses!" She then blushed crimson and hid her head back behind the basket. "So… picnic by the lake?"

"That sounds like fun," Hermione agreed, and between her and Harry, they dragged Ron to his feet. "Come on, Ronald. The fresh air will do you good." They'd have to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn't drown himself, though.

Voldemort sat on his throne-like chair, staring out at nothing and going over his plans. The day was drawing to an end and with the Sturgeon Moon on the rise, his chosen followers would be slipping into the Realm of Dreams and find him his artifacts. He wasn't concerned with their taking of the potion. That was being overseen by Wormtail and the rat was much too afraid of him to risk failure in this.

With seven members of his circle indisposed and the artifacts all but in his hand, Voldemort determined that he could move on to the next stage in his plan. That was getting rid of some of the competition.

The door opened and the rat squeaked nervously as he entered. "M-Master?"

"Report, Wormtail."

"They have t-taken the potion, Master. All of them are asleep. E-Everything went according to plan."

"Good," Voldemort murmured, fingering his wand. "You've done well, Wormtail. For your services, I have a gift for you."

The rat shivered in fear. "A-a gift, Master?"

"Yes. A mission, Wormtail, just for yourself." Wormtail swallowed and looked expectant, not daring to interrupt. "I want you to find your old friends, Wormtail, the blood traitor and the half-breed. And I want you to kill them." He smiled, making the color drain from Wormtail's face. "Does this opportunity please you, Wormtail?"

"Y-yes, M-Master," Wormtail quavered, not sounding pleased at all.

"Good. Don't come back until it's done."

Wormtail looked ready to faint for fear. Instead, he turned and skittered out of the room, to quake and wet himself in private.

Confront Sirius and Remus and kill them. Suicide! But if he didn't manage… either they would kill him, or his master would.

Wormtail glanced down at his silver hand, his only boon on this mission. It would serve as the perfect weapon against Remus, easily able to kill him even in human form. It would have to be enough, and if he could surprise the werewolf…

Sirius would be the greatest problem. Asides from having an animagus form fully capable of ripping him to shreds, the man was a superb dueler and Wormtail doubted those skills had been extremely dulled by Azkaban. Not to mention how much Sirius hated him.

But he had to succeed. If he wanted to live, he would have to succeed. So the first thing he had to do was find out where Remus and Sirius were.

The best thing about rats, Wormtail thought, was that they didn't have any problems with slipping into the tiny cracks and searching through the dirtiest of trash. Finding Sirius and Remus wouldn't be hard, really. He just had to know where to look.

And rats were good at finding things.

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