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In Half Blood Prince, Dumbledore tells Harry that:

"The seventh part of his soul, however maimed, resides inside his regenerated body. That was the part of him that lived a spectral existence for so many years during his exile; without that, he has no self at all. That seventh piece of soul will be the last that anybody wishing to kill Voldemort must attack — the piece that lives in his body.”

Half Blood Prince, Chapter 23, Horcruxes.

Why does the master piece that lives in Voldemort have to be the last?

If Voldemort was killed* in the usual way (as he was in 1981), i.e., this master piece was ripped of his body and then all his Horcruxes were destroyed, would he not be finished for ever, and meet the same fate in eternal limbo as he did at the end of Deathly Hallows?

The natural answer seems to be affirmative, if not for the fact that Dumbledore explicitly uses the word 'last'.

If no, what would happen in the alternate scenario described above?

I vaguely remember some mention of this problem in this site, but it could have been in the comments.

*I must clarify that 'kill' here must refer to ripping the (part of his) soul in his body, allowing for the possibility that he might regenerate, as opposed to the ordinary usage of the word 'kill', which leads to death for unhorcruxed people.

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The process of creating horcruxes requires that he rip his soul into multiple pieces. His living body contains one portion of his soul, but that portion cannot be destroyed while the horcruxes exist (that is the whole point of the horcruxes).

'Well, you split your soul, you see,' said Slughorn, 'and hide part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one's body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged. But, of course, existence in such a form ...'

(Half Blood Prince, Chapter 23, Horcruxes)

Instead, if his body is destroyed while one or more horcruxes still exists, the portion of his soul inhabiting his body will simply become disembodied. This is how he wound up on Quirrell's head in Philosopher's Stone, and from that form he was eventually able to reconstruct himself.

Although this isn't explicitly said in the books, Harry's question to Dumbledore (Chapter 23 of Half Blood Prince again) implies that Voldemort cannot be killed first, and Dumbledore does not contradict this:

Harry sat in thought for a moment, then asked, 'So if all of his Horcruxes are destroyed, Voldemort could be killed?'

'Yes, I think so,' said Dumbledore. 'Without his Horcruxes, Voldemort will be a mortal man with a maimed and diminished soul

Even if the horcruxes were destroyed after his body was destroyed, but before he could form a new body, it is possible that the disembodied soul would persist.

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Hmm... interesting theory, but is there any supporting evidence in source material? – DVK-in-exile Nov 4 '11 at 19:31
The first two paragraphs are paraphrased from source material. The last paragraph is speculation on my part based upon the criteria established in the source material (i.e. that the living body must be destroyed last). – Beofett Nov 4 '11 at 19:33
The last paragraph is partially confirmed in book 1, with Qurill. – dkuntz2 Nov 5 '11 at 4:40
Thanks for the references @Tony! – Beofett Nov 12 '11 at 4:03
This must be the answer, but I find it unsatisfying, because it seems the characters simply assume that killing someone for good doesn't just require destroying all containers for their souls. If you killed Voldemort first, he'd be a spirit, but still around because his horcruxes bind him here. If you then destroy them all, why wouldn't that last shred disappear too? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 30 '11 at 18:59

It's not clearly spelled out in the books, but Horcruxes may work in one of two ways:

  1. Prevent your "main" soul part from being sent to the afterworld after your body dies, the moment it does

  2. Prevent your "main" soul part from being sent to the afterworld after your body dies, and maintain it in this world in perpertuity.

I tend to believe it was #1, because Voldemort didn't feel (and didn't seem affected in his spirit form) when the Diary Horcrux was destroyed.

If it is the first option, then what Dumbledore said makes perfect sense.

If you destroy Voldemort's body first, while any Horcruxes are out there, you have merely let his "main" soul piece escape in spirit form again.

Then, even if you destroy all the Horcruxes later - he can (and will) return to life in the same way he did in GoF, even with no Horcruxes left. And then, promptly make new Horcruxes. So basically, you won a tactical victory and bought time, but lost the war.

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If option 1 was true, will it not, as I discussed with Simon above, lead to a smarter way of cheating Death, namely, killing oneself in case of imminent danger when at least one horcrux is in tact, and waiting for, may be till your unassailable opponent(s), Harry and Dumbledore, in case of Voldemort, is(are) dead and gone, to regenerate and seize power? Voldemort may not have liked this idea much, being as arrogant as he is (and the limbo state is not a very pleasing one too), but the possibility nevertheless exists, and I don't think JKR would have liked this. – N Unnikrishnan Jun 30 '14 at 17:34
It seems to me that existing in only a spiritual state is neither what Voldemort wants, nor is it easy to return from. The type of magic you need to return from this state requires a lot of powerful magic, like the Philosopher's Stone, drinking unicorn blood, etc. Never mind the fact that amongst the Death Eaters, I wouldn't say the lot are necessarily trustworthy, so Voldemort would have to be concerned that at some point the current crop would die out and just let him exist in limbo. – Maurice Reeves Jun 30 '14 at 20:34

Isn't that the whole point of the Horcrux. That, even if the body in which the master soul(original soul) resides is destroyed, the soul survives & remains earth bound & can reside inside another body.

So even if anybody Avada Kedavra's Voldemort's master soul, he will not die because the horcruxes keep this master soul earth-bound & living.

Remember what happened at the very beginning. Voldemort's body(in which his master/original soul was residing) got destroyed due to a backfiring Avada Kedavra. But his master soul was still not destroyed. And it took up another body of Nagini & Quirell.

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but that's the whole question; What would have happened if all his horcruxes had been destroyed while he was in the incorporeal form? Why does the main part of his soul have to be the last? – user13267 Jun 30 '14 at 9:50
Yes but this does not answer the question. Why not kill Voldemort first and THEN all the Horcruxes? – Jakob Jun 30 '14 at 9:51
@Jakob didnt that just happen during the whole Quirell thing. – KharoBangdo Jun 30 '14 at 9:53
that would have happened if the avada kadavra had not backfired. The question here is, while Voldemort is in the spirit form after the avada kadavra that backfired, what would have happened if someone had gone and destroyed all his horcruxes, before he could gain a body? – user13267 Jun 30 '14 at 9:54
It should have still been practical. Last time his body was destroyed he needed more than 10 years to return to power, with the help of allies, and he was very weak in the beginning after his "death". So destroying his body before destroying the horcruxes should have been a good strategy, as they will have enough time (and less death eaters chasing them) to find all the horcruxes while Voldemort lingers around in a weakened form. – vsz Jun 30 '14 at 12:05

Well Voldemort can be killed (as demonstrated in the story's pretense) he just has to perform a rebirthing ritual using one of the Horcrux.

The problem is just killing big V is a feat in and of itself. One can't just walk into the Death Eaters' circle and start throwing curses around.

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FYI: merged from… – Shog9 Oct 24 '14 at 16:52

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