Thousands of would-be warlocks, sorcerers and ordinary, non-magical Muggles lined up outside bookstores from Sydney to Seattle on Friday, eager to get their hands on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final volume in the boy wizard's saga.
In a now-familiar ritual that is part sales frenzy and part Halloween party, bookstores across Britain were flinging open their doors at a minute past midnight Saturday. Shops as far afield as Singapore and Australia were putting the book on sale at the same time; the United States was to follow from midnight ET.
Harry's creator, J.K. Rowling, was giving a midnight reading to 500 competition-winning children in the grand Victorian surroundings of London's Natural History Museum.
For many, the place to be was Waterstone's bookstore on Piccadilly in central London, a traditional hub of Pottermania.
An assortment of wizards, witches and at least one house elf, from as far afield as Finland and the United States, staked out their places on the sidewalk hours--in some cases days--before the midnight opening.
Some passed the time by jotting predictions for the final novel in notebooks, while others encouraged passing drivers to "Honk for Harry."
"This is the biggest Harry Potter party in Europe, so it's worth the wait," said Laura Halinen, 23, from Kuusankoski, Finland.
"Deathly Hallows" is the last book in a series that began a decade ago with "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," the story of an orphaned boy who learns on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard. Since then, Rowling's books have sold 325 million copies in 64 languages, and the launch of each new volume has become a Hollywood-scale extravaganza.
Chellie Carr, 17--a fan since the age of 9--said she had pestered her mother to bring her to London from her hometown of Okemos, Mich.
"For all the other books she said, 'No. It's just a book.' But for this one, she said yes," said Carr, who wore a homemade black cloak lined in green for Slytherin, one of four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"Deathly Hallows" has a print run of 12 million in the United States alone, and Internet retailer Amazon says it has taken 2.2 million orders for the book--47 percent higher than the pre-order for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Britain's Royal Mail said it would deliver 600,000 copies on Saturday--one for every 43 households in the country.
Security has been tight, with books shipped in sealed pallets and legal contracts binding stores not to sell the book before the midnight release time.
Nonetheless, spoilers have sprouted on the Internet, including photographed images of what appeared to be all 700-plus pages of the book's U.S. edition. Publishers would not say whether the leaked pages were genuine. Bloomsbury, the book's British imprint, said only that they were "unauthenticated."
In France, the daily Le Parisien played spoiler, telling readers how the final installment ends, in a small article which it printed upside down. "Upend this page if you want to know the end!" ran the headline, printed the right way up.
As many as 1,200 copies were shipped early in the U.S. by an online retailer, and two U.S. newspapers published reviews of the book ahead of the release.
Rowling said she was "staggered" by the embargo-busting reviews.
"I'd like to ask everyone who calls themselves a Potter fan to help preserve the secrecy of the plot for all those who are looking forward to reading the book at the same time on publication day," she wrote on her Web site. "In a very short time you will know EVERYTHING."
The six books have been building to a final confrontation between Harry and his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort, scourge of the wizarding world. Fans are on tenterhooks because of the prophecy, revealed in book five, that one must inevitably kill the other.
Bookmakers said they had taken bets on a wide range of theories _ from Harry committing suicide to Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, murdered in book six, turning out to be alive.
"It's the only novel we've ever bet on, which shows what a phenomenon it really is," said Rupert Adams of bookmakers William Hill. "We just don't get that sort of speculation over a book."
Many fans were planning to turn off their computers and disconnect their phones in order to read the book in spoiler-free peace. And then, it will be all over.
Amber de Jager, 19, from Rijswijk in the Netherlands, said she expected "relief, but a lot of tears as well."
"I think it will have a bittersweet ending," she said.