The next two chapters are available on my website. You know the drill; the passwords are on my Discord, and the link to that is at the bottom of the page.

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Following The Crumbs

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October 7, 1992, 9:50 PM, Somewhere In New Mexico

Porpentina Goldstein

The October night hung heavy with a chill as Porpentina and her assistant Lewis ventured forward towards the outskirts of their next target: a ghost town out in the middle of nowhere.

"Here we are." Lewis said, keeping his voice quiet. "I can't say I like this place."

The once bustling streets, now reclaimed by nature's steady grip, exuded an eerie stillness. The arid desert landscape stretched out before them, the moonlight casting an ethereal glow over the abandoned buildings and dusty pathways.

"I don't much care for it, either." Porpentina said as she led the way, her footsteps echoing softly in the relative quiet. Lewis followed, his breath visible in the cold air, which held a subtle whisper of desolation. The Moon hung low in the sky, as if in silent mourning.

They had journeyed to this forsaken place following a lead in their investigation.

Time had long forgotten about it, that much was obvious.

The ghost town's dilapidated structures, their wooden beams weathered by countless seasons, stood like spectral sentinels, bearing witness to the passage of years. Broken windows stared vacantly at the night, and tumbleweeds drifted lazily through the abandoned streets.

"I wonder what happened here…" Lewis said as he gestured at a broken down ruin; the only thing remaining was a lone door barely holding onto its hinges as it swayed with the breeze, punctuating the silence with the torturous groan of rusted metal.

The skeletal remains of buildings seemed to reach out to the sky, their hollow interiors testifying to the lives once lived within these walls. The remnants of a saloon with its faded sign, a cracked piano, and empty bottles strewn about hinted at the revelry that had long since faded away.

"Do you think we'll find anything here?" Lewis said, fiddling with his clothes anxiously.

Tina resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she responded. "I'm not in the habit of making any assumptions or presuppositions, Caboldie. We're here to investigate, not—"

"Dawdle— yes, yes." Caboldie finished for her, huffing. "I know."

"Well, since you know, how about you take point on this one?"

He sent her a dry look, but nodded and took his place. Porpentina smiled to herself; Caboldie was green as grass, but he was improving with each day.

The two pressed on, their senses heightened by the eerie atmosphere.

They ventured into a few of the decrepit buildings, ready to uncover any traces of anything that might provide answers. But the interiors yielded nothing but the echoes of a past long-since gone. Dust motes danced in the dim light, and the creaking floorboards seemed to sigh with the weight of abandonment.

Lewis finally broke the silence, his voice tinged with frustration by the third building. "Boss, I can't find any sign of recent activity."

Porpentina, her brow furrowed with concern, nodded in agreement. "I had hoped that our lead would bring us closer to finding those poor children, but as usual, nothing in this line of work is straightforward. Still, we have to be patient and not get in the way of ourselves."

She took a moment to reflect on the lead that had brought them here. It had been a cryptic clue, a bare whisper of information from one of the reports they'd gone through. It had been the mere mention of one of the kidnappers saying what was assumed to be the name of a place: Cuervo.

"Honestly, this was a long shot from the start." Tina admitted, but her voice was laced with determination. "But we can't give up just yet, Lewis. There must be something here, some clue that we've overlooked. We'll keep searching, room by room if necessary. The children deserve that much out of us, at least."

And so they searched. Before they knew it, an hour had passed.

Porpentina had to admit to herself; she, too, was getting tired of this place. She'd always hated abandoned locations. The silence bothered her far too much.

Another twenty minutes of fruitless searching weighed on their shoulders as Tina and Lewis entered yet another empty room, the desolation and abandonment becoming more disheartening with each passing moment. It appeared to be just another dead end.

"Next one—"

"Wait." Lewis said, stopping her as he pointed to the center of the room.

Tina followed his direction, her eyes widening in surprise. A small, dark line marred the floor beneath a worn rug, as if someone had tried to conceal it hastily. He knelt down, his fingers brushing over the uneven surface.

Porpentina followed his lead, her eyes narrowing as she examined the floor. She saw it too, the faint but unmistakable scrape that had been improperly covered up. It was a detail that seemed out of place in the otherwise barren and dusty room.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Lewis said, looking up at his superior.

Tina nodded and gestured for him to move aside. He did so.

Without hesitation, Porpentina raised her wand and, with a precise wave, cleared the center of the room. The rug floated gently to the side, revealing a trap door in the floor.

"A concealed trap door." Lewis said, his eyes widening with both apprehension and anticipation. "Could this be it?"

Porpentina nodded, her determination burning bright. "What else could it be?"

Lewis cast an unlocking charm, and the trap door swung open with an eerie creak, revealing a dark and foreboding, but empty passage below. As it opened, an overwhelming stench of human waste and urine engulfed them, causing both Porpentina and Lewis to recoil in disgust, their faces contorted with grimaces.

The putrid odor hung heavily in the air, a stark indicator of the suffering that had only just recently taken place in this hidden chamber. It was now clear that this was indeed the location where the kidnapped children had been held captive. But the crucial question remained: where were they now?

Porpentina steadied herself, her eyes adjusting to the dim light below. She muttered an incantation under her breath, summoning a soft glow that illuminated the underground chamber. The walls were lined with crude, makeshift bedding, and the floor was strewn with tattered, soiled blankets.

As they descended into the chamber, their footsteps echoing in the eerie silence, they began to piece together the grim puzzle. Shackles were bolted to the walls, evidence of the children's imprisonment. Faint, childish scribbles adorned the walls, a desperate cry for help in the form of crude drawings and messages.

Porpentina's heart broke as she surveyed the scene. The children had endured unimaginable suffering in this place, their innocence stolen by their cruel captors. But the absence of any recent signs of life left an ominous question hanging in the air.

"This can't have been too long ago." Lewis said, though he looked like he was doing his best to stop himself from losing his dinner, as well as his temper.

Tapping her wand against his forehead and then her own, she cast the Bubble Head Charm. In an instant, the putrid stench disappeared, giving the both of them relief.

"Thank you." He said, swallowing. "Any more and I would've…"

"Don't mention it." Tina said, glaring at the sheets as she cast a few spells. "This… Residue may be around a day old."

"Then they can't have gone far." Lewis said, his anger building even as he tried to cope with the horror of the situation he found himself in. His eyes lit up as he got an idea. "The tire tracks we saw coming in."

Tina nodded, knowing where he was going with this. "Yes. Check them by which is the most recent. We will follow that."

"They won't get away with this." He said, and Tina was surprised by the suppressed rage in his voice.

She studied his face for a few moments before her lips pursed into a thin line of determination. She knelt down one of the floorboards, seeing the frantic and desperate scratches of those poor children, hoping that someone would come save them.

With a wave of her wand, she collected a few of the nail fragments, placing them within a small vial before she turned her gaze towards Lewis.

"No, they won't." Tina assured him. "We'll find them, if it's the last thing we do."

ooo

October 8, 1992, 7:15 AM, Forest in Albania

Vanessa Zhenya

She'd been at it all night and well into the morning; still, she found nothing.

Her days here had stretched into an agonizing, mind-numbing routine, and she couldn't help but wonder why she had been chosen for this particular task. She was a skilled and capable witch, a fighter at heart, but playing the role of a detective or investigator wasn't her forte.

As the days passed with no clear objective or progress to speak of, Vanessa's frustration grew. The dense, eerie forest seemed to close in around her, and every rustle of leaves or distant howl of an unknown creature sent shivers down her spine. She missed the thrill of action, the adrenaline of a duel, the clarity of a battle's purpose.

This silent, creeping uncertainty grated on her nerves.

Vanessa couldn't help but question Mr. Grindelwald's motives. What was it about this place that had drawn his attention? Why had he sent Marco here, and now her, a fighter, into the depths of this enigmatic forest?

The lack of answers gnawed at her, but she knew that Mr. Grindelwald wouldn't give her a mission if it led nowhere.

That man always has a trick up his sleeve. She thought to herself before huffing in irritation and quickly tying her hair into a ponytail. I just wish I knew what it was.

She knew she couldn't afford to underestimate the situation. Despite her longing for action and her doubts about her investigative skills, Vanessa remained vigilant.

In the world of magic, danger could emerge from the shadows at any moment, and she was determined to be prepared for whatever challenges lay ahead.

Still, after hours of aimless searching, even the most patient of individuals would crack.

And so, with a savage slash to the left, she split a tree in twain, filling the air with the sound of cracking wood, rustling leaves and the thump of the tree.

Even with this little bit of fun, she couldn't help but let out a frustrated groan. The sound of her own voice was a stark contrast to the oppressive stillness that surrounded her.

"Why am I even here?" She muttered, her words breaking the silence like a crack in glass.

She didn't want to be here. The quiet of the forest was not helping her keep her memories at bay. It was a silence that echoed with the ghosts of her past.

Flashes of that day in which her fate was forever changed pierced her thoughts, like fragments of a shattered mirror. She saw the images of her family's lifeless bodies crumpling to the floor, victims of the brutal consequences of their own actions. She remembered the horrifying moment when her father had whisked her away, his face etched with a mixture of determination and desperation.

The memories became vivid, almost too real. She could hear her father's final words as if they were whispered in her ear. "Vanessa, you must survive. Carry our legacy with honor."

"Leave me alone." She spoke to her own mind. "Stop it. I don't care about our honor— honor's what got the family killed. I just want to survive!"

Frustration and anger boiled inside Vanessa as she desperately tried to shake away the haunting images of her family.

"Leave me alone!" She cried out again, her voice quivering with a mixture of pain and fury.

Vanessa's wand trembled in her hand from the rage, and she drove it down, the tip piercing the forest floor. An instinctive spell, fueled by her tumultuous emotions, erupted from the wand, setting everything around her ablaze with a brilliant blue fire.

The forest seemed to come alive with flames, the eerie silence shattered by the crackling and hissing of the magical fire. The cold blue flames danced and swirled, casting an ethereal glow on the surrounding trees and foliage. Vanessa's anger, frustration, and even her sorrow were channeled into the blaze, a fierce and uncontrollable outburst of magic.

As the flames roared around her, Vanessa felt a strange mixture of relief and guilt. The fire had momentarily banished the haunting memories that had plagued her, but it had also brought chaos to the tranquil forest.

That wouldn't do.

With a determined effort, she willed the flames to subside, gradually extinguishing the magical fire and allowing the forest to return to the eerie silence she despised once more.

Vanessa knew that she had to regain control over her emotions and her magic. She had a mission to complete. Getting back to her feet, she dusted herself before resuming her trip, whistling a little tune to keep herself occupied.

Another hour of aimless searching had left Vanessa on the brink of frustration once more, but this time, something had changed. A subtle shift in the air caught her attention, a faint hint of something ominous and powerful, like a poisonous whisper in the wind.

Vanessa took a deep breath, steadying her racing heart as she recognized the significance of this sensation. Dark magic was not something to be taken lightly, and it was rare to encounter such a potent presence out in the wild.

"Is this what I was sent to investigate?" She wondered aloud. "Why didn't Marco report on this?"

No answer came, and she frowned. Something about all of this didn't seem right. With a sense of grim determination, she decided to follow the trail of darkness, pushing through the dense underbrush and winding trees.

As she ventured deeper into the forest, the dark magic grew stronger, its oppressive weight pressing down on her like an invisible hand. The air grew thick with an unnatural chill, and the once-familiar sounds of the forest faded into an eerie hush. The very essence of the place seemed tainted by the malevolence that hung in the air.

Vanessa's senses sharpened as she followed the trail, her every instinct on high alert. The trees around her seemed to twist and contort, their gnarled branches reaching out like skeletal fingers. The ground beneath her feet became uneven and treacherous, as though nature itself rebelled against the encroaching darkness.

Another hour passed, and the dark magic intensified, its presence now almost suffocating.

Not even Grindelwald's magic had been this powerful. Vanessa felt herself get aroused; perhaps she'd have a good fight after all?

Vanessa's footsteps were tentative as she entered a clearing and took in the scene before her.

"All of that magical power, and it's just an echo…?" She said to herself, feeling both disappointed and intrigued. "Whoever did this is maybe a shade beyond even Grindelwald. At least in raw power…"

Her keen eyes swept the area, searching for clues to unravel the mystery. She walked carefully, her senses alert to any hidden dangers. It didn't take long for her to notice the telltale signs of a campsite having been here. The grass had been cleared with magic, a familiar technique that she herself had used many times in the past. Any other wizard or witch would likely have walked through this area none-the-wiser, as they could not feel what she felt.

It was clear that something had happened here, something significant; that's probably why Mr. Grindelwald had sent her here. The question remained: who had set up this camp, and why had they left so suddenly?

Before she could even ponder her question, something emerged from the earth.

Vanessa's trained instincts kicked in, and she took several steps back as she beheld the grotesque creature before her. At first glance, it appeared almost human, but the sight of snakes slithering in and out of numerous holes in its body sent a shiver down her spine.

It was a truly horrific sight, and yet, Vanessa managed to maintain her composure.

The creature's appearance did not quite align with that of an Inferius. It was close enough, though— a reanimated corpse under the control of a dark wizard. This one just happened to be crawling with snakes.

If there had been any doubts about this mission before, they were gone now.

In the blink of an eye, the grotesque creature lunged at Vanessa without warning. Her reflexes kicked in, and she instinctively cast a spell, attempting to set it on fire. However, to her horror, the fire simply splashed against the creature harmlessly, leaving it unscathed.

Before Vanessa could react further, the creature's cold, bony fingers closed around her arm and throat, squeezing. From its holes, three snakes emerged, biting her around the neck, arm and thigh, sending waves of pain shooting through her body. She had only a split second to think, her mind racing as panic threatened to take hold.

With a surge of willpower, Vanessa Disapparated, the familiar sensation of magical teleportation causing intense agony as she realized she'd left a part of herself behind. She emerged in a different location, her heart pounding, and her body wracked with pain.

Getting herself under control, she assessed her injuries, quickly realizing she had splinched off a finger and maybe a few toes in the process, judging by the searing flares of pain she felt.

Despite the excruciating injuries, Vanessa knew she had to act quickly. With a wave of her wand, she snatched a nearby log and, with a burst of will, sent it flying with all her strength, smashing it into the walking corpse. The creature was knocked back, wedged into a tree, giving Vanessa a momentary respite.

Reaching into the satchel to her side, she snatched a bezoar and immediately shoved it down her throat before grabbing her vial of general anti-venom, downing it in the aftermath.

Even as she choked it all down, she kept her eyes on the modified Inferius, blasting the snakes which emerged from his body into a fine bloody mist. A moment later, she sent another log smashing into the Inferius, stopping it from escaping, just yet.

Through the searing pain and the adrenaline pumping through her veins, Vanessa found herself smiling. This adversary was exactly the kind of challenge she had been seeking, even though it had injured her.

She knew that defeating this creature was crucial, but destroying it completely was not an option, not when her mission still hung in the balance.

As she caught her breath and assessed her surroundings, Vanessa's mind raced. Fire had proven ineffective, and she needed to find an alternative solution. Destroying the creature outright was off the table, but there had to be a way to incapacitate it, at least temporarily.

The venomous bites from the snakes within the modified Inferius had taken their toll on Vanessa, even with the immediate administration of a bezoar and a general anti-venom. As she pushed forward, her movements felt sluggish, and her limbs seemed to resist her commands.

Each step was a battle against the venom's effects, and the pain radiated through her body like a relentless storm.

Vanessa knew that time was not on her side. With her willpower and determination overriding the pain and sluggishness caused, Vanessa delved deep into her magical essence. She gripped her wand tightly, channeling her inner strength into it, fueling it with her power and intent.

As Vanessa cast the spell, a surge of icy magic flowed forth, crystallizing her will into reality. The air around the modified Inferius grew frigid, and a frosty aura enveloped the grotesque creature and its writhing snakes.

The transformation began slowly, delicate ice crystals forming like a frozen web. They spread across the Inferius's pale decaying flesh, encasing it in an eerie, translucent blue shell. The snakes, still in motion, became trapped within the growing block of ice, their movements gradually slowing as the ice crept over them.

The ice continued to spread, encasing the entire modified Inferius in its icy grip. Vanessa's spell was meticulous and thorough, leaving no part of the creature untouched. The Inferius's grimacing face was on full display, forever imprinted into the world around it.

Even with the immediate threat neutralized, Vanessa's focus remained razor-sharp. Off to the right, she spied the glint of something and reacted. She swiftly cast a precise spell, slicing the hidden, lunging serpent in two before it could reach her.

Any more…?

Vanessa maintained her vigilance, watching the area carefully for any other potential threats for another tense minute. Her senses were heightened, and her wand remained at the ready, ensuring that no surprises would catch her off guard.

Once satisfied that the immediate danger had passed, Vanessa allowed herself a moment to regain her composure. She knew that she needed to retrieve her lost digits and tend to her injuries. With a deep breath, she moved past the frozen Inferius, making sure to keep an eye out for any more threats.

After safely retrieving her missing digits, Vanessa focused on herself, casting spells to repair her splinching. With a blink through the telltale puff of purple smoke, her hand and foot were made whole once more. She flexed her fingers and toes, testing their mobility. Satisfied with the results, she knew she was ready to continue her mission.

Feeling the lingering effects of the venom impeding her movements, Vanessa made a calculated decision to take another vial of anti-venom.

She took a deep breath and steeled herself as she downed it in one go. The bitter taste washed over her tongue, causing her to grimace in discomfort, but she knew it was a necessary step to ensure her continued readiness for any extra surprises.

As the anti-venom slowly took effect and some of the sluggishness began to recede, Vanessa's focus returned to the encased Inferius. It stared back at her with its lifeless, blank gaze, the snakes within its body writhing in apparent agony from the icy cold they were surrounded with.

Vanessa shook her head, a mixture of pity and disgust welling up inside her. With a final glance at the frozen Inferius, Vanessa reached into her satchel again, this time pulling out a mirror.

"Gellert Grindelwald."

There was no answer. The second attempt yielded no response as well, but on the third call, the mirror's reflection shifted, revealing Grindelwald's face.

"Ah, Vanessa." He greeted her briefly before turning his attention to the right. "If you would excuse me; I have something important to attend to."

"Yes, sir." A faint voice came from the mirror, followed by the sound of a door closing.

After a few moments, his gaze returned to Vanessa. "Are you all right?"

"Nothing I could not handle." Vanessa said, waving his concern away. "I found something. I've reached the location you assigned to me in Albania. I encountered a modified Inferius."

"Modified?"

"Immune to fire." She said and went on to provide a detailed account of the events leading up to her encounter with the Inferius, including the strange campsite she had discovered and the venomous snakes within the creature.

"May I?" He said. Vanessa nodded and turned the two-way mirror to show him the frozen figure of the Inferius, still encased in ice.

As Grindelwald examined the creature, Vanessa watched his facial expressions closely through the mirror. At first, his features remained impassive, a mask of detachment. But as he studied the Inferius, his expression shifted, revealing a flicker of recognition. His brows furrowed slightly, and there was a tightening around his eyes.

When Vanessa turned the mirror back to herself, she saw that Grindelwald's gaze remained focused on her. It was clear that he had pieced together some information related to the Inferius' identity.

"You recognize him."

Grindelwald nodded, keeping his tone calm and deliberate. "Yes. That is— or was— Marco's senior partner, Andre Letnas."

Vanessa's mind raced as she put two and two together, a growing sense of unease settling over her. She couldn't help but voice her suspicion. "And Marco? Did he have a hand in this, then?"

Grindelwald's expression shifted again, this time a subtle mix of concern and calculation. He hesitated for a moment before responding, his voice measured. "It's a possibility, Vanessa. I have reason to believe that there may be a sort of… Internal conflict within our order. This situation requires your utmost discretion and vigilance."

As he said this, Grindelwald's facial expressions remained guarded, revealing little of his true thoughts and emotions.

It doesn't add up.

"There's something you're not telling me." Vanessa said, watching his face for a moment. "You knew I'd find something like this."

"I suspected that something happened there." Grindelwald said, nodding. "That there was a deep, dark magic at play in this forest."

"And that's linked to Marco?"

Grindelwald nodded again.

"I doubt it." Vanessa said, explaining herself at Gellert's inquisitive gaze. "I felt the dark nature of what took place here. Marco is a little rough around the edges, but there has been no indication of such powerful magic around him."

And yet, even as she spoke, she slowed down, glimpsing a few moments in the past when she'd thought that the young recruit's energy was too controlled at times. Her memories shifted towards his behavior, just as controlled as his magic.

"You're starting to understand."

"Marco is…" Vanessa said, frowning. "A traitor?"

"No." Grindelwald said, confusing her. "One cannot betray what one was never a part of."

"What are you saying?" Vanessa said, shaking her head as she wracked her mind for the answers she seeked. "Marco is someone else in disguise?"

"In a manner of speaking." Grindelwald said, smiling when he saw the look of frustration on her face. "It is the sort of disguise that cannot be easily discerned, even by the most observant of people."

Vanessa didn't say anything for a few seconds, though her eyes shined with a burning curiosity.

However, before she opened her mouth, Gellert interrupted her. "I know what you are going to ask: 'if that isn't Marco, then who is he'?"

Vanessa only nodded, pursing her lips together in mild irritation.

"I will tell you who I suspect he is." Grindelwald said, though his gaze turned severe again. "But you will have to swear to me that it will be kept secret."

"Of course."

And so, he told her.

"...And suddenly this all makes sense." Vanessa's stare shifted from the mirror to the encased Inferius before glaring down at the mirror. "You sent me here already knowing what the outcome would be?"

"I had my suspicions; even now, I'm not fully certain." Grindelwald said, shaking head. "But you've given me enough confirmation that I am at least reasonably certain."

"Who else knows about this— your suspicions?"

"Just you and I."

"Not even Matthias?" She wondered immediately.

Gellert shook his head, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Matthias is an excellent strategist, but he can be overprotective at times. He's currently occupied with his own tasks, and I need him to remain focused on them. Besides, Vanessa, you are the Order's most powerful fighter. If circumstances take a turn for the worse, it's essential that you have the knowledge you need to make the right decision."

Vanessa couldn't help but smirk at Grindelwald's response. She saw through his deliberate flattery, recognizing it as a form of manipulation, but she couldn't deny the truth in his words.

"I know you're playing my strings." She said, a hint of amusement in her tone. "But you're right."

Grindelwald shook his head at that. "Come back to Phoenix' Roost. Healer Durand will be notified of your arrival."'

"And the Inferius?"

"Bury it. Ice and all." Grindelwald said. "Once my schedule clears, I will come and put it to rest, once and for all."

Vanessa stared at the man's face for a moment before giving a mental shrug. "All right. I will speak to you later, then."

"Until then." He said, and the image in the mirror shifted back to show her own reflection. She stared at her own pallid, mildly sweaty face for a few seconds before she turned her gaze towards the encased corpse of Andre Setnas.

"I suppose I'd best get to work."

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Was it Voldemort's unhinged need to cause suffering that got him found out, or is there something else to the forests in Albania that he's attempting to conceal?

Read and review! Let me know what you think.

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linktr. ee/zerorewind