Darkness engulfed the Hogwarts grounds.
The towering hedges of the maze cast looming black shadows on his path. The stems were tall, thick, and swaying in the soft breeze. And enchanted or not, there was an eerie silence about them. Clearly, they chose a maze as the setting of the Third Task for a reason.
After facing dragons on land and grindylows in the Black Lake, one would think that surviving a forestlike maze would be fairly straightforward.
But Harry knew better.
The maze around him was created to mess with his senses. The tall hedges stood in his sight, making him feel blocked in by ever-shifting walls. The constant cacophony of sounds around him made using the Supersensory Charm useless. From the sigh of the wind to the rustles of bushes caused by skittering animals, everything seemed to be out to get him. Invisible things touched him without warning— tree branches, spiderwebs, leaves. The ground changed at a whim, forcing him to compensate with every step as the earth beneath him rose and dipped suddenly. And the floor… the floor was an inky black pool, one that concealed embankments and stones that tripped his feet and sinkholes that could drop him anywhere from six inches to six feet.
He had a better chance of surviving a bludger chasing him with his eyes closed than navigating this place without breaking his ankle. And that was before mentioning all the hostile, live elements hiding here. Ready to attack him at a moment's notice.
In other words, the perfect setting for a tournament designed to kill him.
"Point me!" Harry whispered, holding his wand flatly on his palm. It was a fairly simple spell, both in concept and execution. It connected with the magnetic fields of the earth and served as a makeshift compass.
The wand spun a few times, before quickly and rigidly pointing right.
Straight at a hedge.
That way was north— he knew that much now —and he needed to go northwest towards the center of the maze. That meant the best he could do was take the left fork ahead and go right again as soon as possible. Quickly, he took the left path and—
Harry frowned. Hagrid has specifically told him the maze would be littered with obstacles. He'd boasted for hours about his home-grown abominations, those blast-ended skrewts, that would attack any challenger they ran across. Plus, there would be acromantula from the forest, maybe some pests and creatures from Lupin's old classes— frankly, he didn't know what to expect.
Was— was this corridor just luring him into a false sense of security?
His fingers clenched tightly around his wand.
As he turned to the right, his ears picked up soft clicking noises. A large acromantula— maybe one of Aragog's numerous sons —was clicking its piercers and drooling in the distance.
A thin sliver of poisonous yellow shot out of his wand, hitting the spider square on the head. The creature whistled and screeched and gurgled out dirty white foam from its mouth, twitching in place until it went perfectly still.
Harry's shoulders slowly relaxed. That spell was probably the only useful thing he'd garnered from Riddle's memory of Aragog and Hagrid. Holding his wand steady, he looked forward again. Knowing his luck, there was no shortage of—
A soul-wrenching feminine scream shattered the silence like a cannonball through glass.
"Fleur!" Harry yelled, rushing through the hedges towards the noise. Running through this thing haphazardly was probably the worst thing he could do, but he wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing. Even though he didn't know Fleur Delacour all that much, not having interacted with her to any considerable degree throughout the year, the memory of her kissing him in the cheek was still at the forefront of his mind.
…He was a teenager at the end of the day.
A left and a right later, Harry found himself out of the narrow hedges and in another empty corridor. There was no red light in the sky, and it was practically impossible to see anything in the dense fog around him. Fear and anxiety ran rampant in his mind as various scenarios played in his mind.
What had happened to her? Where did the sound come from? Had the organizers gotten her out? Had they— maybe she hadn't reached for her wand in time? Was she in any danger?
"Accio Fleur Delacour."
Witches and wizards couldn't be summoned so easily like that, but that wasn't why he did it. As soon as he used the summoning charm, Harry could feel it tugging on in his magic as it tried to pull her towards him.
From this side—
He dashed into the darkness again, his unease growing with every rapid step. And as he rushed deeper into the maze, a selfish thought arose, unbidden.
One champion down.
A giant scorpion tried to intercept him, but a quick "Reducto!" smashed against its hide and sent it flying back. The exoskeleton didn't shatter, but the tiny screech it gave off told him it was about to get back up for more.
Harry aimed his wand at one of its legs.
The appendage shattered, and the creature dropped to the floor with an agonizing wail. It was far from dead, but it couldn't chase after him anymore.
He dashed past it.
Left. Right. Left. Left again. Right.
The FourPoint spell kept him on his toes, and there was no sign of Fleur Delacour so far. The low, sourceless anxiety buzzing at the back of his head was slowly becoming a full-blown panic attack. His heart drummed against his chest and his mouth felt as dry as a desert. Gritting his teeth, Harry tried again.
"Accio Fleur Delacour!"
In that moment, he could've sworn he heard a tiny whimper just ahead of him.
"Who's there?" Harry demanded. "Fleur!? Is that you?!"
The maze's hedges were closing in. The mist became thicker. The darkness deepened.
Harry panicked. He was prone to doing stupid things when he panicked.
The thought made him panic even more.
A bright, pulsating orb of white appeared at the tip of his wand, before detonating outwards into a massive explosion of brilliant light. Something in the darkness slithered away, leaving a sole body in its wake.
And as Harry walked closer, his mouth fell open.
Fleur Delacour was on the floor, spread-eagled, with her wand nowhere to be seen. Her eyes were open. Her body was shaking. Small, scared whimpers escaped her lips.
She looked far from that mean-spirited wench that hid behind being a Veela and enjoyed making others act like fools around her.
Vulnerable. Alone. Afraid.
He bent down and touched her arm. Her sleeves were burnt to cinders.
Just what could have done this to her? She was clearly alive, but—
No, this isn't the time.
This was clearly beyond his level of deductive expertise. The girl needed medical attention. Fast.
"Accio Fleur Delacour's wand," he murmured, and a slender object came zooming through the mist-laden air. With the unerring skill of a Seeker, Harry caught it in his left hand, and without stopping to think, he raised it up high.
Dozens of red sparks soared out of the rosewood wand up into the foggy evening sky.
Harry glanced at her again, feeling the urge to stay until a tournament official came along. But the Cup? The Cup was close. He could feel it. Cedric and Krum were still in the maze somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, he could get past them and actually win the damn thing. Maybe he could rub it in the faces of all the people who had jeered at him. But Fleur…
He frowned. He couldn't just leave her like this all alone. But what could he do—
Harry raised his wand.
An ethereal stag of the most brilliant white exploded from his wand, trotting merrily along the maze floor. From its mere presence, multiple vines began to slither away.
"Stay here," he commanded his creation. "Keep her safe until help arrives."
He didn't know what made him decide on the Patronus, especially since there were no dementors around, but it was the closest thing to a guardian that he could create. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't. But this was the best he could do for her.
He regarded Fleur again, wondering if she could hear him.
"Fleur— uh, Miss Delacour," he whispered softly near her ear. "Dumbledore and the others will get you out soon. Don't worry. You'll be fine."
Fleur's pupils flickered open, her fingers shaking even more as she absorbed his words.
Harry placed her rosewood wand in her palm, feeling satisfied by the way her fingers closed around it.
With one final glance towards the incapacitated Beauxbatons champion, Harry dashed further into the mist. He took a left path and hit a dead end, then a right, then another dead end. Forcing himself to stop, heart hammering in his chest, he performed the FourPoint Spell again and backtracked, choosing a path to take him northwest. That little detour definitely cost him quite a bit of time—
A dark silhouette, nearly indistinct from the heavy shadows around it, moved closer and closer, slowly coalescing into a shape that wasn't quite human. Its shoulders were too wide, its stance far too crooked, and it walked with a slow, limping gait— drag-thump—drag-thump. It was covered with what appeared to be a voluminous dark cloak— it was—
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!" came Cedric's voice, from a couple of hedges away. Cursing under his breath, Harry rushed towards the sound. Seriously, was he going to spend all his time saving the other participants? What next? A vine wrapping itself around Krum's neck and him becoming the Champion by default?
Harry's blood ran cold. Sprinting into the darkness, he tore his way through a large, spiny hedge, ignoring the way its thorns pierced into his skin.
Krum was standing there, his face red with anger, wand raised and another spell on his lips.
Harry wouldn't give him the chance.
When the wand was flung away from Krum's hand by a sudden force, the angry Bulgarian twisted his neck to face him. Slowly, he opened his mouth to—
"EVERTE STATUM!" Cedric yelled from behind, throwing a now-disarmed Krum several feet away, sending him skidding across the ground and slamming his head against a rock.
He didn't move.
"Are you—" Harry asked, panting, "are you alright?"
"Yeah," Cedric replied, his voice hoarse and tinged with horror. "That guy just showed up out of nowhere. Started throwing the cruciatus around like it was candy."
"I know," Harry replied, his instincts still as sharp as a razor's edge. Cedric looked like he only had eyes for Krum, but it always paid to be careful. "He got Fleur too, I think. She was shaking when I found her."
"Good. Good. Think we should leave him here?"
"Dunno," he replied, looking around for Krum's wand. "Maybe we should just fire red sparks from his—"
The hairs on the back of his neck rose. Harry didn't know how or why— call it instinct, but at that very moment, he chose to dive forward.
Just in time for a petrification hex to fly overhead.
"What the—" he had time to gasp, before rolling across the floor again. This time, he'd barely dodged a lightning spell that singed his robes. Before Harry could so much as raise his wand, Cedric fired a third spell.
The last thing he remembered was a sickeningly sweet smile on Cedric's face.
Albus Dumbledore was angry.
Scratch that, he was furious.
But even more so, he was worried.
Hogwarts did not allow anyone to apparate in or out. The same held true for portkeys. Without express permission from the Headmaster, there was essentially no way to enter or exit the school properties. The excellent wards placed around the school by the Founders ensured that.
Albus had done his best to make sure everything would work out exactly the way it should.
Every Champion had been given a robe enchanted with various precautionary defenses, and each one had been informed that death was a possibility— that participation was not to be taken lightly. After all, he wasn't about to allow the lives of the children to be taken for a mere competition.
The robes had a specific runic matrix sewn into them. One that could function as an intra-Hogwarts portkey, able to transport a student to the main stage should they give up or win.
There was no reason to worry.
Or so he told himself.
In hindsight, he should have known that things never turned out the way they were supposed to, not when Harry Potter was involved. The boy, in something he began to call a 'classically Harry fashion', decided to cast a fully corporeal Patronus— a rather spectacular one he might add— to protect the Beauxbatons champion.
All of that was nice and well, except that the ethereal stag hadn't gone peacefully into the night. Instead, it charged at him when he had tried to save the french girl.
Having to fight off a Patronus. Well, it was a novelty, trying to fight something that was making him happy.
Victor Krum had been found on the ground further away. His head had been hurt, with no small amount of blood loss. The Bulgarian seeker wouldn't be waking up in the next twenty-four hours.
It was getting worse and worse.
The judges had sensed Cedric Diggory's portkey activate, and had expected Diggory to arrive on the stage, the Triwizard Trophy in hand. Cedric was a good boy, one of Hufflepuff's best and brightest. With the portkey's activation, the enchanted mist and fog over the maze had dispersed, and bright lighting spells had inundated the entire maze.
There was just one problem.
The Triwizard Cup was sitting where it had been left. Snugly seated atop a stone pedestal in the middle of the maze.
Also, Cedric Diggory hadn't appeared on the stage. So where had he gone?
And most importantly, Harry Potter was missing.
What the hell had happened here?
"This was not supposed to happen," Albus murmured, glaring at the Triwizard Cup that sat merrily on the stone pedestal, as if it was all its fault. But the truth was, he really should have known better.
The signs were all there.
Unusual disappearances. The darkening of the Dark Mark. Harry's strange dreams over the entire year.
His being chosen as a Triwizard Champion.
And now this.
He should have known. He should have predicted. He should have seen it coming, that Tom could not resist trying to interfere with an event like this.
And now, Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, the young man whom he had sworn to protect…
The pit in his stomach only grew deeper.
"Is everything alright, Dumbledore?"
Albus nodded curtly towards the Minister, who had been walking towards him.
"What's wrong? Where's the Diggory boy? I cannot have the stage to myself without handing over the thousand galleon prize," The man lifted the bowler's hat off his head, and scrunched his face, "can you ask your school matron to look after Diggory later? Maybe after my speech?"
'Diggory is not with Madam Pomfrey," Albus muttered, waving his wand in the darkness, muttering incantations, widely unheard of by most witches and wizards, in a language now lost to time.
"Then where is he?" Fudge demanded.
Before the Minister could say anything more, Dumbledore apparated to the point where Krum had fallen down. A side perk of being the Headmaster. As luck would have it, there was some residual magic around. Maybe this would be a better place to try again?
He wasn't so naive as to think that his portkeys had somehow suddenly malfunctioned. No, this was a deliberate attempt to kidnap Harry.
And it was a resounding success.
But why Diggory? Why would he involve the Diggory boy? It made no sense.
What are you up to this time, Tom?
Flicking out his wand, he began to incant every single sensing and tracking spell he knew— locators, scrying spell, the works —onto the pedestal in front of him, where the Triwizard Cup once sat. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work. And with every passing second, Albus Dumbledore came closer and closer to experiencing an emotion he had thought long behind him.
Ever since Harry Potter had entered the magical world, Dumbledore had been caught off-guard by Lord Voldemort. And now, his dear student was paying the price for his hubris and shortcomings.
The young Potter was certainly much like Albus had imagined. Whatever his limitations may have been when it came to magical talent, the boy more than compensated for them through sheer courage and strength of character. No matter the situation, he had always chosen what was right, over what was easy. A far better man than he himself had been at that age.
It only made Albus blame himself more.
With the growing list of skirmishes between the Child of Prophecy and the many shades of Lord Voldemort, a future showdown was all but inevitable. And he knew Tom was equally aware of this.
That it would happen this soon, was something that Albus had completely failed to predict.
No… that wasn't completely right.
Much to his shame, Albus knew that he did see it coming. Right from the altercation back in Harry's first year, up to Sybil Trelawney's recent prophecies. The signs of an imminent storm had all but been shoved in front of his face.
And he had chosen to remain blind to it all.
Ignorance was bliss, he told himself. To know that you must die to kill another— it was a burden he could not bring himself to place upon the boy. The bony shoulders of an eleven-year-old child, after all, were not ready to bear the brunt of Fate.
And so, he'd chosen to procrastinate.
This is Berlin all over again.
His inability to make a stand decades ago had cost over ten thousand lives in the Great War. And now, his desire to see Harry Potter living the life of an innocent, ignorant child had inadvertently put the boy's life in mortal peril.
And now, he was gone.
Out of his reach.
And anything he did at this point would be too little, too late.
…Or would it?
As if on cue, his mind supplied him with all the information he had ever collected about Lord Voldemort. Knowing one's enemy was a vital part of fighting a war, and Albus Dumbledore had been waging this one for years.
But where could he have taken him? Albus had meticulously delved into Tom's history— more so than any other wizard alive —and yet, for the love of all that was pure in the world, he had no clue where Tom could have transported the boy right now.
"Did you find the boy, Dumbledore?" an almost-drawl interrupted his musings.
"Severus," Albus turned around. "I had expected Alastor."
Alastor was the Head of Security for the purpose and duration of the tournament. He had invited the paranoid and ever-vigilant Auror into Hogwarts as DADA professor for the exact same reason. So it was both surprising and troubling to find him absent.
Had something sinister befallen him as well? At this point, the paranoia came to him naturally. Maybe hanging around Alastor for the better part of the year had been a bad idea. Still, it wasn't paranoia if there were people coming to get you. Had Alastor gone after whoever had captured Harry? Maybe he was on a trail?
The potions master sneered. "Busy jumping at shadows, no doubt."
Albus sighed, ignoring the man's caustic jabs with a practiced ease.
"I assume the Potter boy has been taken by the Dark Lord. The only question that remains is how."
"Cedric Diggory. The portkey in his robes was triggered. But instead of sending him to the stage, it took him elsewhere," Albus exhaled, "I think whoever did that, is also responsible for Harry's disappearance."
Severus's lips twisted into a full-blown sneer. "Forgive me Dumbledore, but that's just ridiculous and… sloppy!"
Albus raised his brow.
"Don't give me that look, Albus," Severus scoffed, "There was no one in the maze apart from the four participants. Miss Delacour… was suffering from Cruciatus exposure. Potter used the Patronus to guard her, and we know your Boy-Wonder doesn't have it within him to cast an unforgivable."
Albus rolled his eyes.
"Krum was down, with his wand flung away. Whatever attacked him, did a number on him. There are scorches on the floor. Lightning spells. NEWT-level. Either it was Diggory, or… someone else."
"Why would Cedric Diggory attack Krum?"
"It could always be the reverse. Have the Aurors check his wand."
"They cannot— not without an official warrant. Krum is an international delegate and enjoys diplomatic immunity. Unless there is a serious charge on his person, the British Ministry has no right to investigate his wand." Albus replied with a sigh. "Besides, I doubt it was Mister Krum who did it."
"Then who did it?" Severus looked angry. "The Triwizard Cup is sitting right here, Albus. Neither Diggory nor Potter came close to getting it."
"And yet both of them are missing."
"Yes, which makes no sense. If the perpetrator wanted Potter, he'd have taken him. No point in taking a spare as well."
Albus felt a fringe of anger cloud his brow at Severus's comment. "And yet this person planned on taking Diggory and Harry out of—"
"Oh for Merlin's sake," Severus spat, "The maze was sealed from all ends. Nobody went in or out. There is no guarantee of Potter ever meeting anyone between the beginning to the end. There is no guarantee that Potter would even encounter Diggory between the start and finish line. Maybe Krum could have defeated him. The veela could have ensnared him. The creatures could have—"
"You really underestimate Hufflepuffs, don't you?" Albus asked softly.
"I just do not expect too much from them," Severus defended himself, "but seriously Albus, if you are about to suggest that the perpetrator actually went around, killing monsters and clearing Potter's path, just to make him meet Cedric and then vanish away into nowhere, you have another thing coming."
Albus did not comment on it. He could see the potions professor's logic.
Anybody that was already in the maze could have just activated Harry's portkey and not deal with Cedric. Unless—
"Tell me Severus, has your Mark been acting out?"
The dour man grimaced, slowly pulling back his sleeve to reveal the fully visible Dark Mark underneath.
"I did warn you about this," Severus carried on. "Allowing Karkaroff into Hogwarts was a mistake."
"I doubt Karkaroff has anything to do with this," Albus answered softly. "The runes for the portkeys were keyed in by me, and the robes were personally checked for signs of tampering by all the four judges. Minerva herself placed the cup."
He stilled. What was he missing? The portkeys on Harry and Cedric's robes should have transported them to the stage. Instead, they had been directed somewhere else. Harry's own robes hadn't been tampered with.
He had personally seen to that.
He looked around. Just where was Alastor? Why wasn't he here?
"Albus?" Severus asked warily.
"It's… It's nothing," Albus roused himself. There would be time to investigate later. His first priority was finding the boy, and time was not their ally. "We must find Harry. Quickly."
"And how are you going to do that? Assuming the Potter boy is still alive."
"I have faith in Harry," Albus replied resolutely, muttering one final incantation. "Ah, so it's like that."
"What are you doing?"
"Examining the site. I must admit, this is… both simplistic and troubling. The base is runic, but it is powered by the holder's own magic. Activated by… intent? But that doesn't make any sense."
"What are you blabbering about?" Severus asked, impatient, "you cannot trace runic magic."
Albus would have chuckled if the situation wasn't so dire. For someone who claimed to hate Harry Potter with a passion, Severus spent far too much time worrying about the boy. Not that he'd ever reveal his observations to the man's face.
"Conjure me something solid, please."
The resident potions master took the request in stride. Without hesitation, he conjured an empty potion bottle and placed it in the center of the pedestal.
"What are you going to do?"
Albus smiled. "This."
And he began his work. His wand moved in odd patterns, turning the arithmetic equations he could visualize into sensible, well-calculated matrices.
It's just like Nicholas. Helping me from beyond the grave.
His old mentor had taught him this particular skill. Of course, Albus's own level of finesse was nowhere comparable to the ancient alchemist— a master of this craft. But for tracking Harry, it would be enough.
Pushing aside the nostalgic feelings that emerged in his heart, he focused on the multiple beads of color that popped up around him, dragging them into all sorts of intricate combinations as they began to form a messy, non-linear path.
"How— how are you doing that?" Severus asked, in awe of the magical sight in front of him.
Albus suppressed a chuckle. "If you must know, Severus, nothing is truly untraceable. Every bit of magic, even the most subtle acts, disturbs the world. And if you know how, you can trace it back to its source."
With the grace of a professional artist at work, he effortlessly wove patterns into the air with his wand, the beads following along and almost dancing to his wandwork. After several tense moments of gradual reconstruction, he was finally able to weave the ambient magic into a replication of the original portkey.
And then he cast the enchantment upon the bottle.
"Severus, I'm going to go after Harry. Make sure nobody leaves Hogwarts. Also… take a moment to check up on Alastor, if you can."
He received a curt nod in response.
Severus wasn't one for pleasantries, but he was ruthlessly efficient. With faith in his potions master, Albus put aside his worries and activated the portkey.
A moment later, he too vanished.
What is this place?
Albus looked around. The portkey had displaced him from Hogwarts to the same location that the original portkey was linked to. The place where it was supposed to have taken Harry.
He had expected, nay, prepared to arrive with a group of Death Eaters firing lethal curses at him.
He had expected to face some form of Voldemort in combat.
He had expected to be forced into an unfavorable fight to save young Harry.
Instead, Albus found himself… well, here.
This place… it was still within Hogwarts's wards, only—
Albus couldn't help himself. He palmed his face, and laughed. Out loud.
Such a simplistic solution.
He was standing somewhere around Hogwarts. Maybe along the outer borders of Hogsmeade or some part of the Forbidden forest. It was difficult to ascertain that in darkness. But one thing was absolutely certain.
The infamous wards of Hogwarts held strong here. Up to exactly two feet from his position. Outside that boundary, anything was free game.
This, Albus reasoned, must be how they got Harry and Cedric out.
It was painfully clear.
Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory had come here. And the portkey on their robes— no, on Cedric's robes had activated. But how? Why would Cedric Diggory—
For the second time, Albus Dumbledore palmed his face in exasperation.
"What a brilliant mind," he murmured to himself, walking forward. "A shame someone so prodigious fell into the darkness."
From what he remembered of Tom, such elegance and simplicity was beyond him. Tom liked grand entrances, loud proclamations. Magnificent displays of power. For someone that went around proclaiming to be the Heir of Slytherin, Tom had a Gryffindor streak a mile wide.
Had it been Tom's work, the portkey would have probably taken him somewhere elusive and grand, like the fabled Chamber of Secrets. But that was no longer an option. He had sealed the Entrance soon after the fiasco two years ago.
So whose work was this? Just who had influenced Cedric to do this? And how?
It merited a deeper investigation, but that was for a later time. Right now, there were far more crucial matters at hand. The traces of the portkey's second activation were already beginning to fade.
Without further delay, Albus raised his wand, summoning more colorful beads of magic around him.
And began to weave them once more.
I have been here before.
Albus Dumbledore stared at the expansive graveyard in front of him, seemingly stretching out for miles. Rows of tombstones surrounded him in a veritable sea of the dead. The writings on the dilapidated grave markers looked faded, indicating age— or perhaps there was no one left to care for them?
Still… something seemed familiar.
What is this place?
That was when he noticed the small signboard a few feet away, hanging limply from a wrought iron gate.
Little Hangleton Cemetery
As Albus read those words, something around him began to change. It was almost like a veil being lifted, leaving everything naked for the observer to witness. The misty presence faded, and the writings on the tombstones began to appear once more.
In the distance, he could see the black outline of a church due west, whereas a solitary house with a tapered roof was visible on top of a hill far south of him.
And suddenly, as everything came to focus at once, Albus remembered.
This was the graveyard of Little Hangleton, the original residence of the Gaunts. The place where it had all started. Merope Gaunt, Marvolo Gaunt, Tom Riddle… all of the information that he had meticulously collected erupted at once, threatening to overwhelm his mind with all sorts of connections.
He was baffled as to how and why this information had vanished from his mind. But knowing Tom, he had something to do with it. Or… something far more sinister was at play.
Not taking any chances, Albus lifted his wand above his head.
A wave of bright light burst forth from the tip of his wand, shooting into the air above him and coalescing into a miniature sun. High in the sky, it ebbed bright white light, inundating the entire graveyard with its presence. With the dreary place now fully illuminated, Albus held his wand like a sword, ready to combat any possible threats—
And froze, stupefied by the scene that met him.
The entire area in front of him was rendered gray.
Like the black-and-white filter from an old muggle camera.
The grass, the shrubs, even the very earth itself, had lost their color. The air tasted lifeless and stale. The powerful sphere of light he had just cast seemed to slowly drain away. Magic itself seemed to perish in the area.
And in the center of it all, lay the body of one Harry James Potter.
"Harry!" Albus breathed, worry and relief warring on his wizened features as he strode ahead, ruthlessly suppressing his instincts at the strangeness of the situation. His mind was in turmoil, age-old instincts from the war with Grindelwald returning. But he paid them no mind, instead sprinting ahead towards the boy—
Pain crawled up his spine, and Albus screamed.
Acting immediately, he flicked his wand, forming a dome of protective magic around him and pushing its wielder back as something surged in like a hungry shark, wanting to swallow the sole lifeform within its grasp—
"FINITE INCANTATEM!" Albus yelled, sending out an immensely powerful wave of magic from his wand. The gray dome hummed in response, almost as if it craved the feel of it all, hungrily eating it all up.
And suddenly, everything stopped.
This… This is...
Albus was on one knee, panting from severe exhaustion. It pained him to even formulate thoughts. Whatever this magic had been, stopping it had drained him.
He wondered if he had it within himself to cast even a single spell without falling unconscious.
Never in his entire life had he felt so weak, so helpless.
He glanced at the fallen form of Harry Potter.
I have work left to do. Now is no time to rest.
Pushing himself up, Albus slowly walked forward, trudging all the way to the fallen body. Immediately, he collapsed onto the ground, kneeling beside the boy as he held his wrist.
It was faint, but Harry still had a pulse. But that was better than he could have hoped for.
His immediate crisis averted, Albus finally noticed everything around him. Fallen around the boy, several feet away, were bodies. Human bodies. Twelve people, clad in Death Eater regalia— complete with their trademark skull-face masks.
All twelve of them lay on the ground, unmoving.
All twelve of them were rotting.
Their bodies were decomposing husks. Their robes were frayed and tattered, vulnerable to even the slightest breeze. Their masks were broken, loose fragments scattered across the ground.
But there was one more body. A thirteenth one that looked oddly familiar. The silvery arm, not so much— at this point, the entire body may as well have been a rotting tree stump.
The face, however, was remarkably rodent-like.
Albus withheld a sigh. He knew, in his heart of hearts, that the man had been responsible for the entire debacle with the Potters. That the people around him had murdered innocent lives. And yet, he couldn't help but feel sad at the loss of lives around him.
What could have possibly caused this?
A fourteenth body grabbed his attention. Albus, his body shaking in exertion, stood up and walked towards the cadaver, only to step back in horror. The body was decaying, the elegant robes in tatters, but the face was still mostly recognizable.
Albus shut his eyes, but a single tear escaped its clutches.
He had failed them.
He had failed them all.
He glanced once more at the fallen form of Harry Potter. Alive, yet unmoving.
He'd need to get the boy back to Hogwarts. Along with the rest of them.
It's not safe here.
With tumultuous effort, he channeled whatever energy he could muster into creating a second portkey, one that led back to Hogwarts. Sweeping all the fallen forms together into a strong Body-Bind Jinx, Albus held Harry's unconscious form even tighter.
The portkey began to glow.
As he felt the familiar tug at his navel, Albus couldn't help but take a final look back.
At the cursed place he was leaving.
At a scene that he was certain would continue to haunt his nights for years to come.
It was a circle of gray, within which Death reigned supreme.
An area in which nothing, not even color, was allowed to violate.
Editor: Solo Starfish, the best goddamn starfish the world has ever seen.
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