AN: Hello all. Sorry for the long gap, and that this is such a tiny chapter after that break. But I saw no point in attempting to force the chapter to exist beyond its natural end point. Consider it a teaser, and a promise that this story is not abandoned. Updates will continue to be irregular as my real life is insane, however, given that this chapter is so tiny, I do intend to have something more substantial out in the next week or two.
As another thing. I've edited the first chapter. It's not a proper edit by any stretch, as it doesn't add anything, or make it consistent with the later quality and style, so you don't have to re-read it, but it makes it a little less embarrassing (though not by much). I'll probably do the same for the other early chapters at some point, though my priority will continue to be releasing new material, so I'll only do an edit after I've written a chapter.
I hope you all enjoy.
Disclaimer: Usual disclaimers apply.
"It's going to rain soon," Gunter said.
A small figure was kneeling next to an old oak tree, hands feeling the deep gouges which ran up one side, skirting the edges of the other, where the bark was peeled back and covered in mud. He paused, and he seemed to slump forward.
"I know," he said, his voice hoarse with the beginnings of a cold.
It had been raining solidly for three days, and even charms and nature magic could not hold the torrent for long. His clothes sagged and clung on his frame, made damp from where the water had seeped inside, making it so even the spelled oil skin, could not keep all of the rain away. He'd ended up sleeping in the car, pressed against the gear stick and the back seat. The seatbelt had left a purple imprint on his back.
He knew that he was better off than the others. He knew that nobody would have been able to hunt in that downpour. It didn't matter. He felt the lost time in his bones, as the magic of the cup twinged and urged him to complete the task.
And now, in front of him, a clear sign. He'd found a wallow hole that very morning, when the sun had broken through and he'd gone fishing in the swollen waters to replenish his rations. The discovery of the hole, a place which a tebo had likely dug to rid itself of parasites, quickly led to the discovery of a narrow track, which led to the tree, which looked freshly rubbed, which meant the tebo was near and...
Harry looked at the sky, which was painting itself grey and wispy, and he knew that he had to return to shelter. He knew that he was not completely healthy. He knew that he wouldn't find anything in a storm. He knew that the tebo was close.
"We have time," he said to Gunter, and stood up. He cast a few water repelling charms, and dipped through the foliage. Gunter loped behind him. He pocketed his doll.
Before long the prediction of rain came true, and the clouds opened up, weeping great drops, that splattered through the trees onto his glasses where they were repelled away. It became louder and he could hear the rustling and the crinkling and the squelching. He could smell the decomposing wood, the river, the mould, the mud. He couldn't see and yet he was still vaguely aware of Gunter, but only as a presence, an expectation that he should be there, and so is. He was drowned out in the sounds and smells of the forbidden forest.
And because of all the noise, it took him a while to become aware of the sound of crying, whisting on the wind, carried towards him, a child's voice.
"Please," he heard, "somebody help me."
"Where are you?" he called back, his voice seeming to travel far and no where, stolen by the wind. His hand gripped tightly onto his wand, as he searched through the deluge for the origin of the cry.
"I'm right here," replied Gunter.
"Not you," Harry said, turning away from Gunter as he searched, "I mean the child."
"I don't hear a child..."
"Please," Harry heard again, and just as distantly, "somebody, please."
"It's far away," Harry said. "Be quiet, I need to concentrate."
Harry listened intently, and for a moment all he could hear was the steady dripping and howling of the storm and the forest, but then the voice rose again, and he knew.
"I thought that only the Champions were in the forest," said Gunter.
"There could be a child lost from Hogsmeade," said Harry.
"I don't hear a thing," insisted Gunter.
Harry ignored him as the voice called again, more urgently.
"I'm lost. Help"
"Where are you?" Harry called.
"I'm over here. I'm lost. Please."
Harry located what he thought was the direction of the voice. He hesitated.
And with that, Harry left the path, fighting his way through brambles and branches, which scratched and clawed at his clothes and his skin, leaving him raw and exposed. He left the path, shrugging off the tingling of the magic of the cup, which told him to stay on track, to look for the tebo, to finish his task. He left the path, shrugging off the cold, restraining hand, which distantly he knew to be Gunter's. He left the path, his mind consumed with the cry.
"Please, I want my mum."
And Harry thought that the voice was growing stronger. He called back, "I'm coming," certain that he was running in the right direction, even as the magic sang in his veins telling him to go back, even as the path behind him closed, became impassable, leaving him alone. He called, "I'm coming," and didn't wonder how his voice could carry so clearly in the storm.
Then, ahead of him, a single beam of white light broke through the clouds, and Harry ran towards it, as the voice called desperately from that direction.
"Help me. Help me. Help me."
He broke into a clearing which was ringed with Fools Webcap's, Ivory Funnel's, False Morel's, and Wooly Milk Cap's. In the middle of the clearing, its roots reaching into puddles of water, was a hook-nosed willow. It was bent towards Harry, its branches not swaying, not dripping, but reaching forward, hugging the air. Its leaves were spotted with orange, and tiny moths fluttered above. All else was still, except for a shadow of movement in the hollow at the base of the tree.
"Are you here?" Harry called, and he stepped further in, not noticing that in the clearing, the rain had stopped, the natural sounds had died, the smells had vanished, except for a cloying sweetness that sprung from the tree.
"I'm here," called the voice.
He didn't notice the absence of leaves on the ground, or bugs on the ground, or twigs, or flowers, or seeds, or that the water that lapped into the roots were perfectly circular and clear, or that there were no shadows except in the hollow of the tree.
He didn't notice that as he stepped forward, in his head, a song which had lurked there for months and which had awoken with the first call, grew and grew. It sang of fairy queens, and fairy realms, and endless dance and breathless lives, and...
"I want my mother."
...behind him, the branches closed, the mushrooms grew, and in front of him, the light shone brighter and brighter, blinding and white. Something moved.
Harry fell to his knees in front of the tree, kneeling before its beak, letting it smirk down at him. He crawled through the mud, reaching towards the hollow.
Maybe if the voice hadn't been so very real, and maybe if the song hadn't have been working on him since he'd heard it so many months before. Maybe if the sound hadn't fed on his natural inclinations to help, hadn't sounded like himself at his most alone, he would have recognised that this was a compulsion. He would have heeded his better senses which were screaming 'trap' at him. But the voice had grown too strong, and the song had been working on him for months, and there was nothing calm or floaty, like with the imperius, which could reveal the wrongness of the whole thing. It was insidious, cruel, and so very, very desperate. It suffocated everything else beneath that.
Behind him, something was attempting to push its way pass the growing mushrooms and branches.
Harry reached into the hollow, feeling small, gentle, smooth hands grasp him. He fell.
In the Great Hall of Hogwarts the projection of Harry went black.