The world Grindlewald had envisaged, the world he forged was radically different than anything that had come before it. The majority of European wizards and witches who'd fought against him fell into hiding. Those who didn't, however, suffered no reprisals. Nor did the muggleborns, halfbloods or muggles face persecution, as so many had feared. For Grindlewald cared nothing of blood, loyalty or magic. He cared only for power and those who could wield it.
Those who'd fought valiantly against his cause were welcomed with open arms into the upper echelons of his Empire. The muggle leaders of countries were almost all persuaded to remain in power and run their nations as virtually independent countries. The power of the Empire was turned inward, used to repair the damages of the war. Its wealth invested in infrastructure.
Grindlewald conquered nations, killed their young men and then showered them with money and adulation. He allowed them to maintain their cultures, their political systems and their daily life. He built hospitals emblazoned with his name, had food handed out on street corners in the ghettos of Warsaw, Budapest and Minsk. He personally oversaw the demolition of the concentration camps and the building of monuments at each of the sites.
Despite a little indecision, key members of the Jewish faith, the Vatican and prominent Protestant clergymen became a staple presence in the power structure of the Empire at Grindlewald's insistence. There was common ground found between the concepts of religion and witchcraft. Most importantly Grindlewald began to introduce doubt into the minds of those who'd fought against him; no longer could they be sure that they'd been fighting for a just cause.
And so, little by little, Grindlewald won the hearts and minds of those he'd conquered. Little by little, he united the countries of Europe under his banner and they adored him for it.
By giving the people of Europe a faux independence, he made invisible the nets, cages and ropes that bound them to his whim.
A cool dusk breeze touched the back of my neck as I watched the vibrant city below wind down for another still evening. The market vendors began to pack up their wares and the teeming crowd of happy punters dispersed to their homes and families.
The cafe in which I sat, with its gleaming stainless steel bar and furniture upholstered in black leather would transform within the hour from my quiet haven to a trendy bar, complete with the smells of beer, desperation and sweat.
I finished my coffee with casual shrug of the tiny cup and had just closed my book in preperation of leaving when a young woman sat delicately next to me. I glanced up in surprise and was quite startled by the vision of beauty before me.
She allowed me just enough time to drink in her plush full lips, her plunging neckline, gracefully tapered legs and the way she stretched her turquoise evening dress in all the right places. Then she offered me her hand and a smile.
I took them both delicately and grazed her exquisite fingers with my lips. Her smile widened into a reluctant giggle.
"You're a roué, Obersturmführer Potter."
I rose immediately, all thoughts of her beauty pushed behind me as I put the chair I'd just vacated between us, my fingers resting on the hilt of my wand.
"Who are you?" I demanded, my voice descending to a growl.
She looked me over and raised an eyebrow in an expression I couldn't read.
"I am Cho Chang," she said simply and I swallowed slightly, I recognised the name. Cho Chang was the Chinese ambassador to Leipzig, but was better known to me as a formidable duellist. I didn't move for a moment and she snorted with impatience. "Sit down, Harry. I am here as a guest of Riddle's, it was he who directed me here."
I sat down again, but opposite her, placing the table between us. She shook her head and gave me a rueful laugh.
"Why are you here?"
"To enjoy my evening in Tripoli, Harry. May I call you Harry?"
"I'd rather you didn't."
The cafe was filling with clubbers now, all of them young and stunningly good looking. Cho's eyes flickered over them with barely disguised lust and I rose to leave.
"Well enjoy your evening then, Ambassador Chang. I have no doubt I'll see you-"
She seized me by the wrist and fixed me with an annoyed look.
"Don't be ridiculous Obersturmführer, you must dance with me."
The cafe had just begun to play a beat that would make Mozart spin in his grave and several of the young couples had already taken to a makeshift dance floor. I had never felt so stuffy and boring in my life, I'd become old and joyless far before my time. I felt a smile part my lips.
"One dance," I said, mischievously and she smiled broadly at me.
She lead me by my hand to the dance floor, where she immediately pressed herself far closer to me than the song demanded. She wrapped her arms around me and leant forward into the crook of my neck, her lips grazing my skin.
"Do all Ambassadors dance like this?" I asked with a laugh.
"Just me," she replied, barely audible over the sound of the beat. Then she smiled and lifted her head to whisper directly into my ear. "They're generally not as good a fuck, either."
Cho returned to Leipzig in the morning, for which I was grateful. The remainder of my time in this nirvana was some of the best I'd ever experienced; by day I walked the harbour front, took long leisurely swims in the cyan blue sea and lay on perfect sandy beaches in the shade of a towering palm. In the evenings, Riddle and I would discuss politics, history and a thousand other topics at lengths as we ate in the best restaurants.
It was not perfect however, thoughts of Fleur plagued my waking hours and as I lazed sleepily on the beaches of my idyllic paradise, I couldn't help but feel her absence more strongly for the perfection that surrounded me.
It was only the assurances from Riddle that he was reverently working to clear my own name, as well as my father's that prevented me from writing to her and asking her to join me.
Over the days, I managed to construct a rough outline of the Empire's political state. Headlines and news bulletins caught my attention now and then, the war had become public knowledge, which meant that either the infrastructure of the Empire was failing and word had leaked, or far more likely, we were beginning to win.
Indeed, the intelligence documents that Riddle often brought to the dinner table would often corroborate my theories. It was frustrating however, to be so far from the action, to be relegated to a position in which I could have no influence what so ever.
Riddle seemed to recognise this, as one morning five days after I'd arrived in Tripoli, he handed me a thick dossier which I took eagerly. He settled himself in the sand next to me, looking as composed as always, as though it were completely usual for a senior ranking officer of the SS to lie on the beach.
Despite his relaxed appearance, I'd begun to notice signs of strain in Riddle. He'd begun to let his usually immaculate appearance fall; thick dark stubble covered his jaw and cheeks, his shirt was only half-tucked and thick dark rings had appeared around his eyes.
I regarded him coolly; my thumb riffled the pages of the dossier competitively.
"When was the last time you slept for a full ten hours?" I asked, surprised to find a slight tone of accusation creeping into my voice. He sighed and looked toward the sky.
"I don't remember," he admitted and shrugged. I didn't feel in a position to chastise him any further so I looked back at the folder in my hands.
"Top Secret?" I asked, my amusement making the tone of my voice light. Riddle snorted.
"We're heading back to Riga," he said softly, though his tone held more foreboding than I appreciated from my senior officers.
"Because we're needed? Or because you're itching for a fight?"
Riddle didn't answer immediately, but looked out over the stunningly blue sea that stretched out before us. I wagered I knew the answer.
"They're mounting a serious attack."
"That's not what's worrying me," snapped Riddle. "Chernenko knows he can't win. We've been reinforcing the area for days, he must know that if he attacks again he'll be crushed and our counter attack will sweep into Russia."
Suddenly, a hundred little things clicked together in my mind, as though someone had added the decisive jigsaw piece and now I could see the picture. Why the Russians chose to invade through Latvia, the reason we were ordered to defend Riga at all costs, the reason my unit was sent there in the first place.
"What's in Riga?" I asked, feeling the heat begin to rise in me, the indignation of being used as a pawn. Riddle stared at me impassively.
"It's not what's in Riga, as much as what's under it," he said gently and I felt my temper flare again. I knew he wasn't going to tell me. He didn't know if he could trust me.
"Whatever it is, Chernenko is going to kill an awful lot of his own men to retrieve it."
"It's certainly worth it."
I stared at Riddle a moment, stunned at the idea of something that valuable being stored under Riga.
"Okay, so even if there's this thing, how is Chernenko going to get at it? It's not as though he's going to punch through our lines now that they've been reinforced."
"Take a look in that dossier."
I flicked it open tentatively with my thumb and gazed in surprise at the first page where there was nothing but a black and white photograph of what appeared to be a battleship.
"A battleship?" I asked, confused. "New technology?"
Riddle smiled painfully as though I'd just told a bad joke.
I wasn't exactly sure what to say. Riddle seemed to sympathise and flipped to the next page for me, where I saw that the ship was equipped with a complete set of guns on both the deck and the underside of the ship. I flicked through the dossier, staring at each subsequent page with increasing bewilderment. According to the document in my hands the ship was not only armed to the teeth with all manner of cannon and small arms, it was also the subject of a ridiculous list of enchantments ranging from projectile barricades to layers of magic diffusing wards.
"I need you to destroy it," said Riddle and I looked up from the dossier. The expression on his face managed to be solemn, grave and yet somehow reassuring at the same time. "I wouldn't ask this of anyone, but if there's anyone I think can manage this, it's you. I'd go myself, if I didn't need to stop Chernenko. But it's your choice; I won't order you to do this."
We stared at each other for a moment, I thought about refusing, but I think deep down I knew that I would have gone to the ends of the earth for Riddle. I nodded briskly and rose.
"When do I leave?"
"Immediately," replied Riddle, who stood elegantly and took two steps toward me. His hand came to rest on my shoulder and he gave it a powerful yet comforting squeeze. "You're a brilliant wizard, Harry; A great man."
"There's more to being a wizard than this," I replied dutifully.
"You're right; you're a fantastic soldier, of course. But knowing that there's more to life than fighting. Knowing that there's something under all this that isn't hard and violent and dirty. Now that's-" he paused and after another firm squeeze, turned away. "Well, that's what makes a great man. Believe me."
And I did.
We took the Skitterleap to Riga about two hours later, on the drive to the Tripoli Skitterleap centre, Riddle briefed me more fully and outlined his plan. I was to get on the ship via a Skitterdisc and do my best to bring down the defences, allowing the anti-air crews on the ground to do their work.
The first thing that struck me as I stepped off the plate in the Skitterleap Chamber was the smell of gunpowder and woodsmoke that hung thick in the air. I realised at once how bad the fighting had gotten around Riga, the attendants managed to be both jumpy and depressed at the same time. A few snapped to attention at the sight of Riddle and myself, but most simply ignored us, rushing around and bustling the high ranking officials that surrounded us into various corners as they prepared their evacuation.
Riddle guided me powerfully through the room, once or twice bowling an attendant or member of parliament to the floor as he steered us through the teaming room.
For the second time, I stepped out of the door of the Latvian Institute for Technology and into the rain. Thick beads of warm rain ran down my face, leaving trails of ash on my face. I gritted my teeth as I looked around me; almost two thirds of the skyline was ablaze. Flames swept by the angry howling grazed the wards around us, the building behind us an unscathed haven in the midst of the burning city.
The street before us was full of people, hundreds of Rigans desperate for evacuation pressing against a thin line of soldiers who had been tasked with holding them back. The scene tugged at my heartstrings for a moment before a fresh wave of determination flushed through me.
Together we fought our way through the crowd, who for the most part completely ignored us. Once free, we set off at a run through the burning streets. The sounds of our footfalls lost to the din of the flames and the fighting.
As we breached the outer layer of the protections placed upon the building, a wave of heat rushed over us and ash and rain battered my face in equal measures, forcing me to look through slitted eyes as we battled our way through the wind.
We forced ourselves onward until we reached the rendezvous where we were to meet the force tasked with both destroying the airship and preventing Chernenko from reaching his goal beneath Riga.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at a tall marble building that overlooked the river. The top two floors seemed to have been caved in earlier in the fighting by some form of artillery, but the vast wooden doors still stood slightly ajar, guarded by a familiar face.
"Cedric!" I cried as we approached and the scarred, carefree face grinned back at me. I couldn't help but notice that he'd gained a number of scars since I'd last seen him.
He pulled me in through the door and then followed Riddle inside, pulling the door shut behind us.
"Are we the last?" asked Riddle glancing around at the twenty or so assembled wizards and witches stood huddled in the vast foyer.
Many of the faces I recognised and I found myself slightly humbled as I realised that these were the foremost Europe had to offer in magical talent.
The most notable stood amongst them was Antonin Dolohov, the foremost duelling instructor in Europe and outfitted in immaculate combat dragonhide. Two to his left was Madame Marino, former spy and assassin whose underhanded casting technique was studied the world over. Lastly, four to the right of Marino was my father, former soldier and expert curse-breaker.
Stood a litle way from the group was Cho Chang and Riddle immediately stepped forward and greeted her as though she was an old friend. I could trust her if Riddle could.
We arranged ourselves in a loose circle around Riddle and I let my eyes drift around the motley collection of people before me; soldiers in immaculate uniforms, operatives draped in bandoliers, a senior official in the Gestapo in a long leather trench coat, Cho Chang in a formal silk robe.
Directly opposite me in the circle was my father, standing straight-backed in an outfit that looked as though it harked back to the days when he worked as a treasure hunter in Egypt, topped off with a wide-brimmed fur felt hat that was pulled low over his eyes.
My eyes fell upon Riddle, who rotated slowly his eyes fixing each of us in turn before he finally spoke.
"What we're going to do today is probably the most important thing any of us will ever do," he said gruffly. There was no sign of his normal eloquence now and somehow that pressed the urgency of the job even harder upon us. "There is something in the catacombs beneath Riga that we cannot allow Chernenko to get his hands on, at any cost. However, we find ourselves in more peril than we previously thought; Chernenko's airship has been completed far in advance of our expectations. It will be here tonight.
"This leaves us in a predicament, the bulk of our forces must remain in the catacombs to defend them from Chernenko. Yet if we do not destroy the airship we shall surely fall. To this end, I am sending Diggory and Potter here to take deal with the airship."
The deathly silence did not change in response to this announcement but I saw my father's eyes widen in surprise. I looked at Cedric who nodded stoically in my direction. A warmth spread through me, if there was anyone here on who I could rely, it was Diggory.
"Miss Granger in the next room will give you the Skitterdiscs you need. When you two complete your task, you are to return here. Understood?"
Both Diggory and I nodded and took this as permission to leave; we broke away from the group. As we walked away, he shot me a grin and held something out to me.
"I managed to retrieve this for you."
I glanced down at it; my sword. I took it gratefully and was just about to thank him when a voice shouted my name from behind me. I turned to see my father stood a little way away from the group.
"I'll catch up to you, Cedric," I said and crossed the floor towards my father.
He regarded me silently for a moment and then his eyes fell upon the crucifix around my neck.
"I was under the impression that you despised religion."
"People change, father."
There was a brief uncomfortable pause.
"You think you can manage this?" he asked finally
"Well I never doubted your courage," He regarded me for a moment with something like sadness and then reached out an arm which I shrugged off. A look of hurt flushed over his face. "Harry-"
"No," I interjected sharply. "You're going to say something like good luck, or I love you, or I'll see you on the other side. You've never wasted platitudes on me before, so don't fucking start now."
"You've become a great man," he said, his face suddenly flushed with anger. "But you've always been an awful son."
I stood for a moment, flabbergasted at what he'd just said to me. Then I bit back the angry retort that came shook my head and turned away from him.
"Harry," he called after me and though I didn't stop, it didn't make his parting words any less heartbreaking. "It was your damn fault, Harry."
Cedric and Hermione were waiting for me on the other side of the door and I was immediately seized in a bone crushing hug by the latter. I waited a moment while she sobbed into my uniform then gently prised her away.
The moment she was detached from my jacket, she became instantly more businesslike, turning away from me and reaching for two discs upon a table in the corner. She handed us each one and then met my eyes with her slightly glazed ones.
"We've predicted the path of the airship and targeted these Skitterdiscs accordingly; the steering of the ship works with a similar enough magic to the wards containing the Skitterchambers that we should be able to deposit you fairly close to the bridge. We've got to be precise with the timings though as we're not going to get a second shot at this. You've got exactly two minutes and fourteen seconds, so get ready."
I stood for a moment with my neck tilted and my eyes closed, grounding myself for the fight that loomed before me. I pushed the thoughts of Hermione, my father and Fleur from the front of my mind as I desperately battled against my aggravated emotions.
"Harry," said Hermione softly and I opened my eyes reluctantly. She was stood very close to me, gazing up at me. Without warning she grabbed both sides of my face and pulled me into a lingering kiss.
"Good luck," she whispered and stepped away. Cedric gaped at me.
"Ten seconds," said Hermione suddenly and I gripped my disc very tightly. As she counted us in, I fought desperately against the overwhelming wave of emotions that rose within me.
My journey through the Skitterleap was, this time, unusually easy. No phantom creatures stalked me through the mist this time and I was overwhelmingly surprised when I abruptly found myself in unfamiliar surroundings.
I heard Diggory move behind me and I took a moment to survey our surroundings for a moment before I turned back to him. We were in an interior room of the ship, one filled with crates of ammunition and weaponry, a number of pipes ran along one wall of the room and some sort of fluid leaked down them.
"Well I don't think much of Russian craftsmanship," remarked Diggory off-hand, looking scathingly at the large patches of rust that pock-marked the walls. He grinned at me momentarily before becoming serious once again. "Wands out, then?"
I nodded and pulled mine from its holster, as I did, my hand brushed something hard in my pocket and I withdrew it cautiously. It was another rosary, identical to the one I wore around my neck. For a moment I stood staring at it.
"Harry?" asked Diggory in bewilderment and I pushed the rosary back in my pocket, out of sight and out of mind. I took point as we left the room.
It would seem that fate was not on our side, however, for the moment that we stepped through the door of the room and into the corridor below we were suddenly bathed in a red flashing light accompanied by a painfully loud siren that rang through the ship echoing from the steel walls and practically deafening us.
"Do you think they know we're here?" yelled Diggory above the noise in what I assumed to be a sardonic fashion.
We moved quickly, deciphering directions from stencilled Cyrillic lettering emblazoned above the door at the end of the corridor we realised that we were two floors below the bridge, where we needed to reach in order to halt the airship.
As we approached the foot of the first flight of stairs I heard muttered words echoing from the deck above us. At least three Russian voices spoke in harsh tones above the sound of the alarm, clearly waiting in order to ambush us.
I held up a hand to slow Diggory behind me and indicated that there were at least three hostiles above us. I signalled for him to target the roof above us with spellfire and he nodded his understanding.
I moved to the bottom of the stairs, waiting for Diggory to start casting. On the count of three, we both moved at the same time; as he began to pepper the ceiling with red hot lancing spells that melted through the thick metal. I heard at least one cry of pain as I rushed furiously up the stairs, a spell already on my lips.
As I burst through the doorway at the top of the stairs my first spell struck a stunned looking Russian soldier in the chest, a plume of dark fire biting through his chest and incinerating him from the inside out, filling the corridor with a thick black smoke through which I could just about make out the flashes from Cedric's spellfire.
I used the smokescreen afforded by the burning soldier to toss another spell into the corridor beyond him, which I could tell by the accompanying scream had found its mark.
When I heard footsteps running away from me, I began to riddle the area before me with the same spell Diggory had been using in order to prevent a counter attack. As it happened not a single shot was fired at us in retaliation and when the smoke cleared it became apparently why not.
Disregarding the two that I'd killed with my heartburn curse, six Russian soldiers lay dead, Cedric's curses had done their job, puncturing neat little holes through them and cauterizing them afterwards.
Diggory joined me shortly and regarded his handiwork with disinterest.
"Nice work," I said, offhandedly as I tried to determine our next move. He shrugged.
"What a waste," he said and looking at the men again, I couldn't help but agree, a few of them couldn't be older than seventeen and certainly none of them were twenty yet.
I tried to push this out of my mind and indicated to Diggory that we needed to go through a sealed door to our right.
"From what I can tell, they've retreated toward the bridge but if I remember the ship schematics correctly, we can go up a floor and blow through one of the engine room walls in order to cut them off at the next staircase."
As I finished speaking however, a bright crimson spell blew through the wall a little further down the corridor and a Russian warlock leapt through the hole he'd created.
"Get the door open Diggory!" I yelled and stepped between the two, my wand raised. "I'll deal with this one."
I wasn't sure if the Russian had understood my words, but he tilted his head to the side and smiled morosely, bearing teeth filed to points.
His first spell hit my shield with the force of a locomotive. I staggered backwards slightly and a second spell ricocheted off my shield as my centre of balance changed, knocking me to the floor.
I managed to retain enough presence of mind to shield again as I went down and only just managed to stave off death by a whisker as another spell was deflected into the ceiling where it rained molten metal down on me.
"Fuck me," I panted as I climbed to my feet. "You must have eaten your fair share of spinach as a kid."
Once again the wizard displayed teeth that were probably more suited to eating elephants than vegetables. I saw the tell-tale signs of another curse coming my way and by allowing my shield slightly more give managed to deal with it adequately.
There was no finesse or speed in my opponents casting; only the same brute force I'd seen from Chernenko, but without the ability to back it up. As he cast his next spell, I sidestepped and shielded at the same time, deflecting it into the wall on my left and instantly linked my wand movement into an entrail expelling curse which he blocked admirably.
Normally, I would have had a definitive advantage in pure technique, but in these confined corridors which were only two shoulder widths abreast, I was forced into fighting on his terms.
Quickly I formulated my plan and focused solely on blocking and returning his curses. This gave me enough time while he blocked and prepared his next curse to close the distance between us, inch by inch, until he wouldn't be quick enough to block.
I was perhaps three feet away from him when an explosion from my left knocked me against the opposite wall and a second wizard leapt through the sizeable gap and threw himself against me.
Thin but wiry arms wrapped themselves around me, one snaking itself around my neck, the other forcing my wand hand up and away from my body. A gaunt face appeared next to my cheek and another set of pointed teeth snapped at my face as I turned away.
I got a few seconds of a vile, putrid breath on my face as he made another determined attempt to bite me and used his own momentum to deliver a dizzying head butt to his lower jaw.
The next few seconds were lost in a wave of confusing dizziness and the next thing I knew I was slumped in a heap on the floor with the Russian wizard draped over me.
I immediately levelled my wand on the first wizard while my movements were obscured by my human shield and hit him in the chest with a precise killing curse. I turned my wand inward to finish the one laying on me, but he managed to get his wits together quickly enough to force my wand away again.
Reacting swiftly I planted my elbow solidly into his crotch, which although making him howl in pain wasn't enough to make him relinquish his grip on my wrist.
A flash of desperation coursed through me as he tried to sink his teeth into my throat while we struggled on the floor. From the corner of my eye, I saw Diggory raising his wand but knew that he couldn't take a clean shot while we were both wrestling like this.
Quickly, I pulled my free hand that had been staving off his attempt to bite me and sank my index and middle fingers into his eye sockets. The pain it induced was enough for him to stop struggling for a moment, during which I rose to my knees and holding his head in a grip like a bowling ball, dashed the back of his head against the steel wall twice.
He fell limply to the floor, fragmented messages from his ruined brain causing his leg to twitch pathetically. A flick of my wand was enough to put him down permanently.
Diggory stood over me a moment, staring at the wrecked wizard sprawled across the floor. I bent down to pick up the discarded wand on the floor, Diggory looked at me disapprovingly.
"You shouldn't do that. Steal a wand from the dead."
"It's not like he's going to need it, is it?"
"You're a cold guy, Harry," he said, only just audible over the deafening siren that was still echoing through the entire ship.
Beyond the thin sliver of red light cast through the opening Diggory had left, the engine room was pitch black inside. Lighting the dead wizard's wand with a flourish, I tossed it forward into the dark like a flare, where the sickly green light flew through the air before dropping over the edge of the catwalk inside the door and down into the depths of the engine room below.
We both stepped inside, careful to not walk straight over the un-railed edge and while I peered down into the room below, Cedric sealed the door behind us and thankfully muting the siren significantly.
The engine pit sank down below us for perhaps three decks where the wand now sat in perhaps twelve inches of water. If I remembered correctly, the engines which would have powered the propeller had been replaced with a massive rocket propellant system, similar to the ones that had powered the V2 rockets in the forties. It acted as both propulsion and steering while the magic kept it in the air.
We moved into the engine room more cautiously, both appreciating the unspoken concern that there may be more psychotic Russian wizards lurking in wait.
The stairs we needed to reach the floor above were on the other side of the Engine pit, which meant we needed to climb down and trek through the knee high water at the bottom.
Diggory took point this time, moving cautiously down the stairs with very little light to guide him. As he reached the midway point the crucifix around my neck and the one in my pocket burned red hot. I muffled a yell of pain and fell to one knee, clutching my thigh and trying to prise the searing metal away from it.
Just as I fell forward the wizard who'd been lurking in the shadows behind me jumped forward with a yell and went flying over my shoulder, his long serrated bayonet hissing narrowly past my right ear. He rolled straight over me and down the stairs, crashing into Diggory's back.
Before I could even react, three thunderous flashes of green light thundered into the pair of falling wizards and I could only watch in horror as Diggory collapsed into a lifeless heap at the bottom of the stairs.
A second later my wits came back to me and I conjured a block of granite in the path of another killing curse and swept to the side, avoiding the second that came through my defense right after it.
A flick of my wand transfigured the dead Russian into a wolf that leapt into the darkness where I assumed there was a wizard and died with a pathetic howl. It was enough to pinpoint one of my assailants though and a stream of curses forced him from his hiding place before a killing curse finished him.
I was only just quick enough to block a putrid yellow curse that thundered out of the darkness toward me and it distracted me for long enough that another wizard was able to tackle me around the waist and off my catwalk vantage point.
I turned in midair, using my back and the water to cushion my fall as much as possible. My attacker was not so lucky, his landing face first on a hard piece of metal piping exposed from the surface of the water. I couldn't help but wince as I heard his neck crack.
Water splashed to my right somewhere in the darkness as I rose to my feet and I instinctively tossed a curse in the direction of the noise; it was a mistake. A return curse from three feet to the right struck me in the side, splitting the skin and bloodying the water around me.
I staggered; gasping in pain and found myself face down in the water again, accidentally taking in a mouthful in my haste to catch my breath.
It was freezing, salty and tasted of oil and dirt. But it was enough to force me back to my feet and stay my spinning head. Another curse came at me from the darkness which I managed to dodge, sloshing through the water to avoid it.
As the sole of my boot came into contact with something submerged in the water I lost my footing again and more spellfire whistled narrowly overhead. I returned the curse the best I could from my hands and knees and then staggered upright again.
Another attacker closed in on me, the sound of his splashing in the water alerting me to his blindside attack. I turned just in time to seize him by the wrist and direct his knife away from me, sidestep his charge and throw him to the floor. A killing curse whistled past my head from the other side and I turned just in time to take a Russian laceration curse to my shield.
I simultaneously cast a counter attack and drew my sword from its sheath on my back with my left hand. The knife-bearing wizard came at me again and I was able to use the sword to parry his blade and immediately take his free hand off at the wrist.
I turned into him again as he fell to his knees, his mouth open in a silent scream of pain and neatly eviscerated him with my sword before using my wand to flick him in front of an incoming killing curse.
An unexpected disarming curse ripped my sword from my hand, though I managed to retain my wand by sheer reflexes. Another curse hit me simultaneously and I suddenly found myself suspended upside down in the air.
Undeterred I shielded the piercing curse that followed it and dispelled the bind, falling into the water with a splash that attracted a hail of spellfire from two directions.
A powerful downward sweep of my wand produced the Aegis shield; a vast, shimmering blue dodecahedron that would protect me from almost anything, but made me an easy target for experienced wizards.
Luckily, these two were not; while one continued an incessant stream of curses that ricocheted from the surface of the shield, the other paused for a moment, took stock of the situation and aimed a precise killing curse at me.
I waited until the last possible moment before dropping the shield and diving to the side. Both wizards could only stand in shock as they hit each other with their curses; one falling instantly from his companion's killing curse while the other one was battered to the ground by a bludgeoning curse.
I realised as I rose from the water again that the cut in my side was far worse than I had first thought. Blood was thickly clouding the water around me and it was getting harder and harder to focus on the task at hand.
Slowly and feeling slightly detached from reality I waded over to where Diggory's body bobbed slightly, with much splashing, I was just about able to lug him higher up the stairs where he lay draped like a ragdoll.
I paused for a moment to catch my breath and felt the combination of bloodloss and exhaustion kicking in. Just as I realised that there was no way I could possibly hope to take the bridge in this state, the entire ship began to shake as the guns on the underside of the ship began to fire, presumably raining death down upon Riga below.
"We did our best, Cedric."
Just as I was about to give up and collapse against the stairs, I felt a pair of strong hands seize the back of my jacket and turn me around. For a moment all I could see was the face of the Russian wizard I thought killed by his companion's bludgeoning curse, then he punched me solidly in the face and I found myself knocked backward onto the stairs.
Again I felt myself pulled up right and again the fist struck me in the side of the head. I felt my nose break as my head bounced off the stair railing and blood seeped down my face. As the wizard lifted me again I hit him back with all of the force I could muster and he tumbled backward, landing a few stairs below me.
I aimed my wand at him, trying to steady my arm, but he came at me again, forcing my hand upward and dashing it painfully against the edge of a stair, jarring my arm. I tried to strike out again, but he took the blow against the side of his arm and punched me again.
A sudden surge of adrenaline shot through me, I decided right then that I was not going to die at the hands of some mediocre Russian wizard, not when I had a task to complete. I put my hand down below me, trying to find some leverage in order to push the wizard off me. Instead my palm came down on something sharp; the bayonet.
I seized it and with one fluid action, jammed it between the ribs of my assailant. He gave me an uncomprehending stare then as I pulled the bayonet free, he tried to escape, coughing piteously. I fell on him with a fury I'd never have expected from myself, allowing the blade to come down several times in his back as he screamed in pain.
Finally when he'd stopped moving, I stabbed the blade down once more for good measure and sank on top of him, gasping for breath, equal parts of adrenaline and fury still coursing through every fibre of my being.
Eventually I wrenched the bayonet free and jumped to the floor, soaked through with blood and water and twice wounded. I spread my arms wide and looked upwards to the catwalk above.
"Is that all you've got?"
There was no response and I looked around challengingly.
"Is that it?"
A vast figure appeared from the darkness and I suddenly wished I hadn't asked that question.
The abomination before me stood at roughly seven feet tall and the sight of it filled me sheer terror. Strips of tattered rotting muscle flexed against a rusting steel skeleton smeared with gore. Bulbous transparent veins of a silverish fluid hung loosely from it and swung as it moved.
Whatever face it possessed was hidden behind a thick black gasmask and where it should have had hands, there were only two huge steel claws that snapped menacingly as it approached.
I instinctively took two steps backwards as it came toward me, staining the water around it with the fluids seeping from its putrid flesh. I raised my wand, terror heightening my reflexes.
"Avada Kedvra!" I roared, fear colouring my voice.
The flash of green light burst from the end of my wand and struck the creature in the chest. It didn't react in the slightest, just continued forward at the same pace.
"Delibro! Abhorreo! Lacero! Sectumsempera!"
Each spell in turn did nothing to slow the relentless advance of the monster, even when once of the cutting curses severed a line of silver fluid, allowing it to pour freely into the water, the creature still came onward.
I backed away further and still it came toward me and the only thing I could think to do was run; I was just mentally preparing a route when the creature stopped. I stared blankly, unsure of how to react. Then it lifted a clawed arm toward me. I saw, with a jolt of horror, that attached to the back of the claw was the barrel of a vast cannon.
I managed to leap to safety as the weapon roared to life, peppering the wall behind me with what sounded like fifty calibre bullets. It turned slowly, tracking me with its fire as I pulled myself up and fled. Sparks from the hull's bulkhead and vast bursts of water followed inches behind me.
I threw myself over one of the steel platforms that would have once housed the engines of the ship and I could hear bullets ricochet off in the darkness. As suddenly as it had started, the shooting stopped and I heard the abomination begin it's slow march toward me again.
Possibilities wracked through my brain; shields were out of the question. I could stop small arms fire with a personal shield, or perhaps a single round from that cannon, but consistent fire would cut through it like butter. Likewise, attacking it with magic appeared to do almost nothing.
And if I got too close, those huge bladed claws would snap me in half. As I was still frantically thinking, I heard it clamber on top of my temporary cover, its claws snapping experimentally and reacted purely on instinct.
"Accio Sword!" I roared and threw myself out from cover just as one of the huge claws came crashing down where I'd been only a moment before. I caught the sword in mid air and used the momentum it had built to spin in a perfect circle and bring the blade slicing down on the abomination.
I stared in astonishment as it perfectly parried the sword with its spare claw and casually punched the other into my chest, tossing me six feet backwards.
I fell face first into the water and rolled quickly to the side as a line of fifty calibre rounds splashed through the water where I'd just been lying. I rose to my feet and darted forward, ducking under another wild claw swing and slashing my sword at its legs.
Again I found myself blocked by another of those terrifying claws and this time recieved a kick in the throat for my efforts. I scrambled away gasping for breath and only just managed to avoid another blow that surely would have broken my spine.
As I rose again, a handful of rounds whizzed passed my head, penetrating the steel behind me. A half second later a geezer of fire erupted from the wall behind me and I dodged away. I realised a moment later that right behind that wall must be the rocket that powered the ship.
The abomination punched out at me and I ducked out of the way. The blades of it's claws punching neat holes through the wall again, this time it took the full brunt of the fire across it's arm. With a sound that was unmistakably a grunt of annoyance, it pulled itself free and turned to face me again.
I was ready.
As it turned, I swung my sword with both hands, the blade sinking four or five inches into the side of its head where it stuck fast. We both stood completely still facing each other, for a second I thought I'd killed it where it stood but then it did the impossible and brought a claw arcing into my side and tossing me through the air.
I clambered to my feet and staggered. I had wounds in both sides now and my ribs were clearly broken. I could only breathe in very short gasps and with every inhalation came stabbing pains. The abomination lumbered toward me again, the sword still sticking out of its head like some novelty prop.
"Accio Sword!" I cried again and winced as my ribs signalled their protest.
I caught the sword one handed this time, the other arm wrapped around my chest in a vain attempt to keep everything in roughly the same place. I could taste blood in my mouth every time I moved and felt my stomach preparing to vomit.
"Inilendio!" I roared and the Foe Hammer struck the creature in the side of the head. Liberally splattering the surrounding area in gore as the gas mask and half the monster's scalp came away. Not that it slowed it down in the slightest.
My legs collapsed underneath me as it came forward again, unwilling to hold my weight any longer. It stopped before me and I waited for the killing blow to come and when it didn't, I looked up into its face.
I almost gaped as the face of Franco Ritter stared blankly back at me. The German's once handsome face was ruined, partly by my blade, but mostly from the vast number of stitches holding it together. Where there had once been his shy smile there was just a gormless expression, his eyes which I had closed in death were now open, yellowed and sightless.
Fury and disgust hit me simultaneously and with new determination I swung my sword around and stood in the same motion, impaling the monstrous face just under the chin. The sword buried itself in Ritter's head up to the hilt and protruded through the top of his skull. The abomination reeled back for a moment giving me time to escape.
From somewhere, at the point I'd looked into Ritter's face, a plan had come to me and I knew exactly what to do. My wand made short work of the wall behind me and my estimation had been correct, the rocket was housed behind it. I knew that the rocket was the ship's weak point, held in place only by a vast circular hinge that allowed it to steer.
I heard Ritter come at me again and I turned viciously, my first curse shearing a blade from his claw and the second forcing the claw through his chest. It staggered again.
Then, as though I'd practiced a hundred times before, I turned back to the rocket and fired a curse at the huge metal prong holding it in place. Three things happened simultaneously; I seized the Skitterdisc in my pocket, Ritter lifted his clawed arm to smite me and the rocket came away from its coupling and smashed through its casing and careened across the engine room, flattering Ritter on its way.
As I felt the Skitterleap take me again, I focused with all of the power left to me on not being splinched into a thousand pieces and it was gratefully that I hit solid ground and collapsed into a heap. I heard a cry from Hermione just before hundreds of thousands gallons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen exploded a thousand feet above the city.
For the longest time, the world was silent and everything was still. The light fitting in the ceiling drifted in and out of focus. Dust seeped through a large crack that spanned the room and fell past my head.
Then slowly, with a painful whistling my hearing returned. The first thing I consciously heard were footsteps drawing closer. My vision swam for a moment and when it returned, I was looking up into my own face.
"I was right! I did look awful!" I said, in surprise.
My vision swam again and I knelt down to slap my face.
"That hurts," I moaned piteously.
"I know," I replied, not seeming to mind much.
"What's going on?" I murmured, almost drifting out of consciousness again.
"Not so fast," I replied and slapped my cheek again. "You've got to save the world first, then you can sleep."
But I ignored my question, lifted my head and forced something over my neck.
"Two turns," I said, more to myself than to me. Then I reached down to whatever it was around my neck, paused and I gazed into my own eyes for a moment. "You've got to be here in two hours and get Hermione to give you two Skitterdiscs."
I was about to say that I didn't understand but the next thing I knew reality had dissolved away around me and I was flying backward.
I landed in a heap on the floor for the second time and heard an exclamation of alarm. I looked around and Hermione who was staring at me in uncomprehending shock. I was just about to say something to try and snap her out of it, when I heard familiar words from the adjacent room.
"There is something in the catacombs beneath Riga that we cannot allow Chernenko to get his hands on, at any cost."
Immediately I knew. I didn't know how, or why, but I knew what had happened and I knew that I couldn't be here for what was going to happen next. I looked imploringly to Hermione.
"Hide me," I pleaded. She just stared back. "Please."
"Harry, what's going on?"
"I just travelled through time."
"I don't know Hermione, but I know that if Cedric comes through that door and sees me, something really awful is going to happen. You've got to hide me."
She finally moved and exceedingly gently helped me up and through a second door into a storage cupboard. When she'd propped me against a wall, then pulled her wand free of her clothes and rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. I waved her away.
"In a moment you've got to go and send me and Diggory off on our mission. I need you to put this in my pocket."
I pulled the crucifix from around my neck and held it out, noting at the same time that there was something else strung around my neck. She hesitated.
"It's mostly clotted now, go."
She lingered a moment longer before grabbing the crucifix out of my hand then disappeared back through the door, closing it solidly behind her. I pulled the other chain from around my neck and examined the small hourglass interestedly.
I assumed that this was what had brought me back in time, but what had I meant when I'd told myself to save the world? Where was I even supposed to go from here? I had to talk to Riddle, he'd know what to do.
Five minutes later Hermione returned looking slightly rosy cheeked. I suddenly realised why and grinned up at her.
"You just kissed me," I chuckled and she turned the colour of strawberries.
"How did you-?" she asked, breathlessly.
"We haven't changed anything, this is exactly what happened the first time. But don't change the subject; you kissed me!"
She blushed again. "You wanted me to put that crucifix in your pocket."
"Oh no, you did that when you hugged me. You just wanted to kiss me when you thought I wouldn't know."
She ignored me, but instead knelt to attend to my wounds, refusing to meet my eyes.
"Take your shirt off," she ordered.
"I thought you might say that," I laughed and she flushed again. I pulled my shirt over my head and we both winced as we saw the mess that was my chest. One side was slightly caved in where my ribs were broken but she mended that with a flick of her wand. The cut on the other hand was caked in dried blood and was probably infected.
It only took a few moments for her to clean away the blood and it immediately started bleeding again.
"Here," she said and pulled a small vial out of her pocket. Inside was a milky substance that she dabbed onto the wound. It almost instantly healed as I looked on in astonishment. "Phoenix tears," she explained. "Drink the rest of it."
I tipped the last of the vial down my throat and was amazed as I instantly felt rejuvenated. I leapt to my feet, evidently to the surprise of Hermione as she fell backward.
"Where are you going?" she demanded and I gave her a wink.
"To save the world," I announced and went in search of Riddle.
The others were still in the foyer, clearly going over their battle plan. When I appeared in the doorway, everyone looked up at me.
"Harry?" asked my father and Riddle simultaneously.
I sauntered over, feeling like the lord of creation and held out the tiny hourglass. Riddle stared at it in shock.
"Where did you get that?"
"I gave it to myself."
While everyone else stared on in obvious confusion, Riddle pulled the hourglass out of my hand, tossed it on the floor and stamped on it viciously. A small purple puff of smoke rose into the air and then dissipated.
"Was that-?" began Dolohov.
"Yes," replied Riddle, still looking me in the eyes with an expression bordering on wariness. "The airship?"
"It'll come down in two hours."
He nodded and then looked back to the assembled group. "It would appear we've gained an extra man." They all started to speak at once, but Riddle held up a hand for silence. "The questions can wait until after we've dealt with Chernenko, the clock is ticking. Harry, stick close to your father and do everything he tells you. Let's move."
"Wait," I said suddenly, remembering. "I need two Skitterdiscs."
"What for?" asked Riddle suspiciously.
As it turned out the building we were currently in was part of the Vermanes Gardens and housed one of the entrances to the catacombs that ran beneath the city. So it was for this reason that a few minutes later I found myself walking through a low, narrow tunnel with two Skitterdiscs in my pocket and a broadsword attached to my back.
The sword was a gift from Dolohov, who apparently always carried spares and seeing as my own sword was vaporised in an explosion that hadn't even occurred yet, he'd been kind enough to give me a replacement.
As we walked, Riddle explained our objective.
"The artefact that I just destroyed is exactly what we're going to prevent Chernenko from stealing. It's called a timeturner and is the last of its kind, the knowledge required to fashion one died along with Albus Dumbledore almost fifty years ago."
"So why don't we just destroy it when we get there?"
"Because we already know we haven't, or you wouldn't be here. Anyway what happened on the ship?"
I tried to explain the best I could, with my father and Riddle cutting in every few minutes to ask questions. I deliberately didn't mention the crucifix, which was now hanging around my neck again, as I wasn't sure what to make of it myself.
By the time I'd finished, the small tunnel had widened out into a much larger one, which in turn opened into a vast circular chamber, with three other entrances of similar sizes. At the centre was a podium upon which rested the timeturner.
"What?" I asked in amazement. "That's everything guarding a priceless and incredibly powerful magical object; nothing?"
"I have been working on dismantling the defences on this tunnel for three days," said an elderly wizard scathingly in English tinged by an Italian accent.
"So it's going to take Chernenko three days to get here?" I asked, confused. The wizard shook his head in exasperation.
"Chernenko cannot be stopped by magical enchantments," he said, as though explaining it to a child. I suddenly realised what he meant. I was about to apologise when Riddle spoke up again.
"James; take Harry, Eichel and miss Chang and guard the left hand tunnel. Dolohov, Kaufmann, Martinez and Delgado, the far passage if you would. Klaus, I'm going to need you to restore the enchantments on the tunnel we just passed through and guard it with Ahlstard, Silander and Sjoberg. Which leaves myself, Dustin, Rayne and Madame Marino guarding the right passage."
Cautiously, wands at the ready we advanced into our passage. Eichel, a cursebreaker began to cast a lumos charm, but I held my arm out to stop him.
"If you ignite your wand and there's someone at the end of this corridor, we'll be dead in about five seconds."
My father nodded approvingly and Chang winked at me.
"I always did find tacticians sexy," she whispered and giggled.
"Well then you'll love this," I said, coming to a stop as the passage narrowed. "Textbook ambush position here, let's see if our transfiguration master can't transfigure us some natural looking cover."
My father snorted and with two flicks of his wand produced a pair of chest high walls, in perfect replication of the architectural style of the chamber.
"Show off," I muttered.
We paired off and covered both sides of the passage between us, agreeing to keep noise to a minimum. My father joined me behind the left hand wall and although I wasn't especially pleased about that, it would be better than having Cho and her constant flirting.
After a moment of silence, my father leant in a little.
"I'm sorry about what I said before," he whispered.
"I'm over it."
"I don't think that it was your fault. It's just sometimes easier to have someone else to blame."
"It was my fault, if it wasn't for me, she'd still be alive."
"You were twelve."
"I knew enough magic to save her."
"That's not what I meant."
A silence fell between us that lasted a few minutes until my father spoke again.
"Harry, I had a lot of time to think in prison and reassess my choices," he flexed his neck slightly. "What I mean is, if you're willing and provided we survive this, can we try again? Life is too short for us to lose another four years."
Something inside me that had long been cold and dead suddenly blossomed back into life. I turned away from him to hide the smile that was spreading over my face.
"I'd like that," I said softly.
"Really?" he seemed more surprised than I was. "That's great, Harry. I don't think it'll be hard to pull strings and get you out of the army after everything that's happened in the last few weeks."
"I got promoted to Riddle's administrative staff. I can't imagine him being against me working from England."
My father frowned at this news and put a hand on my shoulder.
"Harry, I need you to listen very carefully to what I'm about to tell you," he said, in a far quieter whisper than he'd been using before so that I had to strain to hear him. "You cannot, under any circumstances, trust Riddle. He's a great man and like truly great men, he puts the needs of the many before anything else. He will not deliberately set out to harm you, but if circumstances ever required it, he would sacrifice you without a second thought. He is not a man who understands friendship in the same way as you or I."
I frowned, that was not my experience of Riddle, who'd put himself on the line a number of times to protect me. My father shook me slightly, his eyes serious and intent.
"I know what you're thinking Harry. He's done us a good service and deserves our loyalty, but he's a man of plans, cunning and complete altruism. That's a dangerous thing, Harry, trust me."
But I wasn't sure I could. It seemed far too convenient that my father would suddenly decide to mend our fractured relationship and then try and turn me against Riddle. So what was the purpose in his fishing for allies? What was my father planning?
"Harry, do you trust me?"
I didn't have time to answer. Without warning a figure burst through the mouth of the tunnel before us in a burst of bright blue flames.
All four of us leapt up to see a charred corpse collapse into dust. I trained my wand on it, on the off chance that it might get up and heal mortal wounds right before our eyes.
"Wait, they're using enchanted prisoners!" squeaked Eichel in panic. "Now they know exactly what to defend-"
He never got to finish the sentence, because a green killing curse thundered down the passage and hit him in the chest.
A moment later, the entire chamber had erupted into shouts and explosions. It appeared that we'd been attacked on four fronts at once.
Russian wizards began to pour through the passage before us, the first two immediately falling to killing curses from Cho and I. The next however blocked with a lump of stone and before we could respond, they were flooding through.
I blocked two curses and flattened three wizards with a bludgeoning curse. I drew my sword with my free hand and used it to cut down another as he tried to leap the barricade.
I managed to get another with a killing curse, before a hail of spellfire forced me to drop behind. A second later my father dropped down too.
"We're going to have to fall back a bit, or Cho's going to get overrun," I said as I thrust my sword up into the throat of another wizard trying to jump the barricade. He nodded his agreement.
We both leapt to our feet at the same time, dropping two Russians apiece and leaping the barricade. Our opponents clearly weren't expecting a counter attack because for a few moments confusion seemed to reign amongst them and this allowed us to kill another each.
"Fall back Cho!" I roared over the din.
"FALL BACK!" came Riddle's voice echoing through the entire chamber.
I dropped another Russian as he lunged forward, Dolohov's broadsword puncturing his stomach in a flash of steel. I hung back slightly, lashing out with my sword and absorbing two curses with a well timed shield in order to give Cho and my father enough time to fall back to the main chamber.
As we returned to the centre, the assault died out slightly, giving us time to reorganise. I couldn't help but notice as we all assembled again that our number was significantly smaller now and quiet a few were sporting wounds.
"I need a sword," shouted Silander, wiping blood from his forehead. "I lost mine inside someone."
Dolohov, who in comparison looked to have barely broken a sweat, drew his last spare and tossed it to him, hilt first. The Norwegian caught it deftly and we arranged in a loose circle around the pedestal. Riddle and my father conjuring huge stone blocks in a maze-like ring throughout the room.
"Casualties?" called out Marino.
"We lost Ahlstard," shouted Klaus.
"Delegado," Dolohov said more quietly.
"And Eichel," I finished.
Ahlstard, Delegado and Eichel; that was three in less than five minutes. Things were already looking bad for us.
"Did anyone get a rough count?" asked Riddle, returning to the circle.
"Twenty, perhaps twenty-five in our tunnel," I estimated.
"That sounds about right," confirmed Dolohov.
"How did they get a hundred wizards inside Leipzig?" asked Silander, bitterly.
"We can ponder that one out later," snapped Riddle. "For now, let's try and stay alive."
"We killed maybe ten," said Cho. The others seemed to agree. For the three lost, we'd taken forty in retaliation, our carefully planned ambushes had taken their toll.
"What are they waiting for," cried Klaus angrily. He seemed to have taken the loss of Ahlstard personally.
"Relax Klaus," said Riddle quietly. "Don't let your feelings get carried away with you."
After a few moments of silence we spread out and took positions amongst the stone blocks. Cho joined me behind mine, for a few moments she said nothing then she turned to look at me.
"Kiss me," she said and I blinked owlishly at her.
"It's stupid, but if I die, I don't want today to be kissless."
I didn't say anything for a moment, but regarded her placidly. Then slowly, leant forward.
They attacked again quarter of an hour later. This time they appeared to have learned from the first ambush and filled the outer passages with a thick, noxious smoke to conceal their advance. For a while there was nothing then suddenly and without warning, sixty wizards burst out of the smoke.
The stone blocks proved to be an incredible tactical advantage. For when the Russians emerged from the smoke they had nothing to aim at, forcing them to charge the thirty or so feet of open ground and allowing us to pick them off from behind cover.
They were perhaps ten feet away when I heard Riddle shout for us to open fire and instantly there were thirteen precise killing curses flung at the advancing enemy.
I managed to drop two before they reached me, then Cho and I fought back to back as wizards circled our block. I stabbed the first wizard to run past, but his speed forced the blade out of my hand.
Another darted around with a killing curse already on his lips, forcing me to block with a lump of conjured rock, forcing the wand motion into a block for his next spell. I simultaneously whipped out my free hand and caught him a vicious blow under the chin, giving me enough time to dispatch him with a cutting curse.
I retrieved my sword in time to parry a blow from a Russian wielding a hatchet and followed it up with a deadly bludgeoning curse that knocked him off his feet. Behind me, Cho fell under the weight of her opponent and I turned to dispatch him with a thrust of my sword.
Cho kicked him off and climbed to her feet. The battle around us was still raging, but there didn't seem to be any more wizards attacking us. I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her toward the centre of the circle.
"Come on," I cried as she resisted slightly.
As I reached the middle, I immediately saw Riddle making short work of the few who had made it through the outer perimeter. As we ran over he looked up with a smile.
"Going quite well, isn't it?" he asked, with more joviality than I could have mustered and then immediately ducked a killing curse from a wizard who burst through the circle of stones, a mad light in his eyes.
Riddle moved to curse him but far too slowly, I was just levelling my own wand when Riddle withdrew his wand hand and then spiked it forward in the blink of an eye, a curse exploding from his wand tip and impaling his opponent who looked astonished. It was then that I recognised the feint and realised that I never wanted to go wand to wand with Riddle, he was incredible.
A few more of our group fell back to the middle; Dolohov, looking unflustered, then Marino and Silander. After a few minutes and to my great relief my father stepped out of the maze of stones followed by Klaus, Dustin and Rayne. There was still some fighting going on in one direction and Riddle quickly ordered Dolohov and Marino to go and help.
Dustin looked around wiping sweat from his eyes and grinned.
"They're not exactly what you'd call well trained, eh?" he said. "Not much fight in 'em."
Just as he said it, he was struck in the back by a killing curse and five more wizards leapt into the circle. I'd barely even moved by the time Riddle, Cho and my father who were closest had mopped them up. Riddle shook his head bitterly.
"Don't get overly confident, anyone here can kill and don't forget there's still-"
"Chernenko!" cried Dolohov from inside the maze. Riddle leapt forward at once.
"Harry, Chang, Rayne, guard this area with your lives. James, Silander, Klaus, with me."
They disappeared into the maze toward the direction of the fighting at once, leaving the three of us to surround the timeturner and keep a wary eye out.
A few moments later, I noticed the huge stone blocks vanishing around us. Conjured items tend to have a shelf life, the more simple they are and the better technique the conjurer has, the longer they last but even my father and Riddle had their limits.
Soon the battlefield was all but clear and we could see the bodies that littered the floor of the chamber, Cho gave a yell that turned me around and I saw Chernenko surrounded by a horde of Acromantulas and appeared to be simultaneously duelling Dolohov, Riddle and Marino. There was no sign of my father.
I dashed forward into the fray, ignoring the cries of Cho and Rayne. Chernenko noted the commotion and turned to engage me his mouth open in a savage smile. I deflected his opening curse with a spry twist of my wand and returned in kind.
Chernenko took it in his stride, turning away from me momentarily to toss a curse into the unprotected chest of Marino, who'd strayed too close. She collapsed and disappeared under two Acromantulas.
A spider leapt at me and with a quick sidestep and thrust I impaled it on Dolohov's sword and then tossed both the spider and the sword to one side. Chernenko turned back to me, shielding two curses with lightning fast reflexes and tossing me like a ragdoll across the room with a flick of his wand.
Slowly, conscious of blood running down the side of my head, I rose from the ground to find that I'd landed upon the hatchet wielding Russian I'd landed on earlier. I picked up the axe and stumbled back toward the fray, to find that Chernenko's spiders had all been killed and he was managing to fend off Riddle, Dolohov, Cho and Rayne at the same time, laughing even.
As I came closer I waited for my chance and as Cho danced out of the way of a killing curse, I struck. I threw the hatchet toward him and tossed a killing curse after it. The hatchet lodged itself in Chernenko's back and the killing curse hit him in the back of the head. It didn't even faze him. He took a moment to kill Rayne and send him flying backwards into Cho, taking them both out of the game with the same spell before pulling the hatchet out of his back and tossing it at Riddle, who vaporised it.
I was just about to aim another curse at Chernenko when from one of the tunnels emerged a figure that stopped me dead in my tracks.
Alexi Chernenko glided into the chamber, there was no sign of any damage from the bullet Ledorf had fired through his skull. For a moment, I thought that it must have been a graze, to which we'd over reacted, but when I saw the boys lifeless yellow eyes I realised with a sickening lurch exactly what had happened.
Dolohov turned instinctively to meet the newcomer, his wand raised in a traditional duelling stance, but he stopped when he saw the child. I saw confusion cross the Czechoslovakian's face for a moment, before Alexi reached out and snapped his neck with an abrupt motion.
Riddle and Chernenko didn't even seem to register the interruption and instead focused solely on killing each other. For a moment I could only watch in amazement as they moved around each other, wands blazing. I saw now Chernenko's grace and realised the duel we'd had in Aluskne had been a joke to him.
Then I realised Alexi was moving toward the plinth at the centre of the room and I darted forward to intercept him, tossing a killing curse at his back.
It struck him with absolutely no affect at all, but he stopped nonetheless and turned to me, an unmistakeable sneer on his face. When our eyes met, my head filled for a moment with silent tortured screams and then he spoke in a voice that could not possibly have come from the child before me.
"Your magic is pathetic," it said, without moving its mouth. "Filthy mortal magic has no effect against the Devourer."
I ignored it and tossed two bludgeoning curses at it, they did absolutely nothing. The small form just stared at me, almost in pity. I seized a discarded sword from the floor and stepped forward. In one blisteringly quick motion, it smashed the sword from my hand and knocked me to the ground.
I rose again, but it had already turned back to the plinth. It didn't seem in a hurry, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. Then I remembered the Skitterdiscs. Instinctively I reached into my pocket and withdrew a disc. I knew that this would work though I couldn't say how I knew.
I threw the disc as powerfully and accurately as I could and for a moment, I thought I'd hit the small figure but it stepped casually out of the way. It glanced at the disc and then turned to me an expression of pure rage on its face.
"I knew it," I said, unable to prevent it slipping out of my mouth.
Chernenko and Riddle both paused in their duel to look at me and the small form of Alexi flew at me with incredible speed, knocking me to the ground. There was a flash of spellfire, a bang and then Riddle fell to the floor, unmoving.
I had no time to worry about him though as Alexi fell on top of me, his little hands digging into my throat. Just as I was sure was going to snap my neck, I felt the crucifix around my neck heat up. I screamed as it burnt my neck, but Alexi screamed as well, pulling his hands away and falling off me in pure agony.
I scrambled to my feet only to see Chernenko step over my wand on his way toward me. For a moment I was sure that I was dead, but from nowhere my father jumped forward to distract him and they began to duel.
I turned back to Alexi, who'd picked up a knife and was coming at me again. Just as he stepped in range, I pulled the crucifix from around my neck and held it out, he withdrew slightly and as he did, I darted forward, jamming the Skitterdisc into his chest and engaging it.
He stared at me in horror for a moment, before disappearing completely in a flash of brilliant white light and a shower of blood.
My father and Chernenko continued to duel; though there was now far less power in Chernenko's curses, his reflexes were much slower and the damage that my father inflicted on him didn't heal over. It had to end here. I stepped over, pausing only to remove Dolohov's sword from the acromantula I'd killed earlier.
I stepped up behind Chernenko and although he turned to attack me, I knocked his wand hand away with my empty one and plunged the sword into his gut. He stood for a moment, surprised, confused and defeated. Then fell to his knees and toppled over.
My father limped over and I realised now that blood was seeping down his leg. I seized him by the arm and we both fell to the floor, overcome with weariness. He looked around.
"Are we it?"
"Cho is over there, but unconscious, I think. Riddle-" I trailed off. I hadn't seen the curse that struck Riddle, I had no idea if it had been the killing curse or not.
"Well, we'd better check then, I suppose."
I stood up and helped him up too. We mended his leg between us and then for a moment, looked at each other, before stepping forward into the first hug we'd shared in nine years.
By the time summer had come, the world had forgotten our sacrifices in Riga; the lives we lost, the blood we shed in the service of our Emperor. As unstoppable as the tide the world moved on to thoughts of better things and the entire thing existed as nothing more than a fever nightmare that would forever haunt our memories.
It was to be expected of course, the official story had been all but obscured and instead the world was spoon fed a story of my fierce heroics in the face of overwhelming odds. I had to spend a few months playing the role of imperial hero, pandering to the elite of Europe and showing my face at all the events.
Then as surely as they forgot the tens of thousands of soldiers who fought and died in defence of Riga, they forgot me too.
I was glad though, no longer did I have to play the brave face, that of the war hero. Once again I could skulk at the dark end of bars and remember my fallen comrades in the redemption I found there.
It was the last day of August when I finally returned to Riga.
The softest rustle of a breeze disturbed the sun dappled long grass and nudged the knotted bows of the lime tree preceded a silence only broken by the faint gurgling of the stream and the whisper of the reeds.
Somewhere between the rich, sweet smell of honeysuckle and the acridic odour of fresh ashes hid the stench of death. Stretching for miles behind me were the graves of brave men, many of them empty. But for now I was content to look away and allow the brave man at my side to comfort me with his presence.
The beads of Ledorf's rosary lay cold against my clavicle; they hadn't warmed again since Riga, but somehow I felt protected wearing them. I turned to face Riddle and saw the concern his eyes.
"I'm fine, Tom," I assured him gently. "I promise."
We walked a few paces, from the shade of the olive tree and I smiled as the sun warmed my face.
"I posted the letter today," I said, trying to keep my voice clear of emotion. Riddle gave me another concerned glance.
"Ritter's letter?" He didn't wait for a response. "How do you feel?"
"I didn't say anything. I just posted the letter. I wouldn't burden his family with that."
Riddle nodded and turned to walk back toward the rows of marble markers. He stopped when he noticed I wasn't following.
"I don't think I'm ready Tom."
"If you're not ready today, you're never going to be."
"I suppose," I licked my lips and looked mournfully out at the thousands of graves. "My father wrote to me today, he wants me to help him reform the Order."
"Is that wise?"
"Probably not." Riddle looked at me for a moment, as though he was going reprimand me and then he shrugged and turned away. "Any news? It's been months."
"No, not a sign of the Black Hand, I doubt there will be, not for a while at least. All of our leads disappeared in the days after you killed Alexi."
Riddle, in fairness, immediately realised he'd said the wrong thing and reached out to grip me by the shoulder. It was comforting, but couldn't take away what I'd done. At least he hadn't said it.
"How's Fleur?" he asked, tactfully changing the subject. I smiled gratefully at him.
"Fine, good even. She's healed up perfectly. We're talking of engagement."
"That's marvellous," exclaimed Riddle happily. "You're a lucky man."
"Yeah, My father is pleased too."
"Pardon me for saying so, but you don't sound thrilled."
"No, I am," I said, half-heartedly. "She just, wasn't there. She doesn't understand. She doesn't say anything but I can tell she doesn't understand why this hurts so much."
We stood in silence for a moment longer and listened to the wind rustle in the leafy canopies and the twitter of the birds soaring playfully above. I thought, and not for the first time that day, that nobody should be happy on a day like this one.
"I killed Ledorf," I said finally and Riddle shifted slightly.
"I know," he said and there was no judgement there, which I thought was strange, then he sighed gently and patted me on the shoulder. "I should go, Harry."
"Thank you, Tom, for coming."
With that he was gone. Part of me, deep inside, was glad that he'd left me to walk these last few steps on my own. Because that was the way it had always been. The last few steps were always alone.
Sooner than I'd expected I was there and mournfully I knelt at the headstone and let my fingers trace the lettering in the sun-warmed marble.
The rosary hung on its chain resting against my chin as I bowed my head. Then the tears came fast and thick, not for Gina, but for everything that had happened since that first day in Riga.
"I wanted you to know," I said after a while, "That it was an accident. A mistake he paid penance for."
Slowly, I rose from the ground and straightened out. I felt old now and ached all over. There was a lump in my throat that I couldn't shake, but slowly I managed to walk away, turning my back on Riga forever.
I knew as I did that I was turning my back on all those that I'd lost on the journey here; not just on Ritter, Cedric, Thalburg, Boone and those who'd fought with me, but also on Chernenko, Alexi and Ledorf. Because they'd all been a part of this, swept up in the unstoppable unfolding events, just as I had.
As I turned my back on those names that had been forgotten to all but the pages of history books and the hearts of those who they'd affected, I knew that I was really turning my back on a part of me. The adolescent who'd gone to Riga in search of battle, bloodshed and eternal glory was gone forever.
And as I put this chapter of my life behind me forever, I couldn't help the feeling that in some ways, this was only the beginning.
Riddle had known it the first time he laid eyes on me and Chernenko had told me before I was ready.
Now I was finally coming to terms with it.
I was a born soldier.
End of Book I