Disclaimer: JK Rowling's characters.
Unknown Forest, June 1996
Hell on earth.
Towering pyres blaze coldly around the clearing deep within the forest. Used exclusively for investiture into the fold, this night the monoliths have been erected to strip one of the faithful of that honor.
"My dear friends, we are assembled here tonight for a lesson… in enlightenment." Voldemort pauses for effect, eyeing those Summoned to bear witness to the fate of this traitor. "Disregard of loyalty amongst my followers is intolerable. Those who believe that treachery and defiance will go unpunished are lamentably misinformed."
He directs his narrow, blood-red eyes to the spectacle at the center of the gathering as he forces the unresisting body up and down with a languid motion of his wand. No follower – no matter how obsequious – escapes the Dark Lord's ruthless attentions. Yet, none ever bore their punishments so stoically as this one. This wizard remains, unnervingly – one might dare say, stubbornly – silent.
Suddenly, the body begins to spin more rapidly through the air so that the wizard's robes flutter around him like great flaps of charred flesh, faster and faster, until they are a blur – then, the body crashes to the ground with a vulgar thud.
Eyes flick anxiously between the Dark Lord and the wizard lying motionless on the ground until the latter slowly rolls onto his back, raising a trembling hand to his face. The fall has knocked his mask askew; inadvertently, his wavering hand rights it. Displeased, Voldemort speaks again in that high, cruel voice.
"Lucius, Bellatrix, Antonin... Join me!" The three Death Eaters hasten from their positions within the circle to stand beside him, bodies leaning forward tensely, awaiting his next directive. "Crucio!"
His chuckle chills the air as he once again aims his wand at the prone body. His cohorts zealously follow suit.
Their target writhes beneath the blended force of all four curses. His hands, normally so deliberate and elegant in their actions, are reduced to grotesquely twisting in on themselves, producing a crackling sound reminiscent of a cheerful, cozy fire, but is truly the snapping of bones. His knees jerk up to his stomach, forcing his long, lean limbs into the fetal position. Cackling insanely, Bellatrix takes a more sadistic interest in watching the wizard's reaction and circles around to his left side, intensifying the strength of her curse so that his spasming body rolls in the other direction to face the Dark Lord.
"There's an old Muggle saying: 'Silence is golden' – but I disagree…" Voldemort giggles darkly. "Wormtail!"
A squat man, his head littered with ragged tufts of hair, squeaks and scurries over, sparkling silver hand fidgeting nervously.
"Make a fire for our esteemed guest! He appears chilled… trembling so. Warm his hands! And include the Mark… he is no longer worthy of it."
"Y-yes, my Lord, a-a-as you wish." Wormtail takes careful aim at his old schoolmate, then shrieks: "Incendio!"
His prey's thin lips, just visible below his mask, contort into a ghastly rictus of agony, yet he is either unable or unwilling to give voice to his suffering as his hands are engulfed in flames. Tense moments later, Voldemort's grayish lips, thinned in anticipation, curl upward when, finally, a needle-sharp scream issues from the wizard on the ground.
A delightfully inhuman sound; he shutters his ghastly red eyes, savoring the shrill, hollow, ring of it, fancying it is even sweeter than the piteous howls of the Potter whelp from a year ago. Humming contentedly, he unmasks his victim with a careless flick of his wand.
Upon seeing that face, a loud crack reverberates, and Harry Potter awakens with a piercing scream of his own.
Harry Potter's Bedroom, Surrey, June 1996
Harry jerked upright, panting as if he had just run a five-minute marathon. He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes furiously and pressed his fingers hard against his burning scar, trying to make sense of the image he had just witnessed. Littered with goose bumps and drenched with sweat, he had no idea how long he'd been screaming. Thank goodness the Dursleys weren't home.
"What was that?" His voice wavered, horrified.
It couldn't have been Sirius. Sirius was…
Harry hated thinking about it, but over the past week he'd thought of little else, seeing the scene as though it was on a loop, playing out over and over in his waking dreams – or in his nightmares when he had the misfortune to fall asleep.
Beyond the sleeplessness, the aftereffect of watching his godfather fall into that veil in the Department of Mysteries left Harry feeling as though his insides were being crushed in a vice. A week later, the feeling persisted, often leaving him so breathless he had to grasp hold of something solid until it passed.
It wasn't Sirius, he thought. The eyes were wrong... They weren't gray and haunted like Sirius's.
No, the eyes he'd seen had been black; black depthless eyes imbued with hatred and pain, reminding him of… Snape!
The thought of being on the receiving end of the Cruciatus Curse made Harry's skin prickle and he wondered what Snape had done to deserve such punishment. Harry had first-hand knowledge of the agony of that particular Unforgivable, having experienced it a year earlier during the final task of the Triwizard Tournament.
The feeling of his bones grinding together like broken glass while every muscle tensed rigidly around them, intensifying the pain as his body spasmed uncontrollably, had created a rather indelible memory. One wand, Voldemort's wand, had inflicted that damage, but that feeling times four? Though Harry blamed Snape –despite Dumbledore's claim to the contrary – for losing Sirius, and the fact that there was no love lost between he and his hated teacher, Harry would still never wish that sort of torture on the man.
But, was the image real? His last vision had borne painful and deadly consequences. He acknowledged, with some bitterness for both himself and Snape, that had he mastered Occlumency as he was supposed to last year, he would have been able to successfully block his mind against Voldemort; he wouldn't have believed Sirius to be at the Ministry, but safe at Grimmauld Place.
But, that's not the matter at the moment, is it, he thought, shaking himself. He had to alert Albus Dumbledore about what he had seen. The clock on the nightstand read 8:30 p.m. Recalling the Dursley's noisy departure sometime before six o'clock to have dinner with one of Uncle Vernon's bosses, Harry knew they weren't due to return for at least another hour, leaving him plenty of time to send and receive a response.
After reaching for his glasses, Harry switched on his bedside lamp. He then retrieved a strip of parchment, a quill and some ink from his book bag. Using his Transfiguration text as a portable desk, he wrote:
I just had a vision of someone, Snape, I think, being tortured by Voldemort, Lucius, Bellatrix and someone named Antonin. All four were using the Cruciatus Curse on him at the same time. It was like the visions I've been having, as if I was seeing it though Voldemort's eyes. If Snape is okay, you can disregard this, but if not, I saw it and he's hurt bad.
"Hedwig," he called. The owl, just recently returned from hunting, dropped her half-eaten meal of a field mouse onto the bottom of her cage to fly to him, sticking out her leg.
"Take this to Dumbledore."
Clutching the note in her claws, she hooted softly, and gracefully soared out the open window. Harry stood, watching until the darkness enveloped her.
He then glanced over at the little mouse carcass in Hedwig's cage and his stomach rumbled hungrily, a reminder that he hadn't taken many meals since returning to Privet drive. He thought he might nip downstairs for a bite to eat while the Dursleys were still out, but unbidden, Snape's tortured face floated into his mind, making his stomach flip and ruining whatever burgeoning appetite he'd had.
Sighing, he shuffled back to curl up on his bed, and wait.
Hogsmeade, June 1996 (08)
The road ahead was his only path to safety.
Poised high in the night sky, a sliver of moon cast a gloomy glow. Slow-moving clouds obscured its weak light making his passage even more treacherous, yet he dared not use magic to light his way. Desperate, he tried to penetrate the murky canopy of the surrounding wood, but it was impossible to focus through weeping, slitted eyes.
The gates, the gates, if I can make it to the gates was the rhythmic chant keeping time with his erratic heartbeat, driving his tortured steps.
He was a physical wreck; every inch of his body emanated pain. Helpfully, the gusting wind disguised his progress, but it also muted the sound of someone's approach. Regardless, his hearing was tautly attuned for anything unusual.
Unusual. Weakened and abused as he was, he knew his escape had been unusual; impossible, even. How he had arrived in Hogsmeade from that unknown forest eluded him. One moment he had been in agony, and the next he was face down on the road just outside the wizarding villa –
A violent spasm gripped his right leg. Pitched forward, his foot twisted, catching on the ruptured hem of his robes. Instinctively, he threw his hands out in front of him to soften his fall, but he couldn't help screaming hoarsely as his ruined palms skated across the sharp stones littering the road.
At that moment, a volcanic sensation erupted in his chest, stealing his breath. Despite his throat feeling full of splinters when he inhaled, he hacked up an abnormally dark clot. With a pained groan, he spat it onto the road, then mentally chastised himself: There was more at stake beyond his body's wretched condition.
Sharp, stabbing pains of protest made him unsteady as he forced himself onto his knees. The road swam blurrily beneath him, making his balance even more precarious, but once on his feet, he staggered forward, trying to maintain his awkward momentum.
Interminable minutes later, he spotted the distinctive winged boars atop Hogwarts' gates. Wheezing wetly, he endeavored to shuffle along faster, desperate to keep the immense formation in sight. Sixteen meters from the gates – he almost sobbed with relief, but then a noise froze him in his tracks.
Ignoring the pain of the movement he whipped his head left and right. Though distorted by the wind, shouts and curses were unmistakably growing closer, louder. Unable to pinpoint if they were coming from the road or the wood, he panicked. Panting harshly, he implored his legs to move faster. Instead he fell, grunting furiously as his injured ankle gave out.
No! Damn it! Why now? I'm almost there!
Thunderous steps, accompanied by bone chilling growls, grew closer, crashing through the wood, heading towards him. Whatever it was, it was not human. A fleeting familiarity with the host of dubious creatures at the Dark Lord's disposal was enough to drive him to his feet, expressly ignoring his body's desire to remain crumpled on the ground.
His wand, mercifully ignored in his captors' eagerness to transport him to the forest, was out of reach, safely tucked away in his robes, but, he hadn't the energy to defend himself without it. His only objective now was to keep his body in motion; to reach the gates before that thing in the wood reached him.
Lurching forward, he maintained a steady stream of invectives directed at himself and anyone else having the misfortune to skip across his consciousness.
But, when a large shadow burst out of the trees, a strangled curse died in his throat. He had only time to squeeze his eyes shut as the thing leapt at him. Following a deafening roar and a blinding flash of light, darkness claimed him.
His last thought was that he had failed; he had failed to report to Dumbledore; he had failed to report that Potter and his family were in danger.