Prologue

0050 hours Sunday, 26 October 2020

The house sat in a wide, moonlit clearing in the middle of a dense wood. The building gave off an old, neglected feeling to the witch and wizards huddled in the tree-line facing the front door. Run-down, boarded up and vine-covered, it reminded Head Auror Harry Potter of the stuff Muggle haunted houses were made of. He shivered, not from fear, but from the cold wind that caused the tree branches overhead to creak and groan as they rubbed against each other. He pulled the collar of his robes closer to his neck before motioning to his compatriots to gather round.

The mission, which had taken six months to set up, had been going according to plan, but as it was just starting, things could go wrong without a moment's notice. Harry wanted to prevent such things happening, but with a relatively unseasoned Auror in the group he didn't want to take any chances.

He fixed his partner, Auror Terry Boot, with a commanding look. "Terry, you and Ron go round the back. If anyone tries to escape through the back entrance, disarm them and send them off to the holding tank at headquarters," he ordered. "Susan, you, Chambers and Carmichael will come with me through the front entrance. Chambers, Carmichael, you'll search the upper floors while we," he pointed to himself and Susan, "take the ground floor. Any questions?"

Chambers, who was on his second mission, scowled as though he didn't like the order. "What happens if it's a hostage trying to escape?" he asked. "And shouldn't someone be guarding the front door in case of Apparition?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't think there are any this time, Auror Chambers. Intelligence reported it was only the perpetrators we're after who are holed up in this house." He studied the young wizard before adding, "You were right to question the order. Susan and I will be taking turns guarding the front door while you and Carmichael are upstairs." Chambers nodded his agreement, looking satisfied with Harry's answer.

Taking a deep breath, Harry asked, "Everyone ready?"

When the other five nodded their agreement, Harry Disillusioned himself, and stepping to the edge of the trees, flicked his wand at the house. A moment later, he rematerialized next to Susan and reported, "Three people inside, no one else. Let's go."

The others paired up and Harry and his team waited while Terry and Ron Disapparated to the other side of the clearing. A moment later Ron's Patronus reported they were in place. With a nod to his companions, Harry recast the Disillusionment spell and led the nearly invisible group over the long expanse of weeds that served as the front garden to the veranda that ran the length of the front of the house. The group paused, listening intently, before mounting the steps and magically opening the front door.

"Hold on," Harry signalled the others. "Susan, check for enchantments, please."

She cast the appropriate spells and when nothing was revealed, the Aurors stepped inside the darkened entrance and quietly closed the door behind them, plunging the room into nearly complete darkness. Harry felt his heart pound in his chest as Carmichael led Chambers slowly up the main staircase, both men casting silencing spells on the treads as they went.

Susan caught his attention with a raised eyebrow. Harry nodded to her and she disappeared into the gloom to their left. He waited, silently casting tracking spells to monitor the progress of his team members.

A board to his right creaked loudly in the silent house. Harry froze, listening. Nothing stirred and he breathed out slowly and carefully as Susan's indistinct form reappeared next to him from the right. He waited for her to speak.

"I found the door to the basement," she reported in a whisper. "Kitchen, next to the fireplace. Cooker's a bit warm."

Harry smiled in the darkness. "Good work, Susan. Let's wait for Chambers and Carmichael before you lead us down."

"Yes, sir," was her whispered reply.

They waited. Overhead, they heard the sound of muffled footsteps approaching the stairs and Harry guessed Chambers and Carmichael hadn't found anyone hiding up there.

When the two men reported in that the upper floors were empty, Harry motioned to Susan, who led the way through several rooms to the kitchen at the back of the house.

Again, the Aurors paused while Susan cast her detection charms. Nothing was revealed, which raised the hackles on Harry's neck. Something wasn't right. He motioned to Susan that he'd go first instead of her and when she nodded he started down the stairs, his wand lit only enough to provide illumination on the next stair down.

He was nearly at the bottom when a step gave way. There was a horrible splintering sound as the old wood disintegrated, throwing Harry forward and pitching him headlong down the remaining three steps and into a shadowy pit below. He landed with a bone-jarring thud that sent waves of pain throughout his body and then, he felt nothing. The last thing Harry heard before he blacked out was the sound of maniacal laughter.