Albus listened from behind the door of the Headmaster's Office, his heart beating loudly.
"This is mad!" Neville said. "Occamies don't just come out of nowhere in mobs!"
"Well, nothing's really been behaving this year," Uncle Ron pointed out.
"The thing that's the heart of this is the boy—I tell you—" Edgeworth began hotly.
"Al had nothing to do with this—" Albus' father snapped.
"But he did," said Irving quietly. Albus strained his ears to hear more. "He has been present in every one of the incidents: the Chizpurfles, the Pogrebin, the Tebo, the Doxies, the Runespoor, and now the Occamies. It is not a coincidence."
Everyone was silent. Albus choked on his breath and froze, wondering if he had given himself away.
"So, that means that the magical creatures are after him!" Harry said. "He's not behind all of this! Someone's trying to hurt him!"
Ron agreed. "Yeah, you've got it mixed up, Drake."
Though Albus could not see him, he could imagine Edgeworth seething.
"Very well, I see. I will stay at Hogwarts in order to figure out what's happening here. The Department of the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures is taking action. One boy—Mr. Eric Derlwin, was it?—was sent to his slow death. The school has been attacked by monsters, and none of these creatures are behaving as they should. We will get to the bottom of this," said Edgeworth.
"And what about Al? He's in danger!" asked Harry.
"Your son will have to fend for himself. We need to use him as bait. He'll lead us to the heart of this mystery," Edgeworth replied.
Albus let out a small gasp. So did his father.
"No! I'm not putting Al in danger—"
"Well then, tell me, Head Auror," Edgeworth said, almost sarcastically. "What else should we do? Are you willing to sacrifice the rest of the school in order to keep your son safe? And—let's face it—there's something wrong with that boy."
There was a murmur of agreement. Albus felt cold all over.
"All right," Harry finally said.
Albus stepped backwards and walked off. He didn't want to listen to anything else. He was going to be used as bait. Did he want to be used as bait? No, I don't. Did he have a choice if he wanted to save Hogwarts from the monstrous threat? No, I don't.
As if he was in a trance, Albus walked toward the place where Derlwin had been 'attacked.' The shadowy letters on the wall were still there—nobody had been able to get rid of them. He read the words.
Prey. He was the Prey. The creatures had been ordered to kill him—but who had ordered them? Hoffman was dead.
Then Albus vaguely remembered something he had heard many months ago. He had overheard a conversation between two people in his first year, and they had been discussing killing him. Hoffman had certainly been one of those two people—but the second person was still alive and at Hogwarts.
Albus felt very sick all of a sudden.
The whole school was gathered in the Great Hall for lunch, though nobody was eating. The staff table was empty. Evidently, the meeting in Triton's office hadn't finished yet. Everyone stared at Albus as he walked to the Slytherin table. He could sense the tension and the suspicion in the air, and everyone at his House table shied away from him as he sat down.
To Albus' relief, Scorpius was already sitting there. Albus tried to speak, but nothing came out. Scorpius didn't say anything to him, either. Nobody spoke to him, and Albus pushed the gravy around on his plate, not having any intention to eat it.
A few minutes later, the staff came in with Edgeworth, Albus' father, and Uncle Ron. Everyone watched as Triton sat down in the middle of the staff table and cleared his throat. It was unnecessary—he already had everyone's attention.
"Now, I know that you are all shaken about what happened this morning..." Triton trailed off, and his eyes wandered toward Albus, who sunk into his seat. "But, we assure you that it will not happen again. As of now, Drake Edgeworth," he gestured toward Edgeworth, who smiled toothily, "will be staying at the school to investigate the source of these attacks—"
To Albus' horror, James stood up. He looked completely furious, and even worse, there was a determined glint in his eyes. He pointed accusingly at Albus and said, "It was him! It was his fault! He was controlling the flying snakes—he hissed at them, but they didn't listen to him! You should have seen him—he was oozing evil! I could feel it from ages and ages away!"
Albus stood up, too. He felt angry enough to pulverize James right there and then, and he knew he could do it. "No," he hissed. "It wasn't me. You must be the stupidest person on Earth to think that. They were chasing me—"
"—then you should get out!" James yelled. He looked close to tears. Albus had never seen him like this. "We all could have died! And you're putting everyone in danger!"
Albus stepped backwards, shocked. James wasn't accusing Albus because he hated him. He was accusing Albus because he was worried about the school. It was at that moment that Albus realized that James was King of Hogwarts for one reason: he loved Hogwarts as much as Albus did.
Perhaps the two brothers had more similarities than they had previously thought.
"Y-You're wrong," Albus said, his voice shaking. "I d-didn't have anything to d-do with this!" He faltered, remembering what he had overheard in the Headmaster's Office. He had everything to do with the attacks. All of it was his fault.
Albus stared at everybody, and he could see the loathing in their faces. He wasn't just the school loser anymore. He was a freak and he was a threat. He was a monster.
Albus couldn't stand it anymore. He ran from the Great Hall. He could hear his father shouting behind him, begging him to stop running, but Albus did not look back. He didn't want to be there. He wanted to be anywhere, anywhere else. He wanted to be anyone but himself.
He knew that he was glowing. Albus shone brighter and brighter green, and he felt that dark sensation growing within him. He was only a bright green blur as he ran along the corridor, wanting to get away. But he couldn't run any farther. The invincible feeling of the dark power inside him had turned into pain, and he felt like he was being torn into two.
Albus fell to the ground, gasping with pain. He was glowing brighter, and he could hear footsteps behind him. Apparently, his father, the professors, and the Ministry workers had run after him. Albus let out another gasp as his vision blurred. The only color he could see was bright green, and he knew it was coming from him.
"Al! What happened—what the hell?" his father spluttered, stopping a few yards away from Albus.
Albus felt that feeling of being torn from the inside again, and it hurt so badly that he shouted out. What's happening to me? Make it stop...
"AL! What's going on—?"
"Merlin—he's glowing! He's glowing!"
"Somebody needs to take the kid to the Hospital Wing—"
Then the pain inside him reached its peak, and Albus knew only knew the oblivion of darkness.
A man and woman were once more facing each other. This time, they were alone. The man was sobbing. "I am sorry, Myrinda. I have seen what the Paradox is capable of. What he is doing is not right. The world cannot be destroyed..."
"I see you have joined the right side, then, Luke," said the woman in a cold voice. "Well, I must say, it has been for no reason. We are losing. The Paradox is too powerful, and the new Paradox that the prophecy promised is not due to come until a thousand years later."
"Then we keep fighting," said the man. "I will be by your side." He took the woman's hand and stared into her eyes. "It is time that we stopped fighting against each other and started fighting together."
The woman smiled.
Albus had no idea where he was. He could feel soft sheets around him, and suddenly realized that he must be in the Hospital Wing. He could hear urgent whispering nearby him. Wanting to hear what it was about, he kept his eyes closed and feigned sleep.
"Another attack like Mr. Derlwin's. This one's on a first year. Gerald Erwett from Slytherin, isn't it?" Albus recognized the voice. It belonged to Professor Patil.
"What does this mean?" asked Neville.
"It means that Dark Magic has returned to Hogwarts," said Irving gravely.
"Where have Harry and Ron gone?" asked Neville. "They should hear about this."
"They left for the Ministry," answered Triton harshly. "Edgeworth is still here. Someone should go get him."
"I'll do it," piped up Professor Moore.
"How's Al?" Neville asked once Moore had left.
Madam Pomfrey answered this time. "He's fine. He stopped glowing a few hours ago. The Department of Mysteries has been sending owls about coming to see him and test him, but I refused. Mr. Potter needs his rest."
"Having the whole school hating him isn't exactly good for his mental health," added Triton. He sounded almost amused.
"I'm worried, though. So is Harry. Al's such a strange boy..." Neville trailed off.
"Obviously," Irving hissed.
"We need to use him," said Neville, trying to convince himself. "Like Edgeworth said, he's at the heart of everything. I know Al would never hurt the school, but somebody's clearly trying to hurt him."
Albus heard footsteps. "I put Mr. Erwett on his bed. I don't think he'll survive. There is no known way to wake him. I'll send an owl to his parents. They should be here this morning," Madam Pomfrey explained.
There were more footsteps. "What's this I hear about another attack?" demanded Edgeworth.
"Luke here just walked in on the body. There aren't any scratches, so he wasn't attacked by monsters. He's in a coma, just like Mr. Derlwin," Madam Pomfrey said.
"It's the kid's fault," said Edgeworth angrily. "Potter's too blind to see it. He's too much of a father to see that his son's the one who's endangering us all. One look at the boy and you can see that he's a monster—"
"Enough," Neville said. "Al never did anything wrong. I've known him since he's been in diapers. Admittedly, he's always been odd, but he's not a monster."
Am I? Albus wondered.
"Let's all return to our bedchambers. Tomorrow morning, we'll explain to Mr. Erwett's parents, and you can speak to Mr. Potter then," said Triton bracingly to Edgeworth.
"Very well. Hopefully, the boy—if you can call him human—won't end up destroying the whole school by then," said Edgeworth darkly.
The footsteps retreated, and Albus knew that he was alone. He closed his eyes. He was a freak. He was a monster. Edgeworth and James were right. Albus was endangering Hogwarts.
I have to fix this, Albus thought as he sunk back into sleep.
Albus opened his eyes blearily, and he could feel that it was early morning. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sat up, trying to make sense of his blurry surroundings. The events of last night came rushing back to him, and he felt rather sick. He reached for his glasses and pushed them on, relieved that he was able to see again. He grabbed his wand and shoved it into his pocket. Then he looked to the beds beside him. Curtains had been set up over the victims' beds, hiding Gerald and Derlwin from his view.
At that moment, Madam Pomfrey walked in. She looked surprised to see him awake. "Oh, Mr. Potter, you're awake. I'll call Mr. Edgeworth in—he wants to talk to you."
Albus gritted his teeth, but nodded anyways. He wanted to give Edgeworth a piece of his mind after what the man had said about him last night. A few minutes later, the door to the Hospital Wing creaked open and Edgeworth walked in.
"Al, m'boy," he said jovially, waving his hand.
"D-Don't call me 'Al,'" Albus said quietly. His gaze was ice-cold, and he glared at Edgeworth with something that resembled the deepest hatred.
Edgeworth flinched. "Ah, yes, well... After the rather—ah—unfortunate event yesterday, the school has been talking about you quite a bit."
Albus simply scowled. Was this supposed to make him feel better?
"But don't worry!" Edgeworth continued. "Nobody's accusing you at all!"
You're accusing me, Albus thought. He decided it was the perfect time to play games with the soon-to-be Minister of Magic. "Y-You don't trust me, do you?"
Edgeworth looked a bit nervous. "Of course I do! You said yourself that you were being chased by the Occamies. There's no way that you're behind this."
"But y-you still don't trust me. You hate me. Then why are you t-talking to me now? Why not just chuck me in Azkaban and have d-done with it?" Albus continued, his voice shaking slightly.
Edgeworth narrowed his eyes. "You will not speak to me like this, Potter. Clearly, your father did not teach you manners. Do you know who I am?"
"He taught me to speak my mind," Albus said simply, the stutter disappearing. He wasn't scared of Edgeworth. "And I know who you are: You're nothing but a so-called upstart who wants power, but can't get it because Dad has it instead."
Edgeworth turned red with fury. He looked like he wanted to yell, but Albus did not let him.
"The only reason that you're speaking to me now and being nice is because you want to be Minister of Magic. Dad's a famous war hero that saved the whole wizarding world. You already know that he doesn't like you, so you're desperate. If he says one word against you, your whole campaign is over."
"You—you—" Edgeworth spluttered like a dying vehicle.
"I don't think he's going to fall for your stupid tricks," Albus said, his voice not faltering. He smirked. "Now, I really don't want to hear what you want to say to me. I'm leaving, and you're not going to stop me whether you're the Head of the Department of the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures or not. That's all you'll be." Albus had not stuttered once.
He kicked his sheets away, swung his legs off the bed, stood up, and simply walked out of the room.
"You haven't won yet, Potter," snarled Edgeworth. Speech had returned to him at last. "You're a disrespectful brat, that's what you are, and you'll be locked up in Azkaban—or worse—soon enough. You're the dark essence that we're looking for. I know it. You may look like a human on the outside, but you're a monster on the inside."
Albus froze. His voice trembled as he said, "N-No!" With those words, he whirled back around and stumbled through the door.
He kept going through the quiet halls of the sleeping school, only wanting to get back to the dungeons. He hated Edgeworth with a burning passion, and Albus was sure that Edgeworth hated him just as much.
Monster. Monster. Monster.
Was he a monster? He couldn't be the dark essence that the Ministry was looking for! Albus was completely human! He had flesh, blood, and bones. There was no way that he could be a dark essence—what was that, anyways?
He was going to prove to Edgeworth that he was completely innocent. He was going to find the person who was attacking him and expose him or her, and perhaps he would finally be seen as the hero—instead of the loser.
He finally reached the dungeons, took out his wand, and said, "Monstrarad serpentem." His wand rose in the air and pointed to the path to his immediate left. He took it and followed it, eventually reaching the concealed entrance to the Slytherin common room. He pressed his wand into the small hole in the wall in front of him, and it slid aside.
He walked inside, his heart beating frantically. To his relief, the common room appeared empty. Then he saw a figure moving by the fireplace. Albus stopped, surprised.
It was Vladimir Rylon. The seventh-year looked a bit frantic, and he was desperately paging through a book in his hands. At that very moment, a letter fell out of the fireplace, barely missing the greenish flames. Both Albus and Rylon jumped. Rylon reached up and caught the letter, gulping.
Albus stared as Rylon opened up the letter. His eyes widened as he read the letter, and he dropped the book. Albus inched closer, wanting to see what was written in the letter.
"Yes...," Rylon whispered. A look of glee crossed his face. "Yes..." He threw the letter back into the fire, where it shriveled, now unreadable. Albus groaned silently. Rylon seized the book he had dropped and headed towards Albus, evidently wanting to leave the common room. Both boys froze, sizing each other up.
"You!" Rylon snarled. He clutched the book to his chest. Albus could only make out one word on the cover: Darke.
"Where are you going?" Albus asked quietly. "Who was that letter from?"
"Get out of my way!" Rylon shouted, looking a bit crazed. He pushed Albus away and took off running.
Albus struggled with himself for a split second and knew what he had to do. Rylon was up to something, and it wasn't good. Albus ran after him, using the Accelerating Charm to make himself go faster. To Albus' fury, Rylon did it to himself, too, and soon he had rounded a corner.
Albus reached it, panting. Rylon wasn't there anymore. There was no way that Albus could find him in the maze of the dungeons. Cursing, Albus returned to the common room. Rylon had nearly been in his grasp, but Albus had lost him in the end.
Defeated, he went into the dormitory he shared with Scorpius and Oswald. Oswald was sucking his thumb and clutching a stuffed-toy version of a serpent, but Scorpius was lying awake.
"I was wondering when you'd get back," Scorpius said, facing the ceiling.
"I had a nice little conversation with Drake Edgeworth," Albus growled. "If he becomes Minister of Magic, I'm packing and getting out of Britain."
Scorpius snickered. Then he frowned, and Albus felt heavy with dread, knowing that the question was inevitable. "What happened yesterday?" Scorpius asked.
"I-I had a fit and starting glowing. They took me to the Hospital Wing, Edgeworth said a lot of nasty things, I-I said a lot of nasty things back, and h-here I am," Albus said, his voice trembling.
"That explains a lot," Scorpius said sarcastically.
"What else should I tell you?" Albus asked, annoyed. "But there's something else. I saw Rylon just now. He was holding a book—it was titled Darke or something—and he got a letter from the fireplace. He looked really happy, and that can't be good."
Scorpius looked excited. "Well, this just proves it, doesn't it? It proves that Rylon's up to something."
"Wait a moment, you don't suppose..." Albus trailed off, a sudden idea coming to him.
"Do you think that he's the one after you?" Scorpius asked.
Albus raised an eyebrow. "How do you know that someone's after me? But yeah, that's an idea."
Scorpius sighed. "Of course I know that somebody's after you! Even James accepts it. He looked a bit guilty for yelling at you, but that was only after your father lectured him for three hours."
Albus almost laughed. "Well, James deserved it. I didn't think he could feel guilt, though."
"Apparently, he can," Scorpius said, waving the issue away with his hand. "But tell me what you think about what I said."
"I don't know," Albus admitted. "I mean, it doesn't make any sense. Why would Rylon be after me? He hates me, (like everybody does) but would he really want me dead?"
The two boys were quiet for a moment. Albus suddenly remembered something.
"Gerald Erwett was attacked. He's in a coma like Derlwin," said Albus.
"That's old news," Scorpius said, effectively shutting Albus up. "Triton announced it last night. Everyone went mad. I mean, the Head of the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures was at the school, and somebody still got attacked."
"I hope they sack him," Albus said viciously.
"What exactly did Edgeworth do to you?" Scorpius asked, getting off his bed.
"He unfairly accused me," Albus snarled. "He said that I was the powerful dark essence and that I should be in Azkaban. He's wrong, and I'm going to prove it."
Scorpius' mouth dropped open. "That prat! Wait—what's he even talking about? 'Dark essence'—you're human! He can't possibly accuse you!"
Albus nodded, glad to take the excuse.
He and Scorpius walked out of the common room and out of the dungeons. It was raining, as ever, so it the school did not look particularly happy. In addition to this, there seemed to be an air of panic. The few people who had already woken up gave Albus fearful looks and ran the other direction.
"Get used to it," Scorpius said bitterly. "I'm just your friend, and they won't look at me, either. I bet Rose has to deal with this, too."
"I'll show them," Albus said determinedly. "I'm going to clear my name."
"How?" Scorpius asked, skeptical.
"By being used as bait," Albus said.
"What?" Scorpius gasped.
"Edgeworth wants to use me as bait," Albus said coldly, "so I'll let him. But that's not all. The person who's after me is really powerful. They're controlling the magical creatures somehow. The magical creatures aren't exactly acting normally."
Scorpius snorted. "Yeah, but what does that mean?"
"I know it doesn't make sense," Albus said. "But it's really obvious that all of these creatures are being controlled. Most of them are out of their natural habitat, and they're not doing normal things."
"Yeah, yeah, you're right," Scorpius agreed. "Let's find Rose and see what she thinks."
They found her in the entrance hall. It had been fixed up after the Occamy incident, and it was hard to believe that fifty flying serpents had been thrashing around less than twenty-four hours ago.
"What happened, Al?" asked Rose frantically. She threw her arms around him and squeezed him, talking a mile a minute. "Everyone's been talking—they say you're being hunted down—said that you had started glowing green—you were in the Hospital Wing—Gerald Erwett got attacked under the Ministry's nose—"
"Can we tell you, please?" Scorpius asked irritably. Rose fell silent.
Albus quickly explained what had happened, including Edgeworth wanting to use him as bait and what Rylon had been doing. They began to walk away from the Great Hall, wanting to discuss their theories.
"It's definite that they're being controlled," Rose said. "I sent a letter to Mum, and she wrote me a long reply on what magical creatures are supposed to do. Most of them usually don't attack unprovoked, and the Occamies certainly don't come in mobs. And Mum pointed out something else, too. She wondered where all these creatures were coming from. I mean, they've been forcing their way into the school, and the Runespoor, Chizpurfles, and Doxies were inside. She reckons that they're coming from somewhere outside."
"Are they coming from their native regions?" Albus said.
"Could be," Scorpius said. "But it would be a long journey. They wouldn't have been able to make it here without being caught somewhere along the way. And they probably couldn't get past the protective enchantments around Hogwarts."
"So, they're coming from somewhere in the grounds," Rose said. A mischievous smile broke across her face. "It looks like there's another mystery!"
"Oh, really?" Scorpius asked sarcastically.
They continued walking, making their way up to the third floor.
"What are we going to do to figure it out, though?" Rose asked. "I mean, we can't just stand here and do nothing, not when Al is in danger!"
"We'll wait and watch before we act," Albus said quietly. Rose opened her mouth to protest, but a roaring noise cut her off. All three second years jumped, shocked. They could hear stampeding coming from far away getting louder and louder, and they shouted out in fear.
The creature that was making the noise was coming closer. Albus whipped out his wand and tensed. The creature finally rounded the corner, and Albus let out a gasp.
"Uh-oh," Scorpius said unhelpfully.