Disclaimer: Everything belongs to J.K. Rowling
Magicks of the Arcane
Harry chased after Riddle through the labyrinth of Gringotts. Shadows flickered as he hastened past the torches lining the maze, echoes of his boots slapping the floor in close pursuit. Last he had seen Riddle he was at the entrance to the tunnel system. Now he followed the trail of Goblin corpses.
Breathing heavily he rounded the next corner that opened into a cavernous hall from where dozens of tracks led to the vaults. Up to three carts squatted on each rail track. At the far side Belvazi stood pointing his wand at a Goblin in a grubby suit, Riddle beside him. The Goblin pointed at a tunnel. Riddle looked down the tunnel, then waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. Belvazi said something, magic flashed, and the Goblin was pushed away from the pair and exploded from inside out, spraying his guts in the hall. In the last moment before the explosion he had regained his own will, screaming.
Harry ran toward them, ready to cast a shield. But instead of facing him, Riddle slung an arm around Belvazi and began hovering in the air. The moment of surprise was superseded by the thought that Riddle looked like a black handkerchief moving in the wind. Harry sped up as Riddle and Belvazi set off down the tracks.
Son of a bitch!
Reaching the tracks Harry vaulted into the nearest cart. With Riddle cheating he wouldn't catch up to them through normal means. Luckily, Gringotts' carts were anything but normal.
Harry kicked the lever and held fast. The cart shot off. Firing blasting curses at the ceiling above, Riddle brought a rain of debris down on him, cloak whipping around as he increased his pace. The wind howled past Harry, brushing his hair away from his head.
The tunnel ended. They entered into an enormous cavern where all the rails intersected and looped, curved and went under one another. In the utter chaos of steel that only a Goblin would understand Harry felt his stomach knot together. Riddle could use his mobility here to get out of reach.
Riddle kept to the tracks though, following them to the vault he was aiming for. He got farther away with each curve the cart took though. Fast as it was, it already drove at the limit. The knob of the lever was touching the bottom.
Harry aimed his wand at the tracks behind him and propelled the cart forward. The push brought him closer to Riddle, but Harry slipped to the side, banging his head on the metal rim of the cart. The cart swung unbalanced on the tracks, leaning too far to either side in a curve. A violent expletive later Harry stood righted in the cart again, feet wrought in iron to anchor him.
The chase went on. They passed clumps of stalactites, and just as Harry began to hurl them one by one he heard a waterfall. The next curve almost threw him out of the cart despite his new shoes. When he came up again he saw it, still a fair distance away.
I just know I'll regret this.
Time slowed; fire rushed. He gripped the cart so hard his knuckles whitened. He fought against the cramp pulling his stomach into a tight, searing ball. The tribute had been too high already, but if he could stop Riddle here. If only he could end it before they got to the vault…
Blinking away the tears of pain he gritted his teeth and began weaving a complex tapestry of magic into the air. He had used this spell once already. Back then it had saved and frightened him. Time to find out if the second task had been a fluke.
The chant in mind, he directed his magic toward the waterfall. Etheric energy left his wand in a rush of pale-blue. In the last second of Erimas' spell the waterfall took shape in slow motion. Then time sped up again. The head of a water snake emerged in a furious explosion, rushing at Riddle. Some paces behind Harry felt droplets hit his face.
His vision blackened. He heard nothing. The sense of falling from a great height ran through his body and he felt the cart follow a steep curve, felt himself get pressed to the side of the cart, squeezing the Sword of Gryffindor between himself and the cart, the wood biting into his hand as he reached blindly for a hold.
Then his vision returned, blurry, and he ducked his head, avoiding a low-hanging bridge above the cart. Ahead he saw the snake smash headfirst into milky barrier, bursting it. His hearing returned—a thousand vases shattered in the caverns.
Unconcerned by the nearing threat Belvazi continued casting while Riddle kept on to him. As the head of the snake reached them a hand, made of sharp stalactites, grasped upward from beneath the tracks. In a motion of the wrist it grabbed the throat of the snake, first choking, then pulling it under into the depths of Gringotts.
Rushing by Harry stared at the vacant space where his snake had been. His insides were hurting; his breath came in gasps. Riddle suddenly veered to the side with Belvazi, touching down on a large platform. The rails under Harry's cart led right past it.
That's my stop, Harry thought. He eyed the nearing intersection of platform and tracks, jouncing the lever. It was stuck. The intersection came closer. He was almost there.
Harry vanished the iron around his boots. Then he gripped the wooden edge of the cart and jumped right out of it and into the darkness. Mid-jump he flicked his wand. A stone pad grew out of the platform, and from that plate was born another, and yet a third on which his feet barely touched.
For a moment he stood swinging toward the precipice, then he gritted his teeth, curled his toes, and pushed himself forward and down the steps he had created.
Arriving on the platform he chased after them, through another corridor, and at the other end found the pair in a dome-like cave. Huge pillars supported the concave ceiling. Riddle and Belvazi stood near the door to a vault.
Enough reason to be nervous, and after another moment Harry found a second reason. The lingering scent of sulfur came from every direction. He had smelled it before, something similar.
He tracked the stench to the point Belvazi directed his magic at: a black dragon chained to the wall by a metal collar around its neck, a pair of crushed pillars around him. The collar snapped within an angry motion, the chain falling rattling to the lithic floor. Roots grew around the dragon's legs and wings as it roared and raged against the bindings.
"Congratulations," Riddle said, an appreciative nod following his words, "you have caught me. I admit, you're more tenacious than I thought possible for a boy your age." His eyes glittered with chilled amusement. "But your parents shared a similar trait, and look where it led them. I always wondered if this was something hereditary. A great many persons, sound of magic and blood, seem so enamored by the possibility of dying a glorious death when otherwise having lived unassuming lives. Is rebellion against the inevitable that appealing?"
Time. Keep talking. Once Hedwig's back we can start this dance.
"Against the inevitable?" Harry asked, lifting his chin. "No clue, actually. Against you, though? Hell yes."
Riddle seemed unimpressed. "Well, in that case let us commence, shall we, Harry? The stage couldn't be more perfect. For once we are alone," he said, stepping forward. "No one will interrupt us here—not even Albus Dumbledore. So we will see at last, now and for eternity, which is stronger: the might of Lord Voldemort or yours."
"You mean Belvazi's power, right?"
Riddle kept silent, smile never leaving.
But time wasn't easy to prioritize when half of Harry's instincts screamed he should bail, and the other half called for blood and violence, begged and pleaded for the dance to continue, the drums to hammer harder, the horns to push him forward against the black sheet of malevolence before him.
He felt his lips pull into a grin, the prospect of fighting Riddle, scary as it was, beginning to excite him again. He also wondered, deep down, whether this would be the last time he'd feel like this, the last time he'd be able to listen.
"That's your last Horcrux in there," Harry said. The last attempt. "Really want to risk it? What if Belvazi won't give you what you want?"
The confident smile never left Riddle's face. "Do you believe I would act if there was even the slightest chance of failure?"
Harry's grin widened; one side in his mind won at last. It vibrated in his body.
"You certainly didn't plan on coming here, Riddle. Ritual didn't go that well, eh?"
And before Riddle had the chance even to respond Harry was moving, succumbing to the call. He'd make good now on all these oaths he'd sworn when he first learned of this world.
Jean regained consciousness surrounded by debris and ripped out trees. He was dizzy, but a cool breeze cleared him up as he righted himself up. He recalled giving energy, seeing Fleur, Voldemort, then green and only that. The force of the completed ritual had thrown him away from the site.
Now standing he looked around and found himself close to the earth circles where the Stonehenge had been. He was at the side opposite of where the battle had taken place, but wind carried the stench well.
He began trekking forward, to the former battlefield. Maybe she was still there. She was alive. That much he knew. She was alive and well. No matter what had happened, she was alive. The stench grew worse. He rounded the hill and came to the other side where all the corpses were lying.
Fleur was here. She had to be. Or if she wasn't here, at least she was alive. There was a blonde head close by, but when he rushed over and turned the body he found an unknown face staring back. Fleur was alive, still.
"You! Who are you?"
Jean looked up from the unknown blond person. A woman in grimy and blood-smeared robes pointed her wand at him. Her hair was up in a loose bun. He ignored her and got to his feet.
"I asked you—"
Jean lunged to the side. He felt sick from the movement but pulled his wand out and flicked it. The woman's shield cracked under the first spell and she was flipped around twice in the air by the follow-up. Jean collected her wand from the ground and went over to her.
"Where is my daughter?"
The woman looked up at him with loathing. He pushed her wand into her cheek.
"Where is Fleur?" he asked.
Her eyes widened. "You're her father."
"I won't ask again. Where is she?"
Jean struck. Her head whipped around, and he vocalized the spell to search her mind. Memories flashed by. He searched for Fleur and saw her, standing next to this woman, talking and working with her in an infirmary, eating at a table, getting cheered up—
He slowed in his search and became more careful. The woman had been good to his daughter. No need to destroy her mind.
Moments later he found what he'd been looking for and pulled back from the woman's mind. She slumped to the ground, fading in and out of consciousness. He looked down at her, then threw her wand carelessly next to her body. She might need it later.
Turning on the spot he arrived near Gringotts a second later.
Irveth, chosen by the grace of the Whistler, was careful in his pursuit. He took several shortcuts as he followed the wizards, surmounting the distance with the ease years of experience in these caverns brought. Only the high security vaults were on the path of the tracks the Potter boy rode on. It wasn't hard to guess where the two of them were going. Still, as he hurried down the narrow paths, Irveth did, from time to time, take a peek into the caverns.
The wizards wrought terrible destruction, and although Irveth was a warrior at heart, the need for secrecy became apparent quickly. Seeing a miniature version of the God of the World's Well being summoned inside the bank had convinced him of that much. As had the response, which had been no less forceful in its execution.
When he reached the end of the tunnel Irveth nicked his hand with a dagger and smeared blood over the rocks beside him. A small bronze door materialized. He went through it, entering the dome before the Lestrange vault. He crouched behind a pillar and listened in on the two wizards. Their talk was short, filled with malice and arrogance from both sides, but the word 'Horcrux' struck him like the Whistler's call itself.
Heavily involved in excavations, Goblins had acquired a large variety of information regarding all kinds of dark magic. It was obscure, dangerous, but most Goblins would recognize the term that defined a soul jar. That, then, was what both of them wanted—that, then, was what his Chieftain had ordered him to deny them.
Fighting them for their insolence of spilling Goblin blood was out of question, but having them lose the soul jar proved an adequate recompense.
Irveth waited for the wizards to begin their fight, and when the first spells started flying he carefully moved toward the vault, keeping to the walls and taking the pillars as hiding places during the momentary lulls of battle. At the door he used his blood once more, revealing a waist-high entrance to the left of the large main door. He slipped through before any of the wizards noticed him.
The vault greeted him with the pretentious wealth generations of greed had amassed. Irveth knew all of these things to be steeped in thick layers of protection—but which was the Horcrux? He looked around hesitantly, letting his gaze wander from artifact to artifact.
Then he came to a golden cup and recognized his target with a frightful accuracy. The cup, however, was unnatural even beyond the foulness of a stained soul. For a moment it seemed as though a second, weaker presence had resided inside it—something belonging even less to the cup than the dark sliver of soul already within.
Irveth heard the roar of the Black Ridge from outside, and under his feet the vault trembled in accordance; a boom followed; plaster loosened from the ceiling, falling down around him. Gringotts' dragons were trained to defend the vaults at all costs. The Black Ridge would rage against its bindings, no matter the hurt, and would continue to do so until the chains gave way or its heart stopped beating.
Overcoming the last hesitation Irveth lifted the defensive charms around the cup and took it from the shelf. The dark presence of the wizard's soul manifested in the attempt to overtake him, but Goblins had a sturdy resistance to such magic.
With the prize secured in his arms he left the vault, intent on sneaking back the same way he had come.
Waiting behind a pillar for a chance to leave the dome Irveth watched the combatants. The Potter boy barely held on against the power of the undead human, each spell of his retaliated against with three which trumped his in power and complexity.
A whip of fire lashed out at the boy, and Irveth saw that this time he wouldn't manage to escape or shield. Irveth readied himself to sprint the last bit of the way. Once he was inside the passage, nothing could happen to him anymore.
The whip came down, a cracking sound underlined by the rush of fire, and the boy suddenly sped up to an incredible degree. Irveth's eyes widened as a blur rushed over to the bound dragon. Potter blasted the roots holding the beast, then blurred again, reappearing at the other end of the dome.
Irveth felt the wind whip at his skin as the dragon lifted off with strong flaps of its wings, ripping apart more pillars around it before rushing toward Voldemort and Belvazi. Belvazi flicked his wand thrice. The dragon contorted mid-air, then hurled like an arrow at the pillar Irveth stood behind.
Irveth quickly dived to the side, avoiding the mass of scales, fire, and rage, but as he stumbled into an upright position he recognized that he was now out in the open. He looked up from the Horcrux in his arms. Both wizards were staring first at him, then at the cup in his hands.
Voldemort let out a snarl. Then Irveth saw a final flash of green.
Jean scaled the steps up the entrance of Gringotts, running past the unhinged doors, switching the color of his robes. He had ignored the alley as best he could and now ignored the thought of Fleur fighting for her life just the same. He was two steps inside, spells sizzling in the air, the place crumbling, screams and shouts and cries all around, when a Goblin with thick armor rushed him.
The axe cracked the floor and Jean cut right through the Goblin with a red curse. The Goblin fell down next to his clattering axe. There was screaming and blood. The wooden mural at the sidewall was burning. Smoke filled the hall.
Jean moved on, head swinging to find Fleur. He killed another Goblin on the way, then got clipped by a blast nearby and thrown on top of a pile of two Death Eaters. He tried to get up but lost his grip on the bloody ground and, falling down, shouted in pain. He looked down his body and found, pain driving tears to his eyes, one leg missing up to the knee.
He bit his lip to swallow a scream and crawled forward and away from the pile, leaving a bloody trail on the floor. Light flashed above his head. It whizzed and sputtered and the air to breath was choked by panic and smoke. But more panic. He searched for Fleur. She was still alive. He knew she was.
He found her at the opposite end of the hall. She was standing next to a black haired man and fought off a group of Goblins. They went up against the group and pushed forward, and the group split up and surrounded them once they noticed that they wouldn't get past as one clump.
Jean continued crawling, pushing with his remaining leg, inching across the floor. He found another corpse, a Death Eater, and used the weight of him to pull himself another stretch. His head grew warm. He was bleeding from his head now but he hadn't been hit.
He was almost there. Just a bit. The group of Goblins advanced, now one more in their ranks. It was a massive Goblin. Not in size but in muscles and armor. He wielded a war hammer and came running straight for Fleur. He lifted the hammer over his head while Fleur was occupied with another Goblin. She saw him but couldn't do anything.
Jean screamed and crawled but he was too far away. The black-haired man pushed her out of the way and, getting nicked by the hammer, was thrown to the ground. Jean couldn't be sure. His head and body hurt, but he thought it was Sirius Black.
Almost. A few paces. Jean tried to shout for his daughter but she didn't hear him even this close.
The Goblin lifted his hammer again, to finish off Black. Fleur hit him with a spell that glanced off the armor and crashed into the ceiling. The Goblin turned to her just as Jean reached him, and Jean, on the floor, bleeding, closed his hand around the thick, armored ankle and pulled.
The Goblin snarled and looked down and kicked at Jean, who didn't release him even as the impact sent his head sideways. Another spell bounced off the Goblin. Jean glanced through blurry eyes and saw that Fleur looked furious at the Goblin and then shocked once she noticed Jean.
Jean wanted to leave with his daughter and return to Appoline and Gabby, but he didn't have much strength left, just enough for holding on a bit longer.
He smiled at Fleur and mouthed, "Take care."
Then he glared up the Goblin, pushing his wand between the linking element of shin-guard and boot as the Goblin swung his hammer.
He felt the hammer impact on his head. Then nothing.
Time had already been slowed for Harry when the unknown Goblin fell to the ground, and the golden cup slipped out of its fingers, hitting the floor with a sharp clatter before rolling a few inches farther.
Apart from the spray of fire in his sides, which drove tears to his eyes even as he ran, his use of Erimas' spell over the last hours had become so excessive that Riddle could certainly anticipate it now.
Both pointed their wands at the cup, Riddle for a moment ignoring his control of Belvazi, who stared around the dome in a haze. The Accio failed to work for either; and Riddle threw a broken pillar at Harry, now a flurry of moving robes and limbs himself.
Harry slowed minimally, directing the pillar over his head, then sped up again. He and Riddle were roughly the same distance away from the cup. He could make it. He had to make it.
The next pillar came at him more accurate than the one before. Riddle began to anticipate his movements better now, and Harry couldn't take a more convoluted path either, or he wouldn't get to the Horcrux in time. He ignored his burning muscles, ran as fast he could.
But Riddle had become tired of throwing little things at him. Harry's eyes widened as the motionless dragon started to hover in the air, before being tossed directly at him. This he couldn't dodge. Neither could he flick it over his shoulder.
Harry stopped, pointing his wand at the dragon carcass. With such a weight it took some effort to direct the corpse away from him. He managed only partially, the exhaustion of this day seeping through his bones with rising intensity. When he hastened around the body he had just stopped, Harry came upon a nightmare.
Riddle and Belvazi stood side by side. Between them the cup hovered on face-level, connecting to both through a web of black and green strands of magic. A weight settled on the whole area, a glow invisible to the eye but not to his other senses. The glow seared when it touched. It broke what little composure was left, as the presence from the cup began to move toward the Battle Mage.
Harry jumped forward whipping his wand sideway. Before the spell even left him he was hit by the second shockwave of that day. Hitting the floor twice before crashing into the wall he felt his leg give in. Bits of debris were blasted away with him, embedding themselves in his body as he sat slumped against the wall, a ringing in his ears, the malevolent presence all-encompassing around him.
He tasted blood in his mouth, an ocean of it, the iron taste rising and falling with each breath. Through pinched eyes and blurry vision he glared at his crimson-stained hand that slipped from the piece of pillar he tried to leverage himself against. It burned, all of him, outside as well as within.
Leaning against the wall he tried to pull himself into a standing position. He got a few inches high before agony lanced through his leg and sent him tumbling down. Bright sparks danced before his eyes as he slumped, feeling the blood bubble past his lips as he opened them in a silent scream.
Steps echoed through the dome, reverberating in his skull like the stomps of an angry Erumpent. Riddle was slowly walking toward him, his wand pointed at the spot between Harry's eyes, and beside him Belvazi mirrored the motion.
Harry blinked through the tears of pain, pressed his lips together to stop any sound from escaping.
Both wizards sported scarlet eyes now, and Harry lost the last vestige of hope. The Black Ridge, surprisingly still alive, gave out a low, suffering growl as if to agree with him.
Harry's fingers, slick with blood, fumbled for his wand on the floor—but even as he found it, lifting it with exhaustion straining his arm, he knew this action to be futile. One of them could defeat him already. Two were impossible.
"It seems that we've finally come to an end, Harry," said Riddle, a satisfied smile on his lips. There was a fine sheen of sweat covering his forehead, and his breath was going erratically. The battle had exhausted him then, and keeping control of a wizard like Belvazi couldn't have been easy. "You have been far worthier than I ever imagined possible. I doubt any of this would have happened had I chosen the Longbottom boy that fateful night."
Harry spit a glob of blood and saliva. He tried to will it onto Riddle's robe, but it landed several feet short of him. "Glad… to be of service," he forced out. "Give me… another day… and we can continue."
He'd be damned before he gave that bastard the satisfaction to see him bend the knee.
Riddle's jawline twitched. "Defiant to the last breath, just like your parents. But that doesn't matter anymore. Good-bye, Harry Potter. Your end needs no further speech."
The tip of Riddle's and Belvazi's wands lit up. Streams of searing magic left them, and Harry conjured the last shield he'd probably cast on this plane of existence.
The spells smashed into the barrier, and almost instantly Harry felt his shield unravel. It wouldn't take long now. Riddle could end him with a Killing Curse, but he doubted that was what Riddle had in mind. Having Harry at his ropes there was only one thing he could possibly want—humiliation for all the troubles caused. Payback for thirteen years of solitude and torment.
I made life really hard for you, didn't I?
The thought made Harry grin, despite the thick liquid rinsing his chipped teeth. That was something he had been very good at from the start. Keeping Riddle from what he wanted. And Riddle had been right. Defiance was his defining characteristic, would remain so till the very end.
He saw Riddle's cold smile through the hazy, wobbly barrier of orange, expecting the shield to break any second now. Before it broke, however, Harry wanted to see that smile evaporate.
Groaning he pushed himself, forcing his magic through the almost bursting wood of his wand and into the shield.
Hold, he thought. At least long enough for the smile to become a scowl.
Then he began laughing, a gurgling sound as the blood quelled out of his mouth.
His final act of defiance.
He would endure, endure, endure… The side of his shield began to melt away. He concentrated all his strength to it, thankful for Albus' lessons in defensive magic, but the moment his focus went toward it Belvazi chipped away at the center of the barrier.
The drums in his head had gone silent, drowned out by the beat of his pulse rattling in his skull. Endure. His vision went to red and white, back to red, then to black. Shortly everything became clear, then it got hazy again. Already he was traveling between this world and the next. He heard voices. From the past. From the future. His parents were waiting on him, but he couldn't face them just yet. Not without having achieved this last goal of his.
When the shield broke at last he looked at Riddle's face. The smile was still there, had never left. From above sounded an outcry of celestial rage, then pain stabbed at Harry's shoulder. Before Riddle's magic reached him he was thrown into a storm of colors.
A blink later Harry found himself behind the dark mass of the Black Ridge at the other end of the dome. One of Hedwig's talons was sunken deep into his shoulder. Her tears dropped in a steady stream on his chest, spreading a soothing cold as they trailed along the crevices of his body, like little rivers of rejuvenation.
In her other talon, however, she held something that sent a tingling through Harry's body. Loosening the grip Hedwig let a crystal orb fall into his hand. A violet flame raged inside the orb. Something Riddle couldn't know of, the records having been sealed by the IWC; something that came long after Belvazi's death.
Was this what Albus had meant? Well, if this didn't work, nothing would.
"A phoenix can't save you now, Harry."
"You said that before," Harry wheezed. Then he lobbed the orb over the body of the Black Ridge.
The Flame of Ankou hit the floor, smashing into dozens of shards.
Riddle stopped in his sentence. The patch of purple flame that had been inside the orb was burning away on the stone floor now. Its flames were fed by nothing, but steadily rose higher. They spread from pillar to pillar, over their bodies as well—though it didn't burn them—until the whole dome was covered in purple fire.
Riddle stared at his burning hand, then laughed. "The illusion of fire captured in a crystal. Interesting, but not—"
"You have violated the last order, mortal."
The deep voice came from behind Riddle. Harry craned his neck around the dragon to watch as a column formed out of the fire, deeper in color than the rest of the flames. Slowly the fire took shape. A creature with the head of a boar began walking toward them, torso materializing as it went. At last came its arms, feathered like a bird with talon-like claws. They held rusted chains which trailed through the fire, scraping over the floor with a tortured screech.
Riddle didn't even try to reason with Ankou, firing a Killing Curse which was absorbed upon meeting its target.
"You cannot kill what is immortal." Ankou's voice reverberated between the pillars. "But what once died shall never be pried from Death."
Riddle fired more and more, his wand moving in a furious frenzy. He barraged the creature with all manners of spell, to no effect. Slowly, dragging the chains behind him, Ankou lumbered toward the unmoving Battle Mage. And even as Riddle continued to attack, Ankou put the chains around Belvazi, unbothered by the magic washing up against his body.
"Fight!" Riddle shouted. "Fight it!"
The black flames in Ankou's eyes turned to Riddle. "He does not belong to you, mortal. He will not obey your commands."
Then, as Ankou had finished chaining Belvazi, the chains began burning black like his eyes. "Return to whence you came," spoke Ankou, and before long Pelandro Belvazi was no more.
As though Ankou inhaled it, the purple fire receded within a second, sucked into his body until only the God remained.
"What about him?" Harry asked with difficulty, Hedwig's tears making it easier to talk. He hadn't healed much, but it was enough to stand again.
"He still belongs to this world," said Ankou.
Over the last hour Tom Marvolo Riddle had thrown more Killing Curses at him than Harry could count. Most of them slipped from the tip of his wand without an incantation, such was the familiarity between Riddle and the Unforgivable. When the words 'Avada Kedavra' left Riddle's serpentine lips at last, it was suffused with such utter hatred and venom, the very sound grated on the soul.
Harry had scarcely time to duck back behind the Black Ridge. Above him the flash of green ripped into a vast part of the wall, chiseling a relief of cobwebs into it. Another enraged scream echoed—all precision and control gone from Riddle—and was followed by a beam sundering the air in a violent dispersion.
In the thrall of incoherent rage Riddle barraged the dragon, which was dead at long last, and each curse sent a spray of flesh and scales gushing upwards. Harry leaned with his back to the dragon. Beside him hovered Hedwig, plumage thinning out, eyes growing heavy from the day. The carcass of the Black Ridge bucked against his back, and he lowered his head by an inch, blood dripping from his face. Hedwig leaned in, touching her forehead to his.
"If this doesn't work, girl," he whispered to her, "I want you to get out of here. Fly to the others and help them. Make sure Hermione and Ron are safe, okay?"
Hedwig nudged him reproachfully.
"Just in case," he continued with a gentle, bloody smile. "There's no way I'm giving up before I even tried. Keep ready."
And that's what it came down to in the end. He was too stubborn to die without giving his all, too prideful to refuse the help of time, even if the consequence might kill him. One last try. He gripped his wand tighter. Once again, and if he died in the process then that was the cost and he'd regret nothing. He had lived his life the best way he knew how; that was all one could ask of him. It certainly was all he asked of himself.
When he lifted his arm Hedwig took off soaring toward the ceiling, drawing Riddle's attention and his curses toward her.
Harry swallowed the thick lump in his throat and closed his eyes. He felt the blood rush through every vessel, pound in his ears, pulse under his tongue—at peace at last with the music in his mind. Then he mobilized what strength was left to him.
Opening his eyes he slashed his wand downward.
Overhead Hedwig was avoiding Riddle's curses in such slow movements, it seemed as though she barely moved at all. One last moment for the only spell Harry had learned from Albus that might work. The one arcane chant that was, ironically, father to the element Riddle had branded him with in infancy.
He rounded the corpse of the Black Ridge and pointed his wand at Riddle, his voice beginning in a whisper and rising in volume.
"Herald of the Storm, I beseech you."
Riddle's head turned to him, his lips moving slowly.
"Master of the Tempest, hear me."
And just like back in the second task, an otherworldly feeling swept through Harry, flooding him from head to toe. And he relinquished control without reluctance, voice electrified and rising to a roar. No words were to be made out in it, but the world understood.
For a second there was silence, and only that.
Magic sparked at the tip of Riddle's wand. Harry saw each spark individually, all of them coalescing slowly into a barrier.
Then Harry's wand slipped out of his fingers, smoking, and time sped up. The tiled ceiling broke open, and from the heavens came crashing down a bolt of lightning, which broke through miles of earth and stone and everything in-between on the way. Then, as the spell smashed into Riddle with enough force to carve out the floor around him a feet deep, came the thunder, rattling all of Gringotts.
But Harry had seen the sparks at the tip of Riddle's wand. After today there would be no do-overs. He pulled the Sword of Gryffindor from his belt, screaming for his familiar. "Hed!"
Her last flash brought him directly into the radiant and blindingly white zone of destruction around Riddle, and he swung upward, putting every bit of physical strength into moving on, even as he felt resistance.
Then Harry heard a wet slicking sound. The light receded. And when the stars had left his vision, and he saw what was in front of him, he sank to his knees.
´ The two halves of Riddle's body lay in front of him, black blood extending from both, soon reaching his kneecaps. He glanced up at the hole in the ceiling which the lightning had torn apart, and through which now fell a cone of sunlight onto him.
Then he slumped forward, landing face first in the puddle of black blood.
Harry woke to the clattering of vials. His eyelids opened slowly, and after a moment of being disoriented the figure leaning above him came into focus—as much focus as being without glasses allowed. Lydia Abbott's long hair was pulled back in a ponytail falling over her shoulder. She held the mouth of a vial against a sponge. Harry soon felt wetness on his forehead.
He murmured a supposed 'Hello' which came out in grunts, and Lydia's eyes widened.
"Harry, you're awake."
He mustered a weak smile and before he even had to ask she gave him a cup with water from which he drank greedily. His parched throat welcomed the cool liquid.
"How long was I out?" he asked, as she used medical identification spells he recognized from his short stint with Madam Pomfrey.
"Five weeks," she said putting her wand away. "It was like nothing I've ever seen… The moment magic touched you it got pulled right away from you and dissipated. Yesterday was the first day that didn't happen."
He shrugged weakly. "No clue, but I guess it's not that bad if I'm alright now." She looked like she might disagree, and he quickly changed the topic. In five weeks a lot could've happened.
Lydia gave him the short points. The Goblins had mobilized their forces to wage war on wizardkind, and only diplomatic talks and a lot of saber-rattling between the IWC and Olkreg currently prevented a globe-spanning all-out conflict. Back at Gringotts it had been the surprising contingent of the Ministry's Aurors that had saved the majority of the Order. They had stormed the bank, confused but ready, and had put an end to the battle through sheer numbers.
The Weasleys, she told him, as well as Remus, Sirius, Fleur, and almost every other member of the Order, had waited at some point in time at his bed. Ron and Hermione had made it as well, having played an important role in the battle at Hogwarts.
The last news brought a smile to his face that lasted until she told him of another medical anomaly concerning himself.
"I'm sorry," she said, conjuring him a mirror.
And Harry, who'd had expected to pay the price, still jerked back at the sight. Supposedly sixteen years old he had now grown a beard which wasn't black but specked with gray instead. Crow's feet featured in his face, and slight lines furrowed his brow. In all he looked as though going strong past forty. He lifted his arm and found his hand slightly wrinkled. Not by much, but enough to be noticeable.
So that had been the game after all. One battle, and now he looked and felt as though having lost more than thirty years of his life. Those who tried to enslave time, and bend it to their will, found themselves crushed instead by the vast power the force they sought to shackle commanded. He had been warned about unintended consequences. In the end Albus had been right again, even in this matter.
This wasn't the time to grieve over his damn body.
"Where's Albus? How's he doing?"
Lydia didn't answer at first, taken aback by the question. Harry took that as a very bad sign. "Is he dead?"
"He isn't," she said, and the heaviness left Harry at those words. "But he's not healthy either."
He looked at her questioningly, and she glanced at the place a few beds from his around which curtains had been drawn, shielding it from the world. Harry threw his blanket aside and rushed over to the bed, almost tripping over his feet. He ripped the curtains open, then took an instinctive step back.
Exuding a sick glow and looking pasty like the moon Albus lay on the bed, his chest rising and sinking in a slow rhythm. "What happened?" Harry asked, as he took in the sweat marring Albus' forehead, and the bronze threads of magic careening around his body, as though directed by the hand of an invisible, drunken master weaver.
Lydia wiped the sweat away with a wet towel. "We don't know," she said. "Most of his vitals are good, but he just won't wake up. The magic coalescing around him prevents his recovery..."
"You don't know how to disperse it?"
"If we knew what spell caused it maybe, but we don't."
Harry felt the skin around his eyes tighten. Pelandro Belvazi, the first Battle Mage, had cast that spell. No wonder they didn't know what it was. The only one in this room who might have known was in a coma.
This wasn't how the battle had been supposed to end. Albus was supposed to enjoy the freedom that came with having nothing to worry about anymore. He was supposed to lead new generations of students onto a bright path at Hogwarts.
Haven't I won? This feels like nothing. Bloody nothing at all.
The thought that all the hard work wouldn't matter in the end when it came to the life of his mentor set his gut aflame. He had won, damn it. Why, then, did it feel like he lost?
Time drifted by as he stared at Albus' prone form. Harry didn't know if it were minutes or hours, time having lost its meaning. Lydia's hand on his shoulder gave little comfort.
"There's nothing you can do?" Harry asked.
She shook her head. "We tried what we know, I'm sorry, Harry. Unless the magic is gone, nothing will change." She paused. "We'll keep looking though, I promise. He will return to us."
When he didn't respond she continued, "Why don't you lie down for a bit? You must still be exhausted. I… I will tell the others that you're awake. I'm sure they want to see you as soon as possible."
Harry's gaze was still focused on Albus, even as the door clicked shut behind Lydia.
He balled his hands into fists.
This won't stand. I won't let it. I fucking won, and you'll be there to celebrate with me, old man. If I have to drag you back from that coma so you can witness this world and live your life for once, I'll bloody well do so.
He laid his palm on Albus' brow, closed his eyes for a brief second, then turned abruptly and strode over to the bedside table, from there taking his wand and conjuring himself a simple, black robe.
Five weeks he'd been unconscious. More than enough time for his familiar to regain her strength.
3 Years Later
Close to the road through the village of Icarai—a dusty little thing tinted red by the blearing sun—stood a fountain, beautifully carved, its pattering comfort to every soul nearby. Each day, for almost a week now, a stranger would sit down at the fountain, spinning wholesome tales of great kings, majestic animals, and empires that fell through the magic of music long before the sword ever reached them. The cloth of his stories, the fabric of his tales, seemed endless, and for hours he sat listening to the windswept palms, the bubbling laughter of children, as he provided more entertainment than had been had in the village for years.
"That," he said, his voice low and conspiratorial, "is how Imar at once became king and beggar, rich and poor, a soul not to be envied, yet looked upon begrudgingly for the fortune of his circumstances."
"But why didn't he just leave? Couldn't he have taken the Queen and the money and fled with the ship?" The children sat in a half-circle around the fountain, blocking the road. They perked up at the question from their midst. The inquiry had been made by boy about eleven, tousled brown hair going every which way.
"Of course that is possible," the stranger said smiling. "Choices are everywhere around you, but how to make them? How to make them indeed. Now that depends on what you want from life, doesn't it?" He shook his head. "I for one think Imar was a fool, but an honest one. That alone counts more than you might—"
"Mr. Eccleborough!" A girl came running down the street as if flying on wings, black pigtails bouncing left and right. When she stopped before him her face was puffy and red. "Mr. Eccleborough," she said again. "He got it, he got it! Mario got what you wanted."
"Oh?" The storyteller sat up attentively. "You got it with you?"
"Yes," she said, handing him a brown parcel with a pleased grin. "He asked me to give it you."
Laughing the man accepted the delivery and flicked her nose. "Thank you very much," he said. "This is quite important to me."
And as though his words held the key to the world every child jumped up around him. "Will you leave now, Mr. Eccleborough?"
"Afraid so. There's business to be done, and a good friend needed help for a long time now."
"But you're going to visit us again?"
"I'm sure I will. Remember, in life you always meet twice."
Pinching the parcel between his right arm and his body he rose from the fountain, shadowing his face with his left against the sun which now, away from the shadow of the palm tree, seemed much brighter than before.
"So long," he said, waving a last time.
Then he made his way along the dusty road, the pattering of the fountain quieting down until it transitioned smoothly into a music he had heard all week long now—that of a trio of musicians alternating between fast-paced beats and slow, rhythmical pieces. No matter which variant, the large contrabass always sent deep tones sailing through the air, carrying them right to his ears.
The wooden steps creaked as he went up to the door and from there into the bar beneath the hotel. Once he had entered an old gentlemen in a handsome vest met him.
"The usual, Mr. Eccleborough?" the man asked inclining his head, a white towel neatly folded across his arm.
"Yes, thank you, Perro."
Most of the round tables in the dim-lit room were taken by couples and the few tourists which had just come from the beach not too far away. He seated himself at an empty one, near a small window through which the setting sun threw orange light, letting his feet whip with the music. Perro put two tumblers with ice cubes on the dark-stained table, then poured bourbon into both.
"Thanks. I appreciate all you've done so far, Perro."
"It has been my pleasure, Mr. Eccleborough. Will this be your last night?"
"Just so. Barring unforeseen events I'll be out of your hair tomorrow."
Perro nodded thoughtfully. "Then I wish you a pleasant journey—and give my regards, if you please. She has made this a much brighter place."
"I'm sure she'll be delighted to hear that."
Once Perro had left he tapped his wand against the tabletop; four runes engraved themselves, followed by a simple array of wards which ordered itself in layers around the space of the table.
He took a sip, felt a light burn in his throat, shuddered, then set down the tumbler as he unpacked the parcel, pulling out a folded map. Unfurling the beast on the table he put both glasses on the edges of the map to keep it flat. Next to it he laid a small notebook that he opened to the most recent page, eyes flying over the underlined words and scribbles of his latest discoveries.
"Now let's see," he murmured, trailing his fingertip around the southern part of the map which corresponded with an earlier entry in his book. A man older than five centuries was bound to leave some traces, after all. Brazil so far had brought him closer to his goal than any other country he had searched.
He blinked when a presence crossed his wards, then he leaned back and took another sip. The familiar signature sat down opposite him and took the second tumbler. His gaze wandered slowly from the boots to the leather-clad legs going on forever, and from there—after quite a path—toward the blue eyes of Fleur Delacour. She smelled of jonquil, jasmine and sweat. Orange light from the window brightened her hair to an ethereal luminance.
Across her cheeks spread a flush from the bourbon that was quite beautiful to watch.
"You got it?" he asked.
"Who do you take me for, 'arry?" She slid a book over the table, slightly bigger than the notebook.
He grinned at her. "It's Eccleborough. Did he make any troubles?"
"Two dinners," she replied, crossing her legs, "plus the promise to visit again."
"And you're sure that's okay?"
"Is that not my question to ask?" she said, then nodded pointedly at the notebook. "Does it help?"
"Let's see, shall we?"
Ten minutes with the old journal of Galeo Perenda, member of the Hunting Guild, showed that he had met a man called Belvazi, a wizard with an uncanny sense for the magical who had joined him on a trip through the ruins of Kialmé. There they'd had themselves a bit of an excavation, shortly after which Galeo's writing stopped. Other records of the Hunting Guild showed that Belvazi had been the only one returning from the trip—the old journal being discovered a decade later by another team.
The final hint? Doubtful. But it was more than he'd had a month ago. And much more than three years ago when he'd had left Britain to search for a cure, telling no one of his aim, sending Hedwig with occasional letters of appeasement to all who knew him. He was happy with any progress, and so, even if the ruins of Kialmé turned out to be another dead end, he'd still be one step further in reducing the possibilities.
A lonely if purposeful job—at least until Fleur had found him ten months into his self-imposed exile, having a month prior listened to the wake of her father's funeral.
Though between them Jean Delacour remained a topic not spoken about. And whatever had happened back then—he remembered far too well though he wished he didn't—was irrelevant for their current relationship, whatever that was. In an act of stubbornness she had refused to leave him alone, making his days anything but lonely. And for that he was glad, more than he could put into words.
He glanced at his aged reflection in the glass, having long accepted the tribute for what it was. Time was a strange thing. It ran to infinity but was so stingy that it always took from you and never gave anything in return. And all that remainen, then, was to make the best of what you had, being neither sad for the things you couldn't change, nor intimidated by goals which seemed impossible but could be reached.
In the end, Albus Dumbledore would live to see the world he had bought with an arm and decades of patience and wisdom.
Time spent on such a goal could never be spent badly. And with the company he kept, it turned out, not everything was bad in the life of Harry Potter. The journey was the goal, and if on that ruddy path he grew a beard Fleur could call rugged, where was the mistake in that?
He found none, and those who thought different could take it up with him once he set foot on British soil again. Until then he'd take life as it came in the pursuit of his happiness.
AN: Here we are, having arrived at last. I'm grateful for everyone who read this story and commented on it, giving at times motivation, food for thought, or constructive criticism. You know who you are, and your input has been appreciated. I apologize to those who thought the story lost its earlier touch, or seemed at times as if written in two different styles. Between the start and this end are roughly three years, and this having been my very first story the difference in quality is probably notable. In any case, if you're reading this you most likely made it to the end and I hope you enjoyed the journey despite the long wait and all the ups and downs.
Last but not least, my thanks once more to the DLP crowd. The advice I found in the community, not only for this story but in general, made me a much better writer than I was just a year ago.