I've been talking too much lately. Let's just get right into it, shall we? Enjoy.
THE NEXT GREAT ADVENTURE
"Not even ghosts could pass through the door?" whispered Alec tentatively.
"I've heard there are enchantments that can prevent the passage of spirits," said Aidan. "Ancient Greeks invented it, then Egyptians perfected it. It was to prevent anyone, living or dead, from disrupting the afterlife of their Pharaoh… and if a grave robber died in the tombs, he was trapped there, and he couldn't escape as a ghost to tell his friends how to get past the defenses."
"Creepy," said Eftan with a shiver.
"But—but—not even ghosts could phase through the door?" repeated Alec in disbelief.
"We shouldn't talk about this so much," said Aidan. "We have exams to worry about! Tomorrow! Remember? Whatever this all is, it can wait until after exams."
"Of course it'll wait," said Alec, rolling his eyes. "Of course the moaning monster under Hogwarts will wait until exams are finished before it attacks because it's just so thoughtful like that. That moan was its way of saying 'I love you guys.'"
"Well, there's nothing we can exactly do about it until then, so that's why I'm not worrying," said Aidan, burying his nose back in a book. He reminded Albus so much of Rose. It was a wonder they weren't best friends. Though they were engaged in constant friendly competition… Maybe that was their way of being best friends.
"We don't even know if it's actually a 'monster,' or something else," said Albus.
"Not thinking about it!" called Aidan from behind his book.
Albus sighed. "Aidan's right. I have to study. These finals are going to be really important for the rest of my time at Hogwarts. I need to make sure I do as well as I can."
"I should study, too," said Alec with a very unenthusiastic face.
"It's okay," said Albus. "I'll help you study. Helping people study helps me study."
Aidan left to seek out his own table in the crowded library, and Albus took Alec to a different table so that they wouldn't bother Eftan. Then, sparing no more seconds, they started cramming for the most important week of their lives yet.
Charms, as usual, was Albus's most difficult subject. After two hours of making flowers bloom and close to a musical beat, teaching parchment to scream when it was ripped (which he found rather morbid), and many other seemingly useless tasks for anyone who wasn't a circus clown or a sadist, Albus finally exited the room with a smile. From a lot of studying, he'd still done above average, and was happy to realize that he'd gotten above average in his worst class. Alec apparently did very well in Charms, too; he was getting better at all of his practical subjects.
Albus was finished in half the time of the rest of the class during Potions, because during the year, he'd discovered a shortcut to brewing the Wood-Eating Potion, one of the potions that happened to be on the exam. Professor Valon gave him a look of consternation before peering into his cauldron and vaulting his eyebrows. He shooed Albus away to let the rest of the class concentrate, and then he mentioned quietly that Albus really shouldn't worry about his Potions grade.
In Herbology on Tuesday, they trimmed the mustache of the Hirsuhedrora, a task they'd learned in their first year but about which most of them had forgotten until now. They also calmed down the Cantankeroot, bathed the Pulverda, won staring contests with Vidwood saplings, and repotted Mandrakes. Much to the amusement of the class, Riley had to do all five tasks with a mustache because he'd been bitten by his Hirsuhedrora in the first minute of the exam. Mandrakes were done last, because Professor Longbottom didn't want anyone being knocked out and unable to move on to the other tasks the final, and they were done simultaneously. People who didn't finish the first four tasks were forced to move on, and many of them looked totally distraught. Albus was very thankful for his intelligence and uncanny ability to remember how to deal with all the plants.
"Professor," whined Jamie Doge of Hufflepuff. "My Vidwood still won't stop crying into my leg."
"Well, that's what happens when you glare at them," said Professor Longbottom, shrugging. "Just give him some sugar, Doge."
"What?" yelped Jamie.
Professor Longbottom held up a container of sugar. "Sugar," he repeated.
"Oh," muttered Jamie.
"Oh yeah," said Professor Longbottom, stroking his chin. "I suppose 'give him some sugar' does have another meaning. Anyway, Andersen, get down to Madam Birchbaum and have her get rid of that mustache."
"Can I keep it?" asked Riley, stroking his new facial hair.
"No. See you all next year, everyone!"
Their afternoon exam on Tuesday was in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Professor Westerling gave them a series of hexes and jinxes to cast on a Likelife, which was a human-like mannequin used for practice in dueling and other offensive magic. Albus was timid about doing this, because it felt like casting curses at a real person—the Likelife dodged and used items in the room as shields. When he finally hit the Likelife with a Stinging Hex, it crumpled in apparent pain and hit the floor, and he felt awful about it. Professor Westerling assured him that the Likelife couldn't actually feel pain, but it was still an unpleasant sight.
But he felt he'd done well on the exam. The next day, he had History of Magic in the late morning, and Astronomy late at night. Both were tedious and fairly uninteresting exams, typical format for the wandless courses. Professor Obbin promised to be an easy grader, but Albus worried that his star chart wasn't very good and that he'd named the wrong planet. The most interesting thing that happened that day was an uproar of amazement and confusion amongst the students taking the Astronomy exam, after which Professor Obbin had to calm them down and explain that what they had just seen was a Muggle space station and would not be on the exam.
Finally, they had Transfiguration in the afternoon on Thursday after a morning off. This had been their last exam last year as well. Albus wondered if it would be as easy as last year, or if this would be the only exam to cause him to worry about his application to the A.R.M. program.
Albus walked into the classroom, feeling rather confident. Professor Desulgon winked at him, and also at his friends. Albus had just settled into the desk and taken out his book when a little piece of paper fluttered into the room.
It was flapping like a bird and then drifting some, flapping and drifting until Professor Desulgon snatched it out of the air. He glanced it over and his forehead creased.
"Albus Severus Potter, Aidan Anderlin Fallon Finch-Fletchley, Alec Heller McKinnon, Eftan Treddek Griffiths?"
The four friends looked up from their last-minute studying of notes.
"To the Headmaster's office, immediately," said Professor Desulgon. "Er, there aren't many details here, but apparently it's urgent. Head up to his office as soon as possible and wait for him until he gets back."
"We're… about to start a test," said Aidan apprehensively.
"I'll let you make it up, you can take it some other time," said Professor Desulgon. "Right now, your priority is what Professor Wilcox has asked you to do, so please go to his office at once. Here's the letter, it has his new password."
Professor Desulgon rapidly folded the letter into a paper airplane with his wand and had it sail towards Albus, who caught it and unfolded it. He shrugged at his friends.
"One does not keep a Headmaster waiting," said Professor Desulgon. "Please, for the final time, leave for his office this instant or I shall fail you on your exam."
Aidan was off like a rocket; Albus and Eftan followed. Alec asked Professor Desulgon if the make-up test would be harder than the current one, and upon receiving an assurance that it would be the same level of difficulty, he plodded after his friends.
"This is weird," said Albus. "What's so urgent that it's got to interrupt our final exam?"
"Maybe it's Exo," said Eftan worriedly. "Did anyone check to see if he was in the room there?"
"I didn't make a point to look," said Alec, "but I'm pretty sure that he was there. I think I remember seeing him. Maybe not, though."
"The full moon is still almost a week away, isn't it?" insisted Aidan. "What could be wrong with Exo? Could it have been something that happened at the festival?"
"But I thought Wilcox didn't know you guys were involved," said Albus with concern. "Why would he have all of us?"
"We are kind of close friends," said Eftan. "I'm sure he's noticed we're friendly… Maybe even divined that we were all a part of that plan."
"Adults do tend to notice more than we think," agreed Aidan.
"Whatever, trying to figure it out won't change what it is," said Alec. "We'll find out when we get there."
They arrived shortly at the Headmaster's door, panting from the effort of climbing all those flights of stairs so fast. Albus wished that he had constant access to Wilcox's secret passageways throughout the castle.
He didn't need to consult the note; he'd seen the password and hadn't forgotten it.
"Dismiusa," he stated ominously to the gargoyle, causing it to leap aside.
Up they went with the spiral stone staircase, and then they entered through the magnificent oak door. Wilcox was not yet here, and there were no chairs in the room, so they looked around awkwardly for a while before Alec sat down on the floor.
"We'll stand up if we hear them coming," he said, and Aidan and Eftan followed suit in agreement; Albus, however, remained standing. He cast his gaze up to the Sorting Hat sitting on a shelf.
"What're you doing?" asked Alec as Albus picked up the hat and dusted it off.
"Nothing," said Albus, sliding on the hat and sitting down to face the wall. "Don't mind me."
For a while, everything was silent. Then a soft voice mused in his ear.
"Bee in your bonnet, Albus Potter?"
Albus didn't want to speak aloud with his friends several feet away, so he thought the words as clearly as he could, hoping the hat would pick up on it.
I was just wondering… whether… whether you put me in the right House.
"Ah, yes," said the Sorting Hat. "You were difficult to place… just like your father. And he asked the same question in his second year, in fact. Very similar."
And my father almost went to Slytherin.
"Indeed he nearly did, but he chose Gryffindor. In Gryffindor dwell the brave at heart, and that is where his heart lay."
Do you always go with the person's choice, if they choose?
"Most certainly not. I'm most proud of my achievement in winning my argument with one Neville Longbottom, who as I recall requested to be put in Hufflepuff."
Hufflepuff? thought Albus in astonishment. But he's so… so Gryffindor!
"And it took a while for everyone to see it, but see it they did," said the hat.
So you know better than everyone.
"I have the brains of all four Founders," it said amusedly.
Would I have done better in Slytherin?
"Ah, Albus Potter. You raise a tough question. How can we see what turns the river would have taken if it flowed in a different direction? I stand by what I said: you would have done well in Slytherin. But I Sort based on the totality of what I see."
Why did you put Eftan in Slytherin?
"He felt like a Slytherin to me."
But you've got Salazar Slytherin's brains. Salazar Slytherin would never have let a Muggle-born into his House.
"You don't know what Salazar Slytherin would have thought! Only I know that. But if you must hear the truth, I don't think that boy is Muggle-born."
Eftan? thought Albus with a jolt. What? Are you serious?
"Yes, I'm rather certain he has at least one magical parent. I'm fairly certain he's a child of two magical parents, in fact."
But he was from a Muggle family. We know this.
"You know what they've told you. Perhaps he was adopted. Don't ask him, though. If he knows, he'll tell you when he's ready."
I wish I was in Slytherin so that I could defend him. I should have been in Slytherin.
"You think so?"
I crave adventure. I want to be known as great. I don't want to be smart—the only smart people who are known in history are the ones who were great. I want to be better than my father. I want to be a better Seeker than my brother. I want to beat Rose in our classes. I… I want to be better than everyone. Isn't that… isn't that a Slytherin thing?
"It is very Slytherin, and Salazar would have wanted you for his House, no question about it," stated the hat. "You would have preferred to be in Slytherin?"
I… think so. For Eftan.
"Despite the reputation of the house, its personal stigma in your mind, and the coldness that many of its inhabitants would exhibit towards you due to your name?"
"All because you wanted to help your friend, Eftan Griffiths?"
"That," laughed the hat quietly in his ear, "is some true Gryffindor spirit. Selfless and noble. I Sort on totality, Albus Potter; you are right where you belong."
Albus took the hat off with a smile, and placed it gingerly back on the shelf.
He sat down with his friends and talked. His mood was very lifted for some reason after the conversation with the hat, and he laughed and joked with his friends, waiting for their headmaster.
But Wilcox did not show up five minutes later. He did not show up ten minutes later. And he did not show up fifteen minutes later when they knew that Professor Desulgon's exam was just being administered.
"What is this?" whimpered Aidan. "A trick by someone to get us out of the room so we miss our Transfiguration exam?"
"I'll have to remember to thank them," said Alec. "I didn't study too much."
"Professor Desulgon promised we could make it up," said Albus reassuringly.
"And if it was a prank, they probably wouldn't have known Professor Wilcox's password," added Alec.
"They could have heard it," suggested Aidan.
"I sincerely doubt they would have been able to spell it right," laughed Albus.
"Yeah, really," said Alec loudly, having trouble with his inside voice as always. "I mean, for crying out loud, who hears 'dizz-MYOO-zuh' and thinks 'D-I-Z'—wait, how is that spelled any—"
"Hey, I think that's him," said Eftan, as footsteps heralded someone's arrival.
Professor Wilcox certainly didn't sound tense, and the four friends relaxed. He was laughing with someone that sounded like Madam Duopold.
"—wrote to me," Professor Wilcox was saying in a muffled voice that slowly grew louder, "and asked for the job. I told him, do you really think I'm going to replace Valon as Potions master? Zayn is fantastic! Not to mention the other benefits of having him around. But no, our prospective professor was absolutely adamant about at least being interviewed for the position, and I said to him, there's no way I'm giving the boot to Valon until he dies. He goes—he says this to me—he goes, 'Well, I guess I'll have to kill him.' Yes, yes, he said that! I told him, 'Dr. Hoffman, you would have made an excellent villain in another life.' He does seem ever so well-versed in his potions, but I have to say, Zayn is better. He's better than everyone, of course."
The oak door opened and Wilcox stepped in, still looking back at Madam Duopold while they conversed. She, however, froze and looked in with surprise at the four kids.
"Dottie, before I forget, I'd like to thank you for helping me with both our containment issues," said Wilcox, still facing Madam Duopold and still blissfully oblivious to his visitors, which Albus found strange, seeing as how they had been invited by this man who was ignoring them. "We'll have to see how everything holds up in a month from now, but in the unlikely event, and I mean extremely unlikely event, that we do experience an assault from the forest, or under the castle, we should be able to quell it shortly. Again, I SINCERELY doubt that the problem will arise, but it always pays to expect the worst, especially when nobody else in the castle is expecting an appearance from f—" the four friends gasped in unison at the word— "-ing Dismiusa—"
He finally noticed that Madam Duopold was gesturing inside the room when she began doing so frantically, and he turned around and blanched at the sight of the four students sitting on the floor of the office, who were all blushing furiously at Wilcox's use of that particularly colorful word.
"O-Oh," he stuttered. "Good afternoon, children—what—shouldn't you be in an exam right about now?"
"You sent for us," said Aidan nervously.
"I did?" asked Wilcox, puzzled. "Are you… sure? Am I… going senile?"
"Certainly not," said Madam Duopold harshly. "These students obviously broke into your office to perform some sort of elaborate prank and quickly played innocent when we walked in. Isn't that right?"
"No, he sent for us!" said Albus angrily, waving the letter.
"You even forged a letter," snorted Madam Duopold, snatching it from Albus's grasp and then leaning over him. "You certainly have given this a lot of thought, haven't you? Now that I give it a lot of thought, it seems rather odd we catch you four snooping around in here AND that our resident pranksters, Loki, Pokey, Polo, and Pent, are a group of four?" She wrinkled her nose as if she was trying to smell the truth out of them.
"Seriously?" asked Albus in disbelief that she was actually accusing them of being Loki, Pokey, Polo, and Pent. She seemed serious, too.
"Give me that," said Professor Wilcox, taking and scanning the letter, looking more and more like he'd been Confunded. Maybe he had?
"Professor Desulgon sent us," said Alec defensively.
"We will confirm this with him," said Madam Duopold, "believe us."
"Please do!" shot Alec.
Then, thankfully, Professor Desulgon burst into the room, out-of-breath. He ran to the front of the room and leaned his arms on Wilcox's desk exhaustedly.
"Sorry about the delay, kids," he panted. "I had to wait for Earle to get to my classroom to watch the kids, I don't know what took him so long; I was so agitated he probably should have been able to read it from across the school, him and his auras."
"What's all this?" asked Professor Wilcox.
"Forgive me for causing the intrusion, Helio, but I wanted to get these kids out of the classroom," said Professor Desulgon. "So I made a fake letter from you and sent it to myself in the room." He turned to the four friends. "Boys, I'm giving you a separate final. I want to test you on your Dueling as well as your Transfiguration. I didn't want the rest of the class to know, however, so I sent you all here under the pretense that you were sent to the Headmaster's office. If you could wait here until the exam is over? You shouldn't be wandering the halls; people will think you're… up to something."
Albus and his friends exchanged conflicted glances at the news that Professor Desulgon was testing them separately. It was exciting to know that he put such stock in them, but a little worrisome about living up to the expectations as well.
"I'll get back to rounds," said Professor Desulgon. "Don't want another Loki, Pokey, Polo, and Pent incident on our hands during exams, now. See you tonight at eight for your make-up final."
Wilcox awkwardly offered them Muggle cards to use while they waited in his office. Two hours were whiled away while Eftan tried to teach them poker, and then Wilcox politely asked them to leave.
"Wait," said Albus suddenly, feeling that the whole situation was very much déjà vu. He'd asked questions like this so many times, and always right before leaving. "Professor, what do you know about Dismiusa? I heard you, er, mention her just before you noticed us."
"Dismiusa," sighed Wilcox with a smile. "She's not real, that's all I know."
Albus hadn't been expecting that. He'd always thought of Wilcox as the one person to believe in her existence.
"But you just said—"
"—that we were preparing for the worst," finished Wilcox. "I am of the strong belief that Dismiusa is nothing more than a legend, but I can't exactly afford to be wrong, now, can I? Precautions must be taken even if I don't think they're necessary. If she does turn out to be real, and I haven't prepared for an attack, we're dead. So even if I don't think that's a possibility… better safe than sorry. Do you understand?"
Albus nodded. Some part of him, for some reason, was still hoping Wilcox would laugh and say that no, Dismiusa was certainly real, and that both the dust cloud on the day of the Quidditch match over the trembling forest and the groan from under the castle had certainly been caused by her. He didn't know why—perhaps it was because he still wished for there to be a bit more drama in his Hogwarts career, but when he remembered the Lunar Eclipse festival, he couldn't imagine why he might wish that.
"I'd prefer if you didn't quote me on any of this," said Wilcox, looking embarrassed, "and especially not on my poor decision in regards to language."
"We won't, sir," said Albus, trying not to laugh and knowing that if he did quote that within hearing range of an adult, his mother would probably Scourgify his mouth for a week straight.
As he turned to leave, he wanted to explain to Wilcox about the passage he'd discovered under the castle, but that would mean he'd have to explain that he was wandering the castle at night, and might also mandate the disclosure that he operated under an Invisibility Cloak.
But then, he remembered what happened the last time he kept secrets about this sort of affair, and he turned around and forced himself to speak up.
Aidan, Alec, and Eftan paused on their ways out also.
"Yes, Albus?" said Professor Wilcox, eyeing him down.
"There's… something you should know, sir," said Albus. "About… about the night."
"There's something I should know about the night?" restated Wilcox, smiling.
"…About the night when the noise happened under the castle."
"I'm listening," said Wilcox, seriousness replacing his good humor.
Albus's words caught in his throat. He didn't have to give himself away.
"I know someone who was out of bed that night, Professor," he said. "They said that they heard it around the dungeons."
Wilcox's gaze sharpened.
"Is that all?" he asked.
"Well… I think—we think—that you should check out the dungeons, sir," said Albus. "Check for… you know. Hidden passages, or something."
"Check for hidden passages in the dungeons?" reiterated Wilcox, raising an eyebrow.
Something about that look said that Wilcox knew it had been Albus out of his bed at night, but Albus hadn't said this outright and so he hadn't incriminated himself. The desired effect was there, and Wilcox nodded.
"You and your father really love to get neck-deep in this stuff, don't you," said Wilcox, grinning. "All right, I'll check out the dungeons. I'm going to ask that you don't check out the dungeons. Got it?"
"Got it, sir."
"I'll let you know if I find anything," said Wilcox with a wink. "And I'd prefer it if you didn't quote me on any of this, either."
"Will do, sir."
Albus jogged out of the office with his friends.
"Welcome to your final!" said Professor Desulgon as they entered the Transfiguration classroom.
The classroom had been drastically altered for this separate final. There were no desks. One third of the classroom had been changed into a rocky ledge with a grassy patch in the center. Another third had been transformed into a seascape, with a small island of ice in the middle. The rest of the classroom was a deep hole with what looked like a floating cloud floating a few feet from the drop-off.
"This is a very small version of how an actual competitive dueling arena would appear," said Professor Desulgon. "There are three starting positions: Land, Sea, and Sky, the usual natural elements. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, so you have to choose wisely. At the beginning of a duel, a coin is tossed, enchanted to prevent any bias. Someone calls heads or tails. When it turns up, the winner chooses their starting position first, or can choose to have their opponent choose first so that they can respond.
"The intricacies are hard to explain, but I'll try. Sea is more offensive and less defensive. It's difficult to hold your ground on that little island, but it's easier to lash out without damaging your position. Land is more defensive—the rock is much more stable than the water—but it's harder to gather yourself for an attack. It may not be immediately evident that this is the case, but it's easier to see in a duel. And Sky is more versatile. That cloud island you see in the sky? It floats, and you can move it around, to dodge or to add force to your blows. Salimotor!"
Professor Desulgon bounded into the air and landed on the cloud. Waving one of his two wands, he skated around the Sky-themed area and then jumped back down. "Sky is more versatile because you don't have to commit to a location or a style," he continued. "That's why it was my preferred zone. So, would you like to see a real duel before we start our final?"
He gestured to the deep hole in the Sky position. A man with dust-colored hair and large light brown eyes climbed out of the hole and waved hello to them.
"This is Alfred Roy, my partner in Doubles' competitive dueling," said Professor Desulgon. "He's here to duel me, if you four would like to watch us."
"Yes!" cried four excited voices. Professor Desulgon nodded and took a coin from his pocket.
"Call it, Al," said Professor Desulgon.
"Heads," said Roy.
Albus had been about to call tails, thinking that Professor Desulgon was referring to him when he said "Al," but he closed his mouth just in time.
The coin hit the ground flat on heads.
"I'll take Sky," said Roy, and he jumped nimbly onto the floating cloud.
"I'll take Sea," said Professor Desulgon. "See, Al's move was strategic there, and the match hasn't even begun—you usually study your opponent beforehand, and Al knows that I'm best with Sky. So, to damage my chances, he's going to force me out of my comfort zone. But you'll see what might happen in the future—and why I took Sea for the attacking possibilities. Boys, you'd best stand right at the door, I've put an enchantment there so you won't get hit by anything."
Professor Desulgon walked briskly across the surface of the water using some sort of nonverbal spell, and stepped onto the ice island. He stowed his right-hand wand in his pocket.
"Only one wand at a time is allowed in competitive dueling," noted Professor Desulgon. He raised his other wand. "All right, Al, whenever you're ready."
They bowed, and then both stood still for a moment before an incredible display of flashy spellwork filled the room.
It was impossible to tell what was happening. All of the spells were nonverbal, and most did not manifest as jets of light, they simply affected the surroundings in a way that wasn't readily recognizable. The water in the Sea area started to slant, building up in the back like a sedated wave, and the ice island tilted until Professor Desulgon was leaning towards Roy at an angle that should have caused him to fall if he wasn't supporting himself with magic. There seemed to be a small sphere of light forming around Roy, which morphed itself into an odd, indistinguishable shape as he continued to prepare his defenses. Every once in a while, Professor Desulgon would unleash an attack. Roy's barriers seemed to be damaged whenever this happened, but Professor Desulgon also seemed to be knocked off-balance; Roy had employed Responsive Enhancements, which caused backlash to any of Professor Desulgon's attacks.
Then things started to get interesting. Professor Desulgon, apparently satisfied with the setup of his position, started on a clear attack. The water around him all turned to ice, and started flying like daggers into Roy's barriers. Professor Desulgon was enchanting the ice as it flew, and some of them broke through the defenses and came dangerously close to piercing Roy's body. Roy responded with attacking around Professor Desulgon's position, and destabilizing his opponent by wrecking his stance. Eventually, something he did triggered an avalanche, and Professor Desulgon, eyes wide, tumbled down the slope of ice he'd created and skidded to a halt near the bottom.
In response, Professor Desulgon leapt high into the air, creating a bright light at the ceiling. Now it was impossible to tell where he was hovering, because any time they looked up, they were blinded. The ice in Professor Desulgon's arena turned back to water, and then barreled forward in a gigantic wave, crashing into Roy's protective cage.
Roy had to zoom backwards on his cloud island and abandon most of his defenses. He cast several more, but it was too late: Professor Desulgon plummeted down from the ceiling and landed on the cloud.
They were four feet from each others' faces and still dueling hard. Eventually, Professor Desulgon started backing Roy up to the very edge of the cloud island, and Roy prepared to evacuate. As Professor Desulgon broke off from the duel and swept a leg under Roy's feet to try to knock him over physically, Roy leapt into the air and landed in the Land-themed area.
Now Professor Desulgon had his favorite area of Sky. He sailed around on the cloud island, commencing his attack. Roy clearly chose Land for its defenses, and his position was incredibly stable with just a few spells; the rocks around him built up like the walls of a fortress. But it looked to be over already. Professor Desulgon was zooming around at such a speed that it was hard to keep track of his flight path, firing spell after spell. A black ring started to form around the rock walls that Roy had produced, and after the ring seemed solid enough, Professor Desulgon waved his wand once and dove down the hole to escape the ensuing explosion.
Black flames rose from Professor Desulgon's ring and blasted into the center. Roy had many defenses already prepared, but the black ring had more powerful enchantments than his defenses; the rock walls shattered and rained down on Roy. The displaced duelist leapt into the air towards the Sea area, but a white band of light from Professor Desulgon's wand met him in his path. The white band wrapped around him until he resembled a mummy, and he splashed into the water. Professor Desulgon bounded off his cloud island and dove into the water, emerging with Roy's wand as Roy surfaced with a disappointed look on his face. There were also several cuts on his face. Dueling looked like an intense sport where it was not guaranteed you'd come out without a scratch.
Albus clapped loudly and earnestly with his friends, highly enthusiastic about the spectacle he'd just witnessed, as Professor Desulgon and Alfred Roy shook hands and then began healing their minor injuries. It was amazing how complicated it was to simply duel another person—position was all-important, infinitely more important than how well you could cast a Stunner.
"Did anyone pick up on why I chose the Sea as my starting location?" said Professor Desulgon.
Aidan raised his hand. Professor Desulgon called on him.
"You were always aiming to take the Sky area by force," said Aidan, "because it's your favorite position. And the Sea is the more offensive position, which let you attack."
"Righ'," said Roy. "And tha's why I focused on me defenses in the beginning more so'n me attacks. Didn' work, aye. Dalton has a knack for the attack."
"You probably could have avoided my physical intrusion by enacting more defenses based on the dodging capabilities of the Sky," lectured Professor Desulgon.
"Aye," sighed Roy, "you'd better git yourself a new dueling mate, mate. I'm not how I used to be, haven' been ever since me mum died two years ago."
"She was his dueling instructor," said Professor Desulgon sadly to the four friends. "They were both magnificent duelists—you're still a magnificent duelist, Al, you've just got to believe in yourself. What would she say to you if she saw you quit?"
Roy stroked his chin, where a little bit of stubble had formed. "She'd whap me hard in me bum wit' a sledgehammer."
Alec twitched with suppressed laughter.
Professor Desulgon grinned widely and nodded. "That's Megara Roy for ya. Poor woman. She taught your father in the Auror Office, Albus, did you know that?"
"No," said Albus, smiling. "Did she ever hit him in the bum with a sledgehammer?"
"You'll have to ask him that for me," said Roy.
"All right, enough small talk," said Professor Desulgon. "These boys have a final to take." He held up the coin. "Who wants to go first?"
"We're—going to duel?" said Aidan. "On that?"
He pointed to the wrecked dueling arena.
"I'll fix that," said Professor Desulgon. "Who wants to go first? You're each going to duel each other once, and you're all going to take one turn on each of the areas, Land, Sea, and Sky, so it doesn't really matter who goes first."
"I'll go," said Aidan and Alec simultaneously. They glanced at each other and grinned.
The duels were a lot like the ones played in the Dueling Tournament, except that everyone was a lot more cautious on the uneven terrain. Nobody could move the floating cloud island because no one knew the proper spell, and only Alec could really do anything with the water—he made a nice move by freezing it using Kalazkos and shot an icicle at Aidan that knocked the wand right out of his hand while he tried to block it.
Alec went undefeated again. Albus only lost to Alec. Aidan and Eftan's match was deemed a tie when they both used the Full-Body Bind on each other at the exact same moment, resulting in a lot of hilarity. Professor Desulgon gave them a small bit of a Transfiguration final that, from what Albus had heard from Exo, was roughly the same as he'd given the class during the actual examination, and then patted them all on the back and wished them good luck in their applications to the A.R.M. program.
It was a week before exam grades came out. When they did, during the end-of-term feast on Friday, the day before they left, there was an extra envelope for anyone who had applied to take the Alternative Routes to Magic courses.
Albus tore the envelope open with sweaty hands and quickly scanned the letter, and when he saw the word Congratulations, he jumped into the air and pumped a fist.
"Albus!" called Alec from the Ravenclaw table, waving his letter in the air. "I got in! I got in!"
"Me, too!" said Albus; over at the Slytherin and Hufflepuff tables, he could see Eftan and Aidan celebrating as well.
He read over his letter in full.
Albus Severus Potter,
Congratulations—your application to the Alternative Routes to Magic (A.R.M.) program at Hogwarts has been approved. You will start at the beginning of the first term of your third year and continue until your graduation. If you have any questions, please direct them to Professor Wilcox, or to Jackie Glinrow, director of curricula. Thank you for your interest in the program.
Helio Wilcox, Headmaster
Neville Longbottom, Deputy Headmaster
Yohn Dixon, Professor of Diwand Spells
Jeffrey Skower, Professor of Wandless Magic
Flower Pratley, Professor of Alternative Artifact Magic
Laney Norton, Professor of Modern Magical Instruments
"I'm gonna have a professor named 'Flower?'" said Albus, laughing.
Exo was looking over the same letter—he'd been accepted into the program, too. "We already have a professor named 'Paragost,'" he said. "And just look at my family's names."
"What's your middle name, Exo?" asked Albus, suddenly realizing that he didn't know. "Do you have one?"
"What?" said Albus, trying not to sound like he was making fun of his friend. "Come on, it can't be that bad. Your first name is cool enough to make up for it."
"It's… Shawn," said Exo, looking sick.
Albus blinked. "That's a normal name."
"It's from my mom, her name was Shawna," said Exo. "I… don't like being named after my mom, since she kind of killed a lot of innocent people."
Rose was squealing with joy in the corner—she'd finally opened her letter. For a while, Albus had seen her cowering in fear of her letter, even though she was probably the biggest shoe-in to the program of their year, along with Aidan. He never understood why she was so nervous about grades, and probably never would.
"Students!" announced Wilcox, and the tables slowly fell silent. He cleared his throat and smoothed his robes, and then addressed them all.
"It is the end of another year. Another highly successful year! We have all done well, but some of us have done extraordinary things, and we will recognize those people now.
"This year, we implemented the Pre-O.W.L. and the Pre-N.E.W.T. tests for fourth year students and sixth year students, in order to prepare students for what they would see in the actual tests. They were taken just before the Easter holidays, and the results have been returned. We'd like to recognize the students who scored in the top one percent of the country. Please hold your applause until I have finished naming all students in both the Pre-O.W.L.s and Pre-N.E.W.T.s.
"In the top one percent of the country we had the following students: In the Herbology Pre-O.W.L., Augustus Longbottom of Gryffindor."
Albus glanced down the table to see James excitedly patting Professor Longbottom's son on the back and struggling not to cheer yet. They were in the same year and were fairly good friends.
"In the Defense Against the Dark Arts Pre-O.W.L., Spencer Greengrass of Ravenclaw. In the Ancient Runes Pre-O.W.L., Nyla Pryor of Ravenclaw. And in the Transfiguration Pre-N.E.W.T., Rona Kendrace. The top one percent of the country! What an achievement! Give them all a round of applause, everybody!"
Professor Desulgon was clapping emphatically and beaming at a nerdy-looking sixth year girl from Ravenclaw, who tossed back her hair and smiled smugly as her friends congratulated her. A boy who looked like the Greengrass triplets from Albus's year was congratulating a gorgeous Ravenclaw fourth year as she congratulated him. Albus hoped he'd get honored like this in his fourth and sixth years, and he set a new goal for himself to get in the top one percent of one of his Pre-O.W.L.s or Pre-N.E.W.T.s.
"Also," said Wilcox as the applause died down, "I would like to congratulate our first ever students to enroll in the historic new Alternative Routes to Magic program at Hogwarts. There were exactly twenty-four students to make the cut. Those students are, by house:
"From Gryffindor: Palila Bell, Albus Potter, Rose Weasley, and Exorian Wilcox!"
There was a smattering of applause, which was uncomfortable when Albus noticed he was surrounded by friends like Jonah who looked miffed about not making the cut.
"From Hufflepuff: Aidan Finch-Fletchley, Mia Moon, Juniper Smith, Skye Summers, and Allen Tibbett!"
More applause, and Aidan looked highly pleased. He glanced over at Rose and their gaze met in a challenging glare: Who was going to do better in the new program?
"From Ravenclaw: Kelly Aldrice, Dinah Bohr, Gadley Frasier, Holly Glissendale, Archie Greengrass, Ashton Greengrass, Sebastian Greengrass, Ilia Kaska, Lacy Leigh, and Alec McKinnon!"
Obviously the most would be from Ravenclaw. Albus nodded and clapped for his friends.
"And from Slytherin: Sylvester Alamandrine, Eftan Griffiths, Scorpius Malfoy, Abigail Quinn, and Jasmine Zabini!"
Albus had made friends with some pretty smart people. He hoped he could make more friends during next years' A.R.M. courses. It would be awesome if he could make friends with Scorpius Malfoy, though he knew that was a long shot. He hoped Scorpius wasn't in on bullying Eftan… but, if he knew Scorpius (and he didn't really but he could guess), Scorpius was the type of person who stayed in the shadows; he probably didn't care what Eftan was so long as Eftan left him alone.
"And finally, the House Cup needs awarding!" said Professor Wilcox. "The point totals would appear to be as such: In last place, Hufflepuff, with three hundred and eighty-eight points. In third place, Ravenclaw with four hundred and five points. In second place, Gryffindor with four hundred and thirty-two points. And in first place, we have Slytherin with four hundred and sixty-two points!"
The cheers were tremendous from the Slytherin table, and the Hufflepuffs looked glum, having gone from first to last since Euan Yodelhop left.
"Slytherin House wins the House Cup! Congratulations, congratulations. But… before we go, I have one final announcement to make. In regards to the noise that came from under the castle earlier this month."
All cheers and conversation stopped.
"The announcement is: please stop asking me questions," said Wilcox, looking tired. "I have no clue what happened."
There was some appreciative laughter, but the rest of the school was collectively worried that not even their headmaster knew what had happened.
"The most likely explanation is that rock is shifting in the chambers under the castle, and the groaning was the walls moving—do not worry, the castle is magically supported. However, I assure you that if there ever is cause for concern, we will take immediate care of those concerns. Have a safe summer, all, and we hope to see eighty-five point seven percent of you returning next year."
"That year went by quicker than last," said Alec, stretching his arms as they walked into the rain to meet the carriages which would take them to Hogsmeade Station.
"I thought it went slower," said Eftan.
"I think that the unit of 'year' is exactly the same length of time no matter what year they happen to be," reported Aidan.
They all looked at Albus.
"I didn't really notice," said Albus honestly.
"We'll see about next year," said Aidan.
"I don't know about you guys, but I am dying to start Body-Binding people with two wands at a time," said Alec happily.
"Albus, are you okay?" said Eftan.
Albus stopped in front of the carriages, his mouth hanging open, the cogs in his brain clicking in realization. This was what he saw in the forest with James.
"Thestrals," he whispered.
The large and skeletal winged horse was standing in front of the closest carriage. Through the downpour, he could see one in front of every carriage. He understood why James had gawked at them in the beginning of the year.
Professor Glinrow's words drifted back to him, slowly.
"Staring at them for too long can force you to relive the death in your dreams the next night, so I suggest that you don't do that…"
He didn't need any more nightmares about the bloody scene at the festival, that was for sure. He tore his eyes away and climbed into a carriage with Eftan and Aidan.
"Where's Alec?" he asked, looking around.
"He saw Mia and practically Apparated to her," chuckled Aidan.
The vacancy in their carriage did not last for long. Holly bounded into the cart and leaned her wet head on Albus's shoulder. He shivered, though it was very warm, and placed his hand on hers as they started to move, and he smiled.
The ride back to King's Cross was smooth and peaceful through the rain. Albus, Alec, Aidan, and Eftan were joined by Holly, Mia, Exo, and Sylvester in their compartment. There was only occasional conversation.
"So, what do you guys think that noise under the castle was?" asked Sylvester.
"I'd go with Professor Wilcox," said Aidan. "Probably just the walls creaking. It was in the middle of the night and nobody knew what they were hearing, really."
Sylvester narrowed his eyes at Aidan, who narrowed his back. The tension was strange. Everybody else in the group liked each other fine, but Sylvester just didn't like Aidan and the feeling seemed to be mutual.
Mia broke the edgy silence first. "So, Albus," she asked. "Are you and Holly a thing yet?"
Unfortunately, this replaced the tension with awkwardness.
"Er, what?" said Albus, the back of his neck beginning to itch terribly.
"Are you guys a thing?" she asked. "Are you dating?"
Aidan seemed to be even more agitated than before at this remark.
"I… I don't know," said Albus.
Holly shrugged. "Maybe," she said breathily.
"Have you kissed?" asked Mia.
"All right, that's it!" exploded Aidan, standing up in the compartment and shifting to catch his balance as the compartment rocked. "You stop that right now!"
No one else spoke.
"Are you going to stop?" asked Aidan, glaring at Mia.
"S-Stop what?" stuttered Mia.
"This whole charade!" shouted Aidan. "You really have to stop, you're going to hurt someone!"
Mia was as confused as everyone else; this was obvious.
"You're picking and prying where you shouldn't be. Albus's business is his business, so stop stirring up trouble with him and Holly just because you like him!"
Mia gasped, and Albus flushed a deeper scarlet than the Hogwarts Express. Alec mouthed something but was unable to vocalize it as he turned to look at Mia, crushed.
"I do not!" defended Mia. "Anymore!" she added.
"I've heard you plotting with all your little Hufflepuff girl friends!" scoffed Aidan. "'How do I get Albus Potter to notice me, especially while he's hanging around with Holly? I know, I'll date his friend, and then he'll be jealous!' I'm sick of seeing Alec so obsessed with you when you're only using him to get on Albus's nerves, it's just evil, so stop it and leave us all alone!"
"I like Alec!" cried Mia. "I always have, and you're talking nonsense!"
"I've heard your friends talking more than once about how you're just using him!"
"They're wrong!" yelled Mia.
"You manipulating liar!"
Then Mia grabbed the front of Alec's shirt and pulled him in to a hard kiss on the mouth.
It lasted for ten awkward seconds. Evidently neither of them had kissed before. Mia relaxed as it went on, and Alec appeared to melt in happiness.
Then Mia slowly pulled away, shot Aidan a death glare, and stormed out of the compartment.
"Mia!" shouted Alec, dashing out of the compartment. "I—Can—can we—can we do that again?" He disappeared after her.
Aidan was holding a hand over his mouth.
"Oh, Merlin," he said, tearing up. "I… Dani and Junie said… And then Skye told me… And Callie told me that Em said… Oh, Merlin, I screwed up."
"Pretty bad, too," said Sylvester contentedly.
Aidan burst out of the compartment looking close to tears.
Holly grimaced at Albus. "Er, I'm going to go try to smooth things over," she said, lifting herself from the seat and walking out the door.
There were four of them left in the compartment—just Albus, Eftan, Exo, and Sylvester—and no one rejoined them. Eventually the train pulled into the station, and Albus, not very pleased with the fact that those were the terms on which Alec and Aidan were leaving each other for the summer, had to just hope that things would die down over the break… He'd write to both of them and check up in a week or two.
He climbed out of the Hogwarts Express, finding his parents quickly in the crowd and picking up Gimmick and his trunk. They passed back through the barrier and hurried through the crowd of watching Muggles until they reached the car, magically enchanted with an expanded trunk with the permission of the Ministry. Then, while Lily told them a thousand times that it was only a few months until she attended Hogwarts for her first year, they began the long drive back to their home in Furlong's Notch.
The rain slowed until it was a drizzle. Albus leaned his head sleepily against the window; the thin clouds revealed that the sun was almost ready to set.
"So, kids," said Harry. "I'm going to try to be home as much as I can this summer, but unfortunately, that may not be very much."
"Are you closing in on those organized violence groups?" asked James; Albus knew he was recalling the letter that their father sent explaining why they would have to stay at the castle for the Easter break.
"Yes," said Harry. "We know their name, now, too. They're calling themselves the Sandbloods."
"Sandbloods?" snorted James.
"We think it's a play on the slur 'Mudblood,'" said Harry. "This is a gang of organized Squibs, arming themselves with Muggle technologies. I think they have to have some wizards who are sympathetic to their cause, though, because some of the havoc they've been wreaking… and how they could possibly be defeating Obliviators and Aurors in duels, I have no idea… anyway, what was I saying? The Squibs are angry that they've been treated as sort of a second class. Kind of like our situation with the werewolves when I was in school. They think people see them as worse than Muggles, because Muggles weren't supposed to be magical. Trouble is, some people do act this way towards Squibs."
"There was that Thaddeus Thirkell guy who turned all seven of his Squib sons into hedgehogs," piped James.
"Yes, but that was in the 1600s or something," said Harry. Only the back of his head was showing, but Albus was sure he was rolling his eyes. "Right now, the Squibs are determined to… You know, I don't even know what they're trying to do. Make wizards respect them? We think some of them are literally after world domination, or even the eradication of magic, maybe due to jealousy. These are just thoughts, though. We still don't have a ton of information on them. We think that they call themselves the Sandbloods because they're like Mudbloods—don't ever use that word, you two—except that instead of having dirty blood, their blood has 'dried up.' The magic in their blood has dried up and gone. Hence, Sandblood."
"Ah," said Albus.
"Auchland doesn't seem to think they're a threat," said Harry, shaking his head. "But Auchland doesn't think anything is a threat. Except us, now that we've petitioned for his dismissal."
"Is that going to happen?" asked Ginny excitedly.
"I think so. But maybe not now. If he doesn't prove himself soon, he's out of the picture, though."
"Finally," huffed Ginny. "How did you do it?"
"We got the papers on our side by stating some of the facts," said Harry. "Ron was brilliant in using Rita Skeeter to spread the word that Auchland is clearly being an ineffectual leader at this time. And Alana Falagair gave a long interview with her just yesterday on exactly how much everyone hates his guts. This time, when you see that Skeeter interview, it's probably not even going to be exaggerated… Alana really roasted him, there's no way for even Skeeter to take those hyperboles any further."
"How good an Auror is Alana Falagair, anyway?" asked Ginny.
"Alana? She's one of the best," said Harry.
His wife seemed very put out by this news.
"Where was she during the Dark Revival?"
"Too young, I think," said Harry. "Nineteen at the time. And I know Adelina Nelson was younger, but she was an absolute prodigy. Alana was better suited to stay at the Ministry and help with the Potionmaking; she was always a fantastic potioneer. Now she's an excellent duelist, too, and quick as a whip when the situation mandates it. She's not the brightest, but she has great… spell smarts, if you know what I mean by that. Very valuable asset. Why?"
"She just seems so ditzy," said Ginny. "And…" She breathed deeply. "And I don't like the way she looks at you."
Harry was taken aback.
"Oh—oh. Well—don't worry about that, now. She's really not that bad once you get to know her."
"I'm sure you know her very well," said Ginny stiffly.
The noises from the car were the only reasons that it wasn't dead silent.
"A—Anyway, as I was saying," continued Harry, "we think that the Sandbloods might very well be behind the disappearances at the Ministry. Possibly even breeding the mulunctapoli, if they are indeed being bred. Which makes for some very unsettling theories over at the office."
"Like what?" asked James.
"Like that the Sandbloods are using mulunctapoli to drain wizards of their magic and turn them into Squibs themselves," said Harry darkly. "And then also possibly using the Marionette's Medicine to control their minds and turn them into servants. Their eventual plan could just be to drain every wizard of magic."
"It is incredibly fortunate that you found Dizzy wandering around Hogwarts, Al. You have no idea how far in the dark we would be if you hadn't—"
Harry cut himself off.
Albus stared at his father, waiting for him to finish, and then Harry's head suddenly ducked to the side as the rear and front windows shattered.
Lily screamed. Harry jerked the wheel when he dove, and the car spun out onto the sidewalk before he was able to correct himself; he swerved and tore down a side street.
"WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" shrieked Ginny, extracting her wand and looking backwards.
"Gunshot," grunted Harry, wide-eyed. "We're taking fire—I had my Supersensory Charm on to avoid looking in the wing mirrors, but it alerted me to someone—and they're still behind us—on motorcycles—god they're using powerful weapons, these windows are supposed to be—"
Another gunshot interrupted Harry as he ducked again. He pulled a lever that was fastened near the glove compartment, and slammed his foot on the gas. He pushed hard on the steering wheel, shoving it in towards the dashboard, and slammed his left fist on a button on the dashboard. The car bucked and then leapt into the air and zoomed hundreds of feet above the ground in seconds.
"They're on thestrals too!" choked James, looking back.
Albus glanced out the windowless rear of the car. There were two thestrals and four men—two on each thestral on makeshift saddles—the two in the front seemed to be steering, and the two in the back were holding long metal objects that Albus knew to be powerful Muggle weapons.
A burst of flame came from the closer thestral, and suddenly a metal rocket was flying directly at them.
Harry pulled the wheel hard to his chest and turned; they dove, spiraling towards the ground rapidly as all three kids screamed, and then he pulled up again; the rocket followed them, narrowly missing a building on its way down, but turned back upwards to pursue them through the sky again.
Ginny slammed a foot on her door, smashing it open, and nimbly leapt from the car with her hands gripped on the roof, spinning and contorting her body upwards and landing ninja-like on the roof of the car. "Reducto!" she cried, and Albus watched a jet of light fly from the top of the car to intercept the rocket, which exploded on contact in a shower of flame.
"One coming towards us from the ground!" howled Harry as he adjusted the wing mirror to face upwards so that he could see his wife; she didn't seem to hear him.
Albus watched in the mirror as Ginny pointed her wand at her feet. "Concretus!" she thundered, and her feet fastened themselves to the roof of the car so she wouldn't fall. "Feel free to spin, honey, just tell me when you're doing it!" she called. "Expelliarmus!"
The thestral at which she aimed took notice of her attack and dove, then slowly climbed back up; it looked like they were gaining.
"ONE COMING FROM THE GROUND!" roared Harry.
Ginny pointed her wand downward, but it was too late. The rocket had come from one of the motorcyclists below. A trail of smoke ended with a bang as the rocket smashed into the right side of the car and exploded.
Harry's nonverbal Shield Charm was just in time to prevent the flames from consuming Albus or destroying the entire car. When the Shield Charm faded, though, there was no floor to support Albus; he toppled from the car and only managed to prevent the long fall to the ground below by snatching the seatbelt.
"ALBUS!" bellowed Harry. "Diffindo!" He slashed his seatbelt rather than take it off. He blasted the driver's seat out of the car to make room, then heaved himself outside and grabbed Albus's arm. He tugged Albus up, tossing him into the passenger's seat as he hauled himself up next to his wife. "James, take the wheel!"
"WHAT?" bawled James, looking at the driver's seat in panic as the car began to lose speed.
"James, take the wheel!" shouted Ginny.
"I CAN'T DRIVE!"
"You're almost seventeen!"
"TAKE THE WHEEL, GODDAMNIT!"
James took the wheel, and pulled himself forward into the driver's position, except that there was no seat. He glanced backwards to see a thestral coming at him from the side and turned away from it; Harry and Ginny wobbled before catching their balance and slashing spells at the thestrals to back them off. Albus hugged Lily, who was wailing in terror, and tried to calm her down.
"HOW DO I EVEN STEER IN THE AIR?" shouted James.
"PUSH THE WHEEL FORWARD TO ELEVATE!" came Harry's voice in reply. "PULL IT TOWARDS YOU TO DIVE!"
"JAMES!" screamed Ginny. "WATCH OUT FOR THAT MOUNTAIN!"
"I SEE IT, MUM!" yelled James back up to her. "I SEE IT, IT'S A BLOODY MOUNTAIN, IT'S LIKE HALF A MILE HIGH, HOW THE HELL COULD I NOT SEE THIS BLOODY MOUNTAIN!"
"DON'T YOU GET FLIP WITH ME!"
"STOP ANTAGONIZING ME WHEN I'M TRYING TO SAVE ALL OUR LIVES!"
"YOU SWERVE THIS FLYING CAR AWAY FROM THAT MOUNTAIN THIS INSTANT OR YOU ARE GROUNDED!"
"FOCUS ON THE DAMNED CAR!" exploded Albus as Harry and Ginny sent twin jets spiraling after one of the thestrals; the riders both fell off, plummeting towards the ground until they opened parachutes and drifted gently.
Harry shot two spells, one for each of the falling men, and they were instantly wrapped in ropes that snaked around their bodies and parachutes; they dropped like stones the rest of the fifty feet onto the roofs of buildings and were motionless. He and Ginny teamed up to take on the other thestral, and, seemingly aware that they were defeated, the thestral bucked and turned the other way.
A shot rang out from below—the thestral cried out in terror and then its wings crumpled. It plunged from the air, dislodging its two riders who also opened parachutes. Albus glanced down to see flashing police lights and a police helicopter coming their way, and he half laughed, half sobbed in relief.
"DON'T TRUST THE HELICOPTER!" Harry thundered. "WE DON'T KNOW WHERE THEIR ALLIANCE LIES. GET US BACK TO HOME, THERE'S AN ENCHANTMENT THERE!"
"I DON'T KNOW HOW TO GET HOME, AND ESPECIALLY NOT FROM THE FREAKING AIR!" James burst out.
"ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, I'LL TAKE THE WHEEL!"
But before Harry could detach himself from the top of the car, another gunshot hit the car. Another struck after that, and a third, and then something happened inside the car and it exploded.
A searing pain streaking across Albus's eye, he fell freely through the air until Ginny shouted "BOLSTRA!" and he felt as if he'd hit a cushion before he dropped to the ground.
"STUPEFY!" roared Harry, but the man who was hurdling towards them bounded out of the path of the spell and whipped out two handguns.
"EXPELLIARMUS!" shouted Ginny; both handguns flew out of his hands. He unhooked a larger gun.
"IMPEDIMENTA!" yelled Harry.
Their pursuer slammed to a halt as Ginny cried out, "MANCESSO!"
The man's hands snapped out straight on either side of his body and his head flew backwards. His feet struggled as he was lifted up into the air as Ginny kept her wand pointed towards him.
"Who sent you?" she snarled. "Tell us!"
"B-Beware," he uttered shakily.
For a moment as Albus scrambled to his feet to get a better look, he thought that the man was stammering out of fear, but he realized that the man was actually laughing as he finished.
"B-Beware the S-Sandblood Rising."
"The Sandblood Rising?" growled Harry suspiciously. "What on Earth are you talking about? Is this some form of organized attack—WHAT—"
The man was now convulsing violently. His arms, bound by the spell, were still, but his entire body was twitching and writhing as if in pain.
"What are you doing to him?" demanded Harry tremulously as he turned to his wife.
She looked just as terrified as her husband. "I'm not doing anything!" she clamored.
The man went limp and was completely still.
"He's faking," said Ginny nervously. "He wants me to stop."
"Homenum Revelio," said Harry quietly.
There was no effect.
"Merlin's balls, he's dead," said Harry, pulling back his hair, eyes wide.
"How?" asked Ginny, trembling. "I swear, I did nothing to him other than hoist him up in the air!"
Harry shook his head. "I don't know. But I think it was a suicide… after being caught. So that he wouldn't be incarcerated."
"Why would anyone do that?" choked Ginny, horrified.
"If someone was controlling their minds to do it, they'd do it without question," stated Harry ominously. "But… remember, some people simply… don't pay death any mind. For some people, death is just… just the next great adventure."
People were advancing to get a look, but most of them shrieked and ran off when they saw the witch and wizard with their wands out, staring at a corpse.
Harry placed his hand over his mouth and eyed their surroundings, checking for assassins in the shadows. He was breathing shallowly and rapidly.
"I'm not going to leave you alone this summer," he declared to all of them, turning around to look at his kids. "If I can't be there myself, I'll get Dedalus, or Hestia, or another retired old friend to stay with you guys, to keep you all safe."
He swallowed shakily and glanced at his wife, whose eyes were glistening.
He walked to her and placed both hands on her shoulders.
"Listen, honey," he said soothingly. "I may not be able to stick around but I'll get someone to be with you to protect all of you. Someone we know we can trust. But I want you to know that I would never leave you at all if I didn't feel like I had to. This, what almost just happened to our family? It's going to happen to other families. But if I can help it, I'm going to help it."
"I know you have a saving-people thing," said Ginny, smiling through tears that were welling up. "And I know you know that I love you, and I always will." She drew herself up to her full height and nodded. "Do what you have to do."
Harry nodded back, and gestured to the three kids to come close. Albus and James helped Lily up. A trickle of blood dripped down over Albus's eye and he closed it, hoping that the wound from which it originated wasn't too bad… and hoping that this was the last wound he'd receive.
They walked to their father and each gripped him on the arm. Harry and Ginny turned together on the spot. They vanished, headed for home… and, although they didn't know it, headed for the next great adventure.
Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading! If you haven't reviewed yet on this story, let this be the chapter on which you review. Let me know what parts of the book you didn't like as much, so I can write improve on it, and which parts were your favorites, so I can write more like that.
Stay tuned: next week brings the first chapter of Book 3, Albus Potter and the Sandblood Rising.