I've wanted to get to this for a long while.
Harry Potter: The Last Avatar
Book 1: Water
Chapter 15: Charlie
The castle at night was like an old friend, welcoming him home. There was always a shadowy nook or hidden escape route at hand but as he made his way down, floor by floor, he found that none of his tricks were needed. He arrived at the History classroom without even getting to avoid Filch and he didn't use the secret passage to get in - Binns never locked his door unless it was from the inside, to keep students from fleeing.
In their first year, Professor Binns had made them act out several famous scenes from history, first as the students imagined them and then as how they'd 'actually probably happened'. All these theatrics were done in costume, 'to get a feel for the time', and for the first time Harry was now glad that he'd suffered through that whole embarrassing semester. Because he knew that the weapons and masks and maps that faced the class were only a portion of Binns' treasures.
Rummaging through a chest in the overstuffed storeroom, Harry found an outfit of dark grey cloth, one that was completely nondescript and wouldn't get in the way. He changed quickly and stuffed his regular shirt and trousers deep into chest. The whole room was such a mess, its narrow shelves piled with props and clothes every which way, that an extra school uniform wouldn't mean anything to anyone.
The hood could be pulled tight, hiding most of his face, and he fiddled with it for a bit, making sure the goggles stayed in position, before going back into the classroom and looking up at the wall for the final piece. He'd been going to take the white one... It had seemed appropriate, somehow. But it reflected the moonlight like a marble mirror, so when he ran up the wall, taking care not to make a sound, he grabbed the blue mask instead.
If the castle was an old friend then the forest was an enemy that had been biding its time. Every step was a potential misstep, as the ground was covered with a carpet of dry leaves that would happily rustle under his feet if he let them. His feet were bare and half-frozen, and they stung with every step, but it was worth it for the silence.
No firebender had fantastic night-vision and Harry was glad for the moon, round and bright overhead, casting a webwork of white light through the branches above. He remembered being afraid in the forest and was almost taken aback by how calm he still was. Everything looked different in the dark, but he wasn't jumping at shadows. With any luck, he would be the shadow.
Harry's perception shifted and a tangled bush became a dark figure, staring back at him with milky dead eyes. Leaping back and landing on his toes, his heart jumping right up into his throat, Harry just barely stopped himself from summoning a flame.
Okay, so maybe I'm not completely calm.
A shaky breath escaped his lungs as he realized what he was facing - it was the thin skeletal form of a Thestral; a small one, only the size of a large dog, with a solitary white marking on its forehead. It made no move towards him but didn't seem eager to let him pass. Harry moved to the side, attempting to circle around and give the animal a wide berth, but the creature moved, its hooves not disturbing a single leaf as it matched his movement, staying in his way as if on guard.
Harry froze in place. He hadn't said that. A branch cracked up ahead, way beyond the Thestral, and Harry slid in among the thick prickly branches of a pine tree. After a moment's intense listening he peered out just in time to see someone - a person - slip and come crashing down out of a tree. He stared as the figure muttered some curses and then shot back up, using the packed earth floor as a springboard and disappearing from view. Harry hadn't made out much but it had been a woman in Auror's armour, and obviously an earthbender.
And a damn clumsy one...
If Harry hadn't known she was there, he wouldn't see her in the branches, perched like a predator waiting to swoop down. It was as if she was waiting to catch someone in the act - and she would have, if it wasn't for the Thestral. The bony creature was gazing up at the tree. It was so dark and standing so still, blending right into the shadows, but when it turned its head back towards Harry, he saw white eyes shimmering in the moonlight, tinted green from the glass of his goggles.
I owe you one.
His going was slower now that he knew to move with extra care and attention. He spotted several other Aurors on hidden guard, and circled around deeper into the forest. Gradually all the small sounds of the woods disappeared, the chirping of crickets and hoots of owls giving way to an eerie silence, and minutes later the looming moonlit wall of the Dragon came into view.
When he crept closer, Harry found that a great many trees had been uprooted and burned away, opening up a field for the Dragon and its keepers. He crouched behind an oak-tree at the edge of the clearing, where he had a good view. The Dragon took up most of the space, lying curled in on itself with a wide strip of empty ground separating it from the campsite.
There were two figures in familiar orange robes sitting on logs by a fire. One of them was reading a newspaper. Harry spotted clanking devices secured to each of their belts. Behind them was a tent with a striped pattern of red and gold that made it look like something from the circus. It was big enough for a group to sleep comfortably inside, and the fabric looked to be some sort of plastic fibre rather than cloth. It had the Future Industries logo on the side.
Harry jumped, his eyes flying over to the Dragon. Silhouetted in crackling blue light, he could make out the shape of a man prodding at the Dragon with his staff. The Dragon shifted, a mechanical response to the assaulting electricity, but it did not struggle against its chains, taking the abuse without protest. Perhaps it was unconscious.
"Don't upset her! The forest is dry!"
The redheaded Dragon-keeper had emerged from the tent. He dropped the metal toolbox he'd been carrying and ran over to meet the man who had prodded the Dragon. Harry was unsurprised to see that it was the man with the black beard; the one who had insisted on tormenting the Dragon during the task.
"Peakes!" The redhead said, taking the electric staff from the bearded man's unresisting hands. "What was the point of that?"
"Just for old times' sake, Charlie," said Peakes, sounding quite pleased with this explanation. His beard was oiled and trimmed into place and he was perhaps a full ten years older than the redhead, as well as a fair bit larger. He did a good job of looming over the younger man.
"Go check on the Captain," said the redhead - Charlie - after a long moment.
"He asked not to be disturbed," Peaks pointed out, walking away and sitting down by the fire.
There was a tense silence. The man reading his newspaper slowly turned the page, making as little sound as possible.
"Yes," Charlie said, picking up his toolbox and settling himself down across from Peakes, the fire blazing between them. "He's not your boss, though. I am."
The campfire flared up with a crackle as Peakes bristled. "For now," he said, with a calm that sounded forced.
"What does that mean, exactly?" Charlie asked, his voice strangely conversational.
"Not much use for a Dragon-keeper when there's no bloody Dragon to be kept," Peaks pondered, sending a disgusted look towards the creature and its blackened, cracked scales. "Especially not an incompetent Dragon-keeper."
Charlie laughed. "I'm sorry, are we still talking about me?"
"Don't think the Captain's too keen on how you handled Potter. He's been in a right strop all day."
Harry tensed, straining his ears. Each breath bounced back at him behind the mask.
"Weren't you the first one," Charlie asked, "to get knocked on your arse? You really think that puts you up for promotion?" As if his red hair hadn't been enough of an indication, Charlie's mocking tone was painfully familiar.
So that's how Ron knew...
"All I know is," Peakes said, "you haven't got much of a future after this enterprise, boy."
"Oh, I see," Charlie said. "Then why don't you take this opportunity to explain to your dear Captain how it's all my fault that you're the only Dragon-keeper this century to be knocked out by a Dragon?"
"Yes, boss," Peakes said with a smirk. "I think I'll do that."
Harry watched as the man pulled a flame from the air and walked off along the path of fallen trees towards the Hogwarts grounds. Charlie, meanwhile, clicked open the toolbox and rummaged through it.
"You'd think we were rat-catchers or something," Charlie said, "the way they feed us." The other two laughed as Charlie pulled out something wrapped in plastic and fiddled with it, attempting to tear it open.
"Yeah," said one of his men, "and why should that prince get all the glory when we're the ones controlling it?"
"Fair's fair, Chan," said the man with the newspaper. "How about you go up against Krum and take that title from him?"
They all shared a laugh and the first man explained, with a grin, that he hadn't had quite that in mind. Charlie managed to open his packet and took a bite out of its contents; what looked like a dried fruit bar.
"I give up!" Charlie announced with a grimace. "Boys, if this is our last night we should go out with a bang. Or at least... Not with this." He let the dry mouthful fall out onto the ground, earning a chuckle. "How about you two sneak off to the night kitchen and get us something proper to eat? Knowing them you'll need two men to carry it all."
"Er, boss -" The one called Chan said, glancing back towards the unmoving Dragon.
"Don't worry," Charlie said, patting the clanker secured to his belt. "I won't lose this one."
"Hm," said the man who was now closing his newspaper. "But what about...?" And he nodded his head in the other direction, towards the school.
"You let me worry about Crouch," Charlie said, with some degree of bitterness. When they still seemed to hesitate he added: "Come on, I know you still know the way. One last time, for Gryffindor?"
Harry couldn't believe his luck but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He waited and watched as the two men exchanged a grin, and seconds later they were trudging off towards the castle, small flames held in their hands to light the way. Charlie stayed seated, gazing after them - not even looking towards the Dragon.
Harry took a deep breath and started moving along the edge of the clearing, towards the Dragon. He'd been trying to think of some way to knock Charlie out without making a sound but if his luck held he might sneak up and free the Dragon without ever being spotted. But then branches snapping on the ground made him whip his head back around, and he saw Charlie walking towards the Dragon.
Damn! What's he doing?
Charlie did not pick up the electric poker, and though his hand was on his clanker, he made no move to use it. He walked with slow, measured steps but didn't stop until he was ten feet from the Dragon's face; practically close enough for the creature to open its mouth and swallow him in one move! The Dragon did not shift or even open its eyes.
"It's me," Charlie announced, his voice hard and loud. He took another step but stopped when the Dragon finally gave half-hearted growl. Harry saw two bright orange spots appear as, slowly, lazily, the Dragon opened its eyes.
"Do you want to die?" Charlie demanded, and Harry wanted to ask him the same question as the redhead stepped up within arm's reach of the Dragon's closed mouth. The creature didn't seem about to attack though - it remained expressionless and apathetic. When Charlie spoke again he sounded much less sure, his words almost mumbled, and Harry could not be sure that he'd heard right.
"Why won't you speak to me?"
Charlie, who had been sagging slightly, suddenly stood up straight - as if he'd heard or sensed something - and so the smooth round stone that was meant for his head struck his neck instead. Charlie choked and stumbled, almost falling to the ground. One hand was at his throat and the other raised to defend himself as he spun around, but Harry's feet had already pushed off against the cold grass and he was sailing through the air.
They crashed together.
Pain shot up Harry's arms as they slammed into the ground and bounced. Harry's momentum drove them away from the Dragon but Charlie - damn him - turned Harry's attack into a roll, and after tumbling away across the clearing they flew apart, each one shooting to their feet and facing the other. Charlie had one hand clasped around his throat but he looked mostly uninjured and he was staring at Harry with a look of complete shock on his face. Not so strange, considering the monstrous grinning mask that Harry wore.
"I won't let you hurt her," Charlie said, and though he was entering a duelling stance it sounded less like a threat and more like a simple statement of fact.
Like you're not the one leading her to her death...
Harry's response was to open the small leather bag that he held. Only then did Charlie's hand fly to his empty belt, and Harry watched as a shudder ran through Charlie's body. Despite his earlier promise, Charlie had lost his clanker, and Harry stood between him and the campfire, where more could be found. And behind Charlie was...
Charlie's head swivelled around. It was a bad call, since the real danger was in front of him.
The Dragon was watching but it made no move, unlike Harry, who was gone by the time Charlie turned back, and who then flew into the Dragon-keeper from the side, hitting him over the head with the metal clanker. Charlie fell to the ground, and Harry rolled away into a crouch. He watched the redheaded man lie still for a moment before a sudden movement from the Dragon drew his eye.
A single sharp clank had escaped the device on impact, and the Dragon was shifting uncomfortably. Harry gently placed the clanker on the burned grass, wary of making any more noise. His gaze flitted over to the tent before he stood and approached the Dragon.
Its eyes were scrunched shut. Harry looked at the collar around its neck and followed the chain to where it was secured into the ground. It was a different, shorter but thicker chain than the one it had worn in the stadium. Harry picked the chain up with some effort, took a link in each hand and squeezed. The metal grew hotter and hotter under his touch and by the time it was glowing red, Harry was sweating all over. He twisted this way and that until the chain shifted and broke apart.
He dropped the broken chain to the ground, his arms throbbing from the effort as well as his short fight with Charlie. He looked up towards the Dragon, but though it was now unchained and unguarded, it only cowered, coiled in on itself. Harry hesitated, glancing over his shoulder at Charlie's fallen form and the empty field behind him.
Snatching a stone up from the ground, he tossed it at the Dragon's face, hard. Its eyes shot open and it bared its teeth in a low growl that sent vibrations through Harry's whole body. Harry had one second to wonder if he'd made a terrible mistake, and then the Dragon blinked. It sniffed the air and uncurled slightly, moving its giant head closer to Harry, cautiously sniffing the air as it went.
Harry kicked the broken chain at his feet and pointed up towards the sky, urging the creature to understand; to move. However, the Dragon wasn't even watching him - its eyes were on Charlie and it was moving towards the fallen man, head slithering along, the claws of its front feet tearing gashes into the ground as it went.
No! Leave him!
Harry jumped into the Dragon's path and held up his hands, his heart leaping into his throat as the Dragon struck like lightning. The giant jaws slammed shut mere feet away from Harry, who had conjured fire into his hands but not moved. The Dragon turned its head around and looked back, and Harry realized that it had moved outside the reach of its chain, and finally it seemed to notice that it was no longer bound. When the Dragon turned back, a sudden sharp pain shot through Harry's brain, each synapse screaming at him:
HIM I WOULD NEVER HURT
Harry stumbled and fell to his knees. He looked up at the Dragon through the holes in his mask, met the Dragon's gaze again, and it was with a thrill of victory that he saw intelligence there.
You nearly ate me...
IN THE DARK I FORGET, SHARD
There was more than just pain - images came along with the words; flashes of emotion and wild colours. Sadness, resignation, defeat... Seconds later it was all gone and Harry wasn't sure if he'd gotten the meaning right, even as the taste of it still echoed through him. He slowly got back to his feet and held the Dragon's eye, determined not to crumple if it should speak again.
You understand me?
The Dragon made no move and its huge face showed no expression at all.
I'm Harry Potter. What is your name?
Hesitation, then sadness and anger.
WE WERE TWO BUT WHICH WAS WHICH
Harry saw blue and red, spinning and interlocking with one another. His ears were ringing and his whole head felt like it was pulsating under the mask. He had no idea what the Dragon meant, but understanding was not as important as making it understand.
You need to go. I've set you free!
THERE IS NO FREEDOM, SHARD
And to Harry's annoyance, the Dragon settled itself down more comfortably, still meeting Harry's eye with its tired gaze, but obviously not intending to go anywhere.
Why can't you go? And why do you keep saying 'shard'?
WE ARE SHARDS OF A DEAD WORLD
Who? The Dragons?
Irritation and bitter amusement.
YOU AND I, HARRY POTTER
Harry felt like something cold was dripping down his spine; like malicious eyes were boring into his back. He looked over his shoulder and the camp was still empty but someone was sure to come back or emerge from the tent at any moment - he'd already had far more luck than he was comfortable with.
So you're not going? You're telling me you wouldn't want to burn the people that hurt you?
I'VE HAD MY BATTLES
Harry's mind felt jumbled, shaken about with every word, but he couldn't walk away and make all this meaningless.
You're the last Dragon - so what? That means you get to decide how all Dragons are remembered!
REMEMBERED BY HUMANS
These words pulled at a memory of being in an airship, his father lifting him up so he could look through the window down at the streets of Republic City, where all the little people milled about like ants. But instead of the wonder he'd felt in that airship, the memory twisted itself around into something derisive. It was clear that being remembered by humans did not count for much.
You don't need to go without a fight!
I AM THE LAST DRAGON
Those words could mean many things, but the meaning was made plain by the feeling that shot through Harry's brain like electricity. It meant that there was no point in going on. It wasn't an angry thought - it was resigned and calm - but it made something acidic bubble up in Harry's stomach; it stirred an anger and contempt that was all his own.
You're no Dragon.
Harry turned his back on the creature and walked away.
It seemed an awful long way back to his bed. He was angry and had to force himself to stay vigilant and careful, which only made him skittish and jumpy. Every leaf now seemed intent on crunching under his feet! Worst of all, he had not considered the lingering effects of speaking with the beast.
During the task he'd only had one word bounced around his skull, and yet it had formed a headache that only grew with time, still present as he suffered through the party that had formed in Gryffindor Tower. To his surprise, every single Gryffindor had seemed keen to raise a glass to him, despite the fact that he was in third place.
"You were face to face with that monster!" Fred - or possibly George - had said, one arm draped over Harry's shoulder "And you jumped at it!"
"That was Gryffindor," George - or possibly Fred - had said, slurring his words ever so slightly.
Harry might have enjoyed this turn of the tides if not for the pain and plans brewing inside his head. He'd stayed far away from the smuggled alcohol and after allowing Ron to 'introduce him around properly', Harry had made his excuses and waited in the dorm for the party to die down.
Now, after a whole long conversation with the monster, it felt as though his brain was sloshing against the inside of his skull every time he turned his head. The throbbing dulled his senses - it made every shadow seem to move, and...
That shadow had moved.
It was far off, and for a second Harry wasn't sure if it was human or animal but then it started running and Harry caught the glittering of an Auror's armour when it passed through a pool of moonlight. The sound of heavy footfalls coming closer was loud in the silent forest. Harry turned and ran, the pounding in his head intensifying along with the pounding of his heart. From behind came a flash of fire, but Harry was too far ahead for the Auror to have a hope of hitting his target. It was almost a comfort to know that his pursuer was a firebender - if his element had been air or earth he might have moved much quicker through the woods.
Harry jumped through a thicket and found himself suddenly on a wide path, with a big wooden outhouse standing just a few yards to his left. He'd taken a single step when he heard the sound of movement far to the right - someone coming quickly up the path. He should run deeper into the forest and circle around to shake the tail but there were more Aurors in that direction and he was already breathing heavily. His headache was almost blinding; not great conditions for a fight, even if he could have fought his way back to Gryffindor Tower with any hope of keeping his identity hidden. Turning on the spot with a sort of dull desperation, Harry's gaze fell on the little wooden house, and this time he recognized it.
He ran up to the door and pulled gently - it was locked. The sound of running footsteps coming ever closer spurred him on as he reached up and lifted the loose ceiling-tile on the left side of the shed. It was difficult in the dark but his hand remembered where to look and he grasped the iron key and unlocked the door as soundlessly as he could.
If Harry had thought it was dark in the forest, then the darkness of the shed was near complete, with only a narrow sliver of light cutting in through a crack in the door. Harry stepped to the side so he couldn't be seen through the crack and felt his way to the lock, sliding the key inside and twisting slowly, listening to the click of cogs sliding back into place. He pulled the key out and stepped closer to the door, listening.
The sound of boots, barely dulled by the door, came closer and closer until they finally stopped just a small distance away.
"Yes?" said someone, sharply.
"I saw him, sir," said someone who stood very close to the door. "But he ran, and I -"
"Tighten the net."
At this, the boots ran off again.
Harry stood still for a moment, unsure if anyone remained behind. Slowly, he moved to the crack in the door and peered outside. A man in the armour of a waterbending Auror, complete with capsules on the back, stood across the path, facing off into the woods. He was still, as if listening. A memory sprang up unbidden of another crack in a door; another sliver of light.
'I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.'
The man turned, and Harry got a good look at Crouch's face as he eyed the shed. Harry shifted away from the crack, but he didn't dare to back deeper into the darkness of the shed, lest his feet make a sound. Seconds later there was the crunch of boots crushing leaves, a sound that came closer and closer until the light slipping through the crack was blocked.
The door rattled for a second as Crouch tried the handle. Harry held his breath and silently cursed himself for hiding rather than running. When the silence resumed Harry was sure that the door would explode inwards in a shower of ice at any moment, but instead he heard a scratching of hands on wood, and a moment later he realized that Crouch must know the hiding place - he was searching for the key that was in Harry's hand!
You should strike now. He'll be reaching up and to the side, completely exposed. He's alone. You can take him.
Flames were dancing eagerly inside his fingertips but his fists were clenched tight, the key digging painfully into his flesh. His jaw hurt, teeth grinding together, and he did not move. He could not.
There was the sharp sound of a twig breaking and then the sound of clothes flapping as Crouch spun and moved. Harry slid back to the crack in the door and caught a flash of moonlight on ice. There was a crackle, a slash, and a horrible sound like an animal in pain.
It had been a wide attack - a diagonal line sliced right through the air - and branches were clattering to the ground all around a Thestral that lay panting, a deep cut in its side, dark blood glinting on black skin.
"Oh," Crouch said, sounding pleased. He walked off the path, down towards the dying creature.
The Thestral paid Crouch no mind - it hardly seemed aware of anything other than pain. Whenever Harry had seen Thestrals they'd stood as still and silent as statues, but this one twitched and panted wildly. Crouch clicked a capsule on his armour and pulled out a wisp of water, freezing it into the shape of a dagger and crouching down by the creature. Harry did not have a great view, peering first through his goggles, then through his mask, then through the crack in the door out into the moonlit forest, but...
But when Crouch sliced his blade along the Thestral's throat, the creature vanished. It was there, and then with the last twitch of its legs, it melted away, leaving only a surprised Crouch with dark stains of blood on his armour.
"Hm," said Crouch. He then stiffened, as though he felt eyes on his back, and his head snapped around - though not towards the shed. The Captain was looking at a much smaller Thestral that stood a little way away, wreathed in shadows. "Come on!" Crouch said, his voice high-pitched and cajoling. "I won't hurt you."
The small Thestral trotted a few slow steps towards Crouch. It then stopped and looked around. Was it searching for its mother?
Stupid, stupid animal...
"You're special, aren't you?" Crouch said, pleasantly.
The Captain stayed put but reached out his empty hand invitingly, hiding the knife behind his back. The Thestral took a few more tentative steps and Harry could make out a single white marking on its forehead... Then it was within arm's reach, and Crouch raised the knife.
Okay. Forget it.
Burning splinters exploded into the air all around Harry as he blasted through the door and then leapt - bounced - pounced! He breathed out and pushed the breath through his arm, sending it on in the form of fire to strike at Crouch. He held back, shooting only small fireballs until the bolting Thestral disappeared from view, but he still had the pleasure of seeing a look of utter panic flit across Crouch's face, well-lit by the flames that were flying towards him. Crouch threw the knife of ice but Harry batted it away and ran closer.
He evaded a water whip that lashed out too close to his mask, but he didn't stop his approach until he heard the hiss that the whip made as it missed and struck a tree only to bubble and melt away at the bark. He halted, a little wary, and instead of going into close range he called upon his inner reserves, on the anger that had been simmering in him for hours and days and months.
From his hands burst a wide wave of fire that would not be easily evaded, and Crouch's acid whip fell to the ground as he pulled water instead, to shield himself. There was a burst of vapours, which mixed with the smoke and obstructed the view. Harry squinted - he'd blinded away his night-vision but a few of his stray blasts had found fuel and were sparkling merrily, giving enough light to see by.
Harry was sure that Crouch would fly at him from the shadows in some brilliant manoeuvre, but when the Captain appeared it was as a misty figure, breathing heavily and holding a defensive stance, still standing where he'd been. He looked perfectly unhurt, but he had no liquid left in his capsules now, and Charlie had been right - the forest was dry. Crouch was watching him with wide gleaming eyes, not exactly afraid, but with very little of his usual swagger.
The pulsing pain in Harry's brain was very great now but it was as distant as any other wound in battle, blotted out by adrenalin and excitement. Other Aurors would be swarming closer, drawn in like moths to the light. He ought to run, but he did not much want to turn his back on Crouch again and leave the job unfinished.
I can still do some good tonight.
Harry sped forward, flinging fresh flames as he went. Crouch raised his arms, as though he were raising another shield, except there was no water to be had, and then...
Harry's back slammed against the trunk of a tree. He only knew it to be a tree because the collision shook loose the last few persistent leaves, and they danced alone down towards the ground, past Harry's view. His back hurt from striking the tree, but that was nothing at all to the pain that followed.
"Well!" Crouch said, sounding surprised, delighted and thrilled. "You just won me a bet!"
A fist was closed tight around Harry's heart. Every inch of him was being squeezed by some invisible, painful force. His feet brushed against leaves as he slid away from the tree but then there were no more leaves, only air, and Harry realized with a jolt that he was being lifted into the air. Crouch wasn't bending any water - he was somehow bending Harry.
"Let's see now..." Crouch murmured to himself as he raised a hand, and to Harry's horror he felt his own arm move, directed by Crouch like a puppet. Harry's left hand reached up towards his face - towards his mask.
Rage and defiance pumped through him and he tried to struggle, tried to make the fire come - tried to do anything at all. The pain intensified but the progress of his hand did not halt for a moment and a sick feeling that had nothing to do with the pain spread through Harry. Defiance turned to despair as his own traitorous fingers latched onto the mask and pulled...
Red! Green! Orange! Purple!
A rainbow touched down and the world exploded with a golden, blinding light.
The agonizing squeeze was gone, immediately replaced by the pain of striking the ground. The fire he'd been pressing for erupted enormously and he struck out towards Crouch even as he tumbled and rolled. Righting his mask - which had not come off - he squinted at the burning forest all around and found the figure of Crouch, who was again raising his hands towards Harry.
There was a flash of wings and scales and Captain Crouch flew, tossed away through the forest like a discarded doll.
I AM STILL A DRAGON!
Where the words had been deafening before, now they shook the whole world like an earthquake. Harry looked up, having fallen to his knees. The Dragon looked furious - glorious - a true myth made flesh, the forest ablaze all around it, trees crashing and snapping like twigs as it moved. The roaring flames were shifting colours, fading into a regular flickering orange, but they still reflected off red scales, and the Dragon shone like the sun. Despite the pain, Harry was grinning behind his mask.
I can see that now!
I NEED NOT BE HIS MONSTER
Harry clutched at his head and wished that the Dragon would speak no more. He looked in the direction Crouch had fallen, but even though it was nearly as bright as day he could not spot the Captain. There was, however, movement further away in the woods; many figures coming closer.
It's time I ran! You should go too!
The word was echoed thoughtfully, and then there was an explosion of something giddy - a misplaced joy that bubbled in Harry's chest.
MY NAME IS RAN
Over the sound of burning Harry could hear a frantic clacking, like a dozen clankers all rattling at once. He looked up worriedly but Ran only reared up on his haunches, his head extending far above the trees, and roared, a sound that shook the forest and easily drowned the noise of the little metal toys.
Harry could delay no further - he split apart the flames and sprinted off through the woods, wondering how on earth he was going to make it all the way to his bed without being spotted. The fire behind him lit his way as he leapt through the underbrush, leaves crunching underneath his feet. He wished that Ran would take his advice and go - even if the Dragon left this instant, the fire was still likely to spread disastrously through the woods.
It will be some distraction, at least...
If people were rushing to help he might reach one of the lesser known backdoors unaccounted. He was near the edge of the forest, with the stadium directly to his left and the castle up ahead, when his luck ran out and he very nearly ran into someone. It was not a Dragon-keeper, though, and it wasn't an Auror either.
It was Fleur Delacour.
She'd already spotted him - he stood at the top of a slope that she'd been creeping up. She wore clothes that looked like they'd been selected for staying hidden, just like his. They stared at one another and for a second she looked very alarmed. Harry realized what he must look like; robes trailing smoke, wearing the face of a grinning blue spirit with the forest burning behind him.
"Viktor?" She sounded incredulous, but there was a strange hopefulness in her tone.
Her attention was diverted by another echoing roar from the Dragon and both of them looked up to see Ran rising into the sky, a dark silhouette lit from below by the burning forest. She flowed through the air with grace and came towards them. When she passed overhead, her wingbeats created a gust of wind that flapped at Harry's robes and plucked loose a lock of Fleur's silvery hair from inside her hood.
Ran flew off towards the lake, finally making an escape - but she did not leave without giving one final parting gift. The sky lit up as a beam of multicoloured flame, so different from the dull orange she had spouted during the task, shot from her jaws and struck the stadium. It was as if an unstoppable, flaming train had rammed into to the side of the arena, and before their eyes the mighty, massive walls exploded, melted, tumbled apart.
A sound somewhere between a laugh and a gasp made him whip his head back around and Fleur met his gaze with wide eyes. An expression spread across her face that could only be described as mischievous. Or, possibly, maniacal.
"Run!" Fleur suggested under her breath, before sprinting off in the direction of the Katara.
Since it seemed like good advice, Harry took it.
As he ran, he looked up one last time, and through the billowing clouds of fume he thought he caught a glimpse of the last Dragon disappearing, chasing away after the moon.
"Because it was pretending! Biding its time!"
"It's an animal. Animals do not scheme."
"Well, it was the Durmstrang lot then - they were celebrating and it got out of hand!"
"Must have been a hell of a party..."
"I hear Krum led them... Thought he'd re-enact the Hundred Year War all on his own, didn't he?"
"Why would he just be sitting there if that were the case."
"He's got diplomatic what's it! Immunity!"
"More like diplomatic lunacy."
Harry drank his tea and tried not to look too pleased.
The castle was as enflamed with rumours as the forest had been with actual flames. On the way down there had been groups of students clustered around every window that faced the grounds, gazing out at the smoke still rising from the forest and, of course, the arena. One side of it looked perfectly well and the other looked like the bowels of some great beast, lying exposed to the world with its broken metal bones and melted intestines. Harry had observed that almost the entire grounds were dark with water, as though it had rained heavily.
"It was that lady," Ron informed him, with more calm and more certainty than most. "That giant one - what's her name?"
"Maxime," Harry said.
Ron allowed Seamus, who sat across from them, to pick up the tale. By the time the fire was spreading, the Beauxbatons headmistress had stood by the Katara with her students and crewmen in neat ranks behind her, ready to protect their ship if need be. They would not move an inch until their help was requested by Dumbledore himself, at which point Maxime had - the way Seamus told it - lifted half the lake and dumped it on the forest.
"Can you believe that?!" Seamus finished.
"I'll have to take your word for it," Harry said, managing some frustration. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
"Figured the champion needed his rest," Ron said cheerfully, pouring himself a third cup of coffee. None of the usual breakfast dishes had been served - only water, tea, coffee and juice - and Weasley seemed to be compensating for his usual massive breakfast.
There was a tense excitement in the packed hall. Every few seconds someone would glance at the door behind the empty staff table, which was guarded by two Aurors, and then everyone else would turn and look too. There had been another two Aurors in the Entrance Hall, blocking the doors outside and pointing everyone towards the Great Hall instead. The Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students were there, at their smaller tables, but their teachers were also missing.
"You there?" Harry asked, waving his fingers in front of Hermione's eyes, as she was being uncommonly silent.
She blinked, distracted from some deep thought, and shifted a little closer to him. "Fine," she said, though she looked more tired than Harry felt. "I'm fine. Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Harry said, and he meant it. He felt good, though not quite as good as after beating the task. There had been one too many close calls for his liking, and remembering Crouch's strange and painful power was enough to wipe the smile from his face. If Ran had appeared only an instant later, things would have gone very differently.
Still, at least I'm out of the woods. Or...?
McGonagall had emerged and every eye was on her as she rounded the staff table and walked up the Gryffindor table, straight towards Harry.
'No reaction can tell more than a large reaction.'
So, like everyone else, he watched McGonagall with curiosity as she approached, a grim look on her face, and when she stopped right in front of him, he was sure that his face appeared questioning rather than guilty. However, he didn't have to feign any of his surprise when McGonagall spoke.
"Please come with me, Mister Weasley."
"Alright, I admit it," Ron said, grinning, "I burned the arena down."
It was quite clearly a joke, though Lavender and Parvati's eyes went wide.
"Please," McGonagall said, none too amused.
Ron shrugged, drained his cup, and stood up. He followed McGonagall, who went towards the Entrance Hall but stopped to pick up Fred and George on the way, interrupting some joke that was making the older students laugh. Harry smirked, realizing that this must be about the party in the common room. McGonagall had somehow found out and she knew well enough who the orchestrators of such an event would be. Except… why was Ginny joining them?
The attention of the hall shot back to the staff table when others began to emerge from the door - Maxime, Karkaroff and Dumbledore, followed by Bagman, Crouch Senior and then the entire Hogwarts staff. Last of all came Captain Crouch, who showed no signs of last night's tumble in the woods, his face and armour spotless. As he took up position alongside his Aurors, though, Harry was pleased to note a limp in his step.
The whispers died down into an expectant silence, and everyone looked to Dumbledore, but the old Professor sat down, looking older than ever, and it was Crouch Senior who stood to address the hall.
"As you are no doubt aware, there was a disturbance in the night. This led to the destruction of much Republic property and the unfortunate escape of the dangerous creature that we all saw yesterday." There were exclamations and gasps but the new torrent of whispering died down almost instantly as Crouch Senior raised a quelling hand and continued. "The beast is currently being tracked and will be found and killed before it can do more damage. It is only natural to ask how such a thing could be allowed to happen. Our preliminary examination indicates that -"
A shriek of pain made every head turn to look towards the Entrance Hall. The cry was dulled by the thick doors but piercing all the same and it made a shiver run up Harry's spine. The scream died down slowly, and for a moment there was silence as everyone strained their ears to hear more, but then the whispers started back up again. Harry turned to see Crouch Senior clearing his throat and running two fingers through his toothbrush moustache, as if straightening it.
"Our preliminary examination," Crouch continued as though there had been no interruption, his loud and clear voice silencing the crowd, "indicates that this incident is due to a lapse in security on the part of the lead Dragon-keeper, Charlie Weasley. His carelessness has cost us all, though none as gravely as Mister Weasley himself, who met his unfortunate demise at the hands of the beast. I urge you to remember his mistake and to learn from it. Professor Dumbledore will now speak."
Crouch Senior sat down abruptly.
"Many of you knew Charlie," Dumbledore said, after taking a long moment to stand. The shocked silence was now speckled with the sound of weeping, proving the truth of Dumbledore's words. "Many of you had the privilege, like me, to see him grow from a troubled boy into a brilliant and kind man; a friend to all creatures, large and small."
'Him I would never hurt.'
Dumbledore kept on talking about Charlie's impeccable character and the joy and skill that he had found in the Duelling Grounds of Hogwarts. Harry had stopped listening. His attention was on Crouch, who stood on guard behind the headmaster. The Captain wore no expression but his eyes swept through the crowd, from face to face, as if he was searching for something.
Ran did not do this.
Harry was very aware of the empty space to his right. Hermione's hand found his and he must have been squeezing it painfully tight. Harry stared into the dregs of his tea and tried to stay angry - tried hard to hold onto the burning.
Better to burn than to sink.
Thank you for reading. Reviews are appreciated.
- The Sorting Cat