~~~~~ Chapter Four: Freedom and Terror ~~~~~

Darkness crept into his third dream of the night, covering the dream fields and consuming the happy faces of his dream playmates. The dog had long since padded off to another alley, and didn't notice the clanging as, on the fire escape, Harry's body began to twitch and flail. His hand turned white around the grip of his wand. His scar opened and began to bleed.

0-0

Harry flew without a broom, between the clouds and the earth. Laughing, he turned his face up and punched through the clouds at speed. Dancing about them, he fashioned the clouds into sculptures of his friends. Engrossed in this activity, Harry never once looked down; he never noticed the ground blackening and crumbling into nothingness.

The sky began to follow the ground, though, and Harry noticed that. Tendrils of emptiness wormed their way through his sky, tearing off chunks and devouring them until the only things left in the world were Harry and his cloud sculptures of his best friends, Ron and Hermione.

Ron's cloud sculpture fought valiantly, and was devoured first for that. He stood back-to-back with the cloud Hermione, the curling wisps of vapor that made up her hair clinging lightly to his shoulders. There was nothing either could do; the tendrils took Hermione apart piece by piece until the entirety of the world was Harry Potter. Nothing else existed.

Harry flailed about in the emptiness, searching in vain for any sign of his friends. He looked in every direction, panic setting in, before he realized with a start where he was. Swallowing against a dry throat, Harry turned deliberately to look over his shoulder.

Just as had happened in the Chamber of Secrets, a great wall stretched across his vision, but Harry was much closer to the gate, now. The two other versions of him stood there, leaning against the pillars to which they had once been chained. The darker of the two twirled a length of the silver chain contemptuously, scoffing as the ends of it dissolved away at a steady pace.

The golden one spoke first, "Thank you for freeing us, Harry. We've been hoping to return to you for a while now."

Harry couldn't think of anything to say to that, and the darker one continued. "We signed some treaties with the things on the other side of this," here the darker one kicked the gate, "so we're able to offer some advice. Mine first. If you have enough ingredients that are different from each other, you can make any potion, no matter what recipe is known to wizards to work, you just have to pay attention."

The golden one stepped forward, "What is yours is yours to do with as you please, but what is not yours can only be affected indirectly; pay attention to the differences, and you will go far."

The darker one nodded and said with an air of finality, "When you study magic, pay attention; Transfiguration and Charms are fundamentally different from one another."

When neither looked like they would speak again, Harry ventured, "Um ... pay attention to what?"

The grins that split the faces of both of the other beings were horrifically similar, and the golden one stepped forward, raising his left hand slowly. "When you chose to free us as an action, knowing the risks that came with it, you imparted me with the ability to pass on a gift to you." The golden one darted forward, quickly enough that Harry could not stop him, and with his fingers splayed, the golden one touched both lenses of Harry's glasses, "And so, in repayment of a boon bestowed upon me, I grant the gift of Sight."

Harry stumbled backwards, clutching his face. There had been a bright light, disorienting in its intensity. Harry swung his arms in front of him, trying to ward off the other two beings in this empty place, but neither his hands nor his arms touched anything.

When Harry finally blinked his eyes open, nothing seemed to have changed, but the two beings that looked like him were standing a few paces away, smiling eerily. The golden one spoke, "So we have given you three pieces of advice, and a boon in payment of a boon."

The darker one picked up the thread, "We are each allowed to teach you one thing, and we are both compelled to make you confront an abomination. My lesson is simple: this is how you touch magic with your own magic."

The darker one worked Harry for a while, tossing slow moving balls of light into the air and having Harry bat them away with a subtle flex of his own magic. It was rigorous work, and by the time they were done, Harry was exhausted.

The golden one, however, would not let Harry rest, "My lesson is the basis of all warding techniques, the first ever used. Things have changed over the years, so it is a technique no longer taught. When wizards settled down, they required more permanent techniques, but I will teach you how to stretch out your magic to detect harm coming in time to rouse yourself or drive it away."

The technique was fairly simple in theory. Harry just had to stretch out his magic as far as it could go, and then notice when something intruded on the bubble that formed. In practice, this was significantly more difficult than Harry had first assumed. The ripples were so slight that he missed more cues than he picked up on, and he seriously doubted he'd be able to use the technique while sleeping.

Finally, both the dark one and the golden one were satisfied, and they became very serious. "Harry, we are parts of your soul, trapped here apart from you for a very long time. We've been struggling to get back to you and become whole again, but there is another fragment of soul in this place."

Harry felt a chill run up his spine, and the darker one stepped forward to place a hand on Harry's shoulder and turn him around. Reluctant to see, Harry turned his head away, but he couldn't resist looking for long. Harry recoiled in horror, bile rising up into his throat, when he finally did look.

A terrible thing lay on its side there, keening silently in pain. It resembled a child, but its limbs were stretched long and thin, and its flesh had been flensed from its body, leaving a multitude of gaping, weeping wounds. What teeth it possessed had come in at odd angles and its face was drawn in a rictus of agony.

A hand descended upon Harry's shoulder, and Harry looked up at the darker of the two. He gazed at the bleeding child with hate and fury, "This is a piece of your enemy, struck from his soul and grafted onto your own. It weakens you by its presence and your enemy would be weakened by its destruction." The darker being fixed Harry with a gimlet stare, "Take up your magic and tear it apart."

A golden hand gripped Harry's other shoulder, and he looked up into a face marked by blue lines that seemed to follow the tracks of tears, "It is a wound in the world, created by murder and causing nothing but pain. You should take up your magic and pull apart its being. It has no place in the world."

Harry, though, looked at the pitiful, pained thing, and shook his head. "No." He stepped forward, wrenching out of the two grasps, "If this is my soul, then I'm the one in charge." Harry bent down and gently slipped his arms underneath the pained thing's body. Ever so gently, he lifted the thing into his own lap and rocked it while letting his magic roll over its body and soothe it. "It is in pain, like I was. I don't care who it was, or who it once belonged to. I don't want it to hurt anymore." The thing began to dissolve. The blood leaking from its wounds soaked into the rags Harry wore here, and its body began to dissolve.

The first rush of pain was a terrible shock, but Harry realized what was happening, even as the golden one and the darker one stepped forward to take the pained one from his grasp. He commanded, "Stop. I do not care if I have to take its pain for my own, not if that is the only way to make it healthy again." Harry fixed the two with a determined stare, "So either help me and follow my lead, or chain yourselves back to those pillars. This is my soul, not yours, so my way is the way we go."

The two looked at each other, then stepped forward. Each laid a hand on one of Harry's shoulders, and began to dissolve. Harry's body shook with the pain he was taking in, and the two holding onto either shoulder looked at each other and gave a solemn nod.

Shortly before the golden one, the darker one, and the pained one had dissolved entirely, Harry passed into blissful unconsciousness, leaving the empty world behind.

0-0

In the apartment next to Harry's chosen hiding place for the night was a small family. The youngest, a son named Adrian, had begged his parents for the room next to the window, so he could slip out and sit on the fire escape sometimes.

Adrian regretted begging his parents for the room next to the window. He'd heard some noises all night, and when he opened the window to shoo away whatever animal had taken up its nest on the fire escape, he'd been confronted with a terrifying sight.

A head, no body attached, floated in mid-air, moaning in pain. Its eyes were glowing a pale, sickly green, and there was an open wound on its forehead that leached some vile black ichor in place of blood. Those eyes turned on him, and Adrian slammed the window closed and fled his room. Now, he huddled on the other side of his bedroom door, clutching a baseball bat.

He had no idea what that was, but it wasn't getting past him. Adrian nodded to himself and clenched up on his bat. He didn't have to get his father, he was a big kid. Adrian spent the rest of the night, waiting for the disembodied head to start banging against his bedroom door, trying to get to his family. Adrian fell asleep two hours before dawn.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

The Doctors Granger were worried. The first year she had been away at Hogwarts, Hermione had babbled at them the whole trip back. She'd not been this quiet on the ride home from school since she was nine and another little girl had blackened their daughter's eye over some imagined slight. The only thing that soothed their nerves was the way Hermione Granger was nibbling on her thumb. That signaled, to them, that their daughter was thinking, not brooding.

They didn't pry, not even when Hermione pre-empted the computer and began pouring through site after site, jotting down notes and making unhappy noises. The elder Grangers murmured at each other, and decided to wait until after dinner the next day to pry.

They arrove home together, as usual, and found that their daughter had sequestered herself in her room, after wiping the history of the computer and shutting it down. They busied themselves with dinner preparations, and the family ate together in companionable silence, as was their custom.

Doctor Granger turned to her daughter, smiling, to ask that they wash up together. The plan was that they would take turns asking gentle questions over companionable activities until Hermione felt like opening up. Doctor Granger paused, however, when she noticed her daughter holding up two parchments, each with an identical title and format.

"Mom, Dad, I want you to read these while I clean up, tonight. I've got something I need to talk to you about. It's important, and I'm not sure how much time I'll have, so please prioritize these." The elder Grangers each took a copy of Hermione's essay and sat back to read while their daughter cleared the table and began washing dishes.

They exchanged worried glances with each other over the top of their daughter's essay on recognizing the signs of child abuse. The way each of the body paragraphs referred to a 'Subject P' soothed their initial worry that Hermione thought she was being abused or neglected at Hogwarts, but they were quite sure that something was terribly wrong, and when Hermione finally finished washing the dishes and returned to the table, each elder Granger had read the essay twice.

Hermione laid her hands on the table imperiously, glad to see that her parents were taking this seriously, and began, "Harry is my best friend, and in the last month, he asked me for some help with a research project. We've gone over the legal code of the wizarding world with a fine-toothed comb, and I'm not enthused about what we've found.

"To start with, the legal code is an absolute mess, and I checked: there are no real wizard lawyers, just politicians. The really troubling thing, though, is what I noticed Harry paying attention to." Hermione sighed, depressed by her conclusion, but unable to think up a more likely reason for Harry's choice in which laws were the most important, "I think Harry is planning to run away from home, and I wanted to know why, so I started reviewing what I knew about his home life."

Hermione gestured at the essays she'd written, "He never wants to go home during any of our breaks, and he mentioned offhand that his Aunt and Uncle would be displeased that he hadn't managed to get himself killed in one of the dangerous situations he often finds himself in. He doesn't believe that adults have his best interests at heart, or will be able to keep him safe or help him.

"I don't see that opinion changing, either, after seeing how he's treated at Hogwarts." Trying to forestall her parents' horrified expressions, she continued talking right over them, "It's not the same for Harry as it is for any other student, even me. He's famous, even if he hates the fame, for something he has no control over.

"He's in a weird situation because of that. The adults are torn between seeing him as an adult in his own right and being a child, so he gets the worst of both worlds. I don't think it's their fault, and they don't treat me that way, so don't worry about that." Hermione took a deep breath, "But they're bound to send someone here when they find out he's run away. We're friends, after all. All I'm asking is that I be there, that you don't handle this without my input. Please."

Her parents looked at each other, and then nodded. The Grangers spent the rest of the night planning how to handle the inevitable inquiry, if what the youngest Granger suspected was true.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Ronald Weasley stirred his porridge thoughtfully, not particularly hungry. He knew that a number of Gryffindors thought him dull, and he knew that he wasn't as smart as Hermione or as quick-witted as Harry, but Ron also knew that he wasn't stupid. He thought about the secretive behaviour of his friends over the past few weeks, and tried to think up a reason for it.

Dean and Seamus, of course, had teased him that the two were going out, but Ron felt that unlikely. Perhaps in a few years, but he had a sneaking suspicion that his friends' behaviour had a different cause.

The Burrow bristled with activity, distracting him. The eldest Weasleys had returned for a family vacation; with Bill and Charlie in the house, there was rarely a moment of peace. Most of the Weasley family preferred it that way. They ate together one meal a day, but for the most part, the family ate when they got hungry and then cleaned up after themselves. It was easier that way.

Ron finished his late breakfast and slipped upstairs, dodging a polka-dotted Charlie chasing after the twins on the way down. He knocked on Percy's door and waited, frowning.

After a few yelps and a rustling of paper from inside Percy's room, the door opened a crack to reveal a startled elder brother with ink all down the front of his robes. "What is it, Ronald?"

"Meet me in Dad's shack in an hour. I'm calling a family meeting." Ron went further upstairs to pass on the message to Ginny before wrangling the twins as well, leaving a startled Percy to close the door and change.

An hour later, every Weasley currently attending Hogwarts had gathered in the packed shed of one Arthur Weasley. Ron looked at them, unusually solemn. The twins were grinning at each other, clearly expecting a prank. Percy looked uncomfortable and thoughtful, and stood apart from the rest of the group. Ginny looked sullen and depressed. About what I expected, Ron thought to himself as he turned and began digging through one specific pile of junk, so let's hope this works.

With a great clang, Ron pulled a connected set of bars from where they'd hidden it earlier. The twins stopped grinning, and the other two looked curious, so Ron spoke up, "I'm not sure if you noticed, but Harry and Hermione acted a little odd during the last few weeks of school.

"I think they're planning something, but they didn't bring me into it, which means they wanted it kept absolutely secret." Ron patted the bars, "I think it has something to do with these. Percy, we pulled these bars off his window to get him out of his room last summer. We weren't in any way exaggerating when we said his family was starving him."

Ron turned to the youngest member of the family, "I think he's planning to run away from home. When he does, they're bound to try and talk to us. I just wanted to remind everyone why he might be doing something none of us would ever do. Plus, he's the only reason Ginny's still alive. I say, when the teachers come to ask us questions, see if we know anything, we close ranks."

Ron put his hand out, in the center of the group. "We owe Harry a huge debt, and I saw we show everyone that Harry can trust us with his secrets, no matter what. Are you with me?" Ginny's hand was on top of his before he had finished speaking. The twins added their own hands a moment later. Percy reached out and placed a hand on the bars.

Percy asked, "How sure are you of this, Ron?"

Ron answered, "I'm not sure he's going to run away, but I am sure that his family is horrible, and I am sure that we owe him."

None of the Weasleys removed their hands from the pile, despite their discomfort touching for so long. They watched Percy think in silence.

Percy reached out and touched his hand to their group. "Harry is one of ours. We close ranks," he affirmed.

The youngest part of the Weasley clan re-hid the bars and left the shack. The twins returned to pestering their older siblings, and Percy returned to hiding in his room. Ron and Ginny went to the kitchen and ate lunch.

The Burrow bustled with activity as everyone packed their bags. Arthur Weasley had won the ministry drawing, and they could afford a trip to Egypt, to see where Bill worked. They had all agreed (in a family meeting, no less) that keeping the family in contact, even with the eldest sons in different countries, was more important than new robes and books. The Weasley Family Vacation would be a blast for all involved, even the shabby rat that spent every day riding around in Ronald Bilius Weasley's pocket.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Albus Dumbledore had spent the entire day after Hogwarts let out up to his shoulders in paperwork. He spent a lot of days that way, and sometimes wished there was someone he could trust to be both competent and moral in at least one of the many positions he held. McGonagall might do for Hogwarts, but he still remembered that night she'd warned him about the Dursleys, and he wasn't sure if she'd let her small prejudice affect her policies as Headmistress. Besides, where would they find another competent Head of House?

The Wizengamot and the ICW were both full of fools that cared more about their various agendas than about seeing that the wizards and witches under their care were doing well. There was, essentially, no way he could step down before finding a worthy successor and arranging for them to inherit the position.

Albus sighed and touched the time-turner concealed under his robes. He'd used his max of six hours already today, and he still had work undone. He wished he could retire, or that the Department of Mysteries hadn't failed to extend the capabilities of the time-turners. It was frustrating, trying to do three jobs in one day. When he actually had work to do as the Grand Sorcerer, too, he simply fell behind on sleep for a few days to catch up.

His bed didn't creak under him as Albus sank into the mattress and drifted off to sleep, resolving to catch up on his paperwork tomorrow. He was asleep almost immediately, thanks to some somniamancy techniques he'd picked up somewhere along the way, and dreaming of very strange things when a blaring alarm stirred him from his slumber.

Dumbledore stumbled into his office, swearing under his breath, to check on which alarm was asking for his attention. When he saw it was Harry Potter's, he went very still for just a moment. In no time at all, he had alerted the remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix, there was a floo fire connecting to the DMLE, and he'd transfigured his sleeping robes into some slightly more suited for battle.

The Order had learned rapid response in the last war, and Moody was already on his way to Privet Drive by the time the floo connected him to Madame Bones. She quickly dispatched an auror team, then took down his statement regarding the ward collapse. Dumbledore waved for Fawkes, and flamed to Privet Drive, expecting the worst.

"No sign of magical transportation, and I can't find any traces of who broke the wards. Whoever did this had an efficient plan, and was very good at their jobs. I don't think we're going to find the kid in time, Bones." Moody's eye whirled in its socket, mostly focusing on the house, but also scanning each new player who arrived as they arrived, "If I had to make a guess, the wards collapsed on their own, but there's no sign of Potter anywhere. Dumbledore, are you sure this is the kid's place? There's no sign of him, no toys, no pictures, no anything. Possibly, whoever broke the wards vanished or modified anything that gave sign of Potter, and then modified the muggles' memories."

Bones raised an eye over her monocle, "We'll have to question them anyway, but we'll wait until morning so one of ours can come dressed as a muggle auror. That'll be easier to explain if their memories have been modified. Jenkins, any sign?"

An auror on a broom shook her head, "I've got no trace of any magical within a day's foot-travel. I can't narrow it down any more than the charm." Her wand spun on the palm of her hand, wavering a little in the western part of its arc, but not granting the Aurors a clearer heading to follow.

Dumbledore eyed the dissipating traces of the wards he'd set almost thirteen years before. "I have no idea what happened," he admitted to the astounded aurors. "The monitors I tied to the wards never noticed a single iota of change in their potency before the collapse. When I last left my desk, they were still reading at full potency, so whoever did this had to have done it in less than four hours. I don't have both the skill and power to do so, not without leaving some pretty obvious traces. Do either of you have any knowledge of someone who could?"

Madam Bones looked like she'd bitten down on a lemon, only to find it filled with excrement. "Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban. I've had aurors on alert since then, but there's been no sign of him. If he could break out of there, maybe?" She turned to the house, where the teams under her control set the yard to rights and erased any sign of their presence that night.

Moody and Dumbledore looked at each other, grim. "When'll the papers learn of it?" Moody sounded even more gruff than usual.

"Fudge has us keeping a lid on it, but they'll likely learn of the man's escape within the week. I'd like to have him in custody by then, but if the man can pull off things like this..."

One by one, the grim-faced aurors departed, silencing an area before disapparating. Soon, Privet Drive was empty and undisturbed, returned to the 'ordinariness' that its inhabitants so craved.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Deep in the Department of Mysteries, a shimmering globe contained a small book with a hole punched through the center. Nobody was actively monitoring it. It was midnight, after all, and the book had been destroyed, its magics burned out of it with basilisk venom.

Ink slowly dripped from the book's damaged pages. The woman who set up the containment field had included a trough to collect the ink for later study, and it was half-filled when the final drop fell from the pages of the book.

The small plate on the front of the book reading T. M. Riddle had been blackened by the ink leeching from the book. Venom had burned a hole straight through both covers and all the pages contained there-in. As the last drop of ink fell from the edge of that hole, the small metal plate cracked in half.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Padfoot huddled in a cardboard box in an alley, trying to sleep. He'd hated to sit idle in Hogwarts; he still did, but Azkaban had robbed him of his strength and his energy. The night was cold, and his patchy fur coat did little to warm his bones.

His worry for his godson didn't help, either. The more time he spent away from the dementors, the more he suspected that Harry had need of him. He'd wallowed in the fact that his godson was growing up happy and well without him, in order to keep the memories of the Potter household, but now that he no longer had to twist his own emotions and reasoning to simply keep his mind...

No, he needed to find his godson, and soon. Padfoot's stomach grumbled in hunger, and he slipped over to a garbage bin and knocked it over. Rooting through the trash might not be particularly dignified, but the one lesson the Blacks had taught that Padfoot had not discarded was that when it came to survival, neither dignity nor pride mattered one whit.

Padfoot rifled though the garbage. Six alleys away, his godson moaned in agony, but over the sounds of the garbage bin and the occasional passing muggle car, Padfoot had no chance of hearing.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

In a shack that had once belonged to the Gaunt family, a small ring lay quietly. Its setting was a small stone with the insignia of a line inside a circle inside a triangle. The shack was dark, but the center of the ring seemed more so, as shadows began to pool inside the band.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Hermione Granger dreamed untroubled dreams. Her parents had listened to her, and had agreed that no matter what, Hermione would be there when they spoke to whoever came to ask about Harry Potter.

She curled around her copy of The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Three in her sleep. She might not have gotten her school list yet, but she could recognize a pattern with ease, and picking up what was obviously going to be one of the next year's textbooks was a good move that cost her nothing. She hadn't been able to tell whether Intermediate Transfiguration or A Journeyman's Guide to Transfiguration would be the next Transfiguration textbook, though, so she'd left it alone.

Still, she hadn't memorized The Standard Book of Spells yet, so she felt all right about only having that one (and a pair of primers, one on Arthimancy and one on Ancient Runes) to go over until the book lists came.

Hermione Granger dreamed she was sitting in a library that belonged only to her, so nobody came in but her friends and the people that were nice to her. She drank hot chocolate and read her favorite books, waving occasionally at the strange people who wandered her dream library, like the pale boy in white clothing with an emerald pendant, or the golden-eyed man with the curly hair who sometimes carried an axe and sometimes carried a hammer.

No trouble stirred her from her sleep, and if one or two books contained slightly bloodier stories than they usually did in her library, Hermione Granger did not notice.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

There was a hidden room at Hogwarts. In truth, there were many, but this room was much beloved by the house elves, for it contained alternately a closet that never ran out of cleaning supplies or a room that was never completely tidied and clean. It was, essentially, paradise for the elves. However, when the elves weren't using it, and when nobody else had found it, the room spanned the size of the great hall and contained mountain upon mountain of junk, and trash, and hidden treasures.

In one of those piles, somewhere near the top, lay a seemingly delicate silver decoration. It was a tiara, or perhaps a crown, with a large jewel placed right in the center. When it was first made and enchanted, it could be placed on one's head, and the jewel would shine with a brilliant light. The wearer's thoughts would sing and dance freely, and inspiration would come in times of need.

Now, though, the jewel was shadowed and dark. There was more to these shadows than mere absence of light; they stretched and wormed their way down the silver setting for the jewel, expanding to cover the entire artifact in darkness. The shadows began to drip from the old headpiece, pooling on the objects below it and eating away at their substance. With each gram of material eaten away, the shadows became thicker.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Arthur Weasley sat in his kitchen in the Burrow, sipping his tea. The twins were planning something, which was cause enough for worry, but some intuition told him there was more to it than that. Percy, Ron, and Ginny had seemed to be in on it too. Arthur wasn't sure what they were planning, but he was nervous, and not too proud to admit to it.

He thought about how, halfway through last summer, the youngest three boys had shown up one night with Harry Potter in tow. It troubled him more than he'd care to admit that Harry hadn't seemed concerned about his family's reaction to him running off in the middle of the night. Sipping his tea, Arthur wondered if his youngest were planning something similar for this summer.

If they were, the family would have to choose between a trip to Egypt and having Harry over, he was sure. Financial genius might allow them all to attend Hogwarts instead of, say Merlin's Academy for Boys, which was simply not as good a school. It would not allow them to support another child for the summer on no notice, not without using up the drawing they'd won.

The Burrow was quiet, filled with sleeping Weasleys as Arthur drank his tea in the kitchen, unaware that on the day the entire family had been gathered at Platform 9 3/4, an animagus had come to the house and prowled around. He was equally unaware that his son's pet rat currently scurried through the walls of his home, waiting for the Weasley patriarch to go to sleep so the rat could retrieve a secret wand from its hiding place, so that it would be secure with him while the family vacationed in Egypt.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Deep beneath London, in the tunnels of Gringotts, there laid a vault. Within that vault were mounds and shelves heaped with gold and jewels. In the very back of the vault there was a cup, cast in shadow. The shelves and floor about it had once been strewn with gold, but they were bare and cast in shadow themselves. The edge of the shadows expanded once more, and the gold that fell into the darkness began to turn black and crumble, eaten away until nothing remained.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Hidden deep in the forests of Albania, a man worked busily. The man's father had rescued his own son from imprisonment, only to use his magic to enthrall his son and keep him as an even more wretched prisoner. The man's tongue darted from his mouth to wet his lips. It was hard to keep his hands steady and his body still as he worked, laying out lines of chalk and of salt in very precise patterns.

His wand followed the lines he drew carefully, filling them with magic for a singular purpose. In the center of the circle, a babe cried, fat tears rolling down its face, as a dark phantasm hovered above it. The forest was unnaturally silent, and the babe's cries carried through the woods, touching the trees and the leaves.

In the darkness, a great serpent slithered. Her venom began to burn in her mouth, and her body ached with hunger, though she had consumed two birds, a squirrel, and a polecat. She twisted about, her tongue flickering angrily as she searched for prey.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

In a dark house in London, a decrepit elf shambled about, fighting a battle already lost against the dirt and the dank. He lurched through the hallways, obeying the whims of his mistress, who spoke sometimes from the portrait on the wall and sometimes in a quiet whisper in his head.

He rounded the corner into the kitchen, turning to enter the dark alcove he made his home, calling out, "Mistress has need of Kreacher here?" The shadows of his alcove coiled about him as he stepped in, and they held him tight.

Kreacher's body would never be found.