Albus stepped back into the main doors of the castle, and before he took more than a few steps, Professor Desulgon was upon him.
"Albus," he said. "Professor Wilcox would like to see you in his office. He's there with Exorian now."
Albus nodded. "Thank you for the message," he said, and turned to the direction of the nearest stairwell.
Albus looked over his shoulder.
"Er. Nothing," said Professor Desulgon, and he walked away.
Albus tried not to overthink this, and he continued up to Wilcox's office. He stopped in front of the gargoyle, realizing that he didn't know the password, but it jumped aside to admit him anyway; Wilcox still hadn't set a password since Dismiusa. As he climbed to the top of the stairwell, and knocked on the big oak door.
It swung open to admit him, and Albus walked into Wilcox's office, where Exo was lying down on a small bed that had apparently been conjured for him. His two wands were resting on a little table near his bed, and Albus mentally slapped himself in the head as he realized he had forgotten to recover his second wand at the shore of the Black Lake. Everything else that had happened had chased it from his mind.
"Firstly, before we talk about anything, Albus," said Wilcox softly, "are you okay? Are you comfortable discussing what happened?"
"Yes, I am," said Albus without a break in his voice. He was going to be able to talk about it—it would be painful, but that wouldn't stop him if it was going to help bring Siobor down.
"Okay, that's good," said Wilcox. "Secondly, before we discuss it, I'm going to need as much information as I can about what happened, so that I can more reasonably draw conclusions from what you tell me…"
Albus's brain did not accept that sentence as readily, and he puzzled over it for a few seconds before speaking up. "Wait, Professor," he said, trying to put his thoughts together. "How can you get information about our discussion—before we discuss it?"
"By a handy little magical device that lets me see it for myself," said Wilcox. "It's called a Pensieve, and one is kept in the Headmaster's office for his personal use, left by your namesake. Have you ever extracted a memory for a Pensieve, Albus?"
"No, sir," he said curiously. "Am I going to?"
"To extract another's memory is incredibly difficult without causing injury or damage to the memory in question, and potentially more. I cannot do it for you or for my son. I'm not sure Exo is in any condition to do so, anyway. So… will you try?"
Albus looked over to Exo, lying on the bed, looking like he was in agony.
"If it helps us catch Siobor, then yes," said Albus. "Absolutely."
"Good," said Wilcox. "It's best that we do it right away—while the memory is freshest. I'll teach you the proper theory as quickly as I can, but there's something you should know about when you use a Pensieve—the memory will never be as clearly in focus as before you extract it, unless you are at that moment observing it by the Pensieve. You'll remember enough of it, but you'll have to concentrate harder to bring it to mind. Are you still willing to try?"
"I wish I could forget what I saw," said Albus quietly. "What I've done. So… yes. I'd still like to do it, sir."
"All right," said Wilcox. "First, you need to place a wand against your temple… like this." He displayed the motion, and Albus copied him. "Then, focus on the memory. Play it back in your head as you're slowly moving your wand away from your head. You'll get better at this with practice, but you'll find that a surprising amount of detail is preserved in the strand, even if you didn't think you were doing it right."
"Maybe you should do this for me, Professor," said Albus, moving his wand away. "What if I screw up, and I lose my memory?"
"We could have Exo do it when he's feeling better, but I'd like to do it as soon as possible," said Wilcox. "And what do you mean, have me do it for you? It's so difficult to—"
"No, I mean, like…" Albus grinned sheepishly. "Er… Imperius Curse, maybe?"
Wilcox buried his face in his hands. "Albus, you're not really asking me to use an Unforgiveable Curse on you… are you?"
"Well, I wouldn't tell anyone," said Albus. "It would be easier for everyone—"
"And that's capable of landing me a life sentence in Azkaban, Albus!"
"Not if no one else knows! …Sir!"
"No, Albus, you can do this yourself," said Wilcox. "Besides, there are certain… side effects to connecting minds like that. You can do this, Albus—you're the most natural student I've ever encountered in regards to mental magic. It's actually easier than you think, and if you think you've screwed up, you can get the memory back—all you have to do is feed the memory back into your head through your eyes and ears."
"That's disgusting," stated Albus simply.
"Well, I suppose it is," said Wilcox. "Now, lift your wand to your temple again, please. Pull out the memory by playing it back in your head as it occurred, but you don't have to include all the details. In fact, just focusing on four or five important points of the memory in sequence will provide you with a perfect picture of what occurred."
Albus did as he was told. He held the wand up to his temple, and then he closed his eyes and reminisced, pulling his wand away from his temple as he did so.
"I am here," said Solomon, and a door opened out of thin air, revealing him.
Solomon reopened the door to try and admit Exo, but his fingers curled in a very strange way around the doorknob.
More doors opened out of thin air and Sandbloods popped up everywhere.
The phoenix song filled him with hope as the Moutohora Macaws appeared.
Damien Tashra was struck full-force with a Killing Curse.
Albus opened his eyes to find that they were shimmering with tears, and a silvery hair-like strand of light was curling down from the tip of his wand.
"Albus, you did it!" exclaimed Wilcox.
"Did what?" asked Albus, looking at his strand of memory. "What is this—what—"
He had to really strain his mind to recall what had just happened: he had taken this memory from his mind, and it was the memory about what had happened in Moutohora. The strand was mostly silver-white, but as he looked at it, he could see flashes of red and green, colors that reminded him of what occurred. There were five small bead-like structures within the strand, probably the points of memory he had used to draw it out. As he watched, they melted outwards and smoothed out the surface of the strand until it was a relatively even width throughout.
"Okay, now that memory can exist outside of your mind," said Wilcox. "Just don't press your wand into the strand at any point other than the very tip, or the memory will fracture and disintegrate before your eyes. That's what you do if you want to mostly forget about something, but specialized Mentalists can bring it back if you regret it later. We'd rather not waste the time to get a Mentalist over here, so it would be much appreciated if you didn't destroy that memory."
"Don't worry, Professor, I won't," said Albus. "As much as I'd like to. But that wouldn't erase what happened. So what do I do with it now—where's the Pensieve?"
Wilcox waved a wand in the air, and a black cabinet opened across the room; a shallow stone basin could be seen inside, with runes and symbols carved into its edges. It was full of material that could be called liquid light or solid wind; Albus had seen it before in his father's Pensieve, but he'd never actually entered a memory… excepting the ones he'd entered while they were still in their owners' heads.
"Now, simply lower it in," said Wilcox. "Don't worry about walking too fast; the memory won't detach from your wand unless you tap your finger on your wand while flicking it, or until the strand touches the surface of the Pensieve's contents."
Albus walked over to the Pensieve and lowered the memory into the basin. The fresh memory caused the rest to swirl violently, and then when Albus next looked inside, it showed the clearing on Moutohora in the red light of the eclipse. As he watched, Exo ran into the clearing, out of breath. He was wondering where he was in this memory until he remembered that he was under the Cloak.
"I'm going to go back in to watch the memory," said Wilcox. "I will extend the invitation to you, but it won't be a pleasant experience if you do. You've already seen what happened, and you'll have enough of a recollection to fill in any details if I ask questions, but given your reaction after the massacre in your second year, perhaps you shouldn't relive this particular memory."
"Well… I agree, sir," said Albus. "Sorry."
"Apology accepted but unnecessary. I'll be back momentarily… in about however long it took for this to happen."
He placed his hand on the surface of the Pensieve. He was lifted up almost vertically, and then zoomed down into the basin and vanished.
Albus looked over at Exo, who seemed to be asleep. He wanted to sleep, too, but then he remembered that it was only—what, one in the afternoon? He checked Aidan's watch and confirmed his guess.
There was a sharp knock on the door to the office. Albus ran to the door, not sure whom Wilcox was expecting, but worrying that the knocking would awaken Exo. He threw open the door to find Louis standing there.
"Albus!" he said. "What are you doing in here during lunch? Where's Professor Wilcox—I'd like to borrow—"
He looked over at Exo, still soundly sleeping, and then turned to see the Pensieve out of its cabinet.
"…the Pensieve," finished Louis in a softer voice. "Shoot—are you using it right now? What's going on?"
Albus grimaced; no one had been told yet about where he and Exo had journeyed.
"Er… Exo and I just got back," he said simply and awkwardly.
"Got back?" said Louis, his mouth twisting quizzically. "From…?"
"Moutohora, New Zealand?!"
"What were you doing there? Did you get to hang out with the Macaws' Captain Tashra?!"
Albus's legs gave out from under him, and he sank onto the floor. He couldn't stop the tears from coming, and he began to cry himself out once again. Louis settled down next to him and hugged him tightly, not understanding but not asking any questions, for which Albus was extremely grateful.
Shortly after, Wilcox emerged from the Pensieve; he simply surfaced and lifted himself out of the basin gracefully. He had a strange look on his face, which grew more towards confusion when he saw Louis.
"Louis?" he asked, a little puzzled. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Well, I was hoping to use the Pensieve for a little bit, sir," said Louis. "But if you're busy with it, I'll come back…"
"No, no, go ahead," said Wilcox, gesturing. "I'm finished with it. Is Albus okay?"
"I'm not sure, Professor," said Louis, still rubbing Albus's back. "I haven't asked."
"He and Exorian spirited away to Moutohora without notifying anyone," said Wilcox. "Something happened down there. I'll let him tell you about it if he wishes."
"I assumed as much," said Louis. "Er… should I come back later anyway, sir?"
"No, it's okay," said Albus, wiping his nose, feeling very much younger than he was. "You can stay… I'm okay."
Louis looked back at Wilcox, then to Albus again, and then shrugged and walked over to the Pensieve. He lifted his wand to his temple and drew out a silvery strand of a memory. Albus peered into it, wondering if he could see colors corresponding to the events of the memory like he could see in his own strand, but it was only silver-white. He supposed the colors within the memory were only visible to the memory's owner.
Louis disappeared into the Pensieve soon after, and Albus wondered what he was examining. Wilcox cleared his throat a little bit, and Albus looked back up at him.
"Albus, who is the 'Man in the Shadows?'" he asked with a grave tone.
"Who—what?" Had this been from his memory?
"The 'Man in the Shadows.' Right after the Sandbloods came out of their doors, he said, 'Goodbye, from the Man in the Shadows.' Was this the first you had heard of this man, whoever he is?"
"Well, yes," said Albus, trying to recall Siobor saying this. "I just… assumed he was talking about himself."
Wilcox gave a foreboding look to the wall. "Or it could be about his superior."
"Oh," said Albus, not enjoying the thought that someone was in charge of Siobor—that person would probably be infinitely worse.
"Either way, it's something that I feel we should bring up to the Auror Office," said Wilcox. "They'll probably be seeing this memory, too, but it's a good idea to get them started on the search sooner rather than later, I suppose. Er—let me revise that—the Auror Office will also be seeing this memory, with your permission?"
"Yes, of course," said Albus as Louis tumbled back out of the Pensieve, much less smoothly than Wilcox.
Wilcox looked a little irritated at Louis's presence. "Was that all you needed?" he asked, keeping his voice steady.
"Yes, that's all I wanted to see again," said Louis, brushing off his robes. "That helped me a lot. Apologies for the interruption, and thank you."
"You're quite welcome," said Wilcox. "Have a good day, Louis."
"You too, sir."
Louis left looking determined.
Wilcox turned to Albus. "I think I've had most of my questions answered for me by watching the memory," he said. "So, unless there's anything else you feel is important I know right away… you may go. I don't want to force you to stay here and wallow in what has happened."
Albus nodded slowly. "I don't think there was anything else, sir. Not that my father wouldn't be able to explain to you better, anyway."
"Then please head back to your dormitory," he said. "And please stay there for the remainder of the day, at least until dinner. Only attend your following classes if it makes you feel better, but I would advise against it. Just get some rest; your mind will be needing it, even if you don't think your body does."
Albus cast a last glance towards Exorian before exiting the office. He walked very slowly back to Gryffindor Tower.
"Well, what are you doing back up here?" asked the Fat Lady pompously. "Should you not be in class at present?"
"Fidelius," said Albus.
"Well, yes, that is the password, but why aren't you—"
"Fidelius," snapped Albus impatiently.
"Goodness, fine," she said, swinging the door open. "But if someone comes around asking where you are, I'm going to have to rat you out!"
Albus didn't respond to her; he simply crawled into his bed and huddled himself under the covers.
Ever since he had been old enough for James to pick on him, he had generally preferred his own company, but now, he wanted someone beside him. The tears had stopped coming, but the pain inside him had not stopped throbbing.
Late that night, Albus snuck outside again under the Invisibility Cloak. He very much did not want to go out alone again, so he asked James and Rose to come and help look for his wand. He didn't want to go outside at all, but he knew he had to get to his wand before something else did, like a troll or the squid. They accepted, and they traveled to the Black Lake under the Cloak together in search of the missing ebony wand.
"This would be a lot easier if we had a general idea of where your wand was," said James as they approached the edge of the lake. "Then we could Accio the wand. But without a general idea of where it is, that wouldn't work. Let's split up… but stay close. Siobor already came into the grounds of Hogwarts once. Albus, you stay under the Cloak, okay?"
"Sure thing," said Albus, not eager to argue that. He wandered off towards the part of the shore he thought he and Exo had waited before summoning the Loch Stock Liner, and began walking with his head down, scanning the ground in front of him as he went.
His mind was drifting towards things he could have done instead of lead Exo into Moutohora by themselves, instead of focusing on where he was going; he ended up walking nearly a third of the way around the lake before realizing that he was supposed to be looking near where he thought he'd dropped it. He turned around and started to walk back, but froze when he heard soft voices approaching from that side.
Two older boys were walking towards the lake.
He grasped his wand tight, still tense from his experiences. He was under the Cloak, though, so he should be fine. It didn't look like it was Red Pierce or any of his friends… Red was only a year older than Albus. These were two seventh year boys. One had blond hair so bright it was almost illuminating the darkness around it with the light of the almost-full moon. As Albus peered closer, he saw that it was Louis. The person traveling along with him spoke, and Albus recognized Gil's voice.
"…particular reason, on a moonlit eve? I'm not saying there's necessarily anything suspicious about that… but come on."
"Whatever you're thinking is probably right."
Gil looked at Louis, and Albus wasn't sure whether to creep closer or back away and leave them alone. They were headed almost right towards him. Albus decided to just keep walking back towards James and Rose.
"Louis… why did you break up with Caspar?"
Albus perked his head up and slowed to a stop.
"Well… there were several reasons, but the biggest deciding factor of the moment was when he refused to come visit after the barrier finally went down."
"He refused—like, he straight-up told you that he didn't want to come?"
"He thought it was too dangerous. Thought Dismiusa might still be out there or something. Maybe my perception is skewed as a courageous Gryffindor, but…"
"No, I see your point."
"Yeah. I mean, if your significant other is in a dangerous place, isn't that the perfect time to head to their side? Wouldn't you want to protect them if you thought they were in danger? Nope. Instead, he asked me to come to Durmstrang. I said I wanted to be with my family and friends, especially if Dismiusa came back with a vengeance, though we all knew that wasn't going to happen."
"And that's why you broke up with him?"
"Not really. It was more of the little things."
"Little things he did that annoyed you?"
"Little things he didn't do." Louis had reached the lake, and he took his shoes off to dangle his feet in the water. Gil sat beside him.
"I wish I was a Metamorphmagus like your sister's boyfriend," said Gil, checking his hair and preening in the reflection of the lake. "Then I could just switch my hair back and forth whenever I wanted."
"Well, you already do," said Louis, laughing. "You can never decide what looks best, can you?"
"Nah. I look beautiful in so many different colors…"
Louis laughed and slapped a hand on Gil's shoulder. He moved his hand to the farther shoulder and rested his head on the nearer; Gil looked pleasantly surprised.
"So—ah—what did you mean by little things he didn't do?"
"Well… like the way he didn't look at me. The small things he didn't say to me. The gestures he didn't do for me. He knew how to make me happy when I was angry—he always cheered me up with a hug and a kiss when I was upset—he just didn't know how to stop me from being upset with him in the first place, and I decided it was better to move on. I moved on so that I could be here now, sitting by a pristine lake in the moonlight, with someone who has done all these things for me."
Gil didn't appear to know what to say.
"I sorted through a few memories in Wilcox's office today," said Louis, "because I never really took the time to appreciate how much you always cared about me. I'd like to take that time now, if you don't mind."
Gil put his arm around Louis and smiled. "Well. Can't say I mind."
"Good," said Louis, taking his head off of Gil's shoulder and bringing his head up; his face was very close to Gil's.
"I… er… I thought you… said you were 'women-and-Caspar-sexual,' not…"
"Well… the situation has required a change," said Louis quietly.
"Are you women-and-Gillian-sexual now?" whispered Gil.
Louis shook his head. "No. Right now I'm just Gil-sexual."
He leaned in for the kiss, and Albus silently pumped an excited fist. Louis put his arm back around Gil's shoulder, and then he pulled forward and they both pitched into the lake. They came up laughing and splashing each other before pulling each other close in the lake and continuing where they'd left off.
Feeling awkward for having sat in on that, but knowing he needed some love to break the hold of darkness on his heart, he continued back to James and Rose.
Albus pulled off the Cloak as he got near; James sighed exasperatedly at Albus when he reappeared.
"Bloody hell, Albus, where were you?" he said. "I was about to start shouting. Don't disappear like that on me again."
"Oh, and you'd better love me forever," said Rose. She held out her two hands as if holding a dinner platter; Albus's wand on the surface of her hands, undamaged.
He smiled as he took the wand from her grip, which emitted a soft glow upon reunion with its master.
James peered down the lake curiously. "What the hell—is that—is that two mermaids having a wrestling contest?!"
"Er… let's give the mermaids some privacy," said Albus, starting the jog back up to the castle.
The rest of the school year flew by without notice; after all, it was only two weeks, since exams were cancelled. Albus was restless the whole way through, and he could only cleanse his mind by wandering about the castle at night under the Invisibility Cloak. He was sleepless, but he didn't mind that because his sleep was consistently tormented by what he'd seen.
On the last night of the term, he wandered for a particularly long amount of time. He battled himself within his own mind, as he always did, so that when he was asleep, he was hopefully too exhausted to dream.
Why did I have to think that Solomon was good? How could I have been so ignorant to all the signs?
But Xin Theuris was a werewolf who was cured. And we still haven't explained it. It wasn't my fault he tricked everyone so badly…
The Auror Office was still skeptical. Did I think myself smarter than the Aurors?
The Siren Song Charm made sure we would fall for it. We were doomed from the start.
But I was warned about the Siren Song Charm. Still I nearly led Exo to our deaths.
Siobor wasn't going to stop trying until it happened. But I tried to help my friend, and I did save his life—rather, if I hadn't joined Exo, then Janelle wouldn't have been there to save both of our hides.
As he finished his nightly internal argument, he encountered a locked corridor that he hadn't yet explored. Not one to refuse a challenge, he took the Bloodblade from his pocket and picked the lock with ease; the door swung open, revealing a single short hallway with four unused classrooms, two on either side with a statue of a very old man standing alone at the end of the hallway. He checked the Marauder's Map under the soft glow of his wand. The corridor was indeed on the map, and it wasn't specially labeled. If this region of the school had always been locked, the makers of the map must have found some way to break into this corridor as well.
Albus scratched his head; why were these classrooms unused? There didn't seem to be anything dangerous down here, and Wilcox had never warned them to stay away from this part of the castle, which he would have done had there been any reason to stay away. He pushed open the door to the first classroom on the right and strolled inside.
It was empty, but there were desks with heavy magical graffiti and names carved into the sides. The words "BERTHA JORKINS SUCKS" gleamed the brightest on one of the oldest desks; the scratches around it suggested that teachers had attempted to remove it but were unsuccessful. Some of the letters kept vanishing and reappearing so that the message kept switching between "BJ SUCKS" and the original. Drawings of large seventh years chased drawings of first years around the surfaces of the other desks and crudely illustrated hearts pulsed around sets of initials. He wondered idly why no one had bothered to clean them; or perhaps this was a classroom where they stored desks that had too much graffiti that couldn't be removed.
He walked out of the classroom, thinking about Exo. Of course Exo didn't blame Albus for what happened—that would be incredibly irrational—but he was even more closed off than usual; he walked with a heavier stance and he didn't smile nearly as often. He didn't talk to many people, and when he did, the conversation was short, to the point, and not very enjoyable. He had really put all of his stock in Solomon being able to cure him. Even after the massacre at the festival in their second year, he had still retained hope that he would be able to find Solomon and get the man to cure him personally and individually. But now that this had occurred, he had no hope whatsoever that he would ever be free of his condition. Perhaps it was better off that way, though Albus felt himself very pessimistic for imagining that Exo was better off without hope. But perhaps he'd learn to live with it now; maybe this would help him cope in the long run.
The other classroom on the right side of the corridor was larger and held all sorts of broken telescopes, abaci, Dark Detectors, and other magical and non-magical instruments used in the classrooms. There were no desks or chairs, but there was a chalkboard with a lot of rude messages written on it, most of them regarding certain individuals who could stick certain objects in certain locations. He read a few of them over several times and rehearsed them to himself so that he could use them on other people, and then departed the classroom for the next.
The third classroom, the farther classroom on the left, was as large as the second and held a lot of old newspapers. Albus sat for a while and sifted through them curiously, but they were all at least a hundred years old and none of them really interested him. There was another chalkboard in this room, this one listing a whole bunch of incantations with crudely worded descriptions of their effects. He studied a few of these as well, and then moved on to the last classroom of the locked corridor.
This last classroom was small, like the first. There were countless boxes of books; some of them were so full that they were bulging and torn with the volume of the volumes inside. But that wasn't what caught Albus's eye.
In the center of the classroom, there was a large, magnificent mirror in an ornate gold frame, so high it nearly reached the ceiling. The surface was incredibly smooth and clear, like it had just been polished. Albus glanced up at the top of the mirror, and saw an inscription carved into the frame: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.
"The Mirror of Erised," he said breathlessly. What was it doing here? Was this where it had been moved after his father had obtained the Philosopher's Stone from it?
Curious as to what he might see, he stepped directly in front of the mirror.
Knowing that it wasn't real, he had to remind his heart not to stop when people began appearing next to him. First, his family surrounded him. Then he was holding hands with Janelle. Alec, Aidan, and Exo appeared, followed by Eftan and Scorpius Malfoy, and a couple of grown men and other members of his friends and family, until the mirror was full of smiling people.
Albus looked upwards; the mirror showed him standing outside at night, and the moon was full, shining down upon a human Exorian Wilcox. The more he looked at the mirror, the more he realized how complex was his desire. Exo was no longer a werewolf. Albus and Janelle looked happy together in the mirror. His family was happy, unburdened, and not tense about being out in the open at night. Eftan looked happy and was back amongst his friends, and Scorpius had found more than a single friend. And the other random people standing around—there was Damien Tashra, and Sahil Vivekkamal, and Lyman Dane… people who had died because of him.
But Albus knew that this lengthy desire could be summed up with simplicity. He just wanted his and everyone else's lives to be happy, whole, and normal.
He walked out of the room and exited the locked corridor.
Where else was there to go? His wandering mind still commanded his wandering body to go further. He had discovered the Mirror of Erised—he'd have to tell his father. What else did his father find during his time at Hogwarts? The basilisk's chamber… the Room of Requirement…
His father had said the Room of Requirement was destroyed by a fire. Was that true? His father's stories had included how he entered the Room of Requirement, so he knew how to get in. He wondered if it was still operational at all.
He exited the corridor, and closed the door behind him.
He hadn't been thinking at all. Why hadn't he checked the Marauder's Map to see if anyone was outside the door? Professors Desulgon and Westerling rounded the corner just as the door shut, and they turned their heads sharply like predators noticing prey.
"Did you hear that door?" said Professor Desulgon.
"I did indeed," said Professor Westerling. "Did someone just…"
Albus backed away quickly. Professor Westerling had already apprehended him once under the Cloak this year. He ducked around another corner just as Professor Westerling whispered, "Homenum Revelio."
A red-orange halo burned above his head; he ducked further down the corridor so that the teachers wouldn't see the glow. He checked the Marauder's Map briefly, and saw that no one was headed down this way. Breathing a sigh of relief, he continued on his path up to the seventh floor after waving at the ethereal halo above his head until it vanished.
He walked very quietly so as not to attract attention, especially as Peeves zoomed over his head blowing raspberries. As a result, Professor Desulgon and Professor Westerling, who were apparently also headed to the seventh floor, reached it before Albus did. He stood next to a suit of armor to let them pass. They were speaking under their breath.
"…not sure how effective it is," Professor Desulgon was saying. "I'd never really heard of the charm being used that way before I talked with you."
Professor Westerling whispered something back as they passed, and Albus only caught one word: his name.
He frowned. Were they talking about him?
He didn't dare make his presence known; Professor Desulgon would probably Obliviate him right then and there. Instead he continued on his quest to the Room of Requirement.
He stopped in front of the patch of wall he'd heard contained the room: just opposite the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy. He walked past it three times, repeating the same sentence in his head: I want to see what became of the Room of Requirement. I want to see what became of the Room of Requirement. I want to see what became of the Room of Requirement…
On his third trip past, the door appeared.
It was a rather ordinary door, though brightly polished like the mirror, and it had a brass handle. If he remembered the stories from his childhood correctly—including Aunt Hermione's claim that the door could no longer be opened, as she had tried it when she had returned to Hogwarts for her seventh year—he tugged on the door, and he could move it no more than he could have moved a wall with a brass handle on it.
But then again, he had an advantage over the people who had previously tried reopening the room. He took the Bloodblade out of his robes once more. Carefully, he slid it in between the wall and the door, as there was no lock to pick. But something seemed to happen despite the lack of a lock; there was a clicking sound, like something tumbling into place, and a breath of air was released from the door as it settled into place.
Slowly, he opened the door.
It happened so fast that he never saw it coming: a wisp of flame blasted from the opposite end of the room, striking like a coiled snake, and smashed painfully into his chest, exploding on contact into a million embers. He dropped his wand and the knife and crumpled to the floor, only conscious for a second but somehow having the presence of mind for just long enough to pull the Cloak slightly off of his body so that someone would see him lying there. The door to the Room of Requirement lay slightly ajar, its inside charred black and completely empty.
He heard voices as if from afar; he clutched at the empty space in front of him, trying to drag himself closer to the voices, trying to claw his way back into life.
"—such an injury—"
"—and I don't know how much hope we can—"
An injury… something had happened to him.
With the greatest effort it had ever taken to perform so simple an action, he began to wrench his eyelids apart.
"Oh, my God," said Madam Birchbaum, checking a little device attached to Albus's heart. "Oh my God. H-He's—he's—d—"
"Dead?!" yelped Albus, sitting up straight, the word "death" ironically injecting him full of life. "Shit—am I dead?!"
Wilcox stared at him, and a single eye twitched. "Er," he said. "Apparently not."
"Holy hell, Albus," said a voice from the other side of Albus's bed. Albus turned to see his brother and sister standing there; James threw his arms around him, as did Lily. "Holy hell," said James again. "Bloody hell. Holy blood. Helly hole."
"Get your arms off of him!" shrieked Madam Birchbaum. "Get your arms off of him right this second! He could be incredibly fragile!" She checked the heart monitor. "Good God, he's alive."
"Albus," sighed Wilcox, "you really need to break this habit of coming as close as humanly possible to dying."
"What happened?" asked Albus, shaky on the details. In fact, as he tried to remember any detail, he found that he couldn't. When had he gotten injured?
"You were struck by Fiendfyre," said Madam Birchbaum. She grasped her hair and pulled. "You IDIOT! Why did you have to open the door to the Room of Requirement?! You knew what had destroyed it!"
"The Room of Requirement?" asked Albus. "When did I…?"
"Are you experiencing memory loss?" asked Alana, whom Albus suddenly noticed across the room. "Can you tell us what happened right before you went to the Room of Requirement?"
"I didn't even know I went there," said Albus.
"What is the last thing you remember?" asked Madam Birchbaum, still attacking his chest with what looked like knitting needles and toothbrushes.
Albus screwed up his face in concentration. "I… don't remember."
Madam Birchbaum's arms went limp in exasperation for a moment, and she held her instruments away from Albus's chest to avoid puncturing him. "Albus, by definition, the last thing you remember is not something that you don't remember. Please think about it for a moment and tell me the last thing you remember."
Albus reached back in his mind. A good starting point was his last class of the term—a double period of Modern Magical Instruments with Professor Norton. He could begin there, and move forward, tracing his path until he couldn't remember.
After his last class, he had celebrated with his friends in Gryffindor by playing a few games of Exploding Snap. Exo had gone to bed, and Albus had tried to talk to him but was shunned. Instead, he'd decided to wander the castle… but where had he gone?
"Just before most of my friends went to bed," said Albus.
"Is it a full lapse in memory, or are things just fuzzy?" asked Madam Birchbaum.
Albus recalled that he'd taken his Cloak with him. He looked to his side and saw the Invisibility Cloak in James's arms and the Bloodblade on a table nearby. He recalled through a haze that he had used both.
"Fuzzy," said Albus.
Madam Birchbaum nodded as she continued to work on his chest. "Good—then we can rule out possession. Were you being controlled or was it your own stupidity at work?"
"I don't think I was being Imperiused or anything."
"Albus, you need to stop getting yourself killed," whispered Lily. "It's going to get you killed one day."
"By all means it should have," laughed Madam Birchbaum. "Like father, like son, I suppose."
"What do you mean?" asked Albus.
"You survived being hit by the Fiendfyre Curse," she said. "No one has ever been directly struck by Fiendfyre and lived. Much like the Killing Curse. Like father, like son. But it's going to leave a scar—a scar that you very well may carry for the rest of your life. Like father, like son."
She Conjured a mirror and held it so that he could see the reflection of his chest, on which there was a nasty red scar that was shaped and colored like a wisp of flame.
A mirror, thought Albus dimly. That's strange… I feel like I should be remembering something about a mirror.
"At least yours is easier to hide," she said. "But probably more painful. We have no idea what the aftereffects of this curse will be. All we can do is hope it doesn't slowly destroy you from the inside."
"Yes, let's hope that," said James, shooting an angry look at Madam Birchbaum as Lily started to tremble.
"I don't think it will," said Madam Birchbaum. "It's not a Spreader. Some curses spread from their point of origin, and forcing them back can be quite an ordeal. But this scar is sitting still. It's just that—a scar. I think you'll be fine, now that you're awake. I'm using all my knowledge of curses to try and reduce whatever effects may come about in the future, but I don't think they'll be lethal."
"Thank you, Cynthia," said Wilcox.
"Yes, thank you," said Albus. "Sorry for all the trouble I've caused you…"
"It's okay," said Cynthia, sighing. "I took the job knowing full well that the Potter kids would be attending Hogwarts soon—I should have expected it."
Albus chuckled a little bit; James smiled in appreciation and Lily shook with suppressed tears.
"Hey, Madam Birchbaum?" asked Albus. "I have one request…"
"Would you mind if I took a potion for dreamless sleep tonight?"
Madam Birchbaum nodded. "I'm surprised you didn't ask me earlier, given what had happened," she said. "It's available to students for general purposes, you know, so any time you want it, you can come down and ask for it—no explanation necessary. Certainly you may have it tonight."
"You're quite welcome, Albus," said Madam Birchbaum. "In fact, why don't I get you that potion now, seeing as you haven't really slept much tonight anyway? Rest up, Albus Potter. All of you, get out. He'll see you on the train home tomorrow."
Rohan and Alana rode the Hogwarts Express back with the students for protection. Alana was overly concerned about Albus and kept checking up on him, but Rohan sat crossly in the back of the train—Lucy had just broken up with him. Louis and Gil, on the other hand, seemed overly happy, having just graduated and just gotten together. They were both planning to enter training for admittance to the Auror Office, so they would see each other often. Albus overheard them talking again as he left the train.
"You know, they have a partner system at the office," said Louis, tousling Gil's new neon green hair. "After our first year of training, we get to select someone with the same amount of training to be our partner in the office."
"Oh, boy," said Gil, grinning. "I can't wait. I know a really smart, handsome, sweet guy who everyone's going to want to partner with… and whoever gets him is going to be super lucky."
"I'd be honored," said Louis, bowing.
"Well, I was referring to myself, but I guess you can be the lucky guy to get me," said Gil, and he laughed and kissed Louis one more time before they approached their families to get congratulated on their graduations.
Sylvester walked by Albus's other side, talking with the Greengrass triplets.
"…never says a word to me anymore," he was saying, "and he still hasn't returned my bloody mirror…"
Mirror, thought Albus again. That's something I had to remember… I know it is… I feel like it was important for Dad to know… what was I supposed to remember?
He broke out of his thoughts when he saw his mother and father again; he could think about it later. After all, some little thing he should have remembered about a mirror couldn't have been that important, could it?
"Oh, Albus," said Ginny, hugging him tightly. "You just can't get enough of living on the edge, can you?" She released him and put her hands to her hips. "Let's see it, then, shall we? The scar?"
Albus blushed; he didn't like it when people asked him to see the scar. But this was his mother, so he pulled up his shirt. On his left side, just below his heart, the flame-shaped scar sat there.
"Oh goodness," said Ginny, laying a finger on it.
A sharp burning pain seared across his chest, and he jumped back. "Ouch," he hissed through his teeth.
"Merlin's beard, look at that," said Ginny, pointing to Harry's scar and back to Albus's. "You match. As if the eyes weren't enough. Sorry if I hurt you, dear."
"I'm fine," said Albus, lowering his shirt before other people started to stare.
"I certainly hope you are," said Harry. "But Fiendfyre is so volatile that if any of it were still alive on your skin after the initial burn, it would have eaten you alive right then and there. We should really be thankful you survived."
Albus glanced over at Alana, who was staring at the Malfoys in the distance. He narrowed his eyes and peered after them. Someone else was with them—was that Eftan? Was Eftan going home with the Malfoys? Where were his parents?
"Come on, everyone, to the car," said Harry. "Adelaide and Kerrington are waiting for us so that we can actually take a car."
"That's stupid," said James as they walked out of the station. "If they want us to be able to take a car so that we can feel normal, the presence of an armed guard kind of shatters that illusion. We're not normal and we know it."
"I'm sorry," said Harry.
James grimaced. "Sorry, Dad—I didn't mean it like, that I was upset with you or with my life or anything. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
"I know you wouldn't," said Harry, cracking a smile. "You're too much of a glory hound. Now, let's get home, shall we?"
They climbed into the car; Adelaide and Kerrington smiled at them, but it didn't make things any less awkward.
"So," said Adelaide. "Did you tell them the news, Scar?"
Harry turned around from the driver's seat and smiled at Albus.
"What?" said Albus.
"That bug you planted in the Sandblood base all that time ago?" said Harry, winking at Albus before he turned back to the wheel and pulled out for the drive home. "It finally produced a lead on the main base of the Sandbloods."
"It did?" asked James excitedly; Lily clapped enthusiastically.
"It did," confirmed Harry. "Just yesterday, we got the news from the guys we have listening in. We're getting the Loch Stock Liner on hopefully tracking it, and we're getting a search party going. It's in Egypt, as we suspected. We can't say where for sure… yet. But we're getting there."
"That's great news," said Albus, happy to hear something positive.
"I'll let you know more about it as the situation develops," said Harry.
Albus stared past Adelaide out the window, his mind still wandering as his body had wandered the Hogwarts corridors.
Dismiusa was gone, and Hogwarts was safe… hopefully. But Siobor had gotten in. And he was still out there, waiting for another chance to strike. He was patient, clever, and entirely evil. How long would it take for them to bring him down? And was there truly someone else commanding him from the shadows? They had discovered, after Malseth died, that the head of the Sandbloods was not the Mastermind of all the wizards under MM… could this new adversary be behind it all? How much else was he operating behind the scenes?
There would be enough time to reflect on Dismiusa, and Siobor, and the Sandbloods, over the long summer. Albus leaned back on the headrest and tried to let sleep come to him again, if only to take his mind off of the frantically swirling thoughts that plagued his every waking second, or perhaps also to distract him from the pulsing pain in his new scar.
So, the first chapter of Albus Potter and the Hourglass Empire has already been uploaded. Check it out when you have the chance. And don't forget to check out the new prequel story, The Dark Revival, of which four (and soon to be five) chapters have been uploaded already!
Thanks for reading! See you all next book!