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He had seen his Dogfather falling, eyes blank, through the veil, thrust through the damn veil by a few uttered spells from the Dark Lord's most infamous female luitenent.
He could not accept Sirius, the only adult, parental figure in his life, as simply dead. The word echoed horribly in his mind. He could not believe it. Sirius Black wasn't dead. And yet, he was...
It was real.
Harry had wanted to rush after him, only to be restrained by Lupin's arms. He had fought and struggled with his old professor with every bit of his strength, but…
It had not been enough. It was too late. Sirius was gone. Vanished, as if he had never existed.
And that was why Harry was pursuing his murderess. He would kill her, he vowed he would; pay her back for taking away Sirius. Bellatrix had raced into another chamber – and he had followed, hot on her heels.
"Come out, come out, little Harry!" she called, in her mock baby voice, which echoed off the polished marble floors. "Did you come to avenge the death of my dear cousin? Sirius Black… name rings a bell, doesn't it? Ah, did you love him?"
Hatred rose in Harry such as he had never experienced before; he flung himself out from behind the fountain and cried, "Crucio!"
Bellatrix screamed in astonishment. The sound was music to Harry's ears. The spell had knocked her clean off her feet, but she did not writhe and shriek with pain – she was already lifting herself from the ground, breathless, no longer laughing.
Harry ducked behind the golden fountain again, just in time. Bellatrix's retaliating curse flew past, missing him by a few inches; it hit the head of the handsome statue, which was blown off and landed twenty feet away, gouging long slashes into the marble floor.
"Never used an Unforgivable Curse, have you, boy?" she sneered, abandoning her baby voice. "You need the desire to cause pain; righteous anger does not hurt me for long. I'll demonstrate how it's done, shall I? I'll teach you a lesson –"
She was interrupted in midsentence by a high and terrible voice that leaked into the chamber like the Black Plague. It was clear, cold and commanding. "Do not waste your time on the boy, Bella. Get the prophecy…"
"Yes, my Lord!" Bellatrix called, into the empty air. Her dark eyes landed on Harry.
"Spare your breath! He cannot hear you!" Harry yelled, grimacing at the severe pain that abruptly erupted in his scar. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes against it. It hurt so, so much… "He is not actually here. He cannot hear you!"
"Can I not, Potter?" a smooth voice, quietly.
Harry slowly opened his eyes, fearing what he would find.
Tall, slender and with a hood drawn over his head, his terrifying serpentine face white and gaunt, his cruel, crimson eyes narrowing… Lord Voldemort had materialised in the middle of the hall, his unyielding wand pointing at Harry who stood frozen, quite unable to move.
He was exactly the way Harry remembered him. Black, silk robes covering his form, skin as pale as death…
"Pleasure seeing you here, Potter," the Dark Lord murmured softly, his whisper lingering in the air eerily. "I am afraid you have wandered too far from your little friends."
It took all of his energy to straighten his back, so he could be in a dignified position. The pain in his forehead was crippling, now that his nemesis was merely a few metres away. "Pardon me if I do not say I feel the same pleasure."
"Brave boy," Voldemort said. "No wonder you were sorted into Gryffindor; you dare to defy me and then… Look me in the eye."
The order cracked sharply at Harry's agony-filled mind. He wanted to stare the monster down too, but he could not. He just could not.
"I said," Voldemort pronounced, more harshly, "look me in the eye. I dislike repeating myself."
Harry glanced up, but the moment his green orbs met red ones, a groundswell of excruciating anguish surged up to meet him. He immediately broke the eye contact with a stifled groan.
Chuckles arose surprisingly from the Dark Lord's throat. "Bella, look at this; Harry Potter, the saviour predicted to destroy me, cannot even endure my presence without suffering torment. How is he supposed to kill me?"
The mad giggles of the hag joined her master's.
Harry pressed cold fingers to his temple, to massage away the headache. "Why are you here, Voldemort?" he asked, roughly.
Bellatrix let out a low hiss of warning at the blatant use of her lord's name. "Shut your mouth!" she shrieked. "You dare speak his name with your unworthy lips, you dare besmirch it with your half blood tongue, you dare –"
"I dare," Harry said. "Did you know he is a half-blood too? Voldemort, yeah, his mother was a witch but the father who spawned him was a 'filthy' Muggle. Didn't expect it, did you? Did he keep telling you that he's pure-blood? He –"
Voldemort raised his wand. Before Harry could register what was happening, some spell, white and searing, lashed across his cheek, setting a wave of fire blossoming across it.
"There is a fine line between bravery and foolishness, Harry."
Harry was not a complete fool. His jaws clicked shut, as he realised he was wholly at the dark wizard's mercy.
"As an answer to your previous question concerning why I am here…" the Dark Lord paused delicately. "My followers' incompetence is remarkable, so that I am forced to come personally to claim the prophecy." He extended a hand, palm facing up.
"Give it to me voluntarily, Harry, and I may reward you with a quick chastisement," he said. "I know you have it."
Harry pursed his lips. "What makes you think I will just hand it over?"
"Will the fact that you wish to avoid thrashing under the Cruciatus be reason enough?" Voldemort glided towards him, like a slithering snake. "Trust me, Harry, it is in your best interest to give me the prophecy."
"It's too late now," Harry said, triumph evident in his voice. "I guess you'll have to torture me, then. Because it's gone."
"Excuse me?" The sheer menace in Voldemort's whisper made Harry shiver. "What did you say?"
"So, you smashed my prophecy?" Voldemort said lightly, staring at him with those pitiless scarlet eyes. "No, Bella, he is not lying… I see the truth looking at me from within his worthless mind… months of preparation, months of effort… and my Death Eaters have let Harry Potter thwart me again."
"Master, I'm so sorry, I know not, I was fighting the Animagus Black! I tried, I tried – do not punish me!" sobbed Bellatrix, flinging herself down at Voldemort's feet as he paced ever closer to Harry.
"Be quiet, Bella," Voldemort commanded dangerously. "Do you think I entered the Ministry of Magic to hear your snivelling apologies?"
"No, my Lord," Bellatrix sniffed, submissively.
And the Dark Lord paid her no more attention. Harry grimaced as he shifted his attention to him.
"You are most irksome," Voldemort said. "You bother me with your insolence, and you hinder me with your actions, time and time again. This cannot be allowed to go on."
The tension crackled in the silence. Harry had almost forgotten to breathe.
"Though I must admit," Voldemort continued, ruthlessly, "merely taking your life will not satisfy me. I am known for my creativity; I know many methods of destroying a man."
The dark wizard's words sent a jolt of dread tearing down his spine, like electricity. "And… how do you intend to destroy me?" Harry asked, frankly. The slight quiver in his voice ruined the effect; he did not sound as indifferent as he had hoped.
Voldemort smirked, arrogantly. "That," he said silkily, "if for me to know and for you to find out."
"Torture? Pain? Starvation?" Harry tried.
"No, no, Harry, not that." The Dark Lord shook his head, in an amused manner. "Those approaches are reserved for those who… react well. You, boy, are different; you respond excellently to emotional pain."
"Yes, Bella killed your godfather and you let rage cloud your logic; you hunted her down only to be met by a greater force," Voldemort said. "Imagine the result if I bring everything, everything you have ever known, crashing down. You will see your world crumbling to dust around you; you will see me rise to power, realising you cannot stop me. You will be destroyed, on the inside."
"Voldemort," Harry snarled, "you will never win. Dumbledore will stop you."
"Dumbledore?" Voldemort's pale, colourless lips twitched upwards. "No, he is only an irritation. That timeworn old man can never hope to match my supremacy. Where is he now, Harry? Why don't you tell me? Why is your mentor not rushing to save you?"
"He…" Harry trailed off.
"He is here."
It was not Voldemort who had spoken, nor Bellatrix. The familiar, soothing elderly tone made Harry's eyes light up with hope. He gazed at the headmaster who had stridden in through the doorway.
Dumbledore had come.
If only he knew the consequences of his action, he would have never taken his eyes away from Voldemort. When Dumbledore brandished his wand in an attempt to summon Harry to his side, it was already far too late.
A startled cry escaped Harry's lips as he was yanked backward by his arm, away from Dumbledore, and into the arms of another.
He nearly screamed at the unbearable agony that shot though his entire body like a bullet; he realised, with dismay that it was the Dark Lord who was holding him securely. Coming to his senses, he struggled and thrashed against Voldemort, but judging by the scoff, the dark wizard was finding his attempts rather entertaining. Bellatrix seemed to think the same, if her laughter was anything to go by.
And then, Harry was spun around so quickly, so forcefully, that he was sure he was going to throw up. The Dark Lord tore his wand from his wand, and pinned him against his own chest so that Harry's arms were seized behind him.
"Greetings, Harry," Voldemort purred in his ear.
"Let me go!" Harry shouted. "Dumbledore!" He resisted the serpentine limbs around him, straining to wrench himself free from the iron grip.
"Tom," Dumbledore said quietly, his blue eyes sparkling with anxiety, "let the boy go. He is not responsible for any of your misgivings; your fight is with me."
The Dark Lord laughed, a horribly hollow sound that echoed through the hall, bouncing off the walls.
As if encouraged by the man's words, Harry's attempts grew more violent and desperate. Unfortunately, it did not sit well with Voldemort.
For a moment, it seemed as though the wizard had run out of patience. Hissing ominously low, he grasped the boy's wrists so strictly that Harry could not prevent a scream from ripping past his unwilling lips. His actions ceased instinctively for a second.
"Good boy," Voldemort whispered, loosening his clasp just the slightest bit.
Harry allowed himself to deceivingly sag, wilting like a withered bloom into the Dark Lord's clutch. Almost instantly, Lord Voldemort seemed to think Harry had given up and lightened his former vice-like grip.
Harry chose that moment to pick up where he had left off. With one mighty jerk, he twisted away from the restraining arms and ran.
He did not make it far.
He was dragged back by enraged tentacles of Voldemort's magic and dumped, unceremoniously, once again, in the wizard's embrace. This time, the arms wound so brutally around his body that he choked.
Voldemort did not relent. He applied pressure to Harry's middle until the boy was gagging under the lack of oxygen, eyes widening desperately.
Harry knew if he survived this, which he doubted, his waist would endure severe bruising in the morning.
"End this nonsense at once, or I will not hesitate to break your fingers," Voldemort warned, shaking him harshly.
"Tom," Dumbledore protested, raising his wand, "violence is not necessary."
"Perhaps not in your world, Dumbledore, but it is essential in mine."
"Harry has nothing to do with it. Please, Tom, let him go," the headmaster continued. "It was foolish to come here tonight. The Aurors are on their way –"
"By which time I shall be gone, and you shall be dead," Voldemort finished calmly. He sent a killing curse whirling throw the air towards Dumbledore. Harry cried out a word of caution, but it was not needed.
A centaur statue, guided by the old wizard's wand, galloped in front of Dumbledore and took the blast, shattering into a hundred pieces, but before the fragments had even hit the floor, Dumbledore had drawn back his wand and waved it as though brandishing a whip. A long thin flame flew from the tip and –
"Think carefully, old man," Voldemort said coldly, positioning Harry dead centre in front of him like a shield. "If you attack, it will be your precious student who bears the blow. Would you like that?"
The hovering flame had stopped in mid-air. It flickered once, and went out.
The smile that weaved across Voldemort's sharp features was as icy as the Artic wind. "I thought not." He calmly waved his wand again, and summoned a ginormous serpent, which turned upon Dumbledore, hissing furiously.
The snake struck. Dumbledore wielded his wand in one long, fluid movement – the snake, which had been an instant from sinking its fangs into him, flew high into the air and vanished in a wisp of dark smoke.
"Professor!" Harry exclaimed. "Fight him! Why are you not –?"
"My boy, he has you."
"It doesn't matter, Professor!" Harry yelled. "It doesn't matter if it gets me; you can't just stand there and take his strikes!"
Voldemort inclined his head victoriously. "Such remarkably brave words. Sounds exactly like the foolish thing a Gryffindor would say."
Harry gave a feral snarl.
"Still… we have dawdled enough, won't you agree?" Voldemort said. "Before Dumbledore arrived, we were talking about how I was going get rid of you. I do think it is time I showed you."
Dumbledore leapt forward, blue eyes widening in alarm at the indicative comment.
The Dark Lord pressed his wand to Harry's temple and uttered, "Animal aeternum."
Harry experienced a sensation he had never known before. It begun as an itch behind his ear, before it was roaring across his whole body. His muscles ached unbelievably; he felt as if his bones were stretching and shrinking all in the space of a few seconds.
And then… as soon as it came, it was gone.
Harry felt a strain on his neck, and he tried to twist around to see what it was. He found that he couldn't. Whoever was holding him was strong beyond what was humanly possible.
"Tom, what have you done?"
He heard Dumbledore's clear voice. For the first time, the old headmaster truly sounded frightened. He could not see why – apart from the obvious fact that Voldemort was present.
He was uncomfortable, hearing Dumbledore sound so worried.
"I'm fine, Professor." At least that was what he wanted to say. What actually passed his lips instead was a pitiful meowing noise.
It gave him a disturbed feeling. Something was wrong, he could tell. The hall – it was bigger than it had been, it was too big.
And when he gazed down, he realised that he was hanging. He was a long distance from the marble floor.
"What is going on?" What was supposed to be a demand for answers came out as another soft meow.
Cruel laughter came from the Dark Lord.
Then, Harry felt himself being hoisted upwards and placed on something silky. Argh – it was the fabric of Voldemort's robes. Unwillingly, he found himself balancing on the curve of the evil wizard's arm.
He was so small.
And, abruptly, it struck him. He was a cat.
It was all Voldemort's fault.
On impulse, his back arched threateningly, and his skin – or was it fur? – puffed up. His mouth widened to reveal a well equipped set of sharp teeth. He did not hesitate to dig them deep into the skin of the Dark Lord.
Lord Voldemort gave no hint he was hurt, but before Harry knew it, he had been swiped cuttingly across the head, and was tumbling in a free fall from the Dark Lord's arm to the floor.
Naturally, somehow, he managed to land on his two – or perhaps four – feet. When he looked up, a wand was pointed in his face.
"Retro in tempus," Voldemort said.
Everything went black.
When he awoke, the first awareness was that of fondling fingers caressing the fur on the back of his neck.
"Cygnus, you should throw it out before it bites you," a male voice said. "It looks like it's got rabies."
Harry blinked a few times, eyes widening as he took in the vast bedroom and the high ceiling. He had not the faintest idea where he was.
"Rabies? I doubt it. I bet you just want him for yourself!" Cygnus retorted. "Besides, I like his fur. I haven't seen anything like it."
Someone sighed in exasperation. "I assure you, I have no intention of adopting the beast myself. Did you happen to notice the dirt on its tail?"
"Abraxas, you are so precious," Cygnus said. "If I do not mind dirt in my own home, no one else should."
"Tom hates filthy creatures."
Cygnus sobered. "Do you think he'll mind?"
Harry fixed his eyes on the second, flaxen boy who had been called Abraxas. "You will not know until you show him your new pet," Abraxas said smoothly, his expression that of arrogance. "As a word of warning, do not let your cat get to close. He might decide he dislikes it so much that he should kill it."
Cygnus glared, before reaching down for Harry again. "What should we call him?"
Abraxas laughed disdainfully. "You want to name the little beast?"
"Urgh, shut up!"
Just then, the bedroom door slowly creaked open, and a slender figure stepped inside, posture full of authority. "Name what beast?" His voice was velvety, charismatic, and rich with power.
His eyes were the shade of a taciturn blue, cruel and indifferent. His lips were petals of splendour, petals which would lose their colour in a few decades' time. The ebony curls were neatly arranged, professional and not in an atypical style.
Tom Marvolo Riddle, future Dark Lord, glided forward until he was looming directly above the cat.
Harry stared incredulously at the young teenager, and mentally cursed Voldemort. He held himself back from attacking the young man, but when the smooth, pale hand reached down to pet him, he panicked.
He lunged forward, straight as an arrow, and sprung on Riddle's arm. His claws shot out, and he sank all ten of them into the flesh, drawing blood.
Riddle yelped in surprise, shoved him away and stepped hastily back.
Cygnus was looking immensely uneasy, with an expression close to that of fear. "Oh, uh, sorry, Tom," he stuttered. "The cat is not used to having human company, I guess. I'm so sorry. Oh, look, your arm is bleeding so badly."
The teenage Dark Lord glowered at Harry, gaze darkening like a thundercloud.
After the three boys left the room to "lock the beast by itself" as Abraxas said, Harry dug his head into his paws in weariness.
This was a nightmare.