Blood of Birds

Note: Hi! The following is a 2nd generation Harry Potter fanfiction, with main characters being Rose Weasley, Scorpius Malfoy, and Albus Potter. It will be comprised of four parts, the first of which will follow Rose. There will also be seven one-shots (or side-alongs) following other characters at points throughout the series, each uploaded separately. I've also taken the liberty to include a few re-quotes, courtesy of JK Rowling and Steve Kloves of course, to pay homage to the original books and films. So without further ado, here is Chapter 1. Happy reading!

~ Lauren

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40. The Final Wizarding Race

Had he really said burn you alive? Al's eyes rolled just thinking about Scorpius Malfoy threatening the Forbidden Flock with death by flames. There was no way good-guy Scorpius could watch anyone burn to death, especially if the death was on his hands. Albus knew a thing or two about guilt, and Scorpius couldn't bear any more of it after everything he'd been through as it was. And yet, even with Al's mind telling him that Scorpius's threats were completely hollow, his legs were racing through the castle halls and up the moving staircases as the echoes of Scorpius's words continued to bounce off the stained-glass windows on every landing. Perhaps it was something else Scorpius had mentioned – something about returning a captive, speaking as though Astoria had kidnapped someone – that made Al run. While Al had always had multiple people in his life he would kill for but perhaps only one for whom he'd die, Scorpius would die for anyone, but there was only one person he might kill for.

Ravenous, angry eyes were taunting him from every portrait in the hall as he mounted steps two at a time. Some of the painted subjects even dared to spit at Al, and although the gesture was simply for show, it increasingly infuriated Al with each new floor he came to. He was on the landing of the sixth when he yelled at Glanmore Peakes, the infamous slayer of some sea serpent, "Why don't you stick your sword at one of these other barmy blokes?"

All across the stairs laid the runts of Astoria's army. Most of the Forbidden Flock had split into smaller groups and taken up respective rooms all around the castle to consult and plan for the imminent battle, so the ones who hadn't been welcomed in such groups were now riding the staircases like they were toddlers on a roller coaster. Most of them were old, foolish, and poor, so Al doubted that any of them had attended Hogwarts back in the day, and now they were reveling in the castle's majesty.

"They don't have the legacy to withhold that you do, Potter," grumbled Peakes through the thick tufts of ginger hair that covered his face and flew like mountains of autumn leaves beneath his captain's hat.

Al sighed as soon as his name had been mentioned. Now, all the runts were gathering around him with wonder, almost as if he was a god, though that god seemed to be a demon for many of them. Even the most uneducated wizards knew the name Potter, making it impossible for Al to ever forget it.

He made it halfway up the final staircase just by trudging through the crowd, but eventually Al couldn't take their feigning hands reaching out for him anymore. Turning around and pointing the Elder Wand straight into the thick of the toothless mutts, he seethed, "Levicorpus." Instantly, their bodies were snatched and hung upside-down as if an invisible rope had been tied from the ceiling to their ankles. Last summer, Al's wand would have produced the Half-Blood Prince's spell only to its usual power, affecting one or two victims at most, but now it hung nearly a hundred.

Smiling to himself, Al left the poor souls hanging and finally reached the seventh floor, where he found just the person he'd been looking for walking in slow, steady strides across the hall. It didn't matter how dire the situation, Astoria always walked slowly, her movements calm and collected even in the midst of chaos. Now, she was heading in the opposite direction of the Headmaster Tower, which she'd taken up as her own private headquarters as soon as the Flock had infiltrated the castle.

Al was about to address his leader, thinking that she hadn't seen him there, when Astoria said without looking at him, "Wait in my office. I shall return in ten minutes." She didn't mention the spell Al had cast on her most hopeless soldiers.

Too tempted, Al found himself watching Astoria as she passed the Fat Lady's portrait and stopped in front of the Barnabas the Barmy tapestry, but told himself to be on his way before he actually saw her go inside the Room of Requirement. Al didn't want to know what she was using that room for, even less who might be in it.

He didn't much want to pay a visit to McGonagall's old office, either, but he figured that he had no choice in that particular matter. Still, he made a real effort to avoid the eyes coming from this room's portraits as he walked straight for the window that overlooked the Quidditch pitch. The fire he'd started had long since been put out, but Al could still see the lights flickering around the white tarp that housed all of Neville and Luna's guests. By now, Scorpius would have recruited the rest of the Order of the Phoenix and notified the Ministry of Astoria's attack, but only the former would do him any good. Astoria had already triggered the freezing spell that the late Calder had set on the Ministry, so Shacklebolt and his posse wouldn't be coming to save the day any time soon.

Around the pitch and beneath the falling snow, Al noticed a few figures stationed as guards, their wands pointed into the sky. In perfect unison, the Aurors blasted spell after spell at the stars, and soon a translucent half-sphere had covered the Order's side of the Hogwarts grounds. Their protective charms stretched around the entirety of the Quidditch pitch, wrapping all the way around Hagrid's Hut and well into the surrounding Forbidden Forest. Al didn't like that Scorpius had taken the forest for himself, but it wouldn't be a detrimental loss to the Flock. Vega, Astoria's war strategist, had drawn the spiders out and was storing them in Hogsmeade, where half of the army was currently being kept to launch their own borders. It was only Zephorien Al was worried about, even though he had left the dragon far outside the Hogwarts property line, where he was sure to be safe. Plus, dragons were known to be able to take care of themselves when need be.

Though truth be told, Al's worries extended further than just Zephyr. Ever since Astoria had learned just how special Al's connection with the dragon was, she'd been using it to his advantage, and then she'd done the same with Lily. Al's little sister was out there somewhere, hiding with her friends and family underneath the tarp or, if she was smart, she'd already started running. Either way, she was safe; Al had made sure of that. He'd paid Lily's debt to Astoria without questioning its price: an eye for an eye, a kill for a kill, a heart for a heart.

"Don't worry. She will survive this." The voice came from behind Albus, where he'd been trying not to look. The woman's speech was well-annunciated, pure, and precise, much like the track of the single tear that trickled down Al's cheek as he heard her.

He finally turned around when she repeated, "Lily will survive this war, and she will do so because of you. You saved her life."

"Only by taking yours!" Al yelled back at McGonagall through her giant, gold-framed portrait that hung directly above her old desk. She looked different in the painting than she had on that dance floor – younger, maybe even happier, or at least more peaceful. She was smiling when Al asked desperately, "Why didn't you fight back? You just stood there, looking at me. You didn't yell for help, you didn't run, you didn't even point your wand in my direction."

The memory of her face when he'd sent the green spark her way would be etched into his mind forever, of that he was certain. Al would never forget the way all of her wrinkles went still, or the way she turned her eyes toward the center of the dance floor as if searching for someone and closed them when she didn't find him, or the way her head felt in his hand when he'd caught it just before she fell to the ground… just before he'd fled in a trail of flames.

Al hadn't expected an answer to his most recent question, so he was especially surprised when McGonagall gave him a number of responses. "Because I have been dying longer than you've been alive," she told him. "Because Astoria would have killed you if I hadn't let you or Lily kill me. Because Scorpius would never have declared war without a little push. And because my fate was sealed the moment you found a way back into the castle this fall. You're a lot more powerful than you think you are, Potter."

"Don't call me that," Al spat out before he knew what he was saying. The words left his mouth like a reflex, and once they were gone, he didn't know why he'd said them. Was it only because he didn't want to be associated with the name, or was there more to his anger than that? Was there envy, because only Ilana was allowed to call him by his surname? Was there denial, because after so many years of trying to tarnish the name, Al had finally cemented his legacy of disappointment?

He'd been looking at the wooden floor as shame swept upon him, but when Al looked back up at McGonagall, he saw that the eyes of her neighboring portrait subjects had all gone from closed with sleep to open with curiosity. Severus Snape's black orbs were on him once more, as were Albus Dumbledore's blue bulbs, Armando Dippet's muddy pits, and Newt Scamander's grassy blades. They made Al suddenly realize that it was one thing to spend an entire childhood feeling like the world was watching him, and another entirely to stand on the cliffs of adulthood and actually see his own reflection in the eyes of his watchers.

Cocking her head to each side as she took in the presence of her predecessors, McGonagall smirked and said to Al, "You understand what I mean now, Potter? Just one voice has the power to awaken manifold generations."

Al was staring at Snape with such intent focus that he noticed his namesake close his eyes long before Al heard Astoria turning the knob on the other side of the office door. When she was inside the room and had retaken her desk chair, all of the Headmasters pretended to fall back asleep.

"I assume you heard Scorpius's lovely message," she droned at Al while staring at the chess boards that had taken center stage on her desk. The white queen had nearly reached the edge of her opposing end of the board, but Al could tell that it was Astoria's turn, because in her hand she was clasping a rather regal black knight.

Upon silently convincing himself to look away from the portraits, Al sat down across from Astoria and said, "The whole world heard it." When Astoria didn't so much as laugh at his attempt at dark humor, he proclaimed, "I assume you're planning to hold on to whomever you've taken hostage."

That did make Astoria laugh. "I wouldn't have captured them if I didn't plan on keeping them." Al paid note to the fact that Astoria had refrained from speaking the gender of her captive, let alone the name. He paid even more note to what she said next. "And while I am keeping my captive, I would like you to lead the army into battle, taking the very head of the Flock vanguard."

"What?" asked Al. It was the only word he could think of, for this was the last thing he'd expected Astoria to say. When Al had decided to pay Lily's debt for her, he'd been lucky for his sister to be distracted by James long enough for him to go behind her back, but there was another risk he'd taken by killing McGonagall in Lily's place. Astoria always liked things to go according to plan, and by eliminating Lily from the equation, Al had ruined her latest plan. In order to make it up to her, he'd provided Astoria with access into Hogwarts castle, leading her and the rest of the army into Hogsmeade and through Ariana Dumbledore's portrait tunnel that ended in the Room of Requirement. She had thanked him for such ingenuity, but Al had remained unconvinced that her trust in him had been restored, at least until now.

"I'm not going to repeat myself for the sake of your poor hearing, Albus," Astoria said. "Vega is in the Hog's Head awaiting your orders, and you only have seven hours until the sun rises and Scorpius's threat must be tested. I suggest you get moving."

Without another word, Al stood from his chair and nodded in acknowledgement as Astoria explained, "You'll have to use your favorite passageway, of course. Oh, but this time, think of a dark room with a red curtain hanging down across its center." He was about to leave with her orders kept in his mind when he saw that Astoria had yet to make her move in the game of chess she was playing against some invisible opponent.

Al held out his open palm above the board, and reluctantly Astoria placed the black knight into his hand. Then he set it down on the board right beside the white queen, where the miniature horse reared onto its hind legs and smashed its hooves against the queen's back until she toppled face-first onto the board in a hundred shattered pieces. Al had never been particularly skilled at chess, but there was one tactic that Scorpius and his Uncle Ron had taught him early: as soon as you get the chance, kill the queen.

The walk back to the hallway went by much faster than the one up had gone. Al's victims were still hanging below the ceiling as they sent him lop-sided sneers, and Al was too busy marvelling in the magic to notice Ryder until he ran right into her. She was sitting on the floor with her back to the tapestry and her eyes were on the wall where the door to the Room of Requirement was hidden. Al hadn't seen her since her boyfriend had been killed, and he was glad of that as soon as he took in the sight of her swollen, drooping eyelids.

Al didn't say anything for fear that she might attack him; Ryder had always been fiercely rash, to say the least. But of course, he was attacked anyway, Ryder slowly rolling her wand across the length of her palm as she said to him, "You betray Astoria's trust, you put my brother in prison, you let Calder die right in front of you, and you get rewarded for it. You get an army, while I have to sit here like some stupid guard dog."

"Ryder, look-" Al tried to say before he was cut off, Ryder lifting her hands into the air. He wasn't going to argue over or even apologize for the majority of his wrongdoings, because they were all true and because she wasn't ever going to forgive him, but there was one thing she'd said that he couldn't let slide. Al never put Knox in prison. Rookie chose to do so himself in order to pay his debt to both Astoria and Al; Al would never have done that to the man who had, at the time, been his best and only friend.

Ryder's hands were in the air a full minute before she spoke again. Her teeth were grating against each other and her lips were trembling when she finally turned to look up at Al and said, "But I won't be a guard dog forever. Astoria wants me to remain in the castle at sunrise, but surely she'll only need me here for a couple of hours. Once I'm free, I'll be the first one on that battle ground, and your sweet sister will be the first person I kill."

A small ant was crawling quickly across the marble floor when Ryder went silent once more, and she killed the creature with a single whisper and a flick of her wrist. That was what made Al understand that her threat to murder Lily wasn't just some facetious comment; it was a promise.

Her wand was pointed at him throughout his three paces across the hall, even still as the double door appeared and opened before him and he slipped inside. Al's relief upon getting away from Ryder was only temporary, though, because the room he walked into was just as threatening and was filled with just as much hate. The side Al was on was basically empty, a long and narrow expanse of nothingness with no windows and no light but for the one he'd cast with his wand. The floors and ceiling were concrete painted white, and the walls were made of mirrors that all seemed red thanks to the curtain that acted as a separator, though what it separated, Al didn't know. The only thing on this side of the room that was of any interest to him was the portrait hanging in the middle of the longest mirrored wall, its frame around an abstract painting that Al would be more than happy to disappear inside.

He was about to do just that when he heard screaming from behind the curtain. The sound was high-pitched, sharp, and as filled with pain as it was painful to hear. The scream seemed to go on forever, no doubt thanks to its impressive echo, and Albus hated every second of it. He felt much like he did when Astoria had tortured Zephorien – like he was connected to this soul and therefore could feel everything they felt, branded together through magic or simply telepathic from years of hard-earned friendship.

Wynn Traylor stepped out from behind the curtain as soon as Al had his hand on the red velvet and was about to pull it to the side. Upon seeing the aging albino, Al stumbled back a few steps and tried to hide both his curiosity and his gaze. Wynn was intimidating for a legitimate reason, and there was no question in Al's mind that the screams had been his doing.

"You never have been able to look me in the eye," Wynn said in his husky growl, an odd match to his sing-song Welsh accent. Al wasn't focused on either his voice or his bloody eyes at that moment, though. He was more concerned with the blood that Wynn was magically wiping off his hands… the blood that was most definitely not his own.

Once his hands were clean, Wynn procured a stiff, stony chair for himself to sit on and placed it right beside the portrait. This way, Al would have to walk directly past him in order to escape his presence. He wasn't quite ready to get so close, which Wynn of course understood. He seemed to want to tell Al a story, and he was giving Al no choice but to listen.

"That's all right. I don't blame you," he was saying as he settled into his chair. "No one could when I was a boy. Of course, being invisible is quite an ironic experience, because when people refuse to look at you, it usually means that you're all they ever talk about. There were rumors about me – about where I came from – dating back to a time I can't even remember. The most widely acknowledged was the one that proclaimed I had been born in the ocean, and had washed up on the shores of the South Stack Lighthouse, famous for its white color that made it stand apart from all the other buildings in Holyhead."

"Holyhead? As in, home of the Holyhead Harpies?" asked Al suddenly. He hadn't meant to interrupt, but of course he knew this town. In fact, he had visited this town, though it had been many years ago, when Ginny had still been playing professionally on the all-female Quidditch team.

"The one and only," replied Wynn. "Those girls were the worst of everyone, but I learned to live with them. I adopted the rumor as a truth and started living in the lighthouse until my letter from Hogwarts was dropped off by a snowy owl. School wasn't much better than home, but at least I had magic then, and by that time I was teaching myself to be an Animagus as well. I learned how to accept the invisibility I'd been born with, but now I know better. The truth, Black Hawk, is that you can't fight a war on your own."

At this point, Al was having a hard time listening to Wynn. Though the older wizard didn't seem to notice the noise, the screaming had started again just after Al had spoken. It was almost as if the prisoner wanted to be heard, and not just by anyone but by Al. Surely, Wynn had put a tongue-tying curse on him or her to stop them from actually speaking, and the screams sounded that much more painful as they pushed through the curse.

Seeing that Al was distracted, his head turned toward the curtain rather blatantly, Wynn finished his story and stood from the chair. Then he walked past Al and petted the curtain while saying, "And that's exactly how I'm going to get our prisoner here to crack – leave her to her loneliness, and see how long it takes for her to self-destruct."

Because Wynn had provided him with a clue as to who the prisoner was, or maybe just because Al was well versed in loneliness and self-destruction, he looked Wynn straight in his bright red eyes and said, "You're despicable."

"Aren't we all?" replied Wynn with a pink smile plastered from cheek to cheek. It didn't matter if Wynn was pleased with his answer, though, since Al had already turned around and was opening the portrait hole to be on his way.

This walk was the longest of the night. The whole way through the cold, dusty tunnel to Hogsmeade, Al couldn't get the girl's screams out of his head. And then there was all the red – Astoria's curtain, Wynn's eyes, the prisoner's blood – and the way she had seemingly tried to gain Al's attention when she'd heard his voice. It was Rose. It had to be Rose. And while Al had no idea how Astoria would have caught her since he'd been careful to keep tabs on her and therefore knew that she'd been locked inside the castle all night, he was more concerned about what Astoria might do with Rose now that she had her. The only thing that was more disconcerting than that particular thought was what Wynn had said about loneliness.

For months, years even, Al had been fighting a war on his own, and the albino was right: he couldn't win. It didn't matter which side he was on or who he aligned with, because at the end of the day Albus would always be alone. He would always be the third wheel to his siblings and to his ex-best mates, and he would always be Astoria's lackey. He didn't want to let Rose be tortured like he'd allowed so many other terrible things to happen, but he also didn't want to lead Astoria's army. He wanted to lead his own army, because that was the only way he could acquire enough power to protect himself from whoever he decided was his enemy.

So, when Al jumped down from the other end of the portrait hole and saw Vega sitting at a table with her entourage of dark wizards, Al ran past them before he was noticed and didn't say a word of hello. High Street was wide awake in the night, crowded by Flock criminals attempting to rob the shops and magizoologists trying to tame a host of spiders. In the background, Al could hear the chanting war songs of real soldiers from the Quidditch pitch and the roars of giants from a far-off cave. Normally, such surroundings would have thrown off his focus, but Al was determined to accomplish the latest goal for himself. He wasn't ready to lead this army on his own, but with a little help, he might be.

Zephyr was right where Al had last left him. If at all possible, it seemed to Al as though the dragon had doubled in size over the past few months, almost as if he underwent growth spurts whenever he sensed battle on the horizon. Or, maybe he just had a larger appetite when he was scared.

The dragon was thrilled to see his master, bowing to Albus and pressing the flat side of his head against Al's chest so that his scales matched up perfectly with Al's branded tattoo that was hidden behind his black cloak. Then, sensing Al's wishes through their telepathic bond, Zephyr brought his head back up in the sky with his stretched neck, wrapped his long, spiky tail around Al's hips, and hoisted the boy onto his back.

Patting his hand against Zephyr's scales as the dragon readied himself to fly, Al said, "All right, buddy, it's high time you show me where you came from."

They were lifting off beneath the rounded moon within seconds, and soon they were soaring over darkened Scottish countryside and dimly lit streets of small villages. Al knew the general direction in which they should fly, but it turned out he didn't need to; Zephorien knew exactly where he was headed. Once they passed Dufftown – the closest Muggle village to Hogwarts that appeared from above to be shaped like a winter's boot – there was about an hour's worth of rolling hills to cover before they reached the snowy mountains of Fort William. Twenty minutes of furious flying later, Al was rearing Zephorien onto the westernmost shores of Mull Isle, the middle island of the Inner Hebrides.

Al had purposefully grounded in a rather barren area of the island, just to make sure that no Muggle sleepwalkers happened to see the giant dragon he'd brought with him. There were no buildings in any direction of Al's line of vision; all he could see was darkness reflected against the snow and water, all he could hear were the waves lapping against the stony cliffs, and all he could smell was the saltiness of the sea being blown up his nose by the chilling wind.

During the few minutes he gave Zephyr to hunt, Al stood at the very edge of the island and looked out at the vast ocean before him, wondering where he would start to look for Zephorien's relatives. He couldn't help but think back on the last time he'd been to the ocean, meeting Astoria and Knox in Dover before they set off for Romania. It felt like a thousand years ago, yet somehow Al was thinking of the same thing – or rather, the same person – now as he had been thinking of then. He was thinking of Ilana, and how much she would love it here, with the wind and the water and the cliff. Al had always felt like their relationship sat on the edge of some cliff somewhere, and the only thing that had kept them both from falling into the water below was the wind that blew their bodies back to land.

The only thing that managed to distract Al from his favorite imaginations was the sight of more lapping waves that were mysteriously different from the ones he currently stood over. These whitecaps were also pounding against stony shores, but the shores appeared to be attached to a dark, grim building that towered above the water like a whale breaching into the sky. The building was too far away for Al to even guess at what it was being used for, and by the time he realized that he wanted to get a closer look at it, Zephorien was nowhere to be found.

At least, that was until Al felt the familiar stabbing pain in his chest and turned around to see flames roaring down the side of a distant hill and causing avalanches of snow to melt down its side. "Bloody hell, Oreo, what have you done now?" Al cursed as he started running toward the fire.

The snow was impossible to run through as it clung to Al's ankles like Inferi clinging to living flesh, but he found his way to his other half somehow. Zephorien was still spitting fire when Al made it to him, and it took a minute for Al to understand why the dragon was in such anguish. His right hind ankle had been caught in a foothold trap, only this was no normal hunting trap.

It was made primarily of a circular band of steel that must have been ten times the size of normal traps used for wild dogs and game. Attached to the band was a chain fastened deep into the ground, and Al could hear its coil springs squeaking as loudly as shipping boats rocking against a pier. Zephorien was only making matters worse as he tried to pull on the trap in order to get free, sufficing to tighten the trap's jaw around his claws. After a few minutes of soothing words and calmed breathing, Al was able to make Zephyr stand still just long enough for him to snap the trap in half with a Reductor Curse.

Finally free, Zephyr set off to pace atop the hill's summit as if he needed to make sure he could still walk, and Al tried to inspect the trap (though there was little left to inspect after blowing it to bits) that had clearly been built specifically for dragons. He was worried about who might have made it, but he was even more curious about how many dragons it had already caught, and how close those captives might be now.

Al was testing the strength of the trap's spring when he heard a parade of footsteps marching up from below, followed by the sounds of celebratory cooing. Thanks to Zephyr's preoccupied pacing, Al wasn't able to run away before three figures came upon him. He wasn't at all afraid of them, though. In fact, if he was lucky, these hunters might be able to lead Al to the exact spot he was looking for.

They were too excited by the sight of Zephorien to notice Al crouched in the snow beneath them. Al was eyeing their choice of clothing – scraps of leather sewn together, ratty old bandanas, and coats that reeked of body odor from five meters away – when Zephyr first smelled them. He must have come across them before being saved and brought to Romania, because he didn't seem to like the crew at all. He was spewing out even more fire and stomping his feet against the ground even harder than he had when trapped. He didn't even want to run from them; on the contrary, it seemed to Al as if he wanted to kill them.

"Here, boy! Play nice now," said the eldest male of the three to the dragon. He was who Al assumed was the leader, with his tall top hat and clothes a washed-out black color as if stained with tea bags. He looked around the same age as Al's parents, but even after all those years, he had no idea how to train a dragon.

The younger man closely resembled the older one, though his hat was smaller and his smile far more mischievous. It was the sight of him that made Al realize that these wizards were pirates; this one was wearing an eye patch just to be sure that everyone he met knew what he was.

When Zephyr roared flames straight for that eye patch, the younger man scurried away twice as quickly as he'd come, having suddenly disappeared into the depths of the nearby wood. The older one was still trying to calm Zephyr down as he stroked his scruffy beard in thought, but the third pirate seemed to think that it was time to take matters into her own hands.

"I say, off with its head!" the woman yelled while swinging a long stick at Zephyr that looked remarkably like a croquet mallet from where Al was sitting.

Her threat was what made Al finally stand up and pull Zephyr back, telling the dragon through his own thoughts to fly overhead for a while, but warning him not to stray too far. Zephyr turned away from the pirates to look at Al before he spread his vast wings and lifted from the ground, and Al smiled when he saw the pirates staring at him in shock.

"Who are you, and how'd ya do tha'?" yelled the woman once Zephorien was gone. "And where's it goin'?"

"More importantly, where did a youngin' like you learn your ways with such beasts?" asked the man with the top hat.

Al was only a few feet away from them now, and he knew he already had them wrapped around his finger. Thinking fast, he replied, "My name's Felix Higgs. I – I'm a Muggle-born, and I'm only trying to get away from my school. War's broken out you see, and as for my dragon, well, I've always been good at Care of Magical Creatures."

The woman looked at Al suspiciously, but the man bought his lies hook, line, and sinker. He looked rather pleased about meeting 'Felix' as he said, "Right, well me name's Greer Lidell, and me family's been livin' on these isles for hundreds of years without ever bein' able to tame a dragon like you 'ave.

"This 'ere's me wife, Eleri," he gestured to the woman, though she was already glaring at him like he'd just signed their mutual death sentence. "And the one who ran off is me little brother, Fergus. Together, we're the last surviving clan of Hebridean pirates!"

Al was surprised by his open admittance, and Eleri seemed to be as well, since she hit her husband hard on the shoulder with that mallet of hers and sneered at him, "Yer not suppose' to tell him that!"

"I thought it was only the ship I wasn't suppose' ter tell 'im abou'?" asked Greer before receiving yet another hit of Eleri's mallet, harder this time. Al was grimacing just thinking about what that must have felt like and Greer was rubbing his wound as he tried to distract himself from the pain, turning back to Al and asking, "Would you perchance like some tea?"

"Er, I-" started Al before he really knew how to respond.

Luckily, Eleri responded for him, taking a few lethargic steps forward and saying through squinted eyes, "That dragon's not yours to keep, ya know. He belonged to us first."

Sensing the tension in Eleri's voice, Greer suddenly turned around and walked away while mumbling that he was going to make some tea. Al wasn't all that thirsty, but just looking at Eleri reminded him of the way Astoria looked at her victims, so he found himself thinking that tea sounded like a terrific idea.

Being careful about his choice of words, Al looked Eleri straight in her green eyes that were somewhat muddied by her unkempt, spiky brown hair, and explained, "I know he belonged to you first; that's why I'm here. Zephorien here has taken a great liking in me, for whatever reason, but I fear he won't be safe with just me. So, I've come to find the rest of his litter." He hadn't lied all that much this time, but of course Eleri was even angrier than she'd been before.

"Oh, I see!" she said with widened eyes. "So, you think you can jus' march into our territory, say a nice hello, impress us with your babysitting skills, and we'll jus' give you the rest of our dragons? Are you mental, boy?"

Al laughed, because now he knew exactly what to say. After all, she'd just given him the only information he was looking for, and the only way to earn respect with a pirate was to be a pirate too. So, with a sudden burst of confidence, he told her, "No, I don't expect you to give me the other dragons. I expect to steal them for myself, right after I tame them the same way I did with your old runt." He had his fist curled around his wand and was pointing it at Eleri's kneecaps as he finished with, "Now, since you've clearly never tamed one yourself, I suggest that you show me where you're hiding the rest of your dragons and let me do my magic on them. If you're a real pirate, perhaps you'll be able to steal them right back from me."

She was staring down at his wand and could sense the power emanating from it, but Al knew that she would have abided even without his back-up plan. If she and her boys had truly been sailing through these islands for generations and still hadn't successfully bound a dragon, then surely their desperation had reached unforeseeable heights. It also meant that they had no idea how the binding process worked, and therefore wouldn't know that once Al bound himself to Zephorien's siblings, those dragons would barbecue anything in sight just to make sure that their master returned safely to school.

Eleri led him to her ship without another word, yelling into the woods for Fergus to come out and join them. Apparently, this one only spoke on rare occasions and liked to appear and disappear whenever least expected. He was also rather shy, turning away from Al and glancing over at him curiously every few seconds of their walk, but he was always grinning like a fool to make people think that he felt comfortable around them.

The boat looked more like an enlarged canoe than a pirate ship to Al, but it was well enchanted, a small hatch in the middle of its body opening to the living quarters that were twice the size of the ship itself. Back on deck, there were only a couple moldy oars and rusty shackles, but there was a very white, well intact sail that Eleri hoisted with ease, the way only someone who'd sailed their whole life would be able to.

They headed due west and sailed for about a half an hour, swerving slightly to avoid the large building Al had noticed earlier. Throughout the trip, Al sipped his tea graciously, smiled back at Fergus when he noticed the man staring, and routinely checked the skies to make sure Zephorien was near. He always was, circling above the rough waters and breathing out all of Al's anxiety for him.

Al was checking up on Zephyr for the tenth time when Greer announced their arrival at what he called the Isle of Staffa, an island far smaller than Mull and widely renowned for its natural treasure: Fingal's Cave. The opening of that cave was what they used as a port, and inside it was where the dragons were kept.

Only Eleri went into the cave with Al, the men deciding to wait for them on the ship. The former pair had to climb carefully along the walls of jaggedly carved rock, avoiding both the raging water beneath them as well as the vicious vampire bats from above, to make it into the core of the cave. Said core was quite a long way from the cave's sole entrance, but Al tried to remind himself that even if this was some bizarre pirate trick, he was powerful enough to get out of it. Plus, Zephorien was currently sitting on the island top right above them.

The center of the cave was barred by what Eleri called an impenetrable protective spell, having stopped Al from going any farther just as the wall was beginning to turn to the left. "If the spell's impenetrable, how do you get in?" asked Al.

"We don't," Eleri answered with as much fear as she'd shown Al since he'd met her. She was telling the truth.

Al was beginning to think that this plan had been very badly thought out as he slowly understood just what Eleri was inferring. She and her co-pirates captured dragons and tried to tame them in hopes that the beasts could be a part of their crew, but when the dragons were too wild to be tamed, the pirates used themselves as bait to lead the dragons into the caves and then leave them there to die. It wasn't until Al heard the screeching call of a dragon that sounded exactly like his own that he told Eleri, "Well, I'm not you," and turned the corner.

The first skeleton he found must have been fifty or more years gone, and Al was rather impressed to discover that Greer had meant what he'd said about his family history. There were three more skeletons on the way into the very heart of the cave, all stacked along the water base that was only as a deep as a puddle now, with smaller bones caught on ends of rocks and hanging from crystals in the ceiling. Al tried to ignore them, though, which grew easier as he traveled farther into the cave and as the calls of live dragons filled his ears like a child's cry filling her mother's heart.

There were five of them still standing, all piled on top of one another in a large, circular expanse that had surely never seen the sunlight. Al's lit wand made them stir slightly, but they were all to starved and weak to even attempt to hurt him. They just laid there, the ones that hadn't already gone blind staring at him with contempt in their red eyes and the ones that still had enough strength crying in desperate, pleading tones.

Trying to remember the binding process that Charlie had explained and performed for him and Zephyr in Romania, Al slowly walked up to the beast that was closest to him, his hands in the air as if surrendering to show that he meant no harm. This dragon was smaller than Zephorien, perhaps the same size Zephyr had been when in Romania, and Al could tell from the far smaller dragon clinging to his mother's side that this one was female.

It took all her leftover strength for the mother to push her baby away from Al in order to protect him, and she nearly collapsed afterward. At first, Al thought that her fury may be a good thing, since in order to be bound to her, she'd need to spit some fire to meet his wind. But on second thought, Al realized that he might only need her deep breaths.

He spoke to her consolingly, emulating the way he would always talk to little Remy, until he was standing close enough to her to start sending gusts of wind her way. She shook her head at the feel of the air, but after a minute or so, she snorted grandly, and that was enough. The gust from her own exhale met Al's wind and soon the brand he'd magically fashioned himself was sinking the pattern of her scales into his skin, all along his stomach and right below the tattoo that Zephyr had given him.

Once Al had the first dragon, the rest were more willing. The baby was the easiest of all, printing only a few scaly marks onto the side of Al's neck. Then came two sibling dragons that were very much attached to each other, and they each took up one side of Al's back. The fifth and final dragon was the largest of them all, larger even than Zephyr at his current size, and he was the only one who actually managed to breathe fire. He left the largest mark on Al as well, his scales burning across the length of both of Al's arms, from steady shoulder to feeble wrist.

A wave of relief flowed over Al and his new dragons as soon as the process was completed. But after a minute of relishing in his work, Al began to panic about the idea of getting out of here. He tested Eleri's barrier himself before leading the dragons there, and sure enough, there was no spell he could think of that would break it. He was trapped inside for good, and if the dragons hadn't found a way out themselves, he doubted that he ever could.

On his way back from the wall turn and into the core, however, Al found himself noticing that the ceiling of the cave was tilted upwards and reached its highest point in the core rather than at the entrance. Before he knew where it had come from, Al had an idea and was already planning how he might execute it. Because the dragons could now read his thoughts, Al made his way to the largest one and gave him a single, curt nod.

The dragon didn't question him for a second; he was too glad to have a non-threatening master after so many years of torture, and he wanted out of that cave even more than Al did. As the other dragons moved away with Al to give the largest some room, the big one took a firm stance in the puddles, brought his neck into his shoulders, and then thrust the top of his head against the ceiling of the cave. It took about ten hits and a few heated flames for the rock to break, but eventually it did, and at that point all of the dragons were clamoring to get outside as the walls of the cave crumbled around them.

Al hung onto the baby's tail to make sure that he was freed safely, the mother careful to let the youngest crawl onto the island before any of the others did. Zephyr must have sensed them or Al, too, for he was waiting for them on the island and was eager to help pull them to the surface. All five of the dragons made it out alive, with only the large one receiving any injuries, but they were small enough for Al to heal.

Zephorien was thrilled to have his family back, and he was the first to bring them all some meat to tear apart and share. Once fed, it seemed that the only thing the dragons wanted to do was fly, and Al was more than happy to give them permission to. Watching them all stretch their skinny wings and take to the sky was like watching a falsely accused prisoner go home after spending half their life in a cell they barely fit in.

Al was still watching them from outside the hole they had made in the island when he saw them all soar past the same lighthouse-shaped building he'd seen from Mull. It must have been situated right between the two islands, for it looked exactly the same from this direction as it had from the other. This time, though, Al gave his eyes time to focus on the area so that he could get see the place more clearly, and he noticed a few random, barred windows checkered across the black, cement walls and shivered when thought he spotted a hooded ghost floating above the waves.

"Azkaban Prison," a voice confirmed from behind him just as Al started to recognize the place. Eleri sounded quite calm considering that her dragons had just broken through their cave and flown off without her. But of course, Eleri knew that Fergus and Greer were out searching for them right now, and Al knew that it wouldn't matter even if the pirates found them.

Still focused on Azkaban, Al turned to Eleri and saw that her face was just as rigid when looking upon the prison as his was. Sensing that it was true, he asked her, "Do you know someone who's in there?"

She laughed. "Who doesn't? There are thousands of 'em." She sounded like quite the expert.

"What else do you know about it?"

"The usual. The building takes the shape of a triangular prism, its head in perfect alignment with the North Star. It was built on an isle so small that the earth itself 'as eroded into the cement, strengthenin' it as time goes on. It 'as ten floors that separate the prisoners into distinguished groups, with the bottom housing petty thieves and the top claiming the mass murderers who are jus' waitin' to receive the dementor's kiss and be swung off the roof, left to fall into the sea below."

Al hadn't heard most of what Eleri claimed was common knowledge. All he knew about Azkaban was what he added to her impressive list. "And nobody's broken through since Sirius Black – at least, none without Lord Voldemort's help."

Eleri was smiling when she said, "Well, that's not entirely true, is it?" Al didn't understand what she was getting at until she added, "Nobody's broken out. The Daily Prophet chooses not to write abou' the people who break in."

Now, Al knew where she was going with this, especially when she when she tried to win him over with flattery. "What ya did with those dragons was mighty impressive, it was. I dunno' who ya are, Felix Higgs, 'cept that you're a brilliant wizard. I'll bet with a bit of me help, you could get in and out of that prison 'fore the sun comes up." In her eyes, he was practically a prophet, but breaking into Azkaban wasn't a decision to make in haste.

"Thanks for the offer," he told her, "But I need to get going. And anyway, the Daily Prophet would write about the break-ins if anyone actually survived them."

"Suit yourself," Eleri shrugged as she started to walk away.

Then again, she did have a point. Al had just bound himself to five dragons and he was the Master of the Elder Wand. If he couldn't make his way through Azkaban alive, who could? And it wasn't just anyone he knew in there – it was Knox. Knox, who had given up his freedom to rot in a cell for the rest of his life just so that Al didn't share such a fate himself. Sure, Knox was a rightful murderer and deserved his sentence, but Al was a murderer now too. Why should one of them be confined to a cell while the other flew on the backs of dragons?

"Wait!" Al called out to Eleri, and she was back at his side in a matter of seconds. "Hypothetically speaking, if one were to try to break into the prison, how would they get inside?"

"Through the bottom, under the sea," she answered. When Al looked at her once more, he found that her palm was open to him. Sitting on it was a bundle of what Al could only describe as slimy, grey-green rat tails. He didn't remember where exactly the plant came from, but he knew immediately what it was and what it could be used for. Professor Longbottom had spoken of it hundreds of times in Al's Herbology classes, and because Harry had supposedly used it on himself once upon a time, he always looked to Al when he spoke of it. The plant was gillyweed.

They only spent an hour planning before they dove into the water, since Al was rather pressed for time at this point. He hated swimming, and he hated the feeling of gills forming on his neck and his fingers and toes suddenly sprouting webbing. The only thing he hated more were grindylows.

Al and Eleri managed to find their way to the rock island relatively quickly, jetting themselves across the water's bottom with all sorts of acceleration spells and swerving around any sharks that Al was fairly certain Eleri was summoning to scare him. The rocks had melded into the cement of Azkaban just as Eleri had described, and while there was no entrance so low, she and Al were able to blast through the cement to create their own opening. That was when the grindylows stormed out.

The water demons wore the same grins on their faces as Fergus did, only these were sickly instead of pitiful. They had as many tentacles as octopods, their spindly fingers flapping from their rounded heads that were smaller than the dagger-like horns attached to them. Eleri had warned Al that the first floor of the prison was inspired by Devil's Island, a Muggle fortress for political prisoners built off the coast of Africa, but Al hadn't expected the name to be quite so literal.

He and Eleri were able to avoid being seen by the grindylows when they swam up to the hole they'd blasted and leaned their backs against the rock just next to it. It appeared that the creatures wanted out even more than Al and Eleri wanted in, much to Al's delight. Once the entire pack of them had swum off, he deemed it safe to head inside, so he led Eleri through the hole and successfully arrived at Azkaban.

There had been few protective charms on the building, but it was impossible to Apparate in or out on the property and the only entrance was from above, so really Eleri had been smart about going in from below. The first floor was like a submarine station, filled with water to the same level as the surrounding ocean with the rock floor forming a triangular perimeter around the pool. Al waited underwater a moment before surfacing, grasping his wand and thinking to himself, Homenum Revelio. When nothing happened, he knew that there were no guards on the floor, so he gestured to Eleri to say it was safe and then pulled himself up onto the floor.

"Not many down here," Al whispered as Eleri stood up beside him. There were cells along the length of the three walls with a latter hanging in one corner that led to the second floor. The cells weren't too small here, each about the size of Al's bedroom from Godric's Hollow, but the prisoners – regardless of how little crime they'd committed – were still desperate to escape.

There were maybe ten of them, all still fresh and healthy (Eleri was under the impression that they were the prison's newest residents), but they had all awoken upon hearing the blasting sound, and now they were squeezing their arms through the iron bars to try to grab hold of Al or Eleri's legs. None of them were successful, though one young girl did get close to touching Al when he moved toward her cell as if curious to look at her.

She was so much like Ilana. She was pale with dark hair and emerald eyes, and Al was drawn to her like wind on water. Eleri was telling him to stop, whining about wasting time, as Al inched closer to the girl's cell, but Al didn't hear her. All he heart was the ferocious beating of this girl's heart against her chest, and all he thought of when he heard it was how strong it was. She had most likely only been in Azkaban for a couple of days so far, and whatever she'd done to get there hadn't broken her yet. She was whole, complete with tiny shoes and unlaced hope. She didn't yet know longing or lust, yet she was bursting with life. She was a kid.

Al knew that she wouldn't make it out if he tried to free her, but he couldn't leave her there alone, either. Compromising with the voices in his head, he procured a quill, ink, and paper with his wand and slid them between the bars of her cell. She reached out for it and almost touched his hand before he drew his arm back. "Write down your memories. Never forget where you came from," he told her, because it was what Ilana would say, and because a quill and paper were what Ilana would want.

He turned around before the girl had the chance to thank him and was the first on the ladder. There were a couple of Ministry-employed guards on the second floor, but Al was able to stun them before they posed any threat. He and Eleri were quick to leave this floor after checking the cells for Knox, since it seemed to be teething with bacteria and infection, prisoners with the oozing skin of lepers locked in their cages. The next floor up was much cleaner, for it housed only females who seemed to be better versed in the topic of grooming.

Al was curious to see if Eleri would want to search this floor, since he of course wouldn't need to, but it turned out that she didn't. Whoever she wanted to find was male, a mass murderer, or both. The only convict they paid any attention to on this floor was the one who had somehow painted messages all over the walls of her cell. The messages were words of activism, saying things like Stop Spell Suppression! and the woman inside was as old as McGonagall had been, ancient and haggard as she curled herself into the corner.

"Carlotta Pinkstone," Eleri mumbled with wonder. "Who'd 'ave thought she was still alive?"

Al ignored her as he set his sights on the fourth floor. They were nearly half-way there, and he was growing more worried by the minute of what state he might find Knox in. But much to his surprise, the fourth floor was completely empty. The cells were still there, though smaller than those they'd already seen, and now there were even more of them thanks to the rows that covered the middle of the floor where the pool had been on the ground level. They were there, but the guards weren't, nor were the prisoners.

"What d'you reckon happened here?" asked Al.

Eleri was staring down at blood stains that had splattered an unappetizing brown color from the floor to the ceiling. Following her gaze, Al noticed for the first time that each cell was marked with two numbers and a symbol, most of them ancient runes that he had never learned to read. What he could read, however, was the drawing that had replaced one of those symbols: a stick-figured wizard silenced by a deadly flash of green.

"Too many prisoners kill each other and the guards start killin' 'em too," said Eleri with an odd timidity to her voice. "Can't have that, can they?"

The fifth and sixth floors were reserved for torture, and Al and Eleri had to be careful where they stepped to make it through unseen. None of the prisoners were being harmed at this time of the night, but there were still plenty of guards to stun and freeze on their way. On the sixth floor, they also had to maneuver around impressive machines like waterboards and skinning tables. The sight of it all when combined with the fearful faces of the victims was enough to infuriate Al, and after passing a row of recently raped women, his anger was ready to burst.

That was what made him follow the voice when he heard someone muttering helplessly from a cell nearby, "I don't know what I did. I swear, I don't know what I did. I swear it."

The prisoner was only talking to a wall, his back facing the iron bars of his cell and giving Al a clear view of the whip marks that could be seen through his thin, torn shirt. He was a large man, his hair dark and overgrown so long that it reached his shoulders. He had been here a long while, and though Al couldn't be sure, he had a feeling that the man he was looking upon wasn't really a man at all. It was Vincent Goyle.

"Felix, behind ya!" yelled Eleri before Al could see the guard coming.

Her warning gave him just enough time to twirl around, point his wand at the wizard, and yell, "Avada Kedavra!" The guard fell to the floor in a single thump, never even getting a word out to ask what Al was doing there.

Al was in shock as he stared down at the man he'd just killed. He hadn't meant to use that curse, but it was the first thing that had come to his mind – a mind filled with images of purposefully inflicted pain and the memory of Wynn's red eyes that matched that red curtain and her red hair. He wasn't permitted to wallow in his shock for long, though, since Goyle had heard him voice the incantation and was now facing Albus and looking from him to Eleri in utter confusion.

When Al met Goyle's big brown eyes, the boy pointed to his old classmate and said, "That – that's not Felix. That's-"

"Let's go," Al said to Eleri as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her away from Goyle before he could say his real name. She was hesitant to move, but was too lost in her own confusion to ask Al any questions before they made it to the next level.

The guards on this floor were far different from those on the sixth. They seemed to Al more like servants, and Al and Eleri were able to Confund them into thinking that they too were servants, newly recruited to wait on the prison's best and wealthiest. This floor was what Eleri called The Chateau, filled with only four or five giant cells complete with fancy amenities like wardrobes and fireplaces, its prisoners snoring loudly atop puffy mattresses and freshly cleaned pillowcases.

Eleri was about to explain why this floor was so special when Al whispered, "I get it. You only make it through the torture if you tell them what they want to hear, and then they reward you for it. Either that, or you're loaded to begin with, so they put you here right away and tax you for the luxury they provide. They make you pay for your own incarceration."

If anything, Al and Eleri hated that floor more than any other, so when they couldn't find Knox, they were eager to move on. They needed permission to be sent through to the eighth floor, which was known by guards as The Rock and by prisoners as The Last Chance of Escape. Al used the Imperius Curse to make sure they were let on the ladder, and he decided to have the Imperiused wizard escort him and Eleri onto the floor.

That was good thinking on his part, because each of the quarter-sized cells on this floor was guarded by its own man. With the seventh floor guard with them, the others didn't pay Al or Eleri much mind, and the prisoners didn't either. Most of them looked to be on the verge of death, their skin dry and their eyes hollow against the black of their walls. They wouldn't have reached out for Al even they'd known he had broken in; they had no life left to escape to.

Whenever Al looked at any of them, his stomach tied itself into knots, so he tried to keep his eyes on the codes above each cell door, as if Knox's might have some special marking that would call out to him. He stopped when he saw the numbers two and nine next to a symbol that he'd seen before: a vertical line cutting a circle in half, a triangle enclosed around them both. He couldn't remember what it meant, but he couldn't look away from it either.

"Black Hawk?" whispered a voice as dry as sun-heated sand. Knox was sitting by the bars of his cells, and he looked like absolute hell. His usually handsome face was starved thin, his cheekbones protruding around his jaw and his eyes the size of golf balls in their too-small sockets.

"Rookie, you look great," Al teased through the bars, momentarily forgetting that he was surrounded by guards. As soon as the closest one looked at him, though, he had flung them all to the ceiling with that levitating curse he'd cast on Astoria's runts earlier that night.

"Nicely done," said Eleri from beside him as she looked up at the wizards. Then she patted Al on the shoulder and said, "I'll meet you upstairs."

Al wasn't sure that it was wise for them to split up, but Eleri had gotten him this far and he wasn't about to argue with her. Instead, he let her go, unlocked Knox's cell, and helped his friend to his feet.

"So, how've you been?" asked Al as he led Knox to the next ladder.

Knox had to hold onto Al's side for support as he hopped his way past his fellow prisoners who were sneering at him with more resentment than Al had ever seen, yet he still managed to joke, "Oh, you know how it is, did some water boarding last week and was just waiting to be promoted to the Door of No Return."

"What a bore!" said Al, and he hadn't felt better about saying something since the things he told Ilana on their last night together.

Just before they arrived on the penultimate floor, Al grabbed a wand from one of the hanging guards and gave it to Knox. Seriously this time, he said, "I don't care if you let go of me, but don't dare let go of that stupid stick."

Knox was grinning excitedly, because he understood perfectly what Al was telling him. Together, and as if they'd been planning the attack for years, Al and Knox swarmed the final two levels with spells ranging from Jelly-Legged Jinxes to Unforgivable Curses, sending the ninth floor into absolute chaos and not caring how many cell doors they opened on their way. As long as they made it out, they didn't care who came with them. They also failed to notice that one of those cells had already been opened.

The tenth floor was basically the roof, for it had no ceiling except the flock of dementors flying overhead, ready and waiting for whoever dared to climb up the final ladder. Knox didn't need to tell Al that this was what he'd meant by the Door of No Return: once you get to the tenth floor, nothing can save you… nothing except a well-done Patronus Charm, and there was no spell on earth that Al was better at performing.

His hawk was ten times the size of Knox's rook, but there would be plenty of time to remind him of that later. For now, Al was only concerned with shielding the still weak Knox from any of the hooded ghosts, so focused on his charm that he failed to notice two people creep up from the ladder behind him.

Knox was the first to notice their presence, releasing his spell as the hawk still soared in order to ask, "Scamander?"

That made Al turn around, though he didn't let go of his grip on the Elder Wand. He had expected to see one of the twins before him upon hearing the Scamander name, but neither Lysander nor Lorcan was there. It was just Eleri, only now she'd found the prisoner she'd been looking for.

As Al looked at the man whose cloak was as torn as his skin and whose Azkaban tattoo was brandished against his chest like black fleas on a white dog and whose long blond hair needed a serious comb through, he slowly put the pieces together. James had mentioned to him once or twice that Lysander had sent his father to prison, so this must have been him. Rolf Scamander.

"Didn't think I'd last that long before they kissed me, did you?" Rolf asked Knox lightheartedly. "I'm not like you – I wasn't put straight at the top for my crimes. I've been on every floor of this wretched building in my time here, and I've learned how to survive the loneliness."

But Al was barely listening to him, because there was still a piece of the puzzle that was missing. The dementors were beginning to break through his Patronus when he asked Eleri, "Who are you?"

"I should be asking you the same question!" She spat at him with suddenly perfect annunciation. He supposed it was too naïve of him to hope that she hadn't heard what Goyle had said to him. "But if you really want to know, Rolf is my big brother, and I've been waiting to break into this place for years. The dragons never got me very far, but I had a feeling you might be able to."

As soon as she'd finished speaking, Eleri was shuffling Rolf to the edge of the floor and hoisting him atop the shortened wall. Then the siblings were falling off the side of the building, and Al ran up to the ledge, stretched neck head over it, and caught sight of the Lidell ship waiting to catch its pirates.

The only thing that managed to distract Al from his thoughts regarding Eleri and the long night he'd had was Knox's voice yelling, "Black Hawk, the dementors! I can't hold them off much longer!"

Al's Patronus had broken during his run, but it didn't matter. With a single whistle, the dragons were there, and Zephorien flew right through the dementors and grabbed Al and Knox in his claws without even stopping to catch his breath. Once the group was well out of the dementors' range, the boys climbed up Zephyr's legs and hoisted each other up onto his back, where they sat between his spikes the whole way back to Hogwarts.

Knox seemed to enjoy the ride, and Al understood how he must have felt. He'd spent months in that single cell, and now he was free. Now, he wasn't alone anymore, and he was vowing to himself that he never would be again. He asked Al to set him down with the dragons in the Forbidden Forest, and when Al asked why he didn't want to see Astoria first, Knox said to him, "As far as I'm concerned, my debt to her has been paid." With that, Al gave him a nod and walked away, knowing full well that regardless of which side Knox was planning to fight for in this battle, Al would see him again.

When Al walked back into Hogsmeade, a disgruntled Astoria was waiting for him there beside Vega and Wynn. When she asked him where he'd been, he replied with a smile and said it was a surprise, and then they both saw the outline of the sun peeking over the Black Lake's horizon line.

"What are you waiting for?" she asked as soon as they saw it. "You have an army to lead, Albus. Now lead it."

And with those words, Al's nightmare from last spring came to life before him, only now it made perfect sense. He followed Astoria's command as he led Vega, Wynn, and company down to the Black Lake and around to the Quidditch pitch, and he didn't once question her control because he knew without a doubt that he had even more control than she did. He heard the great dragon flapping its wings above him as he approached the Order of the Phoenix, and he knew that it was only Zephyr. He took in the sight of Scorpius standing beside his peers, and he knew why Rose wasn't there and he knew that Scorpius was crying because Astoria had refused to give her back to him. He said, "Today, we end this," and he meant it, because now there was no going back. All eyes were on Albus in that moment, but their stares no longer intimidated him. He was far more powerful than they knew.

 
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