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10

   I remember waking on the day before the end of the world.

   The white sheets on the old bed are crumpled and stained, tossed aside like the limp flag on the post outside. Tattered and old... memories of a better time, a better place… before I took that fateful step forward. Beyond my friends, my society, and my reality. A step that changed things – forever. Hell, I knew there was no going back, but I didn’t give a damn. We were going forward, building towards something great, a better tomorrow.

   We built something, all right. Shame we didn’t read the instruction manual first.

   My glasses bring everything in the room into sharp focus – a dingy, claustrophobic room with peeling wallpaper and a narrow window, letting a thin stream of white sunlight into the room that skated across the wrinkled sheets. Perfect room for Harry Potter, the hero… and now the circle begins anew…

   After Voldemort’s death at my hands, things began to change. A society long stagnant began to stir, began to grow and evolve into something bigger and better. And through all the tumult they cried for a leader, someone to lead them to that new tomorrow.

   They cried for me, and I listened.

   So I kept the Elder Wand instead of returning it to Dumbledore’s ivory tomb. And with it, I had power, I had money, I had influence… everything a man could want, but a more dangerous set of tools I have never seen. And I was surrounded by a society hungry for change of any sort, a new spark of life.

  A job in the Ministry was assured, but I turned it down, as expected. The Ministry was a dying institution, and its complicity in Voldemort’s rule damned it. It received its justice.

   All eyes returned to me, to what I would do, what wonders I would conjure with my new power. Expectations ran high, and they all expected something grand. They wanted miracles, and I was convinced they deserved them. After all, I had saved them from hell – why shouldn’t I lead them into the Promised Land?

   And for the next two years, the Elder Wand twirling in my hand, I gave them their magical miracles. I invented, I created, I enchanted, I conjured…

   I destroyed…

   I wove a spell over them all, an enchantment stronger than the Imperius Curse – and they accepted it gladly. Everything I could have wanted, I received in abundance. Food, drink, money, power, sex… I could have it all…

   It blinded me, and in my blindness, the last trap that Voldemort laid was sprung.

   Turns out that when Voldemort ransacked the old Department of Mysteries, he found something so dangerous that he entrusted it to only a single Death Eater, who had orders to release its power in only the direst circumstances.

   To a breaking Augustus Rookwood, Voldemort’s death counted as one of those ‘circumstances.’ And we all know that Lady Luck is a capricious mistress – one I turned out of my bed the second I put my hand on the Elder Wand.

   When I heard that he escaped from Azkaban, I paid it little mind – I was powerful, untouchable, invincible. But Rookwood, despite a breaking mind, knew how to make things personal.

   So I went after him. I chased him to that broken archway, the grey cloth fluttering between it, the whispers becoming screams as the pock-faced man laughed and sneered as he waved a bloody hand while he cast his magic. I knew whose blood that was – and I swore he would pay with his own.

   But then I made the mistake, tripped Voldemort’s last failsafe, a trap I could have spotted but for my arrogance…

  And so I woke three days ago, to see that the world had changed, advanced to teeter on a precipice of our own making. And the die had already been cast, the days known to all.

   They did not know who was responsible, but I did. The wand that had damned the world many times over was mine, and it had activated the magic to damn the world one last time.

   I remember waking the day before the end of the world. I remember putting my face in my hands as the tale unfurls in my mind, the ghastly and blood-splattered scroll of history beginning to tear.

   If one man’s step is a giant leap for mankind, how far forward do we all tumble when I walk?

*          *          *

9

   Silence may be wondrous and golden, but what is its value when the age of wonders ends?

   My shoes scuff the shining pavement as I walk down the narrow streets of London.  The empty streets of London. No men, no women, no children… no people at all, Muggles or wizards. A city emptied as the world held its breath.

   It is a shame. It is really a beautiful day.

   It only took a few minutes to reach the old pub, hiding between the ivory towers of hard bargains and harder lifestyles. The door sticks for a few seconds before it gives way beneath my shoulder. The creak of old wood echoes both in the empty tavern and in the street.

   I doubt London has ever heard that echo before.

   I let myself into the Leaky Cauldron – the empty Leaky Cauldron. I remember Ron making a comment a few months after the Battle that even in wartimes, that bar was never empty – Tom, at least, was always there. But now even the bartender was gone.

   It is unnerving, the silence as I step out of the back of the Leaky Cauldron. Not a sound, a voice, a shout of drunken laughter. And you’d think that at the end of it all, people would have more to say...

   The Elder Wand sits comfortably in my hands as I tap the brick with a practiced motion. The wand’s grain is familiar to me – as is its power. The archway appears, and I crane my neck slightly, looking for my first glimpse into our world.

    The first gaze nearly takes my breath away. Such beauty…

    The second sends a chill down my neck. Such silence…

   Diagon Alley has changed again, this I can tell. I remembered the frenzied renovations beginning before Rookwood broke out of prison. I was seeing their culmination ten times over. They tower above me, casting long friendly shadows against the dawn. A classic beauty

   Yet every door was shut, and not even a wizened cat walked Diagon Alley now. It was a corridor of wonders, a pathway of dreams… but it was one without even a hint of life. Like the Muggle city around it, it was empty. Beauty for naught, I think as I take my first step into the alley, for who is there to appreciate it? 

   I remember the last time I had seen classic beauty like this – at the Ministry of Magic.

   The night we set it on fire.

   They all claimed it was necessary. The dying regime had to be cleared away for the new, a gospel of change preached by those who had once damned it as heresy. Crusaders shouting to regain something they thought they had lost – and only losing it by their pursuits.

   It hadn’t been difficult to convince me to act, to lead. It had been Hermione and Ginny, I think, who told me the plan. Destruction of a symbol, to be replaced with… what?

   They hadn’t even known at the time, but they knew it would be something wondrous and powerful - and I would lead them. After all, I was the hero.

   So I led them… and before my eyes, the Ministry burned. And I saw it all – after all, I cast the spell that set the symbols on the ceiling ablaze, turning something that was once wondrous into a garish hell. They said it was swift justice – and I believed it.

   But as I walk down a path gilded by beauty, I remember that old essay written beneath the shade of an ice-cream shop, now long gone. If witch-burning was completely pointless, then why did we do it?

   I remember Hermione shouting to recover the books, the ledgers, the old tomes of magic… and watching as they ran back in, saving everything they could, piling the books at our feet.

   After all, I remember a voice saying, we don’t burn books – we burn men.

  One voice, speaking above all the others. A proclamation I remember starkly… and one I can suddenly see, carved in wood right beneath the shining sign of Flourish & Blotts. I pause, my heart hammering in my chest even as perfection surrounds me.

   It had been my voice.

   What was lost, seeking perfection? What was lost in the fire? When a man walks alone, surrounded by beauty, is it an age of wonders… or an age of shadows?

*          *          *

8

   Power, gold, secrets… how can one pay for all when the debts come due?

   I stand before the marble columns of Gringotts. I close my eyes against the tide of memories as they wash over me. The times I’ve walked under the archway, through the gold and silver doors – every single event shining in my mind like the reflection of torchlight off of coins.

   Coins I withdrew, deposited, stole… destroyed

   The footmen are gone. No bows greet me as I cross the threshold, through the doors. The message, engraved upon the silver doors, is gone as well – chipped and chiseled off long ago.

   I don’t even have to stop to look – I had given the orders, and nobody disobeyed those.

   It is surprisingly bright within Gringotts. Light shines in every corner, across the polished floors – yet not a soul remains inside the goblin bank. There’s no need to cast a spell to determine this particular fact – the stillness of the air betrays the truth.

   Gringotts has been empty for a long time, indeed.

   I had known little of finance when I had left Hogwarts – it was always assumed that the goblins would take care of it. But the crafty creatures must have seen the writing on the walls when the Ministry burned. After all, they had supported the corruption for as long as any and it was only a matter of time before their number was drawn.

   And the hardship of the wizarding recession three years after my victory only sealed their fate.

   The carts, to my surprise, are still intact. Stepping inside, I tap the front light with the Elder Wand, and it accelerates with barely a thought. My eyes trace the now smooth cavern walls – where once stalactites and stalagmites erupted, only round dark holes remain.

   I know better than to peer into the holes. My experiments hadn’t all been successful. And what better place, I think somberly to myself, to hide one’s failures than in a bank?

   The cart quickly screeches to a halt in front of Vault #687 – my own. I draw my wand cautiously as I step toward the door. My key would likely be of no use here – so much had seemed to change – but the Elder Wand was powerful.

   “Alohomora!”

   My voice, barely a rasp, triggers the spell with a flash. There is a click, and the vault doors swings open…

   Controlling my shock and awe suddenly becomes difficult as I step into the vault, which has seemed to expand since my last visit. Where there had once been only a few stacks of gold, now there was a wall. Silver and bronze strewn all over the floor. Chests of jewels along the wall, some tipped haphazardly, strewing their gleaming contents across the polished floor. Books everywhere, some neatly stacked, others crumpled in corners or open on the floor.

   This was not mine…

   I take another step into the vault, careful not to tread on a book or on a hand…

   My gasp is audible this time, for in the corner of the vault, a pile of bodies lie. All are dressed richly, a strange expression upon their faces – their clearly dead faces. Swallowing hard, I take a step closer. I didn’t remember this. I don’t keep dead people in my bank…

   I frown slightly as I bend closer. The man on top, sporting neat blue robes and a well-trimmed mustache, is holding something, clasping it tightly in his thin hands stiffened by rigor mortis. Closing my eyes for a second in revulsion, I pull his fingers away from the object – a pendant, one that sends a chill down my spine.

   It is shaped like a lightning bolt.

   The walls of the vault feel tight now, and I swallow hard as I step away, trying to keep my breathing even. This wasn’t what I wanted, for I knew what the pendant in the man’s hand meant – the pendant I now saw that was in the hands of every corpse.

   I knew we had made mistakes, some more damning than others, but I never expected this. I hadn’t failed this time; I had only succeeded beyond most men’s wildest dreams, and the thought terrified me.

   I was stumbling now, backpedaling towards the vault door and the cart behind me. Clambering into the cart, I hit the light with the Elder Wand to send the cart hurtling into motion, back towards the surface. My breathing was slowing even as the cart picked up speed. Perhaps it wasn’t that bad, I think hurriedly, a futile effort to control myself. Perhaps they were lunatics, out of their minds…

   The cart stopped with a heavy jolt as I attempt to sigh with relief. Yes, that must be it. They must be crazy…

   “Insanity is in the eye of the beholder, Harry Potter.”

   I freeze as my gaze moves towards the source of the voice. My heart nearly stops in my chest as I see him – it can’t be –

   Voldemort only smiles wickedly as he rises from his position behind the Gringotts desk, once occupied by goblins. “Remember me?”

   The greatest blindness – and insanity – is always self-inflicted.

*          *          *

7

   The worst of curses are always given freely. Why is it never the same with blessings?

   “You’re dead,” I growl, stepping towards Voldemort, my wand held high as rage exploded in my mind. “By Merlin, you’re dead –”

   “Despite the relative truth of that statement, saying it won’t make me leave, Harry,” Voldemort replied with a cruel smirk. “Especially considering you were the one that brought me back.” He sighs and begins to walk, his long fingers dragging across the counter.

   “If you’re dead, why are you –?”

   “Less than the meanest ghost, I’m no harm to you, Harry – I have no wish to even interfere in your little quest for answers.” The grin spreads disturbingly wider across his face, and I raise the wand higher to point at Voldemort’s face. “I might even answer your questions. Rookwood, on the other hand, might be a little less accommodating.”

   I’m breathing faster now as I step closer. “How are you here if you’re dead?”

   “Why don’t you tell me that, Master of Death?”

   Voldemort’s challenge hangs heavy in the still air. I swallow hard as the memories surged again. I had taken that title on Hermione’s advice less than a year before Rookwood escaped Azkaban, only to cement my power base – but I knew what Voldemort meant this time.

   “You never recognized the Hallows.”

   “But your five years of power were certainly enlightening,” Voldemort replies with a disturbingly human shrug. “Considering I was in there the whole time, I know as much as you know – and a bit more of the rest.”

   “Then what were those bodies doing in my vault?” I shout, my breathing now fast and ragged. “I certainly didn’t put them there! Did you?”

   Voldemort shakes his head with disappointment. “Once a pawn, always a pawn, Harry. I believe your puppeteer called them martyrs after your vanishing. They died for you.”

   “You’re lying –”

   “Why would I?” Voldemort snorts with disdain. “I have no reason to – not this time. The truth is a far better weapon. Want to know how you caused the downfall of all wizarding society?”

   “Stop it.”

   “I’m sure you’d like to hear how you were manipulated towards power, your vanishing engineered to assure her ascent –”

   “Shut up.”

   “And the real tragedy…” Voldemort’s lipless mouth is smiling again. “To think that she thought she was doing it all for you –”

   “SHUT UP!” I scream, slashing the Elder Wand at Voldemort, who only shakes his head as the fire erupting from my wand passes straight through him.

   “You can’t kill me, Harry Potter,” he says grimly, walking smoothly through the desk to stand in front of me, “but you’d be wise to know your fate. Eighty-one years have passed since you vanished from your world, and everything is on the edge of a knife. The Muggles, crude beasts that they are, stand to annihilate the world with doomsday weapons, and there are no wizards left alive to interfere this time.”

   “They wouldn’t… they couldn’t –”

   Voldemort laughs at this, his red eyes flashing with mirth. “And all Rookwood had to do was to bring you here – your path led inexorably to this point. And tomorrow… the Muggles will end it.” He shakes his head. “I warned them all – the Muggles were a threat, and had to be destroyed before they destroyed us– but you handled that.”

   “You lying bastard.” I growl through clenched teeth. “I made mistakes, I know that, but I’m not responsible for all of this.”

   “You have until tomorrow to disillusion yourself of that,” Voldemort replies crisply, turning away. “Until then, Rookwood has deigned to leave you a parting gift.”

   “I don’t want to see anything that–”

   Voldemort stretches out a finger towards the only shadowed corner of the Gringotts hall. “Oh Harry,” he says with a diabolic smile, “I really think you do.”

   I step past Voldemort and move towards the corner.

   The sight causes my breath to hitch in my throat.

   Her hair falls lank and dirty over her face and bright blue robes. Her young hands are caked in mud and limp upon her lap, holding a tiny orange flower that forlornly glistens in the light of the Elder Wand. Her feet are bare, but clean – except for the growing puddle of blood spreading around them, staining the hem of her robe. Blood spilling from the gruesome slash on her throat.

   I swallow hard as I try to hold back tears. I fall to my knees in the puddle of blood, knowing that there was no chance of staunching the terrible wound.

   I knew her face, untouched by time – I would know it anywhere. Grief blended with rage as I ran my fingers through the girl’s blonde hair, even as the sick feeling in my stomach grows. I could have saved her, I could have done something

   “Well?” Voldemort’s mocking voice echoes in the hall, “aren’t you going to take Miss Lovegood’s last humble gifts to you, Harry?”

   With trembling hands, I slowly pull the flower from Luna’s hands and the tattered journal from beneath her knee. It is already soaked in blood, but I don’t care. I only know grief now – grief and rage. He didn’t need to kill her to send a message to me…

   “What can I say?” Voldemort called, his voice answering my unspoken thoughts. “Rookwood likes to make an impact on people…”

   “He’s dead for this,” I vow, getting to my feet as I turn to face Voldemort.

   “Another death upon your conscience?”

   I did not reply, but Voldemort knows my answer. He shrugs again and turns away, towards the dark shaft and the vaults.

   “I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Voldemort calls conversationally, looking back with a gleam in his red eyes. “After all, you and I don’t want to miss the end of the world.”

   Everyone knows illusions can kill if we believe in them – but what is worse: to die by illusion, or to live with the truth?

*          *           *

6

   A man who loses something appreciates everything else around him so much more, but what happens when such a man has nothing left to lose?

   I buried Luna in the park, beneath the trees.

   Another grave, dug by hand – I wasn’t going to use magic for this, not this time. The second grave I have dug for a dear friend – dying to save my life.

   Walking alone beneath the red trees, I remember Luna with every step, with every gust of cool wind that tousles my hair and sends a few dead leaves flying across the sidewalk.  The grief is fresh, an open wound boiling in my chest, but I know that Luna wouldn’t want me to feel pain at her passing. She was going on to a better place… whatever that place might be.

   Even as I assumed power, she never treated me like the king the others did, I think, my eyes half-closed as I trudge along the deserted path. She never treated me as the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One, the Master of Death… she knew me as Harry, and nothing else… and she was the only one who ever saw the truth…

   I had needed an outlet, I realize that now – that must have been the reason why I had gone behind Ginny’s back and had my quiet trysts with Luna in the moonlit shadows. In my position, I could have had any woman I wanted – and hell, I know I abused that – yet I always kept Luna secret.  A little secret, I think, a stab of pain wrenching my heart as I hold back tears.

   I don’t think Luna actually saw anybody while we had our little affair. So short… I know we only had sex five times in those five years – and that was always an experience, to be sure. Making love to Luna was always different than most of the others… she treated me like Harry, like we were equals, and it helped that she was a sensationalist. She loved to explore…

   My pace quickens unconsciously as I blink back tears. I hastily look around the clearing – but it is empty. Not a single human being is in sight.

   I frown. Where did all the people go? It doesn’t make sense…

   I pull open the bloodstained book that I took from Luna’s body. Carefully turning the stained and brittle pages, I turn to the last entry…

Harry didn’t stop by tonight, but I didn’t expect him to. Not as he is right now. Rookwood’s rampage is bloody, and after the carnage at the Burrow, I don’t even think Harry cares anymore…

   “Aye,” I whisper, “I didn’t care anymore. But I still should have come, if only to say goodbye…”

Yet something feels wrong about this whole endeavor. There is a method to Rookwood’s madness – somebody’s pulling the strings of the puppet, a very dangerous puppet indeed. But most of the Death Eaters are either dead or in Azkaban, so he must have had outside help, both to break out of Azkaban and to remain hidden for as long as he has… It would have to be someone in the higher echelons of Harry’s organization, someone who’s jealous of Harry’s magical power, who’s extremely intelligent… who could manipulate Harry and use him to ascend…

   I slam the book shut, my breathing quick now. It makes sense – horrific, bloody sense, but sense nonetheless. She used me, manipulated me all those years, I think, my fingernails digging into the binding of the book, and the worst part of it is that I allowed myself to be manipulated. I listened, she let me take the credit… knowing that I would eventually destroy myself, allowing her to rule in my name…

   I wish I couldn’t believe the possibility in my mind, but it seems all too likely, all too possible – all too true. “And she’s probably even still alive,” I growl to myself, drawing the Elder Wand. It was no matter – she wouldn’t be hard to track.

   After all, I think darkly, the black rage at her betrayal and my own stupidity pounding in my chest, even Hermione’s only human.

   The worst kind of treason is from those we love – yet it is a kind in which we are least willing to believe, and most willing to accept.

*          *          *

5

   Some secrets are meant to stay hidden, some truths are meant to be concealed by lies, and some puzzles should never be put together – when united, the pieces are often far more dangerous than anybody can ever imagine…

   I stand in front of Godric’s Hallow as the last rays of twilight cut through the withered trees. I had restored the building early on, and it had been my private sanctuary, a place I could hide from the world.

   It was also the place where Hermione is, I know without a doubt. If she thinks she is the ‘heir’ to whatever legacy erupted in those eighty-some years, no doubt she’s here, if only to live with my secrets.

   The magical protections I had created decades earlier with the Elder Wand remain strong, but they melt away with a wave, and I walk unscathed towards the battered door. The house, unlike the stores I saw in Diagon Alley, seems neglected… almost empty…

   The door falls in with a kick, and I cross the narrow threshold towards the stairs. The vision of Voldemort entering Godric’s Hallow comes to my mind, but I shove it back – no defender rushes out to defend this home.

   She is alone, I think, as I slowly climb the stairs, wary for any traps. Good, that’ll make this easier.

   The landing at the top of the staircase is deserted, but I know where she’ll be. She knows I’m here.

   I turn towards the master bedroom door. She’ll be in there – in my bed. I want answers first, and she will provide them – providing she doesn’t have a heart attack from my mere presence.

   I take a deep breath. It is time.

   CRACK.

   The door falls off its hinges, thrown by a precisely aimed curse. My eyes blaze with anger as I walk into the room. I hear a scream from the bed as the woman – the young woman – snaps upright, her eyes wide with shock. Glass shatters as something tumbles to the floor, but my eyes are only on the person I would recognize anywhere.

   “Hello, Hermione.”

   She looks lost for words as she looks around frantically for her wand. “Y-you… you’re s-supposed to be dead!”

   “Yeah, that was your plan, wasn’t it?” I ask icily, wordlessly Disarming Hermione of her wand the second her fingers curl around it. “A masterful plan, too. You, after all, were my second in command, the power behind the throne, the puppeteer. And I went along with it every goddamn step of the way, because you kept giving me what I wanted.”

   “Harry, I can explain –”

   “I don’t need explanations, Hermione, not from you. I have a working brain, you know.” The sneer contorts my face as I step closer. “And when it looked like I was starting to think for myself, you arranged to have Rookwood escape… and murder the Weasley family, removing your last obstacles to power.”

   Hermione went white. “Harry, I would never –”

   “Do you know what it was like for me, to walk into the Burrow, and see the family I loved in bloody pieces?” I hiss, stepping even closer and raising my wand. “Rookwood ripped them apart – literally – and I had to see him laugh as he made to defile Ginny’s dead body –”

   Tears were beginning to flow down Hermione’s panicked face now, but whether from stifled grief or fear, I cannot tell. “Harry, I swear, I would never have allowed –”

   “Bullshit,” I snarl, my wand now fixed on Hermione’s face. “Ginny knew what you were doing, and she was going to stop you, so you had no choice but to let Rookwood loose. And then… once he got me here, out of the way, you could claim that I had ‘ascended’… and that the Weasleys were martyrs for my cause… you started a goddamn religion from their bloody corpses, Hermione!”

   “I didn’t –”

   “Don’t lie!” The hoarse yell from my throat startles even me. “I saw the bodies in my vault – more dedicated followers for your cause. I saw the medallions, too. And it would have been easy – I already had half the wizarding world on my side and by ruling in my name, you could make me a god – and yourself a high priestess.” My lip curls with disgust. “The ‘Church of Harry Potter’ – you modeled it after Christianity, I bet, something most wizards know nothing of. Damn shame about that – at least they could have known better. But something went wrong… something made all the wizards disappear.”

   Hermione is silent, tears still flowing down her face. I cross my arms over my chest.

   “They’re all dead, I’m assuming?”

   She nods.

   “Did they kill themselves?”

   She licks her dry lips nervously. “The ones that weren’t with us died – the others…”

   “So you let them kill themselves?”

   “Harry, what was I –”

   “You just let it happen, Hermione, don’t deny it,” I snap with bitterness. “What I want to know is why.”

   “Why what –”

   “Don’t give me ‘why what’!” I shout, slamming a fist the bedside table. “I want to know why you let Rookwood try his perverted plan, why you founded a sick religion on my memory, why you had your fiancĂ© killed in your ‘quest for power!’” My hands are shaking now as I point my wand at Hermione’s face again. “Did Ron need to die for your ‘faith’, or was he just not good enough for you?”

   “O-our people needed something to believe in,” Hermione says finally, barely able to meet my gaze. “And s-sometimes sacrifices have t-to be made –”

   “Yeah, I don’t buy that,” I cut her off bluntly, and Hermione chokes on her words as I lower the wand closer. “Care for a real answer?”

   She is silent. I sigh inwardly – so it comes to this.

   “All right, Hermione, then I guess you just have to die.”

   Silence is held in common by tension, tranquility, and death – does that make them one and the same?

*          *          *

4

   Why is it that one will speak upon the threat of death, but not upon the threat of life? Can’t they all see that life is more brutal?

   “Wait!” The plea erupts from her mouth as she raises her hands. “I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you everything you want to know –”

   “And everything I want to hear,” I finish, with a disgusted shake of my head. “Don’t play games with me, Hermione. I already know more than you think.”

   “Then why am I so young?” she challenges, pointing towards herself. “I did this… I did this for you, Harry!”

   “You used the magic I created on yourself?” I ask, incredulity finally creeping into my voice. “Without the Elder Wand? That was experimental… why you haven’t experienced horrific tissue decay, I can’t even begin to wonder, but I’m sure you figured something out…”

   She nods quickly – too quickly. “It took dozens of other spells and a few brushes with death, but I –”

   “So you are still over a hundred, then?” I ask scornfully. “And that means you must have some inkling of what happened here, why I haven’t seen anybody in this city.”

   “It was a pandemic, and a horrible one at that,” Hermione whispered. “London was a hotbed of it – it wiped out millions of people, and those that survived left the city. Other nations bought the land, and the few Muggle lords that still live here maintain the technology that keeps the city looking pristine, but they won’t leave their manors. They don’t have to… every need is provided for them…”

   “And now the Muggles are going to destroy the world,” I growl. “And the International Confederation of Wizards isn’t going to do something about it?”

   “They can’t stop the weapons,” Hermione whispers, a tear streaking her face. “They were launched from off the planet two days ago – and no wizard has ever gone into space.”

   “I’m no ordinary wizard, and I have the Elder Wand. And what about Rookwood?” I add dangerously, my eyes burning with hatred. “You know where he’ll be – considering the only way I’ll get back home is by undoing his twisted magic…”

   “It was Voldemort’s failsafe, Harry, not mine,” she says, her voice definitely panicked. Perhaps she sees the fury on my face now – that she’ll be lucky to leave the room alive. “I don’t how Rookwood did it, how he set the whole thing off – but it has something to do with the Hallows…”

   “You expect me to believe that? Voldemort didn’t believe in the Hallows – he probably didn’t even know they existed!”

   “But Rookwood knew… and he put the pieces together… and when he found out that you were the Master of Death –”

   “You told him,” I cut off harshly. “Don’t waste your time lying – I just want to know why.”

   Hermione swallows hard, and I know – and dread – the answer to come from her mouth.

   “I did it all… for you.”

   I snort with disgust, but my heart is hammering in my chest. “Yeah, like I believe that – you did it to gain power for yourself, not for me!”

   “I knew you were going to come back, Harry, he promised that you would… and that when you would, you’d be willing to accept me as an equal.” She says this in a rush, unable to halt the wistfulness from coming out in her voice – a wistfulness that makes my stomach churn. “You didn’t deserve all those whores who were clambering over each other to –”

  “Ron was willing to give everything, anything, for you!” I snarl, my wand snapping up again. “And you…”

  “I would have done the same for you, Harry!” Hermione’s passionate voice echoes in the room. “But you… you wouldn’t even see me beyond Ginny and your little secret –”

   “You don’t when to shut up, do you?”

   “You brought her back just so you could screw her!” Hermione shrieks, her face flushing with fury. “And I would have done anything for you –”

   “ENOUGH!”

   My voice, hoarse and ragged, echoes once in the room, and Hermione falls silent but for her muffled sobs. My wand is an inch away from her pallid face.

   “I’m going to ask you one last time,” I growl through clenched teeth. “Where is Rookwood?”

   “Hogwarts,” she whispers, blinking back tears as she finally meets my eyes. “That’s where it always ends.”

   “Too true,” I mutter. “Though he probably knows I’ll come here…”

   “Harry…” Her entire face is wet with tears and sweat. “Please don’t kill me… I’ve lived for so long, I don’t want to die…”

   “Give me one good reason not to.” My own voice gives me chills.

   “ ‘Hope… is the companion of power and the mother of success,” she whispers, barely audibly at first, but her voice gradually gaining strength with each word. “For those of us who hope strongest… have within us the gift of miracles.’ Harry, you’re going to kill Rookwood, and fix this mess forever. The world doesn’t have to end here. I’m hoping that you can find it within yourself to save humanity – and I want to see that hero, the one I’ve always seen in you.”

   I turn away, lowering my wand as I look at the faded wall.

   “You think I can save the world.”

   “Yes,” Hermione whispers.

   “It’s a shame, then, that I’m just a man,” I finally reply, turning to face her. “I’m not the god you made me, Hermione, and like any man, I know, for me, what is unforgivable. Avada Kedavra!

   There is a flash of green light, and her lifeless corpse collapses back in the bed. Pocketing the Elder Wand, I walk away, my footsteps echoing in the now lifeless halls of Godric’s Hallow.

   How can you hope for a better tomorrow… when the tomorrow is the end of all things?

*          *          *

3

   It is proven that all things tend towards chaos… so are we alone in time staving off futility?

   The first rays of the clouded dawn trace the lines of the battlements in front of me – the battlements of Hogwarts, a school abandoned. Even the ghosts are gone. They probably saw it coming… hell, everyone should have seen it coming, myself included…

   My steps echo on the cold stone, stone I have not walked since that night when Snape followed Dumbledore’s orders and executed the Headmaster with a single curse – the same I used to execute Hermione.

   I know that I should feel remorse for her death – after all, she was deluded, losing her mind, consumed by her jealous love and her own inadequacy. She had betrayed me in the worst possible way, but she had been a friend, one of the few I had. And it doesn’t help that a few of her words ring true… what I’ve done…

   I know Rookwood will come soon to Hogwarts. He has no choice – he won’t miss the opportunity to gloat at my ‘demise’. He’ll come to the top of the Astronomy Tower – after all, it was the site of one of his master’s greatest victories.

   I look out at the Forbidden Forest, now creeping over Hogwarts’ overgrown grounds. It wouldn’t be long before the trees reached the castle. Of course, a nuclear cataclysm tends to get in the way of such development…

   “You took your time, Potter.”

   The raspy voice, lacking all of the smooth power of Voldemort’s cold tones, makes me turn. He looks the same as he did five years earlier, when I had hurled him into Azkaban after the Battle of Hogwarts. Still pockmarked, still slightly stooped, still with the slight trace of madness in his lazy eyes.

   No, Augustus Rookwood hadn’t changed. But I had.

   “I don’t hurry for you, Rookwood. I’m only here because you have what I need.”

   “And that is?” The man’s voice is deceptively benign, but I know his trick this time.

   “Being insufferable won’t help your cause, Rookwood. You know what I want – after all, you sent us here, and you can send us back.” My voice is even as the Elder Wand comes to my fingers.

   Rookwood cocks his head sideways as he steps into the light. “Is Death not eternal, Potter?”

   My eyes narrow. “I’m not in the mood for games, Rookwood. “

   “You see, Potter, you and the Dark Lord are remarkably similar – you both did things with Death that most men would shy away from. And when you began your diabolical little experiments with the Hallows… ah, that’s when the parallelism was complete, and the Dark Lord’s final failsafe could be activated –”

   “He mentioned that,” I growl, “but you know better than anyone that the Dark Lord would have built in a way back –”

   Rookwood throws his head back and laughs, the cackle filled with twisted triumph and more than a hint of insanity. “Don’t you get it, Potter? I helped the Dark Lord build this little magic, and I know better than anyone that there’s no escape. After all, you’ve changed things – forever. There’s no going back – not this time.”

   “Stop making excuses, Rookwood,” I hiss, taking a step towards the laughing Death Eater. “We both know Voldemort is here - I’ll make him send me back.”

   Rookwood raises a bushy eyebrow. “And who are you to compel the Dark Lord to do anything? Potter, surely you’ve realized by now that you brought him here. The Horcrux in your soul… the one you saw dying, the one that would have died, but for your choice to take the Hallows as your own. Your purity was tarnished, Potter, and the second you took the Elder Wand’s power as your own, it latched onto it… and has stayed there, gaining more and more power – until it saw fit to possess another.”

   I’m breathing fast now, walking ever closer to Rookwood, who seems utterly unconcerned. “There’s another wizard alive in his forsaken hell, and Voldemort’s possessing him?”

   Rookwood clapped his hands. “Bravo, Potter, bravo! Half the mystery –”

   I seize Rookwood’s long dirty hair and shove my wand under his chin. “Then get the bastard here with your Dark Mark and tell him to reverse the spell!

  “It’s irreversible, Harry.”

   Out of the shadows, he steps, his red eyes gleaming with triumph. My grip on Rookwood only tightens.

   “Harry, Harry, you have never understood time – and I would know, considering I’ve been in your head these past five years.” Voldemort smiles cruelly, his white skin gleaming in the dawn. “All things in reality tend towards chaos, Harry, and attempting to minimize it only leads ultimately to a cataclysmic breakdown. We just rode that temporal wave here – towards the end of this little world. Towards that maximum point of entropy – death.”

   “So your own life has been a waste, then?” I sneer, sliding my wand to press against Rookwood’s throat. “You tried to cheat death, minimize chaos –”

   “Nothing left to lose, Harry, and everything to gain!” Voldemort shouts exultantly. “To watch a world burn… and consume you along the way. You can’t stop the Apocalypse, Harry Potter!”

   “I’m the Master of Death,” I growl, tossing Rookwood to the floor and raising my wand toward Voldemort. “And I’ve done magic that you can only dream of. I’ve cheated death – I can cheat time!”

   Voldemort only smiles… as his face dissolves. Red eyes become dark and twinkling. A hairless scalp now sprouts hair that is bubblegum pink, framing a heart-shaped face.

   The breath catches in my throat. It’s impossible… no, no, no, she’s can’t be alive now! Not like this… oh God, what have I done…

   “You cheated death all right, Harry,” Nymphadora Tonks whispers, the light of betrayal burning in her eyes, “and all it got you was me. So what will you win if you cheat time?”

   I broke Death’s rules… and I damned the world.

*          *          *

2

   People will do anything to quench the flames of lust. I… well, I just had more options available.

   Her nude body is on the table, painstakingly restored from four years of imprisonment within the dirt… the imprisonment of death. Hours of meticulous spellwork, restoring every tissue to pristine condition, only awaiting the jolt that will restart the heart – and restore the soul.

   I slide the ring bearing the Resurrection Stone on my finger and raise the Elder Wand. The Invisibility Cloak is thrown over my head – no need for Death to see me as I humiliate him. No need for anyone to see what I am doing. Hermione has some inkling of why I have locked myself in my private lab, deep in St. Mungo’s. She certainly knows that bodies have been exhumed from Godric’s Hollow… she just doesn’t know which ones. I have enough influence to be sure of that.

   Ginny doesn’t have a clue. Better that way – even with her blind faith in me, she would question.

   The incantation is slow, careful, and the ring rotates around my finger - my mastery of Death is being tested now. No mistakes – she would not be a shadow of her former self. She deserves better than that.

   Her body glows – a body that I know can be reshaped into any form she wishes. An exceedingly rare and dangerous gift, but one I crave. Maybe it is the answer to my desires, the insatiable lust for something I could have had, if only I had acted earlier…

   My breathing grows faster as the grey light works to blind me. I wonder, yet again, what core the Elder Wand possesses, for I hear no phoenix song. It would have been a perfect herald… the clarion call of a soul returning…

   The light abruptly fades, leaving only the uneven glow of the candles in the room. I hold my breath, waiting for the sound of breathing through repaired lungs…

   Her eyes open, the dark twinkle sparking back to life. She slowly looks up, a look of mingled surprise and wonder on her face. I clench my jaw, for I know now what I must do. It would be unpleasant, but necessary – she must not know.

   “Harry… is that –”

   “Obliviate.”

   Her eyes lose focus, and I lean close, to whisper in her ear, to lie. It would be the only way to avoid…complications. And I had learned from experience that my Memory Charms didn’t just delete memories – they remade them.

   “You just woke from a coma that we’ve only just managed to break. It’s been four years since the Battle of Hogwarts, and I have been experimenting with new magic to awake you. You were never in love with Remus Lupin, who died in the fighting at Hogwarts, you were never married, and you never had a son.” I swallow hard, as milky strands of light slide from my wand, wriggling into her ears. “And on the night of Bill and Fleur’s wedding, we made love. It broke my heart to see you fall to Bellatrix, and I’ve done everything to save you…”

   “Liar.”

   My eyes snap wide open, only to see Tonks standing in front of me, her eyes gleaming with disgust and hatred… but is there also sadness? Wistfulness? I can’t tell.

   “Hermione never discovered the truth, did she?”

    Tonks’ laugh was short - and filled with hatred. “Harry, she never saw you with me. She saw you with all the women you convinced me to impersonate… and I did it all for you. I don’t even know if it was real, Harry, or whether your arrogance allowed it to be. Tell me, Harry, was it ever real? Any love in our passion? Or did you just use me as a bloody sex toy to slake your lust?”

   “Tonks, you have to realize –”

   “No, Harry, you realize something!” Tonks screams, her eyes blazing with fury. “You destroyed memories I can never get back – I don’t even know what I’ve lost! That little safeguard you made to conceal me from the world… it worked too well, Harry, and I couldn’t even find the entire truth! And after you vanished, I had to live through eight bloody decades of watching the world go to hell! And best of all, thanks to your magic, I can’t even die!” Her laughter is hollow now as she steps closer. “Your ‘Mastery of Death’ went a bit farther than even you expected!”

   Scorn fills her face. “But of course, you already knew all that, didn’t you, Harry?”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about –“

   Oh, yes you do.

   Pain. The howl erupts from my mouth as I collapse to my knees, clutching my head as the agony explodes. A few feet away, another scream, far more bestial than mine, breaks the air. An inferno is erupting in my brain, and I can’t make the torture stop this time…

   Suddenly, everything goes cold. The Elder Wand falls from my nerveless hands as memories cascade through my mind, unlocked from a mental blockade I had never broken – years of them.

   Everything done in my name…

   Rookwood steps into view, his shirt ripped open. Blood is seeping from his lips as he looks down at the seething flesh twisting grotesquely on his chest… forming into a starkly familiar face, with red slits for eyes.

   “So now you know what it’s like to be a god, eh, Harry?” Voldemort hisses, his words sounding from his mouth and Rookwood’s alike. “You performed miracles, raised the dead, and even had a second coming. And now, with a little help from Miss Tonks’ memories, you know all that was done in your name. You are closer than far many to the title.”

   Both faces break into a horrifying smile. “And gods die at the end of the world. Miss Tonks – you may proceed.”

   After all, an Imperius to control a world has only one punishment – after all, some things remain Unforgivable.

*          *          *

1

   Damnation… or redemption. Is there a point seeking or avoiding either, at the end of all things?

   I know the truth. Finally, I see it all. The fragments of memory had coalesced into terrible script, the legacy of dark lies and even darker truths that defined my life, and the years I had lost in transition.

   What scares me now is one terrible fact: that I had known, even from the very second I had arrived in this future. It had all been there, in my head, all along, and though I known fragments, I had never drawn the necessary lines, connected the dots.

   “Do you see it, Harry?” the face in Rookwood’s chest whispers gleefully. “Do you see that I was always there… but even that won’t resolve you of your guilt. The ideas, the dark passions, all those little evils that make you just a man, those were yours, Harry, not mine. I was just… along for the ride, watching you destroy yourself.”

   I say nothing to Voldemort’s jibe, not meeting his eyes. I know that meeting Tonks’ eyes is futile, for I know she will be merciless – as she should be. I brought her back to slake my lust, and in doing so, I stole her life.

   “Guess it’s true,” Tonks murmurs, “that absolute power corrupts absolutely, even the best of us.”

   Rookwood and Voldemort’s braying laugh echoes harshly atop the tower. “And if he is the best of us, what does that make this dying world?”

   “A better place,” I whisper, “without you in it.”

   My hand drops to my pocket, and my holly wand comes to my fingers. I haven’t used it in years, but I know every inch of it. It snaps up, aiming directly at Voldemort’s sneering face.

   “Reducto!

   There is a bang and a scream, echoing from two mouths… all the way down the tower.

   “Merlin’s beard,” Tonks whispers, moving to edge of the battlements. “You blew him clean off the tower. The Reductor Curse is never that …”

   “Perhaps it was purity of intention, if you can believe that,” I mutter as I get to my feet, pocketing the holly wand, my wand. “And he’s not dead, either. The roots of that thrice-damned Horcrux are still here.” I tap twice on my temple as I turn towards Tonks. Her wand still points towards me.

   “Well,” I ask after a long silence, “what are you waiting for? If you want to kill me, you’d better hurry before nuclear annihilation does it for you.”

   “You deserve to suffer,” she replies, her hands visibly trembling, “for all the lives you ruined –”

   I let out a mirthless laugh. “Tonks, my actions likely caused the end of the world. Every wizard and witch on this planet will die because of me – magic will effectively end as we know it! You don’t think I’ve suffered?”

    “Because of your meddling –”

   “Because I’m bloody human, Tonks!” My voice is ragged, filled with bitterness. “I can try to blame people who led me astray – Hermione, with her ambition and jealousy, Ginny and Ron and the rest of the damned wizarding world for their blind faith in me – but I really can’t. They wanted a savior, and they got me. “

   “So Voldemort was right.”

   “For once in his thrice-cursed life,” I agree grimly. “Tonks… when it comes down to this, you know the truth as well as I do. I’m no savior – I just wore the costume and got lost in the part, and the play skipped straight to the finale. So go ahead and kill me, Tonks. I won’t fight back, not this time. I deserve to pay for my sins – a payment long overdue.” I sigh and turn back towards the dawn. Lines now trace the skies – lines of fire. Only minutes now…

   “You know something?” I murmur, more to myself than to Tonks. “I think Luna knew, looked behind the mask I wore to see who I truly was, even when I didn’t acknowledge it. I think she was the only one to love Harry, not the Boy-Who-Lived or the Chosen One or the thrice-damned god they turned me into. A pity I never understood…”

   There is a long silence. To the south, I see brightness. The bomb is landing in London, I think to myself. Not long now.

   “Well?” I ask. “Are you going to kill me?”

   “No.”

   I spin around in shock to face Tonks, her bubble-gum pink hair fluttering in the sparse wind, tears wet on her face.

   “I can’t ever forgive you for what you’ve done,” she says slowly, “and I can’t begin to understand it, but you know what you’ve done, and that, I think, might make all the difference. And,” she adds with a faint smile, “with your help, we might be able to save Hogwarts.”

   “I can’t stop a nuclear apocalypse –”

   “Reinforce Hogwarts with the Elder Wand,” she whispers urgently. “It’s possible some wizards got off-world before the end. We can save it for them, use the Elder Wand’s power for good this time. If we can’t… well, we can die trying.”

   I close my eyes against the tide of emotion, and less than a minute later, I am standing on the lawns of Hogwarts. Tonks is beside me, and the Elder Wand is in my hand. I’m casting whatever protective enchantments I can think of over the castle. Maybe one will work. Maybe they all will work, I don’t know. All I know is that I have to try.

   Finally, I lower the Elder Wand – and snap it over my knee. Nobody needs this power – not now, not ever.

   I turn to Tonks. “It is finished, Nymphadora.”

   Tonks shakes her head. “You just had to call me that, didn’t you?”

   “One last time, Tonks. One last time.”

   Then we both turn, to face the inferno, the end, Death with open arms.

   ...For what is the meaning of our lives… and our deaths…

  To give them meaning.

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"Countdown", posted on May 26, 2009 at 11:26 pm
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