The next few hours were the longest Albus had ever endured.
Nothing in Albus's life could have prepared him for the nerve-wracking experience of sitting down here in this dark stone chamber with Kramer, Rob, and Booker, desperately waiting for any news from the Feather of Fawkes. What was more, the longer they waited, the more Albus began to worry that they would never hear from them. If the Circle had completely destroyed the headquarters, and killed everyone on board, there was a good chance that they would be waiting down here forever.
No...they wouldn't wait forever, Albus remembered. Half of the Feather of Fawkes had not been at headquarters when the Circle had attacked. There would be plenty of survivors. But if Nabus Rucolfix was killed or captured, that would surely be the end of it. And they would probably have to wait for days to hear the terrible news.
Everyone else seemed just as tense as Albus. Kramer was alternating between fidgeting restlessly and pacing across the chamber. Rob was still and silent, but the look on his face was grim. Booker kept shooting glances to a large, flat computer monitor in the side of the wall, which remained black and silent.
Suddenly, the silence was broken. “There! We're getting something!” shouted Booker, pointing at the monitor, which had just winked to life. “Contact Approaching.” said a cool female voice issuing from the monitor.
“Conjure Contact.” said Booker.
Albus and Kramer gasped. Nabus Rucolfix had just stepped out of the screen, and was standing in front of them.
“Sir! Boy, am I glad to see you here!” said Albus excitedly.
“Well, technically I'm not exactly 'here'” said Nabus.
“But...when Rob conjured an old newspaper out of his screen back at Hogwarts, it was real!” said Albus, confused.
“Yes, well, it doesn't work on people.” said Nabus. “Are you familiar with the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration?”
“Food, potions, magical artifacts, souls, and people.” said Albus. “Rose told me. But what does that have to do with it? Isn't this just like Apparition?”
“Oh, no.” said Nabus. “What the computer wants to do is Vanish me and Conjure a copy of me somewhere else. But that's impossible, because people cannot be Vanished and Conjured at will. So the program merely creates a convincing hologram.”
Albus marched up to the old man and tried to touch him. He had expected he would be unable to, but to his surprise, he found Nabus was solid. “But I can touch you.” he said. “So how can you be a hologram?”
“Why should my being a hologram mean you cannot touch me?” replied Nabus.
“Right.” said Albus, confused. “But forget about that. What happened?”
“Headquarters is destroyed.” said Nabus solemnly.
“Destroyed?” shouted Rob.
“Some of us were killed.” said Nabus, looking grave. “But most survived. We have all fled to our outposts in other parts of the solar system, and managed to stop the Stingers from tailing us. But I have worse news. They suspect you are here.”
Kramer gasped. Booker looked appalled. “Well, then we've got to get out of this place!” said Albus.
“No.” said Nabus sharply. “It is imperative that you remain here.”
“Though they have guessed you are on Nereid, they do not know exactly where.” said Nabus. “They have not arrived yet, but once they do, they will be looking for any trace of magic besides the activity in Nereid City, and the force field that keeps this moon warm enough to support life.”
“Can't we just go there, then? We'd blend in with the other magic.”
“We can't do that; look what happened last time you weren't under the Feather of Fawkes's protection. We can't just move the whole base there, so you're stuck.”
“If you try to use any means of magical escape, you'll be tracked. If you use any magic at all, you'll be discovered. Your only option is to stay down there and refrain from using any magic at all.”
“But all of our technology runs off magical energy!” protested Booker.
“You have emergency non-magical supplies for situations like this.” said Nabus. “Now, you need to shut down everything magical immediately. The Stingers are on their way.”
Nabus vanished. The computer screen went black. Booker and Rob just stood there.
“Come on! You heard them!” said Albus. “Turn off all the magic stuff!”
Booker and Rob dashed for a door in the wall. “Come on!” said Rob, beckoning to Albus and Kramer, who promptly followed suit.
They dashed through chambers and hallways, all of which were made of the same dark stone as the first, turning off everything they could see and uttering hasty explanations to the indignant men and women in other rooms. At last, all that remained was a small room off one of the main halls, the glowing word EMERGENCY casting faint red light over the four of them. “This is it.” said Booker. “The non-magical supplies are in here.”
Turning off the glowing sign and briefly casting everything into pitch-blackness, Rob swung open the door into a dimly illuminated room full of materials.
“Everyone take a flashlight.” instructed Booker, pulling out one of several identical boxes. They did so, and flicked them on. As they did so, Booker flipped off the light in the room.
“There we are.” he said. “Everything magical has been deactivated.”
The finality of his statement seemed to press in on everyone in the room.
“Now, I'm sure you're all hungry.” Booker said, shining his flashlight on another group of boxes and pulling one out. It was full of small bars wrapped in plastic. “These may not look like much, but they'll nourish you right up.”
Albus suddenly realized just how starving he was. He snatched up one of the bars and ate it in two bites. The bar had absolutely no taste, but was pleasantly chewy, and once it had disappeared, Albus was surprised to find that his hunger had disappeared along with it.
“Now it's time to get some rest.” said Booker, pulling out several blankets. “Go find somewhere you're comfortable sleeping, and I'll distribute some more of these supplies among the other agents in the base.”
The following days felt like an endless nightmare. There was nothing for Albus and Kramer to do but sit around, shining their flashlights around the rooms, wondering where it would all end, or if they would ever be able to leave. Eat, sleep, worry...these activities consumed him in a merciless loop from which he could not escape.
As time wore on, Albus began to feel more and more as though he was holding back a great tide of energy. Whenever he held his wand, he had to will himself not to twirl it absentmindedly. He soon stopped holding his wand altogether, instead keeping it rolled up in the blankets he was sleeping in, only removing it whenever it was time to rest, during which he would keep his wand on a nearby table. Even without his wand, however, Albus still felt like he was forcibly restraining his magic. Every now and then, Kramer would look at Albus, unnerved, and Albus would in turn realize that he had been muttering incantations under his breath without realizing it.
He began to think of the story of Albus Dumbledore's sister, Ariana, who had, out of her sensitivity and fear, attempted to suppress her magic ever since she had been set upon by a gang of Muggle children when she was young...how her internalized powers had driven her insane. Was this happening to him? Would he, too, eventually lose his mind in the attempt to keep his abilities at bay?
But nobody seemed to understand or even sympathize with his troubles. All of the other people hiding beneath Nereid—Kramer, Booker, and the dozens of others—seemed perfectly capable of simply putting away their wands and thinking no more of it.
“Just don't think about magic...that's all there is to it.” said Kramer, after Albus had asked him how he could stand going this long without casting a spell.
“That's exactly the problem.” said Albus, frustrated. “Every time I stop actively forcing myself not to use magic, I just sort of start trying, without conscious thought. I have to think about magic...or rather, about not using it.”
The two of them sat down on the stone floor, aimlessly fidgeting with their flashlights, causing beams of light to dance across the walls in intricate patterns.
“It's like...I don't know...” Albus was struggling to find the right words, “like there's some kind of anxious energy bursting to get out of me.”
“What did you expect?” countered Kramer, shining his light up at the domed ceiling of their chamber. “We're trapped down here, beneath the surface of this barren, desolate moon, with no news, while a powerful terrorist organization is watching the area and waiting for us to give away our exact position. We're all anxious.”
“It's not that.” said Albus. “I mean, yes, that's certainly bad enough, but...this is different. Something more.”
Kramer shrugged. “Well, I'm not feeling it.” he said. “I'm just bored out of my mind, and...Albus, what are you doing?”
Albus gave a start. He had been twirling and waving his flashlight in complex patterns, exactly like a wand.
“That's exactly what I'm talking about.” he said, putting down his flashlight. “I just can't stop myself from doing that.”
“I dunno.” said Kramer, sighing. “I guess I can't help you.”
Later that day, Albus took his worries to Rob, who was spending most of his time in the launch chamber, staring at the computer monitor, even though they had no chance of receiving any information without power.
“Rob?” said Albus, entering the room, and promptly setting his flashlight down on a table so that he would not start fidgeting with it again.
“Yeah?” he said gruffly, turning to look at him, and casting his own flashlight in his direction.
“I've been having a lot of trouble keeping myself from doing magic.” he said. “Do you have any advice?”
Rob looked confused. “You're having trouble keeping yourself from doing magic?” he said. “But the use of magic is a conscious decision. Just try to involve yourself with something else.”
It was more or less the same advice that Kramer had given him, and he was starting to feel intensely irritated that nobody could understand his difficulty. “There's nothing else to do here.” said Albus. “And anyway, it's not that simple. Unless I'm constantly telling myself not to use magic, I'll find myself trying to do it.”
“But then you can't carry your wand with you.” said Rob sharply. “You could endanger us all.”
“I stopped carrying my wand a while ago.” said Albus. “But I'll often still be sitting there and suddenly realize that I've been whispering spells, or else waving something as though it's my wand. I just can't control it.”
Rob looked relieved. “Well, that's not so bad. If you aren't using a wand, your magical power isn't amplified to useable levels, and won't be detectable.”
“But that still doesn't explain why I'm doing it in the first place!” said Albus. “You don't think...” he paused, looking for the right words. Rob knew so much magical history; he would certainly know what he was talking about. “You don't think I could be going the same way as Ariana Dumbledore, do you?”
Rob frowned for a second before his face lit up with comprehension. “Ariana Dumbledore? Of course not.”
“But, if I'm constantly holding back my magic...”
“This is completely different.” said Rob firmly. “Ariana Dumbledore was always a sensitive girl, and she was trying to suppress her magic without any knowledge of how to actually control it. She was not as strong as her own powers. You...well, I honestly have no idea what's going on, but I assure you, you aren't going mad.”
But Albus wasn't convinced. Over the next few days, the feelings grew progressively worse, and whatever Albus did, he seemed to have less and less control. He was quite sure that he was fighting a losing battle. Something had to give.
Albus was beginning to have nightmares. Each night, he dreamed of terrifying, shadowy, faceless creatures bearing down upon him. But the magic wouldn't come, now that he desperately needed it, to defend himself, to ward them off, to fight. He would point his wand at the creatures, and shout incantations, but nothing happened. When his wand didn't work, he tried to flee, only to be confronted with another monster. He always woke up as the monsters were on the point of catching him, but the nightmares returned whenever he fell asleep again.
One night, his visions were particularly terrifying. There were vast chimaeras that sucked on the surrounding air like Dementors, dragons with the legs of spiders, amorphous things that reached towards him...
Then, all of a sudden, something new happened...something Albus had never seen before in his dreams.
The monsters abruptly backed off, and from the mist, a tall, thin figure emerged. He was cloaked in a deep purple hood, his face completely invisible. Yet Albus new instinctively who this was...the mysterious leader of the Circle of the New Birth of Sorcery.
“Albus Potter.” said the figure. Something about the voice was oddly familiar.
Albus raised his wand high above his head. This time, it must not fail him. His magic must work! Yet as he began to bring his wand slashing down to cast a curse at the figure, it disintegrated in his hands, turning to dust which was promptly scattered to the wind.
The figure laughed mirthlessly, and Albus felt the most powerful emotion yet to plague him in his nightmares. It wasn't fear. It was rage.
“You will see me soon, Albus!” called the figure. “Your siblings and cousins already have. Why not join them? I would like nothing more than to meet you...to talk to you...to discuss the future...”
Albus advanced on the figure. He didn't know what he was going to do. He had no wand, no way to defend himself, no plan...
“Now is not the time.” chided the figure. “First, you must wake up. Then you may search for me. I will not make it difficult.”
And, as the figure stepped back into the mist and vanished, Albus thrust his arms forward, just as the Stingers had done, and from his palms there came a blinding jet of light.
There was a tremendous explosion. The ground trembled. And suddenly, Albus's eyes snapped open. He was still holding up is arms, his palms forward...and, following the direction they were pointing, Albus saw, through a thick cloud of dust, a blackened crater in the ceiling.
“What in the name of Merlin...” came Rob's voice. He and Booker were standing in the doorway, their eyes traveling from Albus to the crater, then to his wand, which was lying several feet away on a table. Kramer was sitting bolt upright, staring at Albus in shock.
“What happened?” demanded Rob, dashing over to Albus.
“I...I don't know.” he gasped, frightened and confused. “I was having a dream, and I...I woke up like this.”
“How did you cast that Blasting Curse without a wand?” shouted Booker, who sounded as though he was experiencing a vast and unusual combination of emotions. “That's the Stingers' best-kept secret...how to channel powerful magic through one's own body instead of through an object! How did you do it?”
“I told you, I have no idea!” said Albus, springing to his feet. “But we're in danger now, aren't we?”
“If the Stingers were watching—and I'd bet my life they were—that was exactly what they were looking for!” confirmed Rob. “They'll know our exact location. They're probably on their way right now. We've got to get out. Get everyone out!”
“How?” said Booker hopelessly, pacing around frantically. “We have nowhere near enough Axes to get everyone in this base out, and it would take too long to launch them all even if we did!”
“We can use the Warp Pods.” said Rob. “There are how many people here? Twenty or so? If we activated all five, we could get out quickly.”
“But they'll know where we've gone!” said Booker. “Someone will need to remain behind to deactivate the templates!”
“I'll do it.” said Rob. “Once you're all out, I'll erase the templates, then manually Apparate to the surface and take refuge in Nereid City. I'll be all right. Just get everyone up!”
Booker tore off to rouse everyone else, while Rob dashed in the opposite direction to set up the Warp Pods. Lights flicked on throughout the base, restoring it to the livelihood Albus had seen when they first arrived. Soon, people were pouring out of other rooms, shouting questions and commanding others to follow them.
Rob's voice came from a room at the end of the hall. “I've got them all set up! Hurry!”
Everyone stampeded for the door. “Albus! Kramer! Where are you?” shouted Booker from somewhere ahead. The two of them leapt forward, but at that moment, they were seized from behind by two pairs of hands, and pulled into the feeling of intense compression and darkness that accompanied Apparition. When the sensation lifted, they were standing on the pitted, scarred, gray surface of Nereid, the stars twinkling above. Albus turned to see who had hold of them, and saw, with a thrill of horror, two Stingers, each holding one of them.”
“You've proved elusive.” said the pale, gaunt Stinger holding Albus, who, upon hearing his voice, instantly recognized him as Vega, Chardmus's companion from the attack on Hogwarts. “But you couldn't hide forever!”
“As for you,” said the other, a sneering woman with fiery orange curls of hair who was holding Kramer, “Could you possibly be the accomplice that stunned Chardmus when his back was turned?”
“You killed my family.” snarled Kramer, struggling against the female Stinger's hold.
“Am I to take that as a yes?”
“You spend too much time asking questions, Whelmuran.” said Vega, gripping Albus tightly. “It isn't important. All we need to do is get them to Victoria Perfectus.”
“Aren't you going to beg for your life?” cackled the Stinger called Whelmuran. Kramer remained silent, though he redoubled his efforts to break free. Whelmuran shoved him to the ground and shouted, “Crucio!”
Kramer thrashed and howled, unable to get up.
“Enough!” shouted Vega. With a bang, the curse was lifted, but before Kramer could do anything else, ropes appeared out of thin air and bound him tight.
“There'll be plenty of time for that after we've brought them back.” said Vega. “We cannot delay. Think how furious our master will be Albus slips through our grasp again.”
“Right.” said Whelmuran, somewhat sulkily.
She seized hold of Kramer again, and, all of a sudden, the ground dropped out from beneath their feet. The two Stingers were rising into the sky, dragging Albus and Kramer with them. They shot off into space, gathering speed, accelerating tremendously. The brilliant, shining dot of the Sun slowly began to grow larger and larger. Albus knew exactly what was happening.
They were being taken
on a one-way trip to Victoria Perfectus.