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Signs of Life

April 20, 1992, 4:00 PM, Room of Requirement

I jumped to the side, hearing the sound of wood hitting stone before I felt the flaring of the bruise on my side.

I pushed through the pain and brought my wand to bear.

Odgovor!” I thrust it forward, feeling the rush of power go through my arm and into my focus.

Three chain constructs erupted from its tip, with two floating at the ready while the third twisted around the projectile coming my way.

A small effort of will, and the chain tightened around the long stick before sending it right back to its source— the wooden dummy being animated by Alef Ard.

I watched the dummy shudder before breaking apart, filling the room with the sound of wood clattering against stone once more.

“Yes!” I said, but before I could celebrate further, I saw another stick flying my way.

I brought my two chains together in a crisscrossing, shield like pattern and merged them into one, solid barrier.

The wood was no match, snapping in two on impact. I kept the shield up and sent the third chain straight to the next foe; its tip reshaped itself into a point in accordance with my intent, sharpening itself with the essence of a Severing Charm.

The chain spear pierced right through the remaining dummy before embedding itself in the room’s wall with a loud crack.

Once again, I watched as my target shuddered like a puppet with its strings cut before it disassembled itself.

That sight will never stop being unnerving. I thought while Helena began to float over to me.

When I had asked Alef Ard for some lifelike targets for me to kill, he had been more than eager.

I was now wondering whether I should have reworded my request.

“Very well done, Zero.” Helena sidled up to me with a smile.

I nodded and let the spell disperse into nothing, feeling a little winded from the mental and physical strain.

“Thanks.” I said and proceeded to walk laps around the room to work my heart rate down to a resting state.

“Your progress never ceases to amaze, you know.” Helena said, staying by my side the whole time.

“In any other scenario, I might agree with you.” I said, shaking my head as I stopped walking laps and moved towards the right corner, where I had put my water canteen.

I took a long draught, feeling the cool liquid soothe my parched throat, before sighing in contentment.

“But…?” Helena said.

“But it needs to be faster. I need to be faster.” I said. “Wizards fight back with something a little stronger than a flimsy stick.”

“Hmph!” The woman seemed to find my words amusing. “Faster, he says… You should know already that devising and mastering a spell as complex as this will take time. You only have to look at how long it took for you to devise a method to modify the Shield Charm, in the first place!”

I shrugged. “I know what you’re trying to say, and I will recognize that I’ve made incredible strides over the past weeks. I just feel like I need to do more…”

“You’ve been ignoring your studies to focus solely on this, Zero.” Helena said, incredulousness all over her face. “You’ve done far more than enough. Progress involves rest and relaxation just as much as it does hard work.”

“Maybe a little less rest than that.” I quipped, unable to help myself. “And we both know I’ll be getting high marks, anyway.”

It got the effect I desired— Helena bristling with annoyance.

“You may jest.” Helena glared before turning her nose up at me. “But if you continue to behave in such an uncouth, reckless way, you’ll never be able to find a woman to court.”

Again with the matchmaking? I thought with a mix of exasperation and bewilderment. How is it that she continually flip flops between sending me bed eyes and trying to hook me up with the local women?

“What a shame, eh?” I said, my voice dripping with dismissive intent and heavy sarcasm. “How ever will I live if I don’t end up finding my one true love?”

“Ugh.” Helena raised her hands in exasperation. “Men.”

I chuckled just as Alef Ard popped into existence in front of me; he was yellow, today. “Hey, Alef. Switching it up today, huh?”

Alef Ard buzzed a few times and flew circles around me in his traditional way of greeting.

“He says the previous color didn’t feel right.” Helena relayed, still sending me disapproving looks before sighing and staring down at herself. “I miss my old dresses. They were colorful and vibrant, not… this.”

I lost my smile as my chest swelled with sympathy. Considering what she’d done, the punishment she got or put herself through didn’t seem to fit the crime.

“Helena.” I said.

“Yes, Zero?” She replied, still not looking at me.

“Do you… Um…” I said and hesitated, sending her a look. “Do you want to pass on to the beyond?”

The woman’s face froze at the question, and she spun in place towards me with slowness so deliberate that it made a shiver creep up my spine.

With that same pace, she approached me, floating her body forward without moving it a single inch. Her eyes took on a dead quality as they roved over me.

“Pass on?” She repeated in a dull, muted tone to match her grayness. “To the other side?”

I frowned, trying not to let her changed demeanor affect me. “Yes. It’s been nearly a thousand years since you were alive, Helena. Isn’t that enough penance?”

For a few moments, her stare deepened with the intensity that only a ghost could provide. And then it faded like a mote of dust in a storm. Life returned to her features as Alef Ard buzzed around her.

“After… After I did what I did…” Helena said, looking down. “I sought to make amends. I wished to ensure my mother’s legacy endured. I knew that I would not be able to return what I stole.”

I nodded and let her continue.

“And for centuries I was reticent on the matter.” She said, circling me. “I could not reveal the diadem’s location, for I did not trust in the goodness of my former fellows. But then he came, and he flattered… He sympathized. It seemed as if my fervent wish was to finally come to fruition.”

Silence hung in the air.

“But he lied.” I said. “He cursed it and shoved it in the Room of Hidden Things.”

Helena fixed me with half of a glare and half of an exasperated expression. “So you knew about it, as well.”

“Like I said before.” I shook my head. “Dangerous secrets, remember?”

“You’ve left it alone.” Helena’s eyes shined with the spark of something I couldn’t quite place. “You’ve known about it this whole time, and you’ve left it alone.”

I blinked and tilted my head as understanding slowly came to me. “Wait… Don’t tell me that you thought I was trying to lull you into a false sense of security?”

“World Drifter and possessed of dangerous knowledge, you may be.” Helena said, looking away. “But I still did not trust you to keep my own secrets. With your zeal for learning and studying, I imagined that you likely did not know of my mother’s treasure, or you would have sought it out.”

I nodded, a little rankled at her lack of trust, but realized that I couldn’t blame her for it. Considering the way she died, as well as the way her secret was used to pervert her mother’s treasure, I just couldn’t feel bad about it for too long.

“Look.” I said, frowning. “I know I can get a little crazy when I find something interesting to study, maybe even zealous like you said, but it’s not like I’m just messing around?”

Helena did not answer, instead choosing to stare out of the window.

“I was tempted to take it.” I said, watching as she snapped her head towards me. “Who wouldn’t? Increasing my wisdom and intelligence just by wearing a crown? Sure, I’d look a little prissy, but that’s a priceless advantage to me.”

“So, why didn’t you?”

I sent her an incredulous look. “It’s cursed. I don’t want to be possessed and lose my life over some headgear— I’m not stupid, you know.” 

“And if it was no longer cursed…” Helena got within my personal space again. “What would you do, Zero?”

I took a step back. “I don’t know; it depends.”

Helena continued to stare with unblinking eyes of black. “Explain.”

“Would I have your permission to use it?” I asked.

“My permission?” She seemed startled by this.

I pursed my lips, wondering how any of this was surprising to the woman. “Yes. Come on, we’ve been talking for ages; surely, you know a thing or two about me by now?”

Helena didn’t react to that, and I felt my heart sink.

She’s just a ghost, you absolute moron. I thought to myself. It’s not the real Helena Ravenclaw, but a cheap imitation imprinted into this world by the real Helena’s negativity and regret concerning her death. Ghosts are limited in every facet of their existence, and are largely incapable of attaining new knowledge or changing their outlooks.

I exhaled through my nose and felt Alef Ard’s presence touching against me in an attempt to soothe me.

“I am real, you know.” Helena said in a quiet voice. “I can tell what you’re thinking.”

“Alef Ard letting you know, I’m guessing?” I said. I had kept my thoughts private, so there was no way he could have told her.

“No.” She turned her nose up. “I’m not a fool, Zero. I know that my existence in this form is limited, but I am always learning new things— and with Alef’s aid, I’ve felt as if my existence has been… Heightened, in some way.”

The yellow mote of light began to circle and buzz around her with happiness. Maybe it was a trick of the light, or Alef Ard’s yellow coloration skewing my perception, but it seemed as if her skin had gained the slightest bit of color.

I sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s just a little frustrating, you know? I thought you trusted me.”

“I do.” Helena said and approached me once more. Her presence did not come with the expected feeling of cold. “It’s just that—”

She stopped herself, and I could only stare in wonder at what I was seeing. It’s like she was coming to life, if only for a short time.

“I have not had reason to trust people overmuch. To put such a delicate thing in another’s hands…” Helena said, shaking her head. “Even when I was alive, that was a difficult thing for me. I was either a pretty face for most men, or Rowena’s daughter for those who sought to gain a sliver of my mother’s fame. None saw me.”

She reached up to place her hand against my face, but it went through it instead, sending a wave of pleasant warmth through me.

“Helena…” I said. “You’re not cold.”

Her eyes widened and she drew her hand back to stare at it. “Strange. It’s almost as if… What is this?”

Alef Ard appeared between us, buzzing with excitement.

“You— you did this?” Helena asked, her hands and shoulders shaking from an emotion I couldn’t quite place. “How? What did you do?”

Everything was clicking into place. “Of course.”

Helena turned her attention back to me, urging me to answer without saying anything.

“You’ve been linked to Alef, and he is… Well, he’s pure, concentrated life energy.” I said. “I should’ve figured that his essence would bleed into you, in some way.”

“I…” She said but was stopped in confusion when I began to walk around her. “What are you doing?”

“Just looking.” I said, nodding to myself. “I thought it was a trick of the light, before, but it almost looks like there’s a bit of color to you, now.”

“Color?” She floated towards the window and raised her hand, flinching as she pressed it through the glass. “I can feel the Sun’s warmth… I can feel it!”

She swiveled back to me, her eyes wild with a strange hunger. “Zero, do you see?”

“Yes.” I moved to stand by her side.

“What does this mean for me?” Helena continued to stare at her hand with a sense of sheer disbelief. “What am I becoming?”

I had no answer to that, but I stayed by her side until I found the words to say.

“I don’t know.” I decided to be honest with her. “But I’ll be with you every step of the way for it, my friend.”

“Thank you.” She said and pushed her hand through my own, pretending that she was holding it.

“That feels weird.” I said.

“I know.”

“Are you going to let go?”

“No.”

oooo

An Hour Later, Moon’s Rest, Gellert’s Solar

Gellert Grindelwald

It was with a satisfied sigh that Gellert Grindelwald took a seat in his solar. His bones were weary, and his muscles sore, but he took a moment to just allow himself to feel it, disregarding everything else in existence.

This was a good pain, the sort of pains he used to have after a job well done.

He chuckled. The job had been well done, indeed.

Gellert moved his gaze to the left, to the old cabinet containing part of his alcohol collection. He had not yet opened it, for there had been far too much to do in far too little time.

Now seems like the perfect moment, however. He reached for his wand just as a knock came to his door.

Gellert closed his eyes and willed himself not to kill the man at the other side of the door before opening them again. “Come in, Matthias.”

The knob turned and the door swung open, revealing his companion Matthias. “Sir, I have come with good news.”

“Oh?” Gellert said, smiling as he took his willow wand in hand and shivered with a certain pleasure at the rush of magic coursing through him. Even after a month, the feelings it evoked within him were raw and primal.

He took a moment to wave his wand at the cabinet before addressing his subordinate. “Come in, and tell me of these tidings you bring with you.”

“Yes, sir.” Matthias said with a respectful bow, passing through the threshold and standing there. “Well…”

Gellert smiled and raised his hand, silencing the man. A wave of his wand, and a chair materialized behind him. “Sit, my friend. You must be weary from your travels.”

Matthias blinked before taking his seat with an expression of gratitude. “My thanks. It has been a difficult undertaking.”

“Of course.” Gellert sent the man a pleasant smile as he gestured to the open cabinet lined with various wines, champagnes, whiskey and all manner of liquor. “Are you a drinking man, Matthias?”

Matthias laughed with a nervous smile. “I… I have had a few pints of beer, every now and again. Sometimes, some wine.”

“Wine, then?” Gellert pointed at the selection of bottles. “I’m afraid that I do not keep beer— I found, long ago, that it does not agree with my constitution.”

Matthias nodded and got up to check the selection before stopping and looking towards Grindelwald. “May I?”

“Of course.” Gellert said, magnanimous in his mannerisms.

Matthias snatched the first bottle he laid his eyes on, not even stopping to study any of them. “Will this do?”

If Gellert were younger, he would have thumped the man for lacking even the most basic of etiquette. 

“Ah.” He said, instead. “The 1899 Sanguis Vitas. A good year in my life; it’s got quite the pleasant, sweet taste, but with a nice kick at the end. I admit to being quite fond of this vintage.”

He remembered the old days visiting his aunt in Godric’s Hollow, the sweet summer breeze on his face and the sight of his friend standing beside him. They thought they would be each other’s unswerving companions.

Of course, fate had other things in mind for them. Oh, how the times have changed, old friend.

Matthias nodded and tried to look normal, but his face contorted in the expression of a man who did not understand what was just said to him, but didn’t want to insult his host.

What an amusing fellow— he’s at least got some manners, if nothing else. Gellert thought, shaking his thoughts of his old friend away and waving his wand. Two of the small-sized wine glasses flew over to them, floating between the two men.

Another wave, and the cork of the bottle opened with a satisfying pop. “If you would, Matthias.”

“Of course, sir.”

A few minutes later, the two were enjoying their drinks. Well, Gellert was— Matthias downed half of the glass in one go. Shaking his head at the eccentricities of his company,  Gellert brought the wine to his lips and took a whiff of its bouquet, taking in the sweet, almost floral aroma before taking a sip.

He closed his eyes and lost himself in the rich taste for a moment before addressing his underling. “So, what news?”

Matthias finished his drink and set the glass down with the grace of a bull in a china shop. “It was just as you predicted, sir.”

“Oh?” Gellert said and took another sip. “So the people are wary, but still willing to listen, at the very least.”

“Yes.” Matthias nodded and began to pour himself another glass. He stopped and held the bottle up. “Another one for you, sir?”

Gellert scoffed and held his nearly full glass up. “You’re supposed to drink it slowly, my friend.”

Matthias’ smile turned strained as he realized his blunder. “Oh. My apologies.”

“Think nothing of it.” Gellert said, waving it off. “Though, mind that you will need to learn to hold yourself well and appear to be in good standing, when the time comes.”

“Of course.” Matthias nodded and took a small sip from his glass, just as Grindelwald had.

“Very good.” The old man said before going back on topic. “And what of the other safehouses I tasked you to find for me?”

Matthias swallowed and continued to relay his report. “All gone, sir— all but one.”

“All but one.” Gellert shook his head. “The Aurors and Hit-Wizards ransacked them for anything valuable, no doubt. Such is their nature.”

“Agreed.” Matthias said, hostility entering his tone as he took a longer draught. “I was almost caught near Paris.”

“Indeed?” Gellert said, wondering if it was true, or if the man was embellishing the story a bit to appear bolder and braver than he was in reality. Gellert did not care either way, as long as it didn’t come back to bite them later. “How did you escape?”

“I, erm…” Matthias said, his face beginning to flush both from the alcohol and embarrassment. “I had to leap into Paris’ sewers. I stayed there for a day and did not dare to use magic until I was sure that they were gone.”

Gellert showed the man a sympathetic wince. “It must have been very bad for you to take such desperate measures. It is good that you made it out of that situation.”

“Yes. Would that I could forget the smell, though.” Matthias said with a shudder, before shaking his head and focusing his gaze back on his superior. “But I did find it. Your safehouse in the British Isles.”

“Phoenix Roost still stands, then?” Gellert leaned forward slightly, a look of eager anticipation settling into his eyes.

“Yes.” Matthias confirmed, nodding with a smile. “It stands strong, or at least it seems to be. I, of course, could not enter it. It was as you said; any living creature attempting to enter its premises is set upon by a swarm of insects, and, well…”

Eaten alive. Gellert finished for the man, nodding to himself. So the defenses are still functional, and the location appears to be far from the prying eyes of the British Ministry.

He would have to go and see for himself, of course, but this was indeed good news.

Gellert sent a look towards the closed drawer where the two vials of Elixir of Life lay and made his decision.

“You have done well, Matthias.” Grindelwald said and got up, moving to the man and giving him a pat on the shoulder. “Well, indeed.”

“Thank you, sir.” Matthias answered. “What shall we do next?”

“For now, nothing.” Gellert patted his shoulder again before moving away. “We wait for the Aurors to grow lax, and then we make our move.”

“Oh?”

Gellert smiled and turned to the man. “How does orchestrating another prison break sound?”

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