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A dim, grey sky stretched over still water and a weak sun hung behind faint clouds. The Forbidden Forest loomed beyond, a thicket of dark pines and shadows, and a low stand ran round the lake shore beside it.
‘Are all the champions here yet, Ludo?’ Mr Crouch strode along the shore. His stark black robes and tight, high, white collar stood out like a vicar at a yard sale.
‘Not yet, Barty.’ Bagman grinned. ‘We’re one short, but if they’re late, then they just lose some of their time.’
‘Well, we aren’t waiting, then, Ludo.’ Mr Crouch clapped his hands. ‘Tell these three about the task.’
‘Right then,’ Bagman boomed. ‘Welcome to the second task of the Triwizard Tournament! Naturally, you’re all—’
‘Actually, Ludo.’ Mr Crouch stepped in front of Bagman. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll explain. Perhaps you can find Professor McGonagall.’
A glint of anger appeared in Bagman’s eyes. ‘Of course, Barty.’
Mr Crouch cleared his throat. ‘The second task is upon you. I hope you have discovered the secret of your golden egg or you will be woefully unprepared for what is to come.’
I’m prepared. Harry threw a glance at Cedric and Viktor. I’m going to win.
‘As the clue states, we have taken from you something that you will sorely miss, to clarify, we have taken a hostage that you must recover.’
Cedric stiffened. ‘Cho… You — you took Cho, for a game.’
Mr Crouch snapped his fingers at Cedric. ‘To alleviate confusion, as some of you may know the hostages of other champions, Ludo will tell you who your hostage is. You are not to interfere with the hostages of the other champions while they are being kept captive, or afterwards.’
Harry nodded. Makes sense. Can’t have someone killing the other hostages or something to make sure the other champions fail.
Bagman returned to the fore, accompanied by Professor McGonagall and all three headteachers. ‘Still just the one champion left to come…’’
Footsteps slapped across the ground and Fleur Delacour skidded to a halt beside Harry. Panic glimmered in her sky blue eyes.
Good. Harry stamped down on the stab of pity and the urge to help. No more playing hero just to feel real. I’m here to win. If she’s distracted, she’ll be easier to beat.
‘My apologies.’ Fleur gasped. ‘I was unable to find my sister to say goodbye this morning.’
Gabby’s her hostage. Harry smothered another stab of pity. I wonder who they chose for me? I hope it wasn’t Ron or Hermione.
Bagman’s grin faded. ‘Well, now we’re all here, I’ll inform you each who your hostage is.’
Fleur’s eyes darkened and a faint heat washed over Harry’s side.
She’s realised now.
‘Miss Delacour, as you might’ve gathered, your hostage is your younger sister, Gabrielle Delacour. Mr Diggory, you are searching for your girlfriend, Cho Chang. Mr Krum was originally going to be looking for a friend and quidditch teammate, but he has taken ill and so you will be going after Hermione Granger instead. Mr Potter—’ Bagman flashed Harry a grin ‘—your hostage is the lovely Miss Bell.’
A laugh burst through Harry’s lips.
‘He is being serious, Mr Potter,’ McGonagall snapped. ‘Miss Bell was the only one willing to risk herself being your hostage in this task. Without her, you would have been unable to compete and fallen far behind.’
A little ice crept into Harry’s veins. It wasn’t like I was going to refuse to save her. Not if she risked herself to help me.
He turned away and looked out over the dark water lapping at the shore. Algae drifted from the pebbles and the shadows of lake plants floated beyond.
Harry dipped a toe in the water, grimacing at the chill biting into him. ‘This is going to be unpleasant.’
Fleur smiled and Cedric’s mouth spasmed.
Viktor chuckled and extended his hand to Harry. ‘First to get caught by the squid wins, da?’
‘Or the Grindylows.’ Harry clasped Viktor’s hand. ‘Or whatever else is down there.’
‘On my whistle.’ Mr Crouch pulled a slim, silver thing out of his pocket and put it to his lips.
Harry and the others tugged off their robes, standing about in their swim-wear casting warming charms.
The whistle went.
Fleur pulled a slim veil up over her mouth and nose, tied it, and dove into the lake. Harry watched her silver bikini arc into the water and vanish from sight with a tight knot in his chest. Cedric dropped feet first into the water, his face and neck enclosed within a vibrating bubble.
No more wasting time. Harry pictured his transfiguration and cast his magic. His breath failed and he staggered toward the water.
Krum sprinted past him. Gills gaped on the side of his neck, his skin fading to a dull blue-grey.
Harry plunged into the ice-cold water. A great flood of relief washed through him as his lungs filled. Success. He cast a sticking charm to fix his glasses on his nose and swam down toward where Salazar remembered the Merpeoples’ village to be.
Long light-green weeds rose up from the lake bed, billowing like summer grass in the wind.
Grindylow habitat. Harry stayed well above the plants. Nobody wants to get groped by one of those ugly things.
The green weeds gave way to thick, black mud as Harry passed by the sunken wreckage of a ship. The giant squid’s bulbous form drifted between the two halves of the broken vessel; its tentacles trailed out across the lake bed.
And I’ll give that a wide berth, too.
A pale silhouette appeared in the distance, drifting in the same direction as Harry, but at a slower pace. He drew his wand as he came alongside the pearl-white figure of a short girl with round, thick-rimmed glasses.
‘Myrtle?’ he burbled.
‘Harry.’ Her voice echoed through the water as if it were air. ‘You look better now, much happier, are you searching for the Merpeople, too?’
‘Cedric was as well, they’re that way.’ She waved one arm in the direction Salazar had suggested. ‘Good luck!’
Harry smiled and waved, then swam on.
The mud turned to rock. Dark, grey columns loomed up over the lake bed; weed-free monoliths bearing strange, deep-etched symbols. Faint snatches of the merpeoples’ singing reached Harry’s ears.
Half my time is gone. He kicked harder. And if the clue’s to be believed, Katie’s not going anywhere unless I find her before the other half runs out.
A deafening pop struck him like a hammer. His ears rang and his vision blurred.
Harry shook his head and peered around. Dust rose from the lake bed in great clouds, swirling around the feet of the monoliths. A shimmer rippled away across the lake past his feet.
Someone else is close by. Harry clutched his wand and swam forward over the great stone columns. Someone who just cast quite a powerful spell.
A pair of figures floated above him, bobbing with the water of the lake as they sank. A horde of battered grindylows scattered away beneath it. Harry caught a glimpse of long, fine, dark hair.
Cho and Cedric. A grindylow must’ve somehow punctured the bubble-head charm. Harry kicked himself closer and found a thick stream of bubbles rising from the shrinking orb of air surrounding Cedric’s face. At least he tweaked the charm enough to stop his skull crumpling when it burst.
‘Homenum revelio,’ Harry garbled.
Cedric and Cho lit up red. In the distance, Harry glimpsed two more red figures. One far off to his right and the other close in front of him. He wrapped an arm around Cedric and Cho and kicked up, but their weight dragged him down toward the lake bed until his feet grazed the monoliths.
Harry shoved them above him and cast a weak blasting curse. Cho and Cedric shot up through the water toward the surface.
That’ll do it. Someone will fish them out when they break the surface.
He swam on, glimpsing a cluster of dark, stone huts beyond the dwindling monoliths.
A crowd of merpeople gathered around the ring of standing stones raised just beyond the edge of their huts. Their copper scales glimmered in the water, translucent webbing joined sharp-clawed fingers and toes into fins, and small, dark eyes tracked his approach.
Intelligent enough, but not overly friendly. Harry recalled Salazar’s words with some unease.
Twelve black monoliths sat in a ring around a stone altar decorated with pieces of red and white coral and long, thin, sharp-fanged skulls. The furthest three stone pillars bore human figures enshrouded in the faint red glow of Harry’s fading revealing charm.
He dove down toward the ring of monoliths.
Viktor knifed from between two of the monoliths beneath him, a shark’s head upon his shoulders. Harry froze, drifting above Viktor as he paused before Hermione and struggled with the knotted kelp binding her to the pillar.
He’s a faster swimmer than I am. Harry cast an eye at Viktor’s muscled torso. Probably a lot faster. And Fleur’s likely somewhere nearby, too.
He raised his wand. ‘Incarcerous,’ he burbled.
Thick, black bindings shot from the tip of his wand. They tangled Viktor’s arms and legs.
Sorry, Viktor. Harry glanced around him as the merpeople flashed for cover. But if I hang about here until you’ve gone, then Fleur will probably turn up and just enthral me. At least I’ve a chance against you.
Viktor cut himself free with what looked like a cutting charm and released a handful of jets of water that hissed past Harry. Harry swam behind one of the monoliths as a barrage of spells sailed at him. Viktor abandoned Hermione, swimming upward, his spells flashed through the lake, bursting against the monoliths or drifting off into the distance.
Harry dragged himself round the far side of the monolith and cut the kelp off Katie as Viktor twisted round in the water overhead.
Another barrage of spells hissed down at him. They hammered into the monolith, chipping pieces off its side. Dust clouded the water, pieces of weed and algae floated across Harry’s vision.
Damn. He kicked upward and out of the dust, casting every single one of the childish, school corridor jinxes he knew.
Viktor tried to throw himself out of the way, but the jelly legs jinx and the dancing jinx struck him on the side and his limbs swayed like tentacles. He raised his wand and they fell still. A steely glint entered his eyes.
A single ray of hot water flashed past Harry’s shoulder. The monolith shattered like a dropped glass. The glowing pieces floated down into the lake bed like falling stars.
A slight shiver traced its way down Harry’s spine. Perhaps I should’ve waited and lost to Fleur, at least I might’ve got another kiss.
A hail of coloured lights flashed through the water from the tip of Viktor’s wand.
Harry twisted and writhed, casting the shield charm. Washes of coloured light burst on the glow of his ward. He swept his wand at the pebbles underneath Krum’s position, transfiguring them into a small school of snake-like fish.
Viktor vanished into the shoal and Harry grinned. Not completely one-sided, at least.
A giant stone hand seized him round the waist. A shock of adrenaline rippled through Harry’s veins. Transfiguration was his solution, too.
Harry shattered the arm with a quick blasting curse and banished the pieces at Viktor. He followed them with a handful of jinxes and the disarming charm.
Viktor turned the stones to dust and deflected the curses away with a shield. Several yellow jets of water hissed from his wand.
‘Protego,’ Harry burbled.
Three burst through his shield, drawing a line of fire through his tricep. Harry clapped a hand to the wound. Red drifted through the water between his fingers.
Viktor stared at him with hard eyes and pointed down at the lake bed with his free hand. A pair of metre deep holes marked the stone beneath Harry’s feet. Viktor gestured at the hostages with his left hand, then waggled his wand with his right.
Fair warning. Harry’s respect for Viktor rose a few notches. Still, I came to win. He grinned and raised his wand.
A broad smile spread across Viktor’s face and he launched four more yellow curses. They sailed past Harry’s waist and shoulder, boring a series of holes into the monolith behind him.
Harry thrust his wand at Viktor. It slipped from his grasp and floated away down toward the lake bed. Viktor gaped, then twisted round and hurled spells off to Harry’s right.
Fleur. Harry launched himself after his wand. Time to go. They can duel while I swim back. He snatched his wand up and kicked round the edge of the pillar. And I’ll win.
Fleur and Viktor exchanged jets of water. Shield charms flickered between them. Half of Viktor’s spells seemed to fade out of existence before even reaching Fleur, whose silver bikini glowed bright as moonlight.
Harry tore his eyes away from Fleur. They’re pretty evenly matched. Let’s give them an obstacle to keep them busy while I go.
Harry summoned the kelp away from Katie, then took a deep breath and transfigured the lake bed beneath them both into towering spines of stone. He grimaced as the cost of the spell sapped the strength from him.
Fleur flinched and shattered the spires beneath her. The backlash threw Viktor and her apart, their spells spraying in all directions. A yellow curse caught her full in the face. Red clouded the water about her trailing silver hair.
No. Harry’s heart stopped.
Fleur drifted away through the water.
She’s dead. Ice tightened inside Harry’s chest. She can’t have survived that spell if it hit her in the face. Can she?
Fleur twitched and pulled her hair away from her eyes. Her lips were swollen, her chin red and bruised, and a long cut marred her cheek. Her veil hung in tatters around her neck; a small plume of bubbles rose from it.
And she’s still beautiful. Harry shook his head to clear it of Fleur’s allure. No. Fool me once, shame on you, but I don’t repeat my mistakes.
Fleur clenched her jaw and dove down toward the monoliths.
She’s going after her sister.
Harry and Viktor shared a glance and put their wands away.
Fleur’s bubbles ran out. She twisted round and shot Harry a pleading look, raw emotion shining in her blue eyes.
His heart lurched. Harry struggled against the rising feeling, but his desire to help her flooded over him like dawn’s light spilling over the horizon.
I would’ve saved her if you’d just asked, Fleur. I would happily have helped the girl who promised she was different. Harry tried to claw some hate from somewhere, but his need to help her twisted in his chest like a blade. Her allure’s too bloody strong.
Fleur jabbed her wand upward and ascended out of sight. Viktor disappeared, Hermione cradled underneath him.
Harry dived back down toward the monoliths, grabbing Katie’s arm and pulling her into his chest.
Gabrielle Delacour bobbed against the final monolith.
He tried to tear himself free from the need to save her, but Fleur’s bright blue eyes and the taste of her lips swirled through Harry’s thoughts like a hurricane. His heart wrenched.
I would’ve saved her anyway. Harry severed Gabby’s bonds. Fleur didn’t even need to ask, let alone do this to me.
The merpeople shoaled around him. A ball of copper scales and claws that bristled with tridents. Harry narrowed his eyes and raised his wand, pulling the silver-haired girl into his embrace next to Katie.
The nearest of the merpeople jabbed his trident at the girl and shook its head, raising a single claw. ‘Only one,’ it sang. ‘Only one.’
Harry transfigured their tridents into fish and watched them scatter away. ‘You can try and stop me,’ he garbled.
‘You will lose,’ the merperson sang. ‘Would you lose for this little stranger?’
I would. She doesn’t deserve to drown down here. Harry swallowed a bitter taste and a hot lump of feeling. But I’m not. Fleur didn’t give me a choice. I’m losing for her.
‘We are many.’ Another merperson swam from the ball, flexing his claws. ‘You are one. You are young. If we wished, we could kill you. Swim away, land-walker.’
Harry wrestled with the memory of Fleur’s quiet goodbye. I can’t let them stop me. No matter what I have to do.
‘You could try.’ He thrust his wand at them and poured every drop of his magic into his banishing spell.
A vast ripple flashed from his wand, scattering merpeople across the lake. It tore through the lake bed like a tsunami, shattering the standing circle, altar, and its surrounding monoliths. The stone huts were ripped away like Dudley’s toys and dust clouded the water so thick Harry’s lungs strained to breath. A slick, copper taste crept up into the back of his throat; pain lanced through his chest.
Something in my gills is damaged. Harry breathed a cloud of red and dust out into the water. Not good. He glanced at the ragged group of merpeople and lashed Katie and Gabrielle to his back with a quick spell, launching himself in the direction of the shore.