Harry looked up from the dig sit to scan the horizon, his gut kept telling him something was going to happen. He scanned his surroundings before shrugging and getting back to work. Bills lessons had been really helpful, without them he would have had to get employed by the goblins to acquire the right skills and spells. That was problematic since the last time he'd been in Gringotts he'd stolen from them, escaped on a dragon and destroyed their main hall. They were still pissed about it all even after he had paid for the damages and explained why.
He knelt again in the trench and slowly removed the packed layers of dirt and soil, it had taken months of work just to narrow down the dig site, he was so close he could feel it. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow, he was just lucky he tanned easily and well rather than burned at the slightest light.
Hermione was due back in a few hours from the supply run in Tehran. It wouldn't do to be recognised here in the depths of the Persian Empire, they really didn't like British wizards here, especially famous ones with a history of ruining areas when people tried to kill him. It was easier to disguise her and she could perform the translation spell much easier than he could.
He raised his wand to begin again and noticed that it was the Other One again. He closed his eyes for a moment and let out a sigh, he quickly returned it to its locked box in his trunk before pulling his original wand from the holster he really hated that thing, it always wanted to be used and kept trying to sneak into is hand. At least the stone was quiet, it was safely in Engl… on his finger. Again. He growled in annoyance, where the hell had the ring come from? He quickly returned to the tent and placed it in his trunk in a separate compartment. He stood and then stopped, he looked around, but the cloak was just sitting over the back of the chair where he'd left it. He nodded and pointed a finger at it, stay. He returned to work chuckling at his joke.
His wand swept out and another layer of the mountain side was lifted and moved to the spoil heap an inch at a time. He checked the stone for anything, nothing, as before. Once sure, he repeated his spell and checked as routine demanded. Here and there matt black sections were now showing, obsidian, a large flat layer of it. He grinned as he dusted the surface for a few minutes. He laughed out loud in glee, carvings and cuneiform. He'd found it. He'd actually done it!
He returned to the tent and rested in the shade, he opened his hip flask and took a deep swig of water. His grin split his face and he couldn't wait until he could get inside. The tomb would hopefully answer so many of his questions.
He heard a crack and a drained sigh as a pack was dropped, he hurried out and swept Hermione into a hug swinging her around as he laughed in joy. She was surprised by his attitude but laughed as well at the sight he showed her.
"Oh Harry, are you sure this is the place? Just don't get too wound up, we need to make sure before we go any further."
His smile shone brighter than the sun in his joy. "I know this is the place, I can feel it, it's like my blood is singing at whatever is here, there's something here calling to me and we're so close!"
She smiled at his enthusiasm, "Then we had best get to work, I'll set up the scanning equipment and well see how far the structure extends."
Three days, it had taken three days to build a picture of the structure beneath them. The ancient Persians had built a fortress on the side of the mountain, they had then dug deep into natural caverns and reinforced areas, they had then carved a single chamber deep in the earth with only one way to reach it. They had walled the fortress in obsidian to protect it against magical attacks, great carvings into the black stone would have been inlayed with iron to warn of the dangers within.
The couple had enjoyed a day of relaxation after they had found the gateway they searched for; wards had been placed with a full range of defences as they had during the months of the hunt, only the two of them could see through them and enter them. No-one would be able to disturb them until they had finished, not even a house elf could apparate through them without their position. They moved their camp to the entrance for ease and settled down for the night.
Harry sat watching the sun rise and took a deep swig of water before focusing on the lands below, he could see the towers of the city I the distance, he kept thinking he could hear the noise of the city on the edge of the wind when it blew in the right direction, the quiet was really peaceful here.
"You weren't in bed, I got worried, penny for your thoughts." Hermione's gentle voice came from behind him.
"I'm worried 'mione. What if it's another dead end? What if there are no answers to my questions?" a touch of panic had started to creep into his voice as his worries came to mind.
She smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder, "Then we start again and keep looking, or we make our own answers. I'm with you until the end Harry, you know that. No matter what happens here, we'll find out something."
He placed his hand over hers, "Thank you. I can never say how grateful I have been for you all these years. You deserve so much more than anything I can offer you."
He could hear the smile in her voice, "I know harry, I know. You keep trying to prove your lack of worth and I'm just too dumb to recognise it. You're stuck with me mister potter. She kissed the top of his head, Come on, we should get to work, I checked the weather and we're due snow before the end of the week up here, we can come back in spring, but I'd rather have a look at least before."
He stood and turned to her, pulling her into a hug. "Todays the day, I know it. I can feel it."
It had taken a surprisingly short time to breach the gates of the fortress, the wards had been on both sides of the door and as such had weakened as they fought over the millennia for power. Within, the roof had collapsed to one side, the rooms filled with stone, the other side held a range of chambers, cracks in the roof letting piles of dust and rock build up, making the flooring dangerous. They moved carefully and slowly, leaving bluebell flames behind to light the way back. Room by room they checked, bubblehead charms to ensure clean air as they progressed.
They swept each step before they took it with an intense range of spells, looking for enchantments, wards, curses and the like, the thing which put them on edge was the complete lack of anything still active as they had expected. The more interesting thing was that after the gate section, nearly all the defences were focused inwards, low walls and alcoves behind the supporting pillars held no protection from the entrance, sheets of obsidian covered everything facing towards the heart of the structure.
All the defences they could find had already been tripped or run out of power. The seals and binding enchantments had all been broken and burnt away, some of them still held a scent of ozone around them. Harry could feel the magic flow through the structure, the obsidian forcing it almost as if someone had taken a wild river and focused it into a series of canals to lessen its force, guide it towards specific things and away from others.
They set up a device of Hermione's invention, designed to chart the flows of energies within a structure, the previous map being incredibly useful. She began the scan and finding a crack in the obsidian layering the rooms, shattered a crystal holding a mix of harry and her own magic, the device detected the changes in the energy and recorded the flow. They moved on as the scan completed, two hours later they returned so they could eat and drink in the fresh air.
They sat on a rock and looked over the results.
Hermione hummed for a moment, "That's odd. I'd have thought the flow was away from the mountain rather than towards."
Harry looked over the mountain side above the entrance, "We're at the southernmost side, maybe it's like a magnets field and this is where it goes back in?"
"Possibly, there's a void here, in this section, the chambers are man made by the looks of it, but there's a break between them and the fortress itself, looks like natural caves, she looked over the mountain for a moment. No signs of sulphur deposits or water that I can see, so we'll have to be careful but we should be fine entering them."
It was late in the day before they finally came across the start of a set of steps carved into the caves leading down into the depths. Finally there were more obvious signs of what had occurred, two skeletons in rags and the remains of leather armour, interwoven in death, the blades in their hands through each other's rib cage. Hermione did the spell work on them as Harry dealt with the top of the stairs.
She quietly called to him, "Harry, they killed each other. Their equipment and armour look almost identical and I can detect spell residue on the bones even now."
"But it's been what, nearly twenty four centuries since this place was sealed, any residue like that should have faded long before now."
"Exactly, this is really worrying me. The residue detection spells say the magic is less than twenty four hours old."
"Do them again, I'll do a set myself to make sure we get clear results."
They stood over the bones, lights left as afterimages in the dark as they wove their magic beside each other.
"It's the same as before."
"I get the same as you 'mione. That's impossible though." He took a deep sigh as he looked the bodies over. "What do you want to do?"
She bit her bottom lip in thought for a few minutes as she pondered everything. "I think we should risk going a bit further, we have what, two more hours before we should return to the tent?"
Harry cast a tempus spell. "Yeah, not bad, two hours ten minutes. Go on then, I'll lead and you watch our backs, my skin is crawling now."
They began their descent into the dark little bubbles of blue light left in their wake. Slow and steady they moved down the stairs until they reached an archway, the cave moving deeper still, a faint sound of water and a cool breeze from below.
They double checked their spells at the arch before moving through.
They found themselves in a small tunnel, barely high enough to walk down in single file, ahead there was a flickering like shadows cast by a flame. Slowly they got closer, spell and step by step and spell.
Finally they emerged into a large chamber a large metal bowl sat in the centre of the room, blue flames burning away to themselves, no other light source was in the room. At the far end covered in shadows was a large structure with what looked like metal bars reaching from it to various points around the room and pillars along the walls. The floors were covered in bones and Hermione blanched as she realised what had been troubling her.
"Harry we have to leave, we have to leave right now."
He turned and frowned at her in confusion, "What's the matter 'mione?"
"The bones harry what do you see?"
"There's a lot of them, most of them look reasonably intact, why?"
"How old would you say those bones look to you?"
"That's easy they're all a creamy…" he stopped and blinked, "oh shit."
"Yeah, they all look really fresh don't they."
"Okay, so slow and steady but if something moves run?"
"Running is good, really good, we can get support before coming back in here."
Suddenly a sound came from the far end of the room, a chinking of metal moving on metal, they both froze and looked towards the shadows in that area.
A raspy voice croaked out from the dark, "Chairetismous paidi. Eiserchontai elefthera sto spiti mou. Na einai se eirini."
Hermione blinked for a moment, translating it in her mind, Greetings child. Enter freely into my house. Be at peace. Was the rough English. "Harry hold it." She quickly cast a translation spell at herself and then harry.
Harry called out to the dark, the spell changing his words to Greek for him, "Who is there? Show yourself."
The voice coughed a chuckle before responding. "Come forward, I would see your faces. Speak your names and titles, it is polite to declare yourself when entering the court of a king."
Harry, his bravery and guts greater than his self-preservation, strode forward, Hermione hurried behind him trying not to crush bones beneath her feet.
They could finally see a figure sitting upon a large stone chair, the bars appeared to actually be chains attached to various points of the room, a faint golden glow came from markings inscribed in the metal. The figure wore rags and fragments of armour that had decayed over time, spikes of metal punched through the flesh and were used as anchors for the chains, little to no motion was available without the spikes ripping large sections of the figures flesh and bones away. Seven large pins had been hammered between the ribs into the stone back of the chair. Hooks had been placed into the rib cage around the ribs themselves, the chains linking the figure to the chair and the floor around it. A mask had been placed around the figures skull and hammered into place, pins punching through into the skull. A small hole for the nostrils and eye slots the only gaps in the structure.
Hermione flinched at the sight and started to panic as she watched the ribs move as the figure breathed. Harrys hand on her arm, the only anchor to stop her running at the vision before her.
"Apologies my guests. I would rise but am unable to do so. Your names."
"My name is Harry Potter, this is my betrothed Hermione Granger. Might I ask as to your name?"
"I have had many names in my life, you may call me Ladon. It makes no difference to me. Why do you disturb my meditations?"
"We came searching for knowledge, from fragments we had discovered that a fortress was built in this mountain to protect ancient records, we hoped to find answers to my questions."
The chains rattled slightly as dusty chuckles came from the figure, "The only things here are those that belong to me. No records of knowledge reside here, there is just the fire and what it holds, my jailors and myself."
Hermione turned and looked at the flames, she caught glimpses of something resting within the metal dish and tried to work out what it was.
Harry frowned and noticed Hermione's attention, he left that to her before returning his focus to their… host. "Then perhaps you could assist me in my search. I seek knowledge of the origins of parseltongue, I want to know where it came from and its affect on an individual."
The figures head rose and Harry made out pale brown eyes within, their focus intense and entirely upon him. "The serpents tongue is a gift, only bestowed upon those bearing my blood. There is no affect of having the gift beyond itself, incantations and other arts using the serpent tongue are potent along certain lines, weak on others. Why does this interest you child?"
"I once held the ability to speak and understand serpents, but it was a side effect of having a… it doesn't matter, who would you tell… I was a Horcrux for a dark lord, parselmouth was a side effect, something the dark lord had that came to me. Every example I've heard of those with the ability all seemed to go mad and became dark lords or similar."
The figure chuckled again, harry had a sneaking suspicion that the figure was regaining their strength as they spoke, each time he laughed it was cleaner and less dusty.
"The Serpents tongue is no mere gift to be passed to another by such as a Horcrux, it is in the blood alone, and in blood it flows from one generation to the next. You must have gained the gift from my line but knowledge was lost of it occurring, or kept secret from others. There is your answer child, your dark lord gave you nothing, you had it within yourself as will your children and theirs till the end of time. There is no corruption of the mind, there is no good or evil in the blood, each man chooses their own path in their life."
"But I haven't been able to speak to serpents since I destroyed the Horcrux."
"Have you truly desired to do so, or have you held yourself back for fear of discovering the truth of your ancestry. I care not, you have your answers, leave me."
Hermione looked deep into the flames and saw in a gap a long shaft of gold, carved with serpents rising to a gem at one end and a fang at the other. "What's that?"
"Your woman asks a dangerous question, know that the price is steep for that answer, be gone, run back to your lands of light and noise, leave me to my silence." The voice grew tired and fainter.
Hermione narrowed her eyes at the figure, a flare of anger opening her mouth before her mind could stop it. "The name we followed to find this place was not that of Ladon, who guarded the tree of the golden apples brother to the Numean Lion. We came here for Azh dahak, the three headed serpent also known as the sorcerer Dahāg the demonologist, rider of the Daeva Kunda. But within the fire rests a staff, at first it looks like a caduceus, but the gem at the top is mentioned in ancient tales. That is the staff of Ningishzida, the last record of that staff being used was at the hands of Herpo the Foul before his disappearance."
The figure straightened up as best it could and turned its head to focus on Hermione, "You throw much knowledge from your tongue, yet you have no fear of the names that pour from your mouth. I said that I had many names, you have used a few of them, why should that interest me?"
"You showed no surprise or confusion at the word Horcrux, you know what they are, it's said Herpo created the ritual and used one, by the fact you still live adds weight to the theory…
The bitter laughter shook Hermione to her core. "What need have I of such trinkets. For your arrogance to think you know the truth, I curse you with knowledge. I did create the ritual but I never used it myself. It was for my wife, we had married for alliance, but her wit and bravery stole my heart, she shone amongst my people as a gem amongst pebbles. She began to grow grey, and in my fear of once again being alone, I finished an earlier work of mine, the Horcrux. Her brother, injured in battle offered himself as sacrifice. We lived for three centuries together, happy, we watched our children grow and mourned their passing, we watched our grandchildren grow and mourned them also. She finally truly regretted its creation as our great grandson died of old age, she sat there by his bed holding his hand, having aged not a day. Her regret destroyed the enchantment and time caught her, she died smiling beside our kin. It took me many decades to truly live once more after, but then came the Envoy from my homeland, begging for my aid in battle to hold back the Persians, in my final days of despair and grief I released my anger upon the invaders, slaying their king and driving them back. Then Xerxes arose and sacrificed a hundred wizards to bind me, he built this place and threw me within, chained for all time."
Harry frowned, "Then how is it that you are still alive? Without a Horcrux you should have died millennia ago."
The figures head turned to look at him, the chamber echoed with the pain and anguish within, "My father, a coward and weak of will was king of a small tribe, his enemies hungered for his lands, in fear he called upon powers long bound away from the world, they answered but they demanded his young and beautiful wife as payment, he agreed. A great flood of demons spread across the lands of his enemies, the sky blackened in the smoke of their villages. Then the demons marched into my father's hall and took their payment, but they knew not that she carried me at that time, upon my birth two seasons later they returned me to my father. In his fear he tried to slay me, he failed. As I grew I learnt many things and on the day my first son was born my mother returned, not a day had she aged, she came and told me of my gift and curse. The demons had made a contract with the price of one royal soul willingly offered, they had been paid two. Bound by their word they returned me to my father, but they gave me three gifts for taking me. I received the gift of the serpents tongue, commands spoken to serpents and their kin would be obeyed as if I were their king. Next my magic was more potent than others, I could perform magics alone that required a group of magi to perform. My third gift was the shape of serpents and their kin, all were as natural to me as my own flesh. However because they had to return me, they felt shamed by the act and as such cursed me twice. The first was that my gifts would flow in my blood, my children would bear my gifts along with this one curse, they would stand tall above other magi until the day petty jealousy would shatter my family and I could do nothing to stop such an event, they would survive broken and alone, forever in the shadows, fear ruling their lives. My second curse was that for as long as a single drop of my blood carrying my gifts and curse beat in the hearts of men, then so shall I live, never aging, no mortal can release me from my torment and all demons have heard their masters oaths, none may bring harm to me."
Hermione looked at the figure for a moment before turning away, tears falling at the pain and suffering the chained being had gone through for so long.
Harry looked at her and then at the figure. "I don't know if everything you told us was true or not, but I feel I must ask if there is something I can do to reduce your suffering."
"Take the staff with you, the fire remains only because of that, without that light I would be one step closer to true Oblivion, I would be able to remember better days without the light ruining images. Now I have spoken, I wish you to depart, leave me to my solitude, with you gone I shall once more feel nothing. Leave me to my memories. Let me rest."
Harry looked at the blue flames and cast a detection spell at them, it was the same spell as the lights they had left in their path. He reached within and pulled the staff from the bowl, as it left the flames died away until the gem at the top of the staff lit up from within with blue flames. He felt his magic rise up as if holding his wand, the flames turned gold and red within the gem. He reached out and took Hermione's hand, leading her back to their camp.
They had dismantled the camp, Harry had removed all the wards and looked at the entrance once more, a cold wind blew down his spine and he used the staff instead of his wand to bring down the mountain side and bury the entrance. It seemed the best way to do it in his mind.
Hermione stood off to one side waiting for him, as he came close she opened her arms and as he entered them she hugged him, she smiled at him and offered him the portkey, with a last look at the mountain and a sad smile at her he took hold and called out, "Home."
With a twisting swirl they left, a cold breeze blew across the small valley they had been in, silent and lonely once again.
A light came down the tunnel into the chamber once again, the figure stirred upon his seat, he frowned under his mask as he saw once more the foolish boy who had asked such annoying questions.
"Greetings once more honoured ancestor."
"You have returned. Why?" He looked into emerald green eyes in a young face, but he recognised those eyes, they were like his own. This boy had seen too much and was so tired of the world.
"I understand. I know why you sit here in the dark, alone and make no attempt to escape. There's no point, you are a prisoner no matter where you go and at least here it doesn't hurt so much." With a wave of a hand, a comfy chair appeared and he sat upon it, resting the staff on an arm. He sighed like an old man as he relaxed. "It's been a long time since I was last here, much much too long. Anyway, to business. I am here to offer you a deal."
"As if you have anything to offer me, but speak and I shall listen."
"I am here to bring you an end, you will be able to pass on to the next adventure, hopefully you will find your family and be happy, you have suffered so much I think you deserve that at least."
"And how can one such as you do such a thing."
"You told me once that neither mortal, nor demon can end your suffering, lucky for you I am the Master of Death. In my youth I collected three items belonging to Death without understanding the terrible price of mastering them all. I am no longer mortal, I don't age and after I die for whatever reason, I wake restored and in a safe location. I have tried everything I can think of but nothing works, and then I remembered you and how my luck has screwed us both over."
"How so?" honest curiosity in the figures voice.
"I am immortal, I can't die and I bear your blood and gifts, we'll be together forever as I'm not sure how long I will exist. Knowing my luck until the galaxy goes cold, if not beyond. Your curse and my blessing, we're truly fucked. So I thought, I can at least save you, one last time, I can truly save a soul from suffering. Then I shall sit in here and wait for the end of the universe, maybe in all the quiet I'll be able to finally figure out a way to die."
"How would you kill me then?"
"Basilisk venom, it burns and then you go cold, but its quick and reasonably painless, with me doing the act, it should break your curse. I only have one request. When you pass on give Hermione a message for me."
"Should this work, then I will do my best for you."
"Tell her… damn, this is still so hard to say, tell her… oh she knows already." His crooked smile made the figure smile as he felt a sudden cold sensation through his chest, he looked down and found a silver blade piercing his heart, it had an oily green sheen in the light. He looked back up and smiled at the one who released him.
"My thanks, may you find the peace you also deserve." He closed his eyes as he felt his blood thicken and his heart slow, the darkness crept in and for the first time in a very long time he felt at peace. His eyes flew open and he coughed out his last words, maybe they could both be free in his last act?
Harry sat back and looked at the body as it began to turn to dust, time claiming the remains. He stood up and dusted himself off collecting the staff and walking back out of the tomb. On the surface he looked up at the sky above and wondered if it was really that simple.
He reached into a pocket and pulled out the stone, he twirled it three times and spoke the name, as the figure formed before him, Harry chuckled, "As your master, I order you not to save me." Then he cut his palm on the sword of Gryffindor's blade and sat down to watch the sunrise for hopefully the last time.