Chapter Four – The Grimdark Hunt
"How in this or any world," Harry asked, "did you end up buried here, Snape?"
Severus Snape's upper lip curled in distaste. He stood as shade, his form more substantial than a ghost but still semi-transparent, the road and forest glimpsed through him in greyscale.
"The faeries demanded…" Snape scowled into the distance, his pale eyes noting the tired old Jack Russell and the seemingly endless expanse of forests, mountains, of wide and surging rivers. "When the Dark Lord demanded a sacrifice to grant his passage into these realms, the sacrifice need not have been willing."
Harry reached into his satchel and removed a worn leather journal, the parchment pages crinkled and scripted with scatterings of faerie law, sketches of known landmarks, suspected roads, and so on, so on… He turned to a fresh page and sketched Snape's gravestone, the archaic symbols, thinking perhaps he would encounter them again down the road. Some things just felt like a message.
"Voldemort used you to cross into the faerie realms, a blood sacrifice," Harry muttered, writing it all down, the gory nature of the work long since tolerable. "Who buried you here? Do you know?"
Snape grimaced. "I… do not. The faeries would never, the Dark Lord cared even less. I should have been left to rot in the," he glimpsed the ever-twilit heavens, "faux-sun."
Harry nodded and finished his script, his quick sketches, the pieces of the puzzle. He closed the journal and slipped it away.
"I make for yon castle," he said to the shade and waved vaguely east in the direction of the storm-strewn castle. So eerily familiar, that castle, stalwart under a broken sky of angry thunder and sickly green lightning. "I'm told the headmaster there may be able to point me in the direction of one of Voldemort's last horcruxes."
"Be gone then," Snape whispered, pulling his ghostly robes about himself. "Let me rest."
Harry considered, then nodded. He reached down into the pauper's coffin and collected Snape's skull. He tossed the dusty white-grey remains from hand to hand.
"Please," Snape said, near-begged. "Don't."
Harry sighed and the Resurrection Stone flared. "I bind you," he whispered, foregoing the proper spell work, as such incantation from the Master of Death was enough.
Snape's shade shimmered, rippled like calm water in a breeze, and was drawn into his skull. Further archaic ruins appeared as engravings in the old bone, growing hot under Harry's palms, and twin points of shar yellow light glimmered in the hollow sockets. The skull shook in his hands, as if alive.
"For what it's worth," Harry said, holding up the skull so they were eye to eye. "I am sorry. But I'm afraid of what lies ahead, and I do not want to go alone. You are part of this puzzle, Professor. I promise to release you once the task is done."
"Be cursed, Potter," Snape spat, his voice faint, ethereal, troubled.
Harry nodded. "More than once, and likely more than once again before I'm done." He found a comfortable enough nook in his satchel for the Snape-shade and secured the buckle. He stretched, cracking a sore knot in his back, and turned to the road ahead.
"Come on then, Charlie—"
Charlie stood on point, ears back, a single forepaw raised. His lips pulled back from his teeth and a low growl escaped his throat. He was looking back up the road, along the edge of the wintry forest. Harry leaned heavily on his cane and strained his ears. He heard nothing, not a sound, which was entirely the problem.
His guard raised, Harry hurried down the road with his travelling companions—Charlie and Severus Snape—knowing he was hunted, and that the hunt had his scent.
Harry broke for a light lunch some hours later along the banks of a river swollen with ice melt. He rested against the beams of a broken footbridge, the planks spanning the water swept away in some recent deluge. Charlie sipped from the cool glacial river, satisfied his thirst, and curled up next to Harry, who shared pieces of beef jerky with the dog.
The twilight sky had dipped a darker shade of bruised purple, as close to night as things got around these parts. Harry mused he had walked from spring to winter and toward the beginning of spring again in the last day. He checked the priceless timepiece stolen from the Ministry, assured himself only a true day had ticked by in the real world, and contemplated the unique, mythril-inlaid button atop of the pocket watch.
He placed his thumb on the button, watching the seconds slip away in the real world, and considered his next move. Events were moving around him, certainly, and something—perhaps many somethings—were on his trail, but time hadn't slipped enough to unleash the deep magic within the watch. Not yet, at any rate.
After lunch, Harry carried Charlie across the river, knee-deep in the water, mindful of the slow flowing chunks of white ice. Paws on his shoulder, Charlie remained alert, watching over Harry's back. The dog rumbled against his chest, eager to bark at… whatever was on their trail.
Harry dropped the dog on the far bank and his bad knee buckled, a twitch of pure agony, that dropped him onto the knee. He cursed, cool sweat beading across his forehead, and bit back on the pain.
He unclenched his jaw. "Suppose it was too much to ask, eh?" he said to Charlie.
"Rrr…ask," Charlie said.
Harry blinked. "OK, sure." He reached for his cane, looped in his belt to cross the river, and hauled himself to his feet.
With the care of a man who knows he's about to stick his hand in a mousetrap, Harry put some weight on his ruined knee. For a wonder, the damn thing held. So, not a blowout. Still, the tangled mess of scar tissue, cursed nerves, and fused bone grumbled. A reminder that he should have brought a broomstick.
"One step at a time then."
His pace slowed, Harry limped away from the river, recovered the leaf-strewn road and began a steady incline out of the spring-winter-spring valley.
About an hour later he encountered a caravan of human-like folk, save for the blue skin, sharp purple eyes, and shocks of silver-white hair. Intricate patterns akin to ink swirls, black tattoos, crisscrossed their arms and legs. The caravans, a troupe of four, were travelling back the way Harry had walked that day—toward where he could only imagine.
He stood aside on the road as they passed, smiled softly at a little girl who waved at him from the canvas tents, as a man Harry supposed was her father hauled on the reins of the final caravan and pulled the strange beasts—something like giant beetles, though flush with a thick, golden fur and twin twirling horns.
"'Ho, traveller," the man said—at least, that's what Harry heard. In his mind, the words were alien, outlandish, but some part of him, perhaps the magical part, translated. "How fares the road?"
Charlie approached one of the beetle-beasts with his ears back, head low, and sniffed at a paw-claw. He relaxed and the great beast swung its head toward the tiny dog. They brushed noses and Charlie walked back to Harry, satisfied by whatever he'd sniffed.
"The road fares…" Harry glanced back the way he had come, unsettled. "I am pursued."
The man nodded and scratched at his chin. "Not from these lands, are you?"
The man winced and removed his hat to run a hand back through his long silver hair. "No good being human here."
"Will my trouble become your trouble?" Harry asked.
He shook his head. "It will pass us by—we are sworn to the Trickster King." A diamond-shaped amulet around the man's neck shone blue. "The roads are safe for us."
"I don't suppose you know any safe places for humans nearby."
The man grinned. "Careful with your questions—human, yes, but not as brash as humans I knew…" He frowned. "Well, humans I knew a long time ago now. Has it really been five hundred years? Surely not."
The lead caravans crested a small rise, about to disappear from sight, and the man gently slapped his reins, getting the beetle-beasts moving again. The massive wooden wheels creaked on well-oiled axles. "Make for the… Aerle-Las…" He spat and twirled his finger. "Stone circle. If you hurry, son, you'll make it before third moonrise. It was built by your people during the Rending. It cannot be broken by faelings."
Harry nodded, knowing the worth of something freely given in this land. He suspected he would never meet the caravan man again.
One shining crescent of blue moon crept over the eastern horizon an hour later, and seeing it, Charlie began to lag. Harry fashioned him a quick harness, a rudimentary sling, and carried the dog nestled against his chest. Much like at the river, Charlie poked his head over Harry's shoulder. The dog's eyes were wide, watching, alert.
The road became less paved, more compressed limestone and dust. Each fall of his cane left an impression in the dirt—sort of a comma shape—marking his path as sure as if he'd left a trail of neon breadcrumbs.
Shortly after, and against all reason, a second moon rose from the north. Far fuller, pink-hued, the moon held a rough, arrogant face. One unfriendly eye of the moon seemed to wink to Harry, as if they were in a joke together, and say 'hey, you're alone and far from home, traveller, why not sit a spell, rest that knee'.
Harry ignored the moon.
Back the way he had come, Harry heard a faint screech not dissimilar to a dementor. He quickened his pace, risking his knee—now a tight knot of fire under a pumping bellows—for the promise of safety ahead. The thought that the blue man atop of the caravan had been lying had more than once crossed his mind.
The road widened and the trees thinned until they gave way entirely to craggy steeps, pockmarked hills, and for the first time since he arrived in this world, blackened ground. It took Harry a moment to sweep the landscape, the road twisting downhill through ground fire-blasted into glass, between overgrown trenches, and fields of struggling brambles, to realise he was looking at a battlefield—an old battlefield, to be sure, but unmistakable.
He spied, blackened and scorched, half-collapsed, a rough circles of stones—monolith blocks, really—that both resembled and dwarfed Stonehenge. Distances could be deceptive in the fae lands, he'd already learned, but it looked to him about…
"A steady mile's walk, just under," he muttered.
"Walk," Charlie barked.
Harry chuckled. "Going to need to get used to that."
Charlie ignored him, ears back. Harry glanced over his shoulder, saw nothing, heard nothing, felt something, and began a painful descent into the old battlefield as fast he could.
Of course, he thought, even if the stone circle offers some protection… what's my next move? He couldn't stay there forever, even if he made it. A fight was coming, whether he wanted it or not. Harry clutched his cane all the harder and pushed through the pain.
Either side of the road, rough scrub grass and weed struggled to grow in the dark earth. Further out, the remnants of ancient war machines, rusted gears and wood and metal casings, half-buried in the ground. Based on that, Harry put the battle here at some decades if not centuries before—but time, time was a funny thing. He forgot that at his peril. Bones, of creatures too outlandish to understand, and simpler—of fae and, Harry was certain, human—also littered the fields. Laughing skulls, shards of white. Swords and all manner of weaponry lay spoiled or stuck in the earth.
As the third moon crept over the eastern horizon, full and as red as blood, the twilight as dim as it got—the edge of sunset in the real world—Harry limped along the road, which straightened out, and would pass within a dozen feet of the outer ring of the stone circle. He began to think he'd make it without incident when Charlie barked once, sharp in his ear.
"Shit," Charlie barked.
Harry turned in the road, hating to pause but grateful to give his knee even a moment of respite. He ran his eyes back up the hillside he'd just descended, a quarter mile or more, and beheld his pursuers for the first time.
Hooded and cloaked, at first glance he thought of Death Eaters, but these creatures were nearer eight feet tall, thin, and though human-shaped seemed to offend the eye. Odd angles bled off their dark cloaks, as if looked at through a prism.
Harry counted five. He raised his thumb and forefinger like a gun and shot the hunting party a grin.
As one, the five creatures began to glide down the road. They moved swiftly, like ghosts, a mark of noticeable darkness on the fabric of the world, or dark rain sliding down glass.
Harry turned and limped on, making for the stone circle and praying his knee held long enough to put up some sort of a fight.
For all his reading, all the nights spent with Dumbledore planning this expedition, he had no idea what was running him down. Dementor-like, and yet not, caught some sort of snag in his mind, but he didn't have time to untangle it. Harry ran through a catalogue of options. Fire, he thought, if they'll burn. Patronus, because why the hell not.
His knee throbbed now, and Harry imagined he could see it beating, pulsing against the leg of his pants.
The stone circled reared up ahead, two minutes or so away, the heavy granite spires four or five storeys high. To his eye, the stone shone with rolling, faintly blue light, like the flame from the Goblet of Fire all those years ago. As he drew closer, he thought the light shone brighter—until he was sure of it, genuine blue flame.
It can sense me, he thought. Built by humans, the caravan man had said.
A cacophony, a foul orchestra, of screeches ran ahead of the creatures, and a sharp frost settled on the back of Harry's neck. Charlie whimpered, trembled against Harry's chest, then rallied his nerve and barked at the pursuers.
In the pale shadows of the nearest stone monoliths now, Harry left the road, crunching glassed earth underfoot, disturbing bones left to rot for centuries, and made for the warmth of the circle. The stones felt… inviting, and while that could have been a deception, Harry was certain of the welcome he would receive from the creatures behind him and opted for the unknown.
Sweat running down his face, every step locking his knee tighter, Harry snarled as he crossed the threshold of the circle. He turned and collapsed against the glowing blue stones, panting hard, cane falling away as he slumped.
As his hand brushed the granite, a rush of magic in the stone swelled and a pane of blue, translucent light sprang up from the earth—a shield of human magic, bleeding from the stones, powered by… Harry guessed, his presence, and formed a protective dome around the entire circle.
"Grimdarks," he gasped between breaths, the knot in his mind unravelling, as the five creatures drew level with the edge of the blue shield.
The grimdark in the middle raised a fleshy hand, its robe falling away from its arm, and pressed a red palm against the shield. Smoke rose in sharp curls and the grimdark withdrew its hand with a hiss of frustration.
Harry stood, Charlie growled, and dragged his howling leg over to his side of the shield. "Good evening," he said.
From within a hood of cascading shadows, Harry glimpsed two pinpricks of yellow light, quickly masked. The grimdark—the one he assumed was the leader—reached within the folds of its heavy cloak and grasped a canvas sack, dripping with an ichor all too familiar.
The grimdark upended the sack and the head of the Hermione-Fae tumbled out, bloodied and pale, the flesh of her neck torn and ragged. Her eyes stared through Harry, lifeless and glazed.
A/N: Like my fanfiction? Check out my original works under the name Joe Ducie. Just give it a quick google. Thanks for reading.