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Act IV - Skin In The Game


Chapter 12: Nexus


Light was everywhere.

Red, yellow and white beams swirled, dancing around each other, clashing in the stormy sky, covering everything. As far as Harry could turn his head to see, the entire heavens was in turmoil. Fire would rain from the sky here and there amidst flashes of multicoloured radiance. Deafening booms rang out, sounds that he couldn't place or understand. The wind was strong, intent on throwing him off and plummeting him to the mercy of the harshness of the world around.

Not a good sign, thought Harry and focussed on the texture of his feathers, making them thicker, sharper, streamlined and heavy. Not the best plan while being airborne, but he could definitely do worse. His trajectory wobbled a bit, and he was forced to fly a little lower, but that was acceptable.

"Hoot," said Harry, his putrid yellow eyes staring at the ruins beneath. An endless, ruined graveyard to be specific, with unchecked ferny forest growth growing all over it in large and distinct patches. He did not know why the Anima was so intent on showing him such morbid depictions of the future, or if this was another of Ignotus's mind-fuckery, or if this was truly how things would turn out in the future, but whatever it was, it was desperately ugly and Harry was growing tired out of it.

He couldn't tell if the lights were manifestations of different Family Magics, or something worse, but it didn't matter. Just a single graze from one of those lights would burn him to cinders.

"Hoot," said Harry in frustration, and flew lower.

The sky went darker, and dissolved in a near endless flock of ravens, cawing and travelling with unkindness, swooping down at him. He barely managed to stay airborne, as the ferocious totems of death bombarded from all sides, their thin, bony structures crashing against his metallic skin and being hacked apart, covering him with blood and gore. The bombardment didn't hurt him, but it made it impossible to stay airborne as well. Harry swooped down, doing a perfect cork-screw, like he had done several times in Quidditch, only with his own wings, and disappeared into the forest. The thick forest cover made for an obstructive flying zone, but between the darkness, and his own invisibility, he'd definitely get away from the raven flock.

Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence.

The sound of hooves reverberated from all directions the moment he traversed into the forest. Thestrals, massive and winged, were approaching him from every direction. A growing chill in the weather told him that dementors were nearby, and if not for the sound of a bear roaring far, far away, he wouldn't even have known where to go. He dodged, cut through the air, moved in erratic patterns until โ€”

"Hoot! Hoooot!" He said, trying to claw and tear through the invisible threads binding him from all sides.

It was a web.

A massive spider web.

And no matter what he did, his metallic talons simply couldn't cut through the web's fine strings.

Something shifted upon the web, and a large, ravenous looking spider jumped on top of him, its legs on either side of his owl-body, its large insectoid eyes staring at him with an alien intelligence. They were glowing orbs of fire, glaring at him, promising pain and barely-concealed malic.

It was like staring into the face of Death.

No, the irony was not lost on him.

And then Luna Lovegood spoke through its mouth.

"You are a quick one, Harry Potter. I did not hope to see you trespassing into my garden this soon."

Luna? Harry thought and quickly tried to morph โ€”

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you, Harry Potter. Your scales keep the threads from slicing you apart."

"Hoot!" Harry said. Let me go.

"You have been skirting the line with Destiny, Harry Potter. Death claimed the Nexus child before any of us, freeing you from the lines of Fate. And now you desire to steal Summer away as well? Stay in your bonnet, Potter."

Correction. It sounded like Luna Lovegood, but it was definitely not her.

"Twice, in your haste, in your greed, you have claimed that upon which you had no right. But no longer. The billโ€ฆ comesโ€ฆ dueโ€ฆ"

And the spider's jaw came down at him.

โ€ฆ

โ€ฆ

โ€ฆ

"GAAAH!" said Harry, opening his eyes with a start from the strange, unsettling dream that he couldn't recall upon awakening. Not exactly a nightmare, justโ€ฆ weird. Deja Vu of the unconscious, as it were.

Then he discovered that he wasn't actually lying in bed, but sitting, cross-legged on the pristine white stone floor of the Lair, with all seven hoods of Ananta-Shesha looming over him almost protectively, its bright eyes oozing an alien intelligence in them. Someone grabbed his arms, and out of instinct, his skin morphed into thick, jet black scales, cutting through the intruder's skin. He registered as Daphne hissed and pulled back, her fingers and palms bleeding at a dozen different locations where her skin had touched his.

"Daphโ€”" he began, eyes widened.

"It's โ€” it's okay," she said, pulling back. She fumbled with her wand, but the bruises made it difficult for her to hold it with enough firmness to perform the wand movement.

"Wait, wait," said Harry. "Let me."

"You can't cast the healing spell on others, Harry," she reminded him gently. "You know that."

She was right, but wands were not the only way to cast spells, were they?

He looked at his arms, and focussed, letting his skin slowly smoothen back, losing the scale-like appearance and returning to a humanlike texture. There wasn't any sound or any channelling of magic to accompany the metamorphosis. Instead it was more akin to the skin remembering the shape it had taken before, and slowly shifting back as if it had been more comfortable as it was earlier.

To use an analogy, it was like tilting a heavy vase to a side, only to let it tilt back to its original centre of gravity.

Harry focussed on the Flame, and a thin line of crimson formed around his index finger. As if casting the Flagrate spell, he began to carve runes in mid-air.

Laguz. The rune of water and purification.

Uruz. The rune of earth, or rather, Binding.

Using the two in tandem allowed him to stabilise and contain the Laguz energy, while also making sure that he didn't channel any Death-energy by mistake.

Kenaz followed. The rune of transformation. This was to prompt the body into healing itself by using its own magic. Kenaz could be likened to the flames of the forge that heated metal so that it took on many varied hues and could be transformed into objects of beauty, usefulness and wonder. No wonder it was a common rune in transfiguration, alchemy and potions. Though, if his understanding was right, Kenaz was equally important in the Dark arts, where it could be used in coalition with binding runes to initiate negative effects on the body.

Uruz again.

The four runes glowed in mid-air, and Harry pushed them forward with a flick of his hand, causing them to coalesce and shoot into Daphne's palms, watching with a satisfied grin as her flesh began to instantly heal, the wounds growing thinner and smaller and vanishing almost entirely, the blood on her palms glowing and liberating the innate magic within them to amplify her healing. Within ten or so seconds, her hands looked perfectly fine. Daphne inspected her hands with narrowed eyes before she looked at him, looking somewhat miffed.

"Since when can you do that?" she asked. "I've been learning runecraft since I was ten, and even I need a wand to cast them in that fashion."

"You tend to learn some things quickly when you know the alternative is bleeding to death," said Harry. "Healing spells don't work on me. Same for draughts or potions. The Death-energy renders them null and void."

"Harry, curses don't have an effect on you either."

"Yes, but a reducto can turn my bones to paste just fine. Andy came up with a solution to get the draughts work to a degree, but I can't depend on them all the time, can I? I spent half the summer learning how to cast the basic healing spells."

"That wasn't a basic healing spell, Harry."

No, but it got the job done faster.

"It wasn't," he said. "Ever since Bathsheba started teaching me runes, I started experimenting a little. And what better than healing runes? Knowing my luck and all that."

"First-name basis with the Ancient Runes professor, are we?"

"Why, Miss Greengrass?" asked Harry in a mock professor tone. "I am a professor too, you know."

"Of course," said Daphne, easily filling the role of an innocent but sorry student. "I'm terribly sorry, professor. Please don't think I'm a bad girl. I'm willing to accept whatever punishments or detentions you give me."

He laughed. As did she.

"Seriously, Harry, that was some advanced stuff. Nobody, and I mean, nobody that sees that can say you've been learning runecraft since the start of the term. If I didn't know better, I'd say you've been hiding your talents all this time."

Harry focussed on the tip of her nose instead of meeting her eyes. The first time he had come to Hogwarts, his eyes had been alight with inquisitiveness, staring at the castle in all its majestic glory. The curiosity had slowly ebbed away when he tried to fade away from the sight of people to escape the confinements of his glory and fame. To evade the gaze of the people who expected a hero and a prodigy but found an abused and inept child in his place.

But ever since this summer, faced with his crippling limitations with magic, Harry had begun to finally exercise his intellect. From his newly offered status as Warlock, to Croaker's offer to join the Department of Mysteries, followed by the Workshop and his recognition as the Warden of the Sunken Vault, and not much later, the professor of Defence, Harry had found himself in an increasing number of positions and risen to do justice to them. And in the process, he had found that not only was he getting used to dealing with them, he was actually enjoying doing it. After four years of attempting and failing to hide, only to be thrust in the limelight, often with negative connotations, he had finally found that the opposite worked perfectly fine for him.

He wasn't meant to hide in obscurity, he was made to shine in audacity.

Daphne must've sensed his discomfort, so she quickly changed the topic.

"How did it go?"

"Whaโ€ฆ. oh, umm, not sure. I mean, I could access the Anima, so that's good, but it'll take more than a single attempt to find what I'm seeking."

"And what are you seeking?"

Harry opened his mouth, but Daphne raised a hand and stopped him. "You're a medium through which Summer is trickling through. I know. You've told me that. But what is it that you're after? Do you want to claim Summer for yourself? Become its Vessel?"

Harry tried to think back to his dream. No, not the dream. His experience in the Anima. But for the life of him, he couldn't remember any details, and doubted his pensive would have any better luck with that. All he could grasp was this foreboding feeling that something in there had not taken his attempt nicely.

"Harry?"

"I'mโ€ฆ. not," said Harry. "Look, all this is pretty new to me. Ever since I've accepted the way things are going to be, accepted that I'm not normal, and never going to be one, it's been like an entirely different world to me. Like I'm standing on the sea shore with an entire ocean in front of me. I couldn't tell you where I want to go, much less how to get there. I guess I amโ€ฆ I don't know, trying to see how deep the waters are, with every single step in."

Daphne frowned. "I don't know, Harry. All thisโ€ฆ all of this that you keep dabbing with, it's dangerous and I fear for your safety. There's a reason all of this is hidden in this Chamber, and I doubt even NEWT students have heard of half the things you keep studying in this Lair."

"Don't worry about me," he said, huffing in mock irritation. "I'm not being reckless. I don't look for trouble just so I can dive headfirst into it."

"Oh no, I give you more credit than that," she chided. "You have the sense to jump feet first."

"Yeah, your concern is so overwhelming it's suffocating." His dead even tone caused her to relax even more.

Truth be told, he understood where she was coming from, but it was unnecessary. He had been studying and taking every single precaution he could think of. That his theory about using the owl form, as a symbolic traveller between the Abstract and the Real had been spot on. Unlike how he had presented it to Daphne, it wasn't some whimsical idea he had approached with the air of a true Gryffindor. He had been studying the Miraculum Operarius from Day One, and knew from Salazar's memoirs that the infamous founder and creator of the Sunken Vault sat cross-legged, beneath the hooded form of Ananta-Shesha, using the Operarius like some giant wishcrafting machine, empowered by the ley-lines that ran beneath Hogwarts. In a manner, the Awareness was kind of like the Rosetta Stone for the Operarius. Simply said, he knew that he could use the Operarius to add A and B to create C, but the reason why was beyond him.

Salazar Slytherin, who could never find enough spiritual synergy to gain an Animagus form, had created the Sunken Vault, using the symbolism of his favourite totem โ€” the snake. As a parselmouth, he had used Contagion to connect with the symbolic associations of Snakes โ€” an openness to change, facing the unknown, and most importantly, the ability to peer into the unknown and the unseen, and guide those connected with it โ€” as his tool to trespass into the Anima to seek his greatest wish.

The Family Magic of House 'Slytherin'.

Unfortunately, he had never been able to achieve enough synergy with the cobra spirit to be able to successfully traverse into the Anima by himself.

Hence, the Miraculum Operarius.

For something that operated within the realms of standard magic, the Miraculum Operarius was an impressively complex and intricate system, and to be able to design a ritual that made effective use of such diversified and unpredictable variables at any times was worth quite a lot of praise, especially for the Founder's time. Magic back then was volatile, wild and to harness it in its rawness was akin to living with one step in one's own grave, and yet Slytherin had come up with this wishgranter against those odds.

Unfortunately for Salazar, the Miraculum Operarius's true potential was beyond his ability to operate. Oh, he could successfully employ a brute-force approach that channelled the raw power coursing through the ley-lines to perform any great act of magic so long as it stayed within the boundaries of the Real. The best he could do was puncture a metaphorical 'hole' in the barrier between the Abstract and the Real, and trespass into the Anima, which to this day, was a landmark in itself, since the closest modern-day alternative was the Animagus Potion, which utilised something similar, and yet only managed to pierce into the Anima only during particular conjunctions in time, like Beltane or Samhain.

Over the years, several Wardens of the Sunken Vault had made use of the Operarius to create miracles of their own. Nicholas Flamel found his own unique form of immortality in the form of the Philosopher's stone. Ekrizdis had created the monstrous dementor race, among other evil things, and Wenlock had applied the amplifying power of the Operarius to bind all standard magic under the rules of Arithmancy and Merlinโ€ฆ

Bloody hell, Merlin had created the Containment chamber beneath the Sunken Vault, a tunnel within which lay nightmarish horrors beyond imagination, the kind that Ananta-Shesha claimed was the worst kind of magic. The texts weren't exactly clear on what it was Merlin truly did, but something about his actions changed the way witches and wizards interacted with Magic.

It was why his name was almost synonymous to a deity than a wizard. And as much as the world would like to believe otherwise, it had very little to do with his role in King Arthur's Camelot. And if the texts were right, Merlin Emrys considered Salazar Slytherin as his Guru.

Really, the more he came to know and understand the Founder, the more he was willing to concede that Salazar Slytherin was truly the greatest of the Four, because of sheer will alone. Rowena Ravenclaw might have been the perfect Vessel of her Family Craft, and a walking, breathing manipulator of Destiny itself, but Salazar was the one that traversed uphill against overwhelming odds to create a system capable of performing miracles on a similar league as the Prison of Possibilities.

It was irony at its finest that Tom Riddle, who boasted of being the 'Heir of Slytherin', suffered from Salazar's own crippling limitation โ€” the lack of an animagus form. Fortunately, Harry not only had an animagus form, it was the one totem that had the greatest flexibility when it came to crossing barriers. Amplified by the Operarius, he had the perfect means to strive on the path that Salazar Slytherin had illuminated a millennium ago.

Wordlessly, Harry opened his right palm, and a familiar invisible weight settled on it, as Gryffindor's fabled blade appeared on it. Daphne almost recoiled in shock.

"That'sโ€”"

"Gryffindor's blade," he said absently. "It came to me in the Prison of Possibilities. Unlike when I fought the basilisk, I didn't have to pull it out of the Sorting Hat. And since then, it's like I can almost feel its presence. Like an invisible weight, always there, discorporated but forever ready to answer my call.

Daphne looked miffed. "If this is where you start talking that you're somehow, the heir ofโ€”"

Harry snorted. "Oh please, the House of Gryffindor has likeโ€ฆ thirteen restrictions and conditions that any claimant has to prove his worth before one can lay claim to Godric's legacy. Claiming this blade is merely one among the thirteen."

"And you know this becauseโ€ฆ."

""Seventh self, thirteenth row, number nineteen. A biography of Godric Gryffindor, written by Androcles Bloxam."

Daphne shut her mouth, and settled for a scowl.

Harry smiled. "The sword may present itself to anyone that has taken the mantle of the protector of Hogwarts, according to the Charter. Riddle was indirectly responsible for Professor Dumbledore being suspended, and wanted to unleash the basilisk and rid the school of muggle born students. So, when I took a stance against him, the blade judged me worthy, and lent me its support."

He still remembered the response that Dumbledore had given him. Something about showing him true loyalty that had sent Fawkes to him, along with the Sorting Hat. He had been too naive to notice the wordplay, and to be honest, the man wasn't wrong. So long as the Headmaster of Hogwarts had not broken any rules of the Hogwarts Charter, loyalty to him was equivalent to being loyal to the school itself.

"When I faced the curse in the Prison of Possibilities, I did the same thing. I was the Defence instructor, still am, I suppose, and I was fighting a curse that was impairing the student's education. Henceโ€ฆ"

He regarded the blade, and then laughed again.

"What?" Daphne asked, flummoxed.

"Nothing, I just remembered that one of the five Vaults in the castle was made by Godric Gryffindor. And I haveโ€ฆ well, this."

"Harry," Daphne said, her voice a mix of consternation and concern. "You already have too many things going on. Do not invite more troubles."

He chuckled. "Don't worry. I just somehow know that Godric's legacy isn't mine to use or guard. Just like Rowena's famed Prison of Possibilities would never accept me as a Warden. But it does present an interesting conundrum."

Daphne arched an eyebrow.

He held his other hand out. Scales formed on it.

A layer of hoarfrost appeared.

And dense, jet black fumes began rising out of it, making Ananta-Shesha hiss and pull away. Meanwhile, the blade of Gryffindor erupted in golden flames.

"You are right. There are two many things going on. Too many powers have come out of the woodworks ever since I've joined Hogwarts and somehow, I always find myself in the middle of it. Death. The Sunken Vault. The Prison of Possibilities. My unique magical animagus form. Summer. And now Gryffindor's bladeโ€ฆ. The way I look at it, one of two things can happen. The first is that somehow, something about me or my ancestry just ties all of them together. That somehow, among the thousands and thousands of witches and wizards that have walked through these halls, I am the one special wizard that gets to have a hand at every piece of cake."

Daphne snorted, but then she realised that he wasn't laughing.

"Harry โ€”"

"Tom Riddle was the Warden of the Sunken Vault as well. And he discovered the Prison of Possibilities and made use of it as a student here. And just like I came across the Blade of Gryffindor, he discovered Ravenclaw's Diadem. And on top of that, he became a Master Necromancer from the Necromancer's Guild and someone so steeped in Dark magic that he could cheat death itself."

Morty the Snitch vibrated within his pocket.

"And.. the other possibility?"

Harry's features turned solemn. "That I'm not some destined Peverell Vessel, born after a millennium and a half to return the Peverell Family magic to this world. I'm not the impossible Vessel that somehow was born with the power of Summer flooding my veins alongside with Death, born of some divine conjunction among the stars that helps me wield the opposing powers of Life and Death. Noโ€ฆ I have been studying about the Vessels for Family Magic that have existed in the past, and the more I learn, the more I think I've been going about it the wrong way."

"Harry," said Daphne slowly, carefully. "You are the Peverell Vessel. Just like you carry the Greengrass bloodline."

"Oh I am now," said Harry, smiling mirthlessly. "Of that I have no doubt. Just that I was never born as one. I thinkโ€ฆ I think that I'm just a fairly efficient medium for primal, Abstract magic. Something in me just calls out to the Abstract. Aโ€ฆ a wildcard. A medium, a keyhole through which the Abstract can penetrate into the Real World. That's why all these things keep happening to me. I didn't bring Death to manifest in this world. No, it was Death that sought me out."

Daphne was silent, listening.

Harry laughed again. "I was too busy trying to fight Ignotus from making me take up the mantle of Death's Vessel in its entirety. I was too busy preserving my magic, my freedom, and not choosing between Death and Magic."

He laughed again. "Stupid. Never once did I realise, never once did I ask why Ignotus was doing it. Why he wanted me to choose Death. Family Magic is the providence of a god, so why would a god try that much for a mortal to choose it? Yet Ignotus kept showing me morbid visions, kept twisting things just to ensure I chose Death."

Daphne's eyes went wide. "You mean โ€”"

Harry smiled bitterly. "The world thinks I'm the Peverell Vessel. But in actuality, it's Death that's trying to make me one. As is Summer, I think. I'm an owl animagus, Daphne โ€” that which travels between worlds. The Abstract and the Real. I'm a medium that stands on the verge of crossroads, choosing neither, denying neither โ€” stuck in an endless game between Death and Magic, with each wanting to lay claim and make me choose. That is why I can channel Death, and that is why despite having my magic crippled, Summer is beginning to infuse me with more magical potential. And thisโ€ฆ I fear, is just the beginning."

"Butโ€ฆ" murmured Daphne, her face scrunched in concern. "Surely there is an end to this?"

Harry smiled. "There is. I have to choose. The Abstract wants to become Real, and they will never stop coming at me until I have chosen. Which means I have to face greater and greater foes that will make Lord Voldemort look no greater than Draco Malfoy. The Family magics are at war, Daphne, and they want entrance into this world, past the barriers that have existed for eternity. Either I have to choose, or I have to grow so strong that I can withstand them all and stand at the crossroads forever."

He looked up at the ancient golem that was looming above him, and was briefly reminded of his familiar.

One that was named after a certain witch that he was sure stood where he was today.

The infamous goddess of boundaries and crossroads.

Hecate.

"Butโ€ฆ why you, Harry?" asked Daphne.

"I don't know," he said with a sigh. "But something tells me that it has something to do with why Lord Voldemort tried to kill me as a baby back on that Halloween night."


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