Shooting upright, one hand over his throat, Harry opened his eyes and gagged immediately upon waking. He could barely make out the smell of rot permeating his nostrils and his eyes watering in response, before any vestige of thought just vanished and instinct took over. Magic bubbled and roiled violently in his belly, rebelling against the perceived invasion with enough zealousness to make him double over.
In the fit of nausea, Harry threw up on the spot. Again and again, until his lungs weren't drowning in black slime.
With his senses impaired, Harry was only somewhat aware of someone throwing their body away from him, beating a hasty retreat as he expelled more and more sickness on the stone floor.
Even when his stomach was absurdly empty, he dry-heaved some more. Around his lips, some of the black tar he'd purged hung limply, thankfully dead, while the rest of the hellish heap withered on the ground as it simmered in its throes of brief freedom. In agony, the abomination shrieked, mouthless, as sunlight smited without discrimination, charring sludge and purifying with only a touch.
Achingly, his core pulsed inside his chest, doing a secondary scan all over his body before it settled down with an exhausted throb.
And then he was done. As if someone had cut his strings, Harry collapsed on the ground. The bumpy points of the rock didn't bother him as he rolled over and gasped on his back, staring emptily into clear skies as he tried to make sense of what happened so far. His mind was coming up with blanks and no answers. Thinking alone was proving to be something of an endeavor as he tried to calm the panicked rhythm of his heart.
Another remote shuffle made him snap out of it. Still disoriented, Harry scrambled to his feet, hand going automatically for his wand - only for his limbs to get tangled with his own clothes, which caused him to fall to the ground in a heap of limbs.
"Ow..." he muttered, red starting to torch his face and ears out of embarrassment.
Thankfully, the stranger didn't comment on his blunder and just assisted him with only stony silence as side commentary. In another act of kindness, sturdy hands steadied him when he wobbled in place, now back on his feet but unable to stop the shakes that wrecked him from his initial violent reaction.
Somewhat taken aback at the closeness of another body, Harry craned his head back to examine the towering stranger. His thanks got stuck somewhere in the tip of his tongue.
At first glance, the stranger appeared to be muggle, having a pistol, of all things, tucked away on the side of his dark khakis. However, that image didn't hold up to scrutiny because it quickly became obvious that some mystic energy was reflecting off his skin.
The source of the pale blue light was laughingly easy to find once you knew to look for it. With the whole platform covered in active ancient runes, Harry would have had to be blind and stupid not to notice them, etched as they were into the stone.
Of course, the fact that Harry was right in the middle of that was the cherry on the cake, which obviously made the stranger look all the more frightening right now.
Never breaking the line of sight and looking more intense by the second, the stranger leaned in, peering at him from considerable upper vantage.
Automatically, Harry leaned back with wide eyes.
"That was the Scourge, wasn't it?" the man asked with a somber look.
Harry, still reeling from the fact that he was caught standing inside a rune construct, stared dumbly at him.
"The what?" he asked blankly.
"You don't be fooling me, son," the man's eyes flashed with mild irritation and worry. "I know what I saw. 'Tis no use to lie to a fella when you've been pukin' the Scourge all over the haven. You don't hide that kind of thing from a hunter. So. How long have you been infected?"
Harry shook his head, not understanding anything about what just has been said.
"You don't know?" The man raised an eyebrow to communicate his skepticism. Harry could feel his face growing hotter and hotter the more the stranger's eyebrows rose. "Well, you do look hearty enough for someone who's been infected, I suppose. Couldn't have happened too long ago since your body's still fighting it. Your folks aren't around either?"
"My folks?" Harry echoed. This interaction couldn't be more bizarre. Was this an interrogation or the rune equivalent of a Confundus charm?
"Yeah. Money must have been really tight for 'em to leave you wearing those clothes," the man asked, prodding. But for what - that part flew right over Harry's head. "I can see you've got no idea what I'm talkin' about, eh?"
"Pretty much," Harry managed to get out through his sore throat. His mind raced with questions. Scourge? Folks? The accent was distinctly American, which begged the question... Was he in Britain anymore? More importantly, what was the point of dragging Harry into an arcane rune circle if he was only to ask nonsense?
The man hummed, peering down at him. Harry couldn't possibly imagine what he could be thinking about. Everything about the situation was off and he had no idea how to handle it.
Finally, that seemed to be the selling point. After seeing the confusion in his eyes, the man caved and softened considerably.
"Alright. I can see you've got no answers for me. Are you up for eating any time soon?" he asked.
The thought of eating so soon after puking his guts out was absolutely revolting. Yet, his stomach had other ideas, immediately letting out a resounding rumble that had the stranger chuckling in honest amusement.
"I was preparing some stew before you had your little attack. I reckon you'll want some of that."
Harry laced his hands together in a fierce grip and nodded, somewhat sheepishly.
Bemused, the man beckoned with his hands, taking care of avoiding the remnants of Harry's earlier disaster as he walked. Despite his carefulness, the pool of black vomit was almost gone by now. The faint rays of noon were working overtime in order to make sure that nothing remained. Regardless, Harry followed the stranger's example and skirted around the black remains, feigning deafness as the infernal screeching faded into an unforgiving silence.
Discreetly, Harry started to palm his robes to search for his wand, stomach dropping in fear when he found nothing on his pockets.
"Name's Dave," the man said as soon as they were seated around the fire. "Dave Auburnbrie. You got a name, stranger?"
Alright. Sensitive question. But Harry couldn't possibly lie right now. Not when he knew absolutely nothing of the runes around him and their effects. The ball was on the stranger's court, regardless of his feelings about it.
"Harry. Harry Potter," he replied, voice sounding terribly high-pitched and scratchy. Tensing, he waited for the obvious reaction to his name.
In another shocking turn of events, Dave disappointed expectations.
"Nice name. Not that common around these parts, but definitely Lucian," Dave nodded, pensive. He either was a consummate actor or he definitely didn't show signs of knowing who he was.
Jaw falling open, Harry accepted the bowl that Dave offered him with an uncertain nod, careful of not consuming any of it before the other had the first bite.
Harry took his first sip and paused. The taste of the beef was almost exotic; he was one hundred percent sure he'd never tasted it before, even at Hogwarts, where banquets were held every time students stepped into the Great Hall to eat.
It was… Good? Harry could certainly learn to appreciate it with time. After having another sample taste, Harry made the dubious decision to trust the stranger on this one.
Making sure he kept track of Dave from the corner of his eye, Harry sucked on his spoon, curious despite any earlier misgivings. His host was using a lot of unfamiliar terms from the moment he'd opened his mouth. Either he was missing a lot of context here, or the man was speaking in a different code altogether.
Harry pondered about the dilemma over his dinner. All this hospitality was giving him doubts about how he was managing this encounter. Was it... really okay to ask? Dave hadn't displayed any actual aggressiveness since their meeting (hadn't made any demands) and the runes, despite being active, hadn't harmed him in the least.
Curious, but also cautious, Harry decided to poke him for information.
"I'm sorry, but... Lucian? What's that?" he asked.
Dave straightened in his seat, eyebrows raising in surprise.
"Astrals. I understand that you're a little young and you're alone, but have you been living under a rock all these years? How come you don't know what the Kingdom of Lucis is?" he asked, in honest befuddlement.
"... No?" Harry answered, honest but still completely lost.
"No?" Dave repeated, incredulous.
"No, I haven't been living under a rock, I swear," Harry said, lamely.
Dave opened his mouth, maybe to object or just plain complain, but finally closed it with a long sigh and a silent shake of his head.
"You're somethin' special, you know that, right?" he said, straightening in place. "Alright, so. The Lucians are exactly that. From the Kingdom of Lucis. We, from Cleigne, were originally a part of that. But that changed when the Empire came in with its troops and fancy tech and declared us part of the Niflheim Protectorate," Dave grumbled, shaking his head. He squinted at Harry, as if to puzzle him out: "You know, this is all pretty common knowledge, which's why I'm so surprised you haven't heard of it before all this."
Harry nodded slowly to show that he was listening, but inside his head, his thoughts raced desperately. All of those were new names. Certainly nothing familiar.
"... Have you ever heard of a place called Britain?" he finally asked. He needed to find some common ground.
Dave blinked and shook his head negatively, immediately dashing away all of Harry's hopes for a normal conversation.
"Doesn't ring a bell. Sorry," he apologized with a shrug. His eyes gave off a spark of interest. "Is that where you came from?"
"You could say that," Harry replied, tersely, clutching his spoon as he glared down at his stew. He rubbed at his sore throat - the fact that he was speaking funny continued to bother him.
"You know," Dave began, if a little tentatively. The man scratched the scuff of his neck before continuing. "You look related to some of the folks from Insomnia. Are you sure you don't know anyone from Lucis?"
Harry bit his lip out of frustration. He was beginning to feel like a broken recorder.
"Sorry, but I don't know what-"
"Insomnia is the Lucis capital," Dave hurriedly said and shrugged. He stoked the fire with a stick, making sparks go wild. "As it happens, the people I'm thinking have your same pale skin and-"
Harry began to shake his head.
"- the same black hair and blue eyes you do. Some-"
"No," Harry cut him off with a glare.
Dave puffed his cheeks and huffed in impatience.
"Just no, huh," he said, if a little disgruntled with all the denial.
Harry considered him for a moment, before deflating.
"I'm... Not really sure how far from home I'm right now, but I can tell you that I've never been to any place called Lucis in my life."
"You've always been in this Britain then," Dave played along, albeit showing a sliver of skepticism all the same. "Funny thing, that. I'm pretty sure I've never heard of it."
"Just like I've never heard of your Lucis, you mean?" Harry snapped back.
Dave eyed him. "Just so," he said. "This is a big star and it's got its own Kingdoms and Empires. Just not yours, it seems."
"And now you're telling me I'm lying?!" Harry stood up in his anger, gripping his bowl tightly between his hands.
Dave raised his hands in surrender, but didn't raise to his feet. Behind him, the sun had begun to set.
"I'm just telling you that you might be a tad confused, is all," he said, enunciating each word with care. It reminded him of someone taking care of a wild animal. "People infected with the Scourge are always a little delirious. I'm just trying to get a feel of what stage you're in."
"So, what's your diagnosis, Dave?" Harry spat sarcastically, feeling his magic stir with the force of his indignation.
"I'm actually not sure," the hunter replied bluntly. "When someone's as disoriented as you are, they can no longer get inside the havens. They also don't reject the illness anymore and just lay in wait for it to take over."
Just lay in wait for it to... Take over. Merlin, what kind of situation had he gotten himself into? And how did he get out of it?
"Taking off is a real bad idea right now," Dave cautioned, watching Harry observe his surroundings with a furrowed brow. "Sun's down for the count. You never know what kind of deamons are outta there in the Vesperpool, but they sure won't be kind to kids."
"To kids?" Harry exclaimed, just the slightest bit insulted at the part he actually understood. His voice raised to unbelievable heights due to his increasing incredulity. "I don't know how you haven't noticed, but I assure you - I'm not that young!"
Dave actually looked astonished. His mouth dropped open in surprise.
"You..." he cleared his throat. "Have you looked at yourself? You can't be any older than ten."
Harry stumbled back, completely taken by surprise. Because - What? What? He let his bowl fall to the ground with a soft thud, heedless of the mess.
Mirroring his actions, Dave pushed his own plate to the side and rose from his seat. With him standing, the hunter's height was always something that stood out, but Harry had been around Hagrid and thus hadn't questioned it offhand. Now that he was consciously taking note of it, the gap between their heights was - too big of a difference, actually.
Shakily, Harry pushed the folds of his clothes back to reveal the skin beneath. Immediately, his breathing hitched. His arms were actually shorter - leaner, in the sense of being underdeveloped. Less mature. What he'd thought as robes were actually just a black shirt and a jacket - none of which were his. All of his clothes hung off his frame with the barest of clings. It was actually a miracle that his pants hadn't fallen off at any point of this conversation or that he hadn't noticed how big on his feet his boots actually were.
Knowing it was pointless, but still scared off his wits, Harry sprung a couple of feet away from the hunter. The boy - because he was one, for some unholy reason - felt his posture fall back into the one he'd used in the times when he had to sprint away from Dudley's gang. But the catch here was - Harry couldn't run. He had to interrogate Dave.
Dave, who'd been sketchy, but weirdly kind from the moment they'd met.
"What did you do?" he accused him with an increasingly distressed voice. "What did you do to me?"
Harry gestured to the runes, which hadn't stopped shining during the whole debacle.
"Is this what they do? Is that what you've been doing all this time?!"
Dave shook his head in denial, openly displaying a non-threatening stance. His beguiling eyes showed only confusion in his expression as he attempted to get closer to Harry.
"No, ki- Harry. I didn't do anything," Dave said placatingly.
Harry's magic was coiled tight, ready to sprint at any sign of provocation.
"And that's a bunch of bollocks! You're lying!" Harry took a step back.
"I'm not!" Dave insisted. He stepped closer, only to freeze when Harry backed away further in his quest to put some space between them. He was dangerously close to the border of the haven. "Listen to me. Just a second. I haven't done anything to you!"
"Oh, so now you're going to tell me these runes are actually harmless?" Harry spat.
"The ru- You mean, the haven?" Dave actually stutters. "Yes! The haven acts as a sanctuary from daemons. It protects. It doesn't do... Whatever you suspect it does. All it does is drive away the Scourge!"
"Drive it away, you say?" Harry shot back. "Because so far, I've only been sick in your presence, and inside your haven! This place hasn't protected me from squat!"
Dave shook his head, speechless for a change.
"Did Voldemort put you up for this?" Harry felt the need to exclaim. "Because I'll tell you, if this is a shoddy attempt at convincing me I've traveled to another world and deaged me for some dumb reason-"
"I only found you like this," Dave cut him off in the middle of his rant. The hunter had straightened his posture in affront. Steely brown eyes met his in open confrontation. "I don't know who this Voldelamors fella is, or how he'd ever get the power to make someone younger, but I found you on the lakebed and brought you here to spend the night. I wasn't about to let someone die, passed out and defenseless, in the middle of nowhere when I could just - help them. In all my years as hunter, that just isn't done."
Harry's slowly ire died down as Dave's words were processed. The man looked mad, but still hadn't attacked him. He'd fed him without protest and now Harry was the one that was raising a stink for something he wasn't even sure of.
Was this bloke even magical? Harry wondered, eying the pistol. His muggle clothing didn't have a hint of Wizarding culture on it, at all.
"You found me like this, you say?" he muttered, consciously unwinding.
"Yeah," Dave said, just as weary as he was. "Found you washed up on the shore. Meaning that at some point you took a dip in the lake. Didn't know you were ill until you started pukin' when you woke."
Harry let out a long breath.
"You also didn't do the haven," he stated in a monotone.
Dave, regardless, saw that as a prompt to confirm Harry's suspicions.
"Nobody really knows how to do havens," he said, somewhat bitterly. "Mighty useful things, though. They say those things've been on Eos since the times of the Founder King. Most common belief is that the gods themselves gifted them to us as an aid against daemons. Now, I wouldn't know if that's correct or not. They've been here for a lot longer than I've lived, that's for sure."
"You..." Harry began. His mouth closed in a click, undecided how to continue whatever thought he was trying to put forward. Feeling the beginnings of a headache, Harry rubbed his eyes, absentmindedly noting the absence of his glasses.
Dave took that as his cue to get closer, kneeling on one knee in front of him to have them both at the same level.
"I see we're both a little lost here," Dave said softly. The lights of the fire danced comfortingly in his eyes. "Me more than you, I suspect. We can talk about this - whatever this is – next to the fire."
"We can do that," Harry sagged a little. "But first, I just need you to tell me something else."
Dave visibly hesitated, eyes roving past the limits of the haven and into the dark woods nervously, before settling on an agreeable nod.
"Sure," he gave a strained reply.
"You mentioned that the people of Lucis have blue eyes," Harry said. He looked at the older man pleadingly. "Please tell me I don't have them."
Dave bit his lip, not knowing exactly why he was asking him that, but still sensing it was sensitive all the same.
"That," Dave cleared his throat nervously, "would be lying."
Harry closed his eyes in defeat.
"I see," he muttered.
"Come on," Dave said, braving a touch to one of Harry's shoulders. His touch became more real when the boy didn't pull away from him. "We need to be nearer the center of the haven, just in case."
Harry allowed himself to be moved, feeling too fatigued to question it. In the distance he could hear howling and feel something heavy lumbering over the earth, giving some credibility to Dave's warnings.
Silently, Harry thought about every scrap of information gathered so far. He tried recalling what he'd been doing before all of this. Nothing concrete came forth when he concentrated. The boy felt a chill go down his spine when all he could come up with was the sickly green of the Killing Curse, coming head on towards him.
So, he was probably dead, then? Was that it? He didn't feel as though he was unliving, though. And Dave himself didn't look too bad either for someone who was presumably dead. Perhaps it was time to listen instead of jumping towards any kind of conclusion.
They retook their places in the camp in no time at all. Dave was giving him worried looks the longer the silence went on. Harry felt kind of bad, letting himself stew in his thoughts. The least he could do was apologize for all the ruckus he'd done.
"So..." Harry trailed off awkwardly. "I shouldn't have jumped the gun."
"No," Dave stated, matter-of-factly. "You shouldn't have. But this mess gives us the chance to clear some doubts."
"Sounds fair," he said, resigned to his fate.
"You got magic," Dave started immediately, like a punch to the gut. Harry's eyes bugged out a little. "Your eyes started getting all green and gravity stopped working for a second there. That gives me more of a reason to believe that you're from Insomnia - nay, from the Royal family first and foremost. But that's not that at all, right?"
"No," Harry denied, working his mouth to prevent himself from gaping. The sheer attention he would receive if this were true back at home... "Being royalty - that's not me at all."
"And that's what I thought," Dave nodded, rubbing his chin as he studied him intently. "You're something entirely new. So, tell me your story and we'll go from there."
"Only if you tell me more about you and this place," Harry shot back, but resigned himself to a long night.
Opening up was difficult, just because sharing wasn't his thing. The fact that Dave already knew about magic, even if it was this world's variant, made things simpler - in a way, it didn't feel as though he was breaking the Statue of Secrecy. An odd worry to have under the circumstances, but it was there all the same.
Harry didn't touch everything, of course. But he did cover the essentials. The absence of his wand was particularly worrying and it felt important that Dave knew that.
"We use the wand as a conduct," Harry explained, channeling Hermione at her best. He really did want Dave to understand the importance of retrieving it, if it was really around these parts. "We can use magic without it, but it's more difficult to manage. Most of it happens because we get too upset to control it."
Dave bit his lip thoughtfully.
"I'll keep an eye out for anything like that. Maybe ring up a couple of folks to help with the search. But if it looks like a common stick, then there's not much I can do for you."
"I know," Harry nodded, a little miserable. His wand wasn't particularly eye-catching; it worked and Harry always appreciated the practical aspect of his holly wand, but the simplicity of it wouldn't do him any favors this time. "But even so, I appreciate the help."
The two of them stared into the fire, consumed by their own thoughts.
"So, to wrap this up," Dave said, "you're really from another world. A world that, if I understood correctly, has wizard-folk and common-folk as completely separate societies. This Voldezamor," he ignored Harry's surprised snort, "is actually some big bad from there. Am I right so far?"
"Yeah," Harry swallowed back his laughter behind a bright smile. "I take it that magicals don't behave the same way over here."
"Shiva's tits, not at all," Dave replied, shaking his head. "The only magic users here are the Lucis Caelum and everybody knows that their power comes from the Crystal.
"There's no one else, but every royal has openly contributed to Lucis in their own way. Every feat has been a great bonus to the country. Like when the Niflheim Empire started their quest for world domination; the Lucis Caelum raised a wall all over the continent to stop their attacks. Thanks to that, we were the only nation in the world who didn't fall prey to their magitek. Well, until recently, that is."
"I was going to ask about that," Harry began tentatively.
"You wonder how Cleigne fell into their hands," Dave nodded tiredly. "You're right to wonder. Some time ago, King Mors - Etro rest his soul - decided to push the Wall back when Niflheim's attacks began to feel too draining. With enough time, the Empire's magitek managed to create troops and weapons that could damage the wall. It didn't exactly help that Cleigne, Duscae and Leide are extensive regions - too much land to cover and protect, you understand? So, something had to give."
"And they sacrificed the land," Harry said in understanding.
"Yeah," Dave replied with a downturn of his lips. He smiled wryly at Harry, a look full of bitterness. "Not exactly a comforting thought to have when you're someone that's living in the region, but I do understand the reasoning at least."
They fell into silence, ears keeping note of the constant groans and shrieking from the night. Dave had relaxed enough to return to eating.
"I wonder how I got here," Harry said, finally. It was what both of them were thinking, after all.
Dave snorted into his water.
"I take it you don't have a clue," he said.
"Not in the slightest," Harry shifted uneasily, not wanting to entertain the possibility of another Killing Curse hitting him. "Personally, I'm betting it's something to do with apparition going wrong."
Dave perked up with interest.
"And what's that?" he asked instantly.
"Ah- Teleportation, I guess? You're familiar with that term, at least?" Harry questioned with an uncertain look.
Dave smothered a smile.
"It's not that commonly used, but yeah. Lucis Caelum warp - they don't teleport!" he quoted with a laugh. "It's not that big of a difference in my honest opinion, but whatever floats their boat."
Those people were going to be a common theme here, Harry was certain. He was actually curious about how they received magic from something so fancy like a Crystal. There was nothing like it back at home.
"What I don't get is how I'm so much younger," Harry said, almost tempted to start tugging at his hair out of frustration. "Or why I'm so different. Jumping bodies. How the hell does someone do that accidentally?"
"And whose body did you get?" Dave finished the thought. He blinked as he looked at him up and down suspiciously. "Whomever they were, they couldn't have been in any worse condition. What kind of dumbass leaves his kid stranded in the middle of a swamp? And unattended. Astrals, the nerve of some people. We still have to take care of the Scourge in there, you know."
Harry froze for a second, caught in a rush of unexpected relief.
"We?" he repeated, a bit breathlessly.
Dave threw him a look from his side of the camp.
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm not going to leave you alone after all we've shared today," Dave huffed, stretching his legs. "I've been wanting an excuse to get out of Meldacio for weeks and right now you're my ticket to get out of dodge."
"Meldacio?" Harry asked.
"Hunter HQ. Home," Dave shrugged and swallowed the rest of his meal in one big swoop.
"Excuse me? I'm not going to help you run away from home!" Harry hissed instantly.
"You're not," Dave said, looking slightly bored. "I reckon I'm going to be running some errands around. Lestallum's been asking us for help with some wild animals for weeks. Same with Hammerhead and the Quay. The latter takes priority, obviously."
"And why's that?" Harry asked.
"The Oracle is gonna be there in a week," Dave offered him a cheeky grin as he patted his shoulder. "Aren't you lucky?"