Author's Note: Thank you in the extreme to Ruben, Nauze, Charles and Justin for letting me bounce ideas off of them, for reading over sections of this, the many (many) goat gifs, and allowing me to agonize over how much murdery detail was too much murdery detail at all hours. You are all the absolute best!
Chapter 1 ~ In the Dark
"In 2016, 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing….
Only 116 were officially recorded in the U.S. Department of Justice's missing persons' database."
~ Smithsonian Magazine, The Red Dress Project
In the empty, desolate desert, lay a blackened skull.
Empty orbitals, long devoid of the fleshy remnants of anything resembling eyes – the maggots and carrion had seen to that – stared sightlessly up into the stygian blackness of the night sky. Pale pinpoints of starlight twinkled in a gloriously messy smear, the celestial bodies comprising the Milky Way glimmering with whites, sapphires, reddish-glows, and purple hues; and if one looked long enough, the swift-moving streaks of shooting stars could be seen, darting their way across this beautiful madness, disappearing as the small pieces of rock collided with the Earth's higher atmosphere, finally burning out with one last, fiery glow.
Had the skull had any life left in it, it would have had one hell of a view.
A small party stood in silence, and the empty, but eerily beautiful desert stretched out before them. There was a certain hush to the landscape, as if soundwaves themselves had been absorbed by the brittle badlands. This far away from Muggle civilization there was no noise, no light pollution, the night near silent with the exception of the occasional burst of wind, howling eerily through the hoodoos.
That lonely blackened skull wasn't alone.
A pair of pale eyes studied it, a soft voice emitting into the cool air. "I wouldn't have found it…" the woman hesitated. "Found them had I not strayed down the wash instead of the trail."
"You mean you got lost."
"No," spoke the first figure, her voice undeniably faint, as if afraid to speak too loudly and wake them. "I'd have to have known where I was going in the first place to be lost, don't you think?"
The second figure sniffed and adjusted his headlamp, flicking it on. The bright beam of light cut through the oppressive blackness, landing upon a homemade sandal, bound with colorful strips of leather. Little glittery flowers sparkled in the light, a happy mockery to its owner's inevitable resting place.
It was evidence that at least one of the bodies had belonged to a child.
The discarded footwear had clearly not been there long, the distinctive puncture marks in it evidence that some type of bird – most likely a raven – had ravaged it.
That sandal lay discarded on the ground, far away from the central pile. The bodies – at least eight - had been discarded, deep in the desert, where no one had been likely to find them. Only the researcher they had allowed onto their lands somehow had.
No one came out here. No one.
The law officer crouched low, his dark eyes studying the remains. Age and gender were not immediately apparent, but a cursory glance told him that they were all at varying stages of decomposition.
Whoever had dumped them here had been doing this for some time.
"I want to find who did this." And for the first time since the man had known her, the woman sounded angry. "I can't-I won't leave them here without doing something."
The man grimaced, his tanned skin contorting. "I know."
A swath of pale hair escaped from beneath the female figure's hood, dancing in the cold breeze. "Magic did this. Magic killed them."
Something else the lawman also knew.
There was a certain reek to it, a reverberation of dark, tainted energy that lingered when dark magic robbed a vibrant, living being of life, and the entire scene smelled of it. It'd been a long time since he'd sensed such a thing. It was like cyanide: not everyone could smell it; not everyone could sense it, but the reek of bitter almond permeated the air unnaturally, even overpowering the stench of rotting flesh.
The only problem was that magic did not work here.
Magic in the land where magic failed.
Observing the disturbing pyre, the man wet his chapped lips. As far as he could tell, at least one of the women had been murdered here, on site, by dark magic, where magic no longer worked. The implications were…unsettling.
"Your research," he began, "is it-"
The witch anticipated his query. "They're spreading," she all but whispered. "The dead zones are spreading."
A cold dread settled deep in his bones.
The man rose to his feet, his expression an emotionless mask. An overwhelming sense of anger and righteousness had filled him, like a venomous fire injected directly from a serpent's bite. It spurred him to do something, but what? "We do not have the resources to process a scene like this."
It was a statement, because it was the truth. Their funding and access to forensics, even Muggle forensics, was limited at the best of times. But something like this?
They would need outside assistance, and experience had taught him that the American Ministries would be no friend to their community. Not unless one of the bodies was found to have been taken from outside their Tribe. Even if that were the case, nothing short of the deceased being a prominent citizen in magical society, or a relative of a prominent citizen, would entice any of the neighboring Ministries to assist.
And even if they did, that would only open the doorway for Aurors to accuse one of their own of the crime without proper evidence. It had happened often enough before.
He would never convince the council to approve a request for outside assistance.
Somehow the witch standing alongside him sensed that.
"I know someone who might be able to help."
Overhead a raven let out a mournful cry, and it echoed out into the night.
24 Hours Later
Harry Potter had just known the day would be complete shit.
To start, he woke up with a splitting headache, and the realization that Hermione had been right all along: he did have a 'saving people' thing. After the events of last night, he was seriously debating owling her permission to enroll him in whatever 12 Step Program she could find, so long as it cured him of that. Really, he'd be open to electroshock if she thought it would help. Maybe there was some kind of 'mauled-by-a-manticore aversion therapy' he could enroll in.
Regardless, he needed to develop a strong, healthy dose of 'not giving a fuck'. Had he done so before last night, when he'd witnessed that slim brunette getting hassled at that Muggle bar, he might have left things well enough alone.
But he hadn't. Of course he fucking hadn't.
As it'd turned out, the man doing the hassling was her 'on again, off again' boyfriend, and the brunette – Candi with an 'I' he'd later found out – had seen a text from a woman who turned out to be the man's younger sister, decided he'd cheated, stolen his motorcycle keys, driven it to the edge of a rather impressive cliff, then rolled it right off.
From Harry's understanding and the description 'Ben' had given him as he'd choked him out against the bar's concerningly filthy counter, the gas tank had been full and the explosion rather impressive.
The bike had also been uninsured.
This went a long way towards explaining precisely why, when a rather inebriated Harry had swigged down the last of his lager and tapped 'Ben' on the back, before cold cocking him, that it'd instigated an enthusiastic brawl.
After all, 'Ben' was also having a bad night.
As it turned out Muggles had laws against cold cocking a complete stranger. By the time they were done breaking several bar stools over one another, battery and destruction of property had been the formal charges, and Harry had spent the better part of the evening in local lock up, right alongside 'Ben', who had been more than happy to darkly glower in his direction as if contemplating a rematch.
Truth be told, Harry was pretty certain he'd come out on the losing side of that one, and given that he was sitting in lock up, disarmed – the Sheriff's deputy had confiscated his 'stick' and made several crass remarks about cosplay – still drunk, and that he'd actually been wrong to stop the man from the simple task of getting his house key back from a brunette lunatic, Harry didn't fancy a rematch.
Ultimately Harry'd had the good grace to apologize. A wizard didn't grow up with Hermione Granger as a friend and not learn some semblance of manners, after all.
Ben took it in stride; he punched him.
It turned out that Ben was a local who worked in the lumber industry, preferred dark ales and brunettes, spent his free time playing darts and restoring old bikes, and was a decently nice human being.
He also had one helluva right hook.
One didn't attempt to strangle another human being more than once in a single night without getting to know them.
A pity Ben would never remember a thing.
Harry'd sat there on that uncomfortable metal bench and waited until Candi had shown up - he'd give the brunette credit: she bailed Ben out – and as soon as that cell door had swung open to release his partner in crime Harry had shouldered his way out of the cell, reclaimed his wand, miraculously avoided getting shot, and obliviated the only deputy on duty. Granted, he should have waited to do so until after deleting the electronic records of his own arrest – the Daily Prophet would have a field day if Skeeter got wind of the former Golden Boy being tossed in a Muggle pen – but hey, no one was perfect. At any rate, he'd hexed the security cameras, obliviated all parties involved, and apparated back to the motel he was staying in.
Given that he was still a smidgeon drunk, it was no surprise that he managed to partially splinch his own hand.
To add insult to injury, he was out of dittany.
It was a wonder Hermione hadn't mercy killed him already.
Which brought him back to the second reason that he'd known – just known – that today would be absolute shit.
That fucking raven.
The motel wasn't exactly high class, which meant the window latches weren't what even a drunk and blind man would ever refer to as 'sturdy'. That still didn't explain how the fucking thing had managed to bypass his security wards, open the window from the outside, and swoop in.
Harry woke up to the damn thing pecking at his head.
With a groan he'd swatted at the thing and cussed in a way that had gotten him banned from speaking with at least one foreign dignitary back in the 'good ole days'.
The raven laughed.
It actually laughed.
It ha-ha-ha-ha-har ed in mocking fashion.
Now that had his attention. Rubbing his head, his left eye still swollen and the cuts not fully healed, he sent it the best suspicious glower a man in his state could manage.
And that was how the owl found him.
It carried a rather short and to-the-point missive from Ron, informing him that he'd broken the Statute of Secrecy, again, and that he was lucky his best mate was still an Auror and could cover for his ungrateful ass. And oh, by the way, Sunday brunch at the Burrow was happening, and he better have his jolly ass back on a trans-continental portkey in time for desert or 'mum would have fits'. Ginny apparently had an announcement and wanted the whole family there.
The raven laughed.
Until today he hadn't known that ravens could laugh.
He also hadn't known they were assholes either, but the bleeding peck wound on his ear was testament to that.
That was how Harry found himself, an hour later, standing on the outskirts of a dusty Southwestern town – if it was even large enough to be called that – leaned up against the husk of a rusted out vehicle that appeared to have crashed there back in the fifties. He'd managed to bathe in the motel's sink, swished enough mouthwash around in his mouth to avoid sending small children running and women fainting at his dragon breath, and scourgified his clothing. He'd removed most of the blood, but hey…at least he was semi-presentable.
'Semi' being the operative term.
Not bad for a one-handed man.
The voice came from behind the twisted vehicle's wreckage, and not from the road as one might expect. Harry didn't flinch, because he'd been expecting it. Subtle wards he'd set up in advance were good for that sort of thing.
"Officer Hunter," he replied. "Sneaking up on a man…that's a great way to lose a limb."
A light scoff. "From what my friend says, I highly doubt anyone ever sneaks up on you." A pause. "Besides, it looks as if you've already beaten me to that."
Ah, that. Harry rested his bandaged hand against his thigh. The wound stung, and he'd have to get the slice straight through the meat of his palm stitched back together, but for now he merely grimaced. "It's still attached." Petulant? Yes. Necessary to not show weakness in front of an unknown variable? Hell yes. "So, who's your friend that was so insistent I pay them a visit? This isn't exactly a tourist spot."
"You don't strike me as the sort of man to enjoy tourism." Footsteps crunched in the dirt, the ground bone dry and betraying the man's every move. All the more impressive that he'd materialized out of seeming nowhere. "And you also don't seem the sort to respond to casual invitations from just anyone. So why you'd come?"
The officer strolled into view, relaxed, hands in his pockets. His skin was tanned, prematurely aged in the way of one who'd spent a lot of time in the sun without sunscreen. He was tall, taller than Harry, and moved with the relaxed confidence of one who knew how to handle themselves. The man's uniform betrayed that he'd obviously been on duty for some time, it wrinkled and dusty, and the skin beneath his eyes betrayed a weary tiredness Harry recognized from back in his Auror days, when he and Ron would unexpectedly pull back-to-back shifts on a case that had suddenly gotten hot leads.
But that was not what Harry noted as important.
It was his smell.
Every muscle in Harry went instantly taut. "You've been around dark magic."
The Tribal Officer did not deny. "Yes."
Harry's wand flicked effortlessly into his good hand, and his gaze grew about twenty degrees cooler. "I'd suggest you talk. Now. And don't think I missed that you didn't answer me on which friend extended the ostentatious invite."
If Officer Hunter was intimidated, it didn't show. The man merely glanced down towards where Harry's wand remained fisted in a tight grip. "You won't need that where we're going."
"I'm not a fan of being anyone's puppet, so you'll excuse me if I plan to hang onto it."
From overhead came a piercing caw, a blur of black whipping down to circle them in slow, lazy circles.
Hunter was watching him with a peculiar kind of intensity. "She did warn me that you might be…testy."
So this mysterious friend that had sent him the missive this morning was a she. Good to know. There were a few less women than men out there that wanted him dead. Marginally fewer.
"That your way of trying to chastise me into thinking you're friendly?"
The officer shrugged. "No. It's simply that magic will not work where we are going."
That stopped Harry in his tracks, a cold feeling washing over him.
Magic didn't work there, and he was the one that'd been called.
His mouth went dry. "You mean a dead zone."
"Who in their right mind would think I'd go to a dead zone?" Harry demanded, an anticipatory dread running through him. The desert's winter sun beat down, bright and dry, but it did nothing to warm him. "Scratch that, who in their right mind would go to a dead zone in the first place?"
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say, given the man's tanned face darkened considerably. "The majority of our reservation is within the boundaries of a dead zone, Mister Potter."
"Bully for you. Thanks for the invitation, but I'll pass."
This time the man simply sighed. "I was informed that you'd be…more cooperative."
"Yeah? Well you were misinformed. Nothing good happens in a dead zone."
Something strange passed across the stranger's face. "Well," he said slowly, "of that…we can agree on." He appeared to be thinking something over, dark hair hanging down to his shoulders beneath a wide-brimmed hat. "On the advice of my friend, we outreached you for help, on account, between you and I, that my people need it. I must ask, if you had no intention of doing so, why come to begin with?"
Harry was hungover, partially splinched, had been pecked to high hell by a masochist bird. He also hadn't ate breakfast beyond a cup of black coffee from a cheap motel's half-broken vending machine, and was pretty sure that the reason his ass still hurt was because it'd been stabbed with a high heel the night before, but he was too much a coward to check. His motivation for dealing with this degree of bullshit this early in the morning was non-existent. He was halfway to vanishing when the uniformed asshole just had to go and say they needed help.
Why did Hermione always have to be right?
"What help," he asked warily, "could you possibly need from someone like me?"
"I'm rather afraid I'm going to have to require an oath of confidentiality before we go into those details."
"Oath of confidentiality? Don't you mean an unbreakable vow?"
For a moment the man's jaw appeared to stiffen. "We're not barbarians. We do not do those here. A man's word, when made freely and honestly, should be good enough."
Green eyes darted over the man, sizing him up. The stench of dark magic was all over his clothes, the dusty tribal police attire steeped in the stench of bitter almonds, but there was something else…something about the dark eyed man that, despite the bastard's calm nature, set Harry on edge.
Nearly a decade back Kingsley had drilled into him – into all the recruits - the concept of trusting his instincts, helping him hone Auror instinct, and while it had been one hell of a long time since Harry'd worn the uniform, those instincts didn't just leave. They were damn near primeval, atavistic, woven into his DNA. Hell, his gut instinct had helped him survive the war, back when he'd been hiding out in that cursed tent, well before Kingsley had started taking pot shots at him under the guise of training.
The tribal officer merely stood there, jaw set, looking rather like a pillar of stone.
He radiated intensity.
A man like that didn't exactly strike Harry as someone who just openly took people at their word.
Harry met the man's gaze levelly. "So you're telling me you just trust anyone who comes along, simply because they say you can?" He paused, and his lips twisted into something brazenly skeptical. "No offense meant, but I've known trained Aurors that have gotten killed that way."
The officer's expression didn't change, but there was something subtly dangerous within it, like an amused serpent watching a mouse trying to run away. "Oh? Is that so?"
"Yeah, that's so."
"Well," he replied staidly, "then I suppose that it is a good thing we do not do that either."
Harry watched the man, and the man watched him right back.
A gust of wind sent dust stirring, writhing across the ground with a life of its own, and a rusted hinge on the old Studebaker creaked noisily. There was a look in the officer's dark eyes that Harry recognized, because he saw it in his own every day in the damn mirror.
In that moment it became very obvious that one did not break vows of trust with this man, because if they did very, very bad things would happen.
Harry had half a mind to ask him what the hell those things were, but thought better of it. "Alright," he settled on instead. "Who asked for me?" It came out as more demand than request, given it was the third and final time that he would ask. The letter this morning hadn't exactly identified who had decided to owl him. It had simply requested his presence, and told him that he'd be meeting a Tribal Officer by the name of Hunter.
The fact that an unknown owl had been able to find him at all had been impressive. The wards he carried on his personage at all times made locating his magical signature nearly impossible. Only a few select individuals were keyed into him, to be able to find him when needed, and those individuals…
Were few and far between.
They also all happened to be in England.
Harry James Potter had gotten good at staying off the wizarding radar.
"I believe she would rather surprise you," Officer Hunter told, a mild smile touching his face.
"I think you'll find I'm not a fan of surprises."
As if on cue that fucking raven dropped down, landing on the ground alongside the Tribal Officer, and it proceeded to fix Harry with such a predatory look that anyone interpreting it as anything other than 'sizing up his jugular' were clearly deaf, dumb and blind.
Right, well, now that they were past the niceties…Harry nodded stiffly at the feathered abomination. "Your messenger, by the way, is a dick."
The raven clacked its beak, making that raucous laughing noise again. It was like a verifiable assault on Harry's ear.
"Hassun means well," the tanned man assured, not nearly as disturbed as Harry was, directing a fond look towards the thing. "Though he has never been known for a lack of gusto in delivering his letters."
Harry rubbed at his recently pecked ear and scowled. "Yeah, no shit." He paused. "How the hell do you even train a crow anyway."
The black feathered thing squawked angrily, hopping forward on its four pronged feet as if contemplating lunging.
The Officer merely smiled, as if amused. "Raven, actually. Though I would caution you to watch what you say around him. They are far more intelligent than most give them credit for. You'd be surprised at their ability to pick up perceived slights to their intellect."
"You don't say," Harry uttered, tone dry as the desert he stood in.
Raven-Dick-Number-One clacked its beak in annoyance.
Officer Hunter merely shrugged. "Cognitive scientists do, actually. They've recently placed their intelligence and problem solving abilities on par with chimpanzees. Though that was hardly news to anyone with even the remotest observation skills. Our Tribe has been aware of that for centuries."
The feathered abomination fluffed its feathers out, as if preening.
Then it shot a rather haughty look in his direction.
Harry was left with the distinct and instant impression that he'd just made enemies with a sharp clawed creature that could dive bomb him.
As if sensing his unease, the man again spoke. "My given name is Huritt, if that puts you at any ease."
The Raven drummed its claws – actually fucking drummed – against the dirt.
Huritt Hunter simply studied Harry with black eyes, as if debating something. "Here names have power, Mister Potter. You do not speak one's name unless it is willingly given to you. Once given, you are provided the unspoken permission to use it. While I do not expect you to know our ways, I grant you permission to use mine. That, in itself, is an extension of tentative trust." Another short silence, the line of his mouth turning into more of a smirk. "Well, that and the fact that you are being allowed onto our lands at all. We are rather discerning in that."
Right. That. Harry'd been travelling long enough to know the rules, and understand the significance of that at least. He might not understand it all, but he grasped the basics.
Tribes here were sovereign nations. They had their own legal and policing authorities. They had the right to deny entry onto their lands to anyone they deemed unfit, and anyone permitted onto their lands was considered a guest. And this Tribe in particular, well…
This was one that denied entry to all. Tribal officials were practically never heard from, to the point that Muggles thought they had faded into history, died out, never to be heard from again.
It was also one that steadfastly maintained its distance from the various American Ministries, much to their chagrin.
So yes, Harry got the significance of the gesture.
"Alright, Huritt, you have my attention."
Huritt Hunter merely smiled, "Thought I might." A chilling gust sent dead brush and a tin can rolling across the brittle dirt, the raven having to hop out of their respective paths. Harry tried and failed to hide his disappointment that it was not run over, though Huritt was polite enough not to mention it. "Though I am curious," the man had continued, "she said that the letter would be all the proof you needed that she was someone you could trust, so you would agree to meet." He tilted his head and hat slightly. "What was it, exactly, that convinced you?"
Right. Great. Just like Harry had understood the significance of being allowed onto their lands, Harry also understood the significance of this question being asked for a third and final time. Numbers and repetition had meaning, after all.
If Harry wanted proof of trust, he had to give as well.
He sighed heavily, flipping his wand back into his wrist holster. His swollen eye throbbed something fierce. "Only someone close to me would know about my aversion to portkeys." With a grimace, he flatly added, "I appreciated them providing apparition coordinates."
For a long moment Huritt Hunter said nothing. He merely nodded. "I wondered about her insistence in avoiding them. In that case, we better begin walking." Squinting, he peered up at the sky, saying, "We lose daylight fast, this time of year."
And without another word he turned, heading out into the desert landscape, seeming at random.
Given it was barely ten in the morning, Harry had half a mind to ask what the hell he meant by 'losing light fast' or how far exactly he was planning to take him. He hadn't gotten to nearly thirty without developing a healthy dose of paranoia, after all, and being led blindly into the desert certainly qualified as a 'risky activity' in his mind.
Ultimately though he didn't ask anything.
"One second," Harry instead requested, watching the Officer stop to look back.
It was with no small amount of satisfaction that he watched the rather stoic man's eyes reflect surprise, Harry's projected image vanishing from its spot where he'd leaned up against the rusted out car.
It vanished because Harry had yet to leave the motel room.
Image projection charms ranked amongst the most difficult 'tricks' he'd ever mastered, but they really did offer bang for the buck. Few wizards in the world could do them, so most did not suspect them.
Back in the motel room Harry grabbed the rucksack he kept on standby, and with a grimace and wince tossed it over his shoulder, making a decision.
He'd spent the better part of the past decade roaming, helping strangers when needed. He'd received cases, requests for help, under more seedy circumstances than this, and this, despite the ominous quality of the letter, despite that fucking bird that'd taken a bloodied chunk out of his left ear, despite the fact that he was about to walk headlong into a dead zone – one of the few places on the planet where magic was non-existent and failed to work – and despite the fact that the letter had been sent by someone who apparently knew him, this time should be no different.
He couldn't just leave people who needed help.
Hermione had always been right; he did have a saving people thing.
Harry apparated to the coordinates, smirking at Officer Hunter's mildly amused expression.
"You were never here to begin with, were you?"
Harry fixed him with a smirk of his own. "What do you think?"
Huritt Hunter barked out a laugh, and Harry followed the stranger into the dead zone.
He just knew this was not going to end well.
And as that fucking raven took flight into the air, following them, Harry rubbed at his ear, the bloodied chunk throbbing painfully.
"How exactly attached to your bird are you?"
Harry simply frowned. "I was being serious."
Three and a half hours and ten grueling miles later, Harry discovered that he'd been right: the day was not going to end well.
It wasn't the hangover, or the rapidly developing shin splints in his legs – climbing up and down endless buttes in the badlands was a real bitch after all – and it wasn't even the endless cackling of that raven as it swept low to take friendly little 'love nips' at his other - and shockingly still intact - ear that clued him in though.
It was the ground exploding at his feet.
The distinct clack of a rifle being re-chambered cut across the landscape.
Before he'd even registered what he was doing he'd twisted around, his forearm flying up in an abrupt move, a wandless shield charm half-formed on his lips-
Only nothing happened.
At least, no shield happened.
Harry had a half second to remember that he was in a dead zone, that magic didn't work here.
In the next he realized that attempting to use magic in such a zone had been a seriously bad fucking idea.
Where his magic ordinarily thrummed was only the cold, icy feel of something unnatural. It brushed against him like a predator taste testing its prey.
Then it grabbed him with the strength of the giant squid.
He might have been quicker had he not been so unbelievably hungover.
Harry jerked, but the unseen entity wrapped around his arm, latching on and sucking, and the splinched part of his hand flat out screamed. A thread of foreign magic snapped against his flesh like a rubber band, tightening underneath his skin to root through muscle and sinew, driving deep into his bones, and then that invisible thing latched on like a starved lamprey and sucked, sucking at something deeper than his very marrow.
It sucked at his magical core.
Harry choked, gasping in raw pain, every hair on the back of his neck standing up. It was wrong in a way he hadn't felt since his last run in with dementors down in Chile. Without thinking his wand shot into his good hand and he shot a blind spell out at whatever the unnatural, invisible thing was, only-
Nothing happened there either.
If anything the sucking grew worse.
Huritt merely frowned. "That is a wholly inadvisable idea, Harry"
From up on the butte came a distinct sigh, followed by the sound of something small and dangerous clanging.
It was a cartridge shell being discarded, and the metal casing rolled down the mesa, merrily clacking against every stone, root and cactus.
Harry had to focus on one threat at a time.
The invisible specter on his arm curled like an invisible tentacle and attacked, Harry instinctively backpedaling, the back of his foot striking one of those low, dried-out shrubs of pale green that littered the landscape, the skeletal stems and hardened leaves rattling like a pissed off diamondback. By some act of Sirius, Dumbledore and spending his formative years dodging Hermione's thrown books he managed to not fall flat on his ass, but that cold grip on his forearm remained firm.
It was the Dead Zone, and it was attacking him.
He was still scanning for the source of that initial shot.
As if summoned, a crack was heard, echoing eerily across the landscape. The ground just off to the side exploded again, a divot gauged from the cartridge literally burrowing into the dirt.
Officer Hunter stood there, as if attacks on one's magical core and taking sniper fire were a part of his daily routine. "The more you fight it," he told simply, adjusting the brim of his hat to block the sun, "the worse it will be. Stop using magic and it will eventually let go."
Harry balked, cussing loud. "Eventually?!"
"You do not see me being attacked, do you?"
"You realize we're being shot at, right?"
That mother fucking raven laughed, and Harry vowed he'd find a way to scalp it.
Huritt merely sighed. "Well of course. Surely you did not expect me to leave her entirely defenseless in a dead zone." He looked towards where Harry struggled with the invisible entity. "Magic doesn't work here, as you are seeing, and there is the matter of the bodies. I did not believe it advisable to leave her without weaponry. Based off our preliminary assessment, Lightfoot fell into the victim's profile. She is within whatever has been doing this' prime target category."
"Prime fucking what?"
"Those most likely to be killed next. The age range of the bodies was varied, but there were other connecting factors that concerned me." He paused. "Stop drawing your magic to you. It senses it."
Right. The next time Harry got a letter from a mysterious sender, he was fucking burning it. Multiple things about this conversation were triggering him – the plural bodies for starts – but the implication that the Dead Zone had the ability to sniff magic out the way a shark scented blood in the water grabbed his attention. Abruptly he dug his heels into the literal dirt and braced himself, going entirely still. His teeth ground hard enough to scrape enamel, but he took the bastard's advice and stopped trying to fight with magic.
The instant he stopped, the invisible tentacle stopped playing tug-of-war with his arm.
Well hell, maybe he wouldn't get ripped in half after all.
Harry waited – impatiently – for the thing sucking at him to lessen. His skin crawled at the sensation, and it physically hurt, but he forced himself to stop scrambling, stop fighting, and exercised every bit of self-control he had to tamper down his magic to a non-detectable level.
Given that he could feel something literally bleeding him of his very core, that was more difficult to do than it sounded.
It took several minutes, his hand and wrist and head silently screaming in sadistic harmony, but eventually Harry felt the icy tentacles ensnaring his arm slowly slither off. They slunk away leaving a chilling residue behind, the former Seeker oddly winded, as if he'd been somehow weakened from the encounter.
It was a mark of how twisted his life had become that this didn't even rank in the top ten most disturbing things he'd ever felt.
Officer Hunter merely released a long breath, studying him. "I was warned you were rather adept at wandless magic. That may," he hazarded, "have contributed to this. The land usually does not react so violently. Though…those who visit are few, and of those who do none have had cause to summon magic in quite the way you seem to have done, with as much ease."
"Lucky me," Harry managed through gritted teeth, rubbing at his forearm and eyeing that divot in the ground and the long metal cartridge that had impaled itself in a rock. "So…care to talk down your shooter?"
"Lightfoot, I assure you, is perfectly calm."
"Uh huh," he said skeptically.
A radio on the Tribal Officer's belt crackled to life, as if 'Lightfoot' had been summoned. "Now that I have your attention…"
Huritt's lips twitched, betraying his amusement.
Harry merely went stiff, grip clenching hard around his utterly useless wand. His head even gave a few sharp throbs to remind him of his own idiocy. How polite of it. "That was to get our attention?"
"Not ours. Yours."
War and the subsequent years of hunting down remaining Death Eaters, sometimes in the most questionable of ways possible when Kingsley hadn't been looking, had taught him more than enough about indefensible positions and bad situations, and currently Harry was in one. He was in one in spades. He was in a very, very bad one, and Harry Potter did not do well with being cornered. It usually ended messily for all parties involved.
He could count the number of times he'd been in a similar situation on one hand, starting with that time they'd been surrounded by snatchers in the Forest, back in the war, only to wind up in the Malfoy's basement listening to Hermione's screams, Dobby gutted in his arms, and ending with that cursed damn day at the Burro, but then again….
At least then there hadn't been an invisible entity attacking him if he'd tried to use magic.
There'd also been things to hide behind.
Green eyes narrowed up into the bright sun, towards the tops of the mesas, trying to see where the shots had come from, but he failed. Not five minutes before someone had begun playing at target practice, he and Huritt had been crossing the brown and brittle December landscape, and the earth had collapsed down by a dozen meters, as it was prone to doing in this deadened place. He and Huritt had descended into that shallow valley, given it was the quickest, most direct path to where they were apparently going, and at the time Harry hadn't thought anything of it.
Now he was reassessing that decision.
It'd put them dead center in that small basin, open space stretching out around him with absolutely no cover if he tried to run. They were completely surrounded by low mesas. The things were wider than they were tall, but they gave the shooter the high ground, and given that magic simply didn't work he wasn't left with a lot of options.
Not to mention that at this time of day the devil desert sun was completely and utterly blinding whenever he looked up, which made seeing his opponent impossible, at least if he didn't want to render himself permanently fucking blind.
But hey, at least he finally understood why Huritt was wearing that horrible looking hat.
Speaking of Officer Hunter, the man looked wholly unconcerned. Though he had looked mildly surprised at getting shot at, he didn't seem altogether bothered by it either.
Harry decided that meant he probably was not about to die and shot his companion a questioning look.
The Tribal law merely shrugged. "I do not attempt to understand Lightfoot's reasons for doing things. Though this is somewhat…enthusiastic, even for her."
Harry gave him a dead eye stare. "Lightfoot?"
The radio crackled again, but all Harry could think of was that he was damn certain he'd never known anyone in his life named Lightfoot.
"Officer Hunter," the radio spewed, and Harry didn't miss the mildly amused look that crossed the man's face, "would you please ask our guest a question for me?"
Huritt hadn't even finished reaching for the radio when Harry demanded, "And if I don't decide to cooperate?"
A crack shot across the landscape, and two meters away the ground exploded, scattering loose dirt and broken pieces of rock in its wake, pelting Harry's calves with the debris.
He swore, like a man.
That bastard raven decided mockery wasn't worth getting blown to bits, and took off.
The gunshot was still echoing over the valley when the radio crackled back to life.
"He made a sarcastic remark about not deigning to cooperate, didn't he?"
Hunter barked out a laugh, and to Harry's fucking dismay the man unclipped the radio from his belt and pressed down on the comm button. "You are an excellent witch, Lightfoot. I thought you did not believe in divination?"
Crackle. "That has nothing to do with it. I just know-" A pause. "Knew him."
Harry picked up on several things from that brief conversation, the wizard flipping his wand back into his wrist holster. The witch on the other end of that radio had anticipated his verbal response without actually hearing it, and claimed to have known him, past tense. But the way Hunter was talking…"You say she's an excellent witch like you don't know any."
The man cast him an odd look. "I don't."
Harry cast him an odd look back. "You're a wizard, aren't you?"
Now the tanned officer just looked amused. "No," he informed, "I'm not."
"You're a Muggle?"
"Here, I believe the politically correct term is non-maj, if you would." He paused, still rather calm for the situation. "I always thought Muggle sounded a bit like a dog breed."
Right. If that were the case, then Harry'd already broken about ten clauses from the Statute of Secrecy, undoubtedly created an international exposure incident with Tribal law enforcement, the American Ministry, and the British Ministry, and Kingsley would finally get around to having that coronary they'd all been expecting for the past decade.
The next time a raven woke his ass up, he was snapping its neck.
"Tribal lands," Hunter assured, accurately interpreting his expression as panic, "are not subject to the same secrecy statutes as the rest of the world. Our council never did see the point in signing such a backdated intergovernmental agreement. The idea of legally allowing an outsider to scramble the brains of one of our own people just to keep the existence of magic a secret? It is a barbaric practice that puts the well-being of wizards above those of the world's majority."
Harry simply stared. Hunter and Hermione would get along.
The radio sputtered back on. "If you are both debating whether or not he should answer, I assure you, it's as much for both of your safeties as it is for mine."
"Oh," Harry deadpanned, "goodie."
The speaker was undeterred. "When Harry went to speak to Xenophilius Lovegood at his home, what did he ask him?"
The effect on Harry was instantaneous; he forgot all about breaking any statutes, and a cold stone dropped into his stomach. The wizard's head jerked to scan the tops of the mesas, squinting through his glasses in an attempt to see. Lovegood. They'd never told anyone about that. No one, no one knew about that except-
Crackle. "Just answer the question, Harry."
It'd been masked enough by the static of the radio, but now?
Now he knew it.
Head jerking back towards the communication device, Harry eyed it as if it were a rattler set to spring. His mouth had gone curiously dry, stomach churning. "The Hallows," he uttered, for lack of anything else to do.
Huritt had pressed down on the comm button, so that time his answer was heard just fine.
Judging by the gunshot that echoed out, the ground exploding off to the side again, it just wasn't good enough.
The radio crackled back to life, a cheerful voice cutting through the feedback. "I'm afraid I'll need more details to prove it's you, Harry."
Right. Right. Nausea was putting it lightly.
He schooled his voice into something approximating a frog. "The symbol around his neck," he croaked. "He wore it to Bill and Fleur's wedding. I needed to know what it was."
His heart rate had increased in speed, beating fast enough to cause a cardiologist major fucking concerns as it flung itself repeatedly against his ribcage over and over and over again for a variety of reasons, none of which had anything to do with being shot at. Hell, if he was lucky maybe it'd do him the favor of just ending it there and then.
Pity. It'd save Hermione the inevitable trial for his justifiable murder at her hands, that he just knew was coming. He sincerely hoped she could get off on temporary insanity charges, or just the general consensus that he'd turned into such an ass that he'd frankly deserved it.
He made a mental note to update his will. She'd need a legal defense fund.
The unit crackled to life.
The sound of the bolt on a bolt action rifle being jammed back into place clacked loudly, and Harry shot Huritt a withering look. "So you in the habit of setting ambushes for all your guests who hiked out to help you, or is this just the extra-special war veteran treatment?"
Hunter shrugged. "I would ask her. She'll be down in a minute."
And so she was.
She came down the butte sideways, using the long sides of her boots like a wedge to slow her descent down the crumbling, dry dirt. The angle was steep enough that had this woman not just shot at him, he'd have been concerned for her safety.
Still, his heart was in his throat as he watched, a lingering tension he had not felt in a long while filling him.
Harry Potter watched as the once girl, now woman hopped down the last meter, dust flying up on impact and scattering around her calf-high boots. Snake-proof, he realized. The worn leather looked cracked and weathered, a light coating of red-brown dirt in the creases, thick enough to prevent him from telling what color they'd originally been, if anything other than brown. A brimmed hat, similar to Hunter's, was slung low over her pale face, a flaxen braid hanging down her back, the smooth line of her neck partially obscured by the long neck of the rifle, slung casually against her shoulder.
The witch moved towards them with a calm, quiet confidence he never would have expected, and she moved so silently that it was a wonder she was actually there at all.
But he recognized her. God did he recognize her.
She came to a stop in front of them, peering up from beneath the hat at him with unreadable eyes. "Hello Harry."
Instantly his mouth went even more dry, if that were even possible. As it was, he had to dig a solitary name from his throat, the syllables like ground gravel. "Luna."
He'd talked to reanimated corpses in Aztec tombs that had sounded less hoarse than he did right now.
If she'd noticed, she didn't seem to care. A wisp of pale hair hung free of the braid, flitting in front of her gray-blue eyes. "I'm sorry for shooting at you, but you never can be too careful."
"Thought I was an imposter, did you?" Mentally he congratulated himself on sounding so casual.
And then they just…stood there. Harry hadn't been this close to Luna in years, and in that lingering instant all the anger and nerves and something else that was strong and powerful that he'd really rather not think on came back in a rush, like the oncoming swell before the tidal wave. He wanted to grab and shake her. He wanted to do more than shake her.
Then again she had just shot at him. Perhaps being angry wasn't entirely too surprising.
Distantly a gust of wind howled, the desolate landscape kicking up sand and reddened dirt and scattering it all into the air like dried pieces of blood. It was bitter cold and biting, and stray wisps of Luna's hair whipped violently around her face, her fingers tightening on the rifle. It was old; it looked like something you'd see nailed up on a wall above one of those hole-in-the-wall dive bars along an abandoned highway route, hung there as homage to olden times, and Harry swore to things unholy he saw actual rust on the trigger. He knew better than to ask if it was safe to shoot; it obviously wasn't.
That explained why Luna, of all people, had it in her possession.
Luna was still looking at him, her translucent orbs studying him carefully. "You actually came," she said, and her words with soft and thoughtful, as if honestly surprised.
"Yeah," he managed, face an emotionless grimace. "You look surprised."
"I am." Luna's silvery eyes flashed with an upset Harry wouldn't have expected. "You don't deign to mingle with us commoners often."
Had she hauled off and slapped him it'd have hurt less. "Luna, you know it wasn't like tha-"
And the utterly terrifying thing was, given that this was Luna, she meant what she said. No matter how much time had passed, no matter how much had changed, Harry was certain of that at least.
Luna didn't know that he hadn't meant to-that he hadn't-
For a second he was back to being eleven years old again and friendless. Standing there, in the middle of the desert, it felt like all his blood vessels had been flooded with a toxin, and it physically burned worse than any unnatural Dead Zone magic could. He opened his mouth-
Luna cut him off. "Do you regret coming yet?"
That threw him. It threw him completely. "Depends," he finally uttered. "You planning to shoot me?"
"I'm still thinking on it."
"Ah," Huritt said, as if achieving a sudden understanding at a higher level, "there's history here."
Despite himself, Harry flat out snorted. "Could call it that…."
Luna tilted her head curiously, her blonde braid sweeping over her shoulder like a waterfall.
Harry tried to remind himself that she was holding a gun. He did. His mouth just missed the memo. "Is that what I am, Luna?" he asked, eyeing her seriously. "History?"
There was a beat of silence.
"Yes." She said it as if confused by the question, frowning slightly. "Though you being a part of only my history wasn't my choice, Harry. That was yours. It puzzles me why you sound so bitter about it."
Once again he winced. Luna always had favored a brutal brand of honesty.
His tongue flicked out, licking his lips, but he didn't look away. "Fair enough," he conceded. His chest lurched, and for a mad second he considered saying something else, something insane, but ultimately…
"How'd you know I'd come?" he instead settled on.
The former Ravenclaw fixed him with a look that clearly called him daft. "Because it's you," she said simply. "I've never known you not to help when asked. Even a stranger."
Harry felt like he'd been gutted. "I think we both know my brand of help isn't always help, Luna."
She ignored him with practiced ease. "Plus you didn't know it was me," she continued. "Had you, I'm not sure you honestly would have shown. I'd apologize for the deception, but…" She frowned again, her eyes flickering away from him and towards Huritt, as if looking for reassurance. "We needed the help."
Harry's gaze darted between the two, and found Huritt smiling warmly back at Luna. And for a second, just a second, Luna looked as if a burden had been lifted.
He instantly wanted to hex the man.
Luna's attention darted back towards him, her brow creasing deeply. "Harry," she said softly, if not sternly, "you'll need to tamper down on your magic. It's not safe to draw it about you like that. Not here."
It honestly hadn't even occurred to Harry that he had been.
Sucking in a breath between clenched teeth, he denied it. "I wasn't."
The witch he'd once known tilted her head in such a way that the brim of her hat failed to block the angular rays of light beating down. Skin so luminescent it looked as if she'd burst into flames if the sun so much as looked at her the wrong way lit up, the light catching in her pale eyes, a silvery glint there as she studied him critically. "It's not polite to lie, Harry."
Officer Hunter chuckled.
For a fleeting second a trace of the girl he'd known was there, passing over her features, and for that fleeting second Luna looked almost hurt.
It disappeared as quickly as it'd come. "You look terrible, Harry."
"Yeah well, what else is new?"
Her gray-blue eyes, like storm clouds, flicked to his bandaged hand, narrowing critically. "Still not taking care of yourself, I see."
"Now you sound like Hermione."
"Good," she said, "someone should."
Given the two's history of disagreement, that shocked Harry more than Luna's sudden appearance.
She looked at him with no pity, but rather an evaluating expression. "We have essence of dittany back at camp. Assuming you haven't done something typically you, like gotten it infected, that ought to prevent it from falling off in your sleep." Her nose wrinkled. "Or the mice from feeding on you."
Without further word the witch spun on her heel, abruptly setting off in the direction they'd originally been headed.
"Come on," she called over her shoulder. "I know you'd rather be anywhere else, so best to carry on. I'd like to get there before nightfall too, if we can."
Harry felt distinctly unsettled. Mice. She'd said mice. Not umgubular slashkilters or blibbering humdingers or aquavirus maggots, but something undeniably normal.
What had happened to her?
Her back was to him, and Harry was left with naught to do but follow. Another cold December breeze cut across the desert, sending the ends of Luna's braid dancing in the wind, and he watched as she tugged her coat tighter around her thin frame. The worn leather clung to her like a second skin, and Harry had half a mind to ask if it was actually keeping her warm enough.
But he didn't.
He didn't exactly have the right to inquire into her well-being.
Huritt Hunter let out a low whistle, falling into step besides him. "In all my years of knowing Lightfoot, I have never seen that from her."
"Oh?" Harry felt curiously numb.
"A little unsolicited advice, but a woman like that…whatever transpired between the two of you, I would fix it."
His stomach dropped, his words detached. "It's unfixable."
"Hmm, is it now?" The Tribal Officer appeared to be thinking. "Do you know why we call her Lightfoot?"
The 'Lightfoot' in question has already scurried back up the mesa's steep slope, grains of dirt rolling down beneath her feet. Harry looked up and resisted the urge to hex something.
"Given that the first time I ever heard anyone call her that was ten minutes ago, no, obviously not," he bit, just a bit surly.
Hunter didn't seem to care. "It is simple Harry. She brings light wherever she steps, even into the darkest, most dead of places." Huritt seemed somewhat introspective, for a brief, swift moment, his lips cracking into a small smile. "Plus, she is far too quiet when walking to be natural. The number of times that woman has snuck up on me is liable to get her shot."
Harry choked a bit, Huritt slapping him on the back in seeming comradery. "My point is, I find it difficult to believe that anything is unfixable, for someone like her," he told, before starting his own way up the steep mesa, leaving Harry behind to think.
Ultimately Harry followed, falling into step a reasonable distance behind them both, his mind and stomach in turmoil as events he'd have rather left forgotten flooded back.
The thing was, he got what Hunter meant about Luna. What Hunter didn't get was how wrong he was.
A long time ago, nearly five years now, most of their friends had been killed, and truth be told…
It had been Harry Potter's fault.
With a deep breath Harry swallowed it back down, and made his way deeper into the Dead Zone.
Author's Note: This is an AU fanfiction, and takes place about 10 years after the final battle. The epilogue has been cheerily tossed aside, doused in kerosene, and lit on fire. It's a murder-mystery, rated M due to all the usual reasons, and Harry-Luna is the pairing. I have always loved the old fashioned, gritty detective stories, where life hasn't 'quite' gone the way the detective would have liked, and personally find the idea to be an underutilized one in fanfiction, ergo…this.
For context, I have worked in search and rescue and been on body retrievals in remote areas, and am also Native myself, so shall be doing my best to stay relatively accurate in those elements. Quite frankly many people have pre-conceived notions about all of those that are very, very incorrect, and I am not planning to 'abide by' popularized notions of any of those things. That being said, the tribe in this fanfiction is completely made up, fictional, and mythical. It is not meant to mirror any particular Tribe. It's set in the desert simply because I like the desert and Western vibes, and is not meant to represent any particular group. No two Tribes are completely alike after all, just like no two areas in the UK, countries in Europe, or States in the US are.
This story takes place abroad, in a made up place, but if you are interested in additional context regarding how sovereign nations and tribal communities work 'across the pond' feel free to drop me a PM or review and Ill respond with some general information. While knowledge of that is not necessary to read and enjoy this fic, I wanted to throw that out there in case anyone is interested, since, for the purpose of this fic, I have cheerfully ignored the atrocious 'History of the America's' that JKR wrote. While the tribe in this story is fictional, there will be some similarities in actual structural relationships with the larger federal government abided by here.
This story will include murder and descriptions of such. That being said, some people will like this kind of plot line, and some will not, but to those who do, happy reading.