Chapter 5 ~ Shadow Caster
"Life is but a mask worn on the face of death. And is death, then, but another mask? 'How many can say,' asks the Aztec poet, 'that there is, or is not, a truth beyond?''"
~ Joseph Campbell
The thing about magic was that is wreaked havoc with Muggle electronics. Day-to-day spells were fine, but when large quantities were thrown about the way Harry had, it was the equivalent of a gun slinger shooting up an entire room and making holes in the walls. Instantly the cooling units along the far wall, housing the bodies, began to squeal like a distressed swine; the heating unit for the room at large, meant to combat the winter chill, began to sputter, making a thud thud thunking sound so loud that it was reminiscent of a troll trying to break out of a cellar so as to eat the villagers; and the overhead examination light began to dangerously buzz.
Doctor Maria X made a displeased sound, the likes of which would have put McGonagall's tutting to shame.
Harry Potter noticed none of this.
His magic snapped back to him with an audible crack.
Then he stared. Harry Potter could only fucking stare, because for once in adult damn life he'd been rendered speechless. He stared right around Luna's beautiful damn face, the only witch he'd ever wanted these past long, lonely years, and in his complete and utter shock she'd been reduced to nothing more than a blur in the periphery of his vision. That was how shocked he was.
Harry's hard gaze fixed upon the man Luna was bedding instead of him, all he could manage was a single damn syllable that – in his opinion – summed the situation up perfectly.
The word had been near inaudible. Only Luna should have been able to hear him.
Funny, how that didn't stop Huritt from hearing him just fine, from ten meters away, clear across the morgue.
"Language, Harry," Hunter reproved, as if the entire room wasn't noisily protesting receiving the equivalent of an un-lubed prostate exam. The man lowered his coffee from beneath his nose and tilted it first in Doc X's direction, and then Luna's. "There are ladies present."
There was a beat. And then another.
The light overhead flickered. Harry's widespread casting had definitely affected the circuitry. Magic as powerful as his did that sometimes. Sometimes it also set things on fire.
If the place burned down he'd send the coroner some apology flowers. It was the least he could do. For now his upended mind attempted to process what the fuck had just happened.
Doc X was less than impressed.
"Your archaic adherence to chivalry is simultaneously endearing and insulting," Maria spoke in the sort of tone that paired nicely with an eye roll. "Your casual sexism under the guise of knight-errantry is remarkable."
Huritt huffed, as if amused.
"And you," the pathologist continued, turning to him with the kind of no-nonsense-look he'd seen on Hermione more than enough to know his odds were better off in a tank of baited sharks, "bandying magic about in my place of work. If you keel over and die I promise you that your autopsy will be less than delicate. Luna, if you'd like me to save any particular parts from him to spear and turn into a souvenir, let me know. I'm certain you could string together an ear necklace. Or a dong pendant, perhaps? For posterity's sake."
Harry managed a very coherent choking sound.
Luna completely ignored them all. She just hissed a quiet breath, her eyes still squeezed tightly shut, nails digging into his shoulders with enough force that it was wonder she hadn't drawn blood. It was a mark of how fucked up he was that he relished the feel.
That was okay though. He'd already taken a beating or five the past seventy two hours. He could handle a little abuse for Luna's mental benefit.
"Just tell me," he muttered quietly, for her ears alone – Huritt's bat hearing aside, "you'd be nice to it." Shuddering as her touch fractionally tightened, he pressed, "Really Lunes, find out you made it battery operated and I wasn't still attached to enjoy it, promise I'd haunt your ass from the great beyond."
Luna made a small sound, half torn between a laugh and a sob.
The witch was also, visibly shaking.
Harry didn't have to ask why; she'd been as affected by his magick's touch as him, and he was kicking himself for putting them both through that again. Hell, he could still feel her. The trace of Luna's magick lingered upon his own, and gods did it generate a relentless ache deep within him.
For a second, just a fucking second he gave into it. He forgot about the dead women. He forgot about Doctor X and her threats. He forgot about the ticking time bomb that was ready to explode in the form of Huritt Hunter. He forgot that there were witnesses to this.
The wizard's fingertips flexed unconsciously around Luna's wrist, digging into the soft underside until he could feel her literal pulse through her sweater. It rattled him. The throbbing of her blood through her veins. Harry could feel her heartbeat. It was keeping her alive, and for a second Harry reveled in it.
Deep inside his bones his magick reared up, wanting nothing more and nothing less than to dive back into Luna and remain there, for as long as she'd let him, in every conceivable way possible, but right now…
For now he heaved a hard breath, and it came out in a cold rattle. This was wrong. All of it.
He'd been yanked into a town, into a murder investigation, where nothing was as it seemed. He'd do well to remember that.
Hands still on Luna's forearms, her fingers digging into his shoulder blades, the two holding onto one another in a fierce, chaste way, Harry was honestly no longer certain who was supporting who, but he desperately tried to shove her out of his mind long enough to think.
Thinking about Luna and dongs was only bound to get him into trouble, so he focused on what he could.
He'd felt magic in Huritt.
He'd felt magic in Huritt, who'd stated he was a Muggle.
But Harry had performed this exercise on Muggles before, without their knowledge, and he knew damn well that no Muggle had ever felt like that when he'd probed. Muggles also didn't notice magic. They might shiver, get the feeling that a cold, invisible hand was crawling up their spine, but that was the extent of it. Muggles, the ones with no magical ability, could never feel magic. They couldn't feel a damn thing.
Yet both Maria and Huritt had. Difference was, Huritt had fucking magic.
Two things restrained Harry from hexing and immobilizing the Tribal Officer there and then, before shoving veritaserum down the bastard's throat to demand answers.
First, the man seemed oblivious. Whether that was an act or not remained to be seen.
Second, and most importantly, the man had had ample opportunity to kill him already if he'd wanted him dead. But he hadn't. So, despite his dislike of the bastard – much of which Harry was man enough to admit had to do with Luna – his instincts didn't identify Huritt as a threat.
Not to mention the magic he'd felt had been different, unlike anything he'd ever felt.
He didn't know what to make of it. He was uncertain, and uncertainty could get you killed.
That wasn't an area Harry liked delving into.
Then again, he spent half his time dealing with the strange and unusual - dark tombs and crypts, jungles and remote deserts, covens and rings of wannabe dark lords - so really, he ought to be old hat at it. Of course, there was always the real possibility that Hermione had been right, and he was actually a sadomasochist into prolonged bouts of pain. That would explain that stint with that one nipple-piercing Amazonian tribe, and why he kept taking assignments that were bound to get him into all sorts of trouble.
Maybe he'd rethink seeing that magi-therapist after all. Hell, if he wrapped up proof of a booked session, he reckoned he could gift it to Hermione for Christmas.
Back to Huritt and Doctor X, who had taken to drumming her fingers on the rails of her wheelchair with poorly concealed impatience. "Well boys?"
Harry blinked, but Huritt just laughed. "I am sorry, Maria," Huritt offered with mock contriteness, "but between you and Lightfoot, in your radiant presences, I cannot help myself."
Harry's mouth had gone dry, and this time it had nothing to do with major fucking blood loss. "Give him a break," he managed, tone hollow, shocked as fuck he was defending him. "He's right…us men…can't help ourselves."
Huritt tilted the mug towards him in acknowledgement.
Harry knew then and there that the bastard didn't know. He honest to fuck didn't seem to know. And of that…
Harry didn't know what to make of that.
How the fuck wasn't he already an obscurus?
Harry'd felt a lot of magic in his time. He'd performed this spell on prisoners and suspects alike when he thought he could get away with it. But never, never had he come across a magical trace like what he'd just felt.
Harry's entire body sagged with exertion. "Later we need to talk, Huritt. You and I." His gaze flicked towards Maria, askance. "Alone."
"Yes," Huritt agreed, "I suspect we might."
Luna's eyes flew open, something silvery and blue swirling like a storm within, and she studied Harry with open question.
Harry offered her an apologetic look, squeezing her wrists. He tried to convey as much apology as he could through his touch, but in reality all it did was make him want to yank her out of the room and shove her against something, anything, to show her every damn thing he was too emotionally deficient to find a way to say.
Maria let out a long sigh, rolling towards what looked like a breaker box and throwing it pointedly open. "Good. Might I recommend speaking outside?" There was a metallic clack of a latch being thrown, and the entire morgue was thrown into abrupt darkness. The sound of the refrigeration units and the cooling systems stopped. "This is an old building. I am not certain the wiring can handle much more magical discharge."
The sudden darkness would have been nice, had it not set Harry instantly on edge. His grip on Luna released, going for his wand-
Another clack and the breakers had been reset, the refrigeration units all whirring back to light, the previously flickering overhead jolting on with brightness the likes of an artificial sun.
Harry flinched, and Luna let out a small sound of amusement.
"Maybe my vampire smiley faces weren't so far off," she mused softly.
"My retinas," he groused, "are on fire."
"Perhaps if you stopped getting in daily brawls, Auror Potter, your eyes would hurt less," Maria suggested.
Luna hummed in agreement. "She's right you know."
"You're the devil," he muttered, still blinking furiously.
"Thought you didn't like good girls, Harry?"
Luna gave his shoulders an admonishing squeeze, her hands sliding down to his upper arms, rubbing up and down, and his traitorous body shuddered.
There was a lot going on right now, and at the same time…nothing.
Harry reached up, ignoring the pain in the crook of his inner elbow – that fucking needle was still there – and dropped a hand firmly over where Luna's rested. Her hand had snuck its way down his shoulder, and he trapped it there, clasping her far smaller hand beneath his, squeezing her palm against his deltoid. He felt her fingers flex into the muscle, the witch making a content sound as his calluses pressed over the backs of her knuckles. Luna's fingertips began to knead the muscle, and Harry's chest jerked, agreeably.
Judging from the serene look on Luna's face, so did hers.
Then his bleary, stinging vision focused onto the room at large. But not once did he release his hold on Luna, who for some spectacular, wonderful reason hadn't stopped touching him.
His eyes landed on Huritt Hunter, and to Harry's damn shock the man glanced pointedly down at where Harry's and Luna's hands were, before glancing up with a mild smirk.
Given that Luna was supposedly Hurrit's girl, the gesture was disconcerting, to say the least.
Both of Harry's eyebrows rose in silent question.
Huritt – that fuck – shrugged.
And then the man went and changed the subject.
"You know, Harry, I always thought magical frisking was a fourth or fifth date kind of thing," Hunter observed benignly.
Harry's gaze remained dead steady. "You noticed."
"Someone gropes you sober, kind of hard not to."
Well…he didn't know what to make of that. "Apologies Officer," he quipped, "but really, got a thing for uniforms. Couldn't help myself." His head gave a few extra hard throbs to remind him of the looming brain bleed that was bound to erupt any minute, and he contented himself with allowing his fingers to squirm between Luna's.
If Huritt minded, he didn't show his hand.
"Ah, that case," he told around a mild grin, "next time I'll make sure to don the assless chaps. Given we're working together, wouldn't want to tempt you by looking all official, now would we?"
Luna bit down on her lip, clearly repressing a laugh.
Maria rolled her eyes, as if talks of man-on-man love in her office hadn't just abounded, and Harry swore the rather uptight woman muttered something that sounded distinctly like boys.
Luna just squiggled her fingers until they were fully interlaced with his.
Harry wanted to focus on that. He did. Instead he scrutinized Huritt for a full minute. The brief comradery quieted. Huritt seemed aware of and unbothered by Harry's examination, taking a languid swig of his steaming mug, and seemed content to let Harry ogle him like a drunken sailor on shore leave. No wonder he'd suggested assless chaps.
Regardless, Harry took advantage and brazenly studied the man Luna'd taken to bedding. If there was a pained twist in his gut, like a hollowed out hole, he buried it. Dark green raked over tanned, lined skin in naked assessment, and in Harry's mind the appearance didn't add up with what he'd just detected.
Huritt looked healthy and whole. That was unexpected. Given what Harry'd felt, the man had magic. He had magic in spades, and it'd been suppressed for one hell of a long, long time.
That was one of the first things he'd learned about obscuri. An obscurus' formation didn't just kill people around the caster or those that'd pissed them off. It didn't just kill the caster themselves. That was the funny thing about suppressed magic; before it did any of that, it made its wielder chronically fucking ill. Their eyes would become sunken, skin drawn and pasty. The prolonged magical build up damaged nerves until fine motor skills were non-existent and sanity scarce. Muscles atrophied until the wizard was nothing more than a walking, talking, time-bomb of a skeleton with skin.
Truth be told, they tended to resemble gangly loner teenagers who'd never set foot in a gym and taken up bulimia as a side hobby.
Yet Tribal Officer Huritt Hunter showed no signs of this. The man's forearms bulged with muscle. Healthy, well-defined muscle that could only be built through physical labor, and it irritated Harry on general damn principle.
Mainly because he knew Luna probably enjoyed it.
There was more to it though. Harry ran down his mental fucking checklist that had been years in the making. The man wasn't twitchy. Watching as Huritt lifted the disposable mug to his lips, Harry paid close attention, and by the time the man was done swallowing he knew damn well that the man's hands hadn't wavered. His fingers hadn't shaken. His lips hadn't even trembled. There was no sign of nervous system impairment. Not even a little.
Not to mention that as much as the bastard seemed to enjoy baiting him, even Harry could admit that Tribal Officer Hunter had a healthy psychological demeanor. He was a relaxed person. Too relaxed.
Then again, if Harry were getting regularly laid by Luna, he'd probably be relaxed too.
He swallowed that down and grit his teeth.
Truth was, Huritt showed no signs of magical build up. None. And Harry had been around long enough to have seen it in many people, more than enough to know the signs.
Therein lay the issue. No one, no one could suppress magic indefinitely, yet that was exactly what Huritt appeared to be doing.
Flares in Harry's mind went up. Way up.
He tabled that, for later.
In the back of his mind though he wasn't ruling out Huritt as a suspect. It was unlikely, based off his behavior, actions and physical appearance, but he couldn't rule out that the bastard was a closet obscurus killing women.
Then again, if that were the case then Huritt would smell like an obscurus, and Harry had yet to sniff out that extra-special brand of dark wizard insanity on him.
Given the number of mysteries this town and the people within it had raised, maybe he'd take Hermione's advice and bust out a yellow legal pad. Make a check list. Paralegal style.
For now the wizard who'd defeated Voldemort focused on the far easier mystery: the doctor. Maria had been thoroughly probed, and despite how dirty that sounded, Harry hadn't felt a damn thing.
He turned an assessing eye on the coroner, and found her looking right back.
"So," he cut right to it, "not a witch then."
"No," she responded, as if Harry hadn't just spent the past few minutes all but eye-fucking Huritt, "but you already suspected that."
Harry's gaze flicked down at her wheelchair, and then back up. She wasn't wrong.
"Even magic does not fix congenital defects, Auror Potter."
He winced, abashed and tired. "Mind reader. Good to know. That just a woman thing?"
The woman rolled her eyes and rolled herself towards an examination table. As she did Harry got a swift reminder that despite her lack of magic, that the woman was unusual. A young, beautiful, medical doctor was one hell of a package.
Another thing to add to the yellow legal pad, perhaps? He'd mull that one over. She could just be one of those terribly hardworking, gorgeous, rare Mary-Sue sorts. He'd know. Hermione was one of them.
The woman reached up and tugged at her neckline, a coffee-colored stretch of skin revealed. The scrubs she wore did absolutely nothing to hide the curvy figure hidden beneath. That blacker than black ponytail got flicked behind her shoulders, those full, red-stained lips of hers pursed in concentration as she picked up a chart. She took a deep breath as she reviewed whatever was on it, and the swell of her breasts as she breathed would have drawn the attention of any red-blooded male.
Harry could imagine that, if she were somehow mixed up in all of this, that manipulating a man to aid and abet – wheelchair or not – would come easily enough.
After all, from the waist up she looked like she had just finished a cover-shoot for a 'women of industry' article trying to 'feminist-proof' a fashion magazine.
Either that or a men's erotica magazine.
You know, either or.
She was irrefutably beautiful.
She did nothing for him.
Unconsciously he lifted his free hand – the one that was still splinched and not already interlaced with Luna's - dropping it firmly onto Luna's other forearm. The witch's near-indigo eyes flickered with something unidentifiable across his face. Her cheeks seemed flushed, her breathing a bit unsteady, worry in her eyes.
Harry's large hands squeezed against Luna's sweater, and he swallowed thickly.
It occurred to him that he and the good doctor had yet to be formally introduced. "Take it your names Maria then?" he questioned the coroner. An oddly strange question, given he'd just magically probed her and the intimacy involved in intruding on her very being, but hey, he never had been one for tact. "Or would you prefer I call you Doc X? Because short of a pronunciation lesson, guarantee I'm going to butcher your surname."
The woman glanced up from her notes, and her dark eyes narrowed subtly, but she gave him a curt nod. It was eerily reminiscent of McGonagall.
A very hot, sexy, younger version of McGonagall.
He was going to bleach out his eyes tonight.
Luna, for all her naïve quirks, was not entirely oblivious. Her pale eyes followed his gaze, her lips parting in a quiet 'o'.
She went to let go-
He didn't let her. Harry tugged her back, gripping her arm and hand firmly. Her eyes flew to his, and Harry just pressed his fingertips through the thick material of her woolen sweater, his attention firm and focused on her and only her for a long, long second. He ignored the pain shooting through his splinched hand. He ignored the pain from the needle taped to his inner elbow. He ignored them both entirely, so long as he got to keep touching her.
He could still feel her magick on his…
Luna sucked in an affected breath, and Harry managed one hell of a pathetic smile. But in his defense, he was out of practice.
It got just a bit more genuine as Luna smiled hesitantly back, her fingertips renewing their hold, beginning to play against his arms, as if still worried he'd keel over.
Harry smirked and gave her a pointed tug just a bit closer, and if she minded, it didn't show.
Naturally Huritt chose to interrupt, and Harry revisited that 'could he reach the scalpel' debate.
"Maria was courteous enough to pause her examination of the women to wait for you," the cock-block informed, and it was clear that they'd come to a silent consensus that whatever they had to talk about, it'd be talked about later. "I explained your expertise would be invaluable in determining the exact causes of death, given our cursory examination has made it seem as if they were murdered by dark magic."
They were here for a reason.
And that reason wasn't touching Luna Lovegood in front of witnesses – one of whom she was apparently sleeping with.
His magick roared up in possessive upset that he had no right to have.
With a thick swallow, Harry let his hands slide down Luna's arms, content to just let her hover there in his space whilst his magick calmed. "Appreciate the professional courtesy," he managed, all business, and fuck if his throat didn't sound drier than remembered. "Sorry for the disruption in your time table."
Maria's calculating gaze remained, eyeing him over the clipboard. It was obvious she was still evaluating him, as a person. "I hardly think being attacked in broad daylight and suffering major hemorrhaging is an intentional act warranting an apology." Her perfectly sculpted eyebrows rose, that smirk turning more challenging. "Unless you make a habit of dallying with death?"
Harry closed his eyes and sighed. "I'd like to say no…"
"But he's terrible at lying," Luna finished for him.
He cracked one eye and eyed Luna like a viper. He wasn't altogether clear on which was more dangerous – Luna or a viper - but judging by the look on her face, he was leaning towards the former. "I'm not that bad," he protested, albeit a bit lamely.
"He once walked into a forest and asked a serial killer to hex him dead."
"That was one time."
Luna lifted both eyebrows, the blonde things disappearing beneath that ridiculous winter hat. The fringe was colorful and gaudy and practically screamed Luna. "You also tossed your wand to the ground, then dared that one wizard holding up the Leaky Cauldron to hex you dead."
Harry groaned. "He was holding the barmaid hostage."
"Dead," Luna reiterated.
The doctor frowned, then looked towards Huritt for confirmation.
The officer held both hands up. "Don't look at me, Maria. I just met the man."
The doctor sniffed. "And yet you suggested wearing your ass-less chaps. Do we need another discussion about STDs?"
Harry made a dying sound and looked to Luna. "He actually has those?" Whether he meant the ass-less chaps or STDs he didn't know.
She gave a little, unconcerned shrug. "I had to get him something for Christmas."
Huritt barked out a laugh, and Harry could practically feel that brain bleed start. "Look," the ex-Auror muttered, "can we get to the autopsies?"
"Sounds as if you are lucky it isn't your autopsy I'm overseeing," Maria said brusquely.
Right, well, no time like the present to get on with it. Harry shifted, grabbing Luna's hands with his own, affording her a weak grimace. Then he forcibly removed her hold from his shoulders, sliding off the gurney and onto his feet.
Well…one of his feet.
He nearly went down, the end result Luna grabbing him – something he definitely wasn't protesting – and the two of them doing some kind of strange 'three legged' hop towards a chair, which he gratefully collapsed into. At least now he could actually be near enough the autopsy to see it.
The good doctor frowned. "I assume that the phrase 'bed rest' would not mean much to you?"
"It's like you're speaking Greek," he assured.
"How about 'permanent disability'? Us physicians so do enjoy bandying about those terms, but I'm a wheeling reminder." She patted one of her useless legs with a sinister little smile.
Harry heaved an amused breath. "Too late doc," he informed, "you already told me that was congenital. Kind of negates the scare factor."
The woman huffed.
Luna simply thudded her hip against the metal examination table, entirely oblivious to the corpse underneath the plain white sheet, and shot him one of those looks only females could master.
He ignored this. "So," he stated, all business, "where were you before I rudely interrupted by letting a shadow demon maim my ass?"
Instead of getting a briefing on the progress of the autopsies – like he'd expected - he was met with one look of horror and another dark frown. Luna just heaved a weary sigh.
Doctor X – because Harry didn't have a prayer of pronouncing her actual surname and wasn't bold enough to call someone capable of poisoning him in a dozen untraceable ways Maria again – looked between him and Huritt. "You weren't joking? Someone was actually foolish enough to summon a corporeal demon into the center of the town proper?"
Huritt seemed unaffected by the Maria-death-stare and shrugged, coffee cup hanging loosely at his side. "I would not kid about something as dire as that," he said. "Besides, you heard the description from Lightfoot. She knows dark creatures better than any of us."
Maria's eyes further narrowed. "True…"
There were a few things that flagged.
First, if that ghost town was the center of town, Harry could only assume the economy here wasn't exactly hopping, which led him to the odd question of where in the hell Huritt had found a fancy coffee shop with recyclable, disposable mugs? He might have to actually ask. His head and its decaffeinated haze was killing him. That demon had interrupted his morning cup.
Second, since when had Luna become an expert on fucking demons?
Harry turned his head and fixed her with a serious, questioning stare.
Luna must have taken lessons from Hermione, because she easily ignored him. "I can't say what type of demon, but it was definitely a demon." Biting down on her lower lip, looking pensive, she murmured, "Only Hassun could touch it. None of my spells had any effect at all."
Maria sucked in a breath. "You sent him?"
Harry hadn't missed that they'd just called the raven a 'him'. Not bird, not asshole with wings, but him.
"Luna," the doctor pressed, sounding unbelievably disapproving, "what were you thinking?"
"That Harry was about to get mauled?"
Huritt smiled just a smidgen.
Harry didn't miss that either, shooting him a dark glower.
The bastard just responded by picking up another mug of coffee, one with a hastily scrawled 'HP' on it, and waggled it, as if asking if he wanted it or not.
Damn't. Caffeine was tempting. Gritting his teeth, he pretended he wasn't about to gnaw off his own arm to get his hands on it. Instead he leaned back in the chair, near boneless, and let the soothing waves of pain wash over him.
"So," he grated, tone mordant as fuck, "take it you're all familiar with demons then?"
Huritt took a dreg of his own coffee, making a show of savoring it, and Harry contemplated how fast magi-authorities could get here if he hauled off and Avada-ed his ass there and then.
"We know enough," the man settled on.
"Real one for words, aren't you?" he uttered dryly.
"You were right, Lightfoot. He is as sharp as advertised."
Something was wrong with this town. Something Harry couldn't put his finger on. He ignored the dig and dug into that trivial piece of information about these people knowing about demons.
"How?" Harry demanded. "Can't say I've ever been to a town where even one person knew what actual demons were really like, rather than all that contrived bullshit your cinema shoves down your throats. Not to mention it seems like your entire town can fucking smell them."
"You did smell terribly like one when they brought you in," Maria affirmed. "If I didn't know better, I would have thought you'd been stupid enough to let it crawl all over you."
"He did," Luna oh-so-unhelpfully supplied.
The wheelchair-bound woman blinked. "You're kidding."
"At least this time it wasn't a dragon, three-headed dog, dementor or nundu," Luna placated.
"What?" Luna said with contrived innocence that didn't fool Harry for even a second. "She's your treating physician, Harry. Knowing your medical history is important." Her pale eyes flicked to his, dancing with laughter.
Harry glared more.
Luna's perfect fucking lips twitched in response.
Gods he needed to get her alone. To talk, or…he didn't know.
For now, he turned his attention back to Huritt and gave the man a stiff nod. "Well?" he demanded. He didn't feel the need to clarify what.
With a shrug Huritt picked up the to-go coffee carrier and crossed towards them. His footsteps echoed loud in the basement room. "About three quarters of our population can smell dark magic, Harry, if that is what you are asking with your increasingly fun facial expressions and single syllabic utterances." Extending a mug to each of them, he continued in a relaxed fashion, "No true mages have come out of our community for the last two hundred years. At least, none that have been documented. Magical blood seems to have been lost from our tribe's gene line."
Harry ignored the mug and its happy little slogan – he could read it now - 'save our planet' inked in dark green lettering, and stared, processing that.
This was not a man who was lying, or who knew he was lying.
"Okay," he said, watching for any hint of deception, "if that's the case, then how do any of you know about magic?"
Huritt gave him a cryptic smile. "Now Harry, our Tribe must keep some secrets." The man gave the to-go carrier a small shake, requesting Harry take his.
Harry did not.
Luna huffed, reaching out and graciously taking two of the coffee cups, one labelled HP and one penned with an artistic drawing of a flower blossoming beneath a full moon. "I'm sorry Huritt, but Harry has a bit of a thing about not drinking or eating things he didn't see prepared." Her attention turned to him, and with wide blue eyes she made a show of taking a sip out of his drink, smacking her lips as she murmured, "Mmmm, see Harry? No poison."
The taunting blonde all but shoved the mug at him, and he gratefully accepted it with an uncoordinated oomph, only just managing not to spill it all over himself. "Thanks," he grunted dryly.
Luna beamed, spinning around on one foot like a ballerina, before stretching up on her toes to give Huritt's cheek a swift kiss. "Harry says thank you."
Huritt barked out a laugh.
Harry didn't. His stomach bottomed out at the sight of her lips on another man's face, and he wondered if the demon had gotten in a few sucker punches to the gut that he hadn't noticed.
"I merely thought," Huritt offered, oblivious to Harry's thoughts and speaking directly to him, "we ought to make sure you were feeling a bit more like yourself before we began, and according to her," he tilted his head in Luna's direction, "that required caffeine."
Harry grunted, and primitive cavemen 'might' have interpreted it as begrudging thanks.
Luna's 'buddy' gave him a penetrating look. "I may have some questions about what in life has made you feel the need to routinely check for poison in your food."
"Ask away, doesn't mean you'll get a response."
Luna made a disgruntled sound, like a disapproving cat.
Harry heaved a frustrated breath. "Fine. I've left my home and encountered people. That answer enough?"
This time Luna made a hissing sound, but it disappeared as she took a small sip of her coffee, the witch letting out a satisfied sigh at the taste.
Harry's eyes strayed to her lips, Luna's tongue darting out to taste that little bit of coffee lingering on them. The tension in her body seemed to deflate, and Harry idly realized that was what it took to diffuse her: frothed coffee with whipped cream.
He tried not to think about what he'd like to do to her with whipped cream.
Unlike himself, Huritt wasn't distracted in the least by Luna's lip licking. He seemed thoughtful. "People's behavior reveals what their true fears and motivations are, better than any interrogation ever could." He paused. "It is unfortunate you have encountered those whose spirits have become fouled by life."
Harry debated a terse remark or two about fouled spirits – he wasn't the one walking around with a repressed magical core – but Huritt had already sent him a meaningful look, nodded, and crossed to the other side of the room to pass the last cup in the to-go carrier to the doc.
The woman took it with a grateful smile. "Excellent, we can begin. Auror Potter, if you start to bleed from," she paused, eyes darting over his entire body in silent assessment, the perusal ending in a frown, "well…from anywhere, do speak up. I would rather avoid performing more than one transfusion in a day. There is also blood replenishing potions in the red labelled refrigerator. I suggest you drink some."
Luna wandered off in that direction, still clutching her coffee between both hands, her tongue darting out to lick whipped foam off the lid.
Shit. His head jerked between the two women, brazen suspicion on his tongue. "How'd you get your hands on blood replenisher?"
The sound the doctor made could only be described as 'complete and utter disdain for his existence'. "Lacking a formal education in witchcraft and wizardry does not preclude one from potions experimentation. I think you will find that us non-magicals are quite adept in the brewing arts."
Harry chalked that up to one more weird thing about this town and cast the fridge an unconvinced glance.
"If it's a consolation," Huritt offered, "she has tested them on me many times."
"Oh good, well if you're recommending-"
He didn't get to finish his statement. Luna had snagged his coffee right out of his hands, holding it rather cruelly out of reach, shoving a vial at him. "Drink."
He eyed the chunky brown fluid dubiously.
"Drink," she repeated firmly, "or I'm dumping this," waggling his coffee, "down the sink."
"Cruel witch." Scowling, he bit the top off, spat the cork out, and downed it in one go, making one hell of a face at the taste. Amateur-brewed-blood-replenisher tasted remarkably like liquid ass.
"Fuck," he croaked, "ever think to flavor that shit?"
"Sugar affects the potency."
"The hell it does."
"Harry…." Luna scolded, and god damn she sounded disappointed.
"No-it's fine. Thanks. Just saying, Pomfrey's tasted better." He tossed the vial towards the trash, it pinging inside, and held his hand out in silent request for the return of his stolen beverage.
It was returned, but not before Luna glared at him just a little.
Harry sighed and turned to the doc. "Thank you for saving my life."
The woman's dark eyes narrowed, but she finally awarded him a curt nod.
"Well," Huritt clipped, "if that's all done, perhaps we can proceed."
"Good, been wanting to get on with this since I woke up."
"You misunderstand me."
"Protocol," Huritt explained with contrived casualness, smirk touching his lips, "would dictate a debriefing as soon as possible following the incident this morning, and I do seem to recall that you are rather a stickler for protocol."
Harry was not a stickler, but he knew exactly what the man was driving at. He 'may' have thrown one or twenty terse comments in the Tribal Officer's direction in regards to how the crime scene had been mishandled. One such comment had been about the lack of debriefing regarding the find. Now he had to eat his words, and Huritt, by all appearances, was enjoying himself.
Hell, had it been Ron pulling this shit, he might have respected it.
"Fine," he uttered flatly, "what do you want? Formal report, or will oral dictation in front of witnesses do?"
Huritt set down his mug, looking far more serious. "Let's start with the latter."
Harry wanted to hit things. "Well it seems your town has a fucking shadow caster as a problem for starts."
"Now that I am not familiar with," Doc X said, flipping her long ponytail back and sitting up just a bit straighter, as if preparing to take notes in a lecture.
"Be glad. They're not endowed with my delightful sense of humor."
Huritt snorted, and Luna cast him a warning look.
"How familiar are you all with demons exactly?"
"We have a passing familiarity." It was Maria who answered in a voice like steel. "Do not ask us to elaborate further. That is a tribal affair."
"Right…" and Harry drew the word out longer than necessary. "Since demons aren't exactly a one-size fits all and come in many flavors kind of home-tamed-pet, you familiar with the different types of demons or the general concept? You know, since we're all so open and willing to share? Because no offense, but I haven't the slightest clue what 'passing familiarity' means."
The doctor pursed her lips and scowled.
Harry wasn't deterred. "You want information from me and want my help? Yet aren't willing to meet me halfway? Get you all have your secrets, but in my world that's called impeding an investigation."
"Misuse of cultural information may not be a concern where you come from, Auror Potter-"
Dark eyes snapped up, fixing on Huritt accusingly. "He's not even from magical law enforcement?"
Huritt shrugged. "He came highly recommended," he said mildly.
"Oh? From whom, may I ask?"
Damn, when this town rolled out the welcome mat, they rolled out the welcome mat. They'd moved from outright murder attempts and castration threats, to refusal to share pertinent information, before barreling straight into questioning his competency.
But hey, at least the woman got bonus points for having balls enough to do it in front of him.
"Lightfoot has worked with him before," Huritt told calmly, tone implying that settled the issue. "I also observed him, and thus far I have been impressed."
Right. Now that caught him off guard.
Apparently it did Doctor Maria X-something-or-other as well. She stared at Huritt for a count of ten, then closed her eyes, making a face that was bound to cause wrinkles. She took a deep breath, and it did interesting thing to her scrubs low neckline. "Okay, ex-Auror Potter," she said, as if summoning infinite patience, "your people may not have a concern with misuse of proprietary cultural information, but that is not the reality for our people."
"Not contesting that," he said, bluntly and honestly. "Just pointing out that when it comes to dark magic, I'm the expert and you're not. You might fail to share something because you think it's inconsequential, when in actuality it turns out to be damn important."
The doctor frowned, but heaved a resigned breath. "Very well."
That still didn't answer his question.
Fortunately Hunter intervened before he could point that out, in as sarcastic a way as possible.
"What my colleague is meaning to say," Huritt interceded, "is that there are certain magics and creatures that laypeople associate with tribes rather indiscriminately. Tales of skinwalkers, I am sure you have heard of them, are one such example of cultural appropriation that is done by the masses in inappropriate ways, and it has caused…deaths." The Tribal Officer inhaled deeply, the steam from his mug drifting up past his nose. "There are some things that we do not speak of, for logical reasons. But we know the names of demons, have our own lore and experiences, but I assure you there is nothing amidst that knowledge that would apply to what Lightfoot described this morning."
Polite explanation or not, that still didn't solve his problem. They'd called him in for the dark magic angle. There was always the possibility that in those 'experiences that didn't apply' that there may be something Huritt was overlooking without realizing it. Crucial information. For now though…
Harry grimaced, giving him a stiff nod. "Fine," he said. "Don't blame me if we miss something because of that though. Now, when you say you know the names of demons, do you mean names of the types of demons, or-"
"I meant exactly what I said," Huritt interrupted, "and I trust you will maintain that confidence."
Well shit. Harry's own mug of Luna-tested coffee got clenched in his grip, the cup warm, warming his fingers in the absence of Luna's hand, and all he could think of was well shit.
How in the hell could a bunch of Muggles have gotten ahold of the actual names of demons?
He didn't know, and he wasn't entirely certain that he wanted to find out.
Demons were a taboo subject, even amongst full-fledged wizards. They weren't taught or discussed at Hogwarts. Hell, most people thought they went the way of the cryptids the Quibbler wrote about: fake and non-existent.
Most people were wrong.
Demons were very real, and very dangerous, and they could be summoned, trapped in a conjuring circle and controlled if you only knew their actual name.
And Huritt Hunter was claiming their tribe knew names. Names with an s. There was an important plural in there and Harry hadn't missed it.
Luna bit down on her lower lip and frowned, seeming conflicted. Harry was instantly struck with the realization that she didn't know any more about tribal affairs – at least not where demons were concerned - than he did.
"Huritt," she said quietly, "that's-"
The man's dark eyes flew to hers, softening. "I know, Lightfoot," his voice the epitome of apologetic. "I am sorry. There are some things I have not shared, not even with you."
Silence passed, Harry feeling the full weight of his body collapsed in the uncomfortable fold-out chair, every inch of him throbbing. Both he and Maria remained respectfully quiet as something silent passed between Luna and Huritt, that hard for him, given he hated the way the man was looking at her.
He hated even more the way she was looking back.
Harry swallowed thickly, taking a swig of the coffee. Black, like he liked it. He swished it around in his mouth to get rid of the taste of blood-replenisher.
The good doctor eventually moved, flipping up the bottom of the sheet and revealing a bloodless foot and toe tag beneath. "We are not clear on the specifics of a shadow demon, Auror Potter. I trust that information will prove sufficient for the discussion?"
And though she was looking at the soles of a dead body and they were discussing demons, the doctor did not look up, scribbling something onto the clipboard as if she did this every day.
Maybe she did.
What the hell had he gotten himself into?
"Perhaps you could elaborate, on what they are?" she continued.
Great. Just great. He was giving demonology 101 to Muggles, and could probably wind up in prison for Statute of Secrecy violations.
Then again, he was technically already a wanted man so…screw it.
He cleared his throat, and Luna and Huritt stopped looking at each other like long lost lovers who'd met by sheer happenstance in a Parisian café. Fantastic. "Think of shadow demons like an animal in need of a symbiotic relationship to exist," he stated. "Back home our Department of Mysteries has been trying to figure out where they actually come from for awhile. Last time I checked they weren't exactly publishing papers on the subject, so no success so far, but to come into this plane of existence they either have to merge with a wizard, or merge with a person's projection spell."
Huritt nodded at him. "Like that projection spell you did by the highway? Your image and voice was cast, but you were in another physical location."
"Yeah, kind of," he said stiffly. "Only what I did was child's play compared to the kind of projection you'd have to use to summon and merge with a damn demon."
Luna shifted on her feet uncomfortably, fingernails digging little indents into her to-go mug.
"So whomever summoned it…they're a wizard," Huritt said thoughtfully.
"They're wizards, usually," Harry corrected, "but they don't have to be. Get your hands on the actual name of a demon? It's doable, even for a Muggle. Cast a circle, use some chalk, spit out a targeted chant with the right name in a high-powered area, and hell, you've summoned Uncle Beelzebub to dinner, and you're the main fucking course." Heaving a breath, he pressed, "Some Muggles have enough natural talent to scrape by. Don't have to be a fully qualified blood-quantum mage to still do damage if they're only crazy enough to do something reckless."
Which made the magic he'd felt in Huritt all the more dangerous.
He'd reflect on that, but later. For now…
The bright light over the exam table was hurting his eyes, giving him a headache. But it also gave him an idea for explaining.
"Think of a handheld flashlight. You shine it at someone, it's not going to actually hurt them, but they will see the beam of light and get a good idea of the shape of the head and bezel." He shoved his coffee between his legs to free up his hands, then mimed the front of the headlamp with his good hand. "If it's circular, the beam is going to be circular. If it's square, square. Bat shape, and hell you've got a bat signal for mother fucking Gotham City. Point is, when I cast my projection spell, I'm casting just that, an image of me and that is it. I'm not about to go punch someone with my mirror image. Worst that'd do is tickle them."
"Well, that certainly explains some lingering philosophical questions I had about Casper the friendly ghost," Doc X said with a sardonic smirk.
Harry repressed an eye roll. "Wouldn't get too excited there, doc. Just because an image projection spell can't maim you, doesn't mean it can't interact. When I cast mine I can still see things, smell things. Hell, I even feel some things like temperature. Espionage at its finest, and information is power in the right circumstance. Imagine if the murderer of all those women had cast one here and now? It could be lingering in the shadows in the far back and we wouldn't even see it if they did it cleverly enough. They'd know everything we know, and we wouldn't have the first damn clue."
At that Huritt shifted, dark eyes darting around the room as if expecting a stranger to stroll up out of the shadows, or the fold-down x-ray unit attached to the wall to spring to life. "What are its limitations?" he asked bluntly. "What can't it do?"
"I haven't even begun to get to the shit it can't do," Harry bit flatly. "But the basic spell? When I cast it, I can't physically affect my surroundings, and the surroundings can't affect me. You could Avada my ass in that state and it wouldn't do a damn thing. Just go right through, and I'd leave you standing there confused as hell with a smile and a nod and a wink. I'd just be there to watch and listen to whatever lewd acts you felt the need to do in front of innocent witnesses. Following so far?"
Luna looked down at her coffee mug, as if fascinated, turning it between her small hands. Maria continued scribbling on her clipboard.
Huritt, however, was looking straight at him, gaze dead steady. "So far," he confirmed.
"Good," Harry pressed. "Now think of a laser used in a factory for the precision cutting of sheet metal. It's still a beam of light, but it's brighter, hotter. It's capable of causing physical harm to anything it touches. Unlike a flashlight, a laser can alter its physical environment."
He paused, quirking an eyebrow to make sure he was still with him.
"The un-magical plebeians," Huritt assured with a mild smirk, "are still following."
Harry reached down, rescued his coffee from between his legs, and took a deep, long dreg. The warm liquid relaxed his mind, and helped him think of nice, non-Huritt murdering thoughts. Thinking about shadow magic was unpleasant enough all on its own, because this kind of magic….
Hell, it caused a primitive part of his magic, a very real and visceral part to react, to rise up and scream in protest. It was unnatural, and these things…
You just didn't talk about.
He supposed he could understand what Maria and Huritt had meant, about tribal knowledge.
There truly were some things that you just didn't talk about.
He did anyway. His teeth gritted, and gritted hard. "Right. Well the laser is like the spell cast this morning," he explained. "It might be nothing more than a bunch of highly charged photons, but it can cut straight through anything, without getting harmed itself. Ever try to stop a laser by punching it? Doesn't work out so well for your fist."
Something in Luna's expression had changed, though Harry was hard-pressed to pinpoint what.
He pressed on. "So this morning's spell was like my image projection spell, only required a lot more juice. Mainly because you're summoning a mother fucking demon and commanding it to merge with your own damn image. But the demon? That gives the projection power. Turns the projection into something that can physically affect its environment, and what it can do is basically limitless. It can physically move things, cast magic, shapeshift. Anything within the limits of the human mind's imagi-fucking-nation. Guess we should all be glad that whomever cast it didn't realize they could animate the entire fucking diner into a megalodon's mouth. Could have taken care of all of us in one go."
This time he knew that it wasn't his imagination. Hyacinth-colored eyes flickered worriedly over him, her grip on her cup of coffee fractionally tightening.
And just like before, just like when he'd woken up, he saw it in her expression: Luna was scared for him.
He recalibrated, lest he stray too far down that path of thought.
"Reckon this is the part of the class where the professor asks for questions?" he questioned dryly.
Huritt appeared deep in thought. "Shadow demons allow the projection spell to become physical."
"And they are versatile."
"And they leave behind the stench of dark magic."
"Top of the class," he remarked, tone dry as fuck.
Huritt's jaw clenched, and his dark eyes strayed to the far wall, where all the slide-out drawers full of dead women were at. "Then you're saying it can kill from a distance, presumably without leaving a mark."
It took him a second.
It took him more than a second.
Harry and Huritt both remained right in their original positions, but silent understanding passed between them.
"Fuck indeed," Huritt agreed.
Harry's internal, travel-sized Hermione was having a coronary over his regressing vocabulary. His heart thudded unnaturally, the dangers of a looming coronary making him sick.
"I dare say, that if we find the culprit of this mornings attack on you," Huritt finally said, "that we will inevitably find our killer."
That, at least, had already occurred to Harry; what hadn't was the method of killing.
Death by shadow demon. Shit. He'd think it over. Wetting his lips, he shook his head. "Somethings still off. That thing tried to rip me to shreds. Cursory examination showed the girls didn't have a mark on them. Call me dumb, but not entirely certain that this caster has enough finesse to pull that off."
Huritt turned around and leaned against a set of cabinets. He looked as troubled as Harry felt. "Fair," he agreed. "To cast the projection spell and summon the demon, what does one have to do to accomplish it?"
Harry got where he was going with this. He did. The more they knew about the requirements for the spell, the easier it would be to narrow down their suspect selection.
Issue was, since he wasn't in the habit of summoning demons for fun weekend murderous jaunts, he wasn't a hundred percent on the specifics.
Maria had set her clipboard down, but was putting on surgical gloves. Her unlined, perfect looking face was entirely fixed on the task.
Harry grimaced. "Can't say I know all the specifics, but you'd have to be half insane to try it. Just doing it even once could drive you half mad. The things you could see…that could see you." Harry shuddered, remembering well. Certain things you just couldn't un-see, and when he'd first learned the magic required for a projection charm…
Fuck, had he seen.
He forced his throat to vibrate on. "You know that void you spin through when you portkey?" he asked, and his voice was hoarse and rough and above all tired. "That constricted space when you apparate? If you've ever done side-along that is."
"He has," Luna confirmed, though her voice was quiet. So, so, so quiet.
Harry glanced up at her, the witch hovering close to his chair, and gave her a nod. "Good. Then you'll not be totally lost with what I'm talking about. That void? It's another dimension, like a miniaturized worm hole that those with certain blood types or with enough brute-force-magic can access. To apparate, portkey, image-project, anything from one location to another you have to cross that space. Apparating and portkeying are near instantaneous. The wizard or witch doesn't linger in that space. But when you image project you're not just lingering, you're setting up shop and hanging around, which means there's time for things in that void to notice you."
"What kind of things?"
He pressed on. "Things live there. Things exiled there for a reason. Things you sure as hell don't want randomly hitching a ride and showing up at your godson's birthday party when your apparating from Surrey to Ottery St Catchpole."
"Has that ever happened?"
And this time it was Luna who answered. "Yes." Dark, dark blue eyes studied him. "T hat's what you and Neville investigated in the Congo, all those years back, wasn't it?"
Something caught in his chest. He'd never told Luna about that, and neither had Neville. He'd bet his life on it. "You knew?"
She looked at him sympathetically. "Yes, I…" Sucking in a small breath, she half-whispered, "You were both discrete, but between the books you'd left laying around your flat, and the ones Neville had at mine." She hesitated, nails slowly gouging a hold in the cup. "It wasn't hard to put two and two together."
Harry's heart swelled just looking at her. Had he been less conflicted, less…torn, he might have said something they'd both regret.
But he didn't.
Instead he just offered her a wry grimace. "Always knew you were smarter than us."
He held her gaze just a second too long, Luna averting her eyes to stare at her coffee lid, as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world.
Right. He needed to go on. So he did. "That kind of thing doesn't happen often. It's more likely for someone to get stuck in the void due to a lousy apparition or poorly made portkey, or for someone to get snagged by something that lives there, in it, due to sheer bad luck, than it would be for someone to snag something and take it as a passenger back into this realm. But it's not unheard of."
Maria, now donned in a face shield, surgical gloves, and gown thrown over her entire front, leaned forward and grasped the bottom of the white sheet covering the body. "What does this void have to do with the chaos from this morning?"
With one solid yank she wrenched the sheet off the corpse, and directly behind Luna's back a mummified body was revealed. Thin with blackened, leathery skin stretched across it, this was one of the less juicy remains that they'd found.
Luna didn't budge an inch, either oblivious or uncaring to the dead flesh nearly touching her back.
"It's relevant to explain the degree of insanity one needs to even attempt a projection charm," he said flatly. Now that the sheet was removed, the slight stench of decay had lifted to his nose. It wasn't as bad as he'd have thought, due to the body's dried out state. "When you cast a projection charm, even the toned down version that I cast, you still have to cross that dangerous space. You're lingering. Given that you're otherwise distracted having a prolonged chat with someone in another place, that leaves you vulnerable. Your physical body is unprotected, since your mind has been cast elsewhere. Your magic is vulnerable, because it's lingering in a place full of predators we don't quite understand, that are just waiting to get a hold of something real. And those things? They could latch a hold of you and you'd never see it coming." Releasing a breath, steam from the coffee sending a trail straight up from the lid, he pressed, "There's a reason, a damn good one, that most wizards can't image project, and of the ones who can, not many are crazy enough to do it."
Maria wheeled herself around to the side of the table, picking up a controller presumably used to raise and lower the entire thing. "So you're saying that the void is the embodiment of a wormhole in theoretical physics?" She sighed, rubbing her forehead. "I was happy to leave physics behind in undergrad."
Harry snorted, not unsympathetically.
Luna appeared to be studying him, an unreadable look on her face. "So you do that then?" she questioned quietly, a quiet sort of horror in her eyes. "You spend time there, in that void?"
Green eyes met hers. "Not unless I have to."
"But you still did when I sent you that letter." The fingers clutching her cup trembled imperceptively. "When you went to meet, Huritt. The other day. You did that."
"Didn't exactly know who'd owl-ed me, Lunes," he pointed out. "Case you forgot, not the trusting sort prone to taking chances. For all I knew I was walking into an ambush."
"But the void sounds even worse…"
"Matter of perspective," he said with brutal honesty. "At least there I know what might attack me."
Now Luna seemed a bit sick, the witch leaning just a bit more heavily on the exam table, her lower back digging into the metal. Her sweater bunched up on the surface, threads catching in the dead girl's long fingernails. "Rowena, Harry…" she whispered, "you could have been hurt. All because I didn't deign to sign a stupid-"
"I wasn't," he cut across. "I'm good at what I do, Luna." Giving a self-deprecating smirk, he amended, "This morning's ass kicking aside. Promise."
Her teeth clamped down on her lower lip, but she gave a small, reluctant nod.
"So anyone willing to cast such a spell, and bind it to that of a shadow demon, is disregarding their own safety," Hunter recounted.
Harry kept his eyes firmly on Luna, but nodded. "Yes. Find a quiet space where you won't be interrupted, draw a conjuring circle, summon a demon, then lay the hell down and astral project yourself across the void with the demon in tow, all to satisfy some kind of grudge against whomevers on the other side? I'd sure as hell say so."
"They're cowards," Maria practically spat, for the first time showing some sign of real emotion. "They'd be better served confronting you directly. That they did not shows that they were more afraid of you then of this…" she lifted and waved a hand, "place you've described." And Harry….
Hadn't considered that.
Huritt, apparently, had.
"More reason to believe that whomever is behind this morning's attack, was the one behind the murder of these women," he said. "What else can you tell me about the shadow demon and projection merger?"
Harry shook his head. "Not much, I'm afraid. Just that you can shape shift, which we saw this morning. Only real limit is the caster's imagination there, so think it's safe to say they'd watched too many werewolf movies-"
"Or read Stephen King novellas," Luna offered.
He quirked an eyebrow.
"One of his short stories…there's a werewolf attack in a diner."
"Oh." He paused. "Possible Stephen King fan then. Got it." He took a deep breath. "Some of the unspeakables we worked with back when I was still with the Aurors had theorized that such a combination was like taking dark matter from another dimension and shaping it like clay. Dark matter's all around us already, but it's not meant to come into contact with physical matter. If it does the results could be-"
Maria hissed a breath, instantly understanding. "So an indestructible monster on steroids that could go nuclear. Fantastic." She shot an icy look between him and Huritt. "You just had to invite someone here that heralds such good news, didn't you, Hunter?"
Tribal Officer Hunter shrugged, giving her a vaguely amused smile.
Harry didn't see the humor. "It's not indestructible," he corrected her. "Animals associated with carrying souls between dimensions can hurt them. Cats, ravens, things like that. There's also good ole fashioned fiendfyre."
"Explains your and Lightfoots actions marginally better," Maria muttered.
Harry ignored her. "Not to mention, hit it with enough magic and it can dispel the magical binding holding the shadow demon and projection spell together. That's why it dodged so many of my spells, but," and at this he winced, glancing apologetically at Luna, "and no offense, but was content to let Luna's go right through it."
If there was any question about what he'd meant, it was dispelled in a moment.
"None taken, Harry. I've never been particularly powerful with magic," Luna said. "I'm just clever with how I use it."
His lips twisted into a bitter smile. "You're more powerful than you think."
"Mmm, that's what you've always said."
"And I mean it."
"How do we find it?" Huritt interjected, all business.
Now there was the fifty million galleon question. Harry shook his head. "There are limits even for powerful mages on this kind of magic. He would have had to be nearby to do it. Very nearby. Hell, when I just image project I need to be within a kilometer of where I'm doing it, and I'm no slouch on the raw power department." He paused thoughtfully. "Not to mention this kind of magic would weaken them. Odds are they'll be laid up for the better part of a few days. That's assuming the shadow demon didn't break loose and finish them off for us."
Maria sniffed. "We can only hope."
Huritt, more realist and less optimist, seemed to be thinking this over. "So what you're saying is, we have a rogue mage in town, one who has summoned a demon and is willing to kill innocent people to stop our investigation." Seeing Harry's questioning look, he clarified, "Lightfoot filled me in on its behavior. It seemed to target you, and only you, specifically. Others were harmed only if they got in its way. The probable explanation as to why it went for you is that its caster is seeking to derail our investigation. Had it succeeded with you, I imagine I would have been next on its list."
Harry tried to ignore how upset Luna looked at that prospect, he really did. "That's the case, then why didn't they send it after you first? You're the easier target." Seeing Luna's glare, he hastily added, "No offense."
"None taken." Huritt was frowning, deep in thought. "That may be exactly why it went for you first. You said the spell is extremely draining, the power required to control the demon and cast the projection untenable under even the best of circumstances. I would imagine that the longer one projects, the harder it is to maintain control. By that logic, it would make sense to go for the harder target first, when the caster is the freshest. Killing me would not require nearly as much juice as killing you," he reasoned.
Huritt seemed entirely unaffected, talking about his own potential murder. Harry wondered if he'd gone to a special school to learn that skill, or if it was just part of the sparkling personality package that came with the man.
Luna seemed to be struggling to control her breathing, and for the first time Harry realized that she wasn't looking well.
She wasn't looking well at all.
"Luna…" he started.
Her eyes snapped shut, the witch shakily demanding, "Now what?"
Silence was her answer, until Doctor X filled it with a voice like steel.
"Now we find out what killed these girls," she said firmly, the slight husk to her tone making her sound like a sex phone operator. "And then you two can catch this son of a bitch."
With a grunt Huritt shoved the latest girl beneath the wall-mounted x-ray machine, jerking the arm with collimator down and positioning it over the thick, dark black of the body bag. The man glanced towards where Harry sat, the former Seeker leaned back in his chair, injured leg now propped up on a flipped over garbage can, and gave him a nod.
Harry grunted, and with a swish and flick at the body, "Wingardium leviosa," got cast, and with careful damn control he levitated the dead girl several inches straight up, just enough so that Huritt could shove the 17x17 imaging plate beneath.
Once it was in place – Maria was rather strict and had no qualms about ordering Huritt around, much to both their amusements – and Harry lowered the girl down, Huritt stepped back, and Doc X looked around to make sure everyone was a reasonable distance away before clicking a hand-held device that caused the x-ray machine to whir to life, snapping an image.
Harry couldn't help but notice that the handheld device looked rather like a foot pedal, whose cord had been extended.
It'd been four hours, and they had repeated this no less than seventeen times for each woman. Chest, pelvis, cervical spine, each limb, and skull. Interestingly enough, Maria had demanded four separate images of the chest from varying angles, and another four of the lower leg – the tib-fib as she'd called it - and femur. Each portion of the lower limbs required two separate 'views' that were ninety degrees apart, and since the bodies had been unable to hold themselves in the correct positions, she'd had Harry's magic do it for them.
If there were signs of trauma either post-mortem or while the girls had still been alive, it would show up.
Harry shifted in the chair, mutilated leg elevated on the oh-so-advanced trash can – nothing but the best for patients of the morgue ER - and uncomfortably adjusted the lead vest that covered his chest and abdomen, part of it draping down literally between his legs. "This really necessary?"
"If you wish to avoid cancer, or siring mutant offspring in the near future, yes," Maria clipped from a computer set along the far wall.
Harry grunted, reaching down to shift his 'junk' accordingly.
Maria hrmed and leaned forward to study the latest image, the sound like a purring cat. "I see you're enjoying the special modifications I made to the vests, ex-Auror Potter."
"You mean you added the junk crunchers?" He flat out snorted. "Well damn Doc, didn't know you were into pain."
A smirk curved across her once red-stained lips, the doctor's lipstick having rubbed off. The lid of her latest coffee was testament to that, a smear of color staining the white surface. "Hardly. I am far too hedonistic to enjoy that brand of turn-ons. But as a physician I determined that it would be the most expedient way of maintaining Hunter's virility, since he does spend an inordinate amount of time loitering in my space."
Huritt chuckled and made no attempt to deny.
Harry's gut roiled. Huritt's virility implied a hell of a lot about his intentions with Luna.
"So," he muttered, feigning casualness, "trying to stay virile for Luna I take it?"
Both Huritt and Maria paused what they were doing, looking towards him. But whereas Huritt had adopted a rather crude smirk, Maria's lips had mashed tightly together.
"If you were any more transparent," she observed, "I would not require cathode filaments to x-ray you."
Huritt piled on. "It has proven entertaining."
Harry's teeth ground hard enough to crush enamel. "I'll take that as a yes."
Strangely there was a pause, the Tribal Officer tapping his hands against his oversized forearms, clearly deep in thought. Finally… "I have long learned that speaking in regards to another's intentions to be a foolish endeavor. If you are interested in Lightfoot's dalliances, I suggest speaking to her."
There was an oddly amused tilt to the bastard's tone, and Harry let out a controlled breath. "Last time I checked who Luna chose to dally with was none of my business."
"Now whose fault is that?" Maria questioned, and Harry deeply debated hexing things.
But he didn't. He behaved himself. Woohoo and all that other trite, celebratory shit. He could practically feel Hermione pulling his puppet strings now. "For people who want to solve a murder," he said crassly, "you both spend a lot of time taking the piss."
"Of course," Maria said without a trace of apology. "The sense of humor around here is rather dead. A girl must have her fun when presented with the opportunity." She adjusted the blanket over her legs with one hand and resumed scrutinizing the scans.
Harry grunted, not nearly as amused, and resumed scrutinizing her.
The woman re-donned a pair of bright red glasses, the things sliding down her nose as she peered first above them, then through them at the latest image coming through electronically. By some act of Muggle sorcery the x-ray was connected to the computer read out. Harry didn't attempt to understand it, and was content to act as a good little lap dog and levitate when told, but it looked like one hell of a convenient setup.
At least it would have, had the doctor not looked so uncomfortable shifting back and forth in her wheelchair, as if trying to adjust her face's distance from the computer screen, so as to be able to read it.
Reading glasses, he realized.
Computer speakers pinged, the indicator that something had finished loading. Maria tapped a few keys, saving the image on what looked to be a computer from the 1980s. She'd done this after each x-ray, the process rather long and arduous.
Soon as she was done with whatever the hell it was she was doing on the computer, she'd drop the glasses alongside the keyboard, no longer in need. Harry couldn't honestly say he'd ever seen a young person need reading glasses before, but as he'd watched Maria it had become clear that she'd needed them for 'up close viewing' only and not for anything else.
He vaguely recalled Hermione babbling one rainy afternoon, while they'd been waiting for Ron and Neville to finish up a training run, about how, as someone aged, the lenses in a person's eyes lost flexibility. Apparently it wasn't able to adjust rapidly enough to look back and forth between far and near things, while keeping it all in focus. That explained all of Maria's shifting back and forth, and how she was peering above and then through the glasses.
Thing was, he also recalled Hermione saying that was something that happened to people in their forties and fifties, and Maria was a hell of a lot younger than that.
Harry drummed his fingers along the length of his wand. "How old are you, exactly?"
Maria had her eyes critically narrowed at the x-ray equipment, as if demanding answers they refused to provide. She did not even glance his way. "How inelegant," she remarked. "Ex-Auror Potter, you do not ask a woman her age. Surely even you know that?"
"You'd be surprised what's escaped me in the common niceties department."
"I doubt that." She drummed her long nails against the arm of her wheelchair, then cast him a saccharine smile, the sort a cat might give a mouse. "How old do you think I am?"
Smarter men would have recognized the danger and ran.
Harry was not one of those men.
"Dunno," he said, far too casually. "Judging by your looks, I'd say twenty three. But judging by your profession and the fact that you've obviously finished your residency, I'd say at least twenty nine. That whole presbyopia thing you've got going on though? Puts you in your mid-forties, at least. So," he smirked like a jackal, "care to fill me in?"
The woman paused her computer tapping, looking over her shoulder with a crude, curious look. It reminded him of a raptor assessing its prey.
Unless Harry was mistaken, the woman was deciding the best way to kill him.
Huritt saved his ass. "A gentleman never asks, and a lady never tells," he cut across. With a grunt the man tugged open the next body-sized drawer, a gust of cold air expelling into the room from the cooled unit the bodies were kept in. "And a gentleman especially does not ask a woman with access to a dozen untraceable ways of poisoning him."
With a smirk he turned back to his work, the man wheeling another gurney alongside the drawer, getting ready to transfer it.
Harry simply fixed a smirk on Maria. "Poisoning huh? How many people exactly have you Locusta-ed lately?"
A carefully sculpted, dark eyebrow rose high.
"Famous poisoner of the Roman empire," he supplied, by way of explanation. "I used to shag a history professor. Damn woman had a rewards system when it came to remembering what she called 'fun facts'."
"Women also," Huritt helpfully pointed out, "do not take well to being referred to as 'shags'."
The man's tone had been as polite as ever.
It annoyed Harry to no end.
Doctor X allowed her full red lips to curve into a smile. "Lack of social graces aside, I suppose you will remember Hunter's advice the next time you decide to get yourself mauled. It would be a shame if I forgot to inject you with pain medication prior to resetting your leg."
Had Harry not grown up with a megalomaniac gunning for him, incompetent professors vanishing his bones, Madam Pomfrey's subtle threats, and worst of all Hermione, he might have found that subtle threat marginally terrifying.
As it was, he just waggled his eyebrows.
The good doctor squinted in the dark, then shook her head. "Has anyone ever told you that you are quite antagonistic?"
"Almost daily," he assured.
She sniffed, using one finger to shove her glasses back up onto her nose. "I'm amazed you haven't killed him yet, Huritt. Accidents happen. Far be it for me to miss something on my post-mortem report and to rule it accidental."
Huritt laughed, and a second before he went to lift the newest body bag onto the gurney, Harry flicked his wand and did it for him.
If Hunter's momentum caused him to slip and bash his elbow into something, it was clearly just 'an accident'.
Huritt let out a low groan, rubbing the elbow in question. "Getting harder to resist every second, Maria."
And that was how they worked for the next two hours.
As it turned out, autopsies were slow, grueling processes. When foul play was suspected, they were even longer. The first step had been to x-ray all the bodies, and they had not even removed the women from the body bags to do so. They'd simply removed them one-by-one from the refrigerated storage drawers, put them on a rolling gurney, rolled them to the wall-mounted x-ray unit's table, transferred them onto that, completed the x-rays, reviewed the images, then repeated the process with the next body.
There had been one or ten comments throughout this process about it being easier to position a patient who wasn't resisting.
Harry had debated offing himself then and there.
As it was, Huritt had kindly volunteered to do the grunt work, transferring patients back and forth and setting the x-ray arm up, while Harry had done the 'heavy lifting' since magic apparently allowed him to 'cheat'. Or so Maria had informed him. Still, he couldn't deny that she had a point. Even as swollen and black and blue as he was, it was far easier to lift and maneuver body bags into whatever convoluted position the good doctor required via magic, than it would have been through brute force alone.
Luna had left as soon as they'd gotten started, seeming reluctant, but shaky. Something deep inside him had twisted at her expression, Luna clearly upset. Being around all of the dead…
Not everyone was suited for that sort of thing.
In true Luna fashion she hadn't let slip one word of complaint. She'd simply squeezed his hand, fingers slipping away from his, before heading towards Huritt and exchanging a few quiet words. Then she'd disappeared out those double, swinging doors.
Harry knew for a fact that she hadn't actually left. She'd snared a book, and had situated herself out in the hall.
And by out in the hall, he meant right out in the hall. Every so often he could hear her laugh at some of the less-than-amicable, snippy comments he and Maria had been tossing back and forth.
Harry was glad she'd stayed nearby. All four of them had come to the silent agreement that right now it would be best if they didn't split up. Whomever had sent the shadow demon was still out there, and if they were working with someone, well…
Luna, alone, would be an easy target.
So outside the door, on her own but within earshot, she sat, reading a book with a large, white mouse in a superhero cape on the cover.
They wrapped up around nine. Harry had pointed out that they had caffeine and could easily keep going – Luna, that goddess, had done something called a 'mobile order' – but that idea had been swiftly silenced with a sharp look from Maria.
"The night belongs to poets and madman, ex-Auror Potter, and I am neither."
And that had been that.
"Well pick up tomorrow," Huritt had said, strangely somber, and Harry could not help but notice the way the man's entire demeanor had changed. He now stood along the far side of the room, facing the refrigerated drawers housing the dead, his body tensed, head bowed as if in silent prayer. "I'll see to their guarding. Tonight, you sleep."
Harry considered arguing; he honestly did.
But he didn't.
Huritt was a ticking time bomb; he knew it. Yet the man was older than himself, and if he hadn't erupted into an obscurus yet, Harry doubted it would happen tonight.
There was a shadow caster on the loose. The remains of these women needed guarded. Anyone could break in to remove evidence, to destroy what was left of the bodies, and if that happened someone needed to be there to stop them. And as much as he was loath to admit it, Huritt was in much better shape to do that than he was right then.
So in the end Harry didn't argue. He just stiffly clambered to his feet, the pressure on his leg nearly dropping him. "Hope you know," he croaked, hoarse as fuck, "this doesn't get you out of that chat."
Huritt did not turn around, his back to Harry. "Tomorrow," he confirmed. A tic of silence. "I'll bring bagels."
Harry flat out snorted. Pain daggered up his leg and his knee buckled, the wizard grabbing at the nearest exam table to hold most of his weight. "Oh, goodie," he rasped.
Huritt barely seemed to hear him. "Good…yes. They will be the best in town." Another pause, cold humor infiltrating the man's voice. "That of course means that they will be only marginally stale."
Fingers clenching around the sharp metal edge, Harry clenched his gaze and jaw shut and tried not to black out. "Slather enough cream cheese onto them and they'll be fine."
A low rumble resonated, but the Tribal Officer uttered not another word.
Harry leaned heavily against that table, and between the black waves of pain he thought things through.
Huritt wasn't the killer. He was certain. Fuck if he knew why. It wasn't as if he particularly liked the man.
"Doubt the bastard's going to make another run tonight," he stated, picking his words damn carefully. "Probably'll be laid up for a week, if not more. But in case they're working with someone," and Harry had to assume they were, "you're going to need salt."
"Yes. I suspected I might."
Before Harry had a chance to ask how the hell he'd have suspected that, there was a creak, one of the double doors swinging open, Luna returning, a satchel slung over one shoulder, a pair of crutches tucked awkwardly beneath her arm. Her eyes flickered between the two, and if her eyes lingered on Harry just a bit longer than necessary, he was sure he'd imagined it.
She sucked in a breath and walked to the counter, setting the bag down. "Rylan brought over your salt."
Harry's attention jerked towards the man who remained still as a statue.
"Thank you, Lightfoot." A bone weary sadness infiltrated the man's voice.
Once again a dozen red flags rose to the surface. "You already knew," he said flatly.
Luna dragged a hand through her long hair, her hat missing. A second later she had crossed to him, quietly whispering, "Here," as she propped the crutches up alongside him.
Harry could barely manage a nod. "Thanks," he uttered, gaze still locked onto Huritt's back. "You didn't have to."
"Of course I did." Had Harry not been so distracted, he'd have caught how offended she sounded. As it was, he didn't.
The only thing he caught was that Huritt was staying here, overnight, and that he'd known enough about demons to know that a lay person could create salt lines to help block them out.
Not to mention that Rylan was apparently up, about, and far more mobile than Harry was, even though the diner's owner had been thrown through a plate glass window that very morning.
"I'll set the wards up on my way out," he said brusquely, reaching for and blindly grabbing the crutches. He managed a grunted goodbye to Luna, a pit in his gut as he hobbled away, leaving her alone with the man he didn't full trust, and yet for some unidentifiable reason did.
He never noticed the way Luna's eyes followed his every step, lingering on the swinging doors far after he'd passed through them.
He also never heard Huritt's very calm, very measured question.
"Have you told him?"
Luna Lovegood's head swiveled back, a storm of confliction in her eyes. "No," she whispered. "I haven't."
Outside the morgue a storm swept in, thunder rumbling and rain pouring down in buckets. The steady thunk-thunking of a pair of crutches was drowned out, a dark haired wizard ducking his head and hobbling out into the squall, the blacktop dancing with spray. In the distance the neon sign of a cheap motel buzzed, the 'A' and the 'C' and the second 'A' in the red glowing Vacancy sign burnt out.
The hobbling figure headed towards it, splashing forward into the blood-colored light cast by the motel's sign.
Within the walls of that motel, in a room seven doors down from Harry Potter's lay a figure, prone in bed. The stench of shit and piss was prevalent, as if whoever had occupied the space had been unable to make it to the toilet for some time, the mattress and sheets stained a foul color that no amount of housekeeping could hope to expunge.
The lights in the room were lowered, the figure's breathing incredibly labored. Each puff of air condensed into fine mist above the figure's face, as if the space itself had been plunged through arctic ice. The aged heating unit that should have been replaced long ago attempted to combat this, and it heaved rattling breath after rattling breath, pumping pathetic amounts of heat into the room as it struggled to work. The blown air fluttered the thick, stained curtains above, and as the curtains fluttered they afforded the figure a brief glimpse of a hobbling man on crutches, through the rain streaked glass.
A chalky, bloodied circle had been cut into the cheap carpet encircling the bed, and as the heater let out another wheezing gasp, sending the curtains again fluttering, the hobbling man could be seen getting closer.
In the bed the figure smiled.
Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who has reviewed, sent me a message, or hit me up on the discord channel. You all have been SO supportive on this story. Thank you! Any guesses yet as to 'who dunnit?'
Also we have a discord channel, and if you haven't checked it out, the great and powerful Nauze was super kind and had me on his fanfiction podcast series. Check out his profile for more information on his podcasts.
This chapter and the last gave a few 'hat tips' to one of my favorite writers, and who that is should be rather obvious by now.