When Worlds Collide
Pride Before a Fall
Dumbledore's help might have ulterior motives behind it, but it nevertheless proved invaluable. Furthermore, working with him was a lot less irksome and a lot more intriguing than Harry had feared.
His knowledge was both vast and deep and he obviously liked teaching immensely.
There was a lot, they knew, that he wasn't telling them; but he shared much of his own research along with what was fairly common knowledge in his world, about magic as he knew it, about this Voldemort he was so worried about and most importantly, about homunculi and the ways to destroy them.
Harry and his Guardians soaked it all up and shared some of their own knowledge in return.
Dumbledore was quite intrigued by their tales of travelling through other worlds and good-naturedly jealous of what he declared "an unparalleled chance of adventuring and discovering."
He did not, however, share their worry about Voldemort's apparent ability to do the same. When they told him, he simply nodded thoughtfully and commented: "That does not surprise me in the least. Magic requires balance, after all, always... yes, it is quite possible..."
They were once again in his office: the large circular room, full of funny little noises and portraits of old headmasters and headmistresses pretending to snooze, was becoming their almost-daily meeting spot. They no longer sat around the enormous, claw-footed desk, but rather gathered on very comfortable (if slightly sore to the eyes) pink and yellow armchairs which Dumbledore routinely conjured by the fireplace.
All of them were getting used to these meetings, and learning to trust each other more and more.
"It is very possible that Voldemort is able to cross into other worlds because you can," said the Headmaster thoughtfully. "And equally possible that you are able to because he can."
"Equivalent exchange?" guessed Scar.
"In a way," conceded the wizard. "Though it is more a matter of equilibrium than anything. In this vein, I would venture to state that the only worlds you can reach are those he can visit. And vice-versa."
"You think the other homunculi are on the other worlds we visited, then?" Harry stated more than asked.
"Most likely. Yet another reason why you are uniquely suited to the task of destroying those constructs. And perhaps..."
Here, the Headmaster hesitated, but Harry was starting to understand how to go about getting the information that Dumbledore liked to cloak in layers of secrecy and half-truths.
He pierced the aged wizard with a very pointed glare and crossed his arms, making sure his indignation and anger got conveyed; though they weren't as burning as at the beginning of their acquaintance, his every muscle still radiated his determination not to let the damn wizard get away with his tendency to conceal important information.
Dumbledore's mouth twitched in a brief smile under his beard and he dipped his head in acknowledgement. Harry inwardly cheered.
"That Voldemort might be deploying his homunculi in many different worlds is not only consistent with what I know of his typical strategies, but also ties neatly into a theory I have recently had confirmed. By you, as it were."
Harry blinked. "Me?"
Damn but the old Headmaster always managed to surprise him somehow.
Dumbledore smiled, his blue eyes twinkling madly, and Harry fought the temptation to grumble aloud. The wizard got a kick out of it, he was sure of it. No point giving him such a satisfaction.
"Allow me to remind you of your most recent battle," said Dumbledore, leaning back in his chair. "Towards the end of your recounting, you mentioned a cup."
"The one the homunculus spat out before dying?" asked Harry with a perplexed frown. "What about it?"
It hadn't seemed very significant at the time. Maybe it was strange that the creature had swallowed it, but then again, it hadn't seemed particular about what it ingested.
"The existence and location of that cup might well be the most important piece of information of this entire war," said Dumbledore solemnly. Then he added: "I would like to see it."
"Err… I'm sorry, but… we left it there, you see."
"No, no. You misunderstand me, my Lord Summoner. All I require is your memory of seeing it."
Harry frowned, honestly perplexed. "I already described it to you as best I could."
Dumbledore's grin was the smug and pleased one he always gained whenever he got the chance to show off a magical trinket or other to his invariably captivated audience. Harry might have resented it if the wizard's delight wasn't so genuine… and if the trinkets weren't always so interesting!
As the Headmaster made his way to a cabinet, the Summoner followed, openly curious, and so did the Guardians, trying to appear nonchalant and disinterested.
Dumbledore took out a shallow stone basin, fitted with dull gems in odd patterns and carved with Runes and strange symbols. Harry could see a silver-white substance ebbing and swirling in it, giving off a very feeble light.
"What is it?" he asked eagerly.
"This… is called a Pensieve. I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."
"Are there really people that happens to?" asked Seifer in overdone amazement. Scar rolled his eyes.
"Oh, yes," assured Dumbledore blithely. "A Pensieve is most useful in such cases. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure."
"Wait. That whitish stuff… is thoughts?" asked Harry in utter amazement.
"A memory, actually," corrected Dumbledore gently. He delicately put the tip of his wand in the cloud-like substance and stirred lightly. The not-quite-liquid twirled, following the motion, and started getting slowly sucked up the wand itself.
"So many times have I struggled with a problem, only to find that reviewing an opportune memory in the Pensieve clarified the matter… seeing things from a different perspective is always helpful, would you not agree?"
The last wisps trailed after the tip as the Headmaster raised it away and plunged it into a glass phial, reversing the stirring motion to release the silvery memory into it before sealing it.
"Now, the extraction of a memory is very easy," assured the wizard, putting the phial away in an ornate cabinet that appeared filled with similar ampoules, "and of course, it will be a mere copy: you won't lose anything, my Lord Summoner. If you would?"
"I'll do it," interrupted Itachi in a tone that broke no argument.
"I don't think it's dangerous," Harry felt compelled to say, a part of him very curious to try the whole thing for himself.
"Of course not!" exclaimed Dumbledore, genuinely surprised that they might think so. "A Pensieve merely allows for the sorting of thoughts or memories. It cannot affect the viewer directly!"
"Regardless," was Itachi's only comment.
Not bothering to argue, Harry nodded his consent with a slight sigh.
Gathering his four guests around the basin, the Headmaster directed them to lean over it and before he knew what was happening, Harry was tilting forward; the whitish memory was rising up towards his face rapidly, expanding to fill his whole vision; he felt his body leave the floor and float for a brief moment, Itachi and Scar comforting presences on his two sides, before he was falling head first into a whirl of colour and shadow.
He felt his feet hit solid ground, and stood, shaking, as the blurred shapes around him came suddenly into focus. His Guardians were looking around in amazement; Dumbledore was smiling genially.
He knew immediately where they were: he'd been there mere days before, hiding behind that… wheel… he gasped: they were there!
His eyes went wide with shock. When the Headmaster had talked of viewing a memory, he'd imagined something like a Sphere… a video recording of sorts, so to speak, most likely from Itachi's point of view; or else, something like a visit to the Farplane, where pyreflies could form a ghostlike image of an evoked memory. He did not expect to be plunged in the actual moment, much less to see himself from the outside!
Yet there they were, Itachi and him – his Guardian just now raising a thin water-wall to protect the two of them where they were taking shelter and him… well. Harry shook his head in amazement.
That was utterly, utterly strange.
He knew what he looked like, he'd seen himself in mirrors and the like, but seeing himself at a distance, he managed to be surprised nonetheless. How grippingly odd. He gave himself a critical once-over. Messy black hair, burnt orange goggles, blue clothes dotted with this-and-that, his Rod by his side, satchels he was drawing bomb after bomb from…
"We are completely insubstantial, of course." Dumbledore's voice startled him out of his fascinated contemplation of himself and he turned to pay attention to the Headmaster's explanations.
They watched as the homunculus kept stubbornly attacking and being blown up over and over, exactly as it had when it happened – obviously.
Not being distracted by having to fight, Harry had leisure to take in all of the things he'd missed while he lived this moment; the level of detail displayed was astounding and he wondered if his stoic friend was always this capable of meticulous recollection. Or had Itachi been using his Sharingan? Was that why he could remember everything in such precise detail? He well knew that the shinobi viewed his family's peculiar ability as a powerful tool and a curse at once, and that he kept using it far too much, ignoring the health issues it gave him...
Seifer was moving around, poking at things with his gunblade – ineffectually. They were little more than phantoms here, incapable of interacting with the memory being displayed all around them. The whole scene was at once more real than anything the pyreflies could make, yet lacking even the partial substance of memories evoked in the Farplane. Harry was wide-eyed with wonder.
Dumbledore's commentary ran out after a while and they simply watched the battle… until the moment when the homunculus started coughing and choking.
When the eerie scream tore the air and the black ooze puffed out of the cup, Dumbledore's face could not conceal his utter triumph. He did not offer an explanation, however, and merely guided them out into the real world again.
Harry shuddered as he regained his footing, but a small part of him was cheering and eager to repeat the experience. It was better than the Sphere Theatre in Luca!
His Guardians, sadly, did not share his enthusiasm. Not being able to interact with their surroundings had apparently rattled them a bit: helplessness never sat well with them, and it didn't matter that they weren't in any danger inside a memory, they still didn't like it.
Even the unflappable Itachi was uncomfortable with it. ("Mindscapes are dangerous," he would confess later, when he and Harry were alone. "If I must be in one, I'd much rather be in control.")
It did not bode well for his chances of enjoying the Pensieve again, but Harry firmly told himself that pouting was childish. There were more pressing matters at hand, in any case.
"What is the significance of the cup?" he asked as soon as they were all out into Dumbledore's office once more.
"That, my Lord Summoner, is in fact a magical cup created by one of the founders of this very school, Helga Hufflepuff. Did you notice the badger engraved on the side? That is, to this day, the mascot of her House. The value of such an artefact is, of course, immense, even though it is unknown what magical properties it might have been gifted with by its creator, a notion lost to time."
Harry glared. "Yes, yes. And?" he demanded pointedly.
Dumbledore gave him an innocent look; the Summoner ratcheted up his glare.
Heaving a very put upon sigh, Seifer took up the slack and sing-songed: "Why is a piece of wrought gold, no matter how pretty or historically significant, so terribly important to your war effort?"
Dumbledore nodded calmly, a teacher acknowledging a student's question, and sealed Itachi's memory in a phial of its own before taking out the memory he'd put away earlier: "I believe this might help shed some light on the matter."
Rolling their eyes discreetly, the four bent once more over the Pensieve, Harry decidedly more eager than his far too tense friends.
This time they landed in a dark, vast room, a ballroom perhaps, given the polished hardwood flooring and high ceiling, lost in shadows above them. Flickering light came from candles floating in mid-air, like haphazard chandeliers.
People in black robes were arranged in a big circle, two rows deep, leaving a wide circular area in the middle; at one point the circle was interrupted by a majestic throne, upon which was curled a huge, dozing snake.
Each robed person was hiding behind a white mask, except a tall, handsome man who stood before the throne. He had shoulder-length black hair, marble pale skin and cruel eyes. His charisma was palpable, a blaze of wilful power.
"Do you see it?" asked Dumbledore, motioning to the far side of the throne.
The cup was indeed there, in pride of place on a tall and graceful side table, looking pretty even in the dim lightning. Its few jewels gleamed now and then.
Harry however barely spared it a glance, because he was rather distracted by the vicious fight taking place in the middle of the ballroom. The circle of robed figures formed a makeshift arena where the fat homunculus Itachi and he had destroyed was facing off four masked wizards.
Their frantic efforts didn't look too effective. Their magic might slash and pierce, cut and burn, but it was no match for the regenerative power of the homunculus; and their fear was making them falter.
One of them lost control of his flickering shield and before he could raise another in its place, he was dead; part of him fell bleeding to the floor while the homunculus munched on the rest.
Another broke down and tried to run away, screaming. A lazy wave of the handsome man's wand trapped him in mid-flight and kept him still despite his struggles while the homunculus slowly devoured him.
The slightly echoing quality of the sounds in the vast space made his cries of terror and pain much worse.
"Is that him?" asked Itachi quietly, calm eyes taking in the powerful figure by the throne, whose calculating enjoyment of the massacre was evident. "Voldemort?"
"Indeed," confirmed Dumbledore.
"Whose memory is this?" asked Scar.
The Headmaster's eyes darted to the side, to one of the masked figures, as anonymous and as impassive as all the others. "Someone I trust," was all he would say.
The homunculus was now tearing through his remaining opponents with rapacious glee, relentless under the barrage of hexes they were pelting it with; strengthened with the force of their desperation, the curses were dark and vicious and savage: to no avail.
Every witness in the circle was staring in silent horror; terrified of attracting attention, be it from the voracious creature busy tearing their comrades apart… or from their leader. Fear and awe for the cruel Lord were so strong Harry could almost taste them.
The last, brutal death was cheered wildly by a solitary voice.
As one, the visitors in the memory turned to seek its source and were confronted by a tall, good-looking man, incongruously dressed in black jeans and a fur-lined, sleeveless leather jacket. The fact that he was wearing sunglasses in such a darkened room was as jarring as his crass laughter. Black bracelets were clasped around his wrists and a red ouroboros mark was tattooed on the back of his hand.
At his side was the woman-like homunculus they had faced underneath Deling City, as lethally beautiful as they remembered her.
Once he spotted them, Harry wondered why they hadn't stood out from the start, because they were as unlike the rest of the audience as possible; not to mention, every other present was giving them a wide berth, the closest members of the circle projecting utter disdain towards the two homunculi.
"Now that was a good show!" cried the homunculus wearing sunglasses. He laughed again, a full belly laugh, throwing back his head of spiky black hair. "Do it again, oh great Lord! Not like you haven't enough wizards to throw away, after all..." He snickered.
Restlessness in the robed men betrayed their fear that their Lord might well take him up on the suggestion, but Voldemort merely sneered.
"Shut up, Greed," said the woman by the homunculus' side, without even looking at him.
"I just want some more entertainment!" he protested, watching the fat homunculus shake blood off himself and lick his few wounds, red coursing energy busy fixing him up.
"You are too greedy for your own good," said his companion softly.
"Nothing wrong with greed!" he boasted loudly. "Everyone wants something they don't have… money, power, what have you! Me, I just want – everything. I demand the finer things in life! And right now, I want to watch another of these fights!"
"Whatever," she sighed, scornful.
"I just-" he started.
Voldemort's command sliced the air like a whip, effortlessly regaining everybody's focused attention.
"The fight was not for your amusement, creature. It was… an object lesson."
He contemplated coolly the broken remains of the wizards that had just been killed and devoured.
"Some fools never learn," he said with a sneer. "Such a pity."
Silence reigned for a long moment, broken only by the chuckles of the three homunculi. All of the wizards' attention was firmly centred on their leader: they hung on his every movement with breathless anticipation, equal parts terror and yearning.
"I confess myself... disappointed." Voldemort's voice was a deadly hiss, the grace of his movements a threat in itself. "After all this time… after all I've done… there are still those who doubt me. Who question my power."
The dark-clothed men shifted and fidgeted. Fear was palpable in the air.
"But no matter, no matter..."
Voldemort paced slowly, and every eye was riveted on him.
"I hardly expect any of you to understand the true depths of my power… the price I've paid, the rewards I've earned... I, who have experimented, who have pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed..."
He walked back to the side table and picked up the cup daintily. His snake rose from the throne, hissing and swaying, and wrapped itself lightly around him.
"What is he nattering on about?" grumbled Seifer, who'd taken an instant dislike to the drama queen with the snake.
"Come here!" Voldemort ordered imperiously, snapping his fingers as if to a servant. All three homunculi moved unhurriedly towards him.
The fat one didn't look like he understood much of what was going on; the taller man, Greed, looked amused and stretched his arms up in a satisfied way before slipping his hands in his pockets. The woman was the most composed: she moved confidently, casually smirking at the naked covetousness in many eyes raking her form.
"Unparalleled resilience. Astonishing regenerative properties. Incredible longevity," he mused aloud. "These characteristics make you an invaluable asset in my arsenal."
He wasn't even looking at them: clearly they were nothing but tools in his eyes; all his attention was for the graceful cup he was caressing covetously.
"You will be the keeper of one of my greatest accomplishment to date!" proclaimed Voldemort grandly, holding the cup up.
Obviously well-trained, the masked men lifted subdued cheers. One voice alone rose outside the chorus, a woman's, from the robed figure closest to the throne, whose mane of thick, shining dark hair cascaded around her bone-white mask alluringly.
"My Lord!" she called, reverent. He turned to her sharply and she wavered, breathless under his attention. "Allow us… there is no need for such inferior creatures… we can help you instead..."
"I do not need your help!" he snapped.
"Does he truly plan to entrust the cup to that… thing?" asked Scar with some incredulity. "Is he mad?"
The seductive homunculus chuckled; she tossed her hair back and ran her eyes over the masked woman, openly derisive. "Such devotion, such dedication!" she mocked, sardonic. "So touching… so pathetic!"
It earned her a snarl from the dark-haired witch, but she just laughed: "You humans are such sad and weak, foolish creatures," she taunted. "I look forward to the day when those eyes of yours will be wide with agony!"
"Lust. Enough," ordered Voldemort tersely.
The homunculus – who was apparently called Lust – shrugged provocatively, making sure to display her body to the maximum advantage, but subsided.
"My Lord, I merely want to serve you," begged the masked woman, a hand outstretched in supplication.
Voldemort ignored her and held out the cup to the fat homunculus with a grandiose gesture. It was almost intercepted by Greed, who made a grabby motion for it, a smart remark already on his lips, but Voldemort hexed him casually, throwing him back a few steps in a flurry of scorching flames.
"Aw, man, come on!" cried the homunculus, rolling to put out the flames and pouting over his ruined clothes. Nobody paid him any attention.
With a flick of his wrist, Voldemort threw the cup into the air; the fat homunculus jumped like a trained dog and swallowed it whole, licking its lips with a contented hum. The ouroborous tattooed on his unnaturaly long tongue shined with saliva.
"Nice one, Gluttony," commented Lust insouciantly.
Murmurs rippled through the circle of wizards. It was clear that the robed men were unhappy, but they didn't dare speak up.
The masked witch cried out in protest: "My Lord! Such a treasure… are you certain..."
Voldemort rounded on her with the speed of a lethal snake striking unwary prey. "Certain? Certain?!" he hissed. "Do you doubt me, then? Even you, Bellatrix?"
A red gleam burned in his dark eyes.
"Never, my Lord!" she cried earnestly, stumbling back.
While the dark-haired woman yelled out vehement denials and begging requests, which quickly morphed to screams under her master's wand, Harry winced but did his best to tune her out and turned to Dumbledore: "That makes no sense!" he protested. "He just… gah!"
He looked at his Guardians for some sort of answer, but they were all impassive. He crossed his arms around his Rod peevishly.
"You put historically significant art pieces on display," he half-ranted. "You put valuable treasures in bank vaults. You don't... feed them to alchemical constructs!" He rounded on Dumbledore again: "And why do it so… so – publicly?"
The Headmaster sighed deeply. "It is my opinion that Voldemort was attempting to protect the cup."
"But why is it so important?" asked Harry in mounting frustration.
"Wouldn't wards and such be a smarter option?" inquired Seifer at the same time. "Or, you know, a safe."
But Voldemort was unknowingly answering his question.
"Wards can be torn. Enchantments can fail," he was saying grandly, once more pacing before his masked servants. "Trust can be... misplaced." A shudder went throw the wizards at the lethal glare the Dark Lord threw around. "But this… creation, shall keep my treasure safe forever more."
A satisfied smirk touched his thin lips. "And if anyone should covet what is rightfully mine…" he whispered, his voice carrying despite its low volume, "let it be known what they must face!" he finished with a yell, sudden light pouring out of nowhere onto the bleeding remains of the unfortunates who had faced Gluttony.
"Ah! Intimidation," commented Itachi with a slight nod.
"What if you should wish to retrieve it?" blurted out a bold soul, immediately cringing at his own daring.
"So you do not think me able to control a mere alchemical construct?" Voldemort mused in a terrifyingly amused voice.
The masked wizard fell over himself to deny the accusation and assure his Lord of his unwavering faith, but Voldemort ignored his panicked efforts.
Greed, who was still on the floor in a lazy, arrogant sprawl, snickered loudly: "God, they're pathetic. Sure you can't do better than then, oh great and mighty Lord?"
Faster than eye could follow, Voldemort swivelled and thrust his wand out, then again. The spiky haired homunculus was jerked to his feet, staggered under an invisible blow and shouted out, surprised. A third curse hit, shattering his right arm, and his cry turned into one of rage.
In a heartbeat, black spread all over his body, like solid ink bleeding over his skin, turning it into hardened carbon, strengthening it to unbelievable levels. He snarled, his face contorted in fury, no trace of the muscled man he'd appeared as left: he resembled nothing so much as a black-skinned, malevolent demon.
"Ha! I won't be killed so easily!" he snarled. He lunged at the Dark Lord, but was violently repelled by a shield. "Bring it on, ugly! The Ultimate Shield protects me from everything!" he shouted.
The cry was still echoing around them when Voldemort thrust his wand forward again, a bluish white curse shooting straight at Greed. It struck him right in the chest, and the homunculus burst into small pieces, his fabled shield and his body disintegrating at once in a long moment.
"I believe this shall suffice," said Dumbledore gravely, gently taking Harry's arm and guiding him out of the memory.
As the rush of colours and sounds accompanied their exit from the Pensieve, Harry caught a glimpse of Lust's horrified face, and of a red spell racing towards someone; the echoes of pained cries followed him out, soaring back into the present with him.
He shuddered. That Voldemort was even worse live than in his nightmares.
"So he can destroy homunculi too?" wondered Scar.
"It was quite disturbing to witness, the first time," admitted Dumbledore. "I have yet to discern what Dark Arts he is using, but there is no doubt that he is effective. Then again, Lord Voldemort's knowledge of the seedier magics has no equals."
"I still don't understand," admitted Harry. "What is that cup?"
Dumbledore sighed deeply. "A Horcrux," he said flatly. He met their curious gazes with weary eyes: "It is the word used for an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul."
A shiver ran down Harry's back. He felt strangely cold and pulled his cloak on, drawing it tighter around himself before taking a seat.
"I don't like where this is going," said Seifer darkly.
"It is… a safeguard," went on Dumbledore. "The soul is split by an act of unforgivable evil, and a part of it is hidden in an object outside the body. Thus, even if one's body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged."
"Immortality again," grumbled Scar in disgust.
"Yes, immortality," agreed Dumbledore tiredly. "But in such a form as to make death preferable to all but very few."
"Because who would want to live with a torn soul?" said Harry sombrely. "That's foul."
Dumbledore simply nodded.
"How would you even..." started Harry, then thought better of it: "No, wait. I don't want to know."
"I have heard of such things before," murmured Itachi, sounding slightly disturbed. "Deals with the Death God, or with demons, forbidden techniques… I witnessed the Soul-Body Separation Technique myself… and there were rumours about the Uzumaki Clan using portions of their own souls to draw on the power of the Shinigami..." He shook his head weakly. "And immortality, well. It was a goal for many in my world."
"In any world," corrected Scar darkly. He leaned back in his armchair and scowled ferociously: "Souls anchored to non-living bodies, trapped in Blood Runes – oh, yes, I've seen these horrors too. But actually cutting a soul in pieces? That's new." His disgust was clear.
"Why couldn't this Voldemort make a philosopher's stone, or steal one, if he was so interested in immortality?" bust out Harry. "As horrible as that is, it's still better than tearing his own soul apart!"
"I could answer that, I think; I know enough of the man Voldemort is to understand why a philosopher's stone would not be attractive to him," said Dumbledore, eyes uncharacteristically dull. "But does it really matter? He has chosen to pursue immortality through the creation of Horcruxes. That, is fact."
"It does not speak in favour of his sanity," commented Itachi, "the price of such deals is always horrifically high."
"And you are certain…?" Harry half-asked.
"Oh, yes." Dumbledore nodded. "I had my first suspicions when the curse he used against you rebounded: it diminished him, but did not kill him. How was that possible? I did not want to believe, of course, but what else made sense of all the facts? Then," he sighed, "something horrendous happened and I received what I considered certain proof that Voldemort had split his soul."
He swallowed convulsively before explaining: "Four years ago, a child under my care disappeared. We found out later that she had been taken over by a Dark Artefact – a diary: a remnant of the time when Lord Voldemort had been Tom Riddle, a student here at Hogwarts. The diary was enchanted to possess whoever wrote into it, like the poor child did, and force them to unleash an ancient horror into the school… a basilisk, if you are familiar with such a creature?"
Harry was. The reptilian creatures weren't entirely uncommon on Spira and rightly feared for their ability to Petrify with their stare. He didn't like the idea of one running amok in a school.
"What happened?" he asked with dread.
The Headmaster looked very old when he admitted: "It was, in the end, the girl's thirteen-years-old brother, Ronald, who found her, about to access an area of the school that had long been forgotten. When he confronted her, she lost consciousness and he was faced with a ghostly shadow of Tom Riddle who attempted to drain her of the last of her life and magic."
Dumbledore paused for a moment in sorrow, then continued: "Tom Riddle told Ronald that he was a memory, left in the diary to wait for the opportune moment; he boasted of his accomplishment and tried to show off his control of the monster with which he was terrorizing Hogwarts."
Summoner and Guardians grimaced contemptuously.
"Young Ronald, showing remarkable strategic thinking for his age, was able to destroy the diary by levitating it directly into the mouth of the basilisk," went on Dumbledore. "Basilisk venom is the most potent poison known in this world and was quite sufficient to destroy it. It was also quite sufficient to almost kill Ronald, who was only saved by the intervention of my friend Fawkes."
He motioned to the gorgeous, swan-size fire bird perched nearby, who trilled a fierce comment, then sang a long, pure note. They all relaxed, quite unconsciously.
Dumbledore smiled slightly: "Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have extraordinary healing properties and their loyalty is unparalleled."
"What of the girl?" asked Harry in a grieved whisper.
Dumbledore regarded him sadly: "She survived, barely, but she will never be the same. The Horcrux had her in its grip for ten long months. Her very soul was tainted, her magic drained and her mind… she is in St. Mungo's still – our hospital. It is unlikely that she will ever live a normal life, despite the efforts of her loving family. If she had broken free, perhaps, or if the diary had targeted more than just her, spreading its influence and thus weakening it, but alas! It was not the case."
Dumbledore tented his fingers before his face, regarding them through his half-moon lenses. "This tragedy confirmed all of my fears. I did not see the effect of Tom Riddle's diary myself, but poor Ginevra's condition and what Ronald described, disturbed me greatly. A mere memory acting and thinking for itself? Sapping the life out of the girl into whose hands it had fallen? Unheard of. No, something much more sinister had lived inside that book."
"A fragment of soul," murmured Harry, feeling sick.
Seifer, from where he was sprawled in his armchair, commented, without lowering the gaze he was pinning the ceiling with: "Bit careless, though, wasn't it? Throwing it around like that? Didn't you say the point of a Horcrux is to keep part of the self hidden and safe? It's obvious that he intended the diary to be planted on some hapless child from the start, but what's the sense in that? I wouldn't go around flinging a piece of my soul at people like that. What if it gets destroyed?"
"As indeed happened: that particular fragment of soul is no more; Ronald saw to that."
"Careless," reiterated Seifer.
Dumbledore agreed: "Yes. It intrigued and alarmed me that that diary had been intended as a weapon as much as a safeguard. Voldemort was being remarkably blasé about that precious fragment of his soul concealed within it."
Harry frowned darkly. It seemed to him, this Voldemort didn't exactly value much of anything as precious. Not even his own soul. He hugged himself, deeply disturbed. Souls were meant to be whole, protected. Even the forbidden techniques and foul experiments he'd heard of in his travels went so far as using souls, but didn't dare tearing them apart. Splitting one's own soul was a violation he had a hard time digesting.
Itachi interjected calmly: "We saw that Voldemort created more than one Horcrux. Perhaps he was confident that one of them could be repurposed without endangering him."
Harry straightened, alarmed: "More than… oh, of course. The cup," he breathed, finally understanding.
"Wait… you're saying he's torn his own soul apart multiple times?!" cried Seifer. "Issues, I tell you. A number of them!"
"You have seen it yourselves. More importantly, you've seen the soul fragment that was anchored to it – the black oozing cloud that screamed as you destroyed it."
"How many others?" asked Harry, feeling sick.
"I do not know for certain."
Itachi countered at once: "That's not good enough, Headmaster."
Dumbledore paused for a moment, marshalling his thoughts, and then said: "Very well. I am convinced it must be more than a few. Lord Voldemort has seemed to grow less human with the passing years, and the transformation he has undergone seemed to me to be only explicable if his soul was mutilated beyond the realms of what we might call 'usual evil'."
"He looked perfectly human to me," said Scar.
The Headmaster shook his head: "He is, now; but during the first war… The more involved in the Dark Arts he became, the less he resembled the handsome student that had charmed so many in his youth. His features became waxy and reptilian, his frame skeletally thin, his skin as pale as snow. The whites of his eyes took on a perpetually blood-shot look." He grimaced: "The first time I saw him again, years after he had graduated and disappeared, I knew at a glance that he had delved into the Dark Arts more than anyone should dare. I know not how he regained his good looks, but it is not unreasonable to expect he's found a way in some other world he has visited."
They nodded thoughtfully.
Itachi wasn't going to be deterred from his line of questioning, however. "How many?" he asked again.
With a put upon sigh, Dumbledore conceded: "Seven is a magically significant number, indeed, in the eyes of many, it is the most powerful number. Voldemort was always one for portents and symbols; so, six is my best guess. The seventh part of his soul, however maimed, resides of course inside his regenerated body. That was the part of him that lived a spectral existence for so many years during his exile; without that, he has no self at all."
"Do you know where they are?" asked Itachi, ever practical.
"I have been attempting to locate them, but with not as much luck as I could hope. I am sure you can appreciate the magnitude of the problem," said Dumbledore calmly. "Especially since I can only guess what objects he might have chosen."
"Guess?" asked Seifer sharply. "Based on what?"
"My own observations," replied Dumbledore. "What he was like as a boy, what I have seen or heard of him as a man. If man is still a term that could describe him."
He leaned back in his armchair and listed thoughtfully: "He always liked to collect treasures. Mementoes, of his foes, of his triumphs and the like. Small things at first, but I rather expect he would prefer objects that, in themselves, have a certain grandeur for his Horcruxes. I have therefore trawled back through Voldemort's past to see if I can find evidence that such artefacts have disappeared around him."
They all nodded in understanding.
"If you were to find yourselves in the position of destroying them, I trust you will take the chance," added Dumbledore calmly.
"Do you have any pictures of the probable receptacles? It would do us little good to find them, if we cannot recognize them," pointed out Itachi.
"I will show you what memories I have collected. I know you intend to concentrate on hunting the homunculi..." He trailed off, as if expecting – hoping, maybe – that they would contradict him.
Harry merely nodded, however.
"As disturbing as Voldemort's actions are, there isn't much we can do about it, except by chance, like with the cup. And I find stopping the homunculi is a sufficiently problematic task, considering they could be anywhere in more than one world!"
Dumbledore stifled a sigh, looked disappointed, but resigned, and went on: "...but perhaps you will indeed have another chance at destroying Voldemort's soul fragments. In the meanwhile, I shall continue to investigate other avenues."
"Do you think he's entrusted them to the other homunculi?" asked Harry interestedly.
The Headmaster frowned in thought. "I would not say so, no," he said slowly. "But I would not have expected him to entrust Hufflepuff's Cup to a homunculus either. I rather expected him to have chosen complex curses and other magical protections for his Horcruxes. I might well be wrong."
He shook his head: "I cannot say what you will face. I do ask that you share the memories of your encounters with any homunculi. Just in case."
"If we even find them," muttered Scar, getting up and pacing around his armchair a little.
"Yeah, sadly, no-one's come up with a good interworld find-a-missing-person service," joked Seifer with a light smirk.
"And even if we discover where they are, we might not be able to reach them," went on Scar, ignoring his fellow Guardian with aplomb. "It's not like we have any control on where we can go."
"Ah, now. That, I can help with," said Dumbledore much more cheerfully.
Four pairs of eyes turned to him.
"Indeed, it is a problem well within our skill to fix," the wizard declared with a twinkle in his eyes. "After all, it is merely a matter of properly recreating the conditions for a passage to form. Magic, I assure you, can help with that."
Harry was intrigued at once. "Wait, you're saying that we can open a Window?"
So far, they had made some small efforts to try and locate the elusive passages, but the truly random nature of the openings and their own limited experience with world-crossing meant they had little control on their travels. And the hit-and-miss feeling wasn't confined to the source world, of course: where, exactly, they would wind up was never clear beforehand.
Mostly, they'd just relied on the Rod to guide them… and on luck to be on their side.
Dumbledore, however, was confident that they could create their own passageway between worlds rather than just hope to stumble into an existing one. The very idea had rather boggled Harry's mind, but he felt undeniably excited by the prospect.
"How do you suggest we choose where to go?" asked Scar with interest.
Harry twirled his Rod hesitantly, not willing to volunteer it when he wasn't entirely sure it could help much, but again, it was Dumbledore who had the answer.
A rather complicated answer, in truth, because locating and tracking charms were, he explained, a class of their own and quite complex in both nature and execution, even for the simplest of searches; expanding their scope to changeable or not well-defined targets, or to multiple objects, or to a very wide area, increased the difficulty noticeably. Doing all three at once required an insane amount of arithmantic calculations – a topic new to all of them and rather gruesomely obscure at times, but, Harry came to admit, fascinating.
Summoner and Guardians alike hung on his every word as the Headmaster described the theory behind the web of interlocking charms he intended to build to, at once, expand the searching area beyond the literal limits of the world and try to avoid wasting time on hoaxes and mistakes.
It was extremely complicated, and just shy of impossible.
In a word, interesting.
It took time, of course. Luckily, Hogwarts was a wondrous place and the weeks of research passed pleasantly indeed.
The four friends found the grounds lovely, whether they were in the mood for exploring, sparring, or simply whiling away the days by the lake; if the weather turned rainy, the maze of passages, rooms and stairs kept them happily occupied.
Harry and Seifer spent hours chatting with the portraits, absolutely fascinated by their very existence (not to mention their riveting stories); the Library was a dream come true for Itachi, who would be found there whenever he wasn't by his Summoner's side – at times, Harry joined him there, curious about the versatile, multifaceted magic of this world; Scar developed a completely unexpected interest in the greenhouses (a concept he was unfamiliar with), which flattered the friendly Herbology professor immensely.
As the weather turned warmer, most teachers continued to be slightly annoying, whispering and gossiping behind their back in a frustrating mixture of excitement and wariness (and the dark and brooding one had a few unpleasant encounters with the Guardians before he gave up skulking and attempting to spy on them and restricted himself to glaring) and most students went on giggling and peering as the Guardians passed by, sighing dreamily or trying to show off (then being scolded fiercely by the school nurse for attempting to emulate the Guardians and getting nothing but bruises for their troubles); but upon the whole, the Summoner and his friends were left mostly alone and the truly delicious food made dinners in the Great Hall a tolerable affair after all.
It also helped that there was no tension left between them and Dumbledore. The unspoken truce they seemed to have reached – Harry cooperating with the Headmaster's efforts to destroy the Horcruxes, the wizard giving up on him taking an open role in the war – suited them all, perhaps not perfectly, but well enough.
Longer afternoons and sweetly scented nights heralded the arrival of summer, and the students started sorting themselves out for the end of the school year; Seifer felt unaccountably nostalgic, reminded of the rhythm of life at Garden.
Once summer came in full, and the students were sent home, and the castle quieted in a somnolent peace of empty buildings waiting to be filled again, Dumbledore and his teachers joined forces on the dimensional crossing project, some more excited than others at the odd research opportunity.
The aged Headmaster had, after long consideration, been forced to admit that the power requirements to keep a Window open once formed were beyond daunting: no man could wield that much power and, he explained chagrined, resorting to a coven would just be multiplying exponentially the risk of errors in the very careful settings.
Sensibly, Harry pointed out that the Aeons' support to a Summoner was precisely for such eventualities.
The wizard was stunned for only a long moment before beaming happily and going back to the challenging project with renewed enthusiasm.
Locating of homunculi was even more fiddly, and progress was slow, but the Summoner and his Guardians weren't tired of this world yet.
They visited Fred and George regularly.
The two red-heads were forever busy with their shop and their experiments and the flurry of inventions that brightened their lives like a long, colourful fireworks show. Nevertheless, they had made it their mission to show Harry around their world, or at least, Diagon Alley.
Several afternoons saw the twins – who, despite their irreverent nature, were well-respected businessmen in the Alley – introduce the Lord Summoner around to their neighbours and fellow shopkeepers.
Be it charming Madam Primpernelle into selling him some of her Beautifying Potions (which Harry felt would be an instant hit in every world) or convincing him to try yet another odd candy with surprising effects, finally tasting the intriguing Bubble Ice-cream, or even just glancing amusedly around the secondhand robe shop (which he knew O'aka would be enthusiastic about if he could see it: clothes were an easy sell almost everywhere, after all), Fred and George were delighted to be his guides.
Seifer spent half those afternoons cursing and raging because of some prank the twins pulled on him, and the rest pranking them back, much to Harry's amusement. Scar groaned and muttered, but trailed after the younger ones anyway, occasionally slanting a glare at an invariably impassive Itachi. He just knew the ninja was amused, no matter what his blank face showed (or didn't show)!
Harry loved every minute of it.
His relationship with the twins was peculiar, he reflected. They felt almost as close to him as his Guardians, and yet not, because they instinctively distanced themselves from the connection that hovered between them, preventing its formation. They could have been his, but spontaneously chose to stay in their own lives instead.
He was fairly certain that they didn't even notice: it was visceral on their part, a dismissal that was less of a rejection and more of a testament to the strength of their affections in this world.
Not that he blamed them; the bond to a Summoner demanded all of a Guardian and it was obvious that the two wizards were too close to their family for such a commitment. They met the twins' warm-hearted parents and a few of their brothers over a meal at the Leaky Cauldron once and Harry felt their love for each other keenly, a beautiful strength unmarred even by the deep underlying grief they shared, which he didn't have the courage to inquire about. He would never want to put himself in the way of such love.
Still, it made his heart ache the tiniest bit, even though he was determined to be happy with their free-and-easy friendship.
On rare occasions, Fred and George would join the four of them in Hogwarts instead, entertaining them with tall tales of their years as King Pranksters of the school; the Guardians easily included the two in their training sessions, honing the wizards' battle skills both in close quarter (unused classrooms proving excellent practice grounds) and long range (in the beautiful meadows by the Forbidden Forest, which was a much better option than having to brave the Forest itself, to avoid an audience of starry-eyed or giggling teenagers).
Relaxing evenings by the Hogwarts lake became a cherished moment for Summoner and Guardians; but they were always alert: Dumbledore had warned them that attempting to synch the timeflows between worlds was simply out of the question and they would just have to go at whatever time the Windows could be formed.
Thus was that when, one slightly rainy night, the wizards called for Harry to stabilize a passageway they'd managed to open truly close to where the location spells indicated the presence of a homunculus, the four of them snatched the chance.
And true to their luck, arrived in the middle of a war.
Scar, who only needed a fraction of a second to recognize a place he was, lamentably, very familiar with, was beyond surprised. Yet there could be no doubt: the rigid lines of tall buildings and straight streets, and the vivid greyness of concrete walls, were simply too distinctive. This was Central.
He was perplexed, though. He'd lived (and hunted) here and it was never the quietest spot, what with petty criminals, underground gangs and the like; but now there were soldiers running and shouting everywhere, sounds of shooting and explosions, yells and rumbles and frantic scrambling everywhere.
What could have possibly happened to plunge Central into such chaos?
People were scurrying all over, the rattling of machine guns and the booming explosions of combat Alchemists at work filled the air; there was fighting in and out many of the buildings, ravaged holes in the middle of the streets, crumbling walls and broken windows; here and there, overturned trucks and cars, and fires licking edifices and darting from rubbish heaps to furniture in rooms.
It was clear that the heart of Amestris was in the middle of an uprising.
Well. Good for them.
The white-haired Guardian wasted no time in appraising his friends of the likely situation they were in and the others' first reaction was, predictably, to back off. This was not a place they wanted their Summoner in and what was to be gained by a foray into someone else's battle anyway?
Harry, also predictably, had other ideas. The location spell was still active – what was the point of it, if they would just give up at the first sign of trouble? They were going to be in danger everywhere they went, in any case. Besides, as reluctant as he admittedly was to step into the fighting, his Rod was vibrating eagerly into his hands: there was something here they needed.
Affecting to ignore his friends' grumbling, he started leading them away from the Window; trading exasperated glares, the Guardians could only follow their stubborn Summoner.
Scar took over leading them, choosing the back routes and hidden ways he knew all too well and muttering curses all the way; an unhappy Itachi and a reluctantly amused Seifer took care of keeping the fighters well away.
Fortunately, as they made their way to wherever the Rod was leading them, the noises and confusion seemed to die down more and more. Unfortunately, alleys and dark spots also seemed to dwindle, as they moved into a well-off neighbourhood which had Scar growing ever more tense.
Finally, Harry pointed to what was clearly a posh, wealthy someone's estate. Some officer of very high rank, reasoned Scar... if not the Führer himself.
He valiantly refrained from cursing aloud.
Thankfully most of the fighting seemed to be going on elsewhere (the Central command, Scar guessed) so it was more easy than expected to get in.
The building was a veritable palace: the corridors were filled with priceless antiques artfully disposed at regular intervals, velvety red curtains framed huge windows and lush red carpeting softened their footsteps. Mahogany doors were closed on a number of rooms.
One small service door was half open however and voices filled with contained fury drifted indistinctly up from what they guessed was the basement, attracting their attention.
It was a matter of minutes to climb down the narrow stairs to a darkened underground story with bare walls and cold rooms: where they found themselves unintentional witnesses to a surprising scene.
Two people stood facing each other under flickering neon lights, with all the latent hostility and coiled violence of two gladiators in an arena.
They were both extremely controlled and even though their reciprocal loathing was clear, they did not show it in any blatant way. In fact, they seemed to possess the surprising ability of telegraphing a high level of tension without expressing much emotion at all.
Almost without thought, Itachi wove a Camouflage Technique around them, playing with chakra inflections to hide their presence, and they set to observe the two.
One was an older man with a personable physique, in excellent shape for his age, clad in the blue, full length coat and slacks of the local military, complete with a sword in a sober scabbard hanging by his side. He had a full head of black hair and a thick black moustache, but what caught the eye the most was the eye patch covering his left orb, a solid-looking piece, as black and as shiny as his polished dress shoes, that seemed to dominate his big, square face. As if by contrast, his right eye was smallish, but with a dangerously glinting blue tint.
"Führer Bradley," whispered Scar, loathing evident even in his barely audible voice.
His adversary was a handsome younger man with dark, piercing eyes and a clean-shaven, baby-faced visage. His dark hair was worn casually unkempt, falling over his eyes, but in spite of this irregularity, he, too, was wearing the Amestris uniform and it was both pristine and completed by white formal-wear gloves.
"Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist," murmured Scar, recognizing him at once. "An honourable man," he added reluctantly. Mustang was still an Alchemist, but after all he'd gone through, the Ishvalan could no longer bring himself to denigrate him.
Harry nodded absently and focused on the edged exchange between the two.
"...lecturing me about betrayal," was saying the Flame Alchemist with barely leashed fury.
In contrast, the Führer's tone was light, as if he was just bantering. "Are you referring to the fact that I am... a homunculus?"
The man uncovered his eye, theatrically: a red ouroboros shone for a moment unnaturally, stark against the white eyeball. Outside the little room, Harry and his Guardians couldn't help a soft gasp of shock.
Mustang started, but recovered quickly: "Whether or not you can call yourself a human being is a non-issue as far as I'm concerned, Bradley," he spat haughtily.
Hands clenched around weapons, tension ratcheting up among the Guardians; Harry felt like fidgeting, but held himself still, wary of attracting attention.
"Then what's the problem?" asked the homunculus in a jarringly pleasant tone. "Ever since I've become Führer I've done nothing but improve this country by winning wars, purifying our population and exponentially expanding our territory."
In the dark corridor, Harry grimaced in disgust and Scar and Seifer hissed silently, fuming. The tone was so very reasonable, even amiable, but what he was saying…!
Evidently, the Flame Alchemist agreed: "You couldn't care less for this state," he retorted angrily. "All you wanted was the philosopher's stone. You started those wars because you knew people pushed into despair by war tend to seek refuge in the stone," accused the Colonel, making Scar go rigid in outrage. A wave of grief slammed into Harry from his Guardian and he reached out blindly, uncertain, hoping to comfort and not knowing how.
The voices seemed suddenly farther away; the homunculus was dismissive: "People are foolish;" Mustang's eyes narrowed: "Fools enough to let you profit from their pain and suffering."
Harry took a deep breath and forcibly brought his attention back to the confrontation.
"You got me all wrong," protested the Fuhrer genially. "To stop the human race from going to ruin I intervene and take the stone. By preventing its use, I figure myself one of God's guardian angels."
Itachi's hand shot out and gripped Seifer's arm, hard, to prevent him from scoffing loudly. Scar's fists were so tight he was probably hurting himself.
"There's no such thing as God," was saying the Colonel.
Itachi and Seifer moved in synch to cover their Summoner, some indefinable signal warning them that violence was about to be unleashed.
"We can't know that for sure; however..." That was the homunculus again, voice growing colder with every word: "devils do exist."
He took a fighting stance, centring himself, and proclaimed grandly: "They're the alchemists who dare to get in my way!" With a soft swoosh, he bared his sword, raising it menacingly.
Mustang also quickly took a fighting stance, raising his glove and inadvertently letting the four spectators catch a good look of the simple, red Alchemic Circle embroidered on it.
For all his readiness, however, the homunculus was too quick: he threw the sword so fast none saw the movement clearly and the Colonel barely avoided being skewered by the blade, staring in shock at where it embedded itself in the wall with such astonishing force, it pierced a small crater in the plaster.
Mustang grimaced in dismay, and in the corridor, the four witnesses did the same.
Bradley wrenched it out with a grunt. "How unfortunate," he commented tauntingly. "A quick swish of my sword changes the air currents, disrupting your precious alchemic reaction: how can you expect to manipulate the air composition if it's constantly in flux?"
He mock-saluted his opponent with his sword, then, far too fast, he launched a flurry of attacks; the Colonel gasped and jumped, and the unheeded spectators watched with bated breath: it was all Mustang could do to keep out of the blade's cutting edge.
Careful not to attract attention, the four remained in the dark hallway, following the duel with great interest.
First blood went to Bradley – a slash to Mustang's arm.
"Do we help him?" murmured Seifer, tense and vigilant. But Harry was distracted: his Rod was quivering with repressed energy and he could not figure out why. Was it something in the room… or in the combatants?
"My Ultimate Eye sees your alchemy at work!" proclaimed the homunculus, sword raised again, triumphant.
The Flame Alchemist had at last found his footing. He flicked out his hand, resolute and quick; an explosion rocked the walls.
Harry and his Guardians peered anxiously through the smoke, which parted quickly. Surrounded by small fires, whose twisting flames endured over the broken stone rubble, the bleeding Colonel was on his knees, panting with effort; before him, the unharmed homunculus still stood tall, his clothes in tatters but his powerful form untouched by fire or soot.
With a grimace of madness, he shook his ruined coat off, remaining in a short-sleeved black t-shirt under the suspenders of his military issue slacks, and ran an almost loving hand down the blade of his sword, his one eye glinting malevolently at the impassive Colonel as he snarled softly, readying himself for battle.
Cuts marred Mustang's face and he was breathing harshly, yet he was visibly refusing to give in to fatigue and pain.
Raising his arm again, another burst of flames enveloped the homunculus… to no avail.
Itachi calmly prodded Harry further back, away from the softly burning fires that seemed to have invaded the room, as the Führer called out from the flames: "Is my species of consequence to you now?"
The homunculus emerged through the fire, looking nowhere near human now: blackened and charred, unrecognisable, with his ouroboros glowing like burning ember in his eye. But even as he spoke, its human appearance was reconstructing.
Fury danced in the Flame Alchemist's eyes, drowning the hints of fear: teeth bared in a snarl, he staggered to his feet and backed away.
Lightning fast, the homunculus rushed him and skewered the Colonel, piercing his shoulder with the sword and holding him pinned to the wall without effort. Mustang let out an agonized scream.
A strange ring glinted on the homunculus' left middle finger and it caught Harry's eye like nothing else had so far. A gold ring inset with a square black stone… With a jolt, he realized that he had seen it – and the etching on it, a circle within a triangle, cut by a vertical line, confirmed it – before: in Dumbledore's collection of memories.
Could it be…? Had they really…? Was it possible... that they'd found another Horcrux, along with one of the homunculi?
His Rod vibrated strongly, the familiar hum sounding almost approving.
Distracted by the realization, the Summoner missed what the two fighters were saying and was only brought back from his whirling thoughts by Mustang's grief-filled cry: "This was the only way I could atone for the friend I didn't save!"
Sorrow richly coated his tone and Harry felt his esteem for the sophisticated Colonel grow.
The homunculus, on the other hand, was losing patience: "Well then by all means, let me help you with that. Give my best regards to General Hughes," he snarled. Sadistically, he twisted the blade inside the wound.
The four silent spectators took a step forward as one, intent on helping, but their movement was aborted by the unforeseen patter of small feet behind them.
Quite unexpectedly, a dark-haired child appeared at a run, barely faltering at catching sight of their concealed forms, before dismissing them as a trick of the light and running forth, a bag slung over his shoulder.
He stopped abruptly a step or two inside the room, taking in the fires, the destruction and the Führer pinning a man to the wall, with wide, guileless eyes.
"What's going on?" he asked innocently.
Pretending nothing was wrong, Bradley straightened, still holding the Colonel skewered onto his sword, and said urbanely: "Hello, son."
"Son?!" whispered Harry, half-horrified.
"What is it with those things thinking they've got families?" muttered Scar. "It's ridiculous!"
The Führer was, they acknowledged, pretty good at playing the loving father. He smiled at the child genially and gentled his voice, appearing misleadingly calm and even pleasant – a world apart from the wrathful creature of a moment before.
"Good news," he reassured the child cheerfully. "I've got the rat."
"Ooh!" The boy looked instantly relieved and proud of his 'father'. He smiled widely: "I'm sorry that I disobeyed you, father, but I just had to come back. I forgot something and I wanted to make sure that you're ok," he said earnestly.
A chuckle, and the Fuhrer pushed himself up, leaving Mustang pinned to the wall without a care, before leaning down to smile at the child running up to him.
The Colonel was trying to say something, forcing it out through the pain, but no-one much listened…
Something was wrong.
The homunculus was leaning over the child, hands on his shoulders and… he wasn't moving. The fake paternal aura he'd put on was dissolving fast, rage building in him visibly, but he wasn't moving. At all. He was obviously struggling to manage and... couldn't.
"What the hell…?" muttered Seifer.
"Father, what's the matter?" asked the child, puzzled.
The homunculus spit out a few groans of effort and fury, but he still couldn't move.
Alarmed, the boy cried: "You look like you're hurt, what's wrong?"
"What's going on?" whispered Harry.
With effort, the homunculus hissed: "What have you done, you – idiot?" His composed, amiable tone had vanished, leaving only rage in its wake.
Shocked, the boy widened his big, brown eyes: "Uh… I just… I got it from your safe." He motioned slightly to the bag he was carrying, tried to justify himself. "You said your life depended on it and I didn't want it to get hurt in the fire."
He looked pleased with himself, expecting praise, but his 'father' quickly disabused of the notion.
With a roar of rage, his hands clenched around the child's throat. He squeezed.
With immense effort, Mustang pushed himself away from the wall, tearing the sword out of his shoulder, heedless of the blood that poured quickly out of the wound, determined to help the child: but it wasn't needed. Scar and Seifer had reacted at once, falling upon the creature before he could do too much damage.
Seifer's gunblade flashed through the air, cutting off Bradley's arms at the wrists neatly. With a powerful kick, which would have snapped a lesser creature's spine, Scar threw the homunculus away from the child, who crumbled in Seifer's arms, horrified eyes riveted on his father's cut hands falling from his neck.
Harry felt his heart clench at the shock and fear in the boy's features, the desperate betrayal in his voice: "F-fa… ther…!"
The stumps of the creature were already reforming, black hands pushing out, claw-like at first, shaping themselves slowly.
"You are foolish," Bradley said, voice rough and low. "All of you. Even my own son."
Ignoring the frightened sniffles of the boy, he climbed to his feet slowly, then turned, and half his face was a black, inhuman mask around the glowing red ouroboros in his pupil.
"Throw it away!" he barked and the terrified boy obeyed at once, before Seifer could stop him: the bag sailed through the air and the Guardian grasped futilely at it, cursing.
As soon as the bag landed in a corner, the homunculus lunged at the petrified child, his face a mask of hatred. Scar wordlessly intercepted the blow and engaged him.
The child stumbled back from Seifer in painful shock: "Father!" he cried out, unable – unwilling – to understand.
"Shut up, worthless human! I will kill you!"
With a snarl, the homunculus lunged again, only to be met once more by Scar's roundabout kick. He turned on the Ishvalan ferociously, mouth deformed in a rictus of rage.
Bleeding and hurt, Mustang seemed to be paralysed with shock, eyeing the battle and the strangers warily.
Soldiers came pounding down a corridor all of a sudden and before anyone could react, Bradley barked out to 'take down the intruders'. Steadied by their General's orders, the newly arrived instantly opened fire – in a swirl of cloth, Itachi had Harry out of the way and shielded by his own body.
Fire blazed from Seifer's hand, engulfing the racing bullets.
"I'll handle them! Stay out of my way!" shouted Seifer and pushed the frightened child, whom he'd dragged out of the burning room, towards Harry.
Scar was still fighting.
Harry nodded, decided. Gently, he pushed the shell-shocked child into Itachi's arms, wincing as the pale and gasping boy turned tear-filled eyes on him in incomprehension and unconsciously clutched more tightly at his blue tunic.
"Itachi, take the child away," Harry ordered quietly but steadily.
The Guardian stiffened in disapproval and shot him a dark glare, but as usual, obeyed nonetheless and in an instant, they were gone, probably to some safe corner Itachi had previously scouted as a matter of habit.
Harry did not worry. Instead, he swiftly skittered to the discarded bag and then made his way to the wary-looking Colonel, running half-crouched, almost unnoticed, deftly dodging the raining blows and roaring flames that filled the room.
"The Flame Alchemist?" he asked, by way of getting the man's attention.
The Colonel's focus snapped to him. His black eyes burned with uncertainty and determination and faint horror and overwhelming ambition.
Harry met them fearlessly and nodded in acknowledgement of the other's strength of will.
He stuck a hand out, holding the bag to the State Alchemist: "In order to defeat a Homunculus for good, the piece of their body that anchors them must be destroyed. It is their greatest weakness, for it paralyses them if they're exposed to it, but it is also their linchpin to existence. You must destroy this... and you'll be able to 'kill' it. Unfortunately, normal means will not be enough..."
The Colonel's gaze sharpened and he nodded back, snatching the bag away. He rose to his feet slowly, utter determination in every line of his body, and took out the skull within it, holding it high. Painstakingly, he drew the familiar Alchemic Circle on the back of his raised hand, using his own blood.
"My flames are not 'normal'. It will pose no problems," he said to Harry, coolly and confidently.
The Summoner smiled grimly: "Then I shall leave things to you."
He ran back out of the room, narrowly avoiding blows from the still ongoing fight.
Seifer was laughing loudly outside in the narrow hallway, clearly having fun. His gun was a red flash, like a tongue of fire cutting down uniformed men and women and shielding him from their bullets with ease.
Harry took a deep breath and bellowed: "We're leaving!"
Scar disengaged with smooth easiness and was beside him in a handful of seconds, mindless of the outraged yells of his foe.
Seifer threw a Quake that he had clearly kept in store for the opportune moment and then twisted around them, covering their escape with a couple low-level Fires.
The homunculus burst out of the room, trying to stop Scar still: "Come back and DIE, Ishvalan!"
"No, Bradley!" the surprisingly chilling voice of the Flame Alchemist cut through the raging inferno like an icy wind, fuelling the flames with the cold rage it carried: "It is YOUR time to die!"
An explosion the likes of which is rarely seen engulfed everything.
Soldiers screamed, whether in fear or because caught up in it, it was impossible to tell. Summoner and Guardians backed away with dismayed cries.
"This way," Itachi's calm voice directed them.
They swivelled to see him standing in a nearby room, as composed as ever, though the slight hint of a frown was enough to tell Harry that his Guardian was severely annoyed. The child was slung over his shoulder, having succumbed to unconsciousness.
"I scouted an escape route. Please hurry," he said in his polite monotone.
Glancing back, Harry caught one last sight of the Flame Alchemist, tall and proud before the snarling, frozen Führer.
Blindingly bright flames enveloped the homunculus, stuck in place by the one thing with the power to halt him: his own human remains; through the screams of rage and pain, the Colonel stood still, forcing himself to hold the skull up and the alchemic reaction active. Orange rays of light poured up from his hand, making it glow like a tiny miniature sun, and shadows danced over his face, cast by the dancing flames. He never wavered.
An eerie scream rose from within the flames; dense, black smoke hovered for a long moment, attempting to gain form, and was brutally dispersed, even as the homunculus started to melt.
That was all the confirmation he needed, and Harry couldn't stop his triumphant grin. Another Horcrux down!
A gloved hand on his shoulder dragged him forward, away from the spreading fire.
The heat was starting to be overwhelming. Scar took the child to leave Itachi's hands free, hoping his Elemental Techniques could control the flames, but the water the ninja conjured was barely strong enough to put out the smaller fires and even Seifer's long-hoarded Blizzards proved awkwardly weak.
It looked like the Flame Alchemist hadn't boasted in vain: his flames weren't fazed by anything they could throw at them.
"Run!" bellowed Scar at the top of his lungs.
Smoke was invading the space above their heads; the heat could very well be weakening the concrete, slowly turning the basement into a death trap; but Itachi led them with surety.
A corridor, then another, into a storage room and out again and they were on another service stair, running up towards the main floor and fresh air and- more soldiers.
Harry half-groaned, even as he started twirling his Rod, Seifer mimicking him: Protects flared briefly blue around them.
"Look!" exclaimed Scar urgently. He pointed to the right, where surprisingly, a Window fluttered – hanging on a wall like a very unusual picture, about two meters from the floor.
"We don't know if it leads back to our starting point," warned Itachi calmly. "It could be a passage to a different world altogether."
The soldiers started shooting at them, bullets ricocheting all around them, grazing their magical shields.
"Forget that!" shouted Harry. "Let's just get out of here!"
That was all it took.
Scar, the child still held securely, took off at a fast run, leapt horizontally on the wall, gathering momentum, ricocheted against the opposite wall and dove through the opening in mid-arir head first, twisting to cushion his eventual landing with his back.
Itachi grabbed Harry, who instinctively clutched his shoulders tightly, and suddenly they were airborne, chackra-touching the ceiling to reverse their momentum and be flung out of the raging inferno, Seifer hot on their heels, albeit much less gracefully.
They fell to the ground on the other side, which was much nearer in the other world: they narrowly avoided falling heavily upon each other.
Harry shivered: after the fire, the cool air of the sunset here felt positively chilly.
Before he could gather his bearings, Itachi's voice – unexpectedly trembling – stuttered: "Little Brother?"