Author's Note: I've nearly completely recovered from my LASIK surgeries. Thank you to everyone who sent me messages, they were greatly appreciated! Anyone who follows me knows that I'm writing a second story, Blindness, which is nearly complete. I am planning to finish that story before I update WSOSW again (100-200k). I'll keep an update of my progress on my profile, so you know I'm still alive and working. I simply found that I work much better concentrating on one plotbunny at a time, and Blindness transformed from a oneshot to a good story in its own right. My hours have also doubled at work, thanks to spring corn/soybean planting and gearing up for wheat harvest, so my writing time has greatly decreased in response. Expect a good month or two before the next update at best.
As always, many thanks to my beta GJMEGA, who helps make this story great! Also thanks to my pre-readers jdh41, MayaCC, and Costin, who put up with nearly five months wait as I tried to beat my muse into submission.
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
-T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land)
Harry had faced a conundrum, and limited time to solve it.
There were only two places he could think to bring muggles where they would be safe. The first endangered those already present; the second was a risk of another sort.
Australia or America. Which magical government would he trust? Both had reasons to hate Britain. Both had reasons to keep his secrets safe.
But only one had offered him sanctuary, and only one seemed to be willing to bargain.
So when it was time to take the Grangers away, it was North America he let the flames take them to, and the leafless trees of North Carolina in the middle of winter that surrounded them.
The place was dark, only the muggle safety lights still piercing the dark. When Harry's eyes went to them, they flickered ominously.
"Harry?" Hermione asked, and he looked towards her. She stood, shivering, one hand around her mother's stomach. Harry extended a wave of power and settled a warming charm over all three of the Grangers.
Then, he closed his eyes briefly before turning to Dobby.
"Go to Diagon Alley, get Remus. He needs to return here for the time being. I don't want to leave you all in an unfamiliar place without guidance. He can keep his room rented, give the appearance he is there at least. But I need him here for now."
The elf bowed and was gone; Harry looked toward Hermione with grim eyes.
"Tell Remus everything that happened. You will be safe here for the night, at least. I'll return tomorrow, hopefully with a more permanent place for us to stay."
"Will you be alright?" She asked softly, and he looked away from her sad brown eyes.
"I need some time. To think, get my mind in order."
He heard a shuffle; then she stepped close to him, her warm scent a warning before she wrapped her arms tightly around him.
Alright. Her voice echoed in his mind. I'll call you, if anything… if I need you.
Harry leaned into her embrace for a few precious seconds, soaking in the comfort it provided. Then he pulled free.
"Tomorrow. And if Gryffon appears, let him know I need to speak with him regarding the sanctuary America offered."
In the hours of darkness, unable to sleep, unable to rest his mind, Harry utilized his phoenix flame to its full ability.
First, he went to Australia and tested the wards of the house in Kondinin vigorously, applying as many extra schemes as he could think of. Then he went to New York, and on the door and walls of the apartment drew runes of power, careless of the light bulbs in the hallway when they shattered above him. No one or thing would come through that door unless they were Sirius or Hannah; and he flamed a note under the door saying as much. It wouldn't do for any guests to be evicted.
He made sure each ward scheme covered the walls, floors, and ceilings. When he had done that, he flew to the exterior windows and warded those as well, knowing that both wizards and muggles alike did not always enter through a door.
Then, all of his family as protected as they could possibly be, Harry simply flew. He soared over the peaceful snow of the mountains in Scotland; then he flamed to Egypt, and roamed the skies over the flickering lights of muggles far below, his mind blank though his heart raced.
When the Sun began to rise, he landed at the altar in Heliopolis and let the light bathe skin and feather and hair, and with a hoarse scream of pain, transformed into the scarlet phoenix form, the Void only a distant memory as the Sun's magic cleansed him of its taint.
And Harry sang; a mournful tune full of pleading to be free of the darkness between the stars.
Before he finished, more phoenixes came and joined his song.
And miles away, outside the wards on a muggle street, the women who came outside to start their day stopped and listened with awed silence as the voices of the old gods spoke to them once again.
Rufus Scrimgeour's aching leg was his first warning of things to come.
He had lived with the old scars for many years. He knew their aches and pains the way a wizard knew his wand. He knew the feeling of upcoming weather; he knew the gradual dull pain of stress, of too much walking and too little rest.
And he knew the deep, sharp pangs of power.
When his office door closed behind him, he knew who was there. Even before he limped behind his desk and fell into his chair, he breathed in the dark scent of fury and power, so familiar from only days before.
"Mr. Potter." He whispered, and the air before his bookcase swirled and split apart, revealing the teenage boy, now properly clothed in a black robe, hood pulled over his dark hair, wings mysteriously gone.
And furious, so furious the expression he had held during the destruction of the Goblet seemed tame.
"What happened?" Rufus said softly, and the boy took a step forward; only he did not seem to step, but glide, his booted feet not quite touching the floor, not quite moving naturally.
He had heard rumors of the mages of other countries, ones that did not hide their power, did not try to assimilate as Albus Dumbledore did.
Now he understood why those who spoke of such seemed so uncomfortable. There was something alien about the grace such power gave its bearers.
"Hermione's parents were attacked." There was a pause; nearly audible grinding of teeth. "By the Ministry."
Rufus felt the words hit his chest like a curse. His mouth went dry.
Harry Potter interrupted him with words that echoed oddly in the room, as if another voice spoke behind his.
"A woman, in pink."
Rufus felt the answer drawn from his lips as if veritaserum was on his tongue.
"Dolores Umbridge. Senior Undersecretary to the Minister. Head of the task force set to find you."
Potter snarled, and Rufus heard the rumble of thunder.
"Tell me you know this is wrong. This entire situation. Tell me. You are the only man in this Ministry I still hold a shred of respect for."
Rufus held out his hands, seeing the scars upon them from battle, the callouses of wand training and paperwork alike on his fingers.
"We are so close to removing Fudge from office, and Umbridge along with him. We will purge the Ministry."
"We?" Potter questioned, and Rufus hesitated.
Then, he spoke her name.
Potter slowly nodded. He seemed to be gaining some measure of calm; the power in his office did not seem as threatening, content to merely stir the air in ways it should not, fluttering the papers on his desk, teasing the objects decorating his shelves like the curious fingers of a child.
"I came with two warnings for you."
Rufus sat upright, meeting the green gaze of a boy he knew he was honor bound to bring to justice.
Potter's face was cold.
"The wizarding world is about to be revealed to the muggles. I don't know how soon; it could be in a week, in a month, in a year. But it's going to happen."
Rufus paled; the information he had been given out of America, the information from Kingsley, their interactions with the muggle terrorists, all coming together.
And now, to hear this from Harry Potter of all people. What had the boy to do with those people?
"Okay." Rufus said simply, and Potter's lips twisted.
"I figured you must have already suspected something. At least, I hoped the Ministry wasn't that hopeless. I don't care what you plan to do with the information, but I hope you can put some preparations in place to make the transition smoother."
Rufus raised his chin.
"You aren't afraid we can stop them?"
"Afraid?" Potter's voice was sarcastic. "No. Once, I would have tried stopping them myself, but not now. I'd be content to see the Ministry burn, if it wouldn't hurt so many innocent people in the process. I figure if anyone has a prayer of keeping that from happening, it would be you."
Rufus felt the compliment as a sharp dagger, one that could sink into his own chest if he failed.
He cleared his throat. "And the other warning? You said there were two."
Potter's eyes were like shards of green fire.
He spoke her name like a curse; and long after the teen had vanished in the trademark flames the Department of Mysteries was so fervently trying to understand, Rufus heard the syllables echo around his office with foreboding, lethal threat.
No other words had been necessary to give away the boy's intent.
"Explain it, again." Griphook's voice was incredulous; his sharp teeth seen from between lips parted in confusion.
Harry, a black robe wrapped about his form, stood beside one wall in the exact same position he had assumed when he first flamed in. One of firm determination.
"Find me property, somewhere where the daylight hours are as long as possible and not a lot of people live, the desert maybe, Egypt or Africa, or perhaps America. No magical or muggle towns in easy distance. No wards present at all to interfere with what I build. Price is not important, but speed is. I need this as soon as possible. Remember, as much sun as possible."
The goblin's expression didn't alter. "I heard that, but… you also said…"
One corner of Harry's mouth lifted in a cold smile.
"Yes. I'm making a sanctuary for muggles and magicals alike. For anyone who wishes to join me when what I foresee takes place. And you, too, are welcome."
Griphook's head slowly shook back and forth. "I… you say…"
"Yes." Harry's face went blank, now, and his green eyes gleamed with the power the goblin could feel suffusing the room like the breath of a cave troll, only more oppressive and less revolting. "The muggles are going to learn about magic, and wizards, and goblins, and Gringotts. They are going to learn about the gold here. They are going to learn the exchange rates. And how they react is anyone's guess, and will probably fluctuate depending on the country. It's a risky time to be in the banking business. Which is why I'm extending refuge to you and… well, any family you may have. If, of course, you can get me land to build such a place on."
"I have to speak to the bank manager. I have to… there is so much... are you sure..."
The goblin was flustered, his mind reeling, the impossibility of such a thing and the unthinkable consequences too much to bear in a moments notice.
The magic in the room flexed; it seemed to pulse like the beating of a heart. Griphook fell silent, and Harry Potter spoke.
"Tell anyone of your kind who will listen. Prepare how you can. But if you must pick a side, I recommend the muggles." The teenage wizard's chin lifted. "The Ministry is a fickle friend."
The goblin snorted. "Wizards do not understand good business."
Harry took that statement for what it was; a potential direction the wind might blow, if things came to a head.
Long had the relationship between goblins and wizarding kind been fraught with trouble. If the goblins found a chance to successfully escape the clutches of the Ministry's control, they would do so, no matter what strange bedfellows they may gain in the process.
"Find me a sanctuary, and if you need it, I will find a way you may discuss business with more sympathetic ears."
Griphook smiled; and it was the fierce, bloodthirsty baring of teeth that made goblin kind so feared in the days of the revolts and their vicious battles.
Harry did not smile in return; but the power in the room beat faster like the drumming beat of war.
Lord Voldemort was not unaware of the dangers of what his follower presented; and death was a foe he had long learned to approach with caution.
But he had preparations in place, if the worst was to happen. Malfoy was tasked with retrieving the diadem, a piece of his soul that would strengthen him, increasing his power once more when he merged it with himself. The locket, he found to his great fury, was long stolen, and must have been destroyed; but the cup still lay safe in a vault where it had been hidden for decades. It would remain there, for now, until he could find some way to retrieve it as well.
And now, it was time to lay low, and let his enemies think they had won. Time to gain strength and restore his ranks from those dead or too cowardly to follow him.
He would destroy Harry Potter, if he had to summon the Dark itself to swallow him whole. If he had to sacrifice a part of his own soul to do it. He had to repair his reputation; it was a matter of principle now, not only self-preservation, to kill a rival capable of such destruction.
Lord Voldemort would tolerate no opposition.
There could be only one Dark Lord of Britain.
Zak Gryffon was waiting, Jack at his side, when he felt the rumble of power appear. It rolled across the ground like a wave, washing against every building and person, sending odd shivers across the skin of those conscious of such things.
It appeared Harry Potter was no longer hiding, or even suppressing, his power.
Zak lifted his chin when the teenager turned his head from looking at Ms. Granger to meet his gaze.
"Mr. Gryffon." Harry said softly, beginning to approach them with tired steps. The boy's power shifted behind him like a sentient thing, a second pair of eyes taking their measure.
He did not think it coincidence that the teen set himself between them and Hermione, curling one possessive arm over her shoulders. Nor that his power circled her like a serpent wrapping protective coils around its nest.
It was all too easy to see what the boy valued most.
"Mr. Potter." Zak said, and gestured towards Jack. "Agent Jackson. The North American Bureau sends him as their representative."
"You move fast." Harry said softly, and Zak saw the agent grin.
"I was already here." Jack shrugged. "They are very eager to hear your response to their offer of sanctuary."
Harry's green gaze darted between them, his face expressionless. Then he sighed, and Zak easily read the defeat in the sound.
"I want to know if their offer extends to my family and friends."
"Of course." Jack quickly responded without hesitation. "The Bureau understands the position you have found yourself in, and greatly disagrees with the treatment you have been given so far by your home country. This does, of course, extend to those who support you to their own detriment."
Harry met Zak's eyes, unblinking. "And you? What do you think of their offer?"
One corner of Zak's lips lifted in a half-smile. "I know you're smart enough to know that you will owe them a favor if you take the offer, and that that is what they want. You in their debt."
"What would they ask of me?" Harry asked, and looked back at the agent. "I have power, yes. But I've received no official schooling in two years, and was Flamel's apprentice for less than one. What benefit could I bring them?"
Jack laughed; Gryffon looked away, finding no humor in the statement when its answer should have been obvious.
"Two things." Jack said, shaking his head. "One, you won't be aiding Britain, which we have no love for. Two, you, Mr. Potter, would be useful for a great deal. From only the reports coming from Durmstrang they can guess your abilities in battle magic. But from the intelligence received from events that may have happened prior to your arrival at that Tournament's second challenge, those abilities are more than just normal mage-level. They are spectacular. You are a weapon that the Bureau would rather have on its side than against it. Your ability to teleport around the world, your level of power, those alone make you invaluable."
Zak saw Hermione open her mouth as if to speak; and then just as quickly snap it shut, turning to glare fiercely at Harry. For a long moment, the two seemed to communicate silently between them.
Then, Hermione's shoulders slumped, and Harry turned to face them both.
"I won't be anyone's pawn or weapon. If the Bureau's offer comes with hooks, then I will approach another country for refuge. But if they are willing to let me owe them a simple favor, to have my goodwill, that is different."
Jack stiffened, a frown pulling his face down. "Offering you sanctuary is not an easy thing, Mr. Potter. Maybe you do not understand the difficulty involved. The repercussions we are already facing from Europe…"
"You made the offer." Harry interrupted his friend. "That's your problem. You want to know what I will give you in return, and I told you. My goodwill."
"That's not only what we want." Jack said, and the wizard's eyes darted around him. "Might we talk in private?"
Harry followed the man's gaze; It was only Zak Gryffon, Jack, and Hermione in the clearing outside the werewolf sanctuary where he had told Hermione to bring them early in that morning.
"I keep no secrets from Hermione." Harry said, and Jack looked skeptical.
Then, the agent wet his lips and spoke the truth.
"We want the Hounds."
Harry had known it was only a matter of time; sooner or later, James' actions would come to light. If Scrimgeour's reaction was anything to go by, then Britain had already uncovered some of the truth. It stood to reason that other countries would as well.
Still, none had put him together with the group until now.
"What makes you think I can give you them?" Harry asked quietly, and saw triumph spark in the other wizard's eyes.
"So you admit you know them?"
Harry narrowed his eyes. "You wouldn't have mentioned them to me unless you had a good reason to think I knew of them. As it is, the time is past to deny I know them. There is no reason to."
Across from him, both Jackson and Gryffon went on alert; their eyes fixed on him.
"What do you mean?" Agent Jackson questioned, and Harry's smile was bitter.
"The damage is done. The Hounds have what they wanted, and more."
The agent took a single step forward; and despite himself, Harry felt himself tense, his fingers squeezing Hermione's shoulders, his power stirring the air.
Jackson paused, then spoke. "Tell us everything you know of them, and we will be in your debt, Harry Potter. We need to know what their endgame is, how they hope to accomplish it, who their members are. Our information to date has not been enough…"
"I've admitted I've broken the Statute." Harry broke in quietly, watching the two wizards carefully. "And neither of you seemed in the least worried about it."
He watched the two americans look at each other, before their eyes came back to him. Harry's eyes narrowed, conclusions beginning to form.
"Wilson was prepared for wizards or muggles to come for him. Your Bureau has had dealings with muggles before, hasn't it? And not only memory wipes and the like. You've broken the Statute already. "
America has always been against the Statute. Hermione spoke into his mind, her voice urgent. They had to be forced politically and economically to join the ICW, often with threats of violence.
Harry's gaze darted to meet Hermione's, then he faced the silent men and began to smile. "You won't give me away to the ICW, because the ICW doesn't know about your own crimes."
Agent Jackson finally spoke, calculation clear on his face. "We can be great allies, Mr. Potter. I think you will find the Bureau has much in common with your own situation."
Harry's smile faded. "Britain wants me because I destroyed Ministry property, and because they suspect I've had dealings in blood magic. That's the official crimes, anyway. I'm sure they will also count illegally entering Ministry property, and murdering Ministry employees, given a few more days. I'm not sure my situation quite compares."
"Murder?" Gryffon questioned, and Harry saw no condemnation in his gaze, only puzzlement.
Hermione shifted, her voice soft as she spoke.
"It was in self-defense. They were trying to kill us, and last night, my parents…"
Harry laughed, scoffing. "Self-defense? I could have bound them, Hermione. I could have petrified then, knocked them unconscious, simply kicked them out. I didn't have to kill them."
"But it wasn't your fault!" Hermione turned to face him, eyes earnest. "Harry, you can't really think…"
"I made a sacrifice." Harry said to her softly, and looked towards the two wizards. "The allegations about blood magic are true. You can see it for yourself." He held up his hands, the raised scars pale and vivid. "And the forces behind blood magic are often Dark. I would not trust myself in battle, with either enemies or friends. I might kill both without qualm."
Hermione stomped one foot. "You've always managed to hold yourself back! You're strong, Harry. You're not a monster."
"No, but I have a monster inside me." Harry countered, and lifted his chin. "Influencing me, threatening to possess me." He looked back at Gryffon. "For the safety of Hermione and her parents, I will give the Bureau the information I have on the Hounds. It's won't be much more than what I've already told Rufus Scrimgeour and the goblins. The Hounds are about to break the news of the wizarding world to the muggles around the world, and in such a manner I think there is no way wizards could stop them. Maybe the muggles could, using their own technology… but I'm not sure why they would want to."
He saw the reaction hit both wizards; and saw too that they were not surprised, but only looked as if the worst situation they had feared could come to pass had just actually done so.
"And yourself?" Gryffon finally said. "What do you want in return, if not sanctuary?"
Harry shrugged, eyes dark and brooding. "Maybe, after all is said and done, forgiveness. I've got business to deal with in Britain; Voldemort is still alive, and he won't stop hurting people until he's dead. The Ministry… they've gone too far. If I can get myself straight; regain control over my own power, then I plan on trying to help overthrow the government."
Hermione jumped in shock; the two american's stiffened. Harry's smile was dark. "You are standing with a Hound, in case you forgot, the only wizarding one that I know of. We're all revolutionaries of one sort or another."
"The Bureau can not officially support…" Jackson began, and Harry waved a hand to cut him off.
"Which is why I haven't asked you to. I'll give you information to take back to your people, and you won't see me here again unless it is to retrieve my family. I won't draw America into my personal battles."
"Very well." Gryffon said with finality. "But remember that you do have friends on this side of the ocean. And while the Bureau will state up and down that Britain is an ally, the truth is that they are not. None of the European Ministries are our friend. And if you can turn the tide against Britain's Ministry, the Bureau will join the pack to finish them."
"The ICW must fall first." Agent Jackson warned, running a hand through his short black hair. "If Britain struggles, France and Germany are right behind it. Spain, Portugal…"
Harry smiled grimly.
"Soon, the ICW will lose its purpose for existing. Each country will have enough problems on their own without joining in with everyone else."
"That's certain." Gryffon groaned, and a long silence fell.
"It's going to be pure hell." Jackson whispered, and met Harry's eyes. "Tell me everything, and forgive me if I hope you are wrong and we can still stop them. There are better ways to bring the world together."
Harry nodded. Then, he looked at Hermione.
"Better, maybe. But desperate people look for desperate methods. They'll do something, even if they have to repent for it later. But at least they're doing something."
Harry told Agent Jackson about Mr. Steel; about the old man's unlikely plan to find a muggleborn, about the ways they had infiltrated the wizarding world even a little to bring back magical items into the muggle world. He told them about the plan to send Harry to Hogwarts as a spy, of all the books and items Harry had bought and retrieved for the Hounds.
Then, he told them about James, and the mad muggles devious plans to tear apart the fragile calm of the world as violently as possible. How he hated wizarding kind, and how Harry regretted ever helping him in any way.
He told them about the Internet and how it would be used; then he told them how James had vanished, and managed to hide even from phoenix abilities.
He told them his suspicions aboutPUB and how it was being used; its ability to nullify spells and protect the mind. He told them Stephen Wilson had the formula, but that Wilson was prepared for war, if it was necessary.
He told them to prepare; prepare for muggles to learn the truth, prepare for the demands, the anger when the use of memory charms became clear, the pleas from the desperate people around the world who would want what magic had to offer. And worse, the fear of something unknown, fear that could lead any human being, muggle or magical, to commit horrible atrocities.
No one could possibly predict how it would end. That there would be war was a given; but where, between who, how long, and about what were impossible to tell.
And when Harry was done talking about the Hounds, Hermione said goodbye to her parents, and Harry encouraged Remus in staying with the pack.
When he left, it was with Hermione at his side to return to Britain.
House-elves were one of the most misunderstood magical creatures.
They were happy to please, easy-going, small creatures whose very nature made them easy to ignore. They were kind and capable of the greatest sacrifices for their House.
They served their House; and in return, the House they were bound to gave them magic and protection. The more powerful the House, the more powerful the elf. It was a symbiotic relationship, sacred and sought-after, a matter of pride among elf kind.
Ivy had served the Potter House for two centuries. Her mate had perished when their child was young; and for Blossom's sake Ivy had remained though her heart ached to be parted from her other half. House-elves took only one mate in one lifetime, for their magic commingled and became one source shared between the two souls.
She was in her last century, now, and old for a house-elf. She had been ready to pass on the matriarchal rule of the House to Blossom very soon, once her daughter acquired the Malfoy elf for her own to help her in the task.
She had not wanted to abandon the House; for that was what Hallam St. was, once Godric's Hollow was destroyed. And without the Master to make her and the Mistress unwilling to force her to leave, Ivy had stayed.
And there it was that the aurors had found her and taken her.
At first, they hardly noticed her presence; they searched the entire flat from the first floor to the attic. They had cast their spells, ruined the furnishings and the walls, ripping at the wards, casting their poisonous spells, looking for any clue of the Family's whereabouts.
But then, they had turned to her, and she would not speak.
A house-elf does not betray the Family; to do so would break the bond and disgrace their own family for eternity.
The woman was angry; Ivy saw her pace and snarl and spit. The woman did not like Ivy; she thought Ivy was vermin, and lesser, and an annoyance better left to rot.
And because the woman was angry, she punished Ivy for being what Ivy was, unable to speak her Master's secrets, even when the wizards with her grew pale and uncomfortable at her wrath.
Then, the woman left her alone in a cell, and Ivy, beaten and battered, could not leave it through any magic she knew. Nor could she call the Master; the bond did not work in such a way. All she could do was reach out for her daughter, for the young elf who had a part of herself inside of her. Blossom, her darling little elfling, her little flower, all grown now and taking a mate.
Her only hope.
And after days of trying and searching, she finally felt an answering echo; and with the sweet peace of relief, Ivy fell into exhausted sleep.
Grimmauld Place was a comfortable enough hideaway, Harry figured, when he finished settling in once again.
With Kreacher, Dobby, and Blossom present, he would hardly have to lift a finger to do anything, the elves eager to help in any way they could. None of them were comfortable with the situation; having to flee Hallam St., being on the run from the Ministry.
But it was what it was, and until Griphook found them better, Grimmauld Place was the safest place they could be.
And Harry finally had the time and the peace to bring out Flamel's notes and begin his research into the Origins and any information the old Alchemist might have had on the Void.
Hermione, on the other hand, was looking through the Black library, in hopes of finding clues there. As anxious as she was to get her hands on the myriad of notes Harry possessed, she was more eager to help him solve the problem that now plagued them both; stopping Harry from going, as she labeled it, 'cold'.
Harry thought dead would be a more appropriate word; there was certainly nothing living about him when the darkness covered him.
He had to fix himself before he could be trusted to seek out Umbridge and not simply kill the witch in a second before potentially eating any or all of her staff that was present, as much as they might deserve it. If there was a chance he could hurt innocent people, he would strive to prevent it.
"Any luck?" Hermione asked softly, and Harry turned to see her walking wearily towards him, two brown leather books tucked under one arm.
They had gotten little sleep in the last day, and both of them were showing the signs of it.
"Yes." Harry said, and tapped the papers in front of him. "Flamel labeled many of his notes with laborious detail. I have everything he cared to write down about the Origins. It's simply what to do with the information that is a quandary."
Hermione sat beside him with a sigh and leaned onto his shoulder.
In his mind, her voice replied. Tell me what you've found.
They had also learned that mental communication was often much more useful in sharing knowledge than finding the right words was.
Five Origins of magic that Flamel has separated out, though their power often interconnects during certain times of the year. He considered an Origin to be any repository of magic in the universe that was large enough to either be tapped into, or to independently influence magic of its own accord, hinting at some sort of foreign sentience.
The Sun being an Origin of the highest order, its magic powerful enough that ancient wizards could directly interact with it; either by worshiping it in rituals to harness some of its power for their own, or by attempting to summon its interference in matters of judgement or execution. These mostly happened in Egypt and in South America, which might be due to those countries highly ritualistic societies or their nearness to the equator. Flamel made a lot of educated guesses.
Harry paused, then sighed and shook his head.
Then there is the Earth, which took precedence in a lot of magical rituals in the Dark Ages in Britain and Europe, and more modernly is associated more with goblin and house-elf magic. I personally never even considered the Earth during my rituals. Her magic never called to me like the Moon and the Sun did.
Did he consider the Moon an Origin? Hermione questioned, and Harry nodded.
The Moon and the Stars both, though the lines between them and the Sun is tricky. Before modern muggle scientists discovered that the sun is a star, and the moon reflects the sun's light back to earth, Flamel was already working those theories into his study of Origins. The Stars rarely, if ever, interact with anything sentient on Earth, and that is probably because of how far away they are. Why would they care? The Moon, on the other hand, has dual personalities, always fading between the Sun and the Dark like a pendulum swinging. She gains power from the Sun on full moons, and from the Dark on new moons. What can be assumed of her nature from Flamel's notes hint that that might be why magical creatures who associate with her are always beings of change, and tend to fluctuate between kind, even tempers and bloodthirsty desires.
Werewolves. Hermione stated, and Harry idly weaved his fingers through hers.
Yes. And last is the darkness-between-the-stars, the Void. Flamel's notes are sketchy, mostly stories he had gathered, rumors, hints. The Dark never had its own cult that lasted for any substantial length of time, mainly because it tended to kill off all of its own members. It's the antithesis of the Sun, devouring life instead of giving it, always consuming, always hungry. There were stories among ancient wizards of the darkness tainting them, causing them to go insane and killing themselves or others. Flamel even considered that one such wizard was responsible for the Mayan civilization collapsing, a bloodbath that numbered in the thousands.
Harry's voice was grim, his heart dark at the thought.
Flamel's own wife considered the rituals I've undertaken, centuries ago, back when their existence was not illegal and the knowledge of how to perform them was more common. She decided not to, because of the possibility of encountering the Void and being unable to say no to it. The mortality rate of the wizards who attempt the rituals is obscenely high. According to Flamel, most were not able to complete the third set, let alone four or five, without either perishing during the ritual, or falling into darkness soon after. Those that did almost always had entire sets dedicated to either the Sun or the Earth. If what I've read so far is any indication, I've either been incredibly lucky stumbling my way through this, or Fawkes saved my life with his guidance years ago.
Did Flamel say how many were able to finish the ritual with seven sets? Hermione asked carefully, her tone brittle, the yellow color of fear tainting her mind.
Harry pulled away and turned to face her, meeting her worried brown eyes.
"Very few." He said aloud. "Mostly those who had strong mentors, like the Sun priests in Egypt who made the whole process a series of exacting steps. There were known to be a dozen or so scattered across the world, all of them extremely powerful in their own ways. Most people never went past two sets, which would give them basic abilities to use magic wandlessly. The rewards were simply not worth the risk."
"But you've done six sets." Hermione lifted her chin. "You only have one more and you're done. And if one ritual can mess up the runes of another, your next set can simply undo the damage done by the Void and everything will be stable again. Why don't we just do it now? Or the next full moon?"
Harry grimaced. "I wish it was that simple. I'm certain the next set must be done to the Sun, if I'm to have any hope of destroying the Void's hold on me. But the Sun… it's not as gentle as the Moon, if you can even call Her gentle. I'm very afraid… I can't be sure…"
Hermione leaned forward, her hands tightening on his own.
"Then we will do everything we can to make sure it goes right. If it's to the Sun, then we'll plan it out for the next Equinox, in Heliopolis. We'll make sure it goes right." She repeated that last adamantly, and Harry heard Dread echo the statement in both their minds.
Harry turned his attention to the serpent, and to his shock found it only halfway inside his own mind, the other portion of its body wrapped tightly inside Hermione's own mind.
Hermione frowned. "What's wrong?"
Harry narrowed his eyes. He had been so tired, so busy with other things… He spoke quietly.
"How long has Dread been able to speak inside your mind?"
Hermione's brow furrowed in thought. "Well, I… haven't really thought about it. The first time was during… during the last ritual." Her eyes widened. "He stopped me from moving. I wanted to go to you, and he... did something. He made me stand still."
"Dread." Harry hissed aloud, and called the serpent out into its feathered form. The quetzalcoatl wound around their hands, feathered crest displayed proudly as it met his gaze.
Harry paused, thinking exactly how to phrase his question.
"Can you enter Hermione's mind?"
The serpent's feathers rippled in satisfaction. "Yes, Master."
"How long have you been able to?"
Dread's head tilted, the scarlet feathers of its crest lowering slightly. "Since I first tried. To protect she-who-explains, the Mistress, Master's nestmate. Darkness would have had her."
Harry winced; he didn't like to think of how that night days ago might have gone even worse than it had.
"And you can… control her? You stopped her from moving?"
Dread's coils tightening anxiously. "Was I wrong, Master?"
"No." Harry said softly, meeting Hermione's worried eyes. "But don't… don't do it again. Unless there is Darkness."
"Harry!" Hermione frowned. "He shouldn't do it ever!"
Dread looked between the two of them, its serpentine tongue tasting the air, before it slunk down to wind up Hermione's robes, feathered wings wrapped tight around its long body.
"To protect she-who-explains, I will do anything."
Hermione's mouth opened and closed; then she scowled down at the green and red snake.
"I don't need a bodyguard or another boyfriend."
"Actually, that's a good idea." Harry said, and began to smile. "A bodyguard. Dread will stay with you, outside in his corporeal body. And if there is any question in the future when it might matter, I can say I purchased him to protect you. If need be, he can now hide inside your own mind."
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "Don't you wonder how that is possible? We don't even know what Dread is, or what he is capable of. It made sense, if he was a part of you, that he could reside inside your magic or mind somehow. But why can he suddenly enter mine? And to the point of controlling me, when he could never control you? That reminds me of what I've read of possession. Is our bond that strong? And if it is, how are we ever going to manage to control it for the months until the Equinox comes?"
Harry sighed. "A lot of meditation? Another ritual?" When Hermione only glared at him, he raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "I don't know. Maybe we can find some answers in the Black Library."
She sighed, absently running one hand down the feathers of Dread, who preened at the attention.
"We have far more questions than answers. I never thought I would get tired of reading, but I'm sick of dead ends."
"I know." Harry said, looking at where the quetzalcoatl curled innocently around her shoulders. "Me too."
Blossom heard her mother's voice weeping; calling to her in pleading tones.
After tossing and turning in her pallet, she told Dobby, who pulled his ears in distress and turned wide green eyes to where Kreacher stood, presiding over the kitchen with an imperious air.
Kreacher raised a single thick eyebrow, his hairless head wrinkled in disdain.
"Tell the Master." He commanded. "Master must know."
And with a quick agreeing nod, Dobby scampered from the room to find his Master.
"She should never have been left at Hallam St." Harry groused, pacing across the living room floor.
Hermione frowned. "She refused to leave. It was her home, and she hadn't done anything wrong. I never thought… well, I didn't think."
Harry ran a hand through his hair.
"House-elves! All bowing and scraping one minute and stubborn to a fault the next. Dobby, did Blossom have anything else to offer? Any clue?"
Dobby bowed low, his feet scuffling the carpet with worried movements.
"No, Master Potter, sir. Dobby and Blossom only knows that mother Ivy is in pain, sir."
"It could be a trap." Hermione began, but Harry shook his head.
"I doubt it. Most wizards don't give the time of day for house-elves. More likely they tried to get what they could out of her and left her to rot. I'm honestly surprised they haven't just killed her."
Dobby began to wail, and Hermione stood to quickly cross to the distraught elf, shooting daggers at Harry.
"We'll get her back, no worries." Hermione soothed, and Dobby hiccuped.
Harry groaned again, his shoulders slumping, anger and helplessness mixing inside him.
Then he shook his head and straightened.
"I can use the phoenix flame to find her. I'm just not sure what I'll find. With the way my magic now has of… well, destroying things, when I'm angry…"
Hermione's head jerked up; then she smiled.
"You said the phoenix form helps, right? That the Void can't touch your mind when you take the Sun's token form?"
Harrys eyes widened in dawning understanding.
"I go in phoenix form. Grab her, and return here."
"Exactly." Hermione said, and grinned.
Harry was instantly glad that Hermione was so brilliant as to suggest he come in phoenix form, for the state his house-elf had been left in was enough to make angry disjointed tones fall from his black beak.
Ivy's pale skin was bruised, nearly every inch scattered with black and blue blots, occasional angry red scratches piercing the ugly color. It was the work of spells, spells meant to torture humans, not smaller, fragile house-elves. Spells meant to give pain in such a way that no true, lasting harm is done, so that a witch or wizard could attend their trials without obvious signs of neglect.
It made the scarlet feathers along his black ruffle; his wings beat the air angrily, his magic rippling along the small cell with murderous intent.
The house-elf did not fidget at the commotion; the matron lay curled upon herself, alone on the floor, without even a pillow for comfort, in an exhausted sleep.
Harry wasted no more time in anger; it wouldn't do Ivy any good. He silently added her state to the list of things he had to thank Madam Umbridge for, and swooped down to hook his claws into her once pristine pillowcase, now grey and grimy.
Then, he called up flame and left the holding cells far behind.
Kreacher watched silently from the corner, hidden in the shadow of the thick velvet drapes that lined the walls of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black's main foyer.
He listened as the Master screamed in agony; first when assuming the phoenix form to go rescue a single house-elf; and later, after returning to shed healing tears upon her discolored skin, when he transformed back to a human body.
He watched as the Master and the Mistress cast more spells upon her; then let her daughter take her to the rooms converted for the displaced elf's use.
Then he listened as Master ranted, pacing the floors, of the many sins of the Ministry and how they would be punished.
And Kreacher knew, without a doubt, that is was time.
For a Master who cared enough about an elf to count it family would honor Kreacher's debt to Master Regulus.
And without considering it more, Kreacher left with silent efficiency to return to his room in the far attic, digging through the clutter to find a single gleam of silver, still polished and smooth as the day it had been given into his keeping with only one pleading sentence.
"Destroy it, Kreacher. For me."
It was time to finally do what needed to be done.
Harry lay back on the couch, staring up at the white ceiling with blank eyes.
Tucked into his side, Hermione made soft sounds in her sleep, having dozed off only moments before as they were mentally discussing Flamel's notes on Origins in greater detail.
The bond they had between them came with wonderful benefits; it was nearly impossible to misunderstand what someone was saying when emotion and even images could be so clearly passed between them.
And yet, its existence worried him, just as Dread's growing abilities did. Both things having come about because of his bloody rituals, and both of them partly because Harry hadn't understood all of what he was doing.
A child groping in the dark, Harry thought silently to himself, and felt a flicker of awareness from Dread.
The quetzalcoatl lifted its head from off Hermione's shoulder, emerald eyes so like his own gleaming in the low light.
"Snakes are most poisonous when they are young for a reason."
Harry smiled slightly, the parseltongue slipping off his tongue with ease as he replied. "And did you learn that from my own mind, or did you somehow know it on your own? When I talk to you, am I really just talking to myself?"
"Snakes don't worry about such things. Only the sharpness of our fangs and the smoothness of our scales." The serpent replied smugly, and Harry laughed.
"And the fullness of your belly."
Dread hissed in pleased acknowledgement.
"Yes, that too."
Two sets of identical emerald eyes turned to where Kreacher stood, the old house-elf watching them with an oddly solemn posture, his normal scorn vanished.
"Kreacher?" Harry asked softly aloud, and Hermione stirred at his side, eyes slitting open to look around blearily.
The elf bowed, then stepped forward, lifting its knobbly chin.
"Kreacher has a story to tell the Master, and a favor to ask of him."
Harry sat up with a frown, glancing towards Hermione, who covered her mouth with a yawn and nodded slightly.
"Go ahead." Harry said, smiling slightly. Was it about Sirius? Or the house?
Kreacher stiffened his shoulders, his bat like ears quivering with emotion.
"Kreacher is a very, very bad elf." He sucked in a breath. "But Kreacher tried, Master. Kreacher tried very hard."
Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but the elf continued. "Kreacher is given by Master Regulus to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, to do his bidding. But Master Regulus gave Kreacher a order, Sir, and Kreacher always follows orders. Kreacher is to return when You-Know-Who's business is finished."
Harry felt a lurch in his chest, all amusement fleeing. "What business?"
Kreacher's large ears drooped. "Kreacher is to help the wizard hide something very important, something Master Regulus said was evil and horrible. Kreacher is made to drink a nasty potion that hurt his throat and burned him, and then Kreacher is left to die. But Kreacher has elf magic, and elf magic let Kreacher return to Master Regulus and tell him what happened. Master Regulus treated Kreacher like family. Master Regulus was very, very angry about what Kreacher is made to do."
The elf's eyes went to the floor, and Harry saw the liquid gleam of tears.
"Master Regulus was wonderful Master, the very best. Kind, and honorable, a worthy Black. Master Regulus said he needed help destroying what He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named hid, for the good of the family. That he was wrong to follow the dark wizard, that he was going mad."
The elf's voice dropped to a whisper at the last, his eyes flickering about the room as if some ghost was about to fling itself at him.
"He told Kreacher to bring him back to the cave where the evil thing is hidden. Then he made Kreacher promise, promise on the name of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, that Kreacher would destroy the evil thing." The house-elf took in a breath and tears began to fall in thin rivulets down his pale cheeks, his wide bulbous eyes pleading as he looked at where Harry and Hermione sat frozen in their seats. "M-m-master R-r-regulus drank the nasty, horrible p-potion and gave Kreacher th-the evil thing, replacing it with a false one. T-t-then the great M-master R-regulus made Kreacher leave, so that Kreacher wouldn't get eaten too by t-t-the dead things in the w-w-water. Kreacher sees t-t-them drag the M-m-master under when he l-l-leaves."
The house-elf let out a soft howling sob, shoulders shaking, and Harry finally stood, walking carefully closer to kneel in front of the heartbroken creature.
"I'm sorry." Harry quietly said, and Kreacher raised bloodshot eyes to his own, shaking his head so rapidly his ears flopped about like kites tossed in a wind.
"Not Master Black's fault. Master Black is kind, too, a true Black like Master Regulus."
Kreacher wiped a hand fiercely across his face and scowled. "Kreacher is bad. Kreacher can not destroy the evil thing. Kreacher tried everything."
The elf stepped back, and Harry stood as he fumbled in his pillowcase, pulling out a glinting object from some inner pocket.
The house-elf held it carefully in its hands, looking up at Harry solemnly.
"Kreacher would ask the Master to fulfill Master Regulus's last command. Will Master destroy the evil thing?"
"Of course." Harry said immediately. "Anything of Voldemort's is probably tainted anyway, and if Regulus Black thought it was evil, doubtless it is."
The elf nodded quickly, then looked down at his clasped hand.
"It is very evil and nasty, Master Black. It does speak to you, with poisonous, wicked words."
And the house-elf gingerly opened his hands to reveal a simple, silver locket, clasped tightly shut, hung on a long silver chain.
Harry frowned down at it, and Hermione stepped up beside him, looking down with a tilted head.
What do you suppose it is? She asked silently within his mind, and Harry shrugged. He reached down to snag the locket, lifting it up closer to his face, hearing the elf sigh loud and long in relief, as if being free of some heavy burden.
The silver locket was decorated only with the faded design of a snake, shaped somewhat like the letter S.
As he looked at it, Harry felt slight pressure upon his mind, like a soft questing knock. He frowned and closed his eyes, his hand tightening around the metal chain, searching along the edges of his mind for the source of the disturbance.
The waters of Mem rippled, not the full out storm of an attack, but the slight disturbance of a snake slipping into a pond.
Harry locked eyes on it, and saw in a flash the red eyes of Voldemort staring back at him, fangs bared in a hiss of contempt.
Soothing water streamed between them, a protective wall that the serpent slithered about, skin albino white, hissing words echoing oddly back to him.
The words, disjointed, the emotion at times cajoling and threatening in turns, like it couldn't get an accurate feel for its victim.
Words that struck a familiar chord in his memory.
Harry drew back, opening his eyes to stare down at the innocent silver locket.
"Harry?" Hermione asked, reaching out for the chain with a frown.
He closed his fingers and moved it out of her reach with a shake of his head, staring down at his fist.
"Don't. It's… I…"
Thoughts swirled in his mind, facts weighed and measured, impossible conclusions struggling to be reached.
"Harry?" Hermione asked again, concern filling her voice, and Dread echoed the question with a hiss.
Harry looked over at her, his lips pressing together firmly as he spoke into their minds.
It's Voldemort. Or... a piece of him. I'm afraid... this might be what we're looking for.
"What?" Hermione said aloud, wide brown eyes startled.
Harry looked down at the locket in his hand.
"I think it's a part of Voldemort, and I've seen something like it before, a long time ago. So long ago I can hardly remember the details." He opened his hand again, holding the locket in the light. "The words it was trying to speak to me, they were nearly the same as before. Its eyes were just like Voldemorts, its voice too. Trying to find a host."
"Host?" Hermione asked, but Harry barely heard her, the missing link finally coming together for him.
"My very first set, the second rune, to protect my mind." Harry said softly. "Mem. The one that is connected to you now, as well. When I first made the cut, something happened. I couldn't explain it at the time, and I guess I thought maybe it had something to do with the ritual. I just... put it out of my thoughts. So much has happened since then…"
Harry drifted off, shook his head, and tried to focus, tried to put the words together. "Something very similar to whatever is in this locket, some part of Voldemort's power and mind, was inside of me as well. Living off of me, maybe even possessing me, or trying to. The ritual kicked it out, though I don't think it was destroyed. It probably went on to find another host…"
Harry's throat burned; and what he spoke next was only into their minds.
Quirrell. It possessed Professor Quirrell, that same voice. And the unicorn Stallion, that magic, drove it off again when it tried to possess me after the professor's body was destroyed.
Possession, Hermione. Possession.
She didn't seem to understand; her beautiful brown eyes confused as they darted across his face. Harry's thoughts continued at a quick disjointed pace as the pieces fell into place, streaming between them with reckless speed.
The diary, another fragment, one separate that didn't have the knowledge of the one inside of Quirrel. I thought so at the time that is was possible, but I didn't really understand… it's part of a soul. Fragments of Voldemort's soul. Fragments that try to possess, just like this locket is attempting to possess someone, anything, right now. Take control of their mind and body to make them their host. To resurrect its original form. A piece of Voldemort. Something evil and dark. So evil Regulus Black gave his life, turned his back on years of service to a Dark Lord, to try to destroy it.
Hermione's lips parted; Harry looked away as understanding finally dawned.
Quietly, his words falling sharp and brittle, he continued aloud, shutting the bond between them with a desperate, brutal snap of will.
"A piece of a soul that has been split, broken. Just like Analize Hoch said. A dark ritual, using the death of someone to split a soul, so that a portion of the person might live on after death. A form of immortality. Right up Voldemort's ally. And evil."
"Harry." Hermione said quickly, stepping closer, her hand coming up to grip his forearm firmly as her mind settled against his with a gentle push. "You can't possibly compare that thing." She spat, looking down at the locket. "Or the diary or professor Quirrell or whatever was inside your head years ago to Dread."
Harry held her thoughts off ruthlessly even as his barriers weakened with the force of her conviction, speaking aloud in answer to her statement.
"He can possess you, Hermione. He's a part of my soul. What doesn't compare?"
Hermione scoffed, her nose wrinkling in anger. "Don't be stupid! You didn't kill anyone to make him, did you? And Dread isn't trying to take me over and turn me into another you. That's silly! He... he loves us. You think that locket loves anyone?"
Harry looked down at the locket, then across to where the quetzalcoatl lay, feathers ruffled in agitation, crest drooping down to lay flat along its long slender neck.
Dread, Giving-Great-Fear-In-Troubled-Times, a dagger, a friend, a familiar. It had its own thoughts and opinions, and yet his own soul had given it life.
But what made a person good or bad? Their choices, their experiences? Could Dread, born from his ten year-old self, be its own person now? Influenced by the form it wore, by the thoughts it learned from himself, the words it learned from Hermione? The snake seemed so innocent at times, and then so wise.
And while the snake often urged him to kill his enemies in bloodthirsty ways, it would never even think of harming Hermione or his friends. It was capable of kindness, and as Hermione had said, love.
"You're right." Harry finally admitted, and smiled slightly with a shake of his head. "You're right. Maybe they're similar, but they're not the same. Still, we need to find out what this… soul splitting process is called. We need to learn more."
"Agreed." Hermione said firmly, then looked at a very confused, but hopeful house-elf. "And, we need to destroy that locket, pronto, before it can cause any trouble. How did you get rid of them before?"
Harry frowned. "The fragment in my mind wasn't destroyed, only cast out by Mem. Quirrel, same thing, it fled when the Stallion had it on its horn. The diary, Tom Riddle, had managed to come back to life completely when he was killed, by simple beheading, so I don't think that counts."
Hermione winced. Harry sighed, and looked at Kreacher.
"What have you tried so far?"
The house-elf twisted his hands together.
"Kreacher has tried everything. Fire, Banishing, smashing, drowning. And always, the voice whispers to Kreacher."
Harry stared at the locket grimly, before turning to Hermione.
"Well, I've already destroyed one indestructible thing. This shouldn't be any different."
"Are you sure you should risk it, with everything that's happened?"
Harry paused, uncertain, frowning down at the Locket with a scowl..
"Normally, I would have spent a few days at least experimenting with the runes already. But I've been too afraid of losing myself to the Void. We can try looking for another ritual, or putting safeguards in place…"
"Like?" Hermione asked when he drifted off, and Harry nodded at Kreacher.
"We wait until Fawkes is recuperated and can come with us. We go, with Kreacher, to Heliopolis. We try there, within the Sun wards of the old temple. If there is anywhere safe from the Void's influence, it's there. I can try to use the black mist to destroy the locket."
"Oh, Master." Kreacher mumbled, trembling, and Harry reached out to give his shoulder a single firm shake.
"You haven't been a bad elf, Kreacher. A bad elf would have lost the locket, or given up, or never come to me. By giving me the locket, you are doing exactly what you promised Regulus. You should be rewarded, not punished."
When the house-elf looked about to burst into more tears, Harry quickly continued.
"Give it two, maybe three days, and we'll all go with Fawkes. I'll keep the locket safe in my trunk until then. Go and get some sleep."
Kreacher mumbled fervent thanks and disappeared with a last squeak, leaving Harry and Hermione alone, Dread curled about her shoulders.
"I'll keep looking through the library. There has to be a safer way, for all of us. And I'll try to find out more about this soul-splitting process." Hermione said softly. "I have more of an idea what I'm looking for now. If any of the families knew about this technique, it would be the Blacks. For that matter, Regulus must have known somehow. I think the answer is here."
"Alright." Harry said, and with a soft smile stepped closer, wrapping his arms about her with a tight squeeze of silent thanks.
She pressed against his mind and Harry could not hold her off, their thoughts mingling together in a mere moment, her firm belief that she was right making his own doubts fade.
Dread hissed in discomfort and flared his wings, slithering out from between them.
"I'll leave if you two wish to hiss in each other's mouths. Snakes are never so impractical."
"Its called kissing." Hermione reminded the serpent, whose head bobbed in disgust.
"Close enough, and it looks uncomfortable." And with that last comment, the quetzalcoatl launched itself into the air and flew away, Harry's sense of the snake telling him it was heading towards where Fawkes perched in his bedroom.
As much as the serpent bickered about the phoenix, the two got along very well now.
"We'll figure it all out." Hermione said softly, and Harry looked down at her and smiled.
"Yeah. We'll kill Voldemort's soul, take over the Ministry, and tell muggles everywhere about the wonders of magic."
"Rome ne fût pas faite en un jour." Hermione quoted impishly, and Harry grinned.
"Only you would bother to say that in French."
"Medieval French." Hermione corrected. "Which is the original form, you know. It wasn't until 1528 that it was written in English, and not until 1563 that it became an even more popularly known saying when Queen Elizabeth quoted it in a speech at Cambridge."
Harry blinked at her lecturing tone, then laughed, speaking softly into her mind as he leaned closer.
Only you would care about, or remember, all of that.
And when her eyes sparkled in delight, he could no longer resist dipping down for a kiss, hands moving down to span her hips, drawing her against himself.
"But this common saying has given me a certain amount of comfort – a saying which cannot take away, but can at least lessen, the grief that I feel; and the saying is, that 'Rome was not built in one day.'"
-Queen Elizabeth, address at Cambridge
Agent Jackson briefed the Head of the DMLE personally; Head Lovick, in turn, took them both to muggle Washington where Jackson gave his report once again to Director John Brennan of the C.I.A.
Then, Lovick and Brennan both met with the NSA's Rogers and the FBI Director James Comey.
They refused to agree that the coming disaster was not preventable; though discussion of how to stop a potential leak over the Internet seemed hopeless. A suggestion by Lovick to take it offline was quickly dismissed by his muggle counterparts as an impossibility: Besides the huge economic and political damage that would occur their military and security sector would also be hard hit by the blackout, resulting in their Emergency, Military and Police services working at a greatly diminished rate to contain the public riots that would occur and, most crucially, would not stop the word spreading about the wizards unless every major country agreed to it as well, another daunting task in light of current political events.
Combining the exposure of the magical world with a world wide internet shutdown would turn a Super Volcano scale disaster that was already brewing under their noses into an Asteroid extinction event.
Their only hope was to find Fredericks, codename Hound James; a daunting task on its own.
And in light of the current information and the risks involved, it was finally unanimously agreed on that the President of the United States would be briefed of the developing situation, a task undertaken by Brennan and all the department heads, along with their advisers.
More and more potential strategies were devised on how to counter the Hound's leaks; then how to mitigate the damage done, and how to minimize the inevitable public backlash. How to protect the wizard communities should they become known; and how to protect their own citizens, muggle and wizard alike, should their government become targeted by the ICW for its actions in creating HYBRID, which would be hard to keep secret.
A new task force was created to brainstorm the causes and effects of these strategies, with expert economists, scientists, bankers, men and women from every sector, all briefed on the potential situation and its seriousness.
And Agent Jackson and Agent Smith of HYBRID were sent once again to Stephen K Wilson to speak specifically on the matter of PUB.
Stephen Wilson knew who was coming the moment they stepped up to the door of his building.
That the familiar agent had a wizard with him and bothered to come to him on his own two feet instead of using the more magical means no doubt at his disposal Stephen counted as both a courtesy and a gesture of peace.
But that didn't mean he let them approach without his own gestures.
The men were met before they could even approach the secretaries; they were told to wait, politely, for a moment.
And when the two did not make any motion to cause trouble, Stephen informed Falcon to let them approach, under careful guard.
Four men rode with them in the elevator, all eyes on their backs. Six more waited on his office level, and two more guards sat behind where Stephen himself sat, alert and ready if any move was made to threaten him.
Falcon stood by the door, and Stephen did not miss that the old man's hand was at his waist, the handgun there able to be drawn in a second.
No doubt, the thing was already loaded, and the bullets inside were of a new, yet untested variety Wilson had his staff working on.
PUB had far more potential advantages than just the defensive variety. He was certain if the metallic compound could stop magic, it could also pierce it.
"Mr. Wilson." Agent Smith began, the man's tone lacking its usual condescension. "This is Agent Jackson, from… a different sector of our organization."
"A very polite way of calling him a wizard." Stephen said simply, and while the white-haired man stiffened, his chin dipped slightly in acknowledgement. "Which makes me wonder why you have not yet attempted to alter my memory. Is that not the standard protocol at this point?"
Agent Smith lifted one side of his lip in disgust at the jab, his eyes flickering to the men poised behind the businessman.
When he began to speak, the wizard shook his head, sharply, a motion that made the guards in the room go on alert.
"I left my wand behind." Jackson said slowly, raising his hands in a gesture to show he was not armed.
Wilson raised an eyebrow behind his silver-grey glasses. "I know very well that your kind does not always need a wand to work mischief."
Jackson grimaced. "Very few of us are as talented as Mr. Potter, I assure you."
Stephen did not let himself stiffen at the hint that the government was aware of his connection to the British wizard. He expected it; his building was watched constantly, he knew, and the boy had come through the front doors boldly.
But he did wonder at how fast they had put together the boy's identity, and why they said his name with a mixture of discontent and censure.
Just what had young Harry Potter been up to?
"Mr. Potter has spoken to us of… the Hounds, the organization. Most of it we already knew, but the existence of a certain substance we are eager to learn more of."
The boy told them of PUB? Just what did the blasted boy hope to gain in giving away what would be so much more effective if kept secret? PUB might have some forms of immunity to magic, but it was no where near fool-proof. It would only take a creative mind and training to find ways to remove the substance from their person.
Of course, the bullets would be a great deal harder to counter. They fired far quicker than any word could be spoken. Perhaps even faster than most could respond even in thought.
Stephen allowed himself to smile.
"Since when do wizards ask for something instead of just taking it?"
Jackson's face was open, polite, courteous. His eyes were alert, and ran over Stephen Wilson's suit and spectacles, taking in their unique color.
"It's a new world." The agent finally said, and looked back up to meet his gaze. "We are not as autonomous as you seem to think. We have others of our own kind, organizations like your U.N. but with more teeth, who enforce rules we have never cared for. Some of us are inclined to take advantage of a potential opportunity to rid ourselves of their yoke. Your metal would make that a great deal easier."
Stephen Wilson slid one finger down the bridge of his nose in thought, mind racing.
He had expected this, but much later in the game, after the news was released irrevocably, after the appearance of PUB and its deadly use seen in action.
He had plans for the compound and his own government.
"I might be interested." He began, focusing completely on the wizard now, Smith fading into the background as the man's usefulness dwindled. "In an equal exchange. I know nothing of any Hounds, of course." Wilson waved one hand dismissively with a smile. "But one of my labs has indeed been working on a very unique substance. Unfortunately, some of our information was leaked into the wrong hands." Wilson sighed in sorrowful contemplation, clasping his hands together on his desk. "But we have since refined and improved the compound, and have begun more thorough testing. This raises its value, of course."
Agent Jackson smiled brightly, following the implication within his words with the ease of a man who loved games of the mind.
"We would expect nothing less." The wizard said. "And are more than willing to give what such a thing would be worth to us." The man paused, and his smile fell as he continued in a slower note. "If you are thinking of the risk, know it is an equal one. If we fail, you will fall with us. And vice versa."
Stephen Wilson took the words for what they were; yet another warning. He was more than aware of the risks already, though he would be glad to learn more of the political lines in the wizarding world. Mentally, he added information to the price he was prepared to set as the starting bargaining offer.
"Good to know." Stephen said briskly. "Was that all?"
"Yes." the Agent said, and stood with careful, stilted movements, eyes on the guards.
Wilson wondered if the wizard knew the greater danger was at his back, and doubted it. Most fools discounted Falcon because of his age.
That, and few worried about what was behind them when one threat was so very obviously in front of them.
The two walked to the door; at the last moment, Jackson looked back over one shoulder.
"Until we meet again, Mr. Wilson." The wizard said softly. "And if you have contact with Mr. Potter, let him know we are at his service."
And as the door closed at their backs, Stephen wondered why the wizard bothered to let him know that they owed the boy a debt for giving them information that could have put himself at a disadvantage.
And then he wondered just how much more he needed to learn about his own ally. He wasn't a fool, after all. He always had one eye on his own back for a waiting threat.
"Falcon." He said softly, and his head of security turned to face him, the metallic thread of his suit glinting subtly in the light streaming from the windows. "When young Mike comes in today, send him to me. We may have more to discuss about our mutual friend."
Mike had been at the compound only two days when he was summoned to Wilson's office for a very polite interrogation into the nature of his relationship with Harry Potter.
It was a credit to Mike's intelligence that he did not reveal anything he thought to hide in the thirty minutes he was within the wide room.
It was a credit to Wilson's shrewd questions that Mike revealed the things he hadn't realized were important. That Harry was at odds with wizards nearly the world wide, and possessed a power far greater than anything typical wizards were capable of.
That Harry was running, a fact Wilson found very intriguing.
Even the powerful can be forced to hide.
Mr. Granger worried about the business they left behind. There were bills to pay, patients to be seen, a house left in disarray.
Mrs. Granger worried about her daughter, who would not stay with them but insisted on leaving them among werewolves of all things to run off with her friend.
Though, she could guess from the way the boy had held Hermione's hand that there was more than friendship growing between them. So young, her little girl, and yet growing up so fast.
And Harry Potter, who had appeared in her kitchen like an avenging angel, face pale and cold, nothing in the least young about his expression when he twisted his fingers and tore a man asunder. From her husband's arms she had watched it happen, the scene lit with the eerie glow of the red bird that had first come to their aid.
John's arms had been painfully tight. She had barely felt the cool wash of magic flowing over her as her daughter mumbled in a foreign language words that healed the worst of the burns and cuts. Her eyes could not look away from the sight of the sweet boy who had smiled so shyly at her only months before as he faced the monsters who had broken into their home and dispatched them like one would drown a mouse caught in a glue trap.
Swift, brutal death, but not painless, not instant. Only ridding oneself of a pest in the most efficient manner at hand.
She saw it in her dreams that night, when restless sleep finally claimed her, their quarters set up in one of the empty cottages on the grounds. Those green eyes like flecks of emerald fire, the black mist from his hands as it ate flesh and bone and the men screamed in helpless agony.
In the morning, when her daughter returned from slipping away to meet the boy, Jane could not meet her eyes. She could only remember how Hermione had gone to him when the blackness still covered his hands and his face was a mask of hunger, and whispered to him that it was all her own fault, as if her own daughter could possibly summon such a terror.
And yet, at Hermione's touch, the black had faded away.
The bird had been singing, soft chirping disjointed melodies all it could muster, but Jane had known that the danger was not over until Hermione had wrapped her arms around the boy and cried.
And Jane could not look anymore; she had turned her face into her husbands chest and closed her eyes tightly, trying to unsee the empty space on the floor at her daughter's feet where two men had been only minutes before, nothing remaining of their presence, not even a drop of blood; their existence erased like a simple drawing burned in the fireplace.
John wouldn't talk about it; she knew her husband, though. She knew he was glad the men who hurt her were gone. She knew it in the way he had shaken Harry's hand a moment too long before they left; looking in his eyes as if communicating silent thanks. She knew it because her husband was not ranting about their daughter being in danger, back in Britain and who knows where instead of safe with them.
Safe, Jane reminded herself, with werewolves and witches, and sighed.
Perhaps they'll need their teeth cleaned.
Remus paced, the wolf inside on edge with the separation from its alpha in an obvious time of need.
Only the task of guarding the Granger's satisfied it, the wolf taking them on as pack the instant Hermione sobbed into his arms, covered in Harry's scent, a mix of wild electricity, metal and fire, and told him Harry would be back in the morning.
He hadn't had to hear Mr. Granger's tale to know what had happened. He could smell the blood on Mrs. Granger, and saw the look in the man's eyes. Guilt, and anger, and incredulous hope all mixed in one.
It had been simple enough to set them up in the empty cabin next to his old one; and he had circled it the entire night with his wand in hand, unsatisfied with their safety until Maurice himself had come to him and offered to take a shift.
The alpha of the Pungo Pack understood how he felt, though Remus could not quite come to terms with it. He was still new to having a pack, an alpha, and had not yet realized how strongly a threat against what Harry considered family would make his wolf bristle and howl with rage.
And Hermione herself, who Remus knew Harry fancied, the wolf treated like it knew something he did not, uneasy with leaving her alone and not personally protected.
Maurice had laid one large hand on his shoulder, the familiar scent of alpha and strength and wolf rising over him, and told him that he had to rest if he would be able to protect them. And Remus, though he knew it was silly to act in such a way, was comforted to be taken seriously, and extremely grateful that the man would help stand guard.
When Harry returned, the familiar call like the echo of the Moon herself, Remus had leapt from bed to find his alpha.
Neither man nor wolf was happy that their alpha insisted on leaving, and even less that they were not to go with him when he was in such distress, smelling of sorrow and fury alike.
But the Grangers were important; Harry stressed that with words that Remus heard with part of his mind, the rest consumed with the wolf's pawing inside his skin, wanting him to bow on outstretched forelegs and show his throat in submission.
He didn't argue with more than a soft word or two in resistance; he couldn't, not with the wolf so determined to both please the alpha and protect the pack.
The pack; John and Jane Granger, two muggles now dropped into a world that mixed the muggle with the magical in a conglomeration even Remus had trouble understanding fully.
And Remus, struggling to be human enough to be accepted by the Grangers, and wolf enough to stop himself from tearing at his own weak, hairless human skin in discontent at its inability to protect the couple from harm. Even with his magical skill, he couldn't help the feeling that the Wolf would be a far better guard than his current form.
"It's alright." Maurice said softly, coming up beside where he stood outside in the dark, amber eyes looking at the curtained window of the Granger's window.
"I can't stop thinking of what could go wrong." Remus said softly, his breath misting the cold night air. "Aurors coming through the wards. Death Eaters portkeying in, setting the place on fire, or simply kidnapping them." He turned to look up at the black alpha. "Reason tells me how impossible that is. Gryffon's wards are nearly foolproof. I'm right next door, I'd hear if they so much as whimpered in their sleep. I already have." He shook his head. "Even the wolf knows the alpha would not have left us here if we weren't safe. But then, it's also so afraid of failure. This is the first responsibility it's been given as part of a pack. And… it doesn't feel… we don't feel…"
"Safe." Maurice finished, and smiled at his downcast face. "This is not your territory, even if we are a friendly pack. I know what you're feeling, the contradictions between human rationality and the wolf's instincts. My wife and brother and I traveled and visited other packs before making this our home, and it was always the same. You need your own territory, a den if you want to speak in wolf terms." Maurice grinned. "A place where you can be in control, where you know the limits. No doubt, Harry will do as he says and be back in a matter of days to take all of you with him, and the wolf will settle down immediately. It makes a difference, being on home ground."
Remus threw up his hands, gruffly tossing his head in disdain. "It's ridiculous, the way I feel."
"It's part of being a werewolf." Maurice corrected. "And you have to remember that Harry doesn't have the same instincts you and I do. For all that he has a bond over you, he is not a werewolf. You need to let him know that you need settled territory, if you are not remaining with us."
Remus stiffened; and he looked away from the cabin to face the wizard. "I haven't said…"
Maurice raised an eyebrow. "Will you leave Harry and the Grangers, then, and join my pack?"
Instantly, the wolf growled in ferocious dissent, and Remus grimaced.
Maurice chuckled. "I thought not." The werewolf nodded to the wooden cabin. "This is not the best time for more change, my friend. A wolf needs a pack when there are enemies about, and your Harry certainly needs a loyal pack, just as you do. The offer is always open in the future; but for now, we all expect you to leave us."
Remus's heart sank; but he nodded once, slowly. "Thank you, for everything. Teaching me, letting me stay, the Hunts…"
Maurice shrugged his massive shoulders and turned to place his back against a tree, the porch light reflecting in his yellow eyes.
"It's my shift." He said softly, and Remus knew that was all the acknowledgement he would get for his thanks. He nodded again, and turned to jog back towards his own familiar cabin.
But the wolf kept its ears trained for any sound from the Grangers as he moved away.
It was Hermione who found the book, not realizing just what she held in her hands. She had read it in it's entirety; growing more and more fascinated with the knowledge it contained, almost compelled to finish each page. It was slim, for a wizarding tome, only three hundred pages verses the more regular six to seven hundred.
And the pages spoke of rituals of blood, of wizards who cut themselves in arcane ways with special daggers, sharp knives that bore the symbols of magical animals of power. It told in detail how these wizards grew in strength, stressed the easy rewards to be gained on such a path, and wasn't shy to also warn of the downfalls of relying too much on runes alone.
It sounded so similar to what Harry was that Hermione felt her heart surge in excitement.
Late that afternoon she approached Harry in the library, the blood-red book cradled in her hands. He sat at a table, wings free and draped across his shoulders, trailing to the floor like a metal cape, eyes locked on the many parchments laid out across the table.
He insisted there must be some answer to the Void's influence on him in Flamel's notes.
"I've found something." Hermione spoke quickly, and placed the book on top of the nearest page.
He frowned down at it, before his green eyes raised to hers.
"How did you get in my trunk?"
She mirrored his frown.
"I didn't. This was in the far stacks."
"There was a copy of The Ancient Wizard?"
Hermione looked down at the gold lettering on the red leather quizzically.
"No, Wizards of Blood and Bone."
He reached out and flipped the cover open, thumbing through the pages with quick movements. Hermione felt his power rise, passing over the book with questioning movements.
Then he pointed at a particular paragraph, and she leaned over.
"What do you see?" He asked, and Hermione glanced down at the words and began to read.
"'...sacrifices of skin and fingers were common at first, before the standard tradition of cutting words of great power in key sections became more rote. Just what these symbols are have been forgotten, though it has been stressed that only certain runes will ensure survival…"
Harry cut her off with a grimace.
"That's not what this says."
Hermione frowned, her eyes narrowed, disappointment whirling in her stomach. A trick?
"A glamor?" She asked, shoulders slumping.
Harry began to read aloud, though his eyes barely glanced at the page.
He spoke from memory.
"...it has always been the sacrifice of the act that matters. Anything that brings about the pain of loss, and none was felt so much as the ruination of the gift of magic, marring the traditional patterns of power through the body by removing a limb, or cutting into skin and bone. No rune matters but the first, and every one after relies entirely on will and thought. Without careful planning, any ancient witch or wizard can stumble from the path and fall into darkness…"
He faltered, and looked down at the page. "Darkness. I thought it was just an alliteration when I first read it."
Hermione slowly sat, looking at the pages of text she had spent an entire day pouring over, all false. She knew books, and she knew libraries. That she had missed this glamour, when she was used to looking for curses and wards…
"Can you see that there is a glamor on it?"
Harry's mouth twisted wryly. "I thought it was just standard protection charms. Strong ones, certainly. The same ones on my own copy. I see now I was mistaken."
Hermione absently leaned into him, one hand brushing across soft feathers before finding the warm skin of his arm, her thoughts melding with his own with easy grace, and between the two of them the idea built.
Two minds working as one drew conclusions at a far greater pace.
Mr Steel never would have given us a book that stated more than once that the odds of completing the rituals was so slim. The Ancient Wizard told that of hundreds, only one would attain more than four sets. High risk, though far greater rewards. But Steel would have found another way. He saw what we saw.
Their mind raced through the knowledge they had gained that day.
The glamored version is darker, bloodier, purposefully misleading. It promises fewer rewards and less risk while still implying the harsh sacrifices to be made. Any who follow it will fail, if not discouraged from the description itself. There must be hundreds of copies, all hiding away in illegal stashes, discounted as just another book on dark magic. And we thought there was only one. We were wrong.
Harry turned toward her, his hand rising to find her neck, fingers gently weaving through her hair.
Voldemort was looking for The Ancient Wizard, not knowing he had it all along. There must only be certain people who can see the true title and contents. Perhaps only those young enough, malleable enough, to begin the rituals, or those with enough power to attempt them and survive. We're not sure we can ever know unless we test it.
They nodded their heads at the same time, and as the connection was broken Hermione was not sure who had thought which portion of the conversation.
Harry moved away, standing with a stretch that lifted both arms and wings.
Hermione hadn't missed the fact that Kreacher had rearranged furniture to make up for the bulk of the wings Harry was more and more reluctant to retract.
"So this is no help after all." She said softly, and Harry sighed.
"And neither are Flamel's notes. Hints, rumors, guesses. Warnings. But nothing to say how to fix the taint and stop it from growing. I know how to rid myself of the Darkness, but I have to wait until the Equinox. I'm not sure how I'll make it that long."
There was a rustle of feathers, softer, without the metallic tinge of steel.
Dread uncurled from his position atop a shelf, looking down at them with familiar piercing green eyes.
Beautiful eyes, Hermione thought, and felt a hiss of pleasure in her mind.
Hermione heard the hiss with her ears, and the word with her mind. Harry stiffened beside her, and hissed in return.
"What do you mean?"
Dread slid from the shelf into an elegant glide, red and green feathers spread in an aerial slither.
Hermione lifted her hands without a thought and he gently collided then curled about them, tongue tasting the air before the serpent replied.
"A gift of blood for the blood Master gave to the Void. A gift of prey for the prey the Void ate, a gift of soul and magic. Master must choose who he will serve."
Harry's lips curled with distaste.
"I will never serve the Void willingly."
The quetzalcoatl lifted a coil in a parody of a shrug. "Master gave men to the Void during the ritual. This was more than what was offered to the Moon or Sun."
Harry shook his head.
"That was not... I didn't mean… It wasn't supposed to happen! I was sorry for it!"
Dread hissed in displeasure. "A snake does not ask for forgiveness. A honorable snake gives recompense."
"I'm not a snake!" Harry snarled in english, and turned to leave the room, wings vanishing in a flicker of power before they snagged on the wooden doorframe.
He was gone, up the stairs, a second after.
Hermione frowned down at Dread.
"You said a gift. To who?"
Dread slowly moved up her arm, draping across her shoulders with a serpentine sigh.
His answer pierced her own chaotic thoughts.
If Master will not hunt in Darkness, he must hunt in Light.
Hermione looked back at the leather book, still open on the table.
"Why do I get the feeling that both are equally terrifying prospects?"
Dread settled comfortably, wings held tight to his scales to avoid the tangle of her hair. They had both learned how hard it was to remove wild strands of hair from feathers.
When the quetzalcoatl spoke, his tone was wry.
Because smart snakes know twilight is the safest time to hunt out of the nest.
Harry stood alone in his bedroom, facing Fawkes.
The phoenix perched weakly on his bedpost, juvenile feathers only just beginning to replace the fluff of infancy.
Harry had paced for the better part of an hour, Dread's voice in his mind even though Harry had left his presence.
He had found, to his extreme displeasure, that he could no longer force the serpent from his mind. He was beginning to doubt his ability to force the dagger to do anything.
Could two parts of a soul fight against each other for very long anyway?
The quetzalcoatl had pressed him with images of rituals, bloody deeds from books Harry had read over the years, tugged free from his memory to trot behind his eyes. Ancient rituals, as old or older than the one he was part of already, rituals that defined civilizations for centuries before modern wizards began to think of things like morality and fairness and the sacredness of life.
"Tell me this is wrong." Harry asked the phoenix, who watched him with black eyes. "Tell me what he is saying is not possible."
The scarlet bird flexed wings of red and gold.
Harry ran hands through his hair, eyes squeezed shut, fighting against it, fighting against the part of himself molded by culture and society that thought murder was obscene, any form of it, but especially cold-blooded and calculating death. But he also knew that one murder now could prevent hundreds later, if the darkness took him over.
Kill now, or kill later. Either way, he doubted polite society would ever think him decent or normal again.
Of course, he didn't plan for them to ever find out, and if they did, he doubted he would care what they branded him.
Harry opened his eyes and looked at Fawkes, softly shining in the dim light.
"So I, what, sacrifice someone to the Sun? Ask It for relief from the Void, until I can be cleansed?"
The phoenix sang a soft song, consoling.
Harry sat, falling to the floor, drawing his knees up to his chest. His wings eased free to curl about him protectively, deep grooves cut into the floor with his carelessness.
"You would condone human sacrifice? A phoenix?"
Fawkes, even young and flightless, was regal.
The phoenix sang, and flames flickered to life around him, feathers growing longer and colors brightening with it's light as he continued.
In his mind, Harry felt the echo of the Sun beating down on him, burning him alive, a flame that carved down to the soul and left nothing but pure heat and light behind.
If the Sun was that hard on him during his previous sets, how much worse would it be when he approached It for another, his last, set? After the taint the Void had cut in him?
And why would it accept any sacrifice he gave it other than his own life? Why help him now, with the dark hunger in his throat, even if he gave a thousand sacrifices?
Fawkes seemed to follow his thoughts with the same ease that Dread had.
Harry lowered his head, letting the song wash over him, the threat and promise of it. It made sense, that to hold off the Void until the Equinox he had to go to the Sun. It even made sense that he would have to offer some sacrifice to gain that protection, and that that sacrifice would be part of a ritual. He could understand too how the Equinox ritual would work, and how his seventh set offered him the opportunity to eradicate completely the horrible hunger the Void left in him.
But he did not want to understand what Dread, and now Fawkes, were saying.
To survive until the Equinox without harming himself or others irreparably, to put a leash on his growing hunger for magic and power, he would have to sacrifice something other than himself. He would need to give the Sun what he had given the Void; the blood, magic, life of another.
He knew enough of the Sun to know it was not a benevolent deity. He knew the Light burned as painfully as the Darkness was cold. He had read of just as many bloody rituals of self and others to the Sun as to the Moon.
The altar of Heliopolis was soaked in centuries of magical blood, willing and unwilling alike.
Dread slid into the room, moving along the floor like a lazy serpent, materializing through the door without a qualm, from spirit to corporeal form of his own volition.
The quetzalcoatl raised itself up before his feet, wings spread for balance, red tongue flickering as it began to speak.
"Master need not agonize over the taking of life. Give the Sun an enemy, a being of violence and darkness, one who has sought to bring harm to the nest. Give the Sun vengeance."
Fawkes countered, and there was heat in the word.
Harry looked between them both, two creatures associated with wind and light and yet so very different.
Some light burns, and some light illuminates.
Dread's hissing voice goaded him again, and his phoenix sang a wordless tune that wound about the words with a musical echo.
"All life is given from the Sun. Give It back the life of one who seeks yours. Give the Sun the blood of one who wants to spill yours. Give the Sun the agony that has been given to you."
"Nextlahualli." Harry whispered the word in response, unable to look away from the shifting serpent's fervent eyes. "The Aztec belief that life is a debt we owe to the sacrifice of the Origins. When did you become a convert?"
"I am a quetzalcoatl. The Mistress has told me of my kind and what myths gave me my name. I have looked into our minds and seen its truth. We will go to the places of my kind for this debt-payment. Master will give to the Sun in the heat of the jungle on an altar of obsidian and flint. The Sun will judge our request and deem our vengeance worthy."
The image built in his mind, green leaves and vines and an open clearing where a pyramid of crumbling block stones rose from a mound of a thousand crushed and buried sacrifices, the detritus of bone and pottery broken as offerings to the only gods that humanity could try to understand in those harsh times.
Harry blinked, and the image was gone, but the memory of it was not. He had studied both Mayan and Aztec cultures in his studies of human ritual and sacrifice, and once considered their symbols for his own runes.
As a child, he had discounted them on appearance alone, thinking them ugly and complicated. Now, he was not so foolish.
"Who threatens the nest? Who harms the nestmates? Who deserves the Fire?"
Dread hissed furiously as Harry's thoughts began to accept what he needed to do, and Harry felt the serpent's thoughts entwined with his own, and wrapping around them both the phoenix song.
And the first name that came to him was not a Dark Lord, whose servants he had consumed with the Void's hungry black mist. His first thought was of the Grangers, restrained in their own nest, his nestmates life-mother bleeding upon the floor, tears wet on her cheeks, agony written across her face.
A woman, in pink, smiling a cruel and sickly sweet smile.
Harry hissed his answer and ignored the hunger burning across his throat and the anger burning in his heart.
Griphook was a practical goblin, which was to say he knew the reason for the success recent years had brought him and had absolutely no desire to lose either.
His client had given him exact parameters. Seclusion, speed, and sunlight. The last of which he had repeated twice.
Griphook did not have to understand why, he only had to find the perfect property.
And Goblins were masters at finding value where none was thought to exist.
So it was that after only two days of searching, he had three locations in three different countries, each of which were located hundreds of miles from the nearest muggle settlement, and even farther from even a trace of magic. No witches or wizards had set foot on either; there was no reason to.
There was nothing there to interest anyone. It was a desert, of a sort; deserted described them all perfectly.
And best of all, there would be nearly thirty days of complete sunlight, though the tradeoff would be balanced with long nights in the winter.
He was certain he had a solution Mr. Potter would find satisfactory; he only wished the other problem presented was as easily answered.
After he sent off the owl with the request for a meeting, he finally placed his workload aside and sat to truly contemplate a world where muggles knew of goblinkind.
And like any good goblin, he began lengthy notes on the pros and cons of each possible outcome he could contemplate, and which might bring himself the greatest glory and riches.
Hermione listened to Harry's description of what he felt he had to do, and worried over the black tint in his eyes.
Every day that passed she saw the hunger growing in him, the urge to consume energy a constant itch she felt across their bond in her own mind.
It was the only reason she went along with his plan. She could tell they were running out of time and options with every second that passed.
She was afraid to even think too hard about anything that would rile her emotions and tip the scales in his mind. Afraid to get annoyed, afraid to feel frustrated, afraid to be afraid…
And worse, so much worse, she felt the hunger too, a cold echo in her own belly, found herself absently rubbing her wrists as if Harry's scars were her own.
She wore Dread across her shoulders more often than not, and knew the snake blocked the worst of it from her. She watched Harry pace the wooden floors of Grimmauld Place and toss his wild black hair, power streaming from him in heavy waves that rattled the portraits on the walls, the wings of his tattoo loose to slash and break anything that happened to be in his way.
The house-elves were kept busy repairing what could be fixed, and removing what could not, Ivy ruling the other three from the bed she recovered in. Kreacher watched his master with fervent eyes, longing for the Locket in Harry's trunk to be destroyed once and for all.
Hermione knew they couldn't risk calling the Void to destroy the object, not until after the… sacrifice. And thoughts of that ritual brought thoughts of Umbridge, and what the woman had let, had manipulated, her followers to do to her own parents…
And Dread would tighten his body nearly to the point of pain, and remind her with quick hisses to control her emotion while Harry would turn to face her and she would see the harsh desire in his face to rip something asunder and destroy it forever.
Even if that something was herself.
When the letter came from Griphook, Harry took the welcome distraction and left her alone to meet with his banker.
Alone, Hermione sat and held Dread in her arms, the feathers soft and the scales smooth, while Fawkes sang a soft melody and she let herself rage in peace.
Harry didn't sit. He stood in the center of the office he had flamed into, his wings heavy at his back, his eyes fixed on where Griphook watched him with a pleased gleam.
He could still feel her inside his mind, the distance far too little to mask her fury. Dread quelled it some; a feathered barrier between them that dulled the bloodthirsty edges to simmering rage.
But it wasn't enough, not nearly enough, because the greatest threat wasn't from her. It was inside himself.
He was going insane. He knew something was wrong with him, knew he wasn't himself. He knew that the way he was acting was irrational, that he was too angry and too hungry to process anything normally. He knew he had things to do; he had to find a sanctuary, had to destroy a soul, had to fix the damage the Void was doing to him even at that moment.
He had to capture Umbridge and take her to Mexico, to an Aztec pyramid at high noon and…
"Mr. Potter?" Harry jerked, and realized he had been staring into the fire in the goblin's office, watching the flames flicker and imagining they feasted on human skin.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
The goblin straightened a stack of papers already organized into perfect rows.
"I have three potential locations. All are remote, all muggle government properties that I believe can be purchased with minimal difficulties at a certain price and with magical… negotiations."
As the goblin spread out three maps, Harry glanced down at the desk, eyebrows furrowed in thought.
"Cold deserts. Oddly appropriate."
Griphook bared his teeth. "Days of sunlight at a time, Mr. Potter. And as remote as possible without being completely cut off of a landmass."
"Russia, Greenland, Canada." Harry said softly, looking between them all. "You couldn't survive in any of these areas without magic."
The goblin tapped a claw on the third map. "Muggles seem to manage, with supplies, but not for long. The nearest muggle outpost is over a hundred miles from each section, the nearest magical settlement around a thousand miles. On this third one, no mountains or substantial trees to hide an approaching force."
"A flat wasteland." Harry murmured, and with a thought sent the map fluttering towards him.
He looked down at a land scarred by centuries of ice, freezing and thawing in turn. There were hundreds of small and large lakes, thousands of rippling ponds that were no doubt seasonal. Some probably never thawed at all. And endless barren land, trees green dots that struggled to rise from the brown and white mass around them.
Griphook looked pleased. "It meets your parameters. I can start negotiations right away, and you should be able to begin building within a week."
In less than a week, Harry would purposefully torture a Ministry official to a grisly death. And ironically, the only thing he was waiting for was a phoenix to rise.
He could hardly wait. The angry hunger was inside his blood and written across his skin. He would take her from her own nest as she had sought to catch him in his own. He would sink fangs into flesh and...
"This one." Harry growled, and saw the goblin flinch at his tone. Harry looked at the fireplace, taking his eyes away from the goblin's spotted skin.
"Keep the exchange from leading back to me. I'm not sure how you communicate with the muggle world, but about the matter we discussed last time. You will find a like mind in a muggle businessman called Stephen Wilson, in New York. There is a Gringotts branch there. He will be more help than me."
Griphook sat straight, claws curled into a loose fist, beedy eyes narrowed on him.
"Thank you for the information. We are grateful to have the opportunity to prepare for such a situation."
"And come out ahead, no doubt." Harry smiled sharply, turning to face him. "Goblin equality?"
Griphook raised a brow.
"Goblins have been busy looking into the political affairs of the muggles these last few days. We find their morals intriguing, even if their economics are a bit… lazy."
"You mean less ruthless."
The goblin smiled, large enough that his pointed teeth were bared. "We are not meant to be a subservient species. We will thrive again someday without a wizard's yoke on our magic."
Harry looked back into the fire. "I never understood how goblins let them win. You control their gold."
Griphook laughed, and the sound sent a shiver down his spine.
"They think they give us that to mollify us. They give gifts as well, occasionally, to attempt to stave off more rebellion. But the rebellion has never stopped. We will be free when the opportunity comes."
Harry didn't doubt that in the least. He closed his eyes and breathed, the darkness humming in his mind.
It would be a bloody freedom, of that he also didn't doubt. Blood spilled on every single side.
Harry swallowed, and faintly tasted copper in his mouth, the echo of a memory. His stomach cramped with longing.
"Owl me when it's done." He whispered, and let the flames take him away before he gave into the urge to discover how different the taste of goblin magic and blood might be.
The day Fawkes stretched out his adult wings in their full golden glory was the day Harry sat down beside Hermione and wrapped his arms around her and held on tight while she whispered reassurances in his mind.
I'm here for you, always, forever. I'll be with you every step of the way.
He pulled back to look into her eyes.
I don't even care about killing her. I'm only worried the Void will win after all. That it will take me before I can take her to the Sun. How horrible is it that I find the act of killing her in such a way less frightening than losing control? How can you feel how much I long to hurt her and still be with me?
Hermione's hand was firm as she gripped his chin and didn't waver in her conviction.
She's an evil, vile person. I've been researching her. What she has done to magical creatures over the years, all under the Ministry's oversight, is horrendous. What she let her task force do to my parents is nothing compared to the suffering she has caused for goblins and werewolves and centaurs and elves over the years. She was supposed to protect them, and instead she has helped the Ministry enslave them. She abuses her power.
Harry felt his anger rise along with her own, two fuels to the fire.
Vengeance. His mind growled.
Justice. Hers replied, and Fawkes sang agreement.
Dread curled about her, red and green, and Harry felt him in both their minds and couldn't bring himself to care anymore, the serpents dark thoughts only making their own more vivid.
Tomorrow, high noon is near twelve thirty in Mexico. We're seven hours ahead of them. We leave at sunset here.
You won't fight against me coming with you? Hermione was surprised.
Harry's arms tightened.
You will be there in mind anyway. You will feel it. If I could prevent that, I would, but I can't. Better for you to be nearby. I will bring you there, first, before getting her.
Hermione nodded against his neck.
And in the silence, their minds embraced as tightly as their arms did, and Dread thought contentedly of a warm, safe nest.
It was coincidence, perhaps, that they had need of a ritual that once had a great deal of significance for one civilization.
Rituals were made to be significant, made to have rules, made to be performed in a certain way. Historians argued over their origins, philosophers argued over their necessity, the religious sometimes questioned but obeyed nevertheless.
To Dread, it didn't matter how and when it started. To the quetzalcoatl, it was enough significance that he was a creature that bore the name of a god once worshiped. It was enough that January was the end of the Aztec year, when festivals had been held in honor of Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire and heat and the day itself. At those festivals, the sacrifices were women and captives, and it was enough that the Master had chosen a woman to take captive.
A woman who had hurt them all, even if it wasn't direct. A woman who wanted to burn their nest to the ground would in turn be burned. Dread liked the significance of that, and liked the knowledge that an enemy would be used to protect instead of harm.
It was enough that the Aztecs had a god of shadows, as well, Tezcatlipoca, their most powerful and feared deity. The Enemy of Both Sides, as he was called, the enemy of Quetzalcoatl who loved the wind and the day. The Enemy who sought only darkness, who enslaved the world, who ate and was never full, who consumed all that was given and still asked for more.
For a day, the old ways would return to an old place, and it didn't matter that Dread was not a true quetzalcoatl or a true snake or a true Aztec. It only mattered that he found the rite important, and that they would summon the Light to keep the Enemy at bay until it could be burned completely in the fire of Heliopolis on the Equinox.
So Dread took the Master's memories and used the Master's magic, for they were the same soul, and spoke into the Master's mind of obsidian knives and ropes of woven fabric. They dreamed dreams of slashing-fangs and cutting the softest-place, of life-blood and the heart that made it flow. They dreamed of fire, the Master and Dread, the orange flame of Xiuhtecuhtli on a pyramid of stone.
When they woke, they cloaked themselves in magic and went to where wizards gathered and bought what was necessary, and the ritual was written in every step they took. It had to be; Dread felt the Darkness all around them, taking hold of the Master, so hungry, a ravenous predator waiting for only a single mistake to leap upon them and drag them down to waiting emptiness. Lastly, they went inside their trunk, a single drop of blood given for entrance, and placed inside their pocket one more sacrifice of darkness to be given to the Light.
Only when they returned to the Mistress did Dread reluctantly leave the Master behind in the care of the winged-singer to go to she-who-explains.
The Master did not ask where they were going. He didn't have to.
Dread called to the Sun to take them to Its place, and the winged firebird sang until white fire rose and its heat swallowed them whole.
Hermione hadn't been able to get through to Harry in the last hours.
The effects of the Void were worse than ever, she saw it looking out of eyes more black than green. It soothed her that Dread stayed with him, a near constant hiss from his mouth in something resembling a song.
She made her own preparations when she was left alone. She checked in on the house-elves, scoured the Black library for texts on soul magic, and did her best not to think about what Harry and Dread were doing.
When Harry returned, the quetzalcoatl came to her. She tried to smile at Harry but his eyes were unfocused, unaware. His wings were spread in a room that had no space for their bulk, his power too heavy a weight to bear for long.
She felt Dread tighten his hold about her, heard his hiss in her mind.
"Master fights the Darkness. We must hurry."
Hermione nodded, once, as Fawkes perched on Harry's shoulder and began to sing.
Then Dread made her hand reach out to take Harry's, and phoenix fire took them away to another place.
Harry knew the temperature changed, though he hardly felt it. There was more moisture in the air, the heavy prelude to rain.
It was a cloudy day in the wild rainforests of Mexico, the mountains around them veiled with thick mist. There were trees; everywhere life teemed like they stood inside a living organism, animal noises a cacophony of varied sounds.
Harry felt the boundary of wizarding wards. He knew, in the back of his mind, that they had breached a magical sanctuary much like that in Brazil, where the wild quetzalcoatl's lived with Analize Hoch. A place protected from muggle archeology by wizards. A place of ancient magic, warded as a warning of the curses that awaited eager treasure-hunters within.
Danger in every rock and plant.
He didn't care. He looked up, instead, at a rising step pyramid, stone segments larger than he was tall, a hundred steps leading up to a flat peak. It lay crouched on a mound of dirt, soil he knew was layered with human and animal remains, an ancient dragon of a building that was cloaked in layers of fraying protection charms. Along its sides red color was streaked like veins of spilled blood, all that remained of what had been bold and beautiful over a thousand years before.
It was old, so old, older even than Heliopolis' altar to the Sun, and smaller than its younger sibling pyramids to the north and south. But the power brimming in it sang a welcome to him.
I'll meet you at the altar. Harry tried to say to Hermione, and was only sure she heard when she turned to face him, face pale, and nodded.
The Darkness whispered, and Harry saw there were two altars at the top of the pyramid; one for the Sun, and one for the Darkness.
Fawkes left his shoulder in a flurry of wing beats, Dread rising in the same heartbeat, leaving them alone.
Hermione lifted her chin, her voice oddly loud in the sudden hush that followed their departure.
"I'll be there."
Harry looked into her brown eyes and felt her anger, like his own, frustration and pain and the urge to howl with fury at the cards that had been dealt to them and their own.
The Darkness said, and Harry left to the sound of the Void telling him the world was his if he would only give in and take it.
Umbridge did not allow herself to be afraid; so what if the Mulciber twins were missing. So what if the Grangers were gone, their house a mess and the muggle police making problems with their missing person reports and claims of finding female blood on the premises. Nothing memory charms could not solve. Nothing that had not been dealt with countless times before.
So what if the Potter elf was gone without a trace. Perhaps the wards failed for a moment, allowed the despicable creature its escape. She had all she would get from the thing anyway.
Damn her hopeless, bumbling task force, her hope for restoring the Minister's reputation, for refusing to follow her recent commands.
Damn Rufus Scrimgeour and his smirking hints. His so-called warnings about her safety, his oh-so-polite offer to assign her an auror detail as guard. It was a threat!
And damn the Minister for a sniveling, cowardly fool, nearly ready to bolt now at his own shadow, afraid of a single teenager like Potter was You-Know-Who himself.
She had always supported Cornelius! She was his Under-Secretary, his loyal companion! And he would contemplate backing down now, now that they had Potter on the run? He was considering the advice of Scrimgeour over her own?!
It was not to be borne. It would not be tolerated. The Ministry of Magic would not bow down to a boy just because he could outmaneuver their wards and cast fancy magic.
She had to find him; and she had to show the world just what he was.
Just one little boy.
She looked up with a glare when her kittens mewled in warning.
She didn't have time to understand what she saw, green light in black shadow.
If only she could have stayed in that sweet, peaceful nothingness forever.
The flame left his skin, and with its absence the Sun's protection.
Harry stood in the middle of the flat pyramid top, wings chiming metallicly in the humid wind, between the two rectangular altars of the Aztec gods.
Before him, on the ground, Umbridge lay sprawled, petrified, eyes wide and aware and shocked and furious and horrified all at once, emotions so strong he felt like he should taste them in his mouth like the copper taste of blood.
She wore pink and white, and on her breast a kitten badge was pinned, mewling weakly. A large woman, big-boned and no stranger to the sweeter things in life. She denied herself nothing she wanted.
And Harry could feel the darkness in her, a blight of the soul, and he had no doubt she was very familiar indeed with the magics the Ministry deemed illegal to the common wizard.
But the evil in her did not compare to what rested inside his pocket. He reached a hand inside and pulled free the locket, the metal swinging slightly in his hand as he held it up by its silver chain. Without a word he slid it around the woman's neck, the serpents etched into the metal cold and stark. A necklace of evil for an evil woman, a soul of darkness to crown his sacrifice. So malevolent and cruel, the both of them, tainted through with poisonous cruelty.
Without the Sun about him, its flame on his skin, he didn't much care about that. The Darkness liked that taint; it hummed in approval in his mind, and he felt its black mist taste the air. It wanted them both; the chain's magic, so thick and alive, the woman's mind, so full of hate and jealousy. It wanted the pink flesh and red blood, the white bones and blue veins.
The Sun, on the other hand, only wanted to cleanse the world of them both.
"Harry." Hermione said quietly, and he raised his eyes from Umbridge's throat to see where she stood, at the edge of the steps, the jungle spread out below and behind her, a backdrop of deepest green.
Absently, he noted that the wind had picked up, the hazy mist fleeing at its touch. He felt the pressure on his wings like a steadying hand.
"The ritual. It's noon." Hermione continued, and Harry focused on her again, his mind already drifting away, torn in two. Her eyes had dropped to the necklace, wide with surprise.
He realized he hadn't told her this part of his plan; he thought he had, that what he knew she must as well, because they had spent so much time inside each others minds in the last few days, studying, planning.
But she didn't ask, and Harry doubted he could explain. He couldn't focus on anything but the hunger and the power and what he was about to do to the woman still lying at his feet. His eyes drifted to the altars at either side, feeling driven by two opposite forces like a lamb to the slaughter.
There were symbols of the Dark on one altar, inscribed with obsidian blades and red paint. The Sun draped over the other, its sides decorated with feathered serpents and dancing figures, blue enamel highlighting a sky in midday.
One for life, and one for nothingness.
Give me more. Another, one more, we can have one more.
The darkness-between-the-stars sang it, in the middle of the day under the light of the Sun, so strong, and Harry heard its song like a funeral dirge, inevitable, hopeless. He looked at the red altar and the fat Aztec blade upon it, black as pitch with a white bone handle. So simple it would be, to place Umbridge there and give her to the Void, only one more soul in a long line of lost souls. Make her into nothing, erase her from existence, what power she had gone in an instance to the hungry darkness.
His throat burned with hunger, his scars echoing the pain.
Harry turned pleading eyes up to the sky where Dread and Fawkes waited, the Sun over their wings, waiting for him to make his choice.
The Sun did not ask. It did not plead. It judged, and It passed judgement.
We can do anything we desire.
The Darkness growled it, and Harry felt it trying to take him over again, a blackness in his mind, trying to take away what made him himself, and the Sun would not let it do so. The Sun would only let the Darkness speak, let Harry choose. Free-will.
Endless power and loss of control, or excruciatingly painful freedom.
Harry looked down and into Hermione's worried brown eyes, and chose pain.
There was ever only one choice he could make.
Harry lifted Umbridge with his power and placed her upon the altar of Xiuhtecuhtli. With a thought, he bound her hands and feet into stone hooks worn smooth and even with ancient use. Power sang in the stone, and the mosaics upon the altar blurred and seemed to move with it.
Harry stood over the low altar and looked down at the witch, letting the petrification spell go, watching as she squirmed and her mouth opened to howl obscenities that he couldn't hear. He couldn't hear anything over the songs in his ears of powers far greater than one mere witch.
The Darkness, refusing to leave him be, and the Sun, waiting for him, watching.
Dread and Fawkes circled, wide loops in a sky now clear and blue tinted white, the Sun burning down between them. The phoenix and the serpent sang their songs, and Harry closed his eyes a moment to listen to them.
Dread, speaking of vengeance, of protection, of a gift of power to its Creator.
Fawkes, singing of justice, and offering to his Father two souls to be cleansed of darkness.
The darkness-between-the-stars howled in sudden fury at him, and for a moment Harry could not hear his soul and his familiar. He could not see the altar or feel the Sun's heat.
He stood in eternal darkness, and the abyss of it was endless and deep.
You took my gifts. You used my gifts. I own you now. The Void said clearly, voice liquid poison. You will always wear my mark. You will always be mine.
At his shout, the darkness fell back. Harry, heart pounding, looked down at the pale Umbridge, her mouth open and wordless, eyes bulging with horror, silver metal glinting around her neck.
Mouth set in a snarl, Harry spat the words Dread had pressed into his mind, no more time for thoughts. He had to act, now, before the Sun began to lower in the sky, before the Darkness gained any more of its power, before he no longer had a choice.
"To the Sun I give these gifts of blood and life, to the Sun I give the sacrifice of two prisoners of war, an enemy who sought to kill one of the Sun's servants, and a soul broken and forged in darkness. I ask only that I myself be cleansed of such darkness, and if I ask too much, then let me pass through your fire as well!"
The black misty fire gathered at his back, a rising specter upon the reddened altar that lay empty, furious, hungry, so hungry. Umbridge squirmed and shouted and pleaded, and Harry felt the knife in his hand and did not know when he had taken it up. He moved to her side and looked up.
Dread met his eyes, green orbs with slit black pupils in a sleek face framed with the wide feathered crest of Quetzalcoatl.
"Strike-the-softest-place. Defend the nest. Give her life as a token of our strength and power."
Harry's hands tightened on the handle of the blade.
Not as a token, Harry thought back. A sacrifice. I do not enjoy this.
Even as Dread hissed in displeasure, Fawkes's song rose in an echo; and Harry looked down into Umbridge's eyes, her perfect curly hair disheveled now with her thrashing, pretty white lace at her throat, pretty pink coat and the small petite kitten at her breast.
And a portion of Voldemort around her neck like a rope at the gallows, malicious desire in its questing magic.
He lifted the knife to her abdomen, and realized how much harder it was to kill without the hunger to consume in his throat, without overwhelming anger beating inside his mind. He felt cold on top of the hot pyramid; cold, and detached. This was only one more chore he had to do; unpleasant, but necessary.
Gritting his teeth, Harry struck hard and fast, ripping down and up, the obsidian blade passing through flesh and bone both with ease in the way only enchanted blades could.
And for the first time, he heard the woman's screams.
Hermione stood, feeling useless.
Umbridge had threatened, at first; shouts of outrage and retribution.
When the knife formed in her friend's hands, her voice had changed to questioning fear.
When Harry shouted out words she could barely understand over her heart pounding in her ears, Hermione had heard Umbridge begin to plead frantically.
At the sound of the Ministry woman begging for her life, Hermione had found her hands covering her own ears to shut out the noise, backing away from the two altars, her body too heavy to stay upright.
As the knife fell, Hermione went to her knees and closed her eyes, blocking out the sound of pain and horror, and worse, the sickening squelch of torn flesh and splashing blood and what that meant.
He knew she would die, with that one slash. Too deep, too much, too quick.
Her scream became a gasp; shock replacing pain. Her eyes looked into his in crazed disbelief.
He dug the knife in and ripped up until his knife met the length of chain at her neck, power surrounding him in a vortex of pressure, before he stood and his wings splayed wide for balance as he leaped up onto the altar and knelt over the woman, raising the bloody knife again, liquid dripping from it freely.
If you give them to me, I would give you everything. The Darkness hissed one last time, and he saw it crouched upon its altar across from him, black fire and mist. Give them for my pleasure, and we could be everything.
The hunger was there again, in his throat; hunger for power and life and simplicity. Harry ignored it and the voice that spoke to him both, locking his eyes on the heaving body below him, life leaving her with every second, silver chain now red, blood flowing like water to splash across the stones.
He did then as Dread had shown him, as Harry himself had read of countless others doing before him, perhaps on this very altar.
He reached one hand into heat and stinking filth to grasp the fountain of every being's self, the organ that pumped blood and life and magic and moved it throughout the body, and he raised it in surrender, still beating, up to the Sun, and asked if it was enough with a wordless shout of power.
And for an answer, he was given the fire.
Dread, one part of his Master, felt the agony. His wings faltered and he tumbled in the sky, tail over wing, spinning, falling.
The fire came for him, too, and found him lacking. It was more powerful than he; and the quetzalcoatl had never before felt pain. Nothing else had been able to harm him as the Sun did then; and though he knew what pain was and why it came for them, at the echo of what his Master felt Dread withered and shrank and tried to escape.
He only had one place to hide; into the Mistress's soul, a lake of refuge and peace.
When he struck her, fangs biting into flesh, she shuddered and cried out to him in their minds, fear overriding pain. Fear for the Master, fear of the pressing heat from the altar, fear of the pain she too felt through her own bond.
Together, they lay surrendered upon the stone, and could not move under the weight of the Sun.
Fawkes sang to him; Harry knew that much, through the Sun's fearsome touch.
He wasn't flying, as he had been during his last time with the Sun. He wasn't falling, but kneeling instead in supplication.
Umbridge turned to ash and then to nothing, as gone as if the Darkness had taken her instead. The blood that had been upon his clothes and skin were licked up by the flames, the heart taken from his hand in one fleeting moment.
For a second the locket was left alone upon the stone altar, fighting, powerful, a dark shadow in brightest light. Then the Sun took it too, in one effortless wave of heat and flame, and Harry thought he heard a man scream in horror over the roar of the fire, flashing blue and white and yellow and orange and red, all the colors of pain and heat and life-giving power, and Harry felt it burning into the runes of his sixth set with scalding lashes.
He couldn't move in that agony, couldn't speak. He stared up, eyes wide into the sky, seeing the Sun through moving flame.
Upon his chest the key rune over his heart burned anew, Ankh, life eternal, and on the crown of his head he felt the circle rune that meant Sun answer the call.
When the transformation was forced upon him, the pain of it felt like relief instead, the crunch of bone and tearing of muscle less horrible than the flames that ate away his skin and hair and clothing, melting the feathers that he had borne so proudly through magic and ink.
As a phoenix, he felt no more pain. He had come through to the other side.
He had borne the fire and burned, but not died from it.
Fawkes landed on the other side of the altar, black eyes in a scarlet face.
Harry breathed in air cool and clean. The Sun had come down and taken Umbridge and the locket, and given something from Itself as well; he no longer felt the hunger or heard the song of the Void. Heat still burned in the rune Ankh upon his chest, hot but not quite painful; a reminder, and a promise.
He had been given the gift of time, but the Void remained behind that fire, waiting for Its chance to swallow him whole.
And the Sun had not yet punished him for the darkness he had willingly taken upon himself in search of power, no matter how good and desperate his intentions had been.
Harry looked towards the other alter, and found it gone, only empty flat stone in its place.
And beside where it should have been Hermione sat up, blinking slowly as she stared up at him.
"Is it… over?"
Harry fluttered his wings and leapt into the air, transforming back into human shape without a single whimper to betray the pain of it. That pain seemed like nothing now.
He reached out a hand to her, and gingerly pulled her to her feet, steadying her with his other hand until he held both of her shoulders in his own.
On his wrists, he saw that the scars, the marks of the Void, remained.
Another vivid reminder that he still hadn't paid enough.
"Almost. I'll make it until Equinox and the last set." He looked at Fawkes. "You felt the pain, too."
The phoenix ruffled his feather, the crest lifted of his long slender neck in pride.
Harry barked out a reluctant laugh, shaking his head.
"If that's what you would call it, I'd almost rather never take a bath again."
Hermione made a muffled noise; He turned to see her looking down, face red.
He was abruptly very, very aware that he was naked in front of her.
With an oath, he stepped away, his hands falling to his side.
Hermione's eyes jumped back up to his, wide and brown.
Then, she smiled, hands raising to cover her mouth as she shook her head with the sound of laughter.
"I… I can't help it! After everything that just happened, and you… you're naked! Again!"
"Again?" Harry blurted, as her shoulders began to shake. Then her hands fell away and her head fell back as she crowed with laughter.
"You've seen me naked before?!"
Harry demanded, and Hermione only shook her head, unable to speak. He stepped close again, his hands grasping her arms and holding her still, a soft shake beginning to end the sounds of crazed mirth.
She swallowed, hard. "If I don't laugh about it, I'll cry." Her voice was thick. "Mr. Dreadful is inside my mind. He's scared. I am, too, a little. You… you suffered."
Harry didn't let himself think about his lack of clothing. He pulled her closer and rested his forehead against hers, reaching out through the bond that held them together.
He felt Dread too, then, the serpent coiled tightly inside her soul.
The Sun judges strictly. We all bore it in our own way. Its touch is never pleasant, but it was brief. It did not harm us permanently.
Hermione's fingers gently touched his neck, the raised scar that cut across his jugular.
It didn't heal permanently, either. If this was just temporary relief, how bad will the seventh set be to erase the damage done? What cost will the Sun take from you?
Nothing I won't give willingly to have this all behind me. He answered. The Sun only takes things willingly given. And to never fear the Void I would give all of myself.
Fawkes sang soft, pleased agreement. Harry sighed and looked about them, off the tall pyramid and across the open jungle.
"We need to go. This place is not warded as tightly as Heliopolis. Somebody will have noticed a ritual summoning an Origin."
Hermione nodded in agreement, glanced down before flushing, her eyes darting back away again.
"Um, yes. Let's go."
With a light heart, Harry grinned and took her hand, calling up the cleansing phoenix flame to take them away. The woman in pink and the Dark Lord's soul were completely forgotten by them both, the taint of their memory and any remorse they might have felt burned as cleanly away as their forms had been.
The Sun would not allow its servants to mourn the destruction of such darkness, not in Its holy site, not while Its fire still burned in Harry's soul, Its Mark stamped over his heart.
~To Be Continued: The Light of Altar and of Sanctuary~