I do not own either the Harry Potter or Mass Effect franchises. This piece of fiction is being written merely for my own pleasure, and no monetary profit is intended.
*WARNING: Major info dump ahead!
There was only a faint 'woosh' of moving air, before the space rippled and five figures were deposited in the middle of Harry Potter's arcane lab inside The Refuge; his hideout in the mountain south of Central Settlement. The wizard himself landed lightly on his feet, and then proceeded to lay down the sleeping form of High Commander Vakarian gently on the ground. Jack Harper managed to stay on one knee, while Eva Coré and Ben Hislop ended up in a heap on the floor.
The Custodian slowly stood back up. "Well, that was… interesting, sure. Is it always like this?"
"Oh, no. Sometimes, it can actually get unpleasant."
"What… the… hell… was… that?!" and that was the closest thing to completely freaked out that Harry had saw the stoic Ms. Coré yet. She had jumped to her feet and even had her gun in hand, though it was thankfully not pointing at anything. Hislop just sat on the floor and looked around the new environment, eyes wide as saucers.
"Oh put the gun away, Ms. Coré. You just had your first teleportation, nothing to make such a fuss about." Harry was probably enjoying this more than he should. Just a bit.
"My first what?!" she spit out.
"Easy, Eva." Harper put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I told you it was all right. Ghost speaks the truth. Hold off on the questions for a while, we will explain everything. Promise."
Still trembling a little, she looked from the Custodian to the wizard, before putting the gun away. "You better, Jack."
The man nodded, then turned to his other companion. "Up, Ben. And stop staring like that or your eyes are going to fall off."
"Holy shit!" the burly young man finally found his voice. "Where are we? Is this a cave? And are those cauldrons?!" he pointed to the row of golden containers, all empty at the moment.
The wizard had to laugh at the operative's capacity to roll with the punches. He liked Hislop. "You are in my personal base of operations. I'm sorry about the rough ride, but this place has no physical entrances. That was the only way to bring you here."
"Sorry?! Are you kidding?! That was amazing! Can we do it again?" he said the last part eagerly, stars shining behind his eyes.
Coré sighed and pulled him up to his feet. "I swear… we could stumble into a herd of dinosaurs and you would be fine with it."
He looked at her as if she was mental. "Of course I would. Dinos are cool."
Harry shook his head, and once more thought about his decision. A decision that could either help him, or bring him a lot of problems.
Most likely both.
After the transports had retreated from Shanxi's atmosphere, Harry quickly started Apparating around; giving the Alliance a discreet 'hand' in clearing the collapsed tunnels; capturing the last turian soldier on the planet (who was guarding three young fellas from Green 14 that, according to Astrid, were most likely the ones responsible for starting the entire mess); investigating the crash site of the doomed frigate (no survivors, as expected); and checking up on Sam (who was being taken good care of by the Baummans). And then he finally went to the meet Harper and his teammates, back on the clearing from where they had left.
The simple truth was that he had played the lone wolf card since he woke up in this future, Astrid and Eliza notwithstanding. He needed competent, informed help in this crisis. He needed sounding boards for his plans, more viewpoints besides that of his ship. And if he ever wanted to find a cure for Earth's Magic, the Custodians, at the very least, were a resource that he could ill afford to keep ignoring.
He took Harper aside and gave him the choice of letting his teammates hear the truth or not. But he warned that he would need to check if the information was secure with them, and that if he suspected it was not, he would need to make them forget it. The Custodian was not exactly happy, but understood the necessity and freely admitted that any protests he might have were only due to his personal attachments. He told Harry that Hislop and Coré would take the secret to their graves, if he asked.
And now here they were.
"All right, everyone. Settle down. Let me…"
He was interrupted by frantic knocking at the door that separated the Refuge's two large rooms. A young female voice called anxiously. "Harry?! Is that you?!"
The wizard took his wand and waved at the door. "Yes, Letia! It's me!" a clicking sound could be heard, and both Coré and Hislop looked at the piece of wood in puzzlement. The door opened to reveal the anxious and tired visage of Lucretia Bhatia. Her hair was messy, her blue eyes were a little red, and there was some dried blood on her chest and arms, though not her own. "HARRY!" she immediately screamed and made to enter the room, but stopped short when she looked at the four of them.
That's when the wizard remembered he was still wearing his mask. He quickly took it off, and ignored the stares of the special operatives at his unveiled face. In a second, the uncertain girl turned into a dark-haired missile that barreled into him, hugging his chest tightly. She ignored the other people in the room entirely, and just started babbling on his armor.
"Oh, Harry, it's so good to see you! I was so fucking worried! The aliens took us by surprise, the Marines didn't had a chance! Mom got hurt and what the hell was that necklace, Harry?! Astrid wouldn't tell us anything else, she just said this is your hideout, and to wait for you because you were cleaning up with the aliens and you are going to fucking tell me what this is all about right now, Mister!"
During her speech, she had gone from hugging him to pointing her finger accusingly at his face, her pale blue eyes flashing dangerously with that 'don't you dare disagree' look that only women could pull off. Harry suppressed the urge to snort, he did not think it would gain him any points here, and gently took her hand in his.
"I'm fine, Letia. What about you?"
"Oh, I'm just perfect. Your magical medicine, which tastes horrible by the way, fixed me right up. Hell, it fixed mom! Her wounds just closed over! So don't change the damn subject!"
Now the wizard could not help a small laugh. She had no idea how right she was. "Don't worry; I am going to explain a great deal about what is going on and what I have been up to until now. Honestly it's… something I maybe should have done from the start." he let out a tired breath. "Just let me check on your mum first and get everyone comfortable. And speaking of that…" he gestured to the other three occupants of the room, who were looking at the pair with varying degrees of amusement and curiosity. "Lucretia Bhatia, let me introduce you to Jack Harper, Eva Coré and Ben Hislop. They are all professionals contracted by the Alliance, and they have been a great help to me lately."
The young woman greeted the operatives with some light, but visible, suspicion. She knew very well that the term 'professionals' was just an euphemism for 'mercenaries', and she had an understandable amount of distrust for such people. Still, the three were the picture of politeness, probably more than used to the reaction by now. No, there was no problem there.
The real problem came when Letia finally noticed the turian soldier lying on the floor behind Harry. Her eyes lit up in revulsion, her whole body stiffened and she let out an angry hiss, looking very much like a cornered cat. "What the hell is one of them doing here?!" her voice dripped with venom.
Harry took her by the shoulders and led her out of the room, giving a quick nod to Harper, who nodded back. The girl did not resist, but never took her hateful eyes from the still form of the High Commander, until the woman was out of sight behind the closed door. "Easy, Letia. That is a high-ranking turian officer that we… took as a prisoner. She was not a part of the squad that attacked the shelter. She is weaponless, bound and sedated. She won't be any trouble." they were in the 'living area now'. On one of the beds lined up against the wall, Harry could see the sleeping Avani Bhatia, looking very much healed from her wounds despite the bloodied clothes draped on a chair. Letia had likely been sleeping too, before their voices woke her up. It had been pretty late already when the attack begun.
"And what are you going to do with that… creature?" she asked him. She talked lower now, mindful of her mother.
Harry sighed, running a hand over his face. He focused his tired eyes on Letia's angry ones. "What do you think I do with a captured soldier, Letia? I lock them up in a secure place, keep them safe, perhaps I get some intel, and then I wait until opportunities arise to decide on anything further." he saw no need to explain this particular turian's importance. It was not the matter here, anyway.
The girl looked at his eyes for a moment longer, many thoughts and emotions storming behind her gaze. When she spoke, it was through gritted teeth. "The aliens slaughtered the Marines, Harry. They blasted tents and put people in a rampage. They gunned down the officials at the depot when they had no weapons and had already surrendered." he could feel little trauma from the violence she had witnessed, but perhaps it was just buried beneath the smoldering anger she felt.
Harry made a point not to actively read the thoughts of people he cared about, though he could do little about his passive Legilimency, as it was not something that could just be turned off.
He nodded slowly. "They did. And I truly wish I was there to stop them. I wish the Marines were alive and the turians were the ones dead. Better yet, I wish this stupid fighting had not started in the first place, and nobody had to get hurt." he pressed hard on the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the headache he could feel coming. "But Letia, they being turians, aliens, has little to do with their actions. They were soldiers, and any Alliance squad in a similar situation might have done very much the same."
"You're taking their side?!" she almost screamed.
"I'm taking nobody's side, Letia. I'm simply pointing out that we are in a struggle between two military powers, and that it is hardly unusual for innocents to be caught in the middle. You know that. Like humanity as a whole, your first encounter with this new species has been in one of the worst ways possible, and I just... don't want you to fall into the trap of thinking every turian you see is a bloodthirsty monster. They are people, Letia, capable of good and bad things. Just like us. Whatever 05's attackers did, it would not make harming the defenseless woman on the other side of that door any less wrong."
She paced furiously in front of him, arms crossed and nails digging into her sleeves. "All right, so not all aliens are murdering freaks. Great! And what about the fucker that hurt my mom, Harry?!"
Harry closed his eyes for a moment, considering what to tell her. In the end, he decided that Lucretia deserved the whole truth. She was a strong young woman, and even if it would not help his argument any, it would be better to lay it all out in the open now. "Astrid told me the whole story with Ms. Bhatia." he began, speaking softly. "But I'm afraid that hurting Avani was not the greatest evil they committed against you, personally, Letia."
His somber tone stopped the young woman on her tracks. She looked at him with rising dread. "What do you mean?! Is it Samesh?!"
He was quick to answer that. "Sam is fine, Letia. As I'm sure Astrid told you. Please, take a seat." he pointed at a chair.
She did not move. "What do you mean, Harry?"
He sighed, but did not take his eyes away from hers. "It's Elliot. He was the first Marine to encounter the enemy squad. They ambushed him in the tunnels. He's… I'm sorry, Letia."
The girl went completely still for almost a minute, just staring at him. "E-Elliot's dead?"
"I'm sorry." he said again. Words rarely helped, when the pain was fresh. He knew that well enough.
For a long time she was silent. He was sure her nails would have cut into flesh, if not for her the fabric of her shirt. He was sure she would not have noticed if they did. When she spoke, her voice trembled. Sadness and fury coated it in equal measure. "What happened to them?"
"To the turians?"
She gave a violent nod.
"I arrived just a minute after you were gone. I subdued them."
She blinked. "Subdued…?" she asked slowly, disbelief in her voice.
He looked intently at her. "Their actions enraged me too, Letia. I did not know Elliot for long, but I know he was a good, honest young man. And their leader was lucky you and Avani were already gone by the time I got there. I still made my feelings very clear before I left him and his friends to be collected by the Marines."
"You let him live?!" she screamed, betrayal at the front of her mind. That was the very first time since they met that Harry saw negative feelings from the girl aimed at him.
He stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. "I made sure that he will need to consider another career in the future, have no doubt. I daresay this will be the last war he will be at the frontlines of, if the Alliance releases him."
She shook off his hand and took a step back from him. "Oh, that's rich!" she laughed. But it was a cutting, derisive laugh. "Harry Evans, the gallant and merciful knight. Arriving just a second too late to save the damsels. And how very fucking noble of you to…"
"That's enough, Lucretia!"
She turned startled, but still furious, eyes to her mother, who was now leaving the bed and walking towards them. Harry knew she had been awake from the moment it happened. She moved without any apparent discomfort, the potions had done their work.
"I know you are angry, I know you are hurting." she spoke kindly. She took the younger woman by the arms. "But you can't blame Harry for what happened to us, and you certainly can't blame him for not taking a man's life when he didn't need to."
"That bastard killed Elliot!"
"And nothing will bring him back." she answered, sadly. "Perhaps, when that pain you're feeling right now lessens, you will see that. It's over, dear. We will mourn Elliot and all the other soldiers, but their killers are prisoners of the Alliance, now. You need to wash your hands of them."
For a few moments, it looked as if the girl wanted nothing more than to get out of her mother's grip. Out of the room, entirely. But then, that burning hatred in her eyes seemed to break, and she dived into the older woman's arms. "I liked Elliot, mom! I really did!" she cried. "I… it wasn't love, but… he had so many things to do, mom! He was so proud of being a Marine!"
"I know, dear." she squeezed her daughter tightly. Harry shifted in place, a little awkward. He had always felt welcome with the Bhatias, but this time he felt like an intruder. "It isn't right. It won't be right. But give it time, dear. Give it time."
The wizard went to leave. He felt they needed some time, and was going to return to the operatives, but Avani was having none of that. "Harry, please stay. I need to thank you. I don't know what your necklace is; not to mention all these miraculous chemicals you have; but those things saved my life. I'm in your debt, my friend."
He just shook his head. "From what Astrid tells me, it seems the necklace ended up doing more harm than good." he said ruefully.
"That was my decision, Harry. My very stupid decision. I won't allow you to blame yourself for my idiocy."
He sighed. "Trust me, I have a nasty habit of guilt-tripping myself. So I make a conscious effort to curb that impulse." he spoke firmly, but did not have the heart to be harsh. "You deliberately put yourself in a very dangerous situation that was way over your head, Avani. And Astrid is very much not happy about being blackmailed into helping you."
Letia turned her tear-streaked eyes to him, voice burning low with fury. "What, Harry? Is mom a murderer for defending herself now?"
The wizard looked calmly to her. "I don't fault Avani for defending herself, and you, Letia." he looked to the woman, who just waited for him to finish, accepting. "She didn't know what that woman would ultimately do, she didn't know how fast the Portkey worked; which is my fault, by the way; and she had to make a quick call in a deadly situation. But the point is that all of it happened as a consequence of bad decisions. And it could have ended much, much worse for the both of you."
He had not even finished speaking, when Letia made to wrench herself from Avani's arms to get into his face. But the mother held firm. "Stop it, Lucretia! He's right!"
"No 'buts', dear. I was frightened for you, and it got the best of me. Now you and Samesh are safe, and I can see clearly how stupid it was. I can tell myself all day that I didn't know if the aliens were going to release you or not, that they might have taken you as captives, or a million other dreadful things. It doesn't change the fact that I most likely put you in even more danger, stumbling my way into that depot." she looked at the wizard again. "I'm sorry, Harry."
He walked closer to the pair. Lucretia shifted subtly away from him, and that hurt a little, all right. He sighed, a hand coming up to scratch at his neck. "The attack should never have happened in the first place. I thought I had the Shelter secured. I thought I had covered all fronts. I was wrong."
"I think that habit of yours needs another checking out, Harry." she lowered her head. Her voice lost its earlier confidence. "I… had a nightmare about that woman. The one I shot. She… her blood was blue." she spoke almost too softly to hear. "That… that really surprised me. I don't know why… but it did."
"She might have killed us!" the girl exclaimed, indignant.
"Perhaps…" Avani let out a sigh and pressed her forehead against her daughter's. "There was certainly nothing else in my mind at the time. But now… there was just so much blue on that wall, Harry."
He nodded slowly. "I know."
They were all silent for a time. Mother and daughter still embraced, taking comfort from each other. Harry looked at the cupboards around the table. He desperately needed a spot of tea. And to check on his shoulder; had to remember that.
But first things, first. "Look… this isn't the best moment. We all need some time to process all this. I have a hundred things to do, and you need to check up on Sam and… and go see Elliot." the young woman flinched and buried her head in her mother's shoulder. "But I don't know for how long things will remain quiet. Another attack could come at any moment, or something even worse can happen. Before we find ourselves neck-deep in turians again, we need to have a very long talk. I own both of you an explanation for all…" he gestured to the room around them. "…this. If you would listen."
Letia took some time to think, while she got her emotions under control. "Yeah, you fucking do." she decided. There was still a lot of resentment in her voice, but the venom seemed to have been drawn out. He would take what he could.
Avani was not so sure, even when she burned with curiosity. "Harry… my son…"
He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "He's fine, Avani. I planned on bringing him here initially, but all this… this room and what I need to tell… it's a very big secret; something that only a select few know about. Now, I love Sam; he's a smart and honest lad. But this… this is not the kind of thing I can entrust to an eleven-years-old."
"HA!" Astrid spoke for the first time in that little drama. Harry ignored her.
The mother nodded. "All right, Harry."
He looked at the table, and sighed. "We are going to need more chairs."
The servant watched.
It watched as they walked about their dead vessel. Fragile creatures; so confident in their skin, their muscles, their bones. Things that could be so easily broken, torn, slashed.
It watched as they talked to one another. Individuals. Isolated within themselves; trapped in their own minds. Thinking that words, looks or touches could truly convey reason, intent and feeling.
It watched as they worked. Beings with no purpose; whose every action was fated to be transient, ephemeral, undone.
All they were, illusions. All they did, meaningless. Slaves of the universe. Lost Creatures.
The Voice had ordered it to wait. To guard. To watch. And so it did. Here, inside this dead vessel, surrounded by the Lost. Lost that the Voice could not bring to the light; could not give true strength, true conscience, and true purpose. Because the False Savior needed to believe he was in control; needed to believe he was somehow greater than these creatures before it. And so, it waited.
But the Voice would not wait much more. It could not. As powerful as it was, as great as it was, the Voice had its own purpose. Its own duty to fulfill for the Harvest. And it had to begin, with or without the False Savior's assistance.
"Here, Lieutenant Abrudas."
It watched as one of the Lost handed a filled container to the Most Devout of all the False Savior's followers inside this dead vessel. Some warm liquid; meant more to sooth her mind than to sustain her body. A deception.
"Thank you. Any news from the General?"
"None, Lieutenant. It seems things are on a standstill at the human colony."
"What about… it, Lieutenant?"
Censure in her voice. "You don't need to talk about Specialist Aetius like that, Corporal. He isn't a monster. He is our biological destiny; thousands, perhaps millions of years of evolution, granted to him in an instant by the power of our ancestors."
"I know! I'm sorry. It's just that… he just stands there, you know? I don't think he has moved a muscle since we brought the artefact into this room."
"He hasn't. He hasn't eaten, drunk or slept in all that time, too. He is beyond petty necessities like that. He was ordered to watch over the Monolith, and he will do so until the universe stops expanding, if necessary. He's immortal, now. Time has no meaning to him."
It could sense awe from her. The other Lost felt awe, too. But it was tempered by revulsion for the servant's physical aspect. Vanity, another deception.
"Well, wish I had his patience, at least. We have been patrolling the edge of this system for over two weeks. Nothing but empty space. I hoped we could have found the human frigates which fled the battle. But it seems they have left the system altogether."
"All the better, Corporal. We could not have engaged them, anyway."
"I know. Well, I have to get back to it. I'll see you later, Lieutenant."
She settled back, resuming her own silent vigil and casting a fleeting gaze upon the servant's form. The form they had covered in flimsy garments, to hide his Illuminated nature from the not-followers. This Lost Creature hid it well, but she, too, had doubt. Fear. Unlike others, she yearned for the moment her doubts would be taken from her. She yearned for the moment she could partake from the blessings her False Savior had promised.
Her time would come.
"Bullshit!" exclaimed Coré, obviously not being able to hold back any longer.
"It's true, Eva." Harper told her, voice serious.
"Jack, you can't tell me you believe this?! Magic?! Wizards and witches?! We are in the damned 22nd Century! We travel faster than light, fuse atomic particles, and control gravity itself! I thought we were beyond these superstitions?!"
"And yet, I assure you it is all very much real."
"Oh ye of little faith." Harry gave a loud theatrical sigh, bringing their attention back to him. "There is always a naysayer in the crowd." he said in mock-disappointment. "All right, Ms. Coré. If the teleportation wasn't enough to convince you something beyond conventional tech is at play here, how about this?"
The Bhatias and Harper's teammates were seated around the small table in his 'living room', which he had filled with some refreshments. Harry and Harper were standing, the wizard in the middle of the room and the Custodian relaxing against a counter. Harry had excused himself for a few minutes, in order to secure their prisoner (Letia had remained pointedly quiet at that), and now he had just walked back into the room, holly wand draw, and laid down the basics.
But as always, a little reinforcement was needed.
With a flick of the wand, Harry Conjured a fluffy white bunny in front of the woman, which promptly jumped to her lap. She went stiff as a board, looking wide-eyed at the little animal who gazed back with curious red eyes, sniffing softly at her clothes. All the other seated people stared at it, too. Lucretia and Avani had even got up, so as to have a better look.
The wizard wished he had a camera, the tough operative's face was just priceless. Then he remembered Astrid, and knew she would take care of it.
"That's a rabbit." Harry told her, making his amusement clear. "Herbivores… usually harmless. Ever heard of them?"
"Go ahead, pet him." the Custodian told her, just as entertained.
She shot him an 'are you out of your mind' look. But after a few moments when she realized that Harper was serious, and that the bunny was not going anywhere, she slowly raised her hand and touched the white fur. The bunny turned to sniff at it.
"It is... it is warm." she said, amazed now. "I can hear it breathing. I can feel its heartbeat... so fast."
Harry smiled. "Conjuring is an advanced branch of Transfiguration, which is the magical discipline that primarily alters the shape, mass, volume or even atomic configuration of a physical object. Now, perhaps one day technology will allow us to instantly create a living, breathing creature of flesh and blood from the ether, like the one sitting on your legs. But I think that day is still a long way to come, yes?"
She managed to tear her eyes from the bunny as it hopped down to the floor, and went to sniff at Hislop's shoes. "It could still be an illusion. A manipulation of the senses."
The wizard shook his head. "Ms. Coré, if I could enter your mind to manipulate your senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch, do you really think that I would waste my time with such a convoluted story? Why not shape a truth that would be much more plausible to you? And please notice that theory would require everyone else in this room to be under the same illusion, or being an illusion." he flicked his wand again, and the bunny that had just been picked up by Hislop vanished.
He looked so crestfallen that Harry almost Conjured the little guy back for him.
"I think it is easier to accept if you ignore the name." Harper said, a thoughtful look on his face, scratching his chin. "Like Eva said, 'magic' immediately brings the idea of the superstitious to our minds. But look at it like this; what we have is a previously unknown power that can manipulate matter, energy, space, and even time itself. No, Eva, I kid you not. Ten years ago, we thought it was impossible to directly manipulate gravitational force. Then we found the Archives, and everything changed. We still don't know how Element Zero works, what makes it alter the perceived mass of an object. Some people screamed it was sorcery, too. Hell, many of those 'in the know' were convinced eezo was a magical substance, until further testing ruled that out."
The Custodian shrugged, looking around the room. "Is 'magic' so different? It is a force that we don't understand, but whose effects are tangible and observable enough."
"No shit." The female operative was still looking at the spot where the bunny had been.
Avani shook her head slowly. Amazement was the emotion he could see on her face. "And you say the ability to control this… energy, is a purely biological occurrence, Harry? An extremely rare one, from the looks of it? Hereditary?"
He clasped his hands on his back. "Yes… and no, Avani. I will explain better in a bit."
"So you are a wizard, ghost man? Like, a magic ghost? Who can turn people into frogs, and make golems, and shoot fireballs from your hands?" Hislop's eyes shined with juvenile excitement.
Harry gave him a smile. "Yes, Ben. Though the 'fireballs from my hands' part would be quite a challenge, and would most likely end up with me having some embarrassing burns."
"Love it!" the young man stated. "And this means… those cauldrons in the other room, are they actually to brew potions?"
"Correct. Potion-making was a long-time tradition of all spellcasters."
"But… using this power, 'magic', how is it done?" asked Coré. "You need that wand, I gather, but you aren't born with the knowledge, right?"
"No, Ms. Coré. Although there is what we call 'accidental' and 'wandless' magic, casting spells is a skill. Just like brewing potions and writing a runic circle. And like all skills, it must be learned, practiced, experimented with, and perfected. And also like all skills, natural talent and sometimes sheer luck play a large role in the process. Spellcasting is divided in a multitude of areas, like Transfiguration, separate by their own distinct characteristics. In later times, children born with the power were usually taught the craft by Masters of a specific field, in schools dedicated solely for that purpose."
"You are almost always speaking in the past tense." they all turned to the younger Bhatia, who was not looking the wizard in the eyes, instead staring at the table. "You are obviously a… wizard. But you speak about the others as if they no longer exist."
Harry sighed. He conjured a comfortable armchair for himself, eliciting another round of blinks from the four (and an impressed whistle from Hislop). After sitting down, he gestured to Harper, who nodded, and made one for the man, too.
"We will get to that. Now, I can't tell you all of our history. It's every bit as long, shattered and messy as normal human history; missing pieces and speculation everywhere you look. So bear with me as I give you the dirty, abridged version."
And for the next whole hour, Harry told them about the Wizarding World. He talked about the hidden magical communities ("You hid an entire district in the middle of London?! Unbelievable!"); about the many magical plants (Gods, what I wouldn't give to study those specimens!") and beasts ("Dragons?! Awesome!"); and about the other sentient races (Fairies were real?! Not that… that I like fairies, of course… just forget it.")
He told them a little of the ancient magical civilizations. How they shaped human history in both good and bad ways. How they contributed to the advancement of the sciences. How they produced brave heroes and terrible villains, whose superhuman feats were often still remembered and regarded as myth. How those magical communities lived side-by-side with the non-magical cultures, but the gulf between both worlds got progressively wider, until the International Statute of Secrecy was signed in the 17th Century.
"That…" Avani started, and then stopped speaking as she pondered for a moment. "That was a good and bad thing. It might resolve the immediate issues of the conflicts you mentioned, but creates a slew of new ones."
"Indeed, Avani, but that was the decision. And suddenly, true magic seemed to just… vanish from the world. Time passed, normal humans went about their business, and magic turned into legend. Alive only in the tales and folklore. Eventually, those tales found their way into fantasy novels, movies and videogames. Into the shining stages of Las Vegas' hotels. And there it remains for the majority of mankind, to this very day."
And he told them how the magical world moved on, as well. How wizarding communities ruled themselves, policed themselves, erected their own hidden buildings, districts and even whole villages. How there was almost no formal cooperation between the two worlds. How sometimes a magical child would be born of non-magical parents, or wizards and witches would take normal humans as close friends and spouses, or the many instances were magic would be revealed to the outside world, and all the steps magical governments took to ensure that their society remained a secret.
"What?!" Lucretia exclaimed, looking fairly disgusted at the concept, though thankfully (and surprisingly, to be honest) not at Harry himself. "Messing up with people's minds?! Spying on them?! That's just wrong!"
"It is unethical, sure." Harper interjected. "But look at it from this side; if the secret had to be kept, wasn't making people forget better than… removing the threat in a more definitive fashion? Or imprisoning them forever? One could argue that wizards needed to watch themselves more closely, yes, or that the very idea of secrecy was a bad one in the first place. But as far as information-containment goes, you can bet our own governments would use such methods, if they could. And they already spy on the general populace far more than most people are comfortable knowing, or admitting."
She turned to the other two operatives. "You think that, too?"
"We are professional military agents who specialize in covert operations, Ms. Bhatia." answered the blonde soldier with a shrug, not at all hesitant to admit that fact. "We live and breathe top-secret files and confidentiality agreements. I won't say that the thought of someone altering my memories doesn't makes me very uncomfortable, but I can certainly understand the necessity." Hislop nodded seriously besides her.
"Let Harry finish the story, dear." Avani put a gentle hand over her daughter's. "I think we have much more to hear still." he nodded at her.
"I… all right."
Finally, Harry told them about the 20th Century. How in those years Europe saw the rise of two very powerful wizards who came to be recognized as 'Dark Lords'. He told them about Gellert Grindelwald and his 'spiritual successor' Tom Marvolo Riddle, also known as Lord Voldemort. How both men tried to overthrow the legal governments of Europe and establish their own twisted magical empires. How they were both stopped. Twice, for the later.
At no times did Harry mention himself by name, or even truly focused on his role, concentrating on painting a general picture.
"And here's where our tale comes to its saddest point. Because Voldemort might have not been the one to bring ruin to the entire Magical World, but he planted the seeds that allowed it to happen."
Harry poured a mug of tea for himself, drinking it slowly as he gathered his thoughts. The others, even Harper, were quiet now. They had all felt how somber the wizard's voice became as he neared the end of his speech, and no one dared to break the silence. Eventually he started again, though he kept his eyes fixed at his reflection on the tea's red surface. He was seeing events and faces that were long gone.
"People are never just 'good' or 'bad'. Voldemort's second rise had not been a structured war between armies; it was a bloody and confusing conflict between neighbors. People who, just a year before, were drinking and laughing together at the local pub." he sighed, putting the half-empty mug back on the table. He put his hands beneath his chin. "While there was no shortage of unrepentant murderers and violent criminals, most of his 'followers' had simply joined the side many, perhaps the majority, thought of as the 'winning' one. But we desperately needed to find the true ring-leaders, the Death Eaters and supporters that got away. The lack of true, deep-reaching reforms after the war made us afraid that those people could return to power at any moment." his thoughts stormed, as images of all that happened after Voldemort's fall; his studies, his training, his missions; all of it flashed before his mind's eye. "Fear for the future made us impatient, made us… obsessed." without knowing, his mouth curved in distaste. "In our zeal, we… we were harsh, we were relentless, and we were unforgiving. Hate did not diminish after the civil war. It grew… on all sides."
The wizard looked at his audience, though by now he was not really seeing them, speaking mostly to himself. "In the end, it was that hate which destroyed us."
He went quiet again, lost in memories. Only later he would think back and notice how he had slipped into his time-frames, and spoken as if he had been an active participant in those terrible events.
Which he had.
After a time when it seemed he was not going to speak any longer, Lucretia softly called to him. "Harry?"
He slowly looked at her, and for the first time since he told her about sparing the turian who killed her boyfriend, Letia was looking at him without that painful sentiment of betrayal. There was concern in her blue gaze. "Harry, what happened?" she asked again.
He moved a hand over his eyes. Merlin, he was tired. But he could not stop now, there was much still to tell. "To understand what happened next…" he begun, giving the young woman a weak smile, which she did not return. "…you'll need to know more about how magic works. Or rather, how it used to work."
He got up. It was better if he was not sitting down, or his tiredness might catch up with him. He once more stood in front of his guests, hands at his back, and spoke in his best 'teacher' voice.
"Let me tell you about Living Magic."
This campaign was over.
Desolas had suspected that the moment he was informed a small ship bearing the signature of a Citadel Special Envoy hailed the Penitent Justice. When its lone pilot further identified herself as an agent from the Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, he knew it without a shadow of doubt.
"Spectres." The general thought, with a mix of respect and contempt. "The guard beasts of the galaxy; figureheads of the Council's power. The ones who reveal their identities to the public, of course. Diplomats and spies; peacekeepers and assassins; with the official Authority to supersede almost any laws. And now, I have one of them aboard my ship."
Desolas entered his private rooms to find the slender but strong-looking form of an asari waiting for him. The 'woman' had the blue skin and eyes that were common of her species, along with purple facial markings that differed from his own by being natural, instead of applied. She wore blue-and-white medium armor, and the symbol of the Office was displayed proudly on the right shoulder-pad. A shotgun rested on the small of her back. She had been observing the sparse decorations of his quarters with a look of idle curiosity, not touching anything, and had not immediately turned when the door opened. He decided to take the first word.
"I bid you welcome, Spectre Vasir. I trust my legionnaires gave no trouble in escorting you here?"
It was still a few moments, before she finally took her eyes from one of his perfectly bare walls to look at him. "General Desolas Arterius." she greeted. Despite the apparent snub, her voice was friendly. "Thank you for receiving me. And no problems at all. You run a very tight ship here, General. Not that I expected anything less from an officer of the Hierarchy."
"Kind words all the same, Spectre." he moved over to his table, indicating for the Council agent to take a chair. After they were both seated, the general got straight down to business. "Now, I beg your forgiveness Lady Vasir, but let us not play games with one another. If one of the Office's most renowned agents is here, then it means that our little clash with this new species is either known to the Council already, or is about to be."
Tela Vasir gave him a knowing smile. "Very well, General. Let's be equally blunt, then. Obviously, I'm here to address the Hierarchy's covert military intervention against the newly-discovered humans." she crossed her legs and reclined on the chair, the very picture of easy confidence. As if she had nothing to fear from being alone in a ship filled with almost a thousand trained killers. "Let me begin by stating that the Citadel Council tries its utmost not to interfere in the sovereignty of any Associated or Member Race." her smile never dimmed or increased as she spoke.
Desolas had to make a conscious effort to stall any physical reaction to the woman's words. It was worse than he thought. He now knew the purpose of this visit was not to gather information, but rather to communicate a decision.
And he was proven right. "I haven't come to pry on your affairs, General. The Office has already gathered all the intel needed." the smile got just a fraction larger. "And it has been more than a couple of days now since Palaven gave the Citadel full disclosure, on the advice of your Councilor."
He suppressed the urge to shoot her his coldest glare, keeping his features just as relaxed. "I see. I must confess that it does my heart good to know we no longer keep secrets from our fellow races, Lady Vasir. This intervention was an unfortunate necessity, but nothing that we should be ashamed of."
"I'm sure." she inclined her head in acknowledgment. He could not truly say if she was being honest or not, but he knew which bet he would take.
"And what is the Council's decision on this matter?"
The asari looked away from him, once again examining the room. This time, she seemed to find something about his small, hard-lined bed (more of a cot, really) utterly fascinating. It took almost a minute before she answered. Desolas just waited.
"These humans are an intriguing lot." she would still not look at him. "From a military standpoint, at least. They have fairly advanced naval technology, probably on par with the batarians', if not a little better. They seem quite capable of unconventional tactics, using our perceived superiority against us." Desolas' talons clenched hard beneath the table. "Their emphasis on the use and quality of fighters raised many an interested head, let me tell you. All in all, it seemed you had encountered a race that, if the worst happened, could provide the Hierarchy with a small challenge. It would all depend on the full size of their fleets."
She turned to him, blue eyes gazing placidly on his own. "But then… large fields of an unknown nature, capable of blocking any and all electromagnetic radiation. A relatively well-fortified encampment, and an entire Company of highly trained soldiers, obliterated in less than ten minutes. And not by bombs or missiles, but by an enemy that was only seen because it decided to reveal itself." she waved a deceptively delicate hand. "That made the Citadel rethink its evaluations."
"The human operatives in question claims their unit does not represents, or answers to the ruling political body of his species." the general interjected. "And his speech also suggested that the technology employed was not widely available, though will I admit it was more of an implication than a statement."
The Spectre shrugged. "Does it truly matters, in either case? We don't know how powerful and widespread these 'Ghosts of Shanxi' are. We don't know how closely, or not, they operate besides the human Systems Alliance. We don't even know if any of it is true, or just some ploy. We know nothing, General. Which is the reason why we can no longer afford to bludgeon our way with this species." she tilted her head. "As for the technology… we know it exists. And if it exists, it can be reproduced, it can be countered, as long as we understand how it works."
He nodded. "Correct on all points, Lady Vasir. So I ask you again, what is the Council's decision?"
She looked at him for another moment. "The humans, regardless of factions, seem to be competent fighters in space, and deadly ones on the ground. Their technologies need to be understood, and as they have proven themselves willing to compromise and so… unusually restrained…" she smiled again, and again Desolas could not tell which opinions it reflected. "…it has been decided that a diplomatic approach is, by far, the wisest option."
She activated her omnitool, pressing a few commands. His own gear blinked to life in response to the file she had sent him. "In there you will find an Executive Order, bearing the signatures of all three Councilors and the Primarch of Palaven. In short, the 16th Interdiction Fleet is to immediately cease all hostile military operations on the human colony of Shanxi. You will remain in orbit and continue to scan the planet, but no hardware or personnel is to be sent into atmosphere. Any human ships that come or leave the system need to be monitored, but are to be left untouched."
She put her hands back in her lap. "The Citadel is sending a delegation, General. But fret not, Palaven is also mobilizing the 8th, 11th and 21st Fleets. About 300 ships between them, if I'm not mistaken? They will be positioned at interstellar space, and will only deploy into this system if needed. If the humans send a fleet of their own before the diplomats arrive, all of your ships are to retreat to the edges of the system and keep clear of any confrontation."
"I have been sent to give you this message, General. I'm also told I will need to be your guest until the arrival of the delegation and the Hierarchy's reinforcements." she concluded.
Oh, he was sure that was the case. He nodded again.
"I will, naturally, abide by the orders of Palaven Command and the Citadel. I will address the Fleet and the 53rd Group in haste. And it will be my utmost pleasure to provide you with the Justice's hospitality, Lady Vasir. I will arrange accommodations for you this instant."
"Thank you, General. I know you carry very limited levo-oriented rations. Don't waste them on me, I have brought my own supply."
"Of course. Will that be all?"
"For the moment." she raised from her chair in one fluid, precise motion. "I will inform you if anything else is required."
He raised, too. "Please, do. If you would follow legionnaire Haskin outside the door, he will take you to your quarters." he gestured to the exit.
She gave him a minute bow, and turned to leave. When she was almost out of the room, though, she turned back to him.
"I must say, General. I'm very much captivated by your quarters." she gestured to the space around them. "Forgive me for making a generalization of race, but turians usually prefer to… individualize their personal spaces with all sorts of mementos. Not you, sir. Clean and focused. No attachments, no distractions, only purpose." she gave her third enigmatic smile, and this one really bothered him. "It says a lot about what kind of man you are, General Arterius."
He inclined his head. "Good things, I hope?"
Vasir did not answer. She only smiled at him for a moment longer, before taking her leave.
Desolas resisted the urge to immediately lock down his rooms and send a message to Lieutenant Abrudas on the Serarth. He first needed to ensure Vasir had not left any… surprises on the place.
The general was no fool. He also did not believe in coincidences, and was very paranoid when it came to his ultimate plans for the turian race. Implicit in Vasir's words was the knowledge that the Citadel Council knew about the humans before they were informed of the first contact by Palaven. Now, there were many ways they could have come across that information. Spectres, salarian STGs, Shadow Broker agents, and dozens of other spy organizations kept close eyes on every race's military channels. Despite all the secrecy involving the affair with the humans, something might have leaked along the chain.
Or, there could be another explanation. Maybe, just maybe, they could have discovered about the humans by following the mobilization of the 16th; the arguably smallest, least strategically important of all the Hierarchy Fleets. And the only reason, in his humble opinion, that the Council would be keeping an eye on his fleet was if they were keeping an eye on General Desolas himself.
Perhaps all of his… secondary ventures in these last decades had not gone unnoticed, after all. In any case, it would be better not to give misfortune a chance.
Harry paced as he talked. "As I told you, raw magic emanates from some celestial bodies, mostly those that bear some kind of organic life. But while magic can alter and reshape reality, the truth is that, by itself, magic doesn't do anything."
Coré blinked, confusion plain on her face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that magic just… stands there. In its 'natural state', it doesn't interacts with the physical world in any way, shape or form that we can observe. Unless it is directly commanded by a being with the ability to call upon it, magic seems like a completely inert force. Just… useless energy."
He let them process that for a moment. It was Harper who spoke first. Harry could feel that the Custodian was both intrigued, despite already knowing most of it, and very, very curious about Harry himself. "And that's where Living Magic comes in."
The wizard inclined his head to the man. "Correct." he pointed his wand at his other hand, and soon he had a bright bluebell flame burning at the palm, swinging gently in an invisible wind. "Imagine that every spell is a fire. In this case, ordinary magic acts both as the fuel source and the oxidizer. After it has started, it will even provide its own heat, for a time, and keep the chain reaction going. But magic alone cannot provide the initial heat necessary for combustion. Something else is needed, there has to be a 'spark' to ignite the flame."
He tapped the wand on his chest. "That spark is provided by Living Magic. It is, as the name implies, a special kind of magic. Changed, evolved. It is magic that we believe has been shaped by the will and thought of thousands of minds, for thousands of years, and thus acquired a will of its own. It is magic that is alive, and in a way that is hard to understand and even harder to explain… aware. And it lives inside of every magical being; plants, animals, spirits or people." he tapped his chest again.
"Like… another soul?" Avani asked, eyes wide.
"Of a sorts."
"You say it's 'aware'?" Coré, this time.
"Not exactly sentient as in you and me, or turians. It doesn't have emotions in the way we understand them. It doesn't possess ambitions or dreams. But it is conscious, in a fashion, and capable of hearing a spellcaster's thoughts, their wishes, and reacting to them. Living Magic is the force that tells ordinary magic what to do. It is the medium by which all magical beings are able to reach into a planetary magic field. Living Magic is unique to every being which possess it. Its awareness and powers varies with its host. Inside, let's say, an Asphodel," he pointed to a line of pots on a shelf where some plants stood, including one with a large white flower, "it is tiny, barely wakened, and extremely specialized. The Living Magic inside of me, on the other hand, is large, very alert and quite versatile. With enough training, I can ask it to produce a wide range of effects."
He stopped conjuring the flame. Instead, he spoke loud and clear. "Lumos!" and the tip of the wand lit up in a bright beam of light. Then he spoke again. "Nox!" and the light went out. He pointed the wand at his conjured chair. "Incendio!" and the whole piece of furniture instantly ignited in vermillion flames, to startled gasps from many. "Extinguo!" and the fire stopped. "Reparo!" the charred and broken chair repaired itself, splintered wood coming back into place, new varnish covering the blackened parts. Three seconds later, and it was as if new.
He turned back to them. "I can't manipulate magic directly. When I levitate something, or conjure fire and light, or change a rock into a platypus, that's not my mind doing those things. That's me asking my Magic to shape the eldritch energy of the planet around me. I am the will, I state the purpose; my Living Magic is the operator, it provides the instructions; and the raw magic is the instrument that executes them."
"I think I get it." Letia said. Her dark eyebrows were creased in thought. "It actually sounds much like how Element Zero can generate Mass Effect fields when subjected to an electrical current. It's a catalyst." he nodded, accepting the analogy. "So, when you said using magic was a learned skill…?"
He smiled at her. "Modern wizards and witches were not truly aware of Living Magic as a separate entity from the ordinary kind until the 21st Century. When children went to schools of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they were unconsciously learning how to speak to their Magic, and conditioning it to access more of the power around them, with more complex results."
Hislop raised his hand.
"If your Magic is aware, does it… talks back to you? Because man that must be like… weird." he appeared to be trying to imagine how it would be like to have a little voice whispering inside your head, and having a hard time doing so.
The wizard gave a soft laugh. "It does, Ben." he sent a quick look to Harper. Yep, the bloke was very curious now. "But I fear precious few wizards and witches could listen. Even after they realized it was there."
"All right, Mr. Evans." interrupted Coré. "There's obviously a metric ton of lore behind all this. Like why exactly you need that wand. Or, if there is no 'raw magic' in space as you say, how exactly you were able to power your ship during our flight." he nodded. "And I truly want to hear it. All of it. But as you said, we have much to do outside of this cave today, so I'm afraid we need to pick up the pace and leave the more technical stuff for another time."
Hislop looked especially unhappy with that. But… "You're right, Ms. Coré. We can play ask-the-wizard later. So, you know that magical beings need Living Magic inside them to be… well, magical. But this begs the questions: where does it comes from? Why some people had it, and most didn't? Well, where it came from has an answer that is, at the same time, simple and very complex. It came from planet Earth itself."
"You see, between five and ten thousand years in the past, it's impossible to determine the exact period, a portion of Earth's inert magical field… changed. We don't know why that happened, thought the prevailing theory is that it was the collective consciousness of mankind itself that precipitated that event. There are others, of course, but… well, I can't honestly even begin with all the theories of Earth having a mind, a soul, of its own. In any case, at some point of history our planet acquired a Living Magic. That is fact."
"Earth's Living Magic was infinitely stronger, and infinitely vaster than that of any lone magical being. Like… bloody huge. It was everywhere; in the earth, in the water, and in the air. But it concentrated more strongly in a network of streams that came to be known as Lay Lines; the Veins of the World."
"And at some point after it came into being, for reasons we can again only speculate upon, it started to change life… everywhere. On continents and oceans. It infused thousands of different plants and animals, changing them, reshaping them, mixing their characteristics, and even granting intelligence to some." the wizard opened his arms. "For perhaps the next thousand years, there was an explosion of new life, magical life. Dragons, unicorns, nymphs, acromantulas, manticores, giants, goblins, centaurs, merpeople, and many, many others. All came into being during that time. The beautiful and the ugly, the wondrous and the terrifying." he smirked. "And the simply bizarre."
"It infused some humans, too, back before the beginning of recorded history. The first wizards and witches… my people." he continued softly. "Living Magic will usually only answer to its host. Earth's Magic was unique in that it would answer to the call of all magical beings… and there's strong evidence that suggests it would sometimes listen to the will of non-magical humans."
He could see Avani, the one true scientist of the group, thinking furiously. "Harry," she began, "I need to say, with every word you speak the biologist in me squeals like a little girl." then she looked into his eyes. "But it also trembles, because from everything you told us that amazing and unbelievable world suffered some kind of great disaster."
And that, of course, deflated Harry right back. He shrunk into himself and looked up, at the softly glowing globes floating at the ceiling. "Whenever a new magical being was conceived, a wee piece of Earth's Living Magic joined with the new life. It grew with that life, became a part of it, granted it amazing qualities; but also remained somehow connected with the greater whole." he spoke slowly, a ponderous and solemn cadence. "And it continued to randomly infuse the children of completely non-magical human parents. We never found a reason as to why that happened; there's no identifiable pattern. Bio-analysis of wizards and witches never found a single difference in our genetic structures when compared to normal humans."
Avani frowned. "None?"
It was Harper who answered. "Nothing that couldn't be explained by the normal genetic variance between two individuals, no. Magicals are not mutants, from the perspective of biology." the Custodian shrugged. "All of their differences from normal humans; their increased resistance to physical trauma, immunity to non-magical diseases, enhanced healing; all of those are a result of the Magic inside their bodies, and are not perceivable by any medical examination."
Harry nodded. "We were born, we grew, and we died immersed into the Magic of the world. And we did so for thousands of years. Until the Longest Night, just before Christmas Eve, of 2006. On that day, at winter solstice, that cycle was broken for all magical beings."
He sighed, looking sadly at them. "On that day, Earth's Magic was Sundered."
WE MUST KNOW
The Voice was thundering inside the Servant's mind.
Its will grasped into every corner of the Lost Ones' vessel. They believed they were the masters of this dead ship, but they were deluding themselves. The Voice watched everything; no secrets escaped its gaze. And it had just assimilated the latest message from the False Savior to his followers.
"Lieutenant Abrudas! Urgent news from the General!" one of the Lost trampled into the Voice's brief sanctuary, fear in his hollow tongue.
"I received it, Corporal. Calm yourself down."
"But… what does this mean?"
"It means there was a change of plans, legionnaire, nothing else. Call the Sergeant. Get the shuttle ready and let's prepare to move the Monolith."
WE MUST KNOW
There was more than orders. The False Savior spoke of the events that happened at the new world he failed to conquer. He spoke of the achievements of the new Lost Species. Information he believed his followers needed to know, when they turned their feeble instruments to the Vessel of the Voice.
And what he spoke of stirred the Voice like nothing else the Servant had experienced in his new purpose. It was aflame with thoughts, with possibility. A crescendo that crashed over the dead vessel like the winds of a star, yet went unheard by its fragile inhabitants.
WE MUST KNOW
The Most Devoted of the followers stood in front of the Servant. There was confidence in her stance and strength in her words as she used the Tongue of Slaves, but she could not prevent a spasm of her face when their sights met.
She was fast in her recovering. "Please, brother, we need to move the Monolith to a new home. This ship is no longer safe for it." when the Servant made no move, for it had no Command to do so, she pushed more words. "General Arterius will be with us soon, but we need to leave. Could we use your help, brother?"
The Voice gave it new purpose, at last. The False Savior had failed to deliver what was promised. The Voice would seek what it needed, and it needed to cast its will over the new beings. To confirm what the message contained.
For Humanity might not be such a Lost Species, after all.
SHOW THEM THE TRUTH
For the first time since it started its watch inside this dead vessel, the Servant moved.
And the follower screamed.
"There were… places on the planet where magic naturally gathered in unusual amounts. Such a place was traditionally called a Nexus, though that was a bit of a misnomer; they actually did not provide 'free' power like the Lay Lines. There was Magic in them, lots of it, but it answered to no one, man or beast. It resisted every single attempt to be commanded, and it was actually harder to cast spells inside those places. They were a mystery, a curiosity. Studied and protected, yes, but after thousands of years, most people did not expect to get anything from them."
"One such place was located beneath the British Isles. More specifically, in the lowest level of the British Ministry of Magic, at the very heart of Great London. Since its construction, that whole floor had been dedicated to the study of dangerous and forgotten magics."
Harry got up once more, and this time he paced quickly. His speech became more rapid, heavier as he came closer to that terrible point, that memory.
"A group of wizards and witches broke into the Department of Mysteries. They were made up of ex-Death Eaters, lesser Voldemort supporters, and… others. They managed to enter the ever-locked doors of the First Chamber, and once inside that hallowed place, they enacted an ancient ritual. A ritual fuelled by death, pain, and hatred; so dark, so dangerous, that even its creators had decided not to use it. But those people did, and for the first time in recorded history, wizards were able to influence the Magic of a Nexus."
His voice was filled with hollow humor. "An historical event, for bloody sure. And what they did? They harmed the Magic of Earth, somehow. Poisoned it, twisted it, and maimed it."
He took a deep breath, his hands were shaking slightly, and he put them inside his pockets. "The criminals… were eventually all captured or killed. But even if the Ministry knew something terrible had happened inside that room, the effects were not immediately felt. After that night, every Nexus went silent. And over the course of a few years, Earth's Magic slowly… vanished. It took some time for the consequences to reveal themselves, but when they did, it was like the apocalypse."
He shook his head, as if the movement could chase away the darkness of his post-awakened investigation. When he found the accounts of what happened, pierced together all the painful tales, and read page after page filled with misery.
"No one knew it at the time, but Earth's Magic was no longer granting its 'shards' to new life forms. Most magical beings were biologically dependent on magic to survive. Without the initial spark, fetuses and seeds could not develop and be born. And as if the impossibility of bearing descendants was not tragedy enough, not a horrible enough nightmare… it got worse." Harry stared at the bright red table-cloth; he felt a burst of fury join the bleak sadness inside him. Fury at the ex-Death Eaters, at the woman who lead them, and at himself. Much of it at himself. "The connections that linked all the individual Living Magics to Earth's were severed, one by one. And the backlash from that Sundering was an incredibly traumatic force that damaged all magical beings in different ways. Those that were more closely tied with Earth's Magic suffered the worst effects, though." his voice failed him for a moment. "They… died."
Avani gasped. "D-died? Just like that?"
Harry nodded, eyes closed. "Not instantly, no, but close. All over the world plants, animals and people fell ill. Most perished within a couple of months, a few managed to last almost a year. Spirits and ghosts simply faded away. Try to imagine… try to imagine how it was. A plague, invisible and untreatable, that struck everywhere, sapped your strength and eventually reduced you to a living shell. In a very, very short amount of time it destroyed almost all life. It was a Mass Extinction period that left the magical world in shambles. Entire civilizations, which had lived and thrived for millennia, just… gone."
He remembered walking among the ruins of countless villages and settlements. He remembered the burial mounds of the centaurs resting under the silent stars. Remembered the grim monuments erected by the merfolk deep beneath the dark waters. Remembered the records of savage despair and hopelessness, engraved in the rocky walls of the giant's caves.
So much pain could be felt in those places; graveyards filled with thousands of invisible and mute ghosts. So much sorrow, so much anger, so much death. Such meaningless death. Such waste.
"My fault." that small and dark part of his mind whispered. "All of it, my fault."
Harper already knew, so there was no shock on his part, but his head was still bowed down in sadness. A silent prayer for a world he only heard and read about.
"Of the fully sentient races, the only ones other than humans who survived were the goblins. The little buggers had become as removed from their Living Magic as the humans so many of them despised." he gave a mirthless laugh.
"Those people…"Avani shook her head. There was grief from her, and Harry was thankful. "The panic… it must have been… I can barely imagine."
The wizard shuddered. "It was chaos. Utter chaos. Frankly… I have no idea how the magical governments managed to keep even a slick of order, especially in the beginning."
There was another minute of silence. Harry's thoughts drifted, and his tiredness must have been catching up to him, because when he was next aware, Hislop was awkwardly clearing his throat. "Huh… what-what did they do? The magic leaders, I mean?"
The wizard threw himself into his chair, he was too tired to stand up any longer. "You mean besides engage into a permanent battle to keep fearful, angry and resentful spellcasters from blowing up each other or the guiltless non-magicals around them?" he sighed. "Almost as one, the wizarding world's sharpest minds threw themselves into feverish work, with only two goals; find out what in the name of Morgana happened, and figure out how the bloody hell to fix it. Eventually, as the years passed and little progress was made, they reached out to non-magicals for help. Not a particularly popular move, it needs to be said. That's where Harper's side comes in." he nodded to the Custodian.
Everyone turned to look at the man, and his teammates' faces were interesting to see. Coré and Hislop seemed appropriately suspicious of their companion's unknown past, one much more so than the other. But there were no doubts or hurt feelings that he could detect; nothing but trust that whatever the man had hidden from them was done for a very good reason.
Harper sighed, a somber look on his face. "We did amazing things together." he said, echoing the words he spoke to Harry a week earlier. "We helped the wizards develop the theories of Living Magic and the Sundering, which were later confirmed. But there was nothing we could do to save them." he finished quietly.
Avani turned to Harry. "But there was Living Magic in other things, right?" the wizard nodded. "Couldn't you… take a piece of it? Infuse it into a new life form?"
Harry smiled tiredly, but it was a smile of the hopeless. "What you suggest was attempted, but it never worked. It seems only Earth's Magic was strong enough, or perhaps pure enough, to take hold of a new life and become an indistinguishable part of it. To grow with it and answer to its will, if it had any."
"That is why you became a Voyager!" Letia suddenly said, eyes a little wide. "Isn't it, Harry? You are looking for Living Magic in other planets!"
This time, his smile was a little more genuine. "Yes, Letia. It was my hope… if I could find a new source of Living Magic, if I could study it and learn its inner workings… maybe I could discover how to reach Earth's. Figure out what exactly went wrong and how to reverse it."
"But you haven't found it?" Harry would take the pity in her voice over her disappointment any day.
"No, I haven't. If the theories are right and it were humanity's minds, perhaps even our souls, which first awakened the magic of Earth after hundreds of thousands of years, then I would need to look into a planet that has produced sentient life. That's why the First Contact with the turians was such a bittersweet event for me. I'm still hoping we can end this bleeding stupid war, and that a trip to Palaven might be the answer to all of my questions." he sighed, wistfully.
"If the birds don't have their own sorcerers waiting to 'welcome' you." Coré pointed out.
"That's something that my heart both dreads… and wishes desperately for, Ms. Coré." the wizard said quietly. Then he took a deep breath. "But we still have to finish the story." he gestured to Harper, who nodded back and took up the narrative.
"While on the scientific front our peoples made incredible discoveries on both ends, on the political and social sides… things were not so good. They got really bad, to be honest. There was open revolt in many magical communities, secret wars started between nations. And many times those conflicts spilled into our world." he shook his head. "Do you all remember the Bloody Dawn of Hong Kong? The disaster that destroyed entire districts of the city and killed tens of thousands?"
They nodded, awful understanding on their faces. The Custodian's was grim. "That was a consequence of an all-out war between magical China and India, as the two communities, who had never been best friends in the first place, fought for resources."
"Gods…" Avani put her hands on her mouth.
"A new Dark Lord rose in the U.S. and also brought chaos. He and his followers performed fell rituals of larger and larger proportions, sacrificing magicals and non-magicals alike in droves, claiming it would save their people. His cult was stopped by a coalition of wizard-soldiers called the International Defense Association. They were led by one of the heroes of the Voldemort rebellions. He died bringing the Dark Lord down."
Harry's hand clenched hard. Brave and loyal Neville.
"Those incidents forced many more non-magicals to be made aware of the wizards, and generated an understandable amount of resentment." Harper continued. "Of course, that resentment was promptly exacerbated by plain old human nature. We did our fair share of injustices, make no doubt. Relationships were tense for decades; it was the Cold War all over again, only this time it was a secret one. Almost at the end of the 21st Century, things came to a head, so to speak."
"By that time," Harry picked up, "even the relatively few wizards and witches born just before the Sundering were old people. They were out of time, and open conflict between our worlds seemed inevitable. After much deliberation between the tattered remains of magical leaderships, they came to a decision. A decision much like the one taken four centuries ago."
"They went into hiding again." Avani concluded.
He gave a raspy laugh. "In a way."
"Serarth, this is the Panahen, what's your status?"
Silence. Just like the first two times the Comms operator had tried. He turned to his commander, looking for instructions.
The turian woman stood at the center of her CIC, arms crossed at her back and staring intently at the image of their sister frigate. The Serarth was just floating aimlessly in space. Energy readings told them its systems were down to the bare minimum. After the ship failed to send the periodic 'all fine' signal to the other patrolling vessels, she had immediately ordered her ship to jump into FTL. She had expected to find the vessel in combat with human reinforcements, or destroyed, or just gone. She had not expected to find it adrift, undamaged and unresponsive; without a single sign of any other ship having been in the area.
"Send the warning to the Fleet." she finally ordered. "Sensors, keep a close watch. Leave those engines warm, we might need to flee at any moment." she opened a channel to the hangar. "Master Sergeant, get your legionnaires ready for boarding."
"Commander!" Comms called. "I'm receiving a transmission from the Serarth!"
"Stream it!" she ordered briskly.
The man did so. It was audio, only. A voice screamed at them, the man's flanging coated by an undertone of panic rarely heard in a trained turian soldier. "Can you hear me?! This is the Serarth medical officer! We need help! The ship has been overrun with unknown hostiles, the lower levels have stopped responding! The CIC has been compromised!"
"Give us data, legionnaire. What are the hostiles? Humans?"
"No, they are not Void-cursed humans!" he screamed. "They are monsters, turians with grey skin and glowing implants! We have barricaded ourselves inside the medical wing, but they…"
There was a loud crash, and the sound of tearing metal. Another voice could be heard in the background. "Spirits! Lieutenant, the doors…!"
"Open fire! Everything you have!" and the screams of mass accelerator rounds filled the channel, drowning out the shouts of desperate soldiers.
"Legionnaire?! Can you hear me?!" the Commander demanded. She contacted her ground team again. "Master Sergeant, get those plates moving!"
"We are leaving the bay now, Commander! Tell those legionnaires to hold their ground!"
The cacophony of sounds was still clearly heard; fire and death. It was an eerie thing to see the frigate floating so placidly among the stars, while knowing that people were dying inside it at that very moment. And every second that passed, the thunder of guns became lower.
"EPHILAS!" the same soldier that had spoken first screamed, his voice keening with grief and hatred. Another gun went quiet. "CURSE YOU, MONSTERS! CURSE YOU!"
The commander knew what would happen. "Calm down, legionnaire! Do not abandon your posi…"
But it was too late. There was a scream of blind rage; the sound of running footsteps and rapid fire; of a violent struggle that lasted only a few seconds, before they could hear the gurgling of a throat being squeezed.
The officer's voice was faint, wheezing, choked. "Curse… you…"
And then, silence.
"Spirits…" her First Officer whispered.
She turned to her Comms officer. "Alert the…" only to be interrupted by a shout from Sensors.
"The Serarth is powering up!"
And so it was. The energy readings spiked, the engines went on-line, and before she could do anything, the frigate spun away and shot out into FTL.
It was headed deeper into the System.
"First, came the Sylphids." the wizard stated.
And on that cue, his companion's voice rang over the room, coming from the datapad he had left on the table. "Hello, organics! Please, bow down to the superior life form."
Avani and Lucretia blinked. Hislop and Coré were startled and confused by the new character. Harper gave a slight smile.
"Ms. Astrid?" the mother asked.
"I was wondering why we hadn't seen you here."
"Oh, lady, I have been 'here' all along. I was just waiting for the moment of my dramatic entrance."
"You called us 'organics'…" Letia's interjected, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Yup!" she repeated.
"What did you mean?"
"I meant exactly what I said."
Harry shook his head in exasperation. Better to stop it before that conversation went downhill. "Astrid is a Sylphid. She is a magical sentience created by means of an extraordinarily complex ritual, and gifted with the power to manipulate any and all exchange of electronic data."
Coré blinked, turning shocked (and alarmed) eyes to the radio. "That's an A.I.?!"
"Oh, please." the Sylphid scoffed. "I leave those sissies in the dust, blondie."
"Astrid," Harry interrupted again, "shares many characteristics with A.I.s, but she is a purely ethereal being capable of possessing non-living objects as 'bodies'. If those objects happen to be vehicles or robots, she can operate them freely. She is fully sentient, capable of reflection and emotions."
"Yeah! Like for example, I usually have the most gorgeous body that you soldierlings took on a trip just some hours ago. And I would get really hurt and angry if it was damaged in any way. So for all of your sakes, I hope it is just the way I left it."
Hislop's eyes widened. "You are… were, Ghost Man's ship?"
"You are THE Astrid?! The Trailblazer?!" Letia's voice was an octave higher in pitch.
"And the next time you call me a 'big red flying tube', girlie, there's going to be some pain. Oooh, you can bet there will."
"All right, girl. I think you have promised enough retribution for the day." Harry sighed.
"Not even close."
Coré scrapped her knuckles on the table, getting everyone's attention, and demanded. "Just how were these thin…"
"…these people created?"
The wizard kept a laugh inside. Trust his girl to brighten his mood a little. "The Sylphids were idealized by perhaps the most brilliant of the magical researchers, one who had been a leader in the efforts from the beginning." if he took a longer breath than usual, no one seemed to notice. "Hermione Wilkins, a British witch and an ex-Unspeakable. She was greatly aided in the conception by her husband, John Wilkins, a non-magical Computer Engineer. Together, they developed the ritual that brings life to a Sylphid."
"All hail the Mother and Father." Astrid spoke in exaggerated reverence. She was only half-joking, though. She really respected the memory of the couple, even if she sometimes cursed them for the 'failsafes' they came up with.
Harper spoke up, a smirk on his face. "Inside a magic field, the Sylphids can hack into any network or electronic device, connected to the Web or not. Give them enough time, and they can assume control of all the systems in a district, city, or even whole nations. They could scour every single digital device on Earth, ensure that it was clean of sensitive data, find out about plans and operations way ahead of time, and sabotage all kinds of equipment."
Their eyes widened in understanding. The soldiers, especially, could understand all the implications of such power. Harry decided to expand a little.
"What Hermione Wilkins' ritual does, at its most basic form, is to fully develop the inherent awareness of Living Magic, instill it with true reasoning and intellect, effectively creating a being made of pure arcane energy. It only works with a Magic source that is very 'neutral' to begin with, though. Any Magic belonging to a sentient being is too tied up with its host's consciousness, their spirit, and fiercely resists the process."
"But there are buildings on Earth were magic has been used so much, and for so long, that it infused every inch of them. Slowly, the stone, wood and metal absorbed almost negligible fragments of Living Magic from the thousands of spellcasters that lived, studied or worked inside them. In time, those buildings ended up awakening a Magic of their own; not nearly as aware as a human's, but much more powerful. Three Sylphids were created by using the Magic from some of the more important magical structures on Earth."
"Yeah." Astrid spoke. "There was Rinzen, created with the Magic from the Evergreen Palace in the Jiuzhaigou Valley. Ya' know, it was once the location of the ancient Tibetan Magic Council, before it became devoted exclusively to performing rituals. Or perhaps you didn't. Then there was Ichtaca, from the Temple of Gathering Whispers near the Mesoamerican city that was later know as Teotihuacan. It was also used for rituals, but it was later rebuilt and became the oldest magic school in the Americas."
"Wow, so you three like… hacked into every computer on Earth?" asked Hislop.
"They did. I was actually not around at the time. I was created not so long ago by little Harry here, from White Raven's Hall in Norway. I've got Viking blood, baby."
Harper's head rose sharply at that. He seemed very surprised.
"Explains why you like to raid defenseless networks so much." the wizard muttered.
"Quiet you, dirty Englishman!"
"Wait!" Letia raised her hand. "If you're not the third, huh… 'original' Sylphid, who was?"
Harry closed his eyes and suppressed a groan, because he knew exactly what was coming.
"Oh!" Astrid began, with all the cheerfulness of a brightly colored chainsaw. "That would have been Eliza; the crazed, manipulative, murdering old bitch!"
"Astrid…" he warned.
"Ah c'mon, Harry! That cunt killed her sisters! She tried to kill you!"
"Enough, Astrid!" he ordered, voice hard.
There was a sullen silence from the datapad. All the others were looking at him with varying degrees of surprise, curiosity and discomfort. Harper's gaze was especially drilling.
"Huh, what was that?" Hislop asked hesitantly.
Harry took a deep breath; it was becoming a habit of his. He spoke while he massaged his forehead, his words stilted and heavy. This was a painful topic for him. He once thought that, after awakening in the future, all his worst memories had been left in the past. "The Sylphids were… are extremely powerful beings. In an age where lives are ruled by servers and robotics, someone like Astrid could ruin an entire civilization. Hermione… she made sure to include heavy constraints into the Sylphid Ritual, to keep them from becoming too dangerous. That woman was a genius, and she made it so the shackles are an inseparable part of the magic she devised." he spun the tea mug in front of him, watching the now cold liquid swirl lazily. "But something went… wrong, in the creation of Eliza, who was the last of the original sisters. The Sylphids were meant to keep vigil over Earth's networks. Watch out for threats and signs. Eventually, they were meant to aid any new magical beings. If… there ever was any."
"And they kept that watch, for almost half a century after the last known witch died. But a little over fifteen years ago, Eliza went rampant. Mad. She destroyed Rinzen and Ichtaca, and stopped communicating with the Custodians. Shortly after that, I… found out about all that happened to the magical world. And I found her, as well. Or to be more precise, she found me. We… we worked together…" his smile was brittle and full of regret. "For a while, before I learned about her… condition, her actions. She… look, I can't talk about that right now. Let's just say that she got out of control, put a lot of people in very grave danger, and Astrid and I were forced to… stop her."
"And good riddance." came the soft muttering from the table. Harry's hands clenched hard around his mug, but he stayed silent.
"So that's what happened…" Harper's voice brought their attention to him. The man's body was tense with surprised dismay, eyes somber. "Prof. Calissari and the others were all very… unsure, when the sisters stopped answering to our calls. When I came to Shanxi, I thought Astrid was one of them. I thought the reason they had gone silent was because they had found a new wizard to serve." he shook his head. "Even after you told me her name, up until now, I still thought… damn it! Do you know what happened to Eliza, Harry? What made her ignore her directives?"
He shook his head. "No idea, Jack."
"I can see the matter is difficult to you, but I… you need to tell me whatever you can. The Custodians must know. Not now, of course, but later…"
"Later, Jack. And I'm relieved you believe me."
"All right!" Coré interrupted. "Can either of you tell me what your part in all of this is?" she asked her leader, accusingly. Hislop also turned curious eyes to the man. "I assume it has something to do with the word 'Custodian'?"
It was Harry who answered. "You remember the Fidelius Charm that I mentioned during the story about Voldemort's downfall?" they all nodded. "The last wizards and witches devised a ritual based on that spell, though only marginally. When enacted, it would turn the knowledge of true magic, and all it related to, into a Secret. A Secret that would stay with all magical beings, but would be erased from the minds of everyone else, only that one time."
That made all four amazed, and fearful. Harry had been, himself, when he found out. It was incredible what magic could achieve, if enough power and will was throw behind it. Though it certainly helped that the targets of the ritual had no Magic to protect them. "It was perhaps the greatest successful mass invocation in wizarding history. Hundreds of wizards and witches from all nationalities and cultures, all over eighty years old at the time, gathered in the oldest known human magical site; Parlak Oda, in the Province of Erzurum, Turkey. When it was all said and done, the knowledge of magic vanished from Mundane minds. The sisters made sure that all digitally-stored information was erased. Special teams of wizards took care of any physical proof that had not been put into safety along with the rest of the magical artefacts."
"They were fortunate that colonization of the Solar System was still limited to a few hundred people, and some… careful manipulation in the years before guaranteed that none of them were 'in the know'."
"Wait a minute…" Avani was frowning. Not in anger, but in remembrance. "The 'amnesia-syndrome' at the end of the last century? Thousands of people all over the world were affected! It baffled specialists for decades, and spun the most ridiculous conspiracy theories. Including extraterrestrial intervention."
Harry nodded. "And now you know what it was. There was a lot of damage control involved, the Sylphids made sure investigations got nowhere. The ritual was not performed lightly, nor was it a unanimous decision, far from it. Many of those people had known about magic for a very long time, and the removal of that knowledge, and the fracturing of most memories associated with them, often had… very bad consequences to their professional and personal lives. And remember; many of those affected, more than half of them actually, were the children, grandchildren and spouses of wizards and witches." he finished, softly.
"So… after that ritual of yours, only magicals knew about your world, right?" Hislop asked after a few moments.
"Aside from the Custodians, yes. And you can trust me when I say that every effort was made to ensure it remained that way."
Harry often wondered if wizards and witches had not deserved to die out by the end. The amount of paranoia and anti-Muggle sentiment had grown to dreadful levels. More than a few protesting folk had their memories erased and their powers blocked. Some had 'disappeared' altogether. What both Harper and Harry had failed to mention was that the Custodians of Magic were created 'illegally', by a group of his people that agreed with the necessity of secrecy, but were not willing to revile all Mundanes. Hermione had been among them.
"And where do you enter, Jack?" Coré asked again. She appeared to be getting rather cross with them not answering her yet. The Custodian seemed to find her indignation very funny, like usual. It was like a game to them. "You wasn't even born at that time."
"No, I most certainly wasn't. Barely a dream in Mommy and Daddy Harper's heads, I bet."
She looked unamused.
"Well, if you insist… twenty-one wizards used another devilishly complex bit of sorcery to transfer their Magic into twenty-one chosen Custodians; people of resources, and with an honest desire to see magic restored. Top politicians, powerful businessmen, and brilliant scientists. A Secret, we call it, in homage to the Fidelius. A Secret that can be transferred to a new keeper, a successor, like what happened to me. Now, before you start thinking that makes your dashing leader here a wizard himself, let me remind you that foreign Magic can't be commanded by whomever it is put into. I can no more teleport myself around than the four of you."
He gave a mock pout, it seemed he was trying to hide his strange melancholy about the Sylphids by cranking up the humor.
"But the Magic in the Custodians does come with benefits… as well as some restraints. I can't divulge my knowledge of magic to anyone, by any means, without express permission from a Sylphid, for instance." he nodded to the datapad on the table. "As for the benefits… well, I can sense all magic to a degree, I can see past illusions and glamours, I can use potions in outer space and my mind is well-protected from any… external attempts to control or modify it."
Though not from simple passive Legilimency, as Harry well knew. He was also curious as to why Harper did not mention his inability to hurt a magical being, or allow one to be hurt, unless in self-defense.
Harry thought it was long past the time to wrap everything up. They had been here for almost three hours.
"And that," he began, getting out of his chair, "is the short version. However long it might have seemed. The sad history of the magical world; doomed to extinction by our own failures, hidden away by our own choice, and now reduced to waiting out for a miracle. One that might never come." he sighed. "Now, I need to repeat what we said at the beginning; you cannot divulge what was told here to others. I am trusting all of you with these secrets, my people's secrets, because I think you deserve to know, and I could use some help. From all of you." he made sure to direct his words at the two civilians in the room. He also looked each one of Harper's teammates in the eyes, trying to get a feel for their thoughts.
Hislop was utterly fascinated with magic, childishly so. The large operative looked to Harry and the enchanted items strew around the room with envy, though it was not the poisonous, malicious kind. He was a good man.
Eva Coré was a practical woman. She was interested in magic, but was also already thinking of ways to counter Harry and Astrid; to react if they ever became a threat. She was willing to defer to Harper on the topic, though, and his support was obvious. The Custodian had told the truth when he said both of them would take the secret to their graves, for him. Their loyalty reminded Harry very painfully of Ron and Hermione.
Harry knew Avani and Letia well enough by now to read their opinions without invading their privacy. His older friend was torn between her burning scientific curiosity about all he had told and her sadness at the fate of the magical world. Letia seemed curious and envious like Hislop, but her recent experiences dampened much of her enthusiasm. She was fairly disgusted by some of the manipulations done by wizards, as well. Neither directed suspicious gazes at him, and that was all he could ask of them.
"All right, Harry." Letia finally said. She shot him another of her 'not getting out of this one' looks. If it was a more heated than usual, he was fine with that. "We get the whole magical world stuff. What I want to know now is about you. You can't be older than thirty! How did you become a wizard, if you say all the old ones died and Earth's Magic is still lost?"
And there it was. There really was not any reason to hide who he was from them, if they knew almost everything else. He opened his mouth to answer…
…when Astrid interrupted him. Her voice was hurried, and sounded more than a little worried.
"Ahhh, hate to mess up the big revelation, guys, but we might be having more turian problems very soon."
Avani and Letia stiffened. Harper, Coré and Hislop all went to full alert, their previously relaxed faces hardening straight into what Harry called 'soldier mode'.
The wizard looked at the datapad. "Bollocks." He did not even had a chance to get some sleep. Well that was what potions were for. "Show us, girl."
The frigate broke out of faster-than-light speed impossibly close to Shanxi's atmosphere. It ignored all the frantic hails from the ships around the planet and simply charged straight over the region where the purple dome of the Shroud could be seen, marring the red surface of the planet.
It was not long before the grey hull was enveloped into the fire of reentrance. For the second time that day, a turian frigate burned its way down Shanxi's skies.
"What the fuck is that ship doing?!" Coré demanded of the datapad. Harry had hastily cleared the table of all the clutter and put his image projector over it. It now displayed the sensor data of the incoming ship, which was burning towards Central Settlement with all the unrelenting directness of a bullet.
"Don't ask me, blondie! I can't read minds from the thermosphere!"
Harry had the control sphere of the Orbs in hand, and was once again aligning the symbols to the right pattern. "Astrid, will disabling it with the Orbs do any good?!"
"At this time? No, it won't do any fucking good! At the speed and angle that thing is coming down, we will only have a frigate-sized meteorite crashing over the colony!"
"Is-is that the plan?" Letia's voice trembled with rage. "Are they going to just ram that ship over Central?"
Avani had her hands on her face, horrified eyes peeking between her fingers.
"Bastards!" Hislop's knuckles gripped the back of a chair so hard, the wood cracked in protest.
"Is that your response, Arterius? Smashing one of your deactivated ships on our heads?" the wizard thought, furiously. His eyes had hardened to emerald chips of ice as he watched, impotently, the burning streak break the mesosphere. This had been the kind of response he had dreaded from the start. The reason, aside from all his personal rules of engagement, that they needed to play carefully with the turians, to tread a very fine line between not appearing weak while still not pushing them too far, especially with a man like Arterius in charge.
"Astrid!" he spoke firmly. "The Alliance's systems will have to fend for themselves for a while. Focus everything you have on that ship! As soon as it is in range, stop it!"
They all waited, almost not daring to breathe. It was all they could do. Harper was standing closest to Avani, and he put a comforting hand on the distraught woman's shoulder.
A minute later, the frigate entered Shanxi's stratosphere. It cut off its engines, even decelerated to a mere high supersonic speed, the flaming aura of reentrance much duller now. So perhaps it was not a suicide run, after all. But it was now free-falling straight above the Shroud. More precisely, straight above Central Settlement.
They should not have been able to locate the city beneath the purple dome. Was it just a coincidence?
"I can feel it!" Astrid announced. Then, she went quiet. The six of them waited once more. Five seconds passed… then ten seconds… then fifteen.
And still the frigate came.
"Astrid?" Harry called.
"Girl?" he called again, louder.
Still nothing. The ship did not reactivate the engines. It did not slow down or changed its course.
Something was wrong. Even if she was having trouble with the frigate's systems, which was almost ridiculous, the Sylphid should have been able to spare an infinitesimal part of her vast magical brain to answer him.
Harry took the datapad, and all but shouted on it. "Astrid, what the heck is going on?!"
The answer finally came; even louder and more desperate. "HARRY!"
It was very rare for his companion to sound truly distraught.
"Girl, what happened?!"
"Fuck, Harry! There's… there's something inside that ship! Something I've never felt before. It's… I don't know what the fuck it is! It won't let me enter!"
All the others looked from him, to the pad in his hand, to the descending vessel. Which had just broken the highest cloud line. Surprise and fear lined their faces.
"It… attacked me." she said, almost as if she could not believe it. "A hammer of thought the size of a mountain. That fucking hurt!"
"Attacked you?!" the wizard demanded. "Are you all right?!"
Were Astrid's words from so many days ago, while Harry was putting up the wards over Shelter 05, prophetic? Did the turians had a Sylphid of their own? Even an ordinary A.I. should not have been any problem.
"Of course I'm frecking all right!" she shot back in indignation, though Harry knew her well enough to see it was mostly a cover for her sudden insecurity. "If the Bitch could not break me, that… thing won't either." then her voice cut, and when she spoke next, it was with sincere regret. "But… I couldn't break through it, too. I-I'm sorry, Harry."
He watched the projector's screen. It was too late to do anything, now. The ship was directly above the Shroud, only a few kilometers to go. His mind worked at a million miles an hour, bringing up theories, explanations, and plans.
"It's all right, girl."
But they both knew it was not.
When it was about to reach the top of the purple dome, the ship suddenly engaged both its maneuvering thrusters and its Mass Effect envelope. It decelerated to below the speed of sound. Even then, such an extreme drop in velocity inside a gravity field would have killed anyone onboard.
The frigate passed through the edge of the dome. Immediately, the magic of the Shroud moved to suppress all communication technology inside the craft. But it was met with a dark wall of power that permeated the entire hull, stopping it as if the walls of a fortress. The frigate broke from its nose-dive and set a steep circling course over the small towers and long, squat buildings of Central Settlement. The nimble vessel thundered across the sky, its sharp grey contours gleaming in the sun. At the almost empty Alliance Headquarters next to the Settlement, the four large high-powered railguns trailed the enemy. Designed to protect the city from a very unlikely pirate raid, not from an alien military-grade craft, the weapons would have a tough time in bringing the spaceship down, even if the Marines had been willing to blast it when it was in such a dangerous position. The soldiers on the ground hurried to find shelter, the few shuttles flying above were ordered to get clear of the area as fast as possible.
Orders flew frantically over the human comms. Almost three hundred men and women scrambled into position. For now, the Marines waited until their personnel in the city were clear of immediate danger. When that happened, all available firepower would be throw against the target.
But the turian frigate did not attack. Its main gun and GARDIAN array remained silent. It simply circled the city like a giant hawk looking for its prey, its large shadow streaking ominously over the white buildings.
Until, without any warning, the ship broke out from its circling and dived towards the center of the city. Seconds later, the grey hull rammed the tallest buildings, shattering white metal, plastics and permacrete over the streets, along with pieces of its own. The sound reverberated for kilometers. The vessel hit the ground, cutting a devastating swat over five-hundred meters long across the human city, destroying dozens upon dozens of structures, and killing any unfortunate soul trapped under its path. The earth under the entire Settlement shook with the impact. After what felt like an eternity for the horrified onlookers, the spaceship stopped, tumbled on its side. The wings were broken, large segments of the armor plates were torn and slashed, but although the hull sported a huge crack down its middle, it was still relatively in shape.
After the fragments of earth and metal stopped raining from the sky and the dust clouds had settled, there was a deathly silence over the city.
And a minute later, with a *CRACK* that resonated across the entire Aloquian Plateau like a shockwave, the giant purple dome that had enveloped the region for over three weeks broke down. Even from inside it, were the purple edges could not normally be seen, it was possible to observe as the heavens rippled and shattered.
For the first since turian eyes first looked upon it, the human colony of Shanxi was exposed for all to see. From the earth, and from the sky.
"Here, this will take you both to Shelter 05. An out-of-the-way corner. It will also bring you back here. You get Sam and return straight away, Avani. Astrid will cover your back, and we will think up an excuse for the lad."
Harry handed the necklace to the mother. She took it and nodded seriously. "Will you still be here?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
She looked at his eyes for long seconds. Harry started to fidget, and had to make a very strong effort not to interpret the feelings her dark orbs shot into his own, whatever they were. After finding whatever she was looking for, the woman put a gentle hand over his cheek and spoke softly. "Be careful, please, my friend. You still have a long path ahead of you."
That little trick was clear enough. Avani knew his character well. If reminding him of his mission to restore Earth's Magic could force him to perhaps take better care of his own life, she was not above a little emotional blackmail. Smart woman.
He nodded, speaking just as softly. "I will try."
The woman looked at him for a second longer, before using the same hand to squeeze his shoulder and turning to her daughter. "Let's go, Lucretia."
The girl came over and took hold of the chain. Before they left she also took a quick side-look at the wizard. "Don't die, you hear me? You still have a lot to explain for yourself." she ordered him gruffly.
That made him crack a smile. Her rage was still there; most at the turians, a little at him; but they were on the mend. "Of course."
Ms. Bhatia spoke the words, and they were gone.
"All right!" he turned to the Custodian and his companions. "That frigate has crashed right over one of the objects that generated the Shroud, and now I strongly suspect it was not a coincidence. The impact would not have dislodged it, something inside that ship is actively suppressing the magic of that Orb. The Resonance can only work with all Orbs in conjunction."
"Is it magic?" asked Harper, eyes burning with determination, hands clenched tight.
"It doesn't feels like it." answered Astrid. Now that Avani and Letia were gone, she spoke directly into their communicators. "It's not any kind of magic I've ever seen, that's for sure. It's… it's not force, it's not energy. It's cold, it's empty… as if the void of space itself had descended to Shanxi. I can't see into it, it's like a pitch-black storm cloud in my perception."
"Stay away from it, girl. Whatever it is, it tried to harm you once already."
"It took me by surprise!" she pointed out, very annoyed. "I'm more than ready for it now!"
But the wizard shook his head. "No, Astrid. Let's play this carefully. That 'pitch-black' zone is its territory. Until we can learn more, it's too risky."
"He's right." the Custodian agreed. "Mr. Evans and I should examine the area, first. See what we can find."
"Humpf." the Sylphid huffed, but gave her silent agreement.
"We will need to talk with General Williams, Jack. The whole city is exposed now, and you said that he is nervous about us after what happened in Shelter 05. I was just fine with the Alliance hunting me, but if the Marines now consider me a threat, it has gone too far. If Astrid had been able to properly coordinate efforts with the soldiers before, things could have gone much better inside those caves."
"Agreed." said Coré. "Normally, I would say nothing could have survived that crash, but after everything I've seen today… well, let's just be ready."
"Yeah!" Hislpo punched his open hand, fire in his eyes. "Let's just hope that turian sorcerers die with a bullet inside their heads. Huh…" and he looked at Harry very uncomfortably, his battle focus replaced by embarrassment in an instant. "Do you… do magical people die with bullets? I mean, not that I plan to shoot you at all!" he put his hands up in a supplicant gesture, face flushed. "You seem like a very nice bro and all Ghost Man, but… you know…" Coré shook her head with a suffering expression.
Harry decided to cut him some slack. "Yes, Ben. Most magical creatures die if you put enough bullets into them."
"Great! I mean… not great, but…!" his blonde teammate slapped his head. "Shutting up, now."
The wizard allowed himself a brief smile, before he got serious. "All right, we need to move fellas. But first…" he turned and went to the door that connected to his lab. At his back, Coré and Hislop shot confused looks at each other, while Harper's eyes only narrowed. Harry opened the door and entered the room, the operatives right on his heels.
And he felt said soldiers all stop dead on their tracks when they looked upon the very conformable chair that stood in the middle of the room. The chair that contained the form of turian High Commander Mavis Vakarian, trapped to the seat by a Sticking Charm.
A very conscious and alert Mavis Vakarian, who scrutinized the wizard with her sharp gaze, mandibles tight against her jaw.
"So…" Harry crossed his arms, looking very much relaxed. With a wave of his wand, he unstuck the commander, who was startled when her limbs were suddenly freed. Slowly, she got up, not making any move to attack or run, just keeping her eyes locked with his own. Deep blue against bright green. "…did you get all that, Commander? Is there any point you would wish for me to clarify? I'm sorry, but we are on the clock, so any questions would have to be short."
With two more waves, he dispelled the Supersensory Charm that allowed most of the conversation that had taken place on the other rom to be heard, and also Vanished Vakarian's chair. The woman looked at the empty space for a moment, before turning back to him. She was calm and collected, just tilting her head in curiosity. "If it's all true, then why let me know?" was her simple question.
He had seen much of this woman's character up on her cruiser. A deep look into her mind before he had woken her confirmed many of his impressions. Time to make another gamble. "I will explain that in a moment, Commander. After that, I will give you a choice. And I'm sorry to say, but I suspect you won't be happy with either of your options." he warned her.
She still just gave him that curious tilt. "I don't doubt that, human. Care to tell me beforehand what options those might be?"
"Why, of course." he answered politely. "Your first option is that I wipe out the last few hours of your memories. I promise no harm you be done to your mind at all. You will simply awaken later and I will talk to you as if none of this had ever happened. From your perspective, it will be the truth."
If her gaze was penetrating before, its imperiousness more than doubled. Damn if the Commander could not give old Minerva McGonagall a run for her money.
"And my second option?" she asked calmly.
Harry tapped his wand against his arm, taking just a few seconds to answer. He could feel the three pairs of eyes burning holes in the back of his head. He was surprised they had kept their silence until now. "I hope you paid close attention to that last part of my little history lesson, Commander. Your second choice… is a deal. A deal between you and me."
"Tell me, what do you think about becoming a Custodian of Magic?"
So there you have it; a good old info dump. Which makes me worried about how it will be received, but had to be taken out of the way so I could move on with the rest of the story.
This time, the delay had nothing to do with my schedule, the draft of the chapter was ready almost two weeks ago. It was simply me torturing myself over the chapter. I have an extremely high tolerance for overt exposition, enjoy it to be honest. The internal debate over how much to tell, how long those scenes got, and how dry they are, consumed my days. The chapter got hacked-up, re-patched, hacked-up again, and re-patched once more. In the end, it came out like this. As always, thank you very much for the reviews. Tell me what you thought about this one.
There is still much to tell, of course, but that will come in due time. And in far more palatable chunks, I promise.
Next chapter: Some action! Our heroes take a trip into no-man's land. It's time for our third faction to join the party.
Until next time,