Now, as promised, plenty of Hermione this chapter, lots of psychological horror, a little comedy, and a fair bit of action. Not as much as I've sometimes done previously, because I don't want this to become too much of a set-piece, and because I'm experimenting a little with how I'm writing action. I hope it works out okay.
Additionally, as noted at the bottom, this was originally going to be one chapter, but I realised that it worked better as two – or rather, that this bit worked better as a chapter in its own right. This chapter has been a little slow to put together, and completing the second half of it would take a fair while longer, which ain't good when I'm considering a tilt at Nanowrimo. I've also been told that my shorter (relatively) and more concise (very relatively) chapters are tighter written and better handled than some of my more sprawling ones.
Also, come on, it's Halloween, and this is a mini-arc about spirits and worst fears. I HAD to have something out in the spirit of the season.
On another note, after last chapter Perfidious Albion raised a really good point about Harry's fears and that arguably, him becoming more cold-blooded and uncaring, Red Son style, is something that he should fear more than going Dark Phoenix (and that it'd be creepier). This is entirely correct on both counts… from the audience's perspective. Why not Harry's?
The very short version: this is not a very sophisticated monster, and that is a fairly sophisticated (and complicated) fear. Also, Harry's brain is both an absolute mess and has some extremely good psychic defences. Accordingly, not only is it not wired up to understand a subtler fear, it only has the ability to pick up the relatively obvious, the things that are haunting him right now/have haunted him recently, but not much more.
As is, the Dark Phoenix is a lingering fear, because Harry has seen an actual reality where that happened (chapter 41, the scene with Nathan and the visions), without knowing why it happened (so he has no idea if it could or couldn't happen in his reality) and even now he knows intellectually that he's got a handle on it, it still bothers him a little. Only a little, though, which is why it dropped it almost immediately. Also, Harry's not really aware enough of the possibility of him becoming a cold-blooded Red Son/Doctor Strange Mk II figure to fear it that much. He's got a vague idea of it, but only a very vague one. To him, his main problems so far have been related to his caring too much, not caring too little.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk, please enjoy the chapter.
Hermione fell, a plummet through a reflective bronze sea seemingly without end, fast enough that she quickly outstripped her own screams. She'd tried to cast a spell, any spell, to stop – or at least, slow – her fall, to try and stabilise herself as she spun through forever. But every time she tried, another nausea inducing vector was added to her fall, ruining her concentration, and probably her appetite for her foreseeable future.
All around her was bronze, streaked with blue and the greenish-white of the foxfire runes, searing into her gaze. As she squinted, she glimpsed the shadows they cast on the bronze surroundings, images that were almost her, the same in features, but different in particulars of style and age, all of whom looking every bit as terrified as she did. As she fell, they fell with her, drifting closer and further away as she spun, back and forth in an almost tidal ebb and flow.
She began throwing out spells at random, anything that even be tangentially relevant, even trying to cast an impediment jinx on herself (which had led to the terrifying feeling of tumbling and being unable to even move), to at least slow her descent. All of them failed.
Taking a different tack, she opened her Sight, trying to gain some perspective on the situation. However, all that did was cast everything in sharper relief, the power around her a blinding and choking mist which periodically coalesced and dissolved into and out of vague figures, probing at her eyes, nose, mouth, and ears like tentacles made of cold and greasy oil, while millions more the size of needles tried to worm their way into every pore on her bare skin. Coughing, hacking, and quite understandably screaming, she cast off the Sight, her struggles making her spin even more uncontrollable.
She had no idea how long this went on for; it could have been seconds, minutes, hours, or even days. Long enough to scream herself hoarse from fear and garbled enchantments, certainly. What mattered was that it felt like an eternity, with no clear way out.
Finally, though, she became desperate enough to resort to her very last option: chaos magic. Normally, she barely even brushed against it, save in the most controlled circumstances, and even then, she used as little as she could get away with.
Her attitude seemed to both relieve and exasperate her teacher – Wanda Maximoff, the Sorceress Supreme, and the most powerful chaos mage in centuries, who seemed to be both glad that Hermione was being cautious, and worried that she was afraid of it. As she had explained, chaos magic was a force that had to be grasped firmly and guided. If you allowed fear to make you hesitant, it would turn on you, quick as a flash. Intellectually, Hermione understood this, while also being annoyed that there wasn't all that much intellectual about it. Emotionally, however, it was hard to forget what had happened the last time she had skimmed more than the slightest bit, the last time she truly delved into her powers.
This time, though, she saw no other choice. Taking a deep breath, both physical and metaphorical, she plunged deep inside her own mind, embracing that vast ocean of illogical and untamable power within her. It surged within her, eager, almost impatient as it answered her call, filling her with energy that seemed to crackle from the ends of her hair to the tips of her toes. Last time, she'd just turned it loose in a wild blast. This time, though, her lessons came to the fore even through fear. She grabbed hold of the power, and focused it, directing it outwards in a rough but controlled pulse.
The bronze world around bulged, flexed, and rippled, before shattering like a pane of ice, irregular fragments floating past her, seeming to slow to a crawl. As they did, visions flickered across each shard.
A silver figure in crude armour clashing with a similarly garbed and grim faced being of orange stone in a grand arena.
An impassive figure who wore silvery-grey robes and a bone-white mask of inhuman beauty beneath a carved stone crown set with a single red stone.
A golden gauntlet wielded by a vast shadow with gleaming eyes that reached out to crush the world; and a towering figure carved from darkness, illuminated from within by stolen starfire.
But those images were buried by a tidal wave of images both more familiar to Hermione and more alien at the same time – they were images of her.
Her; older, hard-faced, dirty and in ragged clothing, standing in a bombed out city scape with flexing hands full of crimson lightning as figures she couldn't readily identify chivvied what looked almost like a group of children out of an abandoned building and down towards a tunnel entrance.
Her; dressed in crimson red robes edged with golden embroidery, pinned with a golden brooch she couldn't identify, and calmly lounging in mid-air in some kind of library, drinking tea and flicking through floating books and holographic screens alike.
Her; apparently, much like she was now, walking through Hogwarts, talking to Harry and Ron. Yet as she passed, every stone turned to dust beneath her feet, every person to a bloody puddle, books and clothes to ash that trickled off her body and through her fingers. She didn't seem to notice, however, and the world rippled, people, books, and stones re-forming.
But as they did, they did so imperfectly, in bizarre combinations – students made of paper and ink were clad in flexible stone, while stones of flesh gave way beneath their feet, and the books in hand written in bone that flexed like paper. And she just carried on her day, as if everything was normal, oblivious as the cycle repeated, again and again, apparently unnoticeable, unstoppable, and impossible to –
Hermione wrenched her head away, retching, but even shutting her eyes provided no respite, as these and a million more images – possibilities – whirled past her in instants, each no more than a blink before it passed.
Then, as soon as they had arrived, they were gone, little flickers of memory that faded into the back of Hermione's mind.
"All right," she said under her breath. "I'm not falling. Not falling is good. I'm not hallucinating, either. That's better."
Unfortunately, not much else was. The most immediate problem was that everything was pitch-black, save only for her. She could see the rest of herself easily, as if under normal sunlight. It was almost like being under a spotlight on a stage, except that she could see neither a pool of light nor, indeed, a spotlight.
She turned around, slowly, tracking her progress as best she could, looking for any sign of an exit or better yet, help. She'd blasted her way out of one problem, but she didn't want to make a habit of it. As had been impressed upon her repeatedly – including by Harry, in very blunt fashion (and that had stung) – like all magic, chaos magic had consequences, and thanks to its nature, they were often unexpected ones. If she'd needed any more persuasion, she mused as she completed her circle, that cascade of images had completed the job.
Any further thoughts were disrupted when she was confronted with something that sent her stumbling backwards with a shocked yelp, defensive spells on the tip of her tongue. It was her. Or rather, it was, and it wasn't. The other Hermione was dressed in a high-necked dark crimson dress, tight at the throat and around the shoulders, but seeming to shift and flicker like a loose sail in twisting winds everywhere below, defying any definition or truly clear shape, mirrored by her hair, each strand limned with crimson light and twisting like Medusa's serpents.
That in itself would have been disturbing, Hermione would later reflect. Worse, though, was the look on her face. Her doppelganger had an expression that Hermione could only describe as exhausted loss, laced with mourning – it was as if she'd suffered, having everything taken from her, and raged and wept at her fate.
Now, all that had drained away, leaving something somehow… empty. And in the midst of that mourning emptiness was a pair of solid reddish-black eyes, devoid of any human, or even inhuman, quality. At first, Hermione thought that it was like staring into space, but that wasn't right either. Space, after all, tended to have something in it.
"Who are you?" Hermione asked eventually, cautious but – and she hated to admit it – curious. What was this place trying to show her?
"I'm you," came the reply. The empty quality even extended to her voice, Hermione thought, shivering. It was like she was talking to a hollowed out sculpture, words formed by the air that flowed through it.
"I am not you," Hermione retorted emphatically, then looked around fantically – between one blink and the next, the other her had vanished.
"You will be," she said, as if stating fact, making Hermione jump, nearly tangling her feet as she landed and spun to face her doppelganger, now behind her. If Hermione's reply had fazed her doppelganger, she showed no sign of it.
"Never," she hissed, then whirled again, looking for her double, who had vanished once again.
This time, the voice came from her left. "You will be. Once you find out the truth."
"The truth?" Hermione asked, baffled. "What 'truth'?"
"He's lying to you," her other self said, now from her right. "He's been lying to you all."
This time, her doppelganger was nowhere to be seen, not to left or right, front or back, nor even above and below. Instead, her double's voice came from inside her, through her own lips, suddenly intense and focused.
Hermione clutched at her mouth and throat in a panic, her skin crawling, her mouth tasting like damp metal. But nothing more was forthcoming. Instead, she heard footsteps, swift and smooth, a sound that brought mingled relief and trepidation, her heart leaping and the hair on the back of her neck standing up at the same time. She turned to face the source of the sound, emerging from the mists, and her heart leapt again to see Harry.
He was strangely dressed; dressed from head to toe in armour all of it in white and silver, save only for golden tracery that emerged from the gauntlets like rising flames. It might once have been beautiful, part of her thought, the same part that noted the resemblances to the armour he'd worn during the First Task. Yet this was not a suit of light armour, for speed and some modicum of protection. Clearly, Tony had made some upgrades.
That was something to be thankful for, she thought, because the suit – and its wearer – had been through who knew what. It was pockmarked with dents, scored in places, even melted in others, including a significant blast mark square in the torso. This suit was thicker and stronger than the one Hermione had seen before, tailored to his every measurement. More than that: it was designed for war. And going by that mark on his chest, she realised with a faint chill down her spine, if it had not been, Harry might well be dead already.
Her survey and thoughts had only taken a few moments, but when she looked back up, ready to greet Harry with relief and horror at what had happened to him – surely it had to have been far worse than her, going by that suit – she did not see what she expected. She did not see a friend.
His features were recognisably Harry's, that was true. Green eyes, scar, black hair with white streak, he met the checklist. And yet… they were not. It was as if a sculptor had taken his face and smoothed all the subtle, human flaws, before lengthening and sharpening the features. The result was something else. Something as beautiful and terrible as the dawn. Something that was subtly but very definitely not human.
Unconsciously, instincts screaming, she took a step back as her friend, cast like a predator angel, advanced on her. His sword was now in his hand, part of her mind screamed. It wasn't a moment ago, there isn't a scabbard, there wasn't even a hint of magic, but now it's here and it's in his hand.
"Harry?" Hermione asked, scared and uncertain, before realising that her voice sounded just like her double's, that she was dressed in the same clothes, and her hands were crackling with reddish-black power.
Harry spoke, voice like frozen steel – smooth, cold, and sharp enough to cut falling steel. "I warned you. I warned you about the consequences of your powers. I told you that reality wasn't a toy. I thought you'd listened. I trusted you. I told you everything they'd done to me, how they'd changed me. And this is how you repay me?"
"Harry," Hermione insisted, urgent, afraid, and utterly confused. "I don't understand, I don't know what you mean, I –"
She stopped with a sudden gasp of pain as his sword, silvery steel that shimmered with undercurrents of red and gold, flickered up to her throat and drew blood. Just a drop, rolling down cold enchanted steel, but with the promise of far more as Harry's expression contorted into a snarl of inhuman fury. His eyes began to burn with incandescent fury, white flames dribbling down his cheeks like molten tears. But his blade did not quiver, not in the slightest, and his voice remained soft.
"Don't lie to me, Hermione," he said quietly, and the apparent sudden absence of rage was far more frightening than the alternative. "Don't you dare. I felt that power of yours the moment you used it. That power you went from hating to embracing just when you realised exactly what it meant, what it could give you: absolute control. I felt what you were doing, what you were trying to do. You started it with Warren, and I warned you, but you didn't listen. Instead, you tried to use me as your little. Rag. Doll."
"Harry," Hermione said carefully. "Please. Stop. Listen. You don't need the sword. I can't… I can't do anything to you right now. I can't do anything at all – I don't even know why I'm talking like this!"
Harry didn't reply, his expression didn't change, but the sword's pressure seemed – just seemed – to lessen ever so slightly. Emboldened, Hermione went on.
"I… I was scared," she said, and there was no lie in that. She was still scared, terrified, even. She choked down a sobbing, hysterical laugh. Terrified of Harry. Terrified of her best friend taking her life with nothing more than a flick of his wrist, her helpless to stop him. Who would have thought it? She hadn't. But maybe someone had. Carol might have. The mind threw up the strangest things when in fear of death, and Hermione had an excellent memory.
The first time they'd met, the other girl had warned her of something dark and cold inside Harry. Something under all the goodness and courage and kindness, everything bad that had been done to him, condensed into a rage that festered deep down inside. She'd seen glimpses of it since, but she'd never thought… maybe this was it.
"I was scared," she repeated. "I used my chaos magic, but please, Harry, believe me, it was only because nothing else would work! I didn't mean to hurt you, I didn't mean –"
"I'm sure you didn't," Harry said, lowering his sword. If it had been said any other way, she'd have been relieved. But this? This was cold, hard, and dead as frozen marble. "I'm sure you only tried to make things better. Make things right. So what if that happened to include playing god with me? Opening me up, knowing everything that I am… and then taking it away from me because you thought it wasn't good enough?"
This last was somehow, even colder, with a savage hiss. He began to circle her, stalking like a predator. Hermione raised her hands in a swift jerk, unsure as she did whether she was trying to calm him and signal peaceful intent, or ward him off. It made no difference as to the result; crimson-black lightning shot out, slamming into Harry – or what seemed very much like him – and hurled him backwards into the mist.
"Harry!" Hermione called out again, frightened for him as much as of him now, dreading what she might have done. She'd never forgive herself if she'd hurt him, she never would.
"Surprise," a voice from behind her said, a raw, savage voice, full of bitterness and hate.
She whirled, and there was that same Harry again; now burnt, wounded, armour melted, skin cracked where the lightning had struck. And in each crack burned flames like the surface of the sun, too bright to look at directly.
He bared his teeth in a grotesque parody of a smile, and there was a blur, and Hermione was seeing stars, her back slammed into the ground. As she gasped and coughed, trying to get her breath back, it bubbled around her like lava while Harry advanced, power gathering around his left hand as he drew his sword with his right hand.
Were they his hands, she wondered randomly, as she tried to clear her vision. Was this even real? She hoped not. Surely not. Harry was Harry. Even if he thought she'd tried to do all that to him, betray him like that, Harry wouldn't do this. Her friend wouldn't, surely… would he?
Her hopes, however, shrivelled as he glared at her, fury, betrayal, and hatred radiating off him like the light from his burning eyes. No one she knew but Harry could muster that much raw emotion.
"I'll admit, I almost believed you," he hissed. "Enough of me did, enough of me wanted to, that I trusted you just enough. And what did you do with that trust?" he demanded. "The same thing you tried last time. You turned me inside out, you turned everything inside out, when you of all people should know better! You think this is my first dance with chaos? You think I would let myself get caught the same way twice? Wrong, on both accounts, Hermione."
"Harry, please, I don't even know what you're talking about, I didn't mean it, it was an accident," Hermione pleaded desperately, but to no avail.
"You weren't meant to have this much power. You couldn't even control what you had. You could have learned, you had the best bloody teacher in the world to learn from, but you didn't. You went to the lessons, but you refused to listen. Because you always bloody well know best, don't you, Hermione? You're the only one who knows how things should be. Well, you don't, on both counts." He hesitated. "Well, I say Hermione… but Hermione would know that. Whatever you are, you aren't Hermione, not any more." His expression softened for a moment, then hardened with resolve.
"But I think she's still in there, he went on. "And I think that there's only way to get to her." He raised his sword, levelling it at Hermione's heart, which stopped. "I have to cut you out."
Harry homed in on the sense of the spirit creature's dominant construct, where its thought and power were focused, forcing apart the underground labyrinth of bronze and stone in his way. If he'd had any remaining doubts of his direction, the terrified, enraged scream that tore through the Fortress, shaking it under his feet, and the sudden crackle of chaos magic erased them.
Less than two minutes later, though it felt like an eternity, he burst into a room. Except that it wasn't a room. Rooms tended to have ceilings. Rooms weren't floored with grass – burnt, twisted, dead grass, but grass all the same – and dried leaves scattered across them. Somehow, in his descent into the Fortress, he'd emerged onto the surface again. Rooms were sometimes full of mist and fog, but they didn't tend to have winds rather than draughts – though the mist hardly needed that to move away from him. He was, somehow, outside again.
"This place makes even less sense than Hogwarts," he muttered, controlling his fear as he quickened his pace, not daring to move too fast and lose focus. He was close now, so close – there! In the mists, only twenty feet away, two figures, one hurling crimson-black power, the other darting and dancing with boneless grace, holding a long blade in one hand.
Then, noticed that the mist wasn't just flowing away from him any more. It certainly wasn't running to one nook or cranny. No, it was flowing towards one of the figures, the dancer. His clothing, his armour, now gleamed a cold and bright white like moonlight on frost as he seemed to solidify, his presence growing stronger and stronger. It was coalescing, Harry realised with sickened horror, concentrating and condensing its power into something strong enough that it warped space around it by its mere presence.
The bending and shaping of the Fortress had just been a prelude, a hint at a power now exercised in a more subtle, yet more terrifying way: no matter how fast he ran, even flew, he wasn't getting any closer to Hermione, hurtling on a fixed spot that was nevertheless in perpetual motion. No matter what spells he cast, what warnings he shouted, they faded long before they reached the spirit or Hermione.
Then, the spirit surged forward, going for Hermione's throat. She raised her arms, crossed in a classic defence, a strange mixture of a shimmering blue shield charm and a crimson wall of chaos magic appearing in front of her, but just as it was about to hit, it vanished, exploding into mist. Hermione stopped, blinking, and looked around, before stopping as she saw Harry, expression both relieved and suspicious, as well as being profoundly confused.
"Harry?" she called out, wary and frightened voice echoing strangely, before her expression hardened. "Is that – no! I'm not going to fall for it, not again!"
For an instant, Harry was himself confused, before he understood just what had happened. As he did, the vanished spirit rematerialised. As he had realised, as he had feared, it was wearing his face – battle-scarred and falsely perfected, cracked and leaking white light like the Dark Phoenix, but recognisably his. And it was right behind Hermione. As it met his gaze, it smiled merrily, and winked.
"HERMIONE LOOK OUT!" Harry screamed.
Hermione's eyes widened, suspicion cracking for a split second in the face of honest panic and a stare fixed over her shoulder, and began to turn. Then, she stopped. There was a sharp, explosive gasp as the air was knocked out of her. Slowly, she looked down to see a slightly curved blade jutting out from her chest. After a moment, she frowned.
"It doesn't hurt," she said, surprised. "And… there's no blood." Then, she stopped, and put a hand to her throat, eyes widening in excitement.
Both Hermione and Harry's gazes snapped to the duplicate of the latter, who was smirking over Hermione's shoulder.
"After all, how does the saying go?" he said, with malicious pleasure. "Ah, I have it: 'waste not…'"
He dissolved into mist once more, thicker and stronger than ever. And once more, the mist coalesced to a point. The point, as it happened, of his sword. Which was still buried in Hermione, and whose eyes widened with terror, her hands crackling with power once more in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, as it the grey mist began to flow over her.
Harry, meanwhile, froze, caught between unleashing hell and not wanting to hurt Hermione, able only to watch as she was enveloped in moments in a grey cocoon that cut off a last half-enchantment. It held for several seconds, then faded away, vanishing into her skin, revealing… Hermione. Apparently whole and healthy.
Then, the thing that had been Hermione Granger looked up, eyes crackling with scarlet power, trailing wisps of mist from its fingers as it admired its new hands, face slowly splitting with a jack-o-lantern's grin.
"… want not'," she finished, before cocking her head, grin widening still further. "Oh, I'm sorry. Was I interrupting something?"
Harry closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, controlling emotions that had risen into a storm of horror-failure-defiance-fear-rage. He didn't try to lock them away. He just set them aside. They would have their time.
"Get out of her," he said, his voice imbued with the calm and quiet of a storm's eye.
The Hermione-thing tapped her jaw for a moment, looking falsely pensive. "Hmm," she said. "On balance… no. I don't think I will."
"I'm not asking," Harry said.
"Ah. I see. You're going to make me."
"For all of our sakes, I'd prefer not to," Harry said. "However, I will say that the last person who possessed someone I cared about died. Screaming. I know that you aren't strictly alive, but neither was he. That didn't stop me then, it won't stop me now." He nodded at Hermione. "You've been pushing me. Her and Ron, too. Was it to get a host? Or is it just how you kill people?"
The Hermione-creature raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "It's how I hunt," she said. "Lure someone in, drive them mad with terror, flavour with a bit of desperate rage, and then…" She wet her lips and smiled slightly, as if remembering a particularly tasty meal. "… I feast. And I dispose of what is left."
Harry nodded. "I thought so," he said. His voice hadn't raised, or wavered, in the slightest. As far as anyone listening might think, it was a purely academic discussion. "You tried worming your way into our minds, to find things to work with. You found you'd bitten off more than you could chew with me, you couldn't get a grip on Sirius, who could fight back, and you were in the process of finishing off Ron when I stopped you. But what about Hermione?"
"Well, I must admit that I was initially planning to do the same to her as I was to the boy," the thing replied. "His fear was delicious, by the way, and his mind... oh, that's a mind that I would have enjoyed chewing over. That particular flavour of righteous rage and terror, the taste of a would-be hero, that's one you don't forget. And so fresh, so conflicted. So many subtle undertones to savour. You would have been a meal for the ages, one to savour, but like many of the finest delicacies, you had a rather spiky outer shell."
"So sorry to inconvenience you," Harry said evenly.
"You should be," she said. "Normally, I would be quite put out with you being… you, much less that you'd interrupted me, when your friend was on the very tip of my tongue. Though from what I can tell, that's a common enough reaction."
"Well, you're not wrong," Harry said. "Your point?"
"My point? Ah, yes. My point. My point is that this…" The thing slowly ran her hands down her body and shivered. "This is a gift. At first, when I skimmed her mind, I thought she would be rather bland and stodgy, with maybe a few interesting sparks of flavour here and there, but generally more filling than satisfying. But then I began to dig deeper, and oh my me! Do you know the power that this body has? She performs tricks with a pitcher of water while standing on the shore of oceans."
"If you're trying to impress me, you're not succeeding," Harry said. "I know what chaos magic can do. I've used it. And if you're trying to stall for time while you devour Hermione's mind and soul, you should know that I'm keeping a very close eye on it. In fact, I think you already knew that. See, I noticed you drove right into Hermione's mind when you took her over, and you were probably looking pretty deep down even before. You shaped yourself into a copy of me to terrorise her. That means that you probably have access to a lot of her memories of me."
His eyes began to burn gold.
"Now, o spirit of this fortress," he said softly, voice echoing like the roll of thunder. "Answer a question for me: What have those memories told you, about what happens to the people who hurt the ones that I love?"
For the first time, the Hermione-thing hesitated.
Now, it Harry's turn to smile, cold, sharp and steady as a razor's edge.
"I thought so," he said quietly. "Her spirit is your hostage, as much as her body. More, even, because you know that that's what I'm after. Bodies can be replaced, after all."
He stepped forward, and the Hermione-thing raised a hand, suddenly smirking. "Come now, you should know that you can't –"
She stopped, suddenly, as Harry ignored the space that shifted beneath him, and instead dropped feet first into a ring of orange sparks. An instant later, he burst out from another, behind the Hermione-creature, grabbing her by the back of the neck.
"Come now," he said, soft and mocking. "You should know that stopping me is never that simple." His voice hardened. "Now. Give me back my friend."
The response came as the Hermione-thing's head turned, slow and steady, until, impossibly, she was looking him in the eye.
"Oh, Harry…" she said, in such a fondly exasperated tone that, barring the vocal effects and contortions, it was almost as if he was talking to Hermione. "You always pay so much attention to what you're saying, that you don't listen. For instance…"
Her entire body rotated beneath her neck, so now that all of her was turned to face him, his grip now on her throat as her neck slid beneath him like water. Then, smooth and deliberate, she stepped back, his fingers passing through her skin like it was made of air, then flicked her wrist downwards.
There was not a spark of magic, chaotic or otherwise, in her movement. Harry had been waiting for it, expecting it, ready to counter in the blink of an eye. And yet, he was pinned to the scorched, cold earth, like a butterfly beneath a cat's paw. She smirked as the earth cracked beneath the invisible, inexorable pressure and he rolled astonished eyes to stare at her.
"… when did I ever say it was just one ocean?"
Ron had not been having a good day. Or rather, it had been an okay day, which had shaded into an unnerving evening, and, as he stood once more on the edge of that strange valley in the depths of the Forbidden Forest, he was quite sure that it was now developing into a truly horrible night.
He would be the first to admit that he'd been in a number of hairy situations with Harry. His best friend attracted trouble like no one Ron had ever heard of, and as Ron was increasingly - if vaguely - aware of, he was just as attracted to it in turn (his somewhat terrifying girlfriend was proof enough of that). He had therefore seen Harry fight, if not quite as often as one might expect.
However, he hadn't really seen Harry fight recently. Oh, he'd been around when Harry had slain the Elder Wyrm, but for most of that he'd been preoccupied with events in Hogsmeade, while Harry himself had been barely visible as either a silver speck or a shooting star descending in wrath from the heavens.
No, the last time he'd really seen Harry fight was when HYDRA had attacked Hogwarts about eight months (was it only eight months? It felt like years) ago. He had been stunned by Harry's speed, power, and ferocity as he unleashed a literal firestorm on HYDRA's agents, wizard, muggle, and whatever else they might be. He had also been left with the impression that Harry's default was simply to vast, overwhelming power.
Now, he realised just how wrong he had been.
Everything had happened in a rush: that monstrous fusion of Harry and the Winter Soldier choking him, before being interrupted in typically violent fashion by Harry; Sirius Black all but dragging him out of the Fortress as Harry vanished into its depths after Hermione, apparating to the edge of the Forest, before unceremoniously dumping him on Hagrid and casting what looked almost like a Patronus that shot off towards the castle; Black retreating into the Forest and apparating away again, before returning with Lady Braddock (whose combination of rumpled jumper and exercise clothing would normally have got a lot more of his attention, if it were not for the circumstances and her unusually grim expression), just as Dumbledore arrived in a ball of flame, his phoenix settling onto his shoulder, inspiring no less confidence and relief for wearing a dark purple dressing gown.
He had, Ron recalled, not even seemed the slightest bit worried as he looked into the distance at the brewing storm in the distance, streaked with crimson and flashes of gold. Instead, he had nodded briefly, as if understanding the situation immediately, and said, "all of you, please gently grasp one of Fawkes' tail feathers."
Needless to say, this had excluded Ron, but one forbidding look from those piercing blue eyes had stifled any argument before it had begun.
Ron, however, was not so easily thwarted. He was determined to help one way or another, and he knew where he could find someone else willing to get involved. That was how he had ended up on the Durmstrang ship, tearing through the residential cabins, stumbling across Krum's by chance. While Ron had decidedly conflicted feelings towards Viktor Krum, he knew that Krum cared for Hermione, that he was most certainly no coward, and with the possible exception of Harry (who had an unfair advantage), he was the most gifted flier Ron had ever seen. All of those traits were necessary, and Ron's choice was immediately justified by Krum's response to his gasping declaration of, "Hermione's… in trouble… in the Forest."
Namely, it was to roll out of bed, grab his wand in one hand and a broom in the other, fix Ron with a hawk-like stare that reminded him vaguely of Harry, then lead the way at a sprint up onto the deck without another word, bowling over a baffled and angry figure in the corridor who Ron was pretty certain was Professor Karkaroff. As soon as Ron caught up, he looked out over the Forest, picking the battle site out immediately (it wasn't hard. It hadn't exactly been discreet before, and the storm was only growing), and straddled the broom, gesturing behind him impatiently. "Get on," he said curtly.
Ron complied without another word, and had had to swallow a whoop as Krum had taken off, before proceeding to get them there at speeds that Ron wouldn't have imagined possible even if he'd been flying Harry's old enhanced Firebolt. In less than a minute, Krum had brough them into land on the edge of what had once resembled a giant Quidditch stadium. Now, it was closer to an arena, and at the heart of it, a titanic clash. That much, Ron had expected. As he watched, though, he realised that he had not in any way expected how that clash unfolded.
For one thing, one of the participants was Hermione. Hermione, who was literally glowing with a reddish-black aura, hurling blasts of crackling energy that at bare minimum turned whatever they touched to craters full of dust the size of his dad's old car. Sometimes, they did far stranger, and if they even touched Harry... Ron cringed at the thought.
But they didn't. They didn't even come close, as, despite the silvery armour he was wearing, Harry danced through the forest and the valley, a juxtaposition of pitch-darkness and churned up snow illuminated by blasts of magic, as if it was a Quidditch pitch on a summer's day and he was wearing no more than a shirt and shorts. Stepping, sliding, and spinning with the kind of grace that Ron wouldn't have imagined even Harry capable of, defying gravity and logic at speeds that left him little more than a silvery-golden blur, he was always gone by the time each blast landed.
By itself, it would have made for a breath-taking display, but that wasn't it. At the very first moment that Hermione's body seemed to falter, just for a split second, both of Harry's hands swirled and snapped out, catching the last blast of chaotic energy. Taking half a step back as if being driven by a gale as scarlet energy crackling over his body, he braced himself, before hurling it back with a wordless snarl audible from the best part of half a mile away.
Ron's mouth opened in horror, his mind imagining a million ways it might hurt Hermione when it hit her, but it didn't. Instead, it exploded into the ground at her feet, and the creature controlling her stumbled, caught off guard as Harry advanced. Hands dancing in and out, before thrusting upwards, small geysers of water shot upwards around her before lunging like serpents to envelop her.
Yet as he watched, mesmerised and horrified in equal measure, red energy burned around Hermione, turning the water around her to a strange sort of goop that flowed straight off of her, and she raised her newly freed hands, expression twisted with unnatural rage. In answer, Harry's eyes burned gold, and the air around both of them began to swirl and twist, promising a clash in earnest.
Two of his best friends were locked in what looked very much like a battle to the death. And he was increasingly, bitterly, aware, not only did he have no idea why, but there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it.
Krum swore quietly, then much more loudly, and the next thing Ron knew, the Durmstrang Champion had tackled him off to one side, whipping up a shield charm as he moved. The goop around Hermione had been blasted outwards, and despite the efforts of two figures down below that Ron identified as Sirius Black and Professor Dumbledore, burst beyond some form of magical containment through sheer raw power. As it did, it reshaped itself in midair into a rain of metallic shrapnel that buried itself into the ground and exploded. Ears ringing, Ron scrambled to his feet, helping the Bulgarian up as he did.
"Thanks," he half-shouted over the ringing in his ears, noticing with a chill that Krum's broom had not been so lucky.
Krum just nodded, then looked up at the battle. Though Ron didn't have a mirror, it didn't take any great stretch of the imagination to see that he was thinking much the same thing as Ron had been.
"What the hell is going on?" Ron demanded, half to Krum, half to himself, and not really expecting an answer.
Krum frowned. "Vhy vas she in trouble?" he snapped over the sounds of the intensifying magical battle.
Ron hunted for a short and concise answer, then pointed the Fallen Fortress – or what was left of it. A very large chunk looked very much like it had been blasted off in the very particular kind of way that indicated an expression of Harry's pyrotechnic displeasure.
"We were in there," he said. "Something lives there, some kind of spirit… demon… thing. It gets in your head, draws you in, it separated us, and –" He shook his head sharply. "Harry rescued me, he was looking for Hermione, and now… I don't know."
Krum looked up, frowning fiercely, but more in thought than anger. "She is possessed," he said eventually.
Ron opened his mouth to ask how he knew, then considered it. As he had to grudgingly concede, Krum was older than him and a rather talented wizard, as well as an extremely gifted flier. He was also from Durmstrang, a school with a well-earned reputation for darkness, which would logically extend to dark creatures like that thing in the Fortress. And now that he thought about it, it made a great deal of sense.
After all, he'd come across a possession or two himself. It had happened to Ginny at the hands of Voldemort through that creepy diary, maybe to the Twins too at the World Cup (though that might have been simply mind control – neither they nor Harry had been eager to talk about it), and to Harry himself at the hands of the deeply mysterious and incredibly disturbing muggle organisation known as the Red Room. The thing that all of them had in common, besides Harry's involvement, was that people would be forced to do things they never normally would. And since they weren't just enchanted, since something was in their heads making them do things, like that spirit probably was with Hermione now, it meant that they'd have to be… subdued.
Ron swallowed, suddenly very afraid. He'd seen the aftermath of things, and people, that Harry 'subdued'. He might not mean to hurt Hermione… but that didn't mean he wouldn't.
This fear must have communicated itself to Krum, who glanced at her, suddenly looking very concerned. "Will Harry hurt Herm-own-ninny?" he asked, and his worry was enough that Ron didn't even think a comment about his mangling of her name.
As it was, he was saved from answering by the sudden appearance of another figure, one who split off from the group of adults below, darting up the valley, which was steadily becoming less of a slope and more of a wall. This didn't slow the figure in the slightest, who executed an impossible final leap upwards, turning a neat flip in mid-air to land next to Ron and Krum, resolving itself into a very angry looking Lady Braddock, beautiful features taut and pale with worry and fury.
"What the fuck are you two doing here?" she snapped.
Ron's eyes widened almost comically at the sudden profanity, stifling his reply for a moment, meaning that it was Krum who responded.
"Herm-own-ninny is possessed," he said, as if that explained everything. "We are here to help."
"Get yourselves killed, more like," Lady Braddock growled, shooting a hard look at the crater that included the splinters that had once been Krum's Firebolt. "There's nothing you can bloody well do."
"There is!" Ron burst in, finding his voice. "Hermione's still in there!"
Braddock opened her mouth to unleash an irate reply, before swearing foully, raising a purple tinged telekinetic shield, and placing herself between them and the battle, which was now rapidly proving that what had gone before was a mere prelude.
Before, Harry and Hermione – no, the thing wearing Hermione like a set of robes – had been throwing spells at each other. Now, lightning began to fall like rain, scouring the valley, blasting down trees and pounding bedrock to dust and dirt, which was in turn all picked up by the hurricane force winds that positively howled down into the primal arena. The Fortress, or what was left of it, began to contort and twist, towers distorting and lashing upwards like vast tentacles of wood, bronze and stone, striking something in the storm.
It was Harry, Ron would decide afterwards, when the shock faded. It only made sense, given the flash of furious white light, brighter even than the lightning. Once struck, typically of Harry, he struck back hard, with an explosive crack, blasting the tentacles loose, hurling their constituent parts into the winds to be rained down wherever chance willed it. And for a moment, the howl of winds and constant crack and roll of thunder that followed were drowned out by an unearthly scream of utter agony.
Hermione might well need you, luvs, Lady Braddock said, dispensing with words that would probably not be heard. But as you can see, Hermione's not taking any messages right now.
Much as he would like to, Ron could not bring himself to disagree.
Harry had to admit that he had not seen this coming. The possession, he should have expected. Talking might not have been the best idea – that thing was never going to come out of its own accord. It wasn't stupid, it knew what he'd do to it given the chance, and it would have known even without Hermione and Ron's memories to call on. But he had hoped to find a way in, to peel it apart from Hermione's mind and remove it by force without doing too much damage.
Hermione suddenly developing mutant powers, on the other hand, had been unexpected. Powers that happened to be, frankly, as frighteningly strong and downright vague as Hermione's hidden heritage would lead one to expect. But they were here now, and their discoverer was now using them with both a certain caution and some competence.
Not quite as much competence as it had believed, mind you, he thought with a certain grim satisfaction, as he remembered the look of shock when he'd burst free of that indefinable grip. While he had been surprised, he'd encountered surprises before. And, as before, he had adjusted, something helped by the fact that the spirit seemed to have retained one of his worse habits – a refusal to shut up. Combine that with his enemy's overconfidence and relatively limited experience in an actual fight, and unlike the metaphorical butterfly, he was not so easily pinned down.
After, the Hermione-thing had been considerably more cautious, trying more conventional tactics. Hurling bolts of chaos magic wasn't exactly an original strategy, but he had to admit, it had keep him on his toes. After all, unformed chaos they might be, but the less formed they were, the less predictable their effects if they hit. But he had turned one back, and now, he was on the offensive. This both was and wasn't a good thing.
On the one hand, he was under no illusions about his favoured style of combat. He could duck and weave with the best of them, play illusion games to bamboozle ancient vampire kings, and run gambits that could set the heads of great schemers spinning – if he got them right. However, he was always going to look for an opening, a chance to attack. While he was less inclined to charge in and attack head-on these days, it was where his strengths lay: speed, decisiveness, targeting his enemy's weak spots with as much power as could be mustered.
On the other hand, he was currently faced with something that was wearing Hermione's body. While that could be got around, if he really had to, it also had Hermione's mind and soul as hostages. That somewhat limited his options. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn't simply limited to scorching a trail of destruction visible from space, but a lot of his preferred styles did tend towards the destructive. And, he thought with some unease, a lot of the more precise ones tended towards the uncompromisingly lethal.
Not only that, but its own nature and Hermione's body gave it vast reserves of raw power to play with, as well as a significant amount of magical knowledge. Oh, and probably equally vast mutant powers that had just manifested, and which he hardly knew a thing about, and therefore had very little idea how to counter if the Hermione-thing ever regrew a spine and faced him directly.
As it was, it was mostly just using them apparently teleport around and rearrange the geography of the battlefield, which was both expected (it was a predator, through and through, and predators don't like either surprises or stand-up fights) and easy enough to manage. Between the sheer power output, the concentration of its spirit into Hermione's form, and his familiarity with Hermione's mind, it wouldn't be able to hide from him, not even if the disruption kicked up equalled his duel with Maddie. No, he decided, the real problems would kick in if it gathered up some courage and started attacking in ways he couldn't anticipate.
So, in theory, all he had to do was kept it still and exorcise Hermione. While not knowing exactly what her powers were, or how the Hermione-thing would use the powers that he did know.
"Fun, fun, fun," he muttered, before directing his senses downwards. Ah. That was good news.
Betsy, Professor, Hagrid, Sirius… he began, noting the distribution of each as he did. Dumbledore and Sirius were around the edge of the storm, Hagrid was vanishing into the forest towards the edge of the centaur territories, doubtless going to warn them, and Betsy, he noted as he trailed off, was on the heights, next to two others. Ron?! Viktor?! What the f –
Language, Harry, Dumbledore said calmly, entirely unfazed by the situation.
Harry rolled his eyes. What in the Nine Realms are you doing here? No, let me guess. You want to help get through to Hermione.
His tone started off caustic and irritable, but faded as he considered the idea.
Betsy, Professor, could it work? Hermione's mind is in there all right, and intact – buried, but intact.
I can confirm her mind's in there, but I'm not having any luck getting through, luv, Betsy said. From what I can tell, that thing's got a tight hold on her mind, and Hermione hasn't got any experience at psychic warfare. She's got a strong mind, but unless I'm missing something, she won't be able to fight her way out from the inside, no matter how much encouragement she gets. You should be able to smash your way in, luv, you've definitely got the power, and its hold might insulate her from the shock. But that comes with risks, and you won't be able to force it out of her, not without tearing her mind apart. Even the Professor – Professor Xavier – would have a job of work doing that. Maybe there's a magical option?
I concur, Elizabeth, Dumbledore said. Admirable though their aims may have been, Mr Krum and Mr Weasley's undoubtedly strong connections to Miss Granger won't be sufficient. Not as matters stand. During an exorcism, perhaps. But for that to take place, she will need to be subdued.
Which is my responsibility, Harry replied, a tinge of bitterness in his mental voice. Fine.
We will contain the disturbance, Dumbledore continued. This is not my first encounter with chaos magic, and she is relying very heavily on it. Her mutant abilities –
Hermione's a mutant?! Ron burst in, astonished. Irritated as Harry was at the interruption, he couldn't blame him for his surprise – it had caught him offguard, and unlike Ron, he'd had every reason to suspect it.
She is, Harry said. And very, very strong. He hesitated for a split second. Potentially Omega Class.
Betsy's response was sufficiently foul that even Harry, with his own extensive vocabulary of profanity, was impressed. By the sounds of things, so was Sirius.
Elizabeth, Dumbledore said firmly. What form do these powers take?
Rather than list what he'd seen, Harry simply shoved a bundle of memories down the connection.
She's mostly teleporting right now, he added. She got spooked when I broke out of her pin that quickly.
Got terrified, more like, Sirius said, sounding grimly amused. You have a certain effect on people when you catch them like that, Harry.
Harry grimaced as he hurled another blast, designed to spook the Hermione-thing out of her latest hiding spot in the clouds. She was flying at the moment, darting in and amongst a selection of flying islands, sliced out of the ground as neatly as by a scalpel. He wasn't quite sure how she was doing either of those things, but it could as easily be her chaos magic as these new powers – it was, after all, a form of magic that laughed at logic.
Either way, he didn't want her getting settled and planning something. Sirius was right, though, she had looked terrified, which on one level had been very satisfying, and on another… her fear had worn his face. The same way Ron's had. And that was not very satisfying. That was not very satisfying at all.
I've relayed orders for a call to the Institute, Betsy said. If they can get through, Professor Xavier might have something. I haven't seen anything like this, though.
It looks a little like some of Wanda's tricks, Sirius said dubiously. That Mirror Dimension place she talked about a few times. Other than that, I can't say I'm familiar with it.
I, on the other hand, believe that I am, Dumbledore said. As he spoke, Harry noticed that the storm was weakening a little. It made sense – the Hermione-thing was on the defensive, and her powers had been causing most of the disruption, while he was mostly just keeping her hopping. All of what you have seen suggests to me that her ability is some form of spatial manipulation. How broad that ability is I cannot say, but given that the display of several very different forms of it, I suspect that your assessment of her power – and its breadth – is correct.
Okay. What can she do?
I am afraid that given her chaos magic, that would depend rather on her stamina and her imagination.
Harry muttered something profane in Russian. He got the impression of surprise from Krum, and a raised eyebrow from Dumbledore, who seemed to understand it but let it pass. It was not, after all, as if he was the only one who had responded that way.
Fine, he said. I'll just have to be faster, smarter, and better. No different to usual, really.
This is not my first time dealing with a mutant chaos mage, Harry, nor is it my first possession, Dumbledore said, calm and solid as bedrock. Both Sirius and Elizabeth also have experience in the latter area. If you disrupt her focus sufficiently, we – and perhaps Messrs Krum and Weasley – should be able to help.
Harry nodded grimly. I've got a couple of ideas that might speed that up, he said.
Harry, Ron broke in, sounding anxious. If you can, just… please don't hurt Hermione.
Harry sighed, but before he could reply, Krum broke in, voice heavy, but resolved.
Herm-own-ninny would not wish to be this way. She would not wish to hurt her friends. He paused. Do what you must.
Harry closed his eyes, lowering the mask of his armour. You have my word, he said, before zeroing in on the spirit's latest island, the approximate size of the above ground floors of Avengers Mansion. He raised a hand to the skies, reaching out to the seething power within the storm. Now, commentary to a minimum, please. I have a spirit to subdue.
With that, he muted his connection, bringing his hand down.
And the storm followed.
The battle that followed happened in a blur. Even its participants only remembered it in snapshots, illuminated by lightning strikes and mirrored against sheets of rain as the heavens opened.
A vast bolt of lightning that tore through a flying island like it was sculpted from ashes.
A crimson meteor, striking the ruins of the Fallen Fortress, which rose up to meet and envelop it like a mangled hand.
A feminine form bursting forth from the resultant cocoon, coated in bronze, with broad metallic wings whose feathers were inscribed with foxfire symbols, eyes burning crimson-black as they met artificial emerald green.
A vast cloud of mist pouring out, swirling and lashing around her, before lunging upwards and taking a myriad of forms – giants, armoured warriors, molten fire golems, dragons, basilisks, and HYDRA troopers, some with claws jutting from between their knuckles.
Asilver-white blur with a golden-red blade, darting from downwards from one floating island to another, shining knight hurtling towards the bronze angel, carving through stone and monsters alike.
An explosive clash, sparks as bright as lightning erupting from blade against wings, one hand striking sparks and feathers from both wings, while the other danced and flickered, summoning wood, metal, and stone, binding all into a floating platform.
A barely visible shockwave, rippling the air, hurling the knight offguard, followed by a lance of crimson lightning that danced over his armour, flaying silvery armour in places, melting and merging it with flesh in others – a scream of pain, heard even over the ever-present roll of thunder.
The valley convulsing, rotating and inverting into a hill, a mountainous jaw with fangs of stone, as the storm is sucked downwards in a funnel, a downdraft blasting the ruined knight into the mouth of hell at the bronze angel's command.
Another scream, defiant and inhuman, as the knight is enveloped by a golden-white phoenix that effortlessly escapes the closing jaws, swooping up and exploding into a dozen, a score, a hundred injured knights, each moving smoothly and precisely, spell formulas rolling out over the sound of the storm, never ceasing even as crimson power snuffs them out one by one.
Tentacles of mist retracting, dissipating, as the angel plummets to the ground, wrapped in chains of ruby red and shimmering silver, a golden ankh searing itself on brow and breast, drawing a metallic howl.
A silver streak, lunging towards the angel, palm striking the heart with enough force to shake the warped earth beneath.
The twisted angel is still, the battered knight stands tall. No blood is shed, and the battle seems won.
Yet on this night, so very little is as it seems.
Harry was wary. A little weary, too, as it happened, though not half as much as he'd thought. To his own very great surprise, he'd had far greater reservoirs of magical power than he'd previously thought. While he'd recently said that he was every bit as powerful a wizard as he was a psychic, it wasn't often that he was involved in a fight that really flexed his magical muscles.
That battle against Reynolds, around the time he'd mentioned it, hadn't really counted – the man had been insane and over-specialised at best. He had also, Harry thought wryly, been considerably less of a challenge than Hermione. While the thing inside her was doing the thinking, it was running off Hermione's power – and that power, frankly, was just a little bit terrifying. He'd suspected that Hermione might be a mutant, given her heritage, and he'd therefore also suspected that she would be seriously powerful. The reality of that power was quite another matter. It was a blessing that that power hadn't come with comparable stamina. And if he'd got his last strike right, a deceptively simple technique designed to knock the astral body clear of physical form, separating spirit and flesh, then this body should once again be in its rightful owner's hands.
He was, however, not so sure about that. Hermione's body was as unconscious as expected, which was good. After all, that much power expenditure combined with his counter-strikes would strain anyone, especially someone new to at least one of their powers. However, when he had knocked the spirit loose, he had also reached out with his mind to draw it in. He'd beaten this thing on the outside, seen the best it had to offer, and reckoned he could take it in a psychic cage-match.
Conveniently, that would also get it away from Hermione, or indeed anyone else, if it got any funny ideas about body-hopping. More to the point, even if he couldn't take it, he wasn't exactly alone in his head, and he didn't anticipate that even a spirit-monster that ate gods and Sidhe would particularly enjoy an encounter with a territorial Phoenix fragment.
However, he had expected that it would put up a fight. Or, indeed, show any sign of being present at all. Which it wasn't.
Scowling, he glared down at the recumbent figure of Hermione's body, vaguely noting as he began a magical and psychic scan that Hermione would probably want clothing when that discreetly featureless bronze was peeled off. At the very least, a blanket would be required. While he had a rather broader temperature tolerance than most these days, Harry was quite aware that it was 'freeze your tits off' weather at the moment, and that Hermione would not appreciate it if that became literal, especially since she was currently clad in metal.
Clothing aside, there was a lack of any floating spirit around Hermione, or spiritual anomaly hanging around. Had he destroyed it by accident? It was possible – as Betsy had alluded to, despite his progress in that area, subtlety wasn't exactly his strong point when it came to psychic and psychic-adjacent power. He stepped back and frowned, thinking. Then, he paused, and on an impulse, skimmed his own mind. Maybe it was hiding, hoping he'd drop his guard.
Hah. There it was. A small smirk appeared on his face as he found the anomaly, reaching inwards and hurling a projection of it out in front of him. It wasn't remotely necessary, but he wanted something to talk to. He had a few questions, after all.
"So," he said, spinning casually on the ball of his foot. "Last time we spoke, you were talking about ooooh… oh. Oh shit."
Because he wasn't looking at some amorphous blob of mist, a copy of himself, or some other thing conjured up out of his fears – or even someone else's.
He was looking at someone who was transparent, but unmistakeable in both appearance and soul.
"Harry?" Hermione asked uncertainly. "What's happened?" She looked past him, eyes widening. "Is that my body?!"
"Um. Well. Yes?"
Hermione's eyes widened still further, before narrowing at him. "Harry," she said, dangerously calm. "If my body is over there, why, exactly, am I over here?"
"Technically, 'you' aren't actually there," Harry said. "'You' are… well, you're in my head."
"Would you care to explain why?"
It was at that point that Harry noticed that everything around him was beginning to drift upwards, and a low hum of power, like an electric razor the size of a nuclear power station, was building up behind him.
"I would love to," he said carefully. "And I promise that there are several excellent reasons for it. Unfortunately, for several other excellent reasons, they'll have to wait."
"That sounds like a good idea," that warped version of Hermione's voice, metallic and dripping with venom. "I do so hate being ignored."
"For example," Harry said, spinning on his axis and setting himself into a defensive stance. "Hermione, I'm going to have to put you on hold. Enjoy the mental upholstery, don't enter any door marked 'Do Not Enter', and don't annoy the Phoenix fragment. This should be over in just a few minutes."
The Hermione-thing rose into the air, darkness condensing into swirling balls of blue-edged singularities in both upraised hands.
"On second thoughts, maybe more than just a few."
We shall leave it there, I think. I was planning to resolve this whole mini-arc in one chapter, but I realised it needed two to do it justice – and frankly, it was tighter and better like this (though I will admit that Halloween coming up did play a part, especially since this chapter was so apt). Anyhow, I hope it satisfies. Next chapter, we shall see Harry fight once more, now as theoretically unfettered as his opponent… with Hermione backseat driving from inside his head. Oh dear.
Now, I would like to close with a tribute to Chadwick Boseman, one that is both belated (it's been a long couple of months…) and in keeping with the spirit of the season.
Most of what can be said about Mr Boseman has been said, by those who knew him well and could express themselves far better than I could hope to. After all, he was a person to them, not 'just' an incredible actor who took what will perhaps be an era defining role and made it his own. I don't even have the ability of a big fan of his to speak to his entire filmography. And I most certainly don't have the ability to speak to his impact on black communities in the US, and as Black Panther, worldwide.
However, it would be remiss of me not to offer my own tribute.
Boseman took the role of a character who was both incredibly important in the source material, and not all that well known outside of it. T'Challa, the Black Panther, is an ideal Renaissance man: brilliant scientist and master warrior, with a strong moral compass, devotion to duty, and near unparalleled strength of will. I'd add 'faithful to his gods', but that's more complicated – more than once he's told Bast and company where to get off, and bullied at least one god into doing his bidding because T'Challa takes no bullshit. His main conflict is the struggle between being a good man, a great hero, and being a good King – an intense sense of duty means that there are inevitably conflicts between the two.
Not an easy character to portray. You need someone special, who can be regal and normal by turns, switching from one to the other in the blink of an eye. Who understands struggle, who can convey unequalled resilience. Who can believably walk into a conflict between Avengers and disregard it entirely, facing Earth's Mightiest Heroes as an equal. You need someone who had masterfully depicted historic icons and pioneers, who'd even played a god.
You need someone like Chadwick Boseman. He quietly donated a large chunk of his salary to a female co-star to balance things out when the studio refused to pay her equally. He underwent chemotherapy for Stage III, then Stage IV, Colon Cancer during three, if not four, incredibly action intense films as T'Challa, and never let on. He was a real-life hero.
Black Panther is King of the Dead. Now, Boseman was T'Challa, but it would be a great disservice to say that was all he was. But from what I have seen of his performances and what I know of him… when he left us, the world of the dead, whatever form it may take, gained a King.
Rest in Power, Chadwick Boseman. You are, and will be, missed.