Harry Potter, Squatter

By Enterprise1701_d

Chapter 63

Harry sipped the hot coffee and took a bite from his croissant before settling back into the obscenely comfortable couch of the Flamels. "I started having my suspicions when I saw Cumin and Coriander," he told his hosts. "And the more time we spent in the mansion, the more I recognized that particular flair of magic."

"Well done," Penny praised him.

"Definitely," Nicholas agreed. "So, what did you think of it?"

"The basement was creeping out my friends, but other than that it looked like a comfortable place to live. Other than the faerie dragons, of course," Harry said, honestly. "Did you really break into Hogwarts to plant that book for me to find? How did you know I'd even find it?"

Nicholas chuckled. "Honestly, it was an old prank I'd completely forgotten about. I think I planted that book… oh… probably four or five hundred years ago. Like I said, I'd completely forgotten about it until you wrote to me. Leave it to a fellow student of Marduk to find it within a year."

Harry laughed, then took another bite of the croissant. He'd have to ask Penny for the recipe. These were brilliant. "The book was in modern English, though. And not practically-illegible English, like the English used by that Chaucer fellow Miss Athena insists is part of a 'proper education'. None of us had trouble reading it."

Nicholas Flamel gave Harry a pitying look. "Translation magic, Harry. Translation magic. If a Frenchman had picked it up, he'd have seen it in French."

"Oh," Harry muttered, thinking he'd have to figure that one out for himself. It would definitely come in handy for reading books written in various variations of practically-illegible English. Or just plain foreign languages.

He shook his head, that was a problem for later. "So how did you build that mansion? Because I was originally looking for a Hammerspace pocket where I could put stuff and draw stuff from, and that mansion seemed to be outside of time considering the produce hadn't spoiled and we were able to walk out the same moment we walked in, so that would help, too."

"It's a pocket of 11th-dimensional magic, held stable in a positively recessed, negatively charged, pocket of pseudo-reality."

Harry gaped at Nicholas, unable to begin comprehending the words, let alone the actual physicality of it.

Penny, on the other hand, glared at her husband, and swatted him on the arm. From Nicholas' yelp, she hadn't been gentle. "You ass, tell the poor boy what he wants to know!" she scolded. Like flipping a switch, she looked kindly at Harry and gave him a smile that made him think of Granny Rhea's smile. "Don't listen to this ass, Harry. There's a bit of a mental trick to it, but it's no different than creating an extradimensional pocket that only you can access. Since you created it, you define its laws of physics – including how time passes. So if you want it to be outside of time as well as space, you can make it so."

Penny's explanation, while easier to grasp, didn't help him as much as he – and she, apparently – had hoped.

Still rubbing the sore point on his arm, Nicholas added, "Don't worry. I'll show you how it's done. Like Penny said, it's easy once you've seen it and grasp the trick. The problem is, like always, that words are limited and the concepts go beyond language. Once you've seen it, though, you should be able to figure it out from there."

"Thanks, Penny, Nicholas," Harry said, grateful for the help. It looked like he was in for an interesting Saturday morning.

He just hoped that his brain would be up to the session with Miss Athena this aftern– this morning. Around lunch, Paris time, he'd go home to New York, exploiting the time zone difference between Paris and New York to make it in time for a morning session with the Goddess of Wisdom.

Thinking four-dimensionally like that was starting to become easier with practice. It definitely allowed him to put more hours into a day, but it also made him quite exhausted if he did it too often.

0000

Harry felt like he had his brain washed, fluffed, and folded. Nicholas and Penny had shown him how to perform the Hammerspace trick, but it wasn't as easy as they made it out to be.

In fact, it wasn't easy at all and required some kind of mental gymnastics that was incredibly hard for him to follow even with Athena's boon and countless hours of lessons with her.

So, he already felt stuffed to the gills, and that was before his second morning session – this one with the Goddess of Wisdom herself.

It was therefore understandable that his smile was rather tremulous as he stared up at her three-meter-tall form.

There was another dummy present in their training area off her library, so Harry hoped for a quiet session of 'predict the dummy' – it had been a while, and he thought he was getting rather good at it.

"Today," Athena began, "I think I will conduct an experiment. Mathematical models show that theoretically, you should be able to handle it. However, I am well aware of the difference between theory and practice, hence the experiment."

Harry's smile froze slightly. That sounded… ominous.

He suddenly realized that the dummy was holding a gun. Holy Hestia, he was going to play 'predict the dummy' against an opponent armed with a firearm.

"Today," Athena spoke after giving a few moments to have a proper full-out panic attack, "I will attempt to teach you to dodge bullets."

It could be forgiven after the explanation by Nick and Penny that Harry blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"That's impossible!" he shouted, before slapping his hands over his mouth. Athena never liked it when he talked back.

The Goddess of Wisdom gave him a pitying look that spoke of her pity for his lack of mental resources.

Athena had very telling expressions.

"If you think of dodging bullets in mid-air, then you would be correct," she said, her tone matching her expression and telling him exactly what she thought of his lack of thinking deeper. "What can, however, be done is to properly predict the path of a bullet before it is fired. As a demigod, you possess superior combat reflexes. You should be able to perform this action. Theoretically."

Harry blinked, and thought on that for a second. "So, 'predict the dummy's firing arc'?" he asked.

Athena looked disappointed at his childish name for the training, but nodded regardless. "In essence, yes," she accepted. "These are bullets made by Hephaestus. They will fire like normal bullets, and fly like normal bullets. When they hit, however, their impact will release ink. I am told that the impact will sting. Begin."

The dummy raised his gun, and fired.

"Ow!" Harry yelped as something slammed into his chest, leaving a blot of red ink. This was no sting!

"You failed to correctly predict the path of the bullet," Athena said, disappointedly. "Again."

Harry yelped again, this time in fright rather than pain, and dodged out of the way of where he thought the bullet would go. Unfortunately, he had dodged early, so the dummy simply changed its aim.

"Ow!"

"Again," Athena's voice spoke, ignoring the fact that he now had two bruises.

Harry didn't have time to pout as the dummy raised the gun again. He could correctly predict where it was aiming, but that was the easy part. Anyone could do that. The trick was waiting long enough to be out of the way of the bullet when it was about to be fired – so his opponent couldn't adjust his aim.

This exercise was turning into quite the ordeal, as he now would need to start predicting when the dummy was going to fire, anticipate on it, and dodge before it fired but after it made the decision to fire.

"Ow!"

"Again."

He was going to end up covered in bruises, he was sure of it.

0000

He'd been right, adding hours to a day allowing to make it in time for a morning meeting both in Paris with Penny and Nicholas, and a morning appointment in New York with Athena. It had definitely conked him out afterwards, though. Especially when Athena's session covered him in bruises.

In the end, he had been able to 'dodge' one or two bullets, but he expected those were flukes more than anything else. He had the sneaking suspicion that it was, in fact, impossible to dodge bullets. Even with Athena's trick and his so-called 'superior demigod reflexes'. Not that the Goddess of Wisdom was anything other than determined to see whether her theory did, in fact, hold water.

As he stepped through the fire onto the plains of Africa on Sunday, he still felt exhausted. Hestia had seen him when he came home, leveled a motherly look at him, and lifted some of the sting out of the bruises, before telling him they would heal by themselves. Ambrosia had taken care of most of them and he now merely felt stiff.

Looking around, he found neither sight nor sound of Marduk; the ancient God of Magic must be running late.

It happened from time to time, and Harry remembered how the man had explained his various duties of protecting the world from things beyond it. Probably something like that was keeping Marduk busy.

Considering the mage hadn't cancelled, he was obviously still planning on showing up. Still tired, Harry sat down underneath a convenient tree, nestled himself in the shadow of it, and closed his eyes. He'd rest for a bit, until Marduk showed up.

He woke when a pointed cough penetrated the veils of Morpheus. Blinked open his eyes, Harry found himself cuddling something; something that hadn't been there before.

Yawning, he stretched as he sat upright, and looked around.

He was in the middle of a large pride of lions; apparently the large cats had decided, just like him, that the shadow of a large tree was a good spot for nap.

They'd apparently also not cared that said shadow was already occupied and had instead simply joined him.

In his sleep, he'd apparently turned on his side and, used as he was to snuggling Nemmy, had simply snuggled the large male lion that had settled close to him. The large cat, king of the pride, hadn't apparently minded.

Still, it was a surprise, and Harry slowly stood up, both wanting to get away from the lions and not wanting to startle them into ferocious action.

The male lion yawned, and looked over its shoulder at him. "Thank you for the nap," Harry said politely, although he was quite sure the lion wouldn't understand a word he was saying.

It yawned again, and turned back to its resting position. Apparently, the large feline had decided that he wasn't worth the trouble.

Slowly, he made his way out of the lion's pride, and stepped up to Marduk. His teacher gave him a rather strange grin.

"You are, without a doubt, the strangest person I have ever taught," the ancient mage finally declared. "Nobody else would sleep in the middle of a pride of lions. Well, not without a good mauling for their trouble, anyway."

Harry nodded, still surprised himself. "I just took a nap in the shadow of that tree," he said. "I think Granny Rhea had something to do with this. They didn't even wake me up. Those lions have silent little cat-feet when they want to."

"Gran-" Marduk said, stopping himself, thinking about things. "Ah, yes, with your recent adoption by Hestia, she would be your adopted grandmother, wouldn't she?" He nodded to himself. "Yes, lions are her sacred animal, and this definitely carries her flair."

"Granny Rhea's great," Harry confided in his teacher. "She's also one of the few people who knows about Nemmy and doesn't look at me like I'm crazy."

Marduk chuckled. "Considering Rhea's origins and strength, the Nemean Lion should be scared of her, not the other way around. So yes, she would probably see it as just another person adopting a pet," he said, half to himself and half to Harry. "She also doesn't have regular contact with demigods, considering her exile, so she probably doesn't realize how out of the ordinary the situation is, or how… brittle… demigods are."

Harry shrugged, not minding the reasoning. "I'm just glad she accepts it as me adopting a pet. I like her a lot. She's really nice."

And she treated Hestia like a child, which was funny, but Harry wasn't about to say that out loud. He loved Hestia and wouldn't want to embarrass her. So, instead, he changed the subject.

"I hope everything is alright, Marduk? It's not usual for you to be late. I hope there wasn't some emergency for you to deal with. You know, with your… other duties… and stuff?" he asked.

Marduk smiled in a way that showed he knew exactly what Harry was trying to do. "As a matter of fact," he replied, "there was something that I did have to deal with, but it was minor." He rubbed his chin, and added, "You once offered to assist me."

Harry nodded. "If there's something I can do, sure!"

"Then perhaps, this would be a good opportunity," the ancient mage stated. "Will you join me? I will need to investigate something, and I will post you somewhere to ensure nothing slips past me. It's a minor thing, but it might be a good test to see if you would still be willing to help in the future."

"Sure, Marduk!" Harry said, excitedly.

"Very well, then. Let's see if you're still excited after we're done," the big man spoke, visibly amused. "Follow me."

Harry stepped in with Marduk as he turned and started walking. The young demigod felt Marduk's huge hand land on his shoulder, and the next moment the scenery around them shifted.

They stood at the shores of a massive lake, its dark waters covered by dirty off-gray mists that reeked of things Harry had never smelled before yet felt an instinctive revulsion for. Above them hung pallid stars shaped in unknowable constellations, throwing a vaguely unclean light past wisps of grayish clouds.

Harry swallowed, a terror bubbling up from inside him, a terror the likes of which he had not yet felt. As often as he had fought for his life, this fear was different, a deeply ingrained genetic terror that rose up through the ages from when mankind was young and the world was filled with danger.

"Where are we?" Harry asked, voice small.

"There are places," Marduk said, his voice grave, "where it is always night and lights do not shine. This is one of them."

Harry looked up at the pallid stars and the unknown constellations throwing off unclean light.

"Always night, as I said," Marduk replied to the unasked question. "Where we must go is in there," he added, pointing.

Harry followed the direction, to find an ancient ruined city, its low and crumbling walls almost hidden by the diseased soil upon which no plant would ever grow. The rest of the ancient buildings, appearing to be old when even the oldest cities on Earth were young, poked from the soil like jagged, ill-made graves.

It was built from stone hewn from some strange brownish rock that he could not identify, held together with grayish mortar that inspired within him a similar kind of revulsion to the water of the lake and its mists.

Whatever these ruins were, Harry instinctively wanted nothing to do with them, as if driven by some kind of genetic need.

"Those ruins?" he managed to ask, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice and not entirely succeeding.

"Indeed," Marduk answered casually, as if they were merely taking a stroll back in Africa. "We must enter the temple and descend into its depths."

"A-alright," Harry managed, failing yet again to keep the tremor out of his voice and feeling embarrassed because of it.

"Unless you would prefer to go back?" Marduk asked, his voice understanding. "What you're feeling is entirely normal and understandable. This place has had a lot of violence perpetrated against humans, and you're feeling humanity's instinctive fear of it because of it."

Harry shook his head. "No. I promised to help, and I'll help. Even if this place is creepy."

And not the fun kind of creepy that Melinoe created for her guests, either.

"Brave," Marduk commented. "Very well, let us continue."

They walked in utter silence for some time while Harry swallowed convulsively and stayed very close to Marduk. The complete absence of sound other than their own movements was unnerving to say the least; Harry had never realized just how many sounds one could hear on Earth. There was not the faintest whisper of the wind, not the slightest rustle of the leaf on tree or shrub, not the smallest chirping of an insect.

Total and utter silence enveloped them as they walked along what must have been a major road back when this city lived, past formless foundations of homes or palaces.

Compulsively, Harry swallowed again; not a single carved sign or written symbol was visible, and the further they traveled the more he was convinced this ruined city was older than anything he was familiar with on Earth.

"What is this place?" he finally worked up the nerve to ask.

"Some things draw strength from knowledge," Marduk explained. "Therefore, I should not name them as it would only make them stronger."

Harry resisted the urge to grab Marduk's hand and cling to it like a small child. That wasn't scary at all, he thought sarcastically.

"All I can tell you," the ancient mage went on as if Harry hadn't just suffered a minor terror attack, "is that this city was large when mankind was very young. One could say, it was the first city. They worshipped things I should not name, beings that were old even before mankind existed, beings that gave great boons to those that worshipped them… and, at the same time, cursed them for doing so."

Harry shivered.

"Bargains are always give and take," Marduk inexorably went on. "And these early Humans were very young, indeed. Beings of power rarely strike an even bargain, Harry. Remember that. One day, those beings came for their side of the bargain."

"But I thought that these people worshipped those beings?" Harry asked.

"So did they, Harry," Marduk explained. "What they did not realize was that their worship merely opened the door."

"Drawing strength from knowledge," Harry muttered. "Because belief shapes reality?"

"Exactly," Marduk said, obviously proud of him making the connection. "They are powerful enough so that even the mere act of knowing the name of them allows them a foothold. Even that tiny sliver allows them to influence people, and maybe reopen the doors that I, and my predecessors, spent so much time and effort to seal shut. Which, coincidentally, is why we are here. I must make sure, periodically, that those doors, those seals locking away these beings, are still intact."

The young demigod just nodded in acceptance as they walked, still unnerved and on edge in this strangely ancient city. Suddenly, he realized why he was on edge… there was something eerily inhuman about the shapes and dimensions of this place, as if maybe, somehow, it wasn't men that had been building it and inhabiting it.

"No, they were men, of a sorts," Marduk said when Harry vocalized his thoughts. "Like I said, they were young. Very young. And the very young are easily swayed; these beings of power played on that innocence, that naivety, and supposedly 'helped' by 'teaching' things such as construction and engineering."

Finally, they seemed to reach their destination, for Marduk stopped them both. "We must enter this temple," he explained. "At one point, I will leave you. Your mission will be to guard that spot, ensure that nothing exits while I am descending further to inspect the seals. There are things other than those beings of power down there, and we must ensure that none of them escape. This plane of existence has been sealed off from the rest of reality, but that does not mean we should completely abandon it."

Harry nodded, although he felt his knees wobble and his stomach clench.

"Unless," Marduk continued, "this is where you leave me." The ancient mage stared hard at Harry, as if urging him to turn back right there and then.

Truthfully, part of Harry wanted nothing more than to take Marduk up on his unspoken offer. This unwholesome, alien, unclean place was bringing out primitive genetic terrors that urged him to flee, and flee right now.

He shook his head instead. He'd given his word, and he wasn't going to go back on it. Even if this place was terrifying and he was going to end up with nightmares because of it.

Marduk nodded softly. "Bravery is continuing in the face of terror," he spoke gently. "However, there is a thin line between bravery and foolishness. Once we enter, we can not leave until I am finished. My very presence and my very knowledge of these beings will allow them power unless I finish the inspection and refresh the seals."

Harry nodded resolutely. He said he was going to help, so he was going to help! Hestia would be disappointed if he backed down after making a promise, so he was determined to see this through.

Drawing a breath, he took one last look around before plunging into the heavy darkness of the temple, at the evil moonlight, the brooding desert, the alien unnaturalness of the early-human ruins.

Then, he turned and followed Marduk. Time to live up to his promise.

No matter how much he may wish otherwise.

0000

Insidiously cool air touched his face as he crossed the threshold; revealing, even without light, a gulf of tremendous size that spread out before them. Immediately, a hideous sweet-and-sour smell made him each for a handkerchief to stifle his gag reflex.

Marduk held up a flask of some kind, from which a pale, bluish-silver light shone that somehow reassured Harry despite the primevil surroundings. The elder mage looked surprisedly at Harry for a moment, before seemingly realizing the problem.

"Don't worry, you'll go nose deaf in a few moments. The smell won't even bother you then," he reassured the young demigod.

Nodding slowly in the horrid-smelling cavernous temple, Harry held up a hand and conjured one the float-lights he'd first created to light the way of the First Years at Hogwarts.

To his immense surprise, he conjured something, and it definitely floated, but instead of providing light it seemed to, instead, draw it in and extinguish it.

"No lights, magical or non-magical, can ever shine here," Marduk said, repeating his earlier explanation and somehow dismissing the float-light despite it being Harry's creation. The young demigod looked very loudly at the glowing flask, then at Marduk, silently requesting an explanation.

"This," Marduk said with a small and teasing grin, "is a fragment of the light of the First Star. It is neither magical nor non-magical – it simply is. Like the stars outside."

"That reminds me The Lord of the Rings," Harry muttered.

"Where do you think Tolkien got the idea from?" Marduk answered casually, as if they were not inside a huge cavern underneath some inhumanly ancient ruin. "Follow me."

Harry nodded softly and silently, and resisted the urge to grab Marduk's hand like a small child. The oppressive atmosphere weighed on him, the shadows cast by Marduk's strange light conjured images of terror and horror that played upon Harry's most instinctive fears.

Now that his eyes adjusted to the almost-but-not-complete darkness, Harry realized that the temple was far bigger than he had first estimated; what he had perceived to be a two-story building was, instead, just one huge story.

Where the ruins outside had the wrong proportions and dimensions, there was still a humanity to them, as if someone had merely given an architect some very eccentric requirements, then told them to build it.

Inside this temple, if it could even be called a temple, the architecture was patently inhuman, reflecting some mind-breakingly alien sense of esthetic that ground on Harry's nerves.

While it was obviously built by humans, it was definitely not built for them. Every human building, no matter the time and place, shared a human's innate sense of beauty and esthetic. This building's insides, meanwhile, were simply not, as if the Golden Ratio wasn't even a consideration – to Harry, it felt like someone had shifted the fundamental laws of engineering sideways.

It made his eyes hurt to look at the inhuman angles of walls and ceiling, the vast proportions that were more suited for the three-meter-tall forms of the gods rather than humans.

The cyclopean hallway they had found themselves in after entering the inhuman temple angled downward, deep into the dark, unforgiving bowels of this hideous world, and once more Harry felt the compulsion to grab Marduk's hand.

He resisted once more, and instead materialized Hestia's Lasso. Wrapping the golden rope around his right arm offered a small measure of comfort, as if the Goddess in question was there with him.

Marduk offered him a glance of understanding before the ancient mage guided them forward, following this titanic hallway.

To either side were distant walls of carved and crumbling masonry that loomed in the shadows cast by Marduk's unusual light-source. In front of them, however, there was nothing but unbroken darkness.

He did, indeed, go nose-deaf, and after a while in the cold and dark and inhuman environment, Harry felt even his physical sensations go numb. His revolting fear, so ever-present at first, had become a numb and icy sensation in his chest. Hestia's Lasso was warm against his arm, yet it offered little comfort.

Suddenly, some carved gargoyle emerged from the darkness, looming and leering impotently at them. It looked so real, however, as if it had been some hideous beast in this far-flung ancient era, a horrid creature turned to stone due to some unknown means.

For a moment, Harry swore he saw it move, only to realize a fraction later it was mere trickery of the silver-blue light cast by Marduk's improvised torch.

He swallowed; the icy pit in his stomach blossomed back into mind-numbing terror. This place was getting to him, and he knew it was getting to him, and yet he seemed incapable of stopping it, Hestia's Lasso notwithstanding.

Eventually, they seemed to emerge at some lower level, no longer a hallway but some massive room deep underground. The floor was littered with fallen blocks of stone, shapeless fragments of the masonry that made up the walls of this inhuman building. The massive walls rose up, like monstrous arches culminating in a vaulted ceiling.

Not that Harry could see said vaulted ceiling, as Marduk's light-source did not penetrate that far.

And yet, those walls were carved. With an almost inhuman precision they were engraved with images of a world not his own, with monstrous and unknowable creatures that slithered and crawled under some awful sun. So real were those carvings that Harry stood, transfixed, his mind conjuring up the image of this alien world, where alien things slithered and crawled and flew under a hideous reddish sun.

"Come," Marduk spoke, gently, placing his free hand on Harry's shoulder. "You shouldn't dwell, it will drive you mad."

Harry blinked, suddenly back in the ruin, where the images were simply engraved on a wall and definitely not real.

He nodded bravely and followed his mentor. Not for the first time, he debated his choice to help out Marduk. Maybe this wasn't a good idea, after all.

Still, a word, once given, was a bond, so he was determined to stick it out.

They continued across the littered floor, where Harry saw that blocks had been pushed aside previously to make a clear path. Obviously, Marduk took this trip once in a while and had cleared it on previous visits.

At some point, a cave-in must have blocked the passage, as a huge block of stone masonry had been shoved aside as if made from styrofoam. The simple vision of this not being Marduk's first time here settled Harry's rattled and frayed nerves somewhat, and he took a deep breath, the Lasso a reassuring presence on his arm and wrist.

Onward they went, in silence, along the path that Marduk had cleared on trips long past, through an ever-downward-sloped corridor made from ancient stone and masonry, carved as ever with hideous images that evoked transcendental dreams of odious places where black leathery and chitinous things crawled underneath a horrific red sun.

Harry swallowed and resolved to keep his attention on Marduk and the silver-blue light of that strange flask rather than their surroundings. This place was inhumanly alien in a way that was disturbing on every instinctive level, a visceral reminder that they shouldn't be here.

Whatever mind had compelled the early human race to build this place must have been different on a level that he failed to comprehend, alien in the most atavistic sense of the word.

They emerged from the corridor not at its end, but at a gaping, jagged chasm where the ancient stone had given way and fallen into the gaping black depths below. Harry swallowed at the sight of it, suddenly realizing that below this awful alien place was nothing but the inky darkness of unfathomable depths.

The width of the chasm couldn't have been more than a meter and a half, and Marduk just let out a small sigh of frustration. "This place's age is really starting to show," he said to Harry, even as the irregular edges of the chasm's sides started to blur as if fluid, and forming a bridge. "Hopefully, one day, this trip will no longer be needed."

Harry just nodded silently, not trusting his voice at this point, and followed his mentor across the newly formed bridge.

They walked in silence, through cyclopean corridors connecting titanic chambers, sometimes dozen of meters across; some of those were completely clear of debris save for dust and sand, belying their incredible age.

It didn't look like Marduk cleared these, either, and Harry resisted the urge to ponder just who or what had built something that could span the tests of time with no clear signs of decay – while corridors and other chambers clearly showed signs of collapse, demonstrating the passage of eons of time.

They emerged at some even lower level, and Marduk nodded to himself; the large man's strides increased in length and Harry took this as a good sign, an indication they were nearing their destination.

They legged through a corridor the likes of which Harry had seen everywhere in this strange underground complex – safe for the fact that it was completely barren of decoration and carving alike, and the ceiling was a strangely normal one devoid of vaults and obscuring darkness high above.

Wherever they were, Harry felt like this was the earliest, most basic construction in the entire temple. Which begged the question, how could the deepest corridor also be the oldest?

He was devoid of answer to his question as Marduk guided them through an open door possessing impossible angles that made Harry's brain hurt to look at them. Obviously the ancient mage had opened this door in the past, and never closed it again.

They entered the huge barren room, carved entirely from black basalt, possessing the same impossible angles of walls and ceiling. In the far wall of said chamber was a trap door, made from some unknown metal that shone like brand-new and freshly polished despite the semi-darkness and its incredible age.

The trap door was also open.

"Alright," Marduk said, softly, as if not wanting to disturb anything in the cavernous darkness below the ominous trap door. "I will continue alone from here. Your help will consist of guarding this room. You must ensure nothing escapes from below."

Harry blinked, as if rousing from some fear-filled night-terror, and nodded. "Of course," he promised.

"It is important," Marduk said, again. "Nothing must escape from below. Last time something escaped and got loose, it set Humanity back to the stone age."

Harry swallowed, and nodded fiercely. He materialized his divine equipment; the shield, the bracers, the sword. He unwrapped the lasso from his arm, gave it a comforting squeeze, and hung it from a loop on his belt.

"Good," the ancient mage said, looking at the trap door. He stepped to one corner, the one further from the trap door, and put the flask down in it; its position allowing it to light the entire room without leaving perpetual shadows.

"Don't you need it?" Harry asked, looking at the lighted flask.

"I have other means," Marduk replied casually. "I don't need eyes or light to see." He stepped up to the trap door, and looked over his shoulder at Harry. The young demigod was obviously pondering the cryptic response. "Think 'bats," the elder mage said with a wink, before stepping through the trap door and vanishing.

Harry snorted. Using magic as a sonar… a manar, if you wish… could be a fun project.

While he thought up how such a thing could work, he sat down next to the flask.

Now that he was alone, and not moving, he became aware of just how fear-inducing even the silence of this ancient temple complex was; the alien angles of the room wrought havoc on his mind and that ancient trap door with the all-encompassing darkness below was simply and awfully terrifying.

He drew a breath. No matter how horrid and hideous this place was, no matter how much it weighed on his mind, telling him to leave and never return, he had made a promise. And promises must be kept.

It was the one lesson every god or goddess had instilled in him; with different words from each, but with the same basic concept. If you made a promise, you had to keep it.

Some of them had included 'sticking to the letter of the promise, and not it's spirit', and other loopholes, but the gist was the same in either case.

And Harry had promised to help Marduk, and Marduk had asked him to help with guarding this gods-awful room in the bowels of some strange world in a place where lights didn't shine, so that was what he was going to do!

He wondered if this would turn him off making promises altogether. Or make him think about helping people in the future.

It went against everything Hestia had taught him, but this hideous complex was making him seriously debate it nonetheless.

He stood up; he'd been sitting in that corner for far too long. No matter how horrific the room, no matter how fear-inducing the terrible nothingness, at some point a demigod's built-in ADHD would get bored.

Drawing a breath, Harry started pacing the circumference of the room. Which, strangely enough, wasn't as easy as he first thought it would be as the alien architecture and the impossible physical angles made it difficult to predict where floor ended and wall began.

Sometimes. At other times, the edge stood out in such sharp contrast that Harry felt like he could cut himself simply from looking at it.

And then, he tripped over something. Curious, he dropped to his knees and dug into the mull sand with his bare hands to feel for what he had tripped over. His fingers slipped over some smoothly polished rock of some kind.

Still bored, he started digging out the stone… only to realize within moments that this was no stone.

It was a skull. A human one.

Swallowing, Harry stared at the empty sockets of the skull; if he ever had doubts that people – humans – were ever in this place, they had now been erased. He brought his hands together for a quick prayer to Hades.

Even if he wondered if the Lord of the Underworld would and could deal with people this old.

Still, everyone deserved to have someone pray over their remains, Harry reasoned.

As he prepared to re-bury the skull, he found more bones of the skeleton; obviously, whoever had died here had never been properly buried and the remains were now simply covered by loose sand that had blown in over the intervening eons.

Thinking that, while he waited, he may as well give the person a proper burial, Harry uncovered the rest of the skeleton.

He swallowed; this poor person had died when someone had ripped their chest open; the ribs were fractured in such a way that indicated someone, or something, had ripped them outward.

What a gods-awful way to die.

He prayed again for the peace of the poor soul, yet again wondering if modern gods would, or even could, deal with people that were this old.

With his shield, he started digging a grave in the loose sand. Then, something pinged against the almost-supernatural senses that any demigod possess by grace of birth.

He was not alone.

He shifted the shield back to his left arm and tightened his grip on his sword's handle. Godslayer silently burst into plasma; the weapon for once not providing light but seemingly sucking it in, creating a strange black-flame effect.

Behind him, he heard something hiss.

Spinning around, he swept the sword through the darkness; the creature that had been stalking him recoiled from the heat of the weapon. Covered in black chitinous matter, the creature was distinctly alien to Harry's perception. A hideous memory of the induced visions burst to the front of his mind, reminding him of that horrid world where black things crawled and slithered in the muck beneath a hideous red sun.

It burns Us! the creature hissed, drawing him from his half-memory and thrusting him back into sharp reality. Its form of parseltongue was distinctly different from the version spoken by snakes; the difference was as pronounced as the difference between upper-class British and Jamaican patois.

"Back!" Harry shouted, brandishing the black-plasma Godslayer.

Hungry! the creature proclaimed. Fodder! Reproduce!

It jumped at him. The next moment, he slapped it with his shield, the magical construct forcing the kinetic energy of the jumping alien creature to rebound, forcing it away from him.

It hurts Us! the creature shouted. This prey is strong!

I am not prey! Harry shouted back, finally catching enough of his faculties to shout back in Parseltongue.

It speaks! the creature shouted in wonder. It will give us glorious offspring!

Hey! I'm not for mating! Harry shouted, mentally shifting gears. This creature wanted to mate with him? It was bad enough when mammals did it, he didn't want to contemplate what this alien monstrosity had in mind for him!

The creature hissed and jumped again. Harry hit it with his shield again. Bad alien creature! Harry shouted.

It should call us [Xenomorph], the creature hissed at him, the name of its species an inarticulate series of hisses that caused Harry's magical ability to throw up its arms in despair and take its best guess.

And it should submit to Our superiority. We, Queen of the Universe, demand submission! It was quick, this [Xenomorph], and it ran along walls and ceilings with no issue, throwing itself at Harry again.

He deflected it with his shield, and fed up, he slashed at it with his black-burning plasma sword. The mighty weapon grazed the creature's exoskeleton, making it hiss with anger and pain.

It burns Us again! Bad breeder!

I am not a breeder! I am Harry! Harry shouted at it, feeling rather silly how he had basically gotten into a shouting match with an alien monstrosity. Since they were now yelling, rather than fighting, Harry turned Godslayer back into a ring despite its audible pouting, grabbed Hestia's lasso, and tried to capture the thing.

The magical weapon sailed through the air; the [Xenomorph] fell from the wall and dodged underneath it by bending its legs in patently unnatural ways – as it raced to the other side of the room, it had sunk so low through its legs that its belly left traces in the sand. When it reached the opposite wall, it raced up it, then hung itself from the ceiling. It hissed in laughter, as if it found the notion of him trying to lasso it amusing. The lasso, meanwhile, sulked and felt apologetic.

It should submit so it can give us offspring! the Xenomorph stated. We desire fodder to incubate Our eggs.

Suddenly, it launched itself at Harry again. Demigodly reflexes allowed him to smack it out of the air. BAD alien creature! he shouted at it. Bad! Humans aren't for breeding! He put the lasso back on his belt and grabbed his sword again. If the thing was too quick to capture, he had no choice, really.

Humans are good for breeding, the creature replied. Lay eggs in chest. Strong offspring when incubate!

Harry remembered the skeleton with the burst-open chest, finally realizing what had ripped that poor person open. Humans are NOT for breeding! he repeated.

The alien horror, the [Xenomorph], was hanging from the ceiling, black chitinous armor glistening in the silver-blue light of the First Star, empty eye sockets in an elongated skull staring straight at him. It had no lips, this monster, but black teeth dripped thick, viscous saliva to the ground.

It will have no choice, the monstrous horror hissed at him. We will drag it before Our eggs, Our eggs will spawn, and our spawn will mate with it. It will generate for Us glorious offspring!

Harry shuddered in revulsion again, once more remembering that poor skeleton and its burst-out chest.

It launched itself from across the room, and Harry bit back a curse; this thing was fast and he had believed himself to be relatively safe with the room's worth of distance between them.

He made it slam into his shield again, and struck with Godslayer once more. Again, the plasma weapon grazed the chitinous armor of the creature, making it hiss in pain, recoil, and race up the wall to hang from the ceiling.

Harry mentally grouched that the spider-man trick was getting old. Bad creature! He shouted, wondering how he got into situations like these, and how he was going to get out of this one. It was too fast for him to go after directly, and it possessed reflexes that were superior to his own so it could dodge even his sword strikes.

It will call Us Queen of the Universe! The creature hissed at him. We are [Xenomorph]!

Only if you'll call me Harry! Harry screamed back, now firmly committed to a shouting match with an alien monster that Marduk had told him to stop.

The [Xenomorph] hissed again. It has bravery, this Harry, the monster stated. Humans always scream in fear and terror, but this one screams words and makes demands of Us. Despite the horror not having lips, Harry had the distinct impression that it peeled back lips nonetheless. It will give us magnificent offspring!

Harry swallowed another bout of revulsion; whatever god had built this thing had built it for destruction only. Even though its method of reproduction was alien to humans, it wasn't that different until one brought the whole bursting-out-of-the-chest and killing-the-father thing in consideration.

Then again, lots of insects ate the fathers, too.

Harry shook his head, trying to focus back on the here and now.

Just in time, too, as the [Xenomorph] had jumped left, jinked right, tried to find some non-existent shadow on the ground to the back, and jumped at him from it. The movement was so inhuman and alien that Harry had trouble following it, let alone expect it.

He dodge-rolled underneath in a panic and tried to go at it with Godslayer; he managed another graze, this one deeper.

A thick, greenish blood dripped from the wound even as the [Xenomorph] screamed in pain and fear and rage and launched itself back to the ceiling. Where the blood touched, smoke rose; Harry grunted when a drop of it ate through his shirt and dripped casually through the chains of his chainmail shirt.

The heavily enchanted mithril chainmail was unaffected by something as pedestrian as an alien monstrosity's acid blood, but it was completely ineffective at stopping said acid from getting at his tender flesh underneath.

Yikes! More acid for me! Godslayer shouted. Let's get it, Boss!

"I've been trying to," Harry muttered in English. That damn thing was quick.

It launched itself again, but Harry was starting to get a feel for its movements and was able to intercept it without issue. His shield tanked the assault, and Godslayer retaliated. The monster screamed again, and retreated back to the far corner, dripping green acid blood onto the sand, where it bubbled and smoked and filled the subterranean room with its stink.

Stop trying to kill me! Harry shouted. Bad Queenie!

The creature hissed with outrage. We are Queen of the Universe! It hissed in a scream. And we will have it as a breeder!

Harry swallowed again; great, it hadn't even been trying to kill him. It had been trying to capture him. He wondered just how easily that monster could kill him if it wanted to!

Please don't breed with me, either, he told it.

The creature seemed surprised – or, about as surprised as Harry though such a creature could look. Why would your wishes matter? It asked, apparently honestly surprised.

That one stumped Harry. Because I asked nicely? He wondered, hopefully.

Without breeders, we will all perish. The desires of the Breeder called Harry don't matter, the [Xenomorph] decided, and threw itself at him again.

Suddenly, the creature disintegrated.

"I see you've been busy," Marduk said as he stepped from the trap door. "Thank you for occupying it."

"Thanks for the save, Marduk," Harry said, honestly.

"Were you actually having a conversation with it?" Marduk asked.

Harry shrugged sheepishly, and explained things.

When he was done, Marduk looked like he wanted to laugh. "Only you could run into a Xenomorph and actually have a debate with it."

"It was more like a screaming match," Harry admitted, glad to finally hear the creature's race in English, rather than Parseltongue.

"And almost managed to tame it," the ancient mage said as if Harry hadn't spoken.

"Whoever built them made them engines of destruction," Harry said. "It wasn't Queenie's fault that she was made the way she was."

Marduk pinched the bridge of his nose. "Those things are evil incarnate, you shouldn't feel bad for them," he stated.

"I don't feel bad for them," Harry answered. "But I do feel sorry for them. They can't help how they are built and how they reproduce. That doesn't mean I won't stop them if they try and kill people, though."

Marduk stared at Harry, as if trying to come to terms with what the young demigod was saying. "Harry, those things kill people. And the more of them there are, the faster they reproduce. Drop one of them in a city, and by the end of a week you have a dead city and lots of Xenomorphs."

"I know, Marduk," Harry answered honestly. "Still, in the end, it's still tab A goes into slot B – only difference there is with us, is that a human baby doesn't kill the mother, but a Xenomorph's offspring will kill the father. Like some insects or spiders, I suppose."

The ancient mage made a strangled sort of noise that could be a stifled laugh. "Only, we're talking about a very different tab A and a very different slot B. Still, as long as you stop them and your strange logic doesn't deter you," he stated.

"Oh, definitely, Marduk," Harry assured him. "How was your mission down there?"

"I inspected everything and replenished what needed replenishing," the ancient mage answered. "Come, let us go."

Harry nodded gratefully. Without the excitement of the Xenomorph to keep his attention, the oppressive atmosphere of the place was starting to weigh on him again.

When they finally stepped back onto the plains of Africa, Harry couldn't help but draw a really deep breath and stretch. Despite the acid-burn on his chest from the Xenomorph's blood, he felt pretty good now that he was back on Earth.

"I'm really glad to be back," Harry admitted to Marduk. "I'm glad I was able to help, but that place was the scariest place I've ever been to. And Queenie wasn't a cakewalk, either."

"Please don't give the Xenomorph a name," Marduk said with a shake of his head. "Just, one more question."

Harry nodded.

"Why did you not use magic?" the ancient mage requested. It was not an accusation, just a question.

"Ehm," Harry answered, stumped. Why hadn't he used magic? "I just… didn't think of it. Maybe I panicked? That place was scary."

Marduk smiled faintly while eyeing his young charge and appeared to finally notice just how affected he was. "Perhaps you are a bit young yet to assist me. This was one of the easier and more sedate places I go to for my extra duties, and if you are already this affected… perhaps it would be wiser to wait a few more years before requesting your assistance again."

Harry oddly felt like he had failed some kind of test.

"Still, you did well, and I am grateful for the assistance," Marduk said. "That Xenomorph, had it escaped, could have done serious damage to human society. Those things are tenacious."

Harry felt better. "I'm glad I was able to help, Marduk," he told his mentor. Still, a few more years before being asked to help again would definitely be good. Maybe then, he'd be able to handle it better. And the longer it took him to meet one of Queenie's relatives, the better.