A/N: Thanks goes to 13thadaption and Scott Press for their insight and labours over this chapter.
Golden wheat fields sprawled out for miles.
Harry spun in a slow circle taking everything in, a hand raised to shield his eyes from the glaring sun. It was warm enough he was tempted to shed his coat.
A blot of cold lurked somewhere to his left. Maeve lounged back in her seat at the feasting table, long white locks swinging free in the faint breeze wafting through the clearing.
"What do you think, Sharr?" said Maeve, glancing at him over the rims of her sunglasses. "Still under the impression I've dragged you off for nefarious purposes?"
Harry laughed, closing his eyes and tilting his head up to the sun. "I didn't say it quite like that. Where are we anyway?"
Maeve sipped from her wine glass. "Cardea Minor. It's as close as you can get to neutral ground within the Summer Lands."
Knowing Maeve's hint was a warning, Harry took his seat at the feasting table. "I'll keep that in mind," he replied.
An invitation from Mab for a celebratory Autumn feast, she'd said back at the ruined château.
What kind of celebratory feast? The Autumn equinox had already come and gone. All Hallow's Eve – Samhain, depending on how far into Knockturn Alley he ventured – wasn't for a few weeks yet. But other than Maeve, no-one else from the Winter Court had showed up. Which seemed odd, even if she was acting as an ambassador to the Summer Court. Where was her entourage? Her retainers and fawning adorers? Also, who the fuck sent Maeve as anything other than "Agent of Chaos?"
You don't tell a Faerie Queen no, he reminded himself. Even one of the lesser ones.
He'd learned that lesson well enough from Mab. If her daughter wanted to use him as a weapon, he'd be better off going along with it than not.
The feasting table sat beneath an old oak. The tree was ancient, its trunk was wide enough that five people standing palm to palm could not have wrapped their arms around its girth. Banners hung from its branches, all in the green and gold of the Summer Court save for a handful of Crayola yellow pennants decorated with sheaves of wheat.
Hidden amongst the cheery colours was a blood red banner with a crossed scorpion and sickle. The sixth house of the Lords of Magic, House Gomiraiz.
What the hell were they doing here?
Harry shifted as he watched House Gomiraiz' representative take the seat across from him. Their latest emissary was younger than the last, mid-thirties or so it seemed. He was handsome, dark haired and dark eyed, his olive skin-tone made ever deeper by his apparent love for the sun. His lean build was nothing remarkable and his suit hid any identifying marks like scars or tattoos.
The emblem of House Gomiraiz winked in the sun from the man's golden tie pin – his white suit offset by a garnet red waistcoat and gold cufflinks. The man laughed at something his companion said, dark eyes gleaming as he glanced at Harry.
The acoustics of the table were odd. Sounds from the small gurgling brook near the oak drifted in as a muted rumble of thunder. Then the wind would shift and it was only a whisper-soft background noise. Harry could pick up bits and pieces of conversations from the other end of the feast while the man across from him was muffled and distant.
They'd placed him at the farthest end of the banquet table. Not at the very end, but close. There were at least forty Summer fae seated at the table – to say nothing of their retinue and guards in shining armour.
Maeve seemed entirely unconcerned with how outnumbered they were – and perhaps she could afford to be, as powerful as she was. Sitting next to her was like sitting next to an air conditioner on full blast.
Beside the aspiring politician from House Gomiraiz sat a fae with a crown of white carnations woven into the strawberry-blonde knot of her hair. Her eyes were wholly amber, her pupils dark and ovoid like a deer's. She wore a light silk surcoat embroidered with tiny flowers, and beneath it golden armour etched with a honeycomb pattern.
She smiled at Maeve. "Darling, lovely to see you again," she said, extending a small, fine-boned hand out to the Winter Lady.
"Felicita," said Maeve in a raspy croon, her voice sounding like the grit of sandpaper on concrete. Felicita's body language tensed as if holding back a wince when Maeve entwined her fingers with the offered hand, her cold tongue leaving a trail of frost over the poor fae's index finger as she licked it.
Felicita's eyes flicked over Harry. "My, you've certainly brought an interesting prize to the table," she said with a smile, rubbing a discrete napkin over her hand. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?"
"I present to you Hadrian Sharr, one of my mother's playthings – a favourite, I am told," announced Maeve, a cheerful lack of care in her answering grin.
Harry bristled, but said nothing. Maeve's snide dig held an uncomfortable note of truth.
It also said she had no idea what her mother was up to. A "plaything" was too frivolous given the gravitas of Mab's task. Maeve seemed...apt to exploit him, without any clue how Harry came to be in the Winter Queen's clutches.
"Oh?" Felicita inquired extending her hand to Harry.
Harry decided to keep it a bit more lowkey than the Winter Lady. "Well met," he murmured, brushing his mouth over her knuckles. He glanced up at her through the fringe of his eyelashes.
Well, she certainly seemed to be charmed. Weird, being the classy one for once.
"A Morrigan," she purred. "My, but that voice is unmistakeable. I see now why he's a favourite."
The Winter Lady laughed. "Isn't he adorable? Mummy never did get me a puppy when I was little," said Maeve. She grasped Harry's chin, giving his cheek a firm nudge with her own as she bared her teeth at Felicita. "Court gossip says he's an absolute delight."
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Can't believe Mab would farm me out to play arm candy," he muttered.
Maeve smirked, the tiny Ranna on her anklet chiming as she sat back and crossed her long bare legs. "It is my pleasure to introduce you to Felicita of Summer's Morn and her sister, Proserpina of Summer's Eve."
Though she'd been engaged in conversation with the fae beside her, Felicita's sister turned at the sound of her name.
"Hello," said Proserpina.
Ooohh, twins, went a little voice in Harry's head.
"Hello yourself," Harry murmured.
She was identical save for her accoutrement; the carnation circlet replaced by a crown of yellowing ivy, her surcoat a deep mauve instead of a soft cream. They had the same upturned nose and heavy lidded gaze.
Now that he was aware of it, the entire table was clad in a peculiar mixture of frippery and armour.
One fellow wore a frock coat paired with bronze greaves emblazoned with patterns of ornate Rococo fleur-de-lis. A pointy-eared fae wore layers of petticoats frothing with ruffles and a breastplate gilded with the silhouettes of flying birds. Down the table from her, a tattooed dryad with spindly limbs wore bronze armour so dark it was almost black, with a shifting patina of green and amber flashing in the sunlight. They were as eye-catching as they were militant. It didn't help that every single one of them looked like they'd stepped off the runway at some snobby French venue.
Compared to the finery, Harry felt terribly conscious of his torn jeans and scuffed boots. His coat with the jet buttons was the nicest thing he owned and even it didn't measure up. Maeve's hippie princess couture was an affectation, a look. Harry was just threadbare and unshaven. He'd become the goddamned wallflower haunting the corners of a party everyone else enjoyed.
One of the fae didn't quite fit the poreless perfection of the rest of the Summer Courtiers. He sat at the far end of the table as the host of the occasion. Scarred and bearded, the man was older, more salt than pepper in his hair and built like one those statues by Bernini, all thick, straining muscle and intense expression. Less opulent than the rest, he wore a serviceable yellow cloak draped over one arm and bronze armour.
He caught Harry's stare and dipped his head. Not a greeting, but an acknowledgement.
Unsure of the proper reply, Harry nodded in turn.
"Where is that gentleman you were last with? The Wolf of Winter?" Felicita blathered on to Maeve.
"Hanged," came Maeve's dry reply. "And he was no gentleman."
Harry's Beretta in its concealed carry dug into his flesh as he leaned forward.
"Who's he?" he asked Maeve.
"Who?" she replied with disinterest.
"Him. The fellow down at the very end of the table."
Laughter spilled out of the tangled knot of courtiers between him and the older gentleman. For all their revelry, there was a curious lack of wine consumed as they exchanged whispers and sharp smiles.
Harry didn't like it.
Maeve shrugged. "Baron Phrixus of the Summer Court. Won his titles in a military coup that slaughtered half his rivals or so they say. It's all before my time anyway."
"Don't you know of him?" said the emissary from House Gomiriaz.
Oh, now you deign to talk to me, Harry wanted to say.
"I know none of these people," he replied instead.
"Pity," said Maeve. "You should be more aware of who your allies are."
How the hell were the Sharr allied with a Summer Baron?
"Then I would be both lucky and well-prepared," said Harry.
Across from him, Gomiraiz' emissary scoffed.
"And you are?" Harry inquired, almost managing to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"I am Marqués Oleastro of House Gomiraiz." He bowed, low and mocking.
"Hadrian Sharr," said Harry. "My pleasure."
"And what do you do, Hadrian Sharr?"
Harry didn't let his fake smile budge. "That's classified."
"You...work?" said Oleastro. "How incredibly ordinary."
"I also sweat, bleed, and occasionally cry," Harry replied before he could think better of it. "It's almost like I'm a real boy."
"Come now," said Felicita, giving Oleastro a sweet smile. "We can't all be rich, disaffected layabouts."
Oleastro placed a hand over his heart and affected a grimace. "You do me a great disservice."
"You do yourself a great disservice," said Felicita.
Proserpina raised a hand to cover her smile, the voluminous sleeve of her surcoat falling away to reveal golden bracers engraved with an elaborate iris emblem instead of her twin's honeycomb pattern. Harry didn't recognize that symbol any more than the others.
"My apologies then, dear Felicita." Oleastro turned to Harry and smiled. "I appear to have been remiss in my manners, Sharr. How could you ever forgive me?"
"That's very gracious of you," replied Harry. "But let's be realistic here – the only thing faker than your contrition is Pam Anderson's tits."
Proserpina let out a low laugh, her hair glittering like copper in the sunlight. No love lost between her and the Marqués, apparently.
Oleastro spread his hands and sighed. "I tried. But then, look at what I've got to work with."
Harry shrugged. "Insulting me for not maintaining a playboy lifestyle is like insulting a fish for its lack of interest in the mechanics of flight."
"Presumably, you have a point somewhere in that diatribe," said Oleastro. "I assume it's about classism? How could you maintain a lifestyle – " He pronounced the word with a particular disdain. " – when you haven't even the means to attain one?"
What was the point of this anyway? Did Maeve want him to get into it with Oleastro?
"I'm curious," said Harry. "What do rich disaffected layabouts do anyway? Besides self-adulate, of course."
Oleastro gave him a smug look. "Everything."
"That's a good way to get your cock stuck somewhere uncomfortable," Harry muttered, pretending to take a sip from his wine glass. The wine smelled like summer berries and sweet meadow grasses baking in the sun. It was all he could do to pat his upper lip dry with a napkin instead of licking it off.
"I am, as of right now, the most important cog in House Gomiraiz' political machine," said Oleastro. He rested his arms along the back of his chair, unaware of how it made his coat gape at the lapels. He had a bit of a soft chin from this angle.
"Impressive," Harry replied. "How on earth did you gain such a prestigious position?"
"I have what you might call a gift for aggressive solutions to persistent problems," replied Oleastro, a sneer beginning to twist his mouth into a snarl.
"Wet-works seems a bit above your pay grade," said Harry. "But then, point-and-shoot doesn't require much in the way of diplomacy."
He toasted Oleastro with his wine glass. Oleastro's sneer vanished into a scowl.
Maeve tipped her head back and laughed. "You're such a sweetheart." She caught hold of the collar of Harry's coat and pulled him close, kissing him on the cheek. "Remind me never to take you anywhere I want people to actually like me," she murmured into his ear.
"Don't play coy," Harry replied. "You wanted me to react to him."
"And so you did," she agreed and let go of him. "I thought we were here for a feast!" said Maeve, raising her voice so the rest of the table could hear. The gathered fae cheered.
As if waiting for her cue, servants in the livery of their masters appeared, bearing heavy platters that put Hogwarts' feasts to shame. Golden plates of griffons feathers carefully arranged around a single morsel in the middle topped with pomegranate seeds sat next to a whole roast boar, its tusks still intact, served with apples cut into the shapes of flowers. Bowls piled high with dates and olives sat next to platters of fresh soft bread still hot from the oven.
A silver platter was set in front of Harry.
"Prepared specially for you," said the servant in an undertone, his voice as bland as his face. The word 'poison' rang through Harry's mind.
It seemed a bit overt though, him keeling over at the feasting table of the Summer Court – which was supposedly the more subtle of the two. That was more Maeve's style.
Well, the fae weren't the only ones who could make a pretence. Harry could shred, prod, and move his food around his plate in a semblance of eating with the best of them.
It seemed a shame to destroy such an artful dish though. Sliced figs and blackberries surrounded a seared porchetta tenderloin with a garnish of black porcupine quills and red cabbage twisted into a series of ragged-edged roses. Harry picked up the fork from the outermost selection, remembering Lorraine's advice on fancy cutlery – start on the outside and work your way inward – and cut into the rolled meat. The scent of crushed herbs lit into the air.
Skin shivering with sudden hunger, he found his lips closing over the tiny bite, eyelashes fluttering. He chose one of the delicate roses to nibble on next, carefully picking his way around the porcupine quill 'thorns'. It took him moment to understand what he was looking at.
It wasn't porchetta at all.
Hidden under the cabbage roses lay a human hand. An arm had been carefully skinned and bent into a crook to fit on the plate, palm up, the fingers curled as if cupping the roses. It was a small arm, the wrist thin and delicate. It was either a woman's...or a child's.
The dark thing running in his veins sat up and begged.
His fork clanged off the side of his plate.
"Not hungry?" asked Felicita.
The fuck could he say to that? Of course he was hungry – he was always hungry. His biology was the gift that kept on giving.
"I draw the line at eating children," Harry replied.
Felicita let a out a little giggle and propped her chin up on her hands. "I thought all monsters ate human flesh." She might have come across as vapid if it weren't for the edge of cruelty lurking in her expression.
"I suppose it's too much for you to have a taste for veal," said Oleastro.
Harry curled his lip. "I'm not posh enough, remember?"
Maeve jabbed him in the ribs. "What's wrong with you now?"
Harry lifted up the cabbage leaf enough for her to see. She tipped her head to the side, a distinct lack of comprehension in her expression. "I don't understand. Is it overdone?"
Harry blinked at her. "I don't eat children," he repeated.
Maeve, without much preamble, stuck her fork into the rounded meat of the forearm and twisted off a bite.
"I don't think it is," she replied, after chewing thoughtfully. "Too many spices for me to properly tell though."
She speared a piece of the fish from her plate and offered him her fork. "Mer?"
Granite grey scales with a rainbow flash glittered all alongside the top of the bite.
Mer. Mermaid. Eat or be eaten, sentient species or not. Harry wanted to be sick, even as the Morrigan in him clamoured to lick his plate clean.
Just shut up and go with it, said the voice of reason. You've seen worse, done worse. You won't learn anything if you throw a shit-fit now.
Don't eat anything a faery gives you, said another voice.
Well, he'd already fucked that up. And if the Sharr were members of the Winter Court...what would that make them? Easy prey or off-limits?
Harry took the morsel. It tasted like fish.
It tasted like sunlight glittering on the ripples of a lake. It tasted like warm afternoons afloat on the current. Like the gurgle of an eddy running through the cat-tails. It tasted like the spill of blood as the harpoon pierced her belly, like the last gasps of a silver-scaled body beached on the cypress knees, brown water frothing as her tail thrashed through her death throes to the laughter of her pursuers –
"Freshwater," said Harry, heart pounding as he shook off the Mer's last moments, only just managing to swallow around the rising surge of bile. "Interesting. Can't say I'm a fan of mudfish."
Maeve laughed, sharp white teeth there and then gone. "You're such a snob, Sharr."
"God help me if I turn into Oleastro," he said, mouth running on automatic.
Did that seem as fake to them as it did to him? Fuck, he hoped not. How likely would it be that he'd end up on a plate next?
Harry poked at the arm, feeling almost calm with the amount of adrenaline pulsing through his blood.
Oleastro sighed and lifted a finger in a subtle gesture. One of his retainers slipped away to the other end of the feasting table. The retainer, dressed in black with a red sash slung across his chest, bent down to whisper in the ear Baron Phrixus himself.
How had House Gomiraiz forged an alliance with Summer? Had it been through the Baron's supposed military conquests? Gomiraiz was a dark line, or so he'd thought. The alliances which tied the Families to the Fae Courts were clearly a great deal more complicated than it first appeared.
"Gentlemen, what seems to be the problem?"
Up close, Harry could see that Phrixus' armour was decorated with the same wheat insignia as the yellow banners overhead.
Oleastro smiled, an expression that could only be described as the cat who'd gotten the cream. "Sharr seems to have turned his nose up at your hospitality."
Baron Phrixus raised a brow. "Oh?"
The word was laden with a wealth of meaning Harry could only begin to guess at.
"I'm afraid my monstrosity has its limits," Harry replied, gesturing to the plate with his fork. "I don't do children."
The venerable fae bowed from the waist. "My apologies, Lord Sharr. An attempt was made to cater to your appetites."
A servant in yellow livery slunk in between them and removed the offending dish.
"I've never known a Morrigan that didn't care for young flesh," said the Baron.
Because I'm still human. Because I'm still capable of human decency, Harry wanted to say, despite the little voice telling him that wasn't exactly true. It would be laughable to this crowd.
Harry folded his hands atop the table, the picture of non-aggression. "While the dead have little to say on the subject of fine dining, I'm still allowed to be picky."
"Might I have something else arranged for you?" said the Baron. "My kitchens are ill-equipped to feed someone of your persuasion, but I can ask if there is more of the Mer available."
"I'm fine, thank you," replied Harry, hoping to end the conversation.
"Or if you prefer, I have a few prisoners awaiting execution who could be brought forth," said the Baron, a faint flicker of distaste running across his face.
"That's... rather generous of you," Harry managed.
"Why Sharr," said Felicita. "Don't tell me you enjoy your food still kicking."
Oleastro gave that creamy fucking smile again. "It wouldn't surprise me. He is a Morrigan after all."
"Now you – " said Harry, lips curling back into a smile that was all teeth. "You I wouldn't mind taking a bite out of."
Ashy fingers of ice skittered across the table. Oleastro jolted back, dropping his wine goblet with a clang just moments before frost crawled up the base. Wine soaked into the table cloth and puddled on his plate, a hushed whisper painting the air before icing over.
"Humans are after all, my favourite dish," Harry murmured, that hungry thing inside rolling over and purring. It was fully on board with the idea of pulling Oleastro's intestines out through his nostrils.
Oleastro twitched, eyes darting towards him and away. He laughed, overly jovial and too put upon to be real, throat bobbing as he swallowed.
The Baron's dry voice overrode the tableau. "I'd appreciate if my guests refrained from making meals of one another, the cooks would be so dismayed." He turned to Harry, the humour draining from his expression. "I will send a guard to fetch a prisoner immediately."
The hunger shivered and dug its fingers into the yawning hollow of his belly.
"No, please," said Harry, shaking his head. He couldn't help the low incredulous laugh. "There's no need, really. I already ate not too long ago – I had no idea I'd be attending a feast."
How the fuck had his life reached this level of shit show? A hysterical giggle lurked at the back of his throat and Harry chewed the inside of his cheek to bloody ribbons just to keep it from crawling out.
The Baron gave him a knowing look. "You, battling a Morrigan's infamous hunger, would turn down such a meal freely offered?"
"I – " Harry worked for an answer before deciding to be honest. "...yes."
"Why?" asked Baron Phrixus, baffled.
Harry shrugged. "I've enough blood on my hands as is, I'm not going to kill someone just so I can eat."
"Not even as the arbitrator of my justice?"
"Of course not. I don't know them, I don't know their crimes, I don't know you, and I certainly don't like your idea of justice – " Harry made a face. "Considering it apparently involves feeding people to each other. For fuck's sake, at least they're already dead by the time I get to them."
The Baron's brows knit together. "Are you arguing for mercy? You said yourself that you do not know their crimes."
"No, I – "
The desert spirit a couple seats down from Proserpina spoke up. "You only consume your enemies then?" she said, her ornate golden earrings tinkling with hundreds of tiny bells. "'Life is Violent' indeed, if you'd starve in times of peace."
"Justice doesn't taste good," said Harry, holding her dark gaze. "But vengeance is a feast to a starving man."
She closed her eyes and turned away. Harry got the impression she was just as disgusted with him as he had been over his meal.
"That it is," agreed the Baron, ending the conversation. He bowed low to Maeve. "Lady Winter."
"Baron," she murmured in turn.
Phrixus left, faces turning towards Harry in his wake. He felt embarrassed, which was stupid because he hadn't asked for Arm of Child with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti.
"Are you happy?" Harry bit out.
"Honestly Sharr," said Maeve, rolling her eyes. "All this fuss over nothing."
"What would your mother think of this?"
"Don't tell me you want to go back to playing Mummy's blunt little instrument," she mocked. When Harry didn't reply, Maeve set her goblet down and rolled her eyes. "Would it kill you to simply relax?"
"Probably," Harry muttered, wishing he'd slipped a hip flask into his pocket before he'd left the château. Heat waves rippled over the fields as the sun climbed towards noon. He'd kill for a glass of ice cold water, but he hesitated to eat or drink anything else. At the very least, he should have grabbed his sunglasses on the way out the door.
At the other end of the table, Phrixus raised his cup. The gathered fae quieted.
"My friends and allies," he said, voice warm and familiar. "I am pleased to see you today. Together, once again, on such an auspicious occasion." Phrixus gave a wry smile. "And we are all aware of how much I despise politicking."
Their laughter was fond. The Baron was well-liked. It would have been easy for Harry to like him too. The Sharr name was its own kind of curse.
Baron Phrixus met Harry's eyes and titled his cup. "But we also acknowledge our failures."
Every head at the table swivelled towards Harry, all raising their glasses in eerie unison. The hair on the back of Harry's neck stood on end.
"We've gathered in remembrance of our loved ones, our losses, the times we could not hold the darkness back," said the Baron, his gaze never wavering. "Sharr, I hope your gods are with you today."
"A shame you didn't finish your meal," hummed Felicita, gold gleaming where her irises used to be. "We could have done this the easy way."
Oleastro's magic sparked and Harry's chair shot out from underneath him. He came up firing.
He shot at Phrixus three times, bullets pinging off the Baron's shimmering green-gold shield like ripples in a pond. A few of the fae surrounding him crumpled to the ground, victims of ricochet.
A gout of flame engulfed the end of the gun and Harry dropped it with a hiss, his burnt fingers stinging. Melted slag sizzled against the grass.
Bloody red loops stinking of Oleastro's magic tried to wrap around Harry and sink needle-sharp teeth into his flesh. He kicked the table over, dumping the mess into Oleastro's lap. Several others were caught in the chaos, the twins included.
Harry ducked a swipe from the fellow in the frock coat, his serrated blade glistening with poison. He flicked his wrist, the spell slinging Frock Coat into the overturned table with a clang of armour as Harry put some distance between himself and the oncoming melee.
He didn't get far.
Runes flared to life in a ring around the clearing, throwing up a burning wall of light as Harry stumbled to a halt. The sheer fucking heat of it felt like it had seared the air from his lungs. Harry cursed, choking on the words.
He spun around. They'd surrounded him; the summer court letting him herd himself right into a corner. Sunlight gleamed off their armour, piercing-bright.
"How will it be Sharr?" said the Baron, flanked by the twins in the midst of the crowd. "Will you go with honour? Or with shame?"
Where the fuck was Maeve?
His sword hung useless at his hip – they'd never give him the chance to draw, never give him a chance to establish a circle of defence. The other half of his daisho lay against his overturned chair, too long to carry comfortably.
Flicker-quick, Harry jabbed his wand at Phrixus.
Cold, blue-white light shot through the air. The Baron raised his shield again, his companions scattering as light ricocheted off the surface and gouged a divot into the earth.
It should have sliced through the shield. Something was wrong. Something was sucking the life from Harry's spells. He'd never had trouble using fire before. But when he reached for the raging fury of Fiendfyre, chill water gurgled in his ears.
The Baron's allies regrouped while Harry fumbled with his magic. Shields the colour of new spring leaves glimmered in a semi-circle around him, not ten feet away. As one, the Summer courtiers took a step forward.
They were going to crush him against the barrier.
Harry slashed his wand, sticky black ichor arcing across the foremost shields. It ate at the magic, sheering straight through and biting into their armour. One fae hadn't been smart enough to don a helm. His mouth slack, half the fae's skull slid off and slopped to the ground.
The fae beside him screamed – rage, not fear. She rushed Harry, breaking the Baron's careful line. Her layers of petticoats didn't seem to hinder her any as she hefted her spear.
Lifting up onto the balls of his feet, Harry caught hold of her spear and pivoted. The barrier rendered the long weapon into burning cinders. Freeing a hand, Harry grabbed her throat and snarled a guttural Germanic word with short, sharp glottal stop. Her neck, armoured gorget and all, twisted round with a sharp crack. The corpse flopped onto the ground, her head lolling limp against her chest.
They'd taken another step forward. This time, fire flashed overhead, sealing off the top of the circle in a dome. The swordsman who replaced Petticoats in the semi-circle wasn't anywhere near her calibre. Beside him, Felicita enlarged her shield to cover his reach.
It wasn't enough. Harry slashed his wand in broad arcs, the Baron's conspirators digging in as lightning sizzled against their shields. The swordsman wasn't so lucky. The spell didn't chop off his ankles like he'd intended, but it dug a large trough in the ground behind him.
He darted forward as if to tackle the swordsman, palming his dagger. The swordsman stumbled back, breaking the line. Felicita's shield hummed a warning note as Harry brushed past. Harry's grip tore through the swordsman's green and yellow silk shirt as he twisted, using his weight against him. The Summer fae yelped, startled and too close to swing his blade. He had no defence against Harry's dagger sliding under his ribs and into his lung. Spinning, Harry shoved the body into Felicita.
She stumbled under the weight, a summer gold flash of magic bursting out from her gauntlet and splashing off the dome. He ducked, damp earth pelting his coat when it hit the ground.
Sweat-soaked, Harry tried the Fiendfyre spell again, this time letting the black water drown out the searing fire in his mind. Frost crackled over the dried grass around him, turning it into a jagged field of bone-white stalagmites.
He was desperate for just enough space to think past the panic, shakiness sinking into his limbs. Was it still getting hotter? It was like being trapped in a fucking oven. Were they going to cook him if they couldn't kill him?
Fuck, fuck, what the hell was happening?
Turning, Harry bumped into a tall warm form.
He glanced up.
At a bit over six feet, Harry was used to being at least eye-level with most people.
This fae was eight feet and some change. He – and it was definitely a he, no mistaking that – was built like a brick shithouse, all heavy slabs of dense, corded muscle covered in short dark fur. While the fae might have had human hands and torso, his legs were knocked and hoofed like a deer's, and a little black nose glistened on the end of his ungulate face. Deep liquid black eyes stared down at Harry.
Then he seized hold of Harry's shoulders, bellowing into his face as he shook his massive crown of antlers.
Harry slashed down with his knife. The blade skidded off bony protrusions hidden under the stag fae's thick fur; his rib cage was reinforced like armour. The fae's grasp didn't falter.
Lifting Harry up, the stag shook him like a doll. His feet dangled weightless over the ground. Then the stag fae flung him across the clearing.
He bounced before sprawling out across the dried grasses. Harry stared at the sky. Around him, the world spun like a top, a dizzying mish-mash of grain fields and green shields. The ground trembled beneath the stag fae's hooves as he stomped closer.
Harry scrambled to his feet, sending a frost-tinged bone-breaker at the oncoming fae which splashed off a wall of sunshine yellow light. Sunblind, Harry reeled back.
He lacked the abundance of broken glass and scrap-metal he'd grown used to manipulating into sharp-edged automatons. Even stone would do in a pinch. But the clearing was surrounded by acres of wheat fields and within the dome, there was nothing but churned up earth.
Harry grit his teeth.
The Reaper's Sickle bit into the stag's shield, black bleeding into the bright yellow. It grew weaker on his second attempt. Behind him, Felicita and her sister cast gouts of Summer fire across the clearing. It swirled around the apex of the dome, before forming into thousands of tiny fiery birds. On instinct, Harry ripped open the gates between Life and Death.
Frost skittered across the ground from the open barrier as the flames hurtled into the void. It sealed shut, dragging itself closed against his will.
"C'mon!" Harry snarled.
The stag dipped his head in a mocking dueller's bow. Its bones cracked and popped as ivory plates grew out from under the fur.
And then it lit itself on fire.
"Jesusbloodshittingchrist!" Harry hissed out as he flung himself back to the ground, Summer fire passing overhead.
Remembering his accidental trip across the creek in the Forbidden Forest, Harry tried to phase out through Death and found the way blocked. One of the fae circling the clearing made a sharp gesture, their long green robes dotted with glowing sigils. The chill gurgle of Death vanished. Harry's ears popped and he grabbed a hold of the heaving ground.
Bellowing, the stag kicked up loose dirt as he bent his crown of antlers towards Harry and charged.
Golden fire flared and spat Harry's spell back into the circle of green shields. It skidded across, throwing up sparks before striking an unlucky fae, her ribcage splitting apart like insect wings.
The twins cast another gout of flame at Harry, forcing him to his feet and into the path of the stag fae's charge. Harry barely drew his sword in time, fumbling both blade and wand.
The tines of the stag's antlers scraped against Harry's flickering shield spell, the usual black of his non-verbal magic now a dull lavender-grey. He hit his knees under the weight of the beast. Melting frost and mud soaked into his jeans as he let the stag fae slash himself against the length of the sword.
Red spattered the ground. Harry panted, hands sweaty around the silk wrappings of the sword's hilt.
The stag gave him a baleful stare. He lowed, that forked crown tipping back under the force of it. Muscles bunching in his thighs, the stag charged across the clearing.
For once, Harry got lucky.
The chisel-tip of Harry sword gouged a line from bone plate to bone plate until it caught on one of the vulnerable grooves between. Two hands-spans worth of steel sank into the stag's chest as the buck bore him to the ground. Heat scorched Harry's face and hands, holes searing into the arms of his coat from the sparking fire coming off the stag's body.
The stag thrashed, human hands struggling to push himself away. Pinned between the stag and drying muck, Harry yanked the sword up until it lodged against a bone plate. Mud flew as the stag's antlers gouged great furrows into the earth around Harry's head. He cringed back, the skin of his face tight and burning. Sharp points scraped stinging lines into his scalp.
But the sword was a weapon made for slashing not stabbing. It shuddered, the middle beginning to bow under the beast's immense heat and weight; the size of the stag fae's antlers keeping its blunt teeth from snapping shut too close to Harry's face even as they both sank further into the muck.
Harry's arms shook. The hilt burned his hand, the silk wrappings beginning to smoke. Twisting, Harry let the beast's weight drive the hilt into the ground even as the blade slid further into its body.
The stag's dark eyes went glassy with pain. The fae grabbed at the hilt. But the blade, red-hot and softened by Summer fire, was bent into an L-shape and lodged tight inside his chest. The beast blinked, convulsed, and went still.
"And so Summer passes into Winter," said Proserpina.
Harry's palms blistered as he shoved the too-hot corpse off him.
The late afternoon sun beat down, sweat drenching his clothes. He climbed to his feet, mouth dry. They'd let him exhaust himself against the stag fae and while he'd been occupied, they'd surrounded him, leaf green shields everywhere he looked.
The dome was shrinking.
Another fae, this one clad in that gleaming bronze-black armour, darted into the clearing. Harry jerked out of the reach of the fae's two-handed swing. The twins made a tandem gesture. Long streams of summer fire snaked out over the clearing, forcing Harry to keep moving. Distracted, he missed the fae circling him again from behind.
The heavy claymore opened him up from hip to shoulder, a deep gash in the muscles of his back. His coat was of wizarding make, but it wasn't armour. Harry's right arm swung useless by his side, adrenaline running so high the pain was a distant thing.
Spinning, Harry slapped aside another spell, this one sizzling against the palm of his left hand. Somehow, he'd dropped his wand. It lay outside the shrinking circle, half-buried in the muck. He reached for it. Nothing. Harry might as well have tried to summon a building.
Damp heat dripped down his back. Around him, the clearing was stained with red. Fire bloomed under his feet.
He stumbled. It felt like one long blink. And then Harry was peering up at the sky, mud seeping into his hair and clothes.
Hands reached for him. They pulled him to his knees, tugging his head back to bare his throat; far enough for the tendons in his neck to pinch and strain.
"Paying old debts are you?" sneered Oleastro. "Here's one that you owe me and mine."
A distant part of him recognized the words he'd said to Strome.
"Why?" Harry growled, eyeballing the Baron's stern form looming behind Oleastro.
"We watched you play on the dragon's island," said the Baron.
"Ximon," said Harry. "The fuck does he have to do with any of this?"
Oleastro smiled. "He's not very fond of you."
"Nobody is," Harry muttered, hoping this wasn't the beginning of a fucking monologue.
"You're a strange one, aren't you? More Morrigan than Sharr, but..." Oleastro sighed. "That's still too much Sharr to let you live."
"I'm going to skull-fuck you in the eye-socket," Harry replied.
"Charming," drawled the Baron.
"And what do you get out of this?" Harry asked the cold blight of magic, who'd stayed distant and watchful through the fight.
Maeve laughed and this time it held the sounds of glaciers calving, of winds whipping across the arctic, the howl of the wolf lean from a long winter. The Winter Lady lounged back in her purloined chair under the shade of the oak and tossed back the rest of her wine glass. She stood, sauntering through the ring of wards, which did absolutely fuck-all in response to her magic.
"Do you even know what my mother did?" Maeve purred, drawing a finger down Harry's face. "Why she would give you something so precious?"
"What, life?" Harry bit out. "I'm sure she regrets giving you that every day."
Maeve's backhand snapped his head sideways.
Harry blinked the fuzz out of his eyes. "Jealousy is a petty emotion," he rasped.
"So mouthy," she replied. "You'd take me out, too, given half a chance."
"For fuck's sake, why?"
"I do so hate competition," she murmured. Maeve leaned down and licked up the side of his face where blood had trickled down his head wound, her tongue as cold as the raw meat he'd choked down not hours before. She hummed as her eyes closed, lashes fluttering in satisfaction. "That, and I look better in a tiara."
Maeve's eyes widened.
His teeth snapped shut on her nose, tearing a hole in the sturdy cartilage of her face. She screamed. Winter ice splashed off Harry's face and chest, for all the harm that did.
Somebody kicked him in the back and Harry let out a breathy wheeze at the flare of pain. The chunk of Maeve's nose fell into the mud. Harry laughed, wheezing at the sight of Maeve crouched over, patting frantically at the ground while blood dripped from the hand clamped over her face.
Cuffs clicked shut around his wrists and pinned his arms behind his back, the chains looping up around his neck. Struggle too much and he'd choke himself to death.
The knowledge didn't help. Trussed-up like a fucking turkey, he strained against the bonds. At the Baron's nod, the green-robed fae ran a glowing finger across Harry's forehead, sleepiness following in its wake. Muzzy-headed, Harry swayed their gasp.
It didn't make any sense. It was almost as if they wanted him alive.
Anonymous hands tugged a hood over his head.
And then, nothing.
Two weeks after he'd seen him in Knockturn, Sirius finally gathered his courage to go looking for Harry.
He wandered through the old château. Sand blowing in from the beach had piled up in the corners again, the lingering greenery from summer's bloom having grown over some of the doorways. The cooling charm had worn off the icebox, everything inside gone warm and foul.
Sirius had no idea why he'd come back. Just a persistent sense of guilt and a feeling that something wasn't right, that everything about Harry's personality said he should have come roaring back through Knockturn at any moment, Aurors be damned.
Old leaves crunched under his boots as he walked down the hall, the same pair Sharr had given him all those weeks ago. Which, again with the guilt. For all his craziness, Sharr had been damned generous.
Just checking in, Sirius told himself. That's all.
The door to the solarium drifted open in the breeze rushing through the château. A sliver of sunlight appeared in the crack and then vanished as the wind changed. Sirius paused, listening for footsteps or breathing or shuffling movement – some sign that the place wasn't as empty as it felt.
He pushed open the door. Dappled sunlight speckled the old marble floor. It was warmer in here than the rest of the house. No wonder Sharr had chosen it; even worn and dingy, the solarium retained a measure of faded beauty.
"Harry?" called Sirius despite himself, looking around the solarium. "Harry!"
Sharr's knapsack was still on the lounge, its contents spilled out around it. A heavy money pouch, a canning jar full of bone ash, another mokeskin bag, a grooming kit, and a small iron-bound chest stinking of ozone that Sirius took care not to touch. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, same as the reliquary around Harry's neck.
And, of all things, a vial of dark, tangled hair. Sirius made a point of not touching that either. Sometimes he wondered if Harry's brain worked sideways to everyone else's.
Books had been upended beside it, the spines cracked, their pages crumpled. Sirius recognized one of them as the tome he'd lent to Lily and again to Sharr.
A small white square peeked out of the front cover. Picking it up, Sirius flipped it over and found himself looking at a very familiar photograph. He'd been the one to take it after all. James and Lily waved up at him, baby Harry proudly clasped in his father's arms.
Sirius tucked the photograph into his shirt pocket, tip-toeing around how appropriative it felt.
Reaching out, Sirius re-stacked the books. One was about mirrors and another was a hand-bound tome on the use of glass pens for increasingly complicated arithmancy equations in enchantments and crafting golems. It was composed in Latin; cramped Portuguese filling the margins. Most likely, the book had been carefully copied from the original Roman scroll.
A pile of ratty muggle clothes sat on the floor. The clothes were damp with mildew and smelled like they'd been sitting there for a while. A faint layer of grit covered the heap from the wind blowing in through the broken windows.
Nobody had been here for a while.
It wasn't like Sharr at all to leave his things behind. Despite his shit table manners, the man was impeccably clean – he had all sorts of special little rituals for folding his clothes and packing his books that screamed 'military-background.' This level of disarray was unusual. Sharr had given up. On some level, Sharr had just given the fuck up. He wasn't even trying anymore.
All of Sharr's treasures were still there. His pictures, his books, his weird dark magic paraphernalia; those strange, creepy little trinkets he carried around like talismans. At least his weapons were gone. It gave some indication that he'd had left of his own accord and made the mess read less as an abduction or worse, as a suicide note.
But Sirius also knew Harry would never leave these things behind for long. Something had gone wrong.
"Fuck fuck fuckity-fuck," Sirius muttered under his breath, feeling a heavy sense of dread and guilt.
Rain dripped down the windowpanes of Gryffindor tower, the late afternoon light shining grey and dim through the storm.
Hermione chewed on her lip as the Aurors' questions hurtled through her head on repeat.
She couldn't tell whether she'd said too much or inferred too little. She was missing something, something very obvious about Harry. It was like one of those magic eye pictures, only she was standing too close to make out the image. The Aurors seemed just as lost as her.
Hermione twisted the quill in her hand, ink drops smearing into the whorls of her fingers. She itched to reach up and finger the too-short ends of her curls again; as if by prodding that wound, she could inure herself to the hurt. She hadn't expected the attack.
She should have. Bletchley's crew didn't hang out with him because they were paragons of virtue. Add in how the unspoken Slytherin code of conduct emphasised vengeance...
She should have known better than to wander alone. She'd forgotten the dangers of being muggleborn – especially one who'd spent the last couple of years defying the rules and expectations set before her. The stakes were getting higher. Snape's vitriol was reaching legendary levels, to say nothing of the upper years who held no fondness for such a little know-it-all. She'd expected school to be hell, but not like this. Her dreams were dissolving before her eyes. All her hard work wouldn't pay off, because that wasn't how things worked in the wizarding world.
Outside of Hogwarts, what waited for her? Not a career, not success, not with her ordinary lineage hanging over her head. She didn't have money, she didn't have the right blood, and some days, it felt like she wasn't the right kind of witch either. High marks didn't measure up to raw skill and talent. Prejudice seemed the only constant, splashed across the front page of the Daily Prophet and waiting in the quiet corridors for her to pass alone.
She wanted to laugh at her eleven year old self who'd been so enchanted when McGonagall had knocked on her door, letter in hand. That romantic dream had come apart so easily. Magic didn't stop people from being fractious, or self serving, or cruel. It just made them more powerful.
Ron sat curled up in the chair opposite hers, his calves hanging over the armrest. He looked lost and not sure why. Like everything hadn't quite sunk in yet. Like the portrait door was going to swing open again and reveal Harry's sheepish reappearance, his fit of temper merely the result of a bad day or a long class with Snape.
The likelihood of that was slimmer and slimmer with each day that passed. And she seemed to be the only one with any idea that Harry wasn't coming back.
"I'm not defending his actions – " said Oliver Wood as he stepped over the lip of the portrait door. The common room wasn't crowded, but thanks to the Hogwarts rumour mill, everyone in the school would soon know the juicy bits.
"As well you shouldn't!" Percy snapped, following along in Wood's wake. "He was irrational and violent, ranting about things that make absolutely no sense at all!"
Heads whirled around to stare the moment Percy's strident voice broke the peace.
Grimacing, Oliver glanced over his shoulder. Despite the grey skies outside, most of Gryffindor house was out enjoying a Hogsmede weekend. Only a handful of upper years stayed behind, and the first and second years were still mired in classes. She and Ron were the odd men out.
"C'mon," said Oliver in a low voice, grasping Percy's elbow and tugging him towards the dormitories. "This isn't the place for this."
"Isn't it?" Percy made a rather violent gesture encompassing the common room. "After all, he certainly didn't find anything wrong with it."
Oliver leaned forward and whispered, "Harry is a third year. You're not – you're Head Boy. They follow your example."
Percy's lips thinned, nostrils flaring. "Like you? Like how you took charge of the situation?"
By now, it didn't matter that the conversation was private. The common room had gone dead silent. A log cracked in the fireplace.
"I didn't do much better, I know," said Oliver. "That wasn't what I was implying."
Percy blew out a heavy breath of air. "I'm sorry, that was a bit out of line."
"Don't be. He blindsided us all," said Oliver.
Percy waved away the statement like he knew it was a battle he wasn't going to win. "No, you're right. I shouldn't have lost my temper." He shook his head. "But it was that lack of respect, how much he didn't care that we'd been so worried..."
"Well, you didn't show him all that much respect either, what with accusing him of lying as soon as he opened his mouth," replied Oliver. "Flint would have handled that better."
Percy's ears went as red as his hair. "Lucky for us all that Flint isn't Head Boy," he muttered.
Oliver snorted. "There'd be rioting every evening if he didn't get his pudding."
Percy let out a surprised laugh. Their argument appeared to be over. The attention waned, murmuring and the scratch of quills on parchment resuming through the common room.
Hermione was close enough, though, to overhear the rest of the conversation.
Oliver crossed his arms and spoke in a lower tone than before. "I know Harry was a little shit that night – I'd never make excuses for him. But between Black and the dementors, I think the stress finally got to him. He was scared, angry and – " Oliver gave a shrug that might have passed for nonchalant if it hadn't been for the sleepless circles under his eyes. "He lashed out. I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner, really."
"Sometimes I have a hard time remembering he's only thirteen," said Percy.
Oliver shrugged again. "We all do."
"I can't help but wonder though...what if somebody else had gotten hurt?" Percy replied. "What if it had been a younger student and not a sixth year Slytherin with an entire arsenal of defensive spells?"
Oliver nodded as if conceding the point. "Then I imagine we'd be having a very different argument."
"Mum's worried, you know. She really took to him."
"Another Weasley?" Oliver mocked. "She doesn't have enough little Gryffindors to worry about?"
The corner of Percy's mouth twitched into an almost smile. "For her sake, I'm glad he's gone. I'm glad he left before he could truly break her heart."
Hermione was out the door to the common room before she even realized she was on her feet and moving. Some things she wasn't ready to hear out loud. Thinking it in the privacy of her mind was hard enough.
Her night-time wanderings around Hogwarts were the only thing keeping her sane. It certainly wasn't sleep. Harry's strange laugh with its broken glass vocals waited in her dreams; human-shaped shadows creeping in the corners of her vision, but vanishing when she looked at them head-on.
Hermione shivered and tugged her robes closer as she slipped through the halls.
Harry leaving threw her off-kilter. It hadn't become old news yet, whispers springing up whenever she or Ron passed in the corridors. As if she knew anything about why Harry left. They'd already been questioned extensively by the Aurors.
How did he do this? Why would he attack another student? Why would he run? Did he tell you he was leaving?
She hadn't known Harry held a grudge against Bletchley, though in hindsight it wasn't very surprising. And now it looked as if the entire fight had been in retaliation for a war that had begun before they were even born. Or at least that's what the Aurors seemed to believe. It was as likely as anything else.
Hermione hated it all the same. It wasn't just wrong, it was too simple.
The wizarding world gorged itself on its own prejudices, then had the gall to wonder why it bred so many dark wizards, so many sociopathic megalomaniacs ready to manipulate every ingrained failing and ill considered conceit for their own ends. It created too many outsiders in a culture that did not tolerate differences.
"You must be born into this family in order to be considered worthy of recognition. You must tow this party line in order to move ahead in life. You must practice this ridiculous xenophobic tradition in order to protect yourself from other practitioners of the same ridiculous xenophobic tradition," she muttered to herself, probably sounding quite mad in the process.
She'd wandered outside in her musings. The rain was tapering off, now a chill mist that reminded her of the dementors. Fog shrouded the dark edge of the Forbidden Forest. Flicking her wand, she dried off a spot on the steps and sat.
She supposed the majority of her frustration sprouted from the assumption that having magic automatically made her a member of magical society. It didn't, of course. It made her a second class citizen of the wizarding world in a way she would never have been in the muggle world. It was such an insidious thing too, this regard of muggles and muggleborns as lesser. It was acceptable. She'd been prepared for the equivalent of gender bias, not bigots ready lynch her – light her on fire – for breathing their air.
Hermione went to scrub her face with her hands before remembering the shiny pink burn scars. She hadn't felt so isolated since her first days at Hogwarts.
Footsteps sounded behind her, worn shoes scuffing on the stone.
Ron crossed the short courtyard and sat on the steps beside her, nudging her with his shoulder. "All right?" he asked around the bright green candy pop in his mouth.
She cracked a smile and nodded, turning back to the grey dusk falling over the Forbidden Forest.
"I hope he knows what he's doing," she said finally.
Ron shifted his lollipop to the opposite cheek. "S' Harry," he replied. "I've never seen him not land on his feet."
Harry jerked awake.
Light beat down upon him, a searing red even through his eyelids. Eyes stinging, Harry rolled onto his belly and peered around the room. Nothing. A few feet away, all detail was swallowed up by the intense brightness.
The wound across his back had been sealed shut, the edges of the scabs tugging every time he moved. It wasn't healed, not fully at least. Too much exertion and he'd tear it open again.
It didn't matter, because he was weak as a fucking kitten.
They'd bolted him to the floor by a short chain attached to a rough metal collar around his neck. It bit into his skin each time he turned his head. Heavy manacles encircled his wrists, the chains attached to the collar just short enough to be uncomfortable, his full reach hemmed in. Crawling over to run his fingers along the floor led him in a wide arc, too wide for the range of the collar's chain to stretch.
It was a rune circle with unfamiliar characters. The marks grew hot as he touched them and he got the impression they would burn if he lingered too long.
The door to his cage opened. The manacles stuck fast to the floor as if magnetized and no amount of tugging would budge them.
Three more of those strange fae in green robes slipped into the room, like silent, rune-bedecked ghosts. Tree branches and other leaf motifs decorated their garments, their hoods deep, swaddling any distinguishing features from view. Might as well be bits of animated cloth for all Harry could tell.
The smallest tree-priest raised a hand, the sleeve falling back. Their skin was a weathered nut-brown and covered in whorls and spirals the colour of polished teak. One of their attending acolytes, their robes less ornate, handed them a thin linen cloth and bowl. It brimmed with something muddy and dark, a strange gold film rippling across the liquid.
Harry recoiled from the dish. "Wha – "
"Don't speak," the tree priest rasped, voice creaky and genderless, warm breath hitting Harry's face. The smell of chewing tobacco clung to their robes. "It will only make it worse."
The head tree-priest dipped their fingers in the bowl and smeared them across Harry's eyes, temple-to-temple, in a sticky streak. They drew a symbol over his brow, too. It seemed innocuous until it heated up, sparking a sharp, piercing headache. From the folds of their robes the tree priest produced a small brush, painting more of the substance around Harry's throat in soft, tickling strokes above the metal collar.
He would bet serious money it matched the runes scrawled on the floor.
The tree-priest stepped back, making a gesture with the hand still covered in sticky paste. A haze of magic suffused Harry's vision. Summer's magic smelled warm. Not warm like green growing things, but warm like bog stink; like rotting vegetation and stagnant water.
Harry woke up on the floor again.
The acolytes pulled him to his feet, wobbling like a newborn colt. An extra set of cuffs now looped around his ankles, the length of chain barely long enough for him to take short, hobbling steps. A bronze knife gleamed in the light. Before Harry could protest, the acolyte had sliced through everything: clothes, empty weapons holsters, and boots, leaving the puddled shreds of his life around him.
Objectively he knew this was an ages-old torture technique. Strip the victim of his convictions, of his sense of self, of even the flimsy safety offered by clothes. The point of torture was rarely to extract information from the victim – it was to satisfy sadism, to maim, to dehumanise. People would say anything to make the pain stop. Knowing that didn't make it any easier to accept what was going to happen. If anything, it made the anticipation worse.
Past the door lay a long hall, archways inset into the walls. A maze of corridors greeted him as they shuffled him along, a labyrinth designed to keep prisoners from escaping. Gleaming runes were etched into every stone. They winked in the light as he passed.
The tree priests led him to a new room, this one plain stone, the floors sloped in towards the middle to carry blood and other bodily waste to the drain. Over the drain sat a chair, old oak beaten together with heavy nails. They left him there, chains looped through rings at the base of the chair. Up close he could see more of those tiny green runes shifting over the surface of the metal.
No wand, no weapons, no magic. Sweat dripped down Harry's skin, his heart rate climbing.
The door swung open.
Harry got his first good look at the Baron without armour. He was a solid brick of a man in his early sixties, though Harry was sure that was an affectation. The Baron was old. All of the Fae like him were old. A salt and pepper beard matched the dignified greying of his hair. His skin was sun-weathered and creased at the corners of his eyes, dark brown hair combed away from his face and secured in a low tail. He'd shed his ornate armour for a linen shirt, breeches, and boots – the spitting image of ren-faire casual.
Harry watched the thick muscle of the Baron's forearms flex as he dragged a chair into the room and dropped it into place in front of the circle.
The paste across Harry's eyes burned as he met the Baron's stare. He flinched, eyes clenched shut.
"You'll find your usual tricks taken well into account," rumbled the Baron. "Mind magics of any sort will cause you significant amounts of pain. If you persist in using them, the druids shall burn your eyes from your skull."
Harry blinked, tear ducts streaming. "If Summer has an axe to grind, why not just kill me?" he asked.
"I cannot. Due to the Winter Queen's protection," said the Baron. "Your death would be a direct act of war and I have no intention of provoking her wrath."
"What do you think is going to happen when you're done pulling off my fingernails?" Harry bit out.
Phrixus hummed an agreement, fabric rustling as he dipped his head in a nod. "I have made a target of myself, yes. But Summer is very interested in Winter's gambit."
That begged the question: how disposable did Mab consider him? He certainly wasn't expecting to be rescued by a fairy queen, let alone one he was already indebted to.
"Gambit, gamble," Harry muttered. "I keep hearing that. What does it mean?"
"Why would Mab resurrect a Sharr? Why you? Why not one of her loyal retinue of ages past?" The Baron paused and peered at him. "It's said that you lived amongst the Winter Court when you were only a babe swaddled in your mother's arms. That when your mother offered her life for your own, the Winter Queen held you to her breast and nurtured you."
"That's...a bit farcical, I think," Harry finally replied. "Mab's not known for her maternal instincts."
"Perhaps," said the Baron. "Though, it does not matter. We will have the truth of you, one way or another."
Harry snorted. "You're not the first to think pain and suffering will give you answers. The joke is on you this time – I don't have any answers." Harry smiled. "I never do."
"I truly believe you think you know nothing of worth to me," said the Baron. "Mayhap, you might even be right. But it is as my Queen demands and I must abide by her rule."
He stood and left.
The fae who took his place had the height of a troll and the face of a potato. His monstrous arms flexed as he tightened the straps of the heavy leather apron behind his back. Dried bloodstains marred its surface. Reaching into his pocket, the interrogator pulled out the largest set of brass knuckles Harry had ever seen.
"Old school," Harry muttered. "Great."
Even in the dreaming, he hurts. Unconsciousness spares him less than it should.
A fat man crouches near his head. Hairy, sewer-stained flab bulges at the seams of his robes. It's the Butcher, the Devil himself, come to visit Harry at the hour of his desperation and need.
"Ah, kid, you fucked up again.Not your fault, though," says Pryce. "Not this time, at least."
"At least?" Harry gasps, feeling like his bones are trying to shiver off his flesh.
Pryce smiles. Black sludge drips down his chin. "Sometimes, shit just happens."