A one-shot set in the universe of my one-shot, Whispers. You may wish to read that or this won't make much sense. The story is un-betaed.
Rain distorts the shadows in a world of hidden things, of sodden, rust-stained mystery and muck flowing into gutters. Fish guts and piss, remnants of curses, centuries-old cantrips, bloody muo shu woven into the silken tapestry of reality.
Magical Shanghai is squalor found in the uglier crevices of its mundane cousin, dreary darkness mortaring filth.
Harry walks slowly through the alley, his steps splashing water onto rounded cobbles. The collars of his gray, woolen coat draw up about his neck. Sodden, salt-and-pepper hair sticks to a scarred forehead, droplets trickling down a drawn, severe face, one that's seen its share of pain.
A whisper of unseen magic and a gnarled wand slides into his hand.
The Three Brothers' gifts are not all of Death's artifacts, not by any means. The entity had millennia to curse souls and dispense tokens among the wicked. Harry had strove to recover what he could. Perhaps the only things on this world that could yet harm him.
One in particular had beckoned. Drawing him here, to these slums.
She will not accept you.
I have to try.
A memory of a night together. A mysterious woman, gone the next morning, a faint hint of lilac and cinnamon lingering.
Such a creature should not own your heart.
We're not speaking of this now.
A chittering behind. Another to the side. One above. Several somethings lurk at the edge of his senses, following since his arrival. He senses they are emboldened now.
Let's fuck something up instead.
As if by an unseen signal, the servants of the Lady Wu descend upon him, a garrote of conjured vermin, closing, squeezing.
He turns toward the throng, violet light gathering about the end of his wand.
There's another here.
A shriek to the left, an upward stroke of the Deathstick, a spiraling curse blazes in the dark, illuminating the alleyway in malevolent violence, spellflashes glinting off black-irised eyes. A rush of epinephrine, bloodlust and bloodletting. Death's promise, delivered.
Harry's magic comes alive.
Oh, it's fucking on now.
A claw slashes at the back of his head. He turns, ducking beneath, trusting centuries-old instincts forged in the crucibles of combat, instincts that are his to draw upon as the Elder Wand's master. A spinning backhand to the beast with his left fist, the one bearing Cadmus's stone, and the construct shatters with a pained squeal, the pattering sound of undoing.
A blackened, ghoulish thing descends rapidly, claws splayed, forked tail whipping. It's massive, several times Harry's size. He thrusts upward with his wand and a rumbling wave of concussive force tears through chitinous torso and limbs. He rolls to avoid falling ichor.
Two more converge, one on either side.
Where is the last?
A twist and he ducks beneath the faster, a lanky beast that moves in blurs. A claw catches the edge of his coat, yanking, twisting him into the path of the other's thrust. Talon rip into the muscles of his thigh. He falls hard to his knee and slashes outward with his wand arm, blue lightning crashing into the carapace of the first. An explosion of gore.
Then he's struck from behind, shoulder pierced, and he pitches forward, a great mass settling on his back. Something in his ribcage gives.
His magic quivers. Fury incarnate. His mind becomes placid.
Swish and flick, Flitwick, swish and flick. An old half-Goblin's squeaky voice.
The beast hurtles into the air, seized by invisible cords of magic, and Harry rolls onto his back, aiming upward.
Thrust and slash, somewhat off Hogwart's curriculum.
Ravenous Fiendfyre erupts from his wand and the alleyway is a fireball of ash and screaming misery. A madman's eyes flash crimson and the greater part of him is content as minds of wand and master are as one.
He feels his blood flowing freely as cursed wounds from the nether plane's ilk reopen faster than his rituals can knit.
Where is the last?
To the right.
He turns to the creeping shadow, lurking at the edge of blackness. His senses scream out. It gathers for an attack.
A titanic roar. A magical pulse explodes outward from the dark corner of the alley, pulverizing stones, shattering glass, a detonation front of debris and detritus. A swath of looming death approaches.
And it misses Harry.
He steps from behind his Cloak, Death's finest gift, and faces a beast of fire and darkness.
Come on, ugly.
It bounds twice toward him and pounces, a hissing mass of shadow and fury.
Harry spins out of its way, a Dumbledorean evasion, and makes a hooking motion with his wand.
A startled, stoop-shouldered wizard in a dark cloak appears suddenly, pulled from his hiding place and into the beast's path. A cracking of crushed limbs between a tonne of shadow incarnate.
The creature dissolves into mist.
Harry approaches the prone wizard. The man's wand and hand snap beneath his boot.
An elderly Chinese man chokes off a scream. He grasps at something beneath his robes with his other hand.
The arm lies still, severed at the elbow, the wound blackened. A second wand rolls over his torso and splashes in the muck between the cobblestones.
Prone, the man wrenches his eyes shut before Harry's Legillimancy can manage a foothold.
This just won't do. Please tell me where I might find Madam Wu. Comply and I'll grant you the courtesy of a quick death.
The man speaks, his voice heavily accented.
No secrets while I live.
Pity, I did say please. Am I too polite?
You are. Kill him.
A twirling motion. Floating daggers appear, twisting like Vernon's beloved drills, descending into flesh.
A tortured breath, a gurgling sigh, blood seeping into rainwater.
Dizzy with blood loss, Harry attends to his wounds. The fractured rib heals quickly, though the cursed puncture wounds resist. The Elder Wand was never much for preserving life.
Three turns of a black stone and an apparition appears, an elderly Chinese, arm missing, body pierced by jagged wounds. The spirit stares hatefully at the corpse, then at Harry.
I would have you tell me where I might find Madam Wu. Please note that I am now no longer saying please.
Left no choice, the summoned spirit begins to speak.
I did not expect you to survive.
Madam Wu's English is soft, bearing hints of a milk tongue discarded an age ago, a dialect no longer spoken save by the sleepless ghosts of the Tang Dynasty. A wry smile on her lips.
Surely you did, Madam. Let us not play games.
As you wish, dearest.
As in their last meeting, the woman is elegance and charm, her age, like his own, difficult to place. Dressed traditionally in silks and jeweled brocades, she would be at place as a member of a Chinese court.
She steps forward, deliberately, demurely, and reclines upon a divan.
Exercise care. There is ancient power here.
Don't I know it.
She glances a moment at long, darkly painted nails.
If I might ask, Harry Potter, what has become my servant?
I am here, am I not?
A calculating pause. I suppose it was too much to expect an uncouth, white devil to spare him.
He raises an eyebrow.
A white devil that you bedded.
A mistake, I assure you.
I wasn't the one who sent assassins after the other.
No, though you did trespass in my territory—
I come and go. It's a thing I do.
A convenient lie. And here, Mister Potter, I thought we were not playing games.
It is within my power to return him to you if you wish. His uses would be limited, though perhaps you're lacking for company in your dotage?
Harry deflects a subtle Legillimancy thrust and ripostes with his own. She leans back, hands on divan, and arches her back. He blinks, a skip in time, and she's before him, standing, a being of deadly sexuality.
Preternatural grace, an uncoiling cobra.
She places her hand over his heart and purrs.
Oh, and am I so old, Harry Potter?
Old as dirt, Madam Wu, or should I say, Empress.
The briefest of pauses.
Intriguing. However did you come to that conclusion?
There's an odd timbre to her voice, as if a sort of subtle charm were woven into it. Harry steps forward, drawing her close, a hand on the small of her back. Her hair smells of lilacs and cinnamon. Her breath is hot on his neck. He feels lightheaded, something tugging on his soul, baring once guarded thoughts.
Words come easily.
When I first sought the final Zhuying Ji, the vermillion death poem, I sought to summon the Empress's spirit. Even standing in her tomb at Quanling, where the walls between life and death would be weakest, I was unsuccessful. After that, it wasn't hard to piece things together. Especially after…
The night we shared?
Stop! Why are you telling her this?
She's a kindred spirit. There are so few.
She whispers into the crook of his neck.
And what did you conclude young one?
That you fashioned a Horcrux, or something like it, from the scroll. It's the only thing I know that would explain your unique facility with necromancy, as well as the attraction we feel for one another—don't deny it—one that delves deeper, a connection more profound than mere physical attraction. A bond of souls, of sorts.
An electric tension. Magic uncoils.
Strike now. Destroy.
Clouded mind. Aggression dissipates, opium smoke on a breeze.
So perceptive for one so young. And yes, the attraction is mutual. So where does this leave us, Wizard?
She is touching him now, nuzzling his neck. A hand remains over his heart, the other trailing downward, fingertips tracing circles on his abdomen. He closes his eyes, placing a soft kiss upon her brow.
At an impasse. We're immortals, lonely, desperate for the company of an equal, yet our natures leave us in opposition. It's why you left.
What makes you think I would seek an equal, Mister Potter, much less see you as one?
You did once.
A trifle. I was a ruler of the greatest Empire on Earth. Even now, the world trembles at the mere mention of my power. What could one such as you possibly offer?
That which only I can grant. When you made your anchor, you tapped magic that was never yours to command, but mine. It changed you, corrupted you. Instead of this strained existence—
And if I were to seize this power for myself?
You cannot. I am Death's chosen, its master. This is beyond you.
A bitter laugh.
You think so highly of yourself.
And when the time comes, should you choose, I could even help you pass on.
She pushes them apart, her voice brittle.
And why should I ever wish for that?
I think we both know the answer to that.
And if I were to 'pass on,' as you say, where would that leave you?
Alone again, but I would not be, not for awhile at least. That might be enough, might not. I'm willing to take the chance.
She turns away.
You are so hopelessly naïve, Harry. Death fears me. It is no more a master than you. And I believe that if one of us should be asked to step aside, it should be the upstart, not the Empress!
A hand gesture and her touch turns to searing pain, a rending, as if something vital were being ripped from his soul. Torturous seconds pass. Numb fingers grasp at a wand that feels increasingly distant, inert, the whispers in his head becoming more urgent, yet more distant.
And for the first time since the day Hogwarts fell, they fall silent, replaced by a haunting death poem, told in a lilting tongue Harry does not speak, yet somehow knows.
A guttering spell dies on the end of his wand.
Coughing. A spray of blood. He falls to hands and knees, breaths coming in gasps.
His adversary's eyes brim with triumph. And tears.
It doesn't end here.
A swish of fabric in the corner of the chamber. A doppelganger steps from beneath a cloak, green eyes fierce with pain that mirrors his own.
A goddess falls, lifeless, and a part of him perishes with her. He stares for a long time, then away.
A hand falls on his shoulder. His own, yet not.
I'm so sorry.
As am I.
He nods. A trembling hand grasps at something about his neck, an hourglass charm. Donning the cloak, he turns the knob twice and vanishes.
A London flat, cold. Melancholy rain in a colorless world.
He holds the ancient scroll in his hands, the imprint of her soul beneath his fingers, a profound heartache in his chest.
Together, they might be enough.
He turns the black stone over three times and she is with him on the sofa, her legs crossed across his lap.
A wry smile on her lips.
Your command, Master?
A desperate kiss, flesh to true flesh, not the mockery of life the stone had granted Cadmus.
She gasps at the contact, and relaxes into his touch.
I will never command you, my dearest.