BY THE DIVINING LIGHT
Summary:Follow Harry and Dumbledore as they descend into the depths of Old Magic seeking power and redemption in equal measure. En route they encounter ancient enchantments, a heliopath and a darkness that could consume the world.
A/N: This is my first and only AN, so pay attention. This is highly AU, though less AU than Skitterleap, so if you hated that, you might well like this. This encompasses everything that The Skitterleap isn't. Slow, character driven and less focused on the action. Let me pre-face this by saying that there's a whole bunch of changes from canon, they're not all apparent immediately and they're not always explained immediately. They are all explained eventually however. Lastly, this entire novelette works as an extended prologue to Conlaodh's Song, which can be found in my profile.
Chapter One: Fire and Blood
Emperor, your sword won't help you now
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I've taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance
They say that all men are equal in the eyes of death. That it topples the mightiest King and the lowliest serf with the same enthusiasm. Death cannot be bought, cannot be reasoned with, cannot be frightened, cannot be escaped. They say that no matter how far you run, how hard you try; death will find you and claim you. Well, 'they' may say that, but I intend to be the one to prove it.
A circle of salt trapped them within; the spirits beyond the circle howled their frustrations to the sliver of moonlight high above, the very floor shaking with their rage. Calmly, ignoring the storm, he drew the knife down, opening the vein and allowing blood to spill onto the floor in a cascade to the iron below. The fluid was as black as oil in the pale light, the slightest reflection from the candle light marking its progress as it slid through the rivulets below, forming a circle within a circle. Dumbledore stepped forward out of the darkness and examined the goat in its final moments of life. It kicked weakly twice and was still, a terrible beginning to a terrible adventure.
He stroked his beard contemplatively and walked in a small circle around the iron trapdoor, examining the blood's progress through the grooves. After a moment of deliberation he beckoned his companion forward and Harry Potter, still wiping blood from the knife in his hand upon a pure white cloth, stepped forward into the flickering light cast by the single candle.
The boy's eyes glittered as he stared down at the blood beneath his feet, Dumbledore couldn't help but feel a slight pang of sadness as he looked into a face far older than his time. Harry's face was covered in tiny pocks and scars; his mouth twisted into something horrific by a vast scar that ran from his cheek to chin. Dumbledore found himself marvelling how much alike Harry and James were by appearance, despite the fact that he'd cut the unruly hair painfully short, they even had the same hazel eyes, something which, combined with his awkward silence, seemed to make the boy appear persistently introspective and thoughtful.
They both felt the blood circle close around them, the arcane magic sealing them within. Their salt circle gave way and the spirits rushed forward in excitement, almost salivating in expectation, but the blood magic kept them at bay. They howled again.
"Wand away Harry," said Dumbledore absently. Harry had already done so. "Here we leave the realm of logic, reason and certainty and enter the Old World. Our magic will do little good for us in the plane below."
The blood now seeped into a triangle at the centre of the circle and then into a line that broke both the circle and the triangle in half. Dumbledore swallowed hard and then looked into the eyes of Harry Potter, his fifteen year old protégé.
"You have your equipment?" Harry nodded silently. "In that case, let us progress."
He reached down to the blood below him and carefully immersed the tip of his index finger in the warm crimson liquid. Slowly he withdrew it and allowed seven drops of blood to fall to the iron. As each drop fell, the shaking of the floor grew progressively intense, until the seventh drop fell and the entire iron plate they stood upon shifted down an inch, allowing a bright blue light to escape, illuminating the entire cavern.
For the first time since descending, they could see the far walls of stone and the impaled, shredded corpses that were pinned there by vast spears of bone. Flesh preserved by the ancient, dirty magic that lingered in the cave, their faces were twisted into expressions of abject horror, their limbs stiff in rigour, held out to protect them from their killers.
Dumbledore's lips tightened into something akin to disgust. He reached down and gently nudged the iron plate below them, causing it to slide downward, supporting their weight as they descended through a hole carved through solid stone. The spirits chased them down; hissing, spiting and screaming as they did.
Harry felt the magic building in his very body and swallowed harshly. There was something desperately foreign about this magic, not particularly dark, but invasive nonetheless. As it twisted and seeped inside him, he couldn't help but feel like he'd never be clean again. The rock around them became jet black without warning. Little streams and cracks of molten rock shone through the stone, penetrating the darkness with a veracious glow, as though the earth itself wished to swallow them whole.
Abruptly the spirits stopped racing down after them, as though they had reached a point at which they would go no further, at almost exactly the same moment the disc they rode began to spin. So they travelled the last leg in silence, back to back, as the rock around them spun faster and faster. The air around them began to rush past them as they plummeted, Dumbledore's long hair and beard fluttering alongside Harry's loose robes.
The magic continued to creep through their skin, their very souls saturated with unfamiliar energy that made Harry want to break down in tears and tear his being to shreds. Suddenly they emerged into an open cavern with dizzying speed and it was all they could do to not be thrown from the platform by the forces now exerted on them. Harry reached instinctively for his wand before remembering his headmaster's warning, so instead he pulled a cotton thread from deep within his pocket.
The thread was nothing more than a black strand of fibre, with three knots at one end but Harry clung to it as though it was a lifeline. He gently tied a knot that lined up with the others, four neat knots in a row and suddenly the air that buffeted him subsided, the forces that threatened to drag him from the disc no longer had quite as much power and the disc began to slow. Dumbledore nodded his satisfaction and stepped to the edge of the disc; Harry followed and stood beside him.
The disc lost all momentum and floated steadily to the ground, touching down with a hiss as the consecrated iron bit into the magic saturated sand below. Harry stepped forward off the plate, but Dumbledore's hand snaked out and grasped him around the lower arm, holding him still. For a moment, all was still. Dumbledore allowed a shaky breath to escape his lips and he too stepped off the plate, which flew skywards, with the air of a bird escaping a cage.
"Where do we go from here, sir?" asked Harry, adjusting his twisted robes around his thin frame.
"The only route still available to us," replied Dumbledore, with some flicker of his usual witty poise, the sparkle in his eye returning, if only a moment before falling back to a grim gaze. "Forward, I think."
Dumbledore lifted his arm before him and conjured bright green flames in the palm of his hand. It gave everything an intense green glow that reminded Harry of the killing curse. Cautiously, the two paced forward, each step carefully deliberated. Because Dumbledore's arcane fire only permeated the dark for ten feet around them before being swallowed hungrily by the dark, it was impossible for them to know how much further they were to walk, or even if they were travelling in the correct direction.
They'd walked perhaps fifty paces when a breeze whipped up around them. Harry stopped deadly still and strained his ears to listen. Caught in the wind were the whispers of some ancient, long dead language, it swept around them like an airborne poison. Harry took a step backwards, but Dumbledore stopped him with a raised hand.
"It is vital, Harry, that you stay with me. Do not move a muscle," he said quietly, trying to prevent his words from being captured by the primeval magic.
Then, from nowhere, a small orange light sprang to life and shivered gently. It took Harry a moment to identify it as a flame, as soon as he did; a second light sprang to life, immediately followed by a third. Dumbledore turned his head to Harry, his eyes alight with a tinge of fear that crushed Harry's own spirits.
"Occlumency, Harry, do not feed it with your thought and imagination!" he cried against the wind, which was quickly building up into a gale and roared around them, the whispering echoing all around them through the cavern.
Harry immediately closed his mind to the intrusion he now recognised. The snares that had infiltrated his consciousness hissed as he forced them out, but it became apparent all too quickly that their action had not been nearly quick enough. They were now facing a wall of hundreds of flames that floated ten feet out of reach. Then as one, the flames began to move, circling the pair anti-clockwise, picking up pace as they moved, accelerating until they were a blur.
Dumbledore dropped to one knee and with a finger still tainted slightly with blood, drew a square in the sand under their feet. Harry stepped into it instantly, looking worried. Together they drew a cross through the box, splitting the square into four further squares, then drew a circle around the square. Almost instantly after they completed the crude mandala the fire swept inward toward them. Dumbledore and Harry turned, back to back once more, one foot in each square. Dumbledore began to whisper a brief mantra under his breath.
"Om mani padme hum," whispered Dumbledore, his eyes closed and his fingers steepled.
The fire hit the crude protective barrier with the sound like a thunderclap which rocked the entire cavern. The sand beneath their feet shifted slightly, blurring the protective shape in the ground and Harry hastened to repair it, before it could be shook loose all together. Dumbledore persisted with his chant as his obscure magic fought to repel the monstrous evil that assaulted them.
After several moments of intense struggle, one which Harry was not all together certain Dumbledore could win, the fire retreated, coalescing into one central location becoming a vast burning creature. It stood at twenty feet tall on human legs with cloven feet which met, at the stomach, the upper-chest and head of the most monstrous looking bear Harry had ever laid eyes upon. He recognised it at once; a heliopath. It reached into the air with a monstrous paw of fire ready to bring it down and swat the existence out of the pair of wizards, but Harry, quicker than he had ever moved in his life, drew the thread from his pocket and with trembling fingers tied a knot in the end, just as the heliopath swung its monstrous arm down at them.
The claws stopped with a crack twelve inches above Dumbledore's tall frame. Sweat was beginning to trickle down the elderly wizard's face as he continued his chant. The fire spirit struggled for a moment against the bind that Harry had placed upon it then threw its head back and roared a primeval roar so malicious and vicious that it rent Harry to his very core, physically staggering him. He felt a compulsion to flee in terror, to climb the walls of the cavern and be free from such a vile, malevolent creature.
He took a deep breath to steady himself however, knowing that if he broke the circle he'd be dead before he'd walked ten paces. Slowly and gingerly he tied the thread in a slightly more complex knot, twisting the thread gently so as not to break the binds already placed upon it; this magic was old and powerful but it was only as strong as the thread Harry held in his hands. As he began to tighten the knot the creature began to scream again and Harry pulled the knot tightly closed, ridding the creature of its ability to screech.
Harry thought for a moment, trying to think of how best to deal with this nether creature, trying to remember the lessons that Dumbledore had drilled into him for the last year, it wasn't as easy when confronted with the beast in question. He felt the headmaster begin to shake from effort and Harry realised he'd have to take action before the circle broke and the fire spirit obliterated them where they stood.
Slowly and deliberately, he raised his eyes to meet that of the heliopath. Though the physical form of the spirit scorched the air around it with its nether-fire, its eyes were cold, soulless and intimidating sentient. As Harry stared, the demon stared back, devouring him with his eyes. Slowly and cautiously Harry allowed the probing tendrils entry to his mind and softly they slipped into his consciousness. Had Harry not been so aware of his own mind, he would never have noticed as the alien presence brushed through his mind with excruciating gentleness, with fingers of consciousness that slipped through his thoughts with what could have been described as tenderness.
Harry allowed a fraction of a second to steel himself before he struck out with all he could at the foreign presence in his mind. The tendrils recoiled and Harry felt, rather than heard the roar of pain that the creature gave. It instantly and instinctively fought back, gone were the gentle probes and instead the fire spirit threw an image to the forefront of Harry's brain.
"Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!"
"Move aside you stupid girl!"
"Just kill her Snape!"
"Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead-"
"Get out of the way Severus!"
Harry watched transfixed as Bellatrix Black threw Snape aside, as she raised her wand to kill his mother. For a moment his will collapsed, he felt the spirit's malevolent glee as he succumbed to its trap, but he didn't care, all he wanted was to see his mother in her final few seconds. Just as he was about to lose himself to the heliopath, Dumbledore snaked his arm backwards and seized Harry by the wrist. This sudden grounding in the present, in the reality of the situation gave Harry the sudden spur of willpower he need to throw the memory aside and he struck out at the fire spirit's unprotected mind once more.
Once again it roared in pain and used a second, stronger image to captivate Harry, trying to force him to release the binds he'd inflicted.
Neville was standing feet away from the Triwizard Cup, which stood gleaming behind him.
"Take it, then," Harry panted, the sphinx claws had torn right through his stomach, blood was soaking his clothes, despite his best efforts to stem the bleeding. "Go on, take it, you're there."
"You take it, you helped me every step of the way," replied Neville petulantly. "I'd have died against the dragons if it weren't for you."
"That's not how it works," coughed Harry and rose unsteadily, one arm clamped to his stomach, the other holding fast on the hedge to stop himself from tipping over. "You beat me Neville. Take the cup and let's get out of here."
Neville looked for a moment as though Harry had convinced him, he turned to the cup and stared at it longingly, Harry knew that this is what Neville had been waiting for his entire life. He reached out a hand cautiously and then stopped and turned to Harry again.
"Both of us," he said, looking suddenly resolute. "If we both tie for it, it's still a Hogwarts victory, we can split the fame and glory."
Harry considered this for a moment and then nodded and smiled. He stepped forward and reached out at the same time Neville did, as their hands clasped around the handles, the unmistakeable feeling of a portkey jerked around his navel. He had only a moment to look into Neville's terrified face, eyes wide, lightning-bolt scar red with irritation-
"NO!" roared Harry and flung the memory aside, once again he struck out into the depths of the heliopath's mind and once again, it used the only weapon it had against him.
"Lily, it's them! Take Harry and run, I'll hold them off!" shouted James Potter and rushed forward, wandless, to prevent the Death Eater's entry to their house. The first Death Eater casually raised his wand and cursed James Potter, whose eyes bulged from their sockets and burst messily, a second curse had him collapse to the floor and cough out his lungs, a third and final split his stomach open and eviscerated him, spreading his intestines across the room like a garish Christmas decoration. The lead Death Eater removed his mask and the pale, sallow face of Severus Snape leant in close to watch his most hated enemy suffer the final seconds of his-
"LIAR!" screamed Harry, his voice angry and hard and he found himself once more returned to reality. He felt Dumbledore fading behind him, but now Harry had his leverage, he'd all but won the confrontation. "Liar," he repeated quietly, still staring the fire spirit in the eyes, he could have sworn he saw it flinch slightly. "That's not what happened, that's not a memory."
The demon rose backwards and away from Harry, but a slight twist of the thread brought it crashing to its knees, roaring in pain. Harry locked eyes with the creature again. The lie had brought him insight to the creature's imagination, to its sentience and mind and Harry followed these scant threads of information all the way back to the creature's core. He took a deep breath and gazed into the eyes of the beast; he smirked viciously and buried his way into its mind. Taking no chances, Harry brutalised everything he found, tearing cruelly through everything sentient until he found what he was looking for.
He released the heliopath from his thrall and smirked even wider.
"Hello Conlaodh," said Harry, his eyes alight with victory.
Conlaodh reacted instantly and instinctively. The old magics lend the name a terrible power to the wielder and the fire spirit exploded into a thousand tiny flames and hurled itself against Dumbledore's protective enchantment in fury. Harry watched for a moment, as if bemused and then spat bitterly on the ground.
"Stop that Conlaodh," he said, simply and softly. The heliopath stopped at once, Harry could feel the raw hatred emanating from it. Harry twisted his entire thread into a knot and spoke again. "By your name and your essence, Conlaodh, I bind you. By your name and your essence, I bind you twice. Conlaodh, by your name and essence I bind you thrice. May you be bound until the knots of this thread come undone by mortal hand."
With that, Harry tied the thread tightly together and the fire spirit vanished. Behind him, Harry felt Dumbledore sag to the ground, the effort of keeping the shield together finally over coming him. Taking care not to damage the thread, Harry turned and gave his mentor a worried look but Dumbledore smiled happily back up at him.
"That was excellent Harry," he said proudly and his eyes twinkled once more. "Though in future, if you would be so kind, expend less energy shouting and more binding the spirit."
Harry blushed slightly and Dumbledore patted his arm fondly and moved to sit in the dust, his arms and legs folded, allowing his mind to resume its normal function. Harry slipped his free hand inside his pocket and removed a curious artefact of his own design.
It was a cube, divided into smaller cubes by two grooves that ran around the box, the pattern forming a three dimensional earth square. Two precise twists of the box opened it and Harry gingerly placed the bound Heliopath within it. He closed it again with two similar twists and placed the box back inside a deep pocket within his robe. With this small ritual accomplished, Dumbledore rose again and beckoned Harry to follow him, the green fire leaping back to his palm. They started in a different direction to the one they'd been travelling before.
"Where are we going, sir?" asked Harry and Dumbledore gave him a small smile.
"Whilst you were busy screaming at your new friend, I was using the extraordinary properties of his nether-fire to divine our next direction."
"What extraordinary powers of divination?" asked Harry, curiously. Dumbledore exchanged imparted a knowing look to him.
"Heliopath fire happens to be very, very bright," said the headmaster, his face alight with mischief. Harry could do nothing other than shake his head.
Eventually and rather sooner than Harry expected, a vast rock wall appeared out of the gloom. At first, Harry could only wonder why Dumbledore had decided to walk to a solid rock wall, but as they approached, he spotted a small niche in the surface of the rock, that was perhaps a foot tall by six inches wide.
Dumbledore crouched to examine it and Harry turned his back upon him, careful to watch for intruders. After a few moments Dumbledore rose and turned to Harry.
"Your knife if you would," he said simply and Harry unsheathed the knife and handed it to the headmaster. For a moment Harry thought Dumbledore might cut his own hand, but instead he produced a rat from his pocket and neatly bisected it.
"Very sorry little fellow," said the headmaster, mournfully. "But it's all for a greater cause."
With that said, the headmaster flicked the rat's blood against the crack and they both marvelled as it imperceptibly grew, first to a height large enough to accommodate even the Headmaster's tall frame and then even larger until even Hagrid could have passed through without difficulty. They both poked their heads into the hole and Dumbledore once again raised the handful of fire. Stretching out from them, leading down into the darkness were a dozen pinpricks of light that shone from the darkness like stars.
"Ah," said Dumbledore. "Now this rather complicates matters somewhat."
"What are they?" asked Harry, feelingly slightly bewitched by the enticing lights, he shook his head before he could step out.
"These are a complicated bit of enchantment," said Dumbledore softly. "Known as star stairs; we step down to a solid step and then we are presented with a challenge. If we pass the challenge we continue to the next stair where we begin the process again."
"And if we fail?"
"We have a sudden drop and find ourselves plummeting towards Earth from space," replied the headmaster succinctly.
"So what do we do?"
"Well we could turn around and walk away," mused Dumbledore, his eyes once again alight with the thrill of the chase.
"Or?" asked Harry, already knowing the answer.
"Or we could step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure."