Disclaimer: Vinay, you amazing bastard! P=NP!
A/N: Latest chapter of this tale, folks. Keeping with the theme, it is from Dresden's perspective - at Hogwarts! What hilarity will ensue? Or are things already too dire for hilarity? Surely not. Read and review, peeps, read and review.
Chapter 3 - Soulgaze
"There are a handful of locations on this planet, Dresden," Rashid said. "A handful of... special places where the Nevernever and our reality blur. Where there is no gate, no portal needed to cross between the two realms. You merely walk from one into the other, like a dream of a dream – if you know the right path."
"Sounds dangerous," I said, ever one for stating the obvious. Why was he telling me this?
"Very much so, Warden." The Gatekeeper laughed – a soft, melodious sound that whispered through the dark trees and creeping undergrowth all around us.
From Edinburgh we had entered the Nevernever, braving an old path through one of the Summer realms. Well-worn yet with a vaguely menacing air, as if unseen eyes were watching from the shadows. It was hot and uncomfortable. Rashid led the way, and I followed keeping a hand firmly attached to my blasting rod. It didn't pay – ever – to be careless in the Nevernever.
I had my enemies in this realm, as did any wizard worth his salt and magic.
Only we weren't in the Nevernever anymore, I realised with a start. The trees were the same, the air was still humid and stifling, but overhead in the sky glimpsed through the thick canopy I could see the supernova – the Sixth Dread Barrier, a torrent of blue and gold radiance – lighting up the night sky.
"Yes?" Rashid's metal eye glinted at me in the darkness.
"Uh... nothing. I was just expecting it to hurt, or something. What's to stop some of the nastier stuff in the Nevernever crossing over whenever they please?" I had an idea I wasn't going to like the answer to that question.
"But fear not. There are protections. Particularly in this forest and surrounding the castle up ahead. The wild wizards, as we call them, are quite adept at unusual warding schemes and magical shielding."
"Is that so?" My understanding of the Old World wild magic was slim, and I would've given a pretty penny to have had Bob, my compendium skull of forbidden knowledge, handy for what was to come. "What do you know about them, Rashid? Who is this Albus Dumbledore we're on our way to see?"
"I would have thought there would be other thoughts on your mind, Warden Dresden."
There were a thousand thoughts on my mind. Already this was feeling like one of those cases where nothing was as it seemed, and what was as it seemed was liable to rip my heart from my chest or freeze the very liquid in my eyes. I shuddered. Damn Faeries.
Rashid placed his hand firmly against the smooth, ageless bark of a massive oak. The forest all around us was dark, a thin layer of mist twisting amongst the undergrowth and gnarled roots of the ancient wooden sentinels. "You did not blink an eye when I said that you, and you alone, can kill the Outsiders."
Ah. "No, no I did not."
"He Who Walks Behind has his gaze on you." There was a tremor of fear even in Rashid's calm, cool voice.
"I've no time to worry over impending doom," I quipped. "Be they Lovecraftian horrors or not."
"Yet the circumstances of your birth afford you a special power." Rashid sighed. "A power I believe can also be found in Harry Potter. Although how a wild wizard can be expected to survive a battle against Walkers is quite unfathomable."
"From what I've heard so far, the kid's got balls."
"Yes." Rashid turned and continued walking. In the distance, there was the sound of heavy hoofs clopping against the forest floor. "We are outstaying our welcome here. Come, let us continue."
The forest was full of unseen scurrying creatures. I progressed alongside the Gatekeeper with an increasing certainty that something was about to disembowel me. At one point, I thought I saw a flash of headlights in the distance, as well as the choking rumbling of a dying engine, but I must've been seeing things...
Eventually I did begin to glimpse lights through the trees, and as the forest thinned a dark silhouette against the starry night sky. My breath caught in my throat as, with the Betelgeuse supernova ablaze overhead, I took my first look at the ancient, powerful majesty of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy.
A thousand-year old castle, alive and standing proud against the night. I could feel the raw magic in the air. Ley lines of monumental energy coursed beneath the ground. There was also a lingering smell that was terribly familiar. Sulphur. Dark magic had been cast here recently as well as in the past. The stink of that particular avenue of magic... always lingered.
"Hell's bells..." I muttered.
Rashid nodded. "Indeed. Welcome to Hogwarts, Warden Dresden."
A man with a lantern met us just inside the enormous oaken mahogany doors of the school. He was a short, wheezing man who shuffled about as he walked. His thin grey hair and brown coat gave him a moth-eaten look, and a red-eyed cat twisted about his ankles.
"Argus Filch, caretaker" the man said. "Come along then. The Headmaster has been expecting you."
"He has?" I asked.
Filch grunted and Rashid simply nodded, apparently expecting no less.
Filch led us up through the castle, and whether it was just late or uninhabited, we did not cross paths with any other people. I had expected one or two young apprentice wizards in training, given that this was supposed to be a school. Instead there were sights far stranger. Moving staircases and bewitched portraits. Odd apparitions that could only have been spirits...
Yeah, I definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore. Or even Chicago and all the myriad of weird and deadly supernatural forces that converged on my town.
I was tempted to open my Wizard's Sight upon the castle, but with the things I'd seen so far, and given how close we were to the Nevernever – I could almost taste the faerie realms hovering just beyond ken – I didn't dare. There were a lot of things in my head I'd have rather not seen. No need to add to that pile of fond regrets.
I counted the floors and winding staircases as we rose through the silent castle. On the seventh, the caretaker ambled along away from the stairs and off down a corridor, that weird mangy cat still prowling around his feet. Rashid moved as silent as a ghost just behind him and I followed, growing more and more curious.
We came to a stop in front of a large, grotesque statue of what looked like one of the lesser-fae. A screaming gargoyle.
"Pepper Imps," Filch muttered.
The gargoyle came to life and leapt aside. I raised my blasting rod, shifting my weight against my oaken staff, ready to shoot a beam of fire as hot as liquid steel through the creature, but there was no need. I didn't recognise the magic, but it was a simple animation spell, nothing more.
Behind the gargoyle, the wall split in two to reveal a spiral stone staircase that began to rise much like an elevator. Filch grunted a farewell, motioned us up the staircase, and shuffled off with cat and lantern in hand.
"There's some serious power in this castle, Rashid."
The Gatekeeper chuckled softly. "Wait until you meet the man at the top of this staircase, Dresden."
We rode up the elevator-stairs and the gargoyle slid back into place behind us, sealing us in. At the top of the stairway was a highly polished oak door with a brass knocker.
Rashid knocked soundly three times.
"Please come in, gentlemen," a soft, old voice whispered, and the doors swung open as if by magic.
I was taken aback by what I assumed was the Headmaster's office. A dozen sights and sounds hit me all at once, and a heavy smell of roasting coffee beans and cinnamon eclipsed it all. My first thought was that it was just so... wizardly. The walls were covered in those animated portraits, as well as a collection of weathered tomes and an old, pointed hat. A sword with a gem-encrusted hilt hung in a glass display case. There were dozens of spindly-legged tables holding papers and curious silver instruments.
On a golden perch sat a regal and intelligent looking bird. It was a phoenix, if I knew my Nevernever bestiary, and I did, but what it was doing in this office, in our realm, was beyond my understanding.
All of that paled in comparison to the man seated behind the enormous, claw-footed desk.
For a moment, I thought it was the Merlin himself, and that this had been some sort of fiendish, elaborate hoax. But it was not the Merlin. The man seated behind the desk held himself differently, wore flamboyant robes, and there was a glint of weary kindness in his eyes behind half-moon spectacles.
He rose to meet us as we stepped across the room. Rashid clasped his hand and a genuine laugh was shared between the two mysterious men.
"It is good to see you, Albus Dumbledore," the Gatekeeper said. "Time... it is a wasteland, no, in which we move blindly. It has been too long."
The old man, who radiated sheer power, chuckled and, still grasping Rashid's hand, simply smiled. "Indeed. I only wish it was under happier circumstance. You are here because the Accords were broken, and one of my own breached the Nevernever."
"In part, I am. Yet there is graver news still, Professor."
"Hmm, yes, the Dread Barrier burning across the night sky. I must say, the timing cannot be mere coincidence."
Rashid paused for a heavy moment, his face veiled within that dark hood. Then he found his voice. "Why am I not surprised that you know of the Barriers? No matter. You are right, of course. The Sixth Barrier has fallen... only one remains between this world and the Old Ones."
Dumbledore's smile didn't fade but the glint, the twinkle in his eyes, seemed to dim. He turned to face me. "Is this the man you spoke of in our correspondence?"
I was careful not to meet the old man's eyes directly. To do so would risk a soulgaze – something that wizards (well, wizards from my neck of the woods, not these wild-wizards, as far as I knew) took very seriously. A soulgaze was a power to be found in the meeting of the eyes. That one look could transform a simple gaze into a highly personalised and revealing admission of the other person's soul. It worked both ways. And once seen, it was never forgotten. It stayed fresh and clear in the mind until the day you died.
Which was all good and well when it was between two generally honest and good people. But when it was with an ancient sentinel of concentrated evil, it could drive a wizard mad. I'd been there. Done that. Cried myself to sleep. I didn't know enough about this man to trust in a soulgaze. I was tempted, though, sorely tempted. As far as I knew, he was the first wild-wizard I'd ever met.
"Harry Dresden," Rashid said. "This is Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts."
Dumbledore extended his hand and I shook it carefully. A man his age could snap easily. I was more than a little surprised by the firm grip he returned in kind. "A pleasure, my boy," he said.
"Good to meet you."
Dumbledore quirked an eyebrow. "American, I see. This may be a first for Hogwarts, hmm. A White Council wizard, no less, from the great city of Chicago. May I offer you gentlemen a drink? Pumpkin juice? Butterbeer? Perhaps something a touch stronger?"
"Butterbeer?" I asked.
"There is no time," Rashid decided for us both. "Events are moving more swiftly than anticipated, Professor Dumbledore—
"Please, Rashid, call me Albus."
"—and the White Council moves against your secluded world even as we speak. Dresden and I are unofficial emissaries this evening. You should expect an envoy at your Ministry of Magic within the week, detailing a list of suspected and known breaches of our Accords."
Dumbledore removed a white paper bag from his pocket and pulled out a piece of hard candy. He popped it into his mouth. "Only a matter of time, I suppose. Lemon drop?"
I shrugged and took a sour piece. "Thanks."
"Have a seat, gentlemen, and let us discuss our options. There is far more at stake than I think we yet realise."
Rashid and I sat opposite Dumbledore, and I felt like I'd been called to task as the tall, ancient wizard stared at me from across the desk. We were of a height, Dumbledore and I, but I felt a lot smaller.
"Harry Potter," Rashid said, and a deafening silence fell like a blow from a sledgehammer. All of the various moving portraits stopped and the golden phoenix sung a soft, sad note to blanket the quiet.
"...yes." Dumbledore sighed. For the first time, he looked deeply troubled. And something else. Something... a lot more human. He looked heartbroken. "Yes, Rashid, Harry Potter. There wass no braver, no more tireless boy I had ever met. He did not deserve his fate."
"What fate?" I asked. Rashid tilted his unseen head within the folds of his hood toward me. I caught a glimpse of his metal eye. He said nothing, but I felt as if I'd spoken out of turn.
"The fate of a hero, Mr. Dresden," Dumbledore said. "The fate of acknowledged prophecy and the blurred boundaries between your world of the White Council and that of the Wandwavers, as I believe you call us."
As he said that, Dumbledore reached into a pocket of his colourful robes and withdrew a slender stick of dark wood. He rolled the wand, I suppose it was, between his fingers. I eyed the thin piece of wood with open curiosity. Then he tapped it smartly against his desk and a silver goblet appeared before and began to fill with a foamy liquid.
"Butterbeer, Mr. Dresden. If you try nothing else during your time with us, you must try this."
"How did you do that?" I asked. No incantation... no visible circles of power... just a tap of his wand. Everything I knew of magic didn't allow for such blatant ease when conjuring. There was always a knack to it, sure, but I didn't even sense the old man's intent.
"Wizards a lot brighter than you and I have asked that question, Warden," Rashid said. "I doubt you will solve it tonight, and our time is limited, so..."
"Please, try for yourself," Dumbledore said, ignoring Rashid and fixing me with a steely gaze. I instinctively looked away, yet gingerly accepted the wand in his outstretched hand.
I expected a burst of power, a spark or two of bridled energy, but there was nothing. I held Dumbledore's wand as if it were a mere stick. And for all I could do with it, it may as well have been. I felt no power in the thing at all.
"Try an incantation," the old man suggested. "Something simple. Let me see... let me see... Ah, a lighting spell. Lumos!"
"That's Latin for light, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is." Dumbledore looked pleased.
I shrugged and raised the wand, pointed toward the high ceiling. "Okay. Lumos!"
Rashid shook his head and Dumbledore looked mildly disappointed when absolutely zip happened. I couldn't use a wand, it seemed. A wild wizard wand. I gave it back to Dumbledore and patted my blasting rod reassuringly. Plenty of power in that rod. Nothing to be ashamed of.
"The gulf between our magics is vast and unexplored," the Headmaster said. "There are similarities and yet, even greater differences. It is strange, however, that history points a finger at the White Council – the original White Council – of having developed the first wands and delivering them to wild magic practioners. How strange that the White Council today is quite incapable of using their own creation."
"Is that true?" I asked. I felt a mild shock, glancing between Dumbledore and Rashid. "Rashid, is that true?"
The Gatekeeper shrugged. "There is some evidence to support that claim, Dresden, but it is not what we came here to discuss. Albus Dumbledore, very much depends on what we can learn of Harry Potter this evening. I would ask you to tell me of the boy."
Dumbledore did not seem put out by Rashid's powerful tone. If anything, it seemed to put the old man at ease. "Very well, Rashid, as you insist. Time is slipping away, is it not?" He chuckled. "There is one favour I would ask before I share that knowledge with you, however, one request in order to ensure the information shared tonight remains secret."
"You can trust me, Albus," Rashid began but Dumbledore waved his concern away.
"I know, old friend, I know."
"Then what is your request?"
Dumbledore paused and turned from Rashid to me. Again, I avoided his gaze. "I would like Mr. Dresden to look me in the eyes."
Rashid took a steadying breath, and his grip tightened around his staff. "You might not like what you see in this boy's eyes. He has seen things, Albus, done things... all for the greater good, to be sure, but some of those scars will have festered."
Hell's bells, Rashid was talking about the Laws of Magic I had broken. To kill a man. Forbidden magic, dangerous magic. It did corrupt the soul, but I wasn't that far gone. I had never been that far gone! Besides, he didn't seem too worried about what I might see of Dumbledore's soul.
I could hear Rashid thinking in the silence that followed, tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair. Finally, he waved his hand. "Be quick about it then, Dresden."
"Wait a minute—"I began.
"The time we have left can be counted in minutes, Warden. Do not cross me on this."
I could sense a subtle anger in Rashid's words. He wasn't a man to ever display his emotions clearly, but I did not want to be on his bad side. I took a moment to think about it and then shrugged. "Very well."
I flicked my eyes up to Dumbledore's and this time did not look away.
I found out almost immediately that wild wizards were not immune to the soulgaze. I was pulled into the twinkling blue eyes of the Headmaster, beyond the half-moon spectacles and into the depths of a soul I had never quite felt before. I felt the soulgaze begin...
And then I felt power. Sheer, mind-blowing power.
It rocked me back in my chair as I gazed into the fires of Albus Dumbledore's soul and saw a life spent in light – in pure, crystal light – bathed in the duty and responsibility of directing his world away from darkness. I saw the old man robed in cerulean gemstones, atop a mighty pedestal, in a great, cloud-strewn cathedral. He held his wand aloft, and I saw that it was more than a mere stick, as it beget and ended wars.
It was holy.
It was death.
It was made of Elder and bathed in the blood of all who had carried it.
Yet Dumbledore had resisted the temptation, to an extent. There was a dark stain on the old man's past. A stain he had long since atoned for but had never quite forgiven himself. A whispered word... and endless regret...
Some distant loss.
And then there was darkness. The potential for darkness. Dumbledore had manipulated the lives of so many, outlived the evil of a rare few, and yet his capacity for good, for peace, always cast the darkness into shadow. He could have ruled the world, or at least a sizeable part of it, but instead he chose to teach, to guide young minds in morality and the ways of what was right.
I had never met a man quite like him. I felt the soulgaze ending, the light and aura of the Headmaster's soul withdrawing. The cord snapped between us and I pulled my gaze away, breathing hard, and knocked back in my chair.
A long moment shimmered in desperate regard. Rashid did not seem surprised at what had happened.
I managed to catch my breath and sit up a little straighter in my chair. Dumbledore cleared his throat.
"Mr Dresden," he said, placing a steadying hand against his cluttered desk. "You and Harry Potter are... very much alike." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Oh yes indeed, very much alike."
And a solitary tear rolled down the old man's cheek into his silvery beard.
A/N: I'm not too sure about updates at the moment. I've got a shit-ton of uni work that I've ignored for the last few weeks, so that should probably take some sort of priority. Eh, oh well. Please read and review!