An Author's Notes:
This story is my first in years, and I understand the skepticism with which anyone may approach this endeavor of mine; my other stories, except for one, remain incomplete and likely shall remain so. The same fate may await this one as well, but I don't think I'm meant to know that yet, one way or another.
I can only tell you that I intend to write this story for as long as inspiration shall allow; those words, written in another's story, would be enough to drive me away without reading further – I understand if your reaction is as mine would be. But I would ask you give me a chance, if you have it in you to chance disappointment.
November 26, 2010
The Blood Angel
She lay there, blood in the snow; surrounding her and expanding was a crimson stain, imprinting in the snow a blood-soaked angel. Her pale skin was tinged with blue, but for the red that matted her hair and striped her face. She was quiet, and she was still. Her chest did not rise, and her chest did not fall.
There was no moan of pain or beat of heart. He shrieked, laughing –
The scene changed, and Harry wasn't where he'd been before – he was Harry again, in another place and time, and he could not move. He could feel the beat of his heart and the rise of his chest. Dread and panic crept across him, a race of one against the other, and achingly slow. But no signal to his fingers to grasp the wand that slept beneath his downturned palm would go through. He thought he could hear a sound outside the tent, a low, continuous hum; he dreaded the sound, wanted either to confront or escape it, but he could not move. He lay there, frozen, as the sound grew louder – and with the increase of each decibel, the sound grew an octave lower, until the hum shook the frozen air he consumed.
"He is coming. He is coming. He is coming. He is coming." The beat of the words thumped inside his skull, it thumped over and again. He could not forget those words. He could not forget. "He is coming. He is coming. He is coming. He is—"
Hermione's shriek had shaken him from his hallucination. Beside him in the tent, in the cot to his left, Hermione was thrashing in her sleep again. Since Ron had left a week before, this had happened four of the seven nights. Harry, drowned by pity for Hermione and how much harder Ron's absence was on her than him, sat up in his cot, swung his legs to one side, and stepped lightly over to Hermione's still-sleeping form – there was no thought in his mind of the girl in the snow, the blood angel. All there was before him was all that was before him.
"Ron, no, please – please, Ron! You've got to come back, you can't – you can't... Ron..."
Crouching down beside her limp figure, Harry lightly shook Hermione's shoulders, careful as he was able in order not to frighten her. "Hermione... Hermione..." It took a firmer shake than it normally did, but Hermione's eyes twitched, and a further flutter and a gasp later, and she was awake. Even in the dark, he could see that her eyes were blood-red and swimming with tears.
"He just... he just..." Hermione said, disoriented and incognizant.
"I know," Harry said, "I know." And he did. Neither of them had been able to talk about Ron's leaving. For one because it upset Hermione so badly – even just his name and she would go foul for hours at a time. But beyond that, neither of them had been able to articulate, in a way they were comfortable with, just what it is that hurt them, and why. The closest either of them had come had been within the hour of Ron leaving, and Harry had ranted to Hermione about "that traitor." She hadn't talked to him for the rest of the night for that. "It's okay, Hermione..." he said. "Really, it's all going to be okay..."
With a shudder, her crying turned into a sob, and he knew that she would not remember any of this, just as she had not remembered any of the four other nights he had done his best to console her when her nightmares had overpowered her and spilled over as they had tonight. Each of those four nights, he had gotten out of his own cot, knelt down to where she lay, and either held her hand or stroked her hair or murmured half-truths in her ear.
He didn't know what else to do; from Cho to Ginny, he'd never been much good at consoling girls. He didn't have anyone to show him or tell him what he was supposed to do, and so he did his best without knowing what was best. But whatever he did – the hand-holding, the hair-stroking, the murmuring – each seemed to help her some.
Waking her up as slightly as he just had usually was enough to take her out her nightmares, and usually the interruption was enough to keep those nightmares from coming back. He wasn't sure what to do with her; he didn't react this way to things – hadn't, in fact, reacted this way to losing Ron. When he did have nightmares – the sort Hermione was having now, the sort that overtook the mind and corrupted the soul – there was never, or had never been, anyone there to comfort him like he was comforting Hermione now. Whether by an uncaring aunt, uncle and cousin, or four roommates who didn't know what to do, he'd really only ever be left to regain control or left in the hopes that the dream would pass on its own. But he just couldn't lie in the same room as Hermione, five feet away, and let her nightmares do to her what his had done to him.
And so he found himself on his knees beside her cot, and he was holding her left hand with his right, and he could see her slipping in and out of consciousness, could see it in the way her eyes went from seeing to blind with every few beats of his heart. And crouched there, holding her hand with one of his, and with his other hand stroking her hair, he felt such sadness.
Hermione was wonderful – she was mad, and she annoyed, irritated, and even infuriated him from time to time. But she was sweet, and she cared, and even after all he and she – and, yes, Ron, though he didn't want to think of it – had been through, she still retained a kind of unjaded optimism. It was something that Harry felt he had lost years ago, whether he had or not. She felt so much younger. In a way so much more innocent. And every time he was in the position he was in now, each of the times he had been over the last week, it was that feeling – not that thought, there was no thought, there was only feeling – that filled his head. She didn't deserve this. She didn't. And it made him so sad that, undeserved, this is what she got. That there was nothing he could do but operate on the margins – stroking her hair, squeezing her hand – really got to him. She was beyond his help.
And it was in that frame of mind – that odd, almost frenzied sort of sadness – that he looked on her face and, seeing her eyes closed and her expression placid, stopped whispering to her how everything was going to be alright. He didn't know if things would be, and he would never have been able to tell her things would be alright if she were conscious and able to challenge that thought. But looking down at her, filled with such sadness, such regret that things had gone the way they had since Bill and Fleur's wedding, he set his forehead against hers, closed his eyes tight, and intoned his apology. Pulling back from her, he wiped a hair from her brow and lightly placed his lips where his forehead had been only a moment before.
I am so sorry. This never should have happened. This never, never should have happened. It never should have been like this. I am so, so sorry.
And he was. He really, truly was. He wished, with melancholy, that there was something more he could do than stroke her hair in the dead of night. He wished they could talk about this, but he knew they couldn't. And he knew that she wouldn't, even if she could; and he wasn't sure if, even though she could and she would, that he was able to.
He knew he didn't help enough. He knew that, after six years of friendship, she deserved more than this. But this was all he could give, and for as long as it helped, even if only slightly, even if never as much as he would like, he would keep it up. He had to do something, even if something amounted to just more than nothing. He owed her at least that.
The sun rose the next morning, and Harry with it. He and Hermione had put a stop to the practice of guarding the tent in shifts during the night. They were no more likely to be attacked during the night than during the day – that thinking, mixed with the psychological weight of bearing the locket with no sleep, perhaps with a dash of the nihilism Ron's departure had left in them, allowed them both to sleep through the night.
Harry inspected the enchantments they had erected around their latest hiding place – at the foot of a mountain in either England or Wales, neither Harry nor Hermione was sure which – to be sure that they were still intact. It was probably a waste of time, this morning ritual – anyone who was able to not only detect but also dismantle at least some of their wards would have likely killed or captured them by now.
Satisfied that the wards were all still up, Harry pointed his wand at the small fire-pit they constructed at every site they camped and began to cook some eggs they had procured from a Muggle home a few days before. He thought a bit of protein in Hermione might be useful, after the night she'd had. She'd had three sets of nightmares the night before – more than Harry was frankly able to handle. Consequently, he hadn't gotten much sleep either, but he knew the night had been much harder on his companion than it had been on him; and so it was with a tinge of sadness that he levitated the eggs over the fire for Hermione, while for himself managing only to burn a bit of bread. It was almost toast.
It was another few minutes before Hermione woke and exited the tent. Showers were a hard thing to come by, and so most bathing was rarely little more than a well-placed Scourgify or two. This left both of them with a more-or-less permanent case of bed-head, however much brushing Hermione might subject her hair to. And so it was a rather-more-bushy-haired-than-usual Hermione who exited the tent to see Harry levitating a couple eggs over a modest fire.
"What in the hell are you doing, Harry Potter!" Hermione almost shouted. Her face was steadily going pink.
"I, er, I made you eggs," he offered feebly, not sure what to make of her anger. "I thought you could use some proper food."
"What if someone smells!" she hissed at him. "None of the wards prevent smells from crossing the threshold – what if someone smells the eggs? They'll know there is someone here! Is that what you want? Do you want them to find us!"
Harry thought several things in rapid succession: one, that when they had procured the eggs a few days before, it had been Hermione's idea, and she had indicated in no way whatsoever that they shouldn't cook them for fear of being found; two, that she was starting to lose it; three, that her starting to lose it might be in some way connected to her, er, cycle; and four, that all of this made him a bit angry as well.
"There is nothing in that book Dumbledore gave me that will stop scents from crossing the wards!" Hermione said forcefully, dissatisfied by Harry's silent confusion.
"I – I'm sorry, Hermione. I was trying to do something nice for you – for both of us, really. We haven't had a real meal since before Ron left, and-"
She pulled out her wand and blasted the eggs into small bits that now covered him. She turned on her heel and marched back into the tent; he knew from the squelching sound that emanated from the tent that she had sealed the entrance.
He sighed deeply, trying not to throw a curse at the tent. She was absolutely mental. Absolutely out of her mind. All he'd been trying to do was show some sympathy, show some humanity and some decency to a girl who had gotten far from what she deserved – and all she did was throw it back at him and scold him for daring to think of her. They had cooked a dozen times since they had gone searching for the Horcruxes and Hallows, and this was the first time Hermione had complained that the scent might give them away.
He sighed again. He had expected things to be difficult, impossibly difficult. But there were difficulties here he'd never thought he'd be dealing with. He hadn't foreseen that Ron might leave, though now he realized he should have – Ron had developed something of a habit for acting rash when he was upset with or jealous of Harry. He hadn't foreseen that he might have to be strong for Ron and Hermione, not when he had to be strong for himself too. Everything was riding on him, and he knew that, and he'd always known it. He just thought he'd have two pillars to help hold him up.
He thought back to the last day he'd spent with Dumbledore, the day he'd begun to prepare Harry for more than just finding Horcruxes. The day Dumbledore had first mentioned the Hallows. He thought back to that last day, wondering if Dumbledore had known – if he could have known – that that dark day would be his last.
Albus Dumbledore sat in a high-backed chair in his office, writing in an old and weathered book – a book of spells and enchantments that he intended to leave for Hermione Granger when he died; he had sketched out an idea in his head of what would await Harry and his friends, and he knew that Ms. Granger must be given certain information in order for them to be safe while searching for the Horcruxes and the Hallows.
Written in the book were dozens of spells – protective enchantments to ward against intruders, advanced medical charms to cure several serious injuries, curses strong enough to bring the most powerful enemy within inches of death. Some of these spells, he was afraid, neither Harry nor his two closest friends would be able to perform; but this knowledge had to be passed down, and it was with some urgency that Dumbledore wrote, filling page and page with one hundred years' knowledge of magic and spell-casting.
There came a knock at the door, and Dumbledore looked up, startled; something like excitement glinted in his eyes, and he spoke toward the door, "Come in, Harry."
The boy, sixteen and bespectacled, entered his office with the same half-way-between-determined-and-overwhelmed look that he had worn the last several times he had entered this office. For a very brief moment, Dumbledore felt singed by guilt he could scarcely suppress; this wasn't a young man's burden, and he knew it. But there was simply no other way – if he thought it was possible to delay this task until Harry was, say, in his thirties, he would. But there was no way, absolutely no way that could happen. Forget the body count that would mount ever higher in the fifteen to twenty intervening years; forget the number of lives that would be ruined, the amount of blood – both magical and muggle – that would be spilt: Voldemort would not permit Harry to live.
"Professor Dumbledore, sir – how are you?"
Dumbledore gave a smile and small nod, "Well enough, thank you, Harry." There was a pause for a moment as Harry took his usual seat opposite Dumbledore. "Shall we begin?"
With a nod from Harry, Dumbledore began slowly: "With the memory you managed to acquire from Professor Slughorn, we can know with certainty that Voldemort has split his soul – perhaps into as many as seven pieces. You know what a Horcrux is, and you know," he raised his blackened hand , "what a danger they may pose."
Harry nodded again. "Yes, sir."
"Harry, there shall come a time – and I suspect it shall come sooner than either of us is prepared for – when I am no longer able to assist you in the task of destroying Voldemort's Horcruxes." Harry looked as if he wanted to interrupt, but Dumbledore raised his good hand and continued on, smiling. "I am an old man, Harry; I cannot know how my end shall come to me, but I can know that it shall. We live in dangerous times – combined with my senescence, my days are running few, I fear."
Harry gave a nod again, but more hesitantly, and Dumbledore could see that he was holding back comments of disagreement or outrage.
Dumbledore paused for a moment and gathered himself. He was about to discuss legend, inexplicably true legend. "Harry... there exists in our world a trio of objects known as the Deathly Hallows. Do you know them?"
Harry looked intrigued for a moment, and also quite confused. Dumbledore knew why: He had never mentioned these objects to Harry before, and Harry, having grown up raised by Muggles, would certainly know nothing about them from the childhood tales told to Wizarding children. "No, professor," Harry said. "No, I'm sorry, sir, I don't."
"No matter, Harry," Dumbledore said. "I had not expected you to; they are fabled and ancient objects, Harry, and most of our kind regard them as figurative rather than literal objects. But I must assure you, Harry, that the Deathly Hallows are real, and they may be the second half of the puzzle that is how to defeat the Dark Lord Voldemort."
"But what are the Deathly Hallows, sir?"
"There are three objects, Harry, which comprise the Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand – a wand more powerful than any other in all creation; the Resurrection Stone – a stone which, properly used, is able to return to life those who have died; and the Cloak of Invisibility – which is so powerful as to allow one to hide forever from whatever harm may seek him. It is said that to possess these three items would make one immortal."
Dumbledore paused again. "Whether that is to be believed, that these objects make one immortal, is somewhat... dubious, I think. True immortality, it would seem, is a fantasy; the approximations achieved by my dear friend Nicolas and Lord Voldemort, I am afraid, are just that: mere approximations. They are able to delay death, but not defeat it.
"However, there can be no doubt – he who would wield the Deathly Hallows would be an incredible force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. How a duel could be won against an invisible wizard, wielding the most powerful wand of all time and the armies of the underworld...
"The specifics, I'm afraid, are not altogether very important. What is important, Harry, is that you find these objects. What is important is that we give you every possible advantage against Lord Voldemort when it eventually happens that you must wage war against him."
"Professor..." Harry began, "you spoke of – of a 'Cloak of Invisibility.' Is that like – like my dad's Invisibility Cloak?"
Dumbledore gave a genuine grin. "Yes, my boy. Yes, indeed. I have long suspected – and believe with near certainty now – that the cloak which your father lent to me all those years ago, and which I returned to you in your first year here at Hogwarts, is in fact the ancient Cloak of Invisibility which belonged to Ignotus Peverell centuries ago."
"Ignotus Peverell? Who was he, sir?"
"He, Harry, was one of the three brothers spoken of in—"
Dumbledore stopped dead, silenced by a sudden humming from a silvery object which rested on his desk. For a moment, Dumbledore looked caught between elation and horror. "As I suspected," he said, more to himself than to Harry.
"Harry," he said, looking away from the silver trinket and to the sixteen year old boy before him, "Harry, we must leave immediately – I have located another Horcrux, and it is essential that we destroy it as soon as we are able. We must go now, to a seaside cavern Tom Riddle visited as a child at the orphanage at which he was raised.
"But I must have your word, Harry, that you will do exactly as I say, exactly when I say it, without question or hesitation. Can you promise me that, Harry?"
Harry swallowed hard, but understood. This was the price he paid for being Dumbledore's companion, and it was with only slight reluctance that Harry nodded.
"Good," Dumbledore said. "Then let us leave immediately. Please retrieve your Invisibility Cloak and return to my office in ten minutes..."
A/N: Thank you all so very much for reading. It really means quite a lot to me – much more than is socially acceptable to explain – to have people willing to take the time to read my stories, especially given my rather uneven track-record. I would especially like to thank those of you who review – there is nothing I know of in all this world more rewarding than a thoughtful, deliberate review. It's the single most gratifying thing in the world, and I thank every one of you who takes the time to do it. Thank you so, so much.
Chapter Two – subtitled The Inferno – will be out sometime in the next few days; the way I am operating with this story is to not post a chapter until I have finished both of the chapters that follow it; and so chapter one was posted when I finished writing chapter three, and so chapter two shall be posted when I've finished writing chapter four. My word counter assures me that I am 12.5% done with chapter four, but I think I'm a bit more along than that. So look for it sometime toward the end of next week.
Thank you all again for reading, and please review – it fills me with inspiration and drive, and it elates me more than anything else I could name.
4 December 2010
Oh - and one last thing - a big thank you to DukeBrymin for his bit of beta help with this chapter. It is very, very much appreciated.