The Gunslinger and the Mage
A Harry Potter / Dark Tower crossover
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A scream of primal terror, as if summoned from the depths of the Infernal Pit, cut through the air as Harry awoke. The atmosphere was stifling, suffocating, like he had been sleeping in an oven. In front of him he spied thick piles of hay and chaff covering a warped wooden floor. Clumps of straw stuck to his arms and worn grey shirt, both of which were soaked through with sweat.
His breathing labored, Harry rose to his feet, his head swimming. Thin wooden walls rose on either side of him, five feet high, perhaps ten feet long. Stumbling forward, his vision still blurry, the impression of a large wooden building materialized from the haze. In rays of brilliant sunshine, which peeked through the numerous cracks in the ancient exterior, swarms of motes swam.
Across from Harry tools hung from thick wooden pegs mounted to the wall, so rusted their original purpose could only be guessed at.
With awkward, fumbling movements, he stepped out of the enclosure. To his left sat a small, darkened room which sunlight failed to penetrate. In the center was a stainless steel cylinder four feet tall, untouched by rust.
He tried to recall why he had been screaming, but the only thing which came to mind was the sound of faraway glass breaking. All else was a blank.
Shaking his head to clear out the cobwebs, Harry glanced to the right. Two similar enclosures to the one he had woken up in stood side-by-side, each also filled with hay. The functioning part of his mind surmised that he might be in a stable of sorts, but the thought was distant, unimportant, because a wide double-door was set into the wall.
It was ragged, warped by time, partially hanging off its hinges, but it was a way out; an exit from the inferno.
He threw a shoulder into the door, causing it to creak open with a screech similar to nails raking across a chalkboard. Blinding sunlight filled his vision, causing him to shut his eyes tight. The sun's merciless rays baked upon his skin, but it was an improvement from the stifling stable.
Bit-by-bit he opened his eyes, allowing them proper time to adjust to the increased light levels. The first thing to greet his eyes was a large house, with a wrap-around porch. Though it once may have been constructed from wood, the exterior had morphed into a stone-like consistency, as if the wood were so ancient it had begun to petrify.
Dust and gravel, with yellow, weary weeds poking through the surface, covered the property, bound by a partially collapsed slatted fence. Gazing past the border, Harry froze.
Beyond the enclosure stretched a pale, yellow desert. For miles upon miles it branched out, converging with a dusty, grey, lifeless sky. Spinning around, his heart racing, Harry discovered the insurmountable wastes surrounded the structure, save for what he believed was westward.
Rising above the dried wastelands like a totem were the shadows of gargantuan mountains, which seemed to dwarf the Himalayas. They rose impossibly high from the desert floor, fading to greenish brown to grey to snowy peaks, scraping the heavens themselves.
Remembering what had inspired the scream abruptly paled in importance.
"Where the bloody hell am I?"
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For untold minutes Harry stood by the drunken, leaning fence. Beneath his trainer-clad feet, the hard ground pressed upwards. It was not the shifting sand that he had expected, but hard-packed earth as dense as stone, all traces of moisture long-ago baked away by the cruel sun. The only plant-life was a yellow, dried weed which poked through the crust, its grip on life tenuous at best.
All told, it was far too convincing of an illusion for Harry to label it as the visions of a mad-man and though frozen in place, his mind was a whirlwind of activity, dredging through the depths of memory.
He remembered the frantic end to his second year at Hogwarts, which included saving Ginny Weasley from the Chamber of Secrets, seeing Dobby the House-Elf blasting Lucius Malfoy down a flight of stairs, and being picked up by his horrible Aunt and Uncle at King Crossing, but after that…
How had he ended up in the middle of the desert? And why had he been screaming upon waking in this strange place?
His head beginning to swim from prolonged exposure to the unforgiving sun, Harry turned back towards the two-story house. A slight wind blew loose grit at him, which stuck to his sweat-soaked shirt.
The stairs creaked as he put weight down upon them, the unexpected sound in the colossal silence startling him. The door to the porch at one time might have had a screen set into it, but the thin wood and mesh had been almost completely eaten away by the blowing sand, looking more like rough stone than anything that had ever grown. The door swung inward with the lightest of touches, before breaking off of its rusted hinges and collapsing to the grit-covered slats.
The unexpected demolition solicited a nervous, near-mad cackle of laughter from Harry. Turning the rusted handle, which was uncomfortably warm to the touch, he entered the darkened interior.
The house was even hotter than the stable. No lights burned within, leaving the sun as his only source of illumination.
A dull, faded pink carpet, perhaps once an optimistic red, covered the floor. Worn, warped wooden furniture sat to the left of the room, right below a staircase which wound its way to the upper floor. A short counter, constructed of washed-out grey linoleum, took up the left side of the rear. Placed next to the counter was a darkened hallway which led further into the house.
All told, it gave Harry the impression of an inn.
"Who the bloody hell would want to holiday here?" he asked aloud, before letting out a giggle. Vaguely, he wondered if he was still in shock. He ignored the stairs leading to the upper floor, and began to creep down the hallway, his steps slow, careful, and deliberate.
Despite the fact that the house felt completely empty, deserted, untouched for perhaps decades, gooseflesh broke out over him arms and legs.
In the darkened shadows, anything was possible.
His feet whispering across the faded carpet, he ignored the closed doors branching off from the hallway, the end of which was bathed in light.
As it turned out, the kitchen was at the rear of the house. A large array of mounted cabinets lined the walls, paint flaking off in long strips. Warped floorboards poked through the cracked and peeling linoleum.
His stomach growled gently, inspiring Harry to search out food. He didn't have much hope of finding anything, but since the faint stirrings of hunger were far more manageable than any of his other problems, he tackled it first.
As luck would have it, the first cabinet that he opened contained a large aluminum, rectangular tin. Rust had just began to set into the package, but did not seem to have advanced far. Grasping the tab atop the tin, he pulled back, only to have the flimsy piece of metal snap off.
He held the broken tab in his hand for a moment, examining it as if it were evidence, before gently placing it on the counter. The setback was slightly deflating, but not insurmountable, as the familiar weight in his back pocket served to remind. Reaching back, he withdrew his holly and phoenix-feather wand.
Hedwig, all his books, all his photographs; he was without a single trace of the magical world. His wand and his memories were the only thing that remained.
Raising the wand, Harry leveled it at the tin, before faltering slightly, the lesson of the previous summer still fresh in his mind. What about magical restrictions?
With a derisive snort that surprised even him, his grip tightened as he flicked it.
At once the tin cover peeled back. Even if he wasn't trapped in some incredibly vivid dream, and really had been transported to some desert wasteland, he wasn't exactly concerned about the scrutiny of Mafilda Hopkirk's office. The Improper Use of Magic Department wasn't all that frightening to Harry, considering he was probably outside their jurisdiction.
As far as he knew, there weren't that many deserts in Britain.
Stowing his wand, he observed that there was some sort of dried meat within the aluminum tin, which almost looked like brown liquorice. Gingerly, Harry picked a flat piece from the top of the box, and took an experimental nibble.
He grimaced in disgust, before spitting the small piece of meat to the floor. It was salty, far more potent than anything he had ever tried, and had stung his tongue, leaving his mouth bone-dry. He quickly shuffled over to the sink, the taste of salt still potent on his taste buds.
No water poured forth when Harry turned the rusting handle. He waited impatiently for a minute, but not even a drop spilled from the faucet. Nearly frantic, he began to search through the rest of the cabinets, only to find cookware and more tins of meat, but no bottles of water or any liquid for that matter.
In the sweltering kitchen, Harry began to consider that his situation may be even direr than he originally thought.
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His head throbbing with pain, Harry trudged back down the rickety stairs, his gait unsteady. The search of the upper floor had proved completely fruitless. All that the trip upstairs had confirmed was that the house had definitely been an inn at one time, as each of the six large rooms had a worn bed in the center, the fabric fading to dust.
Harry found no personal effects in the room, or any other hint of where the inn was located. Whatever had happened here, it had occurred when no guests had been present.
Near the bottom of the stairs, an ocean of grey washed over his vision. He stumbled into the wall, shoulder first. He broke through the dried plaster, his shoulder stopping against a rotted stud. By the scant light, he saw withered wisps of pink insulation, teeming with large spiders. Some had eyes hanging on the end of large protrusions, and many had extra legs, including one which sported too many to count.
Repulsed, he leaned back, freeing himself from the break in the drywall. His heart thundered furiously in his chest, but the sudden fright had brought back some his clarity. The sight of the spiders had disturbed in a way that was far different than his sudden arrival. Sixteen legs, eyes on long stalks…spiders were not supposed to look like that. It was like one of those bad horror movies that Dudley used to watch late at night.
Stepping down onto the faded carpet, he shook his head. Why had he even bothered with the second floor? Mouth dry, thoughts sluggish, he should have been abandoned his search upstairs after the first room.
Water had to be his priority.
Which the house seemed to have none of.
Leaving the dimly lit house behind, he entered back into the bright sunlight. Once his eyes had adjusted to the increased brightness, he made his way back towards the stables. His ragged and battered trainers crunched across the gravelly surface, sliding occasionally on the odd bit of loose rubble.
Searching the place where he woke up was his best option. There had to be a reason he had woken up here.
The confined, sweltering atmosphere of the stables seemed even hotter the second time around. Propping the doors open to air it out, his gaze focused upon the pristine metallic cylinder in the back room. While all the other metal in the area had rusted to worthlessness, this one object had remained, untouched by the ravages of time.
Almost hesitantly he closed the distance to the small room, inspecting the steel object. From the left side of the cylinder jutted a chrome pipe, which emptied over a small drain set into the concrete floor. Three-quarters of the way up the cylinder, level with his midsection, was a steel plate which read 'North Central Positronics'.
Harry would never claim to be up to date on the newest technology, but was very certain he had never heard of the company. It sounded really high-tech.
Right below the nameplate was a green button marked 'On'. Hesitantly, he pushed it. He tried not to get his hopes too high, but as a loud hum began to emit from the machine, it bloomed anew.
After a tense thirty seconds, clear water began to pour from the pipe, dumping down into the drain below. Letting out a cry of triumph, he put his face under the flow and took deep gulps of water. The great quantity which missed his mouth was absorbed by his pores, which seemed to soak up the precious liquid.
Bringing his head back to draw a shortened breath, the pump turned itself off with a click, the flow of water tapering off. Starting to feel human again, he rose to his feet, thinking about the tin cups he had found in the kitchen cabinets.
Putting his head under the pipe every single time might be refreshing, but was a little less civilized than he would have liked.
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Bare-chested, Harry stood beneath the burning rays of the desert sun. His gaze was fixed towards the imposing mountains, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he jabbed his wand forward.
There was no response from his wand.
With a dejected sigh, Harry lowered his wand, the bitter taste of failure in his mouth. He knew there was an incantation to summon water, but hadn't been able to recall the exact spell. He was sure that Hermione had mentioned it at one point or another, but without benefit of his textbooks, he was lost.
He knew there was a way that adults traveled using instantaneous transportation, but for life of him couldn't remember what it was. Appearing? The older wizards already new.
Harry did not.
In his sights, far away, the vastness separating him and the mountain seemed to stretch to infinity.
His former enthusiasm fading away, Harry retreated to the large house.
It had been four days since his arrival at the seemingly ancient, deserted home. At least, he thought it had been four days. He no longer trusted time, as it seemed to have a whim of his own, with some of his hours bleeding into one another, as if they had never existed. Other days seemed to last for lifetimes, comprised of him repeatedly sweeping the two buildings, searching for some sort of clue as to where he was, and what was going on.
There was something fundamentally wrong with this place. Harry didn't know if it was the isolation, the desert, or a combination of the two, but reality felt thin, almost insubstantial. As if a casual swing of his arm might catch a snag, and tear back some unseen veil.
From a logical standpoint, he should know how to teleport, having seen witches and wizards do it multiple times, but when it came to the details, he recalled nothing.
The fading had touched every aspect of his life. His memories were vanishing, piece by piece, as if his mind was being eaten. He still knew that his best friends were Ron and Hermione, but the little details, all the things that made them who they were, had begun to slip away.
They were more cardboard cut-outs as oppose to people. He recalled that him and Ron used to spend long hours playing a game of sorts, but couldn't remember what it had been. Had Ron been really good at Backgammon? Was that it?
With little else to do, Harry sat down heavily on one of the chairs in the lobby. Escape was impossible. He couldn't walk the distance between here and the mountains without water, and could not remember the water conjuration spell.
He was trapped, alone with his fading memories. In a week, would he even remember what Hogwarts was? Would he remember his name? Would he-
All trains of thought immediately ground to a halt as Harry heard the sounds of boots crunching across the hardpan.
Someone was coming.
Making his way to the grimy window, he cautiously peered out, into the yard.
The approaching figure was clothed in a dark cloak floured in dust, complete with a hood that obscured most of his face. The dark robe, however, did not remind Harry of the ones that were commonplace at Hogwarts. It was closer to one that a priest or monk might wear.
The robe rippled and flapped in the slight wind, the hood pulling up just enough for Harry to make out the mouth. Clapping his hand over his mouth, Harry recoiled in terror.
The man, whose face was as smooth as a child, bore a wide smile. It was indescribably horrible, as if the stranger was a demon, plotting all the mischief it was going to incite. Even ducked beneath the window, the sight was burned into his mind, as if no matter where he hid, that horrid grin would find him.
For minutes he sat beneath the frame, his heart pumping furiously within his chest. With all his might he wished that the man would just go away, but he hadn't heard a single thing since the man in black's arrival.
Suffocating in fear, Harry closed his eyes, trying to force the image out of his mind. As little as he wanted to do it, he had to see if the man was still out there. Steeling himself, he peeked through the broken window.
The man in black sat cross-legged upon the hardpan, staring out into the desert. He was nearly motionless while his cloak flapped against him.
What the hell was he doing?
Gritting his teeth, Harry resolved to keep watch through the night. The thought of the man in black coming up, and finding him in his sleep was unthinkable.
The stuff nightmares were made of.
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All throughout the night Harry maintained his silent vigil. The entire time the man in black neither stirred nor spoke, his focus exclusively reserved for the desert skyline. In a way, Harry was grateful to only have to look at his back.
As bad as the man in black's maniacal smile was, Harry imagined that his eyes were ten times worse. Direct windows into hell.
In an almost anticlimactic fashion, the receding tide of night took the man in black with it. One moment, he was watching light start to kindle in the eastern sky, the next he was rising to his feet. In long, easy stride he took off into the desert, towards the shadow of the mountains.
The man in black had left nothing to mark his stop. No trash, no fire, even the faint imprints of his footsteps were scattered by a sudden wind.
As the days stretched on, Harry began to wonder more and more if the man in black had been real, or merely a figment of his imagination. It scared him deeply to think that he might be starting to hallucinate, but running from the idea wasn't going to do him any good.
Especially since he was clearly loosing his grip on reality.
He was aware that time had progressed, but to which degree, he was no longer certain. It could have been two weeks or two months.
Far more concerning, however, was the loss of his memories.
He couldn't even recall what the name of the school he had attended was called.
The revelation had been like a bucket of cold water dumped atop his head, chilling him to the core. It was at the school that his life had begun to change, where his first happy memories had occurred. Flying through the air for the first time, the complete liberation he had felt…
If he couldn't even remember the name of the place…what else was he missing? Were there gaps he wasn't aware of? Far more important things that were buried so deeply their loss was unnoticeable?
If he stayed here any longer, in a few weeks he might not even know his own name.
The decision made, Harry stormed into the kitchen, throwing open the doors on the cabinets. There had to be something he had missed, some sort of container that he could use to carry water across the desert. All he found within were an assortment of tin cups, and a flat, rough breadboard.
There was absolutely nothing capable of transporting water over long distances.
With an angry sweep of his arm he sent the cups to the floor, where they hit with a discordant crash. Devoid of hope, he sat down on the floor, tears even hotter than the stale air beginning to form in his eyes.
"What did I do to deserve this?" he whispered to himself. "Am I in Hell?"
Getting up from the floor, he opened the back door, staring out into the endless desert, before putting his face in his hands. The idea made a certain amount of sense. He was completely trapped her. Even if he did try to flee, he pictured all roads leading back to this abandoned depot. No matter which direction, he'd always be brought back to this cursed place.
Without warning, a dull, almost apologetic crack echoed throughout the yard. Looking up, Harry's breath froze.
A figure shambled across the hardpan, having just kicked through the remnants of the fence. It was a tall man, wearing faded jeans and an open-throated shirt, which were both covered in dust. His face was deeply lined and exhausted, with cracked, bleeding lips. A horn made from some sort of bone hung from his gun-belts. With movements almost too quick to track, he drew a giant revolver with a finely grained yellow sandalwood grip.
"You're covered! You're covered! Hands up, you whoreson, you're-"
The man trailed off, before pausing. His hard, pitiless expression turned into one of confusion. Taking a deep, desperate breath, the man lowered his head, before raising it again. His cold blue gaze turned blank for a moment, as if seeing Harry for the first time, before he shook his head in negation.
Harry, his mind buzzing with panic, remained in place. Despite the man's apparent confusion, he had not lowered the gun an inch, and he had no wish to give the man a reason to fire.
Shaking his head again, the man stumbled towards the stable, head lowered, completely ignoring Harry. Carefully, he followed the man. Despite the fact that he was holding a gun, he was considerably less scary than the man in black. Maybe the desert was causing him to start seeing things too?
Within the darkness of the stable, he saw the man do an almost drunk about-face. With shaking hands, he re-holstered the gun, before putting out his hands, as if telling Harry to go away.
"I'm not going to hurt you-" Harry began, only to have the man fall face-first into the thin straw covering the floor, sending up a small cloud of chaff and dust. His chest rose and fell slowly.
Rather than the fear he expected, all Harry felt was relief. While the man in black seemed almost like an illusion, there was no question his new visitor was real. Above and beyond that, though, he had come from the emptiness of the desert.
He knew how to cross the endless wastes.
He could help Harry escape.
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Harry wasted no time in scrambling back towards the kitchen. Plucking two of the dented tin cups from the floor, a large portion of the salted meat, and the breadboard, he returned to the stable. He assumed the mysterious man's hallucinations had come from lack of water, and needed to move fast if he was going to be able to help him.
He filled the two cups from the pump. One he poured over the man's head and chest, hoping to cool him off. He tried dragging the man into one of the stalls, where he could lie on a bed of straw, but the dead weight was far too heavy to drag. All he was able to do was turn him on his back. He did the best to make the man comfortable, placing a large pile of hay beneath his head as a pillow, but there was little else he could do but wait.
Drawing back from the black-haired man, he watched with interest. If this old guy was real, did that mean that the man in black was too? He had almost convinced himself that it had been a hallucination, considering he had appeared out of nowhere, but now thought otherwise.
It was possible to cross the desert.
Several minutes later, far more quickly than Harry anticipated, the man began to stir. His eyes, twin chips of ice, opened wide, staring down at his wet shirt. He blinked at it a single time, before beginning to suck the moisture from it.
"W-would you like some water, sir?" Harry asked warily, squatting beside the man, tin cup held in hand. The man wordlessly grasped it with trembling hands and drank a small portion of the water. He waited a few seconds, before taking another drink, and then dumping the rest of the cup's contents onto his head, making shocked blowing noises as it washed down his face.
"Er…do you want something to eat, sir?"
"Not yet," the man said. "Who are you?"
"Me?" he answered uncertainly, surprised by the lack of a British accent in his voice. If anything, it sounded somewhat like the few Americans he had seen on the telly. "I, uh, I'm Harry Potter."
Without further words, the man stood up. Upon gaining his feet, he swayed slightly, before leaning forward and emptying the contents of his stomach.
"There…there's more water if you want it," Harry said, slightly repulsed by the man's vomiting. Wordlessly, the man handed him the cup, which he took to the pump. Every step of the way, he felt the weight of the man's eyes upon his back, scrutinizing him.
Had Harry made a mistake in helping the man?
Giving the man an uncertain smile, he turned the pump on. The man's hands immediately darted towards the sandalwood-gripped guns hanging from his hips.
"No, its okay, that's just the pump," Harry said quickly. The man gave a curt nod, his face revealing nothing. Without speaking he took the filled cup, drinking slowly from it.
The hundreds of questions that had been bursting in his head deflated beneath the cool, unwavering glance of the man, who did not really seem to want to talk.
"I…I didn't know what to do when you fell down," Harry admitted, fighting not to lower his eyes. "I thought you were going to shoot me, but maybe you were having a hallucination or something."
"I almost did. I thought you were someone else."
Fear gripped Harry for a moment, at the casual way the man had spoke of shooting someone, before curiosity pushed its way to the forefront.
"The man in black?"
The man looked up sharply, causing Harry to take an unconscious step backwards.
"I'm not going to hurt you," the man assured, his blazing eyes subsiding slightly. "I just need to know about the man in black."
"He…he stayed in the front yard. He scared me, so I stayed inside. He just sat there all night, staring at the horizon."
"What did he look like?"
"Like a…like a priest," Harry said, trying to cover up that he had almost said that the man in black looked like a wizard. His visitor had clearly never heard of Harry Potter before, and he wasn't sure that he should mention the Wizarding world. "He had a hood on…I…the only part of his face I saw was his mouth."
"How long ago? Tell me, for your father's sake."
Harry backed up another step, his wariness of the man growing by the second.
"Again, I'm not going to hurt you," the man patiently stated.
"I don't know. Every day is the same, I can't keep track of them."
"Make your best guess. Long ago?"
"No. I – I don't think I've been here long."
The man immediately brought the dented tin cup to his lips again, taking a larger sip.
"A week or two? Maybe."
"Which is it?"
"I don't know!" Harry snapped, suddenly hating this cruel, quiet man. "I can't tell how long I've been here. I remember walking through the invisible column, away from Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters, and I said bye to the Weasels, who told me I could see them in the green fire, even though the Dursleys don't like the fire."
Silently, the man watched Harry, apparently having nothing to say on the matter. There was no confusion, no questions, only a vague detachment.
"He…he didn't even make a fire," Harry continued shakily. "He just sat there."
The silence stretched onwards. Noticing that the man's color was starting to return, he motioned towards the food he had brought.
"There's some dried meat if you want it. It's salty, but…"
"That's fine," the man said, before nodding a single time. "Good."
Quietly, the man began to eat, chasing every bit of meat with a drink from the cup. If he found the meat too salty, he didn't complain about it, or have any outward reaction to its potency. Taking the final strand from the breadboard, he ate it, before settling his gaze upon Harry.
He wanted to fidget beneath the silent, monolithic stare, but held it as best he could. If the man wanted to judge his resolve, he didn't want to disappoint.
"Where are you from, Harry?" the man asked finally.
"I…I think I came from a castle," he replied, casting his gaze downward. "I know I used to remember, but it's all faded now, like an old photograph."
"Were you a Prince?"
"No, I don't think so. I only lived there for most of the year. We learned there, and there was a ghost that taught us. We made things into other things."
"You're not making any sense," the man said flatly.
"I know I'm not, but it's all that I can remember!" Harry shot back. "I didn't ask to be here. I don't know what this place is, and I don't even know what I'm doing here. I know I had all my memories when I came here, but they were all stolen. You stay too long, it will happen to you too."
"May I put you to sleep?" the man asked.
"I'm not sleepy."
"I can make you sleepy, and then you'll remember."
"How?" Harry asked doubtfully.
Pushing aside the large, white horn, which looked like some sort of ancient musical instrument, the man removed a single brass shell from his gun-belt, and twirled it in his fingers. The movement was smooth, like a river flowing. The shell cartwheeled from finger to finger, making its way down his hand. It popped out of sight briefly before reversing its travel, the shell continuing to walk across the man's fingers.
Harry felt his doubt and fear slowly grow to wonder.
"That's a neat trick," praised Harry, his voice sounding far away.
The corners of the man's mouth moved upward a fraction of an inch, but he continued the movement of the shell, filling Harry with a calm, relaxed peace he hadn't felt since he arrived at this cursed place.
"Where are you?" the man asked, his voice seeming to travel from millions of miles away.
The gates of memory thrown wide upon, Harry began to talk.
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The Hogwarts Express slowed and finally stopped.
Harry pulled out his quill and a bit of parchment and turned to Ron and Hermione.
"This is called a telephone number," he told Ron, scribbling it twice, tearing the parchment in two, and handing it to them. "I told your dad how to use a telephone last summer – he'll know. Call me at the Dursleys', okay? I can't stand another two months with only Dudley to talk to..."
"You aunt and uncle will be proud, though, won't they?" said Hermione as they got off the train and joined the crowd thronging toward the enchanted barrier. "When they hear what you did this year?"
"Proud?" said Harry. "Are you crazy? All those time I couldn't died, and I didn't manage it? They'll be furious..."
After exchanging his final farewells with his friends, Uncle Vernon hefted his trunk into the air, and used it to force his way through the throngs of people. Aunt Petunia and his cousin Dudley followed in the wake, with Harry bringing up the rear.
As good-natured as his final words with his two closest friends had been, he already felt the keen sting of loss. Yet another summer away from all his friends, and all the adventures they had.
Another summer away from Hogwarts.
Exiting the station, Uncle Vernon made his way to the car, where he hefted Harry's trunk into the boot. Harry placed Hedwig's empty cage beside it, withdrawing his fingers just in time to avoid having them slammed by Vernon closing the boot.
Harry considered pointing out he had almost lost all the fingers on his right hand, but let it slide. The fewer amount of words exchanged with his 'family', the better. Turning to the rear door of the perfectly ordinary car, a meaty hand closed over his forearm.
"There'll be no sort of foolishness this summer, do you hear me? Do you know how much it cost to fix that window?"
With a snarl, Harry pulled back his arm, breaking his Uncle's grasp.
"Maybe you shouldn't have locked me in the room, then," Harry spat. "Next time I'll just blow down the walls. Is that better?"
"Don't – talk – about - that!" Vernon yelled, before darting his head from side to side, his face reddening.
"Get in the car!" his Aunt hissed, mimicking her husband's movements. Furiously, Harry tore opened the rear passenger door, and sat upon the uncomfortably warm seats, fastening his seatbelt. His Uncle opened the door, sitting himself behind the wheel.
"I will have none of this unnaturalness this summer! Do you hear me?"
"It's hard not to," Harry said coolly, turning aside from his Uncle, looking out the window. He saw other kids getting into cars as well, fellow students that didn't have to deal with an idiot for a guardian.
How he envied them.
"You ungrateful little brat!" Petunia exclaimed. She continued on as Vernon pulled the car out of the parking lot, and began to drive home. His good for nothing parents, his unnaturalness, the psychological damage he was inflicting upon Dudley were all subject of her tirade, nothing being sacred.
Harry tuned it all out patiently, watching the landscape roll by as his Uncle turned the car onto the motorway. Tall buildings, some in the midst of construction, hugged both sides of the motorway tightly, like a trail through a mountain pass. Near the frame of a half-constructed building, the steel supports rising into the sky like a metallic skeleton, a gigantic crane was situated. From its thick steel cables swung a horizontal beam, thirty feet long, perhaps four feet high.
Which was coming right for the car.
"Stop!" Harry screamed.
"Now you listen to me!" Vernon screamed back, turning his head. He never saw the thick bar crash down into the asphalt, crushing the car ahead of them flat, throwing up large chunks of the road.
Uncle Vernon turned just in time to see the car strike the immovable barrier.
Metal squealed and glass exploded as the car slammed into the barrier with an almighty crunch. In the moment before he was slammed forward into the seat, Harry saw his Aunt fly through the windshield, her yellow housedress trailing behind her, followed by a resounding crack.
The air was forced from his lungs as he struck, bringing a sharp pain through his chest. His seatbelt holding him in place, the driver's chair was pushed backwards, pinning him between the two seats. Gasping with pain, Harry glanced to his right, to see his cousin sprawled across the back seat, his neck bent at an unnatural angle, his eyes glassed over with death.
"D-d-dudley?" Harry wheezed, barely able to produce any sound, the intrusive smell of petrol invading his nose. He stared in disbelief, hardly able to comprehend what his eyes were telling him.
His cousin couldn't be dead. Just a few moments ago, his cousin had been watching with barely contained glee at Aunt Petunia's dressing down.
Struggling to make sense of it all, a monumental blast shook the car. Before his surprise had even faded, yellow flames raced through the interior of the car. Pulling in a breath to scream, Harry inhaled the superheated vapor, which traveled into his lungs, burning them to chars.
Through blackening lips, his skin sloughing off his frame, his hair alight, Harry desperate tried to free himself from between the two seats, but was trapped. Attempting to scream for help, his world consumed by fire, Harry died.
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The man's voice seemed like it was coming from a thousand miles away.
"Sir?" he distantly answered. He felt somewhat lucid, capable of rational thought, but in a detached fashion, as if his life was a movie.
"Do you want to remember this when you wake up, or forget it?"
An affirmative on the tip of his tongue, Harry gave pause. All his life, people had been lying to him. The Dursleys lied to him, said he was a freak, and that his parents were drunks who got their stupid selves killed in a car crash. Lockhart, who claimed to be able to save Ron's sister, but would have happily left them to die.
Did he really want to start lying to himself?
Trying to block out the vivid memories of the skin baking off his frame, Harry made his decision.
"I want to remember it."
There was a short, thoughtful pause from the man.
"All right. For now, though, you're going to sleep, understand? Real sleep now. Go ahead and lie over, if it do please ya."
At the behest of the man's voice, Harry did as instructed, sinking into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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When Harry awoke, night had fallen. The man sat with his back against the wall, eyes closed, chest rising up and down rhythmically. Trying to be a quiet as possible, Harry rose, exiting the stable, and standing in the dusty yard.
Bright starlight shone above, like millions of diamonds swimming in a sea of ebony.
Wrapping his arms around himself, he made his way to the porch, lighting the kerosene lamp he had found during his explorations of the property. By its red light, he sat on the porch, considering his situation.
After the man's intervention, every single piece of his life had come flooding back. He remembered it all, from his mistreatment at the hands of the Dursleys, to the fiery end on the highway, trapped within the car.
Was this the afterlife? Wizards didn't seem to have a great deal to say on the subject, but this was nothing like heaven, or hell for that matter. There were no burn marks on his body, nothing to suggest that he had survived a car crash.
Harry's introduction to the magical world had been a complete shock to the system, forcing him to reevaluate what he knew about the world, and how it functioned, but this…this was completely beyond his grasp. How does someone go from death to the middle of a desert?
Hearing footsteps, Harry looked up to see the approaching form of his companion. Whose name he didn't even know. Without a word the man sat down, and began to roll a cigarette.
"We have to palaver," the man stated, without warning.
"Palaver?" Harry asked warily, not familiar with the word.
"To…discuss matters," the man responded after a moment.
"Oh…okay. Before that, though, if you don't mind…"
"I don't even know your name, sir," he blurted out.
"Roland," the man answered simply. "Now, I guess you know I'm on the prod for the man you saw."
"Are you going to kill him?"
"I don't know. I have to make him tell me something. I may have to make him take me someplace."
"To find a tower," Roland said simply, before lighting his rolled cigarette with the lamp's flame. He brought it to his lips, inhaling deeply, before blowing out a plume of bluish smoke. "So I'm going tomorrow. You'll have to come with me. How much of that meat is left?"
Harry let out a deep breath, one that he hadn't been aware he was holding. As it turned out, he didn't even have to ask.
He was going to leave the desert.
"Is there a cellar?"
"Yes," answered Harry, "But I never went inside it. The steps looked rickety, and I thought they'd collapse on me."
"That's fine. We'll get up early and see if there's anything down there worth taking. Then we'll go."
"All right," Harry answered, excited by the prospect of leaving. "I'm really glad you came along, sir. I was so afraid, I thought I'd be stuck here forever."
Roland nodded noncommittally, before rising to his feet, pitching his cigarette onto the ground. "I'm going to sleep."
"Can…can I come with you," Harry asked timidly. He had absolutely no read on Roland, and couldn't tell if his company was an annoyance, or it the man was indifferent.
"Of course," the man answered, before lifting up the lamp, and walking back towards the stable, Harry right behind him.
Tonight would be his last right in this wretched place.
Finally, he'd be free.
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The next morning found the two companions standing in the kitchen, the wooden hatch in the floor thrown open. From the darkened space wafted a wet, swampy stench that made Harry's head swim, as he had become accustomed to the sterile smell of the desert.
By the scant sunlight, he saw that a rickety wooden ladder was planted in an earthen floor. Huge, deformed grey spiders scampered from the light; similar to the ones he had seen within the walls.
"I don't think spiders are supposed to look like that," Harry stated.
"They're muties," he said simply, before quickly descending the ladder. It creaked slightly beneath his weight, but showed no signs of giving. At the bottom, he stood motionless, staring into the depths of the cellar.
"Er, are you all right?"
"Yes," answered Roland. "There are cans. Wait."
Without further comment, the man walked out of his sightline, deeper into the cellar. Unease immediately began to tug at his mind, images of a giant spider eating Roland plaguing his mind. As stupid as they were, he couldn't get the images out his mind.
After a few moments, Roland returned, carrying an armload of cans. He came halfway up the ladder, allowing Harry to take them the rest of the way off. Green beans, yellow beans and corned beef made up the haul, which was far better than the painfully salty meat he had been eating before Roland arrived.
On the third trip, Harry heard a horrible groan, which came up through the trapdoor, sounding like some colossal creature waking.
"What's that?" he nervously exclaimed.
"Quiet!" Roland hissed. As his words faded away, a great shifting and grinding poured from the cellar, as if something was digging through the sand.
"Sir, get out of there!"
"Go away," Roland calmly answered, as if he was discussing nothing more important than the weather. "Wait outside. If I don't come up by the time you count to two…, no, three hundred, get the hell out."
"I can't leave you to die!" Harry yelled fearfully.
Roland didn't bother to answer. From the cellar, Harry heard the pouring of sand intensify, before fading away, to be replaced by steady, heavy breathing.
"Who are you?" he heard Roland ask, his voice sounding as if it were a planet away. Following several seconds of silence, the man spoke again.
"Who are you, Demon? Speak, if you would speak. My time is short; my patience shorter."
"Go slow," a clotted, inhuman voice growled in response. Fear overcoming his mind, Harry clapped a hand over his mouth, his feet stuck to the floor. "Go slow past the Drawers, gunslinger. Watch for the taheen. While you travel with the boy, the man in black travels with your soul in his pocket."
"What do you mean? Speak on!"
Only silence met Roland's shouted command, followed by the shifting of sand.
"Roland, are you okay?" Harry screamed, finding his voice.
"I'm fine," the gunslinger, as the voice had referred to him as, answer. "I'm coming up."
Harry's heart lightened considerably as Roland's dark-haired form emerged from the cellar.
"Was it a demon?" he asked, his eyes wide.
"Yes. A speaking-demon. We don't have to go back there anymore. Let's go shake a mile."
Shaking his head, Harry followed the gunslinger as he made his way to the stable. The man's expression and manner was calm, collected, as if a close encounter with a demon was no big deal.
For all Harry knew, it hadn't been.
The gunslinger made a rough pack from the blanket he'd slept under, placing their canned food within it. Going to the pump, Roland filled a strange, thin hide with water, so that it looked like a bloated sausage.
"You carry one of the waterbags," Roland ordered, handing it to Harry. "Wear it around your shoulders."
He did as instructed, draping it over his shoulders. It was slightly heavy, but definitely manageable. It was like wearing a snake.
"Is it too heavy?"
Harry shook his head in negation.
"No, I'll be okay."
"Tell me the truth, now," Roland said sternly. "I can't carry you if you get sunstroke."
"I'll be okay," Harry assured. If the waterbag got too heavy, he could always use a Feather-Light Charm on it. Roland nodded, apparently mollified.
"Are we going to the mountains?"
Everything ready, they walked out across the hardpan desert, leaving the way station behind. The ends of the waterbag hung nearly to Harry's knees as he walked, the weight already beginning to press down upon his skinny frame. It looked like he'd have to use the charm earlier than anticipated.
After a moment of consideration, Harry decided to wait until Roland was distracted. He didn't know the man well enough to trust him with the fact that he was a wizard. No, best to keep it hidden for as long as possible.
His decision made, he continued to follow Roland, the two buildings shrinking as they made their way towards the shadow of the mountains.
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The trek through the desert was just as difficult as Harry had imagined. Overhead the sun mocked them, unrelenting in its ridicule. The flesh of his neck and face tingled with discomfort, a harbinger of the vast sunburn he was going to have to deal with at night.
Worse, however, was the waterbag draped across his shoulders. The canteen had grown from a mere inconvenience to torture, as if he was being forced to carry a body across the endless wastes. For a moment, he stole a glance at the bright sun, before turning his attention to Roland.
The gunslinger looked as if he had barely broken a sweat, his dust-colored shirt unblemished by tell-tale stains. Roland had remained silent the entire day, his face drawn in tight determination, only stopping once an hour for a quick pull of water.
Harry was not doing as well. After each stop, his aching muscles tightened up, as if in protest of further movement. A white hot pain had begun to develop at the base of his back, every step proving uncomfortable. His head swam, his thoughts dangerously close to wandering off.
If something didn't change, he was going to be in trouble.
Keeping his eyes fixed ahead at the ocean of sand, he began to slow his pace, so that after several minutes, Roland had moved slightly ahead of him. Betraying nothing with his eyes, he slowly reached behind him, under his draped gray shirt, to the holly and phoenix-feather wand tucked into his back pocket. Pulling it out, he kept the stick behind his back, unseen, pointing at the heavy waterbag hanging around his shoulders like the world's most uncomfortable shawl.
The heavy weight upon his shoulder lightened, his whispered Feather-Light Charm striking true. His eyes focused ahead, he returned his wand to his back pocket, keeping a close eye on Roland. The wind had taken his incantation, and the man had not even turned around.
A bounce in his step, liberated from the vast weight, he caught up with the gunslinger and resumed their long march. His load lightened, the rest of the day passed by with ease. As dusk descended, Roland abruptly stopped, prompting Harry to pull up.
"We'll stop here for the night," he declared, setting down the pack on the ground. Wordlessly, he began to rip yellow weeds from the yellowed hardpan, placing them in a pile.
"I'm surprised anything grows out here at all," Harry said as he assisted Roland in gathering fuel for the fire.
"Devil-grass can grow anywhere," Roland replied, before pulling his flint and steel from the pack. "Watch."
The steel rod held in his left hand, placed into the center of the shredded, dry grass, Roland struck the rod with the sharp edge of the flint multiple times. Sparks cascaded onto the bed of dried grass, setting the pile alight. Bit-by-bit he built up the fire, laying more fuel atop the smoldering pile.
The devil-grass burned with a dull, greasy light, but provided a measure of comfort from the advancing chill of night.
Once the fire had been built-up sufficiently, Roland opened several of the cans, before removing the tops and setting them into the embers. Within minutes, the aroma of beans and corned beef wafted through the camp.
His stomach content after a silent dinner, Harry drifted off into a black, dreamless sleep.
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Three days out from the Way Station, the mountains in the distance became less a mirage, and more of a reality. Up from the desert floor rose the gentle transition to foothills, leading up to lush, green vegetation. Gray rock rose above the green, terminating in snow-covered peaks.
The alternating hardpan and loose-packed sand provided a challenge, one which had begun to make Harry's back and legs ache incessantly, but aided by the lightening of his waterbag, he was able to push on.
Roland remained emotionless throughout the entire journey, saying little, his expression unchanging, without a trace of exhaustion. At regular intervals they passed by the man in black's campfires, each one seeming fresher than the last.
Despite all expectations, they were gaining. The gunslinger did not seem pleased by their apparent progress. Nor was Harry, for that matter. He was not looking forward to meeting up with the man in black.
Late in the afternoon, his mind drifting, grey overtook his vision. Without warning he fell to the ground, skinning his palms on the hardpan. Roland moved like lightning, taking the waterbag from his shoulders.
"I'm fine," assured Harry, shaking his head, but Roland's gaze never wavered.
Biting his tongue, Harry sat down cross-legged upon the hard ground. The gunslinger squatted down besides him, using his body to block out the sun.
"Drink," he ordered, holding Harry's waterbag out to him.
Harry shook his head, but Roland pressed the liquid container into his hands. Regretfully, he took it, and drank three quick swallows from the bloated hide. He had been doing so good at keeping with the older man's water schedule, and a stupid grey-out had gotten in the way.
It wasn't the faint drops of blood dotting his scraped palms, nor the slight ding his pride had taken. No, more than anything, his did not want his new companion to think him weak.
Taking the waterbag back, Roland poured some onto the ends of the blanket, using them to moisten the dry flesh of Harry's wrists and forehead.
"From now on we rest every afternoon at this time. Fifteen minutes."
"I'm sorry," Harry said, hanging his head.
"I expected you to falter two days ago," Roland said, looking down at him. "You don't have the build for this sort of travel. Nor to carry a heavy waterbag."
Harry looked down in shame, away from Roland's piercing blue gaze.
"I thought it'd be better if we moved faster."
"Aye, it is," the gunslinger agreed. "What is the wooden stick?"
His body sank at Roland's words. He had thought he had been so clever, hiding the wand from sight. With a sigh, he withdrew the magical focus.
"This is my wand," explained Harry, holding up the piece of holly wood.
"Are you a mage?" the gunslinger asked sharply, his eyes narrowing.
"I…yes, I am," he answered fearfully. Was Roland afraid of magic?
"So I take it that is why you have not put your full effort into learning to make fire?"
Harry deflated further, having no words to defend himself with.
"Look at me."
He raised his head at Roland's command, seeing that the gunslinger had drawn one of his revolvers.
"I am a gunslinger, as you are aware, and this is the tool of my trade. But, it is a tool. If I were to lose it, I would need to make do without it."
With movements too fast for Harry to track, Roland reached down with his right hand, snatching the wood from his hands. The young teen skittered backwards, frightened by the sudden movement.
"And now I have taken your tool. Tell me, Harry, how will you make do without it?"
Anger burned within Harry as he met the older man's gaze. It was easy for him to do all this, he'd had an entire lifetime to hone his skills.
"Right now, I can't," Harry spat. "I thought finding the man in black was more important than building fire."
"And that is why you are a fool, one who has forgotten the face of his father," Roland said, before placing the wand within his pack.
Harry watched him pack his wand away with narrowed eyes, displeased at being treated like a child. Oddly, the corners of Roland's mouth twitched at Harry's expression.
"Are you willing to make do without?"
The words spilling bitterly off his tongue, Harry replied.
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Five days out from the Way Station the soft, yielding sand turned to stone. The harsh, unforgiving wastes of the desert were behind them.
They had reached the foothills.
"I never thought I'd leave the desert," admitted Harry aloud, turning to Roland. His companion nodded a single time without slowing, remaining silent.
While Harry had thought the gunslinger quiet before, now he was lucky to get him to reply to anything. Their conversation was limited to Roland indicating when they should stop, and to correct Harry as he tried to make fire.
From a physical standpoint, the loss of his wand didn't hurt as much, considering their waterbags were growing lighter by the day, easing his burden. However, from an emotional standpoint, Roland had just taken the most valuable item he possessed, the only remaining memento of the Wizarding world.
Harry understood the point that Roland was making, but did he really have to take his wand away? It wasn't like he was unmotivated or anything.
The base of the foothills rose gradually. Amongst the brown stone sat thick patches of Devil-grass, a shade darker than the lifeless yellow which grew in the desert. Above them, almost taunting them, was the greenery that lay between the foothills and the harsh rise of the mountains.
They crested a small hill, making their way halfway down the next before Roland stopped in his tracks, motioning to his right. A large outcropping of light brown stone stood against the hill, providing shelter from the sweltering sun. Despite escaping the desert, the sun's intensity had lost none of its bite, and continued to plague them.
"I don't think it's time yet," Harry said, determined to show the gunslinger that he had no intention of quitting on the trail.
"Nonetheless," Roland placed his pack upon the ground. "This is a good spot to stop for a few minutes. And for you to practice."
Though Harry's lips tightened, he said nothing. His attempts to make fire so far had been pitiful at kindest, but he kept at the task with a dogged persistence. The gunslinger would never respect him if he had given up.
That, and he wanted his wand back sometime this year.
Wordlessly, Harry took the flint and steel from Roland, sitting cross-legged upon the ground. His back to the outcropping, he began to scrape the flint along the side of the rod. He had yet to produce any sparks, a feat which frustrated him to no end, especially with the complete ease Roland had created fire during his demonstrations.
Harry mimicked the shallow angle Roland had stressed, scraped as opposed to striking the rod, but success remained elusive. What was he doing wrong?
After several minutes of silent observation, his companion finally spoke up.
"Your hands are getting better, but your mind is still far behind. What do you think of when you strike the rod?"
"A lot of things," Harry moodily replied, glaring at the steel rod.
"Then you will continue to fail. All that should matter is the flint, the steel and your hands."
A thousand retorts threatening to burst from his mouth, Harry maintained his silence. With great difficulty, he tried to sever the connections and associations playing in his mind. His anger, his indignation, his fear, they began to fade as he unblinkingly focused on the narrow steel rod, and the thin wedge of flint.
He was not going to think of his wand. He was not going to think of what an asshole Roland was. He was not going to think of water.
Breathing deeply, he scraped against the rod, producing a single spark, which fell to the gravel before winking out of existence.
"I did it!" Harry exclaimed, looking at the gunslinger.
"Do it again."
At once, he scraped against the rod, eliciting nothing but a thin grating noise.
"Shite," swore Harry.
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Six days out from the Way Station, the grade of their upward ascent had increased, making their walk more difficult. Harry's waterskin was empty, as was one of Roland's, the empty skins being put back into his pack. The sole remaining one hung from the gunslinger's shoulders, only a quarter full, sloshing as he walked, every step disturbing its contents.
Not that the thought bothered Harry much. They were almost out of the foothills. Soon there would be more than enough water, made from pools of melting snow running off the mountain.
Looking upwards, towards the green plains that lay above them, just slightly out of reach, he wondered how many hours it would be until they reached the greenery.
Two? Three? Four?
Still searching, his sight wandered beyond the plains, to the blunt grey cliffs and ledges above, all the way to the blinding white snowcaps.
Harry's breath froze in his lungs as he beheld a tiny speck moving up the granite walls, which scaled the insurmountable grey faces with ease.
"Is that…him?" Harry asked fearfully, pointing upwards.
"That's him," Roland replied, his face a mask. No worry, no satisfaction at a glimpse of his quarry.
"Can we catch him?" Harry asked, doubtful. "He seems so far ahead."
"Yet we've been gaining on him. Not on this side of the mountain, though. Not the other, either, if we stand around talking."
"What's on the other side?" Harry ventured. He'd been wary of asking Roland anything about this world, as he seemed uncomfortable with questions, but the query slipped out anyway.
"I don't know," replied Roland. "I don't think anyone does. Maybe they did once. Come on, boy."
Upward they continued. As they walked, Harry tracked the progress of the man in black. He seemed to leap gaping chasms casually, climb blank, flat expanses of stone with ease, all without every slowing.
How they were supposed to follow his path, Harry hadn't the faintest.
They made camp for the night just shy of the green fields above, Harry took the flint and steel without comment. His mind cleared, he began to scrape at the narrow rod, producing sparks on his first try. He felt none of the elation he had experienced during his prior successful attempt.
The creation of one spark was not his goal, and was not important. The creation of many sparks was.
With patience he struck at the steel, creating spark after spark on a consistent basis.
"Good," Roland said with approval, watching his progress. "Tomorrow you make the fire."
Letting out a deep breath, Harry allowed a satisfied smile to reach his face. Not only were they about to leave the blazing sun behind, but he was going to get his wand back.
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They had finally made it.
At first there was only dry soil, from which yellowed plants grew, clinging to life with the persistence of the foolish. As the foothills flattened out, the greenery increased in robustness, the sound of crickets in the air, the smell of grass in Harry's nose.
Despite his vast weariness, the sight of the fir trees rising into the sky, providing deep shadows to hide within, made him want to break into a dead sprint. To get away from the cruel, malevolent sun, to flop into the thick grass, and lay in the cool soil.
However, a will that he had not possessed a month ago stayed his hand. If he lost control at this juncture, and abandoned all traces of discipline, that very impatience would work against every minute he had spent proving to Roland that he was not some weak-minded fool.
He felt Roland's heavy gaze regarding him from the corner of his eye, judging his actions. Beneath the man's watchful scrutiny he kept his pace constant, matching the gunslinger's. One step at a time.
Before Harry could even react, Roland drew and fired one of his guns in a blur of motion. Across the clearing, still recoiling in shock, Harry spied a brief red mist in the air, before a brown rabbit collapsed to the ground. His expression remaining neutral, Roland holstered just as quick as he had drawn, leaving Harry flummoxed.
He had never seen anyone move that fast.
"Here," Roland said, lowering his pack to the ground, before going after the felled rabbit. The grass was knee-high, but smelt of peace, of coolness. All he wanted to do was fall backwards, and stretch, revel in its comfort.
Which he could not allow himself to do.
"I'll go get some wood," he offered, glancing at Roland. To his surprise, the man let out a small smile.
"No, you won't. Sit yourself, Harry."
Surprised that the slave-driver was showing some leniency, he sat down in the cool grass. His stiff joints and aching muscles murmured appreciatively as sat down on the soft, yielding surface. Though several months ago the thought would have been absurd, sitting in the long grass felt more comfortable than his bed back at Hogwarts.
At least in comparison to his sleeping accommodations during their trek during the desert.
Harry still marveled at their accomplishment. All alone at the Way Station, the distance to the mountains had seemed insurmountable, a journey that would have taken months.
Yet they had crossed the distance in a mere six days. Less than a week.
Despite his healthy fear of Roland, which had stayed the millions of questions festering in his mind, he respected the older man. He had no idea what a 'gunslinger' was, only that without the quiet, determined man, he would have never escaped the Way Station.
Several minutes later, Roland returned. He held the rabbit, a neat, small hole between its beady eyes, by the ears, and carried a full waterbag around his shoulders, which he offered. Harry took it gratefully, drinking deep of the fresh water as Roland built up a chimney from fallen branches.
The sweet, clear liquid tasted like the finest thing he had ever drunk.
Satisfied, he laid the waterbag back on the ground. Wordlessly, a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth, Roland handed him the flint and steel, as well as a clump of dried Devil-grass for tinder.
Seated on the ground, Harry put the steel rod against the ground, the tinder below. He noticed that Roland had produced a knife and was beginning to skin the rabbit. He pushed the image from his mind, refocusing upon his task at hand.
To make fire.
Intently scraping the flint against the steel, he was rewarded by a steady procession of falling sparks. They smoldered upon the tinder, beginning to smoke. Harry transferred the smoldering tinder to the crude, but workable chimney; he began to blow against the bottom, encouraging the fledgling fire. A small flame blazed to life at once. He nurtured the flames like an infant, building it up until the fire had spread to the interior of the chimney.
"I bloody did it," Harry said, nearly dazed.
"You did," Roland said. "You have remembered the face of your father."
The gunslinger held out his holly wand, holding the instrument in the palm of his hand. With reverence Harry took the wand back.
"Thank you, sir," he said, whole for the first time since his wand had been taken.
"You earned it, Harry. I did not think you would, but you have."
Roland combined the rabbit with the last of their vegetables, making a stew. Without question it was the best thing Harry had eaten since arriving in this strange world.
Later that night, his stomach full, his wand curled protectively against his chest, Harry fell to sleep at once, a content smile upon his face.
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The trappings of a half-remembered dream fading away like sand through his fingers, Harry awoke. His bladder throbbed. With a sigh Harry get up and did the necessary at a copse of trees near the edge of the clearing. The moon shone bright above the tree-line, providing more than enough light to navigate with.
His business complete, Harry started to walk back towards his single worn blanket, before thirst declared its presence. The idea of fresh water appealed to Harry, inspiring him to walk past the small camp where Roland dreamt. Willow branches batted lightly at the top of Harry's head as he passed under them, before arriving at the spring.
The still water was as smooth as black silk, blemished only by the pale reflection of the moon. The surface rippled and wavered as Harry stuck his hand in and brought it to his mouth, drinking deep of the sweet water.
Thirst satisfied, he sat at the small pool's edge, looking at nothing in particular. He was still tired, and did plan to go back to sleep, but it had occurred to him that the dynamic between himself and Roland had changed. Where before he had been a tag-along, more of an annoyance than anything, upon winning his wand back, he had seen a new look in his companion's eyes.
Roland had not made any secret of the fact that he expected Harry to fail. That he was not tough enough for the trail. Even after losing his wand, he had persevered onwards, one foot in front of another.
He had, as the gunslinger like to say, 'learned to do without'.
Tomorrow morning, he was going to turn loose the coiled questions hidden within his mind. It had been difficult to keep them bottled inside, but Harry thought it the most prudent course, with Roland's steadfast silence, and reluctance to answer questions.
Maybe it would be different now. Hell, it need to be, if he was ever going to have any chance of making his way home.
With a final sip of the spring, Harry stood. Moments before he turned, with every intention of going back to sleep, a terrified cry rang out from the woods.
A girl's scream.
Harry hesitated only for a fraction of a second before splashing through the shallow water, his wand held in front of him. He clambered up the gently sloping bank on the opposite side, his water-logged sneakers sliding on the grass, before pushing into the forest.
The trees just beyond the clearing were clumped tightly together, their branches blotting out the radiant moonlight. The thigh-high grass pulled at him, caressing his legs as he shambled forward, towards the frightened cry. Cracks exploded throughout the night as he high-stepped through a thick bramble.
With a final charge he broke free from the underbrush's restraints. A tunnel of overhanging willow and sumac stretched overhead, blotting out the star-strewn sky. His heart thrumming in his chest, Harry sprinted through the grasping grey willow, which hung like the tentacles of some Lovecraftian horror. He elbowed through the thick veil of grey strands at the end of the tunnel, emerging out into a majestic vista.
The sky opened out again, displaying the millions of pinpricks of light perforating the shroud of space. Perched impossibly high above the ground, its blinding show-white peak shining brighter than the moon stood the highest mountain in the range.
Out from the floor of the grass clearing jutted a circle of tall, black stones. The monoliths comprising the ring were of varying heights, from four to eight feet. In the center of the array a table of stone rose out of the earth. A familiar figure sat upon its edge, having looked up at his approach.
For a moment Harry could only stare, all rational thought swept away.
Cho Chang, the Seeker for the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, sat upon the altar. She wore tight fitting cut-off shorts, made from light dungarees. Toned, tanned legs were crossed at the calves, a silver string of charms tied around her right ankle. She was barefoot, the bottoms of her feet damp with dew.
Her upper body was clothed in a light-purple jumper, the long sleeve rolled up to her elbows. Her shining black hair was tied into a messy bun at the back of hear head, held with a purple band.
At his arrival, she looked up from the ground. Her eyes were large, shining beacons of amber, from which tear tracks began, trailing down her delicate, porcelain feature. Her mouth opened into a wide 'O' of surprise, before she leapt from the stone table. She hit him full speed, almost knocking them both over as she wrapped her arms around his midsection.
Still slightly in shock, Harry reacted instinctively, wrapping his arms around her upper back. She responded immediately, turning her head and tucking it into his chest, pulling herself further into him.
To say Harry was in shock would be an understatement. He had of course admired the beautiful Chinese girl from a distance during his second year at Hogwarts, but had not exchanged two words with her.
"Uhhhh, Ch-Cho, what…?" he stuttered, rendered incapable of speech.
"I don't know," she whispered, her voice barely louder than the gentle night breeze. "I woke up here, alone. Thank Merlin you found me. I…I thought I was alone."
His mind a whirlwind of confusion and thirteen year-old hormones, Harry did the best he could, tucking an errant strand of black hair behind her ears.
"It's going to be okay," he assured her, rubbing her back in circular patterns. She responded to his touch, pressing herself deeper into him. With shock, he felt the hardened nubs of her chest pushing into his midsection.
"Thank you, Harry," she breathed, before raising her head, looking up at him. Her wide, almond-shaped eyes, the pupils deep pools of ebony, held his own for a moment. Her long eyelashes fluttered for a moment, before she closed her eyes, tilted her head up, capturing his lips.
Shocked, Harry returned the kiss the best of his ability, breathing deep of her lilac scent, marveling at the smoothness of her lips. As if in a trance, his hands moved upwards, threaded into her dark tresses. Without breaking the kiss, Cho reached back and undid the elastic, tossing it carelessly aside.
Freed from its confines, her silky hair spilled down her back. Harry ran his fingers through its seamless texture. She moaned deeply into his kiss, pressing her tongue gently through their joining, running it along his bottom teeth.
A shudder of pleasure rippling down his body, he broke the kiss, trembling as he did so.
"C-c-cho," he stuttered, barely able to speak. "S-s-should w-we b-be d-doing this?"
Cho answered his question by placing her delicate index finger against his lips, and guided him backwards. Vague questions and fear running through his conscious, in direct conflict with what his body screamed, the back of his legs collided with something unyielding, sending him tumbling backwards. His rear end hit cool stone, allowing him the time to soften his landing. He sat up quickly, only to have Cho leap into his lap.
The lithe Chinese girl straddled his sitting form, wrapping her arms around him, devouring his mouth with an almost desperate ferocity.
The voice was distant, as if coming from a thousand miles away. Before he could try to place it, Cho broke the kiss, bringing her lips to his right ear.
"It's the man in black, Harry," she whispered fearfully. "He wants to take you away from me."
"Never," hissed Harry as Cho dismounted him. He jumped up, drawing his wand at a single movement. Across the clearing, just on the edge of the willow veil, stood the man in black. He grin was maniacal, the only portion of his cowled face visible. In a pale hand he held a vague, unformed shape that made Harry want to crawl out of his skin.
"You know what you have to do," encouraged Cho from behind him, wrapping her arms around his midsection, clinging tightly to his back.
With a nod, Harry thrust his wand forward, animating the veil of stranded willows. Like an octopus they grasped at his adversary, who rolled out of the way, moving like smoke. Harry flung a Stunner, followed by a Body-Bind, which the man ducked under.
Whipping his wand across his body, thick roots tore themselves from the earth, kicking up dirt as they wrapped themselves around the man's right leg. The man in black tried to struggle, but the roots jerked in away from him, spilling him to the ground. A grin stretching across his face, he jabbed his wand forward, launching another Stunner at his prone enemy.
Quick as a snake, the man in black threw a dark object at Harry. It caught the red curse in mid-air, detonating it in a rain of stone chips. The shrapnel dug into his clothes, scraping across his skin, but Harry barely felt it.
All that mattered was saving Cho.
About to cast again, he saw the man in black slice through the roots with a large knife, severing his bonds. With cat-like agility he leapt up, raising the horrible, deformed object in his hand.
Cho was screaming in his ear, telling him to finish the bad man, but the object was so horrible, so obscene that it made him want to vomit. Shakily, he began to raise his wand, but the man raised the object higher, while stretching out his opposite hand, the first and last fingers forked outwards.
An ear-splitting scream tore through the air behind Harry, penetrating his skull. He clapped his hands to his ears, falling to his knees. As his wand thudded softly upon the grass, Cho's weight abruptly disappeared, sending him falling backwards.
His wand landing in the grass, the horrible object was illuminated by the silvery beams of moonlight, revealing a large, moldy jawbone.
An inexplicable terror flooded his being at the sight, causing his vision to grey. As it darkened to black, consciousness fleeing him, the hands holding the jawbone lowered, and Roland stepped forward, his icy blue eyes narrowed in concentration.
"See this, Harry – see it very well,"
Harry let out one final agonized scream, unable to look away from the cursed object, before oblivion claimed him.
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Warm rays of sunlight spilling down onto his face, Harry awoke. Though feeling rested, his body was inexplicably stiff, as if restrained. Yawning widely, eyes still closed, he began to stretch, only to find his arms immobilized.
His eyelids flying open, Harry looked down to see that he was standing, his back against rough bark. A rough blanket was pulled tight against his entire body, presumably tied behind the tree, allowing only his head to move. With growing anger he observed that Roland was sleeping comfortably upon the other blanket, stretched out in the sun.
"Roland!" screamed Harry indignantly, straining against his bindings. What the bloody hell was he playing at?
The gunslinger awoke at once, rising to his feet in a single fluid movement. Harry even forgot his own displeasure for a second, marveling at how quickly someone could go from waking to complete alertness.
"Why'd you tie me up?" he demanded, glaring at his companion. "I wasn't going to run away!"
"You did run away," contested Roland, beginning to undo the tight bonds, a wry smile upon his face. "I had to go out and get you. You were sleepwalking."
"I was?" Harry asked, narrowing his eyes. "I don't think so. I've never done anything like-"
Wordlessly, Roland reached into his back pocket and produced a large, moldy jawbone. A deep sickness bloomed out from Harry's core, causing him to turn to the side.
The memories immediately came flooding back. The night time stroll, the scream, finding Cho…touching her. The thought of their encounter caused him to flush a deep red, though the memory dissipated upon recalling he had attacked Roland.
"Roland, what was it?" Harry asked. "I thought I saw one of the girls from my school."
"It took physical form?" Roland asked, his gaze intent.
"She seemed so real. When she told me to – to attack, she said you were the man in black. I'm sorry, Roland."
"You were not right in the head. A mage is more susceptible to influence. I was lucky to find you in time."
"What was it?"
"A demon., perhaps an oracle, with no shape, only an unformed sexual glare with the eye of prophecy. "
"No, it had a shape," Harry disagreed, shaking his head. "It looked like-"
"We don't have time to palaver now," stated Roland, cutting him off. "I have to go off for a while. I may be gone the entire day. So listen to me, boy. It's important. If sunset comes and I'm not back-"
"Won't the demon get you too?"
Roland let out a thin smile.
"She'll find me far more difficult prey. Now listen, and hear my very well. I want you to stay here while I'm gone. Right here in camp. Don't stray, even if it seems like the best idea in the world. And if you feel strange – funny in any way – you pick up this bone and hold it in your hands."
Hate and disgust erupted in Harry's mind at the mere mention of the jawbone.
"I-I-I don't know if I c-could."
"You can. You may have to. Especially after midday. It's important. You may feel pukey or headachey when you first lay hold of it, but it'll pass. Do you understand?"
Almost regretfully, Harry nodded.
"I also have to take this," Roland continued, raising up the holly wand. Harry bit his lip for a moment, before nodding a single time. He didn't like losing his wand again, but understood Roland's reasoning.
"I underestimated your skill," the gunslinger admitted. "I thought this was a tool of simple tasks, not a weapon."
"It wasn't me," Harry corrected. "I don't even know how to do any of that stuff."
The gunslinger looked thoughtful for a moment, before the expression vanished. He placed the jawbone next to the blackened remains of the fire, in clear sight of Harry. Roland then withdrew his tobacco poke and sifted through the dry strands of leaf, withdrawing a small object wrapped in a white paper. Between his fingers he rolled it for a moment, before unwrapping the greasy paper and revealing a tiny white pill with worn edges.
"What is it?" asked Harry.
The gunslinger uttered a short laugh.
"The story Cort used to tell us was that the Old Gods pissed over the desert and made mescaline."
Harry fixed a puzzled gaze upon the white pill.
"This is a drug," the gunslinger explained. "But not one that puts you to sleep. One that wakes you all the way for a little while."
"Will it hurt you?"
"It never has," the gunslinger answered evasively. Squatting down, Roland popped the pill into his mouth, washing it down with a swallow from the waterbag.
"When does something happen to you?"
"Not for a little while. Be quiet."
Falling silent, Harry watched as Roland unholstered one of his guns. Piece by piece he disassembled the large revolver with an ease born from years of practice, wiping down each part with care. When finished he reassembled the gun, before beginning on the other sandalwood gripped weapon.
Both guns cleaned, he withdrew the horn from his belt.
"What's that?" Harry asked before he could stop himself. Roland answered without looking up as he wiped a rag across the brass surface.
"The Horn of Eld, passed down all the way from Arthur Eld, who used it to lead his fellow knights against the enemies of the Light. Your shirt, Harry. Take it off and give it to me."
Startled by the abrupt request, he pulled Dudley's old garment and passed the ragged shirt to Roland. The gunslinger produced a needle and thread from the inside of his jeans, and began to stitch together the holes formed by the flying stone fragments. His skin still stung where the shrapnel had cut him, but the gashes were shallow.
After a few minutes, Roland handed the shirt back to Harry, fully mended.
"I have to go now," he said, rising to his feet. "It's time."
Harry followed the gunslinger, concern gnawing at him.
"Be careful. Please."
"Remember the jawbone," Roland warned, before placing a hand atop Harry's head, patting it a single time. Without further words, he turned towards the edge of the clearing, the willow jungle swallowing him from sight.
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Once Roland had left, Harry sat back down next to the charred remnants of the fire, pulling his knees into his chest.
He still didn't know what to make of the Oracle, or the fact that she had come in the form of Cho Chang. The thoughts of the embraces brought a warm feeling to his body independent of the sun, but to have attacked Roland…
Just how close had he been to losing himself? Five minutes? Ten?
A Hogwarts student with two years of attendence, Harry was no stranger to ghosts. They walked the ancient halls of the school freely, just as much a part of the environment as the moving portraits, the suits of armor and the feats at mealtimes.
Even the most mischievous of the figures, Peeves, however, never meant any harm to anyone.
Roland had not spelled out the details in explicit fashion, but Harry could read between the lines. Had he not been found, the Oracle would have continued to use him to satisfy her needs, pushing his body until death arrived.
When she had commanded him to attack Roland, the spells had come to him with ease, without any complex incantations. He hadn't even known how to cast silently, nor that it was possible, but at the Oracle's command he had done so.
Did that mean he had the same ability?
If so, a whole world of oppurtunity had just been opened. Maybe he wasn't capable of such advanced magic yet, but if Roland hypnotized him and then commanded him to conjure water, would he be able to do so?
It was a long-shot, but without knowing the incantations, was probably his best bet.
Lost in thought, his mind barely registered that he had risen, and of their own accord his feet had began to move towards the edge of the clearing. In the direction of the circle of standing stones.
Coming back to himself, Harry fixed his gaze upon the grotesque jawbone. A wave of nausea coursed through his body, making him groan, but his progress halted. The contents of his stomach churning, he forced himself to walk back towards the camp, resisting the gravitational pull of the Oracle.
Roland was busy, and Harry couldn't afford another incident like last night. Sweat pouring down his body, he sat down before the fire and balanced the jawbone on one of his knees. The sickness within increased, but he forced himself to look at the jawbone. Bit-by-bit the pull of the Oracle loosened, as did the urge to puke.
On the wild grass he sat for several minutes, basking in the sun, before the crunch of boots treading upon fallen branches met his ears. He stood up at once as Roland emerged from the willows. An unnatural pale had settled into his palor, while his clothes were rumpled and scratches from the brush raked across his arms and face.
"You're back!" exclaimed Harry, still holding onto the offending jawbone.
"Aye," he replied, before glancing at the jawbone. "You can let go of that, Harry."
Grateful to be free of the loathsome object, he tossed the decaying bone to the ground. He wiped his hand on his shirt, the sliminess of the bone clinging to his fingers. Turning back to Roland, he saw him sway for a moment, before reaching into his poke and rolling a cigarette. He lit the tobacco from the embers of the fire, inhaling deeply.
"I must speak to you as Dan-dinh," the gunslinger explained, exhaling a plume of bluish smoke.
Harry did not recognize the word, but maintained his silence. Judging by the heaviness of Roland's speech, he planned to share something difficult to pin down with words.
"I never wanted the game to get this dirty," said Roland after a heavy pause. "The man in black had something I need, so I pursued him. To bring one such as yourself into this quest is unfair, yet we must make do. If you would continue this quest with me, the Oracle is the least of the horrors you will encounter."
Harry didn't even have to think about his response.
"I want to come with you."
The gunslinger nodded a single time, his face austere.
"So be it. The Demon was indeed an Oracle. She fought me, and the price paid was high, but she told me of the future."
The gunslinger hesitated a moment, drawing another drag from his cigarette, before speaking her words of prophecy.
"Three. Three is the number of your fate."
"Three is mystic. Three stands at the heart of your quest. Another number comes later. Now the number is three."
"The first is young, dark-haired. He stands on the brink of robbery and murder. A demon has infested him. The name of the demon is HERION."
"The second comes on wheels. I see no more."
"The third is Death…but not for you."
"The man in black is near. You will speak with him soon."
"You will speak of the tower."
"The boy is your gate to the man in black. The man in black is your gate to the three. The three are your way to the Dark Tower."
There appeared to be more, but Roland trailed off, apparently done speaking.
"What does it all mean?" Harry asked, after concluding Roland had no more to say on the subject. The gunslinger opened his mouth to reply, before reconsidering, carefully choosing his answer.
"I can't say."
"What's the Dark Tower, then?" Harry asked. "Why is it important? What does the man in black know about it?"
"The Dark Tower is the nexus of this world, and perhaps all worlds. A great malaise has struck this world, poisoning it. We say here that 'the world has moved on', but what we mean is that it is dying. Machines break without reason, information and books are lost to time, and the laws of man have descended into anarchy. I believe this sickness spread forth from the Tower, and there it can be fixed."
"And the man in black?"
"A lifetime ago, I set out from the ruins of my home, Gilead. The man in black is different from you, but I believe him to be a mage himself. He is the furthest minion of the Tower, and is most likely the only one who knows where it can be found."
The Dark Tower? Gilead? Harry had never heard of either, an unsurprsing discovery.
This world was clearly different from the one he had come from.
"We'll sleep here tonight," Roland said, rising to his feet. "Tomorrow we can start climbing. I'll go out and see if I can't shoot something for supper. We need to make strength. I've got to sleep now. Okay?"
Harry nodded at once. Satisfied, the gunslinger reached into one of his pockets, withdrawing Harry's wand and handing the wooden instrument to him.
"Thanks," he said, taking the wand back. Roland offered him a single nod, before lying down in the grass and quickly drifting off to sleep.
Keeping himself occupied, Harry began to walk around the edges of the clearing. He gathered large, dried sticks into his arms for the fire. As he collected the wood, his thoughts went to Roland's words.
Harry didn't pretend to understand the entirety of the explanation, with 'the world moving on', but most glaring was what he hadn't heard.
Roland was hiding something.
Some of the information had disturbed the gunslinger, to the point where he did not want to speak about it. Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, Harry's mind recalled the most disturbing line spoke by the Oracle.
"The boy is your gate to the man in black."
The words were vague, but possessed of an ominous quality. Had the prophecy said he was going to die?
Once the thought appeared, the roots took hold deep within his mind. The thoery explained why Roland was hesitant to speak any further. Like a dead body the idea festered, proving impossible to purge from mind.
Moving back into the center of the clearing, he arranged the sticks of wood in a vague chimney-like shape. The construct lacked the close-packed, cold efficiency of Roland's work, but would do the job.
The firewood collected, Harry wandered back to the spring. After taking a drink from the cool water, he raised his wand.
If using magic didn't get his mind off the possibility of his impending doom, nothing would.
The azure spell leapt from his wand, striking the water with a wet splash. Trying to empty his mind, Harry sat still for a moment, before thrusting his wand forward, willing the Body-Bind to materialize.
His attempt to cast silently was unsuccessful.
Frustrated, but undeterred, he continued on. He tried to recall the feeling he'd experienced under the Oracle's control, when he was master and magic leapt to his command, but his efforts were in vain.
As the afternoon, he progressed onto different spells in hopes of achieving better results, but was met with consistent failure. Dejected, Harry turned away from the pool, making his way back to the camp.
The shadows lengthening, Harry set about to making the fire. The flame came to life quickly beneath his hands, now familiar with the flint and steel, though the sound woke Roland.
"Bollocks, I'm sorry," apologized Harry, seeing the hard blue eyes open wide. Roland smiled at Harry's usage of the term, clearly unfamiliar with it.
"I've slept long enough," Roland answered, before rising and disappearing into the veil of willows. Three loud gunshots later, he returned carrying three rabbits, each one skinned and gutted. The water boiling, Roland made stew for the both of them, served in the dented tin cups pilfered from the Way Station.
The last night in the clearing was spent in a content silence, Harry considering the climb up the mountain and his potential fate.
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The two companions awoke with the sun, and had left the clearing within a half-hour. What little remained of their food Harry carried, while the gunslinger carried their water, freshly drawn from the spring. Around Roland's waist circle three thick, green vines, cut last night with the climb ahead in mind.
Harry had considered offering to cast a Feather-Light Charm upon the waterbags, but had quickly discarded the idea. Roland seemed to accept that Harry was a wizard, but was still showed wariness of magic.
Their path was wide, looping, taking them far out of the reach of the standing stones. Soon after, the trees began to lose their height and lushness, the long grass shortening to scrub. The trunks were twisted, ancient, as if fighting against the earth.
As the sun climbed to its highest perch, the forest died out completely. Heaves of rock began to push up from the dirt, even the scrub fading away, replaced by a frail, yellow grass.
Moving steadily upwards, they reached a deep crevasse, the bottom fading to a black void. They scaled a nearby table of stone, arriving on the other side safely. The fault-lines in the ancient granite were carved by the elements into what appeared to be almost like steps. For a solid hour they climbed upwards, their passage surprisingly easy.
At the top, Harry paused, looking back over the desert. The wastes stretched far and wide, a never-ending canvas of yellows and browns. Though endless, it held none of the malice he had experienced on their journey, and even possessed a certain beauty.
They continued to climb upwards for the next several hours, the sun remaining bright upon their backs, but the air growing noticeably cooler. When the yellow disk began to sink behind the veil of the horizon, the light turning purple, they made camp on a large, flat piece of jutting stone.
As Roland made a makeshift lean-to by stretching the blanket and weighing down the ends with stones, Harry sat on the edger of the overhang, his legs dangling over the side. Rather than being intimidated by the drop below, he found the sight of being so high above the small slice of forest liberating in a sense.
It didn't compare to flying on his broom, but was close.
"Don't roll over in your sleep," Roland warned, eyeing him with good humor. "Or you may wake up in hell."
"If I'm not already there," Harry grumbled, his good mood evaporating, the thought of Roland's omission reasserting itself. "Why am I here?"
"Because the man in black has drawn you here. And because of the Tower."
"I don't get it. I died, Roland. You saw it!"
"The Dark Tower cares little for such things as Death."
Silence followed his cryptic statement, the only sound the wind howling through the fissures in the rock.
"Where do you really come from?" Harry asked at last.
"From a place that no longer exists. Do you know the Bible?"
Harry shrugged. He had heard the book, of course, but the Dursleys weren't religious.
"My land had a biblical name – New Canann, it was called. The land of milk and honey. In the Bible's Canaan, there were supposed to be grates so big that men had to carry them on sledges. We didn't grow them that big, but it was sweet land."
"I…are you talking about Eden?" Harry asked hesitantly. Wasn't that supposed to be the great garden?
"Maybe," the gunslinger said. "I was never a scholar of it, and can't say for sure."
"Are there…any others? Any friends of yours left?"
"No others. I'm the last."
"Was…was your country pretty?"
"It was," confirmed Roland. "There were fields and forests and rivers and mists in the morning. But that's only pretty. My mother used to say the only real beauty is order and love and light."
"I like that," Harry said, thinking of his home. Britain had some nice sights to see, especially in the Wizarding world, but in a society where people still were afraid to use Voldemort's name, how much beauty was there? "Was there a war?"
"Even better," replied Roland. "There was a revolution. We won every battle, and lost the war. No one won the war, unless it was the scavengers. There must have been rich pickings for years after."
"I would have liked to have seen it," Harry said.
The gunslinger nodded a single time, before pitching the remnants of his cigarette into the embers of their fire.
"Time to turn in, Harry."
Harry tucked himself under the blanket, rolling onto his side, watching the stars emerge from the night sky. With the weight of his thoughts, he expected to find sleep elusive, but his exhaustion won out, plunging him into a deep, dreamless slumber.
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The climb continued upwards over the course of the next eight days, becoming grimmer and more difficult as they progressed, the air growing colder.
Of the man in black they found no trace, save for a single footprint set into a small patch of granulated snow.
Their winding path took them on a roughly southeast trajectory, with their current point about halfway through the gargantuan mountain range. Just as their ascent began to grow truly difficult for the first time, icy ledges and flat expanses of granite hanging above them, the trail began to descend down a narrow pass.
A sharply-angled, zigzagged path led down to the canyon floor, where an ice-fringed stream boiled, fed from melting ice further up the mountain.
As they stopped to drink and wash up, a suffocating tightness settled into Harry's lungs, causing him to gasp.
"He's close, isn't he?" the gunslinger asked, his watchful gaze scanning the canyon.
Harry nodded in response. He had no shame in admitting that even the slippery sense of the man in black scared the shit out of him.
Ahead of them the mountain laid its last line of defense: a huge slab of insurmountable gray granite which disappeared into the clouds above. His footsteps heavy, Harry followed Roland's increased pace towards the final test, but the air had an odd magnifying effect.
It was another day before they reached the flat expanse.
Right before the slab, the stream they had followed took a bend around a large sandstone boulder. Eagerly, Roland pressed forward, but Harry stayed in place.
"Wait!" he cried. Puzzled, the gunslinger turned around.
"What's the matter?"
"Let's go back," begged Harry, fearful of facing the prophecy the Oracle had granted. "Please?"
"No," Roland replied after a suffocating silence, his face wooden.
"I know you're hiding something from me!" accused Harry, pointing a single finger at the older man. "I'm going to die out here, aren't I?"
"You'll be fine," the gunslinger assured, but even to Harry's ears the words were hollow. "I'll take care."
The lies hit Harry like a heavy weight. Never in their time had Roland said anything that reeked of deception, omission the only tool he employed.
Even Roland was certain of his death.
Tears forming at the corners of his eyes, Harry extended out his hand. Roland clasped it with his left, and together they passed around the bend in the path, coming face-to-face with the final wall and the man in black.
He stood ten yards above them, just to the right of the waterfall which spilt from a huge, ragged hole in the rock. Unseen wind rippled and tugged at his hooded robe, a staff clasped in his right hand. His left was held out to them, in a mocking gesture of welcome.
"Gunslinger! How well you fulfill the prophecies of old! Good day and good day and good day!"
He laughed and bowed deeply, the sound drowning out the roar of the waterfall and echoing through the pass.
Roland let go of his hand. Harry cowered as the gunslinger drew his guns in the blink of an eye, and fired three times, the explosions of their discharge deafening. Chips of stone exploded over the man in black's head, while the second shot went wide to the right of the hood, the third to the left.
As opposed to showing fear, the hooded figure laughed heartily.
"Would you kill your answers so easily, gunslinger?"
"Come down," Roland replied. "Do that I beg ya, and we'll have answers all around."
Again the man laughed, that derisive shrill which reduced all entreats to foolishness.
"It's not your bullets I fear, Roland. It's your idea of answers that scares me."
"We'll speak on the other side, I think," the man in black said. "On the other side we will hold much council and long palaver."
Almost dismissively, his shrouded gaze flicked over to Harry.
"Just the two of us."
Harry backed away with a cry, hearing the truth in the evil man's words. He knew exactly that which the Oracle did: That Harry would die beneath the mountains.
The man in black turned, his robes flapping about him. He disappeared into the cleft in the rock, the same one from which the water sprayed.
His body trembling, Harry looked at Roland. What he saw chilled him to the core, a relentless machine that would trample anything which stood in his path to the Tower.
"Come with me or stay," the gunslinger demanded, his voice empty of emotion.
Incredulously, Harry let out a mocking laugh.
"You always knew it was coming to this, didn't you? It wasn't that I was going to die, it was the fact that I was going to be your sacrificial lamb. Couldn't tell me that one, could you?"
Before his angry gaze, the gunslinger looked conflicted, as it his mind was at war.
"Maybe Hell is being betrayed by those you trust," Harry said angrily, his vision beginning to blur with tears. "First my 'family' treats me worse than a slave, and now the only fucking person I trust in this bloody strange world is going to let me die, just so he can find his stupid fucking Tower."
Hot tears spilling down his cheeks, Harry turned on his heels, walking away from Roland.
"Wait," Roland ordered. Instinctually, Harry stopped, but did not turn. "It wasn't fair to tell you the Oracle's words, but know that nothing is written in stone. Ka has a will, and if it allows me, I will do everything I can to save you."
Harry found himself loathing the gunslinger, hating him with every fiber of his being. He was shifting the responsibility of his actions onto fate, and taking none of the accountability for his decisions.
Yet it was enough to make Harry turn back.
Together they climbed up the weathered stone, standing where moments before the man in black had mocked them. His heart heavy, he followed Roland into the fissure, the darkness swallowing them both.
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In the absence of light they traveled, a parallel stream their only guide. When they were thirsty, they stopped to drink from its mineral-laden depths, hoping the water was free of heavy metals.
Harry supposed he could have lit his wand with a simple spell, illuminating the cavern, but he chose not to. If he were their path, he'd have to look at the face of his betrayer.
He plodded forth in silence, each footstep upon the stone echoing in the vast unknown. For once, it was Roland who spoke frequently, filling the insurmountable gap between them with words.
The gunslinger dredged up tales from his childhood in the fallen kingdom of Gilead, in the days when the Light still shone strong. He talked of going into his father's room and trying on his pants in secret; of sneaking onto a high, unsafe balcony and watching the Sowing Night Ball from above, seeing his mother dance with the man who would cause the fall of Gilead, the gunslinger's advisor, Marten.
Harry bore the stories with stoic indifference, even when the glow of their campfire had burned down, the red embers emblazoning the vast cavern walls with a hellish tinge. When at last Roland's story ceased, he rolled over onto his side, using his hands for a pillow.
His back turned to the gunslinger, he heard breathe heavy sigh, taking one final drag off his cigarette, before pitching the stub into the stream. He fell asleep in short order, his breaths falling into a rhythmic pattern. Rolling over, Harry regarded the sleeping form of the gunslinger, his closed eyelids and heavily lined face red from the glowing embers.
He still bore Roland a grudge for lying to him about the Oracle's words, but found that he couldn't place the entirety of the blame upon the gunslinger. How do you tell someone that you're required to sacrifice them? The situation was impossible, causing him to consider that maybe he'd been too harsh on Roland. The enigmatic man's true intentions were difficult to gauge, with his thoughts a closed book to others.
As always, time would tell.
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Trapped at the Way Station, Harry had lost most of his sense of time, unable to even keep track of the days. Deep beneath the mountains the rest was lost. A day may have been a week, a hour a minute; he had no real point of comparison.
They walked, they slept, they ate thin, meager meals which did little to satisfy the disconsolate growls of their stomachs. The river beside the winding path was their constant companion, the dull roar shadowing their every action.
The trail led ever upwards, broken at regular intervals by curved stone pylons with sunken ringbolts set into them. At each was an electric torch, a blackened fluorescent lamp set into the fixture. Roland believed that perhaps oxen or stagecoaches had once been tethered to the rings, a musing which Harry had no reply for.
During one of their rest periods, Harry wandered a little further down the path, away from the red embers of the dying fire. It wasn't an act of insubordination, but rather a need to be by himself. His steadfast silence was a difficult task to maintain, considering with each passing minute, he was becoming more and more convinced that when the time came, Roland would do the right thing.
"Careful. You can't see where you are," the gunslinger warned, his voice echoing in the darkness.
"I'm being careful, it's…oh, wow!"
"What is it?" Roland asked. His ears alert, Harry heard the subtle creak of leather as his companion placed his hands on one of the sandalwood grips, exerting pressure on the holster. Dropping to his knees, Harry ran his hands along the ground, touching smooth, cool steel.
"I think…" trailed off Harry, before withdrawing his wand. "Close your eyes, Roland."
Giving the gunslinger a few seconds to comply, Harry followed his own advice, before thrusting his wand forward.
Once his dilated eyes had adjusted to the sudden increase in light, Harry saw that he was standing beside a curved wall of dark stone, with parallel rusting pipes running the length of the wall. The conduit was broken by large corroded boxes, the covers rotting off. Set inches above the stone floor with smooth tracks of bright metal, bearing none of the rust the electrical systems had suffered.
"It's a railroad," Harry said with wonder, the sight forcing him to re-evaluate his opinion on Roland's world. Aside from the pump at the Way Station, he had not seen a single piece of equipment to suggest this world had advanced technology. The discovery of a railway said otherwise, suggesting the existence of more developed parts of this strange world.
"We'll follow it," Roland stated, to which Harry gave a single nod, almost more than he had given the gunslinger since they entered the mountain.
Regretfully extinguishing his light, they followed the rails for what three periods of resting and sleeping, a process, in lieu of days, which Harry had began to think of as 'cycles'.
On their fourth cycle of walking, Harry ran into an unyielding object headfirst, bouncing of it with a cry of pain.
"Are you all right?" Roland asked.
"Yes," Harry replied, gingerly rubbing his head. He then withdrew his wand, having discovered no obvious signs of damage.
Once his eyes had adjusted to the wandlight, Harry observed that his assailant was a flat square of raised metal set into the tracks. There was a seesaw handle in the center, which descended into a connection of cogs.
"It's a handcar," Harry said with a grin, perhaps the first one he had formed since the encounter with the man in black. Outside of old cartoons, he had never seen one.
"A handcar," he repeated, jumping onto the cart. Carefully holding his wand, he pressed down with all his weight upon the raised part of the handle. Pushing down as hard as he could, the handcar let out a small series of creaks as it moved forward a mere six inches, before stopping.
"Good!" said a faint, mechanical voice, which made both of them jump. "Good, push ag…" The mechanical voice trailed off.
"Uh, it's hard to push down while holding this," muttered Harry, slightly embarrassed that he barely moved the cart. Roland mounted the cart in a single swift movement, before pushing the opposite end of the handle to the floor, causing the handcar to glide forward several feet.
"Good, push again," the mechanical voice encouraged.
"It's kinda neat, isn't it?" Harry asked, his voice hinting at nothing. In all honesty, he was terrified of the machine, and what it signified. The contraption would allow them to reach their destination far more quickly than anticipated.
Was the man in black getting impatient?
His wand lighting the path ahead of them, they took turns pushing down on the handle, Roland doing the majority of the work. Letting go of the handle, Harry fumbled around the main shaft of the seesaw, pushing down upon the first button he found.
"Goodbye, pal!" the jovial mechanical voice saluted, before mercifully departing, leaving the two companions to their uncomfortable silence.
The handcar lent wings to their journey, increasing their speed five-fold through the endless dark. Harry was unwilling to let Roland do all the work, so resigned his wand once again to his back pocket.
The mechanical salesman stayed silent, save for two occasions where the voice had suggested they try 'Crisp-A-La', and again to declare that nothing satisfied at the end a hard day like 'Larchies'.
If Harry ever found a bag of the disgusting-sounding 'Larchies', he swore to himself that he'd toss it into the river.
Their new mode of transportation initially moved with reluctance, but after an hour's worth of travel the ride smoothed out, the squeaks and squeals fading away. With the handcar running quietly, the sound of their constant companion, the river, returned. Its position shifted as they moved, sometimes close to their right, sometimes drifting further away.
The track led upwards at a slight grade. Their ascent was barely perceptible, even by the light of Harry's wand, but wore them out, making their sleep as heavy as the slumber of the dead.
At the end of each cycle of travel, Roland would fill the silence with stories of his youth. Of his mentor, Cort, who applied beatings and the occasional bit of knowledge to gunslingers-in-training. Of discovering a cook's ploy to deliver poisoned meat to a nearby town in the name of the Good Man, John Farson. Of discovering his mother's infidelity with Marten, driving Roland to an early test of manhood, where he defeated his teacher, thus earning his guns.
Though Harry said little, he soaked in every word of Roland's childhood, trying to get a picture of who the man really was. Bit-by-bit he gleaned that from a young age, Roland had been crafted into a dangerous weapon, forged by brutality and intense training.
Small wonder the gunslinger wasn't the most emotional person Harry had ever met.
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During the next cycle of travel, the track dove down closer to the ground, placing them close to the underground river. On a short reprieve from pumping, Harry sat cross-legged on the platform.
Roland had estimated their speed at anywhere from ten to fifteen miles an hour, but the cart didn't seem to be any closer to reaching the other side of the mountain. What if they had been forced to walk the entire way? Their food was running low even at the blistering pace they had set with the handcar, without it-
The thought vanished as Harry let out an involuntary scream of horror.
Below the tracks loomed a round, rotten face, almost like a jack o' lantern, which pulsed with a faint green light. Above a flat nose sat an expressionless insect-like node of eyes.
Beside him, Harry felt his companion re-double his efforts on the handle, leaving the alien face behind.
"What the bloody hell was that?" cried Harry, indescribably repulsed by the monstrosity. No sooner had he spoken, the cart flew by three faintly glowing forms, which stood between the rails and river, watching them motionlessly.
"They're slow mutants," the gunslinger said. "I don't think they'll bother us. They're probably just as frightened of us as we are of-"
Without warning one of the forms broke free and shambled towards them. The face lacked any resemblance to intelligence, while the faintly glowing body sprouted a tangled mess of tentacle-like limbs and suckers.
Harry screamed again, scuttling across the car, wrapping his arms around Roland's leg. Rational thought having left him he cowered as one of the thing's tentacles pawed across the platform of the car, smelling of wet and the dark. The stench of his impending doom spurned Harry to action. He grabbed at his wand, but the gunslinger moved quicker.
Roland let go of the handle and drew a heavy revolver, putting a bullet through the thing's forehead. The round tore through the skull in a splatter of blood and brains, sending the thing falling backwards, its glow fading. The sudden light burned Harry's eyes, the sharp stench of cordite flooding his nose.
From every direction the Slow Mutants swarmed. None of the glowing forms rushed the car as the other had, but they closed in on the tracks, like silent spectators watching a parade pass by.
"You may have to pump for me," warned the gunslinger. "Can you?"
"Yes," Harry whimpered, relinquishing his grip on Roland's leg and rising shakily to his feet.
"Then be ready."
He stood next to the gunslinger, his head darting from side-to-side. Only the fear of being captured by one of the hideous beings kept him from upright. Roland stayed alert beside him, his arms continuously pumping up and down.
Harry turned his head to the right, only to let out a dull wheeze as his heart leapt into his throat. The noise was enough for Roland, who saw the four shambling figures charge the cart. He drew quickly, firing into the lead mutant's head. The creatures let out a sobbing sound before grinning. With limp, fish-like hands which more closely resembled fins, the mutant grabbed a hold of Harry's leg.
He let out a shriek, and instinctively drew his wand, thrusting it at the mutant.
The vibrant blue spell struck the mutant in the face, sending it falling backwards, its hand still grasping Harry's leg. He was dragged forward helpless, pulled by the weight of the falling creature. About to fall off the side, Roland's arm swept down, the green bio-luminescence of the Slow Mutants gleaming off the blade of his hunting knife.
The sharp edge tore through the limb like bread, severing it in a gout of blood. Freed, Harry scampered backwards as Roland began to pump again, sending the handcart hurtling forward.
"I thought you'd leave me," whispered Harry, almost numb with shock.
"Hold onto my belt," the gunslinger said. "Hold on just as tight as you can."
With his left hand, Harry obediently wrapped his fingers around Roland's belt, while his other hand left his wand high, prepared to curse the next charging mutant.
The handcar picking up speed, the Slow Mutants fell back and watched them depart with faces bearing only the thinnest of resemblances to human ones.
"They're thinning," the gunslinger said. "They're-"
Roland cut himself off as he let go of the handle, forcing the cart to slow. He followed the gunslinger's gaze, to the pile of rocks heaped upon the track. The handcar coasted to a stop right before the blockage, allowing the creatures to inch closer.
"They're going to get us!" Harry declared, edging out over the abyss of panic.
"Never in life. Be quiet a second."
Lost as to how Roland could remain calm, Harry thrust his wand forward, launching curses at the oncoming horde.
"Petrificus totalus! Petrificus totalus!"
Each curse struck home, toppling two of the creatures, but they continued to press on without fear.
"Get down," the gunslinger ordered. "You'll have to move them. I'll cover you."
"No," Harry whispered pleadingly. "Please."
"I can't give you a gun, and you're not fast enough with the wand to stop them. You have to get down."
With a cry Harry leapt off the cart. A vise-grip of terror gripping his mind, he threw the small rocks to the side, clearing the tracks as quickly as he could.
Ahead of him, two of the glowing figures emerged from the darkness, lurching towards him with doughy arms outstretched. In the midst of raising his wand, twin blasts rang out behind him. The rounds punched into both of their foreheads, vaporizing them in a shower of black blood.
Harry ducked back down, continuing to clear off the tracks, before another creature stumbled from the shadows, hardly glowing at all. It reached at him with spindly arms, large eyes taking up half of its face.
Mere inches from his own face, he screamed as twin slugs splattered its eyes to jelly, sending it falling backwards.
His face splattered with dark blood, Harry swept the last of the rocks from the railway.
"All right," the gunslinger said. "Get on quick."
Before the sentence had finished, Harry was already back on the platform, wand at the ready, one hand tightly grasping Roland's leather belt.
The gunslinger holstered his twin guns, before pumping furiously on the handle. Hands slapped against the platform as they increased in speed, unable to find any purchase.
In one last attempt to stop them, a group of the Slow Mutants stepped out onto the track. At high speed the handcart bowled into them, sending four of them scattering like candlepins while the fifth was shredded beneath the cart with a loud squishing sound.
Roland maintained his pace, arms pumping as hard as he could, veins standing out, for long after the last of the green glow had faded.
"They're gone," said Harry, his voice full of wonder. When the hands had closed around his leg, he was certain that Roland was going to leave him behind. Yet, nothing of the sort had happened. He had put himself at risk to save him. "We escaped."
Roland continued his blistering pace, working the handle as hard as he could long after the last of the glow had faded, leaving behind only the rushing wind and darkness.
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The fourth cycle after the attack by the Slow Mutants began a thawing of sorts between the two individuals. While Harry remained apprehensive about the close to the journey, which felt close enough to taste, his trust in Roland had been rekindled.
The last son of Gilead could have easily let the mutants take him away, but had intervened at personal risk. Harry stayed quiet as they hurtled along the darkened tunnels, but responded to any of Roland's questions, and offered commentary when necessary.
As they hurtled down the track, the cart gave a sickening lurch as it jumped slightly, jostling its passengers. For a terrifying moment Harry thought the handcart was going to jump the tracks, but it remained steady as gravity began to pull his body to the right, the rails curving away to the left.
At first Harry thought his imagination might be playing tricks on him, but as they progressed down the track, he realized that his surroundings were starting to come into view. Bit-by-bit the area around them brightened, illuminating the water running beneath them and the cart handle's continuous up and down movement.
"Is…is this the end?" Harry asked.
"No," the gunslinger spoke with assurance. "It isn't."
It did not take long for Roland to be vilified.
As the glow surrounding them increased in intensity, they observed that the wall to their left had fallen away, and their tracks had been joined by others. Perched upon the rails were boxcars, dark passenger coaches and what looked like a stagecoach adapted to fit the track.
The sight unsettled Harry, as the image of the first settler to discover the abandoned Roarke colony sprang to mind. Above them a large sign stretched, written in many different languages, the English one reading ' TRACK 10 TO SURFACE AND POINTS WEST'.
Beyond the sign, some of the signal lights still flickered, flashing red, green and amber. They rolled between twin black posts caked black with time, emerging out into a large terminal.
Roland let the handcart roll to a stop, gazing about the area.
"It's like the underground," Harry declared, glancing about in wonder as he climbed up onto the cracked cement.
"We are underground," Roland said.
"Yeah, but…there was something like this back home," explained Harry. The concrete platform led to a large concourse. Silent, deserted booths which may have once sold newspapers stood empty, along with several shops selling boots, woman's apparel and guns.
The latter excited Roland, who looked within in astonishment, only to find that the assortment of rifles and revolvers had all been plugged solid with lead. He did, however, pick up a warped bow, which he slung about his back, as well as some badly weighted arrows to go with it.
Somewhere, a loud clanking rang out across the terminal as a air converter ceaselessly turned, though if the grating noise buried beneath the noise was any indication, its life cycle was drawing to a close. The air had a filtered, mechanized taste, a welcome change from the damp of the tunnels.
"Look at this," Harry urged his companion, after looking into one of the booths. Inside was a mummy wearing a trainman's blue uniform with gold piping. There was an ancient, perfectly preserved newspaper on the dead man's lap. While attempting to read the headline, an errant puff of breath hit the newspaper, causing it to crumble to dust.
"Bollocks," cursed Harry, exiting the booth. Roland went in after, touching the shriveled, gray cheek. The skin immediately flaked to dust, making a hole in the cheek through which a single gold tooth was visible.
"Gas," the gunslinger murmured. "The old people made a gas that would do this. Or so Vannay told us."
Harry nodded at the mention of Roland's scholastic teacher. Vannay taught math, English and history, while Cort beat the shit out of his students, which Harry supposed was good for something.
"Did your enemies ever fight the war using this gas?"
Roland shook his head.
"Even John Farson was smart enough not to meddle with the Great Old Ones' weaponry. Killing yourself was more likely than killing your opponent."
"Most likely the ones that built this train station, as well as all the other pieces of technology scattered about the world, such as the pump back at the Way Station."
"Were they human? Are they still around?"
"Probably, and no one knows. Most people say they killed each other off in their wars, but no one knows for certain."
Harry had no response, though his mind drifted back to the pump they had found at the Way Station. The machinery had been advanced, but had a modern name, and seemed like something that could have come from his world.
Was he in the future?
They continued on through the terminal, finding a dozen more mummified bodies, all but three wearing the same uniform. Roland deduced that the attack had occurred during the slowest part of the night.
"We better go on," the gunslinger said, moving back towards the handcart.
Harry bit his lip, in two minds. As much as the end of the line terrified him, staying behind in the terminal would do him even less good, with their dwindling supplies of food.
Regret in his heart, he followed Roland onto the square moving platform.
The end was close now.
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As they progressed further into the mountain, the roar of the river grew louder, the sound interrupting even their black sleep. More and more Harry began to pump the handle on the cart, beginning to grow stronger through repetitive physical activity.
When not pumping, Roland would launch arrows out into the dark, tethered by thin strands of thread. The projectiles never flew far, but the gunslinger was able to deduce that the river was probably no more than sixty yards below them.
And growing closer every mile.
During the third cycle after leaving the terminal, a shimmering radiance began to emanate forth from the walls. They had entered a long tunnel of phosphorescent rock, which glittered and twinkled with thousands of brighter specks of light. By the luminescence they observed that the walls were peeling back, the angle of the ascent becoming more pronounced.
The brightness increased as Harry beheld what looked almost like fossils sticking out of the walls. They looked almost like neon tubes of green light. Up ahead, they saw that the rock enclosing them opened up entirely in a void of darkness.
The ancient tracks continued out over the drop, supported by ancient towers of trestle rising up from the abyss. Beyond the endless fall, a single light shone, no bigger than a penny, which was neither a fluorescent light nor further bio-luminescence.
It was daylight.
"Stop, Roland, please!" Harry pleaded.
Without questioning why Roland let the cart slow to a stop. The roar of the river seemed to come from every direction, nearly deafening in its intensity.
"We can't go on," he said, shaking his head. "The track will break and we'll go over."
"Very well," agreed Roland with a nod, stepping off the platform. Together they carefully approached the lip of the drop, until the stone dropped away, leaving the tracks to continue out across the dark.
Crouched down at the edge, Harry jabbed his wand downward.
Once his eyes adjusted to the increased light, Harry discovered that the cavern was of mammoth proportion, the blackened edges of it dancing beyond the reach of his wandlight. Below them hung a labyrinth of steel girders and struts, disappearing hundreds of feet down into black rapids. A large portion of the metallic web-work had rotted away, leaving horrifying gaps in the support structure.
How much weight would it take to collapse the entire system?
"We'll walk now."
Harry nodded at Roland's words, not trusting himself to speak in a coherent matter. His wand held aloft, he took the first step over the abyss, onto the welded steel slats between the rails. The gunslinger stood at the ready, prepared to catch him should the ties give out, but they held his weight without complaint.
"I…I think it's safe," Harry declared, his legs shaking beneath him. The gunslinger nodded in assent, before following after him. Roland knelt down, examining the rusted ties, before striking the steel with his fist.
"Are you crazy?" cried Harry, feeling the distant vibrations reverberating throughout the entire structure.
"If the rail couldn't withstand a single blow, there is no way it would have held our combined weight."
On a rational level he fully understood Roland's point, but with the Oracle's words dangling over his head, emotion took over.
"Oh, that's great," he said sarcastically. "Think you can get to the other side without trying to kill me?"
Without waiting for a response, Harry continued to move onwards, his arms held out to his side for balance. Cool air flowed from beneath the trestle, mingling with the cold sweat dripping down his body. Ahead of them the tantalizing glimpse of sunlight grew larger, the tracks beginning to rise up to meet the nickel-sized light.
His foot coming down upon next slat, the rusted metal split. Off-balance, Harry pitched forward. For a terrifying moment he tottered on the edge of the abyss, staring down into the darkness, before regaining his feet.
"I…I almost went through," gasped Harry, his voice jittery. "Watch out for the hole."
Onward the nightmarish walk continued. His mind was a string pulled taut, the constant fear of falling headfirst into the void omniscient. The air had thickened, leaving Harry to wonder how any of the steel could still be standing after hundreds of years in such humid conditions.
Behind him he heard screaming metal. Turning back he saw Roland, his face an expressionless mask, calmly step onto the rails as three of the slats collapsed, banging against the strut-work as they fell to the river below.
"Close one, eh?" squeaked Harry, before laughing nervously. He wiped a hand across his brow, wiping away the sweat, before shining his light forward. Three ties were missing from next section, meaning he'd have to jump.
"Bombs away!" he cried, before leaping over the gap. Arms spread wide, he was as weightless as bird for a brief moment as he flew threw the air. He struck the opposite side hard, the entire structure swaying from the impact. Metal ripped and tore beneath him, with something heavy breaking off and clanging off the tiers before striking the river with a mighty splash.
"Are you over?"
"Yeah, but it's really rotten over here. I don't know if it will hold you."
By the wandlight, he saw the gunslinger take a gigantic step, crossing the distance Harry had needed a jump to traverse.
"Go back!" cried Harry. "I don't want you to kill me."
"For the love of the Man Jesus, walk," Roland said. "It's going to fall for sure if we stand around palavering."
His words cut through the haze of insanity that had taken hold. Of course! Turning, Harry jabbed his wand down at the track leading up to the circle of daylight.
The bright light of his wand faded away, replaced by the yellow spell. It hit the rail with a gong. At once the rusted, pitted metal shifted and renewed, reinforcing itself.
"Keep going, Harry," Roland urged, following behind him.
Mentally kicking himself for not thinking of it earlier, Harry cast the Repair Spell at every section of track. The missing slats he could do nothing for, but with reliable footing, their ascent became immeasurably easier.
When not casting spells at the rails, his eyes trained themselves on the wide patch of daylight in front of them, which had taken on a bluish hue.
Thirty yards. A mere ninety feet.
Not just a light, but a way out from the mountain.
The sunlight was blocked out.
Harry gasped, startled, as a silhouette stepped in front of the gate to the outside, swallowing the light.
The man in black's voice echoed through the cavern, pushing back all the other sound, filling Harry's head with madness. His mad laughter followed, both far worse and far louder than his words.
Below him, metal ripped and tore, the metallic structure beginning to drunkenly lean to his right. Caught off balance, Harry leaned forward, his upper body swaying over the side of the tracks, leaning towards the yawning abyss.
"Help me!" screamed Harry, looking at Roland.
"No more games," boomed the man in black's voice. "Come now, gunslinger. Or catch me never."
"Help me, Roland!" he screamed again, feeling the pull of gravity tugging him over the side, hating his companion with every fiber of his being. The fucking Oracle had told Roland that he was going to sacrifice, and here he fell, a fucking human poker chip so Roland could get to his stupid fucking Tower-
A heavy, calloused hand grasped Harry's wrist, pulling him away from the edge of the precipice. He was lifted up as Roland sprinted down the rest of the collapsing track, leaping the final six feet. They landed roughly upon a rocky outcropping, falling to the ground.
Behind them the entire structure of steel collapsed to the right with an almighty crashed, the discordant squeal of rotting, collapsing metal filling the cavern.
Roland was up at once, both guns drawn, scrambling up the shadowy embankment, his clothes stained with white powder.
"He came back for me," Harry marveled in a low whisper, before taking off after the sprinting gunslinger.
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Blue sky loomed above as Harry crested the small rocky embankment, scrambling on his hands and knees. Beyond, in the center of a grassy plain, Roland stood with both arms outstretched. Thick piles of bones, made from thousands of small animals, littered the ground.
In front of the gunslinger, atop a slight rise, was the man in black, a wide smile upon his face.
"Don't move, you whoreson!" ordered Roland, both barrels of the ancient six-shooters aimed squarely at the hooded figure's chest.
"So! Not an end, but the end of the beginning, eh? You progress, gunslinger! You progress! Oh, how I admire you!"
In movements too quick to track, the man in black reached up, throwing back his hood to reveal an ordinary face framed by matted black hair. His forehead was high, while his nose was nondescript.
Thunder exploded throughout the plain as Roland let loose with both barrels. The man in black didn't even move as twelve shots sped past him, ruffling his dark robes.
"Now-now," he said, laughing. "Oh, now-now-now! We make great music together, you and I. You kill me no more than you kill yourself…"
The robed madman trailed off as Harry stepped forward, his wand held out in front of him. Surprise was etched cleanly onto the man's features as he shook his head, as if Harry was a mirage that could be cleared away.
With loud clicks the gunslinger rolled the cylinders from the twin guns, emptying the spent cartridges before reloading. The man in black seemed to have forgotten all about Roland, his attention fixed squarely upon Harry.
"He…he saved you," the man whispered.
Harry, not trusting himself to speak, merely raised his wand, training it upon the man's chest.
"This…this is new," the man in black said, clearly talking to himself, before re-directing his focus back upon Roland. "So our story's protagonist has a heart after all! Tell me, gunslinger, what prompted you to forsake the Tower for the sake of this child?"
"To let him fall would have forsaken the Tower," Roland replied, before snapping the cylinders back into place and raising the guns.
The man in black let out a whimsical chuckle.
"How sure you are of your moral superiority. Indeed, how foolish to think that you would have even considered that course."
Roland said nothing, but his eyes hardened considerably. Undaunted, the man in black turned towards Harry.
"You are the last thing in the world I expected to see, child, considering the trail of bodies that gunslinger has laid down on his blazing path to the Tower. Cry pardon, but did he happen to tell you about Tull? How he killed all thirty-seven of their men, women and children."
"He saved me," Harry said simply, voice level, hiding his fear behind words of boldness.
"How altruistic," tittered the man in black. "What's your name, little mage?"
The man in black's eyes widened in surprise, before he bent over at the waist, laughing so hard he could scarcely breathe. Tears of mirth ran down his face.
"Harry…Potter!" he wheezed, before breaking into a fresh peal of frenzied laughter. At the man in black's continued response, something snapped in Harry.
The sight of the man in black had filled him with nothing but terror since he arrived in this strange world, the figure haunting his dreams. And now he was laughing at him like the entire thing was one big fucking joke?
Anger replacing his fear, Harry stabbed his wand forward, only causing the man in black to howl more loudly.
"Oh yes, curse me! Cast a spell, Harry Potter!"
The crimson light leapt from his wand, bucking his arm slightly. The man in black merely placed the hand not holding his staff over his stomach, laughing harder.
"Watch out, folks! Harry Potter is-"
The red light struck him squarely in the chest, blowing him backwards in a tangle of dark robes. White dust powdered his cloak as he tumbled, his staff flying off to the side. In a tangle of limbs he landed, bone dust covering his cloak.
And still he laughed, even as he struggled to his feet.
"Now, now-" the man in black began to reason, before Roland darted forward. Unable to shoot the laughing fiend, he turned the gun in his right hand around and swung it down in a low arc, gripping the iron barrel. The heavy sandalwood grip smashed into his nose with a crunch, flattening it against his face. Blood pouring down his face, the man in black fell back to the ground, landing in a sitting position.
"I think it's time to have palaver," the gunslinger said, the barrel of his left gun pointed straight at the man in black's head.
"There are many different levels to the Tower," the man in black said with wonder, not paying any attention to Roland. "But this…if you can break your chains, gunslinger…then why can't I?"
"Because you'll soon find the end of the clearing if you don't stop moving," Roland stated grimly
"So easily you kill your answers, gunslinger. Tell me: What use has been your pursuit if you silence me?"
"You said so yourself: This is the end of the beginning."
The man in black let out another laugh, snuffling blood through his shattered nose.
"Oh, if only you knew how close to the mark you are. This is the first day of the rest of your life, gunslinger. How will you start it?"
"By asking what I need to do next."
The man in black chuckled.
"I believe you'll reach the Western Sea, and walk it until you find something interesting, but even that is in flux now. No, gunslinger, you truly have no scope of the magnitude of our situation. Even the next five minutes are unclear to me. A rather exciting proposition, wouldn't you agree?"
"Roland-" Harry began to scream, seeing the man in black's hand move, but the gunslinger had seen it first. Thunder erupted throughout the clearing as Roland fired. The man in black tried to dodge, but the round still took him in the right temple. Blood and hair exited the back of his head.
Yet the man in black stood tall. Before Roland could fire again, he withdrew a glowing red ball.
At once, Roland froze.
"Aye, it's not pink, but close enough for government work, is it not?" the man in black said with a cackle.
"You bastard," Roland whispered, bringing his gun up. As he did, the crystal sphere came to life, blazing with an unholy light. The piercing brightness forced both Harry and Roland to cover their burning eyes.
"Close, but no cigar, gunslinger. An inch to the left, and would be out of the game, but for now I'm still in. Play ball! When you're ready, I'll be waiting!"
The glow grew bright for a single moment, penetrating their clenched eyes, before fading from sight.
When Harry opened his eyes, the man in black was gone.
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"W-where he'd go?" Harry asked shakily, glancing about the grassy clearing. "And what was that thing?"
"That was one of the colors of Maerlyn's Rainbow, enchanted pieces of glass. Some see into the future, some the past, some into the hearts of men, and some even into other worlds. I believe that's where the man in black escaped to."
"And what about pink? He said something about that too."
For a moment, Roland's eyes blazed with such intensity that Harry took a step back.
"A story for another day."
"Silence, I beg you!" Roland exclaimed, his voice filled with pain. "Let us walk for now."
Out of the clearing they walked, making their way down the mountain. The path down was a gentle slope of grass and shale, unlike the arduous climb the opposite side had presented.
Roland remained silent the entire time, his thoughts elsewhere. To Harry, the gunslinger's reaction was the last he had expected. Certainly Roland was upset at having lost the man in black after having spent years upon years searching for him, but an even heavier burden weighed upon Roland's shoulder.
The man in black had dislodged something buried deeply within Roland, something hidden to well that the gunslinger couldn't come to grips with it.
By evening they reached the end of the land.
A great ocean stretched out to the edge of the horizon, set alight by the setting sun. In the soft sand they both sat, watching the fiery waves crash upon the shore, throwing white surf into the air.
"I…I'm sorry you didn't catch him," apologized Harry after the silence had stretched out for too long.
"We will not reach the Tower if we are not true."
"We?" he repeated with a wry grin.
"Never doubt it, Harry. Ka placed you in path for a reason. To have thrown you away would have been an insult to it."
"Ka," agreed Roland. "The will of Gan, the unseen wind that guides us."
"You've lost me."
Roland let out a small chuckle.
"Aye, perhaps I have. There is much I need to tell, and much more that I must teach. The road to the Tower is long, but our legs are strong. Let us rest them now, for tomorrow we take the first steps towards it."
Not much of it made sense to Harry, but even as he sat, the itch to start moving had settled between his shoulder blades. He didn't know what the path ahead held, or what his role would be, but his thirst for adventure had been awakened.
As sleep began to clutch at him, his thoughs turned to Maerlyn's Rainbow.
Was there a bend of the rainbow which led back to his world?
One day, on the long, winding path to the Tower, the man in black would return. When he did, Harry would take the crimson sphere from him.
Side-by-side he would stand with Roland, in the shadow of the Tower, the red slice of Maerlyn's Rainbow raised high above his head.
Would Hermione and Ron believe even a fraction of his strange story?
A smile upon his lips, Harry drifted off, the light crashing of waves echoing in his ears.
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That night Harry slept.
He slept and dreamt of a winding dusty trail leading up a green hillside at sunset. There were scattered roses, thick and pure, on either side of the trail, and he knew, without knowing, that cresting this hill would mean the end of his life.
But it would be the most important thing he would ever do. Perhaps the most important thing anyone would ever do.
Harry Potter placed one weary boot in front of the other, alone, and atop of the ancient rise he gazed down at the work of a thousand years and ten thousand miles.
The Dark Tower. The axle upon which all worlds spun.
The Dark Tower rose like a pinnacle of obsidian madness against the burnt azure sky. Surrounded by a sea of blood-red roses, the fields of Can'-Ka No Rey, the Tower spoke of all things ending and beginning – the great nexus of not only time but size.
All roads led to the Tower.
Where was Roland? Faintly, as if across a great distance, Harry heard a single, proud note blown from a horn. Then nothing.
So many roses! Knowing without knowing, Harry saw a sun blazing at the heart of each flower. Each rose mirrored a representation of the One Rose, the field of none, which acted as a tower-surrogate in his own world.
A voice whispering across the endless fields of brilliant roses. Mother-may-I? Yes-you-may.
It did Harry just fine. He made dust with his heels.
A drop of hell and a touch of strange.
Harry knew it was a dream, and yet, he felt as if he had been here before. As if he'd walked through the roses of what his mind whispered was End World and heard their beautiful, terrible song.
There was work to do, mayhap lives to take, and wars to fight if he and Roland would win their way through to the Tower one day. Dying had only been the beginning – what came after, some unimaginable final battle – was all that mattered. Ka like the wind…
Roland would have understood.
Perhaps Roland was the only one who truly could.
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The last section of the notes is going to go into spoiler territory with regards to the Dark Tower books. Stephen King's magnum opus is the one of the finest series of books I've come across, and I highly recommend checking them out if you haven't already done so. For those who haven't, I recommend not reading the last section.
A huge thanks to Joe6991 for not only the beta work on this mammoth chapter, but for writing the final dream sequence, and doing a fine job on it.
Thanks to Grinning Lizard and Princess Serine for their additional beta work.
Thanks to Perspicacity and Shinysavage for their comments and contributions.
All of my co-conspirtators provided valuable feedback. Any and all mistakes are of my own fault.
The scene where the Oracle tricks Harry into attacking Roland by making roots rise out of the ground was inspired by Portus' 'Geminio', which is an excellent read, and can be found in my favorites.
This was written for the DLP June crossover contest, which to my vast surprise, took the top spot. To my fellow participants, Perspicacity, Rymrock, Zenzao, Riley Poole, and Celestin, I tip my hat for participating and producing something worthwhile in the short given time frame.
I'm not sure whether I'm going to continue this. I planted the seeds for future plot points, but am not sure if it'd be worth my effort to pursue them. For now it will remain a one-shot, but if inspiration strikes more will appear.
Last of all, before I hit the spoilers, I'd be curious to hear what people thought of this piece. Let me know. A simple 'enjoyed it', 'meh' or even 'sucked' will suffice.
As for the next thing I post, it's either going to be the next chapter of 'Ouroboros' or 'The Unforgiving Minute'. Whichever I complete first.
Thanks for reading.
In my mind, this iteration of Roland's quest follows directly after the canon one, with the Horn of Eld in hand. The way I see it, Jake Chalmers was as hard as they come, someone who could have become just as skilled and deadly a gunslinger as Roland with time.
Harry is an entirely different animal. While perseverant, he lacks the steel of Jake, possessing a kinder and gentler disposition. With this in mind, I believe this fact may have swayed a deeper sympathy from Roland, as the Harry at the beginning of this story is far slower adapt than Jake was, which led to his decision in the final part.
Here, Roland saves the boy, instead of letting him fall to his death. This has wide-reaching implications, which would be explored in further chapters (if they ever surface), but primary among them is that this one choice changed everything. If he were to reach the Dark Tower, ka would accept him, I believe.
The first book seemed to suggest that Walter is aware that Roland never actually progresses, is only brought back to the beginning. Jake's death is the catalyst. With Harry alive, I would think this would lead Walter to believe that maybe the future isn't cast in stone, and maybe he could even change things for himself.
And that's all for now. Again, thanks for reading.