Disclaimer: All belongs elsewhere.
A/N: All y'all hollerin' at me for updates. Here you go. Let me know what you think in a review.
An Unfound Door
Chapter 10 – The Atlas Lexicon
After classes on Halloween, several hours before the great feast was scheduled to start, Harry Potter wrapped his blue and silver Ravenclaw scarf about his shoulders, over a tweed jacket and a simple black shirt, and walked the half mile to the castle gates, the last of the day's light his only companion against the cool bite to the early evening air. He held a small wreath of pink and white carnations under one arm.
Harry found the gates ajar, the winding path into Hogsmeade shadowed with false dusk and bordered by creeping sentinel trees from the Forbidden Forest that, in the twilight, looked as if they'd moved closer, trying to reclaim the path cut so rudely through their domain. He also found his father, James, and his uncle, Remus, waiting for him.
"Evening," he said, and gave both men a hug. "Audrey not coming?"
James shook his head. "No, not this time. It's not likely, but we're concerned someone may try and interrupt us. You being outside of Hogwarts paints too pretty of a target on you back, Harry."
"Well, that's the truth, I guess, but I wouldn't miss this."
"Neither would Audrey, usually," James said. "She likes to pay her respects. But she has your little sister or brother to think about now."
"Dumbledore has some of the Order on watch," Remus said. "So I'm sure we'll be fine."
Harry nodded and James clasped his shoulder. He took half a breath—felt reality twist around him—and appeared several hundred miles away in the west country, deep in the curving hills of Somerset, on the outskirts of the quaint little village of Godric's Hollow. Remus appeared a moment later and the three of them strolled through the village toward the Church of St. Clementine.
"It always looks smaller," James commented, almost to himself. "Every year, that much smaller."
Haphazard rows of ancient tombstones, memorials, monuments, and statues sat behind the church, watched over by a scattering of leafless trees—skeletons above as well as below the earth. A glow from behind the single stained glass window cast a dazzle of soft, coloured light over the stones. The sun had sunk behind the hills and evening had well and truly set in Godric's Hollow.
Lily Potter's grave stood toward the edge of the churchyard, erected in loving memory some fourteen years ago now, in an alcove surrounded by a dry stone wall covered in old moss, overseen and guarded in spring by a beautiful blossom tree. Silently, Harry, James, and Remus set to work.
A hollowed out tree stump, scorched from fire in past years, about as wide as a barrel and three inches thick, sat next to the headstone and against the wall. Remus conjured magical fire, a soft white flame, into the hollow trunk. James and Harry cleared away the remnants of dead flowers, last year's wreaths, and trimmed pulled the scraggly grass and weeds around the stone. They did this without magic, the warmth of Remus' fire filling the small alcove.
Once all was set to right, the three men stood around the headstone under the first stars pricking the canvas of darkening sky. James spoke first, as he did since the early years, when he had brought Harry first in his arms, then as a toddler scarcely past his knee, and every year since that Halloween night almost half a life away now.
"It's been a dark year, Lils," he said. "And it looks like it may get darker still." He paused and stared at Harry. "But we're holding together—all three of us—and we'll be ready for whatever comes. I miss you, dear." He sniffed, looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head, waving a hand at Remus.
"I think of you often and fondly, Lily," Remus said quietly, and that was enough. Quiet tears tracked the path of scars on his face.
Harry knelt down on his haunches and placed the simple wreath against the weather-stained stone. His fingers brushed the severe lettering of his mother's name and he sighed. "I wish I could have known you," he whispered.
Harry stood and stepped back from his mother's grave, as James and Remus shared stories of Lily, softly to each other, laughing in the sad way people do that was somehow worse than tears.
Harry thought not of his mother but of Sirius, suspended in a state of living death in the Arbiter's Vault, soulless and innocent. Remus and his father deserved the truth, deserved it well, but what proof did he have to offer? None that could be substantiated, none that mattered given Sirius' condition. Once his soul was restored, once the past had been set to right, he could explain. To do so now would lead to too many questions. To do so later—and it was already much too late—was going to lead to heartache and, in a certain light, cruel betrayal.
Harry accepted that cost as part of the price he owed Sirius for the loss of his soul in the first place.
Remus produced a bottle of single malt, twice as old as Harry, and James three glasses of the finest crystal. Remus poured a generous finger's worth and the three of them raised a small toast to Lily Potter. After the toast, the glasses were cast into the white fire within the tree trunk so no lesser toast could ever be drunk from them.
A strange look passed between them as the fire died, and a dark thought came to Harry as the cold of an early winter invaded the alcove once more. Harry couldn't say why, or how, but he felt a cruel certainty nevertheless that this was the last time the three of them would stand together in St. Clementine's graveyard.
He wasn't alone in that certainty.
Fifteen minutes later found Harry, James, and Remus in The Rising Sun, a country pub on the outskirts of Godric's Hollow, and in slightly raised spirits now that they were out of the cold.
James took respectable gulps of stout, Remus a glass of dark red wine, and Harry a Coca-Cola. He would have appreciated another drink, but perhaps later in the Vault. He was tempted to invite Zoe Accrington back with him after the Halloween feast, seeing as how they had rekindled their entanglement, but he imagined she would be up at the observatory, working her magic. Halloween was the night for such enchantment, if ever there was one.
"Ancient Runes is going well this year," Harry said, leaving his thoughts at a question from Remus about the school year so far. "Interesting, anyway. We're working on personal projects for the OWL exam."
"You have any ideas?" James asked.
"A few," Harry said carefully. "But it's slow work. Never enough time to get everything done. Don't suppose you could pilfer me a time-turner from the Ministry, dad?"
James chuckled. "The Department of Mysteries is better protected than the entire Auror Department, including the personnel. No chance."
Harry shrugged, feigning indifference. Inside his mind burned furiously at the idea of owning a time-turner. He'd been after the device for years, scouring the Floating Markets, spending—wasting—hundreds of galleons trying to track down one of the powerful timepieces. One of the books in his Vault even contained the Hour-Reversal charm, but the magic was simply beyond him. Not because he didn't understand it, but because it required seven witches and wizards working together for several weeks to cast, and Harry had never worked well with others.
"How is the Auror office?" Remus asked. "If Fudge isn't letting you work on tracking down You Know Who and his followers, then what are you doing? Keeping an eye on all us poor sods on the Werewolf Register?"
James snorted. "Hardly, though there are some, as you know, who wouldn't be against that idea." He clenched and unclenched his fists. "Scrimgeour has a lot of the department investigating suspected Death Eaters and sympathisers on the sly. I think he and Dumbledore have some arrangement, though it'd take a better Auror that me to prove it."
"Dark times." Remus scowled into his wine.
"After that nundu business, I've been put on something interesting, actually. Well, maybe interesting. It's a lot more work than I first thought. I've got Kingsley on my team, though, so it's not all bad."
"What's that?" Harry asked.
James shook his head. "Some dodgy potion doing the rounds. It'd be more MLE, usually, but this stuff is new, already made it's way across to Europe. Crystal Blue, they call it. If you see any at Hogwarts, Harry, let me know. It'd be just the thing to sell to you lot around exam time, help with studying, but it's got some nasty side effects."
Harry took a sip of his Coke, considered, then took another. "Side effects?"
"It's put more than a few in St. Mungo's. Hallucinations, paralysis, paranoia, to say the least."
"But that…" Harry took a deep breath. …is not possible. "Sounds awful."
"Yeah, don't do drugs," James said. He glanced at his watch. "Feast is due to start in a half hour. I'll apparate you back, Harry. Remus, get another round in, would you?"
Remus nodded. "See you at Christmas then, Harry."
"Goodnight, Remus," Harry said, and hugged his uncle before stepping out into the brisk night air.
A quick trip upstream along the magical canals had Harry back at the gates of Hogwarts half a minute after leaving the pub. He wished his father a goodnight, promised to owl soon—and not to leave the castle again, even for the Floating Markets, and if he needed anything ask his professors or James would have it sent up—and then trudged back to the castle with the moon rising full overhead.
Whether it was because of Halloween, the cool night air and the warm single pour of scotch in his belly, or the picture of the castle struck against the clear night sky—a sky clear enough to see the stardust cloud of the Milky Way—Harry felt magic in the air. Not a sense that magic was being cast nearby, but just a gentle buzz on his skin, the softest touch of static electricity, that great and powerful enchantment was afoot.
He liked how it made him feel—alive, wired—and when he entered the Great Hall and found Luna Lovegood sitting all by herself in a ballroom full of people, he joined her, and liked that feeling even more.
The feast was decadent to the point of obscenity, Harry thought, though that hadn't stopped him putting away his fair share of roast beef, buttered cabbage, honeyed carrots, and mounds of potatoes smothered in thick, hot gravy. He and Luna shared a delightful dessert, cherry ice cream and warm toffee brownie encased in a sphere of enchanted white chocolate, which melted into a fine sauce when tapped with a spoon.
"Are you feeling well?" Luna had asked him over dinner. She had fixed him with such a piercing gaze that was all at once foreign on her dreamlike face and, somehow worse, utterly sane.
Harry, unnerved, gave the question more consideration than it deserved on the surface. "Do you know, I am. I feel… well. I feel well." And it was true, he did, despite the fact his father was investigating the very potion Harry had sent out into the world, the potion his distributor must have been cutting with lesser ingredients, which had put some poor souls in the hospital.
Luna nodded once, satisfied, and held his hand for the rest of the evening, as hundreds of students laughed and made merry under the glare of a thousand floating jack-o'-lanterns with crooked eyes, and far more crooked smiles that suggested the candlelight within was far from kind. All Hallow's Eve, the flickering light said. The night is restless and the veil between worlds thinner than autumn ice. What shapes pent in hell may slip through the cracks, eh? laughed Jack of the Lantern.
Harry walked with Luna back toward the Ravenclaw common room, stopping only six times to investigate portraits and to search behind tapestries for evidence of something Luna called a snorkack. He wished her goodnight at the west side entrance to Ravenclaw tower, choosing to head up to the Arbiter's Vault and spend the night there with his books and his whisky—or so he thought, at the time.
The sense of great magic afoot, which had first gripped Harry upon returning to the castle that evening, had not waned. If anything, stuffed full of dinner and the hour creeping toward late, the sense had heightened. Harry had the strangest feeling he could, if he chose, fly, or walk through walls, and a wand wouldn't be needed. He felt light, young despite the trials of his life and thus sure, as most adults could never be, that all he needed to do was believe. A time would come when that surety in belief would fade, when the child became a man, even in a world as magical as the one Harry called home.
He considered if he'd been drugged, poisoned again, but chuckled that thought away. What did it say of his mental state that feeling well, close to happy for the first time in years, meant he feared poison?
Hermione Granger awaited him on the seventh floor, in the balcony eave below where Harry hopped onto the roofs and made his way to the Vault. She sat on the stone balcony, swinging her sneakered feet idly back and forth. Her beaming smile when she saw Harry did nothing to damper his good mood.
"Good evening, Miss Granger," he said. "Why on earth do you have a carved pumpkin?"
Hermione looked into her lap and blinked, as if surprised to see the pumpkin there. "Souvenir from the Great Hall," she said and let it go. The jack-o'-lantern floated up from her lap slowly, up above their heads, and grinned at Harry. "Do you mind if I visit with you tonight? I'd like to finish that transfiguration codex, and we could go over the plan for the games on Saturday."
Long since past sunset, Harry had no fear of sharp-clawed shadow creatures haunting the rooftops as he and Hermione headed across the castle toward the Arbiter's Vault. The pilfered pumpkin kept pace with them, perhaps charmed to follow folk or, given their direction back toward the Great Hall, return to the feast.
Three floors above the Great Hall, hidden from view in a nook, he and Hermione entered the Vault. They stepped through the curtain of disenchantment, the fall of magical water that neither left them wet nor chilled, and protected the Vault from outside influence. The curtain cleansed their clothes and body of any magical tracking spells, unknown hexes or curses, and left them feeling refreshed.
Harry noticed, with more than a little concern that had him twirling his wand in his pocket, that the enchanted pumpkin floated through the curtain intact and entirely not disenchanted. The flickering eyes, the crooked toothy grin, seemed to laugh at Harry.
"I won't stay long," Hermione said, shrugging out of her cloak. "Just a few chapters. After that feast I may struggle to stay awake anyway. Harry? Are you listening?"
"I sure am," Harry said. The pumpkin floated across the chamber-like vault, along the bookshelves as if scanning the titles for something interesting to read, and took the spiral stairs up to the loft-style sleeping quarters. "I think that pumpkin is spying on me," he said reasonably, and in this he was wrong.
Music, soft at first, then gentle, then whispered as if on the wind, drifted through the vault and Harry drew his wand. A voice, female, ethereal and light, began to sing:
Jack, sweet Jack, light your lantern home
Mother is waiting, Jack, so don't you walk alone
Fetch water from the river, in sack of leather sewn
Bring firewood from the forest, split along the bone
Hermione mirrored Harry and drew her wand. Without a word, they stood back to back. The music, the voice, came from everywhere and nowhere. "What is this, Harry?"
"Something new," Harry said, as the pumpkin turned sharply from the loft and spun down through the air to hover over Sirius Black in his troubled sleep. "Or," and here Harry felt that same certainty that had gripped him at his mother's tombstone earlier in the evening, "…something very old."
Trap the Devil in crossed bark
Bind the morning star in moonstone
But even the Devil has angels' eyes
So Jack, sweet Jack, light your lantern home
The pumpkin froze in mid-air as the song died away and then, faster than a golden snitch, hurled itself at the far wall. Harry half-expected it to scream or wail, and fully expected it to be dashed to mushy pieces against the old castle stone, but the pumpkin shot past the wall and disappeared into the stone. Like a pebble cast on still water, the wall rippled.
"You saw that, yes?" Hermione asked. "Do you think Peeves…"
Harry didn't know what to think and, after a moment, approached the rippling wall. He placed his wand tip against the stone and it sunk in, hitting no more resistance than it did being waved through the air.
"Harry!" Hermione gasped, as he took a deep breath and stepped into the wall.
Five seconds later he poked his head back through the wall and grinned. "It's a passageway, lit with rune light. Some pretty impressive work, really."
"Get out of there!" Hermione stamped her foot. "What… I mean, we don't know—"
"It's a previously unknown dark and mysterious passage in one of the oldest magical institutions on the planet," Harry said. "Something that managed to go unnoticed by me in the three years I've called the Arbiter's Vault home. Possessed squashes singing creepy nursery rhymes aside, wild thestrals couldn't stop me right now, Hermione. Are you coming?"
Harry collected his satchel, contemplated equipping his mythril-cast body armour (then decided against it because he had none to give Hermione, then realised he was being foolish for the sake of chivalry and strapped on the shin and arm plates), and together they stepped through the rippling wall and into a dark stone corridor, lit about twenty feet ahead by soft glowing runes carved into the ancient stone.
"Where do you think it leads?" Hermione whispered, staring into the blackness.
Harry conjured a small radiant globe to float ahead of them, bathing the corridor with a more natural light. "Hermione, I'm not gonna lie—there's a chance that a sixty-foot snake with a piercing death gaze lives at the end of this tunnel."
Harry snorted. "But the odds on that happening again have got to be slim to none, eh?"
Before proceeding any further, Harry inspected the runes on his left, which extended over his head and along the right hand side of the passage in a lazy, horizontal spiral. They were old, very old, and some he didn't recognise, but for the most part they were nothing special. If he was reading the runic script right, then they were designed to keep the wall solid for most of the year. Tonight, Halloween, was special, turning the back wall in the Arbiter's Vault fluid… But why tonight? Harry wondered. And why not any of the other Halloween nights I've spent in here?
He glanced at Hermione. All that was different was her—and she'd been carrying the possessed pumpkin.
"Hermione, have you been off the castle grounds lately? Any other time than the Hogsmeade day?"
"No, not since the school year started. Why?"
Harry frowned, eyed the long rune-coated corridor disappearing into darkness ahead, and then shrugged. "Odd, you bringing that pumpkin with you. I'm wondering if you're under some sort of enchantment, or compulsion. I'm wondering if being close to me has made you…" Harry paused. "Has drawn the attention of some powerful and not very nice people."
"Death Eaters?" Hermione asked and shivered. "Surely not, Harry. No, I'd know."
Harry nodded. "It doesn't feel like that, honestly. Not old Voldemort's usual caper. Feels like something else."
"What are you talking about?"
"My intuition, my gut. I've come to trust it as much as any spellbook or runic formulae over the years. Right now it's telling me there's someone here, at Hogwarts, playing a dangerous game. Moving us like pieces on a chessboard. The Dragonfly Queen, my poisoning, the shadow creatures only I can see…"
Harry followed his thoughts a moment longer and then shook his head to clear it. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Grist for another day's mill," he decided and found a grin. "Let's go see what's down this corridor."
Hermione gathered her nerve, tried to match Harry's grin, and settled on a look that looked like mild disconcertment. "You first, Potter."
Harry wouldn't have it any other way.
Pulses of light raced along the rune spiral as Harry and Hermione walked at a careful pace down the corridor, which although looked straight at first glance, seemed to curve down as they followed each other into the dark. Takin' the long way home, Harry thought for no particular reason, staring at archaic runes he'd barely touched on in his studies, and some he flat-out didn't recognise at all.
"How's your Sumerian runes?" Harry asked, barely above a whisper.
"I'd say about as good as anyone's, but I never know what's in that head of yours."
"This one, that's Ur," Harry said, speaking more to himself, trying to make sense of it. "The one that looks like a lopsided pitchfork, that's Dara, and next is Kased which is sort of the father rune, you see. Erase that one and the whole tunnel would probably collapse." Harry laughed. "Merlin, think how old this passage must be!"
"Can you read it? I can make out the odd word…"
"It's less like a sentence, more like a painting." Harry tilted his head one way, then the other. "A painting that can move. And look at this ahead on the floor here. Now that is trouble."
Hermione and Harry stepped to the edge of a glowing white floor stone, the tips of their shoes just brushing the edge of the stone. It was tattooed with a green rune, pulsating softly, as if it were breathing. To Harry, the rune sort of looked like an upside down umbrella that had been blown inside out by the wind. The next floor stone was clear, but there was no way across to it save over the ominous green rune.
"What do you think happens when we step on that?" Hermione asked.
We, Harry thought. When we step on that. More and more, he liked Hermione Granger. As for the rune, he thought it a trap, or perhaps a test. Every instinct he had screamed that walking over the rune would trigger something. "Do you recognise it at all? Think hard."
"Are you telling me you do?"
Harry nodded slowly. "It's not something they've ever taught in class, that's for sure. See how the rune is slightly raised from the stone? That's because it wasn't drawn magically, it was cast from a substance, very rare, and the magic of it was lost long before Hogwarts even existed, called elderglass."
Hermione took half a minute to think about that, Harry watched the gears in her head turning, putting the pieces together, and a frown crease her brow. The glass rune, indestructible if it was anything like the Floating Markets in France, one of the last few surviving elderglass structures in the world, seemed to wink at them. "If the knowledge on how to make that rune was lost before Hogwarts existed, then how is it here inside the castle?"
Harry raised a single eyebrow. "What makes you think we're still in the castle?" he asked quietly, then laughed, not unkindly, at Hermione's startled expression. "For what it's worth, I think we are, but that still begs your question, doesn't it? How did this amazing little piece get here, cast into the very stone, and what does it mean?"
"I've read little about elderglass, and the Eldren. A lot of the books think they were an academy of magical folk, thousands of years ago, but very little of their civilisation survived."
Harry nodded. "About as far as I've got in my research, as well. I contacted a professor in France, at Beauxbatons, a few months ago about the course he teaches on Eldren runic warding. The magical world's leading authority, and he was little to no help. I reckon if he saw this rune, though, he'd have a bit more to say."
Hermione bit her lip, and Harry knew her well enough now to know she'd had a thought—an insight, even.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It looks like a leaf," she said. "I mean, not quite, but very close. Don't you think? Sort of like a maple leaf."
Harry, who had settled on an upside down and inside out umbrella, had to admit that a maple leaf was a much better description of the rune, if a little narrower and curved. "Yes, I'd say it does."
Hermione touched his arm, drew his eyes to hers. "Do you remember that note you showed me? From whoever is calling themselves the Dragonfly Queen?"
Harry nodded slowly and reached for his satchel. "One better, I have it here somewhere…"
"You see what I'm getting at, don't you?"
Harry did, now, and wasn't sure he liked it. The idea added a sinister shade of red to the night's adventuring. He dug around in his satchel and retrieved the two letters of correspondence, written in blood, and not with a quill but with a fingertip.
Dear Mr Potter, read the first note,
Your presence is requested at the behest of our mother.
'Naked and alone we came into exile.'
A stone. A leaf. An unfound door. I'll be waiting where the river bends.
My warmest regards,
The Dragonfly Queen
"A stone," Harry said softly, staring at the elderglass rune, "a leaf, and just behind us about two minutes… an unfound door."
"Any clue what it all means?" Hermione asked, exasperated.
"More confused than ever," Harry conceded, and hated being so in the dark. He unfolded the other note, sent to his friend and fellow Triwizard competitor, Fleur Delacour. Fleur had made a special visit to the castle, just to deliver the note.
Miss Delacour, the second note began, and a thought occurred to Harry. Miss Delacour, he thought. Miss. Not mademoiselle. Is that important?
The second note read:
A mystic. A path. A river of glass.
The wild dreams of a lightning-struck scar. Consider this an invite to his memory.
Harry Potter killed our mother and I will kill him.
Warmest regards, beautiful lady,
The Dragonfly Queen
Nothing new jumped out at Harry, nothing to help him decide whether or not to step over the gently breathing—gently laughing, he thought—green elderglass rune. Anything could happen if he did, absolutely anything, and the green of the rune was far too similar to the light of the killing curse for comfort.
"What should we do?" Hermione asked, mirroring his thoughts. "Go forward or back?"
"Where'd that damn pumpkin go…" Harry muttered, and came to a decision. "We don't know enough about this," he said to Hermione. "I think we should head back."
Hermione breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. She took a few steps away and turned with Harry. "Yes, once we know more we can come back and—"
Harry waited until she was half a dozen steps away before he took one simple step back and onto the white stone. Never one to do things by half, he brought his boots down firmly on the elderglass rune and crossed his arms over his chest, wand poking up past his shoulder. He stared down at the rune with a look that said 'come on, do your worst'.
Hermione turned back, eyes wide. "Harry!" she hissed. "What on—?"
A column of green fire, as cold as winter wind, burst from the elderglass rune and consumed Harry in its flames. Distantly, he heard Hermione scream as the column of flame grew, enveloped the entire white floor stone, and then spread swiftly along the corridor.
As was often the way in times of crisis, danger, fight or flight, the hand moved faster than the mind. The waking mind, anyway, for Hermione's unconscious mind, her sleeping mind, had her wand raised and the words of a shield charm on her lips before her thoughts actually kicked into gear.
The spell burst from the tip of her wand and spread floor to ceiling in an instant, blocking the wave of freezing green flame as it exploded toward her. The force of the fire hitting her shield still knocked her back a few steps, stumbling into the wall, but the shield charm held, kept the flames at bay. She took a step forward, her heart racing and the scent of burning copper in the air.
She could see him in the flames, suspended above the rune, which now shone with a furnace of green light. His face was pulled back in a vicious snarl, his long, unruly hair flying about his read, revealing that awful curse scar. His eyes stared not at her, but through her, as the tweed of his jacket began to smoke and then burn.
"What do I do?" she whispered, and was ashamed that her first thought was to run and get one of the professors—any of them, even the horrible Professor Umbridge, or worse, Snape. She pushed the thought aside, thinking not only of herself and Harry's trust in the secret of his Vault, but that by the time she got back it would be too late. Much too late.
'River…' she heard Harry's voice in her head, and saw his lips mouth the word. Then a moment later, another, 'Stars…'
"What do I do?" she shouted back, as cracks began to appear in her shield charm—something she didn't think was possible. Like a pane of safety glass struck with a bat, the shield began to shatter. Merlin, whatever I do, I need to do it quickly.
The green flame spoke to Harry, as sure as the green flame near-on fifteen years ago had branded him. He understood almost at once what was happening, understood the purpose of the elderglass rune, and knew he'd have to be quick, be clever, if he wanted to survive.
He was surprised in a way that wasn't all that surprising, that a small part of him—the tired, world-weary part—sort of welcomed the out. Welcomed the… not-surviving. It was a morbid thought, self-destructive, and departed as soon as it had arrived. A thought between breaths, between heartbeats, a secret thought he couldn't voice without losing the essential part of himself that made it through tomorrow, and overmorrow, and the day after.
Harry didn't like that part of himself, but he acknowledged it as a part of himself—the part that was clever enough to know one day he'd kill himself, if his life was forever to be Dark Lords and unknown magic, but not before he saw the job complete. Unknown magic or not.
He found himself in the grip of that unknown magic now.
Worse, he understood it.
The green fire scorched his jacket, burnt holes in his jeans, but the voice of the fire—of the Eldren elderglass rune—spoke to him, and he understood the rune was a test, a challenge, and if he wanted to proceed down the secret corridor, if he wanted to live, then he had to pass it.
Seven, whispered a voice in his mind, whispered the fire, first in a language he didn't understand and then in one he did. Seven… riddles. For the Atlas Lexicon.
A riddling game. The intent in the rune, the purpose of the elderglass, drifted across his mind and within the flame. Along with that purpose came the surety that, if he lost, if he failed to answer, the cool flame could turn as hot as star fire and burn more than just cloth and denim. He was playing for his life—and possibly Hermione's, though her form was blurred by the fire and by what he assumed was a hastily cast shield charm against the blaze.
A language Harry assumed to be Eldren whispered through his mind, and some deeper magic translated it almost as quickly.
'A head that cannot weep, a bed where no man may sleep, a mouth but no words to speak.'
Harry almost scoffed. An easy one—perhaps just a warm-up, he worried. River, he thought, and tried to say, but green flame rushed into his mouth and he snapped it shut. The thin air within the blaze was hard enough to breathe without a gob full of fire.
'At night they come without being fetched, by day they are lost without being stolen.'
Harry grimaced. Stars… the stars!
'I never was, am always to be, never seen, nor ever will be. I hold the confidence of all.'
That one was harder, twisted, and Harry gasped as the flames tore through his tweed jacket, reducing it to sparks of ash that fluttered through the flame. His satchel fell from his shoulder, disappeared through the flames. With any luck, the enchantments on the bag would keep it whole. His wand also clattered away, as the fire ate through his jeans, licking at his skin—but not burning his flesh, not yet.
…confidence of all? Harry strained his thoughts, tried to concentrate, and found the answer. Like all good riddles, it was obvious once known. Tomorrow! he cried with his mind. The answer is tomorrow!
The green flames swelled, lifted Harry higher, and the alien voice of the rune spoke another riddle: 'Walk on the living and hear not a mumble, yet walk on the dead and hear them grumble.'
The once cool flames felt a little hotter, and his clothes were burning faster than he could answer. What number is this? Riddle… four? Three more after this one. Harry wracked his brain, searched for an answer, and came up short. Seconds ticked by, the magical blaze intensified, grew impatient.
Oh god, Harry thought. I don't know the answer. I don't know it!
Hermione watched Harry's face crumble, fear replace the grim determination, and she made her decision.
With a simple flick of her wand, she dispersed her weakening shield charm, and squeezed her eyes shut tight, expecting the wicked green fire to consume her as it was consuming Harry. But it didn't. She stared at a wall of flame, wand gripped tightly, but it didn't advance.
"Honestly," she muttered, and took one long step forward and into the fire.
She was lifted from her feet, as Harry had been, and all at once the understanding of what this magic rune wanted came to her. It was a test, one of logic and cleverness. Riddles, as in the old stories of wizards and witches, heroes and even villains, on quests for treasure, for love, for the fate of the world.
A strange voice filled her mind, in a dead and forgotten language, which her mind and the magic translated into English. 'Walk on the living and hear not a mumble, yet walk on the dead and hear them grumble.'
Harry stared at her, wide-eyed and afraid. The flame had already made short work of his shirt, which now hung in burning tatters around his neck, revealing his pale chest. His jeans were now more like shorts, and beneath a pair of dark boxers. His skin was red, inflamed and enflamed.
You can do this, she thought. Living… dead… Hermione shook her head, took a deep breath of the thin air, and the answer swam through her mind. Leaves! Dead, fallen leaves crunch, they grumble!
Harry must've heard her, for he smiled in relief as the flame abated. Again, though, came that alien voice in her mind, swiftly blurred into a language she understood.
'Emeralds, diamonds, lost by the moon. I am found by the sun and picked up soon.'
Hermione and Harry shared a brief look, and then together: Dew!
The flame ate through Hermione's shoes and they fell from her feet in burnt tatters. Come on, she thought. Ask another, let's be done with it!
'Lifeless, yet may die. Consumed by time. Quickest when thin, slowest when fat.'
Harry nodded, and Hermione saw he was starting to hurt. He'd been in the flame longer—too long. Candle! he screamed. Come, the last one! Hurry!
The flame swelled, grew uncomfortably warm for Hermione. She heard the alien voice, of a language she assumed was long, lost Eldren, a final time.
'A many-roomed house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing.'
Hermione's woollen jumper exploded in green flame, revealing her simple white bra beneath. Harry stared at her intently, fiercely, but only at her eyes. He didn't know the answer.
Do I? she wondered. What helps the blind see?
Two seconds became four, became eight, and the green flame intensified once more—not so cold now, like standing in front of a furnace, and getting hotter. Hermione's underwear burnt away, swept into the fire, as did Harry's boxer shorts and what remained of his shirt. He hung before her, and she before him, naked save for the plates of mythril armour strapped to his forearms and shins.
She had a feeling those plates wouldn't burn, but now they were both out of clothing—and out of time. We're next, Hermione thought. We burn next. And I don't know the answer! She pictured two piles of ash, one with blemished silver-blue armour plates scattered around it, lost in the secret heart of Hogwarts. No one will ever know what happened to me…
Hermione's mind raced. She had known, known, Hogwarts and the magical world could be dangerous. She had known, in the abstract way most people who were not Harry Potter lived their lives, that the world could bite back, and with magic doubly so. But never to people like her. Quiet people. This is absurd, she thought, a hot flush of anger rushing from her brow down to the bare tips of her toes—her socks and shoes so much ash in the windless corridor. Whoever set this rune was an idiot. And I'm an idiot for getting wrapped up in Harry bloody Potter's life! This rune shouldn't be here. This is a school for children as young as elev—
She gasped in the flame—at the same moment a rash of ugly hot blisters appeared on Harry's chest. His face twisted in a grimace of pain.
School! Hermione shouted with a mind. The answer is a school! An academy, a university. Hogwarts! Oh, please.
The green flames burnt a moment longer, perhaps begrudging the answer at the last, and were extinguished with a roar of cool air rushing back in to fill the void. Hermione and Harry fell to the stone with identical cries of relief and, in Harry's case, shocked pain.
The cold stone beneath her body felt amazing against her sun-kissed skin. Her parents had taken a vacation to the beaches of Cornwall when she was twelve, and Hermione had burnt in the sun. The same feeling she had now alone with Harry in the rune corridor—day old sunburn, tight and stinging. But not really painful.
Harry, on the other hand. He rolled over, moaning, and the rash of blisters glistened on his chest, shining in the rune light. Mindful of her state of undress, and even more so of Harry's, though more concerned than bashful, she crawled over to him. She pushed him off the elderglass rune, which now sat dull and lifeless.
"Harry," she said. "We need to get you to Madam Pomfrey. Our wands survived, and look, so did your satchel bag, though it looks a little singed. I'll levitate you if you can't walk—"
Harry's eyes flashed open and he grit his teeth against the pain. His glasses hadn't been lost to the magical fire, but she saw the metal rims had burnt lines into the bridge of his nose and along the sides of his head. Small half-crescents had been burnt into his eyebrows. Any hotter, a few moments longer in the flame, and the glasses would have fused to his head.
"No," Harry said through his pain. His eyes found hers. "My satchel… healing potions. Can you…?"
Hermione wanted to protest, wanted to call him a fool. She crawled over to the wall and got his satchel instead.
Harry groaned and pulled himself up against the wall, his chest wailing and stinking of burnt hair and, worse, skin. Hermione, a careful curtain of hair half-covering her breasts, opened his satchel and began riffling through it.
"Blue potions," he said. "Crystal blue…"
She retrieved three vials of the sparkling blue potion and frowned. "These don't look like healing potions, Harry."
Harry just shook his head and gestured for the vials. Hermione hesitated only a moment and then handed them to him. "One for you," he said. "Trust me, you'll feel better, clearer."
Harry bit out the corks in two vials of the strange blue potion, the liquid shining on his face and in the depths of his eyes, and knocked them back with a well-practiced flick. The potion, as always, set to work instantly. Relief flooded his body, dulled the scorching of his burns, and his awareness, his clarity, soared. He managed to stop shaking, see through the pain.
If I'd taken this earlier, he thought, I wouldn't have needed Hermione's help with the riddles. After speaking to his father earlier that evening, and learning of the potions dark side out on the illicit market, he had wanted to ease back on the blue. Now he felt like the fool he was—naked and stupid.
Hermione's eyes widened as she drank her vial of potion. "Oh, oh my," she said. "I feel like… grass after rain." She blushed, and not just from her sunburn or state of undress. "That sounds silly. But I feel light, clear. What is this, Harry?"
"Something from the Vault," he said. "Can I have my satchel, please?"
She handed it over. Harry did some quick searching and retrieved a few all-purpose healing potions. An antiseptic, extra pain relief, and the like. He didn't have anything specific for burns, and certainly not enough to salve the red and raw bloody mess of his chest, but he had enough to keep going.
"Don't suppose you have a spare shirt in that satchel, do you?" Hermione asked, her legs crossed at an angle and her hands placed delicately against her modesty.
Harry shook his head. He needed to explain—she didn't see it. She hadn't caught up yet. The Dragonfly Queen's note! It had burned when Harry stepped on the rune. "Hermione Granger," he said, and the gravelly sound in his voice disappeared under the multitude of potions he'd taken. "I'd hug you if I wasn't such a mess. You were brilliant in the flame. Truly brilliant. You saved me. Thank you."
"Oh. Well. You're welcome, Harry. Now about that shirt…? We could walk back like this, I suppose, but you'll stay ahead of me, Mr. Potter. I'll not have you staring at my bottom."
Harry found half a grin. "Eyes ahead, I promise, but we can't go back. Not yet."
"You can't mean to keep going? Harry, this corridor nearly killed you—killed us!"
"Exactly," Harry said grimly. "It doesn't get to win, not after what just happened."
Hermione struggled to find the words, even with the blue potion heightening her thought and senses. "You... You're serious. No, I can see you are. You're mad! Merlin, Harry. How do you live like this? Have you never heard of the sunken cost fallacy? Just because that awful rune is now a sunk cost, doesn't mean it should emotionally effect any rational decision you make from here on out. We should go back."
Harry gave that some honest thought. "You can go back. Really, go back and wait for me. But I'd regret it if I did. There are answers here. Possibly even good ones."
"Do you have a death wish?" she asked, harshly.
"Honestly?" He shrugged. Naked and alone we came into exile, the note had said. Well, not so alone after all. Whoever sent the note had not seen that coming, which meant they'd made a mistake. "Sometimes, yeah."
Hermione stood angrily, revealing herself to Harry. He kept his eyes firmly locked on her face, though it was a genuine struggle. "Well, come on then. If we're going, let's go."
She strode over the dead elderglass stone and flickering light from the ethereal rune walls cast her body into colourful shadows. Hermione disappeared down the corridor, grasping nothing but her wand in one white-knuckled fist.
Harry stood, swayed on his feet, and tentatively placed his satchel over one bare shoulder. The strap rubbed against the outer edge of his burns, but the potions kept the worst of the pain away. He straightened his glasses, still warm to the touch, and spun his wand over the back of his hand. "Okay… Moving on."