HARRY POTTER AND THE SAVE-OR-DIE

Chapter One: Decease and Desist

"Avada Kedavra!"

Milo had just long enough to think, oh dear gods I'm going to die as his eyes reflexively slammed shut in response to the blinding green blast.

Milo waited for the inevitable.

This is what you get, he thought to himself. This is what you get for splitting the party. None of this would have happened if you'd just brought Hermione and Harry and Ron along with you, but nooooo, you had to be a hero. Of course, it wasn't entirely his fault. Sure, he'd made a few mistakes, but perhaps the fact that he'd been possessed by the memory of the most evil dark wizard the world had ever known was excuse enough. Perhaps.

Well, the gig was up now. Now that he knew he had Voldemort's teenaged spirit living in his noggin, he could take steps. Steps like preparing Protection from Evil every day, or maybe even steps like checking himself into a prison for the time being, where the guards could keep an eye on him.

He wondered what Azkaban was like this time of year. Or, really, what Azkaban was like at all. He'd only ever heard passing remarks to it, usually fearful whispers.

Milo had been waiting for quite some time before he was struck by a rather curious thought:

Hey. Shouldn't I be dead now? What gives?

"Oy!" he said. "Let's get this over with, already!"

It was the distinct lack of response that clued Milo off to the fact that something was awry. Potentially extremely awry.

Milo opened his eyes.

"Ahhhh, crap."

Milo saw something worse than Voldemort, worse than the basilisk, worse than the mad, haunted eyes of Quirrell, worse than a Redcap in the forest, worse even than the Mirror of Erised. Okay, well maybe not quite worse than the Mirror. But still pretty bad.

It was the sky.

It was a perfectly ordinary sky, as far as skies go. A few clouds drifted lazily by, but they were thin and sparse, providing little shelter from the sun beating down onto the baked earth.

No, that was wrong. What he was lying on was definitely dirt.

But it wasn't remotely Earth.

For one thing, the horizon was wrong. Really, incredibly, weirdly wrong. It took him a moment, and an Intelligence check, to figure out what exactly was going on there.

When you live your entire life on what is essentially a giant ball of rock and water, you get used to a certain convex shape to your horizon. You usually don't even notice it, unless you're in an enormous prairie or looking out over the ocean. You get used to it, and treat it as the next best thing to flat.

But this place was flat. Completely flat. The result was an extremely disorienting, almost-concave sort of effect that made Milo feel a little nauseated when he looked too closely at it.

That alone was a pretty good clue as to Milo's present location.

The other thing, the thing that Milo was avoiding looking at, was also fairly definitive. It was the only thing of its kind in existence.

Milo sighed and stood up. He was wearing a plain Hogwarts uniform, but his magic gear was missing.

Best get this over with.

Milo turned around to face the truth.

Behind him was the Spire, capital 'S'. It was big on an astronomical scale. It was impossible to determine how far away it was from him, because the Spire was, near as anyone could figure, infinitely tall. This made it somewhat difficult to get any real sense of scale. Somewhere near the top—and, yes, somehow the infinitely-tall Spire had a 'top'—was Sigil, the City of Doors.

The Spire was a lot of things to a lot of people. To explorers, it was a waypoint, a sort-of compass direction. To the inhabitants of Sigil, it was home. To those who lived on the ground, it was That Great Big Eyesore Blocking My Sunrise/Sunset, Dammit.

To Milo, it was a cosmologically-big nail in his coffin.

The Spire was at the centre of the infinite expanse known as the Concordant Domain of the Outlands, the hub of the Great Wheel, the fulcrum of the Outer Planes. Surrounding the infinitely-sized disc that is the Outlands are the various heavens, hells, and in-betweens that make up the Outer Planes, i.e., the afterlifes. Afterlives? Whatever.

There were only two ways to get here: powerful magic, and...

Well.

You can probably guess what the other way is.

Milo sighed. Which afterlife you wound up in was determined by your beliefs, your actions in life, and, primarily, your alignment. Clearly, Milo must have screwed something up pretty badly to end up here in the very-Neutral Outlands rather than one of the various Good-aligned heavens.

Milo took a good look around. There really wasn't anything in view beyond rolling fields of yellowed grass, the occasional dry shrub, and, in the distance, some dead-looking mountains.

When it came down to it, there was really only one place worth going here: Sigil, City of Doors. It was said that, in Sigil, anything and everything could be a portal to anywhere—and sometimes even anywhen—provided you had the proper key. Maybe Milo could find a mortal there travelling to his particular Material Plane to get word to his old party members. If they could scrounge up enough for a True Resurrection, he could be back in action in no time. From there, he could get back to Hogwarts... somehow. He'd figure that part out, later.

Milo turned his back on the Spire and walked directly away from it, which was the fastest way to get to Sigil, ironically. As you walked further from the centre of the Outlands, you always—always—encounter a portal town, sooner or later. From the portal towns, it was a simple enough matter to reach Sigil. So Milo had read, anyway. He'd never actually been here before, thankfully.

The trick was to avoid encountering any wandering demons roaming a little far from home along the way. Or any roaming amnesiac immortals, trying to rediscover their pasts. The Outer Planes could be a little weird that way.

Milo walked on, the hot sun beating down on him as he went. In a way, this was nice. Peaceful. It had been quite some time since he'd had to cross great distances like this, except, of course, for those times he'd had to hike, half-dead, into Hogsmeade.

As the minutes turned into hours, Milo realized something: he felt great. No random aches or sores, no burn from the searing hot sun, no fatigue or exhaustion. I guess such 'perks' are reserved for the living.

As Milo walked across the cracked dirt, something seemed to loom in the distance. Specifically, something loomed ahead of him—he still hadn't quite gotten used to what was looming behind him.

It was hard to tell what it was, exactly, but there wasn't a whole heck of a lot in this Plane to encounter, so Milo assumed it to be a Portal Town of one sort or another. Hopefully one of the Good sorts.

It seemed to be miles and miles away, but whenever Milo took his eyes off of it, it appeared far, far closer, as if he had walked for hours.

Milo narrowed his eyes for a moment, thinking. Then he closed them entirely, took one step forward and—

Stubbed his toe.

He cursed and opened his eyes.

And then he gasped. If he wasn't... living-impaired, he might have forgotten to breathe. As it was, breathing was largely cosmetic, in any case.

What he'd stubbed his toe on was a staircase. The staircase was the most impressive he had ever seen, all narrow, crumbly, windy, and decidedly lacking in common safety features such as railings. On another day, Milo would have admired the sheer engineering chutzpah it displayed.

But as it was, the staircase got barely a glance.

The staircase led up a tall, sheer hill. At the top was the sort of castle that was best viewed in the night, lit up by lightning. It was a sprawling mass of towers, outbuildings, and halls that seemed to have been constructed with no particular plan in mind, but, when taken all together, and squinted at from just the right angle, still seemed completely haphazard.

It was decidedly not a Portal Town.

It was, however, very, very familiar.

That said, there wasn't anywhere else to go. Milo resolutely began climbing the staircase to a castle that could have been Hogwarts' twin brother.

If that twin had the architectural equivalent of a waxed goatee, an eyepatch, and a wicked scar, that is.

Maybe an hour later, Milo reached the point that he judged was the halfway marker. The staircase had narrowed to be barely a foot across, and any shorter, he would start having to make Balance checks to avoid falling to his... what? Doom? He wasn't entirely certain he could take damage.

Milo frowned. He was pretty sure that a staircase like this—especially this staircase, if it lead to what he suspected—shouldn't normally be left unguarded.

Milo carried on, more cautiously now.

The outer gates were wide open. Milo recognized the dull grey metal as adamantine, one of the strongest materials in the multiverse. Carved onto each of the massive double doors was a tiny pentagon, barely bigger than Milo's palm, each with an identical, highly stylized eye inscribed in it. The eyes seemed to watch him suspiciously as he passed.

Milo swallowed.

At least now he had a pretty good idea of why he hadn't wound up on one of the various heavens. A suspicion of who was responsible, at least.

The gates lead into a colossal 'courtyard' that could have swallowed most cities that Milo had seen without needing so much as a glass of water. Maybe not the cities from Harry's world. There was a winding path that led to the castle proper, and to the side, Milo could see a large lake that, like everything else here, looked suspiciously familiar. He wondered if this lake had a giant squid, too.

Milo approached the castle itself. Unlike the outer gates, these appeared to be of ordinary wood—but Milo doubted that the physical form of the gates was all that defended this castle. These were closed, but a light tap swung the perfectly-balanced gate open. The gate made no noise whatsoever as it moved on its hinges, revealing the castle inside.

The floor tiles inside the castle were all perfectly regular pentagons that—somehow—tessellated flawlessly. Staring at the join between tiles was quickly headache-inducing.

Behind him, the doors closed silently.

There was no clear source of light, but the broad, tall hallway was lit at a continuous, sleepy, just-before-sunset level of light regardless.

Just to test a hypothesis, Milo turned around and pulled on one of the door's handles. It wouldn't budge.

"Figures," he muttered.

"Shhhh!" a voice hissed. Milo nearly jumped out of his skin, whirling around, hands free of his sleeves for spellslinging.

Behind him, floating about two inches above the ground, was... a librarian. Well, an ex-librarian, Milo supposed, but he was really nobody to judge, now being an ex-Wizard. Judging by the translucency and the monochrome blue-green look, she was also a ghost, which brought up a whole slew of afterlife-related questions, primarily, how the heck could there be a ghost in the afterlife? What did it mean to be undead when the people around you were, well, dead? Between Milo and the ghost, who was more dead?

Oh, also, in addition to the bifocals, the tidy hair bun, and the immaculate robes, her fingers ended in inch-long claws.

Milo swallowed, and decided that maybe he should follow the scary librarian lady's request to be quiet.

She beckoned him with her hands, and started floating backwards down the hallway, never taking her eyes off of him.

On the one hand, she's terrifying, and this place is weird. On the other hand, I'm already dead, so... ehhh. What could possibly happen?

Milo decided to follow her. She led him through a series of twisty, windy hallways. Every here and there were doors leading into rooms, both large and small, piled high with bookshelves. Some of them contained people, and sentient beings that resembled people, and sentient beings that did not resemble people, who were diligently researching various topics. Some of the rooms had bronze plaques with labels written in Draconic, such as "Biography, Gnome, 569th-972nd Centuries After Glittergold, Prime Material #45967.2/Walnut" or "Psychometabolism, Commentary, Levels 1 through 4."

Some rooms had no books, but simply a neat, marble pedestal in the centre with an object of one variety or another. Many held weapons or pieces of armour, but it wasn't until Milo spotted one—a large bowl fashioned from a blue-green semiprecious stone—that Milo realized what they were. Each of those rooms contained a single magic item, ranging from the minor (one contained what Milo recognized as a single Quaal's Feather Token) to the epic (a ring of Univesal Energy Immunity, worth more than the combined value of Azel's capital city, Myra (City of light! City of magic!)). Milo itched to ditch the spectral librarian and make a grab for a Headband of +12 Intelligence, but decided against it when he realized the decorative suits of armour lining the halls were silently turning their helmets to watch him.

Well, thank goodness that wasn't too creepy or anything.

Instead, Milo followed the spectral librarian, trying to make as little noise as possible. Fortunately, that wasn't hard—despite being a cavernous hallway of solid stone, his boots made little to no noise against the tiled floor. Likely another enchantment, he thought.

Eventually, the spectre led him to an obsidian statue in an alcove. It had wicked, serrated horns, fangs longer than some of Milo's fingers, from which ran what looked suspiciously like real blood. The spectre gave the gargoyle statue a long look, and the statue raised into the ceiling, revealing a spiral staircase. The entire process, like everything else, was completely silent.

At the top of the staircase was a heavy wooden door. Milo reached up to knock, but it swung open just before his knuckles touched the wood.

"Hello?" Milo asked nervously.

"Come in," said a voice. It was an old voice, but old in the way that a great oak tree is old. The years added strength and wisdom like rings on a trunk.

Milo was already through the door before the speaker had finished. It wasn't that he was eager to enter; far from it. He was terrified. It was simply that he hadn't even considered doing anything but what the voice requested.

The office was simple, but, of course, it would be. The owner had no need of any physical objects, and, at this point, further decoration would serve no useful purpose.

It occurred to Milo that, perhaps, the office wasn't free of decoration. In fact, it could have been full of dancing chimpanzees and fountains of diamonds, but it would make no difference. He found that he couldn't look at anything in the room except his own feet.

"Sit down," said the voice.

Milo found himself sitting on a hard, flat chair. He licked his suddenly-dry lips, wondering what to say.

"You're likely wondering why you're here," the voice said.

"Maybe," Milo said in a small voice. "Well. No, actually. I'm not. I'm here because you brought me here." Though the why of that is a whole 'nother question...

"Good." The voice said, Milo thought he could hear the hint of a smile in the word. "Most, when first in my presence, are too occupied falling prostrate and begging forgiveness for sins and similar nonsense to actually speak the truth. But then, you are not most people, now are you?"

"If I may ask—"

"You may," the voice said, cutting Milo off. "Of course, I may not answer."

"What do you mean, I'm not most people?"

The voice fell silent for a moment. Not, Milo was sure, because it was thinking—the speaker was intelligent beyond words; he didn't need time to think. Milo would bet that the pause was for his benefit, to convey the idea that the words that followed were well thought out. "Tell me. What do you know of the nature of the Player Character and the Non-Player Character?"

Milo swallowed. "Well. Player Characters, more commonly called PCs, are... a different sort of person from NPCs. They are always sentient, most commonly humanoids. They appear sporadically throughout history in small groups, and their lives always change the world. Generally, they go on adventures, working their way up from defeating bandits to warlords to mythical monsters. NPCs... don't."

"That is only part of the story," the voice said. "The rest is only known to me and my kind. Tell me, young Wizard, did you know that, until quite recently, there were always four PCs?"

Milo shook his head.

"They appear always in groups of four," the voice continued. "When one falls, he or she either ends up here and is resurrected in short order, or disappears from the multiverse altogether and replaced by another of equivalent power."

"What do you mean by 'disappears from the multiverse?'" Milo asked.

"Poof. Gone, without trace. Bypassing the afterlife entirely. But there's more. The four PCs always—always—each follow one of four similar patterns of behaviour. We watch them quite closely. While sometimes it seems, early on, as if a set of Player Characters might deviate from the norm, shortly, cracks in their personas start to show. Either the deviant characters are quickly slain and replaced, or their behaviour patterns change to fit the mold of one of the archetypes. Among my kind, these archetypes are called the Valiant, the Mimic, the Trickster, and the Munchkin."

Milo tried to mentally take notes. It wasn't every day that he was given a dump of exposition this straight.

"The Valiant lives for action. They see battle, stubbornness, and blind courage in the face of certain defeat as the solution to any problem. The Mimic, on the other hand, is less predictable. They fall into the role of a being with the full spectrum of emotions and drives, and stay that way until they die. Adventures and heroic deeds are less important than simply living life in whichever way they so choose. The Trickster is the least predictable of all. They live," the voice became laced with disapproval, "for their own amusement. They are the sort who will Fireball a dragon just to see what happens." Sounds like Gerard, Zook, and Wellby, Milo thought to himself. Which makes me... "The Munchkin," the voice continued, "I believe needs no explanation."

"So you're saying I'm compelled by some whacked-out meta-cosmic spirit thingy to number crunch?" Milo asked. "Screw that. I do what I want."

"Which brings us to the crux of the issue," the voice said. "Milo Amastacia-Liadon. Look at me."

Milo looked up. Sitting at the desk across from him was a bony, weathered old man. He looked more than a few centuries past his prime, but his hard, angular face was set with an amount of determination and inner strength that Milo had only seen once before. He wore a purple robe decorated with golden arcane runes, and a wide-brimmed, floppy purple hat covered in stars sat on his head. A long, wispy white beard fell down below the desk, and a simple wooden staff leaned against the wall within easy reach of his seat. His eyes were a piercing blue, full of age and wisdom—and ice. His stare was so hard and cold, Milo felt like shivering.

He looked, in short, like the platonic ideal of a wizard.

Which was because that was exactly what he was.

He also could have been Dumbledore's twin. Well, his triplet, at least, Milo thought, remembering Aberforth.

Boccob, God of Magic, looked Milo dead in the eyes. "You are different, young Wizard. Unique. You are something that has never happened before."

"And what's that?" Milo didn't like the way that Boccob was staring at him, as if he was peering through a microscope at what was a particularly interesting beetle—but a beetle, nonetheless.

"You are no longer one of the four Player Characters. You were one of those who disappeared. You were replaced. The Munchkin has moved on. He is now, I believe, a Bard of rather surprising talents."

"I..." Milo felt fear grip him. He'd been prepared for a grisly death, for starvation, exposure to the elements, for injury and danger. Those were things that went with the job. But this was a fate far, far worse than death. He could barely even speak his fears aloud. "I'm an NPC?" he said in a very small, very quiet voice.

"No," Boccob said. "You are the character with no player. We do not have a word for what you are. And believe you me," Boccob's eyes flashed, "if one existed, I would know about it."

"Why are you telling me this?" Milo asked.

"As the mysterious old Wizard among mysterious old Wizards," Boccob said, "exposition is one of my chief responsibilities." The god smiled slightly. "Also, because I have a deal to offer you."

"Fire away," Milo said, curious.

"Your particular little Prime Material Plane is having some... issues. One who was never meant for that reality has barged in and caused no end of problems for the local inhabitants."

"Of course," Milo said. "I did."

"I am not referring to the world of Hogwarts and wanded magic," Boccob said, "but instead to your own plane. Your home."

Milo blinked. "What?"

"The ritual that brought you into the other reality also brought one known as Bellatrix Lestrange into yours. She wields powers unfamiliar to those of your world," Boccob's eyes flashed again, "and she cheats. She does not follow the pattern."

"But—but she's dead," Milo said. "I remember reading about it in the Prophet. She died in Azkaban. People cheered."

"She was replaced by another, who died in her place," Boccob said. "It's been done before, and it will be done again."

Milo narrowed his eyes. "Hold up. How do you know about this? Isn't it a little out of your, ah, jurisdiction?"

"Never forget, young Wizard." Boccob's voice was as still as stopped time, as hot as a storm of meteors. "I am the God of Magic. All magic."

"Right." Milo swallowed involuntarily. "Sorry. So. What's this deal you wanted to make?"

"I will send you back into the land of the living," Boccob said, "in return for one task."

Oh, goody. A quest.

"And what task is that?" Milo asked.

"Bellatrix Lestrange," Boccob said. "Find her. You have three days."

"That's it?" Milo asked. "Just... find her? I could do that with a Divination or three."

"Then you have no reason not to accept my offer, do you, young Wizard?"

Milo hesitated. "What do you want me to do once I find her?"

Boccob the Uncaring shrugged. "I'll leave that up to you."

"Why do you need me?" Milo asked. "I'm just a mid-level Wizard. You're... well, you're you."

"Ah," Boccob said. "But I am also an NPC, constrained to act within certain bounds. And besides," he smiled slightly, but it did not touch his eyes. "As the old saying goes: it takes a cheat to catch a cheat."

Milo considered the offer. Something seriously cagey was going on. Why the three day time limit? And why did Boccob want Milo to find Bellatrix? It wasn't as if Boccob didn't already know where she was. He was a god, after all. Somebody was being played here, and Milo was pretty sure it wasn't the all-seeing god sitting across the table from him. This was a setup, in more ways than one.

But on the other hand, it was an honest-to-goodness quest. You don't get to be a successful adventurer by not doing quests for mysterious old Wizards.

And besides. He was already dead. What was the worst that could happen?

"I'll do it."

o—o—o—o—o—o—o

Here we have it! The long awaited Book Three of Harry Potter and the Natural 20! To those of you who were concerned about my killing off of the protagonist this early in, fear not! For the Pearly Gates of Adventurer Heaven are more like revolving doors, really.