Chapter 28 – Interlude : Secret Origins
Harry walked into the Minister's office with a confident stride, not even batting an eye at the assistant who tried to ward him away from the door, or the loud voices that came from within. He dusted off his Auror's robe, specially enchanted to ward off most common curses, and ran a hand through his ever-messy hair as he gathered his courage. Today was not like any other day.
The Minister for Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, stood by the tall windows of his office, staring at a diminutive figure that was pointing angrily at him, a Goblin that was gesturing with his other hand to a long piece of parchment that lay across the Minister's desk. Harry surmised it was a list of demands and, as usual with Goblins, it trailed the ground due to its sheer length.
"These agreements are not acceptable!" The figure spat, showing dangerously pointy teeth as he gestured with a sharp nail at the list. "Gringotts demands concessions for the deaths incurred in this 'expedition', seeing as it was you wizards that caused the collapse in the first place!"
"With all due respect, Snagfang, it was a Gringotts expedition." The Minister looked up and gave a quick nod towards Harry. "You hired the wizards yourself, so there is no reason the Ministry should get involved at all." He paused. "Why were you trying to go there, anyway? Dozens of wizards have gotten lost there before. It's quite possible that it's enchanted to cause that, you know..."
"The Axis Mundi are said to be places of great splendour," Snagfang snarled. "Not death-traps!"
"Yes, yes, these so-called 'navels of the world', hmmm?" The Minister shook his head. "I have always managed quite well with only one navel. You already have a number of these places as Gringotts property, don't you? Why not respect the local people's claim to the land?"
"Respect," the goblin spat. "The last time you wizards respected us is not in living memory, so don't talk to me about respect." He looked up, glancing at Harry momentarily. "I will hear your response before nightfall, Minister. Consider the matter carefully." He walked away with his head held high, though it was still only a short way from the ground. As he passed Harry, the goblin spat on his shoes and growled.
"Lovely," Harry muttered in exasperation as he cleaned up, looking after the Gringotts representative. "You'd think they'd get over the incident with the break-in, but I end up getting my shoes cleaned every time I meet a Goblin..."
Kingsley sighed as he turned to the new arrival. "Between the break-in, however well-intentioned, and the somewhat broken deal with the sword, what did you expect? Goblins have a long memory, and even longer grudges." He gestured to his desk. "Sit. I'm curious what was so urgent that it couldn't wait till Monday."
"I'd rather stand, if you don't mind," Harry said carefully as he shrugged off his outer robe, and then pulled out the badge that signified his occupation. "I'll make it simple. I wish to resign."
Kingsley stared at him. And continued to do so for a full minute longer, while Harry tried not to wither under the man's piercing gaze. Finally, the Minister sighed, looking away with haunted eyes. "So, even you have a breaking point." He shook his head. "Even the great Harry Potter, famed and fortunate?."
"Can we keep this from getting complicated?" Harry asked pleadingly. "Since you clearly already know why I want out." He dropped his robe and badge on the desk. "I don't want any fuss."
"I'd like to hear your reasons, beyond the obvious ones that even I noticed. I don't believe you would break easily." Kingsley sat back in his large chair. "Speak."
Harry hesitated. "Those reasons are personal."
"I wonder if you'd say the same after a few good bludgeoning spells to the shins," Kingsley commented grimly, then smiled warmly. "Well, after that unpleasantness a few years back, I suppose I can give you the benefit of the doubt, and hear you out. Spill, and we'll see what the Minister for Magic can do for you."
"This is nuts. You can't just stay at home, Harry!" Hermione exclaimed as she stalked through the little apartment that Harry called home, ignoring the protesting paintings that seemed quite upset about her brusque demeanor. Harry sat behind his desk, a pair of books opened before him, though his weary eyes and lazy chair made it plenty clear that he had been taking a nap, rather than studying. He took in the new arrival as he yawned.
"Could you be any louder?" He complained as he rubbed the sides of his head. "I had a long evening, so I'd appreciate a little volume control." He rose to his feet as he sighed, then paused. "Wait, you're back?" He blinked.
"Yes, thank you for noticing!" Hermione rolled her eyes. "I swear, I leave for a few months, and when I return nobody even noticed I was gone. Ron just turned around in bed and used me as a pillow before he even realized I was back. Oh, and he snores again. Just when I thought that last charm worked..." She shook her head. "Thats not important, really. I swear, if I hadn't heard about this from Ron of all people, I wouldn't have believed it at all. You, skipping out on Auror duty? What are you thinking?"
"Hermione-" Harry tried to interrupt.
"You don't even seem guilty about it, either!" Hermione said sharply. "Were you napping, just now?" She glanced at the books and frowned at the chapter titles; they were biographies of major wizarding criminals, alongside some kind of family tree. "And what's this you're reading?"
Harry frowned. "So, it was Ron. Figures, I'm sure he wouldn't keep things from his wife." He smiled slightly. "He couldn't even wait for details before he apparated away and dragged you into things, I guess. Well, being impulsive is nothing new." He walked over to his bookcase, running his hand down several spines as he avoided Hermione's gaze. "I didn't keep you out of the loop, Hermione. I'm not away without leave. I'm just suspended for a few days."
Hermione paused. "...Suspended?"
Harry shrugged uncaringly. "Yes. I was relieved of duty, since the Minister was under the impression that I was 'messed up'. I think he put it in those words, too. He was right. Kingley's not one to mince words, anyway." Harry paused. "Seeing as you were in Bulgaria, I'm not too surprised that you didn't hear about all of this. The Ministry's buzzing about it..."
"What did you do?" She frowned. "I heard some vague mumblings, on the mainland, but I thought it was just the usual nonsense."
"Oh, yes, it's the usual, alright," Harry said, glancing at her. "As for what happened... I quit. Or tried to."
Harry shrugged as he removed a new book from his shelf, a scuffed copy of Magic and Time: Why You Should Avoid Yourself, before he turned to Hermione again. "I tried to resign, and I sort of got angry when Kingsley wouldn't let me. Well, you know how I can get when I'm mad. His hand was forced after that, since half the building heard, otherwise he probably would've let me off with a warning. Thus, suspension. I don't intend to file for renewal after the month is over."
"...What exactly happened while I was gone?" Hermione asked, disbelieving. "You can't quit! Not after all that effort to get into the Aurors in the first place, Harry! It took two years after Hogwarts just to make it that far, and now you just decided to get out, on a whim? That's... " Hermione shook her head, raising her wand. "Finite Incantatem!"
"I'm not bewitched, Hermione, though I think that would have been better than the reality," Harry observed with a little amusement as he sat back in his chair, leafing through his book. "I'm not sure why you're surprised, either. I told you that things were getting too much. I figured you of all people would catch the hint."
Hermione shook her head. "I thought you were joking! I'd sooner see you leave Britain than leave your job!" She paced back and forth through the room, glancing at Harry reproachfully. "How are we going to fix this mess, then?"
A smile flitted across Harry's face, but he forced it away. "I thought about leaving Britain, actually, and I might still do that. Britain's getting awfully constraining." He paused, deliberating over what to say. "There are... reasons that I don't really want to get into, for why I went to Shacklebolt like I did. Some of them are personal, and I'll leave those aside, but others are more general. You already know about the murders. The Muggleborns."
Hermione paled, and leaned forward in her chair, brushing her bushy brown hair behind her ears. "Harry, those are not your fault, and you know it!"
"No, they're not," Harry agreed. "But they're my responsibility, nonetheless, and not just as an Auror. After Ginny..." He clenched his fists tightly. "And then the attack on Luna... It became pretty clear that Riddle's death didn't somehow stop dark wizards in general, and that I am a favored target because of my reputation. I guess Dumbledore had the same thing." He sighed wearily. "I'm glad that you and Ron are mostly safe, but the same can't be said for all these other people, especially those who don't live in well-protected magical homes. I don't even know most of the Muggleborns that died, but I do know why they're dying. Me."
Hermione scowled. "Dark wizards will always find an excuse, Harry, and you're an Auror. Of course you're going to run into them. You shouldn't take it so personally. You're the most visible Auror around, is it any wonder that these dark wizards are trying to get you to react?"
"No, it's not," Harry acknowledged. "Trouble is, though, I'm not Dumbledore. I know he wasn't perfect, but he was a lot more capable than I am, and the public's more ambivalent about me, too. This has been going on for more than a year now, and we still can't find these murderers. The Ministry's keeping everyone on way too short a leash over it, and that means we won't be getting any closer, either. More than eighty are dead, Hermione. All Muggleborns, except for Ginny, because these bastards know how to get to me." He looked at Hermione with hard eyes, his hands still clenched tightly. "The few times these people communicate, they demand that I resign. I decided I would not, convinced that it made no difference, but lately it's become impossible to believe that. They're going after these people specifically to get at me."
"So you want to quit, just on the off-chance that it'll help? Leave, and let the murders go unopposed?" Hermione asked, shaking her head. "Harry – don't you see that's exactly what these people want? To have you out of the way, so they can pressure people like Voldemort did? You didn't think that he was the last of the dark wizards, right?"
"Don't call him that," Harry said shortly. "He's just Tom Riddle, now, and we shouldn't indulge his silly title. And, no, I was under no illusion that dark magic would end with his demise. What I had hoped for was a reprieve. Instead we have this, a murder spree that won't end. These deaths aren't coincidental ones that are shoved into my face – they're intentional, designed to affect me, to draw me out. At this point, I'm doing more damage by being an Auror than if I stop."
"Surely you –"
"We stopped twenty. Twenty. That's it. The majority of the victims aren't even reported missing before someone finds their remains, and we probably missed some that live in the Muggle world. Each one of them is marked with my initials. We saved Luna, but..." Harry put down his book. "If I resign, it won't stop dark wizards – but it might well stop this murder spree. I cannot afford to put the job I love above the people I'm supposed to protect. You understand that, don't you? Ginny did. And there's more than that, too. Yesterday forced my hand. I guess you haven't heard, yet."
"What do you mean?"
"You know I've been coasting on Riddle's defeat," Harry said after a while. "The Prophet's been happy to write decent things about me, for once, because I knocked out their big bad Dark Lord. They've largely avoided being blatantly offensive. But, that's changing again. Not even defeating a wizard of that calibre will let you off the hook forever, and yesterday the dam finally broke."
"...No They wouldn't dare."
Harry reached into his pocket and removed the latest paper with an expression of disgust, slapping it on the desk before him. "First page, of course. It figures."
"BOY-WHO-LIVED: SERIAL KILLER? STRING OF MURDERS LINKED TO FAMED AUROR AND KILLER OF DARK LORD. Details on Page 1-5, reprint: 'Harry Potter: Heir of Slytherin?'"
Hermione paled at the picture below it: It was photo of Harry, his face contorted into a vicious snarl, clasping his hand in his fist as he stood among the ruins of the Burrow, taken the day that Ginny had died. Below, much smaller, was a collection of small photographs of dead bodies – each of them with a burn-mark exposed on their skin, spelling out 'HP'.
"That bitch," Hermione cursed, turning a faint shade of purple. "I swear, this time I'll pull out each of her squiggly little-"
"It wasn't Skeeter," Harry noted immediately. "She's still fifth-page only, and it'll take her years to crawl back up. It's everyone." He reached into his pocket and retrieved two more miniaturized papers that he quickly enlarged. "Foreign papers are already reporting this as facts – by morning it'll be reprinted in every major paper, and the foreign papers will come right back here, without the meager amount of qualifying statements that the Prophet thoughtfully included. Only the Quibbler's stayed out of it, as far as I know."
"How – " Hermione narrowed her eyes as she shuddered with rage, and she stood up without quite realizing it, her knuckles white. "After all that happened, they dare-"
"Yes," Harry said softly. "I knew this time would come, eventually. I've been dreading something like it for months, even before the attack on the Burrow, before Luna was captured. My colleagues among the Aurors know I'm innocent, and so does the Minister, but they don't have much credibility since the war, and the Wizengamot isn't too friendly without Dumbledore there to manage their massive egos. Kingsley can only protect me so much. The moment the media got to one of these murder-cases before the Aurors did, the backlash was inevitable."
"They can't do this, Harry! You have to do something!"
"I would, if there was something feasible to attempt," Harry said. "Problem is that people are predisposed to believing what they want to hear, and anything I say would be used against me. If I publicly deny being involved in all this, even with the Ministry behind me, a lot of people would take it as a sign that the Ministry itself is corrupt and complicit, just when they slowly get some semblance of respect back. A lot of folks haven't forgotten the days that I was declared evil, and since the prophecy became public, those have been getting louder again..." He sighed. "Sturgis apologized, but he caused quite a mess with that one. The media's finally jumped on that reference to being marked the 'Dark Lord's equal. Of course, in their mind, only another Dark Lord could fit that description."
"Quitting is fleeing the issue, not confronting it."
Harry shrugged. "You may think so, but I don't see it that way. I want to leave. I'm done, Hermione. These people are after me, and they're willing to go through everyone to get to me, and it's been that way practically since the first year of Hogwarts. Yes, they're misinformed and reactionary, but that doesn't mean the problem lies only with them. These latest murders are a symptom of a larger trend: People haven't bounced back from the war yet, and I'm all too visible a reminder. I need to disappear, convincingly. I figured I could fake my death, but..."
"What do you want me to say?" Harry asked sharply. "The killings won't stop on their own. Even if they're not all connected, the public will assume they're my doing, after this smear. When these killers are caught, someone else will pick up again, and few will search for the real culprits, since a scapegoat is on hand. I have to go away – for a long time, if not permanently. I don't know where, yet, but it's the best choice I have. The Aurors can deal with one less recruit, and I have done my share of slaying Dark Lords already."
Hermione sat back with a shiver. "You'd let them win, Harry."
"Well, I hardly said I'm leaving right this minute, did I?" Harry smiled thinly. "Aurors have to follow the rules, they have regulations and so forth on what to do with dark wizards. What do you think would happen if an Auror were to strike out on his own? How about one that's got quite a bit of pull in the government, at least until the media rips into that as well?" He rose. "Don't worry: I won't stop until this is ended. One way or another."
"Are you certain of this, Harry?"
"Kingsley, we went over this." Harry looked down at his paper with a frown; it was dripping at the edges from the steady rain, though an impervious charm prevented it from turning into an unreadable mess. "I knew about the hatchet job before I came to your office, you know. That's why I accelerated my plans, why I need your help. I would have preferred to take care of this without anyone knowing." He tapped the top line. "Now's the ideal time to strike. He might be there."
Kingsley narrowed his eyes from under his hood which hid his face from view. "This is illegal, just so you know. I am the Minister. I should arrest you right here, right now. I doubt revenge is the right motivator, too." He frowned. "How on earth did you get access to the files of the Unspeakables, anyway? Not even I can get much from them."
"I think it has something to do with killing the person who murdered their families," Harry mumbled under his breath. "Look, nobody knows about this, and they won't. Not Hermione, Ron, not anyone. I even lied to Hermione, to her face, so you know I'm committed. If you meet her, act like we had a falling out, that would fit."
"She's very intelligent," Kingsley pointed out. "She will figure out what you did."
"Not until after it's done. What she does then, well, I suppose we'll find out." He gestured. "As long as you do your part, I will make sure that these bastards are taken out, permanently, without any fuss on the part of the Wizengamot or the Ministry in general. Quick, and about as clean as you get."
"I know, I know, the Ministry doesn't condone assassination, I can't be an official Auror after this, the whole nine yards." He looked up with dark eyes. "I don't appreciate the necessity of this either, but you know that these things happen. I had to take out Riddle, and I did." He tapped his invisibility cloak. "I won't be seen."
"You still intend to disappear, then?"
Harry nodded wearily, as he reached into his pocket, retrieving a long wand, shimmering slightly in the pale light. "I have all three, now. I'm leaving as soon as I've found out how, and I'm taking these things with me. Don't worry; I won't jeopardize the Ministry, or anything else I found out through the Unspeakables. I have Hermione helping me to prepare; she'll have to obliviate me to get rid of the important stuff."
Kingsley sighed to himself. "Well, if you're sure..."
"Hold off the Aurors for at least a few minutes. At least four or five, since I intend to be quick about it. If you have the team in question in your office at the time, they'll have to get to an apparition point, which should be far enough. I'll put up an apparition barrier around the building, and no, I'm not telling you where it is, before heading in. If all goes well, I will be gone by the time my- the Aurors arrive."
"Just get it done. It will be tough enough to explain this to the Wizengamot as it is without you getting caught." Kingsley nodded kindly. "Godspeed, Harry."
His steady gait did not betray his slightly paranoid fear as Harry made his way down Knockturn Alley, his distinctive looks covered up with a magical disguise that resembled Neville more than anyone else, though the latter would probably not go down this route, ever. Harry knew that right that moment there was an illusionary version of himself, sitting behind his desk back at home, just in case someone took a peek inside. Hopefully nobody would look too deeply into that, and he would be safe.
Three people had died since his resignation, or what was officially a suspension; three deaths, all of them in London, uninterrupted by his disappearance from the public eye. Whether or not this had ever been about him, personally, it was now something more. There was one name in the Unspeakables' files that was far too familiar, and it had been the deciding factor. Someone he had been looking for, but who always slipped away, might be there. Selwyn. Ginny's murderer.
Harry had picked up the Resurrection Stone again, well aware that he was tempted to use it much like its original owner must have been. He knew it was a bad idea, but he had no other. Harry conjured before him the spirits of the last victims, those who had seen their killers' faces. It had not taken long to find one who still held resentment for their sudden death, and she had told him all of it. The killers were Death Eaters, now leaderless, continuing their master's work in his absence. Escapees from the law, the last of the scum that had not yet been wiped away. One spirit, that of a young girl, remembered that her killers talked of a safe-house, a place to lay low, down here in Knockturn Alley. They had been too confident that the dead could not speak.
A seething hatred bubbled not far below the surface, an ever-increasing inferno that grew with every obituary, with every corpse that was dropped off at the Ministry, with every victim. That kept him going, and he could probably use it to pull off a really effective Cruciatus Curse. At the same time, he kept remembering what happened with Voldemort, and how feeble and weak the man had seemed only moments after the light vanished from his eyes. Voldemort fought him, but it was Tom Riddle, mutilated and tortured, that hit the ground with finality.
The end of the alley quickly approached, and Harry raised his wand, and it glowed ever so slightly red as he suddenly turned to one of the little shops. He adjusted his invisibility cloak, raising the Elder Wand before him. It was now or never; he had made his preparations, placed his protective spells, and the time was here. Focusing on his anger, he flung his first spell.
The explosion that followed was huge and intense, billowing to both sides of Harry, who kept a magical shield up through the brunt of it; that one attack had just destroyed more than half a dozen protective wards set around the premises, and he quickly added his own. Apparition would be impossible, now, for anyone short of Dumbledore. Harry weathered the shower of debris as the glass sprayed outward, covering over half a dozen onlookers that quickly made themselves scarce. The heavy iron door slammed down onto the street with a loud clang, and a crackle of electricity seemed to arc through the sky for a moment. Someone screamed in the distance.
Four minutes to go.
Harry walked in with a quick gait, tapping the wrecked storefront as he passed, and a flash of red spread itself across the walls and the door. Without stopping to consider his trap, he vanished the next door, striding into the back without a second thought.
"I know you're in here, Mulciber," he said. "Yarrow, you too."
It was silent and nothing moved, but Harry knew that there was only one exit, and he had just put a trap, there, that would hold them for at least enough time to knock them out. The store was heavily protected, as befitting a safe-house, but not well enough to stop him. He had spent two painstaking days mapping everything out, making escape impossible. He walked inside and quickly conjured a replacement door, a tricky bit of magic, putting a nasty shocking charm on it.
"I know you're here, so there's no need to be shy," Harry called. "You can't apparate, and you'll find that the floo is also being quite temperamental today. If you want to stay in one piece, I wouldn't try it."
Mulciber's voice, Harry observed, was coming from somewhere above. He conjured a shield around himself before he moved on. "Come now, don't be crass. You wanted me here, I got the message with all those people you've killed. Do your worst," he said loudly as he blasted another door aside and entered into a large room that looked quite like a warehouse, with huge piles of some kind of merchandise piled in the corners in colourful little boxes. "I really should have taken care of you after your master died."
The Killing Curse came from almost straight above, and Harry set a step forward and twirled around just as it blasted the floor where he stood only moments before, though the damage was far inferior to what Riddle had been capable of. There was sawdust on the floor; it figured that he would be traced by his footsteps while invisible. Sloppy. He glanced up, catching only a glimpse of a wide-eyed face, but it was enough to make a connection. His Legilimency, crude as it was, ripped into the man's mind, and Mulciber cried in pain as he jerked back, and the connection broke.
"So, there's three of you, huh?" Harry murmured, his eyes narrowing. Selwyn. He was here, somewhere. He shook his head and then stilled entirely, quieting even his breath, listening. For a few heartbeats, there was nothing. Then, he spoke again. "You really should take care not to look a Legilimens in the eyes. He might see things you don't want him to." He smiled darkly. Really, he sucked at that particular skill, but his version was quite brutal, which was a fantastic distraction in a fight. He hated using that trick, but this was no time for doubting himself.
"He's a bloody mind-reader!" Yarrow's voice cried out from somewhere to his side.
"Sectumsempra!" Harry barked sharply. Sizzling slashes of violent magic tore themselves through a wall with enough force to topple most of it, and then kept on going. The Death Eater didn't see it coming at all, so certain in his safety behind thick walls, and he was a little too late to dodge the sudden assault.
Almost six years out of Hogwarts, Harry's spells were a lot more accurate and powerful than they used to be, especially after Auror training. Snape's spell, used mostly to cause superficial cuts when it was first invented, and which Harry had used to rather greater effect against Malfoy, slammed into the unprepared Death Eater and blasted him clean across the hall. Then it kept on going. A hand, detached, dropped to the floor first, then half a leg. Very slowly, Yarrow's head followed. The body slumped down, still twitching, as silence took over.
Harry's hand trembled as he stared at his victim, and he grit his teeth. For a moment, he wondered if he was not supposed to feel something, now; didn't killing split the soul, or do some kind of damage? He had only killed Voldemort before this, and that hardly counted. Blood pooled and suddenly his eyes widened as he remembered his time constraints.
Two minutes to go. No time to contemplate morals.
Without thinking twice, Harry apparated a floor up. There were spells that prevented apparition in and out of the building, but like the Great Hall at Hogwarts demonstrated, that did not mean you were prevented from moving within it. He had memorized the position of every hall and object in the store before he even entered, and he took full advantage of that.
He appeared a few feet behind Mulciber, who was staring over the edge, to the lower floor he had just left, probably taking in the huge hole in the wall coupled with a slowly expanding sea of blood.
"Expelliarmus." Harry intoned, and Mulciber whipped around at the last moment, his wand flying to Harry's hand. The latter put it in his pocket without a second thought.
"You- you killed him," the Death Eater exclaimed. "Aurors aren't supposed to -"
"I'm not an Auror. And what did I tell you about meeting my eyes?" Harry caught Mulciber's gaze just as he paled and tried to look away. Too late. He crashed into the criminal's mind with all the subtlety of a rampaging elephant in a porcelain factory. Three people were present. Three Death Eaters, and all of them were complicit. Mulciber started to drool as he sagged against the railing, eyes suddenly dulling and losing whatever focus they had. Harry released him, and he slumped. "So thats what Selwyn's been doing, eh? Obliviate."
Mulciber didn't answer: He just stared blankly ahead, his breaths coming slowly and heavily. Harry twitched as he realized that he had probably gone too far. The man's mind had collapsed in on itself, and it could take months to repair itself. At least he would not remember how it happened.
He could feel sorry for himself later. He only had one minute left, and he had seen no sign of Selwyn, yet. He could not help but think back to Ginny's lifeless body, to the destruction of the Burrow. He seethed inside as he went to leave.
Pain blossomed in his skull as Harry crashed to the floor with sudden agony, and his limbs spasmed in protest. Even through the pain, he kept his wand clasped tightly in his fist, that was all he could do for a long moment as the Cruciatus Curse inflamed every nerve and nearly shocked his brain into shutting down entirely. He concentrated on holding on, knowing that fighting the pain would have no effect, and prepared to react. He felt his disguise falter, vanish.
The moment that happened, probably due to Selwyns shock, the spell stopped. Harry was upright in an instant. The pain was as omnipresent as it was while the spell was active, and his muscles objected viciously to the abuse, but Harry whirled around forcefully, a spell flying before he could voice the incantation fully.
Selwyn flew backwards off his feet, landing in a groaning heap down the length of the hall, his wand clattering to the floor in two pieces. Blood seeped down from a wound near his hairline as he tried to get back up despite the intense vertigo that Harry's spell had caused, and he wavered.
"Selwyn, you SON OF A BITCH." Harry winced as he moved forward on clumsy feet, and he heard something exploding in the distance; it was his trap at the front door. One of his colleagues had triggered it, and it would take a few seconds before they found a way to break free from his sticky surprise, when a huge chunk of the air suddenly turned into jello, trapping them inside until they could wrestle free. Time was running out. "I would figure out a way to pay you back for what you did to Ginny," he snarled, narrowing his eyes. "I would love to pay you back for every damn person you hurt, but I don't have the time for that." He sniffed. "Perhaps it's better like this. You don't deserve that kind of attention."
Selwyn coughed, confused. "What the hell? That was... You're using dark magic now, Potter? And Legilimency?" He looked baffled. "You-"
Harry ignored the man's babblings, and worried about the fact that someone would figure out that he was behind this, regardless of how he ended this. He had been too sloppy. He had stormed in here illegally, had already killed one person without even a semblance of a trial, and he was pretty sure Mulciber was ready for admittance in St. Mungo's. Though he could barely stomach the idea, there were enough corrupt people in the Ministry to ensure that someone like Selwyn would end up on the street again, just as Mulciber and Yarrow had before him, after ratting him out the moment they could.
He could not allow that. Never. Other times, his reason might have overtaken his anger, bridled his unspent rage, but not now. Not when he was three inches from Ginny's killer.. "You went way too far, this time. I'm clean out of mercy. Goodbye."
The door downstairs was broken down right then, and someone yelled that everyone should turn themselves in; it would take them only moments to find Yarrow. Harry did not even twitch at the sound, slowly raising his wand instead. Selwyn's eyes widened in panic.
That expression was frozen on his face.
Harry's anti-apparition spells dropped as he stared down at the corpse with dull eyes for a last time, and he felt some satisfaction, at last. With a twist, he vanished.
"Harry, you're not a coward." Hermione said as he she followed Harry into his backroom, where piles of dusty old books and all manner of contraptions were set up. "Fleeing is one thing, and you know that I don't wish you ill, but what you're contemplating here is absolutely crazy."
Harry looked up with tired eyes, weary of this conversation. "It's not cowardice to admit that you lost your way, Hermione. At least, I don't think so. It's not cowardice to find your own way out either, and I'm going to do that." He turned. "You know what I did, right? Exile is among the least of the punishments I deserve."
"Harry -" Hermione scowled. "We're not discussing that again. Not now. You asked for my help with this, and I reluctantly agreed, but how can I justify it? You're looking for a way to commit suicide, how can you expect me to respect something like that?"
"It's not suicide," Harry hissed. "I don't want to die, Hermione. I'm not that far gone. Going to these lengths would be certain death for someone who is unprepared, yes, but I'm preparing. It's possible, you know the stories as well as I do, and I would have expected you to be excited for fantastic magic like this. These Axis Mundi... even Muggles know about the concept, though they consider it more metaphorical." He frowned. "Dumbledore once told me that I should choose between what's right and what's easy, and I will stick to that, even though I strayed from that path before. I don't know if this is the right choice in the end, but I sure do know it's not an easy one."
"This shouldn't be your first choice!"
Harry turned to her with a raised eyebrow. "This isn't the true last resort, Hermione. Suicide would be that, as you say. You know I can't go anywhere on the planet that people would not find me, and quickly. I'm looking for a possibility, to find some way to be happy in life. I will pursue this road of dreams before I contemplate even more drastic measures." He cocked his head to the side. "How bad is it now, out there? Have they decided on a suitable punishment yet?"
Hermione shivered. "...It is pretty bad. But you know that Ron and I will support you, Harry. No matter what. Luna too, and Neville, and most of the rest of our old class."
Harry nodded. "Help me find what I need, and let me do what I have to, and I'll let you all get on with a more normal life. I know it'll be painful, but it is better than the alternatives." He tapped his book and smiled. "If there is a way back, perhaps I will find you again, after the world has calmed down a lot. Perhaps I will have come to peace with things, in whatever higher or lower plane I end up. That's what it's supposed to be like, right? A vacation, if you will." He sighed. "I know I acted rashly, back then."
"You killed people, Harry."
"Yes," Harry said. "They were murderers and Death Eaters, and I won't apologize for it, and that probably won't change much either. I went in with full intentions to kill Selwyn that day, if I had the chance. I'm still surprised I could go through with it." He looked away. "I'm baffled every day that you didn't turn me in after I told you, so I guess you understand that, at least a little." He shook his head slowly. "You know why I went outside the law like that, and you know why I want to go. Someone like me doesn't really belong here. I need to find somewhere fresh, somewhere without the taint of my past. Call it selfishness, if you want, but I think I deserve a little slack."
"How did we ever get here?" Hermione asked softly. "After Hogwarts, after the war. Me with Ron, you with Ginny, we were happy couples, looking forward to a bunch of children..." She sniffed, and noticed Harry's stricken look only then. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
"I summoned her," Harry whispered.
Hermione blanched. "Summoned? W-with the Resurrection Stone?"
Harry slowly nodded. "I know I promised not to pick it up again... but I couldn't stop myself, not after I retrieved it from the forest. She... even if things could never be the same, I wanted her to know about what I was going to do, when it all crystallized in the wake of the attack. I asked for her permission to pursue this." He cringed. "With her blessing, I quit active duty, so I could walk this road. I even told her about how far I would go, to end it. I told her about Selwyn, too."
Hermione grimaced suddenly. "You're not going away, just to find another one of her, are you?"
"No." Harry glared at Hermione. "What we had was special, Hermione, and I'm not going to try and find myself a nice little clone to pick it back up. It would be unfair to her, and incredibly creepy. She told me to find something to be happy with – or someone, if it came to that." He frowned. "I'm disappointed that you'd think that of me, you know. I am an unsociable shut-in these days, not a monster."
"This could be a big mistake. The Axis Mundi, the Yggdrasil, the whole thing. How do you know this kind of magic will work? It might well just burn you up without a trace, and nobody would ever know!" Hermione sighed. "How do you even know that it'll be where you think it is? The World Tree has been lost for centuries."
"Well, lost things are made to be found." Harry smiled. "There have been six expeditions to the region, and most came back in various states of... disrepair. Whatever is there, it's dangerous enough to hurt people, but so valuable that the Goblins would just keep trying. Safe to say that few things match that description."
"...And the danger doesn't bother you?"
"Gringotts hires street thugs and other riffraff for expeditions like this, precisely because of the danger. I'm trained as an Auror, and I have some experiences with dark magic, if thats what the issue is, here. Actually, if my research is correct, my very intention there should clear up the road considerably."
Hermione sighed. "Ron and the others want to wish you good luck. I don't think any of them will want to follow you on this expedition. It's not our journey, either."
"I figured as much. I will come." Harry nodded to himself. "I don't know if I can send a message back, to tell you all that I made it, but I'll attempt to do that." He paused. "I was going to ask you a favour... but I think I'll have to handle it myself, like the rest. I suppose it's only fitting."
"It's a mistake."
"Maybe. Maybe not." Harry raised an eyebrow. "It's my mistake to make, and I'll own up to the consequences. If I gave myself up, I would be used as a political example. Even if I deserve a lifetime in Azkaban for murder, I refuse to be made an example of. I can find some other place to gather myself, to figure out a way to be a normal person again, and perhaps to help people. I think I could make up for it. Come now, you already know I'm hard-headed when it comes to things like this. You might as well give in." He stood up, stretching his back with a sigh. "If it is... nobody can say I didn't dare to go through with all my convictions."
"I'm surprised you decided to come," Harry said to Snagfang. "After that last expedition went south, I was pretty sure that you were going to give up." He snorted. "I still remember that first time I saw you, bickering with the Minister. I swear, he was just about ready to turn purple with indignation."
The old Goblin murmured something nasty, and Harry left him alone as he walked into the wild land. He was in northern Europe, though he wasn't quite clear on the country, and it was entirely too tropical for the latitude, considering most of the surrounding countryside was iced over. This was definitely the place he was looking for, and he could practically feel the ground pulling him onward, on to the centre.
Harry rolled a little stone around in his hand. "Professor Dumbledore?"
He turned to the shade of the old man, standing beside him with a congenial smile, once again wearing his old robes and tipping his little pointy hat, his long beard neatly tucked behind his belt. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled merrily over his half-moon glasses. Harry rolled the Resurrection Stone around in his hand once more as he looked at it for a moment. "I'm taking the Hallows along. Whatever happens, they're not coming back here. I suppose that fulfills what they say about these things: They will leave the world with their master."
"Well, you are entitled to take them," Dumbledore said, smiling slightly. "You united them, almost by accident, whereas Gellert and I spent far too much time chasing after such things. I suppose that means you were destined to be the Master of Death. An encouraging thought, I think."
"I sort of broke my promise, though," Harry said. "I said I would leave this behind in the forest." He gestured at the Stone. "I told your painting as much. I suppose I can see now why Cadmus fell to it, when it's so very tempting."
"Baubles have ensnared many unfortunate souls in the past, and not all of them were magical either," Dumbledore said. "Even I, who has studied the Hallows more than I ought, can only guess at their origins, or their true meaning, and hypothesize into the unknown." The old man gestured to the wild growth ahead of them. "Here, too, lies a mystery I never solved. The Axis Mundi, the Navels of the World, are sometimes thought to be the wellsprings of magic itself. In stories they are mountains, like ancient Olympus, or trees, like the great Yggdrasil of the ancient Norse wizards, the one you are looking for now. Sometimes an Axis is a symbol, more than anything else."
"Or a gateway between Heaven and Earth," Harry said, smiling slightly. "A door between worlds, if you will. When I first heard about the concept, I thought of the Leaky Cauldron, or Platform 9 ¾, the places at the border of the Wizarding World. Perhaps that's why we met there, that time I was struck for the second time by the Killing Curse. It is my very own centre of the world, a gate between different places."
Dumbledore nodded, smiling. "You mean to take a train, this time?"
"Well, yes, but not onwards. Not yet. It's a train station, there's bound to be more directions than one, right? I'll see if I can hitch another ride."
"I will keep a cabin free for you, should the day come that you need it to get back to us." Dumbledore winked.
Harry smiled warmly, and frowned. "It's odd: In life you were so careful about things, but now you're the only one that's not trying to discourage me from all of this."
Dumbledore shrugged lightly. "I would not stand between a man and his choices, Harry. Particularly not those of someone like yourself. Whether I approve of this particular direction is meaningless and intangible compared to whether or not it will help you find what you seek. I know you are the better man, Harry, and therefore I trust you to take the right way."
"Will the others forgive me?"
"In time. Already, some of them are coming around, and I suspect that Miss Granger regrets not travelling all the way with you, after sticking by your side, much like Ronald. If you return here, on some future day, they will certainly welcome you back. They are far too loyal to let such a thing as time mar your long friendship."
Harry nodded. "I am leaving more behind than just them." Harry gestured to the Elder Wand. "It would be suicide for any normal wizard, but I have this. I can remove the knowledge which I cannot afford to spread, no matter where I end up."
Dumbledore looked vaguely worried at seeing Harry twirl the wand around. "Altering your own memory is highly dangerous, Harry."
"So is going across worlds, especially with the knowledge of how to get back here, right there for the taking by any decent Legilimens," Harry muttered. "I will let myself remember how to get back, just in case, but only the mere basics. I will make sure I forget everything else. All the details, all the years of research, and all my notes stay behind." He shrugged. "I can't afford to be a threat to my own home, not if I want to live without those worries."
Dumbledore adjusted his glasses. "I cannot stop you, but such things are imprecise even in an expert's hands."
"Understood. I will do it just before I leave. I don't know what I'll be facing in there, and it's dangerous enough with only the bare minimum of knowledge." He stepped off the rock and gazed down at the Resurrection Stone again. "I will try to contact you on the other side, if I reach it. I'm sure I will remember that much."
"I would appreciate the peace of mind, so to speak," Dumbledore agreed. "Bon Voyage, and I hope you will enjoy your own, ah, next great adventure."
Harry nodded, and slowly slipped the Stone back in his pocket, and the shade vanished into thin air. He considered calling back others, like Sirius or his parents, but decided against it. He had spoken to them enough over the years, and he barely knew what he would say to them now, anyway.
He walked through the verdant forest in the centre of the frigid north, and the branches seemed to part before him. He heard Snagfang somewhere behind him; he probably noticed Harry's sudden departure, and followed. Harry ignored him, letting the ambience of the place sweep him up, enjoying the remarkable fragrances of impossibly vivid blooming flowers.
The tree had been broken long ago; there was only a stump left of the connection, after more than a millenium of neglect. Perhaps it had been severed to end this place, to try and disenchant it, but it had not worked. The tree, like the plants around it, was a symptom of something else, something special. This place, legendary among wizards and Muggles alike, was Yggdrasil, the World Tree. It had grown upon a wellspring of pure power, and magic was abundant in the air. Plants flourished and died before his very eyes, before being replaced mere moments later by vivid tropical wonders. Birds flitted by without flapping their wings, gliding without ever coming down to earth. A snake lazily weaved its way through the sky, and it had seemingly forgotten that it did not have any wings.
"It's a glorified orchard," Snagfang barked as he looked around with narrowed eyes. "Where are the riches?"
"You could probably make good wands with this wood," Harry commented as he picked up a little piece of the tree's wood, and it crumbled in his hands. "...Or not. I guess it won't live outside here."
Snagfang moved away to find his precious gold and gemstones, and Harry smiled as he walked to the centre of the wide trunk, which was easily wider than any tree he had even heard of. He could practically sense this place reacting to his arrival, to his desire to leave, and it seemed to shiver under his feet with building anticipation. Harry was pretty sure that his trip was already inevitable, now.
"Here goes..."Harry adjusted his bag; he had stuffed it full of a few spare wands, just in case his main two broke, alongside the invisibility cloak, the Resurrection Stone, a pair of broomsticks, and a vast collection of knick knacks he had built up over the years. A few stray gifts were stuffed to the side, and he had not opened all of them yet. He would save them, since he would not be getting any new ones any time soon. He was ready to leave.
Raising his wand to his temple, he concentrated on the knowledge he had to ditch, the dangerous information on how to get back here, on what preparations one had to make to even travel through an Axis. All that would remain was enough knowledge to make the trip back, once. He focused, and cast. "Obliviate."
Complex research, years worth of study, vanished into a pale nothingness, and Harry shivered at the intense unease. His own mind rearranged itself while he was using it; he consciously knew what knowledge had vanished, but even that would soon follow.
Then more flashed by, and he frowned in consternation. Dead bodies, dozens of them, a string of violent murders. Him and Shacklebolt, in the rain. Him, knocking down a door, and slicing someone up viciously.
Those were not memories he wanted gone!
Harry ripped away his wand, but the spell had already been cast. Memories evaporated, and he wasn't sure what he lost at all, just that it was bad. Then, even that realization vanished, and for a long moment, all was void.
Harry twitched as his mind adjusted itself and coped with the large changes as best it could. It took a moment before his consciousness stitched itself back together, before the subjective narrative continued as if it had never sputtered, or halted. "Well, at least that's done," he said quite suddenly. He stuffed his wand in his pocket, and smiled lazily as he considered where he was. "What was I doing again? Oh, right... the travelling thing." He shook his head. "I figured I would be a bit confused, I think. I'll figure it out, later. Well, on to vacation!" He raised his wand joyfully into the sky.
The clearing erupted with light.
Author's Note: We have officially arrived at the halfway point in my original plan, with the next few chapters covering the formation of the Avengers as a group in this 'verse. Thor's side of the plot gets Earth-side and the captain gets thawed out. First, however, Harry goes back to Hogwarts.