Chapter 32 : Immortal Coil
The tunnel stretched out into the murky distance as Harry slowly descended, but he only paid cursory attention to the road ahead. He was still thinking about the three would-be Horcruxes that had been laid out for him in the room he'd left behind, placed in his way by someone who had known that another wizard would be coming. Either it was a pretty impressive coincidence that each of the objects had special significance to Harry, or there was perhaps more at play, here...
"I really hate prophecies," he mumbled under his breath; his past experiences with fortune-telling were less than comforting, to say the least. He was certain that this time around wouldn't be much simpler, and the ghostly image of the specter of death with a sphere in her hands was worrisome enough without adding more problems to it.
Harry had an inkling about what he'd find, down in the depths: more tests, perhaps, more memories from his past brought to new life. A trail of breadcrumbs that led to something - a way out, maybe, or the answers he was looking for. Honestly, he was beginning to doubt whether Hogwarts was a trap for something else, or if it had been his own private mousetrap all along.
The path evened out at last as Harry came around another bend, and an awful stench flowed towards him, a ghastly rotting smell that had been trapped in the ancient corridors circling the fringes of the Chamber of Secrets. Harry hadn't visited this place in years, and his discomfort had to be visible on his face, because Loki was staring at him with narrowed eyes. The ghostly Asgardian was the only thing in the hall that didn't have warped, flickering shadows from the light of Lumos, and he stood out like a sore thumb.
"Loki - you won't interrupt me in there," Harry said softly as he caught the man's gaze, wrapping his cloak tighter around himself. "Do you understand that?"
"Well, I don't see how I could interrupt," Loki drawled in response as he raised an eyebrow. "I cannot get in your way, obviously - and I am not about to start playing jester in any case. However amusing the idea might be." He brought his hand to his head dramatically. "Oh, that you think so poorly of one who saved your life..." he murmured wryly. "It hurts, you know."
Harry rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Yeah, that wasn't exactly out of compassion, was it?" he reminded the Asgardian dryly. "I recall that you wanted my help with something, and I wouldn't be very handy dead. In fact, an awful lot of what you do is self-serving. Looking after number one, I take it?"
"Well, of course," Loki confirmed, grinning. "But since I am not opposing you, why are you bothered by that?"
Harry sighed. "Yeah, there's so much wrong with that attitude I barely know where to start," he muttered. "Let's just get out of here, and we'll deal with the rest later." He glanced back down the hallway he'd left with a frown. He knew that the creatures from before were still out there, since he could hear them skittering every so often, deformed feet scraping across rough stone. Their hunt was over, it seemed, their blood-lust bridled for a time. They'd done what they'd set out to do - drive him ever further into the castle's deepest reaches.
"If you know a way out," Loki murmured. "Your map has been - less than helpful."
"Half the castle's caved in," Harry said irritably. "And down here, nothing was ever properly mapped at all. Anyway, there weren't many options." He rubbed his forehead, wiping away the sheen of sweat. "Look, your personal fascination with wizards isn't important right now, escaping this place is. Let's just skip the rest."
"Oh, I assure you, my interest in your kind is purely academic," Loki affirmed. "Only a few care for the pure mystical arts in Asgard, and I have long lacked the ability compare my own crafts with others... There are some sorcerers among the other worlds of Yggdrasil, of course, but to find a Seidhr, a Midgardian mage, alive and well? That is a proper miracle."
"Even now, you're just having fun studying me, aren't you?" Harry frowned, staring at the Asgardian. "...You're just curious about me, aren't you?" he asked. "That's why you were watching me out in the desert with Sif. It's why you decided to do your little trick in New York, too, I'm sure. This whole affair with the mystical Cube, that's just a secondary goal, I'm sure. Everything's about figuring out how I tick."
Loki scoffed. "Hardly. I fully intend to retrieve that artifact," he countered immediately. "Do not presume to know everything, child."
"Ah, insults. Have you run out of wit?" Harry asked dryly. "I will deal with the Cube when I get the opportunity. If that thing is a weapon, you know I won't allow you to use it," he added. "You'll just have to decide if you can live with that, if you want my help." He raised an eyebrow. "Maybe you're in this for that Tesseract, or maybe you're just intent on dissecting the magic I use. I'll find out when we get there, I suppose..."
The Asgardian didn't comment, but his glare said plenty.
"There are more immediate problems," Harry said, ignoring the shivers that ran down his back as he passed through the cavernous halls that the Basilisk had ruined on its way up, scraping along the walls until there was nothing left but bare rock. "Remember, I am the only wizard around here. You are just a spirit, at best. That means I am the one who will have to face whatever's ahead, and incidentally I am the only person who has experience with this place at all. That makes me the expert."
Loki rolled his eyes mockingly. "Hm, I have been informing you of this place's nature since we first entered, haven't I? That clearly means you're more familiar with it than I am." He shook his head slowly, sighing. "I suppose I cannot stop you from acting like an imbecile."
"No one can, I've found," Harry replied with a slight grin, but it faded quickly. "There's something bigger behind all this, I can feel it. These chaos creatures aren't mindless, and perhaps they never were. They attacked in order to drive me on, like a living wall of incentive. And they also forced me to collapse the way back." He smiled mirthlessly. "It feels like old times, you know, locked in with the big bad monster without a way out. And believe it or not, this is not the worst place I've ever found myself..."
"Well," Loki drawled. "That must set your mind at ease."
"Maybe a little." Harry shrugged. "If a few mutant uglies with too many body parts really scared me, I'd never have made it through this school in one piece," he responded easily, thinking of the Blast-Ended Skrewts with a shudder of revulsion. "Just follow my lead, and we'll make it through."
The Asgardian yawned. "That is a useless gesture, Seidmadr. You know what I am. You should concern yourself with your own well-being, not with that of your lively imagination..."
"Ah, you want to pretend you're just my imagination, huh?" Harry observed. "My mind's conjured up worse company, I suppose. The snake's venom can't hurt you, that's true enough, but you still shouldn't meet its eyes, even for a second - even as you are. To see the Basilisk's gaze is to see death, and even indirect exposure is very dangerous. I've seen it affect ghosts. I rather think your father would be annoyed if I got you killed."
The Asgardian scoffed under his breath, looking away. "I'm sure he would be," he muttered.
Harry wasn't sure what to say to those dismissive words, or the flash of something indefinable that appeared in the Asgardian's eyes as he said them, a storm of emotions that the wizard was hard-pressed to untangle. Considering Harry's own home-life was not exactly something he cared to linger on, he stopped himself from asking questions.
A long silence persisted as Harry trod on into a long hallway that he'd also passed through in another time, marked by an ancient door that had been torn to the ground. He could still see the shapes of serpents on its face, waiting for the Parseltongue password that would never come again.
"Welcome to the Chamber of Secrets," Harry said with a distant sort of reverence, more for his own memories than for what was really there. "Welcome to the Basilisk's Lair."
He passed through the entrance still under his invisibility cloak, his wand's light barely bright enough to see by. He protected himself by casting his gaze down to the floor, noting from the corner of his eyes that the same ancient statues of serpents lined the way of shimmering stone, marred by grooves and lines carved into them by the mightiest of monsters. Beyond the tracks lay only dust and grime, and the great stone face of Salazar Slytherin which looked out over the hall with his familiar frown. There was a lot of rubble at the bottom of it, as if it had been ripped apart from within, and the statue's lower jaw was entirely missing.
Harry lowered the gleaming steel of Gryffindor's sword to the ground and flicked his wand upward. Beams of light scattered through the room, illuminating the stones all around with a dazzling flash. Harry could almost imagine the corpse of his own Basilisk still laying there, curled up on itself in front of its master's visage with its eyes pecked out by Fawkes.
A terrifying feeling descended on Harry as he stood there in that familiar place, and his every hair stood on end. The soft light of his Lumos played with the shadows as he swallowed thickly. He knew he could not trick the Basilisk into believing there was nobody around, since between the ruckus upstairs and the scents he left behind, that was a fool's errand. He would rather avoid being ambushed by the thing, though, and he had a feeling the element of surprise was long gone in any case. But the creature was aware of his presence, now.
The heavy atmosphere lasted only until Loki piped up.
"Well, this is anticlimactic," the Asgardian loudly commented from Harry's side, striding around the room without bothering with the slightest approximation of stealth or decorum. He glanced up into the darkness without even a sign of self-preservation, clearly exasperated by the emptiness and unconvinced by Harry's warning. "You know, I expected a little more than a ruin and dust down here, with all that build-up..."
"Shut up, Loki!" Harry whispered, realizing only belatedly that the Asgardian's unthinking behavior hadn't actually been visible to anything else that might be present. He sighed deeply. "Hogwarts is a tomb," he said mildly. "Let's not spook the dead."
Loki sighed, rubbing his forehead. "So, you're superstitious now?"
"You're a god, Loki, and I'm a wizard," Harry said dryly. "I'm just being realistic." He stepped towards a spot he remembered well from many nightmares, the place where Tom Riddle had attempted to use Ginny's life to fuel his own. He was about to speak up again, when there was a sudden rush of cold air, a movement in a room that had been utterly stagnant, and he froze with his grip on his wand tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
That presence he'd felt before, whispering at the edge of hearing, was all around him now. It was a strange feeling of icy cold and dreadful decay, as if someone had stepped on his grave. Everything seemed strangely muted. A crackling, hoarse voice spoke, but it was not a voice. "...You have no right to be here!" it verbalized in an amalgam of howls, whines and strangled coughs.
Harry twisted around on the spot, his wand aimed back at the entrance before he'd fully through it through. There stood something utterly inhuman in the doorway. Framed by the rays of Lumos, its lank, wiry shape shambled into the room only slowly. It was gaunt-faced and rickety, striding on bony excuses for feet, and though it seemed as if the thing still had a full head of hair, and a beard, those both moved on their own, and Harry recoiled in horror.
Where a scalp should have been, a cancerous creature convulsed languidly, its long tentacles hooking into the skin or bone of its host, and some loosely dangling down its back. Its beard, in turn, was made of live, bulbous worms, countless hooked monstrosities with razor-sharp stingers that were embedded under its flesh. The eyes were unforgiving voids.
"Ugh, you have a little something in your… everything," Loki noted with a grimace, waving vaguely at his own teeth. "You might want to… Fine, just go for the undead look then, I doubt you will get anything else to work for you."
"Would you shut up, Loki!" Harry hissed again. "And as for you -" He pointed at the thing in revulsion. "You stay right where you are." He forced his hands not to tremble as he kept his wand fixed on the new arrival. The Inferi, for that is what it seemed to be, ignored the command entirely, moving inexorably closer. "I'm serious. Don't come any closer!" Harry tried again more forcefully.
"You have no right to be in this place!" the thing screeched in reply, its rotten brow cracking as it contorted into a frown, and it raised a hand as if it were still holding a wand, though nothing remained of it but dust. "Not here, never again! This is my domain! None may enter!" it snarled. "Stay out! Stay out, forever!"
What did the Inferi mean by the Chamber being its domain? Harry hesitated, dipping his wand ever so slightly as he stared at the destroyed face before him in disbelief. The likeness was there, he realized, though terribly distorted.
"Are you... Salazar Slytherin?" he asked hesitantly, reluctant to glance behind him towards the giant mirror image that had been carved into the rock. It had to be. "Um... I would say you look good for a thousand years old," Harry murmured. "But you're not alive anymore, are you?I hope."
"Well, if he looks good for a thousand, I must look positively dashing," Loki murmured dryly.
Harry didn't comment, keeping his eyes on the creature that stood before him. The Inferi wasn't the person that he had been, Harry knew from experience serving as an Auror - the soul was long gone, and all that remained was an echo. He'd fought some of these things before, and he was sure that it couldn't be Salazar Slytherin that stood before him. Not really. The thing was an it, not a he, and Harry had to remember that. The whole reason why Inferi were such very effective tools for dark wizards was that most people would freeze up at the thought of hurting a person - even a dead one. Especially one they recognized.
The shambling thing retched loudly. "You killed my people!" It blurted with a grimace. "Now you would invade my very sanctum?" The undead Founder edged forward, and Harry noticed that even its clothes weren't cloth at all. They too were creatures of some sort, black things that latched into each other with sharp claws and tiny teeth, their clusters of eyes blinking up curiously as they shifted around each other. "You have no right to enter this place!" the thing barked. "You murder us at your whim!"
"I didn't kill anyone," Harry returned just as sharply, and the thing shuddered for an instant. "Hogwarts let me in the door, didn't it? Isn't that proof enough? Is this some freaky way to protect your school, Slytherin, to turn yourself into one of the Inferi?" He waved his wand downwards swiftly, drawing a line across the ground in front of him of thin, white-hot fire. "Whatever you were hunting down here has been gone for centuries, hasn't it? The castle has decayed, and so have your contemporaries." He hesitated. "I am... the only wizard that this world has, now."
"So, you are truly the last?" Loki echoed, a smile darting across his lips. "The final Seidmadr, defending his foolish pride from the remnants of his own ancestors… How delightfully quaint. I should make a picture, and have it framed..."
Harry glanced aside darkly. "I remember telling you something, Loki. Stop talking," he hissed under his breath. "I know how to banish ghosts, and I have an inkling those spells would work on you, too."
Loki simply smiled.
"It's all lies, lies, lies," the Slytherin-thing cried, its blackened tongue a jagged centipede. "I saw it! I saw it all!" it warbled, its bones cracking as it moved. "You should not have returned, should not have entered this place again!" He shuddered. "I have seen everything!"
"Seen what?" Harry asked, ignoring Loki for the moment in favor of the more imposing presence. "What did you see, Slytherin?"
The Inferi laughed for an instant, dry and harsh. "I was there! Ah, we held them for a week! Seven long days of siege in which we burned them, and dissolved them, and made them suffer for what they did to our kind!" It cried. "And then they unleashed their great weapons. Their wicked plagues, disease and pain, madness and grief. They sent a sickness that wasted away the flesh on our bones!" He reached forward with his skeletal arms, exposing the putrid bulges that should have been muscle. "See what they did to me? What they did to us all?" It asked desperately. "We had no choice but to act!"
"What are you talking about?" Harry inquired warily, shuffling further back as he held Gryffindor's sword ready. "Who did all that to you? Who was responsible for your death?"
"It keeps us alive, even now!" the Inferi spat in reply, and bug-like creatures crawled across its face like living tears. "It tortures us, keeps up to witness what we did. It was our last choice, our final desperation! They would kill us all, murder us to the last. So we did what we had to do." He shivered. "We could not have foreseen..."
"He's speaking of the shift to this place of chaos," Harry murmured distractedly to Loki, focusing on the words even as he made sure the creature did not come any closer. "There was a plan to lock away the castle, as I thought… but it failed," he concluded, swallowing thickly. "Slytherin? What happened after you locked away the building?"
"It was our last choice," the thing repeated shakily, staring at Harry as if he were someone else. "We were victorious, because we held them off, kept the last of us safe. A hundred souls, maybe less, spared from the silent cataclysm." He sneered as his empty sockets turned aside. "There were those of all bloodlines, pure and defiled alike, but such things had ceased to matter by then." He spat, and the spit crawled away on its own legs. "We locked them out, we prevented their entrance. But we did not see what we had unleashed inside the castle… The thing that murdered us." He grimaced. "You killed us all!"
"It's not really seeing me," Harry observed softly. "It can't, because I'm new, and there's nothing left that can recognize new things. I think the Inferi is stuck in its last minutes, endlessly repeating the same few thoughts and memories from a thousand years ago." He swallowed thickly. "It's an echo. And whatever it saw, it's seared into its mind…"
"It saw everything, right? It witnessed the end of the Seidhr remnant," Loki observed darkly.
"I will not let you kill us," Slytherin snarled, and it moved without warning, crossing the line of fire that Harry had drawn with no regard for its own safety, stumbling through with the sound of sizzling exoskeleton and charred flesh. In a second it was closer than it ever should have been, running at unnatural speed as its jaw opened wide, exposing a maw lined with jagged, deformed teeth.
"Merlin!" Harry cried in surprise as he flung himself backwards, his quick shield spell sputtering in the air in a wave of blue as the Inferi slammed itself against it. There was an awful snapping sound, a shiver in the air, and there was no telling if it was the magic failing, or the thing's body. Harry wasn't about to wait and find out. Scrambling upright again, he managed to pull off a second shield charm just before the first fell to Slytherin's unnatural strength, and he sighed in relief.
"You will not kill me!" Slytherin snapped as it flung itself forward again, and Harry saw his opportunity in that movement. He did not speak an incantation, but the tip of the Elder Wand burst briefly with light before his spell slashed outwards with a savage intensity. It was a carving, cutting, delving power that ripped into the Inferi, tearing it to pieces as easily as it would anything else. There was no subtlety in it, just raw, unbridled power. Harry knew that he had never cast a more powerful Sectumsempra.
"Noooo!" The former Founder's head still howled as it landed on the floor, its hair crawling across the stones and dragging its host. The rest of its scattered body did much the same, twitching and groaning. Slytherin was barely more than bleached bones beneath the chaotic mess of tentacles and flesh, but each part of the Inferi still moved, still fought to reunite and continue the fight, to try again.
"I would suggest using fire," Loki said conversationally from the sideline, yawning mockingly. "It seems to work well on the undead. Or you can try to cut it into more little pieces. Whatever is more expedient." The Asgardian sighed, crossing his arms. "This can hardly be called a challenge, you know."
"Excuse me for being cautious. I was trying to find out what it knew," Harry replied, but he acknowledged Loki's point. Inferi weren't particularly dangerous one-on-one, if you knew what to do - it was when you faced a bunch of them that things began to get interesting. "Fire, then?" he echoed. "I can do fire."
Harry thought back to Stane, to the power that had flowed from his wand against him, that wave of all-consuming fire which had scorched everything. With a deep breath, the spell poured anew from his wand with every bit as much power as it had that day, the closest thing to Fiendfyre that he dared to unleash here. This was Dumbledore's spell, the most powerful one Harry had ever seen the Headmaster use save perhaps in the duel against Voldemort.
The bright inferno burst outwards in a rippling cascade, a shock of white heat that engulfed the room and caught every shed snakeskin ablaze, igniting the shambling bits of the Inferi that remained at his feet. And even while the Founder turned to ash, his shrieks continued unabated.
Inferi did not come about on their own. Harry knew they did not shamble out of their grave unaided, nor could they last a millennium out of sheer spite. Not even Salazar Slytherin himself. These things were created by unscrupulous wizards, resurrected from remains to serve their new master, soulless things that followed orders. Slytherin had been nothing but bone, underneath the mass of chaos that replaced the rest of him, which meant whatever had created the thing was very powerful. No matter. He'd faced the worst of dark wizards before.
"I know you're out there!" Harry shouted over the blaze, his wand blazing alight and bathing the room in a golden dawn, stinging his eyes with the brightness. "Show yourself!"
"Have you gone completely mad?" Loki demanded. "Were you not the one who insisted on being cautious not a minute ago? You would call the creature you fear upon yourself?"
Harry glanced at the Asgardian, leaning against the serpentine statues that lined the hall with a frown. "If I need to. Slytherin was being controlled, which means that the puppet-master is around here, somewhere. It has to be someone who's kept themselves alive for a thousand years, locked inside Hogwarts…"
Salazar Slytherin's Inferi had spoken of locking out the things that came to eradicate the wizards, the threat that ended the Seidhr on Earth. It had mentioned the final measure that the wizards of Hogwarts had taken - but in locking themselves away from the world, it had not been the outside that did them in. Something already on the inside had done the job for the enemy. The Basilisk, perhaps? But wouldn't Slytherin, of all people, have control over that particular monstrosity?"
Harry turned to the statue behind him, to the glowering face he'd just burned to ash, though the remains still twitched. He knew what the next step was from here. If it weren't for the certainty that it was the only way out, he might have hesitated. "Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts four," he said with emphasis, his gaze wavering to the stone mouth of the statue ahead, every bit as ancient as he remembered. There was no rumble of stone, no reaction. He should have known, in retrospect. This road was long gone, too, and without Parseltongue it was useless anyway.
"Potter!" Loki barked, and Harry glanced back to the Asgardian, who gestured back towards the door. "Spring cleaning isn't over yet, it seems," he said easily. "There is yet more work to do."
Harry twitched as he noticed that some grotesque creature which had squeezed itself into the empty archway he'd entered through, a mass of pulsating vessels and bulging eyes that grasped the stonework for support. In front of the hideous thing stood three figures. Each of them were mere bones wrapped in creatures of cartilage and pus, just like Slytherin had been. It wasn't hard to guess who they were. The creatures from outside had washed in through the gates, and had taken along everything that they passed along the way. Everything.
"Well, one down, three to go…" Harry complained as the three Inferi burst forward to meet the killer of their fellow Founder. He raised his wand, and with a single burst of will and a stray memory of standing side by side with Dumbledore in a distant cave, his conflagration bloomed again from the flames that still licked at the corners of the room, a maelstrom of heat that swept across the Chamber in a split second.
He was getting rather good at this.
"I will not let you!" the foremost Inferi cried in protest as its bony exoskeleton caught alight from the flames, though it kept moving. Judging from its grizzled almost-beard and broad frame, it had once been Godric Gryffindor, in better days. "You are not permitted to do this!"
"Honestly, can you guys get some new lines already," Harry muttered as he slashed his wand sideways, casting another vicious severing curse that would have landed him a long, long detention if he were still a student. Although it neatly sliced through the neck of the Founder as he had intended, razor-sharp talons lashed out from both sides of the cut and grasped the two disparate parts before they could fall apart, knitting together the wound before it could even fully open.
"You get points for trying!" Loki called from the sidelines, and Harry was convinced the god would have been snacking on popcorn if they'd had it in his freaky alien dimension. "Try again!"
"I do hope the Headmistress will forgive me for this," Harry murmured before the thing could attack again, and he stabbed his other hand forward viciously. The blade of Gryffindor's sword vanished hilt-deep into its owner's chest, and the creature hissed in shock, or pain, as its blackened blood reacted with the metal, tortured by something that it had absorbed in the past. Flames burst inwards towards its heart, or what passed for it, and its contorted face took on a surprised expression as it stumbled away.
"Going for irony, huh?" Loki quipped as he put his hands behind his head, leaning against the wall. "That's more like it. I appreciate the show!"
"Will you stop yapping? Sectumsempra," Harry snapped, ducking back from Hufflepuff's Inferi before he could take back the sword, and its lower half vanished in a puff of bone dust and drawn-out screams. He took half a moment to feel bad, before he mercilessly tossed the rest of the thing into the fires that still billowed all around the chamber. He glanced to Loki. "A little help would be nice here, you know!"
"And how would you suggest -" Loki started, annoyed, before he paused. "Ah, right. She's behind you."
"Ah, sh-" Harry narrowly dived out of the way of the shambling Rowena Ravenclaw's claw-like digits as the uncannily limber thing tried to grasp him, and he didn't hesitate to fire the strongest blasting spell he knew at point-blank range, caving in the creature that doubled as its chest. Ravenclaw fell as tendrils of undefinable sinew tried to bind the wound, but Harry followed up with a severing curse that cut apart the remaining connections.
"This place is not meant for abominations!" the thing forced through ruined lungs. There was little left of the woman Harry had seen in paintings, and he rather pitied the thing she'd become. "You have no right…!" the undead thing blurted through cracked lips.
If it weren't for his years as an Auror, Harry would certainly have heaved. Unfortunately, he'd seen worse. This particular moment, however, was not something he'd ever tell Hermione about. Ever. He was sure that murdering the Founders was worth some kind of eternal reprimand, even if they were flesh-eating zombies out for his guts. He felt an urge to do something in response to his merciless slicing and dicing, but he wasn't sure if it was a cry or a mad laugh that was trying to get out. He didn't dare find out.
"Incendio," Harry spoke harshly, and Rowena Ravenclaw's cries too were swallowed up by the roar of the flames, as she joined her colleagues as twitching piles of ash and dust. Which only left one loose end.
"Murderer," the last voice spoke lowly, echoing and scraping at the same time. The last of the Inferi had its sword clasped lovingly in its hand, ripped free from its chest which had reformed in the moments that Harry had been distracted. "You have no right to walk in these halls!" it snarled, echoing Slytherin's words.
"I have every right!" Harry returned sharply. "You zombies all keep saying that same line, but you're dead. You're not even yourself! Just a monster kept alive for someone's sick amusement." He gestured to the twitching remains on the ground. "See that smear? That was Salazar Slytherin, and he told me that you locked yourself away in here. That the things from outside were not what killed you. So what did?"
"I died," the former Godric Gryffindor wailed, unearthly light glowing in its eye sockets. "I died to save them all, to keep the enemy at bay! They were the last to break through into the castle, and I could not let them slaughter the others. I stayed behind. I sacrificed my life." He shivered, his hand clasping onto his sword's hilt more tightly. "And I failed! I failed to see that the danger was never truly in front of me, not until the end!"
Harry gritted his teeth. "Who killed the other wizards and witches?" he asked sharply, an unspoken spell glowing at the end of his wand. "Who is responsible for this massacre at Hogwarts? Tell me! Who? One of our own? Was it another wizard?"
"No," Gryffindor spoke slowly, and the word lingered. "It was harmless, pathetic," it continued. "We did not care for it, but we never banished it. It was weak. When we made our choice, we did not know the consequences. In a world of order, it had no power, no might to wield. It would have been noticed and corrected. But in these realms of the Nameless…" He shuddered. "It consumed, andit festered. It ripped into me before my body had cooled. It will not let me die."
"Something... that was already here…?" Harry started, but then a slow, ponderous rumble came from behind him, and he froze. It was a scraping noise, a shuffle of huge coils across stone, a great weight that seemed to swallow up the light of the remaining fires. The Basilisk. Loki turned to watch it without fear, but his eyes widened in shock, his mouth opening to say something before he hesitated.
"Still so… very… very... talkative, even after all these years," a new voice whispered in a tone that was cold and unimaginably cruel, and Harry shivered involuntarily. He couldn't force himself to move, to turn. His muscles cramped up before he could try, his hand clasping around his wand desperately. He could not even blink.
He could not close his eyes!
"You know we do not speak to… prey," the voice murmured from far closer. "Ah, pitiful thing…"
"I am sorry," Gryffindor said through cracked lips, his empty gaze focused on Harry; it was not speaking to the thing at all. "This place is cursed, you should flee!" it cried. " None should ever come here again, boy! He keeps us alive as his company, because he needs us. Needs us! Leave this place, and forget us!"
The thing behind Harry cackled, a sound that reverberated around the room and echoed through the tunnels, a maddening noise that betrayed more desperation than glee. Slowly, something shifted into view in the corner of Harry's eyes, and he looked the other way, shivering as he tried to move, to flee, and spots blinked in his eyes. Even Loki seemed nailed to the floor. The huge blackened shape curled up slowly until it dominated the field of view, and though Harry tried to ignore it, tried to look away, he could not manage it.
The basilisk was far bigger than Harry remembered even as a kid, towering high above him with its massive bulk, seemingly too large even for Hogwarts' widest halls. Its scales were the size of dinner-plates or larger, iridescent black and gleaming in the wand-light as the creature snuffed out the conjured flames without effort. There was no maw on the thing, nor eyes, as its serpentine body ended simply in a massive layer of dark, tangled scar tissue. The creature resembled a gigantic earthworm more than a snake, no, and stretched across what should have been its reptilian face was a second, unnatural mouth, a jagged grin.
"Ah, caught wandering the halls in the dark… Naughty, naughty wizard …" the thing hissed from that mutant orifice, its tail curling in to meet its head, the tip circling Gryffindor's standing remains. "It has been so very long since there was one of your kind here… Stupid Muggles wander in, sometimes, but not a prize like you..."
"...It is slightly more imposing than I anticipated," Loki observed, slipping effortlessly through the thing's coils as he approached Harry's side. "And you didn't mention it could speak!"
Harry couldn't answer for a long moment until he focused on Loki and the air seemed to untangle. He caught himself before he could fall as his muscles suddenly returned to his control, and he took a deep breath, blinking furiously.
"I killed your brethren, little child," the serpent continued, its head arching further upwards towards the distant roof of the cavern, and it seemed as if it filled the whole Chamber of Secrets with its gargantuan body. Crawling feelers of nameless things dangled from its deformed face as its smiled down. "I killed them for their ignorance," it hissed. "And I keep them alive for that reason, too…"
"Who are you?" Harry asked. "You're the thing that's been sending those creatures after me, aren't you?" He grimaced. "You lured me in here."
"Hm, I did, I did," it said slowly, its grin warping. "And you came obediently to me, wrapped in your false mantle of security… Does it comfort you, to know that you cannot be seen? I smell you, I hear your breath, I feel your air. I know where you are." It chuckled. "I destroyed the wizards of old, child, when I was but young and tender. In those days I was a parasite, but ages passed… Now I am... supreme!"
Harry swallowed thickly. "You were a parasite?" he whispered as he gazed at the grin that was etched across the Basilisk's excuse for a face. He remembered that smile, recognized it in essentials. He had seen it many times in the old world, on a pitiful joke of a creature that nobody but first-years really feared. A nuisance.
"...Peeves?" Harry asked in horrified realization.
"Do not call me by that wretched name!" The spirit-turned-serpent thundered as he lashed out with his tail, a whip, which snapped in front of Harry's face so suddenly that he tripped back and fell against the putrid coils of the creature, slick and oily under his touch. "I was weak! I made mischief, but that was all I did! The chaos of rebirth gave me new form, and power beyond reckoning! And in its honor, I have renounced my old appellations. Now I am only Nameless, the Mighty!"
"...He does realize that's a title too, right?" Loki murmured, rolling his eyes. "Amateurs."
"Merlin," Harry mumbled, stunned. The thing was Peeves, Harry thought hysterically. The creature that killed the wizards in Hogwarts was a poltergeist, a harmless spirit of chaos, born from the misdeeds and secret plans hatched by students of Hogwarts. He was every bit as old as the castle itself, and had he remained in the real world, Peeves' chaotic nature would have been held in check by the orderly nature of the world around him, and by the oversight of the teachers and ghosts. But here, steeped in chaos itself, in his natural element…
Peeves had set himself up as god of his own domain, and murdered every wizard who remained within his reach, just because he could. "You killed the Founders," Harry concluded with a grimace. "You killed the very people that made your existence possible."
"Yes, yes!" the creature hissed in triumph, grinning. "I held the headmasters and headmistresses of Hogwarts within my grasp, and put them out one by one... They who denied me so many things were at my feet! I made them grovel, and I make them grovel still." He nudged his head down towards the former Gryffindor, who had crumpled to the floor and was prostrating itself before the snake. "Who is the nuisance now, huh? Who is weak?"
Harry glanced down to Gryffindor. "Their souls are long gone, aren't they?" he observed distantly. "These things are Inferi of your making - you must have picked up how to do it from Slytherin or something. You must know what you're torturing is not them, is it? It's just memories of their last days. It's probably all they can remember." He shook his head. "They're just puppets for your mad play, because you killed all the real players."
"Ah, these sob-stories are the worst," Loki said with his arms crossed. "...Are you planning on slicing the ugly thing's head off any time soon? I'm getting bored." Harry just glanced over warningly, and the Asgardian raised an eyebrow.
"I remember…" Peeves crooned lowly. "I remember the end of wizard-kind, boy. I saw the fires in the sky, the lightning that clashed without sound, and I could hear the screams of wizards from all across the land as they clambered to enter here, to escape their fate…" Peeves uncoiled slightly, his stolen scales scraping against each other. "Those that made it found me waiting. They had no right to enter my home, no right!"
"They shifted the castle into this chaotic dimension, and that's where you thrived…" Harry filled in. "So this was all some petty revenge?" he demanded. "You killed the last wizards when they were unable to flee from you, just because you could? And ever since then you've been locked up in here, alone. This castle wasn't turned into a trap for the enemy. It was done to keep you inside, wasn't it?"
Peeves laughed again, his wide smile splitting the scars on the Basilisk apart to reveal green underneath, unblemished reptilian skin buried beneath layers of grime. "Ah, the wizards gave me a kingdom to rule, and then they were afraid I would leave this place!" He shook his massive head. "They tried to flee, but the way out is closed. None will escape my home again..."
Grasping onto the word 'again', Harry hoped that meant there was a way out. He could fight a Basilisk, maybe, but this spirit wasn't a dumb beast as he had expected, nor was it the stupid prankster it had once been. Simple diversion tactics wouldn't work on him.
"Someone got out though, didn't they?" Harry said, relying on his hunch. "I can do the same!"
Peeves laughed, exposing gleaming teeth beneath his cancerous lips. "Ah, but you are not him, wizard! You did not build this prison, this paradise. You merely stumbled into it, a hapless morsel to add to my collection." He curled slowly as his head lowered. "In this world, I am a Nameless God, and you will learn that soon enough…"
"You are not a god," Loki said with a sigh. "Presumptuous creature…"
"Presumption…" Harry echoed Loki's words, shivering. He was reminded of his foray into Death's realm, into the icy realm of Hel, where she had told him that there was only one thing which kept the unimaginably powerful forces of the universe in check. The might of Death herself was above everything. And yet, here was Peeves, gorging himself without end, perpetuating within a decaying world and growing like a tumor. It was as if...
"That's it…" he whispered, eyes wide.
Death was the key. The creatures around him, twitching and mutated, suddenly made an awful amount of sense, and so did Peeves animating mere bones of long-dead wizards. These things were alive, and though they could decay, but they would not die. They were cancerous, impossible forms of life that should have been destroyed instantly in reality, but could survive in lost Hogwarts. And Peeves had been on the knife's edge all along, perpetuated by the castle but incapable of leaving its magical bounds. It was no wonder he'd been affected most of all, changed utterly by this place.
Unwittingly, in their last act of desperation, the wizards who had removed this castle from ordered reality had done far more than that. They'd broken through right out of the universe they were familiar with, into a realm outside the purview of even Death itself. They had achieved Voldemort's foolish dream without realizing it, found immortality. Just - without all the side-benefits that one would prefer. And now, lured in by prophecy and memory, Harry stood within the lost castle with the tools of Death herself, with its legendary relics. The Master of Death had come to a place where Death had no meaning at all.
Harry had the distinct feeling that the Grim Reaper had planned it all.
"You don't know who I am, do you?" Harry asked lowly, staring up at Peeves' massive form. Slowly, he reached into the cloak, shoving it aside to reveal the shimmering gem in the broach that kept it together. "Do you recognize this?" he demanded. "Do you feel the power that it holds?"
"What foolishness are you attempting now?" Loki asked, glancing over the Resurrection Stone without even a flicker of recognition. "Just kill the big creepy monster and get on with it, would you? There is no need to be theatrical..."
"You believe you hold power within your feeble hands, wizard?" Peeves asked with a keening laugh that echoed around the Chamber. "What do you think your spells will accomplish against me, morsel? Your fire is cold as ice, your cuts are shallow. To one such as me, all your magic is but water on stone!"
"Maybe. But what about the Killing Curse?" Harry asked, raising the Elder Wand up high. "This wand I am holding was gifted to Antioch Peverell by Death herself! My cloak is Death's cloak!" He reached one hand to his chest. "And this stone was imbued with its power by its touch, able to reach the other side. They are things I own now, things I've fought for. Whatever else I am - I am in Death's good graces."
"You lie!" Peeves snarled, rearing back. "Death… Death has no power over me, either! It has no power over anything within my domain!"
"Hm… Care to test that theory?" Harry looked at his wand for a long moment, before he turned to the writhing form of Godric Gryffindor. The thing slowly rose to meet him, sword raised as if ready for battle. "Death might not have had power here before, Peeves," he said, and the serpent cried out in outrage. "But I brought her might to your doorstep. And I think she's pissed."
Harry knew what he had to do, even as a shudder of revulsion traveled down his back at the thought. He swished his wand down, dimly recalling the last time he'd raised his wand with such volatile intent, though the thought slipped away before he could grasp it. It had been before he'd traveled across worlds, before he'd left home. The thing before him wasn't alive, not in any meaningful sense, and he'd already torched the others to quivering ash, but it still took a long moment to speak the words out loud.
"Avada Kedavra," he said flatly, and the power surged through his wand, a flash of green that illuminated the Chamber in ghastly light. The sensation of something unimaginably huge and powerful passed him by, a shapeless inevitability that ripped apart the unstable peace that had persisted here for ages, though it wafted around him as warmth, too familiar to be entirely alien. He supposed he'd nearly died too often for it to truly scare him anymore.
Godric Gryffindor fell to the curse, the creatures which made up its form degrading into filth before they could release themselves from the bones. The Founder's sword clanged loudly as it hit the stones, and there was a loaded silence all around.
"Power over death, even among the deathless…" Loki whispered from his side, eyes wide. "Magnificent…"
Harry pulled back the Elder Wand, and he felt the energy of the Killing Curse still coursing through the air around him. "You see now, Peeves?" He asked to the eerily silent Chamber, staring up at the frozen serpent. "Death has power over you and your creations, as it has over all things, sooner or later. You don't want to challenge me, because I might get very desperate." He smiled mirthlessly, his cloak flaring around him as he looked at the spirit's grimace. "You could let me go - I might let you wallow in your... kingdom."
Silence persisted for a long moment, a breathless instant in which the Elder Wand seemed to burn in his hand, empowered, and something of the Killing Curse's energy wrapped around it, into it. Harry vaguely recognized that this was the first time he'd wielded all three Deathly Hallows together, the first time he'd even dared. It was also the first time, he reckoned, that he'd truly needed what they stood for. Would the curse have worked without them?
"You…" Peeves hissed at last, a snarl of rage overtaking his mouth. "You would bring death to my domain, lonely wizard? You would try to end me!? Your kind has learned nothing since the days of old!" His teeth gleamed brightly as he convulsed. "I will not be challenged in my home! You have no right!"
"Yes, tell us something we don't know…" Loki muttered, sighing.
"You're making a mistake here, Peeves," Harry said. "Because I do have that right. I am the last wizard, the only one who can enforce justice for all the murders you've committed. You're an abomination, an example of immortality gone wrong. I've had to deal with your kind before." He raised an eyebrow. "I am the only one that could end you, because I am the Master of Death."
There was a brief moment of silence, and a stomach-churning, dreadful feeling hung in the air. The flash of a fearsome face seemed to glare down on him as Harry said those words, which made their way out of his mouth almost on their own. A distant cry sounded on the edge of hearing, a shiver of anticipation. It all vanished as soon as it appeared, leaving only a kernel of worried anticipation behind.
"You think yourself Death's Master?" Peeves asked through cracked lips. "Then die, wizard, and join it!" he cried, coiling in on himself, his rough scales searing across each other as they attempted to pulverize their foe. "Die, now!"
Harry yelled out in surprise, dragging himself onto the snake's skin directly behind him, before the small open space he'd been in was crushed into nothingness. Peeves thrashed around wildly, smashing his long body into the walls of the Chamber without care for what was destroyed. Whole sections of the ceiling simply fell and destroyed some the remaining statues, filling the air with dust. Harry held on for dear life as the serpent moved at great speed, rushing through the cavern and surrounding tunnels while scraping against the walls in an effort to toss him off.
"Protego!" Harry cried out forcefully, and his swiftly-cast shield spell was the only reason he wasn't crushed against the wall, though the scraping whittled down what little power he'd managed to pour into it swiftly. Peeves snarled something from ahead, but it was too faint to make out. "Protego Maxima!" Harry tried again, wincing against the rock dust that was blown into his face, trying to find leverage on the uneven surface of the serpent's massive back.
"Okay, this is way too familiar…" Harry sputtered as he dragged himself forward by the snake's scales, using the edges as footholds as he kept up his shield charm which screeched with a sound like metal on stone mere inches above his head. Even with the Killing Curse, he would have to get up close and personal because he had no clue if it would work on a creature the size of a Basilisk, or if Peeves even counted as the same thing. A poltergeist was supposed to be immortal, but was it really? Would the Hallows work even on the unkillable, as it had on the Inferi before? Were they the reason it had worked?
"Well, this is just cozy, isn't it?" Loki commented from right besides him as the snake corkscrewed around a hallway, and Harry glanced up in surprise, noting that the Asgardian was simply standing on the snake's back, utterly unbothered by the fact that he'd regularly disappear halfway into rock and dust. "I'm unharmed. I am in your head, remember?"
"And I'm a little busy," Harry managed to get out between coughs, trying to stick to Peeves' scaly skin as the massive snake turned again in a new direction.
"Still alive then, wizard?" Peeves' voice resounded from afar. "You will make a fine part of my collection, you will. Try not to break too many bones…" The serpent suddenly veered off sideways into a narrow corridor, scraping its middle along the wall as Harry held on tight. There was no real way to tell up from down, and he had to rely on his sticking charms, hoping to figure something out before his breath ran out and he was ground to dust against the wall.
"Loki," Harry sputtered with difficulty. "Warn me of any turns coming up. I climb… you play watchdog." He tried for a grin. "Seems like it's up your alley."
The Asgardian stared down for a moment with narrowed eyes, as if unsure whether or not Harry was insulting him, before reluctantly nodding. "...Done."
Peeves didn't stop for a moment, rushing through the tunnels deep beneath Hogwarts and crashing through the extensive network that spread out from the Chamber without caring even for himself. Harry climbed, dragging himself along the Basilisk's rugged scales as his spell kept him mostly safe, though stone splinters occasionally slashed across his skin. There was no way to keep track of how far he had to go, nor to trace how far he'd come.
For several long minutes, Harry pushed himself ever forward, forcing himself to keep moving even as he cut himself repeatedly on razor-sharp scales. Pain ceased to be anything more than an annoyance, and all he could think of was finishing what he started. He didn't look at Loki, and the Asgardian simply muttered a warning every so often, for once without sarcasm. Harry trusted that signal, because he had no other choice.
A few times, he almost forgot he was on the creature's back, so caught up in focusing on where to put his next hand that he imagined himself back in the sky, taking a ride on mankind's worst weapon, straddling the top of the atmosphere. Strangely, it was a calming delusion, perhaps because he'd made it through that time.
Finally, startlingly, Peeves cried out again from very nearby, a strangled curse of outrage that was joined by jagged feelers which reached backwards across its body towards the stowaway. Harry's severing curse flung out to meet them mid-way, and he dragged himself up onto his knees with effort. Liquid fire poured out of his wand in a white-hot wave of molten destruction that engulfed the blackened tendrils until they twisted away from the spell's heat.
The head was near, then - the end was near. Harry saw the bloated growth ahead, the form that Peeves had been degraded to, covered in writhing undifferentiated flesh. If only he could keep going for a few more minutes, he could end it. He raised his wand, and it flared green without a word, a clear statement of intent. "I will do it, Peeves!" Harry yelled out as steadily as he could, keeping himself stable with one hand. "You're not a spirit anymore, not really. Whatever you are now, I bet it can die!"
"No! I will not let you kill me!" Peeves cried, and the Basilisk's head, just ahead, erupted into a multitude of jagged tentacles and spikes. "You have no right to harm a god!"
"If it's any consolation, you could probably get away with punching me," Loki informed Harry mildly. "...If I weren't illusionary, of course. Bothersome, that."
The wizard rolled his eyes, refusing to look over to the self-indulgent god in favor of the outright delusional one. He couldn't let up now, couldn't go back on his words. The shambling shapes of the Founders were all too fresh in his memories, and he knew what Peeves had done to them - that he'd long crossed the line from prankster to killer. He could call it vengeance, perhaps, or a long-delayed mercy killing. It didn't matter.
"Avada -" Harry started, but the snake bucked upwards and Harry almost lost his wand as the violent movement nearly ripped him entirely from the creature's back. Serrated tentacles reached for his legs, attempting to ensnare him and drag him away, even as creatures of chaos swarmed across Peeves' skin, deformed things that seemed to splatter under the snake's coils before grasping onto its skin as the thing raced around another corner.
"You will die here, wizard! Your pathetic Muggle world has been cut off from you, and this place is mine alone! You can enter, but you can never leave!"
Harry snapped off a cutting curse to get rid of the maggot-like creatures that were attempting to reach for his ankles, and grasped his wand more tight. "Peeves! You've already said someone escaped!" he shouted back. "You're lying!"
"But he did not leave for Earth!" Peeves snarled, and he attacked in the stunned moment that followed. A dozen poison-tipped blades of jagged bone stabbed into Harry's shield charm only to shatter into dozens more. Harry cringed back under the assault, fatigue starting to catch up to him as he poured more fire across the impermeable skin. "The boy threw himself into the stream!" Peeves cried with raucous laughter. "He escaped my grasp to face annihilation!"
"...The stream?" Harry stammered. "What is…?"
"He means Yggdrasil," Loki said in surprise.
Yggdrasil - that was the place where Harry had entered the new world, but it was more than that, too. It was a connection between many places, as Sif had told him - a nexus of sorts. And if you had the right tools to make the trip, you could go pretty much anywhere.
"The stream will not be your fate… You wish me to give up my playthings for the momentary pleasure of seeing you dissolve into ashes?" Peeves cried back, scraping his monstrous head against the wall and jostling his occupant once more. "No. You will tire in time, and then you will be crushed beneath my might, pulverized until all you can do is cry for mercy, forever!"
"I don't think so," Harry spat, and he raised his hand, grasping the snake's skin tight as a new spell formed on the wand's tip. The overpowered blasting curse seared directly upwards into the rock above him, a jagged line of power that lasted for a long, long instant. There was an explosion of sound, and light, and shattered rock. As if it had been waiting for the opportunity, a massive section of the tunnel's ceiling collapsed in on itself with a thundering roar, and Peeves only barely cleared the destruction with his head, before the deluge of rock landed on his huge body.
Peeves' cry of agony was instantaneous, his wail echoing loudly as the serpent's progress was slowed nearly to a halt. There was a snapping sound, as if something under high tension had suddenly given in, and the Basilisk's maw opened wide. Its real maw, massive and filled to the brim with scythe-like teeth, and far too familiar for comfort. The beast shuddered, momentarily aware of what was going on and clearly in incredible pain. Before it could do anything, though, the mouth was caught in twisting tentacles, but Harry had seen the pristine skin underneath. He had seen the truth.
"You said you were a parasite, once," Harry observed slowly, wincing as the snake's head turned slightly to observe him. Peeves' former grin turned into a horrific snarl. "You were weak, you said - but you still are! You never killed the Basilisk at all, did you?" Harry demanded. "The Basilisk isn't some kind of Inferi. You're just possessing it!" He smiled dangerously. "Which means you're not the monster. You're just a passenger. And while I might not be able to one-shot the snake, I can certainly end you."
"NO!" Peeves protested. "NEVER! I will not let you kill me!" he screamed, any semblance of control gone as its twisted grimace turned sour on the snake's face. "Not by a wizard! Never a wizard!" The massive head of the Basilisk twisted slightly as the creature upon its face stopped in his tracks, tentacles hanging limply. Then the massive lump of scar tissue let go the tiniest bit, severed connections as Peeves rushed back from two specific spots.
"Oh, bollocks. Loki, drop!" Harry cried, throwing himself down onto the serpent's back again with his eyes squeezed closed. There came no answer. Harry fearfully glanced behind him, and found the Asgardian standing stock-still on the snake's back, his mouth opened slightly, his eyes glazed over in shock. There was nothing to say; it was too late already.
The god vanished without a word.
The Basilisk's murderous gaze seared across the Invisibility Cloak, tangible enough that Harry could feel it pass over him, and all around him Harry saw the creatures of shadow and flesh crumble and die, shuddering only once as they were forced to retreat. "This power is mine!" Peeves cried manically. "I am the Master of Death now!" he added gleefully.
"Bloody hell…" Harry muttered, unable to aim too precisely for fear of catching the snake's gaze. He shot a few Conjunctivitis Curses in the general direction of the thing's head, sticking himself to its scaly hide as it rolled again and again against the stones in an attempt to force him to look up, to make him react. This couldn't last very long - he had to do something.
"Accio sword," Harry whispered as he thought of his first face-off with the Baslisk, and he kept his eyes tightly closed, desperately glad that the snake couldn't twist its head around to bite him like last time. "Accio Gryffindor's sword!" he snapped furiously when nothing came to him, grimacing as he wiped blood out of his eyes.
Finally, the shining steel weapon slammed into his hand pommel-first, and it seemed to shudder with blood-lust. Harry wasn't sure if he could come close enough to actually kill the Basilisk, but he had to try something, and the sword had worked before. He grasped the hilt with both hands, his wand dangling between two fingers, and thrust the blade down deep between two scales into the snake's back, as far as it would go.
"Nooo!" Peeves howled in protest, and the Basilisk's keening cries joined him, a sharp sound of shock and pain that could only mean one thing. He'd hit more than bone, sliced through more than skin. Harry dragged the bloodied blade back out and stabbed again, embedding the wicked sword almost halfway to the hilt - it was unbelievably sharp, slicing into the hard skin without effort. It took three stabs before he could feel something give again, before the snake shuddered in hopeless agony.
These wounds wouldn't be enough. Not nearly. He'd severed nerves, perhaps, or even the thing's spine - but Peeves had shown he could rebuild the dead. If he killed the serpent here, it would merely return stronger, more monstrous, and under malevolent control. Soon, Peeves would manage to release the snake's body from the rocks, or perhaps force him to see, and die by the Basilisk's gaze. He had to separate the two, divorce the snake from its possessor. Either that - or he had to escape. It wasn't a pretty option, but he didn't have many good options anymore.
The stream that Loki had identified as Yggdrasil, that had to be the key. It was the way that someone else had taken, once upon a time, to escape from this place. It was a death sentence, perhaps, but staying in this fallen Hogwarts was certainly not an option. The problem was he had no idea how to find the place, and Loki had vanished before he could tell, dead or petrified.
The only thing Harry knew about Yggdrasil's nature from Sif was that it was the way the Asgardians came to Earth - a sort of interdimensional connection, styled after the same mystical tree that Harry had used to arrive in his new world. Perhaps it was the same between that he'd been in, in that instant after he left and before he arrived. The place where he'd seen Sirius again.
Except this time he didn't want to go to a random place in the multiverse, tossed wherever the wind would take him. No - he wanted to go back to the one he'd ended up in by chance. There was only one magical mode of transportation that seemed to echo Sif's description of the Bifrost, which crossed Yggdrasil. Which meant he would need the mother of all Portkeys to break out, to throw himself free. Joy.
He knew what he needed to make such a thing - a connection. Something that bound him to the place he wanted to go to, since that's how he'd intended to go back home to his own world, if he ever decided to. Regular objects could be Portkeys - but nothing of this scale could be accomplished with an old boot. He needed something more powerful, but all his magical artefacts were from the old world, or from this fallen Hogwarts - not from the new Earth. He'd never really anticipated so many Muggles.
"You cannot remain back there forever, wizard," Peeves murmured dangerously, his writhing tentacles staying out of harm's way, doubtlessly waiting just out of the reach of the Basilisk's gaze, ready to strike at the instant that it closed its eyes. The rocks moved behind Harry, slowly giving up their captive. "If you cast your deadly spell, all you will do is enrage my host… and it will devour you!"
"Really? I'll take that risk!" Harry snapped. "Avada Kedavra!" The spell's green glow was visible even through his eyelids as Harry cast blindly in the voice's direction - there was a wet plop as something fell, died.
"And so the slaves fall for their master…" Peeves said smugly. "And the Master survives."
Peeves was not stupid - he'd recognized that Harry's spell could be stopped by solid objects, and there were many wicked creatures hiding out of sight, twisted shapes like the Inferi, undying slaves to the spirit's will. The Killing Curse would still probably work - but only if he could get near Peeves himself, the part of him that was real, and not just an extension of him. Which was not going to happen.
For once, he could have used Loki's suggestions. Go figure.
Harry's breath hitched suddenly, as that thought lingered. Loki. Asgard. Another world that bordered Yggdrasil, or where it sprang from - and one that Hogwarts had never been deliberately cut off from. He dropped one hand into his expanded pocket, drawing out something he'd almost forgotten, hidden in one of the folds. A dagger - Sif's dagger.
"Oh, you're bloody brilliant," he murmured as he realized what he'd received from the Asgardian. He'd been given a part of her world - something that had been enchanted by Odin himself, infused with the same magic that Loki manipulated. She'd given him the key to Asgard, knowing full well that he could use it. Perhaps even that he would use it. "I could kiss you right now."
It was a small blessing that Loki wasn't around to hear that. Harry knew he would have never heard the end of it.
There was only one thing he was missing for his potential Portkey, now: Power. Breaking through wards needed the work of multiple wizards, and doing something as insane as Portkeying across worlds - that needed lots of them. Or at least, their sheer magical force. Harry knew he had his source right under him. The Basilisk was a thousand-year old creature, unnaturally strong from Peeves' interference, and a well of magic untapped for centuries. Its magical strength was enough to permit the spirit to make Inferi that remembered parts of their life - if the snake didn't have the magic necessary to make the trip, nothing did.
"Last chance, Peeves," Harry murmured as he raised his wand again, his eyes closed as he faced the spirit. "Or maybe not. Goodbye." He focused, pouring all his intent into a single spell, one that had occurred to him mere moments before. "Accio Peeves."
"What -" Peeves asked in confusion, an instant before his bulbous mass suddenly moved - ripped free from the Basilisk's face, his monstrous shape slid in front of the snake's lethal eyes for an instant, and covered the sockets. The deadly gaze burned through as the spirit cried in agony. Peeves did not die instantly - he was too strong for that - but all around his blackened flesh tore inwards in a panic, a hail of jagged claws and serrated spines that tried to grasp some foothold, tried to get rid of the enemy with mindless ferocity. The snake's eyes did not survive the onslaught for long as foot-long eye-stalks with teeth were sheltered from the deadly eyes before they tore inwards and mangled them. "Noooo!"
Harry opened his eyes as the deadly gaze vanished, grasping Sif's knife and stabbing it down deep into the snake's flesh, right besides Gryffindor's sword.
"Die, wizard! DIE!" Peeves cried out as he grew, gathered together, transforming from a mere growth into something more recognizable - an inhumanly thin bipedal shape with fiery eyes and long, curled claws, covered from head to toe in the creatures that he called his own. Inferi shambled into the hallway from every direction, former wizards or more monstrosities piled onto each other, corrupted shapes of former wizards turned to puppets. "You will die at my hand, wizard!" he cried anew. "Here, now!"
"I have only one thing to say to you," Harry answered laboriously, grinning for a moment. "Portus."
The castle vanished in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of light and sound. The enraged cry of Peeves echoed after Harry long after he was gone. It cried for vengeance.
Sif leaned back from her meal, glancing to Volstagg with mild disgust as he tore into his meat with his teeth, ripping flesh off the bone without even the slightest attempt at decorum. She wished he was an exception and sighed to herself. She'd never felt cooped up in Asgard before - she'd spent decades without ever bothering with any of the other worlds, content with peace. Now, however, sitting at the dinner table with a flagon of mead seemed so terribly boring and obligatory.
"My lady - do I bore you?" Fandral inquired, and she distantly realized she'd been talking to him before her attention wandered. She managed an embarassed half-smile in response, and he cocked his head to the side curiously. "Dreaming of Midgard again, eh?"
"It's not that," Sif murmured, frowning. "I feel responsible. I traveled to the other world with a warning, and offered my steel... I vowed to help them in their time of need. To retreat behind the walls of Asgard feels like betrayal, even if it was commanded." She looked away darkly. "Heimdall does not set my mind at ease, either. He seems... uneasy. He sees things that he tells none but the All-Father."
"So, he's distant? Because that's how he usually is," Fandral said snidely. "As for the vow you made, I hardly believe that this Seidmadr, this... wizard... would expect you to break all bonds and duties. No vow is greater than the ones all Asgardians swear."
"Perhaps," Sif responded lightly. "But on the battlefield, bonds of shed blood matter more. It was a person of Midgard, ungifted with any special talent, who went into battle with me, despite knowing the risks involved. He had done so many times before. Steven Tyler died at my side, honorably, and never did he cry out in hopelessness or fear. He even saw my presence as... comforting, perhaps." She sighed. "Why did we ever leave, Fandral? Why did Asgard cut all ties with Midgard, knowing that its people are just as capable of virtue as any of us?"
Fandral frowned, but did not immediately answer. Volstagg was still eating happily, but it was clear by his occasional glances that he'd been following the conversation keenly. Further along the table, near the very end, Thor was staring across the table.
"Where is Prince Loki?" Sif asked slowly. "I would have thought -"
"He and Thor had another fight," Fandral muttered. "Don't know what it was about, but I reckon Loki's off sulking somewhere. Those two never manage very long without a fight, anyway." He raised an eyebrow. "Is there a reason you ask?"
"No..." She blinked when it seemed as if there was a tremor in the air, as if she very slightly moved while everything else remained still around her. It was - a sensation that she vaguely recognized, though she'd never felt it anywhere except in the - "...Bifrost?" she murmured in confusion. She stood up, staring at the table as it shuddered again - but nobody seemed to notice but her.
"Lady Sif?" Fandral inquired, astonished. "Was it something I said?"
She shivered as the distant rumble turned into a screeching wound - the world wobbled around her with an energy that she recognized, as if something was dragging itself to her, using her as an anchor. Something big.
"Get back!" she yelled as she pushed the table away with all the strength she could manage. Thor flung himself from his seat, and so did several others. There was no time to deliver warnings, to explain what was happening, before the universe seemed to rend itself apart, turned inwards as a little piece of Yggdrasil became visible in the air. And beyond it, beyond the edge of Asgard, something gigantic was making its way through. The cries of shock were quickly drowned out by an impossibly loud groaning, creaking noise, as if space itself could not handle the stress.
Then the tension snapped, and a monstrous beast burst into the room. It was easily a hundred feet long or more, and it descended upon the hall all scales and blood and teeth, coiling and twisting as it fell without any sense of direction, crushing and grinding tables and food under its massive bulk as Asgardians threw themselves out of the way. Thor was the first to react, grasping his hammer and raising it to fight, just as the creature shuddered and ground to a halt. Its entire body dominated the hall, leaving only the walls as safe refuge.
Atop the snake's head, a small figure raised itself up to face Thor, half-invisible beneath a cloak that seemed to hide his very being, and Sif couldn't hold in a grin when she realized who it was. His clothes were smoldering and blood was pouring from wounds all across his face and arms, but Harry seemed to be intact. In one hand, he held the sword that was buried deep into the serpent's spine, paralyzing the beast, while in the other he held his wand. Power still surged around him in waves, a kaleidoscopic echo of Yggdrasil that slowly faded away as he turned, and more than a few former diners stared in awe.
Harry's eyes wandered momentarily before they sought Sif out, and he smiled radiantly. "Ah - hi. Sorry to barge in."
The stunned silence persisted for another long, long moment.
"Seidmadr. You are brash - like your forebears," a voice spoke deliberately, and silence rippled out across the hall as Odin All-Father entered, decked in his golden armor, with two ravens resting upon the shining spear that he held out in front of him. His one-eyed gaze cut through the tension like a knife, and came to rest on Harry. "I would commend you for your - impressive achievement on other days, wizard. However, I have yet to decide if you will live through this one."
From behind him, two more Asgardians stepped in the room, with a frozen shape suspended between them on a stretcher. Thor cried out in surprise as he realized who lay there, and Sif was scarcely any less shocked. It was Prince Loki, one arm raised and frozen in place, his face as pale as a corpse and staring into nothingness.
"What have you done to my son?" Odin demanded frostily, his knuckles whitening around his weapon. "Answer quickly."
Author's Note : Okay, this chapter was long, and sets up an inevitable second part that'll come in the future.
It's also probably the last solo Harry thing in a while (Loki really doesn't count, here) and we'll pick up with him & the earth-side crew next chapter. Bruce returns, the three science geeks meet, and that whole lawsuit thing comes around while Harry hangs out in a prison in another dimension... And perhaps a certain Captain makes his appearance.
Yup, we're rounding out the cast now. :)