Tracing the heavy ruby set into the sword's pommel, Godric eyed the expanse of snow coated skeleton trees before him wearily. The land of never-ending winter, the Demun forest, nestled within the Black Peaks – a magical dead zone. Scowling, he glanced down at the ruby, dull with age, and traced a small star within the centre, skin prickling.

His goal was clear; his path was not. A year of searching had yielded nothing of use, save one undeniably thin rumour – that of the black hart, a guardian of the forest. Hunt her and she will reveal your path, wanderer. The village idiot's words rang loud and constant through the eaves of the tiny village sunk into the earth beyond the river cutting across the magicless land, where the ancient forest reigned supreme.

The crack of a dead branch beneath something's feet snapped his attention from his musings; his fingers reflexively clenched around the sword's hilt, then relaxed. Carefully, he hefted the heavy bow in his other hand, eyes tracing the rolling sweep of the hill before him. Another low crack; a flash of black against grey and white. Releasing the sword's hilt, he nocked an arrow and inched forward, swiping his thumb over the taut bowstring. He was no great hunter with or without magic, but a black hart in a white-washed forest couldn't be so difficult a target-

There! It broke from cover and hurtled toward the river, hoofbeats striking low and clear in the quiet, the sound unearthly. He started and released the arrow; it whizzed past the hart's flank and thunked harmlessly into a tree. Swearing under his breath, he hasted to follow, moving into a dead run. Something bellowed behind him; every nerve ending alight, adrenaline coursing through iced veins, he shot blindly at the fleeing hart and whirled to face what had to be two of the most massive boars he'd ever seen. Again they bellowed as one, tearing the snow beneath their feet as they charged the lone wizard.

A hot wave of fear ricocheted down his spine; survival took priority, and he acted without thought. Whipping off the heavy cloak, he hurled the deep red garment into the closest boar's eyes, throwing himself to the side and rolling to his feet, unsheathing the sword jerkily. In that mere breath of action, he found himself driven to his knees, a tusk slicing through his side, a bolt of pain through his cold numbed body. He gasped and lashed out, first with magic that fizzled at his fingertips, then with the sword, sinking the blade into the second snuffling boar's shoulder. The heavy creature roared and slammed its body into him. Hot blood sprayed across his face, and his fingers slipped from the sword hilt.

Struggling to rise and extricate himself from the tangle of bloodied boar and icy branches, he slipped and fell back, grasping at the air before the hilt of the sword as it slid from the enraged mammal. A sound cut the air – a scream, that of a bird. He barely noted it before the massive eagle dropped from the sky and sank talons into the boar's eyes, ripping once and quickly spiralling away, its cry hanging. Energy shot through him; lurching forward, he ripped the sword from the snow and darted just out of the range of the flailing creature's tusks. A heavy overhand chop sank the singing blade into the boar's neck. It shuddered, bellowed once lowly, the sound cutting off abruptly as a froth of blood bubbled from its mouth, staining the snow beneath it. Gasping for breath, he stumbled back.

The other boar advanced slowly, dark eyes glinting with uncanny intelligence. It had seen its brother fall, and measured its opponent now, breath clouding before its eyes. Swallowing, Godric adjusted his grip on the sword hilt and straightened, wavering a little. Again the eagle's scream rang out, but it did not appear. A glance to the skies showed it circling overhead, watching the confrontation play out. A scowl broke across his features. Damn unnatural beasts. Hefting the blade, he shunted the pain in his side away and spun the sword near his knees, advancing on the boar slowly. It rumbled deep in its chest, seeming to shift its low slung weight and back up a pace. A low exhale; he charged, the boar bellowing and stumbling back in its haste to retreat properly, unable to escape the heavy blow to its side; the sword stuck, lodged deep between its ribs. Blood burst from its gaping mouth, and it collapsed, blood spraying across the wizard's boots and pooling beneath the unmoving body. Shivering some, he spat and ripped the blade from its body, retrieving his torn cloak and cleaning the blade slowly, dark gold eyes sweeping across the again quiet forest.

The hart was nowhere in sight. Judging from their ferocity and undeniable intelligence, he imagined them to be guardians of the elusive beast. Grumbling, he sheathed the sword and looked up, barking at the eagle, "Do you have some reason to be here that doesn't involve meddling?" The massive bird swooped down, idly landing on a heavy branch arcing overhead, preening some before turning deep burgundy eyes on him. He froze in the middle of tearing the bloody cloak into makeshift bandages, mouth tipping down into a frown. No natural eagle had eyes like that.

As if in reply to his unspoken realization, the eagle chirped lowly and spread its wings, tossing its head back as its form wavered and blinked out of sight. In its place, a tall woman perched in the tree, one leg tossed over the other, lips tipped up in a small smirk.

"Dear me, did I offend the great warrior's pride? It isn't as if you were almost skewered by a boar," she drawled, leaning forward.

"Help me down?" She offered a gloved hand; warily, Godric stepped forward and reached up to accept it, bracing himself as she dropped easily into his arms. Releasing her quickly, he stepped back, eyes narrowed.

"Who-" She held up one hand, smirk widening.

"I have no need of a name, nor am I possessed of one you might understand. Know that I simply wish to assist you. I can track the hart you seek." She raked a hand through her stiff crest of short brown hair, rolling her shoulders.

"Follow me, if you would. I care not." With a low laugh, she strode away, boots making no mark in the snow she traversed. Again his skin prickled, but he followed, calling, "I thought this was a magical deadzone." She snorted.

"It is."

"Then how-"

"I am not magical, Godric. I am an eagle, hatched and flighted early. You act as if you know the world you see, but you are blind. There is no law saying an eagle may not shed her wings." He gaped. No law? An eagle turned human without magic? He remained quiet as they moved deeper into the wood, darkness falling heavily around them as they advanced into the cold trees, turning the idea around in his head.

"Divine intervention then," he managed weakly, his explanation ringing hollow in his mind. Again she offered a derisive sound.

"I have spoken the truth, and you do not believe. So be it. I will not explain any further."

"This is unprecedented!"

"Then how can you claim it impossible?" He stopped completely, anger fizzing in his chest.

"I demand you explain yourself!" She stopped as well, all humour dissolved.

"I owe you no explanation, Godric of the Gryphon Coast. I am what I am, and have generously offered what the others here would not. No oath binds me, and my world is my own – I am not required to explain it simply because you are blind to the earth's power. You call it magic; we call it energy. It may be manipulated by any and all who feel it within and without." Now she advanced on him, burgundy eyes dark with an emotion he could not name.

"Speak, boy. Have you lost all will and wit, faced with what simply cannot be?" She scoffed and stopped, folding her arms across her thin chest.

"Well?" He swallowed, ears buzzing.

"I-" What was there to say? Every word seemed obsolete, turned to rusted iron on his tongue. He bowed his head, casting his eyes away from her. She sighed, unfolding her arms and touching his shoulder lightly.

"You are young. The mysteries of this world and all others are still shrouded. Put aside this mantle of responsibility not your own and you will see." His head shot up and he shook his head vehemently.

"I can't! This-" He stopped and inhaled sharply. The woman sighed again and smiled sadly.

"So be it, Godric. You are a boy turned to manhood too early. I pray your path will open your eyes and your heart to what is already there." Her form dissolved into smoke, and feathers brushed past his ear as the eagle soared into the trees behind him. He didn't move, eyes locked onto the hart a mere thirty metres ahead of him, head lowered to a small stream of ice melt from the mountains rising around them. As if sensing his gaze, it raised its head; liquid brown eyes met his wide gold ones, and a sense of a voice whispered through his quieted mind.

Welcome, Godric. The forest has seen your heart, has tasted your blood, and has heard your voice. You seek my wisdom and your path. Come to me. It darted away, trotting into a cave almost hidden by a clamour of iced over fallen trees. He eased forward, following the bell tones of its hoofbeats as it slowed to a walk within the cave.

Warmth glowed under his skin as he passed into the mouth of the cave; his voice was stolen by odd awe. The hart stood beside a still black pool.

Come to me. He moved to her side, falling to his knees, one hand splayed across the unmoving animal's shoulder. Warm brown eyes again met his gold.

See what has come to pass, and know your path.

Her bare feet caught on one slick stone; she pitched forward, barely catching the edge of the pool, lips scant centimetres from the surface, her breath ruffling the dark water's surface some. Trembling, she released the stone edge from one white-knuckled grip, cupping her free hand beneath the water's surface. Silver and black frost rose up her bare arm, coating it in a dull, icy sheen.

"Please come back..." Tears pricked the corners of her eyes; she clenched them shut and let out a shuddering breath. It hitched in his throat and broke into an abrupt sob; her fingers curled into a fist beneath the steady lap of water. A hiss of steam broke across her; the frost covering her arm dissipated, leaving a path of pale swirls in its wake. Dull ruby light glowed within the recesses of the cavern. Raising her eyes, she slowly relaxed her grip on the stone edge and scooped up a handful of the dark waters, never looking away from the growing glow as she raised her hand to her lips. Another blast of steam washed over her; she slowly sipped the cold water, eyes falling shut. A low rumble echoed around her.

The black frost crept over her lips; her eyes snapped open, and she swallowed a gasp, the sound terminating into a low whimper. The waters rose sharply, drenching her. Frost shot over her bare skin, covering her in icy swirls of black and silver. With a sob, she slipped backwards, scrabbling over slick dark stone. Now a roar erupted from the blackness, the red glow going dark, then bursting forth, a wave of fire over black water.

Her scream melded with the thunder of roars within, and smoke erupted around her.

Jerking back, Godric stared at the still pool, then the black hart eyeing him calmly.


They hold the key, Godric. They were driven out by the King of the Below. Find them. The hart tossed its head and pressed its forehead to his, the voice growing loud and insistent.

Find them! Now its eyes grew pale; a fog crept across them, and its body grew stiff.

Find...them... As if turned to stone, it froze – and then the antlers fell from its head, clattering dully, a muffled bell tone. Around him, a new voice echoed.

With the hart's gift, the forest's watcher will create a guide. Take this and go. Follow your path.

He didn't remember darkness overtaking him, but he found himself awoken to warmth and the crackling of a fire.

"You could have died. Typical male. You always think you can withstand any trial the Goddess puts forth. Fool." Blinking blearily, he searched the dim recesses of the room for the source of the voice, ears still ringing with the inhuman tones from the cave. A hand crossed his vision and cupped his jaw, jerking his head up to meet a pair of blue ringed brown eyes.

"I don't recognize you from the village, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you are not some young buck looking to impress a dull village girl." The speaker released his jaw; his vision slowly brightened, and he locked gazes with a scowling woman who looked remarkably familiar.

"E-eagle-" A sharp, black eyebrow raised.

"Again with the eagle? I had hoped the delirium would pass when you woke, but apparently I was wrong." Her low voice wasn't like the lilting tones of the bird woman, but there was a similarity he couldn't deny.

"I'm not delirious," he asserted carefully, forming each word slowly in his mouth, trying to get around the cottony feeling there. She hummed low in her throat and rose, striding across the small room to the fireplace and stirring the cauldron hanging there.

"So you say. What's your name, then?"

"Godric of the Gryphon's Coast," he supplied automatically, struggling into an upright position. Impossibly fast, she was at his side and pushing him back down, eyes sharp and baleful.

"Stay down. Until the village healer looks you over, I don't want you moving. She'll be here soon enough. Exercise the patience I doubt you possess." Her snap judgements were wearing on him, but he couldn't deny her logic – yet. Swallowing, he watched her return to the cauldron, humming some – a little snatch of a tune he couldn't quite pinpoint.

"What's your name?" The humming continued. For a moment, he thought she hadn't heard, then, "Rowena."

"Why did you save me?" She snorted, and he was again reminded of the bird woman.

"Why were you out there in the first place? I found you by chance on my rounds. I wasn't going to leave you there." Now she turned, spoon in one hand, the other on her hip, mouth quirked into a mocking grin. He gritted his teeth at her behaviour and winced immediately; pain shot through his skull, making his vision go blurry. Her grin dissolved and she snapped, "Stop thinking so hard! Your mind isn't meant to handle so much intelligent thought, if you thought running around in Demun in the dead of winter was a good idea-"

"I was looking for the hart!" She went silent, eyes widening. Forcing himself upright, he ignored her weak warning and growled, "I had just escaped being gored by a boar and found the cave by following the hart. I passed out from cold and blood loss – if you had bothered to check, you'd see I was prepared for the weather and was fully prepared to return to the village before nightfall. Ask any of your damn elders!" Swinging his legs over the side of the low bed, he pushed to his feet, ignoring the way his vision wavered and darkened dangerously. A firm grip curled around his biceps, and a knee was pushed into his stomach; with a sharp cry, he fell back, Rowena pinning him to the bed.

"Tsk. Rowena, dearie, that's no way to treat a guest when he's wounded. Give the man a chance to regain his strength first!" Godric's ears burned at the cheery voice; Rowena shot off him and whirled, lips curling back into a sneer.

"Damn it, Lor!" The old woman cackled and set her leather satchel on the battered wooden table, leaning over the fire to sniff at the cauldron.

"Good, you have a good stew ready. I'll just check his wounds and see if anything's needed." She pushed past the younger woman and sat on the edge of the bed, nudging Godric impatiently.

"Well?" He swallowed a yelp and mumbled, "My side's lacerated, I might have hit my head in the cave, and I was in the cold for several hours without a good cloak." Rowena piped up sulkily, "He bandaged himself with what was left of the cloak, but he lost a good amount of blood. A boar gored him." Lor hummed and pushed Godric onto his back, slipping the rough blanket back and tracing her fingers over the fresher bandage.

"Sit him up, Rowena. I want to clean that up and see if it needs stitches." She rifled through the satchel she'd brought along while Rowena stiffly assisted Godric into an upright position, untying the bandage and peeling it away sharply, ignoring his hissed oath. Returning to his side, Lor shoved a clear tile of crystal into Rowena's hand. Obediently, she held it over the wound; the old witch leaned forward, fingers tracing the air over his side.

"Hmm. Get me some snow, girl. You're lucky," she addressed him, "it's a surface wound. Wide, but shallow. A few stitches, a snow pack, you'll be as good as new before you know it." She fished a packet of herbs from the satchel and pulled out two large leaves, handing them to him.

"Chew those. It'll numb you some." He accepted them warily and slowly crushed them in his hand before popping them into him mouth, chewing slowly. In a moment, cold suffused his side; Rowena had returned with the snow, and was again holding the tile over the wound while Lor worked. A mere prick, in and out, as the needle and clean thread pulled his flesh closed. Tipping his head back against the wood wall, he let his eyes close, chewing lazily.

"That's it. A few bumps and bruises that'll heal on their own." A flash before his eyelids.

"No concussion. Very good. Feed him, keep him warm, and make sure he eats this before he falls asleep, and again in the morning. I'll be back to check on him them." He cracked an eyelid to see Lor hand Rowena what appeared to be a round loaf of bread; Rowena placed it on the mantelpiece, mouth set back in its customary scowl. Yawning, he closed his eyes again, flinching some with the blast of cold air as Lor departed, the door thunking closed behind her.

"Hey. Stay awake. You need to eat." He pried his eyes open and scowled at Rowena's back as she spooned some of the stew into a wooden cup, breaking the loaf Lor had given her in half, a bit of steam rising from it.

"Here. It's loaded with herbs to speed along the healing process and help you sleep. Eat your stew." Accepting the stew and bread, he watched her move to the other side of the room, finally taking in the wall of traps, furs, hides, and the large bow.

"You hunt for the village, then?"

"Eat your stew." Rolling his eyes, he did as told. Finally, she answered, "I hunt what comes out of the forest and keep an eye on the village so they don't get eaten by bears. Occasionally I track an idiot child who ran away and got lost. Mostly I just set traps and make rounds every day, skin what I catch, keep the meat, trade the furs." She ducked her head, black hair falling around her shoulders, coming free from the messy braid down her back.

"Just eat, Godric. I'm too tired to play get to know you right now." Raising an eyebrow at that, he munched on the crisp bread, dunking it in the stew and munching on it again. She seemed preoccupied with something. Turning his attention from her, he finished his meal and settled in to sleep, only to hear, "Why were you looking for the hart?" He pressed back against the mattress, exhaustion rolling over him.

"Mm...need to find out...m'path..." Rowena twisted to watch him.

"Your path to where?"

"Need to find...the chalice..."

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. All original concepts, unless otherwise credited, belong to me.

A/N: I know, I know, ANOTHER fic, unfinished. The beginning of the Founders era AU that's been teasing me. The title's a working one; may or may not change. Who knows, it's me.

So, good, bad? Continue, trash it? We haven't even gotten to Salazar and Helga yet, so I probably won't trash it until then, but is it interesting? The basics are this; the world is not ours, so I have random names and places. Hogwarts may or may not exist. This is solely a high fantasy journey fic for the Founders.

Now, about pairings. Knowing me, it will PROBABLY be slash. However, Salazar/Helga is steadily growing on me, given their relationship as I've outlined it in this fic. ...But expect slash. I'm just that kind of girl. XD

Warnings will appear as needed, but some violence, hints of sexual encounters, and coarse language are general heads-ups.

Reviews are love and highly anticipated and insisted upon; technical nitpicking, story aspects that are confusing, pretty much any comment on the story is welcome. So, without further ado, enjoy the rest of the fic!