"Glrk!" I managed.
Hey, if you honestly think you could do better when the worst nightmare in a lifetime of worst nightmares shows up while you're awake, ready, able and happy to kill you? Well, good for you. I suppose the Egyptian Riviera is nice this time of year.
I scrambled to a sort of half-sitting position, He Who Walks Behind rising jerkily out of the floor as I did so. I flailed around, trying desperately to spot a reflective surface so I could see the Outsider, then hesitated as Hermione also made a strangled noise.
"What is that thing?" she demanded, her voice even more shrill than usual.
I flinched back as the fringes of the psychic assault that made up the Outsider's name washed over me, hatred and fury boiling black in a hideously ancient mind. Then both He Who Walks Behind and I stopped and stared as Hermione staggered to her feet and over to a shelf, grabbing an armload of books without breaking stride and plopping down at a table.
"Some kind of troll, maybe?" she muttered, grabbing a vaguely fanged-looking book that snarled and snapped at her hand.
I gaped as she simply smashed a fist down on the book's cover, apparently stunning it long enough for her to thumb through the index. I was pretty sure that wasn't the way you were supposed to open that one. Another black-burning surge of hate and anger roared past me, actually ruffling Hermione's hair, but she just hunched her shoulders against it and grabbed for another book.
"No, too hairy... not right for a ghoul... maybe an erumpent?.. no, those are quadrupedal... not white enough for a yeti, obviously... maybe a giant grindylow? On land? No..." she mumbled with a puzzled frown.
At that point, her reading was interrupted by two things.
Just barely first came my yelling of "Reparo!", which summoned a moderate explosion that blew her off her seat and set some of the books on fire. No, I don't know why I tried for that one, it was just the first spell that came to mind. Also, if I'd tried for an actual explosion spell, it probably would have gone wrong too, except without the explosion I needed.
The second thing to interrupt was a bellow of rage from He Who Walks Behind as he clawed Hermione's workstation into a cloud of toothpicks and confetti.
The Outsider seemed to be having some trouble with his physical form- he was sort of visible even without a reflection, flickering like... well, pretty much every TV screen I'd been near since I was about twelve... and he seemed to be flickering in and out of tangibility involuntarily, and in more or less the same pattern. He was moving awkwardly, too- gliding with serpentine grace through a series of lurching stumbles that looked almost like bad stop-motion animation.
I didn't have a lot of time to think about it, though, because awkward or not, the thing moved fast. Although I think it was even more surprised than I was when it collided with an abruptly-opened door with enough force crack the thick, ancient wood.
Ron, who was apparently too excited to notice the door stall for a second, appeared through it, shouting "Harry! Harry! Dumbledore is calling for us and... good bloody hell, what is that?!"
"RON!" I screamed in frustration. "Run! No, out of the library!"
The Outsider had hesitated, staring from one of us to the other as he flickered and lurched. Then a... I can't think of any other way to describe it other than a 'squadron'... of books shot over the shelves and dive-bombed the monstrous apparition, hammering off his head with a noise like somebody shuffling a cosmic-sized deck of cards. He Who Walks Behind staggered sideways, and I grabbed Hermione from where she'd been sprawled staring at him.
The two of us sprinted past the Outsider, diving and rolling under a claw swipe before popping back up again and racing towards the door. Ron, showing more presence of mind than I would have given him credit for a moment ago, bashed the Walker with the door again when it chased us. Then Madame Pince strode out from between the bookshelves, wreathed in a halo of power and surrounded by a fluttering cloud of airborne books, loose pages whirling like windborne blades.
He Who Walks Behind whirled and stretched his scabrous jaw wide, a roar of challenge ripping out of his throat. The roar cut off abruptly in a series of hacking coughs as the librarian simply gave a contemptuous flick of her wand, sending a pair of particularly ratty-looking volumes that must have weighed in at three thousand pages apiece rocketing down the Outsider's throat, nearly taking it off its feet.
"Go." she snapped, not even bothering to look at us.
We didn't argue. The three of us turned as one and sprinted away down the corridor. He Who Walks Behind's bellow of rage shook dust out of the rafters, at least until it was once again interrupted by what sounded like another book to the throat.
"Dumbledore called for us and said to bring Scabbers and we were to be on our best behaviour and what's going on Harry?" Ron managed to pant out.
"Not sure, shut up and run." I panted back.
Hermione, meanwhile, was muttering to herself still.
"I'll explain once we've gotten to Dumbledore." I managed to gasp out.
It was easy to forget, given how young this body was, that it wasn't necessarily in as good a shape as my original body. Harry Dresden, late-thirty-something-wizard of the White Council, ran regularly and participated in hand-to-hand combat training. Not for health reasons or anything... at least, not directly... but so that I could run away from large things with nasty teeth, or punch them in the face failing all else.
Harry Potter, pre-teen(?) wizard of Hogwarts, on the other hand, got most of his excercise on a broomstick, and had been at least slightly malnourished for most of his life. Long story short? I was getting winded. Bad. I'd better hope that Madame Pince was able to keep the Walker busy long enough for me to get to the Headmaster's office. I'm not sure what I expected Dumbledore to be able to do to He Who Walks Behind, but like I'd said before, dear old Dumbles seemed to be the exception to a lot of rules, no matter what universe they were from.
We'd already climbed up two floors, but by unspoken consent, all three of us sagged against various walls near the last staircase we'd have to climb to reach the entrance to Dumbledore's office. All three of us were breathing hard- none of us were particularly out of shape, three cheers for being young, but the average kid isn't going to sprint up two ungodly long flights of stairs and through more than a mile of corridors on anything like a regular basis. And by this point, the adrenaline was wearing off. We simply couldn't maintain the pace.
He Who Walks Behind gave a roar from directly behind us, loud enough to shake the thick stone walls.
"Adrenaline's back!" I blurted, and all three of us crashed into one another trying to sprint through the doorway simultaneously.
We tumbled backwards, landing in a tangled heap, and I had a wonderful view of the Walker's blurring, shifting form as it lurched spasmodically towards us, yellow-fanged mouth agape. Hermione made a small noise, almost a whimper, and I felt my guts light on fire.
I jerked an arm free, jabbed it at the oncoming monstrosity, and howled "FUEGO!" at the top of my lungs.
Molten gold light sprayed from my fingers, and Ron yelped as it passed by close enough to singe his eyebrows.
The stream of flame washed over the Walker, who recoiled, wailing in wordless agony. Briefly. Then the scream trailed off into an urbane chuckle.
"Really, starchild, is that what you thought would happen?" he murmured as the flames began to clear.
He started forwards, then stopped short as the flames cleared entirely, revealing Dumbledore standing between him and us.
"You are not welcome in my school, creature." the headmaster snapped.
The old professor made a short, calm motion with his wand, and He Who Walks Behind was smashed backwards and down by unseen force, a brief flare of blue light the only hint as to what was happening. There was a clatter from the stairs behind us, and a short chubby guy wearing a lime-green bowler hat and an inflated sense of self-importance came barging down, followed closely by two big guys who carried themselves like professionals.
"Now see here, Dumbledore." the little guy huffed. "As minister for magic, I am not used to being dragged about in the dead of night and... good heavens, what is that?!"
Oh, good. They were from the government, and they were here to help.
Then again, maybe the big pros actually were. Both of them had stepped in front of the Minister, and the larger of the two, a massive, broad-shouldered black man with one gold earring, had actually moved far enough forwards to get between us and the monster. He murmured something under his breath, and a shield snapped up in front of us all. As he was doing that, his counterpart, a rough-looking customer that looked a bit like an ex-marine, with his close-cropped grey hair and competent demeanour, had sent at least half a dozen spells howling down the corridor to curve around Dumbledore and slam into the Walker.
He Who Walks Behind largely ignored the lightshow and concentrated on Dumbledore. Who, quite naturally, simply slammed him into the floor again. I grinned, fairly sure I'd spotted the trick this time; Dumbledore was taking a page from the Aes Sedai and hardening the air briefly to make a battering ram. Thus confusing both the borderline magic-immune monster and his erstwhile allies, and making him look far more powerful than he was, when in reality, he was mostly just far more intelligent than he looked.
The Walker snarled again, rising from where he'd bounced to, then stopped for a second, his head snapping to an angle pointing down and away from us. Then he made a confused noise and glanced in several other directions, somehow managing to give the impression that he was looking at distant things, before his gaze came to rest on me. And he started to laugh.
Even if it hadn't been coming from a mouth that looked like someone had crossbred a shark with poor dental hygeine and a chainsaw, it would have been an unnerving laugh. Long, deep, and unhinged-sounding.
"Magnificent." the monster finally managed as we all stared at it. Fudge jumped violently when it spoke, but otherwise no-one interrupted. "The situations you petty mortals get in with your concerns about souls and the beyond... simply magnificent."
And with that, he abruptly lurched into blurred motion, straight past all of us and down the stairwell to vanish from sight.
"After him!" Dumbledore shouted, jerking us all into motion. I wasn't sure what I expected to do, given that the thing had shrugged off my current best shot like it hadn't even happened, but I pursued all the same.
I had no idea where we were going, and clearly no-one else did, other than Dumbledore. He led us unerringly to a door that would have looked pretty much the same as any of the others in the area if it wasn't in two pieces on the wrong side of the hallway.
Oh, and if Snape wasn't lying in the wreckage of the door.
The Potions Master seemed slightly disoriented, but he got to his feet in one smooth motion the second he realized we were there.
"Apologies, Professor Dumbledore." he said, an edge of uneasiness in his normally sharp voice. "But some... thing... has interfered with my duties."
Dumbledore simply nodded to him and brushed past, the rest of us trailing after uncertainly, with Snape bringing up the rear, warily eyeing the empty hallway. I hate to admit it, but my respect for him went up another notch. As I've said before, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face.
My attention was fairly quickly caught by the two figures in the room. He Who Walks Behind was dangling the body of Quirrell from one hand, examining it with an unreadable expression on his alien face. Although something about his posture managed to suggest amusement.
Dumbledore raised his wand, and the Walker glanced at him, then smirked and, with a surge of power, jolted Quirrell awake.
I can't honestly say I remember much about the next few minutes, mostly because the big gray-haired guy (whose name I later learned was Dawlish) clipped me upside the head with his elbow when he whirled to target Voldemort. This had two unfortunate effects; the first one was tossing me headfirst into a wall where I concussed myself nicely, and the second that he numbed his arm and lost his wand, helping both the Outsider and Voldemort to escape.
Well, maybe. I can't say that he'd impressed me much that far.
At first, I thought the concussion was responsible, but the first voice I heard when I regained consciousness was a woman's. I mumbled something unintelligible, and she repeated herself.
"I said, godson, that you do pick the most entertaining enemies."
Lovely. My faerie godmother was here.
"Hello, Lea. Any chance I could trade you back for the unkillable monster and the evil dark lord?" I said.
My godmother laughed, the tinkling, unearthly laughter of the Sidhe.
Dumbledore glanced at her sharply, then said "Mister Weasley, Minister, if you'd be so kind. We have some items in my office that require our attention."
Fudge, who was gaping openly at Lea, shook himself and turned to the headmaster. "Yes... yes, that would likely be good."
With several more curious glances at Lea, Dumbledore's contingent trooped out.
Dawlish hesitated for a second, then, with a glare shared equally with everyone left in the room, trailed after the minister. The big black guy... Kingsley something, I think..? somewhat to my surprise, stayed for a moment, watching Lea warily.
After a moment or two of everyone looking from me to Lea and back with varying degrees of hostility, confusion, suspicion, and various other emotions, Snape made an impatient noise and dug around in a bag that I hadn't noticed near the wreckage of the bed that Voldemort had been lying in. After a moment, he dug out a flask full of something that was bubbling, steaming, and a shade of orange so violent that it was making my headache worse just looking at it.
Then he stalked over to where I was lying, grabbed my nose to pinch it shut and tilt my head back, and poured the whole frighteningly orange mess down my throat. This had the entirely predictable result of making me cough, choke, and splutter, but Snape was merciless, and his hold on my nose forced me to either swallow or drown.
"Drink, boy." Snape growled. "The last thing I need is for something as trivial as a brain injury making you even stupider than you already are."
I tried to snark back something about him taking comfort in the fact that he was perfectly safe from that, but it was probably spoiled by the fact that I was coughing too hard for anyone to understand a word of it. And when I went to try again, I found that along with the predictable result of making me hack up a lung, the orange crap was also clearing up my headache and I was finding I could think more clearly. I don't know if I ever got used to how easy, even casual, healing was in this universe.
Lea was giving me a very interested look as my head cleared, before glancing at Snape while wearing a fascinated expression. I stifled a chuckle at her carefully-hidden confusion. Lea was one of the very few that had managed to heal me by magic in my own world, but that had been a terrifyingly unique situation involving me allowing her direct power over me through broken vows and my own stupidity, and even then, it had only been closing a nasty cut on my head.
It hadn't been anything near as complex as a closed-head brain injury (what? It's happened to me often enough that I've learned the proper medical term for it), which she could no more have healed than she could have taught me to fly using fairy dust.
... which she can't do, just for the record.
And now, she was thinking that Snape was either vastly more than he seemed, or else that he had somehow gained absolute power over me. Either scenario promised to be at least mildly amusing as Snape and my godmother circled one another like wary cats.
Speaking of which...
"Everyone, this is my godmother, the Leanandsidhe. She's basically second-in-command of the Unseelie Fae, the Winter Court. If you like keeping your soul and not being a dog, I'd advise against making any deals with her, saying anything that could be construed as being a deal, or even nodding at the wrong time."
This earned me a round of blank stares, and a reproving smile from Lea.
"Really, dear, you make me sound like some kind of monster." she paused, then shrugged a little. "Which, I suppose, is fair enough, at least from your limited perspective."
This earned her a round of blank stares, and I sighed.
"Lea, why... wait, no, how are you here?"
My godmother sniffed disapprovingly. "Really, dear, you shouldn't be so dense. The answers are, of course, connected."
I hesitated. I hated dealing with the fae, although at least Lea hadn't tried to turn me into a dog this time. Yet. But they didn't- couldn't- lie. They could twist their words so badly that they could seem to be telling you the sky was fluorescent pink, but they couldn't do so directly. And they gave out knowledge about as cheerfully as Scrooge paying taxes. But Lea was under some kind of obligation to help me, teach me even. So she was giving me at least something here.
I frowned. "If He Who Walks Behind is here... the Nevernever?" I hazarded.
"Yes, my dear boy. Everything that is connects to it, even if some are harder to reach than others. And if you are going to go about firing off... oh, what are those cute little human things? distress flares?.. into the aether, do not be surprised if your allies are not the only ones to see them. Although gaining the affection of the Archive was quite clever. For a mortal, of course." she told me.
Another frown from me. "Affection? Don't you mean attention?"
"That too. But I really cannot stay for long; magic is strange in this world, and the wards on this place... well, you saw how they affected even that Outsider."
Actually, I hadn't even had time to think about what had been happening with He Who Walks Behind, other than to notice that something was hinky. That wasn't something I was about to admit to my godmother, though. Nominally on my side though she was, the winter fae were simply far too predatory to show even a tiny bit of weakness around them. So I just nodded, thinking fast.
"How do I contact you if I need to, Lea?" I asked, settling for the most obvious question first.
"Oh, I'll be around." she said cheerfully, then faded out.
I opened my mouth, then closed it, sighing. "We should probably go see what's going on with Professor Dumbledore."
The others just nodded, looking a bit stunned.
As we trailed through the hallways and up the last couple of floors, I continued to think. Apparently, my shot in the dark had made it to the Nevernever, although whether or not it had reached Ivy I had no idea. I was pretty sure that she wouldn't have sent Lea, and I was damn sure that she wouldn't have sent the Outsider. Having Lea around was marginally better than no help at all, though. Probably.
And my godmother had made two apparently-casual comments- the first one, about everything existing in the Nevernever, wasn't exactly new information to me. But it was one more hint that this probably wasn't just a brain-damaged fever dream.
And the second comment, about the Hogwarts' wards messing with both her and He Who Walks Behind, was very, very interesting. He Who Walks Behind could normally shed magic like a duck shedding water, and Lea was second only to the Queen of Air and Darkness herself, Mab, in the Winter Court. Even allowing for differences in magic, neither of them should have even been in a position to even notice human-made wards, at least non-destructive ones.
As we approached the gargoyles that marked the entrance to the Headmaster's office, Ron caught up with him. Apparently Dumbledore had sent him back to the Gryffindor dorms, since he now had the cage with his rat in it, and was looking more than a little apprehensive.
I just shook my head at him. I had a pretty good idea of what was coming next, and I didn't think he was going to take it much better now than he... was going to?.. in three years. I'd been here barely two months, and already the time-travel aspects were giving me a basically constant low-level headache. And that was just from the grammar.
I was starting to think that the when the White Council banned time travel, they were less worried about time paradoxes and more just didn't want their collective heads to explode when they were trying to talk about it.
Snape growled "Every-Flavour Beans." and then stalked off, muttering something that might have been excusing himself, or might just have been him swearing under his breath.
The rest of us trooped upstairs in nervous silence. Nervous mostly because we could hear Fudge yelling as soon as the door opened. Even as annoyed as he was, though, I was pretty sure that the pauses in the shouting were him politely allowing Dumbledore to have his say. Most of it seemed to be him wanting to know what Dumbledore wanted now, when he needed to be back at the ministry behind three layers of Aurors and a very thick door.
Dumbledore smiled, his eyes twinkling at us, although the smile was a bit sad, as we all trailed in, Ron hovering near the back, clutching Scabber's cage protectively. Then Dumbledore's smile vanished as he turned back to the Minister of Magic.
"Minister Fudge." he said sternly. "While I do know that preparing for Voldemort's attacks is vital, this is of equal importance. An innocent man has been suffering in Azkaban for ten years, wrongly accused of multiple murders. It is a wonder that he has clung to life this long, and I will not condemn him to rot there any longer, merely for your convenience."
Fudge gulped slightly at Dumbledore's tone, then blinked at his words. "Ten years? Multiple mur... Black? You cannot be serious, Dumbledore!"
Then he darted a look at me. "And a cruel joke to make when young Harry is here, as well."
Dumbledore merely nodded. "It would, indeed, be cruel, were it a joke. Mister Weasley, if you would come forwards, and Mister Potter?"
I elbowed Ron, and we moved to the center of the office together, feeling a bit nervous with all the eyes on us.
Then I took a deep breath, leaned in to the rat's cage, and said "Hello, Peter."