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Wet grass whispered beneath Harry’s feet. The fading sun crept behind a veil of grey cloud, leaving the pines a ragged line of dark beyond the looming quidditch hoops and stands.
A short shadow lurked, twitching beneath the trees.
Something within the ball of ice in Harry’s chest uncoiled and reared its head; its eyes slid open, full of furious, focused hunger. His uncle’s insults, the quiet spite of his aunt, Dudley’s learnt disgust, the fickle words of his friends in the magical world, the crunch as Hermione shattered his wand, and every moment the emptiness had fed on crumbled away.
I won’t become nothing.
He disillusioned himself.
Sharp, sweet pine resin drifted to his nose. Harry smeared the sap on his fingertips and traced light lines of stickiness onto his face and the back of his neck. No warning. No mercy. Just like how he turned on his friends.
‘Incarcerous,’ Harry hissed.
Thin, barbed wires snared the rat in a net of steel, cutting into his skin. Hoarfrost coated the metal, lacing it with icy spines.
‘Were you waiting for someone?’ Harry dispelled his invisibility. ‘Another hapless student to hide with? A trusting friend to betray?’
‘Harry.’ Pettigrew’s voice wavered somewhere between relief and fear. ‘I thought you were Sirius.’
This isn’t even vengeance. It’s for me, not for my parents, not for my friends, not to save anyone, or anything. A small smile crept onto his lips. Just. Me.
‘What’re you going to do?’ Wormtail whined, twisting within the wires. Tiny trickles of red marred his pale, dirt-smeared skin. ‘Your parents would never want you to do something cruel and the wires are tight, Harry. They’re hurting.’
‘You know something, Peter?’ Harry forced a bright smile onto his face. Hope flickered in Pettigrew’s eyes and in the eye of Harry’s mind, amidst the ice and beneath the razor-sharp gaze, lips curled back from needle-like teeth. ‘I don’t think that the dead want anything. They’re gone. Nothing.’
Pettigrew whimpered. ‘Please, Harry. Please.’
Harry let the warmth fade from his smile and the cold creep in. ‘I want something. Would you like to know what it is?’
‘Revenge won’t bring them back, Harry. If it did, I’d’ve turned the Dark Lord’s wand against him the first chance I got. They were two of five people that ever cared about me. I was never brilliant like any of them, but they cared for me all the same. I wish, more than anything, that I’d remembered how to be brave when the Dark Lord found me. He was searching for Sirius and thought I might know where he was. I wish I’d died then, and been remembered as well as I was for thirteen years, but I didn’t, I wasn’t, and I just want to live.’
‘I spent eleven years wishing for parents, for anyone.’ Sweet malice dripped from Harry’s tongue. ‘Wishes like that, they just don’t come true.’
The slim, ebony shape of his wand slipped from his sleeve again; eleven and a third inches of intent.
‘If you kill me, Sirius will never have his name cleared! Take me to the aurors, to Dumbledore, to Azkaban, but kill me and he’ll never be free.’
Harry paused. No. Sirius didn’t try to capture Pettigrew and clear his name. The cold creature coiled tight around his heart and sank its sharp teeth in deep. Sirius wanted him dead. He deserves to die. I need him to die. He’s already dead to the world. Harry’s grip on his wand tightened. He dies.
‘Harry,’ Pettigrew whispered. ‘Harry, please.’
A point of bright green light swelled from the tip of Harry’s wand as he placed it between Pettigrew’s eyes. ‘Do you know what the first two words I remember are?’
Wormtail shook his head, squirming within the wires.
Harry’s lips curved into a broad half-smile. ‘Avada kedavra.’
A blinding green flash threw sharp shadows of the pine trees across the blank face of Peter Pettigrew.
And now it’s time to seize my freedom. From Dumbledore. From Riddle. From all the selfish people who expect everything and give nothing back. Harry pictured the last page of Riddle’s notes and the two words at the centre of the page. Six letters, then four; the latter carved into the parchment. Listen. Pain.
Harry closed his eyes and sought for the magic. The pine trees melted into nothing, the sound of their needles, the whisper and touch of the breeze, and the smell of the resin all faded from thought.
A thousand ink-black fragments screamed within him. They whispered, howled, gibbered and cried in deafening silence, but blotted out even the beat of Harry’s heart with their cacophony.
One of them’s not me. One of them’s him.
He concentrated on each individual fragment, listening to the screams of each shard of the broken mirror that was his soul. More different, distorted, reflections of himself than he could’ve ever dreamt of swirled through his mind’s eye. All the possible outcomes from the event of fracturing your soul and sense of self, if Riddle’s to be believed. Every in between, from fully recovering to never healing.
Harry sought through them for the boy he’d seen within the diary, or the man he might’ve become. Countless pairs of green eyes started back. Doubt trickled into his thoughts, welling up in the pit of his stomach like thick, cold tar.
No. It’s here. I’ll find it.
He embraced each image of himself as they came, until, eventually, one came with an echo. A cold-eyed, bright-smiling Harry with tousled, messy hair, no different from a hundred others, yet with a susurration of something else.
Red eyes gleamed behind green.
They deserve nothing. A smooth, high little voice whispered into Harry’s ear as fast as broom-flight. They’re nothing. And it’s us or them.
Out. Harry seized the fragment. Get out. You’re not me. You’re not!
He set himself and tore. A torrent of agony washed over him. The ice shattered and melted beneath its weight.
It has to go. Harry steeled himself and ripped again.
Something gave. The fragments screamed, so high his ears rang. The sound ripped through him like a rusted nail down a pane of glass. Harry screamed until his throat tore and a thick, metallic tang coated his tongue. His wand turned searing hot in his fist.
It hurts. It hurts so much.
A thick, hot liquid rolled down his face. In the reflection of Pettigrew’s dead eyes, he watched ebony tears crawl to his chin. They left trails of dark down his cheeks like run mascara and dripped to the floor, spattering in poisonous hisses and rising as a thick, swirling, black smoke.
Each tear drove the nail’s tip deeper through the glass; its shriek cut through Harry like Petunia’s kitchen knives sawing through skin.
It has to come out. I refuse to die. I refuse. He swallowed down a mouthful of coppery liquid and shoved the nail all the way.
The glass tore apart like wet paper in the fists of a giant; shattering with a screech that pierced through him like lance.
White sparks burst before Harry’s eyes as he clutched at his ears. Fuck. It might’ve been better to die.
He opened his eyes into loam and needles, curled up into a ball, covered in dirt, and surrounded by clawed ground. Sharp, sweet pine resin reached his nose with the tang of roasted flesh.
Silence closed over him like dusk.
Searing waves of pain burst from his wand-hand. Harry stifled a scream into his forearm. The cracked, blackened flesh of his wand-hand surrounded unmarred, slender ebony. He glimpsed bone in the cracks of his charred flesh.
Don’t panic. It has to be fixable. Madam Pomfrey regrew my bones.
Harry staggered to his feet and tugged his wand out of the ruin of his right hand. A new wave of pain washed across his palm as a chunk of flesh the size of a galleon came away with the wand.
I need to get rid of the body. He pushed his wand into his left hand and set Pettigrew’s body on fire, sending it flying into the Forbidden Forest with a blasting curse. His magic guttered out and he sank to one knee. And I need to get to the hospital wing.
Harry focused as hard as he could on the very top stair of the steps from the Chamber of Secrets, mustering what little of his magic he could find, and willed himself there.
The world twisted back past him and he collapsed out of the stairs onto the still soaking floor of Myrtle’s bathroom. The water burnt like acid; its sting cleared some of the fog from his thoughts.
He clawed a little more magic forth and disillusioned himself with his left hand, stumbling toward the infirmary. Dark spots swirled before his eyes as he shouldered the doors open and let his charm drop.
‘Mr Potter!’ Madam Pomfrey’s heels clattered toward him.
‘Madam Pomfrey,’ Harry croaked, darkness creep in at the corners of his vision.
The world swam.
A cold, glass bottle pressed against his lips and something vile and peppery flooded down his throat. His next breath came so cold it felt like he’d swallowed ice and he gasped.
‘Sweet Merlin!’ Madam Pomfrey exclaimed. ‘What did you do to your hand?’
‘I burnt it.’ Harry stared into the weeping, seeping cracks in his palm; each throb felt like a hammer’s strike. ‘Badly.’
‘What with!? I haven’t seen burns like this since the last war. If I find out you were trying to cast Fiendfyre, Mr Potter…’
‘Then how, exactly, did you do this?’ Madam Pomfrey ran her wand tip over his mutilated hand.
The flesh and skin began to creep back over the bone, filling in the horrible, pink cracks. Charred flesh crumbled to dust.
Think of something. Fire. Fire? Harry clawed through his thoughts. Flames swirled in them and the horntail’s jagged, tattered wings loomed behind it. Dragon. The egg.
‘The golden egg was guarded by a dragon. I thought fire might make it reveal its secrets.’
‘That was incredibly stupid of you.’ She seized his chin. ‘Another minute of whatever fire that was and you’d’ve have lost this hand, Mr Potter.’
‘And there wasn’t even a hint of the tongue of Mordor,’ Harry joked.
Whoever was in the bed next to him laughed.
‘You’re healed.’ She sighed and tucked her wand away. ‘I would insist you remain here for the night, so I can keep an eye on you after you exhausted most of your magic with whatever you were doing, but I doubt you’d stay.’
‘Already?’ Harry flexed his hand. ‘Seems as good as new.’
‘Yes, Mr Potter, already. Now go. And this time take more care. I distinctly remember telling you that I did not want to see you here again at the beginning of the year.’
‘If you insist.’ He staggered toward the door.
The cool of the potion he’d drunk faded from his chest, leaving a deep, throbbing ache in his limbs and eyelids as heavy as lead.
I think I failed. I blacked out before I could do anything with the horcrux. I need to speak to Salazar.
Harry retraced his steps to the chamber.
‘You came back,’ Salazar called. ‘What did you do, Harry?’
‘I fractured my soul.’ A strange, numb feeling caught hold of him, an even, flat calm. ‘I found the horcrux and I tore it away.’
‘And?’ Salazar peered down from the wall with a deep frown. ‘What did you do with it?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He listened, searching once more through the screams of his soul fragments, but could not find the image with the echo.
‘How can you not know?’ Salazar demanded. ‘You ripped it out, didn’t you?’
‘I might have,’ Harry muttered, remembering the sticky, tar-like tears and the swirling smoke. He shuddered. ‘I lost control, it hurt.‘
‘Can you feel it?’ Salazar asked. ‘If you have a horcrux linked to you, you should be able to feel it. Anchoring your sense of self to an object must create some kind of association with it. Do you have any sort of feeling, warmth, familiarity, or association that wasn’t there before?’
Harry relaxed and let his mind turn blank. The warm cloth of his robes brushed against his skin, the faint heat of his wand pressed against his forearm, and the cool of the chamber seeped in through the soles of his feet. ‘No. There’s nothing.’
‘Then it’s either destroyed, or, more likely, it returned to something it was already linked to.’
A faint trill traced down Harry’s spine. ‘Something it was linked to?’
‘Can you feel the piece of Tom Riddle’s soul within you?’
Salazar stroked his chin. ‘I would hazard a guess that a living horcrux ties the sense of self of the two individuals together rather than anchoring the creator’s consciousness and magic to the body as a physical object. If you’ve torn that bond from yourself and not tethered it to another object, then you ought to be free.’
‘Ought to be?’
‘This sort of soul magic isn’t my area of expertise. However, no consciousness can survive alone untethered. If you can’t sense anything, then you’ve not anchored your own consciousness and magic to create a horcrux of your own. I would imagine Tom was right and you would have to be very attached to the object to begin with, so whatever was lying about nearby wouldn’t work anyway.’ He shrugged. ‘I think it leaves only one option.’
‘I’d like to know what you think that is.’ Harry shot him a long stare. ‘You’re playing very coy, which means either you think it’s very bad or it’s some kind of compliment. I’m too tried to play a hundred and one questions, Salazar.’
‘I think you accomplished exactly what you wanted.’ Salazar patted the head of his serpent companion and cracked a broad grin. ‘You tore Voldemort’s anchor free, ripping your own soul out of necessity. However, you did nothing to anchor your sense of self and magic to an object, so I believe Voldemort’s anchor was cut free and the horcrux destroyed.’
He’s not been wrong yet. Harry released a long sigh and ssome of the deep, sore ache faded from his bones. I’m free. I’m free.
He grinned. ‘Looks like you’ll have to put up with having an heir who acts like Godric a little longer than I thought you would.’
Salazar’s green eyes softened. ‘A tragedy I remain unable to correct.’
‘So what now?’ Harry murmured.
‘Focus on the tournament,’ Salazar said. ‘Win it. The experience of using magic outside a classroom and in dangerous or testing circumstances will be invaluable. You will be far stronger for it.’
‘Of course.’ A small cold smile found its way onto his lips as he imagined outstripping the other champions. ‘Winning will taste sweet.’
See if Fleur can avoid that.
‘You’ll need to learn the charms to reverse self-transfigurations in case you make a mistake with your lungs. It’s simple enough, an extension on the priori incantatem, actually.’
‘That charm detects the rough strength, flow, and intent of the piece of magic used, like looking at the dried up bed of a river and estimating how big it gets in spring, then attempts to cast its opposite. There’re many different forms of it used by various specialists, including healers.’
‘You know a lot of healing magic?’
‘Snakes are not just associated with biting people,’ Salazar muttered. ‘They were a symbol of healing and longevity before that was forgotten. I was never as gifted as Helga, she could use that charm to cure almost anything, but I was better than most. My skill at healing kept my wife alive for years longer than we thought possible after my other friends had passed.’
‘You were the last one?’
‘Rowena fell ill after her daughter was killed.’ Salazar’s eyes turned distant. ‘Godric was killed in a duel, searching for some wand he deemed too dangerous to be left in the hands of others when he was far too old for such things, the idiot. Helga died peacefully in her sleep just a couple of years before my wife. Mundane, in the end, weren’t we? You can’t escape death, greater wizards than I have tried, and those who do are often consumed by it. Tom was.’
‘And you? Did you try?’
‘I was consumed,’ Salazar whispered. ‘My search for a way to circumvent the barrier of death took everything. I died searching from my bed, too frail to do anything more than think and hope that my daughter might succeed in my place, unable to give up.’
‘Did she succeed?’
‘I wouldn’t know. I was enchanted to carry the knowledge of my original self from death. Anything that happened after that point I’ve needed to learn from an outside source. You, or Tom.’
Harry blinked. ‘We were the only ones?’ He shook his head. ‘But it’s been a thousand years…’
‘It only takes our shared blood to open this chamber, but it takes more to want to find it. I overlooked that when I made it, assuming all my family members would be as I was and for a thousand years my only company was the basilisk.’
‘I thought you might have turned the other away,’ Harry murmured. ‘Found them unsuitable.’
‘Found them unsuitable?‘ Deep lines marred Salazar’s brows. ‘They would’ve been my family. My legacy. You are as like Godric as me, an irony of time you can’t fully appreciate, but I didn’t turn you away just because you’re not identical to myself. That’s not how family works.’
Harry swallowed a small hot lump of emotion. It was how my family worked.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Apology accepted. It was not, I think, a mistake entirely of your making, and not the first time I’ve been so accused.’
Harry chewed that over with no little unease. ‘Tom said the same thing?’
‘I told you that you were similar,’ Salazar said. ‘It takes a crucible of terrible calibre to forge a person of such strength. The greatest wizards and witches are always born from adversity. Every single one you name suffered and grew stronger for it. Some chose to rise above their pain and fears, others embraced them and chose revenge. They all had a drive that made them great.’
‘Tom Riddle succumbed.’
‘No.’ An odd smile hovered on Salazar’s lips. ‘Tom learnt to let go of the things that hurt him. He remembered his mistakes and he refused to repeat them. The world hurt him. Over and over and over. He got back up every time. Something else drove him. It ate away at him, day by day, until there was almost nothing left of the boy who found me.’ Salazar sighed. ‘It doesn’t matter now. What he’s become is more important to you than the path that led him there.’
‘He can’t be allowed to return.’
‘Tom was rarely stopped from getting what he wanted. And neither of us knows how he intends to return.’
‘The book was singularly unhelpful on that.’ Harry poked the old tome with his finger, grimacing at the ache in his arm. ‘I need to rest for a bit. I’m absolutely shattered.’
‘Forget Tom and Dumbledore for a short while, Harry,’ Salazar murmured. ‘Focus on yourself as much as you can, while you still can. If you dedicate your life to escaping the fate they’ve planned for you, then you’ll be as lost in victory as you’d be in defeat. Survival’s important, but there’s more to life than just being alive.’
Harry turned away from the painting and stared into the small gold hourglass dangling from the hook on the desk. ‘I know.’
How could I not? He smothered the emptiness before its claws cut too deep. Exhaustion sapped some of the hunger from the void; its fog clouded his mind, muffling the feeling like voices in mist. One day, I’ll be free of this nothingness, too. And then I’ll never let it touch me again.