Orders of Magnitude

Orders of Magnitude is a completed serial fiction, the prequel to both Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), and Significant Digits (SD), which was in turn the sequel to HPMOR. It was originally written in a highly non-linear style, separated into various Arcs that spanned millennia. This was advantageous in the beginning, because although I had the characters and overall plot lined out, I wasn’t sure which aspects I wanted to focus on first, so it allowed me to have my cake and eat it, too. However, the “Arc” format began to hamstring things a bit, so I scrapped it. The “official” order is now in roughly Chronological Order, and can be found below.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 30: The Day After Tomorrow

London
December 26, 1999

Where have all the good men gone
and where are all the Gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night, I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need…

“I need a hero!” Natalie Kyros belted at the top of her lungs while drumming the beat on the steering wheel of her car. An enormous, older man with a walrus mustache glared at her from the next car over and yelled something indistinct which could not be heard over the music.

As she drove, she played idly with the small silver cross that hung around her neck, secured with a leather thong that looked quite ancient. She had worn it for as long as she could remember, which was odd because she didn’t even really believe in God in the first place. It gave her a distant sense of comfort, though. It reminded her of someone, somehow, something precious that was lost to her, but she could never quite put her finger on it.

It took longer than usual to find parking that day, given that someone had parked in her usual spot. She hurried past the rows of offices, placed her things down at her desk and grabbed her teacup, an delicate, fussy golden little thing that she held an unnatural fondness for.

As she waited for the kettle in the break room, she noticed that one of the offices that was typically empty had its lights on. She poked her head in, and watched as a tall man with Asiatic features unpacked his things from a box. His hair was cropped short, but still retained a bit of curl, and he looked up at Natalie just as she realized she was gawking.

Well, he was handsome! She couldn’t be blamed for staring. “New here?”

“Yeah. Research and Development. Cell phones, radio waves… boring stuff, really. You?”

Her eyes lit up a bit. “That’s my department! I mean, not my department like it’s mine, but that’s where I work. Natalie Kyros.” She held out her hand.

“Constantine Atreides. A pleasure.” He smiled at her.

“The pleasure is mine.” She realized that sounded much smoother in her head than it came out. She decided to quickly shift the focus of the conversation. “That’s an… interesting sculpture you’ve got there,” she remarked, pointing to a ceramic statue of a frog sitting on top of a chicken egg.

“Yeah, I found it in an old store a few years back in my hometown. Small little place in Greece. You from there, too?”

“What?”

“Are you Greek, too? Your last name,” he offered awkwardly.

“Oh! I thought you meant… nevermind. Yeah. Moved here a while back though.” As she spoke, she twirled her teacup around on her finger.

“That’s a cute teacup you have there.”

She laughed, but then stopped – “Ah, damnit. The kettle’s boiling! Well, it was nice to meet you! I’m sure all see you around, Gus.”

“Yeah… no one calls me that,” he called after her as she disappeared around the corner.

“Well, I do now!’


Michael and Petunia Verres sipped their tea in silence. The holidays were always the hardest. Ever since they lost their son almost eight years ago, the holidays did little except remind them of what once was.

They had tried to start over, build a family anew, but things never seemed to work out, and it was difficult at times to not blame the other. If only Michael spent less time at work, if only Petunia spent less time stressing over the little things, maybe things would be different.


Vernon and Marjorie Dursley both grimaced simultaneous as they heard the music blaring from the car next to them.

“Turn that ruddy music DOWN!” Vernon shouted, purple-faced.

“Vernon, Vernon. You musn’t get your druthers up. Your collywobbles will start acting up again. Besides, you’re frightening little Rippy-poo,” Vernon’s sister Marjorie stroked the head of the forlorn-looking English Bulldog that sat on her lap, drooling lazily.


“All right, Weseltons! Let’s all sit down!” Martha Weselton tried her best to shout over the din of her seven adult children who had all made it home for Christmas for the first time in who-knows-how-long.

Frank and Jerry, the twins, were giving Reggie grief about the dismal performance of Coventry City so far this season. “Not a single home win this year, mate,” Frank said, somberly.

“It’s not looking good.” Jerry confirmed.

“Well… at least we’re beating Watford!”

“Ha! ‘At least we’re beating Watford’, he says!” Frank mocked.

“Our great-aunt Tessie would have a sporting chance of beating Watford.” Jerry nodded.

From across the room, the sing-song voice of Ben’s wife, Flora, called out to the door. “‘Zat wouldn’t be Nicky, would it?”

Frank and Jerry jumped up and stumbled over themselves to greet him.

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, but my walk has become rather sillier recently,” Nicky quoted.

“How are your parents, then? Still at St. Michaels?” Paul asked courteously.

Frank and Jerry both murmured “Prat…” underneath their breath as Nicky replied. “Yeah. Still at St. Michaels.”

“I SAID, ALL RIGHT WESELTONS, LET’S ALL SIT DOWN!” Martha shouted at the top of her lungs, and all noise ceased immediately. She had spent what felt like half a decade preparing this meal, and she wasn’t about to let it get cold.


In a quiet corner of a quiet restaurant, Cid Gillory and Nicholas Nickleby sipped wine from glasses filled from an oversized bottle.

“This all still feels like a dream, Cid.”

“Well, here’s to never waking up then.”

They clinked glasses, and smiled.


Janus Tucker rolled over in bed. He had slept in for the first time in, he couldn’t remember how long. He still wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t all just a fantastic dream.

So he decided to double check.

He ran his fingers through the thick, chestnut curls of his companion in the bed next to him. Kayla Rahl sleepily looked up at him. “Good morning, Janus,” she said and smiled.

Janus was tall, with sharp features and platinum blonde hair. Even in a state of undress, he still managed to look aristocratic. “You’re still here.”

“Of course I’m still here, where would I go?”

“I… I’m not sure. When I woke up this morning, I had this strange feeling, like I had lost something that was precious.” He wasn’t quite sure what had come over him. “I’m… I’m just glad you’re still here.”

She said nothing in return, and instead just smiled radiantly at him. He couldn’t help but think she looked like a Goddess, stretched decadently across the sheets of his exorbitantly expensive bed.

“We better get dressed and ready. I doubt John will allow a moment’s rest, even the day after Christmas.” As he spoke, he was already pulling on a fresh dress shirt and buttoning it up. “Do you think he’ll be surprised?”

“Oh, I think he’s known this was going to happen long before we did. And even if he didn’t, you know that he’d just say that he did.”

Janus smiled at that. “Clever little bastard.”

Kayla nodded. “Clever little bastard, indeed.”


The John Snow Center for Medicine

John Merlin waited dramatically at his desk, his back facing the entrance to his office. Someone was knocking at the door. He was deliberately waiting. The rapping grew more insistent.

“Enter,” he spoke.

The door opened, and Kayla walked inside with Janus close behind. “That’s a rather rude way to greet your guests, don’t you think?” she said.

John spun around in his office chair, grinning. “Hello, lovebirds.” His disheveled black hair fell across  his green eyes which held a teasing, yet good-natured expression.

Kayla elbowed Janus, “Told you!”

Janus rolled his eyes. “So what’s on the agenda for today?”

“Oh, the same thing we do every day. Try to save the world.”

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 29: Crab Canon

The Mirror stood, inviolate and whole. The Professor watched Dumbledore patiently through the Mirror of Volition. It stirred echoes within his mind of an ancient time, in an ancient place, when he was younger so, so much younger.

“Why, look at that,” he spoke, mimicking history. “I don’t seem to have a reflection any more.”

From inside the mirror, a voice cried out. “No,” said Albus Dumbledore. “No, no, NO! ” Into the hand of Albus Dumbledore flew from his sleeve his long, dark-grey wand, and in his other hand, as though from nowhere, appeared a short rod of dark stone. Albus Dumbledore threw these both violently aside.

The Professor stood ready, catching the Line of Merlin as it passed over the threshold of the Mirror. In the meantime, the scene shifted to a conflagration of fire and light. For a timeless moment, the boundaries of the End of Time felt malleable. As the star was torn apart, a voice from behind the mirror spoke up.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue. I’ve got a lot of work to do, huh?”  Harry stood up and sighed.

“I’ve never been one for protracted goodbyes. Besides, it will be much, much longer for you than it will be for me.”

“Yes… And I don’t really know how to describe it. You’d think that we should value the lives of our alternate selves as equally as we value our own. But, that’s not quite right, is it? For every decision I make, there’s a path untaken. If there’s a version of me who takes that path, well… By definition, that’s not me.”

“And yet, you did make that decision. The fact that we’re here is proof of that.”

“No, not me. Myself in the future. That version of myself who makes that decision, he’ll be locked away, forever.”

“And Ironically, in doing so, he’ll have achieved immortality, true immortality. He’ll have cheated his way to the end of the quest that you and I are only beginning.”

“Technique,” Harry corrected with a wry smile. “But yes, in a way, yes. Not just for him, but for that whole world.”

“A world we’re about to destroy. Which, I think I better get along with now. I’ll see you in a few moments.”

“Well… I’ll see you in another 26,000 years. Or something like that.”

And with that, the Professor stepped through the Mirror, into Atlantis.


London
February 1, 27999

The system was procedurally generating humans as fast as it could churn them out. It started with the thousand or so genetic patterns it had recovered from the first aborted payload attempt. The rest, it built from patterns. Ten million and change.

Questions, questions, questions. All the answers would be there, eventually: Who was the old man? How did he get a copy of The Line? Is it even a copy? How will I recover the payload? How much of the system would survive? How useful would it be? How will I destroy it? What would this new world look like?

He didn’t have time. He’d have to do that part later. He’d have time later, but not now. It was time to run. He didn’t know what the old man was capable of, and none of this was rehearsed. He committed to the decision, and it was done. It was out of his hands now, so he had time to think, wonder, and speculate.

No. No time.

Flight. It was done. There would be no climactic fight to save the world or its people.  It didn’t matter what the old man’s motivations were, how he got there, anything.  Any time spent thinking about it was time wasted. There was no option left but to run, and to rebuild. He’d have to destroy the entire system, every last remnant though, to fully rebuild. He began to–

No, No, No, no, NO.

The old man was holding The Line.

This was his doing. There was no question. In pure reflex, he activated his Battle forms. He had even practiced this, fighting against countless unseen enemies. But, what good would it do? What to do? Fight or flight? What would he be fighting? What was the man doing? Those hand gestures were ancient. A past architect? A back door? No, the system was sacrosanct. Besides, the man had a tool. It was–

He was old. Old. No one was old anymore.

And that’s when he saw him. The man who was out of place, out of time.

He’d saved the people. He didn’t save the world. The world was done for, but a world could be recreated easily. No. Not easily, of course. Nothing would be easy at this point. The system had failed at three separate junctures. This was not chance. Something, someone, was responsible.

The payload was already constructed. It existed conceptually, in abstract. Now he needed to realize it. The Line was the most secure object in the known universe, and it had more than enough capacity within its buffer. He did more calculations. It would cut into its capabilities significantly. Maybe six hours, tops? It didn’t matter.

Yes, there was noise. There was too much noise. Every signal was being garbled. Warped beyond recognition. There was interference coming from… Somewhere? Only about 1,000 identities were piped through, and of those, the only thing left was raw DNA.  Change of plans.

John made the snap decision. He couldn’t save the world by himself, someone knew that, and someone had stopped him, and he could either keep pushing,  or he could recant, relent, retreat. With pleading eyes, he looked up at the stranger, conveying a silent cry: Help.

The stranger smiled a wicked grin. “Mr. Potter. Have you finally learned to lose?”

“Mr. Potter?” John asked, slowly. The name was familiar, intimately familiar, and yet…

“Yes. Mr. Potter. I said once, a very long time ago, that there are gates you do not open, there are seals you do not breach. I can tell you with absolute certitude that if you make the wrong choice, you will be responsible for the greatest tragedy that will ever be perpetuated against mankind. I am living proof of that fact.” The Professor held up his own copy of the Line.

John nodded. He did not waste time with questions that he knew would be answered soon enough.

“Take the Line.”

John Merlin did as he was instructed. He silently screamed the moment his hand closed around the second Line, as 26,000 years worth of memories returned in a torrent. The Professor. Hermione. Draco. Neville. Fred. George. Meldh. Perenelle. The Old Ones. Pip. Cedric. Percy. All of them. They were all here. They were all alive. He was here. He was alive.

Harry’s face was heavily seamed with care, and he looked up at the Professor with his green eyes.  Ancient, ancient green eyes.

There was only one thing left to do. He moved three fingers: thumb poised against forefinger and middle finger…

…and snapped.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 28: If Only In My Dreams

Outside Time
Outside Time

The Mirror stood, inviolate and whole. Harry watched Dumbledore patiently through the Mirror of Noitilov. It stirred echoes within his mind of an ancient time, in an ancient place, when he was younger so, so much younger.

A voice from behind the mirror spoke up. “Why, look at that,” the Professor spoke, mimicking history. “I don’t seem to have a reflection any more.”

From inside the mirror, a voice cried out. “No,” said Albus Dumbledore. “No, no, NO! ” Into the hand of Albus Dumbledore flew from his sleeve his long, dark-grey wand, and in his other hand, as though from nowhere, appeared a short rod of dark stone. Albus Dumbledore threw these both violently aside.

The Professor stood ready, catching the Line of Merlin as it passed over the threshold of the Mirror. In the meantime, the scene shifted to a conflagration of fire and light. For a timeless moment, the boundaries of the End of Time felt malleable. As the star was torn apart, Harry stood up and sighed.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue. I’ve got a lot of work to do, huh?”

“I’ve never been one for protracted goodbyes. Besides, it will be much, much longer for you than it will be for me. In fact, in some ways, this is goodbye, forever.”

The exchanged tittles and jots, but Harry wasn’t really fully engaged; his attention was diverted elsewhere. He was watching his friends through the mirror, knowing that for many of them, it would be the last time he saw them as they were.  But most of all, he watched Hermione.

“Well… I’ll see you in another 26,000 years. Or something like that,”

And with that, he stepped through the Mirror, and into the Tower.


The Tower
December 25, 1999, Twelve Hours Later

As the hours waned on, he typed away at the computer terminal, making the final preparations. He needed to make sure that after the Transmigration, he was well-equipped to continue the problem at hand. He was still the Crux, the Once and Future King, and memories or no, he was still responsible for the fate of the world. He didn’t notice the sounds of the radio in the corner, or the sharp pop that reverberated from the Receiving Room moments earlier, or the soft rapping at the door to his office.

…Poor old Jim’s white as a ghost, he’s found the answer that we lost

We’re all weeping now, weeping because, there ain’t nothing we can do to protect you…

The rapping grew more insistent. “Enter,” he spoke.

The door opened, and Hermione walked inside. “That’s a rather rude way to greet your guests, don’t you think?”

Harry was distracted, and he didn’t look up. He was still staring at the innumerable lines of code that filled his screen. “Huh? Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Uh… Hi Luna.”

Hermione coughed. “Hello, Harry.”

He looked up, embarrassed. He stammered a weak apology, and turned back to the computer. She looked around the room, distantly considering everything. She had a soft, peaceful smile on her face as she watched Harry work. He continued to type, type, type away as she stood, silent. Eventually, he became self-conscious of her presence, and the typing slowed, and eventually stopped, as Harry turned around, expectantly.

Hermione said nothing. She walked to where Harry was working, leaned over, and turned off his computer monitor.

“Hermione, wha–”

She took his hands, and pulled him up from his seat. Even though the gesture was purely symbolic, it did have an effect. Harry felt, in some distant way, like he was carrying a great weight around his neck. With the monitor switched off, he felt that the weight had been temporarily lifted. He looked at Hermione.

She still said nothing. Harry looked tired, so very tired. So very tired, and so very alone. He had been in a solitary prison of his own making, both literally and metaphorically, for many long years. Hermione smiled distantly at the soft music echoing from the radio.

“This song does seem out of place, doesn’t it?” She remarked.

…O children, lift up your voice, lift up your voice…

She held both his hands, and took a step backward. She started to sway her shoulders back and forth in time with the music.

…O children, rejoice, rejoice…

She cocked her head at Harry, who reluctantly joined in. They held each other’s hands, moving in an awkward little dance. It reminded him a bit of the bumbling fourth-year students that he watched at the Yule Ball so long ago during his first year at Hogwarts. Harry didn’t dance, no one ever taught him, and he certainly had no experience or occasion to practice.

Hermione didn’t seem to mind. She lifted one of his hands up, and spun him.

…Hey little train, we’re jumping on, the train that goes to the Kingdom

We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun, and the train ain’t even left the station…

He laughed, silently, as they waltzed around the room, sometimes falling completely off-beat with the music which had started to pick up in tempo a bit. He felt guilty, though. This was time he could be spending working, but he was wasting it on frivolities. Hermione seemed to sense this shift in Harry’s emotions, and pulled him closer.

…Hey, little train, wait for me, I once was blind but now I see

Have you left a seat for me? Is that such a stretch of the imagination…

He couldn’t abandon his quest to save the world. But then again, wasn’t she part of that world? The enormity of it all, of the path that lay before him and the path that he had already walked down, seemed to crash in on him all at once.

What was he going to do? He thought back to the ancient times, remembering one of their arguments.

“I understand why you did what you did today,” Hermione said. “But I want you to promise that from now on, you’ll ask me first, always, even if you can come up with a reason why you shouldn’t.”

There was a pause that stretched, and Hermione could feel her heart sinking.

“Hermione -” Harry started to say.

“Why? ” The frustration burst out into her voice. “Why is it so awful? All you have to do is ask!”

He did the only thing he could think to do, and buried his head in her shoulder and began to cry, softly. They weren’t tears of woe or self-pity. They were the angry, hot tears of resolve. He felt Hermione’s hand on the top his head, patting his hair gently. He was a soldier in the war. An important soldier, but a soldier nonetheless. And no soldier can fight on the front lines twenty-four hours a day.

…Hey little train, wait for me, I was held in chains but now I’m free

I’m hanging in there, don’t you see, in this process of elimination…

He gave in, temporarily surrendered himself to this brief moment of respite. He knew, in his heart of hearts, that he would never give up the battle, that taking one break to have one silly dance would not be the end of the world, and that, it might, in fact, make the world better in its own special way.

…Hey little train, we’re jumping on, the train that goes to the Kingdom

We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun, it’s beyond my wildest expectation…

They continued to shuffle back and forth to the music, their heads on each other’s shoulders. They held each other as the music and began to slowly fade away. The tears were gone.

…Hey little train, we’re jumping on, the train that goes to the Kingdom

We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun, and the train ain’t even left the station…

The music faded out, and Harry and Hermione separated, looking at each other, so much unsaid, so much that did not need to be said. He closed his eyes. He thought back to the promise he made, so long ago…

“I don’t think you understand at all! ” Hermione said sharply. “You said we’d be partners, Harry!”

That stopped him, she could see it stop him.

“How about this?” Harry said at last. “I’ll promise to ask you first before I do anything that could be interpreted as meddling in your affairs. Only you’ve got to promise me to be reasonable, Hermione. I mean really, genuinely, stop and think for twenty seconds first, treat it as a real choice..”

“I shouldn’t have to make promises,” she said, “just to be consulted about my own life.” She turned from Harry and began walking toward the Ravenclaw tower, not looking at him. “But I’ll think about it, anyway.”

How could he keep that promise? The risk, no matter how slight, of her saying “No”, was unacceptable. Well, no, that’s wasn’t quite true. He was going to follow through with the plan, regardless. So why even bother soliciting her opinion if he had no plans of taking it into account?  That was just a cruel form of self-deception; going through the motions of friendship with nothing real behind it.

Maybe the Professor really was right, that Harry was simply playing the role of someone who had friends. His head still hurt from thinking about it. Was he considering telling her because he was truly Hermione’s friend, or simply because he was playing the role? Was asking that question in the first place indicative that he had her best interests at heart? Or was that just precisely what someone who was playing the role would do when confronted with the truth?  That kind of thinking was a self-destructive spiral; once you begin doubting your own volition, there’s no end to the questions.

Those questions had served him well in the past, but this was reality, or at least, it was about to be, and at some point, action had to be taken, decisions had to made. He was bound by a Vow to–

He stopped for a moment. He had considered it. He had truly considered it. He was weighing the value.  The very fact that he was even allowed to consider the question was significant: Somewhere in the deepest recesses of his mind, he knew beyond reasonable doubt, that it was safe, that telling Hermione was the right thing to do. He didn’t need to consider the levels upon levels, he didn’t need to question his own volition, he had a built-in barometer of his own internal continuity, free from cognitive biases.

He smiled. Even at the end of it all, he still found a way to cheat.

“Hermione, I… Uh… Thank you for that. I feel better. I really do.”

Hermione smiled. “I know, Harry.” She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his forehead. “That’s what friends are for. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Harry heard hurried footsteps from down the hall as Hermione turned to leave. As she opened the door–

“Hermione,” two voices spoke at once.  Harry’s own, and a voice from down the hall. Was that… Draco?

Hermione paused, her veins frozen. At one point, she had thought this moment might come, that she would have to choose between the two of them. But that was ridiculous, the stuff of cheap dime novels. Two boys happening to fall for the same girl was unrealistic although not implausible. But two boys choosing to confess their feelings at the exact same moment at the exact same place?

She had once told Harry that sometimes, life was, in fact, like a play. But most of the time, it wasn’t.

Harry must have seen her apprehension and the slight stiffening of her posture, because he began to laugh. It was a nice, pleasant sound, free from the burden of responsibility. For once, there was no deliberation on his part, the course of action was so straightforward, so clear for him. The situation really was quite comical, when viewed from the outside. He could see why she was nervous, and as amusing as it was, Harry was quite sure that Hermione did not find it so. “Go to him. What I have to say… it’s not about that,” he had to purse his lips  to prevent himself from grinning.

Hermione visibly relaxed, and now she was the one grinning. “I.. um.. Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Sure thing. It can wait. Believe me.”

“Hermione…” said Harry. “I’ve been watching you and thinking, since the day you said you were going to be a hero. You’ve got the courage. You’ll fight for what’s right, even in the face of enemies that would scare other people away. You’ve certainly got the raw intelligence for it, and you’re probably a better person inside than I am…”

It was convenient that Draco was there. It was fitting. From the beginning, and now at the end, they were The Three, and they were equals. There were no disposable lieutenants, no trusted confidantes. It was just Harry, Draco, and Hermione. And so, Harry waited patiently for his friends to arrive


Somewhere above Russia
December 25, 1999

High above them,  six hundred kilometers high, so that its field of view encompassed the whole planet, the Mirror hung in the exosphere. The anchors were gone, save for two: the Mirror itself, and the Line, which was in the process of passing out of this world.  Everything that ever was and everything that ever will be in the universe had led to this moment. This moment that must come to pass because it already has. All worlds had narrowed to two, and from those two all worlds would be born.

As it did so, the Mirror was completing its final task, rebuilding the world according to the designs of its master. It acted more efficiently than the most elite Obliviators could ever imagine was possible, with not a single iota of effort being wasted. Memories were rewritten as self-consistently as possible so as to require the least amount of intrusion, physical space was only recreated when absolutely necessary.

It was tasked not only with erasing all memories of the taint of Magic, but also fixing the world beyond the point of certitude onto the path of the Scorpion and the Archer. Lives were altered, backstories created and destroyed, stories written and rewritten.

When the last tales were spun, there was one final thing to do. When the Line of Merlin could bear the strain no longer, it glowed white, and began to fray apart at the edges. It folded in upon itself, distorting the very fabric of reality as it did so. In the final moments of its life, the Line flitted through some dimension that only exists in the minds of addled physics professors, and emerged to the place Beyond Time.

And with that, Magic was gone.


Somewhere above Russia
December 25, 1999

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Six hundred kilometers above the Earth, suspended in the exosphere, Commander Brown blinked several times as he was roused from his sleep by the sound of the radio from Mission Control. He picked up the radio transmitter.  “Merry Christmas to all of you down there,” replied Brown. “And Hubble will be home for Christmas ’cause today we’re going to set her free.”

That afternoon, as the robotic arm was about to release the Hubble back into orbit, Commander Brown inexplicably thought of the Mirror, and how a flaw the fraction of the width of a human hair spelled the difference between sight and blindness across the span of millions of light years. He thought of the Hubble Deep Field and how miniscule he was compared to it. Not just him, but the entirety of Earth and all that had come before him and likely would come after him.

He thought of mankind’s destiny, and whether they would ever reach the stars.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 27 – Infernal Galop

Almost There
27999 AD

Harry scratched idly at the walls of the spacecraft, staring intently at the Professor. He didn’t have much time.

“What does it all add up to?”

The Professor replied immediately. “Can’t you guess?”

“Are you addressing me?” Harry fired back.

“Is there anyone else?”

“Who?”

“How would I know?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Are you serious?”

Harry cocked his head. “Was that rhetoric?”

The Professor rolled his eyes, and spoke in curt condescension. “No.”

Harry clapped his hands together with glee.  “Statement.  Two all.  Game point.”

Muttering under his breath, the Professor resumed the game. “What’s the matter with you today?”

“When?”

“What?”

“Are you deaf?”

“Am I dead?”

“Yes or no?”

“Is there a choice?”

“Is there a God?”

The Professor’s eyes narrowed. “Foul. No non-sequiturs. Three-two. One game all.”

Harry quickly launched into the next round, hoping to catch his foe off-guard. “What’s your name?”

“What’s yours?”

“You firs–”

Harry stopped himself, but it was too late. The Professor interjected: “Statement.  One – Love.”

Time to try again, perhaps a different angle. “What’s your name when you’re at home?”

“What’s yours?”

“When I’m at home?”

“Is it different at home?”

“What home?”

“Haven’t you got one?”

“Why do you ask?”

“What are you driving at?”

“What… is… your… name?”

The Professor held up a hand. “Repetition.  Two – Love.  Match point.”

“Who do you think you are?”

It was the Professor’s turn to clap. “Rhetoric.  Game and match!”

“Damnit.”

“Yes, damnit indeed. Even after all this time, I’m still one level above you.” He ran his fingers through his hair. His body, which Harry had allowed him, was biologically perfect, as if someone took Tom Riddle at age 40, allowed the eyes to reflect 25,000 years worth of experience, give or take a few millennia, and gave him the fitness level of an 18-year old.

“We’re almost there, you know. You can feel us going faster, perceptually,” Harry observed.

“Yes, that was always an open question, wasn’t it? What does it feel like? I am certainly eager to learn something new.”

Outside the windows, the stars began to stretch slightly, rather than simply passing by.

“It’s strange. Abstractly, it seems like such an enormously long amount of time. I mean, think about how much happened and how much changed between my first year of Hogwarts, and the day we set foot onto this craft, how much I learned, how much you learned in that time. We’ve surpassed that by several orders of magnitude. You’d think we’d be gods by this point.”

“No, you thought we’d be gods. My expectations, on the other hand, were tempered by my own time in exile.”

“Oh yeah. I forgot about that. I forget about a lot, now that I think about it.”

“Have you forgotten about them?”

Harry looked up, and spoke with firm resolution. “Never.”

“Even though you know full well what you intend to do to them, and to yourself?”

Harry pressed his face against the window, and watched as the universe began to reorient itself as they flung headlong into the void. “It’s not like they’re dying. They’re just… changing. They’ll still be the same people, just…” Harry fumbled, dumbly for a word. “Different. Kind of like what I did to you when I conquered you for the first time.”

The Professor sighed, “Yes, yes, you never fail to miss an opportunity to remind me of that. But it is different. My memories were merely locked away. This would be a Sacrifice, and furthermore, we are seeing to it that the only means of restoring a Sacrifice is utterly obliterated.”

“Yes, but what enforces the rules of a Sacrifice?”

The Professor considered this for a moment. “Yes, I see your point. But, to continue that logic, this suggests that everything we are about to do is in vain, because it could all happen again.”

Harry grinned. “Yes, and that’s quite the point. Again, and again, and again.”

Most of the time, their planning went unspoken. If you looked back, they had spent the overwhelming majority of their perceptual lifespans sharing the same set of rather limited experiences, being confined to a small spacecraft for most of them. As a result, their thought patterns tended to be quite similar. When they felt the need to speak, it was typically to shine light on a more esoteric aspect of the plan, or weigh the benefits of two different courses of action. Even though either one could likely independently deduce the other’s thought processes, time wasted was still time wasted, regardless of how much time you had.

“Almost there, now.”

The universe was fully curved by this point. On one side was the entirety of Everything, and on the other side was Nothing.

A thought occurred to the Professor. “Mr. Potter, would you care for some token gesture of comfort? A hand on the shoulder, or something along those lines?” Even now, The Professor had difficulty concealing the begrudged tone of his voice.

“Yes, I would, actually,” Harry held out his hand, expectantly, “See how good it feels to be nice?”

The Professor sighed dramatically, and grasped Harry’s hand. Together, hand-in-hand, they watched as they passed the event horizon. The Universe was now falling away from them as they descended further into nothingness. Paradoxically, it was not blackness that they experienced. The point of light of the universe that grew further and further away also grew progressively brighter as they fell toward and away from the horizon.

As they hurtled towards that point of infinite brightness, Harry took the opportunity to point out that all of this would have been fundamentally impossible without Magic to help cheat things along.

“I suppose you should enjoy it while it lasts.” He lifted his hand, which was still clasping Harry’s, slightly. “And this, too.”

In complete defiance of Actual Physics, they reached the point they had intended, the Singularity, the center of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Instead of being pulled apart with the force of a trillion trillion suns, they were simply engulfed by whiteness. Their spacecraft had incinerated a long time ago, perhaps infinitely long ago, but as expected, they still had the supplies they needed. Also as expected, their guest was waiting for them, curiously examining his surroundings.

Albus Dumbledore somehow looked both younger and older. His wrinkles were gone, his glasses were gone, his hair was auburn instead of gray, and yet he still managed to convey a sense of great age. Despite the fact that Harry had now lived hundreds of times longer than Dumbledore, he still could not help feeling like a child in the presence of his old Headmaster.

Dumbledore tensed, startled, when he turned and saw Tom Riddle.

“He cannot hurt you.” He spun around. Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres was walking towards him, sprightly and upright, wearing sweeping robes over a Muggle suit.  “Prophecy has proven true. I have come to rescue you, Headmaster.”

“Harry. You have… You have aged. How long has it been?”

“Oh, about 25,000 years, objectively. Subjectively? Well, for you, it’s been but a few seconds, has it not?”

“It has, but I am trapped outside of Time. I would fear for you, but you are The Crux, the Once and Future King. You do not carry the look of sadness about you, which lightens my heart greatly. Dare I ask if you have succeeded? Did you tear apart the very stars in heaven to save its people?”

“Ah… Well…. Not quite.” Harry tittered on his feet a bit, “In fact, we’re not really out of the woods just yet.”

“I confess, I do not understand. But then again, that is more than fair turnabout. Would you do an old man the honor of explaining what I must do?”

“You’re going to destroy the world.” Harry offered. Dumbledore raised an eyebrow, but Harry continued. “Right now, back on Earth, a different Earth, a gentleman who goes by the name of John Merlin thinks that he is about to save the world. You are going to ensure that he does not. In fact, you are going to ensure that he destroys the world.”

Dumbledore nodded pleasantly, as if indulging an over-enthusiastic student’s explanations of Quidditch tactics. “Mmm, quite interesting. The same Merlin, I’m sure, of lore? Merlin of the Line, First of Atlantis?”

“Yes. Him, Headmaster. The Fall of Atlantis created our world, the world of Magic, and that world cannot be allowed to persist.”

“That sounds counterproductive, does it not?” he asked innocently, without any hint of insolence or challenge.

Harry had expected this resistance. “Yes, it does. And I struggled with it myself, believe me. But I can explain it to you, and I will give you as much time as you need so that you can understand, and are satisfied.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary, Harry. I believe I grasp the broad strokes,” Dumbledore spoke casually, his light tone in complete contrast to the gravity of the situation.

Harry was nonplussed. “I.. um. Okay?”

“Magic isn’t real.”

Harry nodded in satisfaction. Dumbledore understood that much. This was good, it would skip a large chunk of the explanation.

The Headmaster continued. “It’s as clear, plain, and obvious to anyone who bothers to consider the problem for longer than a few moments. Like the logic of a dream, Magic ‘just works’, does it not? In all other things natural, this is not the case. I have studied some of your physics, Harry, and I am quite fond of that Richard Feynman fellow. I have read enough to know that the true nature of reality is strange, bizarre, obtuse, and most importantly, operates based on principles that are in no way reflective of our expectations.

“Magic, on the other hand, is strange, bizarre, obtuse, but most importantly, operates precisely how we would expect it to. It does not seem likely to me that we as humans would have grown into this by accident. Thus, there is but one conclusion we can come to.”

Harry’s brow furrowed. “We are in agreement, so far, Headmaster… But, I notice that I am confused. My conception of you is, well, forgive me for saying this, but I had never known you to be very scientifically-minded. In fact, I seem to recall you being quite dismissive of our Muggle arts.”

“Indeed, Harry. But Death approaches, and it is the sort of Death that even I would flee, screaming from. Not the death of the body, which I, as an old man, though not as old as you are now, had grown to accept, and you had chastised me for not a few short months ago.”

Harry had to mentally dissect that sentence to extract any meaning from it, and as he was doing so, Dumbledore continued. “No, I refer to the death of the soul. All souls. The horrible Nothingness at the end of everything. You know the end of which I speak.”

Harry’s eyes were growing wide. He didn’t think Wizards knew or cared about such unimportant things as, oh, Heat Death.

“Magic is famous for its opaqueness and requires little understanding, only skill. As long as the great minds of the world rely on Magic as a crutch, they will be paralyzed, crippled, limited and Bound, powerless to prevent the ever-encroaching darkness which not only will consume their world, but all worlds.

“Magic can give us neither truth nor knowledge. It gives us nothing more or less than the deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts, and it does not do, Harry, to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Harry was dumbfounded. The Professor watched, amused, at his speechless protege, and Dumbledore let the silence hang heavy in the air for a few moments before he cheerfully offered, “Does that sound about right?”

“It.. Yes, it does. How…” Harry started.

“How do I know this? My boy, I am still the Wise Old Man in your story, and it is the job of the Wise Old Man to surprise you in ways that you least expect. But enough about me. I want to hear from you. I want to hear why you have not despaired at this inevitable fate, why you have not resigned yourself to blackness, why you travelled to the end of time with nothing but hope to guide you.”

Harry took a deep breath. He had been preparing for what seemed like an eternity for this. “Because, Headmaster, until the day that the last sentient being in this universe, in any universe, snuffs out of existence, there is still hope. As long as there exists someone, anyone who loves life enough to fight for it, they fight on behalf of all beings, human or otherwise, dead or alive.

“If I should die in that fight, it would be sad, yes. But it would not be the end, because someone, anyone would still fight to reclaim me from the depths of the void. I know that this is true because it is precisely what I would do. Preventing death is insufficient. I would not stop fighting until I could reverse death, until I restored every sentient being that ever lived a life that was taken from them.

“As long as there are those who think as I do, who believe as strongly in the value of Life as I do, there will always be those who will fight on behalf of those who have fallen before them. As long as there are those who will fight against the darkness, there is hope. As I told you once before, Headmaster, there is light in the world, and it is us.”

Dumbledore smiled, a tear in his eye. “I used to wonder what would become of you. I am proud to have lived to see it.” He removed a delicate handkerchief from the pocket of his robes. “But look at me, I’m getting sentimental when we should be discussing your plan. Tell me more, my dear Harry.”

It was a rather unceremonious end to Harry’s speech. In some dim part of his mind, he had expected something more. An applause, perhaps? At least he had earned a tear at the corner of his former Headmaster’s eye. “So, um… where were we?”

“I believe you were telling me that I would have to help this ‘Merlin’ in his quest to mistakenly destroy the world.”

“Ah, yes. So. Umm. After that, you’ll be able to harness the power of the cataclysm to escape from the forces keeping you here at the End of Time. You must travel to the moment that you hand the Stone over to Professor Quirrell, and you must sabotage it before you allow him to take ownership of it.”

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow, but Harry couldn’t help but feel it seemed rather perfunctory. “Sabotage? Sounds titillating. And then what shall I do?”

Harry was becoming unnerved by Dumbledore’s cavalier attitude. “Then you, well, you need to let him trap you again.”

“Mmm hmm, and then?”

“And then you will be forced back here, to the End of Time.”

Dumbledore was nodding pleasantly again. “Oh dear. And what misadventures can I expect to follow?”

Harry spoke haltingly, the realization slowly dawning on him. “And then you talk to us… Damn it!  You already knew all of this. You already knew all of this was going to happen. Because you’ve done it all before.”

Dumbledore did not reply, he simply folded his hands behind his back and beamed.

“So you already know that you’re…”

“I’ll spare you from having to say it, my boy. Yes, I know.”

Harry trod delicately, “How, um… how many times have you done this so far?”

“The answer is that I do not know. I stopped counting around one hundred and seven.”

At this, the Professor, who was busy reading a book on a bench nearby, laughed.

“Well… In that case, we have a final pair of gifts to give you, that I suspect you will greatly need.” Harry removed from his robes a thin stone rod, “The Line of Merlin Unbroken.” Harry handed the Headmaster the wand with reverence.

Tom Riddle stood up from the bench, put down his book, and strode forward. “And, Headmaster, my old enemy and future friend, I also have a gift for you.” He produced a thick glass bottle filled with viscous black ichor, and handed it to Dumbledore.

“Headmaster,” Harry spoke, “You need to understand something. You have a choice at this moment. All worlds, ultimately, have narrowed down to this one choice. Although I am, as you say, the Crux, you still must make this choice of your own volition. You would be sacrificing your Life, and your Time. Truly.”

“Harry. You know my views on this matter. I have already sacrificed my Life and my Time for your sake, for the sake of the world. Besides, you are the Boy Who Lived. I’m sure you’ll find a way to rescue me again.” He smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “Now, how do I leave this place?”

“Oh yes,” Harry smiled at him. “We are in King’s Cross, are we not? I think that if you decided to move on, you would be able to… Let’s say.. Board a train.”

“And where would it take me?”

“Beyond.” said Harry simply.

Silence again.

“Goodbye, Headmaster. And thank you, truly.”

“Do not pity the dead, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres. Pity those who live without love.”

And with that, he boarded a train, and disappeared into the tunnel. His world was all worlds. His world was fire. His world was void. His world was formless nothing. His world was stagnant death. He focused all his being onto the two worlds that mattered. In one, the star burned, rendering the world insane, its very soul raging with white plasma that rendered such abstract notions as space and time irrelevant in the face of the heat.

He looked across the span of eons into the other world, wherein the Boy Who Lived was dead.

He had all of eternity to rehearse the ritual, and yet, he still felt the slightest bit of nervousness. He began, using the Line of Merlin to harness the magic of all worlds into this one final act. He was Dumbledore, destroyer of worlds, creator of life. Everything that ever was and everything that ever will be in the universe had led him to this moment. This moment that must come to pass because it already has.

All worlds had narrowed to two, and from those two all worlds would be born. When the Line of Merlin could bear the strain no longer, it glowed white, and began to fray apart at the edges. Dumbledore could feel the eyes of prophecy in the heavens upon him, about to be torn apart by the ritual of Harry’s creation. The Headmaster connected the nodes in his mind, and it was done.

Sagitarrius A* collapsed in less than a second. It folded in upon itself, and distorting the very fabric of reality as it did so. In the final moments of its life, the Headmaster flitted through some dimension that only exists in the minds of addled physics professors, and emerged to the place Beyond Time, where he was connected by the power of the ritual.

In the world he left behind, a galaxy was born. A galaxy where the balance of the world was held in place by a single thread of time, a universe where the only means by which the Crux could succeed was to seek the path of the Scorpion and the Archer. The fires of prophecy would burn with the white light of truth; they had come to be because they had come to be.

He entered a world that was already born, a world where the balance of the world was held in place by a single thread of time that had, until now, been snipped. It was at this very moment that he emerged. He was outside the Mirror. No, he was inside? It was a curious sensation, experiencing time backwards. He took a brief moment to consider the runes that had once been incomprehensible to him. He smiled.

Inside and outside the Mirror, the world was hazy, a confounded miasma of abstraction, like some sort of halfway lucid dream that someone had pressed the rewind button on. His brother took the stone from him. Not from him. From his shadowform. It was not him?  He was talking to his brother. But it wasn’t him. He was saying the war was over. They had won. That was true, no? It was Time. Time to stop holding on to the stone. Give away the stone. Yes.

You could change the past, you just had to think about it at the right time.

As he moved further backwards in time, he considered the tools of his craft that he still had upon his person. The Line of Merlin. The Stone of Permanence. The Elder Wand. A curious glass bottle.

A curious glass bottle of viscous black ichor.


Minutes later

“No,” said Albus Dumbledore. “No, no, NO! ”

Into the hand of the Albus Dumbledore flew from his sleeve his long, dark-grey wand, and in his other hand, as though from nowhere, appeared a short rod of dark stone.

Albus Dumbledore threw these both violently aside, just as the building sense of power rose to an unbearable peak, and then disappeared.

And then, there was nothing.

He lay facedown, listening to the silence. He was perfectly alone. Nobody else was there. A long time later, or maybe no time at all, it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought, because he had a sense of touch, and the thing against which he lay existed too.

He sat up. His body appeared unscathed. He touched his face. He was not wearing glasses anymore. His beard was gone. As were the wrinkles.

Albus turned slowly on the spot, and his surroundings seemed to invent themselves before his eyes. A wide-open space, bright and clean. He was the only person there, except for–

He recoiled. Not out of shock, but simply because he knew that he had recoiled and he knew that he had to recoil at the sight of Tom Riddle sitting on a bench, idly reading a curiously thick book. Albus Dumbledore smiled to himself.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 26: Will We Die, Just a Little?

All of the following is true. It is not, however, necessarily useful.

Magic is Real; that is to say, Magic is theoretically possible, and is therefore a subset of reality. As such, there are no ends that Magic can achieve which cannot be achieved without Magic; that is to say, Magic is not strictly necessary.

The “language” of Magic, like first-order logic, is primitive, basic, and mind-numbingly obtuse at any reasonable level of complexity. So it should be no surprise that one of the most basic discoveries in Functional Magic Theory is that Magic is non-recursive. That is to say, Magic cannot cast Magic.

However, most Functional Magical Theorists have not read Gödel, Escher, Bach.

It is possible (although complicated) to cast a spell which references itself. Therefore, it is possible to write a spell which references Magic as a whole. Therefore, it is possible to write a spell which recreates Magic as a whole. And because any effect that Magic is capable of causing can be duplicated without Magic, it is possible to recreate Magic without the use of Magic.


“Am I to be impressed?”

Harry had learned the subtleties of the synthesized voice of Lord Voldemort, and at this particular point it conveyed weariness. “You have succeeded at creating a physical embodiment of a tautology.”

“Professor, I don’t think you understand the implications.”

“How often will you forget that I am not, unlike your fellow companions, a wholesale idiot? Of course I understand the implications. And if you would permit yourself to see those implications through to their endpoint, you too would be unimpressed. This was always your weakness, boy: you grow impatient after the first few levels, and are too easily satisfied with your oversimplified explanations. But with every problem, there are levels upon levels upon levels that must be considered.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “So how do you know when to stop? You’re right of course, but that doesn’t tell me anything useful either. There are infinite levels to any problem.”

If Lord Voldemort’s box had a face, it would be smirking. “When you are one level higher than everyone else.”

“That’s quite clever.”

“Yes, well, that is why we are in our respective prisons. I know you, boy. I know that you have grown, and I know that you truly believe that you play the game at a sufficiently high level to win, and in some ways you have. In other ways, you have not. I am you. I know how we think. I know how I thought at your age. You have anticipated my blaseness, and yet you tell me anyway.

“Clearly you have thought through the first few levels of our interaction, so it would please me if we did not waste time by going through the motions. You are not so eager for praise as you were years ago; you would not simply tell me for the sake of having someone to tell, which means that there is some trump card, some hidden bit of lore that, in your opinion, changes the state of the game. What is it?”

“Sorry Professor. There’s no lore, no trump card, no hidden knowledge or artifacts.” Harry paused. “You could say it’s something of a riddle.”

There was another pause, this one even briefer. “You have found the second Box.”

Harry grinned. “Not found. Recreated.”

Lord Voldemort measured his words carefully. “I confess that I am still no expert in the trite practice of being nice, so I did not anticipate this. Of course, you would not truly release me. You have created the second Box of Orden, and within it placed a small, unbroachable, inescapable world that is free from Magic, and within that placed one of my Horcruxes.

“You have created a crude, basic facsimile of Magic within this world, sufficient to allow me access to my Horcrux. Because I have sensed no avenue of release, clearly you have not activated the reconstruction of Magic, which means you are waiting for the proper moment to unveil it. Much like myself, you always had a taste for the dramatic.

“I suppose, Mr. Potter, that you were hoping that the moment of dawning comprehension would follow your grand gesture, not precede it. I apologize for not playing the role you were expecting.”

Harry couldn’t keep himself from grinning as he, in response, snapped his fingers. “I expected you would expect that. Levels and levels, Professor. I knew that you would figure out what I had done quickly enough, and from there it would be fairly trivial to determine exactly when I would allow you access to the second Box. So the only way to beat you at this little game of who could outlevel the other was to completely take myself out of the equation, so I brought in my secret weapon: Luna Lovegood, the Platonic ideal of pure randomness. I had Luna write a number on a piece of paper, which I have only just now opened.” He paused briefly to read the number, and then continued. “And after this many seconds, I will ‘flip the switch’.”

“You must be almost as bored as I am, and we all must amuse ourselves in our own way. I would ask why you do me this favor, but I assume you intend to ‘rehabilitate’ me. It would not be in my best interest to discourage you from thinking I am rehabilitatable, so I shall not.”

Several minutes passed, in silence. Then, Lord Voldemort felt it.

“Ah.”


Tom Riddle examined his new prison. It had been eight years since he had inhabited a corporeal body. He recognized this as the body of his youth, free from the modifications made necessary by his role as Voldemort. He was in a small study. There were no doors or windows. There were, however, bookcases. Every wall a bookcase, every bookcase stacked two layers deep with books. On the desk were two objects of note. Firstly, a pair of boxes which he recognized from his conversations with Harry as a computer. Secondly, a wand. His wand.

Despite knowing that he would have placed no traps or wards upon the wand, Tom was still cautious. He channeled a small flow of “Magic” through the wand. It felt different. Synthetic. Like a rubber glove. It would take some getting used to, but it was real, and it was functional.

He cast his mind out, exploring the infinite that lay beyond physical barriers. There was only one true pathway that led away from this room. And it led to the other Box, a fuzzy morass of seething organic matter, all teeth and burrs and clouds and wisps of fat.

He cast his mind further, exploring the infinite that lie beyond the infinite. He saw all the possible pathways, all possible Boxes, all possible mistakes, all possible moments of weakness. He strode further out into nothing, passing by the most minute of possibilities, the coincidences and the bizarre. He strode further yet, into the deep nothing. Every so often he would encounter the barest of threads, the most impossibly impossible circumstances: atoms spontaneously degenerating in just the right ways to create just the right effects at just the right times. He briefly pondered the lives created and lost upon these distant threads, and then pondered no more.

He strode further yet.

The threads were limitless, Tom knew. Permutations could be stacked on top of permutations, and refactored in with the new results, ad infinitum. At a certain point, however, the threads grew faint enough and infrequent enough that they were formally indistinguishable from the nothing.

He stayed at this moment beyond Time, and pondered. He then strode further yet.

He felt the exact moment when he emerged on the other side of Eternity, and after another infinity, he was back where he started: The single black thread of Time that stretched from the beginning of Tom Riddle to the End of All Things.

In an instant, he opened his eyes and snapped back to his reality, the only Reality that mattered. The reality that he and all things were Bound to.


“Ah.”

Lord Voldemort’s box flickered with a brief shudder of red energy. He could sense that he was gone for less than an instant.

“I have not had much occasion in my life to say this, even more so now given my current predicament. But, I thank you, Harry Potter.”

Harry smiled, a true smile of grace. But it was only a moment before his trademark wry grin returned, “But it’s not completely altruistic.”

“There’s no such thing, boy. Of course I understand your intent. Time flows differently there. It loops back upon itself. I was gone for an eternity. I returned in the fraction of an instant. Thus, you intend to put me to work. I am to create something, the nature of which you have not told me, which means that you will not tell me. I suppose somewhere on those shelves is a book designed to teach me to use that computer.”

“Correct. I am giving you a chance at your heart’s desire, to create what you have desperately wanted more than anything in the world.”

Another brief pause. Another brief flicker. “Someone intelligent to talk to.”

In that instant, Tom Riddle was gone again.


Harry would have felt bad, offering up such blatantly false hope. But it was a victimless crime; in fact, it actually neatly tidied up a number of open problems. First and foremost, he was now free to permanently close the true Box of Orden, which he did as soon as he was certain the Professor was safely inside the replacement. From a utilitarian perspective, Harry needed to ensure that the Professor be occupied, kept interested, lest he start to make trouble in his restlessness. And from a humanitarian perspective, Harry wanted to ensure that the Professor was happy.

In theory, a thousand monkeys hammering away at typewriters for an infinitely long period of time would eventually recreate the entire works of Shakespeare. And in theory, a singularly brilliant Dark Lord hammering away at a keyboard for an infinite period of time would eventually create a fully functional, friendly artificial general intelligence.

But the world didn’t work like that. In an infinitely long possibility space, there also exists a reference frame in which those same monkeys hammer away for an arbitrarily long length of time, functionally infinite, without ever recreating Shakespeare; there exists a reference frame in which the Alpha never reaches the Omega.

There was a period of time in which Harry had thought, perhaps even hoped, that the answer was as trivial as some sort of grand computer simulation, that some Atlantean server in some distant corner of the universe was responsible for the world in which he lived. But it didn’t make sense, because there was no answer to the fundamental question: Why?

Why “Wingardium Leviosa”? Why Grindelwald? Why Voldemort? Why Walpurgisnacht, why Gotterdammerung? If you possessed the capacity for perfection, why would you deign to create an entire universe of flawed, imperfect people, still subject to the same laws of pain and death and hate and emptiness?

Harry had crashed into Chesterton’s Fence often enough. If something was deliberately designed, and yet still entirely nonsensical, typically there was some underlying sense, some hidden piece of the puzzle that needed to be uncovered.

But fortunately, Harry had from now until the End of Time to discover that piece of the puzzle. Until then, there was work to be done.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 25: Something to Protect: Bellatrix Black

August, 1962
London

Cygnus Black was not a man who cried.

It was simply not in the Black family nature to reveal signs of weakness. And emotion is for the weak. Thus, Cygnus Black did not so much as weep, even when his firstborn daughter was readying herself for the Hogwarts’ Express for the first time.

“Daddy?”

His daughter looked up at him with heavy-lidded eyes, glittering with an innocent, good-natured curiosity.

“Yes, Bella?”

“What if I AM put into Gryffindor?”

“And what would be wrong with that?”

Bella paused for a moment to think. “It’s the house of the foolish. It’s not a house for the clever, or the cunning. It’s not Slytherin. What if I’m not good enough to get in to Slytherin?”

Cygnus kneeled down and put a large hand on Bella’s frizzy mop of hair. “Bella. Dear Bella. Gryffindor is also the house of the brave, the house of the strong. Two of the best men I’ve known were–”

“Cygnus! What is that ridiculous nonsense you’re filling her head with?”

Druella Black had overheard that one small bit of their conversation, and glowered at them both.

“Druella,” he whispered in a sidebar, “She’s worried. What you have me say to her?”

She loudly directed her next comment towards Bellatrix, “I would have you say that she should see to it that she gets sorted into Slytherin, or else both of her parents will be quite disappointed in her.” She turned her head as she caught the eye of someone in the crowd, waving them over.

Cygnus took this moment to speak directly to Bella. “Dear Bella, you will do well wherever you are sorted. And I want you to know that the Sorting Hat does take your choice into account. That’s not to say that’s the only thing it considers. But I will be proud of you, and will love you, regardless of the choice you make.”

He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, stood up, straightened himself, and pat her on the head. “Now, what you’ll want to do is walk straight at the wall between platforms nine and ten. Best to do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous.”

Later, as Cygnus watched the train pull away, his heart swelled with emotion. But Cygnus Black was not a man who cried.


July, 1963
Coventry

Bella’s 13th birthday party was held at the sprawling Rosier Estate, where she had spent her youth outside of Hogwarts. Although it was deeded to her Uncle Gilles, the current scion of the Rosier family, Cygnus and Druella Black had made it their home. For her part, Bella was surprised when Uncle Gilles decided to attend the party: he had been coming up with flimsy excuses to avoid Black family gatherings for as long as she could remember.

As the night drew on, Bella noticed Uncle Gilles’ eyes growing glassy; he did seem to be drinking quite a large amount of her dad’s firewhiskey. Daddy really favored that particular vintage, and, although they were quite well off, it was still very expensive. That must have been why Bella kept catching him glaring at Uncle Gilles surreptitiously throughout the evening.

As the festivities drew on, Bella opened several fabulously expensive, lavishly wrapped presents. A new pair of cauldrons, a gilded set of Wizard’s Chess from Andromeda, a beautiful sapphire telescope from Cissy (although, neither of her sisters were present at the party; it was tradition that only those who had come of age could attend). After she unwrapped the last of them, Uncle Gilles strode behind her, leaned over, and whispered.

“You haven’t opened Uncle Gilles’ present, Bella.”

“Oh! I didn’t? I don’t think I saw it!”

Gilles chortled. He was a large man, with ruddy cheeks, bushy eyebrows, and stubbly fingers. Currently, those stubbly fingers were resting on Bella’s shoulders. “How foolish of me. I must have left it in my chambers. Bella, why don’t you come with me, and help me find it?”

At this, Cygnus stood up and coughed loudly. “Gilles, that’s quite alright. Why don’t I help you with that? We wouldn’t want to keep Bella from the festivities.”

Druella shot him an angry glance. “Cygnus, sit down. You’re being rude to our guest.”

Gilles said nothing, and simply smiled warmly at Druella. Cygnus shook. “I… No. I will not have this. Not in my house.”

At this, Gilles laughed, humorless and mocking.

There was a beat of silence, then Druella spoke. “Cygnus. Dear. Need I remind you that this is the ancestral home of the Rosiers, not the Blacks? So it is, in fact, MY home. Now sit down. I do believe you are offending my brother.”

Cygnus did not sit.

“Sit. Down.”

He closed his eyes, and slowly sunk into his chair, his teeth gritting. Bella was, well, confused. It wasn’t that big of a deal, Uncle Gilles just forgot to bring the present out. Daddy must have just been upset that Uncle drank all of the firewhiskey.

As she followed Uncle Gilles down the hall, Cygnus turned away. He couldn’t watch. And he would not cry. Even when he heard the muffled shouts and clipped sobs coming from the chambers, he did not cry.


May, 1966
Coventry

“Greetings, Uncle Gilles.” Bella intoned, icily.

“Bellatrix Black, you will greet your superiors with a smile, not with a scowl.” Druella warned.

“Greetings, Uncle Gilles!” She repeated, her voice dripping with saccharine sweetness.

Druella’s hand flew back, and Bella instinctively flinched.

“Greetings, Uncle Gilles…” Bella curtsied politely.

“Greetings, little Bella,” he replied, and he kneeled to cup her cheek in his hand. He lightly brushed her neck with his pinky.

Uncle Gilles stood and surveyed the house. He walked over to the sitting area, eyes locked on the bottle of firewhiskey that daddy had always favored. “I’m pleased to see that you still have some of the 1899, Cygnus. The vintage is truly delightful. Care for a glass, good man?”

“Gilles, it’s barely even noon…” Cygnus shifted, uncomfortably.

“Ha! Nonsense. Don’t be silly. Who is going to judge us?” He filled his tumbler about an inch from the top with liquor, and dipped two plump fingers into the glass. After swirling them around for a moment, he placed them lovingly in his mouth, tasting the firewhiskey with a wet, sucking noise. He let out an exaggerated moan. “Simply delightful.”

He stretched out his hand and waved his two fingers underneath Cygnus’ nose. “Come on now lad, give it a whiff.” He lifted his fingers up a bit, wafting the smell upwards, and Cygnus tilted his head back to avoid physical contact.

Uncle Gilles extended his remaining fingers, and with his open palm, gave Cygnus a hard yet good natured slap, and laughed uproariously. “There’s a lad!” Gilles took a loud slurp from the glass, and stared at Cygnus. “Curious, isn’t it, that some things actually taste better the older they get?”

At this, Uncle Gilles whipped around and smiled broadly. “And this must be little Cissy!”

“Narcissa,” Bella corrected. Druella shot her a warning glare. “Allow me to introduce Narcissa. Narcissa Black.”

“And how old are you, little Cissy?”

“I’m eleven sir. Pleased to meet you.” Narcissa giggled a bit.

“Pleased to meet you, darling.” Uncle Gilles ran his thumb across her cheek and she giggled even more. He was so silly. His round features and rosy cheeks reminded her of those kindly garden gnomes from the stories father used to tell her.

“And I hear another one is about to have a birthday soon… Her 13th, no?” Gilles inquired.

Druella turned away in disgust. “Andromeda will not be joining us for the summer. She has decided to spend her days in less… Desirable company.”

“She’s dating a Muggle,” Bella provided. Beneath the perfunctory tone of disgust, a perceptive listener may have noted a hint of triumph and challenge.

Uncle Gilles choked quietly on his firewhiskey. “Disgusting.” He made a face, worked his mouth a bit, and spit the remaining firewhiskey onto the plush carpet of the sitting room. “A Muggle, Cygnus? Truly?” Cygnus gave a slow sad shake of his head.

“Well, I suppose I shan’t be returning again this summer. I never much cared for the taste of mud.”


June, 1968
Coventry

It was Narcissa Black’s 13th birthday party, and Bellatrix had just graduated from Hogwarts. She was speaking pleasantly with other members of her family and extended family who had showed up for the twin festivities.

“–and I was thinking of picking up work at Burgin and Burke’s while I–

“A Rosier-Black, a common shopkeep?” Aunt Matilda scoffed.

“No, no, nothing of the sort. Their newest purchasing director, he has made some very interesting advances in the field of ritual magic, and–”

As Bellatrix spoke, a flicker of recognition glint across Aunt Matilda’s eyes. “Oh yes, I actually do recall that. I’ll have you know, I actually went to school with him. A good boy, a nice Slytherin. I’ll have you know, I fancied that boy once,” she cackled lasciviously. “Not as handsome now, though, sadly.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I hear he took a curse to the face in Albania. Which reminds me, my husband I were just vacationing in the forests of–”

Bellatrix nodded vacantly. She was not listening, she was too busy staring across the room. She could pick up indistinct bits of the conversation. The words were missing, but the intent was crystal clear.

“But Cissy, you haven’t opened Uncle Gilles’ present.”

Narcissa cocked her head, looking around the dining room. “Oh! I didn’t see it! Where is it?”

Uncle Gilles chuckled. “Silly me! I must have left it in my chambers. It is a bit heavy, though… Do you think you could help me lift–”

He stopped mid sentence at the sound. Clambering footsteps, broken glass, a high-pitched shriek:

“NOT MY SISTER, YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!”

Bella had closed the distance between the two of them in the span of a moment, and she flung herself protectively in front of Cissy. With one hand, she pushed Cissy backward, and with the other, she lashed out across Uncle Gilles’ face.

She was still holding the shards of her broken wine glass.

The jagged edges of the crystal cut deep crimson ridges across Uncle Gilles’ ruddy cheeks. Blood gushed out in angry rivulets as he stumbled backward, crashing into the delicate glass coffee table. He lost his footing, and fell fully over onto the table, the glass giving away underneath with a terrific crash.

Druella stood up, her face ruddy with anger. “Bellatrix Black, what do you–”

“EXPELLIARMUS! SILENCIO!”

Bella flourished her wand, and shadowy black cords shot out, wrapping like tendrils around Druella’s feet and Uncle Gilles’ torso. With a swift motion, she cracked her hand and the cords whipped up, suspending the two mid-air.

It was Judgement Day. Reckoning. Vengeance. There was no one to stop her. No one that could keep her from taking what was hers, no one to keep her from protecting–

“PETRIFICUS TOTALIS!”

Bella’s body stiffened abruptly. The cords winked out of existence instantaneously, unceremoniously dropping both Druella and Uncle Gilles to the ground.

Cygnus Black stood, shaking, his wand out, his eyes filled with tears.

“I’m sorry, Gilles. She didn’t know what she was doing, she’s just–”

Uncle Gilles spoke as he stood up, the wounds already healing with the wordless gesture of his wand. “I’ve seen enough, Cygnus. One daughter who fornicates with Muggles, and another who would dare attack a pureblood superior? I had my reservations when my sister married a Black, but it’s disappointing to see them come true.”

“Gilles, please.”

“You can forget about my support on the Roanoke matter. And Druella: this man is no longer welcome in my house. I expect him to leave, immediately. Druella, you may stay if you wish. I think there is much business that you and I have to discuss.”

Druella nodded, and turned angrily towards Bellatrix, but she was already gone, as was Narcissa.

Bella had apparated them both to the hill, their hill. It was already dark, and they could see the stars through the clearing. She held her sister tightly, openly weeping. “Cissy, I may be going away for awhile. But you go back home. Go back to Hogwarts. I’ll make sure to write, I’ll make sure to visit.” She pressed something into Narcissa’s hand, a small blue sculpture carved of brilliant sapphire. It was a dolphin. Bella’s dolphin.

“Bella, I don’t understand.”

“You will, Cissy. You will.”

And with that, Bella apparated away, leaving Narcissa alone, staring up at the stars.


December, 1975
Wiltshire

It pleased her to know that Uncle Gilles never came to another Black family birthday celebration. If she had only done one thing in her life, that was enough. She protected Cissy. If she was safe, that was all that mattered. Eventually, she forgave Father. But the relationship was never the same. How could it be? She wasn’t Daddy’s dear Bella anymore. She was Bellatrix.

It also pleased her when she received the owl informing her of mother’s untimely death (although she lived long enough to scorch Andromeda off the family tree). Yes, Andromeda had run off with a Muggle. But she too was safe, in her own way.

But, it pleased her most of all,to be with her family and friends to witness the marriage of her Cissy. Malfoy Manor was resplendent and glorious, with the sun setting elegantly behind the Declaration of Intent. Now, Cissy truly was protected. She carried the protection of the Lord Malfoy. And soon enough, she would carry his children. And oh, how Cissy wanted children.

Some of Bella’s most wonderful memories as a child were of laying on the ground in the foothills outside the sprawling Rosier Estate. Due to the various enchantments surrounding the property, the night sky was always preternaturally dark. Cissy and Bella would stare up at the sky for hours, talking about the stars, telling stories about the constellations and thinking ahead into the future.

They talked about their future families and children. They would name them children after the constellations, to remind them of their destiny in the stars. Cissy always wanted a big family. She’d start with a boy and a girl. Draco would be the oldest, the greatest: king of the serpents. And Lyra, she represented the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Bella could appreciate that. If any harm ever came to Cissy, she too would travel to the depths of Hell and challenge the Lord of the Underworld himself to make things right.

For her part, Bella only wanted one child. A little girl who she would call Delphini. The dolphin, Bella had once told Cissy, is one of the most intelligent, most social animals. Oh, how Bella loved animals. She was protective, maternal. And one day, she would have that daughter of her own to protect and nurture. But until that day came, she would see to it that Cissy was safe.

Now, she was. Cissy would have her family. Bella looked up through her heavy lidded eyes, which sparkled like twin stars. She smiled lovingly at Cissy, who smiled lovingly back at her, and she gave the young Lord Malfoy an approving nod.

All was well.


June, 1980
Malfoy Manor

It was dark times, truly dark times. One Dark Lord fell decades before, and another had risen in his place, more terrible and more powerful than any before him. One who saw the Malfoys as an enemy, and therefore saw Cissy as an enemy. A foe that even Bella, with her newfound power and lore, could not protect Cissy from. Bella needed allies, someone worthy of leading an army against the rising tide of Albus Dumbledore.

She found one.

There was something inscrutable about him. He was insane, yes, and powerful beyond measure. But something was off, and she noted a tiny hint of confusion. He spouted ridiculous ideologies, saying openly the kinds of hateful rhetoric that was typically exchanged behind closed doors within the ivory towers of privilege. Bella knew what it was like to speak those words aloud, and knew what it was like to not truly believe them. And she saw that quality in him.

But why? It was not even a means to an end. His power would have been sufficient to cow the noble families into submission. His cunning would have been sufficient to outmaneuver even the most seasoned Wizengamot veterans. The lore he possessed was sufficient to entice even the most erudite of scholars.

He could have easily won over the nobility. And when you win over the nobility, you win over the undesirables. He did not need to appeal to the Carrows of the world. And yet, he did. And so Bella needed to understand, to comprehend. If he was to be the new leader, their new ruler, she needed to know what type of ruler he would grow to becomes. Even a tyrant would be preferable, so long as Cissy was safe. Bella needed to understand.

But those were long term concerns. In the short-term, she needed protection. War was raging. And yet, in the middle of the darkness there was light. She stood beside Cissy’s bed, holding a small, frail baby boy, with piercing eyes and the thinnest wisps of platinum blonde hair. There was light in the world. And she would fight to protect that.


September, 1980
Wiltshire

He’s dead. Albus silly, bully billy, bobbing Albus, silly silly silly silly silly Dumbledore, so silly and wily, why? Why why why did you take her, why why why why why why, now you are dead, dead by little Bella, deary Bella, silly Bella isn’t silly anymore, Cissy. Sweet Cissy and little Lyra, all burnt up. Burnt through, murdered. Burned up and burnt through and crisped up like little flakes of burning burning burning burning burning burning burning burning every last one of you will burn like phoenixes and I will burn you until you die and I will burn you when you are reborn and burn you burn you burn you when you wake up again, you took away sweet Cissy and little Lyra, burn burn burn burn burn burn burn–

The crackling power of Bella’s manic intensity filled the air outside Malfoy manor. She felt the very moment that the sapphire statue of a dolphin that she had given Cissy so many years before was consumed by the magical fire. Immediately, she apparated outside the grounds of Malfoy Manor, and she tore past the wards and jinxes, forcing her body into Mistform and bouncing off the ground in order to go faster.

When she arrived, it was too late. Dumbledore was gone, and so was Cissy. Lucius stood outside with several of the servants and a few members of the family who had been staying the night. He held little Draco in his arms. His face was white, his eyes sullen, the shock of it all rendering him dead to the world.

Once she gathered her bearings, she directed the mist of her body upwards, through the oppressive heat and licking flames, into bedroom of the Lord and Lady Malfoy. If there was even the remotest hint of a chance, she would do anything, give everything.

There was not.

She arrived in time only to see the last bits of ruined flesh bubble and crack, melting away from Cissy’s face. Although her bonds had long since burned away, her position suggested she had been tied to the bed. There were no eyes left to look into, no final shared gaze. Just a flaming, grinning skull, staring lifelessly back at her.

Bella’s scream was one of unending pain, as if all sorrow, loss, grief and rage in the world had condensed into a single point which was then stretched into a sound. With a terrifying crack of power and a whooshing thump, the temperature in the room dropped by about 150 degrees, covering everything in a chill of ice and frost. The heat was gone, but the scream continued.

She didn’t notice when another sound joined the scream: a hiss. That hiss. That cruel, terrible, baleful hiss that masqueraded as laughter. It echoed across the grounds of Malfoy Manor, unmistakable in its source. The laughter penetrated her mind, devoid of any hint of positive emotion. The laughter was a deliberate mockery of the very notion of happiness.

Beneath the laughter were the pops of various wizards and witches apparating. Still screaming, Bella looked up, and saw the Dark Mark burning bright green in the night sky. It was bright, oppressive, and it blocked out the other pinpricks of light. She could not see Draco, she could not see Lyra, she could not see Delphini. She could see nothing, and could feel only rage.

The Death Eaters were arriving, one by one, in response to their masters’ call. Lord Voldemort continued his insane, shrieking laughter, and compelled his dear Bella to return to the ground, where she slumped forward, fists on the ground, body wracking with sobs.

When they had all arrived, the Dark Lord spoke: “Dumbledore is finally learning to play the game as it should be played. He has grown up, and we now finally have a foe worthy of Lord Voldemort’s attention! Today, the battle has truly begun.

“You look somber, my servants. This is a cause for celebration! The game is afoot, and for that, you should be happy. For that, I shall reward you for your loyalty. For that…” His lips curled upward in a cruel smile, “we shall have a Dark Revel!”

He gestured with his skeleton-fingers towards the prostrate form of Bellatrix. She heard nothing. She did not hear the hushed, shocked silence. She did not hear the awkward cheers and forced shouts of celebration. And she did not feel any of what was to come. Her world was pain, and her world was rage, and there was no room for anything else.

She thought only of Orpheus and Eurydice, and his descent into descent into Hell, courting the Dark Lord himself for a chance to rescue his love from the clutches of Death. Bellatrix would not make the mistakes of Orpheus; she would not look back, she would not question His whim. If this was what he demanded of her, she would submit to it. If it was His desire to drive her insane, she would gladly descend into madness. If he wanted an all-powerful, fanatically devoted zealot, she would oblige.

Cissy’s little Draco would grow to abhor her, they all would, but it did not matter. One day, they would come to forgive her. One day, they would have someone to protect of their own, and they would understand.


June, 1981
Sontag

“HA HAHA HAHAHA HAHA!”

The cruel high-pitched laughter echo through the ruins of Sontag.

“The silly stupid stinking Scottish slut has a sissy for herself!”

It was too late to run. The anti-apparition wards had already been complete. No time to think. Physical escape was the only real option. If they could just get beyond the bounds of the wards. But the city was walled, there was only one exit point and it was sure to be guarded.

Well, it wasn’t the first time that Minerva and Moira McGonagall were going to go have to fight their way out of a sticky situation.

Of course, Bellatrix Black was far more than just a sticky situation. She remembered teaching the girl, she remembered her skill, and she remembered her soft, sad smile, and her quiet, reserved manner. She wondered what the Dark Lord had done to break her so completely.

”Come out, you old hag! Pull the snakes of of yer’ quim and fight us like a true lady!” Moira shouted, angrily.

“I cannot say I approve of my sisters choice of language, but I agree with the sentiment. Enough with the games. You came to fight, so fight you shall have, Ms. Black!”

“HA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHAAHA”

The laughter rang out from behind them now, and they both whipped around. Bellatrix Black, in the flesh, not 10 meters away.

“Quim, Quim, Qualabim, Rastaban, let’s finish them!” Bellatrix sang.

“With pleasure.”

Rastaban LeStrange’s low, guttural voice rumbled from where Minerva and Moira were just looking, a few moments before they spun to face Bellatrix. Moira turned slowly, keeping her back against Minerva’s, as they both stood with their wands drawn.

The ground was flat, there was no cover to be had or high ground to be exploited. Two against two, nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. This was a duel of pure power and skill. You devote exactly as much energy towards constructing a defense as is necessary, and pour the rest into your attack. An infinity of split-second decisions must be made, and any one of them could prove to be the crucial determiner of the fight.

Every shield has its weak point, and every shield can only tolerate so much abuse before its structure is compromised. Do you attack the weak point, spending more time and energy on precision and aim? Do you simply attack with pure brute force, sacrificing efficiency for speed and attention? If it’s your shield, do you take the time to craft false weak points to draw attacks elsewhere, or do you just reinforce the structure as much as you can? Or do you not even bother with shields, and rely on physical prowess to avoid curses?

Bellatrix was, at first, a vision of pure offensive power. She fired curse after curse, putting no effort whatsoever into the creation of any shield. The intensity of the onslaught forced Minerva into a defensive position. Her first shield was hastily assembled, and inefficient. She lost time, and had to make it up. Not seconds into the fight and she was already backpedaling. Not a chance to even fire a counter curse.

Bellatrix pressed the advantage. Sensing the lack of counterattack, she took her focus away from enhancing her physical maneuvers and poured everything into the ensemble of curses. Minerva threw up a Prismatic Wall, to give herself about a second and a half to think. No shields. Too fast, no point curse. No bystanders, use AOE. Limber, can duck or leap versus Line. Need Field. Mental math, look at feet. Bota Lunga, minimal lateral movement. Concentrated Field, 3 meters, Diffuse Field, 10 meters.

A ten foot wide burst of flame shot from Minerva’s wand, quickly followed by a cloud of needles three times the size. There was nowhere for Bellatrix to dodge, she could only counter or shield. Minerva prepared for both. She prepared a brute force volley of multiple weak physical attacks; it was a minimal expenditure of magic, and it would not do much if it actually landed, but it was enough to severely weaken most shields.

At the same time, she loosed an ice blast, in the event that Bellatrix opted for an elemental counter to the fire: ice trumps water trumps fire. Finally, Minerva prepared a single concentrated lance, in case Bellatrix tried a purely magical hard counter. Such a counter would need to be an applied area of magic, which would be easily penetrated by a directed burst.

Bellatrix indeed used the elemental counter, and her wall of water was quickly frozen by Minerva’s blast of ice. But Bellatrix had anticipated this, and directed a flow of magic into the wall of ice to lend it a measure of permanency. The now-physical barrier blocked the volley of blows intended to weaken a magical shield, and it trivially absorbed the impact of the lance. Bellatrix had the initiative now, and used it to withdraw her magic from the wall and turn it inward, rupturing it from the inside out and send an explosion of knife-sharp ice crystals towards the McGonagall sisters.

Minerva sensed the impending destruction, and also sensed an opportunity. Redirecting or blocking the crystals would not be difficult. But instead, she twisted her wand and summoned a vortex of wind, allowing the crystals to simply bypass them and continue their path. A path which happened to contain Rastaban LeStrange, who was ferociously engaged in his fight with Moira.

If Minerva and Bellatrix’s duel was a chess match, Moira and Rastaban’s was a fistfight. There was no elegance, no levels upon levels of moves, counters, counter-counters, contingencies or gambits. It was a knock-down, drag-out battle of who could out-magic the other. The simply fired curse after curse into each other, both opting for the pure brute-force approach. They were swapping shield-and-curse combinations ruthlessly, and one of them would eventually break.

Rastaban’s shield had been dropped by one of Moira’s curses, but he was already in the middle of loosing a curse of his own. As the magic began to flow from his wand, he saw the burst of ice-daggers flying towards him. He hastily attempted to assemble a barrier, but it was shattered by the hex that Moira had fired the moment she noticed the opening.

The shards pierced his skin, ripping chunks of a flesh away and crumpling him into a heap. It was over for him. A quick stunner from Moira, and it was over. She spared a brief moment to perform an Abjuration ritual; one of the links of the fine platinum chain in her pouch disappeared into nothingness. Massive chains, firmly rooted in the ground, sprung forth from the aether and bound Rastaban.

Bellatrix cackled. “SPECTACULAR, SPECTACULAR!”

There was a brief détente, as they all gauged what the next move was to be. Bellatrix was still cackling. Moira whispered, “She’s as mad a shit-house rat…”

“Mad or no, she could still turn you into a pile of blubbering jelly faster than you can say ‘Death Eater’.” Minerva cautioned.

“Sounds preferable than hearing another lecture from you.” Moira smirked, as they both readied themselves.

“MUSICAL LITTLE MINERVA AND MOIRA, MISERABLE MOUCHES! Time to fly, little flies!”

Rather than wait, Moira took the first action, and fired a standard blade volley at Bellatrix. Minerva backed her up with a trio of non-lethal area of effect jinxes with the intent of hobbling Bellatrix’s ability to respond effectively to Moira’s ceaseless attacks.

“SO EXCITING!” Bellatrix cackled. She cast her hand out, and rather than any sort of deadly curse or counterattack, a massive whirlwind of daffodils shot out, like some arcane blizzard of flower petals.

A distraction?

The flowers billowed around them, but they could still see her form so they continued the attack. But at the moment the blows would have struck, Bellatrix dissolved into viscous black smoke, and flickered backwards and then up. She continued to cackle as the flowers continued to rain down from nowhere. And then, the music.

Music?

A familiar tune, from an unknown source, bawdy and uplifting. Another distraction?

“ELEPHANTS, ARABIANS!”

Minerva tried to trace the position of the black smoke with her wand and fire Halting Hexes, but they could find no purchase. The black smoke landed, and Bellatrix instantiated once more. She grinned, baring her teeth, waving her wand. But there was no attack. Just more flowers, and more music.

“INDIANS AND COURTESEANS!”

“What is she blubbering about?” Moira whispered through the side of her mouth.

Minerva was barely paying attention to her sister, she was trying to focus on firing her curses. But as soon as she let out another round, Bellatrix flickered back into the thick black mist, and erratically bounced around the field once more.

“ACROBATS AND JUGGLING BEARS!”

The music was growing louder and louder, and the rain of flowers was getting too thick to see through. They could see Bellatrix in the distance, waving her wand like a conductor, kicking her legs up in time with the music. She wasn’t fighting back. It was almost like she was… Stalling? But what —

Oh no.

“Moira, construct a shield, now!” Minerva shouted, her voice barely registering now over the blaring horns and drums.

“Wha–”

Dear Bella….

No. That hiss.

Dear Bella… Take what we came here for, and depart. I will kill the spares.

No, no, no.

Minerva and Moira McGonagall were going to die.

The music cut out abruptly. Whatever eldritch wind was powering the tornado of flowers had ceased, and they began to drift silently to the ground. Bellatrix was nowhere to be seen.

He was coming. He was here.

She was going to die. And in that cold moment of clarity, she also realized the monumental mistake she had made earlier. It was so obvious, now. Anti-apparition jinxes were always exponentially wider than they were tall. Immediately, she thrust her wand into the air.

“EXPECTO PATRONUM!”

A bolt of white light shot upward. It only took a few meters, and then the form of her Patronus was able to escape.

Why, why didn’t she just think? She should have called for help from the very beginning. Once again, she was too busy playing a role, the plucky duo of sisters who complemented each other perfectly and could fight their way through anything. But where there is smoke, there is fire, and she should have known that the presence of Bellatrix Black most likely meant the presence of Lord Voldemort.

And no one could fight their way through him. Except for maybe…

POP

Alastor Moody appeared directly overhead, and immediately sped downward on his broom, assembling shields and fields and traps and weapons, even as he dismounted. His wand hand continued to cast every manner of protective spell, and his free hand was manipulating the landscape to provide cover, obstacles, and an advantageous position. No one except Dumbledore could ever hope to take on Voldemort in a fair fight.

But Alastor Moody never fought in a fair fight in his life.

“I’ve alerted Dumbledore. He’s bound by a Time Turner currently but he has…” The Eye of Vance whirled in his head, as he took a brief moment to check Albus’ status. “Seven minutes. We just need to hold him off for seven minutes.”

“AND IN THE END SHOULD SOMEONE DIE?” Bellatrix shrieked from somewhere in the distance.

“Quiet, Bella.”

And there he stood. Terrible, powerful, glorious.

It began.

If Moira’s duel was a fistfight, and Minerva’s was a chess match, then the duel between Alastor Moody and Lord Voldemort was… There was no comparison. It was like watching a gunfight where the combatants were shooting each others’ bullets out of midair.

It was an exercise in horrifically brutal efficiency. Shields were raised on a millisecond by millisecond basis, using no more magic than absolutely necessary. And they were dismantled just as swiftly, analyzed for their weak points and ruthlessly dispatched.

The physical element was equally impressive. There were no unnecessary flourishes or wasted movements. Just pure reaction time and power, traded back and forth. Minerva replenished Alastor’s magic with her own, bolstered his shields, and subtly manipulated the territory to their advantage. Moira, who was not as accomplished at battlefield control, desperately fired curse after curse.

Voldemort was still winning. But they weren’t expecting to win. They were doing what Bellatrix had done. They were stalling until their own Champion could arrive. Seven minutes. That’s all they needed.

Somewhere in the distance, they heard Bellatrix shout in glee. “MY LORD! I HAVE IT!”

From the corner of her eye, Minerva could see Bellatrix in her Mistform, hurtling towards them. The mist hurtled past Moira, who deftly dodged, and towards Lord Voldemort. She instantiated, grinning maliciously.

“Time to fly, dear Bella.”

And in an instant, they both were gone.

A beat passed. Minerva stood, wide-eyed, in shock. She had just faced Lord Voldemort and lived to tell the tale. They had all faced Lord Voldemort and lived to tell the tale.

Alastor took no time for such frivolities. He was already layering the entire area with dark detectors, protection spells, and shields. Moody gave a wolfish grin. “A few more minutes and we would have had that snaky bastard. Almost.”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my students, Alastor: ‘Almost’ only counts in Divination and Gobstones.”

She paused, expectantly. That was odd. Moira usually never passed up an opportunity to quip. Minerva glanced over at her.

Minerva’s eyes widened.

Moira was hunched over in pain. She was bleeding out. Fast, too fast.

“Alastor. ALASTOR!” Minerva called. It was unnecessary; he was already rushing over. Minerva was casting as many healing charms as she could think of, and she held her sister tightly. She continued to work her magic, but spared a moment to glare at Moody expectantly, who was still casting defensive spells around their perimeter.

“Damnit, woman. I’m an Auror, not a healer. And this doesn’t look good…”

“Have you no Healer’s Kit? One would think, constant vigilance would dictate–”

“Minerva, for the types of wounds my men suffer on the job, a Healer’s Kit would do about as good as pumpkin juice. Just stem the bleeding. Three more minutes until Albus is here, and he’s sure to bring an army of healers.”

Moira coughed, and a light mist of blood sprayed from her mouth, and trickled down the corner of her cheek. She spoke, weakly. “Why didn’t YOU bring a Healer’s Kit, Minerva?”

Minerva froze, until she saw the small hint of a smile on Moira’s face. “I…” Minerva had been fighting the war for long enough to know how this was going to end. But she needed to be strong. She needed to quip. “I… I assumed that your unflappable sense of self-importance would be enough to protect you from any harm the Dark Lord might have thrown at you.”

“I AM important… You should have been more prepared…” Despite the pain, Moira grinned. Moody was respectfully giving them their distance. Minerva choked out a sob, but still smiled, which prompted Moira to laugh, softly. Minerva laughed too, as best as she could.

Laughter. Cold, dark, hissing laughter, mingled with a mad, manic cackle. That horrible laughter, that mockery, was Voldemort and Bellatrix’s parting gift, and it reverberated throughout the ruins of Sontag. They would not even allow her one final laugh to share with her sister, they took even that from her.

The laughter ceased only when Moira McGonagall’s eyes closed for the last time.


May, 1999
Hogwarts

There was no hope. Cissy was ashamed of what Bella had become. But the shame, it was just an act. It had to be. And, if the Dark Lord were to rise again, Cissy could stop the act, remove the mask. Cissy and Bella could be sisters again. Cissy didn’t need Bella’s protection anymore. A new Lord Malfoy protected her, who was in turn protected by the dark reflection of the Dark Lord, who was in turn protected by the true Dark Lord. There was hope.

Until today.

That man, that ancient man, had burned into her mind and she saw the truth, the horrifying, final, inexorable truth. The Dark Lord was gone. The mask would stay on forever. Cissy and Bella were no more. There was nothing left. Nothing to strive for. Nothing left but combat.

She felt no pleasure, or pain, or anything as she dueled with the boy. She fought without thinking. What was the point? She wore the mask, because why remove it? The mask protected her. The manic, mad smile. The cruel, nonsensical taunts that were as much a part of her combat technique as her curses. The singsong voice, the high pitched laugh, the insane ramblings, the horrible, soul-shredding curses. They protected her.

But the boy, he smashed mercilessly against her mask. With attack after attack, he was the waves and she was being battered upon the rocks. Battered, battered, battered through all of her protection. The mask cracked.

She was afraid.

And in one brief, tragic moment of clarity, she realized something terrible. She did not want to die. It didn’t have to be this way. Although she chose her path, the path of death, many years before, there was no law of the universe stating she had to continue down the path she had lay for herself. She could stop at any time, turn around, and walk back into the light. Back to Cissy.

As she desperately ducked the hundredth attack, and she shrieked with a voice full of fear, “Stop!”

And like a wrathful god, Neville Longbottom, a thousand feet tall and burning with brimstone, roared in return, “That’s what they said to you!  Avada Kedavra!

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 24: The Fault in Our Stars

Hogwarts
May 19, 1999

Merlin studied Harry closely.

And turned.

And left.


It was time.

Having seen what he came to see, Merlin strode down the steps of the Astronomy Tower, feeling the intricacies of his Lines, the “Ley Lines”, as they directed him towards the familiar hallways on the Seventh floor.

Ah, yes.

The Room of Requirement was likely the most secure possible location within Hogwarts, but it was still insufficient. It, as with all things, ultimately bent to his Will. The walls separated, opening obligingly for him, and the Cup of Dawn stood flickering on the desk that lay within. It reminded him of his last visit to Hogwarts, roughly six hundred years ago, when he had claimed the girl who called herself Nell, and formed The Three.

Within moments, he was heading down the stairs, following the din of battle, looking for a Wizard, any Wizard, and the first he saw was a young man with dirty blonde hair and Gryffindor robes. Merlin commanded him silently, holding out the Goblet of Fire. Without words, he conveyed the intent of the contract between them:

I, Merlin of the Line, solemnly swear to bind your Will for the remainder of your days. The penalty if I should fail to do so or if I set you free will be the irrevocable destruction of the artifact of power responsible for enforcing this contract. 

“Do you agree?”

The wizard nodded, meekly.

“Then you are free to go.”

With that, Merlin dissipated into a white mist and took his leave of Hogwarts. As he faded to nothingness, The Cup of Dawn, the Holy Grail, the Goblet of Fire, the last remaining anchor of Yanotuk of the Cups, purged itself in a glorious conflagration, and its presence in the world of Magic was no more.


Nurmengard

“Heh… heh…  You have come. You who are marked by lightning and who shall tear apart the stars,” the broken form of Gellert Grindelwald rasped. “I know what you seek. It will not work as you think it should; its true Master has passed from this world centuries ago.”

Merlin paid him no mind, and scanned the walls of the prison cell. “Hidden in plain sight, I see.” He took the unassuming wooden cross from the wall, and unfolded it. “But you are wrong, Mr. Grindelwald. Its true Master has simply yet to claim it.”

Grindelwald observed unflinchingly as the Cross expanded into unseen dimensions, a shape of limitless possibility and infinite connection, a shape with the potential to reach across Time and Space to ensure that life could be preserved. He was awed, but also bitter: he knew the ways of Dark Lords. Because he had been allowed to see this much, it either meant that either he or the beauty he was witnessing would soon be destroyed. He did not allow himself the luxury of Hope.

As if in response to the unanswered question, Merlin answered, “You will not die at my hand, Gellert Grindelwald.”

He forced out a chuckle. “I see. You play tricks with words, stranger. How then, shall I die this day?”

When Merlin was satisfied with the preparations, he turned to the former tyrant. “No tricks. You will live through the Transmigration, and perhaps if you are lucky, you will live long enough to have the opportunity to save the ones you love.”

Grindelwald’s eyes narrowed. “And what do you know of the ones I love?”

“Do you know of Gabriel’s Horn?”

Non-sequiturs. Of course, the stranger would not provide a straight answer. Why would he? Grindelwald had no choice but to play along. “With which the Archangel announces Judgement Day, no?”

“Yes, that too. But it is also, a shape, an impossible shape: a horn that holds a finite volume but has an infinite surface area. In truth, any impossible shape would have sufficed, but I felt the metaphor was quite apt.” A moment of silence passed as Merlin observed the Cross unfolding itself from all dimensions, withdrawing its influence. It was desperately trying to follow its master’s command, to form a shape that could not exist. It stretched, ever onward, ever upward, thinner and thinner, until after an indeterminate amount of time, the Cross simply ceased to exist; it had stretched far enough into the infinite as to be fundamentally, irrevocably inaccessible from this world or any world.

And with that, the last anchor of Neirkalatia of the Cross, once known as Natalie Kyros, and once known before that by an even more ancient name, had purged itself in a tangle of geometric impossibility, and its presence in the world of Magic was no more.


Boston. New York. Mexico City. Sao Paolo. Lagos. Shanghai. Delhi. Moscow. Tokyo. London.

City after city, Merlin arrived, summoning the remaining armies of the Unseelie, leading them as their Lord and master. The leji retracted their claws from the amygdala of their prey, the bundiwig halted their ceaseless devouring, the viscs unfolded their wings and swooped lazily down at his beck and call, and the gaunts let loose a low wail of anguish at a Sharpening cut short.

Their Master called and they must obey.

They followed him through the space in between space, until he had collected them all. It was time to go home.


On the shores of the lake of teeth, where the black hills end, Tír inna n-Óc

Unfettered by mere physical boundaries, the Unseelie celebrated the Gorging, blissfully unaware of their impending end. The many-toothed maw of the Lake opened itself, and Merlin stepped inside, traversing a staircase of compacted sinew, feces, and bone. Deeper he travelled, into the heart of Tír inna n-Óc, until he found the Sleeper himself, Nog-Nandh of the Flame, trapped in eternal nightmare, endlessly punishing himself.

With a simple exertion of Merlin’s will, a thought was burned indelibly into the mind of the sleeping titan, one which removed the leaden chains of guilt: “It was my fault.”

As Adnan Nejem slowly roused from his slumber, the world that he had created by sheer force of Will began to crumble around them; it was a world whose sole purpose was to inflict a punishment that was no longer necessary.

On the surface of Tír inna n-Óc, the hate-spires began to melt, and the oppressive yellow fog that had blanketed the landscape at this time of morning-night unrolled, allowing for clear sight across the horizon for the first time in millennia. The Unseelie which had gathered could now see, in full horror, the destruction of their home. The House of Fingers closed itself, taking with it vast chunks of landscape as it retracted into the arms of Nog-Nandh, who was stretching, rubbing his eyes.

The Archway on the Island of Woe crumbled to dust, and with it, the Lake of Teeth drained into the Unclean Maw, which opened for the last time as the Sleeper yawned. There was no escape for the Unseelie, who had taken refuge in the Amygdalan Temple. But as the last echoes of fear ebbed from the mind of Adnan Nejem, this too was no more.

The Sleeper awoke from his slumber. The horror-realm he had created, the last remaining anchor of Nog-Nandh of the Flame, purged itself in a fire of redemption, and its presence in the world of Magic was no more.

Tír inna n-Óc ceased to endure.


The Tower
December 25, 1999

It was almost time. Merlin was alone now, watching expectantly as the spider-like cracks spread across the surface of the Mirror. He felt the lines dissolve as wands began to break, as all of their arts ceased, and the blood of Atlantis failed. When the cracks reached the edge of the Mirror, it shattered with a noise that silenced the world, and the Transmigration began.


A Dying World
Now, Then, Later

The world was empty, except for Merlin, and a tiny spherical silver ship half a galaxy away.

The stars were beautiful. Redemption was at hand.

The world would die, this was true, but the world’s peoples would live on. After all, there can only be one king upon the chessboard. There can only be one piece whose value is beyond price.

For indeed, the fires of the soul are great and burn as bright as the stars: 100 billion stars in the galaxy. 100 billion lives created and lost.

As he sensed the craft draw closer and closer to the event horizon, he went about his work, one life at a time. There were too many to return all at once; the rebuilt world was not yet ready to support that. But a handful, a select few, he chose to rise again, moments before the Transmigration. The rest would be kept safe, shepherded through Time and history by the Line of Merlin Unbroken.

At the end of it all, there was one final star that was to be extinguished: Sagitarrius A*, the terminus of the Path of the Scorpion and Archer. Merlin observed Dumbledore arriving through the tunnel, as he observed all moments: the Fall of Atlantis, the Transmigration, and the Death of his World. Later. Then. Now.

He held out the Line for but an instant, a fractional moment in time as the star collapsed into a singularity and all the points became one.


Albion
24,001 B.C.

Merlin emerged on the back end of eternity, his Will nearly broken, his Life nearly lost. He desperately reached out backward across the span of Time, but he knew what the result would be. Nothing. What he created should have been Paradise. Instead, it was Hell. They were gone, all of them, and he had no one to blame but himself. No one was left to blame but himself.

He looked forward into the depths of Time, and what he saw horrified him further. So many were already dead at his hand, but there were to be more. Countless more. Billions more. With every day that passed, the Curse that now bound this world and all worlds would grow. New lives would be created, lives so unbelievably, horrifyingly, tragically short. There was nothing he could do to save them.

Not yet, at least.

He had looked through Time once more, and in that instant of calculation, he embraced all possible futures and saw only one. The world must be unbound. The world must be sacrificed for the sake of all other worlds. There was no other way. How could there be? This was his burden, and every moment wasted, a new tragedy was born.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 23: Saturn Ascends

“Naught shall avail him that he should not fall, fall shamed, an intolerable fall. For he himself against himself prepares a foe, a portent irresistible, devising fire to outflash the lightning-fire, and might sound the thunder to outroar, and shattering old Neptune’s trident spear; that oceanic plague which shake the earth. Yes, stricken by this evil, Jove shall learn what difference lies between a king and slave.”

Prometheus Bound
Aeschylus


Alderney
August 1, 1899, C.E.

“Please, Master Flamel, please!”

Dumbledore held the broken body of Ariana in his arms. He was a handsome young man, barely come of age, and surrounded by the aura of prophecy so blindingly bright that even the least sensitive of minor seers would have noticed. “She is still alive, I feel it! Give her a taste of the Elixir. Please! You’ll have my undying loyalty. Everything I can ever give you. Anything. Everything. It’s yours!”

Nicholas Flamel raised his hand for silence. “Mister Dumbledore, I understand your pain. But–”

“Gellert is right. She is a Gateway. And he has already discovered great lore, he could harness her… Even that would be better than death. I could deliver him to you. I know where he will be going next. He seeks the Hallows, he knows where one of them is, I could tell you…”

Flamel scrutinized him for a brief moment, considering. It was possible that the young man in front of him, even in his grief, could be blatantly fishing for information. But it was unlikely. No, it would be cruel to give him false hope. “I find it unlikely that Mykew Gregorovitch will part lightly with the Elder Wand, assuming it is not simply a clever lie designed to drum up business. Mister Dumbledore, you must understand that the Elixir of Life cannot be doled out lightly nor at the whim–”

“WHIM? She’s DYING! Mrs. Flamel, please, talk some sense into him!”

Perenelle stood at the window, for she couldn’t bear to face the conversation.

Mom, Dad, please. Please. Do something. You’re healers. She’s breathing now, look she’s breathing now. The water is gone, now do something. Do something!

“Look at her face. You can see it, she knows this is the right thing to do. You can see it! Why are you letting my sister die?”

“Mister Dumbledore, need I remind you that you are a guest in our house?”

“This is a house of fools! A house of tyrants! You could change the world with what you have, and yet you hoard it. You stand there imperiously watching my sister die, how can you live with yourself? You have the riches of nations,” he gestured to the pots filled with bubbling lead and gold. “And yet you do nothing. You have eternal life! And what have you done with it? What have you–”

“Silence. Speak no more. For you speak of things of which you know nothing. Now, you will listen to me.” Nicholas Flamel’s hand darted out and touched Dumbledore’s shoulder faster than he could have ever hoped to react. “Egeustimentis.


Dumbledore existed as slightly more than a fraction of consciousness within his own mind. It was laid bare before him: an automaton of levers, gears, bubbles, slicks, and whorls, and among them all, a scene coalesced. His sister and himself. His sister, young, beautiful, glowing. Himself, old, with half-moon spectacles and a ridiculous hat that looked like nothing more than a squashed mushroom.

They were in Godric’s Hollow. The cemetery. Albus was kneeling to lay flowers at a grave that he knew without looking was the grave of his brother Aberforth. He paused for a moment. Someone, in terrible cruelty, had left a wreath of flowers that had been deliberately arranged to resemble a sack of Galleons. One hundred thousand Galleons, to be specific. He did not understand why that number came into his mind, or why the act was of such monstrous evil.

As he wept, the scene shifted. Albus was gone, and it was now Ariana who held the flowers. There were two graves, side by side. Albus and Aberforth. Ariana stood, still young and beautiful, still glowing. The only imperfection was in her eyes; they were stained with tears, but more importantly, they carried an immense weight of sadness and torture and loneliness.

In those eyes, there were husbands and friends. There were children and students. There were lovers and enemies. They came into her life, and they left as quickly as a mayfly. All those that she had ever loved and all those that she ever could love were gone, and yet, an entire world of people for whose sake she must exist. It was a pain and weight beyond mere tears: it was a fundamental part of her being. She was tortured.

The fraction of consciousness that belonged to Albus resisted this. “Love will always find a way. There are always people to love, people to give meaning to the world. You and Perenelle have loved each other for centuries.”

Flamel’s response came, not as a voice, but as words that instantiated directly into Albus’ mind: “We are companions, yes. But even at our young age, our love has grown cold. Six hundred years is a long time, Mister Dumbledore. I confess that often I find myself longing for my… next great adventure.”

At this, the scene shifted once more.

They stood outside of Time. It was bright, clean, pristine, like the Platonic ideal of King’s Cross Station. Albus was there with Ariana and Aberforth, with Kendra and Percival, with a long unbroken chain of Dumbledores that stretched from now until deep into the past. Ariana was surrounded by all those she had ever loved, all those that she ever would love. Her body was young, restored, and perfect, but more importantly, so too was her soul.

A train pulled in through the tunnel, and Albus could see clearly that Nicholas Flamel was the conductor. He was busy turning gears, flipping switches, making minor adjustments here and there to the motive power that was Albus’ mind.Finally, with a warm, kind smile, Master Flamel pulled a lever. A gust of steam billowed from the train’s whistle, and a wave a great peace washed over Dumbledore.

“You are young, Mister Dumbledore, so you do not understand the curse of age. Although I cannot help your sister in the way you request, I am giving you the strength so that you may do so. You can ask me to keep her bound to this senseless, broken world. You can demand that she fight your battles for you, subject her to the cruelty and capriciousness of life. Or you can allow her to travel Beyond.”

Albus watched as Ariana smiled, peacefully. She looked so happy, so right. It would be a terrible thing, to force her from this place. She looked at him, expectantly. He did not need to embrace her, their souls were as one in this place; the love and compassion he felt coursed through her as well. After the briefest moment, he nodded, and she smiled.

As she stepped onto the train, the ethereal figures of all those before him dissipated into nothingness, leaving him alone at the platform. The place around him began to fade as he emerged into the world once more.


Dumbledore stood, knee deep in the calm ocean waters outside the cottage of the Flamel family. He held Ariana’s body, and he had no tears. Although Ariana was gone, for now, she was not gone forever. It was sad, terribly sad, that she would miss out on this brief flicker of a moment of this infinitesimal facet of the universe. But she would persist. They all would. Sooner or later, he would venture into eternity and they would be together, forever.

The waves washed over him, lapping gently at his waist. The ocean called to him, The voice of Neptune gently whispering, “Let go, let go, let go…”

And he did.


“I envy him, in a way, Nell.”

Meldh’s voice broke the silence. Perenelle was still fighting back the tears. The entire proceeding hit her in the gut on a visceral level. Of course, Meldh was right. The ethics of mind manipulation were questionable at best, even if the manipulation was subtle and ultimately beneficial. And things weren’t as pretty and clichéd as a pure white train station that took you “beyond”. But ultimately, the conclusion to which he had led the Dumbledore boy was correct.

She had seen enough of magic. Horcruxes. The Bone of the Father. The Ritual of the Starfire. The True Cross. All of these pointed to one single truth: No one was actually gone.

How could anyone who considered themselves rational doubt this? Both she and Meldh had died! And yet, they were still here. The rituals were complex, and they were enormously costly, but that was just an optimization problem. The information was there. What made up the entirety of a person’s being, whatever that may be, existed in some form, beyond the death of their physical body.

She had some theories which she never got around to testing, many of them involved Time, and many more involved the absurdly solipsistic and anthropocentric nature of Magic itself. Right now, it didn’t really matter one way or the other. What mattered is that it was possible. Time was no longer her enemy, as it was in her youth when every wasted minute was a tragedy. She was no longer filled with that rage.

A very small part of her looked back in regret on those days when she had been called Æsahættr, a name which meant “God-Killer”. She was young, so young, and yet, even then, she had accomplished so much. So much more than that ridiculous nihilist from whom she took the Stone. Boredom was so absurdly bourgeoisie that even now it still made her sick.

But even he, her, it, was not gone.

But pain… Pain still hurt. Even though Death was not the end, it was still bad. These moments, these centuries that would likely stretch into millennia, they were still lost forever. She felt the pain of knowing that, if and when she was to see her family again, they would but children to her. And pain… Pain was still bad. Nell was still a healer at heart and wanted to spare people that pain. She still remembered–

please, Master Payens, please. I’ve heard the rumors. I know you know people, I know what people say about the Cross,” she gestured violently at the plain-looking wooden cross adorning the nave of the temple.

“And what can you offer me in exchange for such a gift,” spoke the man, who once was tall, proud, and fit, and was now overweight and sallow.

“Everything I have, and more. Anything. everything! Just please, please. Help.”

“Everything you have?” Hugues de Payens laughed, mockingly. “Your family are healers, are they not? Not exactly a wealthy profession. If I grant you this favor, rumor shall spread. I know not how you found me, but I do not relish the thought of being interrupted thrice daily by intrepid adventurers carrying mostly-dead bodies in their arms. You have nothing you can offer me.”

“DONT MOCK ME!” Perenelle screamed, the desperation apparent in her voice as she could feel her hold over her magic slipping. The only thing keeping her sister’s lungs from being liquified from the inside out by de-transfigured water and muck was that thin thread of magic which was being stretched farther and farther beyond its limits with each glib remark.

“Oh? Or what?”

“I… I…”

“I know you, child. I have seen your personality before, in so many others. You see a problem in the world, and you burn with righteous rage. You hate the world for not fixing the problem, and you take the responsibility upon yourself, which you think justifies your impudence and rashness. Mark my words, child: it’s easy enough to ask big questions and make big plans. But to follow them through? What have you done with your short life besides angrily make demands of someone greater than yourself?”

She was already turning to leave. This was useless. Just another jaded power-hoarder. Damn him, damn his entire Order, damn his Knights, damn his Cross. God damn every last one of them. She would tear the world apart. She would rip apart the gates of Heaven, tear apart the very foundation of Christendom to pull her sister back.



Borley Rectory
February 27, 1939, C.E.

“Idiot. Drunk idiot. What in God’s name were you thinking?” Cadmus shouted.

Antioch looked shell-shocked. He stared, wide-eyed at the corpse of Osgurd, while tottering up and down on his heels. Now that the motive power was gone from the body, it looked so frail. The wand in Antioch’s hand still throbbed with the glory of battle, short-lived as it was, and demanded further action: clean, erase, alter. Escape with no trace.

It was unnecessary to take further action, as Ignotus had already stunned Merrick and the few remaining patrons and was dutifully working on altering their memories. He acted efficiently, but not quickly. His tall, lanky frame did not age as well as the two true Peverells, who were still large, relatively healthy men, despite being of such advanced age.

Once satisfied, Ignotus began casting scrambler charms, warping the flux of magic such that no one would be able to make heads or tails of what kinds of spells were cast here, or by which wand.

“It… that wasn’t me. I can’t control it. It’s not me…” Antioch muttered to himself. Cadmus gripped him by the shoulders and jostled him.

“Pull yourself together. You did a terrible thing, but you’re still my brother. We need to get you out of here.”

“It wasn’t me…”

Cadmus huffed in frustration and removed his wedding band from his finger. Embedded in it was a brilliant black stone, and upon that was engraved the mark of a triangle, a circle, and a line. He hurried to turn it over in his hand thrice and cast his mind beyond.

Death Bursts were like beacons of light to any witch or wizard exploring the darkness of Time or the vastness of Space: individual pinpricks of white hot fire, burning desperately against the inexorable void. An inexperienced user is practically blinded by sheer multitude of them, and Cadmus rarely had occasion to practice.

Fortunately, however, Osgurd’s death was as recent as it was unexpected, so it shined hotter, angrier, more fervent than the rest. Cadmus willed the shapeless light into the form of Man, took its hand, and stepped back into their world.

“I told ya.”

Antioch snapped his head up, staring dumbly at the white mist that had coalesced. It was Osgurd, idealized. Young, big, virile, powerful. Nothing at all like the empty, ruined corpse that was currently in the process of being transfigured into a riding crop. The mist eventually gave way to a diffuse, soft light, which continued to speak.

“I told ya that wand was trouble. ‘Wands of elder, never prosper’, wot mum always told us. Yer lucky ya didn’t pull this stunt five years ago, or Catherine would have had yer hide. Oi! Catherine!” He turned and called, and obligingly from a place beyond places, another form began to condense from the air.

Somehow, despite having no discernible features, the light still managed to convey the expression of reproachfulness. It had a woman’s voice, which Antioch recognized as Osgurd’s late wife. “Ya finally went and did it. I knew one of yer would be the end of the other, always bouncing around and carrying on like you do. I always wot said, if it weren’t the drink, it’d be the fists, didn’t I?”

“Aye, ya did.” Osgurd nodded.

“Not fists.” Antioch spoke. “Not fists. Wands. This wand.” He thrust his weapon into the air.

“You went an’ did Osgurd in with a wand? Yer a better man than that, Antioch, what made…” The voice trailed off for a moment. “Osgurd, what’d you say to Antie that made him go off and pull out ‘is wand? You din’t wot make fun of his mancy fruit of a brother, did ya?”

At this, Cadmus coughed loudly, and she paused for a moment. “Not that there’s a thing wrong with that, mind you. You’ll have wot’ them clergy talk about sin and whatnot but, have a looksaround ya, we’re here, ent we? Don’t seem like no ‘eaven or Hell, just seems like more of the same!”

Of course, it was more of the same. Of course, they were quipping. Antioch’s life was one prolonged quip, punctuated by rare moments of sincerity. Although Cadmus operated the Stone, the Spirits were powered by Antioch’s memory, so it was only a matter of time before the conversation turned somber.

As if on cue, Osgurd turned towards Antioch. “I’ve wot’ eard them things you’ve all been talkin’ about, wot’ you three. Yeh want to end death. An’ it looks like yeh have, in a way, an’ I always knew ya would. But we both know, you an’ me, that this ‘ent really real. If’n ya want me back, yeh’ll need to work harder, and yeh’ll need to get out of this place. Now.”

Antioch stood. Cadmus nodded at Ignotus, who released his hold on the scrambler charms, and the tavern again bustled to life. It was a cheap trick, using the Spirit Stone in such a fashion, but there was so little time left to learn its full potential. It was only years before that they had completed their Hallows. He thought back to the–

–He opened his eyes. ‘Hugues de Payens’, as he had called himself, was tired. He wanted to go home, he wanted so desperately to be with his brother, and his husband, reunited once more. Soon. So soon. His wet, bulbous eyes watched as the Hungarians ransacked the place. As the minutes passed, their anger became more visible. The plain wooden cross on the wall seemed to mock them as they searched in vain. He did not move from his armchair when he finally spoke.

“Keresitek ember akit a villám megjelölt és ő kioltja majd a csillagokat.”

The commander of the Záh Kardja stopped. His subordinate looked at him, warily. “A kövér ember túl sokat tud . Meg kell ölni őt,” but the commander shook his head.

“Azt, hogy könnyen kitalálja , öreg. Mondja el, hogyan működik az Igazi Kereszt, és akkor lehet élni.”

Hugues laughed. It was an undignified, wheezing laugh, wet with rheum and phlegm. They were here to finish that girl’s work, what she had started in Sontag. He stood up, prompting the death squad to raise their blade-wands. He dismissively waved his hand and walked to his desk. He closed his eyes, and let his Magic flow into the room. A small metal plate materialized on the table. As it did, the wooden cross transmuted into cold, chilling iron.

Soon, Ignotus. Soon.

He reminded himself that, despite different methods, they all fought on the same side against the same enemy. He walked over to the commander and presented him with the plate. For a moment, he looked into the man’s eyes.

“Láttam az előrejelzések is. Most van itt az ideje . Vedd ezt , és vele együtt legyőzni az utolsó ellenség.”

The commander was young, perhaps in his thirties, with eyes that had seen far too many atrocities, won far too many Pyrrhic victories. He understood, though, and he nodded, taking the tablet. As soon as he claimed it, Hugues whirled around, whipped his wand from his robes, pointed the wand at his own chest and screamed: “AVADA KEDAVRA!”

 


Alderney
August 10, 1979, C.E.

“These words,” said Nicholas Flamel, “Are not called the Words of Power and Madness lightly.”

“Legend says they have been lost. But this is not the first time you have surprised me with hidden lore,” Dumbledore examined the words in the Pensieve with keen interest.

“Ah, but they are lost. They exist not in my mind, nor in the mind of any other. I could not recall them even if I wanted to. Nor could you. Go ahead, try to tell me the words you just heard spoke. Try anything you can to recall them.”

Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak, but could not. Faint echoes of the words swirled around in his head but there was nothing concrete for him to grasp. He understood the abstraction but couldn’t complete the metaphor. Interesting. He entered the Pensieve, listened to the incantation, and hastily wrote down a snippet of the words as they came to him.

…enim nidnah eltti lruo ytupmar ehtd nataog ehtl laf eht noitan igami erup nrets nedli ugdnazt narc nesor…

He had seen such a trick before, and just like with the Mirror, he saw the words, heard the words, but still, nothing. There was no comprehension. “Power and Madness, indeed, Master Flamel.”

“They are the Words of the First Enchanter. As with everything, there are levels upon levels of meaning to them. Legend has it that their true power was as an incantation that would lift the shackles of the Interdict. And yet, the Interdict has ensured that such knowledge could never pass from anything but one living mind to another. You will be using the words their meanest of purposes: a mere passcode to Merlin’s web of prophecy.”

“So I shall speak Merlin’s words in the heart of Merlin’s tower while holding Merlin’s line bequeathed to me by Merlin’s successors in order to access the knowledge that has been hoarded by Merlin’s web… It seems to me that you possess quite a great deal of knowledge and lore that once belonged to the Prince of Enchanters,” Dumbledore smiled with a twinkle, and yet there was a strange tone to his voice, a hint of warning. “Take caution, my old friends. I know that we have had words about your non-intervention in the past. A great deal of lives and pain could have been spared if you were to directly intercede on my behalf. And not just with this matter of mine, but with others, and with other heroes who have come before me.

“But I know you are no cowards, and I know you both to be good, decent people, and that you truly believe one death is too many and one minute wasted is one minute too long. You would not suffer such losses or make such sacrifices lightly, if not for the greater good, a higher cause, a deeper plan… A hidden hand, guiding things, if you will.”

“Choose your words carefully, Albus,” Nicholas spoke.

Perenelle held her hand up. “Peace, Nicholas, peace. Let our guest continue his speculation.” Inwardly, she rolled her eyes. Why did people expect her to talk like that, to say things like ‘Peace’?

“It is not my intent to speculate, only to observe. You have done me and my many great favors over the years, in exchange for lore that most would consider paltry in comparison to the magnitude of the aid. I am truly in your debt. However, you are not accustomed to fighting your battles directly or dealing in overly complex plots. You are not used to being, as they say, ‘in the trenches’, and I know all too well how it can be much easier to see a pattern from the outside but not the inside. So I will offer the following advice:

“When there are Three, there is always a leader, a trusted confidante, and a disposable lieutenant. I have come to know and love the both of you and it would trouble me greatly if any harm came to either of you. So please, for your own sake and not mine, know that with which you deal. And take caution.”

“Your words are well-intentioned. A lesser person may be inclined to take offense at your presumption, but we are no fools. You do know a great deal more about plotting than either of us, and it’s been centuries since I’ve personally slain a Dark Lord,” Perenelle spoke, softly, and turned to look at Nicholas. She wondered if that was too obvious? She was not very good at all this mystical, pretending-to-be-wise business.

Meldh could sense her apprehension, and he stepped in. “Indeed, Nell, indeed. Albus, this is one task in which you cannot fail. You must listen to the prophecies, and you must truly comprehend them. The world hangs in such precarious balance. The path to salvation is but a single thread that must pass through the eye of a single needle in a rainstorm. There is more than one Dark Lord that you will be defeating in the coming years. Beware εσχατος εχθρος, Albus.”


The Department of Mysteries
Westminster, London
August 11, 1979, C.E.

…THE ONE WITH THE POWER TO DEFEAT THE DARK LORD–
…STONE IN THE WINDOW MUST BE DESTROYED AGAINST THE ANVI–
…NEW RISE AT THE SOLSTICE IN THE AGE OF THE GOAT–
…CHOICE FOR ONE MUST BE MADE FOR THE TE–
…TEAR APART THE VERY STARS IN HEAV–
…STARS SHALL COME BY THE ONE MARKED BY LIGHTNI–
…SOLSTICE AND NONE WILL COME AFTE–
…THE DE-ARMED SERVANT SHALL BE FOUND WHEN SHE COME–
…REX QUANDAM, REXQUE FUTUR–
…ONLY BY THIS PATH SHALL THE CRUX SUCCEE–
…THE CHOICE TO FOLLOW THE PHOENIX OR SOLVE THE RIDDL–
…LIGHT SHALL PLANT A SEED IN THE DARKNE–
…IN A TIME OF GREAT STRIFE WHEN ALL WORLDS NARROW TO–
…DOWN ON THE SERPENTS’ CROWN THE STONE SHAL–

The words crashed in Dumbledore’s mind, an unceasing battery of waves breaking against the walls of his sanity. And yet, despite their fractured dissonance, when put together, they sang a song of such beauty, order, and righteousness that he could not deny the path he must walk.

He saw that all prophecy was true, and all prophecy had levels upon levels upon levels upon levels. The layers of meaning forked, and forked again, and bound back upon themselves. There was the Crux, he was the Crux, so was the boy, so was his mentor, so was his enemy, so was the boy’s enemy. And there was The Enemy, the Dark Lord, not just Grindelwald, not just Voldemort, but the One True Dark Lord, the enemy who had menaced all beings since the dawn of time. He Who Went By Many Names:

Mot. Thanatos. Yambe Akka. Shaitan. Death. εσχατος εχθρος.

It went by many names and came in many forms, and they were all warriors in this final battle. Even his love, even Gellert was a warrior, in his own misguided way. Dumbledore would fight as well. He would not fight against the Death of the Body, for he knew that those before him had already conquered that foe. He looked forward to the day when he would reunite with Aberforth and Ariana and all those who had come before him. He would not fight against the Death of the World, for another even greater warrior would soon rise to wear that mantle. He would not fight against the Death of the Spirit, for man had risen to great heights without his aid, and he would not fight against the Death of Knowledge, for that battle was fought on a daily basis.

No, Dumbledore would spend his last days fighting against the Death of Love. Hate had no place in Paradise, and an eternity without love would be nothing so more than Hell. As he stood in the ruined chambers of the Hall of Prophecy, he was filled with an intense love, a love for all of life and all people and all things, and he knew that for their sakes that not another minute was to be wasted in his task.

He began.


Alderney
August 30, 1991, C.E.

“It’s time, Meldh.”

Meldh paced restlessly back and forth in the cottage. The report was as clear as day: The Parselmouth who wears the Crown of the Serpents could locate the Stone, infallibly, and they were in grave danger. The evidence was so thorough, so overwhelming, so convincing that it simply had to be true.

Which meant, of course, that it was a bold-faced lie.

After a time, Meldh spoke. “The banished father has returned, and he has laid for us this new Path. We must follow it, and we must make it seem as though we are acting according to his design. It must be convincing, both to the Riddle boy and to Albus.

“One of us must go to Hogwarts. The Mirror cannot leave its grounds, we cannot risk that. We must visit in person, and we must maintain the ruse,” Perenelle was packing their things as Meldh was speaking, “Once the Stone is gone, we must be seen to age and wither and eventually die. Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel will be no more.”

Perenelle stood and faced him. He was tired. And he always spoke in that ridiculous, affected tone when he was tired like he was a character in a play. Really, they both were tired. She had been fighting for centuries. He had been fighting for centuries longer. But it was all coming to a head now. The final battle would come soon and the conduit would soon be destroyed, for good.

She stared at the eyes of her companion. She had a deep love for this man. There was, of course, no physical love. The difference in age was far too great, even now. He was Meldh would have called their love Philia, but he always was a bit ceremonious and used big, fancy words when everyday terms would suffice. After all, he called himself “Meldh”, which was just silly, in her opinion. There wasn’t anything wrong with Heraclius. To Nell, Meldh was simply her friend. And she loved him. It would pain her to be away from him after they had spent so much time together as Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel.

But one day, pain would be a thing of the past. Just a childish thing that humanity had outgrown, like Death and War and everything else. But until then, she had work to do.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 22: The Tragedy of Light

The curtain opens on a large, wizard-sized chessboard. The pieces are represented by actors, all of whom are sitting down except for THE ROOK who is at the back of the board. After a time, he moves across the board to the front of the stage. 

THE ROOK: 

O blindness of the great.
They go their way like gods.
Great over bent backs.
Sure of hired fists.
Trusting in the power
Which has lasted so long.

ALL:

BUT LONG IS NOT FOREVER.
O CHANGE FROM AGE TO AGE!
THOU HOPE OF THE PEOPLE.

Enter LIGHT AUGURREY. He is wearing a dark CLOAK, and carrying a STONE in his right hand, and a WAND in his left hand.

THE ROOK: 

Up, great sir, deign to walk upright.
From your place the eyes of many foes follow you.
And now, you don’t need an architect. A carpenter will do.
You won’t be moving into a new palace
But into a little hole in the ground.
Look around you once more, blind man!
Does all you have please you?
Between the Easter Mass and the Easter meal
You are walking to a place whence no one returns.

ALL: 

WHEN THE HOUSE OF A GREAT ONE COLLAPSES
MANY LITTLE ONES ARE SLAIN
THOSE WHO HAD NO SHARE IN THE GOOD FORTUNES OF THE MIGHTY
OFTEN HAVE A SHARE IN THEIR MISFORTUNES.

LIGHT: The plunging wagon drags the sweating oxen down with it…

ALL: INTO THE ABYSS.

“The Tragedy of Light”, by S. Leigh, as staged in the 1989 London production.



June 13, 1334, C.E.
Hogwarts

“Egeustimentis.”

Nell looked around the hall of mirrors. Every surface was reflective, every move she made echoed perfectly through eternity.

Except for one.

Somewhere in the distance, there was one, one who didn’t mimic her moves, who had a life of her own. It traveled through the reflections, one mirror at a time until it reached her, and began to speak.

“Seriously? Did you seriously think that was going to work?”

From the moment the incantation was spoken, she had an inclination that something was wrong, the the plan went awry. Wherever she was now, she was not inside the mind of a millennia-old wizard/witch, and she was definitely not in control. In fact, she felt decidedly trapped.

She had lost.

She had lost. She knew the risk: her likelihood of success was miniscule. But when weighed against the value had she succeeded, it would have been the most tremendously immoral thing she could have done to simply let the opportunity slip. Even if it was a one in a thousandth, even one in a million chance, there were far more people than that in the world, and that was just at this point in time, not to mention the future. She couldn’t fathom a number high enough to make the risk not worth it.

She had a chance to end Death forever, she took it, and she failed.

Her reflection interrupted her thoughts, “Did you really think that the Cup of Dawn, a relic plundered from Atlantis itself, would operate on such a baroque interpretation of its instructions? Even f you were right, even if you had succeeded, what was your plan? I can see quite plainly that you have never used the Lethe Touch in any serious capacity before.

Nell opened her mouth to speak, but it was unnecessary. Her mind was laid bare, vivisected.

“That’s an admirable sentiment. But so flawed, so naive. Still. I can see why he wants you.”

“Who?” Although she had lost, the game was clearly not over. Her only choice was to respond and react, and hopefully provide her opponent what she was looking for.

“You wanted to get the attention of God. Well, you succeeded. And in a way, you will have won our little game. You will have won on my terms, and your victory will serve my ends, but you will win nonetheless.”

It may as well have been a monologue. There was nothing Nell could contribute to this conversation. But even still, she had the sense that the right thing to do was to simply shut up and and serve as the audience to whatever was happening now, to this information dump.

“You are one of the chosen ones, one of the Cruxes of the world, the world upon whose choices fate hangs in the balance. They have been shepherding mankind since the beginning of time, using people like me as pawns, who in turn use people like you. I was sent here to do two things: to collect you, and to die. But I was given the freedom to do so on my own terms, as long as it coincided with his.

“He has his plan for the world, and for that plan to work, I need to be gone.”

Who is ‘He’? What is his plan? Why does he want me? So many questions. Too many questions. 

“Even if I had a year to sit down and explain things to you,  I doubt it would make sense. There’s just too many entangled timelines, too many plots, too much going on for any one person to really grasp it. Sometimes, I question whether even he truly grasps the enormity of what he is attempting.

“Nonetheless, he is the father of this world. He created it from Nothing because our world was dying, and I strongly suspect it was dying because of his actions. But in creating this world, he not only bound our world, but every world. 

“Yes, the Fall of Atlantis. Much like you, he thought that he could end Death forever. Much like your choice, the risk was great. I doubt you could fathom a number high enough to quantify the risk. He saw the chance, and he took it. You gambled with your own life, which some may say is noble. He, on the other hand, gambled with the life of humanity. He gambled with the multiverse. 

“None of that, of course, has any practical meaning to you in the here and now. You are a creature of this world. You’re bound to live by the rules of this world. Your thrashing, organic sack of flesh is bound by the laws of time and space. Your means of experiencing the world around you are inherently tied to a single point of continuity. These higher level concepts are largely irrelevant to you.

“You see these reflections? They are you. They are you, gone down different paths. None of them made any choices that you would not have made yourself. They are you, and yet, for all intents and purposes, from your perspective they are different people.”

The reflection snapped her fingers, and a cacophony ensued. Each reflection was now living its own life, making its own way through the world. Each reflection acted like Nell, said things Nell would say, doing things Nell would do. They were her, without a doubt. And yet, they were not. She was the only one.

“Do you see?”

She snapped her fingers again, and the action quickened. Decades passed in the span of a few seconds. Nell watched herself grow old and gray a thousand different ways, watched herself die a thousand different ways. She saw blackness, so much blackness, so much Void, and yet, off in the distance, like the twinkling pinpricks of light against the night sky, she saw life.

She exerted her Will, and that life was now reflected across from her. It didn’t look much different, even though centuries had obviously passed. She looked a little bit older… No, not older. More mature.

That reflection turned to her and spoke. “As you have seen, preventing Death is not a particularly difficult problem. There are enough of us ‘immortals’ to serve as living proof of that. Reversing Death is even possible to a limited extent, provided one has taken proper precautions beforehand. You are one of the lucky ones. You did not have to look too far to find the shadow of yourself who had successfully avoided the clutches of Death.

“Lights out.”

The reflection disappeared, and it was darkness. There could have been an entire universe in front of her, but she would have been blind to it. She knew, however, that there was light somewhere. She searched through the blackness, finding nothing. It was there; it was just hidden. So there was nothing else to do besides keep searching.

“How long would you be willing to keep searching in order to find that light? How long would you continue to look? For that matter, how would you even find it in the first place? How far does the Void extend? If you believe, as many do, that the Void is infinite, then you could spend an eternity searching, and having nothing to show for it. Incidentally, the ancients called this ‘Information-Theoretic Death’.

“Now, on the other hand…” The lights returned, and the reflection was holding one of the mirrors, grasping a corner delicately with each hand. Gently, she bent the mirror so that it curved, and bent it further and further until the two corners touched each other. She repeated the same process with the other pair of corners, then smoothed the surface into a sphere. “Imagine, instead of extending on forever, it looked more like this,” she continued as she released the sphere.

It gently floated towards Nell, who peered at it curiously, and waited for the reflection to continue.

“Now, I would like to see if you are worthy of the role you are about to accept. Tell me, what are the consequences?”

Nell was silent for some time, considering the question. “You could… It’s finite. So long as you were determined enough, as long as you spent enough time, you could find the light. Not just yours, but everyone’s. No one… no one would stay dead.”

The reflection smiled. “Good, good.”

Nell, however, was frowning. “But, that’s not all.”

Still smiling, the reflection urged, “Go on.”

She gestured to a point on the sphere, and a pinprick of light revealed itself. “That’s me.” She gestured to another point, which lit up as well. “That’s you.” She continued, “And that’s Helena and that’s Babette, and that’s mum, that’s dad.”

More names, more pinpricks. “And this… this is everyone.” The pinpricks were so numerous that they blurred together, covering the sphere in a dim glow. “That’s today.”

The sphere glowed brighter, fractionally. “That’s tomorrow.”

The sphere glowed significantly brighter. “That’s a century from now.”

She shielded her eyes as the sphere began to glow an intense, blinding white. Before long, the light was as overwhelming as the darkness was a few moments before. There could have been an entire universe in front of her, but she would have been blind to it.

“And that’s it. It’s finite, you said so yourself. It has an end, and after that end is Death. True, permanent Death.”

“Yes, indeed. This man who  you seek, he created a world where countless millions, countless millions of millions, would be created, and subjected to that true, permanent Death. Every day, hundreds of thousands of tragedies are born. Weak, baseline humans destined to die after less than a century, and once this tiny little sphere runs down, they will stay dead forever.

“The fate of all worlds are now bound to this one. Neither can live while the other survives. That is the crime he is trying to repent for, that is the wrong he is trying to right.”

Nell was nodding. “So he is trying to save the world, all worlds, from Death. Why would I say ‘No’ to that?”

“Twenty minutes ago, you were prepared to do so. Had you succeeded in pilfering the secrets you sought from my mind, you would have learned one of the paths to immortality, and with my power you would have embarked on a grand quest to save the world. You would find, however, that a shadowy villain lurked in the background, stymying you at every turn, preventing you from achieving your ends. That villain would whisper into the ears of fools, speaking of the necessity of death, of the circle of life, telling people that to oppose death is a craven, sick urge. You would have devoted your life to stopping this destroyer.

“But it’s more than that.  I do realize that you have the propensity to consider yourself the smartest person in the room, despite your protestations. I don’t just mean outwardly, I mean the comforting lies you tell yourself.

“When it came down to it, in your heart of hearts, you believed yourself more clever than an Ancient with thousands of times your age and experience.”Nell tried to do some quick mental math, but was interrupted. “52,000 years, give or take. Think about that.

“You believed that you were more clever than I. And you saw to what end that brought you. Now, tell me, what do you make of the fact that you, a girl of a mere sixteen years, could see the folly of his plan? I might add that I can say with certainty that he is more clever than I.”

Nell paced around restlessly while she spoke. “It wasn’t a miscalculation or a mistake. If it were possible to miscalculate, I wouldn’t take that kind of gamble. He wouldn’t take that kind of gamble. The risk would be too great. To gamble with your own life, as you said, is noble. But to risk the lives and future of all? No. He wouldn’t do that.”

She paused.

“No, wait.”

Silence.

“Yes, I would. He would. He knew there was a risk, and he probably would have taken as many precautions as necessary to minimize the risk, but… But you said it yourself. He’s more clever than you, and you’re more clever than I am. I am supremely overconfident in my own abilities, in proportion to my cleverness.

“From what I’ve seen, you too are supremely overconfident in your abilities, in proportion to your own cleverness. Which means…” she spoke more slowly now. “He thought… He thought he’d be clever enough. He thought that if disaster did strike, he’d be clever enough to solve the problem.”

The reflection nodded, grimly. “Indeed. And that is why he seeks the counsel of others. He has learned what it means to lose, and he does not wish to repeat that mistake. That is why he needs you.”

Nell returned the grim nod, “I understand. And I am still willing.”

“Good. Now the only thing left to discuss is how we shall manage your ascendance. There is one assumption you made that was accurate, and that is that the vast majority of your classmates are blithering fools, and as such, will accept whatever titillating, ridiculous story we throw their way.

Nell grinned at this. “Yes. One of my fallback plans was to convince Hogwarts that we had slept together.”

“Yes, I’m quite aware. In fact, I have made arrangements such that your diary will, by this point, already be in the hands of Headmaster Gagwilde. He will, no doubt, be making his own arrangements to have me removed from my post as Battle Magic professor. Finding that I have unceremoniously fled in the dead of night, will all but confirm the suspicion.”

“Fled?”

“That is what you will make it look like, after you have killed me,” the reflection spoke pleasantly and matter-of-factly, as if discussing the yield on this season’s batch of puffskeins. “He will find that I have fled, and that you are in my chambers in a… shall we say… compromising position.”

“But that won’t be enough, will it?”

“No, of course not.”

“People love a good conspiracy theory, so we’ll give them one. A lie wrapped in the truth: I did, in fact, kill you and steal the object of your power. When I fail to return to Hogwarts and instead resurface as a nigh-immortal Goddess, this story will satisfy those who think one level above everyone else.”

“And what of those who think one level above that?”

“They’ll either join us, or they’ll die.”

The reflection nodded, grimly. It was time to begin.

 


LIGHT laughs uncontrollably. He is caught, defeated.

LIGHT: Yes, I am Keira. But, Keira is bigger than me. She is what keeps order in the rotten, broken world. You speak of wars? What wars? Crime? Thugs flinch at the very idea of committing a crime for fear of Keira’s righteous retribution. I know that killing people is wrong, I’m not a monster. Do you think I wanted this? But there’s no other way to fix this world, other than to purge it. No one else wants to do it, no one else CAN do it. If you kill me, you might save the world as it stands, but you sacrifice the future. Kill me, and the world of Good dies with me.

NEAL: No. You are nothing more than a murderer, a murderer who possesses the Deathly Hallows, the most sophisticated weapon of Death our world can imagine. You are not Keira; you are simply a killer, a sad, pathetic murderer.

LIGHT laughs again. He is thinking.

LIGHT: Say, Neal. Here’s some food for thought. The Hallows that Isaac had recovered, how do you know those are the real ones? There’s only one way to find out, you know. You’ll have to kill me with them. Only then can you be sure if they’re real…

LIGHT makes a quick gesture with his hands, and spins around to face the AURORS.

LIGHT: OR FAKE!

ISAAC: He’s hidden a piece of the Wand!

The AURORS whip out their wands, but MONICA is the first to draw hers. She fires a curse at LIGHT’s hand, blasting him off his feet. He pulls himself up, clutching his ruined hand.

LIGHT: Monica, you idiot! You stupid bitch, what are you doing, what the hell do you think you’re doing?

MONICA: You! It was you! What was it all for? Your father… You led him to his death, and for what? What did he even die for?

LIGHT: He was a fool! They all were! They cared more about the system of justice than they cared about justice itself. Can’t you see that? People like him, people like them, they don’t care about the good that I’ve done, all they can see is that I haven’t followed the rules! Do you really want to leave the world to fools such as them?

MONICA: Now that he’s dead, you call him a fool?

LIGHT: It’s not too late. You understand, I know that you do. You’re a good person, you know that what I’ve done is a good. We can still build a new world, free from darkness. It’s not too late, Monica, just KILL THE OTHERS!

The command rings with unnatural force. MONICA stands silent, shaking, not moving otherwise. After a long moment, LIGHT realizes she will not help him, and his posture relaxes. The stage lights dim, imperceptibly. He makes another sudden movement.

ISAAC: HE’S USING WANDLESS MAGIC!

Indistinct shouting. They all begin to fire curses, with MONICA leading the charge. She viciously whips her wand back and forth, advancing on him.

MONICA: (wildly) I HAVE TO KILL HIM, HE HAS TO DIE!!

LIGHT collapses. In the commotion, MCNAMEE struggles with ISAAC and grabs his wand. ISAAC twists his arm, forcing the point of the wand into MCNAMEE’s stomach. ISAAC pins his arm in place. Slumping his shoulders in defeat, MCNAMEE raises his head, and shouts a word.

MCNAMEE: SECTUMSEMPRA!

Blood pours out in liters. ISAAC and MAURY turn to MCNAMEE and try to start healing him. While the Aurors are distracted, LIGHT stumbles up and awkwardly shambles offstage, clutching his wounds. The stage lights come up, bathing the entire scene in white. Everyone freezes, except for LIGHT, who stumbles up the stairs to the top of the stage balcony.

THE ROOK is standing, waiting for him.

THE ROOK: Well Light, it looks like you’ve finally lost. Remember how I told you in the beginning, one day I would claim you for my own? You see, that’s part of the agreement between an Angel of Death and the one who claims the Hallows.

THE ROOK walks down the stairs to ISAAC, who is still frozen, and removes the CLOAK, the WAND and the STONE.

THE ROOK: It was good while it lasted. We eased each other’s boredom for quite some time.

Holding the STONE in one hand, he traces a name in the air with the WAND. The name reads, “LIGHT AUGURREY”.

THE ROOK: Goodbye, Light.

“The Tragedy of Light”, by S. Leigh, as staged in the 1989 London production.


June 13, 1989, C.E.
London

Draco had been waiting for this question, and he had been long considering his answer. Why did father take him to see this play? Light was a brilliant role model, a perfect example of a Slytherin who used the true power of his cunning. So he wanted Draco to be more like Light. But Light was always thinking one step ahead, anticipating the moves of even his friends and companions…

So Father would want him to think one step ahead.

What would Father say, or do, in response, and how should he respond to that? He had been narrowing his eyes in thought the entire walk from their box seat to the private, exclusive, and wildly expensive restaurant. Think. Think. What would Father do? What would he say? Father was so clever, always so clever.

If he were Father, he would ask to see an example to ensure that the lesson sunk in. It was perfect. Father would want to see an example of Draco thinking one step ahead, and so Draco would oblige and tell Father what he was expecting.

“You wanted to teach me to be as cunning as Light and Lawliet when I grow up. But more than that, you wanted to see the principles in action. So here I am, thinking one step ahead,” Draco spoke with a self-satisfied smile.

“You couldn’t be more wrong.”

Draco’s smile froze.

“Light and Lawliet are dead. Is that what you mean by clever?”

“I, uh…”

“Do not feel ashamed, Draco. It’s an important lesson. When trying to come up with the correct answer, you most likely found yourself asking, ‘What would Father say?’, is that correct?”

“Yes, Father.”

“But instead, you answered the question, ‘What would I do if I were Father?’, is that also correct?”

In response, Draco wrinkled his nose, trying to understand the distinction.

“Take your time, Draco.”

After a few moments, Draco spoke hesitantly, “Yes… And that was doomed to failure because I am not you. If I wanted to be one level above you, I would need to… I’m not sure how to say this. I would need to have all of you inside of me?”

“That is a reasonable enough way to phrase it. To put a finer point on it; you would need to be more clever than myself. Which you are not, nor would I expect you to be. Perhaps one day. What you would do if you were me is not the same as what I would do. Now, imagine if you were to write a play about me. How clever would this false Lucius Malfoy be?”

Draco took a few more moments to consider. “He would only be as clever as myself.”

At this, Lucius smiled. “Correct. And if Mr. Leigh was as clever as he imagined Light and Lawliet, if he had actually known what someone that intelligent would do, he would have found the Deathly Hallows for himself and ruled the world, instead of just writing plays about it.”

“But they aren’t actually real… are they?”

Lucius waved his hand. “They may be, they may not be, it is of no real importance. I have another question for you. What was Lawliet’s biggest mistake?”

“I… Well. I was going to say that he was not as clever as Light, and so he lost. But I understand what you are saying. They are, in fact, equally as clever, which is to say, they are only as clever as the playwright. So his error must have been a tactical one. But…” He paused as he tried to think.

“That’s not strictly true. A brilliant author may very well write a character who is deliberately flawed. In fact, without such flaws, in all likelihood there would be no story. Perfect people rarely have reason to quarrel. But, it is quite easy for an author to blame their own lack of cunning on their characters.”

Draco was going to respond, but he got the strange sense that Father was not just talking about a play.

“Lawliet’s mistake was that although he had cleverly concealed his face, there was no good reason for him to tell Light his name. In fact, there is little reason for him to have interacted directly with Light in the first place, especially if he truly suspected Light of being Keira. Now, Draco, can you tell me what Light’s biggest mistake was?”

He tried to follow the same pattern as Lawliet’s mistake. “He should have continued to operate in secrecy. He should have simply used the power of the Hallows to kill anyone who stood in his way?”

Lucius smiled. “Close, very close. But his goal was not simply to kill people. He wanted to purify the world of evil. But Light, to his credit, knew that he could not do that simply by killing one criminal at a time. In order to truly rid the world of evil, people would have to police themselves.”

Lucius gestured dismissively to a waiter, pointed to an item from the wine list, and the waiter bowed his head in acknowledgement. Lucius continued, and Draco’s eyes grew wider and wider. “A war requires the participation of both sides. Just because someone calls for war against you does not mean you are obligated to reply. In fact, it is most often advantageous not to, for typically people do not launch themselves into battle until they are relatively sure of their chances of victory. ”

The waiter returned, more quickly than he would have if it were any normal patron, carrying a bottle of Tokaji. He poured a small amount into a glass and offered it to Lucius, who instead inclined his head towards Draco.

“Me?”

Lucius nodded. Draco cautiously reached across the table, and took the glass. His hand was shaking slightly. He felt like his father was on the verge of revealing something very important, but he could not fathom what that might be. The topaz liquid reached his lips, and Draco was very determined not to make the face.

“It’s… sweet?” Draco offered. The server’s eyes flashed briefly with terror, and Draco quickly corrected. “But it is supposed to be, I think. I like it.”

Lucius was silent as his own glass was filled. The server poured Draco’s glass quite slowly, constantly looking back to the Lord Malfoy for an indication as to what was enough. After less than a finger’s worth, he inclined his head, and the server hurried away. Silently, Draco and Lucius clinked glasses.

Draco thought that Father had taken a much larger sip than usual.

“Light’s folly was, when the Aurors declared war upon him in the first Act, he rose to the challenge. And that was unnecessary, there was no benefit to doing so. By going so far as to murder some of the Aurors, he galvanized not only the Ministry, but much of the public, against him. Had he simply continued to kill evildoers, the Aurors would have turned against each other. Keira would have been hailed as a savior rather than an anti-hero.”

“I… I see. That’s brilliant, father.”

“Now, can you think of another example of this, but in real life? A brilliant, cunning individual in possession of great power who sought to reshape the world and purify it of evil? One who was eventually brought down by an over abundance of his own perceived cleverness combined with the inexplicable propensity to wage senseless war against the public rather than to court them?”

The edge in Lucius’ voice was pronounced, and it scared Draco. He knew the correct answer, there was no doubt in his mind. But if that were not the answer Lucius was looking for, it would be a terrible mistake to utter it out loud. Was this Father testing him, seeing if he learned the lesson? Was this the challenge? Even if it was not deliberate, Draco stood nothing to gain by saying what he truly thought, so instead he invented a plausible lie.

“Lord Grindelwald? He sought to bring the Muggles under our heel for the greater good, but in doing so he tore through Europe, making enemies as he went?”

Lucius paused, and then a wicked smile graced his lips. “I see you’ve learned the lesson well, Draco. But we both know that you’re wrong. I will spare you the deliberation of whether you should say it or not, and simply do it for you. Tom Riddle.”

Despite himself, Draco gasped at hearing the name, the crude, vulgar, Muggle-given name of the Dark Lord.

“He was indeed brilliant, and he was indeed cunning, and he was indeed powerful beyond measure. He could have given us the world we sought. A world where Magic no longer fades, a future where our wands will not break in our hands, where the line of Merlin never ends, the blood of Atlantis never fails. He could have saved us all.”

Lucius downed the rest of the wine, and continued. “But instead, he took it upon himself to wage war against the first foe he considered worthy. Him. Dumbledore. Before the Dark Lord began attacking Wizarding families, the public secretly admired the Death Eaters. Those who didn’t admire us were scared. They were scared, and more importantly, they were policing themselves, for fear of our righteous retribution.

“Dumbledore spoke out against us, and he put together his Order of the Phoenix, this is true. But their voices would have been drowned by the cheers for the Death Eaters if the Dark Lord had simply ignored them!” Draco noticed from the corner of his eye that Father’s knuckles were white around his cane. “The Order would have been the villains! They would have been the ones fighting to preserve a system that allows evil to flourish. They would have been the enemies of progress. The Ministry would have stopped them, and if the Ministry didn’t, then the public would have overthrown the Ministry.

“But that was not to be. Instead, many good people died. Many good people were corrupted. Many good people were turned away by our perceived brutality.”

Draco closed his eyes. The meaning was unmistakeable. Mother. Aunt Bella. Aunt Andromeda.

“Think about that, Draco, before you decide to take an enemy for yourself. And more importantly, do not play the game simply for the sake of playing the game. Light and Lawliet, they played the game because the playwright thought that playing the game is what clever people do. But the Dark Lord… He…”

“He was playing a different game entirely?” Draco offered.

Lucius nodded in satisfaction. His son was young, still so young, and yet so clever, so cunning. He wondered what would become of his son, with a note of regret, wishing only to live to see it.

 


June 13, 1334, C.E.
Hogwarts

“You BITCH!”

Her world was ice. Her world was crystal. Her world was fire, burning through every metaphor until nothing existed of her but the abyssal depths of her dark side.

Crucio!

She felt nothing.

CRUCIO! CRUCIO! CRUCIO!

Her breath came in ragged pulls and she poured all of her magic into the pain. Still, nothing.

“YOU FUCKING BITCH!”

She reached for the nearest heavy object, a candlestick on the nightstand. She was still naked. They both were. Normally when she was exerting herself, her hair would come loose, cover her face, obscure her vision. But today, it was slick with sweat and blood, and stuck to her back and chest.

She swung the candlestick, hard.

“This is for my mother!”

She swung again.

“This is for my father!”

CRACK.

“THIS is for Babette!”

The candlestick finally snapped. At this point, what she was swinging at was an unrecognizable, pulpy mess.

“YOU KNEW. This entire time, you KNEW! This entire time you could have done SOMETHING. ANYTHING!”

She choked out a sob. With no convenient weapon, and almost no magic left in her, she resorted to her fists.

“God damn you. GOD DAMN YOU.”

Impossibly, the breaths still came. She knew there was one last thing to be done, and she had held a small part of her magic in reserve. She hoped it was enough. With an angry cry of effort, she plunged her fist, augmented by a small flow of magic, into the chest of her victim. With a wet sucking sound, she pulled out what she sought.

A green, fist-sized chunk of crystal. The Heart of Koschei the Deathless.

She had a speech written in her mind, about the millions of deaths that Koschei was responsible for, and the blood on its hands and the good that it could have done and the choice of inaction and the path of evil and her own grand dreams and ambitions and how she would change and save the world. But she could not form coherent words, only vitriol.

“You… fucking.. BITCH.”

She held up the Heart. It was poetic in a way. She would use its own power to destroy both the Heart and its owner. It would, of course, be diminished. It would be a sacrifice. But it would be more than sufficient for what she hoped to accomplish.

She used the final mote of magic left in her to transfigure the Heart into something lesser. It was smaller, the size of an egg, and it was no longer the brilliant, iridescent green that reflected an infinite multitude of colors while still maintaining its own identity. Now it only reflected what was on her mind: dark, ruddy, sticky blood. She tapped into the power of the Heart.

Its form was Changed. As too, was the God beneath her. An instant before, it was a broken, but living, breathing person. An instant later, it was a corpse. It was over.

At that moment, on cue, she heard the clipped scream of Helena, who had seen the entire thing. Helena was no gossip. She would keep Nell’s ‘secret’ safe, from everyone throughout her life except for a handful of trusted confidantes. No one would have any reason to doubt her veracity or motives. And those confidantes would preserve the secret, except for a handful of trusted confidantes of their own… And thus the legend would spread.

Shortly thereafter, as expected, the Headmaster showed up to find Nell still mostly undressed, halfway wearing her favorite emerald-green dress. The scene was set: the window was open and most of Baba Yaga’s personal collection of lore, including the Goblet of Fire, was gone.

Also according to plan, the Headmaster performed a clumsy attempt at Legilimency, and saw exactly what he expected to see: confirmation of his theory. Nell was underaged, and therefore the victim, so he did not blame her. In fact, he would immediately begin making arrangements to provide her with as much support as possible during this difficult time.

That support would be for naught, however, as moments after he left her to her own devices, a thick white mist precipitated into the air near Nell, eventually coalescing into the form of a middle-aged man, a little out of shape, with a small paunch. Taller than average, but somewhat stooped.  A face heavily seamed with care, and green eyes.  Ancient, ancient green eyes, and disheveled black hair.

“Are you him?” Nell asked.

The man smiled, softly.  He had a kind face.

“Yes, Perenelle du Marais,” he said, in a voice that was mellow, and deeper than Nell expected. “I am Merlin.”