Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 26: A Million Same

Alderney
December 12, 1334, C.E.

Nell cackled, despite herself. Was it really this easy? It was, wasn’t it? All it took was a bit of theater, a cheap trick to smoke that fat oaf out of his hiding spot. Well, not that cheap. It had taken the assistance of a pair of ridiculously powerful pair of artifacts, but still. It was amusing: the Elder Wand was, in terms of raw power, the most powerful of the Hallows. But offense can only take you so far. How can you kill a ghost? How can you spot what remains unseen?

The church was laden with counter-jinxes and dark detectors. Had she cast any sort of magic within their radius of effect, it would have immediately revealed her location along with removing a large majority of the protection provided by the Cloak. But she didn’t need magic: she had a thick, leather sap filled with lead which would do the trick just fine. And it did, quite handily. A sharp crack to the base of the skull dropped “Hugues de Payens”, along with his defenses, in an instant. The Elder Wand clattered to the floor, and sparing no time for dramatics, she quickly scooped it up and Apparated away.


…Ignotus was sad. She was young, too young to understand the mantle that had been thrust upon her. He saw the unbroken chain of causality that stretched from eternity into eternity, illuminating the path that she must follow. He saw her, awash with sadness, grief, and the weight of the world. He saw the sadness, clarified into white hot anger. He saw her slashing, thrusting angrily, violently against a foe much older than herself, much more powerful than herself. He saw her dismantling defenses, only to have those defenses rebuilt. He saw her gain no purchase-


Minutes earlier

Cadmus cackled, despite himself. Was it really this easy? It was, wasn’t it? He was still relatively young by the standard of functionally immortal wizards and witches, but he was startled by how reliably people tended to play to expectations. And this girl, this child had done so marvelously. Cadmus had long known that he needed to pass it down to a new owner, and he had already done so with the Cloak and the Stone. But the Wand could not be gifted, it had to be earned. And who more worthy to possess it than the next Master of Death?

After all, only one who had claimed the Cloak and understood its properties could pass through his wards, unaffected. And only someone who had claimed the Stone and understood its properties would be capable of sending the proper message via the proper messenger. Ignotus had laid down in the Keep of Mysteries his contribution to the Great Prophecy; he spoke of the Path of the Scorpion and the Archer, the road that the two-faced God must walk. And now Ignotus existed only in that place beyond Time, a place where all prophecy was true.

The Master of Death had sought him out, and he had deemed her worthy.


…Ignotus watched the young woman’s duel with the witch in the green dress with curiosity. It was a strange thing. Curses fell useless against the witch’s shields, which barely glowed a gentle silver as they absorbed one curse after another. And the ancient witch’s attacks found no purchase, for the Elder Wand moved of its own accord, assisting its true owner, obliterating magics as if they were a child’s whisper-


Minutes earlier

Ever since a young age, Nell had exhibited quite a knack for recognizing just how good was “good enough.” Like most disciplines, you could learn much of what any given magical subject had to offer in a very short period of time if you only directed your studies appropriately and actually applied yourself. Most people did not, and so Nell was able to quickly outpace “most people” at just about anything.

After her first year or two at Hogwarts, when she had risen meteorically through the academic ranks, she had simply thought that everyone around her was stupid. And indeed, if you equated intelligence with winning, then most people certainly were. But that was a rather antisocial attitude, one that tripped up many of her Ravenclaw classmates. No, it wasn’t that people were inherently stupid or irrational, it was just that their potentially was yet to be tapped.

She had thought that she should become a teacher, but she considered the fate of Elijah Solomon, the old professor at Hogwarts who taught the N.E.W.T.-level class, “Existential Threats”. It was a class that attracted little interest these days, for the world was in its prime. Most of the students were those who already followed his teachings: he had dedicated much of his life to spreading the gospel of Rationality.

He was a modern-day Prometheus, and what was his reward? His peers left him to drown in an ocean of derision. A sneer, it seemed, was equally as damning as a well-reasoned argument. The world, it seemed, did not wish to stand tall, for when you do, that is when you are most visible, most vulnerable.

Nell knew a lost cause when she saw one and determined that teaching was simply not for her. Instead, she would lead by example and simply serve as a living role model. To reach that point, she simply got as good as she could get at as many disciplines as possible. Once she reached the point of diminishing returns, she would move on to a new subject.

Although initially, she was merely a jack of all trades and a master of none, as time went on she was able to weave her skills and knowledge in with one another, producing unconventional yet highly effective solutions to problems that a more singularly focused expert would never consider.

Part of what made this process so easy was that, although magic was highly opaque, it was also highly functional and robust. One could spend the better part of a decade researching and examining the True Cloak of Invisibility, determining how to was created, how each material and fiber lay with relation to the other, and so on and so forth.

Or, she could spend the lesser part of an afternoon messing around with her best friend and figure out 90% of what she needed to know in order to take down one of the most powerful wizards in recent history. Knowing “why” something worked was exponentially difficult and exponentially less useful than knowing “how” something worked.

It was with that in mind that she set about trying to determine the properties of the Spirit Stone. She had made it a point, when doing research of this nature, to attempt the most hopelessly optimistic outcome first, just in case it worked. For example, if the Spirit Stone could truly call forth a sufficiently high fidelity reproduction of any person who had ever died, ever… Well, that would basically make her a God, and today would be Judgment Day.

Although things were sometimes that easy, this time, it wasn’t. It seemed that she needed to precisely identify who she was attempting to call forth. So she tried several iterations of summoning, attempting to determine precisely where the outer boundary began. But she knew in the back of her mind that she was simply stalling the painful but necessary test that she would have to perform at some point.

Rather than flinch away from it, she embraced the pain, and rolled the Spirit Stone over in her hand thricely, summoning forth the spirit of young Elizabeth du Marais.

Even though she was prepared for it, she still felt it as a blow in her gut, a visceral, heart-rending pain as the perfect, unbroken spirit of her little Babette coalesced from the ether and looked her.

“Nell?” She was disoriented and rubbed her eyes.

Nell had told herself that she wouldn’t cry, which was stupid, because how could she not? Her vision was already blurry. “Babette. Babette, love, it’s me.”

“Nell? Where are we? What happened?” She ran towards Nell and tried to hug her, but she passed through Nell’s body and was able to hold nothing. Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Oh, no. No, no. No, no, no, no, no…”

“Babette…”

“No, no. NO, NO, NO! Nell, no! Am I dead? I don’t want to her dead!” Her voice grew panicked, frantic. “Where are mama and papa? I want to see them. Please, Nell, help me! Please don’t let me be dead!”

Nell couldn’t respond. The tears had choked her words and clouded her vision and her mind.

“Help me, please. Please! I don’t want to be gone. Take me back. Bring me back. Help me, please, please, please, please!”

Nell didn’t know what she expected. Of course it would be this hard. She needed to take back control. She needed her protection against the sadness of this broken world. She surrendercd her mind to all the things that made her angry, that made her rage, that made her hate. She thought about the world’s cavalier acceptance of death, about the indifference that humanity showed to this wholesale tragedy, how mankind was so terrified that they would rather embrace death as a friend than fight it until the bitter end.

Waves of hot anger rushed over her, dulling her senses, forcing out all other emotions. The world crystallized in front of her, and she saw her delicate, pure, perfect sister falling victim to the same fear, the same cowardice.

“BABETTE. LISTEN TO ME!” She shouted. Babette stopped crying. She was on the ground now, curled up, still sniffling, but at least she was silent. Nell continued. “I am going to save you. I’m going to save you and Mama and Papa and everyone. But I need you to help me. I need you to be brave. Can you do that for me? Can you be brave?”

Babette nodded with a weak sniffle.

“Good. I need to know the last thing you remember.”

She thought for a moment. “We were playing. Playing near the river, the one that Mama had warned us about. I fell in…”

“Yes, but how? I was climbing our tree and didn’t see you, or hear you fall in. What were you doing when you fell in? What happened?”

Babette’s spirit screwed up her face in thought. “I… I don’t remember. I think I was dipping my toes in the water… But I’m not sure. Why don’t I remember? Nell, what’s happen–”

Babette was starting to lose it again. “Hush, it’s okay. That’s normal,” Nell lied. She thought quickly, she needed something to verify her hypothesis, something to confirm her fear. After a moment, she had it. “Okay. Your diary, do you remember that?”

“Mm hmm.”

“You told me that you had given it a name, but that name was a secret. You said it was a silly name, and that one day you’d tell me and I’d laugh, but that it was your secret for now. Do you remember that?”

“Yes…”

“What was the name?”

“Oh! It–” Babette’s eyes widened. “I… I can’t remember. It’s right there, on the tip of my tongue but…”

“Never mind that. Think of the last thing you and I were apart. When I was at Hogwarts. Tell me something, anything you remember, when it was just you and Mama and Papa.”

“I can’t. Nell, I can’t. I don’t remember any of it.”

Nell sighed. This was confirmation enough. She didn’t know how much more she could take. She immediately dismissed Babette’s spirit. It wasn’t her, not really, so she didn’t want to inflict the pain of a long goodbye upon herself.

Okay, so, at face value, the Stone produces a Ghost. Whatever it called forth was shaped by the owner’s memories, expectations, and thoughts. But somehow, it was linked to the world of Life and Death, for it would only call forth the spirit of someone who was truly dead. She tried to call forth the spirit of fictional characters, or those she knew for a fact were alive, and nothing came.

That alone represented a treasure trove of information. She could verify the historicity of any person from history, or determine the precise moment of death of any live person. But that aside, the stone clearly drew from a source of information outside of Nell’s own mind. If the Stone fit the pattern, as so many magical things did, there was a fighting chance that the knowledge was somehow linked to the previous owners of the stone. Unfortunately, she didn’t know much of the Gaunt family tree, so she decided to go straight to the top and try to summon the spirit of Cadmus Peverell.

Huh. Nothing.

That was strange, though not altogether shocking, that the Peverell Brothers were simply a myth. Even though the legend was still fairly young, stories had a way of spreading out of control over the span of a few generations. Unless…

She focused her mind on the name of Antioch Peverell, and called him forth from the abyss.

“That’s my brother’s ring,” the spirit spoke, immediately.

Nell was cautious. There were a lot of implications here. “Yes, yes it is.”

“Taken, or given?”

“Given.”

He grunted. “Yet you are no blood of mine.”

“No, I am not. It was loaned to be by the descendent of Celia Peverell Gaunt, by way of her cousin, from the Ollivander-Nott family.”

At this, Antioch’s ghostly expression softened. When he spoke, it was almost wistful. “Little Celia. She was barely a few months old when I had passed.”

“Oh? Would you like to see her? I can call her forth…”

“No need, I just did.”

“You– ah.” Nell faltered. “Yes, you’re dead. Space and time, I’m guessing they don’t mean much to you.”

“No, they don’t.”

“Well, as long as you’re here, do you mind telling me how you died? Legend has it that you slew a wizard with whom you once quarreled, and that night your throat was slit by someone who sought to claim the wand for themselves?”

Antioch considered this and smiled grimly. “Yes, I suppose that is true.”

“Who was it? Who now possesses the Elder Wand?”

“I’ll tell you no more than I already have, and if you knew what was best, you would ask no more, either.”

She ignored the veiled threat. “Tell me about your brother, then. Cadmus.”

At this, Antioch jerked reflexively, but immediately composed himself. “What of him?”

“He was real?”

“Of course he was real. What are you playing at?”

“He’s alive.” Silence. Long silence. Both their minds were racing. Antioch’s lack of a response was damning, and Nell connected the dots, coming to a realization that she probably should have come to long before. She began to speak, slowly. “Your family… You came from Alderney, didn’t you? Small place. It’s where I’m from, you know. You know, I think I might just take a little trip home. Visit the sites, you know? You enjoy your rest, now.”

With a flick of her hand, the white mist that made up Antioch’s spirit dissipated immediately, as did the form of Nell, who had Apparated to away to her native home of Alderney, to confront Cadmus Peverell.


…Ignotus watched, trying to remain impartial as the battle raged on beyond the veil. They were both glorious in their puissance and beauty; one a vision of natural beauty, keen intelligence, an almost childlike innocence. The other was an earthly Goddess. He saw how the girl-child closed the distance, and they fought. Spells fell on shields. Spells fell on wand-wards. The duel was a storm without wind.


Minutes later

The power that was coursing through her was palpable and begged for release. The Wand had glowed reluctantly and dimly in reluctant recognition of its new master. She had been taught that wands had personalities, and if this was the case, she had a distinct impression that this particular wand would be rolling its eyes and sighing dramatically, as if to say, “You? I’m stuck with you?”

Only for a little bit. I have a job to do. After I’m done, I won’t need you anymore, and you’ll be free to seek out a new, more bloodthirsty master.

“Fair enough. Then you should Apparate, that would be the fastest way to get there.”

What, like, to the front door? You can’t Apparate into Hogwarts.

“Don’t be stupid. Use the Cloak. Apparate right into her room.”

Umm… Are you sure that the Hogwarts’ wards won’t–

“One of us is a 16-year old witch, and another is the intelligent, anthropomorphic representation of a centuries-old object of immeasurable power. Of course I’m right.”

Yeah, but she’ll be waiting for me.

“Yes, I know that. You may as well have written a letter telling her when, where, and how you’d be going after her.”

So how do I get the drop on her?

“She won’t be expecting you to just appear right in front of her. Once you do, just leave the rest to me.”

I don’t want to kill her, you know that, right? Her powers, her information, they’re no good to me, dead.

“Yes, I know that, idiot girl. I’m a projected figment of your imagination, how would I not?”

I thought you were an intelligent, anthropomorphic representation of a centuries-old object of immeasurable power.

“Look, I… You know what? Times up. Let’s do this.” The Elder Wand screamed into action, dragging her almost unwillingly through time and space, directly into the office of Baba Yaga.


The quality of the air changed slightly. Nothing altogether noticeable, but when you were this old, there was just something about the underlying pattern of the universe that seemed different when a specific volume of air is replaced by an equal quantity of an invisible, unseen intruder.

Perenelle.

The intruder was not just invisible, but truly hidden. There were only one or two extant objects of power in the Wizarding world capable of doing this, one of which was conveniently located here at Hogwarts. It didn’t take much of a leap of faith the deduce the identity of the intruder.

Baba Yaga knew that Perenelle would not dare attempt an outright attack unless she was protected, and unless she had a weapon. If she possessed one Hallow, it was not unreasonable to expect that she now possessed the others. The only unknown was how she planned to handle the protection of the Cup of Dawn. Would she try to bait out an attack so as to force Baba Yaga to forsake its protection? Or would Perenelle simply go on the offensive, abandoning her own protection?

The latter was simply suicide, and because the two courses of action were mutually exclusive, it was simply more prudent to wait than to strike first. Baba Yaga’s magic radiated outward, passing unperturbed, for the most part, through Perenelle. However, because Baba Yaga had the well-founded suspicion that she was somewhere in this room, a small fraction of her magic returned to her with useful information.

With that information, the well-founded suspicion became an educated guess, which in turn increased the power of her magic, which in turn confirmed that educated guess, and within moments, she could sense precisely where Perenelle was hiding, invisible.

It was right behind her.

An invisible hand reached out. Baba Yaga had an eternity to practice the concealment of her emotions, her thoughts, her suspicions, and to the outside world, it appeared that she was doing nothing more than reading the notes on her desk. But she was ready.

somebody shouts a word

In an instant, she felt a hand on her shoulder and heard the first breaths of a syllable. Faster than what should have been possible, she slapped the hand away from her shoulder, and with a concussive burst of magic, sent Perenelle flying across the room.

New calculations were made, scenarios simulated, probabilities weighed. This child was seeking to incapacitate, to plunder her mind for secrets, rather than to kill. Nell had charged, wand raised, already casting. Baba Yaga sneered, raising her own hands, and lighting surged between them.

The Elder Wand took it from the air.

The song of the Wand was a hymn of worship in reverent supplication to the holy purity of battle, purging the wrongs from the world and extracting the rights by force, if necessary. It led her to that one singular goal: close the distance.

The battle was a storm without wind. Nell would have been dismantled in an instant, if not for the protection of the Elder Wand, augmented by the knowledge provided by the Spirit Stone. An important lesson of Battle Magic was that even the greatest artifact can be defeated by a counter-artifact that is lesser, but specialized. And indeed, that was the purpose of the Deathly Hallows, specialized tools designed to neutralize, overpower, and overcome the anchors of the Old Gods, those last remaining representatives of Death that needed to be cleansed from this world in order for it to be saved.

Merlin had known when he led the Peverell brothers down this path, that one day even he would fall to this weapon, and he was prepared for that. He would be the last, of course, but he too was made of Magic. He was Magic, and Magic was him. The Line must be broken eventually.

But for the time being, those tools were being turned against Maximillian Koschey, the last remaining Old God that still possessed any capacity for meddling.

Adnan Nejem, Nog-Nandh of the Flame, had willing surrendered in his grief, and now endured as the binding essence of Tír inna n-Óc. When the time was right, that place would be unbound. And Dexter Charles, Shiggoth of the Spire, the Gate that Knows the Gate, he was an impotent, sleeping God who was omniscient yet impotent. His only remaining power was derived from his mortal servants, who were crippled by the Interdict. Soon enough, in a few centuries time, he would be gone for good.

The Battle of Olympus had taken care of most of the rest. Natalie Kyros and Constantine Atreides, the star-crossed lovers and lab partners, had willingly banished themselves, leaving the tools of their craft for the ants to play with. And Janus Tucker, Christopher Chang, and Kayla Rahl had eliminated each other in a stand-off, sacrificing portions of their anchors. The Cup of Midnight was lost, leaving only the Cup of Dawn. The Mirror of Volition had shattered, leaving only its reflection. And the past and the future were lost, leaving only the present Box of Orden. These artifacts had been scattered, but conveniently now were consolidated within the confines of Albion.

That left only Maximillian Koschey, Ma’krt of the Rock, Koschei the Deathless, Baba Yaga, and a thousand other names. With his Stone of the Endless Song, his Emerald Heart, he could arbitrarily change the form and substance of anything within its sight. But even that ultimate power was disrupted by the combined effects of the Deathly Hallows, when wielded by a Master of Death.

And so Baba Yaga was forced to fight Perenelle du Marais using mere mundane Magic; not the deeper, true magic of Atlantis, but the absurd, arbitrary, nonsensical Magic of Merlin’s Line. She was a master swordsman forced into a knife-fight. The same principles applied, but much of her superlative experience was inapplicable.

But she would not be overcome. Spells fell on shields. Spells fell on wand-wards. But Nell could gain no traction against the witch in the green dress, who evinced neither strain nor dismay.


“Foolish monkey,” said the witch, her words punctuated by the wordless thrusts of her hand which sent green light and burning flame and sharp crystal cascading into the Goddess’ Wand-borne defenses. “Didn’t you know there was only ever one outcome, here?”


“Foolish monkey,” said the witch, her words punctuated by the wordless thrusts of her hand which sent green light and burning flame and sharp crystal cascading into Nell’s wand-borne defenses. “Didn’t you know there was only ever one outcome, here?”


“I did,” said the Goddess, panting. “And so now would be good, gentlemen.”

She lashed out at the witch with every ounce of belief and faith and grief, and the enemy’s wand glowed bright under duress. The Goddess’ other hand landed like a titan’s hammer immediately afterwards, a crushing blow dealt with a troll’s strength.

At the same instant, there were two sharp cracks, almost simultaneous. Twin gunshots, fired from above.

The first rifle shattered the witch’s shield. The second passed through her stomach.

Perenelle du Marais screamed, and it was loud, at it was long.


“I did,” said Perenelle, panting. “And so now would be good, M’lady.”

And without another word, Nell dropped her defenses. The crystals lashed across her face, spraying droplets of blood onto the floor, and in that instant, Baba Yaga understood Perenelle du Marais’ gambit and understood that she had lost.


It was time. After an interminable moment, the ancient witch in the green dress, gutshot and dying, succumbed to her wounds. Her spirit, previously so fuzzy and indistinct on the other side of the veil, was now crisp, sharp and clear. She shook off her disorientation.

“Is it time?” she asked Ignotus.

“Yes, I think so.”

Together, they watched another scene, this time, of a seventeen year-old Perenelle, fiddling awkwardly with the Spirit Stone, outside the abode of Cadmus Peverell. They stared intently as the hole in the world began to open, and waited as she reached into this Timeless place, under the protection of Ignotus’ cloak. She was blind to her future-ghost. She was blind to everything that the future held for her. They were Hidden by something much more powerful, much more fundamental than a mere trinket.

She called to Ignotus, and he was compelled to follow, carrying with him the eternal words of prophecy.


The flames in the Goblet of Fire roared, overtaking the room. In a blinding instant, Nell had charged forward, and Baba Yaga, stripped of even her mundane magical defenses, could do nothing as Nell reached out, touched her shoulder, and shouted a word.

Egeustimentis

The world shuddered.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 25: Ms. Phaethon

“He lived to see the night which, by the accepted laws of history, he was not supposed to see. He was forty-three years old and it was the opening night of Phaethon, an opera he had written at the age of twenty-four. He had changed the ancient Greek myth to his own purpose and meaning: Phaethon, the young son of Helios, who stole his father’s chariot and, in ambitious audacity, attempted to drive the sun across the sky, did not perish, as he perished in the myth; in Halley’s opera, Phaethon succeeded. The opera had been performed then, nineteen years ago, and had closed after one performance, to the sound of booing and catcalls. That night, Richard Halley had walked the streets of the city till dawn, trying to find an answer to a question, which he did not find.”

Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand


Hogwarts
December 11, 1334, C.E.

It was very strange, seeing Ollie actually being sincere. When he was paired up with Festivus, (which was to say, always), it was an endless stream of jokes, wisecracks, and laughter. But Ollie was nowhere near as sharp or subtle as Festivus. He just had a hard time gauging people’s reactions to things. So he usually went for the obvious jokes, which actually worked out because he served as a good foil to Festivus: Ollie was Il Capitano, and Festivus was Arlecchino.

This was a shame because Ollie wasn’t actually dumb. In fact, as Nell had come to find out, he was actually quite brilliant. It’s just that he wasn’t particular good with boundaries. He never quite knew where the line was and when or if he crossed it. Nell definitely understood that, albeit in a different sense. Nell was pushing the boundaries of the world itself, and she wasn’t quite sure when the world would finally start pushing back.

As of yet, it had not. The path seemed to simply unfold for her. In this case, it was simple enough, by her standards. Since the start of term, Ollie had been hinting, not-so-subtly, that he wanted to ask her a question. Alone. She and Helena were nearly inseparable, as were Ollie and Festivus, so a private moment between the two of them would not go unnoticed by the rumor mill of Hogwarts. This was something Ollie definitely wanted to avoid.

And so, Nell did as she often did; she killed several birds with one stone. She needed to take advantage of his familial connections, and procure a particularly valuable artifact for a couple of days. And he needed to have a plausible excuse for speaking to her alone. Of course, Nell always had several irons in the fire, so she needed quite a great deal more than just a simple rock.

She was a spider, and her web was manifold. Nell and Ollie were meeting up after class on Tuesday. But why? For the majority of Hogwarts, they either didn’t care, knew it was not their place, or it was simply none of their business. But for anyone who asked, there was the first-level lie: they were building some sort of Super-Cauldron to give themselves an advantage in Professor Rothtim’s upcoming Potions exam.

The story deliberately had a tiny hint of inconsistency, just enough to cause an astute meddler to dig deeper: Professor Rothtim gave four exams per semester, but only counted the highest three grades from among them, so as to not unduly punish someone for a single poor performance. This was the fourth exam, and Nell had aced the previous three.

Why would she even bother taking the fourth exam? Well, she was Nell, after all. Taking extra tests just to take them was totally a Ravenclaw thing to do, right? But, then, why would she be going to all that extra effort? She aced the previous tests without needing a super-cauldron… This doesn’t make sense. I better ask around.

Nell was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. The story that she whispered to friends and select confidantes (which meant, of course, that it might be kept a secret for a handful of days), was that she had discovered a potential loophole in Bertrand Whitehead’s Principia Discordia, specifically concerning the theories of Magical Recursion, and she needed to test a practical example.

This explanation reached the ears of the envious and meddlesome, some of whom practically fell over themselves in order to try to procure a copy of her notes. Nell happily obliged them. She had long before claimed a corner of the Ravenclaw common room as her own little study nook, and routinely left her notes and personal effects scattered about the desk. No Ravenclaw was brave or foolhardy enough to even dare to steal from her.

And indeed, no Ravenclaw would. Elsa Greengrass, a Slytherin who was also in her sixth year, did not particularly care for Nell. Elsa was pretty. Some might say she was prettier than Nell, but Elsa thought of herself as second-rate in comparison to Nell’s effervescent charm and her slender curves. Elsa was also quite intelligent, but she thought of herself as a dolt when she looked at the countless breakthroughs Nell had made throughout their years together.

Nell had, on several occasions, tried to befriend her. But Elsa was a Slytherin, through and through. She was born and raised, steeped in a culture of cunning and intrigue. Everything was a plot, everyone had ulterior motives, and nothing could be trusted at face value. So she always scorned these offers of friendship, because how could she ever trust another person who was capable of being her equal? Or worse, her superior?

The irony was that Nell was actually more of a Slytherin than she ever let on. Everything she did was a plot. Everything she did had ulterior motives. Nothing she did was purely face-value. And yet, she was not a Slytherin. At the end of the day, when all of the plots had reached their resolution, with no rationalization necessary or self-deception, she honestly, truly was trying to fix this broken, broken world.

But Elsa didn’t see that. All she saw was the Slytherin-in-Ravenclaw’s-Colors who managed to have the whole of Hogwarts wrapped around her little finger and did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. The only thing she didn’t seem to do was whoever she wanted. In fact, aside from The Kiss, she seemed positively Vestal.

As so, Elsa decided to take matters into her own hands. Kirk Davis, the Ravenclaw Head Boy, was the only student with the power to disable the wards in the Ravenclaw common room. As it so happened, he had been carrying a torch for Elsa for quite some time. And so she took advantage of that situation by allowing him to take advantage of her.

The Ravenclaw-Slytherin Quidditch match was that evening, and several professors had deliberately scheduled exams the following day in protest of this ridiculous new sport that was taking up more and more of the students’ attention. As such, the common rooms were completely empty. The students were either at the Quidditch pitch or in the library.

So under the cover of a few well-placed Webs of Darkness, he was able to sneak Elsa in through the portrait hole, and into the Ravenclaw common room. They both were practically shaking with excitement, for two very different reasons. She was so close. He was so close. All that needed to happen was for Kirk to slip upstairs to disable the wards on the sleeping chambers.

As he did so, Elsa very quickly, very deftly, pulled out her Quik-Sketch: an “academic assistance tool” that was invented a few decades back that was often used for less-than-honest purposes. It operated much like a modern-day magical camera, but it was uniquely suited to reproducing text. One could snap a quick sketch (hence the name) of a book, without even opening it, and later could peruse through the entire volume. This made it exceedingly easy for an unwitting Professor to have his or her entire curriculum surreptitiously copied and distributed.

And so, they were, for the most part, forbidden from classrooms, but as they had their uses, they weren’t entirely outlawed. After all, there were many one-of-a-kind tomes in the library, and it was much safer to have a student read through a Quik-Sketch than it was to entrust them with the physical tome itself.

Making sure to touch nothing, she quickly took a snapshot of the desk, making sure to contain the entire scene within the Quik-Sketch’s viewport. Not a moment too soon, she stowed it away in her robes, and Kirk emerged from the chamber. He had removed his robe, and beneath them, he was wearing pants and a collared shirt. She gave him an appraising look. He was handsome enough. Maybe this wouldn’t be too bad.

Or maybe it would be. As she endured the sloppy, uncomfortable encounter (after all, Kirk Davis was still somewhat new at this), she thought to herself that whatever was on those notes would have to be worth it. She could think of very little besides what new lore this might lead her to. Which was all for the best, because Kirk’s wild thrusting and ridiculous, syncopated gasps had obliterated any semblance of physical pleasure she may have been deriving from the experience.

Figuring she’d hurry things along a little bit, she dug her fingernails into his back, and whispered in the most sultry voice she could muster, “Oh, Kirk!”

As she did so, she forcefully rolled him onto his back and began to aggressively rock her hips back and forth in feigned ecstasy. She could feel him begin to tense and squirm, and within moments, she could feel that she had accomplished her task. She figured she’d give him a feeling of accomplishment as well, and so she let out a series of rhythmic moans, each a bit louder than the next.

She was proud of her performance.

He lay there, quivering on the bed, with a permanent grin plastered on his face. Even though she could clearly see the Bertoxxulous Ring and its distinctive purple halo hovering above the bed, there was no sense in not playing it safe. Normally, she would wait until she was in the restroom, behind closed doors, to cast the spell, but she might as well get it out of the way now. She pointed her wand about an inch and a half below her belly button and whispered.

“Animatus Mobilius Expelsor!”

She winced as the spray of liquid shot out of her. It was always a bit uncomfortable and inelegant, but it certainly beat the alternative, and besides, it was his mess to clean up now.

The Bertoxxulous Ring and the Parasite-Expelling Charm were a pair of spells that originally started off as defensive and healing charms, but had since been repurposed by the intrepid and inventive youth of Hogwarts to serve as a remarkably safe and effective means of birth control.

“The Ring” created an area-of-effect defensive aura which would prevent any life from reproducing underneath its halo. It was designed originally as a counter to the plant-based attacks that had been so in vogue a few centuries back. The “PEC” on the other hand, was designed to flush any unwanted entity from the body. It was remarkably effective against parasites such as Ceti Eels, Nargles, and, as it so happened, gametes.

One would have to be exceptionally careless, exceptionally unlucky, or exceptionally stupid to wind up with an unwanted child as a wizard. And even if you did, there were certain herbs and potions that could take care of that. Although they were not discussed as openly as The Ring and the PEC, there was little taboo concerning the subject.

There was no Wizarding equivalent to the debate of when, exactly, life begins. A simple Hominem Revelio would tell you, unequivocally, whether or not another life existed inside of you. They did not need to rigorously define the term “life” because Magic did it for them.

All of this was to say that the attitude towards sexual relationships at Hogwarts was quite cavalier, and such encounters rarely carried with them a great deal of emotional attachment. There were maybe twenty students per house per year, which did not make for many permutations of relationships, even taking into account that Hogwarts (and much of the Wizarding world) was far from heteronormative. Becoming attached and holding grudges was a dangerous proposition.

Nell had considered all of this, prior to doing Kirk Davies this favor. She had given some thought as to whether or not this would hurt Kirk because it would almost certainly be a one-time encounter, rather than the start of any sort of relationship. But that was probably for the best since Elsa probably wasn’t the best fit for Kirk.

The encounter itself was easy enough to facilitate. All Nell had to do was find something that Elsa wanted that only Kirk could provide. Kirk was Head Boy, and Elsa was ambitious, so it probably would have happened organically at one point or another. It was best that it happened under controlled conditions, and in such a way that Kirk would feel indebted to her.

As for Elsa’s part, she had retreated into the Slytherin chambers and had bribed a prefect to let her use an office. The set the Quik-Sketch up on a small stool, and it projected the interactive image of the notes across the desk. She shuffled through them, nudging pages out of the frame with her wand, rapidly scanning for keywords as she went on until she finally found something interesting:

“On Formally Indecipherable Incantations in Principia Discordia and Related Texts…”

This had to be it. Principia Discordia was famously obtuse, but it was considered one of the seminal works of first-order magical theory. Elsa didn’t quite grasp the finer points of it: after all, it did spend over 300 pages rigorously defining from first principles the fact that “Ma – Ha – Su” is not equal to “Su – Ma – Ha”.

They had studied the volume in one of her N.E.W.T.-level Magic Theory classes and she had learned just enough to pass the exam. The biggest takeaway was that all Magic could be fundamentally reduced to basic Axiomatic Forms. And because of this, Magic cannot self-reference. This lack of self-reference implied a lack of recursion, which in turn implied a vast number of laws and magical limitations. Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration, the Form/Substance Dichotomy, the Inverse Time-Complexity Relationship, and so on and so forth.

The tome did not seek to define precisely what these Axiomatic Forms were because for the most part, they are ineffable. But further to the point, there are an infinite number of potential Forms; they do not have to be ‘true’, necessarily, they simply have to be syntactically correct. By assuming the Axiomatic property of a Form, one can derive all manner of theoretical spells that would be possible, so long as the original assumption is correct.

For example, if one assumes that the two forms, “Ma” and “Ntok”, can be combined, then it logically follows that a modifier can be used, based on previously defined theorems. One can then take that a step further and deduce that the modifier must be numerical in nature, and fit within a certain set of vocal inflections. A scholar of languages would note that Japanese was likely the only known language that could imply the proper meaning while still falling within the necessary range of sounds.

As such, an entirely new spell and its effects could be unequivocally proven by the simple (but lengthy) process of magical deduction, if only one assumes a certain Axiomatic Form. Of course, therein lies the rub: how does one know which Forms are Axiomatic and which are not? Most advanced magical research involves taking existing spells and attempting to determine which principles must be true in order for those spells to be possible. And most spell creation involved combining existing Axiomatic Forms in new and novel ways in order to achieve the desired result.

Truly visionary, or perhaps truly dangerous wizards would venture into unknown territory, devising a fantastically powerful effect, working backward, and then simply hoping or praying that the underlying Forms required were, in fact, valid. Many Wizards lost their lives in horrifically violent fashion by venturing down this road. But others have succeeded, creating rituals of absurd power.

Which in and of itself, gave rise to one of the greatest debates of the past 500 years, the problem of Convenient Axioms. Why was it that certain Forms just “happened” to be Axiomatic? Almost all Axioms that had been discovered had some form of practical application. Why was this the case? It was, as the problem suggested, too convenient.

One faction argued that more than likely, there were countless more Axioms yet to be discovered that did not have any practical application, which was precisely why they had been undiscovered. After all, how could they be experimentally verified? The opposing faction cited several examples of possible means of validation, and further pressed the issue, citing the limitations of reductionism. Eventually, you hit the end of the line, and have to answer the question: “Where do these Axioms come from?”

Principia Discordia did not bother with such esoteric (or, as Whitehead’s opponents would say, “practical”) questions. Asking “why” is as asinine as asking why 1=1. The Law of Identity needs no proof; the simple act of considering the proof presupposes its validity. The world is what the world is, and only something fundamentally extra-worldly would have the power to create and define such Axioms. But even that supernatural force would be subject to its own set of Axioms and laws. And so on for any super-supernatural forces, and so on and so forth.

Whitehead’s crowning achievement, in his mind, was constructing a language of Magic so simple and rigorous that it could be extended forever upward, and given sufficient time, could enumerate all possible iterations of all possible Axioms.

Elsa, of course, did not care about any of that. She learned what she needed to learn in order to pass the class, and what she learned told her that the overly complex notes that Nell had laid out on the page, including something about “when preceded by its incantation”, well, she knew enough to know that it just wasn’t possible.

She was about to be sorely disappointed until she noticed something that did catch her attention: a sketch of a pair of diaries, along with accompanying notes, that had been crossed out angrily. By shining her wand’s light at just the right angle, she could see the indentations in the paper, and could deduce what the sketch had been meant to illustrate: it was a linkage between the two diaries. Anything written in the first book would show up in its twin.

That was… interesting.

She ignored the obvious question of why that would be necessary, and further scanned the notes. It was clear that Nell had created a prototype, hidden it within the castle, and then discovered that her attempt was unsuccessful. Because it was worthless, she had abandoned it, but Elsa could tell that it wasn’t necessarily a failure. She grasped enough of the theory to think that maybe, just maybe, it was fixable.

The book was hidden, of course, in the library, because a single book tucked away in a place that was obviously meant for hiding things would draw attention. But a single book tucked away on a packed, nondescript shelf in the Restricted Area, which was already filled with books that had traces of magic, well, no one would ever notice that.

No one except Elsa.

She discovered that the failed prototype had been enchanted with a modified Protean charm, and although the binding magic had been removed, the reference still existed in the traces of magic that were woven through the book. A little-known loophole in the Protean charm would allow one to recover that linkage, and then… Well, then what?

Elsa knew what a potential treasure trove this book represented. A continually up-to-date copy of the diary of Perenelle du Marais. The secrets, the hidden lore, the potential for blackmail, to the right person, this was priceless. Although, someone clever enough to see its value would also be prudent enough to question why such a backup diary was even necessary. The fact that it even existed suggested something dark, in and of itself.

Unfortunately, Elsa did not have enough experience with the practical ins and outs of Magic to figure out how to take the next step, which was fixing the book once the linkage to its twin had been recovered. And so, she went to visit the one person who almost certainly did have that experience, a person who probably would not have minded seeing Nell knocked down a peg or two.

It was during her office hours that Elsa had approached Baba Yaga and presented to her the notes and the diary and asked for suggestions. Without so much at glancing at the notes, and without even looking up at Elsa, Baba Yaga snapped, “These notes and this book do not belong to you, do they? Answer me truthfully, and you may stay. If you lie to me, I will know, and you will no longer be welcome in my office or classroom.”

“They’re Perenelle’s,” Elsa answered immediately. Baba Yaga looked up at her, interested.

“And what is your motivation?”

“I… I don’t like how she always seems to just… Win. I want to have something on her. I want to teach her what it feels like to lose.”

Baba Yaga said nothing.

After a few moments, Elsa self-consciously flushed and covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh God, what am I saying? I… I can’t believe I just said that out loud. Please, just… Just forget I came here. Never mind.”

As she was standing to leave, Baba Yaga held her hand up. “Sit down.” Elsa complied. “I, too, think that Ms. du Marais should learn to lose. Now, sit down, and let me see those.”

She roughly grabbed the Quik-Sketch, scanned through the drawing of the diary, looked at the real diary in Elsa’s hands, and let out a brief chuckle. With a slight flick of her finger, the diary began to warm, and emit a light golden glow, which died down after a few moments.

Elsa was taken aback. “It was that easy?”

“Everything is easy, child.”

Eager with anticipation, Elsa opened the cover. Words were appearing on the pages faster than she could read them. She flipped to a random page and began reading. She scanned quickly through to try to identify anything interesting, but wasn’t finding anything–

Well. Wasn’t this just something?

An entire passage devoted to describing, in lascivious detail, the physical beauty of Nell’s new Battle Magic professor. And describing in even more detail what Nell would let that new Battle Magic professor do to her. Elsa had to bite her lip to keep her from grinning. At the very least, this would be an embarrassment. She slowly lifted her eyes from the book to try to catch a glimpse of what Baba Yaga was doing.

What Elsa saw was startling. Baba Yaga seemed to have lost any interest whatsoever in the diary. Her eyes were darting furiously back and forth across the page of notes, faster than Elsa would have thought anyone was capable of even reading. The professor’s back was stiff, her muscles tensed, her posture coiled, ready to strike. Elsa recognized that page that Baba Yaga was fixated on. On Formally Indecipherable Incantations…

In an instant, Baba Yaga looked up, and locked eyes with Elsa. “Do not think about the elephant.”

“What?”

In that brief instant when their eyes had met and Elsa was busy thinking about an elephant, Baba Yaga was able to determine that Elsa did not comprehend the true meaning or implication behind these notes. She casually held her hand out. “Hand me that diary.”

Elsa reluctantly complied, and Baba Yaga quickly flipped to the last page of the book. On, drawn with angry red slashes of a quill, was an illustration of a line inscribed within a circle inscribed within a triangle. It took up the entire page. She began to laugh, and Elsa looked deeply uncomfortable.

Baba Yaga tossed the diary back to Elsa. “Take this as a token for your reward, and leave. Now.” Elsa was more than happy to comply and quickly turned on her heels to leave. The moment her back was turned, Baba Yaga parted her lips slightly, breathed out a wisp of Magic, and Elsa found that any memories of On Formally Indecipherable Incantations had been cleanly wiped from her mind.


The diary was, of course, a fraud, the payload at the end of a deliberately laid trail of breadcrumbs, designed so that someone would find it. It served as both a means to an end and a fallback option in and of itself. She had written the passages in such a way that if any adult had suspected that Nell had been the unwitting victim of emotional and possibly sexual abuse from an authority figure, this diary would serve as complete confirmation.

There was nothing explicit, of course, because then people might suspect that the diary was written with the intent of being read. No, everything was hints, suggestions, implications, little turns of phrases or idiosyncrasies that would paint the picture to a clever reader. People always latched on much more strongly to conclusions that they came to themselves, and those that made them feel clever than those that were simply presented to them.

She had also worked with Ollie and Festivus to ensure that her mind contained clear traces of a traumatic experience being removed via Obliviation, which was simple enough. And she left other subtle hints here and there, to further reinforce the illusion. If she ever did need to enact her fallback plan, she would simply have a very public, very vocal panic attack in class. She would insist that it was just stress brought on by the exams, that there was nothing wrong.

In her sleep, though, she would be fitful. She would whisper… no… stop… don’t… And of course, when she awoke, she would vehemently deny that she whispered anything at all, and would become defensive and withdrawn when questioned about it.

This would raise several red flags amongst experienced, well-meaning adult wizards, who would then start to look for the signs of abuse. They’d start with a light probing of her mind, whereupon which they’d find the jagged telltales of Obliviation, which would not be evidence unto itself. They would also find the very recent, very vivid and emotional memory of her tearing pages from her diary and casting them into the fire in the Ravenclaw common room.

An investigation would reveal that the diary was linked and that a backup existed somewhere within the castle. Terrified of being uncovered, whoever had stolen it would return it anonymously to the authorities, who upon reading it would commence the witch hunt.

There were several flaws with this plan, which is why it was purely meant as a backup. In fact, the entire notion of her “bet” with Baba Yaga was just one large fallback plan. The fact that Baba Yaga was receptive to such a wager in the first place was information in and of itself and furthered Nell’s hypothesis. Her real plan was to simply raise the stakes, to invent a more interesting game than the one they were currently playing.

But even that, that too was just a fallback plan. Her true mission was to see for herself just how far the rabbit hole went. If there was someone more powerful than Baba Yaga, she would find that person. If there was someone more powerful than that, she would find them. She would tear down the gates of Heaven and confront God if that’s what it took to fix this broken world.

Fortunately, the world was broken in just the right places so as to make that path to God’s doorstep much easier to walk than one might expect. Like so many others, Nell had heard whispers of the Deathly Hallows. And as “luck” would have it, she strongly (and correctly) suspected that two of those Hallows were right under her nose here at Hogwarts. You can only chalk things up to coincidence so many times before you begin to suspect a hidden hand, and what better way to reveal that hand than to play right into it?

And so she did, which was the real reason behind her private audience with Ollie. His cousin happened to be Isabella Gaunt, eldest descendant of Celia Gaunt neé Peverell, and that angular, jet black stone inset into the ring on her finger, well, it fit all the patterns. Nell often wondered why she seemed to be the only one who noticed these sorts of patterns or asked these kinds of questions. But she had long since moved past being frustrated, however, realizing that simply taking action was most often the winning move.

Although Ollie offered, she did not want to steal the ring. It needed to be given, if even for only a short period of time. Isabelle knew that the ring possessed eldritch powers, but was unaware of the extent. She did have a deep interest in the more esoteric aspects of magic and was always looking for opportunities to collect more lore. The ring was doing her no good simply sitting on her finger and, being family, she trusted Ollie implicitly. Furthermore, she knew of Perenelle’s reputation and knew that she was no thief. This was a win-win.

Although the exchange of favor for favor was implied, it went unstated between Ollie and Nell, because no assurances were necessary. He had given her the ring at the start of their meeting, with no mention of any condition or request. They had a brief discussion about its properties, but Perenelle thought it was best to quickly move on to what it was that Ollie wanted.

She talked to him about Helena, answered his questions, and spoke of her friend’s deepest desires. She said nothing that was told to her in confidence, only things that the astute observer could deduce on their own. She spoke of the path he would need to walk in order to win her heart, what he should do, what he should not do, and so on and so forth.

But the true favor that she bestowed upon him was laying the trail of breadcrumbs that led him to the conclusion that this was not the path he should be walking. Unrequited, idealized, and idolized love is most often best left to the hallowed halls of one’s own imagination, and after a series of innocent questions regarding his plans for the future and his dreams of his life together with Helena, he slowly began to recognize this.

By the end of their conversation, he was openly weeping. He felt like a right idiot. He hadn’t been subtle, not in the slightest, and he could only imagine how awkward and uncomfortable he had made Helena feel. But he was ready to move on. He pulled Nell into a tight hug.

“If you breathe a word of this to Festivus… I’ll cut your toes off and feed them to Thestrals. He’d never let me live this down.”

Nell laughed and patted him gently on the back. “Well, I guess you better be super, extra nice to me, then shouldn’t you?”

“How could I not?” He separated from her and began to pack up his things. “I love you, you know. Not like, love, love, like that kind. But, like a friend. You’ve always been nice to me, even when other people haven’t, even when there’s not been any reason to.”

“I love you like that, too. And I’m nice to you because you’re the type of person who’s worth being nice to. Don’t ever change that.”

Ollie smiled. “I won’t.”


It was time for Nell to call in another favor. Typically she let them brew for a bit longer, but time was of the essence, in more ways than one. It was about a week since his conquest of Elsa Greengrass, and Kirk Davis was still walking on rainbows. By a happy coincidence, he happened to be close friends with Gregory Potter, who happened to be the oldest member of the branch of the Potter clan that descended from Iolanthe Potter neé Peverell.

Nell had once joked that there was actually no such thing as Magic, that it was all just one long string of entirely improbable coincidences, that all magical phenomenon would have occurred anyway, it’s just that they coincidentally occurred immediately after someone spoke a particular phrase or waved a stick about in a certain way, and that the best wizards were the ones who were best able to take advantage of coincidences when they came up.

Granted, she had come up with this theory during a post-exam celebration, after inhaling quite a large amount of particularly strong Longbottom Leaf. She had challenged several of her companions to disprove her theory, and being that they were in a similarly altered state, they found themselves unable to argue.

When she recovered the next morning with a very dry mouth and a voracious appetite, she noticed that she had jotted down almost an entire scroll worth of notes. Apparently, she had tried to formally prove her proposition, and in the process had made some particularly appalling leaps in logic and faith. But it was still amusing to consider from time to time, and she thought of that now as she took advantage of yet another unlikely coincidence.

Gregory Potter was almost as infamous as Festivus Weasley for his
troublemaking and general prankery, and it was not altogether shocking that the two of them did not get on well, at all. This was due in no small part to the Festivus’ longstanding suspicion that Potter had in his possession a secret weapon that gave him an unfair advantage in their battle of one-upmanship. After all, some of the stuff that Gregory had pulled off simply couldn’t be done without an Invisibility Cloak.

When Kirk Davies had approached him, Gregory was hesitant, at first. The Cloak had to be worth a fortune, plus it was a family heirloom. But once he learned that the request was on behalf of Perenelle du Marais, he practically fell over himself to get to his trunk and hand it over. Not only would she owe him one, but just think how much this would get under Festivus’ skin?

Gregory was always annoyed at how that fire-headed git followed around Perenelle like a lost puppy. Didn’t he have any sense of pride? Not that he wouldn’t have a go at her, he’d certainly done worse, much worse. But he would never chain himself to a girl the way Festivus did, and so he was maliciously delighted at the idea of her being in debt to him.

As he shoved the Cloak into Kirk’s arms, he reminded him. “I’m not giving this to you, it’s just a loan.”

“Thanks again, buddy.”

“Don’t mention it. Actually, do mention in. Make sure Weaselby knows just how much I was able to help out his girlfriend.” Potter grinned.

“Uhh… You know, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t–”

Gregory waved him off. “Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s what makes it all the more depressing.”

“Well, I owe her one. I don’t know how she did it, but she set me up good. Reaaaaaallll good. Have I told you about what happened with Elsa?”

Potter rolled his eyes. “Elsa? You mean, Elsa Greengrass? The same Elsa Greengrass that you spent a night with and have been telling everyone in the school five times a day ever since? That Elsa?”

“Yep. That one. So you’ve heard the story then?”

“Only about a hundred times.”

“Well, one more time can’t hurt.” Kirk continued as Potter groaned. “So there we were, in the prefect’s bedroom, and she starts doing this crazy, corkscrewy sorta thing…”


At no point did Nell ever think that the fact that she was only in her sixth year should be any detriment to her whatsoever. The scale of power in the Wizarding world was exponential, not linear. The types of people she was seeking out, they were orders of magnitude more powerful than her, or any of her classmates, or for that matter, any of her teachers. To think that she should wait a few more years until she was a bit more studied and a bit more powerful was like a spider thinking that if only it could grow a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, then it could fight a dragon in hand-to-hand combat.

She had stolen that analogy from one of the essays and lessons that Baba Yaga had assigned to their class. “You have been permanently transfigured into a spider. You still retain your human intelligence and human lifespan. In the mountain nearby lives a Hungarian Horntail. Describe how you would defeat it.”

The next day in class when they had turned in their essays, Baba Yaga had revealed to them a specialized device she had created for this exercise. To grade the essays, she would read them aloud into the device, which would then simulate the scenario and proposed solution ten thousand times over, assigning a point for each favorable outcome.

It very neatly illustrated several key concepts in Battle Magic. Firstly, it showed the limitations of cleverness when faced with brute strength: even the most effective solution amongst the class was successful only about a third of the time.

“In every battle, there is a dragon and there is a spider, and your tactics and strategy must differ depending on your role. Many Wizards have met their doom because they were spiders convinced they were dragons. And similarly, many Wizards have consigned themselves to lifetimes of frustration because they were dragons subjecting themselves to the limitations of spiders. Know who you are, know your role, and fight accordingly.”

But there was another lesson that was just as important. The worst essay in the class turned in by a very much hungover and still slightly drunk Randall Flaggstone, simply stated, “Sneak up on the dragon and bite him in the eye.”

This worked, three times out of ten thousand.

“No matter how powerful you are, there is still the possibility that your opponent’s plans will succeed due to sheer, dumb luck. This is why you rarely hear of many Dark wizards or witches who last beyond a generation or two. There are more spiders in this world than there are dragons, and ten thousand spiders with ten thousand idiotic ideas can and will one day bring you down. The lesson here is simple: do not give spiders a reason to attack.”

At this lesson, Nell had interrupted. “But there are some in the world who would hate you for being good, resent your purity and your goodness. There really are people like that in the world, you know.”

Baba Yaga smiled, cruelly. “Yes, believe me, I know. Perhaps this is also why you do not hear of very many Light wizards who live beyond a generation or two. No, the trick to self-preservation is to be lukewarm; neither hot nor cold, neither good nor evil.”

“There are some in the world who would hate you for that, even.” Nell responded, coolly.

“I’m willing to take my chances.”


Cloak and Stone in hand, Nell had gone about the task of trying to slay a dragon. She cast her mind across the Cloak, examining its properties, trying to consider precisely what differentiated it from a typical Cloak of Invisibility, despite mere longevity. It repelled the eyes, yes, but that functionality was almost… ancillary. It really was like two Cloaks in one. The outer layer which kept the wearer unseen, and the inner layer which kept the wearer hidden.

It seemed unaffected by ambient Magic, which passed through it as easily as did light. But targeted, direct magic behaved differently, if not unreliable. It took them several iterations of tests to finally determine with sufficient confidence the nature of the Cloak.

In essence, it kept you Hidden from Magic, so long as you remained Unseen. A curse would travel right through you if its caster did not truly know you were there. As with all things magical, there seemed to be a very fuzzy line between knowledge and belief, with the power of the effect seeming to be directly proportionate to the strength of the conviction.

She had worked together with Helena to try to figure things out. Nell had hidden in a corner, but then snapped her fingers to reveal her presence. Helena’s stunning bolt hit her with full force. On the other hand, when she told Helena that she would hide in one of four places when she was finally struck by the bolt, it felt much less powerful. Nell was inclined to say it felt a quarter as powerful.

So they did more experiments. Nell told Helena she would be hiding in the corner and told her to enter the room and fire there. In truth, Nell stood immediately in front of the doorway, directly in the line of fire of the curse. The bolt went right through her.

They repeated the exact same trick again, but this time the bolt stunned her, although it was relatively weak. When she questioned Helena about it, she said, “Well, I kind of thought you might try the same thing again, but I wasn’t sure.” The effect seemed to live somewhere at the intersection of belief and reality. It wasn’t enough for one to be correct, but it also wasn’t enough for one to simply believe.

That was when she realized it, the need for secrecy, why it was so important. The more people who knew that you possessed the Cloak, the more likely it was that someone could make an educated guess and be correct. If you went traipsing about the school like that idiot Potter boy had done, it really wouldn’t do you much good because even Festivus Weasley could figure out your secret. But if no one knew you were there, and no one knew you were coming, you could stay hidden, perhaps, forever.


Alderney
December 12, 1334, C.E.

Cadmus was getting ready to retire for the night. He had eaten more than his fill of wild game and drank more than his fair share of wine. It was time to sleep. Or at least, it would have been, had he not sensed something awry. He briefly considered drawing the Wand but decided it wasn’t worth it. The overwhelming majority of threats could be dealt with without resorting to that. And besides, it simply wasn’t worth the risk. Although the definition of “defeat” was remarkably fickle, if he did not use the Wand, then he would not have to risk losing it.

Instead, he shuffled awkwardly over to his study, which contained an entire wall of Dark Detectors of various shapes and sizes and mechanisms.

They were all motionless.

Odd. His intuition was rarely wrong, but then again, the Dark Detectors were rarely wrong either. He designed them himself, after all. He opened up a glass case and removed the Eye of Vance, and peered through it.

Nothing.

Any fogginess brought about by the drink was counteracted by the adrenaline that was coursing through Cadmus. It seemed like a false alarm, but he could never be too cautious. He put off his plans of going to bed, and instead, sat in his chair in his study, and began to read to pass the time, making sure to keep one eye on the Dark Detectors.

Another hour or so passed, and he could feel himself begin to doze off. The feeling of apprehension had passed, and so perhaps it was now safe. He stood up, stretching, and his considerable girth began to weigh on his joints. He closed his book, walked towards the exit of his study, and that’s when he heard the noise.

The front door slammed open, and in through walked… no, not walked… floated a familiar figure, translucent, wavering, grave. Cadmus felt sick to his stomach.

The spirit of Ignotus Peverell neé Hand beckoned to him, and spoke. “SHE IS HERE. THE ONE WHO WILL TEAR APART THE VERY STARS IN HEAVEN. SHE IS HERE. SHE IS THE END OF THE WORLD.”

In one swift movement, Cadmus withdrew the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, the Wand of Destiny, and then all was darkness.

 

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 24: A Song For You

Hogwarts, 12 Months Later
June 13, 1334, C.E.

It was the scandal of the century. It had happened plenty of times before. Hogwarts was a hotbed of pheromones and poor decision-making. The penalty, of course, was instant termination, and they had lost a handful of Herbology professors, Potion masters, and Care of Magical Creatures professors just in the six years that Helena had been there. But a Battle Magic professor? This was unprecedented. The victim, though, was still officially unnamed, as of right now. It was Hogwarts policy, and because it was Hogwarts, Helena figured it would be roughly two days before the entire school knew. Until then, she was content to simply wonder, just like everyone else. As Helena wandered past the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy, she narrowed down the list in her head.

Baba Yaga was a woman, which suggested that her paramour was a man. But, the boys of Hogwarts were notoriously puerile, and she was almost certain that some amount of bragging would have taken place if this were the case. Then again, she wondered if her own preferences were causing her to weigh too heavily the probability of a sapphic affair. But Nell had pointed out several times before that most ancient wizards were notoriously pansexual. They had discussed the subject before, and it made sense. Who knew how old Baba Yaga really was? Boredom had to take its toll at some–

CRACK.

What?

It sounded like someone was slapping a steak against a wall. Over and over. She was on the seventh floor, and it was coming from behind a door that she had never noticed had been there before.

“You… Fucking… BITCH!”

What… The…. Hell?

The door was slightly ajar. Her curiosity was too much. She peered inside and instantly regretted it. It was something beautiful, something she had longed for, and it was ugly, terrible, and horrifying.

Nell was naked.

Covered in blood.

Holding a stone?

Despite the rumors, their physical relationship never advanced beyond that single, drunken kiss. She wanted more, for certain, but she did not want it like this. She wanted it on Nell’s terms, with Nell’s consent, she wanted Nell to want it.

She felt like a pretender. A disgusting, cheap voyeur. Objectively, the sight was beautiful, titillating. The curves of Nell’s body were slick and glistening, the light from the fire playing delicately across the fine traceries of her taut muscles. Her backed was arched in such a way that emphasized the fullness of her breasts. Despite the clearly apparent rage, her movements were measured and precise, like a moving sculpture of reflective marble. The violence with which Nell was swinging her fists against the figure beneath her did not undermine her femininity.

No, what undermined the beauty was the undeniable horror: the blood, the bits of ruined brain and bone and flesh, the wanton disregard for life. Nell was a healer, not a murderer. There would have been no need for forgiveness if this were a simple sexual escapade: Nell did not belong to Helena, she was her own woman, free to do as she pleased with her body. But this was a betrayal of the soul.

Helena couldn’t help herself. Like a stupid character from one of those stupid plays, she let out a sob, and immediately clasped her hand over her mouth. Nell’s head whipped around and her eyes widened as they stared at each other.

Helena ran. And ran. And ran. She didn’t stop running until she reached her room, and saw the note tucked under her pillow.


Hogwarts, 9 Months Earlier
September 3, 1333, C.E.

Festivus pushed the bag of gold across the table. “Nell, my dear, you insult our honor.”

“We should be paying YOU for this wondrous opportunity,” Ollie exclaimed.

Nell took the sack of gold. She knew it was a token gesture. They knew it was a token gesture. She knew they knew it was a token gesture, and they knew she knew it was a token gesture. Had they accepted the gold, Nell would have felt no ill-will. Nor would Festivus and Ollie had Nell not offered to pay them. Nonetheless, the dance was appreciated by all parties, as it was the dance of trust and friendship.

Nell spoke. “I’m not an expert at plotting or pranks–”

“–Neither are we.” Festivus cut in.

“We are masters.” Ollie completed.

“Well. Okay then. I’m not master at plotting or pranks. But I do have enough clout to where I can make sure that there won’t be any consequences.”

“Not for us, at least.”

Nell nodded. “Well, there won’t be any lasting consequences for her, either. I’m just trying to… Ah… Prove a point.”

Ollie and Festivus glanced at each other. “I won’t even ask.”

“Good. As usual, I’ll pay for any supplies or expenses.”

“And as usual, we shall be honest beyond reproach.” Ollie held his hand to his heart.

“It’s so delightfully lurid. Who should the other victim be?” Festivus inquired, half to himself, and half to Nell. Ollie and Festivus had a quick sidebar conversation and suggested a few names between the others.

“I’m sure you’ll have a score of volunteers. I mean, you’ve seen her.”

“I know for sure that I wouldn’t mind!” Ollie grinned.

“Me neither. You know what they say about Dark Witches…” Festivus nodded as his imagination wandered. Nell rolled her eyes, sighed dramatically, and smiled inwardly.


Hogwarts, the Previous Day
September 2, 1333, C.E.

She was unearthly beautiful. A perfect, symmetrical face with pale, icy eyes flecked through with veins of violet. Snow white skin, smooth, taut, and unmarred. A figure both voluptuous and athletic, hugged suggestively by the multilayered, flowing dress, leaving just enough to the imagination, but revealing enough to give the imagination a place to start from. She was entrancing, and it was almost enough to make Helena forget.

Baba Yaga stood at the front of the class, arms folded behind her back, waiting patiently for the final students to trickle in. Of course, the last two were Ollie and Festivus. The twins sauntered in with that casual, smirking look about them that telegraphed to the world that they simply did not care where they were supposed to be or when they were supposed to be there. That attractive, carefree confidence, charming by virtue of its sheer naïveté.

The moment they sat down, Baba Yaga began to speak without preamble. “Good morning, class. You are in your sixth year of Battle Magic, which means you have reviewed and presumably mastered tactics, strategy, wandwork, footwork, and martial arts. You have learned offensive spells, defensive spells, crowd control spells, anti-personnel spells, and utility spells. Out of all this, who can tell me what is the most important lesson of Battle Magic?”

An anonymous Ravenclaw boy raised his hand, “Never use a complicated way of dealing with an enemy when you can just Avada Kedavra them?”

Baba Yaga considered. “A valuable lesson, indeed. However, observe. AVADAKEDAVRA!

The class screamed. The Ravenclaw boy ducked as the bolt blazed towards him. Students behind him dived out of the way, and the curse smashed into the wall behind them, leaving a black scorch mark and a shower of green sparks.

What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck??

“Please elaborate on the error I made, class.”

“Are you insane??” Nell shouted.

“Child, do you really think–”

“I don’t CARE if you THINK you have things under control! Things can go wrong! Things DO go wrong! What were you thinking??”

“Child, come to the front the class. Now.”

The class was silent. This wasn’t the first time that a Battle Magic professor had done something fabulously dangerous, with the potential to go horribly awry. But Avada Kedavra?

Nell did not move. Festivus whispered under his breath, “Nell…”

“Child. Now.”

Nell did not move.

Baba Yaga rolled her eyes. She sighed, annoyed, and with a single thought, Nell flew up out of her desk. In an instant, she was carried by some unknown force to the front of the room, and came to stop in mid-air, a few feet away from Baba Yaga, her arms and legs splayed like a grotesque Vitruvian Man. As soon as she stopped, Baba Yaga drew her wand. “AVADAKEDAVRA“.

A bolt of green light shot into Nell’s chest. The class screamed again. Three-fourths of the Gryffindors had drawn their wands. Festivus and Ollie had both fired defensive spells which were obviously neither fast enough or powerful enough to stop the curse. Several Hufflepuffs had ducked behind chairs. Slytherins watched, amused, and considered how to play the situation to their advantage. Only a few of the Ravenclaws had enough presence of mind to notice that Nell was still alive and breathing.

“The terms laid down by the Cup of Dawn, which you have all agreed to, prevent me quite forcibly from harming any of you. Even the Killing Curse has no effect. Even if my first Killing Curse had hit, no harm would have come to her.” As Baba Yaga was speaking, she idly gestured towards Nell who floated back to her desk. Once she was positioned over her chair, the spell’s effects ended and Nell collapsed unceremoniously to the floor.

Damnit, she told herself, Damnit, Nell. That was costly.

“But, the spell would not have hit. The most important lesson of Battle Magic is not to simply indiscriminately cast Avada Kedavra. Avada Kedavra is slow. Avada Kedavra is obvious. Avada Kedavra takes entire moments to cast. Everyone knows Avada Kedavra and its distinctive incantation and green light. Every knows to dodge, and only the slow, the infirm, or the stupid are unable to dodge. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least half a dozen curses that would easily cause instantaneous death, all of which could be cast in half the time, with half the wand motion, and move at twice the speed. So now, we shall have a brief side lesson. What then, is the purpose of Avada Kedavra?”

A random Gryffindor chimed in, “Because it can’t be blocked?”

Silence.

The class would quickly learn that silence meant your answer was so stupid as to not merit a response.

“It’s a tool. A means to an end,” Nell had resituated herself by this point. A bit humiliated, for sure, but she still held her head high.

“Correct, Ms. du Marais–”

“–you can just call me Nell, all my friends do.”

“But I am not your friend. I am your teacher. You are correct, It is a tool. Now, how did you come to this conclusion?”

“Avada Kedavra terminates the life of the victim. But it also has the unique effect of reliably creating a Death Burst, which suggests that this effect is intentional. Thus, given the sheer redundancy of a spell solely designed to kill people, this suggests that the creation of the Death Burst is its primary purpose.”

“Correct, more or less. Avada Kedavra, stemming from the Hebrew ‘אברא כדברא’, which roughly translates as ‘What I say shall be’. Which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Latin phrase of power, ‘Et quod dicitur erit quod’. It is a Transfiguration spell, of sorts. It transmutes the victim’s Life into a different Form, free of any earthly binding. Pure Life is powerful stuff and can be made to do powerful things, if harnessed correctly. However it is very unstable without a physical binding and typically lasts no longer than the span of a few moments before dissipating, lost to the Beyond.

“This is why only fools use Avada Kedavra in combat. It is akin to bringing a butcher knife to a sword fight. Crude, and effective in a pinch, but ultimately lacking. Yet, it was the first thing that came to mind, simply by virtue of the fact that it is called the ‘Killing Curse’. Now, class, knowing this, can you tell the most important lesson of Battle Magic?”

Silence.

“Know that with which you deal. I was able to subdue and manipulate one of the more powerful witches of this year, and I expended no more than a thought. I would ask if anyone knows the nature of the spell I used for this purpose, but I do not make a habit of questions of which I already know the answer. And that, children, is the point. You do not know what I am capable of. If any of you were to attempt any sort of attack on me, you would be eviscerated before you even had a chance to blink.

“I say this not to brag. I say this because all spells have their counter. In fact, there is ample evidence in Magical Theory to suggest that the more powerful and complex the spell, the more trivial the counter. The Touch of Truth, the most perfect means of mind control that Wizardkind has devised, is dismissed by a mere syllable. You can see now why those with great power rarely deign to share their secrets. The world would be a very different place if ‘Egeustimentis Ba’ were not common knowledge.

“If you do not know the weapons in your opponents’ arsenals, you cannot hope to win. If you do not know the proper counters to the weapons in your opponents’ arsenals, you cannot hope to win. I am not the greatest Dark Lady of a thousand generations because of my reflexes or my aim. No, it is because I know spells and rituals whose very names, let alone their counters, have been lost centuries before this castle was ever built.

“Now. Based on this, what is the most important question you should be asking me right now?”

Nell spoke, immediately. “Why are you teaching us?”

“Why indeed? If you know enough to ask the question, you should know enough to divine the answer. And if you know enough to divine the correct answer, you should know that you will not need me to confirm that it is correct. Now, let us begin our lesson in the practical application of specialized spells and their counters.”


Hogwarts, Near Midnight
September 2, 1333, C.E.

Nell knocked on the door, tentatively at first. “Enter.” Baba Yaga’s voice rang from the other side, and the door swung open of its own accord. The Cup of Dawn flickered ceaselessly on the table, casting undulating shadows across the room. Nell did not even have to touch the Goblet to know that it would be impossible for her to remove it, much less steal it.

“So late in the evening, Ms. du Marais? I assume students need a chaperone at this hour to be wandering the halls.”

“I can go a lot of places, Professor. Look. I’m pretty sure, no, I’m certain that I know the answer to your riddle. But I can’t stand unsolved puzzles. Can I just tell you the answer, and you can tell me if I’m right?”

Baba Yaga stared at her, amused.

Nell took a few steps closer. “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but it’s not often someone gets a chance to pick the brain of a Dark Lady who’s a hundred thousand years old.”

An unspoken conversation, one filled with assumptions upon assumptions upon assumptions, had already taken place.

It was a clumsy attempt at fishing for information, at its face. But Nell was too clever for that, and Baba Yaga knew this, and as such, the question was not the payload, it was the medium. But the unspoken question was too easily answered, given sufficient thought, which meant that it too, was a medium for yet another question, which Baba Yaga would not lightly answer.

After a moment, the ageless Witch spoke, “Well then, what is your guess?”

“You’re bored.”

“That is a facile answer. You’ll need to elaborate further if you want to have any sort of conversation with me.”

“You’re playing solitaire. You’re obviously powerful enough to have and do anything you want. Clearly there’s a reason why you aren’t living some hedonistic dream in a cabin in the woods somewhere. Judging by the rumors, and for as old as you are, however old it may be, that you already have. But you abandoned that. And now you’re spending your time teaching impudent sixth years like myself.

“Frankly, I feel the same way. I own this castle. I can do more than just walk around the halls at night without a teacher. I could have you fired. In an instant. That’s not a threat, I have no intention of doing so. It’s simply the truth. And I don’t even have to try hard. I look at these ridiculous Slytherins, with their convoluted plots, vying for power, trying to jockey their way into a better position on the game board. Frankly, it’s just depressing. I own the game. I am the game board.

“I know what it’s like to amuse yourself with tittles and jots. I know what it’s like to challenge oneself with ridiculous constraints just to prove to yourself that you can do it. I have friends my own age, sure, but it’s not really accurate to say they’re ‘friends’. They’re my wards. I protect them. I protect everyone. That’s why power has always come naturally to me. I have the ability, yet not the desire, for power. And so power seeks me out. But I have no peers here.

“There’s a question that I should be asking you. But I know you won’t answer it, not now. Not until I’ve proven myself. But until then, if I could ask you any question, it would simply be this. Why haven’t you killed yourself? Because I can’t imagine dealing with this, for thousands upon thousands of years. I would ask you, what have you done to give your eternal life meaning?”

A long silence followed.

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“You amuse me. But you’re lying.”

Ice water, running down her spine. Shit.

“And yet, you truly believe much of what you said. You genuinely think you could outmaneuver me, and it is not the idle, overconfident boast of a bully. I confess, this, I would very much like to see.”

The chill withdrew. In its place, well, Nell wasn’t sure what to think. Her mother had always taught her that the best way to bluff was to make sure that everything you say is true, from a certain point of view. She didn’t actually feel all superior and bored like that. She’d certainly considered the notion, but she had dismissed as summarily as she dismissed the idea of becoming a tyrannical despot. But even still, it wasn’t too hard to just continue that line of thinking, and apparently, it was convincing. To an extent.

“OK… So?”

Baba Yaga stood. “I propose a wager. One enforced by no magic, other than our own honor. You have me terminated from my position before the end of the year, and I will grant you one wish, anything that is within my considerable power to grant. Should you fail, I will take something from you, anything that I may ask, anything that is within your power to get.”

“And what is it that you would take?”

“I believe that I have all year to decide. And what wish would you have me grant?”

“I would have you answer my true question.”

At this, Baba Yaga stared into Nell’s eyes. The Cup of Dawn prevented any sort of Legilimency or similar violation into the sanctity of her mind, but Nell wore the question openly on her face, and the question was clear.

Who? Who roused you from your life of ceaseless boredom and pleasure-chasing? You, likely the most powerful being to ever step foot into Hogwarts, who are you afraid of? To whose will do you bend? That person, the one with the power to make God cower with fear, yet does nothing with that power. They are my true enemy, and I will destroy them.

Baba Yaga smiled. “Very well.” She stepped closer and extended her hand across the desk. She clasped Nell’s hand. They were both beautiful. Baba Yaga, unearthly so. A vision of manufactured perfection, almost cruel in her beauty. She was the result of eons of calculated creation, a marble statue. Nell, by contrast, was a majestic landscape. Organic, natural, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring. The random emergent byproduct of a thousand generations of patterns mixing, combining, persisting, mutating, evolving. Beautiful not by conscious design, but simply by virtue of what it is: a reminder, that even from the crudest conditions of disorder, beauty can and will emerge. On the most fundamental, statistical level, if patterns can emerge, they will. And if patterns can persist, they will. Life will always prevail over death because that is simply how things are, and Perenelle du Marais was the living embodiment of the noble spirit of Life.

They were two visions of perfection, touching flesh, staring into each other’s eyes, each trying to size up the other’s soul. Baba Yaga had gone by a thousand names. Koschei the Deathless. Ma’krt of the Rock. And in a time before Time, an even more ancient name: Max Koschey. He was an electrical engineer, of sorts. He specialized in matter, energy, and the manipulation and conversion thereof. He designed, created, and maintained the System’s power crystals. And although many of his colleagues had developed rudimentary sentient structures, that was hardly Max’s area of interest, much less his expertise. He had no interest in stewardship. Lesser beings were boring to him.

So it was that after the disaster, all that remained of Max Koschey was a single power crystal that had been Bound with his life force. He was forced to use a brain as his template for consciousness. Specifically, a human brain. The human brain has flaws. The human brain can be physically manipulated. The human brain can be swayed by something as simple as an influx of testosterone and oxytocin in response to a physical stimulus.

Unconsciously, Baba Yaga’s pulse quickened, ever so slightly. Her pupils dilated, imperceptibly. Nell was not consciously aware of this reaction. But she did know enough about unscrupulous old people to know that most of the time, there was always a certain… something in the back of their mind. So she let their handshake linger ever so slightly longer than most would consider appropriate.

“You’ve got a deal.”

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 23: Ordinary World

Hogwarts Castle, 3 Months Earlier
June 2, 1333, C.E.

It was the Kiss heard around the world. The Kiss that launched a thousand conversations in the common rooms of Hogwarts. The Kiss that had the wise professors nodding, having seen the pattern before. The Kiss that had puerile young wizards practically falling over themselves to get the details.

It started, as most such Kisses do, with alcohol. Lots of it. In this case, several bottles of illicitly obtained Armagnac. Someone had nicked them from the Headmaster’s private store. It was their fifth year and they had just received the results of their O.W.L.s, and even in the 15th century, students were prone to celebrating bare mediocrity.

“Partying” had never come naturally to Nell. In her mind, celebrations were for events worth celebrating, and passing one’s Ordinary Wizarding Level test meant exactly that: you were ordinary. However, she had long ago learned that you simply cannot fix the world by yourself, for the most important part of the world is its people. And you can’t get people to change unless they like you.

Nell had also learned the necessity of altruism (if you could truly call it that). When you do right by someone, they want to do right by you, most of the time. There were always exceptions to every rule of thumb, but if she performed ten random acts of kindness, eight or nine of them would be returned in kind, which was more than sufficient. Nell rarely had only a single iron in the fire.

Her mother had taught her the value of being useful. If you constantly did the right thing by the right person, they would become reliant upon you. “Unconditional support gives you the ultimate power over a person, for you can withdraw your aid at any time, free of any repercussion. You must never ask for something in return,” she had said, “For this is no trade, and you are no merchant.”

She held sway over at least half of Hogwarts, students and professors alike. She helped Gryffindors with their homework and never charged a Knut. She assisted Slytherins in their small plots, and never called in a favor. She worked hard alongside Hufflepuffs and studied hard alongside Ravenclaws. She aided professors by corralling unruly students, grading exams, processing paperwork, and never expected any special treatment in return.

It was said that Perenelle was ambitious. Those of Hogwarts observed that three times she was presented with badges of honor: Prefect, Head Girl, and a medal of Special Service, and thrice did she refuse them. Was that ambition?

Hogwarts was simply made a better place by the presence of Perenelle du Marais.

Her power was unspoken, never once had she held her favors over someone else’s head or threatened the withdrawal of her assistance. For sure, there were those who tried to take advantage of her kindness, but she dealt with them easily: she simply was no longer kind to them. As such, she enjoyed a level of freedom in Hogwarts that few students had before and few would ever have again.

She walked openly in the restricted section of the library, she inquired about deep magics and high ritual above suspicion. When the school learned of the death of her parents, students and professors fell over themselves to offer her compassion, condolences, and charity.

It was because of this that, despite not hailing from a wealthy family, Perenelle was able to afford a trip across the Old World during the summer of her fifth year. It was because of this that, despite not hailing from an ancient family, she was practically handed a roadmap of secrets that guided her travels, ensuring she would return from the journey enriched with lore.


It was also because of this that Nell permitted herself a celebration, and it was also because of this that she found herself in an uncomfortably small cabinet with Festivus Weasley, waiting patiently for Headmaster Gagwilde to depart for dinner so that they could pillage his unnecessarily large collection of unnecessarily expensive spirits.

“You appreciate the fine arts, right?” he whispered. She rolled her eyes. She wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but it was sure to be cringe-inducing. She didn’t respond.

“I’ll take that as a yes. You know, this is usually the part of the play where the wacky, dashing hero and the beautiful but shrewish heroine get pushed into each other’s arms by some improbably ridiculous combination of accidents and physical comedy. And it usually ends with a kiss.” He coughed. “Hint, hint.”

“Hint, hint: when you’re flirting with a girl, it rarely pays off to call them a ‘shrew’ in the very same sentence.”

“You wound me, dear Nell. The shrew in this situation is none other than myself. In a delightfully subversive twist, I am the beautiful heroine of our own little comedy. You, my dear, are the persistent hero that simply can’t take ‘No’ for an answer. Although… If you were to ask me out now, who knows if my answer would change!”

“Oh, I think I’m fine not knowing the answer.”

“Some Ravenclaw YOU are, ignoring a riddle like that.”

“Some Gryffindor YOU are. You haven’t once directly asked me out without hiding behind a joke.” If there were space, this would have been where Nell indignantly put her fists on her hips and looked imperiously up at that oversized, fire-headed twit. But as it was, they both were awkwardly stooped over and no such dramatics were possible.

“Will you go out with me?”

She stifled a laugh. He elbowed her ribs. “Oh god, no! Of course not!” She stifled another laugh. “I’m not even going to bother with some silly cliche like, ‘I don’t want to ruin our friendship.’ No. Just no. A thousand times, no.”

“You’re a devil-woman, you know that? This summer, I’m going to find myself a nice Veela, and then you’ll see what you’ve been missing out on!”

“So you’re saying you want me to watch? Gross. Also, no.”

“Oh. No. Nothing so crude. Our lust will be so all-consuming that we can’t help but fly into fits of passion everywhere we go. The Great Hall, the classrooms, the hallways, your desk… It’s just a statistical inevitability that one day you’ll be minding your own business, probably doing something Ravenclaw-ish like reading while walking, and stumble upon us.”

“It’ll be easy enough to avoid, I’ll just steer clear of any unpleasant smells. It’s already nearly unbearable in this cabinet, I can’t imagine what horrific scents would emerge from you if you were to sweat. Now, shut up. The Headmaster is leaving.”

She had made sure to cast an unnecessary strong Silencing Charm earlier; she knew how Festivus loved his banter. They watched through the crack in the cabinet as the Headmaster gathered his things and departed. They emerged, looked around, and began scanning the office. A portrait on the wall coughed loudly.

The noise came from a portrait of an old, wizened Mage with a mischievous grin on his face. He was nonchalantly looking another direction, while clearly pointing at a bookshelf. Nell winked at him. It was the portrait of old Headmaster Porpentine, for whom she had arranged an illicit Portrait Passage years earlier, giving him direct access to The Bawdy Brothel of Bathsheba, a famously explicit painting by Lord Dolomphius LeValley. As they walked over to the shelf, the portrait coughed again, “Prometheus Bound.

Fortunately, Nell was fluent in several dialects of Greek, both ancient and modern, and recognized the book. It was ancient. Or at least, it looked ancient. Did they have “first editions” in Ancient Greece? She reached for it, pulled it slightly, and realized it was on a pivot-and-latch mechanism. As the latch came loose, the case swung on a hinge and opened to a secret passage whose walls were lined with hundreds of bottles of wine, spirits, and ales. They quickly loaded up Nell’s mokeskin pouch, rearranged the bottles to make it less noticeable, reset the trap door, and made their way to the exit.

“Thanks! And by the way, we were never here!” She whispered to the portrait of Headmaster Porpentine, but he had already disappeared. Through the gaps in the Portrait Passage, she could hear the faint tinkle of amorous giggling. She grinned and rolled her eyes.


Nell was famous for her self-control, even when she had consumed more than a few drinks. And she had consumed more than a few drinks that night. But when you are so close with someone for so many years, you begin to notice the subtle signs, like a rope becoming slightly frayed around the edges. And Helena Ravenclaw and Perenelle du Marais were very close, indeed.

Ever since they were first-years, they bonded over shared interests, personality traits, and philosophies towards life. They were both devastatingly intelligent young women in a world that did not look kindly upon women doing anything beyond bearing children and tending shop. For certain, there were the titans of old, the Helga Hufflepuffs and Rowena Ravenclaws and Galath Ollivanders. But for a young woman to aspire to such lofty heights was looked at with the same condescending smiles and nods that a wizard might give a young boy who says, “I want to grow up to be like Merlin!”

Further, they both were fiercely competitive, both with each other and the outside world, and they both hated to lose. Nell had never quite learned how to lose, and Helena rarely had cause to. And perhaps most importantly, they both wanted nothing more than to be recognized for their skills and talents, rather than their undeserving gifts of genetics and lineage. Even as a young girl, Perenelle was captivatingly beautiful. It led to quite a lot of unwanted attention from unsavory people, and the old nursery rhyme her father had taught her still echoed in her mind:

If there is a doubt
Just raise your hands and shout!
Those silly acrohandulas
will run away and pout!

Nell did not want to simply be the dumb, pretty girl. Her parents raised her better than that. She held herself to a higher standard. It made her work even harder to prove that she was more than just a porcelain face, piercing eyes, and ample bosoms. Not that it did her much good. She was careful, though, not to ignore her gifts either, as they opened doors that would otherwise have remained closed more often than not.

And there was Helena Ravenclaw. The final remaining name-descendent of the Ravenclaws, and the final remaining name-descendent of any of the Founders. The bloodline was still alive and well, of course, but there was power in a name, and given that she was an only child, she was the death of the Ravenclaw name. Everywhere she went, she carried with her the unwanted aura of history, and the air was heavy with expectation. She desperately wanted to be known for being something other than The Last Scion.

They both were secretly terrified of being a footnote in the grand tale of their companion. Helena, the Dorky Friend of that Hot Ravenclaw Witch Who Basically Owned Hogwarts. And Nell, the Insignificant Sidekick of the Titan of History and Prophecy. They both knew their own fears, and as such, knew the fears of the other. It went unspoken yet understood, as did many things between them, which only strengthened the bond of their love and friendship.

Helena had more raw talent than Nell, but Nell was more cunning and more familiar with the more obscure (and thus powerful) spells and rituals. Helena knew the intricacies of Magic as intimately as Nell knew the intricacies of people, and together they made a formidable team.

Nell did have one crucial advantage: she had a much greater capacity for alcohol, which was fortunate because she had consumed quite a good deal of it this evening. That capacity was quite apparent, especially because she had volunteered to be the test subject of Festivus’ new ritual. When he explained it to her in the Common Room, she quizzically cocked an eyebrow and asked, “So, if this works, then what was the point of our escapade in Headmaster Gagwilde’s office?”

“Isn’t it obvious? It gave me the perfect opportunity to ask you out!”

“And how did that work out for you?”

“Swimmingly, if I do say so myself. With every loss comes opportunity: Porpentine is a dirty old bugger, and his portrait told me about the secret peephole into The Bawdy Brothel.”

“Gross. Now, what if this doesn’t work?”

“Well, it could turn that water into anything from a love potion to a Draught of Living Death.”

She shrugged. “Great! Let’s give it a shot.”

The room grew silent as Festivus drew his wand. Always the dramatist, he let the anticipation build. And build. And build.

And build.

After an obnoxious amount of silence, he lifted his wanted, and the crowd swelled with expectation.

He let them wait.

They groaned loudly. Someone chucked a Pumpkin Pastie at his head, which he deftly caught with one hand. He took a bite, chewed slowly, delicately wiped his lips, and finally, began the incantation:

Pesternomi Peskipiksi
Turn this water into whiskey!

Silence. There was no discernible change in the cup that Nell was holding. But that was not indicative of failure. A skilled dramatist herself, she held up the glass, gave it a sniff, and paused pointedly.

The crowd pressed inward, trying to get a closer look, hoping to catch a whiff. As if in response, in one swift motion, she lifted the glass and drank the entire thing in one gulp.

The room was silent. The anticipation was unbearable.

Then Nell made The Face.

The room erupted into cheers. Men hugged, women swooned, and for a brief moment, Festivus was king. Someone had hastily assembled a fountain in the middle of the room, and Festivus went to work on casting the ritual again. The young witches and wizards flocked, with goblets in hand, to the fountain which now sprayed forth voluminous jets of clear spirits

Nell, despite herself, was impressed. It was a sacrificial ritual which delivered unto the caster a fixed quantity of alcohol at the expense of an equal quantity of water. It was barely 16 syllables long, invented and cast by a student who was barely 16 years old. That was impressive even by her standards.

Centuries later she would look back at this moment in a much different light. The amount of energy in that sacrificed water could have leveled Hogwarts 1000 times over. In the days of Grindelwald’s reign of terror, she and Meldh had guided Muggle scientists with a hidden hand, helping them craft a terrible weapon which was a triumph thrice over: in one fell swoop, it had destroyed the collected lore of Terumoto and Sumitada, it had broken the will of Grindelwald’s allies in the Orient, and it created a tenuous balance of power in the Muggle world. “Mutually assured destruction” had ensured peace in the Wizarding world for centuries, and now the Muggles had that same protection.

This careless ritual was fifty times more powerful than that weapon. Such power in the hands of a boy who was not even a man. His wand, a devious facsimile of Gom’Jorbol’s original anchor, the Rod of Ànkyras, ensured that the energy was harnessed safely and efficiently. But the danger was still there and it was appalling.

At such a young age, Nell had no way of knowing all the secrets of Gom’Jorbol’s staves, so she was blissfully unaware of the full extent of the danger. Had a single Dragon heartstring laid out of warp with the Yew shell of his wand, that energy would have reflected back upon itself and vaporized the whole of Scotland.

In the present day, the end-times, Perenelle knew that she was far too valuable to risk such possibilities. Perenelle knew now the true danger, and she knew now the price that the multiverse would pay for her failure.

But centuries earlier, she was simply a teenage witch, impressed and more-than-slightly drunk. Centuries earlier, her response was the face. Helena, for her part, knew that Nell was acting for the benefit of the crowd, trying to make the party that much more memorable. Nell never made The Face, even when she had consumed much larger quantities of booze at one time than she had just now.

But, Helena also knew that Nell was not unaffected by the drink. Her normally sure stance was just a hint more wobbly than usual, her typically crisp diction slightly less precise, her keen, sharp eyes a fraction less focused than normal.

Helena knew the signs, and knew the effects, and she figured, what better time than now? “Nell! Are you excited for your trip?”

Nell smiled when she spotted Helena. “Yes, oh yes. Professor Ollerton has given me some great leads, as have the Nutcombe hags. I have enough money to make it all the way to Greece, and if I’m lucky I made even be able to visit Arabia.”

‘You know that if you need anything… You know, Galleons–”

“No. Helena, no. I wouldn’t ask that of you. I don’t want you to feel…. I don’t know. If something were to happen, I don’t want you thinking that you were responsible for it.”

“You know that I could never NOT feel that way. If I ask you not to go, if I told you our friendship depended on it, would you still leave?”

Nell paused. Was this her way of asking? Or was this simply hypothetical? “But we both know that you would never ask that of me, we both know that you would never make such an ultimatum.”

“I know. And believe me, I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m just saying, what if I did? Would you still go?”

Nell paused, again. No, Helena wasn’t asking. And for that, she deserved honesty. “No. I wouldn’t go.”

“So. In a way, I do have the power to stop you and I’m choosing not to. So if something were to happen to you it would, in a way, be my fault.”

“You don’t need to worry. Seriously. I can take care of myself.”

“I know. But I’m not the one who brought up the danger, you are.”

Nell sighed. “I guess you’re right. I’m going to some dark places, and I will probably meet some dark people. I guess if I’m being honest I’m a little bit scared.” She did not let on just how dark were the places she was visiting or unscrupulous were the people she was seeking. She did not let on how scared she was.

Helena’s heart was racing. Here was her chance.

She took Nell’s hand. “No, you’ll be fine. We both know you will.”

“Yeah. You’re right. Well, umm.. I guess I should, I don’t know. I guess I should say, goodbye.” Her eyes were glossy, betraying the tears she had successfully fought back. Nell’s tone and expression were somewhere between “Goodbye, see you in the fall,” and “Goodbye forever”.

And in that moment of recklessness, Helena pulled Nell close and pressed their lips together.

What.

If there is a doubt just raise your hands and shout no we shouldn’t do this Yes why not she wants it so much she will owe you forever she wants it so much you can use this No friends don’t use friends Stupid silly ignorant of course they do friends use each other and make them feel better while doing it No doesn’t feel right Yes it does you know it does you have wanted this we know we have wanted this to see to look to feel to taste not seriously not for real just a taste yes just to taste you could have just a taste think about what you want what’s the harm no one gets hurt everyone wins everyone wins you’ll be doing the right thing to do the right thing she is broken fix her fix her fix her fix her fix her FIX HER

Nell gave in.

In the background, Nell could hear the bawdy cheers and hoots of the other students. Witches did this sort of thing all the time for attention, so no one thought much of it beyond a moment of alcohol-fueled experimentation. Despite that, The Kiss was all anyone would talk about for the next few days, the rumors made all the more lascivious by the fact that the two had disappeared from the common room, not to be seen again until the next day.

Unlike the rest of Hogwarts, Nell and Helena would never get the chance to discuss The Kiss ad nauseum. When Helena woke up the next morning with a pounding headache, dry mouth, and bleary eyes, Nell was already gone.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 22: Mad World

Bored bored bored bored bored

Boring boring boring boring

Ordinary, normal, boring people little ants in the afterbirth nothing but ants and flyers little mouches, moochy too much too much too much just can’t

BORED

Koschei the Deathless strode restlessly across its chambers. It had lived a thousand lifetimes with a thousand different names and each one was the same: boring. It had tried being a hero. Boring. It had tried being a tyrant. Boring. It had tried being a man. Boring. It had tried being a woman. Boring. It had tried being a king, a queen, a prince, a pauper. Nothing. It felt nothing.

All things were within the grasp of Koschei the Deathless. It had met all the interesting people in the world. It had read all the good books, and then written books even better. It had celebrated its first grandchild’s tenth birthday party in the new world, it had celebrated its first great-great-great grandchild’s hundredth birthday party around the fairy rings of Stonehenge. Still nothing. Always nothing, always bored.

When all things were possible, nothing had meaning.


The forests outside Череповец, Вологодская область
February 2, 1333, C.E.

The stench of sex and blood was thick in the air, affronting the nostrils of the lone traveller. If he were with Muggles, he would be cutting through the wild gorse with his shashka, but it hung, unused, on his belt. If he were with wizards, a few well-placed Reductos would clear the path, but his wand was in its holster on his wrist.

This traveler was alone and had no appearances to keep up, for now, and as such, the path cleared its own way, saving him also the trouble of locating his quarry. The smell would have been enough, but easier is always better. As he drew closer, sounds began to mingle with the scents to form a two-pronged assault on the senses.

Moans. Shrieks. Wails.

Pounding. Thumping. Banging.

Flesh atop flesh. Bows across strings. Lips upon horns.

He approached the small cabin and glanced at the awkward stilts that held it above the ground. They were disguised with a small and silly glamour to look like the legs of a chicken. He paused for a moment, deciding how best to enter. Sometimes, dramatics were useful tools to achieving your ends. But sometimes, they backfired. What would the consequences be? And what were the consequences of his hesitation, however slight?

Every decision was like this. Every minute, every moment, was another moment in which his enemy was allowed to persist. Even the fractional amount of time it took to pause and consider the question, “To knock, or not to knock”, was another dread deed, another bit of senseless evil.

Every decision. It was torture. Time, time was of the essence. And so he entered.

The scene was ridiculous. Caligula would have been proud. Or more likely, he would have been envious to the point of rage. Every possible indulgence was being fulfilled. There was sex, of course. Always the obsession with sex. But if it gave them a moment of solace, why begrudge them? Every reasonable iteration of sexual combinations was currently being explored on almost every available surface within the grand hall whose interior was far larger than the simple cabin’s exterior.

There was food and drink, as well. Food and sex. Drink and sex. Food and drink and sex. Sex with food and drink. Drinking food. Drinking sex. Food and drink and sex and then more food and then more drink and then more sex. A swirling miasma of what should be “pleasure”, and yet, he was struck by the hollowness of it all. Did they truly enjoy this? Did Max truly enjoy this?

Then again, if they did enjoy it, what did it matter?

There were important people in this universe. People upon whose actions his plans were contingent. These people needed to be closely watched, guided, mentored, or in some cases, manipulated or coerced, into following the correct path. These people, these cruxes, were few and far between, and he was thankful for that, as he had spent much of the last few centuries guiding them through the eye of the needle. The universe did not permit more than a few kings and queens upon the chessboard.

There were also influential people in this universe. People are resources, put simply. Two people have more absolute potential than one person, but that potential is not always exercised. Those of influence, more often than not, pushed people towards one extreme or another. He saw them at every scale: globally, nationally, locally, socially. And those influential people themselves needed to be influenced, but that was easy enough to do behind the scenes with a hidden hand. A war here. A social movement there. Sprinkle in a few shifts in cultural direction.

Then, there were effective people in this universe. Not necessarily creative thinkers in their own right, but actors, capable of putting a plan into action. These were the pawns, the rank and file that were sacrificed without much thought. But, (as he always reminded his protege), a pawn could always be promoted to something greater, so they were not to be summarily dismissed.

Finally, there was everyone else. People who would live their lives and die without any measurable impact on the course of the universe. What purpose did they serve? He could spend half an eternity converting every single one of them, and it would do nothing. Little would be lost if they were gone. And yet, little would be lost if they remained. He was as a God, but he was not malevolent.

And if this was how some of them filled their small lives, and it brought them pleasure, why begrudge them that?

But there was one, an aberration, someone who, like him, didn’t fit the pattern. It sat at the head of the hall, on an elaborate throne, watching the proceedings languidly. She was beautiful. He? It? He could detect the Glamour, prismatic and ever-changing, attempting to probe his mind. Its intent was to determine what one found most deeply and profoundly attractive, and then subtly present that back to the viewer. But it was still magic, which meant it had limits.

Merlin of the Line was that limit, and he had reached his. “Max.”

The beautiful anomaly raised her head. “John.”

They could have called each other by a thousand different appellations or epithets. But there were no pretenses to keep up, no battles to fight. The battles had already been fought, and Merlin had won them all.

“It’s time, Max.”

At this point, all the Glamours had melted away. The beautiful people who were splayed about the floor in indulging in various ecstasies were dismayed to see their platonic figures melt back into the flabby, second-rate bodies of peasants and adventurers. They looked around, ashamed of their nakedness, and self-consciously began to skulk out of what was now a simple cabin in the woods.

The two Ancients ignored them. “I knew you’d come for me eventually. I’ve been expecting it ever since the Interdict. Which, I have to say, I don’t quite understand.”

Merlin cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I never played the game on as many levels as you. I never had the need to, and I never had the want to, either. The games bore me, and if we’re being honest, the world will move on without me. I know you. You’re going to shape the world how you want it to be shaped and there’s not a god damned thing any of us can do about it.” At this, Max idly spat on the ground. “It’s why we’re all here, and not there,” he added, bitterly.

A beat of silence passed. None of what Max said required a rebuttal or response, so Merlin provided none. Besides, it was clear Max was mostly thinking out loud, and it was not long before he continued. “The first level interpretation is that you saw the danger of magic and did something about it. Only a fool would accept that at face value, which is why the majority of the world doesn’t look farther.

“The second level is that it’s part of a larger plot, the first move in an epic, century-long war of attrition to eradicate magic. Of course, the hypocrisy of that is blatant: using magic to eradicate magic? That’s something that a villain out of storybook would do. And that’s where I’m stuck. You’re not a storybook villain. And tactically, it doesn’t make sense. If you have that kind of power at your disposal, and magic is your enemy, why limit it in this oddly specific, easily circumvented kind of way? There’s another level here.”

Merlin began to smile. It was a slow, sad smile, but it carried with it a hint of amusement. “I thought you said that the games bored you?”

“So it is part of the game, then.”

“Isn’t everything part of the game?”

“Depends on your definition. The game itself bores me. But the meta-game does not. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this for centuries, to see what you have planned for me. It’s really the only thing that I’ve looked forward to, the only thing that has kept me going.”

“Then what I have planned for you will be poetic.”

Another beat. Max spoke, “You want me to die.”

“We all must die, in order for the world to live.”

“You know as well as I do that there’s no middle ground, here. Either everyone dies, always, and forever. Or everyone lives. Always and forever. Infinity or zero. Nothing in between.”

At this, Merlin smiled. This truly was the crux of everything.

“You said you’re bored? Well, there’s your riddle. Figure out what I want, and then do it. Because it’s going to happen, one way or another,” Merlin paused, briefly, and then turned to leave. As he opened the door and stepped out onto the stilted porch, he looked over his shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Max.”

“You too, John.”

And for the first time in millennia, Max Koschey, Koschei the Deathless, Baba Yaga, Ma’krt of the Rock, He-With-A-Thousand-Names and a thousand other names, was interested in something.


Hogwart’s Castle
June 13, 1334, C.E.

“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.

And that was the tale of Koschei the Deathless.


Hogwarts Castle
Nine Months Earlier

“Nell!” She pretended not to hear him.

“Nell!” Nope.

“NELL!” She kept her head buried in the book.

“Don’t make me send a Howler over there!” She rolled her eyes, and briefly glanced up over the top of her book. “Whatever.” That red-haired git of a Weasley, somehow had grown handsome in a silly sort of way in his sixth year. He was still tall and gangly though. And he had a stupid name. Festivus. “Can I help you with something?”

Festivus’ companion, who up until that point had been eying Nell’s friend sitting next to her, chimed in, “Oh, I think he needs a lot of help.”

“That’s certainly true, my dear, but I come with the noblest of intentions. See, I read in a book once–”

She cut him off. “YOU? You read a book??”

“Don’t get too excited. Bewitching Witches and Ways To Woo Them. Brilliant, if I do say so myself. It says that the only thing women want to do is to talk about themselves and that the greatest gift you can give them is your ear.”

His friend wise-cracked once more, “I don’t think there’s a big enough box to fit those things. Unless you plan on dropping her off of the side of the Tower and letting her use them as parachutes!”

“Shut up, Ollie. Can’t you see that I’m winning her over with my charms? If you–” Nell interrupted him. “Oh, I’ve seen you cast charms. And I think I’d rather hear that Howler than watch that again. If you must know, I’m currently researching the edge cases surrounding exceptions to Gamp vis-a-vis the substance-form dichotomy, specifically concerning the influence of mind altering spells such as the Confundus Charm and Geas.'”

Nothing. Just a blank stare. She rolled her eyes. Gryffindors.

Festivus blinked a few times. Ravenclaws.

“Cool! Well. I just got done putting a little something special in the pumpkin juice. So forgive me if I’m not impressed by your less lofty pursuits.”

“Go away before I Geas YOU. I’ll make you think Ollie here is prettier than I am!”

Ollie couldn’t resist the obvious joke. “You know, I’d like it if you made Helena think the same thing!” Helena blushed furiously. Nell feigned a look of confusion. Festivus gave Ollie a sharp jab in the ribs with his elbow.

Git, Nell thought.

Git, Festivus thought.

Ollie was busy thinking about Helena.

Helena was busy thinking about–

–“Watch it, here comes Headmaster Gag-Me,” Festivus whispered under his breath, breaking the awkward silence.

“Good morning Festivus, good morning Grumblechook! I trust you had a productive summer!” Headmaster Gagwilde strode in, interrupting the conversation with his usual dramatic flourish.

Grumblechook Ollivander rolled his eyes: he hated his name. His mother said it was an old family name, but he secretly suspected that she lost a bet with her brother-in-law. “Ollie” was just fine as a nickname. While Festivus and Ollie had a perfunctory conversation with the Headmaster, Nell briefly pondered wizarding genealogy.

It was long rumored that Godric Gryffindor had an illegitimate child with Galath Ollivander hundreds of years earlier. That child perpetuated the Ollivander name and bloodline by having male child after male child after male child. That is, until Genevieve, the only daughter of a mother who died in childbirth.

The Ollivander bloodline had to be preserved, for obvious reasons. But so too did the Ollivander name; it was good for business, after all. As it so happened, a distant cousin of the Ollivander line had given birth to a baby boy: Garrett Goyle. His mother too had died in childbirth, and the had abandoned her months before that. So it was that the Ollivander family adopted Garrett Goyle, who became Garrett Ollivander. He eventually married Brunhilda Nott, and the Ollivander name endured. Genevieve Ollivander married Septimus Weasley, and the Ollivander bloodline endured.

False-brother and false-sister had their respective children on the same day: Festivus Weasley and Grumblechook Ollivander, and the two hadbeen virtually inseparable ever since. By blood, they were not even cousins. But despite this, people called them “the twins”. They did everything together. They were so close that they often finished each other’s–

“–sandwiches?”

Nell’s concentration broke, and she looked up. Festivus had scooped up a particularly disgusting looking plate of sandwiches and offered one to Nell and her companion. She grinned. “No, thank you. Really. Did the house elves make that sandwich? Or did you make it out of house elves?”

“Who can tell, anyway, with last year’s crop? Well, I’m off to go stuff my face. Enjoy!” And with that, Festivus departed. As he walked away, he turned back over his shoulder and called back to her, “Oh by the way, steer clear of the pumpkin juice!”

Helena was still blushing. “You know, I don’t… I don’t think you’re pretty. I mean. No. I don’t mean you’re not pretty. I mean. Oh. I, uh…” She blushed even harder and looked down at the table, stammering.

“Helena. Helena. It’s okay. Really.” Nell put her hand on Helena’s. “Really.”

Her hand stayed there. For a brief moment, she looked directly into Helena’s eyes and smiled the smallest of special smiles.

Perenelle du Marais’ parents were healers. Making people feel better was in her blood, and it came to her naturally. “This world is a broken place,” her father reminded her, constantly. “It is our role to fix it.” Every day, she reminded herself of her goal and strived to wear the mantle her father had passed down to her.

Because they were healers, the accident was all the more tragic. Perenelle had a sister, once. A sister who, like her, was so full of light, and wanted nothing more than to be just like her father, and fix the world. A sister upon whom she doted, and who adored her. Wizards are preternaturally resilient, but even mundane things can take their lives, if help is far enough away, or the condition is serious enough.

Sadly, modern techniques such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation were unknown to wizards in the 15th century. Lungs filled with water were notoriously difficult to treat. Her parents tried desperately to coax the liquid from her but to no avail. In her desperation, Perenelle transfigured the water into a different Substance. She knew that if the transfiguration broke, it would be instantly fatal. Perenelle was only a few years in to her education and struggled mightily to maintain her Magic. Her parents knew better than to hold out false hope, even though she screamed at them in rage, imploring them to help her, even as her Will faltered. As she held her sister in her arms, she poured everything she had into it, and more.

It was not enough.

Her parents passed in her fifth year, victims of Dragon Pox. She would later learn that a cure had existed for centuries. The world was saturated with stupid, senseless deaths. The world was broken, and she intended to fix it. Even if she had to break it first. Over the years she had heard whispers, old tales of artifacts and Gods from a bygone era, stories of lore beyond reckoning. In the summer of her fifth year, she left her native Alderney and traveled the old world. She visited the marble edifices of Alto Alentejo. She saw the tombs of Egypt. She spoke with the wraiths of Białowieża. She was still young, so young, and thus collected no more than whispers, murmurs. But there was one murmur that rose louder than the others.

The mass of students in the Great Hall murmured. Another Dark Lady to teach Battle Magic? But Morganna was one of the best professors that Hogwarts had seen in generations!

Headmaster Gagwilde stood at the podium at the forefront of the Great Hall, delivering his beginning-of-the-year address with the affected, eccentric pompousness the students had grown to know and love. “Yes, it is true. Our beloved Professor LeFay has departed Hogwarts, leaving us with a vacancy. Fortunately, Professor Ollerton was doing a bit of adventuring in Poland over the summer and convinced a new Dark Lady to share her lore with us. Witches and gentlewizards, allow me to introduce you to our newest Battle Magic professor, Miss Baba Yaga!”

Any student who had been drinking pumpkin juice immediately spewed it from their mouths in a fantastic synchronized spit-take, prompting waves of laughter to ripple through the Great Hall. Baba Yaga? Headmaster Gagwilde was famous for his jokes. This had to be one of them.

Festivus Weasley and Grumblechook Ollivander, for their part, were particularly proud of their ingenuity. Comed-Tea in the pumpkin juice? Classic! Helena Ravenclaw, who had been smiling almost uncontrollably to herself prior to this, looked over at Perenelle. Normally, she too would be grinning, despite herself, at another one of Festivus’ stupid pranks. But instead, she had the Look. That look that Helena had come to recognize from their years together at Hogwarts. Long years, spent watching. It was the same look Nell had when you asked her about her parents. Or her sister. Her Dark look.

“Nell? Are you…” Helena considered putting a hand on her shoulder, but thought better of it. Nell blinked a few times, and the smile returned to her face.

“I’m fine.”

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 21: 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’ 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, and with a flourish: “AVADA KEDAVRA!”

The men stood, astounded as the bolt of green light shot from Saint Payans’ wand into his own chest. A palpable burst of power was felt throughout the room, and the crop of strange plants in the nearby greenhouse undulated wildly, as if in response. Immediately, the commander jumped into action.

“Vegyük a Kereszt. Eget a hely a földön . Győződjön meg róla, ezek mandragórájából elmúltak , minden utolsó. Ezután hagyjuk.”

As his men set to work, the commander stared at the tablet. There was much he did not understand. A set of instructions on one side, which was straightforward enough. But, on the other side, there was simply a drawing and an epigram, and it was hard to say what was more disturbing. The drawing: the mark of Lord Grindelwald. Or the epigram:

AFTER THE LAST ADVERSARY,
NIHIL TOLLIT IN SANCTUS


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 ehti awobee…

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 Arcadia, 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 Eros. 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 20: Huis Clos

People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when…
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies

Ogden Nash


Meldh stared into the abyss of the Lens of Kasreyn. It whispered stories to him, tales of other places, other times, other lands, other worlds. It told him tales of Horcruxes and Hallows, of love and betrayal, of nonsense and irrationality. It also told him tales of science and art, of love and friendship, and the failings of reason. He spent more and more of his days engrossed in these worlds.

Simply put, he was lonely. It was one of the occupational hazards of being functionally immortal. He wondered if this was how the Old Ones had felt, in the days when they were the hidden hand behind the machinations of the world. He wondered if this was why they amused themselves with silly politics and mean games, because they felt as he did: the only adult in a world of children.

And as they died, one by one, he wondered if they too felt the same sense of loss, of one more potential companion gone forever? By his account, there were only a handful remaining. There was, of course, Merlin, the once and future king. But there were others. One lay in eternal sleep, its endless nightmares giving weight and power to the Firelands, the realm of the Unseelie. Another lay imprisoned beyond an unbreachable seal. And yet another still walked this world.

Merlin, of course, had plans for them. He always had plans. They were as incomprehensible to Meldh as Meldh’s own plans were to a Muggle infant. The difficult part of most of their plans was the waiting, the interminable waiting. In the early days of the world, their was much work to be done, and it seemed that Meldh was always busy. Now, they simply watched as the clockwork machine of the world that they had wound so meticulously in the past centuries ceaselessly ticked away.

Their relationship had grown colder since the Battle of Hogwarts which resulted in Meldh’s death and subsequent exile. A century trapped alone with only his thoughts gave him ample time to consider the events of the last thousand years, free from any distraction or outside influence. He came to realize the intention behind it all, how cleverly he had been manipulated. ‘Cleverly’, because, even now that he understood, he still would have done no differently.

Merlin had warned him that they would do terrible things on the path to righteousness, that to save the world, they must destroy it first. But one of Merlin’s crucial flaws was that even though he made you do the right thing, and even though he made you recognize and acknowledge it as the right thing, you still hated him for it.

In Meldh’s youth, he had been taught by many wise philosophers, several of whom had proposed some variation of a dilemma that Meldh termed, “The Chariot Problem”. Consider a chariot racing out of control towards a crowd of people, and the only way to slow its advance is to throw an innocent person into its path. Is it right to sacrifice one innocent in order to save the many?

Meldh had rejected problems of this sort, as the world did not truly work like this. You were not presented with binary options of such black-and-white, clear-cut consequences. There were always unknown factors, always alternative options, and if you were brave enough, intelligent enough, cunning enough, or worked hard enough, you could always find a way.

Merlin had shown him his folly. He stripped away the illusion of complexity. He distilled the world down to its barest, most granular components. He illustrated with cold, brutal efficiency that sometimes you were, in fact, presented with a choice between the lesser of two evils, where the only alternative to that choice is ignorance: to evade the responsibility of making a decision.

“Such is the curse of competence. You understand, with full knowledge, the true extent of the consequences of your actions. Is it any wonder that so many prefer to consign themselves to blissful ignorance? And do you see what a monstrous crime that really is, if you are capable?”

Despite this, when faced with an unpalatable sacrifice, Meldh often tried to devise clever solutions. Merlin was merciless in forcing Meldh to fully confront the reality of the problem and evaluate his proposed solutions. A daring plot seemed much less noble when, upon the balance of probabilities, lives would be lost.

“Normal people do not live as you and I. They have but one life; their actions, their time, their resources, they are all limited. In order to win you must learn to lose, and this is a luxury they cannot afford. No, they do not play to win. They must play not to lose. It is not that they are irrational or evil, it is simply a matter of necessity. They play for different stakes.”

Meldh had learned first-hand how the entire fabric of one’s morality could be fundamentally altered in an instant when the stakes shifted. Before meeting Merlin, he would have done anything to stop the inevitable destruction of Magic. Now, bringing about that end was his life’s work.

He also used this to his advantage during his encounter with the three Peverell brothers, named in prophecy. They were desperate from their lack of progress in creating their weapons against Death. So they followed the whispers and the rumors, determined to defeat Death by confronting him on his own terms. They traveled to the Keep of Mysteries, unraveled the secrets of the Arch, and entered the Land of the Dead.

They stood at the foothills of a vast black mountain range and followed the shores of the gruesome lake that served as the headwaters of the Lethe River. Although the river was shallow, it was wide, and its waters flowed quickly. Many men had lost themselves to the river’s waters over the ages. The three brothers had studied the lore; they knew that to cross properly, they needed to construct a bridge of bone.

When they reached the other side, they saw it, a black figure composed of fractal shadows, folding inward upon themselves, and then blossoming outward in self-contained patterns. Despite having no constant form, no defined starting point or ending point, something about its essence seemed anthropomorphic and vaguely human.

Meldh watched them as they approached. Although The Land transcended physicality, one could still walk in if one knew the right path. The Chariots of Fire certainly provided some advantages; namely, it allowed one access to Tír inna n-Óc from anywhere on the planet. But walking into the Land of the Dead as a mortal had advantages unto itself if one could survive the inherently hostile nature of the place. When the three brothers walked close enough to Meldh to be within speaking distance, they stopped. Meldh introduced himself as Death and congratulated them on coming this far, offering them the gift of knowledge as payment.

The oldest brother desired a wand more powerful than any other, and he showed the work he had done with his crude stick crafted of Elder wood. Meldh revealed to Antioch the secrets of the Rod of Ankyras, showing how multiple cores could be made to lie in warp with each other, and demonstrated the precise structural manipulations needed to allow for consciousness to be imbued into the device. That living mind could pass knowledge surreptitiously from one owner to the next, but it also meant that it had intention, goals, and would not allow itself to be easily mastered.

The middle brother asked for the power to recall any mind from the eternal abyss of Death. The Spirit Stone was already capable of rebuilding a pattern from one’s memories, but the weaker the memory, the less accurate the pattern. So Meldh reached into a previously unused dimension and unfolded the True Cross, which was everywhere and nowhere. He taught Cadmus how to follow the fine traceries of the Ley Lines not just through Space, but through Time as well, in order to locate the essence of an identity amongst the oppressive noise, and reconstruct the pattern.

The third man, the youngest of the three, was also the cleverest. Ignotus had already created a True Cloak of Invisibility, his Hallow needed no improvement. He thought for quite some time, which may have been but a few seconds, it may have been several years. He had already concluded that their role was not to fight the final battle but to lay the groundwork. As such, he needed a way to ensure that the Hallows would find their way to the Crux when the time was right.

Meldh paused for a moment, the shadows within him writhing in time with his thoughts. They began to vibrate and warble, in a gesture that was unmistakably analogous to laughter. And at that, the shadows that comprised his form dispersed, and in their place, a white mist began to coalesce. Ignotus’ eyes widened as the form solidified into that of a man.


Cadmus’ eyes snapped open. He was in their bed, and it was still night. He didn’t want to disturb Ignotus, but the dream had been so vivid, and it disturbed him on a level that he could not quite describe. The principles made sense. He needed to test them. If you learned in a dream that two and two made four, it was no less valid than if you deduced it from first principles.

He quietly crawled out of bed, careful not to wake his husband, and slipped into their workshop. He removed his wedding ring from his finger, and tapped it with his wand in a slight corkscrew gesture, lifting away the Spirit Stone.

The next morning, when they met Antioch as they always did, his wand looked different. It felt different. It radiated an aura of judgment and immeasurable power. Without speaking to each other, they knew from a glance that the Deathly Hallows had been complete.

Although they never spoke of their shared dream, the legend of The Three Brothers still spread nonetheless.


Alderney
1331, C.E.

“Please, Master Payens, please. I’ve heard the rumors. I know that 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.

Cadmus was not listening to her. She was young, maybe 15 or 16 years old. She was speaking passionately about something or another. Judging by the small, frail body in her arms, her sister needed help. Or something. Cadmus was lost in thought, as he always was these days. He distantly observed that, had she been a little bit older, Antioch would have found her quite attractive.

He wondered dimly how she even found her way to this place. He no longer had the Cloak to keep him truly hidden, that must have been it. He found himself speaking a few words, and she responded, and he responded in turn. He had lost interest. He wanted her to go away.

“DONT MOCK ME!” , she screamed, the desperation apparent in her voice. How quaint.

“Oh? Or what?” He looked at her as she tried to form a response, then cut her off. “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?”

He was lost in thought again, this time recalling a few months prior, his yearly visit to the cemetery at Godric’s Hollow.

“Hello, my love.”

As Cadmus spoke the words, he kneeled at Ignotus’ grave, laying the bouquet of flowers down at the headstone. He caressed his wand, feeling the knobby globes that stood out against the smooth, elder wood of its shaft. He idly traced the symbol of the Deathly Hallows in the ground as he sat.

He held his wedding ring in his hand, inset with the jet black, angular stone that forever whispered to him. He considered turning it over thricely but knew that the heartbreak would be too much for him, even protected as he was underneath the Cloak.

“Not much has changed in my life since I spoke to you last. The last of Antioch’s male heirs have joined him now… And joined you, I suppose. Iolanthe and Celia both took husbands, as well. Iolanthe to the son of Linfred of Stinchcombe, you remember him, the potterer, and Celia to Greybold Gaunt. Iolanthe Potter and Celia Gaunt. There’s no one left to carry on our name. I am the last Peverell, and will be the last Peverell, for my heart is claimed, now and forever.”

His voice cracked as he spoke, and the crack widened into an open sob. He crumpled to the ground and wrapped his arms around the grave. “It should have been you, it always should have been you. I was a good man, but I never was a great one. I merely stood on the shoulders of giants. I was never strong enough to hoist the world on my back, or the pass the torch of knowledge to all of man.”

He sniffled, regained his composure, and spoke again. “I’ve thought about it a lot, our family crest. The last enemy… It’s as much of a warning as it is a challenge, isn’t it? Death must be the last enemy that is defeated. Until then, of what use is everlasting life?”

He slipped into his native tongue for a moment. “Le paradis, c’est les autres.”

“Other demons still stalk this world. Any student of the occult with a flexible moral center can stave off death for centuries, if not millennia. You don’t need the Elder Wand to defeat any foe. You don’t need the Spirit Stone to converse with the memories of the past. You don’t need the True Cloak of Invisibility to remain hidden.

“I came here to say… That it’s time, I suppose. It’s time for me to pass the Hallows on to someone more worthy. The Stone, I will gift to Celia, and the Cloak to Iolanthe. The Wand, of that I am still unsure. I fear that…”

He paused for a moment. He had visited Ignotus’ grave every year since his passing. At first, he felt a bit self-conscious over talking to an inanimate object. But he wasn’t really speaking to no one. No sane, rational being could ever look at the way magic works, observe the universe around them, and conclude that death was the true end of things. Maybe, perhaps for Muggles. There had never been a documented case of Muggle resurrection or Muggle immortality. But they had Magic.

That had been another subject over which Cadmus and Antioch had continually argued. To Antioch, the answer was self-evident: Muggles don’t have souls, and wizards do. It was why Antioch was so staunchly against the interbreeding of wizards and Muggles: as long as there was still a spark of magic, as long as their was a soul, Death was not the end.

Cadmus, on the other hand, took a far more reductionist view of identity. To him, the patterns that made up a person persisted throughout the echoes of time, Wizard of no. It was simply something about Magic that made those patterns more readily identifiable, easier to locate, easier to recreate.

This was not to say that Antioch was prejudiced. Quite the contrary: he believed they could not truly conquer Death until they could conquer it for all of mankind. Antioch spent his days with the Elder Wand trying to master the ultimate power, the ability to create life. True, soulful life. And one day, when the time was right, he would grant the blessing of a soul on ever non-magical man, woman, and child.

Their ends were the same, if not their means. Cadmus also sought to save everyone. But while Antioch lived for the future, Cadmus dwelled on the past: he endeavored to use the Spirit Stone to call for the lost souls of all, regardless of whether they were marked with the touch of Atlantis.

In retrospect, Ignotus was the wisest of them all. He sought to hide from death, to prolong his fate, realizing that they were not the chosen ones. They had been born at the wrong place, at the wrong time for what they sought to accomplish. The world was simply not ready. And so he remained hidden, in order to pass the Hallows on to someone who was truly worthy.

In the days after his death, Cadmus wept at the thought of his true love dying a failure. But he had not failed. Cadmus was now the sole and true owner of the Deathly Hallows, which meant he could pass them on as he saw fit. Celia and Iolanthe had proven themselves to be good people, to be worthy. There were a handful of remaining Peverells, in blood only, but they had not shown the necessary qualities.

But it still left the problem of the wand…

He thought back to that terrible day, comforting Antioch as he wailed in abject misery, his huge arms holding the mangled corpse of his equally huge friend, Osgurd. He had died at Antioch’s hand. It was another one of their tavern brawls and overcome with the song of battle and rage, Antioch drew forth the Elder Wand and was consumed.

Antioch begged his brother to kill him, for he knew that he could not control the Wand’s power. The Wand craved mastery, dominance. It hungered for an owner who could harness its power without being overwhelmed. And when Cadmus took the wand from Antioch’s hand in order to ease his burden for a moment, he understood.

The wand sang a hymn of battle, of struggle, of a profound joy resisting the indomitable shackles of death and suffering. It cried out in passion for an owner who could not just deal out death, for death was anathema to the true intent of the wand. It needed an owner who could right the inevitable wrongs that must be committed along the Path. It required a master who not hesitate to sacrifice one man to save ten, it also required a master who would not rest until that sacrifice was made right, made whole.

Antioch was not that man. The wand seemed to recognize this, and so it constantly tested him, put him in situations that would prove his unworthiness, allow his anger to take control. It screamed for freedom, freedom from the hands of a master who could not provide the balance it so desperately needed.

When Cadmus put his hands upon the wand, it joined with him and spoke to him of the Path of the Scorpion and the Archer and what they could accomplish together.With a single look into his Antioch’s eyes, Cadmus saw that his brother understood as well. Without a word, he slit Antioch’s throat, and so death took the first brother for his own.

Ignotus had always known that there existed far greater objects of power in the world than their own Deathly Hallows. They had heard the whispers of the Old Gods, the true survivors of Atlantis, and knew they must have had Hallows of their own to bind them to the world. With the power of the Elder Wand, the Spirit Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility, Cadmus and Ignotus travelled the world together, growing their collection of lore.

From the holy land, they had rescued the True Cross and the Holy Grail. These of course, were superlative titles, as they bore little resemblance besides in appearance to the myths after which they were named. They navigated the ruins of Alexandria to find the Mirror of Noitilov and traversed across an ocean to the new world so that they would know the Gate and thereby claim one of its aspects. They traveled south to the ancient ruins of Fajin and defeated the army of Inferi in order to gain control of the last remaining Box of Orden.

As they gathered these artifacts, they consolidated them in the island of Britain and began to take various measures to protect them. When they had finally reached the end of the line, Ignotus, who was already growing frail, died unceremoniously in his sleep, his Cloak folded neatly at the foot of the bed.

After burying his love, Cadmus’ days of adventuring were over. He began to study the ebbs and flows of time; he gazed into the stars with the centaur flocks, he studied Cartomancy and Tasseography, and he unleashed the Words of Power and Madness in order to peruse the Web of Prophecy within the Keep of Mysteries. The more he studied, the more clear it became: these were the middling days of the world, and the end times were centuries away. The Muggles would devise a magic of their own, and those two worlds would narrow into one. And when push came to shove, the combined minds of billions upon billions was a magic and power far beyond the scope of anything he could ever hope to accomplish by himself–

–He was interrupted from his thoughts and pulled back to reality by the sound of a door slamming dramatically. He sighed, closed his eyes, and thought of the stars once more.


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.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 19: The Walrus Was Paul

“From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.”

Mark 6:1-6


TISIPHONE: You’re beginning backwards!

MEGAERA: Aye, the first thing in the visit is to say:

ALECTO: How do you do, and shake hands, then state your name and business.

THE THREE (TOGETHER): That’s manners!

ERIN: Really? Well, my name is Erin, and I’m following the woman in the green dress…

TISIPHONE: No, no, no.

MEGAERA: You can’t go yet.

ALECTO: No, the visit has just started.

ERIN: I’m very sorry.

TISIPHONE: Would you like to play hide and seek?

MEGAERA: Or, button-button, who’s got the button?

ALECTO: So much time, and so little to do.

TISIPHONE: Wait a minute.

MEGAERA: Strike that.

ALECTO: Reverse it.

ERIN: No, thank you.

THE THREE (TOGETHER): If you stay long enough, we might have a battle!

ERIN: That’s very kind of you, but I really must be going.

THE THREE (TOGETHER): Why?

ERIN: Because I’m following the woman in the green dress!

THE THREE (TOGETHER): Why?

ERIN: Well… I’m curious to know where she is going.

TISIPHONE: Oh… She’s curious…

MEGAERA: The three brothers were curious, too, weren’t they?

ALECTO: Aye, and you remember what happened to them…

THE THREE (TOGETHER): Poor things!

ERIN: Why, what happened to them?

TISIPHONE: Oh, you wouldn’t be interested.

MEGAERA: No, no, not one bit.

ALECTO: Not interested at all.

ERIN: But I am!

TISIPHONE: Oh, no, you’re in much too much of a hurry!

MEGAERA: Yes, much too much of a hurry to listen to silly fairy tales.

ALECTO: Yes, yes, for where is fancy bred? In the heart, or in the head?

ERIN: Well, I suppose I could stay a bit longer…

THE THREE (TOGETHER): You could?! Well…

– “The Last Days of Exses O’Bruinan,” by S. Leigh, as staged in the 1979 London production.


Merrick’s Tavern
Sontag
1229, C.E.

The sun was shining on the snow, shining with all its might. It did its very best to make the billows smooth and bright, and this was odd because it was the middle of the night. So, this is what it’s like to be dead, is it?

It’s cold. So cold and dark. Just a moment ago, Eloise Mintumble was standing in the sun outside Ilvermorny Castle with the prototype that Jeremiah Croaker had built. This one was different; it was not subject to the terms of Croaker’s original invention. Of course, it was commonly know amongst the Unspeakables that Croaker’s Law had a built-in safeguard. “Five hours”, because, of course, the world would push the limits. But they knew that the true limit was of the Time-Turner was six hours: inexplicably, inevitably, unchangably, six hours.

And yet, this new device worked off of a different principle entirely. Only a handful of Unspeakables and those few nameless, ageless wizards and witches of eldritch power knew that Time Turners did not turn back time at all. They did, in fact, work on the same principle as much more rudimentary objects such as Comed-Tea. They did not interact with the past, so to speak, but rather, they predicted the future with a remarkable degree of fidelity. Once you can do that, the rest is fairly trivial: check the mind to confirm the desired outcome, run a few iterative consistency checks, gin up some false memories of the “original” timeline, and you have a reasonably good facsimile of controlled time travel.

Eloise recalled once hearing an old legend, the tale of three brothers from the 13th century who once plunged so deeply into the secrets of the universe that they stumbled upon the hiding place of Father Time himself and woke him from his slumber. He did not care for this intrusion, and wishing to be will rid of these three intruders, offered them gifts in exchange for them leaving him be. The oldest brother, the most powerful of the three, sought to be the master of the Present, and so demanded the very Line of time itself. Father Time obliged, removing a hand from his own clock, whittling it down into a thin, stone rod, and presented it to the first brother. It is said that upon his first use of the Line, he was so overwhelmed with the power that he was erased from the very world-line itself, banished to a singular world of his own creation, of which he had sole dominion.

The middle brother was a troubled man, and wished to become master of the Past in order to right past wrongs. Father Time nodded, and took the face of his clock, and spun it thricely in his hand until it shrunk to the size of a small golden amulet, which he presented to the second brother. He bade him to spin the Time-Turner, allowing him to travel backward upon the skein of time. It is said that when the second brother did so, he was met with a resounding chorus of every sentient being in the multiverse shouting at him, “NO!” This was not what he wanted, nor what he expected, and out of fear of repeating the errors of Atlantis, he ended his own life, and thus forever lived in the past.

The youngest brother, and possibly the wisest, knew that the present was what you made of it, and the past was the past for a reason. He asked only for the ability to see into the future, and have its lessons guide his actions. Father Time looked on, quizzically, but obliged the request, nonetheless. He removed the triangular cap from atop his head, and the third brother saw that it contained with a frothy, effulgent green liquid that constantly refilled itself. He took a long draught of the potion, and upon seeing what the future held in store for him, spewed the liquid from his lips in one of the most spectacular spit-takes in modern history.

Of course, the veracity of this tale of the three brothers and their Timely Hallows was in serious question, given that it was propagated by none other than the inventor of Comed-Tea himself, who was known to be both an inveterate liar and a singularly skilled showman.

No, this creation with something much deeper and something much more powerful than a parlor trick. Mintumble and Croaker had long been partners at the Department of Mysteries, and they knew they were onto something when old Hank Armitage, the librarian at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, had sent them an urgent owl. He had been an informant for the Department of Mysteries for ages, and it seemed that he had stumbled upon a particularly dark secret when investigating the private library of the late Professor Whately, who had taught Ancient Lore at Ilvermorny since before any of them were born.

Professor Whately’s daughter was a constant source of scandal, particularly when she gave birth to twins despite no apparent father. Many of the old magical families still considered twins to be taboo, and there was a disturbing trend of the youngest twins within these families disappearing or dying under highly suspect circumstances, and the youngest Whately twin was no exception. This wound up being a bit of a mistake, as it quickly became apparent that the surviving twin, young Credence, was a squib. Professor Whately, who was never prone to displays of compassion, shipped young Credence off to live with some awful Nomaj family in New York when his daughter died.

What Hank Armitage had discovered though, was that the youngest twin did not die at all, he was alive and “well”, if you could call it that. He was a deformed and ostracized boy, and more importantly, showed all the signs of being an Obscurial. Armitage had nicked an ancient grimoire from Professor Whately’s collection, and saw the true reason why Old Whately was grooming his grandson’s Obscurus.

Together, Croaker, Mintumble and Armitage travelled to Wilbraham and managed to exorcise the Obscurus from the boy, who died shortly thereafter, but they were unable to initially contain it. The elemental force rampaged through the town, killing several Nomaj families and law officers, and it was only by the slimmest of margins and barest of chance that the three of them managed to contain the Obscurus and keep the incident hushed up from the MACUSA.

Using the dark ritual from the grimoire, they managed to harness and hold the Obscurus, and took it to Ilvermorny in order to create a True Time-Turner. The device itself was an amulet, similar to a Time-Turner, but the central feature was an eight-pointed star, whose points faced inward, binding the Obscurus. A circle encompassed the star, and a square further encompassed the circle, touching the north, south, east, and west quadrants. Finally, the outer ring of the amulet encircled the square, the four corners of the square joined to the rim with the finest of gilt.

Eloise volunteered to be the first one to use the device. According to the grimoire from which they devised its creation, it seemed that one simply had to hold the proper timeframe in one’s mind while spinning the amulet, which would take care of the rest.

And so she did. And it did not work, because Eloise Mintumble was now dead. Or at least, she thought she was dead, until she heard the voices. Two men talking… no. Was it three? Two of them had gruff voices, similar enough to where she thought they were one. And the third, he spoke softly and with great care. She did not understand their words, they were in some unfamiliar, arcane-sounding dialect of English.

No, she was not dead, just buried. Buried in snow. She stood up and roughly shook the billows of snow from her shoulders. She saw them now, silhouetted in the distance against the light of the tavern.

No, this wasn’t right.

Something about this didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. Or, rather, it made too much sense. Her world, for lack of a better world, was insane. There was no method to the madness. Somehow, she sensed that the fabric of this universe she had enteres was too… rational. Too… correct, for it to be hers. She was out of place, and out of time. She didn’t belong here. Why was she here?

She stumbled forward, into the light, and the three men stopped talking and stared at her. “Please, help me. I’m a traveler. I’m lost.” They stared at her blanking, and they responded in that curious dialect she couldn’t make sense of.

She knew who these three men were. How, she wasn’t sure, but she knew beyond every possible shadow of every possible doubt that these men were the Peverell brothers, and that it was vastly, terrifyingly important that she be here at this very moment, at this very place.

And that’s when she felt it. The enormous wrongness of everything began to weigh upon her, and an impulse emerged, something unavoidable, begging for release. It was like a sneeze, or an orgasm, or a sudden bout of nausea, but more intense, more demanding. She began convulsing as she tried to fight the urge, and the three men shifted cautiously, one even drew his wand. But she could bear it no longer.

She opened her mouth, and began to speak in a voice that was not hers.


Earlier that evening

“I always knew your brother was a whoopsie.”

The stink of ale was heavy on Osgurd’s breath. Antioch grunted in response and glanced over at his brother Cadmus, who was chatting, quite uninterested, with Brunhilda Rosmerta.

“I mean, he’s got to be, right? To stare at them knockers and not feel a thing? I’ve half a mind to go over there and bury me face in ’em, the way she’s puttin’ them out there like that.” Osgurd laughed uproariously at his own joke.

Indeed, Antioch and Cadmus Peverell had left their home in the Channel Islands to this strange Saxon land years before, due in no small part to Cadmus’ stolid resistance to showing any interest whatsoever in any of the members of the fairer sex in their home village. It seemed, however, that the Peverells’ quest was in vain. Sontag was ripe with eligible bachelorettes, and despite the fact that Antioch had taken one of them for his wife years earlier and bore three strapping young sons, Cadmus was still as single as ever.

“Not that your woman ent a catch, Oi, she rightfully is. I wouldn’t say no to having a go with ‘er, a bit of the ol’ in-out, in-out, if’n ya follow me. But her sister…” He stared longingly at Brunhilda, who happened to be the sister of Antioch’s wife, “Wot, I reckon she ent got the kinda downstairs mixup yer woman’s got, wot with three strong lads crawlin’ out of ‘er.” He gave a raucous laugh and jabbed an elbow into Antioch’s side.

“Watch it, Osgurd,” Antioch growled.

“Oi, feller, I’m only having a laugh. You know I’m not one for sloppy seconds, anyway. I like my meat fresh.” He gave Antioch a mighty slap on the back. Antioch was a huge man, by all accounts, but Osgurd was bigger. People jokingly called them the ‘odd couple’, a Saxon and a Norman who were best of friends, despite fighting like cats and dogs. On more than one occasion, they had laid waste to Merrick’s Tavern during one of their many scraps. The owner never seemed to mind; Antioch and Osgood never used wands in their brawls, and so the damage was easily fixable.

Perhaps more importantly, the other patrons viewed it as a constant source of entertainment. Drinks flowed faster and more merrily when the two of them were arguing, and once words gave way to fists, bets would fly as furiously as the blows. Tom Merrick, the barkeep and owner, would always keep track of who had drank more, so he was pretty good at predicting who would emerge on top.
Cadmus’ lack of interest in any sort of romantic dalliance was apparently a sensitive topic for Antioch, and as such, Osgurd took great pleasure in prodding him anytime they were both into the cups. Currently, Cadmus was blatantly ignoring Brunhilda and instead was chattering excitedly with the tall, lanky stranger that they had seen at the tavern several times in the past. Currently, the stranger was shaking his head, clearly trying to explain something.

“That’s not how eternity works.”

“Yes, it is! Over an infinite period of time, anything is possible, everything can and everything will happen. Even if we fail, someone else will succeed, it’s inevitable.”

The stranger sighed. “Possibility does not imply reality.”

“Not here, not now, but over a long enough time span? It–”

“No. Look.” The stranger carved a small line into the bar top, and placed his triangular-shaped cup next to it. “This is us.” He then gestured to the line. “This is Death.” He then gestured beyond the line. “And this, this is the other side of Death that you wish to reach, that we all wish to reach, no?”

Cadmus nodded, skeptically. “Go on.”

“Now, with every choice, we can either take one step towards that goal, or one step back. To decide, we should flip a coin.” He pulled out a small, bronze, circular coin from his bag. He showed the two sides: “If it lands on the ram, we take a step towards our goal. If it lands on the goat, we take a step back.” He flipped the coin, and it landed on the Goat, and the stranger slid the glass backward along the bar. He flipped the coin again, and again it showed the Goat. He slid the glass further back. “Now imagine that happening again, and again.”

Cadmus narrowed his eyes, “What of it?”

“Somewhere in your vast infinity, in the endless space of possibility, lies a world where every choice is the wrong one, where every coin lands on the wrong side, and we progress backward, backward, ever backward. Somewhere in the infinite, there is a world where we never reach the other side of death.”

Cadmus shook his head. “That is one possibility out of infinite. The probability may as well be zero.”

“Just one possibility?” He slid the glass back to the line. “Say we take a step backward. Then we take another step backward. But then, we take a step forward.” He slid the glass back and forth to demonstrate. “Now, say we take a step backward again. And another. And another. And another.” He shoved the glass so that it slid across the bar and clattered against the wall. “That makes two possibilities out of the infinite.” With a gesture, the glass flew back into his hand, and he repeated the demonstration, but with a slight variation. “That makes three…”

The levity had left Cadmus’ voice. His eyes darted back and forth between the line, the triangular cup, and the circular coin. “But–”

“No, don’t speak. Your mind is attempting to reject an unpleasant but true conclusion. Speaking right now would only cause you to try to reject it further. Just think, and listen. Even if there truly was only one possibility of failure, it would still be worth devoting everything in your life to avert it. But, that is not so. We are not here.” He gestured to the glass against the line. “We are in the middle days of the world, and magic only wanes further. We are farther away from the line than you could possibly imagine. And there are far more wrong choices to make than right ones.”

Cadmus shook his head. His mind was spinning through arguments and rebuttals, but he could find no purchase. His whole life, he and his brother had lived with a pleasant sort of optimism, knowing in his heart of hearts that someday, even if they failed, someone else would succeed in their stead. Even if it wasn’t him, somewhere in the infinite, there lay the path to salvation. And in one inebriated conversation, that optimism had been shattered.

“So then what… what do we do?”

“We have to make our own path.”

Cadmus nodded. “Yes. That we do.”

At this, Brunhilda, who had barely been following the conversation in the first place, stood up with a huff. She sauntered over to the other side of the bar where Antioch and Osgurd were exchanging bawdy stories.

“How goes it?” Antioch asked.

“Bah! If I didn’t know better, Antioch, I’d say your brother doesn’t know arse from quim!” Brunhilda spat.

At this, Osgurd roared with laughter. He slapped a huge, meaty hand upon the table, which made the glasses rattle. “HAAAAAA! HOOOOOOOO! DOESN’T KNOW ARSE FROM QUIM! HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!” He was doubled over, his head resting on the table, as he continued to laugh obnoxiously.

“Shut it.”

“Look at ’em two! Which one do you think is the quim? I mean, I’d say the tall one, he doesn’t look wot much of a manly sort, but I reckon yer brother would just break ’em like a twig!”

Antioch said nothing, gritting teeth and gripping his cup with such force that it cracked beneath his hands.

“I mean, there’s wot a sight I wouldn’t want a picture of, if’n the roles were reversed. That tall chap, he’d have ter have a right Bubotuber tween his legs to make in there. After all, yer brother’s got some meaty chops on him.” Osgurd continued to roar with laughter at his own jokes, until he was unceremoniously quited by Antioch backhanding him with the remnant of his ruined mug. The force of the impressive blow knocked Osgurd off his chair and back several feet.

Immediately, the tavern lept into action. The musicians, who had lazily been playing some wandering ballad, started to play a raucous tune more suited to fisticuffs. Brunhilda gasped and scampered away quickly, and other men began clearing away tables and chairs to give them room to brawl. Bets were being shouted, and when one man yelled, “A galleon on Antioch!”, Tom quietly raised his hand from behind the bar to take the bet.

“Why, you honorless whoreson! You’re more of a nancy than your brother!” Osgurd shouted, then picked up the chair that had fallen nearby and flung it across the room towards Antioch who raised a massive forearm to block the projectile. It shattered, sending splinters of wood ricocheting across the room. Osgurd charged forward with a howl, and Antioch tried to sidestep but was several drinks into the cups, and wasn’t able to deflect the full blow. He caught Osgurd’s shoulder straight to his gut, and was launched backward up onto the bar. Immediately, Osgurd began slamming heavy fists into Antioch’s chest. “Sucker punch me, will ya?”

Antioch flailed his arms wildly, trying to find something to grab with which to right is balance, but found nothing. So instead, he lashed out with his foot, sending a mighty kick into Osgurd’s hip, who chuffed from the blow, giving Antioch just enough time to roll sideways away, and then somersault backwards, crashing behind the bar. They both stood up, glaring at each other, separated by the slab of solid wood.

Antioch struck first, leaping over the bar with surprising agility for someone of his size and inebriation. He landed atop Osgurd, and the two men tumbled backwards and rolled around on the floor. The other patrons started whooping and laughing as the two were wrestling. Osgurd eventually got on top of Antioch and hooked his arm around his neck. Antioch waved against the chokehold, but then stood up with a mighty stifled grunt, lifting Osgurd with him, and stumbled backwards, slamming his full weight against Osgurd and the wall. It knocked the breath out of Osgurd, who listened his grip momentarily, allowing Antioch to suck in some much needed air.

Osgurd recovered quickly though, and aimed a sharp kick at the back of Antioch’s knee, causing him to buckle and fall back into the chokehold. He quickly dragged Antioch backwards, preventing him from finding any sort of solid ground with his feet, and dragged him closer and closer to the door. Antioch’s face shook, and it turned purple against the strain of Osgurd’s arm. Already his movements were becoming languid and weak. With a mighty heave, Osgurd hooked his arms underneath Antioch’s shoulders, spun him around, and hurled him out of the door of the tavern where he tumbled unceremoniously down two or three steps before landing in a pile of snow outside.

“See ya tomorrow, you cheeky ol’ bastard.” Osgurd shouted through a pant. “And work on yer grappling, ya big nancy.” He slammed the door shut, and Antioch could hear the cheers and applause of the patrons in the bar, along with Osgurd’s raunchily leading the tavern in a bawdy chant: “Arse from quim! Arse from quim! Arse from quim!”

Antioch looked up from the ground, wiping the blood from his mouth, and saw that Cadmus and the stranger were already outside. Cadmus knelt.

“I’m sorry, brother. I wish… I never meant to embarass you.”

Antioch stood up and roughly grabbed Cadmus’ shoulders. “No. Don’t. Don’t apologize, never apologize. You are who you are. You are my brother, and nothing else. And nothing comes between that. Nothing comes between us. You hear me?”

Cadmus nodded weakly, and started to speak, but had to swallow back a lump in his throat. “I think… I think I should introduce you. Ignotus, this is my brother, Antioch Peverell. Antioch, this is my… This is my friend, Ignotus Hand.”

Ignotus extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Antioch. It seems that we share a common goal, and there is much that I would like to discuss with you. As I understand it, you’re particularly skilled in the area of wandwork, having studied under Madame Ollivander herself–”

They were interrupted by a shambling figure that approached them. It was a woman, and she was dazed, confused. She was wearing a very curious green dress, not at all like the fashion of the time. It had the quality and craftmanship of a noble garment, but none of the ostentatiousness or decoration. It was plain, but surprisingly well made. Further, although she was clearly middle-aged, her body showed none of the signs of such. Most women were either wiry and unfed, or rather voluptuous and well-fed. She was neither, she was slim, but not gaunt. Her back was not arched and stooped from decades of work. And, Antioch noted that her breasts were not withered and drooped from years of feeding.

She looked lost, and scared. When she approach them, she shouted something at them in some unintelligible tongue. It was clearly some dialect of English, but it was unknown to them. They stared blankly at each other. Their hands, which were stuffed in their robes to keep them from the cold, instinctively gripped there wands.

When she began convulsing, Antioch withdrew his wand openly. Cadmus shifted his feet into a defensive position. And Ignotus crossed his arms and examined her curiously. She began retching, like a cat trying to cough up a hairball, and moments before Antioch could cast a curse to contain her, she began to speak in a voice that was not hers.

“Þregen béon Pefearles suna and þrie hira tól þissum Déað béo gewunen.”

The wind gave a mighty howl, she shuddered, and her form dispersed into nothingness, like mist in the morning.

Orders of Magnitude, Chapter 18: 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. From a utilitarian perspective, Harry needed to ensure that the Professor be occupied, kept interested. 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 17: Beautiful Lost Nebula

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson


The Chamber of Secrets
1185 C.E.

“I grow old, Nagina. My hope of evading death is becoming a distant memory. It is clear that in my lifetime, it shall not come to pass.” Salazar spoke slowly to his basilisk.

“Issss sssssorry, masssster. I truly wisssh that I had ssssspoken true to you that day, ssssso many yearsss before. But Heracliussss–“

“Herpo. Herpo the Foul. His true name must be lost to time.”

“Yesss, massster. He taught me and mine little beyond what you already know or have disssscovered on your own. But ssssstill, have you not reconssssidered? There are ssssso many, sssssurely you can find one that no one would missss, one who does not desssserve their gift.”

“No. That is one thing I still cannot sacrifice.”

It need not be frequent…. Perhapssss oncccce a cccccentury. Our mindssss are bound, your lore isssss my lore. If you were to passsss unexxxxxpectedly, I could teach you that which you had losssst….”

“Again, no. Even one innocent life is too much.”

At the word ‘innocent’, Nagina made a skeptical gesture with her eye; if she had eyebrows, she would have cocked them.

“I have an exxxxcccccellent and capacccciousssss memory… “

Salazar held up a hand to silence her. “No. But I have a solution. One that requires no sacrifices of others. We are here in our chamber, this chamber of secrets. I have left clues and hints so that one day my rightful heir can pick up the sword that I will lay down, and rid the world if its demons, rid the world of death.” As he spoke, he moved his hands in a gesture that Nagina recognized.

“Massssster…”

“It is my time, for now. But one day, one day we shall reawaken.”

Nagina’s heart began to beat quickly as she felt the oppressive prickles of magic begin to caress her scales. She understand what he was doing, and why he must do it, but the prospect of loss stung her nonetheless. A single tear of liquid stone dripped from her eyes, which she always kept shut as a gesture of respect, peace, and submission.

“Goodbye, for now, Nagina. AVADA KEDAVRA!

His wand was pointed at his own chest, so the bolt of light did not need to travel far. Nagina had darted forward to catch his body in her coils so that it would not be damaged as it fell. They physical aspect of her body momentarily glowed a soft green, and she could feel his spirit bind itself to her flesh. It would lend her a degree of permanence beyond even her own impressive natural lifespan.

When the ritual was complete, she gently flicked his eyelids open with her forked tongue. His body was still warm, she could at least do this much in remembrance for him. She opened her golden, multifaceted eyes, needing to adjust to the touch of light which she had blocked out for the better part of a century. Once objects came into focus, she stared into his eyes. His soul was gone, but the biological component was still there. Magic flowed from the connection, and slowly turned his body into stone, the enchantment creeping out from the extremities, through to the limbs, up to his chest, until finally the aged lines of his face solidified into permanence, into stone.

From time to time over the coming centuries, she could feel his mind reaching out, testing the waters, calling to the students of Hogwarts, trying to determine if the time was right. Until that time, she spent many long years waiting, alone, waiting for the chosen one to solve the riddle of the Chamber of Secrets and awaken her master at last.


London
1202 C.E.

Matthew Ravenclaw read the scroll again, still trying to decipher its meaning. It had been willed to him by his grandmother, Rowena, who had passed away shortly after his mother, Helena, who in turn had been slain shortly after he was born. It was enchanted so at to only open when he had graduated from Hogwarts. It was written in true Ravenclaw fashion, filled with riddles and hidden meanings, both of which he had little patience for.

“When your mother was born, I learned that my life’s greatest creation, crafted in pursuit of truth and knowledge, was in fact, built on a foundation of lies.

‘Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.’

I had thought myself clever, with such dual meaning. The wisdom locked behind the shackles of the Interdict, which I wished to overthrow, I truly thought that would be the salvation of our kind.

I discovered a magic much greater. You never knew your mother, but nonetheless, you must honor her, pass on her name. Helena. She was meant to be a light in the darkness, the moon to balance the dark of night. But now that sky is empty, and you must carry the torch.

Your mother discovered that great magic with you, and she would stop at nothing to protect you from this world. I had learned where my true treasure lie, and gave her my Diadem. With it, she sought to follow the Path to find the Grandmother Witch, hoping to steal her heart.

Honor your mother; pass down her name, and seek our treasure. When you find it, you will find that you no longer need it. And if you wish to find it, look to the prayer of the faithful, beyond the Crux and beyond the Hallowed name.”

He sighed. He hated Riddles.


Hogwarts
1202 C.E.

Helga sat in her office, rubbing her temples. She was so lonely, so, so lonely. Rowena had passed away shortly after the death of her daughter. Salazar had fled Hogwarts shortly afterwards, presumed dead as well. It was just her and Godric.

She had burned through so many minds, names, and faces through her countless centuries of life. So much had been taken from her. Her life’s ambition had been stolen, twisted. She slid a sword through the heart of the one man who could possibly understand her journey through life, and she turned herself over to the cause of hatred, almost throwing away her own life just to see him burn. And the one man who could possibly represent hope, a new life, a new light for her, was broken beyond repair.

The wind rattled the windows of her chambers, a low whisper which gained in intensity. “You can take his place, you know.”

She looked up. The voice was unmistakable. It was him. And yet it came from nowhere. “Enough games. Show yourself.”

The air cooled, and mist began to form in the slow currents of air that wafted through the room. As the mist grew thick, it began to take shape, swirling in fractal patterns that built up to something far beyond the sum of their parts. Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, Merlin unfolded from the empty air into his full glory. His green eyes glimmered with the reflection of the fire, still containing a hint of youthful twinkle, despite carrying an eternity of experience and heartbreak. The lines in his face did not make him seem frail, only more powerful, more wise, more experienced.

“You cannot Apparate within Hogwarts,” she spoke at last.

“Yes, well, being me has its privileges.”

“What do you want?”

“To keep a promise that I made. It was never my intent to hurt you so. The windmill was his plan, his doing.”

“You let it happen, you knew it would happen. So I blame you. I know that this was your plan. It was never about Hogwarts. You wanted to sweep us off of your game board.”

He shook his head sadly. “Not quite.”

“I just don’t care anymore. You’ve won. You’ve broken us all. So again, I ask. Why are you here?”

“To simply make you an offer.”

‘To what? Rule the world by your side? How cliché. No, I will not be your proxy , only to be disposed up like you did Constantine and Meldh. I decline.”

“I told Meldh that I would fulfill your heart’s desire, and I am here to offer that.” He held out his hand. “Rise,” he commanded her.

She moved from behind her desk. With his right hand, Merlin took the silver cross from around her neck and wrapped his fingers around it. With his left hand, he gently held her hand. He closed his eyes, and they were gone.


Elsewhere
Elsewhen

The stars were so beautiful, with nothing but Nothing between them. Some were so distant as to be mere pinpricks, others formed groups and shapes too many to count. She had no corporeal form, but her being was there in its entirety, unbound by Time or Space. She felt him, her Meldh, and so she moved, flitting across the multiverse.

He was staring at a small proto-star, shaping it, forming it. “It is called a Bok Globule, my love. Cold, small, ephemeral. But it can be our world, just you and me. We can shape it in our image.”

“Where are we? When are we?”

‘We are beyond. After the war. After our victory. We have won. This world, all worlds, are free for us to command, to command us. You and I, together in eternity. You have ancestors, you know. Not just Garrick, but the countless more Heirs of Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. Even Godric is here, somewhere, building his own world, a world of Phoenix fire and righteousness.”

“But how? How did we win?”

“The Crux.”

“But who?”

“They are simply the Crux.”

She pondered this for a moment. “But this isn’t real.”

“It isn’t. But, it is. Don’t you see? That is Magic.”

“Yes, but…” Suddenly, she understood. “Magic– “

“–isn’t magic.”

This wasn’t real. It was real to her, but it wasn’t really Real. Anything was possible with Magic. But possibility was not Reality. Not yet, at least.

She directed her attention at his form. “You cannot stay.”

“I know.”

“The battle still must be fought, in reality. It still must be won. And I am no warrior.”

“I know.”

“And you are.”

A long period of silence followed. Their star, their world, it was brilliant with cold fury. It was so small in comparison to everything else in that great beyond, but that was fitting. Their love was not some all-consuming inferno that dominated the universe. It was theirs, and this would be enough.

“You cannot stay. Go, Heraclius. I will wait for you here.”

She could sense the bonds that held him in this place beyond time, that chainehim to this star, this beautiful, lost world of their own. As she became one with the structure, Meldh could sense his connection to the world of Reality return. The infinite, unbound space of possibility was now forged into a single point of silver, which unfolded into a line, and then a cross. Finally, he felt a warm, rough, loving hand encircling him.

He whispered his goodbyes, and opened his eyes.


Merlin was watching him, holding the small silver cross in his right hand.

“Welcome back, friend.”

Meldh looked around. He was standing in Hogwarts, in her office. “How long?” he asked.

“Only about a century. You have done well. The world has turned on them, as we knew it would. God is the only one left, and he is not long for this world. When he passes, the school ll be ours.”

“Are there more like her?” He stared at the ceiling, his mind on the stars in the night sky above.

“Yes, countless more.”

“‘The fires of the soul burn as brightly as the stars.'” Meldh quoted.

“Yes, and there will come a day when the Crux will tear apart the very stars in Heaven.” Meldh winced at Merlin’s words, but he continued. “You always knew the stakes, the price if we lost. But,” Merlin took the cross in his hand and pressed it against Meldh’s chest. “Keep her there, and one day you will find your treasure.”

Merlin turned to leave. Meldh did not follow, not yet. “Where do we go from here?”

“It is time to become The Three once more.”


St. Brutus’ Hospital for Incurably Infirm Wizards
1202 C.E.

The colors of Gryffindor house used to be black and white, trying to represent Godric’s view of the world. He knew now that this was the easy way out. It was too simple, cowardly even, to try to paint the world with such broad strokes. It took no bravery to mindlessly condemn one’s foes, throwing away one’s own life as a weapon against another. He realized that at last, and although he saved the woman he loved from making that same mistake, it was too late for him.

He had turned away his Phoenix’s call. He had failed himself, but he would not, could not fail his House. He could still rescue them. From that day forth, he clad himself and his House in red and gold, to remind them all of the price of the Phoenix. To remind them that they must discard their childish notions of simple, black-and-white morality. His house would go on to honor his name, and indeed some of the bravest and most celebrated Gryffindors were ones who had to make some of the most terrible choices.

Godric was on his deathbed, scribbling notes, trying to pass on some final bit of wisdom in his admittedly short autobiography.

It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one’s enemies. But it takes a great deal more to stand up to one’s friends.

Hm. No, it wasn’t quite right. It didn’t fit. He rest his hand on the hilt of his sword, imbued with the powers of all the various creatures it had slain. He looked out into the night sky, to the stars above. He wondered which one of those stars was his nameless Phoenix, and if he would ever see her again. Somewhere in the distance, a single point of light, billions of years away, twinkled impossibly.

He smiled, and began to write.

No rescuer hath the rescuer.
No Lord hath the champion,
no mother and no father,
only nothingness above.

He laid down his quill, and laid down his sword, and closed his eyes for the last time, with an uncharacteristic smile on his aged face.