The old man turned and spoke to me
His face at last in view
And then I thought those curious eyes
Were eyes that once I knew.
-- Come, says the old man. Come and hear the story.
The day is bright, late in summer, a good day to sit and let old bones rest in the sun; the children who run along the bricked streets of Diagon Alley are tired in the afternoon. It is good to sit on the warm red walk and listen to the old man; he was a fine Scop in his day, say the children's parents to each other, and his stories do no harm.
-- Come and hear, says the old man.
-- Hear about what? asks a small child. Other youths crowd around, and some older children lean on walls or in doorways, pretending that they just happened to be there.
-- Hear a story about Harry Potter, the old man answers, and the childrens' eyes grow round. These are children raised on tales of Arthur and Beowulf, fed a love of Chaucer and Shakespeare with their mothers' milk, but Harry Potter is one of them, Harry Potter was a boy-warrior and he belongs to the children.
The old man spreads his hands, arms wide, invoking the gods of the Scops silently.
-- This is a story about the afterlife, and the gods of the afterlife, he says. This is a story of what happens when people die, and when they choose to live. It starts with two paths. For there were once two sure ways into the afterlife without death, two ways where the soul was not taken from the body and the body grown cold.
He looks at the children, and is sad that none of them are yet innocent enough to ask what death is.
-- There was an arch through which one could walk and not return; it was made by men, and an abhorrence to nature. And then there was a gateway, a footpath that led down through the earth and into a place which was not-earth, that some people call limbo. The souls of ghosts live there, awaiting the rest of themselves before they may continue. It was guarded by men but not made by men; it was most natural. And it was this path which was sought by the boy warrior...
The boy standing at the side of the road could have been a tourist, a hitch-hiker, a stranded motorist; with a book-bag slung over his shoulder, water bottle strapped to it and food-bag slung crosswise over the other, he was not all that out of the ordinary for summer in England. There were a lot of kids who backpacked through the country in the summertime.
Except this boy carried a slim, beautifully hand-turned bit of wood in his back pocket, nothing more than a narrow stick with a handle. A casual observer would take it for a child's caprice, the keeping of a special stick. Any wizard, of course, would instantly know what he was, and considering the scar on his forehead, it would not be long before they knew who he was, too.
He had his thumb out for every car that passed on the dusty country road; no-one had stopped yet, but he wore the sort of look that said if he had to walk the whole way, he would do it without complaint.
Fortunately, the driver of the truck which slowed and stopped near the dust-coated boy didn't need to see the wand or the scar; he knew him on sight, and leaned out the window with a grin.
"Harry?" the driver asked, a sunny smile on his face. Harry Potter, heart swelling with relief, gave him a returning smile, though not quite as cheerful.
"Hallo, Colin," Harry said, taking the hand Colin Creevy extended in greeting. He threw the larger bag in the truck, alongside a couple of tarps and some rope, and climbed into the passenger's seat, buckling the safety belt as Colin pulled back onto the road.
"Bit young to be driving, aren't you?" Harry asked, gazing out the grimy windshield. Colin chuckled.
"When you grow up driving tractors, they're a bit lenient about when you start driving trucks. Nobody much drives these roads except farmers, anyhow, and all of 'em know Da. Here, you're the last person I expected to see on the road today. I thought you went home for the summer. You know, your Muggle home."
"I did," Harry replied, studying the buckles on his book bag.
"What happened?" Colin asked.
"Oh." Colin bit his lip, nervously. "Going to see the country?"
"Something like that," Harry agreed. "I have business with a witch in York."
Colin drove effortlessly through the rolling green hills of the countryside, and Harry watched him, noticing how much more confident the boy seemed in the Muggle world. He didn't know many wizards who could drive a car at all, let alone as well as Colin was. The boy had learned tact, in the past year or so, and also a great deal of circumspection, for which Harry was grateful.
"I'm passing through York tomorrow," Colin said. "Stay on with us at home tonight and I could take you that far."
"I'd appreciate that. Haven't got anywhere to stay in town," Harry said. "I can pay for food and such -- "
Colin waved him off. "No need, not for you, Harry, you know that. If you were headed to York, why didn't you take the Knight Bus?"
"I wanted to enjoy the journey."
"And have you?" Colin asked curiously.
The Creevy house, nestled on a smart little piece of farmland, had the requisite chickens in the front yard and goats in the back. Colin and Dennis' father was a nice enough man, a bit on the gruff side. It was easy to see that he was proud of his sons, though Harry thought he was also just slightly wary of their keen intelligence.
"Don't forget to take the ropes and tarpaulin when ye go, Colin," he said, as they made plans for the trip to York over dinner, shepherd's pie and sweet hot rolls.
"No, Da, I won't," Colin said, offering Harry the water jug.
"And what business have ye in York, Harry?" Mr. Creevy inquired, while Harry poured himself some water and passed the jug to Dennis, who, at home, was rather less inclined to talk than at school.
"I'm going to see someone about a bit more travel. She has a map I need," Harry explained.
"Anastasia Elowen, maybe?" Colin asked. Harry glanced at him, surprised.
"Y...es," he said, slowly. "How did you know?"
Colin and Dennis exchanged a grin. Their father looked vaguely confused, but also as though he'd felt this way rather too often for it to bother him anymore.
"Miss Anastasia's a great one for maps," Dennis said, into his food.
"So I've heard," Harry replied. "Dean told me about her a couple of months ago. Said he was going to get a talking map of Europe for when he did some traveling this summer."
"She doesn't take money for them, though," Colin continued. "You've got to have a map to trade to her, or a bit of magic or somesuch."
Harry thought of the book bag, upstairs on a cot next to Colin's bed. These days, he often thought it was ironic that the things he carried could, in the hands of a Death Eater, be considered formidable weapons -- aside from a few items of clothing, he carried a two-person mirror (the new counterpart now belonging to Remus Lupin, who checked on him regularly), an invisibility cloak, a few slim volumes on the mythology of death, and the trade he intended to give Anastasia.
"I've brought her something," he said reservedly.
They ate in silence for most of the meal, Colin's father occasionally giving him some advice on the trip, or adding in places of interest Harry ought to see in the city if he had time. Harry promised dutifully that he would visit the museum under York Minster, if opportunity presented itself. Dennis argued that he ought to go to York too, to help his brother, but received in return only the promise that "next year -- if ye're ready, ye can go along. Isn't room for ye two great lummoxes and Harry to boot."
Harry was grateful to escape to Colin's small room, and spend the evening reading, taking copious notes and triangulating ley lines on a county map. Colin looked on interestedly, but didn't ask what he was doing, or why.
Still mad for photos though, Harry thought, as he curled himself up for sleep. Thousands of them, pasted all over the walls and doors, moved dreamily in the darkening room, like ghosts Harry only vaguely knew.
It was never the same here in dreams as it had been in reality; it was seen with the fallible clarity that time brings to memory, which sharpens some edges not meant to be sharpened, and sometimes removes things entirely from view.
He could see every shadow on Bellatrix's face, every individual lock of Sirius' hair. He was here in this time now, but he knew what was coming, knew that Sirius would taunt her, the madwoman, the murderer, and there was a true bolt.
Harry knew that this was probably not truth, that it was his memory embroidering on things, but he was nearly sure that Sirius was still smiling, still caught in a laugh, as he fell through the archway, as the veil wrapped around him like a shroud for a moment before releasing him to the other side. He felt Remus Lupin's arm wrap around his chest at the same moment Bellatrix laughed, and sometimes he felt as though it was that laughter, and not the werewolf's arms, which kept him from reaching his godfather.
It was not a nightmare in the sense that it made his heart beat faster or, once he was awake, overwhelmed him with fear; it was really just a startling dream, though he always jerked awake from it.
Colin was sleeping. So were most of his photographs. Harry put his hands over his face -- cold in the slightly stuffy room -- and breathed in the smell of his own skin.
"No more dreams," he whispered. It was mostly a plea, but also a sort of mantra; if he believed it, one day it might actually happen. "No more dreams. No more dreams..."
Miss Anastasia's Maps, tucked down a side-alley in the Shambles of York, catered to Muggle and Wizard alike. Harry had heard she sold rare hand-drawn maps, as well as modern printed atlases and the occasional bit of magic. He wasn't quite sure which of the three the map he took from her would be, but he knew she would have it, if anyone would.
When he walked through the door, bells tinkled on the doorknob; it opened into a long, narrow room lit only by sunlight through the windows.
Every square inch of wall was covered in shelves, or framed maps, or file cabinets. There were tables as well, on which were spread thousands of sheets of paper, some new and white, some yellowing, covered in crabbed mapmaker's script. Circular bins held giant rolls of paper; books were everywhere, even piled haphazardly on the floor. Harry wondered if there was any filing system for them at all; the complete randomness suggested that there was, but that it was of a subtlety only its creator could grasp.
Miss Anastasia was seated at the far end, bent over a desk. She had not looked up yet, and Harry studied her, now that he had gotten his first impression of the rest of the room. She had pretty, curling hair, just beginning to go grey, and angular shoulders that suggested she had spent a good deal of time bent over a drafting table.
"Welcome to my shop, Harry," she said, without moving. Harry blinked. She hadn't seen him yet, he was sure of that, and nobody could have told her he was coming -- he hadn't told anyone but the Creevys he was going to visit her first.
"You know who I am," he stammered, walking forward, fingers drifting over the maps, not quite touching. She nodded, head still bowed.
"Of course," she murmured.
"Did Colin tell you? By floo?"
"Nonsense," Anastasia said. "Floo powder's being rationed, haven't you heard? No, living with Muggles, I don't suppose you would have."
He could see her face now, half-obscured by her rich brown hair, eyes moving along a line of text on a map. Her lips quirked in a small smile. "There's a war on, you know."
Harry nodded. "That, I knew," he said, for want of anything better to say. It didn't seem right to just come out and ask for the map; he would play the politeness game for a while. He had time.
"All over the world, wizards are in hardship. Beginning to waken to the facts. Aurors come and go as they please without so much as a by-your-leave; no unnecessary floo or broomstick flight, with rationing to enforce it," she continued. "It was better last time. It was better when at least we had our freedom, even if we were scared."
"They've cancelled the Quidditch World Cup," Harry put in.
"Just as well. Nobody really cares whether Brazil beats Argentina, at any rate."
"Except two hundred million South Americans."
Anastasia's smile widened. "You hardly came here to talk Quidditch, Harry Potter."
"How did you know I was coming?" Harry insisted.
"Before you left your home, the maps rustled. When you ate at the Creevy table, they made their own music. Maps are deep magic, you know. Like coins," she added. "And love. They go beyond what is taught about them by human voice."
Harry stood there, helpless. Then she knew everything; why didn't she just tell him what he wanted to know?
"The map you are looking for is four paces to your right, on the second shelf," she said finally. Harry walked to the unvarnished wooden shelf, whitened by age. The maps on it were the colour the wood should have been originally, he thought. He took down the top map and gazed at it. It was pencil-drawn and inked over, but the smudges of graphite were still underneath. A plain map. No writing, no drawings. Just a series of lines detailing a complex, triangular maze with only one entrance, one exit.
"I hope it will help you," Anastasia said, drawing his attention back to the dusty, gold-lit room.
"Aren't you going to try to stop me?" Harry asked.
"Why would I try to stop you?" Miss Anastasia asked in reply. "You can tell me if the map's accurate or not."
"And if I don't come back?"
"Then the map was wrong, and good riddance," she sniffed. "Your life is your own, Harry Potter, and I don't begrudge you a quest, however foolhardy. In the meantime, there's the matter of payment."
Harry had expected this. He reached into his book bag and withdrew a scrap of parchment for her to see, placing it on the table where she was working, and from which she had yet to look up.
"I solemnly swear I am up to no good," he said, touching the blank sheet. Words slowly swirled out of the parchment.
MESSRS. MOONY, WORMTAIL, PADFOOT, AND PRONGS PRESENT THEIR RESPECTS TO MISS ANASTASIA ELOWEN.
Below the message, the outlines of Hogwarts School began to fade slowly into being.
"I thought perhaps...you could see how it was done. Or hang it up as a museum piece," Harry said, stumbling a little over the words. "It's all I've got."
"Your father was a friend of mine," Anastasia said gently. "He showed me that map when we were in school."
Harry nodded, accepting that she knew more about the art of the thing on the table than he probably did. He took his hand off the parchment.
"Then take it as a piece of history," he said, slightly bitterly.
"I will take it as collateral against a loan," Miss Anastasia answered, considering it.
Harry winced. "I'm willing to give it up," he managed.
"I know, poor boy," was her only reply. "But I am not that hard a bargain-maker. If you are willing, that is enough."
"You don't think I'm coming back, do you?" Harry asked. She smiled.
"Oh, I think you'll come back. But I think you'll be empty-handed for it."
She lifted her face and the golden light caught it. There was a long, broad scar across one cheek, and below it another one, shaped like a teardrop -- as if the first had wept.
"I came back, after all," she whispered.
"I drew that one with my own hands, learning from my own mistakes. Now take the map, Harry Potter, and go with my blessing. And if you see Jennor Griff, tell him..." she stumbled, her fingers drifting up to touch the Marauder's Map, softly. "Say that I tried, but my compass was not true."
Harry looked at the labyrinth map in his hands, suspiciously. She smiled, a bitter smile.
"That is the only map now existent. It was drawn by me. After I returned," she added. "If that map is not true, there is no true map. Now all you have to do, Harry," she continued, "is find the entrance to Hades. And not the one you're thinking of -- the true and natural one. Don't pass through the veil."
"I knew there was another entrance," Harry said. "Where is it?"
Anastasia opened a book and laid it on the table. A map of the world.
"Good luck," she said with a smile. "I hear you've been studying ley lines."
"Good," she answered, and closed the book. Harry understood that their talk was over; she had no more to tell him. He left her to her maps, walking back out into the sunny, tourist-busy streets of York with the precious labyrinth map, the last key to the puzzle.
He would need to catch a train.
Men talk of peace, but I have seen
The emery-wheel turn round.
The voice of Abel cries again
To God from out the ground.
Those local to the Berkshire Downs have their own myths about its magic and the sources of the White Horse. Unrestrained by academic sociologists or archaeological thinking, they maintain that the white figure in chalk on the hillside of Uffington Castle (no longer a castle in anything but name -- only fragments of wood and stone remain) is a portrait of the dragon which was slain by St. George on nearby Dragon Hill. There, another irregular chalk pit supposedly represents the places the dragon's blood fell.
Perhaps the mythology becomes the fact, though English Heritage archaeologists say that the horse is old enough to belong to a cult of Epona, a horse goddess worshipped by a tribe called the Belgae, who spread throughout Britain in the Bronze Age. And the horse is now preserved by English Heritage, who own the land and the rights to it, and so what they say is law.
You can see Dragon Hill from the eye of the White Horse, where you may stand and make a wish. The blood of the dragon, spilled on the hilltop, left it barren in those chalk-white spots -- at least, according to legend, assisted by a ritual scouring of the grass from the chalk every seven years.
Some believe the area, and the former castle in particular, represent the site of the battle of Badon, the final victory of Arthur over the Saxons.
To reach the eye of the Horse, one walks along the Ridgeway, an ancient road which runs for thirty-three kilometres, from Uffington Castle to the modern city of Goring. If one were to walk the opposite direction, away from the horse, one would soon come to a pleasant, forested area which contains fields of poppies, trees, and Wayland's Smithy.
Harry sat, arms curled around legs, just above the eye of the horse, looking downward towards Dragon Hill. The magic was so strong here that a wizard, listening for it, could almost hear it hum, even over the roar of the highway in the distance and the sounds of tourists coming and going. He had eaten the last of the sandwiches happily provided for him by the Creevys, and was thinking on what to do next. Neither the Hill, nor the Horse, nor the Castle were what he had searched for.
If he'd caught the train and then a bus and then hitch-hiked all the way out here for nothing, he was going to be extremely put out.
Behind him, there was a loud crack, but he didn't flinch; he had been expecting something like this, and was only glad that there were no Muggles around to be startled.
"I knew you wouldn't try to stop me until you thought I had a chance of succeeding," he said, a trifle angrily. A hand touched his shoulder, and he smelled faint traces of eucalyptus and peppermint.
"It's dangerous for you to be abroad, Harry," said Remus Lupin gently.
"So I'm told," Harry answered. Remus crouched just behind him, bright keen eyes sweeping across the breathtaking view from the Horse's head.
"And you didn't answer when I tried to use the mirrors."
"I couldn't hear you. It's in the bottom of my pack."
"Dangerous for you to be abroad," said another voice. "And even more dangerous for you to do what you're considering."
Harry nodded. Dumbledore too; he could not be truly angry at Lupin, but he had no such qualms about his Headmaster. Not after all that Dumbledore had put him through, however well-intentioned he'd been.
"I really must be close now," he said. "Is it Wayland's Smithy?"
He turned his head to look up at Dumbledore, simply as a child. Remus turned too, his face a question mark.
"Consider, Harry," Dumbledore said, ignoring the question. "If you don't come back -- "
"Then I'm with my family again," Harry answered. "Would that be so bad?"
"We're your family too, Harry," Remus murmured. Harry fought off a choking in his throat.
"Yes. I'd miss you," he admitted. "But it's like everyone keeps telling me." He turned back. The view really was quite spectacular. He could see why someone would want to build a castle here. "We won't be apart forever," he said, with a sardonic smile. Remus bent his head slightly, acknowledging defeat. "Who told you, anyhow? I only told Ron where I was going, and him not everything."
Harry looked up and to his right, past Remus, to where a figure was approaching from the hill, dusting dirt and grass-stains off his trousers, lit cigarette between his lips.
"You're an eavesdropper and a spy, Malfoy," Harry muttered. Draco Malfoy grinned. "I suppose you read my Owls?"
"No. Friends in high places," Draco replied, eyes sliding from Dumbledore to Harry and back. "Personally, I'd like you to succeed," he said. "I only told them because I like to see you suffer, too."
He dropped to the grass next to Harry, as Remus stood up and put his head in his hands, ruefully.
"Why do you care whether I do it or not?" Harry asked, glancing at Draco. The blond boy flicked his cigarette onto the Horse's eye, where it smoldered and died.
"Well, I don't, really. But I'm coming with you, see."
"The hell you are."
"How apt," Draco replied, grinning. "I've been given a job to do. It lies along the same road as yours. So I'm coming with you. If you don't let me, I'll just follow you anyhow."
"Given a job?" Harry asked.
"Oh yes. I have to fetch something for a...family friend."
Draco let his left arm hang down, and Harry could see, under the rolled-up sleeve, a few inches of tattoo. Part of a Dark Mark.
"I should kill you," Harry said.
Draco looked insufferably smug. "This is Sacred Ground," he replied. "You know the rules, by now. Wizards can't fight here. Not with magic. It's too dangerous."
"I could do it with my bare hands."
"No you couldn't."
Harry stretched his legs out, and began to rise. "No," he said. "You're right. I don't have it in me to kill an animal."
"We should be going," was Draco's only reply, as he stood, too. Dumbledore stretched out a hand, stopping Harry.
"I am asking as your Headmaster. As your teacher and your friend, Harry," he said, pleading in his eyes.
"Perhaps if you'd been those things when I needed them, I wouldn't be doing this now," Harry replied bitterly. Remus swallowed nervously, adam's apple bobbing. Harry turned and gathered his pack, slowly walking away. Draco followed, not quite at his side.
"I said it was pointless," Remus said quietly, watching them leave. "I told you it would only make him angry. You made me come anyway."
"He's gone to fetch his parents, you know, and I'm sure Draco's gone to get some Death Eater or other. And if we can't even stop Harry there's no way we'll stop Draco..."
"Dumbledore, for god's sake, say somethi -- "
There was a crack, and when he turned, he was alone.
"Enigmatic bastard," he muttered.
The unfortunate truth about places with high magical charges, such as the White Horse and the Smithy, is that people are drawn to them. It is the reason that Wizarding schools are Muggle-protected so extensively, the reason that Diagon Alley is in the middle of a busy downtown shopping district.
When Harry and Draco emerged from the high weeds blocking either side of the Ridgeway, into the little fenced-in clearing where the Smithy lay, it was crowded already. This was summer, tourist season, and people were on holiday. There was a small gang of solemn-faced children and what must be either mother or teacher; a couple of hippies in bare feet and peasant shirts, unconcernedly worshipping whatever it was they worshipped; Americans in trainers, snapping pictures. All Muggle; some obviously unsure why they were there.
Wayland's Smithy was a long, low barrow, surrounded by upright stones, with an entrance at one end far too short for most people to enter, and mostly blocked off by rock anyhow. It was long-since overgrown with green grass, and made a sort of oblong hillock on the otherwise flat clearing.
They stood there for a while, watching the comings and goings, two gangling teenage boys leaning on the low wooden fence. Finally, Draco snorted and pulled out the pack of cigarettes. He took the last one out of the paper carton, tapped it, touched it to his lips, and murmured a few words in Latin. The end flared to life.
"I am going to kill you, sooner or later," Harry said softly. "We're on opposite sides, now."
"Reckon one of us'll kill the other," Draco answered. "That always happens in the stories. It's the heroic myth."
"At least we get the really interesting archetypes," Harry sighed.
"Here's a hint. If a woman in a lake gives you a sword, don't take it." Draco flicked ash off his cigarette as he watched one woman investigate the too-small entrance to what were, according to archaeologists, prehistoric burial chambers.
"How do you suppose we clear them off?" Harry asked.
"Could kill 'em," Draco said.
"I really don't think that's a very good answer."
"Have it your way." Draco stepped forward and climbed the barrow, holding up his hands for attention.
"EXCUSE ME, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!" he called. All heads, even those of the hippies (who had begun to dance), turned to him. "The parks service is closing the car park. Your autos are all about to be towed," Draco said.
It was amazing, really, how fast everyone left. Within five minutes, they had the place to themselves.
"I didn't think you knew what a car was," Harry observed, as Draco dropped off the barrow and stubbed out his cigarette on one of the stones.
"Yes, I'm full of surprises," the blond boy answered. They both turned to face the entrance. "What do we do now?"
"I go in. You follow me like a coward and a thief," Harry replied grimly, pulling his wand out of his back pocket.
"I can live with that," Draco answered amiably. " Are we going to do it...today?" he asked, when Harry hesitated.
"Shut up, Malfoy."
"Bite me, Potter."
"You're not bright enough to figure all this out on your own," Harry said, examining his wand. "Your family got you this job, didn't they? Fuck, even in the ranks of evil, you have to rely on nepotism."
Draco took out the empty cigarette box, examining it. "I volunteered," he said, finally.
"Because I knew it would piss you off," he replied, tossing the paper box away. Harry bent to pick it up, shoving it in his own pocket. "Because you're the Boy Who Lived, and I think the king of the underworld is probably pretty angry at you. He got cheated, after all."
"And you really think he's going to take you seriously with a name like Death Eater?" Harry asked. "That's a bit ostentatious of you, you know."
"So are we going or not?" Draco asked, a trifle impatiently.
"Shut up and try to pretend you're reverent," Harry answered. He planted his feet firmly on the ground, and stretched out one arm, the other holding the wand slightly above his head.
"What are you doing, you big pansy?" Draco asked, sneering.
"Shut up," Harry snapped. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Misty tendrils began to twine out from his wand.
Nunc suscipe, terra, fovendum,
Gremioque hunc concipe molli.
Hominis tibi membra sequestro,
Generosa et fragmina credo.
Veniant modo tempora justa
Cumspem Deus impleat omnem,
Reddas patefacta, necesse est,
Qualem tibi trado figuram.
Draco watched with a sort of detached interest as the entrance began to grow, the earth slide back to reveal a slanting hole, down into which a dirt road stretched. It glowed a faint green, tinged with gold, even in the bright afternoon. Harry moved to stand just behind him, staring at it.
"After you," he managed, finally.
"Be my guest," Draco said, waving him forward.
"I'm not putting my back to you, thanks," Harry replied. Draco shrugged, and ducked inside the cave, his boots crunching on the moist gravel of the road.
Harry and Draco both turned at the shout, in time to see Remus Lupin, standing by the fence, one hand on the post.
"Harry, wait," he said, coming forward. He stopped, near Harry, eyes sweeping him from head to toe, face lined and tired. Harry flinched as Remus touched his shoulder, then gripped it.
"Superata tellus sidera donat," he said, quietly, eyes staring into Harry's.
"What does it mean?" Harry asked, confused.
"It's a charm," Remus replied, with a small smile. "It's probably useless, but...come back, Harry. Even if you come back empty handed. Don't get lost down there."
"I won't," Harry said. "You could come too."
"I doubt it. My blood. Best not to mix magics, when they run this deep," Remus replied, and Harry nodded. He turned, Remus' hand falling from his shoulder, and followed Draco into the passage.
"How rustic," Draco said, when they'd gone thirty or forty feet into the barrow. Harry rather thought he was covering for the stricken silence that had followed them down.
"What, now you want to criticise the underworld's interior design?" Harry asked, though Draco did have a point. The long earthen corridor was rough-hewn, loose chunks of soil hanging off the walls, and unpleasantly wet. Every ten or twenty feet, there was a bright pool of yellow light where heavy-looking wrought-iron lanterns hung from sticks rammed into the walls.
"I expected something more...medieval," Draco replied.
"How do you get more medieval than a cave?"
Draco shrugged. "You know. Wrought-iron gates reading Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. Or maybe Arbeit Macht Frei."
Harry remembered that reference; Arbeit Macht Frei was the slogan over one of the Nazi death camps. "Who knew you were such a student of Muggle history," he observed sarcastically.
"One has to study Mudbloods in order to hate them properly," Draco answered. The cavern ahead loomed dark and ominous, and Harry reached up, taking one of the lanterns off of its makeshift hook.
"Did you really think Hades was going to be like that?" he asked. "All fire and brimstone?"
"I didn't know what it was going to be," Draco shrugged again. "I can only expect what I've learned might be true. Do you think there'll be hornets?"
Harry paused. "Hornets?" he asked, brows drawing together.
"Don't you know anything about Dante's Inferno?"
"I was busy studying Orpheus," Harry remarked, holding the lantern out above his head. They were coming to something, but he couldn't see it clearly, not yet. "We're going to Hades, Draco, not some bastardised Christian purgatory."
"Purgatory is the least of your worries, Potter," Draco drawled, as they came out into an echoingly huge space. Before them was an endless stretch of nothingness, a cliff that fell away in a sheer drop. When Harry leaned over, he couldn't see the bottom.
Into the wall of the cliff were cut rough steps, and along the edge -- where the drop was painfully steep -- an iron railing had been attached to the rock.
"I guess we go down," Harry said.
"Where do you get your brains, Potter?" Draco answered, testing the first step. When he found it solid, he continued, Harry following behind -- one hand carrying the lantern, the other on the railing.
"First," Draco said, as if the conversation had not been interrupted by a potentially terminal canyon, "There's the vestibule where people who never really lived spend their time getting chased by hornets."
"People who never lived?"
"People who never took action. People who just existed," Draco elaborated. "Then Limbo. That's for us. Virtuous Pagans," he said, with a smirk.
"You are twisted." Harry replied, joining him when the stairs broadened enough to accommodate two on one step.
"And then the Lustful, and the Gluttonous, and the Avaricious and Prodigal, and the Wrathful and Gloomy, and then the Heretics on fire in the City of Dis, the Violent in a river of boiling blood, the Suicides, the Fraudulent and Malicious, and the Betrayers." Draco ticked each one of them off on his fingers.
"What about the people who don't tip well?"
"How come you can rattle them off like that?" Harry asked, stopping to look at him. Draco gazed out over the empty expanse.
"I had the pop-up book," he said finally.
"This explains so much about you."
But Draco was still staring at the ever-descending staircase, and the darkness below.
"Bugger this for a game of soldiers," he said, and grabbed Harry by shoulders, pulling him forward. Harry had a terrifying moment when he thought Draco meant to push him over the edge, and then they were sliding, falling along the rail, faster and faster, far too fast for Harry's liking. He shouted in surprise as the stairway twisted and turned, and somehow Draco managed to keep them both on the railing until they ended, in a heap of limbs, at the bottom.
Harry dizzily tried to stand. Draco was lying near the lantern, which was about to go out. Draco reached out to straighten it, pushing himself up onto his elbows and laughing.
"I swear I am going to skin you alive and make a couch cover out of it," Harry said grimly, accepting the lantern from his hand. Draco stood, dusted off his trousers, and looked supremely unapologetic.
"I got us here, didn't I?" he asked. "Now we should be in..."
He trailed off as he turned, and Harry held up the lantern; in front of them were two large, dun coloured walls, easily thirty feet high. There was an entrance doorway, normal sized, between them, and beyond it they could see other walls behind the first two, going in all directions, though not quite as tall.
"I don't think this is the vestibule, Malfoy," Harry murmured.
"What is it?" Draco asked, eyes wide.
"It's the Labyrinth," Harry replied, digging in his pocket for the map. "Have you read that story?"
"Nobody ever said there was a Labyrinth in Hell," answered the other boy, still staring in shock at the enormous pylons on either side of the door.
"I keep telling you. We're not going to Hell," Harry sighed. "It's a symbolic thing. There are mazes in a lot of the ancient cultures. They're the roads to enlightenment. Down here, symbols are real. So if you see a cauldron, don't climb into it."
"You might get it pregnant." Harry grinned at Draco's shocked look. "And try not to think about anything that Freud would be interested in."
"Guess there are some gaps in your Muggle education," Harry said, studying the map. "Now, we go straight until we reach the centre of the maze."
"And then?" Draco asked, studying it from the other side. Harry looked up and met his bright grey eyes.
"And then I run away and lose you."
"I don't find that amusing," Draco said, but a smile quirked his lips.
They walked through the pylon entrance into the labyrinth, Harry moving carefully, noting offshoots and doorways that Draco barely looked at. He simply followed Harry closely, close enough that if Harry did try to run, he could hit him with a stunning spell. And if that failed, stretch out a long leg and trip him.
Considering all the risk Anastasia had gone to in order to draw the map, it was tediously dull finding their way to the end. There were no monsters, no riddles, nothing even to break the boring stone walls, which were too high to climb. Still, Harry -- who had spent most of the time muttering to himself about right and left turns -- breathed a sigh of relief when they circled one final wall, and found themselves in a long corridor with an open gate at the far end. Harry waved Draco ahead, but they both stopped at the gates.
"What now, hero?" Draco asked.
"I don't think Dante's going to help us with this one," Harry said.
The gate opened onto a vast cavern, dirt-floored, walls arching up into the darkness. In front of them, his back to the smooth, curving rear wall of the cavern, sat an enormous man, easily ten feet tall. He was seated on a square stool, made of wood with peeling gilt, and wore only a white linen kilt, clasped with a circular golden buckle at his navel.
He was olive-skinned, solidly muscular and hairless, except --
Except for his head, which was not a human head at all, but grew out of his neck quite naturally all the same. Liquid black eyes looked down on them from a furry, elongated face -- the toothy snout of a jackal. His ears, tall and triangular, twitched slightly.
"What is it?" Draco asked, out of the corner of his mouth.
"Anubis," Harry breathed.
Harry glanced at Draco. "All that about the Inferno and you don't know who Anubis is?"
"A bloody ten-foot-tall wolf-headed freak!"
"Jackal-headed." Harry looked thoughtfully at the figure, which had not moved other than a few twitches of the ears and a slow, lazy blink of the eyes. "Anubis was the jackal-headed god of the Egyptians."
"What were they smoking?"
"You're one to talk. He sat in judgment in the underworld -- look, you can see the scales behind him."
Harry pointed, and Draco nodded. Even taller than Anubis, the great brass scales could easily hold a man in each broad cup; it wasn't tarnished, exactly, but somehow it seemed...dark. As though it was filmed over with something.
"He weighs the hearts of the dead against a feather. If they're lighter than the feather, they go to the afterlife."
Draco looked thoughtfully up at Anubis.
"What kind of an idiot religious philosophy is that?" he asked finally.
"Yes, I'm sure Dante had the corner on truth," Harry said under his breath. He walked forward, footfalls echoing in the dark, empty cavern. Anubis' eyes followed him. Draco caught up to Harry just as the great jaws opened, and a surprisingly human-sounding voice emerged.
"Who passes this way?"
Draco snorted. "Who wants to know?"
There was flash, a crack, too sudden for Harry to even react; in a split second Draco had been picked up and flung across the cavern.
"You are still alive," Anubis said, turning to look at Harry again. Harry nodded. "And the silver one, also?"
"The silver one?"
Anubis lifted one finger, and pointed at Draco, who was shaking his head and pushing himself off the ground.
"Oh, him. Yeah," Harry said. Anubis nodded.
"Go home, little silver one," he said, to Draco. "You are not welcome. The living have no place at the heartweight scale."
"But there's nobody here," Harry pointed out.
Anubis snorted, small puffs of dust dancing across the ground as he did so. "You think, little sable one, because you cannot see them, they are not there?"
Harry narrowed his eyes. He'd come this far. He'd left Dumbledore and Lupin behind. He'd given up his father's map, and was willing to give up more, if he had to. He was not going to let some jackal-headed pissant stop him.
"We have to come through," he insisted. Anubis looked amused.
"Nonsense. Two living human boys in Hades? Ridiculous."
"What would you know about Hades? It's not even your pantheon," Harry answered, feeling as though perhaps he sounded a bit petulant.
"We of the lower way do not worry ourselves over petty religious laws, little sable one," Anubis replied. Harry balled his fists.
"How do I pass?" he demanded.
Anubis laughed. "Die," he said. "And weigh your heart on the scale. Then your soul is sent away to be reborn, or goes forth to Hades. There it is punished or rewarded as the master of Nir Dis sees fit."
"That seems rather arbitrary to me," Harry pointed out.
"Because you are alive, and not of the Lower Way," Anubis answered. "I am but a judge and have no sway in the affairs of the living. You are not passing through."
Harry opened his mouth to reply, and his eyes went wide.
As they spoke, Draco had pushed himself up, dusted himself off, and crept silently along the wall of the cavern, towards the scales. Without Harry or Anubis noticing, he had pulled himself up onto the scales, and was standing in one of the cups now, arms crossed.
"I'm going through," he announced.
Anubis turned, and it seemed to Harry that more than surprise or anger, he looked pityingly on the blond boy. The cup Draco stood in was obviously lower than the other.
"Oh, little silver one," he said softly, as Draco let out a piercing scream, and vanished. "I am sorry."
"What did you do to him?" Harry demanded, starting forward. Anubis held up a hand, stopping him.
"He was weighed as one dead," he said. "It is forbidden. Hades will be enraged."
"But he went through?" Harry snarled. "You said we couldn't go through -- "
"Are you ready to find yourself in torment, little sable one, should your heartweight be found wanting?"
Harry felt a flush of shame creep up his cheeks at the gentle words.
"So Draco might be..."
"In torment, yes."
Harry smiled slightly, and knew he was on the verge of insane laughter.
"Wish I'd brought my camera," he managed.
It was the wrong thing to say.
Anubis drew back, horrified, and stared at him. "The living are vicious beasts, it is said," he gasped. "And I find it true. Oh woe to you, little -- "
Then the earth began to shake, and small clumps of dirt rained down on Harry. Anubis looked about, arms outstretched to maintain his balance. Then he grunted, and began to fade into the shadows.
"Hades," he said, as his body became invisible in the darkness, "is coming."