Harry grimaced and rubbed his eyes as he sat up. He had been having a weird dream, and he was glad to be outside of it.
Or not, he realized, as he stared around and realized he was still in the middle of a clearing with tall golden grass. And an enormous tree looming over him, dominating the horizon the way a mountain would.
Harry tilted his head back, trying to understand the scope of the tree. He could see white bark, and twisted roots, and dark green leaves spiraling around the white trunk as though cocooning it. And he couldn’t see all the way to the top of the tree, but he could feel the coolness of the shade around him.
Harry supposed he could just sit in the shade. That had been what he did last night, and after a time, he’d simply woken up.
But this time, that sounded boring. And it obviously didn’t stop the dreams to do nothing in them. Harry forced his way wearily to his feet and walked towards the tree.
Closer to it, he could see that some of what he’d mistaken for leaves was bark, patches of dark green seaming the white. The leaves likewise had white ones among them, soft and gleaming and quivering, casting what felt like flickers of light and heat out from them.
Harry stopped in front of the tree and tilted his head back again, staring up towards the crown. The rustling of the leaves sounded like a sea in storm, it was so loud and overwhelming. Harry reached out and hesitantly put a hand on the root near him, looming over his head.
It felt soft and warm beneath his touch, like the flank of a horse. Harry drew his hand back, startled and a little afraid.
“What is this?” he whispered, and craned his neck to stare up at the tree, or as much of it as he could see when he was this close. “Why am I dreaming about you?”
The tree seemed to darken in his sight, and Harry assumed he was waking up. Instead, one of the great branches fell towards him, and Harry yelped and flung himself backwards, one hand flying up to cover his face, as useless as that would be.
He found himself sitting straight up in his bed, panting.
“What the hell?” Harry whispered to himself.
“Well, of course, there’s the tree called Yggdrasil in Norse lore,” Hermione said, face deep in the book in front of her. They were in the middle of the Hogwarts library, which wasn’t unusual for Hermione since they’d started helping in the rebuilding project for the castle. Harry hadn’t been here since the end of sixth year, though, and Ron longer than that. He tended to go home to the Burrow for a few days whenever Hermione started to get involved in a research project.
“What does it do?” Harry rubbed his eyes. They still felt gritty and dry, as though he hadn’t really slept at all while he was walking past the stupid tree.
“It holds up the sky and the universe.”
“This one definitely looked big enough to do that,” Harry mumbled, and accepted the book Hermione passed him.
He flipped through a few pages, frowning. He supposed the colors of the tree were less important than its size, but the tree in front of him didn’t really look anything like the one from his dreams. That one hadn’t had a dragon gnawing on its roots and a squirrel running up and down its trunk, for one thing. And it had looked—well, smaller, which was an odd thing to say about a tree the size of a mountain, but still something that could exist inside one world, like a mountain, not between worlds.
“Anything?” Hermione asked, looking over the top of her book.
Harry shook his head. “I don’t think so. The colors on the tree seemed to be the important thing. And the fact that they were so interwoven that they appeared on both the bark and the leaves.”
“Hmmm,” Hermione answered, and picked up another book. “Well, birches have pale bark, but lots of trees have dark green leaves, so I’m not sure—”
Harry started and glanced up. It took what felt like minutes to recognize the boy standing in front of him. Thin, pale, with a Slytherin tie clinging around his throat. Harry blinked and blinked, and finally said, “Theodore Nott?”
“Yes,” Nott said, and sat down across from Harry without waiting for an invitation. He leaned forwards and laid his clasped hands on the table. They trembled. “Did I hear you right when you said that you were having dreams about a tree?”
“Yes,” Harry said back, as warily as Nott was talking to him, and shot a look at Hermione. She only shook her head. She didn’t know what this was about any more than he did, then.
“Good.” Nott leaned forwards over the table, eyes bright enough that Harry would have hoped for some answers, except that he thought what was lighting them up was desperation. “So am I.”
“The tree is a symbol of the tilting balance magic in the world,” Nott said, leaning back with his arms behind his head. They’d gone out to the Forbidden Forest, because there was too much chance that someone would overhear them in the library, and Nott apparently didn’t want that to happen.
Hermione nodded. “Trees are ancient symbols. Yggdrasil is the most famous, but there are others. For example, I read that a huge pine tree—”
“Granger.” Nott turned his head and stared at her. “I appreciate that you’re here, because you might have insights to contribute, but we’re not going to do down endless tangents or listen to a research lecture. We’re just not.”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Harry snapped.
“We’re not,” Nott said, but more softly. He looked at Harry out of the corner of his eye. “I need your help. I need help from both of you, I think, and anyone else who wants to join in. But I am not going to listen to a research lecture, Potter. If you don’t like that, then I’ll go find someone else.”
Hermione took a deep breath, held it, and let it out, shaking her head. Then she said, “It’s fine, Harry.”
“Is it?” Harry didn’t take his eyes from Nott, who was looking steadily more uncomfortable.
“Yes. If we want to solve this problem, we have to work with Nott, apparently. I haven’t managed to find anything like the specific tree you told me about, and if Nott already knows about Yggdrasil and pine trees, then there isn’t much point in talking about them.” Hermione arranged herself with her legs folded beneath her and her arms crossed in her lap. “It’s fine.”
Harry scowled, but nodded. “All right, Nott. Explain what you mean about the tree serving as a symbol of balance.”
“You know that the kind of magic that’s called Dark and the kind that’s called normal are both part of our world,” Nott said softly. His eyes were darker than Harry had thought, or maybe that was just a function of how huge they seemed in his pale face. “Most of the time, they both exist, and both shift back and forth in how many practitioners they have and how many spells are considered part of either category.”
“I know that’s not true,” Hermione snapped. “The Unforgivables aren’t a normal part of our world, and—”
“I wasn’t talking about the Unforgivables, Granger.” Nott rolled his eyes. “There are plenty of Dark spells other than that. Dark magic exacts a price. It might be a price taken from the person who’s casting the spell, like one that takes a lot of time to study, but it might also be a price taken from the person it targets. Blood, pain, death. Offensive spells are almost all Dark.”
“That’s not true!”
“I told you I wasn’t willing to listen to a lecture.” Nott turned deliberately towards Harry. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
Harry stared back at Nott and thought about how many offensive spells he’d cast during the war. And those had included the Unforgivables. He nodded. “Okay.”
Harry reached out and squeezed Hermione’s hand without taking his gaze from Nott. “I think we at least need to hear this, Hermione. And I’m really tired of having these bloody dreams. This might be a way to stop them.”
“There is,” Nott said, his eyes looking even more haunted now. “But you’re not going to like it.”
“I haven’t liked more than a quarter of what I found in the magical world, anyway,” Harry said evenly. “Tell me.”
Nott looked surprised, and, for a second, like he was going to laugh. Then he shook his head and said, “Normal magic, as I suppose you’d call it, doesn’t require that kind of price. That’s the kind that cleans things, or opens doors, or floats feathers in the air. It doesn’t use blood or pain, and the spells take almost no time to study or cast. That’s why we begin our education with them. They act mostly on objects, which don’t feel those things.
“But that kind of magic can bend the world out of shape, when it’s cast often enough. When that becomes almost all the magic we cast.”
“The war should have bent the world back into shape, then,” Hermione snapped. “Given how many people cast offensive spells during it.”
“Not that many people, Granger.” Nott gave a hollow laugh. “Do you truly think that more wizards or witches cast Cutting Curses or pain curses than cast spells to clean up their own messes or sharpen a quill? Of course not.”
“But that seems as though the balance you’re talking about always should have been off,” Harry interrupted. “Because people always would have used the normal spells more than the Dark spells.”
“Yes,” Nott whispered. “That’s why certain powerful wizards and witches build networks to keep Dark magic in the world and support its presence.”
“Networks,” Hermione said thoughtfully.
Harry didn’t know why he got it before she did, because that wasn’t like him, but his gaze slid down and focused on Nott’s left arm. “Oh, not,” he whispered.
“Yes, exactly, Potter.” Nott gave him the unhappiest smile Harry had ever seen and pulled back his left sleeve. There was a Dark Mark on his arm that looked like a purpled bruise, but creeping in around the edges were the green and white colors Harry had seen on the giant tree in his dreams. “The Dark Marks were one of those networks. The Dark Lord buried a bit of power in every one of them, spreading it out rather than keeping it in his body. That had a practical purpose for him—he could summon us that way, for instance—but it also served as one network that stabilized Dark magic.”
“There must be others,” Harry said, with a slight frown, sitting back from where he’d leaned over to study Nott’s arm. A chill was working its way through him like a virus. “That couldn’t be the only one…”
Nott shook his head. “It isn’t, but the Dark Lord—he did an unwise thing.”
“You don’t say,” Hermione interrupted tartly.
Nott’s eyes flickered towards her, and he seemed to laugh without opening his lips. “Well, yes, lots of them.” He looked back at Harry. “He connected the Dark Marks to other networks in the magical world, so that all of them fed back and forth and depended on each other to exist. He thought it wouldn’t matter, because they would never falter. He would exist forever, after all.” The bitterness on Nott’s face was as complicated as the pattern of light and shadow Harry had seen on the dream-tree’s trunk. “But since he is dead and the Marks are fading, those networks are destabilized, too.”
“So it’s my fault, because I killed him?”
Nott blinked, then shook his head. “Not precisely. The Dark Lord’s fault for tangling the Dark Mark with those networks, the fault of people in the Ministry for not understanding what Dark magic is and acting as though it was easy to define, the fault of generations of Hogwarts Headmasters and professors for concentrating so hard on normal magic…” He shut his eyes. “But the network’s collapse will mean the deaths of people branded with the Mark. First. And then the deaths of others who try to use Dark magic. And, at best, the memory of those spells being wiped from the minds of others in widening circles of effect.”
Harry shuddered as he imagined that. He didn’t like Malfoy, but the git didn’t deserve to die. And Harry had worked hard enough on keeping Snape alive—including just going back to the Shrieking Shack in the first place, quickly enough to realize that Snape had managed to shove a bezoar down his throat but was dying from blood loss—that he wasn’t keen on the Potions professor dying, either.
“What can we do to help?”
That was Hermione’s voice, clear and calm. Harry opened his eyes and smiled at her, glad that she’d decided to accept Nott’s story at least for now.
“Someone needs to step into the Dark Lord’s place and stabilize the network,” Nott said quietly. “It needs to be someone powerful, someone who’s practiced Dark magic in the first place, and ideally someone with a connection to the Dark Lord.”
His eyes were fastened on Harry. Harry sighed a little, but honestly, he’d suspected from the minute Nott started talking where this would lead.
“A Death Eater could do it,” Hermione muttered. “But I don’t think we want one of them.”
“No, I agree,” Nott said, and kept on looking at Harry.
Harry spread his hands. “What would it entail? Would it mean that I was suddenly in mental contact with all of your lot or something?” He didn’t miss the way Nott flinched when he said the words “your lot,” and decided he would try to avoid that in the future. “Because I can think of tons of them who wouldn’t want to be in contact with me.”
“Nothing like that. It’s lending your magic to stabilize the network, and make sure that it doesn’t collapse. Over time, we can work on disentangling the Dark Marks from the other networks, and stabilizing them. Like working on making sure trees are well-watered.”
That didn’t sound so bad to Harry. He nodded and closed his eyes at Nott’s direction, reaching out to put one hand over the bruised Dark Mark.
“Harry, I don’t think,” Hermione began nervously.
“How long have you been having the dreams about the tree, Potter?” Nott asked.
“Almost a fortnight,” Harry muttered, not opening his eyes.
“And you’ve been looking in the library for an answer for how long, Granger?”
“Two days,” Hermione admitted grudgingly. “But—”
“Believe me,” Nott said, “you could keep searching, and in the meantime, the network would decay further and further. Draco is already sick. It’s why he missed the first trial that the Ministry scheduled for him and they had to find another date. And most of the books that you need to find out about this won’t be in the Hogwarts library, either. I’ll owl them to you later, if you have to have them, Granger. It’s just—please.”
“It’s personal for you, isn’t it?” Harry asked, not opening his eyes, using his magic and fingers to explore the edge of Nott’s bruised Dark Mark. It felt withered and dying. As if it might fall like the tree branch in his dream.
He didn’t know how he knew that, and it was kind of creepy. But he also knew that the dreams he’d been having were real and urgent in a way that none of the dreams he’d had before that had been, and that he was no nearer finding answers to that question than he had been a fortnight ago.
“Yes,” Nott said, and his fingers trembled for a second beneath Harry’s. “My father is sick. Please, Potter. He’s not—he’s not a good person, but he was good to me. Please, help me save him.”
“Harry,” Hermione said, but Harry wasn’t sure what he heard in her voice now.
And he didn’t think that he could wait to analyze it, anyway. His magic was already moving, reaching out towards the decay he could feel in the Dark Mark.
Nott drew in a sharp breath.
There was no one to tell Harry what to do, and he wasn’t sure if he could have understood the instructions even if there was. This wasn’t a matter for instructions. It was a matter for listening, and reaching, and feeling—
There was a torrent waiting, backed up behind some kind of barrier that Harry didn’t understand. He reached out and pried at the barrier, but it didn’t yield. Then he flung his magic at it, and it broke with the sensation of earth and water swirling past him. But that only lasted until the torrent broke free.
Then it roared past him, and Harry was staggering, doing his best to keep his feet.
His magic flooded out of him in the opposite direction, the one the torrent was coming from. Harry knew it was going, but he didn’t have the means to stop it. The network, or whatever it was that had been decaying, sucked relentlessly at his strength, needing it in a way that Harry didn’t recall anyone ever needing anything from him.
He gave, humbled and shaken. These were people he could protect. These were people he could shelter. This was magic that he could shelter, too.
His thoughts didn’t make much sense, but it didn’t matter. Harry went on giving, until Nott gasped and shoved him away. Harry blinked his eyes open and discovered that he was lying on the forest floor with his nose pushed against Nott’s knee. Harry reached up and rolled shakily to the side.
He tried to sit up, and couldn’t. He fell back with a low groan. He had a shakiness in his muscles and a tremor in his fingers that were oddly familiar. After a bit, he realized why. This was the way it felt when the Dursleys didn’t let him eat for days at a time.
Hermione was shouting at Nott. “—all your fucking fault!”
Nott wasn’t answering. Harry assumed he either couldn’t or didn’t know how to calm an angry Hermione in full roar. He coughed and said in a croaking voice, “Come on, Hermione, I’m the one who volunteered to do this. And I didn’t know it would pull that much magic from me. Nott probably didn’t, either.”
Nott’s voice was low and odd. It sounded different. Harry rolled over to blink at him and nearly recoiled.
Before, Nott hadn’t looked healthy, Harry abruptly realized. It hadn’t just been lack of sleep or fear. He must have begun to suffer the sickness that he’d talked about Malfoy and Mr. Nott getting.
Nott’s face had a healthy color that looked as if he’d spent a full summer in the sun. He was smiling at Harry with brilliant white teeth that also seemed sharper than they’d been. And there was a pair of horns on his head.
Harry stared at them in silence, then at Nott.
“What the hell, Nott?” Hermione asked flatly, almost conversationally.
Nott tilted his head and closed his eyes. A full-body shudder coursed through him, and Harry felt a leaping spark in the magic that still connected them. The horns sank back into Nott’s head, and Nott took a deep breath. “That’s better,” he said. His voice was different, Harry decided. More musical, low, rough.
Nott opened his eyes again and smiled at Harry. “My family used to be able to take a partial creature form,” he said. “Legacy of ancestors that were—from another world is the simplest explanation. But it’s been a good few generations since we could. It looks like you’ve given me back that ability, Potter. Along with my father, likely. Thank you.”
Harry nodded, dazed. From another world? Okay, why not? At the moment, he needed food and rest more than he needed to wonder what the fuck Nott was babbling about. He reached back and braced a hand against a nearby tree, slowly levering himself back to elbows and knees.
Nott reached down and effortlessly scooped him to his feet. Harry blinked, looked sideways at Nott, and leaned for a moment on his strength. Then he drew himself away.
“You can lean on me,” Nott offered. “I don’t mind.”
“I do,” Harry said. “I did what you said had to be done. Maybe I owed it to you and the others because I killed Voldemort.” Nott didn’t flinch, just watching Harry with unnerving intensity. “But you don’t owe me anything now.”
“On the contrary,” Nott said. “I think I should—”
“You’ve done quite enough, Nott,” Hermione snapped at him, and got in between Harry and the Slytherin. “Come on, Harry, we are going to the hospital wing.”
Harry smiled faintly at Hermione’s familiar, exasperated tone, and reached out to lean on her. They made their way slowly out of the Forest and towards the castle.
Harry did look back once. Nott was standing near the edge of the Forest, watching them with an intense expression, and the horns were back on top of his head. Curving, golden horns, Harry thought. Goat’s horns?
Harry shook his head and focused on walking forwards again, and eventually walking up the steps in the castle, and swallowing the potion that a scolding Madam Pomfrey forced down his throat. It soothed the weakness and sent him straight to sleep.
The back of his head felt oddly crowded as he slept. As if a whole bunch of people standing just out of sight were watching him and murmuring to each other about him.
But at least there was no more fucking tree, so Harry counted that as a success.