20 May 2016

Significant Digits, Analysis and Thanks


Significant Digits, Analysis and Thanks

I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  HPMOR excelled in its characterization, its intricate plot, its careful phrasing and riddles, and in its use of dramatic tension and catharsis.  I loved the way it took aspects of the original Harry Potter and extrapolated them out into a world and timeline, using reasonably pessimistic expectations to establish a small set of premises and then draw the logical conclusion.

Some of the scenes I found particularly affecting were the following:
  • Chapter six, where Harry talks about a childhood trauma when he felt unsafe, and we can feel that the author has shown us something very real and raw to him;
  • Chapter sixteen, when Harry has his first Battle Magic class and virtually the whole of the story is set in motion in a compact and subtle way;
  • Chapter forty-five, when the first Patronus 2.0 is cast and we read Harry’s mental cri de cœur; and
  • Chapter eighty-one, the courtroom scene in which we learn everything we ever need to know about the awesome majesty of Minerva McGonagall.
When I set out to write Significant Digits, I tried to honor everything I enjoyed and admired about HPMOR.  The result is bound to be unsatisfactory for some people, because not everyone was fascinated by those same elements.  Further, I was very specifically not trying to mimic the original story.  To imitate another author’s voice and recreate their patterns over an entire work would be very difficult and not very fun, and I had no taste for the attempt.

I wanted to write a story about a changing world -- the whole world -- as all the ambitions of the characters played out and met their difficulties.  I wanted to write a story about the realization of the rationalism and humanism to which Harry aspired.  I wanted to write a story about extravagance: extravagant planning with layered redundancies, extravagant characters whose passion led them to discard the literal and logical conclusions of their own beliefs in favor of still-greater pursuits, and extravagant events befitting the process of optimizing the world.

I wanted Significant Digits to answer some of the questions that had lingered with me.  These were big questions, and even in three hundred thousand words, I couldn’t completely answer all of them -- but I did answer some.  What was it like in the larger world of Harry Potter, outside the confines of the school?  How would magic and magical races have shaped history and the hidden events behind them (ignoring the well-meaning but utterly insane history of canon)?  How could the continued existence of this world be explained, given the elements we knew to be present?

Lastly, of course, I sought to tell a story with interesting characters and events that follow a rationally-unfolding plot, both at simple levels and in intricate mental leaps.  There were many twists that everyone solved, some that only a few grasped, and a few that no one at all predicted.  This has been an amazingly intelligent and creative group, and it was a considerable challenge to find the right balance.  Congratulations are due to those individuals who guessed some of the biggest twists and puzzles, most particularly Reddit user /u/psinig, who identified the Second of the Three.

In some respects, I have succeeded.  In others, I have failed.  I was certainly overly ambitious, and should have given myself twice as long and twice as many words.  These limitations cramped plot development, curtailed events, and required me to rely on implications in some regards.  But I do believe that I accomplished much of what I wanted to create, and that I have done one more thing besides: left room for others.  There are other stories to be told.  I’ll write some of them, but others have begun their own: Orders of Magnitude is a prequel that’s already begun.

There’s a whole big world to play in.

There’s a lot I would change now, even though I’m pretty happy with the story.  It’s my first work of this length, and my first work of serial fiction, and naturally there are all kinds of changes I would make in hindsight.  I became a better writer over the course of this past year, and a more critical thinker.  I should probably have cut back on some of the secondary storylines, in retrospect, since I didn’t have time or room to do them justice.

There is one chapter, though, that I would not change and that I am utterly happy with -- a chapter in which I did every little thing I wanted to do, and yet somehow arrived at something that was even more than the sum of all those parts.  Chapter Fourteen, Azkaban, is everything for which I have aimed, and will continue to aim in my fiction.  I can recommend that chapter to you, at the least, with a full and proud and happy heart.

As for the rest, that’s for you to decide.

Gratitude is due to many people.

Writing the story would have been quite literally impossible if it weren’t for the extraordinary efforts of 4t0m, go_on_without_me, pa55word, and a final editor who wishes to go unnamed.  Their tireless willingness to sweat the small stuff despite unreasonably short deadlines, challenge poor phrasing or poor ideas, and cheer on our joint successes was extraordinary.  This was their story and their accomplishment, too.  Thank you all.

Readers and commenters have provided an enormous amount of support and constructive criticism, both of which have helped me improve as the story continued.  I have been writing for a long time, but this is the first thing that’s ever gotten this kind of response, and a large part of that was that the community of HPMOR fans is so creative and clever and kind.  Amazing individuals improved my website, fixed up the subreddit, donated a laptop when I complained about a green tint on my screen (!), and put together PDF and EPUB versions of the text.  Thank you all.

Generous patrons on Patreon provided a real reason to keep going when things were hard.  While I frequently remind people to consider their priorities before donating to a writer, it’s also true that money is the unit of caring.  Patronage provided a message of support and very real assistance that could not be explained away as courtesy or indifferent politeness.  Thank you all.

Eliezer Yudkowksy wrote something genuinely new and good, and inspired legions.  And I certainly wouldn’t have begun the story at all if it hadn’t been for his gentle encouragement and reception when I first posted a snapshot of my ideas.  Thank you.

Nothing would have been possible, or worthwhile, if it hadn’t been for my wife Lizzie.  She walked with me in the woods while I talked about ideas.  She proofread all the early chapters.  She took the cover picture.  I know that there is some ineluctable grace in this world, because I know her.  Thank you.

My next story will be the The Consolation of Conquest.  It will begin in about a month, and updates will come at a more reasonable fortnightly basis.  Please subscribe to my mailing list or RSS feed or subreddit to receive updates.

Thank you.


16 May 2016

Significant Digits, Epilogue

Significant Digits, Epilogue

ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος·


The Tower
June 1st, 1999
Three weeks later

Hermione gave herself a moment to look around the room, moving from face to face.  So few familiar faces: Percy Weasley, Amelia Bones, and Dolores Umbridge.  Percy was smiling confidently on her left, while Amelia and Dolores were engaged in whispered conversations with their neighbors.

Many more of those present were relatively new, either to her or to the Tower.  He Jin of the Court of Rubies.  Per Aavik-Söderlundh-Ellingsen, on mission for the nobility of Europe.  And others: a Westphalian appointed by Hig, who was now unchallenged in his dominance over the surviving rump of the Council; several wizards and witches from various strata of the Confederation, chosen as representatives-at-large; a goblin who was present in the same capacity, nominally representing Beings; a domovoi of Russia sent by the Thunderer on behalf of the Slavic tradition; and wizards from Nigeria, Dunedin, and Chile.

It was almost a parody of oligarchy, with stronger states and Things trying to cement their local power.  The small nods towards democracy would have been pathetic if they hadn’t actually represented progress.

Every little step is important, but there’s still so much work to do, thought Hermione.  Proportional regional representation for wizards; similar representation for Beings and some sort of system for Muggles; a federal system to incorporate adversarial interests; strong backing for select NGOs for science and healing... and so much more.  She could almost see the future stretching out ahead of her, in all of its strangeness and complexity.

It might have been disheartening if Hermione hadn’t been so eager to get started.  There were so many lives to save, and she was in a position to help without a minute of delay.  She smiled.  Not one more minute.

All right, then.  Time to do a little dance.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” said Percy.  “You should all have an itinerary, but I have extras if you need them.  If you don’t mind, we’ll begin with introductions, and then we’ll lay out our current status and our future plans.”

“There is much we need to do,” broke in Per, ignoring the orderly start of the meeting and the offered itinerary, his face haggard and serious with urgency.  Percy looked mildly annoyed.  “We must begin immediately to work on our defenses.  The Muggles and the monsters and the other things… we must plan for their control.”

He Jin cut in after the Norden diplomat, leaning forward and pointing out in calm and clipped words that the strange blurry monsters with fishlike eyes had been spotted in Ulan Bator a day ago, and there was no telling where they might go next.

The Westphalian agreed, nodding along with the mandarin and adding, “Our resources are a fraction of what they were, and it’s taking everything we have simply to maintain the Statute of Secrecy.  And that’s not even mentioning the villains behind it all -- the ones Reg called the ‘Three.’ 

“Yes,” said Hermione, rising up from her seat slightly.  The others quieted, and attention focused on her.  “You are all absolutely right,” she said, and she put force behind her words: cold steel.  She pressed her lips tightly together, then gave a small nod, as though in confirmation of some inner resolution.

“Our current situation has become untenable,” she continued.  “If another attack arrived, we’d be wiped out.  There is one member of the Three at large, assuming we have not fallen prey to misinformation in that regard -- I can imagine a clever group adopting a misleading name -- as well as a small army of Unseelie and many other threats.  Even with the help of new allies,” and she nodded to the Curdite who was there on behalf of the goblins and other Beings, “we have barely been able to hold things together.  Thousands and thousands of people and goblins lost their lives on Götterdämmerung, and we are vulnerable as never before.”

“Then now is the time to take hold of the Muggles, as our enemy did, and as we once did in old times,” said the Russian domovoi.  “We must command their numbers for our own.”  The New Zealand representative nodded her head, vigorously.

“Yes,” agreed Hermione once more.  Amelia and Dolores ended their hushed conversation, turning to look at her with shock and disbelief, and even Percy turned to stare at her.  “I know that for many of you, this will be unimaginable, but I agree: it’s the only way.  The world has changed, and all of us have seen things happen that we never could have believed.”


At the same time.

Limpel Tineagar’s face had been frozen into an unpleasant expression of dismay and pain.  Reg Hig was reminded of the stories of how the Eleusinian Mysteries had punished its enemies, petrifying them into living statues and then enchanting their limbs so that they could be adjusted into humiliating positions.  It seemed petty to today’s scholars of history, but its effectiveness couldn’t be discounted -- the Mysteries had maintained their hegemony over all of the Mediterranean for generations.

Not that they could do much, here, he thought, looking at Tineagar’s maimed body, floating in the air in front of him, stunned stiff.  One arm cut away at the shoulder, the other at the elbow.  He’d heard that Amelia Bones had done this, in the last moments of a fight on Hogwarts’ roof.  He wondered if it had been punitive, necessary, or simply an accident of victory.  Bones is not a cruel witch, but a new Eleusinian Mysteries has arisen.  I can’t ignore the implications of that, even if I am a part of it.

That last thought was some comfort, at least, he thought as he looked at the broken body of the betrayer, floating along at his wand’s command.  The great merchants and old families of Tidewater had been murdered, wiped out of life as thoroughly as if they’d never existed, but those Americans that were left would be an equal part of the new world.  When the Council of Westphalia rose again -- and that Thing would rise again, even if Hig had to spend the rest of his life rebuilding its ranks and its strength -- the Americas would no longer be in the shadows, jockeying for leverage within the Confederation.

“Councilor Hig, sir,” called a voice, and Hig looked up, returning from his reverie.  It was the head of the DMLE, young Diggory, and four others.  One was an auror that Hig recognized, but not the rest… they looked nervous and unsettled.  Ranks were thin all over, and Hig supposed these must be new recruits or patrol-wizards pressed into more heady service than that to which they were used.

“Director Diggory, hello,” said Hig.

“Hullo,” said Diggory.  The young man looked haggard, but somehow that made him look even taller and more handsome.  His expression was solemn, perhaps due to their surroundings.  The atrium of the British Ministry of Magic still bore scars and ragged wounds on every wall and surface.  The basics had been put back in order, but it would be a long time before the cosmetic damage could be repaired -- and even longer before the memories would fade.  Hig thought of Tidewater again, and shuddered.

“Here is my delivery,” said Hig, gesturing with his wand.  Tineagar’s body floated between them gently, as though wafted by the wind.  “Good riddance.  Have your people strip her mind, and if there’s anything left when you’re done, tell her that her home is gone.”

Diggory didn’t reply, watching Hig with a sad expression.  He gestured to one of the witches with him, and she cast her own levitation spell on Tineagar, taking over from Hig.

“I’ll be headed back later tonight,” Hig said, “after taking some time to try to get together some people.”

“Checking up on friends?”  Diggory asked, as he stared down at the frozen face of Tineagar.

“No,” Hig said, shaking his head.  “There are some expats of the Americas here in Britain.  From all over… Chile, Brazil, the States, Canada, et cetera.  I’m going to touch base with a few of them and see if they’d be amenable to coming home.”

“Make sense.  I’m sorry about what happened.”

“It could have been worse,” Hig said.  “Salem escaped without a scratch on a single student, thanks to the goblins and centaurs, and Houston and Buenos Aires only lost a handful.  And we’ll rebuild.  Everyone, everywhere, needs to rebuild.”  He gestured broadly around the atrium, as though to illustrate his point.

“We’ll be here to help.”

“Thank you,” Hig said, and sighed.  He shook his head.  “Sorry, it’s too easy to be gloomy, these days.  All is well with you?”

“As well as can be expected,” Diggory said, nodding.  “I lost some friends and a cousin, but everyone lost someone.  It’s been too busy to really think about it.”

“Make sure you make time for yourself -- to keep a clear head,” Hig offered.  “In fact, maybe you want to have dinner tonight?  Take your mind off things?”

“Actually,” said Diggory, a bit sheepishly.  “I have an engagement tonight.”

“I heard rumors about a long-sought romance.  I suppose sometimes persistence pays off, eh?” said Hig, smiling gently.  A signal to the young man: levity is okay, even now with what happened in Tidewater, I won’t be offended.

Diggory shrugged.  “What can I say?” he asked.  “We’ve all been through so much, and sometimes a person comes out the other side a bit… well, bolder, I guess.  It’ll be new and probably fun, and worth giving it a chance, and anyway…”

And Diggory glanced with a smile over at the group that had accompanied him, where Pip was standing guard.  “he did save my life.”

Pip noticed their attention.  He smiled hugely and gave them a little wave.  Then he returned to his work, straightening himself up and returning his attention to Tineagar… though she was hardly in a position to escape, even if she were somehow to wake, and though it didn’t seem as though any amount of dutifulness could erase the smile that was plastered on his face.

“Well then,” said Hig, and now his smile was rather more genuine.  “I hope you have a good evening.  I’m sure I’ll see you soon, Master Diggory.  Let’s hope for the best of luck -- in all our new beginnings.”

When Reg Hig left the Ministry of Magic, he found himself oddly optimistic.  Despite all of his common sense and despite everything he knew of history… he let himself believe that things might get brighter.  Things might get better.

Isn’t it pretty to think so.


”Muggles are an existential threat,” Hermione said, firmly, looking around at everyone at the meeting table.  It was a new piece of furniture, without the scuffs and broken edge from Hermione’s demonstrations of anger three months ago.  New like everything else in this new Tower.  “Götterdämmerung showed that to everyone, even skeptics.  Harry had some strong beliefs on this, as you know, but I think we need a new plan.  The Statute of Secrecy made us vulnerable, since it encouraged us to separate ourselves and gather together into little enclaves.  There was a time when wizards and witches lived among Muggles, usually ruling them, and it would have been impossible to try any sort of magical genocide.  We need that protection again -- the protection of Muggles.”

“Madame Granger,” said Amelia, and her voice was harsh.  “I am surprised to hear this from you.  You used to moderate Mr. Potter’s approach, but now you sound more extreme than he ever did.  What is your idea -- that we attempt to seize control?  It’s not even practical, even if it weren’t a gross departure from our ideals.  We are so few… do you imagine we could dominate the Muggles when they have as many cities as we have people?”

“We have been intervening strategically for years,” said Hermione, coolly, standing up.  “On a small scale, even a handful of wizards can effect incredibly quick change at a minimum of risk.”

“I hardly think a few Hit Wizard squads are good evidence,” objected Dolores.  “And you know what they’re like.”


At the same time.

“This seems like the perfect moment for sniping,” said Neville, in a hopeful whisper.  He scrunched himself forward enough to see over the rim of a huge spool of copper wire that was currently hiding him from sight, then ducked back down.  “Yes, sniping it is.  For sure.”

“If we did that, then --” said Fred, cocking his head to the side.

“-- wouldn’t he be dead?” said George, cocking his head to the other side.

“No, I just need to snipe the gun out of his hand,” said Neville.  “That can be healed.”

“Then there would be the blastbomb only to explode, I think,” said Bogdanova, peering around the corner for a moment.  She pulled her head back and turned to Neville with a mocking smile.  “Which means all of our problems here would be gone very shortly... yes, you have convinced me.”

“I can snipe his other hand, too,” offered Neville.  “Then he can’t blow up the bomb.”

“This might be one of those situations that can’t be solved with sniper rifles,” mused George, contemplatively.

“Although now that we say that out loud, it just sounds silly,” contemplated Fred, musingly.

“We can use the Extinguishing Charm on the bomb.  That will stop any detonation,” said Neville.  “Then the sniping.”

“Snipe the hostages, as a distraction?” suggested Bogdanova.  Her appearance may have changed with rejuvenation, but her attitude certainly hadn’t been affected.

“Enchanted bullets, that’s the ticket,” said Fred.

“Zip around to both hands, whammo, knock him back and to the left,” agreed George.

Neville turned to squint at George suspiciously, but the Weasley twin only smiled serenely.  Neville sighed, and crossed his arms with a scowl.  “Fine, fine… the same as always, then.”

“Don’t worry, Nev,” said George, consolingly.  “You’ll get your chance, someday.”

“There will be another time the world is about to end, and then you’ll just nip in and snipe the arch-villain just in time to save everyone,” said Fred, nodding.

“Happens all the time,” said George.

“Definitely not a unique opportunity for awesomeness,” said Fred.

The twins were grinning, now.  They reached across to each other, and each tapped the other on the head.  With the sound of a cracking egg, they vanished into Disillusionment.

Bogdanova waited a second, then leaned around and tugged on Neville’s earlobe, affectionately.  “They’re not wrong, you know,” she said, her tone softening.  “Who knows what may happen?  Think about other things of that day.”

“I know,” Neville said, sighing again as Bogdanova lifted her wand and tapped herself on the head, vanishing from sight with a wet crackling noise.  “And I’m grateful, of course.  But still… the sniping…” he said plaintively.

“Oh, come on,” the invisible Russian witch said, and her voice was fond.  “Let us go.  There’s a girl in the pond that needs rescuing.”

Neville grinned, and Disillusioned himself.


“This is good,” said the domovoi, who obviously approved of the plan.  Several others joined him in that attitude.  Per, Percy, and Dolores looked doubtful.  Amelia looked hostile.  The others seemed to have reserved judgment.

He Jin cleared his throat, delicately, and asked Hermione what she was proposing.

The fast reverse.

“We have already seen the success of making our rivals into our allies,” said Hermione, gesturing at the Curdish envoy.  “So we need to do the same with the Muggles.  We need to turn a threat into an asset… potentially the biggest asset we could ever have.  We need to eliminate the Statute of Secrecy and present ourselves to the world as a magical people.  It’s a risk, and we’ll need to be careful, but remaining isolated has proven even riskier.”

Nearly everyone seemed confused by what she was proposing, except for Amelia.  Her expression softened, and displeasure was supplanted by surprise.  “You’re not proposing mastery at all.  You’re proposing the modus meli.”

“Open and free, and as equal as we can manage,” confirmed Hermione.  “Not hiding from them, not ruling them, but living with them.”

Per spoke up, cautiously.  “If you will excuse me, that seems to be an idea with a very interesting goal, but one with too many problems.  It is impossible.”

“There are so many problems that it’s staggering,” Hermione allowed.  “Every Muggle government will see magic as a weapon, so there will be a risk of global warfare -- in addition to the constant threat of kidnapping or blackmail.  There are also different aspects of magic that are incredibly dangerous to the untrained, but any Obliviator can tell you how hard it is to completely eliminate information from a Muggle population… which is why nearly every aspect of our magical world can be found approximated in folklore and legends, even today.  And of course, there’s every possibility we’d face a return to the days of witch-hunts and inquisitions… especially after recent events.”

“But you believe you have a solution,” Amelia said, quietly, speaking over the murmurs of the others.

“It is possible that the Mirror of Noitilov can be used to alter the terms under which our world operates,” said Hermione.  “It is also possible that the Goblet of Fire can be used to bind people without their conscious knowledge, if it will recognize a proxy in terms of political representatives.  It is also possible that some of the new spells we will acquire from our two captive members of the Three -- or even one of the ones we already possess -- could be used once we have mastered them to manipulate even a global population.  But we may not need to resort to any of these, if we devote ourselves as one to this goal and find different solutions.  There are many others, including mundane strategies like wand control.  There were only one hundred and twelve wandmakers worldwide a month ago, and there must be many fewer now.  We kept the entire world in an imperfect ignorance for centuries -- surely if we really try, we can manage a transition without too much damage.”

Percy was staring at her, eyes wide.  He’d realized what she was saying -- her true message -- before anyone else.  But he didn’t seem angry.  He seemed awed.

“It might be hard,” Hermione added.  “But sometimes the hardest things -- the things that seem the most impossible -- are the things that most need to be done.  The first step to finding a solution is rejecting the idea of impossibility.  Then you just take the first, hard, scary step.”


At the same time.

Nikitas Seyhan knocked gingerly on the door to the cottage at Külek Boğazı.  There was no answer.  Nikitas frowned and turned around, glancing behind himself to where Tonks, Jessie, and Urg were watching.  Tonks smiled and nodded, miming a knock.  Nikitas turned back around and knocked a second time, more loudly.  He knew he should be nervous, but really only felt a distant discomfort.  

“Hello?” said a voice in the local Greek.  The door cracked open, slowly.

“Is this the Seyhan house?” said Nikitas, in the same tongue.  He felt like he was in a dream.

The door swung open, and a big bluff man stood there.  He was bearded and florid, and his eyes were wide.

“Nikitas?  You’ve come back to us?”


Dolores said something first, in a syrupy voice that was unusually quiet.  “Ms. Granger… the Mirror, and the Goblet, and the new spell… aren’t these all things you could have already done?  Couldn’t you have… Did you?”

He Jin was out of his seat, glaring at Hermione as though his eyes were capable of murder under their own power.  The Westphalian had gone pale.  Per was looking rapidly around him, not having yet understood but too afraid to ask.

Hermione stood and stepped away from the table, and walked to the room’s window.  Dramatic pose at the window, put my silhouette against the sky.  Like so.  She looked out and down, at the clouds rolling beneath the Tower as the building lightly floated along, borne up by the salvaged Aa-Khem of the Shafiq.  The scarab statues had been recovered from the wreckage of The Declaration of Intent.  The new Tower, still only a fragment of its future self, was buoyed up in the sky: unassailable, invisible, and puissant.

The people in this room represented enough power and influence to sway the Confederation.  They’d fought a global war together, and now faced new challenges and a new world.  They’d been forged out of a disparate and violent assemblage of fractious Things, and could now be united.

Fear could do it.  She could threaten most of them.  They might seek her death and plot against her, but they’d obey.  She knew that Draco would do it that way, if he were in her position.  A cold and intimidating speech, leveraging all his power and influence, and enlisting the weak as his enforcers.

Persuasion could do it.  She could convince most of them.  They wouldn’t be wholly won over, and might later change their minds, but they’d agree.  She knew that Harry would do it that way, if he were in her position.  A bold and inspirational speech, changing as many minds as possible, and backed up with redundant plans to handle anyone who was recalcitrant.

But she wasn’t Draco and she wasn’t Harry.  They’d each stepped away from these things, perhaps permanently.  She was Hermione Granger, daughter of dentists, goddess.  She was standing at the crux of things, and she knew the right thing to do.

Fear was limited.  Draco had been afraid all of his life, in one sense, but he’d still found the courage to face the worst and overcome it.  A single lever was all it took to overturn fear.

Persuasion was limited.  Harry had spent years railing against insanity and irrationality, hurling evidence and reason against dull walls and burning with frustrating when they failed.  He sometimes couldn’t see the way the world was, out of eagerness to see it the way it should be.

Hermione knew that wasn’t how you led people.  It wasn’t how you changed minds.  She had led the Returned, and she knew why.  She had led soldiers, and she knew why they’d followed her on the battlefield.  She had led the people, and she knew why they wanted to touch her hand and worshipped her.

Hermione had died twice, and she knew what she’d followed back to this world.  She knew what people would follow.

They followed the light.

Far below, all around the Tower, she could see bright spots of crimson glory.  She heard a phoenix call, as though it saw her, and heard another answer.

Hermione turned around, and smiled, and began to speak.

She brought her own special gift.  She brought hope.


Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

“It just seems unlike you, is all,” Hermione said to Harry, watching him curiously.  She opened a satchel and looked inside, but the extended space within was still empty.

“I think my part in this is over,” Harry said, shrugging.  He was silent for a moment as he finishing bolting down the Vanishing Cabinet inside of the spherical silver ship, then he stood back and surveyed his work.  He nodded approvingly, and turned back to Hermione.  “And I’ll be within reach, from time to time.  I might need help.”

Hermione frowned.  “You’ll need a lot of books, and you might get lonely, but as far as we can tell, there’s no limit to that Cabinet.  You don’t even really need to ‘go’ at all, since you could just as easily live here and check in on your ship once a month.  So this is really you taking a sabbatical from everything.  And that’s fine, but I think I’m the one who’s going to be asking you for help.  Be ready to pop on through, the first time I encounter an insuperable problem.”

“Well, see, here’s the thing,” Harry said, leaning down with a silver wire rack so that he could affix it to the interior of the ship.  “You remember all of my work with Luna, looking into the nature of magic?  Magical theory has come quite a ways since we started to systematically eliminate possibilities.  And we found some pretty amazing things when we looked at the brains of people casting spells.  We never did have enough of a chance to discuss it, I think,” he mused.  “Anyway, I pretty much have just one strong hypothesis now.  And it fits with what we know about Merlin, and explains a lot.

“Spoken magic and wandless magic look almost the same when you see how they’re expressed.  BETs and POSTs and all the rest in specific patterns, even though the interference each spell generates might be completely different.  The same effect, the same patterns.  It’s not a far inferential leap to conclude that the pattern is a command, like you might give to a computer.  If you’re magical in nature, then something in the universe knows to pay attention to that command.

“Now, it’s possible that it’s just the nature of the universe that specific electrochemical patterns in our neurology trigger complicated phenomena.  I’ve read weirder theories.  But that opens up a big question: why are we the only ones?

“It’s the Fermi Paradox on an even bigger scale.  There are so many planets where life could evolve, out there in the universe.  And the existence of magic means that a lot of the normal answers probably don’t work.  Distance and difficulty don’t seem like they could possibly matter once any magical civilization is advanced enough, and some of those lifeforms that probability suggests must exist would end up being magical, just like humans.

“Now, there’s a lot of possible explanations.  Maybe magic makes it even more difficult for life to evolve than we thought, somehow.  Or maybe there are magical barriers we don’t know about, blocking us off.

“But then I think about Merlin, and what he was afraid of, and how he… well, he backed down, when it came down to it.”

Hermione’s jaw had dropped open and she’d forgotten to breathe since Harry had said the words “Fermi Paradox.”  He continued on.

“I didn’t present him with very much new information, when it came right down to it.  He must have already known Meldh had been defeated, and they’d been watching me so they already knew the other things I said.  And I told him that prophecies always come true, but I learned that from a book that quoted Merlin.  So why did he go?

“Maybe he’s just biding his time.  Maybe he’s seeking a way to neutralize our advantages.  Maybe he was just suddenly persuaded.

“But someone that powerful with that much lore and prophecy…”  Harry shook his head.  “I’m not sure about that.  Because I’m thinking of what Merlin’s goal might really have been, and about a thing called the Great Filter, and…” He paused, then continued.  “No, I think that --”

“Wait,” interrupted Hermione.  “Just wait.  Because I think you’re about to tell me that you think the British wizard Merlin is an alien from another planet, sent here to watch us or guard us or something.  And that maybe aliens invented magic?  And that is…”  She frowned.  “Just… no.  Put a pin in that.  I can’t handle that right now.”

Harry grinned.  “I imagine a computer somewhere, advanced beyond our furthest dreams, that fulfills commands to users it recognizes.  And we just happen to have matched that pattern in the wierdest way.   But all right.  Another time, then.  Or until it becomes more urgent.”

Hermione was silent for a long period, while Harry continued packing away supplies.  Lots of redundancies and failsafes, since this was a journey into the unknown.  He’d be pushing against new limits and uncertainties about all sorts of materials and spells.

After a while, the witch spoke again.  “How do you know that this will work?  And where to go?”

“Prophecy,” Harry said, shrugging.  “Which is the only way I can even do this, since I know I will succeed someday.  Eventually.  I just need to head to the Scorpion and the Archer… Scorpius and Sagittarius.  Something is locked beyond return along that path.  Just by coincidence, that’s also where astronomers think a black hole is situated, at the center of our galaxy.  So that’s where I’ll go, and we’ll see if that’s where Dumbledore is now.  If it’s where Atlantis is now.  If it’s where all the things locked beyond return are trapped outside of time.  It’s inconvenient and crazy, but sometimes so is the world.”

“How far is it?” asked Hermione.

“26,000 light years or so,” answered Harry, grinning.  “Although I expect to find faster ways to travel than the speed of light.”

“I feel as though we’re saying goodbye,” Hermione said, and her voice trembled a little.  “Which is stupid, because you’ll probably be back for lunch next week, once you start to need someone to talk to.  But you really are leaving.”

“I’m leaving,” Harry said.

“And you’re leaving me in charge.”

“You’re in charge,” Harry agreed.  “Oh, I have three things to give you!  Might as well give them over now.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a milky-white stone.  “The Spirit Stone.  The last of the Deathly Hallows.  Yours now in truth, along with the others.”  She accepted it, wordlessly.  It was also reportedly a Horcrux of Voldemort.  A research project: how to break those ties.

He tugged on the fingerless glove on his right hand, pulling it free.  A pained expression passed over his face, but he didn’t hesitate.  He offered it to her, and again Hermione took it.

She glanced at his other hand, at the decoy glove he always wore, but he smiled a wry smile.  “No, I’m going to hang on to this one.  I discovered something useful about it, recently.  No, the third thing is a ritual.  It’s a sacrificial ritual… a dangerous one, but an important one.  The most important one, really.”

“You… wait, what?”

“It was one of the only things I could think to do, at the end.  I couldn’t fight, not really.  And I only knew one thing that had impressed anyone in the Three.  A ritual that he saw in my mind, one I’d never actually done.  I had it in my mind, all the principles -- I’m really not sure how to explain it, it just works out somehow, when you’re inventing a spell -- and Meldh had told me I was being stupid not to use it.”  Harry pulled a folded parchment from his pocket, carefully, and handed it over to her.  “I still think he’s wrong, and I’m still not sure if it’s the right thing.  But I did use it once.  To fulfill a promise.  I picked a star that seemed least likely to have any negative consequences… a Bok globule that would only have existed as a star for a few thousand years, as best I could figure.”

Hermione took the parchment. She didn’t know what to say… didn’t know how to react to a succession of surprises that seemed too great to be borne.  All she could think was a single sentence, a miraculous sentence that embraced the multitude of stars scattered throughout her mind’s eye, each one now with a name: We can save everyone.

She smiled gently.  Her eyes were wet.


Malfoy Manor

The small family accepted no visitors, and seldom left the house.

It was a strange, new way to live: as though ambition were sated, as though ambition had reached its natural end.  Surely, it was temporary -- for the gnawing of desire never rests for long -- but for a time, the family wanted for nothing.  They were together, and they were content.

Sometimes they played music, or had long conversations, or spent entire afternoons in cooking elaborate meals.  But often, they simply sat with each other in silence.  It was a happy and full silence where nothing needed to be said, because everything important was known.

From time to time, Draco would close his eyes and hold them that way for a long time, before opening them again.  As though testing what he was seeing.

But nothing changed, and every time he would open them again, Draco would see his father anew, holding his mother’s hand.

He smiled gently.  His eyes were wet.


Somewhere beyond Earth and everything else we know.  Somewhere in the darkness of space.

Harry took a deep breath, and then let it out, slowly.  It sounded very loud inside of his ship.

He held the glove from his left hand, and examined it with a smile.  He touched the curved fragment of the Cup of Midnight that was bound there.  A decoy he’d worn for years, to balance the Stone of Permanence.  Impervious to harm and enchantment and damage, and always close to him.

He pushed hard on the underside of the smooth piece of pottery, twisted it to the side, and then pushed down on it.  There was a small click, and the piece of broken earthenware slid upwards, revealing the round aperture to an extended space sheltered beneath.

Harry set the glove on the floor of the ship.  He reached over to pick up a book from a small shelf where he’d placed it earlier, and then stepped into the glove.  It drew him in, delicately.

Finding his way past all of the traps and security precautions had taken him weeks.  Removing a substantial part of a mass of tungsten had taken almost as long, since he’d needed to be extremely careful.  In this, after all, he was entirely alone.

But he’d done it.

He sat on a small stool, and smiled.  “Hello, Professor.  I brought a book, and I thought I’d read to you today.”

“That would be acceptable, Mr. Potter,” said Voldemort.

“It’s called The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and it’s one of my favorites.”

“Is it long?”


“Then begin at your leisure, Mr. Potter.”

Harry didn’t begin right away.  He just looked at the box for a moment.

He smiled gently.  His eyes were wet.

24 April 2016

Significant Digits, Chapter Fifty: Ultimate

Significant Digits, Chapter Fifty: Ultimate

Out of the night that covers me,
     Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
     For my unconquerable soul.


The oldest stories of magical war are full of glory and drama, wrought on stage in bright colors, and entirely unlike the reality of war.

As the vile goblins or villainous Muggles or vicious warlords swarm the field, awash in blood and villainy, the valorous Lord of Emerald calls upon an ancient ritual and the eldritch might of his Staff of the Seven Words, and sweeps aside the enemy with a single, cathartic gesture.  Or if it’s a different sort of tale, the good-hearted baron finds himself at a loss at the climactic moment, and only the wits of his clever majordomo suffice to trick the gloating foe into a magical vow -- allowing a quibble in that vow, in the end, to bring that same foe to his ruin.  Or the entire action between heroes and villains takes place in the uncertain shadow of some ancient power in the distance, and in the extremity of danger, it is only the intervention of thunder from on high that resolves the dispute in favor of Goodness.

It is not that the authors of these stories were naive or ignorant of war.  In a world where scholarship and warcraft were so closely linked, it was often the winner of a battle who wrote the story of the fight.  Instead, a sort of wishful thinking prevailed in these narratives.

Real war is a horror.


All of the defenders had fallen back within Hogwarts where possible, barricading the doors on the three sides of the castle not protected by the lake.  They found battlements and windows and balconies, and rained down destruction on their enemies.  Outside, a smaller few engaged in different sorts of combat, fighting with growing desperation.

Oddly enough, Hogwarts was not ideally suited for battle.  The school was an ancient sanctuary of arcane lore, raised up when the world was wilder and magic was mightier, but it had seldom ever been directly challenged.  Despite all probability and the disruptive nature of magic, there had not been a violent change of regimes in Britain since the time of Merlin, when the Wizard’s Council was established -- the riotous Thing that preceded Merlin’s Wizengamot and the world’s Confederation.  Only two villains had ever dared to attack the walls of the castle-school, and they had met swift and sure ends.
An outside observer might even say, on balance, that magical history was suspiciously tidy.

Despite these limitations, however, the castle was a formidable fortification.  And once the defenders were forced to fall back within its walls, they devoted everything they could spare to preserving their strength.  It was all too apparent that, should the walls of the castle fail, it would be impossible to coordinate any sort of defense.  There was no motte to which they could retreat, or even any internal system of defense beyond the unreliable will of the building itself.  It was a single keep, and they could not allow it to fall.

They used every force and trick and power at their command, and the powers that be had called in every ounce of strength that could be spared from other fights.

In different corners and in secret places, there were portkeys held in reserve.  Portkeys to Hogsmeade, portkeys to the Receiving Room or other places in Hogwarts, and portkeys to the Forbidden Forest.  Most were illegal.  All that could be found, were used.  Too few came, for there were other wars and other battles.  At the Ministry of Magic, a heroic handful had held their ground.  At Godric’s Hollow, a force of goblins had met a troop of monsters in a clash that could only be called audacious.  Sadder still were the calls that simply went unanswered.

It was hard to say if there was victory to be had on any front.  Across the globe, much of the enemy had withdrawn or had spent itself, but even successful defenses had been ruinous.  And not every defense was successful.  Tidewater was cold and lifeless.  The Court of Rubies was bloody and dead.

But where there were warriors to answer and means to travel, they came to Scotland.  They came to the defense of Hogwarts and the Tower, the center of a global war and the thoughts of all.  From America and Russia and Korea and China they came.  From the Free States and the Sawad and Cyprus and Cappadocia and Norden they came.  From France and Germany and Hungary and Chile and New Zealand they came.  From everywhere they could, they came.

And those in a position to know gradually came to understand that there could be only two outcomes here, as day reddened into dusk and nightmare hordes met castle wall:

Either Hogwarts and wizards would survive this night.

Or they would not.


Hermione could hear Edgar Erasmus screaming.  At some point, the pompous wizard, engaged in aerial battle high above, had been toppled from his broom by a gust of wind.  When he fell, a goblin took the opportunity to dart forward and bury a spear into the man’s belly.  The spear had already claimed the life of a basilisk, and now an acid venom was wracking Erasmus’ wound.  He howled with agony, eyes fixed wide and face red, clutching at his stomach and writhing, legs slopping and flopping in a puddle of liquified stone.  Most of the hill on the east side of the castle had been made into a ruin of shattered rock and enchanted soil.  There were precious few Muggles left here, but the ones that were present could barely make their way forward through the devastated terrain… and most of the ones that managed were cut down by the careless and indiscriminate attacks of giant serpents and unliving creatures of rock, who did not differentiate between friend and foe.

Edgar Erasmus was in very much the wrong place, and his screams of agony spoke of that mistake.  This was no place for humans.  This was a primeval battle against horrors.

And as she heard him scream, Hermione Granger found herself thinking, No time for mercy, and -- to her shame -- not even knowing what she meant by the thought.

Shuddering, she brought the axe in her hand down a third time, and the head of the terrasque parted from its body, falling free.  Its mouth fell open to let a cloud of stinking vapor escape, and the heavy carcass dropped to the ground with a crash that knocked nearby Muggles off their feet.  It landed on Hermione’s right foot.  She barked a short cry of pain and instinctively yanked herself free, leaving behind at least one toe but keeping her footing.  She turned to look for a new target, keeping her gaze low as she scanned around herself.

Off to her left, she saw another terrasque as it savaged someone -- Muggle or wizard or goblin, Hermione didn’t know.  The creature was almost impersonal as it rent the body in its jaws into gorey pieces, holding most of it down with one of its six legs and methodically tearing away with its sightless lion’s head of black stone.

She felt rather than saw the basilisk as it struck at her, and she lunged to the side, chopping down awkwardly with the axe.  The goblin silver sank into the enormous serpent -- a glancing blow.  The blade sliced its way free and off to the side.  Before she could move, one of the basilisk’s coils or possibly just another basilisk collided with her back, swatting her with the strength of a freight train.

For a moment, Hermione lost track of things.

When she found herself again, she was on her rear, sitting with her back to something hard.  She jerked her gaze back down to the ground.  As if fighting giant monsters wasn’t hard enough you can’t even look at their eyes or else you die, she thought, dazedly.  Erasmus was still screaming.

She heard the clank of metal boots -- it was that trio of goblins who’d just joined the fight, Hermione realized.  The ones who gave her the axe.  She glanced at the sound, cautiously.

One of them was in full plate armor in a medieval sort of style, while the other two only wore breastplates and helmet.  The armor was silver and gold and brass; some pieces were bevelled and decorated with engravings, while others had simple and clean lines.  All three carried shields.  For reasons that Hermione didn’t fully grasp, all the goblins now had shields, even when it made it difficult to wield their chosen weapons.

She felt stupid, as if she should understand why, but that didn’t help.

A green bolt came from a defender on the battlement above her and streaked out of view down below.  Hermione was glad someone on their side could still cast the spell; she hoped they had hit a basilisk.  Her own wand was in its holster.  The axe had proven more effective.

She reached behind herself to feel the stone of the castle.  Hermione had damaged it, cracking it with the impact of her body.  If it had been mundane stone, she’d have gone straight through it, she thought; the stuff of Hogwarts was barely chipped.  She found the edge of a stone and pulled herself up.

As the goblins charged past her, she looked at where they were going, scanning the torn and smoking ground carefully until she could see the giant curving form of the basilisk in her near-peripheral vision.  Then she launched herself forward, following the three goblins as they charged.  Two of them raised their swords, and one of them set a spear-butt in the crook of his elbow.  All three of them raised their voices in guttural cries she couldn’t understand.

A gleam of silver -- her axe.  Hermione snatched it up in her golden gauntlet as she ran.  She heard the basilisk hiss, and saw a flash of movement as it struck.  One of the goblins hurtled past her, broken.

The other two kept charging, roaring like heroes.  She joined her voice to theirs, and followed them.


Draco couldn’t move his right arm.  Much of it had been torn away, removed with great gouges by one of the dog-like things that were racing around, tearing apart victims.  He couldn’t quite get a grasp on them -- they weren’t properly visible, but just seemed like smears of insane nonsense.  Rough impressions: Wide mouth.  Sucking discs of teeth.  Pale eyes of blue cataracts.  Knotty muscle.

What was left of his arm hung limply from his shoulder, as though it weren’t even a part of him.    At least the potion had stopped the bleeding.  Kept him alive.  That ugly little American had given it to him.  Hig.  The fellow was down the hall, with Gregory Goyle.  At a different window.  A different defense.

They’d managed to kill three or four of the things.  The Killing Curse worked, and maybe other curses as well, Draco wasn’t sure.  They moved so quickly, leaping around faster than anything could move, faster than anything should be able to move, and their every touch brought bloody blight to their victims.  Wards and shields could stop them, but when they struck even something as doughty as a Prismatic Sphere, it was as though they hit with the force of a dragon.  Draco had thrown up a ward to deflect one of the human-shaped monsters from entering through the window he was defending, and the blow it had dealt his spell had brought him to his knees.  He hadn’t fallen, but only just.  He could feel the magic positively drain out of him.

Draco lifted his wand, held it in Ochs.  There were some Muggles below, but they were thin on the ground.  And in light of the other creatures, they seemed quaint with their cricket bats and knives.  None of them had guns or explosives, and so they weren’t worth his attention.

The sun was setting, and all the light was red.  It would be night, soon.

A flash of motion leapt past the window, and Draco heard a scream from somewhere.

He leaned against the curved side of the window.  He wanted to fall to the ground.  He wanted to weep.  He wanted to sleep.

But he would not.  Some things were stronger than sleep or weakness or death.  He would fight.

Then he heard a hooting sound, and this time he was too slow with his shield.  Before he knew what exactly had happened, he was on the floor before the window, and something was on him.  He’d lost his wand, it was gone, he couldn’t do anything.

It was one of the flying ones, and it was on his shoulder and one side of his chest


he felt

pain ripping


he heard

a wet sound

of flesh tearing

and the crackle

of bone


and the pain

was killing him

he screamed

he screamed

he screamed

he screamed

he went away for a moment

and remembered

“Draco,” Harry said.  “Thank you for coming.  I… well, thank you.”

“What do you want, Potter?” Draco said, staring at the other boy.  Potter had his face all screwed up, brows furrowed, as he always looked when he was about to be unbearably earnest.  Looking at him made Draco feel sick -- a deep and bitter disgust that tasted of acid.

Potter closed his eyes.  “I want to make you a promise.  A promise about your father.  I want to --”

“Harry Potter,” said Draco, his voice a dangerous hiss.  “Be very careful what you say next.”  He could feel the acid on his tongue, but even more, it was burning in his veins.  The rage and hatred.  The things that made him weep at night, as he forced his face into his pillow and sobbed with great wracking cries.  The things that made the presence of his mother a cruel thing, because they were very nearly strangers and his father was freshly buried.  The things that made him so eager to hurt someone, these days.  “Be very careful,” he repeated.

Potter hesitated, opening his eyes to look back at Draco.  Green eyes, filled with compassion.  Draco wanted to spit in them.

“Listen,” said Potter.  “I’ve been thinking about what I owe… about the shape of things, and the degree to which my own arrogance and blindness have hurt others.  And you’ll understand more about that, soon, I think, but…”  He paused, looking at the ground.  “Draco, I want to make you a promise.  A promise to try my hardest to do something.  And I don’t want anything from you in exchange, not even your friendship.  I want nothing from you.  This isn’t about you.  It’s about… terminal values.”  The other boy stopped again, seeming to think about how what he was saying might sound.  “About the things that are the most important in the world to me.”

Draco could kill him.  They were alone, and no one knew Draco was here.  He had a knife, and Potter wouldn’t expect that.

“Draco,” said Potter, “I am sorry your father is dead.  Truly and absolutely.  With all my heart.”  A flash of something came across the boy’s face -- regret, somehow.  “But I have seen impossible things.  Magic is an impossible thing -- or rather, it is all possible things, which is pretty much the same thing.  It’s brought… Hermione is back, and magic has made the space between death and life, which was already not very wide, into something that seems so small.  Magic is…” Potter closed his mouth, shaking his head.  “Sorry, I’m not saying what I mean.  I’m not saying this very well.”

Potter folded his arms, and hugged himself.  Draco stared at him.

“I… Draco, I don’t know how to say this.  If it will seem insulting or crazy or what.  So I’m just going to say it and hope you know that I mean it,” the other boy began again.  He raised his eyes, and met Draco’s gaze.

“I intend,” said Harry Potter, “to spend the rest of my life working to stop anyone from dying again -- everyone’s father and mother and son and daughter.  And I intend to bring back those that have died, through whatever ritual or spell that needs to be invented to cross that last remaining gap of time.”

“Draco,” Harry said, “I promise to try my hardest for the rest of my life to try to bring back your father.”

And there was an instant, right then, when the Lord Malfoy very nearly murdered the Lord Potter for toying with his heart.  But Draco stopped himself, and stared into Harry’s eyes which did not leave his own.

And he saw something there.  He saw steel, and something harder than steel.  He saw a will that would brook no obstacle and tolerate no barrier.  He saw the diamond-hard will that had brought back Hermione Granger and Draco didn’t know how but he knew that had been Potter and he saw an honour that bound this boy to a path.  He saw a promise that was stronger than sleep or weakness or death.

“Will you help?”

Draco’s wand was in his hand.  It was still in his hand.

He was there and he was alive.  Something was attacking him.  One of those things was attacking him.  It was killing him.  He didn’t want to die.  He wouldn’t die.  He couldn’t die.  Because...

Because he wanted to see his father again someday.

And some things were stronger than sleep or weakness.  Or death.

Avada Kedavra!” he cast.  The thing on his shoulder vanished, dissolving in a blaze of green light that burned away the inchoate blur of murderous sensations.

He slumped back to the stone, gasping.

The world was hazy and dark.  Draco blinked, rapidly.

“Sir!”  A voice.  “Sir, hold on, I’m here!”


Pip jumped as the Bloodfoot Curse rippled across the rough slates of the roof towards him.  He lost his balance as he landed, one foot sliding on a tile, but caught himself with one hand.  Bellatrix Black laughed at him.

This was bloody deja vu, really.

The fight had been going on for what seemed like hours.  They had been moving to the roof, to try to use massed volleys of the Killing Curse against some of the more insane-seeming monsters that had come calling at Hogwarts tonight, but what had begun as three tight, tactical formations had dissolved into chaos as some of the enemy took the fight to them.  A flaming chariot had burst from somewhere sideways of reality, drawn by a horse of fire, and it had left madness in its wake:

Ten witches and wizards with bloody sigils of hands and swords on their robes.

That skinny American witch from the Council of Westphalia, looking spidery and sour.

And that bleeding bitchy bint Bellatrix bloody Black.

Pip felt how a Gryffindor in the library must feel: lost and upset.  Bellatrix was missing an arm and an eye, and she was still a better duelist than he was.

To his left, Madame Bones was fighting the American.  That should have been a brief contest, but somehow the Westphalian was managing to hold off the Chief Mugwump, fighting with unimaginably queer new spells and with a sad grimness.  Mr. Diggory was already unconscious, having coughed himself into unconsciousness after receiving a blast of Rotlung in his face.

To his right, Mad-Eye Moody and three other aurors were fighting the Grindelwaldians.  Wait, didn’t they have a proper name?  Something Hungarian and unpronounceable?  No matter.  Despite being outnumbered two-to-one, the good guys were winning.  Pip couldn’t even follow some of the things Moody was doing.  At one point, Pip could have sworn he’d actually seen one of Moody’s stunners turn in mid-air before hitting its target.

That had left Pip and Kwannon to fight Bellatrix Black, which seemed insane since didn’t they already know how that would end after last time?  But there was nothing for it, and so they fought, and Bellatrix was laughing again.

Maybe one of the defenders in the air would be able to help.  Pip knew that one of the American auror squads, as well as the Shichinin.  They had their own enemies to face, but this was Bellatrix Black.

Kwannon raised a shield to buy them some time, but Pip remembered the last fight -- he raised his own, too.  When a Breaking Drill eradicated Kwannon’s barrier, the curse -- following the first one almost immediately, impossibly fast -- burst against Pip’s redundant shield.  And both of them were quick enough on the dodge to avoid the Killing Curse that blazed at them within an instant.

“Better!” shrieked Bellatrix with a laugh.  “Dancing dollies!”

Lagann!  Stupefy!” cast Pip, at almost the same time that Kwannon shouted, “Stupefy!  Lagann!”

Bellatrix twirled in place, cackling, and let her shield dissolve as she dodged.  She had another raised almost as quickly as Pip could have blinked, and then she flicked her wand in a way that Pip didn’t recognize.  A stream of yellow liquid burst out at the gesture, spraying from nowhere.

Caught without any idea of what the curse would do, or what shield would be appropriate, Pip did as he had been trained: he dodged again.  Kwannon, trained by the same person (the curse-casting blur just behind them, in fact) did the same.

And Bellatrix anticipated it.  When Kwannon threw herself to the side, a Slow Blade of Unusually Specific Destruction was waiting for her.  It exploded violently.

Kwannon was thrown bodily away, and off the roof, and she was gone.

And it was at this moment that Pip wished he were a different sort of person.  Someone important.  A noble, or a brilliant researcher, or a seer.  Or even just someone truly special.  Because he knew that truly special people wouldn’t die.  Not this way, not after so much.  Not at the moment when it mattered the most, when failure would mean the death of Alastor Moody and Amelia Bones and so many others.

He’d seen the plays.  Bloody hell, working in the Tower had been like living in a play.  Utterly impossible things happened all the time when necessary.  When the really special people were in danger, even if it was from things like the Killing Curse… well, somehow, it worked out.

Philip Pirrip was just his mother’s son.  He was a decent auror, and a hard worker.  He could say that about himself.  But in that moment, as he leapt to his feet and tried to think of what to do next, knowing that he’d already fought this battle and had lost as though he were a Hufflepuff toddler… well, he just wished he were someone else.  Someone special.


In the fell clutch of circumstance
     I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
     My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Hermione saw her again.  The witch in green.  The one who’d been with the monsters, walking with them, controlling them.

Hermione dragged her axe free of the basilisk’s head.  It smoked with venom.  So too did the golden gauntlet on Hermione’s right hand.  There was a greenish tinge to both metals, now.  Hermione shook the axe, and gore splattered to the ground.  Where the ichor fell, the ground began to bubble and steam.

The witch was standing in front of one of the walls of the castle, and she’d sunk her hand into the stone.  A terrasque stood motionless beside her, obedient as a great stone dog, as the witch in the green dress dragged her hand downward.  Like a knife sliding through butter, she cut a long rent through the stone of Hogwarts, kneeling as she brought her hand all the way to the ground.  Then she pulled her hand free and straightened.

This must be one of them.  One of the Three.  One of the leaders.  The enemy.

Hermione pulled her bubbler from her robes.  The back of it had been crushed in, and the decorative clamshell case was falling apart, but it still worked.  “Boys?” she said.

“We’re here,” came the voice of one of the Weasley twins.

“ ‘Boys,’ ” scoffed the Russian witch with them.

“Be ready and watch for the high sign,” Hermione said.

“You got it,” replied another twin, cheerily.

Hermione put away her bubbler, and steadied herself.  Then she attacked.

She shouted no challenge and no warning.  She simply threw her axe at the witch, as hard as she could.  It flashed through the air, whistling as it flew.

The terrasque intervened, lurching into motion, and the axe bounced off of its side, the handle hitting the creature’s rough red shell.

The witch turned to face Hermione.  Her face was serious, but her eyes were bright.  The terrasque shifted out of the way, lumbering aside.

“Hello,” the witch said.  There was a husky accent in her voice.  “You are Hermione Granger.  You are quite magical, and quite powerful.”  She raised her hand.  “And I think your time is done.”

Hermione already had the Elder Wand in hand, and she charged.


A figure in plain grey robes walked the halls of Hogwarts, unseen.  It moved with some uncertainty -- as though it knew its destination, but not the exact path.  But it found its way to the library before too long.

Harry Potter didn’t see.  He had a bubbler in hand, and was giving urgent instructions.

“-- no, it’s not enough to say the word.  You have to… you have to find something within yourself.  You have to produce a deliberate will within yourself, like you were casting wandless magic.”

Harry Potter was standing at one of the library windows.  A strange sort of Muggle device was set up there -- a tube mounted on a tripod, pointing up at the stars.  Two aurors stood on either side of it, maintaining shields across the window against any intrusion.  The floor was covered in chalk markings, repeatedly rubbed away and redrawn.

This was not the Archon Heraclius Hero, perfectly reshaped into a facsimile.  That was obvious.  How strange.  Harry Potter had won, somehow.  It was beyond belief, but it had happened.

The threat personified stood there, unaware and vulnerable, and the figure studied him.  Just a boy, really.  The crux was still just a boy.  So dangerous to everything and everyone, the age-old threat to life resolved by time’s lens into this single person, and it was just a boy.

The figure permitted himself a smile.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears
     Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
     Finds and shall find me unafraid.


The Unseelie had gathered in a tight knot outside the western walls.  They were pulling someone apart, and that person was screaming.  Impressions of black eyes and wide, wet mouths moved delicately and deliberately, causing pain as if it were an art.

It was horrible, but it was a respite for the defenders.

No, not a respite, Draco thought.  An opportunity.

Where was Moody?  We need to take advantage of this, right now.

He shoved himself away from the wall that been supporting him, and brandished his wand.  “Expecto Patronum.”

A silver krait undulated on the stone before him, moving gently.

“Go to every wizard and witch on this side of the castle and on the battlements,” Draco commanded it, and he bent his will to making that a thought of peace and happiness.  “Tell them to find me near the entrance to Gryffindor Tower.  We are going to strike.”

Before the snake was gone, Draco had fumbled his bubbler out of his robes, and was contacting everyone he’d seen who was still answering.

Outside, someone was screaming.


When Gregor Nimue and Harry Madagascar both slumped to the floor, as suddenly unconscious as though they’d been bludgeoned, Harry knew that the moment had come.

He turned around, and saw a middle-aged man in plain grey robes.  A little out of shape, with a small paunch.  Taller than average, but somewhat stooped.  A face heavily seamed with care, and green eyes.  Ancient, ancient green eyes.

“Are you him?” Harry asked.

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

“Yes, Harry Potter,” he said, in a voice that was mellow, and deeper than Harry expected.


Pip had lasted only a few minutes more, and he suspected that was only by Bellatrix Black’s cruelty.

“Silly billy boy,” sang the insane witch, “and now such fun!”

She had captured him casually, whipping the Incarcerating Curse at him amid a torrent of attacks.

He lay there, helpless.

He had to watch as she turned on Moody, who was backpedaling away, trying to find a way to create some space.  Only one auror still stood by his side against five of the Hungarians, and curses and shields were appearing and disappearing and flowing and sparking out with such rapidity that it looked more like a magical dance than intelligible combat.  But there was nowhere to retreat to, and no way to create room or escape.  Now he would have to have to watch.  Again.

Bellatrix Black shrieked her mad laughter and struck away Moody’s shield.  Then again as he produced another one, but despite the desperation of his motions he still had to fight Grindelwald’s soldiers.  They redoubled their attacks, and Moody reached the edge of the roof, and had no more room to retreat.  

Bellatrix paused, sighing a deep and happy sigh, and giggled once more.  She raised her wand.


The cry came from above.

“Bellatrix Black!”

It was otherworldly.

Bellatrix Black!”

It was enraged.

“Bellatrix Black!”

It was magnificent.


It was Neville Longbottom.

He came from the sky.  He didn’t land, exactly -- rather, he plummeted to the roof in a swooping dive, so steep that it seemed as though he would simply crash straight through the slates, but Longbottom pulled up at the last minute dead even with the slates, alighting and walking without even an instant of transition.  He stepped forward and the broom clattered to the roof and Longbottom was already attacking, once twice thrice, as though gravity and timing and all the laws of possibility were mere formalities that he’d chosen to discard.  Tall and terrible, the Lord Longbottom moved like the wind.

He attacked Bellatrix, and it was a thing of beauty and glory -- choreographed, as if it had been practiced every day for years.  High feint drawing a shield, which put him into position for obfuscation, and which in turn flowed seamlessly into three glowing offensive bolts.  It was a series like any auror would learn... but rather than two or three spells in sequence, Longbottom attacked without ceasing, a rhythmic and timed flow of variety and passion.  He switched from low attacks to broad ones, raised wards and then shattered them with surprising new offensives, and stripped away Bellatrix’s defenses with a hurricane of attacks.

In an existence that threatened to become overcrowded with the unbelievable, Pip still found room for astonishment.

Bellatrix laughed; high-pitched, insane.  “Silly little do--” she began, but a flurry of attacks cut her off, and she was forced to defend herself.  “Silly bi--” she began again, only to again be forced to bark out a shield of crystal and dodge away from danger.

“You --”

“Silly bi--”

No one could be standing after attacking endlessly, relentlessly, unstoppably, but Neville Longbottom never broke his stride and never broke his sequence.  One spell followed another, one attack followed another, one shield followed another.  No openings, no weaknesses, no opportunities, no respite.

Bellatrix Black’s laugh broke.  She lashed away attacks and raised wards and cast curses, but she was not fighting a wizard.  She was fighting an elemental force.

And every taunt and every joke and every insanity was cut off by some new attack.  Every word broken by offense.  Every moment under siege.

“That’s --”

Longbottom advanced without pausing, never breaking stride.  He was discarding his humanity, and doing it despite eyes streaming with tears.

“No --”

“You --”

And finally, Bellatrix’s mad smile cracked as she desperately ducked the hundredth attack, and she shrieked with a voice full of fear, “Stop!

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


Hermione’s duel with the witch in the green dress was a strange thing.

The Goddess charged, wand raised, already casting.  The enemy sneered, raising her own hands, and lightning surged between them.

The Elder Wand took it from the air.

Hermione’s attacks fell uselessly against the witch’s shields, which barely glowed a gentle silver as they absorbed one curse after another.  The witch’s attacks found no purchase, for the Elder Wand moved of its own accord, assisting its true owner, obliterating magics as though they were a child’s whisper.

Hermione closed the distance, and they fought.  Spells fell on shields.  Spells fell on wand-wards.  The duel was a storm without wind.

Almost as an afterthought, the Goddess crushed the head of a terrasque with her golden gauntlet, which carved through the creature with the burning fury of basilisk venom.  But she could gain no traction against the witch in the green dress, who evinced neither strain nor dismay.

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

“I did,” said Hermione, 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 wards glowed bright under duress.  Hermione’s 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 shot shattered the witch’s shield.  The second passed through her stomach.

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


Draco looked over his troops.  Perhaps a hundred wizards and witches.  Weary, ragged, wounded, crammed into the small room where the Gryffindor stairs met the main hallway.  Three watching at the windows, where the horror-things were pulling apart their victims.  He clutched his ruined arm with the other to stop it from swaying -- he was swaying, bloody hell.  No, this would not do.

Unbreakable honour.

The Lord Malfoy forced himself to straighten up.  Black shapes danced in front of his eyes, and for a moment everything went dull and far away, but he held himself upright.  He held himself like a Malfoy.

His face was out of control.  Draco mastered it, arranging it how he pleased: a cold look of confidence.  His body was a tool, his to wield.

His voice.  Before he spoke, he felt the blood in his mouth and throat.  No.  He swallowed it back, swallowed the bile and blood.  Cleared his instrument.

“We’re attacking.  A massed attack.  The enemy is gathered together.  They’re not afraid.  They should be.”

“We’ll die,” offered Reg Hig.  Not opposition, but resignation.

“We might.  But we are already dead.  This way, we have a chance..”

No, this is… no, it’s weak.  The stuff of desperation and stupidity… last resorts persuaded no one.  Damn you, Draco, focus on their weakness, not ours.  Where are you?  You are the knife: Cut.

“Listen to me, all of you,” Draco said, and he put steel in his voice.  “I won’t pretend to believe in everything that the Tower believes.  I won’t tell you any pretty stories about the way the world could be.  Listen to me when I tell you that we need to act now to protect the way the world is, and everything that’s in it.  Listen to me when I say that magic exists and it is precious, and we need to protect it.

“I am not the sort of person they call ‘good,’ ” he said, and now the steel came of itself, and he stood even taller, and he heard his father’s voice in his own.  “I am the sort of person who gets results.  Against all odds.  Against a united country and a united world, I have gotten results.  Because there are things that are more important than you or me or even this bloody school.  There are things more important than our blood or our very age.  There is magic in this world, in every wand here and every soul, and they will crush it if we let them.”

He raised his wand into the air, and it glowed with a fire he knew glowed in his own eyes.

“So when I say to you that now is the time and when I ask if you will follow me, know that this is our best hope, and that we will win.  For there is something greater than goodness and greater than even these odds, and that is us!”

What arrant nonsense, thought the Lord Malfoy, as he spoke honeyed lies.

A hundred wands rose in response.

And from high above, there was a new sound.  Many voices, raised in a single call.


“Who are you?” asked Harry, lowering the bubbler.  He left it open, Luna listening on the other end.

“Merlin,” answered the man, simply.  He watched Harry, arms casually at his side.

Despite everything, Harry felt himself shiver at the name.  He knew that it might well be a lie -- certainly it was the lie he’d have chosen, in this man’s place -- but it could also be true.  It was more plausible than any of the other possibilities, if the law of parsimony was any guide: Merlin applying a secret, guiding hand, working to prevent the doom that he’d foreseen… well, it broke no rules of time travel and required no additional elements.

Harry had anticipated other possibilities, of course.  Albus Dumbledore, trapped beyond time -- that could well have put him in some ancient era before the Mirror was made.  Or Garrick Ollivander, whose familial presence in Britain had been suspiciously unchanging for most of wizarding history.  Or Harry himself, returning from a future where they’d mastered all knowledge, acting to ensure the realization of that future.  Or some random, unnamed individual, hidden perfectly from sight throughout all time and legend.

But ultimately, what plausible candidate made sense, other than the one who had famously acted from the start to try to limit magic and preserve the world?

“You’re here to destroy me and save the future of the world,” Harry said.  He kept his voice rigidly formal.  “And for that, sir, I respect you.  It is even possible that --” his voice faltered as he remembered J.C. Kraeme’s  bloodied body, the death of Hermione and Granville, and the hundreds of thousands who had already died today, but he pressed on.  “It is even possible that you have done the right thing.”

Merlin nodded solemnly, his smile fading from his face.  “Then you understand.”

“I do,” said Harry.  For a moment, he felt the absurdity of the moment.  This was a moment that might spell the difference between a world of magic and advancement, a world where death could be defeated and Dumbledore could be retrieved, and… and a different world.  A darker timeline. And all of that was riding on this simple, clumsy conversation.

“But,” Harry went on, as Merlin raised his hand, “your map is wrong.”

Merlin didn’t lower his hand, but only tilted his head.  Just slightly.  An invitation.

“You must have known of Albus Dumbledore -- perhaps you even knew him, somehow,” said Harry.  “I sometimes wonder if he was the wisest man I’ve ever known, or merely the bravest.  He ransacked the Hall of Prophecy and used his knowledge of the future to guide its shape.  He didn’t believe prophecies could be truly averted, I think, and he might have been right.  In retrospect this seems obvious, but people like Tom Riddle spent years trying to avoid one prophecy or another, and they always failed.”  Harry shrugged.  “I’ve never heard of a prophecy that was simply wrong.  And if my readings are correct, you agree with him.”

“So you know this, then: I, Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, will tear apart the stars.”

Merlin nodded his head, slowly.  His eyes were amused and curious, but they held a fundamental flatness.  Harry couldn’t imagine what that might be -- some jadedness from such a long life, a precommitment to ignore all persuasion, or something beyond his ken -- but he had no time to worry about it.  He pushed forward, and felt his thoughts begin to catch fire.

Once upon a time, a lonely little boy had gone to a strange school.  He was a prophet of new ideas, and saw things in a new way -- he was the needle’s point of a black slash that cut from one entire civilization into another, bringing the force of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge to bear on a point forged by trauma into diamond strength.  And yet not a single jot or tittle of that had mattered, in the end.  So little of the boy’s cleverness had actually been brought to bear.  His beliefs were the hard uphill way, and even a prophet was not immune to easy answers.

It was not until the end that the boy had grasped the real meaning of his own beliefs, and had ascended.  Rationality was winning.

Harry’s mind blazed like an inferno.  He raised his hand.

“First.”  He held up a finger.  “Only two people are known to have ever mastered all the wizards and witches of the world.  Both, I think, did it for a good cause.  But consider that for all your power and your age, I have done what you did… and I have done it without force, and by granting life and power, and I have done it in only seven years.  I am your equal in this respect, and if you underestimate me now, then think about the fate of everyone else who has done so.  Think of your ally, Heraclius Hero.

“Second.”  He held up another finger.  “Events are already in motion to ensure that magic and humanity survive.  The Tower is gone, and the Mirror which was the door.  It has found a new place.”  High above us, Harry thought.  Six hundred kilometers high, so that its field of view encompasses the whole planet.  “Some friends of mine wait there -- waiting to find out whether I live or die.  I will not tell you their instructions.  But know that we all lie within the mirror now.

“Third.”  He held up a third finger.  “You have several times attempted to disrupt my designs.  You arranged for the destruction of my first facility, killing my friend in the process.  And this very day your ally tried to enslave me.  And yet I am here, and he is gone.”

Harry’s mouth grew firm. He met Merlin’s eyes for a long moment, and then moved those three fingers: thumb poised against forefinger and middle finger. Ready to snap.

"So think. Stop and think. You have a map in your head -- a mental map of reality. As you move through the world, you can trace your path on it. You can tick off events as you come to them; that's how you know your map matches reality. When you're surprised, it's not because reality is wrong... it's because your map is wrong. When you realize that, you have two choices: you change your map, or you get lost."

Merlin stared at him, and all vagueness and flatness was gone.  In its place was the raptor gaze of someone who was beyond death and weakness, who had weighed human life and discarded it when it interfered with his will.

"Consider whether you have been surprised by events. Consider whether this is unfamiliar ground. Consider your fallen allies. Consider your derailed plans," Harry said, and his voice was soft. "Stop and think, and consider: do you want to keep moving in this direction? Or might there be other surprises waiting for you?"

“I will give you the same chance that Lord Voldemort -- that Tom Riddle -- was given, before I took his life.  I will give you the same chance that Meldh had, before I took his life.  Stop now, and go in peace.

“Or I will end you.”

Harry didn't waver, and he was not afraid.

And it wasn't because he knew of some ultimate sanction or greater plan.

And it wasn't because he knew that Hermione would save the day with some impossible feat.

And it wasn't because he had faith in something greater than himself.

Harry did not waver because this moment laid bare his heart, the white-hot line of humanity at his center, slashing through the black arc of Tom Riddle and cutting through every obstacle in his way. Harry did not waver because he had tested all things and held fast to that which was true, and he had set that truth in service of the good with every last ounce of strength and will and might.

And for Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres, that was the purpose of life.

“Well?” said Harry.

From outside, a woman screamed, long and loud.  The scream of a dying woman.

Within a moment, another cry joined with the first: the sound of a hundred phoenixes, their call like the birth of a new world.


It matters not how strait the gate,
     How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
     I am the captain of my soul.

 -“Invictus,” by W. E. Henley


Merlin studied Harry closely.

And turned.

And left.