TRtH 8

The Road to Hell

Chapter 8: The Final Straw

By ACI100

Alchemy was the strangest class he had ever taken. They met only twice each month, and it was expected that students would conduct rigorous self-study between lessons.

Not that there’s much to study. Resignation displayed itself across almost every face around the classroom.

I can’t say I blame them. Harry knew alchemy had its uses, but Professor Damocles Belby had most students in the class doubting whether these lessons were time well spent.

“This class will not teach you alchemy,” was how Belby had opened their first lesson. “This class will merely help you begin understanding what alchemy is.”

Two lectures and a month of self-study, and I still don’t have a bloody clue what any of this is.

Belby snapped shut a heavy book as the bell’s chime faded. There were all sorts of thick-set tomes lining aged, wooden shelves ringing the room.

“I see that you’re all frustrated.” A rare smile graced the professor’s lips. “That’s good; it means I’ve gotten my point across.”

Harry hid a frown behind his hand. Belby was amongst the strictest taskmasters he had dealt with and there seemed to be strong distaste in every stare the professor threw his way.

“Sir?” asked a familiar voice that made Harry’s stomach writhe. “I’m a bit confused,” Sirius went on. “What point were you trying to get across?”

“That none of you will be turning metal into gold, or brewing the elixir of life.”

“But sir,” said one of the Ravenclaws, his hand in the air, “you already told us that during the first lesson.”

“Funny.” Belby’s voice was sharp and dry as rough-hewn sandpaper. “Everyone is always so keen to point that out, but I would never know I’ve covered that already, not with how impatient you students always are.”

The middle-aged man swept from his chair and walked around his desk, studying each student in turn.

“I’ll trust, for now, that you won’t disappoint me with that same impatience and consider my point made.” Belby straightened up. “Let’s begin then. Who can tell me the difference between a transfiguration and a transmutation?” The same Ravenclaw who had already asked a question raised his hand. “Yes?”

“Transmutations are permanent, transfigurations are temporary.”

“Yes and no, an answer you’ll soon get used to.” The professor tapped his foot against the smooth stone floor. “Anyone else?” No hands went up. “No false confidence? Good — maybe there is hope for some of you.”

“Sir,” the same Ravenclaw spoke up again. “What is the difference, if it’s not quite what I said?”

“Hmm.” Belby lounged back against his desk. “Sometimes, a problem has more than one solution. Take mathematics, for instance. Everyone might be taught to solve a sort of problem algebraically, but those possessed with brighter minds may notice that geometric extrapolations can be used to solve it faster.

“Transmutation is algebra, in this example, and transfiguration is geometry. There are some whose mastery in transfiguration supersedes conventional rules or standards.”

“So they’re no different?” Will he ever run out of questions? “Just two steps that both lead to the same place?”

“No,” the professor said, “I was only making an analogy. The difference is that transfiguration is the act of changing one thing into another. Transmutation pertains to a set of universal and replicable processes that can be used to make those changes permanent.”

Belby dissected the differing minutiae for a further thirty minutes until Harry’s head was spinning. Most around him looked as dazed as he felt, and Belby must have noticed, for he changed tack and spent the next half hour waxing poetic about alchemy’s broader rules.

Harry’s eye twitched when the professor explained that the seven alchemical metals were impossible to conjure, remembering the greatest duel he had ever witnessed and how Dumbledore had deflected the killing curse.

Belby paused mid-sentence, eyeing Harry and his upraised hand. “Yes?”

“I had a question about gold.”

Belby’s lips retracted into a rigid line. “I’m finished discussing alchemical metals. You had plenty of time to ask while it was topical. Three points from Gryffindor for your interruption.”

Looking away from the professor in hopes of quelling his frustration, Harry glimpsed a smug smile from the corner of his eye.

Prince, the bastard. It would be just like him, telling Belby tales. That explains why he only started snapping at me last lesson. Lily had turned down one of Prince’s invitations in favour of spending more time with her own group of friends the day before.

Harry looked up at Belby, choking down a scowl. You want to see an interruption? “I’ve read somewhere that gold can deflect the killing curse. Is that true?”

Silence stretched over seconds. “I’ve never seen it done,” Belby said. “You can’t conjure gold, as I made clear, and people don’t just carry gilded shields around.”

“But it might be possible?” Harry pressed.

“There are dubious reports supporting the idea,” Belby admitted. “Though I do wonder what sort of things you’ve been reading in your spare time.”

Harry waited until the end of class, then approached the professor’s desk. “Sir? Can I have a word?” Belby tapped a quill against his desk and waited. “Has Severus Prince spoken to you about me?”

Belby ceased his tapping and squinted up at him. “An acquaintance of Mister Prince mentioned how you had been problematic this past summer.”

Of course they did. “I only knew Prince for about two months before coming to Hogwarts. We stayed at Ignotus’s Mantle together and there were no problems. I’m sure Lily Evans would tell you so, or the haven’s matron, Mrs. Hatcher.”

“I’ll take that under advisement and send the haven an owl.” Belby glanced up towards the clock. “You’re dismissed, Kalloway, I won’t have you missing your next class on my account.”

Harry entered the transfiguration classroom seconds after the bell had sounded, freezing with his right foot hovering mere inches off the ground.

“Good afternoon, Mister Kalloway.” Albus Dumbledore was resplendent in rich robes of midnight blue.

Harry choked on a response and made a show of bowing as he feigned a chain of coughs.

Seeing Dumbledore again was so potent. It was like the room around him faded, drowned in the flood of countless memories. Not even seeing James or Lily had struck him quite so hard.

I actually knew Dumbledore.

Everything about him was familiar — everything but the concentric set of runic circles stitched just inches from his heart and the strange ring reflecting a dozen different colours.

“Uh… good afternoon, Your Majesty.” Harry hardly felt his feet against the floor as he crossed the classroom, seating himself mere feet from the desk that, today, was Dumbledore’s.

The emperor waited for him to sit, a bright smile stripping decades from his wizened face. “An old man grows weary of all the things that must be done to hold us all together, but never of this.” Hands spread wide, Dumbledore continued. “I have known more pleasures than any man could ever wish for, but I always find myself back here. There is something about the spark of youthful learning that I can never find in other places. So here I am again, hoping you will all indulge an old man’s whims while I drone on about things I hope will interest you.”

Lily thrust up her hand. “Your Majesty, we just came from alchemy; a lot of the class was spent defining transfigurations and transmutations.”

“A fine subject, alchemy,” said Dumbledore. “We can discuss that another time, if you would like. I already had something in mind today.”

So he’s done this before. It would be like Dumbledore, dropping in whenever time permitted.

“What is it, sir?” asked James.

A twinkle danced behind Dumbledore’s bright eyes. “Elemental transfiguration.”

Harry hung on every word. It mattered not that none were new to him; all that mattered was concealing the way he brimmed with unbridled joy at seeing Dumbledore again.

I can’t get too attached. Grateful he was that Dumbledore’s presence would be a rare commodity; too much time spent in close quarters with his mentor would heighten the pain of going home.

There were ten minutes left in class when Dumbledore wrapped up his speech. The air was reverent — never had Harry seen such an attentive group of students.

“Are there any questions?” Dumbledore asked. “I see that some time still remains and plead that no one wastes this opportunity.” His lips twitched. “If you will forgive me saying so, I am quite the expert.”

This really would be a wasted chance. Harry raised his hand and Dumbledore studied him for the first time.

Panic wrapped around Harry’s chest, dragging it somewhere dark and cold. Fuck, I’m an idiot! This isn’t the Dumbledore I knew and he already knows too much. I shouldn’t have drawn his attention — I at least should have put glamours on the wand. What had he been thinking?

“Yes, Mister Kalloway.”

Harry’s voice came out steady despite his racing heart. In for an aereum, in for an aurum. “I was wondering about how you would recommend I work on controlling air during things like duels?”

“Ah, yes.” Dumbledore looked him up and down. “I have heard reports from Professor Dolohov that you are quite the pupil in his class.”

They’re watching me. Something Aberforth had said came back to him, prodding pins and needles up his spine.

“Everything’s connected. Nothing happens the higher-ups don’t know about — they don’t miss much.”

Relax. All he had to do was hide the Elder Wand; it was the one thing that would identify his presence here as being supernatural. “I’m glad Professor Dolohov thinks highly of me,” Harry said.

“He does indeed.” Dumbledore steepled his fingers. “An excellent question you ask, but one without an easy answer. Limitations in areas such as these are not systemic, but derive from one’s own skill and creativity.” The emperor’s silver hair and beard bobbed as he turned to look at James. “Mister Potter, I know you have begun making forays into this subject. Would you care to demonstrate?”

James leapt from his chair and stumbled through a clumsy bow. “Yes, please.”

Dumbledore looked back at Harry. “Would you like to join James up here, or would you prefer I asked another student?”

The Elder Wand shuddered in its holster, sliding into Harry’s grasp, still hidden up his sleeve. Here goes nothing. Magic snaked from the wand’s tip and slithered through his fingers, curling around the elder wood until he felt the illusion settle in. There’s a good chance Dumbledore will have sensed me casting something, but it will have to do. “I’d like to learn for myself.”

“A commendable attitude.” The emperor stepped back, motioning the pair forward.

Unmasked loathing in James’s eyes curdled Harry’s stomach, but he kept his own expression blank. Only defend; I can’t let the git goad me. Resisting grew more difficult with every passing day. Maybe I really can curse my father. There had been a time when he never could have cursed Hermione.

Hot razors dragged up his throat, curling his hands into shaking fists. Funny, the things grief can do.

Dumbledore watched them over his interlaced fingers. “If you’re comfortable with my proposal, Mister Kalloway, then James here will attempt to knock you off your feet using only air, and in turn, you will do your best to defend yourself.”

For half a heartbeat, Harry considered allowing it to happen.

No. The society he had been dropped into appreciated merit. This world isn’t out to get me and I won’t even be in it forever. I’m not throwing away a chance to learn. Not when the lesson might come from Dumbledore.

Harry drew the Elder Wand but nearly lost his grip. It had changed, but not in the way he had imagined.

The wand was dark as pitch, but fine, golden lines curled up its length. Snakes coiling through something? There were lots of somethings, each one reminding him of an elementary school outing they had taken to a local farm. They look like stalks of wheat or corn.

“On my command.” Dumbledore sounded as cheerful as ever. “One, two, three!”

Harry sliced through the thickening air between him and James, bringing an unseen whip up around his father’s neck.

“That will do,” called Dumbledore.

Harry let his construct dissipate. A savage pleasure reared its head deep down when he saw the redness in James’s cheeks.

“That is all for today,” Dumbledore said soon after. “This class is dismissed.”

Halfway to the door, a large hand came down to rest on Harry’s shoulder. “I am impressed,” Dumbledore said as the others shuffled past. The venom in his father’s stare could not touch him; Dumbledore’s presence was like a thrumming shield.

Harry swallowed a hot lump in his throat. “Thank you.”

Dumbledore squeezed his shoulder. “I think you might find your efforts well spent exploring more efficient ways of utilizing the elements.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “A whip is practical, but crude. Yours was long and thick. I presume because you knew not how much air James was wielding, or how much force slicing it would require?”

Harry’s tongue fumbled through too many words. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he got out.

“Take steps towards a finer sense for things like this. You could have shattered James’s construct with small and concentrated thrusts of air.” Dumbledore removed his hand from Harry’s shoulder. “Do you understand what advantage this would grant you?”

“Elemental transfiguration is taxing and every bit of energy conserved is crucial.”

“Precisely.” Dumbledore gestured at the door. “I must be off, and so must you. Good day, Harry.”

Warmth poured down from the knot of feeling tied tight in Harry’s throat, settling in his brimming chest. I never thought I’d hear his voice again.

Harry had never liked Slug Club meetings, but attending was better than twiddling his thumbs upstairs in the Great Hall. Up there, overlarge candles would be shining out through man-sized jack-o’lanterns, illuminating lurid drapings hanging everywhere in sight.

He had long since grown past his brooding teenage years, but Harry still loathed the annual reminder of all that he had lost.

“I say,” Slughorn boomed, setting down a glass of dark red wine, “I’ve heard the most wondrous rumours about you, m’boy.”

Bollocks. “They’re probably just rumours, sir.”

Slughorn wagged a finger in his direction. “I’ve got you this time, Harry, yes I do. I have it from some credible sources.”

It was worth a try. “Have what, sir?”

“You impressed His Majesty himself.” Slughorn’s moustache quivered. “Outdid even James, you did, and he’s one of the deftest hands this school has seen in years.”

“Got lucky is more like it,” James grumbled from not far away.

“What about all the other times?” someone retorted.

“Yeah,” another voice chimed in, “what about when you tried ambushing him a few days ago? What about—”

“Enough, enough.” Slughorn was still smiling, but strain was plain across his face. “My word, look at the time. You should all be going before the Headmaster has my head. Off with you, off with you.”

The corridor outside was a teeming mess of bodies. I wish I still had the map. He had never memorized all the dungeon passages his trips into the castle’s depths had been seldom.

Something prickled along the back of his neck, trailing cold fingers down Harry’s spine.

Throwing himself into a forward roll, he watched a spell sail overhead and strike a sixth-year Ravenclaw. Screaming, she hung upside down as her skirts slid up her thighs despite her best attempts to smooth them.

James. A familiar cold crept through him. Him and his lot don’t care who gets caught in the crossfire; if I just shield and back away, people are gonna get hurt.

Harry flicked his wrist, summoning the Elder Wand. It still appeared as though wrought from solid midnight, sliced through by those gilded patterns.

Deftly deflecting a well-aimed stunner, Harry withered away an approaching mastif hewn from stone.

Fuck, James is fast. Much too fast. Sirius is helping him — he must be.

Harry confirmed it with a quick glance down the corridor and conjured up his silver shield, allowing the curses to splash against its shining surface as he studied the herd of stone-hewn beasts charging straight for him.

The wand hummed. Figures something would go tits up — it is Samhain.

Lightning flashed through the corridor. Onlookers screamed as it sliced through the stony herd and slammed into the floor just feet from where James stood. The Head Boy gasped and sat down hard, his unruly hair a spiky mess of mismatched curls.

Harry lowered the wand, its grip searing hot against his palm. The corridor was deathly still, its occupants’ breathing the only break from silence. “We’re done.” Emotions boiled inside him, but none would ever know it, listening to him speak. “We’re not children. No more games — we fought, I won. It’s over.”

The rustling of robes interrupted his retreat. Whirling, he slapped aside a purple curse. Lacero in a crowded corridor?

A lance of air shot straight as an arrow, slamming James against the wall.

Harry released a deep breath and looked up at Sirius. “If he tries his luck again, I won’t save him with a cushioning charm.”

This time, his retreat went unchallenged. Why can’t I just catch a fucking break for once?

“Between an uncontrolled escalation and passivity, there is a demanding road of responsibility that we must follow.”

— Dominique de Villepin

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