25There Is None
And the passage of that reaping
Left parted hearts and sundered weeping
Great tracts of ruin, reft of seed
Vast shoals of mourning, mud and reed
Lo, thy cup spills forth with anguish
Thy soul lies choked with boundless need
–Susanna B. Aether, Still Lost, Constantia
(Verse XII: lines 190–195)
Harry stood, facing the ocean.
He blinked, disoriented by the sudden transition. His trainers sank into the wet sand, pushing it up around the edges, creating sodden prints. Before him was a blank, grey horizon below heavy cloud cover. Other than the gentle rush of the waves, all was silent; not even birds wheeled above.
The water was dark, reflecting the clouds, though enough sunlight slipped through the ominous weather to light the beach with a diffuse illumination. In fact, it seemed the light had no central source; shadows were pale and undefined, everything had an unvarying dullness. The palette shifted towards monochrome, leaching the brightness from sand and surf.
At first, Harry thought he was seeing foam in between the breakers. After a moment, he realised the swells were thick with debris: he could see scattered wads of cloth, bits of wood, all sorts of other unidentifiable rubbish that bobbed and sank, collecting in matted clumps. There were metal constructions set at the edge of the water, angular beams stuck together in spiky-looking configurations, the purpose of which escaped him. The colour of it all didn't quite match the sky. He looked down at his feet, and saw that the water was tinted red.
The wind blowing in over the ocean lulled, and that was when the smell hit him.
He gagged, clapping a hand over his mouth. The putrid stench was indescribable, a powerful odour of bloated rot and decay, thick and suffocating. He spit onto the sand, bending over, trying to catch his breath where there seemed to be no air. He pulled his shirt up over his nose. It barely helped, but it was enough to keep him from vomiting. The sea stank of copper. Eyes watering, he turned away from it.
The sight that greeted him was a horror beyond immediate comprehension. Accordingly, he looked only at one small portion of it. Five feet away, leaning against one of the strange things made of crossed metal beams, was a corpse. Harry was certain it was a corpse, and not anything alive, as although the body was staring back at him, it had no eyelids. There were fleshy pockmarks in the corpse's cheeks where it was apparent something had been pecking at it. Most of its lower lip was gone, baring blackened teeth in a hideous imitation of a partial grin.
The corpse wasn't the first one Harry had seen, though he'd never seen one in such a condition. The dead man propped up against the rusted girder had been there for some time. Harry let his eyes trail downwards, examining the rest of it with numb detachment. The corpse was wearing a tattered uniform that Harry didn't recognise, and there were several obvious bullet holes in the chest. The exact point at which the water reached its peak was marked by a wet circle around the corpse's midsection; its boots dripped water, waiting for the next wave.
Harry took a half-step backwards. He pressed his shirt more firmly to his face. Taking a shallow breath, he allowed himself to take in the rest of his surroundings.
The dead were piled like mounds of earth, lumped in putrid heaps taller than Harry in some places. There must have been thousands of bodies, eyes open, mouths parted, stiff in the sun or bloated in the surf. Some stared at nothing, some appeared to sleep. Those not raised on top of others were often indistinct shapes covered in sand, made terrible by the details: a hand poking out; the imprint of a face; dry, wispy hair fluttering in the breeze. There were distended ones, filling with gas. Others were shrivelled, skin cracking, flaking away. Some looked as if they had just arrived, discarded by some vast carrion bird.
It was a mosaic of mottled flesh: sun-baked yellow feet; swollen purple faces; blackened swathes of bruises and rot; like bad bananas, like compost in the heat. The colours clashed on necks and ankles, smeared across rigoured backs, pressed on pale bellies. Struggles left their singular marks; pain was painted. Fractured ribs tore out through sloughing skin; joints twisted backwards, or fragmented through the muscle. There was a man face-down in the tide with both his legs kinked like wire, splintered bone tearing through his trousers like thorns.
Rivulets of blood and other effluvium trickled down to join the ocean, carving red furrows in the sand. The larger piles left wide, coursing stains that swallowed up the lesser streams. Smaller groups of bodies soaked the ground around themselves with their fluids, creating bloody tide pools. Remnants of life spilled and ran and puddled, drying into patches of rusty sand or tinting the ocean.
It was a slaughterhouse, humanity rendered into so much spoiled meat. And it went on along the shoreline until Harry could see no further.
He clenched his teeth and fought against the bile but, at last, his stomach had its way. He emptied it into the waves, ribs aching as he heaved and heaved until he felt utterly spent. He stayed there, bent down with his hands on his knees, spitting into the sand until the dizziness cleared. As he watched the water lap away his sickness, he wondered what he could have eaten in a dream.
The pain brought a little lucidity. He was alone, missing his friends, and surrounded by what looked like an impromptu mass grave. Straightening up, he wavered when confronted once more by the stench. Shirt in place, he scanned the horizon.
The beach ran inland into a line of cliffs, distant and foreboding. It looked as if there were structures set into it, drab concrete bunkers and defensive walls. He hesitated. Perhaps whatever had put all the bodies on the beach (and maybe killed them in the first place) was up there. He didn't know a whole lot about Muggle wars, but he knew a firing position when he saw one that obvious. If there was someone in the bunkers, they might mow him down as soon as he was close enough to distinguish from the dead.
But what choice did he have? The ocean seemed to go on forever, as did the beach. And he was willing to risk a lot to get off the beach. The smell churned his empty stomach and the sights were more than he could process. To his right were three severed legs, none of them matching (one was clearly a child's, a tiny blue sock still on the foot). A bright glint from a nearby pile caught his eye: it was the reflection from a wedding ring on a hand protruding between two other corpses, the rest of its owner unseen. At the foot of the mound was a man staring sightlessly at the sky. The back of his head had shattered completely, and the skin of his face was stretched out to the sides, rubbery, past where it would have curved with his skull, as if it were a mask that no longer fit correctly.
Harry started walking, wending his way between the mounds on the narrow paths. They weren't entirely unobstructed – he had to step his way over a body, on occasion. Several minutes into his grim march he came across the scorched remnants of a tank, wedged between two tall corpse piles like a makeshift barricade. He had to detour, but eventually found his way around.
He soon saw that he had been wrong about the composition of the bodies: they weren't all human. There were stranger shapes among the dead, scales and horns and skulls that were too long in the face. A blue-skinned arm, a plated head. They were rare, but noticeable. There were other things, too, jumbled in with the endless bodies. Cars and planes, fragments of broken machinery. There was a helicopter with twisted blades, the pilots still strapped inside the cracked cockpit. Vast shapes loomed in the distance, partially obscured by fog. He thought one of them was a ship run aground; others were completely alien in their strangely angled silhouettes. And, still, nothing made a sound.
The further he travelled from the ocean, the less clustered the corpses became. The piles were less vertical, the air a bit brighter. Soon, there were no more mounds and the ground was carpeted with single bodies, only occasionally overlapping. He carefully moved around them, sometimes stumbling over torsos or accidentally stepping on a hand or leg. His foot caught on the neck of a woman who was missing the top half of her skull, the edges alternately pulpy and jagged and the inside scooped nearly empty. Her eyes were open, but rolled back so far only the whites were visible. After that, he stopped looking closely at them.
About two-thirds of the way to the cliffs, the distribution of the bodies had become thin enough that he could walk without watching his feet. The fog was beginning to thin as he went higher. Just ahead there was a sandy ridge, an artificial hummock that ran in both directions. It was surmounted by a barrier of barbed wire, most of which had been destroyed.
Panting, he pushed himself up to the top and paused, standing in a gap in the wire. Behind him, most of the larger mounds were nothing but dark outlines in the fog. From his elevated position, he scanned the sand and saw there were no footprints save his own, not a single sign of movement or battle. It was as if all the numberless dead had been imported from elsewhere, carelessly cast onto the beach.
On the other side of the sand hill, the ground continued to slope upwards towards the cliffs.
Corpses were even more sparse, he noted with relief. Then he froze, as something caught his eye. There, sprawled on the sand at the foot of the hill, was a Death Eater. The black robes and white mask were unmistakable.
He fumbled for his wand. Nothing else on the beach had been alive, but he wasn't taking any chances.
"Expelliarmus!" he hissed. The jet of light shot out and impacted the body against its chest, producing a hollow sound. The corpse shook slightly with the impact, but otherwise remained still.
He lowered his wand, not sure what had driven him to do that. He'd walked through a war's worth of corpses without incident; there was no reason the Death Eater would be any more animated.
"HELLO?" a voice shouted, echoing out from Harry's left.
He was so startled that he nearly lost his footing. He reached out to steady himself and received a fistful of barbed wire for his effort. He swore, quickly withdrawing his hand and glancing at it. His palm was lacerated fairly badly, blood already streaming down his shirt sleeve.
No time for that. He pressed the flat of his injured hand into his trousers and pointed his wand in the direction of the voice. "WHO'S THERE?" he yelled back.
Two blurry shapes emerged from the fog, hurrying towards him. Harry's glasses were speckled with water, sand, and probably some worse things. He squinted, trying to make out details.
The one to the right waved their arms over their head. "IT'S HERMIONE! PLEASE DON'T CAST!" she called.
They grew close enough that he could see the second person had long, red hair, and he literally shook with relief, lowering his trembling wand hand. He leaned against the incline and slid the rest of the way down, nearly falling in his haste to get over to the girls.
They met out on the flat, near where the shadow of the cliffs cut a pallid, uneven line across the sand. Ginny threw herself at him, hugging him so tightly that he couldn't catch his breath.
Hermione was a bit more reserved, but still clasped his arm with quivering hands. "Thank God we found you," she said shakily. Her hair was a tangled, wind-blown mess, and there were tear stains streaking down her smudged cheeks. "We weren't far from each other on the beach, but no one else was there and we didn't know what had happened!"
Ginny was pale as a ghost, her freckles standing starkly against her milky skin. "Are you all right?" she asked with nearly frantic concern. She pulled back from Harry's embrace and took his head in her hands. "You're fine, right?"
"Mostly," Harry said. "I was sick earlier."
"We all were. Anyone would be. I don't…" Hermione faltered, staring at the hillock and no doubt still seeing what lay beyond it.
"You're bleeding!" Ginny exclaimed, spotting his injured hand.
"What? Oh, that. I cut myself on the wire. I can't really feel it," Harry lied. It stung pretty fiercely, but that was all.
"We have to find Ron. I'd hoped he was with you, but he might still be down there," Hermione choked out. "We have to go back…"
They all stood silently for a moment, not looking at each other. None of them wanted to go back.
Hermione sniffed, and straightened her posture. "I'll go. You two can stay here, I'll find him."
Harry opened his mouth to tell her no, to tell her that he'd go instead, or that he'd go with her. He would make himself go back down among the dead.
Then, a steely rattle reverberated out in the silence. They all jumped and spun towards the sound, only to see Ron at the top of the hill, kicking some of the wire out of his way. "Hey!" he said hoarsely, sliding down the packed sand. "Am I glad to see you lot!"
Hermione ran forward and grabbed him tightly. "I was so scared!" she said, fresh tears in her eyes.
"Me, too," Ron told her. His eyes were huge, and haunted. "Fucking hell. I mean…" Words seemed to fail him.
"This is still the dream, right? It has to be," Ginny said, sounding as if she needed to convince herself that none of it was real.
"If this is Scott's dream, I'll never get at him for not sleeping again," Hermione promised fervently.
"If it is, then where is he?" Ron wondered.
Harry considered that. If the dream always started in the same place, then Scott would have made his way towards the ridge, just like the rest of them. It would have been madness to stay at the tide. "Did any of you see any footprints on the way up?"
"No. Nothing but… Well, you know," Ginny said haltingly.
Hermione coughed suddenly. "There was a man without a jaw, right where I woke. His tongue was floating in the water–" she brought her arm across her mouth, stopping herself.
Harry looked up at the concrete bunkers in the looming cliffs ahead, set like dull jewels in the rock. "We're all together, so this is Scott's dream. It has to be. And he'd never stay on the beach." Harry pointed to the bunkers. "He'd go up, somewhere he could see anything coming, and get a weapon, maybe. If he didn't have one."
"None of them have any weapons. Did you notice? So many are in uniform, but there are no guns at all," Hermione said, making a clear effort to keep her hands still and steady her breathing.
Harry hadn't noticed during his grim trek, but he supposed he would have, if there'd been any. All the weapons of war he'd seen had been broken and useless.
Ron was gazing at one of the nearby crumpled forms, his expression unlike any Harry had seen on him before. "Let's just get out of here."
They walked, crossing the beach as it began to curve up towards the cliffs and give way to rock and brush. There were no clear passageways to the top, but Harry thought he could see a few places where the natural ramparts of stone had crumbled enough to climb. The shallow furrows were worn by water, eating away at the cliff face. If they could find one spot gradual enough, it wouldn't be too much trouble to make their way up.
The corpses continued to become less frequent. Soon they were hiking without interruption, though the occasional dark shape in the corner of Harry's eye still gave him pause. Just before the beach sloped sharply upward, there was an enormous, soil-dusted thing lying on its side. The hulking remains were so crusted with sand that any details were lost, but something about the patches of craggy reptilian hide and bizarre, branching golden armour tugged at Harry's memory.
The place they found to climb was still steep, but not overwhelming in its verticality. There was a flat area before the cliff continued upwards, a sort of step, where Harry hoped they would be able to find an easier way to the top. It was roughly adjacent to one of the bunkers. The dirt slipped under his feet and tumbled down to the bottom; he felt as if he were falling one foot for every two he moved. He tried to grab hold of a spindly bush and the shallow roots pulled right out of the sandy soil, nearly sending him tumbling.
He cast sideways looks towards the dark ports of the bunker, but he couldn't see anything within. There was no light inside at all. And hopefully no one (or nothing) watching them ascend.
At the top, they discovered a concrete trench dug right into the rock. It ran parallel with the upper cliff, looking down towards the mist-shrouded beach. Harry had studiously avoided any looks of his own in that direction. There were no cadavers littering the trench, though there were copious amounts of spent shell casings and old, faded bloodstains. Now that Hermione had mentioned it, he saw she was still right: there were no guns of any kind. Even the jutting emplacements where stationary weapons would have been affixed were empty, the metal mountings rusting unused.
They had been moving without speaking for some time, walking closer together than normal, often hesitant to proceed. The sights and the silence were oppressive even when they weren't actively horrendous. He wasn't sure what the exact nature of the hell they'd stumbled into was, but, about half an hour removed from the edge of the waves, he still couldn't quite accept what he'd seen there.
"This way?" Ron said, after they reached the midway point along the trench.
On the left side was a tunnel, bracketed by concrete pylons. There was no illumination inside (there were enclosures on the ceiling, but they weren't powered). When Harry walked to the edge of the entrance, he could see light at the end, up a series of staircases with short landings in between. The tunnel climbed upward and exited somewhere at the top of the cliff.
The air coming out of the dank, inclined corridor was cool and musty. It smelled like concrete and damp, with a faint hint of something more unpleasant. There were doors along the left side of the tunnel, one at each of the small landings. The light at the top seemed to barely travel downward, creating only a blinding spot against the dim.
Harry wasn't sure he wanted to go into the darkness, given the nature of the dream. But it did appear to be their quickest way up. "Seems like it," he said, taking the first step in.
His eyes adjusted after the first set of stairs. The door at the initial landing was a solid metal construction, staining the concrete into which it was set with rusty splotches and streaks. He didn't try to open it – he wasn't especially curious as to what lay behind.
He looked away from the door as they passed and nearly ran right into Ginny, who had halted in the middle of the next set of stairs. "What is it?" he asked.
"I thought it was someone," she said breathlessly, apparently having been startled. "I mean, it is someone, or, it was… I didn't see it at first."
He looked around her; up ahead was another corpse, slumped
against the wall with its head down, chin on its chest. It was sitting next to the third doorway up, a little over halfway to the exit. He'd been hoping they'd left all the bodies behind at the beach, but it seemed as if they weren't so fortunate.
"Go around it," he said, guiding her towards the right.
They were hurrying past the corpse when something caught Harry's eye. He resisted looking for a moment, but he couldn't quite help himself. The corpse had its legs sticking out in front of it, stiff and splayed. Its shoelaces were untied, and it was the loose string of one that Harry stared at, tracing it back to the shoe.
The corpse was wearing the exact same trainers as he was.
Hermione noticed that he had stopped. She paused at the edge of the landing, one foot on the next step, and looked over her shoulder. "Harry?"
"He's wearing the same shoes as me," Harry said flatly. Same socks, too, same…
Hermione turned around fully and took a step closer to the body. She bent down, peering at it closely. The exact moment of realisation was clear: she stood up like a shot, eyes huge, with both arms at her sides in horror.
Ginny saw the same thing, too. "Oh, no," she said, backing away.
"Hang on," Harry said, his words sounding stiff even to his own ears. "It's not really me. It can't be, I'm right here."
"Remember, this is all for Scott," Hermione said, her voice a bit too high and strained to carry off the intellectual detachment she was aiming for. "Perhaps the diadem wants him to think you're dead."
His corpse was next to a doorway that wasn't barred. There wasn't much light inside, even with his eyes having adjusted, but he could see what looked like another body, lying against the wall with their feet towards the door and their head lost in shadow. It was about Ginny's size, he thought.
"Well," Ron said with a forced nonchalance almost entirely undermined by his wide eyes and vocal tremor, "at least you're still in one piece."
It was true. Harry's faux-corpse was grey-skinned and rumpled, but there wasn't any major damage that he could see. "Keep going," he said numbly. Confronting his own mortality in so literal a fashion was just about more than than he could handle right then.
"Yeah, come on," Ginny said quickly. She had turned from the body, apparently unable to look at it, and her eyes were wild. She grabbed Harry's sleeve and pulled him away with desperate strength.
Harry went willingly, hurrying towards the light. As he left the tunnel, he halfway turned and his eyes sought out his corpse again, feeling a bewildering compulsion that he couldn't ignore. He didn't know what made him take another look. Disbelief, maybe. Dream or not, it all felt entirely too real.
Just before he crossed out of the shadow of the tunnel roof – the line of light at his chest, and rising – Harry saw the sitting corpse, down in the dark. It was looking back at him, meeting his gaze. Its pale lips were moving, mouthing silent words. Trying to tell him something.
Harry lurched into the muted daylight with his heart pounding. He didn't look into the tunnel again.
They were at the top of the cliff line. The beach below was almost entirely obscured by the fog through which they had passed, an indistinct wall of swirling mist and shadow. Landward, there was a field. The tall grass rippled in the wind, hissing strands creating the first real ambient noise he'd heard since he'd been near the water. There didn't appear to be any more corpses, though he supposed they might be hidden in the grass. The breeze from the ocean still carried with it the sour stench of the beach, so it was hard to tell if anything was rotting close by.
"He's not here," Hermione noted with disappointment. "What next? I don't see any sort of pathway…"
The field was featureless, unbroken. It ran out, slowly rising into a large hill directly ahead of them. The clouds were even darker in that direction, low and ominous, and the wind was cold, smelling of rain. Harry watched as lightning flickered in the clouds, too far away to hear. The grass waved furiously, flailing in the gusts, rustling ever louder.
"I don't like the look of that," Ron murmured, staring out towards the dark, roiling horizon.
"We should be able to see from the top of the hill," Harry said, pointing towards it. "Let's try that first, maybe there's some sort of landmark or road."
The grass whipped around Harry's waist, tickling his arms and slowing everyone's progress. It had the dead, brownish hue brought by winter, even though Harry would have said it was an unusually cold summer or spring, if a dream could be said to have a season. Then again, it wasn't as if the beach had to correspond to a real location. They were nowhere, nowhen.
He stubbed his toe on something and nearly fell; he looked down, afraid of what it might be. It was merely a rock. "Watch your step," he said to Ginny, who was walking next to him. When she flinched slightly, he hastened to add, "Just rocks, I think."
"Not entirely," Hermione said. She bent down and lifted up an enormous metal casing, the open end tarnished with the soot of ignition.
Ron gaped at it. "What kind of gun would use that?"
As Scott wasn't anywhere nearby, Harry felt that it fell to him to be knowledgeable about firearms (even though he wasn't). "Uh, that's probably for artillery," he guessed.
He proved to be correct. When they crested the top of the hill, they found a round concrete depression set into the top. There were two enormous artillery pieces bolted to the ground within, surrounded by empty wooden boxes and spent shells. There were no corpses, or any sign that humans had been there recently. The concrete of the floor was free of bloodstains and even scorch marks. It almost had the appearance of being new.
"These look like they haven't been fired in ages," Hermione noted. The guns were rust-eaten, their paint flaking. "But, the shell I found… Well, it's a dream. I suppose there isn't any chronology at work. It's symbolic."
"But why weren't ours like that?" Ginny wondered. "Everything in my dream made sense until Scott showed up. It was just like I remembered."
Harry flashed back to the night when they had destroyed the locket. That Horcrux had created a sort of dream, too, just one that lived in the moment rather than entirely in the mind. But when it turned its attentions onto Scott, the Kharadjai had resisted. Instead of a taunting him with a doppelgänger (who would it have been for Scott?), the locket had displayed several fuzzy images, apparently reflections of what little it had been able to glean. One of those images, Harry now recalled, had been a beach under heavy clouds.
"That beach was in the locket!" he exclaimed.
"What? We're in the diadem," Hermione corrected.
"No, I mean when the locket was trying to mess with Scott. One of the pictures it made was a beach, just like that one." Harry looked to the concrete walls, where the grass was still soughing loudly in the ominous wind. "I thought there was a cornfield, too, but maybe it was this grass."
"So they tried the same thing," Ron surmised. "Looks like the diadem is better at it."
"Perhaps…" Hermione vacillated. "There's an incomplete quality to all of this, a lack of narrative."
"That beach has to be based on a memory, I'm sure of it. But… if all the diadem can get from Scott are fragments, even though he isn't aware of what's happening… Then, maybe it just stuck them all together," Harry theorised.
Ron frowned. "I thought it was trying to trap us? We had good memories, or at least good fake ones. Isn't that so we'd want to stay?"
"I didn't have a good memory, or a memory at all," Hermione pointed out. "I believe it was trying to be convincing, or discouraging, not necessarily wish-fulfilling."
"It's desperate," Harry said with grim satisfaction. "Scott had no bloody clue what was really happening, and he still mucked about and did as he liked. Now it's trying to get him to give up."
"Once we find him, we can tell him that this isn't real. That should dispel the dream, like it did the others," Hermione said.
Ginny voiced their collective fear. "What if it doesn't bring us back?"
"Then we work it out, together," Harry told her with as much confidence as he could project under the circumstances. They were all still reeling from the sights and smells of the beach, so he didn't think he was particularly convincing.
They left the emplacement and resumed moving in the same direction, hoping for a good vantage point. The air currents whipped across the top of the hill with such velocity that several times Harry had to hold his glasses in place. Lightning continued to flash intermittently on the foreboding horizon, and they were beginning to be able to hear it, deep rumbles carried by the wind. Those clouds were noticeably swirling, and Harry very much hoped that they would come no closer.
They soon stood together at the crest, taking in the vista. The clouds overhead were still heavy and dark grey, dimming the sunlight and leaching colour from everything, but the terrain below them was not quite as monochrome as the beach.
Beginning not far from the foot of the hill was a ragged cornfield, the dead stalks barren of vegetables and frayed. It looked as if something huge had been stomping through the fallow tract, crushing some of the stalks to the ground and bending others at broken angles. It might have been wind damage: even as they watched, dry, brittle husks twirled in miniature vortexes and piled in the furrows. Beyond that was another field much like the one they had already crossed, though this one was dotted with more
scrubby brush. At the end of it, almost to the point where it couldn't be clearly seen, was a single enormous tree, stretching towards the steel sky.
There was a sort of path – not a proper road, but a crooked foot trail of dirt that cut through the middle of the cornfield and what lay past it, seemingly winding towards the tree.
"I suppose that must be our landmark," Hermione said, breaking the silence. She had to nearly shout to be heard over the wind that swept up the hillside. "It's the most obvious route we've seen."
Would Scott have taken the most obvious route? Harry wasn't sure. Short of wandering off into unmarked territory, however, there weren't many other options. "And there's the cornfield. There was one more thing, I think. Can't remember what it was…"
"I don't think I saw that as clearly as you did," Hermione said.
Ginny, however, nodded. "There was. It was a forest, with snow."
It wasn't cold enough for snow, and there weren't any forests in sight. "Well, maybe it skipped that one," Harry said.
"It could have been a good memory. Wouldn't have much use for that," Ron said.
That seemed true. Whatever amalgamation of memory and fantasy they were trapped in, it didn't look as if any of the source material had been pleasant. Harry opened his mouth to speak, and then thunder growled above the plain, loud and deep enough that he felt it in his chest. He shut his mouth and frowned with concern towards the swirling cloud bank.
It was a concern Hermione shared. "The last thing we need is to get caught out here in a storm."
"You think we could get hurt? We're not even here, not really," Ron said.
"I don't know what the result would be if something were to happen to us. At best, I think nothing would, we're all aware of what's actually going on. At worst…" Hermione paused. "I doubt we'd just wake up."
"Just be careful and treat it like it's real. It's a Horcrux, so whatever happens won't be fun," Ginny said succinctly.
They went carefully over the uneven ground of the cornfield, crashing through the dry stalks, a clamorous passage that left Harry trying not to sneeze as the fine fibres blew all around him. After, they followed the path. The trail was dusty and often uneven, winding through the field towards the looming tree. Up close, Harry could see that the dirt beneath his feet was packed with shell casings. All sizes and types, the cases were jumbled together in a long metallic procession. Some were of the fat, plastic kind that he recognised as compatible with his own shotgun; others looked more or less like the rifle ammunition Scott had loaded into his M4. There were a few stranger varieties that didn't look like they would work in any gun Harry had ever seen.
As the branches of the tree slowly gained definition, it became apparent that the barren limbs were not the only thing about the tree that was dead.
Hermione squinted at it, and then gasped. "Oh, no. Please tell me I'm not seeing what I think I am."
Harry's glasses were not in the cleanest condition, but at that point they were close enough that he could confirm Hermione's fears. "I see them, too."
"Really? Enough is enough…" Ron muttered, almost to himself.
The branches of the tree were heavy with corpses, swaying in the oncoming gale. They hung from their necks by ropes, pendulous silhouettes that swung with every gust, feet dangling, heads lolled. Harry watched as the wind picked up once again, moving the suspended corpses in a rippling wave. At a distance, it looked like some macabre wind chime.
Ginny's hand wound tightly around Harry's right arm. "I don't want to go over there," she said quietly, only for his ears.
"Neither do I," Harry said, though they didn't halt their advance.
At last they stood beneath the single tree, draped in the spindly shadows of its limbs as the hanged cast their own blurry outlines on the ground, gliding across the dull earth between each sketched branch. The storm continued to build in the distance behind the tree, but directly above it the sun seemed to pierce through a thinner layer of clouds, sharpening the scene with a dusty, distributed amber patina. The effect was like standing in the shade of something more organic, a mockery of life, a constant shifting of light and shadow that created ominous, half-formed shapes out of those which were already horrid.
The many people who hung from the upper reaches were unfamiliar to Harry, or at least too distant to clearly distinguish. However, the limbs closest to the ground were the anchor for several limp corpses that spun listlessly in the air currents, near enough to examine. Of the four closest, one was a tall woman with dark hair and another was an older man, neither of whom Harry recognised. The other two were Lila, her blonde ponytail fluttering like the corn husks, and Sophie, her porcelain features purpled above the noose.
Scott sat at the very foot of the tree. His head was down and he had one arm over a raised knee, the other in the dirt. The flickering shadows played over his slouched shoulders. The bottoms of his trousers were coated with blood and sand, just like the rest of theirs. He gave no sign that he was aware of their arrival.
Harry took a few steps forward, dropping his feet more heavily than he normally would. If Scott was as oblivious as he seemed to be, it was probably not the best idea to sneak up on him. Harry made sure to knock a protruding shell out of the soil, sending it clinking across several others.
His presence thus announced, he licked his lips and said, "Scott?"
Scott raised his head. He didn't look grief-stricken, or terrified, or even angry. He just looked tired. Weariness and resignation were etched in every line of his face.
Harry felt he should first reassure his friend. "Scott, it's all right. None of this is real."
"I know," Scott said.
Harry blinked. "You…" He glanced back at Hermione, who met his look with equal bafflement. "You already knew?"
"It's fairly obvious. Some things look real enough, but the smell is off. And there are no birds at all. There weren't even any flies down at the beach," Scott said. His tone was normal, almost conversational, and if that were the only thing Harry had to go on then he would have said that Scott had, somehow, been unaffected by the carnage. It was the Kharadjai's defeated posture which told a different story. He picked a cartridge out of the scrubby, matted grass next to his extended leg and flicked it towards Harry. "Look at this."
Harry bent down and picked up the tarnished tube of brass. He wasn't sure what he was expected to see. "What about it?"
"It's supposed to be a .45 ACP, but the end of the cartridge isn't flanged. There's nothing for the extractor to grip. It's ammunition designed by someone who sort of knows what ammunition looks like, but not how it actually works."
Harry remembered what Hermione had said, about the dream's lack of 'narrative'. The same patchwork construction obviously extended further. Perhaps the absence of weapons had not been intentional, but rather the by-product of an uncertain architect. Still… all the corpses had been entirely convincing. And Scott may have taken issue with the verisimilitude of the odours, but they had been sickening enough for Harry.
"The smell is off?" Harry repeated, unable to just let that go. He'd regurgitated his imaginary previous meal down in the tide, in large part due to that smell.
"It's close," Scott allowed. "But a big pile of bodies like that… Well, I don't really have a comparison. There are a lot of things wrong with this."
"Yeah, I'd say so!" Ron burst out. "There are a bloody million dead people down there! Who are they?"
Scott shrugged lethargically. "They're supposed to be people I've killed." He looked up briefly, and, noting their collective expressions of horror, added, "It's exaggerated for effect."
"And who are they?" Harry asked, indicating the tree and its ghoulish occupants.
"No one you know. With a couple exceptions," Scott said evasively. He didn't look at the bodies. "Kylie is over there."
Harry followed Scott's quick indication and saw a form near the edge of the clearing that he hadn't noticed before. It was a small body, draped in a flannel shirt that served as a makeshift funeral shroud. "She was in the cornfield. Crucified. Like a scarecrow, I think the idea was," Scott continued, his lack of inflection somehow making his words even more awful.
"Harry was in the tunnel," Ginny said quietly.
Scott did not react. "I saw."
Harry shifted his weight uncertainly. "Do you remember the dreams before this one?"
"I think so. I remember the one we had well enough."
"Was that the first dream?"
"Unless you can tell me differently. I don't recall being anywhere before that."
"This should have already ended," Hermione fretted. She had her gaze resolutely fixed on the ground. "If Scott's been aware, that should have ended it. I don't know why we're still here."
Slowly, Scott rose to his feet. "Maintaining one dream is a bit different than five – or at least four, mine were short. I'd guess the others were abandoned as all attention turned to me."
"So how do we get out?" Ginny asked, her voice uneven. Harry could relate: knowing that the dream wasn't ending, but not why, was stirring the beginnings of panic.
"The other dreams disintegrated. I'd thought it was because awareness broke them down, but, no, it was because the diadem abandoned each one as Scott moved on. This one's being supported, so perhaps if we…" Hermione trailed off, her brow furrowed. "If we tried to destabilise it ourselves…"
"I don't know! I don't…" Hermione stopped suddenly. "Scott."
Scott was looking at one of the hanged corpses with an indecipherable expression on his face. "What?"
"We know that these dreams operate under a sort of logic. Much more logic than standard dreams, anyway. If our thoughts changed our dreams, and that does seem to be the case, then it follows that we have some small level of impact here. And you, uncontrollable as you seem to be, have even more," Hermione said excitedly, the first real hint of spark returning to her eyes.
Scott leaned against the tree. "Because if my apertures worked, it's because I know how they work and if the diadem doesn't, and it shouldn't–"
"Then we know that was you!" Hermione finished.
"Right, okay. So we take an aperture back to the Transversal, and then find the door back to your universe, the real one, waking ourselves up. Is that what you're thinking?"
Hermione nodded. "Yes. I know you said apertures won't work for us, but these aren't real apertures. There's no reason we can't go through, other than your own sense of reality, of course. I'm supposing you can bend your preconception long enough to allow us passage."
"Let's say it works. What's going to stop the diadem from just putting us right back in dreams again the second we wake up?"
"Ability?" Hermione hazarded. "It's obviously limited, and it seems to have reached those limits attempting to trap all five of us."
"But it's got to be listening to us right now! It can just stop anything we do if it knows we're doing it," Ron pointed out.
"That can't be right," Ginny said sceptically. "If it can do whatever it wants, then why didn't it just kill us?"
"Yeah, if it could kill us, we'd already be dead," Scott agreed. "Struck by lightning, heart attack, spawn an anvil over us like some Looney Tunes shit, it could take us out whenever."
Harry remembered the trap in the cave. Riddle didn't wish to kill his enemies, not immediately. Not before he could establish how they discovered his secret. "Riddle designed his traps to keep people alive, at least for awhile."
"Okay, sure. He wants to know how we know, assuming he ever becomes aware of this. It's not like he checks on his stuff often enough for it to matter," Scott said. "So it's a limited thing. We don't understand what the rules are, but there clearly are rules."
"It's still our dream," Hermione said. "Maybe we didn't start it, but it's ours. To an extent."
"Then we need to push the extent."
"What if we could confront the diadem directly? Perhaps we could face an avatar of Riddle, as you did with the locket," Hermione suggested.
"That assumes this dream has a pretty literal nature, if what happens to the diadem here happens to the diadem in totality," Scott said. "More to the point, why would the diadem include itself in this dream?"
"I suppose it probably doesn't have to, does it," Hermione mused. "There wouldn't be much sense in making itself vulnerable."
"I also didn't do much confronting with the locket. Harry's the one who ended the conversation in a very physical fashion."
Hermione nodded. "The physical is not currently an option, we need another one. A dream ends when you awaken; so, we must either end the dream or somehow awaken ourselves."
Harry would have joined the discussion if he'd had any ideas. But he had assumed that the dream would collapse once Scott was made aware of the situation. With that not being the case, the next step was a mystery to him. He watched the clouds churn overhead, the darkest portions never seeming to come any closer. The beach and everything past it were in stasis, or so it appeared. The light hadn't changed in the time since they'd moved inland, though it was so overcast that he couldn't tell if time were actually passing. He supposed that, eventually, it might become night. Or perhaps it never would. Whatever the case, he didn't want to be stuck in the dream long enough to find out.
What was the point of it all? The entire pastiche of horror was clearly an attempt to mess with Scott, but to what end? If the diadem had just wanted Scott to stop moving from dream to dream, then why had it not simply placed all of them together in the same environment and made them forget they'd been anywhere else? Scott would have stayed there, all of his Primes already present.
That was an interesting thought. "Hey," he spoke up, interrupting, "if the diadem needed to keep Scott from moving, why do you think it didn't just drop us all into the same dream?"
Ron shrugged. "Because it was the other people that broke the dreams in the first place, like you did for me, or Scott did for you."
"I walked right into Scott. Then he started talking about things I didn't remember, I was so confused… But, I think that helped," Ginny said.
"That's exactly it," Hermione agreed. "No one else in your dream would doubt the reality of the situation if they themselves weren't real. Remember, it's not just that it needs to stop Scott from moving about. It can't read him like it does us, with whatever form of Legilimency it uses. Wherever he is, he causes us to misremember, we don't understand his presence. Putting him with Harry was an immediate blunder, but even if he'd been by himself, he would have come looking for us eventually."
"Maybe that's why it put me with Harry. It can't create convincing versions of you guys for me if it can't figure out what events we've shared. I'd have been with a Hermione that couldn't recall anything we did or talked about," Scott said. "I'd have been out of there soon enough."
"Can we talk about this somewhere else?" Ginny said suddenly.
Harry glanced upwards at the swaying deceased. He and his friends had all been doing a good job of pretending that they weren't having a discussion beneath the corpse-heavy branches of a hangman's tree. It would be even better if they didn't have to pretend.
For once, Scott seemed to be entirely amenable to Ginny's suggestion. "Let me see what I can do."
Another swell of thunder rumbled across the plain, as if to add urgency. Harry watched the clouds darken further, and wondered if it would rain. He hoped to be gone before he found out.