The trolley bounced off the wall as the young man with round spectacles attempted to pass through. As he lay in a heap on the floor between platforms 9 and 10, and his friend went to his aid, several people watched with raised eyebrows.
A man in a bowler hat, with a rolled umbrella under one arm and a newspaper under the other shook his head slowly. Kids these days… mad, the bally lot of them. A woman close by looked mildly concerned, but was too staid and English to actually get involved. Perhaps they were on drugs, or worse. Maybe they were doing that silly American jackass thing. Both of them stared momentarily and looked away.
As the young redheaded boy helped his friend disentangle from the mess, another watched, with keen interest. This man was somehow different. He leaned against a pillar, some yards distant, and lit a cigarette. Several travellers nearby crinkled their noses and moved away. His long trenchcoat bore stains here and there, and his blond hair sat wildly atop his forehead, looking as if it wanted to be elsewhere.
But it was his piercing blue eyes that marked him as different. They stared with an intensity that belied the bemusement his body language suggested. He took a deep draw on his cigarette, and continued to watch as the boys got up, looked at their watches, and immediately ran off, somewhere unknown. Before they disappeared from the platform, he calmly stepped away from the pillar and followed them, at a distance.
Their conversation was lost in the bustle of the station… King's Cross at 11am was a busy place, and people milled here and there, rushing to and fro, talking and laughing over the regular announcements that blasted from the loudspeakers. He picked up his pace until he was a few yards behind, but he somehow managed to make it look as if he were hurrying for a train, rather than following the two young boys. They were too panicked to notice anything around them, but by nature, this man kept to himself. Long habit had trained his body to remain low-key. It had saved his life on more than one occasion.
Snatches of their conversation reached him, and his ears perked up as he heard some of the words. "Hogwarts express"… To anyone else, this would have meant nothing. But this man had heard the term before. He was just a few feet behind them as they raced from the entrance, into the parking lot. He slowed as they approached an old blue sedan, and began to load their luggage into the trunk.
Something about that car.
He could feel it. He stood, unnoticed yet, still a few feet away, and concentrated. The car. It contained magic. It shimmered like an aura around the vehicle, and the man silently gauged the type of magic. It was unfamiliar, and that was very strange. No magic was unfamiliar to this man. He thought he had seen it all, but, apparently, there was always more to learn.
As the boys entered the vehicle, the man knew he had to do something. This was too much of an opportunity to let pass. He strode forward, and as the ignition began to crank over, he placed his hand on the rail of the drivers door, and leaned his head into the open window. The redheaded boy jumped in fright. He clearly had no idea that anyone was even close by, let alone taking an interest.
"'S a nice old car," he said, looking slightly bemused. "Tell me, what are two young lads like yourselves doing taking this old thing for a drive?" He looked at them appraisingly.
"Aren't you a little young for a driver's license?"
Both of the boys looked at each other. The man registered their stress, but went on smiling his wry grin. The boy in the passenger seat spoke.
"We're in a hurry sir, and it's ok, he can drive fine." He looked like a cornered rat.
The man extended his hand into the car, open, to shake. The redheaded boy looked pensive, and shook the offered hand gingerly.
"I'm John. Nice to meet you both. Now… before you rush off to wherever it is you're going," he leaned in closer and lowered his voice, "I think we need to have a little talk…"
"I'm sorry sir, but we're in a terrible hurry…"
John lowered his voice further. "Hogwarts can wait." He said. "Lets talk about magic, shall we?"
The boys looked to each other once again, clearly flabbergasted. The redheaded driver looked scared. "Magic? I don't know what you're talking about…"
The dark haired passenger had turned very serious indeed. "What's Hogwarts?"
John smiled at them both. "You know, it's customary when one introduces themselves to someone, that they answer with their first names… Just polite, you know?" He raised an eyebrow, still grinning.
"Uh, Micheal, nice to meet you. This is…" the redheaded boy hesitated for a second. The dark haired passenger answered for himself. "Tony. Pleased to meet you. I'm sorry, but we don't know anything about magic or Hogwarts, and we are running very late for… an appointment. Must go!" He nudged 'Micheal' and whispered urgently "Lets go!"
"Micheal is it? And what was it?" John looked at the passenger.
"Uh… Tony." Said the dark haired boy.
"Right, Tony…" John grinned again. "You don't look at all like a Tony, I must say…"
His words were a distraction. As the boys hesitated once again, John opened the back door with a smooth, almost liquid motion, and stepped inside. Before they could react, he was sitting in the back seat.
Micheal looked at Tony, and they both turned their heads towards the intruder. Panic was settling on their features, but the dark haired boy looked resolved, and quite angry.
"Get out. Now."
John sat back and dropped his grin.
"No." he said simply.
Tony's face hardened, and he reached inside his jacket for something. "I'm sorry, John, but I'm afraid you've no choice." He pulled an ornate stick with a rounded handle from an inside pocket, and pointed it at John.
John laughed. "Nice," he said. "Won't work on me though, mate." He pointed to himself. "Demon blood. It has its ups and downs, but one thing it does is protect me from magic. Incantations anyway. Now why don't we start with your real names?"
The boy with the stick waved it, and muttered something. There was a small cracking sound, and the stick he held split in half, lengthways. He looked incredulous, and stared at the two pieces of wood. Then back to John. "Oh no…" he muttered softly…
"Told you it wouldn't work," said John. "Looks like it was a nice one, too. Shame, that." He leaned forward a little, staring the dark haired boy down. "I can smell lies, me. Your names… I'll know if you lie again, and I'd be worried about trying any more magic if I were you."
The boys looked at each other miserably. The redhead spoke first.
"Ron," he said softly. "I'm Ron Weasley." He looked like he wanted to say something else, but his mouth sprang shut, seemingly of its own accord. The dark haired boy looked both angry and hurt, and he almost spat the words out.
"Harry Potter. Ok? You know our names now, and you broke my wand. What do you want from us?"
John looked at the pair, one to the other, and smiled.
"A lift." He said.
Harry groaned. Ron looked nothing more than helpless.
"We can't," said Harry. "Really, we must go, right now… we've missed the train…"
"Harry Potter," said John, settling back. "I do believe I've heard that name somewhere before. Funny things, names… They hold a good deal of power. Have they taught you that at Hogwarts yet? Nevermind. No relation to Lily then?"
Harry's mouth snapped shut. He said nothing.
John scrutinized the boy for a long moment. "You look a bit like her… well, not really, but the eyes. Windows to the soul, sport. I heard a rumor that she'd died. Never found out if it's true or not."
Harry whispered. "Yes. It's true. She was my mother."
John looked genuinely upset. He touched the boy's shoulder gently. "I'm sorry mate. That was insensitive. I knew your mum. A long time ago."
"I never knew her," said Harry miserably. His eyebrow raised suddenly. "You're saying you knew Lily Potter?"
John looked left and right quickly. "Uh yeah. Like I said, it was a long time ago. It doesn't matter."
"How do you know about Hogwarts?" interjected Ron. "Are you a wizard?"
John laughed. "I know about a lot of things I really shouldn't. No, not a wizard, as such. Let's just say I take an interest."
"Listen," said Harry. Suddenly, he had come to trust this man. He couldn't think why, but his instincts were keen, and he knew them to be correct. "We missed the train, and we really have to catch up with it. We can't give you a lift anywhere, because if we don't turn up for school…" he trailed off, wondering just what might happen if that came to pass.
"I missed the train too," said John. "I won't take you out of your way. I need to get to Hogwarts."
Ron screwed his face up a little. "Why?" he asked.
"Classified information Ron. Best you don't ask. Just trust me on this."
Ron looked skeptical, and seemed about to argue. Harry saw what was coming though, and held the broken pieces of his wand up for Ron to see.
"We have no choice. We have to take him." Harry looked at the split pieces of wood, and the corners of his mouth turned down. "I really needed this, you know…"
John howled with laughter suddenly, and shook his head. "You don't need anything but this, mate," he pointed at Harry's forehead.
"What, his scar?" said Ron, sounding genuinely perplexed.
Harry and John shared a look, and grinned.
"His mind, son. Lord, you are slow." John smiled at Ron. "Better get going eh? Give us that, Harry…" he held out his hand for the broken wand.
Harry shrugged and handed it over. It was useless now anyway. As Ron turned the engine over once again, John put the two pieces of the wand together, and clasped both hands around the item. His face lost expression, and small beads of sweat formed on his forehead. A strange yellow light began to glow from the broken pieces, and Harry thought he could smell ozone, just briefly.
Then it was over. John grinned again, and handed the wand back to Harry. It was as if it had never been broken.
As the car swung out of the lot, and the wheels left the ground, John looked out the window. "Nice!" he said. "Mind if I smoke?"
The boys looked pained.
"Good," said John, opening the window a crack. He lit a silk cut and sat back, lapsing into an easy silence.
"Well, here we go," said Ron. "Buckle up."
As London dropped away beneath them, Ron steered the car in the direction he thought they should be going. Harry watched King's Cross station shrink into the distance, and it seemed that worms grew from its belly, snaking in all directions.
"Which way is it?" he asked, sounding a little concerned.
"Ummm… it's one of those there I'm almost certain," replied Ron, pointing and sounding uncertain.
John tapped Ron on the shoulder, and pointed to the left. "See that smoke over there. That's it."
Harry looked and saw the train immediately, in the distance. The black shape was barely visible, but smoke was puffing from the chimney in a thick column, making it easy to see.
"Right," said Ron. "I knew it was that way…" The track wound in the opposite direction to where he had pointed before. He steered the car to the left and stepped on the accelerator. The car made a sound like an angry grunt, and shook a bit before it sped off towards the thick smoke.
Harry turned to John. "You have to tell us something, you know. I don't know why you need to go to Hogwarts, but we're going to have a hard time explaining you to Dumbledore…"
John screwed up one side of his face, chewing on what he might say to that.
"Alright. There's been talk of a meeting, that's scheduled to take place… soon. For one reason or another, I'd like to be there. Just call it a hunch."
"Between who?" asked Ron.
"I'm not sure yet. Anyway, you won't have to tell Dumbledore. Land me somewhere close and I'll make my own way. Dumbledore and the rest of them should never know I was there."
"Here, look at that then…" said Ron. He pointed towards the train. They were gaining rapidly… too rapidly, but there was something weird about it. The smoke hung in the air like a still picture. The train too…
Harry looked around, and couldn't believe what he was seeing. The entire landscape had frozen beneath them. Cars stood silently on the roads, trees stayed dead still. It was as if time had stopped.
"Woah…" said Harry, under his breath.
"Bugger." Muttered John. "It's bloody true then."
"Here," said Ron. "My mum always smacks me in the ear for swearing. You'll teach us bad habits you will."
"Sorry," said John. He wasn't listening. "You two might need to help me for awhile when we get there. I don't think we'll have much choice… If we can get there at all…"
"Wait a minute…" said Ron. He pointed to a goose, suspended in mid flight, that they were racing towards. He turned the wheel slightly so as not to hit it. They stared as they flew past. It looked like someone had stuffed it and hung it on a wire.
"If everything else is frozen, why aren't we?"
"Bloody good question." John said. "I'm not sure. But I can tell you, I don't like it..."
"What's going to happen?" Asked Harry. "Will it stay like that? Can we do anything?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, mate. I haven't seen this happen in a little while. Whatever it is it's bloody strong magic."
"You've seen this happen before?" Harry looked impressed. "What happened?"
"The responsible party gained a fresh perspective, you might say. Caused no end of bloody trouble."
Ron looked completely bewildered. "What are you talking about? And I'm serious, if Dumbledore hears you swear like that, he won't be happy…"
"I don't think we'll need to worry about that at the moment, son…" John pointed, and, in the distance, hills were giving way to a large lake. On the horizon, Hogwarts suddenly appeared in sharp relief. The entire scene was frozen, just like the rest of the landscape.
"Oh… I suppose we'd better land and see what's going on." Said Ron. "You don't suppose we'll freeze up like the rest when we hit the ground do you?"
Harry reminded him about the goose, and they shrugged. Ron stepped gently on the brake, and the car descended towards the bank on the edge of the lake. It shuddered a little bit, but behaved itself mostly until they were several feet above the ground. Then, suddenly, it dropped like a stone.
The three travellers were shaken in their seats, but the impact wasn't hard enough to have broken anything. Ron's tongue had been caught between his teeth, and he had bitten it enough for a few beads of blood to dribble from his lip. "Outh! Outh!" he said, looking very annoyed. "Bloothy car."
"You alright then?" Harry asked Ron. He looked a little concerned. Ron nodded, poking his tongue out. Four little cuts on the end corresponded with his toothline. They exited the car, and dusted themselves off. John lit another silk cut, and looked to the boys. "Stick close, eh? Let's go see what's happening."
They walked slowly up the path towards Hogwarts. Nothing moved, and, when Harry cocked his ear, he could hear absolutely no sounds but the crunching of their own feet on the ground. He listened harder, and could hear John's respiration, and Ron's and his own. A slight shuffling of their clothes. That was it. Even the air was still. It was like walking in a vacuum.
A hedgehog stood beside the path, it's nose stuck in an anthill. Harry could see hundreds of ants milling there, all perfectly frozen. He shook his head. This was surreal.
"Wow! Look at that!" Ron pointed up a path to their left. A unicorn was suspended in mid air, it's front feet just off the ground, it's back feet high, as if it were about to kick something. The creature's eyes reflected pure panic.
"Maybe…" said Ron, suddenly, as if he'd just had a brilliant idea. Instead of going on, he reached into his cloak and pulled out his wand. He dashed up the path, waving the ornate stick before him.
And then, as if all this wasn't strange enough, Ron Weasley suddenly froze mid-step, his wand held high. Harry's eyes grew wide, and he pulled on John's trenchcoat urgently.
"Look! It's got Ron now!"
John stopped. He'd been concentrating on something more important, and hadn't been listening. He turned to the stricken boy, a dozen feet away, and raised an eyebrow.
"Very interesting!" he muttered, looking at Harry. "I wonder what made that happen. Harry, you want to try an experiment? 'S dangerous…"
"W- What sort of experiment did you have in mind?"
"Do you feel like going over to see what's happened to poor Ron? You can say no…"
Harry looked towards his friend. He couldn't just leave him like that. He wondered whether it was something to do with the unicorn, or if there was something else up the path that he couldn't see. Whatever it was, it was something. Ron had been fine till he ran up there.
"Maybe it was because he tried to use magic?" Harry looked impressed with himself. It had just occurred to him, and seemed feasible.
"Maybe." Said John. "I'd keep my wand in my pocket if I were you, sport."
"Ok…" said Harry. He looked nervous. He took a step towards Ron, before looking back pensively. Shrugging, he went on. Three steps, four. Nothing seemed to be happening. He reached his friend, and looked closely. Ron's mouth was open, he had clearly been halfway through a word when he had frozen.
"Geez," said Harry, to no-one in particular. "Geez…" He reached out and touched the boys lapel. Ron didn't move, or appear to know that Harry was in front of him.
Harry looked back towards John.
"I don't know why he's frozen," he said. "maybe it was the magic after all…"
"Let's see, shall we," said John. He walked slowly towards the boys. He got to within six feet, when Ron suddenly pelted forwards, straight into Harry. Both boys fell over, ending up in a tangled mess on the ground.
"I was afraid of that," Said John.
Ron, looking more confused than he'd been so far this trip, shook his head and looked around. "Afraid of what? What just happened? How did you get in front of me, Harry?"
Harry dusted himself off yet again, and stood up, disentangling himself from Ron's robes. "You were frozen."
Ron looked skeptical.
John reached them and said, "I think you'd better stick well close to me in future. I think I know why that happened."
"Why?" said Harry.
"Remember I told you I had Demon's blood?"
"Yes… How could I forget?"
"Well, it's got something to do with that. Something not very good."
"Bloody Nora…" sighed Ron. He frowned, and addressed John. "See? You are a bad influence. I knew it!"
"You don't know the half of it, mate," said John. His face was serious.
"Wait," Harry was looking at his glasses, which had been broken in the fall. He couldn't remember Hermione's spell from last year, but wasn't game to try any magic anyway. "How come I didn't freeze up? I was farther away from you than Ron…"
"Don't ask me," said John. "I'm not from around here." He dropped his cigarette and stubbed it out with his heel.
"And I don't think I'm the only one." He pointed towards Hogwarts, and started off without another word. Harry and Ron hurried to stay close to him.
If anything, the silence actually increased as they neared the gothic school grounds. Harry wondered how that could be, but then remembered something he'd once learned in music class, back with the muggles. Shepherd's tone… a constant note that seemed to increase in pitch, but actually remained the same. An illusion…
It was the sounds his body were making which were becoming more apparent to him, as if his senses were sharpening somehow. Things had taken on a more… defined tone. The trees had faint outlines, as if someone had drawn them in. The bricks in the wall seemed to stand out, as if each were vying for his attention. He got the sense they were getting close to something. Like playing the hot and cold game. He'd watched Dudley and his friends play, but hadn't been allowed himself.
Warm… warm… warmer… Hot!
John stopped suddenly, and turned to them.
"It's not in Hogwarts grounds, whatever it is…" He pointed. "Down that way. Don't make any noise."
They followed as silently as possible. The path which John trod was grown over, but even Harry could see that someone had been down here before them. There were muddy bootprints clearly visible all over. Whoever was here hadn't bothered to cover their tracks.
After a time, the path opened out onto a small glade. It had been cleared by hand; small trees lay cut in a rough circle. In the middle, the ground had been raked back to bare earth.
A fire burned in the center of the circle.
On the opposite side to them, someone was kneeling, hands together, watching them approach. Harry wondered what was wrong… it took him a short time to realize that the fire was actually moving. He could see swirls of heated air rising from the top, and he could hear the crackling of the flames.
As they entered the circle, the figure raised himself to his feet.
Harry took in a sharp breath… he hadn't expected this.
It was Draco Malfoy. He was looking at them intensely, a grim expression on his features. His usual sneer was gone. There was something very strange about him.
"Oh dear." Said John, "I do hope you know what you're doing, old mate…"
Malfoy moved his mouth, but no sound came out. He was staring straight at them, but his face remained locked.
"Too late…" John scowled. "Harry, Ron, you're about to find out why it's a bad idea to talk to demons…"
John pointed at Malfoy. "Don't go near him. Look," he pointed to the blond boy's feet. He was standing in a rough circle that had been marked in some sort of white powder. A five pointed star intersected with the circle, and two larger circles encompassed the entire affair. Symbols had been placed here and there, making the pentagram look somehow arcane.
"What's he doing?" asked Ron. He was frowning. This was no sort of magic that he was used to.
"He's talking to someone he shouldn't be. Unfortunately, we're about to meet him…"
The fire had begun to burn hotter, the roar of it more intense, deeper somehow. The flames darkened to deep orange, to red, purple and blue, finally turning black with an angry howl. The fire now looked like swirling anti-matter.
Slowly, the dark flames coalesced into a shape. Harry had trouble getting the shape clear in his mind. Every time he got a hold of it, it seemed to change to something different.
The shape spoke.
"As of tomorrow, your serv'tude's required. I must say your choice of demon's inspired.
It seems that what you want o'me, is small enough, so I must agree,
Prepare to have your wish boy, your soul's now Demon fired…"
John stepped forward suddenly.
"Errr, 'Scuse me mate, before you go and do that…"
The shape stopped in its tracks, turned towards them. Ron let out a small yelp and moved off to the right slightly, trying to get distance between himself and whatever it was.
Harry watched, as frightened as he'd ever been. The thing had eyes that seemed to be everywhere, staring into him. He felt an emptiness, as if everything was pointless, the vastness of the universe and the endlessness of time, and we are just tiny specks…
John shoved him, and the spell was broken.
"Don't look at him."
Harry shuddered, and did what he was told. The thing had taken his mind with just a glance…
"Well, well," said the demon mildly. "Of all the folks there's ever been, there's nair a one like Constantine…"
"At your service. Listen, I have a couple of good reasons why you shouldn't be doing this, mate."
"Oh? And what might they be, do tell, feel free…"
John casually reached into the pocket on the side of his trenchcoat, and pulled out something about the size of Harry's fist. It gleamed a dull ivory in the light, and Harry could clearly see small markings, maybe Chinese or Egyptian.
"This oracle bone, for one thing," John Constantine held the bone up for the demon to see. "Came into my possession some time ago. Perhaps you'd like it back…"
The demon snorted. Black smoke flew from his nostrils. "Give it to me!"
John laughed. "Not on your life, mate. Leave the boy alone, and maybe I'll consider it…"
Harry watched, totally bewildered. He didn't understand any of this. What was an oracle bone? He sure didn't know. His attention was suddenly drawn by a movement behind the fire, which had gone back to burning deep orange… Malfoy had backed slowly away. His eyes were wide with fear. Harry noticed that he'd stepped backwards. One of his heels was poking outside of the circle he'd been standing in before. Harry drew in a breath. He knew enough about this sort of stuff just from reading comics. You aren't protected outside the circle!
And… more bad news. The demon was turning back to the boy.
Before he turned, Malfoy did something strange. He jerked forwards slightly, and his foot stepped back into the circle, just in time. Harry saw a dark shape behind Malfoy.
The dark shape poked its head around Malfoy's shoulder, It was Ron. He leaned towards Malfoy's head and clearly mouthed the words "Stay in the circle, dummy!". He rolled his eyes comically.
"I said there were a couple of reasons, mate. Here's the other. I know your name."
The demon actually chuckled. A hollow rasping sound.
"There's many names by which I'm known. I'm only interested in the bone…"
"Yeah, well, it is a nice piece of ivory, I must say… 'S a funny bit. 'S got a bunch of curses on it, and a name. I think you know whose."
John looked at the bone at arm's length. The demon had become very still.
"Took me a while to get it translated, mind. Not many up in Liverpool that speak fifteenth century chinese. I had to dig quite deep…"
"Give me the bone…" The demon's voice had become like stone.
"The boy…" said John.
"Your soul will one day make such a feast… The boy for now… Is released. Give me the bone, Constantine."
John chuckled. "Tell you what mate. You get it yourself."
He threw the grey/white object onto the flames. The demon looked pleased with himself, and reached down for it. As he did, the flames took hold of him, and he was sucked into them, like smoke which had drifted too close. In an instant, he had disappeared, and so had the bone.
The fire died back down. Soon, all that was left were the sobs of Draco Malfoy. His chest hitched and heaved as if he were a string puppet with a careless handler.
Harry turned to John Constantine.
"What just happened?
John pointed to Draco. "He thought it might be clever to make a deal with a demon. Their blood is very powerful stuff. It would have caused you and your school… and the rest of us, no end of trouble.
He's used an arcane spell to slow time. He knew he'd never get away with it if he tried it in real time. Your elders up there would have been able to stop that. It broke when he broke the circle before. I'd say someone's probably noticed something. If I were you, I'd get back to the train. I'll get a lift back, if you don't mind…"
"But how did you know?" said Ron.
"Ha. Good question, son. Good job there, too. If he'd stepped out, this would have turned out very different. I had a visit from a friend…"
"Who?" asked both Harry and Ron simultaneously.
"Here," said John. He handed something to Harry. Harry held it up before his eyes. It was a small leather pouch. It appeared to be empty.
"Open it, and dip your finger in, once, before bed. It'll work seven times. Use them wisely…"
"Thanks… I think," said Harry.
"What about dummy here?" asked Ron. He pointed over his shoulder to Draco, who was still gibbering and shuddering.
"I say we leave him to explain himself, eh? We'd better go."
"Before we go," said Harry… "You said you knew my mother… Will I see you again? I'd like to know about it."
John smiled. "The pouch is all you get, sport. Good luck."
He turned on his heel, waving them to follow, and they hurried back to the car. If they were lucky, they could get back before anyone noticed they weren't on the train…