Flat paving stones stretched up and down the street, spotted with chewing gum and stalked by scabrous, feral pigeons. A lopsided red phone box stood on the pavement behind a row of chipped, marked bollards.
‘Cloak?’ Harry pulled it out from under his robes.
‘Just like old times.’ Sirius grinned and swept it over the two of them. ‘Except this time we’re stealing a very valuable magical object for Britain, not McGonagall’s fire-whiskey for a party.’ He chuckled. ‘This is probably safer. Your mother was a cruelly strict prefect.’
Harry snorted. ‘So, where’s the entrance?’
‘Expecting a giant building saying The Ministry of Magic?’
‘No,’ Harry said. ‘But more than this.’
‘It’s grander on the inside. They don’t want the muggles getting curious.’
He stepped towards the phone box, opened the door and gestured for Harry to join him inside. The peeling, red-painted booth stank of weed and worse.
‘This is the informal visitors’ entrance,’ Sirius said. ‘Normally everyone just floos in, but obviously we can’t do that without getting caught. The Ministry does monitor the network fairly efficiently.’ He turned to the phone and poked a hand out from under the cloak to quickly dial a number. ‘Emmeline will be on her way out by now, so we’re within our window of opportunity.’
‘Welcome to the Ministry of Magic,’ a female voice stated. ‘Please state your name and business.’
‘Sirius Black. And I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.’
Harry stared at him.
‘It’s probably not a real person, the voice is still the same as it was before my stint in Azkaban.’
A soft click came from the phone and a badge slid out of the phone’s change dispenser. Sirius picked it up and pinned it to the front of his robes with a huge grin on his face.
Sirius Black. Up to no good. Harry laughed. Excellent.
‘I always wanted a badge like this. This is the best thing the Ministry has ever given me.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s the only thing they’ve given me, actually, it’s not like I received a trial.’
The phone box lurched. Harry watched the pavement slide up past the window.
I wonder how many times a muggle has dialled the number and ended up down here.
An empty, marble-paved floor greeted them. Golden runes twisted around one another, flowing in ever-changing patterns across the royal blue ceiling.
‘This way.’ Sirius took Harry’s elbow and led him along the hall of empty fireplaces past the empty security desk. ‘We’re lucky, whoever’s on duty must have snuck off somewhere, or Mundungus might’ve bribed him to be absent for a convenient moment so he can get in and out unobserved.’
They hurried past the desk and the cheerful statues in a fountain who spouted water from the strangest places, then through the golden gates of the Ministry’s true entrance.
‘In here.’ Sirius tugged him across to the lift and tapped the down button until the doors opened. ‘Finally.’ He stepped in and prodded the number nine button several times, then the doors clanked shut.
‘Floor thirteen,’ the same female voice announced.
‘It’s on the lowest level,’ Sirius said. ‘We’re inside the wards now, so the only way out without breaking them is by floo, which is monitored, or back the way we came. Breaking those wards is no mean feat.’
‘So don’t get caught or we’ll be trapped,’ Harry murmured.
‘Exactly. We can dispense with the cloak, though. Mundungus will be the only one down here.’
Harry folded the cloak back up and stuffed it into his robes as the lift ground to a halt.
‘Floor thirteen,’ the voice said.
‘It’s just around the corner,’ Sirius said. ‘Voldemort’s not supposed to be up to anything for a bit, so we should be in the clear there, too.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Snape.’ Sirius scowled. ‘He’s Dumbledore’s spy within the Death Eaters. Not much gets past him, apparently. He’s always been a sneaky, clever sort, but I think he can be trusted…’
The plain, black door at the end of the corridor had been melted back to the hinges by fire fierce enough to scar the floor and ceiling above.
‘Not much gets past him…’ Harry flicked his wand into his palm. ‘We have company.’
‘Apparently he’s not as sneaky and clever as I hoped. I’m calling for the rest of the Order.’ Sirius reached inside his robes and pulled out a battered, bronze phoenix amulet. ‘Voldemort can’t get hold of that prophecy, Harry. We can deal with Dumbledore afterward.’
Harry advanced down the corridor a bit, stepping over a dark, crimson smear and the broken halves of a wand. ‘How long will it be?’
‘They’ll be coming as soon as they can.’ Sirius peered into the dark beyond the door. ‘A few minutes, most likely.’
‘We should keep going,’ Harry said. ‘If they’re already inside, then someone has to stop them.’
And I need to hear that prophecy.
Sirius drew his wand and nodded. He pressed the back of his hand to the frame of the door, hissed and flinched away. ‘Still hot. They can’t be more than a few minutes ahead of us.’
‘Let’s go.’ Harry slipped past Sirius into the department.
The corridor continued on beyond the ruined door, a long hallway tiled and paved in gleaming, black slabs that reflected the light of the torches like glass. Harry followed the lights, his footsteps echoing in the cramped space.
Sirius swore and yanked him to a halt. ‘It’s a circle. A loop. It just seems like a straight line. We’ve been walking around the same ten feet of corridor.’ His godfather swept his wand at the nearest torch.
The white flames guttered out all along the corridor, plunging them into the dark.
Sirius ran his fingers along the wall. ‘Let’s try this door.’
A perfect circle of benches ringed a tall, gleaming mirror.
The Mirror of Erised.
‘This isn’t it,’ Harry said. ‘Let’s go.’
Sirius pressed his fingertips against the glass of the mirror. ‘We’re all together again. I can see us all together: Remus, James, Lily, me, even Peter.’ He pressed his forehead against the mirror’s surface. ‘He’s not a Death Eater! He never betrayed us.’
‘Sirius.’ Harry dragged his godfather back from the mirror. ‘It’s a lie.’
‘A lie,’ his godfather murmured, ‘but I can see them, they’re there.’
‘No. You just want to see them.’
‘Oh.’ The lines in Sirius’s face sunk deep and the shadow of Azkaban spread over his features. ‘I thought, I hoped, it might be real.’
‘It isn’t.’ Harry glanced into the mirror.
His reflection smiled back, one arm around Fleur’s waist; she had a small, warm, smile on her face and the sun set behind them in a wash of orange and red.
Perfect. He took a step closer.
A silver-haired girl leapt across to take Fleur’s hand, clutching at her arm.
Gabby turned to glance up at him and bright emerald eyes gleamed beneath her silver hair. The bottom dropped out of Harry’s stomach and his heart lurched.
Not Gabby. A daughter. Our daughter. Warmth rushed through him and hot tears welled up. He raised a hand to pull the little girl out through the glass and into reality, then sighed and let his arm drop. It’s not real. Not yet.
‘It only shows you what you want most.’ Harry tore his gaze away from the girl’s vivid green eyes and the little smile she’d inherited from her mother. ‘Leave it.’
He strode out into the darkness and trailed his fingertips along the wall of the corridor, bumping over each line in between the tiles until he touched something warmer.
‘Sirius,’ Harry murmured. ‘I found another door.’
His godfather nodded.
Harry pushed it open. Worn, weathered, ancient stone benches enclosed a simple, single arch of stone upon a raised dais in concentric circles. The gap between the two pillars rippled and shimmered like heat haze.
‘What is it?’ Sirius whispered.
‘I’m not sure.’
He drifted past the benches and ran his hand down the left pillar. His fingertips dragged over thousands of tiny runes that stretched back and forth across the stone in a dizzying swirl of patterns. The veil shifted and a soft, low whisper rose from the far side as if a crowd of hundreds murmured beyond it.
This is more complex magic than even the wards on the chamber…
Grindelwald’s sigil marked the summit of the arch, etched into the stone just as it’d been into the worn, weathered, faded graves at Godric’s Hollow. He traced a fingertip over the cold stone, tracing the faint scratches of countless runes.
‘Harry,’ Sirius hissed. ‘We need to keep going.’
Harry snatched his fingers back and stepped away from the whispering arch. ‘It was just a few seconds.’
‘You were standing there for ages.’
Harry blinked. ‘It only felt like moments,’ he muttered. ‘I hope the next door is the one we need, this place is far more dangerous than I expected.’
‘There’ve been no proper Unspeakables since Grindelwald killed them all years ago, but the most abstract, dangerous, and mysterious aspects of magic are studied here,’ Sirius muttered. ‘Shouldn’t’ve ever expected to be able to waltz through to the prophecy.’
‘Where’s the rest of the Order?’
‘Coming,’ Sirius said. ‘Don’t worry about the prophecy, Dumbledore told us that only you can remove it from the shelf.’
They edged along the corridor in the gloom. Their steps echoed through the dark like stones tossed down a well.
‘I’ve found another door,’ Sirius whispered.
‘Let’s hope this is the right one,’ Harry said.
Towering shelves of glowing, swirling white orbs stretched into the distance. Blue flames burnt at every junction, bathing the cathedral of prophecies in ethereal light. A small, dark plaque hung on the wall by the door.
The Hall of Prophecies.
‘How do we find the right one?’ he asked. ‘There’re thousands.’
Sirius inspected the nearest shelf. ‘They’re labelled. These are all this year. We need to go further in. The prophecy had to have been made at least sixteen years ago, that was when Dumbledore said Lily and James needed to go into hiding. We’ll start there.’ He strode off down through the shelves, keeping an eye on the labels.
Harry slipped his wand out of his sleeve and trailed after him. Endless rows of white orbs passed by.
Sirius paused before a shelf and scanned it. ‘Here. It was made to Dumbledore, he’s the only one with so many initials, and it’s about you and Voldemort. Grab it. I can’t. You can only take it if it’s about you.’
A fist of ice clamped ‘round Harry’s heart. ‘Me and Voldemort. Nobody else?’
‘Just the two of you.’
‘If it’s about Voldemort and I, then he wouldn’t have sent Death Eaters to retrieve it. He would’ve sent them to clear the way.’
‘Shit,’ Sirius muttered.
‘Let’s get out of here.’ Harry plucked the small, glowing orb off the shelf and tucked it into his pocket.
They hurried back through the shelves toward the door, then stepped out into the black of the corridor. Brisk footsteps and the click of metal on stone drifted through the gloom.
‘Where is this room, Lucius?’ A soft giggle echoed through the dark. ‘I can’t see anything.’
Sirius froze. Harry dragged him back several steps and pulled him through the nearest door. Hundreds of time-turners hung on the walls and upon an old, blackened table at the room’s centre, a bird within a bell jar was born over and over again.
Time-turners. Temptation stabbed at him, then faded. They’ll all be warded. I won’t be able to take one.
‘The next door.’ Lucius Malfoy’s smooth voice slipped through the shadows. ‘If you hadn’t spent ages messing with the Veil and trying to get through the sealed door at the far end, we’d be done by now.’
‘Shush.’ The witch clapped her hands together. ‘We’re not alone.’
‘My Lord?’ Lucius called.
Harry shook Sirius back to life. ‘They’re between us and the exit,’ he whispered. ‘There’s no room to sneak past under the cloak.’
‘Perhaps the Order has another guard within the Department of Mysteries,’ Lucius Malfoy suggested. ‘One that prefers to hide rather than do his duty.’
‘A wise one.’ The witch giggled. ‘Homenum Revelio. Ahead on the left, two of them.’
‘We’ll have to fight.’ Sirius looked like he might be sick. ‘I’ll go out first.’
He drew his wand and stepped out into the corridor. White flames sprang up in the torches.
Harry glanced around, hoping for another door. Nothing. He eyed the time-turners. I can’t leave a whole room of time-turners here, warded or not. Voldemort would be unstoppable.
Fiendfyre swirled from the tip of his wand, coalescing into a smouldering, white-hot basilisk. Harry sent it coiling around the room. The shelves, racks, and tiny, golden hourglasses melted, trickling down the walls. The room shook and shivered, and dust floated down from the ceiling.
Merde. Harry extinguished his fiendfyre. The whole building’s enchanted. No more Fiendfyre, then.
‘Sirius!’ Cheerful giggling echoed down the corridor. ‘It’s a reunion! Let’s play a game!’
Harry stepped out into the corridor.
‘Potter.’ Lucius Malfoy’s voice came from behind the intricate lines carved on a skull-shaped, silver mask. ‘The Dark Lord will be pleased when we bring him you.’
‘He’s here for the prophecy.’ The witch cocked her head, sending dark curls tumbling over her purple dress. Her violet irises shone like rings of flame. ‘Have you hidden it? Is it like hide and seek?’
‘You’ll never hear it, Bella,’ Sirius spat. ‘It’s too late.’
So that’s Bellatrix Lestrange, the witch who tortured Neville’s parents into insanity. Harry studied the pale skin of her cheekbones, nose, and jaw. She looks just like Narcissa Malfoy, only with dark hair, purple eyes, and fuller lips.
‘Give it to us,’ Lucius Malfoy snapped. ‘It belongs to the Dark Lord.’
‘It belongs to me.’ Harry raised his wand. ‘If he wanted it, he should’ve been faster.’
Bellatrix laughed. ‘It’s one thing to win the round, but another to win the game!’ Her wand sprang into her hand and bright, yellow curses smashed into the tiles above Harry’s head.
‘Protego,’ he murmured, shielding himself and Sirius from the next barrage of curses. ‘We need to get back to the lift and the atrium.’
‘We’ll have to get ‘round them somehow,’ Sirius said. ‘Stick together, we stand a better chance if we fight them at the same time than if we’re separated. Bella’s not all that good at playing as part of a team.’
‘Crucio,’ Lestrange cried.
A red beam of light splashed against the tiles between them.
‘Papilionis.’ Harry surrounded them with a sphere of butterflies.
‘Oooh, pretty!’ Bellatrix’s laughter drifted through the swirling cloud of dark wings. ‘Avada kedavra!’
A single butterfly burst into black smoke.
‘Clever little Potter,’ she sang. ‘Come play with Bella for a bit!’
Lucius Malfoy sighed. ‘Bellatrix…’
Harry flicked his wand, transfiguring one of the butterflies into a sharp steel spike and sending it hissing towards Malfoy. He tore the black tiles from the walls with a flick of his wand and drew them into a dense shield. Harry transfigured the rest and sent them after the first. Steel spikes smashed into the tiles, spraying shards down the corridor.
Sirius hurled bright orange curses at Bellatrix. She deflected them into the walls, giggling and twirling down the corridor.
‘Reducto,’ Harry murmured, whipping his wand through the motion for the blasting curse, then blending it into the action for the bone-splintering curse, flicking his wrist so fast his fingers blurred.
The tiles disintegrated. Malfoy dived across the corridor behind Bellatrix and his walking cane exploded into splinters, the silver handle skittering away down the floor.
Sirius laughed. ‘You okay down there, Lucy?’
Bellatrix giggled and unleashed a barrage of bright-coloured spells. They ricocheted off each other, hammering into the tiles and the ceiling, sending dust swirling down the corridor. Harry deflected the few he recognised and twisted away from the rest. The shattered tile fragments sprang to life between them, shifting into a swarm of scorpions. They scuttled down the corridor toward them as Malfoy swept his wand forward.
‘Incendio,’ Sirius spat.
The scorpions vanished beneath a gout of orange flame, burning with a series of cracks and pops. Harry stepped ‘round Sirius and threw as many spells as he could at Bellatrix. She laughed and returned fire. His spells buried hers. Flashes of bright pink, yellow, and orange burst amidst his hail of white and purple curses. Bellatrix huffed, swatting his spells back at him.
The first hissed past his ear, scorching deep marks into the floor, and a flash of maroon whispered past his ribs. Harry deflected them away and ducked the spells Bellatrix slipped into the mix.
‘Switch!’ Sirius transfigured the tiles behind Bellatrix into ropes. ‘Time out, cousin!’
The ropes seized Bellatrix’s limbs, wrapping around her like snakes. A faint shimmer of magic rippled over her and they burnt away into wisps of dark smoke.
‘Expulso,’ Harry hissed.
The explosion tore the floor open beneath Bellatrix and Malfoy, tossing them down the corridor. Harry grabbed Sirius’s arm and dragged him past the sprawled pair, twisting to rain bone-splintering curses over his shoulder as they ran towards the lift.
Malfoy snatched his wand up from the floor and ripped every tile off the wall, sending a hail of them flying across the corridor. They hammered into Harry’s ribs and white-hot pain burst across his chest. He hauled Sirius through the first doorway and leapt behind the stone benches.
‘Lacero,’ he whispered, sending purple curses tearing through the wall.
A hiss of pain came from the other side and a dishevelled Bellatrix stumbled through the door, one hand pressed to the gash on her thigh. ‘You ruined my dress!’ She let out a little shriek and a faint shimmer of magic washed off her like heat haze. ‘It was a present!’
Malfoy ducked in through the hole in the wall. Dust coated his long blond hair and robes.
‘Avada Kedavra,’ Bellatrix cried.
A flash of green vanished into the archway behind Harry. He transfigured the bench nearest them into a stone serpent and sent it lunging toward Bellatrix and Malfoy.
‘‘Booooooring! Confringo!’ Bellatrix shattered the stone serpent with a wave of her wand.
Stone fragments sprayed across the room. Harry banished them away from himself and Malfoy doubled over with a low grunt. His hand came away crimson.
‘You never could play well with others,’ Sirius taunted. ‘No wonder Andi left and never looked back.’
Bella’s eyes lit up with purple flame. ‘Silly cousin Sirius. I’m going to win our little game, then the Dark Lord will purge all the stupid, useless cattle from our world. The only people left will be the ones that can play with me!’
Sirius swept his wand ‘round in a wide arc. ‘Ardens flagella.’
A dark, shimmering line of purple fire melted through the ceiling, tiles, and benches like boiling water through snow. Bellatrix ducked and did a little pirouette around the violet fire. The flames seared across Malfoy’s left side, melting his flesh like wax, and the reek of burnt meat filled Harry’s nostrils. Malfoy screamed, dropping his wand and clutching his face, and Sirius’s spell caught Malfoy in the chest, knocking him back into the ruined wall.
‘Such pretty magic.’ Bellatrix giggled, dodging Harry’s blasting curses and deflecting Sirius’s second stunner away. ‘I know that spell too! Ardens flagella!’
Bright, vivid pink flames burst from the tip of her wand. Harry hurled himself sideways and Sirius flinched from the heat of the fire as it splashed off the arch like water, covering his face with his arm. The veil shimmered in the corner of his eye and soft whispers rose up like smoke.
‘Expelliarmus,’ Bella cried.
Harry’s wand slipped from his fingers. He dived left and rolled to his feet, thrusting out his hand and summoning his wand. It slapped back into his palm.
‘Crucio.’ Bella danced onto the benches and thrust her wand out.
Harry tensed; the red beam sailed past him and hit Sirius square in the chest.