Bone-white stone rose in smooth columns up to the ruby-studded ceiling, bathed in a soft, flickering crimson glow. A dozen bodies sprawled across the floor before a bronze-plated door.
Pina scampered forward. ‘Look—’
Harry stuck an arm out and snagged the back of her black dress. ‘Don’t rush in before we’ve checked it out.’
‘But it’s another safe room.’ She wriggled out of his grip and danced across to shake the first corpse like a rattle. ‘And these are all dried out and dead.’
He stepped across and rolled over a second corpse with his foot.
Withered flesh stretched taut across the skull beneath the bull horns of the tarnish-green bronze helm. A fist-sized hole gaped beneath its ribs.
‘Definitely dead.’ Tracey swept through them into the centre of the room. ‘And they’re dressed the same as the last one.’
‘Properly dead wights,’ Pina chirped, hopping over the bodies and peering into the shaded alcoves between the columns. ‘Nothing in here either, just dust.’
‘They’re dressed the same as in the paintings on the stairs down from the temple upstairs,’ Blaise said. ‘Let’s see what we can find here. Leave no stone unturned.’ He pointed at the door. ‘Tracey, you know what to do with that. Smith and I will take this side of the hall. Harry and Katie, you take the far side.’
‘And us?’ Dean pointed his wand at Michael. ‘What about us?’
‘Watch the way back,’ Harry replied.
‘Watch your creepy child monster, more like,’ Michael muttered. ‘That thing ought to be destroyed before it hurts someone.’
Harry fixed him with a long stare. ‘If I even think you’re going to do something to Pina, I will curse you before you can blink.’
The shadows between the columns thickened, deepening like dusk into dark and a gentle whisper rose from the Elder Wand, a swift, soft hum hovering in his ears.
‘We’re aurors. You think you can take both of us because you managed some freakishly lucky magic accident against Voldmort?’ Dean scoffed. ‘You’re a bankrupt, crippled, washed-up loser. We’d slap you down in seconds, cunt.’
A little heat rose up onto Harry’s tongue. Warmth shivered from the Elder Wand, pulsing in time with the thudding of his heart. The tingle throbbed in his fingertips.
‘Yeah, fuck off, Potter.’ Michael sneered. ‘We don’t even need you here. Anything you can do, we can do better.’
The glow of the rubies flickered and brightened. Red crept amongst his thoughts in spurts and splashes and flashes, swirling and whirling and burning, searing through his veins. Harry’s fingers slipped inside his jacket and curled around the Elder Wand. Its whisper burst into song, bright and hot as fireworks bursting in his blood, sweet as champagne bubbles tingling on his tongue.
‘Harry,’ Pina whispered, staring into the shadows with wide orange eyes. ‘Harry, there’s something in the dark.’
He snatched his hand back from the Elder Wand. ‘Get back over here, Pina.
She darted back to his side, grabbing at his jacket with her small fingers.
Dean laughed. ‘Look, the baby vampire is scared of the dark.’
‘If you antagonise her, she’ll kill you,’ Tracey snapped. ‘And nobody’s going to be able to stop her, so shut the fuck up if you like living.’
They glowered and stalked back to the door, muttering under their breath to one another.
Harry crouched down. ‘What did you see, Pina?’
She shook her head. ‘Nothing. It’s okay, I was just being silly.’ Pina beamed. ‘If there was anything really there, I’d see it, or hear it, or smell it.’
‘You’re sure?’ he asked.
‘Okay, then.’ Harry pointed at Tracey. ‘Go give Trace a hand, Pina. Katie and I will check these corpses for anything useful and then sweep that side of the room.’
‘Mummy!’ Pina chirped, bouncing away over the withered bodies. ‘What are you doing?’
Katie touched his arm. ‘Are you alright?’
‘She was lying,’ Harry whispered, rolling over the bodies and checking for rubies. ‘Whatever she thought she saw, it scared her for a moment.’
‘She’s still just eight, though.’ Katie pointed the bronze axe at the bodies. ‘And this is a pretty scary place for an eight year old.’
‘She’s been eight for a really really long time.’ Harry caught her brown eyes. ‘And I’ve never seen her scared. Ever.’
She frowned. ‘Maybe it’s because the magic’s different down here.’ Katie levered the last corpse over with her axe. ‘Normally, I guess she’s not really got much to worry about, but down here she doesn’t know for sure.’
He considered that. ‘Maybe.’
Katie hefted her axe and glanced at the shadowed alcoves. ‘Are we expecting anything to be in there?’
Harry shook his head. ‘If Pina couldn’t see anything, there’s nothing there.’ A faint grin crept onto his lips. ‘Or at least nothing that interests her.’ He pulled his wand out. ‘Lumos.’
Plain, white stone lay between the columns.
‘Nothing but dust,’ Katie murmured.
Harry strode down the length of the hall, checking each alcove. ‘There’s nothing here.’
‘Or here,’ Blaise called from the far side. ‘I swear, there better be a lot of rubies through this door, or I’m going to start pulling them out of the ceiling.’
Smith chortled. ‘I’ve got the only good souvenirs so far. See, Katie?’ He dug the ruby out of his pocket and held it up with a wink. ‘It’s nearly as pretty as you are.’
Katie shook her head. ‘Fuck off, Smith.’ She pointed the axe at him. ‘Keep being a creep, and I’m going to start seriously thinking about braining you with this.’
He recoiled. ‘I was—’
Harry chuckled. ‘Not as smooth as you thought, clearly.’
Smith flushed red and stuffed the ruby back into his pocket. ‘We’ll see how funny you both find it when you’re bounced out of your department, Bell.’
Dean sniggered. ‘They’ve probably already got it all written up and waiting for you.’
‘Don’t worry, Bell. You can always have another go at those auror exams,’ Michael called. ‘Oh wait, you can’t, because you failed them so many times they literally won’t let you.’
Katie flinched. ‘Fuck,’ she whispered. ‘Should’ve just kept my mouth shut.’
‘Ignore them.’ Harry bumped her shoulder with his. ‘I don’t think Smith’s going to have much pull once everyone hears he’s actually part of the Black Niffler group.’
She let out a long sigh. ‘Yeah. That’s true. Thanks, Harry.’
‘And now he might stop,’ he said. ‘Or at least back off a bit.’
‘Still,’ Katie murmured. ‘That wasn’t smart of me, I was just so angry for a moment.’
‘Can’t blame you, not given what he was hoping to pressure you into.’ Harry eyed the gleaming bronze edge of the axe. ‘And let’s be honest, if you do brain him with that, it’s not going to be a huge loss for society.’
‘I’ll be in Azkaban for a really long time, though.’
‘I’ll come visit,’ he said. ‘If they let you have visitors, I don’t know if they do.’
‘They do.’ She giggled. ‘You can rescue me from the tower, Harry. Like a real hero.’
‘Don’t you need to be a princess?’ He picked his way across the bodies toward the door. ‘And isn’t there usually a catch about having to marry the girl you rescue from a tower?’
‘Yes on both counts.’ Katie batted her eyelashes at him. ‘I’ll make it worth your while, though.’
Tracey snorted and turned away from the door. ‘Imagine thinking Harry would ever get married without some kind of serious blackmail.’ She shooed Pina out of the way and tapped her wand against the centre of the door. ‘It’s probably the only thing that terrifies him as much as having a baby.’
The bronze door rumbled open.
Thick, pitch-black hung through the arch. Katie gulped and edged closer to him, brushing against his side.
Harry bumped her shoulder with his and flashed her a grin. ‘The baby is worse, I—’
A red glow sprang up in the dark beyond the door.
‘Get the fuck back,’ Tracey hissed, stumbling back over the bodies.
Katie retreated, tripping on a wight and tumbling to the floor. The bronze axe thudded into the dried corpse’s stomach and a foul stench rose from the ground. She gagged and staggered away, pressing her face into her arm.
The red glow grew brighter and heavy footsteps echoed from the black.
Harry back-stepped, dragging Pina after him by the elbow.
‘There’s only one,’ she chirped, flailing her arms. ‘Let go, Harry. I want to eat it! It might be tasty!’
‘I don’t think that’s wise, Pina.’ He picked her up and dropped her next to Katie. ‘You don’t know if the blood will do something funny to you.’
‘But — but…’ Pina pouted and stomped her foot. ‘It looks so good.’
A shadow loomed from the dark, its ruby eyes glowing like embers beneath a crown of silver tines. A straight-bladed sword gleamed in its hand and scarred, scratched greaves and armguards glinted over pale skin.
Spells whistled past Harry’s shoulder, burning up against the bright crimson light pouring out from beneath a bronze studded leather cuirass.
‘What the fuck!’ Dean yelled.
‘Magic doesn’t work, idiots,’ Tracey hissed. ‘Pina!’
Pina darted forward. The wight’s boot hammered into her chest and sent her flying back into the pile of corpses.
Smith whimpered and the thin reek of urine stung Harry’s nose.
‘Katie, I’m going to need that axe,’ he said.
‘Get your own axe,’ she said. ‘This one’s mine.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harry glanced around and snatched up a tarnished green sword from among the dead wights. ‘Don’t get close to it for long, just try and chop off a limb. Once it’s got no arms, it’s a lot less dangerous.’
‘Bad wight!’ Pina blurred past them.
The wight growled and swung a fist at her. Pina caught it in her small hand, cocking her head and closing her hand until bone splintered and blood spurted out between her fingers.
Harry swung the sword at its other arm. A thin line of fire sliced across his forearm as the blade shattered on the bronze arm guard like glass.
The wight grunted and drove its blade through Pina’s chest.
‘Uh oh,’ she whispered, tottering backward off the blade, blood pouring past her hands. ‘That’s not good.’
‘Pina!’ He ripped the sword from the wight’s grip and shoved it away. ‘Pina!’
The blood slowed and Pina patted at her chest. ‘Oh no, it’s okay. It missed.’ Her orange eyes burnt beneath her curls and she snapped her teeth. ‘Very bad wighty. I’m going to rip you apart for that.’
Katie swung her axe into its toes. The blade rang like a bell and jarred from her fingers and the wight staggered, slipping in the blood.
Pina leapt onto its chest, smashing it to the floor and crushing its skull under her fist. She ripped its limbs away, tugging them off like the legs of a spider and throwing them over her shoulder. Red crept through the mortar lines in the flagstones and spread out into a wide, crimson pool around her dark dress.
‘Enough, Agrippina.’ Harry dropped the hilt of the broken sword and tip-toed through the blood. ‘Pull its armour off.’
The wight’s head reformed beneath its silver crown, its ruby eyes shining like tongues of flame. Pina ripped the leather cuirass off and grabbed the wight by the throat, turning its head aside. A bright ruby glowed beneath bared ribs and its beating heart.
She licked her lips and bared her small white fangs. ‘I’m going to eat you, wighty,’ she crooned, brushing her lips against its neck. ‘I’m going to drain… you… dry.’
Harry thrust his hand into its chest and tugged the ruby out.
Red flashed before his eyes.
Crimson tresses fluttered in the sea breeze, cascading from a crown of opal and bone down over smooth, white silk and pale skin. A clear, blue sky and bright, sunlit waves sparkled all the way to the horizon beyond her slim shoulders.
Soft, maroon irises flicked from him to the two men in silver crowns at his shoulders and a gentle smile curved her rose pink lips.
She rose from her marble throne, turning and reaching for the gold crowns resting on her seat’s arm. The kings shared a glance and drew their blades, lunging for her back. He dragged his sword from his waist and raised it above his head, his gaze focusing on the delicate arch of her throat.
A shroud of magic exploded from her.
The kings flinched back and the sword slipped from his fingers.
White silk shivered into seamless, flowing bronze and a ruby-pommeled khopesh shimmered into her hand. Her power hammered into him like a searing wind, her eyes burning, red as flame and full of fury.
He strained himself into the hot storm, but its heat pinned him like an ant beneath his fingertip.
The kings stumbled, shielding their faces from her magic and struggling against the burning haze of magic streaming off her. She flowed between them like water, slicing the swords from their hands and spinning behind him.
The khopesh’s tip burst through his stomach and vanished.
Red gushed down his front onto the white stone and a soft, cold numbness spread across his chest.
She cut the silver-crowned heads from the two kings and watched them roll into the blood, the searing storm of her power easing as the red spread beneath the gleaming metal tines.
The hot, dripping edge of the khopesh lifted his chin until he stared into her burning crimson eyes.
Her slim, pale fingers plucked the ruby from one of the crowns on her throne, the gold melting from her touch like frost from fire. Thin, gleaming streams trickled down the white stone throne into the blood and the other gems crumbled to nothing.
She offered the glowing ruby.
He shook his head.
The edge of the khopesh bit into his skin and she thrust the ruby out, her eyes bright as the full moon and red as the blood running through his fingers.
He let his chin drop to his chest.
The khopesh vanished, the flowing bronze armour shimmered into white silk, and a soft smile spread beneath gentle maroon eyes.
She pressed the ruby into his chest. It burnt through skin, flesh and bone like a red-hot blade through snow. Distant screams rang in his ears and the copper tang of blood washed over his tongue.
‘Don’t scream.’ Her whisper rang in his ears like thunder. ‘Your heart is mine now.’
The blood on his hands faded into wisps of steam and the wound melted closed. A ruby the size of his fist flickered and shone beside his beating heart and beneath bare ribs.
The crimson glow guttered out.
Harry hurled the ruby away and staggered back, clawing open his jacket and dragging up his shirt.
Smooth skin spread across his chest.
He released a long sigh and sank to the ground, clenching trembling fists and gasping breaths through his hammering heart.
Pina beamed at him with crimson-smeared lips, dropping the wight’s head. The familiar silver tines of its crown rolled across the floor into the old corpses. A chill crept down Harry’s spine and he kicked it away into the alcoves.
The dark beyond the door deepened and the Elder Wand burst back into quiet song, heat flooding across Harry’s ribs.
Where did the stitches go? He ran a finger tip along the smooth leather at the top of the pocket and swallowed hard, unease knotting tight in his gut. It’s like they were never here.
Blaise snatched the ruby up and bolted after the silver crown.
‘Fuck me,’ Katie whispered, crouching down beside him.
‘He’s not going to.’ Tracey glared at Katie, her hands on her hips. ‘Harry prefers blondes. You’re just wasting your time.’
Katie twitched and turned pink. ‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘Sure it’s fucking not.’ Tracy sniffed and swiped her bangs off her face. ‘You want someone to screw your second-rate arse, you can let those two dickwad aurors double-team you behind one of those columns.’
‘Trace,’ Harry muttered, frowning at her. ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
‘Oh, side with her.’ She glowered and clenched her fists, stalking across to Pina. ‘Come on, let’s get you cleaned up, Agrippina. You’re all messy again.’
‘Sorry,’ Harry murmured. ‘I don’t know why she said that.’
Katie bit at her lip. ‘I do.’ She fiddled with the zip on her jacket. ‘She’s just marking her territory.’
‘I’m not her territory,’ he said, catching Tracey’s eye as a little heat bubbled up about his heart. ‘And she’s not got no ground to stand on, not after she got all pushy, flipped out, and then spent a month telling me how much fun all the hot guys she let fuck her were.’
Tracey turned away.
Yeah, I bet you can’t look me in the eye after that. The heat beneath his ribs tightened and the Elder Wand thrummed in time with each throb of his heart. All I wanted was a bit more time, Trace. And you ruined everything because you couldn’t wait.