The sun dipped beyond the wall, a wash of orange light casting the pale stone a gentle gold. Soft dusk shadows lengthened across the dry, dust-filled fountains and ponds, stretching from beneath the dead, white branches of ancient olive trees and the rings of marble columns.
Nothing dangerous or valuable yet. Harry leant forward on the smooth, worn bench and peered past the olive tree beside him into the gloom-shrouded door beyond the ring of columns.
Pina perched upon the edge of the wall above, glancing back and forth between it and the top of the nearest column.
‘Pina, no!’ Tracey yelled, stomping across the top of the wall in little clouds of dust. ‘Get the hell down from there!’
Pina flashed a little grin and jumped across, leaping from column top to column top and dropping onto the branch of the olive tree beside Harry’s bench. He glanced over his shoulder. Katie’s chest rose and fell in a slow, even rhythm on the far side of the fountain. A lock of her brown hair hung in a small curl beside her ear, trembling with each breath.
‘Bad Pina,’ he said, wagging a finger at her. ‘Listen to your mother.’
Pina scowled and plopped onto her butt on the branch. ‘They’re all in there,’ she whined, flapping a hand at the door. ‘They can’t see.’
‘Be careful, Pina,’ Harry replied. ‘Katie’s still snoozing on the bench over there. If she woke up and saw that, she might realise you’re not actually our daughter and then we’d have to do something I’d rather not.’
‘Eat her?’ Pina chirped. ‘If she sees me, can I eat her?’
‘No, Agrippina.’ Harry levelled a long stare at her. ‘If she sees you, make sure you bring her to me and she doesn’t tell anyone.’ He reached out and tugged on her foot. ‘No biting unless I say, okay?’
‘Fine.’ She let out a long moan, swinging her feet. ‘But you’re all being so slooooow.’
‘We don’t want to miss anything,’ he said. ‘All these little outbuildings need to be explored. You remember that time we went through the old temple in the islands off the coast of Turkey?’
Pina giggled. ‘I’m older than that temple.’
Harry sighed. ‘Yes, you are, but the point is that we didn’t check the outbuildings. And what happened? We got attacked by vampires while having breakfast.’
‘Little baby vampires. They weren’t very tasty.’ Pina turned her nose up. ‘They tried to eat you, so I ate them.’
‘Yes.’ Harry grimaced. ‘I remember. They were quite surprised. So was I, for that matter, I dropped my breakfast when they appeared out of nowhere.’
‘I gave it back to you,’ she said. ‘I was good!’
‘It’s not the same once it’s soaked in blood,’ he said. ‘But it was nice of you.’
‘It had black pudding, there was already blood in it.’
Harry snorted. ‘That’s different. I like black pudding in small amounts, I don’t like human blood very much.’
‘How do you know?’ Pina wagged a tiny finger at him. ‘You should try it.’
‘I have. You put some in my bottle in Peru.’ He shuddered. ‘I wasn’t very happy with you, remember?’
‘Harry was cross. Very cross.’ She giggled. ‘Imagine how cross you’d’ve been if I’d done what I originally wanted to do and put my blood in your bottle.’
Harry shook his head. ‘And this is why my water bottle now has more runes on it than most of the barrows we’ve got into in the last year. If I wake up one morning with orange eyes and pointy teeth, I’m going to spank you like you’ve not been spanked in centuries.’
Pina beamed, swinging her legs. ‘You’d have to wait a couple thousand years to be strong enough to spank me.’
Tracey stormed out of the tower door in the corner. ‘Pina,’ she hissed, ducking under the olive branch. ‘We agreed you were going to pretend to be good, not jump around like the fucking tiny ancient monster you really are.’
‘I’m booooored.’ Pina twisted around and pointed a small finger at the big, bull-emblazoned bronze doors of the main temple. ‘When are we going in there? It’s been two whole days.’
‘I thought you were really ancient and powerful,’ Harry said. ‘Surely a couple of days is just the blink of an eye to you. You must barely notice it.’
She giggled. ‘Hush, Harry. You don’t know how it works.’
Tracey pinched her nose, flicking a blond bang away from her green eyes. ‘I swear, Pina, you’re going to be the death of us.’
Pina snapped her white teeth and grinned. ‘Or the undeath of you.’
‘No, remember what we said.’ Harry reached out and grabbed her by the back of her dress, hoisting her off the branch and dropping her onto his knee. ‘No making people vampires if it’s going to cause trouble, especially not us.’
Pina rolled her eyes. ‘I know, I have to wait until you say yes.’ She pouted. ‘But it’s been ages.’
‘You’ve been around for literal ages,’ Tracey said, dropping onto the bench next to them. ‘You’ve known us for about four years.’
‘Ever since Harry found me. Remember, Harry?’
‘Vividly,’ he muttered.
Tracey laughed. ‘That’s what you get for being such a goody-goody. I’m going to go help that little girl drenched in blood, Tracey, she looks lost.’
‘I didn’t say it like that.’
‘You said she looked lost and wanted to help her.’
‘And I was drenched in blood,’ Pina whispered, twisting around on his knee to fix him with a burning orange stare. ‘I’m hungry, Harry.’
He lifted his bag up and pulled out a bottle. ‘Snack time, then.’
She grabbed and stuck the straw in her mouth, slurping and bouncing on his leg.
‘It’s a good thing you’re less sappy now,’ Tracey said. ‘I mean, I didn’t want you to go all reptile like Blaise, but you were annoyingly nice back then. It was all, yes Tracey, and of course Tracey. I like you more with a bit of fight in you.’
‘You corrupted me, you mean.’
And me!’ Pina lowered her bottle. ‘I corrupted you, too!’
Tracey grimaced. ‘Not in quite the same way, Pina.’
‘Oh.’ She held the bottle up to her ear and shook it. ‘This is about those times you won’t let me in the room and Tracey gets all moaney.’ Pina waggled the straw about and slurped the dregs out in one long breath. ‘It sounds like fun.’
‘Maybe when you’re older.’ Harry patted her on the head. ‘As in older than eight, not however many centuries you’ve been eating people.’
‘Awwww.’ She chomped the end of the straw. ‘But I’m always going to be eight.’
Tracey tugged the bottle out of her hand. ‘Don’t chew the straw, Pina. We only have one straw left because you ruined all the others.’ She crouched down and pulled out a tissue, wiping a faint smear of red off Pina’s lips. ‘There, that’s better.’ She glanced up and caught Harry’s eye and a small smile played across her face. ‘These little moments give me ideas, Harry. My clock’s ticking…’
Harry’s stomach coiled into a tight, squirming tangle of heat. ‘Can we not… at least for a bit, Trace?’
Her smile faded. ‘Not what you were saying a few days ago on that balcony.’ She shot a pointed look at Pina swaying on his knee. ‘Or even what it looks like you want…’
‘We’d drunk quite a lot by then,’ he said. ‘But I accept my hypocrisy, I just — it’s different when it’s us.’
Pina groaned. ‘Are you fighting again?’
‘We’re not fighting,’ Tracey said. ‘Not anymore.’
Harry glanced over his shoulder at Katie. ‘Where are Blaise and our other tag-alongs?’
‘In the outbuildings still.’ Tracey pointed at the gloom-shrouded door. ‘That one had some interesting old things, not valuable stuff, but that idiot Smith doesn’t know that and isn’t listening. I let Blaise deal with them, he owes us for that little stunt about parenting Pina, and it’s given me some time to study the runes on the main temple door. They don’t make a whole lot of sense.’
‘Well, I don’t really care how long things take,’ he said. ‘It’s nice weather and the goblins can’t find me here. You know they sent me their last update on how much I owe them in a letter made of what I’m very sure was human skin.’
‘Goblins…’ She shook her head. ‘You’d think they’d be more grateful to you, really. I can’t imagine Voldemort would’ve played nicely with them.’
‘I tried telling them that, but they really just don’t understand.’ Harry shrugged. ‘You know what I mean, everything revolves around price for them.’
‘Did you at least remember their names this time?’ Tracey asked.
‘No, I never—’
‘Harry! Tracey!’ Blaise stuck his head out the door. ‘We found something odd! Come take a look!’
‘It better not be another piece of broken statue,’ Tracey muttered.
‘Up, Pina.’ Harry nudged her in the back. ‘You’re coming too, we might need you to tell us what it actually is again.’
She held her arms out.
‘Really?’ Tracey sighed and swept Pina up onto her shoulder. ‘You’re just doing this to get back at us for making you wear sunglasses for the last two days, aren’t you?’
Pina giggled. ‘Maaaaaybe.’
Gravel crunched behind them as they started toward the door.
‘Evening.’ Harry let Tracey drift ahead. ‘How was your nap?’
Katie yawned and rubbed her eyes. ‘Honestly, it was really good.’ She stretched. ‘There’s nothing for me to do out here, so I can just relax.’
Harry dragged his eyes down to his fingers as the bright blue quidditch logo on her t-shirt tightened over her chest. ‘As long as Smith’s not here hitting on you, you mean.’
She shuddered and dropped her arms back to her sides with a loud clap. ‘Yeah, apart from that. Could really live without that.’
‘Coming?’ Harry pointed at the door. ‘Apparently, we’ve found something…’
‘Might as well.’ Katie skirted the fountain and caught him up. ‘What is it?’
‘No idea.’ He pulled his wand out and ducked into the dark passage. ‘But Blaise has seen a fair bit, so if he says it’s odd, it’s probably worth a look.’
‘What do you think it is?’ she asked.
‘Not sure.’ He pointed his wand down the passage. ‘Lumos.’
Rough, dust-veiled stone steps led down into the dark. Harry breathed in the old, thick must and started down them.
‘It’s steep,’ Katie murmured, pulling out her wand and trailing him.
They trudged down the steps until faint light appeared at the end of the passage.
‘Strange.’ Harry ended his magic. ‘That’s natural light. It’s a long way for an air shaft or a light shaft, doable, but a lot of effort.’
He followed the steps around a corner. The sunset spilt in over the sparkling sea, pouring past a green-fringed cypress tree over cave-walls covered in worn paintings of mountains, trees, deer. Blaise and Tracey murmured to one another over the top of Pina’s head beside the slim, fading figure of a woman.
Smith shuffled along the back of the case rubbing a red mark upon his face and ushering Michael and Dean out into the passage. ‘Blaise says you and Tracey are best suited to this, so we’ll get out of the way.’
Harry frowned. ‘I’ll keep Katie, too,’ he said, patting her on the shoulder. ‘Tracey might need an extra pair of hands or two if it gets fiddly.’
Smith’s brow wrinkled. ‘I guess that’s fine.’
‘Excellent.’ He clapped Smith on the arm and swept past him, waving Katie on through.
‘Thanks,’ she whispered, squeezing alongside him to brush shoulders. ‘Appreciate it, Harry.’
‘No problem.’ He cocked his head, listening to the fading footsteps. ‘What is it, Blaise?’
Blaise shared a look with Tracey. ‘We don’t know,’ he murmured, pointing at the tree. ‘She’s very very old, we can’t understand her.’ His eyes dropped to Pina and flicked back up. ‘I’m going back up to keep an eye on that idiot, Smith. I’m no use whatsoever here.’
‘She?’ Harry blinked. ‘Understand?’
Blaise brushed past him and around the corner.
Tracey pointed at the far side of the tree and put a finger to her lips. A thick twist of roots wrapped about a low circle of stone and dropped into the dark beside the trunk. Pina glanced up and jumped onto it with a wide grin.
‘Pina…’ Tracey grabbed the sleeve of her black dress. ‘Slowly.’
Pina wriggled free and dropped down onto the far side. ‘Oh.’ Her orange eyes went wide and her jaw dropped. ‘Oh wow.’
‘Britomartis?’ A soft, high voice rose from behind the trunk.
‘Apparently that’s all she says according to Blaise,’ Tracey murmured in Harry’s ear. ‘See if Pina knows anything. I’ll distract Katie.’
Harry edged past her, picking his way over the cypress’s roots.
Tracy caught his arm. ‘Move slowly. She’s skittish.’
She? He clambered over the thick twist of roots.
A fair-skinned girl stared back at Pina, her hair as brown as the cypress bark, her eyes as green as the few remaining leaves. ‘Britomartis?’ She caught sight of him, flinching back and babbling in an unfamiliar tongue.
Harry tucked his wand away and raised his hands, crouching down beside Pina. ‘Do you understand?’
Pina shook her head. ‘Only Britomartis.’
‘A goddess. But a really old one.’ A strange soft gleam entered Pina’s eyes. ‘When I was just a hatchling, I saw her temple in Massalia. They called her Diktynna there.’
‘What is she?’ A little chill ran down his spine. ‘She’s not a goddess, right?’
Pina giggled. ‘No, silly Harry. She’s a nymph.’
‘A nymph.’ Harry’s eyebrows shot up. ‘As in the tree-girl thing. I thought they were made up…’
‘Magic changes.’ Pina snapped her small white teeth. ‘Sometimes it dies. No more nymphs anymore.’
The nymph pointed one pale finger at Pina. ‘Empusa,’ she whispered.
Pina beamed and nodded, baring her little fangs. ‘Empusa.’
The nymph shrank back against the tree, her green eyes darting from Harry to Pina.
Harry nudged Pina. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Vampire.’ She tilted her head. ‘Ish. I was different when I was a hatchling. Things change as magic changes.’
‘Could you be a little more helpful?’ he asked. ‘Because you’re not making much sense.’
Pina pouted. ‘That’s just how it is. The magic changes.’ She flapped her arms and wrinkled her nose. ‘I was empusae and now I’m a vampire.’ She frowned. ‘Just like Britomartis became Diktynna and Diktynna became another goddess.’
‘So what do we do with her?’
Pina sighed and bounced on her feet. ‘I visited her big temple in Mysia. It was the first thing I saw when I could walk in the sun again.’ Her orange eyes grew distant. ‘She was so bright and cold and distant and pretty. So powerful.’
‘Pina,’ Harry whispered, poking her shoulder. ‘What do we do with the nymph?’
She beamed. ‘I’m going to eat her.’
Harry shook his head. ‘No.’ He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Agrippina. No.’
‘She’s dying.’ Pina crouched down and patted the nymph on the cheek like a cat pawing at a small bird. ‘Her magic’s all dead.’
The nymph batted at Pina’s hand. ‘Britomartis?’ she pleaded, pressing her fingers to her heart and murmuring in her strange tongue. Fear shone in her wide green eyes.
‘Can’t we help her?’ Harry whispered.
‘No.’ A strange gleam flickered through Pina’s orange eyes. ‘Dead magic. Dead goddess. Dead nymph.’
‘Britomartis?’ the nymph begged, pointing her finger at the leafless, white branches above her head.
Pina shook her head.
‘Britomartis,’ the nymph whispered, her shoulders slumping.
Green leaves browned and withered across the tree.
A soft sadness rose inside him, like the slow swell of a great, grey wave. ‘Tracey,’ Harry called. ‘Time to go.’
Tracey caught his eye and frowned. ‘Harry, are—’
‘Just go,’ he said. ‘I’ll sort out things and bring Pina back up with me.’
Tracey flicked her bangs off her face with her little finger. ‘If you’re sure.’ She led Katie back out and up.
Pina cupped the nymph’s face between her hands, stroking her hair and humming. ‘Sleepy time, nymphy.’
Harry’s heart twisted beneath his ribs, hot tears prickling at his lashes. He reached out to take the nymph’s hand and mustered a smile.
‘It’s okay, little nymphy.’ Pina rested her cheek against the nymph’s, stroking her long dark hair as her breathing quickened to gasps. ‘It’s okay. It’s just like sleeping.’
The nymph shivered, her green eyes full of tears, and her fingers tightened around Harry’s hand. Dead leaves drifted down around her, tangling her in brown hair.
‘Nice and quiet. No hunger. No fear. Just peace,’ Pina whispered, brushing the nymph’s hair back off her neck. ‘Just… like… sleeping…’
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry murmured, cupping her cold hand between his.
Pina snapped the nymph’s neck like a wet branch. The light faded from her green eyes, dimming like sunlight fading behind stained glass.
‘Are you going to eat her?’ Harry let go of the nymph’s hand.
Please don’t. His stomach churned and twisted like a pit of hot snakes. It’s not right.
Pina bent toward the nymph’s neck and bared her small, white fangs. ‘No,’ she whispered, drawing back and holding her arms out at him. ‘Not hungry. Take me away, Harry.’
‘Not hungry?’ He scooped her up into his arms. ‘Are you okay, Pina?’
‘Sad,’ she murmured, burying her face in his shoulder. ‘Tired. Poor nymph. Dead goddess. Dead world. Dead Agrippina. Want to just sleep.’
‘That’s okay.’ Harry rubbed gentle circles over her back and watched the nymph’s body shift into dead, pale wood with a hot lump in his throat and tears in his eyes. ‘You go to sleep, Pina.’