Smith wrapped his hands about the staff and tugged, groaning and wheezing. The opal and ruby studded gold crown quivered and the circle of runes flickered.
‘That’s not a smart idea,’ Harry said. ‘We don’t know exactly what that magic does.’
‘I don’t think it comes out while the steps are open,’ Blaise said, licking his lips. ‘Let’s go. The good stuff is probably down here.’
‘I reckon we can force it.’ Smith motioned at Michael and Dean. ‘Come on, you two, I don’t pay you to watch me do everything.’
They’re ICW aurors, you’re not meant to be paying them at all. Harry shared a brief look with Blaise, catching a sly glint in his eye. Oh great, now he’s scheming again.
Michael and Dean took a hold of the staff, yanking at it together.
‘It’s not coming out like that.’ Harry yawned. ‘We can figure it out when we come back. It’s not like anyone else is going to come in and pinch it.’
Michael and Dean stepped back.
‘I didn’t say give up,’ Smith snapped. ‘I’m the expedition leader, not Potter.’
Katie drifted to Harry’s side, bumping his shoulder with hers. ‘Where’s Tracey and Pina?’
‘Pina was hungry,’ Harry said. ‘Tracey and I have some snacks, so I imagine she’s clearing up after our little girl.’ He chuckled under his breath. ‘Pina’s a very messy eater.’
Katie shivered. ‘I’m getting that slightly off vibe again,’ she murmured.
Just wait until she forgets she’s meant to be good. He stifled a chuckle. That’ll give you all a surprise. Smith might have a heart attack.
Smith mopped his brow. ‘I suppose we’ll have to get this out on the way back.’ He waved a damp handkerchief at Michael and Dean. ‘Let’s go down the steps, then.’
Blaise hovered at the edge, a thin smirk on his lips. ‘I’d imagine all the best things are down inside this inner sanctum. That’s usually how it works.’
‘All the interesting things, too.’ Harry stuck an arm out in front of Katie as Michael, Dean, and Smith descended the steps into the dark. ‘And all the dangerous stuff,’ he whispered. ‘Stay close to Trace or I.’
‘I’ll stick with you.’ She gave him a wicked little grin. ‘I’m sure I can find some way of making it up to you.’
‘Wait for me!’ Pina chirped, skipping across the hall as Blaise slid down the stairs. ‘I want to explore!’
Harry side-stepped a dark blur as she scampered down the steps and shared a glance with Tracey.
‘I think we’ve got about as much good Pina as possible,’ she said. ‘So be prepared for not-so-good Pina.’
He sighed. ‘Pina parenting was going a bit too well for the last few days.’
‘Is she not normally this well-behaved?’ Katie asked.
‘Don’t worry about Pina, just stay near me and don’t grab anything you’re not supposed to,’ Harry replied.
‘Do you count as something I shouldn’t grab?’ Katie teased.
‘He’s hard to keep a hold of.’ Tracey scooped a blonde bang off her face, a little glint in her green eyes. ‘Tick tock, Harry. Tick tock.’ She strode down the steps after Pina, her wand in her hand.
He grimaced. She’s really pushing that.
‘Tick tock?’ Katie whispered in his ear.
‘Complicated.’ Harry followed the old, dark steps down the spiral. ‘Don’t mind Tracey, she’s just messing with my head again. It’s a favourite hobby of hers.’
Faded, painted figures marked the walls between empty torch brackets. Bronze-armoured figures in red-daubed, bull-horn helms descended in groups of seven on the cold stone to a pair of bronze doors.
‘Bloody hell,’ Katie muttered, holding her forearm up against the door. ‘It’s thicker than my arm’s long.’
‘Not unusual,’ Harry said. ‘Although it’s pretty uncommon for it to be bronze. Bronze holds magic better, but was much more expensive for the builders.’
‘All the doors have been bronze, though?’ Katie glanced back at him. ‘And they’re not small doors.’
‘This is a very big temple and given the myths about rubies, I guess they could afford it.’ He patted the cold bronze. ‘Most of the time the doors are stone or wood.’
Tracey and Pina lingered between the horns of a pair of marble bulls. The statues’ ruby eyes gleamed in the faint glow of Tracey’s wand and beyond them, the stone passage turned a corner into the dark.
Harry ushered Katie past him and beckoned Pina over. ‘Come here, angel.’
Pina bounded across, her bare feet pattering on the stones. ‘Yes, Daddy?’
‘Are you being good?’ He crouched down and lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘Because we still need to play pretend for a little longer.’
She scowled. ‘I don’t want to. I want to explore and climb and see what things do!’
Tracey rolled her eyes at him over the top of Pina’s dark curls. ‘Is she being difficult?’
‘Agrippina…’ Harry sighed. ‘Just a couple more days, please. I’ll try and sneak away with you so you’ve got the chance to play around, okay?’
Pina scrunched up her face. ‘You won’t just be talking to maybe-tasty Katie the whole time?’
‘And miss out on our father-daughter time, of course not.’ He grinned.
She giggled. ‘Okay.’
Blaise strode back around the corner, his wand glowing with soft, white light. ‘It’s a maze. We’ll need that thread spell, Harry, so we can find our way back.’
‘Right.’ He pulled his wand out of his jacket and touched the tip to the bottom step, stepping back to leave a thin, slim thread of red magic hovering behind him. ‘There we go.’
‘Excellent.’ Blaise pointed his wand around the corner. ‘It just seems to be a maze, no runes, no magic, nothing. The high priest has to open it before anyone can get down here, so I guess that makes sense.’
‘A nice easy one.’ Tracey smiled. ‘Finally.’
‘You three go ahead.’ He stepped aside. ‘I want to talk to Harry for a moment.’
Harry watched Katie and Tracey shepherd Pina around the corner. ‘She can probably still hear us.’
‘Agrippina?’ Blaise shrugged. ‘That’s fine.’
‘What is it, then?’
A thin smile spread across Blaise’s face. ‘I’ve come up with a little plan.’
Harry sighed. ‘What overly complex nonsense is it this time?’
‘We find our way through to the good stuff, then we ditch them all down here and erase any trace we were here.’ His smile widened, showing off all his teeth. ‘Smith will take the fall, which will be funny. Those two aurors, he pays them, which is definitely not legal, so they’ll go down with him, and nobody likes the girl he’s carting about in the hopes of screwing, so she doesn’t matter.’
A little heat rose up onto Harry’s tongue. ‘She matters to me. She’s a friend.’
Blaise’s smile shrank. ‘There’s no room for being friendly with them. We can’t leave anyone who knows we were here. Best case is a memory charm.’
Harry clenched his jaw. ‘I know that. I’m just saying she does matter.’
‘Right. I get it.’ Blaise ran a hand back through his curls. ‘I don’t think we’ll need to kill them, but I’m not ruling it out, so be ready. Smith’s greedy and thinks he’s clever, he’ll try and stab us in the back at some point. Corner and Thomas will do what he says without batting an eyelash, not sure about Bell.’
‘They always try to stab us in the back.’ Harry sighed. ‘You do the scheming, it’s what you’re good at. Tracey and I will get us in there and watch our backs. Try not to bite off more than you can chew for once. I do actually need to pay those goblins off soon or they’re probably going to try and take a hand or something.’
‘Your little vampire menace can eat that lot if they try anything.’ Blaise’s blue eyes narrowed. ‘See if you can get anything out of Bell.’ He stiffened. ‘Actually, she’s in the anti-smuggling department, isn’t she? Change of plan. Get close to her. Fuck her if that’s what it takes, Tracey’s run her mouth about more than one guy since you two split, so it’s not like it’s not fair. Once Bell trusts you and is all involved, we can find a way to get her on our side. Maybe let her be the one who catches Smith. We could pin all our break-ins over the last couple of years on that imbecile, let Bell take him down and get her career back, then so long as you keep fucking her or whatever, we’ll always have someone on the inside.’
Harry balled his fist around his wand and took a deep breath. ‘Sure. Fine.’
Blaise grinned. ‘If this goes well, I can buy back my mother’s villa in Italy and we can start building a real reputation for ourselves.’
‘I like it more that nobody really knows who we are.’
‘Too late for that,’ he said. ‘That group that jumped us, they found us by reputation. The anti-smuggling bureaus are calling us The Black Niffler.’
‘It sounds like a dodgy bar,’ Harry muttered. ‘And all nifflers are black. And there’s more than one of us, so we should be nifflers, too.’
Blaise laughed. ‘Doesn’t matter. The reputation’s good for business in the right circles. If we’re a big name, everyone will assume the things we’ve got our hands on are valuable, which means I can ask for more galleons.’
‘Let’s hurry up,’ Harry said, striding past the pair of bulls. ‘Best to stick together down here.’
The bronze doors slammed shut, the loud bang echoing down the passage. Harry’s red thread of magic guttered out and a soft crimson glow rose in the eyes of the pair of marble bulls.
Blaise’s grin wilted. ‘Fuck.’ He strode across and shoved at the doors. ‘Fuck!’
Harry shook his head. ‘You’re not moving those doors without magic.’ He peered at the glowing ruby eyes, catching the faint lines of runes upon the gems. ‘We might need Daphne to get back through here.’
‘Go get Tracey,’ Blaise snapped. ‘I want to know we can get back out whenever we might need to. It’s stopping us from apparating.’
Small rubies lit up in the ceiling like fireflies in the dusk, brightening to glow like hot coals.
‘You come, too.’ Harry grabbed his arm and tugged him away from the door. ‘You saw the nymph, the magic in here isn’t like what we’re used to. We ought to stick together.’
They strode through the passage beneath a myriad of glowing rubies. Silence closed in, coiling in the deepest shadows as little flickers of crimson magic rippled across the ceiling. Harry’s heart began to pound and his palms grew hot and slick with sweat.
‘It’s so pretty!’ Pina’s voice echoed back down the passage and relief swooped through him. ‘Can I grab one?’
‘No.’ Tracey’s voice drifted toward them. ‘Don’t touch anything. Where are Harry and Blaise? Something’s going on and I don’t fucking like it one bit.’
‘We’re here.’ Harry strode around the corner into a small oval room. ‘The door shut itself. All the rubies lit up afterward.’
Smith, Michael and Dean waited in the centre of the room, staring up at the ruby-studded ceiling.
‘It shut?’ Katie’s face paled. ‘That door’s as wide as I am, how do we get back out?’
Harry’s gaze dipped to her waist. ‘It’s wider than you.’ He caught her eye and flushed. ‘We’re not getting back out without magic.’
‘Daphne.’ Tracy swung her bag off her shoulder. ‘Let’s break our way back out.’
‘No.’ Smith crossed his arms. ‘If we do that, we might break the magic on the maze and prevent ourselves from getting through it to the treasures within.’
‘We need to know we can get back out,’ Harry said. ‘Right, Blaise?’
Blaise licked his lips. ‘Actually… Smith makes a good point. If we rip open that door, the backlash might scramble something we don’t want it to.’
‘Tracey?’ Harry stared at her. ‘Come on, let’s do it.’
Her fingers tightened on the strap of her bag. ‘It would be a real fucking shame to get down here and ruin any chance of finding anything, Harry. Those runes around the staff, they might not stand up to the backlash from Daphne, so anything similar down here could end up getting sealed off.’
He frowned. ‘But—’
‘Goblins,’ Tracey murmured. ‘We can always break our way out later.’
Katie squirmed. ‘What if we can’t break back out?’
Tracey snorted. ‘There’s nothing I can’t get through. Might take me a couple of tries, but I’ll rip a way back through that door like—’
A dull rumble echoed through the maze and dust trickled down the walls. Slim, dark lines opened along the passage wall on the far side of the room and the whole corridor shifted.
‘Get back to the door,’ Harry snapped.
Pina darted past him into the passage.
Red sprayed up the wall and Katie’s scream tore at Harry’s ears. Pina’s top half bounced across the floor, her legs flopping onto the stone. Blood flooded across the ground and spread through the lines of the stones, soaking into the torn piece of Pina’s dark dress.
‘Owwwww.’ Pina lifted herself up on her hands and crawled across beside her legs. ‘Harry! Help me back together!’
Red spurted from the stumps of her thighs, soaking the white cotton of her underwear. She plucked the drenched part of her dress out of the spreading crimson puddle and licked her lips, her orange eyes glowing beneath her dark curls.
‘What the fuck?’ Katie muttered, ashen-faced and trembling.
Well, the vampire’s out of the bag now.
Harry sighed and waved his wand, sweeping Pina’s legs back against the clean-sheared bone stumps of her thighs. Her pale, smooth skin melded back together and she wiggled her toes.
‘And my dress!’ Pina jumped to her feet. ‘Everyone can see my pants!’
Tracey tugged out her wand and the blood-soaked scrap of black cotton, rewove itself back into Pina’s dress. ‘There. All fixed.’ She tugged a bottle out of her bag. ‘Have this, too. No doubt you’re hungry.’
Pina snatched the bottle from her hands and slurped on the straw. ‘There’s runes on some of the stones, the blades are in the walls.’ She pouted and smoothed out her dress. ‘Stupid traps. They always ruin my dresses.’
‘Potter?!’ Smith gaped from the middle of the room, clutching his handkerchief like a lifeline. ‘What — what on earth—’
Pina lowered the bottle and beamed, showing off her little white fangs.
Smith staggered back, clutching at Dean’s sleeve. ‘Vampire! Get — kill — destroy it!’
Harry levelled his wand at the pair of aurors. ‘I’d leave those wands in your pockets if I were you. Pina’s not going to hurt you unless you attack her. Right, Pina?’
Pina licked blood off her lips and bobbed her head. ‘I’m all full again now.’
‘Maybe-tasty Katie,’ Katie muttered under her breath, her wand trembling in her fist. ‘Fucking hell.’
‘Right.’ Blaise shot Harry a pointed look and drew Tracey away into a huddle with Smith, Dean, and Michael. ‘We’ll plan how we’re going to get through these passages. Clearly this place isn’t safe.’
Harry glanced at Katie. Her eyes flashed and she turned away, stomping across to the far side of the room.
You want me to explain this to Katie and start getting her on our side. He rummaged through his pockets for a tissue and dabbed blood off Pina’s cheeks, ignoring her squirming. I suppose I can try.
‘I’m fine.’ She snatched the tissue out of his hand and threw it away. ‘Stop doing that.’
‘Alright, then. You stay put and I’ll go talk to Katie.’ Harry tucked his wand away and drifted over, raising his hands. ‘So, I’m guessing you’re kind of mad right now?’
Katie balled her fists. ‘What gave it away?! No wonder I got a creepy vibe from your daughter.’
‘Yeah.’ He shuffled his feet and shot her a rueful grin. ‘Sorry about that. Generally it’s easier if people don’t know.’
Pina darted across, thrusting her bottle into his hand and holding her arms out. ‘Up, Harry. I’m tired now.’
‘Fine.’ Harry hoisted her onto his shoulders and grunted as she flopped over his head.
Katie glowered. ‘So basically everything you said was bullshit,’ she hissed. ‘The whole thing with Tracey, the little family act, all a load of lies.’
Harry studied his thumbnail. ‘I mean, sort of, but not really. We do have to kind of parent Pina, and usually it’s me or Tracey, so…’
‘But she’s not your daughter, is she?’
He snorted. ‘No, this little menace has been terrorising the world for at least a thousand years or so.’
‘Nearly three,’ Pina murmured, grabbing fistfuls of his hair in her small hands and wriggling atop his shoulder. ‘On and on and on…’ She sighed. ‘So long.’
Katie’s expression softened a touch. ‘And you and Tracey?’
‘That’s complicated,’ he muttered.
Her eyes narrowed and she drew herself up. ‘So, in other words. You fed me a bunch of absolute shit and the two of you were probably laughing at me behind my back the whole time.’
‘We weren’t laughing at you,’ Harry said. ‘I promise, we weren’t. We just prefer it if people don’t know about Pina. It’d probably cause a lot of trouble for us, I’m pretty sure Pina’s not been registered as a citizen anywhere, let alone as a vampire.’
Pina’s head thudded onto the crown of his and her breathing turned deep and even.
Harry reached up and mussed her hair with a small smile. ‘She’s quite cute, really, though.’
‘She kills people.’ Katie stared at Pina. ‘I knew the orange eyes were weird, but it never clicked she might be a vampire. Most vampires have red eyes.’
‘That and because they destroy any vampire that turns a child, so vampires like Pina are very rare,’ he replied. ‘I think her eyes are to do with how old she is, though. She’s not fazed by sunlight at all.’
Katie’s eyes widened. ‘That’s… I didn’t even know that could happen. I thought it weakened even the older ones.’
‘Not our little Pina.’ Harry chuckled. ‘As long as we don’t let her get too hungry, she’s fine.’
‘Has she ever…?’
He laughed and shoved his jacket sleeve up. A small, silver, crescent-shaped scar gleamed on his forearm. ‘Nearly drained me dry. Apparently, I’m tasty.’
‘Don’t worry. We made her promise to eat Blaise before Tracey and I, and I’ll definitely make sure she eats Smith and those two before you.’
A snort burst through Katie’s lips and she tucked her wand away. ‘Wait,’ she whispered, her eyes darting over his shoulder to the huddle. ‘You and Tracey, how much of that was part of the lie?’
He sighed, the humour draining away. ‘No. No, that’s more complicated. We were together, but now we’re not. Sort of.’
‘You still like her.’ She frowned. ‘She still likes you.’
‘I’m very fond of Tracey,’ Harry murmured. ‘But it doesn’t feel quite right, something’s missing, or, I don’t know, maybe I’m just being stupid.’ He managed a small smile. ‘I should stop until I’ve got it all straightened out in my head, and I tried, but I just can’t seem to resist sometimes.’
‘On balconies…’ Katie’s lips tightened into a thin line.
‘But you’re not really an item,’ she murmured.
‘I don’t think so,’ Harry muttered. ‘Tracey’s been with other guys, so whatever we are, it’s certainly not exclusive, it’s just—’
‘Complicated.’ Katie wrinkled her nose. ‘I like to keep things simple.’
‘Me too.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Enough about my disastrous love life. Are we good?’
Katie glanced him up and down. ‘Hmmm.’ She hammered her knee into his stomach, driving the wind out of him.
Harry doubled over, battling a wave of nausea and gasping for breath.
‘Hush, Harry,’ Pina murmured. ‘I’m trying to sleep.’
He sucked some air back into his lungs. ‘Sorry, Pina, I’m just recovering from a brutal sneak attack.’ He shot Katie a flat stare. ‘Was that absolutely necessary?’
‘I feel much better.’ She bit her lip and stuck out her hand. ‘We’re good now.’
‘I hope so,’ Harry muttered, letting her pull him to his feet. ‘Another one of those and I’m going to tell Smith you’re hoping he’ll hit on you.’
Katie paled. ‘Do not,’ she hissed. ‘I can’t afford to say no without kissing goodbye to my career and my life. If he ever gets the nerve to ask, I’ll be stuck sucking his dick every day.’
He winced, guilt chewing at his gut. ‘Sorry. That was a really stupid joke. I take it back.’ Harry glanced over his shoulder. ‘I’ll make it up to you, okay? This and the lying about Pina.’
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, tugging at it. ‘You promise? Because there is something you can do to make it up to me.’
A strange sinking feeling caught hold of Harry. ‘I’m not going to like this, am I?’
Katie snorted. ‘It won’t be that bad.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I need out of Smith’s team or eventually I am going to end up on my knees under his desk twice a day.’
Harry grimaced. ‘You think—’
‘I’m in the shit with my department,’ she whispered. ‘The only reason they didn’t fire me after I fucked up before was because Smith kindly offered to take me out here to give me a second chance.’
‘Yeah and all he really wants is to bend me over his desk.’ Katie shuddered. ‘I’m so lucky he’s got no balls and only makes creepy comments, or I’d be stuck taking his dick any which way and pretending I loved it.’
Harry’s stomach churned. ‘How can I help? If I can, I will. I certainly don’t like Smith much.’
‘When you’re done, let me catch him,’ she said. ‘If I can prove we did this and pin it all on Smith, that’ll be a massive feather for me and I’ll be off the hook back at the department.’
Fuck. He threw a look over his shoulder and met Blaise’s sly smile. Stuck in one of his stupid plans again.
‘I can do better,’ he said. ‘Blaise has been getting all friendly with Smith for a reason. We think Smith is behind all those high profile raids over the last few years. The Black Niffler group.’
Katie’s jaw dropped. ‘No way.’
‘Yeah,’ Harry said, ignoring a sharp twist of guilt. ‘It’s not just him, obviously. He’s not good enough to manage that, not unless this all a very convincing act, but the whole reason we’re here is to get something on him that sticks.’
She nodded. ‘I’m your girl, then. You make sure there’s something to find, I’ll take it back and get it to stick.’
‘It’s a deal.’ Harry stuck out his hand.
Katie beamed and clasped it. ‘Deal.’
‘And if it doesn’t work, well…’ Harry mussed Pina’s dark curls. ‘We can just feed him to my little angel instead. She’ll like that, she was quite insistent that she gets to eat one of you.’
‘I’m…’ Katie scrunched up her nose. ‘I’m not sure if you’re joking or not?’
Harry chuckled. ‘To be totally honest with you, I’m not sure if I am or not either. I really don’t like Smith, especially with what you just told me, and if Pina gets too hungry, it’s going to be him or us…’
‘Wow,’ Katie murmured. ‘You are not the same boy I knew.’
He offered her a grin. ‘Becoming a father changes you.’
A snort burst from Katie’s lips. ‘I’ll knee you again if I catch you lying.’
‘That’s auror brutality.’
‘No, I failed my auror exams, it’s just me brutality.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harry laughed. ‘I can survive a little bit of Katie brutality.’
She giggled. ‘Most guys have more sense and try to run away.’
‘Oi!’ Tracey waved a hand at them as she strode toward the passage leading into the labyrinth. ‘Lovebirds. We’re pushing on, but carefully, so get over here and stay nearby.’
‘Stick close to me, Katie,’ Harry murmured, pulling his wand out of his jacket and stepping to join Tracey. ‘No matter what happens or what gets said, stick with me and Trace.’
Tracey rolled her eyes. ‘Stick with me, you mean, Harry. You’re about as good with runes as you are with relationships.’
A little pang twisted beneath his ribs. Harry pulled a grin on his face and patted Pina on the back, wincing as she tugged his hair. ‘But I have our little girl, she’ll look out for me.’
‘Come on,’ Blaise said, sliding in between them and shooting Harry a sly grin. ‘Let’s get going, the quicker we start, the quicker we get to the good stuff. Who knows what kind of things we’ll find.’
A swathe of rubies flickered at the farthest part of the passage, dimming like a shadow passing across the face of the sun. The dark deepened, spreading down the passage toward them like spilt ink across a page, swirling through the air like smoke. A warmth flared up against his ribs and the slim bulge in his right jacket pocket hummed, murmuring in his ear, soft as a lullaby.
‘Harry,’ Tracey waved a hand in front of his face. ‘Stop daydreaming and give me a hand checking for runes.’
He strained his eyes into the black beyond the glowing rubies.
Darkness yawned back.
The Elder Wand’s murmur rose in his ears, louder and louder, like war drums echoing from the deep far beneath their feet, pounding until his heart began to hammer. Its beat sung in his blood, bright and hot as firewhiskey, sweet as honey, but its echo rang a raw, ruinous red, slicing to the core of him, sharp as splintered steel.
His fingers crept to the stitched pocket.
‘Harry,’ Tracey hissed. ‘What’re you doing?’
The Elder Wand’s song faded to a whisper.
A chill crept down his spine and he swallowed, the hairs on his neck prickling. ‘I don’t think I like this place.’ He caught her hand. ‘I mean it. Something is… not right.’
‘Don’t be a baby.’ Tracey tugged her fingers free. ‘The most dangerous thing down here is our little girl, and I’d like to get done down here before she runs out of other things to eat.’ She crouched, touching her wand to the nearest slab of stone. ‘Now help me find the runes.’
The Elder Wand’s whisper slowed, waning and waxing with the thudding of his heart, echoing the rush of blood in his ears like the wash of the tide.
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