‘Left?’ Astoria glinted in Tracey’s hand as she pointed it down the stone passage beneath the flickering rubies. ‘Or right?’ She pointed the slim, silver chisel down the other fork.
Harry watched the crimson magic swirl in the stones studding the ceiling. ‘Does it matter?’
‘Not really,’ Blaise said.
The shadows flickered down the left fork and the red glow brightened. The Elder Wand thrummed in his ears, singing in his blood, a soft thrill trickling through his veins and a kiss of flame catching his breath.
‘We’ve been walking in circles since we came down here.’ Katie pointed her bronze axe at Tracey. ‘Your plan’s broken the maze. There’s no way out now.’
‘No it fucking hasn’t,’ Tracey snapped. ‘I’ve ripped the magic out of about thirty of those cubes. There’s probably just a lot of them.’
Harry sighed. ‘Perhaps we should head back.’
Katie nodded. ‘Before little miss break-everything gets us stuck down here forever.’
‘We’re not going back,’ Smith snapped, cupping the lump in his pocket.
Faint red light spilt out of it, gleaming on his wand.
The Elder Wand’s song rose like the rumble of thunder, its thrill dancing like flames beneath his ribs, its heat soaking through his chest. The drum of its tune came like the slow thud of a heartbeat and Harry’s pulse began to pound, his fingers creeping to the thin line of burning heat in his pocket.
‘We can’t go back,’ Blaise said. ‘We’ve come too far.’ A bright gleam welled up in his eyes and he licked his lips. ‘Look at the rubies in the ceiling. Imagine the treasures they have down here if they use rubies as lights.’
‘You can’t spend it if you’re dead,’ Harry replied.
‘I can!’ Pina chirped.
Tracey fixed Harry with a flat stare. ‘You’re not wriggling out of this. We’re going to find the treasure, you’re going to pay the goblins back, grow up a bit, and get on with our life.’
Our? A tight, hot knot of heat twisted in his gut.
‘I’m not giving you any pocket money, Pina,’ Harry said. ‘You’d just spend it on sweets.’
Pina giggled. ‘I don’t even like sweets. They’re shallow and cloying and the wrong kind of sticky.’
‘What about blood pops?’ Harry asked. ‘You ate an entire box of them in Germany.’
She cocked her head. ‘I like those, but they’re not sweet.’ Pina bared her small, sharp fangs. ‘Just tasty.’
He frowned, a little unease prickling down his spine. ‘Are you hungry yet, Pina?’
Pina nodded. ‘I’m so hungry.’ She released a little sigh. ‘But Mummy said I have to wait, because there’s not loads left.’
‘Not loads left of what?’ Smith whispered.
‘Blood.’ Dean clenched his jaw. ‘They’re running out of blood to feed their pet monster.’
‘The moment you run out of blood, I’m putting it down,’ Michael muttered. ‘I’m not getting sucked dry by that creature.’
Harry leveled his wand at his face. ‘Try it. There’ll be so little of you left, Pina won’t even be able to use you as a snack.’
Blaise smirked and caught Harry’s eye, sliding his wand from his pocket. His gaze flicked from Michael, to Dean, to Smith and back to Harry, and he raised his eyebrows.
Familiar words hovered on his tongue. Magic whispered along the long, pale wand in his fingers.
Cold crashed over him like a breaking wave.
Harry took a deep breath and stuffed the Elder Wand back into his pocket. ‘Let’s go right.’ He patted Pina on the back. ‘After you, my little angel, I want to keep you where I can see you after Peru.’
The song of the Elder Wand dimmed to a murmur, thrumming gently with each beat of his heart, sending soft washes of heat across his chest and through his veins.
‘Go on, Pina,’ he said, ignoring the low throb of the wand.
She giggled and scampered ahead, peering at the floor with burning orange eyes. ‘No runes here!’
‘There’s not been any since we left that hall with all the corpses,’ Tracey said. ‘Which means we’re probably getting closer, by the way, little miss deadweight.’
Katie’s breath caught. ‘You know what, fuck you. You’re such a bitch. No wonder Harry’s not keen to shackle himself to you.’
Tracey whirled ‘round and pulled her wand. ‘Want to say that a little louder?’
Harry stepped in front of Katie as she ripped her wand from her pocket. ‘Would you stop?’ He shook his head. ‘Seriously, Tracey, you’re not normally this short-fused. What’s gotten into you?’
‘It’s what’s not gotten into her she’s mad about,’ Katie sniped over Harry’s shoulder.
‘Katie.’ He glanced back at her. ‘Would you not.’
She twitched. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s a dead end!’ Pina called, darting back to Harry’s side. ‘It just ends.’
Katie shot a smug past him. ‘More like little miss dead-end, you—’
A low rumble echoed through the maze and dust trickled down around them.
‘Harry, get in this cube!’ Tracey cried, grabbing his arm.
He pulled her across and she leant into his side, her blonde bangs tickling his neck. Her breath washed against his collarbone in quick snatches of warmth.
Harry held his breath.
‘It didn’t move.’ Blaise shone bright white light down at the dead end. ‘At all.’
‘Looks like Tracey’s plan has worked out after all.’ Smith drew himself up, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief. ‘We can follow the other fork to the treasure.’
Blaise murmured under his breath and the light flickered out.
Harry blinked into the black, straining his eyes into the gloom beneath the flickering rubies.
Something hissed past them and Dean cried out.
Katie cast a shimmering white shield of magic out in front of them. A handful of dark blurs struck it and bounced away into the gloom.
‘Pina!’ Harry yelled. ‘What’s out there?’
‘Wighty wights,’ she sang, bouncing on her toes. ‘I’m going to eat them.’ She wrapped her arms around her chest and sighed. ‘I’m so so hungry.’
‘Don’t run off, Agrippina,’ he said, pulling his wand from his pocket. ‘Stay close.’ Harry glanced down at the brown wood of his wand and let out a quiet sigh of relief.
Blaise cast soft, white light down the passage, but it waned into the shadows, sinking into it like a stone down a well. Another handful of dark streaks pinged off Katie’s shield charm. A flash of red burst through it and thudded into the shaft of Katie’s axe.
‘Ruby arrows?’ Smith snatched it and stuffed it into his pocket.
The red glow at the far end of the passage loomed neared and the pad of footsteps echoed in the gloom. The Elder Wand’s song swelled, rising from the warm glow of dying embers to bright, white-hot heat searing through his veins.
Shut up. Harry clapped a hand to the heat flooding across his chest.
‘What’s wrong?’ Tracey whispered. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I really don’t like this place, Trace,’ he murmured. ‘Something is very wrong down here. Can’t you feel it?’
Her brow creased and a faint gleam of worry sprang up in her green eyes. ‘It’s just another temple, Harry. Sure, the magic’s weird, and it’s got some nasty wights, but that’s it.’
‘No.’ Harry shook his head and stepped away from her pointing his wand at the trio of crimson-shrouded shadows striding toward them. ‘That’s not it.’ His spine tingled and the hairs rose on the nape of his neck. ‘I’m getting a really bad feeling about this.’
‘It’s just the looming prospect of emotional commitment,’ she retorted. ‘You’ll get over it.’
He unleashed a handful of hexes. They wavered out against the ruby glow, bursting into steam like raindrops into fire.
‘That doesn’t work,’ Katie said, hefting the axe. ‘We have to chop them up again.’
Harry threw a shield up over himself and Tracey, watching a missile flick off it into the shadows. A ruby-headed arrow skittered off the stones beneath Katie’s feet. The shadow of a bow bent before the red light of the second figure.
Tracey’s eyes hovered on Katie then her hand snapped up and a shimmering white shield sprang in front of her. A dark blur bounced off it a hand’s length from Katie’s neck and rolled across the ground.
Harry dropped his shield, conjuring a wooden beam and banishing it down the passage.
Two of the shadows went flying back into the gloom, the third slid under it and broke into a run. A bronze-mailed wight sprinted into the light of Blaise’s wand, clutching a spear in both hands.
Pina lunged for it.
The spear slid through her stomach, the bronze tip bursting out through her back.
‘Ow.’ Her orange eyes glowed bright as embers and she clawed her way up the shaft and grabbed its bull-helmed head. ‘I’m much much harder to kill than that, wighty.’ A bright smile spread across her lips. ‘And now you’re mine.’
She ripped open the side of the wight’s throat, slurping at the ragged spray of crimson. Red spattered her face and gushed over her chest, soaking her dress.
Michael wretched and a bitter stench drifted to Harry’s nose.
‘I don’t think a bib’s going to be enough,’ Harry said.
Tracey snorted. ‘What gave you that idea?’
Katie gaped as Pina drew back, blood trickling from her lips and dripping from her chin.
The wight’s neck melted closed.
‘No.’ Pina shook her head, her blood-stained tangle of dark curls swaying. ‘I wasn’t done.’ She stamped her foot and shattered the spear with her forearm, tugging it out and tossing it away. ‘I’m still so hungry.’
Harry snatched the half-spear off the floor, grimacing at the hot slick stickiness on the shaft. ‘Get the ruby out, Pina, or it’ll keep healing, like you do.’
Pina ripped the bronze mail away with one small hand and tore the ruby out of its ribs, dropping it to the ground and sinking her teeth back into the wight’s neck. It flailed, crumpling to the ground as the red glow faded from it.
Harry kicked the horned helmet off and watched the red glow fade from its irises. ‘It’s dead. Let’s sort out the other two.’
Smith stumbled forward and snatched the ruby out of the blood with a grin. ‘One more for the collection.’ He held it up to the light of Blaise’s wand and stared at its gleam. ‘So bright...’ He wiped the blood away with his handkerchief. ‘So red…’ A strange glint crept into Smith’s eyes. ‘All full of light and heat, like a little star in my palm.’
The hairs prickled on the nape of Harry’s neck. He turned away and edged down the passage, clutching the spear half in his hand. His heart hammered against his ribs and his pulse throbbed in his fingers. The Elder Wand’s song burnt in his blood, flooding through his veins in a scalding rush, ripping his breath from his lips in little gasps, a sweet, heady rush swirling beneath his ribs.
Two bronze-armoured wights struggled beneath the weight of the thick beam he’d conjured. Their broken legs stuck out from under the wood like snapped matchsticks.
‘Katie!’ Harry called.
‘What?’ she whispered in his ear.
Ice burst through him and his heart seized in his chest.
‘Can I borrow your axe?’ he asked as the cold shock of the adrenaline fled his veins.
She passed the smooth handle into his hands and pulled out her wand. ‘Be careful.’
Harry vaulted over the beam and swung the axe into the shoulder of the wight, severing its arm with a jolt and the screech of metal on stone. Blood gushed across the stone. He kicked the limb away and hammered the blade into the bronze plate covering its chest, punching through with a spray of red. Hot drops spattered his chin and cheek.
‘Keep an eye on the other one,’ Harry said, placing a foot on the wight’s other arm. ‘Shout if it gets free.’
‘I’ve got it.’ Katie stepped up on to the beam.
He wrenched the axe free and swung again, punching another hole through the bronze beside the first. Harry bent and ripped the ruby free, throwing it to one side and stepping back.
Pina blurred past Katie, tearing the leather cuirass off the last pinned wight and plucking the ruby out of its ribs. She shot Harry a blood-smeared grin and knelt on its chest ripping its throat out with her small fingers and slurping scooped handfuls of red from its ruined neck. The Elder Wand’s heat waned and its song softened to a whispering thrum echoing the beat of his heart.
‘Two down.’ Harry stepped back, edging around the spreading pool of crimson. ‘She’s the messiest girl I’ve ever seen.’
A strangled laugh burst from Katie’s lips. ‘I think I might be sick.’
‘If you’ve not been sick already, you’ll probably be fine.’ He passed her the axe. ‘Here, your axe.’
Blaise leapt over the beam. ‘Auror Thomas has lost a finger, but other than that he’s fine.’ He glanced at Pina. ‘Keep her away from them, if you can.
‘I probably can’t,’ Harry replied. ‘She does what she wants and she enjoys winding them up.’
‘She’ll enjoy it less when they set her on fire.’
Pina bounced to her feet, licking blood off her fingers one by one.
He snorted. ‘Something tells me she’ll be fine and they might regret that decision almost immediately.’
‘True. And I won’t exactly miss them, either.’ Blaise stooped and scooped up the ruby. ‘These are worth a fortune by themselves, Harry. Don’t just leave them lying around for Smith to hoard. His pockets are already full of the ones we’ve found so far.’
‘I don’t think keeping them is a good idea.’
‘Right.’ Blaise smirked. ‘Because the goblins chopping off a hand will be much more fun.’
Harry wrestled with his unease. ‘Fine. Give me that, then.’
Blaise’s fingers closed over the stone. ‘Give it to you?’ His knuckles whitened. ‘I picked it up. It’s mine.’
‘Whatever.’ Harry rolled his eyes. ‘There’ll be other things.’
Tracey clambered over the beam. ‘Let’s fucking go. The left fork must have been the right way.’ She picked her way around the blood. ‘Pina, come here and get cleaned up.’
‘No!’ Pina stomped her foot. ‘I’m not done, it’s still all warm to touch.’
‘Agrippina,’ Harry said. ‘We need to keep going, there’s no time for messing about.’
She huffed and darted across. ‘Fine. Get it over with.’
He scoured the blood off her with a dozen cleaning charms and laughed as she screwed up her face. ‘That’s what happens when you get so messy, Pina.’
‘Fucking messed up,’ Michael growled. ‘Dean’s lost a finger and you’re here playing some twisted game with this creature.’
‘Would you like to lose a finger, too?’ Tracey snapped. ‘Because I’m getting real sick of you two useless fucking morons running your mouths. You’ve not done a single useful thing.’
Michael flushed. ‘We could have, but why risk ourselves when you’ve got that monster.’
‘She should go first all the time,’ Dean said, jumping over the beam and clutching a red-stained bandage around his right hand. ‘She’ll just heal from the traps, and if she doesn’t, well, better the vampire than us.’
‘One fewer people to share what we find with,’ Smith said, hauling himself over the beam.
‘We already agreed how we’re going to split it,’ Blaise said. ‘We shook.’
Smith chortled. ‘So? I’ve two aurors, we’re more than a match for you four, and outside, well, I’m a prominent member of the ICW. Who’s going to listen to some freelance curse-breakers and the last time anyone listened to Bell they flooded and destroyed a two thousand year old temple under the North Sea. She’s got great tits and a nice arse, but she’s good for nothing else and nobody’s going to care what she says.’
Heat flared in Harry’s chest, rising up onto his tongue in a sharp, sour rush. The Elder Wand’s drumming quickened, thrumming through his blood. ‘I’d rather you went first, Smith.’ Smooth wood turned hot as flame between his fingers and his hand snapped up. ‘It’s about time you did something more than wet yourself from the back of the group.’
Katie tugged at his arm. ‘Don’t,’ she whispered.
The Elder Wand sang in his hand, it thrummed in his fingers, tingling like firewhiskey on his tongue, warm and sweet as elven wine.
‘Harry.’ She snatched for the wand.
He stamped the heat out and sucked in a deep breath. ‘You’re lucky she’s here, Smith. Your two corrupt aurors aren’t going to stop me turning you into a pile of ash if I go for you first.’
‘I see Bell’s been making carting her around worth your while.’ Smith sneered. ‘I guess it’s all she can offer anyone.’
‘Let’s just fucking go,’ Tracey snapped.
Katie stormed down the passage, Pina scampering her wake. Blaise ushered Smith, Michael and Dean on with him.
Tracey caught his arm. ‘When did you get another wand?’
Harry slid the Elder Wand back into his pocket. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He took a deep breath and held it, hurrying after the others. ‘They’re going to try and stab us in the back soon. Did you see Smith’s face when he picked up that ruby?’
‘You might be right,’ she murmured. ‘But so what? We get jumped from time to time, we’ll just kill them.’
‘What, you’re upset you’re going to lose your piece on the side?’ Tracey glowered, scooping her bangs away from her face with her little finger. ‘I should’ve let that arrow hit her.’
‘You don’t mean that,’ Harry said.
She drew herself up, sucking in a deep breath, and sagged. ‘No, not really. I was so tempted, though. I was staring into the dark this morning while you two were getting all cosy over breakfast and wishing she wasn’t here, and for a moment, I thought I could have my wish come true.’
His jaw dropped. ‘What the fuck?!’
‘What?’ She quickened her pace, stomping across the flagstones. ‘She was flirting with you plenty, why wouldn’t I be angry?’
Harry fixed her with a long stare. ‘Because you ended us after I said I wasn’t ready for some things. And then, after you did, you spent a lot of effort making sure I knew exactly what you were doing with other guys.’
Tracey turned away. ‘If you’d just stopped making stupid excuses, I wouldn’t have felt like I had to dump you, and if I’d not done that, then I wouldn’t have been looking for other guys to have fun with, would I?’
They stepped into a long, dark hall, stumbling down shallow steps between a line of cold, bronze braziers.
‘This looks promising,’ Blaise said. ‘Have a look around, Pina.’
Pina hopped onto one of the braziers, dancing around its rim in a circle with her arms out. ‘Don’t want toooooooo!’
A small chuckle escaped Harry’s lips. ‘What if there’re tasty wights?’
Pina ground to a halt and cocked her head. ‘Tasty wights… but I’m full now.’ She patted her tummy. ‘I already ate two of them.’
‘Get off the brazier and we can just light those,’ Tracey said, thrusting her wand at the right hand line.
White flames sprang up in the bronze basins, casting flickering light over the hall.
Pina dropped to the floor and peered across the hall. ‘There’re pictures on the wall.’
Tracey lit the other line of braziers as Blaise drifted across to the far wall. Smith, Dean, and Michael, huddled in the centre of the hall, wands in hands.
‘There’re rubies in the wall,’ Blaise said.
Smith’s head snapped up. ‘More rubies?’ He waved a hand at Michael and Dean, striding across to the wall.
‘I’ll watch the far end of the hall,’ Katie said. ‘Just in case.’
Harry drifted across to the other wall.
Sheets of ivory covered the stone walls, rising from floor to ceiling. Familiar bull-horned carvings stood before a square of tangled lines.
‘The warriors entering the maze,’ Tracey whispered.
Harry drifted down the wall, past carvings of traps and death. A single warrior knelt where the square of lines faded out and a glowing ruby sat embedded in the ivory as if it were hovering before him.
‘They were given a ruby as a reward for getting through,’ Tracey said. ‘That means there must be more rubies somewhere down here.’
Harry stared into the flickering crimson gem and wrestled with a tight coil of unease, his spine tingling. ‘They wouldn’t have a carving showing all the traps and a celebration of success before the end of the maze, would they?’
Tracey shrugged. ‘They might. People do stupid things sometimes.’ Her fingers brushed his shoulder. ‘You know, all those guys I was so — er — descriptive about being with…’
‘I don’t want to hear about it.’ Harry bit back hot, bitter words. ‘I really don’t.’
‘No,’ she whispered. ‘No, I mean, they weren’t real.’
He twisted on his heel and stared into her green eyes. ‘What?’
Tracey shrank back. ‘I was tempted,’ she murmured. ‘A few times, I nearly did, just so maybe you’d do something, but I couldn’t get over the little niggle of doubt that if I did that, you’d never stop making excuses.’
‘So you made them all up.’ Harry let himself taste the words, a strange tangle of heat and sweet relief. ‘Just to hurt me?’
She winced. ‘I really wanted you to stop trying to evade there being a more permanent us, okay. I am sorry, though.’
The tangle coiled about his heart, sharp and hot, writhing so hard a sick feeling churned his stomach. ‘Just — just go tell Blaise we might be out of the maze.’
Tracey reached out a hand.
Harry stepped back. ‘No. I need some time to breathe after that. You — you have no idea how hurt I was, how sick I felt thinking about you and them. If you think learning you did it just to hurt me makes me feel better, then you’re wrong.’
Her fingers fell to her side. ‘Time to breathe…’
He held her eye. ‘Yes.’
Tracey’s lips tightened. ‘Alright then.’ She swept off.
His gaze slipped back to the ruby. A flicker of crimson glowed within it, bright at its heart, dancing like a candle flame in the breeze. The song of the Elder Wand rose like a firework into the night sky, bursting through his blood like a shower of stars.
Harry held his breath and touched a fingertip to the stone.
A soft laugh echoed through his head.
He flinched back.
The white flames in the braziers either side of Katie flashed red. Laughter swelled in his ears, drowning the pounding of his heart, growing loud as the crash of the thunder as the braziers bled crimson one by one.