‘I thought you said you warded it?’ Tracey peered down at the ground between the two basalt pillars. ‘There’s nothing here…’
‘I drew runes all across this,’ Harry said, crouching down and shining soft white light from the tip of his wand. ‘It’s like they were never here.’
Tracey’s hand rested on his shoulder. ‘Well, nothing came through, so it doesn’t matter.’ She flicked a lock of blonde hair off her face and turned about, her boot heels grating on the stone. ‘Everyone’s coming now.’
He jumped to his feet.
A vivd purple mark poked over the edge of Tracey’s collar.
Harry reached out and tugged her collar up. ‘That’s better.’
‘Better?’ Her fingers rose to the curve of her throat. ‘Oh, right.’ A little smirk curved her lips and her eyes strayed to the approaching group. ‘I quite liked it how it was.’ Tracey turned her collar back down, flattening it out.
The purple bruise shone proudly on her pale skin.
He sighed. ‘Have it your way.’
‘I do like having it my way.’ Tracey laughed. ‘So do you, I didn’t hear you complaining yesterday.’
‘No…’ Harry gnawed at the inside of his cheek. ‘I really should have been stronger.’
She snorted. ‘What for? Blaise’s most recent stupid scheme where you seduce Bell into being an inside agent for us? That’s going to end about as well as the time he thought we should fight the vampires in the dark to catch them by surprise. He’s not as fucking smart as he thinks he is.’
‘No, Trace, not for Blaise’s slithery scheme for us.’
Tracey twitched. ‘Is that going to stay?’
‘I hope not,’ Harry said, poking the mark on her neck. ‘I don’t think I did it that hard.’
‘Not the lovebite, calling me Trace,’ she murmured, catching his finger in hers. ‘You know how I feel about that.’
‘Maybe. Probably.’ He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It’s not going to just snap on like a switch, you, well, you twisted the knife a lot… and I can still feel it.’
‘Sorry.’ Tracey let his hand drop. ‘I should’ve just fucking said, but I didn’t know how.’
‘You did okay yesterday, in between acting like you’d been spiked with a cauldron full of something highly illegal.’
‘Only because of Bell.’ She glowered at Katie as she strode through the line of crimson fires toward them. ‘I had to tell you, or she’d get you even more twisted around her finger and then I’d have no chance to fix this.’
‘I’m not twisted around her finger.’
‘Sure you’re not.’ Tracey folded arms. ‘Have you said no to anything she’s asked, yet?’
‘I didn’t think so.’
‘She’s not asked for very much.’
‘Not yet.’ She lowered her voice as they approached. ‘This is very hypocritical of me, given what I did, and I know it is, but I’m sorry, if you fuck her, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to forget it.’
‘Then I guess you can’t have any complaints about me taking my time after you did what you did,’ Harry replied, snagging a dark blur with one hand. ‘No, Pina, you’re not going through until we’re all ready.’
Tracey scowled. ‘I hate it when you turn things around like that.’
‘It’s only fair.’
‘I know it’s fair. I still fucking hate it.’
Harry laughed and released Pina’s arm. ‘You’ve got a dirty mouth, Trace. Our little girl’s going to pick up all sorts from you.’
‘You weren’t complaining about my mouth yesterday.’ She stared Katie dead in the eye. ‘And our real little girl’s not going to pick up anything like that from me, I’ll be careful.’
Katie flushed and turned a sharp look on Harry.
Heat crept to his face and he glanced down into the dark. ‘Are we ready? We had to use a ruby to get through the door, and the carvings show the rubies are a reward for getting through the maze, so be careful.’
‘We’ve no fucking idea what’s waiting down here for us,’ Tracey said.
A crimson high priestess. He ignored the heat spreading from his jacket pocket and the excited thrum of the Elder Wand. Minos’s Shadow.
‘Let’s goooo!’ Pina darted into the dark.
‘Agrippina!’ Harry shouted. ‘Come back!’
She poked her head around the basalt column. ‘I’m right here, Daddy.’
Tracey laughed. ‘Your paternal side is showing, Harry.’
‘No it’s not,’ he said. ‘I don’t have one.’
Katie poked him in the back with the butt of her axe. ‘Are we going, then? I want this to be done and over.’
‘The quicker we get down there, the quicker we find the treasure,’ Blaise said.
‘Exactly.’ Smith rubbed his palms together. ‘Can’t be too much longer now.’
‘Go carefully,’ Harry murmured, catching Pina’s eye. ‘There’s something down here. Something powerful. A shadow.’
Smith chortled. ‘Potter’s afraid of the dark.’
Michael and Dean guffawed.
‘If you’re so brave, you can go first, Smith,’ Katie snapped.
Smith’s laughter choked in his throat and the colour drained from his cheeks. ‘Obviously the vampire goes first, Bell.’
‘I like Pina more than I like you.’ Katie scoffed and brushed past Harry’s shoulder. ‘But since you’ll just wet yourself again, I’ll go first.’
‘No you won’t,’ Harry whispered in her ear. ‘You stay behind me and Pina. She can actually see in the dark well enough to spot runes.’
Pina bounced on her heels. ‘Can we go, or are we going to fight?’ She brushed dark curls off her forehead and smiled at Dean with burning orange eyes. ‘If we fight, I’m going to eat you first. Your hand smells tasty.’
Dean scrabbled for his wand.
‘Grow a spine,’ Tracey jibed. ‘She’s baiting you.’
‘Or at least grow a brain,’ Harry said. ‘If you attack her, Pina will eat you. She knows I won’t be as angry if you throw the first punch.’
Pina giggled and swayed in the arch. ‘You spoilt it, Daddy.’
‘You just use your creepy vampire eyes to look for runes and stop causing trouble,’ he retorted.
‘They’re not creepy!’ She stomped her foot. ‘Why are you so racist against vampires?’
‘I’d find them creepy even if you weren’t a vampire,’ he said. ‘It’s because they’re orange.’
Pina pouted. ‘I’ll bite you.’
‘Not if you want your snack from my emergency stash you won’t. It’s my blood, too.’
‘Oooooh, a tasty Harry snack.’ She twirled around and prowled into the gloom. ‘Let’s go and explore then!’
Harry edged into the shadow after her.
‘Be careful.’ Pina’s whisper drifted back out of the dark. ‘There’re steps.’
‘Blaise,’ Tracey’s fingers curled into the sleeve of Harry’s jacket and tugged him back. ‘Fish out one of those rubies, I don’t want to fall down these stairs.’
Blaise fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a fist-sized ruby.
He caught her wrist and drew her toward him in the dark. ‘You promised, remember,’ he whispered. ‘And I definitely upheld my side of that promise.’
‘I know,’ she murmured. ‘I won’t touch it.’
‘Well go on, Blaise,’ Harry said. ‘We can’t see if you’re back there.’
Blaise eyed the dark beyond Harry and stared into the crimson flicker of the ruby.
‘If you give it to me, I’ll go first,’ Smith said, licking his lips.
‘No.’ Blaise’s knuckles whitened around the ruby and he strode past Harry to the front. ‘Let’s go, Pina.’
The flickering crimson glow led them down a spiral of pale cobbled steps.
‘How far down are we?’ Katie whispered. ‘Like, how far underground?’
‘A fair way.’ Harry tried to recall how far the steps had led them down before. ‘The maze would have been underground when this place was built. And this is below that.’
‘Oh wow,’ Pina chirped ahead of them. ‘This place is old.’
Blaise ground to a halt, the crimson glow danced, growing brighter, swelling from a glimmering spark to a shining red star in his fist.
That can’t be good. Unease coiled in his gut and he cupped the hot bump of the Elder Wand. But you’re not singing yet.
‘Is it as old as you?’ Harry asked Pina.
She giggled. ‘This place is nearly twice as old as me.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Is that even possible?’
‘Oi, be nice to our baby,’ Tracey said. ‘She’s not that old.’
‘I am!’ Pina appeared out of the dark. ‘I’m the oldest vampire I’ve ever met.’
‘Is that because you ate all the others?’ Katie asked.
A broad grin spread across Pina’s face. ‘Maaaaybeee,’ she sang.
Harry poked her in the tummy. ‘Come on. What’s down here?’
‘A sanctum,’ she said. ‘A sepulchre.’
Harry tapped his boot against Blaise’s foot. ‘Are you going?’
Blaise swept down the last few steps and stopped dead. ‘Oh look, bones.’
Thick bundles of bones formed an arch before the glowing ruby and a human skull stared down from its top. A impenetrable pit of shadow hung beyond it, heavy with silence.
Harry’s spine tingled. We’re being watched by Minos’s Shadow. He strained his eyes into the dark. I really hate this.
‘Human bones.’ Pina poked them with a small finger and leant in to sniff them. ‘Yep.’
‘Don’t touch, Agrippina,’ Tracey hissed. ‘Check for runes on the arch.’
Harry skimmed the bones. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘Neither can I,’ she said. ‘But Pina’s sight is much better than ours.’
‘There are some,’ Pina said, squinting at the top of the arch. ‘They’re not magic, though.’
‘Are you sure?’ Tracey asked.
‘They’re just cut into the bones.’ Pina stuck her arms out at Harry. ‘Up?’
He lifted her onto his shoulders. ‘If we get attacked by something, you need to get off.’
Blaise stuck the ruby through the arch and closed his eyes.
The red glow pushed back the shadow, sending them sliding back into the corners of a long hall. Bone columns rose up to rings of staring skulls and dark stone, and a heap of bones sprawled across the centre of the hall, rising halfway to the ceiling.
He drifted forward, checking the corners either side of the door. His toe caught on something and he stumbled up. Pina squeaked and snatched two handfuls of his hair.
Skulls stared up from the step beneath him. Pale, round cobbles spread across the floor from the single stair.
‘The floor is made of skulls,’ he said. ‘Those steps, too.’
‘Floored in endless ivory,’ Tracey muttered. ‘Probably should’ve seen that coming.’
Katie shuddered and edged a little closer, clutching the bronze axe to her chest. ‘Can we find a light that’s not red?’
Blaise stuffed the ruby into his pocket.
Darkness swallowed them.
‘Lumos,’ Blaise said.
The shadows deepened and the Elder Wand’s song rose, its soft hum in time with the beat of Harry’s heart, quickening as his pulse raced.
‘Get the ruby back out,’ he hissed. ‘She’s coming.’
A red glow lit the hall.
Smith shortled beneath the light of a gem. ‘She? Who’s she?’
‘The Shadow of Minos,’ Harry replied.
‘The legend never says anything about a she,’ Blaise said. ‘Just the shadow. And there’s no way there’s anything left of them down here after so long.’
‘I hope you’re right.’
A bright, crimson glow flared up from the heap of bones.
But you’re not.
The mound shivered and drew together with a deep rumble. Skeletal figures stepped from it, shrouded in shimmering crimson power. They lifted bronze swords and shields from the floor and advanced in a line.
Dean and Michael hurled spells past Harry. They burst against the red veil of magic in puffs of smoke and showers of sparks.
‘Conjure something,’ Katie yelled. ‘Hurry up and make a barrier.’
Harry spun a thick beam of wood out of the air and dropped it in front of them. ‘Pina, get off me.’ He added a second beam as the weight vanished from his shoulders.
Stone slabs and wooden blocks appeared on the rising heap as the line of gleaming bronze shields grew closer with the drum of bone on bone.
The Elder Wand burst into song, flooding his heart with bright hot flame. They swirled and danced through his veins, stealing his breath, and the thunder of its drums drowned the pounding of his heart.
Harry’s fingers crept to the burning hot wand in his pocket.
A crimson-shrouded skull rose over the pile of wood and stone. Dean cast a flash of blue magic at it.
‘What part of that doesn’t work are you still not getting?’ Katie shouted.
Harry drew in a deep breath and snatched the Elder Wand from his pocket. ‘Depulso.’
Their barricade exploded across the hall, flinging the skeletal warriors into the air.
The magic thrummed through him, crackling like lightning beneath his skin. Harry held it back as the skeletons rose to their feet, gritting his teeth as the Elder Wand screamed its protest, its song burnt in his blood and wrenched at his heart.
He let it go.
A fierce white light seared his eyes.
Fragments of smoking bone showered down around him, skittering along the skulls in the shadows. Warped bronze steamed beneath the fading crimson veil of magic. Harry sucked in a deep breath and dragged his eyes along his arm. The Elder Wand shivered beneath his fingertips, bathing him in cold, pale light; its song waned to a soft whisper.
‘Fucking hell,’ Tracey whispered. ‘What the fuck is that wand, Harry?’
He slipped it back inside his jacket. ‘Dangerous and fickle.’
Dean and Michael poked through the debris, picking their way over the splintered beams and shattered stone.
‘I bet anyone with that wand could do that.’ Dean’s gaze slid to the front of Harry’s jacket and his eyes narrowed. ‘I bet I could do more.’
Michael nodded. ‘Or I could.’
A skeleton lunged from the rubble. Blood spattered the pale, bone floor.
‘Oh fuck,’ Michael moaned, groping at the bronze blade in his belly. ‘Oh fuck it hurts.’
The skeleton ripped its blade out and staggered forward. A smoking stump stuck from its left shoulder and scorched fractures spread across its left leg.
‘Pina,’ Harry said. ‘Take it apart.’
A dark blur shattered the skeleton.
Pina held its skull up in her small hands and crushed it flat. ‘Done.’ She dusted off her hands and prowled toward Michael. ‘You’re bleeding a lot.’
Michael whimpered and scrabbled back, smearing blood across the skulls. Crimson gushed from his stomach in slow spurts, pooling across the pale floor and soaking his clothes.
‘Pina!’ Katie stepped forward.
Harry caught her arm. ‘Don’t.’
She whirled on him. ‘What?!’
‘We can’t get out of here to heal him and he’s bleeding too much to live,’ Blaise said, a thin smile on his face. ‘Better Pina drains his blood than ours. I’m out of blood to give her.’
‘Me too,’ Tracey said.
‘I have one emergency bottle,’ Harry said. ‘And that’s really not enough.’
Dean thrust his wand at Pina. ‘Don’t take another step.’
Pina’s orange eyes burnt as she cocked her head at him. ‘You’re wasting the red.’
‘Expelliarmus,’ Blaise said, whipping his wand at Dean.
Dean’s wand zipped into Blaise’s fist.
‘Don’t waste any, Pina,’ Tracey said. ‘We’re running low.’
‘No,’ Michael whispered. ‘No, please. Please don’t.’ He stretched for his wand with a groan.
Pina stamped on his arm with a sharp crack. His face turned white as snow and his eyes rolled up into the back of his head.
‘Snack time,’ she crooned, pawing at Michael’s cheek.
‘Wait,’ he gasped. ‘Wait. You can turn me after, right? Turn me after. Please don’t kill me.’
Pina beamed. ‘Harry said I’m not allowed to turn people into vampires without asking because it causes trouble.’
Michael’s pleading eyes met Harry’s. ‘Please.’ He flailed at Pina as she stepped over his legs. ‘Potter, please.’
No. The last thing we need is another hungry vampire down here.
Pina wrenched his other arm out of its socket. Michael’s scream rang back off the ceiling.
‘I don’t want to turn you,’ she chirped. ‘You’re too annoying.’
Dean stumbled forward.
Pina’s orange eyes snapped up. ‘You’re annoying, too,’ she whispered.
He shrank back.
She pushed Michael’s face away and scooped handfuls of blood from his stomach. He moaned and thrashed, beating his feet so hard the skulls crunched beneath his heels. Pina hauled him up with one hand and ripped into his throat, slurping blood from and smearing her face red.
Katie gagged and turned away, pressing her face into Harry’s shoulder.
Harry grimaced as Michael’s legs jerked, twitched, and fell still. ‘You really never quite get used to it,’ he said, rubbing her back. ‘The first few times are the worst, though.’
Tracey reached out and pulled his hand off Katie’s back with a dark look. ‘She’s just got a weak stomach.’ She folded her arms. ‘I’m glad I don’t, I’d be so ashamed of you pitying me like that.’
Katie stiffened against him.
Harry fixed Tracey with a pointed look. ‘Must you?’
‘Must you?’ she snapped, twisting on her heel and dragging Blaise down the hall by the back of his jacket.
‘Sorry,’ Katie whispered. ‘That was just…’
‘Tasty?’ Pina’s blood-smeared face appeared between them.
Katie squeaked and snatched her wand out.
‘It’s okay Maybe-Tasty-Katie,’ Pina chirped, patting at her hip with both hands. ‘I’m all full.’
‘And all messy,’ Harry said. ‘Hold still.’
‘Nooo,’ she whined. ‘Don’t Cleaning Charm me.’
‘You’re not running around covered in blood,’ he said. ‘You know it flakes everywhere and then you sulk because it gets itchy.’
Pina huffed. ‘Fine. Get it over with.’
Harry vanished the blood off her face a bit at a time, sweeping it from her dark curls, stripping it from the threads of her black dress and scraping it from under her nails.
‘Done?’ Pina patted at her face and hair with a huge pout. ‘Done? Am I done?’
‘You’re done.’ He glanced at where Tracey and Blaise hissed in whispers to one another at the far end of the hall. ‘Go keep an eye out over there, make sure nothing else dangerous appears unexpectedly.’
She danced away over the skulls and debris, humming a fast tune.
Katie’s shoulders relaxed and she stuck her wand back into her jacket. ‘I can’t believe you let her do that, Harry,’ she hissed. ‘She ate him.’
‘She would have done it no matter what I said,’ he said. ‘You have to pick your battles with Pina. Michael was dead already, Pina eating him wasn’t great to watch, but it harms nobody who wasn’t already harmed. Pina running out of blood later is something I’d rather avoid and we only have the one bottle left…’
‘Can’t you just stop her?’
Harry shook his head. ‘She’s way faster and stronger than us and sees very well in the dark. You’d have to kill her to stop her once she gets hungry enough.’ He stared after Pina as she twirled over the skulls on bare feet. ‘I — I don’t think I could do that.’
‘What if it was me?’ Katie whispered. ‘Would you let her do that to me?’
‘No.’ He cupped her warm hands in his and squeezed. ‘She has to eat Blaise before you. Or Smith. Or Dean. You’ve got a head start.’
A shaky giggle escaped Katie’s lips. ‘As long as I get to stay Maybe-Tasty-Katie. The idea of dying like that, like a helpless little bird in the claws of a cat…’ She shuddered and the colour drained from her cheeks. ‘No. No thank you.’
‘I won’t let her. I promise.’
Katie let out a long breath. ‘Thank you.’ She pressed their hands against her warm, soft chest. ‘That really shook me, see, my heart’s beating a million miles an hour right now.’
‘Er…’ Harry felt a little warmth rise to his cheeks. ‘Your heart is not what you’re pressing my hands into, Katie. Yes, I can feel your heartbeat, but I can also tell you’re definitely not wearing a bra.’
A wicked gleam sprang up in her eyes. ‘Sorry I grabbed you.’
‘No you’re not.’
‘No, I’m not.’ Katie squirmed and their hands slipped down another inch. ‘Not at all.’
‘Are you feeling okay?’ he asked.
She flushed. ‘A little hot under the collar, which is weird, I don’t — well — I stopped caring about and feeling stuff like that, but the last few days…’
Unease churned in the pit of Harry’s stomach and he eased his fingers out of her grip. ‘Like your blood’s on fire?’
‘Not that bad,’ she whispered. ‘But a little bit like that.’
‘Fuck,’ he muttered. ‘It’s this fucking place messing with us. I knew something was off.’
‘What?’ Katie demanded. ‘It’s good. I’m glad I want things like this again, it means I’m not as much of a mess. Girls aren’t all pure angels, you know. We like sex, too. Quite a lot.’ She snorted. ‘What am I saying, I know you know. Tracey’s showing off a lovely little mark on her neck she certainly didn’t have a day ago.’
‘Yeah… I really should’ve said no.’ He studied the grit under his thumbnail, teasing out little dark grains and flicking them away. ‘But, well, she said she felt like you do, and I said no, but I wanted her to promise not to touch any of the rubies, and she wanted to… bargain.’
‘So it was just a deal.’ Katie giggled. ‘Tit for tat?’
‘You keep saying that.’
‘That’s because it’s only getting more complicated.’ He sighed. ‘I’m trying to keep it separate from all my other thoughts about us.’
‘Us?’ Katie glanced over her shoulder at Tracey and Blaise. ‘Or us?’
‘Me and Trace,’ he murmured.
‘Are you back together?’
‘Not really.’ Harry frowned down at the shadows in the eye skull’s sockets. ‘Maybe soon? I’m not sure.’
‘Well…’ Katie batted her eyelashes and sidled closer. ‘If I promise not to touch any rubies, what do I get in return? There’s room for two in my tent.’ She grinned. ‘But only if we get very very close.’
He chuckled. ‘Get off me.’ The mirth drained away as he caught the heat in her eyes. ‘Katie, that feeling, it’s not you. It’s this place. It’s messing with you. It’s messing with Tracey. It’s messing with me. And it’s messing with Blaise and Smith and Dean, too.’
‘How?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘By getting us all excited and hot under the collar. Seems a bit far-fetched, Harry…’
‘And short-tempered.’ Harry shot her a wry smile. ‘I was that close to cursing them.’
Katie bit her lip. ‘And Blaise and Smith and Dean?’
‘Blaise is a greedy reptile, but he’s usually much more keen on surviving. He’d rather have held onto that ruby and gone first through the traps than give it to Smith when there are loads of rubies still to come later. And Smith, who was busy wetting himself at the back a few days ago, would’ve gone first and risked dying if he could’ve got the ruby. It’s just… feeding conflict.’
‘So it’s not real,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t really feel like this.’
A hot knot clenched in his stomach. ‘I think… what I would do is wait… and then, once we’re out, and we’ve been out for a while, you can see if you still feel whatever it is you feel, and then decide whatever it is you want to do.’
It will disappear once we’re out of here.
Her brown eyes dipped. ‘Yeah, maybe that’s smart. Have to remember that rushing in with guys that aren’t over other girls ends up with me getting cheated on.’
‘But I guess, given what Tracey said to you, it’d only be fair, right?’
Harry grimaced. ‘I’m going to go and look at the far end of the hall, Katie. Coming?’
‘Okay, okay.’ She puffed her cheeks out. ‘I’ll just stop talking.’
‘I would really appreciate that,’ he murmured, picking his way over the debris. ‘My self control is not amazing and Minos’s Shadow is messing with our heads.’
‘Not that much,’ Katie said. ‘It can’t have been messing with us before we went down into the maze.’
‘Well, no, of course not.’
‘Exactly, which means…’ Pink rose on her cheeks. ‘You know what, ignore that. Just… forget I said it.’
Harry smothered a sharp, twist of heat and mustered a grin. ‘Huh, did you say something?’
She laughed and peered at the bone columns either side of the ink black arch. ‘What are we expecting?’
‘Probably something nasty,’ he said, scuffing shards of scorched bone away with his toes. ‘I think she’s waiting somewhere down there. But we can’t go back now, so we have to go on.’ A shiver rippled down his spine. ‘And she knows. She’s laughing at us.’
Two three-headed figures of stacked bones rose either side of the door, their thick shoulders flanking impenetrable, swirling shadow. Flickering crimson rubies glowed in the sockets of the three horned bull skulls.
‘More rubies,’ Katie whispered.
‘We didn’t make any deal,’ she quipped.
‘I’m just joking, I’m not going to touch them.’
Both sets of three skulls swivelled to fix themselves on Harry with a slow, grating rattle and pale dust trickled down to the ground. Human spinal columns spread out from behind their shoulders like the feathers of great wings, blocking the arch.
The rubies flared from flickering sparks to shining stars.
He tried to drag his gaze away, but the crimson snared him. It dragged him down and deep and drew him on further still; his thoughts drowned in red, sinking into sprays and spurts and splashes and gushes. A raw scream hovered on his lips, caught at the back of his throat.
Her irises burnt before his mind’s eye, hot and bright as the ruby searing through his skin. A small smile spread across her red lips, sharp as the blood-drenched, bronze khopesh in her fist.
Your heart is mine. Her voice rose from the well of mind, a whisper loud as thunder. I will take it. I will have it. I will keep it. The Elder Wand thrummed, its song swelling to a fierce crescendo, bursting like fireworks in his blood. Your heart is mine.