Red flickered in the ruby eyes of the three-headed statues and their bone wings trembled. Behind them the dark loomed, deep as midnight, starless; an abyss of shifting shadow.
Harry stared at the pale, slim wood of the Elder Wand, ignoring its soft, swift thrum and the gentle tug of its whisper at his magic.
‘You okay?’ Katie murmured. ‘Is the magic messing with you?’ A little heat crept into her eyes. ‘Want me to kiss anything better?’
He sighed. ‘Katie…’
‘Just teasing.’ She beamed, but the little glint in her eye remained. ‘I don’t want to get cursed by Tracey.’
Pina scampered across, dragging Tracey after her. Smith and Blaise followed, walking side-by-side, watching each other out of the corners of their eyes.
‘Right, so how do we get through this fucking thing?’ Tracey asked. ‘Harry? You figured out the last one.’
‘We need to get through.’ Blaise cupped a ruby in his hands, watching its light dance with a sharp gleam of hunger in his eyes. ‘Can we use Daphne?’
Tracey stared at the gem in his fingers. ‘I reckon that fucking ruby will work. Hold it up and see.’
‘And what if it doesn’t?’ Blaise’s knuckles whitened about the ruby. ‘You help yourself to my share after something kills me?’
‘It’s the only way to get to the treasure,’ Smith said, fiddling with his stained handkerchief. ‘Someone has to try.’
Blaise licked his lips. ‘Alright.’ He took a deep breath and edged forward, clutching the ruby in both hands.
The human spines spreading like wings shivered, curling round Blaise like pale vines and ushering him into the dark.
‘Fuck,’ Tracey muttered. ‘Everyone needs their own ruby.’
Smith swallowed. ‘You can have one of mine for a minute if you go next, I’m not going through there alone with Zabini. He’ll curse me in the back.’
‘Give each of us a ruby,’ Harry said. ‘Pina next, then Tracey, then you, Smith, then Katie, then me.’
Smith’s Adam’s apple bobbed. ‘Deal.’ He fumbled rubies from his pockets, dropping one into Pina’s hands and passing three to Tracey. ‘You — er — you next, va— Pina.’
Pina bounced the crimson rock on her palms and cocked her head, frowning through her dark curls.
‘What is it?’ Harry asked.
She raised the ruby and took a tentative bite. ‘Ow.’
‘It’s a ruby, not food.’ Harry chuckled. ‘What were you expecting?’
Pina pouted. ‘It looks so tasty, though. And it’s so warm.’ Her orange eyes burnt beneath her ebony curls and she snapped her teeth. ‘I’m so hungry.’
‘I know.’ He mussed her hair. ‘Wait as long as you can, Pina. I’ve got one more bottle. Hopefully then we can get out soon.’
She screwed her face up and moaned. ‘Fiiiiiiiiiine.’ Pina blurred forward through the bone wings into the dark.
Tracey passed two of the rubies to Katie. ‘Don’t hold onto these for long, Harry. If you’re worried about them…’ She held hers out, grimacing as the spines wrapped around her and pulled her through the arch.
‘Me, then.’ Smith gulped. ‘Wish me luck.’ He shuffled forward, flinching and squeezing his eyes shut as the bones curled around him and dragged him through.
Katie held out a ruby. ‘Here.’
Don’t scream. Harry held his breath and picked it from her palm.
Warmth soaked into his skin and red magic flickered within the gem, shining like the sun in the heavens, its glow bleeding into the dark like starlight into the dark.
Katie disappeared through the arch with a squeak.
Harry took a step forward, holding the ruby up. ‘We’re coming,’ he muttered. ‘Just like you want.’
Cold bone snaked around his waist and limbs, lifting him from the ground and drawing through into the shadows.
Pina’s orange eyes glowed beside five bright rubies. ‘It’s just a long slope,’ she murmured.
Harry tossed the ruby back to Smith. ‘All yours,’ he said.
Smith fumbled it into his stomach and stuffed it into his pocket. ‘Thanks, Potter.’
Katie passed her ruby over. ‘I don’t want rubies.’
Tracey weighed hers on her palm. ‘This is worth a dozen galleons, Harry…’ She caught his eye, hooking a bang away from her face. ‘A few of these… No debts. No shadows. Just our future.’
‘You promised.’ He held her green eyes. ‘I kept up my side.’
A little shiver swept through her. ‘You did.’ Tracey sighed and thwacked the ruby into Smith’s hand. ‘Fine. Happy?’
‘Yes.’ Harry offered her a smile. ‘Thanks, Trace.’
‘Not exactly unconditional affection,’ Katie muttered. ‘Bitch.’
Tracey’s eyes flashed. ‘Look, whore—’
‘No,’ Harry snapped. He took a deep breath and let the little flare of rage fade. ‘Both of you just stop.’ He pointed up the shallow slope to faint, red light. ‘We’re going up there. The shadow is waiting. This is going to be hard enough as it is.’
Blaise snorted. ‘The treasure is waiting. That glow looks like a lot of rubies.’
Smith started up the slope. Blaise stumbled after him, quickening his pace. They broke into a run, shoulder to shoulder, sprinting through into the gentle crimson glow. Katie and Tracey strode after them, wands in hands.
‘I’m scared,’ Pina whispered. ‘I saw it. It’s dead. It goes on and on and on. And it’s dead. Dead magic. From a dead world. Trapped in cold, lifeless bone and red stone.’
Harry bent and lifted her onto his shoulders. ‘We’re nearly at the deepest part of the temple, which means this is all nearly over.’
She clutched at his hair. ‘But the shadow, Daddy.’
‘I know,’ he whispered, starting up the slope. ‘I know, Pina.’
The dark closed in around them. Her crimson eyes burnt on the back of Harry’s neck as he trudged up the slope and soft laughter whispered at his heels.
Fuck off. I’m coming anyway, aren’t I? He ignored the thrum of the Elder Wand against his chest and the quiet, insistent tug on his magic. You want my heart, shadow, you’ll have to kill me for it.
A sharp smile spread in his mind’s eye. I will take it. Her murmur was soft and hot and red, rising from the dark like mist. And I will keep it.
Shimmering, shining bronze spread between the span of an arch of stacked ivory spines. Thousands of red runes flickered on the pale bone arch like flame, crawling across the ancient spines like fireflies over dead wood. Countless skulls stared from the floor and walls of the circular room, the shadows curling in their eyes like fog.
Katie edged to his side. ‘I don’t like this place,’ she whispered. ‘The entrance, I saw—’
‘Let’s rest here,’ Tracey said, staring at the arch. ‘I need some time to study those runes. I — I’ve never seen anything like that before.’
‘What did you see?’ Harry whispered in Katie’s ear.
‘What are you two muttering about?’ Tracey narrowed her eyes. ‘And why get so close to her, Harry? You want to catch something from that whore?’
He sighed. ‘Tracey, what—’
‘Whore?’ Katie tensed. ‘I’m not the one who was so desperate for it she’d promise anything just to get it for a few seconds.’
‘Would you two just shut up!’ Harry hissed, feeling the Elder Wand hum against his heart. ‘This is her. You’re letting her magic mess with you. Letting her get in your head.’
A shadow flitted through the gleaming bronze, its soft murmur rising up from the sockets of the skulls. Red light spilt from Smith and Blaise’s pockets, and Pina clung to Harry’s shoulders, her cold fingers tight in his hair.
‘There is no her.’ Blaise sneered, tucking his hands behind his back. ‘There’s just us and them. The four of us are going to walk out of here like we always do and those two, well…’
Smith gulped and sidled back toward the corridor.
‘You know what,’ Tracey said. ‘I’m tired of this. I’m sick of this. Of her.’ She snatched her wand out. ‘You want to know something, Bell. Here you go. The truth. Harry’s been lying to you this—’
‘Shut up.’ She levelled her wand at him with a white-knuckled fist; its tip trembled as she strode forward to press it into his ribs. ‘This is your fucking fault. Cosying up to that whore. You want her? You’ll leave me for her? Because she somehow gives you some special fucking feeling I don’t? No. I won’t have it. Not now. Not after I fucking waited for you all this time. Not when we’re so fucking close.’
‘What was he lying about?’ Katie demanded, pulling her wand. ‘That the two of you are actually back together? That you didn’t decide to fuck with his head and really hurt him? That you’re not a toxic little bitch? If he wants to leave you, it’s because you’re a fucking terrible person.’
‘So’s he,’ Tracey snapped. ‘All those break-ins. Those were us. All the nice things he’s said and done for you, just to get you to trust him so you’ll pin all this on Smith while we get rich and then be useful afterward. You think he cares if Pina eats anyone?’
Katie snorted. ‘I don’t believe you. Harry said you came to investigate Smith. Why else are you here instead of a proper ICW team?’
‘Investigate me?’ Smith puffed himself up. ‘I found them. And through some very unsavoury people…’ He licked his lips. ‘I wanted to get in here and the ICW said no. Bell, they’re—’
Blaise’s hand flashed out from behind his back. A flash of blue streaked past Harry and caught Smith in the head, spraying blood across the floor and knocking him down into the dark corridor.
‘One less share,’ Blaise said, turning his wand on Katie.
Harry drew the Elder Wand from his pocket, ignoring Tracey’s wand in his face. ‘Don’t even think about it, Blaise.’
‘Just making sure she doesn’t try to curse us.’ Blaise held up his other hand.
Harry felt Pina stir. ‘No, Agrippina. You stay up there. I know you’re hungry, but don’t go after Smith. He’s too far from us. Don’t go anywhere by yourself.’
Pina moaned and buried her face in his hair. ‘But I’m so hungry,’ she whispered. ‘I — I need it. All that hot, bright, sweet red.’ She snapped her teeth. ‘Please, daddy. Please.’
He reached up with his left hand and rubbed her shoulder. ‘Just a little longer, Pina. I’ve still got a bottle of my blood, remember.’
She whined and kicked her feet against his chest. ‘Fiiiiiiiiiiine.’
Tracey and Blaise exchanged a look.
‘Bell’s not one of us, Harry.’ A thin, sly smile spread across Blaise’s face. ‘And if she’s not going to keep our secrets, then she’s a risk. How are you going to pay off your debts and enjoy life with Tracey if she’s hunting you?’
‘She’s not a risk. Right, Katie?’
‘You lied to me,’ she whispered. ‘This whole fucking time you were lying to me.’
‘I had to,’ he said. ‘I told you. The goblins are quite fond of the idea of sticking my head on something pointy. Nothing else I’ve said is a lie.’
‘Oh, so it’s okay just because everything you said on top of that massive lie was true? And stealing? Murder?’ Katie shook her head and stepped back, keeping her wand on Tracey and Harry. ‘No, when we’re out of here, you’re all going where you belong. Azkaban.’
‘There.’ Tracey lowered her wand, a hard glint in her green eyes. ‘See, Harry. That’s how fucking loyal that whore is. Who did you get into trouble with goblins for saving? All of them. And now you’re out here struggling to stay alive over it, what do they fucking do? Do they help you? No. They fucking judge you.’
‘She’s my friend,’ Harry said. ‘Put your wand down, Blaise.’
‘She’s not our friend,’ Tracey spat. ‘She’s not even your fucking friend. You heard her. Azkaban. From her own fucking mouth.’
Blaise edged forward. ‘We could seal this place up, you know, Tracey. Keep it all here, everything, so nobody can ever get to it but us.’
‘That’s fucking stupid.’ Tracey back-stepped, keeping one eye on Blaise. ‘What’s the point of having all those rubies if we can’t use them to get what we want.’
‘Because they’d be ours.’ A little gleam of hunger welled up in his eyes. ‘We don’t need to sell them, we’ll find other things to sell. This could be our palace. We could have it. We could keep it.’
A chill trickled down Harry’s spine.
The red glow of the runes on the arch and the rubies in Blaise’s pockets brightened. Darkness flitted through the shining barrier, lingering, swirling, curling into a slim, familiar figure. A sharp smile curved beneath the bronze, red as rubies.
‘Pina,’ Tracey murmured. ‘Aren’t you hungry?’
Pina stirred on his shoulders, her hands clamping tight on his head. ‘Shush,’ she huffed. ‘I’m trying not to think about it.’ Her fingers slid down Harry’s cheek to trace his throat. ‘It’s so hard. I need it so much.’
Harry’s blood ran cold. ‘Pina…’
‘Eat him, Pina,’ Blaise said. ‘He’s going to die one day anyway. Isn’t it better if you eat him?’
Tracey whirled on him. ‘The fuck—’
‘Look at him defending Bell,’ Blaise replied. ‘He’s made his choice, he’s just trying to justify it. If he was ever going to choose you, Tracey, he would have done it already.’ A thin little smirk crept onto his face. ‘Harry’s pretty tasty, right, Pina? Go on. You know you want to.’
Pina froze, trembling. Her grip tightened, clamping Harry’s head in place as he tried to turn to look at her.
‘Pina,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t listen to him. Don’t listen to the shadow.’
‘Go on, Pina.’ Blaise’s smirk widened. ‘You can do it. You have to do it.’
Her cold breath washed against Harry’s ear and down his neck, two little cold pinpricks scraped down the skin of his throat.
‘Remember what you promised, Pina,’ Tracey whispered. ‘Who do you eat first?’
The pinpricks vanished.
‘Blaise,’ Pina chirped. ‘I eat Blaise first.’
Blaise paled. ‘Wait—’
Her weight vanished from Harry’s shoulders and a dark blur flashed across the skulls. Blue curses hissed past Harry’s shoulder, sailing down the corridor.
Pina plucked Blaise’s wand from his fingers, twisting around him and stamping on his calf with one small foot. His leg snapped with a sharp crack and Blaise’s scream echoed back off the walls. Bone stuck through his shin, gleaming wet and red.
Pina let out a soft little sigh. ‘I can smell it.’ She licked her lips. ‘So bright and hot and red and sweet.’
‘No. No. No. No.’ Blaise dragged himself back toward the mirror fumbling for the rubies in his pocket and tossing them at her bare toes. ‘No! Have these. Take one, Pina. Aren’t they red? Aren’t they bright?’ He stopped scrabbling and fell still, staring into the last gem with a strange smile. ‘Aren’t they beautiful? Like a heart in the palm of my hand, light and hot as a star.’
Pina crushed the wand into splinters and prowled across the skulls smashing rubies under her heel one at a time, her orange eyes burning. ‘They’re not tasty,’ she murmured. ‘And they’re full of the shadow’s magic.’
He kicked out with his good leg, but she caught his foot in one hand and twisted it out at the knee with a crunch. A sharp gasp and a groan tore from Blaise’s lips.
Pina tiptoed closer, watching the red run from where the bone stuck through his shin. She dipped a fingertip into it and touched it to the pink tip of her tongue. A little shiver rippled through and she let out a quiet moan.
‘It was just the magic of the shadow.’ Blaise twisted to Harry with pleading eyes as he dragged himself back from Pina. ‘I didn’t mean it. You’re not going to—’
‘I am,’ he said. ‘I’ve had enough of you scheming and stirring up trouble. And you brought this on yourself.’
Blaise’s back hit the wall. ‘Tracey,’ he whispered. ‘Trace—’
‘Pina, just eat him,’ Tracey said. ‘Don’t play with your food.’
‘You can’t—’ he glanced between them and his face turned white ‘—wait, I’ve got a stash of things. I’ll tell you where it is if you call her off.’ He licked his lips. ‘It’s enough to pay Harry’s debt.’
‘Tell us,’ Tracey said as Pina slid past Blaise’s legs and caught his wrists in her hands. ‘And we’ll think about it.’
‘Call her off first.’ Blaise strained against Pina’s grip. ‘Get her off.’
‘Wait a moment, Pina,’ Harry said. ‘Let’s see if he tells us.’
‘But I’m so hungry,’ she whined, closing her fingers until Blaise’s wrists splintered and he howled. She dropped his limp arms and licked the red from her palms, sucking her fingers clean. ‘And he tastes sour anyway.’
‘My mother’s tomb,’ Blaise gasped. ‘It’s all there. The ghostblade, too.’ He sagged. ‘I told you. You can have it all. Call her off.’
‘No.’ Tracey turned her back on him. ‘All yours, Pina.’
Pina lunged with a little giggle, shoving Blaise’s head to one side and ripping into his throat with her little fangs. Crimson spurted across her face, soaking her grey dress and spattering onto the skulls.
Harry grimaced and swivelled away.
Katie’s eyes flicked between them and her wand shook. ‘You going to feed me to her next, Harry? Is that how this ends?’ She clenched her jaw and blinked hard. ‘Is that how this always ends?’
A long sigh escaped him. ‘No, Katie. I’m not.’
‘Then what?’ She jabbed her wand at Tracey. ‘She’ll try and kill me the moment she can.’
‘We’re going to rest and get through that door tomorrow.’ Harry slashed the Elder Wand, ripping the wands from Tracey and Katie’s hands and snatching them from the air. ‘And you two are going to shut up and leave each other be. Once we’re out of here, the magic will stop messing with us, and that’ll be that.’
‘Fine.’ Katie stomped to the far side of the room and dropped down against the wall, hunching her knees into her chest and wrapping her arms around them.
‘Why the fuck did you take my wand?’ Tracey muttered, stepping forward over the skulls. ‘I wouldn’t do anything to you, Harry.’
Harry took a step back, tucking their wands into his jacket. ‘Because Katie’s right. You would try to kill her if you lost your temper.’
She frowned and took another step. ‘I did this all for you. For us.’
‘No.’ He retreated another pace. ‘Stay where you are.’
‘You don’t trust me?’ Tracey whispered, sinking down onto the floor. ‘I know I messed a fucking lot of things up. I pushed you. I hurt you. But I need you. I can’t have you leaving me. I’ve built us a house. I’ve waited years. We’re going to pay your fucking debts off and start our life together.’
‘Don’t think about any of that,’ Harry said, sitting down. ‘The shadow uses it to mess with you. When we’re out of here, then we can try and uncomplicate this, but nothing we choose in here is going to be wise. She’s influencing us all.’
Pina darted back across the skulls and thrust out her blood-smeared hands. ‘I’m all messy.’ Red dripped plastered her cheeks and dripped from her chin. ‘All sticky and wet and hot.’
Harry sighed. ‘So I can see. Hold still, Pina.’ He stripped the red off her skin and from her hair, peeling it from the threads of her dress. ‘There. All better. One day you’ll learn to eat people without making so much of a mess.’
She flopped into his lap and curled up into a ball. ‘I’m sleepy now.’ A low yawn rose from against his leg. ‘Stay still, daddy.’
Tracey’s green eyes softened and she shifted closed across the skulls. ‘I just want—’
‘I know what you want, Trace.’ He stroked Pina’s dark curls, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. ‘I understand why you want it. If I didn’t want it at least a bit, I wouldn’t have stayed through you ditching me, your lying and all your twisting the knife.’
‘I’m really fucking sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I just wanted your heart.’
Soft laughter echoed from beyond the shining bronze and the red runes crawling across the arch of spines danced like candles in the wind.