Proud, white stone towers crumbled into red flames. Thick, dark smoke streamed from the crackling blaze across a bright blue sea, swirling past the shining bronze horns of a vast bull-headed statue.
A hand shoved him to his knees and plucked a weight from his head. Gold flashed in the corner of his eye as a crown sailed down through the smoke into the flames.
He twisted around on the stones.
Gleaming white silk whispered in the wind off the flames, trembling above slim, bare feet; it rose up past a deep purple silk sash, over the swell of full breasts, to slim, pale-skinned shoulders and a cascade of crimson hair.
She breathed in the smoke with closed eyes, her dark lashes fluttering and a small smile on her delicate, fine features. Bright opals glittered upon the crown of carven ivory resting atop her head, sparkling against the dizzying spirals cut into the pale bone spines.
Her eyes slid open.
Red irises glowed bright as the fires raging through the city and a burning shroud of magic shivered off her like heat off molten gold.
She held out her right fist, uncurling her fingers. A fist-sized ruby shone on her palm, flickering with crimson light.
He shook his head.
A bronze khopesh appeared in her left hand, the vicious curve gleaming in the light of the fires. She offered the ruby between her forefinger and thumb.
He shook his head.
The ruby vanished. The tip of the khopesh pressed into his ribs, sliding through his skin like a sword through water, hot as flame within his flesh.
Harry jolted awake, clutching at his chest. His fingers brushed the slim, hot lump of the Elder Wand and he swallowed hard, gulping air as the pounding of his heart eased.
‘Did you dream about having a child?’ Tracey folded her arms over the gleaming, rune-engraved silver surface of Daphne and dropped a small, silk cloth. ‘Or was your nightmare about some other form of emotional commitment?’
He snorted. ‘I dreamt we ran out of snacks for Pina and our sweet little angel drained every drop of blood out of me.’
‘Liar.’ She scooped her bangs off her forehead. ‘That was a full on nightmare, Harry.’ Her green eyes softened. ‘You said you didn’t get those anymore.’
‘I don’t.’ Harry swiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘It wasn’t like those nightmares I used to get, I’ve not had one of those since I stopped playing quidditch.’ He glanced at Daphne. ‘Polishing again?’
‘I wanted to make sure they were okay,’ Tracey murmured, resting a hand on Daphne. ‘I don’t want them to get hurt.’
‘What’s the time?’ he asked.
‘Late.’ She slid Daphne back into her bag. ‘You were sleeping like the dead over there until you had your little panic attack and woke up.’
Harry struggled to his feet. ‘Where’s our little girl?’
Tracey laughed. ‘Tormenting those two aurors.’
He frowned. ‘Tormenting as in…?’
‘Sitting nearby and smiling innocently at them,’ she replied. ‘They’re very twitchy. She’s drunk an entire bottle this morning already, though, so we’re all safe unless they wind her up. And if they do, it’s their own stupid fault.’
‘Good.’ Harry stretched and staggered to his feet. ‘I’ll go find Katie and round Pina up so we can get moving.’
Tracey’s knuckles whitened around the straps of her bag. ‘Go find her, then.’
‘I want to get out of here as fast as possible,’ he said. ‘Can you take the tent down?’
‘Fine.’ She stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder. ‘Get out, then, or you’ll get stuck inside.’
Harry glanced over his shoulder at her scowl and brushed through the flap, a quiet satisfaction filling him. All’s fair, isn’t that what you told me?
‘Daddy!’ Pina bounced to her feet.
Michael and Dean flinched, scrambling for their wands.
She blurred across the circular chamber and leapt onto his shoulders. ‘Can we go now? I want to explore and see what things do?’
‘In a minute.’ Harry reached up and shifted her weight off his collarbone.
Smith gaped from the entrance of his tent. ‘Why are you carrying it?’
A sour heat rose onto Harry’s tongue. ‘Because Pina likes being carried, or, I assume you do, Pina, since you take any excuse to jump on me.’
‘It’s a better view from up here,’ she chirped, cocking her head at Smith. ‘You smell sick. Your sweat is acrid and bitter and wrong.’
He flushed and dabbed at his forehead with his handkerchief. ‘I’m perfectly fine, vampire.’
Pina pouted. ‘My name is Agrippina.’
‘Or Pina,’ Harry said. ‘Pina’s shorter and suits her better, because she’s pint-sized.’
Smith puffed his cheeks and stomped across, flapping his hands at Michael and Dean. ‘Come on. Come on. Let’s get ready to move. I want to find my treasure and get out of this uncomfortable, dirty place.’
‘Pint-sized.’ Pina grabbed a handful of his hair and tugged at it. ‘You know I could rip your head off before you have time to react, Harry?’
‘But then I’d drop you.’ He grinned over his shoulder. ‘And I’m the tallest guy here, so you’d lose your best view.’
Pina giggled and snapped her white teeth. ‘Not if I make you like me.’
‘If you do that, I will spend my entire eternal afterlife spanking you,’ Harry muttered. ‘I mean it, Pina. No more making people into vampires. It’s a massive headache for us, they always hold a grudge.’
‘Fine.’ She let out a long sigh and flopped over the top of his head. ‘Maybe-Tasty Katie is still in her tent.’ Pina sniffed. ‘She’s bleeding.’
A jolt of cold rippled through Harry. ‘Bleeding?’
‘It’s just girl bleeding.’ She bounced her feet off her chest. ‘She smells fine, a little angry, but fine.’
‘Good.’ He chuckled. ‘You know, if I’d known you could smell that, I’d’ve asked you to let me know when I need to tiptoe around Tracey.’
‘Nuh uh.’ Pina squirmed forward and hung upside down over his face, her burning orange eyes a finger’s length from his own. ‘Tracey said I couldn’t tell you. Now let’s gooooo, I’m bored.’
Harry pushed her back up onto her perch with one hand and cleared his throat outside Katie’s tent. ‘Knock knock?’
She laughed. ‘Who’s there?’
‘You know who? — Oh.’ Katie giggled, rustling around inside her tent. ‘Clever.’
‘Not really. Ron made that joke about a thousand times in the Forest of Dean, I just wanted to share my pain with you.’
She stepped through the entrance and into his chest. ‘Oops.’
‘Sorry.’ Harry wiggled his foot under her boot. ‘I guess this makes us even.’
Katie beamed. ‘Don’t look now,’ she whispered, ‘but Smith is glaring at you like you just murdered his mother.’
‘Bugger, I was hoping he wouldn’t find out.’ He grinned. ‘In my defence, she was running with scissors and I had no choice but to take her down.’
She scrunched up her face and gnawed at her lip. ‘Tracey also looks kind of annoyed.’
Good. All’s fair.
Harry tugged his foot out from under hers. ‘Are you ready to go?’
Katie jumped back and tapped her wand against the tent. It snapped down into a small circle and floated into her pocket.
‘Yup.’ She shook her messy brown fringe out and saluted. ‘Maybe-Tasty Katie is ready for duty.’
Pina giggled. ‘Can I promote her to Tasty Katie?’
‘No, Agrippina.’ Harry tapped her on the nose. ‘Remember, if you run out of snacks and absolutely have to eat someone, what do you do?’
She sighed. ‘I eat Blaise first.’
‘Good girl.’ Harry grinned and mussed her hair.
Katie laughed. ‘What do you actually do if she runs out of snacks?’
Pina swung herself off Harry’s shoulders and dropped to the floor, brushing her dark dress down. ‘I eat Blaise.’ She grinned, flicking the tip of her tongue across her small white fangs. ‘He’s not as tasty as Harry is, but if I’m really hungry I might drain him dry without thinking about it and I need Harry to perch on.’
Katie gulped. ‘And — er — me?’
Pina’s grin widened, her orange irises glowing beneath her dark curls. ‘You smell tasty.’ She let out a little sigh and clapped her hands together. ‘All tasty and hot and wet and red today.’
Katie flushed. ‘You can smell—’
Harry nodded. ‘Pina can.’
‘And you told Harry…’ Katie buried her face in her hands. ‘Why?!’
‘Come on, Pina,’ Tracey called. ‘Let’s get started.’
Pina blurred away to the entrance to the passage.
‘Can you please pretend you don’t know,’ Katie said, peeking through her fingers. ‘I’m going to pretend I don’t know you know.’
‘Deal.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Let’s go give Tracey a hand, unless you want to give Smith and those two a hand instead.’
‘Nope.’ Katie glowered across at where Dean and Michael wrestled their tents into their bags. ‘I’ve already had enough of Smith leering at my boobs and I’ve only been out of the tent for a few minutes.’
Harry’s gaze slipped.
‘Subtle.’ Katie sniggered and stuck her chest out a little. ‘There, is that better?’
Heat rushed to his face. ‘Sorry.’
‘You’re forgiven.’ She patted him on the cheek with one hand, her eyes flicking past his shoulder. ‘I said you could grab a handful, Harry. Why would I mind you stealing an eyeful?’
He frowned and lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘Are you using me to dissuade Smith?’
Katie twitched. ‘A little bit,’ she muttered, staring at her feet. ‘But I am also just a shameless flirt, it gets me into trouble with the wrong sort of guys, usually.’
And it has again, if the last four years of my life are any measure of me.
‘Are you annoyed?’ She drew herself up. ‘Because if you are, let me remind you who was lying to who for the last few days.’
‘I’m not annoyed.’ Harry shot her a grin. ‘My ego’s just bruised. I thought you were taken with my suave personality and stunning good looks, but it turns out you were just playing me all along.’
‘At least I didn’t steal your broom.’
‘I bet you would if you could,’ he said. ‘Maybe I should go and get it back off Ginny, but I have literally no use for it and she’s not ruined her shoulder, so she does.’
‘Why did you split?’
‘With Ginny?’ Harry drifted across the room toward where Tracey crouched on the floor before the passage. ‘I’ll answer if you answer a question of mine first.’
‘Hit me.’ Katie giggled. ‘You can spank me as practice for when Pina turns you into a vampire.’
Tracey stiffened. ‘He’s not into that.’ She grabbed Pina by the arm and tugged her back out of the passage. ‘Would you fucking stop bouncing around like a hyper toddler for a minute?’
Pina pouted. ‘Get off or I’ll bite you.’
‘I can’t check the runes with you standing on them, Agrippina.’ Tracey shooed her across next to Harry. ‘Go bite Harry, he deserves it.’
‘No I don’t,’ he said, snatching his arm out of biting range. ‘Have you found anything, Trace?’
‘A couple of things.’ She flicked her hair off her eyes with the tip of her wand and pointed it at the walls. ‘Whatever cut Pina in half was inside the stone and activated by a line of runes running across the floor, but the maze is made of shifting cubes, so I’ve no way to keep track of where things like this are.’
‘So we’ll have to go slow.’
Tracey shook her head. ‘Not that slow. Pina can see them easily enough if she looks for them.’
‘They glow,’ Pina chirped. ‘If you weren’t all really blind, you could see them.’
‘Anything else?’ Harry asked.
‘I’ve been trying to figure out how the maze works.’ Tracey rose to her feet. ‘These parts of the passage are like little hollow cubes. Whatever magic this place runs on slides them all around.’
‘That doesn’t sound promising.’
‘It’s not fucking promising at all,’ she snapped. ‘You know how long we could be stuck down here if we can’t find our way through?’
‘Longer than is ideal,’ he muttered, glancing at Pina’s dark curls. ‘What do you need a hand with?’
‘Fixing this cube in place.’ Tracey cast soft white light down the passage. ‘If we can pin them down as we go through them, that’ll make this a lot easier. There must be a way through, even if the maze moves.’
‘Unless there’s no way through and it’s just the maze,’ Katie murmured under her breath.
‘I hate mazes,’ Harry said. ‘You know what happened the last time I was in a magical maze?’
‘You got kidnapped by Voldemort?’
‘No, I got water squirted in my face by the floor.’ He chuckled. ‘It was a playground for kids.’
‘I’m amazed you went there,’ Tracey jibed. ‘Didn’t seeing all the children give you a cold sweat?’
‘I couldn’t tell because I got soaked by the maze.’ Harry shot her a flat look and pulled his wand out. ‘What are we doing?’
‘Disassembling.’ She pulled Astoria out of her inside jacket pocket. ‘There’s not much backlash just from one cube, so it should be fine. Once I’ve ripped the magic out, then it’s not going to move.’
‘What if that breaks the maze?’ Katie asked.
‘It’s meant to.’
‘No, I mean what if it tries to move something here and smashes into it, or something like that?’ She chewed at her lip. ‘Or if not being able to move all the blocks means we lose the way through.’
‘It’s a calculated risk.’ Tracey balanced Astoria on her palm, staring into the flickering red light of the reflected rubies. ‘If I were making a maze, the first thing I’d do is make sure the path through was created, and then I’d move all the other blocks, otherwise it might get stuck.’
Katie screwed up her face. ‘But you don’t know for sure…’
‘No.’ Tracey rested Astoria’s tip on the ground. ‘But I do know how hard it will be to find our way through this place if we don’t do something.’
‘Yeah,’ Harry nudged Katie’s shoulder and tilted his head at Pina. ‘Best we not get stuck down here for too long.’
She gulped. ‘Right. Makes sense.’
‘I saw that, Harry.’ Pina snapped her fangs at him. ‘I’m going to eat you first.’
‘No.’ Tracey glanced back, frowning at Pina with serious green eyes. ‘Who do you eat first, Pina?’
Pina sighed. ‘Blaise. I eat Blaise first.’ She stomped her small foot. ‘But he tastes worse than Harry.’
‘Save the best until last,’ Katie said. ‘Like dessert.’
Pina giggled. ‘Good idea Maybe-Tasty Katie.’
‘I’m full of good ideas.’
‘Harry—’ Tracey waved him over ‘—how sturdy and manly are you feeling?’
He narrowed his eyes. ‘You only ask me that before you ask me to do something dangerous.’
She smiled. ‘I want you to lift me up so I can reach the roof. I want to look at the rubies before I do this.’
‘I’ll just levitate you.’
‘No, that’s too dangerous.’ Tracey shook her head. ‘I want you to be able to get me down right away, just in case.’
Harry reached out an arm and jumped, sweeping his arm through the air just below the flickering rubies. ‘It’s not too high. Just don’t take ages.’
She tucked Astoria back into her pocket and held her arms up. ‘Come on. Pick me up.’
He sighed. ‘But you’re so heavy…’
Tracey rolled her eyes. ‘We both know for a fact you can lift me up if you want to.’ A little smirk tugged at her lips. ‘Or are you hoping I’ll offer similar motivation to those times.’
‘Alright. Alright.’ He wrapped his arms ‘round her thighs and heaved her up above his head with a grimace. ‘Shout if you need to come back down fast, I have a face full of you and can’t see anything else.’
Tracey’s laughter drifted down to him. ‘I quite like it when you’ve got your face down there.’
The material of her t-shirt brushed his nose as she twisted from side to side and a soft, lavender scent filled his nose.
Don’t let her mess with your head. He took a deep breath through his mouth and held it. She knows exactly what she’s doing.
A dull ache settled into Harry’s arms and he gritted his teeth, sucking deep breaths. ‘Are you nearly done?’
‘Couple more seconds.’ Her fingers rested on his head, tangling in his hair. ‘Okay, let me down.’
Harry set her back on the ground with a grunt. ‘Find anything?’
‘Thank you.’ Tracey leant in and pressed a kiss to his cheek, her lips brushing the corner of his mouth. ‘But no. It’s weird, actually, there are no runes. They’re just full of magic.’ She pulled Astoria’s slim, silver form out of her jacket. ‘It’s still, quiet magic, but keep an eye out in case this disturbs it.’
Harry pulled his wand out and waved Pina and Katie back. ‘Are you all good?’
‘Yeah.’ Tracey let the soft white glow on her wand fade. ‘Let’s see how well this goes.’
‘Blaise!’ Harry called. ‘Stay back.’
Tracey tapped Astoria with her wand.
A shudder rippled through the maze with a low rumble. Lines of runes glowed red upon the flagstones and faded out. The rubies overhead flickered like candles in the wind, sparkling like stars.
Harry held his breath.
‘That seems to have gone okay,’ Katie murmured.
A bright red pinprick of light appeared in the gloom of the passage, rising up from the floor like a spark from a fire.
‘I think you jinxed it,’ Harry said.
Footsteps echoed from the gloom, a dull jingle and the slow scrape of metal on stone grew louder as the crimson light swelled large.
Age-greened, bronze horns loomed from the shadows, trailing a faded, red horse-hair crest. The crimson glow bled through links of tarnished mail, bright as the moon and flickering like the rubies above.
‘Barrow wight!’ Pina clapped her hands together and darted forward.
The wight dragged a bronze axe up off the floor and raised it over its head. Pina leapt off the wall and wrenched its neck around, sending a brutal snap echoing down the passage.
‘Oooh.’ Pina poked it in the side. ‘It’s squishy! And warm!’
The wight’s head crunched round into place and the axe flashed back.
‘Ow!’ Pina tottered back, blood pouring between her fingers. ‘Harry!’
‘It’ll heal.’ He sighed and buried the wight in a torrent of fire as it raised its axe above its head. ‘You should have been more careful, Agrippina.’
‘But they don’t normally do that,’ she chirped, wiggling her fingers through the hole in her dress.
Harry wrinkled his nose at the stink of scorched hair and burnt meat. ‘The magic down here’s different, Pina. Don’t mess about.’
Bright, gleaming bronze horns stepped from the flames. Pink flesh and skin crept back over blackened bone and charred meat.
‘Fucking hell.’ Tracey snatched her wand out and unleashed a trio of blue spells.
Her sapphire magic splashed against the red glow like a raindrop into a waterfall. The wight tramped toward them, both hands on the haft of its bronze axe, the sharp edge glinting in the light of the rubies. A dark blur swept past it and the axe clattered to the ground.
Pina waved the wight’s arm over her head. ‘Got your arm, barrow wight.’
Blood spattered her face, spurting from the stump to splash across the stones.
‘Oh,’ she whispered, her orange eyes going wide. ‘It’s still alive.’ Pina dipped a finger into the red on her face and licked it clean with the tip of her tongue. ‘Tasty tasty red.’
The wight lunged.
Harry stepped forward and drove his booted heel into its chest. ‘Pina,’ he snapped. ‘Don’t play with your food, we don’t know what magic this is.’
Pina pouted. ‘Sorry, Harry.’ She threw the arm away and darted forward ducking the wild swing of the wight and ripping the other arm off at the shoulder. ‘There!’ Pina beamed. ‘Harmless!’
‘More like armless,’ Harry muttered. ‘Take its head off, Pina.’
She kicked its legs out from under it and stomped on its skull, crushing the bronze helm and spattering the ground with dark gore and splinters of white bone.
Tracey thrust her wand back into her pocket. ‘Best we keep an eye out for any more of those.’
A loud clang rang down the passage and the dented helm spun away into the dark trailing its soaked, red crest. The wight’s head drew back together from the puddle of crimson and ivory shards. Red eyes glowed like embers in its pale face.
‘Ooooh.’ Pina giggled, licking blood off her fingers. ‘That doesn’t normally happen, either.’
It stumbled to its feet, staggering toward the severed arm on the floor.
‘Oh no you don’t.’ Harry summoned the arm out of its path and tossed it over his shoulder. ‘Pina, get its legs.’
She blurred forward and stomped on the back of its shin with a loud crack. The wight toppled to one knee, white splintered bone protruding from its leg and red gushing down its calf. The bone snapped back, the wound melted closed, and it jerked to its feet.
Harry stepped forward and picked up the axe. ‘Never mind. I’ll do it.’ He swung the axe through its left knee, grimacing at the jolt of severing bone and the hot spray of blood up his arms.
The wight flopped to the floor, squirming forward.
‘Get the red thing,’ Tracey hissed. ‘Harry, get whatever is in its chest!’
He swung the axe into the bronze mail, tearing fist-sized hole across its stomach. A fist-sized ruby glowed beneath bronze rings and between bared, white ribs.
‘Bloody hell,’ he muttered, wrenching the axe free and sending gleaming rings skittering across the ground.
The wight’s heart throbbed beside the ruby, loud enough he could hear it over the rush of his breath. A chill crept down his spine and the rubies darkened, guttering like dying candles. The Elder Wand sang in his pocket, hot as flame against his ribs, its whisper rising and falling with the thud of the wight’s heart.
His fingers crept to the line of stitches in his jacket.
Tracey shoved his shoulder. ‘Stop fucking staring at it and pull it out!’
‘I don’t want to touch it,’ Harry replied, dropping his hand.
‘Well I’m not touching it.’
Katie snatched the axe and jabbed the tip under the ruby. She closed her eyes and twisted the blade, prying the ruby out. The red stone bounced across the ground into the wall and the dull crimson glow in the wight’s eyes faded to lifeless brown.
Katie dropped the axe and stumbled back, swiping at the drops of red on her skin, gasping and trembling like an autumn leaf in a gale.
‘You’re okay,’ he murmured in her ear, grabbing her hands and squeezing her fingers until the shaking stilled. ‘You’re fine. We’re all fine. Just breathe.’
‘Sorry, I’m all jittery.’ She gulped air and clung to his arm. ‘My heart’s beating so hard it feels like it might burst.’
‘It’ll pass in a minute or two,’ Harry whispered. ‘It’s just adrenaline. Nothing to feel bad about.’
Katie took a deep breath and closed her eyes, releasing a long sigh. ‘That was not what I was expecting when Smith dragged me down here.’
‘Us neither.’ Harry glanced at where Pina prodded the still wight in the face with one small finger. ‘I’ve never seen a barrow wight like that before.’
‘Good thing there was only one,’ Tracey said.
‘Will there be more?’ Pina bounced on her feet. ‘I want to eat one.’
‘Probably.’ He poked the severed arm with a toe. ‘I’m not even sure this was a wight, it bled like it was alive.’
‘Excellent work, Katie.’ Smith edged past the corpse, his handkerchief pressed to his mouth and picked the gleaming ruby off the ground, dropping it into his pocket. ‘You’ve got me my first souvenir!’
Harry shook his head. ‘That’s—’
‘Perfectly fine!’ Blaise slipped through and rested an arm on Smith’s shoulder, a sly gleam in his blue eyes. ‘I’m sure we’ll find other rubies down here somewhere.’
Scheming again. Harry rolled his eyes and turned away.
Pina patted her hands in the blood, a huge grin on her face.
‘Alright, let’s fucking move on.’ Tracey swatted Pina on the butt with Astoria. ‘Stop that, Agrippina, you’re making a mess of yourself and we need to get going.’ She pulled out her wand, casting a gentle white light down the passage. ‘We can’t stop until we find another one of these rooms that doesn’t move or somewhere better.’