‘Are you sure you don’t want to try eating something with the spoon?’ Apolline asked, waggling the bowl of squished swede under Katie’s nose.
Katie wrapped both hands around the handle of her spoon and chewed on the blue head with a huge scowl on her little face.
‘What’s wrong, mon petit chou?’ Apolline gave the spoon a light tug. ‘Aren’t you hungry?’
Katie balled her fists around the spoon and chomped harder.
‘Hey.’ Harry eased the spoon out of her mouth. ‘You’ll get sore gums, baby bird.’
She glowered at him, her bright green irises darkened through pine-green to pitch black, little goose bumps rising along her arms as she burst into small sobs.
Apolline hummed. ‘Maybe she’s teething.’ She set the bowl down and straightened up. ‘Let me go see if I’ve still got some Numbing Potion upstairs.’
‘I’ll try and appease the angry ball of feathers.’ Harry winced as Katie’s sobs escalated to screams. ‘Maybe.’
She threw her head back and wailed, clutching for him.
The kitchen lurched sideways and he thudded into the table.
‘Ouch,’ Harry muttered, rubbing his hip. ‘Perhaps it would be a good idea for Fleur to put that bubble of wards around you sooner if you’re going to start summoning me into furniture.’
Katie stuck her hands out and cried louder.
‘Come here, silly little chick.’ He gathered her into his arms, ignoring her kicking legs thumping into his ribs and bouncing her in his arms. ‘Are your teeth coming through? Is that what’s so upsetting?’
Katie bawled in his ear, tears streaming down her face.
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ Harry stroked gentle circles over her back, strolling around the kitchen table. ‘It’ll be okay, baby bird,’ he murmured. ‘It’ll be okay.’
‘Found some!’ Apolline reappeared, waving a small vial of clear potion. ‘I usually have some in case of minor brewing burns.’
Harry eyed the vial. ‘What does it do?’
‘It just numbs the area you put it on a little bit. It’s a very mild one.’ She gave it a shake, smiling at wailing, dark-eyed, white-feathered Katie. ‘It’s absolutely fine for babies. You could pour this into your eyes or even drink it and while it would feel very weird, it wouldn’t do you any harm at all. I’ll dab a little bit on her gums to take the edge off.
’That sounds like a good idea.’ Harry lifted Katie up and sat her on the table, wiggling a finger into each fist. ‘I’ve got her.’ He bounced her white-tufted arms up and down.
Apolline poured a few drops of clear potion onto her finger and dabbed it across Katie’s upper gums as she cried. ‘And now for the lower ones.’ She dripped a little more onto her finger and swiped it across his daughter’s bottom gums.
Katie howled, huge tears leaking down her cheeks.
‘It’ll feel better in a moment, baby bird.’ Harry tugged his fingers free and swept her back into his arms, sitting her on his shoulders and slipping his wand from his sleeve to stick her to his robes. ‘What’s the view like from up there, Katie?’
Katie’s crying faded and she grabbed two handfuls of his hair, tugging at it.
‘Ow.’ He winced as her tugging got stronger. ‘Was throwing me into a table not enough, little chick? You’re going to pull all my hair out, too?’
Gabby flickered into the kitchen, tucking her acorn necklace down her front. ‘Oh hello up there, tiny veela chick. You look like you’ve just been very loud and grumpy.’
Harry chuckled. ‘We think she’s teething.’ He reached up and patted Katie on the back. ‘She summoned me into the table.’
‘She summoned you?’ Gabby let out a low whistle. ‘That’s impressive.’
‘Not very hard or fast, it felt like a light shove.’
‘Still, that’s quite strong magic.’ She giggled. ‘Maybe we should carry out a standard magical core binding spell. That’s what’s done to Aimee when she’s a baby, only she has it done to her by her headmistress, because she was jealous about how beautiful Aimee would grow up to become.’
‘Those plot points make absolutely no sense,’ Harry replied. ‘How did this series ever get so popular?’ He caught the glint of mischief in her grey eyes. ‘Actually, don’t answer that. I already know how.’
‘It also suppressed her special magical aura that attracts veela to her,’ Gabby said. ‘Only, because of that it grows really strong.’
Harry grinned. ‘Let me guess, she becomes catnip for bird-witches?’
‘Ah, Aimee.’ Apolline laughed. ‘When they were released, I was still at school. I had so many girls think that was how our magic really worked.’
‘That must have been annoying,’ Harry said. ‘If I’ve learnt anything about veela magic, it’s that nothing Gabby quotes from those books is even close to correct.’
‘We were just children and children can be quite silly.’ She watched Katie pat at his head with a fond smile. ‘Our magic varies quite a lot in strength and changes as we do, my allure greatly faded not too long after I found Laurent and had Fleur.’
‘Was it as strong as Fleur’s?’
‘Non.’ Apolline shook her head. ‘We thought Gabrielle was going to be much the stronger of the two of our daughters you know, Harry. Like me, Gabrielle was very in tune with any magic around her as a little girl, but unlike me that never changed, so we wondered just how powerful her magic would be when she was older. Fleur was never in tune with anything but what she wanted.’
Gabby snickered. ‘And then in a few years, Fleur’s allure spiked.’
‘It was so strong.’ Apolline murmured. ‘She left trails of dazed boys without even trying. We tried to ward it, but she refused to let us. And as it caused more and more trouble with her peers…’
‘Lots of fire,’ Gabby whispered. ‘And feathers.’
‘Romance.’ Harry grinned. ‘Where is my bird-wife?’
‘Waiting for us to come back,’ Gabby chirped. ‘I’m sure Maman won’t mind doting on Katie for a little bit.’
‘I would not mind at all,’ Apolline murmured, reaching out. ‘May I?’
Harry lifted Katie off his shoulders and set the squirming bundle of tiny veela down in Apolline’s arms. ‘Be good, little chick. Don’t summon your grand-mère into any tables. Save that for papa.’ He caught Gabby’s grey eyes. ‘The library?’
She nodded. ‘We found a few things and thought you’d like to take a look.’
‘Of course.’ He touched the acorn. ‘Argent.’
The kitchen lurched and he staggered into Salazar’s study. Fleur sat behind the book-heaped desk, flicking through a weathered volume.
‘What have you found, my brilliant and beautiful bird-girl?’ Harry asked.
‘From Les Inconnus, almost nothing,’ she replied as Gabby appeared with a loud pop. ‘Just a compilation of observations. No recorded sightings of mating, chicks, or anything like that. A few tentative but pretty baseless theories that phoenixes are lingering creations of great power like basilisks or lethifolds rather than natural magical creatures like a dragon.’
‘And maybe very helpful,’ Gabby said. ‘We’ve not got through the whole stack yet, so there might be more, but if phoenixes are a creation, then we can recreate the magic that was used to make them. We must be able to.’
A warm ray of hope burst through Harry. ‘And if we can do that, then we’re there.’ Relief flooded him. ‘Nothing to be afraid of ever again.’
So long as we can afford the price. The hope wavered. We sacrificed to reach our dream. And that might not be the same as keeping it.
‘We did find more on lethifolds,’ Fleur said. ‘And given the theories we decided we’d read through some of that.’
‘Les Inconnus had some copies of magical studies carried out in the US,’ Gabby replied, poring through the stacks of books. ‘I’m not sure where it ended up…’
‘Magical studies on lethifolds?’ Harry frowned. ‘I bet they were fun.’
‘On obscurials.’ Fleur wrinkled her nose. ‘The US has issues with obscurials and children performing accidental magic because it has so many muggleborns coming in from the huge muggle population to the much smaller magical community. It’s hard for them to watch over all the children. They get a major obscurial incident every decade or so and they’re worried there will eventually be one strong enough to threaten the Statute.’
‘It’s a big political issue for them, Papa talked about it a year or so ago during their elections.’ Gabby plucked a wedge of papers out of the stack of books. ‘Found it!’ She flicked through to the last couple of pages. ‘Here we go, it’s suggested lethifolds’ similarities to obscurials is not coincidental and they’re widely considered to be an artificial creation as they bear many hallmarks of unnatural development and their history before the Dark Ages is not so much lost as deliberately censored.’
‘Well, that’s harrowing,’ Harry muttered. ‘What did they do, just rip the obscurial out of a child and enchant it somehow?’
‘Probably worse,’ Gabby whispered. ‘There aren’t very many lethifolds, only a few thousand, but that’s way too many obscurials to have occurred naturally in any one place. Britain has the largest population in the world, the wizard who built Azkaban gathered many of them together there from across Europe, but there’s another group contained in the Black Forest and smaller scattered populations across the Russkayan Tsardom.’
‘What about other places?’
‘Anywhere they’ve been found outside Europe, they were taken by the British or forced to migrate there by other European powers. The British took all of theirs back to Azkaban, so it’s just the ones that migrated into the Russkayan Tsardom and the Black Forest left.’ Fleur lowered her book. ‘Did you copy the map, Gabby?
‘Non.’ Gabby shrugged. ‘We didn’t need it.’
Fleur wrinkled her nose. ‘It was interesting. If you draw a line joining all the dots of the various original locations of lethifold populations across Dark Ages Europe and colour the inside in red, you get something that looks an awful lot like the Roman Empire.’
Ice trickled down Harry’s spine. ‘A legacy of Rome?’
‘Almost certainly used by them and if they are creations like a basilisk then Rome are probably the ones who created them, too.’
‘I’m not a huge fan of lethifolds,’ he said. ‘Did it say anything useful though?’
‘Obscurials are magical parasites, but they’re not entirely distinct from the host,’ Gabby explained. ‘The US has made a lot of advances in studying them, although they’ve not managed to find a way to safely separate the obscurial from the child, only suppress and manage the parasite, but they do think the host child essentially enchants themself over time, trying to get rid of their magic by creating something else to take it away.’
‘Soul magic,’ Harry murmured. ‘That sounds like soul magic of a sort. Trying to rip part of yourself out.’
‘That’s what we thought, mon Amour,’ Fleur said. ‘The US has, in some few obscurial incidents, observed host children being fatally wounded and unleashing the obscurial, but recovering fully healed and alive after the obscurial obliterated anything that the child felt threatened by.’
‘It’s symbiosis according to this.’ Gabby tucked the stack of papers under a large book. ‘The host child’s suffering fuels their magic, which is fed to the obscurial, allowing it to do what the child feels or fears they cannot, and so the child keeps feeding it.’
‘I don’t think that’s of any use to us, though.’ He frowned. ‘Unless you want to try and create something similar? A sort of obscurial that will resurrect us?’
‘I added it to the idea list,’ Fleur said.
‘But I’m not sure it’s a good idea,’ Gabby muttered under her breath. ‘Even if we created a less horrible sort of obscurial, we’d have to find a way of only giving it part of our magic, or we’d not be able to use it ourselves.’
‘I think I like the phoenix idea more.’ A flash of Fleur rising from the ashes, wreathed in flame, passed before his mind’s eye and a faint smile crept onto his lips. ‘It’s fiery and birdy. Much more appropriate for my bird-girl.’
‘Bird-girls,’ Gabby chirped.
‘Hush, harpy.’ Fleur threw a ball of parchment across the room; it bounced off Gabby’s forehead and rolled beneath the ladder.
She giggled. ‘I mean Katie, feather-face.’
Fleur turned her nose up and went a little pink. ‘I do not believe you.’
‘You’ve cried veela harem too many times, Gabby,’ Harry said. ‘Now nobody believes you and you’re going to get eaten.’
Gabby snickered. ‘In the context of the veela harem, that really doesn’t sound so terrible. In fact, Aimee’s inner goddess highly recommends it.’
‘Gabrielle,’ Fleur murmured, her eyes darkening a few hues. ‘Go read a book. A very big, long book that will keep you quiet for a while.’
Harry snorted. ‘Would you like me to help with the books?’
‘All the ones on the desk are ones we’ve got through from Les Inconnus.’ Gabby pointed at the stacks on the floor. ‘There are the ones I’ve found here that might have something in. Don’t mess with the stacks, I’ve arranged them so I know where to put them back.’
He lifted the topmost of the nearest pile. ‘The Desert Goddess?’ Harry chuckled. ‘Did you think this said Dessert Goddess, Gabby?’
She giggled. ‘Non, it’s got pyramids drawn on the spine and a nundu on the back, and Egypt is famous for its ancient soul-related magics.’
‘What was that nundu like?’ Fleur set her book down and summoned another from the pile. ‘One of these talked about a powerful magical survival mechanism triggered by near death that can heal even mortal wounds.’
He nodded. ‘Yeah, they can really do that. I thought I killed it a few times before I did so much damage it wasn’t getting back up again. Not something that would work for us, though.’
‘Was it really dangerous?’ Gabby asked.
Harry shrugged. ‘It’s pretty magically resistant and hard to hurt enough to actually kill it, the claws are very sharp, the breath is deadly and it moves fast. For an average wizard or witch it would be tough to escape without apparating or portkeying away, and tough to kill even for a group of aurors.’
‘Not for us,’ Fleur said, flicking through pages with a frown. ‘Not unless you improvised again and made a mess of everything.’
‘I think it would still have been trouble if I’d not known it was there,’ he replied. ‘It’s in the very dangerous end of the magical creatures book for a reason. Grise said they like to jump on things from above and I can’t imagine that’s much fun for whatever the nundu pounces on.’
‘They’re the most dangerous creature we’ve found anything detailed on,’ Gabby said. ‘Anything more dangerous, except maybe dragons, we just don’t know much about.’
‘There’s definitely some notes on basilisks in here somewhere,’ Harry said. ‘I’m certain of it. Where else would Salazar keep them? If A Thousand and One Snake Puns is here, then so’s How to Train Your Basilisk.’
Gabby giggled. ‘Let us know if you find it. Or anything else useful.’
‘I’ll get started on the far end.’ Harry surveyed the book stacks. ‘We can meet in the middle.’
She snickered. ‘Like fate-ordained—’
A ball of parchment bounced off Gabby’s nose. ‘Hush, harpy.’ Fleur lowered her arm. ‘Go read something that isn’t unsuitable for children for once.’
‘I don’t think How to Train Your Basilisk is child-friendly,’ Harry replied. ‘But the snake puns are probably okay.’ He ran his finger along the spines. ‘These are all about goblin history and culture.’ He skipped to the next section. ‘And these are all about the different goblin… hives? Interesting that they’re hives, but not exactly important, I guess.’ Harry sighed. ‘This is going to take a while, isn’t it?’
‘Not too long, mon Amour,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Don’t fret.’
But the longer it takes, the closer the amber-masked figure gets. He sucked in a deep breath to steady the surge of anxiety. We’re going as fast as we can. And we’re getting there.
‘Breathe,’ Gabby whispered. ‘Breathe, mon cher frère. There’s no need to panic yet. We still have time.’