The sun rose into the sky above the crumbling stone fort with a scatter of white clouds, its light sparkling on the waves ripplings across the harbour.
‘Perhaps Grise should have found some bigger fish to tow his boat,’ Harry muttered. ‘Or waited until today to call for me.’ He glanced over his shoulder at Giacomo and the score of aurors in the shade below the wall. ‘I assume we’re going first and they’re coming a little later, Liliana?’
‘Yes,’ she rasped, leaning on the weathered battlement and turning the slim wooden portkey over in her hands. ‘We will… clear the… way and… then they… will come… Zoe de… Medici… has spoken… with Marie… Renner… in… Ostirrikia… she has… agreed… to send… help from… Carnuntum… to North Italy… as long as… there is no… risk of war.’
Harry frowned. ‘Ostirrikia is… Austria?’
Sounds pretty similar.
‘More or… less,’ Liliana replied. ‘Ostirrikia… is the most… southerly… magical… Germanic… state. It runs… all the… way down… the Adriatic… coast to… the Ottoman… Caliphate… and goes… East to the… Sunset… Princedoms. He made… the state of… Ostirrikia… one of the… defensive… bases of… his war… defending… it against… Suleiman… and building… Nurmengard… in the… state of… Burgundia… on the … western… border… of Ostirrikia… to defend… against… France.’
‘I really shouldn’t have skipped all those History of Magic lessons,’ he muttered. ‘Who knew there was more in there than just goblin rebellions. Useful things, too.’
Liliana laughed a soft, hoarse chuckle. ‘History is… the best… teacher.’ She fell still. ‘He taught… me that.’
Harry grimaced. ‘Have you seen the British stronghold on Malta before?’
‘Non.’ Liliana shook her head. ‘I turned… on him… before… any of… the attacks… on Malta.’
‘So we’re diving in blind, really.’ Harry grimaced. ‘Fantastic.’
‘No worse… than normal,’ she replied. ‘We will… be fine… I’m sure… Violette.’
We better be. Harry touched a finger to the acorn pendant and pushed a little magic into it. Je t’aime, mon Amour. I miss you both.
The necklace warmed against his skin and a small smile crept onto his lips.
Liliana pushed her hood back a few inches with one finger. ‘Do you… think you… might know… who is… under those… masks?’
Harry stared out over the sea. ‘The Unspeakables?’
‘Yes.’ An unreadable little gleam hovered in her dark eyes. ‘Amelia Bones… recruited… children… for her… aurors… she must… have done… the same… for them. There were… almost no… others… left to… recruit.’
‘I suspect I’d recognise a couple of them at least,’ he replied. ‘I don’t really know who they are, though. It doesn’t really matter.’
‘Not if… they are… ones that… were saved… before?’
‘Like Ginny?’ Harry shook his head. ‘I don’t want to take away things that don’t need to be taken away, but if it’s necessary, I won’t hesitate.’
Their dreams. Or ours.
‘I know… you won’t,’ Liliana rasped. ‘In the… end we… all serve… a greater… good.’
Perhaps. He closed his eyes, picturing the purple symbol in Kart Hadasht as it shifted into the Peverell sigil, its flames brightening into the light that had washed across the world behind Julien’s dying gaze. I suppose we all think our dreams are a greater good than anyone else’s.
A high-pitched wail cut through the quiet.
‘Time to go,’ Harry said, taking a firm grip on one end of the portkey.
Liliana tugged her hood back down over her face and glanced at Giacomo. ‘They are… ready.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Chien.’
The harbour twisted sideways and Harry stumbled into the cool, damp side of a fishing boat. Dead, pale-eyed, bloated fish splashed within the net ahead of the prow, dragging it through the waves toward a low pair of hills rising above the blue. Ragged ruins clung to the nearest and a jagged, dark tower rose from the second into the sky like the broken blade of a knife.
‘So far, nothing has reacted to us being here,’ Grise stepped out from the low cabin, brushing peeling white and blue paint from his hands. ‘We’re close enough to apparate, now.’
Harry nodded. ‘To the top of the other hill?’
‘I think so.’ He shaded his eyes with his hand. ‘The ruins will provide some cover for us in case there’s someone defending it brave enough to try and drive us off the island.’
Let’s get this over with. A soft pang tore through him, driven deep by a flash of Katie’s smile as she crawled along the corridor. I don’t want to be here. He pictured the top of the island, wrenching the world back past him, crushing the resistance of the wards to a paper-thin line.
Harry stepped onto weathered, worn marble, slipping his wand out from his sleeve. Half-tumbled, lichen-patched columns scattered the dust and pebbles between tufts of long grass and squat, tough shrubs. In the dip between the hills, low, crumbling thin red-brick walls sprawled across the sand, draped in seaweed. The tide washed up to them, foaming through the scuttling fire-crabs.
He spun his wand in his hand. ‘So far, so—’
A loud crack rang out.
A dark-robed figure in a smiling, wide-eyed white mask appeared on the fallen column halfway down the slope. Gold flashed in the sun as they stared up at him, a rampant gryphon spread across the blank white face of the unspeakable, bright as dawn light. Other black figures appeared around it with loud pops. More white masks stared up in a loose circle and a prickle of foreboding crawled down Harry’s spine.
‘You’re not ice creams,’ Harry muttered. ‘But you’re definitely Unspeakables.’
Curses flashed up the hill.
He swatted them back, forcing his magic into the ground and sweeping up a wall of stone.
‘Violette.’ Liliana stepped alongside him with a loud pop, thrusting her wand into the sky. ‘Fianto… duri!’
A torrent of white magic burst into the sky, falling in a shimmering bubble over the summit of the small hill. The curses faded into it.
‘Put up all the wards we’ll need,’ Harry said, flattening his wall into the ground.
‘Dragon!’ The gryphon-masked unspeakable upon the toppled marble column thrust his wand up the hill. ‘Take down the Unyielding Shield as fast as you.’
One of the unspeakables strode forward, raising his wand. The red dragon rearing on his mask gleamed bright as blood in the sun.
‘I’ll keep them out while you ward, Vert,’ Harry said, wrenching the world back past him and stepping out behind them. ‘Fulminis.’
A white flash tore through the grass, shattering the fallen marble column.
The Unspeakables appeared at the base of the slope with a series of cracks. Hexes streaked up the hill toward him in a myriad of colours. Harry batted a few aside, striding down the slope as a pair of unspeakables jumped forward and spread out to pincer him. Their curses tore past from both sides, deflecting off each other into the ground and away into the sky. Gryphon, Dragon, and the last unspeakable pushed up in the centre.
Where the hell is Grise? He raised a thick wall of stone in front of him, wincing at the drain, and forced his arm faster, sending the spells hissing back at the silver werewolf marked mask and the black acromantula one. Liliana, hurry up.
Hexes streaked back and forth, bouncing off each other and lancing away at all angles. Sizzling yellow curses punched through the wall of stone, boring holes into the stone at Harry’s feet.
A flash of blue clipped the werewolf mask, sending them spinning around and rolling down the slope. Yellow tore through the ragged rock wall and pain exploded through his stomach, ripping the wind from his lungs.
‘Violette!’ Liliana cried from behind him.
Harry clenched his jaw, deflecting the yellow curses bursting through his stone wall at the black acromantula mask with an aching, burning arm. His stomach throbbed, clenching like a fist with every beat of his heart; warmth soaked down his front.
One of the spells grazed the unspeakable’s shoulder and they threw up a shield. Harry dragged up the amber-masked man, the echo of Sophonissa’s last words and Zoe’s dazed eyes and blood-drenched dress, clawing cold hate up from the emptiness. ‘Avada—’
Yellow ripped through rock and sliced a searing line of agony across ribs.
Merde. He wrenched the world back, apparating back beside Liliana, taking ragged gasps of air through the burning pain.
‘Violette,’ Liliana rasped. ‘Violette?’
The world blurred and spun. Her words faded away from him, floating off into the distance like dandelion seeds drifting out to sea on the cool breeze.
I can’t die. Harry clenched his fist around his wedding band and jabbed his wand at his stomach. I’m not allowed to die.
He poured all the magic he could muster through his wand. ‘Vulnera sanentur.’
The pain eased to a dull ache and the world snapped back into focus. Grise stood at the edge of the wards, staring downhill at a flopping, wriggling mass of fish inferi. The Unspeakables drew back from the tide of snapping dead fish, levitating the still body of their werewolf masked companion and vanishing back into the tall, dark tower with a deafening crack.
Grise whirled around. ‘Violette. How bad is the injury?’
‘I’ll heal.’ Harry peered through the tear in his robes at the sickle-sized wound leaking red into his robes. ‘It might take a little while, though.’
‘Vert.’ Grise waved a hand. ‘Do your best.’
Liliana stepped across. ‘May I… Violette?’
He covered the hole with his hand as the blood flow stilled and the ache shrank to a twinge. ‘It’s fine.’
‘Are you… sure, it… seemed like… it went right… through you?’ She pushed her hood back an inch to stare at him with her dark eyes. ‘It is… quite safe… to show me.’
Harry lowered his hand.
Liliana sucked her breath in, touching the tip of her wand to his stomach. ‘This goes… all the way… through.’ She frowned. ‘But it is… reweaving? Like a… torn cloak… repairing… itself.’
‘Feel free to speed that part up,’ he replied. ‘It’s a smaller hole than the last one an unspeakable made in me, but it still hurts a lot.’
‘Vulnera sanentur,’ Liliana whispered.
The pain faded to nothing as the skin closed.
Harry released a long sigh and restored his robes with a wave of his wand. ‘It seems Britain has a second team of unspeakables.’
‘So it does,’ Grise said, stripping his magic from fish inferi and sweeping them back into the sea with a swish of his wand. ‘They seemed less combat-oriented than the ones we faced in Egypt. Perhaps the role of restoring and maintaining the wards in Britain’s bases has been their role. That would explain why we’ve not come across them. Although, they may have been involved in the ambush in Hadrumentum.’ A faint gleam shone in his pink eyes. ‘For all Amelia Bones’s failures as a diplomat and stateswoman, she did a remarkable job rebuilding British strength.’
‘At what… price though?’ Liliana rasped. ‘We are… fighting… children.’
‘No,’ Harry murmured, smothering a soft pang. ‘They’re not children. They’re all grown up now.’
I wonder, would they understand now what they couldn’t before? He shoved the thought down into the emptiness, fed it into the hollow place beneath his heart and let it go. It’s too late. None of that matters.
Grise turned over a lump of stone with his foot, studying the marble. ‘Roman.’ He glanced between them. ‘Watch over this foothold, check there are no ways around our ward, I will go and see why our Italian allies are running late.’
Self-preservation, I would imagine.
He caught Liliana’s eye as Grise vanished. ‘Would you scry for me, Liliana?’
‘I swore… I would.’ She swept her hood back. ‘What do… you wish… to glimpse?’
‘Here.’ Harry waved a hand at the ruins. ‘If that stronghold is built on top of ruins like this, maybe there’s something we can use. Anything we should know. Anything relevant.’
‘Anything… we should… know.’ Liliana closed her eyes, taking deep, slow breaths.
He tucked his wand back into his sleeve, watching the little flares of flame from the fire crabs scuttling across the ruins. Slim snakes coiled on the walls in the sun above them, and patches of iridescent oysters clustered in the pools at the base of the crumbling walls.
‘Follow… me,’ Liliana rasped, leading him over the columns to a low, smooth slope.. ‘I saw… light. Falling…into… darkness.’
‘This looks like ground.’ Harry poked a toe at a patch of grass.
She pointed her wand at the far side. ‘Here.’
The dust and stone fell away into a dark hole no more than a few paces wide.
‘I’m not sure I want to go down there.’ He slipped his wand out. ‘Lumos.’
A beam of light lanced down to blank, pale stone.
‘Light,’ Liliana said. ‘Falling… into…. darkness.’
‘Alright. Alright. I’m going.’ He dragged a little more magic up and thrust it into the air, wrapping it around himself and floating down into the dark.
Sharp, needle-pointed teeth loomed from the dark.
Merde. Ice flooded his veins.
‘Vio…lette?’ Liliana called.
Harry took a deep breath and shone the light of his wand past the gaping maw over dull, white scales and empty eye sockets. ‘It’s dead. It’s a very big—’ his light swept over ragged, torn fins ‘—fish-snake?’
‘A sea serpent,’ she rasped, peering through the hole above. ‘A big one. They used to nest here a few centuries ago, it’s how France rediscovered the island.’
It’s about half as big as the basilisk.
‘Twelve metres,’ he said. ‘Or something like that.’ Harry traced his light along the walls and up to the dome over his head. ‘This is all brick. Red brick. Thin ones.’
‘Roman,’ Liliana said.
Another legacy of Rome. Harry picked his way over the coils of the dead sea serpent crunching through the shattered mosaics. They just keep on coming.
The snake’s tail hung down from the crumbling floor into still, dark water, nibbled bare to the bone. Glass glinted amidst the scattered tesserae. Harry summoned the largest shard into his hand.
The Peverell crest sat proud on his palm, etched into the clear, cracked base of a goblet.
A chill prickled down his spine. ‘That’s not good.’ He tossed it away and shone his light over the water, across broken roman brick onto dark stone.
Ba’al stared back.
His chipped and battered form looming from the gloom, one arm broken off at the elbow, the other extended as it had been in Kart Hadasht. A cold hole full of shadows gaped in place of his stomach.
‘That’s also not good,’ Harry muttered. ‘I guess we know who was here before Rome.’
And my ancestors were here at some point as well. He floated over the water onto the thin ledge, dabbing a hand to the dampness over his stomach and pressed the tips of his fingers into Ba’al’s hollow belly.
Purple flames flickered in the gaping stomach, drawing together into the same rune that had burnt upon the dome of Kart Hadasht; it wavered, dancing like a candle in the wind, and guttered out.
‘I really hate prophecies,’ Harry whispered, pulling his fingers back. ‘I let you die. I felt your heart stop. I destroyed Rome for you. That’s what you wanted, right? Revenge? I did that. Now leave me be. One final victory, that’s all I want.’
Is it really too much to ask to keep hold of just one dream?
‘Violette?’ Liliana called. ‘What’s down there?’
‘Ghosts.’ He wrapped the air around Ba’al’s statute and crushed it to dust, letting it trickle down into the water. ‘What is this place?’ Harry clenched his jaw and floated himself back across under the dome. ‘What was this place?’
Liliana stared down at him with a faint frown. ‘I will… see.’ She closed her eyes.
It’s just ruins. Ruins and ghosts. He levitated himself back up into the light, slipping his wand away and touching his fingers to the wedding band hanging over his heart. The ancestors I had here died thousands of years ago.
Harry turned to Liliana. ‘What do you see?’
‘Mal Hadasht,’ she rasped. ‘Pride of the… House of… Bodonid. Lost to… Rome, but… reclaimed… later… by their… kin. A… perch to… search from. A place… to seek a… lost heart that… still beats. I can… hear its… echo—’ her breath hitched ‘—it’s screaming… Ba’alat… Tanit… demands… she demands—’
‘Sacrifice,’ Harry whispered, staring at the red-stained fingertips of his hand. ‘I know.’