The sun set behind the jagged, dark spire in a blaze of orange and pink. Harry watched the bright curve slip below the horizon with a heavy heart, the soft glow of his silver wedding band shining through his fingers.
It weighed like a lump of lead on his palm.
‘Vio…lette.’ Liliana’s quiet steps padded up the worn marble. ‘Are you… well?’
Harry clenched his fist around the ring and dropped it back beneath his robes. ‘I’m fine, Liliana.’ He glanced down into the yawning dark beyond his toes. ‘What did you need?’
She picked her way over the weeds and fallen columns. ‘I am… leaving.’
‘Someone… has to be… in Paris,’ Liliana rasped. ‘Présidente… Desrosiers… has demanded… one of us… always be… nearby… although… I will… have to… switch with… Grise in case… she recalls… Liliana.’
‘Just me and the Italians?’ Harry frowned. ‘I’m not going to be all that happy if you ask me to try and take that tower from an entire team of unspeakables by myself.’
‘Grise will… help you.’ She reached out and rested a gloved hand on his arm. ‘He is here… preparing.’
‘Preparing for what?’ he asked.
‘In the dark… it will be… easier… to get close… to the… walls.’ Liliana glanced over her shoulder. ‘Grise is… coming.’ She pulled her hand back. ‘Be careful… Violette… in you we… have someone… strong enough… to stop all… those who… are like him.’
A faint smile crept onto Harry’s lips. ‘Don’t worry, Liliana. I’m not allowed to die.’
‘You are not… the Duforts.’ She grimaced. ‘I cannot… bring myself… to say it.’
‘Best not to,’ he replied. ‘Soul magic is dangerous and tricky stuff.’
Liliana nodded. ‘I know. Au revoir… Violette.’ She vanished with a loud crack.
Grise strode up to the edge of the crumbling dome. ‘Was that Vert?’
‘She’s headed back to Paris.’ Harry slid his wand from his sleeve. ‘What’s the plan? She said we were moving tonight, but that was it.’
‘It seems we’ve got the island locked down. The Italians have agreed to uphold the wards and from what Vert says, it seems they’re unlikely to risk coming out after the last attempt.’ Grise twisted on his heel and pointed at the tower. ‘Like Azkaban, that stronghold has one door. It’s warded strongly, but there’s no physical barrier because that would have hindered the dementors the British initially kept here more than any spells.’
‘So what, we make a break for it?’
‘Not us.’ He gestured at the ruins. ‘I brought some of my assets.’
Harry squinted into the growing gloom. A scatter of figures stood still as statues among the crumbling walls and pools.
‘I spent some time on them,’ Grise said. ‘They’ll weather most spells commonly used against inferi.’
‘They’re not going to trouble the unspeakables.’ Harry tallied them up. ‘Thirty?’
‘I’ve learnt a lot of tricks.’ Grise’s pink eyes glowed in the light of the setting sun. ‘And I’ve got others. This is more about getting an idea of what our opponents can do without taking any risks.’ He fixed Harry with a pointed look. ‘You are quick to take risks, Violette. It is not always wise, in war. Inferii can be very useful with a bit of expertise behind them.’
Harry peered down into the dark. ‘Well, in that case. I know just the thing to add to the occasion.’ He thrust out his hand and yanked with his magic.
A few tesserae rose from the dark.
Grise watched on with a curious gleam in his eyes. ‘What were you—’
The head of the sea serpent smashed through the hole in the dome. Ten metres of silver scales rose after it, tapering off to the bare bones of the tail. The corpse thudded to the ground, flopping and rolling to rest against the fallen marble columns.
‘I can’t re-animate that.’ Grise paced the length of it. ‘Not having just done those thirty.’
Harry shrugged and thrust out his wand. ‘Then I’ll do it.’ He drove his magic into the sea serpent, forcing it through the scales and flesh to the bone.
It shuddered, writhing like an eel as an eerie yellow glow flickered within its scales, and drew into tight coils, dragging broken, ragged fins across the ground as it reared its head above the crumbling ruins.
‘Crude.’ Grise studied it. ‘You poured magic into it like a rough duelling transfiguration. An inferius is enchanted to do what you wish, not – not soaked in your magic so much it does as you will.’
‘That’s more or less the same thing in the end, and if it works…’
He pursed his lips. ‘With precise enchanting, you can make an inferius much more dangerous and versatile. Even a sea serpent as large as this one can be improved since sea serpents aren’t particularly resistant to magic.’
‘Enchanting’s not really my forté,’ Harry admitted. ‘I never spent much time studying the nuances of it.’
‘If Sarcelle and Cramoisi cannot teach you some of the subtleties, then you cannot be taught,’ Grise replied, poking the silver scales of the sea serpent with his wand. ‘This will do for our purposes. A battering ram of sorts. No doubt there are some nasty surprises waiting before we reach the tower itself.’
‘Now?’ Harry asked.
‘Yes.’ Grise pointed down into the ruins. ‘We should watch from there. It will give us a good idea of the skill sets of each of these unspeakables, something we can later exploit.’
The undead sea serpent lowered its blunt nose and slithered down the hill, rumbling over fallen columns and barging through crumbling walls.
Harry wrenched the world past him and stepped out onto the broken glass in the centre of the ruins with a soft snap. The shards crunched under his boots as he strolled to a good vantage point.
Grise appeared beside him with a loud crack.
The sea serpent slithered up the hill toward the tower, trailed by a ragged band of inferi. It bulldozed through flashes of white light, leaving chunks of flesh scattered across the slope. Bare bone gleamed in the moonlight from beneath the gaping wounds as it wound its way toward the jagged turret. Inferii vanished, sucked down into the ground with loud pops.
‘They set up traps, I thought they would.’ Grise watched with a sharp glint in his pink eyes. ‘That’s a switching spell snare. Simple and quick to create, and easy to hide. A nasty way to die.’
A flicker of movement in the tower entrance caught Harry’s eye. Gryphon thrust their wand down the slope at the sea serpent as it barreled forward through flashes of light. Their magic ripped into Harry’s, leeching pieces away, and the sea serpent shuddered, the eerie yellow glowing flickering.
‘A wards specialist,’ Grise murmured. ‘Or someone good at dismantling them. This is where understanding the nuances of enchanting would have served you better, Violette.’
Dragon stepped out beside Gryphon, throwing a bright bubble of white magic up in front of the sea serpent. The giant inferius hammered into the bubble and reeled back, baring its fangs.
‘That’s the other ward specialist,’ Harry said.
Grise appraised the bubble. ‘They seem to be a pair, one to dismantle and another to defend.’
The undead sea serpent hammered its head into the bubble, sinking its fangs into the shield, crushing the bubble of white magic. The dozen remaining inferi scrambled past its flailing tail and clawed at the shield.
Gryphon let out a raw yell and slashed their wand. Their magic ripped at Harry’s unravelling the enchantment and the sea serpent slumped to the floor.
‘Well, that was disappointing,’ Harry muttered.
Acromantula and Werewolf hurled curses into the inferi, smashing them back down the slope. Grindylow lurked at the back, wand in hand.
‘Crude enchanting is like badly made rope,’ Grise said. ‘You can tug bits of a badly made rope out of the weave without having to overpower the whole enchantment and eventually it falls apart.’
‘Do you want to have a crack at them now?’ Harry asked.
‘No. I would prefer to plan.’ Grise watched the unspeakables put down the last handful of inferi in gouts of flame. ‘We have an offensive and defensive ward specialist, two duellists and one more who may well be a healer, but could also be a trump card.’
‘The one I killed was good at transfiguration.’
‘That one doesn’t matter.’
‘Unless we want to try transfiguring things to fight them again and they now don’t have anyone very good at stopping us.’ Harry pointed his wand up at the tower past the burning corpse of the sea serpent and thick, streaming smoke. ‘Admittedly, I’m pretty sure the wards will stop me from doing much to the stronghold itself, but I’m sure I can think of something.’
Grise paused. ‘That is a good idea. If you can split them up once more with transfiguration, I can provide a method of whittling them down.’
‘We still have to get through the wards, though.’
‘This might be a moment for Cramoisi.’
Unease coiled in the pit of Harry’s stomach. ‘Not if I can think of something better.’
‘Can you?’ Grise asked. ‘Transfiguration is costly magic; you can’t break through the wards and do that afterward. I certainly cannot uphold my part as well as taking down the wards. I’m not sure any of us but Cramoisi will be able to take them down to begin with.’
‘Will not fight very hard for us if they fight at all.’
Harry clenched his jaw. Merde. He’s right. And they’d probably all die, too. He smothered a flash of Zoe’s bloodsoaked dress and Sophonissa’s parting whisper. Gabby doesn’t have to fight. Just take the wards down. I can do all the rest.
‘Cramoisi may take some convincing,’ he replied, resting a hand over his wedding band. ‘Give me a few days.’
If I’m going back, I may as well make the most of it. A soft pang twisted in his heart. I’ll get to see my little Katie and Fleur for a few days at least.
‘That will have no impact, it will take me some time to prepare for our true assault anyway.’ Grise steepled his fingers. ‘You have a week, but you must be ready at the end of it. Everything we know about the wards here from when we were allied against Grindelwald can be found in Paris.’
‘I’ll find them.’ Harry bent and picked up a firecrab shell, picturing Bonifacio’s stone hall. ‘Portus.’
‘Violette.’ Grise’s pink eyes bored into him. ‘We’re nearly there. One last push before Britain’s allies commit to anything and we can force Britain back to the ICW and a peaceful settlement. This is in no small part due to your efforts. This won’t be forgotten. Not by me or Présidente Desrosiers.’
I don’t care if you forget. I care about the Last Scions and their puppets. Harry’s heart sank into a cold dark place. And they don’t think they’ve got anything left to lose. It’s not going to work. I refuse to waste time wishing for it. He took a deep breath and bounced the firecrab shell on his hand. We’re nearly at La Victoire Finale. And then it won’t matter what they all do.
‘Firecrab,’ he muttered, staggering into Bonifacio’s cool hall with a loud crack.
Harry vanished the makeshift portkey and pulled the acorn from his robes. ‘Argent,’ he whispered.
The stone columns lurched sideways and blurred into blue sky and swaying green willow fronds. Harry breathed it in for a moment, holding back the rising murmur of yearning and watching the slim shapes of the fish darting beneath the river’s ripples.
Home. A faint smile crept onto his lips. Now, where’s my baby bird?
He apparated into the kitchen with a soft snap, side-stepping Laurent.
‘Welcome back.’ Laurent paced before the sink, staring into his coffee. ‘Good day?’
‘I’m back,’ Harry replied. ‘That’s a pretty good day for me.’
‘Well, that makes one of us.’
A little chill slid down Harry’s spine. ‘Anything we need to worry about?’
‘Not our family, but us in general,’ Laurent said. ‘It is not yet official, but we are fairly certain that the Dutch, Spanish and Russkayan Tsardom will all follow Britain’s example and leave the ICW in the coming days.’
‘Merde,’ Harry muttered. Fear closed its cold fist around the base of his spine and his stomach clenched into a tight knot. ‘Which means they all plan to weigh in at some point.’
Spain in the Caribbean, the Russkayan Tsardom in Crimea, and Isobel said she and her sisters were probably going to Belgium…
‘The magical kingdoms and countries in Africa, Asia and South America have started abstaining from the votes pertaining to the conflict.’ Laurent took a sip of coffee and grimaced. ‘Which means they don’t want to get dragged into any coming war by appearing to choose a side, but it also results in the cast votes of the ICW now all belonging to enemies of Britain and its allies. And that’s a huge risk. The ICW is meant to ensure countries act together to protect the Statute; it’s not meant to be a military alliance between nations.’
Soft footsteps approached from the hall.
She wandered in with a small smile and soft blue eyes, her blue dress whispering across the floor. Katie wrapped Fleur’s silver hair up in her small, chubby fists, babbling against Fleur’s slim collarbone.
Harry’s breath hitched.
‘I thought I heard your voice.’ Fleur drifted across the kitchen and rested her forehead against his cheek in a faint wash of marzipan and honeysuckle. ‘Je t’aime,’ she whispered, breathing him in. ‘I missed you.’
Katie squirmed around in Fleur’s arms, her green eyes widening, and clutched at Harry’s robes with a small frown. Laurent sipped his coffee with a small smile, stepping back into the corner.
‘She missed you too,’ Fleur murmured as their daughter wriggled across and buried her face in Harry’s chest. ‘A lot. She kept crawling around trying to find you and getting upset when you weren’t there to chase her.’
‘Come here, then, baby bird,’ Harry murmured, cradling Katie against his shoulder. ‘I’m back again now. I’m back.’
A soft laugh burst from Fleur. ‘Our little chick has stuck herself to your robes, mon Amour. Look.’
Harry wrapped his hands around Katie’s waist and lifted her up. His robes came with her as if glued to her skin. She really missed me that much? His heart melted into a warm little puddle and hot tears welled up on his lashes. You’re so perfect, baby bird.
Katie made a quiet noise of discontent and scrunched up her face; the green of her irises darkened to pine. Harry rested her back against his shoulder, blinking the blur of tears away and stroking Katie’s back until she relaxed in his arms and her eyes fluttered shut.
Fleur cupped his cheek. ‘Are you crying, mon Coeur?’
He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed the lump in his throat, smiling as a warm tear trickled down his face. ‘I’m really upset I couldn’t think of a good bird pun about her being stuck to me.’
She flashed him a smile and brushed his tears away. ‘How long are you back for, mon Amour?’
Harry’s cheer faded. ‘A week. I told Grise it would take a while to convince Gabby to help in Malta.’
‘Help with what?’ Fleur’s smile vanished. ‘The wards?’
Laurent cleared his throat. ‘Gabrielle is not—’
‘She’s not a good duellist,’ Fleur murmured. ‘She can’t fight like I can.’
‘I’m only going to ask about the wards. Nothing else.’ He caught her blue eyes. ‘We’re running out of time, mon Rêve…’
‘She will say yes, but—.’
‘I will keep her more than safe,’ Harry whispered. ‘She won’t be hurt. I will not allow it.’