Grise paced behind the flickering white flames, his shadow swirling beneath his feet as the lanterns drifted overhead. The seconds drained by between his thudding footsteps, trickling past like grains of sand through Harry’s fingers.
‘Vert.’ Grise stopped dead. ‘What are your thoughts? Présidente Desrosiers wants us to be proactive; she fears reacting to Grindelwald’s moves will go as poorly as it did last time.’
Liliana stared down at the battered copper chain twisted across her white knuckles. ‘When they… imprisoned… him and called…. him a monster… he said nothing… but whosoever… holds the devil… let him hold… him well… he hardly will… be caught… a second time.’ A little shiver swept through her. ‘And now he… is free.’
‘Free to do a lot more than quote muggle literature,’ Grise muttered. ‘What do you think he will do, Vert? You know better than I, old friend.’
‘He will do… what he tried… to do… before,’ she rasped. ‘And this time… he will not… repeat… his mistakes.’
‘Mistakes?’ Deep creases wrinkled Grise’s pale forehead. ‘He deliberately lost the first war to avoid the risk of breaching the Statute after the conflict he inspired amongst muggle nations to weaken them and conceal our war ended, and to make sure he would win the second one. And he only lost the second one because of a single duel. If Albus Dumbledore had lost, Grindelwald would have gone on to grind the Russkayan Tsardom to dust, slain Suleiman himself and conquered his last remaining foe, Britain. There would have been nobody powerful enough left to stop him after that.’ His lips thinned. ‘And there is no Albus Dumblefore this time.’
‘He is… older now,’ Liliana whispered. ‘He will still… be formidable… but maybe… Violette…’
Fleur’s grip tightened on Harry’s hand, her fingers burning hot against his.
Grise’s pink eyes snapped up to Harry. ‘This Unspeakable who beat you, Lemon Sorbet, could you fight with him? Against Grindelwald?’ He grimaced. ‘Would you?’
‘I’d prefer not to duel Grindelwald if I can avoid it.’ The corner of Harry’s mouth twitched. ‘I’m sure Lemon Sorbet and I could find some common ground somewhere.’
‘How old is he now?’ Fleur asked. ‘He must be near a hundred.’
‘He is… a little… younger than… Dumbledore,’ Liliana said. ‘He will… be around… ninety-five.’
‘His magic will not feel like it,’ Grise said. ‘He might not be dashing around and have quite the stamina we remember, but I do not recall him having to do much running around or having to duel anyone for very long fifty years ago either.’
‘Maybe we should leave him until last,’ Harry said.
Until after La Victoire Finale. The amber-masked figure rose from the back of his mind. Then it doesn’t matter how powerful or skilled he is.
‘Présidente Desrosiers would agree,’ Grise replied. ‘We have established a ring of wards and supporting auror squads around the Germanic States, and she now wants us to target his allies and friends while he’s occupied establishing control over the Germanic States with Marie Renner, Karsten Metternich and Ansgar Fürstenburg. The Fürst-Elect of Wendburg, Karl Lange, is fighting a slow careful withdrawal from his home toward Tsarina Bugrov in Polans to buy us time to stack the odds in our favour and Elmer Weber, Fürst-Elect of Baiavaria, is somewhere in Alemannia trying to get past Ansgar Fürstenburg to reach France. We cannot help Fürst-Elect Weber until he resurfaces near our border, but when he does that will fall to us. I will stay here to ensure someone is always watching out for any sign of him. This gives us time, if we act swiftly, to eliminate Grindelwald’s allies and pressure those who might be tempted to join him into changing their mind.’
Like goblins under the alps. Harry gave Fleur’s hand a gentle squeeze.
‘British aurors are returning from America; indeed Minister Bones has communicated that a number of American volunteers are coming with them to fight against Grindelwald under Grant Hardsworth, who has resigned from his position as an auror captain to be able to lead them.’ Grise steepled his fingers over his stomach. ‘They will join the Duforts along the warded border between France and the Germanic States within the next few days. This gives us the freedom to strike out.’
‘Strike out… where?’ Liliana rasped. ‘His allies… are not… within… our reach.’
‘Not many of them.’ He released a long sigh. ‘Tsarina Bugrov and the Volsung Confederation have informed us of centaur tribes, giants and trolls moving swiftly through Russkaya’s wilds toward Polans and Wendburg, but she cannot risk the ward lines to attack them and the Volsung Confederation have elected to remain neutral once more.’
‘By the time… we have chased… one group of… centaurs… the rest… will be in… Wendburg.’ She clasped the copper necklace around her neck. ‘We should… attack him now… in force… while his… position… isn’t established… he often… relied on… the caution of… his enemies… to make… gains before.’
Grise frowned into the white flames. ‘The ancient vampiric festival of the Hraddrakan Mysteries begins in a few days. I want to cut off the head of that snake. Kill even a few of their leaders and the fractious vampire princedoms will likely fall back into infighting.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever fought a vampire,’ Harry said. ‘I assume the first thing to do is to avoid getting bitten and turned into another vampire.’
‘There are few vampire flocks in Western Europe,’ Grise said. ‘Rome fought long, bitter wars with the original ones in North Italy when it first rose to prominence and it remembered them well when it encountered other vampire powers later. Between the established Roman magical communities, the migrations into Roman territory after Rome crumbled by pagan magicals and the growing muggle population there was no real space for any to form later. We rarely have to tangle with a vampire more than a century or so old, usually they kill each other in their little squabbles and we just clean up the mess to stop the muggles noticing.’
‘Fight them in… the sunlight,’ Liliana rasped. ‘Their magicks… are weak… in sunlight… vampires… less than… a few… decades old… or who just… feed on muggles… are reduced to… strong muggles… by it.’
‘And when I inevitably have to fight one in the dark?’ Harry asked.
‘Pray the vampire’s not older than a couple centuries,’ Grise said. ‘They imbibe magic from those they drink from and over time it infuses them, enhancing all their natural abilities. There are accounts of four hundred year old vampires turning themselves to mist, summoning beasts and enthralling people with little more than words and eye contact, and the eldest vampire princes are nearing nine hundred years. Their magicks will be potent, perhaps even beyond what we are aware is possible. Nobody has picked a fight with them on their own turf since a few ill-fated Caliphs of the Ottoman Caliphate and they did not make it back to tell anyone what they saw.’
‘But the princes are all going to be elder vampires.’ Fleur’s fingers curled around his, her nails biting into his palm. ‘This seems far too risky.’
‘We are not planning on picking a fair fight,’ Grise replied. ‘The Hraddrakan Mysteries last almost a month and are one of very few regular events where all the princes are under the same roof and not scheming or squabbling against one another. We’re going to wait until it is midday, tear the roof off the castle, and then Violette is going to set fire to everything, starting with the princes.’
Whatever magicks the oldest vampires are capable of, Fiendfyre will probably do for them.
‘Vampires… do not… act or react… quickly… to changes… in the world,’ Liliana rasped. ‘They are… patient… by nature.’
‘If we are successful, the chances of Grindelwald getting any cohesive action from the princedoms within the next decade are very unlikely,’ Grise said. ‘What it will do is set back the ICW’s discussions and attempts to get them included on the ICW body and into the fold there, but that cannot be helped.’
‘I see,’ Harry murmured. ‘What about the goblins?’
‘They have gone… very quiet,’ Liliana said. ‘We fear… a rebellion… against us… once we’re… busy… fighting.’
‘Château D’Acier will be their target,’ he said. ‘It’s full of wizards and witches we don’t want set loose, most of whom are probably former Grindelwald supporters.’
‘Nearly half,’ Grise muttered. ‘Sarcelle also mentioned Château D’Acier, what makes you think it will be a target again?’
‘We found some Roman writings on their wars against goblins,’ Harry replied. ‘They make mention of some kind of sworn grudge; the goblins beneath the alps will try to reclaim Château D’Acier at any chance they have.’
‘Merde.’ Grise paced back and forth behind the brazier. ‘You are certain?’
‘They rebelled both times Grindelwald rose before, right?’
‘They did,’ Liliana whispered. ‘I do… not know… if he… was involved.’
‘If they gain some success at Château D’Acier, other goblin hives might also rebel elsewhere,’ Fleur said. ‘We should make sure of Château D’Acier’s security first. It is inside my ward boundaries.’
‘Vert?’ Grise asked.
‘I trust… Violette,’ she rasped.
‘Better to strike first than be first struck,’ Harry said. ‘We can check the wards on the deepest parts and see what we find before we strengthen them.’
‘Goblins are good at getting through wards,’ Grise replied. ‘You should go now. All three of you. We must get this done swiftly. If the Sunset Princedoms unite to fight with Grindelwald, nobody fighting on our side will be safe after dusk.’
‘Best not to waste time,’ Harry said.
‘There’s no time left to waste,’ Fleur murmured.
Three steps. He swallowed a surge of desperate yearning. Nearly there, baby bird. Nearly there.
‘I can… take us… Violette,’ Liliana whispered, extending her hand. ‘I have… been before.’
Harry took her hand and tightened his grip on Fleur’s. ‘Let’s go, then.’
The Sunshine Room’s brazier of white fire and floating glass lanterns whirled into a small square room of thin, red brick walls. A thick, iron door covered in glimmering runes blocked a narrow archway in the far wall.
Harry stared down at the small tesserae beneath his feet. Roman.
A small hole melted open in the door.
‘What business do you have here?’ A thin, sour-faced wizard demanded through the gap. ‘I have nothing on the schedule.’
Liliana held up her hand to show him her ring. ‘Our own… open up.’
He shrank back. ‘Pardon.’
Keys rattled and the lock grated and screeched. The thick steel door rumbled down into the floor.
Liliana glanced at Harry.
He strode through into a circular room ringed by empty, arched alcoves.
‘Who do you wish to see?’ The wizard brushed at the front of his creased, stained robes. ‘One of Grindelwald’s followers?’
‘Open the… way down… to the… lowest… level,’ Liliana rasped.
The wizard grabbed his wand from his pocket and scrambled across the plain, white mosaic to one of the alcoves, lighting flickering green flames within it. ‘One step and you’ll come out on the fourteenth level. It’s cold down there, and…’ He flushed. ‘And you know all this already, of course. Pardon.’
Harry stepped into the warmth of the fire.
Something yanked him forward and he stumbled out into a smooth stone passage lined with stalagmites and stalactites. Soft dripping echoed all around him.
Liliana appeared beside him, staggering a couple steps over the loose tesserae. ‘Sarcelle… is just… checking the… wards up there.’ Her hand crept to the copper necklace at her throat. ‘In my heart… I can’t help… but believe… it’s best… dead names… stay dead. Yet… I wonder… if I had… not sworn… would I… believe that?’
‘Oaths are powerful things,’ Harry replied. ‘An enchantment cast on your own soul can change anything and everything about you.’
‘A dead name… could bridge… the thousand… years of… conflict… between… Britain… and France. Could bring… hope to… those fighting… him. And you… are young… you could… heal the wound… of the… Statute… for over… a century.’
And be Dumbledore.
Liliana swept her hood back and stared at him with dark eyes. ‘And yet… I cannot… bring myself… to believe. I think… it must be… the oath… I swore,’ she whispered. ‘And I… stand by… my oath. Liliana… is yours.’ Her fingers curled around the copper chain. ‘But it would… be so good… to put out… the fire… of hate… that has… caused so… much pain.’
For how many great and terrible wizards and witches has it been the crucible? Harry studied the swirl of purple on Violette’s ring. How many wizards and witches have lost their dreams in the flames of this conflict? If we fail, it will take our sunset too.
‘Perhaps,’ he murmured. ‘I can’t deny it would be a nicer world without this struggle tearing it in two.’
I could still get the damaz-kar and the phoenix first. And then create a kinder world for Katie. A little temptation uncurled in his breast and wry humour tugged at the corner of his mouth. Neville would almost be right after all.
‘You are… a great… wizard… no matter… what name… you take,’ Liliana rasped. ‘And even… though I… can’t believe… my mind… tells me… that with a… dead name… you could… do something… great.’
Something important. A little shiver crept down Harry’s spine. No. I mustn’t dream his dreams.
Fleur stepped out behind Liliana. ‘The wards are fine up above us. Strong. I would expect the goblins to come from down here anyway.’
‘The sealed… tunnels are… this way,’ Liliana said, moving past the stalagmites down the gentle slope.
Harry followed her along the passage winding around pale beige columns. ‘No cells?’
‘Not so close… to the… way back,’ she replied, drifting to a stop before a flat stone wall covered in lines of runes. ‘This is… where they… breached through… last time.’
Fleur pulled her wand from her waist. ‘Let me see.’
I need to get through there. Somehow.
‘The magic in this is weak,’ she said, running her wand over the iron. ‘Very weak. And it is strangely patchy, like parts are decaying far faster than others. Some are gone completely.’
Liliana frowned. ‘It was… enchanted… to last… and only… forty years… ago.’
Fleur ran her palm across the rock, blue flames bursting from her fingers. ‘My magic has no effect at all, even when it is so weakened.’
A small bulge appeared beneath her hand.
Harry’s blood ran cold. ‘Get back!’
A slim, dark tendril sprouted from the stone, writhing and squirming away from the heat haze hovering around Fleur’s palms.
‘Paraxenos… worms,’ Liliana rasped, severing it in half with a flash of blue light. ‘They are… harmless… to us… but devour… magical things.’
Fleur stared at the two squirming halves of worm. ‘They’re not native to France.’
‘They are… sometimes… found in… Egypt… in old… tombs there,’ Liliana said. ‘They did… not come… here of… their own… accord.’
‘Can you bring that down?’ Harry asked. ‘To see what’s on the other side?’
Fleur glanced up, a small smirk hovering on her lips. ‘The best way to bring this down is with Fiendfyre.’ She took five quick steps back beside them and levelled her wand at the wall.
Cherry-red flames surged forth in a roar of whispers, billowing against the stone and eating into it. Worms wriggled from the stone and dropped to the floor, bursting into flames and curling up.
Fleur closed her eyes and the Fiendfyre guttered out.
A trio of goblins jumped to their feet in the gaping dark hole.
Harry thrust out his hand, summoning them through. Liliana conjured a long, brown rope, wrapping it around their ankles and wrists as they scrambled over the stone.
‘I think this is probably proof they were up to no good,’ he said. ‘Or at least thinking about it sometime soon.’
‘I do not… speak their… tongue,’ Liliana said. ‘And most… goblins… do not… speak ours… outside… Gringotts.’
Violette’s ring will probably translate, but if I give away it can, Liliana will know that we’re capable of changing its magic. He frowned. And that wouldn’t be good.
‘Let me try something.’ Harry rolled one of the three over with his foot and stared it dead in the eye. ‘Legilimens.’
The goblin’s emotions struck yanked at his mind, tugging and twisting at his feelings, lancing through his gut in flashes of cold fear and hot anger. He forced the feel of a bitter grudge through their thoughts, but a confused echo bounced back with a cacophony of panic. A gentle urge to flee deep into the dark welled beneath it, rising with scattered flashes of stone arches, passages and a spiral of gold wrapped around a long, sharp fang; it swelled like a wave, swallowing everything.
Harry ripped their thoughts apart and shook his head.
‘Did you… learn anything?’ Liliana asked. ‘I have… not seen… anyone… try that… on goblins.’
‘Sort of,’ he said. ‘They don’t think and feel like we do.’ Harry mulled over the sensation. ‘They wanted to escape mostly, to a particular goblin below us. I’m not entirely sure why.’
But I bet that goblin will be able to point me toward the damaz-kar or at least roughly in the right direction.
‘We should seal the tunnels back up,’ Fleur said. ‘Not with stone. With iron or lead or bronze. The paraxenos worms can’t eat through that.’
Liliana nodded. ‘I am sure… something… can be… found.’
‘Go back to Grise,’ Harry said. ‘Tell him what we found and see what he thinks. It might be prudent to strike first here and dissuade them.’
‘If we… strike first… we may… set off… many… rebellions,’ she rasped. ‘Sarcelle… is right. We must… seal things… and leave… these three… as a… warning.’
‘Very well.’ He smothered a flash of frustration. ‘I’ll pile their heads through there and Sarcelle will ward the gap until you can find something to enchant to block it. You tell Grise.’
Liliana nodded and strode back up the passage.
Fleur watched her out of sight and tugged off her ring. ‘Be careful, mon Amour.’
‘I will be. I don’t think this will be easy.’ Unease churned in the pit of his stomach. ‘Goblins tend to win when we fight them in the dark of the tunnels.’ Harry offered her a faint smile. ‘But what choice do we have?’
‘None.’ She stepped over the bound, struggling goblins and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. ‘Now go.’ Azure flames burst through her fingers and Fleur bent and plucked a last worm from the floor, scorching it to ashes. ‘Leave me behind alone and don’t come back until you have the damaz-kar.’
The goblins froze, writhing to stare up at them.
‘Grudge-blade,’ one growled.
‘Grudge of crown,’ another muttered.
‘Je t’aime, mon Rêve.’ Harry put three hexes through the chest of each and banished the bodies into the dark beyond the hole in the wall. ‘I will not be stopped,’ he whispered, staring into the flickering blue fire about her hands. ‘I will find it.’