Furious hisses and roars emanated from the cage at the riverbank. The great black dragon dragged her long, jagged ivory tail spines across the bars and hooked her wing-claws through the top of the cage, rocking it back and forth in the scorched mud; her burning yellow eyes swept across the charred grass and the smooth brown waters flowing through the arches of the patched bridge.
‘She wants to play.’ Bella beamed, swinging her feet off the bridge. ‘Are we going to let her out?’
Charlie snorted. ‘You’re insane. If you let Marzanna out of there, she’ll rip apart anyone she doesn’t set fire to.’
‘But then how did you get her in?’
‘By sneaking up on her blind spot from above and behind and hitting her with about a hundred stunning spells in the back of the head,’ he said. ‘She was busy eating poor Marinna. If she’d seen us coming, we’d never have gotten her back in there.’
‘But they’re meant to be your dragons,’ Bella said. ‘They shouldn’t eat you. That’s just silly.’
‘The dragons really don’t see it that way. They usually tend to ignore people in the wild unless we seem a threat, but Marzanna treats everything as a threat.’
‘What about the small one?’ Bella pointed her finger at the slim, green dragon curled up in the cage on the other side of the river. ‘Will she try and eat you if you let her out?’
‘Norberta?’ Charlie chuckled. ‘She’s about as close to tame as you get with a dragon, but I wouldn’t let her out either with everyone around. They’re not stupid, dragons; they remember people they have any kind of contact with and I’ve known Norberta since she was just a few weeks old. We used to fly together back on the preserve, actually. She won’t eat me, but she might eat someone else.’
‘Awww,’ Bella moaned. ‘But then what are we meant to do? I’m bored! I want to do something fun but everyone’s being boring and playing chess or sleeping or gone!’
Or playing hide and seek in the forest, Bell. Bella scowled at the tall dark trees upstream. Like little cousin Harry, Bella.
‘You’re weird is what you are.’ Charlie shook his head and swept a hand through his long red hair. ‘You remind me of my little sister when she was about eight. Bloody strange, knowing what you’ve done, but I’m really starting to think you don’t get what you’ve done either.’ He grunted and pulled his wand out of the pocket of his white robes. ‘I’ve got plenty of warding to get stuck into, you can help if you know how. I’m going to layer their dead outer scales with defensive enchantments. Which means we really aren’t letting Marzanna out until we don’t want to see her again and are a safe distance away, because with those wards, we will never get her back in that cage or stop her.’
‘I don’t like wards,’ Bella said. ‘Why ward and shield when you can attack?’ She swished an invisible wand and beamed. ‘Attacking is much more fun!’
‘Well, you’ll have to watch then.’ Charlie shrugged. ‘Unless Daphne and Astoria come back from Nurmengard with a new objective, there’s not much to do. Marie Renner and Karsten Metternich have the whole forest locked down with wards. Nobody is getting out.’
‘Can’t we go into the forest?’ Bella pouted and watched the little black ants crawling along the edge of the bridge beside her leg. ‘And find all the people who are hiding?’
You have to seek to find, Bell!
‘It’s just about the least safe magical place in Europe.’ Charlie frowned. ‘I think it’s the only other place outside Britain that has a dementor swarm, but also there are acromantulas and all sorts of dangerous creatures in there and it’s more or less completely hostile and wild.’
‘Acromantulas!’ Bella poked the ants off the edge into the river one by one with the tip of her finger. ‘Cissy hated spiders, she always got me to squish them for her. Even really little ones.’
Charlie snorted. ‘They’re not going to be really little ones.’
Bella giggled. ‘No, acromantulas are huuuuge.’ She spread her arms. ‘Bigger than this!’
They’d make a huge mess when we squish them, Bella. She beamed. And a really good crunching noise, Bell.
A loud crack echoed across the bridge.
Daphne appeared, the white and gold of her robes bright in the morning sun.
‘Hi!’ Bella waved.
‘Good morning,’ Daphne murmured.
‘Where’s Astoria?’ Charlie asked.
‘Dragging Chasca out of bed,’ she replied. ‘Otherwise we have to wait for half an hour while she does her hair.’
Charlie rolled his eyes. ‘Chasca and her hair. She’s worse than any girl I’ve ever known.’
Daphne smoothed her robes out; little grimaces flashed across her face with each clang of the bars of Marzanna’s cage. ‘Grindelwald doesn’t want to waste time scouring the forest right now. We’re going to Constantinople.’
‘Where?’ Bella asked.
The floating city, Bella. Bella screwed her face up. Flying? Like us, Bell?
‘Constantinople.’ Daphne’s cool blue eyes studied Bella. ‘The greatest magical city in Europe.’
A pop echoed across the river and Astoria appeared, the rest of the Walküren around her in the coils of her grey fog.
‘Are we doing something fun there?’ Bella asked. ‘What’s the game?’
‘We are testing the famous wards on the walls,’ Daphne replied. ‘Grindelwald wishes to push on with his plans without wasting time and needs to study the wards.’
Astoria stepped up beside her sister. ‘How the wards of Constantinople work is a very closely kept secret. Grindelwald says the first set of wards that protect the city are the old Roman ones, kept up to this day and always active, but when the magical nobility of the Eastern Roman Empire went into hiding and they enchanted their city to float above the straits, they added the set that have never been overcome.’
‘Didn’t the Ottoman Magical Caliphate conquer Constantinople?’ Charlie asked.
‘The city surrendered,’ Daphne murmured. ‘They agreed to join the caliphate in return for their city becoming its capital and their people retaining their place there. Not a drop of blood was spilt.’
Astoria took out a length of copper chain and jingled it. ‘Off we go!’
Bella jumped to her feet and skipped forward to grab a handful of cool metal links. The other Walküren joined and Enni’s cold fingers brushed Bella’s.
‘Not you, Charlie,’ Daphne said. ‘You see to the dragons here.’
‘Alright then.’ Charlie’s hand left the chain. ‘Best of luck and all that.’
A flash of golden flame wiped away the broad brown river, thick forest and Marzanna’s caged silhouette. Bella appeared on a rough, grass-tufted, rocky slope overlooking the blue sea.
This is a bit small for a city, Bell.
She scowled out across the waves. ‘We’re in the wrong place!’
‘No, this small rock is just east of Katre Island, which we were going to use, but apparently there’s now a muggle town there, so we can’t.’ Astoria tugged the copper chain out of Bella’s hand and dropped it into her pocket. ‘But we’re nice and close.’
‘Then where is it?’ Bella pointed her finger at the sea. ‘It’s just boring water!’
Enni chuckled and Chasca burst into laughter.
‘Don’t laugh!’ A little wave of magic buffeted through them, rippling away through the tufts of grass. ‘That’s mean!’
‘You’re looking the wrong way, little Bella,’ Enni said.
‘Ohhhhh.’ Bella twirled around.
Across the waves hovered a vast citadel. Gleaming, bronze-capped square towers rose from red brick walls before a pyramid of marble houses, floating streets and hovering hanging gardens; beneath the city, more square towers protruded down toward the sea, dangling long banners bearing a rearing golden lion with a curved blade between its snarling teeth. Atop the pyramid of the city shone a great two-headed bronze eagle, its beaks showering a cascade of water down the carven marble columns beneath its talons into the tangle of floating green and patches of colour hovering beneath.
‘Quite a sight,’ Zareen said. ‘Why the two-headed bird?’
‘Rome,’ Astoria chimed. ‘The Nymphaion Palace is Suleiman’s seat of power now, but it was once the court and temple of the magical nobility of Rome. You can’t really see the palace itself because it’s surrounded by those hanging gardens and hidden behind the water from the enchanted waterfall.’ She waved a hand at it. ‘Julien used to go on and on about how when we magical people had to go into hiding, most of our greatest temples were abandoned, because they were too famous and if they disappeared, muggles would search for them. This one, fortunately, shares a name with many other sites that were sacred to us back then, so they decided instead of leaving it behind, they’d take it with them out over the sea.’
Daphne folded her arms.
‘Right. Right. Sorry, Daph.’ Astoria snickered. ‘I’ll shut up. We’re here for a reason.’
‘Zhou,’ Daphne murmured. ‘What can you sense?’
Zhou cleared his throat. ‘Give me a moment, it will take a second to reach across the water.’ He closed his eyes. ‘There are wards… wrapped around every slim brick like a clenched fist… and eyes, eyes of glass and runes and gold, they are watching us from every tower.’
‘They know we’re here,’ Daphne murmured. ‘Maybe they will trigger the second layer of wards.’
‘They already have,’ Zhou said. ‘The wards I sensed on the walls are the strongest I’ve ever felt.’
Astoria snickered. ‘Those are the old wards. They were on the walls of the rest of the city too and it took a thousand years for them to finally unravel.’
Zhou muttered something under his breath in his own language. ‘Herr Grindelwald will have to—’ he tensed ‘—someone is coming.’
‘Someone?’ Chasca asked. ‘Just one person? Against all of us?’
‘They come without fear, like a hawk from the clouds.’ Zhou opened his eyes. ‘It has to be—’
‘Suleiman,’ Daphne said.
‘Be wary of his blade.’ Grey fog poured from Astoria’s sleeves. ‘Zareen and Chasca, protect us. Zhou, you are the eyes and ears of the Walküren. Enni, if he tries to use the blade to get in close, you engage him. Bella can fight with us.’
A flash of bronze caught Bella’s eye before the green gardens at Constantinople’s summit. ‘There!’ She snatched her wand out. ‘There he is!’
Here he comes, Bell. Time to play! A bright little thrill fluttered through her. Time to feel alive, Bella.
Suleiman swooped down from the sky on the gleaming metal wings of a snarling bronze lion and leapt to the ground, straightening the collar of his neat black robes. Sharp brown eyes studied them from beneath his purple turban and thick grey eyebrows.
‘Hi!’ Bella skipped forward a few steps.
‘Bella,’ Daphne murmured.
‘Fanatics of Grindelwald.’ Suleiman rested one hand on the pale bone hilt of his curved blade, his long straight wand in the fingers of the other. ‘Did you come here with some diplomatic purpose? Or is it your wish to die with all my city as your audience?’
‘We’re just sightseeing,’ Astoria chimed in.
Golden threads of magic sprang from Chasca’s fingers and the pair of translucent bronze arms sprouted from Zareen’s shoulders.
Suleiman drew his blade and thrust out his wand.
The bronze lion leapt at Bella, claws outstretched, but Enni blurred past and smashed the brazen beast away across the rocks, wrestling back and forth with it as they tumbled down the slope toward the sea.
‘You brought a vampire elder to my city.’ Suleiman’s face sharpened and he levelled his wand at Bella. ‘There will be no mercy. Only death or victory.’
‘Only winning or losing!’ Bella beamed and slashed her wand. ‘Ardens flagello!’
A stream of pink swept forward and splashed back off a shimmering shield of white light, scorching the tufts of grass from the rough stones. Green spells flashed back at Bella, fading into a flood of Zareen’s bronze magic.
‘Watch out!’ Zhou yelled.
Suleiman vanished with a soft snap.
Bella whirled around.
The tip of his curved sword hovered a finger’s width from the base of Zareen’s spine; her bronze arms twisting back to hold the blade, trembling and shaking as it crept closer and closer to her white robes.
Bella hurled her colours at Suleiman, but he deflected them back with a contemptuous swish of the conjured white shield; they streaked past Bella, bursting in the grey fog curled around Daphne and Astoria.
‘Inti’s snare!’ Chasca cast a score of golden ropes forward with both hands.
Tendrils of grey fog lunged as Bella threw all her magic forth as fast as her arm could move, filling the air with pretty pinks, bright purples and fierce reds.
Golden runes flared along Suleiman’s blade and the air around him shimmered like a reflection on water. All Bella’s colours faded away, the grey fog vanished like smoke in the wind and Chasca’s golden net unravelled to nothing.
Zareen’s bronze arms burst into wisps of light and she screamed as half the curved sword sank into her back.
Suleiman kicked Zareen down the slope. ‘One.’ He raised the dripping red blade and drove it into the ground at Bella’s feet, spinning on his heel and levelling his wand at Chasca.
Chasca stumbled back across the rough ground, snatching her wand from her pocket and hurling bright yellow spells at Suleiman. Bella fired her colours at his back and sharp grey tendrils of fog lanced past her shoulders, but all their magic disappeared in the shivering haze.
‘My blade was forged in the Fire of Truth before your ancestors had raised more than hovels. No illusion or sorcery can withstand its edge.’ Suleiman took one step out of the shimmer and slashed his wand at Chasca.
A flash of white light tore through Chasca’s Shield Charm.
Crimson splattered over the stones and Chasca’s head snapped back.
A savage grin spread across Enni’s face as the long gash down her face and chest melted closed. ‘I like it when there’s no spells flying everywhere, young man.’ She circled Suleiman, prowling through the haze surrounding the blade and baring her engraved fangs, the hungry gleam in her red eyes bright and fierce as flame.
‘Astoria,’ Daphne murmured.
Grey mist curled down the slope, gathering Zareen up and curling around Chasca’s waist, drawing them both around the edge of the wavering haze to Astoria’s side.
We can’t get any magic through that, Bella. Bella cocked her head and shrugged. That’s okay, Bell! We can go around it instead! She skipped around toward the far side. Silly Suleiman, always shielding!
‘Enni!’ Zhou called.
Suleiman’s grip on his wand tightened and he took three steps back.
Enni bent aside, blurring forward through the shimmering air and thrusting her thick steel blade out. Suleiman’s conjured shield of bright white light smashed her away, sending her rolling down the slope head over heels. He thrust his wand at the ground and thick stone limbs burst out, catching Enni mid-fall and wrapping around her straining figure.
Bella hurled her colours at his ribs.
Suleiman reversed his grip on his wand, catching them all upon the white shield; they burst in little splashes and ripples of pink and purple and blue and orange. Zhou cursed and thrust out his palm. A ripple of magic tore through the air and faded out against the haze surrounding the glowing curved blade with less than a whisper.
Suleiman twisted on his heel and strode back through the shimmering haze, flipping his wand in his hand and firing green curses at Zhou as he stepped out of the other side of the shivering aura surrounding his sword.
Zhou took a deep breath and braced himself; the lime-green spells burst on his skin in showers of bright white sparks. Daphne and Astoria’s thick grey magic lunged forward, breaking back off Suleiman’s shining white shield of light like waves off the cliffs.
Bella drew up all her magic and hurled her brightest spells at Suleiman’s back, but her colours winked out of existence in the shivering air.
So annoying, Bell!
Fire flashed through her veins and a ripple of crackling violent flames burst from her, slamming into the grey fog coiled around Daphne, Astoria and the unconscious bleeding bodies of Zareen and Chasca. It guttered out against the haze of magic.
It’s a trump card, Bella. You can’t just beat trump cards.
Suleiman slashed his wand at Zhou, but the flash of white magic burst against his skin. ‘Very well.’ A ribbon of purple silk burst from his sleeve and curled around the hilt of the curved blade, snatching it back into his palm.
The haze of magic rippled forward.
Zhou cursed and flinched back, ducking the edge of the sword by a hair’s breadth. Suleiman kicked Zhou in the stomach, sending him sprawling back across the dirt, and hurling the blade into the air, putting three green curses into his chest as the shimmer of magic rose above them and spinning on his heel.
‘Keep him occupied for a few moments, Bella,’ Daphne said.
‘Time to melt,’ Astoria chimed.
Bell giggled and bounced forward. ‘Time to play, Silly Man!’
Suleiman fired bright green curses at Bella as it spun overhead.
She swatted them back one by one. ‘This is more like it!’
The spells burst against each other, deflecting off across the slope and up into the sky. Bella slipped her own pink ones in amongst them. Suleiman conjured his round shield of white magic and swept them all aside.
‘No!’ Bella scowled, a little heat coursing through her veins. ‘We were having fun! Look at all the colours there were!’
Suleiman let his Shield Charm fade. ‘Child, this is war, not a game.’
The sword slammed into the ground at Bella’s feet and the shimmer washed over them.
The trump card, Bella!
She kicked it down the slope. ‘Ha!’
Suleiman stuck out his arm and the purple ribbon flashed across the rocks, snatching the sword back into his grasp.
‘Oh.’ Bella pouted. ‘Cheat! Trump cards are meant to be saved for the best moment, not used all the time.’
His lips thinned. ‘There are no trump cards in battle, child. You will die with yours still in your sleeve and feel only bitter regret at your foolishness.’
She giggled. ‘We used our trump card already, Silly Man. If we lose again, we die like Andi and Cissy and ickle Draco and everyone else did!’
‘Then die,’ Suleiman said.
The curved blade flashed forward, the purple ribbon snapping taut.
Bella ducked and the sword whispered past the crown of her head. Loops of purple ribbon caught her hands and arms, pinning her wand to her side as the haze of magic vanished.
Suleiman’s dark eyes flicked past her after the blade.
It’s coming back, Bella.
A tendril of grey fog curled around Bella’s waist, yanking her free of the ribbon.
Golden flames flashed.
Bella smacked into the corner of the long table in Nurmengard’s bleak hall. ‘Ow!’
‘Astoria,’ Daphne murmured.
‘I’ll heal Zareen,’ Astoria replied. ‘Chasca is fine, just out cold. Enni took most of the blow for her and she heals up from almost anything. You check on Zhou, I didn’t recognise that green spell, it wasn’t one we saw duelling in Europe with Julien.’
‘It’s banned from being used in any professional duel along with all other Flesh-Eating Curses,’ Daphne replied, ripping Zhou’s robes open.
An open sore stretched across his chest, weeping clear fluid through soaked, scraggly chest hair; its thick rotten stench filled Bella’s nose.
‘Urgh,’ she said. ‘Icky.’
‘It’s some variation of the Massylian Flesh-Eating Curse.’ Daphne studied the sore. ‘If cast by a powerful enough witch or wizard, it’ll keep eating away at him and force him to lose blood and water until he dies or it’s dealt with. We can’t heal this, but Zareen might be able to. If not, he has maybe an hour to live.’
‘Fine. Fine. I’ll hurry.’ Astoria crouched over Zareen, slicing a long cut through her blood-soaked white robes and peeling them back. ‘Ouch. This has gone through some important things, Daph…’
‘Heal what you can, dull the pain, and wake her up so she can save Zhou and finish healing the wound in her back,’ Daphne murmured.
Astoria snickered. ‘Normally it’s us doing the backstabbing, right, Daph?’
‘Can I help?’ Bella asked, stuffing her wand inside the pocket of her robes. ‘Are they going to lose?’
Astoria shook her head. ‘You’re not a healer. Everyone knows that.’
‘You can go and do what you like for a bit, Bella,’ Daphne murmured. ‘Just don’t cause trouble or get in our way.’
But what now, Bell? She scrunched her face up at the snow falling beyond the long, plain glass windows of the hall. Let’s go explore, Bella. Maybe we’ll find something fun!