Zab and I stared at each other for a long time. The still-damp robes made him look smaller than I remembered. As cold as he must have been in the chilly air of the basement, he stoically refused to show any discomfort. Eventually, he spoke. “Perhaps you are correct. Perhaps the ruling class has made some errors,” he offered.
“Some errors?” I asked incredulously.
Zab continued without acknowledging my objection. “But is it necessary to act as you have? Was there no other way? You said that you were held at Azkaban for three months. That sort of information would have rocked the establishment had you taken it to the press.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Do you honestly think that I would have lived to do that? Fudge wanted me dead. Babcock wanted me kissed. Whoever hired the assassins that hit St. Mungo’s wanted me killed with extreme prejudice. I presume that Kellermann would have wanted me dead, after he found out that I assisted his nephew to commit suicide. There were at least two Aurors at Azkaban who knew I was there, so I had no way of knowing if I would survive making a complaint.”
Zab’s eyes narrowed. “Do not insult my intelligence. You could have come to me. You could have gone to Dumbledore. You could even have gone to Arthur Weasley. You are not being forced into this course of action.”
I leaned forward. “I could not go to you without involving Blaise. Going to Arthur Weasley would have made his entire family targets. Going to Dumbledore would have put me in a position to trust everyone he trusts.” I shook my head. “No, with me ‘dead’, no one I care for is in danger from simply being close to Harry Potter, and I can work to make necessary changes.”
Zab stared directly into my eyes. “These changes are not necessary,” he stressed.
“That is, of course, a matter of opinion.”
Master and Apprentice stared at each other for quite a while. I was rather enjoying the verbal sparring. Zab eventually spoke again. “So, how do we progress from here? Are you going to kill me?”
“Kill you? Why in Merlin’s name would I want to do that?”
“You are not an idiot,” he snapped, even in his fury unwilling to answer a direct question.
“Neither are you,” I retorted. “What does it mean that I am not going to kill you?”
Zab glowered, suddenly getting a taste of the torment he put me through for two years. “There are other alternatives to death. Perhaps you intend me to live my life out as a stupefied brick. I would have been killed in all but the technical sense.”
I chuckled softly. “A pretty bloody important technicality, if I may say so.”
My flippant remark did little to soften his mood. “But one that would allow you to make the promise and not, in effect, keep it. Or, you may intend to convert me to your way of thinking.”
I snorted. “Let’s stay within the realms of probability, shall we?”
Zab’s voice trailed off slightly, becoming softer as he began to ponder the consequences. “Whatever you plans, leaving me alive means that you intend to be identified; or at least do not fear being identified. Convention indicates that, should you be successful, you would be in charge, and thus have nothing to fear from your identity becoming public knowledge. You, however, do not follow convention if you can get away with it.”
I watched and listened, fascinated at his thought processes.
“From your specific targets, you do not appear to be revelling in destruction simply for destruction’s sake. You do have a plan.” His attention flickered over the pile of bricks in the corner. “You kill some without mercy, yet spare others. That indicates a pattern, or at least careful target selection. Fudge you murdered because he held you in Azkaban, yet you have let Babcock, his co-conspirator live. Did you spare Anastasia Royston and her daughter, or just fail to kill them? The DMLE are convinced that you failed, but as my apprentice, I know that you could have succeeded had you wished.
“You escape without difficulty from a single Auror squad when in a public place, but stay to fight three squads at night in a remote location. The Aurors are spared, yet humiliated, despite some of them holding questionable views about the recently deposed Dark Lord.” Zab trailed off, staying silent for a few moments.
“You are not trying to take over the world. The important deaths – Fudge and Kellermann, were carried out not because they were important to your plans, but because they knew you were alive.”
I couldn’t help but smile. While not quite correct, it was close. Kellermann was dead before I was captured.
“No,” Zab continued, watching my expression thoughtfully. “Fudge’s was the only murder you committed to directly keep your secret. Kellermann died before you were captured. Babcock is still alive because she thinks you are dead. The Aurors you claim you saw at Azkaban probably died in the mass-breakout attempt.”
I made a connection in my mind. “That’s how you deduced that I was held in Azkaban. Fudge died straight after a breakout. With all the official prisoners accounted for, you thought it must have been done by a prisoner who was being held off the books. You just didn’t know it was me.”
Zab made no move to confirm or deny my deduction. “You use misdirection, stealing when you do not need to. Your recent economic targets were all owned by Purebloods. You destroyed some, but others you simply neutralized. The Malfoy family holdings have been significantly damaged, yet it makes little sense for you to do so. Lucius and Draco are both dead, and Narcissa is either under arrest or under Auror protection, depending on how long it has been since one of your extracurricular activities.”
I tilted my head to one side. “Are you sure? About the Malfoys being dead? Or is this some misdirection on your part, trying to lead me to believe that you are not as informed as you should be?”
Zab stared at me for a few moments. “So, Draco is alive,” he said seemingly devoid of emotion. But even in his carefully modulated voice, I could hear the tension, the anger, indicating that he hadn’t known the ferret had survived.
“He had the goblet we were looking for,” I confirmed. “Kellermann’s nephew was working for him or with him; I never got a chance to determine the details of their relationship.”
“Yet you don’t know where he is, if you are only attacking his financial interests.”
I snorted, covering the flash of annoyance that he was correct. “Draco Malfoy is irrelevant. I got the goblet from him in Albania, and once I’ve confirmed the destruction of all the other Horcruxes, I will decide its fate. I am attacking LXM’s assets simply because they were aligned with Voldemort and I have detailed information about them. That is all.” I wasn’t going to let slip that the bastard had my wand, and that I was still hunting him down.
“Then we are back to what your goals are,” Zab murmured. “You are making no direct political moves that I can discern, instead letting fickle public opinion to drive the change.” He paused. “Unless you are simply waiting...” Eventually, he shook his head with an expression that clearly stated that he was not interested in continuing this avenue of conversation. “No, I need to process what I have learned before I make a deduction. So, are you going to release me?” he asked, holding up his bound wrists.
“Are you willing to discuss something we were studying?” I asked.
Zab looked wary, but curious at the apparent non-sequitur. “We studied several things.”
I nodded. “I was referring to my ability to push things around. Something has changed.”
He paused, but the curiosity in his eyes was too much. “Changed the way you use your ability, or changed in the ability itself?”
I pursed my lips, gathering my thoughts. “It is changing. I still have control, but it is getting stronger, and I don’t know why.”
Zab frowned. “Stronger? Any magical ability will grow stronger as you practice. We spent many evenings debating the difference between achieving a magical effect with power versus achieving it with skill.”
I nodded. “If it was just incremental improvement I would agree. But the power is increasing far beyond what I would expect. To start with, I would get tired when I used it. The first time I used it deliberately, I only cracked windows and plumbing, but ended up unconscious. Over time, as I practised, the weariness after using it pretty much vanished, unless I was using it overmuch.” I took a breath. “When we began our documenting of it, I could push one person around, maybe two. At Parti Alley, I knocked over a squad of Aurors. They were in close proximity, and it didn’t tire me. Last week, at Malfoy’s potion factory, I did the same thing, with what I thought was the same effort, and I blew away three squads of Aurors in open area.”
Oddly, it was something incongruous that got his attention. “You were alone when you destroyed the potion factory?”
I nodded. “I suppose that people assumed that I had an entire army there.”
Zab shook his head slowly. “There were… conflicting reports.”
I nodded, not really surprised. “Well, it was true; my entire army was there,” I said with a small smirk.
Zab glanced down at his hands, ignoring the taunt. “Release me, and I will continue this discussion.”
I shook my head. “No. You need to make an Unbreakable Oath to be first, that you will not divulge my identity to anyone. If not, as soon as this conversation is over, I’m dosing you with the Draught of the Living Death, and transfiguring you into a brick. In a few weeks, when this is all over, I’ll release you unharmed.”
His eyes narrowed. “I am your best chance to determine what has changed about your ability. Confining me is not in your best interests.”
I gave him a casual shrug. “As I said, it’s only for a few more weeks. You won’t even know the time has gone. I can wait.”
He shook his head. “No, I do not think so. At Azkaban, you would have been under the wards there. By your own description, you force raw magic to be expelled from your core. Abrogo wards drain magic from your core. If you were under their influence for an extended period of time, who knows what effect they would have on you, especially if you used your ability while there. At worst, perhaps you are damaging your core, perhaps to the point of destroying your ability to do magic in the future. At best, perhaps you are forcing it to grow. Who knows? We would need to study it objectively. Something that you are not capable of doing.”
The idea that I may be damaging myself with my over reliance on my pushing ability brought me up short, but Zab’s apparent willingness to assist his captor set warning bells ringing in my mind. “I think that I could conduct a series of tests, despite your reservations.”
“Not on an ability that you alone possess. You have no way of objectively measuring it. If your core is being damaged, then any measurements you made would be tainted.”
I tilted my head from side to side, weighing his words. “Maybe. Either that or I can simply stop using that ability until this is all over.”
Zab’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You are presuming that I would be willing to assist you afterwards.”
I gave him a pout. “You would deny assistance to your Great-grandson-in-law?”
His breath caught lightly in his throat. “You haven’t!” he mouthed.
I shrugged. “Not yet,” I said, smiling at the wave of relief that showed in his suddenly-relaxed shoulders. “Your oath?”
I closed the basement door and locked it with the magic of the Black House. It had been an interesting discussion with Zab, but it was time to get some more things done.
I made my way back upstairs, noting that Ron had left already. I checked the clock on the wall. He was probably off to training. I sat down in a library armchair, and began to think.
Holding Zab in the house was a risk, even transfigured as a brick. I had no way of knowing if he had some contingency plans in place to assist him in escape. Even with his oath, he could cause me no end of grief with the resources he commanded.
“Dobby,” I called.
The little elf was by my side before I finished saying his name. “Master Harry called Dobby?”
I nodded slowly. “I’d like you to implement stage one of my discovery protocol.”
Dobby nodded, and vanished with a pop. Within a few moments, all the objects I brought back from my expeditions would be removed from the house, and stored in a secret location under an aversion charm.
It would make it inconvenient to access without Dobby, but not impossible. And it was exceedingly unlikely that anyone would find it.
All that would remain in Grimmauld Place would be my clothes, some money and my disguises. Dobby was under orders that if the wards surrounding the house were attacked, he was to implement state two. He would collect every personal possession of mine and take them to the attic of 4 Privet Drive. Anyone breaching the wards would find an empty house left just as I had before heading off to Albania.
I was lost in thought when Blaise walked through the door with a glass of wine in hand. She sat down next to me, kicked off her shoes and tucked her legs under her to one side, while leaning against me. “Interesting day?”
“Passably,” I replied. “You?”
She chuckled softly. “Around midday we got notification of another attack. Babcock and the other directors went into a panic and ordered every nurse and healer on the payroll into the hospital.”
I gently gripped her wrist and brought her wine up to my lips for a sip. “Did any patients actually show up?”
She shook her head with a snort. “A grand total of two people came in with lacerations to the soles of their feet. Stupid idiots tried to stamp on Irontooth Termites without thinking about the name. The pincers cut through to the bone.”
I winced. “Sounds painful.”
“No kidding. The overtime bill is going to be huge this month, and all we got out of it was a fairly realistic drill. So, how was your day?”
“Really? I thought Ron wasn’t supposed to release the termites unless you failed.”
I gave her a shrug. “What can I say? He claimed that one of the termites got out of the pouch. He dropped the bag while brushing it off the broom.”
Blaise groaned and dropped her head backwards, leaning on the headrest. “Why did you let him go along?”
“Heh, you’ve got to admit that whatever he manages to do, ranging from impressive failure to wildly successful, it’s almost always funny.”
She grunted. “If one’s sense of humour isn’t particularly refined, I suppose. Are you going to let him go along with you on any more adventures? I’m not sure we could afford it.”
“Hey,” I started, feeling that I should stand up for my old friend. “The last thing I’d want while sitting on a wooden broom several hundred feet in the air would be a magically starved xylophage.”
Blaise gave me a mocking look. “That’s a big word.”
I grinned. “I ran across it while looking for something to destroy the docks with. I had no idea what wood-eating creatures were called before that. I just wish Hermione was here; she’d have been quite impressed.”
Blaise rolled her eyes, but gave a soft chuckle and snuggled closer. “So the docks are destroyed as well?”
“As far as I know. If they have been, I’m going to get Ron to put withdraw his contract signing bonus from Gringotts and start a syndicate to fund the rebuilding. The Black and Potter Family trusts will be heavy investors, to make sure it happens, but it will need a single pure-blood to be the figurehead, or chairman, or whatever you call it.”
Blaise’s eyes sparkled. “You’re building a financial empire?”
“Why not? I’d rather not have to rely on the goblins to manage my affairs if I can help it.”
“No, I like it. It’s good to see you with some ambition. So, everything else went as expected?”
I tilted my head from side to side. “Well, I did have one surprise; I’m still trying to determine if it was good or bad.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“Mmm,” I said, taking another sip of her wine. “My old master was on board the cargo ship.”
Blaise jerked back, nearly spilling some rather nice wine. “What?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either to start with. I honestly didn’t think he ever took an active part in his operations.”
“So what did you do with him?” she asked pointedly.
With a tilt of my head, I indicated the basement. “He’s doing a particularly fine impersonation of a brick.”
Blaise looked directly into my eyes, shock easily read in her own. “You’ve kidnapped my Great-grandfather?”
I nodded. “Yep. I even had a chat with him a couple of hours ago.”
She half rose. “But we have to let him go!”
I gently pulled her back down into the chair. “We will. I already promised him that I would.”
“No buts,” I said calmly, but firmly. “Zab knows who I am, but didn’t work it out until he saw me. So I’m going to assume that no one knows. He swore an oath not to reveal it, but he is rabidly against what we are trying to achieve. I can’t let him go until things have played out.
“Well, what have you found out from him?”
I shrugged. “Not much in the way of facts, you know how he is for answering questions. There is a fair bit to be deduced however.”
“Like?” she prompted, as though as an admitted kidnapper, I could hardly be trusted to come to a conclusion unless she helped.
I held my hands up in supplication. “Fine. Voldemort actually did me a favour by trying to take over the wizarding world.”
“Really?” she asked doubtfully.
I nodded. “Yep. In the same way that the British Army is always ready to fight the last war, the Ministry is now ready to fight off a Dark Lord trying to usurp power.”
Blaise nodded in understanding. “Right. So when you jump around and make threatening noises, they’re looking for someone building a powerbase, something to launch from. Not a one-man, guerrilla-style irritant.”
I nodded halfway through her explanation before freezing at the end. “Irritant?”
She smirked, but waved her hand in a circle. “Get on with it. What else have you ‘deduced’?”
I gave her a mock scowl. “The first thing they saw of me was a high-profile assassination of an ex-Minister, combined with a moderately large theft. Next, what appeared to be a failed assassination on a Wizengamot member, plus another large theft. So they are looking for someone who is both ruthless, but somewhat lacking in resources.”
“Hence, why the boat with the potions cargo was so guarded.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “They thought I was going to steal it. I was surprised at the level of protection the shipment was afforded But, given that I’d just stolen the second largest potions factory in the country, levelled the largest, and that they were expecting that I was going to steal two million galleons worth of stuff, it wasn’t really too astonishing. If I was trying to build up a financial empire capable of funding a sustained attack on the government, then such a shipment would be a clear target.” I smiled to myself. “The real fun is going to happen when they try to figure out if the loss of the cargo was a success or failure.”
“But it was successful. It was exactly what you wanted.”
I felt a twinge in the wards, indicating a new arrival by floo. Figuring that it was Hermione back from university, I just nodded, still smiling. “I know, but they think that I’m trying to fund a revolution. From that point of view, keeping me from getting my hands on two million galleons of highly resalable materials is a success for them.”
“But that’s stupid. They’ve lost all those potion ingredients. Mattias is the only person in the country able to produce a variety of potions at the moment.”
“Yep, and he’ll probably be in Auror custody, helping with their enquiries sooner rather than later. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Ministry tried to nationalise his operation under the guise of ‘keeping the country supplied with potions’. It will probably not occur to the readers of the Prophet that he was doing just that.”
A voice came from the door. “They can’t.”
We both looked up to see Hermione shaking her head.
“Since when does acting illegally stop those in power?” I asked rhetorically.
She gave me a look. “No, I mean that they literally can’t. He’s protected his assets from forced acquisition. What are have you been talking about?”
I gave her a sanitized recap, leaving out little inconsequential things like the identity of my newest guest. “What has Mattias done to stop the Wizengamot from taking over his operations? They could pass a law that allowed them to do just that.”
“Jeremy invited me and some of the other work experience crowd to his factory to offer us employment after you gave him a monopoly. He’s not some idealistic newcomer, Harry. He’s a seasoned businessman operating in a hostile environment. He put his own factories and warehouses under a Fidelius less than a week after you visited him. And he’s not the secret keeper. He gave us each a slip of paper with the location on it, but I didn’t recognise the handwriting.”
I took a deep breath and let it out with a relieved sigh. Mattias was always going to be the week link in my plans. It would have been safer for me to remove him the same way as I’d removed LXM and Bobbins, but that would have left the country in a medical crisis.
“As good as that news is,” I said, “Mattias has little to do with the fact that the Ministry will probably try to spin the fact that they kept a fortune’s worth of bat shit and warthog testicles out of my hands is a success. With any luck, people will wake up to the fact that they can’t afford too many more successes of that nature.”
Blaise drained her glass and rose to her feet. “Shall we?” she asked Hermione.
“Shall we what?” I asked curiously.
Hermione smiled at me. “We’re finalising the details for your funeral.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. In almost all other circumstances, that would be taken as a threat.
Blaise’s gaze flickered towards the corridor leading to the basement as the pair left the room. Logically, I should move the bricks from down below to a place she didn’t know about. But if she did go to check on Zab, and he wasn’t there, that lack of trust would damage our relationship.
I guess I just had to trust her. And hope.
I wonder just how many people got the chance to crash their own funeral. There can’t be that many.
Two days after my aquatic adventures in piracy, the theatrical farce that was my ‘official’ funeral was taking place.
Despite various rounds of pleading, bribing and eventually threats, Blaise and Hermione refused to change their own plans for my ‘unofficial funeral’, leaving the Ministry circus light on people who I’d actually met, but heavy with self-serving, grandstanding wastes of space. If you had any more egos compressed into the available space, we’d probably pass the event horizon of self-centredness.
The dark, heavy grey skies threatened to flush the turds of wizard-kind gathering below into the sewage system that was the main Ministry building. The well-kept gardens of the temporarily-expanded Ministry courtyard rivalled Hampton Court Palace. The massive, obviously out-of-season blooms dominated a stage dominated with a large, framed picture of Yours Truly. The photograph had been taken at the unveiling ceremony of the fountain outside Hogwarts, celebrating those who had given their lives the day of Voldemort’s official death. I suppose it was the only stock photo of me where I wasn’t wearing school robes, a sour expression or making some obscene gesture at the camera.
Thanks to the wonders of Polyjuice, I was wearing the face and body of a Muggle I’d literally bumped into on the Tube. I had debated taking the form of an Auror I’d stripped naked the night I’d attempted to send a potions factory into orbit, but decided against tempting fate. Knowing my luck, I’d end up trying to get past him at the front gate. I settled for wearing a set of Auror robes, covered in a glamour. I’d picked the Muggle out specifically because of his size; so similar to my own. I knew from experience just how uncomfortable it was, having to adjust your suddenly overlarge underwear after losing a foot of height and several stone of weight. I shuddered at the thought of actually wearing the clothes of someone smaller than myself when the fateful hour was up.
The crowds around the gardens drifted and flowed in chaotic tides around clique-islands and battered up against the shores of the main dais, where stony-faced Aurors directed the throng away from the hastily-erected stage. Several empty chairs, set two rows deep, flanked a central podium, from behind which the inevitable flowery speeches would no doubt be delivered.
I carefully eyed the Auror positions, both in the gardens themselves and on the surrounding roofs. There seemed to be a rather disproportionate number guarding the empty stage, presumably to prevent unauthorised access before the event got underway.
There were three Auror pairs I could see in high vantage points on the roofs around the garden. I recognised Tonks in one of the duos. I winced. She was in a highly visible, extremely vulnerable position. Any physical attack on her position would be in full view of both of the other two pairs, and from anyone in the funeral audience who cared to join in the fun.
I bit my lip, thinking hard. I had come prepared to make a fairly large, noisy distraction in the hope that I could isolate and talk to Tonks. That looked like wishful thinking, given the security here. I glanced around, looking at the individual people in the gardens, looking for inspiration.
I barely recognised anyone in the crowd. There were a few faces that had familiar features, but that meant little given the lack of genetic diversity in the upper-echelons of pure-blooded society. There was an elderly chap with silvery-blond hair whose cheekbones and nose bore a familial resemblance to the late Lucius Malfoy. A gaggle of babbling witches looked as though they shared some blood with the Parkinson and Greengrass families. I even saw the red-cheeked, pocked-skinned features of Xavier Zabini, though I only recognised him from photographs in Blaise’s possession; my girlfriend had taken a great many features from her mother’s family.
I drifted slowly, occasionally sipping from my hipflask and suppressing the grimace at the horrible taste of Polyjuice. I had a further two flasks in my robes, should it be necessary for me to assume another, different face. A familiar wizard in my peripheral vision caught my attention, and I suddenly had another use for one of the currently unused flasks.
A group of identically-robed wizards surrounded the familiar, elderly mage, dressed in the colourful national robes of Italian wizards. Salvatore Falcone looked much older and far frailer than I remembered, and his cadre of rookie bodyguards had no idea how to avoid standing out in a crowd. I grinned at the thoughts running through my mind. My Plan A distraction, involving Umbridge, the Imperius Curse and as many amphibians as I could conjure had suddenly been demoted. My new scheme was going to be a great deal of fun to watch, not to mention less stomach-turning.
I moved through the crowds again, this time looking for someone who was both from a family on my shit list and was around my size. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be anyone really fitting that description who was below eighty years of age.
I selected a weed-thin wizard who looked vaguely familiar. I think he was a Slytherin upperclassman when I first started Hogwarts, though it looked like he’d spent the intervening time avoiding anything with even miniscule nutritional value. He was projecting a sort of sullen, hormonal menace, looking as though he had been dragged here against his will by an older family member, and was going to be damned if he was going to talk to anyone. Giving a mental shrug, I casually pulled a couple of hairs from my arm. Under the folds of my cloak, I opened one of the unused Polyjuice flasks and dropped the hairs in. Voila, instant Harry Potter in a can.
It was a little more difficult to position myself to fire off an Imperius curse at my selected target. It was even more difficult to time the spell so as to avoid any telltale hints that the wizard was suddenly not under his own control. I patiently waited for the right moment, ready to apparate away at the first hint that anyone had detected my spellcasting.
It wasn’t. My target stiffened, but quickly relaxed his stance at my silent urging. His mind hardly struggled under my imposed will as I ordered him to walk slowly towards me. We passed each other nonchalantly, with the flask of Harry Potter-imbued polyjuice changing hands.
That done, I hardly needed to order him to go to the edge of the crowd and huddle to himself.
For the next ten minutes or so, I simply watched the crowds, noting the mood and conversation topics I could overhear. While many people expressed dismay at my demise, most of those I could hear were more upset at the end of the Potter and Black lines than by my demise.
A gong rang through the garden, and a fat wizard moved to the lectern on the stage. He requested that we all take our seats, as the service was about to begin. The various cliques drifted as one towards the seating arranged in front of the stage. I watched Falcone carefully as his bodyguards quickly selected and cordoned off a group of chairs, three chairs abreast and three deep, giving their employer physical protection from the mob. I mentally directed my thrall to sit in the row behind, and slightly to the left.
The remaining mass of humanity surged towards the precisely laid out seats with tectonic speed and a lackadaisical attitude. There was a sudden faint panic as it became apparent that the number of chairs was rather outnumbered by attendees.
I stayed at the back of the crowd, making only a token effort to push my way forward. It wouldn’t do to stand out in the crowd.
The service droned on and on.
A few minutes in, I’d instructed my new vassal to drink the potion I’d slipped him, on the assumption that most people would be paying attention to the speakers at the beginning of the service rather than at the end.
He’d done so.
Even watching it, I had hardly noticed the slight change of body structure. With the hood up, his outline had hardly changed at all.
Finally, the first speaker finished his speech. He ceded the spotlight to the Minister, and the crowd took the opportunity for a quick stretch and shift in posture. My heart began pounding in earnest. Here we go.
I instructed the wizard to slowly draw his wand, and send a light tickling hex towards Falcone.
He did so.
Falcone snapped his head around, his glare searching out the person responsible. Under my mental instruction, the unlucky wizard pulled back the hood of his robe slightly and gave Falcone a smirk and a quick, mocking wave with the last three fingers of the hand that held his wand.
Just as Scrimgeour took the spotlight, Salvatore Falcone leapt to his feet with a savage roar and struggled to draw his wand. By the time he’d managed that feat, Falcone was the centre of attention and in the crosshairs of every Auror within earshot. Before they could react, he hurled a dark curse at my hapless victim.
I blinked with a surprised grunt as the feedback through the Imperius gave me a light but unexpected pain in my temple. Because of that, I missed the impressively colourful counter attack.
Aurors acted immediately to take down the instigator, though the eight young, belligerent bodyguards quite happily took up the gauntlet and began spraying all sorts of vile magic around indiscriminately. Some people began apparating away, but many others let loose with their frustrations in ways that would have many healers (not to mention psychologists) in business for quite a while.
As cries and spells erupted from the crowd, I drew my wand and cancelled the glamour on my robes, reverting them back to easily-recognisable Auror field robes. Without giving anyone near me a chance to note my change of attire, I closed my eyes and carefully apparated as quietly as I could to the rear of the raised platform Tonks and her partner were using.
Both Aurors had moved to the front of the small, square dais for a better view down at the writhing mass threatening to explode beneath them. My arrival did not go unnoticed; Tonks spun to face me.
I snapped of a stunner at her partner, and a body bind at her. Tonks showed that she was a squad leader for a reason, deflecting my spell harmlessly skyward. My red spell washed over her partner’s back, and he crumpled silently to the floor.
Tonks began her own attack the instant she finished deflecting my spell. Even so, I was ready, pushing her wand high, hard. I hit her with a silencer before she could bring her wand back to bear.
“Quiet, Auror Tonks,” I said, holding a finger to my lips. “I just wish to continue our conversation from the outskirts of Hogsmeade.”
She hesitated. Screams of agony began to punctuate the shouts of rage below as the festivities began spiralling out of control.
I stepped forward and tapped her companion on the back, disillusioning him. She struggled against my raw magic, trying to protect her partner from my unknown spell, only relaxing when she recognised the effect. “Lower your wand, I have no interest in harming either of you,” I said evenly. “But for the moment, we need to appear as though we are the two assigned Aurors on this platform.”
Slowly, she complied glancing at her companions on the platforms on either side of us. The commotion below appeared to have attracted their attention. Enough that the half-dozen seconds it took for our little act to play out apparently went unnoticed. Tonks cancelled the silencing charm with skill, tentative though it was. “What are you doing here?” she hissed. “We all thought you’d be at the other funeral.”
I glanced down into the throng of spellcasting below, affecting an air of concerned attention. “Is that why security is so lax? I walked in through the front gate.”
I could see Tonks bristle at that, so I held up a hand to placate her. “Never mind. I simply wished to ask you for your answer.”
Tonks bit her lip, but took my lead and pretended to look down at the crowd below, slowly being brought to order by the Aurors stationed in the gardens. Falcone’s bodyguards seemed to be a little less than willing to give up on the fighting. “Ever since you took me to Hogsmeade, I’ve been under surveillance. I can’t even go to the loo without questioning looks,” she said reproachfully.
I let a small smile grow. “How traumatic. Constantly being observed by others who are making unwarranted assumptions. Harry wouldn’t sympathise.”
Tonks’ features softened, a hint of loss washing over her face. “I suppose not.” She gestured down to the shouting mob below. “Did you do that?”
I let my smile vanish. “I only have a limited amount of time here. If you wish to discuss my tactics, you will need to join my little rebellion.”
She swallowed, still with her lower lip between her teeth. “I won’t hurt or kill anyone.”
I waved a hand. “I wouldn’t dream of putting you in a position to do so.”
“Why do you need me, honestly?” she asked. “I mean, you said that you wanted me not because I was an Auror, but because I was a member of the Order.”
I sighed, looking at my watch. “Short answer, because if I know what the Order is doing, I can modify my plans to keep them from causing harm to the members. They all fought Voldemort when the Ministry did nothing, so I would prefer not to involve them if at all possible.”
Tonks stared at me for a few moments as the crowd below quietened down and the severely hexed bodies of Falcone, his guards, and several bystanders were carried away. “All right,” she whispered, nodding. “I’ll help you.”
I gave her a wry smile. “Given a couple of seconds, can you remove the disillusionment charm and enervate your friend here?”
I nodded. “Well then, think up an excuse for the gap in his memory. I shall be in contact soon.” I paused. “Oh, by the way, Salvatore Falcone down there...” I indicated with a tilt of my head.
“Yes?” Tonks asked.
“He’s the one that put the hit on Harry. Just thought you’d want to know.”
With that, I apparated away.
I jumped around the country a bit, visiting my empty potion factory, Hogsmeade and a few other places. It wasn’t too difficult to trace an apparition jump if you acted within a couple of seconds, but following multiple jumps took a degree of mental clarity that few wizards possessed.
I finally apparated into the main reception room at Grimmauld Place, happily musing on Falcone’s fate at the hands of a vengeful Tonks. I started to shrug out of my pilfered Auror robes before pausing.
I had a bad feeling. Something was wrong.
I looked around the room, before noting that there were a couple of photos missing.
Photos that contained Blaise and I.
I apparated directly to my bedroom, finding to my growing horror that Blaise’s clothes were gone. There was nothing of hers left in the room.
“Oh, bugger,” I whispered, racing from the room and leaping down the stairs four steps at a time. I reached the door to the basement at a respectable clip, skidding to a halt just in front of the door.
A little mental probing showed that the locking magic had been bypassed.
I didn’t bother trying to figure out how it had been done. I whipped my wand out and around the door, dispelling the charms keeping it closed. I pulled the door open, ready for an attack from within.
I willed a globe of light into existence, lighting up the room. With all the adrenaline in my system, it was brighter than any time I’d performed the feat in the past.
Nothing seemed out of place. The bricks were still where I had left them.
But finding the locks bypassed made me far more paranoid than usual. I crept into the room, sweeping my wand back and forth, searching for traps. I wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad thing that I didn’t find any.
Standing next to the pile of bricks, I slowly stooped, ready for an attack.
The bricks were still there, and there were still twenty-four. Two that were Kellermann’s agents, three sailors, eighteen agents and one seriously pissed off ex-Master.
They weren’t dusty.
I blinked, looking more closely. Two bricks were dust-free -- the two that had been the wizards who attacked me at my will reading. When I had added Zab and the rest to the pile, they had been covered with a light sprinkling of powder.
Gently, I probed with my wand.
I felt the faintest wisp of a notification ward evaporate. The bricks below were not transfigured people, but conjured masonry.
“Shit!” I shouted, pulling my wand. I connected to the wards and set Zab onto the ‘excluded’ list, joining Dumbledore and Shacklebolt. It would take too long to change the wards to put him on the ‘attack on sight’ list. “Dobby!”
Dobby flashed into existence next to me. “Mast—,” he began,
“Execute stage two, immediately!” I snapped. “Take everything, including Winky and Kreacher, and go to the attic at 4 Privet Drive! Stay there and out of sight until I come to get you.”
Dobby didn’t even wait to blink before disappearing. I’d taken two steps towards the door before I felt the wards forcibly deny access to someone. I’d hardly smiled with satisfaction before the wards came under sustained attack.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I muttered, clambering out of the basement. I shut the door, but didn’t lock it. No point really.
Darkness covered the windows of the rooms as I raced through the house, making sure that there was nothing left that indicated that I’d been living here. A muffled boom echoed through the air, shaking the foundations and filling the air with tiny, short-lived billowing clouds of plaster dust.
I could have engaged the active wards, but that would only have bought me a minute or so, at the cost of advertising that I was still alive. Not even the fact that it would seriously piss off the Aurors’ ward-breakers outside could make me give into temptation.
Dobby had done his work well. In just fifteen seconds since I’d given him the instruction I could see nothing among the remaining pieces of furniture that would give any indication of my presence here in the past six months.
I pulled out Dumbledore’s old sock one more time. Time to leave.
Once the familiar, yet distinctly uncomfortable sensation of being dragged through every dimension via a fishhook through the navel vanished, I allowed myself to fall to my knees onto the damp stone floor of the Chamber of Secrets. A tsunami of nausea washed through my abdomen, and I struggled to keep from vomiting.
Had Blaise betrayed me?
I could still feel the attack on the wards, even from this distance. Zab’s forced denial of entry had been a slap in the face to the proud wizard, and he was leading an attack on my home’s magical defences that they were never designed to deal with. Could never be designed to deal with.
I dry heaved again, barely managing to keep my stomach from emptying itself.
Had Blaise betrayed me? Had she chosen her Great-grandfather over me? It certainly appeared so. I bit down and swallowed my rising anger. It wouldn’t do to destroy parts of my only truly safe refuge at this point. Not when there were many more deserving targets still standing.
I took several deep breaths, feeling the dank musty air. Eventually, my heartbeat returned to normal, despite the continuing assault on the wards at home.
I shook my head. Grimmauld Place was now a write off. I couldn’t return until events had played out their course. I groaned. With Zab’s escape, I was going to have to enact my contingency plans. Of course, he couldn’t reveal my identity without violating his oath, but he could let Blaise do that.
With a growl, I hammered my fist on the hard, muddy ground, indulging my anger in some small, non-destructive way. “Damn it!” I shouted into the dark, hearing the echoes return for many moments.
Once more, I took a deep breath, and this time let it out slowly, letting my anger go with it. I was relatively safe here. I had two other bolt-holes I’d furnished with supplies I could use temporarily, and of course I had the Potion Factory in the Cotswalds.
There would be time enough to let my anger loose later. I would enjoy that, I promised myself as my heart rate returned to double digits. For now, I needed to see if there was anything in the stash of demonic riches down here that could be useful in my inevitable counter-attack. I’d also check on my serpentine friend, to see if he needed anything.
I turned towards the main Chamber and immediately stopped short.
In the dim light, I stared at the sight of several statues filling the exit. My eyes flickered over the group, counting and cataloguing. “...eleven...twelve...thirteen. What the hell was thirteen people doing down here?” I muttered to myself.
If the mode of dress and equipment were any indication, the group consisted of six Muggle soldiers and seven wizards. I couldn’t imagine that any wizard worth his wand would be caught dead carrying a heavy machinegun.
Shrugging at the tastelessness yet almost pinpoint-accuracy of that thought, I moved over to the group. Twelve of the thirteen statues were locked in a stance that bespoke readiness for battle, even if eleven of those had toppled over. The only figure that remained upright was down on one knee, his weapon up and readied, the petrified finger permanently holding the trigger down. Around him, scattered like brass pebbles, were ammunition casings.
The lone figure in a passive stance was a wizard who was dressed much differently from his companions, attired in garments seemingly made from the scales of serpents. His arms were raised as though he was speaking to a crowd, though now it simply looked like a statue in the midst of doing a set of push ups.
Each statue’s face was covered by an identical mask made of a thick, opaque material with an elliptical glass aperture that would have restricted the wearer’s peripheral vision greatly. Attached to the part of the mask that covered the nose and mouth was a full gas filtration system. I gently tugged the mask off one of the wizards, getting a bit of a shiver at the expression my action revealed. Terror and surprise intermingled on the unfamiliar face, etched in place for eternity. Or at least until some mandrakes could be harvested. Which may be quite a while, since there was a bit of a shortage of potion ingredients these days.
Pulling the mask apart soon showed its purpose. The glass opening at the front let light in onto a series of mirrors, which did nothing but direct the light back to the wearer’s eyes. While technically redundant, it would have prevented certain specific magical attacks, say, the gaze of a basilisk, from being fatal.
Further examination of the area around the statues revealed several dead roosters, rotting in the dark, dank environment.
Ah, Darius’ merry band of hand-picked church wizards and Swiss guards, no doubt, with their hired serpent shaman in tow. I hope the Holy See was offering a decent pension and danger pay. It looks like they got all the way from the entrance in Myrtle’s bathroom almost to the inner Chamber before being attacked. One of the soldiers even managed to get his weapon readied and discharged before being caught in the current resident’s gaze.
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. All of the statues were in the doorway. It was rather poor tactics to allow your entire force to be taken out in one go. There were no statues or corpses in supporting positions on either side of the portal or in the antechamber to the main entrance, so either the group had been led by an idiot or the basilisk had allowed the rest of the force escape without exacting a brief but rather effective retribution. Knowing the parties involved, neither scenario seemed entirely feasible.
I patted down the robes adorning the statues with some distaste. It turned out to be a rather fruitless exercise, there was no identification, no valuables and, beyond the somewhat specialised equipment carried, no real useful gear. Each of the wizards carried a pair of unlabeled, tightly-stoppered flasks, but with no access to a fully stocked potion laboratory or Potion Master on my payroll, I had no real way of determining what liquids within actually were. Wands were gripped tightly in petrified fists, making it impossible to remove them without rendering the fragile wooden tools useless. The massive firearms carried by the non-magical soldiers would have been more useful, except that they too were in a death-grip. Even the staff carried by the serpent shaman couldn’t be pulled from its owner’s hand. It looked interesting though, the gnarled wood carved into a very realistic looking serpent.
Suddenly, I couldn’t hear my breath in my nose. I frowned, and snapped my fingers. Nothing. No sound could be heard whatsoever.
I rose to my full height and turned to face my serpentine friend. The basilisk coiled and loomed over me, flicking his tongue at me in irritation. The thrashing of its tail was ample evidence of its mood.
It only took me a couple of seconds to work out what the problem was. Mentally kicking myself, I drew my wand and gestured for him to turn his head.
The enormous, scaled neck twisted and lowered, presenting the adamantine jewellery I’d stuck to the basilisk’s skin. Casting the required anti-sticking charms in forceful silence, the silvery band came away.
Instantly, the angry hissings became audible.
“Finally!” the basilisk all but shouted at me. “Your cursed gift has left me bereft of hearing for too many days!”
I winced. “Forgive me. I should have—“
With a hiss that bordered on being a snarl of frustration, the basilisk turned and slithered away, moving deeper into the dank grotto. Once it came to the massive bust of Salazar Slytherin, it positioned its massive head underneath an outcropping of sculpted granite, and began scratching the area from where I’d taken the charmed adamantine. Bits and pieces of carved rock rained down in a shower guaranteed to induce a concussion in an unwary bystander.
The basilisk gave an odd sort of echoing hiss, which I took to be a sigh of pleasure. Despite having arguably the most dangerous creature on the planet angry with me, I couldn’t help but grin at the sight. A casual glance around the dim room showed a thick carpet of gravel around the edges of the room that hadn’t been there the last time I had visited. The deep gouges along the walls and ceiling hinted at my friend’s discomfort over the past couple of weeks.
Eventually, the basilisk stopped his frenetic scratching, and gave a long, low hiss of satisfaction. “Ahhh,” he hissed.
“Better?” I queried.
“Inconceivably,” came the response. “That infernal metal chain shall never touch my skin again, wizard.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. I’m sorry. I didn’t realise that it would become such an irritant. I didn’t even think that it would continue to keep you in silence in the presence of dead roosters.”
The basilisk coiled briefly, then with one final crushing rub on the wall, slithered back to me. “As much as I loathed having it bonded to my skin, I cannot deny that it saved my life. The wizards yonder tried to slay me in my sleep three nights before the last full moon.”
I frowned, counting under my breath. “Seventeen days ago.” I looked back at the rotting rooster carcasses. I suppose they looked like they died two and a half weeks ago, thought I was certainly no expert. “It saved you?” I waved my wand, looking for my previously erected silencing charms. They were gone.
The basilisk actually looked sheepish, which was quite impressive on a creature with a noted lack of facial muscles. “To my eternal shame, they managed to catch me off guard. I had gorged myself in the hours beforehand, and was in deep slumber when I first caught the scent of the cursed cockerels. I was only partially roused by the time the intruders had advanced to where you found them. The one dressed in the skin of my cousins raised his arms at me, but your thrice-damned enchanted chain prevented me from hearing any utterances. My gaze swept over the vanguard, killing all where they stood, but not before one of them began peppering me with his fire-spitting device.”
“Vanguard?” I asked, privately amused that a massive machine gun that looked capable of mowing down a herd of rampaging elephants had an effect that had only been described as ‘peppering’. If the statues back there represented only those in the front line, then they weren’t being led by an idiot.
The basilisk actually sounded pleased with himself. “Yes. Only those first through the portal to this Chamber perished by my gaze. The remainder fled with much haste and little decorum.”
“You didn’t chase them down to feast?” I asked, before holding up a hand. “No, wait, you just said that you had eaten your full just before. Sorry.”
“No apology is necessary, wizard,” he responded. “In any event, I was still befuddled with weariness by the time the rout was complete. By the time I had fully regained my senses, I was alone once more. Please, would you use your sorcery to remove all trace of the cockerel corpses? The stench is making this place all but uninhabitable.”
Despite the events of the past hour, I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. A well-armed, well-funded and well-trained group of soldiers and fanatics came down here to deal with a known threat. They cancelled my silencing charms easily enough, but then the roosters died, their pet-parselmouth proved ineffective and the front lines were turned to stone. The rest ran from a reptile too sluggish with food and sleep to do more than note their presence.
Oh, I’m just going to have to send a note to Darius and Waldorf.
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