A hunting I will go
I didn't look back as I left. Zab was hunched over the laptop computer with an expression of extreme concentration, and his demeanour told me that interrupting him again any time soon would be a bad idea. As much as I wanted to demand that he not blame me for his loss, I couldn't help but think that I'd be just as angry with someone who asked me to do something that caused the death of someone close to me.
I was out the front door and half a block towards the train station before I recalled that laptops ran on batteries or something. The closest thing to an expert on the subject of Muggle power storage that I had seen in the magical world was Mr. Weasley, and let's face it, even if he had a battery in his collection that was both the right size and fully charged, I wouldn't put any money on him actually being able to replace the bloody thing without some sort of unnatural disaster. With this in mind, I had no illusions that Zab would be able to find a replacement once this one died.
With a sigh, I turned to go back. I knew that I had no idea how to fix a problem like that, but Zab was probably ignorant about his level of ignorance. I looked ahead to see two chaps walking behind me duplicate my move, turning as one and walking the other way. That normally wouldn't have attracted my attention, but the fact they did it in perfect synchronisation, without even talking to each other, sang out to me like an opera singer hollering an aria in my ear.
A slow flush crept over me, and I realised that I was being followed and that I was rather exposed. The wards that Zab had erected at Helmut's door would only have activated if someone tried to cross the threshold. They wouldn't have noted anyone watching people come and go. On anyone else's part, I would suspect it was an oversight (with the exception of Moody, perhaps), but Zab had a level of understanding of his surroundings that I doubt I could ever match. If the wards he cast were deficient in some way, then he more than likely knew about it, and was prepared to exploit it in another way. It was a pity that his exceptional situational awareness didn't translate all that well into the modern Muggle world, but I could understand it.
Oddly, even with the potential danger I was in, I felt a surge of anticipation. I found myself searching not for an escape route, but for a defensible battle site.
I shook my head to clear it of the idea of ambushing my followers. To make anyone watching think that I'd just forgotten something, I patted my pockets, and then nodded with satisfaction, as though confirming that my keys were still with me. With that little display of amateur theatrics, I again turned and continued away from the building. Zab should be able to take care of himself (even if he doesn't get all the info from the computer before it runs out of power), and I needed to make my unwanted tails think that I had no idea they existed.
I made liberal use of public transport as I travelled deeper into Berlin, acting like an aimless tourist with time to spare. I marked both the two who followed me from Helmut's place, as well as another two. The second pair appeared to be nothing more than a loving couple out for a walk, except they had followed my shadows and I onto every tram we took for the past fifteen minutes.
I kept my eye out for a useful public place, somewhere with a heap of people and lots of corners to get lost around. A convenient shopping area filled with milling Muggles fit the bill. I stepped off the tram and wandered around, looking for the public toilets. A WC had been useful the last time I had been followed, and this time I didn't need to side-along apparate a massive red headed stomach on legs. It only took a few minutes to locate them, set into an unimaginative square, red brick building just one story high.
In the reflection of the last shop window before I entered, I caught a single glimpse of the two men who had been following me since leaving Zab making their way directly towards me, but the brief glance showed no sign of the other pair. Once inside the toilet, I scanned for threats and escape routes. The short, fat, balding moustachioed chap at the urinal hardly qualified as the former, but his presence certainly precluded apparition as the latter. And since the vents in the roof were only small enough for me to stick my arm through, that pretty much ended the list of exits.
Fortunately, he didn't suffer from any prostate problems, and promptly finished his business, before ambling out of the room without so much as a glance at the basin. With a shudder at the lack of hygiene, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my invisibility cloak. There wasn't enough time for me to put on the robe. Once fully invisible, I stepped into one corner and waited. It wasn't long before I was joined by a pair of men who, on seeing an apparently empty toilet block, seemed a little pissed that they'd lost something.
I stood there watching with amusement as they went through various stages of confusion, bewilderment, shock, and finally anger, with a bit of self-recrimination thrown in for good measure.
"Shiza!" One spat. From the tone, I'm pretty sure I didn't need a German-English dictionary to translate.
The rapid-fire German conversation went well over my head. To start with, they hissed at each other in low tones, but neither had the discipline to keep that up for long. One had the presence of mind to cast a spell on the door, presumably to keep from being interrupted by an unsuspecting Berliner with a full bladder.
I took the opportunity to examine the pair. Both were well dressed, in good quality clothes which wouldn't look out of place in Uncle Vernon's staff meetings. The one with the wand was slender and lean, tall and almost whip-like. His voice was harsh and ragged, emanating from a throat with a very prominent Adam's apple, but I got the sense he was far more dangerous than his larger companion. That fellow was a brute of a man, filling the suit to bursting. The dark shadow on his scalp indicated he shaved his head, hinting at his less-than-civilised prejudices. The swastika tattoo on the side of his neck was another clue to his personal politics. From the pointing and increasingly raised voices, I'd guess they were trying to determine just which of them was to accept the blame for their failure to follow me after I disappeared from a room with only one exit.
While I was examining his large partner, the slender one waved his wand around, silently casting a spell. Instantly, I felt a light pressure on me, as though I was being buffeted by a light breeze on all sides. His eyes widened suddenly, and he snapped something unintelligible, and then tried to point his wand towards me. I dropped him with a stunner quickly, taking him down before he could bring his wand to bear, but the other one roared like a bull and charged blindly. I barely managed to duck sideways and evade his groping arms, but he had far too much momentum for someone of my build to dodge completely. I was roughly slammed into the wall behind me, but I managed to twist out of the way. One meaty hand snatched at me, only succeeding in grabbing a corner of my cloak. He pulled it from me halfway through my manoeuvre. I reflexively attempted to snatch it back while jumping out of the way, ending up twisting the material and losing my balance.
I managed to duck under a meaty fist swinging at my face with the unstoppable force of a meteorite, only to discover a booted foot rising sharply into my field of vision. It only glanced off my cheek, but with my teetering balance, it was enough to knock me completely over.
My breath exploded from my lungs first when I hit the tiles, and then again as the human elephant body checked me. Oddly, I didn't feel fear, or even panic throughout the pain, I simply focused my mind, and pushed.
Instantly, I could breathe again, as the fellow's ugly mug was sent skyward at a tremendous rate. He hit the ceiling, leaving a serious dent in the plaster, and looked damned confused at the sudden reversal of gravity. I stopped pushing, and rolled out of the way to my right. He descended back to earth with a rather rapid finality, though he did perform a pretty good impression of someone flapping their arms and legs in an effort to achieve flight. He hit the tiles elbow first with a crunch, a yelp and a wet snap, his shoulder suddenly bulging and misshapen.
I rose to my feet quickly, though I was still winded and a little foggy from the sudden attack. I gave my wand a wave and banished him into the urinal, hard enough to leave yet another body-shaped dent somewhere in the room. The impact set off the cistern, covering him with cold water.
He pushed himself into a sitting position with his good left arm. He scrabbled under his jacket for a second but froze when he saw me raise my wand. "Keep going," I said encouragingly, even though my jaw hurt like blazes from where he connected with his foot.
He grimaced, but slowly extracted a handgun from his waistband. I gestured towards the opposite wall with my head, and with a sigh, he slid the weapon along the floor.
"Who are you?" I asked him.
He refused to answer, simply sitting in a flushing urinal, clutching his shoulder, breathing threateningly through partially blocked nostrils and glaring at me with hatred, but absolutely no fear.
I raised an eyebrow, and lowered my wand to point at his genitals. "At present count, you have two testicles. You honestly don't want to make me ask twice."
He swallowed, his eyes finally showing some semblance of apprehension. Funny how a threat to a pair of nuts always seems to gather some attention from males of the species. He still stayed silent though.
I shrugged, and began a few threatening wand movements. He held up his good hand with a panicked look in his eyes. "Wait!"
He slowly pointed over towards the first fellow I stunned. "Him," he said in a thick German accent.
I frowned. "Him what?"
"Him pay me."
I glared at him for a moment. "Pay you for what?"
He swallowed. "Look to see who come after dead man."
I nodded. It made sense; I'd already deduced something along those lines, but I wasn't so sure I was correct that I was going to take his word for it. For all I knew, he was faking his skill in English and picked a story I was likely to believe. "Who does he work for?"
"Person called Malfoy," he said, making a piece of a puzzle click home in my mind. "Tall, blond," he added.
I took a deep breath. Narcissa Malfoy had been captured travelling to Albania, and she had been carrying a piece of Tom Riddle Sr's skeleton. If she had placed people on her path to watch for anyone following her, or asking questions about her, then it's no wonder Helmut paid terminally for his curiosity.
Sensing my preoccupation, the gorilla shifted his weight slightly, and I didn't need any sort of skill in Legilimency to tell what was coming. The thug knew he was in no position to tell me enough, and that his only chance to escape was to take me down. Trelawney would have been proud.
He leapt to his feet and lunged forward in the one fluid motion. For such a big guy, he sure moved like a cat. If I hadn't been expecting and waiting for it, I may have been caught with the speed of his attack. As it was, even with only one good hand he still managed to knock my wand out of alignment. Fortunately, I didn't need it. I stepped to one side, and gave his back a sharp push as he overbalanced.
I was a little too enthusiastic though. He was launched so hard his feet left the floor. He flew the short distance across the room into one of the mirrors above the basins. The glass shattered, as did his nose, I suspect. He collapsed, hitting the basin hard with his jaw. Predictably, given the bone density exhibited by his skeletal structure, the jaw won that little contest. Porcelain shards skittered across the tiled floor as he fell to one knee, supporting himself with his good hand.
There must be some sort of link between the belief in your superiority over others of the human race, and gross stupidity. If he had magic, this fellow would make a great Death Eater. Some sort of Goyle or Crabbe, maybe. He wobbled to his feet and lunged unsteadily at me once more, with very little coordination this time. I took the opportunity to prepare properly.
He crashed hard into my right fist, which I amplified with an even stronger push through my knuckles. The inertia his body possessed kept everything from his bull neck down coming forward, while his head snapped back sharply. His legs came up and his body went down, crashing with finality into the floor. The whole room shook with the impact.
Not that I really noticed. I was too busy jogging on the spot with my hand under my armpit, and my mouth open in a silent scream.
Fuck, that hurt!
It took a few minutes before the pain in my hand subsided to merely agonising levels. I gingerly touched the back of my hand it with my left fingers, probing the bones. Judging from the pain, I'd probably cracked a few. I had a few generic pain relieving potions in my bag, but no healing draughts specific enough to repair bone damage. And I wasn't about to willingly imbibe Skelegrow, either.
Someone tried the door handle, and found it magically locked. I felt a prickling on my skin as someone outside the door started casting some spells. I recognised Muggle repellent and Notice-me-not charms. Cursing to myself about my lack of luck in this endeavour, I moved as quickly as I could while hindered by an agonising hand and the requirement to remain silent. I snatched up my bag and once more threw my cloak over my head, and crouched down in one corner of the room.
The male of the second pair who had followed me entered the now opened door. He looked around the toilet, at the two unconscious bodies, the plaster shards and dust, the smashed mirror, broken basin and the dented urinal. I aimed my wand at him as carefully as I could with my left hand, ready to drop him at the first sign of danger. Then he did something completely unexpected.
"Partridge!" he shouted. "Get in here!"
The woman who I saw with him earlier appeared in the doorway. "Wha- whoa."
He chuckled softly. "Yeah."
"Potter did this?" she asked, causing my heart to skip a beat. Were they after me too? I wondered if I could cast two stunning spells with my off hand fast enough to drop them both.
The man grinned. "So it would seem."
"Bollocks," she said heatedly, proving she was British. "He had no clue he was being followed," she argued.
The man knelt down beside the first fellow I stunned and rifled through his pockets. "He looked like he didn't. Apparently he did. Kingsley said he was good, and old Mad-Eye once told me he wished Potter had gone into the Auror Corps when he graduated."
"Pfft," the woman blew though her lips. "A spoiled rich kid like him wouldn't have lasted two minutes at the academy."
The man, an Auror I assumed, looked up at his partner. "Do you think any first year recruit at the academy would be able to pull off something like this? Draw Kellermann here and his hired muscle into an ambush and take them both out? No, whatever you think of him, there is more to him than meets the eye." He waved his wand over the thud he identified as 'Kellermann'. "He's just stunned. Check the other one."
The Auror called Partridge grumbled a bit, but carefully stepped around Kellermann and checked on the shaved gorilla. She cast a few diagnostic charms over his blood-covered face. "This can't be right."
"This one isn't stunned; he's been knocked out cold. He's got a broken nose and jaw. Potter looks like he could be knocked over in a strong wind. There's no way he could toss this fellow around to do this sort of damage," she said plaintively, gesturing around at the damage to the room. I resisted the urge to push her through the wall.
Her partner looked at her intently for a few moments, then shook his head. "Right. The kid faced down the Dark Lord more often than any of us, but couldn't take down a Muggle? You don't think there's anything wrong with this picture?"
Rather than look insulted, Partridge just gave a shrug. "I suppose. Are we just going to leave these guys here?"
Twigg's eyes narrowed. "No. Secure the scene. These guys are coming with us, back to England."
Partridge blinked. "Rendition?" she blurted. "If there is even a hint of our involvement--"
Twigg nodded. "If we move quickly, there won't be. We came in here under repelling charms. Any witness out there will tell the same story. A young man that may have had a scar on his forehead entered, then two men followed. All three disappeared. There is nothing they can trace back to us. Now move! The window of opportunity is closing." With that, Twigg withdrew his wand, tapped a ring on his finger, and disappeared with the fellow called Kellermann.
Auror Partridge muttered a few choice oaths under her breath before casting a few spells with casual competence. I recognised them as the standard procedure for Aurors to magically secure a crime scene. I pursed my lips together in frustration. The spells would cut off any magical means of escape, as well as locate me even under my cloak.
With my skill severely hampered by having to use my off hand for casting, I figured simple would be best, so I sent a first year charm. It's always amusing to catch a big, bad Auror out with a simple petrification.
Partridge fell over backwards in a beautiful arcing sweep, landing hard enough that I winced at the impact. Leaving my cloak in place, I stepped over to her, sending a stunner into the evolutionary throwback Kellermann hired on my way past.
"Good afternoon, Auror Partridge. I don't mean to cast aspersions on your abilities, but you really didn't follow standard operating procedure did you?"
Her eyes flickered around the room, looking for me. I prudently stooped to relieve her of her wand. She was an Auror, supposedly one of the better trained wizards around. I would expect her to be able to break my simple charm. I placed her wand in full view on the unbroken basin.
True to my expectations, she shuddered slightly, breaking my jinx, and scrabbled into a crouch, her eyes darting, searching.
"Now, now. Don't be alarmed. I do not intend to harm you, but I couldn't have you inadvertently stopping me," I said as I gingerly stepped around her positioning myself between her and the door.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
I gave a soft chuckle, and placed the tip of my wand into the crook of her neck. "When you are holding your wand at my neck, you can ask the questions, yes?"
Her eyes widened, and she visibly stiffened. "What do you want?"
"That man Kellermann. You had him under surveillance. Did he contact anyone before following Potter?"
She swallowed, and said, "I can't release information on a current investigation."
I snorted, drawing my yew wand and placing it side by side with my holly one. "Oh, so now you follow procedure? Imperio!" I cast. Even using my off hand, my wand was so close she had no hope of dodging.
Her features assumed the familiar blank look that I remembered from when Crouch Jnr. cast the curse on my fourth year DADA class. She fought the spell, but cast from brother wands made it far more difficult for her. "Tell me if Kellermann contacted anyone before following Potter," I said, phrasing it as a command, rather than a question.
She nodded dreamily. "Kellermann sent an owl to someone before following Potter, but I don't know to who it was addressed."
I cancelled my spell, shouldered the door open and ran for it, fighting a grin all the way.
"Shit!" came a voice from behind me, as I dodged through the thin, but convenient crowd. Well, convenient for me, anyway. If there was one thing I learned from that little adventure, it's that swearing sounds much better in German. Probably a lot more satisfying too.
I leaned my head against the train's window, feeling the vibrating pane with my skull. With the exception of the Hogwarts Express, I don't think there is a public transport service in England that runs with the same Teutonic efficiency as the trains in Germany. The service for the first leg of my trip to Albania left exactly on schedule, leaving a couple of Antipodean tourists who arrived fifteen seconds too late stranded on the platform.
From the encounter in the toilet, I had made my way back to the International Portkey Terminal, and found a small shop that sold healing draughts in the nearby Magical community. The quality wasn't anywhere near Madam Pomfrey's standards, and especially not Snape's, but it was sufficient for my needs. My hand was stiff and would ache for the next few days, but I had full mobility.
As the train thundered through the night into Austria, I thought back on what had happened in the last day. It had been rather eventful, even when compared to my expected daily levels of excitement and life-threatening peril. It had covered three countries so far, four if you include the short stop to Scotland to deposit a biblical age serpent and his collection of Halloween goodies. In the next few days, I'd have travelled through another handful on my round-about trip into Albania.
Despite the trump cards I was accumulating, like an entire secret chamber of dark artefacts every major organisation in the world would like to get its hands on, I was certainly limiting the amount of the planet I was able to travel around at will. Vatican City speaks for itself, but having a magical Mob Boss out for my blood wasn't going to make things any easier. The less said about using an Unforgivable curse on an Auror the better.
An elderly chap with a cap and a leather harness around his shoulders entered the carriage, asking for tickets. I reached into a pocket to retrieve mine, and waited patiently as he made his way steadily along the rows of seats.
It was oddly reassuring, I reflected as I handed my ticket to him to be checked, that as famous as I was in the magical world, the Muggle world couldn't care less about me. I accepted my ticket back, and stretched in my seat. Even though it was only early evening, I was tired all the way to my bones.
From inside my clothes, a voice shrieked "Harry?"
I jumped about a foot into the air, which considering I was sitting down at the time was a remarkable feat. Several people turned around to look at me. Thinking quickly, I turned around and looked at the person in the seat behind me. All eyes swivelled to look at him. The poor bugger looked as though he had been asleep until someone shrieked my name a few feet away, and he wilted under the stares of the rest of the carriage like a Hufflepuff first year under Peeves' attention.
I put on a pensive expression and moved seats. No one gave me a second look; they were too busy staring at the poor bugger who looked as though he'd just been woken up by someone shrieking a name in his ear.
With as much care as possible, I drew my wand and erected a notice-me-not field around my new seat. My hand was still a little stiff, but the wand movements weren't too complex.
I pulled out the mirror and looked in. "Hermione?"
"Harry!" she exclaimed. "Where are you? What are you doing? Why are you--?"
"Stop!" I commanded.
Oddly, she obeyed, though looked as though she was in the process of hyperventilating.
"I'm on a train," I said, answering her first question. "I'm heading to Albania." As she absorbed those little nuggets, I took the time to examine her. The bags under her eyes were puffy and dark, and her hair was even more of a mess than usual. Even more than mine. She looked as though she hadn't slept in days. Her hollow cheeks showed that she hadn't been eating properly. "Are you alright?" I asked her. "You look terrible."
"Please come home, I need to talk to you," she begged, ignoring my question.
"What about?" I asked curiously. Was she going to apologise, or even want to get back together?
She burst into tears. "I don't want you to hate me," she gulped between gasps.
That shocked me. "Hermione, I don't hate you. I don't hate you at all."
"But you do!" she wailed, sounding completely irrational. "You keep avoiding me, and won't talk to me any more. Harry, please, come back!"
"You left me," I pointed out.
Her face screwed up into a caricature of anguish. "I tried to come back to talk to you, but you- you- you," she stammered, hiccupping and crying enough that she couldn't finish the sentence.
I sighed. "Hermione, please calm down. I didn't know what to say to you. I didn't want to say the wrong thing. You have been one of the most important people in my life; I still want you to be a part of it."
"Really?" she asked timidly.
I nodded. "Really. But this isn't the time for this discussion."
"Then come back home!"
That set off a fresh wave of tears. "But why?"
I frowned, and looked around the carriage. No one was obviously paying me any attention, but I wasn't about to take that for granted. I erected a silencing charm around me.
"I'm looking for the last piece of Riddle's soul," I whispered.
She blinked. "You found another one?"
I nodded slowly, and checked my surroundings again. "Ron and I found the locket, and I'm going to see if I can find the goblet."
Her eyes bulged. "You found the locket? Where?"
I smiled softly at her. "In a Gringotts vault that Regulus left to Sirius." So long as she talked about Horcruxes, I could keep my voice steady. As many times as I'd practised this conversation in my head, I wasn't ready to actually have it.Ã‚ Blaise's words came back to me. Hermione had hurt me, she had hurt me badly. And as much as I loved being with her, making love to her, I wasn't sure just how much I could trust her. I could only imagine what Hermione's reaction would be if she found out that I'd instigated the death of a Mob Boss' son, let alone pilfered the Vatican's embarrassingly large collection of evil detritus.
"Regulus left the locket to Sirius?" she exclaimed.
I shook my head. "No, he put it in a vault. When he died, Sirius inherited it. I have no idea what Regulus' motives were."
Her cheeks flushed. I tried not to grin. In the past, that sort of logic argument would have had the same effect on her as a copy of Playwizard would have had on Ron. It would appear that she still loved me for my mind, if not my actions.
That, in and of itself, answered the questions I still had over our relationship.
"Hermione, please go and get some sleep. I will talk to you when I get back."
"Promise?" she asked, her voice wavering.
I nodded. "I promise. I'll be back soon, and we will have a long talk then."
She didn't look happy, but at least she wasn't hysterical. I broke the connection with a tap from my wand, and put the mirror away. Checking to see that my belongings had their aversion charm in place, I pulled my hands inside the sleaves of my sweater, leaned back and closed my eyes. I'd worry about the future later.
For a country on the Adriatic Sea, Albania wasn't exactly my idea of a good holiday destination. While the few beaches I saw on my travels looked gorgeous, it didn't have the party atmosphere of some other European destinations, but my real aversion came directly from the low grade headache I got about an hour after entering the country. Since the pain was centred roughly on my scar, I figured that I was probably near the place that Riddle hid for all those years after he killed my parents. It wasn't debilitating as some of my Voldy-aches had been, but it was uncomfortable, like an unscratchable itch. None of his Horcruxes had this effect on me, so I assumed it was due to the fact that Riddle had spent a dozen or so years haunting the area as a sort of low-grade spectre.
Not speaking the local tongue meant that getting around took some doing. A large number of locals spoke English, but distrust too widespread for people to be overly helpful. It didn't help that the place was awash with refuges from Kosovo; yet another in a long list of places where one group of people committed atrocities on another group, seemingly in the belief that committing atrocities against other human beings was morally acceptable.
It was nearly two full days later that I'd managed to reach the location in Zab's note. The directions led me to a small village, hardly more than a large collection of houses at a junction of two minor roads at the edge of a wooded area. From his notes, Helmut had apparently located the people travelling towards Albania, and extrapolated several locations from their associates. This place had the highest correlation. Hardly rock hard evidence of the last Horcrux's location, but enough to start.
With all the refugees in the country, I hoped to at least have a chance of fitting in, but gave that up as a lost cause when I attracted every bloody pair of eyes in the village after getting off the bus. Narcissa Malfoy was bound to receive the news of my presence sooner rather than later, which meant that I had a small window of opportunity to track the information flow. That was all right, I had a couple of ways of becoming invisible at my disposal.
I found a small lodging house, and successfully negotiated a room for a few nights, employing several hand gestures and producing some local currency. Once alone in my room, which was hardly larger than the smallest bedroom at Privet Drive, I dove into my backpack and extracted my invisibility robe, my acromantula gloves and my portkey sock. After teaching me how to anchor the portkey, I had learned how to recharge one in my own time. I wouldn't want to personally test that it would go through the wards of the Vatican again, but it would be able to take me to the Chamber of Secrets with a word.
I bundled the rest of my possessions into the bag, and cast an aversion charm and a particularly nasty (not to mention illegal) warding jinx. The first would prevent Muggles from locating it to rummage, the second would prevent the first wizard to rummage from being located. Well, that's not entirely true. It would prevent the whole wizard from being located. Bits and pieces of him would be fairly obvious.
The Zabini family library was full of interesting things like that. Of course, while the aversion charm could be sustained for several years, the jinx was only temporary, and would collapse in a day or so, which should be plenty of time.
With the robe on, and my wands in my sleaves, I left the room as silently as I could, and began wandering through the village, conducting random Legilimency sweeps of the populace. Someone here must have seen something odd, like someone whose dress sense was a few hundred years out of date.
I came to an uneasy conclusion that he people of this anonymous town lived in a state of fear. As it was, the town was the quietest, most subdued place I had ever seen. Everyone spoke in whispers. Children didn't play outdoors. Even dogs were silenced quickly when they barked, usually at me. I was invisible to humans, but to dogs, I was an invisible patch of air that smelled like an unfamiliar human. Despite modern schooling and access to science and news from around the world, there was a deep set belief that vampires lived in the ruined manor house to the north of the town. From the memories I examined, there were occasional stories of people going missing for decades, though recently the number had risen to almost one a month. All kidnapped from their beds during the night. Police investigators sent here left shortly afterwards with a befuddled expression and never returned.
Well, that was a big clue.
I took the time to do some preliminary scouting of the old building, quickly finding evidence of brand new wards and other magicks. Hogwarts had sophisticated, almost poetic charms in place to make the castle look like a crumbling ruin to Muggles, but the charms around this place were blocky Ã¢â‚¬" inelegant. They overlapped when it wasn't necessary, wasting both power and maintenance effort. They had been cast with extreme security in mind, but if I was to trip a place where the wards overlapped, those inside wouldn't be able to tell where they had been breached. It was the equivalent of comparing a squat, square red brick building to a cathedral.
I paused in my reconnaissance. Something just didn't seem right. Not just with the wards, but the whole situation. Without casting some detection spells, which ironically were trivial to detect by others, I had no real way of examining the wards in more detail. But for all my expectations, I had one big question.
Why would Riddle, or his minions for that matter, pick such an obvious place to keep the last Horcrux? Given the fact that Kellermann contacted someone before following me, I had to assume they knew I was coming. That at least was fair to assume, given the recent nature of the defences. But was it fair to assume they knew I assumed they knew I was coming. Ugh, thinking like made my headache worse.
As blocky as the wards were, I could think of three different ways to bypass them, and only one involved forcibly bringing them down. If someone thought Harry Potter, idiot Gryffindor, was coming to try and steal a valuable item, I couldn't imagine a better trap.
With night closing in, I gave up my reconnaissance for the day and returned to the hostel. Breaking into the Vatican had been difficult, but I had assumed they were competent. Ditto with Gringotts. But this place, I felt the impatient urge to just blast my way through the inadequate defences and stun anything with a heartbeat. Two years of learning at the wand of a powerful, intelligent and cautious wizard easily enabled me to ignore that childish whim. I was sorted into Gryffindor for a reason, but I was enough of a Slytherin at heart to recognise a setup.
If I was in charge of the security here, I'd have moved the Horcrux a long way away. But making the assumption that these people would do the same was egotistical in the extreme. I had no idea what sort of limits on their travel they had. I didn't know what other governments had this place under surveillance. Hell, for all I knew, the big potion that Wormtail used to resurrect Voldemort after the Tournament might take months to brew, and may need the Horcrux to be nearby while it simmered. That thought gave me pause.
I had no real knowledge of the details of the rituals it took to restore a soul fragment to a body, Horcruxes and their usage not featuring prominently in Zab's curriculum. But from personal experience, the owner may well require some sort of long term exposure to the Horcrux in question. Before I started my forth year at Hogwarts, Frank Bryce was murdered by Riddle. That meant that he and Wormtail were present at Little Hangleton at least a full nine months before I was kidnapped. It seemed logical to assume Nagini was with them. Since he waited until the end of the year to complete the ritual, did he either wait for my blood specifically, or did he need that time for something else. Did he take my blood for any other reason than to get past my mother's protection? What else could have made him wait nearly a full year while he was so vulnerable?
I ate the meagre meal offered by my temporary landlady, and retired to my room early. I dispelled the traps around my bag, and sorted through it again. If I was to be successful in this next heist, I needed to think more about how it could be protected. Or perhaps, I should think about how Zab would protect it.
Of course, when designing traps, most people only thought about how to capture or contain their prey, making sure the could walk into the trap, but not out. I smiled and tossed an item from my bag up and down in my hand.
Such limited thinking.
Thanks again to those wonderful people at The-Place-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and to Dave my new beta.
This story has been marked as suitable for adult readers only.