Do not meddle in the affairs of basilisks, for you are not petrification-proof
I slowly ascended the stone spiral staircase, hearing only my ragged breathing. A bubblehead charm covered my face; a spell I quickly decided needed some refinement. While it certainly kept the unwanted stench from the corpse below out of my nostrils, it could certainly use the addition of some sort of scented air, or at least some perfume. You really didn’t want to have to cast it on yourself several hours after you’d last brushed your teeth.
I plodded slowly up and around the final curve, to the energy barrier still held by the two wizards. I graced them with a snarl.
Through the translucent barrier, I could see the Pope siting at a large desk, with Waldorf and Darius seated opposite. The friendly, chubby Darius had a small sticking plaster on his forehead, and his left wrist strapped. Apparently, he didn’t exactly come off unscathed in the altercation either. Waldorf rose to his feet on seeing me, while the Pope simply turned to face me. The expression of relief on His Holiness’ face was the polar opposite of the Archmage.
Waldorf looked me up and down, taking in my dishevelled appearance. "You were successful?" he asked. I detected a trace of surprise in his tone. Sounds like the prick would have preferred that I hadn’t survived.
I held up the basilisk tooth I’d severed from the corpse down below. "What the hell does this look like to you, an ice-cream cone?"
With a nod, the two wizards dropped the barrier, to my relief. I stumbled out, into the room and hurled the tooth at Waldorf, whose reactions had not been dulled by the passage of time. He caught the tooth with a spell. "The basilisk is dead?"
I rolled my eyes at him as I removed the bubble charm on my face. "Surely you don’t think I’ve decided there is a huge untapped market in reptilian dentistry, specializing in highly venomous, mythological serpents?" I asked with a snarl.
He gaped at me for a few seconds, so I turned and looked at the Pope. "So, was this your idea?" Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the slightest flicker of Waldorf’s attention from me to Darius.
The Pope shook his head. "No, my son. This was not my intention. You were to be allowed to leave unmolested. Waldorf here had other ideas," he finished with an uncharacteristic tone of voice.
"Your Holiness, in matters of magical security, my authority supersedes your own."
The Pope’s eyes flashed. "No Waldorf, only in times of imminent magical threat. Leave us."
I shook my head. "No."
"I beg your pardon?"
I glared at the leader of a billion Catholics over the world. "I was forced to perform a job I had no intention of doing. You owe me."
The Pope pursed his lips together and spared a pointed glare at his Archmage. "What payment do you require? As I offered before, the corpse of the basilisk is yours. I shall also deliver a thorough inventory of the artefacts below to the International Confederation."
I snorted. "I don’t want the bloody corpse, and I sure as hell don’t care if you give the ICW a blank page. All I want right now is an Unbreakable Vow from every damned wizard in the church. None of you are to contact me, approach me, or even speak to me, ever again."
The Pope frowned. "An Unbreakable Vow? What is this, Darius?"
Waldorf stared at me, obviously trying to discern my motive. Darius cleared his throat and said, "It is exactly what it sounds like, Your Holiness. A vow that, once made, cannot be broken. Every wizard educated by the church makes the vow on entering service, pledging their service and vowing to protect you, Your Holiness."
The Pope sat back. "I see. Mr. Potter, you would willingly cut off all communication with us?"
I forced my rage to spike by concentrating on the actions of the wizard in front of me. Instantly, the magical potential in the air increased, making objects in the room vibrate and pictures fall from the wall. "I’d cut this entire country off the face of the planet if I had the choice," I shouted, feeling blood rush to my face.
Every wizard in the room yelped or shouted, each of them putting me under their wands. The Pope took a deep breath and said in clipped tones, "Mr. Potter! Calm yourself."
Slowly, I let the anger subside, and the ornaments on the desk stopped moving across the wooden surface. "Yes," I said, enunciating the word as slowly and as clearly as I could. "I would cut off all communications with you. I never want to hear from you or your organisation again."
After nearly half a minute of silence, the Pope finally spoke. "Very well. I understand your displeasure, but I believe you are making a mistake."
"Ha!" I spat derisibly. "The only mistake I made was coming back here, putting myself in a position to be taken advantage of."
Waldorf, who had a mind like a Slytherin, had obviously come to the conclusion that if all I wanted was something they could give for free, there was definitely a catch somewhere. "I cannot allow us to make that vow, Your Holiness," he said slowly, rolling the basilisk tooth over in his hands.
The Pope’s eyes narrowed dangerously. "Exactly why is that, Waldorf?"
He swallowed. "Because the Unbreakable Vow I took when entering service to the church would be compromised."
The Archmage glared at me. "If Mr. Potter here breaks into the building again, we would have no way of neutralising him. Our promise to keep you safe would be broken."
I gaped at him. "You actually think I’d come back here of my own volition?" I asked incredulously.
Waldorf stood straighter, in a wonderfully pompous action. "Nevertheless, I feel it would be inadvisable for us to make such a vow," he said easily.
The Pope sighed, and looked at me. "Is there nothing else you’d take instead?"
I clenched my teeth together. I needed that Vow. "Two billion galleons, then," I spat, thinking of the most ridiculous amount I could which was still within the estimated net worth of the church.
That cracked Waldorf’s composure. "You’re mad!" he whispered hoarsely.
"Try furious," I shot back. "If you won’t make the vow, then I’ll impoverish you bastards."
The Pope cleared his throat. "I’m sorry, Mr. Potter, but the Church will not…"
I rounded on him, snapping, "That’s exactly what I said! I said I wouldn’t kill the basilisk either, but I was forced to!"
"Name another figure, Mr. Potter. A realistic one, if you would be so kind."
I took a deep breath and let it out explosively. "No. I’ll take the Unbreakable Vow instead."
"Waldorf has already pointed out why we cannot make such a vow."
I nodded. "Yeah, he has. He is quite willing to force others to do what he wants, but cops out like a coward when it’s his arse on the line. What a marvellous role model he is. Let me put it another way. Make the vow, or your little betrayal becomes public knowledge."
That put them on the defensive. Suddenly, every wizard in the room became a little more on edge, with more than a few hands hovering over wand holsters. "I don’t believe that would be in anyone’s best interest, Mr. Potter," Darius said cautiously.
Through clenched teeth, I said, "Then how about we modify the wording of the vow so that no wizard of the Church contacts, approaches, or speaks to me outside of Vatican City? Would that satisfy your prissy little Archmage?"
Waldorf reddened nicely at my insult, but shook his head silently. "No, I will not take a vow that may impede the performance of my duties."
The Pope simply sighed. "You are relieved of your duties, Waldorf. Darius here will be the Archmage in the interim, until I formalise the appointment."
I gave the recently demoted Archmage a bright, brittle smile as his colouring went from red to purple. Wordlessly, he turned and stormed out of the study. Darius looked at me unhappily.
"Mr. Potter, I apologise unreservedly on behalf of the Church for what has occurred. Are you absolutely sure that you wish to cut off all contact? What if we discover something about the final Horcrux you are seeking?" Darius asked softly.
"I’m not sure I could survive any more of your â€˜help’, thank you very much," I said sarcastically.
The Pope sighed. "Darius, is there any reason we cannot make the vow requested my Mr. Potter?"
Darius nodded. "Waldorf did have a valid point. You would be vulnerable in your travels."
I growled with frustration. "Then make the bloody vow with an exception that allows you to protect him while outside of Vatican City, but I never want to hear from you people again."
Darius pursed his lips together, but reached across the desk, picked up a pen and began to write on a pad of paper. He finished quickly, tore off the sheet and passed it to the Pope. The elderly man glanced at the sheet, before nodding and passing it to me.
No current or future wizard sworn to the Church will contact, approach, or speak to Harry James Potter from this point forward, except i) within the borders of Vatican City, or ii) in direct defence of the Pope.
I nodded. "That’s a start. Change it to any wizard acting on behalf of the Church and you have a deal."
A little while later, a pair of Swiss Guards escorted me from the room. Darius, in his capacity as Archmage, had knelt before me, and had made the final vow on behalf of all the current and future wizards of the Church. It wasn’t as neat as I’d hoped, but the vow covered all wizards acting on behalf of the Church. While we were negotiating the wording of the vow, a group of wizards had made preparations to descend into the vault below. I warned them about the basilisk corpse below, and how the corpse was putrefying quickly, suggesting that they would need to use bubblehead charms at the very least.
Both the Pope and Darius instructed the team to wait until Darius could join them. Without further ado, I had been given my backpack of goodies, and a regretful farewell from the Pope.
I was led directly down into the massive Cathedral, and almost frogmarched to the entrance. I glanced down at my watch, noting that I was over half an hour late to meet Ron. From the top of the steps, I could see the central obelisk of the piazza, and the border to Italy beyond. I just had to reach it before…
Both my escorts touched a finger to their ear, listening intently to whatever microphone they had hidden there. The instant their posture turned aggressive, I acted.
With a strong push, I literally threw the pair away from me. I rushed down the steps, thinking about my previous trip here, and how I created a diversion then. Hey, it worked the first time. May as well use a tried and true method.
I pointed behind me and shouted, "Stigmata! Stigmata!" I stumbled slightly, and it was all I could do to avoid tripping and falling flat on my face while running flat out down the steps and into the piazza.
For a few seconds, I was the centre of attention. At least three other Swiss Guards moved determinedly towards me, before the crowd surged forward. With the sudden tide of people trying to enter the Cathedral, the Swiss Guards chasing me from within were caught like a snowflake in a windstorm.
Once down the stairs I simply ran as quickly as I could. Intellectually, I knew I could probably cover the distance to the entrance of Vatican City in half a minute or so, but knowing that until I was past that border, I was vulnerable to both the guards and wizards in the city meant that the street that joined the piazza to Italy seemed miles away. While I’m sure I was the primary target of every armed person in the tiny country, the sheer number of tourists pressing forward to see a miracle must have been distracting, to say the least.
In less than a minute I was sprinting past the obelisk, with my backpack bouncing around uncontrollably on my shoulder. I almost shouted with relief on seeing Ron waiting there. "Move!" I said quickly, not slowing as I passed him.
More and more people looked over to see what all the commotion was about. I kept pointing behind me, calling out â€˜Stigmata’ over and over, directing the attention of all those in the open area away from me.
It felt like an age, but I finally made it out onto the boulevard that connected San Pietro to Italy. Now that I was ready for it, I could feel it as I passed the edge of the wards. The long street in front of me was lined with restaurants and other touristy places, which meant that there were a large number of people watching the events with interest. I spared a glance over my shoulder to see that Ron was catching up with me quickly. Man, that guy could run fast! It must be the fact that his legs were nearly half as long again as my own.
I angled to one side, and ran for one of the restaurants. There were a hell of a lot of tables and chairs arrayed outside the front of the business, meaning that one person could make their way through the maze quickly, while a group would be slowed down rather effectively.
I ran up to a fellow dressed in a white shirt and bow tie, clutched theatrically at my groin and squeaked, "Toilet?"
He blinked, grinned at my pantomime, but pointed towards the back of the building. I smiled gratefully at him and pushed past. Ron at this point, had caught up, and was shouting, "Are you all right?"
I found the door to the gents, and darted through. Ron came in after me, almost wild with excitement. "What is it?" he demanded, breathing heavily.
I glanced around, noting that there wasn’t a soul in the loo. I grabbed Ron’s arm. "We need to go!" I hissed, gulping in deep lungfuls of air myself, and apparated back to his room in the hotel.
It was the first time Ron had ever side-along-apparated with anyone, and from his expression, he certainly didn’t enjoy the experience. "What the hell is going on?" he demanded, after he gathered his wits.
I threw my backpack onto the bed and burst into laughter. "Sorry mate, but there were a lot of seriously pissed off people after me back there. We had to get out quickly." I collapsed onto an armchair and giggled, feeling more than a little light headed after my little adventure.
Ron clutched at his heart and followed suit, his armchair creaking in protest at his bulk. "What the bloody hell did you do this time?"
I waited for my breathing to get back under control. "I sort of stole a few things."
Ron glanced over at my backpack. "Like what?" he asked, sounding far more excitedly curious that angry.
I shook my head. "Well, a basilisk for starters," I said deadpan, before bursting back into laughter.
Ron blinked at me, his face an expression of comedic proportions. "You’re taking the piss," he said, after a few moments of slack-jawed gaping.
I slowly shook my head back and forth. "Nope."
He half stood. "They had a fucking basilisk in that place?" he shouted.
I nodded happily. "Yeah, it’s about twice the size of the one in the Chamber."
Ron covered his face with his hands, but I could soon hear the laughter behind them. "You stole a bloody basilisk. You, Harry Bloody Potter, stole a basilisk. You stole a basilisk."
I couldn’t help but laugh. "Repeating it won’t change it."
Ron dropped his hands, and a slow smile spread over his face. "Why?" he asked intently.
I shrugged. "If I say that it seemed like a good idea at the time, would you believe me?"
His eyebrows shot up. "Probably. We tended to get ideas like that all the time at Hogwarts, didn’t we? These days, I only get those sort of ideas after drinking a lot."
"Or when we are trying to stop a theft from Gringotts," I pointed out.
"Or that," he conceded. "We did drink a lot after that though."
I took a deep breath. "Anyway, they probably haven’t noticed that I stole the basilisk yet."
Ron couldn’t help it, he erupted with laughter too. "Merlin’s balls, how the hell do you miss a hundred foot snake?"
"I sort of swapped it over."
He shook his head. "What? What do you mean?"
I shrugged. "Well, they wanted me to kill the thing. I didn’t want to, and it seemed pretty upset at the idea itself."
Ron nodded in a daze. "Yeah, I can imagine." He paused for a second to digest that little bit of info. "Wait, you told it you were sent to kill it?" he demanded.
I nodded happily, as though telling one of the most lethal creatures on the planet that you were sent to kill it was not in any way unusual. "Yep. Anyway, Dumbledore wanted me to get something for him that the basilisk was guarding. He gave me a portkey that would take me to Hogwarts. The Chamber, to be exact. Where, if you recall, just sitting around and doing nothing but rotting, was this suddenly rather useful basilisk corpse."
Ron’s eyes bulged. "You swapped a live basilisk with a dead one? And left the live one at Hogwarts?"
I nodded. "Uh huh. Mind you, it was sort of necessary."
Ron actually looked angry. I’m not surprised, it was his sister that nearly died because of that snake. "Necessary? How?"
I reached into a pocket and pulled out the sock Dumbledore had given me. "This was the portkey. I expanded it and enlarged its interior to the size of a room."
I smirked. "Dumbledore wanted me to collect the darkest, most vile objects in the collection the Vatican had amassed over the years."
Ron’s eyes widened and his neck seemed to shrink as his head lowered to his shoulders. "You didn’t!" he said, aghast. I guess he was able to think quickly about something other than Quidditch or food.
I nodded eagerly. "I most certainly did. I pinched the lot, down to the collection of unmagical medieval pornographic paintings. That meant, however, that the basilisk had to come with me. It had been placed under a geas to protect the cache for the whole of time. Unless I wanted to try and kill it, I had to find it a new home. It is in the Chamber now, quite happily exploring, since it hasn’t been out of its own basement in two thousand years. I’ll probably set it up at one of my family’s derelict properties once we get back." I had cast a couple of silencing charms at various locations around the chamber, so no one could use a rooster to kill my new friend, but that was information that Ron didn’t really need.
Ron swallowed, but frowned with thought. He seemed to accept that I wasn’t going to just leave a deadly serpent in a school of children. "What about all that stuff that Dumbledore wanted?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Unless he wants to try and convince a basilisk to give up something it was bound to guard, he’ll have to cross that item of his Christmas list," I said evenly.
Ron shook his head with bewilderment, rose from his chair and went over to the basket of snacks that the hotel provided. He selected a large bag of crisps, ripped it open and started chomping. "Why did you even bother coming back here? If you were at Hogwarts, why return?" he asked with a spray of crumbs.
I leaned back in the chair, massaging my neck. "Well, for one thing, you’d have been a bit put out having to wait for me."
"Secondly, once they finally worked up the courage to go down into the cellar to check, I’m pretty sure they’d come after me."
Ron frowned. "Won’t they just come after you now?"
I nodded. "I’d be terribly disappointed in them if they didn’t. But I made them make a vow that no Church Wizard could approach me outside of Vatican City. Anyone coming after me will be a Muggle, or at most, as squib. Between the two of us, I’m pretty sure we can handle anything they throw at us. Besides, they’d have to find us first." I stopped for a second, and then rose. I went over to the bed and undid my backpack, dumping the contents onto the duvet.
"What are you looking for?" Ron asked.
"Tracking charms," I mumbled.
"Would they put charms on your stuff like that?"
"Probably. I would if I were them," I said with finality, waving my wand over my property. Two items glowed azure.
"Damn it," I spat, cancelling the spells. "Keep an eye on the road below, will you?" I asked Ron.
Still munching happily, the red head grinned at me, and wandered out onto the balcony. For the next minute or so, I concentrated on removing any trace of residual magic from my bag of tricks, even after the tracking charms had been dealt with. While I wasn’t as paranoid as Moody (yet), I wasn’t about to take any chances if I could avoid it.
I looked over at Ron, who was leaning on the balcony railing. "What is it?"
"There’s a lot of those car things coming down the road. They all look the same too."
I hurried out onto the balcony myself. The cars were non-descript, with no special sirens. They did have some sort of symbol on their doors which I couldn’t make out from the tenth floor. There were quite a lot of them though.
I grinned tightly. "Looks like we have company."
Ron started jumping up and down like a little kid. "Can I use some Wheezes on them?" he blurted eagerly.
I blinked and raised an eyebrow. "You have some Wheezes on you?"
It was Ron’s turn to roll his eyes. "Duh! I do work there. Well, occasionally, anyway, now that I’ve got a contract with the Cannons. Of course I have some samples." He grinned evilly at me. "I made a fortune selling some Peeping Tom prototypes to the other Cannons guys, who wanted to perv on the girls change rooms," he said with a leer, reaching into a bag and pulling out a couple of objects that looked like eyeballs on the end of a piece of string joined at the other end to a pair of spectacles.
I could feel a blush starting, so I turned to face over the balcony to cover my embarrassment. "What did Susan think of that?" I asked, looking down at the large group of men charging into the front door of the hotel.
Even not looking at him, I could hear that his grin didn’t waver. "She planned it with me. She made more money selling the girls towels that were charmed to hang in a way that always covered their bits up. The other lads didn’t see a thing, but the groans of frustration I recorded are going to make good blackmail material." He rummaged in his bag a bit more, but shook his head. "I didn’t bother to bring any of those."
I laughed out loud. "When did Susan grow a prankster bone?" I asked while beneath the balcony the last of the guards had entered the hotel. There were a large number of Muggles gathering around, a few even sitting in the recently vacated cars.
Ron joined me looking over the balcony. "When she started being an unwitting guinea pig for Fred and George." He looked down. "Well, they’re all in now. Are you sure I can’t use some Wheezes on them?"
"You’re not going to get a chance. They’re not coming in here."
He frowned. "But they’re after you," he said pointedly.
I nodded back. "Yeah, they are. But without the tracking charms and a wizard to follow them, they don’t know where I am. As it is, they don’t even know what room I’m in. They’ll have to ask at the front desk."
Realisation hit Ron’s expression like a lorry. "Ah ha! We’re in my room, not yours!"
I winked at him. "Yep, but we should take some precautions." I wandered over to the door and took the â€˜Do not disturb’ sign off the inside knob. With a few flicks of my wand, I anchored a Muggle repellent field to it. "This should be enough to cover the door, so they don’t notice it," I said, placing it back on the doorknob. As a field extending out several feet, it didn’t need to be on the outside of the door. You know, I could probably make a fortune selling Do Not Disturb signs that actually work.
I turned back to Ron, who held out one of the pair of prototype Wheezes. "They’ll probably be a bit pissed that they can’t find you, you know. Here, we can watch," he said, passing it to me. "Was there anything in your room that you need? They’re probably going to tear it apart."
I shook my head, accepting the Wheeze. "Nope, all my important stuff is on your bed. I leaned over and slipped the fake eyeball part of the Peeping Tom under the door. Ron followed suit.
The extendible string was long enough that Ron and I could sit on the comfy chairs and watch the bafflement that was bound to occur in the hallway. I was rather happy that my room was at the opposite end of the floor.
A few minutes later we could hear the heavy booted steps of dozens of people trying to run in silence. Ron excitedly held a finger to his lips and hissed, "Shhh!" drowning out anything we could hear for a few seconds.
In the corridor, several soldiers, nearly two dozen, stormed out of the stairwell. I was rather impressed at their level of fitness, since running up ten flights of stairs in full combat gear wasn’t a trivial exercise. The leader gave the squad a few hand gestures, and a handful of men broke off from the main squad and began entering the other rooms on the floor. I wondered what they were doing at first, until they emerged again, escorting the confused occupants into the stairwell quickly and quietly. One fat fellow was wearing only a towel.
"Looks like they are evacuating the floor," I noted to Ron. "They must have got a master key from downstairs."
The two men that came down this end of the corridor completely ignored Ron’s door as they continued their mission. Soon, every room on the floor had been emptied, and each member of the squad took up a position near my room.
Once the soldiers were ready, one gave another signal. A big, husky fellow slipped the key into the lock and touched the door handle.
I was more shocked than they were when an eruption of magical energy flashed. Every soldier in the corridor ended up on their backs, mown down by the explosion.
"Nice trap," Ron complimented me.
I shook my head, still watching events unfold in the corridor. "I didn’t put a trap on my door," I said warily. "Someone else did." I bit my lip, thinking deeply. "If someone else if looking for me, then whatever is going on, we need to be ready," I said seriously.
A couple of the guards had managed to keep enough of their wits about them to raise their weapons at the now open door. The sound of gunfire lit up my senses. At least three of the soldiers were shooting directly at my room’s door, or at least, whatever was in the doorway. Ron and I shared a glance before leaping up out of the chairs.
It took us a few seconds to reach the door, but by then the noise had stopped. I took the opportunity to cast a disillusionment charm on us both, before we cracked the door open and peered out.
The corridor was still full of recumbent armed men, all of whom appeared to be semi-conscious. Amid the groans and heavy breathing were a few scattered words that sounded remarkably like swearing. The second universal language.
Ron and I judiciously applied a few stunning spells to quieten the soldiers who were still awake. As we approached my door, more details emerged. It looked as though it had been blown outwards, though there was no actual damage or scorch marks on the surrounding walls. Hell, even the carpet didn’t even look unruffled. The footprints in the soft carpet from the guards’ large boots were still visible.
A tall, unruffled robed figure strode from my room out into the hallway, looking at the bodies. I couldn’t help but let a grin grow on my face as I relaxed. "Hello, Master."
Ron gasped in surprise, but to his credit, kept quiet. Zab gave me a sour expression.
"Stop calling me Master," Zab snapped. "I’ve been waiting here for nearly three hours."
I nodded. "You really shouldn’t have warded my room like that."
His eyes flicked over Ron, even disillusioned as he was, before returning to me. "It was a test."
I nodded again, still smiling. "To see if I was still being observant. I know. Still, it must have shocked these poor buggers."
Zab looked down at the recumbent guards. "I take it your meeting at the Vatican did not go well."
I half shrugged. "No, but exactly how badly depends entirely on your point of view."
He looked at me intently, flicking his wand to create a zone of privacy for us. "Exactly why were they seeking you?"
I sighed. "It’s a long story."
I recognised the tone. This was important. "I stole the entire papal collection of dark artefacts."
Zab assumed the expression of total blankness that made my heart soar. To cover his moment of less than complete control, he nudged one of the recumbent guards with a toe. "May I ask why?"
"They forced me to perform a suicidal mission for them."
Zab stared at me for a while. "I see," he said. I suppose he decided he didn’t need to know at this instant. He’d be more than likely to figure out what happened later if he wanted to expend the effort to do so. "You must have somehow prevented the Church wizards from following you," he said evenly.
I nodded. "Yep, I tricked them into making an unbreakable vow. Basically, no wizard working on behalf of the Church can approach, contact or speak to me outside of Vatican City. Waldorf didn’t want to make the vow, but the Pope demoted him and made a wizard called Darius do it."
Zab frowned. "Darius? Short, solidly built fellow, with mousey brown hair and dark brown eyes? Has one eyebrow stretching across his forehead?"
"Yes, that’s him." I didn’t bother to ask if Zab knew him. From his description, that was obvious. "He seemed to be a nice, amiable chap, though I did feel defensive around him."
Zab snorted. "Darius is one of the most cunning and experienced spymasters in our world. Anything that happened around him was more than likely staged for your benefit."
I raised an eyebrow, and then thought deeply. "Okaaaay, I need to think about what happened then." I looked over at Ron, who was staring at us outside of the privacy ward before turning back to Zab. "Your contact never showed up."
Zab sighed. "He was murdered," he said evenly, though I could detect a hint of tightness in his tone.
I bit the inside of my cheek. "Bugger. Did he leave any notes?"
Zab flashed me a look. "You have no sympathy for the man?"
I shrugged. "I didn’t know him."
Zab looked at me for a few uncomfortable seconds. "You are becoming quite hard, Harry. Good."
That brought me up short. "Good?"
"You are not letting childish notions of assumed guilt drive your emotions. Before you came to me, the knowledge that a death was a direct result of a request on your behalf would have crippled you; filled you with self-doubt."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Was he right? He usually was, though I’d become more and more reliant on accumulating data and thinking through ideas myself rather than relying on the opinion of others recently. At the beginning of my apprenticeship, Sirius had only been dead a few weeks, and I was still consumed with guilt. In that respect Zab was right, I had been all too eager to accept a level of guilt disproportionate to my actual responsibility. Now, even though I’d requested the information from my old Master, the death of his contact didn’t overwhelm me.
"Come," Zab said, interrupting my musings. "Send your friend home. Anyone with any contact with you will be a target until this is sorted out. Then pack your things. We are going hunting."
Zab’s expression reminded me of the night we harvested Grawp’s blood. That time, there was a pressing need to prevent any unnecessary deaths - giant specifically, centaur preferably.
This time, there was not going to be anything holding us back.
This time, we were going hunting for keeps.
After a moment or two, I nodded sharply to Zab. "Okay, give me a moment to get ready."
Zab nodded and cancelled the privacy charm. "You have two minutes."
I turned quickly to Ron. "Mate, pack your bags and get out of here."
That shocked him. "What?! Why?"
I sighed softly. "Because this is deadly serious now." His expression darkened, and I had to think quickly to stop him arguing. "I need you to get a message to Dumbledore. As quickly as possible. And I can’t use an owl."
Ron’s expression flickered rapidly, from anger, to determination, passing briefly through caution and distrust on the way. "What message?" he asked tentatively.
I knew he suspected I was making an excuse to get rid of him, but was willing to do what I asked. Thank Merlin he was maturing. "I need you to tell Dumbledore about the Chamber. And what’s down there. You need to impress upon him that he not try to get down there, for any reason. For now, the stuff he wanted is safe. I also need you to tell him that I’m on the trail of the Last."
Ron frowned. "Last what?"
I shook my head. "No, just the Last. He’ll know what I mean. With any luck, I’ll be back a few days after you."
Ron looked at me intently. "This is that thing you can’t tell me about yet?"
I nodded quickly. "Yep. I can’t tell you how much you’ve helped me, but please trust me when I say that I need you to get that message to Dumbledore as quickly as possible. If we lose the trail for the Last now, we may not find it again in time. I promise that when we get back with it, I’ll tell you what is going on."
After a tense few seconds, Ron nodded sharply. "Ok. I’ll go. But you’d better have a good story for me when you get back."
I gave him a grin. "The best. Go!"
With that, we split, him going back to his room to pack, me turning back to my room and old Master.
Zab nodded approvingly. "You handled that well."
"Thanks. Let me grab my stuff and we’ll go," I said quickly, entering my room. It was the work of a few moments to summon my clothes and toiletries from their temporary homes. With a few deft flicks of my wand, my bag was packed and ready. I hefted it over my shoulder and turned to look at Zab.
"Come," he said imperiously. "They are beginning to rouse."
I glanced down at the softly groaning doorstops. A slow grin formed on my face as an idea formed in my mind. "Just a sec. This is an opportunity too good to miss."
Zab frowned at me, but disillusioned himself. I bound one of the recumbent guards who had a larger than average number of decorations on his sleave before casting an enervation charm. Slowly, he shook himself out of unconsciousness. To aid the process, I flicked the end of his nose sharply with my finger. "Wake up, Sunshine."
His eyes flickered open, but it took a few seconds for them to focus. "You!" he blurted.
I nodded. "Yes, I’m me. You’re you, and he’s him," I said cheekily, pointing at Zab, even though he couldn’t be seen.
"Who?" he snapped, arching his neck to look to where I was pointing.
"Dumbledore," I lied easily without even hesitating.
He struggled at his bonds. "I have to arrest you," he said through clenched teeth.
I raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly down at the magical ropes holding him steady. "You are of course welcome to try."
He glared at me impotently. Zab cleared his throat. "We need to go. Now."
I nodded. "Just a sec." I turned back to the bound guard. "Look, I’m nicking off for now. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be back in Italy, so if you or your superiors would like to follow up this little conversation, tell them to go talk to Dumbledore here. By the time you get free, he’ll be back at Hogwarts." I let a long, slow smile grow on my face. "But do give my regards to Waldorf and Darius, and tell them that it was so considerate of them to let me go down into the grotto alone. I’m not sure how I’d have managed Dumbledore’s mission if they decided I needed an escort."
I rose and sniggered insultingly. "So long, and thanks," I said, throwing my backpack over my shoulder.
We had portkeyed to Berlin before Zab spoke again. "I trust that grandstanding was worthwhile?"
I shrugged. "Misdirection for the most part. If, as you say, Darius is a cunning bugger, then it would be in his best interests to convince me to trust him. Since they wanted to force me to do something foolhardy, setting up a situation where I was pissed off with one single wizard in their organisation would have been preferable to being pissed off with all of them.
"If Darius did set that up in an effort to get cozy with me, or to deflect my ire onto a single wizard rather than the organisation as a whole, then the misdirection would be worthwhile to confuse him. If not, then it won’t be." I snickered briefly. "In any case, the annoyance it will cause Dumbledore when people start accusing him of all sorts of things will certainly make up for it."
Zab gave me a long sidelong glance, which didn’t quite cover his amusement. "Quite," he said carefully.
I grinned cheekily, thinking about how many protestations Dumbledore will need to make over the next few weeks. "So long as you didn’t come in the front door, they won’t be able to describe you, so only Dumbledore will know you were here. And he will be a bit too busy defending himself to spend time tracking you down for an explanation."
Zab frowned. "What was wrong with coming in the front door?" he asked cautiously. "I confounded all the Muggles in the mezzanine."
I blinked at him. "You just walked in like that?"
"Yes," he said slowly. "In my experience, trying to enter a premises open to the general public with stealth gets you far more attention than simply walking in. So long as the Muggles cannot identify me, my identity is still secret."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. "You need a Muggle refresher course."
"What did I miss?" he demanded.
I took a deep breath. "Muggles now have cameras that can watch your movements. In a high priced hotel like that one, they have them at the entrances for security. Unless you disillusioned yourself, or were invisible, you were captured on film, and can be identified."
"Cameras? They need a person to operate. If the person is confounded, they cannot use their mechanism to capture my likeness."
I sighed. "No. There are security cameras that are attached to points in a building that constantly record who comes in and out. They don’t need a person to point them; I don’t believe they even have a person watching the images."
Zab looked uncomfortable. "Why would no one watch them?"
"Because they have dozens of them set up around the place. I personally noticed three, but I’m sure there were many more. They’d use the footage to investigate what happened after an incident." I resisted the urge to give Zab an evil smile. "Such as an armed conflict on the upper floors. Anyone who appears on film entering the hotel and doesn’t appear coming out will is likely to be investigated."
Zab looked at me in horror. I guess ignorance is truly bliss.
Zab seemed more than a little distracted for the rest of the trip. He ignored my few attempts at conversation, remaining deep in thought until we reached a building that appeared to have been built in a time where utilitarianism and functionality was far more important than artistic endeavours. The drab grey building was square, squat, and solid, yet so dreary that I felt a little depressed just looking at it.
I followed Zab wordlessly into the building and up three flights of stairs. The interior was just as drab as the exterior. I wondered vaguely what the suicide rate was here.
Zab surreptitiously erected some wards in front of an otherwise non-descript door.
"Expecting trouble?" I asked.
Zab glared at me. "Whoever killed Helmut probably knows where he lives. I would prefer not to be disturbed by anyone interested in someone they’ve already silenced."
I nodded as we opened the door. Looking in, Zab's contact lived in what could only be described as a bachelor's dream. Rubbish littered the floor, ranging from screwed up pieces of paper to
rotting food. Ample evidence existed that pointed to the fact that he survived on pizza, including a cardboard wall of pizza boxes that had been stacked over one window. The cardboard stack would act
quite efficiently as an insulation layer, but it also quite effectively managed to keep the smell in too. Fermenting cabbages wasn't the start of it, though it did tickle some elusive memory in
My first impression was that they guy had been a major slob. The couch in front of the TV had an impressively detailed indentation in the mattress, and numerous stains on both the carpet and the couch itself left any viewer thinking that spilled drinks were a rather common occurrence. I shuddered as Zab and I walked through the room. My sneakers were sticking to the floor.
As disgusted as I was, something just didn't seem right. Everything around me was awful, but there was something about the stench of the place that made me think there was more to what I was seeing.
Zab looked at me inquiringly. "What do you think?"
I took a few moments to gather my thoughts. I ran my eye over the scene once more, looking for something out of place. Finally, I placed where I'd smelled the familiar aroma. "It's a set up."
Zab's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"
I sniffed. "There is a potion simmering somewhere nearby. It is the basis of Cole’s ward. It’s the bloody smell of cabbages gives it away." I looked around further, noting a few other things that were inconsistent with the scene. "That will keep the Muggles away, or at least keep them from paying too much attention to this place."
Zab raised an eyebrow, but indicated for me to continue.
"There are no dirty dishes on the floor. I've visited the Weasley twins and Lee Jordan, and dirty dishes strewn everywhere are a hallmark of unmarried male slobs."
Zab smiled. "Go on."
I rubbed my chin. "Those pizza boxes are dusty, not just dirty. On a pile that size, new ones would be added all the time. Besides, they all look the same age."
Zab nodded. "Good. Helmut, my contact, was fastidious in his personal hygiene, and setting up an obfuscation layer of security like this was difficult for him." With that, Zab drew his wand and waved it briefly, causing a wall covered with childish finger paintings to slip aside. Behind was a meticulously kept room; small, but obviously expanded beyond the usual dimensions.
In the far corner, the bed had been neatly made, with what appeared to be starched sheets. A desk stood against one wall, with a single wooden chair neatly tucked in. Every item on the desk had been arranged with geometric precision, including the small laptop computer.
There were no ornaments, pictures or other decorations. The walls and ceiling were painted a brilliant white, making the single bulb in the centre of the ceiling more than capable of lighting the room. All in all, the room's condition indicated that the occupant's mental state was a little past â€˜fastidious’ as Zab had described him, and probably verging on â€˜irons his underpants’.
Zab cast a spell, and then looked around in frustration when it failed to locate what he was after. "Damn it, he'd better not have kept his information memorized."
I frowned. "What about the computer?"
Zab blinked. "The what?"
I pointed at the closed laptop. "That thing."
"What about it?"
I strode over to the desk, and quickly cast a spell Zab taught me for finding magical traps. There were three.
Zab wordlessly helped me remove them, watching me examine the laptop. There were no labels on the buttons like I remembered from Dudley's broken computer. It took a while, but eventually, I pressed the right thing, making the machine spring into life.
The laptop started running noisily, something inside of it humming crazily. The scream flashed to life, with information flashing up from bottom to top too quickly to read. It all looked
like gibberish to me.
Eventually, a single grey square appeared in the centre of the black screen, requesting a login and password.
I stared blankly at it for a moment.
"Well?" Zab asked.
I shrugged. "Dunno."
He glanced down at the machine. "I presume the letters there are used for recording information?"
I tapped a key on the keyboard. The letter 'j' appeared in the box. "So it would seem."
Zab frowned. "Do you not know how to use this contraption?"
I shook my head. "Nope. My cousin Dudley had one, but I certainly wasn't allowed to play with it before he broke it. After that, well, it didn’t matter." I bit my lip as I stared at the recalcitrant computer. "I don't suppose your contact happened to tell you what his password was?" I asked Zab.
Zab frowned, but looked around the room. "Can you see anything green?"
I gave Zab a look, but turned around to look. "No, now that you mention it." Which, given the state of the other room, I would have expected to have seen at least some mould around.
My old Master strode into the filthy portion of the home, looking around intently. "There," he said suddenly, summoning a picture from the wall.
I craned my neck to see. The picture was a riot of green hues, and now that I looked, it was the only green object in the house. "What does the green signify?"
Zab turned the picture over, before pulling it out of its frame. "Use your brain, boy," he said sharply. "I’m still not going to answer questions when you have the information to figure out the answer yourself."
I bit back sharp reply and looked over his shoulder at the denuded picture. On the back of the canvas, a few lines of text were written, though it was a language I'd only ever seen in History of
Magic lessons, and then only sparingly. "You have a procedure with your contacts. If they disappear, information you need is stored on something green. Writing it in Gobledygook means that few humans
could understand it, even if they found it."
Zab nodded absently and ran his finger over the text, running right to left. Mumbling to himself, he wandered over to the laptop, and began tapping a few keys. He paused in his efforts. "How do I enter text into the password area?"
I shrugged, but joined him. We tried a few keys before finding one that swapped the blinking box to the password area. Zab tapped a few more keys.
"Now what?" he asked.
I reached over and pressed the return key. Immediately, the screen changed. "Looks like we are in," I said uncertainly.
Zab again looked down at the text. "I hate translating on the fly," he grumbled, before entering another line of text that appeared to my untrained eye to be meaningless characters and spaces. A new box appeared on the screen, filled with dense text. I ran my eye over the first few lines, unable to make out any meaning. It had obviously been written in a code of some kind.
"This is his journal," Zab said intently. After a minute of intense concentration, he glanced down at the keyboard, then up at me. "Is there a way to get to the rest of the text?"
"Probably," I said with a shrug, looking down at the keyboard again. After a few moments and false starts, we discovered that hitting a key with an arrow pointing down made the text
move up. How bloody idiotic is that? It seems that wizards aren’t the only ones with no logic.
As Zab scanned through the incomprehensible text, a muffled voice came from within his robes. He frowned, reached into an inner pocket and withdrew a familiar mirror.
"What?" he snapped, holding it on an angle so I couldn’t see who was calling.
Blaise’s voice snapped back. "Have you found him yet?"
Grumbling, Zab threw the mirror at me, spinning it through the air like a frisbee. "Entertain her. I don’t have time for this," he said as I caught it between my palms.
Blaise’s dark expression lightened considerably when she saw me. "Sweetie!" she squealed with an overly saccharine voice, designed specifically to annoy her Great-grandfather.
The muscles along Zab’s jaw bunched and twisted, indicating success. I had to bite the inside of my cheek not to laugh at the reaction his Great-granddaughter’s tone had on his demeanour. "Looking for me?" I asked brightly.
"Do you mind?" Zab snarled. "Take that infernal device out into the other room if you must, but leave me in peace to decode this."
Blaise frowned in confusion as I moved out of Zab’s immediate vicinity with alacrity. "What’s up with him?" she asked me.
I shook my head. "I’m not sure how much I should tell you." At her darkening expression, I hastily added, "It’s not my information to give. If he doesn’t want you to know, I can’t tell you."
Blaise sighed deeply, but nodded. "What have you been up to then? I got home a few days ago to find your luggage missing." She pouted. "If I was less confident, I may have thought that you’d left me for Granger."
I rolled my eyes at her kittenish act. "Last time I checked, Hermione still has a bedroom at home too."
She grinned at me wickedly. "True, though the bed is getting dusty."
I smiled back. "Was there anything in particular you wanted to talk about?"
"What have you been doing? You haven’t sent an owl or anything."
I looked around for somewhere to sit, only to discover that it would be easier to stand for a while than try and clean my clothes afterwards. "Well, let’s see. I convinced Ron to join me as camouflage, and we went to Rome. We wandered around a bit, got into a fight with some bounty hunters, killed one of them, then talked our way out of prison. I visited the Vatican, got forced to attempt to kill a basilisk, stole a few hundred dark artefacts from their most secure vault, and I’ve just begun a lifetime’s worth of dodging their agents."
Blaise blinked, then lowered her head, looking at me dangerously from under her eyelashes. "You did all that in just three days?" she asked incredulously.
I nodded. "Pretty much. Sorry, but I just haven’t had time to send an owl."
Her own jaw bunched in a manner very similar to Zab. "So it would seem. If anyone else told me they’d done all that, I wouldn’t have believed them. Or at least, I’d have thought they were over exaggerating. With you, I’m wondering what you aren’t telling me. Why don’t you come on home and we’ll talk about locking you in your room for the next fifty years. Hopefully that would stop the chaos and mayhem that seems to follow you around."
I shrugged. "You sure you wouldn’t prefer to just tie me down on the bed?"
That actually brought a slight blush to her cheeks. "Don’t tempt me, Buster."
I gave her a pout. "So, anything interesting happening at home?"
"Great-grandfather thought you might be in danger, so he stopped by to ask me a couple of questions before heading off to find you. I hope you don’t mind, but I gave him that mirror."
I shook my head. "Why on earth would he think I was in danger?" I asked rhetorically.
"Because that’s your ground state of being, perhaps?" Blaise answered.
I blew her a kiss. "You know me so well."
She turned serious. "Look Harry, Granger is starting to unravel. She stopped by here the day you left, and kicked up a stink."
I thought for a second. "Don’t tell me, she didn’t believe you when you said that you didn’t know where I was?"
Blaise cocked an eyebrow. "And here I was thinking you’d need at least three guesses. Seriously though, she’s freaking out. She stopped by today and basically accused me of hiding you, then of orchestrating the rift between the two of you. Using logic against her just made her even more hysterical. She’s missed classes and hasn’t eaten in days. You need to get back here and talk to her soon."
I nodded. "I’d really like to, but if what had happened here is any indication, the people I’m trying to track down know someone is looking for them. I can’t afford to give them too much of a lead."
"Is what you’re doing that important?"
I nodded slowly. "Yes it is. Hermione knows that. If you see her soon, tell her I’m looking for the last one, and that I’ll be home as soon as I can after that."
Blaise sighed, but nodded. "She’s not going to believe me, but okay. Can you keep the mirror on you? If she can talk to you soon, even with you overseas, that would help."
I nodded. "I can’t promise that I can talk the instant she calls, but I’ll do my best."
"That will have to do. Tell me, are you sure you are safe now? I know Great-grandfather is with you, but is there anyone else who knows where you are who wants to kill you?" she asked cheekily.
I nodded. "We’ve taken some precautions. I won’t say we’re safe, but we are ready for action."
"Harry?" Zab called.
"Be right there," I replied, before looking back to the mirror. "Sorry Love, I’ve got to go."
Blaise winced. "Go. I’ll see you soon."
I ended the call and wandered back into the spartan room. "You rang?"
Zab frowned, not sure what I meant by the phrase. "I haven’t managed to interpret all of Helmut’s journal, but I have some details for you." With that, he launched into a detailed description of his contact’s information.
Zab's man had spent a long time tracing foreigners travelling east, noting which had links to the families of known Death Eaters. He had whittled the list down to a handful of people who had
travelled from Britain to Albania in the months after Riddle's death, and had managed to identify all but two.
Zab's lips pursed as he read the final entry. "Well, you will be following up on this yourself. I cannot go with you."
I looked at my old Master, who was still crouched over, reading the laptop’s screen intently. "You’re going back to try and clean up your mess at the Hotel," I guessed.
He nodded. He reached into a pocket and produced a small piece of parchment and a quill. Scribbling a few words, he then handed the note to me. "Go here. That is the last place Helmut mentioned in his journal. I will need more time to translate this document."
I took the parchment and looked around the small home. "I presume you are going to take care of this place now that your contact has been found?"
Zab flashed a look at me. "What I need to do here is not your concern. I have assisted you to the limit of my ability in this matter. Take your information and go."
I took a deep breath, bit back a retort, turned and left. Zab had lost a valuable asset due to my request, and if I was any judge of him, a friend as well. He had been exposed to the Muggle world in a way that may jeopardize the secret of his existence, and had a great deal of work to do cleaning the mess up. I could accept that he would probably be short with me for a while.
Hopefully, he’d calm down before I managed to find the last Horcrux.
Well, the reason I've been so silent recently is this...