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Enter the Dragon (Harry Potter/Shadowrun)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Dunkelzahn, Jul 10, 2018.

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  1. Mashadarof402

    Mashadarof402 Experienced.

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    I think the whole knight thing is just neuroses on his part, since the last mention of it was in regards to home security. He seems to be navigating politics decently enough
     
  2. lancelot

    lancelot Grand High Poobah

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    He hasn't touched politics yet, that is others doing it for him so far. Marchbanks was super training wheels for all he did well enough.
     
  3. Mashadarof402

    Mashadarof402 Experienced.

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    He's also dealing with the American Indian shamans well enough. No handholding there.

    There's also the fact that he's literally starting a company. Yes, he had seed money from his body parts, but the ideas, concept and all that is his.

    And let's not forget he did work out a plan to provide some soft power protection to Hermione (not his fault the Malfoys were too stupid to realize) when hard wouldn't be available.

    His speech patterns are young, but his thinking is sufficiently mature.

    Seriously, just call it a speech impediment on his side.
     
  4. lancelot

    lancelot Grand High Poobah

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    Haven't reached the US section yet.

    The best example I have of him being stupid is how he was acting after Ginny. He'd just had a talk about mind control, and other ways one person can force another to do things. Yet even Albus can't convince him going straight to murder is a bad thing. That he needed to be reminded NOT to tell the Wesley's that he was really tempted to murder Ginny out of hand. There is some serious problems with Harry's characterization.
     
  5. Acolyte

    Acolyte Getting sticky.

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    What do you mean murder is not the first options. Against mind raping slavers it should be the only option. It is a war to the hilt for all decent thinking beings. If he has to overthrow the government, then so be it.
     
  6. Mashadarof402

    Mashadarof402 Experienced.

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    Tempted. Didn't go through it. Rationalized to a lesser action. Did you miss all those parts? Stop trying to cherry pick stuff.

    If I only displayed all the negative impulses you've had but didn't go through, you'd probably end up looking like a perverted serial killer.
     
  7. lancelot

    lancelot Grand High Poobah

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    The problem was he didn't even wonder why a ten year old girl tried to murder him. Let's just agree there are some serious problems with Harry that need to be corrected soonest.
     
  8. Monitor

    Monitor A Monitor sitting before a Monitor

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    An adult would go for more active hard power. He is currently mostly going for uncomplicated, quick hard power and a lot of soft power (mostly because he lets himself managed by Gringotts and the teachers). He tells them his goals and let’s the precise way of carrying them out to the others. Which is doing a lot to reduce the negative issues he could have. Assume for a moment that he would understand what exactly happened to Hermione. And how it could happen. The only ones currently endangered are the ones directly responsible and the Malfoys. If he was adult enough to understand that it is an institutional issue, well, there is something to be said about burning the Wizengamot as often as necessary to bring change...

    Also, centered teenager? I know a few, but they are rare. Teenagers, as a rule, are brash, like risks and are as a rule, stupid in their behaviours. Do you truly want stereotypical teenager gigantic dragon? I do not, mostly because I am reasonably certain that Hogwarts would not survive. I can just imagine: „I want to impress that girl, let’s shift in this crowded corridor far to small for my real form...“

    His puberty will need to be very carefully managed. Insanely so, even. After all, it is stated that he could take on half of Wizarding Britain alone with only using his physical process and resistance to magic. And that was before he began his first year at Hogwarts. This has not changed for the better, I assure you. And it is still ignoring that he is a fairly capable wizard as well...
     
  9. lancelot

    lancelot Grand High Poobah

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    I'm not talking about hard or soft power, or any power really. I'm not talking about him being happy go luck either I've already explained that multiple times. As for acting like a normal teen most teen act brash, stupid, and take risks because teens tend to be insecure and have a need to prove themselves. Being a fucking dragon tends to counter insecurity.
     
  10. Redstone

    Redstone Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Because the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour!
    Maening they will fukc up and make so many emotions controld choices that it is not even funy, it is call teen drama for a reason!
    And after he learns what happens to his damsel he will change drastically so be patient!
    Adults will shield children if they have go parental instincts so Dumbledore and his staff are stunting his development somewhat bay controlling what he learns!
     
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  11. Monitor

    Monitor A Monitor sitting before a Monitor

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    Ahem, it does not. Because that insecurity comes from a lot of thinks, for example social issues. And Harry is incredibly isolated for a teenager. An autist might not have problems, but he is not described as an autist...

    Now, there is another point that was not brought up: Balance. Him acting like an 8 year old child reduces the issue that an older child might decide to be far, far more proactive. It is more believable that the 8 year child is reactive then the 13-15 year old boy. And the teachers (and the author for that matter) might not like, a proactive Harry. Because then we end up in a straight OP character fic, which is difficult to pull of (not impossible, mind you, but difficult.)
     
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  12. simssss

    simssss Getting some practice in, huh?

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    Are there other dragons like harry or similarly powerful individuals? I think you said vlad tepes?
     
  13. Knightowl

    Knightowl Know what you're doing yet?

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    It's stated in the World Building : Dragons that Harry is the Only Iron Dragon alive. In Doghead Thirteen's proposed future Harry is claim as Little Brother by Dunkenzahn an Lofwyr. Basic unless you an Immortal Elf there no way to safly fuck with the SSP Corp.
     
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  14. 128Hunter

    128Hunter Far too busy to respond often, my apologies.

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    Especially since it seems like the South American megacorp that is generally the only ones dumb/evil enough to try is about to get its teeth kicked in before being able to truly establish themselves as more than an evil empire. While I don’t expect the altered interdict to give the confederacy enough of an advantage to wipe them out I do think the tide of that millennial war is about to turn against the empire built by blood.
     
  15. Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    Setting aside the running gag about knights, I was debating just letting this question ride until I dealt with it in the story proper for fear of spoiling things or seeming too dismissively flippant if I didn't. Then the other question popped up and I felt bad about answering that without addressing the earlier discussion, so I decided to do so anyway. In any event, I've included my original rather flippant response in the spoiler below because I still thought it was kind of funny. However, given that my sense of humor has been known to fall flat in the past --- the running joke about Harry being afraid of knights apparently the most recent example of such --- know that it is not in any way intended to discourage future feedback.
    Wow... put that way, the situation sure does sound like a recipe for tragedy! I mean, in the wrong circumstances, that sort of attitude could go pretty horribly wrong, and the consequences can't be fixed... no matter how strong, smart, or rich you happen to be. You just have to learn to live with them.

    Sounds almost like he's being teed up for something unpleasant, something... character building.


    Seriously though, people generally mature when they need to --- that is, when their current methods of dealing with the world encounter something they can't handle --- rather than on any sort of schedule. Sometimes that need can be triggered by reading or conversations, but just as often people need to have events conspire to rub their metaphorical nose in the problem before they truly see it. Setting that sort of thing up can take a bit of time for a character as strong and well-equipped as this one; Harry can handle quite a bit with factory-standard equipment.

    That said, I don't particularly think his reaction to Ginny's murder attempt was too unreasonable a conclusion for him to draw from what he knew at the time. "Kill people who try to kill you so they stop doing it" was Harry's initial take on the topic when he finally figured out what 'slay' meant, shortly thereafter corrected to "kill people who try to kill you so they stop doing it but try to avoid eating them in the process". That worked out rather well for him twice already (Quirrelmort and the basilisk), and this last time it got caught by another rule before it could become an issue in the form of Dumbledore's request back at the beginning of his first year. Harry delayed applying the first rule on account of the second, and it all seemed to work out, no further modification needed. So now he's assembled the rule, "kill people who try to kill you so they stop doing it but try to avoid eating them in the process, unless they are Hogwarts students in which case you should dump them off on the Headmaster for additional analysis". That one covers every applicable situation he has so far encountered perfectly.

    Dumbledore's requested change is not just another such incremental correction; it is a complete paradigm shift, changing the central instruction from "kill people who try to kill you so they stop doing it" to something else a whole lot more confusing. At first blush it even seems to open the door for people to try to kill him willy-nilly by removing any discouragement for the act. Why should he make such a radical change to a strategy which seems to have worked well to this point? Harry respects Dumbledore well enough, but he also knows that the man has some blind spots when it comes to the appropriate application of violence: case in point being his narrative on how the wizarding world works back in 1.9.7. Harry at this point is much closer to Snape's view of things (1.9.8) in this regard than Dumbledore's. When new evidence presents itself --- that is, when his application of his current method fails badly --- then Harry will reconsider, but until then he is going to take Dumbledore's advice on the subject with a grain of salt.

    As for Harry's physical development, note that he is a dragon, and furthermore note that he is a dragon under highly unusual circumstances. As uncertainty about his development does play a role in several later plot lines, I've spoilered the slightly more detailed explanation.
    • Harry is maturing at a breakneck pace... for a dragon.
      • Unlike the normal course of development for a dragon of his species, which would be a long struggle against extreme malnutrition drawn out over the course of centuries, Harry has access to food enough (available for purchase by the trainload in an industrial society) and magic enough (huge infusions from the nodes) to give him a nutritional excess
      • Harry's physiology is therefore developing as fast as it can
      • That said, a great dragon is a massive and massively complicated edifice, and that "as fast as it can" is still a fair bit slower than the equivalent human development cycle
      • Without any prior examples to extrapolate from, Poppy can only speculate as to how it will proceed be drawing analogies with other beings and making guesses
    • Harry's development is a decidedly weird thing
      • It comes in fits and spurts, rapid and obvious development interspersed with long apparent hiatuses
      • It does not actually stop
        • There is a lot of internal growth and maturation that has to happen
        • In addition to the physical, those also include magic-handling organs and the like which need time to grow.
        • Those internal growth cycles show very few external signs when they are happening (there is plenty visible to dragon eyes to indicate the ongoing changes, but there is a decided shortage of such at the moment as Harry lacks an appropriate mirror)
      • All of this combines to make Harry's maturation cycle a mystery to everyone involved
      • That uncertainty fuels a number of different planned lines of dramatic conflict
    • Sexually, Harry is currently on the verge of beginning puberty
      • He's far enough along to know "I like that" but not enough to have any idea of "why", "what", or "how" (hence his behavior around Abigail)
      • His innards are currently scrambling to adjust to handle the periodic massive magical influxes from draining the nodes
      • The rest of their time is occupied with growing the various other magical subsystems that are currently in the development pipeline
        • Neurological extensions
        • Magic handling organs
        • Additional control structures
        • Properly incorporating those newly enhanced alchemical systems cribbed from the philosopher's stone
        • Additional magical defenses
        • etc.
      • It will be some time before his biology deems it appropriate to waste resources on preparing for procreation in the face of all that other backlog



    At the moment Vlad Tepes is the strongest magical being currently awake in the world, though Harry is not far behind at the moment and is gaining steadily.
    Back in the mid-14th century, a sizeable group of magical Turks, led by a recent muggleborn from a minor branch of the nonmagical Ottoman nobility, seeing that they had no real path for advancement in their nonmagical positions, launched a coup in the magical Empire (old and prominent enough that it required no additional qualifier) which controlled the magical side of that territory at the time. After a great deal of the usual treachery and violence, the coup was successful, leading to the Empire becoming the Magical Ottoman Empire. The new magical Emperor set about ruling his secret magical holdings, but he never gave up his nonmagical holdings and titles.

    Tepes started as a nonmagical human who was the heir to the throne in Wallachia. He and his younger brother were taken by the Ottomans (nonmagical) as hostages in the 1440s and were coincidentally placed under the supervision of that same minor noble who had come to rule the magical Ottoman Empire. Vlad was... poorly treated as a hostage in a variety of ways which did not leave Vlad in a good place, mentally speaking. Of course, while this was happening, the magical emperor and his court were deperately trying to consolidate their position in the magical Empire they had just taken over. The coup had been recent in magical terms, not even a full century past, and their position was fragile. Among the efforts to solidify their position was research into forbidden magics, including both blood magic and the magic of the ancient stone rings, records of which still existed in the Empire due to its origins back in antiquity (it was established through a group of refugees from the Theran Empire who successfully conquered the magical portions of the Akkadian Empire at the time). Eventually, they unwisely decided to combine the two.

    Vlad was becoming less and less stable, and rather than risk their mistreatment of the boy becoming too obvious to their non-magical peers, his keepers decided to use the boy as a sacrifice in an experimental blood magic ritual at a stone circle. Needless to say, it went poorly for them. The node discharged uncontrollably, killing all the magical participants and pushing their magical talent, knowledge, and vitality into Vlad, leaving the former human as something of an Alucard expy from Hellsing. Unlike Alucard, he's not precisely a vampire, rather he is a powerful and sapient blood magic construct, but he has much the same ability set, including the ability to consume his foes and add their strength to his own (much as happened by accident in the initial ritual).

    After the ritual, Vlad was left with a damaged mind and a burning hatred for all things Ottoman, both from the earlier abuse and the ritual backlash, and he struggled to carry himself through life, becoming more and more cruel in the face of the various challenges to his rule, which led to a certain notoriety. Despite his reputation, for years he refused to use his magical abilities, seeing them as the work of the devil due to their origins and grisly nature. Towards the end of his public reign, his control frayed more and more until an incident where he accidentally fed on his victims, many of them innocent of wrongdoing. The shock of the new memories flooding in and making it impossible to rationalize his actions had a profound effect on his psyche and led to him withdraw shortly thereafter from public nonmagical life (recorded as his apparent death in historical records).

    After a few years struggling with his conscience and newly-awakened guilt, Vlad eventually accepted his own culpability to an extent. However, he also decided that the magical Ottomans were ultimately to blame for his situation, and he launched a one-man... or rather, one-whatever, campaign against them, fighting and consuming his enemies, growing stronger and stronger as he did so. That conflict has led to the formation of the magical Romanian Empire, which currently stretches from Romania in the north to Egypt in the south and from Morocco in the west to western India in the East. The last stronghold of the magical Ottoman Empire now sits in the Ethiopian highlands.

    After five centuries of continuous combat, Vlad is an experienced combatant, and after five centuries of eating millions of magically-gifted enemy soldiers and creatures, he is very, very powerful.

    There are the immortal elves around, though given that they tend to practice the old forms of magic (the ones that use environmental magic rather than an internal core) their magical abilities are somewhat limited at the moment. That said, they are assuredly a threat to him, if they are so inclined: experience and treachery versus youth and enthusiasm, and all that.

    There are also a couple of other powerful critters secretly kicking around in the current setting, though Harry will only encounter one of them before the Awakening proper.
    Two Greater Horrors managed to finagle ways to stay active during the Fifth Age, at least in a limited sense.

    Also, while Harry is the only great dragon awake and the only iron dragon known to be alive at the moment, there is quite the collection of sleeping giants of other subspecies that will be awakening in due time, and the relationships between the dragons are going to be a tad more complicated than those implied in Doghead13's future sidestory.
    • Dunkelzahn - generally cordial, the Big D tends to look at Harry as a curiosity and something of an honorary nephew. He will tend to look out for Harry's interests when it is convenient for him to do so.
    • Ghostwalker - favorable if not particularly friendly (Ghostwalker is hardly the affectionate sort). Harry (inadvertently) helps him with something of great personal importance, and Ghostwalker finds himself in Harry's debt for it. As a result, he ends up in a similar long-term position as his brother with regard to Harry.
    • Rhonabwy - ends up serving as something of a mentor for Harry by way of apology for their rather tumultuous initial meeting
    • Sea Dragon - currently in an off-again part of her long-running (22,000-odd years) soap opera of a romance with Rhonabwy, she actively dislikes Harry after learning of his existence, both for his association with Rhonabwy and for his origins as a human. The Sea Dragon is a vitriolic, if not particularly proactive, enemy. She makes it so Harry risks a great deal if he spends any particular time in the ocean. She will also destroy any of his assets that enter her domain on general principle if she happens to notice them.
    • Lofwyr - Harry dislikes Lofwyr, mainly on account of Ghostwalker's bitter and eminently justified enmity towards the elder dragon. Lofwyr does nothing to dispel that impression, seeing it as a good prod to speed Harry's growth. On the hidden side of things, through a set of rather convoluted events, Harry managed get himself entangled in a long-running scheme of Lofwyr's (one with roots all the way back in the Second Age), and so Lofwyr finds himself in the odd position of running covert security to protect Harry's assets from others in course of protecting his own interests
    • Alamais - despite not caring one way or another about Harry, Alamais notices his brother's covert interest in the youngster and attacks him as a secret proxy for his conflict with Lofwyr. This eventually leads to the two brothers fighting a shadow war using a mostly unaware Harry as a proxy
    • Other great dragons - Harry will not tend to register as anything more than a curiosity. They will treat Harry as the young child that they see him as if they are on good terms with his closer acquaintances. If they are on poor terms, they will tend to treat him with mild hostility. Mostly it will default to ignoring him unless he particularly catches their attention: children should be seen, not heard, and all that. In either case, they will tend to be painfully polite because that’s how dragons behave among their peers; anything less tends to result in massive casualties.
     
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2021
  16. randomchance

    randomchance Know what you're doing yet?

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    I can't wait!
     
  17. Jordisk

    Jordisk Versed in the lewd.

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    I love this trope. Dragons, and similar powerful beings, should be polite even to the weakest of beings. Not because they can't afford to be rude to the average being, but because you never know when the "weak" being is the avatar or favored mortal of a foe you don't want to piss off, or even worse, the "puny mortal" was one of those powerful beings hiding themselves as a "bearded man with a crooked cane". They are polite because, while nine times out of ten they can do whatever they want, that tenth time will get their shit wrecked, and to quote William the Bloody "I like the Earth. It is where I keep my stuff."
     
  18. TheGrog

    TheGrog In the number mines

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    I used to know which ones were the favored candidates for this, but it's been too long.
     
  19. D King Hecht

    D King Hecht Getting sticky.

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    Isn't the Harlequin out and about or am I mistaken? He is the most active of the immortal elves from what I remember.
     
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  20. bryceh59

    bryceh59 Getting some practice in, huh?

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    Okay, I haven't been here for a while and MAN did this story get awesome. :D

    One quick thing I wanted to talk about is Dumbledore, Snape, and Harry.

    In both this and the canon universe, Dumbledore has an intense fear of taking power for himself due to his background with Grindelwald that resulted in the death of Ariana. (Also why every bashing fanfic who makes Dumbledore justify his bad actions with 'The Greater Good' COMPLETELY missed the point of his background, but that's a topic for future discussion.)

    In Harry Potter canon, this didn't have too many bad consequences considering the Wizarding World was fairly functional. However, in this Fanfic's universe, he might've inadvertently let things just get worse considering how BIG the Wizarding World's cesspool is. Now, this isn't to say he's RESPONSIBLE for it getting so bad, and is understandable considering his background, but that doesn't change the fact that if he HAD willingly taken power or even been just a bit firmer, things at least MIGHT'VE turned out better for the Wizarding World.

    However, that isn't to say that Snape's ideology of "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out" is correct either. Because there ARE plenty of good people in the Wizarding World too. The Weasleys, Cedric Diggory, Abigail, and many more unnamed 'Background' people who are just living their lives, raising families, and working honest jobs like the people who work Harry's trains. True, his ideology make sense considering his childhood and his time with the Death Eaters. But wars WILL have innocents caught in the crossfire, not to mention that he hasn't really given much thought about what would happen afterwards, or even if he ever plans to STOP killing once he starts.

    So, to me, it seems the ideal takeaway for Harry would be somewhere in the middle. Because while there is genuine, disgusting evil festering in a large chunk of the Wizarding World, there's is also sizable amount of good there too.

    ...Wow, that got real deep and long there. I better finish this off with a joke. Uhh....Please tell me Harry is gonna try to bring back the Dinosaurs, cause that would be FREAKING AWESOME!

    EDIT: Doghead13 made a future sidestory for this fic? ...Where do i get it? :sneaky:
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2021
  21. Jordisk

    Jordisk Versed in the lewd.

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    I want to know as well. Probably on the Yahoo group somewhere, but I can't navigate that thing to save my life.
     
  22. Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    Turnabout: Far Future Side Story for Enter the Dragon

    Link to Doghead13's original post.

    Note that it is a side story for his original version, not the current one.
     
  23. Jordisk

    Jordisk Versed in the lewd.

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    I can still that happening. Maybe not exactly the same, but pretty darn close. "Dragon Hatchling of Harry Potter is having her house vandalized by Shadowrunners who don't know she is a dragon. She pops up despite them clearing the room (For *insert reason* she wasn't detected), and in return for the lives, the Shadowrunners complete the same type of job on the original client." There was no reason given for the Mako Reactors existing, and it could even be that those "depleted mako reactors" just happen to have the same name as the ones from Final Fantasy XII, maybe inspired from them as the ultimate refinement of Harry's Magic-to-Electricity experiments?
    I could make suggestions, but that would violate the ban on politics.
     
  24. deadal

    deadal Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    i remember seeing that being posted in one chapter on ff.net... how did it end up here and why was it discontinued everywhere else? whatever, i'm happy to see it is still going on!
     
  25. Cheetored20

    Cheetored20 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Different author same concept, got previous authors permission.
     
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  26. killgore444

    killgore444 Not too sore, are you?

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    For some reason, I found this to be hilarious. :D
    I'm definitely going to steal repurpose it.

    The reason appearances can be deceiving is because they're usually not.
    Dragons will be VERY aware of that saying (and VERY wary).

    Then there is this little tidbit:
    "Earth, where there are ten times as many of us as any Census has ever reported, we've spent trillions of lives perfecting the art of killing things that are bigger and nastier than us, spent a few trillion more learning to not die, and most of our population is... well, lets just say that "Human" is the larval form.
    Welcome to Earth: Beware of Everything!"
    from the reviews of Pencils down Death rays up by EDelta88

    I love this. You have my permission to discuss this on my story thread: A new tournament
     
  27. Threadmarks: Section 5.5 - Deals and market intelligence
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    5.5 Deals and market intelligence



    5.5.1 Lying in wait

    The familiar form of an exhausted goblin bolted up from where it had been slumped over the steering wheel, brought out of a sound sleep by the blare of a truck’s horn. His beady black eyes opened wide only to widen further when they were met by the burning glare of approaching headlights shining through the windshield. He had just enough time to register what that meant and freeze in sudden terror before the stark beams swept away to the left as the tractor-trailer rig across the road safely exited the customs checkpoint and headed south.

    “Wha...” he gasped, clutching at his chest.

    Looking wildly about, the goblin panted as he attempted to regain his bearings. Noting the familiar confines of the sleeper van he habitually used for business trips, he began to calm. Looking outside and seeing the customs station across the way, glowing brilliantly in the pre-dawn darkness, he began to remember. And turning to see the stone cairns on either side of his parked van, their magical sentinel fires blazing in response to his presence, it all came rushing back.

    “Must’ve fallen asleep,” he muttered.

    Groaning, the Gringotts representative briefly attempted to shake the sleep out of his head before grimacing at the headache that resulted. Dismissing the attempt as futile he fumbled for the large, insulated flask he’d left sitting on the passenger seat. Eventually managing to unscrew the top, he poured himself yet another cup of the bitter, truck-stop brew contained therein.

    The goblin had arrived at the border station — or more accurately, at the magically concealed bypass across from the border station — two days earlier at the culmination of his mad dash from Des Moines. On arrival, he had settled in to keep careful watch for the target’s distinctive custom Winnebago, employing a small one-shot ward kit — the sort that came ten-to-a-box and did little more than alert the user that something had passed a perimeter — to cover the roadway in front of him while he slept.

    Such kits were more of a novelty item than anything else, marketed to children too young to cast charms of their own and providing precisely zero protection and barely any advanced warning. They needed to be replaced every time they went off, and worse they tended to go off all too frequently, whether due to an actual intrusion, the user himself breaking the perimeter , a random chipmunk passing through, or as it sometimes seemed just the wind blowing too hard. Between legitimate trigger events, false alarms, and getting the gimmicky things to work properly in the first place, he’d already gone through three packages of the flimsy things.

    Despite their limitations, they were useful in certain situations, from waking a sleeping camper in time to chase an intruding bear away from his dinner — the use for which they were marketed in the small magical camping supply shop from which he’d bought them — to, more cogently, detecting vehicles as they passed along a narrow road in front of you while you took a much needed nap. In this situation, they'd been a godsend, even as limited and annoying as they were.

    Making things more difficult was the fact that, as a Gringotts representative, he was required to check in with the home office twice a day, necessitating regular gaps in his surveillance. While he could probably have begged off on the necessity given current circumstances, the goblin was nonetheless reluctant to do so. There was always the off chance that the office might give him some new information on his target’s whereabouts — a call, an account withdrawal… anything really — and that was far more likely to pay off than his current approach.

    With the nearest payphone nearly four miles away, there was also always the worry that the Winnebago would pass through during one of those brief departures. It made for very hurried conversations, short trips, and nervous meals of snack food picked up hurriedly at the closest convenience store — situated about half a mile past the payphone — in order to minimize his time away, wondering all the while if his efforts had been rendered moot by his target slipping through while he was away. Between that, the frequent false alarms from the cheap ward setting off a magical siren in his head while he was trying to catch some rest, and the occasional infrequent yet still loud truck traffic through the nonmagical border station, the goblin been forced to keep decidedly irregular hours. This most recent interruption being a case in point.

    All in all, it had been a very stressful few days.

    Scrubbing briefly at his khaki-skinned face, the goblin checked the dashboard clock.

    “Three in the morning,” he groaned, shaking his head. “Three in the goddamned morning!”

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was having difficulty adjusting, and the past few days had begun to fade into a groggy sort of haze of minor sleep deprivation and major boredom. Taking a moment to indulge himself, he loudly cursed his target for being so damned hard to find, his superiors back in London for sending the message, and the desk jockey whose screw-up had put him in this position. Afterwards, feeling moderately relieved, the goblin settled in with a weary sigh, sipping his coffee and staring intently at the now-empty road before him. He was far too wired to go back to sleep now, despite the hour, and to be honest, now that he had the time, the whole situation required a bit of a think.

    He'd known from the start that this border-interception plan was a long shot at best, and with every passing minute it looked less and less likely to succeed. Unfortunately, it remained his best option.

    Not for the first time, the goblin cursed himself for not asking more about their client’s itinerary when he had the chance, but it hadn’t seemed important at the time. Back when this had first begun, he'd been told three things: the client was going to British Columbia, he needed an audience with the Confederate government, and he wanted a tricked-out Winnebago. So he’d taken care of those three things: he'd approached the Confederate government; he'd arranged the audience; and he'd brokered the Winnebago purchase. Three requests, three deliveries, and that was that; he was done but for the drive back to his apartment in Seattle.

    One, two, three, and done.

    Then that phone call had come in on the drive home, and he had suddenly been saddled with finding a metaphorical needle in a haystack. British Columbia was a big place even when restricted to magical locations alone. There weren’t too many people, but the communities were scattered throughout the mountains. Trying to search them out in that maze would be a nightmare, so his best bet was to catch them before they disappeared into it. He had a Plan B, to be certain, but he judged it even less likely to succeed than his current attempt...

    It also promised to be far less pleasant, interrupted sleep, bad coffee, and all.

    Hopefully that damned Winnebago would show up soon.

    5.5.2 Dockside raid

    An edifice of brown brick and blue-painted corrugated metal, Unit 47 sat just a few city blocks from the banks of the River Mersey, just inland of the canal. Unmarked but for the address number, the building was a simple oblong affair with a low gabled roof. Each gabled end faced a street: the north side sporting a single, gated door and a small scattering of dirty windows, barred like all the others on the street, and the south side featuring a loading dock with a roll-up door which overlooked the canal across the way. Both doors were currently closed. The long sides shared walls with the neighboring Units 45 and 49, each an identical component of the eight-unit industrial park. Unit 47 was much like any other building in that part of town: altogether unremarkable.

    What was remarkable about it — at least, would have been remarkable were it not for all the concealment magics preventing anyone from remarking on it — were the two teams of aurors in full combat load-out preparing to breach the doors, one from each end.

    Intelligence acquired in the Crabbe manor raid had revealed that Unit 47 housed a manufacturing operation using illegal slave labor. It was one of four such factories buried in the dozens of similar buildings owned by House Crabbe all over the UK. Most hosted legal business concerns, distribution centers and the like, which had nothing to hide, themselves. Rather, they served as part of the mask for the slave-operated facilities if that recent intelligence was correct, providing both a smokescreen of legitimacy and money laundering opportunities.

    Luckily for the raid teams, the building’s defenses were minimal, so the raid could go off with little fanfare, unlike the manor house. Like its more legal counterparts, Unit 47 had little more than the usual basic wards of a wizard-owned muggle building — rudimentary concealment wards, vermin repellent, fire suppression, and the like — relying on its similarity to the rest of the Crabbe family’s business portfolio to escape scrutiny… security through obscurity, as it were. Of course, once that obscurity was swept aside, the lack of any major wards made reconnaissance and assault a simple affair, so much so that the aurors were already in position to storm the place, barely four hours after the command came down the line.

    As the auror team at the street entrance waited tensely for the team at the other end of the building to signal their readiness, the door of the adjacent Unit 45 slammed open with a loud clangor, causing several of the red-robed policemen to flinch noticeably at the sudden noise. Luckily, they managed to avoid any further reactions as a pair of men wearing dark blue shop coats walked out through the newly opened door.

    “Ahm tell’n yous, Jimmy,” the first man said. “We gorra fix dat.”

    “Ay terld yous, I’ll get ter it,” the second man answered with a long-suffering sigh. “Graft it a welt.”

    “It juss lewks sloppee, ye nah?” the first man elaborated as he turned back to lock the door. “We’re machinists; lookin’ sloppee is bad fe business. Nah one wul trust a machine shop chocker o’ cewk mechanical stuff!”

    Turning, he gave an absent nod of friendly acknowledgement to the nearest auror, barely a dozen feet away. The auror nodded in return, the featureless polished steel facemask bobbing with the motion. The man showed no indication that he saw anything amiss with the presence of red-robed storm troopers about to invade the neighboring unit.

    “Rite,” his companion acknowledged with a shrug. “Fe now Am star-vun fe lunch. Let’s bowl.”

    With that, the pair of coworkers walked off down the street. Behind them, the aurors nodded. Good to confirm the charms were working right, at least... especially since things were about to get loud.

    At that point, they felt the temporary anti-travel wards going up. The team on the other end by the loading dock had been assigned to set the wards, mainly because they had more space available. Difficult to sense unless you were on the lookout for them, the wards were primarily intended to keep their targets from fleeing justice, but they also served well as a subtle signal to coordinate the breach.

    The team leader held up three fingers.

    The point man hit the outer gate with an unlocking charm and a silencer.

    Two fingers.

    Another of the men opened the now unlocked and silenced gate and ducked to the side. Behind him, the point man repeated the unlocking charm on the door itself. The deadbolt let out a muted click as it snapped open. The retraction of the deadbolt weakened the door enough to ensure there would be no problems when they blew it open. He deliberately forewent the silencer... they wanted this part to be loud, all the better to disorient the occupants.

    One finger.

    There was a loud crash from the far end of the building as the other team forced entry through the loading dock, and the leader clenched his fist. The point man fired a blasting hex which sent the door crashing back into the hallway with a loud bang.

    “GO!”

    5.5.3 Care package

    At the far end of the canal that flowed behind Unit 47 — all the way off in Leeds, nearly a hundred and twenty miles away as the canal went — another door in another industrial building crashed shut with a similarly loud bang.

    Mike McDonald quirked an eyebrow at the door and shook his head with a resigned sigh before returning to his lunch with nary a word.

    Where the Liverpool building had been set up as a manufacturing facility, this one was a warehouse and distribution center. As such, it held only two rooms. The warehouse floor proper — a cavernous expanse of shelving arrayed around several open spaces which served as work bays where business was handled — and the facility supervisor’s tiny office, tucked neatly away in a corner behind the small area of the warehouse floor set aside as a makeshift employee lounge. It was the door to the latter which had just been slammed shut by said facility supervisor.

    “Insufferable git!” the new guy muttered under his breath as he continued to glare angrily at the warehouse supervisor’s still vibrating door. “Sorry, Mike. I didn’t know I was setting you up for punishment duty when I asked you to show me around this morning.”

    Before he had blustered back into his office, the supervisor had made a point of assigning McDonald to work in Special Handling for the rest of the week, citing Mike’s choice to show the new guy around during a lull in the morning activity as the reason. “Unauthorized absence from his post,” he had called it.

    “Don’ worry about it, Phil,” Mike waved off his newest — the man had just started that morning — coworker’s apology with a resigned shrug. “No way you could’ve known.”

    Normally, Mike wouldn’t have particularly cared where he was working. It was warehouse duty regardless — sorting, unpacking, repacking, and moving… what did it matter which particular corner of the building he was doing it all in? — but the Special Handling station by Loading Bay 3 was a little different. That was where magically sensitive goods were handled, and those, unlike most of the cargo that passed through the warehouse, had to be processed carefully by hand, unaided by magic.

    As such, Special Handling was generally considered to be the most difficult duty assignment at the warehouse, and while it was technically supposed to be part of the normal duty roster for everyone from time to time, it always seemed to end up being assigned to whoever had irritated the supervisor most recently. Over the past several months, Mike had learned that quite well; it seemed the supervisor found him quite irritating indeed.

    “Damned bastard!” Phil cursed, angry on Mike’s behalf. “Where does he get off doing that, anyway? He ought to be thanking you for helping the new guy get up to speed.”

    “Wouldn’t think too deeply on that if I were you,” Mike sagely advised between bites of his lunch. “It’ll only piss you off more, an’ there’s no profit in that. Not sure what’s wrong with that guy, but I am sure there’s nothing we can do about it.”

    “You can’t mean to just sit back and take it!” the new man protested. “’s jus’ not right!”

    “I’m planning to keep my head down ‘til my contract’s up; already got something lined up after that. ‘nother five months, an’ I’m out,” Mike gave a stoic shrug. “As it is, it’s just a bit of hard labor, nothing I can’t handle. I don’t want to find out what he’ll come up with if I push things.”

    With that, Mike took one last bite of his sandwich, finishing it off, and crumpled the wax paper he’d wrapped it with that morning. He then fished down into his lunch bag for the last bit of his meal.

    “I suggest you do the same, Phil,” Mike nodded to his new coworker as he pulled out another paper-wrapped packet. “I get that you’re angry — and thanks for that, by the way — but there’s no point in trying to hit back when nothin’ good can come of it.”

    As Phil grumbled a muffled agreement into his own lunch, Mike nodded to himself. He really did appreciate the new man’s anger on his behalf… renewed some of his faith in humanity, it did, especially after dealing with the constant, soul-crushing gloom of his current employment brought about solely through the efforts of his hovering vulture of a supervisor.

    Mike had to admit to himself that the man had a rare talent; it took a special kind of person to take a moderately unpleasant situation and transform it into one of the outer circles of Hell with little more than words, body language, and a work schedule. The rest of his coworkers had given up on even trying to talk to each other months ago, and everyone had slowly sunk into a taciturn, unsmiling existence, so used to avoiding the man that they feared even to return a smile. Instead, they just plodded along through their assigned work, paying no attention or care to anyone else.

    Mike was the only one who still resisted, and even then only with little things… a kind word here, a friendly smile there, showing Phil around that morning. They were little statements, but he had no doubt that they were the reason for his continued close acquaintance with Loading Bay 3.

    Despite that — and contrary to the advice he’d just doled out to the new man — Mike had no intention of knuckling under. Mike would not let himself become what the man was obviously trying to transform him into… not so long as he had the slightest hope. So he kept plugging away at it, doing his work and keeping a ready smile on his face. There were always bright glimmers of decency about, if you kept the right mindset… even beyond the idea that he had only a few more months before he could move on. The new man’s outrage on his behalf at the injustice of it all was just the most recent such.

    He finished unwrapping the package in his hands and smiled down at the precious contents therein.

    The small stack of delicious oat biscuits in his hands was another.

    Earlier that week, Uncle Jim had taken him aside and pressed a large container into his hands.

    “We’re proud of you, Mikey,” Jim had said. “When it comes down to it, your word is the only thing in the world that no one can take from you. I understand from yer Da’ that yer havin’ a hard time of it. Jus’ remember, it won’t last forever, and in the meantime eat a few of those,” he indicated the tub with a soft tap. “I’ve never seen a day what wouldn’a been brighter for a good biscuit, lad.”

    Mike bit into the soft, sweet reminder of home and family, and his smile stretched wider.

    As usual, Uncle Jim was right.

    Suddenly, five months didn’t seem quite so long.

    5.5.4 Conspiracies and clandestine meetings

    Blackblade’s expression alone, even before she motioned with a subtle hand signal, was more than enough to put Shatteraxe on full alert. Goblins did not grow old by being unwary, and one simply could not reach the position of Chairman of the Board of a major branch of Gringotts PLC without being careful almost to the point of paranoia... not even with the name recognition that came with being the son of the legendary Ragnak Shatteraxe who had led the Goblin Nation to victory in the Bold ‘99.

    He glanced down at the monitoring display beneath his desk, which sure enough indicated that the human woman the young Lieutenant was ushering in was under the effects of the Polyjuice potion. That was the only thing that would cause the security systems to color the dot indicating her position yellow.

    As Shatteraxe’s hand closed on a polished wooden object beneath his desk, he took a moment to be grateful for that tiny display. Reworking the bank wards to report to more than one location was an unbelievably complicated affair, so Gringotts had long gone without, trusting in a central security desk to report things. That had changed with the introduction of closed-circuit television in the mid-seventies. By training a camera on the central reporting display, the CCTV had allowed them to route the signal wherever it was needed.

    It had been a massive leap forward in security, but it had meant Shatteraxe had had to put up with a bulky, uncomfortably warm cathode ray tube crammed under his desk for nearly twenty years. Those clever liquid crystal displays that had first appeared nearly a decade previous had shown promise, but they’d remained out of reach until the recent influx of cash from the Potter venture. Now he had replaced the old model CRT with a tiny three-inch LCD that cost almost five times as much, giving him back the extra desk drawer he had lost those decades ago.

    The extra space also made drawing the lovingly maintained Winchester M1897 pump-action shotgun from it’s hiding place under the desk a much smoother affair.

    “Madam,” Shatteraxe said, raising the muzzle of his shotgun to point squarely at the woman’s forehead as he cocked the action, “Whoever you are, I cannot say I appreciate being approached by persons utilizing polyjuice to conceal their identities. You have thirty seconds to explain yourself before your head and shoulders part company.”

    There was the click of a sub-machine gun’s safety coming off as Blackblade cleared his line of fire by stepping to the side, smartly placing the business end of her MP-5 against the woman’s side in the same motion.

    “A moment, Chairman Shatteraxe,” the woman said calmly, glancing at the timer she’d just withdrawn from her sleeve. “The dose should be wearing off right... about... now.”

    Shatteraxe raised an eyebrow as his visitor reverted to her true self. The shotgun wavered not an inch.

    “Director Amelia Bones?” he asked with a cocked eyebrow. “I still require an explanation, and it had better be a good one. Lieutenant Blackblade, you are dismissed.”

    “As you can probably imagine,” the Director of Magical Law Enforcement dryly replied as the young goblin officer withdrew, “If I am to meet with persons that my ‘bosses’ see as an enemy, such as yourself, there are certain hoops that must be cleared; hence this little charade. If you were to ask, as an example, Minister Fudge, he would be under the impression I was currently in my office, conducting an important security briefing with the leading officers of my top Auror teams, and have instructed that I am not to be disturbed for any reason less than the emergence of a new Dark Lord.”

    “And your purpose for springing this, this ‘meeting’ on me?”

    The shotgun still didn’t waver.

    “Three days ago, Dolohov’s auction house became a smoking hole in the ground.” Amelia told him.

    “That much is a matter of public record,” Shatteraxe said flatly. “Your point?”

    “I lost two good officers on that operation,” she replied in a matching tone.

    “It is a matter of public record that you lost sixteen,” a khaki-colored brow arched.

    “Only two of them were good officers,” the witch countered. “The rest... lapdogs and moles for the industrialists who’re spreading shit like that damned auction house all over my country. They were traitors, and traitors die.”

    “Hmm,” the goblin hummed noncommittally. “I assume you have a proposal?”

    “Correct. I’m aware that you’ve been smuggling ‘servants’ who have run away from their ‘employers’ and are ‘in violation of contract’, out of Europe via the Hogsmeade trains, Chairman. Sadly, all related evidence appears to have gone missing.”

    She placed a standard DMLE evidence wallet on Shatteraxe’s desk.

    “The investigating officers were tragically killed in the line of duty during the raid on Dolohov’s auction house. Likewise, all records of their investigation seem to have been… misplaced.”

    “Quite the tragic loss,” Shatteraxe agreed, shotgun still rock-solid, “but I fail to see why this prompts a personal visit.”

    Amelia nodded. “What is not yet a matter of public record is that, as of 0130 this morning, Crabbe Manor is also a smoking hole in the ground, and raids on four previously secret manufacturing facilities are currently in progress.”

    This time, Shatteraxe raised an eyebrow, genuinely impressed.

    “Congratulations, then,” he finally lowered the gun so that it was not quite pointed at the witch in his office. “Though the question remains, why the personal visit?”

    “We expect to retrieve at least four hundred unfortunate souls from those facilities,” Amelia said by way of explanation, “and we do not have the capacity to handle them, a lack which has been sadly highlighted by our need to repurpose DMLE office space to house the relatively tiny handful we retrieved from the auction house. Would you say, hypothetically speaking of course, that the group responsible for that,” she gestured to the evidence folder on his desk, “would be open to absorbing additional traffic?”

    That finally got Shatteraxe to uncock the hammer on his shotgun and lay the weapon across his lap as he sat back in his chair to consider the question.

    “Hypothetically speaking,” he began slowly, “I suspect they would be interested, yet I also expect that they are somewhat lacking in ready funds for expansion.”

    “I currently lack manpower and facilities; funding is a different story,” Amelia smiled a predatory sort of smile. “It seems that my officers have recently come into a substantial quantity of used, unmarked Galleons.”

    Shatteraxe stared at her for a long moment, and then let out a bark of laughter.

    “You’re telling me you intend to use the Syndicate’s seized funds for this?”

    “And to fund our future efforts to bring them to heel,” Amelia nodded.

    “I see,” Shatteraxe said slowly. “Then I suspect that a deal might be arranged.”

    “Excellent,” the DMLE Director nodded firmly. “How will we handle the transaction?”

    “That is something best left to our subordinates, I believe,” the Chairman said, reaching out to ring a bell which sat on his desk. "The two of us are watched too closely."

    Blackblade immediately reappeared, followed by a general security detail led by Lieutenant Hackbutte.

    “Lieutenant,” he turned to Blackblade, “please arrange a covert contact package.”

    As she saluted smartly and ducked back out of the room, he addressed Amelia, “She will be back presently. I assume you have a means of covering your exit from our facilities.”

    “Another dose,” the human woman tapped her side, presumably where she had concealed another potion vial.

    “Then as soon as... ah, there she is,” he was interrupted by Blackblade’s return. At the motion from her superior, the Lieutenant handed Amelia a small envelope, turned back to the Chairman and saluted, then stepped back to wait by the door. “Give that to your representative and have him follow the instructions within to establish a line of secure communications to coordinate our activities. That channel will be live by the time you leave the bank.”

    “I will be sure to send someone immediately,” the witch assured him. “We will need to test that new deal in short order, after all.”

    “Just so,” the goblin nodded. “With that, I believe we are done here. Lieutenant Hackbutte, if you would?”

    “A profitable day to you, Chairman Shatteraxe,” Amelia nodded briskly and stood to follow her escort.

    Shatteraxe watched her go, spent a moment carefully clearing and stowing his shotgun, and then rang the bell again. Blackblade appeared at once.

    “Lieutenant Blackblade, bring me the surveillance and financial records on Madam Amelia Bones of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and see to it that surveillance efforts on her are redoubled.”

    “Yes Sir, Mr. Chairman Sir.”

    Shatteraxe spent a few moments in silent contemplation, then rose to his feet and walked over to a concealed cabinet, which he opened.

    Within was the telegraph that was the London-branch terminal of the most secure communications link in the Gringotts. There had been some consideration put into upgrading the old telegraph lines to voice, but that idea had been dropped shortly after the last wizarding Dark Lord had demonstrated the ability to monitor the entire country for a particular word being spoken aloud. The Brethren were still uncertain how that had been accomplished, and until they knew the precise method and its limitations, coded telegraph messages remained the gold standard for Gringotts secure communications.

    He spent another long moment considering his course, and then tapped out a priority message on the Morse sender in Or’zet. With that done, he returned to his seat, rang a bell, ordered himself a nice cup of tea, and sat to wait for a reply.

    In a few short hours, the Grand Board of Directors of Gringotts PLC would meet ahead of schedule… at his request. As his assistant, Vice-Chairman Slackhammer, had postulated during his last report, a storm was brewing, and the oncoming tempest would be neither neither mild nor short-lived.

    A coordinated and consistent plan would be absolutely necessary.

    5.5.5 Lingering troubles

    The raid had gone well.

    Auror Jones had no sooner thought the word before she flinched as she surveyed the expanded interior of Unit 47. No, ‘well’ was not the right word… perhaps ‘successfully’? It was difficult to think of anything having gone ‘well’ when it ended with you looking at a sight like the one before her.

    The factory floor was packed with row upon row of workstations, just over a hundred in total. Each was occupied by a witch or wizard. Ages ran the gamut, from late Hogwarts-aged all the way up to a few oldsters who had obviously been missed during the emancipation purges back in ’63. Men made up a large majority of the enslaved population — particularly among the younger crowd — for reasons that the auror hoped were related to the slight disparity in available magic reserves between the sexes. Unfortunately, both the disparity in magic reserves and the proportion of females present both tended to increase with age — the opposite of what one would expect were that the primary consideration — the auror held little hope that that was the case.

    Jones shook her head, not wanting to think further on the subject. There was already more than enough trouble to go around… no sense borrowing more with needless speculation.

    The good news was that all the victims were in good health… physically speaking, anyway. It only made sense for this sort of facility; a healthy body produced and processed magic better than an unhealthy one. The healthier the victims were, the more work they could do. That said, there was not an ounce of fat on them. Troublingly, that held true for all of them, even the witches who ought to have had a higher percentage of body fat simply by virtue of being female. The overseers might have been feeding them enough, but it was just enough. Moreover, the victims were pale enough to make it obvious they’d not seen the light of day in a very long time, and while they were not precisely chained to their workstations, there was a curse of some sort that served a very similar function, keeping their attention focused on the task at hand to the exclusion of all else.

    That curse was the reason Auror Jones was still standing watch here, hours after the raid had finished. The sparse group of overseers had surrendered quickly, been processed, and sent off to the DMLE holding cells. Despite that, their victims still toiled away, oblivious to their recent change in circumstance.

    Jones wasn’t even sure what they were making, some sort of enchanted widget that she suspected was a component for something else. Of course, the boffins had identified it immediately when they came by, promptly noting not only what it did, but which manufacturers used that particular make. Hopefully, that would lead to some more raids like this one in short order.

    However, that was for the future.

    For now, Auror Jones kept watch. She had been tasked with keeping the victims safe while a couple of the more magically savvy team members had set to work on freeing them. It was slow going, from what she had heard, particularly as they did not want to damage the poor bastards any further. A request had been put out for specialist assistance, but the DMLE’s two cursebreaking teams were already tied up at the other sites, and none of the other Ministry departments with the relevant expertise were trustworthy enough to call in.

    Hopefully, someone would crack the curse soon. Otherwise, their best bet might just be waiting until the curse allowed the poor saps to go to bed and trying to prevent it from reactivating.

    Only time would tell.

    5.5.6 Golden telephone

    “There you go,” the courier grunted slightly as the second small wooden crate dropped gently onto the floor of her room at the inn with a heavy thump. “That’s the last of them.”

    “Thank you for the swift delivery,” Su Li replied as she examined the two crates he had just dropped off.

    “If you would sign here?” the man offered her a clipboard.

    Having noted the charmed markings on the labels indicating that the contents were still intact, Su Li nodded, taking the clipboard and signing off on the delivery.

    The courier had arrived days earlier than expected, having dropped by that morning when she had been out visiting with Granger, as had become her habit of late. The petite girl had only learned of it on returning to the inn after lunch.

    Unfortunately — though understandably given the value of its contents — the delivery had required her signature. An asset like the one in those crates would certainly be tagged with at least one tracer. The clan kept a close eye on such things, and they would know it was in London. Given that she had been given strict orders to report in immediately on receiving the altar, Su Li had been waiting on tenterhooks all afternoon, trying to ensure she didn’t miss the man’s second delivery attempt. The matriarchs might overlook a couple hours’ delay — there were always uncertainties in such things — but a day or more would see explanations demanded and punishments issued.

    Neither was the sort of thing Su Li wanted any part of.

    The courier stepped into the hallway and popped open a document case to file the freshly signed papers. Beside him, Tom, the inn’s proprietor who had been monitoring the transaction, spoke up with a note of friendly concern.

    “Would you like some help with that, Miss Li? Those crates looked quite heavy.”

    Su Li shook her head, “No, I can levitate them.”

    Tom gave a concerned frown. “But the underage restrictions...”

    “Are irrelevant,” Su Li cut him off absently.

    After a moment’s silence, she looked up and noted the man’s distinctly unimpressed expression; she realized her blunder.

    “I’m sorry, Tom,” the petite girl shot the man a sheepish smile. “I should have explained. The item’s base should be enchanted with a levitation function. All it needs is a wand tap.”

    “Oh!” Tom’s expression cleared. The underage restrictions only applied to active wand casting, after all. “That’s fine then. Have a nice day!”

    With that, the proprietor left, closing the door behind him, and Su Li took a moment to lock it. Now it was time to set things up.

    First was extracting the thing from the crates. A tap of her wand verified her identity with the signature-locked security charms. With that done, so went the sticking charms which held on the lid. Such measures might have been excessive for a normal parcel, but they were entirely understandable for this one. There had been a reason she’d refused Tom’s help. The man seemed a decent sort, but…

    The lid came off, and the contents of the crate gleamed golden under the low light of the rented room.

    …that much gold would be enough to tempt most anyone.

    Rendered down and sold on the muggle commodities exchange, the gold alone would fetch nearly a hundred thousand galleons at current prices, and that was before considering the value of the gems. In the magical world, however, the real value was in the enchantment work. Paired communication altars were expensive, but for real-time, secure communications over effectively arbitrary distances, the clan had found nothing better in all of its three thousand year history.

    The altar itself was by far the heaviest component, and so had been packed by itself in the larger of the two crates. A large golden statue, worked with precious gems and mounted on a heavy, red-lacquered wooden base, the device weighed nearly as much as Su Li herself, and the majority of that weight was pure gold. The petite witch tapped her wand to the wooden base, focusing briefly, and the entire thing promptly floated up out of the crate allowing her to easily push it over to the suite’s low coffee table.

    Four animal figures, intricately wrought, posed proudly, one facing out from the center of the altar in each of the four cardinal directions. A great tortoise of polished jet and obsidian, an elegantly twisting serpentine dragon with scales of sapphire and jade, a phoenix fledged in fiery yellow and orange garnet with ruby accents, and a white tiger of gold, opal, and diamond: the four Auspicious Beasts would serve to bring the center of this device and its counterpart together across the miles. In the center the figure of a man sat on a low throne, robed and bearded with his golden arms resting on his knees and his eyes closed. That figure, the Yellow Emperor, would handle the mechanics of display, recording, and transmission. The narrow space between the emperor and the ring of beasts held three empty sockets sunk deep into the gold.

    Those were made to receive the contents of the other crate, which she opened in the same manner as the first. Inside were three cylindrical vessels, sealed with wax. Turned from rosewood and ornately lacquered, each weighed in at a little over five pounds. These were much easier to manage, and the petite girl carefully transferred each to its corresponding slot in the altar before just as carefully turning each lid just enough to crack the wax seal.

    With that done, Su Li worked to align the still-floating altar, slowly turning it as she carefully watched the gem-encrusted animal sculptures with her tongue poked cutely out the corner of her mouth in concentration. Dark eyes opened wide as the creatures suddenly brightened slightly, glowing with a subtle light when the altar reached a particular angle. Holding the altar steady with one hand while at its brightest, the small girl pushed the assembled altar firmly against the surface of the table with the other. With the altar pinned in place, she freed the hand she had used to turn the thing and retrieved her wand.

    A quick tap to the wooden base turned off the levitation enchantment, causing the cheap coffee table to creak slightly at the sudden weight and removing any chance of accidentally nudging the heavy altar out of alignment. A bit more fine-tuning — this time accompanied by a fair amount of grunting and groaning at the effort required of the tiny slip of a girl — had the guardian beasts gleaming with unnatural light before a lightly sweating Su Li.

    “Done!” the girl panted with a satisfied grin.

    Now that it was properly aligned, with the tortoise pointing due north, the altar was ready for use — Su Li’s smile dimmed as her perspiration-dampened shirt shifted uncomfortably against her skin — which she would do, she thought with a firm nod, just as soon as she freshened up.

    A short time later, Su Li knelt before the altar in a fresh change of clothing with her long black hair hanging damply down her back.

    She was ready to begin.

    Facing the altar from the south, she offered her wand to the phoenix facing her. As soon as the wand came within reach, the previously static sculpture moved, reaching out with a golden talon to gently grasp the wooden spell focus. As soon as it had a proper hold, Su Li straightened, her fingers trailing along the wood of her wand as she withdrew her hand. She felt a light draw on her magic as the wand formed a connection with the device, and the sculpted figure of the Yellow Emperor at the center of the altar stood up, eyes still closed. Now active, the device sat quietly, awaiting for a response from its distant counterpart back in Hong Kong.

    The young girl kneeled patiently, her breathing deep and even, for nearly half an hour. Suddenly, the Yellow Emperor’s eyes shot open, revealing two chips of brilliantly glowing topaz, and its arm shot up, amber-studded robes falling realistically away from its golden arm as a point of white light, just short of being too bright to look at, appeared perhaps six inches above the raised hand.

    Around the figure, the caps of the three lacquered canisters turned slightly of their own accord, lifting up to expose shadowy gaps between lid and canister. Clouds of fine dust billowed out through those gaps, one the dull yellow of finely powdered gold, one the brilliant blue of ground lapis lazuli, and one the intense vermillion of pulverized cinnabar. Released from confinement, the billowing clouds of pigment quickly came under the influence of the altar and collapsed into a full-color three-dimensional image of everything illuminated by the light from the device’s counterpart halfway around the world, just as the other altar would do for this one.

    “Matriarch,” Su Li bowed her head as she addressed the apparition standing on the other side of the altar, the subtle twinkling of the gold dust that comprised most of its marigold-colored robe the only indication that the chief matriarch was not actually standing in the room. “I apologize for the lateness of this call, but I have just received your shipment and am reporting as ordered.”

    Su Li ignored her crimson-clad twin kneeling off to the side powering the other altar as insignificant, as did the matriarch.

    “The hour is of no consequence,” the elder brushed off her apology with a casual wave of her brilliantly yellow-orange-clad arm.

    “...obedience is,” Su Li completed the oft-repeated rejoinder in her head. The matriarch might have left it unsaid this time, but she had been trained well enough that it hardly needed repetition.

    “We shall work out a more reasonable schedule now that we have established proper communications,” the elder said magnanimously before her voice hardened with command. “Now, report on your progress.”

    Su Li obeyed, leaving nothing out. By the time the young girl fell silent nearly half an hour later, the old woman was nodding thoughtfully. After a few moments, the elder spoke.

    “You blundered badly,” she said with all the tact and delicacy of a poleaxe, “yet you have recovered... adequately. See to it that you do not bungle things in such a manner again; fortune is unlikely to favor you so blatantly more than once.”

    The petite girl nodded in mute acceptance.

    “Fortunately for our purposes,” the marigold-clad elder continued, “the political situation surrounding your target is such that your crude, cobbled-together solution may yet become our preferred tactic.”

    “How so?” the young girl asked, doing her best to feign ignorance.

    Su Li had already strongly suspected that might be the case — a suspicion that had crystallized as soon as she had learned the communication altar was on the way — but she knew better than to tell the elder that. Within the clan, there was a delicate line between admirable initiative and arrogant insubordination.

    Su Li had no intention of testing that line; she had seen what happened to those who did.

    “The goblins have shown a powerful interest in the boy,” the old woman informed her. “Spiriting him off into clan custody is unlikely to go without retaliation. We shall likely be forced to pursue… alternative means.”

    “Am I to aim to become a second wife, then?” Su Li inquired.

    The petite girl already knew the answer; she had laid the first groundwork for that eventuality weeks earlier… establishing the rapport with Granger and handling Abercrombie as she had. Second wives, removed from the line of familial inheritance, were not watched nearly so closely, and that opened up options otherwise unavailable.

    “Perhaps,” the marigold-clad woman shrugged, “or perhaps not.”

    Su Li’s eyes widened involuntarily.

    “Depending on how the situation unfolds, a multiple marriage may work, or it may require something even less...” the elder paused, obviously considering her words, “conventional. In any case, you will need at least one patsy to conceal your own activities; begin cultivating likely candidates immediately.”

    “Understood,” Su Li nodded. Surprised or not, her role was straightforward enough. “I have two in mind, already.”

    “The one who nearly bested you and the useful idiot, yes?” the elder inquired, referring to Abercrombie and Granger respectively. Being foreigners, she had not bothered to remember their proper names.

    The petite girl nodded.

    “They will be adequate for now,” the matriarch allowed, “but do remember to lay in alternatives ahead of time so that you might salvage things in the event that your incompetence rears its head once more.”

    “Yes, elder,” Su Li nodded meekly, already combing her memory for other likely candidates.

    It was a surprisingly difficult task. Potter had shown little interest in anyone else, so cultivating new candidates would mean starting essentially from scratch. Perhaps the Bones girl? Su Li frowned. No, given her aunt, she would be nearly as much a political hot potato as Potter himself. One of the Ravens, perhaps?

    Dark eyes narrowed as she considered her housemates. Not Lovegood, certainly; her target actively disliked the waifish blonde for reasons Su Li had yet to discover. The same went for Patil, though for a different reason. The dark-skinned girl hailed from the Indian province of the Romanian Empire, and was rabidly anti-slavery, having mentioned several times that both she and her sister intended to go on an international mission to further the cause of abolitionism in the magical world after graduation. That sort of thing had become rather popular among the youth of that region in recent decades, and it meant that the twins would be far more aware and far less likely to accept Su Li’s explanations at face value. So far, Su Li had managed to avoid any altercations more serious than suspicious glances from the girls, but close proximity would quickly bring that potential issue to a head.

    That left Turpin, Brocklehurst, Chang…

    Su Li pursed her lips at the last. Chang might just serve. The slightly older girl was of nonmagical stock, born of Taiwanese immigrants, and so was entirely ignorant of the workings of the Han. Certainly the girl was fat and ugly, lacking even the excuse of European blood for her slovenly appearance, but her target seemed to like Granger well enough, and she was far worse. Su Li supposed there was no accounting for taste. In any event, it would be something to keep in…

    “We have discussed your actions,” the matriarch continued briskly, dragging her subordinate out of her thoughts. “Now, we will analyze your understanding of the situation, lest your shortcomings lead you astray once more. Tell me of your target and those around him that I might perfect your understanding.”

    The petite girl suppressed a long-suffering sigh at that all too familiar phrase even as she marshaled her thoughts to comply.

    “Yes, elder.”

    5.5.7 Breakthrough

    “Good news!” one of Auror Jones’ red-robed teammates called out as he ducked his head into the room where she was still keeping watch over her still unresponsive charges.

    “What’s that?” she asked, looking up from where she stood in the corner of the workroom.

    “Cursebreaking team over on Site 3 figured out the binding,” he explained with a grin. “It’s mediated through a little gold pellet implanted under the skin on their right shoulder. Make an incision, hit the thing with a finishing spell, and then pull it out... easy as can be once you know it’s there. I’m heading off to let the medic know. Hopefully we can have all these poor saps free and out of this hellhole by sundown.”

    Jones breathed a heavy sigh of relief as her colleague ducked back out into the hallway. She smiled herself for a moment before her face twisted slightly into a thoughtful frown.

    “Where are we taking them?” she called after him. “I don’t think we’ve got space at headquarters.”

    “Word on the grapevine says the Director’s got something on tap,” the yelled reply echoed back through the still-open door as her colleague left on his errand. “Should be in place by the time we get ‘em ready to go.”

    “Right!” Jones smiled and muttered to herself, “Should’ve known the boss lady would have that covered.”

    With that, the auror turned back to her guard duty with a smile.

    That was the best news she’d heard all day.

    5.5.8 Rumors and reputations

    While the Dragon of Hogwarts had been metaphorically eating his way through his backlog of research topics along the way, he had also been much less metaphorically eating his way through the contents of the expanded food locker slung beneath the Winnebago. Day by day, his food supplies dwindled, and day by day the expansion charm shrank as the contents needed less and less magical help to fit into the real, unexpanded volume of the compartment. As the expansion shrank, so too did the strain on the passengers, allowing them to travel farther and farther each day. So, by the time they were ready to stop for an early dinner on the fourth day of the road trip, they had already driven almost the entire width of the state of North Dakota.

    Rolling onto the main drag of Williston, they’d spotted their target quickly, its distinctive red bonnet roof easy to pick out from a distance. Pizza, the calorie-laden flatbread that lent the restaurant its name, had quickly proven itself to be a delicious and inexpensive way for a wizard to fill up on necessary calories. Admittedly, such was also the case for most of the fast-food restaurants they had stopped at along the way, but pizza, with its many and varied forms, provided a certain variety of flavor which the magicals had found made it stand out above the rest.

    As the Winnebago rolled to a stop in the parking lot — much more smoothly now that its driver had had so much practice — the hostess caught sight of the new arrival through the window, and as soon as the distinctive figure of an old man with an outlandishly long, snow white beard and brilliantly garish tourist’s garb stepped down onto the pavement, she gasped and poked her head around to corner to call for the manager.

    “Sir!” the teenaged girl called urgently.

    “What do you need?” the manager called, not looking away from the stack of delivery boxes he was counting.

    “That group you were telling us about this morning — those English folks with the Winnebago — I think they just pulled into the parking lot,” the girl hissed.

    The manager turned, eyes wide, and just short of ran to the front desk to look for himself. There, clearly visible through the franchise’s characteristic trapezoidal windows, was the now infamous heavily customized Winnebago and its motley crew of passengers. A few of the adults seemed to be meandering over towards the door; though the rest seemed to have gotten bogged down following the young boy of the group as he went over to examine the trio of pump trucks from one of the local oilfield service companies whose crews were even now seated in the dining area.

    “Oh, praise the Lord,” the manager breathed, “they’re stopping here!”

    “Sir?” the hostess asked.

    “No one’s sure who they are or what they’re doing, but that group has been all anyone over at corporate has been able to talk about recently,” the manager explained as he stepped over to the commercial refrigerator to check their stocks. “They’ve stopped at three franchises on this road trip of theirs so far. Apparently, they eat like you wouldn’t believe — to the tune of three large pies apiece... plus sides, salads, drinks, and dessert — and that’s not counting the kid or the old guy. Seriously, between the two of them, we might actually empty the fridge tonight.”

    “Wow,” the hostess breathed, trying and failing to wrap her head around so few people consuming that quantity of food.

    “That, and they tip like they don’t understand the value of a dollar,” the manager continued. Shutting the fridge, he turned to catch his employee’s eye. “Seriously, if they stay true to form... well tonight will put us through the ringer, but by the time we close, we’ll be in the black for the next two quarters! Now, grab some help and go prep a table while I check on the drinks.”

    5.5.9 Escort missions

    Six time zones to the east, another, much shorter road trip was underway.

    “Rough day?” the man behind the wheel of the rental lorry asked his passenger, not looking away from the black expanse of the M6 in front of him and its sparse scattering of glowing red taillights.

    “You could say that,” Auror Jones agreed, now down to the inner layers of her armor, having discarded the bulky cloak and heavy helmet before entering the vehicle. They now sat under her seat, packed away neatly in a conjured duffel. “The operation wasn’t hard, but... but there are some things you just don’t want to see, you know?”

    “Yeah, I get it,” the driver nodded in understanding. “What made you volunteer for the trip?”

    Jones looked over at the man, another auror, who was currently dressed in normal muggle street clothes. Aside from his name, Greene, Jones didn’t know too much about him, having met him perhaps twice before at various Department functions. The only other salient bit of information she knew was that he had a driver’s license… it was why he was here, after all.

    “Just because I’d rather not have had to see it doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it through,” Jones mumbled.

    Greene just nodded.

    When the word had come down from the Director’s office that there was to be no magical transport used to move the victims in order to avoid any potential security leaks, the team had had to scramble to find another means of transport, eventually settling on a rental van as the only viable option. That left them in a bit of a pickle because driver’s licenses were something of a rarity in wizarding Britain, a population accustomed to easy magical transportation. Fortunately, one member of her team had a license… unfortunately, they needed two vans at a bare minimum.

    One of Jones’ teammates — who knew Greene much better than Jones did — had remembered the man had a driver’s license and had contacted the man for assistance. Luckily, Greene had been available, and the man had agreed to run the late-night trip from Liverpool to London in exchange for a round at the next happy hour. After that, things had proceeded quickly. A bit of transfiguration and the liberal application of sticking and cushioning charms had seen the now-former slaves tucked safely — if not particularly comfortably — away in a pair of large rental vans, their cargo compartments now freshly remodeled to be double-decker and full of rack after rack of freshly conjured dense seating. A few charms to keep the air fresh and comfortable and a quick illusion to make the cramped quarters seem less claustrophobic, and the two-vehicle convoy had been underway.

    The drive had so far been uneventful by contrast.

    “When do you think we’ll arrive?” Jones eventually asked.

    “Another couple hours, I’d guess… maybe two in the morning?” Greene shrugged. “Not too much traffic this time of night, so that shouldn’t be an issue at least.”

    “Right,” she nodded tiredly. “Thanks again for the help.”

    “Don’t sweat it,” Greene said. “I’m always up to help with a good cause, and I’d be hard pressed to find a better one.”

    Jones could only nod at that; there was nothing else to say.

    5.5.10 Roughnecks

    “I apologize for the delay,” the frazzled manager apologized as his waitstaff busily refilled drinks and removed the detritus of now-empty pizza pans, “but I’m afraid it will be approximately twenty minutes before your next course is ready. We had a large delivery order come in, you see, and...”

    “It is no trouble at all, my good man,” Mr. Dumbledore said magnanimously, waving off the manager’s apology before suggesting, “Perhaps another round of salad and an order of that lovely pasta dish would tide us over until the oven is free once more?”

    “Right away, sir,” the man said with a grateful nod. Turning to his staff, he shooed them back to the kitchen, “You heard the man!”

    Harry knew from past experience that even that would take at least ten minutes, so the young dragon took advantage of the lull to satisfy a spot of curiosity that had lingered since their arrival in the parking lot. As his compatriots fell into a friendly conversation, he made his excuses and meandered over to another table... or more accurately, another group of tables that had been dragged together to seat a large party, just as theirs had been.

    The other group comprised a dozen men in heavy, hi-vis work clothing discolored with oily grime that looked to have persisted through at least the past few washings. These were the owners of those fascinating trucks he’d seen in the parking lot, Harry was certain, and he intended to find out more.

    “...gonna miss you guys, you know?” one of the men was saying as Harry approached closely enough for the conversation to swim into clarity out of the auditory murk of the restaurant. Judging from the glasses sitting before him, the man was well into his third beer of the night and sounding a tad maudlin. “We’ve had a good run.”

    “Same to you,” another answered, reaching over to clap the first on the shoulder. “Same to you. Any idea where you’re heading after this?”

    “Was thinking of going up north to the oil sands,” he answered. “That’s basically a mining operation, so it shouldn’t be having any trouble from that damned slime.”

    “Bit too cold for my blood up there with the Canucks, but I know a lot of people are going up that way,” the second man commented. Turning to the rest of the table, he asked, “Anyone else heading to Alberta?”

    About half the men nodded or raised a beer in acknowledgement.

    “What about you?” one asked him before knocking back another draught.

    “I’ve heard tell of a new deepwater project down south in the Gulf that finally got the green light,” he said with a shrug. “Figured I might try my hand there.”

    That prompted a round of nods from those who had chosen to go north, as well as a few hums of consideration from those who were yet undecided.

    “Hey mister,” Harry interjected, boldly taking advantage of the lull in the conversation. “Are those neat trucks out in the parking lot yours? I was wondering what they were for.”

    “Those are pump trucks, kid,” the man volunteered when it looked like no one else was going to humor their young visitor. “And, yeah, they’re ours... for now, anyway.”

    “Pump trucks, huh? So, those big things on the back really are reciprocating pumps,” Harry exclaimed. “Cool! I thought that was what they looked like, but they seemed way too big. I mean, I couldn’t figure out what you could possibly need to pump around on a vehicle that size that’d need that big a pump.”

    After another moment, the young dragon frowned curiously as another thought struck, “Um, so what do you do with them?”

    “They’re used for hydraulic fracturing,” the roughneck explained. “After you drill an oil well, you use a bunch of those pumps to pressurize the fluid in the wellbore enough to crack the rock of the reservoir, and the cracks let oil move easier so you can pump it to the surface.”

    “Neat!” the seemingly human boy’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Do they do that in all oil wells?”

    He shook his head in the negative, only for his companion to jump in, “Nah, they only do that in tight rock. Conventional reservoirs don’t need it... in fact, you couldn’t actually do it in those even if you wanted to, too little flow resistance.”

    “What do you mean by ‘tight rock’?” Harry cocked his head curiously.

    “Most rock has got little holes in it,” another of the men volunteered. “The bigger those are and the closer they’re spaced, the easier it is for fluid like oil or water or natural gas to flow through the rock. Tight rocks are ones that don’t flow so well, so production is very, very slow.”

    “Huh...” Harry frowned as he considered that. “So, you make cracks to increase the surface area and connect more of those holes?”

    “Yeah, that’s it,” the man nodded.

    “Well, don’t you sound smart?” came a friendly jibe from down the table. “Spending too much time with the engineers, eh?”

    “Worked as a driver for one of the seismic teams a while back,” the helpful man shrugged and knocked back a swig of beer. “You pick things up.”

    “That’s pretty clever!” the young dragon said admiringly. “Do you do a lot of that around here?”

    The mood around the table fell, the men slumping in their seats and turning away.

    “Well, we used to...” the first man began before trailing off.

    “Oh, right, you did imply you weren’t going to have the trucks for much longer, didn’t you,” Harry frowned. “Did something happen?”

    “Yeah... you could say that, kid,” he gave a bitter chuckle. “This is our farewell dinner; company’s officially dissolving tomorrow. No future for us here for an oilman, not anymore.”

    The table went quiet for a time until the silence was eventually broken.

    “Damned bugs,” one of the men spat, shaking his head.

    “Bugs?” Harry asked with wide-eyed curiosity at the apparent non-sequitur.

    “Some weird kind of bacteria, or at least that’s what the labs have said,” one of the men explained, sipping his own beer. “Labs started finding it in produced oil all over the world a couple years back. Now it’s forming biofilms on everything, including the inside of the wellbores. They’re thick enough now that they’re starting to choke off flow... basically sealing over those holes Billy mentioned,” he gestured with his beer to the man in question, who raised his own glass in reply.

    “In conventional reservoirs where fluid flows easy, that’s not an immediate problem. I mean, some formations, like the ones over in Saudi Arabia, are almost like giant caverns full of oil, and in those it doesn’t much matter if there’s a thin film on the rocks. Tight reservoirs though — ones like the Bakken formation we’re sitting on out here — don’t take much restriction before the oil won’t flow at all. That little bit of biofilm is enough to stop the oil from flowing just as well as if you’d painted the inside of the wellbore with epoxy.”

    “Oh,” Harry nodded in understanding. “Sorry for bringing it up.”

    “No way you could have known, kid,” he replied, sipping at his beer. “Nothing to do but roll with the punches, either. Them’s the breaks.”

    The table fell silent for a few moments after that, the men sipping at their drinks while their pint-sized visitor frowned thoughtfully as he processed what he had heard.

    “Yeah, it’s just... things were really lookin’ up just a few years ago, you know?” one of the men reminisced. “We were just getting the fracking thing down, and the operators had thousands of wells queued up for the next few decades... enough to keep us working ‘til long after we were all ready to retire, anyway.” He sighed, “Now the work’s dried up, and we’re all off lookin’.”

    “Um,” Harry began, face still scrunched up in concentration as he worked through his thoughts. “What kind of bacteria is it? Could you kill it off somehow?”

    “One of the first things the engineers tried,” Billy shook his head. “Whatever the damned things are, they’re sturdy little critters. Seem to just shrug off whatever people throw at ‘em — chemical, thermal, even radiological — probably shouldn’t be too surprising considering they seem to thrive in oil reservoirs. It’s hard enough to engineer equipment to work in some of those, much less survive in person. Can’t even starve it out. Last time I talked with a friend of mine down in Houston — he works in one of the labs down there — they hadn’t even figured out what the damned stuff eats! It sure ain’t the oil, and if it’s eating rock, it sure doesn’t seem to be eating enough of it to matter.”

    “Weird...” the young dragon frowned. “Hey, have you tried...”

    And so the conversation continued, with Harry periodically scampering back to his table to grab another heaping plateful of food whenever a new course was delivered. The men were happy to talk about their work, especially with someone so enthusiastically interested. It was a balm for their weary souls, proof that what they had been doing mattered to someone, that their efforts hadn’t been entirely wasted by the vagaries of fate.

    Someone was cared enough to be curious, and that was at least something.

    Of course, on the other side of the aisle, Harry had slowly developed a subtle gleam in his eye beyond mere academic curiosity or even empathy over the course of the conversation… although both academic interest and empathy were surely present. That subtle gleam intensified when the young dragon managed to finagle a guided tour of those interesting trucks at the end of the meal and got a look at the residue inside the piston cylinders in one of the pumps.

    It had been an enlightening experience for the young dragon.

    The implications were such that it was only his sympathy for his new acquaintances’ unfortunate circumstances had kept him from grinning like a loon. By the time the Winnebago got back on the road, trying to squeeze out a few more miles before they stopped for the evening, the last Potter was smiling ear-to-ear as he scribbled away in his notebook.

    His goblin acquaintances would have recognized that particular smile quite easily… they often bragged, after all, of being able to smell profit in the air.

    5.5.11 Cloak and dagger

    “Well, this is the place,” Greene said uncertainly, looking at the dark form of the warehouse looming up out of the night on the other side of the van’s windshield.

    “That’s what the address says,” Auror Jones agreed, squinting to make out the building number in the poor lighting. “Reckon I ought to get out and knock?”

    “I reckon so,” he replied. He gave a significant sort of look to the dark street before joking, “You sure you don’t want to put the rest of your gear back on first? This isn’t the best part of town.”

    Jones rolled her eyes as she cracked open the door, not dignifying that with a verbal response. After a quick jog over to the building’s door and a knock that echoed uncomfortably loudly in the quiet of the nighttime street, she was greeted by a gruff voice from behind the still-closed door. A quick exchange of verbal recognition codes and instructions soon had her jumping back up into the cab.

    “Other side of the building, dock seventeen,” she told Greene. “They’ll open the gate when we approach. Oh, and they want the headlights off during the exchange.”

    He nodded, disengaging the brake and gently starting out once more. As he turned onto the side street leading to the back of the building, he turned off his lights. As he rolled slowly up to the gate blocking access to the rear lot, the gate suddenly rolled to the side, allowing both vans to pass through.

    “Seems like an odd way to handle this sort of thing,” Greene remarked a few minutes later as he was reversing into the loading dock labeled ‘17’ in blocky yellow numerals.

    “The Director said she was worried about tracking,” Jones said with a shrug. “Maybe she’s concerned about them getting recaptured?”

    “Maybe,” he allowed, then he frowned. “Hey, can you hop out and guide me in? I don’t want to jar our passengers any more than I have to.”

    “Sure.”

    A few moments and a flurry of hand gestures later, the van was safely parked, and a short figure gestured to her from the nearby access door. Shooting one last all-clear gesture off to Green, she hopped up the stairs to the door and was ushered inside. Entering the brightly lit interior, she was more than a little surprised to see it populated by goblin soldiers.

    “If you would open the door, ma’am?” the leader, or at least she assumed it was the leader, Jones was not entirely familiar with goblin rank insignia. “We would prefer that your passengers arrive to a familiar face.”

    Jones nodded agreeably, walking the few short yards to the loading dock.

    “Can’t say I was expecting to see goblins on the other end of this exchange,” she said conversationally, grunting a little as she bent to undo the latch on the cargo compartment. “How did you lot get mixed up in this, anyway?”

    “That, I am afraid, is a question for your own superiors,” the goblin said.

    “Fair enough,” Jones nodded, standing back up and bringing the rolling door up with her, revealing the transfigured interior of the van and its cramped accommodations.

    “Alright, you lot,” she called out, waking up a surprising number of the former slaves... surprising in that they’d been able to fall asleep during that long drive, given the conditions and the road noise. “Let’s get you out of there.”

    With that, they began the process of extracting the passengers from the transfigured seating arrangements... no small task given how tightly everyone was packed. Eventually, after much ado and a shift to get the new van in place, everyone was out and standing about the loading bay. It looked a great deal like the scene from the room earlier in the day, only now all these people were free.

    “All right then, gentlemen, ladies,” Auror Jones began, her voice tight. “This is where you and I part company; your freedom awaits.”

    She was answered by an excited sussuration of noise from the hundred or so former slaves, though no voice rose higher than a whisper. Jones was afraid to think too deeply on the events in their past which had led to such automatically muted reactions, though she did catch a few of the younger boys looking at her with expressions of wonder. Instead, she forged on.

    “These gentlemen,” Jones gestured to the goblins, “will be seeing to your accommodations and defense from here until you get wherever it is that you’re going.”

    Her throat tightened, but she still managed to finish with a firm, “Good luck, and godspeed to you all!”

    With that, she turned smartly and headed for the door. It had been a long, hard day.

    As he held the door for her, the goblin in charge leaned in, whispering.

    “They’ll be safe with us, madam Auror. Don’t you worry.”

    Auror Jones simply nodded her thanks, not trusting herself to speak further.

    If the goblin noted a suspicious wetness about her eyes, glinting slightly in the dim yellow light of the distant streetlamps, he didn’t say anything.

    This was a black operation after all; anything that happened on those was supposed to be kept secret.

    5.5.12 Keeping watch

    The sleeper van lurched to a stop in the very same tire marks that had marked its post for the last few days, and its engine shuddered to a stop. Leaving the key in the ignition, the driver leaned back in his seat with a sigh. Beady black eyes closed against the orange glare of the setting sun as the much put-upon goblin rubbed at the mud-colored skin on his temples, trying to soothe the headache that had been bothering him for the last half-day.

    The past few days had been brutal, the possibility that he had managed to miss his target, either due to them passing at an inconvenient time or due to him picking the wrong crossing was beginning to weigh more and more heavily on his mind. Even traveling slowly, Potter’s group surely ought to have arrived by now!

    The glint of headlights pierced the gathering gloom from the south, prompting the goblin to turn sharply, his eyes locking on the bright pair of lights.

    Perhaps this would be the one?

    He could only hope.

    5.5.13 Crossing

    The sun had ducked below the western horizon barely fifteen minutes earlier, and as twilight descended the Winnebago rolled on. An empty and unremarkable stretch of the endless grassland that had become quite familiar over the past day and a half stretched out to the horizon on either side of the road even as it faded from view in the gathering darkness.

    The hour was late, but the group intended to get just a bit farther before they stopped for the night. They planned to cross the border so they could overnight in Canada, and with the bright lights of the customs checkpoint looming up ahead, it looked like they would make it easily.

    Headlights burning bright in the gloaming, the large motorhome slowed as it approached the Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint, but instead of veering left into the checkpoint proper, it instead turned right into a seeming dead-end marked by stone cairns. As soon as it did so, magical flames flared to life atop the cairns, and with their appearance the border agent manning the crossing, who had been idly tapping a clipboard as he kept a watchful eye on their approach, immediately lost interest and turned to look elsewhere.

    As the RV passed between the stones, a narrow roadway seemed to open out of nothing before it as it slipped into a hidden expanded space nestled between the shoulder of the main road and the field beside it. As they drove, stone cairns identical to the first pair flared into flame at regular intervals along the hidden bypass, lighting the way as the first set had and then guttering out shortly after the vehicle passed the next pair in the line.

    Off to the left across the road proper, in clear view under the bright lights of the checkpoint, another border patrol agent checked a truck driver’s papers as the massive vehicle idled at the station. Neither agent nor driver commented on the motorhome bypassing the border station barely fifty yards away. Between the concealment wards and the expanded space, they neither saw nor heard anything out of the ordinary.

    In short order, the Winnebago passed behind the station’s Canadian counterpart just as unnoticed, skimmed by the right side of a sign welcoming all comers to Saskatchewan, and then merged back onto the main road, putting the Regway border crossing behind them. The notice-me-not effect lingered long enough to see them past the first crossroad on the Saskatchewan side of the border, ensuring that there was an excuse for their presence on the road in the event that anyone was curious enough to check.

    They were in, smooth as silk.

    5.5.14 Uneventful nights

    As a white pickup pulled a large trailer out of the checkpoint and crossed the border into Canada, beady black eyes closed as the Gringotts representative sighed in exasperation. Once again, it wasn’t his target, and his watch continued. If it went too much longer…

    He sighed again.

    The goblin had already reported in with London for the evening from the payphone outside the tiny Walhalla Municipal Airport four miles to the south, so he had nothing else scheduled for the evening. Long bony fingers drummed on the steering wheel as he considered his options. Eventually, he came to a decision. It was too late to travel, so he’d give it one more night. If they didn’t show by morning, he’d have to assume they’d either managed to slip through during one of the gaps in his watch or had gone through another bypass. Either case would mean that his border gambit had failed, and he would have to switch to Plan B.

    The goblin grimaced at the thought. That would entail rushing back to Seattle and petitioning the Salish Commons government for information directly. He knew that they kept tabs on such important visitors, and they had the resources to make such a task relatively easy. On the surface, it sounded simple enough, and to be honest, it would have been his first choice were it not for one little issue…

    …an issue that took the form of the Salish liaison.

    The man was the classic example of a stereotypical bureaucrat, absolutely treasured a grudge, and had family in high places, which had kept him on the government payroll even he was reported for soliciting bribes in the past… though it had not prevented him from facing a censure and a pay cut.
    Unfortunately, as the goblin whose name had been on the signature line of that report, the Gringotts representative was in a very poor position to be asking the man for favors.

    As he stared into the darkness, the goblin shook his head, dismissing the thought. No sense borrowing trouble; hopefully that damned Winnebago would show up soon.

    And so, the goblin kept watch.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2021
    bukay, Yorath, Tsureai and 116 others like this.
  28. kairuf

    kairuf The Double Checker

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    I feel bad for that poor goblin.
     
    tenchifew, Asheram, Finerc and 11 others like this.
  29. Luciel Ars

    Luciel Ars Not too sore, are you?

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    Isn't it too early?
    The manavore cycle seems to be early, should we expect an invasion soon?
     
  30. RedX

    RedX Not too sore, are you?

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    Hrm. Interesting overall, but one thing that just keeps bugging me, re:the slavery thing in Wizarding Britain, is that you've got a situation where it seems that slavery is illegal and there are well-armed, organized, and dedicated groups of law enforcement actively hunting it, but also legal and there are wealthy industrialists profiting from it and hiding behind the law to do so.

    Why hasn't this situation turned into an active shooting war long since? What force prevents Amelia Bones from doing her job right and openly sticking it to the slavers, that makes her resort to covert operations with foreign governments... that also needs to hide from her people via an elaborate series of cut-outs and false fronts?

    It's some sort of weird pastiche between historical chattel slavery and modern trafficking in persons, and it's just not coming together in a comprehensible fashion to me.
     
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