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Harry Potter and the Secret of Atlantis (Harry Potter AU/Tomb Raider Crossover) (Complete)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Nov 3, 2018.

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  1. Pahan

    Pahan Know what you're doing yet?

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    Suggested rewrite:

    Trapdoor under the carpets? No. Harry looked at the statue of Priapus. No. Yes. He took a closer look. There were too many spells on the shrine to merely preserve it. He quickly looked the spells over. There were several curses on it, linked to… Ah!

    Harry frowned. Usually, it was Ron who got into these kinds of predicaments. Needs must, however, and Harry took a deep breath and grabbed on to the relevant part of the statue with his left hand (keeping his wand in his right), starting the long sequence he was able to glean: up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right, back, forward...

    Another explosion slightly shook the walls, and Harry frowned - that hadn’t been a firework. But his pin didn’t vibrate, so Ron didn’t need help. Or was beyond help, Harry thought, then shook his head. He had his task to complete.

    ... left, up, pull, down, right, push, and one last long pull. Without letting go, Harry shifted his tired wrist and stepped to the side to avoid being sprayed: whether it was poison, Eternally Indelible Ink, or something else, he did not know and did not want to find out. Finally, Harry released the statue's nose and the statue moved, stepping to the side and opening a door in the wall, revealing a narrow staircase that wound down to the basement.
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  2. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    That's funny, but a bit too lewd as a joke - I pondered writing something similar, but decided against it when I wrote the scene. Ultimately, Bey wouldn't have had a secret passage where he has to move a statue's nose to enter - he'd have a "one touch with my wand and it opens" solution for mere convenience.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: Trouble in Tunis
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 12: Trouble in Tunis

    ‘Magical creatures have been used by wizards to guard their treasure chambers or homes for millennia, so to the layperson, this might seem an easy way to secure their valuables. However, in order to effectively use such creatures as guards, there are several hurdles which must be overcome. First, living creatures have to be fed. That may seem like a minor issue, but it means that whatever they are guarding has to be visited regularly by a trusted servant or yourself. And the food has to be protected and tested, lest a prospective thief tamper with it to poison the creature. In addition, many creatures have to be trained not to accept food from just anyone, or a thief can bring poisoned food with them to offer to the creature. This can be a particular problem with animals not intelligent enough to be easily trained.
    Guard animals also have to be trained not to attack their owner, which can be quite difficult with the more dangerous, and therefore more effective, beasts. The use of intelligent creatures such as sphinxes will avoid most of those problems, but such beasts are susceptible to bribes or betraying their owners. Finally, the more resistant to magical control a creature is, the more valuable it is as a guard against magic-using thieves, but the harder it is for one to control it. Finding the correct balance can be somewhat tricky and even dangerous. Fortunately, over the millennia, various methods to control creatures resistant to charms have been developed, although not all of them are legal in every civilised nation.
    One of the safest ways to control a creature, although also the one which takes longest to achieve the desired result, is to raise the creature from birth or hatching to adulthood. With a few exceptions, even the most ferocious of beasts tend to become loyal guards if raised properly - although some might also become overly affectionate, and anyone who has ever suffered the attentions of an adoring wyvern can testify that even this method is not without risk.’
    - Excerpt from ‘A Short Guide to Magical Creatures and Their Uses’ by Albert Nott, London, 1901


    *****​

    Tunisia, Wizarding Tunis, Palace of Murad Bey, September 25th, 2001

    Hermione Granger rolled her eyes. Lockhart was acting as if he had just saved everyone. Granted, he probably had saved Ron - but none of them would have been in danger if not for Lockhart forcing them to ‘help’ him. That witches actually fell for the man’s act… Well, she couldn’t deny that he was attractive, but his attitude was repulsive. Which was the reason why she wouldn’t warn him about the potential consequences of Tahira’s obvious attraction.

    They had more urgent problems anyway. She touched her earring. “Harry? The Chimaera has been dealt with. Do you have the ring?”

    “What? How?”

    She hated having to say it. “Lockhart knocked it out with poisoned meat.”

    “What?”

    “But we need to move - the Bey’s guards could arrive any moment. Will arrive!”

    “I’ll hurry!” Harry said. “But there are a lot of things to go through.”

    She was tempted to tell him that he should just take everything - they could sort it out later - but that wouldn’t let them countermand whatever order had been given to Tahira.

    “Ron! Mr Lockhart!” she yelled. “Harry’s still looking for the ring. Go help him!”

    “But the guards will arrive any moment - I couldn’t leave you to handle them!” the ponce protested.

    Fortunately, Ron was quick on the uptake. “Come on! When the guards arrive, they’ll see a broken harem, a stunned monster and poor, distraught harem girls. And not two suspicious-looking foreign wizards.”

    “I’m not suspicious-looking!” Lockhart claimed. “I’m dashing!”

    But he followed Ron into the ruined part of the palace. Hermione didn’t doubt that he would later claim that it had been his idea in the first place.

    “How clever of you,” Tahira commented with a sly and far too smug grin.

    “Thank you,” Hermione replied with a toothy smile.

    Ari walked over. The witch had picked up her wand but hadn’t bothered to gather and mend her shredded clothes. Instead, she confronted Tahira with a sneer. “Stick to Lockhart. Ron is mine.”

    The jinni princess scoffed. “You think I desire the lout? Hah! All I desire is justice for how he vexed me!”

    “You hurt him, I hurt you!” Ari retorted.

    “Try it, animal!” Tahira hissed. “I should have known you were too barbaric to be human!”

    “Big words from an overgrown smoke trail!”

    Sometimes, Ari’s talent for learning languages really was more hindrance than help.

    “What is going on? Shouldn’t we flee?” Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens asked.

    “We need to free Tahira from her bindings first,” Hermione explained. “Do you know if there are any other enslaved witches in the harem?”

    The other witch shook her head. “No. I could barely talk to them.”

    Ah. Hermione hadn’t considered that. She should have, of course - language barriers were the reason for their presence in Tunis, after all.

    “Do not meddle in the affairs of your better, beast!”

    Tahira grew another foot, reaching nine feet. And Ari’s growls were sounding more and more like a jaguar’s.

    Hermione was very glad that the Tunisian City Guards showed up before the two came to blows. She quickly told Harry and Ron before the guards got close enough to overhear her - not that they seemed to care much for her in the first place. Her Arabic wasn’t perfect, and the wizards and witches spoke rather quickly, but it wasn’t hard to deduce what they wanted to know since they were all staring at the unconscious Chimaera.

    She pointed at the beast. “It went on a rampage!” she said loudly and rapidly in English. “Demolished the harem! Bey has vanished!”

    That drew the guards’ attention to Hermione’s little group, and a witch quickly walked over. She conjured a blanket and offered it to Ari, who stared at it, then shook her head and conjured some actual clothes for herself instead.

    Hermione smiled at the Tunisian guardswitch. “She was in the bath.”

    “Ah.”

    “Where is the Bey’s son?” the witch wanted to know.

    Hermione shook her head. “I don’t know. He wasn’t in harem,” she added, switching to broken Arabic.

    “We need to search the place!” Hermione heard one of the wizards say in Arabic.

    But before they could split up, Bey appeared, slowly and rather jerkily clambering over the broken remains of the door to the garden. Behind him, two men followed - and one of them was rubbing his hand, no, the ring on his finger, as he walked towards Hermione.

    Polyjuice! It had to be Polyjuice! Clever indeed.

    But Tahira didn’t seem to have caught on, Hermione realised - the jinni was glaring at who Hermione knew was Harry.

    “You found her ring!” Hermione exclaimed and rushed to him. She ignored the surprised reactions of the guards surrounding who she hoped was Lockhart in disguise and handed the ring over to Tahira.

    The jinni blinked in surprise, then her eyes widened. She stared at the ring for a moment, then broke it in half in her hand.

    And started to laugh.

    Hermione wasn’t the only one to draw her wand in response.

    *****​

    “Vengeance is mine!” Tahira yelled, cackling with glee as she grew to what Ron claimed was her maximum size of a touch above ten feet. “I am free! I am free!”

    “Bloody hell!” Harry Potter heard Ron mutter next to him. “I hope Hermione knew what she was doing when she made a deal with her.”

    So did Harry.

    “I thought you wanted to keep this a secret?” Hermione hissed.

    Tahira actually blinked, then scowled.

    “Dumb spirit,” Ari commented. “As much brains as gust of hot wind. As a gust of hot wind, I mean.”

    The guards, meanwhile, were staring - and slowly moving away from the towering form of the jinni.

    “Sir! You need to come with us!” their apparent leader said in Arabic to the disguised Lockhart. “We need to get you to safety!”

    “You go - I shall face the jinni!” Lockhart, wearing Bey’s form, declared. None of the guards moved, though, so he made a shooing motion with his free hand. “Go! I don’t know how long I can hold her at bay!”

    Harry caught the leader signalling two of his men, but before he could react, the two jumped forward, one grabbing Lockhart’s arm and disapparating with him.

    “Give him back!” Tahira roared - Harry couldn’t tell if she had realised that this was Lockhart in disguise or thought it was actually Bey - and charged at the remaining guards, flames starting to cover her form.

    The Tunisian guards scattered in response, but in a way that let them set up a crossfire. Brave and disciplined. And they were used to fighting angry jinn - Tahira was hit with several Water-Making Spells that doused her flames while others conjured nets around her.

    Harry was tempted to let the jinni be captured - she certainly had caused them enough trouble in the past and right now. But Hermione scowled. “We need to help her - we made a Deal. And I would rather that her feud with Ron ends today.”

    “Oi!” Ron said. “This is not my fault!”

    “Feud would end if she ends,” Ari pointed out.

    Tahira roared again, using both fire and wand to wreck the nets covering her - but the guards were surrounding her. And at least some of them would be trained to subdue jinn, given how many jinn regularly visited the city.

    Harry sighed. Ten guards - nine, Tahira had just caught one with a spell that smashed him through the remains of a window - against the four of them. And an angry jinni.

    Well, he had faced worse odds. And he was wearing someone else’s face, so this shouldn’t come back to haunt them. “Let’s save a princess,” he said and cast a pair of Stunners at the closest guard.

    Three more guards dropped right after the one he had hit, courtesy of Hermione, Ron and Ari, and two more were downed, one by Harry and one by Tahira backhanding them into a wall, before the rest reacted and fled.

    A moment later, Bey - Lockhart appeared in the middle of the garden. “The nerve of them!” he complained. “To lay hands on me! But I taught them the error of their…”

    A blow from Tahira smashed him into the remains of the lawn.

    Harry couldn’t keep from snickering at the sight, and Ron was chuckling, but Hermione yelled:
    “That’s not Bey! That’s Lockhart in disguise!”

    Tahira looked shocked, then angry. “Why didn’t you tell me!” she snarled, glaring at them.

    “It’s never her fault,” Ron muttered. “And people blame me?”

    “It always her fault,” Ari spat.

    “What did you say, you beast?” Tahira snapped, putting her hands on her hip, wisps of smoke pouring out of her nostrils.

    “She said that we need to take the other enslaved witches and retreat before the guards return with reinforcements,” Hermione replied, cutting Ari off before the witch could repeat herself even more loudly and start another fight.

    “And before the Chimaera wakes up,” Ron added. “I think it moved a little and I’m not playing bait again.”

    *****​

    Tunisia, Wizarding Tunis, House of Omar Sayadi, September 25th, 2001

    “I’ve heard the rumours, and I saw the smoke and fire from my own humble home, but to see Gilderoy laid low like this… It must have been an epic battle.” Sayadi shook his head, watching the still unconscious Lockhart on the bed where he had just changed back to his natural form.

    Harry Potter, also returned to his own and much-preferred shape, nodded sagely. “Indeed. We had to battle a Chimaera, a dozen guards and traps and curses.” He was tempted to go into details of just how exactly Lockhart had been struck down, but Tahira glared at him, as did Hermione, who had it made very clear that she did not want to see the feud renewed after they had had so much trouble fulfilling their deal with the jinni.

    “He is a great hero,” Tahira said, sighing. “I owe him so much.”

    “Just remember to honour our Deal,” Hermione said.

    “Of course I will!” Tahira said, pouting. “You do not need to fear that I shall seek to violate the agreement we made - the legends of jinn using loopholes to trap wizards were evil lies spread by those who tried and failed to capture us!”

    “Speaking of capturing jinn…” Ron spoke up. “How did Bey manage to bind you without anyone knowing? And why did he do such a thing?”

    Ari nodded. “No sense at all.”

    Harry was certain that the other witch didn’t mean that capturing a princess of the most powerful jinn clan in the country sounded like a recipe for disaster.

    Tahira, frowned for a moment, eyeing the smiling Ari, then looked at Sayadi.

    “He is a friend of Lockhart’s,” Harry pointed out.

    “And a dozen guards heard you loudly announcing your newly gained freedom,” Hermione added.

    Tahira huffed, but, after a moment, frowned again and said: “He caught me by treachery and wanted to use me to steal the relics guarded by my clan. How he had heard of them, I cannot say, nor what he planned to do with them.”

    “He probably wanted to collect them, judging by what he showed us,” Ron said. “You know how collectors are.”

    That caused Mallory to scowl at them before he addressed Tahira with a smile. “Relics? How old might they be?”

    She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why do you want to know?”

    Mallory held a hand up. “I am no collector of jinn treasure. My interests lie in other areas. I was merely curious, nothing more.”

    Harry couldn’t fault him for that - he was curious as well. Old relics? Tunis was an area where, according to legends, Atlanteans and ancient Greeks had met for trade and war.

    Perhaps this diversion forced on them by Lockhart might end up helping them.

    Provided they found a way to find out more about those relics without starting another feud with Tahira’s clan. Which might be a little tricky.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley suppressed a grin when he heard Lockhart groan. The git had deserved that blow for getting them involved in this mess.

    “What the…” Lockhart gasped and sat up, his wand appearing in his hand. “Where… Ah.” He cleared his throat and smiled at the people surrounding them. “I see we were successful despite my temporary incapacitation.”

    “Yes,” Mr Sayadi said, smiling. “It was a ferocious battle - most of Bey’s palace was wrecked. I almost wish I had been there to see it.”

    “So does Lockhart,” Ron mumbled. Ari chuckled.

    “And we saved the fair maidens imprisoned in that scoundrel’s harem!” Lockhart beamed at Tahira and Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens, which caused both to blush - and the jinni princess to glare at the witch. Although Lockhart seemed to either have missed that or failed to realise what it meant for him.

    Ron grinned.

    Hermione, though, smiled rather thinly. “Indeed. We liberated the other enslaved witches in the harem after you were knocked out, then vacated the premises.”

    “Another adventure successfully completed, then.” Lockhart stood up, although his smile became a little strained in the process. “Now all that’s left is for me to escort Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens to her family.”

    “Oh, yes!” The aforementioned witch beamed at the blonde git. “My parents must be sick with worry!”

    Tahira’s expression, though, darkened so much, Ron pondered putting a guard on the other witch. He didn’t think the jinni would actually murder her apparent rival for Lockhart’s fleeting affections, but Tahira certainly was capable of getting rid of Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens in creative but non-lethal ways.

    “I could shrink you so we could send you home by owl,” she said, proving Ron right. With a beaming smile, she turned to Lockhart. “We still need you, sir. There’s more trouble afoot that we cannot solve without your help.”

    “Shrink me?” Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens took a step back, paling. “Again?”

    “You’ve done that before?” Lockhart looked surprised.

    “Merely as a demonstration of my power,” Tahira said, her smile growing a little forced - and rather toothy as she looked at her rival, who shrank back even more.

    “I don’t think we should send anyone by owl,” Hermione said.

    Ron glanced at Ari, who looked puzzled. He leaned over and shook his head before she could mention that they had done that before.

    Tahira frowned. “But, certainly, there must be a trustworthy person available who can escort the girl to her parents in Mr Lockhart’s place - his considerable talents would be wasted on such a trivial task when he is needed here!” She looked at Ron and sneered. “Mr Weasley, for example, could do that.”

    Ron narrowed his eyes at her. “We have an important task of our own,” he told her.

    “Yes!” Ari agreed. “Find someone else so you can seduce Lockhart!”

    “Please, please!” Lockhart raised his hands. “While I cannot be in two places at once, I’m certain that we can find a solution that leaves everyone satisfied.” He smiled at Tahira. “But you are correct - if I am needed here then I cannot, in good conscience, head off to the New World. Provided Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens’ safe return is assured, of course.”

    Ron wasn’t sure if he should be glad that Lockhart was falling for Tahira’s charms or annoyed that the git was staying in Tunis while Ron and his friends were trying to find the next lead in their search for Atlantis.

    On the other hand, Ron was rather interested in the relics Tahira had mentioned - she hadn’t said a word about them while they had been together.

    “We still need someone trustworthy to escort her home, though,” Lockhart said. “What about you, Mr Smith?” He beamed at Mallory. “You’re from the New World, aren’t you?”

    Mallory’s smile looked more like a grimace, in Ron’s opinion. “Ah, yes, but I fear I’m not suited to be a bodyguard - I’m no duellist, you see; I wouldn’t be able to protect her should we come under attack,” the man said.

    “Oh.” Lockhart frowned for a moment before smiling again. “That’s no reason to be embarrassed, my friend - not everyone can be as skilled as myself in the arts of duelling! But that still leaves us with the need for a trusted guard.”

    Ari hooked her arm around Ron’s and growled when the git looked at them, which didn’t seem to faze him at all.

    “Perhaps a bodyguard and a chaperone? Poor Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens might be glad for some female company.” Without waiting for an answer, Lockhart turned to Sayadi. “Indeed, I think that’s a very good solution. You will need some time to translate whatever texts they brought, won’t you?”

    Ron clenched his teeth when Sayadi nodded with a smile that told him that, once more, they had no choice but to agree.

    *****​

    “Don’t quote Star Wars,” Hermione Granger said as soon as she had finished casting a privacy charm in the guest suite Mr Sayadi had provided for them. “He’s not altering the deal - technically, we haven’t finished helping Lockhart save Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens until she’s back with her family.”

    Harry, as expected, pouted at her. “The spirit of the deal was clear, though.”

    She shrugged. “As I said,” she repeated herself, “technically, we haven’t yet completed the rescue of Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens.”

    “And what if he tries to make us do something else?” Ron asked.

    “Then we teach him why double-crossing us isn’t a good idea.”

    “Yes!” Ari enthusiastically agreed, as expected. Hermione would prefer to send the other witch off with Ron, but...

    “However, we need to decide who will escort Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens to her family,” she said, nodding at Ron and Ari. “I would suggest you two, but with the current crisis in the United States, I think Ari’s passport could cause trouble.” Or rather, her lack of knowledge about the muggle world in conjunction with what her passport claimed. Which might result in trouble with the ICW if they used magic to sort things out. Something they all could do without - even more so after today’s events. Word would get out, after all, with the number of witches they had freed returning to their families, even if it would take some time to reach the Bey of Tunis and his son.

    “And magical travel would take too long,” Ron said. “And you two grew up in the muggle world, so your records aren’t suspicious, right?”

    Hermione nodded. He had been paying attention to the muggle news, then. “Yes. I don’t like it, but it’s best if Harry and I escort Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens. It will set back our own work at least two days, though.” Probably more, depending on whether or not the airlines had already returned to their regular schedules. And how long it took to reach France from Tunis without alerting either muggle or magical authorities.

    “We can spare a few days doing nothing,” Ron said, grinning. “The worst’s over, after all. And watching Tahira chase Lockhart should be entertaining.”

    Ari sniffed. “They’re made for every other.”

    “Made for each other,” Ron corrected her. “And we might be able to find out more about those ‘relics’ she mentioned.”

    “As long as you don’t get dragged into more trouble,” Hermione cautioned him.

    “Don’t worry.” He grinned. “We’ve got Lockhart as a distraction.”

    And now she was worrying.

    *****​

    Free Republic of Maine, September 27th, 2001

    Hermione Granger had known that the family of Miss Ainsworth-Aitkens - Wyona, she reminded herself - was rich. They wouldn’t have been able to hire Lockhart otherwise. But seeing the family home - even Draco Malfoy wouldn’t have sneered at the manor, well, not for its size and style, at least - really drove that point home. Occupying a small hill on the border of the enclave, it looked like it had been taken straight out of ‘Gone with the Wind’. It was large enough to house an entire school without using Extension Charms. And the wards protecting it were powerful enough to fend off an army.

    Come to think of it, they might have done exactly that during the last conflict with Wizarding Québec, even if Maine had lost that war.

    “Impressive,” she said.

    But Wyona wasn’t listening - she was already running towards the main entrance. “Mom! Dad!”

    They couldn’t hear her, of course. Unless they had spells covering the area surrounding the manor - and Hermione hadn’t spotted any.

    But then the doors opened, and a wizard and witch rushed out. Wyona practically jumped into their arms. By the time Harry and Hermione had made their way over to them, they were still crying and laughing and hugging.

    And Hermione felt quite guilty about the fact that without Lockhart forcing them into his ‘adventure’, this wouldn’t have happened.

    *****​

    “Thank you again, Mr Potter, Miss Granger. Without you and Mr Lockhart, our dear Wyona would still...” Mr Ainsworth-Aitkens trailed off and shook his head. “And to think you and your friends risked your lives and more to save a stranger!”

    Hermione forced herself to smile. “When Mr Lockhart told us about her plight, we had to help,” she said.

    “Yes,” Harry nodded emphatically. “It wasn’t just us, though - our friends Ron and Ari also helped.”

    “Mr Lockhart taught you well, indeed,” Mrs Ainsworth-Aitkens said, nodding sagely.

    Hermione coughed. “He was only our teacher for a single year,” she said.

    “Then it is even more impressive that he could teach you so much! The man is a true hero!”

    As Wyona nodded, Hermione exchanged a glance with Harry. It seemed that Lockhart hadn’t learned anything since he had tried to steal Petunia’s achievements.

    Something they would have to rectify, once they were back in Tunis.

    Provided, of course, that Tahira hadn’t killed the man in the meantime. Something Hermione really wouldn’t be sad about right now.

    *****​

    United States of America, New York, September 27th, 2001

    “Harry? Why did you rent the honeymoon suite?”

    Harry Potter looked up from the newspaper and turned his head. Hermione had finished her shower and was walking towards the bed, wrapped in two towels. His eyes strayed to her bare legs for a moment. “We have the money,” he said. “And it’s more comfortable.” Less likely to catch the attention of the muggle authorities as well - suspects would try to blend in more, wouldn’t they?

    “I meant the honeymoon suite in particular,” she replied, sitting down and pulling the towel off her head before drying her hair with a flick of her wand.

    “Oh.” He hesitated. “Well… it’s not a hint, if that’s what you mean. A relationship is neither tied to a formal document nor will such a formality preserve it.”

    “That’s what I said about marriage,” she pointed out.

    “And I agree with it,” he replied. With a grin, he added: “Besides, quoting you always is a good idea.”

    She snorted. “Is that another hint?”

    He frowned. “What?”

    “A reference to the ‘yes, dear’ trope,” she clarified.

    “Oh.” He shook his head. “I honestly didn’t think of that. Not consciously, at least.”

    “But subconsciously?” She tilted her head slightly.

    Apparently, this wasn’t merely idle chatter. He stood and walked over to the bed, sitting down next to her. “Are you consciously thinking about it? You do seem to be spotting hints everywhere.”

    She snorted, then sighed. “I’ve thought about it. Who hasn’t?”

    He nodded. “Yes.”

    “But with Ari and Ron so…” She shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about such things a little more often than usual.”

    He focused on the first part. “Yes. Ari certainly seems different from his other girlfriends.”

    “His affairs, you mean,” Hermione said with a sniff.

    “That’s a little unfair,” he replied. Ron hadn’t strung anyone along, as far as Harry knew. Some just had expected more. Like Tahira.

    Hermione pressed her lips together but didn’t argue the point. Instead, she said: “Mum always says that the only reason to marry is if you want to have kids.”

    Harry nodded slowly. Children. He had thought about them. Not seriously. Not really seriously. But… “What do you think?”

    “About children or about marriage?”

    “Both?” He flashed her his best roguish smile.

    She snorted at that, smiling. Then she sighed again and looked at the ceiling. “Honestly, I want children. But we’re still very young.” She turned her head to look at him.

    He nodded instead of pointing out that his parents had had him when they had been even younger.

    “And I’d prefer to have children when we’ve settled down somewhat. Not travelling all over the globe. Petunia had a base camp to raise you in, after all.”

    “And boarding schools once I was old enough.” He smiled. “But growing up in a Curse-Breaker camp was fun.”

    She wrinkled her nose. “More for you than for Petunia, I believe.”

    He chuckled, if only to add some levity. “I guess once we find Atlantis, we’ll set up a base camp as well.”

    “I would think so.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “But I’m not going to take a break for nine months until I’ve personally explored the most important parts, once we find it.”

    “That’s fair,” he said. “Of course, you can translate texts and study relics without having to break curses…”

    “And leave you and Ron to deal with the Atlantean curses by yourselves?” She scoffed, though with a smile.

    He still pouted. “We could let Lockhart deal with them.”

    “Oh, yes!” she agreed, sneering. “To think Wyona and her parents think we owe our skills to him!”

    Harry nodded emphatically. Lockhart was a good Curse-Breaker - otherwise, he’d have died on his adventures - but he wasn’t as good as people thought he was. And he certainly wasn’t as good as Auntie, even with his magic. “I hope Tahira teaches him a lesson.”

    Hermione nodded. “And that Ari and Ron don’t get into trouble.”

    Harry didn’t wince as he nodded in agreement once more, but he had a bad feeling about that. Between Tahira, Lockhart and Mallory, not to mention Sayadi, there was just too much that could go wrong for them in Tunis.

    At least he and Hermione would be back there in a day’s time.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Wizarding Tunis, House of Omar Sayadi, September 27th, 2001

    “She’s a nuisance,” Ari said. “And Lockhart is stupid.”

    Ron Weasley didn’t have to look at her to know she was pouting in that adorable way of hers. He did so anyway, of course. “Yes.”

    That earned him an equally adorable scowl.

    “What do you want me to say?” he asked with a grin. “You’re right - Tahira’s a bother, and Lockhart’s an idiot.”

    She sniffed and went back to sprawling on the bed in a way that made him wonder if she hadn’t changed part of her skeleton to a jaguar’s. It couldn’t be comfortable, yet she insisted it was.

    Before he could say anything, he heard a tap on the window. He drew his wand as Ari’s head snapped up, and she sniffed the air.

    “Owl,” she said. “Harry’s.” And she went back to trying to find the most contorted-looking position in which she might relax.

    Ron chuckled as he went to open the window and let Hedwig in. The snowy owl barked, somehow managing to sound reproachful, and gave Ari a wide berth as she landed on the desk in their room, holding out her leg to him.

    He grabbed the letter and fed her a treat. “Harry and Hermione will be back in Tunis tomorrow.”

    “Good. Then we have a done deal.” Ari nodded emphatically. “Don’t trust them.”

    He didn’t correct her wording. Lockhart was a touchy subject, ever since she had caught a whiff of Lion’s Bane. Instead, he sighed as he sat down on the bed as well. “I wonder what happened to Tahira.”

    “Why? She is free. And annoying.”

    “But how was she bound in the first place, without anyone of her clan, or in the city, noticing?” Ron shook his head. “When she was chasing me, everyone knew it. And those relics she mentioned…”

    Ari scoffed. “Probably some pretty gems and nothing more. Or lie to catch Lockhart.”

    “I don’t think so,” he replied. “That’s not her style.”

    Ari snorted.

    “Really,” he said. “I know jinn have a reputation, but she never lied to me. She’s too proud for such, I think.”

    “I don’t think about jinn, I think about her.”

    He knew what she meant. “I know her.” That earned him another scowl.

    “You’re with me now!” She growled at him.

    “Yes.” And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

    She didn’t change, but the way she crawled towards him over the bed very much reminded him of her jaguar form.

    He didn’t mind at all.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Wizarding Tunis, House of Omar Sayadi, September 28th, 2001

    “Wake up! Trouble!”

    Ron Weasley shot up. Summoning his wand out of reflex before he remembered where he was. “Trouble?”

    Ari, sitting on the bed next to him, nodded. “People yelling about an attack. Outside,” she added, nodding towards the window of their room.

    Ron flicked his wand and summoned his clothes, then grabbed the shrunken box containing the skull and the other Atlantean relics they had brought. “Have they broken through the wards?”

    Ari tilted her head, quickly changed, then changed back. “No. But they expect the protections to fail at any moment.”

    Ron muttered a curse under his breath as he stashed the box in his pocket. “Better get ready to make a run for it,” he said. Who would dare to attack a manor in the middle of Wizarding Tunis? The answer was obvious - the Bey’s guards, of course. The ruler of the enclave must have found out who was behind the attack on his son.

    Fortunately, Ron had some experience with evading the city guards. Although he only had his spare broom, which couldn’t hold a candle to the Firebolt the Chimaera had destroyed. This might be a little tricky. Perhaps he should send Hedwig away with the box containing the relics. Just in case…

    “Watch out!”

    Ari’s warning made him whirl around in time to see her change and pounce on a white figure coming through the wall - and fall through it.

    A Patronus Charm, he realised. A peacock. Who would have… He groaned. Of course.

    “Mr Weasley? Miss Ari? We are under attack and require your help!” Lockhart’s voice filled the room. “We’re making our stand on the roof.”

    Ari changed back and stood up. “Stupid.”

    Ron nodded. “But they called for help.”

    “We’re guests.”

    “And we have a deal with Mr Sayadi.” They had to lend a wand.

    He opened the window and climbed out, then grabbed the edge of the roof above and pulled himself up on to the flat roof. Ari followed with considerably more grace even without changing.

    “Ah, I see you got my message. Quite a handy spell, isn’t it? I learned it from Professor Flitwick, you know?” Lockhart, standing there with his wand drawn, next to Mr Sayadi and several guards, smiled.

    Ron didn’t know and didn’t care. “How’re the wards?” he snapped.

    “About to break,” Lockhart answered - remarkably calm considering the situation. “They must be attacking from a neighbouring property; we would see them if they were in the streets. I guess this is a disadvantage of the wards covering the entire area of the property.”

    If the attackers were hiding then that might mean they weren’t the guards. Probably. “Did you call for help? And where is Tahira?” He ignored Ari’s growl behind him. The jinni princess would be very useful in a fight.

    “I decided against calling the guards, given our recent activities,” Mr Sayadi said. “I would not risk inviting the very people attacking us, should the Bey be behind them. And I have similar reservations towards most of my acquaintances.”

    “That would, indeed, be a bit of a bother,” Lockhart said. “Tahira’s with her family - she had to check on them. Regrettable; she’s a most impressive witch. But I think with your help, I can deal with whatever ruffians are about to attack us.” He beamed at Ron and Ari. “Just consider this a practical Defence exam!”

    Ron was tempted to demonstrate to the git just how much he had learned in the five years since Lockhart had quit Hogwarts, but with an unknown number of attackers about to break through the wards, they needed all the help they could get. Especially if Mr Sayadi was fighting as well. And the guards also looked like they needed every little bit of reassurance, or they’d bolt.

    So he nodded - very curtly - and took a look at the surrounding properties. He couldn’t spot the attackers - which meant they knew their business.

    Ari sniffed the air, then changed and did it again. Changing back, she pointed at the western neighbour as she gathered and mended her clothes. “Stinking people there.”

    “Well done, Miss Ari!” Lockhart beamed at her, and Ron had to fight the urge to hex the git. “Let us welcome them most warmly then, once the wards break! Though one of us should keep an eye out in case they try to come at us from behind.”

    Mr Sayadi nodded at the youngest guard, who stepped back as the rest took up positions at the edge of the roof, behind the low wall serving as a railing.

    Ron and Ari joined them - Lockhart kept standing, though, exposed to the enemy, casting Shield Charms.

    Five tense minutes later, the wards broke, and dark figures on brooms rose from the manor to the west, rushing towards them with wands flashing.

    There were about a dozen of them, all wearing dark - no, black - robes, Ron noted, as he flicked his wand and created a gust of wind in front of them. Good on their brooms as well - they were blown back, but not off their brooms, and quickly recovered, splitting into two groups. The guards sent various curses at them, but most missed, and those which hit were stopped by Shield Charms.

    The attackers, though, aimed their curses better. Parts of the roof blew up, sending rock splinters and shards flying. One of Mr Sayadi’s guards collapsed, and another was thrown back by a spell, rolling across the roof.

    “They aren’t locals,” Lockhart yelled, waving his wand around. A moment later, two of the broom flyers were struck by a giant bola that wrapped around them, smashing them together and sending them tumbling to the ground.

    Ari sent a few Stunners at the other group but missed. She managed to force them off-course, though, and Ron’s next volley hit one of them, shattering their shield and allowing Ari’s next Stunner to hit. The attacker stiffened, then rolled, stuck to their broom, and crashed into the wall of the manor a little below the roof.

    In response, a hail of curses - dark curses - descended on the two of them, and forced them to take cover behind a conjured wall before falling back.

    Ari growled, then conjured a greenish cloud in mid-air. One of the attackers flew right through it, apparently unconcerned. A moment later, he gasped and quickly swallowed something.

    Ari laughed. “That won’t help - it’s no poison!” Then she yelped when a Blasting Curse threw her and Ron across the roof and almost over the railing. Ron hit the stone wall hard, though his shield held and he rolled and came up in a crouch.

    Most of the guards had been driven back or taken out, but the attackers had suffered as well. Ron could count only about half a dozen still flying. Lockhart split one broom apart with a Cutting Curse but then was almost struck himself when three of the attackers ganged up on him.

    Ron drove them away with a quick series of Bludgeoning Curses.

    “Thank you! That was a timely distraction!” Lockhart yelled, diving into a roll and coming up casting.

    Ron clenched his teeth. And again when his next volley missed. Another Blasting Curse hit the roof, making him duck. How long could the roof last under such… The crater caused by the curse suddenly vanished.

    “Sayadi’s mending,” Ari said, “But more coming from behind!”

    Ron cursed as he saw another half dozen wizards and witches coming over the wall on the other side. He and Ari stalled them for a moment with Blasting Curses of their own, but they fanned out.

    What were they after? Or whom? Probably Sayadi - he was a wanted wizard in many European countries. Ron ducked as another volley of curses flew up at him from below, half of them shattering part of the walls and roof. That would explain the lack of lethal curses so far - they wouldn’t risk accidentally killing their target.

    Crouched down behind a reinforced wall, with Ari sending more of her spore clouds over the edge towards the attackers below, he looked over his shoulder. Mr Sayadi was standing on the stairs leading to the roof, only his head visible from Ron’s position, and he kept mending his house.

    But the attackers would break into it on the ground floor soon. Even reinforced by various spells, the walls wouldn’t keep them at bay for much longer.

    “Deal with the flyers!” he yelled to Lockhart. “We’re dealing with the intruders in the house!”

    Ron dashed across the roof, another Blasting Curse blowing him over, but he managed to get to his feet before he could be hit and jump forward, down the stairs.

    Landing hurt, shattering his weakened shield, but he was behind cover.

    Ari, as a jaguar and with her wand in her mouth, landed lightly next to him, then changed back. “No smell yet!” she hissed.

    He nodded. “Let’s go below!”

    They rushed to the ground floor, stopping halfway down the stairs. Smart intruders would use transfiguration to break through the walls, but this lot seemed fond of flashier spells. And louder ones. The house shook slightly - another attack on the roof. “Hear any explosion on this floor?”

    Ari frowned, then nodded. “Kitchen!” A moment later, she was bounding down the stairs on four paws again, Ron hot on her heels.

    They rounded a corner and came face to face with two wizards and one witch in the kitchen. Ron dropped to the wooden floor and slid past the entrance, catching one of them on the way with a Piercing Curse and Bludgeoning Curse volley that shattered the man’s shield and smashed him against the large stove as Ari pounced on the witch, whose shield shattered under the impact.

    Ron rolled over his shoulder and came up casting in the middle of the doorway, right as the second wizard was turning to save Ari’s victim. Ron’s Bludgeoning Curse drove the wizard back. His next shattered the man’s shield, right above the white sigil on his robe’s back.

    Ron jumped forward and to the side, causing a dark yellow curse to go wide, then stunned the man at point blank range.

    Ari stood, changing to a human, blood dripping from her hands, then stunned her screaming victim. “Stupid.”

    Ron stunned the third attacker for good measure. But there had been six of them on the ground floor.

    “More!” Ari snapped and changed again. Ron ran after her. “To the stairs!” he yelled.

    But the stairs were empty. Where were…

    “New hole!” Ari raced up to the first floor, changing on the way.

    On the first floor, there was indeed a hole in the ceiling - close to the stairs. And the missing three intruders - attacking Mr Sayadi from behind. The wizard’s Shield Charm was being overwhelmed as they arrived.

    Ari dashed forward, bowling one of them over, then raked him with her claws.

    Ron conjured a wall between them and Mr Sayadi, sealing off the roof, and jumped to the side. A yellow curse splashed against his Shield Charm, followed by a brown one that left pools of acid on the floor. He rolled over his shoulder and kept rolling, then jumped up and returned fire with two Piercing Curses followed by a conjured cloud of green mist - harmless, but they didn’t know that, judging by how they scrambled to avoid it. Ari caught them in the flank, but they dived through the next door before either she or Ron could hit them.

    “Hear anyone else?” he asked, looking around with his wand ready to cast.

    She frowned, changed and changed back after a few seconds. “Lockhart. Says the enemy fled.”

    A moment later, the wizard Ari had just savaged vanished - Portkey, Ron realised.

    *****​

    “Indeed, in hindsight it’s obvious.”

    Five minutes later, with Sayadi treated and out of danger, Lockhart shook his head in the remains of the man’s living room. “I should have blocked Portkeys. We would have prisoners to interrogate.”

    If it weren’t Lockhart, Ron Weasley would have told him that no one thought of blocking Portkeys. Generally, attackers did that to keep their victims from fleeing - Ron hadn’t even tried apparating. But Lockhart? A little humbling could only do the man some good.

    “Who were those attackers?” Ron asked. “They all wore the same black robes.” He drew a hissing breath when he remembered where he had seen those robes before. “Storm Wizard robes!”

    Lockhart shook his head. “They were much too young to be real Storm Wizards. Probably wands for hire who wanted to appear more dangerous than they were. It’s not uncommon among younger mercenaries. No, the real problem is that it seems someone has put a price on my friend’s head.”

    Mallory, who had spent the fight hiding in his room, nodded. “And a hefty one, if almost twenty mercenaries were willing to attack him.”

    Lockhart agreed. “I concur. Even if this is merely a misunderstanding, which my next book can clear up, this is a problem. Such determined foes will surely try again.” He shook his head. “And with the protections on the house broken, they will have an easier time, too - unless we do something.”

    Ron wanted to groan. They needed Mr Sayadi to translate the skull’s words. That meant they needed to keep him safe.

    Which would be difficult. Very difficult.

    “And there’s the matter of the missing princess,” Lockhart added. “She gave me a magic mirror so we could converse in her absence, but she is not responding to my attempts to contact her.”

    Fortunately, Lockhart was too far away from them to overhear Ari’s muttered “Good riddance!”

    *****​
     
    inky, TheEyes, Najdrox and 3 others like this.
  4. RedX

    RedX Know what you're doing yet?

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    Huh. The plot thickens.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: The Valley of the Jinn
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 13: The Valley of the Jinn

    ‘While wizards have been working as mercenaries for centuries, today’s mercenaries are a far cry from those of the days of the Condottieri or the Landsknechte. Today’s mercenaries, with the exception of those working in North America, rarely fight in wars but instead work as bodyguards, bounty hunters or even criminals. The term ‘hired wands’, despite its muggle roots, fits the current mercenary scene very well. Few wizarding governments are fond of mercenaries, and most consider them troublemakers at best, criminals at worst - not least because after both Grindelwald’s War and the Blood War in Britain, many Storm Wizards, as well as a number of Voldemort’s supporters, fled Europe and became mercenaries, contributing to the generally poor reputation of the profession.
    However, mercenaries have their uses, even today, for both individuals and governments. That the various wizarding enclaves in North America are always recruiting mercenaries for their wars is widely known. It is also an open secret that Bulgaria, Romania and Greece are spending significant sums of gold in order to ensure that the Balkan mercenaries, especially the Albanians, fight the Ottomans instead of raiding their own countries. And a magical individual doing business of any sort in the Mediterranean, Africa or the Caribbean would be well-advised to hire a decent number of bodyguards unless they are a duellist of renown.
    Nevertheless, and despite some novels romanticising the profession, most mercenary work is illegal or at least tied to employers of dubious stature - but it can be very lucrative, especially if one engages in the time-honoured tradition of plunder. Many a young wizard or witch from an impoverished family has managed to restore the family fortune with a talent for duelling and a penchant for looting - something few dare mention in their home countries, of course, especially in those countries where duels are still common.’
    - Excerpt from ‘I Was a Hired Wand - Twenty Years as a Mercenary’ by Herbert Steiner, Berlin, 2000


    *****​

    Tunisia, Wizarding Tunis, House of Omar Sayadi, September 28th, 2001

    “Leave you alone for two days, and this is the result.”

    Hermione Granger pressed her lips together and rolled her eyes at Harry’s comment as she studied Mr Sayadi’s house. It didn’t look damaged, but the wards had been broken, and there were spots on the ground behind the gate where the grass had been destroyed. “What happened?” she asked Ron.

    “It wasn’t my fault!” he replied.

    “I wasn’t asking whose fault it was - although I cannot fail but note that you were quick to defend yourself despite not being accused, which is suspicious - but what happened.” She glared at him.

    “Mercenaries tried to kidnap Sayadi,” Ari answered. “We drove them off.”

    “What she said. Hired wands, or so it seemed - all wore the same robes and sigil. Wannabe Storm Wizards according to Lockhart,” Ron elaborated. “They almost destroyed the house.”

    Hermione wasn’t certain she’d trust Lockhart’s judgement.

    “And stupid spirit’s missing,” Ari went on.

    “What?” Hermione looked at her, narrowing her eyes.

    “Tahira’s missing, according to Lockhart - he can’t reach her,” Ron explained. “And I don’t think she merely grew tired of him.”

    Hermione agreed with that assessment. The jinni princess was rather obsessive, in her experience. But that wasn’t their problem any more. “So we need to protect Mr Sayadi while he works for us,” she said.

    Ron nodded. “We’ve been working on adding some protections, but…” He sighed.

    Hermione nodded. Restoring the wards would require a lot more work and take a long time, no matter whether they tried to do it themselves or Mr Sayadi hired specialists.

    “We’d better move him to a safe, secret place,” Harry said.

    “If he agrees,” Ron replied. “He’s a proud man. He looked more angry than afraid, even though he was stunned during the attack and almost kidnapped.”

    “Great,” Hermione muttered. Another unreasonably proud wizard. Lockhart, Mr Sayadi - all they were missing were a bunch of Fleur’s relatives.

    Ron shrugged. “Well, Mallory’s alive and unhurt. He sat the whole attack out in his room.”

    Hermione frowned. That was a smart move, if not the most courageous. However… “Do you think he might be behind the attack?”

    Ron tilted his head. “I don’t know. Someone might be tracking him, somehow - first the attack on his house, now this?”

    “You think he could have hired the mercenaries?” Harry asked with a frown.

    “He stinks!” Ari said.

    “It’s possible. But without any proof…” Ron trailed off.

    “He could have done worse if he were a traitor,” Hermione pointed out. “He could have betrayed us to Bey.”

    “That is true,” Harry admitted. Ron nodded as well.

    Ari scowled. “I don’t trust him.”

    “Neither do we,” Ron told her. “But suspicion is not enough to take action.”

    The other witch huffed. “Should be enough.”

    “We’ll take precautions, though,” Harry said. “As usual.”

    Of course they would.

    *****​

    As Harry Potter had feared after listening to Ron, Mr Sayadi wasn’t keen on going into hiding.

    “Leaving?” The older wizard shook his head. “People would think I am a coward for letting foreign thieves drive me out of my home.”

    “But the house currently isn’t safe,” Hermione pointed out. “The protections are gone. The attackers could, if they returned, strike far more quickly and easily at you.”

    “We would need to muster more guards and be ready at all times,” Harry added.

    Mr Sayadi looked like he was considering doing exactly that. “Gold is not much of a hindrance,” he said after a moment.

    “But can you trust whoever you hire?” Harry asked. “The attackers were mercenaries as well, according to Mr Lockhart.”

    Lockhart nodded. “Indeed. Not as unskilled as the usual rabble using that attire to appear more dangerous, but a far cry from actual Storm Wizards. Why, I still remember an encounter with one when I was younger - I would have perished if I hadn’t managed to lure the witch into a trapped hallway in the wizard’s tomb she was trying to plunder.”

    “I think any mercenary with a few decades of experience would be dangerous,” Hermione said. “No matter their past.”

    “Oh, of course.” Lockhart’s ever-present smile didn’t waver. “But their knowledge of dark curses remains without peer among their fellow wands for hire.”

    “Only if you discount former Death Eaters,” Harry retorted with a thin smile.

    Now Lockhart frowned a little - for a moment. “But the real Death Eaters went back to their Dark Lord and were killed in that unpleasant scuffle in Britain a few years ago.”

    “We know,” Harry cut in before the man could spin another tale. “We were there, after all, fighting them in Britain and Egypt. My aunt managed to trap the Dark Lord himself.”

    “Ah, yes, Petunia.” This time, Lockhart’s smile looked forced. “What an impressive woman.”

    “I’ll say!” Harry beamed at Lockhart.

    The git cleared his throat. “But enough reminiscing. We have two urgent matters to deal with.”

    “Two?” Ari frowned.

    “Yes. My friend is in danger of being kidnapped - or worse - and Miss Tahira is missing. I fear she has been abducted again.”

    And they still needed Mr Sayadi’s help with the Atlantean skull. But, as much as Harry wanted to, pointing that out seemed rather callous when two people were in danger. Even if one of them was Tahira. And it wasn’t as if they could hope that Mr Sayadi would be able to work for them if he had to fear another kidnapping attempt.

    Harry glanced at Hermione and Ron - Ari’s opinion was obvious. Hermione was frowning, and Ron looked resigned. In other words, they had come to the same conclusion: They would have to help again.

    But this time they wouldn’t follow Lockhart’s plan.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, September 29th, 2001

    “Ahead of us lies the fabled Valley of the Jinn!” Lockhart decreed. “Shrouded in mystery, no mortal has set foot into the homeplace of the jinn in centuries! We might be the first...”

    “Actually, I’ve been here before,” Ron said. “Tahira showed me her home.”

    Ari scoffed at that, but the witch didn’t comment further. Which was a relief - she had been quite vocal earlier.

    “And I know traders who travel to the valley with some regularity,” Mr Sayadi added with a faint smile.

    Harry Potter chuckled at the expression on Lockhart’s face. The man was pouting. “That doesn’t make for a heroic scene, though,” he complained.

    “I’m certain that you will manage,” Hermione said, with a fake smile.

    “Oh, of course I will,” Lockhart replied. “I’m a bestselling author, after all.”

    “Of course.” Hermione’s reply was dripping with sarcasm, but the git seemed to take her words at face value.

    “But we should focus on our task - our tasks - at hand. We might have persuaded the mysterious attackers that Omar has left his home to hunt them down, but we cannot depend on our plan working.”

    “Our plan?” Harry coughed. It had been his plan. His and Ron’s.

    “Well, we are all in this together, aren’t we?” Lockhart nodded in response to his own question. “One for all, and all for one!”

    “For two, in this case,” Harry said. “We’re here to find out what has happened to Tahira, and to protect Mr Sayadi.”

    “As much as he can be protected in the middle of nowhere,” Mallory said, pointedly looking around. “At least the manor had some protections.”

    “It’s not the middle of nowhere,” Ron replied, “but the entrance to the Valley of the Jinn - and they have quite impressive protections. Not to mention an entire Clan of Jinn who don’t look kindly on people attacking their guests.”

    “That relies on us actually being granted hospitality by the very people who were hunting you but a few days ago,” Mallory retorted.

    “Oh, Miss Tahira has settled things - she told me so,” Lockhart said. “And why wouldn’t they grant us hospitality when we’re coming to help save her?”

    “Right,” Ron said. “Let’s go and meet the guards.”

    *****​

    “She took you home to meet parents?”

    When he heard Ari’s question, Ron Weasley winced before turning to look at her. He knew that tone. “She wanted to show me her home. Probably to show off since she’s a princess of her clan.”

    “Ah.” Ari nodded but didn’t lose her scowl.

    “But I never took her home to meet my parents,” Ron added with a smile.

    “She wasn’t banished from her tribe,” Ari replied. She was looking at him with an expression he had seldom seen on her face - almost vulnerable.

    Ah. “That doesn’t matter,” Ron said, reaching out to grab her hand and gently pull her closer. “I love you. And I want to be with you.”

    “And have a family?”

    He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

    She hugged him, hard. Then they kissed.

    Harry cleared his throat, but Ron ignored him. His friend could wait, or kiss Hermione. This was more important.

    Hermione cleared her throat as well. “I don’t like to interrupt your public displays of affection...”

    Ari broke the kiss and scowled at her. “Then don’t!”

    Ron closed his eyes and sighed. “Thank you for ruining the moment,” he mumbled.

    “Those were five minutes, not a moment,” Harry replied. As if that mattered! “And you’re the only one who actually knows where the valley is located.”

    Ron sighed again. That was true. And he knew where the entrance was - well, he would recognise it when he saw it.

    Which might take a while - the mountain area they had to search was quite large, after all.

    *****​

    “There it is!” Ron Weasley declared, pointing ahead.

    “Really?” Harry sounded a little sceptical.

    Ron nodded emphatically. “Yes. I recognise the trees there.”

    “Like you recognised the gorge?”

    “I said it looked similar,” Ron corrected him. “I didn’t say it was the same.”

    Harry snorted, but Ron was already moving towards the gorge. “The guards are inside a hidden cave right behind the wardline.” He flicked his wand, casting a detection spell - it would be embarrassing if he wandered into the area covered by the spells hiding the valley and ended up confounded. Yes, there was the wardline - the spells were as… No, they weren’t.

    He frowned. “Someone tampered with the wards on the entrance.”

    “Are you certain?” Hermione took a step forward, casting the same spell.

    “Yes,” Ron said, even though he knew his friend would still verify it herself.

    “It looks like the valley might not be as safe as we hoped,” Mallory said with a thin smile.

    “Indeed!” Lockhart agreed. “It looks like the jinn might need our help!”

    “Yes. Someone broke through the wards,” Hermione said. “The Muggle-Repelling Charms and the Unplottable Charms were left alone, but the charms against intruders were broken.”

    “I knew it!” Lockhart declared. “And the absence of the guards… This is likely to be a much greater calamity than a mere kidnapping!”

    As much as Ron loathed the man’s flamboyant manner, he had to agree that this was worse than expected. “Yes.”

    “We must make haste!” Lockhart ran off - into the valley.

    Ron cursed. “Stop! They might mistake us for the attackers!”

    The git actually did stop but shook his head as he turned back to face him. “Nonsense! We both are known to them, aren’t we? You were here, and my reputation precedes me!”

    Ron blinked. He had known the git was arrogant, but to go that far… Of course. “Tahira told you that, didn’t she?”

    “Indeed. To think that even creatures as old and wise as the jinn read my books…” Lockhart sighed with a smile.

    “Stupid lying spirit,” Ari muttered.

    Ron nodded. Tahira didn’t think twice about being ‘creative’ with the truth when it served her whims.

    “We can’t stay out here, though,” Mallory pointed out. “If whoever broke through the wards is still in the valley, they might leave the same way they came.”

    And hiding elsewhere might be dangerous as well if the mercenaries had a way to track Mr Sayadi.

    Ari sniffed the air, then changed and changed back. “Blood.” She pointed at the rock hiding the guards’ cave.

    “I guess that decides it,” Harry said. “Let’s go see if there’s anything we can do.”

    There wasn’t. The four jinn manning the post were dead - one of them cut into tiny pieces spread out over dried blood, another untouched, but dead. Killing Curse, Ron guessed. And two looked like they had rotted where they fell.

    “Killing Curse,” Hermione confirmed after checking on the untouched corpse.

    Even Lockhart looked less eager to rush off now. “These are some very powerful dark curses. We aren’t facing ordinary dark wizards.” He shook his head. “And yet, we need to press on. If their guards were as easily killed as this seems to indicate, then the villagers will be in even greater danger.”

    Ron couldn’t argue with that. He glanced at his friends. Harry and Hermione looked grim, but they wouldn’t back off now. And Ari was sneering. “Stinks,” she said.

    “It’s a rotting curse. A very powerful one, by the looks of it,” Ron replied.

    “No, not those.” She nodded at the jinni who had been cut to pieces. “This one stinks.” She glanced around and added: “Like Mallory.”

    What? Ron looked at Mallory.

    Ari sniffed the air again. “Yes. Same stink.”

    “They smell the same?” Ron frowned without taking his eyes off the older wizard. That was very weird.

    Hermione knelt down next to the dried blood and scattered body parts, waving her wand while Harry not-so-subtly positioned himself between her and Mallory, Ron noticed.

    “You wouldn’t be a zombie, would you?” Lockhart asked Mallory. “I thought the tales of zombies able to wield wands were just myths.”

    “What?” Mallory looked around, and his expression showed he didn’t like what he saw, in Ron’s opinion. “No, I am not a zombie! Those are mere myths.”

    “He doesn’t stink like a zombie,” Ari confirmed. “Different stink.”

    “Stench,” Ron corrected her.

    “Different stench,” she repeated herself.

    “This was a dark curse, not merely an advanced cutting curse,” Hermione said as she stood. “I haven’t seen it before, but the residue on the cuts is distinct.”

    “I see.” Mallory looked calmer than Ron had expected. “I didn’t want to reveal it, but I’m the victim of a dark curse, and I need to regularly imbibe special potions to keep its effects at bay.”

    “You were struck by a delayed dark cutting curse?” Hermione sounded doubtful.

    “Not exactly,” Mallory replied. “But I assume that the curse which struck me uses some similar mechanics to prevent magical healing as this curse.” He nodded at the mess on the ground. “The dark wizard who cursed me was killed shortly afterwards by a friend of mine, so I was unable to find out anything about it.”

    Lockhart nodded slowly. “And you couldn’t get him to tell you the counter-curse.”

    “If there even is a counter-curse,” Mallory replied. “I haven’t found anything. It’s part of the reason I am so invested in Atlantean lore - they might have known spells that could help me.”

    “What about the houngans?” Hermione asked. “They have obscure lore as well, and…”

    “I’d rather die than deal with them,” Mallory interrupted her.

    Ah. Ron winced at the vehemence in the wizards statement. Ari sniffed and wrinkled her nose - almost sneering.

    “Well, with that settled, we should continue,” Lockhart said. “People - jinn - might need our help.”

    “Indeed,” Mr Sayadi added. “Lead on, Mr Weasley.”

    Right. Fortunately, Tahira had given him a tour during their visit last year. Ron would be able to find the village. Probably. “Follow me.”

    It took Ron an hour, all told, to reach the village. He blamed the Extension Charms with which the jinn had covered the valley. Harry, of course, blamed his sense of direction. Hermione, his memory. Ari blamed Tahira.

    But they reached the village anyway. Only, the mysterious attackers had reached it as well - the defences that kept it safe and hidden were gone. Ron could see the houses and caves lining the cliffs on both sides, and the small lake in the middle, surrounded by the spires forming their temple.

    And he could see half a dozen bodies on the ground. Not just jinn - dark-robed, black-robed wizards as well. And a violent battle in the air.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, September 29th, 2001

    Hermione Granger had heard Ron’s description of the Village of the Jinn last year. How the houses and caves were only accessible through the air - easy to access for a species able to fly. And how the temple’s spires seemed to touch the sky despite not rising past the mountains to either side. She had thought it would be mostly illusions - the jinn were famous for mastering veils and deceptions, after all. But to see it with her own eyes...

    If only they were here as visitors, instead of intruders happening upon a battle - she would love to analyse the spells on the temple.

    But there were jinn and what looked like harpies fighting in the air, and dead bodies on the ground. Bodies wearing Grindelwald’s sigil - like the mercenaries who had attacked Mr Sayadi’s home.

    “It seems that my lies to my neighbours about going to hunt my assailants down turned out to be the truth, after all,” Mr Sayadi said, sounding bemused. “Truly, the gods work in mysterious ways.”

    “Life writes the best plots,” Lockhart added in his pretentious tone. “I should know.”

    Hermione rolled her eyes - Lockhart’s plots bore only a passing resemblance to what had actually happened in reality, from what she had been able to check. “Currently, we’re dealing with this!” She pointed at the battle in the air, where dozens of jinn fought with double the number of harpies.

    “There are no mercenaries up there,” Harry said. “This must be a distraction.”

    “Yes,” Ron agreed. “Send harpies after the families, force the jinn to defend themselves and strike at your actual target while they are busy fighting. And harpies are traditional enemies of the jinn.”

    “The relics,” Hermione concluded.

    “Exactly.” Ron pointed at the temple. “They’re supposed to be in there.”

    “Then we need to make our way to the temple,” Lockhart said. “The jinn seem to have the battle in the sky in hand.”

    Hermione hated to agree with the pompous wizard, but he had a point. And if they were seen fighting the mercenaries, then the jinn would be less likely to attack them.

    At least she hoped that would be the case - she didn’t trust the jinn to be very reasonable after an attack on their village. But they couldn’t let the mercenaries get away with this. Or the relics.

    They rushed towards the temple, only stopping briefly to check if there were wounded among the dead - there weren’t. Above them, claws and innate magic met wands and innate powers. Hermione was certain that the jinn would win despite the numerical odds - there were dozens of dead harpies on the ground, conjured ones she hoped - but it would take time.

    “There are guards at the temple!” Ron yelled as they crossed the valley and reached the small forest that had grown around the lake, surrounding the temple.

    “I smell jinn blood,” Ari replied. “And curse stench.”

    Which meant most, if not all, of the guards would be already dead, Hermione knew. And there would be mercenaries guarding the approaches and looking out for jinn. Harry held up a hand before they broke the cover of the trees.

    “What?” Lockhart asked.

    “There will at least be lookouts,” Harry explained. “Disillusioned.”

    “Ah.” Lockhart nodded. “Nothing a Human-presence-revealing Spell cannot deal with.”

    Hermione bit her lower lip. That spell had a rather short range. And if they disillusioned themselves, friendly fire would become likely. From the jinn or themselves. “We need to spot them before they spot us,” she said.

    “Ari?” Harry asked.

    Ari nodded. A moment later, she had changed, Ron had disillusioned her, and a jaguar sprinted around the lake, sand being thrown up by her paws, heading towards the biggest spire, where Ron had said the entrance would be.

    Despite knowing that the spire was out of range, Hermione still kept an eye on it. A harpy fell into the lake, screaming, followed by another. That might spoil the water if nothing is done about it, she thought. Then snorted - she couldn’t let herself get distracted. Not now.

    Ari appeared at the foot of the spire, waving. That meant the way was clear. Harry started to rush towards the spire, and she followed. But no lookout? Had the mercenaries already left?

    No. They had left one, Hermione realised as she reached the spire and saw the body. Ari had dealt with the witch as she had dealt with Captain Ryan. Hermione winced, then thought of the dead jinn and clenched her teeth. These mercenaries were worse than bandits - and she knew how to deal with bandits.

    “Weird,” Harry commented. “The entrance is on the ground floor. And the stairs lead downwards.”

    That was indeed weird - jinn tended to build up, including their entrances. “It might not have been built by the jinn,” she suggested.

    “I think we can discuss architecture after we have dealt with the mercenaries,” Lockhart said. He was breathing a little hard, but far less so than Mr Sayadi and Mr Mallory.

    Hermione hated to agree with the man. So she didn’t. But she followed Harry to the entrance. The spire was hollow inside - with many ledges and a golden, glowing ball hanging from the very top. But the stairs led down, into the basement.

    “More blood. And stench.” Ari wrinkled her nose.

    “Onward then!” Lockhart was positively beaming. Hermione couldn’t believe it - it had to be an act.

    But the man went down the stairs, leading with his wand.

    “Guess we don’t need a pig,” Ron whispered. Ari snickered, and Hermione had to struggle not to giggle.

    But then explosions erupted below, and smoke billowed up. Hermione cast a Bubble-Head Charm and followed Harry and the others downstairs, clearing the smoke with a Wind-Gust Charm until they reached the entrance to the basement, next to which Lockhart was standing, his back pressed against the wall.

    “A dozen dark wizards are inside, trying to get through the protections on the second set of stairs,” he whispered.

    “A dozen?” Hermione heard Mr Mallory mutter.

    “We have the advantage of surprise.” Lockhart must have heard the man as well. “And we bested them before.” He raised his wand.

    “Hermione, walls!” Harry snapped.

    Then they charged inside, spells flying from the tips of their wands.

    *****​

    Harry Potter sent a pair of Blasting Curses at the dark wizards in the centre of the room as he entered, then threw himself to the side and rolled over his shoulder. A moment later, a wall appeared in front of him, and Hermione joined him behind it, followed by Ron and Ari, as splinters and shards hit the wall.

    “Hah!” he heard Lockhart yell, followed by another explosion.

    A quick glance over his shoulder showed that Lockhart had jumped behind one of the pillars in the room - and where the door had been was now a crater.

    “Reinforcing!” Hermione snapped. Harry scrambled forward, turning around the wall which doubled in size - and then turned into a green liquid that filled the entire room and splashed against their Shield Charms. Someone among the mercenaries was either talented or experienced enough to use Transfiguration on such a scale in battle. That was bad. Very bad.

    “Wave!” Harry yelled, and flicked his wand down, causing the stone floor to well up and travel towards the dark wizards like a stone tsunami - pushing the acid back towards them as well.

    The stone wave disappeared halfway to the enemy, but the acid kept flowing, and Harry saw at least two people get hit by the flood before Hermione conjured another wall and broke line of sight.

    They kept moving while the fireworks Ron had lit went off, covering the other half of the room in thick, green smoke. Harry slid to the edge of the wall and rounded the corner, just in time to catch one of the mercenaries who tried to avoid the coloured smoke with a Piercing Curse and a Bludgeoning Curse. The first shattered the man’s shield, the second threw him against the wall behind, hard enough to break multiple bones.

    Another doubled over, struck by one of Ari’s curses after Ron had dealt with their Shield Charm. Then a stone shelter covered the entire group, just before it shook as if it had been struck by an earthquake.

    “Bombarda,” Hermione explained. He saw that she was panting as she flicked her wand - strengthening and repairing the stone and metal shielding them. “Three… two… one…” she started.

    Harry hissed and dropped into a crouch.

    “...zero!” The shelter suddenly vanished, broken into several parts which shot towards the enemy, propelled forward by Hermione. Most didn’t reach them, though - curses flying towards Harry and his friends struck them, blowing them up in clouds of dust and smoke.

    Harry saw another dark-robed witch fall, struck by a curse he didn’t recognise - Lockhart’s work? He glanced to his side and saw the man dodge behind the pillar again - which was for some reason still standing. Reinforced, somehow.

    Ron and Ari took out yet another dark witch who had exposed herself, and Hermione made the ground rise in a slope in front of them, shielding them from the next wave of acid, as Harry drove a pair of the enemies back into their own conjured cover with a Blasting Curse.

    But what was the transfiguration specialist doing? Harry wondered as he sent more spells at the enemy. Someone with their skill wouldn’t remain idle. Had they been killed or disabled already?

    Harry doubted it. And were the other enemies retreating? No, they were… what was that cloud forming?

    His eyes widened when he realised what was happening, and he frantically whipped his wand around, conjuring a steel cage around his friends and himself. “Stay inside!” he yelled before someone could dispel it.

    And then the room lit up as arcs of electricity filled it. Harry heard Lockhart scream, but his attention was focused on the lightning dancing over the cage he had created. If he had made a mistake… But the cage held, and Hermione’s wall hid them from view.

    And then large copper spikes appeared, grounding the lightning. “Hah!” he heard Hermione exclaim and grinned.

    But Lockhart… had disappeared. Harry couldn’t see him any more.

    Then the wall shielding them shattered, and rock fragments pelted their Shield Charms, driving them back.

    “Who is that?” Ron yelled as they took cover behind a hastily reinforced pillar. “That’s not a normal mercenary!”

    Harry had come to that conclusion already. “I know,” he replied.

    “You know him?” Ari asked.

    There was no time to explain. A few Blasting Curses and conjured clouds of smoke covered them while Hermione conjured another shelter and Ron sent a wave of poisonous scarabs at the enemy - a favourite spell of Bill’s.

    But another lightning cloud, smaller this time, fried them before they could reach their target. Things weren’t looking good at all, but with a little...

    “Intruders!”

    “No! We are trying to stop the thieves! Please! He’s wounded! Plea..urck...”

    That was Mr Sayadi.

    Harry muttered a curse moments before a dozen jinn flew through the entrance, weapons and wands raised. And with the mercenaries hidden in the clouds of smoke he and his friends had conjured, it looked like there was no choice but to defend themselves against the furious jinn...

    Ron yelled: “Watch out, Zaid! There are dark wizards! Thieves!”

    The jinn stopped. Harry released his breath. Perhaps things would...

    “You! The traitor!”

    ...get worse. Hermione raised a wall as the jinn launched spells and arrows at them.

    “Zaid! We are fighting the thieves!” Ron yelled again.

    “Stupid spirits!” Harry heard Ari mutter.

    A Blasting Curse shook the wall, followed by screaming filling the room - the dark wizards had struck at the jinn.

    “Murderers! Get them!”

    Now arrows and curses flew towards the dark wizards. Harry used the opportunity and waved his friends forward, sending more curses through the thinning smoke. Another of the mercenaries fell, blood erupting where Harry’s Cutting Curse had sliced into him.

    A cloud of acid briefly held them back until Hermione dispelled it and Ron fired off some more fireworks to disorient the enemies, but just when they were about to flank the mercenaries, more jinn poured into the room. A moment later, the walls and floor suddenly grew spikes that formed a barrier, cutting off the mercenaries.

    “Rückzug!” Harry heard a voice command - amplified - as he started to break through the barrier. “They’re escaping!” he yelled.

    “Impossible - there is no other exit!” one of the jinn yelled back.

    But when they broke through the barrier, they found a hole in the ceiling leading to the surface. And a ten foot tall Tahira in dark robes, coming straight at them.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley jumped to the side even before he realised who was charging them, but the huge jinni still clipped his Shield Charm, shattering it and sending him flying to the side. Rolling over his shoulder, he winced when the shards from the shattered barrier dug into his torso. Jumping up, he almost lost his footing in the rubble as Tahira crashed into the jinn gathered at the breach. Most of them scattered in all directions, but she rammed one and smashed him into the back wall.

    “Traitor!” Zaid yelled - the jinni really liked jumping to conclusions, Ron thought as he took a step forward and recast his Shield Charm.

    “She must have been bound,” Hermione yelled from the other side of the breach. Where was Harry?

    Ron didn’t see his friend. And couldn’t search for him - Ari had changed and was charging straight towards Tahira, who had shrunk a little and was evading several attacks by the other jinn with manoeuvres that would make Krum take notes.

    And Ron’s love ran straight into the midst of this, heedless of the dozen spells and arrows flying! He cursed and aimed his wand - if he hit Tahira with a Stunner, they could capture her and sort this out. Just had to box her in. And avoid hitting Ari by mistake.

    “Acid wave!”

    That was Harry!

    Ron whirled and saw him conjure a wall into the hole the mercenaries had created - only for the stone to blacken almost immediately, then starting to crumble.

    But Hermione was already casting, and another stone slab blocked the acid - or whatever it was that was eating through solid stone. “Keep it up!” she yelled.

    That meant Harry and Hermione would be busy. And Ron had to protect them as they worked on dealing with the acid. Which meant taking out Tahira. And keeping the jinn from cursing them - accidentally or on purpose.

    And keeping Ari alive - the jaguar leapt at Tahira, dragging the screaming jinni down to the ground in a tangle of fur and limbs.

    And fire - Tahira practically exploded, flames shooting out of her skin, and Ari roared with pain as she was flung away, smoking, by a wild swing of her opponent. Ron sent a few Stunners at Tahira as he rushed towards Ari, but all missed when the jinni took to the air again. Then Ari rolled on to all four feet, snapped up her wand and charged again before he could reach her.

    Meanwhile, Tahira, looking like a giant made of fire, had slammed two more jinn into walls, leaving them dazed and smoking. And at least one more had been hit by an arrow, he noticed.

    “Ari! No!” Ron yelled - but the witch leapt on the remains of a pedestal, then pounced from there, straight at Tahira, who was still surrounded by flames.

    But at the apex of her jump, she changed, flicking her wand, and a stream of water hit the jinni princess, pushing her back - and out of the way of a volley of spells, including Ron’s next Stunner. Though it also extinguished the flames pouring out of her, and as she spluttered and roared in rage, Ari changed again and bit down on Tahira’s wand arm. The jinni’s screams seemed to make the walls shake, and once more the jaguar was sent flying, this time hitting the ground harder.

    Ron cursed and changed direction - and saw Tahira flying at the dazed-looking Ari. A flick of his wand conjured an angled stone wall, and the jinni crashed into it at full speed, then bounced off into the ceiling.

    And was finally hit by half a dozen spells that took her down. Ron added an Incarcerous Spell before he reached Ari. She was back on her feet, limping, but seemed determined to go and maul Tahira.

    Ron wrapped his arms around her neck, hugging her and holding her back - or trying to. “It’s OK, she’s out. We won!” he blurted out as he felt himself being dragged over the stone floor. “You won! Please stop!”

    Just as he feared he would have to stun her as well, she finally stopped, looked at him and growled.

    “You won!” he repeated. “She’s beaten.”

    Ari growled once more, then huffed and changed back. And hissed in pain. “Broke my leg,” she said. “Lost my wand.”

    Ron glanced down. Her legs seemed fine. Oh. Foreleg. A quick charm set and mended the bone. Instead of smiling, though, Ari hissed again - at the jinn surrounding them.

    “You thieves!” Zaid, looking more than a little battered, snapped.

    “Thieves? We were hunting these men!” Ron retorted. “They attacked us at Mr Sayadi’s house! When we found the dead guards at the valley’s entrance, we rushed here and caught them.”

    “A likely story,” Zaid replied.

    “True story,” Ari added. “Stupid spirit!”

    That didn’t really help. Not at all. “And you bring one of the cursed here?” Zaid spat.

    “Cursed?” Ari growled. “I’m no cursed, you stupid ball of smoke! I’m a jaguar!”

    “I know what you are!” Zaid replied. “Our clan remembers!”

    That seemed to surprise Ari as much as it did Ron. “What?” he asked. “How could you know her? She’s from the other side of the world!”

    “We remember,” Zaid said.

    “And we just saved your temple!” Harry cut in.

    Ron looked up. Harry and Hermione were standing in the breach, wands not quite raised at the jinn. Behind them, a giant block of obsidian reached to the ceiling.

    “We kept the alchemical acid at bay until I managed to neutralise it,” Hermione explained. “Otherwise, it would have dissolved everything in this room, and probably the floor below.”

    Zaid looked like he was about to refute her claim - Ron was wincing already; Hermione didn’t like to be contradicted in such matters at the best of times, much less right after a close fight - but another voice interrupted them before things could escalate.

    “Enough!”

    “Elder!” Zaid gasped at the oldest-looking jinni Ron had ever seen. “This is dangerous; you should not be here.”

    “It is dangerous indeed - but not for the reasons you think,” the old jinni said. “My granddaughter has been cursed, and our sanctuary was breached. Relics were taken.”

    “But she’s one of the cursed!”

    “No, I’m not!” Ari snarled. “It’s not even full moon, you stupid smokestack!”

    “He means you carry the curse of the Atlanteans,” the old jinni explained.

    “What?” Once more, both Ron and Ari were surprised. As were Harry and Hermione, by the looks of it.

    “Let us discuss somewhere a little more comfortable. There are many wounded in need of help as well,” the old jinni said.

    It sounded more like an order than an offer. And there were a lot more jinn filling the stairway, Ron realised.

    *****​

    The jinn knew what Ari and her tribe were? Or claimed to? Hermione Granger wasn’t certain if she believed that. Why hadn’t Tahira recognised Ari’s tribe, then? But she certainly wanted to hear this.

    They followed the old jinni - who hadn’t given his name yet - out of the room and up the stairs, escorted - or guarded - by about two dozen jinn. Not the best odds, if this turned sour.

    “Where are the others who were with us?” Harry asked. “Mallory, Lockhart, Mr Sayadi?”

    “They were taken to the village under guard,” one of the other jinn replied.

    “And treatment,” the old jinni added, “for the wounded.”

    So Lockhart had survived. Good - the man was a fool and a glory hound, but he also tried to be a hero. Hermione just hoped that the jinn wouldn’t salvage Lockhart’s certainly bruised ego. The man could do with some humility. Or humiliation.

    The reached the top of the stairs, leaving the spire - and Hermione winced at the sight of the ground littered with dead harpies and stains and spots where jinn had crashed into the ground, if she wasn’t mistaken.

    “We won, but at great cost,” the old jinni said. “We weren’t as prepared as we should have been.”

    Hermione nodded. She wasn’t about to offer any meaningless platitudes, and there wasn’t anything she could say to that.

    The stopped halfway between the lake and the northern cliff. Hermione pulled her broom out right away, then met the eyes of a jinni who had taken a step closer until he looked away. She wouldn’t be carried up.

    Harry and Ron, with Ari clinging to him, were already in the air, of course, following the old jinni. Half a minute later, they entered an opulent room far too big for the space available between the doors on the cliff - the jinn had certainly mastered Extension Charms.

    “I am Ali al-Jinn,” the old jinni said as he took a seat on a cushion in the centre of the room, then waved his hand and a dozen more cushions appeared arrayed in front of him. “Please have a seat.”

    They did. He hadn’t offered them their hospitality, Hermione noted. That was far more alarming than the dozen guards with them. And he had given his name as ‘Ali of the Jinn family’. If that was his real name, he certainly was older than Hermione had expected. If not… well, she couldn’t fault him for being careful.

    “Where are you taking Tahira?” Ron asked.

    “To a secure cell,” the old jinni replied. “She is being magically controlled.”

    “The ring that bound her was destroyed,” Ron said.

    “She wasn’t bound,” al-Jinn said, “but put under a curse.”

    “The Imperius Curse?” Harry asked.

    “I believe so.” Al-Jinn inclined his head. “That would make it hard to break even for talented young people like yourselves.”

    “There’s an easy way to break that curse - but we would have to pay the goblins,” Harry said. “The Thief’s Downfall.”

    “I see.” Al-Jinn nodded. “But before we further discuss my descendant, let us discuss your presence in this valley.”

    “And your claims about Ari,” Ron retorted.

    “It’s our home,” al-Jinn replied.

    Hermione cleared her throat before Ron could insist. “We came to the valley at Mr Lockhart’s behest because Tahira had gone missing and we had been attacked in Mr Sayadi’s home by mercenaries - the same men who attacked you. Once we found the guards dead we knew you were under attack, and rushed to help.”

    “A very noble deed, given the dangers.” Al-Jinn inclined his head. “But then, Mr Lockhart has a reputation.”

    Hermione forced herself to keep smiling instead of frowning. At least Lockhart wasn’t here to hear this. “Yes, he does,” she replied. “He was our teacher at Hogwarts.”

    “Ah.” The jinni’s smile grew a little. “You have a reputation as well,” he said. “Although a somewhat colourful one,” he added with a nod at Ron.

    “Thanks to Tahira,” Ron replied. “That wasn’t my fault.”

    “She is passionate and proud; the fire runs strong in her blood.”

    Ari snorted. “And the air runs strong in her head!”

    Hermione tensed, but the old jinni laughed. “You would say that, I assume,” he said.

    “Yes. Why did you call me cursed?” she growled.

    “Because your people were cursed by the Atlanteans,” he retorted. “Their blood was mixed with those of animals with the help of dark curses, in an attempt to create the perfect slaves.”

    Ari hissed. “Lies! We are jaguars given human form!”

    Al-Jinn blinked. “That is what I said, isn’t it?”

    “No! You said we were cursed - we weren’t!”

    “Semantics aside, you seem to be very familiar with the Atlanteans,” Harry cut in.

    “We remember them, better than anyone else. We remember their magic and their greed. And how they fought and schemed,” al-Jinn replied. “My grandfather fought them in his youth, defending our lands and kin against them, and he told me all about them.”

    “And about the relics,” Harry said, “which the thieves stole.”

    “And in which you are very interested.”

    “We’re interested in knowledge about the Atlanteans. We aren’t interested in owning their relics,” Hermione said.

    “That kind of knowledge is very dangerous.”

    “We have been attacked by those mercenaries, and by others. Ignorance is more dangerous,” Hermione retorted.

    “And trusting the wrong kind of people with the wrong kind of knowledge endangers us all.”

    “We do not want to harm you; we came to help you,” Harry said.

    “Sharing an enemy doesn’t make us friends,” al-Jinn pointed out. “How can we know that we can trust you?”

    “I can’t help but suspect that this is a question for which you already have the answer,” Harry said in a flat tone.

    She tensed even more when al-Jinn laughed again. “Indeed, young man, I have the answer,” he said. “There is a test for you.”

    Hermione was certain that this wouldn’t be the kind of test she loved to take.

    *****​
     
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  6. RedX

    RedX Know what you're doing yet?

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    I'm very much getting an 'RPG adventuring party' vibe here, on top of the 'action movie' one. Indeed, while an action movie has perhaps four or five big set-pieces, an RPG adventure keeps them steadily coming for the duration of the story arc- hook->mystery->combat->breather->combat->breather->*etc*->confrontation->reveal. (Sometimes reveal->confrontation.) Was that intentional?

    Anyway, excellent as always, looking forward to more!
     
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  7. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    I'm aiming for an action-rich plot. The rpg-like complications are consequences of previous actions, mostly.
     
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  8. Pahan

    Pahan Know what you're doing yet?

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    "No expose self! Only I expose to Ron!" shouted Ari angrily.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: Egyptian Reunions
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 14: Egyptian Reunions

    ‘The Magical Ottoman Empire and the jinn have had a very complicated relationship throughout most of their shared history. The different clans of the jinn were fiercely independent and resisted all attempts to integrate them into the Empire. The border conflicts this spawned continued long after the Statue of Secrecy was established, and the jinn were the first among the Empire’s subjects to reject the claim of the Magical Ottoman Empire to all of the magical lands within the borders of the old Ottoman Empire. They were also the first to succeed - and unlike the Balkan countries, whose struggles would be supported by Magical Russia and Magical Poland, the jinn had no allies. On the contrary, as magical creatures, they faced opposition and even hostility from the International Confederation of Wizards. Furthermore, the jinn were not even united - their various clans fought separately, without coordinating their actions.
    So, then, why did their attempt at secession succeed? The usual answer given, that the jinn were so powerful and experienced that the Ottoman wizards were defeated despite their numbers, is obviously incorrect. If that were the case, the jinn would have never fallen, less than two centuries previously, under the Ottoman Empire’s power in the first place. Nor was it disinterest among the Ottomans that led to the jinn’s success - the Sultan and his advisors and officers were aware of the precedent would be set by their secession, and spent considerable time trying to subdue the rebellions until they finally acknowledged that they could not do so. Finally, the theories that the Sultan was seduced by a jinni princess and granted her people peace in exchange for her love, or that the jinn used relics of a forgotten age to cow the Ottomans lack even a shred of supporting evidence and are best relegated to cheap novels.
    No, this question, as is often the case in history, does not have a single answer. Instead, a multitude of factors were collectively responsible for the jinn’s success. Firstly, the jinn generally lived far away from the main population centres of the Empire - in mountain valleys and deserts, which had not much value for the muggles and therefore weren’t settled before the Statue of Secrecy. And while the Ottoman wizards knew little about these areas, the jinn were familiar with them - and had layered them with spells and traps, using their mastery of illusion to great effect. Secondly, the jinn, while vulnerable to magical means of controlling them, could fly much faster and were far more agile than the flying carpets and brooms available at the time, granting them superior tactical mobility. Their mastery of fire and air might not have been nearly as versatile as a wand, but when put against inexperienced young wizards and witches, it granted the jinn quite the advantage.
    Further, while the jinn lacked allies, the Magical Ottoman Empire certainly didn’t lack enemies. Beset on all sides by new magical nations, the Ottomans quickly became hard-pressed just to defend their core territories. And finally, the jinn had support from human wizards desiring more independence - some of the provincial leaders, the Bey of Tunis first among them, made deals with them long before the Sultan’s government opened negotiations.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Rise and Fall of the Magical Ottoman Empire’ by Lyndon Snyder, London, 1981


    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, September 29th, 2001

    “And what exactly is this test?” Harry Potter asked, narrowing his eyes at al-Jinn.

    “We’ll use the very relics you desire,” the old jinni replied with a toothy smile.

    “What do these relics do?” Hermione immediately asked. “We’re not going to subject Harry to any sort of magical torture or binding!”

    Harry pressed his lips together for a moment. That was his decision, not hers. Although he had to admit that if they swapped places, he’d be likely to react in the same way. Still…

    “He will not be bound or compelled, rest assured,” al-Jinn said.

    “That would be more reassuring if you had offered us your hospitality,” Hermione snapped.

    Harry could almost feel the tension rise in the room. Jinn shifted positions, wands were not quite raised and eyes narrowed. If things got out of hand…

    “Your word that you’re speaking the truth will suffice,” Ron said.

    Al-Jinn stared at Harry’s friend for several seconds before slowly nodding. “You have my word.”

    It seemed that Harry had to trust that Ron knew what he was doing. Well, he generally did - and there wasn’t a witch involved this time. Apart from Ari.

    And if the jinn had wanted to betray them, they could have done so in the temple basement. Or ambushed them in the valley with their entire clan. Still… Harry couldn’t help but have a bad feeling about this.

    Al-Jinn stood up - well, floated up. Show-off. “Follow me then - just you.” He nodded at Harry. “The test is a very private matter.”

    “Alright,” Harry replied before Hermione could object again. He saw her clench her teeth and flashed a smile at her as their eyes met, then followed al-Jinn out of the room.

    A quick flight took them back to the temple - for his age, the jinni was remarkably fast. And if he were holding back, playing the role of a frail old wizard, as Dumbledore liked to at times… Well, Harry wouldn’t like to fight him.

    They entered the temple, al-Jinn leading the way. A dozen jinn bowed as he passed, most of them glaring at Harry. And, in the basement, al-Jinn went straight to the sealed door leading further down, where Zaid stood.

    To Harry’s surprise, the other jinni didn’t sneer at him, but simply stepped aside and let them pass through the open door. Harry couldn’t help feeling disappointed that he hadn’t been able to observe how the door was opened. Just in case.

    The stairway behind it was far narrower, and looked far older than the one above, Harry noted as they slowly made their way downwards until they reached a small room with a massive door - a vault.

    A vault made from a single piece of crystal, it seemed - coloured red. Harry narrowed his eyes. He could make out some shapes behind the door. If he squinted, he could almost see through it…

    The door swung open, and he blinked. Al-Jinn smiled. “You’re not the first one to be fascinated by the door.”

    “Ah.” Harry nodded, but his eyes were glued to the pedestals inside the vault. Tablets, urns - and a floating, glowing staff.

    “Our most powerful relic - able to raise islands and cause earthquakes,” al-Jinn said. “The Staff of the Atlanteans.”

    Harry hissed. An Atlantean relic!

    “But we’re here for this.” The jinni held up a rod. “This will…” He blinked. “No - the thieves have returned!” He whirled. “We must…”

    A Cutting Curse that sliced open his side interrupted him. Dark wizards appeared in the anteroom. Harry was about to send a curse at them, but the groaning jinni gestured, and the crystal door swung shut.

    “Let me heal you!” Harry waved his wand, but the bleeding wound didn’t close.

    “Dark curse,” al-Jinn muttered. “It’s no use.” He coughed blood. “The staff… they cannot have it. Take it and go.”

    “What?” Harry stared at the dying jinni.

    “Take the staff. Point it at the ceiling, and will the earth to part. Then fly up and get it to Zaid. He needs it. He will... He will…”

    Al-Jinn fell silent and slumped over.

    Harry cast a quick diagnosis charm; it confirmed what he already knew. He clenched his teeth and looked at the door. He could see the dark wizards attacking it. And he spotted the hairline cracks forming; it wouldn’t hold them back for much longer.

    He took a step back and turned towards the floating staff. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached out and grabbed it.

    And shivered as his entire body seemed to tingle. Power. This was… He took a few deep breaths. The power…

    A cracking sound made him whirl round. The door was about to shatter, judging by the hundreds of cracks forming a spiderweb all over its surface.

    There was no choice. Harry pointed the tip of the staff at the ceiling and imagined a shaft opening to the surface.

    And there it was. He could see the sky above. Now he needed his broom… Or did he?

    He imagined himself flying - and shot up the shaft, laughing despite the situation. This was… He shook his head. No wonder the dark wizards wanted the staff.

    But when he flew out of the shaft, into the sky, he winced. Corpses littered the ground - jinn, this time. Dark wizards and witches, dozens of them, fighting and killing the villagers everywhere. Hermione! Ron!

    “Harry!” He turned and saw his friends flying away on a carpet, two dark wizards on their heels. One, now - Ron had hit one with a Bludgeoning Curse. “We’re retreating; we cannot protect the wounded,” he heard Hermione’s voice from his enchanted pin. “Come to us!”

    But… Harry looked around. There was Zaid, fighting in the midst of a shrinking group of guards, surrounded by dark wizards. The jinn had lost. Were lost. And then Zaid fell, clutching his side. Like al-Jinn.

    More jinn fell. A dark wizard flew at Harry and was blasted into a red mist before Harry realised what he was doing.

    Zaid spotted him, reaching out with a blood-covered arm. He wanted the staff.

    But could he use it? He was dying.

    Al-Jinn. Zaid… the dark wizards. Harry could take the staff. Save the remaining jinn. Then borrow it.

    No! He clenched his teeth and shot down towards Zaid…

    ...and found himself sitting in front of the crystal vault. Next to a smiling al-Jinn.

    Ah!

    He closed his eyes and slowly breathed in, forcing himself to relax. And not to lash out at the smug bastard. After a few seconds, he looked at al-Jinn again. “I thought the jinn were masters of illusion, not hypnotism.”

    “That is true,” the old jinni replied. “But this is a relic - as I told you.”

    “You also said I wouldn’t be put under a magical compulsion.”

    “You were not controlled - your mind was merely fooled, aided by your recent memories, to make you think what you were experiencing was real.”

    Harry snorted. Indeed, you had to watch the exact wording when making deals with jinn. “I assume that the staff I saw isn’t actually inside the vault.”

    “The relic tailors the test to the individual being tested.”

    That was a non-answer if Harry had ever heard one. And he had heard quite a number of them at Hogwarts. “I passed, then.”

    “You did.”

    “So…” Harry looked at al-Jinn.

    “So now I will offer you my hospitality.”

    Harry swallowed his first response. Bloody jinn!

    *****​

    “Be welcome in our valley.” Al-Jinn bowed his head.

    “Thank you for your hospitality,” Ron Weasley said, together with his friends, Mr Sayadi, Lockhart and Mallory. He didn’t think that al-Jinn missed Harry’s sarcastic tone, nor Hermione’s glare, but the old jinni ignored both.

    “And you have our thanks for helping us fight those thieves.”

    Ron nodded in return. “And you have ours for treating those of us who were wounded helping you.” His smile was polite, nothing more.

    “It was the least we could do,” al-Jinn replied.

    “Yes,” Hermione replied with a thin smile.

    Ron cleared his throat before things could deteriorate. Jinn were a little too prickly about their honour for this. “So, now that you know you can trust us, let us talk about our shared enemies.”

    “The thieves.”

    “To be precise, they were mercenaries trying to pass themselves off as Storm Wizards despite their young age,” Lockhart cut in.

    Ron suppressed a frown. Apparently, getting cursed hadn’t fazed Lockhart for long, and the man was already trying to be the centre of attention again.

    “Their leader was neither young nor inexperienced,” Hermione pointed out.

    “Yes,” Harry agreed. “Transfiguration on that scale? In battle? There are not many wizards who can pull that off. And he was wearing the same robes.” He shook his head.

    “If he was an actual Storm Wizard, then it would stand to reason that he would become quite talented after gaining decades of experience,” al-Jinn said.

    “Even then that kind of skill would be exceptional,” Harry replied.

    “We’ve trained with Dumbledore and his friends,” Ron added. “And even among them, few would use transfiguration with that much skill.”

    “Herbert Kohlmeier!” Lockhart exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “The lightning and the mastery of the Dark Arts - it fits!” He nodded. “Of course, it would have taken the Butcher of Silesia to defeat me in such a manner.”

    “He hasn’t been seen since Grindelwald’s defeat,” Hermione said, pursing her lips. Probably angry at herself for not making the connection before Lockhart, Ron thought.

    “But his death hasn’t been confirmed, either. And there were persistent rumours that he had found a refuge in Jamaica,” Lockhart replied. “Ah! Now that I am forewarned, our next battle will be epic!”

    “He is one of Grindelwald’s followers then?” Al-Jinn tilted his head slightly.

    “He was one of his most infamous followers - he was called the ‘Schlächter von Schlesien’ because of the vast number of people he sacrificed in his dark rituals,” Hermione said. “He didn’t take to the field often, but when he did, he was said to call down lightning on his enemies.”

    “Exactly,” Lockhart agreed. “A very dangerous foe - infamous as well. His defeat will make headlines everywhere!”

    “If it actually was Kohlmeier,” Harry said. “We don’t have any real evidence, yet.”

    They had their memories of the man they fought, of course - but they would have to return to Britain to use Dumbledore’s Pensieve. “And we need to break the curse on Tahira, so she can tell us who controlled her,” Ron said.

    “Indeed. Twice now she has been caught - which hints at betrayal,” al-Jinn said.

    “Or stupidity,” Ari muttered.

    Ron glanced at her, wincing slightly. She had remained silent so far, despite her obvious disdain for al-Jinn.

    “My granddaughter is quick to anger, but she isn’t stupid. And she wouldn’t have travelled through the air to the valley. She would have apparated. Now, she might have been on an errand in Tunis, but I don’t believe so - not after having just regained her freedom. She would have made haste to inform me of her ordeal,” al-Jinn said.

    Ron reached out and squeezed Ari’s arm before she could point out that Tahira hadn’t taken off right away after being freed, but had spent considerable time with Lockhart first.

    “Indeed - she is as compassionate as she is passionate,” Lockhart said, nodding. “If she were forced to reveal your clan’s secrets, she would have rushed to tell you.”

    “Oh, she isn’t aware of the more important secrets,” al-Jinn said. “None of the younger jinn who travel outside the valley are. The risk of someone binding them and forcing them to betray us is just too high. That is why she couldn’t disable the protections on the temple.”

    “Ah.” Sensible, Ron thought.

    “Wisdom comes with age,” al-Jinn said. “You mentioned that you knew a way to break the curse on her without the risk of breaking her mind. The Thief’s Downfall, I believe - an apt name for such an undertaking.”

    Ron nodded. “Yes, we did. Using that, we can break the curse safely and free her - again.” His smile grew. “It would set us back in our own, important quest, but I am certain we can come to an agreement.”

    Turnabout was fair play.

    “I can help her!” Lockhart said.

    Ron’s smile slipped.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger pressed her lips together as Lockhart once again tried to ruin their plans. Why couldn’t he have had the grace to still be unconscious?

    “I am moved by your willingness to help my granddaughter,” al-Jinn said, “but I have to decline your offer. You see, Tahira, the jewel of my eye, has a weakness for attractive men, and her current state will only make her more vulnerable.”

    Lockhart gaped. “Are you insinuating that I would take advantage of the princess’s vulnerability? Do you think me such a cad, to stoop so low?” He even put his hand on his heart.

    “No, he knows her,” Ari said, sneering.

    Hermione tensed and glared at her. Insulting your host’s family wasn’t a smart thing to do. Since Ari ignored her, she glared at Ron for good measure.

    Al-Jinn, though, chuckled. “Tahira is very passionate - most jinn are, at that age.”

    Hermione saw Ron nod and Ari huff and grab his hand - quite hard, judging by his slight wince.

    “I assure you, sir, that I am a perfect gentleman,” Lockhart said, his back ramrod straight.

    “You mean my granddaughter’s charms would not be enough to sway you?” Al-Jinn raised an eyebrow.

    Lockhart shook his head. “I’ve withstood far greater temptations. Why, even the dances of the Nagas of India failed to seduce me!”

    “And yet you fell for a Veela,” Harry said with a sneer. “And cheated on Auntie,” he added under his breath.

    “That, I think, clinches it - Tahira would never accept being bested by a Veela.” Al-Jinn slowly shook his head. “It is best if someone else takes her to the goblins.”

    Hermione took note of the slight emphasis the jinni put on ‘Veela’, but there were more urgent subjects to be discussed. “With Mr Lockhart disqualified on the grounds of being too attractive,” she said - noticing how the man actually preened at that, “it falls to us, as the obvious choice to escort Tahira to the goblins. Although, as my friend pointed out, this will set our own plans back.”

    “And you would like to be compensated for that,” al-Jinn said.

    “Doing the right thing should be its own reward!” Lockhart butted in.

    “Helping each other is the right thing,” Hermione shot back.

    “Indeed,” al-Jinn agreed with a toothy smile. “Although this truth is usually understood, not stated.”

    Hermione forced herself to smile and acknowledged the point with a nod. “As you have no doubt realised, we’re seeking information about Atlantis.” Lockhart would have found that out from Mr Sayadi anyway, once the man finally got around to translating the skull’s words.

    “That is why you are with a descendant of their slaves.”

    “Ari is with us because she is a friend,” Hermione corrected him. “Although I think the fact that you recognised her tribe means you have knowledge of Atlantis.”

    “Priceless knowledge.” Al-Jinn’s smile hadn’t wavered, but he sat a little straighter.

    “Knowledge shared is not knowledge lost - on the contrary, knowledge spread is knowledge preserved,” Hermione retorted.

    “But a secret shared is a secret lost.”

    “That secret seems to have been lost already - those thieves knew where to strike.”

    Al-Jinn inclined his head. “They knew where to look, but they don’t know what we guard.”

    “That is an assumption,” she corrected him. “But you also stand to gain more knowledge if you help us.”

    “Knowledge we haven’t needed so far.”

    “That is another assumption,” she said.

    “And that knowledge might be needed to take revenge on the thieves,” Ron added. “They broke into your home, bound your kin and murdered your people.”

    Al-Jinn slowly nodded, his smile fading. “You assume that you know our customs.”

    “If Tahira went to the lengths she did after she felt wronged by me, I can only imagine what you’ll do in response to this attack,” Ron replied. “Jinn have a reputation, after all.”

    “That is true,” al-Jinn admitted. “Let us make a deal, then. We will share knowledge and help each other to bring those who wronged us to justice.”

    Hermione glanced at her friends. They knew about making deals with jinn. But this might be their best chance to find out what the jinn knew about the Atlanteans. And about Ari’s people. She nodded at Harry.

    “We have a deal,” he said.

    “Very well.” Al-Jinn clapped his hands, and a low table with wine and food appeared between them. “Let us feast then, to seal it. Then we can discuss the details.”

    Hermione smiled and started to eat - after subtly checking for poison, of course, out of habit - even though she really wanted to start working at once. They had already lost too much time.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, September 30th, 2001

    Jinn could be really pragmatic, Harry Potter thought as he saw Tahira. They hadn’t bothered with trying to restrain or control her - instead they had dosed her with the Draught of Living Death and were now floating her out of her grandfather’s house as if she were a piece of luggage.

    Al-Jinn flew towards him, shrinking as he approached. By the time he lightly touched the ground with his feet, he was human-sized. “You have the antidote, I trust.”

    “Of course!” Ron, standing next to Harry, replied, patting his belt. “Safely stashed.”

    “We would have shrunk her so you could transport her more easily,” al-Jinn said, “but that would have required another jinni to travel with you.”

    Yes, ruthless, Harry thought. “We’ll manage,” he said with a polite smile.

    Ari, of course, snorted. Loudly. “Good you didn’t. I might’ve mistaken her for a snack,” she joked. At least Harry hoped that she was joking - the witch really hadn’t gotten along with the jinn.

    Al-Jinn narrowed his eyes at her. “I see you still haven’t risen above your bestial ancestry.”

    Ari’s hiss was unlikely to convince anyone otherwise - at least in Harry’s opinion. He cleared his throat. “No one will be eating anyone. Tahira will be transported in one of our travelling trunks, in a safe and comfortable room.” There was no need to mention that Hermione had furnished the trunk just last night.

    “Very well.” Al-Jinn was smiling widely again. “She’s my favourite granddaughter, as you know.”

    The jinni had mentioned that a few times the previous evening. Harry had gotten the message the first time. “Anyone wishing to harm her will have to go through us,” he said.

    “And through me!” Lockhart, who looked far too perfect for this early in the morning, added as he joined them. “We will defend the princess with our lives!”

    “I expect nothing less,” al-Jinn said - as if Lockhart spoke for everyone. Of course, the old jinni knew that wasn’t the case, but he didn’t seem to care.

    Harry forced himself to keep smiling while Hermione took Tahira into the trunk.

    “I would be less concerned, of course, if you would take my dear granddaughter to Britain instead of to Egypt,” al-Jinn went on. “The Ottomans might not care much for their Egyptian province, but they are still its nominal overlords, and our history with the Ottomans is a little complicated.”

    “We’re aware of that,” Harry reassured him. Hermione had ensured that they knew all about the past struggles of the jinn to win their independence from the Ottomans. And he would have preferred to head back to Britain himself - but then Mr Sayadi would have had trouble with the authorities. And no one, least of all Mr Sayadi himself, thought he would be safe in the valley. If Lockhart hadn’t insisted on ‘seeing the entire affair through’... But he had, and so both were coming with them to Egypt, the closest location with a Thief’s Downfall they knew.

    “Very well.” Al-Jinn inclined his head.

    Harry hated taking a competitor with them - Mallory, who was the only one still not ready to travel, was bad enough by himself - and Lockhart being Lockhart made it worse. “To think that we travelled to Tunis simply to get the help of a linguist. But instead of hiring him, we’ve had to break into a palace, fight a battle in the Valley of the Jinn and are now about to travel to Egypt, to break the curse on a jinni princess.” Something had gone wrong a while ago, Harry knew.

    “And our work isn’t yet done! Those murderous thieves are still at large - led by a true Storm Wizard!” Lockhart exclaimed. “I’ve said it before - this book practically writes itself!”

    Harry clenched his teeth and counted to ten. He couldn’t hex the git.

    “Well, mate, it all made sense at the time,” Ron said, stretching his arms. “Apart from getting up so bloody early,” he added, nodding at the sun which had barely risen above the mountains. “And this time, there won’t be any more delays.”

    Harry nodded, glancing at Mr Sayadi, who was yawning. He would be able to start his work on the way. Well, once they reached Egypt.

    “Unless we find another ‘adventure’ in need of heroes in Egypt,” Hermione, rubbing her neck, said as she left the trunk. A flick of her wand shrank it, and another had it floating towards Harry.

    “What would be the odds of that?” Lockhart beamed at them as if she had been talking to him. Before anyone could answer, the git turned to watch the mountains again, sighing. “Ah, Egypt… I still remember my time as a Curse-Breaker there. Things were simpler, back then. I was merely a talented Curse-Breaker, not yet burdened with my fame.”

    “Before you started writing your books, you mean,” Harry said with a toothy grin as he slipped the shrunken trunk into his enchanted pocket.

    “Exactly! I hadn’t yet realised my many talents.” Lockhart nodded slowly.

    Once more, Harry had to keep from hexing the git. How could anyone be so in love with themselves? Wasn’t there anything that could pierce the man’s ego?

    “Speaking of the past,” Hermione cut in, “Harry’s aunt might be in the camp as well.”

    Harry would have smiled at Lockhart’s expression - if he didn’t have a bad feeling about that reunion himself.

    Auntie hadn’t been happy about their latest adventures, and she hadn’t yet heard about the mess in Tunis.

    Well, she might be too busy with her own expedition to visit the camp.

    *****​

    Egypt, Valley of the Kings, October 1st, 2001

    The Gringotts Curse-Breaker camp in Egypt hadn’t changed much since their last visit, Harry Potter noticed as they landed their flying carpets inside it. He spotted a few new faces among the Curse-Breakers, but he mostly saw people he had known for years - he had lived in the camp until he started primary school and, later, for almost all his summers. And the tents and huts hadn’t changed at all - he could see the slight hollow in the ground that, as a kid, he had used to sneak into the tent behind. Ah, the memories. It almost felt like coming home, he realised with a smile.

    “Ah, the memories! It’s like coming home after a long voyage! You can take the Curse-Breaker out of the camp, but you can’t take the camp out of the Curse-Breaker!”

    Harry’s smile vanished as soon as he heard Lockhart’s words. The bloody git wasn’t just content with ruining Harry’s search for Atlantis, he wanted to ruin his memories as well!

    Ari sniffed the air, then pointed at Ripclaw’s tent. “I smell goblin.”

    “Yes, that’s where the goblin in charge of the camp can usually be found,” Hermione said. “His name is Ripclaw. No, he doesn’t have actual claws.”

    “I know how goblins look.” Ari sniffed. “They don’t have claws.”

    “I meant the weapon - the bagh nakh, or ‘tiger’s claw’,” Hermione explained, then conjured an example.

    “Rather weak tiger,” Ari commented with a frown.

    “They were mostly used as a concealed weapon for self-defence, as far as I know,” Hermione replied. “Among muggles.”

    “Ah.” Ari nodded as if that explained everything. Perhaps it did.

    “Anyway,” Harry said before Hermione could start a discussion about muggle weapons, “we’re here to get Tahira treated, and Ripclaw’s the goblin to ask about that.” Usually the only goblin in the camp as well.

    “Of course. I remember the good fellow fondly!”

    Harry rolled his eyes while Ron coughed. He doubted that Ripclaw remembered Lockhart fondly - the goblin seemed to loathe all Curse-Breakers. Not that it mattered - goblins loved gold more than they hated wizards and witches, and tomb raiding was a highly profitable business for Gringotts. A high-risk profession for their employees, but they probably considered that a bonus.

    Well, that didn’t matter right now. As long as they had the gold to pay - and they had, Harry had ensured that al-Jinn sent enough gold with them - Ripclaw would let them use the Thief’s Downfall he had installed. It had saved a number of Curse-Breakers, but at a high cost, of course.

    And then they could finally…

    “Harry!”

    ...meet Auntie and Sirius.

    Harry smiled widely as he turned to face his aunt and his godfather. He loved them and he knew that they loved him, even though they might occasionally have some differences. Like now, he added to himself when he saw Auntie’s expression.

    “Hello, Petunia, Sirius,” Hermione said.

    “Hello! Ari, Petunia and Sirius, Harry’s aunt and godfather. Petunia, Sirius - this is Ari.” Ron gestured at the witch. “You know Lockhart. This is Mr Mallory, and this is Mr Sayadi.”

    “Hello,” Ari said and sniffed the air. “Dog,” she said.

    Sirius chuckled, but Auntie nodded at the others, glared at Lockhart, which shut the man up as far as Harry could tell, then went and hugged Harry. “You didn’t tell us you’d be coming to visit,” she said with a frown, taking a step back and looking him over as if he had just returned from Hogwarts or a Quidditch match.

    “Well… it was a spontaneous decision. Sort of an emergency,” Harry defended himself. “And we thought you were still on your own expedition.”

    “An emergency? You didn’t start a war or burn down a town, did you?” Auntie asked with an expression that clearly said he better have not.

    Once more, Sirius chuckled. “Oh, I don’t think…”

    “Only a palace,” Ari interrupted him. “And we joined war, didn’t start it.”

    Harry winced as Auntie’s frown deepened. Sirius, though, whistled. “Wow. We never set a palace on fire!”

    “It wasn’t our fault,” Harry quickly replied.

    “And not mine either,” Ron added.

    “Well, technically, all of this wouldn’t have happened if you and Tahira hadn’t had a falling out,” Hermione couldn’t help pointing out.

    “I wouldn’t call that a fault!” Lockhart declared. “Your help in freeing the poor captives from Bey’s harem was invaluable for me, after all!”

    “You broke into a harem?” Sirius exclaimed. “We never did that!”

    “I didn’t!” Harry defended himself. “Hermione and Ari did; I broke into Bey’s vault.”

    “And blew up his palace,” Ron added.

    “That wasn’t my fault. Besides, the Chimaera chasing you did more damage to the palace than my explosives,” Harry retorted.

    “You blew up the palace of the Bey of Tunis and broke into his harem?” Auntie asked in the same tone she had used when Harry had told her about their last trip to Tunis.

    “No. It was his son’s palace and harem,” Ari corrected her.

    That didn’t seem to improve Auntie’s mood at all.

    “It was his idea,” Harry said, pointing at Lockhart.

    He couldn’t help but smile widely when he saw Lockhart freeze, clearly caught between his urge to claim the fame for himself and his self-preservation instincts as Auntie turned towards him.

    Finally, payback!

    *****​

    “So you are responsible for this!”

    “Well… you see, my dear… I merely asked for their help in saving a poor enslaved witch.”

    “Did you just call me ‘dear’?”

    “Petunia! I meant Petunia!”

    “That’s ‘Mrs Black’ to you!”

    “I can speak for myself, Sirius.”

    Ron Weasley didn’t bother to hide his grin as Petunia and Sirius stalked towards Lockhart, who wasn’t looking as confident and self-assured any more.

    “We need help from him,” Ari said, pointing at Mr Sayadi, “and his friend said we needed to help free witches from Bey’s harem to get help.”

    “Really?” Sirius glared at the Tunisian wizard.

    Mr Sayadi’s smile grew a little strained as well, but the man met Sirius’s eyes. “Your children were hardly fazed by the request, nor were they truly forced. We made a deal, nothing more, and they were more than up to the task.” He turned towards Ron and his friends. “You wouldn’t have accepted if you hadn’t been certain that you could do it, would you?”

    “Of course not!” Harry replied, a moment before Petunia said: “Of course they would!”

    “Auntie! Things got a little out of hand, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle!” Harry actually pouted, Ron saw.

    “A little out of hand?”

    “Well… no one got hurt. No one important, at least. Or seriously.”

    “Only Lockhart,” Ari said.

    “My plan worked perfectly. If not for dear Tahira mistaking me for Bey, which was absolutely understandable at the time, everything would have gone according to plan.”

    “Apart from the Chimaera chasing me,” Ron couldn’t help pointing out.

    “I knocked the creature out as soon as I was aware of the problem,” Lockhart replied. “And you led it on a merry chase, indeed.”

    “His plan?” Petunia was glaring at everyone now. “I guess I should be glad he didn’t disguise the lot of you as harem girls to enter the palace.”

    “Only me and Hermione,” Ari said. “Ron and Harry were the slave merchants. Lockhart stayed outside.”

    Petunia blinked, then turned to Lockhart. “You actually did it? You bastard!”

    “I had everything under control!”

    “From outside the wards?”

    “I’m a Curse-Breaker, I can deal with wards!”

    “You’re a bloody egomaniac!” Petunia kneed Lockhart in the groin, but the wizard merely winced and took a step back.
    “Now see here… that was uncalled f…”

    Whatever charm or cup had protected the man’s groin did nothing for his face when Petunia hit him with an uppercut that sent him sprawling. Then she whirled to face Ron and his friends. “And you! What were you thinking!”

    “Not much, I’d think,” Sirius added, and Ron caught him flicking his wand at the groaning Lockhart.

    “We had it under control,” Harry said, frowning.

    “It was a calculated risk,” Hermione added - not quite as helpfully, in Ron’s opinion, as she probably thought. “And we couldn’t have known about the Storm Wizards and the jinn.”

    “Storm Wizards?” Sirius stared at them.

    “Jinn? You didn’t expect the jinn after Ron was chased by their princess and wrecked half of Tunis?” Petunia asked.

    “That wasn’t my fault!” Ron replied reflexively. “Should I have let her catch me?”

    “Was fault of stupid spirit,” Ari added. “Which is now cursed.”

    “You cursed her?” Petunia frowned.

    “No, the Storm Wizards did.”

    “Perhaps we should talk about this in a less public place,” Mallory cut in.

    Ron hated to agree with the man, but he was right.

    *****​

    “...and then we travelled here, using flying carpets and Apparition to get around the protections and guards.”

    While Harry finished retelling the latest events of their expedition, Ron Weasley looked around the inside of Petunia and Sirius’s enchanted Range Rover. Yes, such a car would be perfect for them. Plenty of rooms in the interior, tastefully decorated. Almost as roomy as The Burrow, probably. Not as cosy, though.

    “To sum up: You wrecked the palace of the Bey’s son in Tunis, freed several of his slaves, poisoned his pet, were attacked by wizards led by Kohlmeier - one of the most wanted dark wizards in the world - and then got involved in a war between Kohlmeier’s Storm Wizards and the jinn and are now trying to get a curse on Princess Tahira lifted.”

    “Yes,” Harry said, nodding. “As I said - we have it under control.”

    “You call that control?” Petunia shook her head. “This is worse than anything we did during the war.”

    “Well, I think the trap in the City of the Dead was worse,” Sirius said. “They haven’t been chased by an army of zombies and mummies.”

    Ron had heard of that particular adventure and nodded in agreement.

    “You’re not helping, Sirius,” Petunia told him.

    “Auntie, we can handle it,” Harry said. “All we need is to get Tahira through the Thief’s Downfall, and Mr Sayadi can work on the translation.”

    “And we’re not personae non gratae in Tunis any more,” Ron added.

    “Until the Bey finds out who attacked his son’s harem.” Petunia scoffed.

    “Rescuing the girls was the right thing to do,” Harry said.

    “We don’t dispute that,” Sirius said. “But trusting his plan?” He pointed at Lockhart, who was still staring into his oversized mirror - presumably to check if his face had been healed correctly by Mr Sayadi after Petunia’s blow and Sirius’s Pimple Hex had hit it.

    “It worked!” the man protested without taking his eyes off of his own reflection.

    “No thanks to you!” Petunia snapped.

    “You can’t know that.”

    “Peace, peace!” Mr Sayadi interjected. “We’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

    “I sure hope so,” Mallory said. Turning to Petunia, he added: “Although I think you are being a little overprotective. Mr Potter and his friends are very skilled wizards and witches.”

    “Yes, Auntie!” Harry agreed, then frowned when Petunia glared at him.

    The two stared at each other for a few seconds, then Harry’s aunt sighed. “I just worry about you. All of you.”

    “Well, we’re just doing what you’re doing,” Harry said.

    “That’s why I’m worried,” she replied.

    “And I worry about you,” Harry shot back.

    Ari snorted. “Danger is part of the job, isn’t it?”

    Petunia sighed again and muttered something not complimentary about Ron’s brother.

    “Well, we still have a jinni to save,” Ron said before Petunia could ask who had told Ari one of Bill’s favourite lines, “and a mystery to solve.”

    “And you’re busy with your own expedition, right, Auntie?” Harry asked.

    Ron winced as Petunia’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to get rid of us?” she asked.

    “Not like that!” Harry protested. “But this is our expedition! Our big break!”

    Hermione, of course, nodded in agreement.

    “Don’t you think that having Kohlmeier after you is a little more important than being first in an expedition?” Sirius said.

    “We don’t know that he’s after us,” Hermione pointed out.

    “He’s certainly after Omar!” Lockhart cut in. “I’ve written to several of my mercenary contacts to check if there’s a bounty on anyone’s head. Other than on Kohlmeier himself, of course.”

    “We’re not about to steal your fame,” Petunia said, “but you can’t expect us to sit back and do nothing while you’re caught in the middle of this.”

    “Exactly. Harry - this isn’t some bandit or pirate. This is one of the most infamous dark wizards in the world. If he were after us, we’d ask you for help,” Sirius said.

    “Really?” Harry sounded doubtful. Ron had to agree.

    “Well, you’d want to help us if our positions were reversed, right?” Petunia asked.

    “Of course!” Harry replied, then pressed his lips together and looked at Hermione.

    “More help is better than dying for pride,” Ari said.

    Ron couldn’t argue with that. Before he could agree, he heard a gong.

    “Someone’s at the wards,” Sirius said, drawing his wand. He tapped the window next to him, changing the view from a dune to the camp. “It’s Bill and Fleur.”

    Ron wasn’t sure if he should smile or frown at the news. He loved Bill, but…

    Sirius flicked his wand, and the door of the car’s living room opened, revealing Bill and Fleur. “Come in! Everyone’s here!”

    “Bill!” Ron said, smiling. “Fleur.”

    “Ron!” Bill beamed at him, though Ron didn’t miss how his big brother looked him over, checking for wounds or curses. “Hello, everyone!”

    Ron’s smile slipped a little at the glance from Bill - Ron had been about to make introductions without the prompt. “Everyone - my brother Bill and his wife, Fleur. Bill, Fleur - this is Ari.” He wrapped his arm around her waist, then nodded at the others. “Mr Mallory, Mr Sayadi, and you know Lockhart already.”

    “So this is the witch who finally managed to catch our wild Ron!” Bill smiled at Ari.

    Ari, though, was sniffing the air and staring at Fleur. “Bird.”

    “I’m a Veela,” Fleur corrected her with a glare.

    “She can transform into a bird,” Ron explained, “like you can transform into a jaguar.”

    “We don’t just transform - we are of jaguar blood,” Ari said.

    “And Fleur keeps her clothes when transforming. Most of the time,” Bill added with a grin that earned him a glare from Fleur. Ron wanted to sigh - it had been too much to hope that that particular incident at the family dinner wouldn’t quickly spread to every Weasley who hadn’t been present.

    The French witch, though, was frowning at Mr Sayadi, Ron noticed. “Mr Sayadi insisted on us helping Lockhart save a girl imprisoned in a harem,” he quickly said.

    “Really?” Fleur looked sceptical.

    “Indeed, Mademoiselle,” Mr Sayadi said. “Contrary to my reputation in some circles, I am no friend of slavers.”

    “I can vouch for my friend,” Lockhart spoke up, flashing his smile. “I’m sure you’ve heard of me.”

    “Yes, I have,” Fleur replied, which made Lockhart smile even more. “You claimed you were ‘caught’ by a ‘Veela allure’ even though there is no such thing!” She glared at him.

    “Ah…”

    “That’s exactly what you said when you cheated on me.” Petunia scoffed.

    Lockhart frowned. “That was over twenty years ago! How long will you hold a grudge?”

    Judging by Petunia’s glare, for at least another twenty years, Ron thought. Although that was probably over Lockhart’s recent actions as well.

    “Until you stop being a twit and apologise for cheating on her and trying to steal her fame!” Harry said with a sneer.

    “I wasn’t stealing her fame - my book made her famous!” Lockhart tried to defend himself.

    “As the ‘plucky squib’ you had to save, even though I was the one who had to save you!” Petunia spat.

    “I was doing all the casting!” Lockhart replied.

    “And I was doing all the thinking.”

    “Shouldn’t we focus on saving the princess?”

    “Princess?” Bill frowned, then looked at Ron. “He’s not talking about the jinni, is he?”

    Of course his brother would make the connection from Mr Sayadi’s home to Tahira. “Yes. Tahira got cursed by a Storm Wizard,” Ron explained.

    “Stupid spirit got bound twice!” Ari added.

    Fleur nodded, scoffing. “Jinn are so full of themselves, they always overestimate their power.”

    “And they’re jealous of your beauty,” Bill added with a grin.

    “Of course,” Fleur said with a smirk.

    “But what is this about a Storm Wizard?”

    Harry shrugged. “We’ve been fighting Kohlmeier and his Storm Wizards,” he said, far too nonchalantly in Ron’s opinion - Harry was overdoing the cool Curse-Breaker act again.

    “Kohlmeier? The Butcher of Silesia?” Fleur exclaimed with a gasp.

    “You’ve been fighting him?” Bill stared. “It’s a good thing we came by, then.”

    Ron winced. It was good to see Bill, and he loved his big brother, but… This felt a little too much like Bill coming to their rescue. They weren’t kids any more.

    On the other hand, they could use the help. And at least it was keeping it in the family.

    *****​

    “Lockhart’s taking Tahira to Ripclaw now. Bill and Fleur are showing Ron and Ari around. Mr Mallory is brewing another potion.” At least the man had said that that was what he was going to do before disappearing into his own wizarding tent.

    “And Auntie and Sirius are planning our next step.”

    Hermione Granger nodded as she sat down next to Harry on the bed in ‘their room’. He sounded more than a little bitter. “We need the help,” she said.

    He sighed, staring at the book in his lap. She doubted that he had read a single page. “I wouldn’t mind if they were merely helping,” he said after a moment, turning to look at her with a frown. “But they’re taking over.” He snorted. “Even gave us our own room without asking.”

    “It’s safer,” Hermione said. The Range Rover would spend the night disillusioned and hovering at a random spot in the desert.

    “I know.” Harry pressed his lips together and closed the book, dropping it more than putting it down on the floor.

    She bit her lower lip to refrain from calling him out on it. “And you don’t like it.”

    He sighed again. “We’re not kids any more. We’ve been working as Curse-Breakers for years! And now Auntie and Sirius are taking over.”

    She nodded. “I know.” All their work, and now they would have to share. It vexed her. “But we need the help.”

    He snorted. “This should have been our big discovery. Our expedition.”

    “Financed by Sirius,” she had to point out.

    “No one cares about that when it comes to discoveries.”

    He was right, of course. “Well, they won’t try to steal our fame.” Unlike Lockhart.

    “I know. But they’re already famous - people will think they did the real work, and we tagged along.” Harry slumped.

    She leaned over and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. That was true as well. “It’s not our fault.” That didn’t change it, of course.

    He nodded. “It’s Kohlmeier’s fault. If he weren’t involved, they wouldn’t be so concerned.”

    “Do you think so? They weren’t fine with our Hogwarts expeditions,” she replied. Petunia and Sirius had often overreacted to perfectly sensible activities at Hogwarts.

    “Well… they have to accept that we’re not kids any more, and we know what we’re doing,” Harry said.

    Hermione nodded. But both she and Harry knew perfectly well that that was unlikely - they knew Petunia and Sirius, after all.

    “At least with them focusing on our security, we can work on translating the skull’s words without distractions,” Hermione said. “That should help make up for the time we lost because of Lockhart.”

    “And we’ll get to see the relics in the valley,” Harry added.

    She nodded. With a little luck, that would allow them to crack the secret of Atlantis’s location.

    They were certainly due a little luck after everything they had gone through so far.

    *****​
     
    Izicata, TheEyes, RedX and 3 others like this.
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: Revelations
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 15: Revelations

    ‘The goblins are one of the few intelligent magical species that are both social and civilised and can also procreate with humans, yet are not trusted with wands. The giants are the only other extant magical species which shares those traits - and their number has dwindled to such an extent that many Magizoologists believe they’ll become extinct in a few generations. Other species, even those which are naturally inclined to prey on humans, such as hags and vampires, have adapted to human civilisation soon enough, despite the lapses of particular individuals, and are generally well-integrated into the wizarding nations - arguably more integrated than most muggleborns. The jinn and the Nagas formed tribes, and later nations, which behaved like wizarding nations, trading and forming peaceful relations, and when they waged war, it was against other nations, not wizards in general. They also travel to wizarding countries often.
    Goblins, though, keep to themselves and have such a long history of brutal war against humans - and kept rebelling so often after they were subjugated by the Romans - that, to this day, they aren’t allowed wands. That the goblins became known for their love of gold instead of their love for war is a recent development, following their last rebellion, centuries after Gringotts had been founded, and relations remain tense since the goblins still resent being banned from using wands. However, as long as they continue to isolate themselves and display open hostility towards wizardkind even while doing business with us, allowing them the use of wanded magic would be reckless beyond belief and only invite another rebellion.
    But even without wands goblins remain dangerous. This is perfectly illustrated by the fact that it took them no more than a few decades to not only legalise grave robbing in Egypt but also monopolise it. Even taking the corrupt Ottoman authorities in Egypt into account, this achievement demonstrates how cunning the goblins are - and how greedy. They leave the dangerous business of actually raiding the tombs to foolish wizards and witches while they reap the benefits, keeping most treasures unearthed on those expeditions for themselves in a remarkable display of hypocrisy given their claim that everything crafted belongs to its creator and can only be rented.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Goblins: A history of Violence’ by Arthur Parkinson, London, 1932


    *****​

    Egypt, Valley of the Kings, October 1st, 2001

    “So let’s rest?” Harry Potter tilted his head as he leaned towards Hermione, shifting his body just a little bit so they could kiss.

    “Yes, ‘rest’,” Hermione whispered after they broke off the kiss.

    His hands were already moving towards her shirt when another gong went off in the room, followed by Sirius’s voice: “Ripclaw’s tent just went up in flames!”

    Harry closed his eyes and cursed Tahira.

    “Come on, Harry!” Hermione was already at the door.

    Sighing, he followed her.

    When they stepped out of the Range Rover, half a dozen Curse-Breakers had already gathered and were dowsing the tent with Water-Making Spells. Not just the tent, Harry thought when he noticed a soaked Mr Sayadi and a wet and cursing Ripclaw standing at the edge of the crowd.

    “Lockhart!” the goblin screamed. “You’ll pay for this! I’ll have you reimburse me down to every last Knut, you witless, gutless fool!”

    “Couldn’t happen to a nicer goblin or wizard,” Harry mumbled, loud enough for Sirius to snort, Auntie to frown and Hermione to elbow him.

    “The fire isn’t dying down,” Hermione commented, “despite all the water.”

    Indeed, most of the water seemed to be turning into steam, Harry noticed. Then the tent collapsed - the support structure must have burned or melted. No, a part had been left standing… No.

    “There’s Tahira,” Hermione said, pointing at the smouldering fabric covering what looked like a small giant. “But where’s Lockhart?”

    Harry flicked his wand, casting a Human-presence-revealing Spell. A marker appeared over one of the smaller humps covered by canvas. “There!”

    “Is he…?”

    But the marker was moving, slightly but visibly. And then the canvas parted - a Severing Charm; Harry recognised the effect - and Lockhart stood up. He looked rather singed, but not overly hurt. Looking around with wild eyes, he whirled. “Tahira!”

    “Lockhart! My tent!” Ripclaw screamed, running towards the Curse-Breaker.

    “Tahira!” Lockhart yelled. “Calm down!”

    A pillar of fire and steam replaced the canvas-covered figure in the centre of tent’s remains, and a roar filled the air.

    Harry clenched his teeth at the sudden wave of heat he felt, and he saw Ripclaw stagger back, covering his face with his raised arms. Lockhart, though, stood fast. “Tahira! Calm down! You’re safe!”

    Flames shot out in all directions, followed by billowing smoke. Lockhart’s Shield Charm parted the flames, but it wouldn’t keep out all of the heat, Harry knew.

    “Tahira!”

    Just when it seemed the fool would get consumed by the fire, the flames started to retreat, the fire to fade and the smoke to dissipate, revealing Tahira, ten feet tall. “Gilderoy?”

    Lockhart nodded, then toppled over.

    “Gilderoy!”

    *****​

    “You know, Lockhart really has remarkable dramatic timing,” Hermione said half an hour, lots of screaming and a dozen healing charms cast under the watchful eye of Tahira later. “If I hadn’t cast the Diagnosis Spell myself, I would have suspected him to have faked his collapse.”

    “He didn’t look that hurt,” Harry Potter replied, watching the door behind which Lockhart was recovering.

    “He was dehydrated,” Hermione explained. “His charms weren’t able to completely protect him against the jinni’s heat.”

    “Ah. So all they have to do is to fill him with water?”

    She rolled his eyes at that, but he saw her lips twitch. “They need to rehydrate him.”

    He shrugged. “As long as he survives.” Lockhart was a git, but he had guts. Standing up to a raging jinni…

    “He will. He wasn’t in any serious danger. Unless Tahira had lost control again,” Hermione said.

    “Stupid spirit,” Ari muttered.

    “I almost suspect that her grandfather encourages her to travel just so she doesn’t burn down their home,” Ron said.

    They had a chuckle at that, but before Harry could add to the joke, the door was slammed open, and Tahira stormed into the room.

    “We need to return to the valley at once! There’s a traitor among us!”

    *****​

    “So, the first girl you bring home to meet the ’rents is a half-jaguar witch from the Amazon rainforest.”

    Ron Weasley snorted at Bill’s comment as he rose from where he had been checking the Range Rover’s undercarriage.

    “Fleur and Ari are inside our tent,” Bill answered his question before he could ask it, nodding towards the tent ten yards from them. “We can speak freely.”

    Both chuckled at the joke, though only briefly. “I don’t really have anything to hide from her.”

    “Really?”

    Bill didn’t have to sound so sceptical, in Ron’s opinion. “Really.”

    “Even your past affairs?”

    This time, he rolled his eyes. “I’m not the Casanova of the family.”

    “Well, you certainly gave it a good try after I met Fleur,” Bill replied with a faint grin.

    Ron stared at him, and Bill held up his hands.

    “Sorry. Just trying to lighten the mood a little.”

    “What for?” Sure, they were in a bit of a pickle, but they had the situation under control.

    “Well, Mum’s going to push you towards marriage. She’ll assume you’re serious. She did it with me and Fleur.”

    Ron nodded, watching the camp’s perimeter - the part he could spot from here. “We’ve talked about it, Ari and I.”

    “What?”

    Ron glanced at his brother. Bill looked surprised. “We talked about it. Kids and stuff, you know.”

    “You are serious.”

    Looking at Bill’s expression, Ron was tempted to snap that Sirius was inside the car. “Why are you so surprised?” he asked instead.

    “Well… I mean…” Bill sighed. “Here I was all set to offer you my support and advice, and you’re…” He flicked his hand.

    “I don’t need it, but thanks,” Ron replied with a grin. He wasn’t just emulating his brother.

    Bill snorted at that. “Cocky, are we?”

    “That’s your fault,” Ron shot back with a chuckle.

    “Mum and Petunia think everything you lot did is my fault,” Bill grumbled.

    Ron merely grinned. There were a few advantages to having a big brother like Bill. He made a very good scapegoat, for one. “She’s different,” he said after a moment.

    “Different?”

    “Different from the others.”

    “I’ll say.”

    Ron glared at him. “She’s a genius with languages and a very skilled witch.” Ari wouldn’t take years to lose her accent like Fleur, he was sure of that.

    “I didn’t mean it like that,” Bill replied, holding up his hands again. “Then again, Tahira is a jinni. And then the school of sirens...”

    Ron clenched his teeth. He wouldn’t have minded if that particular story had remained a secret. At least from his siblings. “Is there a point to this?”

    Bill smiled. “Sorry. I’m still trying to get used to the fact that my youngest brother is thinking about marriage and kids.”

    “Fred and George have been in relationships far longer,” Ron pointed out.

    “Well, they’re also two years older than you.”

    That again. “Are you going to talk like that to Ginny as well? She’s younger than I, and she’s been with Luna longer as well.”

    Bill stared at him. “Do I look stupid? You know her!”

    Ron rolled his eyes again, but Bill reached out and clasped his shoulder with a smile. “Hey. I’m just kidding. You know, everyone is proud of you.”

    Ron shrugged his hand off and snorted, but he was smiling as well.

    *****​

    Egypt, Sahara, October 2nd, 2001

    “That traitor! Rahid! He stunned me from behind!” Tahira snarled. “We have to hurry home!”

    “We actually don’t,” Harry said. “I’ve sent a Patronus to inform your grandfather.”

    Ron Weasley, sitting in the Range Rover’s living room next to Ari - between her and the jinni princess, actually - nodded.

    “But we are heading to the Valley of the Jinn,” Hermione added with a slight frown towards them.

    “Not fast enough,” Tahira snapped. “I could fly much faster than this contraption!”

    “So go on!” Ari sneered, exposing her teeth. “Go and get bound a third time, silly smokestack!”

    Fleur, sitting in an only slightly enlarged armchair with Bill, giggled at that, and Tahira snarled at both witches. “You animals think this is amusing?”

    “Yes,” Ari replied.

    “No, they don’t,” Hermione said, glaring at Ron - as if he could do anything about it.

    “We find your impatience and lack of decorum amusing,” Fleur cut in with a smile so smug, Malfoy would have been envious.

    “You…” Tahira growled, and Ron saw wisps of smoke appear around her nose.

    “No fire or growing inside!” Petunia, standing in the doorway, snapped. “And no egging each other on,” she added with a glare at Fleur and Ari. “Really!” She shook her head. “We’re crossing the border to Libya. Do try not to wreck our car.”

    “As long as she doesn’t call me an animal again,” Fleur said with a sniff.

    “But you are, aren’t you?” Ari asked, sounding puzzled. “Bird.”

    “I most certainly am not an animal!” Fleur snapped, glaring at her.

    “Takes one to know one,” Tahira added with a sneer of her own. “Two birds of a feather.”

    “I’m no bird!” Ari protested. “She is. I’m a jaguar!”

    “I’m a Veela, though I assume it’s hard to remember that with only hot air between one’s ears.”

    “You half-breed!”

    “Half-bird you mean,” Ari not-so-helpfully corrected the jinni.

    This was going to be a long trip.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 2nd, 2001

    Finding the Valley of the Jinn from the air would have been more difficult than he had thought, Ron Weasley realised when Tahira ordered them to land in a spot he only recognised as the entrance to the valley after they had touched the ground. He assumed it was hidden by illusions.

    “Can’t we fly inside?” Mallory asked.

    “No.” Tahira shook her head as she stepped out of the Range Rover. “No guest flies into the valley.”

    Ari snorted but - for once - didn’t comment, to Ron’s relief.

    “Typical,” Fleur muttered.

    “A half-breed shouldn’t mind walking; flying is reserved for those who are part air, not part bird.” The jinni scoffed as she walked towards the wardline - which, as a discreet detection spell revealed to Ron, hadn’t yet been completely restored with all its former spells. That would take more time - and it would take much, much more time until the spells had grown powerful with age once more. They had restored the Anti-Apparition Jinxes, though.

    But the guards were there - a dozen of them, this time, two thirds of them in the air. “Halt!”

    “I’ve returned,” Tahira told them in Arabic. “And I bring news of a traitor!”

    “Or a victim like you,” Fleur said.

    “Veela!” the apparent leader of the jinn guards snarled, and wands and arrows were levelled at the French witch.

    Fleur pressed her lips together but faced them with a haughty expression. Bill, of course, backed her up, his wand drawn.

    Sometimes, Ron thought, the French were too brave and proud for their own good.

    “She’s with us,” Harry said. “Family.”

    “Kin,” Hermione added.

    The jinn didn’t lower their weapons, but the tension seemed to lessen. At least a little.

    “Stupid airheads,” Ari muttered under her breath.

    Sometimes, her gift for languages wasn’t very helpful, either.

    “Send for Grandfather!” Tahira snapped. “And go and apprehend Rahid! He is either a traitor or bound!”

    The leader of the guards hesitated a moment, then nodded sharply at one of the flying jinn, who quickly shot off towards their village.

    A few minutes later, al-Jinn landed, flanked by another dozen armed jinn.

    “Grandfather!” Tahira took a step towards him, then stopped.

    Al-Jinn flicked his wand, narrowed his eyes for a moment, then smiled. “Tahira.”

    A moment later, the two were hugging, and Tahira was talking rapidly in Arabic - Ron didn’t catch everything, but ‘Rahid’ was mentioned several times.

    “Thought they couldn’t detect the Imperius Curse,” Ari whispered.

    “It’s very hard to detect,” Hermione replied. “Which makes it even harder to break than it already is, with how deeply it affects the mind.”

    “Without ruining the mind in the process,” Ron added. Al-Jinn had detected it on Tahira before, so he must have known what to look for.

    “Goblins can do it,” Ari pointed out.

    “Yes.” Ron didn’t have to look at his friends to know they were frowning just like he was; that the goblins had an easy way to remove the Imperius Curse - and other curses - but mainly used it to protect Ripclaw’s vault against thieves, not to help out the Curse-Breakers, was a shame. Once someone managed to duplicate the goblin magic, there would be a reckoning.

    “Welcome to our Valley,” al-Jinn said, bowing after Tahira had finally finished her tale and inviting them into the valley. “You have our thanks for freeing my granddaughter.”

    “Again,” Ari said with a snort that made Tahira glare and her grandfather chuckle.

    “But as she has proven, she wasn’t the only one who had been enslaved. I think we need to acquire such a device for the village,” al-Jinn went on.

    “The goblins guard every Thief’s Downfall very carefully,” Bill told him.

    “Which is very selfish of them,” Lockhart said. “To hoard such devices for their own gain… Goblins!”

    “We can pay,” al-Jinn said.

    “They’ll squeeze you for your last Galleon,” Ron added. Goblins were like that.

    “It might be worth it,” al-Jinn replied. “Detecting the Imperius Curse or a binding is a difficult and lengthy task few among us can manage, so we cannot check every member of the Clan in a timely manner. Of course, if we have to pay them with all our treasures, that would also reduce the number of thieves attacking us, I believe.” He chuckled. “But perhaps we’ll merely ask for the right to use one of their devices when our people return to the village.”

    “Well, Ripclaw won’t be very friendly; not after his tent burned down,” Ron said.

    “By her,” Ari added, staring at Tahira.

    Who, judging by al-Jinn’s expression, hadn’t revealed that little detail yet.

    “I lost my temper,” she said, glaring at Ari, who sneered back.

    Al-Jinn sighed. “It seems acquiring access to such a device will be more difficult than I had hoped. More expensive as well, I fear.”

    Which was, in Ron’s experience, perfectly normal when dealing with goblins.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 3rd, 2001

    “If you’ll follow me.” Al-Jinn gestured towards the temple’s spire.

    “Of course.” Hermione Granger nodded in response, smiling widely. Finally, they would be shown the relics that had been left in the Clan’s care! She noted that the field in front of the spire no longer showed any sign of the shaft through which the thieves had escaped. Not even the few tufts of grass looked different compared to the rest of the field. She wanted to cast a detection spell to check whether it was an illusion, but al-Jinn’s path didn’t take them close enough.

    “You will be the first outsiders to see the relics in a thousand years,” he said as they approached the temple.

    “We’re honoured,” Ron replied.

    Hermione swallowed her own reply. If not for them insisting that they be granted access as promised, they still wouldn’t be allowed to study the relics - the old jinni had tried to stall them again by sending everyone back to Egypt to negotiate with the goblins. Fortunately, everybody had had to agree that even without Harry, Ron, Ari and herself, as well as Mr Mallory, the delegation would be safe enough. For once, Lockhart’s ego had worked in their favour since the man couldn’t claim he needed help - especially not when travelling with Petunia, Sirius, Bill and Fleur. And Mr Sayadi, of course, who refused to leave Lockhart’s side.

    “Indeed,” Mr Mallory added.

    She glanced at him; if he looked any more eager, he’d start drooling. They’d have to keep an eye on him.

    “Yes,” Harry added a little belatedly, “though how many have passed your test before?”

    “Oh, a number of people,” al-Jinn answered with a smile.

    “Ah.” Harry’s tone told Hermione that, like herself, he saw through the jinni’s evasive answer.

    Ari sniffed, and not, or not just, to check for scents.

    They entered the spire and headed down the stairs - which were still better guarded than the Valley’s entrance. The room in which they had fought the thieves had been restored as well - including the half a dozen pedestals, now empty, which had held relics. As during Harry’s ‘test’, the door leading downstairs was open already, with Zaid standing guard.

    “Were the relics in this room less important or otherwise distinguished from the remaining ones?” Hermione asked as they approached.

    Al-Jinn glanced at her before answering. “The ones the thieves took were items crafted by our ancestors for the clan.”

    “Which means that the ones below us weren’t made by jinn,” Hermione replied.

    Al-Jinn smiled again. “Perceptive.”

    “Thank you.” She didn’t feel flattered - the deduction was obvious, especially given the jinn’s habit of mincing words.

    “We found them,” he went on.

    “Found them, or looted them?” Harry asked.

    “Both, in a way.”

    The jinni didn’t seem to be able to give a straight answer unless circumstances absolutely demanded it. “From Atlanteans?” Hermione asked.

    Al-Jinn hesitated a second longer, this time, staring at her, before he nodded, his smile turning slightly crooked. “From an Atlantean.”

    “After Atlantis sank.” Hermione met his eyes.

    “What makes you say that?” he asked.

    “They didn’t crush your valley and take them back.”

    He chuckled. “You don’t think highly of our martial prowess. At that time, wizards didn’t wield wands.”

    “Neither did you,” she retorted. “And as impressive as your inherent powers are, the Atlanteans had an empire. Further, the existence of ‘relics’ implies that they had already mastered the art of enchanting items. That would compensate, a little at least, for the lack of wands.” Not to mention that, apparently, creatures like Ari’s people were fighting for them as well.

    He laughed this time. “Well reasoned.”

    She inclined her head in response. And when she caught Harry beaming at her, she couldn’t help smiling back. All of them were getting a little tired of the jinn mincing words.

    Al-Jinn sighed. “Indeed, the Atlanteans and their creatures fought well - many of us died defending our ancestral lands, and, despite their sacrifice, we were forced to retreat. If not for their island sinking, we would have likely been enslaved - by them, or their enemies.”

    “The Greeks and Egyptians,” Hermione replied.

    “Yes. At best we would have turned into clients paying tribute for protection.”

    “Which is why you relocated to the deserts and mountains.” Where the humans wouldn’t follow; not when fertile lands were there to be fought over after the Atlantean Empire had vanished.

    “Yes.” He nodded and led them past Zaid, who hadn’t said a single word so far, down to the next level, where the red crystal vault waited. She didn’t look at it, of course - she wouldn’t put it past the jinni to use the enchantment on the vault to fool her with an illusion. Even if that meant that she couldn’t observe how it was opened.

    Al-Jinn smirked, then turned to the door. Hermione heard Ari sniff once more. “Blood,” the other witch whispered.

    Keyed to al-Jinn’s blood - or his family’s blood, more likely, Hermione thought. Which meant Tahira’s blood would be able to open the vault if the other safeguards were dealt with. She was mulling the possibilities over - as every Curse-Breaker worth their salt would have done when faced with such a situation - until she heard al-Jinn speak.

    “You didn’t trust me?”

    “Just being cautious,” Harry said.

    Hermione was only half-listening. The vault was open in front of her, and she could see several staves on pedestals, a broken globe - and a cauldron.

    Oh, yes! This was exactly what she had been waiting for.

    She entered with a wide smile. The staves varied in length. Two of them were rather short, only about two feet long. The others ranged between five and six feet. Various runes - Atlantean style - covered them, beautifully carved and inlaid with gold, with jewels mounted on the top. And the globe… It was broken, missing a quarter to a third of its mass, but… She cocked her head. Yes. It wasn’t a perfect sphere. Flattened poles - it was a globe. But there were no lands nor seas marked on it. Only runes.

    The cauldron overshadowed everything, though. The size of a jacuzzi, it looked like it was made of solid gold, and it was covered in intricate runes - a spiderweb of delicate lines, far finer than the ones on the staves, covered every inch of its surface, and gems lined the rim. And the spells on it...

    “We’ve lost her.”

    She pressed her lips together and glared at Ron, who grinned back at her. And Harry was smiling as well! She shook her head, huffing, as al-Jinn chuckled.

    “Fascinating, aren’t they? Our heritage, you might say,” the jinni said.

    She understood what he meant. “We’ll be very careful.” Like every Curse-Breaker worth their salt.

    “Zaid will be staying here, in case you need anything.” And to keep an eye on them, of course. Zaid and three others, by the looks of it.

    Hermione didn’t mind - neither she nor her friends had any plans to betray the jinn, and it might deter Mr Mallory from doing something foolish. “Alright.” She turned to look at the group. “Start studying the staves. I’ll take the cauldron.”

    “That should be ‘I’ve taken the cauldron’, shouldn’t it?” Ron just had to add.

    She ignored that feeble joke and looked at Ari.

    “I’ll be guarding you,” the other witch said.

    “Maybe I should I keep watch as well,” Harry suggested.

    “No.” She shook her head again. “We’ll be fine - we’ve dealt with Atlantean wards before.” And they couldn’t take too long over this. Ari could handle any trouble.

    “Alright.” Harry briefly squeezed her hand, before he went over to the first staff while she sat down on a conjured cushion in front of the cauldron - this would take a while.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger twisted her wand, checking the next spell in the intricate weave of spells that covered the cauldron. It was harder than she had thought - she didn’t recognise any of the spells, and barely understood the general purpose of most of them. And those she did… She bit her lower lip. Whatever the cauldron did, it was activated by blood. Lots of blood. And she was certain that its main purpose was related to Transfiguration. But more than that… She exhaled with a huff, closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

    “Trouble?”

    Hermione turned her head and caught Harry smiling at her. “Nothing that I didn’t expect,” she replied. Of course, she had hoped that it would be easier, but that hadn’t been the case. She nodded at the staff in his hands. “What about you?”

    “I figured out how to activate it,” he said, smiling. “But I haven’t tried it out yet.”

    “Of course not.” Inside the vault? That would have been far too dangerous.

    “I think I got this one figured out,” Ron said, waving one of the smaller staffs.

    Hermione looked at Mr Mallory. The older wizard frowned. “The spells are unfamiliar.”

    She hadn’t expected anything else - the man was not a trained Curse-Breaker, and the runes were unfamiliar.

    Ari shrugged. “Nothing.”

    Which was a good report from their guard.

    She looked at Zaid. “Can we test them upstairs?” A little break would do them all good. “To test your results is part of a scientific study.”

    He not-quite-glared at her. “I will ask the Elder.” A glance from him had a jinni fly upstairs.

    A few minutes later, the jinni returned. “The Elder allows it,” she told Zaid.

    Zaid turned and nodded at them. Hermione had to fight not to roll her eyes at the posturing and instead keep smiling. “Thank you,” she said.

    “It’s the Elder’s decision.”

    They made their way upstairs, to the larger room. It had withstood - mostly - a pitched battle between dozens of participants. It certainly should be able to handle a little testing.

    Al-Jinn was there already - as were a dozen jinn, all of them standing and floating at the entrance of the room. Zaid stayed at the stairs leading to the vault with his group.

    Hermione flicked her wand, conjuring a stone statue which had some superficial similarities to a Storm Wizard.

    “Thank you,” Harry said, grinning as he took a step forward and cast a Shield Charm.

    Everyone quickly copied him, and Mr Mallory even took a step back - almost joining Zaid’s group.

    Hermione stood her ground, of course, as Harry levelled the staff at the statue. A moment later, a bolt of fire flew towards it, splashing against its chest in a small shower of flames and sparks. He repeated the action, sending another bolt at the target.

    The runes briefly glowed as the bolt formed and shot forward, Hermione noticed. If that happened with all staves, it would have made using them a little obvious. It didn’t matter with this staff, of course - the bolt of fire was very obvious.

    She conjured a few more targets, wooden ones. The wooden targets were set on fire.

    “Weak,” Ari said.

    “Did you use it correctly?” Mr Mallory asked. “This was… underwhelming.”

    “I did,” Harry replied as he lowered the staff. “And it performed as expected.”

    “What?” Mr Mallory said.

    “The Atlanteans didn’t have wands,” Hermione explained. “None of their contemporaries had them. The staff would have been quite powerful at the time.”

    “Oh.”

    “Indeed,” al-Jinn cut in as he floated towards them. “We often used these staves in battle, but after we acquired wands, they fell out of use.”

    “I guess this one isn’t very powerful either, then,” Ron said, holding up a smaller staff.

    Instead of answering, al-Jinn gestured at the line of targets.

    A moment later, a thin stream of water shot out of the staff, but only reached about ten yards before it hit the ground.

    “A weak variant of the Water-Making Spell,” Ron said.

    “Very valuable in the desert,” Hermione pointed out. Not useful for battling anything but a campfire, though.

    “What a disappointment!” Mr Mallory spat. “I’ll be in my tent.”

    Al-Jinn’s smile widened as the wizard stalked towards the stairs leading upwards. But if he expected Hermione and her friends to join Mr Mallory, al-Jinn would be disappointed.

    She would uncover the cauldron’s secrets.

    *****​

    Hermione was still engrossed in her work, Harry Potter noted when he put down another staff - probably one that discharged lightning, based on his analysis of the spells and runes. She hadn’t moved much during the last few hours, remaining seated on a conjured cushion and staring at the cauldron. At the spells on the cauldron, to be exact.

    “Hey,” he said, softly - as a rule, you didn’t startle Curse-Breakers when they were working, regardless of whether or not they were dealing with wards at the time. “Hey,” he repeated when she didn’t react. “It’s dinner time.”

    She mumbled an intelligible reply without taking her eyes off the cauldron.

    He gently shook his head with a smile - he had expected that. “Hermione, dinner time. You need to eat.”

    “Hm?”

    Progress. “It’s time to take a break for dinner,” he said, a little louder.

    “Oh.” She was blinking now.

    Ron chuckled behind him. “See? Lost in spells.”

    She sniffed in response, then winced and groaned when she tried to stand up after barely moving for hours. Harry held out his hand, and she took it without hesitation - she really had overdone it and she knew it.

    “Thanks,” she said as she stood.

    “Anytime,” he told her.

    “Dinner time,” Ron cut in. “I’m starving.”

    “Yes,” Ari agreed.

    “Didn’t you have some snacks in your pocket?” Hermione asked with a frown.

    “That’s no replacement for a decent meal,” Ron shot back.

    “You also have rations. One of them should replace a full meal,” Hermione pointed out as they walked out of the vault.

    “Given their taste they certainly don’t replace a full meal,” Ron replied. “Well, they sort of do - they make you lose your appetite.”

    “You’ve been spoiled by Molly’s cooking,” Harry said as Zaid and his guards fell in behind them. They hadn’t moved from their posts for hours either, but didn’t show any signs of discomfort. Probably using their innate flying ability to avoid getting tired, he guessed.

    “They don’t have enough meat,” Ari added.

    “They weren’t meant for half-jaguars,” Hermione retorted. “But you can duplicate the meat portions. Although we might need to study whether your human body requires more meat in its diet or not.” Harry could see her blink and frown. “And we should check how you digest food if you change shape - a jaguar’s digestive system isn’t like a human’s, and since your clothes don’t change with your body, would ingested food change? There could be complications if you change after a meal…”

    “No problems with meat,” Ari said. “No matter my shape.”

    “Then your digestive system is different from a normal human’s,” Hermione said, biting her lower lip. “How might that work?”

    “As long as it works,” Ron said, “I don’t much care.”

    Ari nodded. “Always been like that.”

    Harry knew Hermione wouldn’t let that go - not without a distraction. He cast a privacy spell - after all, only a few of the jinn knew what was stored in the temple’s vault - and asked: “So, did you make any progress?”

    Hermione hesitated a moment, then nodded. “I am certain that it wasn’t used to brew potions. There are too many spells affecting the cauldron’s interior for that.”

    He nodded. Even a single spell cast at a cauldron could ruin a potion - Snape’s lessons had driven that point home. Mostly because of Malfoy’s many attempts to sabotage them, of course - Snape himself hadn’t exactly been a model teacher.

    “But apart from that and that it is activated by blood and related to Transfiguration, I haven’t been able to discern anything else,” she continued, frowning. “The runes and spells are very complex.”

    “Weird. The staves aren’t exactly impressive,” Ron said. “Neither complex nor intricate.”

    “They were impressive for their time,” Harry said. “If every Atlantean wizard had such a staff, they must have been a terror on the battlefield. Even more so if people like Ari’s tribe fought in their ranks.” Most ancient cultures had been limited to ritual magic during the Atlantean epoch. Or enchanted weapons and similar solutions.

    “Which they probably did since the jinn recognised you, Ari,” Hermione said.

    Ari scoffed. “Stupid smoke spirits could be lying. We never left our territory.”

    If that was true - Ari’s tribe might not have had the full history - then how had the jinn recognised her nature? “So it looks like the staves were common among Atlanteans, but the cauldron is far more advanced - possibly unique.” Like the Goblet of Fire.

    “What are the chances of a unique magical item surviving the loss of Atlantis?” Hermione asked.

    Harry grinned. “That depends on how many such items they had created.”

    “And they would certainly try to save them,” Ron added. “So, I’d say: A pretty good chance.”

    Hermione nodded. “It’s a well-founded hypothesis.”

    Which meant she agreed but didn’t want to admit it in case she might be wrong, Harry knew. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close. “Let’s eat and hope that the negotiations with the goblins won’t take too long.”

    And that the Storm Wizards didn’t return.

    *****​

    Ari wasn’t her usual self. Ron Weasley could tell at a glance when he saw her sitting outside their tent, staring at the lake in the middle of the valley. She wasn’t as tense as she usually was when expecting a fight - which, given her and the jinn’s attitudes, was normal in the valley. But she wasn’t relaxed either. She was hunched over even as she sat in the sand.

    “Oi!” He sat down next to her.

    “Oi.”

    Ron suppressed a frown. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his side. “What’s wrong?”

    “I’m obsolete,” she answered without looking at him.

    “What?”

    “Like the staves. Obsolete.” She turned her head to frown at him.

    He blinked. Oh.

    “I can change shape, but not with a wand. Not like the dog. Sirius.”

    He nodded. “You can carry it with you, though.”

    “I can’t fight like that, though.” She scowled, baring her teeth. “Not well,” she amended, raising her hand. “Claws are useless against Shield Charms. Fangs, too.”

    “Not useless,” he said. “You did well against Tahira.”

    She shook her head, her long hair swishing over his shoulder. “When we had no wands, we were powerful. Could change and fight, change back - no need to watch a wand. But everyone has wands. We’re obsolete. Like staves. Not like animagi.”

    Ron refrained from sighing. Instead, he gripped her shoulder more tightly, gently squeezing. He knew how she felt. And how she would hate it if he tried to tell her that she still was special.

    “Like jinn. Or sirens.” She growled.

    “You know, I don’t have any inherent power at all,” he told her with a smile. “Am I obsolete as well?” He didn’t give her time to answer. “I’m not. And neither are you. Petunia isn’t even a witch. She can’t use a wand - but she’s a famous tomb raider. Impressive, too.”

    “Not the same.” She scratched the ground with one finger, forming what looked like an Atlantean rune.

    “Essentially, it is the same,” he corrected her. “You’re a great witch, you’ve got a talent for languages.”

    “Feel stupid. Don’t know much. Not enough.”

    Once more, he had to refrain from sighing. “No one knows enough. Not ever. Just ask Hermione.”

    She snorted at that.

    “I’m serious. You aren’t obsolete. None of us is.” He reached over with his free hand and gently turned her face towards him. “And turning into a jaguar and back is cool. With or without clothes.”

    Another snort. She was smiling now. “You like it without clothes.”

    He didn’t deny it. He leaned forward and kissed her instead.

    When he pulled back, both of them were panting. And she was straddling him. And grinning. Toothily.

    “Let’s head to bed!” he said.

    She blinked, then licked her lips, and he could hear a soft growling.

    “Don’t want the jinn to watch.” Or his friends.

    That made her scowl, but she stood.

    Their bedroom was just a few yards inside the tent, anyway.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 4th, 2001

    Hedwig entered the tent a minute after they had started eating breakfast and went straight for the bacon and sausages. Hermione Granger was certain that there was something unnatural about the bird’s timing. She still flicked her wand and stopped the attack with a quickly conjured glass bowl. “No birds on the table during breakfast,” she told her with a stern gaze - which Hedwig ignored.

    “Unless they’re food,” Ari added.

    The post owl didn’t ignore that and hopped over to Harry without letting the witch out of her sight.

    “No eating Hedwig,” Harry muttered. The bird barked in agreement.

    “As long as she doesn’t try to steal our food,” Ron said, chuckling.

    “She did!” Ari said, licking her lips. Hermione hoped that the other witch was joking. On the other hand, Hedwig could do with some humility.

    “See if she ever saves us all again if you treat her like that!” Harry grumbled before feeding the spoiled bird a sausage.

    “That’s probably not good for her,” Hermione pointed out.

    “Rubbish! She knows best what’s good for her! She’s the smartest owl in Britain!” Harry cooed at the preening bird as he took the letter from her leg.

    “What’s it say?” Ron asked, leaning forward.

    Harry opened and skimmed it. “They arrived safely and have started negotiations. Which aren’t going well. Lockhart got a letter from his ‘mercenary contacts’. Apparently, there’s no bounty on Mr Sayadi.”

    Hermione nodded in agreement - she had expected that since Kohlmeier had a very large price on his head himself. He probably would not want to draw such attention from professional bounty hunters. Or Dumbledore.

    “No news yet about possible ties between Bey and Kohlmeier.”

    Hermione doubted that they would find out anything about that in Egypt, or anywhere other than Tunis. “How long do they expect to be in Egypt?”

    “At least a week,” Harry replied.

    That would be enough time to finish their task in the vault. At least she hoped so.

    *****​

    “You didn’t build the temple, did you?” Hermione asked half an hour later when they were on the way to the spire with al-Jinn.

    The jinni cocked his head at her. “Why do you think that?”

    She wanted to roll her eyes at the evasion, but that would have been rude. And have given him an excuse not to answer. “It’s not the same style as the rest of the valley,” she said. “Not even close. And it’s not Atlantean architecture, either,” she added.

    “Ah.” He nodded. “Your reasoning is correct.”

    “Who did it belong to?” Harry asked.

    “A tribe native to the region that was wiped out during the time the Atlanteans tried to conquer the area,” al-Jinn replied.

    He didn’t say they were wiped out by the Atlanteans, Hermione noted. She didn’t push him, though. Neither did Harry. But she kept the titbit in mind. And she was certain that the jinni knew she was doing so.

    She was getting tired of his word games.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 6th, 2001

    “The globe’s broken,” Harry said with a sigh.

    Hermione Granger looked up from where she had been studying the spells on the cauldron’s rim. “That was obvious from the start.”

    “Yes.” He frowned at her.

    “But we hoped that we could repair it,” Ron added.

    Repair an Atlantean relic, created with unknown spells, in two days? Since both of them were now frowning at her, Hermione’s expression must have given away her thoughts on that. “And what did you find out?”

    “There are spells on it that trigger a map of sorts,” Harry explained. He flicked his wand, and a dozen lights appeared on the globe’s surface. “But the spells lack a point of reference, so we can’t be certain if the different locations are actually at the right spots. We can’t even tell if the distances between the lights are correct.”

    Hermione briefly studied the lights. They didn’t conform to any world map she was familiar with.

    Ron held up the crystal ball they had found in the jungle. “And it’s not connected to this one, either. As far as we know, at least. There’s just too much missing of the globe.”

    Especially many of the runes, and the spells anchored on them, Hermione knew. “We haven’t been able to find out anything about the crystal ball.”

    “It was a long shot,” Ron said.

    Magical items weren’t lego bricks you could stick together to build something. On the other hand, the ability to try something new was a good quality for a Curse-Breaker. So she nodded instead of pointing out how futile the attempt had been.

    “How are you doing?” Harry asked.

    Now it was her turn to sigh. “I’m making progress, but it’s slower than I like.”

    “So, a few more days?” Ron grinned at her.

    She glared at him, then pouted when Harry laughed.

    She would crack the cauldron’s secrets.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 8th, 2001

    Hermione Granger narrowed her eyes and bit her lower lip as she leaned forward until her nose almost touched the cauldron’s rim. A flick of her wand lit up the runes lining the inside of the cauldron. Yes, the intricate pattern did match the reference she had found.

    And she wished it didn’t. The spells anchored to the runes forming this pattern weren’t Transfiguration spells. They were linked to them, but they were different.

    Dark.

    She closed her eyes and sat down again, sighing.

    “Don’t worry - you’ll figure it out.”

    She turned her head and looked at Harry, who was smiling at her. He meant well, she knew. Sighing again, she shook her head. “I have figured its purpose out.” She was almost certain, at least.

    “You have?” Harry blinked. “But why are you so…” He trailed off, probably to spare her feelings.

    She chuckled. Once. “I think the cauldron’s used to cross different species.” But in a rather unsavoury manner.

    He frowned. “Like Hagrid does?”

    “Another thing we can do with wands already, along with some potions?” Ron asked.

    “Only partially,” she replied, pointing at the cauldron. “I think it’s used to cross wizards and witches with other species while letting the resulting creature retain the ability to cast spells.” And, presumably, use wands.

    “Oh.” Ron whistled. Ari tensed, Hermione noticed.

    Harry winced. “That’ll be slightly controversial.”

    “Slightly?” Hermione snorted. Many wizards would be frothing at the mouth at the idea of creating new ‘half-breeds’ that could use wands. “That’s not the most controversial part, though. As far as I can tell, it’s powered by sacrifices. It doesn’t make two different species breed with each other - it creates a new life form out of their sacrifices.”

    Both hissed. “You mean…”

    She nodded. “Blood magic. Of the worst kind. And since the new life form would be at least part-human, soul magic as well.”

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2019
    Izicata, TheEyes, RedX and 3 others like this.
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: Death Valley
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 16: Death Valley

    ‘Just as muggles have been breeding animals, so too have wizards been breeding magical creatures for millennia, and for the same reasons - as livestock, guard animals and companions. However, whereas muggles’ attempts to breed superior livestock are limited to natural changes, which are generally small and take generations to significantly improve a species, a wizard’s magic allows for far swifter progress - someone skilled in Transfiguration can transform any animal into the desired creature with a single spell.
    However, creating a new species - an animal that will actually breed and breed true - requires more than a wand and an imagination. Merely changing an animal’s shape will not be enough. A common method is cross-breeding. By using magic to force two different species to mate, any resulting offspring will often share traits from both parent species, although the new animal might be sterile - a desired results for some breeders, as it means their customers won’t be able to breed their own animals.
    Another, although morally questionable, method uses specialised curses. The infamous Quintapeds are a well-known, if unplanned, result of this method. Whereas traditional cross-breeding uses magic to facilitate or enable procreation, such curses force their victims into a new shape, which can result in a new species should the curse be inheritable.
    Blood magic can, in theory, combine the best aspects of both of the other methods, but there are no documented examples of this - although according to rumours, some experiments have been successful, but were kept a secret since blood magic and the Dark Arts are illegal in most civilised wizarding countries.
    Of course, unscrupulous individuals have attempted to cross-breed humans - both muggles and wizards - as well . A number of magical species are thought to have been created by wizards, although most of them deny this - often very violently, such as in the case of the centaurs. However, given the age of most magical species, it is questionable whether such theories are true - magic simply wasn’t sufficiently advanced in ancient times. That neither rumoured nor actual experiments with wizards have ever resulted in a new species able to use wanded magic also contradicts these theories.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Breeding and Crossbreeding - a Guide to Magical Animal Husbandry’ by Walther Smith, London, 1920


    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 8th, 2001

    “Blood and soul magic?” Harry Potter refrained from touching his scar. Like Voldemort…

    Hermione must have seen his hand twitch, though, since she reached out and held it. “Sorry,” she whispered, despite the privacy charm surrounding them.

    “Not your fault,” he replied in a low voice. It was all Voldemort’s fault.

    “What’s wrong?” Ari asked, looking puzzled.

    Harry sighed as both Ron and Hermione looked at him. “I’ve had some bad experiences with soul magic,” he said.

    “Ah.” Ari nodded. “And blood magic?”

    “Mixed.” Auntie had used blood magic - mostly accidentally - against Voldemort, after all. “But both are illegal in Britain.”

    “They are illegal in most countries,” Hermione added.

    “Am I illegal?” Ari asked.

    “What? Certainly not!” Ron exclaimed.

    Harry pressed his lips together - he should have anticipated that Ari would realise what the cauldron meant for her.

    “But this thing was used to create my tribe,” Ari said, pointing at the cauldron. “With blood and soul magic.”

    “That doesn’t mean you’re illegal - you didn’t do anything wrong!” Ron said. He pulled her close and placed a kiss on her head.

    “Further, if anyone were to try to declare you illegal, they would earn the enmity of many other species, such as the centaurs and the merpeople,” Hermione added, “since they probably share your origin.”

    “That wouldn’t stop some of them,” Harry pointed out. “And the Unspeakables might try something out of sheer curiosity.” They certainly seemed to have an unhealthy interest in dark and ancient magic, from what he could tell. And far too many secrets.

    “Dumbledore would stop them,” Hermione said.

    “We would stop them!” Ron snapped.

    “In any case, it might be best if we keep this a secret,” Harry suggested. “People might think we want to duplicate what the Atlanteans did. Kraft would have a field day painting us as dark wizards using blood and soul magic.” It was one thing to be accused of killing a Caribbean smuggler, but using the Dark Arts? After travelling near to Jamaica?

    Hermione nodded. “It will make publishing our finds more difficult, but this is a delicate matter.”

    Ari frowned. “Do we tell Mallory?”

    Harry took a deep breath and glanced at his friends. Ron shook his head, but Hermione was biting her lower lip. “We have an agreement with him,” she said.

    “But we didn’t find this thanks to his help,” Harry replied.

    “Not directly, but indirectly,” she retorted. “It seems like a distinction the jinn would use.”

    That hurt a little, but Harry nodded anyway. “Doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do.”

    “Don’t trust him. Stinks,” Ari said.

    “He’s cursed,” Hermione pointed out.

    “He’s too greedy,” Ron added.

    “So we keep this a secret,” Harry said. “From everyone but family.” He could imagine how Auntie would react if they kept it a secret from them.

    “Alright,” Ron answered.

    “What about the globe?” Ari asked. “Is it illegal as well?”

    Harry glanced at the broken item. “Probably.” Now that he thought about it… a few of the runes and spells made more sense in light of this.

    “Pour blood on it to test it?” Ari cocked her head.

    “Certainly not!” Harry snapped while his friends gasped.

    Ari looked puzzled. “What? Without tests, it’s just a hypothesis, you said. And no one will know if we keep it secret.”

    Hermione winced at that, Harry noticed. So much for ‘teaching her the scientific method’. It looked like Ari still had a little more to learn about the proper way to raid a tomb. Or she had learned a little too much. Harry wasn’t certain which was the case.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley cleared his throat. “We can’t really test that without using the Dark Arts,” he told Ari.

    “So? No one will know.”

    He didn’t wince, though he felt like it. It wasn’t Ari’s fault. “It’s not about others knowing,” he explained. “The Dark Arts are dangerous. And not just to your enemy,” he added quickly when she opened her mouth.

    “What?” Now she looked confused. Hadn’t they talked about this?

    They hadn’t, Ron realised. They had taken it for granted that she’d know because they knew.

    “The Dark Arts - well, the Dark Arts according to Webster’s ‘Guide to Dark Sorcery’, not according to the legal definition the Ministry uses, which covers all sorts of combat spells someone in power didn’t like for some reason or other, are defined by the fact that they harm those who use them.” Of course, Hermione would jump at the chance to rectify that. “Not in obvious ways, of course - though certain rituals that require self-sacrifices do - but more subtly. Insidiously. They damage your soul or your mind. Or both. And both blood magic and soul magic generally fall under that definition.”

    Now Ari was shivering and glancing at the cauldron.

    “She’s talking about the effects on the caster,” Ron said, hugging her once more and glaring at Hermione over Ari’s head.

    His friend pursed her lips. “In any case, it’s not worth the risk. We have the skull to examine and analyse. Which we will be doing as soon as the negotiations are finished and Mr Sayadi returns.”

    Which, Ron knew, could take a while - goblins were stubborn and greedy. “So, what do we do in the meantime?”

    Hermione sighed. “I would love to examine the vault door. A device able to ensnare Harry’s mind so thoroughly…”

    Ron glanced at the door. Zaid hadn’t left it - probably to prevent exactly that. “They said we could examine all the Atlantean relics.”

    “Obviously, they didn’t include the door,” Hermione said.

    “Or they did but hope we won’t ask to examine it,” Harry added.

    That would fit the tales Ron had been told by Tahira.

    “So, if we ask, the stupid spirits have to let us examine it?” Ari asked.

    “Perhaps,” Hermione replied. “But they might not be happy with us if we do so, either. They might hold a grudge.”

    That also fit the tales Ron had heard.

    “So?” Ari asked with a snort.

    Ron didn’t like letting the jinn get away with such games - if they were playing them, of course; he and his friends didn’t know whether they were or not - but he didn’t think it was worth the risk of antagonising them. “We aren’t here for the door, are we? We’re here so we can find out more about our goal.” Atlantis.

    Hermione nodded in agreement. Harry frowned - which looked like a pout - but sighed after a moment. “I guess so.”

    Ari scoffed but didn’t otherwise disagree.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 9th, 2001

    Hedwig arrived, as usual, during breakfast. Ron Weasley casually moved his plate away before the owl could steal his food, Ari growled and bent over her own plate - which didn’t seem to impress the bird at all - and Hermione quickly conjured covers for the serving plates. Harry, of course, was oblivious to anything else while he gushed over the owl for a few minutes before taking the letter from her.

    Ron shook his head, but he smiled as well.

    “Oh… They’ve finished negotiations,” Harry said after a glance at the parchment.

    “What?” Ron blinked. “Already?” He pushed the bowl with owl treats closer to Hedwig before the bird could make another attempt on his plate.

    “Looks like the jinn are a little wealthier than we thought,” Harry said.

    “Well, the legends claim they could create treasure - gems and more.” Hermione bit her lower lip, which meant she was mulling this over. “Those were muggle legends, of course. Still, they could have amassed quite some wealth, at least before the Doubling Charm was invented.”

    “Well, part of it has gone to the goblins for the right to use the Thief’s Downfall,” Harry went on.

    ‘Use’. Not ‘acquire’. Ron shook his head. That pretty much guaranteed trouble in the future. On the other hand, it was none of his or anyone else’s business. “So they’re returning to the valley?”

    “Yes. Probably be here in a day.” Harry put the letter down. “I’ll tell Mallory so he can plan not to brew potions tomorrow.”

    Ron snorted. It was only fair, of course, to keep the man in the loop, but Ron wouldn’t mind if Mallory spent the next week in his tent as well. “So... we get to relax, then?”

    Hermione scoffed. “Certainly not! There are several tests we still can do on the relics. Tests that don’t involve the Dark Arts,” she clarified with a glance at Ari. “And there are texts to translate.”

    “Ah.”

    It seemed as if Ari still doubted the groups’ - or perhaps just Hermione’s - moral conviction not to use blood magic.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 10th, 2001

    “We have returned with the solution to your tribe’s troubles!” Lockhart announced, standing in front of the Range Rover and pointing at two chests. “Two Floo connections will be installed, with a third and the Thief’s Downfall linking them at a secure location. So every visitor or returning resident can step here into the first, travel and return, safe and sound, through the second! Quite the cunning solution, if I do say so myself - and I’m not saying that just because it was my idea.”

    As much as Hermione Granger was loath to admit it, it was a smart solution - it allowed the goblins to keep control over their device, and let the jinn quickly send everyone through it. But she didn’t really care. All she wanted was to drag Mr Sayadi into their tent and have him finally - finally! - start translating the skull’s words! She would be damned if she let Lockhart’s ego delay them any further!

    But she couldn’t do anything while Lockhart engaged in self-aggrandisement. She glanced at Petunia, but Harry’s aunt didn’t step in and cut the egotistical wizard down to size. Hermione hoped that that didn’t mean that Lockhart actually had helped with the negotiations - the man’s ego was inflated enough already.

    “...and so I propose to install them at once!” he finished his tale.

    “Excellent idea! We’re very grateful for your help,” al-Jinn said.

    Yes, yes, they were - and they really wanted Mr Sayadi’s help now!

    “It’s all thanks to him!” Tahira said, draping her arm over Lockhart’s shoulder.

    Lockhart’s smile didn’t change - too caught in his own legend, Hermione thought.

    “But we really should install the Floo connections now,” the wizard said.

    Al-Jinn nodded. “Indeed.”

    This was her chance. Hermione walked up to Mr Sayadi. “I don’t think they need us for that,” she said with a bright smile.

    He chuckled. “And you are eager to start working on your translation, I would wager.”

    She didn’t deny it - she merely gestured towards the entrance to their tent.

    *****​

    “Akalesh. Abrar. Merkindor. Hesh. Tutala.”

    “Interesting,” Mr Sayadi said, rubbing his beard.

    Frustrating, in Hermione Granger’s opinion. Out loud, though, she said: “We think this is Atlantean.”

    “Yes,” Mr Mallory cut in. “And while we’re well-versed in the written language, we lack any hint about how to speak it.”

    Hermione bit her lip - they weren’t really ‘well-versed’, but they could translate the texts. Most of those they had recovered, at least.

    “‘Abrar’ means ‘blood’ in my tribe’s sacred language,” Ari said.

    “Ah? Some of the words sound familiar,” Mr Sayadi was still looking at the skull. “Are you certain this is a mere recording?”

    “It’s a bound ghost, actually,” Hermione explained. “As far as we can tell.”

    “A ghost?” That made the man look at them instead of the skull.

    “Yes.” She nodded. “Bound by several questionable spells.”

    “I see.”

    She doubted that. But it didn’t matter. “This is how you make it speak,” she said, demonstrating with her wand.

    “Akalesh. Abrar. Merkindor. Hesh. Tutala.”

    “That will be helpful,” Mr Sayadi said. “An old language, but with what sound like loan words from other old languages. And some of the sacred languages of the ancient temples might share the same roots…” He smiled. “If I had known that you had such a challenging task for me, I would have insisted on getting started much sooner!”

    Hermione managed not to curse upon hearing that. Her friends weren’t quite as restrained, and Mr Mallory cursed up a storm.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 14th, 2001

    “...and while ‘abrar’ now means ‘blood’ in Miss Ari’s sacred language, it originally stemmed from ‘abr’, which means ‘danger’ in the secret language of the Church of Baal,” Mr Sayadi explained. “Once I had that, I also had clues which allowed me to translate the rest of the words - or rather, to determine their most likely meanings.”

    Hermione Granger was scribbling down notes. Danger, not blood. That opened new possibilities. Some of the texts they had contained warnings. Perhaps…

    “‘Akalesh’ likely evolved into ‘kalesh’ - an ancient Hindi word meaning ‘cause unrest’,” he went on. “‘Merkindor’ is related to ‘kindor’, a Persian word for ‘holding a grudge’. ‘Hesh’ is another word from Baal’s Church and means ‘damnation’. ‘Tutala’ is Mermish for ‘poisonous water’.”

    “Cause unrest danger holding grudge damnation poisoned water.” Mr Mallory frowned. “And what does it mean?”

    “Those are the literal translations of the younger loan words,” Mr Sayadi told him. “You need to adjust them and allow for changed meanings and linguistic drift, and different grammar.”

    “And you did that,” Harry prompted.

    “I’ve come up with a possible translation,” Mr Sayadi said, smiling widely. “‘War and hatred endanger your soul and life itself’.”

    Mr Mallory didn’t seem to follow the translation, but Hermione could see how Mr Sayadi came to his conclusion.

    “And how does this help us?” Mr Mallory retorted. “A warning is useless.”

    “Few warnings are useless, in my experience,” Mr Sayadi said.

    Mr Mallory scowled at him but held his tongue.

    “It could be the key to understanding the skull,” Hermione said. “Perhaps this is a clue about how to contact the ghost…” If there were spells guarding against hatred for example, then… “This needs further study!” she exclaimed, already pointing her wand at the skull.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 15th, 2001

    “We’ve lost her.”

    Harry Potter rolled his eyes at Ron. “That joke’s getting old. No, that joke is old. Older than Dumbledore.”

    “As long as it’s not older than Flamel...” His friend grinned.

    “You certainly won’t grow much older if you don’t stop trying to distract me,” Hermione snapped - without taking her eyes or wand off the skull’s enchantments, Harry noted.

    “Sorry!” Ron replied, though he didn’t stop grinning.

    Harry sighed. “Just don’t overdo it,” he told her. “Tell us when you need to rest.”

    “I will.”

    Harry probably would have to step in at some point - Hermione had almost skipped breakfast this morning to get to work on analysing the skull’s enchantments with the help of the knowledge gained from Mr Sayadi. He nodded anyway - she wasn’t the only one fed up with delays.

    “Don’t worry, we all need regular rest,” Mr Sayadi cut in from the desk where he and Mallory were translating more of the texts they had recovered.

    “Didn’t you analyse the enchantments already?” Ari asked, looking puzzled. “You spent days on that.”

    “We did,” Harry replied. “But since we didn’t recognise most spells, we had to analyse each and every spell to find out its purpose, and even so we had to guess without casting and testing them ourselves.” Spellcrafting had progressed a lot since the Atlanteans, which made deciphering their spells more difficult.

    “And can’t test without blood,” Ari said, nodding.

    “That, too, plays a role,” Ron said. “It’s not as if we know much about blood magic.”

    “Yes.” Harry shrugged. “Given enough time, we could have understood the spells anyway.” That was what Curse-Breakers did, after all. “However, knowing their possible purpose will significantly speed up the process.” Or so they hoped.

    “And we make more progress translating the texts,” Ron added. “Even if it’s a little boring for those of us on guard duty.” Which meant Ron and Harry today.

    Ari nodded.

    “Guarding someone is always boring. Until it isn’t,” Harry said. He frowned at Ron and Ari’s looks - that was certainly more original than Ron’s jokes.

    *****​

    Fortunately, it didn’t take too much to drag Hermione away from the skull once it was time for dinner - she was neither too frustrated to take a break, nor too excited.

    “They’ve sent everyone through the Floo connections,” Sirius told Harry Potter and his friends as he flicked his wand and filled everyone’s glasses with pumpkin juice and water respectively. “Started at the one at the entrance of the valley and had them come out at the one in its centre.” With a stop in the goblin-controlled room with the Thief’s Downfall, of course.

    “Can they be connected to Tunisia’s Floo network?” Hermione asked.

    “I’m not certain. In theory, it should be possible,” Sirius said. “Which would make the valley rather vulnerable.”

    “Whoever wanted to do that would have to take control of one of the connections first, to modify them. And that means they would already be inside the valley,” Petunia pointed out.

    “Did they find any other controlled jinn?” Ron asked.

    “One seems to be missing,” Sirius said.

    That wasn’t good news. They knew that Rahid had been responsible - as much as he could be responsible when he had been cursed and controlled - for capturing Tahira and helping her set up the attack. But they had no clue what the missing jinni had done. “The Storm Wizards could already be in the valley,” Harry said.

    “I think they would have attacked before the Floo connections were set up, though,” Sirius pointed out. “They wouldn’t have given the jinn so much time to recover and set up their defences.”

    “Unless they were getting reinforcements or had to prepare their next attack,” Ron replied. “We don’t need to stay here any more, do we?”

    Hermione sighed. “We can still use Mr Sayadi’s help. And I don’t think he’ll leave with us as long as Lockhart is staying.”

    And Lockhart didn’t seem to be willing to ‘leave the jinn bereft of my help’, as he had put it. Or, as Ari had put it, ‘leave the stupid smoke princess’.

    “But do we need his help?” Ron asked.

    “We’ve now translated a lot of the texts and started on a pronunciation guide,” Harry said. “But we’re not yet done.”

    “And once we crack the spells keeping the ghost from properly communicating with us, Mr Sayadi’s help for translating his words might be invaluable,” Hermione added. “We could do without him, of course, but it would take us longer.”

    Ari nodded in apparent agreement.

    Which clinched it, in Harry’s opinion. They were Curse-Breakers. Taking risks was part of the job. And he’d rather be attacked by Storm Wizards in the middle of the Valley of the Jinn, with Tahira’s tribe ready to avenge their deaths, than in the middle of the desert with just his family and friends.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 17th, 2001

    Ron Weasley took a deep breath after stepping out of the tent. The cold, fresh air felt nice after spending the day inside their tent, going over texts with Ari and Mallory. Hermione might insist that the charms in the tent kept the air fresh and the temperature steady, but it didn’t feel like it to him.

    Beside him, Ari made a growling sound as she stretched, then sniffed the air. “Fleur and Bill,” she said.

    A moment later, Ron’s brother and sister-in-law approached them from Sirius and Petunia’s Range Rover. “Finished for today?” Bill asked.

    “With work,” Ron replied. Hermione was still at it, of course, as were Mallory and Mr Sayadi, but Harry would drag the witch out soon enough, and the other two wouldn’t be left working by themselves.

    Ari nodded. “You done with guarding?”

    Fleur snorted. “We’ve got the night shift.” She looked around and shook her head. “We would be safer hiding in the sky.”

    Ari muttered something about ‘birds’, but Ron nodded. “We would. But I don’t think we can or want to put everyone up in the Range Rover.” Certainly not Lockhart since that meant Tahira would be there as well. Between her, Ari and Fleur, they’d never have a quiet moment.

    “I just want some distance from the jinn,” Fleur said. Ron knew she wasn’t concerned about the possible danger from bound jinn - the jinn didn’t get along with Veela.

    “Yes,” Ari agreed. “Stupid spirits.” The jinn didn’t get along with Ari either.

    “We’re their guests,” Bill said, “and they take hospitality seriously.”

    Fleur’s expression showed that she thought as much of that as Ari did. Well, at least the two witches were bonding over their mutual dislike and distrust of the jinn. Which wasn’t a good thing for their expedition, but was definitely a good thing for future Weasley family functions.

    “Are you certain your people weren’t created by Atlanteans?” Ari suddenly asked.

    “No!” Fleur replied at once, not bothering to hide her anger. “We’ve talked about this already - Veela originated in Eastern Europe, not near the Atlantic. We’re not like your tribe.”

    Ari snorted, apparently unconvinced. “Could have fooled me.”

    “That’s not a high bar,” Fleur shot back.

    Ari narrowed her eyes in response. “Your legends could be wrong.”

    “They aren’t.”

    “Species don’t just come into being,” Ari pointed out. “They evolve or are created.”

    “Not the Veela.”

    There they went again. So much for bonding. Ron exchanged a glance with his brother. “How about we don’t argue until we manage to talk to the Atlantean ghost?” he said.

    “And how long will that be?” Bill asked before anyone could answer Ron’s question.

    “Few more days at most, I think,” Ron said. “We’re close to breaking the enchantments keeping the ghost from talking. It’s a little tricky to achieve that without setting the ghost free.” Which would likely make it disappear if it had been forcefully bound instead of naturally created - a possibility they couldn’t dismiss after what they had found out about the cauldron. “Do you need to return to the camp?”

    Bill shook his head. “No. We can stay as long as you need our help. Sirius actually hired us.” Mostly for the cut for the goblins, Ron knew - the greedy buggers would otherwise harbour a grudge for missing out on making a profit.

    He nodded. “Good.”

    He must have been a little too curt since Bill snorted. “We’re not meddling with your expedition. We’re just acting as guards. Don’t worry about us stealing your thunder.”

    Ron pressed his lips together. They meant well - but the public wouldn’t see it like that. On the other hand, he wouldn’t like to face Kohlmeier without their help. Or the jinn, if things should turn sour - Ari didn’t trust them, and he trusted her judgement more than al-Jinn’s smiles. Ron didn’t expect the jinni to break his word, but there were ways around such deals. There was a reason that the jinn had a reputation for ruining careless wizards by sticking to the letter of a deal and not its spirit.

    “I know,” he said, suppressing a sigh. Living took priority - every Curse-Breaker learned that quickly. One way or the other. “What’s for dinner?”

    “Bubble and squeak,” Bill answered. “But there’ll be cake as well.”

    A fireball that engulfed the temple’s main spire cut off Ron’s reply. He was already on the ground, casting a Shield Charm, when he heard the first screams. Then he conjured a low wall as cover and started looking for the enemies.

    Finding them was easy - dozens of spells flew back and forth near the spire as the few jinn left alive after the fireball tried to hold off the attackers. Above them, jinn burst out from their homes in the cliff, forming up in groups. But they would be too late to stop the Storm Wizards from breaking into the temple a second time - the dark wizards were about to overwhelm the last defenders.

    “We need to stop them!” he yelled, jumping over the low wall and sprinting towards the spire. Ari was at his side within a second, easily keeping pace even in her human form. He glanced over his shoulder - Bill and Fleur were following them. Good. He tapped the pin in his collar and snapped. “Storm Wizards trying to break into the temple! We’re stopping them!”

    “We’re on the way!” he heard Harry yell.

    “Coming!” Hermione replied.

    A moment later, Ron felt the urge to duck when he heard the Range Rover’s heavy machine gun open up and saw tracers fly over his head towards the enemy positions. He kept running, though, and sent a Blasting Curse at the enemy. The sand surrounding them blew up, revealing a conjured stone shelter. They must have been hidden underground, already inside the valley, he realised. But the jinn’s defences must have prevented them from breaking into the temple’s basement with a tunnel.

    More spells rained down on the Storm Wizards from above - more jinn were entering combat. And there was Lockhart on a broom, next to Tahira, diving at the enemy. But despite all that, the enemies were overrunning the defenders. Green Killing Curses struck down a flying jinni, and Ron saw another fall in a cloud of buzzing insects.

    He cast a Blasting Curse that threw the first row of the charging Storm Wizards down, shattering their shields, and Petunia’s fire shifted at once, tearing into the staggering enemies. One witch was decapitated by a bullet, another lost an arm and most of her chest to a short burst.

    But then smoke rose and obscured the entire area. Ron swore and crouched behind another conjured wall. He couldn’t charge into that cloud - certainly not with the jinn still sending spells into it. But…

    “Hermione!” Harry suddenly yelled.

    Ron whirled and gasped. Their tent had collapsed, spilling furniture and fixtures all over the place. And he could see spells flashing inside the cloud of dust and sand that the collapse had thrown up.

    The Storm Wizards were going after Mr Sayadi again!

    *****​

    “Coming!” Hermione Granger snapped, touching the pin in her robes’ collar. “The temple is under attack,” she told Mr Sayadi and Mr Mallory. “We need to…”

    The entire floor suddenly rose, throwing her back and to the ground and toppling the table in the centre. Trap!, she thought, already reacting. She was trying to reach the door when, a moment later, the floorboards and carpet blew apart, throwing her to the ground once more and revealing a tunnel full of dark-robed wizards and witches.

    Storm Wizards!

    Pain shot through her - a splinter had ripped into her leg. She touched the pin again as she rolled over her shoulder behind the table and cast a Shield Charm, but she couldn’t hear her own words - something was blocking sound, she realised. Not a Silencing Charm - she couldn’t hear anything either.

    Snarling, she sent a pair of Piercing Curses straight at the first Storm Wizard climbing out of the tunnel. He fell back with his shield shattered and his chest pierced. But two more replaced him, and Hermione dropped to the floor, letting two curses pass overhead as if this were a trapped tomb as she rolled behind the table once more.

    She finally managed a quick Episkey that stopped the bleeding, but not the pain, as she noticed Mr Mallory rushing past her, fleeing - and Mr Sayadi was trying to collect the relics from the outpost in Jamaica, which had been scattered around the room. She snapped off a Reductor Curse at the tunnel entrance, which slammed the witch trying to charge into the room back and sent the wizard next to her sprawling - all without making the slightest noise. She needed to dispel the jinx or charm muting all sound, but that would take time she didn’t have. The table exploded, followed by part of the wall as the enemy sent more curses at her.

    Her Shield Charm held, though, saving her from further harm, and she rolled behind the remains of a shelf, wincing at the pain that caused. A quick glance around the tent had her clenching her teeth - Mr Sayadi had been struck by splinters - he was holding a bleeding arm as he clutched the mask and skull to his chest. She waved at him, then pointed at the door. He nodded, and she cast a Blasting Curse directly at the tunnel entrance.

    The entire room shook, still eerily silent, and dust obscured everything - just as she had intended. That would cover Mr Sayadi’s retreat.

    And her own - a volley of curses flew out of the tunnel, half of them passing over her as she pressed herself into the ground, half-expecting spikes to rip out of the ground. Another part of the wall blew up, and a shelf toppled. And the dust was starting to settle. She couldn’t stay - she had to...

    No! Mr Sayadi was on the ground, a foot from the door, with a hole in his back big enough to stick an arm through it. Blood spread from his still body, forming a growing pool.

    Clenching her teeth, she aimed her wand at the ceiling and cast the strongest Cutting Curse she could manage, ripping the room, and with it, the tent, apart.

    The Extension Charms failed as soon as the tent started to collapse and the entire area was suddenly filled with furniture and supplies of all kinds, smashing together and blocking both movement and line of sight. Hermione suppressed her guilt at all the damage done to the relics she had just caused and cleared a path to Mr Sayadi’s corpse with Reductor Curses and Vanishing Charms. She didn’t have much time to escape - the debris wouldn’t hold the Storm Wizards for long.

    Just as she reached the body, the area grew brighter - but the light was flickering. Fire. They had set fire to the furniture. Swearing under her breath, she cast a Bubble-Head Charm - which she should have done right away - and grabbed the relics buried under Mr Sayadi’s corpse. A flick of her wand later, they were inside her enchanted pocket. But the body…

    She bit her lower lip - she didn’t have time to spare for this. But she couldn’t leave the body to be devoured by the fire. Or, worse, animated by the Storm Wizards. A swish and it turned into a doll - which was immediately soaked in the blood on the floor.

    She suppressed a shudder - she had seen worse, after all - and grabbed it. Now to…

    A silent blast showered her with splinters and debris, throwing her into the pile of broken wood and canvas that had been the living room. Merlin’s balls! She rolled on the floor, then flicked her wand, using a series of Vanishing Charms to burrow a tunnel beneath the debris blocking her flight and started crawling. She had to escape from the area to call for help. And to get away from the enemy.

    Halfway through the tunnel, another blast pushed her forward. She held her breath for a moment, fearing the worst, but neither did flames fill the tunnel nor did her shield shatter. She pushed herself forwards, uncaring of the blood on her clothes or the dirt and sand covering her. A few more yards…

    She broke through the sand in front of the tent’s remains. “Yes!”

    And she was out of the spell’s range, too! She touched her pin as she stood. “Harry! I’m…”

    Another explosion threw her to the ground, and this time, her shield didn’t hold. She rolled along the ground, barely managing to keep hold of her wand despite her training, and managed to shield herself again just in time to face another volley of curses from above. Did the Storm Wizards have control of the air?

    No, the curses came from jinn!

    “Stop!” she yelled, rolling to the side, then ran as fast as her wounded leg allowed towards the lake, “I’m on your side!” Had they betrayed her friends? Or were they being controlled?

    But the curses actually stopped - stupid curse-happy jinn, she thought. And she saw tracer rounds hitting the tent’s remains - the Range Rover was above them.

    “Hermione?” she heard through her pin.

    Harry! “The area around the tent is covered in a sound-proofing charm. Can’t hear anything inside,” she explained, conjuring some cover.

    “Are you hurt?”

    “I’m fine,” she replied. “But Mr Sayadi…”

    Harry swore.

    “Mr Mallory fled,” she added.

    Harry swore some more.

    “They’re breaking into the temple vault!” Ron cut in through the enchanted pins.

    Hermione turned just in time to see the entire spire of the temple collapse.

    *****​

    Harry Potter was about to fly over to Hermione when he saw the spire collapse, throwing up a giant cloud of sand and dust. For a moment, he and most in the air seemed to be frozen, staring at the sight of an expanding dust cloud covering the entire area around the lake.

    Then a curse from the ruins of their tent struck a flying jinni, and a bleeding, screaming mass fell to their death as Auntie’s machine gun resumed firing at the Storm Wizards in the debris, followed by the jinn above continuing their bombardment. If they took out this group of enemies, they could focus on the rest and...

    “Bloody hell!” he heard Ron exclaim. “There’s lightning in the cloud!”

    Harry gasped again. No. Transmutation of that scale… Kohlmeier.

    “Dust? And sparks? NO!” Hermione yelled. “It’s going to explode! Dust explosion!”

    Harry cast an Amplification Charm and yelled: “Vanish the dust before it explodes! Vanish it! Disperse it!”

    A few seconds later, al-Jinn’s voice filled the valley and Harry saw the flying jinn shoot towards the cloud, wands flashing. Small, but growing, whirlwinds started to disperse the cloud while Vanishing Charms struck the denser parts. Harry raised his wand, then turned away and rushed towards Hermione and the ruined tent. Auntie and Sirius were focusing on this group as well, anyway - best to finish here.

    He dashed over an open stretch of sand and dry earth and slid behind the wall Hermione had conjured. “Are you alright?” He felt his heart skip a beat - she was covered in blood.

    “I’m fine,” she snapped, then glanced at him. “It’s not mine,” she added. “It’s Mr Sayadi’s.”

    “Oh.” He nodded, curtly. “Let’s avenge him.”

    “Yes.”

    Harry crouched and peered over the wall. The mountain of debris - had they really had so much stuff in their tent? - had been reduced by explosions and other spells already, but still provided good cover on the ground - but that cut both ways and didn’t help much against the flying jinn. And the Range Rover.

    But there was an opportunity here. There were dust explosions - and there were fuel-air explosions. “Let’s conjure petrol in the air!”

    A second later, she agreed. “Yes.”

    Both started casting, conjuring clouds of fuel in the air above the enemy’s position. Harry was about to spark the explosion when a burst of tracers did it for him.

    The blast sent more debris flying and shredded what was left of their furniture, but there were no more curses sent into the air afterwards - though that might change. Harry got ready to jump over the wall and charge, but a dozen jinn were already diving.

    He didn’t think the surviving Storm Wizards there would be able to hold out much longer.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley threw himself on to the ground when he saw more sparks appear in the air above the ruins of the spire. Ari followed suit, muttering a curse in her native language. Bill and Fleur were a little slower, but still quick enough to avoid the web of lighting that suddenly appeared.

    Half a dozen jinn weren’t and screamed as the lightning hit them. Ron clenched his teeth and tried to ignore them - he had to focus on the debris changing into snakes and scorpions ahead of them. “Bloody hell!” he muttered, flicking his wand and blowing up the closest groups of animals.

    “Yes,” Ari agreed. “Not good.” She conjured moving, shimmering vines that started to ensnare the creatures - until Fleur’s fireballs burned plants and animals alike. “Not good at all!”

    But it was enough to keep the venomous animals at bay.

    “What were they thinking, collapsing the spire? That buried the vault beneath!” Bill muttered as he joined them in a small crater.

    “Might have been an accident or a trap,” Ron said. “But if it wrecked the basement’s defences, they’ll be digging a tunnel and breaking in as we speak.”

    Bill muttered a curse of his own. “We have to stop them, I guess,” he said, almost casually turning a shattered piece of the spire wall into acid which quickly covered half a dozen snakes.

    “Yes.” Ron conjured alcohol, then set it off. That took out a swarm of scorpions. “This is a holding action. They aren’t even trying to push us away.” And the number of curses sent towards the jinn or Ron’s group had shrunk as well. The Storm Wizards were breaking through below them. That meant they either had to dig a tunnel of their own or break through the Storm Wizards guarding the entrance of theirs. The former would take too long, the latter would cost too much blood.

    Suddenly, Lockhart’s loud voice filled the valley. “Watch out! Watch out!”

    Ron looked up, his eyes widening. A huge spike was falling down - right on the Storm Wizards’ position. Almost as huge as the lesser spires of the temple, by Ron’s estimate, the earth shook as it slammed into the ground right on top of the enemies.

    Then it started to topple - towards the lake. And towards Ron and his friends. They scrambled away and raced to safety just as the mass of stone and metal vanished. Conjured by Lockhart and massively enlarged by Tahira, Ron guessed as he rolled into a nearby crater.

    But that meant the tunnel’s entrance had been ripped wide open. And the defenders squished, he added with a wince. A dozen jinn flew towards the entrance, but before the first reached it, a plume of red smoke emerged. The jinni flew straight into it before he could veer off, and emerged choking and bleeding.

    Poison. And the smoke kept rising.

    “Have they flooded the entire basement?” Bill wondered. “Suicide?”

    No, Ron didn’t think so. Kohlmeier’s situation wasn’t that desperate. Quite the contrary. “More stalling,” he said through clenched teeth, “to gain them enough time to break into the vault.”

    And it would work if they didn’t find a way past the smoke. A safe way. “We need a tunnel of our own.” Kohlmeier wouldn’t fill the entire basement with poisonous smoke. The bastard had to keep the smoke isolated so he could work. But how isolated?

    Ron jerked, his planning interrupted, when another jinni crashed on to the ground nearby. What the… He looked up and swore.

    Jinn were fighting jinn above them - and the red smoke was spreading. He touched his pin. “They’re controlling more jinn and spreading poisonous smoke. We need help here!”

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 18th, 2001

    Sitting on a conjured bench, still slightly favouring her healed leg, Hermione Granger stared at the ruins that were all that was left of the jinn’s temple. With the moon barely visible in the sky - the new moon had been two days ago - the only illumination was provided by a few lamps and charms. But she didn’t mind the lack of light - it hid the bodies on the ground.

    “They broke into the basement,” Harry said, next to her.

    “Kohlmeier was already gone,” she interrupted him. “And the vault was empty.” At least after the Storm Wizards had fled, the controlled jinn had been easily overwhelmed and captured.

    Harry sighed. “Yes. Bastard played us.”

    “We shouldn’t have trusted the jinn’s precautions,” she said. “I’m certain that Kohlmeier was hiding in the valley the whole time. Between the Imperius Curse and Obliviation, he must have subverted a lot of jinn we thought were safe.”

    “Yes,” Harry agreed, “al-Jinn came to the same conclusion. They managed to get the captured jinn through the Thief’s Downfall, but…”

    “...Kohlmeier got what he wanted,” she finished for him. And dozens of jinn had died. She shook her head. “He wanted Mr Sayadi, but his Storm Wizards killed him instead.” She didn’t look at the tent Lockhart had put up to hold his friend’s body.

    Harry nodded. “And a number of his followers were killed as well. He can’t have too many left.”

    “And he didn’t get the relics we had,” she added, “for whatever good that will do us.” Without Mr Sayadi’s help, communicating with the ghost would be difficult and tedious. “They’re still covered in his blood.” She shuddered, then clenched her teeth and pulled them out of her pocket.

    “Careful,” Harry said. “We’re in the open.”

    She didn’t listen. She wanted to clean them. Right now. And clean her pocket. And her hands. But when her wand sent a cleaning charm at the skull, it started to float.

    And Mr Sayadi’s voice came out of the skull’s mouth.

    “Oh, my! This is rather peculiar, isn’t it?”

    *****​
     
    RedX, TheEyes, Najdrox and 3 others like this.
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: Moving Out
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 17: Moving Out

    ‘Many, especially muggleborns who were raised by religious parents, but also some of the less sophisticated purebloods, mistakenly believe that ghosts are the souls of wizards and witches unwilling to pass over into the afterlife. This, as any student of the more esoteric magic dealing with souls would know, is false. If it were true, why wouldn’t there be muggle ghosts? Muggles have souls, after all, as diligent but, of course, utterly unsavoury and immoral, research has proven on multiple occasions, and these are indistinguishable from wizard souls for all practical purposes.
    No, ghosts far more resemble advanced wizarding portraits - they are imprints of the mind of a wizard or witch at the moment of their death. They can learn things, as anyone who went to Hogwarts can confirm, they can speak, they can perceive their surroundings, but what they cannot do is use magic or affect the physical world other than by creating minor disturbances in water, fire and air. Further, most ghosts are bound to a place - most often the place of their death, or their home. For all their limits, though, ghosts have their uses. They can serve as alarms, advisors, scouts and repositories of knowledge. However, acquiring a ghost is no easy task.
    Essentially, ghosts are soulless figments created by accidental magic - despite many attempts, no magic known has yet been able to create a ghost on demand. Further, despite popular belief, being afraid of death or needing to accomplish something important doesn’t increase the likelihood of creating a ghost significantly - dying violently, on the other hand, does. Since such a death often causes fear or the need of doing something important - such as avenging yourself - this might explain the aforementioned belief. Of course, as some talented but overeager wizards have found out to their detriment, most ghosts harbour a grudge towards their killer, so even such methods rarely result in a usable ghost since controlling a ghost is a task with which magic has proven to struggle.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Ecology and Economy of Ghosts’ by Francis Travers, London, 1836


    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 18th, 2001

    Hermione Granger held her breath for a moment. Could it be? “Mr Sayadi?” she asked in a whisper.

    The voice sounded rather cheerful for a dead person. “I assume ‘in a manner of speaking’ would be the correct answer. I would never have expected to become a ghost.”

    Dear Lord! “The blood on the relics… the deaths. I should have realised the danger!” Hermione shook her head. “I’m so sorry.”

    “Don’t be sorry - it wasn’t you who killed me.” After a moment, the ghost went on: “If that’s even the correct term - as far as I know, ghosts aren’t considered to be identical with the dead person they represent. Either way, it wasn’t your fault.”

    But she and her friends had dragged him into helping them, which had, ultimately, led to him being present during the attack. On the other hand, the Storm Wizards had been attacking his manor anyway. Probably - they hadn’t known about their deal, had they? But Hermione should have realised the dangers of spilling blood on the relics. She should have gathered the relics herself. She bit her lower lip. And then she bit it again as she had a selfish, absolutely unacceptable thought about the situation.

    “So… can you talk to the Atlantean ghost?”

    Apparently, Harry had had the same thought, but lacked her own scruples. Hermione glared at her boyfriend, but his attention was on the skull.

    “I… am not certain. There is a presence near me, but it feels muted, somehow.” The skull chuckled. “Not that I know where I am, actually.”

    “Bound,” Hermione said. “We need to dismantle those spells.” More than ever.

    “I don’t feel bound,” the ghost said, “although I can’t seem to move out of wherever I am.”

    “Your voice is coming from the skull,” Harry revealed.

    “Ah. I should have expected that. So I assume I am bound as well.”

    “Not as much as the Atlantean,” Hermione said, flicking her wand. “That must be because this was an accidental activation of the skull.” The mask might be the key. She had to study the mask in more detail. The skull and the mask were linked, somehow.

    But before she could start to analyse the spells - with this new revelation in mind - they were interrupted by Ron.

    “There you are! Harry, Hermione - al-Jinn wants to talk to us. It sounds urgent.”

    “Oh?”

    Their friend gasped and stared at the skull. “Bloody hell… Mr Sayadi?”

    “His ghost was accidentally bound to the skull,” Hermione explained as she stood and picked up the mask and skull. “Apparently, the blood spilt was enough to activate the magic.” The blood and the deaths.

    “Oh.” Ron blinked, then took a deep breath. “I guess we’re going to keep that a secret?”

    Really, what kind of question was that? “Yes,” Hermione replied.

    The last thing she wanted was to be mistaken for a dark witch who used blood and soul magic. Deliberately, at least.

    *****​

    Al-Jinn was worried, Hermione Granger thought when she saw the old jinni. Even while smiling, he looked concerned - his usual hint of amusement was completely missing. Granted, the jinn had suffered even more deaths than during the first attack, but she suspected that there was more behind this.

    “Please have a seat.” He gestured to a row of cushions arranged in a semi-circle around the low table in front of him. Tahira was sitting at his side, Lockhart on the pillow closest to her. Sirius and Petunia were present as well, opposite Lockhart, but not Bill or Fleur. Mr Mallory, though, was present. Hermione refrained from frowning.

    “They have taken the relics we guarded. Zaid has disappeared. We haven’t found his body, so we have to assume that he was taken alive,” al-Jinn stated bluntly. “That means Kohlmeier will know how to use the relics he took.”

    That meant the cauldron, Hermione knew. No one would care about using obsolete staves. “That could be trouble,” Harry said. He knew as well as Hermione that creating new magical species like Ari wasn’t, by some considerable margin, the worst danger that the cauldron represented. Of course, anyone who had had lessons with Hagrid in Care of Magical Creatures would realise that.

    “Indeed. But it’s worse - Zaid also knows where the relics of the Scorpion Tribe are located.”

    So that was the name of the people who had erected the temple in the valley. “The ones who died out during the war with the Atlanteans?” Hermione asked.

    “Yes.” Al-Jinn nodded. “They had broken free from the Atlanteans and fled to this valley, and in gratitude for the sanctuary it provided, they erected the temple. But the Atlanteans followed them, and the tribe was greatly weakened in the fighting until the survivors died to a plague.” He sighed. “We honoured their dead, but the relics had been taken by the Egyptians across the desert.”

    Hermione had never heard of Ancient Egyptians reaching this far west, but they could have sent an expeditionary force, of course. And if they fought the Atlanteans, they must have had done that.

    “The ruins of ancient Egypt have been researched rather thoroughly,” Petunia commented, but Hermione could see that she was sitting a little straighter. Of course, Egyptian tombs and ruins were her speciality. And the public knew that.

    “And yet, there are still new ruins and tombs discovered every year,” al-Jinn retorted. “The place where the Egyptians hid the relics they took from the Scorpion Tribe is among those which haven’t yet been uncovered by wizards or goblins.”

    “And the relics are more dangerous than the staves?” Petunia asked.

    “Can we afford to assume they aren’t?” al-Jinn replied.

    They couldn’t, of course. And yet… “We have to assume that Kohlmeier is after Atlantis and their relics,” Harry pointed out. “And there’s one famous collection of Atlantean relics left.”

    “The Ottoman collection,” al-Jinn agreed. “But that collection doesn’t contain relics such as those he stole.”

    “But it contains many texts. Texts which may contain the key to finding Atlantis,” Hermione said. And, of course, there were the rumours of relics kept secret in the Sultan’s palace.

    “The Sultan’s palace is guarded well,” Mr Mallory pointed out.

    “Well enough to stop Kohlmeier?” Harry shot back, then looked at al-Jinn. “Could the same people who were defeated by your tribe stop the Storm Wizards?”

    “Anything is possible,” al-Jinn replied with a hint of his usual attitude, “and Kohlmeier has suffered significant losses among his followers - at least two dozen since he started attacking us. But given how cunning a foe he has revealed himself to be, I doubt that even the Sultan’s Janissaries could stop him.”

    “Which means someone has to secure the collection before he gets the relics,” Ron said.

    Petunia glared at him, then at Harry and Hermione. “You plan to steal them yourselves?” she asked.

    “We want to secure them,” Harry told her. “Everyone is safer if we have them instead of a follower of Grindelwald, right?”

    Hermione nodded in agreement.

    “You want to break into the palace of the Sultan yourselves?” Sirius didn’t sound like he approved. Not at all.

    Harry stiffened. “We have to. We cannot risk him finding Atlantis. The cauldron uses blood and spirit magic. Imagine what other relics could fall into his hands.”

    “He almost killed all of you in his last attack!” Petunia snapped. “Imagine what he could do if you’re alone!”

    She wasn’t wrong, of course - but, in Hermione’s opinion, she wasn’t correct, either.

    “He had the element of surprise,” Harry argued. “That won’t happen again.”

    “Really?” Petunia retorted. “You think you know what he’ll do next? You’re certain?” She scoffed.

    Harry pressed his lips together. He didn’t want to argue with his aunt, Hermione knew. She spoke up: “It is far easier to retreat from a battle in Magical Constantinople than here. And the Janissaries will hinder him.” The Sultan’s guards were certainly a cut or two above the Bey’s guards. And more skilled as well.

    “That doesn’t matter. We will recover the Scorpion Tribe’s relics and then proceed to Constantinople. We’ll be as safe as possible that way,” Petunia declared.

    This was so… Hermione bit her lower lip to avoid venting her frustration. Fortunately, Harry managed to control his temper as well.

    But al-Jinn cleared his throat. “I fear that there might not be enough time for that. The defences of the relics’ resting places are varied and quite powerful. By the time you have broken through them, it might be too late to secure the collection in Constantinople.”

    Hermione managed not to smile at that. Harry didn’t.

    “It seems we have to split up, then,” Lockhart spoke up for the first time. Mr Sayadi’s death must have affected him worse than she had thought, Hermione realised with a pang of guilt. “One group goes to Egypt, one to Constantinople and I’ll stay here and help defend the valley, in case Kohlmeier returns. We cannot be certain that he has yet acquired all he sought.”

    “Thank you,” al-Jinn said gravely. His granddaughter nodded as well, but her expression wasn’t quite as sombre.

    And Petunia was clenching her teeth so hard, Hermione could see her muscles twitch from across the room.

    They would have to talk about this in private.

    *****​

    “Splitting up is too dangerous,” Auntie snapped as soon as the Range Rover’s doors closed behind them. She stood there, hands on her hips, lips pressed into a thin line.

    Harry Potter didn’t want to contradict her. He wanted to go and hug her. Reassure her that they’d be fine. Safe. But he couldn’t do that. “Auntie,” he said, “not splitting up is more dangerous. We can’t let Kohlmeier get his hands on more relics.”

    “We can warn the Ottomans,” she retorted.

    “They might not believe us,” Hermione pointed out.

    “They won’t take the risk of losing the collection - the loss of face would be fatal for the Janissaries’ commander,” Auntie replied. “That will delay Kohlmeier long enough for us to finish in Egypt.”

    That was true. Probably. Harry frowned. “It would also mean that we couldn’t get at the collection, either.”

    That earned him another glare from her, and a chuckle from Sirius. Which, in turn, earned Harry’s godfather a glare. Before he could explain himself, though, Ron and Ari returned with Bill and Fleur.

    “Everyone’s still uncursed. Good.” Ron’s joke wasn’t funny at all.

    “Do you know what we’re discussing?” Hermione asked Bill and Fleur.

    “Splitting up to deny Kohlmeier the relics in Egypt and Constantinople,” Bill replied.

    “Told them,” Ari said.

    “I just explained that warning the Ottomans will allow us to recover the relics in Egypt, but, apparently, Harry and his friends are hell-bent on robbing the Ottomans,” Auntie said with narrowed eyes.

    He took a deep breath. “It’s not like that, Auntie,” he said.

    “Then, please, explain your reasoning for becoming a thief.”

    He clenched his teeth for a moment; she made it sound as if he wanted to commit a crime. “We’ve fought Kohlmeier and his Storm Wizards three times now. He knows us. And he’s searching for Atlantis. If he can’t get the relics in Egypt or Constantinople, he’ll come after us because he’ll assume we have information he needs.”

    “He would do that if you stole the Sultan’s collection as well,” Auntie retorted.

    “Yes,” Harry agreed, which surprised her - for a moment. He saw her expression change as she set her jaw and hurried on. “Yes, he’ll come after us - unless we find Atlantis first.”

    “Then he’ll come at us there.”

    “Finding Atlantis will be the discovery of the century, if not the millennium,” Hermione cut in. “The ICW will secure it at a moment’s notice - it would do so even if Dumbledore weren’t the Supreme Mugwump. Even the current crisis - which really should have been handled already - won’t change that.”

    “And as soon as we find Atlantis, our knowledge becomes useless and we’re safe,” Harry added. He tried not to smile when he saw Sirius nod in agreement.

    “Or he swears vengeance against you.” Auntie wasn’t giving in easily - as he had expected.

    “I don’t think he’d risk Dumbledore avenging us,” Harry said. “He’ll probably go into hiding again. But if he is the vengeful type, then we wouldn’t be any safer with your plan.”

    Ah! That was her ‘I know you’re right, but I hate admitting it’ glare. He smiled tentatively, and she closed her eyes.

    “And I guess you four - you five - want to head to Constantinople,” she said with a scowl, “while Sirius, Bill, Fleur and I go to Egypt.”

    Harry nodded. “You’re the experts for Egypt. And we have been to Constantinople before.”

    “And ended up causing an international incident,” Auntie pointed out.

    Harry couldn’t blame Ron for that - his friend had been the one to sweet-talk one of the Sultan’s wives, but he had done it so they could access the Sultan’s archives. “That was settled.” By Dumbledore. “And it’s still safer scouting out Constantinople than camping in the desert, far from any patrolling guards or reinforcements.” He nodded again. “In fact, you should probably get guards yourself for this expedition.” He winced at the glare he received in return. “Just a thought.”

    And Hermione was glaring at him as well. Damn.

    Fortunately, Sirius spoke up. “I hate to say it, but you’re right.”

    Yes!

    *****​

    Harry Potter found her on the roof of the Range Rover, staring at the mountains. “Auntie?” he said, standing on the ladder bolted to the backdoor.

    “Harry?”

    He climbed up on the roof, sat down next to her and sighed. “I’m sorry.” And he was. He hadn’t liked confronting her. Not at all.

    After a moment, she sighed as well. “But you would do it again.”

    It wasn’t a question - she knew him too well. “Yes, I would. We would.” It had to be done. “I know you don’t like it…”

    “I hate it. I hate knowing that you and your friends are risking your lives - and don’t quote Bill to me!” she snapped.

    Harry swallowed his favourite ‘Danger is part of the job’ line.

    “This is different,” she went on. “These are dark wizards. Not traps or curses. I know you can handle those. But a Storm Wizard like Kohlmeier? One of Grindelwald’s officers?”

    “Well, we faced him already,” Harry pointed out.

    “And you almost got killed.”

    It hadn’t been quite that bad, in his opinion. But to argue that would make him look… childish. And that was the last thing he wanted. “This is important. And, well - you can’t do everything for us.” She looked at him with narrowed eyes, so he quickly added: “You can’t protect us forever.”

    Once again, she sighed. “I know.”

    And he knew she loathed it. He reached out and hugged her with one arm. “Sorry,” he whispered again.

    *****​

    Tunisia, Aurés Mountains, Valley of the Jinn, October 19th, 2001

    “This is a map that shows the way to the ruins where the relics taken by the Egyptians are kept,” al-Jinn said, handing over a scroll to Petunia. “It’s a secret our tribe has kept for millennia,” he added.

    “Thank you.” Petunia unrolled it and quickly studied it.

    Ron Weasley craned his neck and stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the map, ignoring the amused glance from Bill. The map didn’t look that old, he thought. Quite the contrary, actually.

    “I drew it myself,” al-Jinn confirmed Ron’s suspicions. “Maps can be stolen.”

    “A wise precaution,” Lockhart agreed. The wizard was still far quieter than Ron had ever seen him - a far cry from the boisterous git they all knew and loathed.

    “Useless, though, with Zaid bound,” Ari said.

    Ron glanced at her; she didn’t sneer or grin, but he knew her - she liked pointing out the jinn’s flaws.

    Al-Jinn acknowledged her remark with the barest of nods. “You have studied the stolen relics; you know why we have kept this secret for millennia. We have no choice now, though - Kohlmeier cannot be allowed to gain more forbidden lore of the Atlanteans.”

    “You would never have told us about the relics in Egypt without his attacks,” Harry said. “You wanted to keep Atlantis lost.”

    “Not just because of what dark wizards could do with the cauldron, but also because of what people would realise had been done with it by the Atlanteans,” Hermione added.

    The old jinni inclined his head with a faint smile. Ron felt a chill run down his spine as he realised that the jinni might have planned to kill them after fulfilling their deal. The jinn would probably not even consider that a betrayal, as long as it happened after Ron and his friends had left the valley and were no longer the jinn’s guests. He stared at al-Jinn, wondering if he should mention his suspicion. No. That might only cause more trouble.

    But Ron certainly wouldn’t trust them in the future.

    *****​

    “Veela weren’t created by the Atlanteans,” Fleur snapped as soon as they had left al-Jinn’s house.

    “Says you,” Ari retorted before Ron Weasley could distract her.

    “Our legends and lore are clear about our origin.”

    “That doesn’t really matter,” Hermione cut in.

    “What?” Fleur snarled at them. “We’re not the descendants of animals created as slaves by the Atlanteans!”

    “But, given the similarities between Veela and the Jaguar Tribe, many will assume a shared origin,” Hermione said. She didn’t say what she believed - but Ron was rather certain that his friend shared Ari’s opinion.

    Fleur didn’t seem to have missed that, either. “Really? Do you think the Atlanteans created all magical species? Centaurs, selkies, merrows, sirens, giants, goblins, hags and jinn alike?” She scoffed.

    Of course, Hermione just had to accept that challenge. “Only those who fit certain criteria. The differences between sirens and selkies, for example, are too distinctive to assume a shared origin.”

    “The differences between sirens and Veela are even more distinct,” Fleur shot back. “They cannot transform, unlike us.”

    “But we can,” Ari retorted.

    “Zat’s different. We do not shred our clozzes or lose our wands when we change shape!” Fleur was growing more and more… agitated, was the word. Or angry.

    “That could be the result of the ritual getting refined - or the personal taste of the creator,” Hermione pointed out.

    “Why are you so hung up on this?” Ari asked. “The Atlanteans are dead, and you’re free.” She shrugged. “Ancient history.”

    It seemed as if she had overcome her earlier fears. Ron hoped so, at least.

    “Too many wizards already see us as mere creatures, to be owned.” Fleur scoffed again. “Especially in ze Ottoman Empire. If zey can brand us as dark creatures, we might even lose ze protection of ze law in some countries.”

    “Like werewolves,” Hermione added.

    “Ah.” Ari nodded. “You’re like us then.”

    “We aren’t like you!” Fleur insisted. Bill wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

    “Regardless of the truth, many wizards will try to exploit such rumours,” Petunia said.

    Sirius nodded. “Indeed. Bigotry runs deep among purebloods. Just look at how werewolves are treated as they’re considered dark creatures.”

    “Which is an entirely unfair and nonsensical classification - they’re victims of a curse, like many others!” Hermione scoffed. “Might as well call half of the long-term patients in St Mungo’s dark creatures following that ‘logic’.”

    “So we have to keep the cauldron a secret,” Harry said. “For everyone’s sake.”

    Ron saw that Hermione was pressing her lips together. Given how much she loved to publish, this wouldn’t come easy to her. “What if Kohlmeier reveals it?”

    “He’s a Storm Wizard wanted for countless crimes; few will trust him, and even opportunists would be wary of being associated with him or his old master,” Sirius said. “That is if he even reveals it.”

    Ron wasn’t certain if things would be that simple, but he couldn’t see anything they could do about it, other than launching a preemptive misinformation campaign. And that would risk their reputations.

    “So, with that settled, let’s discuss travel plans!” Sirius said with slightly forced cheer.

    *****​

    “Mr Mallory?” Hermione Granger took care to use a neutral, even casual, tone as she addressed the older wizard outside the Range Rover.

    “Yes?”

    “You didn’t say much during our planning session.”

    He shrugged. “I’m no expert on travel in Europe.”

    “You didn’t ask about our past troubles in Constantinople.” She had expected some comments, at least.

    “Mr Potter said that they were handled.”

    “You mean you think that the Sultan’s collection holds the key to finding Atlantis, not the relics in Egypt.”

    He nodded with a smile. “As do you, I assume.”

    She nodded. That was why they had insisted on heading to Constantinople, after all. “There will be a considerable danger, though.”

    “From Kohlmeier’s followers or the Janissaries?”

    “Possibly both.” Dumbledore had smoothed ruffled feathers, but Hermione didn’t think that they could trust the Sultan not to look for an opportunity to take his revenge. “That’s why we’ll be travelling in disguise.” She tilted her head slightly.

    He nodded in response. “And you wonder if I will have the nerve to see this mission through without fleeing.”

    She reminded herself that Mr Mallory was a very smart and experienced wizard, despite his lack of experience with Curse-Breaking or the sort of adventures Hermione and her friends often had.

    “I’m no great duellist, Miss Granger, as I’ve told you before. If I had stayed and fought, all that I would have accomplished would have been to join Mr Sayadi in the skull.”

    He was likely correct. “No one expects you to fight Kohlmeier,” she said.

    “Good.” He smiled at her. “I’ll be packing my belongings, then.” After a curt nod, he disappeared into his own tent. Which had survived the battle.

    Hermione sighed through clenched teeth. She couldn’t accuse the man of cowardice - his actions were quite sensible and logical. But remembering how he had run while Mr Sayadi had died trying to save the relics still made her angry.

    *****​

    They were packing up their tents - Hermione Granger’s second spare wizarding tent, she’d have to acquire another one - and Mr Mallory’s tent - when Lockhart approached them. The Curse-Breaker looked sombre - a far cry from his usual cheer. Mr Sayadi’s death had struck him hard, she realised.

    “Mr Lockhart?” She tilted her head slightly as she stuffed the packed-up tent into her enchanted pocket.

    “Miss Granger.” He nodded at her, then sighed, looking around before staring at the spot where her first tent had been. Where Mr Sayadi had died.

    She bit her lower lip. Ghosts, like portraits, weren’t the actual people they looked like. But unlike portraits, which only knew what had been told to them, ghosts came much closer - they were, according to the most convincing theory she had read at Hogwarts, an imprint of a dying mind. She should pull the skull out and let Lockhart talk to his friend’s ghost. To find some closure.

    On the other hand, while Lockhart wasn’t the best Curse-Breaker, even he would realise just what kind of magic had been used to bind the ghost to the skull. And she would be considered the prime suspect. Even if she managed to explain matters to Lockhart, revealing even more about the skull’s secret, it would still be too dangerous. If Lockhart told someone else, or if he was put under the Imperius Curse… She shook her head, almost against her will. No, she couldn’t take that risk.

    She ignored Mr Mallory’s gaze and addressed Lockhart. “He didn’t suffer,” she said, hating herself for the platitude.

    “I saw the body,” Lockhart replied with a curt nod. “He tried to save the relics, didn’t he?”

    “He did save them,” she admitted, “carried them out of reach of the Storm Wizards. He almost made it out of the door.”

    “He was brave. Far braver than most thought.” Lockhart sighed again. “And he’ll never know if his reputation will be restored.”

    There wasn’t anything she could say to that, so she didn’t.

    “But I’ll ensure he’ll be known as the hero he was,” the wizard added, raising his chin. Then he turned to Hermione. “Which means you have to finish your own task! I cannot write my book without a proper uplifting ending. My readers wouldn’t like that.”

    She forced herself to smile. “We’ll do our best.”

    “I’ll be counting on that!” He smiled at her. Not his famous smile - it looked more like Ari’s when she was baring her teeth at Tahira.

    Hermione nodded.

    “Thank you.” The Curse-Breaker nodded at her, then at Mr Mallory, who, not entirely unexpectedly, had remained silent throughout the conversation, and left.

    She didn’t know if she should be glad or disturbed that Lockhart was acting like this. But she wouldn’t let him down.

    *****​

    Turkey, Istanbul, October 21st, 2001

    “I don’t like this.”

    Hermione Granger rolled her eyes. Harry was still being difficult. “Do you know a better solution?” she asked - rhetorically, of course. If Harry had had a better solution, he would have had ample time to propose it.

    “We could pose as American mercenaries,” he said.

    “And hope they won’t be on the lookout for that after Tunis?” She snorted. “We wrecked the palace of the Bey’s son; that will have made news even here.” She touched her nose. “Of course, we could pose as female pirates, selling male slaves…”

    “No!” Ron snapped. “You know what they do to them.”

    “I don’t know,” Ari said.

    “He’s afraid of being turned into a eunuch,” Hermione explained. “Though that practice was outlawed decades ago.” Apparently, the ICW cared more about dark curses used to maim slaves in order to prevent magical healing than slavery itself. Typical!

    “It’s still going on, just more discreetly,” Harry said. “But we could have all posed as pirates.”

    “From the New World?” Hermione snorted again.

    “Mercenaries then,” Harry tried again.

    “Too close to our cover in Tunis,” she retorted. “Posing as grave robbers selling stolen relics will also allow us to meet interested buyers - such as the caretakers of the Sultan’s collection.” And the Greek smuggler they had hired in Egypt to take them to the Golden Horn would strengthen their cover if he were caught and questioned by the Janissaries.

    “But selling relics that we recovered…” Harry shook his head. “It feels wrong. As if we were actual grave robbers.”

    “There’s nothing wrong with selling recovered relics to interested collectors,” Mr Mallory cut in. “Unless they were illegally acquired, of course,” he added as if it were an afterthought.

    Which, in Hermione’s opinion, it probably was. “We’re only selling cheap relics - worthless for our purpose.” She would prefer not to do it, but it was their best cover. Shady Curse-Breakers from all over the world could be found robbing graves in Egypt. And with a wig and decent clothes as well as fake beards for the men, no one would recognise her or her friends.

    Harry sighed. “Alright. Let’s go then!”

    And with that, he strode towards the hidden passage into Magical Constantinople.

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 21st, 2001

    Magical Constantinople was an impressive sight on many levels, in Harry Potter’s opinion. First its size - it was a real city, not merely a shopping mile like Diagon Alley, or a village like Hogsmeade. And it was densely populated - the Ottoman rulers had undertaken considerable efforts to attract the wizards in their realm to the city before and after the Statue of Secrecy had been instituted, to better control them and, through them, the Empire. Having the family of a distant pasha or bey reside in Constantinople made rebellion a little more dangerous for ambitious wizards in the far-flung corners of the Empire. Between the many wizards and witches on the streets, most of them dressed in local robes, he could see jinn as well, often towering over the humans, and small, pixie-sized genies flitting around on all sorts of errands. And above them, dozens of flying carpets travelled through the skies, dodging soaring jinn.

    It was a breathtaking sight. Accordingly, the spells allowing it to hide in the middle of Istanbul were far more powerful and sophisticated than Diagon Alley’s. Persistent rumours claimed that the Ottomans had used sacrificial magic to achieve that overnight in 1692, but the Sublime Porte had always denied such allegations.

    Harry snorted. He and his friends might find out if it were true - they would likely have to break through the protections on the New Palace to get at the Sultan’s collection of Atlantean relics, and, by now, they were quite familiar with blood magic.

    He glanced at Ron and Ari, who were walking beside him. The witch might be able to smell the magic with a little luck. She was wrinkling her nose quite often, though he didn’t yet know what smell was causing that.

    A Janissary patrol passed them, easily spotted thanks to their distinctive headdress with a large white flap. Harry tensed, but the Sultan’s guard didn’t see through their muggle disguise - they were likely more concerned with illusions, given how many bound jinn were around.

    “I haven’t seen any sign of increased patrols,” Ron told him, protected by a privacy spell, as they walked on. “Just the usual.”

    “They smell,” Ari said.

    “Dark magic?” Ron asked.

    “No.” She sneered. “Too much perfume.” She made it sound a worse sin than blood magic.

    Harry refrained from chuckling. Ron didn’t, which made Ari pout.

    They managed to cross the bazaar without getting accosted by too many merchants - though tiny genies followed them for a while, their voices blending into each other as they tried to be heard over the buzzing background noise while hawking all sorts of goods and services for their masters. For their owners, Harry silently corrected himself as they passed the slave market. Officially, the Ottomans didn’t condone slave raids any more. Unofficially, everyone knew that the ‘rogues and bandits’ doing the raiding were not merely tolerated, but protected by the authorities in Constantinople - in exchange for bribes and supplying the Janissaries with more children to raise as guards.

    “Bloody bastards,” Ron muttered. “Should do something about this.”

    Harry nodded, even though he knew they couldn’t - they had to focus on the collection. But, perhaps, once this was done…

    They walked a little faster, passing a group of goblins leading a troll in chains, and reached their destination: a small, shady bar in a side alley; a well-known meeting spot for thieves and worse. Ari was making gagging noises even before the door opened, but Harry now knew better than to ask her to wait outside or use a Bubble-Head Charm; the witch valued her nose and pride too much for either.

    Inside, the sweet smell of shishas lingered in the air, mixing with pipe smoke, coffee and tea. About a dozen wizards and witches watched them enter. Most of them looked like locals, including three Egyptian wizards at a corner table, but a couple wore the robes of Albanian mercenaries - or raiders; the line between the two tended to be blurred or even non-existent.

    They made their way to the bar while most of the patrons returned to their own business. Harry didn’t miss how the Albanians kept their eyes on him and his friends, though.

    “Smell same perfume as the attackers in Tunis,” Ari whispered before Harry could drop the privacy spell to order drinks.

    “Where?” Ron asked.

    She nodded towards the Albanian couple.

    Harry kept his expression neutral as he glanced at them. What were the chances of stumbling on their enemies on the first day? Were they covering all of the bars catering to criminals? It wouldn’t be too unlikely if they were looking for local help. And if these two were Storm Wizards in disguise, then Kohlmeier might be in the city as well. Which meant the clock was ticking - they would have to hurry if they wanted to secure the collection before the Storm Wizards made their move.

    At least, Harry told himself, Auntie and the others would be safer with Kohlmeier here.

    *****​

    The Storm Wizards must have had the same thoughts they had, Ron Weasley thought - check out the shady underbelly first, see if there’s a way to get into contact with the caretakers of the collection in a way that would allow them to hide their identities without arousing suspicion. If only Zeynep hadn’t misunderstood him. And her husband hadn’t misunderstood the situation. But they had, and so the group had ended up being chased by the Janissaries until Dumbledore sorted things out. But he had no doubt that the Sultan’s guards were still looking for an opportunity to pay them back for that debacle.

    At least, he tried to console himself, not for the first time, being in disguise would mean that their real names wouldn’t be connected to the upcoming theft of the collection - if everything went well.

    And the fact that they had discovered the Storm Wizards thanks to Ari’s sense of smell without being discovered in return was certainly a good start to the heist. Or the ‘protective relocation’ as Hermione liked calling it to placate her conscience.

    He took a sip from the raki he had been served and struggled not to wince - whatever the bar here served couldn’t hold a candle to Zeynep’s favourite raki.

    Ari didn’t bother to hide her distaste. She put the glass down and grimaced. “Need something to wash away the taste,” she said.

    Ron hoped that the bartender wouldn’t be too offended - that would make putting out feelers more difficult. Or complicated. He glanced at the man behind the bar. Well, he didn’t look angry.

    A quick flash of a Galleon - the goblin-minted coin had all but replaced the Ottoman currency over the last few decades - caught the man’s attention and Ron ended the privacy charm with a grin. “Say, sir, you know people interested in acquiring antiques?” he said in worse Arabic than he usually spoke.

    “I might,” the bartender replied, staring at the coin.

    Ron added another.

    The man grinned, exposing teeth better suited to a shark. Not a jinni, Ron thought. But not fully human either. Ari snarled in response, but, fortunately, didn’t reveal her own nature. “Good. What are you selling?”

    “Egyptian relics,” Ron said. “Middle Kingdom.” Nothing exceptional, but rare enough. “All perfectly above board, of course.” Which was actually true. Not that anyone would care - not even the goblins.

    “Of course. Should they leave a message here?”

    Ron nodded. He wasn’t as daft as to give out their address - too many would be tempted to relieve them of the relics without paying.

    “Are you planning to spread the word in other bars?” the bartender asked.

    Ron answered with a noncommittal grunt.

    “Might attract the wrong kind of attention,” the man - or creature - continued.

    Ron shrugged. “We’ll see. Anyone we make a deal with contact us through you, you get a bonus.” That would, or so he hoped, keep the man from selling them out.

    The man slowly nodded, but Ron didn’t like his smile. Judging by her expression, Ari didn’t like it either.

    Well, one bar down, four more to go.

    *****​

    An hour later, they were approaching the final bar on their list, the Dancing Scimitar. Although ‘bar’ didn’t do it justice, in Ron Weasley’s opinion - calling it a night club would be more precise. The air smelled the same to him, at least, but Ari almost gagged as they entered.

    “Far too much perfume!” she hissed. “Stupid witches.”

    They walked past a small circle in which a belly dancer was performing - a decent one, too, Ron noticed - and approached the towering jinni dressed in silk and leathers standing close to the entrance.

    “Welcome!” he boomed. “Where would you like to sit?”

    Ron was tempted to ask for a spot with clean air, but Harry pointed at the wall in the main room. “Middle there.”

    “As you wish!” the jinni bellowed and flicked his wand. A moment later, the space Harry had indicated expanded, followed by a low table and several cushions appearing there. “Enjoy your visit!”

    “Thank you!” Ron resisted the urge to yell his reply.

    “If anyone breaks the Extension Charms in here it’ll be a bloody mess,” Harry muttered as they passed a table where some very non-private dancing was taking place, as Percy would put it.

    Ron shuddered at the image that conjured in his mind and subtly cast a detection spell as soon as they had taken their seats. Indeed - the room was filled with overlapping charms of all kinds. At least the spells looked powerful and hard to break, though that was scant consolation in his opinion. No spell was unbreakable, after all.

    On the other hand, there were a lot of spells to break before the room shrank to its tiny natural dimensions, so there would be plenty of time to flee once the first charms started failing. A little genie appeared at their table a moment later, fluttering around and chattering too fast to be understood as she dropped off three menus, then hovered above the table, smiling expectantly at them.

    Ron ordered another raki by pointing at the menu, Harry went for beer and Ari for water. The genie nodded so rapidly that Ron feared her head might break off, then shot away, trailing sparks on her way to the bar.

    Ari frowned. “Are they related to hummingbirds?”

    “I don’t think so,” Ron replied.

    “It’s theoretically possible, I think,” Harry added, without taking his eyes off the rest of the room, “but it’s unlikely that the Atlanteans are responsible for too many magical species. We certainly never found any hint of such small races in their texts.”

    “Like faeries?” Ari offered.

    “Ginny and Luna might know more about the relationship, if there is one, between faeries and genies,” Ron said. “The jinn claim genies are minor spirits of air.”

    Ari’s snort showed what she thought of that, but then, she really didn’t like jinn.

    “So, who do we talk to here?” Harry asked. “The bartender?”

    “No.” Ron looked around. “It’s supposed to be the favourite venue of a number of highly-placed officials in the palace.” He grinned when he spotted the dancer Zeynep had often mentioned when gossipping. The description fit her perfectly. Slender, too slender for proper belly dancing, as Zeynep had claimed, almost floating as she danced, with flames flickering on her pale skin and fiery red hair - a sign of some inhuman ancestor, or very good charmwork. “And that’s due to her,” he added, pointing at the dancer. “Jana. She’s apparently better at spreading gossip and rumours than Lavender and Parvati put together.”

    Harry whistled, obviously impressed. “Too bad we couldn’t have gone straight to her.”

    Ron nodded. That would have clashed with their cover as new arrivals.

    It took Harry half an hour and half their budget for the evening to get the dancer to their table, but things went smoothly afterwards. Jana danced - worth every Galleon, in Ron’s opinion - and then stayed to chat and flirt, talking almost as quickly as the genies flitting around, and acting as if she were impressed by their claims of being experienced Curse-Breakers who had made the find of the decade.

    She seemed genuinely impressed by the Egyptian necklace Harry gifted her, though - it proved they weren’t down on their luck, but could spare the gold to be generous even according to her standards. That should ensure that she would talk about them to her regular patrons. Especially if she wore the necklace during the next few evenings.

    Sirius’s gold and loot had been well-spent, in Ron’s opinion. Now they just had to sit around a little longer to play their roles before they could return to the inn where Hermione and Mallory were working on the skull.

    *****​

    “Someone’s stalking us,” Ari said a few minutes after they had left the Dancing Scimitar. She smelled the air. “Different smell.”

    So not the Storm Wizards, Ron Weasley thought. Probably thieves - it seemed they had been a little too effective in spreading the word about their relics for sale.

    “How many?” Harry asked in a low voice. All of them had drawn their wands.

    “Four.”

    They could handle four thugs - unless they were walking into an ambush with more thieves waiting. But that was a little difficult in Constantinople; floating lamps illuminated most alleys. On the other hand, there were plenty of opportunities to use illusions to hide behind. “Lose them?” he asked. Both Ari and Harry hesitated, so he added: “We don’t want to draw attention.”

    “Well, we actually do want to draw attention, just not this kind,” Harry said.

    “Smartass,” Ron shot back.

    “How do we lose them?” Ari asked. “Apparition’s blocked in the city.”

    In the streets, at least. The skies were patrolled by jinn and Janissaries, but there weren’t enough of them to cover everything.

    Not that it mattered. “By making a detour,” Ron replied, “through Istanbul.”

    They kept walking down the wide street until they reached the closest exit to the muggle city, then turned and walked slightly faster. If the thieves had anticipated this… Ron clenched his teeth as he flicked his wand, recasting his Human-presence-revealing Charm.

    But nothing and nobody stopped them until they stepped through an illusionary wall into a side-alley covered by Muggle-Repelling Charms. As soon as they were in the alley, they apparated to another empty alley, on the other side of the city.

    A quick change of clothes later, they were back in Magical Constantinople and on the way to their inn.

    However, that trick wouldn’t help them when they had to meet interested buyers. And the thieves would know that. Which meant that their stay was bound to be a little more exciting than they had hoped.

    Still better than their last visit, Ron thought.



    *****​
     
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2019
    Najdrox, TheEyes, Izicata and 2 others like this.
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: Set-Up
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 18: Set-Up

    ‘At first sight, one cannot but wonder why harems still exist in the Magical Ottoman Empire. A witch is a wizard’s equal, after all - ‘magic doesn’t care about gender’, to quote the first female British Minister for Magic, Artemisia Lufkin. And while it’s understandable that Ottoman wizards managed to have harems before the Statue of Secrecy was instituted in 1692 when such a custom was normal and widespread in the Ottoman Empire, it’s harder to explain why this peculiar institution survived the separation of the magical world from the muggle world. There is, in fact, no single explanation. Instead, several factors have contributed to the institution’s continuing existence.
    The Statue of Secrecy, despite the claims of certain blood bigots, neither caused nor resulted from a divide between muggle and wizarding culture. Ottoman wizards lived and felt very much like Ottoman muggles, especially among the upper classes - those who could afford what is regarded in Europe as the typical harem, instead of merely the name for the women’s quarters in a household. So when the Magical Ottoman Empire was formed, most wizards and witches simply continued living as they had - and this included harems.
    And while wizards and witches were equal where magical talent was concerned, which, in theory, should have led to the end of the harems as witches demanded equal rights, the Ottoman practice of slavery counteracted this. Young enslaved wizards, mostly muggleborns sold by their parents or kidnapped by slavers, were raised - sometimes after being obliviated - to become Janissaries guarding the Sultan and enforcing his will while enslaved witches were sent to the harems of the upper classes. Thus, the demographic pressures which should have threatened the system were mitigated.
    Tradition itself was also a factor, as is the case with many institutions. People raised within a system seldom question it - no matter its qualities, or lack thereof. The fact that those witches who questioned the system were usually allowed to live their lives as they wished further stabilised the institution by creating the illusion that every witch in a harem had chosen that life. That this wasn’t true for many poorer witches pressured by their families, and was most definitely false for the large numbers of slaves in the harems, many of them Veela, unfortunately wasn’t much of a concern, even for the dissidents among the Ottoman witches throughout most of the history of the Magical Ottoman Empire.
    However, a closer look at the current state of the institution shows that even within the harems, the times are changing. The average size of a harem has continuously shrunk since 1692, a trend which was accelerated by the measures taken in the last few decades by magical Europe to curb the practice of slavery. With the supply of new slaves drying up, sooner rather than later the demographic reality of the situation will lead to the end of harems as the system will break down in the face of demographic pressure in conjunction with underprivileged wizards and witches demanding equal rights.’
    - Excerpt from ‘A Critical Atlas of the Magical World’ by Hannelore Breitbart, Berlin, 2001


    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 22nd, 2001

    Hermione Granger twisted her wand, adjusted the spell on the skull - one of the core binding spells - then withdrew her wand. “Can you talk to the Atlantean now? I mean, can you hear him?”

    “You can call him a ghost, my dear,” Mr Sayadi replied. “I don’t mind. And, unfortunately, he is still not answering me - or if he is, I can’t hear him.”

    Which meant communication was still blocked. She sighed. “I hoped that adjustment would do the job,” she muttered.

    “Why don’t you break the spells one by one until the blockage vanishes?” Mr Mallory asked.

    She refrained from rolling her eyes. The older wizard wasn’t a Curse-Breaker; he wouldn’t know. “Because I don’t know exactly what the different binding spells do. If we’re unlucky, I break the spell that keeps the Atlantean ghost bound to the skull, and we lose him.”

    “Or me,” Mr Sayadi added. “I am merely a ghost, but I would still like to see this through and satisfy my curiosity, however artificial it might be.”

    Uh-oh. Mr Sayadi’s ghost sounded as if he were about to ponder his nature again. While theoretically fascinating, such discussions tended to distract and delay their work. “Let’s try something else,” she said and focused one more time on the intricate lattice of spells on the skull. Perhaps if she tweaked that link there…

    “Still no answer,” Mr Sayadi said before she could ask.

    “But you felt that I had done something?” That might be the breakthrough they needed!

    “No. I’m sorry to dash your hopes - I merely anticipated how long you’d take based on your previous attempts.”

    Hermione sighed again. “Let’s take a break. Harry, Ron and Ari should be back soon.”

    “Let’s hope they’ve had better luck than we have,” Mr Mallory muttered.

    “We’re making progress,” Hermione said, her tone a little sharper than she had intended. “It’s taking time, that’s all.” They would probably have to wait for someone to contact them, anyway.

    Mr Mallory pressed his lips together, then slowly nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just… We’re so close, yet the Storm Wizards are threatening to ruin everything.”

    “And to kill us,” Mr Sayadi added. “Well, you - I’m already dead. Or the real me is. It’s quite a peculiar situation. I wonder how other ghosts see their situation. I never really talked to one. In hindsight, that’s a rather obvious oversight.”

    “I’m sorry for your death,” Mr Mallory said.

    He didn’t sound very sorry to Hermione. More embarrassed and angry. She could see his jaw muscles tense.

    “It wasn’t your fault. I decided to grab the relics before they could fall into Kohlmeier’s hands,” Mr Sayadi replied, almost cheerfully. “You were merely smarter and faster than me.”

    The other wizard closed his eyes. “I was afraid and simply ran away.”

    “Which is the smart thing to do in most battles,” Mr Sayadi said. “I could say I’m the dead or unliving proof of that.”

    Or the proof that something had gone wrong when his ghost was formed, Hermione thought. “No one blames you for retreating,” she told Mr Mallory.

    “I do,” he said, sighing. “I had such dreams, you know.”

    “Dreams?” Hermione cocked her head.

    “Dreams to fight the houngans. Topple their regime. Stop them from kidnapping more children.”

    “They stopped, or were stopped by Dumbledore,” she pointed out.

    “He saved me, you know.”

    She did and nodded.

    “But they just learned to be more discreet,” he went on. “Kidnappings are still happening. And you saw what else they do. The zombies, the dark curses…”

    She nodded. No one thought well of the houngans.

    “Almost my entire life I dreamed of fighting them, but I never did. And now, I might be facing a worse enemy. Someone trained by Grindelwald and the houngans. And I’ve run once already.”

    “No one expects you to fight,” she told him, though she wasn’t certain whether she was lying.

    And judging by his expression, he wasn’t certain, either.

    Mr Sayadi’s far too cheerful voice broke the silence after about half a minute. “So, let’s try another spell?”

    Hermione sighed but nodded, lifting her wand. One more attempt.

    *****​

    “Do you see anyone?” Harry Potter whispered into his enchanted pin as he studied the inn’s entrance across the street.

    “Nothing,” Ron replied through the pin. “Roofs are clear.”

    “Streets are not,” Ari chimed in. “No Storm Wizards.”

    The streets were still quite populated, Harry could see as much from his vantage point. But to observe the inn’s entrance, one would have to stay in place. And if the roofs were clear, that left the streets and the neighbouring houses - or the inn’s bar.

    Which meant they could either wait for half an hour and see if they caught a lookout, or skip the inn’s entrance and head to their room through alternate means. Such as using the window while disillusioned and on a broom.

    He touched his pin again. “Hermione?”

    “Yes? Are you in trouble?”

    “No. But we haven’t yet spotted whoever’s watching the inn,” he replied.

    “If someone’s watching the inn.”

    “Yes,” he admitted. The thieves following them could have been merely opportunists who had overheard them in a bar. But Harry doubted that.

    “Have you dealt with the wards on the inn?”

    “Yes.” He could hear her sigh. “I guess you plan to enter through the window, then?”

    “Yes.”

    “Ari, don’t scratch the wall,” Hermione said. “Claw marks would give us away.”

    Ari huffed in response. Apparently, she had wanted to climb up to the window, Harry realised.

    Well, keeping their identities hidden was more important than climbing practice. “Let’s gather and fly up,” he said.

    A few minutes later, after ensuring that no one disillusioned was close enough to the window to spot them with a Human-presence-revealing Spell, Harry jumped off his broom and landed in their room, followed by Ron and Ari.

    Hermione hugged him right away - she probably had been a little more worried than she had let on.

    “I assume Mr Potter, Mr Weasley and Miss Ari have returned, then,” Mr Sayadi’s voice interrupted them.

    “Yes,” Hermione replied.

    Harry stared at the skull. The ghost was far too cheerful, in his opinion, for someone bound to a skull and not even able to look through its eyes. Hermione believed that a spell kept the ghost happy, but she hadn’t found any trace of it, yet, which made Harry doubt that that was true.

    “And you brought trouble back,” Mallory added.

    “Potential trouble,” Harry corrected him as Hermione released him. “But we should move to Istanbul. Even if the thieves haven’t found us yet, they will.” But they wouldn’t be able to find them in the muggle metropolis. It was simply too big to be searched, and they could easily pass as muggle tourists.

    “That will make it harder to case the joint,” Ron said.

    “We’re not ‘casing the joint’,” Hermione said through clenched teeth. “We’re scouting the objective. We’re not American gangsters!”

    “But we’re posing as them,” Ron replied with a grin. “So we have to speak like them, or we’ll ruin our disguises.”

    Hermione huffed at that. Harry managed to keep a serious expression. Or at least a neutral one. “We’ll have to change disguises anyway,” Hermione said with a scowl.

    “We can deal with thieves,” Ari said. “They didn’t look skilled. Take them out and keep disguises.”

    “That might cause trouble,” Harry pointed out. “Whoever’s backing them might send more people.”

    “Might be simple thieves,” Ari replied. “We don’t know until we beat them and find out. If they are alone, there’s no problem.”

    “We can’t just kill them,” Hermione protested.

    Ari snorted. “Can hand them to guards.”

    “That will draw attention from the Janissaries,” Hermione retorted.

    “We can vanish and change disguises either way - but if we capture a thief, we can find out if they are working for someone. Otherwise, we’ll have to keep speculating,” Ron added with a shrug. “It’s risky either way, but I’d prefer to do something instead of merely hiding. We don’t have unlimited time, after all.”

    Hermione huffed again, but Ron and Ari had a point. Harry nodded. “We should still move to the muggle city, though.” Hermione would be safer there while she was working with Mallory on the skull.

    “And get new disguises,” Hermione said. “We need to start observing the Palace to find a way to get inside.”

    “You are not planning to reuse the plan for Bey’s palace then, I take it,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost commented.

    “No,” Harry said. “Such an attempt will be expected after the spectacle we made last time.”

    “Although with the right disguises, we might be invited into the palace anyway,” Ron suggested.

    “I don’t think we can seduce another of the Sultan’s wives,” Harry told him, raising his eyebrows. “You sort of ruined that plan for everyone else.”

    “I wasn’t thinking about that,” Ron retorted, “and it wasn’t like that anyway, thank you very much. The Sultan and his court aren’t isolating themselves. There are dozens of meetings every day in the palace.” He grinned. “All we need is an excuse - and I think dealing with the thieves might help us out with that.”

    Oh. Harry smiled in response. “I see what you mean.”

    Ron’s idea might just solve two problems at once.

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 23rd, 2001

    He might have been a little too optimistic, Ron Weasley thought as he walked down the alley in Constantinople. Not that he doubted his own plan, of course - he was certain that they could deal with a bunch of thieves. And not in the jinni sense of the word.

    But if he were honest, he would have to admit that he would have preferred it if he didn’t have to play bait. Of course, the thieves wouldn’t strike to kill - they would want to find out where Ron and his friends had hidden the relics, first.

    Which was one reason he was walking alone, instead of with Ari - so the thieves wouldn’t be tempted to kill one of them to make capturing the other easier. And he didn’t want her playing bait if he could do it - it was his idea, after all, even if Harry had helped plan it.

    Still, he wished the bloody thieves would strike already.

    As if on cue, he heard Harry’s whisper through the enchanted pin in his collar. “Nothing. I don’t see anyone from up here.”

    And Ari chimed in. “Don’t smell anything either.” She was paralleling him in the side alleys - the more dangerous position, in his opinion. Harry, up in the sky on his Firebolt, might run into a jinn or Janissary patrol, but some of the side alleys in the city, at this time of the evening, housed almost as many dark creatures as the backstreets of Knockturn Alley.

    He really wished the thieves would make their move now - he was on his way back from his last stop of the evening, the Dancing Scimitar. If he also had to repeat this tomorrow…

    He shook his head as if to clear it from too much raki and entered the side alley to his right. “Something moved on the roof,” Harry whispered. Ron tensed, but a moment later, Harry added: “It’s not a human - it’s a cat.”

    It could be an animagus, of course - but would someone skilled enough to learn that be working with such thieves? Yes, they would, of course, if these were not mere thieves. Ron clenched his teeth as he approached the alley’s exit. That would be a good spot to ambush him… was that a muffled voice?

    “Two people moving towards the side alley,” Harry reported.

    “Two more coming from behind you,” Ari added. “Passed me without noticing.”

    Amateurs, then. Perfect.

    He grinned as the two thugs - dressed in ratty cloaks but with more expensive looking boots - appeared in front of him, their wands out.

    As was his. A moment after his Shield Charm appeared, a Stunner splashed against it. Another, half a second later, missed as Ron dropped to the ground and cast a Stunner of his own that struck the leading thug. He heard the other thug curse, then yell about help - probably aimed at the other two closing in on Ron from behind.

    Ron rolled to the side - wincing at the smell of the puddle he ended up in - and jumped up, sending another Stunner at the remaining thug, but the other man had ducked behind a broken barrel, and Ron’s Stunner only hit rotten wood. He had to refrain from casting a Reductor Curse and blasting the man with wooden splinters from the barrel, but they would risk their disguise if they fought like they usually did. Which meant Stunners only.

    The thug yelled again for help but stayed in cover - no, he just cast a Reviving Spell on the downed thug. Ron gritted his teeth and hit the rising man with another Stunner before the thug realised what had happened.

    “I’m landing,” he heard Harry whisper. “Janissary carpet incoming.”

    Which meant they had to finish this quickly for their - his - plan to work. Ron jumped up and charged at the remaining thug, sending another Stunner ahead to force the man to stay in cover. He had almost reached the barrel when it suddenly flew at him, smashing into his Shield Charm.

    Ron threw himself to the side, expecting more curses - and rolled over the stunned thug, coming up in a crouch. The other thug was still turning to face him, his wand moving, when Ron’s next Stunner hit him in the chest and took him down.

    “Two down,” he reported. “Ari?”

    “Two down. In the alley.”

    Good. That meant they could play this as a simple ambush gone wrong for the thieves.

    *****​

    “So you noticed someone following you, Mr Smith?” The Janissary officer sounded more bored than suspicious, as well as a little slow, but that could be a trick. Like that muggle detective on the telly Sirius liked so much. Ron Weasley wasn’t about to underestimate the witch - she had to be skilled to be an officer in the Janissaries.

    He smiled at her. “I didn’t - my girlfriend did. They must have missed her - she wasn’t in the Dancing Scimitar, but met me outside.”

    “Ah.” The Janissary nodded. “Why?”

    “We wanted to go back to our hotel together,” Ron said.

    “Why wasn’t she in the Dancing Scimitar?”

    “She doesn’t like the smoke,” Ron replied truthfully.

    “So she waited outside while you enjoyed the drinks and dancers inside.”

    “I wasn’t inside long. Just checking if there were people interested in buying antiques.” Ron kept smiling.

    “Antiques.” The witch didn’t bother hiding what she thought about that.

    “Perfectly legitimate,” Ron replied. “We have the documents for them from the Pasha in Alexandria.” Who would sign anything for the right bribe. Which the Janissary officer would know, of course. But a Pasha was a Pasha.

    “I see.” She glanced at the sheet on her desk. “Just the two of you took out four thugs. Without ambushing them, either. Impressive.”

    Ron shrugged. “Wasn’t that hard.”

    “Are you mercenaries?”

    He shrugged. “We prefer less violent work. Like recovering relics. But we have learned to defend ourselves against bandits.” He leaned forward and gave her his best smile. “Do you know if those four were their whole gang?”

    “We are still investigating,” she said. After a moment’s hesitation, she added: “But we will inform you as soon as we know more.” For the first time in the interrogation, she smiled a little.

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 24th, 2001

    “No wonder this club is so popular,” Hermione Granger remarked as they entered the Dancing Scimitar and she spotted the scantily clad dancers.

    Harry cleared his throat. “Well… yes?”

    She frowned at him, and he grinned in return. “Don’t tell me you didn’t expect this.”

    Of course she had - they had been to Constantinople before, after all, though not to this particular club. She huffed instead of answering as they told the jinni where they wanted to sit.

    That was an impressive and novel way to handle seating, she thought. It created a rather non-Euclidean room, though - and the way all these Extension Charms overlapped must be a nightmare for any Curse-Breaker trying to manipulate them. Or fix something going awry. She wondered just how many of the patrons in the club were aware of that.

    Although she liked the fact that the setup kept their backs to the wall despite them forming a semi-circle facing the centre of the room as they sat down on the cushions. The club was supposed to be safe, but with the Storm Wizards in the city, she didn’t trust the guards and wards of the place to resist a dedicated attack by Kohlmeier. The sheer number of spells of so many different sorts that were used inside the club would make it very hard to detect an attempt to disable its protections.

    Though she had to admit that the entire setup, including the genies serving as waiters and waitresses, was very impressive. The Dancing Scimitar made similar venues in Britain look like muggle clubs. Which wasn’t a bad thing, of course.

    Ari complained about the ‘stench of perfume’ again, but Hermione ignored her. It wasn’t as if she could help the other witch out when Ari was adamant about ‘not ruining my nose’ by using spells to filter the air around her. No, instead she was paying attention to the other guests. And she didn’t like what she saw. “They don’t look particularly impressed by us,” she commented after the genie had served them their drinks - water for her.

    “They wouldn’t show their interest like that,” Ron said. “That’s not how it’s done. But between defeating a gang of thieves and having perfectly legal relics for sale, we did make an impression.”

    Well, he was the closest they had to an expert on Ottoman high society.

    “Oh, there’s Jana.”

    Hermione looked up on hearing Harry’s remark. The dancer didn’t look as attractive as her description had led Hermione to believe. Exotic, certainly. Graceful, indeed. But Hermione had seen more beautiful women. Granted, not too many, and a number of them had been Veela, but still… She pressed her lips together. The dancer was too attractive for her taste.

    And she was coming to their table. Which was expected, of course. Hermione still didn’t like it.

    “Oh, Mr Jones,” Jana beamed at them as she greeted Harry. “And you are?” she turned to Hermione.

    “Mrs Jones,” Hermione said with a fake smile. Best to draw the line right away.

    To her displeasure, Jana merely smiled in return. “Welcome to the Dancing Scimitar.” Addressing all of them, the dancer asked: “Would you like a performance?”

    “Yes, please,” Harry said. Hermione refrained from answering.

    Jana flicked her wand - Hermione noticed that it was kept in the sleeve of her costume - and conjured a small, round stage in front of their table. A swish of her wand caused music to start playing - limited to their table.

    Then she stepped on the stage and started dancing. And she was, Hermione had to admit, very good at it. Her performance went beyond traditional belly dancing by including levitation and illusion magic, perhaps elemental manipulation, if the flames on her skin were real, and it was a work of art. And alluring. Very alluring.

    Halfway through the dance, she felt Harry wrap his arm around her. She tensed for a moment - was she so transparent? Did he think she was insecure and needed the reassurance? - but then she leaned into his side and appreciated the gesture for what it was: a statement that they were together.

    *****​

    “So, I’ve heard that you trounced four bandits,” Jana said in her lilting voice.

    Harry Potter nodded at Ron and Ari. “They did. We weren’t there.”

    “Ah.” The dancer, sitting on the cushion she had transfigured her stage into, smiled at the other couple at the low table. “It must have been quite the fight.”

    Ari snorted. “They were stupid.”

    “We’ve fought far more dangerous opponents,” Ron replied. “A few Stunners was all it took.”

    “Which is usually a bad choice when you’re outnumbered,” Hermione cut in, “since it’s easy to wake up a victim of a Stunner.”

    She wasn’t tense any more, Harry noticed. It had been a good idea to drag her with them today, while Mallory was brewing his special potions to keep his curse at bay. Between the Storm Wizards’ presence, Mr Sayadi’s fate and the continuing challenge posed by the skull, all of them were more than a little stressed.

    “Ah.” Jana nodded, sipping from the very expensive drink they had bought her. “Then it’s even more impressive. Jamal has tried to arrest these bandits for some time.”

    “Jamal?” Ron asked.

    “A Janissary leader I know,” she explained.

    “We didn’t meet him, I don’t think,” Ron said, “when we were at their base.”

    “He is seldom on duty during the night.”

    That explained that. “I hope he won’t be jealous that we caught them,” Ron said. Ari snorted again but didn’t comment.

    “Oh, no - it wasn’t his failure, after all, but his subordinates’.”

    Which meant a number of lower-ranked Janissaries might blame them for showing them up. At least a single officer could have been easily bribed.

    “Too bad,” Ron said. “We couldn’t let them rob us to spare the Janissaries’ pride, could we?”

    Everyone laughed at that.

    Jana took another sip from her cup. “The bandits wanted to steal your ‘relics’, right?”

    “Presumably,” Ron said. “We’re still looking for an interested buyer, by the way.”

    “I might be able to help you there,” Jana replied, emptying her cup and beaming at them.

    Harry ordered another drink for her.

    *****​

    So, Köprülüzade Ozan Pasha was interested in their relics. He was a high-ranking official at the Sultan’s court - Jana’s information matched what Ron Weasley had heard from Zeynep last year. So it looked like this could be their ticket into the palace, at least, even if Köprülüzade wasn’t responsible for the Sultan’s collection. At least the man didn’t have ties to the Janissaries, according to Jana.

    Ron looked across the room to the table behind which Köprülüzade was seated. It took more than a little practice to focus on the right table between all the overlapping Extension Charms, but Ron had dealt with worse - some Egyptians had been very fond of stacking spell upon spell to confuse grave robbers. The official was middle-aged, as far as Ron could tell, but looked quite fit in his open vest, using his wand to animate the cups on the table for the amusement of his companions - two witches who looked like courtesans, in Ron’s opinion.

    “We’re supposed to go to him?” Ari asked next to him.

    “Yes. We’re foreign tomb raiders, and he’s a high-ranking noble at the court,” Ron explained.

    “Ah. Power play,” she said, nodding.

    “Posturing,” Hermione added.

    Both witches smiled at each other as if there was more to it. Ron glanced at Harry, who cleared his throat. “So, let’s go meet him and see if we can come to a deal.”

    As with looking at it, walking to Köprülüzade’s table took a certain amount of focus - unless you merely followed someone else, like one of the genies who Ron had noticed guiding guests around. But he was a Curse-Breaker; he didn’t need a guide. Nor did his friends. And they had an impression to make.

    “Ah, Mr Smith and Mr Jones,” Köprülüzade greeted them. “And Mrs Smith and Mrs Jones,” he added with a nod that was just shy of a bow.

    Ron and his friends did bow in return. “Pasha Köprülüzade,” Ron said.

    “Please, sit down.” The man gestured at his companions. “These are Ecrin and Nisanur.”

    Ron bowed again, then sat. A moment later, a couple of genies swept in and served raki to everyone. Fortunately, Hermione and Ari hid their distaste. As soon as the little creatures had flown off, each carrying a Galleon almost as heavy as themselves, Köprülüzade raised his own cup. “To the Sultan’s health!”

    “To the Sultan’s health!”

    Ron took a sip, nothing more - dulling your wits with alcohol was a bad idea under the best circumstances for a Curse-Breaker. In a city like Constantinople, with Storm Wizards hiding among the population? Only a fool would do such a thing. Especially in a club where, due to dozens of Extension Charms warping space, not even Ari’s nose could make out where Kohlmeier’s wands were sitting.

    “I’ve heard good things about you - and not just from my dear Jana,” Köprülüzade said as soon as his cup was back on the table.

    Which was fine in Ron’s book, of course. “The robbers?” He cocked his head. “Nuisances. We fought far worse bandits in Egypt.”

    “Really? That sounds very interesting.” The Ottoman leaned slightly forward, his eyes shining. “Would you regale me and my friends with that tale?”

    Ron forced himself to keep smiling. He didn’t like lying, but it would be too dangerous to tell some of their actual exploits, even slightly changed - someone might make the connection, and, whether it was a Janissary or a Storm Wizard, even a suspicion could ruin their plans. So he nodded and cleared his throat. “It was about six months ago - we had just found traces of a new tomb…”

    *****​

    “...and then we flew to Alexandria with our carpet so overloaded, it barely managed to clear the dunes,” Ron Weasley finished his story.

    Köprülüzade laughed - a deep, rumbling laugh. He sounded and looked jovial. But he was a pasha at the Sultan’s court - no wizard reached or held such a position without being far smarter, and far more ruthless, than the man’s smiling expression indicated. The titbits Zeynep had told Ron about the machinations of the court had left no doubt that the competition for positions and influence in the Sublime Porte was literally cut-throat. “A remarkable story. And, judging by your feat the other night, not very embellished. No more than needed to make it entertaining.”

    Ron laughed along with everyone else at that. They needed the man to be in good humour - and it had been a made-up story anyway. Even though he had put it together from some of their past adventures. The lesser known, of course - they couldn’t appear too skilled, or people would consider them liars or wonder why they weren’t more widely known.

    “And afterwards, you travelled to The City?” Ecrin asked.

    “Not directly,” Harry replied. “We took a detour, in case the bandits had friends or relatives chasing us.”

    Ecrin looked confused, which had to be an act - no courtesan dallying with a high-ranking noble would be simple-minded. But Ron indulged her anyway. “If anyone had been chasing us, they would have revealed themselves.”

    “But they didn’t,” Köprülüzade said, gesturing for another round of drinks. “And so you reached The City, to sell your loot.”

    “The recovered artefacts,” Hermione corrected him. “Perfectly legal.”

    “Of course.” Köprülüzade’s smile showed what he thought about their claims - which meant their deception was working. “Have you been contacted by interested buyers already?”

    Ron kept smiling - the man was trying to rile them up - but before he could answer, Harry leaned forward. “Do you count?”

    Köprülüzade chuckled again. “I have an interest in such things, yes.” The arrival of half a dozen chittering genies carrying another bottle of raki - and a decidedly muggle soft drink - interrupted him. The little creatures flew around, three per bottle, and quickly filled their cups and glasses before leaving again, once more loaded down with Galleons. Köprülüzade was quite generous - although Ron didn’t know if the genies got to keep the gold, or had to hand it over to their masters. Or were tricked into buying vastly overpriced sweets and muggle sodas with them, as Hermione suspected.

    The man took a swallow from his drink, then sighed. “Yes, I am interested in antiques.”

    Ron saw that Hermione was about to correct the man again, but Harry’s hand on her thigh stopped her - something neither the Ottoman nor his companions missed.

    “They’re quite rare. And perfectly legal,” Ron said. “Which is a rarity in itself, given the goblins’ policies.”

    “It’s remarkable just how many Egyptian tombs are found outside Egypt proper, isn’t it?” Köprülüzade grinned.

    “Indeed.” Ron nodded in agreement. The Egyptian pashas hadn’t lost much time in finding ways to get back at the goblins - or around the monopoly the goblins had managed to achieve. As long as a tomb wasn’t in Egypt, the goblins couldn’t claim it. And the pasha’s officials didn’t require much, if any, proof of such a claim. Nor did the goblins when bounty hunters brought in grave robbers caught in Egypt, of course. Or their remains.

    “I would have to see them before I could decide if they would be a good addition to my collection, of course,” Köprülüzade said, slowly inclining his head.

    “Of course,” Ron replied. “Where would you like to inspect them?” He forced himself to relax - if Köprülüzade wanted to meet them outside the Sultan’s palace grounds, they would have to find another interested buyer, and without insulting Köprülüzade.

    But the official smiled. “Have you ever visited the Sultan’s palace? It’s a sight to see - the most beautiful and most impressive part of The City.”

    Ron smiled widely and did his best to look impressed. It wasn’t hard.

    *****​

    An hour later, long past midnight, they finally parted ways with the Ottoman noble. As soon as they had gained a little distance from the Dancing Scimitar, Hermione handed out vials of the potion she had prepared. Ron Weasley quaffed his - it tasted worse than it smelled, and a whiff of it made Ari retch - but it neutralised the alcohol in his blood and stomach. Even though he had taken care not to get drunk, he could still feel the difference as the potion took effect.

    He stretched. “So… that went just as planned.”

    Harry scoffed. “So far. It’s just a start, nothing more.”

    “But a good start,” Ron replied. “Now all we need is a little luck, and we’re set.”

    “All we need to do now,” Hermione cut in, “is to return to our hotel.”

    “Right. Let’s…” Harry trailed off as Ari suddenly growled.

    “Smell Prussians,” she whispered, nodding down the alley.

    And Ron saw two figures walking towards them from that direction. Directly towards them.

    “‘Good start’, hm?” he heard Harry complain as if this were Ron’s fault.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger looked around as she cast a Shield Charm followed by a Human-presence-revealing Spell. “No one disillusioned in range,” she reported in a whisper.

    “Don’t smell anyone else,” Ari added.

    That didn’t mean there were no other Storm Wizards than the two approaching them, of course. An entire group of them could be hiding downwind, out of range of Hermione’s spell. But the line of sight was blocked by the buildings around them - they would have to approach to curse them. Unless they were floating above them.

    Harry, of course, had thought of that already. “Let’s move under the oriels here,” he said.

    They split up - Harry and Hermione to the left, Ron and Ari to the right. The two Storm Wizards stopped, and one raised his hands in a placating gesture. “We’re here to talk,” the wizard said aloud in English - but the other was looking around. Looking for an ambush?

    “Talk, then,” Harry said in a flat voice. He was acting a little, though Hermione couldn’t place the movie he was quoting.

    The Storm Wizards stopped walking, but the first one made a point of looking around. Tough - every Curse-Breaker knew that keeping a safe distance would keep you alive more often than not.

    “We would like to talk to you in a more private place,” the man said. “Your choice of the location, of course.”

    “About?” Harry was still playing the monosyllabic movie character.

    “Business.” The other man’s voice carried a hint of amusement. “The kind of business not discussed in public.”

    “That doesn’t narrow it down,” Harry replied.

    “Profitable business. You’ll be paid just to meet us.”

    “Words are cheap. Galleons aren’t.”

    Hermione couldn’t help frowning, but the man chuckled. “Here’s a down payment, then.” He pulled a purse out of his robes and lobbed it about five yards towards Harry. It hit the ground with a metallic noise.

    Hermione flicked her wand at once and levitated the purse a little closer - into range of her detection spells - while the others kept an eye on the Storm Wizards. After a minute, she nodded. “The purse looks free of curses.” Then she sliced the bag open with a Severing Charm. Galleons poured out and on the cobblestones. Another flick of her wand vanished the purse, then she examined the coins. “Clear,” she finally announced.

    “I see the rumours weren’t exaggerating,” the Storm Wizard said as she collected the coins in a conjured purse of her own.

    Harry grunted in reply. They really needed to talk about his taste in movies.

    “You’ll get the same sum again for meeting us.”

    “How can we contact you?” Harry asked.

    The man smiled once more. “Send an owl to the Green Ring Inn, with a letter addressed to ‘Karl Meier’.” He nodded, then turned and walked away with the other wizard.

    Hermione made a mental note of the name. It was fake, of course - Meier was one of the most common German names. And one under which he wasn’t known, or he’d have told them to send the owl to him directly. But it would do - if they wanted to talk to the group.

    She had her reservations about that. ‘Karl Meier’ sounded almost like ‘Kohlmeier’.

    *****​

    Turkey, Istanbul, October 25th, 2001

    “It’s probably a trap,” Hermione said as soon as they were back in their hotel room - after a lengthy detour and several apparitions, to lose anyone trailing them, of course - and had woken up Mallory.

    Harry Potter shook his head. “It doesn’t feel like a trap to me.” He raised his hand before Hermione could jump on that. “And there’s a sound reason for that.” She huffed and crossed her arms, but let him talk. He suppressed a smile - he knew her very well, after all. “There’s no need to contact us and let us pick the meeting spot if they wanted to trap us. They could have ambushed us right there in the alley - we know they have enough people in the city.”

    “But if they listened in to our talk with Köprülüzade,” Ron said, “then they might not have been able to get enough together to ambush us before we were gone.”

    “How likely is it that they can defeat our privacy spells?” Harry shot back.

    “Very unlikely,” Hermione replied quickly. “Not without alerting us. They haven’t shown any of the skills that would allow them to do that - on every occasion we saw them, they were attacking protections with conventional means.”

    Harry nodded. “Exactly.” Once more, he refrained from smiling at Hermione’s frown when she realised she had just made a point for him.

    “But they could have - and likely did - observe that we met with the man,” she pointed out.

    “That doesn’t mean they plan to ambush us,” Harry retorted.

    Mallory cleared his throat. “The important question is: Do they know or suspect our identities?”

    Harry took a deep breath as he mulled the question over. Their disguises were good - wigs, contacts, fake beards, even some mouth inserts to change the shape of their faces. Anyone looking for magical disguises would be fooled. But they weren’t perfect.

    Though neither were the Storm Wizards. He shook his head. “I don’t think so. None of them knows us well enough to see through our disguises.”

    “And we were careful not to behave as we usually do,” Ron added.

    “Yet we’re four tomb raiders disguised as tomb raiders,” Hermione said.

    Ron grinned. “Wouldn’t they assume we’d pick a very different disguise?”

    “Would they assume that we would assume that?” Hermione shot back.

    “I don’t think so,” Mallory replied. “That kind of convoluted thinking rarely fits anyone outside Mr Lockhart’s novels. Prussians are usually more straightforward.”

    “Bismarck would disagree,” Hermione muttered.

    “But why would they want to meet with us?” Ari asked.

    “Probably so they can check if we looted an Atlantean tomb,” Ron replied. “We did spread the information about, after all. That means we have to consider that they might be planning to rob us.”

    “We would have to consider that anyway,” Harry pointed out. “But we also need to consider that this is an opportunity to find out more about our enemies.” He was sick of trying to guess Kohlmeier’s next move with barely any information.

    “A dangerous opportunity,” Hermione retorted.

    “Worth the risk,” Ron said. “If we pick the right meeting spot.”

    “Do we have time for that?” Hermione shook her head. “Köprülüzade hasn’t fixed a date for the invitation yet, but he won’t dally for long.”

    “He has to clear it with the Palace staff,” Ron replied. “And he will want to impress us. He’ll take at least a day to arrange everything.”

    “Which means we have less than a day to prepare and meet with people who have been trying to kill us for weeks.” Hermione scowled.

    Harry, though, grinned. “Exactly. And we’ve handled worse problems in less time.”

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 25th, 2001

    Harry Potter looked around the small park overlooking Magical Constantinople’s harbour. Barely any way to hide anyone in range of most curses, with a guard post manned by Janissaries close by to deter any shenanigans. If he were attacked, he could jump over the railing in front of him, and pull out his Firebolt before he hit the water - and be zooming away before most attackers would have a free line of sight towards him.

    And, of course, there were all his friends spread throughout the park. He looked at the small bush next to the bench. “Everything alright?” he hissed.

    “Yes,” the small Ottoman viper hiding there answered. “No humans nearby.”

    Disillusionment Charms blocked most human senses, but snakes could sense vibrations very well. Best companions you could have, really - other than Hedwig, of course. Far smarter than dogs or cats as well.

    He touched the pin in his collar. “Everything’s ready here.”

    “We’re ready as well,” Ron answered. And a huff told Harry that Hermione had heard him and was ready as well, but hadn’t forgiven him yet for insisting on meeting the Storm Wizards by himself - even though it was the most logical way to minimise the risk.

    He didn’t glance towards the roof on which he knew Hermione was waiting with Ron and Ari, all of them disillusioned and with their brooms and wands ready. Too far away to aim precisely - but close enough to conjure and transfigure walls to protect him at a moment’s notice. And to send Blasting Curses at any attackers who revealed themselves while covering the sky with conjured bats and birds to expose and hinder anyone in the air - and block their spells.

    He was almost disappointed when, exactly on time, a single wizard approached his bench. “Mr Jones?”

    “Mr Meier?” Harry replied. He didn’t look like Kohlmeier. That could be a disguise, of course.

    The man nodded. “May I sit down?”

    “Be my guest.”

    A few privacy spells from both of them later, the man spoke again. “Thank you for meeting with me, Mr Jones. After the encounter with those bandits, your caution is perfectly understandable.” He had a very faint German accent, Harry noticed.

    He shook his head. “They were more a nuisance. Dealing with the bureaucracy and the Janissaries was far more of an inconvenience than their attack.”

    The man chuckled. “So I’ve heard.”

    Harry nodded but didn’t say anything.

    “That incident proved your ability to deal with bandits. The fact that you legally brought various Egyptian relics into Constantinople proved that you know your business.”

    “I’d like to think we do,” Harry replied. “Even if we aren’t as famous as other tomb raiders.”

    “Discreet as well.”

    “And humble,” Harry added with a grin.

    That earned him another chuckle which sounded almost honest. “Exactly, Mr Jones. We’ve been looking for people like you.”

    “Oh?” He tensed. If they suspected...

    “We want to hire you, Mr Jones. You and your friends.”

    *****​
     
  14. Wolfboy

    Wolfboy Not too sore, are you?

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    Oh bloody hell, this is almost too rich. Their disguises are so good that the damn storm wizards want to hire them
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  15. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Well, the Storm Wizards didn't exactly know them well to begin with and don't have CSI-level picture analysists :p
     
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: The Sting
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 19: The Sting

    ‘The palace of the Sultan of the Magical Ottoman Empire, also known as the New Palace or the Sultan’s Palace, is the most impressive and most beautiful building in Magical Constantinople. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t erected in a single night the day the Statue of Secrecy officially came into force. Nor was blood magic used in the construction of its wards. However, the building was finished within a month, thanks to the tireless work of bound jinn and the brilliance of the former court wizards of the muggle Sultan who would go on to form both Sultan Suleiman III’s own court and his Janissaries.
    Not that calling the complex a ‘building’ would do justice to its majesty - the New Palace covers more ground than many of the magical quarters in Magical Europe’s capitals, and its spires tower over even the Hagia Sophia. Of course, that is only fitting, since the New Palace also contains the First Temple of the Sky Father, whose magnificence knows no equal as he rules the sky. For although most worship the Sky Father in the Floating Temple, another landmark of The City, the Sultan and his family still pray in the First Temple - doing penance for their people for the thousand and one years they had abandoned their god in favour of a muggle one.
    After the temple, the most impressive part of the palace is, without a doubt, the grand golden dome housing the Sultan’s throne room. Thanks to the powerful magic worked upon it, it’s made of pure gold, the massive walls holding it up inlaid with reliefs depicting the rise of the Ottoman Empire, from its humble muggle roots to the very pinnacle of magic. Here, in the true heart of the Empire, the Sultan holds court over all the people he so wisely rules.
    Behind the dome, with a magnificent view of the Golden Horn, the Sultan’s quarters and, adjacent to these, the Grand Harem, are located - both of which are off-limits to anyone not of the blood or a trusted guard, and so we can only speculate about the wonders contained in either area.
    Lush gardens - in which every variety of flower found within the borders of the Empire is perpetually in bloom - surround this, with fountains offering refreshing water and ponds providing shaded spots where visitors may sit. Here the most docile animals of the Sultan’s personal collection can be found on the lawn and paths, while the more ferocious are kept in enchanted areas spread throughout the gardens. A literal army of genies keeps the gardens pristine, with jinn looking after the animals.
    And surrounding the gardens are the quarters of those fortunate enough to live in the New Palace - the court, the guards and the palace servants. Their homes are enchanted so they look as if they were part of the tall walls of the palace, yet are large enough to satisfy even the proudest of nobles.
    Even though no one without an invitation is allowed inside, no visit to The City is complete without gazing upon this wonder of wonders, the heart of the Magical Ottoman Empire. Foreigners have been observed to weep at its beauty, deploring the fact that they will never again see anything equal to its magnificence.
    - Excerpt from ‘The wonders of The City - a guide to Magnificent Magical Constantinople’ by Evren Kahya, Magical Constantinople, 1901


    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 25th, 2001

    “You want to hire us?” Harry Potter said, hoping his face didn’t betray his surprise.

    ‘Mr Meier’ nodded. “From what we know, you’ve proved your mettle and skill.”

    “That depends on what kind of job you’re hiring us for,” Harry said.

    “Tomb raiding.” The man smiled, faintly - he probably had heard about their insistence on calling themselves tomb raiders rather than grave robbers.

    “That covers a lot of possibilities,” Harry replied.

    “It also pays a lot,” Meier said.

    “It’s a seller’s market - especially in certain countries.” Harry inclined his head, turning it into a question.

    “Egypt, for one,” Meier replied. “An area with which you are familiar, I believe.”

    Harry chuckled to hide his surprise. “You might say so - we’ve come to The City to sell the proceeds from our latest ‘job’ there, after all.”

    “So we’ve heard. We might be interested in your relics as well.”

    Were they? As far as Harry knew, they weren’t after Egyptian relics. But if they wanted to check if the group had Atlantean relics - or something that would help them find the Atlantean relics in Egypt… He frowned. “Köprülüzade is interested in them. He might hold a grudge if we sell to someone else. And he is a tad influential at the court - or so we’ve heard.”

    “That only matters if you plan to stay in Constantinople.”

    “It’s a good market.” Harry held up a hand. “I’m not saying we’re planning to settle here, but if Köprülüzade sets the guards on us, it will make selling the next batch of relics harder.”

    “Gold isn’t a problem,” Meier said.

    Harry narrowed his eyes. That sounded too good to be true. How much did Meier think would be an appropriate sum to compensate for losing access to Constantinople? Or was he planning to stab them in the back anyway? “It’s a priority, though.” He forced himself to grin. “The bottom line is all that counts in the end.”

    “You’re a principled man, Mr Jones.” Meier grinned again. “Rest assured, my employer is very generous. Demanding as well - but very generous. Especially if you’re flexible.”

    Harry wondered if the other man could really be Kohlmeier. “We’re flexible - unless it involves breaking our word or a deal.”

    The man’s smile grew even wider. “I think we’ll get along very well, then.”

    Harry didn’t think so - but he smiled and nodded. “So, what exactly do you have in mind?”

    Meier smiled. “The details have to wait until we have an agreement.”

    “Of course.” Harry nodded. “But I’ll have to know a little more to talk to my friends. We’re tomb raiders, not assassins.”

    “Tomb raiders are known to get into scuffles,” Meier replied.

    “Part of the job - defending yourself and your claim. But we don’t set out to kill people.”

    Meier nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you’re flexible with your claims.”

    Harry nodded again. “Then the most important question is: How much are you paying?” he lied with a smile.

    *****​

    Turkey, Istanbul, October 25th, 2001

    “...and they want to meet us in a more private area,” Harry finished.

    “That’s a lot of gold,” Ron Weasley said. “Either they have very deep pockets, or they don’t plan to actually pay us.” You could promise a lot, after all, if you never planned on fulfilling your promise.

    “They could be trying to gain our trust to lead us into a trap,” Hermione said. “They would have ample time to prepare an ambush now. And the more often we meet with them, the greater the risk of being discovered.”

    “But we might find out their plans. We could sabotage them,” Harry pointed out. “I don’t think they made us. And Meier didn’t feel like an old wizard,” he added. “I never got that… ‘Dumbledore vibe’.”

    “‘Dumbledore vibe’?” Hermione sounded incredulous.

    “You know, very old, very wise wizard,” Harry explained. “Meier never felt like that.”

    “That doesn’t mean Kohlmeier isn’t in the city,” Hermione retorted. “I don’t think he’d meet with a group of tomb raiders in person, disguised or not.”

    Ron cleared his throat. “Even if they haven’t seen through our disguise, they want to hire us for work in Egypt, though,” he said. “That means they might want us to travel there at once. We wouldn’t have time to ‘secure’ the Ottoman collection in that case.”

    “They might want to use us to steal something in the city,” Harry retorted. “Meier was a little vague, but hinted at ‘flexibility’ a little too much.”

    “As reasonings go, that’s a little thin,” Hermione said. “And we already know what they are after in the city - the same thing we want. Do we really want to risk a trap for that?”

    It was obvious that Harry thought so. And, equally obviously, Hermione opposed it.

    “If you know a trap, it’s not a trap,” Ari stated.

    “That’s not exactly true. It just means you can avoid it - but we wouldn’t avoid the trap - we’d walk straight into it,” Hermione was quick to point out.

    “If it’s a trap,” Harry said. “I don’t think so.”

    “Even if it isn’t,” Ron repeated himself, “what do we do if they want us to go to Egypt right away?”

    “Well, we wouldn’t go,” Harry said. “We’d get lost on the way. Make them look for other tomb raiders while we return to Constantinople.”

    “That would make ‘securing’ the collection harder, though,” Ron replied.

    “Not impossible, though. We’d need a new disguise.”

    Hermione scoffed. “We’re running out of good disguises. There’s only so much you can do with muggle props.”

    “We still can do it - and we might not even have to. I think it’s worth the risk.” Harry shook his head.

    “I don’t think so.”

    “I have to admit that I think this plan is a little too dangerous,” Mallory cut in. “And I’m saying this as someone who won’t be meeting them.”

    Ari scoffed. “We will be prepared for treachery.”

    And everyone was looking at him, Ron realised. Including Ari. He sighed. If in doubt, go with your gut, Bill always said. “I think we should meet them - but we should be prepared for the worst.” He looked at Hermione.

    She pressed her lips together, then sighed herself after a few seconds. “Alright. But we will plan this carefully.”

    “Of course!” Harry agreed, reaching out to hug her despite the glare he received in return. Hermione didn’t like to lose an argument. Not even against Harry.

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 25th, 2001

    The Storm Wizards were apparently staying in one of the smaller manors in the city - Nişancı Abdul Pasha’s, to be precise. If he was allied with Kohlmeier, then that was bad news - he was a former governor of Magical Egypt and would still have considerable influence there. That information was helpful already, Ron Weasley thought.

    “Everyone knows the plan?” Hermione asked. Again.

    “Yes,” Ari all but spat. “You asked a dozen times already, and the answer won’t change.”

    “I’m just making sure that we’re ready,” Hermione replied.

    “We know,” Harry said. “And we are ready. If they try anything, they’ll regret it.”

    “Just don’t make me regret it,” she said. And kissed him. For about a minute.

    Ron watched her mount her broom and disillusion herself, then waited until he was certain she was too high up in the air to hear them without the pins. “How did you get her to stay back?”

    “You know that she’s the most precise of all of us,” Harry replied. “So who else could drop a huge rock spike precisely on the part of the manor we aren’t in? And she’s the weakest duellist of all of us.”

    “And she went along with it?” Ron said. Hermione could be very stubborn about things.

    “I told her I couldn’t trust anyone else with this.”

    Ah. “Sneaky.”

    “She is the best choice for this. That it keeps her out of a potential trap is just a bonus,” Harry said. “Now let’s go and meet our new employers.”

    *****​

    The wards on the manor were not as strong as was to be expected given their age, Ron noticed on the way to the gate. They must have been broken sometime in the last few decades, he thought. Probably during one of the coups in the city. Or during the Intervention - although the forces led by Dumbledore would have focused on the New Palace, not individual manors, to deliver a message.

    In any case, it would mean that their plan would work better than expected - if they had to implement it. Which he hoped they wouldn’t. One of these days, a plan of theirs had to work, right?

    The guards at the gate weren’t Storm Wizards - or didn’t look like Storm Wizards. He couldn’t see any spells on them. He glanced at Ari, who frowned, but wasn’t wrinkling her nose. They didn’t smell like Storm Wizards then, either. Which was good enough for him.

    “Mr Jones? Mr and Mrs Smith?” one of the guards said.

    “Yes, that’s us,” Harry said.

    If the guard had expected Mrs Jones as well, he didn’t say so. “Please come in,” he said, gesturing towards the manor’s door as the other guard had the gate swing open with a flick of his wand.

    “Thank you,” Harry said while Ron ended his detection spell. If this was a trap, he couldn’t afford the distraction - and there were no curses on the way to the door.

    The door - dark, massive and wooden, and covered with delicate runes inlaid in gold - swung open as they approached, and a servant - wearing more intricate robes than the guards outside - bowed in greeting. “Welcome,” the man said with a polite smile. “The pasha will be receiving you in the salon.”

    That sounded French, not Turkish, Ron thought. Although he remembered that Zeynep had mentioned that a hundred years ago, French had been all the rage at the Sultan’s court. Food, songs and furniture, or so she had said. And courtesans, of course.

    And, indeed, the room they entered following the servant looked distinctively French, down to the furniture. Actual chairs, and a table to match. Although Nişancı was standing at the window to the interior garden when they entered and turned to greet them. “Welcome to my humble home,” he said.

    “Thank you, Pasha,” Ron replied with a bow. “We’re honoured.”

    Nişancı, though, snorted. “We both know why you’re here.” He looked at the table. “This should be more comfortable for your meeting.”

    Ah. Ron nodded, not quite certain how to answer that.

    Their host snorted again. “Our mutual acquaintance should arrive any moment. Meanwhile, please help yourself to a few refreshments.”

    As if on cue, the servant who had led them here returned, putting a tray with fruits and drinks on the table.

    “Thank you, sir,” Ron said.

    “Hospitality demands no less,” Nişancı replied. He didn’t seem entirely happy to see them, Ron noticed.

    But before he could ask if everything was alright, Mr Meier entered, followed by a man and woman, all dressed in Ottoman robes, and Nişancı said: “Ah, there you are. I’m not needed any more, then.” He left without a further word or glance at them.

    Ron looked at Meier, who shrugged. “He’s a little eccentric.”

    “He doesn’t seem to like our presence,” Harry said.

    “It’s not a problem.” Meier sat down at the table. “He’s not really involved, other than providing us with quarters.”

    Nor did Nişancı want to be involved, it seemed to Ron. Not all.

    “This is Miss Müller, and he’s Mr Schmidt.” Obvious fake names, of course.

    “Charmed,” Ron replied as he took a seat himself.

    “Not quite,” Meier said with a grin.

    Ron didn’t like the man’s humour. A glance told him that Harry shared his sentiments.

    “So, you have a job for us,” Harry said.

    “Ah, straight to the point.” Meier nodded. “It’s refreshing to deal with people from the New World. We have two jobs for you, actually.”

    “Two? We don’t like to split up. We’re a team,” Harry said.

    “Yet Mrs Jones isn’t with us,” Meier replied. He was grinning as if this was funny.

    Harry had been right, Ron realised - the man didn’t feel like an old wizard. Too smug, yet not condescending enough.

    “A precaution. You cannot be too cautious in our business.” Harry shrugged.

    “Wise. But your concerns are baseless - we don’t expect you to split up. One of the jobs is here in the city, the other in Egypt.”

    “We’re not exactly burglars,” Harry said. “Not that we couldn’t break into a place - but we’re usually far from guards.”

    “Living ones, at least,” Ron added.

    “You just have to break through a few wards,” Meier said. “My friends and I will deal with any guards.” His grin showed his teeth this time.

    Ron heard Ari hiss under her breath. “That sounds like we wouldn’t be welcome in the city afterwards. Or in the Empire,” he said.

    “It sounds like this will end with a price on our heads,” Harry added.

    “There shouldn’t be any witnesses to connect you to it,” Meier said. “And if there are you’ll be compensated handsomely for the inconvenience.”

    “That would have to be a very handsome sum,” Harry said, “to compensate for becoming wanted men and women.”

    “Trust me, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We have experience.” Meier flashed his teeth again.

    Ron reconsidered his first impression - this might be Kohlmeier. The man was certainly acting creepy enough.

    Harry made a sceptical noise. “More important is: Do you have the gold?”

    Meier snapped his fingers, and Müller pulled out a purse and upended it over the table. Galleons fell out of it, quickly piling up and covering most of it. That was more than a small fortune.

    “This should cover a job in the city - and the same sum as compensation, if you end up wanted men,” Meier said.

    Ron slowly raised his wand - Müller and Schmidt tensed - and cast a few detection spells. He couldn’t spot any spells on the coins. “They’re legit,” he announced.

    “Half in advance and you have a deal,” Harry said.

    “Perfect.”

    Meier hadn’t haggled, which was a bad sign in Ron’s opinion. But they were committed now.

    “So, what wards do we need to break?” Harry asked.

    “The ones on the Sultan’s private collection,” Meier told them.

    Just as they had suspected. Perfect.

    *****​

    Turkey, Istanbul, October 25th, 2001

    Hermione Granger was annoyed. And angry. “So they want to hire us to steal the Sultan’s collection, and want to use our contact with Köprülüzade to break into the New Palace.” She glared at Harry and the others. “In fact, they want to use the exact same plan we had.”

    Harry smiled at her. “Yes. It’s perfect. We can use that to get the collection with their help, and then get away.”

    She clenched her teeth. “They will expect that.”

    “Won’t help them,” Harry said, shrugging.

    Sometimes, she wanted to hex him. “It won’t be as easy as you think.” She glanced at Ron. He should say something, too!

    “Well, while I don’t share Harry’s optimism, we are now in a position to know what the Storm Wizards are planning - that will make it easier to counter them. Otherwise, we might have stumbled into them in the middle of the heist.”

    It wasn’t a heist! They were merely securing the collection before thieves stole it. But if she corrected him, the others would grin and tease her. And Ron wasn’t entirely wrong. She took a deep breath. “That argument has merit - some merit,” she said. “But on the other hand, now they will be able to keep an eye on us as well. We won’t be able to easily surprise them.”

    “They won’t trust us. Not without guarantees - hostages, or some other leverage,” Mr Mallory added. “That means they’ll be prepared for us trying to betray them.”

    Hermione nodded in agreement.

    “True,” Harry admitted. “But without Kohlmeier here, I don’t think they can stop us.”

    “He wasn’t there. No familiar smell,” Ari said.

    “He could have been using Polyjuice Potion,” Hermione pointed out.

    “His clothes would still smell like him,” Ari replied.

    “Not if he took care to change clothes after he drank the potion. Kohlmeier wouldn’t have evaded every bounty hunter and the IWC for decades if he took chances,” Hermione told her.

    “Few would have dared to enter Jamaica,” Ron pointed out.

    “We almost died when we did it,” Mr Mallory joined in. “He would have been safe there. Captain Neva died,” he added almost as an afterthought.

    “And I don’t think Kohlmeier would come here,” Harry said. “There are too many Janissaries and officials here. Too many people who could recognise him. In Egypt, though, he won’t meet many other wizards or witches. Certainly no guards.”

    Hermione agreed with that. The Ottomans’ hold on Magical Egypt was tenuous even in the capital, but out in the desert?

    “And there he can easily kill whoever gives him trouble,” Ron added, then winced.

    Hermione glared at him. Her friend must have remembered too late who would be the most likely choice to give the Storm Wizard ‘trouble’: Petunia’s group. But, on the whole, her friends were correct. Mostly. She sighed. “Alright, I’ll admit our situation isn’t as bad as I thought.” Harry beamed at her. She glared at him. “But we’ll need to plan our…”

    “Heist!” Ari said.

    “...our mission very, very carefully,” Hermione finished with a glare at the grinning Ari.

    “And very quickly,” Mr Mallory added. “I expect Köprülüzade’s invitation will be delivered to our old inn very soon.”

    “Perfect,” Hermione said with all the sarcasm she could manage.

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 26th, 2001

    The New Palace was impressive. Its wards were a work of art - although, in Hermione Granger’s opinion, the fact that they had been erected with sacrificial magic tainted them. And the palace guards seemed impressive as well. They looked sharp in their splendid robes, with wands drawn and scimitars hanging from their hips - though those were pretty much ceremonial, as she understood it; no one actually fought with blades among the Janissaries. But the half a dozen wizards - all men - glared at the group as they approached the main gate, and Hermione had to resist the urge to recheck her appearance.

    “Good evening!” Harry greeted them. “We’re the Jones and Smith party - we’re expected by Köprülüzade Ozan Pasha.” He presented the invitation.

    The leader of the guard detachment took the invitation with a nod. If he was impressed by the name, it was impossible to tell - the man’s expression didn’t change as he read it, nor when he had an underling check a list in an alcove next to the gate.

    Only when the other Janissary nodded did the leader smile - briefly. “Welcome to the Sultan’s palace. A servant will guide you to Köprülüzade Ozan Pasha’s quarters.” He gestured to them to pass through the gate, but Hermione noticed that the other guards didn’t relax at all. An ambush, or a test? A test was more likely - the Janissaries would have already surrounded them with a hundred wands if they wanted to ambush them.

    So she steeled herself and walked with Harry through the gate, followed by Ron and Ari. She could almost feel something wash over her - some tension in the air. Or so she thought. But she knew it was her imagination. Mostly - some sloppy spellwork actually did leave a tangible effect in the air. But that wouldn’t have been tolerated in the Sultan’s palace.

    And now the Janissaries relaxed. They didn’t slouch or slump, but they weren’t ready to curse them any more.

    “Dark Detectors,” Harry mumbled.

    She agreed with his assessment. Not the most dependable charms, but if appropriately tweaked, few, if any, cursed items would escape notice. And some of the Janissaries would be hidden, watching for spells on them. It wasn’t perfect - but it would serve for the outer parts of the Palace.

    Hermione had no doubt that the Sultan’s quarters and his harem would be much better protected.

    The servant - a jinni, she realised after a closer look - was waiting for them behind the gate, bowing deeply. Hermione refrained from asking if he were a member of al-Jinn’s tribe. Mrs Jones hadn’t been to Tunis, after all.

    “Please follow me,” the jinni said, “Köprülüzade Ozan Pasha’s quarters are this way.”

    “What’s your name?” Hermione asked as he was about to turn away.

    “Alim, Mrs Jones.”

    “Have you been in the Sultan’s service for long, Alim?”

    “Two hundred and thirteen years, Mrs Jones.”

    “That’s after the last tribe of jinn earned their independence, isn’t it?”

    “Yes, Mrs Jones.”

    She didn’t ask if the jinni had been bound - odds were, he had been. “Where are you from?”

    “It doesn’t matter, Mrs Jones.”

    She drew a breath to contradict him, but Harry put his hand on her arm. She frowned at him but didn’t pry further.

    “The quarters of Köprülüzade Ozan Pasha,” Alim announced, opening a sturdy matte-black door set in the wall - almost identical to the half a dozen other doors they had passed on the way. Only the small plaque with a rune set in the centre of the door indicated who its owner was.

    Inside, an entrance hall far too large to fit into the wall greeted them, luxuriously decorated. And Köprülüzade, smiling widely at them, flanked by two servants - none of his relatives would have worn such expensive, but plain robes. “Ah, my friends! Welcome to my humble quarters!”

    “We’re honoured,” Harry said.

    Hermione looked around. ‘Humble’ indeed - if the Egyptian statues lining the walls were originals, the decor was worth more than Grimmauld Place. And she doubted that Köprülüzade would risk the loss of face if he were to display copies and the subterfuge were revealed by a rival.

    “Thirteenth dynasty, I believe,” she said, nodding at the most prominent statue. “The Court Wizard Akenathen the Wise.”

    The Ottoman beamed at her. “You know your history.”

    “What you don’t know will kill you,” she quoted Petunia.

    “Indeed, indeed - in tomb raiding as well as in politics.” The man laughed at his own bon mot, then clapped his hands. “But come, join me in the salon.”

    They passed more Egyptian decor - but less expensive, more recent, this time - on the way. Hermione didn’t ask about those pieces. That would have embarrassed their host. And they needed him to be as boisterous and boastful as possible, so he’d show them the heart of the New Palace. Where the Sultan’s collection was displayed.

    And when she saw how positively opulent the ‘salon’ - despite the name, it was furnished in the Ottoman style, not the French fashion - was, she was cautiously optimistic. It looked like Köprülüzade wanted to impress them - perhaps even intimidate them, at least subtly - to facilitate negotiations. The food being ready on enchanted plates that kept the dishes hot and the drinks cool only reinforced that thought; the Ottoman noble wasn’t sparing any expense.

    As planned, she gushed over the small altar behind Köprülüzade’s seat - seventh dynasty, she dated it - and the other relics on display. And took note of the spells used to secure them at the same time. It would fall to Harry to check the general security, and to Ron to charm their host.

    *****​

    “Magnificent! Simply magnificent! I must have these treasures!”

    Köprülüzade was obviously very much taken by the Egyptian relics they had presented to him. He was positively fawning over the stele and statues Harry Potter and his friends had presented to him - clearly a passionate collector. So passionate, he didn’t seem to be able to feign any disinterest to haggle them down. Or he was so rich, he didn’t bother with haggling - his ‘quarters’ in the palace certainly showed more than enough wealth to support such an assumption.

    Harry hoped for the latter, of course - he liked having his own money instead of relying on his inheritance or his godfather. “Well,” he said, “we are looking for a buyer who appreciates the relics.”

    Though, as it turned out, despite his enthusiasm, Köprülüzade did know how to haggle. It took them half an hour to strike a deal that left both parties equally satisfied. Well, not Hermione - she loathed selling relics on principle, but these were extenuating circumstances. And they could use the gold, of course.

    “I think I’ll put the statue of Isis into the harem. And the stele depicting the deeds of Ramses II in the entrance hall. What do you think?”

    “I think that’s a good idea,” Harry said before Hermione could voice her honest opinion on mixing artwork from different dynasties. “Oh,” he added as if it were an afterthought, “we also have a non-Egyptian relic that might be of interest.”

    “Ah, I’m generally not interested in other cultures,” Köprülüzade said. “The Egyptians are my passion. The most advanced civilisation of their time.”

    “What about the Atlanteans?” Harry asked.

    Köprülüzade froze, then stared at him. “You have Atlantean relics?”

    “We have a relic that is very likely of Atlantean origin,” Hermione cut in. “But to be certain of that, we would have to compare it to certified Atlantean relics. According to the pictures we saw, it’s quite likely, though.”

    Harry pulled out the staff the Storm Wizards had given them as a lure - one of the staves stolen from the jinn.

    The Ottoman took a deep breath. “A working staff?”

    “Well, it should work, but we haven’t tried it out,” Harry said.

    “It’s a little too dangerous to play around with relics without knowing more about them,” Ron added. “We were hoping to see the Sultan’s collection to find out more.”

    “It’s not open to the public,” Köprülüzade said. “It’s the Sultan’s pride and joy. Only his most honoured friends are allowed to see it.” He smiled and spread his hands. “Although in light of the relics you’ve just sold to me, I’m willing to risk buying the staff without confirmation of its origins and age.”

    “That is very generous of you,” Ron said. “Although if it isn’t an Atlantean relic, then its origins are a mystery we want to explore - we already can tell it wasn’t created by the Egyptians or the Greeks.”

    “Nor the Phoenicians,” Hermione added, “or any other Mediterranean or Mesopotamian culture in the relevant time period.”

    Ron leaned forward. “There might even be clues in the collection that might lead us to other relics.”

    Harry watched Köprülüzade ponder this. They didn’t have to mention that the Sultan would reward the noble if he presented him with such a gift - provided it was genuine; Köprülüzade wouldn’t dare to keep such a relic for himself.

    “That would require more time than simply confirming the relic’s origin,” Hermione added.

    The Ottoman nodded almost absentmindedly. “The Sultan’s very protective of his collection,” he said. Harry frowned. Had they messed up? Misjudged the situation. But Köprülüzade sighed. “Nevertheless, I think I can persuade him to allow you to take a look at the collection. It might take some time, though.”

    “We aren’t in a hurry,” Harry lied.

    *****​

    “And this is the only known Nundu in captivity!” Köprülüzade said, pointing at a shimmering cube of glass, each side of which was fifty yards in length.

    Harry Potter didn’t have to use a detection spell to know the ‘glass’ was covered in dozens of spells to keep it from being broken by any means. “Very impressive,” he said - even though the beast inside the cube seemed asleep.

    “Does it have enough room to exercise?” Ari asked, squinting at the animal. “Poor thing,” she added.

    Köprülüzade laughed - apparently, he thought the witch was joking. “Oh, the cage is extended inside. The monster can run all day if it wants - but it prefers to sleep.”

    Harry glanced at Ron, silently willing his friend to keep Ari from clearing up the misunderstanding. They couldn’t risk antagonising the Ottoman wizard - especially not when he was giving them a personal tour of the gardens. Which, Harry had noted, were quite populated even though it was past midnight already - they had seen several groups strolling through the gardens. Although the Ottomans did like to start the evening at a time when many British wizards were already heading to bed, so that was probably normal for Constantinople.

    But they weren’t here to sightsee - not past checking the protections of the Palace’s core. Harry checked if anyone, especially the guards, were watching them. He couldn’t spot anyone. So he glanced at Hermione, waited until she met his eyes, and nodded once.

    “Oh, Pasha!” she piped up. “How did the beast get captured? It takes a hundred wizards to slay one, doesn’t it?”

    “Oh, it was a mighty venture, indeed. The Sultan called the most famous hunters to his court and promised them riches beyond their imagination if they achieved the impossible. And so they set out to…”

    Harry tuned the man out while he knelt down to fix his boot laces with his wand - and used the distraction to conjure a couple of grass snakes. “Go and explore the area,” he hissed. “Look for ways inside the big building.”

    “Yes.”

    “Alright.”

    “OK!”

    “Of course!”

    “Is there something to eat?”

    Harry blinked. He hadn’t conjured so many… oh. There were snakes in the gardens! The Sultan was far more open-minded than Harry had assumed - usually, people had an unreasonable fear of snakes and kept the little serpents out of their gardens.

    “Hello!” he whispered to the little snake looking at him while his conjured snakes slithered away. “Do you live here?”

    “Yes. My territory.”

    “We’re not staying or hunting,” he assured the little one.

    “What are you doing here? Mating?”

    “Not that either,” he said.

    “Oh. Big will be disappointed,” the snake said. “She’s been looking for a mate her size.”

    “Big?” A snake his size? Köprülüzade hadn’t mentioned any snakes being kept in the zoo when Harry had asked.

    “Big. She lives inside the rock, but talks to me when I go sunning under her hole.”

    A snake inside the Inner Palace? That meant his snakes could enter as well. “Where does she live?”

    “Behind the big rock.” The little snake pointed towards the back of the palace with his tail.

    The harem? Perhaps a familiar? “What kind of snake is she?”

    “One like you.”

    A Parselmouth? In the harem?

    “But with a proper tail,” the little snake went on.

    Harry blinked. “A Naga?”

    “She says she is Kavya.”

    That sounded like an Indian name.

    “Harry?”

    That was Hermione. Oh. Köprülüzade was about to lead them to the next exhibit. Harry stood. “Sorry, I thought I saw a rhinoceros beetle in the grass.” When the Ottoman smiled and turned, Harry whispered “I’ll be back!” to the little snake before rejoining the others.

    An hour later, he was back, under the pretext of taking a small detour on their way out of the Palace to see the Nundu again. Ron and Ari were distracting the jinni servant leading them, and Harry quickly gathered up the snakes and hid them inside his robes. Including the little native one.

    *****​

    Turkey, Istanbul, October 26th, 2001

    “Poor Nundu,” Ari said for the fifth time. “To lock the poor thing up…”

    Ron Weasley knew better than to point out that a Nundu wasn’t a cat. ‘Close enough’, as Ari had said. So he nodded in agreement - even though all he truly agreed with was that the thing might have a bigger cage; such monsters were far too dangerous to be set free.

    “Mr Potter’s taking long,” Mallory said, glancing at the door.

    “He’s ensuring that we weren’t followed,” Hermione said.

    Which wasn’t entirely correct; Harry was interrogating his snakes where Mallory couldn’t see or hear him - they didn’t trust the git with knowledge of Harry’s special talent.

    “Ah.”

    Ron nodded. “As special guests in the New Palace - even if it was only the outer area - we might have drawn attention. And the Storm Wizards will likely try to find our hotel as well.”

    That comment made the older wizard wince. Ron agreed with the sentiment - you couldn’t trust them.

    Before Ari could break the silence with yet another plan to free the Nundu, Harry entered the suite. “All’s clear,” he said before Ron could ask.

    “So, will you now reveal what you found out?” Mallory asked.

    Harry frowned at the man but nodded. “As expected, the Inner Palace has some of the strongest protections I’ve ever seen. The wards aren’t on par with Hogwarts’ - too young for that - but we won’t be cracking them any time soon. That means we need another way inside.”

    “Even if they let us visit the collection, they won’t let us carry enchanted pockets inside the palace proper,” Ron said. He knew that from personal experience - Zeynep had explained that that particular trick had once been used to launch a coup against the Sultan a hundred and fifty years ago. “And without that, we won’t be able to smuggle the Storm Wizards in - or the collection out.”

    “The Storm Wizards won’t like this. You haven’t informed them yet?”

    “No, we haven’t,” Harry replied. “But we have another way inside,” he added with a smile. “Though it’ll require us to break another girl out of a harem.”

    “That’s not my fault,” Ron said at once. It really wasn’t.

    “No one said that it was your fault,” Hermione said, not quite rolling her eyes. “We all know it’s Harry’s fault. This time.”

    “So we’ll be going with the Storm Wizards’ plan? Smuggle a cadre of them inside and have them serve as a distraction while you break into the collection?” Mallor asked.

    “Not if we can help it,” Harry said. “We’ll tell them we’re waiting for permission to visit the collection, but in reality, we’ll implement our own plan as soon as possible.”

    Ron agreed. The Storm Wizards wouldn’t care about collateral damage. Less than Ari’s plan of setting the Nundu free as a distraction would cause, of course, but still unacceptable.

    “I assume we’ll be using Mr Weasley’s old paramour in the harem as our way inside?” the older wizard continued.

    “Not exactly,” Harry said.

    “Zeynep was banished from the harem,” Ron explained. “Sent back to her family in disgrace.” Which was partially his fault, he had to admit.

    “Ah. And who will we be breaking out then?”

    Ron knew what the man really wanted to ask: Can she be trusted? A question he wanted to ask himself.

    “Kavya,” Harry said. “She’s a Naga. We’ve exchanged messages through conjured animals and made a deal.”

    Ron closed his eyes. Snakes. It had to be snakes.

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 28th, 2001

    “I think I have… I have… perhapshh…”

    Finally! Köprülüzade was, at last, showing signs of being too drunk to stay awake. Hermione Granger almost sighed with relief. The man had been overjoyed to hear that they had allegedly found a map of another Egyptian tomb and had decided to sell him the Atlantean staff without waiting to confirm its origin so they could go and loot another grave. The Ottoman noble had been so happy, actually, he hadn’t wanted to let them go, and so Harry had been forced to spike the man’s drink using a trick Sirius had taught him.

    “Perhaps you should head to bed?” Ron said. “It’s already late.”

    “Perhapshhh.” Köprülüzade nodded a few times before he stopped raising his head and started to snore. At once, two guards appeared and picked him up. While they carried him out, a servant bowed to Hermione and her friends. “I’m very sorry, milord, miladies, but…”

    “It’s already late - we’re not used to staying up so long,” Harry lied, then faked a yawn. “We would like to retire. Your master’s hospitality was, as before, without fail, of course.”

    The servant’s relief was apparent, and he guided them to the exit. Outside, Alim was again waiting for them. He bowed without a word, and when he turned, Hermione hit him with a Memory Charm from behind, then followed up with a False Memory Charm.

    By the time the bound jinni recovered his senses, Hermione and her friends were disillusioned and halfway to the gardens, and Alim would remember guiding them to the gate.

    And now came the part of Harry’s plan Hermione didn’t like. At all. And not just because she would have to pose as a harem girl once again. The whole plan depended on this ‘Kavya’, a Naga he hadn’t even seen and with whom he had only communicated through a snake. If she betrayed them, they would be doomed. But Harry trusted her because a snake had vouched for her!

    If only they had an alternative! But they couldn’t let the Storm Wizards run rampant inside the palace and freeing the Nundu was out of the question - not to mention that they might not be able to break through all the spells on the beast’s habitat anyway.

    If they had more time, Hermione was certain that they could have come up with a better idea. Eventually. That the New Palace had been the site of several conspiracies and coups, each of them demonstrating a weakness in the Palace’s security which had subsequently been eliminated, made a quick solution unlikely.

    And that left ‘Plan Naga’.

    “Poor cat,” Ari mumbled as they passed the Nundu’s habitat.

    Hermione refrained from pointing out, once again, that the Nundu wasn’t a cat, couldn’t be freed and shouldn’t, in any case, be freed. Ari hadn’t accepted it the last four times Hermione had done so. But she sighed in annoyance.

    “Alright, we’re here,” Harry whispered through his pin, the marker from Hermione’s Human-presence-revealing Spell floating over a bush. A moment later, a trunk appeared on the ground. “Everyone but Ari inside! Ari will shrink it and then let Abdul take it inside!”

    Hermione climbed down into the trunk, followed by Ron. Then they had to wait for Harry. Longer than anticipated - she was about to climb out and check what was wrong when he appeared.

    He smiled, though. “Sorry, I had to assure Abdul that Ari won’t eat him - she smells like cat, he said. And he doesn’t like cats. That took a while to sort out.”

    Hermione looked at Ron, and both shook their heads. Harry and his snakes!

    But five minutes later, the trunk was opened again, and an exotic-looking woman peered inside. She hissed something.

    And Harry perked up and hissed back.

    Another hiss from the girl.

    “That’s Kavya!” Harry explained. “We’re in her room. Let’s get out so we can lower the trunk down for Ari.”

    So that was the Naga. Her upper body really looked exactly like a human’s from this vantage point. But when Hermione climbed out of the trunk, she saw the rest of the Naga’s body - a serpentine tail covered in green shimmering scales, spread in coils around the trunk. It started below her hips and was several yards long, according to her estimate. Impressive. And alien.

    She nodded at the creature. “Hello. I’m Hermione.”

    “Kavya.”

    “Ron.”

    Harry shrank the trunk again, then hissed at the small snake, which took it into its mouth and started to slither out of the room again, towards the garden.

    Hermione stepped up to another window and peered out. Even knowing what Ari would do, she barely caught sight of the the jaguar a moment before Ari reached the trunk, changed and unshrank it. Half a minute later, Harry had shrunk the trunk again, and the snake was carrying it back inside.

    And now came the part of the plan Hermione loathed: staying behind and dealing with the wards keeping the Naga imprisoned and enslaved while Harry and Ron disguised themselves as servants and sneaked into the Sultan’s collection.

    But she had the most experience breaking these kinds of spells. Which was Lockhart’s fault. Sighing, she flicked her wand and changed her robes into a two-legged version of the silken harem outfit Kavya was wearing.

    She really wasn’t fond of this plan.

    *****​
     
    Najdrox, Izicata, Draconikan and 2 others like this.
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: The Double-Cross
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 20: The Double-Cross

    ‘Despite the Intervention in 1955, when Albus Dumbledore, the Vanquisher of Grindelwald, led a multi-national force to crush the slavers in the Mediterranean, slavery is still being practised in many wizarding countries - legally. The Barbary Coast Enclaves and the Ottoman Empire agreed in the treaty of 1956 to stop slave raids and return kidnapped victims to their countries - but they didn’t abolish slavery itself. And it’s an open secret that while slave raids are officially condemned, both Ottoman and Barbary Coast authorities tolerate slavers as long as they take care to be discreet enough that their actions can be disavowed as unsanctioned individual crimes.
    Slavery is also legal in roughly half the North American Wizarding Enclaves, despite this regularly triggering both wars with their neighbours and condemnation by the International Confederation of Wizards. Magical Persia and several magical countries in India practise slavery as well, and the less said about certain countries in South America, the better. And even in progressive Britain, house-elf slavery wasn’t abolished until the sixteenth century.
    As a modern wizard, one cannot help wondering why this evil practice is so widespread, and why entire countries would rather go to war than abolish it. Especially since slavery has been, at least officially, abolished in the entirety of the muggle world.
    The answer is simple: Too many powerful people benefit from this vile institution in various ways. Unlike its muggle counterpart, the magical economy still depends on the skill and craft of individuals. A talented wizard or witch can demand a high price for his services - often so high a price that enslaving them is cheaper than paying them - despite the cost and trouble that keeping a talented wizard or witch as a slave incurs. However, the rising quality of wizarding education and advancements in various fields have been eroding the economic basis for this kind of slavery. With more and more highly-educated wizards and witches entering the workforce, wages adjust, and monopolies get broken - and the more costly it becomes to enslave them. There is nary a more dangerous opponent than a wizard with a wand and nothing to lose and everything to gain, after all. It is, therefore, not overly optimistic to assume that enslaving wizards and witches for economic reasons will soon fade away as profit margins shrink and costs rise.
    However, that is only one reason. Monetary concerns are, unfortunately, unlikely to affect the despicable slave trade that supplies the harems common in the Middle East in the foreseeable future, as, there, harems are seen as a status symbol for the richest wizards - which means more powerful witches are more, not less, desirable, even if the common belief wouldn’t expect talented witches to bear particularly gifted children. Only direct action will end this practice.
    And anyone willing to use force in pursuit of that noble goal of abolition will, to their chagrin, have to fight slaves themselves - the Janissaries and Mamluks, wizards and witches raised from birth or early childhood as loyal guards for their rulers. Not unlike house-elves in the past, they have been conditioned to embrace their status as if it were a badge of honour, and usually without magical compulsion of any kind. And what good would it do to slay the very slaves one intends to save?
    Which leads to the unfortunate conclusion that, unless the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire himself can be persuaded to abolish slavery, this vile practice will probably continue for some time to come.’

    - Excerpt from ‘A History of Slavery in the Magical World’ by Hannah Smith, London, 1999

    *****​

    Magical Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, October 28th, 2001

    Harry Potter waved his wand, adjusting the protections on the main door of the harem. The wards on the place were meant to keep intruders out and women in, but even lacking the numerous spells layered on the harem girls, sneaking out and, even more so, sneaking back in again, required quite some skill in Curse-Breaking. Fortunately, Harry was quite the Curse-Breaker himself. “Done,” he whispered, refraining from wiping a little sweat from his brow. “We’re attuned to the protections now.”

    “I’m about ready here as well,” Ron replied sotto voce.

    Harry nodded even though Ron wouldn’t be able to see him, since both of them were disillusioned, and touched the pin on his collar. “It’s go-time,” he whispered.

    He heard Hermione huff at his words and grinned. She wasn’t stuck up in the least, but she still had trouble with banter - despite Bill telling them that that, too, was part of the job.

    A minute later, he saw Kavya slither towards them. There was no other word - she moved like a snake, with great poise and grace, as she closed in on them. “Are you ready?” she asked in Parseltongue.

    “One second!” Harry replied, then turned towards Ron’s marker. “Step closer,” he whispered. “The Cloak needs to cover both of us.”

    Unlike Disillusionment Charms, the Cloak Harry had inherited from his father was immune to the normal Human-presence-revealing Spells. There were ways around it, but he didn’t think the harem guards of the Sultan had access to them. They were no Dumbledores. He pulled it out and draped it over both Ron and himself. “Ready,” he whispered.

    And Kavya knocked on the door, displaying far more strength than her slender upper body would make one think. “Azid!” she hissed. “Azid!”

    After a moment, the door was opened, and a huge jinni peered inside. “Kavya. What do you want?” The ‘again’ and ‘at this time of the night’ remained unsaid, but were clearly stated anyway.

    Kavya held up a large rabbit, letting it dangle from her hand by one foot. “This food is dead!” she announced. “You know I don’t eat dead food!”

    “You also don’t eat in the middle of the night,” Azid replied.

    “I eat when I feel like it!” Kavya huffed. “I am a princess of the Naga Nation. And we do not eat dead food!” With a flick of her wrist, she threw the carcass at the jinni, who took several steps back.

    Just what Harry and Ron had been waiting for. They slipped into the hallway through the gap opened by Azid’s movement and silently sneaked away as Kavya kept berating the hapless harem guard for failing to supply her with a fresh rabbit.

    “She doesn’t really eat living rabbits, does she?” Ron whispered once they were out of sight and earshot.

    “She kills them before swallowing them,” Harry replied. “But she wouldn’t touch carrion, of course.”

    “Of course.”

    Ron somehow sounded disturbed. If they weren’t in the middle of a heist, Harry would have gladly explained the finer points of Naga dining, but that would have to wait until they were done.

    They had to shuffle a little under the Cloak since Ron was the one familiar with the interior of the palace, although his knowledge was a bit spotty - Zeynep hadn’t given him much of a tour of the place, and they had to assume that security had been improved since he’d been discovered in the palace with her.

    But Harry’s friend knew where the collection was housed, and roughly the way there, so he took the lead as they sneaked through several hallways. They had to duck into rooms twice on the way to avoid patrols - even invisible, it was hard to get past a patrol walking in a way that almost blocked the whole corridor - but it didn’t take them too long to reach their goal.

    Which was a door solid enough it wouldn’t have been out of place in the most difficult tombs they had raided in the past. Dark wood - almost black. Inlaid runes made of silver and gold. Massive bars of iron and a lock that screamed ‘cursed’ to Harry even without a detection spell.

    He cast a privacy spell so they could talk without being heard by the patrols. “That’s it?”

    “I didn’t stop here just to take a break, you know,” Ron replied.

    “Could’ve fooled me.” Harry chuckled while Ron snorted.

    Then he got to work and started analysing the protections on the door - and on the wall and floor, of course. It wouldn’t be the first time that going through a wall was easier than going through a door. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case here. The walls had the same number of spells on them as the door.

    “I set the charms in the hallway,” Ron said. “We’ll have advance warning.”

    “We’ll have to go through the door,” Harry told him.

    “Lovely. We’ll have to double-time it.”

    “Yes,” Harry agreed. Usually, they’d work in shifts. It allowed one of them to focus on the wards and the other to keep an eye out for trouble and relax. And with Hermione in the mix, they could work around the clock on a ward. However, they didn’t have the time for that. So they would have to work together on the door’s protections - and that would not only leave them more vulnerable to attack but also meant one mistake would affect them both.

    Well, Harry wasn’t planning on making any mistakes. As Bill had told him: ‘If you believe you’ll fail, you’ll fail for sure.’ Of course, Bill had also said that ‘an overconfident Curse-Breaker is a dead Curse-Breaker’.

    Harry shook his head and focused on the spells in front of him.

    Ten minutes later, they had barely gotten through the first layer of the charms reinforcing the door when Ron whispered: “Someone’s coming. Can you pull out? I’m too deep in the lock’s protections.”

    “I’ll have to.” Harry gritted his teeth as he forced himself to take the time to properly draw back from unravelling the interlaced spells. He couldn’t afford to be hasty here - if he made a mistake, the backlash would kill him. And if, by a miracle, he survived, the guards would find him.

    “Hurry, Harry.”

    Ron wasn’t helping. Harry took a shivering breath and licked his lips as he slowly drew his wand back and watched the spells slide back into place. He could hear voices now. And footsteps. He reached for the Cloak on the floor and felt his heart miss a beat when he didn’t find it where it should have been. No! It couldn’t… He remembered he had pushed it away a few minutes earlier to get a better angle. It had to be… Frantically feeling around, he managed to find and throw it over Ron and himself before the guard patrol turned the corner.

    “Close,” Ron whispered as Harry watched the Janissaries walk past. He held his breath when one of them glanced down the hallway and looked almost directly at them. Had they…?

    They hadn’t. The patrol kept walking, and Harry forced himself to relax.

    “Bloody hell, that was close.”

    “Yes,” Harry whispered. Too close. But they had no choice - they wouldn’t have another chance; between Alim, Köprülüzade and the guards at the door, their manipulations were bound to be detected as soon as those individuals compared notes. Which they couldn’t hope wouldn’t happen.

    He went back to unravelling the next layer of protections. Whoever had done this had known how to cast curses.

    Half an hour later, Ron’s spell went off again. But this time, he could immediately pull away from the door’s protections, and they hid under the Cloak with time to spare.

    “Half an hour between patrols so far… if they have a schedule,” Ron said.

    Harry doubted that the Janissaries had a set schedule. That would have been a basic mistake, and the elite guards of the Sultan were too skilled for that. But it wasn’t as if they could change anything about the patrol schedule anyway. So he just kept working at breaking through protections and unravelling curses.

    And there were a lot of both.

    And two hours and three more patrols later - they didn’t have a set schedule - they were finally done. Harry swished his wand and disabled the last protections on the door’s lock, then took a deep breath and stood. “Done.” He touched his enchanted pin and told Hermione they were going in.

    “Alohomora,” Ron whispered next to him.

    Harry heard the door unlock. There were no mechanical traps. He still used his wand to push the door, and it swung open without the slightest sound - only to reveal a room with empty display cases and pedestals.

    Someone had moved the entire collection!

    *****​

    Ron Weasley quickly took a look at the closest pedestal, which was in range of his detection spell. There were no spells on it. “It’s not an illus…” he started to say when a curse splashing against his Shield Charm interrupted him.

    He dropped to the ground at once, slipping out from under the Cloak. Another curse passed over him - fortunately, Harry had dropped as well, landing partially on Ron.

    And a loud gong started ringing - the palace alarm. Damn. “Disillusioned wizard at the back,” Harry said.

    Which was just out of range of their Human-presence-revealing Spells. More curses flew at them - or, rather, through the open door. Their attacker was casting blindly. But he seemed to be alone. “Have to take him out,” Ron whispered. Janissaries had to be on the way, and the man was covering the hallway with his blind casting, preventing them from running away.

    Ron crawled through the doorway and rolled to the left, then got up and sprinted forward. After five yards, a marker appeared, floating in front of the back wall. Ron sent two Stunners at the disillusioned wizard. At least one connected - he saw a shield flare up.

    Then Harry’s Stunners hit the exposed wizard, and Ron heard him fall down.

    “Could be playing dead,” Harry whispered through the pin.

    “What’s going on?” they heard Hermione ask. “What happened?”

    “Someone moved the collection and prepared an ambush,” Ron heard Harry say as he conjured a wall in the middle of the room. That, at least, would alert them if the other wizard wasn’t out cold.

    “We need to go,” Ron hissed. “Or we’ll be trapped in here.” He was already sprinting towards the door.

    Harry followed him. “I’ve got the Cloak.”

    Ron stopped. He knew this plan. It was risky, but… he could hear running guards already. “Let’s hide. I’ll set up a distraction.” He stuck his hand into the enchanted pocket in his belt and pulled out a few special fireworks.

    A moment later, Harry grabbed his shoulders and Ron felt the Cloak settle over them. “Let’s start moving.” He threw the fireworks into the corners of the room and started walking. “We’re headed back,” he told Hermione through the pin, “Could take a while, though.”

    They hadn’t taken more than a few steps down the hallway towards the corner when a patrol of Janissaries arrived. Ron held his breath as they spread out to cover the corridor, but kept going. The Cloak would prevent them from being detected by spells. And any time now the fireworks should go off...

    Behind them, light filled the room, and the Janissaries in front of them jerked. Then the light started flashing - multi-coloured bolts would be flying around. Ron didn’t look back - he kept his attention on the four guards in front of them. And he kept advancing.

    “Surrender! You’re trapped!” The apparent leader of the Janissaries yelled. One of his men sent a Stunner down the hallway - Ron tensed but kept walking.

    The guards were casting blindly, but Ron and Harry were within the range of any Human-presence-revealing Spells now. If the Janissaries had cast such spells, which he assumed was the case, then they would be fooled into thinking they were safe. And they shouldn’t blindly cast spells at this area. Shouldn’t. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t, of course. And some spells came rather close.

    Ten yards now. Almost there. Ron forced himself to breathe very carefully. Silently. More guards would be here soon, but they couldn’t rush this. Four guards. Close together. He felt Harry squeeze his shoulder. The signal.

    He pushed his wand out from under the cloak and sent a Blasting Curse to the floor behind the guards. The explosion blew them forward, shattering their shields - which Harry exploited at once, stunning one, then another as Ron’s own Stunner hit a third. He and Harry were dropping to the ground as they cast, which made the Reductor Curse of the fourth Janissary miss them. A moment later, the man doubled over, struck by two Stunners at once.

    Harry gathered the Cloak up again, and Ron conjured a wall behind them, sealing up the collection’s display room. Perhaps that would confuse and delay the reinforcements he could hear coming.

    Once more they walked, or shuffled, forward. Round the corner… there the Janissaries came - and went past them, not quite running. Trusting their detection spells. But there were a lot of them. And more were coming.

    Ron pressed himself against the wall. If not for their Disillusionment Charms, they would have been spotted already - the Cloak couldn’t cover them completely. But it protected them against detection spells.

    Still, slowly inching forward, hoping that no one would accidentally bump into them, as more guards arrived with their wands drawn, was nerve-wracking. After a few minutes, Ron was sweating more than when breaking through the protections of the grave of an Egyptian pharaoh. They were so close to about a dozen guards now…

    “The room is empty but for Achmed! They stunned him!”

    “Search the palace! They cannot have gone far!”

    So the Janissaries had searched the display room and were now splitting up. It was a good thing - the guards were less likely to stumble into them if they spread out - but Harry and Ron would have to keep moving slowly, unable to run or even hustle, down the hallways, hidden by the Cloak, until they reached the harem.

    All the while hoping that none of the guards stumbled into them. Or used a dog to track them.

    Or caught Hermione and Ari in the harem, Ron silently added with a sinking feeling. Had whoever had set up this trap, this ambush, anticipated their escape through the harem as well? And who had done this?

    The answer was obvious: the Storm Wizards, of course.

    *****​

    Compared to the spells on the slaves in Bey’s harem, the spells on Kavya were much more difficult to dispel. Hermione Granger had expected that - the son of the ruler of Magical Tunis wouldn’t have the same resources to spend on his slaves as the Sultan of the Magical Ottoman Empire. And, of course, it also took a lot more effort to keep a powerful Naga enslaved compared to a young kidnapped witch of average talent. Although Hermione didn’t actually know for certain whether Kavya was particularly powerful or not. But as a Curse-Breaker, underestimating anyone or anything wasn’t conducive to a long career in the field. Or a long life.

    And the spells on Kavya were quite powerful, as well as intricately layered and entwined. Fortunately, after freeing half a dozen witches in Tunis, Hermione was now more than passingly familiar with the evil spells used to control slaves.

    Or, she corrected herself with a slight gasp as a twist of her wand revealed a new curse hidden in the lattice of the other spells, with most of the vile spells. This one was new.

    “Is something wrong?” Kavya asked. The Naga leaned forward without the coils of her tail, upon which she was resting, moving.

    Hermione bit her lower lip to keep herself from claiming everything was fine. Kavya deserved to know the truth. And she might be able to spot a lie - Hermione didn’t know much about Nagas. Not even Harry, whose fascination with snakes and their kin was sometimes a little disturbing, knew overly much about them. She sighed. “There’s a blood curse on you.”

    “Ah, yes. I am aware of that.”

    “You were?”

    “Of course.”

    “Stinks,” Ari added. “Like Mallory.” The witch nodded at them, then went back to peering through a gap into the large central room of the harem.

    Kavya nodded.

    Two magical creatures able to detect blood magic without spells. What were the odds that this was a coincidence? Low, in Hermione’s opinion. Very low. And the spell’s presence meant that the Sultan had a blood mage at his court. Which had a number of disquieting ramifications.

    But she had to focus on Curse-Breaking now. Harry and Ron were currently making their way to the Sultan’s collection - slowly, of course, due to the need to use Harry’s special cloak - and the spells on Kavya had to be dealt with by the time they secured the relics. So she pressed her lips together and started unravelling the blood magic curse.

    Which took her as long as it took Harry and Ron to reach and break through most of the collection’s defences. She sighed with relief when the spell dissolved without triggering and closed her eyes. Only a few more left. And Harry and Ron were entering now.

    A moment later, the sound of a gong being struck filled the room. No, the harem - and likely the palace. She froze for a moment, then quickly finished disabling the spell she was examining.

    “What’s going on? What happened?” she asked, touching her pin.

    “Someone moved the collection and prepared an ambush,” she heard Harry reply.

    She bit her lower lip - an ambush! But both were fine. Harry would have told her otherwise.

    “We’re headed back. Could take a while, though.”

    She muttered a curse under her breath. An ambush. A trap. They had to get out. She looked up, meeting the slitted eyes of the Naga. Kavya hadn’t asked what had happened, so she must have overheard their talk. “Will they search the harem?” Hermione asked.

    “Not the Janissaries. But the harem guards.”

    Ari growled. “Jinn.”

    “They are coming, then,” the Naga said. “We’ll see if your disguise holds.”

    Hermione pursed her lips. The Sultan’s harem contained not just his many wives and concubines, but also their female servants - the odalisques. Kavya rated two of them - both of whom the Naga had, prior to their arrival, stunned and hidden under her bed before transferring them to an extended chest. After taking a lock of hair from each odalisque.

    Hermione sighed and pulled out two vials, handing one to Ari. She didn’t like using Polyjuice Potion. Adjusting to a new body was always both a chore and disconcerting. But there was no choice - the guards would likely drag any unknown odalisque away.

    She dropped a lock of hair into the vial, waited until it had settled, then drank. And closed her eyes as her body changed.

    “I can’t smell anything any more,” Ari complained. “This is a stupid, weak body. Clumsy, too.”

    Hermione looked down at her own borrowed body. A bit curvier than her own - though not quite plump. Slightly taller, too - her harem clothes stretched more than before, in all directions. But much less toned. And her balance was off. Yes, ‘weak and clumsy’ fit her new body as well.

    She twirled her wand a few times until she didn’t feel as if she’d drop it as soon as she cast, and then went back to Curse-Breaking. There were quite a number of spells to deal with left.

    “This will look suspicious,” Kavya said.

    “No,” Hermione replied. “Ari? Start grooming her scales.”

    Ari huffed, but joined them, casting cleaning charms on the Naga’s snake tail.

    “That’s not how it’s usually done,” Kavya protested.

    “I don’t know any better spells,” Ari retorted.

    Hermione focused on the next set of compulsion spells. A nasty combination that prevented Kavya from leaving the harem grounds. She hadn’t found any to stop the Naga from thinking about leaving, though - was that an oversight, or a cruel design? Or had Kavya broken such a spell herself? Such deeds weren’t unheard of.

    But then, a jinni appeared in the doorway, almost filling the frame. “Kavya.”

    And Hermione focused on playing the obedient servant. Eyes lowered, kneeling on the floor, not worth any attention.

    “Achmed,” the Naga replied, openly sneering. “Why do you disturb my grooming?”

    “Don’t play the fool,” the jinni retorted. “You heard the alert.”

    “So?”

    “We are to search the entire harem for intruders.”

    Kavya snorted, her massive tail shifting, forcing Hermione to move back a step so she wouldn’t be swept off her feet. “By all means, do.” The Naga flicked her wrist towards her bed. “Don’t forget to check under the bed.”

    Hermione heard the jinni scoff but caught the bed floating up in the corner of her eyes as the Naga laughed. “Did you expect me to harbour an intruder? Perhaps a lover to cuckold the Sultan? Hoping he would think the eggs were his, fertilised by accidental magic?”

    “You never cared about having offspring, or being deprived of the honour of sharing the Sultan’s bed.”

    Hermione, still kneeling, had to quickly move out of the way as the jinni proceeded towards the bed.

    “I never claimed the first, and I never made a secret out of my feelings for your master,” Kavya spat.

    “He’s your master as well.”

    The jinni set the bed down on the ground, then searched the rest of the furniture. Judging by the sounds Hermione heard, he wasn’t overly careful with Kavya’s possessions.

    “And I would have gladly crushed the life out of him between my coils, had he dared to touch me,” she hissed.

    The guard, though, chuckled. “Empty bragging. You’d have done no such thing. The spells on you would have prevented it, and your struggles would have amused him.”

    “As yours amused him before you lost your manhood? Or were you one of the stupid ones, thinking they would use a non-cursed knife?”

    The growl this elicited from the jinni made Hermione at first fear Ari had changed forms. “I should cut you for this. It’s not as if you will be bearing the Sultan’s children.”

    It was Kavya’s turn to laugh. “An empty threat. Your bindings will prevent you from damaging your master’s trophy.”

    “Not if I ask for a boon. Your disrespect is known.”

    “You’d better catch your intruder then, if you wish for a boon instead of a flogging as your reward,” Kavya retorted with another flick of her wrist. “Or stay and shirk your duties. I invite you to.”

    Another growl, and the jinni left. He hadn’t even looked at her or Ari, Hermione realised. Just dismissed them with a glance.

    “He lost his manhood but not his arrogance,” Kavya said, as if she had read Hermione’s mind. “He behaves as if by ignoring and scorning the other slaves, he might manage to elevate himself above his own position as mutilated property.” Or, Hermione thought, he is compensating for his own loss and grief by lashing out at others. It was a common reaction among humans, after all.

    “Stupid,” Ari added in agreement with Kavya - and growled. The witch had resented playing the weak slave, Hermione knew. Yet despite the tense situation, Ari had kept her temper under control.

    “But we’re running out of time. Not every guard will be as easily distracted as Achmed,” the Naga went on. She looked tense as well - worse than during her verbal spat with the jinni.

    Hermione nodded and went back to working on the curses and spells on the Naga. Harry and Ron wouldn’t take too much longer. Or so she hoped.

    “Dispel the curses keeping me from attacking others first,” Kavya whispered, “before the ones still keeping me prisoner.”

    “But then you’d still be trapped here if we were discovered before I finished,” Hermione replied.

    “Yes.”

    Hermione looked at the Naga, saw her smile - two fangs peeked out between her lips - and slowly nodded. It was Kavya’s decision.

    *****​

    “We’ve reached the harem, but there are too many guards in front of the door. We won’t be able to sneak past them.”

    Hermione Granger hissed - silently - upon hearing Harry through her enchanted pin. She had been too slow. “I haven’t yet finished breaking all the spells on Kavya,” she replied.

    “We’ll wait,” Harry answered at once. Of course he’d say that.

    She clenched her teeth and focused on breaking the last spells. But these were the ones she hadn’t seen before. Not blood curses, fortunately - but dangerous ones. Powerful. And whoever had cast them had known what they had been doing. It hadn’t been the blood magic user. And the style didn’t fit the spells she had recognised from Bey’s harem.

    She blinked. Perhaps these were the spells cast by whoever had captured and kidnapped Kavya? That would make sense - these spells hadn’t been tied to the other spells. And that would mean they weren’t tied to a location, but to something else. A command, maybe. Or an item. Probably a command - she hadn’t seen any enchanted item on Kavya.

    “Another half an hour,” she whispered, for Harry and Ron’s benefit, as well as for Kavya and Ari - who was not quite pacing back and forth, but looking like she wanted to. So much for the vaunted patience of a hunting cat waiting in ambush. On the other hand, they weren’t waiting in ambush - they were waiting until they could leave this prison. And Ari must hate the fact that all she could do was hide and guard Hermione. Hermione certainly would, in her place.

    She shook her head to push the distracting thoughts away and focused on the spells on the Naga. There had to be a detection spell tied to the other spells - to trigger them. Probably cascading, too.

    She twisted her wand, slightly unravelling the lattices. Just enough to see the individual spells more clearly… “There you are,” she whispered with a grin as she finally isolated the detection spell. No, the detection spells. Multiple spells, tied together.

    And Hermione didn’t even have to check to know that a number of the spells would prevent her from quickly fooling the detection spell. She did it anyway, of course.

    “I take it that the sight of your teeth means it’s not going well,” Kavya said.

    “Whoever captured you knew their spells,” Hermione replied. “But I just need a little longer than I’d hoped.” She knew her spells as well, after all.

    “Bloody hell, they’re blocking the hallway!”

    That was Ron. “What?” Hermione asked.

    “The Janissaries. They’re blocking the hallways as they advance - they must have been told about us being disillusioned from the ones we took out,” he explained.

    “And they’ll be at our spot soon,” Harry added.

    “Can you avoid them?” she asked.

    “We’ll try… damn.”

    Hermione closed her eyes.

    “The other side’s blocked too,” Harry confirmed her fear. “We’ll have to fight.”

    Which meant they had run out of time. Hermione looked at Kavya.

    “I heard,” the Naga said. “You broke the spells preventing me from fighting?”

    “But you’re still bound to this place. We might be able to move you against your will…” Might.

    Kavya shook her head. “The Sultan’s command is absolute, as the saying goes.”

    Hermione felt the sudden urge to curse the Sultan. To enslave another being like this…

    Kavya moved forward, her tail uncoiling, and Hermione had to step out of the way. “Wait!” she called. There had to be another solution. Something she hadn’t thought of yet.

    “It’s time to pay some debts,” Kavya said as she passed Ari. “Achmed!”

    “What…. Argh!”

    “Harry! Ron!” Hermione snapped as she followed Ari and the Naga. “Stop the Janissaries, then break into the harem. Kavya’s fighting the guards inside!” The Janissaries shouldn’t be able to enter the harem - the protections would keep them out. The male ones, at least.

    In the harem’s main room, Achmed was on the ground, his blood dripping into the pool in the centre. Kavya’s Cutting Curse had almost decapitated the jinni. But there were more guards. Kavya charged the four at the entrance, their Stunners splashing against her Shield Charm, and then she crashed into them, scattering them with the force of her charge. Hermione saw one harem guard get smashed into a wall by the Naga’s tail and another go down to a curse she didn’t recognise but which left the man clutching his throat.

    “More guards!” Ari snapped.

    And indeed - two pairs of harem guards were rushing towards Kavya, wands out, from the back of the harem.

    Hermione took the leading guard down with a volley of Stunners, then followed up with a Bone-Breaker Curse before she jumped into the cover provided by the doorway to Kavya’s room.

    “There’s more of them! It’s a rebellion!” one of the guards yelled as spells struck the wall and doorway behind which Hermione crouched, sending splinters of stone and wood flying. The murals would need major repairs, Hermione thought with a pang of guilt before she replied with a pair of Piercing Curses.

    More screams sounded - though she didn’t think she had hit anyone. She recast her Shield Charm and leaned around the doorway, wand ready. There! Her Stunner struck one guard, shattering his shield moments before one of Ari’s curses hit him. The eunuch went down, covered with vines dripping with poison.

    That left one more - and whoever was still on the way. But where was he?

    “Behind the pillar,” Ari said, pointing forward.

    “Ready?” Hermione aimed her wand. A moment later, she turned the pillar into water.

    The revealed guard gasped and tried to run, but Ari hit him with another pair of curses, and he dropped to the ground. Partially turned into wood, Hermione realised.

    Once more she reminded herself that Ari’s tribe had been isolated, not primitive.

    *****​

    Two groups of half a dozen Janissaries each closing in on them from both sides. Four harem guards blocking the door that they needed to break through. And more guards could arrive at a moment’s notice.

    Harry Potter had experienced worse odds. And he and Ron had his Cloak of Invisibility. “Blast and block,” he whispered. “Right.”

    A moment later, he flicked his wand and sent a Blasting Curse right in front of the group advancing on their right. The explosion sent the Janissaries flying, shattering the shields of half of them. Ron’s own Blasting Curse did the same on their left. Harry conjured a thick steel wall right away, blocking the passage, as he grabbed the Cloak with his free hand.

    The harem guards were reacting now, wands rising. Harry threw himself forward, rolling over his shoulder as curses flew at him and Ron, who had dropped on to the floor after conjuring a stone wall on his side.

    Neither wall would last long. Not against a dozen Janissaries. But they didn’t have to. Just long enough so Harry and Ron could deal with the four harem guards and break into the harem - the Janissaries wouldn’t be able to follow them inside. Well, most of them wouldn’t.

    He came up in a crouch and cast, diving forward at an angle. A yellowish curse missed him, and another was deflected by his Shield Charm. In exchange, he hit a guard with a Bludgeoning Curse that smashed the eunuch into the one behind, shattering both their shields and possibly some of their bones. It didn’t matter - Ron hit both with Body-Bind Curses that left them on the floor.

    But in return, Ron was struck with curses by the two guards left, and his shield was overcome as well. Quickly, Harry conjured a smaller wall between them - just in time to stop the next volley of curses.

    “Thanks!” Ron spat as he recast his Shield Charm - then conjured another wall behind them.

    Harry hesitated a moment, then clenched his teeth and hit the wall in front of them with a Reductor Curse followed by a Banishing Charm. Rock fragments pelted the harem guards. One was protected by their shield, but the other had tried to free the two bound ones and was left on the floor, bleeding from a head wound.

    Harry winced - they weren’t here to kill people; certainly not people who had been enslaved as children and raised to blindly follow orders - but they had to get into the harem before the walls behind them broke.

    Which they just had. Harry swore under his breath and sent a Blasting Curse at the advancing Janissaries. There was no danger of killing anyone with it, of course - the Sultan’s guards were too skilled for that. Too skilled to be caught twice by his spell, too - only three of them were thrown to the ground, the rest managing to avoid the worst of it and sending curses at Harry and Ron.

    Swearing some more, Harry conjured a wave of green-coloured water and formed a rapidly growing pool in the right passage which surged towards the guards. As he hoped, faced with possibly poisonous liquid, they retreated around the corner, dragging their prone comrades with them - though not without a last volley of spells that clipped Harry’s shield.

    On the left, Ron had conjured another wall, then hit the last harem guard with a Bludgeoning Curse that threw him four yards back and against the door he was blocking.

    But the last wall blew up just as Harry was recasting his Shield Charm, five curses flying out of the resulting dust cloud. Four missed, but one hit Ron in the left arm, throwing him back and to the ground.

    “Bloody hell!” Ron yelled, “Broke my arm!”

    He was still casting, though, filling the entire hallway with smoke.

    Harry sent a few Stunners and colourful exotic jinxes back at the Janissaries to their left. “Get through the door!” he snapped.

    Ron didn’t argue - not with curses still flying at them, despite the cloud blocking the Janissaries’ line of sight, forcing them to cast blindly. “Locked!” he yelled. “New spell.”

    Harry swore again. Ron would need more time to crack the door. He cast a few Bludgeoning Curses blindly to the left, then turned to the right. His ruse wouldn’t…

    Roaring, four lions charged around the corner, paws throwing up green water. The Janissaries wouldn’t be far behind. Harry dispatched the animals with a volley of Piercing Curses to their heads, then conjured snakes which slid into the water, slithering towards the advancing Janissaries. He was about to follow up with a few more curses when a gust of wind started to disperse the smoke filling the left hallway.

    Another wall bought Ron a few more seconds. A scream from the right told Harry that his snakes had found one victim. The venom wouldn’t be fatal - provided the Janissaries treated their wounded. Which they would. Harry sprinted towards Ron, once more blowing up the wall himself and sending the pieces back at the guards on the left. But they had taken shelter behind a wall of their own and were now charging. One spell splashed against Harry’s Shield Charm. Another barely missed him.

    Then a rocket blew past him - from Ron’s spot - and burst into a wall of fire. “Door’s open!” Ron snapped.

    Harry jumped through, chased by half a dozen curses from the right side.

    Ron returned fire with another rocket, then jumped into the harem himself, grunting as he rolled over his shoulder.

    A flick of Harry’s wand slammed the door shut - that would hold the Janissaries for a while. The wards would keep all men who weren’t attuned to them out, and the Janissaries didn’t have many witches in their ranks.

    “Ron! You’re wounded!”

    Hermione! And Ari! Harry saw them rushing towards them. And several bodies on the floor. And in the pool.

    “Just a broken arm,” Ron replied through clenched teeth. “We need to leave at once.”

    “We can’t!” Hermione replied. “Kavya is still tied to the harem!”

    Damn! Harry took a deep breath. “We’ll have to stall the Janissaries, while you break the last spells.”

    “You can’t,” Kavya said. “The guards will already be moving to surround the harem. If you wait, we will all perish. Or worse.”

    “But…” Harry started.

    “Go!” she hissed. “I will get my revenge!”

    “But…”

    “Don’t be stupid!” Ari growled from where she was fixing Ron’s arm. “Need to leave!”

    “Think of your mate,” the Naga added in Parseltongue as she slid towards the harem’s entrance.

    She was right. Harry clenched his teeth. Damn it, she was right.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley tried to move his arm, but it hurt too much, even after Ari’s spell. “Looks like Skele-Gro time,” he muttered as he numbed the whole arm, then stuck it to his shirt.

    “Alright. They’ll have the harem surrounded. But if we’re quick enough, we can still break out,” Harry said.

    “Set the Nundu free? As a distraction?” Ari asked.

    Ron shook his head. “There’s not enough time.” The guards should have taken action already.

    As if someone had heard him, the door to the harem shook. He started towards the pool, pulling out the enchanted box with his brothers’ best inventions. He’d have to restock, he thought as he quickly lined up the Dragonfire Fireworks below the centre of the harem’s dome.

    “Get in the trunk,” Harry told Hermione and Ari. “It’s going to be tight with just Ron and me on the broom.”

    “He’s wounded,” Hermione retorted.

    “I can still use the fireworks and other stuff,” Ron said. “And I’m the one who knows the stuff best.” And neither Hermione nor Ari were as good on a broom as himself or Harry.

    “Please,” Harry added.

    Hermione scowled but climbed into the truck. Ari hugged Ron, nodded at him, then followed her. Harry quickly shrank the trunk and pocketed it, then mounted his broom.

    Behind them, the door broke open, and Janissaries charged in - only to be met by a berserk Naga who tore into them with fangs, tail and curses.

    “Time to go,” Ron said, straddling Harry’s Firebolt behind his friend, ducking as a stray spell came close.

    He lit the fireworks, and green dragons made of fire shot into the sky, moments after Harry’s Blasting Curse tore a hole in the dome above them.

    And then they were off as well. Even though he knew the green fire was harmless, Ron couldn’t help shivering a little as they caught up to the dragons - it looked too much like Fiendfyre.

    Which was the point, of course. As soon as they left the harem, surrounded by green fire, Ron started dropping petrol bombs on the remains of the roof. He caught a glimpse of a Janissary on a broom frantically diving out of the way of the dragonfire, then they were past the guards’ line. There had been fewer than he had expected, both in the air and on the ground - but he hadn’t had a clear view, of course. And was that smoke coming from the other side of the New Palace?

    It didn’t matter just now. A pair of Disillusionment Charms later, they were on the way towards Istanbul, leaving behind a burning palace.

    And a doomed Naga.

    *****​
     
    Izicata, RedX, Najdrox and 1 other person like this.
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 21: The Break
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 21: The Break

    ‘That the Magical World has trouble with crimes that cross national borders should not come as a surprise to anyone. Unlike the muggle world, there are a great deal fewer international treaties. The first and most important treaty is the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy. And to this day, it remains the only treaty that every wizarding nation enforces. The Accords of Versailles, which govern trade, were only signed by a majority of the wizarding nations, and their enforcement cannot be described as anything other than ‘spotty’. And with many wizarding countries practising slavery, just the varying interpretations of what exactly is covered by the Accords’ ‘stolen property’ clauses are enough to occupy dozens of diplomats in perpetuity - and theft is a crime which was supposed to be regulated by that treaty.
    When it comes to other crimes, though, the differences are even more pronounced than those concerning theft. Even between neighbouring nations, the definitions of crimes, even capital crimes, rarely overlap overly much. Many British wizards and witches would be surprised - and horrified - that the Unforgivables aren’t actually deemed unforgivable in large parts of the New World. Killing someone in a duel is considered murder in some countries, manslaughter in others and perfectly legal in a third group of countries. Add to that the fact that many countries, de jure or de facto, treat the same crime very differently depending on the criminal’s power and influence, and even the worst dark wizards often only need to travel abroad in order to be safe from pursuit by a country’s law enforcement authorities - provided, of course, that their new abode’s laws and borders are respected by the authorities of their country of origin. The Intervention in 1955 proved that beyond any doubt when Albus Dumbledore went to great lengths to demonstrate his views on the legality of slavery in the Ottoman Empire and his respect for the Empire’s laws. Or, as was the case, his utter lack thereof.
    But even countries not blessed with the support of the likes of Albus Dumbledore have the means to see their laws enforced in foreign, even hostile, countries. When a foreign country refuses to prosecute or extradite a wanted suspect and the law enforcement of your country cannot intervene without risking an international conflict, bounty hunters present an, often expensive, but politically and diplomatically acceptable, alternative. As they are unaffiliated private citizens, a bounty hunter’s actions cannot be laid at another country’s feet. However, as a result of that separation, even though it’s merely a convenient fiction in some cases, bounty hunters are generally treated as common criminals when they get into trouble with the law - which happens to almost every one of them in their line of work. It’s not unheard of for a bounty hunter to have a bounty placed on their own head after a particularly spectacular or violent capture of a wanted suspect - one of the reasons that the profession has a bigger churn rate than Curse-Breaking.’
    - Excerpt from ‘International Law in the Wizarding World’ by Anna Wellford, London, 2000


    *****​

    Turkey, Istanbul, October 28th, 2001

    Mallory jumped up when they entered the hotel suite, but hesitated a moment before asking: “What happened?”

    Ron Weasley would have shrugged, but his broken arm was still stuck to his chest. “We were betrayed,” he said instead.

    “But you escaped,” Mallory replied.

    “Kavya didn’t,” Harry spat with a deep scowl. Ron saw Hermione put her hand on Harry’s arm.

    “Oh.” Mallory cleared his throat. “So...?”

    “The collection was moved,” Ron told him before Harry blew up at the wizard. “And they prepared a trap for us in its former location. We barely managed to escape.”

    “Thanks to Kavya,” Harry added. “Whom we left in the harem.”

    “We had no choice,” Ari said. “And she told us to leave.” The witch seemed unimpressed by Harry’s glare. “It’s true.”

    Ron’s friend clenched his teeth and stomped off into his and Hermione’s bedroom. Hermione glared at Ari, then followed him.

    “It’s not my fault,” Ari muttered.

    “I know,” Ron told her. “He’ll calm down after a while. It’s just… he feels responsible for this since he got into contact with Kavya.”

    Ari huffed. “He’s wrong. It was her decision.”

    Ron shrugged. “Doesn’t mean he won’t feel guilty.”

    Harry returned. “Leaving my emotional state aside, we need to move.”

    “What? Why?” Mallory asked. “Were you followed?”

    “If we were, the Janissaries would already be storming the place,” Harry retorted. “But we were betrayed, and we can’t assume we’re safe here.”

    Mallory frowned at him. “Are you accusing me?”

    “No.” Harry shook his head. “You’d have done a better job.”

    Or a much worse one, Ron thought. “It had to be the Storm Wizards,” he said out loud. “They knew we were planning to steal the collection.”

    “But we didn’t tell them where we lived, nor when we were going to head back to the palace to steal the collection,” Ari pointed out.

    “We can discuss this in a new location,” Harry said. “We need to leave now.”

    Ron didn’t think so, but arguing wouldn’t solve anything. And they could easily camp somewhere.

    “I have a campsite picked out,” Hermione said. She probably had had it picked out since they’d arrived in Turkey. “I can take two of us there with Side-Along Apparition, and then you can go back to pick up the others while I clean up here.”

    “Clean up?”

    “Remove every trace of ourselves.” She scowled. “The palace has access to a blood mage. I recognised some of the curses cast on Kavya. I don’t want to risk them calling in a houngan as well.”

    Mallory shuddered upon hearing that. “Let’s go, then!”

    A minute later, they were in a small cove by the sea… no, at a lake. Ron could see the other coast, and that wasn’t salt water. “Let’s put the wards up,” he said, “while Harry and Hermione finish at the hotel.” The tents could wait until they were safe and hidden.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, October 29th, 2001

    “That’s a really awful picture,” Ron Weasley said, staring at the newspaper Harry had brought back from his trip back to Constantinople. “I sneer worse than Malfoy.”

    “I wouldn’t worry about the picture, Ron,” Hermione said as she glared at him. “I would worry about the fact that we’re wanted for murder, arson, attempted regicide, attempted kidnapping, dark magic and armed robbery - under our real names.” She tapped the newspaper with her finger, causing the pictures on the front page to flinch. They looked even worse like that, in Ron’s opinion.

    “How did they find out? We were disguised,” Ari said without looking up from where she had apparently entered a staring contest with her own picture.

    “Whoever betrayed us must have told them,” Harry said.

    “If the Storm Wizards had known about us, they would have prepared a better trap,” Ron replied. “No…” He shook his head. “I don’t think they saw through our disguises during the fighting, either. And Ari and Hermione were using Polyjuice Potion. That leaves Mallory...” He looked at Mallory’s tent, where the older wizard was still asleep. “...or Kavya.”

    “She heard us talking to each other. We didn’t use code names,” Hermione said, biting her lower lip. “That was a stupid mistake. They must have caught and interrogated her.”

    Ron wasn’t certain that they should exclude Mallory - but then, if he had betrayed them, why would he have done such a sloppy job? “Well, we aren’t exactly professional thieves.” That earned him another glare.

    “Kavya is still alive?” Harry perked up.

    “We can’t go back and break into the palace again,” Hermione said. “They won’t let anyone in without a much more thorough check.”

    “But…” Harry pressed his lips together.

    “Also, we have a worse problem,” Ron pointed out. “They blame us for using the Dark Arts - Fiendfyre - and for robbery. Not attempted robbery.”

    “The Storm Wizards must have stolen the collection and used Fiendfyre on the palace. And framed us for all of it!” Hermione bared her teeth. “Those bloody bastards!” she hissed. “This is all their fault!”

    Ron didn’t think it would be a good idea to mention that they did commit at least attempted robbery and arson. “Mum’s gonna go spare,” he said instead.

    Everyone winced. Even Ari.

    *****​

    Molly wouldn’t be happy at all about this. The Caribbean affair had been bad enough, but this? They actually had broken into the New Palace and had fought the guards. For a good cause, of course, but still…

    Hermione Granger sighed. “I think we need to leave the country. There’s nothing we can do here.”

    “They could be lying about the stolen collection,” Harry said. “And Kavya is still a prisoner.”

    And trying to get either would see them captured or killed. Or captured and killed. Or eaten by the Nundu, if Ari managed to free it. “The loss of his prized collection is a huge loss of face for the Sultan. He wouldn’t lie about that,” she said. “And we can’t break into the palace again. They will be on the alert, they’ll be patrolling around the clock and they’ll be improving their wards and procedures.”

    “That means they won’t be used to and familiar with the new procedures yet,” Harry said.

    “By the time we knew enough to think about breaking in, they would be settled in,” Ron pointed out. “Mate, I hate to leave her there, but there’s nothing we can do. Not now.”

    “Them,” Ari said. “The Nundu needs to be rescued as well.”

    Hermione swallowed her retort. Ari just didn’t understand how dangerous the beast was. Like Harry and snakes. At least Ron was on the ball and ran interference. “And we don’t have the time to do anything, anyway,” she pointed out. “We have to assume that the Storm Wizards managed to steal the collection and that that will allow them to find Atlantis. We need to find it before they do.”

    “We need to find it and secure it against them,” Ron added. “And that will be a mite difficult if we’re wanted for all the crimes of which the Ottomans accuse us.”

    “Dumbledore will solve both those problems,” Harry said.

    “People will claim he’s protecting murderers,” Hermione retorted.

    He shook his head. “We tried to free a slave. Magical Europe won’t care about the accusations - especially not France, Greece and Bulgaria.”

    “Most of them won’t really care too much about a Naga,” Hermione replied. “They’re classified as magical beasts.”

    “Which is a damn injustice!” Harry spat. Ari nodded emphatically. “Too many wizards outside India are so prejudiced against snakes.”

    Not entirely without cause, Hermione thought but, of course, didn’t say. “But even if that didn’t matter, Dumbledore wouldn’t be able to sort things out for us. The Ottoman Empire won’t listen to him.”

    “They did in 1955, didn’t they?” Ari asked.

    “That was the Intervention. Dumbledore led half of Magical Europe’s forces against the Ottomans to end their slave raiding. He won’t be able to do that for us,” Hermione explained.

    “Yeah,” Ron added, “I don’t think the Sultan will retract the bounty on us.”

    There wasn’t a bounty on their heads, not yet, Hermione knew, but it was only a matter of time. She nodded. “And it’ll be a very high bounty, given that we supposedly set fire to half his palace and emptied one of his vaults.”

    “Which means almost every bounty hunter in the world will be after us,” Ron said. “Unless we hide under Dumbledore’s robes.”

    “That wouldn’t be practical,” Hermione said.

    “Well, we could enchant a pocket with Extension Charms…” Ron trailed off and her glare.

    She shook her head. “We need to find a safe place and crack the spells on the skull.” And hope that the Atlantean ghost bound to it would know the way to Atlantis. He should, of course - unless he was obliviated of the knowledge. Which wasn’t very likely.

    “Stay here?” Ari asked. “No one would suspect that, right?”

    “That might be a little too clever for our own good,” Hermione replied, with a frown at Harry, who seemed to be considering this.

    “Egypt, then,” Harry said. “Help Auntie and the others.”

    Hermione bit her lower lip. That was an obvious plan, of course. Reunited with the others, they would be safer. But… Focusing on the skull while others were breaking into tombs would be hard. “We need to warn them, too. They might not have access to newspapers.”

    “Right!” Harry went towards their tent. “I’ll write a letter for Hedwig.”

    “Where is the… bird?” Ari asked.

    “She’ll appear when he’s done. She always does,” Hermione said.

    “Of course! She’s the best post owl!” Harry yelled from the tent.

    “And we’ll need to explain things to Mum and Dumbledore,” Ron said. “Before she goes spare.”

    “She knows us better than that,” Hermione told him.

    “I’ll still have to write her,” Ron said, entering the tent as well.

    Ari looked at her.

    “My parents are already aware of the danger posed by the Storm Wizards, and are taken care of.” Bounty hunters coming after them wouldn’t change much. “I’ll add a letter to Ron’s, for Molly or Arthur to pass on.”

    “If they go to my tribe, they’ll regret it,” Ari said, grinning.

    Hermione chuckled, even though she knew Ari missed her tribe and family. But if the witch was making jokes about this, then the least she could do was to laugh at them.

    Even or especially if she didn’t feel like laughing at all, given their situation.

    *****​

    “I take it that we should vacate the premises, so to speak.”

    Hermione Granger wanted to roll her eyes at Mr Mallory’s utterance, but that would have been rude. She wanted to examine the skull, which was resting on the table in front of her. She didn’t want to repeat what was written in the newspaper. But you didn’t always get to do what you wanted. “It would be advisable, in our opinion. We’re currently the most wanted wizards and witches in the country. Except you, of course. They didn’t identify you.”

    “That shouldn’t take them too long,” he replied. “After all, your visit to my house made the news.”

    Hermione was forced to agree. While it was possible that the Ottoman authorities had missed that - Key West wasn’t exactly a location of interest to the Empire - at least some of the American bounty hunters would have caught the news. So Mr Mallory wouldn’t be safer if he split from them. Which was too bad, in her opinion - even though she felt a little guilty about such thoughts. She nodded. “Yes.”

    “And the Storm Wizards stole the collection. How did they manage that?”

    “They must have had a contact inside. Possibly under the Imperius Curse. Perhaps a few of them,” Hermione said. “With that kind of help, they would have had the collection moved under a pretext, and then used us as a distraction to steal it.”

    “But why did they hire us, then?” Mr Mallory asked.

    “They might not have been certain that it would work. Or they wanted an alternative. Or,” Hermione said with a grimace, “they had planned to use us from the start as scapegoats.” Perhaps kill them in a way that made it look as if the collection had been destroyed.

    “That means they saw through your disguises.”

    “I doubt that,” she retorted. “If they had, they would have ambushed us and tried to capture us to get our relics.”

    He nodded, although it looked a little reluctant to her. “So, where does that leave us? We failed. Crucially.” She could almost hear the ‘you’ in ‘we’ and pressed her lips together. “What are you planning now?” he asked.

    “Everyone fails some of the time,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost cut in before she could answer. “It’s how you deal with it that decides if it was a crucial failure or merely a setback or lesson to be learned.”

    She narrowed her eyes at the skull even though the ghost couldn’t see her. “That sounds very… wise,” she said.

    “Indeed. What better way to deal with my newfound circumstances than to use the opportunity to let others share the wisdom I accrued in life?”

    She rolled her eyes at his tone - she could almost see him smirking. Well, when he had been alive. She hadn’t seen his ghost yet. “We’re ever so grateful.”

    “You should be.”

    Yes, definitely smirking. But then, the poor ghost was trapped in a dark skull. He deserved to have his fun. “And what would you advise us to do?”

    “Oh, I do think that as long as you avoid all contact with muggles or wizards and witches, you’re as safe here as anywhere else. Safer, perhaps, in the Empire, since many bounty hunters will search for you elsewhere,” the ghost replied.

    “But if we should be found in the Empire, we will have to deal with an army of Janissaries,” Mr Mallory said with a frown, “not just with a few bounty hunters. And bounty hunters generally don’t work well together.”

    “The good ones do,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost retorted. “And the bad ones are unlikely to find us.”

    “We’ll stay put here while we sort things out with our families and friends,” Hermione said.

    Mr Mallory pointed at the newspaper. “But you risked being discovered when you bought this.”

    “What did they buy?”

    “Just a newspaper,” Hermione said. Mr Sayadi would recognise the newspaper - unlike its muggle counterpart, it was still being published daily.

    “The Günlük Haber Gazetesi?”

    “No. Magical Falastin,” she told him.

    “Ah. You would be more fluent in Arabic than Turkish, correct?”

    “Yes.” Very much so. “But we need the information.”

    “We don’t need it. We know that the Sultan will have his Janissaries hunt us, and will put a bounty on us. One large enough to attract the best bounty hunters,” Mr Mallory said. “Entering a magical village is an unnecessary risk. We should move.”

    “Perhaps,” Hermione said. “But who would assume we’d be in this area?”

    “It’s not as if the Janissaries have other leads. If someone reported you, they will start searching the area.”

    “The newspaper is from Palestine. We’re hundreds of miles from that area,” Hermione told him as she rolled her eyes. Did he think they were amateurs?

    Mr Mallory glared at her while the ghost chuckled. “Age might bring experience, Mr Mallory, but it does not do to underestimate the youth.”

    “You’re a veritable font of wisdom,” Mr Mallory said with a sneer.

    “That’s very kind of you to say. But shouldn’t we work on breaking the seals here? I do think this has become a most pressing task, with the setback suffered in Constantinople,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost said. Hermione was certain that he knew how annoyed Mr Mallory was even without seeing the man’s clenched teeth.

    She, though, nodded. “Yes. Let’s get to work.”

    “I still think we should move,” Mr Mallory said.

    But he picked up one of the fragments they hadn’t translated yet and started working.

    And Hermione started on unravelling the bindings on the ghosts a little more.

    *****​

    “And be careful!” Harry Potter told Hedwig as he tied the small tube containing their letters to her leg.

    She barked at him in reply.

    He frowned. She was the best and smartest post owl, but they were dealing with Storm Wizards and bounty hunters. “Don’t be cocky.”

    Another bark, and she launched herself into the air.

    “Mum’s not going to like this,” Ron said.

    “Do you think someone will go after your family?” Harry asked.

    “They’re already aware of the threat from the Storm Wizards, so they’ll have taken measures. They should be safe.”

    Should be. They wouldn’t know for certain. Harry clenched his teeth. Auntie and Sirius were being chased by Storm Wizards - racing to find the Atlantean relics - but they knew how to handle that. Had to know. Arthur and Molly would be fine... Percy too - the Ministry was safe. But the twins and Ginny? “I wish Dumbledore would settle the issue in New York,” he said.

    Ron shrugged. “It’s the usual problem: Everyone agrees that something has to be done, but no one agrees on just what it should be. And even if they agree on something, they’ll try to hitch other proposals to it. It’s the same in the Wizengamot. And the Americans’ many enclaves won’t help, either.”

    “He should just threaten to curse them until they agree,” Ari said. “That way, it’d at least be done.”

    Harry took a deep breath. “That’s not how Dumbledore works.”

    Ari snorted. “Didn’t you just say what he’s doing isn’t working?”

    Ron chuckled. “You have a point. But Dumbledore is Dumbledore. He won’t force others until lives are at stake. Which isn’t the case so far.”

    “Our lives are at stake,” Ari retorted.

    And Kavya’s freedom, Harry added silently. He still felt like cursing someone or blowing something up whenever he thought of the poor Naga they’d had to leave behind. It had been her choice, but still… He shook his head. He couldn’t dwell on that. Not now. “That’s not what the ICW’s decision is about. It’s about wards on muggle buildings,” he explained. “Buildings that contain both muggle and wizard flats.”

    “And which haven’t been a problem until the muggle attacks,” Ron added. “Dumbledore is probably just stalling until the people pushing to ban the practice give up. To be fair, mixing muggle and wizard flats does pose a risk for the Statute of Secrecy, but it’s minimal. We’ve been living in a muggle village for generations without a problem.”

    “The Burrow’s not exactly in the village,” Harry corrected him.

    “Close enough. In any case, I don’t see the proposal gaining enough support to be accepted,” Ron said.

    “If it were so clear, Dumbledore would be done with it already,” Harry pointed out.

    “Stupid politics,” Ari said.

    Well, that was pretty much a universal truth. Harry chuckled. “I’ll be joining Hermione and Mallory. The sooner we crack the skull’s secrets, the better.” And he didn’t like to leave her alone with Mallory.

    “We’ll be standing guard,” Ron replied.

    *****​

    “I could help,” Ari said once Harry had disappeared into their tent. Ron Weasley saw she was frowning at him.

    “So could I,” he told her. “But someone needs to keep an eye out. We are wanted wizards and witches, after all.”

    “Ah.” She nodded. “That makes sense. Though I thought we were safe here?”

    “Relatively safe,” he said. “Someone could get lucky and stumble on us.”

    She huffed. “We’ve had a lot of bad luck already. We should get lucky sometime.”

    He had to laugh at that. She had a great talent for linguistics and spoke English very well, but some figures of speeches and terms still escaped her. Seeing her frown, he explained: “‘Getting lucky’ can mean ‘having sex’.”

    “Oh. We had sex. So that doesn’t count as luck.”

    “Well, I was lucky to have met you,” he told her. “Perhaps so lucky, it caused our string of bad luck.”

    “Are you telling me that it’s my fault?” She frowned at him.

    He was about to protest when he noticed her smirking and shook his head, huffing.

    Grinning, she hugged him, followed by a kiss. Which was followed by a few more kisses.

    “We should check the wards we put up,” he said once they pulled away, breathing heavily.

    She nodded, grinning again.

    The wards were fine. Well, as fine as temporary ones could be - they wouldn’t stop a good Curse-Breaker for long. Barely long enough to get a warning and be ready for a fight, with a really skilled Curse-Breaker. If someone found them, they’d be in trouble.

    But, as he checked, disillusioned on his spare broom - he really needed to get a Firebolt - the campsite was invisible from above and on the ground, nestled against the cliff forming a cove here.

    About as safe as it could get, given their circumstances.

    Which were not as good as they should be. If a bounty hunter had a way to track them that they didn’t know, they wouldn’t be able to block it. And if the hunter stayed out of range of their Human-presence-revealing Spells, they wouldn’t even know they were found.

    Yeah, he thought, as he returned to the ground, where Ari was waiting, their situation wasn’t ideal. Not at all.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, October 30th, 2001

    Hermione Granger could almost see the last pattern now. The spells that kept the ghost tied - no, tethered - to the skull were arranged in a complicated arithmantic sequence which she had finally cracked. But she still didn’t know all of the spells, or even most of them. She could tell - well, guess - what most of them did, but the finer details remained elusive. The Atlanteans’ spellcrafting was very advanced for its time, but no match for modern Arithmancy.

    But modern Arithmancy was based on Ancient Greek Arithmancy, and their magical tradition was different from the Atlanteans’. They hadn’t taken the same paths to reach the same results, which meant Hermione couldn’t take any shortcuts. And had to take greater risks that she liked. In addition, half the spells she had to deal with were blood magic. This was, without a doubt, the greatest challenge she had faced in her - admittedly short - career as a Curse-Breaker so far. The most frustrating as well. Everyone, everything, depended on her cracking the enchantments. Harry and Ron had helped, but the last part was up to her - she had the most insight into the whole enchantment. And if she didn’t make a breakthrough soon, the Storm Wizards might beat them to Atlantis.

    This wasn’t a time to wait overly long. Taking a deep breath, she twitched her wand and cut one tie between two spells, unravelling their pattern.

    Nothing happened.

    “Oh, I think I saw a flash.”

    No, apparently, something had happened. Mr Sayadi’s ghost had noticed. “A flash?” she asked.

    “Yes.”

    Hm. She hadn’t seen the spells react in any way. Were there more spells hidden in the skull? She hadn’t found any, but it was - theoretically - possible they were hidden in ways she didn’t know. Yet, why would she have been able to find the spells she had? “Did you feel anything?”

    “Like a pull to the afterlife? No, I’m afraid you’ll have to bear my presence for a little longer.”

    “I’m not trying to send you to your eternal rest,” she corrected him. Quite the contrary, actually. “And it’s not certain if you would go away, or merely be set free, if the enchantments were broken completely.”

    “I know, dear. I appreciate your efforts. While I like to talk, as anyone who knew me will confirm, and you certainly have a nice voice, I would very much like to be able to see again. Well, if I ever saw before - I am merely an imprint of a wizard’s mind, not the wizard himself.”

    Mr Sayadi’s ghost was going on about existential questions. He had been doing that for a while now. She didn’t think it was a good sign. “We’re doing what we can,” she told him.

    “Yes,” Harry cut in. “Everyone’s working hard.”

    “It’s not as if we have anything else to do anyway.” Mr Mallory’s comment wasn’t quite as empathic or helpful, even if it was honest.

    “I see. Well, not literally.” The ghost laughed.

    Hermione pressed her lips together and focused on the next spell. Or tried to. The spells were so tightly entwined, she couldn’t separate them. And tackling two of them at once, when she had no idea what exactly either did…

    She sighed and withdrew her wand, then closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat.

    “Break time?” Harry asked.

    She made an agreeing noise.

    “Already?” Mr Mallory asked.

    “Curse-Breaking isn’t something you want to do while feeling tired,” the ghost said before Hermione could. He said it more nicely than she would have as well.

    “Feel free to take over,” Harry said.

    “You took over for her yesterday.”

    “That was different,” Harry replied.

    “How so?”

    “I’ve made a lot of progress today,” Hermione explained, “By the time Harry or Ron were up to date, they would need a break themselves.”

    “I see,” Mr Mallory said.

    “I actually don’t think you do,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost told him, “and I’m sort of an expert on not-seeing. As much as a mental imprint can be an expert.”

    Yes, Hermione definitely needed a break.

    *****​

    They stepped outside the tent, letting the cooler air of the evening - was it so late already? - wash over them and started walking towards the shore. “I don’t like him,” Harry said in a low voice, glancing over his shoulder.

    Hermione Granger didn’t have to ask who he was talking about. She cast a privacy charm before answering - it wouldn’t do to stir up trouble with Mr Mallory now. “He must be frustrated and afraid. Since we met him, his house has been attacked, he has been dragged into two break-ins into harems, he was hunted and attacked by Storm Wizards several times and is now wanted by association for attempted regicide of one of the richest rulers in the magical world. That’s bound to make anyone…”

    “...act like an arse?”

    “...have a temper,” she finished with a slight frown.

    Harry chuckled. “Even Mr Sayadi thinks he’s a jerk. Why else would he needle him so otherwise?”

    “Mr Sayadi’s ghost is under a lot of stress as well,” she pointed out.

    “He never needles you or me, nor Ron or Ari. Just Mallory.”

    “He teases me often enough,” she replied as they reached the small beach in their cove.

    “That’s friendly teasing,” Harry said, taking a deep breath and looking out towards the lake. “He’s never as sardonic as with Mallory. Not quite as bad as Snape, of course, but you can’t tell me you don’t see the difference.”

    She pressed her lips together instead of admitting it. “I’m sorry.”

    “For Mallory?”

    As if! She scoffed. “For taking so long,” she corrected him.

    “You’re doing well.”

    “Not well enough. The Storm Wizards might be on their way to Atlantis already.” She resisted the urge to kick a stone on the beach into the water.

    She felt his arm wrap around her shoulder and the warmth of his body as he pulled her into his side. “For that, they would have to have found a clue to the location in the Sultan’s collection. And even if the collection contained such a clue in the first place, they would still have to find the right clue and then translate it. And they would have to have enough other clues to find the location - the Sultans haven’t managed to find anything in centuries, after all. How good do you think the Storm Wizards are at translating Atlantean?” He shook his head. “We have time. The real problems are the Janissaries and the bounty hunters.”

    “And the Storm Wizards hunting us and the others,” she replied. “But…” She bit her lower lip. “We haven’t seen or heard anything of Kraft since the Caribbean.”

    “Do you think she’s working with the Storm Wizards?” Harry shook his head. “She’s a pureblood princess. Grindelwald was all about equality among wizards - the purebloods were his worst enemies.”

    “He was using muggleborns as cannon fodder,” she pointed out, “and his idea of equality was him ruling everyone.”

    “And the old pureblood families like the Krafts couldn’t have that.” Harry shook his head again. “And if she were working with Kohlmeier, her reputation would be completely ruined.”

    “She could have been kidnapped or forced to help them,” Hermione said. “And our reputation isn’t exactly good at the moment.”

    “They wouldn’t have tried to hire us if they had her,” Harry replied.

    “Unless they only wanted to use us as scapegoats.”

    Harry was silent for a moment. Thinking, she knew. “Even if Kraft is working with them, she would have to be very lucky to have enough clues to find Atlantis. And even luckier to find it before we do. We have an Atlantean ghost to ask. The best she has are some tablets from the collection.”

    “And whatever else she dug up herself.”

    He scoffed. “She’s been following us like a vulture. And she failed to get at our finds.” He turned and hugged her, resting his chin on her shoulder. “It’ll be fine. You’ll crack the skull, and we’ll find Atlantis.”

    “We’re still wanted wizards and witches.” And they hadn’t heard back from Petunia and the others, yet. But she knew better than to mention that - Harry was worried enough about it already.

    “It’ll work out, you’ll see.”

    She hoped he was right. And she knew he was feeling the same. “Let’s not talk about work any more, alright? Not for the rest of the night, at least,” she whispered into his ear, then nipped at his earlobe.

    She felt him tense and take a deep breath, and then his hands slid down her back.

    And as she conjured a blanket beneath them, she knew they wouldn’t be doing much talking any more. Not tonight.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, October 31st, 2001

    Hermione Granger shook her head as she stared at the skull. She was stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. She should have thought of this long ago! It was so obvious, in hindsight. She had known that the skull was tied to the death-mask and the urn, but she hadn’t realised how to use that knowledge - she had been too fixated on the skull, since the ghosts were bound to it, and on breaking the specific enchantments that bound them.

    But they were all tied together. The spells on the skull were the result of a ritual involving all three items and a sacrificial ritual. The fact that Mr Sayadi’s ghost wasn’t as bound as the unknown Atlantean’s wasn’t just because there hadn’t been a proper ritual, but because while Mr Sayadi’s blood and death had been enough to trigger the skull to trap his ghost, it hadn’t been enough to trigger the other two items.

    The urn and the mask were the key to unravelling the skull’s spells without destroying it - or the ghosts! They could tell her which spells she could safely break. But… She bit her lower lip as she looked from the skull to the urn and mask. There were no spells linking them together now, of course. And she didn’t think trying to analyse the spells on either would be faster or more successful than focusing on the skull’s spells. Though there was a way to activate the spells and gauge their effects.

    A highly illegal and dark one. Well, not really dark - it wasn’t as if she’d sacrifice anyone. Not even an animal. But… She took a deep breath. This wasn’t something she wanted anyone to know. Especially not Mr Mallory. He wasn’t a bad sort. But he wasn’t a friend like the others. And once they had found Atlantis and dealt with their current problems, they would part ways.

    No. It was better to do this alone. Without distracting witnesses. Which was why it was very convenient that Mr Mallory had chosen today to brew his potions. Well, convenient, but not surprisingly so - today was a good day to brew special potions. Halloween had been a magically significant date for millennia, in almost every culture. It was said that on this day of the year, the borders between life and death were thinnest.

    Which might make her own experiment slightly easier as well. She took a deep breath. Harry was checking and improving the wards with Ron. Ari was napping after having stood guard in the early morning. It was now or never.

    She raised her left hand and held it over the mask, then pointed her wand at it. “Diffindo.”

    She flinched when the spell cut her skin, and even more when she saw the blood appear in her palm as she turned her hand, then flexed her fingers until a drop of blood fell on the mask.

    And gasped when, for a moment, the spells seemed to light up, and her detection spell allowed her to see the faintly glowing spells appearing between the mask and the two other items. And the spells that reacted on the skull.

    “Oh… that was a rather surprising experience,” she heard Mr Sayadi’s ghost say.

    “Yes? What did you feel?”

    “I felt a pull for a moment. And I felt as if I were fainting. Which, for a ghost, shouldn’t be possible.”

    “That would fit my expectations,” she told him.

    “You spread blood over the relics.”

    “A single drop,” she admitted. “My own.”

    “I see. Well, not literally, you understand.”

    She did - the ghost had been making the same or a very similar joke very often. But then, he was a ghost, not a real human. Their creativity was limited. Not as limited as a portrait’s, of course. “It’s not a sacrifice. No one, nothing, died.”

    “I hadn’t planned to die either, I think.”

    “We’re safe here,” she retorted.

    “Unless some bounty hunters find us, I believe.”

    “That is very unlikely,” she told him. “Although we shouldn’t remain too long in this place.”

    “Indeed. I would prefer not to find out what a jealous Curse-Breaker could do, should your ghost end up bound to mine.”

    “Do not worry about that, Mr Sayadi,” she said. “That won’t happen.” Because Hermione would destroy the spells that made trapping a ghost possible.

    Once she knew them, of course. It took her half a dozen repetitions until she had mapped out the spells she needed. And the same number with the urn to exclude a handful of others. Not enough to require a Blood-Replenishing Potion, of course - though she felt dirty anyway.

    But also elated. She now had the pattern of the whole arrangement. The skull was the repository for the ghost. The urn would receive the sacrifice. But the mask was the catalyst. The link between them. The key to the whole.

    She had been so foolish to focus solely on the skull instead of the whole! A beginner’s mistake.

    *****​

    Harry Potter wasn’t worried. He trusted Hermione. She was smart, brave and an expert Curse-Breaker. Tough, too, of course. She wouldn’t take stupid risks unless there were no other choice, and despite the bounty on their head - and the threat of the Storm Wizards - they weren’t overly pressed for time.

    But Hermione also had a slight tendency to overdo things. To become... ‘obsessed’ was the wrong word. ‘Overly focused’ would fit better. Pushing herself too far. After her breakthrough - which she hadn’t detailed, though Harry thought he knew what she had done - she hadn’t stopped working, even taking notes during dinner, and had waved away his offer of taking a break - she had gone straight back to working on the skull.

    Alright, he was worried. Slightly. “Hermione?”

    “Almost…” he heard her mumble - for the sixth time or so.

    He wanted to pull her away from the relics, but that would be too dangerous - they still didn’t know what the spells did, and a backlash could easily kill a Curse-Breaker.

    “It’s getting late,” he tried again. Even Mallory, who had been lurking in the tent since dinner, had gone to bed.

    “Almost…”

    He sighed and closed his eyes. “Hermione.”

    “There!”

    “Oh, my! You did it!”

    Harry’s eyes shot open. There was a translucent figure floating in the room. Mr Sayadi’s ghost! And there was another ghost floating near - no, partway through the table - wearing a short tunic and sandals.

    A confused-looking ghost.

    “Kima? Tamasa?” The ghost looked down and froze.

    “Preta! Preta!” he screamed, flailing at the table, his limbs passing through the wood. “Mrita! Mrita!”

    “Oh. I am not entirely certain, but I think my fellow ghost hadn’t realised his fate until he was unbound,” Mr Sayadi said. “Svasti! Sam! Santih!” he added, addressed at the ghost.

    The ghost didn’t seem to be listening, though.

    Ron and Ari rushed in. “What happened?” Ron asked, his wand out. “Oh!”

    “Preta! Preta! Mrita!”

    “Greetings, Mr Weasley, Miss Ari.”

    “You tortured the ghost for information?” Ari asked.

    “No!” Hermione snapped.

    “Mrita!”

    “It seems he wasn’t aware that he was a ghost,” Harry explained.

    “For thousands of years?” The witch frowned.

    “I think the enchantments that controlled him also kept him from realising his fate,” Hermione said.

    “It might have kept him sane, too,” Mr Sayadi added. “If he had been forced to endure thousands of years without any conversation or intellectual stimulation… I fear he would have lost his mind. If that’s possible for ghosts.”

    In Harry’s opinion, the ghost was making a decent attempt at losing his mind right now.

    “Mrita! Mrita!”

    And he took off, rushing away from them - and stopped at the tent’s border as if he had slammed into a wall. No - as if…

    “I didn’t remove all bindings,” Hermione said. “He cannot leave the skull’s vicinity yet.”

    “Oh, I see,” Mr Sayadi said while the Atlantean ghost was screaming incoherently again.

    “I wasn’t certain if removing all bindings would, well… remove your ties to this world,” she went on. “I wasn’t willing to take that risk without asking you and him.”

    “Or risk losing his information - and my help?”

    Hermione didn’t answer that.

    And the ghost turned towards them. “Vimoca! Vimoca!”

    “I think he desires his freedom. Although I cannot tell if he desires oblivion, or merely the freedom to travel,” Mr Sayadi translated. Or guessed.

    “Can you tell him that we require his help to do that?” Harry said.

    “As payment or as requirement?” Mr Sayadi asked.

    “Quid pro quo,” Harry said. “We need his help to find Atlantis.”

    The Atlantean ghost froze for a moment, then stared at him. “Abrar! Abrar!”

    That meant ‘danger’, Harry remembered that. “It’s been thousands of years,” he said. “No one has heard of Atlantis in all that time.” And a Curse-Breaker braved danger every time they entered a tomb.

    “Atlantis erin abrar hesh tutala!”

    Well, that was very familiar.

    “I think he claims Atlantis would endanger our souls. I am not entirely sure, though.” Mr Sayadi frowned, then smiled. “This will require some time to sort out. Fortunately, as ghosts, we won’t require much rest.”

    But Harry and his friends needed to rest sometime - and this seemed as if it would take a while. Could they trust Mr Sayadi’s ghost to sort this out? Well, they already had to trust him to translate correctly anyway.

    Though having their big break-through happen while they were asleep would feel a little anticlimactic. And it wouldn’t make for a good story to tell, either.

    Harry blinked. He really needed rest - he was starting to think like Lockhart.

    *****​

     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2019
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  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 22: The Oath
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 22: The Oath

    ‘Until the Statute of Secrecy was instituted in 1692, a wizard or witch had only to deal with one set of borders. There was no split between muggle and wizarding nations. But after the wizarding nations had split from the muggle ones, the question of how to handle their territory soon became an issue. Unlike muggle methods of transportation, especially in the seventeenth century, wizards and witches can apparate, use brooms, the Floo Network and Portkeys. They aren’t bound to roads or ships as muggles are, so muggle borders do not present an obstacle to them. This, of course, made controlling a nation’s territory while at the same time hiding magic from muggles a challenge - doubly so when muggle borders started to shift and magical nations found themselves occupying areas controlled by two or even more muggle nations - areas in which they had to enforce the Statute of Secrecy.
    It also soon became apparent that war between wizarding nations worked differently under the Statute of Secrecy. With muggles no longer relevant, wizarding warfare rapidly evolved. Magical transportation and the significantly reduced numbers of combatants focused battles on a few select key locations. In addition, opposing forces proved to be much harder to find and fight outside such locations, as both hiding and retreating were far easier without having to care about allied muggles. As well as this, the ability to mass forces quickly made defending a larger number of locations too difficult to sustain in a conflict.
    This led to most wizards and witches who didn’t live in the capitals and other important settlements choosing secrecy as their main means of defence - a tactic that was quickly taken up by minorities who disagreed with their current rulers, such as the rebelling jinn in the Magical Ottoman Empire, followed by the Greek and Bulgarian nations. Even the goblin rebellions in Britain can be said to follow this trend, although unlike the aforementioned conflicts, those rebellions were unsuccessful.
    One cannot help, of course, but wonder why the various nations even competed over territory that couldn’t be effectively defended in the first place. With magical transportation, a wizarding nation did not need to hold much land at all - whether the farthest corner of a country or the closest neighbourhood, either was but a step through a fireplace or an Apparition away. In fact, there were two main reasons why wizarding nations fought over largely muggle-settled lands even though, seeing as a nation was obligated to enforce the Statute of Secrecy on its territory, they were mostly a drain on their resources.
    First: pride and tradition. Just like muggles, wizards loathed abandoning or surrendering territory no matter the cost, since that would have meant a loss of face. And in the eighteenth century, most wizards remembered the time before the Statue was implemented, and so still identified with their country of origin. To abandon territory must have felt like a betrayal to them.
    Second: muggleborns. While the threat of dying out or succumbing to inbreeding isn’t nearly as dire as some - mostly muggleborns - make it out to be, it is nevertheless the case that some of the most powerful and talented wizards and witches were muggleborns or their close descendants - Albus Dumbledore is the son of a muggleborn witch, for example. A wizarding nation that does not control muggle territory won’t enjoy a steady influx of muggleborns and, therefore, will not prosper as much as their neighbours. This is true both for liberal nations such as Britain, where muggleborns are integrated well, and countries such as the Magical Ottoman Empire, where most muggleborns are raised as loyal Janissaries or harem slaves.
    It should come as no surprise, then, that the eighteenth and nineteenth century saw many conflicts between wizarding nations as borders were moved and territory taken. It took both Grindelwald’s War and Dumbledore’s rise to prominence to - mostly - end such wars in Magical Europe, while North America remains a trouble spot where rarely a year passes without a war between at least two enclaves.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Wizarding Nations and the Statute of Secrecy’ by Liam Smith, London, 2000


    *****

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, November 1st, 2001

    Ron Weasley shook his head as he looked at Ari disappearing into their tent. “I didn’t think I’d ever say this, mate, but I know exactly how you feel.”

    “What?” Harry asked, looking up from where he was examining the wards around the cove.

    “Seeing your girlfriend obsess over an interesting relic and leave you behind,” Ron explained.

    “Hermione doesn’t obsess over the skull. She’s just… focused.”

    Ron chuckled. “Yeah, sure she is.” He shook his head and sat down in the sand on the small beach. “I think Ari’s imitating her.”

    “I didn’t think they got along that well,” Harry said.

    “Well, they like each other just fine, I reckon,” Ron said. Well enough, at least, to avoid problems in their group. “But it’s more that Ari uses her as an example to emulate. She’s a little insecure about her worth to us.”

    “Ari?” Harry sounded as if he doubted that. Of course, the witch didn’t appear to be insecure. Quite the contrary. At least in public.

    But Ron knew better. “She hasn’t got our education. She’s no Curse-Breaker.”

    “She knows spells we don’t, and she can change into a jaguar.”

    She thought she was a jaguar who could change into a witch, Ron knew, but that didn’t matter right now. “She can do that, but she’s no animagus - she has to carry her wand with her as a jaguar. And we know spells she doesn’t.” Though she was learning them. “But she’s got a real talent for languages. And none of us is skilled in that area.”

    “Hermione speaks and reads a number of languages,” Harry said, sounding a little defensive.

    “How long did she take to learn them?” Ron replied. “Anyway, Ari thinks she has to prove her worth by working almost non-stop on translating Atlantean. Just like Hermione is determined to find Atlantis’s location.”

    “You should have told her that she doesn’t have to do that,” Harry said.

    “I did.”

    “Ah.”

    “As I said, I know how you’re feeling, mate.” Ron chuckled. But he hoped that the two witches and the ghost would succeed, and soon. Everyone needed a break. In more than one way.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley knew something was wrong the moment he saw Ari leaving the tent later in the evening - she was scowling something fierce. He stashed his wand - he could clean up the rest of the firepit later - and walked to greet her. “Hey.”

    Her scowl didn’t lessen. “He called me a slave!”

    “The Atlantean ghost?” Ron couldn’t think of anyone else who’d say that. Or dare to say it.

    “Yes!” She nodded rather emphatically. “To my face. He tried to order me around, the stupid thing!”

    “He could tell you were a member of the Jaguar tribe?”

    “I told him when he asked after I mentioned my tribe’s sacred language.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. That explained it. More importantly, though… “So, you can talk to him now?”

    She sniffed. “Barely. We have managed to build up a vocabulary - mostly by having the stupid ghost read the tablets we have - but since he doesn’t really understand our language, it’s a pain getting him to understand our questions.”

    “And ghosts are notoriously bad at learning new things,” Ron added, nodding again.

    “Mr Sayadi isn’t. He is learning Atlantean.”

    “He was learning it already when he died. Perhaps it stuck?” Ron wasn’t an expert on ghosts, but Ginny and Luna had been investigating the ghosts of Hogwarts for years - and sharing their results with him no matter whether he was interested or not. Well, ghosts were a not uncommon find in tombs as well.

    She scoffed. “Anyway, it’s a stupid ghost. Arrogant as well. No wonder they sacrificed him.”

    “Do you know why they did that?” Ron asked.

    “He claims as a warning.”

    “A warning for whom?”

    “For Atlantis. But we don’t know yet if it was meant to allow him to warn them, or if his example should be a warning for them - the stupid ghost doesn’t want to talk about it.”

    Ron wouldn’t want to talk about his death either. But then, some ghosts liked to talk about their death. In detail. Like Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor house ghost. “That’s a problem.”

    She nodded. “And apparently, we can’t make him talk.” She bared her teeth. “According to Hermione, at least.”

    Ah! Knowing Hermione, that was probably more ‘shouldn’t’ instead of ‘can’t’. “You wanted to threaten him with sealing him up in the skull?”

    Ari nodded. “If he won’t talk, he’s useless anyway.” In a lower, more growling tone, she added: “And it’d teach him to call me a slave!”

    He hugged her and ran his hand over her head, slightly tousling her hair. “I think that should be a last resort.”

    “That’s what Mr Sayadi said,” she replied, scowling at him - though not like she meant it - as she fixed her hair. “Stop that!”

    “Sorry,” he said, flashing her a grin.

    “No, you aren’t.”

    He spread his hands, and his grin grew. “Couldn’t resist. You know how it is.”

    She huffed, then suddenly grinned herself. “I know.”

    Uh oh.

    He managed five steps before a jaguar pounced on him.

    *****​

    Later, after Ari had gotten her revenge on Ron Weasley, and after they had made up in a most rewarding way, both of them were snuggled together, staring at the sky above. It was still warm enough to not need spells or blankets. Not for a little while, at least. Especially if you were sharing body heat.

    Ron sighed. He didn’t know exactly what he should say. Asking her if she was feeling better would be both arrogant and thoughtless. Talking about the ghosts would ruin the moment and remind her of her annoyance. And he didn’t remember enough Astronomy to make up something about the stars above them. Which would be a trite comment anyway.

    He settled for simply pulling her closer, planting a gentle kiss on her brow and whispering: “I love you.”

    She made a contented noise in return, not quite a purr, but close, and snuggled up to him.

    He closed his eyes and smiled.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, November 2nd, 2001

    “He asks why he should talk to a, ah, ‘barbarian’,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost said.

    Hermione Granger pressed her lips together. She had guessed that already - she had quickly learned what ‘varvar’ meant in Atlantean after the bound ghost had started talking. But guessing wasn’t sensible when you had a translator at your disposal. Or at least someone who spoke the language better than you did. Or two someones, she mentally added with a glance at Ari. “Thank you,” she replied.

    “Tell him he won’t ever leave the skull again if he doesn’t help us!” Ari growled. “We’ll re-bind him.”

    Hermione clenched her teeth. While she could understand the other witch’s feelings - no one liked to be called a slave - they wouldn’t stoop so low. “We won’t do that.” Ari huffed, but Hermione ignored her. There were lines you couldn’t cross. And torturing someone - even if he was a ghost and, therefore, of questionable sapience - would cross such a line.

    Not to mention that the ghost had retreated into the skull anyway - and she still wasn’t entirely certain how that had worked - and so it was debatable if the threat would do anything but further antagonise him.

    She sighed. “Does he still refuse to accept that he’s been inside the skull for millennia?”

    “I’m afraid so,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost said.

    “Stupid ghost,” Ari muttered.

    As if on cue, the Atlantean ghost reappeared. “Varar! Epanastis! Iluta!” he spat. “Eso desi!”

    “He believes we’re ‘rebels’ and ‘barbarians’.”

    “And slaves,” Ari cut in, hissing at the translucent figure.

    “Yes. Enemies of the Empire,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost went on.

    Of course, for the Atlantean, there was only one empire. His. And the ghost was too arrogant to accept that the Atlantean Empire had fallen - had vanished almost without a trace, only leaving legends, myths and a scattering of ruins behind.

    Hermione sighed again.

    “Perhaps we could take him to a muggle city? The buildings alone should be proof that his time has passed,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost said. “And Mr Potter is travelling anyway to meet his post owl at a place far away from here, isn’t he?”

    “He won’t accept it. He’ll think it’s magic,” she replied. “There was no separation between muggles and wizards in his time.” And Hermione wasn’t keen on risking discovery by the Ottoman Obliviators while trying to prove to some stubborn ghost that a skyscraper was real and not an illusion. The ghost might assume it was magically erected anyway. Or that he was in some far-away country the Atlanteans didn’t know about.

    “Pera!”

    Hermione held up a hand before Mr Sayadi’s ghost could translate. “He thinks I’m lying, I know.” She had heard that word very often in the last two days. “We can take you to Atlantis if you show us the way,” she said.

    Mr Sayadi’s ghost translated.

    “Pera!”

    “He doesn’t trust you.”

    “Stupid ghost.”

    In hindsight, Hermione really shouldn’t have told the ghost the truth about Atlantis. It had been going well - somewhat - before that. Well, the ghost had at least cooperated and read the texts they had presented to him. But as soon as she had told him that his home had disappeared…

    She sighed once more. She should have anticipated that. According to everything they knew about the Atlanteans, they had been a proud people. A very proud people - and the most advanced wizards of their time. Of course, to hear that the entire country - the entire island - had disappeared would be hard to believe, and without any proof… She shook her head. She had made a stupid mistake, and now it was up to her to fix it.

    If only she knew how.

    She raised her wand. “This is a wand - more powerful than dozens of staves. I have demonstrated this to you. Do you really think that such advanced magic could have been developed without the Atlanteans noticing?”

    Mr Sayadi took a while to translate this, and the ghost was silent for a minute afterwards. Then he rapidly spoke in Atlantean - too rapid for Hermione to follow more than a few words. Like ‘pera’, ‘desi’ and ‘varar’.

    “Ah…” Mr Sayadi’s forced smile dashed her hopes before the ghost started translating. “He says that, obviously, there is a country blessed by the gods and hidden from the Empire. Which will soon learn its secrets.”

    “Now he develops some humility…” Hermione spat through clenched teeth. All she needed was a location. The stupid ghost - dear lord, she sounded like Ari in her head now! - just needed to point at the globe they had prepared! But the paranoid figment of magic refused to help them!

    “Casten her ter.”

    “He once more demands to be taken to the closest outpost of the Empire.”

    “We would gladly do so, if you showed us where that outpost is,” Hermione replied.

    More rapid back and forth followed between the ghost, Mr Sayadi’s ghost and Ari. Or everyone but herself and Mr Mallory, who had stopped talking to anyone hours ago, unless you counted his infrequent mutterings under his breath.

    “He apparently doesn’t believe that you would have Atlantean possessions, but wouldn’t know where to find the Empire.”

    That stupid… She reined in her anger. The ghost’s thoughts made some sense - if you were a paranoid, arrogant relic who couldn’t accept the truth.

    “What proof that I’m telling the truth would you accept?” she snapped. “You’re refusing to listen, you don’t believe me, you ignore every piece of secondary evidence we present and when you cannot ignore it, you claim it is a trick or something contemporary! And you are too ignorant of astronomy to be able to tell that millennia have passed by looking at the sky!”

    Mr Sayadi’s translation of her words was remarkably succinct. Hermione looked at Ari, who was pouting. It seemed as if Mr Sayadi’s ghost had used not just his linguistic but also his diplomatic skills on this occasion.

    “Abrar vacasa ter,” the ghost said, staring at her. “Pera sil tenester.”

    And Mr Sayadi’s ghost wasn’t translating. “What did he say?” Hermione prompted him.

    “Ah…” Mr Sayadi’s ghost appeared remarkably concerned.

    Hermione tilted her head.

    For someone who had no real lungs left, Mr Sayadi’s ghost could imitate a sigh really well. “Ah, he demands a… I think ‘blood oath’ is the closest translation… to prove that you are not lying.”

    Oh. Hermione took a deep breath. Because of her clenched teeth, it sounded like hissing to her ears.

    This would cause trouble.

    *****​

    “A ‘blood oath’?” Harry Potter wasn’t yelling, but he had raised his voice. A little. But he had cast a privacy spell, so his voice wouldn’t carry into the tent. He had thought Auntie’s angry letter was the worst news - she really should trust them more; the current difficulties were not the end of the world, after all - but this...

    “That’s the closest translation for what the ghost demands,” Hermione said. “We haven’t found any details about it.”

    Harry could hear the ‘yet’ without her saying it. “You’re looking for them, though.”

    “It would be careless to trust the ghost without bothering to check other sources,” she replied.

    “Which means you plan to do this.” He clenched his teeth.

    “Only if it’s a tolerable risk.”

    “It’s blood magic,” he spat.

    To her credit, she didn’t deny that. “That’s a reasonable assumption, given what we know about Atlantean magic in general, and about the three relics responsible for this situation in particular. But not every blood magic spell requires a life to be sacrificed.”

    “All of them require a blood sacrifice, though,” he said. She didn’t flinch, but the way she pressed her lips together… He knew her too well. “You’ve already done that, haven’t you?”

    “I merely cut my hand and let a few drops of blood touch the relic.” She met his eyes as he fought to control his temper. “It was necessary to see how the spells were activated. It wasn’t a ritual.”

    “It’s still blood magic.” If this got out…

    “Only according to the most strict definitions,” she retorted.

    “Which are the ones applicable in most civilised countries. Such as Wizarding Britain.” Harry shook his head, still struggling to keep a lid on his temper. “Why did you do that?”

    “Someone had to,” she said. “We weren’t making any progress and we were running out of time. Still are, actually.”

    “So you had to do blood magic.”

    “Self-sacrificial magic.”

    He gritted his teeth and kept staring at her.

    After a few more seconds, she looked away. “I’m sorry.”

    “You should have told me.” He closed his eyes for a second.

    “You wouldn’t have let me do it,” she said.

    “You didn’t trust me.”

    “I trusted you to insist on doing it yourself,” she retorted. Her eyes looked a little wet now.

    She was correct, of course. But he wasn’t about to admit that.

    He heard her snort - she also knew him too well. “You’re not doing the blood oath, whatever that is,” he said. “One blood ritual is enough.”

    She raised her chin. “It wasn’t a ritual. Just a test.” Stubborn, as usual.

    “Doesn’t matter. I’ll be doing the blood oath - if we’re doing this.” He crossed his arms.

    She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “That’s not fair.”

    “It’s entirely fair. We share the risks. We share the rewards.” And the blood sacrifices, presumably. “You wouldn’t want to do something you think would be too dangerous for me, would you?”

    Of course she would - but she wouldn’t admit that. Her glare spoke volumes, though. He reached out and hugged her. She tensed for a moment, stiff in his arms, before she relaxed.

    “Sorry,” she whispered.

    “Sorry,” he said in reply.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, November 3rd, 2001

    “...and, I think,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost explained, “these words are the invocation used: intat mre abrar manates. Roughly translated, they mean: ‘should I lie, my blood shall kill me’.”

    The ghost next to him nodded, though, at least to Harry Potter, it looked like he was merely listening to the Atlantean invocation, without understanding the English. “That sounds like a conditional curse,” he said.

    “I wouldn’t know,” Mr Sayadi’s ghost replied. “I wasn’t a Curse-Breaker, and it’s a little late to learn, what with me now being dead.”

    The ghost could be rather morbid at times, in Harry’s opinion. But then, almost all the ghosts he had met were like that to some degree.

    “Well, we haven’t found anything that suggests the blood oath would kill the caster unless they broke it,” Hermione added. They hadn’t found much at all, but Harry wouldn’t mention that - it was a touchy subject. “A conditional curse makes the most sense, and it’s a rather basic concept which the Atlanteans must have known already - the Egyptians certainly knew it.”

    “The stupid ghost probably claims the Atlanteans invented it,” Ari said, sneering.

    Harry cast a privacy charm. If the ghost did understand English, at least a little, then insulting him wouldn’t help in gaining his cooperation. “In any case,” he said once he’d finished casting, “a conditional curse means we can break it. If it doesn’t end after we’ve proved that we’re telling the truth.”

    “Can you break it quickly enough if it gets activated?” Ari asked.

    “We should have a good chance,” he told her. “We know a lot more spells than the Atlantean do, and we can cast them much faster as well, thanks to our wands.”

    “The curse is cast as a ritual - we have no reason to assume that, once triggered, it takes more time to take effect than a standard modern curse,” Hermione pointed out, narrowing her eyes at him.

    “I’m not planning to lie. And I won’t do the ritual until we agree it’s safe enough,” he replied. It would be a sad end for a Curse-Breaker to be killed by a curse he cast on himself on a ghost’s orders.

    “We’re still working on analysing the curse,” she said. “Which is a very difficult task without being able to actually see it being cast beforehand since we’re dealing with a different magical tradition.”

    Everyone knew that already, of course - all of them were working on this. Even Mallory, though his contribution was rather marginal and limited to assisting the rest of them with whatever tasks he could perform without any skill in Curse-Breaking.

    “We haven’t found anything suspicious so far,” Harry retorted.

    “We haven’t found much at all,” she said.

    “As far as I can tell, with my admittedly very rudimentary knowledge of blood curses, the ritual the ghost is trying to teach us looks genuine,” Mallory butted in. Well, he would - he wasn’t the one taking the oath. Harry was.

    And he didn’t trust Mallory. But, as Hermione had said, they were running out of time, and someone had to do it.

    “Let’s go over the ritual again,” Harry said.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, November 4th, 2001

    “I still don’t like this,” Hermione said.

    Harry Potter nodded at her in reply. He knew what she thought about his plan. But someone had to do it, and Hermione had already had her brush with blood magic - or ‘self-sacrificial magic’, as she had called it. And he also knew she didn’t like having her own words thrown back at her. But this wasn’t something he would let her do alone. They were in this together.

    So he smiled at her until she, albeit grudgingly, smiled back, then stepped into the circle they had drawn on the stone floor inside the tent’s working area. The Atlantean ghost - he still hadn’t given them his name - floated closer, but Harry ignored him as he went over the ritual’s words and chants in his head again.

    Intat mre abrar manates. Linos tan tre abrar. Abrar manates tre tesh. Arbar ter abrar mre.

    Almost every third word was ‘blood’ - not exactly reassuring. And to place a conditional curse on himself… He was a Curse-Breaker, not suicidal. Of course, some thought there was no difference. He knew better, of course. In any case, they had studied the ritual. While it did use blood, it didn’t require death, and there were none of the usual telltales of the Dark Arts. It should be safe. As safe as Hermione’s own use of ‘self-sacrificial magic’.

    A small gong sounded in the corner of the room - it was midnight. The perfect time to swear the oath according to the ghost. Fortunately, the moon was waning - the full moon would empower the ritual even more, and that was the last thing Harry wanted.

    He took a deep breath and flicked his wand, igniting the candles lining the circle. The ghost muttered something, but Harry ignored him once more. It didn’t matter how the candles were lit, by hand or with a wand. Working magic without his wand felt off already. Cumbersome. Wrong.

    Another flick of his wand extinguished the other light sources in the room. Only the candles remained; his friends and Mallory had disappeared into the shadows. Even the glowing ghosts seemed to dim.

    He stashed the wand in its holster, then spoke: “Intat mre abrar manates!”

    The candles started flickering, and Harry felt the hairs on his neck beginning to stand up as a tingle ran over his skin.

    “Linos tan tre abrar!”

    The lines and runes forming the circle started to glow in tune with the candles, casting a pale light across the room. He shivered, but not with cold.

    “Abrar manates tre tesh!”

    He raised a small knife to his palm and made a shallow cut, then squeezed his hand until the blood started to flow. As soon as the first drops fell to the floor, the glowing circle’s light began to turn pink, then red as more drops splashed on the polished stone.

    He felt a shiver each time a drop fell, and his hair started to stand up. The air now seemed to crackle with power.

    “Abrar ter abrar mre!”

    Arcs of energy started to spring up in the circle, tying runes and lines together and forming a tangle of glowing light. Then the first arc reached his hand, and he hissed as the wound seemed to be seared closed.

    “Abrar ter abrar mre!”

    He had trouble standing - his legs seemed to wobble, and the room seemed to move. The arcs formed one shining light now, blinding him. His hand hurt. His skin hurt. Breathing hurt. He could almost feel as the curse settled on him. One more chant to finish the ritual.

    “Abrar ter abrar mre!” he yelled, then collapsed to his knees, panting as the ritual suddenly ended.

    “Harry?”

    He turned his head towards her voice, blinking in an attempt to see, but his eyes were still adjusting. “Did it work?”

    “Oh, for the…”

    He chuckled at her swallowed comment.

    “There’s a curse on you, yes,” she said. “It looks like it worked. So don’t lie.” He felt her hand on his arm, squeezing. “Stupid idiot,” she whispered.

    “I won’t, don’t worry.” He started to be able to make out things and people again. And her. And her smile.

    She slid into his lap, hugging him and running her hands over his back, then through his messed-up hair. “Don’t do that ever again!”

    “I love you,” he said.

    “Harry!” she hissed. But she didn’t stop hugging him.

    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, November 5th, 2001

    Harry had done it. Cursed himself. Ron Weasley would call that crazy - but it wasn’t as if they had many other options. Well, apart from trying to force the ghost to help them. Ari had been all for that, but Ron would prefer not to have to deal with a vengeful ghost. Like jinn, they were bound to twist words and search for all kind of ways to take revenge. Tahira had told him stories about jinn taking revenge centuries after being bound - on the descendants of the original wizard who bound them.

    Still, to place a curse on yourself… He shuddered. They were Curse-Breakers, not dark wizards. Which, of course, was another reason they hadn’t gone with the plan to force the ghost to help them. Their reputation was bad enough after they had been framed for the attack on the Sultan’s palace. At least a significant number of people, mostly in southern and south-eastern Europe as well as Russia, didn’t think setting fire to the Sultan’s home was a bad thing. Quite the contrary - they hadn’t forgotten what the Ottoman slavers had done in the past. And what their ‘rogue criminals’ still did. The interview with a Veela from Bulgaria in the latest issue of Le Monde Magique that Fleur had sent them had been positively dripping with glee and support.

    Petunia’s letter, though, had been less enthusiastic. Much less. And Mum’s… Ron winced. Mum hadn’t been angry - well, not particularly - but the anguish and fear for him and his friends she must be feeling… It wasn’t their fault, but the Storm Wizards’. He knew it, but he still felt guilty. “Bloody ICW,” he muttered while Hermione ran her third set of diagnostic charms over Harry,.

    “I thought we hadn’t heard from them?” Ari cocked her head at him.

    “Exactly. Wanna bet how long until the Prophet starts ‘wondering’ why, if we’re innocent, the ICW hasn’t quashed the accusation yet?”

    She scowled. “I know not to bet with you, or your brothers.”

    Damn the twins and their stories. “Well, Dumbledore’s still too busy with the bloody New York problem to help us.” Or, rather, as his letter had revealed, he was busy with the amendments to the Statute of Secrecy half a dozen countries had proposed - most of them mutually incompatible and going far beyond handling wards on muggle buildings. “At least he wrote us that he’ll do his best once he has the time.”

    She frowned again. “He could write to the Prophet as well, couldn’t he?”

    “If he only wrote to them and didn’t talk to the Ministry and other countries, his enemies would claim that was proof that we were guilty and he was trying to get us off.” At least Percy had said so in his letter.

    “So? Even if we didn’t try to kill the Sultan, we should have. He’s an evil man.”

    Ron cleared his throat. Ari didn’t share their views on killing people. “But we didn’t do it. We shouldn’t be blamed or praised for something we didn’t do. It’s not right.”

    “We broke into his palace and into his harem,” Ari retorted. “A little more time, and we would have freed Kavya and the poor Nundu.”

    And half the palace staff would have died from the beast’s pestilence-ridden breath. But Ron knew better than to argue that. “Yes, but we didn’t try to kill the Sultan. Or anyone else. And we shouldn’t be feared as murderers for something we didn’t do. Also, being hunted makes travelling more difficult.” And receiving mail. He hated not knowing how his family was faring. They could have been attacked by some bounty hunter or be trying to help him - or blaming him for their own troubles...

    Ari shrugged. “We’ll be disguised.”

    “That didn’t help us in Constantinople,” he pointed out.

    “Because we were sloppy and used our real names in front of Kavya,” she retorted.

    He sighed. She was right - they had been sloppy. They hadn’t thought they would fail. Overconfidence kills Curse-Breakers, as Bill liked to say. “Well,” he said, nodding at his friends, “first, we need to find out where Atlantis was, anyway, before we can start planning our route. And,” he added as an afterthought, “we need to tell Mallory that the ritual is over and he can return.” The man really was afraid of blood magic. Well, if Ron were being honest, if he were under a blood curse which was only held back by potions, he would probably feel the same.

    Ari sniffed with a sneer, then frowned. “Harry has a scent like Mallory.”

    That would be the blood curse. Ron winced - it really was kind of crazy. But then, sometimes a Curse-Breaker had to be a little crazy.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger didn’t bother to hide her anger at the ghost when she finally stood after casting her last diagnostic charm. “There!” she all but spat. “He’s cast the blood oath! Are you happy now?”

    The ghost stared at her, then turned to Mr Sayadi’s ghost, who started to translate.

    Hermione sighed. Having to wait until her words were translated wasn’t the ideal way to impress on the ghost just how angry - and completely justifiably so - she was.

    The ghost let loose a string of rapid-fire words she barely caught. Mr Sayadi’s ghost nodded, then translated. “He says that while the oath was cast, Mr Potter hasn’t yet confirmed the truth of your claims.”

    “He also said he was looking forward to seeing his blood boil,” Ari added.

    Mr Sayadi’s ghost cleared his translucent and nonfunctional throat. “I didn’t think that was relevant for the translation.”

    “Context matters a lot,” Ari retorted.

    “As does diplomacy.”

    “And neither matters right now,” Hermione cut in before Mallory could voice his impatience - the man looked like he wanted to bite his fingernails.

    And it really didn’t matter what the ghost thought. What mattered was getting the location of Atlantis from the ghost, and then getting the curse on Harry broken before a white lie triggered it. She felt the mix of warmth and anger fill her again when she remembered his words to her right after he had finished the ritual. Telling her that he loved her was a very touching gesture. And very stupid as well - you didn’t tempt curses like that. “We have a deal,” she said, glaring at the ghost, then turning to Harry.

    Harry nodded and took a deep breath while she held her own breath. If anything happened, she would intervene.

    “Vacasa mer abrar desi get agam mer. Desi cira abdh merosi,” Harry spoke slowly and carefully - with Hermione hanging on to every word. If he made a mistake, or if they had mistranslated ‘as far as I know, Atlantis sank into the ocean a long time ago’…

    Her detection spell let her see the curse react to Harry’s words - it looked as if it were growing agitated - or getting ready. But then it settled down again - but still wrapped around his body as though it would only take a little push to… She shook her head. “Are you satisfied now?” she spat.

    Harry took her hand, squeezing it gently, while the ghost stared at him, and she tried to calm down. If the ghost mentioned memory charms, she would blow him to kingdom come and tear the secrets out of his translucent mind with the worst spells she could learn!

    But the ghost nodded - the Atlanteans were unlikely to have known those spells anyway, since they were invented in the medieval age.

    “He is satisfied.”

    “Perfect!” Harry said before he raised his wand. “Accio globe!”

    A moment later, the globe they had prepared flew into the room.

    Such a show-off, Hermione thought - but she was smiling.

    “Please show us where Atlantis was located,” Harry said, putting the globe down on a quickly conjured pedestal.

    The ghost didn’t wait for Mr Sayadi’s ghost to translate, but floated towards the globe, a frown on his face. Perhaps he hadn’t had such detailed maps in his time? Even today, muggle maps were more precise than wizarding maps - although not quite as useful, lacking many wizarding locations.

    The ghost mumbled something too low for Hermione to catch. She glanced at Ari, who had better ears and a better grasp on Atlantean.

    “He says the coasts look wrong,” the witch said.

    “Well, they changed during the several millennia he was bound to the skull,” Hermione said, shaking her head. “But the continents didn’t change their locations. Well, continental drift occurred, but that wouldn’t matter at this scale,” she added.

    “Continental drift?”

    “The continents float on a bed of molten rock.” Hermione shortened her explanation as the ghost stopped circling the globe and peered at the Atlantic. Well, that was a given - the locations of the outposts they had found so far had disproved the Thera or Santorini theory.

    The ghost jabbed a finger into the globe. “Desi!”

    “That’s the seat of the Empire,” Mr Sayadi translated.

    Hermione wasn’t really listening - she was staring at the location. It was the Caribbean, as she had expected. North of Puerto Rico - she hadn’t expected that. It wasn’t a particularly shallow part of the sea. It was… She blinked, then started to swear under her breath.

    “What’s wrong?” Ari asked.

    “Apparently, Atlantis is located inside the Bermuda Triangle,” Hermione said through clenched teeth. Of all the locations…

    “And that is a bad thing?” Ari asked. “What is the Bermuda Triangle?”

    “A muggle myth, among other things,” Harry said.

    Hermione shot him a glare. “Don’t talk!” she hissed. “I can see the curse reacting!”

    For a moment, no one said anything. Then Mallory spoke up. “Several muggles wrote books about that ‘cursed area’, and a number of them speculated about Atlantis being located there.”

    “And Hermione has denounced those books vehemently in the past,” Ron added, “as well as their authors. And now it turns out they were correct.”

    “Only technically,” Hermione corrected him. “None of them suspected Atlantis to be so close to Puerto Rico. And the disappearances of muggle planes and vessels have all been explained by either muggle mistakes or collateral damage of a magical conflict.” American wizards were often rather ruthless in how they waged wars and seldom cared much about muggle victims - another reason Dumbledore was still tied up in New York trying to solve the current mess in the ICW: Many other countries expected the worst from the North Americans.

    Judging by the way Harry and Ron grinned at her, her arguments weren’t convincing anyone. She frowned. “And there’s another problem.”

    “You mean a real problem?” Ron said.

    She pointed her wand at the globe and marked the location the ghost was still touching. “That’s inside the Puerto Rico Trench. Right where it’s over five miles deep.”

    “Damn,” Harry exclaimed.

    Ron frowned. “That’s far deeper than the sirens’ home was.”

    Ari scowled, but, presumably, at the mention of the sirens - Hermione doubted that she realised what predicament the ghost’s revelation had created. Or revealed.

    “I don’t know of any spell I would trust to let us travel to such depths,” Mallory said.

    Hermione nodded. “Some aquatic animals can withstand the pressure there, but that’s not an option for us. And I know of no magical method that would allow us to travel to that depth either.” And she had researched the matter extensively in the past for their expedition.

    “I guess we’ll need a submarine, then,” Harry said.

    “No submarine will reach those depths,” she told him. “We would need a deep-submergence vehicle.”

    Harry shrugged. “How expensive are they?”

    Hermione sighed. Sirius had truly spoiled Harry. “The only ones capable of reaching those depths, as far as I know, aren’t for sale but in museums. Trieste, and - though I have to check its specifications - Trieste II.”

    “Then I guess we’ll have to borrow one,” Ron said with a grin. “Or do we secure it?”

    Hermione rolled her eyes as everyone giggled at her expense. “It’s a muggle device. We won’t have to steal it.” She snorted. “We’ll copy it.”

    *****​

    “You know, we don’t have to do this right now,” Harry Potter said. “It’s already late - or early, depending on your viewpoint.” And Hermione was tired - she had been staying up far too late, trying to find ways around the ritual.

    “I’m not going to let that filthy curse linger a minute longer than necessary!” Hermione looked up from where she had been studying the spell on him. “Not when a single slip of the tongue could kill you!”

    She wasn’t exactly wrong, of course - he remembered casting the curse, and ever since he had finished, he couldn’t help thinking it was the curse every time he felt an itch or pang. And according to Hermione, he wasn’t wrong - the curse on him was active, just delayed. A frightening prospect, given that this was a spell from an unfamiliar tradition and cast through a ritual none of them had completely understood.

    In hindsight, this wasn’t the smartest decision he had ever made.

    He saw her take a deep breath. “Are you certain that you can do it?” he asked.

    She frowned. “Yes. I wouldn’t attempt this if I weren’t!” she snapped. “I’m not too tired. And I would rather not find out how this spell reacts to dreams.”

    He nodded. While it was unlikely that the Atlanteans had developed rituals that led to their death while dreaming, he wouldn’t put it past them to have created such spells to trick ‘barbarians’. The ghost - who still hadn’t given them his name - certainly was arrogant enough to rival Malfoy. And probably about as smart.

    Further, Hermione had studied the ritual for hours, had watched Harry cast the curse and had been analysing it for another hour. She had broken other curses with far less preparation. As had Harry himself, of course - but trying to break a curse on yourself was a last resort. Something you only did when you had no other choice since the slightest mistake might cause a reaction by the curse that made you make another, more serious mistake, snowballing until the curse went off while you were struck by the backlash from trying to break it.

    “Do it, then,” he told her and closed his eyes.

    He could hear he mumble as she worked. And he could feel his skin tingle - though whether that was her spell or the curse he couldn’t tell. Not without a detection spell of his own. And that would have impaired Hermione’s view of the curse.

    So he waited and tried to stay calm while she unravelled the curse on him. The only sounds he heard inside their room were their breathing and the comments she mumbled to herself.

    And when she finally announced that she was done, he felt as relieved - and as exhausted - as she looked, right before she kissed him.

    *****​
     
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  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 23: Ships, Submersibles and Automobiles
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 23: Ships, Submersibles and Automobiles

    ‘Unlike today, when magical travel is ubiquitous, wizards were dependent on muggle means of travel for most our history. For thousands of years, wizards and muggles travelled together on foot, horseback, carts and ships. Even the invention of the flying broom didn’t change this since the early brooms were both very difficult to enchant, limiting their number, and, lacking most of the charms a modern witch or wizard takes for granted, very difficult to fly - almost as difficult as the early flying carpets which had reins for steering - making their use for travelling both rare and dangerous, as many of the early Quidditch matches illustrate. It took centuries of research and spellcrafting to develop the cushioning, steering and safety charms that turned broom riding from a pastime for a select few talented flyers - barely larger in number than the brave few who managed to tame a flying beast to ride - into the mainstay of wizarding travel that it is today.
    Floo travel, something every wizarding child today can use, was invented in the thirteenth century, but while it allowed instantaneous travel between two fireplaces, until the creation of the Floo Network, wizards were limited to one destination per fireplace, which severely limited its use for travelling. Although, unlike with brooms, even after the magical limitations of Floo travel were overcome, the creation of the Network stalled as few wizards or witches who had lived through the Despenser War and the War of the Roses would trust the court wizard of the King of England enough to not only let them know where they lived but also to give them a means of directly travelling to their homes, despite the fact that various protections would render this impossible. Such fears were vindicated during the English Civil War, when wizards who supported the Parliament took control of the nascent Floo Network and used this to great effect in the conflict. Only after the Statute of Secrecy was implemented and Wizarding Britain had become an independent country did most British wizards and witches start to trust the Floo Network.
    Apparition, apart from the unpleasant feeling of being squeezed through a narrow tube as well as the danger of splinching yourself, was limited in its use until the advent of photography allowed wizards and witches without the rare talent of Legilimency or access to a Pensieve to apparate to locations they had never visited before by looking at a picture. Despite that, it remains limited in range to a few hundred miles, and, even today, far fewer wizards and witches use Apparition to travel long distances than other means of travel.
    Portkeys suffer from some of the same issues. Originally created for magically deploying muggle forces without tying up a large number of wizards and witches who would otherwise have to use Side-Along Apparition, travelling in comfort was never a priority for them, and, in the beginning, they suffered from reliability issues. However, at that time, occasionally losing a small percentage of passengers was deemed an acceptable trade-off for the ability to rapidly move large number of soldiers over a relatively long distance. This changed, of course, once muggle soldiers ceased to be an issue, and great efforts were made to increase both the comfort and reliability of Portkey travel. But while much safer versions have been developed over time, anyone who has ever been spun around for any length of time while being hurled through thin air can attest that the comfort of travelling by Portkey never truly improved. Coupled with the need to prepare them in advance, which takes a considerable amount of time and effort, and their somewhat finicky timing and triggering, Portkeys remain a niche form of magical travel to this day, only truly applicable when the need to move large numbers over medium distances arises.
    However, between the Floo Network and sophisticated brooms - or, in some countries, modern flying carpets - wizards can now travel far faster and far more comfortably than muggles to any point on the globe worth visiting, which, in many countries, has given rise to a significant tourist industry.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Around the World in a Single Day’ by Theoderich Brown, London, 1938


    *****​

    Turkey, Lake Eğirdir, November 5th, 2001

    Harry Potter woke up far later in the morning than usual. It wasn’t a surprise, of course - after the ritual at midnight, the revelation of Atlantis’s location and Hermione’s insistence on breaking the blood curse on him, and the way they had celebrated her success, the sun had been starting to rise by the time he had fallen asleep.

    Hermione herself was still asleep, her head resting on his biceps, one hand on his arm. Snoring faintly, she looked so cute that Harry decided not to wake her. A few hours of sleeping in wouldn’t hurt. Quite the contrary - tired Curse-Breakers were dead Curse-Breakers.

    He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the tingling feeling in his left arm where Hermione’s head was cutting off his circulation and focused on their next step. They needed a deep-submergence vehicle. He dimly remembered Hermione talking about them, but, apparently, he hadn’t realised how rare they were. Or rather, how rare the deep-submergence vehicles which could reach the depths they needed were. And Hermione wanted to copy one. In theory, it was entirely possible - they were completely non-magical. In practice, though… he had never heard of anyone successfully copying a thing of that size. Perhaps Dumbledore could help them… He sighed. He hated depending on others, especially on Dumbledore.

    “What’s the matter?” he heard Hermione mumble.

    “Nothing.”

    He felt her head move, then felt her weight on his chest and opened his eyes. She was now lying on his chest, looking at him. “Nothing?”

    “I meant morning,” he said with a grin.

    Her eyes flitted to the side, where the clock was mounted on the wall, then back to him. “It’s almost noon.”

    “Still morning then.”

    That earned him a grin and a chuckle. “Not for much longer, though.” She rolled off him and got up, and he admired her back as she picked up her robe. “We’ve got plans to make and routes to pick.”

    “Speaking of plans…”

    “Yes?” She turned to look at him, and he was briefly distracted - she hadn’t closed her robes.

    “I’m not so sure about your plan,” he said.

    The grin she had worn - she hadn’t missed his distraction - turned into a frown. “What’s wrong with it?”

    “I’m not sure even Dumbledore can duplicate a deep-submergence vehicle.”

    She blinked, then laughed. “We’re not going to duplicate it. We’re going to copy it.”

    What did she… Oh. “We’re going to build one?” He stared at her.

    “It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a workable design. We won’t be needing most of the complicated machinery thanks to magic.” She grinned. “All we need is a very solid chamber that can stand up to the pressure at that depth.”

    He slowly nodded. He didn’t think it would be that easy - it never was - but that sounded better than trying to duplicate a naval vessel with a spell. And they wouldn’t have to break into a naval museum.

    *****​

    “We still have to break into a museum?” Harry Potter asked half an hour later between refills of his cup of tea.

    “We don’t have to break into the museum,” Hermione corrected him while cutting an apple into wedges. “We can just visit it. That’s why it’s a museum, after all.”

    “I don’t think they allow visitors to examine the vessel that closely in a museum,” Harry pointed out.

    “Why not?” Ron asked. “Isn’t that the point of a museum? To teach people about stuff? How can you understand a thing if you can’t analyse it?”

    “Most visitors don’t need the level of detail we need,” Harry said.

    “We might also talk to experts for building and operating such vessels.” Hermione took a swallow from her own tea. “They might not take us seriously, though.”

    “We can pay them,” Harry said. Gold made people take you seriously.

    Hermione frowned - she didn’t like solving problems with gold, Harry knew, especially if it was Sirius’s gold. “That might also draw attention,” she said. “People will think we’re after sunken treasure.” Which, Harry knew, wasn’t exactly incorrect.

    “So?” Mallory asked, setting down his coffee and the old Daily Prophet he had been reading. “What can muggles do?”

    “Not much,” Harry explained. “But if a wizard hears about a group of people preparing for a deep dive, they might think it’s about a sunken treasure and take notice.”

    “Is that likely?” the older wizard frowned.

    “I don’t think so - but then, with the muggle terrorist attacks and the ICW’s response, people are paying more attention to muggles in general,” Harry replied. “We might need to use disguises even with muggles.”

    “Using disguises is merely being cautious,” Hermione cut in. “We may not be the most wanted wizards and witches right now, but we’re in the running.”

    “Mum will be so proud,” Ron muttered.

    Ari reached over and rubbed his back. “It wasn’t our fault.”

    “Technically, it was. If we hadn’t revealed our identities to Kavya, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” Hermione pointed out.

    “What’s done is done,” Harry said. “It’s not as if we’re professional thieves.”

    “Just graverobbers,” Ron said, laughing.

    Harry saw Hermione scowl - she didn’t appreciate such jokes - and spoke up before she could reply to Ron. “In any case, we need to travel to the USA. Which will be a bit of a challenge. Magical travel is limited due to the distance and muggle travel might be monitored by the smarter bounty hunters.” The ruthless ones would only need to cast the Imperius Curse on the right muggle, after all. “And, as you know, the muggles are clamping down on security.”

    “So what do we do?” Mallory asked. “Travel by muggle freight again?”

    “I’m thinking owl mail,” Harry said. “Dumbledore’s in New York, isn’t he?”

    Mallory gasped. “You want to mail us to Dumbledore? While he’s handling the ICW?”

    Harry nodded. “Of course. He doesn’t bother blocking owls from reaching him - and no bounty hunter will try anything around him.” He grinned. “Not that they’ll know anything anyway - they’ll just think it’s another letter from us. It’s perfect.”

    Unfortunately, it seemed that not everyone else was properly appreciative of his idea.

    *****​

    “If they think it’s another letter from us, they might try to intercept it anyway, to find clues to our location,” Ron Weasley pointed out. “And we’ll have to send a letter to inform him of our plan anyway. You don’t want to surprise Dumbledore.”

    “I doubt he’d be so easily surprised,” Hermione said. “But he’ll likely be surrounded by wizards and witches most of the time.”

    “Hounded, more like it,” Ron said. “Everyone wants his support for their pet proposal. It’s a wonder he hasn’t lost his temper already.”

    “He hasn’t done that during our entire time at Hogwarts,” Harry said with a grin.

    “We weren’t that bad,” Hermione claimed. “He was probably amused by our antics.”

    “Unlike Mum and Petunia,” Ron said. The two women had usually been quite vocal in their disapproval of the trio’s adventures. Not entirely unjustifiably, if he were honest. “Anyway, we’ll have to send a letter to him, to inform him about the plan. And to check if the letter’s going to be intercepted.”

    “But the first letter might alert others to the possibility of intercepting our correspondence,” Hermione replied. “And if it’s intercepted, we’ll have revealed our plans.”

    “We can go through Dad,” Ron said. “The Order had ways to contact each other in secret.”

    “If bounty hunters are watching Dumbledore, they might also be watching Arthur,” Harry said. “We’d run the same risk, but Arthur’s not Dumbledore should things go pear-shaped.”

    That was a good point. Ron didn’t want to put his parents at risk because of his own actions. Although… “What about writing him to fool others into thinking we’ll travel to him while we sneak into the USA instead? The American Enclaves don’t exactly patrol the muggle borders much.” Or at all, if his sister’s tales of sneaking animals into and out of the New World were true.

    “We still have to cross the Atlantic Ocean,” Hermione said. “And that’s out of range of both Apparition and Portkeys.”

    “And the Floo Network linking Britain and the New World might be compromised,” Harry added. “And with planes being so strictly monitored, I guess that leaves travelling on a muggle ship.”

    “Like Atlanteans did, thousands of years ago,” Ron said, chuckling. It was quite funny, in a way.

    “I don’t think they had ships like the muggles of today have,” Hermione said. “And, although it’s certainly not far-fetched that they used magic to improve their vessels’ capabilities, it’s unlikely that they equalled modern ships - the ancient Greeks were famous sailors and would have mentioned such ships. Unfortunately, the ghost was not very helpful about revealing such information.”

    “Or any information,” Ari said.

    “Didn’t he warn us of the danger of losing our souls?” Mallory asked.

    “I think that happened before he had fully adjusted to his sudden freedom,” Hermione replied. “So that might have been a compulsion, not his own will.”

    “But it’s still a warning,” Harry pointed out. “And we know the Atlanteans used blood magic aplenty - they certainly didn’t shy away from the Dark Arts.” Ron looked at his friend; he seemed rather… not quite shaken, but very concerned.

    “They might not have considered it part of the Dark Arts,” Mallory cut in.

    “Doesn’t matter,” Harry went on, refraining from glaring at Mallory. “If they were using blood magic, they might have used soul magic as well.”

    Ron drew a deep breath through clenched teeth. Soul magic. Like Horcruxes. The darkest of the Dark Arts according to Dumbledore. There were rumours about rituals that sacrificed not just lives, but souls. None had been confirmed, as far as Ron knew - but that didn’t mean they were pure hearsay. Knowledge of such rituals would be kept secret. “Do you think we’ll have to deal with Atlantean shades?” Or worse?

    “The Ancient Egyptians knew about Horcruxes,” Hermione said. “Petunia found a tomb of the wizard who might have invented them.”

    “Which means the Atlanteans could have known about them as well,” Harry said.

    “The Egyptians went to great length to erase the knowledge,” Hermione pointed out.

    “But we know they weren’t successful since Herpo the Foul made one thousands of years later,” Harry retorted.

    “He could have reinvented them,” she said.

    Ron cleared his throat before the conversation could get more side-tracked. “If he could, the Atlanteans could have done so as well. We can’t dismiss this possible threat.”

    “That’s new,” Ron heard Mallory mutter under his breath. He wanted to call the man out, but Mallory wasn’t entirely unfair; they had taken a few more risks than would have been prudent lately.

    “We’ll have to be extra careful,” Harry said.

    “We’ll need Dumbledore’s notes on soul magic,” Hermione added.

    Ron nodded. “Provided he’ll share them.”

    “I think he will, once we explain our concerns,” Harry said. “And he owes us.”

    Dumbledore owed Harry and Petunia for dealing with Voldemort, but Ron thought it’d work out the same.

    “So to sum up: We’re about to sneak into America on a muggle ship to study a muggle submersible vessel so we can make a copy using magic once we’re in Britain - presumably using a muggle vehicle once more - after we convince Dumbledore to share his knowledge of the worst of the Dark Arts and to convince the rest of the Wizarding World that we’re not the dark wizards who attacked the Sultan’s Palace with Fiendfyre.” Mallory shook his head even though he was spot on. “And we’ll be ‘extra careful’ when diving to depths no wizard has ever reached.”

    “Exactly,” Ron told him with a grin.

    “Easy,” Ari added.

    “Well, theoretically, an animagus with the form of a deep-sea fish could have reached such depths already,” Hermione pointed out, “but that seems a rather unlikely scenario. The known animagi all have forms that are viable on the surface, or at least in shallower water.”

    Mallory didn’t look like he appreciated Hermione’s impromptu lesson.

    *****​

    North Atlantic, November 15th, 2001

    A flick of her wand stuck the pen to the desk a moment after it started to roll. After close to a week at sea, Hermione Granger was used to the slight movement of the ship. Mostly - the big container freighter didn’t roll much, which made the times when it did more noticeable. She should have looked for a spell to counter that, but there hadn’t been enough time to waste on what was, ultimately, mere convenience. Not when they had had to organise a container and two legitimate shipping addresses - in Britain and in the USA. And find a freighter sailing soon, as well as manipulate the cargo master so their container would be placed on the top of the stack. Just in case they needed to break out of the container. Although, as they had discovered - and which they should have deduced anyway - as one of the lightest containers, theirs would have been stacked on top in any case.

    She stretched her arms over her head and rolled her neck. Travelling by muggle ship had its disadvantages - it was very slow - but with their tents the only ‘cargo’ in the container, it also meant she could work in peace. In relative peace, at least, she mentally added, when she heard the door open and saw Mr Mallory, who looked rather green in the face, enter.

    “Hello, Mr Mallory. You didn’t have any trouble brewing your potions, did you?” she asked.

    “What?” After a moment, he shook his head. “No, no, everything went fine.”

    She nodded. It took considerable skill to brew a potion on a ship - the slightest movement could ruin it, after all, when you needed to stir precisely - but it would stand to reason that, with his potions all that kept him from succumbing to the blood curse that had been cast upon him, Mr Mallory would be very experienced in brewing. That particular potion, at least.

    “If you need assistance, I’ll be happy to help,” she offered with a wide smile.

    A thin smile was his only response.

    Well, it wasn’t as if he were ignorant of the fact that everyone was very interested in finding out what he was brewing. A potion that could suppress a curse so thoroughly that she couldn’t spot any sign of it could save a lot of Curse-Breakers’ lives. Mr Mallory might claim it was specific to the particular blood curse with which he had been afflicted, but potions could be altered and adapted. Granted, her own skills were likely not up to that task, but Snape would certainly be both able and eager to do so. The man had made a name for himself as one of the best potioneers after he quit teaching, after all.

    The ship rolled again, and Mr Mallory hastily sat down. “Damned sea,” he muttered.

    “It’ll be worse once we’re looking for Atlantis,” she told him. They would have to use a much smaller ship, probably a yacht, for that expedition.

    “Provided we manage to construct your deep submerging vessel.”

    “Deep-submergence vehicle,” she corrected him. “And I don’t think we’ll have much trouble. We only need a sufficiently strong sphere; magic can provide the rest.” Like air, heating, light and movement.

    “If it’s so easy, why hasn’t anyone else done it before?”

    “I didn’t say it would be easy,” she said with a smile. “But we’ll have the best experts at enchanting muggle vehicles available for this.” And, even if she did say so herself, their own considerable skill.

    He sniffed. “I’ll bow to your expertise. Are the two ghosts terrorising the muggles again?” he added with a nod to the skull stuck to the granite pedestal in the corner.

    “They are exploring,” she said, though she didn’t bother to hide her disapproval. “Ophas still hasn’t accepted that this is a muggle vessel.”

    “What a fool,” Mr Mallory said, shaking his head. After a moment, he added: “You don’t believe that that is his real name, do you?”

    She didn’t snort. “Of course not. He refused to tell us his name for days. And he doesn’t act as if he’s had a change of heart.” She looked around, just in case the ghosts were returning. Mr Sayadi wouldn’t betray them, but Hermione didn’t think it would be smart to assume that ‘Ophas’ still didn’t understand English.

    “And despite the fact he is lying to us, you don’t think we should take other measures to ensure his cooperation?”

    Not again! She narrowed her eyes slightly. “Forcing him to obey us will only ensure that he’ll never trust us and that he’ll do all he can to hurt us.”

    “He won’t be able to hurt us if he’s properly bound.” He glanced at the skull. “And you have studied the spells which bound him.”

    She had, of course. But… “That doesn’t mean I can cast the spells.” Or wanted to.

    “Yet. We’ll be at sea for a few more days,” he said.

    “That time is much better used on studying the Atlantean relics we have than spells that shouldn’t be used,” she retorted.

    “He’s a ghost, not a wizard. Not even a soul. A pale echo of a real person.”

    Mr Mallory wasn’t entirely wrong, of course. Ghosts weren’t, despite some tales, the souls of those too afraid of death to pass on after they died. They were imprints of a wizard’s mind left after death. But they weren’t unfeeling things like portraits or enchanted mirrors which only acted according to their instructions and the charms cast on them. “You wouldn’t torture animals, even though they’re not people, either, would you?”

    The way he pressed his lips together, she wasn’t certain of his answer, had he replied. But instead he took a deep breath, then seemed to sag a little in his chair. “I’m just sick of waiting and worrying. Sick of being stuck in a tent in a container on a muggle ship. While we move at a snail’s pace, the Storm Wizards might already be at the gates of Atlantis.”

    She could understand how he felt. Partially, at least. The impatience. But that was no reason to act like a dark wizard. “Even if Kohlmeier had found the location of Atlantis, I’m absolutely certain that he wouldn’t be able to reach it.”

    “What if he sent Inferi down?”

    “And how would he control them? Or follow them?”

    “He might have spells that allow him to see through their eyes, or even puppeteer them.”

    She snorted. “That wouldn’t help him pass through the wards.”

    “If there are wards left,” he pointed out.

    “If there aren’t, we’ll need to excavate the city. And that isn’t a task you’ll be able to do quickly. Not even with an army of Inferi.” And most of the city would have been destroyed were that the case. It would still be the discovery of the century, but it wouldn’t be quite the coup Hermione hoped it would be.

    If only the ship would move a little faster, she thought, then felt like a hypocrite.

    *****​

    “Un fantasma! En ingeniería! Un fantasma!”

    Harry Potter sighed as he heard the crewmember yell. “Who thought that it would be a good idea to set the ghosts free?”

    “Hermione did,” Ari replied at once.

    “It was a rhetorical question,” Ron said.

    “I know.”

    “Ah.”

    Harry rolled his eyes as he heard both of them laugh. “Very funny,” he muttered. “You two can deal with that one, then. And everyone who heard him,” he added.

    “Alright,” Ron said. “And you’ll go and tell the ghosts to stop starting yet another ‘haunted ship’ rumour?”

    Harry muttered a curse under his breath. As if it would help. Ophas, as the Atlantean ghost claimed he was called, was too fascinated by the muggle ship’s sheer size and propulsion to heed his words. And Mr Sayadi followed him around to keep an eye on him - not that it helped much. But at least he was available to translate.

    Once Harry managed to find them.

    He saw Ron and Ari’s markers move down the hallway towards the yelling crewmember and wondered where the ghosts would go. Ophas had visited every part of the ship at least once in the past few days, and the bridge and engineering room several times. So he could be anywhere.

    “Fantasma! Fantasma!”

    Or he could be in the ship’s galley. Harry pressed his lips together and sprinted towards the new shouts. A man with an apron covering a rather substantial belly was making warding motions as he rapidly backed away from the galley.

    “Obliviate,” Harry mumbled as he squeezed past the man and waved his wand, causing the man - the ship’s cook - to stop moving and start drooling. He wouldn’t recover his wits for a little while, Harry knew from experience. Long enough to deal with an irresponsible ghost.

    Inside the galley, he found Ophas with his head stuck inside one of the fridges, with Mr Sayadi talking in Atlantean to the ghost’s back. Couldn’t the stupid ghost have waited until the fridge was open so the cook would have thought the cold shivers generated by Ophas’ presence were normal? Although by now, the crew probably thought every drop in temperature was a sign of the ship being haunted...

    “You have to stop this,” Harry said.

    Mr Sayadi turned towards Harry’s voice. “I’m terribly sorry, Harry, but he simply won’t listen. He doesn’t even accept the Statute of Secrecy.”

    A string of Atlantean words coming from the fridge showed that Ophas at least listened to Mr Sayadi’s words, even if he didn’t heed them.

    “He, ah, expressed his opinion on wizards hiding from muggles. It’s not very positive,” Mr Sayadi said.

    “I bet it isn’t,” Harry replied. The ghost seldom had anything positive to say, on the rare occasion he deigned to talk at all.

    “Although it is, to some extent, understandable - during Ophas’s life, the very notion of wizards and witches going into hiding because of a prophecy threatening an apocalypse if they didn’t would have been seen as ridiculous. Magic simply wasn’t so dangerous in his time.”

    Unless, Harry thought, Atlantis was sunk by magic, and not an earthquake. He didn’t think a mere natural disaster could have sent an entire island to the bottom of the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea. “Please tell him that we cannot risk the muggles spreading rumours about a haunted ship. That will, especially near the East Coast, draw the attention of the ICW.” And of bounty hunters, who would likely figure out how the group was travelling without being seen.

    Mr Sayadi translated Harry’s words, and Ophas finally left the fridge and replied with a pronounced sneer.

    “He said it’s not his problem if we cannot control a few mere muggles despite our advanced magic.”

    Having the stupid ghost rebound to the damn skull sounded better and better to Harry each time he had to obliviate the crew. Fortunately, the sailors hadn’t yet used the radio to spread their story. But it was getting tedious to spend an hour or two every day cleaning up after the ghosts.

    Perhaps they should look into inverted ghost wards. That wouldn’t be binding the ghosts - just keeping them out of trouble. At least in Harry’s opinion. Which wasn’t entirely unbiased, of course.

    “Un fantasma! Madre de Dios!”

    Apparently, the cook had regained his wits faster than expected. It was a good thing Harry hadn’t ended his Disillusionment Charm. He flicked his wand at the man again.

    “Obliviate!”

    *****​

    United States, Washington, United States Naval Undersea Museum, November 22nd, 2001

    Ron Weasley cut the engine and stretched. “Finally!” He generally liked driving cars - it wasn’t as nice as riding a broom, but it had its charms. But driving non-stop across an entire continent? In a camper van that barely managed to reach the speed limit? Even with taking shifts to sleep in the tent they had put into it, that was a chore, not a treat.

    He turned his head. “We’ve arrived!” he yelled. “Time to rise!”

    He was treated to a growl, followed by an impressive display of fangs, as Ari, in her leopard form, stuck her head out of the tent and yawned.

    “Don’t go out like that,” he told her, “we’re in a parking lot.”

    She made a noise he knew meant a question, and so he elaborated: “If the muggles see you, they’ll call the police. Or they’ll try to shoot you - they’re Americans, after all.”

    “That’s a stereotype,” he heard Hermione say a moment before she pushed past Ari and stepped into the van proper, almost bumping into the stove. “Although not without some basis in reality,” she added. “Where are we?”

    “Parking lot next to the church,” he answered. “I didn’t want to park too close to the military base.” Muggle soldiers definitely had guns and knew how to use them.

    Ari changed and peered through the side window. “I can see the Trieste from here,” she said.

    “Trieste II”, Hermione corrected her. “Please get dressed; if any passers-by catch a glimpse of you, there could be trouble.”

    Ari sniffed in response but summoned her wand and conjured a short robe.

    “Are we there yet?” Harry peered out of the tent.

    “Yes, we are,” Hermione replied with a glare - completely understandable, in Ron’s opinion; Harry had made that joke a little too often during their trip.

    “Finally!” Harry squeezed past Hermione and Ari and slid into the passenger seat next to Ron.

    “We didn’t take significantly longer than planned,” Hermione said as she sat down on the seat behind them. “And we would have been even faster if someone hadn’t been speeding and caught the attention of the highway police.”

    Harry merely grinned. “No harm done.”

    “If the patrols from the Native American Tribes had noticed us…” Hermione started.

    Ron cleared his throat. “We’re here. Let’s focus on our task.”

    “Yes,” Ari agreed, nodding emphatically. “But first, let’s eat.”

    *****​

    "That's a bigger ship than I expected," Ari said half an hour and a short trip later.

    Ron Weasley had to agree. It looked impressive as well - all white with some red accents and a few black stripes. It also looked a little silly, put up on dry land, outside the actual museum. He would at least have coloured the grass around it blue.

    “We won’t have to copy most of it; only the round sphere at the bottom,” Hermione said. “Everything else is machinery that we can replace with spells.”

    “Shouldn’t we reproduce its shape? So the muggles won’t think there’s something amiss?” Ron asked. Dad was doing that with their car, after all, so that the muggles wouldn’t suspect anything. And so certain parties couldn’t accuse them of threatening the Statute of Secrecy.

    “They would assume something was wrong if a unique ship that’s supposed to be in a museum suddenly appeared in the ocean,” Hermione replied.

    “Right,” Ron said. “I forgot that it’s unique.” Muggles usually made hundreds or thousands of everything. Cars, trains, planes, ships.

    Hermione took out a camera and started to take pictures, walking around the cordon surrounding the Trieste II. Ron was tempted to ask why she was covering the whole vessel if they only needed to study the sphere. But tempers were still a little on edge after their trip. Besides, that was like her - she always went for more knowledge than was needed.

    “I’m done,” she announced after five minutes. “Everything else we can’t do in the open. Let’s go back before Mr Mallory bores Ophas, and we have a potential breach of the Statute of Secrecy on our hands.”

    “Stupid ghost,” Ari muttered. Ron agreed with the sentiment - the Atlantean ghost was a right pain in the arse. If they didn’t need him for their expedition…

    “At least he has finally accepted that he cannot pass too close to muggles,” Harry said.

    Ron doubted that the ghost had truly accepted that. He probably merely toed the line because they might bind him to the skull again otherwise. After the trip over the Atlantic, even Hermione had admitted that they couldn’t afford similar scenes on the continent. Sooner or later, a bounty hunter would take notice. Not every muggle was as superstitious as the sailors of the ship they had taken, but enough were for this to be a significant risk.

    But spending days in a tent with a ghost was a chore as well. Especially if you wanted some privacy with your girlfriend.

    *****​

    United States, Washington, United States Naval Undersea Museum, November 23rd, 2001

    Sneaking into a naval museum next to a naval base wasn’t the most dangerous thing Hermione Granger had ever done. It wasn’t even in the top ten - as a Curse-Breaker, she braved more danger every time she tackled a tomb. But she couldn’t help feeling anxious as she crawled beneath the deep-submergence vehicle. A Muggle-Repelling Charm would prevent any patrols from approaching the Trieste II, and she was disillusioned so that even cameras wouldn’t pick up her presence, but neither would do anything against a wizard on patrol.

    The odds of a wizard actually patrolling this base were slim, of course. The local wizards - the Salish, though Hermione didn’t know which of their tribes currently controlled this region - were supposed to be dealing with border tensions to the south, not muggle bases in the centre of their territory.

    But if they heard about ‘ghosts’ on a muggle military base, they would investigate. If only to protect the Statute of Secrecy. Or to foil some rivals’ ploy; internal tribal politics were reportedly barely less violent than the wars between the East Coast Enclaves.

    She shook her head and focused on the reason she was on her back beneath a decades-old vessel: analysing the diving sphere. She would have to know it inside and out to be able to construct a duplicate. Fortunately, the spells she usually needed to analyse tombs would work well for this task. Unfortunately, a diving sphere was quite a bit more complicated than an ancient tomb.

    “We should just take it and replace it with a duplicate,” she heard Harry whisper to her left.

    “That would be considered endangering the Statute of Secrecy,” she retorted.

    “Not if we put it back after we’re done.”

    “Kraft isn’t dumb; she’ll have people keeping an eye on this as soon as she realises what we used to find Atlantis,” she replied.

    “We could still beat her.”

    “The risk isn’t worth it. Now let me focus on this.”

    He grunted in disagreement but dropped the subject.

    She cast her first detection spell and took a look at the inner structure of the sphere. Hm. She twisted her wand, using another angle. And another. Then she analysed the material. And bit her lower lip.

    This was a little more complicated than she had expected. She didn’t think they could easily get such a sphere crafted - by muggles or wizards. They actually might have to follow Harry’s proposal. Or trust their lives to a conjured or transfigured sphere.

    She didn’t really like any of these options.

    “Fascinating! It looks even more impressive than I expected.”

    And she really didn’t like hearing a ghost’s voice in the middle of a muggle museum. Especially outside, where anyone could see him from afar.

    “What are you doing here?” she hissed.

    “I’m terribly sorry, but Ophas said that no muggle ship would be able to do what a magical ship couldn’t and decided to investigate.”

    Hermione closed her eyes. “He’s currently inside the rest of the vehicle, isn’t he?”

    “I hope so.”

    Well, Ari hadn’t… The angry hissed Atlantean words from the witch in question interrupted Hermione’s thoughts. Apparently, Ophas wasn’t as subtle as he should have been.

    “What’s he doing?” she whispered through clenched teeth.

    “Floating around the rear end and complaining about no sails or oars,” Ari replied, then hissed another string of mostly Atlantean swear words mixed with an order to disappear. Which the ghost, presumably, didn’t heed.

    Well, it wasn’t as if muggles could see ghosts, so unless a wizard walked past, they should still be fine.

    Or as fine as they could be, considering the fact that their original plan was likely not going to work.

    “There’s a patrol coming our way,” Ron’s voice sounded from the pin in her collar. “Soldiers.”

    She touched her pin. “Are they armed?” They might just be soldiers returning to the barracks after leave.

    “Pistols,” Ron replied. “Looks like military police.”

    Hermione pressed her lips together as she reminded herself that Ron knew how to spot muggle soldiers on patrol. “Let’s hope that means they haven’t been alerted to a possible break-in.” Although military police might not grab rifles for a simple break-in anyway.

    “Everyone, be quiet,” Harry whispered. “They’re almost here.”

    “Tell that to the stupid ghost!” Ari whispered back.

    “Muggles cannot hear or see us, Miss Ari,” Mr Sayadi replied. “Which is a very good thing, of course, given Ophas’s antics.”

    “Shhhh.” That was Ron.

    Then Hermione heard footsteps. And voices. She held her breath.

    “...and so I told him: No way. No way in hell.”

    “Really? Heh!”

    “Really.”

    “I don’t believe you. No one tells an admiral they can’t leave.”

    “I swear, it happened just like that. Mostly.”

    “‘Mostly’, huh? I knew it!”

    “I did say…”

    Hermione released her breath as she heard the voices fade. Fortunately, the patrol didn’t have a dog with them. That could have been ugly. And bloody, if the dog had tried to go after Ari.

    “They’re gone,” Ron reported.

    “They’ll be back, though,” Harry said. “We’ll have to finish quickly.”

    “That could be a problem,” Hermione admitted. “This is more complicated than I thought.”

    “So we won’t be able to get a copy built?” Harry asked.

    She sighed. “We would have to hire a specialist firm. And it would likely take a long time.”

    “Then we’ll take it with us,” he replied. “We’re not going to trust our lives to a conjured sphere.”

    She wanted to argue, but he was correct. “Give me a little more time so I can get the copy just right. And we’ll need all the manuals from the museum copied as well.”

    Hermione hoped that this wouldn’t backfire.

    *****​

    United States, New York City, World Trade Center, November 26th, 2001

    “Headmaster?”

    Harry Potter pressed his lips together. He hadn’t meant to turn the greeting into a question. But seeing Dumbledore in a conservative muggle suit instead of his usual brightly-coloured robes would throw anyone off.

    “Harry. Miss Granger. Mr Weasley. Miss Ari. Matthias. It is good to see you all healthy and whole.” That was Dumbledore’s usual smile, though, Harry noted while he cast a privacy charm.

    “No thanks to Kohlmeier and his Storm Wizards,” Mallory said.

    “Not to forget the Janissaries and the various bounty hunters,” Dumbledore added.

    “Speaking of bounty hunters,” Harry said, making a point of looking around, “is there a reason we’re meeting in such an exposed location?” He wouldn’t have picked the roof of the South Tower for a meeting.

    “Indeed, there is.” The Headmaster’s smile didn’t waver. “I thought you would enjoy the view, for one.” He gestured to the railing.

    “Oh!” Ari didn’t need more encouragement than that and immediately set off for the edge of the roof, to stare at the city below them. Ron followed her.

    “This is also a very good spot to keep certain people from approaching us without being detected, so to speak,” the Headmaster added. “And the wards on the place help as well, of course.”

    “Does that mean you managed to get the ICW to agree on an amendment to the Statute of Secrecy?” Hermione asked.

    The old wizard shook his head and sighed. “I am afraid that achievement has been proven to be very elusive.”

    Damn. That meant the Headmaster was still being kept busy. Harry clenched his teeth. He had expected that, of course, but one could always hope.

    “Although I should not, I think, bore you with politics when you have sought me out for important reasons of your own,” Dumbledore went on.

    “Ah.” Harry forced himself to smile. “You received our earlier letter.”

    “I did. It explained much, although I can assure you I never believed that you would stoop to using the Dark Arts in an attempt to murder the Sultan.”

    “We wouldn’t try to murder the Sultan at all!” Hermione hadn’t missed the wording Dumbledore had chosen either, it seemed.

    “Despite his numerous crimes,” Harry added. “We were framed.”

    “Kohlmeier was never a trustworthy wizard. Grindelwald himself was well-aware of his nature.” Dumbledore nodded. “Although you should have been aware of that already, unless I do not remember your grades in History of Magic correctly.”

    “We were in disguise when they approached us, and we decided to use the opportunity to sabotage their efforts,” Harry said.

    “But you ended up with your own plans being sabotaged.” The Headmaster’s smile faded a little. “I would say there is a lesson to be learned, but, sometimes, deception is the better choice than open conflict.”

    “Well,” Harry replied, “we’re hoping that we’ve outrun them, so to speak.”

    “Does that mean you’ve found the location of Atlantis?” Dumbledore looked surprised for a moment.

    “We found the ghost of an Atlantean and managed to persuade him to lead us to the island’s location,” Hermione said.

    “Most remarkable! If you are correct, then this will be the discovery of the century!” The Headmaster beamed at them.

    “There’s a problem, though,” Harry said. “We fear that the island’s defences include soul magic.”

    Dumbledore took a deep breath, his smile gone. “I see. And here I thought you merely required some assistance with your legal troubles.”

    “We need that as well,” Hermione replied. “But in case our suspicion proves to be correct, we’ll need more information about soul magic before we can deal with the defences of Atlantis.”

    “And you would rather have the information before you set out for the sunken island.”

    “Yes, sir.” Harry nodded.

    “As you can imagine, I am not carrying such sensitive material around.”

    “We have to travel to Britain anyway,” Harry said. “To resupply and prepare for our expedition.”

    “Good. We should be able to meet in my office sometime during the next few days.” He looked at Mallory. “You have been remarkably silent.”

    “I’m still adjusting to being a wanted wizard,” Mallory said. “Not that I would have missed this for anything.”

    “Do not worry. The Ottomans are disliked by many - though not always with good reason - and I expect the bounty to be withdrawn once the Sultan feels the need to placate the European countries.”

    That could take some time, Harry thought.

    “But, speaking of this misunderstanding: Would you care to tell me what exactly happened? If I am to sort this out, knowing the truth would be quite useful.”

    Harry winced. Despite the friendly tone, he could recognise an order he couldn’t refuse. He cleared his throat. “Ah, we knew the Storm Wizards were after the Sultan’s collection, so we decided to secure it before they could steal it.” Judging by Dumbledore’s smile, the old wizard knew exactly what they had been planning. “We also wanted to free an enslaved Naga,” Harry went on, “but failed on both counts.”

    “The Storm Wizards must have already infiltrated the palace,” Hermione added. “They had the collection moved and stole it while using us as a distraction.”

    “Ah.” Dumbledore slowly nodded. “I see the problem.”

    “Do you think you can help us?” Harry said.

    “It is a tricky situation, but by no means insurmountable. In politics, it rarely matters whether the law is broken or bent, or not.”

    Harry winced at the implied rebuke. Before he or Hermione could explain their actions, though, Dumbledore handed them a sock. “This should facilitate your retreat from this place.” He looked up. “Without having to run the gauntlet a number of bounty hunters are preparing.”

    “How is it activated?” Harry asked, looking at the apparent Portkey.

    “Say ‘there’s no place like home’ while you’re touching it.”

    That quote sounded familiar, Harry thought.

    “Where will it drop us off?” Hermione asked.

    “A small, private muggle apartment an old friend of mine rented seventy years ago, to avoid entanglements with the local law enforcement. You will be safe there.” The Headmaster nodded at them, then turned and walked towards the stairs.

    “‘Entanglements with the local law enforcement’?” Hermione stepped up to him.

    Harry shrugged as he smiled at her. “Well, I guess Dumbledore has a lot of experience clearing up misunderstandings with the law.”

    “That’s reassuring,” Mallory butted in, “but not as reassuring as using the Portkey before we’re jumped by the bounty hunters Dumbledore mentioned will be.”

    Harry didn’t like to admit it, but Mallory had a point. He waved at Ron and Ari. “Ron! Ari! Come back. We’re leaving!”

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Apr 6, 2019
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  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 24: Hunted
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 24: Hunted

    ‘Muggle vehicles have been enchanted by wizards since the first spells were invented. Primitive boats like dugouts were probably the first vehicles to benefit from spells cast on them, although this is mere conjecture since no archaeological proof for such deeds has been found thus far. But as civilisation advanced, so did their vehicles, and first ships, then carts were invented and continued to evolve. By the time the Ancient Egyptians rose to dominate the lands of the Nile, enchanted chariots and barques were commonly used by their kings. However, contrary to popular belief, not many vehicles were able to fly. The few that did passed into myth and legend until the first reliable flying charms were invented in the tenth century and applied to brooms, carpets and, in some cases, oars.
    Ever since then, flight has been the most sought-after enchantment by a wizard owning a muggle vehicle. While brooms were prized for their speed, carriages of various styles offered a much more comfortable travelling experience - though any accident involving them tended to put far more people at risk than one involving brooms. The Parkinson family was almost wiped out in 1376 when their flying carriage, enhanced with several Extension Charms, crashed while carrying most of their members following an encounter with a dragon.
    But the lure of flight was too strong to let even such catastrophes stop wizards from enhancing their vehicles, and it is said - although somewhat hyperbolically - that in the sixteenth century, not one hour passed without a carriage flying in the sky somewhere in Europe. And even muggles still remember the infamous Flying Dutchman, which was not only the largest flying ship of its time but also, albeit later, the first documented case of a ghost ship.
    Only the Statute of Secrecy put a stop to such practices since, at the time, Disillusionment Charms able to affect an entire vehicle had not yet been invented. By the time they were, most European wizards had become used to other forms of travel, such as brooms, the Floo Network, Apparition or Portkeys, and strict regulations dating back to the beginning of the eighteenth century further discouraged the creation of flying vehicles. Most wizards enchanted muggle vehicles with the goal of fitting into the muggle world, as demonstrated by the Hogwarts Express and the Knight Bus. Apart from a couple of enthusiasts, these days few bother with such ventures. The time of flying muggle vehicles has all but passed.’
    - Excerpt from ‘From Chariots to Cleansweeps: A History of Enchanted Muggle Vehicles’ by Archibald Pucey, London, 1961


    *****​

    Devon, Ottery St Catchpole, December 7th, 2001

    “Ron! I was so worried!”

    Ron Weasley wasn’t in any danger of actually getting his ribs broken by his mum’s hug. Neither did he have trouble breathing. But seeing and hearing her cry with relief when she saw him hurt. His situation wasn’t his fault, not really, but he felt guilty anyway.

    He patted her back, feeling more than a little awkward, and smiled weakly at Dad over her shoulder. “It’s OK. We’ll be fine,” he said.

    “Yes,” Ari added, nodding. “We’ve got a plan. And Dumbledore’s help.”

    “Storm Wizards! Janissaries! Bounty hunters! What were you thinking?” Mum pulled back and stared at him.

    “It wasn’t our fault. They came after us,” Ron defended himself. “And we were framed.”

    “Yes!” Ari agreed. “Someone else stole the Sultan’s collection before we could get it!”

    “What?” Mum’s relief quickly turned into a frown. “You were trying to steal from the Sultan?”

    “Only to keep the Storm Wizards from getting the collection,” Ron said.

    “Besides, the Sultan’s evil. He keeps slaves,” Ari said, “and puts poor cats in cages.”

    Ron didn’t think it would be a good idea to explain that Ari was talking about a Nundu. “Pretty much all of the Ottomans’ neighbours praise us for what we supposedly did.” Mum didn’t look convinced, so he quickly continued: “Anyway, we spoke with Dumbledore, and then we travelled here because we need your help, Dad.”

    “I’m almost done with your car,” he replied, “but a few spells need more adjustments.”

    “Ah, we’ve got a new project. A secret project,” Ron said. “We need to enchant a unique muggle vehicle.” Seeing his Dad’s eyes light up, Ron felt another pang of guilt even though he knew that his father loved tinkering with muggle devices.

    “A unique muggle vessel?” Dad asked.

    “Yes. A deep-submergence vehicle,” Ron said.

    His dad wrinkled his forehead. “Like a submarine?”

    “Sort of,” Ron told him.

    “It was part of a submarine,” Ari said. “But we didn’t take the rest.”

    Ron forced himself to smile as Dad and Mum exchanged a familiar look. “Where exactly did you get the vehicle?” Dad asked.

    Mum frowned at him. “You didn’t steal it, did you?”

    Damn. How to word this…

    “No, we left a copy,” Ari said. “The muggles don’t use it any more anyway. It was in a museum.”

    Ron winced.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley resisted the urge to check himself for missing body parts and curses as he followed his dad to the shed in the garden. A tongue-lashing by Mum wasn’t life-threatening, but it made him feel as if he were back in first year and had just cracked the protections on the stairs to the female dorms. He shivered at the memory.

    “You brought that on yourself,” Dad said. “When you are falsely accused of being a criminal, actually breaking the law isn’t the best course of action.”

    “It wasn’t as if we had a choice,” Ron defended himself.

    “There’s always a choice, son. You could have bought the vessel from the muggles.”

    “No, we couldn’t. We checked.” Well, not without a lot of Confundus Charms. Which were not exactly legal either.

    “It’s one of two kinds,” Ari said. “And the other one was dismantled. I think.”

    “Yes. It’s literally unique. And would you have preferred it if we used a copy to travel under the sea?” Ron asked. “It would only take one charm to undo the spell, and we’d be gone.”

    Dad’s frown as he opened the door to the shed showed that he didn’t have an answer to that.

    The Range Rover was parked near the door in the extended shed, and Ron’s dad went straight to it. “It’s almost done. Just need to adjust the spells to let it float in the water, as you requested. It can fly, it can turn invisible, it has an extended interior containing an entire flat that is completely hidden from outside view, yet allows you to peer out, and it has a Muggle-Repelling Charm you can activate if the police are bothering you. It can also float, but the propulsion doesn’t yet work in water. I didn’t manage to get hold of the spells on the Knight Bus, but you’ll mostly use magical travel for most long distances anyway, right?”

    “Yes.” Ron nodded. “This is mostly to blend in with muggles and to serve as a travelling home.”

    Ari passed him and entered the car. “Oh! This is neat!” he heard her exclaim inside.

    “And Gringotts delivered the machine gun!” Dad swished his wand, and, behind the car, a tarp floated into the air, revealing the same gun Petunia used in their car. “I’ve got all the spells done - it won’t grow hot, won’t run out of bullets, no recoil and you can turn it invisible!” He beamed. “Really, I just need a few more days to adjust the floating spells, and it’ll be finished!”

    “Well, the new project takes priority, Dad,” Ron told him.

    His father’s face fell. “Surely we can finish the car first. We’re so close.”

    “Every day counts,” Ron replied. “The sooner we get the deep-submergence vehicle done, the sooner we can sort out the problem with the Storm Wizards. We can’t let them beat us.”

    “We could turn the car into a submarine,” Dad said. “That would still probably be faster.”

    “We can’t,” Ron said. “It won’t resist the water pressure at the depths we need.”

    “We can strengthen the structure.”

    Ron grimaced. “That won’t be enough either, and if someone dispelled that…”

    Dad winced. “Right. But it would have been such an elegant solution - a car that can fly and dive! Not even Bond had a car that could do both. Of course, if we added a torpedo and rocket launcher...”

    Not for the first time, Ron questioned the wisdom of introducing his father to those movies. “If we used either, it would probably cause a lot of trouble with the muggle authorities.” Especially after the attack in New York. He didn’t want to imagine what the muggles would do if they heard about missiles and torpedoes being fired.

    “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, Dad.”

    “That’s a bother. Maybe a speargun? In case you are attacked by a sea serpent? Petunia told me that guns don’t work well in the water.”

    “Do you have a speargun ready?”

    “Right.” Dad frowned. “That’s a problem. But you will need some weapons on your deep-submergence vehicle. If you come under attack underwater, you won’t be able to cast spells through the hull.”

    That was a very good point. “Anyone trying to attack us would be hindered by that as well.”

    “And sea monsters? No wizard has dived to such depths. No one knows what kind of creatures might be found there.”

    “Muggles didn’t find any monsters,” Ron said. At least Hermione had said so.

    His dad frowned. “If they only had two such vessels, how much could they have explored.”

    Another good point. Although if Dad had his way, he’d construct and enchant a deep-submergence battleship. Ron smiled. “Well, let me show you the vessel.” He reached into his enchanted pocket and pulled out the plans and pictures he had prepared, followed by the shrunken sphere itself. He unshrank it, then turned to his father. “Now, I am no expert, that would be Hermione, but…” He trailed off as he realised that his dad wasn’t listening. He was beaming at the sphere, plans in hand. And taking notes.

    “Oh… Oh… how ingenious! How clever. They left the machinery outside, knowing it would withstand water pressure much better than muggles would. We’ll have to reconstruct the outer layer, though.”

    Ari peeked out of the car. “I thought we were replacing all the muggle machines with spells?”

    Ron made a note that the car didn’t block sound either. At least not for someone with her excellent hearing. “That’s the plan, yes,” he confirmed.

    “Dad doesn’t seem to know that,” she commented as she left the car and joined him.

    Ron nodded.

    “Shouldn’t you tell him?”

    “We might want a muggle cover,” Ron said.

    He didn’t want to ruin his father’s fun. Not after the scare they had given Ron’s parents.

    *****​

    Hogwarts, December 7th, 2001

    “Ah, there you are. Please, take a seat,” Dumbledore said as soon as they entered his office. “Good timing - I just finished talking to Minerva; she is doing a marvellous job filling in for me, but it’s very demanding for her. Usually, I am not away from Hogwarts for so long.”

    The Headmaster certainly looked stressed as well, in Hermione Granger’s opinion. Dealing for weeks with an international crisis and the ICW response would also be very demanding. Worse, probably than running a school. “Thank you,” she said as she sat down next to Harry.

    “Mr Weasley and Miss Ari are at The Burrow, I assume.”

    Harry nodded. “Yes. We are hurrying our preparations as much as possible.”

    “After you were forced to travel to Britain by muggle ship.”

    Hermione frowned. “We would have preferred a quicker trip, but we deemed the risks of magical travel too great. We did fly on brooms as soon as we were close enough to the coast,” she added.

    Dumbledore smiled at them. “I was not criticising your decision. I was merely pointing out that you have lost a lot of time already. If your enemies and competitors have not beaten you already, it is unlikely that they know the location you discovered at all.”

    “We don’t know that,” Harry said. “And we cannot risk letting the likes of Kohlmeier getting his hands on Atlantean magic.”

    “Their magic was impressive for their time, but most scholars agree that their achievements have been eclipsed since - the invention of the wand drastically changed the entire wizarding world.” Dumbledore leaned back in his seat.

    “They had quite advanced rituals. Blood rituals,” Hermione said. “And it wasn’t a prohibited form of magic in Atlantis either, from what we can tell.”

    “Ah, I see. As the Aztecs demonstrated, that particular kind of magic allowed them to be quite dangerous enemies despite their lack of wands. I think we cannot dismiss the possibility that they had discovered magic that would still pose a significant threat today.” Dumbledore nodded.

    “Yes, exactly,” Harry agreed.

    “Like the Egyptians’ discovery of Horcruxes, all it would take is one exceptional piece of magic that we don’t know about and so don’t know how to defeat,” Hermione pointed out. She bit her lower lip when she saw Harry shudder slightly and reached over to squeeze his thigh.

    “The Dark Arts were outlawed for good reason,” Dumbledore said.

    “Of course,” she was quick to agree. “But that doesn’t change the fact that unknown dark curses pose a bigger threat than known curses.”

    “But would the threat be great enough to justify acting in haste instead of with all due caution?” Dumbledore tilted his head slightly.

    “We are acting with all due caution,” Harry said, frowning. “That’s we took muggle ships to travel.”

    And that was why they hadn’t simply duplicated the Trieste II, Hermione added to herself. “We won’t rush this. But we won’t waste time, either,” she said and met the old wizard’s eyes.

    After a moment, he nodded. “Forgive me for raising the question; many young people often act quite rashly.”

    “We’re Curse-Breakers,” Harry said, raising his chin. “We’d already be dead if we weren’t cautious.”

    Dumbledore nodded again, though Hermione couldn’t help feeling that he had already known that. Another lesson, probably. She nodded in agreement with Harry. “In any case, our deep-submergence vehicle shouldn’t take too long to enchant. Most of what we need done to it is rather simple. On the other hand, our competitors will find it nigh-impossible to reach the location even if they found it - I don’t know of any magical solution which would let a wizard reach the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, and we currently have the only muggle vessel able to achieve that.”

    “Fascinating. To think that muggle technology might be the key to reaching Atlantis…” Dumbledore chuckled. “But you did not arrange this meeting to talk about Arthur’s passion.”

    “No.” Hermione took a deep breath. “We’re here, as we told you, because we need more information about soul magic. The Atlanteans may have used that as well.”

    The Headmaster slowly nodded and sighed. “Indeed, you did. Which is another reason I agree with your wish to avoid dawdling. If there is one area of the Dark Arts more dangerous than blood magic, it is soul magic. Dealing with it may, without hyperbole, risk a fate worse than death - often for both caster and victim.”

    “We’re not planning to wield it. We’re planning to defeat it,” Harry said.

    “If I thought there was the least danger of you planning to use it, we would not be having this talk.” He narrowed his eyes at them, all trace of his usual smile and jovial manner gone.

    Hermione swallowed. “We won’t,” she pressed out through clenched teeth. “But Kohlmeier might.”

    “He would be a fool to do so. Not even his master dabbled in soul magic. It corrupts everything it touches.” Dumbledore shook his head. “But that didn’t stop other dark wizards.”

    “Voldemort.”

    “Indeed. There was a reason he was considered the worst dark lord to ever set foot on Britain. Perhaps in the world, even. What he did to his soul in his quest for power and immortality...” The Headmaster shuddered. “Souls are the ultimate sacrifice in the Dark Arts. Infinite themselves, they offer nigh-infinite power - but I don’t know of any wizard or witch able to control such power. Even Voldemort never risked such a deed and stuck to mutilating and manipulating his own soul.”

    “The Atlanteans had extensive, if not often peaceful, contact with the ancient Egyptians,” Hermione said.

    “They might have stolen the secret of making Horcruxes, you mean.” The Headmaster looked at her.

    “Or they might have done something similar,” she went on. “If they used Horcruxes to defend their homes…” Such foul things were very hard to destroy. But to pass through a door turned into a Horcrux every day… She shivered for a moment.

    Dumbledore’s expression was wry. “A disturbing idea.”

    “I don’t know if it’s feasible - or even possible,” she said. She didn’t know much about Horcruxes, after all. “But I think we need to prepare for such a threat. And that means we need to know more about it.”

    The Headmaster sighed once more. “I fear that you are correct. I would have preferred to take my knowledge to the grave, but it seems I will not get my wish.” He slowly, carefully, stood. “Follow me.”

    Hermione glanced at Harry as she rose. The Headmaster’s unexpectedly grave manner unnerved her, more than a little if she were honest. Knowledge he had wanted to take with him to the grave? She bit her lower lip. The thought of knowledge being lost like that, deliberately… That was wrong. Very wrong. On the other hand, Dumbledore made it clear that this knowledge was very, very dangerous. And she had a feeling that it wasn’t just the danger of it falling into the wrong hands that was a concern here.

    The Headmaster led them through a door in his office, into what Hermione realised were his private quarters. She took a deep breath. She didn’t think anyone she knew had ever been here. And there were so many books. Shelves packed with books of all sizes and styles lined the walls of the corridor through which they were walking. They passed a room that seemed empty but for a floating cloud of shimmering… motes?

    They were past it before she could get a good look at it. That the room had been massively extended into a large hall seemed normal in comparison.

    “An experiment,” Dumbledore said. “Not very dangerous, but I would ask you not to disturb it. It would ruin years of preparation.”

    The old wizard hadn’t looked back at them - Hermione would have noticed. But he knew them well, of course. “Yes, sir,” she replied.

    “Of course,” Harry chimed in.

    They reached a door covered with runes. Hermione felt her hair standing up - or trying to - when the Headmaster flicked his wand, and the runes glowed for a moment before the door started to swing open. Those were some strong wards.

    The room behind the door was small - and she couldn’t spot any sign of it having been extended. Not that she could tell for certain without a spell, of course. And it contained only a desk and a chair. And a shelf. No, two… or one?

    She couldn’t focus on the shelves, she realised. She had to force herself to look at them, and even so, they seemed to vanish in the blink of an eye.

    “That’s a very intriguing enchantment,” Harry said. “A variant of a Muggle-Repelling Charm?”

    Dumbledore chuckled, once. “Only in the loosest sense.”

    “A variant of the Confundus Charm,” Hermione stated. She recognised some of the effects.

    “Five points to Gryffindor.” The smile on Dumbledore’s face lasted but a moment before he sighed again. “It’s the least of the shelves’ defences - I added it to protect those who are acting out of ignorant curiosity, rather than ambition and malice, from their own foolishness.”

    Hermione pressed her lips together. They weren’t students any more. They were professional Curse-Breakers.

    “But I digress.” He flicked his wand, then held his hand up and caught a book flying towards him. He put it down on the desk but didn’t take a seat. “This book contains the most comprehensive transcriptions of the notes of the Nameless Necromancer, who is commonly credited with having invented Soul Anchors.”

    Petunia had discovered the wizard’s tomb, Hermione knew. And her article, published after Voldemort’s final defeat, had been the first to credit him with the foul invention. “He was a contemporary of the Atlanteans,” she said.

    “Indeed.”Dumbledore flicked his wand again, and a larger, older book landed on the desk. A book bound in heavy leather, reinforced and locked with rune-covered metal bands. “A transcription of the diary of Herpo the Foul. He didn’t invent Horcruxes, but - until Voldemort - he was the dark wizard who knew most about them. Perhaps even more than the Nameless Necromancer.”

    “He had a thousand years longer to improve on them,” Harry said.

    “Unless he reinvented them,” Hermione pointed out. “The Egyptians were very thorough when they erased the Necromancer’s name from history.”

    “That’s not all, though, is it?” Harry said. “Neither of those works is unique.” Which was true - the Black library held a copy of the Necromancer’s notes. And Dumbledore wouldn’t be behaving like this if that were all he had.

    Dumbledore sighed. “Indeed.”

    So what else could… Hermione gasped. “You’ve got Voldemort’s notes!”

    Dumbledore chuckled briefly. “Some of them, at least. I spent some time tying up loose ends after the battle, to ensure he had not left any contingencies. Fortunately, he was so convinced he would prevail thanks to his Soul Anchors, he never seemed to have considered the possibility that he could lose and be killed. But I did find this in one of his hideouts.”

    A thin notebook - muggle style - joined the two books.

    “That was Voldemort’s?” Harry sounded doubtful. “It doesn’t look grandiose enough for his ego.”

    “You would think so - but this was the same type of notebook that he made into his first Horcrux. He might have thought this a fitting form - or merely thought it would be very clever. We shall never know.”

    Hermione nodded in agreement. It didn’t matter, either.

    “These should provide you with all the information necessary to deal with Horcruxes and similar dark magics,” Dumbledore said.

    And, since they knew intimately how badly Harry’s life had been affected by Horcruxes, the odds of any one of their group succumbing to whatever temptation these books provided were very, very low. Well, Mr Mallory might be an exception. Might. He was a friend of Dumbledore’s, but not a close one.

    She cleared her throat. “Headmaster, would you trust Mr Mallory with this knowledge?”

    Dumbledore sighed. “I would rather he didn’t know about them. If he does not have access to these books, he cannot be tempted by the knowledge contained within their pages. Mind you, he has not given me any cause to think that he would succumb to temptation - but neither has he shown the kind of strength of character you and your friends have displayed. Of course, we never met under circumstances which would have provided him with an opportunity to do so. But, given the dangerous knowledge held here - knowledge not even Voldemort was willing or felt able to use, I would rather err on the side of caution.”

    Hermione glanced at Harry, who nodded after meeting her eyes.

    That was perfectly fine with them.

    “Did you study the blood curse on him?” Hermione asked.

    “I was not aware of such a curse.” Dumbledore frowned. “He did not mention anything to me. When did this happen?”

    “We don’t know,” Harry replied. “He was already cursed when we met him.”

    “He’s using potions to suppress the curse,” Hermione added. “It’s very hard to detect, but Ari can smell it.”

    “Miss Ari could smell a blood curse?” The Headmaster touched his beard. “I assume that the curse has an effect on his body, then, which would be detectable by scent. Unless she has the ability to sense magic.”

    “Yes,” Harry confirmed, “blood curses do affect the body even when they haven’t triggered yet.”

    Hermione almost interjected, but Harry didn’t mention why they knew that.

    Dumbledore stared at him for a moment anyway. Did he suspect? They could explain, of course. Harry - they - hadn’t used truly dark curses. Just self-sacrificial blood magic. That wasn’t evil.

    But the Headmaster slowly nodded. “A potion that suppresses curses could be very useful - for many people suffering from dark curses.”

    Hermione sighed. “Its potential is immense. But he hasn’t shared any information about it, and only brews it in private.”

    “We didn’t press the issue,” Harry added. “We felt that our current situation was complicated enough already, without adding more tension.”

    “The potion might require some questionable ingredients,” Hermione said, “which would explain why Mr Mallory doesn’t like to let anyone watch as he brews it.”

    Once more, Dumbledore nodded. “It is understandable that someone suffering from a dark curse and facing a painful death - or worse - might be willing to go to great lengths to get cured. But not all means are justified by the ends.”

    “Do you think Mr Mallory’s… resorting to questionable means?” Harry asked.

    “I cannot answer that. I do not know what curse struck him, nor what he is doing to suppress it. I do not think he would resort to the Dark Arts to save himself - but as your aunt once told me, I cannot assume that I know how a man thinks just because I knew him as a child or a young man.”

    Hermione hadn’t heard about that. And neither had Harry, judging by his expression.

    Dumbledore chuckled. “She told me that after all the locations I had expected to house one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes were found empty - but for traps and curses, of course, which she and Sirius had to disable and remove.”

    “Yes, that sounds like Auntie.” Harry nodded.

    For a moment, Dumbledore seemed to look at nothing in particular. “I met Matthias when I saved him from the houngans in Jamaica. One of them had kidnapped him to raise him as his apprentice and possible successor. Matthias was a headstrong boy - he was still defying the houngan at the time I intervened. But he had suffered for it. And it wouldn’t be the last time he suffered at the hands of the houngans.” The old wizard sighed. “He opposed them, all his life. Said he did not want to see anyone else fall victim to their machinations.”

    And he feared them. Hermione remembered their trip to Jamaica and Mr Mallory’s reaction to meeting houngans. They must have cursed him, too. “He didn’t say much about his past.”

    “He is a private and proud wizard,” Dumbledore said. “Too proud to ask for help.”

    Even if the alternative was resorting to using the Dark Arts? Hermione bit her lower lip. Mr Mallory had stuck with them. He might not be the bravest wizard, or the most skilled, but he had proved to be stubborn and, within his limits, dependable.

    After a moment of silence, the Headmaster changed the subject. “So you found that Atlantis has truly sunk to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.”

    “An Atlantean ghost told us where it was located,” Harry replied. “Whether he was telling us the truth or not we can’t say, yet.”

    “Although if Atlantis sank at that location, there would have to be archaeological evidence of the tsunami that the sinking of an entire island would have caused,” Hermione pointed out. “But on the other hand, the location fits the information we gathered, especially the tablets detailing trade and supply routes. However, if it sank slowly enough to avoid creating tidal waves, most inhabitants would have been able to save themselves - Puerto Rico would have been very close. And all legends speak of a rapid sinking.”

    “Some Spanish scholars theorised that the native population of Central America were of Atlantean descent,” Dumbledore said.

    She was aware of that. “There would be records or at least legends of that. But there aren’t. Ari’s tribe was the first with legends fitting Atlantis that we know of, and they don’t claim to be the descendants of surviving Atlanteans.” She shook her head. “It’s more likely that the native tribes were subjects of the Atlantean Empire. Or slaves. As far as the Atlanteans even cared to make contact - they didn’t seem to have travelled far from isolated outposts on the coast.”

    “Another mystery to be solved, then.” Dumbledore smiled. “Of course, magic might have prevented a tidal wave.”

    Magic preventing a tidal wave caused by an island sinking? The Atlanteans didn’t even have wands!

    “You look sceptical.” Dumbledore chuckled again. “Yet various legends speak of similar deeds in ancient times. Mountains cleaved in two. Rivers rerouted by a single man. Seas parted. Few such legends mention the price such magic would have demanded, though.”

    Hermione shivered. How many sacrifices would such a feat require? How many sacrifices might such a feat have required?

    Atlantis might have sunk in a sea of blood.

    *****​

    Devon, Ottery St Catchpole, December 8th, 2001

    ...and so we’ve decided to draw the attention of the Storm Wizards away from you. That will allow you to proceed with your expedition without having to worry about them. We’ll lead them on a merry chase through the Sahara and lure them into a few tombs not known to the public, which should cut down their numbers some.

    “Damn!” Harry Potter hissed through his teeth as he read Auntie’s latest letter.

    “Did the Storm Wizards find the tomb before Petunia’s group?” Ron asked.

    “No,” Hermione, reading over Harry’s shoulder, replied, “They recovered the relics, but found no texts, so they decided to play bait for Kohlmeier.”

    “What?” Ron exclaimed, jumping up from the couch in The Burrow’s living room and dislodging Ari from his lap where she had been taking a nap.

    “Yes,” Harry spat. “They think that this will keep the Storm Wizards from coming after us.” How could they do this!

    “It’s a good plan,” Ari, who hadn’t gotten up from the couch, but had been glaring at Ron’s back, said with a shrug. “At the very least, the Storm Wizards will have to split their forces.”

    Harry glared at her. “It’s a dangerous plan! They’re deliberately trying to get found! You know how dangerous Kohlmeier is!”

    Ron nodded. “One bloody mistake and they’re done for.”

    “Petunia isn’t one to take stupid risks,” Hermione said.

    Harry shook his head. “If it means we’ll be safer, she’ll take the most stupid risks.” He knew that well - Auntie had faced Voldemort, after all, and managed to activate a millennia-old ritual circle by sacrificing her own blood. While already wounded.

    Hermione winced - she had been there with him, after all, looking at his comatose aunt as she was being treated. “Right.”

    He scoffed. “Stupid Auntie!”

    “That’s usually her line,” Ron said with a rather forced-looking grin.

    Harry glared at him; he wasn’t in the mood for jokes. His family was putting themselves in danger. For him!

    “She’s not alone. The others are with her,” Ari said from the couch as she rolled her shoulders and neck.

    “They’re just four,” Harry said. Auntie, Sirius, Bill and Fleur. “Four against dozens. And Kohlmeier.” And if the Storm Wizards managed to box them in, or surrounded them and blocked Apparition and Portkeys…

    He felt Hermione’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “They’ll be alright. They’ve got a lot of experience fighting Death Eaters.” ‘More than us’ remained unsaid, but he heard it anyway.

    Harry pressed his lips together. “I’ve got half a mind to play bait myself.”

    “Petunia would kill you,” Ron pointed out.

    “It would be stupid,” Ari added. “And wouldn’t help them, either.”

    “I know,” Harry said through clenched teeth. “I know.” And he hated it.

    “If we played bait we couldn’t look for Atlantis,” Hermione pointed out.

    “As I said, it would be stupid,” Ari interjected.

    “...and Mr Mallory would object most strongly to that,” Hermione continued. “It wouldn’t be fair at all to him if we changed our plans.”

    Mallory could sod off, in Harry’s opinion, if that were what it took to keep Auntie and Sirius and the others safe. But it wouldn’t help, damn it. He sighed. “How’s the Trieste coming along?” he asked.

    “Dad says a few more days at most and he’ll be done. He’s taking time off from work to finish it as quickly as possible,” Ron said.

    A few days, and then, finally, they could be off to the Caribbean. At least that was going according to plan. More or less. He was about to say so when he heard a gong going off.

    “Merlin’s balls!” Ron yelled. “That’s the alarm! Someone’s attacking the wards!”

    *****​

    Who could it be? Storm Wizards? In Britain? Ron Weasley clenched his teeth as he rushed outside, wand in hand, with his friends close on his heels. The attackers had to be close to reach the wards, and there weren’t many places where they could hide.

    “Mr Mallory! We’re under attack!” he heard Hermione yell at the tent the man was using to brew his potions.

    “Can you smell them?” he asked Ari. She quickly changed, raised her head with her nostrils flaring, then shook her head and rushed away. He managed to cast a Disillusionment Charm on her before she turned the corner.

    “What’s she doing?” Dad - he’d left the shed - asked.

    “Making a tour around the wardline,” Ron replied. “Check if she can smell them.”

    “Oh. She can do that?”

    “Arthur! The Floo’s not working!” Ron heard Mum yell from the house before he could answer.

    “There are Anti-Apparition and Anti-Portkey Jinxes,” Hermione said, “but I don’t detect any jinxes blocking the Floo Network.”

    “Traitors in the Ministry,” Harry spat as he mounted his broom. “I’ll check for disillusioned people in range.”

    Ron thought so as well - it would also explain why the attackers knew they were at The Burrow. Dad taking days off, at this time? They should have seen this coming as soon as Dumbledore left. He was tempted to join Harry, but that would leave Hermione alone here - and she might be needed to break the jinxes.

    “What’s going on?” Mallory asked as he stepped out of his tent near the garden. “This has ruined a potion I was brewing!”

    “Someone’s attacking the wards,” Ron told him, his eyes on the part of the wardline he could see. Where were the attackers? They couldn’t be too far away, if they were attacking the wards.

    A chuffing noise warned him a second before Ari reappeared, back in her human form, followed by Harry. “I didn’t smell anyone,” she reported as she conjured some short robes.

    “That means they are on the leeward side,” Hermione said.

    “Or they spelled themselves, so they have no scent,” Harry pointed out. “I didn’t see anyone within range, either, but they could be underground. How are the wards doing?”

    “They’re weakening faster than expected,” Dad said after a quick check.

    Which meant they had a very good team of Curse-Breakers. Or a lot of people working on The Burrow’s protections. And if they were underground there was no way to counterattack.

    Dad raised his wand, and a glowing, translucent weasel appeared in the air, floating around him. “Amelia! Someone’s attacking The Burrow! They blocked the Floo Network from the Ministry side. We need help here!” he said. A moment later, the weasel sped up, disappearing. A Patronus to Scrimgeour, the Head Auror, followed.

    “How soon can they be here?” Ron asked, his attention back on the wardline. Not for the first time, he wished the defences didn’t have to cover so much ground. It both weakened the protections and made it harder to find the attackers.

    “It’s a Saturday,” Dad replied. “Amelia won’t be in the office. Nor will they have a lot of Aurors ready to come to our aid.” He checked the wards again. “We’re running out of time. We need to take the car and go.” Another Patronus sped off to warn Fred and George.

    “They’ll expect that,” Harry said.

    He was right, Ron knew - Petunia and Sirius’s flying Range Rover was quite famous. Their enemies - be they Storm Wizards or bounty hunters - would have planned for it. But... “It’s still our best chance.”

    “Molly! Come to the shed! We need to leave!” Dad yelled.

    Mum ran out of the house, a trunk floating behind her. She looked furious - and sad. “Arthur!”

    “We need the sphere as well!” Hermione yelled, already running towards the shed. Mallory was sprinting as well - no surprise there.

    Merlin’s balls! If the Storm Wizards got the sphere… Ron shook his head. “Go, we’ll cover you!”

    “The wards aren’t that weak, son,” Dad said. “Come!”

    Harry, Ari and Ron still brought up the rear. Mum and Dad didn’t argue, though.

    Inside the shed, Dad had started the car while Hermione was still summoning and shrinking every piece of the sphere. “Hurry up!” Dad yelled.

    Ron flicked his wand and started to levitate the sphere towards the car - even shrunk it weighed a ton. “Harry? Ari?” he glanced over his shoulder. Both were still at the door, staring through the gap left open with their wands ready. “Come on!” he yelled.

    They didn’t move. “Right behind you!” Harry yelled back. “Get it into the car!”

    Ron gritted his teeth and levitated the sphere to the car’s trunk. Hermione flicked her wand, and the trunk flew open. “Harry! Ari!” she yelled.

    “The wards are falling!” Dad shouted.

    That, at last, got the two moving. Ron stood in the doorway of the car as it started to fade from view. “Hurry!”

    Ari changed again and jumped inside, her greater mass as a jaguar easily pushing him aside. The Range Rover was moving towards the door now. Harry climbed in and pulled the door closed right before they broke through the shed’s doors and lifted off.

    Ron watched through the window as Dad pulled a hard turn, flying low over the pond towards the wardline. The former wardline, he corrected himself. The Burrow’s defences had been destroyed.

    “Can you see the attackers?” Dad asked.

    Ron couldn’t. “No. They must be disillusioned.”

    “Can’t see them either,” Harry, staring out of the back window, added. “Or… Evasive action! Now!”

    “What?” Dad asked. A moment later, the Range Rover shook as a spell struck it. Ron smelled smoke and saw parts fall to the ground. He feared they’d crash, but Dad managed to keep the car in the air - and started to fly evasively.

    “Disillusioned people on brooms are following us!” Harry yelled. “My spell detected one when they closed in.”

    “How did they spot us? We’re disillusioned as well!” Dad yelled back.

    “Perhaps an improved detection spell?” Hermione wondered. “Or they can smell us? Or...” She jumped up from her seat and made her way towards the cargo section.

    “We’ve got the wind at our backs,” Ari said. “Can’t be our smell.”

    More spells shot towards them, but none hit the car. But it was obvious that their still mysterious attackers could track them. Which meant they wouldn’t give anything away by fighting back. “I’ve got the gun!” Harry yelled, climbing up the small ladder to the mount for the machine gun - said gun floating behind him. Ron hit the button that opened a window, then waited until he saw another spell fly towards them, which revealed the position of one of their pursuers. He didn’t hit anything, though - they must have veered off after casting.

    Smart. “Probably bounty hunters,” he yelled. The Storm Wizards hadn’t fought like this - and hadn’t been able to track them. Bounty hunters, though, specialised in tracking people.

    He heard Harry swear - at the gun, Ron thought - before the car was struck again. More smoke appeared, and the Range Rover started to list so much, Ron had to steady himself with his free hand so he wouldn’t lose his balance. They missed a tall tree’s trunk by inches, or so it seemed - he heard the branches break and splinter as the car barrelled through them, and more pieces broke off from the car.

    But Mum was there, vanishing the smoke and casting Mending Charms. And as the car stabilised again, Harry finally got the gun working. Soon, tracers cut across the sky, and Ron saw a Shield Charm’s typical flare as it got hit, followed by a cloud of blood as the bullets tore through someone still disillusioned. Unfortunately, neither Ron nor Ari was able to hit anyone - not disillusioned, moving targets at that range.

    And tracers worked both ways, as Petunia liked to say; a few more curses struck the Range Rover, despite Dad’s weaving and bobbing. One curse struck with such force, the car would have been smashed into the ground had it been flying a little lower.

    “Arthur! The car’ll break apart if we get hit again!” Mum yelled.

    “I’m doing what I can,” Dad replied.

    “I’ve got it!” Hermione yelled. A moment later, a swarm of bats shot out of the back of the Range Rover. “They’ll track the pursuers for us!” she added.

    Oh. Right. Echolocation or something. And the bats would make fine targets for Blasting Curses, too.

    Ron bared his teeth and watched the swarm split up. There! A group of bats circled around something. Ron sent a Blasting Curse at them. The explosion wiped out the bats - but it also sent a broom’s remains to the ground - with its disillusioned rider, Ron assumed, grimacing.

    Ari’s triumphant yell told him she, too, had hit one of their attackers. And Harry’s machine gun claimed two more before the survivors turned to flee.

    *****​

    London, Ministry of Magic, December 8th, 2001

    “Well, this is a real mess,” Auror Dawlish said, throwing a roll of parchment on the desk with a gesture that looked a little too well-executed. “Five dead bodies - and most of them missing parts.”

    Hermione Granger suppressed the urge to wince. They hadn’t had any choice. “They attacked us and used lethal spells first,” she said.

    “They attacked our home,” Molly cut in. Judging by the way Dawlish grimaced, he knew what she meant: Foreigners had attacked the home of a Department Head of the Ministry of Magic.

    “We identified two of them as bounty hunters. They had worked for the Ministry in the past,” the Auror went on. “We’re still working on the others.”

    “That shouldn’t change anything since Britain never acknowledged the warrant from the Ottoman Empire,” Hermione interjected.

    “I was coming to that,” Dawlish said with a frown aimed at her.

    Hermione refrained from telling him he should have been quicker, but it took some effort. They had been waiting in the Ministry for three hours until Dawlish had finally appeared to inform them about the proceedings.

    “Anyway, the survivors fled as far as we can tell. We found the hideouts they used to attack the wards on The Burrow, but no trace of them.”

    Of course, they had - without Britain acknowledging the Sultan’s accusations, any bounty hunter would, if apprehended in Britain, be treated as kidnapper - a common criminal.

    “You took your time,” Molly said.

    “You cannot rush an investigation, or you’ll miss clues,” Dawlish told her.

    “I meant the time until Aurors arrived after we called for help,” Ron’s mum corrected him. “We had already dealt with them when the first responders arrived!”

    “We moved as quickly as possible,” Dawlish said with a scowl, “but we had to gather enough wands first. That’s not easy on a Saturday.”

    Molly sniffed, showing what she thought of the excuse. Hermione agreed - this had been a poor showing by the Ministry. Of course, some of it might have been deliberate - she was quite aware that a number of people would despise them just for their association with Dumbledore and the Boy-Who-Lived. The bounty hunters wouldn’t have had a too difficult time finding help within the Ministry. Especially if they had worked for the Ministry in the past.

    “In any case, with your home stripped of its defences, I assume you’ll stay in the Ministry until that has been rectified?” Dawlish went on.

    “Certainly not! You still haven’t found the traitor who sabotaged the Floo Network!” Molly huffed. “It’s like the first war all over again!”

    That was overstating the issue, a little, but Hermione could understand the feeling.

    “Where will you be staying, then?”

    “I’m not telling you that!” Molly huffed. “You can reach Arthur easily if you need to contact us. But you don’t need to know where we’ll be staying until you’ve caught those thugs.”

    Judging by the glance Dawlish sent Harry, he suspected that the Weasleys would be staying at Grimmauld Place. “We’re doing everything we can,” he said with a fake smile.

    Hermione gave him an equally fake smile. “Oh, we know that.”

    He knew as well as they did that the odds of catching the surviving bounty hunters were low - they had been very skilled, after all, and would have experience with such situations. Finding whoever had helped them in the Ministry should be possible - but the Ministry didn’t exactly have a good track record, and if the traitor were smart, they’d have imperiused a patsy to do the actual sabotage, then obliviated them.

    At least that was how Hermione would have done it. If she had been a Ministry employee and so corrupt that she’d use an Unforgivable Curse, of course. Which she wasn’t.

    “Can we go now?” Molly snapped. “I have a family to look after!”

    It took Dawlish another hour to finish all the paperwork so they could leave. Altogether, they had wasted almost five hours just dealing with the Ministry. Five hours they couldn’t really afford to waste. Not with bounty hunters and Storm Wizards after them, and both now aware that Hermione and her friends were in Britain.

    They had to finish the sphere and leave as soon as possible.

    *****​
     
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  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 25: The Abyss
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 25: The Abyss

    ‘In certain circles, it has been said that the Dark Arts are merely a legal definition. That certain curses and rituals are called dark simply because they are banned by the authorities, but that there is no inherent difference between a curse and a dark curse.
    This is incorrect. The Dark Arts aren’t dark because they are illegal - they are illegal in most civilised countries because they are dark. That dark curses are different is obvious to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of magic: Unlike wounds caused by normal spells, injuries caused by dark curses cannot be healed by magical means. A victim of a dark curse, even if they survive, is usually left with hideous scars and chronic pain - something many dark wizards not only accept but actively desire.
    However, this is merely the most obvious aspect of the Dark Arts. Their true danger is more subtle - and threatens its users. It has been said that the Dark Arts are seductive. That those who practise them are slowly corrupted, compelled to use more and more dark spells until they are but a twisted shadow of themselves. This isn’t entirely accurate. There is - with certain exceptions - no magical compulsion to use the Dark Arts. Such a compulsion could be guarded and defended against. The danger of the Dark Arts is far more insidious. Dark curses are, as a general rule, both easier to cast and more effective than normal spells. And so even those not particularly gifted in Charms can be quite effective in a battle should they use the Dark Arts. Talented wizards and witches, on the other hand, become a veritable terror on the battlefield once they wield the Dark Arts.
    Sometimes, a future dark wizard starts with the best intentions. They want to use the Dark Arts to defend their loved ones, to bring down a dark wizard or defeat a dangerous beast. One curse, or two, won’t doom them, will it? And in the beginning, this seems to be true. But the lure of the Dark Arts will grow. Every time such a wizard fights without using the Dark Arts, they will feel as if they have handicapped themselves. And who would risk defeat or even death by not giving their all in a battle? As such, it won’t take much to make the wizard resort to the Dark Arts again. A loved one in danger, a close call in a fight, a cursed wound - there are many reasons to use the Dark Arts, once you’ve started. And each time, it’ll grow easier. Feel more natural. Feel more normal.
    The wizard will tell themselves that they have it under control. That they could stop using them whenever they want to. But, like addicts, they will find excuse after excuse to keep using the Dark Arts for just one more fight - never realising that they have already lost the most important battle.
    For the Dark Arts deal in pain and cruelty. The more you use them, the more you will get used to them - and to pain and cruelty in general.
    And, given the nature of dark curses, the more you fight using the Dark Arts, the more people will want to take revenge on you for the mutilations your curses have inflicted upon them - or for the loss of a loved one. A vicious cycle starts which generally only ends with the user’s death - usually at the hands of another budding dark wizard.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Danger of the Dark Arts’ by Geraldine Nott, London, 1930


    *****​

    London, No 12 Grimmauld Place, December 9th, 2001

    “What’s the verdict?” Hermione Granger asked, standing in the garden between the Range Rover and Mr Mallory’s tent - the man had gone straight back to brewing, or so he claimed.

    Atop the car, Arthur smiled. “Some of the spells need to be recast, but the repairs are sound. It looks like Molly paid more attention to my hobby than she’s admitted. Another day or two, and it’s fixed.”

    They didn’t have another day. “We’ve set up the sphere in the cellar,” she told him.

    “Alright.” He slowly nodded. She knew he wanted to finish the car first. But they didn’t have the time to spare. The longer they stayed in Britain, the greater the likelihood of further and more dangerous attacks. On them and their families.

    Arthur climbed down from the roof of the car, and they walked towards the back entrance. “Percy said The Burrow wasn’t damaged,” he told her.

    She nodded. They had survived the bounty hunter attack without casualties. The Burrow still stood, and the damage done to the Range Rover could be repaired without too much trouble. However, Hermione feared that the physical damage the attack had done was the least of their concerns.

    “You want to continue with your plans?”

    Molly wasn’t yelling, but, in Hermione’s opinion, she came close. She could hear her voice through the door to the kitchen.

    She glanced at Arthur. He wasn’t looking at her, but at the door, and his lips were pressed together. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

    Inside the kitchen, Molly was glaring at Ron and Ari. “Bounty hunters found you here - despite our precautions. They broke through our wards and almost killed us all! And you want to leave for the Caribbean, where you’ll be defenceless?”

    “Mum! We won’t be defenceless - we’ll be hiding. No one will find us,” Ron said.

    “And if anyone does, we’ll kill them,” Ari added.

    “They will come at you in numbers, as they did today!” Molly retorted. “Can you take a dozen bounty hunters? Or the Storm Wizards?”

    “If they can find us in the middle of nowhere, they can find us in Britain as well,” Hermione pointed out.

    “We don’t want to endanger you, Mum,” Ron said in a softer voice than Hermione had expected.

    “I don’t want you to endanger yourselves!” Molly replied with a sniffle.

    Hermione looked at the spice racks above the stove. She didn’t want to see the tears forming on Molly’s face.

    “Molly…” Arthur said. “We can’t keep them safe here.”

    “No one knows we’re here.”

    “Enough suspect,” he replied. “They won’t be safe here for long.”

    Molly was crying now, Hermione noticed. And holding Arthur. Hermione pressed her lips together and tried to ignore the sobs. And the guilt she felt. But Arthur was right: They wouldn’t be safe in Britain. Not from the Storm Wizards.

    *****​

    London, No 12 Grimmauld Place, December 10th, 2001

    “Lunch will be ready in half an hour, Young Master.”

    “Thank you, Kreacher,” Harry Potter said.

    “Should I inform the squatter in the garden as well?”

    Harry suppressed a sigh. Kreacher hadn’t taken to Mallory. Well, no one had, really. The man’s insistence on using his tent to brew his potion, for all Harry could understand the need for privacy when it came to dealing with a blood curse, didn’t endear him to most hosts. “Please do so,” he said. “He is, all things considered, a guest.” Even though the man was pretty much living in his tent as well.

    “Yes, Young Master.” Kreacher sniffed and vanished into the hidden passage in the wall he had used to enter the house’s workroom. Or the lab, as Harry liked to call it.

    “What did Kreacher say?” Hermione asked from inside the sphere. Harry could see her back through the window.

    “Lunch’ll be ready in half an hour,” he repeated the house-elf’s information.

    “It’s so late already?” Hermione’s head appeared in the top hatch. “We’re behind schedule!”

    “Barely,” Harry heard Arthur say from inside the sphere - which had been extended, of course. “We’ll finish this on time, no need to worry.” Especially since the original plans to copy the machinery around the sphere and add spear guns had been cancelled. They would deploy just the sphere.

    Well, they might not need to worry about that, Harry thought. But there were plenty of other things to worry about. Like Auntie, Sirius and the others were playing bait. They hadn’t heard from them since they had been informed of the plan. If they had made a mistake and the Storm Wizards had pinned them… And there were still bounty hunters to consider. The Burrow had been attacked already - what if they went after the rest of the Weasley family? Ginny and Luna were on an expedition, but they wouldn’t have started hiding until they received the warning, so their trail might be known. And the twins had a famous shop in Diagon Alley. Charlie should be safe, being at a dragon preserve in Romania - the Romanians really didn’t like the Ottomans, too - but who knew what some bounty hunters might think? And Percy was, like Arthur, a prominent Ministry employee. At least the Grangers were safe, but they would be angry at magical trouble upsetting their lives once more.

    He sighed.

    “What’s wrong?” Hermione asked as she climbed out of the sphere. “And don’t say nothing,” she added before he could reply.

    He chuckled. She knew him too well. “I was thinking about your parents,” he said. She looked confused for a moment. “They must hate that they have to be in hiding again because of us.”

    “Mum and Dad understand that this is not our fault,” she told him.

    “Doesn’t mean they won’t resent it,” he replied.

    “Oh, please.” She shook her head. “They know better.”

    Harry nodded, though he didn’t share her optimism. He lowered his voice - Arthur was inside the sphere. “I’m also worried about Auntie, Sirius and the Weasleys.” This time, she winced. “I know it’s not our fault, but…”

    “I know,” she said. “But we have to find Atlantis and secure it before anything else..”

    He nodded. But even if they beat the Storm Wizards to Atlantis and managed to get the ICW to secure the site, they still would have to be wary of attacks. Neither Kohlmeier nor the Ottomans were the sort to forgive and forget. “But once that’s done, we’ll have to do something about this whole mess.”

    “Yes. I’m sick of running and hiding,” she replied with a scowl.

    “Everyone is, I think.” Harry snorted. “Well, maybe not Mallory. He’s been hiding in his tent all day.”

    “He probably has to brew a lot of potions,” Hermione said, though her frown looked half-hearted to Harry. “Having to flee from The Burrow has likely disrupted his schedule and ruined his previous efforts.”

    He shrugged. “We can’t help him if he doesn’t tell us anything.” And that was Mallory’s own fault.

    *****​

    London, No 12 Grimmauld Place, December 11th, 2001

    “It’s finished!” Dad proclaimed, standing in front of the sphere. “A fully-functional deep-submergence vessel! It can do everything the original could do, and more besides!” He was smiling, Ron Weasley noted - a rare occurrence since the attack on The Burrow.

    “Though I really think that you should wait until the Range Rover is fully repaired,” Dad added.

    “We can’t,” Ron said. Dad wasn’t trying to keep them in the - dubious - safety of Grimmauld Place. “And we need a ship for this expedition, not a car. Even if it could swim,” he added with a wry grin.

    His dad sighed. “A few more days… but I understand. Your mother won’t, though.”

    “As long as she accepts it…” Ron shrugged and told himself that they had no choice. They had waited too long already - had been forced to by the bounty hunters’ attack. And if they waited any longer, another attack would come. The right choice was to leave Britain, find Atlantis, then use that discovery to get the rest of their problems fixed.

    He still felt guilty.

    “What ship will you use?”

    “I don’t know. Harry was looking into purchasing a muggle ship. A yacht.”

    “Those won’t be easy to hide,” Dad pointed out. He didn’t have to add ‘and not easy to protect’ - both of them were aware of how fragile muggle vessels were.

    “It’ll hide among the many other muggle yachts in the Caribbean,” he said. In theory, at least. “But purchasing a wizarding ship would tell everyone where we are - people will be looking for us.”

    “Your previous troubles with the law aren’t helping there.”

    Ron pressed his lips together. That wasn’t their fault, either! But he nodded in agreement. “That’s the reason we can’t charter a ship, either.”

    Ari scoffed from where she was lying on top of the car, reading a muggle magazine - ‘Yachting’, Ron thought. “As long as they don’t betray us they have nothing to fear.”

    “They wouldn’t know that,” he replied.

    “The houngans hate us, and everyone else hates them. They should love us.”

    He chuckled. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.” Not in the New World, at least.

    “Stupid.” Ari scoffed again and went back to reading her magazine.

    “How will you travel? By muggle ship again?” Dad wasn’t asking where they were going, of course. What he didn’t know others couldn’t make him say.

    Ron shook his head as he cast a few spells to check the sphere. Just in case. “Chartered muggle jet.”

    “Oh…” Dad smiled. “I wish I could come along.”

    “Mum would curse you.”

    “She’ll warm up to aeroplanes. Eventually.”

    Ron nodded, but he doubted that. His mum hadn’t changed her opinion on muggle planes being death traps as long as he could remember. Dad blamed his decision to take her to watch ‘Airplane’ in 1980 for that. Ron thought all the muggle reports about plane crashes were to blame. “Once all this is sorted out, we can take you for a flight.”

    “That would be wonderful!”

    Ron nodded. “Well, I’ll tell Harry and Hermione that the sphere’s finished.”

    “When will you depart?”

    “Probably today,” Ron replied.

    “Then you should tell your mother as well, son.”

    Ron winced. He hated seeing his mum cry. And she would.

    *****​

    Virgin Islands, Beef Island, Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, December 12th, 2001

    “Do you see anyone?” Ron Weasley asked in a whisper as he watched Mr and Mrs Smith leave the Gulfstream Harry had chartered. They walked a little unsteadily, but the muggle authorities should blame the long flight for that, not the fact that the couple had been obliviated and didn’t remember any other passengers on the plane.

    “No one in range of my spell,” Harry whispered back.

    “I don’t smell anyone either,” Ari added. “Only the stupid perfume of Mrs Smith.”

    “Then it should be safe to leave the plane,” Harry said. “Not that it’s likely that anyone would suspect anything.”

    Ron certainly hoped that no one would - they had gone to a lot of trouble to arrange this trip to avoid any suspicion. Done a lot of questionable things, too - obliviating the Smiths, the crew of the jet, several customs officers… At least the Smiths had already been booked on a trip to the Virgin Islands, so they were better off all round, even if they thought they had won an upgrade in a contest, and the crew had been hired for this trip. Still, even Hermione agreed that the details of this trip would be best kept private.

    “If we wait any longer,” Mallory added in a cranky voice, “then we risk the plane taking off again for the flight back to England.”

    “It would need to refuel first,” Hermione corrected him. “But, yes, we should move. We would be at a disadvantage if we were attacked inside the plane.”

    “Yes,” Harry said. “Let’s sneak out of here. We need to get to the rental agency on Tortola and get our yacht.”

    And then sail the two hundred miles or so to Atlantis, hoping that the Storm Wizards hadn’t beaten them to it. Before diving to depths no wizard had reached so far.

    Reaching the Virgin Islands without anyone noticing had been the easy part.

    *****​

    Virgin Islands, Tortola, Road Town, December 12th, 2001

    “This Horizon 70 yacht is a dream come true! Brand new - less than two years old - and state of the art. A true luxury yacht, with the sleek lines of a Mediterranean yacht but rated for the high seas, it is perfect for the Caribbean Sea! Two engines, a thousand horsepower each, guarantee that you won’t ever be left drifting even if one of them breaks down - which they won’t! And the interior!”

    Hermione Granger had to force herself to keep smiling as the manager from the bareboat charter company continued to prattle, heaping praises on a ship they had already agreed to charter even before they had left Britain.

    “Very nice! How does she handle at top speed?” And Harry was playing along!

    “Oh, like a dream, Mr Brown! Really easy - cruise at twelve knots to save fuel, but if you just want to get to port before rough weather reaches you, twenty-five knots will see you there!” The man turned to flash golden teeth at her. “And have you seen the galley, Mrs Brown? It’s fit for a high-class restaurant! The freezer will hold enough food for your entire cruise!”

    Hermione wanted to curse the man. Dazzle Harry with the engine specifications, but tell her about the galley, would he? She bared her teeth a little. “I’m not much of a cook,” she told him. “I’m more interested in the navigation system.”

    The man didn’t even blink or stop smiling as he started to tell her everything about the yacht’s navigation system. She knew most of it already, of course - as if she would agree to charter a boat without ensuring that her navigation systems were sufficiently precise for their needs - but it was always good to check the promised goods in such a deal. She would rather not waste days diving at the wrong spot - not that the location ‘Opha’ had given them was very precise to begin with, of course. But compounding that with imprecise navigation would only make things worse.

    But it seemed as if the manager wasn’t trying to con them, she realised as she went over the navigation system with him. Everything was working as it should, especially the GPS. “Thank you, Mr Hill,” she said once they were done. “Everything seems to be in order.”

    “Of course!” he added with a faked expression of wounded pride.

    “So I’m sorry about this,” she added, drawing her wand. “Obliviate.”

    It wouldn’t do to have the man spread gossip about her interest in the navigation system. Much better, she thought as she altered his memories, to have him talk about a trophy wife of a boring banker, both hardly able to tell starboard from port, obviously having bought their licence, but too stupid to hire a professional skipper. That would, or so she hoped, also explain why a couple would charter a yacht with far more cabins than they needed.

    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, East of Puerto Rico, December 13th, 2001

    Harry Potter, standing at the helm of the ‘Belle Epoque’, suppressed a sigh when he heard steps behind him. With Ron and Ari sunning themselves on the deck in front of him, and Hermione fiddling with the anchors at the bow - she was working on spelling them to work without having to actually touch the seabed - it could only be Mallory. Ghosts didn’t make a sound even when they pretended to walk instead of float.

    “Something the matter, Mr Mallory?” he asked, without taking his eyes off the sea ahead of the yacht.

    “Ah, I’m merely curious how this ship works.”

    “Hermione could explain it better than I could.”

    “She’s busy,” Mallory replied.

    Harry could see that of course. Ah, well… “It’s easy,” he said. “This is the helm, and this controls the speed.”

    “Like a car?”

    Mallory was a muggleborn, Harry reminded himself, even if he didn’t act like it too often. “Not quite the same, but similar.” He wasn’t about to go into detail about turning circles and braking distance. “It’s meant for tourists, after all. Not professional sailors.” Which wasn’t exactly true, but conveyed the truth well enough.

    “I see.”

    Harry doubted that. “Do you want to take the helm and try it out?”

    “Ah… I think I better stick to being a passenger.” Mallory looked at the sea for a moment. “How much longer until we arrive?”

    “We’re taking a circumspect route,” Harry told him. “In case we’re being followed. We haven’t spotted anyone, yet, but it’s easy to follow us from a distance.” They couldn’t exactly hide on the open sea. And the Human-presence-revealing Charm’s range was far from good. Hermione had sent out a number of disillusioned bats, and Ari had been sniffing the air whenever the wind changed, but neither had detected anyone or anything. “A squall would be best to lose a potential pursuer, but…” He gestured at the shining blue sea and clear sky. “So we’re playing muggle tourists.” And hoping that they weren’t being chased.

    “Couldn’t you disillusion the yacht?”

    “It’s too big for that.” They had already discussed that a day ago. Of course, Dumbledore would probably be able to do it despite the yacht’s size. “We could change the ship’s appearance somewhat, with a Colour Change Charm, but that won’t fool anyone smart enough to find us. Our best bet is to disguise ourselves.” Which they had done with hats, wigs and sunglasses.

    “We might be able to change the lines as well. People used to do that with fake funnels.”

    “Well, these types of ships don’t have big funnels any more,” Harry pointed out. “I guess we could add some fake superstructure, but that might draw attention from muggles who know this class of yacht.”

    “I dislike trusting our fate to the assumption that we succeeded in fooling our enemies.”

    Mallory wasn’t the only one. But Harry wasn’t about to admit that.

    Sometimes, you had no choice and had to deal with the curse in place under less than ideal conditions. Besides, they had put up a few protections on the yacht already. At the very least, they should have enough warning to be ready for a fight.

    Or to flee, of course.

    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, North of Puerto Rico, December 14th, 2001

    “Alright… we’re on the spot that corresponds to the location ‘Ophas’ showed us on the map,” Hermione announced, “and the enchanted anchors are holding us in place.”

    Ron Weasley nodded. “The sphere’s ready,” he said. “I’ve double-checked the spells. A test drive wouldn’t hurt, of course.” With an emergency Portkey to Tortola, in case the muggle device turned out to be unable to withstand the pressure. Dad did good work, but this was the first deep-submergence vehicle he had enchanted, and he might have missed something crucial. He flicked his wand and levitated the sphere over the side of the yacht, gently lowering it into the sea. As designed, it stayed afloat, and a quick Sticking Charm kept it fixed to the yacht’s hull.

    “We’ll dive slowly; that should be enough to test the vessel,” Hermione told him.

    “Alright! Let’s raise the scuba flag and get ready to go where no wizard has gone before!” Harry said with a wide grin on his face.

    Hermione was already climbing over the railing. A moment later, she stood on top of the sphere, checking the spells.

    Ron refrained from commenting that his dad didn’t do shoddy work - a good Curse-Breaker double- and triple-checked everything before trusting it.

    “Flag’s up!” Harry announced.

    Ari leaned on the railing and watched Hermione open the hatch. Ron joined her.

    “Shouldn’t someone remain on the yacht?” Mallory asked.

    “That’s what the flag is for. Anyone approaching us will know to keep their distance,” Harry replied.

    “They might still approach and think we’ve abandoned the ship,” Mallory retorted.

    “Well, you can stay on the yacht,” Ari said, “if you’re worried about that. It’s just a rental, and we’ve got everything we need for the expedition stowed aboard the sphere.”

    Mallory pressed his lips together in a deep frown. Of course, he wouldn’t stay back. Not after being basically told that they could stay underwater until they found Atlantis. “I won’t miss this,” he said.

    Ron grinned and gestured at the sphere.

    “Everything looks fine,” he heard Hermione’s voice through the hatch as Ari climbed over the railing and then through the hatch. Mallory was next, almost losing his balance when he stood on the sphere, but the older wizard managed to avoid falling into the sea.

    “Didn’t forget anything on board?” Ron asked Harry as his friend joined him at the railing.

    “We took everything,” Harry said. He suddenly chuckled. “I just thought of something: If the yacht does get found by muggles, they’ll have another mystery on their hands, and the legend of the Bermuda Triangle will grow,” he explained.

    Ron had to admit that was funny. A little. Hermione wouldn’t think so, of course. “After you,” he said. Once Harry had climbed down and had gone through the hatch, he followed him and dispelled the Sticking Charm. The sphere started to drift away from the yacht at once, and he hastily climbed down the hatch.

    Inside, several Extension Charms ensured that the originally tiny space could hold several bedrooms, lots of storage rooms, a galley and a bridge fit for a battleship. Or a spaceship. Although the thick window that allowed them to look out was unchanged, which meant the helmsman had to be right in front of it. Or helmswoman, in this case - Hermione was at the helm. But there were comfortable seats arranged in a semi-circle behind her. Ron picked the one next to Ari’s. The one further away from Mallory's.

    “Sphere unstuck, hatch closed and locked,” he reported. Hermione was aware of that already, but it felt like the right thing to say.

    “Dive!” Harry, sitting right behind Hermione, said with a wide grin. “Go down to three hundred feet and hold!”

    “We’re not in a submarine,” Hermione said with a glance over her shoulder. But the sphere tilted slightly and started to move. Ron could see the hull of the yacht disappear from view almost at once as they dived deeper.

    A minute into the dive, Hermione flicked her wand, casting a detection spell. “No sign of a leak or undue stress on the hull. Everything’s working as it should.”

    Ron checked himself, of course, then confirmed her report.

    “Good,” Harry said. “Let’s go down to the seabed! Atlantis is waiting!”

    *****​

    Hermione had told them about the ‘eternal darkness’ under the sea, and he had watched a number of videos covering such expeditions, but Ron Weasley found that the reality was quite different. Even in the extended interior of the sphere, enough room for ten times their number, he felt a little claustrophobic. The knowledge that the water pressure outside would squash the sphere like a troll stomping on an empty can should the steel fail wasn’t very reassuring. Not at all. How did the others stand it? Apart from the two ghosts, of course - no amount of water pressure would affect them.

    He glanced around. Mallory was pale and sweating, and Ron was certain it wasn’t caused by the blood curse on the man. Hermione was focused on piloting the sphere, and Harry… well, Harry looked a little nervous, at least. But did he fear a ‘sudden and complete structural failure’, as Hermione had called it, or that they were too late and someone else had found Atlantis already? Or that the Storm Wizards had captured the others?

    He felt Ari’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. How did she stand it? She had no experience with muggle devices. Or submarines.

    “Relax,” she told him in a whisper. “You checked the spells yourself, didn’t you?”

    “Doesn’t mean nothing can go wrong,” he replied in a low voice.

    “So far things have worked.” She frowned. “Well, without enemies sabotaging us. And we didn’t let anyone at the sphere.”

    That was true. Not even Mallory had been left alone with the vessel. Still… five miles under the sea? Who knew what monsters lived here? So far, all they had spotted were some fishes attracted by the light spells the sphere used. But a few of them had been very big.

    She squeezed harder. “I said relax!”

    “Sorry.” He grinned at her.

    “Besides, we’re making history!” Hermione cut in. “No wizard has ever reached such depths.”

    “I can see the headlines in the Prophet already,” Harry added: “Potter reaches new low!”

    It wasn’t that funny - not really, given their current situation - but everyone, even Mallory laughed at Harry’s joke.

    Two hours later, they reached the trench - well, the sides of it. “It seems my navigation was a little off,” Hermione, who had been replaced by Harry at the helm, said as they stared at the sloped ground in the cone of light projected from the vessel. “I had hoped to reach the top of the slopes, but we must have drifted off-course.”

    “The slope’s too steep for Atlantis to be on it,” Mallory pointed out. “It will be on the bottom.”

    “That does not have to be the case,” Hermione retorted. “Since the muggles didn’t find any structures on the seafloor, some spell or other form of protection must still be active.”

    “It has probably been covered in mud and silt in the millennia since its sinking,” the older wizard replied.

    “That shouldn’t be able to completely hide it,” Hermione pointed out. She sounded a little optimistic in Ron’s opinion - of course, they knew that spells could last that long; they had found older tombs with active curses in Egypt. “A spell would be ideal, of course - we could find its traces more easily than we can find anything buried in mud.” She looked at Ophas, who hadn’t said anything since they started the dive, as Mr Sayadi translated.

    The Atlantean ghost said something, which Mr Sayadi translated. “He said that Atlantis didn’t hide. The Empire had no need to hide.”

    “And yet, no one knew where it was located,” Harry said.

    “He says that the barbarians were not able to sail the oceans, and so never reached the island.”

    “Or were killed when they did,” Ari said. “As my tribe was ordered to protect the ruins,”

    “Either way, our search begins now in earnest,” Hermione said.

    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench, December 16th, 2001

    Archaeology meant long days of sifting through sand and dirt, looking for tiny shards and other relics - tedious and often unrewarding. Hermione Granger remembered Petunia telling her that in the summer before her second year at Hogwarts. Of course, that was muggle archaeology, not tomb raiding, which was far more exciting. And far more dangerous.

    Though slowly moving over the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, sifting through silt, mud, sand and microalgae, felt very tedious. She sighed as she cast another spell, conjuring several deep-sea soles and flounders outside the sphere. She stifled a yawn when she sent them away to search for artificial-looking structures - it was late at night. Most of the others were already asleep. Not counting the two ghosts, of course, which were out looking for Atlantis. A quick focus on the guiding charms on the sphere kept it slowly drifting over the seabed.

    There were muggle ways to search for structures buried in the earth, seismic stratigraphic profiling for example, but the underwater listening posts of the US Navy would probably notice the sound waves needed for that, and the last thing the group needed was being accused of endangering the Statute of Secrecy. Compared to that, using Fiendfyre on the Sultan’s palace was nothing.

    So she was reduced to hoping she spotted some active spells within the very short range of her detection spells, that the fish would notice a structure or - which was the most likely - that the ghosts would find ruins buried in the mud and silt.

    She greatly disliked being so dependent on others. Especially since while Mr Sayadi’s ghost was dependable, she didn’t trust ‘Ophas’ at all. But she had no choice - creating a magical version of seismic stratigraphic profiling would take months, if she managed it at all - she was a Curse-Breaker, not a dedicated Spellcrafter. And they didn’t have months. Even if they could, in theory, stay here for months with the spells and supplies in the sphere.

    Sighing, she leaned back in her seat, watching the dark sea outside the window, and hoped that they got a lucky break soon.

    They were certainly due one.

    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench, December 18th, 2001

    “I feel like Captain Nemo,” Harry said as he dropped into the seat next to Hermione Granger’s. “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea. Or something.”

    “We haven’t actually travelled that far,” she corrected him.

    “Certainly feels like it.”

    “We’re moving much too slow to have travelled so far.” Twenty thousand leagues would have taken them a few times around the world. More or less. “And that can’t be helped.” Between their spells and the ghosts, they couldn’t cover a lot of ground.

    He sighed again, then glanced over his shoulder.

    “Mr Mallory is brewing a potion, and Ron and Ari are resting,” she told him. Well, not exactly resting, but close enough.

    “Do you think we should have prepared better for the expedition?” he asked.

    “We agreed that time was of the essence.” She pressed her lips together, then forced herself to relax again.

    “That was before we started to comb the seabed.”

    “It was always evident that we couldn’t count on a quick discovery.” Count on, no. Hope for? Yes.

    “Someone must have found the yacht by now,” he went on.

    “We don’t need her any more,” she retorted. “And the lines to the spelled anchors will likely be cut once they realise that they can’t get them loose.”

    “One more mystery for the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.”

    “You’ve made that joke already. Several times, actually.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

    “Sorry.” He sighed once more. “I’m just getting a little stir-crazy here.” He pointed ahead. “In hindsight, having only one window wasn’t a good idea.”

    “I don’t think more windows offering the same view of mud, silt and the occasional deep-sea fish would change anything for the better,” she said. Quite the contrary, actually - without windows, one could pretend one wasn’t miles under the sea, but in a wizarding tent on a shore somewhere.

    “Probably.” He shrugged. “Are the ghosts out searching?”

    “Yes.” As usual. “As are schools of flounders.”

    “Flounders floundering around.” He chuckled.

    “Your jokes certainly match our current position - they can hardly sink any lower,” she snapped. She saw him wince and bit her lip. “Sorry.”

    He nodded.

    “I guess I’m just a little stressed myself,” she admitted with a forced smile. “Sorry.”

    “Well, I can think of…” He trailed off, staring past her at the darkness outside.

    “What?”

    “Something moved. Something bigger than the usual bottom-feeders.”

    She couldn’t see anything. That didn’t mean there wasn’t anything, of course - Harry was a great Seeker; he had a talent for spotting things at a distance. On the other hand, they had spent days down here, and it would only be understandable if one started to... Something had moved. Something big. And long. “Probably a giant oarfish,” she said. “They’re plankton-eaters and fragile. Harmless.”

    The giant tentacle reaching for them out of the darkness beyond the range of their light spells looked anything but harmless.

    *****​

    Harry Potter swore and grabbed Hermione a moment before the tentacle slammed into the sphere and sent the whole vessel tumbling through the water. He didn’t quite manage to cast a Sticking Charm in time, though, and so could only try to hold on to her as they tumbled through the bridge, into one of the seats, then into the wall.

    He did manage to stick them to the wall, though, despite the pain in his side where he had hit the steel wall, and focused on the guiding charms of the sphere - they had to get away before the tentacle caught them. If they survived this, he would have to apologise to Arthur - harpoons would have been very handy right now.

    Up. Up. Up.

    “Sideways. We’re going sideways!” Hermione yelled.

    “What’s going on?”

    That was Ron.

    “Giant squid attack!” Harry yelled as he focused again. Right. Right. Right.

    This time, the sphere started to rise - but before they could get clear, they were struck again and plunged into the ocean floor. Ron yelled again, followed by a roar as a bed with a jaguar on it flew out of their door and crashed into the row of seats in front of the window.

    Left. Left. Left.

    Nothing happened - no, they were moving. But towards the origin of the tentacle. And here came another one, wrapping itself around them.

    “Compared to the water pressure, whatever force those tentacles can exert should be negligible,” Hermione said. But she sounded as if she needed to be convinced herself.

    And was that creaking sound coming from the sphere? Or something inside? Harry reached for his emergency Portkey.

    “Reparo!” Ron was casting Mending Charms. “Merlin’s balls!” he cursed.

    “Dear Lord!” Hermione gasped.

    Back. Back. Back! Harry clenched his teeth as the light spells - one almost blocked by a tentacle - revealed the body of a giant squid dwarfing the one in the Black Lake. And its beak, ready to crack the sphere - or swallow them whole. And the Propulsion Charms weren’t strong enough to break the tentacle’s grip.

    He flicked his wand forward and conjured a boulder in front of the gaping maw. “Stuff it!” he yelled, following up with another, this time straight inside the maw.

    More boulders appeared, followed by a wall sealing the mouth - only to get crushed when the squid bit down. And then the tentacles shook them around, the remains of Ron and Ari’s bed narrowly missing Harry as they smashed against the wall once again. Ron went flying, but crashed against a seat and managed to hold on.

    And when the sphere stopped moving, they weren’t facing the beak anymore - but were still being pulled towards it. This was it - they had to use the Portkey!

    “Potassium! Conjure potassium near the tentacle!” Hermione yelled, swishing her wand. As if Harry would know how to conjure potassium!

    But she did. Flashes went off at the tentacle, and what looked like steam. Then an explosion shook the sphere, and the tentacle recoiled.

    Up! Up! Up! Harry thought, gripping his wand. And the sphere shot up.

    “Reparo! Reparo!” Ari and Ron were now at it.

    “Turn us around!” Hermione yelled. “We’ll need to get rid of that monster!”

    “Reparo!”

    Turn. Back. Back. Back. The sphere swung around, backing away from the squid - who gave chase. Once more, tentacles lashed out. Two… three… four.

    Harry gasped and accelerated. And more explosions lit up the water between them and the monster.

    “Hermione! Conjure the stuff inside a metal box!” Ron yelled.

    A moment later, a sphere appeared outside, quickly followed by another, larger, around it. Tentacles gripped it, crushing the outer hull and dragging it back.

    Harry kept backing away.

    “If I calculated correctly…” he heard Hermione mumble.

    Then a bright light appeared in the darkness below them, right before a shockwave hit them and sent them tumbling through the water again.

    “Reparo!”

    “Reparo!”

    “Reparo!”

    Panting, Harry managed to stabilise the sphere again.

    “What the hell…” Ron muttered.

    “Stupid squid,” Ari added.

    “That was… not a natural animal,” Hermione said. “It was too large. It had to be a magical one.” Harry looked at her. She was pale and shivering.

    That had been close. Too close. But the others looked… He blinked. “What about Mallory?”

    Ron moved to the door to the man’s quarters. “Mr Mallory?” He knocked on the door, then tried to open it. “Locked.” He knocked again and yelled: “Mr Mallory?”

    Harry swore under his breath. He dispelled the Sticking Charm, wincing at the pain in his side when he dropped to the ground.

    “Harry!”

    “I’m OK,” he told Hermione. “We need to check on Mallory.”

    Dealing with a Locking Charm was child’s play for a Curse-Breaker - Ron flicked his wand, then pushed the door open. But he recoiled immediately. “Bubble-Head Charm! Bloody stench!”

    Harry cast one at once, then another on the retching Ari as he moved to join Ron, who was kneeling next to the prone form of Mallory.

    “Must have been surprised while he was brewing,” Ron said as he moved his wand over the older wizard. “Broken leg, broken arm, concussion I think. And lots of bruises.”

    “And stinks!” Ari added, still retching, from the door.

    Harry looked around. Upturned cauldron… smashed bottles and vials and boxes. Lots of blood on the floor and animal parts. No wonder Mallory never wanted anyone watching when he brewed - this looked like quite a questionable recipe.

    “Let’s get him out,” he said. “Before something here poisons him or us.”

    They floated the unconscious wizard out and closed - and sealed - the door.

    “No sign of the giant squid,” Hermione told them. “I took us up a little further. Just in case.”

    The squid could likely swim faster than their vessel if it were still alive. But a little more distance wouldn’t hurt. “We need to treat his wounds,” Harry said. “Wake him up and get him some potions.”

    “He stinks!” Ari snarled.

    “Well, he’s soaked with the remains of his potion,” Ron commented. “Scourgify!”

    They woke the man up, fed him several potions, then let him sleep while his bones were mended by Skele-Gro. Well, rest - Harry knew from experience that you didn’t sleep well after drinking that potion due to the painful sensation it caused while working. Auntie always said that that was by design, so people learned to avoid breaking their bones.

    But while Mallory rested, they had to clean up and repair the rest of the ship and its furniture, which took a little while.

    “We need to go back,” Hermione said. “The ghosts might not find us otherwise.”

    “Stupid ghosts could have warned us of the squid!” Ari hissed.

    She was right, Harry thought. “They were close - they should have noticed the creature.” The ghosts didn’t stray too far from the vessel.

    Hermione frowned. “You’re right. And the squid wouldn’t have been able to hurt them.”

    “And Mr Sayadi, at least, wouldn’t have left us to the squid,” Ron added.

    “So… why didn’t they warn us?” Hermione bit her lower lip.

    Harry knew what she meant. “Because they might have discovered something that held their attention?”

    Hermione nodded with a growing smile. “We need to go back.”

    “Cautiously, though,” Ron added. “If that monster’s still alive…”

    Harry winced at the thought. “We haven’t seen anything of it since we fled.”

    They saw a lot of it once they returned to the bottom of the trench: Chunks of tentacles and body parts were floating around. One giant eye seemed to glare at them as it drifted past.

    “That was some explosion,” Ron commented. “What is potassium?”

    “A metal which reacts violently with water,” she explained.

    “Need to teach me to conjure that,” he said.

    “After this expedition;” she replied. “We should…” she trailed off as the sphere jerked. “Harry?”

    He checked the charms. “Something’s pulling us forward.”

    Back. Back. Back.

    They slowed down. But they were still moving forward. And whatever it was, it wasn’t a current.

    “It’s a spell!” Hermione blurted. “We’re caught in a spell!”

    “Can you dispel it?” Harry asked, trying to make the vessel stop.

    “It’s complex,” she answered. “I don’t know its pattern but… it looks Atlantean.”

    Harry reached for the emergency Portkey once more. If this was a trap… and what else could it be? But they were moving slowly - traps were usually quick.

    “There are bones on the floor!” Ron exclaimed. “Lots of bones!”

    “Whales?” Hermione asked.

    “Probably. I’m no expert,” he replied.

    “That would explain the squid’s presence. If dead whales and other creatures ended up here, it might have made hunting for food less efficient than simply waiting,” she speculated. “But…”

    The sphere jerked again, softly, though. And through the window, Harry could see light. And structures - stone walls. Covered with Atlantean runes.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2019
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  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 26: Atlantis
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 26: Atlantis

    ‘In the time before the wand was invented, magical creatures presented a significant danger to wizards and muggles alike. Many beasts were all but immune to muggle weapons, and wizards had to rely on staves, which were often hard to wield in a fight against a quick, deadly creature - especially one with an intellect to rival that of a human. That many creatures were not only able to fly but also had special abilities, such as the fiery breath of dragons, made things worse. Sometimes, a single magical creature was even able to terrorise an entire area, and many wizards and even a few muggles became legendary heroes by defeating such infamous monsters. Trolls and giants ruled swathes of terrain, raiding the settlements of neighbouring countries almost with impunity.
    However, out of such adversity were great deeds born. The advanced ancient civilisations proved their mettle by driving away such monsters using both muggle armies and wizardly power - and, sometimes, clever alliances with other creatures. But mostly with magic. The first Chimaera was created to battle a particularly nasty Gorgon in Greece. One Egyptian court wizard managed to trick a sphinx into clearing an entire valley of Sandwalkers. Mermaids were persuaded to deal with kraken. And staves allowed wizards to stand their ground when battling many other monsters.
    But it wasn’t until the Roman invention of wands that the power of magical creatures was finally broken, and civilisation spread to cover the land as monsters were driven away or killed and other beasts were tamed. Even the dragons, the most powerful creatures ever to roam the skies, were forced to lair in the shrinking wildernesses until preserves were formed in the medieval age to save them from extinction.
    As magic advanced, few true monsters remained. The Nundu is just about the only such creature left, and now that sub-Saharan Africa has fallen under the control of the International Confederation of Wizards, the days on earth of these plagues are numbered as well.
    Without any wishful thinking, one may assume that in a few decades, there won’t be any areas left where monsters can roam with impunity. From the farthest corners of the land to the widest oceans and the highest skies, civilisation has tamed the Earth. The days when travellers had to be wary of wandering sphinxes and ships had to fear giant squids have long passed into myth and legend.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Myths and Monsters - a History of Civilisation’ by Paul Rosier, London, 1874


    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench,
    December 18th, 2001

    “Atlantean runes,” Harry Potter heard Hermione whisper. “And there’s light above us. Dear Lord… this must be…”

    “Atlantis,” Harry finished for her as he started to guide the sphere up. If they had found the legendary lost island… He forced himself to stay calm. It wouldn’t do to prematurely celebrate.

    “Runes to control water,” Ari added.

    A few moments later, they surfaced in what looked like an ancient port - the walls were breakwaters, Harry realised. And there were several buildings. But… “Air? An air bubble?” There was a stone ceiling above them, as if they were in a giant underground cavern.

    “The pressure from the water would compress…” Hermione shook her head. “The pressure outside would have to equal the pressure under water. The air would have to be so thick, you couldn’t breathe it. Your lungs couldn’t force the air out again. Time for a canary.”

    “Canary?” Ari asked.

    A moment later, Hermione conjured a yellow bird outside the sphere’s window - and it flew away.

    “If their air pressure were equal to the water pressure at the depth we were, the canary would have been squashed flatter than a Knut,” Hermione said. “It looks like the air pressure outside is about normal for the surface.”

    “Does that mean we have been translocated to the surface, or that magic’s keeping the water from crushing everything?” Ron asked.

    It was a good question. Harry didn’t know which answer would be more disturbing. “It wasn’t a Portkey or Apparition.” And, obviously, not Floo travel.

    “Perhaps a variant of a Vanishing Cabinet - just far larger,” Hermione said. “And selective, or water would be constantly being transported to this place. So it could be a magically protected cavern on the bottom of the sea or a magically hidden enclave on the surface. Both are possible.”

    “If there’s air, light and normal pressure… could there be Atlantean survivors?” Ron asked, rather hesitantly.

    “It’s theoretically possible,” Hermione answered. “But they would have had to farm with magical light. And if they survived for this long, why didn’t they resume contact with the rest of the world?”

    “And why would they put the entrance to their enclave at the bottom of the ocean?” Harry asked. “Also, there aren’t any ships in the port,” he added. All he could see were a few fishing boats moored to the pier ahead of them. But it was an enclave. An intact - mostly - Atlantean enclave. Right where they had expected to find the ruins of the island. They had done it!

    “It probably wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean when they created it,” Hermione said.

    And if they never changed it… Had their ships sailed out, expecting to appear on the surface, but ending up crushed to paste miles beneath the sea? Harry suppressed a shudder at the thought.

    They reached the pier, and Harry brought the sphere to a halt next to it. Close enough to easily step on to land - if they risked opening the hatch.

    “I don’t see anyone,” Ron said. “The port looks empty. If there are Atlanteans around, they should have noticed us by now.”

    “If the port’s… portal… leads to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, the port might have been abandoned,” Hermione replied.

    Harry shook his head. They could speculate all day in here without getting anywhere. They were Curse-Breakers, not some… Ministry clerks. He cleared his throat. “Do we open the hatch and go outside?”

    “We need to run a few tests first,” Hermione said.

    “The canary lived,” Harry pointed out. “That means the pressure is normal and the air isn’t poisonous.” Miners used canaries to test the air, didn’t they?

    “That the canary didn’t die right away doesn’t mean the air is safe,” Hermione replied. “There could be dangerous spores or viruses present.”

    He acknowledged the point with a nod. They hadn’t found anything like that in the outposts they had discovered, and they had potions, spells and bezoars to deal with them, but it was always better to spot traps in advance rather than when they had already been sprung.

    Hermione conjured a few more canaries and then cast a series of detection spells. She was focusing on the birds, so Harry cast a Human-presence-revealing Spell himself - just in case. And a detection spell to check for curses and other dangers. Although that spell would barely cover the closest part of the pier.

    “I’ll conjure a few fishes to check the water,” Ron added. “They’ll also serve as bait.”

    Harry was tempted to conjure a few snakes - they would make marvellous scouts - but with the hatch closed, he wouldn’t be able to give them orders or hear their reports. And if there were dangers… it wouldn’t be nice to sacrifice snakes, even conjured ones, for no good reason.

    “This place looks safe,” Ari said, squinting. “Like the ruins at home.”

    Those hadn’t been particularly safe, in Harry’s opinion, but this wasn’t the time to argue.

    “The canaries seem healthy,” Hermione announced after several minutes. “I can’t detect any sickness or poison in them.”

    “All my fish are still around,” Ron added.

    “And I’ve not noticed any curses in the vicinity,” Harry reported. “So… do we open the hatch and explore?”

    Hermione, Ron and Ari nodded. Harry hadn’t expected any other answer, of course - they were Curse-Breakers, and this was the most important, most famous ruin any Curse-Breaker had ever discovered. If this was Atlantis, of course. ‘Ophas’ could have lied to them. On the other hand, how plausible was it that an outpost had sunk to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea as well as Atlantis?

    He shook his head. They would soon know the truth. But first… “How’s Mallory doing?”

    “Still asleep,” Ari said.

    The older wizard had to be more exhausted than they had thought if he hadn’t woken up yet. On the other hand, they had cast a few spells to dampen the sound around him.

    “Should I wake him up?” she asked, cocking her head.

    “No,” Harry replied. “Let him rest a little longer. We can wake him once we know outside is safe.” Mallory wasn’t in any shape to deal with traps or enemies. And Harry wasn’t in the mood to waste time telling the man that.

    After casting a Bubble-Head Charm - and another on Mallory - he walked to the hatch, climbed the ladder and took a deep breath. “Here we go,” he said and opened it.

    The thick metal plate, propelled by a spell, swung open smoothly, and Harry stuck his head out. They were indeed inside a massive cavern - bigger than it had looked through the sphere’s window. He climbed out and stood on the sphere’s hull, then jumped the yard-wide gap to the pier. Hermione, Ron and Ari followed.

    For the first time in millennia - presumably - people stood on Atlantean soil. Harry was tempted to make a snarky comment, but controlled himself. They had done it. He reached out and pulled Hermione close, hugging her for a moment. They had done it!

    “They must have enchanted the ceiling,” Hermione said after they had separated again, craning her neck as she stared upwards, “similar to the Great Hall in Hogwarts. The sun’s position matches the position it should be at on the surface, assuming our latitude and longitude haven't changed,” she added after a glance at her watch.

    Harry studied the buildings. They looked far more like manors than houses. And the biggest building was a huge temple. This wasn’t an outpost guarding the frontier. This was a palace district.

    Hermione had noticed that as well, of course. “Perhaps they used a similar system to the Minoan palace economy, although none of the texts we translated mentioned anything like that…”

    “There aren’t any fields,” Ron said. “Just buildings and the piers.”

    “There could be similar… portals… to other areas,” Hermione pointed out.

    “They’d have to be inside a building, then,” Ron replied. “I don’t see any gates in the cavern walls.”

    “Something’s moving!” Ari hissed.

    Harry followed her gaze. Yes, something was moving, barely visible in the fake noon sun. A figure… pale. He grabbed his Omnioculars and zoomed in. No, translucent. And it wasn’t alone, he realised. There were many such figures on the streets ahead.

    “Merlin’s balls,” he muttered. “There are dozens of ghosts walking the streets.”

    *****​

    “Ghosts. Dozens of them.” Ron Weasley stared. Ghosts were generally harmless. But so many in one place? What had happened to create so many ghosts?

    Dumb question. Atlantis had sunk beneath the ocean. And they had found it. They had done what generations of wizards and witches had failed to do. One of the biggest mysteries of the wizarding world was about to be solved - by them.

    “Are they ignoring us?” Ari sniffed. “They should have seen us.”

    The ghosts did seem to be ignoring them. Unless that was a distraction. Ron looked around, but he didn’t see a ghost - or anything else - trying to sneak up on them.

    “Let’s make contact,” Harry said and started to walk towards the first buildings.

    “So many Atlanteans…” Hermione said as she followed him. “The knowledge they could share with us!”

    But as they closed the distance, Ron could see that the ghosts were indeed ignoring them. A couple was walking out of the closest building, the woman pointing at the breakwater - straight past their group - and the man nodding and squinting.

    Another man seemed to be arguing with a woman over something.

    “They’re haggling over nothing,” Ari said. “Fishes.”

    There weren’t any fishes.

    “And the ship the other ghost is pointing at isn’t there either,” Hermione added. “They might be stuck doing what they did before they died.”

    Some ghosts were like that, or so Ginny and Luna had told Ron. Something went wrong with their creation, and instead of a full imprint of a wizard’s mind, they were more like a recording - a stuck recording; going through the same actions forever, unable to change or even realise what had happened to them.

    “That’s…” Hermione bit her lower lip, Ron saw. “Well, we can still discover a lot about Atlantis by observing them, I think.”

    “Although it won’t be as easy as asking them any question we want,” Harry said.

    “On the other hand,” Ron pointed out, “we won’t have to doubt their responses.”

    “That is a very good point,” Hermione said. “The information gained by observation is objective. Unbiased - apart from the inherent bias of the observer, of course.”

    Ari snorted. “You’d be stuck here for a long time, though.”

    “Not exactly stuck,” Harry said, patting his pocket. “We’ve got Portkeys back to the Virgin Islands. And there’s no charm on the cavern blocking those so we can make Portkeys for returning here as well.”

    Ron nodded. And until they told anyone else about the cavern, it would be a safe site. Of course, they would tell others - this was the discovery of the century. “We could even apparate here and back,” he said. Although he would rather not risk it. A mistake could see you dropped on to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench. Or splinched across the Caribbean. Between possible protections against Apparition - no one knew when exactly that form of magical travel had been discovered, but primitive forms of it were mentioned in several legends - and the distances involved, Ron would pick a Portkey every time.

    “One thing’s bugging me, though,” he said. “The buildings are all intact. No rubble. No damage.” And there were no skeletons around.

    He heard Harry swear under his breath as he caught on, and Hermione gasp a moment later.

    “You mean: How did all those people die and turn to ghosts?” Ari said.

    Ron nodded. “The cavern’s protections obviously held all the way to the bottom of the trench.”

    “In the cavern in Jamaica, they tried to get out, failed and died,” Harry said. “But there were no ghosts there. Only the one bound to the skull.”

    “And if the ghosts here are the result of another, similar ritual… bound to the place, instead of to a skull, but isolated in the same way from the real world…” Hermione trailed off, biting her lower lip again.

    Everyone looked at the massive temple in the centre of the cavern. If there had been a ritual done here, that was where it would have taken place.

    Ron didn’t think he’d like what they would find.

    *****​

    They walked past the first group of ghosts, and Hermione Granger noticed that they were wearing more elaborate clothes - most of them - than the dead they had found in the Jamaican cavern. These people hadn’t been farmers or performers of menial tasks. Coupled with the size of the houses and the temple, that might indicate that this was indeed a palace district - provided that the houses weren’t packed with families, of course. But it didn’t look like that was the case from the glimpses she caught on the way. And while the ghosts’ chatter tended to blend together into a dim cacophony of conversational noise, the lines she caught and could translate from the closest ghosts weren’t concerned with the daily life of a peasant either, but often involved what sounded like politics or administration. Or religion.

    They might not have found just a surviving part - with regards to the structures, at least - of Atlantis, but part of its ruling district, she thought. Oh, the knowledge to be gained here! If the archives had survived as well… History would have to be rewritten. Well, written - thus far, little was known about Atlantis’s history. But that would change. She and her friends would see to it!

    And their book would outsell Lockhart’s by an order of magnitude!

    They walked slowly. Carefully. For all the size of the cavern, this was a tomb. And tombs were dangerous. Only a fool, or someone desperate, would rush forward without checking for curses and traps.

    Her detection spell didn’t show any curses or other spells on the streets. Nor did they spot any traps. The houses, on the other hand, were covered with wards. Very strong wards - although that was to be expected, given their age. And quite advanced wards as well - for Atlantis, insofar as she could tell with her limited experience. Though all of them had been set with blood magic - that, she could tell. Had the Atlanteans sacrificed people to protect their homes? Slaves? Others had done so in the past, though never on such a scale - apart from the Aztec Blood-Priests, of course.

    She shivered at the thought and glanced at Ari. The other witch was frowning. “Do you smell blood curses?” Hermione asked. She still didn’t know how that worked. It couldn’t actually be a real smell - that required physical particles in the air. But perhaps a special sense…

    “No,” Ari replied. “But the ghosts are loud.”

    Ah.

    The streets and buildings were in remarkable shape, she noted. Covered with stone - Roman style, not cobblestones - and wide enough for two carts to pass each other, with room for people on foot. But were there sewers as well? There were drainage gutters in the streets, but those were shallow and wouldn’t be able to handle much, and she couldn’t see any holes leading underground...

    “Someone’s crying,” Ari interrupted her thoughts halfway to the central temple. “Sounds familiar…”

    “Ophas?” Harry asked.

    “Yes.”

    “Where is he?”

    Ari led them into a side alley - still wide enough for a cart with room for people on both sides - and then into a small yard. Ophas floated there, staring at a fountain in the centre. And he was indeed crying - tears streamed down his translucent cheeks, vanishing before they touched the ground.

    “Ophas?” Hermione asked.

    He didn’t react. Had something happened to him? No. There was no enchantment trapping ghosts that she could see. “Ophas?” she tried again.

    He shook his head and mumbled something in Atlantean. “Gat. Sara gat. Sara gat.”

    Gone. Everything gone. Everyone gone. Unless she was mistaken.

    “He says that everything and everyone is gone,” Ari confirmed her translation.

    “Desi marantat.”

    “He says that the Heart of the Empire died.”

    So her guess had been correct - this had been part of the capital of Atlantis. It wasn’t large enough to have been the capital, she thought. Perhaps the main temple of the Empire? Surrounded by quarters for the priests and clerks working in it? If they had been predominantly wizards and witches, then that would explain the number of ghosts as well - muggles wouldn’t have become ghosts. And she didn’t think Atlantis had been an empire populated entirely by wizards. If that had been the case, then it would certainly have been noticed and remarked upon by the ancient Greek and Egyptians.

    Still, to find the heart of an island nation in a cavern… although one with a magical port. It did fit. Especially if, as she suspected, Atlantis had been a volcanic island. People would have prayed to gods of the earth and the sea. Probably - they didn’t know much about the faith of the Atlanteans. They hadn’t asked Ophas about it since religion was often a dangerous subject; more so since Ophas was a ghost and already touchy about the fall of Atlantis. To ask him about his faith and the afterlife, telling him that even his people’s gods had been forgotten…

    “Have you seen Mr Sayadi’s ghost?” she asked. Well, more or less - Ari didn’t seem to see a need to translate, so it should be alright.

    “No.”

    Well, there was no need to translate that, either. Which meant Mr Sayadi’s ghost was still out there, in the trench. And now probably lost. Five miles up, and then he would be able to reorient himself; perhaps he could see the coast of Puerto Rico if he flew up high enough - she wasn’t entirely certain of their position after a few days under water.

    “‘The Heart of the Empire’?” Harry asked, translated by Ari.

    The ghost hesitated, then let out a snort that sounded more like a sob and started to speak.

    “Bhut bhav Desi. Bhut abhica samsodet. Bhut avan agni amb anil sametant raksyte bhojan satam. Bhut bhojan drara avrit. Bhut abhica visista viracit.”

    “He says it was here where the Empire was born. Where magic was discovered. Where earth, fire, water and air came together to shelter and nurture the people. And it was here where they paid back the gods for their gifts, and worked their most powerful magic,” Ari translated.

    “Raksyte adau bhur yajn. Raksyte ases abr avan agni amb anil.”

    “It was protected by the First Grand Sacrifice,” she went on. “Shielded against all danger, be it earth, fire, water or air.”

    And didn’t that sound ominous, knowing the Atlanteans’ use of blood magic.

    “The ‘first’? What about the second?” Harry leaned forward.

    “A madyhia.”

    “He says there was no second. Not while he lived.”

    Hermione was no expert, but even discounting the fact that you rarely named something ‘first’ if it had no successor, the ghost appeared a little evasive to her. But to press him now… No.

    “Let’s check the temple,” she said. They would find more answers there.

    *****​

    “Before we go on,” Harry Potter said, “we should check on Mallory.” The man had been resting - asleep - for a while now.

    “You want to wake him up?” Ron asked. “It’s been so nice without him.”

    “I know,” Harry said, ignoring Hermione glaring first at Ron, then at him, “but he’s bound to wake up sooner or later, and if he finds us all gone…”

    “He doesn’t know to use the sphere,” Ron said.

    “It would needlessly antagonise him,” Hermione cut in, “if he felt that we deliberately left him behind.”

    “You mean we didn’t?” Ron joked.

    That earned him another glare. “He himself said he needed rest. And he was exhausted. There’s no harm in ensuring we’re safe here before waking him.”

    “You wanted to proceed to the temple,” Harry pointed out.

    “I was caught up in the moment,” she said, flushing slightly. “We should go back and check on Mallory. See if he can join us.”

    She hadn’t said that they should wait until Mallory was able to join them if that wasn’t already the case, Harry noticed. He could live with that. “Let’s go back then,” he said and started walking back to the pier.

    Mallory was still asleep on the bed they had prepared for him when Harry entered the sphere. He looked better, though. So Harry dispelled the Noise-Dimming Charm on the other wizard and cleared his throat. “Mr Mallory? Mr Mallory?”

    The other wizard’s eyes shot open, and he sat up, hand groping for his wand. “What?”

    “Good, you’re awake,” Harry said. “We didn’t want to wake you before we were certain that it was safe.”

    Mallory’s head turned towards the window. “We’ve returned to the surface?”

    “Not exactly,” Harry said.

    Hermione joined them while Ron and Ari went to check something in their room. “While we haven’t yet confirmed it, it looks as if we’re still at the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench.”

    Mallory gasped. “But there’s light outside, and the hatch is open…”

    “Yes,” Harry said. “We’ve found Atlantis.”

    Mallory gaped at him. “It wasn’t destroyed? It still exists, under the sea? Like in that muggle movie?”

    Harry winced. “Well… not entirely like in the movie.” He didn’t know which movie Mallory was thinking of, but none of the movies Harry had watched had featured Atlantis as a literal ghost town.

    “The buildings are, as far as we can tell from our preliminary observations, completely intact,” Hermione cut in. “However, we haven’t seen a living soul - just ghosts, stuck in routines from their lives.”

    “Oh…”

    “But Ophas confirmed,” she went on, “that this is - or was - Atlantis’s ruling quarter. The Heart of the Empire, he called it.”

    “Oh my God!” Mallory was almost panting. “Their sanctum? The Imperial Palace?”

    “More like their main temple,” Harry said. “If we interpreted Ophas’s words correctly, this is where they discovered magic and held their rituals.”

    “My God!” Mallory repeated himself. “And it’s intact? Not just the buildings, but their scrolls as well?”

    “We haven’t actually checked that, yet,” Harry admitted. “We wanted to check on you before exploring further.” It wasn’t a lie, technically. He still felt guilty seeing the grateful smile that appeared on Mallory’s face.

    “Thank you! Thank you! To have missed this…” The older wizard shook his head, brushed what looked like tears from his cheek and stood up. “This is a dream come true!”

    Hermione, who looked as ashamed as Harry felt, spoke up: “Are you fit enough for this, Mr Mallory?”

    He laughed. “Nothing, not even death himself could stop me from setting foot on Atlantis!”

    Harry exchanged a pained look with Hermione as the older wizard scrambled out of the hatch.

    *****​

    Mallory spent a minute standing on the pier, staring and shaking his head. Ron Weasley felt a little guilty about not waking the man up before, but it was Mallory’s own fault for being so annoying during their expedition.

    He glanced at Ari, who was sneering. Of course, Mallory’s failure to brew his potion meant the blood curse’s ‘stench’ would be worse. Perhaps the older wizard would be better off spending the next few hours brewing his potion instead of exploring… Well, Ron thought so. But one glance at Mallory was enough to tell him that the man wouldn’t even consider that.

    To be fair, in his place, Ron wouldn’t miss this either. Curse or no curse. This was a moment for the history books. The first time since its sinking that someone set foot on Atlantis. They had made their name, now. Not just as Curse-Breakers and tomb raiders, either. Or as wanted wizards, Ron added to himself with a snort.

    His family would be proud.

    “Magnificent. And the cavern survived sinking to the bottom of the ocean.”

    “It is protected by what Ophas calls the ‘First Grand Sacrifice’,” Hermione explained. “We think it was a massive blood ritual that formed the spells which kept the cavern intact and the water out.”

    “Magic on that scale…” Mallory shook his head. “Not even the Aztecs managed such rituals. Though they tried.”

    “Filthy blood mages!” Ari growled, and for a moment, Ron thought she had changed.

    He saw Mallory flinch, and winced. He had read a lot about the Aztec Blood-Priests when they had been preparing for their expedition. No matter what you thought about the Conquistadores, pretty much every wizard or witch in the New World agreed that the Aztecs’ complete destruction at their hands had been a good thing. The sheer scale of sacrifices… if those had worked like the Atlanteans’, the Aztecs might be ruling the New World today.

    “Well, let’s go to the temple,” Harry said.

    “Yes, yes, let’s go!” Mallory said eagerly, then jumped - although without much grace - to the pier.

    They avoided Ophas and made their way to the temple in the centre of the cavern - it was on a small hill, Ron noticed, which looked artificial to him. It was too even.

    “There’ll probably be underground structures,” Harry said - he would have spotted the hill’s nature as well, of course.

    “Well, there are always underground structures,” Ron replied. “Catacombs would fit the epoch, wouldn’t they?” The Romans had had a lot of them.

    “We haven’t seen any Atlantean catacombs yet,” Hermione pointed out. “They might have used other burial practices.”

    “Or reserved catacombs for the wizards or nobility,” Harry added.

    “Which might have been one and the same in Atlantis,” Hermione said. “Given the high esteem they had for magic, and Ophas’s opinion of muggles.”

    “Right,” Ron agreed, remembering the ghost’s comments about ‘wizards hiding from mere muggles’.

    “Some Greek historians even claim that all Atlanteans had the magic gift,” Hermione went on, “That is theoretically possible, given that wizards and muggles tend to have children who are wizards themselves, but it would have been the first and only such country before the Statute of Secrecy was implemented. And in a time with far more primitive magic - especially in battles.”

    “My entire tribe is magical,” Ari pointed out.

    “Well, yes, but you’re special - you are jaguars, aren’t you?” Hermione replied. They had been created by the Atlanteans as a magical tribe of guards - and probably slaves as well.

    Ron could see that Ari hesitated a moment before she nodded in agreement. Hermione had been quite sceptical about the legends detailing the origin of Ari’s tribe. She probably still was, in Ron’s opinion. But this wasn’t the time to discuss that.

    He studied the temple. It was round, with a huge dome, which was bright red like the rest of the structure, topped by a golden rune, and there were no windows in the walls. That was a peculiar arrangement - different from the temple they had seen in the outpost in Jamaica. Although if this was the first temple of Atlantis, and protected by magic, it would stand to reason that they developed different styles as their Empire grew.

    “Very strong wards on the entire building,” Hermione said. “Although they don’t seem to deny us entry through the gates. Perhaps they had a policy which granted every Atlantean the right to enter the palace - they would have been able to prevent foreigners from entering the cavern itself, I think, if the port was the only way in.”

    “It didn’t stop us,” Harry pointed out.

    “No one was left alive to stop us, either,” she retorted.

    Ron shook his head. “We should check if anything or anyone is stopping us from entering the temple.” It went without saying that if there were such an obstacle, then they’d deal with it. They weren’t here to let the spells of wizards long dead stop them.

    “I concur,” Mallory said.

    “It doesn’t look like there’s a spell stopping us,” Hermione told them.

    “Nor does it look like there are traps at the entrance,” Harry added.

    Not active ones, at least - who would trap a settlement’s temple, anyway? People were supposed to enter and leave it.

    They approached the gates. Ron held his breath as they stepped over the wardline, a tingling feeling washing over his skin. Those were powerful protections.

    “It stinks!” Ari blurted out. “Like old, rotting blood!”

    “Real blood, or magic?” Hermione asked.

    “Both,” Ari answered.

    Ron sniffed the air. He couldn’t smell anything, but he didn’t have Ari’s nose. To smell blood millennia after it had been spilt as well as blood magic? She would make a hell of an Auror.

    And she was a hell of a tomb raider.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger watched as Harry walked towards the temple gates. The massive doors, twenty feet high, seemed to be made from polished bronze - an impressive feat, given their size, even taking magic into account. “There should be spells to open the doors,” she said. Theoretically, there could be a pulley system, but she didn’t think the Atlanteans would have used muggle technology in their main temple.

    “Right,” Harry replied. He flicked his wand, then stared at the gates. “I think I see the spells. Could be a little tricky.”

    “Why doesn’t he just force the doors open?” Mr Mallory asked. “It can’t be too hard.”

    She gasped at the man’s callowness. “We’re not going to behave like Schliemann and ruin the site by using brute force! We’re archaeologists, not grave robbers!” The ancient spells cast by the Atlanteans had to be preserved in order to be studied. Well, spells that weren’t a danger to archaeologists, at least.

    “Yes,” Harry chimed in even though he should have been focusing on the spells on the gates, “we’re not going to wreck the place. That would be a crime.”

    “A real crime,” Hermione agreed.

    “Unlike destroying some slaver’s palace,” Ari added with an emphatic nod. “Or killing a traitor.”

    That wasn’t what Hermione had meant! She glanced at Ari, then at Ron, but her friend just cleared his throat without commenting. Typical!

    “I apologise. I’m just a little impatient,” Mr Mallory said. “This is... “ He shook his head. “I didn’t expect this.”

    Well, she could understand the sentiment. This was the greatest, most important discovery in a hundred years or more. But an archaeologist needed to be patient as much as they had to be cautious and careful. Even shards from broken pottery could reveal much about history.

    And yet, waiting for Harry to deal with the gates was taking a toll on her patience as well. She was tempted to spend the time observing a couple of ghosts - but none were in the vicinity, and it would be foolish to split from the group. Just because they had yet to encounter anything dangerous - other than the wards - didn’t mean that the cavern was actually safe.

    And she wouldn’t let Harry tamper with the wards on the temple without watching his back, of course.

    Twenty minutes later, Harry suddenly sighed and straightened, rolling his shoulders. “Done!” he stated, then swished his wand. A moment later, the gates started to slowly open.

    And Ari recoiled. “Blood! Lots of blood!”

    “What?” Ron frowned, then grimaced. “Ugh.”

    Then Hermione smelled it, too. Blood, indeed. She quickly cast a Bubble-Head Charm, then glanced at Ari, who shook her head. As usual, Ari valued her sense of smell more than her comfort. Not a bad stance, to be honest - provided you didn’t let a stench distract you while you were working.

    Hermione walked forward, catching up to Harry as he slowly approached the gates. “Perhaps one of the protections was a preservation spell…” she speculated. “Some cultures used to sacrifice animals in their temples, then distribute the meat to the poor. A preservation spell would have helped with that.”

    Harry looked at her. “Do you believe that?”

    She shook her head. She didn’t. The Atlanteans had been using blood magic. And this was their main temple. She had a pretty good idea of what kind of sacrifices they had used.

    They walked over the threshold and entered the temple proper. And Hermione felt like vomiting.

    The temple’s interior had been extended with charms. It looked as if it could hold the population of an entire town - far more than would have been living in the cavern. And the entire floor was covered with bodies. Fresh-looking bodies - men and women, their hands bound, their throats cut, lying in pools of blood. No - lying on top of shallow gutters leading to the central altar of the temple. Gutters inside a building? “Dear Lord!” she exclaimed - the gutters were meant to gather the blood and transport it to the altar.

    “Merlin’s arse! There have to be hundreds of bodies!” Ron sounded shocked.

    Ari groaned. “The stench…”

    Hermione turned and looked at her. The other witch was swaying on her feet, about to collapse, or so it seemed. Hermione pressed her lips together. This couldn’t go on. She cast a Bubble-Head Charm - but Ari didn’t look like it was helping. It wasn’t the smell, Hermione realised. “It’s the blood magic! You don’t really smell it, Ari - it’s a sense that you interpret as smell!”

    Ari bent over and vomited.

    “Let’s get you outside,” Ron said, helping her up.

    Hermione vanished the vomit, still struggling to keep from retching herself - and she didn’t smell the blood or blood magic. Just the sight of all those men and women, murdered...

    And children, she noticed - some of the bodies were too small to have been adults. Children. Sacrificed like… She retched, bile rising in her throat, and vomited on the stone floor. Wiping her mouth, she cast another Vanishing Charm. She didn’t want to leave anything that had been inside her on a floor so… tainted.

    “Are you OK?” Harry asked.

    “Yes.” She took a deep breath. And another one. “You?”

    “I’m fine,” he said. He didn’t look fine. Not at all. But her frown made him smile - very wryly. “We need to check the altar for spells. Everything’s connected to it.”

    “Runes?”

    “Didn’t see any on the floor.”

    She hadn’t seen any either. She would have expected a ritual circle. A complex array of runes, powered by the sacrifices. “They wouldn’t have murdered all these people without an actual ritual, would they?”

    Harry shook his head. “Let’s check the altar.”

    She held up a hand and looked around. Where was Mr Mallory?

    Harry caught on at once. “Mr Mallory?” he yelled.

    “I’m here.” The other wizard stepped out from behind one of the pillars forming a circle under the dome. “I was examining the pillars.”

    The pillars! She looked around. Every gutter sprang from a pillar. Like the spokes of a wheel. “They form a circle!”

    Mr Mallory nodded. “I believe so.” He craned his neck and looked up, at the ceiling.

    The domed ceiling. She pulled out her Omnioculars and zoomed in, then took a deep breath. “The runes are on the ceiling. It’s not a circle - it’s a dome.” Runes covered it. Runes drawn, or so it appeared, with blood.

    She shuddered. The gutters didn’t run to the altar - they ran to the pillars. “They transport the blood upwards.”

    “I’ve never heard of a ritual dome,” Harry said. “Could it act like a cauldron?”

    She didn’t know. “Perhaps. I can’t tell.” Not without further research.

    “Let’s check the altar first,” he said. “Before we fly up.”

    “Yes.”

    The altar in the centre was bigger than she had expected - and a perfect circle as well. Covered with runes. She bent over and started studying them. They looked like… “It’s a focal point.” She looked up. The rune she had seen on top of the dome outside was mirrored on the ceiling. “A protection spell. This was meant as a protection spell.”

    “Are you certain?” Mr Mallory asked.

    “Not entirely,” she admitted, “but it seems to fit.”

    “You think this was what protected the cavern?” Mr Mallory asked. “The island was sinking, and this was a desperate attempt to save it?”

    “If it was, it didn’t work,” Harry said.

    “Or not as planned,” Mr Mallory replied.

    Hermione tried to ignore them, focusing on the runes. A number of them looked familiar from her work with the skull, the mask and the… She blinked, then grabbed her Omnioculars again. The runes on the ceiling… “Dear Lord!” she repeated herself. “They match the spells that trapped Ophas!”

    “What?” Mr Mallory blurted out. “You mean… the ghosts of all these people might be trapped here?”

    “Perhaps,” she replied. “Or just one ghost - Ophas was the only one trapped, but he was flanked by two corpses.”

    “Crocodiles,” Mr Mallory retorted.

    “Or shapeshifters in the form of crocodiles,” Hermione said.

    “So, if there’s a ghost trapped here, where would they be?” Harry asked.

    Hermione looked up at the rune in the centre of the ceiling.

    “Great,” he said.

    *****​

    When he had imagined finding Atlantis, Harry Potter hadn’t imagined it would lead to floating a hundred feet above a field of corpses, beneath a ceiling covered with runes written in human blood, and keeping Hermione from slipping off the platform she had conjured to work on the golden rune in the centre. A rune with a diameter of about a yard - almost the size of a small ritual circle.

    Even with the Bubble-Head Charm, he sometimes felt as if he could smell the blood. Ron and Ari were still outside, ‘keeping an eye on the surroundings’, and Mallory had gone back to the sphere to fetch some books to help him decipher the reliefs on the inner wall.

    “How does it look?” Harry asked.

    “As I told you already, it’s definitely a ‘spirit trap’, to borrow Ari’s term,” Hermione said. “Though it’s different from the mask and skull. Which is why it’s taking me longer than expected to dissolve it.”

    “More advanced?”

    She nodded. “More complicated, too.”

    That made sense, given the obscene scale of the whole ritual. How desperate did you have to be to do such a thing? Or how evil?

    “But there’s a ghost inside?”

    “I can’t tell yet.”

    “Be careful,” he told her.

    “Always.” She wasn’t taking her eyes off the rune, of course.

    He smiled as he slowly shook his head.

    “Not much longer,” she said.

    *****​

    “And… almost done. One spell left,” Hermione announced. “Should we call the others?”

    Harry Potter tore his attention away from the runes he had been studying and shook his head. “Ari can’t stand it in here.” And Mallory had gone back to the sphere again, for more supplies. “We’ll see if we can talk to the ghost outside.”

    “Alright.” She took a deep breath, then swished her wand and pointed it at the rune again, muttering an incantation. A moment later, Harry heard a voice.

    “Kihn? Kihn?” It sounded frantic. Before he or Hermione could say anything, the unknown speaker started to scream, and a translucent ghost appeared, holding his head as he dropped from the rune and started to fall down.

    “Let’s follow him down!” Harry said, helping Hermione to mount his broom. They caught up to the ghost before he reached the ground and then landed next to the altar.

    “A! A! A!”

    Harry winced. Judging by the repeated ‘No’, this was the first time the ghost had seen what had happened.

    “Probably kept in stasis, like Ophas,” Hermione whispered. She cleared her throat. “Satvar? Satvar?”

    It took her multiple tries until the ghost reacted - and recoiled. “Kah?”

    She pointed at herself. “Hermione.” Then at Harry. “Harry.”

    The ghost seemed to be panting, but after a few seconds, he replied. “Cenkora.”

    “That’s his name,” Hermione explained before replying, which started a rapid exchange in Atlantean between her and the ghost.

    “Should we move outside so Ari can help?” Harry asked after a minute.

    “Oh, sorry, yes. Bahi?”

    “Bahi.”

    Ari was already at the gates, looking like she wanted to vomit again. The ghost froze as he reached the threshold and saw the cavern, but after a few explanations and a trip to the closest of the other ghosts, he calmed down and started to talk with Ari and Hermione - too rapidly for Harry to understand much.

    But what the two witches translated between the bursts of Atlantean…

    “He says that they planned a Second Grand Sacrifice,” Ari said. “Because of earthquakes and floods.”

    “And volcanic eruptions,” Hermione added. “The First Grand Sacrifice had been volunteers - the sacred chosen - and the cavern has been protected ever since. They wanted to extend that protection to the rest of the island.”

    “But they didn’t have volunteers, not enough - so they chose slaves,” Ari said with a sneer.

    “And, as he - he was the high priest leading the ritual - said, this doomed them. The ritual was ‘unclean’,” Hermione added, “I think he means ‘corrupted’ - by the spirits of the sacrifices. Instead of protecting the entire island, it destroyed it. Scoured it clean of life, then sank the remains.”

    “Merlin’s balls. They destroyed their own island?” Ron asked.

    “They were slaves. Captives. It wasn’t their island,” Ari replied.

    The power of so many sacrifices, in the hands of the victims. Dead people taking their revenge on their murderers… and the entire island. Harry shook his head. “How could they make that mistake?”

    “Apparently,” Hermione replied with a grim expression, “they thought that since the sacrifices were ‘mere muggles’, the priests conducting the ritual would easily be able to control it. Well, they found out differently in the moments before their destruction. I think the use of soul magic in conjunction with blood magic was their crucial mistake.”

    Soul magic. Harry drew a hissing breath. That was… beyond the pale.

    “That’s…” Ron shook his head. “Well, it explains a lot, but still…”

    “It’s like a Greek tragedy,” Hermione said. “Their own hubris doomed them.”

    “And everyone else on the island,” Harry pointed out.

    She winced, then nodded. “Right.”

    Harry was about to ask just how big the island had been when Ari started sniffing the air.

    “Ari?” Ron asked.

    “Caught a scent,” she replied. “Someone else is here.”

    “What?” Harry checked the wind. It blew from the port. From the sphere.

    A moment later, he was on his broom, disillusioned, and rose above the roofs of the buildings around them. There! People on the pier. Black robes. He pulled out his Omnioculars and focused on the three in front of the group.

    Mallory. Kraft. And Kohlmeier.

    *****​
     
  24. RedX

    RedX Know what you're doing yet?

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    And so the dagger falls.

    At least we've finally got all two three enemies together in one place!
     
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  25. Wolfboy

    Wolfboy Not too sore, are you?

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    Sorry, but cannot say I didn't see that coming. Mallory always struck me as a greedy bastard
     
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  26. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    A very dangerous place, though.

    Indeed.
     
  27. Threadmarks: Chapter 27: Trapped
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 27: Trapped

    ‘Even now, forty years after his final defeat at the hands of Albus Dumbledore, Gellert Grindelwald remains both a mysterious and controversial figure. For a dark wizard who brought half of magical Europe to its knees and rallied armies to his banner, much about him remains in doubt or unknown, despite - or, perhaps, more accurately, because of - the large number of works written about him. Did he really really intend to break the Statute of Secrecy? We don’t know. That he wanted wizards to rule the muggles is clear, but he could have achieved that without putting the Statute in jeopardy. On the other hand, while he denied it, others accused him of such plans, and his denial can be easily explained as a transparent ploy to avoid dragging the International Confederation of Wizards into the conflict.
    Even the well-known fact that many muggleborns flocked to him isn’t a clear indication that he actually supported their cause. As modern authors have pointed out, most of his high-ranking followers were purebloods. It’s entirely possible that he saw the muggleborns as merely a source of cheap curse-fodder, easily manipulated with promises he didn’t intend to keep - and the grievous casualties they suffered during the war make such an interpretation quite plausible.
    In any case, with Grindelwald imprisoned in Nurmengard, and his closest lieutenants either dead or in hiding, definitive answers to those questions are likely to remain forever out of our reach.
    However, Grindelwald’s affinity for the Dark Arts is undisputed. Not only was his use of dark curses on the battlefield witnessed on countless occasions but he also openly urged his followers to resort to the Dark Arts when fighting his enemies. Any veteran of Grindelwald’s War can attest to the Storm Wizards’ enthusiastic use of dark curses in battle - which also led to very few of them being captured alive. In return, this caused most Storm Wizards to fight to the death - a consequence Dumbledore had foreseen, only for his repeated warnings to be ignored.
    And in addition to dark curses, Grindelwald’s forces also made heavy use of Inferi and similar dark creatures. A select group of his trusted followers created such monstrosities by the hundreds in hidden laboratories, right up until his final duel with Dumbledore.
    But the true horrors committed by his followers were the blood magic rituals they performed. It is not known exactly how many captured or kidnapped wizards and witches were sacrificed by the likes of Kohlmeier for various evil purposes, but even the most conservative estimate claims hundreds of victims, and the number of kidnapped muggles murdered in Grindelwald’s fortresses vastly exceeds this number. While the scale of the sacrifices didn’t reach the level of the infamous Aztec Blood-Priests, it remains the second-worst use of blood magic in recorded history - something many who consider Grindelwald as a misunderstood champion of equality and creature rights ignore or dismiss.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Grindelwald’s War: The End of an Era’ by Aloysius Steiner, Berlin, 1998


    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench,
    December 18th, 2001

    Harry Potter quickly guided his broom down to the others. “Mallory’s betrayed us!” he blurted out. “He’s coming with Kraft and Kohlmeier and two dozen Storm Wizards!”

    “Bloody hell!” Ron swore. “Did he smuggle them in?”

    “He probably created a Portkey,” Hermione said. “He was absent longer than expected during his ‘breaks’. He wouldn’t have had to do that if he had smuggled them in in a trunk.”

    “Traitor! We should have let him die,” Ari snarled.

    Something didn’t add up, though. But they had no time to stop and discuss things. “We need to go,” Harry said. “They’ll be here soon.”

    “Go where?” Ron asked as he, together with the others, cast a Shield Charm. “Use our Portkeys?”

    “They’ve blocked that,” Hermione said in a flat voice. “I just checked.”

    “They cast that from the pier?” Ron sounded like he wanted to whistle.

    “Kohlmeier is a very experienced wizard,” Hermione said. “We can’t face him here.” She bit her lower lip.

    “The only building with decent wards is the temple,” Harry said. “If we hole up there, they can only come at us through the gates. The protections will stop spells and keep them from destroying the walls.” For a while at least.

    “But we’ll be trapped there,” Ron pointed out.

    “We’re trapped here,” Hermione countered. “If we shelter inside the temple, we can work on breaking the jinxes preventing our Portkeys from working.”

    “We could hide and sneak back to the sphere,” Ron replied.

    “They’ll have trapped it,” Harry retorted. He would have done that in their place. “And if we hide in the town, we’ll be found sooner or later.” He glanced back at the street. “We’re running out of time. To the temple!”

    They rushed inside, Ari holding her nose, yet still staggering as soon as she stepped over the threshold. “Stupid blood mages!” she snapped, leaning against Ron while Harry conjured barricades and walls.

    “Cenkora!” Hermione addressed the ghost, who had followed them inside, “Anyahdvara?
    Ripavat upayate har!”

    “They’re here!” Ron yelled, interrupting and drowning out the ghost’s reply.

    Harry clenched his teeth and started to conjure snakes behind the barricades. Mainly spitting cobras and black mambas.

    *****​

    “I can fight.”

    Ron Weasley didn’t think Ari was entirely correct - she could stand, yes, but the lingering ‘stench’ of the blood curses affected her. She was panting heavily, and the way she clutched her wand… His thoughts were interrupted by her glare.

    “I can stand. I can fight,” she spat in a mixture of hissing and growling.

    “I reckon you can,” he said, nodding. “But not at the front.” She wouldn’t be able to move fast enough. And with the explosives he had placed in conjured stone boxes, the front wouldn’t be safe anyway.

    She scoffed but nodded. “I wouldn’t want to step on any snakes,” she said.

    That made him wince. Harry seemed bent on filling the entire temple with snakes - very dangerous snakes. He glanced at his friend, who was hissing to the dozens of reptiles surrounding him even as he conjured more of them.

    And all of them were hissing as well. Ron felt a shiver run down his spine. “He is a little too fond of snakes,” he muttered under his breath.

    Ari, of course, heard him anyway. “Snakes are a good choice,” she said. “The wards protect them against spells, and they can swarm anyone entering and fill them with poison.”

    “Bezoars will counter snake poison,” Ron retorted. And in order to bite anyone, the snakes had to catch someone without a Shield Charm.

    “Not if you’re too slow to swallow,” Ari pointed out. “Shouldn’t they be here already?” she added a moment later.

    Ron nodded. “They might suspect traps and ambushes, but even so, they should have arrived.” He looked around. Hermione was still talking with the ghost. Harry was still talking with the snakes. And there was no one approaching the door - too many snakes, together with the bats Hermione had conjured, were watching it.

    “We’re not going to get out of here.”

    What? He turned to face Ari, but the words he had been about to say died on his lips when he saw her expression.

    “He’s a powerful dark wizard. A blood mage. He has two dozen Storm Wizards. And we’re trapped in here,” she went on.

    “Temples usually have a second exit,” he retorted.

    “Sealed caverns as well?”

    “Yes. We just need to find it.” He nodded. They had to. They would.

    She smiled. It wasn’t her usual smile. She didn’t look cocky, and there wasn’t even a hint of a smirk. She looked sad instead. Before he could say anything else, she hugged and kissed him.

    A loud voice from outside - amplified by a charm, of course - interrupted them: “Mr Potter!”

    Ari hissed as they separated, both their wands already pointed at the gates. But they couldn’t see anyone in their line of fire. Smart.

    Harry cast an Amplifying Charm himself. “Mr Kohlmeier, I presume.”

    A short chuckle rang through the temple. “You would know about muggle explorers, I guess.”

    Ron clenched his teeth. The man’s amused, condescending tone...

    “Well, are you?” Harry said, in the same tone that had driven Snape up the walls a few times. “I only have your voice to go by.”

    Another chuckle followed. “I am, indeed, Herbert Kohlmeier. Pardon me for not stepping into your line of fire, but Fräulein Kraft assures me that you are perfectly able to send spells out of the temple while being protected from spells cast at you, and I would rather not tempt you to abandon our civilised discourse for a frantic and, frankly, pointless battle.”

    “Well, I wouldn’t exactly trust Kraft’s assessment without a second opinion,” Harry replied. “She’s not the best Curse-Breaker herself, if you get my drift. Always let her personally test whether she’s really disabled all the curses. But I guess Mallory told you about the wards, didn’t he?”

    “Potter, you arrogant...”

    Kraft’s angry yell was cut off quite suddenly.

    “Please excuse my associate’s outburst, Mr Potter.”

    “Of course,” Harry shot back. “We’re familiar with her character, after all.”

    Kohlmeier laughed at that. “I cannot fault you for that, although you are a little bit biased, aren’t you?”

    “Just a little bit,” Harry said. “But I don’t think you’re here to discuss Miss Kraft’s lack of character.”

    “You’re correct, I’m not. I’m here to avoid unnecessary and futile hostilities.”

    “Well, all you need to do to avoid a fight is walk away,” Harry replied with fake cheerfulness.

    “And leave the traitor to us,” Ari hissed next to Ron.

    “Unfortunately, this expedition has cost me too much already to abandon it like that.”

    “Sunk cost fallacy,” Ron heard Hermione comment.

    He didn’t know if she meant for Harry to pass on her words, but his friend didn’t in any case. “I don’t see how we can avoid a battle, then,” he said instead.

    “Well, you have achieved what you set out to do, haven’t you? You have discovered Atlantis. The most important discovery of the century - young as it is. The fame and glory are yours,” Kohlmeier said. “All I want is the magical knowledge of the Atlanteans. So I don’t think our goals are mutually exclusive.”

    “That leaves the little matter of your men trying to kill us - several times, at that,” Harry replied.

    “Such things happen. You killed my men, we killed… well, I think we only killed one of yours - and a rather recent acquisition, at that - did we?”

    Ron blinked as a thought came to him. “If Mallory has been working with him since the start, why didn’t they ambush us before?” He looked at Harry. “Kohlmeier wouldn’t have had to sacrifice so many men merely to help Mallory gain our trust. That doesn’t make any sense.”

    Harry nodded and cleared his throat. “It doesn’t sound as if Mallory has been working for you overly long.”

    Once more the dark wizard chuckled. “Fishing for information? But you are correct - Mr Mallory wasn’t aware that he was working for me.”

    That sounded like the Imperius Curse. But if the Storm Wizards had managed to get to Mallory sometime after they had left the Valley of the Jinn, why hadn’t they managed to get them as well? That didn’t make any sense either. They could have ambushed them in the sphere. And if they only wanted the knowledge, why didn’t they wait until Mallory could give it to them?

    “Kraft!” Hermione’s outburst sounded remarkably like Ari’s hissing. “He must have been working with her. And she was working for Kohlmeier.”

    “At some point, at least, she must have started working for him,” Ron added.

    “Even if we agreed to leave, I somehow doubt that you would let us leave peacefully,” Harry told Kohlmeier. “We know too much.”

    “That can be fixed.”

    Ron snorted.

    “You’re asking us to trust you and let you obliviate us?” Harry sounded as incredulous as Ron felt.

    “You’re isolated. You can’t escape. And, even though you are remarkably skilled for your age, we have you pinned down and outnumbered over six to one. Even Miss Kraft’s skills will have the wards of the place torn down sooner or later.”

    “You’d risk destroying the knowledge you seek if you storm the temple,” Harry retorted.

    “With a little encouragement, Mr Mallory told us all about the contents of the temple.”

    Ron clenched his teeth together.

    “We can’t trust them,” Ari said.

    Ron nodded in agreement. As did Hermione.

    Harry took a deep breath. “After due consideration, we’ve decided that we’ll decline your very generous offer, Mr Kohlmeier. But let us make a counter-offer: Leave this place, and we won’t destroy the very knowledge you seek.”

    Kohlmeier laughed again, but it sounded a little forced to Ron. “If I left I’d lose the knowledge I sought anyway, wouldn’t I? You would alert the ICW and Dumbledore at once, to secure the cavern.”

    Well, the dark wizard was correct - that was their obvious course of action. Not that they’d tell him that.

    “So it sounds as if no matter what I do, I’ll lose out. And while it might be petty, I don’t think anyone else should gain the knowledge of the Atlanteans if I can’t have it.”

    Damn. Well, it wasn’t as if anyone had thought they would be able to make the Storm Wizards back down and leave with a mere threat.

    “You could still achieve your goal later, through other means. Like you turned Mallory,” Harry replied.

    Kohlmeier chuckled, sounding more genuinely amused. “And you would never think of warning Dumbledore about that possibility, would you?”

    “It’s still a better chance than trying to force your way inside,” Harry retorted.

    Ron took a deep breath. “We probably should prepare to destroy the temple,” he said. A few more Doubling Charms should leave them with enough explosives, provided they dealt with the wards - although the Storm Wizards might do that for them if they stormed the place.

    “Cenkora wouldn’t like that,” Hermione said. “And he might share his knowledge out of spite, should we do so.”

    And as the high priest who had led the Grand Sacrifice, he would know all about Atlantean blood magic. “Bloody hell.”

    “Literally,” Ari said. She bared her teeth. “Destroying the temple would at least hurt them.”

    “The temple’s protected as well - it won’t be easy to destroy, if doing so is even possible with the means at our disposal,” Hermione added.

    “I am afraid I disagree, Mr Potter!” Kohlmeier’s voice interrupted their discussion. “Your only chance to survive this is my offer.”

    “Listen, there’s an escape tunnel,” Hermione said. “Cenkora told me about it - I told him the Storm Wizards were thieves and pirates.”

    An escape tunnel? They might yet survive this! “What about the cavern?”

    “There’s another ‘portal’, but it leads to…” Hermione winced.

    Ron nodded. Without their sphere, they wouldn’t be able to survive leaving through a portal to the bottom of the trench. And the sphere would be trapped and probably guarded as well. “Our best bet remains breaking the jinxes that block magical travel and using our Portkeys.”

    “And for that,” Harry said in his normal voice as the gates swung closed in front of them, “we need to whittle down their numbers so they cannot keep recasting the jinxes.”

    He didn’t have to say that even two or three Storm Wizards would be enough to keep recasting the jinxes quicker than they could take them down - all of them were well aware of that.

    “Bleed them here, fall back into the tunnel, use explosives once they enter the temple as we retreat?” Ron said. It was a rather obvious plan, but the best they had so far.

    Harry nodded. “Then we create a diversion so we can work on the jinxes in one area while they search for us in another.”

    “And kill them in smaller groups should they split up,” Ari added.

    “That too…” Harry drew a hissing breath. “The snakes and bats are dying! Must be poison - gas!” He flicked his wand and sent a gust of wind at the entrance. “The gas’s already inside - Bubble-Head Charms might not be enough.”

    Ron joined him with a Wind-Making Charm, or, as the twins liked to call it, the Ventilator Charm, keeping up a steady breeze towards the entrance. It wouldn’t drive the gas out but should keep more gas from entering the temple through the gaps in the gates. That damned Storm Wizard - he had been sending gas at them while he distracted them with conversation! “Are the walls airtight?” he asked.

    “It’s possible, but I wouldn’t trust them,” Hermione said. She started casting Air-Cleaning Charms.

    The ghost asked something in Atlantean, and Ari snapped a reply. “I told him they’re poisoning the air.”

    Ah. “They’ll attack soon, hoping to catch us while we’re busy dealing with the gas,” Ron said. And the bats were dying in droves, which meant disillusioned enemies wouldn’t be spotted outside the range of their detection spells. But the Storm Wizards still had to come through the gates.

    “Something’s coming,” Ari said. “Lots of…” She snarled. “Ants!”

    “Ants?”

    The sight of a moving mass of bugs - ants - flooding through the gaps in the gates like a living carpet answered Ron’s question.

    They spread out, swarming the closest snakes, which started thrashing around as they were buried under bugs. But they didn’t seem to die quickly, and that made...

    “Burn them!” Harry yelled, raising his wand.

    Ron’s eyes widened. “No!” he shouted, but Harry was already casting.

    A blast of fire shot from the tip of his wand towards the advancing bugs. A moment later, the air itself seemed to ignite, and a fireball grew and rushed towards them from the gates - and spread along the walls.

    Ron dived to the ground behind the closest barrier, next to Ari, before a wave of heat washed over them and the fragments of shattered stone hit their Shield Charms. He rose a moment later, wand aimed at the gates - which still stood thanks to their protections. And the explosives were too stable to go off from the heat - that would have likely done them in.

    “Stupid,” Ari spat as she joined him.

    “Sorry.” Harry was up as well, looking none the worse for wear. Slightly singed, perhaps.

    “Inflammable poison gas…” Hermione said, shaking her head. She looked a little more singed, but not seriously hurt.

    “Well, he’s not one of the worst dark wizards alive for nothing,” Harry said. “Killed all my snakes.”

    “And the bats,” Hermione added.

    Ron would have pointed out that they had been merely conjured snakes - but he knew Harry wouldn’t see it like that. He cast a few more Air-Cleaning Charms.

    “He won’t try the same trick twice,” Ari said.

    “We can’t risk being wrong,” Ron replied. “And he has enough wands to keep the gas coming.”

    “They’ll be working on the wards,” Hermione said, “while they keep us busy.” She flicked her wand, and a swarm of bats appeared.

    “Let’s hope Kraft messes up and gets killed,” Ron said.

    Harry looked around - while he was conjuring more snakes, of course - and suddenly grinned. “I’ve got an idea. Where’s the escape tunnel?”

    Hermione pointed at the back of the temple. “In the high priest’s quarters.”

    “Figures,” Harry said. “So, I don’t think they’ll tear down the protections on the walls - that would threaten the texts on them, which Mallory saw. They’ll be coming through the gates.”

    “Or the roof,” Ari said. “High ground.”

    “No, they want the ritual circle there undamaged.” Harry shook his head. “But I don’t think Mallory will be the first to enter - so they won’t know exactly what the room is supposed to look like.”

    “Oh.” Ron grinned. “That’s a good idea.”

    *****​

    So many relics and texts... Hermione Granger wished she had time to properly catalogue and examine the interior of Cenkora’s quarters. Well, she would have to do it later. Provided she survived this. She swished her wand, summoning the scrolls and tablets, and everything else that wasn’t part of the building, and stashing them in an enchanted bag.

    After the carpet on the floor had finished rolling itself up and moving into her bag, she stared at the smooth stone that had been revealed. Had Cenkora lied to her? The ghost had stayed in the main room of the temple. Or… A quick detection spell revealed the charms on the floor. “‘Blood will open it’, indeed,” she mumbled. She could break the spells, revealing the stone trapdoor, but that would take time. Time they didn’t have.

    Pressing her lips together, she flicked her wand at her palm, casting a quick Cutting Charm.

    As soon as a few drops of blood hit the stone, it melted away, revealing a spiral staircase leading down. “I’ve found it!” she whispered into the enchanted pin on her collar.

    “We’re almost done with the fake ceiling and walls,” Harry replied.

    “We’re done with the corpses,” Ron said. “Won’t fool them for long, but it should be enough.”

    Ari appeared in the doorway, shaking her head and sneering. “Can’t wait to leave this place,” she spat. “It stinks so much…”

    Ron appeared behind Ari, carrying an armful of explosives. “Enough to mine the tunnel,” he said when Hermione looked at them.

    “More than enough,” she replied, but he only grinned in response.

    She touched her pin. “Harry?”

    “Done! I’m coming!”

    He appeared in the door. “Everything’s set.”

    “Time to go down!” Ron said.

    They descended and entered the tunnel. It had a low ceiling - Hermione and Ari had no trouble, but Harry and Ron had to watch their heads. And it was rather narrow as well. There were no Extension Charms in use here, and Hermione wondered why. Set in the walls were enchanted crystals which provided light, but they found no traps as they moved along the tunnel.

    After the first turn, Ron placed the explosives on the floor, then conjured a low but solid wall behind them, and a mass of nails and spikes in front of them. “Makeshift Claymores,” he announced. “Should have brought some actual ones.”

    “Let’s go on,” Hermione said.

    “We’re almost at the wardline,” Harry replied. “Let’s wait here.”

    She really didn’t like staying in the vicinity of such a large quantity of explosives, but to leave the protected temple area would be even more dangerous.

    “It’s not armed, yet,” Ron said. “Well, I haven’t yet set the tripwires for the bats and snakes to trigger.”

    Which meant the detonator was already set. She sat down and pressed her lips together, closing her eyes for a moment. Kohlmeier wasn’t a fool - he wouldn’t walk into the temple until his followers had verified it was safe. And he wouldn’t risk all his followers. But if they didn’t spot the fake wall and ceiling and assumed it was safe… If Cenkora distracted them… It was a long shot, but it was possible.

    Harry sat down next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. She leaned into him, sighing. “I hate waiting,” she whispered. She wanted to do something - anything - rather than wait and hope the enemy made a mistake.

    “Me too,” he replied, resting his cheek on her head for a moment.

    Next to them, Ron and Ari were sitting close together as well - but Ron was holding the receiving part of one of the twins’ Extra-Long Extendable Ears.

    “How long will they take to break into the temple?” Ari whispered.

    “With Kraft doing the Curse-Breaking?” Harry snorted. “Probably a few hours at least.”

    “She’ll at least have help from others. I don’t think Kohlmeier would depend solely on her for such a task,” Hermione pointed out. He was too smart to trust the Prussian pureblood princess.

    “So we don’t know,” Ron summed up. “Better get comfortable.”

    Hermione closed her eyes.

    She really hated waiting.

    *****​

    Hermione was really tense. That was understandable, of course - Harry Potter was very much aware that they were in an extremely sticky situation. They had prepared a trap, but would it work? It had to work to at least some degree if they were to have a realistic chance of escaping the cavern. If they caught Kohlmeier… no. That was wishful thinking. But his vanguard, perhaps Kraft as well, and the traitor, Mallory… that should be possible. That would still leave the dark wizard with almost twenty wands, but…

    He clenched his teeth. Who was he trying to fool here in his own head? They could deal - with some luck - with twenty Storm Wizards, but not with Kohlmeier added to the mix. And a fighting retreat using ambushes would only get them so far - they didn’t exactly have a lot of space into which they could fall back in the cavern.

    “Kraft’s even more incompetent than I thought,” Ron said suddenly. “She should have cracked the gates’ protection by now.”

    He felt Hermione shift a little, raising her head from his shoulder and leaning forward to look at Ron. “She won’t risk a backlash,” she said. “And she probably doesn’t trust the Storm Wizards to help her.”

    “Should use them as trap detectors,” Ron said. He was laughing, but it sounded forced to Harry.

    “She should just die!” Ari growled. “If Kohlmeier loses her, he’ll have more difficulty with wards.”

    “It wouldn’t be enough,” Hermione said. “Kohlmeier will have alternatives. And probably also himself.”

    Harry nodded. Indeed - Kohlmeier was very likely to have spent at least some time studying wards during his long life. “In any case,” he started to say, “we shouldn’t…”

    “Shhh!” Ron held up his hand and sat straighter, the Extendable Ear pressed to his left ear. “I just heard the gates open.”

    Harry held his breath. They were coming. Would they fall for the trap? He was tempted to cast a Supersensory Charm to listen in, but if the bombs went off...

    “They’re inside now… I hear several footsteps.” Ron bared his teeth.

    “Four of them,” Ari said. Of course, her ears were better than a human’s.

    But four… that wasn’t enough. Harry stood. “I’ll go back and fight them, to draw more of them into the main room.”

    “I’ll go with you,” Hermione said. She glared at him before he could say anything. “If it’s too dangerous for me, it’s too dangerous for you.”

    They didn’t have time to argue. Harry clenched his teeth and started to run back to the stairway. Hermione and the others followed him.

    Harry reached the stairs, telling the snakes he had left near the Claymore mine to get out of the way. Ten seconds later, he was at the trapdoor.

    “I’m opening it on three,” Hermione whispered. “One… two… three!”

    The trapdoor melted, and Harry spotted a Storm Wizard standing in the doorway across from it. The witch cast quickly, but her curse splashed against his shield a moment after his Piercing Curse shattered hers, and his Cutting Curse sliced into her throat before she could cast another spell.

    Harry jumped up and rolled over his shoulder, coming to a stop next to the door, then slid around the corner. Another Storm Wizard stood in the hallway - and died under Harry and Hermione’s curses. Ron and Ari sent more curses - Blasting Curses and some of the poisonous roots Ari used - into the centre of the room.

    Someone yelled from further ahead: “Sie sind hier hinten! Wir brauchen Verstärkung!”

    “Bringt Kraft raus!” someone else replied.

    “They’re evacuating Kraft,” Hermione whispered as she cast a Ventus Jinx to clear the hallway of any poison gas.

    “Doesn’t matter!” Harry snapped. Kraft wasn’t as important as catching more of the Storm Wizards.

    More curses flew into the hallway now - but at an angle, striking the walls long before they could reach the room in which they had taken cover. Harry retaliated with a Blasting Curse aimed at the floor at the end of the hallway, followed by Hermione with some conjured acid that splashed inside the main room.

    “Gebt uns Deckung!”

    A moment later, the hallway was struck with even more curses and other spells - and they reached further inside. The Storm Wizards were trying to force Harry and his friends to remain in cover so they could get closer. But they couldn’t charge down the hallway like that, and the temple’s wards protected the walls.

    Harry would react to that by sending in conjured animals followed by using conjured barricades as moving cover. The Storm Wizards would probably do the same - there weren’t many options with Hermione keeping the air clean. Or they could send flammable liquid down the hallway and set it on fire. But that would be blown back as well.

    How many were out there? There were too many spells flying at them for a mere four enemies. Six? Eight? Ten? It was hard to tell.

    But the spells’ impacts were getting closer to Harry and the others’ position. Splinters were now bouncing off their shields with every volley. Some green liquid splashed close by, drops splattering against Harry’s shield. Where they touched stone, they started to sizzle… He pulled back another step.

    A ball of flame shot into the hallway, bouncing off the walls. “Bloody hell!” Harry heard Ron curse before it collided with some of Ari’s conjured vines in the middle of the hallway and blew up, showering them with burning pieces of wood. If that had hit them… Their own spells wouldn’t keep the Storm Wizards at bay for much longer. Perhaps if he lured them inside the hallway… No.

    “Get into the tunnel!” he snapped, then cast an Amplifying Charm and focused on the closest snake. “Do it!” he hissed, then rushed to the trapdoor and jumped, dragging Hermione down the stairs with him.

    A moment later, the snakes behind the fake walls and ceiling in the temple triggered the chemical detonators and the explosives hidden there went off, shaking the entire building.

    The ceiling above them started to move, but the blast wave from the explosions, channelled by the hallway, arrived before the trap door was closed, throwing Harry, with Hermione in his arms, down the stairs, bowling over Ron and Ari. A column of fire even managed to reach the staircase, licking at their shields and burning the air around them, before the stone ceiling closed fully and cut it off.

    “Bloody hell,” Harry muttered once they came to a stop on the stone stairs, “are you alright?” He pushed himself off her.

    “Singed and bruised, but otherwise unhurt,” she replied. “Let me check you.”

    “I’m fine,” he said. “Sorry about the bruises.”

    She still cast a diagnostic charm, of course, as they went down the stairs. “A few bruises are better than getting killed by our own trap.”

    “Did we get them?” Ron, already standing, asked. Ari was scowling, but looked unhurt - other than bruises.

    “You overdid it with the explosives,” Harry muttered.

    “That sounded as if the entire temple collapsed,” Ron said.

    “Unlikely,” Hermione replied. “The protections should have been strong enough to handle that blast.”

    She was right, of course - wards that had been created with blood sacrifices and then grew for millennia were very, very powerful. No mere explosive would overpower them. Still… that had been close.

    They passed the Claymore mine Ron had placed, turned the corner and kept going.

    “Cut it a little too close,” Harry told him.

    “You were meant to trigger them through the extendable ear I left there,” his friend replied. “Not right next to the room.”

    “We’re all alive,” Ari interrupted them. “Let’s leave this stinking location.”

    “Before the Storm Wizards recover,” Hermione added.

    “Alright.” Harry nodded, and they started to move down the tunnel, towards the - hopefully - hidden exit. “Did you hear Kohlmeier through the ears?” he asked.

    “There was too much yelling and casting to tell,” Ron said.

    Perhaps if they had stayed a little longer, lured more inside… Harry shook his head. He had made the call. All he could do now was hope that he had been right. Or lucky.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley kept glancing over his shoulder as they made their way through the tunnel, almost hitting his head on the low ceiling a few times. If Storm Wizards reached the tunnel while they were still inside… Well, Hermione’s bats or Harry’s snakes should detect them, and they should be able to trigger the Claymore, but their enemies would have seen both before and would be prepared to deal with them. He wished they could go faster, but they couldn’t risk stumbling into any traps. The ghost had said there weren’t any, but he could be mistaken. Or lying. You couldn’t trust blood mages, after all. Nor their ghosts.

    Ron kept conjuring barricades behind them, too, just in case. They were past the wardline now, but the tunnel didn’t run in a straight line - even if Kohlmeier were aware of it, it’d still take him a while to find them.

    A smooth wall appeared after the next turn. “Warded,” Hermione stated. “Blood will get us past it - from this direction, at least. It’s rather more difficult from the other direction; this was meant as an emergency exit..”

    Ron pressed his lips together as Hermione pricked her palm and smeared some blood on the wall, which started to flow out of the way at once. More blood magic… He glanced at Ari, who was looking much better now that they were out of the temple’s immediate area. She smiled at him, but it wasn’t a very hopeful smile. He pressed his lips together. They would get out of this!

    The stone wall revealed a dusty cellar with the remains of wooden chests and barrels, as well as several still whole ceramic pots. Food storage, by the looks of it.

    Harry moved forward, checking the narrow stairs leading up. “Clear,” he whispered, then climbed up.

    “No scent of the enemies,” Ari said as they followed him. They could still be waiting, of course. Mallory knew so many of their secrets...

    The stairs led to a large room on the ground floor - with empty windows facing the temple. Harry crawled forward, then cast a Disillusionment Charm. Ron did the same, then peeked through a window. The temple still stood, but there was a body in front of the gates, half-covered by a chest-sized piece of stone, and another wizard was leaning against the wall, with two Storm Wizards casting spells at him.

    But Kohlmeier was standing near the gates, with Kraft and Mallory, shielded by half a dozen Storm Wizards. “We only got some of the Storm Wizards,” Ron reported.

    “And they are focused on the temple - they haven’t yet realised that we’ve moved,” Harry added.

    “Can we get them from here?” Ari asked. “I can smell them.”

    Ron took another peek. The distance to the gates was about a hundred yards. To reliably hit anyone with a spell at that range would require a lot of luck. Blasting Curses would be easier to use - but he doubted that they could crack Kohlmeier’s Shield Charm like that. Although if they cast four at once, followed by another volley… “We’ll need to hit them together, all of us,” he whispered.

    But even as he said it, Kohlmeier was already crossing the wardline and moving into the temple, followed by the others. They’d lost their shot before they could take it.

    “Too late,” Ron whispered. “He’s inside the temple now.”

    “He left two guards,” Harry said. “Let’s take them out.”

    Ron nodded. The two Storm Wizards were behind the wardline as well, but splinters and shards from Blasting Curses wouldn’t be stopped by the protections. And they were not Kohlmeier.

    Ari joined them at the window with Hermione.

    “On three,” Harry whispered. “One… two… three!”

    They rose and cast together, sending four Blasting Curses at the area right in front of the wardline, immediately followed by another four. When the dust cloud their curses had thrown up started to fade, two bodies lay on the ground - both dead, as Ron confirmed with his Omnioculars.

    “Move away?” Ari asked.

    “There are only those gates and the same tunnel we took that they can use to get out of the temple,” Harry said. “And we’ve trapped the tunnel.”

    “They’ll expect traps,” Hermione pointed out. “We can’t count on ours stopping them.”

    “They closed the gates,” Ron reported. Which meant they’d know when Kohlmeier made a sally.

    “Go seal up the tunnel,” Harry told Hermione. “We need to keep them bottled up so we can get a few more once they charge out.”

    “OK.” Hermione nodded.

    “I’ll go with you. I can smell them if they get close,” Ari said.

    Ron briefly glanced over his shoulder, meeting Ari’s eyes. She smiled at him, then followed Hermione into the cellar.

    He waited a few seconds, then whispered to Harry: “Should we try to get the sphere?”

    “It’ll be trapped,” Harry replied.

    “We’re Curse-Breakers,” Ron retorted. “If we can hold them in the temple, Hermione and Ari could go to the pier and deal with whatever traps they left.”

    “There might be guards as well,” Harry said. He was conjuring snakes again, sending them out to form a perimeter, Ron noticed. “And we might not be able to hold out long enough.”

    That was true. Ron clenched his teeth. There had to be a better way! If he duplicated enough explosives… but anything that could overload the temple’s protections would probably ruin the wards on the cavern as well. And at this depth… they would be crushed to death by the water pressure before they could dispel the jinxes blocking their Portkeys. Not to mention that since the area was warded, they couldn’t use electronic triggers, and he didn’t think Harry using Parseltongue to order snakes to trigger chemical detonators would work again.

    He cursed under his breath.

    *****​

    Standing in the cellar, Hermione Granger flicked her wand, conjuring the last batch of stone needed to fill and seal the tunnel.

    “No enemies nearby,” Ari said after sniffing the air and listening.

    Hermione touched her pin. “We’re done.”

    “Good. Get up here,” Harry replied. “They haven’t opened the gates since you left.”

    They hadn’t? Hermione bit her lower lip as she climbed the stairs after Ari. She would have expected the Storm Wizards to rush out. Were they still looking for the tunnel? Well, if they depended on Kraft… She snorted and told herself not to underestimate their enemies. Even though Kraft really wasn’t a good Curse-Breaker.

    “What are they doing?” Ari asked as they joined Harry and Ron.

    “I can’t tell - I haven’t seen anything,” Ron answered.

    “They know we’ll have the gates covered,” Harry added. “So they might want to break the protections on the walls to break out on the other side of the temple.”

    That would take a long while, Hermione thought. “I think they’re in the tunnel,” she said.

    Ron agreed. “Yes. A pincer attack. They know we’re just four people, so if they charge out of the gates and the tunnel at the same time…”

    “The tunnel’s filled, but it won’t stop them forever,” Hermione said. “The traps we left behind between the stone slabs will slow them down, though.” They would have to move very slowly and cautiously. “Did you try to dispel the jinxes?”

    “They keep recasting them,” Harry said. “There are dozens of the jinxes now.”

    “And they haven’t stopped,” Ron added. “We’ll have to take all of them out before we can start dealing with the jinxes.”

    That had been the case all along. But pointing that out wouldn’t help anyone. Hermione conjured a few bats and sent them out. “They’ll cover the other sides of the temple,” she explained.

    “Good thinking,” Harry said.

    “They’ll take a long time to go through the temple’s protections,” she replied, “but it’s better to be ready a little too soon than too late.”

    “If they’re going through the walls,” Ron pointed out. “We don’t know what they’re doing.”

    “I can’t send a snake in,” Harry said. “The gates are closed, and they’ll expect them.”

    And other animals couldn’t talk. Not to mention that the Storm Wizards would have sealed the gaps in the gates anyway - they weren’t stupid. Hermione sighed, then blinked. “I’m an idiot!” she exclaimed. “I’ll go get Ophas - he can safely enter the temple and tell us what’s happening!”

    She stood.

    “Hermione…” Harry trailed off.

    “We’ll be careful,” she told him, then went and kissed him. “But you too. Let’s go, Ari!”

    She had to wait until Ari was done kissing Ron, but soon enough they were running - disillusioned - down the street towards the location where they had last seen the ghost.

    To Hermione’s relief, he was still there. Still staring at the other, mindless ghosts. “Ophas?”

    He didn’t react.

    “Ophas?” she tried again.

    Still no reaction. Had he lost his mind, or what passed for one in ghosts? She ended her spell and stepped in front of him, blocking his view. He slowly raised his head and looked at her.

    “Viterapagam!”

    No, she wouldn’t go away! With Cenkora still in the temple - and now probably angry with them - he was their best chance to find out what the Storm Wizards were doing. She clenched her teeth and kept her temper in check. “Ahitas mandis,” she told him.

    “Ahitas?”

    She nodded. “Stenas. Harte gupt.” Ophas might not care about much anymore, but would he let thieves steal his people’s secrets? She hoped that he wouldn’t.

    “Stenas?”

    Yes, he looked angry.

    She nodded in confirmation. “Stenas. Sahayate.”

    He frowned at her request for help.

    “Mlemc. Stenas,” she said. “Sankert.” They needed information.

    It took her a few more minutes - which felt like hours - but the ghost finally agreed. And promptly flew away.

    Swearing under her breath, she ran back to Harry and Ron, with Ari in jaguar form keeping pace and an eye - or nose - out for enemies. Well, she had to trust that Ari was doing that - she couldn’t see, and could barely hear, her, what with both of them being disillusioned.

    “We saw a ghost enter,” Ron greeted them as they rejoined the boys, “a minute or two ago.”

    A minute or two? She pressed her lips together so she wouldn’t demand a more precise answer. “He agreed to help us.”

    “Let’s hope the priest’s ghost won’t turn him,” Ari added. “And hasn’t been turned himself.”

    “That would be bad,” Harry said. “If they can use ghosts to scout for them…”

    She hadn’t thought about that, Hermione realised with a sinking feeling. Ophas didn’t like them much, and Mallory was working for Kohlmeier. If the traitor managed to convince the ghost that they had tried to destroy the temple… Dear Lord, what had she done?

    “There’s the ghost!” Ari’s voice interrupted her increasingly frantic thoughts.

    “It’s Ophas,” Ron, looking through his Omnioculars, confirmed. “He’s headed back to where he came from.”

    Hermione hesitated a moment, then stepped out of the house, waving and yelling to catch the ghost’s attention. They didn’t have much to lose now, anyway.

    She was successful - Ophas noticed and flew towards her. He looked upset, or so it seemed, as he followed her inside the room.

    “What’s happening inside?” Harry asked.

    Before either Hermione or Ari could translate, Ophas blurted out: “Abrar raksyte Mallory mrta.”

    Hermione felt as if her blood had frozen in her veins. “They’re doing a blood ritual in the temple,” she said after a moment. “And they’ve sacrificed Mallory.”

    *****​
     
  28. Threadmarks: Chapter 28: Payback
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 28: Payback

    ‘For a modern wizard or witch, born generations after the Statute of Secrecy went into effect, in a time where most religions condemn magic as either a sin or a delusion, it might be nigh-inconceivable that in ancient times, magic was the core of most religions. Most of the priests and priestesses were wizards and witches, their magic seen as a sign of the gods’ favour. That was only natural, of course - in a time when a priest who could heal wounds and cure diseases might be the only reason a settlement survived a drought or plague, places of worship were also the locations where great magic was worked.
    Before wands were invented, powerful magic meant rituals. And temples and shrines were the ideal locations for rituals: Protected by the entire community as well as by wards, run by skilled wizards and witches, most had stores of the ingredients needed in rituals and potions - usually provided by grateful members of the relevant faith as a tithe, or as a donation in gratitude for healing or other aid.
    However, temples and shrines were also ideal breeding grounds for corruption, both mundane and spiritual. If a priest held the survival of a settlement in his hands, who would dare to oppose him in a communal matter? Who would scorn his advice, or his command, if that might mean no more blessings or healing for their family? Unless you were a powerful noble with your own court wizard or witch, or beholden to a king with retainers skilled in wizardry, you wouldn’t have any choice but to follow the orders of the clergy. So priests usually ran the villages and even towns of many countries, often meddling more in mundane than magical or spiritual matters, without any accountability or restraint. In some areas, particularly powerful wizards or witches even styled themselves as gods, claiming supreme authority over everyone.
    However, the real danger lay in the magical realms. In ancient times, sacrifices were part of most religious ceremonies. And with many of the clergy being wizards and witches, that meant sacrificial magic - blood magic. The horrors the worshippers of Bhaal created with their human sacrifices are well-documented, as are the massacres the Aztec Blood-Priests wrought in their temples. However, even in countries where human sacrifices were prohibited and only animals were sacrificed to the gods, the power of blood magic could prove to be too strong a lure for a priest or priestess. Many dark wizards and witches started with the best of intentions but ended up sacrificing those they were meant to protect for more power, sometimes forming cults and cabals with others.
    It wasn’t until the invention of the wand that sacrifices started to disappear from daily rituals as wizards quickly discovered the many, many advantages wands offered in comparison to rituals, although, even in the Abrahamic religions, some remnants of the tradition can be found to this day. Unfortunately, dark wizards quickly began to combine blood magic and wands, delving to new depths as they expanded the Dark Arts.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Magic and Faith: A History’ by Frank Nott, London, 1920


    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench,
    December 18th, 2001

    “A blood ritual? They killed - sacrificed - Mallory?” Harry Potter felt a shiver run down his spine. Blood magic, wrought by an experienced dark wizard, in a temple made for sacrificial magic on a scale few other civilisations had ever attempted… “This is bad.”

    “That’s the understatement of the year,” Ron replied. “We need to stop it.”

    Harry agreed - despite the horrible consequences that interrupting a ritual often had. Whatever Kohlmeier was attempting to achieve wouldn’t be good for them.

    Hermione shook her head. “The gates are still closed. Unless they took the protections down - and I doubt Kraft could do that in the time she had, even if Kohlmeier ordered her to do so - we won’t be able to get in. Not in time to stop whatever ritual they are attempting.”

    “At least the traitor’s dead,” Ari said, baring her teeth.

    It wasn’t a silver lining - Mallory’s death would empower Kohlmeier even more.

    “He might have been under the Imperius Curse,” Hermione pointed out.

    Ari’s scowl clearly indicated she didn’t think so.

    “Focus!” Ron cut in. “If we can’t go through the gates, or through the walls, we’ll have to go through the tunnel.”

    “We’d be facing the same problems the Storm Wizards were before: We can’t rush since we’ll have to expect traps and ambushes,” Harry replied.

    “We’ll have to dig a tunnel then,” Ron said. “We just use the existing tunnel to bypass the wards, then branch out again.”

    “This was the Atlanteans’ holiest temple,” Hermione retorted. “They’ll have prepared for that. Even if the Vanishing Charm hadn’t been invented yet, they would have been familiar with siege warfare - and that includes tunnelling.”

    Ron muttered a curse.

    “The sphere then,” Harry said. “As long as they are busy with the ritual, we have a window of opportunity to deal with whoever and whatever they left at the sphere.”

    It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best plan he could think of.

    “Let’s take the brooms!” he snapped, pulling his Firebolt out and mounting it.

    “Should we disillusion ourselves?” Hermione asked.

    “No,” Harry replied. “We could get separated and lose each other.” And setting up a rally point would take too much time - and would be too dangerous.

    But they were barely out of the building when Harry saw the temple gates being pulled open. “They’re coming at us!” he yelled, drawing his wand.

    Half a dozen Storm Wizards poured out of the temple - followed… no, chased by dozens of…

    “Inferi!” Ron yelled.

    Fast ones, too - they quickly caught up to the fleeing Storm Wizards, half a dozen of them tackling the rearmost and dragging him to the ground, claws ripping into him as other Inferi surged past them.

    Many others. “They must have turned the corpses into Inferi!” Harry blurted out. All of them - there had been hundreds of them.

    A second Storm Wizard, a witch, disappeared under the pouncing corpses. A third turned and cast a Blasting Curse that blew half a dozen of the Inferi away - but they weren’t destroyed. They rose again, Harry realised.

    “That’s atypical for Inferi,” Hermione said next to him. “They’re usually not so resistant to spells.”

    “Kohlmeier must have made some advances during his time in Jamaica,” Harry replied. “Let’s fly a little higher,” he added. Just in case.

    “They stink,” Ari growled. “Worse than those we encountered before.”

    Blood magic.

    “But why are they attacking the Storm Wizards?” Ron asked.

    “Something must have gone wrong,” Hermione said, “The ritual might have…”

    She trailed off as fire engulfed the ranks of the Inferi still pouring out of the temple, followed by five figures on brooms rushing out, one burning zombie jumping after them and barely missing the last rider through the gate. A moment later, a solid stone wall sealed the entrance, and the broom riders quickly climbed upwards, gaining altitude.

    Meanwhile, the Inferi had caught up to the last of the Storm Wizards on the ground. Harry could hear the screams as they ripped him to pieces - but his attention was on the broom riders.

    “Kohlmeier and Kraft,” Ari hissed.

    Harry aimed his wand at the group even though they were already a few hundred yards away. A battle on brooms was a chancy affair - hitting anyone at range was difficult enough without both sides riding fast brooms. They would have to close with the enemy to reliably hit them. And anyone who was dismounted would fall to be devoured by the Inferi.

    And even though he was certain none of the enemies in the air were as good on brooms as himself or Ron, Hermione, while no slouch on a broom, wasn’t quite up to their standards, and Ari had only started flying after meeting Ron. But they had to take the enemies down so they could begin dispelling the Anti-Portkey and Anti-Apparition Jinxes.

    He cleared his throat. “Alright, if they attack us, Ron and I will charge at them, to scatter their formation. You two stick together and pick them off at range.”

    “We won’t hit anyone at range,” Hermione said.

    But they wouldn’t get hit, either. He pressed his lips together and glanced at her. She knew what he was thinking and didn’t like it. Harry nodded towards Ari without breaking eye contact with Hermione.

    She clenched her teeth, but she knew as well as he did that Ari wouldn’t survive in a dogfight. And she wouldn’t stay at range by herself. Hermione glared at him, and Harry knew he’d pay for that later - but she slowly and oh-so-grudgingly nodded.

    Good. He smiled at her and ignored how she wiped her eyes.

    “They’re not closing,” Ron said. “I’m keeping a few Wind-Making Charms going, in case they try to conjure poison gas.”

    “What are they up to?” Harry wondered. He pulled out his Omnioculars - on a strap, in case he had to drop them.

    “He’s casting!” Ari yelled.

    And Kohlmeier was casting - but an Amplifying Charm.

    “Mr Potter, I suggest a truce.”

    “Bloody hell,” Ron muttered. “He must not like his chances in an air battle.”

    Harry nodded as he cast his own Amplifying Charm. “A truce?”

    “Under the circumstances, I think we need to work together to survive,” Kohlmeier replied.

    “But the dead can’t fly,” Ari said. “We’re safe up here.”

    “And we could pull out our Range Rover. It can fly just fine,” Ron added.

    “Those Inferi are clearly not the normal variants. They could try to build something that might reach us,” Hermione said.

    “They could try,” Ari said. “They wouldn’t succeed. Whatever they build, we can easily destroy.”

    “Mr Kohlmeier, would you care to explain the circumstances?” Harry asked. “Your ritual seems to have backfired.”

    “A slight miscalculation on my part.”

    “Mallory!” Hermione blurted out. “He must have taken over the ritual like the sacrificed captives and slaves did when they sank Atlantis.”

    “I guess sacrificing him didn’t endear you to Mallory,” Harry said to Kohlmeier.

    “If I had known he was a blood mage, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen him as a sacrifice.” Kohlmeier chuckled, somewhat ruefully, Harry thought.

    “Mallory was a blood mage?” Harry blurted out.

    “Normal wizards generally don’t manage to take over their own sacrificial ritual. If he wasn’t a blood mage, he certainly improvised well,” Kohlmeier explained.

    Ari muttered something quite violent and very fatal aimed at Mallory.

    “Kraft almost fell from her broom. Wanna bet that she realised who would have been the second choice for a sacrifice?” Ron asked without lowering his own Omnioculars.

    “A blood mage…” Hermione sounded almost shocked. “Dear Lord, of course - he was using blood magic to keep the curse at bay!”

    “So he controls the Inferi?” Harry asked.

    “Yes.”

    “That doesn’t seem too much of a threat,” Harry replied to Kohlmeier. “Unless they can grow wings.”

    “He winced,” Ron reported. “Bloody hell, can they learn how to fly?”

    “They don’t seem to be able to so far,” Hermione said. “Right now, they’re just staring at us.”

    “The Inferi aren’t, as you correctly deduced, the problem,” Kohlmeier’s voice rang out. “But since flight is the obvious answer to being attacked by a horde of Inferi, I had a plan to deny you the airspace.”

    “Which also backfired,” Harry retorted. He felt as if his stomach dropped as he understood what the madman had done. “What kind of flying creatures did you turn into Inferi?” Was the stone wall sealing the gates shaking?

    “Damn!” Ron swore again. “Bill told me about their encounter with zombie harpies. This is going to be nasty.”

    “Just one - but the strongest creature with wings known to wizardkind.”

    “Something’s breaking through the gates,” Hermione reported.

    “Not something,” Harry replied, uncaring that his voice filled the cavern. “A dragon.”

    “A zombie dragon, to be precise,” Kohlmeier said with a hint of his original smugness. “Not quite as fragile as a living one, but as resistant to spells. Now, do you agree that we need to work together to survive?”

    *****​

    “He brought a damned dead dragon with him to turn into an Inferius?” Ron Weasley bellowed, uncaring whether or not his voice carried to the Storm Wizards. “He wanted to set it on us, and now he wants to work with us to defeat it? How stupid does he think we are?”

    Below them, the stone forming the wall started to crack - dust and splinters flying with each blow. One of the Storm Wizards was casting a Mending Charm, he thought, but that would only work for so long, and not too well, before the entire wall would shatter.

    “The question is: Will Mallory turn against us?” Harry asked after cancelling his Amplifying Charm.

    “We didn’t kill him,” Hermione pointed out.

    “He betrayed us anyway,” Ari said. “We can’t trust him.”

    “And how much control does he have over the Inferi?” Harry shook his head. “If he just broke the control Kohlmeier was supposed to have…”

    “Merlin’s balls!” Ron drew a hissing breath. A horde of Inferi, out of control? They’d attack everything and everyone alive.

    “Let’s test it,” Hermione said. A moment later, she flicked her wand, and a dog appeared in front of the temple. A dog that looked remarkably like Sirius’s animagus form, Ron noticed.

    A moment later, the animal was torn apart.

    “Either he wants us dead, or he doesn’t care if we get killed as well or he has no control over the Inferi either,” Harry stated.

    “I don’t trust either Mallory or Kohlmeier,” Ari spat.

    “I don’t either,” Ron told her. “But if we’re facing an Inferius in dragon form, we’ll need all the help we can get. We just need to be prepared for the backstabbing attempt.” Kohlmeier talked like a friendly old wizard, but he was a dark wizard - one of the worst known - and, since he’d sacrificed Mallory, a blood mage as well.

    Ari slowly nodded with clenched teeth. If the Inferi below hadn’t been making so much noise, he probably would have heard her growling as well.

    “I concur,” Hermione said.

    Harry nodded and recast his Amplifying Charm. “Truce,” he said. “How do you kill a draconic Inferius?”

    “I’m afraid that our best bet is to follow the usual tactics of dragon handlers,” Kohlmeier replied.

    Ron cursed under his breath - he knew exactly how dragon handlers handled dragons thanks to Charlie. “We’ll have to hit it with so many spells, its resistance can’t handle it. Roughly at the same time.”

    “While it’s chasing us across the sky,” Harry added in an amplified voice.

    “Same tactics as we planned for them,” Ron whispered.

    “Exactly,” Kohlmeier replied - to Harry, Ron hoped. They couldn’t cast a Privacy Charm while they needed to talk to Kohlmeier.

    “What about the gun on the Range Rover?” Ari asked.

    “That won’t work,” Ron told her. “It’s not maneuverable or fast enough to evade a dragon, and it can’t stand up to a dragon attack.” Kohlmeier knew about the Range Rover and the machine gun, after all, and would have taken that into account.

    “Can it spit fire?” Harry asked. “And is it under someone’s control?”

    “It should be able to breathe fire.” Kohlmeier sounded almost proud. “As to whether or not it is controlled by the ghost of Mr Mallory, I cannot say - I gather the Inferi would have acted the same whether controlled or not.”

    “Well, that’s helpful,” Ron muttered. “But there’s another way. The scales are what makes dragons so tough. If we can hit its eyes or the inside of its mouth…” It should be easier for one of them to hit the eyes than to get through the scales by all of them hitting the same spot together.

    “Like when it’s about to breathe fire?” Hermione snorted.

    “We need to feed it a bomb. A bomb which will go off inside it,” Ron said. “We need…”

    But below him, the wall finally broke completely, and a rotting dragon corpse tore its way out of the temple, trampling some Inferi beneath its massive claws before it launched itself into the air.

    “Bugger.”

    “Ari, stay with Hermione and help her prepare Ron’s plan!” Harry yelled.

    Then he and Ron rushed towards the dragon.

    “What plan?” Hermione yelled after them.

    “Make a bomb that a dragon will swallow, so it goes off inside it,” Ron snapped at the pin in his collar before he rolled to the left, following Harry in a steep dive towards the dragon.

    The monster was going after the Storm Wizards, who were scattering in response. For a moment, the dead dragon seemed confused - defensive swarm tactics, Ron remembered Ginny talking about them a year ago - but it quickly went after Kohlmeier. That could be a coincidence - or Mallory driving it to take revenge for his death.

    They couldn’t tell and couldn’t take the risk. Harry adjusted his dive to intercept the dragon, and Ron, flying slightly behind and to the right, copied him.

    “Get it while it’s chasing me!” Kohlmeier bellowed, but only two of the Storm Wizards were close enough to obey - the third had dived to the floor when the dragon had charged them and was still trying to gain altitude again while Kraft was doing everything she could to get as far away from the dragon as possible. Typical.

    Four spells - five if Kohlmeier could get one off… not good odds for handling a living dragon according to Charlie. But they had no choice. And they were too close to break off anyway. “Fire!” Harry shouted, his voice amplified, as they passed the monster, and Ron cast a Piercing Curse at the dragon a moment later, aiming for the eyes. He missed, though, and his spell bounced off one of the dragon’s horns while Harry’s Cutting Curse hit the throat but didn’t seem to do anything. Neither did the curses from the Storm Wizard - the one which hit the dragon glanced off the wing.

    Bloody dragon scales! Ron followed Harry downwards until they almost hit the roofs of the buildings below, then pulled up. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that the beast was still chasing Kohlmeier - and gaining. Ron sent a conjured vulture against the dragon, but a single flap of the dragon’s wing sent it crashing down, broken. More conjured birds followed it.

    “We’re coming in from below this time,” Harry yelled. “Hit the belly!”

    They were slower on the approach this time, which gave them more time to aim, and both Harry and Ron’s Piercing Curses hit the softer belly of the dragon - but once again, they didn’t do any damage that Ron could see.

    “You need to strike together!” Kohlmeier yelled as if they didn’t know that. The dark wizard was trying to evade the dragon with abrupt changes of course, but he wasn’t as good a flyer as Harry, and Ron could see how the dragon kept turning tighter and tighter with each miss - Kohlmeier was getting predictable. And the flying creatures being thrown at the dragon had no effect, while the giant net the dark wizard threw at it was ripped apart in seconds.

    “Form up on me!” Harry yelled to the three Storm Wizards, but it took Kohlmeier’s orders for them to actually do it.

    “Get your friends too!” the dark wizard yelled before plunging between two buildings and narrowly avoiding a burst of fire.

    “They’re busy preparing a killing move,” Harry yelled back.

    “We don’t have time for that! Just hit it together!” Kohlmeier pulled up and twisted, but then was thrown off course by a glancing blow from one of the dragon’s claws that shattered his shield.

    Harry swore and dived at the monster again. Ron followed, as did the three Storm Wizards. “Aim for the eyes!” Harry ordered, leading them in a curve that lined the group up for a pass just as Kohlmeier shot past them.

    Five curses flew at the dragon, three hitting the head, but none hit the eyes. But the dragon noticed them, and spat fire - hitting one of the Storm Wizards who had been a little too slow to scatter. The witch was engulfed in flames, her broom destroyed, and she dropped, screaming and trailing smoke and fire, until she crashed into the roof of a building. Inferi quickly started to move towards it.

    “We can’t hurt it like this. We need to use Fiendfyre!” one of the Storm Wizards yelled.

    “No!” Ron yelled back. “You’ll set the whole cavern on fire - with us trapped inside it!” And even if he hit the dragon, the monster would crash into the buildings, spreading the cursed fire.

    “It’s our only chance!”

    “No Fiendfyre!” Harry screamed, echoed by Kohlmeier. “Follow me!”

    Another pass - more curses flew, one of them, Ron couldn’t tell whose, hitting the dragon’s eye, which blew up in a shower of gore.

    “Good!” Kohlmeier yelled. “Now let’s do it again! I’ll lead him to you!”

    But the dragon was turning away from the dark wizard - towards Harry and Ron.

    *****​

    “No!” Hermione Granger gasped when she saw the dragon turn to face Harry and Ron. A moment later, the dragon spat a huge stream of fire, and she felt as if her blood had frozen in her veins until she caught sight of them diving beneath the flames.

    “We need to help them!” Ari snapped next to her.

    “We are doing what we can,” Hermione replied. “If we attacked, we’d only be a distraction - for them.” As much as it hurt to admit it, she wasn’t as skilled on a broom as Harry and Ron were. “And we’re too few to destroy the dragon with curses anyway.” Their only chance was Ron’s plan - which meant she had to construct a bomb, hide it inside some bait and fit it with a mechanism that would detonate once the dragon caught it. All without electronics since they were inside wards.

    Ari muttered something in her native tongue, but she didn’t contradict Hermione. “Hurry up!” she added.

    “I’m working as fast as I can,” Hermione snapped back. You couldn’t be too hasty with bombs. Or detonators. “We still need some bait.”

    “Just put the thing inside a big bird!”

    “That wouldn’t fly.” Literally. Or detonate. But an owl could carry it… even a conjured one. An owl, or a dozen of them. That left the detonators… “I’ve got it! Start conjuring owls!”

    Ari scoffed, but Hermione was already pulling a water bottle out of her bag. “Hold this!”

    “Hurry up! It’s chasing them.”

    Hermione didn’t watch. Couldn’t watch. She had to finish this. She couldn’t let herself get distracted. She had to focus. Conjure phosphorus inside the bottle - enough to make the water overflow. Then seal the bottle and glue a heat-sensitive detonator to it. Then glue TNT to it.

    Then cast the Doubling Charm a dozen times. And don’t drop any of the resulting bombs until Ari could stick them to an owl.

    She touched her pin. “We’re sending bomb-carrying owls at the dragon! Get clear!”

    “Get clear?” Ron sounded incredulous.

    She clenched her teeth and blinked at the sudden tears in her eyes. The dragon was almost upon her two friends. “Get clear!” She nodded at Ari. “Do it!”

    “Split up!” Harry snapped.

    No.

    “Yes,” Ron confirmed.

    Ari hesitated a moment, then flicked her wand, and the dozen owls started towards the dragon.

    Which was still hot on the heels of Harry and Ron.

    The two wizards dived and flew lower - low enough for a few Inferi to try and catch them by jumping. Low enough for one Inferi to pounce on them from the roof of a building, narrowly missing Harry and crashing into the undead on the street below a moment before they all vanished in dragon fire.

    “Now!” Harry snapped, and Ron and he split, veering off right after rounding a tall building. The dragon clipped the building with one of its wings, almost crashing, but recovered - and went after Harry.

    Hermione bit her lower lip until it bled. The owls were chasing the dragon, but not gaining on it. Until Harry pulled an Immelmann turn and slipped beneath the jaws of the monster, then between its right claw and wing.

    Once more the dragon turned, spitting fire, but Harry was turning as well - towards the owls. If the dragon hit them with fire while Harry was nearby…

    But Harry dived, almost hitting the charred street, and the dragon followed him - jaws open wide - straight into the path of the parliament of owls.

    The bombs went off, and Hermione held her breath as a cloud of smoke and fire engulfed the beast. Did it work?

    But a moment later, the dragon emerged. Hurt, indeed - missing half its jaw and with a gaping hole in its throat - but very much not destroyed. And still chasing Harry.

    She had failed. She had failed Harry. And Ron. And Ari.

    *****​

    The dragon was still moving. Still chasing him. Missing half its head, but still dangerous.

    Harry Potter clenched his teeth as he bent forward, almost hugging the shaft of his broom, and banked left, then dived towards the street. Three...two… there was the dragon! Harry veered off to the left, into a side alley. Which was occupied by half a dozen Inferi!

    He pulled up, kicking the undead in the front in the head as he rose above them, then rolled and descended behind them. But the manoeuvre had cost him time - time the dragon had used to gain on him. Harry rolled again as he shot out of the side alley, moments before fire filled the alley and spilled into the street - and splashed against his Shield Charm.

    But he was already turning, so his shield kept the flames at bay for a very long second during which he felt as if he had been stuffed into a furnace. But then he was clear of the dragon’s line of fire, darting around an Inferius trying to intercept him, and banking when another tried to jump on him from above.

    “The dragon’s vulnerable now - most of the scales on his head have been blown away!” he shouted, the Amplifying Charm still in effect.

    “Sturmmagier! Zu mir!” Harry heard Kohlmeier yell. “Mr Potter, lead it to us!”

    Harry glanced over his shoulder. The dragon was still chasing him through the streets, even though its wings were scraping against the buildings on either side and its claws often smashed into Inferi trying to pursue Harry on foot.

    He pulled around the next corner, squeezing every last bit of speed out of his Firebolt as he shot along the part of the street not covered by Inferi, then rose above the roofs to check where Kohlmeier was. There! One of the Storm Wizards and Ron were still on the way, but they were closer than Harry.

    But so was the dragon - and it was rising as well. Harry swore under his breath and dived down again, rolling, but pulled up as soon as he was behind the next building. “Coming!” he snapped, then took a deep breath and raced in a straight line at roof level towards the waiting ambush. If he was fast enough, the dragon wouldn’t be able to line up its breath...

    “How bloody fast is that thing? It’s gaining on a Firebolt on a flat-out run!” Ron yelled.

    He wouldn’t make it. “Watch out!” Harry yelled, pulling to the right and into a cross street. The dragon missed him - but the flames shot towards the waiting ambushers. Ron pulled away in time. Kohlmeier shielded himself and the closest Storm Wizard with a conjured floating shield - which melted under the fiery onslaught - but the second Storm Wizard had been too close to get away, and too far from Kohlmeier to find cover…

    He didn’t scream for long - his charred body crashed into the roof below.

    “Fire!” Kohlmeier bellowed - the wizard hadn’t moved despite the dragon coming straight at him.

    Three curses flew at the dragon. Harry added a Reductor Curse of his own, though he had a bad angle, and his spell glanced off a wing.

    Kohlmeier’s Acid Blast Curse, though, hit the dragon’s head, followed by Ron’s Reductor Curse and a yellowish curse from the last Storm Wizard that Harry didn’t recognise.

    The dragon’s head exploded in a shower of bone, gore, scales and horn fragments and the headless beast crashed into a building on the pier, caving in its front.

    “Ja! Wir haben ihn besiegt!” the Storm Wizard yelled as he dived towards it, sending another yellow curse - a Rotting Curse, Harry realised - at the corpse.

    The still twitching corpse.

    “Kurt! Stopp! Komm zurück! Der Drache ist noch nicht zerstört!” Kohlmeier yelled.

    But it was too late - the undead headless dragon rolled, one of its wings lashing out and slamming into the Storm Wizard, swatting the man down and on to the street as if he were a fly.

    “How can it see?” Ari asked as the dragon stood, rotting neck swaying in the wind.

    “Don’t move!” Kohlmeier yelled. “It can sense movement.”

    “So it could hunt down disillusioned enemies, I suppose?” Harry asked.

    “The weaknesses of a dragon’s eyes are well-documented. I would have been a poor planner if I hadn’t taken the possibility of a blinding strike into account,” Kohlmeier said.

    “Well, not taking the possibility of someone turning your own creation against you into account won’t get you on a Chocolate Frog card as a great strategist either,” Harry snapped. “How do we fight this thing now?”

    “It won’t detect you if you don’t move.”

    “But let me guess: It’ll keep flying towards your last location so we can’t lure it anywhere by moving and then freezing,” Harry said.

    “I see that great minds think alike,” Kohlmeier replied. The bastard was even smiling!

    “I merely tried to think of the worst possible choice for us,” Harry retorted. Sighing, he added: “Well, there’s only one choice: I’ll play bait again.”

    “Hitting the stump of its neck will be a little harder than hitting its head was,” Kohlmeier pointed out. “Even though it has lost its ability to spit fire.”

    “Not if it’s immobilised,” Harry retorted.

    “Oh, yes!” Ron chimed in. He understood Harry’s plan without being told.

    But so did Hermione. “Harry! That’s too dangerous!”

    “It’s the best solution,” Harry defended his idea.

    “Apart from cursing Kraft so she has to move, and then the dragon will go after her,” Ari unhelpfully added.

    “Get ready!” Harry snapped before that plan could gain any traction and accelerated.

    As soon as he was moving, the headless undead dragon turned and flew after him. Perfect.

    He had a lead on it - enough to lure it in a wide curve, gaining speed, as he flew towards the building to which the escape tunnel led.

    “Harry! No!” Hermione yelled.

    She must not have realised the details of his plan until now. But it was too late to stop. Harry leaned forward, chin almost touching the shaft of his Firebolt, and skimmed over the roofs, then dived down to street level - and headed straight for the wide open window facing the temple. He had to time this perfectly…

    “Harry!”

    Harry couldn’t check how close the dragon was. The slightest mistake would see him crash against solid, warded stone. Twenty yards. Ten. Five.

    He flew through the window, pulling left with all his might, scraping by the pillar in the middle of the room, then rolled to clear the door - he was a little too slow, and his shield shattered as it hit the stone wall and hardwood frame. Harry managed to stabilise his flight, but his side scraped against the other wall, and he pushed off with his foot as he shot towards the back door.

    He managed to cast a Shield Charm a moment before he shattered it by crashing through the door and through the resulting cloud of wood fragments and splinters.

    He was still pulling up to avoid smashing into the wall of the neighbouring building when the house behind him shook as the headless dragon crashed into it - and got stuck when the upper floors and roof collapsed before it could get out again.

    Harry had turned around and sent a Blasting Curse down the neck of the headless beast before the rest of his friends and Kohlmeier could reach him, and he watched with both satisfaction and relief as the upper part of the dragon’s chest blew up from the inside.

    “Harry! You fool!”

    And he winced when he saw Hermione flying straight at him with tears in her eyes.

    *****​

    “Argue later! We’re not done yet!” Ron Weasley heard Ari yell. She was right, of course - they still had to deal with Kohlmeier. And Kraft. And the Inferi on the ground.

    “I know,” Hermione snapped, swinging her broom round to come to a stop near Harry. Ron could see her lips move, so she was probably still berating Harry, but her attention was on Kohlmeier.

    As was his, Harry’s and Ari’s, of course. The man was the greatest threat in the cavern, now that the dragon had been destroyed. Even though he was about a hundred yards away, too far to dependably hit anything with a spell.

    “I don’t suppose you lost control of another undead creature meant to attack us?” Harry asked in his amplified voice.

    “I don’t think so, no,” Kohlmeier replied using the same charm. “That was excellent thinking, Mr Potter, by the way. An obvious tactic in hindsight, but to come up with it on the fly? No wonder you’re Dumbledore’s protege.”

    “I’m not his protege,” Harry retorted. “We’re Curse-Breakers.”

    Kohlmeier could have a few more such surprises in his enchanted pockets, of course, Ron thought as Ari joined him, forming two pairs of brooms facing the dark wizard.

    “Exceptional ones, I’d say.” The man sounded genuinely impressed. “In any case, I think this was a very enlightening affair.”

    “I’ve cast a Wind-Making Charm,” Hermione said. “Just in case he tries to poison us again.”

    “I guess our truce is now over,” Harry told Kohlmeier.

    Ron tensed. They had the advantage in the air - unless the dark wizard had been holding back while being chased by the dragon, he wasn’t as good on a broom as Harry or Ron. But he was a very dangerous wizard - and a blood mage. And he sounded far too confident for Ron’s liking.

    “Is there anything to be gained by resuming hostilities?” Kohlmeier replied. “I’m not as arrogant as to claim that I’m certain to defeat all of you - as today proved, I’m not perfect - but I think I can guarantee that, should a fight break out, at least one of your number will die.”

    Ron tensed, gripping his wand tightly.

    “But I, for one, am not interested in fighting,” Kohlmeier went on. “The risks are too great for my taste. You’ve won this round, Mr Potter.”

    ‘This round’? “He’s all but announcing that he’ll attack us again,” Ron said. Better to take him out now, when they were ready and he didn’t have more Storm Wizards helping him.

    “But he’s also right about the consequences should we attack him now,” Harry said in a normal voice.

    “But can we count on having better odds when he comes after us again?” Ari asked.

    “There’s no reason for him to come after us,” Hermione pointed out. “The moment we can leave here, we’ll inform Dumbledore, and the cavern will be secured at once. He knows that.”

    “Sure there is,” Ari retorted. “We’ve defeated him and his men every time we’ve faced them. His reputation will suffer until he beats us.”

    That was a very good point, in Ron’s opinion. “Defeated while outnumbering us five to one,” he added. Of course, one of them was the Boy-Who-Lived, but it was still embarrassing.

    “I don’t want to lose any of you,” Harry said, looking around.

    And there it was. Ron pressed his lips together. Someone would probably die if they fought. If they let the dark wizard go, no one else had to die today. And Dumbledore would be involved. He shook his head. “I don’t want that either.”

    Ari grumbled, but agreed, as did Hermione.

    Harry recast the Amplifying Charm. “We’re not exactly eager to fight you, Mr Kohlmeier.”

    “That is nice to hear,” the dark wizard replied. “So shall we work on dispelling all the jinxes blocking us from leaving the cavern?”

    “He stinks,” Ari said, sniffing the air. “Worse than Mallory.”

    “He’s cursed as well?” Hermione blurted out.

    “I don’t know,” Ari replied. “He stinks. Almost like the temple.”

    Ron heard Hermione gasp. “Merlin’s pants! Ari, I don’t think you’re smelling blood curses - I think you’re smelling blood mages.”

    “I’m not a blood mage!” Harry protested - but in his amplified voice.

    “I never said you were,” Kohlmeier replied. “Although I’m certain that a wizard of your talents would be an exceptional blood mage. Far more powerful than the late and unlamented Mr Mallory.”

    “But you did cast a blood curse. On yourself. Which Ari smelled. If it was the act of casting a blood curse that triggered the scent she smells,” Hermione said, sounding as she usually did when she solved a riddle, “then that would explain it.”

    “It’s a theory,” Harry admitted in his normal voice. After recasting the charm once more, he addressed Kohlmeier. “I’ve got no intention of dabbling in the Dark Arts.”

    “I thought the same, once.”

    “I’m not like you.”

    “Perhaps not. But I’ve heard how you found this location. You definitely have the aptitude for blood magic.”

    “And you’re a blood mage and a murderer!” Ari yelled. “You and your men murdered Mr Sayadi!”

    “An unfortunate accident - we wanted to kidnap him, actually.”

    “Is he smiling?” Ron asked.

    “Yes,” Ari replied - without dispelling her Charm.

    “But those responsible are already dead,” Kohlmeier went on. “At your hand, I believe. And while I admit to killing Mr Mallory, I don’t think you will miss him. He was working with Fräulein Kraft from before you met him. Everything you discovered, he shared with her. Oh, and he was an accomplished blood mage as well, although I already mentioned that, I believe.”

    “And you sacrificed him!”

    Ron glanced to his side. Kraft was hovering a hundred yards away from both them and Kohlmeier.

    “Yes, I did. Did you expect me to leave him alive? After putting him under the Imperius Curse? Did you expect him to forgive and forget? I saved your life there - you would have been his first target.” Kohlmeier shook his head as he calmly talked about using the Unforgivables. But then, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t already admitted to worse crimes. Sighing, the dark wizard turned back to Ron and his friends. “Now, I don’t think anything would be served by resuming our fight. Too many have died already. Let us deal with the jinxes, and then we’ll part ways.”

    “They’ll go straight to Dumbledore!” Kraft yelled.

    “Indeed, I expect them to,” Kohlmeier replied.

    “They’ll tell him that I was working with you!” Kraft sounded… surprised. But also… shocked.

    “Yes, I think they will.”

    “I’ll be considered a criminal!”

    “My dear, you are a criminal. You were working for me, weren’t you?” Kohlmeier laughed. “You betrayed Mallory to me, didn’t you? And then you betrayed me when you fled, leaving the rest of us to fight the dragon and die.” He chuckled. “I’d kill you for that if letting bounty hunters do it weren’t far more fitting.”

    Ron couldn’t help chuckling at that himself, despite Hermione’s glare. Ari bared her teeth in a wide smile.

    “You… you…” Kraft shook her head. “You won’t get away with this!”

    “My dear, who is going to stop me? Mr Potter and his friends won’t risk their lives over this - certainly not for you. And you?” Kohlmeier scoffed. “Anyone here could defeat you in their sleep.”

    “We’ll see about that!” Kraft, still shaking her head wildly, pulled something out of her robes and threw it - towards Kohlmeier and Ron’s group.

    Ron sent a spell at it - and he wasn’t the only one, of course. But the distance was too far and the thing moved too quickly. All of their spells missed, and a moment later, halfway between them and Kohlmeier, it burst apart. For a moment, he thought someone had hit it.

    The he saw the fragments grow rapidly. And heard the buzzing from dozens or hundreds of wings as owl-sized beetles - scarabs - spread their wings and formed a swarm. No, multiple swarms.

    “The Wings of Justice - they still exist!” he heard Hermione exclaim. “Don’t hit them!”

    “What?” Harry yelled as they flew away from the incoming swarm. “Why?”

    A curse from Kohlmeier which struck one of the scarabs flying at the retreating dark wizard answered that. The beetle blew up - and two more reformed.

    “They multiply if damaged,” Hermione explained anyway.

    “You cannot escape the swarm! It’s the most powerful artifact of Pharaoh Senakhtenre Ahmose!” Kraft’s gloating voice filled the air. “They will mercilessly hunt down all criminals! They will… No! No! NOOOO!”

    Ron glanced over his shoulder and grimaced. A body covered with the scarabs was falling to the ground in a shower of blood and gore. The things had ripped Kraft to shreds.

    “Yes, all criminals,” Hermione spat. “Stupid idiot.”

    They were in full retreat now. The scarabs were slower than their brooms - but there were too many of them. And Ron didn’t think the things would be tiring any time soon, if ever.

    “How do we stop them?” Ari asked.

    “I’ll see if freezing them works,” Harry said. “Immobulus!”

    His spell hit the closest beetle and it froze immediately - then started to fall.

    Ron caught it with a Levitation Charm before it hit the ground, but the other beetles were still chasing them, and he had to let it drop anyway to gain more distance. It crashed into a roof.

    “It didn’t break,” Ari reported.

    “Freeze them all!” Harry yelled. “We can sort them out later.”

    “So much for the Pharaoh’s most powerful artifact,” Ari said as everyone started to cast and beetles fell from the sky in rapidly growing numbers, some of them smashing into Inferi on the streets.

    “The Freezing Charm wasn’t invented yet at the time they were created,” Hermione explained. “Neither were wands. What we are doing was impossible for wizards at the time. Records claim the Wings of Justice killed their creator and the knowledge to make them died with him,” she added.

    That explained why Ron had never heard of them. He hit another with the charm. Where was Kohlmeier? Oh. The dark wizard had taken to literally freezing the beetles - large chunks of Ice containing one or more beetles swam in the harbour.

    A few minutes later, the last of the scarabs was dealt with. For now, at least.

    Which left them with Kohlmeier. And hundreds of Inferi gathered in the streets below.

    *****​
     
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  29. RedX

    RedX Know what you're doing yet?

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    We see now the fundamental difference between a dumb villain and a smart one. Excellent update!
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Chapter 29: Endgame
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 29: Endgame

    ‘Few professions today are as romanticised as the so-called ‘tomb raiders’ - the Curse-Breakers in the employ of Gringotts. Mainly working in Egypt, they raid the tombs of Ancient Egyptian wizards and witches, braving traps and curses to unearth ancient treasures and lore thought lost forever, always one step ahead of the craven grave robbers threatening to plunder those sites. Or so Gringotts would like you to believe.
    In reality, the only difference between a grave robber and a tomb raider is that the latter works for the goblins, who managed to acquire the exclusive rights to plunder the tombs in Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. And only a fool would think that Gringotts was actually motivated by anything other than pure greed. They only care about amassing more treasure from the tombs of wizards and witches long dead. What lore tomb raiders in their employ might discover and share with the Wizarding World is merely a byproduct of organised grave robbing, serving to portray Gringotts’ operations as noble endeavours, while they continue to loot the very history of Magical Egypt - often destroying the very lore they claim to be seeking, if it means they can deal with a trap more easily so that they can recover more gold and other treasure.
    In the same vein, the famous works of the likes of Gilderoy Lockhart or Petunia Evans serve the same goal. One presents Curse-Breaking as a daring adventure with a dashing hero facing undead monsters and ancient dark curses, the other offers the reader papers and essays detailing Ancient Egypt’s civilisation, but both gloss over the fact that they are not any different from the grave robbers they claim to fight but for a piece of parchment stamped by foreign rulers.
    All of them disturb the rest of our ancestors for personal gain and rob us of our heritage out of greed. And they do it with the blessing and protection of the Ottomans, who are supposedly our benevolent rulers and protectors. How much longer will the wizards and witches of Egypt tolerate this farce? How many more tombs will be plundered and destroyed for greed?’
    - Excerpt from ‘Egypt: Exploited and Extorted’ by Abdel Nour al-Safar, Athen, 1999


    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench,
    December 18th, 2001

    Hermione Granger cast a privacy charm as soon as the last scarab fell to the ground, frozen by magic. Who knew whether Kohlmeier was listening from afar? The dark wizard would certainly know the spells needed to eavesdrop on them. “What do we do now?” she asked.

    “Nothing’s really changed,” Harry replied.

    “Apart from Kraft killing herself,” Ari said with bared teeth.

    “Good riddance,” Ron muttered.

    Hermione winced. She knew the sight of the Prussian being ripped apart by the scarabs - devoured alive if not for the fact that the constructs didn’t actually eat - would haunt her for some time. “So we keep the truce with Kohlmeier?”

    “Unless he attacks us,” Harry agreed.

    “I don’t trust him,” Ari said. “He will take revenge. Just remember what he said to Kraft.”

    “She betrayed him,” Harry replied.

    “More like disobeyed him. Can’t say I blame her for that, after Mallory’s death,” Ron added.

    Ari scoffed in obvious disagreement.

    “Yes, he won’t let this go,” Harry said. “But I think our chances are better if we…” He trailed off, his eyes narrowing.

    Kohlmeier was approaching them again, though, as before, he stopped about a hundred yards away. “So, before we were so rudely interrupted, we were talking about continuing our truce, weren’t we?” his amplified voice rang out.

    Harry sighed, the cast another Amplifying Charm. “Yes, we were. Although there were some reservations.” Hermione saw him squint again. Something was moving towards them from the temple.

    “Mallory’s ghost,” Ari spat.

    Hermione tensed. A ghost generally couldn’t really harm the living. But they were flying above streets filled with Inferi, and Mr Mallory had become a ghost after being sacrificed in a blood magic ritual on the very site of the largest sacrificial ritual she had ever heard about. And he had, apparently, taken over the ritual because he was a blood mage himself.

    “Hello,” the ghost greeted them with a faint smile - as if he were just out for a stroll. Well, after Hermione had recast the privacy charm to include him.

    “Mr Mallory.” Harry curtly nodded. “We heard you were sacrificed.”

    “And that you were a blood mage,” Ron added.

    “Both true,” the ghost said.

    “And that you betrayed us,” Ari snarled.

    “That’s not entirely incorrect. However, I never planned to lead Kohlmeier to you. I was betrayed myself,” Mr Mallory’s ghost replied. “Betrayed, controlled and murdered.”

    “And you took revenge on your murderers,” Hermione told him. “You took over the ritual and controlled the Inferi.”

    “I merely set them free,” the ghost said.

    “Why did you betray us? We were sticking to our agreement.” Hermione shook her head. “There was no reason to do so.”

    “When you visited me, I was already working with Kraft,” he said. “Or thought I was.” He shrugged. “It seemed the best way to achieve my goals. She gets the fame, I get the lore.”

    “What were your goals?” Harry asked.

    “Revenge, of course.” He sneered. “Revenge on the houngans. Ending their reign of terror. Stopping their rituals forever. Justice for their victims. Like me. The power of the Atlanteans would have allowed me to do that.”

    “You planned to fight the houngans using blood and soul magic?” Ron shook his head. “Talk about pot and kettle.”

    “The ends justify the means,” Mr Mallory’s ghost retorted.

    “Not when it concerns the Dark Arts,” Harry said.

    The ghost shrugged again. “It doesn’t matter any more. I failed.” He smiled. “But I’m still going to get my revenge on the last of my murderers.”

    “By using us?” Harry asked. “You expect us to risk our lives for you?”

    When Hermione saw the ghost’s smile, she felt her stomach drop. He looked so smug, so secure… If he wasn’t delusional, then he really knew something that would make them fight Kohlmeier.

    “I expect you to fight for your lives,” the ghost retorted. “Kohlmeier spent decades with the houngans. You’ve seen his mastery of Inferi. Do you honestly believe that he didn’t learn at least the foundations of sympathetic magic?”

    Hermione drew a hissing breath. She should have thought of that herself!

    *****​

    Harry Potter clenched his teeth. Sympathetic magic. Voodoo. Blood magic, sympathetic magic and possibly soul magic as well. Kohlmeier was one of the worst dark wizards indeed.

    “That’s right!” the ghost exclaimed. “He won’t have to track you down and find you! He’ll simply curse you from afar.”

    “He needs a sympathetic link for that,” Hermione pointed out.

    “Hair or blood, or a piece of clothing or a favoured item - did you destroy everything you left behind?” The ghost smirked. “You didn’t. I lived with you for months, playing the nice, older wizard. The poor, blood-cursed scholar, spending days brewing potions to keep myself alive.” He laughed. “And you fell for it.”

    “You traitor!” Ari growled. “You collected the links!”

    “Not for sympathetic magic, of course.” Mallory’s ghost sneered. “I would never stoop that low. But there are other uses for such things if you know your potions. But as with everything I did, he profited in the end.” He nodded towards Kohlmeier.

    Harry felt his stomach drop. Mallory would have had more than enough opportunities to gather materials suitable for sympathetic links. And if Kohlmeier got the samples...

    “You…” Ron hissed through clenched teeth. “This is all your fault!”

    The ghost shrugged. “Things didn’t go according to plan. It doesn’t matter any more anyway, does it? What matters is the danger Kohlmeier represents.” He grinned. “Once he leaves here, he’ll be able to curse you whenever he wants to. You won’t see it coming. You’ll have to hide behind the strongest protections for the rest of your lives, never knowing if a curse will strike you, should you set a foot past the wardline. No more Curse-Breaking. No more archaeology. No more studying ancient Atlantis.” He cocked his head. “Can you stomach that?”

    The ghost was manipulating them. Harry knew that. And he knew that without Mallory working with Kraft, Kohlmeier wouldn’t have found them. Ultimately, it was Mallory’s fault.

    But Mallory was dead. This was just a ghost - an imprint of the older wizard’s mind. Ultimately inconsequential. Kohlmeier, though, was very much alive. And a threat to them all.

    “We’re not your slaves to order around!” Ari hissed.

    She was right, of course. But this wasn’t about Mallory. This was about Kohlmeier, and what he could - and would - do.

    “You could be lying about taking our blood and hair,” Hermione said. “There is no way to prove your claim - other than defeating Kohlmeier and checking his body. Which is what you want.”

    “There is no proof, indeed. And, being a ghost, I cannot offer to take Veritaserum, or swear a blood oath as you’ve done,” he added with a sneer. “But can you take the risk that I’m not telling the truth? You heard what he told Kraft. You know what kind of wizard he is - the worst kind. He’s a houngan in all but name.”

    “While I cannot follow your conversation, Mr Potter, I think I should point out that you’re talking to the ghost of a blood mage who betrayed you and died taking over a blood ritual, sending out Inferi to scour the cavern of all humans,” Kohlmeier interrupted their conversation. “He is anything but a trustworthy source of information. He just wants to manipulate you.”

    Of course, Mallory’s ghost was doing that - he had admitted it, after all. And yet, the ghost’s arguments were too logical, too convincing, to be dismissed merely because he was an untrustworthy blood mage.

    But to attack Kohlmeier like this… No matter how logical, it didn’t sit well with Harry. He cast another Amplification Charm - he’d lost count how many he had cast today - waited until Hermione dispelled her privacy charm and replied: “We’re well aware of that.”

    “I told them everything,” Mallory’s ghost yelled. “Everything!

    Harry saw Kohlmeier jerk on his broom in response and reacted before he thought about it, flicking his wand to conjure a swarm of birds between them and the dark wizard. A moment later, the animals vanished in an explosion when Kohlmeier’s spell hit them.

    “Scatter and keep moving!” he yelled, urging his broom forward as, behind him, Mallory’s ghost started to laugh like a madman.

    He sent a volley of curses towards Kohlmeier, mostly to spoil the man’s aim and concentration - at that range, it would take a lot of luck to hit a moving target. And Harry wasn’t putting much trust in his luck today.

    Kohlmeier climbed, corkscrewing and rolling to throw off Harry’s aim. That slowed him down, of course, and… Harry cursed as he rolled and banked to avoid a barrage of curses that came too close for comfort.

    He glanced around as he kept swerving while keeping the pursuit up. Ron was rushing to cut Kohlmeier off from the side, and Hermione and Ari were conjuring bats and birds. Safely away from Kohlmeier.

    Yes, they could do this. Harry sent a few more spells at Kohlmeier, slowing him down some more. With Ron about to box the dark wizard in…

    Suddenly, a green cloud appeared in front of Harry. He pulled to the side as hard as he could and cast a Ventus Jinx to disperse the obstruction. The small whirlwind tore into the cloud, literally blowing it away, and Harry shot through the remains. That had been close.

    “Harry!” Hermione yelled through the enchanted pin in his collar.

    “I’m alright,” he replied. But more such clouds were appearing. Many more.

    “What are those clouds?” Ron asked. He was, as a glance told Harry, having to evade a lot of them - and had more trouble cornering Kohlmeier.

    “It’s acid! Don’t enter a cloud!” Hermione yelled.

    “Dissolved a bird instantly,” Ari added.

    “Bloody hell! He’ll poison the entire cavern if he continues like this!” Ron blurted out.

    “He’s keeping us busy dealing with these,” Harry said. “Allowing him to break off contact and hide.” He cast another Air-Cleaning Charm that dissipated a cloud which was drifting closer to him.

    “He can’t hide on the ground. I bet the Inferi can detect disillusioned people,” Ron pointed out. “That leaves the roofs... Damn, almost got caught in a cloud!”

    “Be careful!” Hermione yelled.

    “Keep moving and changing direction!” Harry told them.

    “The clouds neutralise our animals,” Hermione said. “That could allow him to use a Disillusionment Charm to hide in the sky.”

    Which would allow him to attack them from ambush… Harry clenched his teeth. They couldn’t let him get away. He cast another Ventus Jinx and cleared a path to the still fleeing Kohlmeier. They were in a cavern - Kohlmeier would run out of airspace soon if he kept this up.

    But Harry and his friends might run out of airspace themselves before that if they couldn’t stop Kohlmeier. He pressed his lips together. He didn’t like doing this, but it was their best chance. “Hermione, Ari - join us. We need to stick together so we can clear the air around us and keep the pressure up on Kohlmeier.”

    They didn’t hesitate, as he had known they wouldn’t. “We’re coming,” Hermione said.

    “Yes!” Ari added.

    But they were slow, and would have to dodge the drifting clouds - the clouds Kohlmeier kept conjuring. And they couldn’t fly too fast, or they wouldn’t be able to dodge. “Ron, link up with them. I’ll keep the pressure up until you reach me. We can’t let him get away.”

    “Harry!” “Mate!”

    He pressed on, ignoring their exclamations. Someone had to do it.

    Kohlmeier was turning around - though in a wide arc that would keep him out of Harry’s range. “He’s coming for you!” Harry warned the others, weaving between the thicker parts of the clouds the dark wizard kept conjuring in his path and using quick Ventus Jinxes to disperse those he couldn’t dodge. But he wasn’t able to close the distance. Not like this.

    He cast a volley of Cutting Curses, one of which clipped the Prussian’s Shield Charm, but his spell held. And Kohlmeier was now flying directly at the others. Harry frantically cast curse after curse, but the dark wizard was still too far away and moving too fast.

    Ron had no better luck either - Kohlmeier evaded his Piercing Curses with a corkscrewing roll. Hermione’s Ventus Hex drove Kohlmeier off course by quite a bit, but he recovered quickly. And Ari’s net of vines fell far short - and to the ground.

    In exchange, Kohlmeier sent a swarm of birds at Harry’s friends - and followed up with Blasting Curses aimed at the birds. As Harry desperately tried to hit Kohlmeier, the shockwaves from the explosions hit his friends and blew them away.

    *****​

    “No!” Ron Weasley yelled as he was blown arse over teakettle. If not for the Sticking Charm, he’d have been thrown off his broom. Even so, he had to struggle to regain control over his broom before he ended up in an acid cloud - and Hermione and Ari weren’t as skilled in broom-riding as he and Harry were!

    There was Hermione, still rolling and twisting around herself, but she had been blown upwards, away from the clouds and would be safe for a moment. But where was Ari?

    There! His heart seemed to skip a beat as he saw Ari clip a cloud. She screamed, but could still cast - but even as she conjured a neutralising liquid over herself, he could see the bristles of her broom starting to fall off.

    Urging his own broom forward, he raced towards her, ducking around another thick cloud. Kohlmeier was still nearby, but Ari would fall to her death if he couldn’t catch her.

    Something appeared in his path - a bird! He vanished the thing, then rolled, and Kohlmeier’s next Blasting Curse went past him without hitting anything.

    Ari was losing altitude rapidly now, as her broom started to fail, only a handful of bristles still remaining. But he was close. Just a little more…

    Another explosion shattered his Shield Charm and blew him off-course. He recast it by reflex as he resumed his path, but Ari was falling now.

    “Accio Ari’s clothes!” he yelled in desperation. His spell worked, and she was pulled up and towards him - two more curses narrowly missing her as Kohlmeier tried to take advantage of the opportunity.

    Then another cloud, of thick, dark smoke this time, appeared, between them and Kohlmeier, obscuring him from view - and allowing Ron to pull Ari on his broom.

    “He disappeared in the cloud!” Harry reported. “I’ve lost sight of him.”

    “I had to cast it, or he’d have killed Ari,” Hermione said. A moment later, her next Ventus Hex blew the smoke away - but Kohlmeier had disappeared.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger struggled to remain calm. She couldn’t panic. Even though one of the most dangerous dark wizards on earth was trying to kill her and her friends, and had just disillusioned himself outside the range of their detection spells. He could be almost anywhere!

    She conjured more bats and sent them out. Half of them died after flying through some thinning acid clouds, but the others provided some coverage. Some. There was a reason the man had waited to disappear until a lot of the airspace was contaminated with his spells.

    Ron flew up to her - slowed down by his broom carrying both him and Ari. They would be slower than her, Hermione realised. They would be the easiest target for Kohlmeier. They could take the Range Rover, but that would make them an even bigger and slower target...

    “We need to clean the air!” she yelled, following with Air-Cleaning Charms and more bats.

    “Keep moving!” Harry shouted.

    “We are,” she snapped back. A flick of her wand made more clouds vanish. More bats survived.

    Ari was conjuring bats as well. Probably vampire bats, Hermione thought, since those were native to the other witch’s home. It didn’t matter - any bat would do. Provided they survived.

    But with Ron helping, and Harry finally joining them, they could make headway. And they were making progress - more than expected, actually.

    She blinked. “He’s no longer conjuring acid clouds.” But that meant they would, sooner rather than later, be able to cover the entire airspace of the cavern with bats and other animals, preventing him from hiding in the air.

    “He’s on the ground,” Harry replied.

    “With the Inferi?” Ari scoffed.

    “No. He has to be somewhere safe from the zombies,” Ron added. “Not the temple - they can enter and leave it. And the other buildings aren’t protected against them either.”

    “That leaves the water… He’s trying to take the sphere and leave that way!” Hermione blurted out.

    “We’ll stop him!” Harry replied. A moment later, he was racing towards the pier.

    “Don’t pull ahead!” Ron yelled, but Harry only marginally slowed down.

    “Harry!”

    He didn’t listen but wove around a few remaining clouds of acid - most of them close to dropping into the water, Hermione noticed. The ground and sea must be covered with acid, she realised, even though it would be massively diluted in the water. The ground, though...

    “It’s moving!” Harry yelled. “The bastard’s piloting it!” He dived, wand pointed at the sphere, which was moving slowly at surface level through the water towards the gate

    Ice appeared around the sphere, trapping it. The spells on it weren’t strong enough to keep it moving.

    Hermione blinked. How had Kohlmeier been moving it in the first place? They hadn’t taught Mr Mallory how to do that. It wasn’t too difficult, but… if he could move it, why hadn’t he dived? Used the water as a shield? Her eyes widened. “Don’t go near the sphere! It’s a trap!”

    Harry pulled up at once, but before he managed to gain altitude, the air around the sphere blew up in a fireball - right below Harry!

    Hermione’s heart missed a beat. Harry couldn’t…

    Another fireball erupted beneath her and her friends. She felt the heat wash over her, followed by a shockwave that shattered her shield and pushed her upwards with the force of a sledgehammer, robbing her of breath and spinning her around.

    Stuck to the broom, she didn’t fall, but it took her several seconds to stabilise and reorient herself.

    Then the pain hit her, and she screamed for what seemed like an eternity until she managed to cast a Numbing Spell on her blistering skin.

    “Keep moving!” Harry yelled.

    Panting, she urged her broom forward. More clouds were appearing in the sky again as Kohlmeier tried to catch them while they were still reeling. No - while he was trying to catch Ron and Ari with a cloud. Their broom was struggling even more, damaged as it now was.

    Kohlmeier must have flooded the area with the same gas he had used in the temple. To fall for the same trick twice in a row… not their best performance. But Kohlmeier had to be nearby. He must have had a line of sight to the sphere. And a line of sight to them. And it had to be safe from Inferi. That meant… “He has to be in one of the buildings on the pier!”

    But which one? She kept flying erratically and tried to study the buildings. All looked harmless - but for the Inferi prowling in the streets. Inferi…

    “He has to have protected his building against Inferi!” she yelled. “Some charm to keep them away.” She blinked. “No, something to mask it from Inferi!” He would know how to fool his own creations, after all. “Is there a building they’re ignoring?”

    She could hear the fierce satisfaction in Harry’s voice as he replied: “Yes, there is!”

    *****​

    There! Harry Potter bared his teeth, trying to ignore the pain from his burns and other wounds. There was the building the Inferi were ignoring - the second-largest building facing the pier. He could see Ari and Hermione’s bats gathering in the air above the waterfront - they weren’t focusing on a single building. Smart - that would prevent Kohlmeier from realising he had been found.

    But how to get at Kohlmeier…? It would be perfect if they could turn his own tactics against him. But they didn’t know how to conjure such acid clouds, and the things they could conjure - like fuel dispersed in the air, or methane or chlorine gas - either wouldn’t be effective enough, and easily countered with magic, or else would be too effective, and doom them all. And as great as snakes were, Kohlmeier would expect them, and have a bezoar ready in case one bit him. So…

    Harry smiled. He wasn’t a dark wizard. He and his friends were tomb raiders. Curse-Breakers.

    They’d beat Kohlmeier using their own skills. He touched the pin in his collar and informed the others of his plan.

    Then he started to flood the building with conjured fuel. High-octane, not that it mattered.

    “Ari’s vines are growing underground,” Ron reported. “Haven’t found any tunnels yet.”

    “Keep looking,” Harry replied as he set the fuel afire. The flames shot into the air, and, for a moment, he could feel the heat.

    Then it vanished. Flame-Freezing Charm.

    “Fire hasn’t been much of a threat to wizards for hundreds of years, Mr Potter,” Kohlmeier’s voice rang out.

    “And since time immemorial, overconfidence has brought low many a wizard,” he retorted with the help of an Amplifying Charm.

    “You should heed your own warning, then,” Kohlmeier said. “What’s next, poison gas?”

    “We wouldn’t want to copy you,” Harry shot back. He sent a few Reductor Curses at the building’s roof.

    “Vines have covered the underground,” Ari said. “Two tunnels lead out of the building.”

    “We’re sealing them up,” Ron replied. “It’ll take a while, though.”

    “You don’t?” Kohlmeier laughed. “And yet, you cast a flawless blood curse.”

    Harry swallowed his first retort. They hadn’t had any alternative. “On myself.”

    “Splitting hairs? I assure you, it doesn’t matter. Blood magic is blood magic.”

    “Why you’re casting a spell, and on whom, matters,” Harry replied. “As does the nature of your sacrifice.” He cast a volley of Blasting Curses at the roof. Stone splinters flew through the air as the building’s protections started to weaken under the assault.

    “You know… what would you do if I surrendered and demanded a trial? And denounced you as a blood mage? Murder a helpless prisoner, therefore taking the law into your hands, or find yourself next to me in the dock, facing a trial for using blood magic?”

    Harry gritted his teeth and kept his curses up, the building trembling under his attacks.

    Something flew towards him. Mallory’s ghost, Harry recognised him easily.

    “You won’t get him like this,” the ghost said. “He can easily repair the roof with a single spell.”

    “He’s still inside, then?” Harry asked. He assumed so, but to know for sure...

    “Yes. It’s the second-most secure building in the area.”

    “Not for much longer,” Harry said, grinning as he saw Hermione wave.

    And his grin grew as the Inferi on the streets started to enter the building below him. Hermione had broken Kohlmeier’s Inferi-repelling spell.

    And since Kohlmeier hadn’t cast it in the temple to save his men, Harry honestly doubted that the dark wizard could cast the spell fast enough to stop the horde advancing on him. It probably was a ritual, which means he must have blockaded himself inside the building with conjured walls in order to gain the time to cast the protection spell and force the Inferi banging against the walls away. And that wouldn’t work again with Harry and his friends battering the building from above.

    *****​

    Ron Weasley watched as the Inferi stormed into the building. And more were coming, in a rather rushed way. “They must be able to sense living humans,” he muttered as he guided his and Ari’s broom to a position above and to the south of the building.

    “Yes,” Ari agreed. “Pack tactics.”

    Indeed - the creatures broke into the building in multiple locations, battering away wooden shutters and doors.

    “Verdammt!”

    Ron smirked at hearing the surprised curse from Kohlmeier. He didn’t sound as smug any more, did he? He even forgot to cancel his Amplifying Charm. Unless he hadn’t forgotten, and this was just a ruse to lull them into a false sense of triumph. “Stay sharp!” Ron spoke into his pin, “He’ll have to make a break for it soon.” The Inferi wouldn’t take much longer to find him.

    An explosion shook the house - not caused by any spell of Ron’s or his friends’. And another explosion followed it almost immediately. Some smoke rose from the building but was immediately blown back downwards by the Wind-Making Charms they were using to counter any more of Kohlmeier’s gas attacks. Yet another explosion. The dark wizard was fighting the Inferi with all his might, it seemed. They had expected that, of course - if Kohlmeier had had a way to end them easily, he would have done so in the temple.

    Well, he could have hidden up inside a conjured bunker, of course. But he wouldn’t last long once they got a clear line of sight to it after collapsing the roof. No, the dark wizard would try to escape, as he had before. Evade, hide and try to kill them again.

    But they were close enough, forming a perfect triangle, to cover the entire building with their Human-presence-revealing Spells.

    Another explosion.

    “Scheisse!”

    Another curse from the enemy. Ron grinned. Making his Inferi so resistant to spells, especially fire, wasn’t paying off for Kohlmeier.

    “He should surrender,” Hermione said.

    “He won’t,” Harry replied. “He knows what will happen to him if he’s caught.”

    “Stay sharp!” Ron added, his wand already aimed. “It won’t be long now.” Any moment now…

    “The vines haven’t been touched. He’s not digging,” Ari reported.

    “But he must expect us to be ready to attack him,” Hermione pointed out. She sounded nervous - but then, Kohlmeier would likely try to go through her. She wasn’t quite as good on her broom as Ron and Harry were, and she was alone since Ari was with Ron.

    “He’ll try a distraction,” Harry said. “Probably… there!”

    Black smoke erupted from every hole in the building’s walls. Their charms kept the smoke from rising but blew it downwards so it covered the streets - dense enough to hide the cobblestones from sight. If that went on for a little while…

    But with the Inferi not bothered by smoke or fire, and still chasing him, Kohlmeier must have decided against waiting any longer. Ron saw a marker pop up at the edge of the building, low on the ground. “He’s here!” he yelled, sending a Stinging Hex at the area. It wouldn’t hit, and even if it did, it wouldn’t do anything - but it let the others see where Kohlmeier was.

    And that he was below them. Just as planned.

    Ron guided his broom to intercept the fleeing dark wizard, ending up in a pincer movement with Harry as they came into range, shortly afterwards followed by Hermione. Kohlmeier noticed, of course, and curses flew up at them - too close for Ron’s liking, but none hit them. And then they were close enough.

    “Ventus Tria!” Ron yelled, and from the tip of his wand erupted a small cyclone aimed at the marker below him.

    A moment later, Harry joined in with his own Ventus Spell, followed by Hermione.

    With all of them above their target, Kohlmeier, flying at a very low altitude, wasn’t blown away, as would have happened during their chase.

    Instead he was blown down on to the street, smashing into it. At least that was what Ron deduced was happening, judging by the marker’s location and movement.

    And by the Inferi closing in on the location despite the storm centred on Kohlmeier hampering their movement. A few more curses shot towards Ron and his friends, but even though they were not moving as quickly as they had earlier, none even came close to hitting them.

    “Verdammte Scheisse!”

    Kohlmeier still hadn’t cancelled the Amplifying Charm, it seemed.

    “Nein! NEIN!” And a moment later: “Reducto!” Ron quickly changed course with his and Ari’s broom.

    But no spell flew towards them. A moment later, he saw a headless corpse appear on the street wearing Kohlmeier’s robes.

    Then the Inferi covered it and started to feed.

    *****​

    Hermione Granger winced at the gruesome sight below them. At least Kohlmeier had already been dead when the monsters reached him. If he had been devoured alive… She shuddered at the thought. Then at another. “Could it be a trick?” she asked, already turning to watch the building. “Could he have used a double to fool us?” With the right preparation, you could, in theory, achieve such a thing. Though having the double cast spells would be tricky. On the other hand, an imperiused victim and Polyjuice Potion would work easily...

    “I don’t think so,” Harry said. “Watch the Inferi - they all went after… that one.” He pointed down. “They followed him out of the building. They wouldn’t have done that if there had been someone else in the building still, and if he had been able to hide his presence from them, he would have done so earlier.”

    Hermione slowly nodded. It made sense, and she should have come to that conclusion herself. Which vexed her a little.

    “Well, we can ask Mallory,” Ron cut in, pointing at the ghost who was floating near the remains. “He was probably there.”

    The ghost flew up to them, a wide - and, in Hermione’s opinion, cruel - smile on his face. “Excellent work!” he called out. “Too bad he managed to suicide before the Inferi got to him.”

    “Yes.” Ari, of course, agreed. Though she was also glaring at the ghost. “Traitors must be punished.”

    “So, was that him and not some double?” Ron asked.

    “I watched him from the start of the attack on the building to his end,” Mr Mallory’s ghost said. “It was him.”

    And he had to have enjoyed every moment, or so it seemed. “But if he had a double ready - for example, an imperiused victim fed the Draught of Living Death, kept in an enchanted pocket - he could have fed them Polyjuice Potion and had them act out the attack, including the suicide at the end,” she pointed out.

    “A victim that could, under the Imperius, fight and talk like Kohlmeier?” Ron shook his head. “Doesn’t seem likely.”

    Mr Mallory’s ghost laughed, and Hermione pressed her lips together as she frowned. “It’s theoretically possible. If he planned such a ploy in advance, he would have prepared his victim to look and act as convincing as possible.”

    “He could have set the victim up in the sphere, though,” Harry pointed out.

    “But we might have grown suspicious if we actually managed to catch him in there,” Hermione retorted. “If he turned it into a trap and we had to find the victim first, it would have looked far more believable.”

    “Merlin’s beard, Hermione!” Ron exclaimed. “If he had been as smart as you make him out to be, he would have beaten us.”

    She glanced at Harry, but her boyfriend wasn’t supporting her - he was hiding a grin; she could tell. “It does sound a little too convoluted,” he finally said with an apologetic smile aimed at her.

    She sighed. “I’m just pointing out the possibility.”

    “He might also have taken other precautions that will keep him from dying,” Harry said.

    She knew what he meant: a Horcrux. “That would be really bad.”

    “But it’d take him a long time to get back at us,” Ron said.

    “What are you talking about?” Mr Mallory’s ghost asked. Or demanded to know - he sounded far more arrogant than when he had been alive. But then, his manners might have been a ruse so they wouldn’t suspect him of being a traitor.

    “A Soul Anchor,” Harry replied after a moment.

    “A Horcrux?” The ghost was staring at them.

    Of course, he’d know about them. He was a blood mage, after all, Hermione reminded herself.

    “He’d be mad to do that - sooner or later, everyone dies,” the ghost said. “Especially people like him. And then he’d be damned for eternity, unable to move on to the afterlife. It’s not worth it.”

    Well, that sounded like Mr Mallory had made a cost-benefit analysis before discarding the idea.

    Hermione said so, and the ghost agreed. “Of course I did! Only a fool would dismiss such an advantage without first considering every angle!”

    “Of course,” Harry said in a very dry voice.

    “Don’t you dare to lecture me about morals,” the ghost shot back. “Remember: I know what you did to reach Atlantis! What you all did.” He smirked. “What would Dumbledore say, I wonder, if I told him about you using blood magic?”

    The Headmaster had shown a remarkably pragmatic side during the war with Voldemort and his Death Eaters, in Hermione’s opinion. He would likely understand why they hadn’t had any other choice. And it wasn’t as if they had hurt anyone but themselves. But she would rather not find out whether she had been wrong about Dumbledore’s reaction.

    And neither did her friends, or so it seemed, since none of them replied to the ghost’s question.

    “To think you broke the law just so you could discover Atlantis first. You didn’t want to risk getting beaten, so you resorted to one of the most infamous Dark Arts.” Mr Mallory’s ghost shook his head, then laughed. “How does it feel to be proven hypocrites?”

    “We aren’t hypocrites,” she snapped. “We didn’t kill anyone for a ritual nor betray our own group.”

    “As if the law would care. Or public opinion. Can you see the headlines? ‘Boy-Who-Lived revealed as a blood mage’?”

    “Enough,” Harry said. “We avenged you. Be happy about that.”

    That seemed to please the ghost, to Hermione’s surprise. “Indeed, my murderer has been brought to justice.”

    “Good. Will you fade now?” Ari wriggled her fingers.

    “I don’t think I will - or can, actually.” The ghost shrugged. “Not that I’m an expert on ghosts, but I’m pretty certain I’m bound to the temple. I guess I’ll be haunting Atlantis,” he added with a grin.

    And he’d be haunting the archaeologists exploring the site. Hermione pressed her lips together when she realised what that meant.

    “I see,” Harry said with a deep frown - he would have come to the same conclusion, of course. “And you’d tell every visitor all about how the location was discovered.”

    “I wouldn’t dare to leave out even the tiniest detail,” Mallory’s ghost confirmed, smirking once more. “Unless, of course, you’ll do a last favour for me.”

    “What kind of favour?” Harry asked in a tense tone.

    “Use a Portkey to transport the Inferi to Jamaica.”

    “Are you out of your mind?” Harry blurted out.

    “Why, yes, seeing as I don’t have a body any more, including my head, I actually am, technically, out of my mind.” The ghost laughed at his feeble joke, then grew serious. “The Inferi resist spells and can seek out hidden humans. They are the perfect instrument to wreck the houngans. Who would have thought that I would have to die to find a way to strike back at them?”

    “There would be a massacre of innocents!” Hermione gasped. “The houngans could easily flee using magic, but the muggles would be doomed!”

    “And the Statute of Secrecy would probably be broken,” Harry added.

    Mr Mallory’s ghost scoffed. “Bah! A small price to pay to finally break the houngans’ power. Even if they escape, they’ll have a hard time recovering from such a debacle. Their reputation will be destroyed. To see them driven from their home by a few Inferi… I would give everything for that. Besides, they’ll be able to cover up any muggle deaths by accidents or a storm.”

    “You’d sacrifice so many muggles for your revenge?” Hermione asked. He couldn’t actually want this, could he?

    “He’s a blood mage; of course he would,” Ron said.

    “And he’ll rat us out anyway!” Ari spat.

    Hermione agreed with her. That would be like Mr Mallory, to double-cross them after they had done his dirty work for him.

    “Bloody hell!” Ron added. “We can’t let anyone enter the site with him around.”

    They could deny the accusations, of course. Hermione knew that. Dumbledore might help them, too. If he understood their situation. But something would stick. And if they were arrested, and interrogated…

    “You would prefer to remain here, alone, just to deny us the fame of having discovered Atlantis?” Harry asked.

    “I’m not alone. I shall have to learn Atlantean, I think, but there are other ghosts here I can talk to. I’m sure we’ll have fascinating discussions about blood magic.” The ghost laughed. “And thinking how you will have to keep the most important discovery of the millennium secret… a fitting punishment for your part in my demise, wouldn’t you agree?”

    “Let’s throw the rune into a volcano!” Ari snarled. “See how much fun haunting lava is!”

    “Remove the cornerstone of the cavern’s protections? I’d like to see you try. And survive the experience, should you actually succeed! What do you think will happen if the spells keeping the water out fail?”

    Hermione had a very good idea. The worst flooding, ever. She could think of ways to survive it, easily, as long as they could remove all the Anti-Apparition Jinxes beforehand, but the cavern - the heart of Atlantis - would be destroyed.

    “Stupid traitor!”

    “Bloody hell - what do we do? We can’t let him get away with this!” Ron shook his head.

    “We won’t,” Hermione said through clenched teeth.

    “You’d sacrifice Atlantis to punish me? Or your freedom for the fame you crave?” The ghost laughed.

    “We can’t remove the central rune, that’s true,” Hermione said, baring her teeth at him. “But we’re Curse-Breakers. I’ve studied the spells the Atlanteans used to bind ghosts extensively.” Both the blood magic spells and the soul magic ones, with the help of Dumbledore’s notes.

    The ghost was gaping at her. “You wouldn’t!”

    “Yes,” she told him, “I would.”

    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico Trench,
    December 19th, 2001

    Working with a horde of Inferi gathered below you and a silenced ghost trying to scream into your ear was a surreal experience, in Harry Potter’s opinion. It should be a frightening experience - one slip and he would fall to his death from the floating platform under the temple’s dome. If the fall didn’t kill him, the Inferi would.

    And yet, after several hours of seeing the Inferi trying to scale the walls without success, and watching Mallory’s ghost wave his arms around in an attempt to make them drop the Silencing Charm on him, it just didn’t feel very scary any more.

    He saw one of the more agile Inferi reach a handhold on a particularly detailed relief on a wall, and start to pull itself up, and aimed his wand. “Reducto!”

    The spell didn’t kill the monster, nor did it damage the wall - which was a good thing, or Cenkora would be angry... well, angrier - but the impact was strong enough to slam the Inferius back down into the ranks of his fellow zombies, toppling several of them. If he hadn’t seen them massacre the Storm Wizards and Kohlmeier, it would have been an amusing sight.

    He glanced over his shoulder at Hermione. She was still crouched in the centre of the platform, wand twitching as she worked on the skull in front of her. As she had done for several hours so far, after talking to Cenkora. The ghost wasn’t happy with them - even though what had happened to and in the temple hadn’t been their fault - but he loathed the idea of a ‘barbarian’ like Mallory being bound to the most holy temple of Atlantis, or so Harry had understood before Cenkora had left the main hall for one of the rooms in the back. He probably didn’t like watching another barbarian manipulate the central rune of the temple. They didn’t know what Ophas thought about it all - the other ghost had gone back to staring at the mindless ghosts in the village and wasn’t responding to them any more.

    “How are you doing?” he heard Ron’s voice from his enchanted pin. Ari still couldn’t stand the temple, so she and Ron were waiting in the Range Rover floating outside the temple.

    “Same as before,” Harry answered.

    “No,” Hermione cut in, and he saw her lean back. “I’m done here. Just need to activate the trap,” she said with a fierce grin, pointing at the skull.

    “Oh, we have to see that!” Ari declared. “Come, Ron!”

    A minute later, everyone was on the platform, watching Hermione - or, in Ron’s case, Ari, to ensure she wouldn’t slip if the stench of blood magic overwhelmed her. Mallory’s ghost was trying everything he could to stop her - but with the Silencing Charm on him, all he could do was fly through them to make them shiver with cold.

    Which a charm countered anyway.

    Harry had to clench his teeth, though, when he saw Hermione cut her palm. More blood magic. Once more, they had no choice, but still… At least she had only needed to realign the spells based on soul magic.

    Mallory’s translucent form suddenly started to fly away. Was he trying to flee?

    Apparently, he was. But to no avail - as soon as Hermione’s blood reached the skull, the ghost jerked in the air and stopped flying forward, then started to claw the air as if he was trying to find purchase as he was pulled back to the skull

    And then he vanished into the skull, which Hermione picked up with a tired but very satisfied smile.

    “So… volcano?” Ari asked.

    “I was thinking an underwater volcano,” Hermione said. “Or a cold seep underwater mud volcano. Let him spend eternity buried in mud.”

    As the two witches smiled at each other, Harry exchanged a glance with Ron. Sometimes, their girlfriends were probably more alike than they thought.

    But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the last obstacle to claiming the site had been dealt with. Atlantis’s secrets were theirs.

    And they could now go public with their discovery.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2019
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