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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 33 : The Thorns Were There
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 5

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The Thorns Were There

The South African Department of Magic reminded Albus of the Ministry. It was nestled in the hillocks near Cape Town, burrowing deep underground and stretching across perhaps twenty floors of administrative business. With a nation larger than Britain, and with a lot of business of the southern continent falling to South Africa with its older and more sophisticated magical infrastructure, it needed more space.

That this was a country seeing regular strikes from the Council of Thorns didn’t help. They’d followed the Enforcers immediately from Johannesburg to Cape Town, but it had still taken them two hours of processing their paperwork - especially Eva’s paperwork - before they were allowed to the wing of the Magical Crime Bureau, one of the lowest floors in the bunker. It was quieter than he’d expected, Enforcers shutting themselves away in offices and interrogation rooms, and when they moved into the main lobby it was to see familiar faces he had absolutely not expected.



But Nat Lockett wasn’t alone as she approached with a tired smile, for at her side was the tall, immaculate shape of Astoria Malfoy. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’

‘I was going to say the same to you both,’ said Albus. ‘But I suppose with the Lethe strikes I shouldn’t be surprised. Is it a quiet day?’

‘The opposite,’ said Lockett. ‘Incursion in the magic district in Durban - and Durban’s the biggest magical residential area in the country. That’s where most of the Enforcers have trotted off to. We’re on standby for once the immediate danger’s over.’

Albus gave Astoria a small smile. ‘I’m glad your relief group’s getting this far out.’

Scorpius’ mother nodded. ‘With North America more or less contained, what can I do except lend our infrastructure and support across the world?’ Her eyes then drifted to Eva, who was hanging half a step back with a neutral expression. ‘I see I’m not the only one extending my expertise.’

Eva bobbed her head curtly, professionally. ‘Professor. Ma’am.’

‘Oh, my.’ Astoria’s lips curled. ‘Isn’t there hope for us all if the likes of you can work your way into the IMC’s good books?’

‘I’m in no books, ma’am,’ said Eva. ‘I’m just trying to help.’

‘And so humble.’

Lockett gave her companion a pained look. Albus didn’t want to think too hard about how it would have been, Nat Lockett the eternal supporter of Scorpius, working alongside his mother. But there was a judicious, diplomatic silence until Lockett’s eyes found Al again. ‘What brings you down here? Or did you just decide you’d jump into the nearest trouble?’

‘If I wanted nearest, I’d be in Greece,’ he pointed out. ‘We’re here looking for Draco Malfoy.’

Astoria winced. ‘Well, he’s not here. Because if we’re within a hundred miles of each other, he appears to try to control every aspect of my life, and it’s been quiet. Except for the brutal deaths and oppression.’

Albus caught Lockett’s long-suffering expression. ‘We believe Gregory Goyle might know something about his whereabouts.’

Astoria’s sickened expression deepened. ‘Gregory’s here? Maybe he is stalking me. Oh, Merlin, Nathalie, you better fend him off.’

So they’re on first name terms. Or, Astoria is. ‘I don’t know,’ Albus admitted. ‘The Enforcers brought him in; he might have something to do with the Lethe smuggling. We’re hoping they’ll give us five minutes in a room with him.’

‘Good news,’ drawled Lockett. ‘Rourke’s policies mean you can Legilimens the information out of him with impunity.’

‘That does actually help,’ Eva pointed out.

‘Do they know you’re here and want to see him?’ said Astoria.

‘They do. If they care is something else. I don’t doubt their interrogations come first, especially if it’s about Lethe smuggling -’

‘Oh, anyone who’s still here and hasn’t been deployed to Durban’s the dregs of the Bureau anyway,’ said Astoria, waving a dismissive hand. ‘So you’ll be waiting a while. As will we, as I imagine it’ll be hours before Durban is secured enough that they need us.’

‘Aren’t you on the response teams?’ said Eva.

‘There are degrees of response teams. There’s the people who go to kill the Inferi and the Council. Then there’s the ones who go to save people while also being able to professionally defend themselves. We’ll be third wave.’ Astoria clapped her hands together. ‘In the meantime, there’s a tolerable little cantine on the tenth floor.’

‘Their coffee’s shit,’ said Lockett. ‘But it’s somewhere to wait.’

‘As you can see, we’ve had a little time to get familiar with the pleasantries of South Africa,’ said Astoria.

Albus’ expression sank as he looked between them. ‘How long have you been out here?’

‘Seven days?’ Lockett glanced at Astoria. ‘Eight?’

Scorpius was in Niemandhorn then. They don’t know. The odds of Scorpius telling someone the delicate news of his pending mortality by Floo or letter were long enough that Albus didn’t even think of betting. He drew a sharp breath. ‘I should - we should -’

‘Get coffee,’ said Eva bluntly, and he felt her elbow in his ribs. He glanced down at her, and despite all his efforts he could see the message in her gaze, plain as day. Not here. Not now.

‘I don’t -’

He didn’t know if he was going to listen to her or not, but then he was saved from having to make the decision by sheer catastrophe as they were plunged into darkness. The bright, magic-electric lights overhead - Cape Town was rather less old-fashioned than London in its approach to modern facilities - flickered and died, and only after a few, confused heartbeats did sconces along the wall break into life of a gentle, dim, orange glow.

‘Uh oh,’ said Lockett, immediately before there was a pulsing wail from speakers set into the wall.

Attention, all personnel. Security lockdown in process. Remain at your stations and await further instructions. Attention, all personnel’ And on the voice droned, breaking into other languages, all in the same level, emotionless tone despite the dire circumstances.

‘This isn’t a drill,’ said Eva, already holding her wand, hand on the sword-hilt.

‘They don’t do drills in a time of national crisis,’ Lockett confirmed. ‘At least we’re in the Crimes Bureau, it’s going to be the securest place -’

‘And one of the deepest, furthest away from an exit,’ Albus pointed out, looking to the doors with the hope of seeing more of the Enforcers of the Bureau responding, reinforcing.

Then the overhead speakers crackled to interrupt the droning voice, and a new one came in - level, calm, superior and, to Albus’ surprise, familiar.

Employees of the South African Department of Magic,’ came the voice of Erik Geiger, strong right hand to Colonel Raskoph. ‘If you cooperate, you do not need to be hurt. This government and country is now under the control of the Council of Thorns.

* *

‘The Portkey’s been moved up,’ said Rose as she entered the transportation chamber booked for her and Scorpius. ‘We’ll be gone in a few minutes.’

‘Let me guess,’ Scorpius muttered, pressing his portable wireless to his ear. ‘We can be shunted up because public Portkeys to the southern regions of Africa are now at an abrupt halt?’

She sighed and slumped onto the bench next to him, back to the bare stone walls of the room whose only notable feature was the permanently enchanted Portkey ring sat on a plinth in the middle. News of disaster in Cape Town had trickled in over the last two hours. Details were unclear, but the big picture was plain: the Council were hitting the South African centres of government. ‘I’m sorry. I know it sucks to have to wait. At least Al and Saida should be in Johannesburg.’

‘Which will still be attacked eventually, if it hasn’t already, and either way that leaves them stranded in a country under Council control. They’re completely cut off. And even if they were fine, it’s not just them, is it?’ He fiddled with the tuning on the wireless, signal not great this close to the magical interference of the Portkeys. ‘Mum’s relief team should be in Durban. So Professor Lockett’s there, too. We shouldn’t be going to Canada -’

‘What else are we going to do? Charge to South Africa? The IMC will dispatch everyone they can to get people out.’

‘We’ve done things on our own before -’

‘With reason and with a lead,’ Rose said. ‘I understand, Scorp.’

‘It’s Albus,’ he snapped, jerking to his feet.

‘And he’s, what, nothing to me?’ She stood, too, and for the first time her frustration at him wasn’t tinged by guilt. ‘I spent the last two years worrying about him, not knowing if he was alive or dead, and the only comfort I had was that I figured whoever killed Harry Potter’s son would use their bragging rights!’

That stunned him into silence, and his gaze dropped. ‘He was supposed to be safe,’ Scorpius mumbled after a moment. ‘They all were.’

‘I understand,’ said Rose, dropping her voice, and without thinking she reached for his hand. ‘We’re getting nothing out of Macedonia or Greece, either, nothing about Dad or Harry. But the Council would rush to tell us if they got them. No news is good news.’

‘I didn’t think…’ He looked over at her hand on his, his fingers curling around hers seemingly by instinct. ‘Of course you’re worried about your dad. That was dickish of me.’

‘You’re worried about your mum. And Lockett. It’s okay. But the best thing we can do for them, for the world, is chase this lead. We might find something huge.’

‘And we might not.’ The corners of his eyes creased as he met her gaze. ‘We might find nothing. We might just find a ghost and a story a hundred years old.’

‘Maybe,’ she agreed, and then there was a chime from her pocket as her watch jingled its alarm. ‘And now’s the time to turn back if you think it’s a waste. But I’m going.’ She pulled away from him and hefted her bag, that trusty old rucksack that had travelled the world with her once before. Rose wasn’t sure if she was forcing his hand or being practical, and couldn’t feel guilty either way.

‘I didn’t say I wasn’t going,’ said Scorpius quickly.

‘Then stop,’ she said, padding to the central plinth, ‘being so fatalistic. Hope won’t burn you, Scorpius.’

But it might, she thought as she put her hand on the Portkey, and watched him hesitate only a heartbeat before he joined her, burn me.

Then the Portkey flared to life as it was scheduled to do, the world spun and twisted before and around her, and alongside the gut-churning sense of being stretched and catapulted across the globe came the biting, searing cold of their destination.

Not burn. Freeze.

Darkness swirled into shapes of a clear, bright night-sky, of low, wooden houses stretching across a waterfront of the dark, icy sea. Snow and ice crunched underfoot as she staggered, a white canopy settled over walkways and rooftops and even patches of the ocean. Between them and the seas twinkled the lights of the settlement, warm orange glows from windows; on the other side, barren ice and howling winds reigned.

She managed to not grab Scorpius to steady herself, because if they slipped this would be a ridiculous drama. ‘Helluby,’ she explained, once the icy cold returned the breath it stole from her. ‘Settled by Viking wizards a thousand years ago. But long since integrated with the locals who taught them, well, how to not immediately die out here.’ Explaining felt easier, for some reason; it gave her something to focus on while she rebalanced her body and her mind.

Scorpius was staring up at the peerless dark sky, squinting. ‘They shouldn’t be more than, what, six hours behind us - why’s it so dark?’

‘This is north of the Arctic Circle in winter,’ said Rose, and was grateful for her dragonhide trousers and reinforced jacket. ‘I think it might get a little lighter towards midday. But this is it for months.’

‘Huh.’ His mouth was hanging a little open as he gawped at the sky, at the tidy comfort of coastal Helluby. The biting wind wasn’t that cold after the initial shock of the temperature drop, and so she could focus on the glimmering stars reflecting so brightly off the icy waters it looked like some of them had fallen. For the first time since he’d returned, the faint knot of tension was completely gone from his brow, and so she didn’t say anything, didn’t dare break the spell of the moment. If the world could still astonish him with its beauties, she was not one to interrupt.

But after a moment he had to feel how her eyes were on him, not the view, and he dropped his gaze with that faint frown returning. ‘We should get ourselves transport. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.’

‘I did some prep-work,’ said Rose after a heartbeat. ‘There’s a place which hires out proper sleighs, drawn by Ice Elks.’

‘What,’ said Scorpius, setting off to crunch down the path towards Helluby, ‘is an Ice Elk?’

‘That’s an excellent question.’

They would find out within ten minutes. Helluby wasn’t large, a tidy arrangement of dark wooden buildings and walkways, the cold smell of salt and fish hanging in the air like the village’s mission statement. They got the odd glance from locals, so clearly were they tourists, but their presence seemed unsurprising - not even in this sleepy town at the roof of the world.

It was at the far side of the magical fishing village that they found their destination, a gleaming dark house with a paddock beyond in which milled the shadows that Rose figured had to be Ice Elks. They were bigger than she thought an elk would be, but she was no expert. Snow white were their hides, and gleaming and glinting as if every hair was a delicate strand of frost. When one lifted its head, starlight kaleidoscoped through the horns, like they were carved of living, shimmering ice.

‘Can make eighty miles in a day, blizzard or calm,’ said the man who introduced himself as Jorgen, the barrel-chested owner of the sleigh rental when they’d huddled inside and made their enquiries. ‘You rent one of my sleighs, you’ll get a gang of six drawing them. They start going where you tell ‘em to go, and they won’t stop. All day. All night. One pack of their supplies a day keeps ‘em going. Bred special for this, they are.’

Rose was too pleased to be inside the warmth of the thick wooden walls, darkness cast a gentle orange by the roaring fire, to question what the creatures were. ‘And the sleighs?’

‘Magically enlarged interior,’ bragged Jorgen, and slapped a glossy pamphlet on the counter. ‘Small sleigh on the outside, comfortable bunkroom on the inside. You don’t need to go topside except to steer and feed ‘em. Stock up on food and drink and you’ll get to your destination in warmth and in style.’

She looked at Scorpius, who shrugged. ‘Sounds good to me,’ he said. ‘I like warmth, I like style. I like these low-maintenance Ice Elks.’

‘Of course you do,’ boomed Jorgen. ‘How far you kids going?’ He looked between them, bushy eyebrows raising. ‘Got a cabin on the roof of the world? Romantic little getaway with the lights?’

‘Something like that,’ said Rose. ‘It’s less than a hundred miles away, so we shouldn’t need more than…’ She frowned. ‘I was going to say two nights, but that’s harder at this time of year.’

‘Seventy-two hours? Ninety-six? You pay up front, either way, and I slap on a charge if you go over.’

‘Let’s say ninety-six,’ said Rose. ‘Just to be sure.’

‘I’ll pay,’ said Scorpius, and fished out his newfangled Gringott’s chequebook. ‘If you take this.’

‘Son, if it ends in money, I take it,’ said Jorgen, and his eyes glimmered once he was clutching the slip of paper. He looked it over as if he could make galleons burst from it by staring alone, then gave a gruff nod. ‘Alright. They’ve been on a run, so they need a rest before they can go out again. Come back same time tomorrow, you’ll have your sleigh, and your Ice Elks.’ He looked between them. ‘Go to Tapeesa’s, on the waterfront. Best hotel in town. On top of the fish restaurant run by her husband Malik. You kids can’t come to Helluby and not eat Helluby fish.’

Oh, good, thought Rose. Enchanting meals with Scorpius in a land of eternal starlight. What could go wrong?

* *

‘Believe it or not, this is one of the oldest buildings of English wizardry,’ said Matt, almost bouncing as they walked the long stone hall whose walls echoed their footsteps along with the whispers of centuries past. ‘This is where the first Wizard’s Council of the whole of the Isles gathered, to unite the different kingdoms against the encroaching Viking threat.’

Selena watched him, unsure if she found his enthusiasm endearing or if she wanted to hex him so he stopped evading. ‘How’s that the oldest?’ she asked instead, smug that for once she could poke holes in his intellectualism. ‘That’s only, what, fifteen hundred years ago?’

‘Less,’ said Matt, beaming. ‘But, you see, the key word there is English - though of course, that term didn’t really exist until the thirteenth century or -’

‘Skip to the end.’

He wilted, and gestured across Winton Hall. ‘Obviously there were wizards amongst the Celts; records of druidic practises make that clear. And Roman wizards, during the occupation and later. But most of those traditions have faded or become thoroughly integrated into the era of Camelot. Then Camelot fell, and its traditions with it.’

‘This is sounding suspiciously like the middle.’

‘Anything you can think about modern British wizardry either originated in Hogwarts or it originated here.’ Matt pointed at the aged paving stones, their patterns worn by a million magic boots into pale reminiscence. ‘The structure of English magical government was born in this hall. The Wizard’s Council is the direct precursor to the Wizengamot. The name of the Wizengamot comes from “Witenagemot,” which was the assembly of the Muggle ruling class around the same time. Assemblies of the great magical minds were held here until the move to Westminster in the thirteenth century -’

‘Okay, I’ve got to admit I didn’t know any of that. But we’re here for a reason, Matt. The book.’ Are you babbling so I can’t start a Proper Conversation?

‘Oh, yes.’ He snapped the fingers of his good hand, turned on his heel, and started for the far end of the hall. ‘It’s in the underground chambers.’

‘Of course it is,’ Selena sighed, and followed.

Although the main body of Winton Hall was open to the wizarding public, a site of national heritage or some other phrase Matt had used that made Selena roll her eyes, it was quiet today. While the international crisis of the Council of Thorns did not have Britain completely panicked, it was tense enough that casual tourism to a site of historical fascination was on nobody’s priority list.

They passed a father and his daughter, too young for Hogwarts, stood at a wall display showing a venerable old wizard - ‘John the Old Saxon, Alfred the Great’s magical adviser,’ hissed Matt - and a stringy youth who lounged against the wall and looked like he was ducking out of the rain. But it was to the back of this ancient hall, nestled in the centre of Winchester and yet hidden from all Muggle sight, that he led them, and to a doorway at the top of a flight of stairs winding into cold, stony darkness.

Matt exchanged quick words with a bored-looking guard who waved them through, and Selena was reminded more and more of the chambers nestled underneath the Convento de Cristo in Tomar, where they had found Reynald de Sablé two years ago. But that had been in a Portuguese summer, not a dying English autumn, and she was not expecting anything so exciting.

She was not wrong. The chambers underneath Winton Hall were cold, draughty, and dark, and while Matt waved his wand to bring sconces to life and consulted papers he’d brought that guided him through the passages, all they saw were ancient books on ancient shelves, and a lot of dust.

‘This is one of the greatest arrays of records of old English magical texts in the country,’ said Matt. ‘I would have loved to add this to my Book of Many Books, but I honestly think some of these papers are so old that they wouldn’t be up to the magical connection.’

‘Uh huh. Do you know where the Black Book is?’

He seemed to pick up on her disinterested tone that time, and turned a corner. ‘This way. The secure room.’

The ‘secure room,’ turned out to be a room of shelves behind an unlocked door, which Selena supposed was marginally more secure than the books not behind an unlocked door. Shelves lined the wall to encircle them in the rounded chamber, a huge dais at the centre, angled to present any tome that they might want to study.

Matt approached the plinth and rested his wand upon it. ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen,’ he commanded. A huge volume slid off a high shelf and shot through the air towards them. Its binding was a shimmering ebony, as promised, ancient blackened leather, and she saw Matt’s arm sag as he tried to ease it onto the plinth with just one hand.

She was at his side in an instance, reaching for the other side of the book, and was rewarded by the dropping of his gaze, the squaring of his shoulders, and absolutely no thanks as he flipped the volume open. ‘This might take a while,’ he grunted.

Selena stepped back as he started to drift through the inches-thick tome. ‘I’m research cheerleader, remember?’ But he didn’t answer that, so she meandered about the chamber, staring at the spines of ancient books. ‘Do you know what you’re looking for?’

‘Emrys. Dyfed. Records of the Chalice. Or anything like it.’

He kept his back to her, and while she could see his eyes roaming over the words splayed across the dusty pages of the Black Book, she recognised the apprehensive tension of his jaw. That came from her presence, she was sure of it.

With a sigh, Selena pulled up a stool, and prepared to wait.

* *

It was not in Eva’s instincts to feel reassured at a large gathering of law enforcers, even if the members of the Magical Crime Bureau stood armed and clumped around a table in their office were on her side. Light was still low, flickering from the emergency sconces instead of blazing from the tube-bulbs overhead, but there was no sign of Thornweavers. Yet.

Warrant Officer Pretorius stood at the centre of the gathering, gesturing to the maps strewn across the table, but she straightened at the sight of the new arrivals. ‘Civilians are being gathered in the ward room,’ she said, pointing at a door.

‘I’m not a civilian,’ Albus said again flatly, and gestured between him and Eva. ‘British MLE. What’s going on here?’ This did not feel like time to nitpick over his contract.

I’m a civilian,’ said Astoria, and grabbed Lockett’s elbow. ‘We can go huddle in a dim room, don’t you think?’

‘You should stay here, Professor,’ said Albus. ‘You’re a world-class expert on Lethe and Inferi, not to mention one of the few people in the world on our side who’s immune to the illness.’

Lockett drew a hissing breath and stood her ground against Astoria’s plaintive tug. ‘Great.’

Pretorius was glaring at them. ‘Decided who’s staying yet? Good? Can we talk business now?’

I like her, Eva thought as Astoria left, and approached the table. ‘What do we have?’

‘Most of our forces are out, dealing with the Inferius incursion in Durban. We suspect now that was a diversion so they could strike at government HQ.’ Pretorius stepped back so they could see the plans of South Africa’s Magic Department laid out. ‘We’re still piecing together exactly what happened, but it seems like ten minutes ago they burst through the top-end entrances with a dozen or so Inferi as shock troopers.’

‘Only a dozen?’ said Eva.

‘This is a government building, not a fortress. The Inferi were followed by Thornweavers, who shut down the Floo, seized hostages and prisoners, and locked down the top-end entrances.’

‘Where are you getting this from?’ said Albus.

‘Some people got away. They’ve gone the only way they could go: down, to us.’ Pretorius grimaced. ‘Which makes us rats in a barrel.’

‘I’m assuming all standard warding remains to prevent Apparition in or out of the building,’ said Eva, looking over the plans. The Department was twenty floors deep, and the only level further down than Magical Crimes was Judicial Affairs.

‘Standard warding,’ Pretorius confirmed, ‘and some extra the Thornweavers are layering on to keep us contained. We’re underground; there is no physical way out except up through the floors to where they’re waiting. And the magical ways have been shut down.’

Employees of the South African Department of Magic.’ That was Geiger’s voice yet again, droning through the speakers in the wall, and Eva tried to not flinch. She’d not known Geiger very well in her time with the Council, but she’d seen enough to have no shame in fearing him. ‘You may by now have realised that we have cut off all entrances and exits from the building. This does not need to be a problem. If you disarm yourselves and gather on level three for surrender to the Council of Thorns, we promise you will be unharmed. Submission is survival.

‘You have thirty minutes to cooperate. After that time, we will send our replenished forces of Inferi through the building, with instructions to kill anyone they find. There are no exits. You will be destroyed. Submission is survival.’

‘That’s a shit mantra,’ Albus muttered.

‘But a sensible one,’ said Eva, and turned to Pretorius. ‘Why aren’t you surrendering? They want to control the population, not kill them.’

‘They want to kill some of them,’ Pretorius said. ‘I’ve got a judge and a Division Head in the next room. I have no idea where the President is; I’d be shocked if they’ve not made a strike for his office on the fourth floor already. That’s Astoria Malfoy in the next room, a leading relief worker, and you yourself have identified Nathalie Lockett as a priority target. Not to mention the son of the Head of the British Aurors.’ She swept her hand around the gathering. ‘You’re not going to get to live in peace under the new South African government.’

‘Then we’d better think fast,’ said Albus, ‘or in about forty-five minutes we’re going to be knee-deep in angry killer corpses.’

‘I have nothing,’ said Pretorius, ‘except for an organised strike against the upper levels, keeping the civilians close behind so we can get them out the moment we punch a hole. But that’s a messy scheme.’

Eva’s eyes dragged over the plans. ‘What about International Transportation?’ she said, tapping level eleven on the map. ‘There’s got to be a Portkey there ready to go somewhere, and that’ll bypass the wards.’

‘I’d be astonished,’ said Albus, ‘if they’ve not sent a team there to secure it.’

‘But they can’t have secured the whole building right away.’

Pretorius nodded. ‘We send an armed unit up there.’

Albus shook his head. ‘You’ll be sending them in blind. Maybe they get the drop on the Thornweavers and can extract a Portkey. Maybe they just get killed.’

‘There are no good options here.’

‘You need recon,’ said Albus, and Eva’s heart lunged into her throat as her gaze snapped on him. Don’t, she thought, just as he said, ‘And I have an Invisibility Cloak.’

Pretorius raised her eyebrows. ‘They’ll have enchantments to beat illusions -’

‘Not this one. Trust me. I’ve fought these guys before, I’ve fought Geiger before.’ Albus’ jaw was set with a determined edge Eva wasn’t used to seeing. ‘If I can’t get out of there with a Portkey, I can get out of there with intel.’

Hesitation had fled Pretorius’ eyes. ‘Go,’ she said, in the firm voice of a leader who didn’t have enough options to quibble over the least bad choice. ‘We’ll continue to bring in the people on the lower levels. At worst, we can barricade in here against the Inferi.’

That’s a terrible ‘at worst,’ Eva thought, but then Albus turned for the door and she was dragged in his wake with an instinct that came easier than breathing, following him towards the exit. ‘You can’t go out there alone,’ she found herself saying.

He reached for his bag and pulled out the Invisibility Cloak. ‘This won’t hide two.’

‘Then send me. I have more combat experience than you and I’m…’ I’m expendable.

‘I’ve fought alone against long odds these last two years. I know what I’m doing.’

‘I know Thornweaver tactics and -’

‘Then use them here,’ said Albus, straightening and meeting her gaze. ‘You need to protect these people until they can get out alive. Prepare for Thornweaver strikes by turning all of your knowledge against them. Defending a place like this isn’t in my expertise. And it’s my cloak.’

That was the definitive argument, really, even if it was the most petty. Eva’s jaw clenched as she looked up to find him as implacable as a storm, and she swallowed hard. ‘You have nothing to prove, you know.’

If her words didn’t bounce, he hid the impact well. ‘I’ll be back before you know it,’ said Albus, offering her the most fleeting hints of a smile, before turning for the door.

Her hand shot out of its own accord to grab his elbow. She tried to look him in the eye but couldn’t; it was like he was too bright, too blinding in these last few seconds, and she had to stare at his shoulder as she said, the words like sandpaper on her tongue, ‘Be careful.’

He might have smiled or nodded; she wasn’t sure, because blood rushed in her ears and then he was gone, footsteps thudding out on the flagstones, tall and firm until he got to the lobby, swung the Cloak over his shoulders, and vanished from all sight.

Eva stared at the point where he’d disappeared until her heartbeat was back to a controlled level, then turned back for the makeshift war room. Pretorius barely glanced at her, in the middle of dispatching her people across the nearby floors to bring in any hiding civilians so they could be better protected.

Not that anyone’s going to be safe if they stay here, Eva didn’t say.

Finally, Pretorius turned to her, expression set as her people hurried off into the bowels of the offices. ‘Alright, then, Enforcer. He says he can do it. What’s your speciality?’

‘I’m not an Enforcer.’ The charade felt ridiculous right now.

‘Then how come you’re fighting Thornweavers?’

‘I used to be one.’ Eva leaned across the table, soaking in every detail of the plans, every stairwell, lift, entrance and exit. ‘My speciality is killing them.’

* *

The Writings of Edwin Bamfle, Magical Thatcher.’ Selena stared at the huge tome sat on the shelves above the doorway. ‘Magical thatching. That’s not a term for something else, right? This is literally the records of a sixth-century wizarding roofer. I think I would feed this book to my cat before I read it. And I don’t have a cat.’

There was, of course, no answer. They had been in the chamber under Winton Hall in two hours of insufferable near-silence, and it was starting to drive her batty. It took another five minutes before Matt finally made a sound of strangled success that made Selena worry he’d choked on dust.

‘What? What?’

‘Look!’ He thudded his index finger on the parchment, looking over his shoulder at her with a gleaming smile of success. ‘Look!’

It’s an illuminated manuscript, how important could it - But then she was by his side, and her breath caught in her throat. ‘That’s…’

‘The same Celtic stylings we found on the Chalice, the same Celtic knotwork and markings that were on the tomb in the Parisian catacombs, in Ager Sanguinis, which you said were on Cat Island.’ Matt beamed. ‘And it’s here, in the Black Book!’

Selena leaned over. ‘Just around the edges of this page. What’s this section even about?’

‘It’s…’ He glanced down, and deflated. ‘It’s very Welsh.’

She stared at him. ‘How much of this book is in Welsh.’

‘A lot of it.’

‘And you don’t read Welsh. Especially not some medieval dialect of it.’

‘Or speak it, no.’

‘And yet you’ve been down here. For two hours. Browsing through a book you can’t read.’

Matt sputtered. ‘Not all of it’s in Welsh. I’ve been reading the bits I could read.’

She wanted to shake him. ‘Matt, why didn’t you get it out of here and back to the warehouse and in the hands of one of our researchers who can understand it? I didn’t come here to wait with you so you could pretend to be useful!’

It was the wrong thing to say, and she knew that the moment the words were past her lips. He squared his shoulders, drawing his wounded arm in closer to himself, a new gesture of defensiveness she was just starting to identify. ‘What, so my work consists of saying “let’s go read that book,” and sending someone else to go read it?’

She lifted a placating hand. ‘Matt, I’m just saying, you don’t need to do everything yourself -’

‘I need to do something myself!’ he snapped. ‘Or what am I, but some one-handed bureaucrat!’

Selena clamped down on the rising tide of blunt honesty inside her. It would, for once, not help. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure what would help if she didn’t force him to take the damned book back to the warehouse and deal with his insecurities later.

This is why I’m the cheerleader to smart men, she thought wryly and not without bitterness, and so she was almost pleased when the decision of how to handle this problem was taken out of her hands.

She was less pleased that this came from a bolt of magic thudding into Matt from the entrance, sending him flying into the far set of shelves with a crash. He slumped and didn’t rise as she spun to find the stringy youth she’d thought was sheltering upstairs from the rain stood in the door.

The Thornweaver waggled his wand at her, expressionless. ‘People still want words with you, Little Rourke.’

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