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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 49 : Free in Soul
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 6

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Free in Soul

‘It’s hard to believe that two months ago I spent most of my time in a boring safehouse in Copenhagen,’ groaned Scorpius. ‘That was pretty miserable.’

‘Try baking to death in Egypt,’ muttered Rose over her shoulder.

Albus gave them both level looks as the cart lurched under them and began trundling up the road. For now, the way was wide and paved, Etuna trees leaning down for snippets of paltry shade against the blazing sun. But they were at the foot of not just one hill, but a sprawling range of slopes leading to the mountains that culminated in Pidurutalagala, the tallest in Sri Lanka. While the highest peaks were not their destination, moving into the hidden hillocks masked by magic and cliffs meant they would soon enough be on narrow, uneven dirt tracks, far from civilisation.

‘I,’ said Albus archly, ‘was in Poland. In October. Fighting Dark Wizards. It’s cold and wet and miserable.’

Only thin air seemed to draw their wagon, but it still needed a weather-worn wizard to drive it. Rose had negotiated with him even as they set off, and only now swung into the back to join them. ‘Unfortunately, we’ll be going so high the temperature’s going to drop.’

Scorpius sighed. ‘So much for going to where it’s summer this time of year. It was nice in Kandy, I liked Kandy.’

‘Blame your father.’

‘Oh, I do.’ He looked over the back of the wagon, at the small magical village they’d Portkeyed to from the city of Kandy as it shrank into nothing behind them. ‘It’s almost like he’s gone into hiding in the most luxuriously inhospitable corner of the world he could find. Why do we need to drive up here, anyway? Why can’t we fly, or Floo?’

‘The Central Province is rich in magic. I don’t know why, I only read a pamphlet,’ said Rose, and ignored the looks of mock-astonishment Albus and Scorpius exchanged at the notion she hadn’t done exhaustive research on their destination. ‘It doesn’t affect the Muggles much, barring how it enriches the soil, which is why this is one of the tea capitals of the world. But it’s also why this region is a herbologist’s dream. The hotel your father’s staying at used to be a herbology factory.’

‘That’s interesting,’ said Albus, ‘but doesn’t explain anything.’

‘It also interferes with magical navigation. So you can’t Floo or Apparate up there easily. A Portkey would - I suppose if it were properly prepared, it could be even more powerful… but that would only work for an outgoing Portkey, not an inbound Portkey. We could fly, but we don’t know the region well enough to navigate from a broom, especially if there’s any magical disruption to our sense of direction.’

‘So, here we are,’ groaned Scorpius, and put his pack behind his head to lounge across the open-topped wagon, which was little more than a glorified block of wood on wheels, even if it was a magic block. On another day, he might have appreciated all they’d seen, passing through Columbo and then Kandy, granted snippets of insight into the lives and culture of magical Sri Lanka. But they were only snippets, and he could not bring himself to care. Not yet.

‘We won’t get there by nightfall,’ Rose continued. ‘So I’ve packed the tent, and tomorrow we’ll finish the journey on foot. It’ll be about another four hours then.’ Then she flopped onto Scorpius’ stomach, and closed her eyes.

He grunted. ‘Comfy there?’

‘I’ve planned our entire travel itinerary and my body still thinks it’s six o’ clock in the evening. If I nap now, I stand a chance of not crashing before night, and getting a half-decent sleep cycle.’

‘Yeah, set your body to Sri Lankan time. We won’t be here the day after tomorrow, at the latest.’

‘I hated that about travel the most,’ sighed Albus, slipping on his sunglasses. ‘Time lag, it’s bloody horrible. Now you can get a Portkey across the world almost at once, it’s way worse.’

‘Damn the IMC for being efficient.’ Scorpius snapped his fingers. ‘Remember when you needed to stop in almost every country you crossed and sign stupid papers? Was there even a magical reason for making lots of shorter Portkey jumps?’

‘Early Portkey magics were less powerful,’ said Rose, eyes still shut as she basked, sprawled across him. ‘So it was safer for international travel to be from country to country. As Portkey magics got more powerful, governments were afraid of illegal travellers, so they kept the tight bureaucracy for control.’

‘Of course, the IMC streamlining the process so if you’ve gone through one security checkpoint you don’t need to go through twelve just shows that’s world governments being pissy and petty.’ Scorpius groaned. ‘I bet we’ll go back to that.’

‘Maybe. Maybe people have learnt their lesson. Maybe the IMC’s proved international cooperation can happen, maybe we’ll keep the international travel and communication. You know,’ said Al, ‘the good bits of the crisis. I imagine they’ll be hammering all that out at Niemandhorn right now.’

Scorpius frowned across the wagon at him, most of Albus’ expression hidden behind his sunglasses. ‘You don’t have to be here, you know.’

‘Scorp, we had this conversation -’

‘And Rose and I can handle my father. If you want to be there at Niemandhorn when Eva -’

‘I do want to be there.’ Albus propped his glasses on his forehead, gaze serious. ‘But if it goes wrong or if it goes right, there is nothing I can do about it. If something goes awry here? I can help. Besides, I said I’d find your father. I haven’t found him yet. My job’s not done.’ His lips curled after a moment’s contemplation. ‘And now we can do this together.’

Scorpius felt Rose stiffen just the slightest, and tried to ignore it. He had been doing a fine job of not thinking too hard about the ritual - about Rose’s face right before she’d finished the incantation, about the look in her eye when he’d awoken to find himself alive and de Sablé dead. Now, with his father so close, with answers so close, was not the time to change that.

So he just looked at Albus as they rattled along on a magic-drawn cart to a corner of Sri Lanka so imbued with magic few wizards visited, bathed in bright sunlight of the summer of the far side of the world, and grinned. ‘Yep. Just like old times.’

* *

‘I don’t like this.’

Selena slapped Matt’s hand away from his collar, which he’d been obsessively fiddling with for the last half-hour. ‘You’re like a twelve year-old, you know? Stop fidgeting.’

‘It’s too tight.’

‘Formal dress robes are supposed to be snug. Form-fitting. Flattering.’

‘Hermetically sealed?’

A dour-faced witch in the row in front of them looked over her shoulder and raised a finger to her lips. ‘Shh!’

Selena narrowed her eyes at the back of her head. ‘She shushed me,’ she muttered to Matt. ‘Doesn’t she know who I am?’

‘Probably not.’

‘My own mother’s here to talk about her plans of world domination -’

‘So you should be quiet, leave my collar alone, and listen.’

She did, reluctantly, subside. After all, viewing seats in Niemandhorn’s main chamber, in which the entirety of the International Magical Convocation was gathered this evening, were in short supply. The room was a huge semi-circle, tiered seating tumbling down to a platform against the tall windows beyond which shimmered the peaks of the Alps. Every inch of the chamber burst at the seams with witches and wizards more important than them. Only by dint of her mother had the two of them secured seats in the upper levels, though Lillian Rourke had insisted Selena attend. It would be important, she’d said.

Selena wasn’t sure why the opening of the IMC’s conference to resolve the issues of the Council of Thorns was essential viewing, but she knew better than to defy her mother when she had an idea in her head. Besides, she wasn’t just in Niemandhorn to support Matt, whose ceremony would be in a couple of days, or even to support Eva, whose hearing would be tomorrow. She didn’t particularly want to support Eva at all, but Albus was long gone and she owed her friends that much.

She also owed her mother this much. Even if Selena knew full-well her mother would do perfectly fine without her.

True enough, within moments she could see the tiny, distant shape of Lillian Rourke entering the chamber and walking the long aisle between rows of chairs to the platform before the tall windows. A low rumble ran through the chamber, anticipation and excitement, and Selena leaned in to Matt. ‘Let’s get dinner in our room after this; the dining hall is going to be unbearably smug.’

Matt’s lips twisted, affectionate and wry. ‘You do know you don’t have to pretend you don’t care with me?’

Selena stared at him. ‘I don’t - of course I care, it’s my mother -’

But you’ve always acted so incredibly superior, like she’s just playing games or treating world politics as a hobby, and maybe you do that because otherwise you have to recognise your mother puts certain issues and topics above you, which is a whole new level of awkward your father would happily exploit -

‘Citizens of the world.’ Her mother’s voice interrupted her reverie, booming through the chamber by acoustics and charms, and there was a fresh ripple in the crowd as interpreters leaned in to representatives and others simply got excited. For her part, Selena just reached for Matt’s hand, clasping the metal prosthetic, and tried to listen without being deafened by her heart thudding in her ears.

Somewhere down the line, her mother had stopped being just a diplomat and become a full-blown politician. Selena had realised this, because someone good at parties and negotiations, with had a fine grasp of global politics, did not by those virtues alone become Chairman of the International Magical Convocation. But she had never been present and interested in Lillian Rourke’s greatest tests of leadership. She had been hunting the Chalice and presumed dead when Lillian made Chairman; after Scorpius died, Selena had been far too diverted by the needs of her friends to listen to politics. And she’d been in the clutches of Raskoph come the resurgence of the war and the renewal of the IMC’s power.

This was, perhaps, the first time she’d sat down and properly paid attention to how her mother could captivate a room and the hearts and minds within it. She used good, strong words like ‘persevere’ and ‘endure’ and talked about how the ‘iniquities’ of their enemies would not, had not been tolerated. She reminded everyone of how the world had come together, united against evil, and how it had won; then she turned it around and reminded the room that they were the world, that they were the ones who had stood shoulder to shoulder and emerged victorious.

It inspired and pleased them, and then it bound them together. It was, Selena thought, a good speech. A good way to make people remember the excellent work the IMC had done before it would disband and the nations of the world go their separate ways once again -

- but there is no need for us to stop here. The Council of Thorns preyed upon us because we were divided, and weak where we were different. Bound by common cause, we achieved a great deal in war; imagine, then, what the International Magical Convocation could bring in peace. And so we will not spend the coming days dismantling all we have built, but changing it, moving forward. A new, united magical government for a new, united magical world.

That caused a fresh ripple through the crowd, though the shock, Selena noticed, fell more to the viewing gallery. Most of the representatives seated below thundered their hands together, and while only half of them, to her eye, looked like they’d expected this, almost none of them looked surprised.

‘She’s not dropping this on them. This has been coming a while,’ said Selena, stunned.

Matt was frowning, though she couldn’t tell if he was confused or disapproving. Maybe he didn’t know. He leaned in, voice dropping as the hubbub rose around them, punctuated more by applause and cheers than discontent. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Yeah, I just - why shouldn’t I be? It’s not like we were going to spend dedicated mother-daughter time together when this is over,’ said Selena, and meant it. ‘There was always going to be rebuilding work -’

‘You don’t look okay.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘Don’t think of it as exploitative. There’s a lot of good that can come from this -’

‘Maybe, I don’t -’ I don’t care about the politics. ‘Can we go?’

He looked surprised, but nodded. Lillian hadn’t continued, because the fuss of the crowd was too loud, loud enough to drown in, and so it wasn’t that difficult to displace the seated witches and wizards and get out of the viewing gallery, back into the subdued corridors of Niemandhorn Castle. Emerging from the chamber was like bursting to the surface after sinking underwater, and Selena found herself still clutching at Matt, head spinning.

‘I guess that’s why she wanted me here,’ she said, pressing a hand to her forehead.

‘She probably thought it would be nice,’ said Matt, stumbling on words and clearly unsure how he was supposed to help.

She wasn’t sure, either, mostly because she wasn’t sure why this news stuck in her throat and tried to choke her. But before she could find a good answer for Matt, let alone herself, another door further down the corridor burst open for someone else to escape the viewing gallery, equally worn, equally pale.

‘Oh,’ said Nathalie Lockett, staring at them like a guilty escapee. ‘You’re - did you know that was coming?’

Matt stared between them, the rock of calm in this sea of confusion probably because he was too bewildered to react. ‘Why is everyone freaking out about this?’

Because I’m only supposed to joke about my mother plotting world domination.

‘I’m not,’ said Lockett, rallying in a way Selena didn’t find at all convincing. ‘It was just - hot in there. And I’ve got a lot of politics to deal with.’

Then she was gone, hurrying down the corridor before Selena could think to ask why she cared, why she was bothered by it -

But at the end of the day, caring about the myriad of issues Nathalie Lockett collected like a tourist gathered cheap trinkets had always been Scorpius’ job. And this, for once, was just about her, not about Scorpius, not about Rose, not about Albus.

Selena turned to Matt, and felt the storm rising inside of her, a thunder of a fear she didn’t understand, an anxiety she hadn’t expected. He watched her through a mask of apprehension, obviously unsure if he should reach for her or let her work through this, and she had to give a sad, grateful smile. ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’

His gaze turned relieved, because he didn’t know what was going on, either. ‘Then how about,’ he said, padding over and wrapping an arm around her shoulder, ‘dinner in our room and while Eva’s in her hearing tomorrow, you find your mum for a talk?’

It sounded almost sensible. But, best of all, it delayed the problems for another day, and Selena Rourke accepted she was nothing if not a hypocrite when it came to dealing with issues.

* *

Scorpius went for a walk once they were done with dinner. While Rose wanted to go after him, make sure he wasn’t quietly exploding with apprehension about the coming confrontation with his father, she knew she had to accept that if he wanted to talk, he’d have stayed. So she made herself busy, jumping up the moment Albus started to stack plates. ‘I’ll do the washing.’

Al looked at her, then to the tent flap, and pointed out, ‘We could both do it.’

‘But you cooked.’

‘And I’ve clearly got so much else to do here.’ The corners of his lips curled.

With wands it didn’t take much time to clean up anyway, so Albus put the kettle on after and it almost felt like old times, like they were hurtling across the world after Prometheus Thane and Matt would come out of nowhere to talk about some new lead on the Chalice. But thinking about Matt made her think about de Sablé, so she grabbed mugs and said, quickly, ‘I’m still sorry you can’t be with Eva in Niemandhorn.’

‘So am I,’ said Albus, more honest than earlier, and she realised he wouldn’t dream of expressing regret in front of Scorpius. ‘But you know, she insisted I be here. She gets how important this is. How we need to finish it.’

‘We do.’ Rose frowned as she poured them both steaming cups of tea. ‘And then it’s over and we get… lives. You even get a happily ever after with her.’

The corners of his eyes creased. ‘If she gets off.’

‘You said that was likely.’

‘And it is.’ Albus sighed. ‘And it’s what I want. But I don’t - you ever feel like we’re dodging retribution? Consequences? She’s done all these things, I’ve done all these things, and so we just… we go home afterwards? We make bad choices, and some of them regret but some of them we don’t, and we -’

Then he stopped short and that guilty look stole across his face, like a dog who’d broken a toy but hidden the evidence, and Rose’s breath caught in her throat. She wasn’t the only one feeling like his words could apply to more than him and Eva. She pulled her mug of tea closer. ‘I don’t know.’

Albus looked at the table. ‘I didn’t say anything,’ he said, ‘because I wanted to give you the space to come to me. I’m not hurt you didn’t say anything. I understand. And we can go right back to not talking about de Sablé if you want. But I do know. Only a fool wouldn’t know.’

She heard him point out Scorpius knew, and heard him not ask if they’d discussed it. But now it was out there, now Albus had said de Sablé’s name, moving on would be like cramming too much into far too small a box. Rose looked at her tea. ‘Are you angry?’

He let out a raking breath. ‘Rose, wouldn’t I be the biggest hypocrite in the world if I was pissed at you? You think I wouldn’t have done exactly the same for him?’

‘Why,’ said Rose slowly, deliberately, ‘do people act like being a hypocrite is the worst thing someone can be? A hypocrite can still be right. We’re not suddenly unaccountable to hypocrites. You can still hold me to account.’

Albus fell silent for long, thudding moments. When he spoke again, his voice was small. ‘It was wrong.’

‘You said yourself it was monstrous to ask Scorpius to -’

‘You didn’t ask de Sablé.’ Albus looked up, and now he spoke more clearly. He was soft and unaccusing, but firm, eyes bright, and looked more like the Albus she remembered from years back. ‘We agreed Scorpius didn’t have much choice. But he had a choice. De Sablé had nothing.’

Even if he’d asked, almost demanded he judge her, indignation rose. ‘No, I had to choose -’

‘This wasn’t two paths in a road, Rose, where you took the path that would hurt you least. You made this road. You invented a way to kill someone instead of Scorpius. You lied to de Sablé to get him into that ritual circle. And then you killed him to keep Scorpius alive. I’m not angry.’ Albus’ shoulders slumped. ‘I would have done the same, and I think that terrifies me, too. I can’t say we shouldn’t be these people, because if we were, then right now you and I would be broken and Scorpius would be dead. But let’s stop kidding ourselves, Rose. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t a situation dumped in front of you which you had to muddle through, or a split second’s judgement. You made it happen. It was calculated. And it was wrong.’

Albus’ quiet judgement was worse, in a way, than Matt’s raging condemnation. Not for what it said about her, because the voice in her head which pointed out her evils had started to sound like Matt as of late, but for what it said about them.

‘I worry,’ Al continued before she could summon a response, ‘what that says about us, and the future. If I’m trying to convince Eva that she can be a better person, if I say she can be forgiven because she changed, because she regrets what she did, because she wouldn’t do it the same again - but here we are. Still choosing this, not regretting it. I wish we were better than this. Than murdering a man to save someone we like more.’

Rose’s brow knotted. ‘You didn’t do it.’

‘No.’ But Albus reached for her hand, grip tight. ‘I just would have. And I just love you, Rose, because you did.’

* *

‘So all you need to do is breathe, tell the truth, impress some scary old men and you’re golden.’

Eva drained her coffee and pushed the empty mug into Selena’s hands. ‘And hope they’re not too upset by my track record of mercenary violence.’

‘No, we want them impressed by your track record of mercenary violence. So long as it’s the mercenary violence you enacted on our behalf.’

She almost wished the coffee had contained whiskey. But it was eleven o’ clock in the morning in the middle of bustling Niemandhorn, the castle bursting at the seams with everyone who had come to the centre of the IMC for what Selena was calling the ‘End of the World Meetings.’ The judicial proceedings were some of the first scheduled over the week, which at least meant her fate would be decided soon.

By the end of the day, in fact.

Eva straightened her blouse. She wasn’t used to wearing anything she’d describe as a blouse, but Selena had swept into her room that morning with a carry-all and an attitude that would brook no argument. ‘You don’t need to be here.’

‘You’ve said that about three times. And you’re right, I don’t need to pick out clothes which make you look respectable but not like a pod person. I don’t need to carry your dirty cups around with me.’ Selena tilted her nose in the air. ‘Haven’t we learnt a lot about our choices? Admittedly, in the context of life or death situations, but -’ She stopped and rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t get ideas. I’m here for Albus.’

‘That makes considerably more sense.’

‘Hey, I could be here out of some sense of altruism, a desire to see you get redeemed and -’ They both stopped, and Selena fixed her gaze on a spot above Eva’s head. She sighed. ‘Good luck in there. I don’t know if you’ll need it. But you deserve it.’

‘I do?’

Selena Rourke shrugged. ‘Damned if I know,’ she said, just as the door to to the hearings chamber swung open and a well-dressed wizard emerged to beckon her in.

This was as much of a heartfelt exchange as the two women were like to have, so Eva just gave Selena a thin-lipped nod and walked the corridor to the room where her eternal fate would be decided by some stuffy old witches and wizards with only moderate grasps on the realities of a harsh, war-locked world.

It was a rounded room with an exterior wall, so every surface bore a gleaming hint of frost, and her breath misted the air. They weren’t too high up in the castle, the tall windows glowing with mid-morning sun of the Alps in winter. A black line cut a swathe across the pristine white snow of the hillside beyond, the train tracks of the Niemandhorn Express. But that was the world beyond, and it didn’t matter. What mattered were the dozen assembled witches and wizards in fine, high-necked, formal robes, all assembled on tiered pews with their backs to the window, peering down at her with gazes that ranged from suspicious to judging to, at best, impassive. Something was missing, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

Judge Roux sat in the centre, a dominating figure who beckoned her to sit in the high-backed chair in the middle of the ring. The arm-rests bore shackles, and she braced herself as she eased down, but nothing happened. She knew she shouldn’t have been surprised; she’d been permitted to wander freely for some time, but with a sinking feeling, Eva realised she’d never before actually faced the inside of a courtroom.

‘Opening hearing number forty-seven, December 11th 2026. Gerhardus Roux presiding in the matter of Eva Saida, citizen of the Algerian Magical Government. If the attending would identify themselves for the record.’

Introductions rang out through the gathered, including a witch named Hamidou attending on behalf of the Algerian government. Eva managed to not roll her eyes at that; she hadn’t been to Algeria since she was nine years old, and had never been involved in magical life in the country. Hamidou’s presence was nothing more than political.

Irritation died, however, when the last introduction came from a wizard next to an empty seat, and there was a confused hush while Roux rustled through some papers. ‘The Niemandhorn Express appears to have been delayed this morning, and so we are missing several attendants, most notably British Auror Director Potter.’

Eva’s gut twisted. She didn’t know if she could count on Albus’ father to be supportive, condemning, or unhelpfully even-handed, but he was a familiar face in the room who hadn’t meant her harm over a Sunday lunch, she she didn’t feel better for his absence. The Express had to be seeing a lot of traffic under the current circumstances; delays were probably inevitable.

‘Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot to get through, so we’ll begin,’ Roux said. ‘We have a long list of charges that have been levelled against Ms Saida over the last ten years. It should be noted that many of these deeds allegedly happened when Ms Saida was underage. Furthermore, Ms Saida has not been convicted, though I have the transcripts before me from the British Department of Magical Law Enforcement noting evidence was sufficient for court proceedings to be undertaken.’

It was a mixed blessing, Eva thought, that the International Magical Convocation had streamlined a great deal of the judicial process. In the face of corruption and manipulation by the Council of Thorns, the IMC had amended international law to make it far, far easier to secure a conviction against any suspect. What would have doomed her once, though, meant there was now considerably less red tape to claw through to get here.

‘Ms Saida, I have before me the full confession you gave to the British Department of Magical Law Enforcement, dated October 30th this year. It includes all of your actions under the employ of Prometheus Thane in specific and later, through him, the Council of Thorns. It also includes your work for Balthazar Vadimas and the Russian Federation of Magic.’ Roux waved a hand, and the well-dressed wizard at the door brought her the several sheafs of parchment she remembered penning in the depths of the Canary Wharf cells. ‘I’ll give you a moment to reacquaint yourself with your own words. If you still stand by this written confession, we’ll move onto deeds since then, and not waste time with ancient history.’

Eva watched the crowd, not her confession. She knew what she’d written. The reactions were mixed, though Hamidou of Algeria looked irritated. But ‘irritated’ was the worst she had to contend with; the rest, at worst, looked bored.

This is my future. My fate. My redemption. And they’ve got twelve of these to get through by suppertime. They really don’t care. Her gaze met Roux’s. Except maybe him. And they’ll do as he says because it’s not worth the politics to argue.

And maybe Harry Potter cared, but Harry Potter wasn’t here.

‘We’ll proceed,’ Roux was saying when her attention drifted back in, ‘to the events of November 25th in the South African Department of Magic. I’ll begin by calling up Warrant Officer Pretorius as witness.’

A different door than the one Eva had entered by swung open, and the well-dressed wizard led Pretorius in. She wore her dress uniform, a deep shade of blue emblazoned with her badge, but she didn’t look at Eva as she walked to the centre of the chamber and faced the gathered. Roux immediately launched into his questions of the Council of Thorns’ invasion, and Eva found her attention wandering. Pretorius’ answers were short and to the point and, so far as Eva could remember, accurate.

But did the specific incidents really matter? Not so much as the opinions of the twelve figures before them, and it was to those faces she looked as Pretorius spoke, gauging their reactions. Some looked more intrigued by this turn of events, if only because they were granted a first-hand account of the by-now infamous South African incursion. An American witch seemed particularly enraptured, the bright winter sun casting a halo behind her, a halo that over long minutes began to waft with smoke by the sheer heat of her interest -

- wait, that wasn’t right -

Eva was on her feet before she knew what was happening, and knew she should have faltered as all eyes in the room fell on her. But the twist in her stomach was too iron-tight with dread certainty for her to feel anything else. ‘Is that the train?’ For a heartbeat she thought she was pleased at the idea Harry might make it after all, but then her gut knotted tighter. Something was wrong, her every instinct screamed this at her, but all she could tell for sure was that the handsome blue Niemandhorn Express tore down the track towards the castle. A heartbeat later Pretorius was by the window, staring down.

‘It’s coming too fast,’ she said, putting the last pieces into place. ‘And it’s not stopping -’

They were more or less directly above the platform, which meant the Express disappeared from view only for about three seconds before the crash came. Shrieking metal and shattering rock and the floor beneath them shuddered and groaned like the mountain itself was about to come down, and Eva had to grab her bolted chair to not lose her footing. The windows shattered, several of the witches and wizards fell back out of sight, and the moment the sound of the impact, rippling across the whole castle died down, it was replaced with the sound of screaming.

Eva lunged over the tiered seating up to the broken window, where Pretorius had somehow kept her footing. ‘This isn’t an accident,’ she hissed.

‘Of course not,’ said Pretorius, her voice low, gaze calm. This close to the window, she could see the carriages of the Niemandhorn Express strewn about the end of the platform, the nearby cliff-side, and so she could see the figures inexplicably emerging.

‘That’s insane,’ she hissed as she recognised the masks, the blackened robes. ‘Raskoph can’t have more than fifty Thornweavers left; Niemandhorn’s security’s going to tear them to -’

Then more shapes clambered out of the wreckage, huge and hulking, tearing the metal doors and sides off the carriages to free themselves. They lumbered towards the depths of Niemandhorn Castle with no regard for magical protections or the crash they’d just suffered or the smattering of Thornweavers gathering amongst them. She knew that movement, she knew those shapes, and her breath caught in her throat because she’d not seen their ilk in over two years.

‘Oh,’ Eva said softly, like she’d had all the air punched out of her. ‘Of course. We took away his Inferi.’

Because Niemandhorn Castle was a fortress that could allow any defending force to turn an invading army to shreds by magical bombardment and inherent arcane protections. But a golem army wouldn’t care. A golem army would keep coming. If Raskoph had kept the golems after Ager Sanguinis, had gathered or made more golems, then he could assail the castle. Maybe he could win, maybe he couldn’t - and he wouldn’t win for long, because doubtless reinforcements from across the world would hurry to crush him. But until that happened, he could do a lot of damage and kill a lot of people.

And Eva wasn’t sure if the remains of the Council of Thorns, beaten and denied a chance to dominate the world, would care about a final victory more sophisticated than that.

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