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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 52 : Wasted All the Land
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3

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Wasted All the Land

‘Back door,’ Scorpius coughed as they came cracking into existence in a long corridor of pale stone. ‘Of course it’s a clumsy arrival.’

Rose had to slump against the wall. ‘I’m sorry, I can only Apparate us so smoothly through centuries-old wards and into the designated emergency arrival zone, even with an access rune -’

He grabbed her hand, gut twisting along with his smile. ‘I was kidding. This is brilliant, Rose.’

‘And you two can stop arguing,’ said Albus, wand levelled on the passageway up and onward into the belly of Niemandhorn, ‘so we can actually get to work. Or we’re not going to save anyone.’

Scorpius thought about making a joke, remembered that Eva was somewhere in the castle, and thought better of it. Of all the changes of his friends he’d caught up with, cold, angry Albus was something new. Now he buzzed like all his fear and tension could barely be contained even in his large frame, and Scorpius was unsure how to handle it. The best bet was, he suspected, to keep going, and to get everyone out of this situation alive.

But he still looked at Rose, who was pale from the effort. She pushed herself off the wall and brushed her hair back. ‘I’m good to go.’

‘You’re sure? We might end up fighting for our lives at any moment -’

She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘It’s almost like I’m an expert at that.’

There was no light down here, the walls themselves shining with that sheen that looked at first glance like ice, but was neither wet nor as cold as it should be to the touch. Whatever stone this castle had been hewn from was something else, and Scorpius suspected Rose could talk his ear off about its properties in facilitating the security magics that bound Niemandhorn and protected it from all attacks.

Except for the attack they were in the middle of.

For a long time there was no sound, either, save their own footsteps. Sticking anyone who apparated into the only emergency entrance of the castle in a long, narrow corridor was a decent idea, he supposed. It meant that if the wrong person got their hands on an access runestone, they’d still be a sitting duck while they approached the main castle complex. Lucky for them, it seemed nobody was aware of their arrival. Perhaps any warning alarms weren’t working. Perhaps the Council of Thorns didn’t care.

Perhaps there was nobody there to hear them.

They passed through a heavy wooden door into a wider network of corridors Scorpius recognised from visiting Bachelet before the sound of chaos reached them. It was distant, like coming to them through a dream, and only from above. Either the fighting hadn’t reached the subterranean parts of Niemandhorn, or it had long ago left it. Flashes of magic. Thudding of masonry. Screams of pain. It was far from constant, but regular enough. There had been no absolute victory. Yet.

‘This is insane,’ Rose muttered. ‘Raskoph’s just going to get himself and everyone around him killed -’

‘That’ll be the plan,’ said Scorpius. ‘With Lethe gone, he’s lost. He was all but beaten before he brought it back. This isn’t just a last hurrah, but if Lillian backed and then betrayed him, he’ll want vengeance. He’ll want to destroy her victory. He’s always been happy to rack up a body-count along the way. It’s not an acceptable loss for him, it’s a bonus.’

‘People outside have to be sending in reinforcements, surely,’ Albus said through gritted teeth.

‘Niemandhorn’s Unplottable. It’s even harder to find than Hogwarts; if you can get to Hogsmeade, you can get to Hogwarts on foot. But there’s no nearby reference point for Niemandhorn. The train-line is the only way,’ said Rose. ‘And the train from Paris takes almost eighteen hours to get here. I’m sure the IMC outside can do something faster, but it won’t be immediate.’

Scorpius thought about commenting how they really had to stop what was going on here, then, if they were the first reinforcements on the scene and had decided to use the Apparition rune themselves instead of handing it to a small team of professionals. It wasn’t like side-along Apparition could have brought in more than a couple more Aurors, and the three of them knew how to handle themselves in a fight. But there was a damned good chance they were the only cavalry inbound for a while.

Then they turned the corner to see the winding stairway out of the dungeons and up into Niemandhorn proper. A bloodied trail along the paving stones led to the slumped form of Nathalie Lockett collapsed against a wall, and he stopped caring about his moral imperative.

She had to have dragged herself. The trail came from an open doorway along the corridor, but however far she’d come, she’d make it no further. For a moment he thought she was already dead, she was so still. But then he saw her stir at the sight of them, and before he knew it he’d fair flown down the corridor, fallen to his knees beside her even if that meant kneeling in blood, and all revelations about her allegiance couldn’t have been further from his mind.

Nat - what the hell happened -’

Her green eyes were unfocused, wild as they locked on him. A bloodied hand reached for him, patted at his face, and he didn’t care that he got smeared. ‘You’re not here. You’re not supposed to be…’

‘I know, but I am, this is real, I’m here, and -’ He brought his wand to her side, but her robes were black and sodden with blood and he realised he had no idea what to do. ‘Rose; Rose!’

‘Think I’ll need about five blood-replenishing potions,’ Lockett slurred, even as Rose thudded down the corridor to them. ‘Don’t think even Weasley packs that many…’

Scorpius clutched her wrist as Rose began to rifle through her bag, swearing. ‘What happened?’

Her expression creased, but the flash of pain in her eyes wasn’t physical. ‘Thane. I have to - you have to understand - I freed him, I helped him -’

‘I know! I know, it’s okay -’

‘It’s not -’

‘I know you brought me back,’ he blurted, wrapping his hand around hers. ‘I know it was you, and I understand, and I forgive you; you just have to concentrate and Rose is going to patch you up…’

But Rose was staring at her bag, then at Lockett, and she reached for his arm. ‘Scorpius…’

I should hate you, Scorpius thought as he stared at the pale, wide-eyed shape of Nat Lockett, clutching and gasping at the last vestiges of life. You did this, all of this; Lethe and all the people it killed and the Council’s return -

‘I don’t get forgiveness,’ Lockett croaked. ‘Don’t expect it, don’t deserve it -’

‘I don’t care,’ he spat, but his voice was falling over itself now, words more like sobs. ‘You brought me back, and I remember that, I remember coming back through because you called, because you held me when I fell back through, and I was back and I was safe -’

And it felt so much like home that when Castagnary told me it was Mum, I believed him. But it wasn’t Mum, it was you, it was you

Her hand in his grasp weakened. ‘I’d tell you to stop Thane,’ Lockett whispered. ‘Or Lillian. But I don’t care - oh, shit, that hurts…’

A shudder ran through her body, and he tried clutching harder but her eyes glazed over. ‘Nat - Nat, you’re going to be okay, I’m here, I’m -’

And she died with a sob of pain wracking her body, and him beyond her sight, beyond her reach.

It was Rose who moved first; Rose who gently reached out to close her eyes, Rose who then tightened her hold on Scorpius’ arm. ‘She’d lost too much blood and there was dark magic in that wound. I’m sorry. If a proper Healer had got to her sooner…’

‘But there’s nobody down here.’ Scorpius’s voice came out like he’d chewed on rocks. ‘Just us.’ He drew a deep breath that quavered from his very core, and didn’t bring him the strength he’d hoped for.

‘The cells are down that way,’ said Albus, coming from the door the blood trail led from. His expression was flat, stony. ‘Someone must have broken out and done that to her.’

‘She said she’d freed Thane.’ Scorpius blinked, and now something brought strength. Something pure, something fierce, something ancient, blazing in his gut: anger, hatred, and all focused on one man after years of being honed to a knife’s edge. ‘Thane did this to her.’

Rose’s hand was still on his arm as he pushed to his feet, blood on his knees, his hands, his face. ‘We’ll get Thane. He’s here too; we’ll get him.’

‘Yeah.’ Scorpius clenched his jaw and looked up the stairway. ‘He and I are way overdue a reckoning.’

The stairway led them out of the dungeons, away from the bloodstained flagstones and the still, abandoned body of Nathalie Lockett. Albus’ gaze wasn’t unsympathetic, but Scorpius knew his mind was elsewhere, that his thoughts were more on the living they needed to save, than the dead who’d doomed themselves by all their own sins. He couldn’t disagree, but still anger kept his legs moving, kept him hurrying in Albus’ fierce, devoted wake, Rose taking up the rear and, Scorpius suspected, keeping a close, concerned eye on him. Now they walked passageways lit by sconces and chandeliers, crossed corridors with long rugs to bring colour and life to the icy stone, passed windows beyond which flashed cold winds of the mountain and - black spots?

Albus paused only for a heartbeat to peer out one of those windows. ‘They’ve got fliers.’

‘I guess it stops any of the IMC getting away by broom,’ Rose said. ‘I still don’t get how he’s doing this, though. Niemandhorn’s insanely defensible; Raskoph couldn’t have broken through here without taking prohibitive losses. There can’t be enough Thornweavers left for him to beat the IMC with overwhelming force, and while this might be a suicide run, I didn’t realise his followers were so insane they’d charge the castle’s defences. He doesn’t have Inferi any more to use the usual overwhelming force tactics -’

Then they rounded the corner and saw what Raskoph had instead of Inferi.

‘Oh, bugger,’ swore Albus, and tried to blast the oncoming golem out of a window. He was acting by instinct more than sense, because if he’d used sense he’d have remembered this was fruitless. Magic burst from his wand, a force enough to send a cow flying, but it simply splashed off the stony hide of the magic-resistant construct.

This one wasn’t like the golems they’d encountered before. Those had been clad in the armour of the Templars who’d stolen the magics from Jerusalem to make their own; this was bare, living clay, moving like muscle and sinew but with magic instead of blood. It was as if someone had poorly described a man to a sculptor, who had used sub-par tools to hew a shape from rock, and it was still coming.

‘Where’s Matt’s pretentious sword when you need it?’ Scorpius bellowed as the golem bore down on Albus, who had to duck under a huge, rocky fist that could break him in half if he’d been a heartbeat slower.

‘I don’t know; give us something to throw at it!’ Albus was back-pedalling, moving on the balls of his feet like a boxer might dance away from his enemies.

Scorpius looked up and down the corridor wildly. ‘Like what, ugly portraits?’

Rose levelled her wand on the nearby wall and tried to blow a chunk out of it. The ancient stone of myth and magic didn’t take kindly to a blast from one lone witch, and the resulting chunks of flying masonry were only fist-sized. When they’d pummelled golems to death down in Badenheim, that had been with chunks of stone as big as Scorpius himself. And with that pretentious sword.

‘Are you kidding me?’ Rose muttered, then whipped her wand again. The fractured shards of frosty rock swarmed up at her command, binding together like a huge, stony snowball, but that was still no larger than her head. Scorpius eyeballed a trophy cabinet ponderously as Albus kept weaving away from the golem’s blows, and knew neither broken masonry nor flimsy furniture would make the construct so much as balk. ‘This isn’t -’

Outta the way!’

The shape that blurred past Scorpius came barely up to his waist, but when it clipped his hip it was still enough to send him flying. He hit the wall hard enough to knock all air from his lungs, and so could only gawp in winded astonishment as the figure charged into the golem. There was a thud, a crack, and the golem staggered back at the impact.

‘C’mere, you lummox,’ swore Harley the House Elf, skidding to a halt. His suit was a mess, he was bleeding from a cut above an eye, but whatever magics he’d done to himself had granted enough power to go toe-to-toe with a golem.

Of course. The golem can ignore magic. It can’t ignore a House Elf strong enough to bench-press it, even if the golem’s strengthened by magics.

A crack stretched across the golem’s midriff, and it fought to steady itself. The mouth opened for a roar like a steam-train, and while Scorpius tried to get a glimpse of the paper that had to be in the mouth, the source of its enchantment and power, the blazing light of magic made it impossible to see. Harley simply lifted his fists, poised like a prizefighter, and quick enough to duck around the golem’s next kick. He stepped in, hands reaching for the golem’s waist, and as Scorpius gaped, the diminutive House Elf picked the huge, stone-hewn creature up.

Then threw it crashing out the window. The glass, at least, was not as sturdy as the walls made of inherently magical rock. There was the shattering of glass, one final roar of defiance, then the golem was in the cold, frozen air - and plummeted. Wherever it landed was so far down they couldn’t even hear the crash.

Harley peered out the window, dusting off his hands, then stepped back - and staggered, and almost fell. ‘I don’t think I can do that again,’ he slurred, and Scorpius watched the blood rush from his face to turn him a ghastly shade of grey. ‘And I don’t fancy dying for you bastards like a good little servant.’

To his own shock, Scorpius found himself hurrying to Harley’s side. ‘We’ll try to not need saving again - Merlin, sit down…’

‘Don’t you tell me what to do, Malfoy,’ Harley sneered, but it came out like he was drunk. Then he sat down, hard. ‘Those things hit like the train they came in on.’

Rose came over, fishing through her bag, and looking relieved that this time maybe she had a potion to help. ‘How many of those things does Raskoph have?’

‘I don’t know.’ Harley took the potion she handed him and didn’t look at the label before he threw it down his throat. ‘Mad bastard crashed the Express into the platform, didn’t he? It were due this morning, but didn’t come in on time. Council must have hijacked it, filled it with their remaining mad bastards and these bloody rock monsters.’

‘Golems,’ Scorpius offered helpfully. Behind them, Albus moved down the corridor, wand levelled on the route ahead. ‘Constructs; they’re all-but immune to magic.’

‘Yeah, I got that.’ Harley blinked, and Scorpius took the empty potion bottle off him, sneaking a look at the label. Invigorating Draught. ‘Straight-on blasts do nothing. You can pelt them with stuff or punch them, but the wizards are bloody hopeless against them. There might be only… thirty of them? Against a few hundred wizards in Niemandhorn? But maybe a third of those fight, and they can’t do a damned thing, can they?’

‘Raskoph’s killing people, isn’t he,’ said Rose in a low, cold voice.

Harley pulled out his dainty little handkerchief and mopped his brow. ‘Don’t doubt people are dead, but he’s been taking prisoners more. Unimportant people get locked in rooms. The important ones? He’s dragging them down into the main Convocation meeting chamber. There’s muttering he wants a full set before he starts the executions.’

Scorpius swallowed down bile. ‘If he wants the full set, he’ll be after Lillian Rourke. Does he have her?’

Harley made a face. ‘No. She’ll be the last piece. And you’re not going to like this, but Thane got to her first.’

‘I bet he did.’

‘Rourke and that psycho other one said much the same thing.’ Harley tucked away his handkerchief and looked up at them. ‘I ran into them before. Covered their escape; they’re going after Thane and the Chairman. Think Thane’s headed for the north tower; they’ll be going that way.’

Scorpius’ head whipped around to Albus. ‘Let’s go.’

But it was Rose who reached for his arm, Rose whose gaze was coloured by hesitation. ‘Hang on. Of course Thane and Lillian need stopping, but if Raskoph is rounding everyone up for mass murder, we have to do something. Or he might give up waiting to have Lillian in his grasp.’

Albus’ expression creased. ‘What’re we supposed to do?’

‘I don’t know. But we have to try. You think Eva can’t handle Thane?’

Scorpius looked between them, and saw the uncertainty. Guilt swam in him as he drew a slow breath. ‘I hate to say it, but I’ve got to go for Thane. I’m sorry, I’ve got to -’

Rose turned to him, and he saw her breath catch. ‘I understand you feel like -’ Her expression creased. ‘Damn it. We had a new rule.’

Where you go, I go.

‘I thought it’d last longer, too.’ Scorpius glanced at Harley. ‘North Tower?’ At the House Elf’s nod, he stepped back, wand slipping into his hand. ‘I’ll reinforce them. You guys deal with Raskoph. I don’t know how. Rose will think of something brilliant.’

Albus sprung forward. ‘You shouldn’t go alone -’

‘Come on, Al, you’re better at saving the day than me,’ said Scorpius with a forced, lopsided smile, and met his best friend’s gaze, conveying as much as he could with his eyes. Stick with her. Please.

Albus sighed and nodded, stepping back, and Scorpius turned to Rose. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to do this.’

‘I can give you a helping hand,’ Harley groaned, pushing himself to his feet. ‘Never been to the North Tower, can’t Apparate you. Can get you closer, though.’

‘You can Apparate inside the wards -’ Scorpius shut his hanging jaw. ‘House Elf. Never mind.’

‘It’s hilarious how wizards who don’t see Elves as people always underestimate us.’ Harley frowned and dusted himself off. ‘Not as hilarious as equal rights, of course, which have me personally in stitches, but - just close your eyes, it’ll be a bit different.’

Rose grabbed Scorpius before either could move, fist wrapping in the front of his jacket, and pulled him down for a quick, impulsive kiss. That was enough to set his head spinning, and he was still reeling when she let him go, eyes locking onto his with a fierce, blazing light. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse. ‘Come back to me.’

I promise, he wanted to say, but knew better. So all he did was step back, nod to Harley - and then the world whipped and changed around him.

* *

Rose watched the spot where Scorpius had been, then drew a breath and reached deep inside herself. It had been a long time since duty fuelled determination; for years she had cared far more about getting the people she cared about through a crisis in one piece. Even before Scorpius’ death, on the Chalice hunt, where Selena had been after revenge and Scorpius proving himself and Albus fighting the good fight, she’d been there to watch their backs. Perhaps she’d remembered the fear from the long moments where she’d thought it was Scorpius who had sacrificed himself, not Methuselah. Perhaps she’d decided there was enough heroism going around, and someone had to be a team player.

It still wasn’t exactly duty she found now, though, to fuel her. It was something she knew far, far better, and which burnt far, far fiercer: guilt. Maybe she couldn’t right all her wrongs, but she could avoid making new ones.

‘Let’s go,’ she told Albus and Harley, and turned back down the corridor.

‘Great,’ said Harley, following. ‘Except what’re we doing?’

‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. ‘We need more information. They’ve got golems, and that’s how they’re able to overwhelm the defences, right? Otherwise it’s some sorely outnumbered Thornweavers. So if we take out the golems, the IMC can regain control.’

Albus made a low, unhappy noise. ‘Your solution is, “if we take away their tactical advantage, we have the tactical advantage.”’

‘My solution is that they’re relying on magical constructs which we know are fallible. Far easier to find some spell to take out the golems in one go than some spell to take out a bunch of wizards in one go.’

‘Okay,’ said Albus. ‘Then we need more information on golems and more information on the Council’s moves. I’d suggest I pull the Cloak on and do some recon on Raskoph and the prisoners, but I don’t think we should split up, and I haven’t yet had the chance to test what golems think of the Invisibility Cloak.’

Rose made a face. ‘That’s a really good question. No, I don’t want to find out the hard way, either.’

‘Then where,’ said Harley, ‘do we find more on golems?’

Matt was the expert on golems. And I say “expert”. He did a little reading on them after Badenheim and obviously knew enough to deal with the dragon in Tomar, but these are old magics not well recorded, and they’re Jewish, there are only so many sources -’ Rose stopped short, and Albus almost bowled into the back of her. ‘And we’re in the old headquarters of the Magical Alliance from the Grindelwald War.’

Albus cocked his head. ‘So?’

‘So there were a whole lot of Jewish wizards driven out of territory occupied by the Grindelwald faction in the war, and here’s the first place those with serious resources, archives, and records would come. And we know that the Thule Society co-opted use of golems from the Templars. We need to get into the archives.’ For a heartbeat she thought about Bachelet, but that made her think about Cassian and how he regretted his sacrifice, and she decided she didn’t want to think too hard about that.

‘I know the way,’ said Harley. ‘And best I go first. You two delicate wizards aren’t much good against golems.’

‘Can you really take on many more?’ asked Albus.

‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘Do we got much of a choice?’

‘I suppose not.’

The archives were, Rose remembered well enough, at a different section of the castle to the dungeons and emergency access, because nobody wanted to keep prisoners right next to vaults of ancient knowledge and artifacts. So Harley led them along a broader corridor, most of the sounds of fighting coming from far above or lower, and more and more muffled by now as the Council of Thorns captured yet more personnel of the IMC. This meant, at least, that more of them would be busy guarding their prisoners instead of roaming the corridors on the hunt.

So they almost jumped out of their skins when they went down a floor and heard the screaming, and Rose almost choked on her own heart when she realised she could recognise it. Matt. When had she learnt to recognise his scream?

Her wand was in her hand before she knew what was happening. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Rose, we don’t -’ Albus tried to stop her, but caught only air and so had to run in her wake. ‘Let’s not rush into trouble!’

You mean, let’s care more about our own hides than saving people.

I’m not sure my hide’s worth that much.

Harley fell into step beside her, little legs faster than they looked. ‘If there’s a golem, you still let me go first.’

‘Didn’t know you were going to be self-sacrificing, Harley,’ she huffed.

‘Like I said, I ain’t dying for you like a good little servant. But I ain’t standing by picking my nails while you get turned into jam, neither.’

But he looked a little grey, still, so it was probably for the best that when they burst into the room the screaming came from, a broad conference chamber with huge, floor-to-ceiling windows that had been blown out at some point in all the fighting, there were no golems.

There were two Thornweavers, robed and masked, stood over the writhing, whimpering form of Matthias Doyle.

Fear and rage burnt and froze within Rose. They wormed their way into her incantation before she even thought it, brought the glint of her Stun and fuelled the speed of her arm as she hurled magic with such a strength it sent the first of the Thornweavers flying.

‘You get the hell away from him!’ There was a hysterical edge to her voice she didn’t like, and so she appeased herself by following up the Stun with a second spell. Maybe the first had been enough - the Thornweaver had barely landed before he was smacked with magic again - but watching the impact jolt him into unconsciousness made her feel better, at least.

Behind her she was aware of the exchange of magics, of spells splashing on shields, but by the time she turned, Albus and Harley stood over the other Thornweaver. Harley had his boot on the man’s chest and looked pretty pleased with herself, but she wasn’t going to begrudge him extracting some satisfaction from the situation. She would have felt it herself if she could stop to think. But there was no time to think, only time to fly to Matt’s side, reach to her bag for yet more potions, yet more ways her preparation could maybe, maybe save a life this time - but there weren’t too many marks on him. The torment had, most likely, been magical.

‘I’m okay,’ he slurred, still flat on his back, eyes half-closed.

‘Don’t move,’ she instructed, reaching for him. He writhed away, but she ignored him, grabbing his shoulder and bringing healing spells to mind. ‘You can hate me all you want, but I am going to heal you.’

‘You don’t have to -’

Harley planted his hands on Matt’s shoulders. ‘Let her do her work, boy. You look like you took a pounding.’

Albus was dragging the two Thornweavers together and tying them with magical bindings. ‘What happened?’

‘Selena and Eva - they were going to find Selena’s mum, we had Thornweavers behind us, I stayed to slow them down. And convince them I’d been alone. That worked.’ Matt coughed as Rose’s healing magics coursed through him, but the moment some colour returned to his cheeks he was wriggling out of Harley’s grasp, sitting up. ‘Unfortunately, they recognised me.’

‘Huh,’ said Harley. ‘Fame’s a bitch.’

‘They thought I might know where Chairman Rourke is. Which I don’t, but they had to check really hard to make sure.’ He rolled a shoulder, wincing. ‘Then I might have provoked them.’

Why do I fall for idiots who like pissing off people more powerful than them? Rose stood, lips thin, because she knew Matt wouldn’t let her fuss more.

Which meant she was looking out the window in time to see the two Thornweavers hovering there on broomsticks, wands levelled on the open room.

Get down!’

She was summoning a Shield even as she hurled herself to the floor, covering Matt as best she could and hoping Harley was still close enough to be under her protections. Albus she couldn’t reach, but then there was roaring magical energy and shards of flying glass and a wave of heat crashing overhead. Whatever spells the two airborne Thornweavers were throwing, it was enough to force her to keep her head down for long, blazing seconds, teeth gritted with the effort of keeping the protections up.

‘Oh, no you don’t -’ That was Albus, and when she looked up her was still on his feet - singed, smoldering, but upright and hurling his wand at the two fliers. A long, silvery lash burst from his wand-tip at them, and while one swerved away, the other wasn’t so fast. Whip-like, Albus’ magics wrapped around the broom handle, then drew taught and yanked the rider inside.

Rose rolled to a kneel, wand levelled on the window, but the Thornweaver still in the air was backing out of her range - and there, in the distance, a couple more dark dots were sweeping down to join him. ‘Let’s get out of here!’

‘Give me a second!’ said Albus, and punched the Thornweaver he’d dragged inside. The man went limp, and Albus gave a thin smile. ‘Now I’m ready!’

‘Harley, get Matt - and Albus, bring him!’ Rose waved at the downed broom rider, then the door. Harley could only drag Matt, but he could do it quickly, while Albus threw the previously-airborne Thornweaver over his shoulder - and grabbed his broom. Rose took up the rear as they returned to the safety of the windowless corridors, wand ready with a Shield, but the reinforcements didn’t get to them before they were gone.

‘They won’t come after us,’ Matt croaked, voice juddering as he was dragged along the paving stones. ‘They’re driving people away from windows and escape points, so the Thornweavers and golems still inside can capture them. Selena and Eva were lucky, I think; they were climbing the walls before the Council had a lot of brooms in the air.’

Rose didn’t think too hard about why walls were being climbed, because then Albus was kicking open an office door and dumping his captured Thornweaver on a desk, as Harley thoughtfully propped Matt up against a wall this time. She made sure the door was sealed behind them.

Albus folded his arms across his chest. ‘What now?’

Matt coughed, getting his breath back. ‘We should try to help Selena and Eva -’

‘Scorpius went after them.’ Rose hesitated, then decided now was not the time to tell a barely-coherent Matt everything going down with Lillian Rourke and Prometheus Thane. ‘We need to go after Raskoph and get his prisoners away from him.’

Matt squinted up at her. ‘Rose, that’s a lovely thought, but the Council has dozens of people on the ground. And twice as many golems. They’re spreading out across the castle to capture who they can, but we don’t stand a chance against even a tenth of their number.’

‘I wasn’t planning on a direct fight.’ She crossed the room to the unconscious Thornweaver and yanked his mask off. ‘But we can’t plan anything without information.’

Harley stood. ‘You’re going to -’

‘I’m a Legilimens,’ she assured him, and pressed her wand to the Thornweaver’s temples.

For once, she didn’t need to be subtle. She didn’t need to ply her way through layers of mental defences; she could afford to brute-force this because her questions were simple and the answers, she hoped, even simpler. Where is Raskoph? Where are the prisoners? How many are with him? Where are the bulk of the Council’s forces? That he was unconscious made it easier, in that she didn’t have a focused effort to fight, but it also made the answers more scattered, train-of-thought.

‘Raskoph’s in the main Convocation chamber,’ she recited as images flashed across her mind. Some were memories, some were constructed images based off what he’d been told. ‘Important prisoners are being gathered there. The rest are getting locked in rooms or - or killed. He’s primarily got golems with him; they make great shock troopers but the Council’s got most people in Niemandhorn. They’re hunting stragglers now, so that takes people capable of thinking. Golems can guard.’

‘And be hell on wheels to take down,’ Albus muttered.

Rose gritted her teeth and focused on the image of the Convocation chamber, trying to separate imagination from memory. But this Thornweaver had done a fly-by not long ago, and so the image of Raskoph, tall and proud at the broken windows behind the main podium, surrounded by the battered IMC leadership and his dauntless army of golems, was bright, clear, and real. ‘The only good news is that he’s waiting until he’s got Lillian Rourke in his hands before he starts killing people.’

‘He probably wants to kill her in front of them,’ Matt said. ‘Or kill her people in front of her. A general vengeful killing theme.’

‘That gives us time. They’re not sure -’ Then something else swum up from the Thornweaver’s memories, a question she hadn’t asked, but as she thought about Lillian her Legilimency locked onto his thoughts about her. ‘Oh, shit.’

Albus straightened. ‘Shit?’

‘He got a report right before he did the fly-by on us. Geiger - who’s been broken out, great, and is leading a whole squad - is headed for the North Tower, because they think Lillian might be there.’

Matt squinted. ‘Is she?’

Rose sucked on her teeth as she let her wand drop, severing the connection. ‘Yes. And Selena’s after her.

‘So’s Scorpius.’ Albus’ gaze darkened. ‘And Eva.’

‘They might be there.’ Rose turned on him. ‘They might be elsewhere. Nowhere is safe, Al, we’re in the middle of a war-zone!’

‘Except now they’re headed for the top of a tower, nowhere to go, with Geiger and a squad of Thornweavers coming up behind them!’

‘Maybe! But it’s impossible to tell! And there’s nothing we can do about it!’

‘Yes, there is.’ Albus crossed the room to snatch up the Thornweaver’s mask, and slung the broom over his shoulder. ‘I can go after them.’

‘And do what?’

His chin jutted out. ‘Give them a hand. Give them warning. Maybe fly them out of there -’

‘Without getting shot down yourself?’

He waved the mask. ‘I’ll be another Thornweaver in the sky. They won’t know any better.’

She lunged to grab his elbow as he turned away. ‘Albus, this is insane. We have to trust them to take care of themselves. At any moment, Raskoph might decide to start killing prisoners, and so far as we know, we are the only people still in Niemandhorn free and armed and able to fight him!’

He didn’t face her, and she could feel the tension in his arms, the anger knotting his muscles and shoulders. ‘And do you have a plan? Is there anything we can do about that?’

‘I’m working on it -’

‘And while you work on how four of us are going to take down a small army of golems and dark wizards, Selena, Eva, and Scorpius might be getting -’

‘Killed! Yes! I know!’ Guilt overrode the fear and anger now, and continued to snake up her spine, wrap around her throat. ‘Believe me when I say I know that, but there are way more lives on the line if we don’t stop Raskoph! I thought you said you wished we were better than this!’

‘I also said I know we’re not. I prefer to think about the people I care about, that I know I can save!’

She yanked him back, and he rounded on her, big and angry and certain in a way she’d only seen him once before. ‘You don’t know you can save them. But we have to try this, Albus, there are so many people in there, and we know they’re helpless. And I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off, but I do know I can’t do this without you!’

He stared at her for a moment, anger subsiding, but when he spoke his voice was a low, dedicated rumble. ‘I’m sorry, Rose. I’m not losing them again.’

And she knew when she’d seen him like this before, heard him like this before. He’d been more defeated, less angry, but still so absolutely certain of what he was doing when he’d left her after Scorpius died. Her hand fell from his arm, and she drew a slow, shaky breath. ‘Then I’m sorry, too. I’m not letting other people die for them again.’

Albus looked like he might argue, or possibly waver - but then his eyes flashed, he tightened his grip on his broom, and turned on his heel to leave the room, hurry down the corridor, and with every thud of his footsteps echoing away into nothing, Cassian Malfoy’s words thudded in Rose’s ears.

Maybe we get our happy life but we let evil win, in the world by letting it prosper, or in ourselves by breaking all our own rules.

Or we sacrifice the personal for the bigger picture.

She’d done breaking her own rules, and she was barely sure she was going to manage living with it. So now it was, perhaps, time to sacrifice so evil could not prosper.

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