36Wealth of NationsPart I
"Great care should be taken before acting
against the finances of a sovereign nation.
Unlike lesser acts of sabotage or espionage,
the effects of such a strike cannot be ignored
nor undone, and the aggressor may find
themselves at the brunt of the results as
easily as the victim. Money fuels the engines
of war, but is just as often the spark which
–Caroline Pfaster Ward, On The Prosecution of Modern War: A Treatise
Hermione shivered beneath her heavy coat. She reached up to rearrange her hair, caught as it was in the winter gusts, only to stop when her hand encountered lank, unfamiliar locks of light brown. It was easy to forget sometimes that her appearance was not her own, given that her height was still approximately the same.
Hugging the coat more closely to herself, she hurried up the frozen street. There were few other shoppers braving the weather, though enough business was still occurring in the Alley that she didn't look out of place. It was still discomfiting, being alone. She wished she could have been partnered with someone, but it would have defeated the purpose. The point was to not appear part of any group. Which made for a fraught passage. Not that it wouldn't have been, regardless, but she was not accustomed to going into danger alone. She had been part of a three person team long before Scott had stressed the importance of operating in pairs.
The stalwart steps and columns of Gringotts loomed at the end of the street. With a couple inches worth of snow on the marble, the bank looked like an icy cave, doors closed over a cavernous interior. It wasn't snowing currently, but the forecast certainly called for it. The sky was slate grey with clouds that promised even deeper drifts to come.
Hermione carefully avoided looking at the rooftops to her left. Somewhere up there, she knew, was a Disillusioned Ron, blending well into his near-monochrome surrounds. Across the street and closer to the bank, Ginny kept watch from the corner windows of a hotel room. And Harry lurked nearby, beneath his Cloak, waiting for his moment to assist Hermione's entry. All of them had strenuously protested their lack of inclusion on the team going to the vault, but logic had prevailed. Only Hermione and Sophie would descend into the tunnels. They would move quickly and be less noticeable, especially if there were fewer customers in the bank than usual (the weather indicated that was almost certainly the case).
Not much farther. She took a deep breath as the stairs loomed before her, the air biting the back of her throat, making it feel strange and stiff as it froze the first layer of moisture. At least her Polyjuiced appearance would help disguise how nervous she was.
She had good reason to be. A million things could go wrong at any moment. They had planned to the utmost of their ability, but there were too many variables that could not be known. There was only so much that could be accounted for.
The two guards stationed at the top of the stairs were one facet that had been anticipated. Harry was the gatekeeper, prepared to hit either man with a Confundus Charm when required. Sophie was supposed to have gone in ahead of Hermione, so the plan should have worked once already. It seemed a safe assumption, as there was no sign Sophie had been accosted.
Each cold marble stair felt like a step into the abyss. Taking one last deep, aching breath, Hermione squared her shoulders. It was time to put all that preparation to the test.
"Hang on," the 'security wizard' closest to her said (she was almost certain they were Death Eaters). His voice was stuffy and miserable, and she wondered how long he had been standing outside. He began to extend his Probe and she stiffened in alarm. She needn't have worried; she never heard Harry's voice, but the guard's eyes suddenly went glassy and his arm dropped.
"Thank you," she said as if he'd cleared her, and hurried past.
Both sets of doors were shut against the chill, she noted, a circumstance that would work in Scott and Lila's favour. A goblin covered up to his pointed nose in heavy wool opened the door for her less than graciously. Like the men outside, he seemed to resent customers for existing in such weather.
The lobby interior was not vacant, but Hermione estimated there to be no more than twenty clients, including herself and Sophie. There were probably half that number of employees; most of the counters stood empty. Hermione doubted all the absences were due to the snow. Voldemort's new regime had about as much use for goblins as they did for it. How many people remained in offices and back rooms remained a concern. Having followed Hermione in, Harry was likely already back there, doing his best to account for anyone not in the lobby whilst navigating with a map drawn from the recollections of Trevor's mother.
Hermione made her way towards the back, where she could see Sophie already waiting. She approached the other woman obliquely, drifting into the same area of the room. Other than moving indirectly, she made little attempt to be unnoticeable: according to Scott, her attempts to be inconspicuous were extremely conspicuous. The Polyjuice would help, as would the time frame. She and Sophie were not intended to loiter long.
She looked up at the large, ornate clock set above the end point of the hall. Two minutes. Her heart began to thud. She ensured her earmuffs were firmly in place and manoeuvred her wand beneath her sleeve. Quietly, she cast a Bubble-Head Charm upon herself.
About a minute and a half. Scott and Lila would already be moving. The men on the stair were probably taken care of. Hermione hadn't heard any commotion, which was good. Things were proceeding well, then.
One minute. A goblin behind a nearby counter grumbled something beneath his breath, impatient. A woman coughed. There was a soft clink as coins changed hands. Someone muffled a sneeze with their scarf.
Thirty seconds. Hermione walked over to just beneath the clock. There was a mural on the wall, though she looked at it without seeing it. All of her focus was bent on the sounds that must soon emanate from the entryway, and be her signal.
"Hermione's inside," Lila reported from her position near the boarded window. The planks of wood had been nailed in place rather haphazardly, allowing the street to be seen through the gaps.
Scott thought the place had been either a tailor's or a shop for sewing supplies; there was thread everywhere, scattered across the floorboards and jammed in the cracks like multi-coloured grass. Whatever the case, the abandoned premises provided them a staging ground. The darkened building was across the street to the side of Gringotts. From the second floor, they had a decent view of the wide marble staircase.
Lila was crouched below the window sill, mouth and nose lowered so she wouldn't inadvertently fog what little of the glass she had access to. Oddly enough, the windows had been boarded from the inside. Apparently whomever had once owned the place didn't entirely understand what the practice of boarding windows was meant to accomplish. "Street is clear down to the next opened shop," she said.
"About five minutes," Scott told her. "Tac check, then mask up."
Lil stood and approached him, turning her back. He tugged hard on the catches for her vest, examined everything clipped to her belt and ensured her straps weren't too tight for movement. Then he turned around so she could do the same for him. Their gear wasn't designed in such a way that it couldn't be put on without assistance, but it was better to double check with a different pair of eyes. Scott found himself missing KRAF-issue gear, which would have simplified things both with its design and their familiarity with it. Instead they were stuck with an inconvenient combination of mid-nineties Muggle police and military equipment, a hodgepodge from differing national and corporate origins.
Scott checked his magazine: forty rounds heavy, 5.56x45mm. It had far more wounding capability than such a tiny bullet would suggest. At the ranges in which he would soon be engaged, the 5.56 NATO would possess a speed which greatly increased its chances of yaw, fragmentation or deformation within a struck target. The lightweight bullet could tumble, gouging a new path out of the body, or even skid along bone. He pulled out the magazine and looked at the shiny brass within, remembering a man he had once shot in the arm. He'd only realised his shot placement had been on a limb after the fact, as from a distance he had seen the man's ear pop off. The round had cartwheeled up the humerus, skipped off the clavicle and exited out the right side of the skull.
Scott had already resolved not to fire his M4 directly at anyone if he could help it, but the memory was a little extra motivation. He never took hostages if he had an alternative. It made things so much more difficult. Hostages were almost inevitably in as much danger from their would-be rescuers as they were their captors. He hoped that the puppet Ministry would be at least willing to pretend to negotiate. He was trying to buy time, after all, not concessions.
Lila had opted to bring her SAW along, downsizing to an M249 from her M240B. A wise choice for the job, but it was still
comparatively cumbersome despite the smaller round. She supplemented it with her Spectre M4 SMG, a more compact option.
Scott's original conception of their disguises had been along the lines of hockey masks or movie monsters, but that had only appealed to his sense of the dramatic. Much more practical were their balaclavas with a single wide opening for the eyes, preventing any loss of peripheral vision. The build up of moisture in the cloth around the mouth and nose was always unpleasant, though. Such was the price of fashion.
His internal clock regained his attention. "Four minutes. Let's go."
Lila hefted her large duffel bag up and slung it over it her shoulder. Between that and the LMG resting against her torso, she looked like a pack mule. It was still strange to see dark green eyes looking out from her masked visage. Combined with her shorter stature and pronounced Belfast accent, he had only the shape to remind him that she was his sister.
Well, that and all the guns.
"No fuck ups," she said.
For once, Scott did not retort, deciding he could just be proud of her without having to cover with a glib reply.
They hurried down to street level, rattling the old wooden stairs with their heavy tread. They stacked up a the door, ready to run. The first few seconds would be crucial. If the doors were to be locked, it might delay them more than they could afford. If they had to scrub the mission there was no telling how long it would be before they had another shot at Gringotts.
Lila unhooked her SMG and handed it to Scott, temporarily trading him for his M4A1 Carbine. She set her shoulder against the doorway, ready to aim. Scott pulled his long coat shut and swung his duffel bag around so that it rested on his stomach, tucking the Spectre behind it. He pulled up his hood and lowered his head. He didn't bother reminding Lila of when she should shoot, if needed. There was no point in insulting her.
"Set one," Lila said.
The cold outside hit him like a slap in the face, snow immediately clinging to his shoulders and boots. He wrapped his arms around his burden and ducked against the wind. Windowpanes rattled and snow hissed across the steps as he ascended them.
He looked up as he neared the doors. The guard closest to him eyed his balaclava not with suspicion, but with envy. "Hey, mate. Rotten fucking weather, eh?" Scott said, walking close to the man.
"You haven't the slightest," the man said miserably, his nose red as a cherry. "Just raise your arms, I've got to check you."
"Yeah, sure," Scott said agreeably. He pulled his hands out from under the duffel bag, bringing the Spectre with them, and slammed the barrel of the gun right between the guard's eyes.
Scott stepped past the collapsing man and took care of the other; he dispensed with finesse in favour of speed, kicking out the man's knee before throwing him head first into the ground. Their heads impacted on the marble steps almost simultaneously, creating an odd, icy smack in stereo.
Lila had charged out of the doorway the second he had engaged. She reached the top of the stairs just as Scott finished disabling the sentries. She tossed him the M4 as he did the same with her Spectre, both reattaching their weapons to the appropriate strap.
Scott glanced back down the street. The worsening weather was limiting visibility, but it seemed as if there were one or two people who had seen what had happened. One person was hurrying away, most likely desperate not to become involved, but another was standing outside a nearby shop and gaping at the two of them.
"Set two," Lila said. Scott turned his back on the street.
They both pressed their shoulders against one side of the double doors. Scott nodded sharply, and they pushed inward at the same time.
Scott encountered unexpected resistance. There was a sharp gasp of alarm and then he was stumbling forward, trying not to fall over the woman who had been about to exit. Fearing a counter-attack from the two goblins in the small antechamber, Scott slammed his palm against the woman's chest, driving the air from her lungs and knocking her to the ground. He surged past her struggling form and grabbed the rightmost goblin just as he was raising his hand. Lil already had her goblin laid out on the floor and was busying herself by holding the interior doors shut, so Scott slammed the goblin's head into the floor twice and then held the woman by the neck, carefully cutting off her blood flow. He hoped he hadn't done any permanent damage to either her or the goblin, though it was definitely a possibility. There were no methods to physically disable someone that were safe. Hopefully, the Draught would fill that gap.
Scott left the room and ducked back outside to grab the two men at the top of the stairs. The street still looked clear enough, but he knew better than to count on there not being any further witnesses. He pulled the battered guards inside the antechamber. One of them was beginning to stir, so he paused to zip tie their hands. Dropping both of them, he spun around and ripped a length of chain and a padlock out of a side pocket of his duffel bag. He used them to secure the anterior doors, ensuring no one would immediately follow.
"Close," he said. The woman had been an unlucky complication.
Lila was placing a couple thick zip ties around the handles of the inner doors. Scott dug into his bag and tossed her a gas mask, quickly donning his own. Beneath the masks were the Milkor MGLs. The 40mm launchers looked like nothing so much as a huge revolver. One had red tape on its handle, the other green. Two others were both adorned with blue tape. He handed the green one to Lila.
Reaching into a side pocket, he withdrew a manual Draught grenade and primed it. He dropped it at his feet with a metallic rattle. It hissed, and the small room began to fill with the misted potion.
"What are you…" one of the goblins began to slur, his eye already swelling shut from what looked like a nasty orbital rim fracture. The mist rolled over him and he sank back to the floor.
The Draught was remarkably effective in a very short frame of exposure, Scott noted as he watched the goblin go under. The source of its potency was magical, and therefore safe in saturation (though Hermione had said it was possible to become addicted over time). Any chemical soporific would have almost certainly killed a percentage of the people inside the bank through overdose or suffocation.
Scott and Lila already knew their patterns. The MGL was a six shot launcher. The first two on both green and red were flashbangs, then the green one was Sleeping Potion and the red one was CS. The blue launchers were alternating CS and flash. If everything worked the way it was supposed to, Scott wouldn't have to fire anything more than his first two rounds. He didn't want to use the CS in a closed environment; anyone with asthma could suffocate, and if there were any pregnant women the toxin could have an adverse affect. Better to let the Draught do its work.
"Set three," Lila said.
Scott hefted his launcher and put himself at the correct angle to the door. Lila pulled out her blade and hacked through the tie on the door handles. They leaned into the door, opening it just enough to reach through. They both pulled a flashbang from their belts, armed it, and tossed it through the opening, shutting the door behind the thrown devices.
The twin explosions on the other side were still loud enough through the silver doors to rattle the light fixtures in the antechamber. Scott peeked through the door again. His view was limited, but it looked as if the flashes had disabled everyone within range. Most of the clientèle near the doors were on the floor: releasing a sound in excess of one hundred and seventy decibels, a flashbang grenade disrupted the inner ear, causing loss of balance and extreme disorientation. None of the goblins behind the nearby counters could be seen, and Scott hoped they were down and not taking cover.
Scott leaned out for a better view and fired twice, lobbing his two 40mm stun grenades towards the middle and end of the lobby. The flashbang had a fully effective range of about five feet, but it would still blind and disorient people outside of that range. At the very least, it could be counted on to scare the hell out of goblins and wizarding folk who had never even heard of such a thing. Scott wanted everyone too confused to understand what came next. Four more bright, smoky flashes lit the lobby. There were scattered screams and shouts of alarm, though not too many. Most of the customers and employees close to the detonations stumbled away and collapsed.
Scott pulled two more flashes from his belt and hurled them towards areas which still had the most movement. Better safe than sorry.
Lila aimed upwards and unleashed her specialised ammunition, squeezing the trigger slowly and deliberately, carefully spacing her shots. The MGL made neither the shattering crack of a rifle nor the hollow thump of a mortar. Instead, each pull of the trigger produced a loud, sharp click. It sounded like the world's biggest cap gun. As the smoke from the stun grenades rippled through the light, the canisters of Sleeping Draught shot overhead like streamers. They hissed out their trails of somniferous mist, flying along the ceiling and clanging into walls and the floor. The air began to turn a faint purple.
Scott and Lila pulled their doors shut again, and held them closed. There wasn't much to look at while they waited, save for each other. It still weirded Scott out to see those unfamiliar green eyes behind the gas mask.
"Poppies will make them sleep," Lila crowed softly through the filter.
grinned widely, though she couldn't see it. "You're gonna be sorry you said that if this shit kills somebody."
Time enough, Scott judged. He cracked the door open, M4 raised to scare someone, if needed.
The lobby was silent. The air was still blurry with mist, the floor dotted and slick where it had settled. All of the customers were prone on the floor. Some of them were crumpled in various awkward positions, but many had their heads pillowed on arms or, in at least one case, a purse. The Sleeping Draught must have robbed them of any desire other than to sleep, and they'd acted accordingly. Those who had fought the sensation were the ones in far less comfortable arrangements.
Scott signalled for Lila to move left. They exited the antechamber with weapons raised, moving rapidly in a combat stance. If the goblins weren't unconscious, then it could easily come down to a fight. Fortunately, the Draught had done its job well. As Scott raised up and poked the barrel of his weapon over the counter, he saw the staff slumped onto the floor, without exception. He looked over his shoulder in time to see Lila give the signal for 'all clear'.
What came next was tightly time constrained. Based on the testing Scott had done, they had somewhere between ten and twenty minutes before the Draught – in its less concentrated, vaporous form – began to wear off. Given the size of the room, Scott was counting on it being closer to ten.
He sprinted to Hermione's prone form and tapped her twice on the shoulder, then spun around to do the same for Sophie. He didn't stop to watch the two of them hurry towards the entrance to the vaults. He retrieved a handful of zip tie handcuffs from his bag and set to work on the right side of the room, securing the hands of the unconscious hostages and moving them behind the counters, two at a time. He arranged them in a pair of side by side rows, alternating customers and staff so that the goblins wouldn't be next to another goblin. On the other side of the room, Lila was dragging the five people from the antechamber into her side of the lobby.
It was difficult to do the job quickly whilst still ensuring that the ties didn't cut off anyone's circulation. The goal was restraint, not torture. He was just finishing on the last goblin in the line when a man in a large brown coat began to stir, head rising feebly from the cold floor.
Scott stepped swiftly over the prone bodies between himself and the man and reached down to press a hand against the man's head, pushing his cheek back to the floor. The man immediately went limp, returning to slumber as Scott had intended. Similar to working with anaesthetic, early risers could be encouraged to go back to sleep. Still, it was a warning that time was running out.
Fortunately, wizarding folk were largely predictable in where they kept their wands on their person, and the goblins didn't have any. Scott searched through coats, pants and pockets, rifling intently and adding to his growing fistful of wands. He reached the end of his rows with the proper number. He raised the wands up, gaining Lila's attention. She returned the gesture with a nod – all wands were accounted for.
The Draught mist was even lower, now; the air near the top of the vaulted room was clear. What remained would likely keep the hostages dizzy and docile even after they regained consciousness, especially as they were lying down in the stuff. But Scott didn't think he could count on the potion to retain its potency indefinitely. There was a reason it was kept in glass, after all. He wished he had a clear timetable, but the Draught was nothing if not an experiment.
Surveying the recumbent hostages, he felt the air shift at his back. A second later, Harry whispered, "I've used up all the bombs."
"How many?" Scott quietly asked.
"Only a few, I think. A lot of the doors are locked."
And not susceptible to easy unlocking, Scott assumed, given Gringotts' security. "Stay here. Stun anyone who starts moving. If a lot of them start moving or you think they're going to realise you're here, get Lil."
"Got it," Harry said.
The back offices were fortunately limited: most of the day to day clerical work was performed behind the counters of the main lobby. Scott moved through the narrow halls as quickly as he was able, searching for signs of life. Harry had inundated the area with Sleeping Draught. More tightly contained than it had been in the lobby, the mist was thick enough to impair vision. In the end, Scott collected six goblins and three humans. It took him several minutes to carry them out to join the rest of the hostages. When he was nearer the door, he could hear Lila talking loudly, a sure sign that the Draught was starting to wear off.
When he finally emerged with the last of the office staff, he could see Lila gesturing threateningly with her SMG. His own side of the room was quieter, no doubt due to Harry's judicious usage of Stunners. Still, the sooner he made his hostages aware of the situation, the better. He didn't need anyone trying to be a hero in the absence of repression.
One of the key problems, as he saw it, was the lack of familiarity his hostages would have with their situation. Muggles had spent decades watching criminals rob banks on television and the big screen; the general beats of the situation were known to them, almost cliché. The reality of it was different, of course, immediate and frightening, but it was still recognisable. By contrast, his current captives might not even know to be afraid of his weapon.
Lila was apparently rectifying that problem on her side of the room: two shots rang out, sharp and loud. "Next two go in your head," she said harshly. "I want you to look at those holes and think about fucking with me."
A man near Scott's feet coughed as he came to. "What…?" he mumbled, wrists twisting against the zip tie. He began to try and roll over; Scott stepped on his back hard enough to make him wheeze.
"I think you should stay like that, mate. There's a good lad," Scott growled, pushing a bit harder until the man stopped writhing.
"Someone help!" a man gasped, struggling against his zip tie.
"What is the meaning of this? Untie me!" a woman demanded.
The goblins, Scott noted, said nothing, their mouths shut and their eyes focussed on him.
"All right, you lot, I'll make this real simple," he said loudly, talking over the growing furore. "I'm robbing this bank, and you just happened to be here. So now you're going to lie there on the floor and keep shtum, because if you don't–"
Scott flipped the safety to auto and held down the trigger until nearly half his magazine was expended. Wasteful, but he wanted the moment to be as memorable as possible. The rounds tore into the wall at the end of the counters, shattering the façade and gouging pits into the wooden base board. One of the hostages shouted in pain and wriggled like a fish on a line, trying to dislodge a scalding hot cartridge from where it had fallen on her neck.
"I think that about covers it," Scott shouted for the benefit of his deafened captives. "So just relax – have a kip, think about how you'll sort out your life and live every day to its fullest if you survive this, whatever you'd like. But do it right where you are."
"You won't get away with this," a voice muttered defiantly.
Scott blinked in surprise. Perhaps someone had been watching Muggle movies. "Best mind your gob, before I shut it myself."
He turned away from his captives just in time to hear Lila end what must have been a similar admonishment, given how her sentence closed with, "–ye fuckin' wankstain."
Scott was reluctant to take off his mask until he saw that all the hostages were awake and staying that way. He gestured to Lila to keep her mask on, and she gave him a quick thumbs up.
The building was now under their control, for the time being. Gringotts had been intentionally built to avoid any secondary entrances; there was one way in and out, through the main doors. Bill had said there was rumoured to be tertiary access below ground, alternate paths where the tunnels connected to surface shafts. If that was true, no one but the goblins knew where they emerged or how to get to them. Scott was counting on the Ministry being unable to find any goblin willing to cooperate in time to make a difference, if such tunnel entrances even existed. The goblins would want to take the bank back, certainly, but only to place it even further under Ministry control? Scott figured the goblins would only tell the Ministry anything if concessions were made. Riddle would do no such thing, of course, and whatever happened next would only worsen relations between the goblins and his regime.
Scott extracted several strong cloth sacks from a side partition in one of the bags and set to work behind his half of the counters, scooping up every loose coin and emptying the drawers. It was a paltry sum compared to what lay beneath his feet, but he estimated he already had something close to five hundred Galleons, and that was without even accessing the ground floor vault or the offices. Enough money to satisfy someone who was desperate enough to rob Gringotts but too smart to try their luck down in the mines – exactly the image he was seeking to project.
As he turned away from the last counter, he saw one of the hostages huddled in a suspiciously protective position, likely attempting to conceal their own money. Scott ignored them, not having any interest in rifling through pockets. He wasn't going to waste time scrounging for an irrelevant amount of chump change.
Another hostage, an older woman, was whispering to a man that Scott thought was probably her husband.
She was telling him that they would be okay, and that the Aurors would be there soon. Her husband didn't look very reassured. Perhaps he knew just how much things had changed, and that any government response would be more concerned with re-establishing control of the bank than the safety of the people inside. Scott wondered what his hostages would think if they knew their captors regretted the necessity of holding them.
It would probably be a scant comfort, all things considered.
Scott dropped his bounty near the duffel bags and pulled out a few more empty sacks. Behind the counters was an office door which led to separate counting rooms and the day vault, where the money for daily transactions was kept before it was sent to the vaults below. Considering the diminished traffic to Diagon Alley and the blizzard outside, Scott was expecting it to hold far less cash than was probably typical.
Whatever was in there would be sufficient for the first act of the show.
Ron rubbed his hands together, savouring what little warmth could be gained from friction. He was wearing the kind of snow gear he imagined they wore in the Arctic, but somehow his hands always seemed to be cold despite the relative comfort of the rest of him.
The building upon which he was perched had no windows with a good view of where Gringotts stood at the end of the alley, forcing him to be positioned on the roof. The alcove of the rooftop doorway provided the only shelter available for his thin stretch of space: the rest of the roof was angled upwards to a peak. As the snow increased, however, the wind chill had declined, an odd effect he had noticed before. The air warmed slightly as the flakes came down heavier and piled upon the ground.
The Disillusionment Charm he was under had always been more effective at night, but near-blizzard conditions were a close second. He was practically invisible save for signs of his movement, which were quickly erased by the falling snow and couldn't be seen from street level, anyway. He was a bit worried that if it kept up, he'd be buried, eventually. If he had to get away in a hurry, he might be in trouble.
It was a very peaceful scene, the snow on the nearly-empty Alley. It did not mirror Ron's mood. He and Ginny had both raged against their duties, loathe to be left outside. However, the assignments simply made sense (even Harry's, if only because it was his Cloak). Ron deeply resented that. He wanted to be with Hermione, no matter how inefficient it was. Back in the old days they would have probably all piled under the Cloak and stumbled their way through a series of mistakes until victory was, somehow, achieved. That's how it had always worked before.
Looking back, he could see just how lucky they'd been at all sorts of times, but it was hard to care when Hermione was inside the bank and he was sitting on a bloody building, waiting for something to happen. He'd watched her walk up the street and enter the building, holding his breath when she reached the sentries. He'd wanted so badly to sod the entire stupid plan and just run to her. But he'd made a promise, and he wasn't so stupid that he didn't realise just how badly everything would go if he abandoned his post.
So he stood, and he watched, and he tried to ignore the gnawing frustration in his gut.
At least he'd had a great view of the Death Eater guards getting what they had coming. Scott kicked the shite out of them in about three seconds flat, and in a manner which had been pleasingly brutal. He was disappointed he couldn't see into the bank itself, but he knew the show was just getting started.
The first sign of any official response came about fifteen minutes after the Kharans had entered the bank. Three figures in Auror robes came up the Alley, pushing their way through the snow. The response time was slower than expected. Ron didn't know if that was because of the storm, the chaos the Ministry was in after You-Know-Who's takeover, or the low number of witnesses. There were only three of them, so Ron reckoned they were acting on the word of a single person. That probably wasn't enough of an outcry to bring a real force.
Ron reached into his collar and awkwardly snapped open the mirror sewn on the inside. It wasn't the most convenient system, but Hermione and Sophie hadn't been able to finish anything more complex before it had been time to enact the plan. He pushed his coat up a bit so his mouth was closer to the Protean device.
He started to say Scott's name and caught himself at the last second, remembering they weren't using any real names. It seemed like an unnecessary precaution to Ron, but Scott had insisted. "Sword Lead, you've got three Aurors coming up to the bank," he reported, hoping that was the right name for Scott.
"Copy, Highground," Scott said quietly.
"I don't see them yet," Ginny said. "Wait – there they are."
The three figures trudged up the icy steps and tried the door. When it wouldn't budge, the person in front began banging on it. No amount of noise provoked a reaction, and, having exhausted their most obvious options, they gathered together with hands gesturing and heads nodding in discussion. Ron wished he could hear what they were saying.
One of them turned back to the door with wand raised. The front doors of Gringotts were the most permeable portion of the building, but Ron doubted they were vulnerable to simple unlocking spells. It had been part of the plan to chain the doors shut from the inside, anyway, so there wasn't anything to unlock from the outside. The Aurors still spent several minutes trying a variety of subtle tricks. They were clearly reluctant to damage the premises.
Having failed to open the doors non-violently, they resorted to power. Blasting Curses impacted against the frosted bronze, the Aurors searching for weakness. The outer set of doors opened inwards, the hinges hidden, and the both doors were so finely made that the gap between them was all but invisible. The attackers' efforts left the bronze pitted and scorched, but failed to create any major structural damage. Still, it was only a matter of time. The front entrance of Gringotts was strong, but decorative. The real defences lay far beneath.
Lila's voice came through the mirror, quiet and a bit hard to understand. "What's all the noise?"
"They're blasting the doors. No luck yet, but they've done some damage," Ginny reported.
The clamour of the explosions was beginning to draw a small crowd. A handful of curious onlookers had exited the nearby shops and houses to gather on the street corners across from the bank, braving the weather to investigate. One of the Aurors left the other two and hurried back down the steps, motioning to the people and shouting for them to keep clear.
The remaining Aurors continuing chipping away at the doors. Ron was starting to wonder why they didn't just go and bring some more help. Perhaps they wanted more to report than an inability to get inside? Whatever report they'd received had led them to confirm that Gringotts was sealed, but not why that was so. Did they care about the men who had been stationed outside? Or were these real Aurors, not Death Eaters, and therefore not particularly concerned about the fate of the sentries? Were there even any real Aurors left? Again, Ron wished he could hear them. He'd have given a lot for some really long Extendable Ears.
The Aurors were concentrating their attacks on a small segment of the left door. Each explosive report echoed through the alley; gusts of smoke billowed from the door and were quickly caught up and wiped away by the sweeping snow. Ron wasn't close enough to see if they were effective.
"Gin, are they getting through?" he asked her.
"I think they're trying to make a hole just big enough to see," she replied.
That was more likely than breaking the door entirely, Ron supposed. If they made the hole large enough, they might be able to unlock the chain through it.
After a few more rattling volleys, the Aurors ceased their attacks. The lead one approached the door, pointing a wand at the battered section. Probably cooling it, Ron guessed, if the Auror intended to touch it. The plumes of steam trailing from the scorched door lessened. The Auror bent down to inspect the damage.
"There's definitely a hole. It's small, though. They still might be able to see the lock," Ginny said.
The Auror put their face to the left side of the gap, trying to spot the unknown obstruction. They must have seen the locked chain; pulling their head back, they put their hand through the opening–
–and were quite suddenly pulled tight against the door, cheek smashed against it and their free hand pushing futilely against the metal.
Lila stepped through the smoke in the antechamber, glad she was still wearing her mask. When she'd reopened the inner doors, the trapped fumes had rolled out and upwards, pouring towards the ceiling of the lobby. The door looked hot, and the temperature in the antechamber was noticeably greater than the rest of the bank. Ginny had said they were attempting to make a hole, and Lila wanted to know if they had succeeded.
Sure enough, there
was a bright spot in the right hand door, the smoke stirring near it as the outside wind howled across the opening. A few errant snowflakes whirled their way inside. Lila quickly stepped past the hole and stood against the wall. The light from outside briefly dimmed as someone placed their head near the breach.
"It's chained shut!" a man shouted, voice loud in the empty antechamber. There was a pause. "…I might be," the man replied to whomever was speaking. "Hang on, then, I just need the right angle." The light came back full force, then dimmed again as a hand protruded through the opening, wand tilted towards the chain.
Lila struck, snatching the hand by the wrist, squeezing and twisting. The man yelled in pain as his wand clattered to the stone floor. Lila braced a foot against the bronze and pulled hard enough to rattle the door as the man slammed into it. He pulled back, but his effort was useless.
Lila drew one of her knives. "You listenin', wanker?" she said loudly.
The man stopped struggling, going stiff instead. "Yes. Yes, I hear you," he said, voice muffled now that his head wasn't near the opening.
"And you feel that? That's me fuckin' knife," Lila told the Auror, digging the point near his ulnar artery. "So don't act the maggot. We've got hostages in here. Now hump off 'til we're ready to talk."
She pushed him away none too gently and withdrew, closing the inner doors behind her. Scott was pacing between the sets of hostages, keeping an eye on things. He paused and favoured her with a questioning look when she approached; or she assumed it was questioning, anyway. She couldn't even see his eyes behind the reflected lights on his mask.
"Company," she said as she passed him.
"They here for a chinwag?" Scott asked.
Ron watched as the Auror at the door stumbled backwards into the snow. Someone must have grabbed them, Ron reasoned. He didn't know which Kharan was responsible, not that it really mattered. He wouldn't have wanted either of them pulling on his arm, not even if they were joking. He'd taken a friendly punch or two from Scott, and hadn't much enjoyed it.
The Auror staggered back to their feet. The other Auror nearby was moving to help, though the first one brushed them off when they got there. All three Aurors reconvened at the foot of the stairs and the one who looked to be in charge began gesturing tersely, probably giving out orders. The head Auror then hurried away, moving as fast they were able through the building snow. The protections that prevented Apparition had added an extra layer of complication to the Gringotts plan, but at least they cut both ways.
"They're going to get help," Ginny said into her mirror.
"Understood," Lila murmured.
Ron's anxiety ratcheted up a notch or two. Whatever sort of force was coming, Hermione and Harry would be trapped by it. It was probably a stupid impulse, but Ron couldn't help but wish he would be trapped by it, too. At least then he'd be doing something besides watching. Why had he ever agreed to such a plan? What'd he been thinking?'
"H– Um, Ghost? Are you all right?" Ginny asked.
It took Harry a moment to reply. "Yeah. I can't really talk right now," he whispered.
"I want to come in," Ginny told him, though she didn't say it as a demand, but rather a regret.
Harry's whisper turned slightly frantic. "You can't. You know that."
Lila's voice broke in. "Overwatch, you park your butt and make sure I don't lose mine. And keep this channel clear."
"I know, I'm… Just be careful, Ghost," Ginny said.
"I will," Harry replied, a dubious promise if Ron ever heard one.
Ron watched the bank and thought of Hermione, wondering how far below his feet she was. The wind picked up slightly, the air growing thicker with frozen flakes. As the snow caught in the corners and buried the kerbs, the small crowd on the walk began to thin. Without the excitement of the Blasting Curses, few of them seemed to want to stick around to experience the weather. Perhaps they also knew it might be better to make themselves scarce before the authorities arrived.
Ron thought that wasn't a bad idea, but he a job to do.
You know, I've had a surprising amount of comments recently concerning Sophie. I say 'surprising' because it hadn't occurred to me that she, in her status as a distinctly tertiary character, would garner much in the way of interest. I think most readers are interested in knowing more about Scott because, well, you sort of have to be invested in him, at least on some level, to really get anything out of this story. He is a member of the core cast, after all. Sophie sort of flits around the edges and rarely takes the spotlight, so I've found the level of interest and speculation regarding her to be rather unexpected.
Of course, I said the same thing about Lila, initially, and I've had plenty of commentary over the years regarding her. As an author, I'm always wanting to know which facet(s) of a character has caught your attention, because that's how I know what's working. So, what is it, exactly, about Sophie that some of you find interesting? What makes you want to know more about her?
Character development interests me just as much as plot development. Sometimes more so, to be honest. I always try to relate some of the larger tangents in the story to character, even if it isn't much related to plot. For example, I know I've said I wouldn't write Winterlude again, but even though it has more or less nothing to do with the central plot of TTM, it has a lot to do with Scott's character. Same thing with the Kharadjai segment of 'This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now'. I could have glossed all of that over in a few sentences, it's not especially important that you guys understand exactly how Scott and Lila came to possess the weaponry they needed. But in the process, you learn a fair amount about the two of them and how they fit into their careers.
Perhaps that's the source of the interest in Sophie? Her lack of any such exposition? Her introduction in the first story was rather shallow and clouded by her freaking out over being a teen. Anything relating to her history has been only hinted at, usually in one-off bits of dialogue. If it's a sense of mystery that creates interest in her, that's not necessarily a good thing, as it's only a matter of time before constant omission turns interest into annoyance. If there's something you want to know about her and you never get even a little of it, it starts to read like I'm avoiding it on purpose, or that the gaps in her character which seemed to indicate greater depth in fact indicate that there's nothing there at all and I just didn't bother to develop her. I call this, 'X-Files Syndrome'.
I can tell you that's not true, and that she does have a history and a life, but me telling you that means very little if I don't work it into the text. Hence my curiosity regarding your curiosity.
P.S. This was one of those chapters where I really regretted sticking myself with the opening quote gimmick.