37Wealth of NationsPart II
"An old, pre-Imperium tale, passed down
from origins unknown: A great door
blocked access to a conquered nation's
treasures. The Army attempted to demolish
it, but their explosives could not mar it.
The Fleet bombarded it, but it withstood
their heaviest shells. The Engineers triedto dig,
but it was sunk too deeply into the
Earth. Then a Shaper-Indigen touched the
door, and opened it with a simple request
in the gate's own language.
An unsophisticated parable, but one that still
holds true. It's curious how the Local Shape
Manifestation Corps is often given such
little respect, considering how much they
are capable of. Of course, that disregard
from the other military sections lasts
right up until they need something."
–Dr. Kryna Ray, LSMC Ret., Speaks in Colors, Sees in Tongues: Memoirs from the LSMC
The air within her Bubble-Head charm was becoming stale. Hermione tried to breathe more shallowly, though she suspected it was a useless gesture. Her modified charm had been expanded in size to account for its different nature; originally designed for use underwater, her version was completely impermeable, a temporary source of air unpolluted by the Sleeping Draught. Breathing was already uncomfortable, but she wasn't in danger, not yet. She simply worried that her heightened state was accelerating her oxygen consumption.
She needn't worry much longer. Ahead, a cart was perched on its rails, ready for passengers. The air drifting in from the lobby was tinged with Draught, but the sloping tunnel ahead was cool and clear.
Sophie placed one hand on the iron edge and gracefully vaulted into the contraption. Hermione clambered in more awkwardly behind her, one hand on the strange, jangling sack that Harry had handed her, trying to prevent unnecessary noise. Ideally, there was no one to listen, the bank's occupants having been rendered insensible. Still, there was no need to be reckless.
"Take this side," Sophie said quietly, handing Hermione one corner of the clear plastic sheet she was unfolding. Together, they draped it over the cart and pinned it in place with the round magnets Sophie had in her pockets.
"Okay – hold on to your butt!" Sophie said with a light in her eyes, a strangely exuberant expression for the middle-aged visage she was wearing.
She placed her hands at the front of the cart where the goblins gripped. The cart, she had explained, was automated. The goblins wandlessly input the number of the destination vault, and then it followed a predetermined path on the rail system. It remained a mystery as to how the carts avoided colliding. The magic was old and complex and Sophie had only deciphered the most basic controls.
The cart suddenly shuddered forward, wheels clanking on the metal rails. The acceleration was excessive, in Hermione's opinion. She held on tightly as she was pressed into the seat. Soon, they were practically flying through the tunnels. Surely their velocity would exceed the cart's connection to the line? As corners and half-seen obstructions flashed past with terrifying speed, she hoped the cart's ability to remain on the track wasn't linked to a goblin pilot. And, if it was, that Sophie was doing whatever she needed to be doing to ensure their survival.
Vaults blinked by, along with endless branching tunnels and rails. The wind thrummed across the plastic over them, rippling it and creating a great deal of noise. There were defences all over, Hermione knew, most unseen until the moment they were sprung. Equally dangerous was the chance of encountering goblins with customers. Given the nature and speed of the rail system, that was unlikely, but anyone emerging from the catacombs could still be a threat to Harry and the two Kharadjai.
Probability was on their side, at least. The weather and the war had drastically decreased the number of customers, and the majority of clients made their withdrawals and deposits without directly accessing a vault. None of that totally precluded the chance, but at least it was unlikely to happen.
The cart made a precipitous downwards swoop, lodging Hermione's stomach against her lungs. Then they were on a straight away, the track stretching out before them in a dim, green-tinted cavern. Motion caught her eye; above the track, a large bucket was beginning to tip.
"It's the Thief's Downfall!" she shouted to Sophie. She reached up and tugged down on the plastic sheet, hunching over.
The water hit them with a heavy slap, pushing Hermione's head down and sloshing coldly across their transparent protection. It beaded on the plastic and collected in the creases, but the majority of it sluiced off and ran down the sides of the cart. Hermione dropped her hands to touch her clothing, then her face. She needn't have worried: not a drop had touched her, and the Polyjuice held.
The plastic had done its job well, though it had now become substantially more difficult to see through. They didn't dare remove it, though, lest they be unprepared for a second bout of the Downfall.
At last, the tunnel abruptly widened and the cart began to slow. The plastic covering was starting to fog from the combined heat of the cart's occupants, and Hermione couldn't see much. Sophie wiped at it with her wool sleeve and peered through.
"This must be it, I can see a dragon," she said.
They carefully removed the sheet, making sure not to lose the magnets on the outside of the cart. The air was dank and cold, smelling of water and limestone. Several vaults were set into the slick, rippled stone wall parallel to the track. There, a chained dragon watched them with vicious, milky eyes. It looked like an older dragon, pale and heavily scarred.
"He doesn't look very friendly," Sophie remarked.
"I wouldn't be, either, if I were chained down here," Hermione said, looking warily at the beast. She reached into the cart and withdrew the Clankers. "How do these work?"
"I don't know if the rhythm matters, but the goblin shook them like this: one-two-three-four." Sophie demonstrated with her hands, setting the cadence.
Hermione shook the Clankers in the same pattern, imitating Sophie's motions. The eerie jangling echoed through the cave, taking on strange reverberations that seemed to dig into her skull. The dragon first shook its head angrily, but, as the noise persisted, it cringed and slunk away, disappearing into a side tunnel littered with hay and bones.
"Better keep those ready, in case he gets bored," Sophie advised as she started towards the door.
Hermione had every intention of keeping the Clankers handy. She couldn't see into the side tunnel, and so simply hoped that the dragon had retreated far enough into its den that they would be able to anticipate its return. It had moved with surprising silence for a creature so large.
The vault was lacking any obvious point of access; there were no latches or keyholes. She knew that a goblin's touch would open it, releasing the magical safeguards with a hidden command. Sophie seemed confident as she stepped forward, though it was a bit hard to tell through the Polyjuice. She was normally so much easier to read, at least compared to the other Kharadjai.
"You're certain you have the key?" Hermione asked just before Sophie placed her palm against the metal. Getting trapped inside wouldn't be much of an issue for Sophie, should her apertures be able to function, but any alarms raised or additional traps triggered would render all their careful planning useless.
"It's binary," Sophie explained. "'Are you a goblin, yes or no?' I just have to push 'yes'."
That seemed very simple, though Hermione supposed that goblin magic was inscrutable enough to magical humans that the goblins could get away with it. It was just Riddle's bad luck that all magic was the same to Sophie, nothing but constructions woven from the threads of the shape.
Sophie pressed her hand to the cold bulwark and the vault began to open with a deep, grating rumble. As it parted, the dim light reflected off a display of wealth that went beyond simple ostentation. Mounds of Galleons were haphazardly piled, strewn with other valuables and the occasional heirloom. It was the hoard of a conquering despot, a collection of spoils tossed carelessly aside into a disorganised treasury. It was like some grotesque parody of wealth. Hermione was disgusted. Was this what it meant to be an ancient pure-blood family? No wonder they clung so obsessively to their place in society and had such disproportionate societal influence compared to their numbers. Kings and nations had been bought for less.
"Oh, so tacky," Sophie murmured disapprovingly.
"It is a bit… disorganised," Hermione said. The Horcrux had recently been added to the pile, so with any luck it wouldn't be difficult to locate.
"Even Aunt Ruth wouldn't do this with the money…" Sophie said, taking in the piles with her nose wrinkled.
"Remember, we must be cautious. I'm sure there are at least some of the enchantments that Bill told us of."
"I'm not touching anything in a room like this, I've seen Aladdin!" Sophie declared, clasping her hands at her waist.
"But there are protections, yes?" Hermione
asked, reluctant to cast any of her revealing spells in such a highly protected environment for fear of activating a countermeasure.
"Yes…" Sophie confirmed, her eyes going distant. "A duplicating spell and something else that produces heat."
It was enough to know that much. Hermione carefully walked down the narrow aisle ahead, making sure not to step on anything. The vault was a minefield, and far from a simple storage room (not that any room containing such wealth displayed so indiscriminately could ever be innocuous). It was difficult not to touch anything at all, even with her arms tucked close to her sides. When her foot jostled a jewelled goblet, Sophie quickly snatched it up, bundling the duplicates in her arms. They vanished, leaving only the original, which she carefully placed back on the floor in the same spot.
"Whoops!" Sophie said with a silly twist of her lips, easing Hermione's embarrassment.
"I'll stay close to you, I'm afraid I might bump something else," Hermione said. They continued looking, taking only the most measured of steps.
Despite the considered pace, it didn't take long. Hermione soon spied the cup where it stood high atop a shelf on the wall. "There!" she exclaimed, pointing it out for Sophie.
Sophie peered upward. "Hmmm…"
"I suppose we should have brought someone taller," Hermione mused.
"The shelf looks sturdy," Sophie noted.
That seemed true enough. It was a thick, wooden shelf bolted directly to the stone, one of many. They were lined with precious objects, most of which were wrought of gold and other heavy metals. The shelves were as solidly built as the rest of the vault.
Sophie must have decided to test her hypothesis, because she suddenly hurled herself upwards and caught the bottom of the lowest shelf. Hermione sucked in a worried breath as Sophie's toes nearly touched the top of a treasure pile, but it ended up being a close call. She clambered upwards with care, placing her feet and hands in the gaps between trophies and heirlooms, and occasionally breaking the spells when she had to. Before long, she was clinging to the correct shelf, resting on the one just beneath.
"Aha!" Sophie crowed, as if she'd outwitted the shelves somehow. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, I am," Hermione said. She reached into one of her coat pockets, ready to do her part. The small metal cup she had stored there would aid the transfiguration by providing a relatively analogous starting point.
Sophie gripped the golden handle of Hufflepuff's cup, destroying its protections. She looked over her shoulder and pushed off the wall, landing with the grace of a gymnast precisely in the centre of the aisle, her bent knees coming within a millimetre of the closest treasure pile. Spinning on her heels, she presented the Horcrux to Hermione, who had to steel herself to avoid cringing away from it. They needed to hurry before it awoke.
Hermione had practised similar transfigurations multiple times already at Grimmauld, and had only lacked the exact contours of the cup's appearance. With the real object directly in front of her, it was a simple enough task to create an exacting replica. She held it forward, comparing the two.
Sophie looked between them. "Well, I can't tell any difference," she said.
Hermione thought the real one was slightly shinier, the engraved badger reflecting the light in a more brilliant fashion. But without a side by side comparison, the difference would be indiscernible.
Sophie carefully put the false Horcrux into place using a Levitation Charm whilst Hermione dug through her handbag and pulled out Scott's old strongbox, which had proven effective at dampening the influence of Horcruxes before. She cringed away from the cup as it was dropped in and closed the box quickly, tucking it back away. It made her skin crawl, knowing what the cup really was.
Before leaving, she double-checked the vault. The false cup was in its place, and Sophie had oriented it to match the original precisely. The floor was free from dust and there were no obvious footprints. Everything was in its jumbled place. She doubted anyone could tell even if it weren't.
Hermione shook the Clankers once again before exiting the vault, just in case. A quick peek outside confirmed the dragon had remained well clear of them. The cart sat empty where they had left it, awaiting their return.
Sophie once again pressed her palm to the metal of the vault door and it ground shut behind them as they hurried back to their conveyance. The traps of the tunnels were designed to keep people out, not in, but they still put the plastic sheet back in its place. Despite having the cup, success was far from certain. There was no need to be careless.
Waiting, Scott reflected, was usually the worst part of an enterprise. He and Lila had been taking turns escorting hostages to the bathroom, a privilege that many had turned down once they realised they would be performing their excretions under observation and still restrained. Only the most desperate accepted the humiliation, and any who did were returned to a different hostage group.
Until the full force arrived outside of the bank, there wasn't much else to do. If the robbery in which Scott was currently embroiled had been enacted under the Ministry proper, he would have been expecting an opportunity to open lengthy negotiations, easily buying whatever amount of time was needed. But the nature of the current administration left him wondering if any such overtures would be made. It was difficult to predict without knowing more; how many pre-Riddle Aurors were left? How many had resigned voluntarily, how many had been Muggle-born, how many had been ousted in favour of nepotism? It could easily be the case that the Death Eaters comprised the Auror unit in its entirety, ensuring there would be no interference in their criminal activities.
If so, Scott postulated that their first act would be one of violence. Riddle wouldn't desire his new government to appear weak, and the bank wasn't an asset that he could afford anyone to trifle with. The Ministry controlled Gringotts and Gringotts controlled the money and money controlled the world. Riddle's organisation had already been hard at work undermining goblin influence, no doubt with the intention of eventually ousting them from the bank entirely. Inadvertently, Scott and Lila had handed Riddle's puppet administration exactly the excuse it needed to seize the bank.
"You, and you," Scott said shortly, temporarily interrupting his train of thought to stand two random hostages up and push them towards Lila. They were shuffling their captives regularly, promoting confusion and ensuring Hermione and Sophie could be easily reintroduced.
Scott was reasonably certain that Riddle wouldn't make a personal appearance. Not in public, not while he was still maintaining the fiction of a legitimate Ministry to avoid giving the growing social unrest a clear evil to rebel against. It was a surprisingly subtle act from a tyrant who had been, by all accounts, more often anything but. Perhaps he had been strongly advised to his present course. Or perhaps he was simply distracted by other concerns. The second option seemed more likely to Scott. Riddle didn't seem the sort to accept even the best advice if he didn't already agree with it. Though, Scott had to admit it wasn't as if he knew all that much about the man beyond what his actions told.
"Uh, Sword, there's a lot of Aurors out here, now. Maybe fifteen or so," Ron reported.
Scott stepped away from the hostages and pushed the mirror sewn into his balaclava closer to his mouth. "Disposition?" he said quietly.
"Looks to me like they're getting ready for a fight," Ginny assessed.
"Yeah, they all got wands out," Ron concurred. "There aren't many with proper robes. I'm not sure they're really Aurors."
Death Eaters, then; for the bulk of the force, at least. Possibly all of them. It's what Scott would have done, if he were them, to prevent having anyone on the assault force drag their feet at a crucial moment out of moral or legal concerns. It might simplify things, though. Real Aurors were trained, and might have been taught how to best assault a fixed position. Death Eaters would lack the same precision. Of course, they would also lack any concern for the people inside.
"Copy," Scott said, and bent down to dig into his duffel bag. He pulled out one of the still-loaded MGLs and walked over to place it on Lila's counter where she stood. "Backup," he told her.
Lila set her M249 on the counter next to the launcher and switched the safety.
Scott hurried back to his side and crouched behind the end of the counters. He placed the side of his weapon against the corner of the varnished wood, aiming towards the door. Satisfied with the arc of the firing position, he let the M4A1 hang against his chest and picked up the other loaded launcher. If they repelled the assault quickly enough, they might be able to force the Death Eaters into negotiation. It would be a delaying tactic, almost certainly, but that was what Scott wanted, too.
"Mate, I think they're blowing up the door!" Ron said in warning.
The entrance to the antechamber rattled violently as the bronze doors to the street were struck by spells. Then came the sound of shearing metal, followed by a tremendous bang. Scott figured one of the
outer doors had fallen inward against the floor.
"Now you're going to get yours!" one of the women held captive shouted at Scott over the cacophony.
"Don't hold your breath, love," Scott yelled back at her.
There was a brief pause, probably as the Death Eaters cleared the broken outer doors away. Scott resisted the urge to shake his head. So sloppy. If Scott and Lila hadn't already been ready, they would have had plenty of time to become so. The first few seconds of an assault were crucial, the time in which the pendulum swung between swift resolution and protracted firefight. The Death Eaters were slow and obvious, which might have guaranteed the deaths of many hostages were Scott and Lila what they purported to be. Instead, Riddle's goons were marching into a tightly funnelled kill zone. Their only chance would be to use the innate versatility of their magic to counter the firepower they were up against.
That required an actual understanding of what they were up against. Scott knew they would understand, eventually, but not until they suffered accordingly.
The antechamber doors cracked almost imperceptibly open as someone peeked through. Scott held his fire. The door slid shut – and then burst open, four Death Eaters pushing through with more behind them.
Scott pulled the trigger twice. Two 40mm flashbangs flew from the barrel and exploded in the midst of the group. The second popped just over the head of the man second from the right, igniting his hair. The attackers reeled, blind, deaf and dizzy. At least two of them appeared to have been immediately rendered unconscious.
Lila's SAW chattered to horrid life as the flashbangs erupted. She traversed a precise line of death across the doorway. The attackers tumbled under the fire, falling back as if they'd run into a wall, the brief jets of blood and dust being torn from them floating against the light from the open door like some macabre cloud. Stone chips flew from the antechamber walls, wood was gouged and popped in splintered showers. Scott joined her fire, placing careful shots into those that fell or anyone who appeared to be out of the suppressive torrent long enough to raise a wand.
Those in the front were cut down in seconds. Those in the middle received fire sometimes straight through the bodies of their comrades. Anyone still able to see, mostly those in the rear half of the group, fled into the snow with bullets snapping at their backs. The sheer volume of Lila's fire created a dusty miasma that was sucked out into the building storm.
Scott picked off a woman who was trying to crawl into the temporary safety of the antechamber's sides and dropped the last man out the door with two shots to the back, sending him sprawling out into the light. Lila ended her final burst, shredding the head and shoulders of someone slumped in the entryway, sending a large scrap of robe fluttering away and a thick spray of blood and pulpy flesh against the broken bronze door. There was the clanking of her spent brass and links showering the floor (and the hostages) behind her counter, and then silence returned.
Scott listened for any sign of a renewed assault, and heard nothing but the wind outside and the sounds of distress from the hostages. He glanced over at Lila: the thin smoke rising from her weapon and the cases strewn around her was drifting gently towards the chandelier above her, making it look like she was in some sort of dive bar noir. He would have shared the observation, as it was one she would probably appreciate, but it wasn't really the time for it.
"Cover," he said, and scurried forward along the counter, staying out of line of sight to the outside.
"I heard that all the way up here," Ron said. "They're all back at the bottom. What's left, anyway. Some of them fell down the stairs and there's one trying to crawl the rest of the way." Ron was probably disturbed by the sight, though it was difficult to tell through the quiet mirror.
Scott peered around the door and saw no one who was still standing. He quickly pushed or tossed anyone impeding the doors fully into the antechamber, not bothering to check who was still alive. The OpFor could see to their wounded. He closed the antechamber doors and returned to his post.
Lila tapped on her mask, and then indicated the hostages. Scott nodded and pulled off his own mask, clipping it to his belt.
"A few are going back up the stairs, but they're being really careful," Ginny suddenly informed them.
Scott readied himself, but figured they were probably a recovery team, not a threat. He glanced backwards, making sure Harry was staying out of the line of fire. The cloaked teen had taken cover in one of the alcoves to that led to the rail system, and hadn't yet moved.
Ginny confirmed the nature of the approaching party. "They're moving the… people," she said, a bit subdued.
It was easy to forget sometimes how young his Primes were, considering how much they'd already been through. Obviously, they wouldn't take well to the procession of perforated bodies being carried out of the antechamber. Scott couldn't really blame them. Just because he was accustomed didn't mean he should expect others to be, or had lost sight of how dangerous such familiarity was.
In the meantime, he and Lila had people of their own to move. He stepped over his hostages, moving the middle of the rows. "Budge up," he barked at a man in a thin brown coat, hauling the hostage to his feet. "Let's go."
The cart came to a rather abrupt stop – Hermione nearly knocked her nose against the handrail. Sophie shot her an apologetic look, but said nothing. Hermione followed suit, aware any conversation might be heard, depending on the situation. They should keep their silence until they were certain it was safe to quietly converse. She carefully climbed out of the cart and was going to surreptitiously peek into the lobby when Sophie reached out and caught her by the coat, pulling her back. Sophie pointed towards the floor of the doorway. Following the indication, Hermione looked more closely and saw a tripwire cleverly concealed by its contrast to a gap in the tiles beneath it, blending into the mortar. She couldn't see what it was attached to, but it was probably one of the hand-thrown flashbangs, or perhaps even Sleeping Draught.
A bit put out she hadn't been warned ahead of time, Hermione stood back and let Sophie proceed first. Had Scott really been counting on Sophie to discern the trap? Or had he told her? Perhaps Sophie had simply worked with Scott enough times to have known to expect it. Hermione still would have appreciated a warning.
Her mild outrage was stalled when she received such a warning. Harry's altered voice suddenly came from somewhere to her left. "Hermione, I'm right here," he said. "Be careful, Lila put a bomb in the door."
"A bomb?" she whispered back, alarmed.
"A flashbang," Sophie quickly explained. "Not an explosive."
"I don't know, they set that one bloke on fire easy enough," Harry said quietly. "There's a wire, so just step over." A pause. "…Did you get it?" he said, sounding almost afraid to ask.
"We got it," Hermione whispered back with triumph.
She could almost hear him grinning in relief. "That's brilliant. You both are. Hold on, I'll tell them you're back," he said.
Hermione and Sophie bypassed the trap and waited in the space between just before the door exited into the lobby proper. From where they stood, they could see the back wall and the mural Hermione had examined not so long before. Sounds filtered in from the right, where Scott and Lila held their captives. Hermione knew that they had been periodically shuffling hostages from side to side, keeping them disoriented. It was also the method through which Hermione and Sophie would be reintroduced.
A soft rustling signalled Harry's returned. "Here, turn around," he said, one arm emerging from beneath the Cloak with a zip tie in hand.
Hermione didn't care to be restrained, but knew it had to be done. "Not too tight, please," she requested, complying.
Hermione and Sophie took quick drinks of their Polyjuice before being shackled. Once both women were in their disposable manacles, Harry disappeared yet again. Hermione wished she knew more of what was happening. Now that she had returned to the surface, she knew her mirror would be functioning once more, free from the dampening of the wards below. But she didn't dare try to utilise it for fear of the sound reaching elsewhere. Scott and Lila's mirrors had been sewn into their balaclavas, close to the ear and had their volume lowered for just that reason.
"Up! Both of you, move it!" Lila shouted. Hermione presumed that meant her turn was fast approaching.
Soon enough, Harry took Hermione's hand. "Here, get under the Cloak," he told her.
Hermione slipped beneath the fabric, taking the opportunity to examine her friend. It was difficult to judge his precise state, given his magically altered appearance, but his hair was limp with sweat despite the relative coolness of the lobby interior, and he looked a shade paler than she thought was usual for his borrowed pallor. His eyes were focussed, though, and he seemed to know what he was doing. She was glad to see he was unharmed and holding up fairly well. Most of the adventures they'd found themselves in hadn't ever given Harry much time to contemplate the situation, allowing him to play to his innate
strength – heroic instinct, a trait Hermione had always admired even as it had left her fearing for his life and sanity more times than she cared to remember. Scott and Lila ran a different sort of operation, one that required contemplation and had guidelines to be followed. Harry was adapting at least fairly well. Hermione had no doubt he'd been possessed of the urge to do something brave and stupid at various points, but at least he was suppressing it for the good of the plan.
Shuffling beneath the Cloak, they passed the end of Lila's side of the counters, where her frightened captives were lying uncomfortably on their stomachs and sides. Harry steered them to the centre of the lobby, between the counters.
"Crouch down," he whispered, and when she did so he stepped away, leaving her exposed.
Scott approached her immediately, taking her by the arm. She looked up at him and he winked at her with unfamiliar eyes. She felt somewhat reassured by that, despite his alien appearance. He took her to Lila's side and handed her off to the Kharadjai woman, who also took her by the arm and then lowered her into a gap in one of the rows.
"No talking on this side, either," Lila told her in a harsh Irish lilt, and then walked back to the head of the line.
The floor was hard against her stomach, even through her coat. At least it wasn't cold, the space having been warmed by its previous occupant. She assumed that Sophie was being given the same treatment behind the opposite counter.
She closed her eyes and rested her head on her hair as best she could, uninterested in making eye contact with any of her fellow prisoners. Better to be as unmemorable as possible, just in case. With the cup safely tucked away in her handbag, it would all be over soon enough, one way or another.
"It's done," Harry said quietly.
Scott nodded shortly in satisfaction. Hermione and Sophie had come through, as he'd expected. Save for the assault, thus far everything had gone roughly according to plan, which was the best that could ever be hoped for in such a situation. The attack had been shut down quickly enough that the plan didn't need to be altered, not yet. Now it was simply a matter of getting the cup out of the bank. Getting himself out would be nice, of course, but the cup had to be destroyed above all other considerations. Well, except for getting Harry out of the bank, too. But with his Cloak, he'd have the easiest time escaping of any of them.
Still, a little extra motivation wouldn't hurt. "When you get outside, go to Ginny and get her underneath the Cloak, just in case," he murmured to Harry.
Harry quickly agreed, probably too caught up in the danger of the moment to consider why Scott had suggested extra protection for Ginny specifically.
Now, to prepare for the grand exit. First, all the hostages would have to be gathered in the centre of the lobby. Then would begin the delicate task of preparing for everyone's simultaneous flight. Given the logistics involved, they were going to have to trust each person to look after themselves, at least for the moment of escape. Speed would be key, as would splitting enemy focus. Scott preferred to work as a duo with Lila, but in this instance fleeing in opposite directions would greatly lessen the chances of becoming pinned down or surrounded, as well as increasing the chaos needed for the Primes to disappear. They would need to coordinate with Ron and Ginny to know the composition and placement of the opposition, and it would be nice if they could buy themselves a little more time to be sure there wouldn't be another assault right in the middle of–
"Someone's coming up the steps, just one person. They've got their hands up," Ginny said through the mirror. "I think they want to talk."
And there it was. Scott quickly gestured to Lila, bringing her over. "You talk to the negotiator. No need to confirm it's the two of us, if there's any doubt left. You got a demand?"
She nodded. "Had an idea. What if they want to see the hostages?"
"No, we can't let anyone in. Tell them no one comes in until we get what we want."
Lila jogged to the door, ensuring the negotiator wouldn't get a chance to peek inside. "That's as close as you get!" she shouted, opening the antechamber door just a crack, showing no part of herself.
Scott went back to the counters to watch both sets of hostages. He didn't want Harry to be forced to reveal his presence if one of the captives decided to try something. So far no one had been dumb enough to try anything. Scott figured that he and Lil had been convincingly violent, which was impressive since they hadn't seriously hurt any of the hostages. Perhaps the magical citizens would have been more inclined to rebellion had their captors not been using frightening and unfamiliar weaponry that deafened and confused. The new lack of Muggle-borns was probably working in their favour, awful as that was.
Scott could hear Lila loudly demanding the keys to the mid-security vaults, which was clever of her. It was a greedy, in-character insistence and almost impossible to facilitate, granting plenty of time. It was simply a question of how long it would take for the forces outside to regain their boldness (or receive an order from high enough it couldn't be ignored). With Hermione and Sophie back in the lobby, however, Scott didn't think they'd be around long enough for it to matter. The next clash would occur in the streets, and it was Scott and Lila's turn to provoke it.
Lila closed the door and returned to the end of the counters. "They want one of those good faith signs," she said.
"Give 'em a goblin. That'll piss them right off," Scott told her.
Lila picked a goblin at random, pulling him up and marching him to the door. Cutting his restraint, she shoved him quickly through the opening. "Run free, you little shite," she drawled.
Scott went back to his hostages to make sure the sudden release of one of their fellows wasn't giving them any ideas. The people on his side remained oblivious, though, so Scott went over to Lila's side. He was half-expecting some questions regarding the freed hostage, but it seemed the brief and exceedingly loud exchange of fire had knocked the rebellion out of anyone so inclined. He supposed they probably couldn't hear that well from their position on the floor, anyway, not even taking into account all the recent shooting, and it wasn't as if they could see the door. They probably thought the goblin had been moved to Scott's side, if they weren't too afraid to think anything.
When Lila returned, he strolled to the back of the room, out of earshot. "All right, I need to know what you see," he said into his mirror.
"They've moved a load of carts to the bottom of the stairs, like a wall. But not a real one, you could walk through or just go off the stairs to the sides, still. It's for them, mostly," Ron described. "There's more of them now, but not by much with the ones you got. A few went into the shop at the corner, I think that's where they're planning. The bloke who came up to talk to you is in there."
"Yeah, I can see through some of the shop windows, there's five or six in there. They're arguing right now. There's also two 'round the building where you were, someone must have seen you come out," Ginny reported.
Scott considered that as he went back to his side of the room. It sounded like the Death Eaters were more concerned with protecting themselves than keeping the bank sealed, and weren't expecting anyone to try exiting the building; at least, not as long as there were still demands being made. It would be against Scott and Lila's supposed interest to rock the boat before they got what they wanted. The Death Eaters didn't understand that the siblings already had what they wanted.
"I need to know the moment anyone moves on the stairs," he muttered into the mirror. "All Element, ready for exfil."
They had some decisions to make about what to bring and what to leave. Having no desire to give munitions to the Death Eaters, the PE4 charges at the bottom of the duffel bags would ensure nothing usable ended up in enemy hands. The MGL launchers would be left, as would the extra ammunition. The money had been packed into the emptied bags and then magically lightened by Harry. Still an encumbrance, but they couldn't abandon their hard-won cash without casting suspicion on their actions. Money was supposed to be the point of the whole thing, after all, as far as outside parties were concerned.
Lila hurried to the front of the room and sealed the doors with a couple ties. With the temporary protection in place, they were ready to begin moving their reluctant charges. Scott surveyed his half of the cowering hostages and made some quick decisions about the best order in which to relocate them.
He stepped between the rows to get to the far end. "Up," he ordered, reaching down to tug on the collars of two women, one of whom was Sophie.
It took a bit longer to get everyone grouped than he would have liked. Some seemed eager to stretch their legs, even if only for a moment, but most were unsteady and frightened to the point they almost didn't care when Scott tried to hurry them. But with Lil working on her half, it wasn't too long before the entire mass of hostages were on their knees before the antechamber.
Lila walked forward to stand before the
group, glaring down at them. "I'm cutting ye loose," she informed them. "He'll be watching. And if you test me, I'll just stick you instead. Sit fuckin' still and don't move your hands or I'll fuckin' have them."
Scott kept his weapon trained on the hostages as Lila freed them, ensuring they understood the price of defiance. The witches and wizards in the group had most of the fight taken out of them when their wands had been collected. Wizarding Britain depended very heavily on their wands and easily lapsed into a strong sense of psychological powerlessness without them. The goblins, however, were a renewed threat. Scott made sure to cover them closely, letting them get a good look down the barrel of the M4. At least they seemed crafty enough to realise he could kill them before they could get even a nonverbal, wandless spell off. They were especially careful, compared to their human fellows, to not make any sudden moves.
"All right, ladies and gents," Scott boomed as Lila was cutting through the last tie, "the time has come to go our separate ways. Parting is such sweet sodding sorrow, but I'm right fucking sick of looking at you lot! So everyone, on your feet!"
The hostages stood uncertainly, hope mingling with their fear. Scott and Lila circled them with weapons at the ready. They each took a door handle.
"On the count of three, the doors will open and you'll be on your merry way. If you stick around, I'll plug you 'til you look like strawberry jam; I could use a laugh. If you're not keen on that, then best you fucking scarper. On three, I trust you can count…" Scott gripped the handle tightly and leaned back. "ONE. TWO. THREE!"
The door flew open and the hostages surged out in a desperate, sprinting mass, tripping over each other and shoving their way into the snow.
"ONE," Scott said loudly, one hand on the door and the other keeping his weapon firmly pointed at the group.
Hermione cringed a bit when the barrel passed in her direction, though she trusted Scott not to shoot her. In the event he was forced to open fire, however, her first act would be to drop straight to the floor. Hopefully that wouldn't happen; not when they were so close!
"TWO," Scott bellowed.
She tensed and readied to run, clutching her handbag close. She had the strap firmly around her shoulder, beneath her coat. If she were to lose the bag, everything would be for naught. She pictured the Alley in her mind: the stairs, the snowy streets and, at the far end, the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron where the wards ended and she could make her escape. It seemed very far away, just then.
The doors were pulled open and the hostages needed no further encouragement to bring an end to their ordeal. They rushed out, jostling each other in their frantic rush to safety. The antechamber echoed loudly with the clatter of shoes on the bloodied, pitted marble, and then a bitter swell of frosty air hit them as they passed the shattered outer doors. The blizzard raged outside, the sudden cold like a slap to the face as they emerged into a white whirlwind of snow and biting wind. Several hostages slipped on the steps, flailing and falling. Hermione nearly lost her balance when she was shoved aside by someone with a longer stride, but recovered in time to prevent a tumble. She could hear shouting from the bottom of the steps as she reached the halfway point. The snow cutting across the marble stair drowned out most of the words, but she could tell they were orders to stop. The next event would take care of that, she knew, and she only tried to run faster, feet sinking into the powder, arms extended for balance.
The hostages were gathering at the bottom, running into the wall of Aurors (or Death Eaters? Was there still a difference?). Hermione was stuck behind them as they yelled and pushed. The surge of people was beginning to calm, however, and she couldn't find a way to push through. She felt the beginnings of panic. She couldn't afford to be caught. Scott and Lila needed to hurry.
Just as the flight of the hostages was about to be fully arrested, there was a muffled bang that Hermione felt in her chest, and a plume of smoke rolled out of the doors of the bank. Shots rang out from the top of the stairs, cutting sharply through the howling wind. Scott and Lila burst from the smoke with fire snapping from their weapons, puncturing the frozen air. The effect was immediate: the gathered opposition dove behind their carts as bullets popped loudly overhead. The hostages ran, screams rising from the crowd as it scattered, pushing desperately past the barricade and even knocking a few of the Death Eaters over. Hermione ran past the carts without pause, cringing and hugging her handbag tightly to herself as the shots cracked through the snow around her, so different and terrifying in sensation than when she had been behind or to the side of the weapon. The Doppler effect, and the supersonic report of accelerated metal, her mind distantly supplied. The sounds tugged at some deep self-preservation instincts.
The snow slowed her but she refused to stop, panting as she slogged forward. The besieged enemies at the barricade were shouting spells, casting back at Scott and Lila. Their response sounded thin in the face of the shattering volley being unloaded upon them; the Kharans were really pouring it on. But Hermione knew that with the hostages clogging the streets, most of the shots were being sent into the air and it was probably a matter of seconds before at least some of the Death Eaters realised they weren't as suppressed as it seemed.
Hermione planned on being beyond reach by the time the enemy became organised. Already, the snow was whiting out the scene behind her; she glanced over her shoulder and could no longer see the columns at the top of the Gringotts stair. She ran, breath steaming. She took a sharp turn into an alleyway next to Fortescue's, desperately hoping the others would make their rendezvous. With the cup clutched against her, she knew she had to stick to her prior commitment. Waiting would jeopardise their singular objective. She didn't know if she could make herself leave if she were alone. She didn't want to find out.
For a brief moment she didn't recognise the two people huddle next to the bins, but it was Ron and Sophie in their Polyjuice guises.
Ron reached out and pulled her into a brief, fierce hug. "Harry has Gin," he whispered reassuringly to her.
She nodded, relieved. Wherever those two were, at least they couldn't be seen. "Are they going to meet us at the Cauldron?"
Ron shook his head. "I don't know, I think they're moving right now, but…"
"I know. We can't wait," Hermione said, no more happy about that than he was. "They have the Cloak, they'll be fine," she said, trying to convince herself.
"Be quick, but don't run," Sophie said. "Come on!"
They exited the other side of the alley and moved up the street together with hurried strides. They weren't alone; several clumps of other people were fleeing the scene with worried expressions. A mother carried two small children, both bundled up in blankets to shield them from the snow; a group of what Hermione thought were former hostages talked loudly over the wind, their voices carrying a hysterical edge. A large, ragtag formation of what looked like Snatchers ran down the Alley in the opposite direction, wands out. Sporadic gunfire echoed from the distance, muffled by the snow. The shots were becoming more distant, and came from different directions. Some of that was simply odd echoes, Hermione knew, but it also meant Scott and Lila had separated, and were moving quickly. She wished she could do something to slow or distract the enemy reinforcements headed the Kharadjai's way, but that was exactly what she shouldn't do. Scott and Lila were on their own, now.
The entrance to the Leaky Cauldron slowly faded in from behind the curtain of snow. The portal was open, the occasional pop of Apparition drifting out as bystanders and escaping captives fled the Alley. As she stepped through, she paused to look back into the teeth of the blizzard. The dark outlines of buildings loomed through the blurry sheet of streaking ice like the charcoal shapes of ships in ocean fog. There seemed to be no sky, only a white void which poured downwards and erased the features of the ground. How could anyone fight in such weather? Scott and Lila would disappear by default, she thought, if only by standing still. The snow swallowed everything which did not move, and even some things that did.
She couldn't hear any gunfire, and hoped that was a good sign. Ron gripped her hand, a reminder her of the present urgency. The battle might still be raging somewhere beyond that vast, frozen curtain she saw through the opened wall, but her part in it was over. She felt a sudden empathy with Harry. It was wrong, to leave friends in a fight yet to be finished. But it was what needed to be done, and she understood the importance of her escape. Scott and Lila did, too; it was why they were still out there, somewhere.
Their struggle would have meaning in the victory it ensured. Hermione gripped Ron's hand more firmly, and vanished from the pub.
Had a lot of interesting responses to my question last chapter. In fact, there wasn't much overlap between them, when it came to Sophie. I think that's encouraging. It must be a good thing that there are enough facets to her that people kind find something about her they like that isn't the only likeable thing. And, really, that's always the goal for any character that gets focus. Archetypes have their uses, but I'd prefer that my characters not have
a single, defining trait.
It's sort of inevitable that at least one trait floats to the surface, of course. Fanfiction is a prime example of that tendency, where characters tend to have whichever side of themselves sticks the most in the minds of the fans exaggerated. I know I've been guilty of it. Sometimes I have to go back and erase certain lines of dialogue or thinking a bit longer on how someone's POV affects the narrative, rather than allow one particular facet of them to take over completely when there should be more complexities in play. So, in that way, fanfiction is also freeing. The only expectation readers have for fanfiction is that they get to spend more time with the characters they love. I can fill a few pages with banter or character insight that a publisher might push to cut, if it wasn't plot essential.
I consider character to be equally important to plot (and, frankly, often more enjoyable, both to read and to write). This isn't a one-shot – you guys have spent a lot of time with these people. It's only fair that you get to know them. There are always limits, of course. There's so much about the Kharadjai and Scott, Lila and Sophie's histories that I've only hinted at or omitted entirely because it's not necessary to explain those things to have them inform character decisions. I know exactly why Scott does everything he does, but as long as those things are consistent with his character, I think you guys can draw some conclusions without needing to be told instead of shown. That's my hope, anyway. I hope you guys feel what's left unsaid as much as what is.