38Wealth of NationsPart III
"Twenty-five billion arca worth of
armament, four divisions of veteran
infantry and enough ammunition to
shoot down a moon, and it means
fuck all in this snow."
–Praefectus Minor Phylla Galbarden, Operation Benton Shelf
Quoted in Great White North: The Benton Polar Dispute and the
Blizzard that Changed History
The gun kicked hard against her shoulder as it spat death with a wisp of smoke and heat. The barrel steamed in the cold, flakes melting as they fluttered against it. Her fire appeared excessive and random, but in reality she was very careful placing a long line of bullets over the heads of the crowd below and into the solid stone of the structures behind them. Lest they begin to think she wasn't serious, though, she ripped a burst into an overturned cart at her end of the barricade, strewing chips into the snow.
Lila had only been standing at the top of the stairs and firing for a handful of seconds, but she was already pushing her luck. Her opponents outnumbered her greatly and it was only a matter of moments before they wouldn't have to aim around a crowd of panicked hostages. Already, they were sporadically returning fire. None of the spells were anywhere close to being on target, but that was soon to change. She glanced to her left just long enough to see Scott strafe in a sideways crouch across his stair as he fired rapidly, and then he jumped off the side.
Lila dropped her LMG to her hip and waved a wild burst across the front of the enemy line, kicking up snow and shattered cobblestone as she ran for the edge of the stairs. A Severing Charm whipped past her head. Scott had quickly cut around the street corner on his side of the Alley – having lost sight of him, the Death Eaters from his end were firing upon her.
Time to trade suppression for speed. She hopped sideways off the stairs with her gun still held tightly at her hip. She held down the trigger as she jumped, hitting nothing but the street and snow. The enemy closest to her still flinched instinctively from the shots, dropping back into cover. She hit the icy ground, spun around and ran.
Unfortunately, that was the moment probability swung against her. A stray spell exploded on the ground directly next to her right foot. White hot pain suffused her leg; she fell and rolled with her momentum. Two-thirds of the way across the open space she stopped just long enough to fire again, sending Death Eaters dodging back into the safety of the steps and barricade.
She pushed hard with her left arm and leveraged herself back to her feet. Close enough to safety to not have to worry about limping, she launched herself forward with her uninjured side towards the cover of the alley. She gritted her teeth against the intense pain of impact when her damaged foot took her weight, and then swung around so she was resting on her other foot again.
Having reached the corner of the nearest alleyway, she rolled her back across the wall and set her shoulder against the corner of the alcove. The first enemy to emerge around the edge of the barricade was immediately shredded; robes spiking out at his back as the shots tore through. The person behind them ducked back behind the cart. Lila fired on it, unable to see if the target had been struck through the wood.
She had bought herself a second or two to assess her injury. The tip of her right boot was marred with a hole which ran partially down the outer side of her foot. Wisps of smoke curled out of it, fluttering away with the wind. She couldn't see exactly what the damage was, but she didn't have to. Discovering the shunt point wasn't a problem, either: it hurt like hell. She pushed with the shape until the pressure was almost unbearable and then released, silencing a howl by biting the arm of her coat. Teeth aching, she let out a shuddering breath and then returned her attention to her approaching foes.
She sprinted farther into the alley just as a line of Death Eaters were beginning to peek up over the top of the stairs, using their heightened angle as cover. A Blasting Curse dug a pit in the wall next to her – she dodged left when the alley emptied out into a small square yard between houses. She took cover at the corner again and fired back down the alleyway. The snow had thickened to the point she could only just see where she had come from; in infrared, however, her enemies burned brightly against the dark drifts. She aimed left and caught a Death Eater running across the gap. They collapsed, striking the ground hard as their hot blood hit the marble behind them in a phosphorescent spatter.
Decision time. The person she'd just shot would discourage any others from trying to cross the opening and flank right, but they could already be flanking left without her knowledge. They were likely able to cut through the buildings, as well, which meant her position would only be good for another minute, if that. Her objective wasn't to hold, of course, but she still had to know which way to escape. Even with the heavy falling snow, her tracks would be visible for a time. Which meant she either had to go where there were already tracks, disguising her movements, or be considerably faster than her pursuers. The shortest distance between two points was a straight line, so–
She leaned back around the corner and bombarded the alley, snow jetting off the brick at the points of impact like frozen whale plumes. She fired until her weapon's barrel took on the patchy, whitened pallor of extreme heat. As the last spent link and shell tumbled into the snow, she sprinted straight to the tall wrought iron fence behind her and clambered over it. Sinking into a drift, she stomped her way free and then, instead of running around the side of the narrow yard of the house, she went straight up the side of the building, catching the edge of the roof and pulling herself up.
Her new vantage point didn't reveal much of anything, given the extremely poor visibility. Even infrared range was severely hampered by such heavy snowfall. She kept moving, knowing she was headed in the right direction. If she managed to avoid any contact she wouldn't have to fire, making her exact location much harder to track. The enemy chasing her might be unaware of her elevated position.
Reaching the end of the roof, the next building was too far to make a jump. She launched herself out as far as she was able, hoping the gap in her tracks might confuse, and then hauled herself up a drain pipe.
The snow stuck to her coat and sometimes blew into her eyes, making her blink. The next house had a high peaked roof. She took hold of the chimney and then had nowhere to go but down. The tiny street below seemed devoid of any tracks. If the Death Eaters were still close behind her, she couldn't tell. She jumped down and scurried across the open space. The gap between the next set of houses was so small that she had to force herself through, duffel bags scraping loudly against the brick. She didn't stop to see if anyone had heard. Diagon Alley was long, but narrow, and she was crossing its width. Not much farther, now.
The snow crunched beneath her as she ran through a small fenced-in grove of apple trees. She stopped, one hand on an icy trunk, certain she had heard something. Muffled gunfire popped over the wind, echoing through the narrow streets. Scott was still fighting – and with urgency, from the amount of shots he was loosing.
For a moment, Lila debated breaking set and going to help him. She knew the general direction he was in. But the plan was clear, as were the stakes. She didn't know if he needed help, and, even if he did, there was no guarantee hers would be enough. He was her brother. She never forgot that. But they also had a job to do, and had agreed upon the way to do it. She knew better than to jeopardise her own exfiltration to go haring off into the enemy, even if her heart disagreed.
Ahead loomed the wall that separated the wizarding world from the Muggle. It was roughly thirty feet tall and was constructed of ancient, tightly set stone. The snow was piling against it, unmarred by footsteps. Either she had totally lost her pursuers in the storm, or they were forming a perimeter instead of trying to cut her off. Perhaps they considered the wall impassable. Not an unfounded assumption, considering its height and the old magic with which it was imbued.
The shots in the distance had ceased. She didn't know if that was good or bad, though she was leaning more towards thinking it was good. She doubted Scott would have fallen without firing even more than he already had. Still, she again felt the urge to intervene and, again, ruthlessly quashed it. Scott would have been furious with her if she'd done anything else. And she would have felt the same, if their positions were reversed.
She hopped off her rooftop perch and landed in the drift at the base of the wall. Backing up to the street, she gained a running start. She jumped and managed to get about halfway up with a mixture of sheer momentum and strength, but the stone was too slick and cold to push herself up further. She fell back down and looked to the street, making sure it was still clear. It seemed the enemy's confidence in the barrier wasn't misplaced. She spotted a weakness, however: a house up the road had a narrow tree in front of it, on the far side of the walk. It wasn't an especially tall tree, but it was closer to the wall than any of the roofs.
She ran back through the
snow and surmounted the house. From there she lined herself up with the tree. If she didn't make it, she'd probably have to abandon some of her burden. Even with Harry's spells lightening the load, the bags were still unbalancing, and she was reluctant to discard any ammunition.
"Come on," she said tersely, the words swallowed by the wind.
She ran forward and leapt lightly off the roof, aiming for a thick horizontal branch. The moment her foot touched it, she leaned forward and pushed off as hard as she could, afraid she might slip. She flew towards the wall, lower than she'd hoped. She raised her arms as high as she could and turned her head against the forthcoming impact.
She met the wall with a pained grunt, refusing to flinch and keeping her fingers extended. They caught the icy lip of the wall as she slid downward; she dug her fingertips into the rock as her full weight came to rest on them, grit and snow sliding with unpleasant coldness beneath her nails. Yanking herself up, she put an elbow over the edge and stabilised, rolling onto the top.
Heart pounding with adrenaline, she lay there for a moment, letting the snow begin to cover her. What she could see on the other side of the wall was bewildering. Diagon Alley was larger within than it was without – the result was a refracted view that changed depending on where she looked, a collision of relative reference frames and points in space that corresponded to more than one continuation. It was like a blurry, monochromatic kaleidoscope.
The magical wards were very similar to the Muggle-Repelling Charm, mixed with a variety of much more complicated magic that she had no familiarity with. But the solid protections were close enough to those surrounding The Burrow that she was able to make a hole large enough to slide through, though she had no way of knowing which intersecting point in London she would be falling into.
She plunged, realising with consternation that the wall was significantly taller on the Muggle side than it had been in the Alley. She smacked into the ground, knees buckling with the force of it. It seemed, in her haste to disrupt the wards enough to pass, she had also broken Harry's charms to lighten the bags. Their unexpected weight had nearly made her break a bone or two.
She had arrived in yet another snowy alleyway, though this one had some distinctively Muggle flourishes with its wall-mounted conduit, red metal railings and fluorescent fixture over a nearby steel door. Sparse traffic could be heard around a nearby corner.
In the light of the fixture, she examined her foot. Her bare toes could be seen through the punctured leather, bright pink in the cold. She dug through the side pockets of a duffel bag and extracted a roll of duct tape. A few layers of it would serve as a quick fix; the tape would definitely draw less attention than her snow-scoured toes.
She started forward, stiff hands fumbling with her weapon strap. She unhooked her M249 and raised the lid of a nearby skip, dropping the weapon inside where it sank into an array of cardboard; she shuffled the waste a bit to conceal the gun and then dropped the lid back in place. She tucked her balaclava into one of her pockets, the sudden cold sharp against her moist skin. Zipping up her coat to conceal her SMG, she pulled up her hood and walked around the corner and out into the street.
Even in the midst of the blizzard there were still cars forging their way through the slushy London streets, following the salted trails of the snowploughs with their headlights brightly catching on the tumbling flakes. They rumbled slowly forward with grey-caked tyres and flashing wipers shedding snow from their windscreens. Peering through the nearly impenetrable combination of streaking snow and glaring lights, Lila spotted a taxi and flagged it down. The driver only pulled slightly to her direction, unable to get any closer to the kerb with the street narrowed by shunted piles of snow. She slogged through the drift, ankles already soaked as it was, and slid into the back seat. The car's shocks sank noticeably lower with the weight of her burden.
"Highbury and Islington, please," she requested once she had shut the door against the wind.
"It will be slow tonight," the driver warned as he tried to turn back into the lethargic line of traffic.
"That's all right," she told him, gazing through her window. "Just so long as we get there."
Outside, the lights glowed softly through layers of feathery snowfall, blotted out beyond a certain distance. The mushy road hissed and squelched beneath the tyres as a handful of Londoners who were either brave enough or obligated enough to be outside bent against the wind with heads covered and gloves jammed deep into pockets. It was unreal to think of just how close they all walked to a different world entirely, tucked away behind a wall they couldn't even perceive. Behind that wall, she was still being hunted with magic. There was no magic outside the car, from where she sat – just another city sinking beneath another snowstorm.
Lila hoped that Scott had left magic behind, as well.
Scott knew he might be in trouble. The question remained as to whether he could beat the clock that was now ticking, counting down the unknown number of seconds until his situation was inescapable.
The initial moments of the exfiltration had gone more or less according to plan. A combination of frightened hostages and sudden assault had left the Death Eaters at the front of the steps huddled behind whatever cover they could find. Their return fire had been ineffective, and Scott and Lila had jumped off the steps and were moving before the response consolidated.
But Scott had only made it about a block before it became apparent he hadn't bought as much time as he'd thought. His plan had been to use the weather and his innate speed to outpace the enemy, much as he eventually had at the Hollow. But the Death Eaters had already placed themselves ahead of him, either by design or chance. He'd turned the corner and ran straight into five Snatchers arranging themselves in a loose search pattern. They'd been caught off guard, and he had reached the cover of a nearby stoop by the time they'd begun casting.
It was exactly the sort of position he needed to avoid. He emptied his magazine over the top of the step, the rapid barrage forcing the Snatchers to take cover. He scrambled up the front of the building and sprinted towards the back, spells kicking up roof tiles on the other side of the gently sloped peak. He hit the ground and kept moving, ducking into the next street. A Stunner cracked the window next to his head – three more dark figures emerged from the snow, with even more farther out to the left. He drew his sidearm and dropped the closest target, scattering the others.
He ran, seeking a gap in the closing net. He didn't want to try punching through if he could avoid it. He could easily become bogged down long enough for his opponents to be reinforced. The storm made him difficult to track, but there were a lot more of them than there was of him. They'd stumbled upon him twice already, despite his speed.
He discarded a STANAG magazine into the snow, inserting a new one as he poked his head around the next small intersection. At least seven Snatchers were converging on it from three different angles. He'd run straight into their main force, from the look of it, sprinting his way through their perimeter and into the bulk of the unit when he'd gone over that house. Shit.
Where was the edge? He doubled back, moving away from the wall that marked the boundary of the Alley. He wasn't going to fight if it was still possible to run. Ahead of him lay a small square, a tight intersection of two minor streets. He paused at the corner, listening. He heard nothing but the wind and saw nothing but snow that looked almost black in infrared. The scene was still, silent. His gut told him it was a trap. He didn't know why, but every instinct screamed that the innocuous space was in someone's sights. Deciding to trust the feeling, he turned back around again.
Spells flew down the alleyway as at least three enemies appeared at the other end. He must have been seen, and they'd followed him. He snuffed out two attacks that he didn't have the time to identify and returned fire, shots biting at the walls and shattering old brick. A bright spark flashed as a round disintegrated against a Shield Charm. The volume of spells barely decreased. A nearby bin exploded, showering the corridor with steaming garbage. They were trying to force him backwards into the intersection. They were squeezing him out of the alley and into the open where, presumably, someone was waiting.
Refusing to take the path they intended, Scott scrambled straight up the side of the building and smashed through a first-storey window, using his thick coat to protect his face from the shards. Between his speed and the small size of the opening, he wasn't able to land on his feet. He hit the floor with a crunch and rolled, coming to a stop against a cabinet with a hollow bang.
He'd crashed his way into someone's bathroom, redecorating their tile floor with shattered glass and fragments of wooden frame. He surged up and out, emerging into a bedroom. He thought someone was cowering behind the bed but didn't stop to look. The bedroom door led into a hallway with a set of stairs behind a short railing at the end. Next to the stairwell was another window, this one overlooking the street where he had originally come from. Scott slammed his elbow through the flimsy bronze lock and leaned out. One of the Snatchers had stayed behind at the mouth of the alley when his fellows had gone forward.
Two quick shots to the chest dropped the man into the snow. Scott climbed onto the sill and launched himself out into the cold. He hit the street running, muffled shouts ringing out behind him as the Snatchers flocked to the sound of his weapon. A Cutting Charm flew from the window and hit a lamppost with a brilliant showering of sparks. He dodged right and ran up the street, counting on the snow to mask him from distant fire.
Ahead was a grove of trees, planted between the brick bulwarks of two buildings, a narrow park. Scott ducked into it, preferring the cover of the trunks to the open street. It proved to be a mistake: spells came flying from beyond the fence ahead. Three Snatchers had taken position behind the solid lower half of the fence, spread out next to the exit. Scott took cover behind the closest tree as a Severing Charm cut a deep groove in the bark. The tree shook with the impact of several minor Blasting Curses.
The problem with fighting wizards as opposed to Muggle opponents was that wizards never needed to reload. That momentary gap in readiness had been exploited since firearm-based combat had been in its infancy, and was why those who were well trained always staggered their reloads. But the other side of that magical advantage was that most spells were spoken, and consisted of multiple syllables. Wands were also far more difficult to aim. They lacked recoil, but also lacked any means of bracing and even basic sights. Beyond the very short range, most wizards zeroed in their targets by watching where their previous spells had landed. Scott's sights were already zeroed, and he knew his ranges. In terms of the match up of pure weaponry, his disadvantages were versatility and staying power. His advantages were unmatchable speed and precision.
Scott ducked out of cover and fired in short, tight single-fire bursts at the fence as he moved to the next tree. He waited as more spells flew around him, and then repeated the action. The Snatchers ducked as he moved and fired, bullets clanging through the wrought iron and shattering brick and cobblestone. About four trees forward, he stopped to reload. The Snatchers seemed to have lost track of which tree he was behind; several other trees received their share of spell damage.
Scott waited. The uncertain lull in their fire came again, and he seized the opportunity. He leaned out and squeezed the trigger, surprising the Snatcher on the far right and striking the man twice in the torso. His partner shouted in dismay and then ran – Scott caught a fleeting glimpse of his retreating back, but didn't try to hit him. Instead, he fired at a steady pace into the portion of cover where the last Snatcher was cowering, advancing with quick, careful steps until he reached the fence.
The remaining Snatcher was huddled into a tight ball in the snow, covered in chips of brick. Scott fired twice into his head.
Scott turned and ran out into the next narrow exit, keeping an eye out for the man who had retreated. A Snatcher popped out of an alcove just ahead, wand at the ready. Scott flipped his M4 up and fired from the hip, not needing precision at such close range, but the shots hit the Shield Charm the man was maintaining. When a second Snatcher appeared behind the first and prepared to fire, Scott veered left and shouldered through a door, splintering the latch.
The house was cold and dark, apparently empty. He rushed through the kitchen and down a short set of stairs that led to an enclosed back porch. Just as he hit the floor, the back door opened and two more Snatchers pushed their way inside. Unfortunately for them, they were within arm's reach. Scott let go of his M4, letting it bounce on its straps, and barrelled forward into the first man. He caught the Snatcher by the wrist and ducked under his arm, spinning around until the full weight of both their bodies was put on the elbow and shoulder. Bone broke and the shoulder socket dislocated with an audible pop. Scott let go and used his side to knock the second man into the door frame hard enough that the back of the man's head slapped against the wood with a hollow crack. Hands feebly pushed against Scott's chest, searching for solid purchase; Scott ignored them and slammed his elbow against the man's forehead, once, twice, and then kicked his kneecap in backwards against the wood.
Scott left them both on the floor and kept running, not even bothering to make the first Snatcher stop screaming. His location was presently obvious enough. He didn't know if the other Snatchers would stop to aid their maimed comrades, but he hoped so. He hopped the fence in the backyard and cut sideways around the next house. He didn't turn through the street ahead, keeping a straight path across before veering into an alleyway to his right. He took another right after counting to twenty, ending up back on the same street where he had been confronted, but well past the Snatcher's previous positions.
The wind tugged hard at his coat, catching against his body and the bags he carried, making him feel as if he were running up an incline. If it was hard for him, though, it would be several times harder for the Death Eaters. With that idea in mind, he turned directly into the gale and kept that heading, legs churning through the snow as he used his physical advantage to force his way into the brunt of the storm. He ran until he reached the end of the street where it branched off. To the side, there was a gap between two shops.
He looked back. The snow blew past in long, sharp streaks, disappearing into the frozen tumult, a grey haze that marked the edge of visibility. If he stood perfectly still, it was almost as if he was moving, the street and the whirling flakes shooting past him down a tunnel of ice. In the infrared spectrum, he could see the dim white splotches of people in the distance, fading in and out of view as the snow obscured and their clothing shifted.
He went through the gap between the shops, emerging in yet another side street he didn't know the name of. He'd studied the map of the Alley, same as everyone else, but between his speed and the snow, he'd long since lost track of any landmarks. Travelling in a straight line in any given direction would, eventually, take him to the wall. He didn't want to go the same way as Lila, however, nor did he want to drag any Death Eaters to where his Primes might still be making their exit, assuming they weren't already gone. They should have been.
The Death Eaters were between him and the wall. His encounters had painted a rough picture of a half-circle that was changing with every passing moment, their line forming based on his movements. He might be able to slip through somewhere and reach his intended section of wall, or he might run right back into the enemy. Heading in a different direction could work, but the fact was, the longer he spent running randomly through the snow, the more time his enemies had to coordinate and the more of them there would be. He had little doubt that additional Death Eaters and Snatchers had arrived in the Alley, and there would be others to come.
More people meant more tracks though, and that gave him an idea. He wound his way back to the intersection where he had sensed the trap. Coming in on a different approach, he could see the rooftops and windows which had been the likely vectors for attack. The area appeared deserted, the Death Eaters having followed him through the building and out into the next street over. They were likely still somewhere further north, trying to find his trail in the blizzard. But it would lead them to where they had started: there were tracks all over the intersection, criss-crossing the open street and diverging into the alleys like lumpy, potholed paths. The snow was quickly filling them, erasing the finer details and leaving only the deepest holes, and even those would vanish soon enough.
Scott darted forward at full speed, ready to divert if he drew any fire. No spells were forthcoming, however, so he hid himself in the faint shadow of a doorway while he watched for any sign of response. There was no sound or movement save the constant howl of the wind and snow.
He couldn't go for the Western wall again, not without considerable risk. And he wasn't dumb enough to try for the Pub exit, not without completely changing his appearance. He could do so easily enough by cancelling his Polyjuice, but would then be forced to ditch his money and equipment. He also suspected that a single man, especially one without appropriate winter gear, would be stopped and questioned regardless of description. Maybe he could talk his way out of it, but he really didn't want to risk being detained. The gear and money he could come back for, if he hid it well enough. Which raised the question, why not hide himself well enough?
They thought he was running, and they were right. So he'd been running in unexpected ways, because he was too outnumbered to fight for long. They no doubt expected him to keep running, until he was exhausted or they caught him, whichever came first. Yet here he was, standing in snow already compacted by other runners. Who could say who ran where?
Time was only on the side of the enemy so long as the current pace was kept and the net continued to close. In the advent of relative safety, time became Scott's ally once more. The shape would not shake forever.
He was at the intersection of Wright and Fellowship, he was fairly certain, difficult though it was to tell through the nearly impenetrable snow billowing down from the uniform white haze above. If he was correct, there was an old church roughly one block to the west. It wasn't much compared to its larger fellow roughly a mile and a half away on Ludgate
Hill, but it would be taller than the surrounding buildings. Tall enough, Scott judged, that its steeple could not be seen from the snow-shrouded street.
He found the best path and hurried through yet another alleyway, retracing the steps of an enemy still chasing him. The blizzard ensured that his addition to the trail would cease being obviously newer within a matter of minutes, and all prints would be erased entirely before long. When he reached the correct block, he jumped upwards and pulled himself onto the rooftops. He could see the grey stone face of the church, the steps to its doors completely buried as the drift building against the front threatened to reach the first tier of windows. Breaking into an awkward, hampered run, he leapt from the closest corner and caught the side of the sloped roof where it met the rise of the steeple tower.
The snow was blowing on the wrong angle to stick to the old slate shingles, piling on the opposite slope and leaving the side Scott clung to a grainy surface of wavering white ripples, looking not unlike a shifting dune as snow blew harshly across it. Carefully, he inched upwards until he could fit his stiff fingers into the pitted mortar between the large stone blocks that made up the tower. He looked skywards; the tip of the steeple was intermittently visible for fractions of a second. It widened slightly near the top, possibly to accommodate a bell. He was more interested in the ledge he could see before the steeple's opened archways to the interior.
Climbing was a slow and delicate process. He'd chosen his facing wisely, and the wind pressed him into the cold stone, only occasionally threatening to rip him away from it when odd gusts hit. At last, his hands closed on the rounded boundary of the stone ledge. With an inaudible grunt, he rolled up onto it. Lying on his back with the snow pelting his eyes, he glanced to his left, back down at the church roof. There wasn't much to see. The sun was growing dimmer, and visibility was dropping ever further. He could just make out the sloped peak of the church's roof, and the dark outline of the closest buildings. The streets might as well have not existed, blank spaces on the white parchment that the Alley was becoming.
The shutters that led to what he assumed was a belfry were closed against the wind, but he had no interest in trying to get in. He sat up and then flopped onto his stomach and crawled his way around to the windward side of the steeple. There, the snow was deeply piled all the way up to the shutter, caking the tower's side. It was a bit of a struggle, but he managed to get the duffel bags unstrapped from his prone position and then proceeded to bury them on top of each other in the far side of the drift. Then he crawled backwards, letting his legs hang precariously off the ledge, and began to dig.
Soon he was cocooned in the drift, patting the walls of his makeshift tunnel flat to give himself some room to breathe. He was able to make just enough space to get comfortable on his back, staring up into total darkness. He could hear the wind, muffled and deep, as it deposited more snow on top of him. He couldn't really move, considering how close he was to falling, and he couldn't see, either, but he felt pretty good about his chances of not being found.
Somewhere far below him in the rapidly darkening streets, Death Eaters and Snatchers searched futilely for tracks that were already gone. Scott took a deep breath, smelling the crisp and watery odour that was unique to snow, hearing the soft, grating crunch as he shifted his shoulders. He grinned in the blackness, thinking of how he'd somehow ended up jammed in yet another tunnel as night was falling. At least this one was comfortable, if precarious.
Scott closed his eyes and listened to the storm inexorably blotting out every trace of him.
As the streets of Diagon Alley took on the frantic ambience of a warzone, Harry ran.
He was right on the heels of the terrified hostages as they fled the bank, their trampled path easing his passage and concealing his own footprints. He'd been worried that the blizzard would make him obvious, a sort of frosty ghost where the flakes adhered to the Cloak and produced a spectral outline. But snow didn't seem to stick to the Cloak at all, not even at his ankles. As long as he stayed where the snow had already been trod upon, he would remain unseen.
Lila's gunfire roared behind him, the sound beating at his back as if it were pushing him forward. He didn't need the added urgency. He cut left around the barricade, narrowly avoiding a Death Eater there. He had to slow as several hostages stumbled past the door he intended to enter; as soon as they were gone, he opened the door just wide enough to squeeze through and slid inside.
The interior was dark and cold, the polished wooden surfaces slightly dusty. It was a hotel that Harry had seen open and lit in previous years, but it now looked to have been closed since at least the start of winter, and maybe even before. Perhaps the owners were Muggle-born, or otherwise considered undesirable. Whatever the case, the empty building had served as a convenient vantage point. Now, with the piercing report of gunfire rattling through the howling snow, it was time to leave, and Harry intended to ensure that Ginny did so safely.
A woman was bustling down the stairs to the lobby, trying to fasten her coat at the same time. It took Harry a second to equate her with a Polyjuiced Ginny. "Gin!" he said, gaining her attention.
She froze, eyes searching the shadows. "Who's there?"
"It's Harry," he told her, lifting the bottom of the Cloak. "Come on, get under."
She quickly complied, slipping beneath the shroud. "This wasn't part of the plan," she said, though she sounded far from disapproving.
"It is now," Harry said. The staccato percussion of machinegun fire made the windows ring in sympathy, vibrating hollowly in their frames as if to underscore his decision. He spoke quickly into his mirror, "Highground, it's Ghost. I've got Overwatch and we're leaving together."
It took a moment for Ron to reply. "All right, mate. I'm almost to the spot, so no more talking," he said breathlessly, words halting as he ran.
"See you soon," Harry told him, and then closed the clasp on the mirror, guaranteeing it would stay silent.
Ginny did the same with hers. "Suppose we're on our own," she said.
More gunfire. The snaps came slowly, more irregular. Harry was fairly certain that was Scott. He tried to look out the window, but it was coated with frost. "Come on, we can follow the tracks."
The storm nearly knocked Harry over when he stepped outside. He and Ginny clung to each other as the wind tore at the Cloak. He worried that the flapping hem might expose them, but the way they sank into the snow lowered the chance. Still, he crouched a bit more than usual as they slogged their way up the mulched path of prints. Ginny was in the unusual position of having to do the same, being somewhat taller than normal in her assumed form. The crunch of the packed snow beneath them was inaudible over the wind, removing that worry. The way the snow was blowing, they'd practically be invisible even without the Cloak, Harry thought, watching as the violent gusts blew billows of powder into the air (and into his face).
There were few other people on the street, or at least few that could be seen. The handful that were visible were moving uniformly in the same direction, away from the bank and the deadly clamour echoing sporadically from the deeper portions of the Alley. There was far less firing than before, which Harry reckoned could either be a good sign or a very bad one. He was hoping for the former, and didn't want to believe that Scott or Lila could be captured without making even more noise.
Between the Cloak and the blizzard, progress was slow, but it wasn't too long before Harry could just make out the dim light of the Leaky Cauldron ahead. It was one of the rare buildings still lit, a beacon amidst rows of structures which stood dark and silent. Occasionally a light flickered as someone moved in front of it. He watched apprehensively, trying to see if it were possible to sneak through the opening without running into the Death Eaters and Snatchers who were coming and going.
As they drew closer, he was relieved to see that there wasn't much traffic at all – only one Death Eater, huddled miserably beneath their hood, stood at the entrance to the Alley keeping watch. There could be others looking out the windows, but there wasn't much to see. The weather was only growing worse. The snow might not have stuck to the Cloak but the wind cut right through it, and Harry was intensely grateful for his heavy winter wear, cumbersome though it was.
Slowly, they crept up the flattened path to the open wall. Harry kept his wand pointed at the sentry, just in case the Death Eater should somehow hear them over the blizzard. The sudden cessation of the wind when they crossed into the shelter of the courtyard walls was abrupt and almost startling, like stepping into a vacuum. Harry could actually hear again.
Ginny was gripping his hand, ready to Disapparate. Harry tensed himself to go; then, voices from inside the pub caught his attention. Was it the Death Eaters? He felt a jolt of excitement, wondering what he might learn. Ginny tugged insistently at his arm. He met her eyes, and tilted his head towards the sounds. Her eyes widened, then narrowed intently, and she nodded.
The door to the pub was closed. The Death Eater watching the street had his back to them, and Harry carefully pushed lightly at the
door until it swung open just enough for him to peer inside. There was no one immediately close to it, and it sounded like the voices were gathered at the tables in front of the bar. Trusting in his invisibility, Harry quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind him. He stood stock still for a moment after, but there came no outcry.
"–growing impatient," a voice was saying. "The Dark Lord asked for more frequent reports."
Harry stiffened. He knew that voice. That was Lucius Malfoy.
"So here you are to get one. Everyone is happy, now," another voice said, this one unfamiliar. It was deep and gravelly, heavily accented with an Eastern European tone that Harry wasn't knowledgeable enough to place.
"The Dark Lord is not happy. He wants to know why the terrorists haven't been found."
"Does the Dark Lord have a window? Tell him to look outside," the accented voice grumbled.
"One does not speak to him in that manner," Lucius hissed.
"No. You would have to grow balls," the other man sighed.
Harry edged forward, Ginny pressed tightly to his back to peer over his shoulder. He was able to look around the corner. There, Lucius Malfoy was confronting a handful of other Death Eaters gathered around a table. The one he seemed to be talking to was a heavyset, balding man with close-cropped hair and thick, dark stubble shot through with grey.
Lucius was clearly enraged, face white with anger. "We'll see if you still have yours after I inform him of your progress," he said softly, and then spun on his heel and Disapparated.
A tall Death Eater leaning nonchalantly against the bar scratched at his chin. "You sure you want to talk to Malfoy like that?" he asked. He had an Australian accent.
The unshaven man shrugged distractedly. "He's just messenger. Skinny blond owl."
"He'll make you look bad when he talks to the boss, though."
"Dark Lord expects it. It's what he wants." The unshaven man placed his hands flat on the table. Harry thought it was a map he was inspecting. "Second time," he grunted.
"The weather. Second time this man uses it against me. He's going to escape, you know."
"Blokes from the bank said there was two of them. Didn't see any features."
"It's him," the unshaven man said with finality. "First in the rain, now in the snow."
"Would be the same blighter from the Hollow, then. So it's really three times."
The unshaven man's hands fisted on the table. "Yes."
The man at the bar crossed his arms. "You'll get back in good if you can suss out who he is."
The unshaven man shrugged tiredly, turning away from the map. "Ex-military. Muggle-trained. Caucasian male, adult, blond or light brown hair. Preference for NATO weapons. Probably a mercenary." The unshaven man paused. "No. Not mercenary. Terrorist. Freedom fighter. Has a cause."
"Thought you said he was a merc before?"
"Before he came to the bank. Even small wars are expensive. Resistance needs money, so he gets it. Can't afford men like him."
"Could be working for cheap."
The unshaven man made a grotesque noise that might have been a laugh. "He's good. Not cheap. No. He wants this. He wants to fight us."
"Well." The taller man shifted uneasily. "We've gotta have something more than that, or–"
"He's working with Potter."
Harry flinched slightly, even as Ginny's grip on him tightened to a nearly painful degree.
The taller man shook his head. "Dark Lord thinks Potter is hiding."
"He's working with Potter," the unshaven man said more insistently.
"How can you be sure?"
"The girl. The Hollow. But mostly, the girl." The unshaven man turned back to the map. "Timous girl. Why? Why her? Because of Potter."
"Snape said it was the Order, they'll try to save anyone."
The unshaven man's face twisted disdainfully. "The Dark Lord believes him, of course."
"He's wrong. It was Potter, and he brought this man, this same man."
Silence fell for a moment. "…All right, but even if that's true," the taller man said slowly, "we still don't know what exactly happened at the Hollow or who all was there."
"Doesn't matter. He was there."
"You don't care why?"
"When I get him, I'll ask."
"Second ago, you said he was going to escape."
The tall man raised his hands exasperatedly. "Where the bloody hell is he going to go? We've got the walls covered, like he can even get over, and all the Floo is down, like you asked for. You think he's coming here?"
"No. He's not stupid."
"He tried to rob Gringotts, I'd say he bloody well is."
The unshaven man stared down at the map. "He would not have come here if he didn't have a way out."
"Then what is it?"
"I don't know."
The tall man blew out a frustrated breath. "Then who's his partner?"
"I don't know."
The tall man slumped back against the bar, and went quiet.
Harry was tempted to stay and hear even more, but as the silence stretched on between the men his curiosity began to be taken over by his sense of urgency. Ginny must have been feeling the same way, as she squeezed his hand in indication she was ready to Disapparate. Harry backed away from the corner and returned to the door. Its position in a separated room would hopefully keep the men from hearing it open again without a conversation to cover the sound. He didn't want to Disapparate where it would be obvious. The unshaven man had already divined a bit more than was comfortable, given the few clues he had – no need to hand him another.
Back out in the cold, there were a few more Death Eaters clustered near the opened wall. Harry and Ginny moved to the edge, where the wind caught and cried loudly against the stone. There, hands meeting as the snow pelted the buried city, they squeezed into nothingness, and disappeared.
In response to a quick question from, well, 'Quick Question': Bellatrix's vault number was obtained from Andromeda Tonks. Lila was able to use the Order to contact her and then approached her in person for the information, which Andromeda was able to recall with the help of a Memory Potion.
Anyway: for a chapter-appropriate ambient experience, I would suggest watching the street firefight scene from Heat, which can be found on YouTube as 'Heat Shootout Scene [High Quality]'. Play that starting at about 5:40 as Scott and Lila exit the bank and I think that will get you into the right sound space. I would also suggest watching the shootout scene from Heat for any and all reasons, at any time, on any occasion, as it is balls out amazing.
Of additional interest to a very select few of my readers who may or may not exist: there is another video called 'The Veteran Shootout Scene' on YouTube. Two things of note are that the protagonist of the video is using a modified M4 not too dissimilar from what Scott uses in this and previous chapters. Also, beginning at 3:40, the protagonist utilizes the same fire and advance tactics that Scott did when moving through the tree grove and elsewhere. (Note that the majority of the video is not otherwise a very good example of Scott's tactics or movement: the protagonist is indifferent to the possibility of injury or death and more or less saunters around.)