Reconnaissance and Respite

A Wizarding World Z War Tale

An Interstitial Story Between 2nd and 3rd Tales

by D. O'Shae

The two men walked through the quiet streets of Norwich. They entered the city following a complete search of their packs and an examination of their weapons by the guards at the gate. Ronin kept turning his head around and appeared anxious. Dennis strode ahead with a sense of purpose as though he knew his destination. No one tailed them and, more important, no zed chased them. Against all odds the rumors they collected during the trip south from the Maell Cala camp proved true: Norwich stood free and fast against the zed.

"Why'd they just let us in?" Ronin asked in a hushed voice.

"Because we're obviously not zed," Dennis whispered in return.

"That's it then: not stinking zed, so come on in?"

"Exactly who do you think can vet us? Hmm? What muggle agencies exist that can perform a background check?"

Dennis and Ronin locked gazes for a moment, and Ronin eventually shrugged. It took them three weeks to reach Norwich, and the pair traveled through some heavily infested areas. During that time they trained: Ronin with his mace and Dennis kept his sword skills sharp. Ronin also proved adept at defensive magic, more so than Dennis, and he shared what he knew when it relatively safe locations. Dennis recalled their days in Dumbledore's Amy, although he knew Ronin did not remember him very well. A flood of memories came back to each of them from the days when only Voldemort and his followers threatened the wizarding world. Somehow how that time almost seemed preferable.

The few people they saw on the streets hardly gave them a glance. Apparently two strangers looking a tad tatty from being out in the open for three weeks did not present an unusual site. Of course, Dennis always looked that way, and Ronin slowly evolved into it from the months he spent on the road with Dennis, and his brother Oliver and Rose Zeller, in search of Oliver's family. Their clothes, faded a touch from sun and weather, still felt hardy. Neither their weapons from the sixteenth century nor the chain maille attached to their jackets did not much to raise eyebrows. The military police who let them into the city complimented them on the choice of arms. All in all it produced a surreal affect in the minds of the travelers.

"So you don't find this at all strange?" Ronin asked his friend.

"Oh, I grant you it's strange, just… not strange strange if you take my meaning," Dennis answered.

"What would be strange strange then?"

"I'll tell you when I see it."

"See what?" The younger Wood brother demanded.

Dennis shrugged. They walked along for half an hour without any apparent rhyme or reason. It continually irritated Ronin that Dennis did not always share his plans, especially when they should be acting in concert in unknown environments. The man proved eminently resourceful, as always, while evading zed and finding what they needed along the way. Ronin privately admitted and admired the wide range of skills Dennis acquired during more than a decade and half of fending for himself in the wilds of the British Isles and who knew where else. With each step Ronin grew frustrate until he stopped. Dennis halted as well and looked at him with questions in his eyes.

"Where are we going, Denny? What are we looking for in this place?" Ronin grumbled his questions.

"I thought it was obvious, Ro: we're looking for any sign of witches or wizards. A shop, a magic doorway, or even a person who remotely looks like one," Dennis replied as if put out.

It took a few seconds, but the rosy spots that appeared on Ronin's cheeks replied for him. He mumbled something that neither he nor Dennis understood, and started walking forward. Ronin felt foolish. Of course they searched for signs of their people. He thought he heard Dennis chuckle, but decided against pursing the argument. He shifted his thinking and began to search in earnest.

"Think The Midnight Owl might be something?" He said, breaking the silence ten minutes later, when he spotted the shingle nailed above a rather shabby looking door. Other than the door and small set of blacked out windows, the establishment appeared abandoned.

"Nice catch, Ro," Dennis said and squinted. "I might've actually walked past that place. Looks closed."

"When did The Leaky Cauldron ever look open? Or The Three Broomsticks for that matter, and it was in one of our towns?"

"Touché."

With that they walked across Silver Road. Dennis noted a muggle pub further down the line of shops, but kept on their trajectory. Since traffic did not appear to exist in the town, although the vehicles they saw did not look dusty or unused, the two wantonly jaywalked until they stood before the dark green door with faded orange edging. The small diamond-shaped window set in the door appeared painted over from the inside. Anyone not studying it as carefully as Ronin did would dismiss the portal. Both the men saw the scruffs and scratches in the paint. With that, tried to turn the knob and it would not budge. It did not even jiggle or rattle, and the made the man smile.

"Now this is strange strange," he said and indicted the knob.

Ronin tried to twist it as well, and his hand simply slid along the outside of it. He nodded. Dennis then knocked with his knuckles. The sound did not even echo, but ended in a dull report. The travelers glanced at one another in mock surprise. Dennis stepped back half a foot and scanned the entire entryway. Ronin watched.

"How would you get their attention if you were a witch or wizard hiding on the other side?" Dennis queried his companion.

"Like this," Ronin said, took out his wand from the cleverly concealed location in his jacket, aimed it at the knob, and said: "Alohamora."

The end of his wand twinkled, and the light spread to the door handle. Neither of the men knew what to expect, but nothing did not factor into their thinking. The knob did not react.

"Now that is strange," Ronin quietly said.

"Try it again," Dennis encouraged him, "and put a little more into it."

Ronin frowned at his friend, but did as requested. He concentrated and repeated the word. More glints issued from his wand tip, yet the knob showed no sign of reacting. Dennis scratched his head while Ronin shrugged.

"Aparecium hic loco?" Dennis asked.

"Seems a bit much, but okay. Wait a second," Ronin said and looked up and down the road.

The people passing by did not seem to pay them any attention. However, Dennis did wait until the street lay vacant for quiet a distance on either side and in both directions. That also struck him as odd. He expected a lot more people to live in a secured location. The question got added to the many he would ponder later. With that stored, he recited the spell he augmented months ago. The air rippled in front of him as a cone of magic wafted toward the door. When it touched the door, the surface rippled. A second door handle appeared, one that looked far older and sturdier than the dull brass one on the right-hand side.

"Clever," Dennis hummed. "Nice way to make certain only certain clientele make it in."

"Did you ever think that maybe we try to be a too clever for our own good? We go to such elaborate measures to keep ourselves hid," Ronin said in a humorless fashion.

"It sometimes works against us, but… ever been tied to a stake with wood piled up to your shins?"

Ronin blinked as he contemplated the answer. Then he nodded, but he still thought his kind often used unnecessarily elaborate methods to conceal their presence. The door before them proved the point. As if to accentuate his observation, he reached out to the iron, took hold, and twisted it downward. To his astonishment it turned and the latch bolt clicked open. The door swung a short way away from the jamb.

"After you," Dennis graciously offered.

"Right," Ronin replied, not certain if the man truly intended to be polite or used him as a shield.

"Stop being paranoid," his friend said and brushed past him.

The door led into a short hallway painted the color of old lead, closed behind them without any assistance, and both felt certain the illusion snapped back into place. At the end of the hall a heavy curtain hung in their path. The paused before it. Dennis glanced at Ronin. Ronin returned it.

"If their shepherd's pie is shite, we're leaving," Ronin rumbled.

Dennis snorted, and then stepped through the curtain. On the other side they discovered an amazingly well-lit common area. Skylights overhead let in natural sunlight, and sconces on the walls and support pillars provided the rest. The five people they saw sitting at tables and in booths looked up at them as they entered. No one needed to tell either man they faced magic users. The manner of dress alone announced the patrons as city dwellers. The fashions ran from the late Victorian period through at least the mid-1970s. Dennis and Ronin each felt oddly out of place in their attire from current times. Following a brief moment of scrutiny, the people went back to their meals or reading. In that span of time a tall, somewhat lean woman with a hawkish face and large bosom came upon them. She warmly smiled at them.

"New in town, eh? Didn't know there was a safe spot for us, huh?" She asked in a pleasing tenor voice. Unlike her patrons, the woman dressed more modern in jeans and a shirt of recent fashion. Only the heavy apron made of what appeared to be dragon skin and the wand sticking out of the pile of hair pinned at the top of her head marked her as something other than a muggle. Her acorn brown eyes twinkled in the bright light of the tavern.

"That wouldn't be inaccurate," Ronin quipped in a slightly cryptic manner.

"Lost your 'ome, eh?" She asked.

"No, we just arrived from Maell Cala camp up in..." Dennis started to say

"'Eard a fair bit about that place in The Trossachs," the woman interjected. "Sounds like they're making due in the highlands."

"More than just making due. It'll probably be a permanent settlement. A thousand people live there already, and more come in each day."

Ronin nodded to show he agreed.

"Good on ya all," she approvingly rejoined. "Be needing a meal and a bed then seeing you walked all the way 'ere?"

It took both men aback that the barmaid, and she could be nothing else in their estimation, made an accurate guess as to their mode of travel. Of course, she probably hosted all sorts who came through and reported on conditions outside of Norwich.

"Get a lot on broomsticks, do you?" Dennis asked through a grin.

"Only at night. The ones 'oo come in during the day are usually 'oofing it, and the lot of you tend to be pretty tough buggers, I might say, going 'round on foot through all them nasties out there!"

Dennis and Ronin each chuckled. They talked about using broomsticks, but Dennis rejected the idea at each turn. He said he learned too much being at ground level to want to take to the skies. Ronin thought him a bit mad, but complied. After a week of slogging through zed infested areas and sleeping in trees, he truly began to question Dennis' sanity. However, a chat one evening set the matter straight.

"It's not just that using magic attracts the zed too us," Dennis told him as they settled into their hanging beds. "Magic makes things too easy for us, Ro. We lose skills no one should 'cause it's easier to wave a wand than it is to wash a dish. Don't get me wrong, I love magic, but I only want to use magic when I really need it."

"Like what you did with that map back in Edinburgh?" Ronin asked as he silently worried he might fall out of the hammock.

"Exactly. There it made sense to use magic 'cause it helped us focus on what we wanted to do… and the apparating just kept us safe and off the ground," the man swinging from a branch across from him said in a nearly defiant tone. "I want to make sure if I lose my wand I can still make it out here."

Ronin discovered he wholeheartedly concurred as they continued the journey that eventually led them to Norwich and The Midnight Owl. He realized he missed a few sentences as he returned to the present and nodded his head in case he needed to respond to something. Dennis gave him a quizzical look.

"As I was saying, do you take credit?" He asked the barmaid.

"Nah, no need." She told him.

Dennis raised his eyebrows.

"What? You think those goblins would just let go of all those galleons and what not they got 'idden under Gringotts?"

"London did burn," Dennis rejoined.

"What of it?" The barmaid returned. "All them vaults is underground, and it's a damn tricky maze down there. Even if them rotters did get in, they'd just end up on a pike or at the bottom of ravine. I figure Gringotts got to be the safest place in all of wizarding England!"

It made sense to both men.

"Now, see, they've been 'anding out ledgers that'll draw against your account if you got money there. All you do is sign the marked up chit. If you're good for it, the page'll disappear and the money will take it's place," she said as though everyone should know the exchange practice.

"And if you're not good for it?" Ronin carefully asked.

"Oh, that when Bash gets involved, and there's a reason he's called that."

"Don't worry, Ro. I've got us covered," Dennis quietly commented.

"No, I've got funds at Gringotts," Ronin piped up. "I was just curious as to what happens if someone doesn't."

"Goes right bad for 'em, if you take the 'int," said said and followed it with a low, mean chuckle. "'Les we can work out a fair exchange."

"I assure you Bash's services won't be required," Dennis gamely replied.

"Glad to 'ear it. Now what I can get for you two boys?" She returned to her inviting and warm persona.

Dennis and Ronin arranged for three meals, a bedroom with two beds for the night, and a bath for each of them. Tinble wanted the specifics for the breakfast the next morning and for lunch. They also arranged laundering for all their clothes when they learned a small contingent of house elves worked in the establishment. While Ronin ordered the bangers and mash, Dennis decided to give the shepherd's pie a try. After taking their order, including drinks, the barmaid – who they surreptitiously learned owned The Midnight Owl – went off to get their food. Dennis signed for all the expenses despite Ronin's profuse protestations. The argument got diverted when Dennis remarked about his surprise at finding a proper wizarding inn. Ronin spoke of his relief that Gringotts remained functional, and it sounded pointed. Fortunately for Dennis, the barmaid returned with their drinks

She sat with them while waiting for their food to be delivered. Tinble Gladstone, her name they discovered, seemed eager to hear news of the outside world. She explained she liked to collect recent information she could share with her patrons. Thus, Dennis and Ronin engaged in a lively chat with the Tinble. They told her all they knew about events in Scotland. Dennis confirmed Hogwarts continued to operate even though the number of attending students dwindled to a bare fraction. When the elf arrived with the food, they invited her and the elf to stay to continue their talk. Tinble eagerly accepted, but the elf seemed eager to get back to the kitchen. Ronin noticed several of the other customers leaned in their direction in a blatant attempt to eavesdrop. He spoke louder so they could hear.

The meal exceeded their expectations. Given they lived on what they could scavenge or hunt, it seemed logical. However, the food at The Midnight Owl compared favorably to the best meals Oliver could cook (and Dennis learned the hard way Mysie knew how to can food, but she did not know how to cook it). Tinble seemed pleased by their reviews, and even more so with the variety of information they provided her. She then called on an elf to lead the two to their room with orders to secure their clothing for washing. Dennis and Ronin got led to a plain but clean room occupied by two twin beds and a small chest of drawers. Both men hurriedly shrugged out of their clothing, using the provided bath towels to cover themselves, and sent their clothing off with the elf making certain to say out loud the apparel did not constitute a gift. The house elf looked pleased at the statement and sighed as he walked away with all of their clothing.

"Oh, look! They've got the wireless here," Ronin noted while moving over to the chest to fiddle with the notoriously finicky magical device.

"I'm off to the bath. Might be a while. I could use a good, long soak," Dennis told him as he shuffled to the door. "Where'd Tinble say the washroom is?"

"Down the hall, to the left, and then at the end of that hall," Ronin repeated the instructions while he studied the controls of the wireless wizarding radio.

Dennis left his friend who suddenly seemed completely captivated by the device. Being dressed only in a towel wrapped around his waist did not phase the man. Seeing as he saw no others in the hall, he did not worry in the least. Ronin's instructions guided him, and soon he stood in the bathing room. He followed the instructions printed on the large tub, saying his name and room number, and the vessel began to fill with steaming water. Dennis hung up his towel on a nearby hook and gingerly slipped into the tub. The hot water greeted him like an old friend. He sighed in pure pleasure as he leaned back and let the moment of pure luxury take over. Other than the communal baths at Maell Cala, Dennis considered this experience worth it's weight in galleons. He closed his eyes and allowed himself the rare privilege of completely relaxing.

Back in the room Ronin fiddled with the radio. It crackled, hissed, and popped while a thin wisp of magical smoke issued out of the back. In other words, it functioned just as Ronin expected. He dialed in the station he liked best. It slowly tuned in, and he rested against the dresser while listening. He heard some celebrity gossip, news about the Ministry continuing to function in Norwich, the latest bans on international travel to North American, projections for the teams who might make it to the All England Quidditch Finals, a report form the Auror's Office regarding known dark wizards and their followers (and the list proved thankfully short), and the expected weather throughout the different regions of England. Ronin did not fail to notice the glaring absence of news regarding the zed. The station then settled into a long program of the most requested songs or bands within the wizarding communities.

"Not surprised," he said after standing up straight and walking to a bed to recline.

Ronin dozed off while listening to the music. He awoke to someone gently shaking his shoulder. His eyes opened to a slightly pink-skinned Dennis who grinned at him. Ronin let out with a huge yawn.

"Tub's all yours, Ro," Dennis told him.

"How long…?" Ronin mumbled the question.

"Less than an hour I think. Didn't know you're a fan of the Barking Mad Howlers."

"What? Oh, that. Just fell asleep listening to music," Ronin explained without confirming or denying his friend's semi-accusatory statement. He sat up and stretched. His joints and spine made numerous popping noises. "Feeling better?"

"Loads," Dennis immediately answered. "Been a while since I could kip back in a tub and just forget about everything for a bit. Did me a world of good, and it'll do the same for you."

"It will," Ronin agree and stood up. "Going to bed?"

"Kind of early for that. Think I'm going to work on how to get into the Ministry and figure out who we can talk to."

Ronin started to cross the room with Dennis watching his every move and said: "Tinble might have a few ideas. Maybe you should go chat her up a bit and see what she says."

"Sure, she won't mind one bit if I lounge around down in the pub in just a towel."

Ronin snorted and opened the room to the door. He then stepped out into the hall. As soon as the door closed, Dennis let out a huge sigh of relief. It took every ounce of will power he possessed to keep from staring at Ronin's half-naked form. The reddish hair lightly layered on the man's chest greatly appealed to Dennis. He just wished Ronin did not look slightly malnourished. It made him feel guilty his friend failed to get enough to eat during their time on the road. He planned on remedying that situation. The music played in the background while he went in search of his notes so he could jot down some of the more memorable items Tinble told them as well as possible people to contact. Dennis liked to plan.

Out in the hall Ronin followed the directions he earlier gave Dennis. He puzzled over the number of scars he saw on his friend's pale skin. It made him wonder what Dennis endured over the years that would leave such marks. Furthermore, Ronin never realized or thought to imagine what more than a decade and half of swinging a sword and life in the wild could do for a physique. The lean muscle he saw on Dennis reminded him to never get into a physical altercation; Dennis would clean his clock in short order. Ronin looked down at his own fuzzy chest and marveled that his friend barely sported a thin patch of yellowish-coppery hair between his pectorals. He let that thought go in favor of finding the bath tub and resuming his rest. Three weeks of sleeping in the cool English spring needed to get boiled out of his skin.

The two woke the next morning to find freshly laundered clothes folded, sorted, and neatly stacked on a clean towel at the foot of their beds. Dennis discovered some of his more worn items got mended as well. He turned his back on Ronin while they got dressed to afford his friend some modicum of privacy and spare himself any further temptation. He quickly forgot about that as clean material covered his body. It never ceased to amaze him how he could get used to clothing that became progressively grungy as he traveled. Some of the men with whom he spent private evenings in the past would comment from time to time about the natural aroma of an out-of-doors man, and Dennis always took it to mean he stank. He wondered how Ronin managed to put up with it. Unbeknownst to him, Ronin pondered the nearly exact thoughts, minus a the intimate details.

Once dressed, they debated on the need to bring their weapons. They eventually settled on letting Tinble hold them in safe keeping. It would not do, they jointly decided, to have their precious armaments go missing when they would surely need them in the near future. Thus, dressed but without packs and carrying their weapons, the duo made their to the tavern to break their fast. Much to their surprise, they walked into a fairly crowded room. Dennis felt something ease in his mind to see so many witches and wizards gathered together. Aside form Maell Cala, it rarely occurred.

Dennis and Ronin made their way to an open table and almost got assaulted by the waiter. The youngish twenty-something man replete with small spikes sticking out his ears, nostrils, and one in his bottom lip, demanded to know what they wanted to drink. Both put in an order for coffee, and then refined their order to German-style coffee rather than Turkish. The waiter departed before they could say anything else. They sat basking in the company of their fellow kind, and each tried to spy the headlines of the local Norwich Augur newspaper. One person far on the other side of the room read a Daily Prophet. The Augur featured a story on Kingsley Shacklebolt and his visit to North America and the MACUSA regarding the international travel ban.

"I'll 'ave Nechtan bring you a spare copy so you don't strain your necks," Tinble said to them as she approached their table. "'Ad a good night the both of you, did you?"

"Slept like the de… a dog," Dennis replied and caught himself before making a faux pas. Tinble grinned at him.

"It was strange sleeping in a bed again. It didn't rock," Ronin noted.

"Would it 'elp if it did?"

"Um, probably not. Might make me seasick."

Tinble laughed and said: "Well, suit yourself, but it can be arranged if you want."

Ronin shook his head in negation.

"Right, so your food should be coming up soon. Saw you walk in and notified the kitchen you was 'ere. Thought you might sleep in a bit longer after 'earing what you went through to reach Norwich," the matron of The Midnight Owl told them.

"Much obliged, Tinble, and, um, think you might be able to do us a little favor?" Dennis rejoined.

"Depends on if it's going to cost me."

"We just need a safe place to store our, ah, blades and mace. Not really worth all that much 'cept they're valuable for fighting when we're on the trail."

"Oh, yeah, sure. Got us a lock safe in me office. I can put 'em in there. It's also Bash's room, so no chance they'll get nicked," Tinble said in an agreeable manner.

One of the other customers shouted out her name, and Tinble turned to wave at the person. She yelled back a name and then chuckled. When she resumed facing the two men, Dennis watched her study them for a few seconds.

"See, most these people work on rebuilding walls, serving as night guard, cleaning up after the watch takes out the rotters, and 'elping keep the city running, so that's why it's so busy. Believe it or not," said Tinble as she leaned closer to them, "got us a few muggles in 'ere as well."

Ronin's mouth flopped open, and Dennis raised his eyebrows.

"Sure, they knows 'oo we is, and they bloody well don't get in wiffout a proper friend, but they're not bad sorts. They use that funny muggle money, but I keeps up on the converts for it and a stash of the stuff to make change for 'em."

Despite how she sounded, both men viewed a keen business mind at work sitting in the head of the middle-aged witch piled high with hair and held into place with a wand. The fact she tolerated muggles in her establishment said much for her. Ronin gave Dennis a look indicating the debate over the secrecy act would continue again. However, other pressing matters lay at hand. Dennis leaned forward.

"So, um, Tinble, how can two people like ourselves get an audience with the Minister? We have information he needs to hear," Dennis quietly inquired.

"Oh, that's easy. Just go to the Shire Hall Study Centre, and ask for the Godric Reading Room. They'll know what you're asking for and give you a 'and getting to the Ministry," she explained without lowering her voice. It did not seem to be a secret in the tavern. "Might 'ave to wait a while to see someone. I think Deputy Granger is in charge while Shacklebolt is out poncing 'round in 'Merica. Probably should ask to see 'er first any'ow."

Dennis and Ronin dumbly nodded.

"'Ere now, I'll come back with a map and food and show you were to go," Tinble told them and wheeled around on one foot. She stomped off, gesturing and greeting other patrons, as she headed toward the bar and food delivery area.

"Told you it was happening," Ronin said when Tinble got out of earshot. "I don't think the statue will last much longer. Not after all this zed business."

"Let's say I still have reservations. Our numbers are pretty low this time around, and who's to say they won't start rounding us up? They might start to view us as a threat… again," Dennis retorted.

"I thought you said you like muggles?"

"I said there are muggles I like… and some I really like like, if you know what I mean."

Ronin rolled his eyes at the comment.

"We shouldn't rush into any changes if we ever get the zed problem figured out and they don't wipe us out before hand," Dennis concluded.

Ronin eyed his friend. The man's optimism and social progressivism became so regular and routine it shocked him a bit to hear a different attitude. Dennis suddenly professing reservations about repealing the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy seemed out of sorts.

"Stop looking at me like I've grown an extra head," Dennis said when the silence lingered. "I said the secrecy is bad for us for a lot of different reasons, but the statute contains a lot more than that. We just can't be done with it and think everything will be swell. Half our auror regulations are based on language inside the statute, and imagine what the world would be like with those folks. There's also a whole slew of muggle laws that don't affect us, but they would if the statute went down. We'd have to think this through very carefully."

The other man sitting the table slowly nodded his head. Dennis looked away because Ronin kept staring at him with an expression of bewilderment. He meant what he said in the past regarding the secrecy laws, and he did believe the regulations now acted as a detriment to their people, but simply abandoning the statute without due consideration could and probably would cause as much harm. True to his nature, Dennis believe in planning the revocation and replacement legislation before actually doing it.

"So, ah… um, what if we can't get in to see Granger-Weasley? Who do we talk to then?" Ronin asked when he decided against pursuing the debate. It sounded as if Dennis gave the topic far more thought than he realized, and he needed to play catch-up before engaging in the discussion.

"Yeah, been tossing that 'round in my head, too," Dennis replied, although he continued to squint as he thought about the other issue. "Probably best if we confine it only to the top tiers. Something tells me this all happened on the hush-hush."

Ronin sighed in relief and said: "I was thinking the same thing. Notice we haven't heard anything 'bout the deaths of, ah, them two?"

Dennis nodded.

"Sure, it was a few years ago, but..."

Nothing more could be said out in the open. Both Dennis and Ronin felt assured they possessed highly controlled information. One of them believed they would be met by more than just the Minster of Magic if they suddenly started talking about the deaths of Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley in the open. It might become even more dicey if they glibly conversed about Dean Thomas. The man worked for the Ministry, and neither could guess how deeply he got involved in the secret affairs of his department. In the end, it simply seemed the wisest course to speak only with the highest of authorities. However, that did not fully answer Ronin's question.

"'Ere you go, lads," Tinble happily said when she walked up to the table with two laden plates, a newspaper, and another piece of extensively folded paper. She set the plates down in front of the, the newspaper between them, and then began to unfold what could only be a map. "Tuck in while I give this a look-see."

Dennis and Ronin needed no further encouragement. The food steamed in such an inviting manner that each man drooled in want. While they ate, Tinble tried to flatten the map out over the newspaper. She reached up and pulled a pencil out of her hair and pointed at spot on the sheet. In response, Dennis casually removed his wand after setting down his fork. He aimed it at the location on the map and whispered the spell around the food in his overstuffed mouth. A blue dot appeared.

"Nifty one, that is," Tinble said in appreciation. "Right, so 'ere is where you are now. Where you want to go is 'ere."

She moved her pencil to the hall in question. Dennis moved his wand to the location, whispered as he chewed, and glowing lines began to appear on the map. It took a few seconds before a path from one location to the next got sorted out. Tinble watched with a pleased grin on her face.

"That's the same route I was going to send you," she said. "Is this a mind reading trick?"

"No, I worked out a charm that can differentiate road and streets from alleys, and then connect two points using a logical route. It all about the thickness of the lines and how they connect. Works on most maps," Dennis explained to her.

"Gonna 'ave to show me that one."

"Sure, it's not hard."

"Says you," Ronin quipped and then glanced at their hostess. "Should've seen what he did to a map in Edinburgh. The thing was nearly alive by the time he got done."

"Shut it," Dennis said and his cheeks turned red.

"'Onestly, it'd be a right 'andy spell for me to 'ave. Getting all sorts of strangers in 'ere trying to find their way 'round," Tinble firmly stated and tapped on the map. "Got a box of these in the back I give out to newcomers. If I could just point and incant, it'd save me hours in 'splaining."

Dennis nodded in agreement, and he meant what he said.

"Tell you what, Denny: show me 'ow to do this and I'll give you blokes a night's stay on the 'ouse. Fair exchange?"

Ronin recalled she used the phrase the day before when talking about people who could not pay and as an alternative to facing Bash. She seemed factor in the fact people could be absolutely poor given the state of the world. If so, then Tinble also possessed a kind spirit behind the rather gruff innkeeper facade. Then again, people who tried to take advantage of her would think twice considering her delinquent accounts manager carried the name Bash. No one could deny she did not understand her business.

"Deal," Dennis said with barely a hesitation. "If we get stuck waiting to talk to someone at the Ministry, we'd need another night."

"Was thinking that meself," Tinble murmured.

With a bargain settled, she whirled away to tend to other customers. The one waiter and waitress seemed hard pressed to keep up with the steady influx of customers. Dennis got the impression they stumbled into a working class establishment, and that suited him. Pretense got thrown out the window in favor of practicality. The food, pedestrian by some standards, proved good and filling. The tavern, mostly unadorned and plain, appeared fully functional. The rooms looked clean and tidy, the beds served for the purpose, and the baths more than adequate. The Midnight Owl catered to the relatively basic needs of the customers in a fitful and forthright fashion. Dennis approved.

"How do you do it?" Ronin asked a minute later after masticating the contents in his mouth and washing it down with coffee. The mug refilled after each sip and stayed perpetually hot.

"Do what?" Dennis counter inquired after doing the same.

"People act like they've known and trusted you for years even when you just met them."

"I think most people can tell honesty right away. We want to believe others are honest and truthful..."

"What if they want to abuse that?"

"Sure, some do, but it's not hard to spot their deceptions," Dennis answered. "Did you notice Tinble wanted to barter? She didn't want to accept my services without proper compensation. She's had the confidence game played on her before, so I'd guess she's reads people very fast."

"But why'd she trust you all of sudden?" Ronin went back to his central question.

"'Cause I asked her if she'd watch something important for us. Not valuable, but important, and there's a big difference between those. I basically asked if we could trust her. She responded in kind."

Ronin shook his head a bit and rejoined: "If you tell me the ghosts taught you this at Hogwarts, I won't believe you."

"Fine, I won't tell you that then."

The two friends started snickering. They then dove into their meals with gusto. The fare filled them up, a rare luxury during their time on the road. Food and water got conserved since they could not carry a lot at any give time, and they never knew precisely when they would find replenishment. Dennis could not shake the image of Ronin looking to underfed. The man displayed endurance and stamina, but even those traits would falter if he became malnourished. Given they might be on the road for quite a while, mindfulness regarding their nutritional needs became a priority. Neither of them left a single scrap on their plates when they finished.

"Any thoughts on how we get past the receptionist when we get there?" Dennis asked as they strolled out of the back entrance of The Midnight Owl into an alleyway. The morning greeted them with a partially overcast sky. The map he held reconfigured to lead them back to Silver Road.

"I'm not sure you'd agree with what I'm thinking," Ronin responded and stepped around the industrial sized trash bin. "But what if we just said we need to talk about Dean Thomas? Seems like it'd get their attention if it's important."

Dennis unconsciously nodded his head. Ronin thought of a direct and expedient method. He wrestled with the notion since the day before and came up with nothing other than getting into a long-winded explanation regarding their mission. It lacked subtlety, and he did not relish the idea of blathering at someone who might begin to question his sanity.

"That'll work," he said with a hint of appreciation in his voice.

Ronin goggled at him for a second, then smirked. As they walked toward Barrack Street, he felt a bit naked without his mace banging against his right thigh or the feel of a dagger tucked at an angle into the small of his back. He could not remember the last time he went out into the open with nothing more than his wand. Moreover, Dennis looked positively surreal without his gauche and sword. Ronin suspected it made the man highly uncomfortable to be unarmed.

"At least it will get their attention," Dennis remarked, although it sounded like a private comment.

As they walked along the two noticed the sidewalks got progressively more crowded. A greater amount of traffic whizzed by on Barrack Street. The city came closer to feeling normal. Few among the people going in and out business and shops dressed like Dennis and Ronin. They drew some stares, but no one asked. Even the local constabulary let them pass without question, but eyes followed their movements.

The path on the map took them down Whitefriars Road that merged into Palace Street, which then veered to a southerly direction as it became Tombland. The nature of the buildings also changed the closer they got to city center. The structures that survived the massive bombing raids and fires of the second world war tended to be older, the stones grayer, and the lanes narrower. Dennis recalled some of the ghosts telling him about the bombings during the war, and how several cities got reduced to rubble. Norwich, lying so close to the channel, suffered as much as any and as did the likes of Bath, Canterbury, Exeter, and York.

"War is such a waste," Dennis muttered, and Ronin nodded in agreement. "I'll never understand why people feel a need to impose their will on others. What's wrong with live and let live?"

"Maybe they feel inadequate," Ronin speculated.

"I'll say! Back at Hogwarts some of the blokes who gave me the worst time usually seemed the most depressed… it's like they needed to thrash on me to make themselves feel better," the man strawberry-blonde hair said and tried not to sound angry. "I wasn't even a threat to them. What'd it get them in the long run, eh? No one thought they were heroes or brave or anything worthwhile. I don't even think they really felt better afterward."

"But you came out the better person for it."

"Thanks to the ghosts and portraits who taught me how to put it all into perspective. It's funny what a person can learn after hanging around for a few centuries."

"Such a bad pun," Ronin muttered while his friend chuckled.

"I used to wonder why me, and then Montague the Muzzy asked why not me? I never had an answer for him."

"That's a pretty fucked up question," Ronin said and recoiled a bit. "It sounds like he's saying anyone is just as deserving of mistreatment as anyone else."

Dennis shrugged as the walked and responded: "I see it as all chance anyway. Look at Colin and me. Why'd we end up wizards? We came from the most muggle family imaginable. Why didn't you or Oliver turn out to be squibs? Think about how much of what happens to you isn't planned or your fault and just occurred 'cause you were in the right place at the wrong time… or wrong place, right time. However it works out, it just comes down to chance more often than not."

"So I guess you're getting outed came down to Potter getting the scar on the right side of his 'stead of his left?"

"Sure. Why not? Who knows how it might be connected? Maybe if Harry got the scar on the other side, it might've been me who came back to fight at Hogwarts rather than Colin. Sometimes I give myself a headache trying to see through all these little connections."

"You don't say," Ronin quipped and started rubbing his forehead.

"You prat," Dennis chuckled the words.

They continued to discuss the nature of chance and the roll it played in their lives. Ronin became temporarily obsessed with how Dennis managed to run into he and his brother at a most opportune time. The two did not get to debate the ramifications for long when Tombland turned into Upper King Street, and the map led them to the right along Castle Meadow and then onto Market Avenue. After hiking half the distance of the road, they stopped in front of a sandstone building with high tower windows spaced along the two floors. A red brick building sat on the right, and neither appeared exceptionally old.

"The map says this the Shire Hall Study Centre," Dennis told his friend and pointed at the yellowish-beige building.

"No marquee or nothing," Ronin voiced his observation.

"Let's go in and see what we can find."

They put words into actions. After passing through the arched brown double doors, it became abundantly clear they entered a private business. Dennis assumed from the name the centre stood as part of the municipal operations. A woman and a security guard sat behind a long oak bench. The two watched the ones who came in from the street. Dennis and Ronin both spun around to take in the details.

"May I be of assistance?" The woman said in a tight Cambridge accent.

"Oh, um, yeah," Ronin said while walking up to the desk since he recovered first. Dennis continued to try and discern the nature of he business. "We'd like to be shown the Godric Reading Room."

"And do you have an appointment?"

"Um, no, not exactly."

"Can you confirm your identity?" The receptionist, dressed in a gray jacket with a pale yellow blouse underneath and a string of small pearls around her neck, asked in a very direct manner.

Ronin started to open his mouth, but Dennis grabbed his arm to silence him. He then held open the edge of his jacket and looked downward for a brief second. Ronin nodded. Together they advanced to the very edge of the desk. Each reached inside his own jacket and produced a wand. The woman and security guard did not react one bit. She peered at the wands for a few moments, and then back to the standing men.

"Very good. Norman will take you to the reading room," she said without a single change in her demeanor.

The guard, who appeared to be far older than either Dennis or Ronin suspected, stood and said: "Please, follow me."

The elderly guard walked in a spry fashion toward a door to the right of the main desk. He fit the role with his gray shirt adorned by black collar and cuffs, the raised piping running down the center on each side of his chest to which his badge got attached on the left, and the black pants held up with a belt holding a baton, can of pepper spray, and a two-way radio. When he opened the door it entered into a hallway paneled in dark wood. Doors of similar construction with names engraved on wall plaques flanked the entries. Some of the names read like non-sense. When they came to an intersecting hallway, the guard turned to the right. Once again a hall paneled in highly polished dark wood greeted them. When the group reached the third door on the left, the guard stopped. The small sign next to the door read Godric Reading Room.

"Go in, face the door, state what department you want, insert a wand tip into the hole on the right – not the left – side, and then remove it. Once you hand me your wands, you'll get taken to your destination. Your wands will be kept in safe storage at the front desk. Any questions?"

"No, sir, and thanks," Dennis grimly replied.

Dennis and Ronin glanced at one another for a moment, and then Dennis inclined his head to his friend.

"Okay, so, Minster of Magic's office," Ronin said clearly, and then he inserted his wand into the specified hole. He took it out and handed his wand to the guard. Dennis followed suit.

"Best of the day to you, boys," the man said in a grandfatherly fashion, stepped backward, and closed the door.

The small room, not much bigger than a broom cupboard, wobbled as if balancing on a pole. Not only did the room wobble, it shook as well. After a count of five, it stopped. Then the door clicked edged slightly ajar. Ronin pushed it all the way open and stepped through. Dennis feel in line behind him. The two found themselves in a foyer that looked remarkably like the entrance to the Shire Hall Study Centre. Instead of carpeting, a creamy marble bedecked the floor. The desk across from the transport room, and next to it four more doors stood, contained a very young looking man. He sat mumbling at a quill that danced too and fro, even though the two visitors could only see the feathered top. As they approached the desk, their boots produced dull thumps on the flooring. The young man at the desk looked up. His auburn hair looked glue to his head on the sides by pomade while an elaborate quiff rose up from the center. Sharp dark eyes scanned them.

"Who are you here to see?" He asked without any introduction.

"Either the Minister or the Deputy Minister," Dennis answered in a cool, formal tone.

"You've no appointment, no letter of introduction, and it looks like you just came off the moors, so why should one of them want to see you?"

Dennis stole a peak at Ronin who rolled his eyes.

"Well, we've come about Dean Thomas," Dennis stated while suppressing a laugh at Ronin's reaction.

The man at the desk gaped at them, and his mouth slipped partially open. When two seconds expired he stood. His semi-luminescent emerald green shirt shimmered under the forest green velvet coat as he moved. The sea green bow tie flapped around base of his neck. Hard-soled shoes clacked against the marble floor as he trotted around the desk to the plain door on the left. The last they saw of him included dark hunter green paints, bright yellow socks, and shoes that matched his jacket.

"I think we're out of style," Ronin commented after the door closed.

"I'm not entirely certain, but I don't think the zed take style into account when deciding who to eat," Dennis dryly replied. "The velvet might make a difference, though."

Ronin snorted.

"This is part of the reason why I never wanted to work for the Ministry. After they dispensed with robes, it turned into a god-awful fashion show."

"And the other part of the reason?"

"I don't get to sleep under the stars as much," stated Dennis while looking up at the ceiling and the illuminated insets.

Ronin smirked at the answer. Just as his smiled widened, the left door flew open. The receptionist stood in the entry and looked at them.

"Deputy Minister Granger-Weasley will see you," the young man said in an officious manner.

Dennis and Ronin walked up to and past the man.

"Nice jacket," Ronin quietly quipped.

Dennis fought against the urge to laugh.

Inside the office, and the word pedestrian came immediately to mind, a single plain desk rested before the far wall, a row of wooden filing cabinets graced the left side, and on the right bookcases brimming with tomes and small objects d'art. A casual seating area sat assembled just in the center of the room, and it was there Deputy Minister Hermione Granger-Weasley stood waiting for them. A slender woman not a tall by any standard, but still managed to fill more space than she actually occupied. Dressed in very light gray suit jacket and skirt, the rose colored blouse accentuated her auburn hair. A single silver chain hung around her neck. The deputy minister look professional and understated, especially in comparison to the receptionist. She nodded to them.

"Please come and join me," she said in her light alto voice.

Dennis wracked his brains to recall the girl he briefly knew at Hogwarts. Bushy hair and big teeth came to mind, but this woman seemed a far cry from the awkward teenager. The deputy minister appeared alert and composed without exuding any sense of tension. She simply waited from the to approach. As they did so, Ronin held out his hand in greeting. Deputy Minster Granger-Weasley reached out to accept it. As she did, her face scrunched a little.

"Oliver Wood?" She queried, but then added: "No, you're taller and not quite the same build. His brother?"

"Yes, ma'm. Oliver Wood is my older brother. He sends his greetings. I'm Ronin Wood," Ronin said in a formal manner.

"Please, do offer him my best regards when next you see him," Granger-Weasley said as she shook his hand and let it go. Then she cast her gaze on Dennis. "Well, Mr. Creevey, you've grown some since I last saw you."

Dennis felt gobsmacked that she remembered him. Of course, everyone who attended school with her knew she possessed an incredible memory. However, over fifteen years and a serious bout of puberty separated the Dennis Creevey of Hogwarts from the man standing in her office. He marveled at her memory. He held out his hand, and she accepted it.

"I am… honored, Ms. Granger-Weasley," he replied while gently shaking her hand.

"Please, call me Hermione," she insisted when the let greeting end. "I heard about your village, Dennis, and my condolences on your loss."

"Thank you," he quietly rejoined. "And my I offer mine on the death of your husband, Ronald, and your friend, Harry. I sincerely hope your and his families fare well in spite of the tragedy."

Hermione's eyes went wide for a fraction of a moment before she said: "You are… well informed."

"We are," Ronin confirmed.

"Please, where are my manners. Sit, sit," and she gestured for the men to comfortable looking chairs gathered around the low table.

While they did, she quickly walked to the side of her desk. On a black box sitting to one side of a stack papers rested a button which she pushed.

"Baird, cancel my appointments for the next hour and make sure no one disturbs us during that time," she said into the box. "Oh, and could you please retrieve a tea service for us. Thank you?"

She did not wait for a response and walked back to the settee resting in front of the desk. She sat down and gracefully composed herself. Dennis studied her features. Lines of care, worry, or both creased her face in places, but otherwise she appeared much as she did when she graduated from Hogwarts. Once arranged, she returned the scrutiny.

"Now, you've mentioned three names today that most people seldom do," she began. "I'm curious as to how you came by these details."

"We ran into Katie Bell," Ronin answered for the two men. "We had some, ah, interesting conversations."

"It would appear so," Hermione rejoined.

"Oh, we did, and before she died..."

"Katie is dead? How?"

Ronin looked to Dennis with a pleading look. Although it pained him, Dennis briefly related the events leading up to the incident at Crieff, and then the final result. Hermione reacted with both open sadness and shock at the tale. Her eyes gleamed, but she did not shed a tear.

"How terrible," the woman murmured, but then met Dennis' gaze full on: "I've heard so many similar stories. Events get… so out of control when it comes to these modus inferi. You gave her peace, Dennis, and it could not have been easy on you."

"No… no, it wasn't," he conceded.

"Before that, she told us how Dean would visit her, and – I suspect you know this by now – he had a vial of your husband's memories. She kept them safe for him for a couple of years," Ronin said since he watched Dennis processing the memories of Crieff anew.

"Dean hid them from us quite a while before we released they did not get destroyed. We never suspected he used Katie for that purpose."

"They were fairly close friends from what I gathered," Dennis stated and jammed his emotions into the pit of his stomach.

Hermione nodded in understanding.

"Even after she married Cormac McLaggen."

"I tried to warn her, but… well, it was something of a whirlwind romance from what I heard," the deputy minister said in dull, flat voice. "I'm not surprised to learn the marriage ended. Did she tell you what was in the memories?"

"Dean asked her not to look at them, and she didn't have access to a pensieve. She respected his request and just kept them safe. He never told her what he saw when he finally got around to viewing them himself. She did say what he saw troubled him," Ronin informed her.

"I see, so what exactly did Katie ask you to do given she didn't have the memories any longer and didn't know what they contained?"

"She asked if we could help her find Dean. He was supposed to meet her at Kirkhill about four months ago, but he never showed. Katie was worried about him. Dean claimed he was being hunted, but he never told her by whom… or what," Ronin continued to supply the information.

"She said he was truly frightened the last time she saw him, and that stayed with her. I think it formed the basis of why she wanted to find him. She seemed to fear he was in real danger," Dennis added.

Just then a knock sounded at the door.

"Bring it in, Baird," Hermione called in a loud, commanding voice.

The door opened and the young man dressed in the green velvet jack wrangled a tea cart into the office. He rolled it to the group, and went about setting up the service on the coffee table. Dennis noted the cups, saucers, small plates, creamer, sugar bowl, and teapot lacked any decoration. The simple white porcelain gleamed in the office light. The flatware did not appear to be sterling, but rather bright stainless steel. The napkins appeared to be linen, but not a single design or crested adorned the squares of material. The receptionist, Baird, stooped to pour out the tea.

"Thank you, Baird, but we'll serve ourselves," Hermione interceded with her receptionist. "Please make certain the central planning meeting notes get transcribed and sent out for review. It's a dull task, I know, but please see to that first."

"Yes, Ms. Granger-Weasley. I'll be at my desk if you need anything further," the young man said.

"Again, thank you, and please feel free to take your lunch at the appointed time if I am still engaged in meetings."

The man nodded, smiled at her, and then retreated from the room. Ronin immediately poured tea in all the cups, dropped a slice of lemon and two sugar cubes in his. He sat back in his chair after swiping two chocolate biscuits from the plate.

"Thank you, Ronin, and, yes, Baird has atrocious taste in clothes, but he is very, very good at his job. I'm not entirely sure I could function properly without his assistance," Hermione said as she stared at the closed door.

"I was wondering about that shirt and jacket," Ronin mumbled.

Dennis fixed his tea and also took a biscuit, but he remained full from breakfast

"Oh, trust me: Baird looks tame now compared to when he first arrived. Sometime his attire actually made my eyes water!"

The three chuckled at the thought of an extreme version of the young man. Hermione took her turn making her tea. She did not opt for a chocolate wafer.

"I can assure you Dean was in no danger," Hermione expertly returned to the principle subject. "We did seek him out because we finally suspected he did have the memories or at least knew the content. I… they were Ron's last."

"No need to explain, Hermione," Dennis quickly told her when she looked visibly upset.

"I always knew those two were going to get killed doing something like that," she whispered, and both men knew she did not speak to them. She led them into a silence, and then sighed. "But it's done and nothing can change it. Best move on."

"Sounds like McGonagall," Ronin muttered.

"I thought you were in Hufflepuff?" She asked the younger Wood brother.

"I was, but you forget she served as headmistress during half my time there, and I had her for transfiguration for three years. I heard that phrase a lot from her," he rejoined.

"McGonagall did say it a lot and still does," Dennis added. "If she has free time, I spend some with her when I visit Hogwarts on occasion."

Hermione smiled, but then she cast a narrowed eye to Dennis and queried: "Can I ask you something of a personal nature, Dennis?"

"You can ask," he gave her permission but craftily made no promise to answer.

"Very well," she said through a knowing smirk. "What did you ever do with heptagonal configuration? What was in it?"

"No clue what you're talking about, Deputy Minister," Dennis answered in a neutral manner. "And even if I did, how would that help locate Dean Thomas?"

Hermione graced him with a sly smirk and a barely noticeable wink. He got the impression it might be a topic for another day. It also appeared to be some sort of test. Whether he passed remained to be seen. However, Dennis no longer possessed the truly odd magical lock box and it's contents. It now resided in the hands of the family who historically owned it. He felt certain is rested in safety.

"Yes, you're quite right about that. How silly of me to ask such a – shall we say – nonsensical question," Hermione conceded to his point.

"Oh, I wouldn't say nonsensical, ma'am. The number seven is, after all, a fairly important number."

Ronin looked on while Deputy Minister Granger-Weasley shook her head a bit and chuckled softly to herself. Dennis could see the confusion on his comrade's face. When he caught Ronin's eyes, he gave the man a tiny wink. Ronin rolled his eyes.

"If you'll pardon me, but why would an auror suddenly go missing and be wanted by the Ministry of Magic. Is Dean in some sort of trouble?" Dennis inquired and hoped the minor aside proved he could keep a secret.

"I hate to say it, Dennis, but we're not really sure. If we knew the contents of… those memories, we might have a better idea. Only one person ever really found out what he got himself into or why he's acted as he did. It's a shame about Katie, she might've been able to shed a bit more light on this. I personally like to know more," Hermione said in a very thoughtful manner.

Dennis, and Ronin for that matter, believed she truly did not know. Ministry people often used words to hide things in plain sight. This time it did not seem to be the case.

"If I may share one… unusual bit of news," the woman said in a firmer voice. "First, do you know who recently served as head of the Auror's Office?"

Dennis and Ronin both shook their in negation.

"Agatha Wentworth, truly a brilliant witch, headed up the office after the Ministry got attacked by modus inferi…

"Excuse me," Ronin interrupted, "but I don't fully understand the reference to modus inferi. I know what an inferi is, but mobile inferi?"

"A name we came across in some papers. The non-magical refer to them as zombies, but these are unlike any zombies our kind ever knew or created. We're not really certain what these… undead things are," Hermione explained.

"And the head of the Auror's Office?" Dennis switched back to the point before the interruption.

"Yes, she met with Dean about a year ago. He reported in to her, but she did not leave notes regarding the meeting, and that is strange in and of itself," she continued and sounded puzzled. "We only know about it because we saw the appoint on her calendar after we started cleaning it out."

"How did she die?" Ronin asked half a second before Dennis.

"Do you two always work in tandem?" The deputy minister queried and glanced between the men.

"We've spent just nine months slogging through some of the worst zed-infested area. We started by trying to find my sister-in-law and the children," Ronin answered first. "Let me tell you, Edinburgh was no playground."

Hermione took a sip of her tea, her brow crinkled as bit, and then she said: "You were in Edinburgh? Do you realize the city got completely overrun with modus inferi? What were you doing there?"

"We needed to investigate Oliver's house," Dennis relayed in a plan fashion. The truth did not require embellishment. "We stuck to the roof tops and crossed the city to get to the New Haven district…

"That very close to ground zero!"

"Ah, so you're aware of what occurred there?"

"Of course," she said with a touch of indignation. "Infected boats landed in the harbor, the modus inferi walked up the coastline, across from Glasgow, and Edinburgh got hit from both the inside and the outside."

The word 'inside' sparked in Dennis' brain and he added: "Well, Oliver and his family got attacked eight months after the initial invasion. The zed came through the fireplace flue."

"Impossible. The only flue infestation happened shortly before London fell. The modus inferi got into flue network, but we worked hard... and… and you're telling me the truth, aren't you?" She replied to the skeptical expression on faces of the two men.

"Oliver, Mysie, and the children all reported the same thing," Ronin told her with more than hint of frustration. "The undead came out of the flue… over two and a half years after London."

"And that means either the zed are getting in through a major connection or, and this is the part that really frightens me, they can survive being trapped in the network itself," Dennis informed her of his theories.

"But that would mean the Edinburgh main hub is still operational..." she began.

"Or someone turned it on… or one of the international conduits is still functioning," Dennis finished for her. "And the zed got in through the household connections or the damn things are trapped inside the network and wandering around until they find an operating and open fireplace."

"This is serious, gentlemen. Promise me you won't say anything to anyone until…

"To hell with that!" Ronin blurted and his face went flush. "You either inform the people right after we leave or we will. You can try to arrest us, but I promise you I will fight… and I'm not sure how many forces you've got left."

"He's right, Hermione: you can't wait on this, and it's already been over three months since we found out," Dennis concurred with Ronin. "People need to turn off their flues as soon as possible or you run the risk of further zed outbreaks. It may be the very reason why no has been able to get on top of the situation."

Hermione Granger-Weasley smoothed down the front of her jacket in what appeared to be a nervous habit, and she did so while flicking her eyes back and forth between the men. They sat patiently waiting for her to speak. She grimaced.

"Minister Shacklebolt made a promise to the people to restore normal operations this year. He can't go back on his word or he'll lose the confidence of the people," she said, but neither man heard conviction in her voice.

Ronin snorted and in frustration said: "How much confidence will they have in a man who let the zed go walking right into their homes when it could've been avoided? Are you saying reputation is more important than the safety of our people?"

"Of course I'm not," Hermione angrily protested. "But do you want to cause a panic?"

"Versus when the word starts to spread through rumor mill after attacks start happening… again? I'm surprised word hasn't gone 'round already," Ronin fired back. "They'll facking tie Shacklebolt to the rack or burn him at the stake… and anyone else who colluded in covering this up when the truth comes out."

"I would argue this is one time when politics needs to take a back seat," Dennis calmly summarized the only sane option.

"You're right, you're right. It's just… this office has done nothing but issue bad news for over five years. The people are losing hope. We stopped announcing the attacks on towns because it drove up the suicide rate over night… and that only led to more modus inferi," the woman sighed and suddenly looked exhausted. "I'll have Baird work on the wording, and we'll start the broadcasts this afternoon and run it as the headlines in tomorrow's papers."

"I'll be listening to the wireless," Ronin informed her, and the implied threat rang loud and clear.

Hermione sat back, swilled down the remainder of her tea, and stared out into space.

"Hermione, will it help if we find Dean?" Dennis asked out of pity for the woman.

"It might, depending on what he knows… if he knows anything or is even still alive," she said in a dejected fashion. "But we don't have the personnel to spare for a full blown search and rescue operation. I might be able to find a couple of people, but I would never force them..."

"Have you gone blind all of sudden?" Dennis rumbled at her.

"Excuse me!"

"Hermione, stop and think about this conversation for a second. We're going forward to find him with or without your help," he clearly sated. "We were just hoping you can give us information on where he might be or… or some lead we can follow that provides another lead. Unless Dean is hiding deep underground somewhere, somebody has to have seen him at some time."

She glanced between them again and quietly asked: "I'm not one who's much into traveling, but I hear the border between India and China is an interesting place."

"That's an awfully big border," Dennis guessed.

"Well, maybe you'll like it better much closer to the western most border of Nepal."

The two men eyed her.

"It's rugged and quite stunning I hear. Lot's of curious little villages around the area."

"Wait a second, are you saying..."

"Ronin," Dennis interjected as fast as he could. "All the Deputy Minister is telling us is about parts of the world she finds… interesting. Isn't that so, Hermione?"

"Very interesting," she said in such a bland manner as to be almost comical. "Plus, if you want, you can apparate up to the peaks of Everest and K2, but that's too far east of where you'll get the best view."

Dennis slowly nodded his head as he stored the information. Following a few seconds of silence, Ronin threw hands in the air and said: "Fine. I guess we go sightseeing."

"Oh, and please do pay attention to the travel advisory we have regarding that region. It appears to be full of, let's say, unusual modus inferi. I've read reports that say they're frightfully aggressive."

"Thank you, Deputy Minister, that is most helpful," Dennis quietly said while making a mental note.

The three sat looking at one another for almost a minute. Hermione reached over, grabbed a biscuit, and nibbled on it while Dennis finished his tea. Ronin waited for someone to say something. He understood a coded message got passed, and he figured out most of it, but he felt as though the woman should encourage them to ask questions. His list ran a long length. However, no one spoke.

"Deputy Minister," Dennis at last broke the eerie silence. "Is is possible to send some aid to the Maell Cala encampment? They could use whatever help the Ministry can spare. I believe over a thousand people now call it home."

"We might be able to lend material support, but monetary aid is out of the question. I hardly think I need remind you the Ministry exhausted it's funds during this crisis. Setting up these modest offices so we can conduct what business remains to us sapped what little we had in reserve," she told them and pointed out the plain surroundings.

"I think medical supplies, water purifiers, and tools would top the list? Weapons, too. Any type of hand-held weapon would come in a treat. Ro, can you think of anything?"

"Just imagine what an average family needs from day to day, and that gives you a pretty good starting point," Ronin said following a small sigh. "I think they'd like to do some fishing in the lochs, so anything to do with that might help. Oh, wands. I know we shouldn't use magic around the zed, but a number of people don't even have a wand, and it leaves them feeling… vulnerable."

Hermione closed he eyes for a moment, bobbed her head once, and replied: "That's a good start for care packages I'm certain we can assemble something and beg donations for the rest. We'll also send out resupply parties to scout towns to see if the modus inferi moved on and maybe find more survivors and useful items. Regardless, I give you my word we will try our best to assist Maell Cala."

"Thank you," Dennis and Ronin said in unison.

Hermione stood. The two men got the hint and stood as well. Ronin extended his hand.

"Thank you for your visit, Ronin" she graciously said while accepting the hand. "While not all the news you brought was pleasant, any knowledge or solid information is useful and vital. Again, please give my warmest regards to Oliver and his family."

"My pleasure and I will, ma'am," Ronin sincerely replied. "It's an interesting world out there to say the least."

"On that I will completely take you at your word."

The two smiled at one another and released their hands. Hermione turned to Dennis. Before he moved, he studied her face. Again he saw concern and worry. Her road, he realized, proved just as dangerous as the one he and Ronin trod. Dennis extended his hand.

"I can't thank you enough for taking the time to stop at the Ministry. I'm sorry Minister Shacklebolt wasn't here to greet you and hear this for himself," she told him while taking his hand.

"I, ah, somehow think it might've worked to our advantage," Dennis replied as he gently squeezed her hand and lightly shook it. "I'm not sure we could have bullied him to do the right thing regarding the flue network."

"You may not believe this, but he would've folded much quicker. The Ministry has taken such a beating of late I can't stand to see any more damage done to it."

"Don't let that blind you to what needs to be done. Remember what they say about Cornelius Fudge."

"That did cross my mind," Hermione responded and let go of Dennis' hand. "Please, should you come across any information regarding Dean or if you actually do find him, let me know."

"We'll send him to you straight off," Dennis semi-promised.

"No, no, that won't be necessary. Dean knows what he should… must do. I'm not entirely sure what he is doing, but it could be extremely important in the long run."

"Care to elaborate?"

"If I had solid facts I would share them. I've told you what I could that I know for certain," she said to both of them. "I don't think I need to remind you there is currently a prohibition on crossing the channel. Once you're inside of France, Portugal, or wherever you land, there is nothing we can do to protect you. You will be effectively on your own."

"I wouldn't worry about that, Deputy Minister: I've operated on my own for well over half my life. I almost prefer it now," he replied.

"Yes, you have. You certainly have," the woman rejoined in a cryptic manner that frustrated Ronin. "I know I said I'd give you an hour, but there's hardly any more I can tell you and can't imagine what you have left to tell me."

"I think at this juncture it's better to get to the point rather than wasting time on pleasantries."

"You call that getting to the point?" Ronin sputtered in disbelief. "Pardon me, but I like the direct route."

Dennis smirked at his friend. Hermione's mouth violently twitched on side side.

"Safe travels, gentlemen, and I very much look forward to hearing from you in the future," the deputy minister said and extended her arm toward the door across the room.

Dennis and Ronin began to walk toward it. Hermione kept pace with them. She appeared lost in her own thoughts as they strolled. When they reached the doorway, the woman stopped and looked at both of them for a number of long seconds.

"I think there are answers out there, Dennis, Ronin, and it takes a special breed of person to find them," she said in a low voice. "Any effort made for the preservation of our people will not be forgotten. On that you have my absolute word."

The two men mumbled their thanks.

"One last thing: Dennis, consider the sword a permanent loan to your private gallery. I bet you didn't know it served in the goblin rebellions," the deputy minister quietly told him.

"Which side?" Dennis inquired with a sense of pleasant surprise.

"Both if I am not mistaken. It changed hands a number of times, so to speak."

Dennis grinned at the pun. A small smile flitted across Hermione's face, and she instantly looked years younger. She then simultaneously patted both men on the shoulder. It lent a friendly, familiar feeling to the parting.

"Please, do be careful and come back alive," she implored.

"I plan on it," Ronin said with gusto.

Hermione walked around them and opened the door. She smiled. Her face took on a youthful cast.

"Deputy Minister," Dennis said as he tipped his head toward her.

"Mr. Creevey," she replied in a formal manner.

"Ma'am," Ronin intoned and also ducked his head a bit.

"Mr. Wood."

With that the meeting ended. The door quietly closed behind them. As they passed the receptionist desk, the young man looked up. He then stood up.

"Just say exit when you get in the lift," he told them. "No wand required."

They did as instructed. In less than three minutes the two retrieved their wands and left the building. Dennis thought the place a perfect disguise for the Ministry. However, it felt good to be in the open air. He breathed deeply as he turned left on the sidewalk banking Market Avenue.

"I'm not stupid and I got most of it, but some of that was hard to follow," Ronin complained. "So we're going to Nepal?"

"India, I think. That bit about curious little villages was a nice touch," Dennis answered.

"A clue?"

Dennis nodded and said: "But I'm not exactly sure what it meant entirely. I think it will become obvious when we find it."

"Do you think she knows where he is?" Ronin continued his parade of questions.

"No, but I think she knows where he plans to go, and it scares her."

"Oh, yeah, it's nice we're heading to a place where the zed are really aggressive."

"What do think you that actually means?" Dennis asked.

The men walked in silence amid the sounds of the street and the buzz of life in the city. Ronin focused on the ground. Dennis gave him time. His friend proved clever and insightful if given space. Three minutes passed.

"I got an ugly feeling, Denny," Ronin said in a hush. "This place she talked about, the zed are different there for some reason and probably not a good one. She called them modus inferi, the mobile undead. I've never heard anyone call them that. It sounded almost like a spell. It sounded old."

Dennis blinked and patted himself on the back with an invisible arm for letting Ronin ponder the issues. The last part truly astounded him.

"That… wow, beats what I was thinking by a long shot," he confessed to his friend. "You're right: modus inferi does sound like a spell, but it doesn't make the back of my neck tingle. I think it's just a name, but it's damned important clue as you figured out."

"So when do we leave?"

"You don't have to come."

"Stop playing silly buggers and just tell me what schedule you want to follow," Ronin rounded on him.

"We could leave tomorrow," Dennis began, "but I want to see if Tinble's account ledger can provide us some cash and she can exchange some of it for muggle money. This is a functioning city, Ro, and it looks like we can get decent supplies. We need to find good foodstuff that will last on the road and not take up too much room."

"I want a new nylon hammock. That cotton cord one feels like it might break."

"Did you ever see those water purifying pumps? That could come in handy."

"We better think about new backpacks then 'cause I won't have enough room for all this."

"Oh, and one of the compact medical kits. I'm not bad with healing charms, but… zeds, you know."

"Maybe some decent thermal underwear since it's gonna be cold where we're going."

"And socks. The house elves tried to fix mine, but they're too far gone."

"I could use some, too."

Throughout the walk back to The Midnight Owl, Dennis and Ronin continued to sketch out a list of what they needed and wanted. Needs, Dennis reminded his friend, came first. Ronin disagreed and said Chocolate Frogs came first. As they turned onto Upper King Street, the two began debating as to which collectible card held the most value. They both agreed on Dumbledore as a staple card, but Dennis said he always preferred Barnabas the Barmy. Ronin chuckled and rudely commented the choice made sense. He, himself, he claimed, tended toward Ptolemy. Dennis voiced incredulity. From there the personal preferences became varied and wide. It hardly sounded like they prepared to head out on an incredibly dangerous mission. Perhaps in some way they did.

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