Something feathery tickled Harry's nose. He turned his head to escape, but the tormentor kept at it.
"G'way, Firo," he mumbled, swiping his hand over his face. Instead of warm feathers, he encountered something hard and spiky, and his eyes flew open to find an iridescent beetle atop his nose. "Gah!"
He swept the critter away and sprang to a sitting position, but the world spun around him, and he had to lower his head to his knees until the dizziness passed. A rhythmic whooshing filled his ears—waves?
"You're awake," said Malfoy. He sat with his back against a palm tree and was toying idly with a stick.
"Don't sound so disappointed." It hurt to speak. Not risking standing yet, he looked around. Shaded by palms, they sat within spitting distance of a pristine white beach—and beyond it, blue ocean that glimmered in the evening sun. Despite the late hour, the weather was sweltering. "What happened?"
"What happened? What happened?" Malfoy stabbed his stick into the sand. "You dragged me into your imbecilic misadventures again, that's what happened! First, bloody Dawlish saddles me with guarding you, as if that's somehow my job—then you Apparate us into the middle of some foreign nutcases Portkeying home—then they kick us off into the ocean and I have to swim for a mile while dragging your unconscious arse—"
He held up a palm. That explained his itchy skin and stiff clothes. "I get the gist of it. Thanks for saving me."
Draco deflated. "Whatever. Get me back to Britain in time for dinner with my wife, and I'll consider us square. I'm not getting involved in this business."
Harry eyed him slyly. "But you grabbed on. Back when I Apparated you and Dawlish—or at least his hand. It would've been so easy to let them go and wash your hands of the whole affair... You, Draco, chose to come along."
"Stop calling me Draco." Malfoy crossed his arms. "Trust me, half the time you napped, I did nothing but regret it to the utmost of my emotional capacity. The other half I spent thinking up ways to get back at you for dragging me into this—and for making us fall off an international Portkey midway."
"That was your fault!" He winced and rubbed his throat. Right, thirst wasn't the only reason it felt so scratchy. "You throttled me while that freak pummeled my face."
"It was that or fall to my death!"
"Are you a wizard or not? Unlike me, you had your bloody wand! Use a Sticking Charm or something!"
They glared at each other until Harry groaned and slumped back on the sand. The sky between the palm canopies was so purple it almost looked painted. Closing his eyes, he visualized the gold-and-scarlet plumage of his familiar and sighed when Firo failed to show up.
He glanced at Malfoy. "Look, let's not waste energy arguing. Do you know where we are?" When Malfoy looked like he was about to snap at him, he added, "Approximately."
Draco went back to doodling on the sand. "Too far to Apparate to Britain, that's for certain. We crossed several time zones."
Harry eyed the sun that hovered just above the horizon and furrowed his brows. "It was midday when we left. Do you know what time it is back home?"
Draco sent him a morose look. "I lost my watch. Generations of Malfoys wore it through wars and duels and strife, and I'm the one to lose it because you decided to take a dip in the ocean."
"Did you try summoning it?" He raised his palms. "Okay, dumb question. Well, the most important thing in such a situation is to get our bearings and evaluate our resources. Your wand's one, I suppose." Receiving an indifferent shrug in response, Harry searched his pockets and discovered a cracked hand mirror and a snack packet. "We also have a possibly broken communication mirror whose counterpart is in Brandon's basement, some soggy peanuts"—he patted the metal rod suspended from his belt—"and my Warlock's Rod."
Draco, who had half-risen at the mention of a means of communication, reclined against the palm. "Excellent, Potter. You can use the mirror to arrange your coiffure and impress the local fauna with your insignia."
Harry glared at him halfheartedly, then rubbed his stubbly chin. "Not the worst idea."
Bringing up the mirror, he stilled at the sight of his bruised throat and bloodshot eyes. He touched a scab on his cheekbone and grimaced. Picking up the rod, he aimed it at his chin and pressed the button on its butt. Bristles of his beard fell to the sand with each flick of his wrist.
Draco shook his head. "Good lord, Potter, I wasn't serious. Did you enchant that thing yourself?"
He hummed a tune as he watched several days' worth of stubble give way to smooth skin. "It turns out every Warlock's Rod comes enchanted with a single spell you can activate without an incantation. Some proprietary magic of the Swiss gnomes... I asked them to put in a variant of the Severing Charm that could be used for shaving."
Draco gaped. "An artifact of unlimited potential, and you house a hygiene spell in it?"
"Don't knock it till you've tried it. Besides, what else would I use it for?"
"Gee, I don't know," Draco said. "Live up to the title of warlock and charge it with a good curse, maybe?"
"Don't be daft, how often would I need to curse someone?" Harry inspected his shaven jawline from all angles and nodded in satisfaction. "I was skeptical when old Rufus dumped this on me, but let me tell you, it's bloody convenient."
Draco shook his head and looked away.
Still humming, Harry shrugged off his robes, peeled off his soggy shirt, and tried to brush the sand off them without much success. "Oi, give me some water, would you?"
Malfoy sighed and looked at him as if he were an idiot. "Aguamenti."
A freezing torrent blasted his chest, sending him a few steps back, and he yowled, shielding himself with his clothes. "Enough, enough!" The torrent cut off; raking a hand through his damp hair, he licked his lips. "Actually, hit me again."
Malfoy smirked. "With pleasure. Aguamenti!"
He washed himself and his clothes the best he could, then gulped down the liquid erupting from Malfoy's wand. "No homo!"
"Come again?" Draco said, ending the spell.
"Forget it." Water sloshed in his stomach as he wrung out his robes and stooped to gather his scattered effects into them. Tying the sleeves together, he slung the improvised sack over his shoulder. "Well then, let's explore this place."
"Might as well," Draco said resignedly. "Maybe we'll meet someone who can point us to civilization and trade your warlock's insignia for a Portkey home."
"That's the spirit." Harry, of course, had no intention to trade the handiest shaver he had ever used. Draco's wand would do—or perhaps his kidney.
Vivid orange and red streaked the ocean in reflection of the setting sun. Under different circumstances, the water would've looked inviting, but they both had probably had enough swimming to last for a while. To their left, the palms thickened into a jungle that rose over a mountain at the center of the island. As great a vantage point as it must've offered, the jungle was undoubtedly infested with snakes and bugs and other creepy crawlies, so with unanimous agreement, they set off along the beach.
The rhythmic surf and the chirping of crickets filled the air. Fed up with his sloshing shoes, Harry kicked them off and meandered closer to the ocean, where there were fewer twigs to stab his delicate feet. Sinking into the warm sand with every step, he soon broke a sweat. Neither of them was inclined to set a quick pace, partly because there was no particular reason to hurry, and partly because they were refined wizards unused to such a primitive mode of locomotion.
He glanced at Draco, who walked slightly ahead. "Who do you reckon those guys were? The ones we hitched a ride from, I mean?"
Malfoy didn't turn his head. "I'm sure I don't want to know."
"Aren't foreigners wreaking havoc on British soil sorta your department's responsibility?" He saw Malfoy's shoulders stiffen. "What do you think they were after?"
"You tell me, Potter."
"From the looks of it, they're in the habit of collecting naga figurines."
"There's that word again. Speak English, won't you?"
"How many times do I need to explain this? Naga are hot half-snake women. Men too, technically, but who cares."
"Half-snake, you say?" Draco glanced over his shoulder.
Harry caught up. "What is it?"
Draco avoided meeting his eyes. "There have been some weird incidents on the continent. Poison attacks, thefts. Rumor has it, there's a cult of Parselmouths behind them."
He rubbed his chin. "A cult, eh?" The lengths they went to to retrieve the figurines certainly suggested an obsession.
Draco sighed. "Damn it, Potter, don't get any ideas. On the off chance that such a group exists, I'd rather not get in their way."
"I have a bone to pick with them, regardless of who or what they are." He ticked off fingers. "They hurt Su, they pincushioned a fellow man of culture, they stole from me, and they kidnapped my waifu."
Draco took some time to process the statement. "Aren't those last two the same?"
"Not even close. Stealing the statuette is one thing, but taking my waifu makes it personal." He furrowed his brows. "Well, more personal considering they hurt my girlfriend."
Draco looked at him darkly. "If you want to play out your white knight fantasies, be my guest. Just don't involve me more than you already have."
"Oh?" Harry sent him a shrewd look. "So if they were to, let's say, lay their hands on Astoria—"
"I would utilize the full resources of the Malfoy family to destroy them to the last man."
He snorted. "Hypocrite."
"First, we're married. Second, I'm just a bystander—this is your venison, as Muggles say. My advice? If you insist on going after them, hire some mercenaries instead of sticking out your own neck."
Harry decided not to correct him. "First, since they hurt Su, I'm obligated to personally kick their asses—it's the man code. Second, I'm fairly sure her father knows kung fu and will kick mine if I don't bring him a few of their heads on a pike."
"Kung fu?" Draco asked blankly.
"I weep for the state of wizarding education," he said with a sigh. "It's a Chinese martial art. They can, like, leap ten feet in the air and qi-punch you from the other side of the room."
Draco considered him. "There are records of strange native magic the Chinese practiced before wand usage spread through Asia."
He nodded emphatically. "Best not to piss them off. You can never be too careful."
Draco didn't seem inclined to speak anymore, so Harry saved his breath for trudging along. The winding coastline jutted into the ocean, then doubled back to form a picturesque bay. It was the perfect location for a village or a tourist site, and the lack of any human presence made him suspect the island was uninhabited.
They conferred briefly and Apparated across the bay to save themselves the walk. Darkness fell swiftly after the sun sank behind the horizon. The cool breeze off the ocean felt wonderful on Harry's sweaty skin, but despite the reprieve from the heat, he couldn't bring himself to move faster. It had been a long day.
Malfoy moaned and slouched against a palm trunk. "All we're doing is wasting strength. I'm sweating like a centaur, my feet hurt, and I have nothing to show for it."
Privately happy for the break, Harry chucked his sack down and sat on the sand. "Fine, you big pansy, let's ward this place and rest. Trade you some peanuts for water?"
Malfoy looked like it physically hurt him to extend his hand. Harry ripped open the packet and shook out some spiced nuts. They rested against the segmented trunks and munched on this meager fare, lost in their thoughts.
At length, Harry reached for the mirror and called Brandon, Mrs. Witherspoon, Dawlish, and anyone who would listen until giving up. Gazing at the starry sky, he rubbed his stomach. The snack had only made him hungrier.
His gaze landed on a bundle of Bludger-sized fruit atop the palm. They looked like the fresh coconuts Aunt Petunia would sometimes bring from the market. "Oi, Malfoy, can you summon one of those?"
Draco looked where he was pointing, sighed, and took aim. The cluster of fruit swung his way, yet remained attached to the palm.
Harry scooted aside so he wouldn't get whacked in the head. "G'on, put your back into it!"
Malfoy scowled and jabbed his wand upward. "Accio!"
The palm creaked and bent under the tug of the spell. Malfoy's scowl intensified. With an audible rip, a single coconut popped off, hurtled toward him, and walloped him in the stomach.
"Oh, bravo." Harry broke out in laughter when Malfoy glared at him, doubled over in pain. "Break it open, would you?"
"Diffindo," Malfoy snarled. The coconut split down the middle with a squelch, soaking the sand with its precious contents.
Clicking his tongue, Harry picked up a half and poured the leftover liquid into his mouth. It tasted sweet and refreshing, but there wasn't nearly enough to slake his thirst.
"Now look what you've done," he said, reaching for the other half. "Grab another."
Malfoy snatched it before he could, dipped his tongue into the liquid, then gulped it down in a hurry. He eyed the top of the palm tree, the cluster of coconuts swaying slightly in the wind, and aimed carefully.
"Diffindo." The jet of light went wide. "Diffindo." A long green frond was cleaved in half, hanging off by a fiber. "Diffindo!" A coconut popped open in a spray of liquid.
Harry snorted. "You suck. Just use a Summoning Charm before you ruin them."
Draco went red in the face and pointed his wand at him. "You go get them, then."
Expecting to get jinxed, Harry sidestepped instinctively. The Levitation Charm caught him on the shoulder, almost yanking it out of its socket as he was hauled into the air. As he flailed his arms for balance, the rough trunk grazed his back, and he turned around to brace against it with his palms. "Watch it!"
"My bad," Draco said, not sounding repentant in the least.
Harry glared at him, then yelped when something bumped the back of his head. Looking up, he found his prize dangling before him, and forgetting his ire, clamped his legs around the trunk to steady himself. He tugged at the coconut. After a minute of achieving nothing but enduring Malfoy's snide commentary, he got the bright idea to twist it off and tossed it to the ground.
A cry came from below, and gravity tugged at his body; he slid down several yards before clenching his trembling legs around the trunk to bring himself to a halt. His fingers clutched a coconut whose stalk was fraying under his weight.
"Oi!" he yelled, "a little help?"
"Watch where you throw those!"
Harry breathed easier when he felt himself float again. "My bad."
He proceeded to twist off the coconuts and send them down, wisely aiming away from the bloke holding him up in the air. Once he figured they had enough, he groaned and wiped his forehead with the back of his chafed hand.
"Are you done?" Draco yelled.
"Yeah! No, wait—can you lift me higher for a bit?"
Draco grumbled something he didn't catch. "Don't blame me if you break your neck!"
Jerked upward by an invisible force, Harry clutched a thick frond to steady himself. His head protruded above the foliage. The air up here was cooler, and the sky was clear and full of stars. He craned his neck, trying to recall his Astronomy lessons in an attempt to determine their location, then stilled. Inward into the island, the bulk of the mountain loomed black against the sky, but its top was crowned by a faint orange glow.
"Potter! My hand's getting tired, but feel free to remain up there if you wish!"
Harry gave the flickering light one last look. It felt artificial. "Yeah, yeah. Get me down!"
He drifted down none too steadily and dropped the last few feet onto soft sand. Draco lowered his wand and stared at him.
"What are you so happy about?"
It was only then that Harry realized he was grinning. "Why wouldn't I be? We're alive, healthy, we found ourselves a meal... and I know where to go." He pointed at the jungle. "I saw lights over the mountain."
"You did?" Draco perked up before his customary scowl returned. "Great, so we have a hike through the jungle to look forward to tomorrow."
"Oh, lighten up." He looked around and picked out the nicest coconut. "And help me with these, I'm starving."
It took them a while to get the hang of splitting coconuts, but there was more than enough for both. Malfoy transfigured wooden spoons to scrape out the soft meat inside, and with his stomach filled, even he became more content. While he did grumble about roughing it in the wild, his complaints sounded perfunctory. After erecting rudimentary wards, the two bunched up their robes in lieu of pillows and shortly fell asleep.
A bed of coarse sand was far from the comfort Harry was used to, but he was so exhausted he slept like a log, only rolling over to drowsily drape his robes over himself to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Sunrise came all too soon, and with it the racket of the birds in the jungle. He pulled the robes over his head to block the light and the noise, but the air underneath quickly grew too stifling to fall asleep again.
He sat up and rubbed his eyes, then did a double-take at the mesh tent surrounding Draco's sleeping form. If he managed to conjure a mosquito net, the least he could do was extend the courtesy to Harry, the jerk.
Scowling, he scratched a bite on his leg, then stood and stretched his stiff limbs. A parrot with a yellow belly settled on a nearby branch to watch him. Perking up, he closed his eyes and visualized a gold-and-scarlet plumage.
A ball of flames erupted in the air, fading to reveal his wayward phoenix. She circled him before settling on his shoulder and rubbing her head on his cheek.
"Firo!" he exclaimed, for once genuinely happy to see her. "What had you been doing yesterday, huh? Terrorizing the inhabitants of the Forbidden Forest again? Your master nearly died, silly bird."
Firo craned her neck around, not showing any indication that she was listening.
"Can you take us home? Both of us?" He paused as he absently stroked her warm feathers. There probably wouldn't be a better chance to find his missing treasure. "Scratch that, could you fetch me my wand?"
Firo chirped and pivoted her head to the line of trees. Sighing, he closed his eyes and imagined the twelve-inch wand, smooth and polished, wood grains running along its length...
A wing clipped him on the ear as Firo left his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he incredulously watched her fly over to a palm near the parrot. The birds regarded each other before the parrot fanned out its colorful tail and hissed.
"Aw, come back here!" Tilting his head back, he walked up to the palm. "If you won't bring my wand, at least fly us to the mountain!"
"Squawk," Firo said, bobbing up and down as she stared at the other bird.
The parrot cocked its crested head. "Squawk?"
"Squawk, squawk." Firo flapped her way to the branch the parrot sat on and hopped closer.
The parrot sidled away, pressing itself lower to the branch, then gradually relaxed as Firo trilled and crooned. Straightening up, it gave an answering trill, and both birds took off into the jungle side by side.
Harry tried to call her back to no effect, then exhaled exasperatedly. "You... you friendship slut."
"What are you mumbling about, Potter?"
Turning, he saw Malfoy stir under the net. Perhaps it was for the best Malfoy didn't know they had a way out—if Firo proved amenable, that is. Harry still needed him. More precisely, his wand.
"Just enjoying the scenery," he said. "Get up and crack us open some breakfast."
They washed up, ate, and drank. Draco only offered monosyllabic answers to his attempts at conversation, and after a mostly one-sided discussion, it was decided they would stick to their original plan and brave the jungle.
Harry stood and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The beach was heating up like a frying pan, and the air was growing more humid by the minute. He eyed the dense vegetation before them and tried to estimate the distance to the mountain.
"Shall we?" he said without enthusiasm.
Draco nodded grumpily. "Lead the way."
The best thing that could be said about the trip was that they survived it—and it was a closer call than Harry would've liked. His trembling legs gave out when they were scaling the steadily steepening mountain, and only a nearby liana saved him from tumbling down the rocky slope. And that was after they spent most of the day plodding through the sultry, mosquito-ridden jungle in search of the least arduous approach to the peak.
The sun was already on its way down by the time they surmounted the mountain—muddy, itchy, and bruised, their breaths ragged, knees skinned, and clothes looking like they went through a shredder. Harry was the first to plant his scraped palms atop the rocky rim and pull himself up, while Draco caught his breath on a ledge below. As Harry's head rose above the rim, a gasp escaped his lips.
"Well, what is it?" Malfoy asked. "I dare you to tell me we came all this way for nothing."
Harry waved at Malfoy to come up. Before him stretched a caldera of a long-dead volcano, its inner walls falling precipitously to a milky blue lake far below. Flimsy rope bridges crisscrossed the entire span of the caldera, connecting to three sprawling rock terraces on the opposite side.
On the top two terraces, buildings of all sizes, shapes, and colors jostled for space. A tower with wing-shaped crimson roofs wedged between a clay dome and a cottage that wouldn't have looked out of place in Hogsmeade, and behind them, a ramshackle hut swayed on a giant bird's leg. The bottom terrace housed colorful tents and stalls arranged around an unlit bonfire and was crowded with people scurrying about.
Pebbles rolled behind him. He took mercy on Draco, who struggled to climb the last few feet, and yanked him up. The bloke had levitated him up some of the taller cliffs during their trek, after all.
Draco half-rose to his feet before taking in the vertiginous precipice and crouching. His gaze swept over the terraces, and his face lit up. "I take back what I said, Potter—this is better than what I hoped for. It looks like a decently civilized place."
"It does?" He hadn't expected Malfoy of all people to approve of such a haphazard—and distinctly foreign—village.
Draco sent him a puzzled look. "You don't see any of those unsightly concrete boxes Muggles prefer to cram themselves into these days, do you? No, this is a proper wizarding settlement. I'm sure someone down there can set us up with a Portkey home."
He frowned at the dig at Muggles, but there were more important things to worry about. Shading his eyes from the sun that hovered above the volcano's rim, he peered at the terraces. "Shall we just risk it and Apparate by sight?"
Malfoy glanced across the caldera and shook his head. "I don't fancy missing and finding out how deep that lake is first-hand."
Harry flopped onto his belly and crawled to the crumbling edge. A small waterfall streamed out halfway down the cliff. Beside it jutted out ledges of rock to which the rope bridges were attached. Lower still, close to the surface of the lake, a carpet floated lazily trailing multicolored smoke.
He hmmed. "How about I cast the Feather-light Charm on us and we jump to those bridges?"
Malfoy looked down and shuddered. "Out of the question."
Harry pushed away and cast his gaze around. "Then the only thing's left is to walk around. Looks like there's stairs down on the other side."
Malfoy eyed the craggy lip of the crater and sighed heavily. "A Feather-light Charm, you say?"
"Easy as pie. I use it all the time." To jump down the stairs at Grimmauld Place, not leap into dead volcanoes, but those were minor details. "Lend me your wand."
Malfoy chewed his lip, then resignedly handed over his wand. "Don't make me regret this, Potter."
Harry tested its heft, then meticulously enunciated the incantation for the Feather-light Charm as he tapped Malfoy and himself on the chest.
"You're certain you cast it correctly?" Malfoy rocked on the balls of his feet and promptly sprang several inches into the air, flailing his arms. At Harry's snort, he scowled and thrust out his palm. "My wand."
Harry grinned and stuck it into his pocket. As Malfoy advanced on him without raising his feet off the ground, he shuffled toward the caldera until his heels hovered over the edge. A glance over his shoulder made his head spin.
Malfoy eyed him apprehensively. "Stop fooling around. I don't intend to lose my wand if you miss your jump."
He smirked to hide his nervousness and rose experimentally on his tiptoes. Weightless, as he should be. "Race you down."
"Give back my wand, you batty—"
"Come and get it," he said, and stepped backward.
The thumping of his heart almost drowned out the wind whistling in his ears. Malfoy's figure atop the caldera shrunk rapidly as the sheer rock rushed closer. He kicked out and yelped when it sent him soaring backward through the air.
He flapped his limbs frantically to direct himself toward the bridge hurtling at him from below, but found no purchase in the air. When his fingers missed the coarse rope that served as the bridge's railings by inches, his heart nearly stopped, but then he caught the edge of a plank below with one hand.
Swinging over the distant lake, he let out a relieved laugh. Thanks to his reduced weight, he easily pulled himself up and sprawled on the planks to take a breather. Far above, Malfoy was still tiptoeing on the edge like the wimp he was.
Smirking, he aimed Malfoy's wand upward. "Accio robes."
With a scream, Malfoy plummeted. Harry's eyes widened, and he canceled the Summoning Charm, but Malfoy still descended too quickly, windmilling his arms and bumping off the crater's wall.
"Arresto Momentum," Harry said, "Arresto Momentum, Arresto—"
None of his spells connected until, a few seconds later, Malfoy slowed abruptly so close to the bridge that his windswept hair brushed the dirty planks and gently dropped the last inch.
Harry suppressed a sigh of relief. "Like I said, easy as pie."
"My wand," Draco croaked, rubbing his nose.
"Hmm, I wonder. You didn't jump by yourself—" He snorted at Malfoy's growl. "Fine, let me just take off the Feather-light."
The bridge creaked as their weight returned to normal. Harry grabbed onto the handrails and scooted closer to Malfoy to return the wand.
Grasping the ropes with one hand, Malfoy swiped the wand off his palm. "You nearly murdered me, you bloody lunatic!"
Harry raised his eyebrows. "I had to help you along. Charms don't last forever, you know."
Malfoy's pale face gained color. "Your shoddy charmswork barely slowed me!"
He crossed his arms. "My charmswork is outstanding, thank you very much. If anything, it's your wand's fault for not listening to me."
"Is that so?" Malfoy jabbed his wand at Harry's chest, but the gesture was rendered less threatening by his trembling. "Why don't I demonstrate how well it listens to a real wizard?"
He chuckled nervously. "Calm down, Draco. Think about it. You could've gotten stuck up there without a wand."
"Only because you had the imbecilic idea to make off with it!" Malfoy sighed and lowered his wand. "Just so you know, I seriously hate you. And I thought I told you to stop calling me Draco."
"Chin up. We made a great team, even with just one wand. Excuse me." Harry squeezed past him to inspect the rectangular passage carved into the cliff. "Think of the stories you'll be able to tell during your fancy dinner parties when we get back."
"Provided I survive this," Malfoy murmured.
Harry stepped from the wobbly planks onto a stone ledge and peeked through the passage. A shadowy hallway curved off to either side, lit dimly through narrow slits in the rock. The air was humid and smelled of mold. The walls were carved with vaguely familiar glyphs, and Harry squinted at them curiously until Malfoy's voice broke him out of his reverie.
"See anything, Potter? Anything useful?"
"No sign of life here." Turning back, he considered the flimsy bridge stretching across the crater with no small amount of trepidation. "Guess we're going that way."
"Let's get this over with," Draco said firmly, but remained in place.
Harry rolled his eyes and took the lead, checking each plank before he stepped on it. He could tell when Malfoy started following by the swaying of the bridge. It only intensified the closer to the middle they got, and soon he had to grasp the railings with both hands to stay upright.
Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, he halted in his tracks. A tiny dragon composed of blue smoke soared past, slowly dissipating in the air. Glancing around, he saw that the flying carpet he had spied earlier was much closer. A couple perched atop it, a hookah sitting between them. The man raised an ornate pipe to his lips, inhaled, and puffed out a bird-shaped crimson cloud. The woman before him made a noise of delight.
Catching her eye, Harry raised his hand to wave, but the bridge lurched in a gust of wind, forcing him to grab the railing and crouch. Laughter reached his ears, and upon straightening up he saw the couple waving back. Grinning, he returned the gesture before continuing on his way.
"Honestly, Potter, you're acting as if it's your first time seeing smoking herbs," Draco said, having observed the spectacle with haughty detachment.
"Never knew you could do such cool tricks with them." Perhaps he would see about acquiring a pipe of his own. Smoking never appealed to him, but puffing out dragons and phoenixes was too wizardly to pass up. "Do you partake?"
"Merlin's beard, no. Such vices are for the weak-minded, as my father always said."
Harry didn't comment, both because Malfoy senior was a touchy subject and because the wind had picked up and the bridge's constant swaying was making it difficult to move. He pulled himself along the railings, his arms getting as good a workout as his legs, his gaze fixed on the lowest terrace looming ahead and above.
At last, he climbed onto solid rock. A low stone fence separated the terrace from the precipice, and he sank on the ground and slouched against it to catch his breath. Malfoy shuffled up on unsteady legs and followed his example.
Some passers-by sent them curious looks, but no one approached, continuing on their business—and there was business to be done since the level they found themselves on was a market. A glittering stand sold silver and golden trinkets, the insides of a bright tent overflowed with linen pouches and potion vials, several stalls offered fruit and fried meat, and many others hawked wares Harry couldn't identify. The patrons that wandered the narrow aisles were just as varied, some topless, others swaddled head-to-toe in white cloth, and others still, he was heartened to see, opting for robes. Perhaps he and Malfoy wouldn't stand out as much as he had feared.
A cheer rose from the center of the market as a bonfire roared to life with a stream of smoke and sparks. The sky wasn't yet dark, but the rim of the caldera cast a lengthening shadow over the village. Torches burned here and there, and some windows on the upper levels lit up.
Harry sniffed the air and turned toward a stall laden with grilled meat. Without thinking, he walked over for a closer look. The stall bristled with wooden skewers upon which were speared small four-legged animals—lizards, or rats, or—on second thought, he didn't want to know. He swallowed the saliva that pooled in his mouth. They had eaten nothing during their trek but Draco's sorry attempts at duplicating the remaining peanuts.
The crone behind the stall shooed off a small monkey that had clambered up a side pole, turned her rheumy eyes at Harry, and said something in a questioning tone.
He forced a smile. "Sorry, I don't understand."
She spoke again, gesturing so vigorously the beaded bracelets on her skinny wrists rattled against each other. When he shrugged apologetically, she spat on the ground and shooed him away like she had the monkey.
A young boy approached the stall, and the crone's lined face split into a smile that revealed she was missing most of her teeth. The boy stood on tiptoes to hand over a couple of copper coins with holes in the middle and received a skewer in return. Watching him tear into the food, Harry gulped enviously. He glanced to Malfoy, still seated at the edge of the terrace, and received a mocking sneer.
Sighing, he stuck his hands down his empty pockets, then stilled as his finger sank into a hole. Hardly daring to hope, he crooked his finger and fished around between the lining, and incredibly, encountered cool metal. Bringing his other hand around, he eagerly extricated his prize: a tarnished silver coin.
He offered the Sickle to the crone with a flourish. She accepted the coin with both hands, turned it over before her wide eyes, and asked something.
"That ought to be enough." He snatched a skewer and sank his teeth into the slightly rubbery meat without waiting for an answer.
The coin vanished from the crone's hands as if by magic. Producing a long wide leaf from under the stall, she loaded it with meat. At least a third of her stock went onto the heap before she wrapped it and offered it to Harry with a toothless smile.
Swallowing, he eyed it with equal parts chagrin and hunger. "Er... Don't suppose I could get some change instead?"
The crone jabbered and extended the bundle toward him.
Well, he was starving. "Cheers."
Feeling worldly and accomplished, he strutted back to Draco and perched on the fence to lay his spoils out on his lap. Appetizing steam rose from the bundle. He wasted no time picking out a skewer and gnawing off the meat.
Malfoy sidled closer. "You have money?"
"Had." He glanced at the crone. Apparently, he hadn't quite grasped the local exchange rate.
"You imbecile!" Malfoy snapped, making him flinch. "How are we going to pay our way home now?"
"It was only a Sickle," he said defensively.
Malfoy threw his arms up. "Even if it wouldn't be enough for a Portkey, it might've bought us a postal bird to send a call for help—and you just go off and waste all our funds on some fried rodents!"
Harry licked the grease off his lips, tossed the empty skewer over his shoulder, and grabbed another. He would've eaten almost anything at this point, but the taste definitely helped. Like chicken, only more stringy and smoky. "Hey, all the more for me."
Malfoy glowered at him, but seeing him munch without care, eventually sighed and took one skewer. Staring the morsel down as though it had personally insulted him, he took a nibble. His eyes widened, and he tore into the meat with little of the decorum expected from someone of his breeding. The pile on Harry's lap shrank as the two raced to devour the food.
Malfoy dropped his last skewer on the ground, wiped his palms on a handkerchief, and vanished the rubbish. "Still," he said mournfully, "how are we getting back to Britain now?"
"Such problems tend to solve themselves." With a full belly, their prospects didn't seem so daunting. "Good things come to those who wait."
Draco snorted derisively. "What are you suggesting, Potter—that we simply sit here until something happens?"
"That's exactly what I'm suggesting. There's a certain flow to an adventure that you won't see unless you're as experienced as I am—and my intuition says to stay here." So did his heavy stomach, but Malfoy didn't need to know that.
Draco muttered something unsavory and fell silent.
The sky overhead turned navy, and the lights of the village brightened. The tents vanished in whirls of colorful fabric, freeing a square around the bonfire. A group of dark-skinned men struck up a complex rhythm on their tall drums. Topless dancers spun and stomped on the sandy rock, their elaborate masks coming alive in the firelight.
Harry tapped his foot restlessly as more and more people joined the dance. Even the bonfire was affected by the hypnotic beat, the flames ebbing and flowing and taking shapes of fantastic beasts—yet whenever he focused on one in an attempt to recognize it, the shape would melt in the roaring fire, only to reappear elsewhere.
He didn't know how long they sat there, entranced by magic so unlike what they were familiar with, but at some point, a short figure skirted the dancers and strolled their way. With the bonfire turning the person into a dark silhouette, Harry thought it was a child, but once the figure drew closer he was disabused of that notion: it was an old man with a shock of white hair and brown skin wrinkled like a prune's.
The man came to stand before them. He wore shabby cut-off jeans and a faded T-shirt that read 'I Am With Stupid'. A conch shell with a metal mouthpiece hung from a cord around his spindly neck.
"Er..." Harry tried to catch the man's gaze, but his pale milky eyes remained directed at the vicinity of Harry's right ear. "Can we help you?"
The weathered skin at the corners of the man's eyes crinkled. "The real question is: can I help you, Harry Potter?"
He jerked back, then grabbed onto the fence before he could fall into the abyss. The man's high-pitched voice wasn't at all threatening, but hearing his name from the lips of a stranger halfway across the world was enough to cast off the last vestiges of the mesmerizing drum beat.
"Who are you?"
The man turned at Harry's voice, but his eyes still didn't quite meet his. "Ikililou. I have seen our meeting and know for what purpose you came here."
Harry hesitantly waved a palm before the man's milky eyes, but he showed no indication of, well, seeing it. "Riiight. And what is my purpose, exactly... Eek-low?"
Ikililou glanced around conspiratorially, although what purpose it served given that he was blind, Harry had no clue. "The people here, they exchange gossip like currency, and you wouldn't want them to catch wind of the matters you chose to involve yourself in. Let's continue our conversation somewhere more private."
Harry sized him up; it was difficult to imagine the flimsy old man as dangerous. "Alright then," he said, rising to his feet. Seeing the astonishment on Draco's face, he quipped, "Told you."
Ikililou nodded and set off toward the bonfire. Harry made to follow but was stopped by a hand on his upper arm.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Draco asked in an undertone. "You don't know this person, do you?"
"Never met him before in my life," he said with affected nonchalance, "but it's not like we have other options."
Malfoy let go, and Harry hastened after Ikililou, trying not to show just how freaked out he truly was.
Ikililou led them past the undulating line of dancers and up a set of stairs carved into the cliff upon which rested the upper terrace. A cramped alleyway—given that two people would've struggled to walk it abreast, Harry couldn't call it a street—wound between all sorts of fantastic houses. There was little time to gawk, however, because Ikililou brushed his palm against a sandy tower with a myriad of tiny apertures and started decisively toward the wall of the caldera, where a shadowy passage was hewn into the rock.
Ikililou strolled into the passage without breaking his stride. Harry followed. Here and there, glyphs akin to those he had seen at the base of the bridge marked the walls, weathered by time, yet still legible, if looking nothing like the runes he knew.
At Malfoy's murmur, a bleak light lit the corridor, causing Harry's shadow to dance before him. Ikililou walked on steadily, occasionally reaching out to the outer wall; like Harry, he had no use for extra lighting, albeit for different reasons.
Slit-like windows opened into the caldera at irregular distances. The curving corridor had already taken them a good distance from the village, and Harry suspected it spanned the circumference of the caldera. For all he knew, the entire mountain might've been hollow, carved out, from the looks of it, by a people long forgotten.
When a faint whoosh of water became audible in the distance, Ikililou paused and tilted his head. His gnarled fingers stretched to the conch hanging from his neck. Bringing its mouthpiece to his lips, he produced a discordant note that echoed along the corridor. A rectangular chunk of the rock on the outward side vanished without a trace.
Ikililou started toward the opened passage, only to bump against the jamb and recoil. Swearing under his breath, he groped his way inside and motioned them to follow.
Harry exchanged a look with Malfoy and preceded him into what appeared to be a home. The single stone room housed woven baskets, a jug of water, a smoldering brazier, and several dingy cushions arrayed around a low, flat slab of stone. Straw mats were scattered haphazardly on the floor, and uneven shelves were cut into the far wall, loaded with tableware and assorted paraphernalia.
Once everyone was over the threshold, Ikililou blew his conch again, and the entrance disappeared, casting the place into a gloom only dispersed by Malfoy's wand. Harry patted the rock; it felt corporeal, yet let through a cool breeze.
Another shrill note, and the oil lamps on the walls sputtered to life. Ikililou flashed his white teeth in Harry's general direction as he groped around for a cushion. "It is safe to talk."
"Right." Harry eyed the cushions and slumped down onto the cleanest one. While he didn't fancy making himself more vulnerable, he was on his last legs. "First off, how do you know who I am?"
"I told you, I have seen our meeting," Ikililou said. "Do you intend to waste the little time you have on inane questions, Harry Potter? Your enemies aren't sitting idly by."
"The Cult of Mara. Worshipers of the immortal serpent. Snake-loving zealots." Ikililou's expression grew more and more incredulous until he laughed. "How did you end up here without knowing who you were dealing with?"
He pouted. "That's what I came here to find out. Who or what is Mara, and why would her followers come to Britain?"
Still snickering, Ikililou wiped his pale eyes. "She was the last great queen of the ocean dwellers whom the Atlanteans warred to extinction. They say her power was so great, even the god-mages of times past couldn't destroy her. Instead, they sealed her and cast the pieces of her prison to the four directions, so that they may never be reunited." He scratched his stomach through his threadbare T-shirt. "Or something along those lines."
"Something along those lines?" Draco repeated flatly.
Ikililou's forehead creased. "Do I look like a historian? What's important is that you're looking for them, and I am offering my help."
"See here, that's a misunderstanding," Draco said. "I don't know about Potter, but the only thing I'm looking for is a way home. How about you help me with that, and I'll make sure you're adequately compensated once I'm back in Britain?"
Ikililou made a rude noise. "My services are worth more than whatever gold you can scrounge up, boy."
Harry barely listened to the byplay, his mind awhirl. If the statuettes were pieces of a prison, did that make them Horcruxes of a kind?
"Is it just a legend?" he asked slowly, "or does this Mara truly exist?"
Ikililou's shoulders rose and dropped. "Beats me."
He worked his jaw, then shook his head, refusing to get provoked. "Let's say I believe you. How would you even know where to find these cultists?"
"I ran into them while they were studying the ancient symbols around here a decade or so ago. They took offense at my presence, but we resolved everything peacefully." Ikililou cackled. "Then I cast a little juju and tracked them to their hideout. Ha! They snooped around my home, so it's only fair I do the same. Never actually set foot there, but I learned enough to get you in."
Malfoy harrumphed. "That sounds fascinating, and I wish you two the very best in your endeavors. Now, Mr. Ikililou, if you would mind opening the door for me?"
Ikililou blew his conch, and the wall vanished letting in the noise of falling water. "Watch your step. This place is a sanctuary for those whom the so-called civilized governments deem Dark."
Malfoy vacillated at the threshold, then squared his shoulders. "I have my magic, which is all a wizard needs."
"You're leaving?" Harry blurted out.
Malfoy gave him an exasperated look. "Potter, I have no desire to tussle with some poison-spitting crackpots. If you aren't coming, then I'll search for a way home on my own."
Harry glanced helplessly at Ikililou, who was observing—well, listening—with a serene expression. If he was going up against a cult, he would rather have a capable wand on his side, even if it was Malfoy's. He searched for something convincing to say and perked up when his gaze landed on the embers in the brazier.
"I won't stop you," he said airily, "but I'm your only sure ticket out of here."
Malfoy raised his eyebrows. "How so?"
"You might not be aware, but phoenixes can transport people in a burst of fire. I could call my familiar and get us out of here"—he snapped his fingers—"like that, anytime." He neglected to mention that he had been trying just that for most of the day.
Emotions battled on Draco's face—disbelief, hope, anger—until he stalked back inside and gripped his lapels. "And you didn't say anything? Call it right now!"
He grinned. "No. Not until we get to the bottom of this."
Draco's face darkened and he lifted his wand. "Maybe if I hurt you enough, it'll come to your aid..."
He raised his palms, feeling rather defenseless. A series of notes blared, and Draco let go of him with a cry.
"Lumos! W-what did you do?" Malfoy looked around wildly, then pointed his wand at his eyes. "Finite! Finite Incantatem! Undo this, you old bastard!"
Laughing, Ikililou watched him flail around, then put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Malfoy blinked, his gaze refocusing, and brought his wand to bear on Ikililou.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, boy. I need Harry Potter because I saw him paying me back, but you? You're irrelevant."
Harry rose on his haunches in preparation to tackle Malfoy should need be. Malfoy's aim wavered as his grey eyes alternated between Ikililou and Harry.
"Listen," Harry said, "if this chap saw me in the future, that means I come out on top. Stick around and you'll probably be okay too." He turned to Ikililou. "Right?"
Ikililou gestured dismissively. "All I know is that someone who looks like you will provide me with something I've been seeking for a long, long time. Whether you triumph over the cult or become their senseless puppet makes no difference to me."
He pressed his lips together. "You know what? As long as you don't saddle me with another Dark Lord, that's alright in my book." He grinned at Draco. "So, what's it gonna be?"
Malfoy's shoulders slumped. "I hate you."
"Nice going, you just doubled my work," Ikililou groused. He stood spryly, strolled to the shelves, and ran his fingers over the implements within. "No matter, I'm in need of fresh ingredients anyway." He turned around abruptly. "You agree, then, to do me a favor when I ask of it?"
He blinked. "That depends... This isn't a ploy to get my firstborn child or something, is it?" An image of soaring on his Firebolt amid a gaggle of black-feathered, green-eyed harpy chicks came to his mind. There was that pang in his chest again. Probably the lack of electrolytes after sweating all day.
Ikililou snorted, jolting him out of his ruminations. "What would I want a diaper-shitting toddler for? Contrary to the common belief, few rituals require newborn sacrifice, and none appeal to me. Your spawn wouldn't even fetch a good price on the black market."
"Would too," he said indignantly.
Ikililou cackled. "Not if it takes after you! No, your future offspring, should you manage to beget some, are safe. We're talking about a certain physical item of no personal value to you. What do you say?"
He shoved a hand down his pocket and crossed his fingers. "In that case, I promise." As sketchy as the deal sounded, it held no binding power unless the proper ceremony was carried out.
Ikililou's milky eyes centered on him. "Then I'll see about the preparations. Tomorrow, I'll take you to your destination."
He bobbed his head absently before frowning. "Hang on a tick. You can't send me into a den of crazy cultists unarmed!"
Ikililou snickered. "Lost your wand, have you? Even the dullest Uagadou student can make their enemies' jaws fall off with a wiggle of a finger. Don't tell me a graduate of the famed Hogwarts School has no wandless magic at all?"
"I can—could do things! Just feeling a bit under the weather right now." He scowled at Ikililou's skeptical look. "Could you maybe find me a wand?"
"In the middle of the night, without money, in a settlement of less than half a thousand people whose magical tradition is far removed from yours?" Ikililou paused for dramatic effect. "Of course! How hard can stuffing a piece of a magical animal into a stick be?" He rubbed his gnarled forefinger and thumb together. "It'll cost you extra, though."
Harry spread his hands. "Just add it to my tab. I'll pay you back as soon as I can, promise."
Ikililou's teeth glinted in the flickering light. "Be careful with the promises you make. Someone less principled than I might take advantage." Walking out the exit, he spoke over his shoulder. "You may rest here. I'll visit a craftsman friend of mine and get your wand done by tomorrow."
Before either of them could say a word, the wall became solid again. Malfoy swore and rushed over to tap it with his wand.
"As far as traps go, this is far from the worst one I've had the displeasure to fall into." Yawning, Harry cast his gaze around. "Dibs on those mats."
"What?" Malfoy goggled as Harry aligned the straw mats end-to-end beside a wall and rolled up his robes to serve as a pillow. "You're going to sleep? That geezer could be selling off our organs to the highest bidder, for all we know."
"The chap seems too eccentric for an uncouth scheme like that. If he's going to screw us over, it'll no doubt be in some grandiose and convoluted manner." He yawned again and considered Malfoy's unconvinced expression. "Look, I wouldn't have a clue how to break out of here even if I wanted to—short of blowing up the wall, of course, but that seems like a poor way to repay Eek-low's hospitality. How about we do as he says and see what tomorrow brings us?"
Judging by the sag of Malfoy's shoulders, he resigned himself to the horrible fate of spending the night under a roof. He didn't immediately follow Harry's example, however, and spent at least ten minutes murmuring incantations and swishing his wand. Reposing on the mats, Harry watched him out of the corner of his eye until he began dozing off.
"Yeah?" he mumbled, turning his head.
Malfoy peered at him from a bed of conjured linens. Jerk. "Can your familiar transport people? Across the ocean, even?"
He sighed and closed his eyes. "In a snap." When she felt like it, anyway.
"If I'm to go with you, I want you to promise to call it at the first sign of trouble. Make it get me out, at least, if you insist on continuing this fool's errand."
"I promise," he said wearily. "Nighty-night, Draco."
Malfoy grumbled something in response, but Harry drifted off before hearing it.