They slept at the edge of the jungle under the cover of Draco's magic. Morning came quickly, bringing the usual clamor of birds and merciless sun. Harry glared blearily at the brightening sky, squeezed his eyes shut, and tried to get a few more minutes of rest. The gloomy London weather seemed a blessing in comparison to this.
A soft splashing joined the murmur of the surf, and he cracked open his eyes to look for the source. A little ways along the beach, a dark-skinned figure waded into the shallows. He shook Malfoy's shoulder.
Malfoy groaned. "What is it?"
"Quiet," he hissed. "We have company."
Malfoy propped himself up on an elbow, his grey eyes darting around before focusing on the stranger. Lanky and narrow-shouldered—a teenager, not yet a man—he waded along the shore clutching a spear in one hand and an amulet in the other. Suddenly, he plunged the spear into the water. When he pulled it out, a large fish was flopping impaled on its barbed end. He slipped it into a sack at his waist and brandished his amulet in the direction of the cavern connecting to the ocean.
As the fisherman drew closer to their little warded hideout, Harry tensed and searched for traces of their disembarking, but the sand all looked the same to him. With any luck, Ikililou's wind will have covered their tracks.
"Now what?" Malfoy whispered.
Harry licked his lips. "We could knock the kid out and interrogate him."
"Forget it. I'm not antagonizing these people if I can help it."
Harry fumbled for his rough wand before thinking better of it. Splattering the brat's brains over the beach wasn't exactly his goal. "Fine, then we'll follow him and snoop around. Can you hide us?"
Grumbling under his breath, Draco rapped his wand atop Harry's head with more force than was strictly necessary. Harry critically inspected his semi-transparent hands. Far from his own charmwork as it was, it would have to do.
"Go easy on the second flick next time," he whispered. "Talking from experience."
"And they call Slytherins sneaky," Malfoy said, fading from sight.
"You'd understand if you were as famous—he's leaving! C'mon."
The fisherman deposited a third fish into his sack, laid his spear atop his shoulder, and made a beeline for the jungle. Harry jogged along its edge to catch up. A twig cracked under his foot; the fisherman whirled around and lifted his amulet.
Harry froze, his heart hammering in his chest. The fisherman's gaze passed over him twice before he spat on the ground and strode off into the jungle. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure Malfoy was keeping up, Harry hastened after him.
The fisherman didn't look back once as he followed a narrow but well-trodden path. The jungle soon grew sparser, and they arrived at a cluster of round huts painted with colorful geometric symbols. Behind the village, an overgrown stone building peeked through the trees.
The fisherman raised a hand in greeting to a younger boy feeding sticks into a crackling fire. The brats hissed at each other as they cleaned the fish, the shrill noises at odds with their companionable grins. When a dappled brown snake slithered out of the jungle and fearlessly approached them, the boys laughed and tossed it some fish guts. Harry swallowed and glanced around to make sure no snakes were lurking in the grass.
A shriveled prune of a woman staggered out of one of the huts. Harry's jaw sagged, but not nearly as low as the woman's... ahem. At first glance, she might've looked frail and harmless, but she was clearly a terrible villain: any virtuous person her age would've had the decency not to prance around topless. His opinion was reinforced when the boy respectfully lent his shoulder to support her toward the fire and she hissed in Parseltongue.
Invisible feet trampled the grass beside him. "Merlin's beard," Malfoy murmured, "that's disturbing."
He nodded. "I know, right?"
"Do you think she's part snake or something?"
He glanced at Malfoy's translucent figure. "What?"
"Her eyes," Malfoy said. "What else?"
He squinted at the crone and did a double-take: her eyes shone an unnatural yellow and her pupils were black slits. "Oh, yeah. That's what I meant."
"Not to mention, every last one of them is a Parselmouth. This lends credence to the rumors I told you about. I don't like this, not one bit. Stuck on an inescapable island with a bunch of freaks..." Malfoy's fingers clutched his shirt. "Call your familiar."
"Not until I get what I came here for." He watched the trio partake in breakfast with envy. Villains had to eat too, he supposed. "Let's sneak past them. I want to check out that place." He gestured at the stone building before recalling Draco couldn't see him. "It might be where they hide their plunder."
Not giving Malfoy the opportunity to object, he crept off along the boundary of the village, keeping an eye out on the trio by the fire. When he glanced back, he was heartened to see a slight shimmer behind. Neither he nor Draco spoke until they were across the village and hidden from sight by a hut on its opposite side.
"Did you have to pick the most sinister-looking place to poke your nose in?" Malfoy whispered. "The fact that you managed to survive till now astounds me."
Harry eyed the immense stone building looming through the trees. To be fair, it did look somewhat imposing. "But I did, didn't it? That means it's in your best interest to stick with me."
"Stuck on an island with a bunch of freaks," Malfoy lamented, "and my only way out is the worst one of the lot."
Grinning, Harry checked if the locals were still gathered around the fire before tiptoeing onward. A stepped pyramid of timeworn stone came into sight, covered in ivy and slightly tilted due to its foundation sinking into the soil. A staircase was built into one of its sides.
"Go for the stairs," he mouthed in Malfoy's general direction.
Approaching the pyramid, he tilted his head back. Glyphs were carved into the almost-vertical stepped walls, rendered illegible by vegetation and the elements. Between the writings, depictions of naga wielding tridents and scepters were mixed in. His gaze lingered on a better-preserved carving of a snake woman until Malfoy bumped into his back.
"Watch it, Potter!"
"Shh," he hissed. "Let's go up."
"That's what I was trying to do before you decided to gawk."
"Just being cautious like you wanted." He had a feeling Malfoy was scowling. "We wouldn't want to stumble into some sacrificial ceremony."
Peering down at the weathered steps, he carefully climbed to the pyramid's summit. The large rectangular platform at the top was carved with great concentric circles, the space between filled densely with glyphs. Beyond the circles stood a roofed entrance that rose above the treetops. It wasn't quite a bird's eye view, but he could see dense jungle extend all the way to the rock barrier surrounding the island.
He glanced at the smoke rising from the village and crept toward the entrance. Stone serpents framed the shadowy doorway, their eyeless sockets judging him from above. A smell of mildew wafted from inside.
A whisper drifted to his ears. "Potter?"
"Here," he said, trying to see Malfoy without success. "Let's look inside."
"Have you got a death wish?" Draco's voice came closer. "If you don't care about your own life, at least have the decency to send me home first."
He rolled his eyes. "Where's your sense of adventure? This looks like a place full of treasure and ancient artifacts."
"Then that's the last place I want to be in. I don't know about you, but I'm no Curse-Breaker."
"Relax." Harry stuck his head into the passage. The stairs leading down were worn in the middle. "It looks used, frequently at that. Must be a temple or some such. Come on, just a peek."
Draco sighed exasperatedly. "It's your funeral. I'm staying well behind."
Snorting, Harry braced a palm against the wall and ventured into the darkness. When his glasses adjusted, he saw the stairs end and the passage turn ninety degrees just ahead. The seams where the walls met the floor and the ceiling were rounded, lending the corridor a cave-like impression. There were carvings too, in much better shape than outside, and as he halted before a serpentine glyph, he recalled at last why they looked so familiar.
"I've seen these before," he said quietly. "Back in the merpeople village in the Black Lake, there was this pillar..."
"In Scotland?" Malfoy whispered from behind. "Are you certain?"
He wiped the grime off the glyph with the heel of his palm. "Positive."
"What does it mean?"
He shrugged. "Not a damn clue."
Malfoy groaned. "Full of useless trivia as usual. I should've known."
Harry blindly threw a light punch and grinned when it connected with something fleshy. "Watch it, or I won't mention you when they laud me for discovering this place."
"We need to get home before your delusions have any chance of coming true." Malfoy fell silent for a moment. "Is it safe to make light, do you reckon? How come you can see in here, anyway?"
"I have my ways," he said smugly. "Just follow along. I'll warn you if there are any more stairs."
Turning a rounded corner, he took in the hallway ahead. Fading frescoes of naga and humans in scenes of bloodshed interspersed the glyphs on the walls. A battle... no, a war. Scores of naga fell to beams erupting from the staves of cruel-faced men who wore breastplates decorated with stylized depictions of the sun. Other humans wielded tridents and fought on the side of the naga, who launched hurricane winds and torrents of water at their foes.
He inched forth, swiveling his head left and right. Vast underwater cities fell to the sun warriors' armies, their swords and staves slaughtering naga and men alike. Seven crowned naga atop of a serpentine spire raised their scepters and worked a grand ritual. Continents fractured and the sea swallowed the sun warriors' homeland, but the naga sorcerers too perished with hateful sneers etched on their faces. A lone human clutching a golden scepter fled the crumbling spire.
So engrossed was Harry in his study that only Draco's whispered warning made him aware of the gradual brightening of the surroundings. He halted in his tracks. A dozen steps ahead, the hallway connected to a chamber lit by a dim flickering light.
He pressed himself to the wall and crept onward, his heart pounding in his ears. Holding his breath, he stuck his head out into the chamber.
A handful of guttering candles illuminated a low stone altar in the back and the three jade statuettes atop it. Before them knelt a pale man wearing black robes embellished with pentagrams. Elaborate columns in the likeness of serpents held up the ceiling, and more frescoes adorned the walls. A passage on the opposite side of the chamber was blocked by a cave-in a few yards in.
Exhaling slowly, Harry tried to make out the features of the worshiper. Calling this place a temple had been nothing but a wild guess, but it was more than likely correct.
A sharp intake of breath came from an arm's reach away. "That's the man I dueled," Malfoy whispered. "I'd recognize those kitschy robes anywhere."
Harry's lips stretched into a savage grin. "Fancy getting back at him? Knock the bloke out, and we'll drag him away and ask him some questions."
"Your mind is terribly one-track, anyone ever tell you that?" Draco said.
"Anyone ever tell you you're a wuss?" he retorted. "How else are we supposed to get to the bottom of this?"
Silence reigned for a minute, only broken by the indistinct mumbles of the worshiper.
"You'll be the death of me, Potter," Draco whispered. "Fine. Be ready when I take him out."
"Knew you had it in you." Harry tried to clap his invisible shoulder but instead cuffed his ear. "Go get him."
A barely-there shimmer edged into the chamber. As Harry warily watched the cultist before the altar, the jade figurines glinting in the candlelight trapped his gaze. His field of vision narrowed until only the sleek female forms remained, so realistic it felt they were about to come alive. Something brushed his consciousness—pleading, promising—and he opened up before realizing what he was doing.
Serpentine spires stretched from the bottom of the ocean as far as the eye could see... A trio of spectral naga, identical save for the emotion etched into their faces, circled him in a dizzying whirl of aquamarine hair and sinuous curves... Their mouths opened in a snarling demand... The last piece. The last piece. The last piece! Where?
"I don't know!" he cried, but no sound came from his lips. "I don't have it!"
The specters hissed and sank their claws into his flesh. Gasping, he staggered backward into the dim hallway. The statuettes atop the altar rattled, and the cultist whirled around. His wide eyes roved over the entrance as he spoke first in Parseltongue, then in a foreign language.
Harry retreated into the shadows, running his fingers over where the chill of the claws lingered, yet finding no damage. The statuette at the edge of the altar teetered before clattering to the floor; crying out, the cultist knelt and cradled it in his lap. Harry halted and gripped his mockery of a wand as he waited for Malfoy to knock the man out.
The cultist crooned something as he stroked the figurine's curves. Observing with morbid fascination, Harry flinched when someone invisible seized his upper arm.
"We're leaving," Malfoy hissed, and dragged him bodily the way they came.
"Why didn't you take him out?" he demanded in an undertone. "It was the perfect chance!"
"He is still of use to her," Malfoy said as if that were the most obvious thing in the world.
"What? No, seriously—what?" They rounded a corner and were bathed in sunlight streaming through the exit above. Harry dug in his feet. "Slow down! Who's her and why would you care?"
"Anyone sane would, fool! Her suffering must not be allowed..." Malfoy trailed off before adding in a less-assured voice, "What in the blazes just happened?"
"That's what I'd like to know." He glanced back to make sure the cultist wasn't following and dragged Malfoy up the stairs. "What came over you?"
"I... I don't know. Something down there must've wormed into my head." Malfoy shuddered. "Merlin's beard, what have you gotten us into?"
"Pull yourself together." Stepping out into the sun, Harry glanced at the shadowy passage, then at Malfoy. Perhaps they could make another go at it. "You any good at Occlumency?"
"How do you know—never mind." Malfoy shifted on his feet. One could still see the trees through his translucent figure, but the distortions in the air gave away its shape; the Disillusionment Charm was giving out. "My Occlumency's decent, but there's no way I'm going back. Those things aren't natural."
Harry fixed him with a stare that no doubt lost its effect due to him being invisible, then heaved a sigh. Perhaps this was for the best. With any luck, the cultist would think it had been a wild animal or something. "Then let's get out of here before that kook decides to crawl out of his cave."
Casting glances over their shoulders, they descended the stairs and stepped onto soft jungle soil. The path to their right led to the village, while the one to the left disappeared between thickening trees. They went left. Malfoy remained quiet for a time, but as they put more distance between themselves and the temple, he regained his pluck.
"If he's a kook, what does that make you, Potter?"
He furrowed his brows. "What are you on about?"
"Don't tell me you haven't noticed. The man cradled that thing exactly like you did your toys. Bloody creepy is what it is."
He gasped indignantly. "You take that back! How dare you compare me, an aficionado of the fine arts, to that lunatic?"
Draco made a choking noise. "Fine arts? Is that what you call those dolls in your room?" He laughed, but it sounded forced.
"You're a cultureless swine who can't appreciate true beauty." A smirk replaced Harry's frown. "At least not while sober. I recall you getting cuddly with a certain lamia in my bedroom—still have the photos too."
"Lamia? Oh, that." Draco stumbled a little. "Did you say photos? You'll destroy them if you know what's good for you!"
He snorted. "Just be glad I didn't owl them to Astoria like I intended. Imagine the heartbreak the poor woman would go through if she saw you rubbing your cheek on those crimson scales... That wasn't cool, by the way."
"My wife is an intelligent woman," Malfoy scoffed. "She wouldn't get upset about me hugging a pillow."
Harry's grin wavered, but he pressed on. "Is that doubt I hear? Don't worry, I won't send them to her now. I'll wait until you make it big in the Ministry and use them to blackmail you whenever I need a favor."
"That's ridiculous, Potter. If you think a silly thing like that would hold any sway over me, you're even more delusional than I thought." Malfoy ducked under an overhanging branch. "Seriously, though—you were lying about taking photos, right?"
Smirking, he was about to respond, but the wind suddenly picked up, whistling in his ears and tugging at his clothes. He barely shielded his face before the wind died in a clap of displaced air. Where there was an empty path now stood an unfortunately familiar trio: the woman with a scar across her neck and her burly cronies Snake-Face and Plait.
Harry clamped a palm over his mouth and inched back, but Malfoy turned on his heel, and instead of vanishing into thin air, staggered with a groan. Scar's eyes narrowed, and raising a bracelet to her mouth, she blew on a dangling charm. A muggy breeze engulfed Harry, and he could suddenly see his limbs again.
The five goggled at one another before Scar gave a commanding hiss. Surprise hadn't yet left the faces of the enemy men, but they were already swinging their blowpipes off their muscular backs.
"I hold you no ill will!" Draco cried, raising one hand peaceably but fumbling for his wand with the other.
Harry didn't bother with diplomacy and jabbed his wand at the men. "Expelliarmus!"
The scarlet jet traced a meandering path through the air before impacting a blowgun and not doing a thing. Snake-Face's cheeks ballooned with breath as he pressed the blowpipe to his lips, but it suddenly sprouted buds and twigs, causing him to fumble his shot.
Encouraged, Harry dished out more Disarming Charms. The scaly mantle he hit attempted to slither off Plait's shoulders, but it proved too little a distraction. When Plait pointed his weapon at Harry, he instinctively shielded, but the practiced wand motion instead produced an overwhelming smell of citrus air freshener.
Draco stepped forth and jabbed his wand. "Depulso!"
Plait dropped the blowpipe and clutched at his throat, the tip of the dart sticking out his mouth.
"Nice!" Harry cried, following up with a Stunning Charm that made the man sprout orange fur. The stick in his hand was growing uncomfortably hot.
"Shut up!" Draco petrified Snake-Face, who rushed at them swinging his germinating blowpipe. "All your fault!" A whip of his wand made the man dangle in the air by his ankle, exposing more of his physique than Harry was comfortable with. "Run!"
Pivoting, they sprinted back the way the came. The path narrowed as it twisted through the jungle, and no matter how far they ran, the temple wouldn't come into sight. To make matters worse, a backward glance revealed the cultists hard on their heels.
Malfoy leapt over a jutting tree root. "What's happening?"
"I don't—" Harry looked back, and his eyes widened. Snake-Face's body elongated as he dived to the ground, becoming an enormous black-headed python whose speed belied its size. "Watch out!"
Glancing back, Malfoy thrust his wand over his shoulder, and the path behind exploded. Harry added his hexes, and although they did little but splash the dirt with fluorescent colors, the python hissed and slithered off into the jungle. The path they were following narrowed further, and the greenery clung tenaciously to their limbs. A faint buzz entered his ears.
"You hear that?" he gasped out.
"Hear what?" Malfoy snapped, slicing the vines barring their way.
"It's like..." Harry whimpered as a swarm of bees emerged from the thicket. "Shit!"
He brandished his wand, and for once, it produced the flames he wanted, yet they passed through the insects doing them no harm. Then the swarm was upon him, clouding his vision, buzzing in his ears, poisoned stingers ready to sink into his flesh. Lurching back, he flailed his arms. "Get them off! Get them off me!"
Malfoy spared him a glance, then swore and fended off a blowdart from behind. "What are you doing?"
Harry's panicked scream was cut short when a bee crawled into his mouth. Choking and slapping at his face, he sank to his knees. Out of the corner of his watering eyes, he could see Malfoy face the nearing cultists—but why wasn't he helping?
He braced his trembling hands against the ground. Black-and-yellow stripes covered every inch of his skin, myriads of tiny feet crawling up his arms and shoulders and neck and face and wriggling up his nostrils and tangling in his hair—and all he could do was whimper because moving would provoke them into stinging him to death. His head spun as he hyperventilated, barely registering Malfoy's yells. His fading gaze landed on the cultists, who approached at an almost leisurely pace. Scar walked behind her lackey, her lips moving unceasingly as she held up a beaded amulet...
Realization jolted through him, and he parted his lips to draw in a deep breath. A dozen bees crawled in, wriggling and buzzing inside his mouth. He bit down with a crunch, swallowed, and grinned.
Scar's eyes widened, her lips stilled, and just like that, the illusion vanished.
"Potter! Potter!" Malfoy trained his wand at the encroaching jungle, where the enormous python was slithering around. Of the path they had followed, not a gap in the trees remained. "What's wrong?"
"The amulet," he said weakly, scooping up his wand from the grass.
Malfoy's gaze flicked forward. "Accio!"
The cord around Scar's neck snapped and the amulet sailed into Draco's extended hand. With an angry hiss, she reached for the charms hanging from her bracelets.
"Oh no you don't," Harry growled, rising to his feet. Snatching the amulet from Draco, he brandished it at the cultists. "Aha!"
Scar and Plait cowered, then exchanged a baffled look. Harry shook the amulet, making the carved beads dangling from it clink against each other but producing no effect.
Scar's lips parted to release a raspy noise that took him several seconds to recognize as laughter. She plucked something from her bracelet and threw it. The missile fell before Harry's feet, and the ground trembled and erupted in stony spikes; stumbling back more by accident than purpose was the only thing that saved him from getting skewered.
"Protego!" Malfoy cried. A serpentine shadow erupted from the jungle, and the head of the massive python bounced off the shield.
Harry flinched away and clenched the amulet reflexively, then glanced at it in wonder. An engraved scarlet pebble was almost scalding to the touch, whereas a translucent blue bead made his skin tingle. Stowing his wand, he ran his fingers over the charms.
Another bead from Scar hit the shield, spreading cracks from the site of impact until it shattered. Harry yanked the scarlet pebble off the amulet and threw it with all his might. Arcing through the air, it skidded on the grass before the cultists and detonated in a plume of flames.
He whooped. "Handle the defense!"
Tearing off beads by the handful, he tossed them at the enemy. Fountains of water spewed out, the earth fissured, and the jungle around the path surged toward the cultists in a green tsunami, only to shrivel when Scar rattled her bracelet. Sneering, she cast a charm that burst into flames mid-air, but Harry conjured a wind and redirected the ball of fire into the jungle. His lips quirked at her frustrated expression.
"Take this!" He twisted off a carved bone that was secured to the amulet more solidly than the rest and flung it. The lightweight charm fell short of reaching the two cultists, yet they shrank back nonetheless.
The soil underneath it ruptured, and a spine of sun-whitened bones burst out, followed by the rest of a skeletal predator with too many teeth in its jaw. The beast raised its head in a silent roar that made goosebumps erupt on Harry's skin. Necromancy wasn't his shtick, but he was never one to look a gift monster in the mouth.
"Attack!" he commanded, pointing at Scar.
The beast turned to her and clicked its well-preserved teeth, but she rattled her beads, and it whirled around to lunge toward him and Malfoy.
"Not me, you bloody—" Eyeing the rapidly approaching abomination, he scooted behind Draco. "Help!"
"Confringo!" A burst of orange shattered the beast to pieces. "No more Dark magic, Potter!"
Harry breathed easier until he saw the scattered bones roll along the grass to pull themselves together. Malfoy's wand whipped left and right, reducing them to dust before they could reassemble.
At the sound of snapping twigs, Harry whirled around to find the python pouncing with its needle-like teeth bared. Yelping, he leapt back and tossed his remaining charms into its maw. A violent spasm rippled through its sinuous body, and it morphed back into a human, who clawed at his throat as frothing mud sprayed from his mouth. A crimson jet of light from Malfoy laid him out cold. Harry discarded the used-up amulet, drew his wand, and faced the two remaining cultists.
Plait assessed the situation, and propping his blowpipe against his shoulder, dashed off into the jungle. Harry and Draco launched hexes after him, but Scar blocked them with an earthen barrier; by the time Malfoy blew it up, showering her with dirt, Plait was gone.
Keeping an eye out on the jungle, Harry advanced on Scar. She fingered the charms on her bracelets as her dark eyes alternated between him and Malfoy until she deftly hurled a blue pebble.
A swish of Malfoy's wand banished it backward, where it encased the path behind her in ice. Harry pelted her with jinxes, trying to make up with speed for only half of them materializing from his wand. Staggering back, Scar tossed a pebble that ballooned into a boulder and blocked his haphazard attacks.
There was a hiss of released air, and Harry ducked. A dart whizzed past his ear to embed itself into a tree.
Malfoy whirled toward where it had come from. "Confringo!"
The blast shattered a tree, and wooden shrapnel lanced in every direction. Harry yelped as a sharp sliver buried itself in his thigh; his cry was echoed by a louder one within the jungle. Pulling out the sliver, he tossed it away.
"Smoke him out," he told Malfoy. "I'll take care of her."
Deafening explosions shook the jungle as Draco took to the task with zeal. Harry flung his malformed hexes at Scar and gradually stalked closer in hopes of actually landing one.
She brought a reddish pebble to her lips and blew; a cone of flame burst forth. He flattened himself to the ground, but she steered the flames lower, and his back sizzled under the heat. Rolling, he blindly launched jinx after jinx until the fire vanished and he saw her tap-dancing madly as her legs thrashed out of her control.
He sprang up and aimed his crooked wand. Gritting her teeth, Scar twisted off a greyish charm and threw it just as he launched a violet jet of light. The hex impacted the pebble mid-air, causing it to hover in place and emit a hum. Purple sparks cascaded from it and fizzled on the grass.
Scar's wide-eyed look suggested that wasn't the normal outcome, but before either of them could turn tail, the hum rose to a crescendo, and the pebble detonated in blinding purple flash. The blast pushed him back a step, leaving his hair standing on end and his nose stinging from an acrid smell.
He squinted through the bright spots in his vision. Scar was rubbing her eyes as she slowly rose to her feet, her mantle askew and her loincloth hiked up. He leered. If it were just a little higher...
"Ow." A fiery pain had him staring dumbly at a thistle-fletched dart that had embedded itself in his shoulder. He giggled. "So that's what she meant."
The world lurched, and he crumpled to the ground, barely feeling any pain from the fall, or indeed anything but a spreading numbness. Scar's bangle-adorned legs drew closer. One foot reared and came to meet his face.