Mara stretched her arms skyward, tossed her head back, and opened her fanged mouth in a hiss so piercing that Harry's hands jerked in a vain attempt to cover his ears. The cultists fell to their knees and bowed their heads. She regarded them before speaking in a more restrained tone.
Scar raised her head a fraction and replied haltingly. After a minute of hissed dialogue, she gestured toward Harry and Malfoy.
Mara turned, narrowed her crimson eyes, and slithered toward them with rippling undulations of her tail. Harry drank in every detail. Her lustrous scales thinned out to merge smoothly into skin just above where her tail flared out like a pair of hips. Golden piercings glimmered in her bellybutton and her fin-like ears. Aside from aquamarine tresses that fell to her large breasts, she had no body hair—a fact he was certain of, given that clothes evidently weren't in fashion back in her day.
She came to rest before him, her lilac skin glistening as if she had just emerged from the sea. A smile tugged at his lips. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Malfoy scrabbling as far away as the ropes allowed. What a fool.
Peering at him, Mara unleashed a string of halting words. "Ssss... Thisss was the tongue you spoke, was it not? Lisssten well, vermin, for I shall not repeat myssself. My devoted left you alive so that I may feast upon your heartsss... Yet you played a part in my revival, however insssignificant. I offer you a place among my servants." She stooped over him, and the smell of seawater tickled his nostrils. "Answer, hairless ape. Are you speechless from terror after witnessing my glorious form?"
"Um," Harry said, forcing his gaze up from her breasts, "not exactly."
"It is pointless to lie in my presence. Your fear is thick in the air." Her forked tongue darted out, and a befuddled expression crossed her face. "There's... no fear? Not from you, no... but there's something elssse..." Her slit-pupil eyes flicked to his crotch.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Malfoy exclaimed.
Harry sheepishly brought his knees up to cover the bulge in his trousers. Drawing back, the naga rasped out a series of hisses that he recognized as laughter.
"I remember humans like you, from ages passst." She wet her lips. "If I am the lassst of my kind... you may be worth keeping around. It's been a long time since I enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh."
He gulped and shifted while Malfoy made a noise of revulsion. Behind the naga, the cultists huddled together and bandaged their wounds. Shaking off his fellows' hands, Straw-Hat—minus the actual hat—crawled toward Mara and hissed beseechingly. Without turning, she whipped her tail to smack him aside, and he collapsed with a look of ecstasy on his face.
"About that... I don't have a choice, do I? If I refuse, you'll kill me and eat my heart?" Harry awaited her reply with bated breath.
Her rasping laughter came again. "Well reasoned, ape. You will serve me, in one form or another."
"Oh no," he deadpanned, grinning ear to ear. "Then I can do nothing but resign myself to my fate—um, my lady." Su would understand, surely; the alternative was death.
"Sssssss..." Mara's claws sank into his hair and yanked his head back. "Then carve out that human's heart and offer it to me as a sign of loyalty."
His grin faltered as he sent Malfoy a sidelong look. "Sure. One human heart, coming right up. May I have my wand back, please?"
Mara let go and turned to address her minions. They exchanged dubious glances before Scar offered a hesitant response.
The tip of Mara's tail slapped the ground, and she hissed insistently. The cultists prostrated themselves except for Plait, who clambered to his feet and wobbled behind the posts.
Harry stilled as a cold blade slipped between the rope and the raw skin of his wrist, and sawed back and forth. His gaze darted around. The crone and the boy were out cold, but the remaining five had dressed their wounds and would offer resistance, weakened by the bloodletting as they were.
"So, anyway," he said to stall for time, "how come you speak our language so well?"
Mara glanced at him over her shoulder. "Many of your kind's crude tongues I picked up during my imprisonment... It is revolting, how widely you proliferated without us to cull your numbers." She raked a clawed hand through her hair. "Do not address me unless you're spoken to first, worm."
The ropes came apart, and groaning in relief, he brought his hands forward. "Forgive my insolence, O lady Mara... May I call you Mara? I merely wish to learn more about you so I may serve you better." He bowed low, fearing she would read the deceit on his face.
Scales scraped against stone as Mara circled the post, coiling her tail around him. Malfoy whimpered as she slithered past, but she paid him no heed, her madness-filled eyes fixed on Harry.
"I could speak for the remainder of your fleeting lifespan and recount but a hundredth of my sssuffering! Only because I learned to touch the minds around me did I keep my sanity... although, looking back, I might have gone mad. Whispering suspicions, planting doubts, stoking the embers of hate... Instigating bloodshed for no other reason than to vent my fury." Her fangs bared in a snarl. "Foolish indulgences that only prolonged my torment! Had I focused on reuniting the fragments of my prison from the start, your world would be very different now." She reached toward the sky and clenched her fists, her expression exultant. "But now eternity lies before me. Enough time to feast on your kind's lifeblood till I grow sick of it."
"Er, look," he said, "I think it's terrible, what was done to you. A complete atrocity."
Their eyes met, and her mind brushed his. Suppressing an impulse to close off, he brought his feelings to the fore. Condemning someone this beautiful to everlasting suffering was a travesty of justice, no matter the reason.
She tilted her head. "You say this, even though it was your ancestors who sentenced me? Even though we slaughtered one another by the thousands?"
"Ancient history, as far as I'm concerned." He winced at the flash of fury in her eyes. "Look, I kind of understand. My dad was a dick to this one guy, so he was a dick to me in return when I was growing up. But you have to break the cycle of hate—with love. Not me and that guy, I mean, but... you know."
A pensive look crossed her face. "Never has a human dared speak to me in such a manner when our armies roamed the oceans and pillaged the land. Have we lost the instinctual fear we used to strike into your hearts?" She glanced at the cowering Malfoy. "Perhaps not. I would talk with you at leisure after you prove yourself."
She hissed to Plait, who relinquished his wavy dagger to Harry with a scowl. Harry smirked just to annoy him before considering the stained blade. So they were still doing the whole heart carving thing.
"This isn't my wand," he observed.
"A good warrior is proficient in many weapons." Her tail smacked the ground. "Enough talk, human. My curiosity about you will not hold out long against my anger."
He eyed Malfoy, who was listening with wide eyes, and braced against the post to rise. Taking a faltering step, he swayed and collapsed to one knee. The dagger clattered to the ground; he clenched the blade with his right hand until it broke his skin.
Plait yanked him up by the armpit, hissing something undoubtedly rude.
"Sorry," Harry said. "Poisoned and starved, you know."
He dragged his feet over to Malfoy, who struggled feebly, and pretended to lean heavily on the post.
"Don't do this." Malfoy licked his lips. "Even if you follow its orders, the creature won't spare you."
"Maybe. She makes a hell of a more compelling case than you though." He winked discreetly as he transferred the dagger from his bloodied right hand to his left. "Now, don't squirm. I want your heart nice and intact for my lady."
He made a show of pointing the blade at Malfoy's chest, readying for a thrust, adjusting his grip. Mara's gaze burned a hole into his back. Drawing a shuddering breath, he thrust his right hand down his pocket, clenched the runic carving, and tossed it at the huddling cultists.
"Die!" he cried.
The carving landed atop a ridge separating the grooves of the heptagram, rolled, and came to rest on the edge. Everyone's heads whipped toward it, then at Harry. He switched the dagger into his dominant hand. Bugger.
"We're doomed," Malfoy said. "Potter, you're an imbecile."
"Hey, it would've been wicked if it worked." Harry swung the dagger at Plait, who had stepped threateningly in his direction. Farther ahead, Snake-Face stooped over the carving.
Mara spread her hands, and sparks danced between her claws. "You dare ssspurn my generosity? It was better than you deserved!"
"Don't take it personally," he said, backtracking until his back pressed against the post. As Snake-Face reached for the carving, it teetered and plonked into the blood-filled groove, which spluttered and glowed with eldritch light. A low hum resonated. Come on, Neville. "If I came back without Malfoy, there'd be all sorts of awkward questions."
"Come back?" she hissed. "You will perish here, vermin!"
Lightning crackled in her palms. Harry ducked behind the post, which split in half with a blinding flash. Blinking the afterimages out of his eyes, he crouched to cut Malfoy free.
The hum rose to a tooth-shaking rumble. He looked up and goggled. His runic abomination floated above the platform, spewing crackling discharges of energy. The blood in the grooves roiled, and thin feelers rose toward the darkening sky. Even Mara appeared shocked.
The cultists scrambled off the heptagram. Snake-Face tiptoed along the ridge, weaving through the feelers that angled hungrily toward him. He had almost made it out of the outermost circle when a feeler brushed his ankle. A dozen more surged to wrap his limbs and dragged him screaming to the ground; the more he struggled, the more he was enveloped until only a vaguely human shape remained under the writhing coils.
Mara hissed and gestured, and the feelers parted exposing a skinless back—but then the circle abruptly became a mirror, like the surface of a crimson lake, into which the feelers sank along with their prey. In their stead, a boulder-sized eyeball broke the smooth surface and swiveled on its thick stalk.
"Fuck me," Harry whispered. The eyeball centered on him and barbed tentacles erupted around it. "Figure of speech, figure of speech!"
A forest of tentacles sprouted from the circle, lashing out wildly and spreading a horrible stench of decay. In their midst, the floating carving shone so bright its light even penetrated their barbed flesh. The cultists scampered toward the stairs, dragging their unconscious along. Mara shot him a hate-filled look before a motion of her claws created a chasm in the stone that swallowed her whole.
Taking that as his cue to skedaddle, Harry slung Malfoy's arm over his shoulder and hauled him to the edge of the platform. He vacillated before a drop that was at least twice his height, but a glance behind him proved remarkably motivating. Crouching, he lowered Malfoy with trembling arms and let go. Malfoy crumpled on the step below with a moan.
Harry planted his palms on the edge and swung down, his feet dangling in the air. As his gaze swept over the undulating tentacles, his vision swam and his grip loosened. He gasped as he plummeted onto the lower step beside Malfoy, his legs giving out upon the jarring landing.
"Keep moving!" He tugged Malfoy toward the next drop. The temple shook, and disturbingly animate shadows cast by the things above cavorted beneath their feet.
"What the hell," Draco gasped.
They tumbled down another step. Malfoy screamed and collapsed clutching his ankle. Harry swore and pulled him up, but a rising rumble resonated in his skull, forcing him to let go and clutch his ears.
The rumbling built up, shaking the foundations of the pyramid and causing him to lose his footing, until it culminated in an explosion that tossed him into the air like a ragdoll. He flailed in freefall for several long moments before crashing through something brittle and sprawling out on the ground.
He lifted his head and wheezed in a breath, then coughed out a lungful of dust. Around him towered dead, withered trees—only a stump remained of the one that cushioned his fall—and even the earth itself was dry and bereft of all life.
A cool droplet landed on his forehead. The clouds above burst into rain, and through their thinning cover, the sun peeked, creating a rainbow over the island that felt at odds with the desolation. Surrounded by dead jungle, the temple stood sundered in half, the platform atop it but a memory, the jagged walls of the topmost level collapsed inward.
Harry scanned it for any movement and giggled in hysterical relief. Only the stench of decay reminded of the thing, and the rain was swiftly washing it off. He swore then and there not to fuck around with runes unless he knew what he was doing. At least in general terms, anyway.
He patted himself down for injuries and made his way over to Malfoy, who lay prone on the ground nearby. The brownish grass crumbled under his feet as he walked. Stooping, he gripped Malfoy's shoulder and turned him over.
Malfoy moaned and opened his eyes.
He grinned, heartened. "Alright there?"
Malfoy closed his eyes again. "No thanks to you. That monstrosity... What did you do?"
"Long story short, I spliced unstable clusters of Norse runes with those weird glyphs from around these parts." At Malfoy's glare, he raised his palms defensively. "Hey, I had no idea that would happen. The most Neville got out of a bollixed potion was an explosion, maybe a melted desk or two. Makes me glad he never took Runes."
Malfoy shuddered. "God preserve us. One crackpot with just enough knowledge to be dangerous is enough."
"Who are you talking about?" he asked, rising to his feet.
Malfoy stared at him pointedly.
He chuckled. "Such a joker. Are you forgetting I saved your life? At a great personal cost, I might add. Why, instead of babysitting you, I would now be wrapped in her sweet—"
The ground below his feet burst in a spray of gray powder. Shielding his face, he stumbled back, but a thick tail coiled around him, pinning his arms to his waist and bringing him face to face with Mara. Her embrace was heavy and firm like steel chains.
"Who taught you our runesss, foolish ape?" Her eyes were wild and her hair disheveled. "Had the sssumoning not been disrupted, the shogoth would have devoured usss!"
"Is that what it was?" He winced at her snarl. "I told you, I can't go around killing people! The world's much different from what you remember."
Her slit pupils narrowed. "Not for much longer, although neither you nor your friend will be there to witness it."
"He's not—" Breath whooshed from his lungs as her coils constricted. "C-can't we talk about this?"
She leaned in so close he could see his reflection in her eyes. "You've made your choice."
His bones creaked and his muscles tensed desperately to keep his organs from getting crushed as her serpent's half wound around his chest. His eyes bugged out when his compressed lungs failed to draw air. Something in his chest cracked, and his muscles lost strength. A cruel smile spread across Mara's face. His vision began to cloud.
Help. Help help help—
Flames flared overhead, accompanied by a reinvigorating trill. He glimpsed Mara's smile fading from her face before talons gripped his shoulder and golden fire consumed his vision.
Reappearing at the boundary where dead trees met green jungle, he rested his palms on his knees and sucked in breath after breath. "Firo, where've you been!"
Balancing one-legged on his shoulder, her other leg clutching his wand, Firo butted her head against his cheek. Disorienting panoramic images streamed into his mind: flying above an impenetrable mist in the middle of the ocean; the colossal head of a sea serpent poking out of the water; the mist dispersing in a blast to reveal an island surrounded by rock, a fountain of foul energies spewing from its center...
Shaking off the vision, he plucked the wand from her talons and grinned in delight when it greeted him with a spurt of sparks. "So you were listening! How are things back—"
A torrent of fire rushed at him, setting the trees in its path ablaze, and Firo took off with a squawk. He belatedly shielded before slapping at his smoldering hair. The torrent died, and through the ashen path it had carved, Mara glided like a wrathful goddess. He lobbed a Stunner, but she raked her hand upward, and an earthen barrier rose to block it. At another gesture, it exploded pelting his shield with pebbles and dirt.
"Wait!" He tapped the trees around him, causing their dead branches to grasp at the inexorably advancing Mara. "I don't want to fight you!"
"Then you will die," she snarled, smashing a tree into splinters with her tail. "First of the millions to come."
More and more trees bent and contorted their branches to immobilize her until her advance stalled. Growling, she threw out her hands and summoned a roaring blaze that consumed the desiccated jungle and hid her towering figure from view.
As Harry retreated from the blistering heat, he tripped on a root and fell on his arse. As if having waited for that moment, the flames ahead surged at him.
He tapped his chest, casting a Flame-Freezing Charm an instant before the blaze swallowed him. Despite its roaring ferocity, the fire did little more than tickle—thank his lucky stars it wasn't cursed.
Squinting against the blaze, he flung hexes toward Mara's presumed location. The flames petered out, and his eyes widened at finding her within arm's reach. Before he could launch a spell, she spun on the spot and slammed her tail into his stomach, sending him hurtling through the air.
Landing heavily on his back, he sucked in a painful breath and pushed up, but his palms plunged into the sand underneath with no resistance. As he floundered for purchase, he sank deeper and deeper. He brought his wand to bear on Mara, but she motioned sharply, and a lump of quicksand rose to trap his arm.
A screech came from the skies, and Firo swooped down on her head. Shrinking away, Mara hissed and thrust her clawed hand. Steaming geysers burst from the ground one after another, and Firo chirped as she zigzagged around them.
Straining his muscles to the limit, Harry struggled to rise until the wet sand released him with a squelch. Now in a seated position, he clambered out of the pit.
Firo's chirping ended in a burble as she was caught in a floating sphere of water, bubbles trailing from her ajar beak. Mara extended a hand in her direction and made a fist, causing the water to boil, but there was a flash inside, and Firo vanished.
"Confringo," he spat, lowering his wand a couple of degrees at the last instant.
The streak of orange impacted the ground before Mara, and the ensuing blast tossed her aside. She clutched her head and hissed, her tail thrashing side to side. He followed up with a second curse, but the ground swallowed her, and the jet of light only obliterated a tree ahead.
He cast his gaze about, but nothing betrayed her presence. "Firo! Help!"
The thoroughly drenched phoenix plummeted from the sky and plopped on his shoulder. He couldn't resist snorting; if a bird could wear a peeved expression, this was definitely it. He gripped her tail, and a wonderful lightness spread through his body.
"Up, take me up," he said, his wand trained at the ground. "Quickly."
Firo chirped and took off with him in tow. The moment his feet left the ground, Mara's clawed hands burst out and clutched at the space he just vacated.
"Ha!" he exclaimed, "bite my—"
Mimicking her flesh-and-bone hands, enormous claws of rock erupted at her sides. Firo weaved between the colossal stone fingers, swinging him side to side while he tried to blast their way out. The first two curses whizzed past the still-emerging claws, but the third connected, spraying them with pulverized stone. When Firo slipped through the gap and rose out of their reach, the claws froze like the ribs of some antediluvian beast.
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand as Firo brought them around for a fly-by over Mara. Multicolored jets of light left his wand, but they fizzled out in a dome of water that surged up to protect her. Sketching a hexagon, he froze the water into shimmering ice and trained his wand down as Firo passed above it.
The ice shattered, but Mara was gone. Firo cawed and hovered in place aided by an occasional beat of her wings. A distant buzz reached his ears. He craned his neck until he spied black dots rising from the verdant jungle that stretched beyond the dead zone.
He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed deeply until a disciplined calmness suffused his mind. As if that stupid illusion would work twice.
The buzzing intensified by the second. Opening his eyes, he flinched. The nearest insects were mere yards away and showed no sign of vanishing.
Gouts of flame from his wand did little to slow the incoming swarm. A bee buzzed past his ear, and he swatted it with his hand; pain lanced his thigh, and he saw another sinking its stinger into his flesh. He slapped it off, yelling and flailing; Firo was fleeing, but not quickly enough.
He searched frantically for Mara—if he disrupted her concentration, the insects should lose interest in him—but she was nowhere to be seen. His wand grew warm as he gritted his teeth. He would burn the creepy-crawlies along with the muggy jungle.
As he opened his mouth to chant the incantation for Fiendfyre, his gaze landed on a blond figure between the trees. Right, Malfoy was still down there.
"Go higher!" he yelled, flailing his wand around as much to hex as to physically slap the bloodthirsty insects away. When Firo lifted him high above the treetops, he inhaled deeply and sketched a hexagon followed by a wide arc. "Glacius Maxima!"
Arctic wind exploded outward, freezing every insect in its path. He cast again and again, sending corpses of insects hailing onto the foliage below until hoarfrost whitened the treetops and his breath was coming out in wisps. Above him, Firo cheeped in complaint.
A blast came from below, and he barely brought his wand up in time to deflect a geyser of superheated water. Having surfaced at last, Mara launched another. As Firo swerved aside, he froze the geyser into a column of ice and animated it to lunge like an enormous serpent at Mara.
She countered with a torrent of flames. Steam erupted where fire clashed with ice, covering a swath of jungle. He bombarded the area until his ears rang, but was unable to tell if any of his curses connected.
A cry echoed in the green jungle behind, and he twisted mid-air to find Malfoy struggling to escape Mara's violet coils. Firo chirped and dived to bring them closer. He swore and trained his wand on Mara, but stayed his hand.
"Your life for hisss!" Mara's claw grazed Malfoy's pale neck, drawing blood. "Lower your weapon and come before me."
Firo's wings thumped as she hovered in place. He glanced around the jungle and surreptitiously directed his wand at a thick green liana. "Is the mighty naga afraid to face me head-on?"
Her eyes narrowed. "I give you your last warning. I know thisss one is precious to you."
An involuntary twitch disrupted his furtive charm. Precious? "Hurt him and you lose your shield. I don't care either way."
He cast again, the motions as tiny as he could make them. Mara's gaze flicked to his wand, and baring her fangs, she sank them into Malfoy's neck. His agonized howl rang through the island as he struggled fruitlessly in her hold.
For a moment, Harry only gaped. "Crazy bitch!" he yelled, lobbing a hex. "You weren't actually supposed to do that!"
Mara lifted Malfoy like a shield, and his body thrashed as it absorbed the jet of light. Harry swore and aimed lower, peppering the ground with Hardening Charms. The animated liana finally crept up to Mara and wrapped her wrist; snarling, she tossed Malfoy away and cut herself free.
The ropes he launched were smacked aside by her tail, and the follow-up hexes absorbed by a hovering sphere of water. With Malfoy nearby, he couldn't risk anything lethal. Perhaps a more indirect approach...
"Circle her," he muttered, mentally pushing the vague image to Firo. She flapped away more jerkily than he would've preferred, but even obeying the command was an improvement.
He animated more greenery to harass Mara and mixed in a hex or two. As soon as she took cover behind her water barrier, he trained his wand down and urged Firo to slow.
"Flagrate," he mouthed, and sketched a fiery rune mid-air. A flick sent it to the ground, where it seared a blackened outline into the soil.
The barrier of water erupted toward him in a steaming torrent. Deflecting it, he pelted Mara with jinxes until she erected her barrier again.
"Flagrate." His Elhaz came out askew, but it was too late to worry about it because Mara brought down her barrier. "Tarantallegra, Flipendo, Levicorpus!"
Lightning crackled between her fingers, but before she could fling it, his barrage overwhelmed her, and she hid behind another dome. He grinned; treating even the lowliest of jinxes as if they were deadly, she was clearly unfamiliar with modern magic.
On and on he went, hoping against hope that his schematic wouldn't end up too mangled; what was supposed to be a polygon was already too deformed to be recognizable.
When only two runes were left, Mara seemed to catch on, because she raked her claw downward, but the ground refused to swallow her as it had before. Her tail smacked down, raising a cloud of dust, yet did not break the soil he had hardened. Hissing, she fled into the jungle.
Harry set the trees ahead of her ablaze to corral her in, then desperately sketched the remaining runes and sent their fiery outlines toward the last points of the polygon. He was too far away to tell if they had properly imprinted on the ground.
With an echoing crackle, white light flared between the trees where he had last seen Mara. His wand rose reflexively, but there was a blinding flash, and his limbs seized up as fire coursed through his nerves.
He might've passed out because the next thing he saw was a tangle of bushes rushing up at him. He raised his arms to protect his head before he smashed through the greenery and crashed onto soft soil. Firo's distressed cries came from somewhere nearby.
Groaning, he rolled over and lifted a shaking hand to adjust his glasses. Mara's sinuous figure came into focus, her mouth twisted in a sneer. Gritting his teeth, he employed every limb to scrabble along the ground—not away, but toward her.
Or rather, toward the Laguz rune a few yards ahead.
Lightning crackled between Mara's fingers as she raised her arms toward the sky. Gripping his wand with his fist, he lurched forward and stabbed it into the rune. Wisps of smoke rose from the surrounding jungle as his runes blazed to life; Mara quaked from the neck to the tip of her tail before toppling over with a cry.
Letting out a noise between a groan and a laugh, he slowly rose to his feet and contemplated her. Her slit pupils tracked his movements, but she couldn't so much as twitch a finger otherwise. Professor Babbling would be stoked to hear that her schematic brought down an ancient creature of legend.
He sketched a circle and a jab. "Incarcerous."
Crisscrossing black ropes wrapped Mara shoulders-to-tail. Her arms snapped behind her back as a rope bound her wrists together before extending to the tip of her tail, curling her serpentine half into a semicircle. Her chest heaved, the ropes digging into her pliant flesh and emphasizing her breasts.
Swallowing, he raked his gaze over her. Just to make sure she was tied securely, nothing more.
In a flutter of wings, Firo alighted atop her shoulder, bobbed up and down, and warbled mockingly. Hopping to her serpentine half, she pecked at her glimmering scales.
Harry snickered as a lavender blush crept up Mara's cheeks. Charming the ropes unbreakable, he stomped on the smoldering rune beneath his feet. After he smeared it beyond recognition, Mara's expression unfroze and a low hiss left her lips.
"You'll pay for thisss humiliation! I'll rip out your bonesss one by one and sssuck out the marrow before your eyesss! I'll ssstrip the ssskin off—"
He raised a finger. "Excuse me for a minute."
He didn't know whether she decided not to waste her breath or was shocked that he would deem something more important than listening to her threats, but she fell silent as he took off toward the deathly still Malfoy. Crouching before him, Harry turned him on his back and gasped. Malfoy was so pale his lips were blue. An ugly bruise had formed where Mara had bitten him.
Harry stuck two fingers to the uninjured side of his neck and put his ear to his nose. Still breathing, albeit shallowly.
"Did you poison him?" he called out. "How do I stop it?"
"You cannot," Mara replied with pride. "I cultivated my venom for centuries."
Malfoy's eyes fluttered open, and his lips moved. Harry leaned in to listen.
He drew back with a sigh. "Do I look like Snape?"
Dragging Malfoy to a tree, he propped him against the trunk. He washed the wound with conjured water and began to cast Episkey before thinking better of it. Wasn't he supposed to suck out the venom first?
He eyed Malfoy's swollen neck. Meh, it was probably too late for that.
Malfoy drew a whistling breath. "Tears..."
Harry patted his shoulder awkwardly. "I'm sure plenty of people will cry at your funeral. Just don't ask me to bawl my eyes out."
Malfoy glared at him, then at something over his shoulder. "Phoenix... tears."
"Oh? Ooh!" Eyes wide, he turned and waved. "Get over here, Firo! Come here, that's a good birdie!"
It was just as well he had called, because judging from the way Firo was wagging her tail, it looked like she was about to take a dump atop her fallen enemy. She regarded Harry with a beady eye, warbled to Mara, and flew over to perch atop his knee.
He gestured at Draco's neck. "Look, Malfoy's badly hurt. You know what to do, yeah? Don't mind him being a Dark wizard; that was just a phase."
Firo tilted her head, then preened her wing feathers. A rattling noise came from Malfoy's lungs.
Harry sent him a worried look. "She hasn't cried before, but as a creature of light, it should be in her nature to help people in need. Hang on, let's try something else."
Closing his eyes, he pictured Malfoy moaning in terrible pain. (Given a very real moan that reached his ears, that wasn't difficult.) He imagined Firo landing on his shoulder, gripping it tight, and vanishing in a burst of flames to reappear inside the waiting room of St. Mungo's—
Wings flapped, and the warm weight atop his knee vanished. A smile spread across his face, but it fled the moment he opened his eyes. Firo was examining a small yellow pebble on the ground. She gave it a few experimental pecks, trapped it in her beak, and tilted her head back to swallow, only to choke and cough it out. He slapped his forehead.
"Sorry, Draco, my phoenix is special." Sighing, he assumed a somber expression. "It was nice knowing you. Don't worry, I'll personally break the news to Astoria. Make you out to be a hero and stuff."
"Stay... away," Malfoy ground out.
"Relax, I'll be all gentlemanly. Offer her a shoulder to cry on and everything. I'll even bring flowers, women love those." He frowned. "Should I bring flowers? I'm not too familiar with pureblood customs... Wouldn't want to embarrass myself."
"Fuck flowers!" Malfoy slumped against the trunk, foaming at the mouth from the effort.
He raised his palms. "Alright, I get it, no flowers. Sheesh. I figured it would soften the blow, you know?"
Malfoy's eyes narrowed. "Potter..." His voice was barely a wheeze.
"Yeah?" He lowered his ear to his mouth.
"I'll... sell... house-elf."
"Blimey, you must really care about"—he raked a hand through his hair—"I mean, of course you do, you're bloody dying. Sorry, Malfoy, I... don't know what to do."
He cast a desperate look around. Some of the plants in the jungle might be suitable for brewing antidotes, but he never took Herbology or learned to identify venoms. Mara met his gaze with a glare—he would get no help from her. Gnawing on his lip, he slipped his hands into his pockets.
His left hand encountered several pellets, and he froze. Turning to Firo, who was now hunting a shiny beetle, he extended a palm with three peanuts atop.
"Look, chili peanuts!" Seeing her crested head swivel his way, he smacked his lips. "Mm, nice and spicy."
Firo hopped up to him and fluttered her wings, chirping eagerly. He crouched before her and made sure she had a good look at his palm.
"Want them, do you?" Staring her in the eye, he upended his palm. "Too bad, bird-brain! Welcome to the real world where nothing goes your way!" Springing to his feet, he ground the peanuts into the dirt with his heel.
Firo squawked in distress and scurried around him.
"Those were my last ones too!" he yelled, a little breathless. "Get used to the taste of dirt, because you're not getting anything better for a long while! Maybe if you weren't so bloody..." Trailing off, he gaped at a thick, pearly tear rolling from Firo's eye. "Yes! Yes!"
Scooping her up, he kissed her stupid feathery head and thrust her at Malfoy, who retained enough sense to bare his neck. Firo squirmed and cheeped miserably, but Harry held her fast. When the first pearly droplet fell on Malfoy's inflamed skin, the bruise began fading before Harry's eyes. He aimed the following tears directly on the two puncture wounds.
Malfoy's breaths came deeper and clearer as the rattling in his chest subsided. Even his face regained color. Of the wounds, there only remained circular scars the size of a Knut.
"Well done," Harry crooned. "What a brilliant bird you are."
Malfoy's eyes swiveled to stare at the crying phoenix. "Enough," he whispered. "Conjure a vial and collect the rest."
"Huh? What do you need them for?" Malfoy had certainly recovered if he was already thinking of turning a profit.
"Not me... my wife. Please."
He set Firo down, and conjuring a somewhat askew vial, scooped up the tears off her feathers with its rim. "What's wrong with your wife?"
"Nothing as of yet, it's just..." Malfoy prodded his neck gingerly and straightened up. "It's complicated. Consider it payment for the elf, alright?"
He perked up. "In that case... Go on, Firo, cry some more—ouch!" He drew back the vial and rubbed the finger she had pecked. "Fine, I guess you've done enough... Oi, what's the big—no, wait—ow, ow, stop!"
He shielded his face as a decidedly non-weepy bird tore into him with her talons. Plugging the vial with his thumb, he pushed her away with his free hand, but she squawked furiously and dived at his head, battering him with her wings. He yelped as her beak stabbed him above his eye; the next moment, heat scorched him and she vanished.
Clamping a palm over his eye, he righted himself. "That bloody little... Oh well, I probably deserved it this time." Now he would be awakened in the small hours of the morning and have holes pecked into his favorite shirts. He contemplated Malfoy, not entirely sure his life was worth the price.
"I still can't believe that worked." Malfoy screwed his face up. "Listen, Potter... thanks."
Grinning, he stood up and proffered a hand. "You save my life, I save yours. That's what mates are for, right?"
Malfoy scowled and opened his mouth, then closed it again. Clasping Harry's hand, he rose unsteadily to his feet. Harry wanted to ask what Astoria was suffering from to require phoenix tears but recalled he had more pressing issues to solve. Pocketing the vial, he strolled toward Mara. Her gaze alternated between him and Malfoy, who lagged a few steps behind. Halting before her, Harry was suddenly not sure what to say.
She spoke first, the pensiveness in her tone a far cry from her previous rage. "I have allowed anger to cloud my judgment once again. Your kind did not idle through the millennia... Your magic lacks power, but you wield it with skill and cleverness." Her face twisted in frustration. "Neverthelessssss... Had I my scepter, I would've rent this isle in half and made the seas swallow you."
"Lucky for me you didn't have it," Harry said.
"Indeed." She bared her fangs. "I'm at your mercy, human. What is to become of me?"
"Good question," Draco said darkly. "If you can't bring yourself to finish it, Potter, just lend me your wand. I owe the creature for this." He tapped his neck.
Harry's fists clenched as he met her eyes. "Never again," he murmured.
He shook his head. "I have a feeling she'd find a way to return. There has to be a reason the ancients imprisoned her instead of killing her outright."
"So that's why you kept it alive—"
"Whatever," Malfoy said impatiently. "In that case, I recommend Azkaban. The creature might not need a wand to use magic, but the Dementors should sap its powers all the same."
Mara blanched. "Hear me out, human—I can be useful to you. I know blood rituals that increase your powers tenfold. I can teach you magic your kind has long since forgotten. I shall lead you to treasures buried under the oceans—"
"Spare me the spiel," he said tiredly. Blood rituals, really. No doubt those came with gruesome side effects she would conveniently forget to mention. "I'm letting you go, no strings attached."
"You are?" Draco exclaimed, while Mara only stared.
Perhaps he had been a little too hasty. "But feel free to send any extra treasure my way! And, er, promise to drop the whole 'exterminate humanity' bit."
Mara blinked slowly. "I already reached the same conclusion after my bloodlust faded. Reigning over a barren wasteland does not appeal to me, and if the rest of your kind share your strength, they would make for worthy followers." Her eyes glazed over. "Yesss... I shall conquer your people instead, and carve out a place for my descendants to grow up unpersecuted."
Shrugging, Harry decided that was an all-around improvement. "Speaking of carving... you don't actually have to eat human hearts, do you? Because that's a big no-no these days."
"Have to? During my reign, I could barely stomach..." She averted her gaze. "It is a gesture to terrorize our enemies, not a source of nourishment. I shall happily swear off it if that grants my freedom."
"Good enough." A wave of his wand caused the ropes binding her to unravel.
Malfoy squeezed his shoulder. "Have you gone mad—well, madder? You're subjecting people to be ruled by a bloodthirsty monster!"
"Many would describe their current governments that way. Why would the average person even care who's at the top?" He admired her sleek curves as she wriggled out of the ropes. "Who knows, her rule might even prove unexpectedly popular."
Malfoy began to protest, then whimpered and scooted behind him. Mara straightened her curled tail and rose upon it until she towered over the two of them. Harry hid his unease behind a smile as he tilted his head to meet her eyes.
Her crimson gaze flicked to something behind him. She bolted past, nearly knocking him off his feet, and gave a shrill hiss. He whirled around. Among the broken trees stood the scarred woman clutching an obsidian dagger. She inclined her head to Mara before motioning at the jungle behind her.
The greenery parted releasing a dark-skinned boy, who ran up and clutched Scar's bandaged hand. A twig snapped to their right, and Plait emerged bearing his blowpipe. The teenager followed, stepping in protectively before Scar and the boy. Everyone glared daggers at Harry. If they were the only survivors, he could hardly blame them.
Mara addressed them in Parseltongue. The cultists bowed as one, yet their scowls only deepened, and Harry could see them exchanging glances.
She faced him. "They obey, but their hatred for you runs deep. Someone might decide that begging for my forgiveness is better than seeing you alive. It would be unwise of you to linger."
He resisted the urge to shrink back from the cultists' glares and instead met them squarely. Plait clenched his blowpipe, while the teenager trembled and took a step back. Harry called upon Firo, but as expected, she didn't show.
"I've no way—" He coughed to cut off his admission of weakness. "I still have unfinished business in this place."
Mara's eyes bore into his for several tense seconds before she lowered herself to his height. "Then it will be us who withdraw. It is only proper for the loser of a bout to do so, and there is nothing left for me here in any case." She hissed to her faithful.
Plait took off toward the village at a light jog, while the rest followed Mara through the jungle, the trees parting to grant them passage. Harry exchanged a glance with Malfoy before following them. Now and then, the cultists would glare over their shoulders, and at one point, Scar began to finger her charms, but a hiss from Mara made her bow her head.
A nerve-wracking quarter of an hour later, they emerged into the beach before the cavern, where Plait was already waiting with a large sack over his shoulder. Mara slithered into the water and began a sibilant chant. Harry eyed the cultists cautiously and fingered his wand, but they seemed cowed enough not to start a fight.
The splashing of waves grew louder and louder until an enormous shadow glided out of the cavern into the lagoon before the beach. The spiny head of a very familiar—and very large—sea serpent broke the surface. The beast gurgled out a breath, smothering the beach with a rotting stench, and fixed its huge black eyes upon Mara. Something like a bleat came from its throat, and it lowered its scaly muzzle toward her.
Mara caressed its enormous whiskers, her face shining with joy. The serpent's eyelids sagged as it rumbled in response to her touch.
"Should've taken care of her while we had the chance," Malfoy muttered, backpedaling toward the jungle. "I don't fancy our chances."
Harry resisted following his example. "She's been nothing but well-behaved. You need to learn to trust people."
"People?"People?" Malfoy swept his hand toward Mara.
"See, that attitude's exactly the problem. The ancients massacred them to the last person and had their homeland destroyed in turn. I'd like to think we learned a thing or two since then."
"Whoever these ancients were, they didn't do a good enough job."
Out in the surf, Mara coiled her tail like a spring, and with a spray of seawater, propelled herself onto the serpent. At a slap of her palm, it laid its spiny head flat on the sand. She gestured to her followers, who hesitantly came up to join her. Plait gave the others a boost before clambering up himself.
Ignoring Malfoy's whispered warning, Harry strode toward them, his wand held at his side. The cultists were too shaken to do anything but clutch the serpent's spines, while Mara actually smiled at him.
"It warms my heart to see our trusty warbeasts still prowl the seas," she said, patting the serpent's hide. "Perhaps some of our underwater cities yet stand, deserted as they no doubt are. That would make arming ourselves for the upcoming conquest easier."
"Er... Best of luck with that." Malfoy might've had a point after all, but standing alone before a gargantuan sea serpent wasn't a great position for renegotiating the terms of her freedom. "Just stay away from Britain, alright? Taking some islands no one's heard about is one thing, but if you cause a ruckus too close to home, they're likely to send me to deal with it, and I'd rather not fight you again."
Wrapping her tail around a spine, she hung upside-down so that her face leveled with his and the tips of her long aquamarine hair brushed the sand. "I would not be opposed to testing my strength against yours again... Not to death, but in sport." She gazed into his eyes. "Join me in my conquest, human. I am offering you a place not below me, but at my side. We shall take what we desire, as is the prerogative of the strong, and give rise to a clan that will come to dominate the world."
"G-give rise to a clan?"
Her smile widened, and she dragged a clawed finger across his cheek. "It wasn't unheard of for a union between one of my kind and yours to produce offspring. That was how our servants gained the ability to speak our tongue."
"Good lord," Malfoy exclaimed far behind them, "that is sick."
Harry's imagination ran wild and his gaze inadvertently swept up her sinuous body.
Laughing raspily, Mara leaned in to whisper into his ear. "I can tell you do not find my appearance repulsive. Think about it... My power and yours. Our offspring would make formidable warriors indeed." Her forked tongue brushed his earlobe.
He swallowed. "Listen, I'd love to raise a bunch of cute monster babies with you and lead them on a glorious conquest, but..." Where was he going with this? He shook his head and met her eyes apologetically. "Between you and me, I'm not much of a swimmer."
Her eyes narrowed, and her hand snaked around his head to grab a bunch of his hair. As he winced in pain, she pulled him in for a short, rough kiss.
"You are the only one to spurn me twice," she said, drawing away with a flush on her cheeks. "If you grow weary of the mundanity of your life, seek me out. That should prove no obstacle to one of your prowess."
"Uh-huh," he breathed. "Yeah, sure."
Her lips stretched into a smile. Pulling herself up nimbly, she gave a commanding hiss. The serpent rose and curved ponderously back into the cavern. Harry watched wistfully as it carried Mara into the darkness until the only reminder of it ever being there was the agitated waves, and then not even that.
"Congratulations, Potter, you unleashed another unholy horror upon the world—and this time, you did it on purpose!" Draco strutted up to him, obviously feeling secure now that the big bad monster was gone. "You do realize there's an ongoing investigation back home? I'll have to report everything that happened."
Harry frowned and withdrew the vial containing two fingers' worth of translucent liquid from his pocket. "Not if you want this."
Malfoy worked his jaw, then nodded grudgingly. "I might be able to omit a few details."
"Smart man." Harry cast his gaze about. Beyond the lush jungle, the blackened treetops that surrounded the ruined temple were just visible. "This place is losing its luster. What say you we find what we came here for and go home?"
"What you came here for, you mean. After all that's happened, are you still hung up about your pillow?" Malfoy shook his head. "If you manage to call your phoenix, I say we leave at once."
"Your wand's somewhere in there too."
Malfoy squared his shoulders. "Lead the way."
They trudged off along the jungle path. Malfoy huffed and puffed with each step, and Harry was fit to drop himself. It took two breaks and a cold shower of conjured water before they emerged into the village.
Harry slunk toward the nearest hut and stooped to enter its curtained doorway. His gaze passed over the woven mats, an assortment of clay jars, and a low table with an unlit oil lamp. A smaller doorway in the back opened into an outdoor shower enclosed in wicker walls. All in all, it seemed like a home one only returned to sleep in.
He rummaged inside the jars and came across some dried figs. After giving one a sniff, he bit into it with relish and appropriated the entire jar. When he passed Malfoy, who rested on his haunches outside, he was even nice enough to share.
It was in the next hut that he found their belongings. The reinforced chest that they lay in had been left unlocked and thankfully lacked any wards. He slipped on his Horntail amulet, hooked the Warlock's Rod to his belt, and grimaced at his sunken-eyed, stubble-cheeked reflection in the cracked mirror before stuffing it into his pocket. That just left two wands at the bottom of the chest.
The first was a smooth hawthorn shaft of pathetic length that belonged to Malfoy. The second he wasn't sure qualified as a wand at all. After some hesitation, he picked up both. He had paid for the stick, after all—or would pay in the future, if Ikililou was to be believed. He mused idly on what that could entail, then snorted. Crossed fingers had never failed him before.
Outside, Malfoy accepted his wand gratefully and stood with a groan. "Are we good to go?"
"My waifu's still missing," he said, eyeing the unsearched huts. "The bloke who took her likely got eaten by the shoggoth. If we can't find her, we might have to summon it again and force it to regurgitate him so I can ask where he put her."
Draco gave a nervous laugh, which faltered when Harry approached the second-to-last hut without a sign of mirth on his face. "You're joking, right? Potter, please tell me you're joking."
He ducked inside, cast his gaze about the interior, and pivoted to leave. "I kind of was—"
"—but unless I find her soon, that might change."
Malfoy blanched. "I'll help you look."
Shoving aside the curtain of the last hut, Malfoy froze at the threshold. Harry pushed past him impatiently and halted in his tracks.
Countless drawings plastered the round walls, all depicting, in every pose and perspective imaginable, a half-woman, half-snake creature. The quality varied—which is to say, it ranged from bad to worse—but there was something eerily intense about the drawings, and not just because some of them seemed to be painted in blood. Scraps of paper and scrunched-up sketches littered the floor, and arrayed along the walls stood crude clay statues.
Harry muttered, "Well, he was nothing if not dedicated."
Malfoy stepped inside and shook his foot irritably when a scrap of paper stuck to the sole of his shoe. With an expression of distaste, he circled the room, occasionally peeling up a drawing to see another underneath.
"I wouldn't touch those if I were you," Harry remarked.
"Beyond these being the doodles of a madman, any particular reason why?"
"I get the impression the poor sod really liked Mara."
Malfoy snorted. "Your powers of observation astound me."
"I don't think we're quite on the same page," he said, hiding a grin. "The bloke was obsessed. I wouldn't be surprised if he... you know." He brought a curled hand to his crotch and pantomimed stroking.
Horrified comprehension dawned on Malfoy's face, and he thrust his wand at his hand. "Scourgify, Scourgify, Scourgify!"
Harry snickered. "Yeah, it's probably all over the place."
"I don't see why you're laughing." Malfoy tiptoed toward the exit. "Just imagine what he did to your precious pillow."
His jaw sagged. "No."
"He probably slept with it every night," Draco said snidely, pointing at an unmade mattress. "Whispering sweet nothings as he—"
"Shut up!" Breathing heavily, he strode up to Malfoy and stuck a wand under his chin. "You shut up."
Malfoy gulped and fell silent. Harry glared at him, then swiveled toward the rubbish on the floor. He would turn this place upside down if he needed to—wait, he had his real wand back.
With a rustling noise, a heap of clothes beside the wall slid off a low chest of drawers. The topmost drawer creaked out, and a seven-meter pillowcase shot toward him, the front slapping against his chest while the rest draped across the floor.
Holding it up, he ran his eyes over his beloved lamia's crimson locks and scales and suppressed the temptation to nuzzle her with his cheek. A thorough wash was in order before that.
"You're alright now," he crooned. "The bad man can't hurt you anymore."
Malfoy observed the reunion with a disgusted fascination. "It's not that I don't approve of defending one's property, but it boggles my mind that you went halfway across the world and decimated an ancient cult over a piece of fabric."
"You'll understand once you fall in love," he said, gently rolling her up. "Now let's find a place to crash, I'm dead on my feet."
They picked out the nicest hut, warded it, and conjured some blankets. Harry feared he would have trouble falling asleep, but he conked out as soon as his head hit the balled-up shirt he used in lieu of a pillow.
It felt like he had just closed his eyes when he was awoken by a noise. A patch of pale moonlight filtering through the narrow window broke the pitch-black of the hut. A voice, barely audible above the chirping of crickets outside, was persistently calling his name. He groped around for his glasses but couldn't find them.
"Malfoy?" he whispered, squinting at the blurry shape beside the wall. No, the voice sounded nothing like his snooty drawl.
His fingers brushed something smooth and cool, and with a jolt of recognition, he flipped the hand-mirror over.
The voice grew in volume. "Harry. Harry Potter... No, he's still not answering. Harry..."
"Who?" he croaked, squinting at the mirror.
"Harry Pot—Harry, is that you? I can't see shit. Oi, Harry."
Harry came across his wand at last, and blinking groggily, made a faint light. Brandon's pudgy face in the mirror loomed uncomfortably close before pulling away and breaking into a smile.
"Man, we were starting to get worried! I've been calling you on and off since forever." Brandon snickered. "You look like a lobster. Why is it so dark? Where are you?"
"Dunno, some island in the middle of the Indian Ocean." Yawning, he summoned his glasses and slipped them on. When his vision regained clarity, he frowned at the sage-green wall behind Brandon. "Where are you?"
"Some place called St. Mungo's." Brandon glanced sideways before dropping his voice. "They just wheeled in a bloke who looks like he was stung by like a million bees and strapped him to the bed because he was floating. Your people get up to some freaky shit, don't they?"
He chuckled incredulously. "You have no idea. How did you end up in a wizarding hospital?"
"Beats me. One moment I'm fighting robbers, the next I wake up surrounded by people in robes yelling questions." Brandon scratched his ear. "I told them about the dragon and everything. They argued about wiping my memory until some bored-looking guy in a suit said he might hire me. Told him I'd think about it. I don't fancy forgetting the coolest shit to ever happen to me, let me tell you."
"The Obliviator Headquarters want him as a consultant," said a soft, barely-there voice.
Startled, Brandon looked to his side and extended the mirror farther away. A pale, dainty face framed by raven hair entered the picture.
"Su!" Harry beamed. "Are you alright?"
She nodded. "Are you?" Her brow creased as she leaned closer.
"Of course, why?" He touched his cheek and winced at the soreness. "Ah, these? Just a couple bruises. You should've seen the other guy."
As Su opened her mouth, Brandon cleared his throat and proffered the mirror. By now, he had sidled as far away as the bed allowed and was blushing like a tomato. She accepted the mirror with a solemn nod and shuffled laboriously, from the look of things, to a bed on the opposite side.
"And the beard?" she asked.
"Let's just say my accommodations were lacking in the way of facilities. Do you like it? Quite wizardly, right?"
The corners of her mouth quirked up, and she tilted her hand side-to-side. He rubbed his scruffy chin and made a mental note to shave tomorrow. The view in the mirror lurched as Su settled into bed with pronounced difficulty.
"Seriously though, how are you holding up?" he asked. "The healer told me that poison was nasty stuff."
"I'll recover." She averted her gaze and pursed her lips. "They caught me off guard."
"Don't be too hard on yourself. It's difficult to fight people with such exotic weaponry... and dress." He rubbed the back of his neck.
Her peeved look faded. "Right? What an unorthodox fighting strategy."
"Hang on," he said slowly, "did you warn me because you also got distracted..." When she averted her gaze, he choked out a laugh. "Ugh, gross! You big pervert."
Her cheeks colored as she glared pointedly at him.
His lips twitched. "Alright, fair point. Anyway, I kicked their collective asses good and proper. Pass it on to your old man, will you? I won't be bringing any heads on a pike, but I hope he'll take my word for it."
Her eyebrows arched.
"Yeah, he wasn't thrilled with me after what happened to you, and it was sort of my fault. Just let him know I did my part and defended your honor." He nodded with self-satisfaction.
She brought the mirror closer. "Did father tell you to go fight a cult?"
"Well, not quite... He kind of implied it... I think." He squirmed under her skeptical gaze. "We understood each other without him saying it! It's man stuff."
She pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Er," he said, "is your dad not a badass martial artist who rips people limb from limb?"
"No," she said emphatically. "He's a big softie."
He scratched his cheek. Well, this was awkward.
"He is a fifth-degree black belt," she added, "but it's only a hobby to keep in shape."
He bobbed his head, more convinced than ever that he had made the right decision. "Definitely pass on the word to him."
She shook her head fondly. "Father's just... not good with people he doesn't know. He was distraught after you disappeared." She lowered her gaze and worried her lip. "We all were."
Reclining on the blanket with a groan, he held up the mirror. "Regardless, I couldn't let them go after what they did. They even stole my waifu!" He nodded at her incredulous look. "Total dick move, I know. No worries, though, I got her back. Set things to rights, saved the day, met some interesting folks. It's been quite a worthwhile trip, looking back on it." His lips curled into a smile as he recalled Mara's farewell.
"There was another one, wasn't there?"
Shaking himself out of his reverie, he gave her a blank look. "Another one?"
Her expression was unreadable. "Monster girl you had to try and save."
"What? That's ridiculous. Why would you even—" Gulping, he tried to clear his mind. Legilimency couldn't possibly work over such distance, could it? "Um. Not exactly."
She sighed. "Tell me there were no world-ending threats this time."
"Um," he hedged, watching her eyes go wide. "Long story short, it's been taken care of."
The mirror trembled slightly as she took a deep breath. "Harry."
"I have time."
He took in the stubborn set of her chin, sighed, and dragged himself over to the window. Angling the mirror so the moonlight would fall upon it, he extinguished his wand. "Ever hear of the Cult of Mara? It's like this..."