Disclaimer: Do I give off the impression that I own this series? If so, I'm terribly sorry for misleading you.

Summary: Vampires, werewolves, Dark Lords, and Vaults.

Midnight Blues

Part II: Among Thieves

7.) Ghost Lights
That Dark Lord Ain't so Dark

Have you ever had that itch? The one you can't scratch? It's inside your skull, on the top right corner, a little niggling prickle at your brain. The itch only comes when something big's about to happen, when you're waiting on hand and foot for something.

That's the itch of anticipation.

Anticipation of the job, of the money, of the danger. You see, I won't say that I get off on danger, because I don't, but you can't deny there's something particularly exhilarating about having pulled off something exceptionally dangerous. There's a certain joy in it all: in duty, in battle, even in killing another person. Hannah's oft-repeated question comes to mind:

"You love the killing, don't you?"

I can't say I love it.

"Then why do it?" I can hear her voice as crisply as crinkling leaves on a brisk autumn afternoon.

Because I don't dislike it.

Because fighting is what I'm good at; it's probably the only thing I'm good at. I kill monsters, human or otherwise, and it's not the killing that fills me with a sense of satisfaction; it's outliving another, equally capable, human being that does. People are always looking for new materials, for new passions, for new nirvanas; they go out of their way for money, sex, enlightenment, and they don't ever realize just how underrated survival is.

There's movement to my behind the chair I've been sleeping in beside the roaring fireplace. It occurs to me that I did not see any chimneys in the spire before entering, so I'm forced to wonder where the smoke is going, but boarding that train of thought is quickly derailed by Ron:

"Hmph? Whuzzatime?" Ah, always the eloquent one, that Ron.

I turn to see the man in question, in his 'disguise', groggily turning over in that bed, looking around for a clock. I check my watch, a gift from Ginny several years ago, and respond, "It's half-five. Good thing you got up, I think Tracey wants us to join her to meet some of the other scum of the earth at six."

"Mmph," grunts Ron, "ten minutes."

I'll give him that; besides, the ability to wake up Ron when he's tired is a skill only Hermione possesses, and I'd venture to guess I'll never be able to duplicate it. So I turn back to that contemplative fire and wait.

And the itch comes back once again.

Thirty minutes later, I find myself in Tracey's room, waiting on her to pick out an outfit for the first night of the party. Ron remains in our room, trying to wake himself with a shower in the bathroom attached to our suite.

"What do you think about this?" Tracey asks, placing a simple black number against her person. She strikes a few poses with it, and then asks, "Any good?"

"I think it looks good," I reply truthfully, but, then again, Tracey Davis could make leg-warmers look sexy.

Tracey then looks back at the dress. "Hmm... nope. No, it's too... too mundane," she tosses the dress aside, showing just how much she cares for my opinion, despite asking for it. "Maybe I'll give it to Granger."

"Granger?" I question; why would Tracey want to give Hermione a dress?

The brunette nods vigorously. "Of course! She bloody well needs it. Have you seen what she wears? Completely unflattering on a girl like her! I offered to take her and the sprog on a shopping trip once we recover the Lance."

The sprog? As in Lauren? Oh, that must have been what they were talking about when Boris and I were trying to gather Tracey and Ron after dinner. Wait, doesn't Hermione hate Tracey? Or if not hate, at least dislike? Am I asking too many questions?

"Did she say yes?" I think I am, yes.

"Of course, why wouldn't she?" Tracey smirks as she wades back into the closet of clothes, causing me to wonder just how much she packed for a two-day trip. "We are all friends now, right?" Her muffled voice comes from somewhere within that minefield of cloth.

"Sure, friends. Right," I reply, knowing Hermione would have something to say about that.

A cry of delight is heard from within the closet, and moments later, Tracey emerges with a dress that doesn't look all that different from the one she first showed me: "This is perfect!" She gushes, inspecting the dress from every possible angle. Given that Tracey rarely gives off any vibes other than 'seductive professional', her overt show of girlishness over a dress that, for all intents, is the same as the one she nixed earlier, surprises me greatly.

I, however, being the idiot I am, make a rookie mistake. "But... isn't that the same as the dress from before?"

"What?" Asks the brunette. "No, of course not! This is made out of Selphie fabric from Magical India; it's a great luxury there; the other one was made from silk. Still very nice, but not quite what I wanted."

"Erm. Yeah, right. Big difference there."

Tracey, however, decides it's more prudent to lecture me on all the vast array of fabrics and materials out there, carrying on for several minutes (without stopping, mind you) about silk, dragonhide, selphie fabric, wool, cotton, denim, hemp, rayon, and flannel, at which she casts a disapproving eye at me and tells me I shouldn't wear so much of it.

By the end of it, my head's spinning and I'm pretty sure that the only way out of this is to kill myself on the spot, but miraculously, Tracey shuts up about the goddamn fabrics. "But that's enough about that," she chuckles at my visible sigh of relief. "You are going to wait outside while I get dressed. Maybe check on sleepyhead?"

"As you wish," I drawl, heading for the exit. As I open the door, I almost run headlong into a pale, raven-haired woman, who is walking toward the suite next to Ron and mine. Flanking her is a tall, grizzled man with a honey-brown beard; he gives lazy acknowledgement when I nearly crash into his friend, causing her to step back in the nick of time.

Nice reflexes, lady.

She turns on me and impassively regards me through blood-red eyes. They are cold and intelligent, and remind me far too much of Voldemort's irises; it's discomfiting to stare into those baleful reds and nearly sends me into a rage. The woman, however, looks vaguely surprised when I have to visibly suppress my urge to kill, clenching and unclenching my fist repeatedly.

"Oh, I apologize," I say politely, returning to the use of "Jürgen's" strong Berliner tones; the woman smiles predatorily, revealing sharpened, pearly white fangs. Suddenly the pale skin and red eyes makes sense. Whoever she is, this woman is a caricature of every vampire in every vampire story since Bram Stoker. A thick, frightening Romanian accent is all we need to complete the cliché imagery.

To my great disappointment, however, her accent is neither Romanian nor particularly frightening; instead, it's an attractive French lilt, pleasing to the ears and not nearly as strong as Fleur's or Gabrielle's, that escapes from those plump, cherry red lips. "It is no trouble."

Her voice is much too lively and warm for how cold and dead she looks. Her voice evokes an onslaught of memories, those of a few forgotten weeks of a distant summer spent with the Delacours in the French capitol, surrounded by fine wine and beautiful Parisiennes. Ron had thoroughly enjoyed that fortnight; Hermione, dragged along to watch her boyfriend drool over French blondes, was not quite as pleased.

She extends a hand, gloved in black velvet, "Sophia Mercier. And this is my partner, Andrea Lombardi." The heretofore apathetic brown-haired man behind the vampire, an Italian, if the name is anything to go by, nods.

But their nationalities don't interest me very much. It's their reputation that precedes them. Sophia Mercier is a vampire; when and how she became one are but a few of the many mysteries that surround her. Anywhere you look, there'll be three different people telling you twelve different stories every time. It adds to growing mythos surrounding the red-eyed vampire, to be so famous, and yet so inconspicuous at the same time.

She's someone I could really learn something from.

"Hello," I greet amicably, and try to resist shouting questions at her. "Jürgen Müller."

"Ah, Mr. Müller! I've heard quite a bit about you. You do fine work, if morally questionable."

I'd never admit this aloud to anyone, but that one line is enough to send me into shivers. Mercier is world-renowned for one thing: hunting. She, unlike the poufs (who usually did contract killings) and ourselves (we usually do mercenary work or government-approved jobs), hunts down convicts; from blood mages, to serial killers, to terrorists. And, of course, she hunts people like the poufs as well as Ron and I. Andrea Lombardi is her partner, but 'partner' doesn't do this man justice.

"Well, it is for the paycheck. I derive no pleasure from murder," I find myself saying.

Lombardi looks surprised. "Don't you?" He asks with a small smirk upon his face.

You see, Andrea Lombardi is a werewolf. Like Remus, he had been infected by Fenrir Greyback during the first war with Voldemort. The stories are vivid; a village in Northern Italy, razed to the ground by spellfire. Amid the carnage, standing in the center of the fire, is a small boy with blood pouring profusely from his throat. His dead parents, fighters to the end, lay nearby; the boy's sister, by all accounts a happy and wholesome child, sprawled next to them, her throat slashed.

Above the boy stands a mountain of a man, a whirlwind of rage and bloodlust; Greyback. The boy's blood reddens Greyback's teeth; the parents' splatters his clothes; the sister's, his claws.

Andrea Lombardi wasn't the first child to have his existence robbed by Greyback. And he certainly wouldn't be the last.

So here they are, a cipher and a survivor; two souls able to outlast the times, the holocaust which had rejected siblings, parents, and past identities. Brings a metaphorical tear to my eyes.

"Are you going down to the banquet now?" Sophia asks, holding a finger to her lips, a quizzical look etched in her pretty face.

I give a well-practiced scowl. "I would be, if not for my slow-to-dress sister and my even slower partner."

The vampire laughs gaily. "I should leave you to it, then, Mr. Müller, as my suite is right here," she says, pointing to the door on the other side of my own, as her partner still wears that odd smirk. "I shall hope that we meet again downstairs." The two, primordial enemies (or enemies they should be), share a look that speaks a thousand unheard words, words that frighten me in my paranoia. At the end of it all, however, both Sophia and Andrea shake my hand and make for the door to their suite.

Turning back to my own door, I let out a breath I hadn't known I'd been holding. Mercier and Lombardi are legends throughout Europe. And, for the most part, they're the good guys, bringing back the scum of our respective societies. That presents the first mystery of the night: why would Hozhen invite two Light-oriented Bounty Hunters if he's such a hardcore Dark Lord?

Given my previous experiences with the type, this job suddenly seems a lot more confusing than it did before.

Opening the door, I find Ron placing on his combat robes not altogether different from my own; though his are slightly more worn than my own. It is my impression that Ron had to use this often in Russia, as the magicals dress quite formally there, whereas the dress code in America was as lax as could be short of being a 4 million square mile nudist colony.

"All set?" I ask the redhead-turned-blond.

"Sure," he says as he surveys himself in the mirror. "Bloke was a bit of a pretty-boy, wasn't he?" Ron muses, ruffling his blond hair and inspecting the dark blues of the now dead man, a slight difference from Ron's own crystalline orbs in anyone else's eyes, but all the difference to the Weasley.

"Yeah, I guess he was. We're going to have to wait a few on Tracey; if I can guess, she's probably back in the closet, looking for another dress."

To my great surprise (read: exactly none), Tracey did indeed choose a different dress. Instead of the black one 'made of Selphie fabric', the spinnings of small Indian fairies called Selphies, she wears a midnight blue, strapless number that ends just above the knees. With a smile far too mischievous for a simple brother-sister greeting, she slides into the seat next to me, acknowledging Ron with a little nod.

We sit in the dome where Hozhen had first greeted us, lined with several long tables that reminds me far too intensely of Hogwarts. However, it is killers that make my company, rather than the familiar faces down the old Gryffindor table, this time. And that is a little discomfiting.

The banquet begins soon after Ron's stomach grumbles for the fifth time, a loud roiling noise that elicits a disgusted look from Tracey. Hozhen stands from a table, flanked by eight of his best men, only serving to increase the strange resemblance of this banquet to the Great Hall of Hogwarts. My thoughts, heretofore uninterrupted, are suddenly shattered as Hozhen's magically enhanced voice echoes around the dome. Random strings of Chinese, whether Mandarin or Cantonese I don't know, flow from his mouth in a sort of sonic harmony. I can't decipher the words, or the intent behind them, but it's hard not to see the members at each long table relax just a little bit.

Feeling slightly off about this whole charade, I turn to Ron and Tracey to see what they think. Oddly enough, they seem to be as captivated by his words as the other occupants of this makeshift throne room, though I know for a fact neither of the two knows Chinese. I feel it, too, but it's not contentment that fills me; it's dread that does.

"But, let us not have ceremony stand in the way of this momentous event," he continues smoothly in English, as if he's been speaking it the whole time. "Let us remember that you are the protectors of peace, rather than countries and governments... able to do the things that keep this world running. And so, I give you men and women this small gift: enjoy."

Suddenly, trays filled with all manner of food from around the globe plop in front of us. Platters of fish and chicken, bowls of goulash, plates of curries, and so on and so forth... Ron, of course, has already begun filling his plate with a maniacal sort of glee found only in children on Halloween.

"You could at least pretend to have some semblance of self-control," chides Tracey lowly, though I can tell from her tone that she doesn't mean any harm.

"Shelf-control ish fo' the uninishiated," Ron replies through a mouth full of smoked ham and curried chicken.

Tracey looks to me for translation of Ron's word salad, but I merely shrug and leave the table to fulfill my duty: talk to other criminals for the entire night. Besides, I couldn't eat right now; Ron's habit of shoving desserts alongside meat into his mouth has all but killed my hunger.

I meet an Indian smuggler who regales me with his exploits, including how he had managed to acquire 'Enemy to the State' status among six different countries. After him, a two white-robed wizards, led by a hooded witch, bump past me but pay me no mind. Behind them, a Hungarian Veela stares hungrily at me; it takes all my willpower to remember that I am pretending to play for the other team. I do, however, manage to avoid jumping her bones when I meet a grizzled man with an American accent.

His name is John, a rather boring name for an interesting man. A mercenary, he does what I don't have the heart to: wander from state-to-state looking for wars to participate in. I would do it, too, but the thought of leaving Ron and Hermione behind to wonder where I'd gone or even if I was still alive is more than enough to keep me rooted.

I spend most of the ensuing hours talking to this man, exchanging stories of hits (the poufs', not my own) and battles he had taken part in until I feel a tap at my shoulder. Turning, I see my 'sister' smiling at me:

"Jürgen, there's someone you absolutely must meet!" She exclaims.

"And who is that, dear sister?" I ask.

"Come, come, I will show you," Tracey barely waits for me to bid goodbye to the old soldier and practically sprints to the other end of the dome, where a waiter stands with a platter, looking nervous and regal all at once.

"A mutual friend sent me," he greets lowly, indicating exactly who his allegiances are to. "Would you like some wine?"

"Sure," I reply as the waiter shifts his carrying tray, which contains only one glass of champagne and a bowl of a spicy-smelling, but unidentifiable soup.

He hands me the glass and places the bowl on a discarded table. "The Vault is three floors below us, located near the servant's entrance. You'll need a ward card to get to down there, as only 'authorized personnel' are keyed into them."

"And you have—"

"—I'll be here when you need me, sir. Enjoy your stew," he says cryptically and takes his leave of us.

Tracey looks down at the steaming bowl, then gives me a side-long glance, shrugging. "Can't hurt to take a sip, can it?" She says, a note of whimsy in her tone, but waits for me to take the bowl, her reasoning, she tells me later, is that it's the 'man's' job to do so.

Apparently someone forgot to tell her chivalry doesn't apply to soup.

Regardless, I do pick up the bowl, and beneath it, on the tray, is a small card that doesn't look all too different from an employee ID card at some muggle workplaces, the only difference being that the picture and the name line are blank. When Tracey picks it up, her picture forms on card with a fictitious name attached to it: one Gertrude Parker.

"Gertrude?" Tracey's nose wrinkles in quiet disgust as she speaks. "My Lord, where do they come up with these names?" With a huff, she hands the card off to me, discreetly, of course. Upon touching my own fingers, the picture morphs into a roguish, black-haired devil named Ned Kenway. Tracey, of course, sneers at the name Ned as well, but I shrug her off and pocket the ward card.

And just time, too, as I spy with my little eye a Chinese Dark Lord making a beeline for us. When he catches my eye, Hozhen smiles widely, beckoning me come to him. If for nothing else than to maintain my cover, I head toward the man, feeling several pairs of eyes on my back; I know four of those eyes belong to Ron and Tracey, both of who watch me from opposite ends of the banquet hall. However, I get the distinct feeling that a select few are watching me out of more than simple curiosity. I try to call on my magic, to identify where the stares are coming from, and feeling the Power rush through me, I open my eyes to spot three white-robed guests at the edge of the room giving me the unkindly eye. Of course, I'm guessing, as they are all hooded, but my guesses are very rarely wrong; I wonder why they're looking at me, a simple hitman at a banquet? I'll have to pass on my fears to Ron and Tracey, even if they are unfounded. Anyone recognizes us and this whole op's blown.

And we noble three die a very ignoble death in whatever horror of a dungeon the man next to me has thought up. I merely raise an eyebrow at the leader of the Whiterobes, a woman, by the looks of it. She catches on to my stare, and immediately looks away, hood concealing everything but a delicate jaw.

It's confirmed. I need to tell Ron about this group.

"-t's a beautiful part of the world. Full of richness and history, am I correct?" Hozhen asks politely, and I realize that I've been so taken with the Whiterobes that I've nearly missed out on what Hozhen's been saying.

"Uh, yes, of course. Full of splendor," I lob, hoping I haven't sounded too spastic.

"But it's rotten at its core, Mr. Müller," Hozhen sighs dramatically. "Do you know why I am in this hole in Siberia, rather than among my countrymen?"

What I want to say is that I can't be sure, but it could have something to do with the guy being a mass-murdering wanker, if I what I wager is true. "No," I choose to reply, instead. "Why is that?"

"Because the government has cast me off, when all I speak for is the rights of all my countrymen," Hozhen replies, at which I find myself a bit startled, but keep my face a mask. Most Dark Lords think they're some great champion of justice, fighting against the evils of their respective country's overlords, like some magical Jeanne D'Arc, or something; it usually turns out they're just completely fucking mental. It usually takes finding a credible, outside source for the truth, rather than hearing the tale from the horse's mouth so to speak, when it comes to these nutjobs.

I nod, knowing I should keep my mouth shut, but something inside compels me to speak. "I must confess, I do not know much about China, or the troubles it's currently going through."

Hozhen claps my shoulder in far too friendly a manner. "It is quite alright, Mr. Müller, far too few know the truth about it," he pauses and takes a seat at one of the tables, bidding me do the same. Then, taking a deep breath, as if getting ready to tell a child a long story, he launches into it, "Not even the muggle government knows a quarter of the abuses inflicted on our people from the People's Magical Congress. Communist in name only, the Congress is merely an autocracy that tramples the destitute in favor of the rich, all whilst claiming equality for all men."

"Ah," I say congenially. "Not so different from the rest of the world then, eh?"

The Dark Lord barks out a laugh at that. "No, not so different at all," he agrees. "But they have labeled me a Dark Lord and a murderer for opposing their own oppression. They killed four-hundred innocent men and women in secret in 1974 for weapons and spell tests to aid the Soviet Union's Cold War effort, and it was, how do you say, 'business as usual'? Should I... dispose of the same number of their lackeys, it is terrorism. I have not done even that in scope, and yet I am a Dark Lord; they have done far worse, and are our rulers.

"So I ask you, what must the people do when their leaders are the terrorists?"

I pause in mock-thought, before answering. "I know it is not as simple as so, but revolution should come next."

"Exactly! Revolution, Mr. Müller, revolution should... must come next!" The Dark Lord looks off to the crowd, and spots someone else he has not yet spoken to. "But, I'm afraid I must speak to several other guests I've ignored far too long. Thank you for indulging an old man, Mr. Müller."

"No trouble," I reply, "I should be getting on to bed, anyways. It's been a tiring night." The older man gives me a careful nod, gets up, and stalks off in the direction of the Hungarian Veela who had caught my eye earlier. With a careless glance, I filch a mug of what appears to be ale from an already too-drunk pirate, bringing it to my lips as he staggers away, leaving a pair of pretty flintlock pistols at the table as well. And they're far too pretty to just leave there.

So when I'm sure he, nor anyone else for that matter, isn't looking, I take them as well. Of course, Tracey, who comes up from behind me, gives me a disapproving glare for my efforts:

"Don't take too much," she warns in a whisper. "We don't want to be outed as thieves before we even get to the vault. Speaking of which..."

"We should be getting on, shouldn't we?" I continue for her as I shrink the guns to miniature size and place them in pocket. Standing up, I follow Tracey toward the door that leads to the kitchens, scullery, and somewhere far below, the vault. Two guards flank the doors, great and terrible-looking men; Tracey and I stop a good ten feet from the guards, planning our next move when a servant comes from off to the side toward the guards.

It's our friend, gesticulating wildly and pointing in the crowd somewhere, the faces of the guards growing more grim with every passing second. Finally, they have enough of whatever it is the man's saying and both rush off with him in the direction he's pointed. Tracey and I don't wait, hurrying for the door while still attempting to look calm. As we're about to leave, I catch Ron's eye at a far-off table, where he's currently engaged in an impromptu poker game with three Russian sailors and a Bulgarian; he blinks at me, an ever-so-slight gesture that he'll keep attention off where Tracey and I have disappeared to.

The door opens up into a long, dark, heavy iron hallway, like the ones you'd expect to see in a well-fortified fallout bunker. The walls are uneven, allowing for many nooks and crannies to hide within. At least we have that going for us. The flooring here is hard, unsanded stone, a far cry from the majestic and many-colored tiles of the banquet hall's floor; Tracey's high-heels make loud, echoing clicks with every step, forcing her to send a silencing charm at them halfway down the hall.

A sudden banging is heard, and the rolling of wheels accompanied by footsteps tells us to hide. I shove Tracey roughly into one of the alcoves, to her great displeasure, and wedge in with her. As she's about rage over something, I place a finger to my lips, telling her to kindly shut up. The rolling of wheels comes ever-closer, and the footsteps are now accented with two voices, one of a man, the other a woman, but I'm finding it very hard to concentrate with Ms. Davis' intoxicating perfume assaulting my nose.

"Please, Ed," the woman is saying, Welsh-accented. "All of them're the same: murderers. I don't know why ya' have us workin' for this scoundrel; it'll do us no good in the end."

"Jay-sus, Mary would you give it a bleedin' rest!?" The man replies, equally Welsh. "We got nothin' else. He pays good and he ain't a bad man for a 'Dark Lord'. As far from it as he could possibly be, I wager."

Mary snorts derisively. "Honestly, I've no idea why I'm here; it seems I only came because my best friend has a fascination with things above his station."

"And what the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ed growls, drawing himself up to his full-size as the cart stops right beside our little nook. Tracey pulls out her wand and bids me do the same.

I give her a look so as to say 'On my count'. Tracey seems to get it when I hold up three fingers.

"What does it mean?" Two fingers. "It means you're pals with a Dark Lord!" One finger. "You know, Grindelwald, You-Know-Who, and the like? Those kinds of Dark Lo—" Mary never has a chance to finish, as two silent stunners crash into her and Ed; both drop like rock-filled sacks. I manage to catch Ed before he has a date with the hard ground, but Tracey's too busy looking at her bloody nails to extend the same courtesy to Mary, who hits the ground with a loud thud.

"Oh," Tracey remarks without a drop of concern for the fallen woman. "Was I supposed to catch her?"

I cast an irritable eye toward her, laying Ed on the floor gently. "Er... yeah. She's not a Dark Lord or one of his minions, is she? They're both just day laborers; no need to cause more pain than necessary."

"Hitman with a heart of gold?" The brunette drawls. "Come along, the more we dawdle, the more likely your 'innocents' get hurt later."

I just nod, not willing to get into an argument with Tracey, especially here, of all places. I drag Ed into a darkened niche containing a door to a cleaning closet whilst Tracey levitates her charge into it. The brunette gives me first dibs on stripping Ed down to his underpants and replacing my dress robes with his servant's garb. Tracey looks on, staring at me like a piece of meat while I change, so I extend the same courtesy to her, watching with barely disguised glee as her dress comes off. She glowers all the while and calls me a rake or a cad or something of the like, but I'm too busy assessing her bum to care.

When we finish changing, Tracey drops the unconscious Mary onto Ed inside the closet rather unceremoniously, leaving them in a precarious position. "All that tension?" She chuckles as she casts a disillusionment charm on the duo. "We're probably doing them a favor."

"Erm... sure," I reply, moving on down the hallway; several other servants pass and nod at us, taking us for regular workers. "So, Miss Magpie, where to next?"

Tracey throws an irritable glance my way at the nickname, but remains on topic. "The end of this hallway should lead to the kitchens, past them, their should a forking hallway; if we go down the path to the right, we should come to a pair of locked doors that will take the card to open."

"And beyond that's the vault?"

"Down some stairs, yeah," Tracey replies, staring ahead as the sounds of sizzling food comes ever closer. As we pass through a set of double doors, the sizzling reaches fever pitch, accentuated by barked orders and the mingling scents of a thousand different dishes in this one, massive kitchen. Chefs screech at both the wait staff and each other.

Great, if we're not careful, we'll just end up carting quiche back and forth from the party dome to the kitchens. So, in effort to head off the ignominious failure that would end up being, I surreptitiously cast a notice-me-not charm on Tracey and myself. She inclines her head by way of thanks and swishes ahead, swaying her hips. When she catches me staring, she winks, a far cry from her earlier glower.

This woman makes absolutely no fucking sense.

Dodging an irate Japanese chef waving a wand in one hand and a knife in the other, Tracey and I push our way through a throng of befuddled waiters, lost like sheep, toward the double doors nestled in a corner of the kitchen. Outside the flappy doors is a hallway that forks into two, one path to storage, the other to a lift, and to all the riches a person could imagine.

With nary another thought, we disappear in the direction of eternal riches.

"Balls," mutters Tracey.

"Mhm," I agree, taking a look at the four men guarding the lift. "How d'ya suppose we get past them?"

"I thought that's what you were hired for," she retorts huffily.

"Was I now?" I muse, which earns me an evil glare from the brunette that I ignore, focusing on the four bruisers at the end of the shaft instead. They stand around a rusted hunk of chain-link metal; the lift is inside that death trap. A lone light bulb, flickering on them, casts four perfect shadows against the smooth stone of the walls. The only source of light for at least a hundred feet. They must have a way of communicating with each other, but if I'm quick enough, it won't matter. I'm thinking that if I can take out that light bulb, I'll be able to get the drop on them whilst they scramble to get a fire going.

What I wouldn't give for a bit of Fred and George's Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder right now. But, c'est la vie, and I'll have to make do.

"You any good at Obliviating?" I whisper to Tracey, having decided how to play this.

"I do well enough," she replies, her expression slightly befuddled. "Why do you ask?"

"Watch, and be ready to use a lumos when I ask," I reply, smiling at her as I read my wand, aiming at the first of four targets, intent on nailing him with a stunner. The lightbulb, off to the side stops its flickering for a moment, growing steadily brighter and garnering the attention of the guards. The light grows brighter and brighter, to an almost unbearable white shine, when the guard nearest the bulb makes the mistake of moving to inspect it. And when he does, boy does that thing explode, right in his unfortunate face.

It probably wasn't the smart thing to do, considering you can't exactly obliviate shrapnel to the face, but the temptation was too powerful to resist. I really had no choice but do it. Really.

But, I think I'm ignoring the bigger part of this picture, in that three other guards still stand, scrambling for a light. I fire off that stunner I'd been waiting to use and resist the urge to smile when I hear a thud and the crunch of glass underneath the guard's weight.

"I could use a light, Miss Davis," I say lowly as a soft bead of light frames Tracey's face. With a careless flick, she sends it off in a pretty impressive display of magic control, toward the last guards, who, already freaked by the lightbulb, are equally mystified by the floating ball of light quickly making its way toward them.

I creep along with the light, slinking just behind, always just out of sight, until there's little more than an arm's length separating me from the mooks. And that is where the muggle training kicks in.

A close-quarters combat, or CQC, situation is a common battlefield element and is the lynchpin in any good mercenary or bounty hunter's repertoire of skills. Of course, I would never call myself an expert, any decently-trained muggle could put me in the ground in a hand-to-hand fight, but given the wizard predisposition to relying only on their wands, it's always good to have another weapon against them. Utilizing grapples, holds, and throws, any CQC situation is mostly commonly associated with Krav Maga or Judo meant to subdue the enemy than outright kill him.

This is especially useful now. I have no cause to kill these men, in fact it would likely make my job more difficult than it is already, so I utilize my upper-body strength (I have, admittedly, come a long way from the skinny boy with knobby knees, you know) and utilize a hip-toss of one of the guards, ensuring he lands hard enough to knock the man out.

It's all a wash, as a light from the guard I'm not aiming for blinks into existence, casting his downed watch partner and myself into sharp relief. I can only hope Tracey can back me up on this. A sickly yellow jet of light, reminiscent of bile, erupts from his ebony wand and whizzes just past my face, deflected by a quick shield charm thrown up by Tracey. Thanking my lucky stars for Tracey's foresight, I rush the guard, sidestepping a sloppy stunner and grab his outstretched wand arm, raising it high above my head before bringing it down hard, flipping the man along with it. As he slams into the cold, hard floor, I take advantage of his shock and disarm him of his wand, aiming it at back at him.

The Power rushes through me as I grip at his throat. His eyes turn bloodshot and glassy, punctuated by a distinct aroma of fear so thick I can practically taste it. He chokes, but by no doing of my hand, as blood dribbles from his mouth; he makes a hacking noise, flailing his arms and legs weakly like jackrabbit trying to escape from the jaws of a predator.

One twist of the arm, a slight whimsy of the power, and this little hare's tiny light of existence... snuffed out. It's not thrilling; it's disgusting. I hate weakness, and this man is weak.

A burning sting on my arm causes me to drop the man and a jet of red light slams into him as he falls unconscious. I whip around in blind rage to take on the newcomer but only find Tracey, looking pale and somewhat frightened, an expression so far from her usual exuberance and wealth of self-confidence.

I come to my senses, the intoxicating pull of the Power receding. "Ouch. You could have just told me to put him down," I say, sucking at the welt on my wrist from Tracey's stinging hex.

"That was magic," she says quickly, looking every bit the frightened hare the guard was moments ago. "You weren't choking him; you were using magic. Dark magic."

I raise a nonchalant eyebrow, trying to maintain an expression of outward calm. "I kill people for a living, Miss Davis; of course I'd be using dark magic." She seems to accept the excuse, but I will privately admit I let the spell get away from me. I'll have to be more careful next time.

"A-alright," Miss Davis says, turning to one of the downed men. "We'll see you in a few," she smirks at the unconscious man, regaining some of her poise.

It strikes me odd that an old wizard-made castle would contain an elevator lift, given that even modern wizard-made buildings don't have them. It's certainly not a cultural thing, because Britain certainly isn't 'behind the times' compared to Eastern Europe, which Ron often likens to the setting of a medieval fantasy novel. I examine the lift as I step into it; there's not a single patch of rust or regular wear-and-tear of the centuries. So, it's relatively new, or at least very well-maintained. No wards on it either, far as I can tell.

Probably installed by Hozhen himself, once he captured the castle.

It only opens for us after Tracey swipes the ward card Boris's man gave us through a slot on the lift doors. The lift moves slowly once cranked, giving us both some time to think. Tracey's likely going over what happened with that guard again; she looks like she wants to say something, but it only ever remains that: a look. I, on the other hand, berate myself for being so careless; dark magic like that often has that intoxicating quality that I've never quite managed to detach myself from.

Shaking those thoughts from my head, I observe our surroundings: despite going deeper into the volcano, we remain ensconced in a metal, tubular shaft, one I did not have the pleasure of seeing while on the bridge to the dome. That being said, I didn't see much of anything below the mouth of the volcano, just an inky swell that could hold all manner of secrets in its dried magma crypts.

After a very long minute, the lift opens, and a portion of the tube-shaft winks out of existence as if it were an illusion, and a hole wide enough to step through opens up to another rocky bridge that leads to a solid, heavy locked gate to the vault with God-knows-how-many wards surrounding it. There's something immensely desolate about this place. If volcanoes are the birthplace of life, shooting out lava and creating habitable land, what is a dormant one? The progenitor of life lay dead, and here we are in its carcass, storing and stealing heirlooms. It seems almost... sacrilegious.

No guards, though. Again.

"Four mooks to guard a priceless treasure?" I find myself saying aloud. "Four pretty mediocre mooks at that? I don't understand."

Tracey, however, wears a picture perfect smile as she walks ahead, clicking on a device that looks somewhat like a muggle dispatch radio. "Oh no, it makes perfect sense," instead of speaking into the radio, she faces it toward the bridge. Weirdly, a blue light emanates from the radio, shining down on the ground in front of her. "See all these gold lines?" She asks, pointing toward the ground.

And on the bedrock, under the ghostly blue light of her device, are several gold lines that don't look too different from infrared lasers. "What are they?" I ask.

"Ward lines," the brunette responds, "or, at least that's how the Warder—that's this thing—" she points at the radio, "sees them. Gold generally mean curses, green for protective wards, and red are usually blood curses. Hozhen doesn't need any guards here because practically anyone who steps down here uninvited is dead already."

"Comforting," I reply.

"Don't worry," the thief pats my cheek patronizingly. "You're with me. And I'm the best. I'll get you there and back safely."

Tracey easily avoids the first trap, beckoning me follow behind her. And, with her in lead, we dodge, waltz, and pirouette across the bridge to the sturdy door. Taking out her wand, Tracey transfigures a loose bit of rock into parchment and a pen. The pen begins copying whatever she's thinking as Tracey examines the door with the Warder.

Being the dumb muscle on this particular segment of the heist, I find myself standing awkwardly and shuffling my feet.

"Stop that," Tracey commands after about half-a-minute.

"Stop what?" I ask, genuinely confused.

"Stop fidgeting like that; you're making me nervous."

"Ah, sorry."

The thief doesn't respond; she's completely enraptured by the gate. Things go quiet, and then, quite suddenly, she hisses. It's enough to jar me and ask what's wrong:

"We might have a problem," she replies, waving me over to look with the help of the warder. "We have no less than six curse wards and two protective wards. They're obscure, but I take my Curse-Breaking seriously; I should be able to get past them. The last, however, is a different story."

She shines the Warder on the door at just the right angle when a large, circular ward of an angry red color materializes. Remembering what Tracey said about the colors of wards, I reply:

"Blood Ward?"

"Yes," says Tracey, "not exactly under my repertoire of skills. Blood Wards are the strongest wards there are, you know. And even if we manage to cancel them, there's still the question of reapplying the ward afterward to keep from arousing suspicion."

Tracey bites her lip in a way the inevitably reminds me of Hermione, looking quite frazzled. I, however, find this intensely funny. When you've hunted as many monsters and blood mages as I have, blood wards and blood seals, anything blood-related really, becomes part of your specialty. So I throw my head back and laugh.

"What?" Asks the brunette, a cross expression on her face.

I smile placidly. "I think Boris put me on this little heist for a reason beyond getting into punch-ups, now." Tracey looks delightfully confused. "There are two types of Blood Wards, as far as I know: wards based on love, and wards based on hate. Wards based on love are without a doubt, the toughest in the world to crack; even Voldemort wasn't able to break one," I say, my mind lingering on Privet Drive for one long moment. "Wards based on hate are difficult, but not impossible to break. Apparently, as strong as it is, hate still isn't as powerful as love."

"So?" Asks Tracey.

"I don't exactly think Hozhen is the type of guy to base his wards on love, do you?" I ask, earning a nod. "I can crack Hate-based Blood Wards. It's probably not even that difficult of one, given that only a blood mage could provide a truly powerful blood curse for his or her ward, and Hozhen is not one."

"So we're good?"

"Not exactly," I reply. "We still need to replace the Wards. And for that, we'd need Hozhen's blood."

Tracey's face is all I need to see exactly what she thinks about that.

"So, we can do one of two things: either suck out Hozhen's blood somehow, and risk the op falling apart before it begins, or we can just not replace the wards and hope he doesn't notice it before we're gone. If not, we might have the whole castle out for blood."

"Shit," Tracey sighs. "When you put it that way, I just want to go home and sleep."

"Don't we all?" I say as a slight lull in the conversation ensues. We look awkwardly between each other and the gate before Tracey breaks the silence:

"We've been down here a long time—"

"—should tell Ron what we found," I find myself saying at the same time. We pause at the other's outburst, and both chuckle. "Lead the way, Miss Davis."

Tracey complies with style, sauntering ahead and flicking the Warder on once more, its ghostly light guiding us through the dead volcano, back to the party raging above us.

A/N: I'm not sure what to think of this chapter. It was originally supposed to include a lot more, but I didn't want to overload you guys with a 15,000-word chapter. It's okay, I guess, not really shitty but not really all the great either. Kind of like Everton this year (and most other years for that matter).

Next chapter will likely be more streamlined, but there's still a lot of ground to cover. I'd say the Siberia stuff will be finished with in two chapters.

Chapter Notes:

Magic: I realize hasn't been a whole lot of magic on display in this fic. Even in this chapter, the spells used were for quick ways of incapacitating guards stealthily, so there wasn't going to be any crazy light shows or wandworking. This will change next chapter. As an addendum, Harry refers to certain abilities as 'The Power' and others as 'Magic'. The naming is different for a reason.

Hozhen: I wouldn't call him a bad guy; he's not that great, but he's not horrible, either. He's a Dark Lord, yes, but not for the reasons most Dark Lords are given the name.

Curse-breaking: I admit, I don't know much about HP curse-breaking, but I will be doing a lot of research on it for the next chapter.

Humor: While I wouldn't call MB light-hearted, the next few chapters will be relatively serious, so there'll be a lot less Harry/Ron banter and witticisms, at least until Siberia's finshed with.

Lastly, there are constant references to 'eyes' in the earlier part of this chapter. They're there for a reason.

Thanks for reading!