Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.
There is none to count thy minutes.
Days and nights pass and ages bloom and fade like flowers.
Thou knowest how to wait.
Thy centuries follow each other perfecting a small wild flower.
We have no time to lose,
and having no time we must scramble for a chance.
We are too poor to be late.
And thus it is that time goes by
while I give it to every querulous man who claims it,
and thine altar is empty of all offerings to the last.
At the end of the day I hasten in fear lest thy gate be shut;
but I find that yet there is time.
- Rabindranath Tagore, "Endless Time"
"Merlin, it's hot. Who's idea was this anyway?"
"Yours," Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger both answered, with the drone of repetition.
Jasmine Potter, their friend and the former "Girl-Who-Lived", who eventually became the "Girl-Who-Won", frowned from underneath her hat, which was doing an inadequate job of shielding her from the sun as she bounced along on top of a camel. "Mine? Well, I have stupid ideas. You both know that. It's your fault for letting me go through with it."
Bill laughed quietly as he lead the three of them along on his own camel. The Egyptian sun beat down on them all, but Bill was more used to it thanks to his years curse-breaking for Gringotts. Jasmine was getting the worst of it… along with her fair skin, she'd also never left the United Kingdom before, and so the heat and sun of the Sahara was an unwelcome surprise.
But he was glad to have her with him, along with his brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law. He agreed with Ron and Hermione: Jasmine had been listless ever since the defeat of Voldemort two years beforehand. While she'd allowed Hermione to drag her back to Hogwarts to finish their schooling, ever since then she'd been mostly just existing… not thriving. He didn't blame her too much. Her entire existence up until the Battle of Hogwarts - as it had come to be known - had centred around the confrontation and defeat of the madman Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort. Though it was seldom mentioned directly, he was certain she hadn't believed she would survive the battle.
Although if his brother was to be believed, she hadn't. Dying, even if only briefly, had to have some kind of effect on a person. Add to that the friends and loved ones she'd lost - Bill knew she'd loved Fred like a brother - and she had every reason to be depressed. Since that day she'd been living life - as the muggles would say - on autopilot. Ron and Hermione were worried that, having become engaged and moved into a flat together, that Jasmine was feeling excluded, adrift.
The young woman couldn't be relied upon to talk about it. Hermione had always said Jasmine had a martyr complex, and Bill agreed. So, one day a mere three weeks ago, when Bill had made an offhand comment about Gringotts asking him to look at a few more tombs - he was still desk-bound at Gringotts, but he was also still one of their best curse-breakers - and Jasmine had actually expressed some interest, her two friends had leaped on the suggestion like starved wolves.
It wasn't hard to convince the goblins to allow him to take a few "apprentices" along… so long as they didn't take any valuables from the tombs, they didn't care. Bill, along with his parents, had expressed concern about the safety of the trip, but Ron had said that whatever they ran into couldn't possibly be worse than what they dealt with during the horcrux hunt. Bill had replied that that kind of attitude was exactly the kind of thing that could get you killed, or at least badly injured. But privately he conceded that his brother had a point. And so, with the edict that he was in charge - no ifs, ands, or buts - he allowed them to come along.
The goblins had asked him to view three tombs in all, deep in the Sahara, near the border to Libya. They provided the portkey there, but Bill had to rent the camels and buy the provisions himself, which he'd expense later. Well, expense his own… the goblins would refuse to pay for the others. He didn't care, he had enough money to cover the costs, and it was well worth it… the woman he considered a little sister in all but blood had virtually transformed the moment they landed in Egypt, in a hot, forgotten village southwest from Siwa. A week and two tombs in, she was sunburned, dehydrated, tired, sore, and even a little bit whiny. But her eyes glittered as their little group approached each tomb, showing more life than she had in months.
The first two tombs had been busts… empty, and possibly decoys. But they'd been good practice… he'd taught the three of them the basics of approaching an Egyptian tomb. Divining the traps, scouting out the curses present, and so on. All three of them paid attention - they knew firsthand how dangerous a laid curse could be. Jasmine had exhibited Hermione-like intensity as he instructed, and he took that as indication she was breaking free from her ennui. She'd said very little about what, if anything, she intended to do with her life since graduating Hogwarts… maybe he could convince her to become a curse-breaker.
The third location was the deepest into the desert, and the one for which they truly needed the camels. No tame magical creature was as tolerant of the heat, and they couldn't apparate to the location. Unfortunately, that meant a good eight-hour ride on camel-back, and even cooling charms could only do so much. There was no wind to swirl the sand, but that just meant it clung to them, seeming to leech the moisture from their bodies.
It didn't take long for the endless ergs of sand to become tiresome, with only the occasional consultation of a Four-Point spell to make sure they were on the right path. They were west of the Qattara Depression, very close to the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the border to Libya. Hermione had delighted in the landscape initially, explaining to all of them the difference between ergs, regs, and hamadas, but eventually even the encyclopedic witch had run out of things to talk about, and the punishing sun had silenced all conversation. All they were left with was silence and the plodding, boring pace of the camels.
Well, not complete silence. "Biiiiill," came Jasmine's voice from behind him, "are we there yet?"
He knew she did that to aggravate him, but he'd grown up with Fred and George and wasn't so easily needled. In fact, her mischief was a good sign. He smiled back at them. "As it happens, we are," he said, as they crested the final dune.
Below them was a small plain, a circle the size of a quidditch pitch, surrounded on all sides by dunes. Any wizard could tell that something magical was holding back the sands. The ground was dotted with small pebbles, and at the center of it was the unmistakable shape of a pyramid. Like the others they'd seen, this one was barely larger than a small house and was the colour of the land around it, making it effectively invisible from the air. It was deceptively innocent in looks, and Bill understood how intensely dangerous it could be.
"A tomb, this far into the Sahara," Hermione marveled. She shook her head. "It boggles the mind." And it did; considering the magics and technologies available at the time, to be set so far into lands hostile to life was amazing. But it was typical for the "true" tombs of the Pharaohs, the place where they hid their real bodies and treasure. The great pyramids, constructed by and for muggles, were meant to draw the attention of thieves and looters, filled with decoy mummies and a tiny helping of treasure.
The three others had rode up alongside him and were looking down at the object of their journey. He turned in the saddle to look at them. "Okay, let's set up the tent and secure the camels. I could use a drink myself." A look of relief crossed all three faces. "Don't go near the tomb, not yet. We'll set up on that flat area there," he said, pointing at a smooth area located a few yards from the entrance.
"I want to be clear: don't go near the tomb. I left this one last for a reason," he said, after making sure all three of the "Golden Trio" were looking at him. "If the goblin scouts were right, this is the tomb of Senusret the Third. He was a pharaoh who ruled around 1800 BC, so this tomb is quite old. But the main concern is that Senusret had access to Wadjet, so the curses and traps are going to be extremely refined and dangerous, as we believe this to be the last tomb she built. Understand?"
They nodded, though both Jasmine and Ron looked confused. "Wadjet?" his brother asked.
Hermione rolled her eyes, but let Bill explain. "Wadjet was a witch, one of the first we know of in history. She lived in Egypt and served the pharaohs, one after another, for nearly two thousand years."
"Two thousand years?" Ron exclaimed. "How?"
Bill shrugged. "We don't know. The most likely explanation is that Wadjet was a name taken on by a series of witches, perhaps master to apprentice. Or, maybe she had an early version of the Philosopher's Stone."
"Or maybe she had a horcrux," Jasmine speculated sourly.
"Maybe," Bill replied. "The worst-case scenario is that we're dealing with one witch who had near two millennia, and maybe more, to perfect her craft. So that's what we'll assume, okay?"
They nodded again, and so the four of them rode down into the small valley between the dunes. Soon Bill and Ron had the wizard tent set up. Jasmine, despite her complaints, delayed taking shelter from the sun long enough to put out some feed for the camels. Bill didn't much care for the animals beyond their necessity - the spitting, ugh! - but Jasmine seemed to like them well enough.
Soon they were all arranged around a small table inside the magically-expanded tent, enjoying a drink of water and the tent's cooling charms. Although they'd probably all love a blast of cold air, Bill had lessened the charms a bit… going back into the heat would be all the more brutal if coming from high-intensity air conditioning.
Hermione pressed the glass of water against her neck, ignoring the way it made Ron's eyes follow. "Jas, you've lost the right to complain about my notions of a vacation."
The other woman had removed her hat, her wild black locks not in the least bit matted down. She rubbed her forehead with her arm, wiping sweat away from her famous lightning-bolt scar - her most-known and least-favourite feature. Over the past couple of years, since her "death", the scar had begun to finally fade, lightning to a soft white line instead of the vivid red it had been for almost two decades.
The owner of that scar smiled, despite her fatigue. "What? You mean you'd prefer going to Germany to watch the Quidditch finals instead of investigating ancient relics of history? Hermione, I'm surprised."
"I would have," Ron grumbled.
The witch rolled her eyes. "I didn't say I wasn't enjoying myself. I'm just saying you seem to be, too."
"Maybe," Jasmine replied, though with a small smile. "It's new and yet familiar at the same time, if you get my meaning."
They did. "If you're going to do it, it's nice to do it with some real backing," Ron admitted.
Hermione sighed. "And I suppose we do owe the goblins."
"We'd owe them if Griphook hadn't tried to get us killed," Jasmine growled. Ron nodded.
"Well, he paid the price, didn't he?" the other witch countered. Hermione, being a constant crusader for social justice, was quick to forgive. Jasmine was more like a Weasley: some slights weren't forgiven or forgotten so easily. She snorted, crossing her arms.
"Come on, now," Bill said, trying to mollify them before it turned into a real argument. "We're here, let's not over-analyze why. We're looking for treasure and adventure." He smirked. "In that order of preference, hopefully."
That perked her up. "When do we crack the tomb?"
He lifted an eyebrow at her wording. "We're a few hours to sundown. We'll probably try to take down the outer defenses tonight, then we'll sleep on it. Tomorrow we'll go inside and see what's there. That way we can spend the day inside and out of the sun."
"Sounds like a plan to me," she agreed.
And so that was the plan they followed. After a quick meal of bread and cheese from the tent's cooler, Bill lead them outside and began the delicate work of unraveling the wards on the entrance. Slowly, and explaining each step, he taught them how to find the edges of a ward without triggering it, and how to find the anchor stones, and then take the ward down. Having the three of them along proved quite handy… he was able to demonstrate how one wizard using a sustained Finite could stretch a ward and allow another wizard to lift the spell off the anchor. That was useful, because the wards he found were complex and still very strong even after millennia.
"These are definitely Wadjet's wards," he commented after near an hour of work.
"You can tell that?" Hermione asked, curious.
"Sure. You encounter a certain wizard's work often enough and you can start to tell their style." He waved his wand, and the rune map of the spellwork appeared above the anchor stone he was working with. "See that particular arithmancy configuration? That's Wadjet for sure."
Hermione peered over his shoulder, while the others looked on. "That's an interesting rune layout. What would that ward have done if we'd tripped it?"
"Probably a conflagration. See those runes there?" He pointed at the softly glowing sowilo and kenaz runes. "You'll find the same in the runic calculations for the Fiendfyre spell. Wadjet loved her fire." Behind him, Jasmine and Ron looked at each other nervously.
After another hour of work, the ward was down. Bill put away his wand and wiped his forehead. The sun was sinking below the horizon, and the temperature would soon drop. "There. It's open, but we won't go inside yet. There might be more wards on the interior of the door. Let's get some rest and look tomorrow morning."
With that they returned to the tent, for another helping of bread and cheese and more water. Soon afterward they were settled into the tent's cots in what passed for a "bedroom" in the large interior of the wizarding tent. Ron dropped to sleep almost immediately, his snores filling the room. Hermione sighed and cast a silencing charm on him; Jasmine giggled.
"You're going to have to get used to that, Future-Missus-Weasley," she teased.
"He wasn't that bad during the hunt," Hermione complained.
Jasmine beamed. "That's because I was silencing him then."
"I'm going to drag him to St. Mungo's and have his sinuses checked out. That isn't normal."
The two women chatted quietly for a little while longer, and Bill smiled from his cot, pretending to sleep, glad to hear the animation in Jasmine's voice. After a while they snuggled into their blankets and nodded off. Bill tugged the blankets up to his chin, warding off the chill of the desert night, and followed their example.
The next morning began with a light breakfast, the four of them gathering around the table once again to enjoy a round of oatmeal. They dressed in tighter clothing, leaving behind the loose linen robes they'd worn yesterday to shield them from the sun, in favour of jeans and tight-fitting long-sleeved shirts.
"Unlike the decoy tombs, which were built by muggles and were limited in size, these main-tombs can be quite large," Bill had explained. "There's expansion charms, multiple levels, and numerous rooms. You don't want to trip on a robe or get a sleeve caught in something."
They all carried backpacks, filled with simple stuff like their canteens, a small meal, a knife, and even a muggle crowbar. At Jasmine's curious look Bill had explained how intensely useful a crowbar could be… it saved the trouble of transfiguring an equivalent, and was useful when you didn't want to cast around a particularly sensitive ward.
So prepared, they set out to the entrance of the tomb, Jasmine leaving a bucket of feed and a large trough of water - filled with a Water-Summoning charm - out for the camels. Although the animals didn't strictly need it, it would keep them from wandering too far off.
Together, Bill and Jasmine pulled the door outward with a combination of levitation and summoning charms. The door became a black square set on the side of pyramid, swallowing the morning light. "Okay, stay a few steps behind me so you don't get caught in anything that goes off, in case I miss something. You have your emergency portkeys?" They nodded. "Good. They probably won't work inside, but if one of us gets injured we come back here and if needed portkey back to Siwa. Make sure-"
Bill looked in the direction Jasmine indicated, at the crest of one of the nearby dunes. "Who? What did you see?"
She blinked, green eyes squinting. "I could have sworn I saw a person over there. A woman, maybe. With a staff?"
Ron shrugged. "I didn't see anything."
"Neither did I," added Hermione.
"Okay, I must be seeing mirages. Sorry, Bill."
"Don't be," he said firmly. "In this business you call out suspicions first, then figure out whether they're valid. A false negative is much, much worse than a false positive."
One by one, they entered the tomb. The entrance was barely larger than a broom closet, the walls made of the same stone that formed the more well-known pyramids, a sculpted limestone. The entrance and the surrounding wards had done an admirable job of keeping out the sand; but the relentless substance had still managed to penetrate, grain by grain, over the thousands of years, until the floor was dusted with it. A long stone stairway lead downward, and torches - unbelievably old torches - sprang to life as they moved in. Bill's wand was out and constantly casting divination spells; he pronounced the stairwell safe and moved downward.
Hermione was fascinated by the torches. "So?" commented Ron. "We had those at Hogwarts."
"Yes, Ron, but the enchantments on those have to be renewed every fifty years or so. Even the spells cast by the Founders wore out after a couple of centuries. These are still working nearly four thousand years later! Do you realize the amount of skill required to make an enchantment that solid?"
"Sounds like Wadjet was your kind of witch."
"I would have loved to have met her."
"She tried to incinerate us at the door," Jasmine injected reality into the conversation. "Let's not make assumptions about how personable she might have been."
That said, they advanced in Bill's wake with care. Soon they were at the bottom of the stairs, in a medium-sized chamber with a door at one end. The walls here had obviously been smoothed with magic, before hieroglyphics had been added to almost every visible inch. Hermione and Bill were able to interpret some of them, pointing out the name of the Pharaoh, Senusret the Third.
"There," Bill said. He pointed at a symbol engraved on a portion of the wall. It was an eye, with long line above, a thick line descending like a tear, and a curling loop on one corner. "That's Wadjet's symbol, the Eye of Horus."
"Should we be worried?" Jasmine asked.
"Maybe, although we're not seeing the kind of defenses I'm used to from her work. She was…
well, getting kind of nasty near the end of her run."
"When the bad guy suddenly seems to mellow out, that's a bad sign in my experience."
He nodded, conceding the point. "Of course, this was one of the last tombs she ever built, if not the last. Maybe after two thousand years she was finally getting old. Or maybe she didn't build all this at all, and someone just imitated her mark to cash in on her reputation. Still, we'll be extra careful. If this is her work, it'll be a good sign that the tomb is real and hasn't been plundered."
Their caution was justified almost immediately, as he discovered another ward stretched across the apparently-open door at the end of the room. With their help he brought it down, though he was sweating at the end of it.
He stopped and took a sip of water. "I'm glad I brought you guys along. That would have taken forever without you." Capping his canteen, he moved into the next room.
It was a wide, circular room, but the only door available was the one they entered through. There were no more of the enchanted torches; the only light was their own. The wandlights shone upon a stone post, set right in the centre of the room, about waist-high and no thicker than Bill's forearm, the top of the post carved into the shape of a snake. The walls, smooth and rounded at the floor and ceiling, were lacking any markings at all.
Jasmine looked around in confusion. "Is this it? An entire room just for a snake statue?"
"Reminds me a bit too much of Slytherin, if you ask me," Ron added with distaste.
Bill shook his head. "It's an uraeus," he said. "The Ancient Egyptians had a good view of snakes… they'd often wear crowns with the uraeus on them, for example. The goddess Wadjet was said to be a snake that coiled on the head of the sun god, Ra."
Ron grimaced. "Wonderful. An entire society of Slytherins." Hermione rolled her eyes at her fiance.
Bill waved his wand over the snake figure. "It's spelled. Don't touch it." The warning became moot a moment later, as the entire room rotated with a loud, grinding rumble. The room they'd entered through disappeared as the round room turned away from it, showing only bare rock for long seconds.
After about a sixth of a turn a new room came into view. This new area was about the same size as the circular room, though square in shape. More hieroglyphics decorated the walls, and on one side was a large sarcophagus. Gold urns were set on each side of the grave, and in alcoves carved into the stone walls, there were the unmistakable shapes of human bodies.
"Bloody-!" Bill cursed. Then he sighed. "It detected my spell and reacted. That's more of what I was expecting from Wadjet."
Ron laughed nervously. "Well, at least she didn't burn us. Maybe she's not so bad after all."
Bill spent long minutes examining the charm on the statue. Eventually he sighed again. "No traps, but I can't trigger it again. It might go off on its own. And I can't remove it without locking us at this location."
"Should we explore this room?" Hermione asked, cautiously peeking inside.
"Careful, now. I think we'll have to. Let me go first, though."
He did, stepping gingerly into the room, wand up and out at all times. He cast a spell to make enchanted objects glow, and the room was surprisingly dim; the uraeus behind them the brightest object affected. The walls themselves gave off a subtle blue light, illuminating yet more hieroglyphics.
Hermione - of course - had already learned the divination spells Bill was using. She cast one herself and made a small humming noise. "Durability charms on the walls."
"Pretty typical for a burial room. Look."
Ron and Jasmine cast their wand-lights in the direction they indicated. There at the rear of the room was a sarcophagus, set slightly above the floor on a stone dias. The alabaster coffin had been carved into the likeness of a person and then painted. Sheltered from even light, the paint still seemed fresh as they cast their lights across it. Only a thin layer of dust robbed the sarcophagus of luster. Around it were canopic urns, containing the dessicated organs of whoever inhabited the coffin.
"Is this the Pharaoh?" Jasmine asked.
"No," Bill answered. "The Pharaoh would be surrounded with his wife and servants and, whoever else was unlucky enough to be needed in his 'next life'." He squinted as he read the hieroglyphics along the walls. "I think this was Senusret's vizier. His right-hand man," he clarified for his brother's benefit. "He's… the door greeter, I guess you could say."
"I feel plenty welcome already, so he can stay in the box, please."
Bill laughed. "Wadjet didn't use Inferi, I'm glad to say."
"Then who did this?" Hermione asked.
They all turned to regard her discovery: a dried-out corpse propped against the wall behind them. It was obviously a person from modern times, as it - he - was dressed in a uniform. Time and the arid environment had drained all moisture from the flesh, leaving the corpse little more than parchment-like skin stretched over the skeleton. Bill stepped forward and played his werelight across the unfortunate man, and the German-military styling of the ancient cloth became obvious. On one arm was the unmistakable red and black swastika. On the other was a black armband bearing a vertical line within a circle, within a triangle. A symbol the three younger magicals were intimately familiar with.
"The Hallows," Jasmine whispered.
Hermione made a pensive noise. "This must have been one of Grindelwald's men."
"How'd he end up in here?" Ron was crouched close to the body, scowling at it. For a brief moment Bill felt sad, that his brother and friends had experienced enough that a dead body wasn't as shocking or frightening as it should be.
"Grindelwald was always looking for power. I'm sure items to be found in a tomb built by an ancient maybe-immortal witch would interest him."
"Hermione?" Jasmine said, pointing. They all leaned in to look; there, on the remains of skin on the poor man's throat, was a wound they all recognized easily... Jasmine especially: a lightning bolt.
"The Killing Curse," Ron said, wide-eyed. "He didn't set off a trap, someone killed him right here."
"One of the Allied wizards?" the raven-haired witch wondered. "Or another one of Grindelwald's men?"
"I don't know, but there's something important this tells us," Hermione said. "We're not the first people to get inside here, and maybe not even the second."
Bill nodded grimly. "That might explain why the defences seem light… someone already took down a lot of them. Of course that might mean the tomb's been emptied by now."
The four of them looked among each other, pondering the notion that all their efforts here might be to waste. Finally, Jasmine shrugged. "Let's worry about getting out of here, first."
He nodded at the wisdom of that. "Let's try through there," he said, gesturing to an exit on the south wall.
In a familiar pattern, he moved through the door, casting the entire time. The others stayed behind, their wands up and ready to intercede if anything happened. He found nothing to be obviously concerned about; it was a near-empty room, with what seemed to be a few large urns and possibly even ancient rotted wood in the corners. Dust layered everything, undisturbed for centuries. On the left side of the room was a door blocked by a stone wall; he guessed that the rotating room could also spin to deposit visitors directly into this room. Opposite him was yet another door obstructed with a stone slab.
"Okay, come on- Hey!"
"Bill!" the other three shouted as a stone slab suddenly swung down to block the door. Everyone's natural reaction was to try and dash through; they barely skidded to a stop as the slab slammed into place with enough force to shake both rooms.
"Damn it!" Bill snarled. He didn't beat his fists against the stone; he knew better. He lifted his wand and scanned it, finding no spells beyond a durability charm. Then he banged his fist against it; an answering thump came back.
"Can you hear me?" he shouted.
Their reply was almost impossible to hear. "Yes! ... hurt?"
"No! I'm fine! How about you guys?"
He breathed a sigh of relief. "Help me levitate! Levitate!"
For long minutes, shouting back and forth, they tried to simply lift the slab out of the way, but either they weren't coordinating well enough, or the slab was resisting them. Bill tried some other spells he knew; a goblin-modified version of the Unlocking charm, as well as a "trigger" hex that would hopefully toggle whatever magic lifted and dropped the slab. Nothing worked. Finally, in frustration, he warned the others off and tried to simply blast through the wall. The reductor bounced off, and he was forced to dive to the side to avoid having his head taken off. He heard the spell shatter an urn behind him, ceramic bits raining over the room as he covered his head with his arm.
He lifted his wand, glaring at the slab in the wand-light as he clambered to his feet.
He paused, his senses - and most importantly instinct - honed from dozens of other tombs and vaults around the world, telling him something was off.
The shadows in the room were wrong.
He turned, and nearly jumped out of his skin. There, standing on the other side of the room, was a cloaked woman. Her face was hidden, concealed within a large hood. Only her chin and mouth were visible, tilted at an amused angle; soft, full lips and a feminine chin. The rest of her face was hidden beneath shadows that were too deep to be natural. Her robes looked to be soft cotton, a yellowish white in colour, loose and well-suited for the desert. The source of the light was her staff, which stood only slightly shorter than she did. She held it with both hands just in front and to the side of herself, smooth arms extending from the voluminous sleeves of her robes.
Bill jumped back a step in surprise, but the woman did not move, nor did she react to his wand lifting. But he did not cast, and after a moment he lowered his hand.
"Um… hello?" he said hesitantly. She did not reply. "I… my name is William. William Weasley. My friends call me Bill. I… well, I seem to be separated from them." He frowned at her lack of response. Briefly he wondered if she was an illusion; he'd once been taunted by an extremely obnoxious glamour in a vault in South America for near an hour... it'd only stopped when he'd found and blasted the anchor stone for the enchantment, an extremely satisfying if inelegant solution at the time. But then he remembered Jasmine commenting on seeing a woman in a robe outside. He perked up. "Did you follow us in here? How did you get around the rotating room?" He sighed. "Can you help me get back to my friends?"
That brought a reaction. She tapped her staff against the floor twice; a door slid aside in the wall just behind her, and the lights from the wand and staff barely penetrated the inky blackness beyond.
Unfortunately, that door was on the opposite side of the room from the door that lead back to the others. He looked at dubiously. "Uh… thank you? I'm afraid my friends are trapped behind this door, though. Are you able to open this one?" Nothing. "Do you speak English?" he asked, hiding his frustration.
"So polite," she replied in answer, amusement plain, in a throaty high alto similar to Jasmine's. Her voice had no accent... or he should say she had a strange mishmash of accents, similar to the old wizards he had met who worked for Gringotts in remote locations for so long that they picked up some of the local patois. "Quite a step up from the normal intruders here, I must say. But I'm afraid that, no, I can't get you through that door. I will guide you to your friends, but the path is that way."
"Oh… well, thank you," he said, confused. "Are you familiar with the wards and traps?"
"They will pose no threat so long as you are with me."
Bill felt like ice water was dripping down his neck. "May I know your name?"
"Oh, I prefer not to be tied down with labels. Are you coming?" she asked as she turned toward the door.
"Please, just a moment." He turned back to the door. "Guys! I may have found a way around!" he shouted, uncertain whether or not they could hear him. "Sit tight, be careful, and don't touch anything!" He turned back to the mysterious woman, swallowing his misgivings. "Lead on," he said.
"Could you make out what he was saying?"
Ron shook his head at Jasmine. "Only parts. I think he said something about a way around? Sit tight?"
"Well, that makes sense," Hermione said. "He must be following the rooms around back to the beginning, and then will take the spinning room back to us. I hope."
"I hope, too," the raven-haired witch said. "This tomb is making up for the other two in spades."
"Bill did say Wadjet was dangerous. I think we've gotten off lucky."
"Luck runs out. I'd rather not be here when it does."
"Rethinking your plan of becoming a curse-breaker?" Ron asked wryly.
"I'm rethinking my plan of doing it before finishing the training. I don't like being useless."
"I don't think Bill thinks of us as useless," Hermione said placatingly. "He's needed us several times just getting this far."
"I know, I just…" She waved her hands. "I don't know what I mean. I guess I got used to being the one people needed. And that sounds really stupid and narcissistic, and I'm sorry."
Hermione hugged her glum friend. "I think you mean you're used to relying on yourself. That's not stupid."
She received a wry grin in response. "Well, no… I'm used to relying on you two. But you're stuck here with me."
"That's right, you're stuck with us," Hermione replied, and she gave Jasmine a look that told her that she didn't just mean their current situation. "And now you'll have to sit and wait with us for Bill to rescue all of us."
"Yes, it grates against your Potter heritage, I know. Ron, what in the world are you doing?"
Both of them turned to where Ron was levitating the lid off one of the canopic jars. "Just peeking inside. Are these really dried organs? Is that a heart?"
"Ron, if you set off a trap and get us all killed I'll never forgive you. Put that back!"
"Relax, 'Mione," Ron replied, replacing the jar lid and lifting the next. "I used Bill's divination spell, none of the jars are spelled. Not even a vermin-repulsing spell. I was just-" He was forced to eat his words a moment later as he lifted a lid and something jumped out. The redhead shouted in fright and jumped back, tripping over his feet and falling against the wall.
The girls had their wands up, but no attack came. "What in the world is that?" Hermione asked, flabberghasted.
The thing that had jumped out of the jar was small, round, and golden. Fairy-like wings fluttered faster than the eye could see. It darted around the room, occasionally hiding behind the sarcophagus or the jars, or in the alcoves arranged around the room. But most of the time it fluttered around their heads, as if examining them.
"It's a snitch!" Jasmine exclaimed.
"That's impossible!" replied Hermione. "This tomb is nearly four thousand years old! Quidditch wasn't even invented until 1050 AD." At their surprised looks, she scowled. "What? I've been hanging around you two for nine years now, you think I wouldn't pick up something?"
Jasmine shook her head. "Well, impossible or not, that's a snitch." The snitch seemed particularly interested in her, buzzing around her head.
"That makes it more suspicious, not less! Jas- No!"
Hermione's warning came too late. The snitch had taken to taunting the raven-haired witch, fluttering near her nose. Being a Seeker through-and-through, she'd reacted naturally by grabbing it out of the air. A pulse of energy rippled through the air, knocking the other two back a step. A cage seemingly made of rings of white lightning appeared around their friend.
"Jasmine! Let go! Let go of it!"
"I can't! My hand is stuck!" She tried to reach for her wand; as if it knew her intention, the cage constricted, pinning her arm against her side.
Ron dashed forward trying to simply grab her, but he was knocked back yet again, this time clear off his feet. Hermione brought her wand up, casting every dispel and curse-removal she knew, but every single one bounced off the cage. The magical trap was glowing brighter and brighter, energy building up within it with an ominous hum, until the trapped witch was almost lost in the glare.
"Jas!" Ron shouted in panic.
"Oh… oh Merlin. I'm sorry guys, I didn't mean-" The rest of her words were lost as the glare reached a crescendo. Suddenly there was a pop, and the bright orb which contained their friend snapped out of existence, leaving them blinking away spots from their eyes in the sudden darkness. A divot had been carved from the stone floor, and smoke wafted up from the smooth-bottomed hole.
Ron rushed forward. He swung his arms around, as if Jasmine had merely donned her invisibility cloak. "Jasmine! Jasmine!"
"Ron, stand back! Homenum Revelio!" Failing that, she tried a number of divinations, until she'd exhausted her own large library of spells.
"Oh Merlin… Jasmine!" Ron cried.
"Ron… Ron! Calm down!" Hermione said, though she was panicking herself. "She's not gone. She's not gone! She's just invisible, or portkeyed away! Bill has to have seen something like this before… he'll come back and he'll help us track her down!" She said it as much to convince herself as her fiance.
"Jas… Oh, 'Mione…" Ron was in near tears.
Hermione grabbed him and hugged him tightly, trying to stave off her own sobs in the suddenly lonely room.
Bill halted as the woman paused in her steps, as if hearing something from afar. Then she began walking more purposefully.
He was glad of it… as they'd taken a circuitous path, through side-rooms and hidden passages, he'd begun to wonder if she was deliberately wasting his time. Only his strong suspicions as to her identity kept him from making an issue of it. She easily bypassed traps and wards... simply waving her staff to get past them.
As if the wards to the ancient tomb recognized her.
But now he found himself curious. "What is it?"
"Fate," she replied simply. "Come along, let's get you to your friends."
"I thought we were already headed there," he said with frustration.
"Of course we were. But we needed to wait for the right time. That time is now."
"What?" Bill looked at her, confused. "What do you mean by that? Are we running out of time?"
"On the contrary," she replied. She looked at him, still hidden by her cloak. There was a strange eagerness in her voice. "We've gained time. Or time has gained us. It depends on how you look at it."
"I don't understand."
"Of course not. Come along, now." She walked away, and he was forced to hurry after. She tapped her staff against a piece of stone wall, which slid into the ceiling. Beyond was another room, a storeroom of some sort, filled with large ceramic jars which had once been used to store food, long since turned to dust. She strode in confidently, and on the far side of the room a portion of the wall slid aside, revealing the rotating, circular room they'd arrived in. "Ah, just in time." Leading him inside, she set the head of her staff against the snake statue, and the entire room began spinning slowly with an eager rumbling.
Bill looked at the head of the staff, seeing the uraeus there, and seeing how it matched the carving on her staff. It was all the confirmation he needed. "You're Wadjet," he breathed, utterly certain and yet unable to believe it.
The cloaked head turned to regard him. "People used to call me that, once upon a time."
A raft of questions floated through his mind, and he lacked the courage to ask any of them. He decided to leave them to Hermione; nothing could restrain that girl from seeking knowledge. Instead he concentrated on the exit from the rotating room as it passed a number of other branches in the tomb, and then finally settled on the sarcophagus room.
Within were Ron and Hermione, hugging each other. Bill darted forward. "Guys!"
"Bill!" The two jumped away from each other. For a moment he thought he'd interrupted them in an embarrassing moment, but the watery eyes of Hermione and the panicked look on Ron's face had his heart in his throat. "Bill, quick! It's Jasmine!"
A chill fist gripped his heart... the last time he'd heard that emotion in his brother's voice had been at the Battle of Hogwarts. "What happened?" he asked, forcing calm he didn't feel into his voice. He was the oldest, and the leader of the expedition… they couldn't afford for him to surrender to fear at the moment.
"We triggered a trap. It caught Jasmine… she was in some kind of glowing white cage, and it just disappeared. It was a portkey, right?"
"There was no heat, and there's no… blood," Hermione added shakily, struggling with her own control. "She wasn't in pain, so it wasn't hurting her." He could hear the desperation in her voice.
Bill shook his head… he'd never encountered a trap like that. He strode forward to the spot where the two indicated - obvious enough by the shallow hole in the floor that hadn't been there before - and waved his wand. Spells to detect invisibility returned nothing. He even tried a spell that was speculated could detect objects under a Fidelius… nothing.
The room brightened as Wadjet and her werelight stood in the doorway. Wadjet! She would know-
He froze. She would know. She had known.
He slowly turned to her. Ron and Hermione looked at her with confusion and trepidation. The mysterious woman merely stood there, and he knew she was watching him carefully. "You knew," he said. Ron raised his eyebrows… he was familiar with that tone in his brother's voice, and knew the best response to it was to run and hide. Bill possessed the infamous Weasley temper, but his was the still, cold rage of his father rather than the fiery loudness of his mother. "You were deliberately keeping me away from them until this happened."
"What?" Ron growled, his wand practically vibrating in his hand. Ron definitely took after their mother.
The three of them watched the cloaked figure, who continued to stand impassively. "Yes," she said solemnly.
"Why?" demanded Bill.
"Because it needed to happen."
"A snitch…" Hermione muttered. "That trap was laid for her. You deliberately targeted her!"
"I did," the woman replied. "She-"
"You bitch!" Ron roared, a spell lashing out from his wand. She reacted quicker than thought, slapping the white bolt aside with contemptuous ease. He followed with a reductor, which she spun aside to allow past, her staff raising and then slamming into the ground. A blast of white energy exploded outward, knocking them all off their feet.
Hermione tried for a stunner from her position on the ground, but Wadjet merely held out a hand and ripped the wand from the witch's hand with a Summoning charm. The wand flipped through the air to land in Wadjet's outstretched hand to join Ron's.
The head of her staff moved to point at Bill, who had jumped to his feet. He held his wand steadily, the rest of him shaking with anger, but he did not cast. "How about you? Do you have something to prove?" she asked dangerously.
"Why would you do this?" he asked.
"Because it needed to happen."
"You've said that twice! Why?"
"I was going to explain, until this fool decided to throw around spells!" She turned to regard Ron, who was standing with his fists balled, ready to charge the witch and try brawling where dueling failed. "There's very, very few people who have ever attacked me and lived to tell of it, boy! Count yourself fortunate!" The witch flung the two wands at the couple's feet.
"Then why?" Hermione asked, tears in her voice. "Why would you kill our friend?"
Where violence failed, the anguished tone of the honey-haired witch seemed to touch the woman. "She's not dead. She's just elsewhen."
"Not dead?" Hermione gasped. Then confusion took her. "Elsewhen? What does that mean?"
"The trap was not meant to kill. It was a time distortion… a portkey, like you said, but through time, not space."
"But… that's impossible!"
The scorn in Wadjet's voice was plainly obvious. "For you, perhaps."
Hermione's hand tightened on her wand. "If we believe you… when did you send her, then?"
"To the end of the Amratian period. When she and I first came together."
"Amratian… But… that's pre-historic Egypt! That's over five thousand years ago!"
Wadjet sniffed. "It's not polite to dwell on a lady's age."
"You killed her! You might not have done it directly, but you might as well have!"
"Don't be ridiculous," she replied. She pointed at Ron, who looked ready to attack again. "And don't be stupid, boy. I'll put you down again, and you'll be longer standing up this time." She turned her attention back to Hermione. "None of this is done by my will. I've done this because I had to do it, because it was fated to happen."
"You mentioned fate before," Bill said, gesturing at Ron to calm down. They were outmatched, and spellfire wasn't going to get them anywhere. "Why? Was this part of a prophecy or something?"
"Prophecy? No, nothing so sloppy. Prophecies work because one or both parties believe in them. They're inexact, and can be tricked." She looked back at Hermione, and Bill got the impression that Wadjet was speaking specifically for her, to make the young witch understand. "We are all products of your friend's actions. When she went back, she set into motion events that culminated here, this very moment. I don't follow prophecy… I follow the will of Time itself."
"Bring her back," Ron growled.
"Bring her back!"
"I can not! The passage, like a portkey, is one way! Nor would I bring her back were I able! Pull that thread, and everything unravels! The world you know comes apart, becomes something new… something that would very likely lack you! You would destroy your friend and yourselves! Not dead… gone. Destroyed in the most complete way possible… never having existed at all! Do you want that? Would she want that?"
It was the one argument to silence them; they all knew the extent Jasmine would reach to protect them all. Ron crumpled, leaning against the sarcophagus and sinking to the floor, his face in his hands. Hermione went over to him and pulled him against her. Bill in turn laid a hand on her shoulder, as misery descended over the room.
After a few moments, Hermione looked up at Wadjet, who continued to wait patiently in the doorway. "What did she do?"
"Pardon?" Bill got the impression that the ancient witch hadn't expected that question.
"What did she do? What did Jasmine do, that made her presence back in time so important?"
"Well… for one, she helped make me."
Hermione blinked. "You're her daughter?"
The robed figure visibly twitched. "What? No! I meant in the metaphorical sense. Jasmine Potter made Wadjet possible, and everything that followed. The entire magical world as you know it stems from her."
"So she lived? Was she happy?"
Wadjet paused, and Bill could see her hands clenching around her staff. "She lived a very long time," she replied, and there was caution to her words. "During that time she was happy, she was sad… there was elation and there was despair. There was life, in other words."
"Did she have any children?"
Hermione was having much more success knocking Wadjet off-balance with questions than they'd all had with spells, Bill thought. "No," was the reply. "She tried, but she was unable." The young woman sighed and buried her face in Ron's shoulder.
The ancient woman seemed to watch them for long moments. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "Had I the power, I would not be here. But it was lose her or lose everything. My presence here is her choice. Please know this."
The three ignored her, trying to come to grips with their loss. But it wasn't time for that, Bill reluctantly acknowledged. First they needed to get out of the tomb and get their bearings. And then… and then, he thought, Wadjet or no, they'd come back with help. And see if they could get his adopted little sister back.
He stood and turned to Wadjet. "If you can't help us bring Jasmine back, can you help us get out of here?" He managed to tame some of the hostility in his voice, but his tone very much said 'You owe us'.
"Of course, that's why I'm here. Contrary to what you might believe, I didn't come here to victimize anyone. Quite the opposite."
"Then, please… lead the way. Come on, Ron." Together with Hermione, they lifted the distraught young man to his feet. Pausing, he grasped his little brother by the shoulders. "She didn't die, Ron," he said softly, as much for himself as his brother. Later, they would cry and rage, but for now they needed to keep it together.
"Doesn't matter… she's gone," Ron said miserably.
Bill nodded. Then he turned to look to Wadjet, who gripped her staff, watching them. It was impossible to tell without seeing her face, but she seemed hesitant, like there was more she wanted to say. Bill doubted any of them were interested in hearing more from the woman who had taken their friend, so he merely gestured ahead. "Lead the way."
She nodded and walked into the spinning room, stopping a few steps in. They followed, pausing just behind her. She was staring at the central post… or where the snake-headed statue used to be. In its place was shattered stone, from Ron's missed reductor curse.
She turned to look at Ron, and even with her face hidden her glare was like a physical force. "Well done," she commented snidely. Despite his grief, Ron glared back defiantly.
"Can you fix it?" Hermione asked.
"It took me a fortnight to enchant that axis to move this much stone. Do you want to wait that long for me to do it over again?" She shook her head. "There's another way. Come along." She turned and lead them back into the vizier's burial room. Striding past the sarcophagus, she rapped the stone slab which had blocked Bill with her staff, and it groaned aside. Together they followed her through.
The path they followed was similar to the path she'd lead him through initially, circling around the now-defunct rotating room. They passed more mummies and store rooms, which Wadjet offhandedly commented had contained furniture long ago. In the third room, instead of proceeding to the door opposite, she went to the exterior wall, where a large statue was placed. It would have taken any two wizards to lift, but Wadjet merely waved her staff and the statue floated to the side. Another tap, and the wall behind parted like a curtain with the rasping of stone against stone, revealing a tunnel descending into the darkness behind, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. Wadjet went inside without hesitation, and after a moment Ron followed her. Bill drew up last, wanting Hermione between himself and his brother.
The witch was chewing her lip in distracted thought. "Are you okay?" Bill asked softly.
She blinked up at him in the light from their wands, seemingly surprised. She thought for a moment. "No," she replied softly. "But I'll keep it together."
"What are you thinking about, then? I know you, it wouldn't be something unimportant."
She hesitated. "It's just… there's something off about this."
His eyes flicked up to their unusual guide. "Do you think she's lying to us?" he asked in a low voice.
Hermione shook her head. "No, I think she's telling us the truth. I don't know how I know, but… I know. And that's part of what I find so strange."
He shrugged helplessly. He was no dunce, but Hermione was far ahead of him in intellect and he knew it. If she felt something was off, something probably was. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
"Neither do I, that's the problem," she replied with frustration. She smiled lopsidedly at him, though there was no real happiness in it. "When I get an idea, I'll let you know."
He nodded, falling back a step. They were nearing the bottom of the tunnel, and a large stone wall loomed ahead of them. Wadjet set her staff against it, but paused.
Turning back to them, she spoke in a quiet voice. "This is a burial ground," she reminded them. "No matter what you think of the people inside, no matter how different your faith is from theirs, I expect you to at least be respectful. Remember that." Not waiting for their acknowledgement, she turned back to her staff.
Whatever magic coursed through the wood was invisible, but the effects were obvious as the stone wall folded aside much like the entrance to Diagon Alley. Within was a room the size of the Great Hall at Hogwarts. The walls were smoothed and painted with a yellowish paint that had faded to gold, and carved upon them were yet more hieroglyphics. Sarcophagi were set in pairs in each corner, and in the center was a raised dais, upon which sat the largest and most ornate sarcophagus they'd seen.
And lining the walls and around the sarcophagi was treasure… gold coins and cups and jewelry and more, set upon wooden tables which had long since rotted away, leaving the treasures in glorious piles upon the floor. The precious metals and jewels seemed to catch their lights and amplify it, making the entire room shine.
"Blimey," Ron muttered, and beside him Hermione's jaw hung loose. Bill had seen larger hoards during his time with Gringotts, but not many.
"Behold the tomb of Senusret the Third, one of the greatest Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt," Wadjet said. "He was a brilliant strategist and military leader. A good man, strong in character, who cared greatly for the nation he lead. I designed his true burial ground to reflect that." She gestured at golden armor arranged along the walls, and spears and small swords arranged alongside. It was like an army at rest, waiting for the ancient king to be reborn to lead them into battle again.
The three of them moved forward, their grief forgotten in wonder. Coins clinked and sang beneath their feet, their wand-lights casting reflections everywhere, the entire room seeming to blaze with golden fire. Wadjet watched them carefully as they moved around the room. Canopic jars were arranged around the sarcophagi, but they all knew better than to touch them. Hermione stared at some inscriptions on Senusret's tomb, as if committing them to memory. Bill stood quietly and patiently, while Ron just stared at the treasure around him.
The ancient witch gestured. "If you like, I will allow you each to take a small item from the treasure. Some of this was originally mine, donated to a Pharaoh whom I greatly admired. He will not miss it. Your hearts are heavy, and I know trinkets cannot replace what you've lost. But this became Jasmine's homeland, and you are welcome to bring a piece of it with you when you leave."
Her words were solemn and sympathetic. The young ones looked to Bill for permission, and he nodded. "Only if you want to," he said.
The ancient watched them as they slowly, reluctantly perused the treasures. Bill picked up a small pendant with a bird inscribed upon it for Fleur. He saw Ron slip a ring into his pocket when Hermione was turned away. And meanwhile, the young woman looked down sadly at a tiny golden statue of a cat.
"Not that one." They all looked up as Wadjet quietly spoke. She reached out and plucked the little cat from Hermione's hand, tossing it back into the pile. The ancient witch held out a hand, and a bit of treasure leaped into her palm with a tinkle. She placed the piece in Hermione's palm. "This is the one she would select for you."
Hermione gasped, and Bill leaned over to see. The piece was a pendant like the one he held, but rather than a bird it represented a piece of parchment, tiny etchings showing the curl of pages and tiny text. It was as if someone had plucked a scroll from an owl and dipped it in liquid gold. Bill doubted there was a finer piece to be given to the bookish witch.
Hermione seemed to agree, more tears forming in her eyes. She looked at that shadowed face, mouth working silently for a moment. "Thank you," she said.
"Don't thank me," Wadjet replied. "You are owed much more." The ancient turned and walked to the other side of the room, climbing a small ramp that lead to the sarcophagus at the end of the room.
"Hermione?" Bill asked. She was staring at the pendant, but not seeing it; her gaze turned inward as she thought. At his unspoken question she looked at him and shook her head. Her face was slightly pale.
He knew better than to press her, so he moved up to where Wadjet stood. The witch had opened the rear wall somehow, and another tunnel stretched beyond.
"The dangers beyond here are not of my making, which means I cannot control them," she advised. "Dangerous vermin are attracted by magic and the dead. Keep your wands out and your senses sharp."
"Scarabs?" Bill asked.
"Or worse," she confirmed.
"Scarabs?" Ron asked nervously as they followed her into the tunnel.
"Magical scarabs," Bill clarified. "Bugs the size of your fist. They like the taste of magical creatures… that includes wizards." Ron whimpered.
The tunnel beneath the desert seemed to stretch on forever. They walked for near an hour, passing through small natural chambers in the rock. On several occasions they were forced to pause as Wadjet cleared away a tunnel collapse, waving her staff and reforming the rock with effortless power. Bill fell back into the rear position, guarding, while Ron and Hermione advanced behind the ancient witch, their wands held at the ready.
Eventually they came upon a large chamber, the ceiling of it stretching beyond the meagre light of their wands. The floor was rough and uneven, and even the walls were jagged and threatening. There was a strong chill in the air… too strong to be natural.
"Does everyone feel that?" Hermione prompted.
"Yes. Get ready," Wadjet said. She lifted her staff, and it burst into light, far stronger than the light produced by their wands. The new illumination showed a chamber easily the size of a Quidditch pitch, the roof far above their heads.
And nesting there, rousing into motion, was a cluster of dementors.
Bill reacted instinctively. "Expecto Patronum!" The wolf that was his patronus ever since his encounter with Fenrir Greyback surged into being. Hermione's otter appeared soon afterward, but the silver creature was faded and weak with the emotional upsets of the day, and it was testament to Hermione's strength of will that she could manifest it at all. Ron was less lucky, merely managing to spray out a silver mist as he struggled to find a happy memory that wasn't connected to his lost friend.
Wadjet danced back into the safety afforded by Bill's wolf, unable or unwilling to cast her own patronus. The dementors were roused to fury, swooping down at them. The wolf's presence was painful to them, but they'd obviously been without a meal for a very long time, and the souls of the four were too enticing for them to ignore. They pushed and dove, and Bill struggled to direct his patronus in front of their attacks. Hermione's otter helped as it could, but was too weak to do much. Ron directed his silver spray at the vile creatures attacking from above.
They were fading. They'd lost too much, and the dementors were pulling that horrible memory forward, weakening them even more. Ron collapsed to his knees, sobbing, and Hermione struggled to stand beside him, pulling her otter close. A dementor managed to use the opening to swoop at Bill from behind, knocking him down, his blood seeming to freeze in his veins. His wolf faded away, and they were left with only the meagre protection of Hermione's weakened otter.
The dementor on him was undeterred, and Bill rolled over to see it practically upon him. He struggled to re-cast his patronus as it lowered its face toward his, its fetid breath brushing over his skin.
"Expecto Patronum!" cried Wadjet, and the entire chamber burst with bright, silvery light. The dementor on Bill reeled back with a hissing screech of pain. Warm, hopeful feelings washed over him, and he knew he'd be okay. The dementor fled to the roof along with rest, the swarm of them clustering together to let their combined auras of despair fend off the holy light.
He sat up, and Wadjet's patronus filled his vision. It was a stag, easily twice as tall as Wadjet herself. Its antlers were huge, counting twenty points at the least. The creature was so bright and solid that Bill was certain he could touch it. Ron and Hermione stared at it with wonder, and Bill saw his future sister-in-law set her mouth with an expression of certainty, face lit with joy.
"That-" Ron started.
"Yes, yes, yes," Wadjet's stern voice answered impatiently, "size does matter. Get up! Move!"
Bill helped Hermione haul his brother to his feet, and they dashed toward the end of the chamber. Even Wadjet was running, her robes flapping behind her and exposing dainty feet in leather thongs. The huge stag cantered around them, and the dementors were unable to come anywhere near, repulsed by the blinding aura of hope.
The stag was too big to enter the opposite tunnel with them. They left it behind, Wadjet collapsing the tunnel and sealing the dementors on the other side. For a brief moment they were lost in darkness, until Wadjet re-summoned her werelight.
They paused a moment to recover their breath, Ron leaning against the tunnel wall. Bill himself was trying not to think about how close he'd come to losing his soul. Meanwhile, Hermione had fixed Wadjet with a steady, resolute stare.
The ancient witch noticed the scrutiny. "What? What is it?"
"You can take your hood off now, Jasmine," Hermione said, firmly but kindly.
Even Ron's tired panting halted suddenly. "What did you call me?" Wadjet asked, her voice near a whisper.
"You have a scar on your wrist," Hermione stated. "I saw it when you handed me the pendant. Do you remember how you got it?"
"What does that have to do-"
The young witch stepped forward, all fear gone. "You got it when Peter Pettigrew bound you to a gravestone, and cut you to gather blood for Voldemort's resurrection ritual. 'Blood of the enemy, forcefully taken.'" The ancient witch's arm twitched, resisting the urge to look. "I'm willing to bet you have tiny scars on your hand, from Umbridge's Blood Quill. And how about your face? Do you have a lightning bolt scar on your forehead?"
"You have suffered a loss, and I understand your desire to avoid confronting it, but-"
"Why are you hiding from us, Jasmine?" Hermione demanded.
"Hiding? Hiding?" Wadjet snarled. She advanced on the younger witch, her staff rapping the ground, and though Hermione was intimidated, she did not yield. "Shall we speak of names? He calls me Wadjet, but I have had many titles. One more familiar to you would be Morgan le Fay." Shock rippled across their little group at that name. The cloaked head turned to regard Bill, who jumped at the scrutiny. "Yes, boy, I am she. And I know your employers seek me, and it isn't to offer banking services!"
She turned back to Hermione. "And you ask me to bare my face to be conveniently placed in a pensieve later? All based on your suspicions?"
As the white-robed witch turned away, Hermione squared her shoulders and stepped forward boldly. "Jasmine was family to all of us. She was practically a Weasley, and the Weasleys always put family first. Bill won't betray family." Bill felt pride at Hermione's words, even as fear and hope warred within him.
The powerful witch had stopped, facing away, as Hermione spoke. After a moment the cloaked head turned back to them. "You would be better to accept your loss and move on," she said over her shoulder, though her voice was less cold.
"Jasmine would never give up on us," Hermione replied. "I think she still hasn't. She'd never lie to me, and I think she still hasn't." She took a hesitant step toward the other witch. "If you're not Jasmine, if you don't want to show us, then just say it. Say it out loud, and I'll believe you."
The silence drew out. Finally it was broken with a soft, resigned sigh.
Wadjet's free arm rose and tugged on the hood of her cloak, revealing long, black hair tied back in a braid. She turned around, the werelight on her staff briefly blinding them as it passed in front of her face. Bill heard Ron pull in a shocked breath to match his own, but Hermione simply stared straight ahead, unsurprised.
The contrast from their friend could not have been more plain... although it was, unquestionably, Jasmine. Her face was more refined, yet she had obviously gained a healthy amount of weight. Ever since the end of the war, Hermione had joined forces with Molly and Ginny to try to convince their friend to get up to a more healthy "BMI" (she'd had had to explain the acronym to all of them). Bill had always thought Jasmine was too thin; when Ron had pulled him aside and gently explained the neglect of the Dursleys, he'd been appalled. When Bill had seen her after months of hiding during the war, she'd been so malnourished and frail that he'd wondered how she was even able to stand upright.
But this Jasmine… it was the outcome his mother couldn't have hoped for. She shone with health, much of it unquestionably muscle, and with that came beauty that had always hidden behind Jasmine's hard life and self-effacing ways. This woman was obviously aware of it; the round, ungainly spectacles she had worn since childhood were gone, and she wore makeup, which the Girl-Who-Lived had never touched in her life. Kohl applied with an expert hand lined her eyes, making them seem even bigger and more exotic, bringing that beauty even further forward.
It was those eyes that showed the greatest difference. Jasmine's had been bright, though tired… always vaguely confused and careworn by the weights put upon her. The emerald gaze that rested upon Hermione was cold, calculating. With an uncomfortable feeling in his gut, Bill thought that gaze reminded him far more of Severus Snape than the innocent, bewildered girl his brother had brought home to be adopted into their family.
"Jasmine-" Ron started forward, but she took a quick step backwards, raising a hand. He halted, confused.
"I think we should be concentrating on getting out of here, yes?"
"What? Jas… we thought we lost you! How- when did you get back?"
"Ron-" Hermione lifted a hand to stall her fiance. She raised her eyes to Bill pleadingly, and suddenly it clicked.
The younger redhead's face was twisted with confusion and betrayal. "Damn it, what are you playing at? Why would you hide from us?"
A time-turner, even if they still existed, wasn't enough to account for the differences. How could she be in two places at once… with him and with the others? She couldn't. How did she become so powerful so quickly? She didn't. The fear Bill felt earlier congealed into a lead ball in his stomach.
Jasmine - this new Jasmine - looked at him as they locked gazes. He reached out to lay a hand on Ron's shoulder, but his brother just shook it off.
"Why won't you answer? What are you doing, Jas?"
"This is a pretty good reason why I wanted to wait to do this," Jasmine declared imperiously, her tone shocking the redhead silent in mid-rant.
"Ron, she didn't come back," Hermione headed him off before he could continue.
"What? 'Mione, she's right here-"
"Yes, but she didn't 'come back'. Not the way you think. She closed the loop." All triumph was gone from Hermione's voice, and Bill knew she was feeling the same as he.
Ron shook his head, still confused.
"What she means, Ronald," Jasmine added, and there was scorn in her voice that even Bill, who had less contact than the others with the Girl-Who-Lived, knew didn't belong there, "is that I took the slow way around. I was thrown back into the ancient past. And there was no way forward, except to live every moment."
"Wha- How? How could you do that? That'd make you…"
"Five thousand years old, yes, we went over this before. But I did it. When I realized I wasn't aging, I waited. Waited, so that I could be here, be able to make sure that you make it out of this tomb, that I built, safely!" She advanced on him, sneering, suddenly scary in a way that was very un-Jasmine-like. "And now, after all that time, here I stand… growing old!"
She spun, robes billowing around her in a way worthy of Snape. "Move, or I leave you here!"
They looked at each other and scrambled to follow.
Hermione walked quickly to catch up to her friend, but stayed two steps behind, watching carefully.
Jasmine even walked differently now. Her friend had always been a bit of a tomboy, and she'd walked like one… when she wasn't creeping about, trying to avoid notice, she would stomp around in a way not unlike Ron... much to the chagrin of Lavender, who had resolved to feminize the girl. But now she floated across the floor like the robes she wore, all confidence and grace. And why shouldn't she have confidence? The magic she'd demonstrated already had awed the young witch.
She had so many questions! To see… to experience so much! And yet, Hermione had to remind herself, she'd done it alone.
They'd been best friends since first year. For all those years, through all the tragedy and adventure, they'd been together... as close as sisters. They sometimes slept in each other's beds in the Gryffindor girl's dorm. In her childish idealism, Hermione had once begged her parents to adopt the mistreated orphan, so they could be sisters by law and not just by choice. The entire trip to Egypt had been part of Hermione's desire to tell the girl that her coming marriage to Ron wouldn't split them but rather draw them together.
In the space of an hour, she'd lost her best friend and gotten her back. And now there was a huge gulf between them, and Hermione didn't understand it... and she hated not understanding things.
Jasmine set a grueling march, which Bill and Ron kept up with easily; but Hermione wasn't the athlete the other three were, and soon her legs were burning. They entered another chamber, this one smaller than the previous, the ground soft with sand, and other smaller chambers branched off in all directions.
"Jas… Jasmine," Hermione panted; the name seemed to anger the other witch, and the pace actually increased. "Jasmine, is it much further?" she pleaded.
The white robed figure ground to a halt. Hermione braced herself, worried that she'd be berated for weakness; not that the other girl would ever do that before, but she didn't know where she stood now.
Jasmine looked around. "Draw your wands," she commanded.
"What is it?" Bill asked.
"More dementors?" Hermione asked nervously.
Bill tensed and lifted his wand. Ron twitched left and right, a spell hovering on his lips, not looking forward to the huge predatory beetles any more than he'd welcome spiders.
The first of the creatures scuttled out of a side chamber… Bill killed it with a simple reductor. But then two more appeared, and more, and more, until all four of them were blasting spells in all directions.
It was like a black tide of flat, chittering insects, flowing out of the nearby caves and sometimes out of the ground itself. One burst up out of the sand to sink its pincers into Hermione's boot; she screamed more with surprise than pain, and crushed it with her heel. They killed dozens, soaking the sand with insectile fluids; Hermione could blast two or three at a time with a well-aimed reductor, and Jasmine threw spells of such power that the brown-haired witch worried about the ceiling coming down on them. But more and more of the rat-sized insects boiled out into the open, and it was becoming apparent that they were being slowly overwhelmed.
"Everyone, get down!" Hermione barely had a chance to react when a summoning charm of all things sent them tumbling to Jasmine's feet.
The witch swung her staff over her head, and the room exploded into flame. The fire washed around them in a torrent, and Hermione could see the shapes of snakes, vultures, and even wolves running and diving through the inferno as if they were dolphins in the ocean.
She cast Fiendfyre, she thought with awe. Then gibbering terror: she cast Fiendfyre! We're in an enclosed space!
If Jasmine knew the danger, she didn't show it. Her staff continued to circle above her head as if stirring the air, and the firestorm roiled around them. The scarabs squealed insectile shrieks as they burned, popping and crackling as their fluids boiled. The air in the eye of the storm was like an oven, and Hermione swore she could feel her skin crisping. Ron pulled her close and tucked her head against his chest, Bill trying to cover them both.
The flames continued until Hermione felt like she was about to pass out; then Jasmine jerked her staff down, working her free hand into the incantation. The fires gathered in front of her, merging into a huge snake that coiled into itself and hissed its malevolence with a gust of superheated air. Just as it moved to strike at them, Jasmine swung her staff down as though to clout it on the head; the flame snake was smashed to the ground, then split into two. The gouts of fire fizzled out with a frustrated pop.
The sound of sizzling persisted. But no more scarabs attacked, and Hermione could see the reason for that was because the walls and the sand on the ground had melted into a solid sheet of molten glass.
"Vile pests," Jasmine muttered, in much the same way as Molly would complain about the gnomes in her garden.
The three others met eyes, sharing looks of awe and fear. Lacking anything better to say or do, Hermione cast cooling charms on the glass around them. After a few spells, the glass was cool enough that they could step onto it without their boots melting.
"Jasmine-" Hermione asked hesitantly; but the other witch was already moving, striding forward as if the terrifying ambush hadn't just happened. Hermione abandoned the attempt and simply followed.
Within five minutes they came to a flat face of stone. Once again Jasmine tapped it with her staff, and the wall slid into the ground. Hot air and bright light washed across them as they stepped back into the daylight.
They were outside was looked like a rock outcropping, thrust up out of the sands like a fist. The noon sun was high in the sky, but Hermione felt it would be unfair to complain about that after nearly being trapped underground. She slid to her bottom, resting her back against the rock, covering her eyes against the glare with her forearm. Ron kneeled beside her and rested a hand on her shoulder; she reached up and gave it a fond squeeze. Beside them Bill was pulling off his pack, reaching in to reclaim his hat. It was a smart idea; she should probably do the same.
"Your camp is about a half-hour's walk in that direction," Jasmine said, pointing. "A Four-Point spell will guide you, there are no wards against it."
Hermione was about to question her wording, 'your camp', when the raven-haired witch suddenly began walking, and definitely not in the direction of the camp. She scrambled to her feet. "Jas, what-"
The sand around the white-robed figure burst upward, like a wave crashing against rock. The three reeled away, and when the grains settled, their friend was gone. The three of them stared at the empty spot and then at each other, mouths hanging open in the parched desert air.
Ron was the first to find his voice. "Did she leave? Did she just ditch us here?"
Hermione sank back down, arms wrapped around her knees, near tears. Suddenly, she could believe there was five thousand years between herself and her dearest friend.