This story is a gift fic written for my beta MysticDew, to thank her for all her work on 'After The Flood'.
Krystle Lynne very kindly beta-d this in record time – thank you so much! Any remaining mistakes are my own.
A Plague on Both Your Houses
They could pinpoint the origin of the pandemic down to the space of an hour.
Hermione was present at what remained of the Ministry for Magic when they received an official communiqué from the International Confederation of Wizards, confirming that the working theory the Outbreak Committee had formulated was indeed correct.
It arrived by e-mail, but looked like it had started its life as an old-fashioned letter at some stage. In the topsy-turvy world they lived in, remnants of what used to be normal rose like peaks above a flooded valley, reminding them of what life had been like less than a year ago. The internet still remained functional at times, less vulnerable to interruptions than the antiquated fixed telephone network that had collapsed weeks earlier.
The dispatch bore the familiar official letterhead of the International Confederation of Wizards, a nine-headed hydra symbolising its global reach. Hermione had always found the imagery vaguely disturbing, but it hardly mattered anymore. On wizarding parchment the hydra's heads tossed and hissed; on the crumbled, poor-quality printout thrust into her hand by a breathless Sturgis Podmore, the creature looked like a malformed fern.
Hermione couldn't understand why he was in such a hurry. Maybe Sturgis still was capable of appreciating the simple pleasure of solving a riddle that previously had eluded him.
For quite a long time, where the disease had originated seemed to be of the utmost importance.
Along with Sturgis, Hermione had been part of the task force assembled by the British Ministry when they first acknowledged that it wasn't just a Muggle matter. She had, in fact, also been involved in the very first – strictly unofficial – attempt to identify the source of the contagion, back when the wizarding authorities still were able to pretend to themselves that they would remain entirely unaffected.
At the time, it had disgusted her to see wizards disregard the suffering among the Muggle population completely. It had only been a decade since the war, but the fleeting sense of kinship Kingsley had tried to foster had already been forgotten. Much to the astonishment of some of her co-investigators, Draco had also joined them. It had clearly escaped their attention that Draco abhorred needless loss of life. Contrary to what most people gave him credit for, he had learnt many things during the war, compassion for Muggles being just one of them. Draco had shared Hermione's contempt for wizards content to wash their hands of their fellow human beings succumbing to the disease at an alarming rate.
He didn't, however, share Hermione's impotent rage at those who didn't live up to her expectations of basic human decency.
Draco may have shed the pure-blood prejudices of his upbringing, but he was still clinging on to the deep cynicism that had been bred into him with astonishing perseverance. Not even a year of unwilling association with Hermione as a colleague, followed by friendship and ultimately a rather splendid conversion to lovers, had been sufficient to cure him of his deep mistrust for most of humanity.
As the Outbreak Committee eventually had helped establish, the infestation currently sweeping across the planet had originated from behind a sealed trap door in the basement of a bakery in suburban Tunis.
It wasn't quite as preposterous as it sounded once you knew that the name of the suburb was Carthage, once the capital of the great Phoenician empire. Its story was familiar to anyone who, like Draco, had been favoured with a classical education.
Smoke was rising from the ruins surrounding the hazy emptiness that was the last pocket of Carthage remaining to be conquered. Aulus Castus, Wizard Field Commander of the Roman armies in Africa, turned his hard gaze on it, planning his next attack.
It had taken centuries of warfare and three Punic wars to get to this point.
The incompetence of Aulus' superiors in this third and last war, when all that remained of Carthage's empire was the city itself, hadn't exactly helped. At the beginning of the war it had taken weeks to ship out enough equipment to cut off access to the city with magical means.
Commander-in-chief consul Calpurnius Piso's reluctance to allow his wizarding attachment to even attend meetings about strategy had further delayed the start of effective magical attacks.
The expansion of the Roman Empire had been aided considerably by the deployment of wizards alongside ordinary soldiers. The opposition facing the legions as they swept across the Mediterranean seldom realised the tactical advantages this brought, not before it was already too late. Greek wizards may have laid the foundations to modern magical theory, but they couldn't have organised their way out of an Amphora, much less mount an effective defence against magical siege weapons.
The Phoenician wizards weren't much better. Having failed to successfully imitate Roman tactics and integrate magical and Muggle forces to repel the invaders, all they amounted to in the end was prolonging the siege until the only buildings that remained unconquered in what once had been a proud, prosperous city were the remnants of wizarding Carthage.
The new consul dispatched from Rome to make sure the destruction of the Phoenicians continued as planned, Scipio Aemilianus, had had his little dramatic moment yesterday when the Muggle war had ended and the survivors of the vicious three-year siege had been carted off to be sold into slavery.
Whispers of his tears for the fall of an empire, prompted by the realisation that Rome one day inevitably too would fall, had spread around the camps like wildfire. Scipio was popular and, more importantly, had led them to victory; therefore his lapse into sentimentality was viewed with grudging respect rather than contempt by most of his troops.
Aulus wasn't taken in as easily.
Pretty words meant nothing: what mattered were arms and men and magic. Rome would stand for as long as her armies could defend her, no matter what effeminate Greeks may be nattering on about. In his experience fate travelled with the victors; the conquered would sooth their tears with talk of destiny and luck as best they could.
Scipio, the Senate's golden boy, had almost lost his nerve when faced with the reality of carrying out his orders from back home. It had taken a mild Compulsion spell from Aulus' army-issue concealed wand (the one none of the Muggles knew he had) to ensure Scipio did his duty and destroyed Carthage once and for all.
The sooner young Scipio learnt that mercy had no place in battle, the better.
It had taken three years to beat the one city that remained of the old Punic empire; three years of Incendio-ing scorpions nesting in Aulus' boots when he woke up; three years of seeing fresh-faced recruits being charred into grizzled veterans by the desert sun, and three years of facing increasingly more devastating spells churned out by the wizards on the other side.
Pitying the enemy didn't change any of it; all Aulus wanted to do was finish this damned war and go home to his family and his Sabinian farm. For all his vaunted brilliance, Scipio didn't seem to understand that it was what most soldiers wanted, to finish the job and go home.
Compassion wouldn't get them home any faster.
Hasdrubal, the leader of the Carthaginians – Aulus had heard the prisoners referring to him as their Boetharch – had surrendered yesterday, and all that remained to do before the wizarding contingent finally could return to Rome was to wipe out the hidden magic enclave.
Aulus had ordered the ordinary legionaries to stand back and let the wizards handle it. The area was too small to contain any meaningful Muggle force, so Muggles would only be in the way.
The sustained barrage of spells they threw at the Carthaginians still holding out didn't have any discernible effects after the first half-hour, and the spectators (kept at a respectable distance) started to thin out. Neither Aulus nor his soldiers were disconcerted; they could keep the onslaught up for weeks, and in all their wars they hadn't yet encountered any wards that could withstand it indefinitely. Celts, Macedonians, Iberians and Illyrians had all buckled in the face of Roman resolve, and so would eventually the descendants of the hated Hannibal.
Until then, the wild smell of battle magic rose high in the air, mingling with the stench of the bodies of the fallen. It was the scent of the battlefield turned into funeral pyre, the smell of victory.
It took four days and three nights until the wards started to weaken. Aulus was asleep with his boots on when an impossibly young recruit who had cut himself shaving (did he even have anything to shave?) roused him with a deferential shake. After three decades as a soldier, it only took Aulus the blink of an eye to wake up.
By the time they approached the perimeter of the on-going magical assault, he had learnt that the first tears in the wards had started to appear half an hour ago.
Once they were close enough to hear the creaking of heavy leather boots and clanging metal of body armour and shoulder plates grinding together, the wards were well on their way to being dismantled. Aulus didn't have to wait long to see the shimmering nothingness hovering over the sand being rent apart like a veil. The bubble of magic shattered like a shield smashed to smithereens by a Gallic axe, the two sounds curiously similar despite being a sea apart.
The bedraggled-looking buildings that had been hidden behind the wards were the same colour as the sand. A rooster crowed; other than that, there was only silence. Nothing stirred within the enclave.
Aulus' squad maintained a cautious distance, and he was glad to see they didn't lose their heads at the last hurdle. There was no need to issue any order for his men to get ready; even the raw recruits had their sword in one hand and their wand in the other.
It must have been obvious to the Carthaginians that they were completely surrounded, but any hope that they would surrender quietly was quashed as a shower of missiles burst forth from the still deserted dwellings.
"Ad testudinem!" Aulus barked, his amplified voice ringing out across the battlefield. A sound like thunder echoed around him as the soldiers seamlessly arranged themselves into turtle formations. They lined up in double ranks, the first line of men protecting them from the front with their shield while the second covered them from above.
Enchanted rocks bounced off the magically reinforced shields; the second round from the defenders fared no better. An eerie silence hung over the amassed troops.
After everything that had preceded it, Aulus' order to charge was strangely muted, as clipped and lacking in emotion as an order to his slave to shave him. His steady voice belied the tension in his sinews.
He nodded to the legionaries standing next to him, but there was no need; they had already started banging their shields into the ground in unison. Three times, and then the chant rose loud and strong: "RO-MA! RO-MA! RO-MA!"
The tortoises were on the move. Slowly, but with the inevitability of death or taxes, the turtle formations crept closer and closer, jerking one step forward at each syllable. This was Rome in all her power and glory; those who opposed her had better find a way to defeat a wall made of men or perish.
Aulus adjusted the visor on his helmet, crammed onto his head as an afterthought as he left his tent. Cautiously, he followed in the wake of his legionaries with a retinue of tribunes gathered around him. Between them they had almost a century of battle experience, none of which suggested that the Carthaginians willingly would enter into slavery.
The enemy didn't break cover even when a mere ten paces remained between the steadily shrinking ring of turtle formations and the dwellings.
It was time.
"Percute!" Aulus ordered just before the next chant was due. The formations broke up, turning back into a line of attacking soldiers rather than faceless shields. They only had time to advance a few paces before all hell broke loose.
Spells cleared a lethal path through the air and a cacophony of hurls and screams erupted, accompanied by the clanging of swords and the sound of mud and brick walls shattering. It was an uneven fight, fury and desperation being no match for Roman discipline.
It took only a few minutes to subdue all visible resistance.
The survivors were carted off to the side and the soldiers turned their attention to the still intact buildings, proceeding with caution. They left the largest building until last. In the soft light of the setting sun, it looked remarkably resilient despite the barrage of spells it had been hit with.
Just as the last enchantments were laid on the battering ram, the doors to the building they were preparing to break down silently swung open.
Aulus and his men stood straight behind their wards, confident that they were protected from whatever was coming at them.
When a desiccated old man in green robes emerged nothing changed. Aulus noted with approval that none of the Roman soldiers so much as lowered their wands. His back ramrod straight, the elderly wizard seemed to teeter precariously on the steps to the entrance before regaining his balance with his staff. Looking with disdain at his victorious enemies, he seemed far too proud to be one of the vanquished.
Surreptitiously, Aulus gave the man next to him a small nod.
A green flash failed entirely to take out the wizened old man, and ricocheted off the Roman wards on the rebound instead. Once he had a clear path to the target Sextus Merula didn't often fail to his mark; something else was at work here.
The old wizard perched on top of the steps raised his staff to the skies, shouting something unintelligible in a guttural language Aulus recognised as Phoenician. At his elbow, the interpreter they had picked up at the start of the campaign offered a translation without needing to be prompted.
"I am Barekbaal, and I curse you to the ends of the earth! Dogs of Rome, may the flies of the desert eat you and leave no meat on your bones. May your sons perish, even the cattle on your land wither and die! May the blood of the innocent devour you, and the very air you breathe consume you!"
As a connoisseur Aulus had to admit that it was an impressive curse, accompanied as it was by a burst of sickly-coloured, yellow fumes spewing forth from the old man's wand. There was a metallic taste to the air, testament to the power of the words of the Carthaginian wizard.
With a final, terrible cry of "Death! Death to all of you!" the old man lashed out with his wand a final time, and set himself aflame. A great flame rose to the incongruously peaceful blue sky, singing the eyebrows off the soldiers closest to the column of fire devouring what had been a wizard only a moment ago. In a seemingly impossible short space of time, only a pile of charred ashes was left on the steps of the last piece of unconquered Carthage.
It was almost a shame that it all had been for nought.
For the serving soldier, dying curses were an occupational hazard. So far, the worst thing that had happened to Aulus was his nose falling off when a Lusitanian witch's aim had gone slightly askew. He hadn't been commander then, and it had been a very long trip back to Rome and the Healers in Aesculapius' temple. It didn't bear thinking about what the banter on the ship would have been like if she actually had hit her intended target.
Aulus had always felt that a man wouldn't have stooped to such tactics, even at death's door.
Since then, Aulus had been doubly vigilant to ensure his soldiers didn't leave themselves exposed to any last-minute heroics. Barekbaal could have cursed them all to Hades for a month, and he still wouldn't have harmed so much as a Roman hair. Their wards could keep the most malevolent of curses encapsulated until they consumed the caster rather than the intended targets.
Barekbaal's self-immolation had simply cut out one step of the standard procedure, allowing the curse-disposal unit to proceed straight to burying the remains as deep as the desert sand allowed.
The war was finally over.
"Start digging, lads. By the time you're finished, no one will be able to tell that there ever was a city here, much less an empire."
Aulus turned his back on the debris left from the fight, and something in the set of his shoulders loosened. No doubt there would be more wars, but for now he could rest easy.
Rome was safe, and anyone opposing her in the future would know what had befallen Carthage for daring to threaten her empire.
The wizarding world seemed to produce homicidal maniacs with embarrassing regularity. By the time the epidemic started its unstoppable march across the world, Hermione had long since resigned herself to the inevitable and started monitoring the wizards in Britain in order to identify the next Dark Lord before he grew too powerful. Draco's network of cronies on the shady side of the law had proved to be invaluable in that pursuit.
However, the common or garden zealot who wished to see the world being consumed by fire generally lacked the wherewithal to do so. Witness Tom Riddle: in the end he hadn't even managed to ensure his own survival, much less permanently change even the British Isles.
The difference between the usual kind of fiend that popped up every century or so and Barekbaal wasn't a matter of scope or ambition, but sheer dumb luck.
In a frenzied dig which would have made archaeological history, should there be anyone left to write it, a team of Muggle and wizard archaeologists and anthropologists had excavated the site where Barekbaal had perished, mercilessly tearing through more than two millennia of civilisations.
What they found was horrifying, even for people hardened by the daily harvest of fresh bodies in the streets of Tunis.
When Carthage had fallen to the Romans, the city had been completely razed to the ground and its territories sown with salt to ensure that no living thing ever would grow there again to threaten Rome's hegemony. However, a century after its annihilation Carthage had been rebuilt by that formidable wizard and general, Julius Caesar.
If anyone remembering Barekbaal and his curse had been alive by then, they would still have had no way of knowing where he had been buried, or that his malediction hadn't perished with him and the rest of old Carthage.
The new city rose above the old and on the exact spot where the Carthaginian wizard had hurled his dying words at the invading Roman army, a temple was built.
It was official Roman policy to accommodate local gods into their pantheon; defeat presumably being perceived as less ignoble if you were allowed to hang onto the gods that hadn't delivered the goods, as it were. The temple erected above Barekbaal's final resting place was consecrated to the old Phoenician gods Tanit and Ba'al Hammon.
In retrospect just about any other ancient deity had been preferable, even vengeful Hecate.
Tanit was also known as Astarte, the goddess of war and the demon of lust according to the Jews. Ba'al Hammon, the Lord of Two Horns, was her consort, and the sons and daughters of their supplicants passed through the fire the prophet Jeremiah thundered against. In their Tophet, children were burned as sacrifices to the gods. The power from the blood sacrifice of the innocent seeped down the dark shafts of earth to where Barekbaal was resting.
One dark offering called out to the other, and below the city the pit of shadows grew.
The republican Roman army wizards had made sure that nothing could get out from behind the containment charms they had laid, but they could hardly have foreseen that anything would want to penetrate them from the outside.
Oblivious to the threat lurking beneath its foundations, New Carthage and the Roman Empire it was part of prospered for centuries.
Augustus, the first Emperor, was a Squib. His distrust of magic forced the wizarding world to a less prominent position in society and in the imperial armies, until the long golden afternoon of the Roman Empire in its heyday slowly turned into night. Six centuries after the fall of Carthage, its armies couldn't withstand the assaults from the borders any longer. The Rome Aulus Castus had known was no more.
Invading armies overran Carthage; Visigoth barbarians were followed by the troops of the Prophet and so on, until centuries upon centuries had passed and the last of the invaders were driven out. Beneath the foundations of the modern city the curse of Barekbaal lurked undisturbed, until a local builder-turned-developer got planning permission for a shopping centre and started buying up local shops around the site.
The end of the world Hermione knew started when the first bulldozer hit the containment spell that had kept Barekbaal's curse enclosed for more than two millennia. After all that time, simple force was sufficient to burst the wards and release the malevolent force into the world again.
Having grown fat and powerful on the blood of countless children sacrificed to long-dead gods, the curse was more destructive than its creator ever could have imagined.
The last wizard familiar with Phoenician magic had perished some eight hundred years after Carthage. As far as the Victorian researchers who had rediscovered the Great Library of Alexandria had been able to establish from ancient papyri, it had been quite advanced if somewhat lacking in theoretical concepts.
Barekbaal had not seen fit to discriminate between Romans and other tribes, innocent of destroying his people. He had laid his curse on everyone within reach. More than two thousand years after the act, it manifested itself as a virulent respiratory disease, which spread like wildfire and had a hundred percent mortality rate for Muggles and wizards alike.
One didn't need to know the precise level of oxygen required per unit of fuel to set the world on fire.
The onset was deceptively similar to the ordinary flu, except for the black pinpricks appearing around the tonsils of the infected. Like the soot from the fires consuming Carthage, they meant certain death. As the illness progressed the black areas grew, until the victim seemed to have a black throat. By then, they usually had other things to worry about, however, like being on the brink of death.
The contagion spread through the air. Initially, the wizarding world was less affected than Muggles, as they tended to live in warded compounds which appeared to keep the virus out temporarily. Even the strongest wards couldn't keep it out in the long run. Sooner or later, coughing and wheezing would herald the onset of the disease, even among those who had believed themselves untouchable.
Magic wasn't static; it was a living thing, and all living things must eventually die.
Entropy crept in even if airtight wards were being refreshed constantly. It only took one microbe to infect a previously safe environment, as the wizarding world found out to its cost after dismissing the epidemic as a Muggle concern during the first crucial weeks.
There was nowhere to run, nowhere safe to retreat, and the Healers were powerless in the face of the quickly mutating disease. They weren't use to working in haste; the cure for dragon pox had taken five decades to develop.
It was likely that the next five months would see the end of wizardkind.
The title is from the poem 'Auguries of Innocence' by William Blake. The chapter title is of course from 'Romeo and Juliet', Act 3, Scene 1, by William Shakespeare.