It was late August, and the now twenty year-old Harry was settling into the routine of his new and dangerous lifestyle. In his first month on duty he'd been deployed with Wolfe, Mordecai and Okan Izzet, a Turkish Ranger Fourth class, and he'd spent three weeks tracking down and destroying some particularly troublesome Chimeras on the Greek islands. The Greek Ministry had asked the International Confederation of Wizards for help because they were too ill-equipped to deal with the problem thoroughly, and their spin-doctors had been working overtime to cover up Muggle disappearances. The International Confederation of Wizards had in turn contacted the Order of Illumination, who'd dispatched Harry's team to deal with the problem.
Harry had had his fare share of dangerous situations in the past, but he'd still found the experience strangely exhilarating. Maybe it was because this time, he'd gone out looking for trouble, while in the past, it had always been trouble that found him!
After the Greek mission, they'd travelled to India where they'd joined up with another team that specialised in covert operations and intelligence gathering. They had uncovered a plot hatched by a five hundred year-old vampire to take over the Indian Ministry of Magic, and by extension, Muggle India. The plot involved many corrupt Ministry officials, and according to the Intel team, slightly more than half of the Ministry officials would remain in office if they were to remove all the bad seeds. They'd decided that the best course of action would be to eliminate the vampire, and the more intelligent of his minions, leaving the lesser evildoers to the Indian ministry.
Now, Harry and seven other Rangers were creeping through the tunnels of an underground lair, somewhere near one of the many rural villages, served as the food supply for these vampires.
Peering through his Magical Vision Enhancement Goggles, Harry saw a greenish image of the cave walls, and the silhouette of the two Rangers in front of him.
A Dutch Ranger Fifth Class took point because he was a trained curse breaker and could disarm many conventional and magical booby-traps. His goggles were tuned to detect magical objects. Mordecai was behind him, carrying a heavy magical crossbow with darts that had hollow tips loaded with Erumpment fluid, which caused anything it was infused into to explode. It was an excellent weapon against vampires because one didn't have to aim for the heart with these special darts. As long as the fluid went into the target, a kill was guaranteed.
Normally, a hive of vampires was no match for eight highly skilled wizards, but these vampires had allied themselves with wizards, and the Intel team had picked up faint traces of magic in the form of magic detectors. That's why the Rangers were using magical artefacts with very low magical signatures, rather than their wands. They were also wearing special amulets that emitted a modified Confundus Charm that baffled the most advanced magical detectors. The amulets were charmed not to interfere with the Rangers' equipment, of course.
They halted and crouched down, waiting, as Dagobert Wortelgraaf used his magical tools to disable a Curse Capsule. Highly illegal in the conventional wizarding world, these capsules could store and amplify a host of hexes and curses, and the most common spells used were for stunning and killing. The fact that Wortelgraaf found such an artefact meant that the conspiracy ran deep into the Indian Ministry, deeper than the Intelligence people had suspected, for only trusted Magical Law Enforcement and Department of Mysteries officials had access to such artefacts.
Wortelgraaf removed the curse, a killing curse, from the small orb with a special curse extractor, that worked a lot like a put-outer, and placed it in a pouch so he could use it against the enemy should the need arise. Harry wondered how brightly the Lumos Solem spell would shine if the capsule amplified it.
Silently, they crept on, using all they knew about silent movement, allowing their bodyweight to be carried by flexed knees, using all their joints in movement to move fluidly, breathing along with their movement to avoid tension and stopping to listen from time to time.
Harry hoped that there weren't any vampires nearby, for they had keen senses of hearing, smell and sight. If they encountered one, it was Mordecai's job to take it out with the crossbow since using wands would give them away. The last thing they wanted was to fight the complete horde of the enemy at once. They were too few Rangers for them to win like that. They had to surprise their foes at their nerve-centre and work outwards from there.
The first real problem arose when they reached an intersection. They could now go three ways. Wolfe, Izzet and Mordecai positioned themselves at the entrances of the three tunnels, to intercept anyone coming through them quickly, quietly and efficiently. The rest conferred in hushed tones what the next course of action should be.
Harry wasn't included in the discussion, because he was the most junior in rank. As he crouched down to guard the rear of the intrusion party, he noticed a pit viper. A plan rapidly formed in his mind. "Hello there! Do you live in here?"
The snake looked surprised. "A human that can speak my tongue?"
"Yes, I can speak your tongue. Tell me, which of those three tunnels up ahead could we best take, if we wanted to sneak up on the undead who dwell in these tunnels?"
"Are you here to destroy them?"
"Yes we are," Harry said. He didn't know whose side the snake was on, but he knew that snakes always reacted favourably to Parselmouths, unless they were loyal to another Parselmouth.
"Their slaves hunted and killed my children for mere sport. Their presence is an infection to the balance of things around here. You are here to destroy them, and I will help you, if you let me," the snake hissed.
"What are you doing Potter?" Lieutenant Aminata Diatta, the team leader, asked as Harry conversed with the snake.
"Recruiting allies, Ma'am. This viper has a personal grudge against vampire ghouls and is willing to show us the way."
Diatta smiled. "I forgot you were a Parselmouth. Which tunnel should we take?"
Harry proceeded to find out everything he could about the layout of the tunnels, the snake's best guess as to the number of enemies, and how many were alive and how many were undead. The snake also mentioned that there were three individuals in a closed chamber, who seemed to be held there against their will.
They took the tunnel straight ahead of them, and the snake warned Harry about the strange objects that littered the floor. About half of them were booby traps and the detection objects, which were rendered useless by the special amulets the Rangers wore. Other things turned out to be harmless litter. But they examined each of them anyway, because they might have been non-magical booby-traps.
Progress was slow, but the Rangers were keen on retaining the element of surprise, so they didn't mind. The Rangers finally came upon the chamber where the supposed prisoners were held. It wasn't protected by any spells, but a highly specialised key was needed to open the lock. Harry knew that the odds of running into an enemy were increasing, and that they didn't have enough time to discuss how to open the door.
Diatta made the decision. "All right, Ivanova and Gedeon will stay here. After the fighting starts, I will send a signal through the wireless connection, so you had better put in your ear-pieces. Stealth will no longer be an issue then, so you can use magic to open this door." She looked at the two witches. "You have to get the prisoners out of here. Go back the way we came. We will probably follow, but if things don't go as planned we will find our own way out."
Ivanova and Gedeon nodded grimly. Evgenia Ivanova was a Russian Ranger Fifth class with mediwizard training. She was their party's medic. The Haitian Ranger Fourth class, Patience Gedeon, was a trained warrior, like Wolfe, Harry and Mordecai, and her duty was to protect Evgenia and the prisoners on the way out.
Izzet and Wortelgraaf continued in with the rest of them, and everybody now drew his wand. They could hear noise coming from a large cavern where the unmistakable sound of vampire ghouls could be heard. And where there were ghouls, there were at least a few vampires to control them.
The Dutch Ranger grinned at Harry as he dug into his pouch and extracted a dozen Curse Capsules, now devoid of their previous curses.
Harry doubted that the enemy would appreciate the irony of having their own weapons used against them. But he was delighted by the extra ammunition, as were his fellow Rangers.
"Two each, one Lumos Solem and one Stunner," Diatta ordered. There may be more prisoners in there, and we don't want them to die do we? On my mark, charm the capsules…three, two, one, mark!"
The six Rangers uttered spells, first charging one capsule, then the other. The reaction in the chamber around the corner was immediate, and sounds of alarm were emanating from many throats. The magic detectors were probably going haywire.
Diatta ordered Wolfe to take the lead, only to find out that he was way ahead of her. He rounded the corner, threw his two capsules into the chamber and jumped back behind the wall to shield himself from the detonation.
Harry heard many bodies fall on the floor unconscious, and he distinctly recognised the shrieks of vampires in agony due to the burst of magical sunlight. Then, after getting a signal from Wolfe, Diatta lead her team charging into the chamber.
Harry had never been in a fight like this before. A vampire tried to get the drop on him but a wooden stake caught it in the heart while it was in mid air, and the vampire dropped to the floor, decomposing at an accelerated pace. He didn't have the time to see who had saved him, because soon another charred vampire bounded towards him. Harry muttered a spell, and a wooden stake shot out of the tip of his wand and pierced the heart of the vampire. Seconds later, from the corner of his eye, he saw a wizard, aiming his wand at Diatta. He shot a stunner from the hip that sent the wizard flying at least twenty feet. Harry had put the extra power into his spell because he didn't know whether the wizard came into the room after Wolfe had thrown the grenade, or if the wizard had resisted the effects of the grenade somehow. If the latter were the case, the overkill on his charm had been a good idea. The wizard was completely unconscious.
A vampire, who had been trying to stay out of the fight, saw his former ally being stunned and rushed over to the fallen wizard. Harry knew there was no compassion behind the gesture. The vampire intended to silence the wizard for good, lest his debriefing endanger the conspiracy's secrets. So Harry first emitted a blast of the solar version of the Lumos spell, Lumos Solem, because the vampire was moving too quickly to be targeted by a stake. The vampire's skin started blackening and smoking, but it didn't slow down, intent on killing the unconscious wizard. But before it could kill the wizard, an arrow plunged into its belly. The vampire looked at it stupidly for a few seconds, before suddenly it started expanding like a balloon, and exploded.
Harry gave thumbs up to Mordecai, who returned a cocky smile and slung the crossbow over his shoulder.
Most of the enemies had been defeated by now, since the ghouls hadn't put up much of a fight after their masters had been slain, and Harry could afford the luxury of looking around.
Wolfe was fighting the last enemy in the room, a really big and fearsome-looking vampire. It was armed with a sword, and Wolfe had drawn his own sword that he carried slung over his back. The vampire attacked with blinding speed. The Ranger feigned a stumble and dropped to the ground avoiding the slashing attack that would have decapitated him, pivoting on his left arm and sweeping the vampires legs out from under it. The vampire dropped to the ground, and Wolfe brought down his sword on its throat quickly, yet with seemingly casual nonchalance, decapitating the creature.
"Verdorie, je laat het zo gemakkelijk lijken," Wortelgraaf grinned at Wolfe.
Wolfe smiled grimly. "I know I make it look easy, but we're not through yet."
Harry hadn't known that Wolfe spoke, or at least understood Dutch. He absently wondered how many people did know. From Wolfe's answer, Harry deduced that Wortelgraaf said something about the way Wolfe killed the vampire. He looked at the dour wizard and saw the brooding stare was temporarily replaced by a focussed expression. Mordecai and Wortelgraaf then started destroying all the magical artefacts thoroughly yet methodically, sparing the things that could be used as evidence by the honest Ministry officials who would no doubt be very pleased with them. Then he looked at the team leader for instructions.
Diatta seemed to be listening to her earpiece, and she looked worried. "Gedeon says they are pinned down in the prison chambers. Potter, Wolfe, help them. We'll take care of anything else that might be lurking in here."
Harry followed Wolfe as they raced through the caves. They reached the prison chambers a few minutes later and found a bunch of ghouls and a couple of vampires trying to get into the cell.
"Potter, use the capsules," Wolfe said.
Harry threw the two capsules into the crowd of ghouls, and they immediately went limp after the detonation. Two vampires shrieked and smouldered. A third one seemed unaffected by the burst of magical sunlight.
This vampire looked at the two Rangers with contempt on its features.
Wolfe obviously knew the vampire and snarled, "Skaras!"
Harry shot a stake out of the tip of his wand, but the vampire turned into mist and the stake went straight through it.
Reacting quickly, Wolfe shot a strong wind spell out of his wand and twirled it into a vortex, trapping the misty form and forcing it away from the door to the cell. Ivanova and Gedeon ushered a few frightened people out.
Wolfe spoke into his broadcaster. "Hannibal Skaras is here, and he's blocking the exit." He turned to Harry. "Potter, go with them. You need that snake of yours to guide the way."
Harry looked at the viper that was still twirled around his arm. He had totally forgotten about it. "But what about you? You can't face Skaras alone!" he said. He knew Skaras by reputation only, and he knew that it was the oldest known vampire in existence, with awesome powers.
"I have to delay him, or nobody gets out!" Wolfe said. "Now go, that's an order!"
Harry looked pleadingly at Patience Gedeon because she outranked Wolfe and could overrule him. She seemed to read his thoughts and shook her head. "He is right. We have to go!"
Patience led one of the prisoners over to Harry. She was very weak and needed Harry's support as they walked. "Harry Potter?"
He looked into her face that would have been pretty under different circumstances. It was now gaunt and pale looking, and her long black hair was dirty, but her recognised her anyway and his mind suddenly made the connection. It had to Padma Patil. She had gone to India five months ago as an overseas correspondent for the Daily Prophet. She'd disappeared without a trace a month after her arrival. He knew this because a pair of Rangers had been dispatched to find her. It was among the reasons why they had stumbled onto this whole conspiracy.
"Don't worry Padma, I'll get you out of here!" Harry said in a reassuring tone.
They met up with Diatta and the others in the chamber where the first skirmish had taken place. The wizard Harry had stunned was still out cold and tightly bound. He was floating behind Izzet.
There were several passageways to choose from, and Harry once again turned to the snake for answers. He asked the viper if she knew a way out from where they were without going back through the passage from which they'd entered the tunnel complex.
The snake knew several passages that led out of the tunnel complex, but none that would allow a human-sized being.
"It says that it doesn't know any passages that would allow creatures of our size through," Harry sighed in frustration.
"Ask it if the passages are through relatively thin surfaces, say…the length of its body," Mordecai suggested. "After all, it's just a snake. It may not realise that we can blast our way out of here if that's the case."
The snake said that there was a very thin passageway they could use, and Harry told her to point them to it. So they set out through the maze of tunnels, following the instructions. Wortelgraaf had to deactivate some more Curse Capsules before they finally came to a place where light streamed in from a little hole. Harry blasted the wall apart, and the Rangers walked out into the blazing sun.
Harry gently turned Padma over to Mordecai and started back into the hole he'd just made.
"Where do you think you are going, Potter?" Diatta barked.
"I'm not leaving Wolfe behind, Lieutenant," he yelled over his shoulder as he scrambled in. "He can't fight Skaras alone. He'll die!"
"I'm coming with you!" Mordecai offered.
"Don't be stupid! It's dangerous in there. You have a wife and baby." Harry paused and swallowed. "I'll have greater freedom of movement if I go alone, and the snake will guide me. Besides, back home they'll probably say 'good riddance' if I don't make it," he choked out in a strangled voice. Then, without looking back, he ran into the caves.
Padma drank an herbal potion that made her feel much better, and now she was nibbling on a bit of toast. She was sitting on a small seat in the cargo area of a magical craft, roughly as large as a medium sized Muggle cargo plane, and it was shaped like a manta ray. One of the witches who had rescued her from the cell, a mediwitch, gave her a check-up and asked her a load of questions.
They were interrupted when two of wizards who had rescued her carried in the one who had stayed behind to delay Skaras. He was in bad shape, but he was alive. Immediately the witch, Ivanova, rushed over to help him.
Padma overheard her asking, "Where is Potter?"
Wolfe whispered a reply that she couldn't hear, but the shocked expression on Ivanova's face said it all. Harry hadn't made it out.
Padma slumped back in her seat. Harry Potter…dead. Her throat felt strangely constricted, though she had no idea why. Harry Potter, he had become a monster like Voldemort, hadn't he? He had tortured his best friend, after all.
She shook her head. She could hear his reassuring voice telling her that he would get her out. And he had got her out. He had saved her from the terrible place where she'd been held prisoner for four months. She'd thought she'd never get out alive nor see her family again, but thanks to him she would!
He'd risked his own life to go after a fellow and got him out. A monster wouldn't do that.
Tears were starting to well in her eyes. She had been wrong about him. Everybody had been wrong about him. They should have listened to Remus Lupin, who had defended Harry, saying that Harry had been under a lot of pressure throughout his entire life and that not having an outburst would have been inhuman.
She understood now. Harry wasn't a monster. He was…had been, possibly the world's greatest hero, for Muggles and wizards alike.
Cradling her head in her hands, she spilled the first tears of sorrow for the boy who lived and fought…and died, to protect people like her, never having been forgiven for the only evil mistake he'd ever made. And it hadn't been truly evil either! It had been done in a fit of rage, a human reaction.
But she would try to make things right! Padma Patil wasn't one of the Daily Prophet's top reporters for nothing. She would make them realise, as she had realised. She owed him her life, and to return the favour she was going to save his memory! It was the least she could do.