Chapter 2

Hebert's skills at broomstick-flying were arguably non-existent, but she seemed to compensate with her bug powers. With her swarm whirling around her, she had given herself a solid three-dimensional view of her surroundings. Her flight was wobbly, her control over the broom tenuous at best, but it got the job done. Oni Lee was soon encouraged to split his attention between the two stick-waving people riding one flying broom, and Hebert riding the other.

There were several more finesses that an observer might have found worth noting - Oni Lee's workmanlike proficiency at flooding a battle with his clones, Hebert's creative flourishes with her Master power, and her readiness to counter a flood of clones with a tsunami of bugs, not to mention the plethora of quirky powers that Jephro and Cyril displayed - but the brutalities eventually came to an end.

"There!" Cyril cried out, jabbing his wand against a bronze disc, engraved with runes, that he'd started fiddling with when he realized that Hebert was providing the distraction he'd needed.

There was a loud noise, like the ringing of a gong. The latest Oni Lee duplicate shrivelled away in a cloud of ash. The three broom-riders hesitated, and scanned their surroundings.

"It worked!" Jephro cheered. "You drove off the, uh... whatever it was."

"I reckon it must have been a new breed of blapperhomstrel, one that's learned to walk on its hind legs," said Cyril, rubbing his moustache thoughtfully. "Did you see how quickly it Apparated? It was like there was more than one of them, sometimes!"

"Nah, it must have been a crestless nusanusu," said Jephro. "Didn't you see the head? I'm just surprised to see a wild one roaming around here, so far from the Far East... unless someone kept it as a pet, and it escaped."

"It, uh... He wasn't an animal," Hebert wheezed, carefully landing on the roof. "He's a criminal called Oni Lee. Y'know... A parahuman, like Lung, over there?"

The two broom-riders glanced at each other, and shot sceptical looks at Hebert. They landed on the roof, as well, and dismounted their broom.

"Just because it could Ap-pah-ray-tuh, that doesn't make it a wizz-ard," said Cyril, speaking slowly and enunciating his words clearly. "Plenty of magical creatures can do that, too. And besides, if that thing was a wizard, then it would have attacked us with a wand, casting spells - not swiping at us with metallic knife-like claws, and flinging its explosive feces at us like a Muggle!"

Hebert hunched her shoulders and shuffled her feet, one hand clenched tight around the broomstick she still carried. "Erm... But... Huh? What? F-feces?"

"Let's not get into another lecture, hmm?" Jephro raised his remaining hand, and waved it in a quelling gesture. "What really matters is that we're safe, now."

At this point, Lung gave up on trying to bend or break the bars to his cage. Instead, he let loose another column of flame, that lit up the night sky and set Jephro's hat on fire.

"Stupefy!" Cyril shouted, thrusting his stick at the caged parahuman. "Stupefy! Stupefy!"

After weathering another barrage of red energy blasts, Lung slumped back to the floor of his cage.

Cyril breathed a long sigh. "Now we're sa- ...Uh, not in immediate peril."

"It wasn't 'knife-like', it was a knife, full stop." Hebert mumbled. "Or full stab , even."

"In any case," Jephro said. "Good work up there. Not sure how you did that thing with the bugs, but it might have helped, a little. Oh, and speaking of which: I'd like my broom back now, if you don't mind."

Hebert started, and offered the wooden handle to him, followed more gingerly by the pinkish cylinder in her other hand. "Um... I t-think this belongs to you, too."

"Ah, cheers." Jephro readily accepted the severed digit, and stuck it in a pouch on his belt.

"Erm..." Hebert pointed awkwardly at the stranger's arm, the one that had been reduced to a stump. "...Do you want me to call an ambulance, or give you directions to a hospital, or something?"

Jephro shook his head dismissively. "Don't worry about it, I've had worse. I just need a drop of Skele-Gro, a mouthful of Muscle-Mending Draught, and a few Blood Replenishing Potions, and I'll be right as rain! A few scratches from a wild beast is all in a day's work, for professionals like us!"

Rubbing her shoulder, Hebert nodded along to his monologue. When he paused, she pointed a finger at her head. "...Just, y'know, eff-why-aie? Your hat is still, uh... Your hat is on fire."

With a frightened squeal, Jephro tore his pointy hat off his head, threw it aside, and waved his stick at the burning headgear. A cry of "A-A-A-Aguamenti!" later, water started gushing out of the tip of the stick. Jephro doused his hat, whimpering piteously.

"So..." Hebert turned to Cyril. "What happened to Oni Lee, anyway?"

Cyril frowned. "Nelly who?"

Due to her mask, it was impossible to tell what expression Hebert wore, just then. She did, however, stay silent and still, for roughly the length of time it took an average teenager to roll their eyes, one full revolution. "...The nooser-doozer blubber-hamster?"

"Ah!" Cyril lit up in a wide smile. "You mean, the blapperhomstrel!" He leaned closer to her and shielded his mouth with the back of his hand, stage whispering. "Don't listen to Jephro - that creature was definitely not a nusanusu, crestless or otherwise."

Hebert nodded slowly. "I couldn't agree more. He's... Um, it was certainly not a fuzzy-wuzzy."

"Oh, indeed! Well, there's no need to worry," said Cyril. "The Anti-Apparition Ward simply prevented the blapperhomstrel from using its innate magic. Once it Dis-Apparated within the area of the ward, the blapperhomstrel would just bounce off the ward and land somewhere else."

"...I'll take your word for it, I guess," said Hebert. "It sounds kinda dangerous, though. What would happen if the... the creature's ability doesn't work the same way as this... Apparating?"

Cyril laughed and shook his head. "Oh, what an imagination you have! I assure you, the risk of anything going wrong is tiny. The odds must be a million to one." He blinked, and held out a hand. Something landed on his palm. "My word! Snow, already? Winter comes early, it seems."

Hebert looked up. Countless pale flakes drifted gently down over the rooftop, and the surrounding streets and buildings.

She held up her own palm, and caught a few flakes. Insects buzzed in the air, collecting more flakes and depositing them in Hebert's hand. She rubbed her fingers, crushing the flakes. "I don't think this is snow..."

Cyril shrugged, and walked over to Jephro, clapping him on the shoulder of his uninjured arm. "Ready to pack up and get going? I think the dragon is starting to stir, again."

Jephro looked mournfully at his scorched, sodden hat. He sighed. "I suppose..." Slapping his dripping, much-abused hat back on his head, he followed Cyril over to the cage.

Hebert looked back up at the sky, whispering to herself. "...I think this is ash."

"Hold on," said Jephro, patting his pockets and belt one-handed. "I've lost one of my pouches! It must have been torn off its strap during the tussle with the dragon, or maybe with the nusanusu..."

"Blapperhomstrel," Cyril drawled.

"...Parahuman," Hebert mumbled.

"KEHH YOO!" Lung bellowed.

"Stupefy!" Cyril and Jephro shouted, repeating themselves over and over, until the dragon collapsed again.

"Right," Cyril sighed, once the rooftop was quiet once more. "Where were we?"

"Eighth floor, man-purses and fanny packs," Hebert muttered.

Jephro snapped his fingers. "My pouch! It's gone!"

"Have you tried the obvious solution?" Cyril suggested, twirling his wand. "Y'know... Accio Jephro's pouch?"

Everyone stayed silent for a moment, waiting to see what would happen. After half a minute, it looked like the answer to that question was: 'Nothing much'.

"Doesn't look like it's here, if it can't be summoned," Jephro moped. "Guess it must have been burned to bits by the dragon, or obliterated by the nusanusu's exploding dung."

Cyril shook his head. "Blapper-"

"Was it valuable?" Hebert hurriedly spoke up, before another argument could get started. "I mean, did you keep any important equipment or, uh... or irreplaceable belongings in that pouch?"

"Nah, just my lunch, and a few samples. Nothing particularly rare, just... odds and ends, to be honest." Jephro sighed. "But I really liked that pouch, y'know?"

"Lunch?" Hebert cocked her head. "But, it's the middle of the night... Oh, right. Of course. Time zone differences. You guys did say you were British."

"There you go, mate," Cyril chuckled. "The, uh... The time-shone deference ate your belt pouch. Another grand adventure you can tell your grandchildren about, one day." He pulled a long shoelace out of his pocket, and tied one end to Lung's tail. After looping it a couple of times around one of the bars on the cage, he kept hold of the other end. "Ready to go?"

Jephro adjusted his battered hat, and sauntered over. He grabbed hold of an unoccupied length of shoelace. "Ready when you are, Cyril."

"Wait!" Hebert cried out. "Are you taking Lung away with you? Is this more of that... Apparating business? Are you sure that's safe? That ward thingy you did...

"Portkey, luv," said Jephro, shaking the shoelace in his hand. "Much more convenient, when you're moving groups of people or heavy cargo around."

"The ward only affects Apparition, not Portkeys," Cyril said. "And besides, it was only a temporary one. It's faded, by now."

Hebert seemed to relax a little, but there was still tension in her stance. "Okay, well... Where are you going?"

"Didn't we already tell you?" Jephro winked at her, and nodded at Lung. "Straight back to Hogwarts, and the Tri-Wizard Tournament! We're gonna give this plain country girl a chance to become a star!"

Tapping his stick against the shoelace, Cyril muttered something under his breath. The string glowed blue.

Then, a couple of bugs flew down and landed on the shoelace. There were already plenty of small insects perched on Cyril, Jephro, Lung, and the cage, surreptitiously hidden in any available nooks and crannies.

Perhaps Hebert was just curious about how this strange, unfamiliar Mover power worked. Maybe she wanted to attempt a bit of espionage, in the hopes of discovering where the group was going... Maybe even both? A little of column Aphid, a little of column Bee?

Later, Hebert would no doubt be spurred to wonder, once again, just how her parahuman power worked; she'd certainly ruminate on these "wizards" with their "magic", and how it interacted with her own power. What, exactly, connected her mind with her swarm? Was there a link, from parahuman Master, to Mastered insects? A link that allowed Hebert to control her bugs like a natural extension of her body? From Hebert to bugs, and from bugs to shoelace... That latter connection was obvious, tangible, with the bugs quite literally in physical contact with the string. Links in a living chain?

If so, those idle thoughts might throw some light on the things that happened next.

The shoelace vanished with a loud pop. Wherever the shoelace went, it took the two oddly dressed strangers, Lung, and the large cage with it.

In that same instant, Hebert's knees buckled under her. She fell over, and screamed. Once again, the expressionless and vaguely bug-like mask covering her face revealed nothing of what was going through her mind; however, judging by her agonized keening wail, what Hebert felt most strongly right then, was pain.

She clutched her stomach, by the navel, and writhed where she lay sprawled on the battle-scarred rooftop. It was like watching a human-sized worm squirm, after it had been impaled on a fish hook.

This sad display only lasted for a handful of seconds, although it probably felt like a lot longer for the girl experiencing it first-hand. With another loud pop, Hebert vanished as well.

The rain of grey flakes had ceased. Here and there, fires still burned on the ravaged rooftop. In the distance, the faint sound of sirens was growing steadily louder, as vehicles with flashing lights approached along the streets.

A door opened. Two new figures stepped out from a stairwell. One of them was dressed like an average, nondescript businesswoman, with unremarkable blonde hair. The other was swathed in a long beige coat, a woollen cap, and multiple scarves wrapped around its face. In one gloved hand, it carried a briefcase.

"An unexpected bonus, for you," said the woman. "Let's call her a freebie."

The figure in the coat simply nodded, and handed her the briefcase.

She opened the case, taking a quick look inside, before snapping it shut with a sharp click. "Pleasure doing business with you. Now, if there's nothing else...? No?" She cocked her head to the side. "Sounds like the authorities are finally here. It may be prudent to save them the trouble of having witnesses to interview."

Shuffling its feet clumsily, the figure in the coat and scarves turned and shambled off to the edge of the building, stepping off the roof and disappearing.

The woman with the briefcase walked briskly down the stairs, closing the roof-access door behind her.

Upon a rooftop scarred with marks of strife, no figures were seen.