Chapter Nine

As they entered the dungeons, none of the three expected the sight before them. Even as Death Eaters, and with all the things war, and their own leader's depravities, had shown them, not one of them was prepared to find the cells—

"Empty?" Thorfinn asked in a whisper, his tone threaded with disbelief.

Orias and Antonin exchanged a confused glance. Just as fast, however, a look of realization dawning crossed the dark-haired wizard's face.

Orias' brows drew upward in question.

With a roll of his eyes as he shook his head, Antonin answered, "We were instructed to bring them here. If he had them dragged off elsewhere, someplace where he maybe might go to keep anyone from stumbling over what he was doing, then I can only think of one place."

The Vikings appeared remarkably brother-like—reminding their companion of why there was such a rampant misconception about them among the Death Eaters in the first place—Thorfinn and Orias both groaned, their massive shoulders slumping.

"Oh, bloody Christ, man! Not the Chamber . . . ." Orias shook his head, his features pinched in disgust.

Thorfinn scowled, his blue eyes narrowed, already aware there was no arguing about their next destination. "I hate that place . . . still smells sloughed-off snake skin."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better," Antonin said with a shrug, his knowledge of anatomy and torture techniques applicable just now, "if he really did use their blood for this, and the ritual area was as much of a mess as you say, there's no way he left Amycus and Nott breathing."

The blond wizards exchanged a glance. "That's supposed to make us feel better?" Thorfinn asked, his eyebrows all but disappearing into his hair.

Antonin shrugged as he started leading the way back out of the dungeons. "Well, yeah. Means we don't have to worry about saving anyone's life."

As far as Orias was concerned, they might not be rushing to pull those two idiots from the jaws of death, but time was still of the essence if they wanted to investigate the chamber and still make it back to the library before morning. One of them had to warn Hermione about what the Dark Lord had been up to.

And he had the oddest feeling that right now, their leader might suddenly decide she didn't require escorts anymore. All the better to ensure he would get the pleasure of witnessing her shock and true reaction to her first, unprepared, glimpse of what he'd done for her.

Orias shook his head as he followed the other two back through the castle along back corridors and lesser-used passages to reduce the likelihood of their little investigation being discovered. He knew one of them should double-back, instead, and head for the library. He'd never exactly been a cautious man—that type of thinking didn't seem to run in the Mulciber line—but he understood that without knowing what might await in the Chamber, proceeding as a unit was their wisest course of action. Normally, he was able to count on his own brute strength and natural sturdiness, but in cases like this, safety in numbers was the way to go, even if he was loathe to admit it.

And, of course, as much as he wanted to move fast, there simply was no speedy way to get into the blasted Chamber of Secrets. He only hoped their leader wasn't down there right now, or they'd be up shit's creek as far as explaining their sudden appearance down there.

Hermione tossed and turned. She'd had so much trouble falling asleep to start. Everything going on recently felt so wrong. So . . . so much like they were all walking into a trap. They all knew it had been set, but none of them were aware what might be the misstep that would trigger it.

Shifting beneath her covers, she became cognizant of someone in the room with her.

The witch barely stopped herself from calling out Orias' name. If it were anyone else skulking about the library at this hour, she could get him in so much trouble . . . .

Understanding that a train of thought this coherent meant she probably had woken up at some point without realizing, she forced open her eyes. With a yawn, she stared up at the ceiling of the librarian's quarters for a quiet moment.

She was listening. Trying to determine who was in the room with her. How many, how far from her.

One person. She heard one person's breath, only audible due to how very still and silent the room around them was. And if she could gauge, she thought perhaps they stood in the doorway.

Closing her eyes, once more, she stirred, allowing herself a lazy stretch. If it was one of her wizards, they'd cross the room. If it wasn't, well, whoever it was would surely answer to Voldemort tomorrow for disturbing her sleep. After how he'd responded to Amycus and Nott, she doubted any of the other Death Eaters would be stupid enough to try and harm her.

That was when she heard the footfalls. Slow, purposeful, she thought. They crossed from—well, she'd guessed correctly—the doorway of her quarters, making a bee-line for her bedside.

She didn't think she recognized the cadence of these steps. So, if it wasn't Orias, Antonin, or Thorfinn being so bold . . . well, she thought she'd better brace for someone's stupidity right now.

Then, she felt the weight of her observer press into the mattress as they took a seat on the side of her bed. They really were bold!

Frowning, she said in a sleepy tumble of monotone words, "Whoever you are, you'd better leave now. If I tell the Dark Lord one of you was in my quarters in the middle of the night, he'll be very unhappy."

She heard a chuckling at that. Oddly enough, it was a pleasant sound, deep and rich. And wholly unfamiliar.

"You are correct. Were your visitor anyone but me, I'd be most furious over this transgression, Mudblood."

Unable to hold her façade against the wave of shock that crashed through her, Hermione's eyes snapped open. Leaning over her, she saw the face from those old photographs. Those painfully beautiful features stared back at her, eyes so blue they glimmered in the dark.

She bolted upright, unable to pull her panicked gaze from his. "I . . . I don't . . . ." She tried again, feeling tears that were a mix of fear and confusion crowd her throat. "I don't understand."

"What's to understand?" Oh, he did relish the way her eyes seemed to flash wider, still, as he lifted his hand to trace her lips with the tips of his fingers. He inhaled, a sharp hissing sound, at the sensation of her breath dancing across his skin. "I got tired of waiting for you to come back to life."

His reaction to her hadn't gone unnoticed, but she kept herself still. No matter what he looked like, she knew what he really was, and of what he was truly capable.

"But how?"

He watched her lips as she spoke. Shaking his head, he said with a sigh, "As you well know, when one is determined, they will always find a way. And I am nothing if not determined to have what is mine."

"I'm . . . I'm not yours." She didn't know how she found her voice. He'd restored himself like this? How much power had that taken? How had he . . . ?

The Dark Lord smirked at her whispered declaration. "My sweet little Mudblood, you've been mine since the moment I won the War, remember? I just didn't claim you yet, because you and I both knew there was a piece missing. A piece I glimpsed that day you found those old photographs."

The witch tried to think clearly. She tried to sort the confused jumble of words in her head, but nothing seemed to make sense. She didn't even know magic like this was possible!

"But . . . but I'm not—"

He sank his fingers into her hair and pulled back her head. The gasp she uttered at the action brought a smile to his lips. There was something so delicious in the way she shivered from something so simple that this, alone, had him in danger of becoming hard. Nearly as though his body had forgotten, already, that he'd had release just a short while ago thanks to Alecto's assistance.

Dipping his head, he raked his teeth along the side of her throat just below her ear. She shivered, again, and he knew the moan she uttered wasn't something she'd meant to let slip out.

Oh, he was going to have fun convincing her to let what her body wanted override what her mind dictated. She was far too hung up on those pesky ideals of right and wrong as it was.

Pulling back, he climbed to his feet. Before she could respond, he slid his hand around her arm and dragged her up to stand.

As he started walking from the room, pulling her along behind him in her nightdress, she snapped back to her senses. "Where are you taking me?" she demanded as she tried to tug out of his grasp.

Voldemort chuckled, glancing back at her over his shoulder as they started through the library. "As I said, there you are—whole, again. Just as I wanted you . . . ."

She spoke through clenched teeth as she tried again. "Where are you—?"

"I should think that's obvious, Mudblood. You are mine to do with as I please, remember?" He halted, midstride and spun to face her. The suddenness of the motion had her body flush against his as he leaned down to murmur in her ear. "I was going to torture you, endlessly. Wait until you started to heal and then do it all over again, until your mind shattered from the agony. But then . . . but then I got this form back. And I realized what a waste that would be."

He pulled back, holding her gaze as he went on. "I know now what I've been missing. Touch? It's such an exquisitely simple thing, but you don't realize that until the ability to feel it has been stripped from you. Now that I recall what it feels like, it's created a longing in me, Mudblood. A longing that you will slake, whenever I have need."

She shook her head, disgust pinching her features. "You mean to rape me?!"

He threw back his head in another of those rich, deep chuckles of his. "Oh, oh you are innocent, aren't you? No, no. Where would the challenge, or the fun, be in that?"

All right, so now she was even more confused. "I don't under—"

Again, he stopped, the sudden halt cutting short her words. Sooner than she could react, he clamped a rough hand between her thighs through her nightdress—here, right in the middle of a castle corridor!

When she let out a shuddering breath, trembling against his sweetly unforgiving fingers, he grinned.

"I mean to make you want to relieve that longing."

They were off again, the Dark Lord tugging a dazed Hermione along behind him through the nighttime quiet of Hogwarts. At first she was angry, then she was disgusted. Now, she was simply afraid.

Afraid, because she was forced to wonder if he could actually make that happen.

At last reaching the hidden entry point, they looked around at each other as they waited for the bloody thing to open. Thorfinn stepped back and gestured downward. "Age before beauty," he said with a grin.

Their shoulders slumping, both Antonin and Orias scowled at the younger Death Eater. "Smarmy little shit," the blond mountain of a wizard muttered as he dropped down into the Chamber.

Antonin, however, narrowed his dark eyes at Thorfinn as he stepped toward the opening. "Or, as I like to think of it, experience before, well . . . I'll let you fill in the blank."

Minutes later as the three emerged in the heart of the Chamber, Thorfinn shielded his face with the sleeve of his robes. "Sloughed off snake skin aside, what is that smell?"

Orias and Antonin winced as they each glanced about. Thorfinn wasn't old enough to recall the strongest scent permeating the vast, damp room, but he and Antonin recognized it well.

"Burnt parchment . . . ."

"Amongst other things," Antonin tacked on with a disgusted crinkling of his nose. "But not anything unfamiliar in terms of what a body goes through when one is exsanguinated . . . or skinned alive. Let's go find out which one, shall we?"

"Burnt parchment?" Thorfinn didn't want to think about the other conditions they'd find about the corpses now that Antonin had explained it so clearly. "That'd have to be the books he got the ritual from, wouldn't it? He destroyed them?"

Orias frowned, his nostrils flaring as he shook his head. "Something he made us do during the First War. If we came across any bit of magic he didn't already know, he learned it, then had us burn the evidence, so no one else could learn it."

"Sounds stupid. Why didn't you just hide them?"

Antonin clenched his teeth as he halted and pivoted on his heel to face Thorfinn. "Gee, I don't know, Rowle! Perhaps because our leader is a mind-reading lunatic who'd flay us alive if he found out we'd betrayed him like that?"

"Point taken, calm your tits!"

Orias, who'd kept walking toward the pillars, rounded the great stone columns and simply halted. Gaping up at whatever was on the other side, he said, "Well . . . speaking of being flayed alive . . . ."

Antonin rushed over, but Thorfinn shook his head. Holding up his hands, the younger man said, "I think I'm good over here, thanks."

The dark-haired wizard actually had to look away from the sight of the mangled bodies, left chained against the other side of the pillars. And he was the one with experience in torture. Orias, on the other hand, couldn't seem to pull his gaze away. Morbid fascination was a hell of a thing that way, he supposed.

"I can't believe he did this to them for mouthing off to her."

Orias shook his head at Antonin's words. "No. This wasn't for that. This was merely a matter of good timing."

"Sorry, what about this is 'good' again?" Thorfinn asked with a wince. He really didn't want to go over there.

"I didn't actually mean 'good,' you half-wit. I meant convenient for the Dark Lord. He already had them in the dungeons. Then, he realized he'd need an excessive amount of blood for his ritual . . . there they were. No one would miss them, yet, because as far as we were all aware, they were receiving punishment for disobedience, anyway."

Antonin sighed. He'd considered taking the bodies down for a few moments, there, but no. They could leave no evidence that they'd been down here. He dropped the hand that had been reaching for his wand to his side and stepped away from the corpses.

"All right," he said with a shrug. "Who wants to be the one to tell Alecto about her brother?"

Just as a round of finger-pointing started, Thorfinn seemed to freeze in place, entirely.

"Wait . . . ." When the other two turned their attention on him, he continued. "If he destroys the books or scrolls so no one else can learn it, doesn't that also mean no one can learn how to counter that magic?"

"Well, yeah, o' course it . . . ." The other blond wizard frowned. Thorfinn Rowle was far from stupid; he wouldn't ask a question like this unless it served a purpose.

Orias cast his gaze toward the ceiling as Antonin's face fell. Of course that's what it meant, they simply hadn't applied it to their current situation. Hadn't thought of it, at all, in context to this. Whatever the Dark Lord had done was irreversible.

And none of them had any idea what that could mean.

"Shit," the pair of older wizards said in unison.