Tom didn't hear the first explosion.
It might have been his time in the muggle world each summer, after his second year when the airplanes were dueling in the skies sleeping through explosions had been required at Wool's. It had been harder for him, Tom had always been a light sleeper. At first the other children had attacked him in his sleep and then later, well they knew that they only stood a chance while he slept. He was nothing if not adaptable though, the sounds of violence soon became another obstacle he conquered.
He wasn't the only one in the room though, old Slughorn was holding court and there was the usual rabble, children whose fathers and family held power and then the others, those who Slughorn saw potential in. Much to Tom's irritation he was firmly in the second group. He had hints, his talents, that suggested he was greater and one day people would recognize this year as the one where he began his rise.
Tom's thought's were interrupted by some pale second year standing. The boy was in the yellow and black of the badgers, a quick scan revealed nothing to distinguish him from the faceless masses of that house but Tom did respect some of their virtues. He'd memorize his name and face anyways, Slughorn had shown an eye for talent when he found Tom and it would be foolish to disregard his expertise without more information.
The pale boy, reddening as the attention of the school's 'best students' turned to him, stammered something.
"Speak up Mr. McPhail," Slughorn's voice carried throughout the dungeon. "Would your Grandfather have been Minister if no one could hear him?"
McPhail nodded rapidly, took a breath, "I said did any of you-"
The castle shook, dust fell from between the stones in the ceiling and the decanter of wine balanced on Slughorn's desk fell and shattered. He finished in a softer voice that the sudden silence of the classroom left plainly audible.
Slughorn was already moving, leaving the boy behind as he whipped his wand in a complex pattern, launching a blue wisp that sped out the door and up the hall. "Alright all of you, follow me!" He waved the group forward, towards the hall when the castle rocked again. "Don't dawdle you lot! Run!" He suited actions to words, yanking the laggards who'd chosen to gather their bags to the door with a single wide sweep of his wand and a few stinging hexes, ushering them out and checking no one had been left behind.
Tom was with the mass of students, normally he could barely tolerate being anywhere but at the edge of a crowd but he had an image, and being slow in a crisis or cowardly fleeing first was not it. Behind his calm facade he was worried though. Slughorn was not a feeble wizard, for all of his sycophantism, and if he was worried a fifth year, even one as talented as Tom, should be cautious.
As they streamed out of the dungeons more and more joined them, the professors and prefects were leading gaggles of nervous children to the Great Hall as the great castle continued to be hammered. The potions master gave a quick look over the students he'd escorted before turning sharply. Tom seized his shoulder before he could go.
"Professor, what's happening?"
Slughorn ripped himself free, his mouth a sharp line utterly foreign to the portly man's face. "The castle is under attack Mr. Riddle. Stay in the Hall and don't forget your duties as a prefect, keep the younger children in line and safe." With that he strode off, moving with an uncommon quickness to the doors where the other professors, save the fool Kettleburn and Dumbledore, were marshalled. They huddled and conferred, with Dippet moving his arms in short stabbing gestures. After a moment all but Merrythought left the hall, presumably headed for the grounds and the invaders.
Merrythought hurried back to the students a harsh expression on her scarred face. She moved her wand, yew and short Tom absently noted, past her throat and began barking orders in her amplified voice.
"All students to the fireplaces, put the youngest closest. The floos are blocked but the Ministry will be breaking through any minute to get you all out." She seemed to recognize that she was speaking to a room of terrified children and visibly searched for something encouraging to say. "Hogwarts has never fallen and no invader has ever breached the doors. This time will be no different." The castle gave another groan as she finished and from the murmurs of the crowd they weren't convinced.
She turned her back then, letting the group coalesce around the cold fireplaces as she closed the doors and began to apply spells to the thick wood. Tom watched with interest, there was nothing he could do until the floos lit up again and in the meantime Merrythought was a master of her craft, watching her work could yield dividends. He recognized some of what she did at first, the basic Locking Spell, Sticking Charms around the frame and then she continued past his knowledge, writing glyphs that shimmered as they sank into the wood even as the assault on the castle continued.
"Look up!" someone shouted from the crowd and through the sudden silence Tom knew the advice was good. Through the enchanted ceiling the sky was bleeding. Red bands stretched across the visible portion, staining the clear heavens. They thrummed with the castle, pulses racing across them as the aftershocks of whatever was impacting the wards left the castle vibrating.
Tom tore his eyes away from the sky, if something else happened the others would let him know, he was missing the chance to see the defences a skilled witch could emplace. As he turned back to the doors he was struck by the condition of the hall. Now, bare minutes after the beginning, the tables and the floors were coated with the dust of a thousand years, the tapestries were down and the neatly arranged benches had been skewed.
The entrance was no longer there. Merrythought had pulled the rock from the flagstones up to fill the door frame and was conjuring beasts and animating golems that dragged themselves from the floor and stood ready brandishing rocky maces. She turned almost as soon as Tom started watching, her wand never stopping as she shouted. "Seventh years in my class! Come up here." Her speech was punctuated by the loudest crash yet, Tom was beginning to wonder how much more the ancient stones could take before collapsing into the cairn of Wizarding Britain.
The few in NEWT level Defense Against the Dark Arts trickled out the crowd, varying in confidence with Selwyn cringing and the aspiring duelist Abraxas Malfoy idly twirling his wand as he advanced with his back straight. "Listen up you lot, you're the last line, if they get through me you've got to slow them down. That doesn't mean you have to wait, as soon as you see the front of a target start cursing. Don't be squeamish about it either, this isn't class."
Malfoy didn't need the reminder, he showed off his arsenal of obscure and vicious charms at every chance he got, relying on the products of generations to narrowly maintain his superiority over the 'the mudblood'. Someday he'd be paid back, Tom had sworn, perhaps even this year. For now though, he was another body between Tom and the attackers so he was tolerable, having your enemies take each other out was an early lesson in Slytherin.
Speaking of human shields, Tom began to sink back into the crowd. He didn't really think the castle would be breached but being closest to an escape route would only be prudent. Having the idiotic Gryffindors soak up any spellfire would be an added bonus, perhaps even that half giant could be useful.
A gasp spread through the crowd, everyone around him had their eyes turned skyward and Tom joined them, the formerly solid red bands were splitting, motes of light falling from them as the wards collapsed. The ceiling of the hall started to fade too, which was when the first shivers of fear went through Tom. The founders, witches and wizards whose ingenuity and efforts had rarely been surpassed in the centuries since, had created it. As the sky turned to stone suddenly the invaders getting in seemed more likely, the crowd agreed as screams split the air.
Over the din something else was audible, a rushing noise like vast wings, hisses and cracks; spellfire. Merrythought was facing the doors now, her wand glowing ominously, Malfoy beside her in a practiced and elegant dueler's stance. The student's screams were dying down now, replaced by scattered sobs. The spells outside seemed to have stopped too, for a moment Tom began to believe the professors had triumphed, that their last stand had halted the attackers at the door.
Merrythought's transfigured stone cracking was the first sign he was wrong. Tom drew his wand. Whatever had beaten almost the entirety of Hogwarts' defenses was certainly beyond him, but Tom knew he was meant for more, that death was not here for him today. And well, if he was wrong he wouldn't die cowering, his story would not end in ignominy.
The fireplaces behind him flared up green, the sudden burst of light illuminating the far wall, with the ceiling a shadow of what it had been the great hall had grown dim, only lit by candles and the viridian glow of the floo. Merrythought turned, relief clear on her face as Aurors rushed through and moved to join her even as students moved towards the fires. She was just opening her mouth when the door shattered.
Standing alone in the entrance, the bodies of professors at his feet was a single man. He was short and somewhat scruffy, in tattered and dirty robes over what almost looked to be muggle clothing. His wand was low at his side, from the tip a sphere of perfect black hung, voraciously consuming the rubble he'd made of the door, stone blocks spun and swirled into the black and vanished crumbling as they approached it. For a moment all was still, the entire tableau frozen as his eyes almost hidden behind round glasses swept the room.
He moved first, launching his stygian ball over the crowd towards the fireplace with a swing that somehow conveyed the impression of immense mass. Tom felt the tug of the orb as it arced overhead and into the floo. The fires vanished, swept away in an instant and the fireplaces crumbled.
His action broke the deadlock, amid renewed screaming Merrythought's army of beasts and stones rushed him accompanied by the curses of the aurors. The man was unfazed, lightning quick his wand traced a path at his feet spraying blazing drops of stone into the air that another wave froze and launched at incomprehensible speeds. Half the aurors dropped screaming, their wand hands messes of gore that the returning stones, now orbiting the sorcerer, left misted through the air.
The lucky few who had reacted fast enough to shield were just recovering even as the next spell left his wand, a deep blue wave that pulsed forth, throwing the remaining conjured beasts into the air and buffeting the aurors back. Merrythought had weathered it though, and Malfoy had been close enough that her shield had saved him, both of their wands sent spells down range, Malfoy's a gleaming silver crescent and Merrythought's a crackling burst of purple lightning.
The spinning stones intercepted both attacks, exploding as they collided and the wizard retaliated with a snap of his wrist that sent projectiles burning far brighter than the sun at them both. Merrythought somehow slipped aside, the old woman incredibly spright, but the light hit Malfoy. His scream filled the air, rising above the rest of the terrified crowd as the searing light formed shackles around him and lifting before brutally slamming into the ground with two sickening cracks.
If the loss of her last remaining ally worried her Merrythought didn't show it. She sent a constant stream of curses that seemed to be the first thing to cause the man some trouble, sprays of water and his rocky shield absorbed them but his face twisted, showing an expression for the first time.
Despite the potential for his imminent death Tom was enraptured. This was what he had dreamed of when he thought of magic, of power and might sufficient to bend the world to his will. Power enough to carve his name into history, even conquer death. As he watched though he could see the end was near, Merrythought was slowing at last and her frantic energy was waning.
"Avada Kedavra!" Her scream launched the sickly green curse accompanied by the rush of wings and was met with an angry snarl, the black haired man twisted away lashing out with a bright pink whip that curled around Merrythought's arm and cinched tight, leaving a smoking stump in its place. A stunner was the last thing that left his wand as he strode past the incapacitated and unconscious bodies.
The now silent crowd shrank backwards as he advanced, compressing against the wall until there was no more room to move. He stopped ten yards from the edge and glanced across the students, his green eyes flickering across their faces. A strange smile, almost a grimace, crossed his face before he spoke for the first time.
"You cannot fight me. I do not want to kill you." The words had a strange cadence, as if the wizard was reciting something he'd heard long ago. "I have great respect for the students of Hogwarts. I do not want to spill magical blood. Give me Tom Riddle, and none shall be harmed."
For a moment Tom couldn't move, shock flooded him. For the first time since he gained his magic he felt ice race down his spine. Around him students shrank away, he wanted to rage at their cowardice as they left a clearing around and behind him but he did nothing. Holding up his wand, thirteen and a half inches of yew had never felt so little, the green eyes of the sorcerer stared at him.
The wizard was motionless, almost long enough that Tom considered attacking, regardless of the likely outcome, before he seemed to shake himself and raised his wand.
"I am sorry it came to this Tom."
His wand began to move, its tip glowing green. Then at the moment of his death Tom was captivated by it. The wand was intricately carved, long narrow and deadly as it began its final downward sweep, the wizard's voice an afterthought as the bolt of green and the rush of wind seemed to trickle towards him.
The explosion of fire that Dumbledore materialized from was almost anti-climatic. Tom could only stare dumbly as he was saved by the one wizard who had always hated him. The curse was blocked somehow, there was a baby bird on the floor. Even now the bearded wizard, his auburn hair beginning to fade, standing between Tom and certain death frightened him. He would never forget their first meeting, the power and humiliation the man had brought, almost ruining the greatest day of his life, the day his nature was confirmed. Ruthlessly Tom came back to himself, nearly dying was hardly a reason to go into shock, just in time to hear the wizard begin to speak again.
"Step aside Dumbledore, this is for your Greater Good." The words didn't have an impact on the professor, he stood tall with his wand raised against the man who had singlehandedly invaded Hogwarts.
"I learned the flaws of that vanity long ago." He paused looking at the chaos left in the sorcerer's wake, only slowing a little at the bodies strewn behind him. When he began again his voice was resonant in a way that made it seem absolute, unquestionable and powerful. "I shall give you one chance to depart even now, abandon your attack and I promise I shall seek no vengeance."
A smirk crossed the wizard's face before it was gone. "Always with the second chances."
"I have come to see myself first as an educator, but it is said that the burned hand teaches best." He stopped again, as if to take the measure of the man. "If you want a fight I'll oblige you, but you seek only Mr. Riddle. Do you object to moving back? If you defeat me a few yards will scarcely matter."
The wizard didn't reply verbally, he merely crouched and leapt back impossibly far, covering most of the distance to the entrance and landing on the Gryffindor table without a sound. Dumbledore walked forward, his long legs covering the distance quickly even as the stone shaped itself into stairs as he climbed onto the dusty table.
The two of them, the greying wizard dressed in robes that could be best described as garish towering over the hall and the stained sorcerer, his coal black hair matching and as messy as his robes, faced each other across the table. It could almost have been a regulation duel, or the cliched painting of some war's end, light and dark battling to the last. The invader certainly noticed the framing, he gave a quick salute and a deep bow, which Dumbledore returned with a flourish, before the combat resumed.
The contrast in looks was matched by their magic. Dumbledore was a master of transfiguration and it showed. Animals and constructs leapt from the floor fangs bared and weapons swinging. The entire world seemed to obey his will to smash his enemy, everything from chairs to the very fabric of space seemed to obey him. The other sent blinding rays that scorched and burned what they hit, strange glowing balls surrounded by lightning and pieces of metal that seemed to crack the air with their speed.
It wasn't enough. For the first time the wizard was on the defensive, he had tried to replicate his trick with the stones, but they had morphed to ravens and attacked him, his burst of flame had obliterated them before Dumbledore twisted it into a burning lion that reared and slashed, the gust of wind that dispersed it flung shards of rock that melded seamlessly into a massive crowned golem that stepped forward reaching down before another black sphere buried itself in its chest and consumed it.
Dumbledore held up a hand at that, the sorceror threw one more spell then both combatants ceased and watched the golem crumble into nothingness. "Interesting effect, I'll remember that one." He lightly commented over the crashing stone as if it the destructive orb was nothing more than a new pranking spell.
The black haired man snorted, the first action that wasn't the part of a soulless killer. "Always the educator indeed."
When the last of the giant vanished, its obsidian crown shattering inward the two resumed. The sorcerer was now shrouded in a green and blue aura, Dumbledore's efforts seemed to collapse as they hit the glowing field, the transfigurations and conjurations reverting into nothingness. The invader took the opportunity to begin flinging spells back, multicolored lights that burned the eyes, bolts of energy that were so wrong their sounds smelt foul and jagged blades that appeared to be tears to some other darker world.
Dumbledore was more than equal to them though, turning each away with wide sweeping gestures even as he advanced, closing the distance between the two of them. The sorcerer was looking increasingly panicked, human now as the professor strode closer seemingly unruffled by the power he was casually wielding and dispersing.
"You should have run when you had the chance." Dumbledore's voice held no malice, only the certainty of victory and the other wizard seemed to realize it. He didn't give up though, launching spells that made the world scream even as he was driven backwards off the table. They both paused as he landed although Dumbledore seemed to exude power that left the man shrinking.
"I promise that you will regret your choice," he spat before flicking his wand over his shoulder, sending another of his spheres into the upper west wall letting a shaft of sunlight through that fell on Dumbledore. The two of them faced off a moment longer, the contrast between the two never more evident, before they both moved blindingly fast, a shimmering blue bolt hurtled towards Tom even as Dumbledore pulled a wall in front of him that only just clipped it. The ricochet left another hole in the walls even as the sorcerer again leapt, no flew, retreating from the battle.
Dumbledore stood watching, still lit by the ray cutting through the dusty air as he began to look around the devastated room. He jumped from the table, walking quickly towards the casualties even as the students finally began to speak again, chattering and staring at Tom but not approaching any closer.
With the battle over the detached feeling was coming back along with a fierce exultation. Someone, not just anyone a powerful sorcerer, had come to kill him, Tom Riddle. What better sign of his destiny for him to have such an opponent, he had always known that greatness was his to seize, and here it was thrust upon him!
Consumed with his thoughts he didn't notice Dumbledore's approach until he was right in front of him. "Tom." He managed to control his flinch and surprise. Looking up Dumbledore was flanked by two red robed men, aurors. "Tom, if you could come with us? These gentlemen have some questions for you."
"Why are you coming?" As soon as he said the words Tom wanted them back, they weren't part of his immaculate image. Dumbledore only laughed though, exhaustion sapping some of the joy from it.
"That man was defeated not killed, but he won't attack anymore."
Something, maybe the near death experience, was making his tongue loose. "If he won't attack then why are you coming anyways?"
Dumbledore cracked a smile then, cutting through the dust and grime on his face. "He won't attack, because you are with me."