Author's note: This story picks up in the middle of the horcrux hunt while Harry, Hermione, and Ron are attempting to break into Bellatrix's vault. The first five chapters will be set in the midst of the upheaval caused by things going wrong on this mission. There will be a significant tone shift beginning in the sixth chapter, so if you prefer a story without as much darkness, that'd be a good place to pick up the narrative. It should provide a reasonably smooth on-ramp for new readers, though I think the first five chapters contain worthwhile characterizations and world-building. Either way, thanks for reading! If you choose to review, I promise to read and consider your feedback. Upload schedule is every Friday, at least for now. Enjoy!
Hermione's cushioning charm prevented them from injury as they landed on the cold, slick ground, but Harry's mind was already reeling. Their desperate plan to break into Bellatrix Lestrange's vault in Gringotts had come unraveled in record time. Running into Travers had complicated matters almost immediately, and Harry's hastily cast Imperius curses seemed unlikely to hold. None of that compared with the impending danger which now threatened the trio.
After the waterfall washed away their polyjuice disguises and deposited them deep underground in the labyrinthine caverns, the alarms began to sound in the distance. Their echoes off the cave walls made it impossible to know where they originated, but their steady blare caused Harry's feelings of dread to steadily grow.
"The Thief's Downfall!" exclaimed Griphook. His eyes frantically darted from Harry to Hermione and Ron, who no longer resembled Bellatrix and Dragomir Despard. "We will be overrun in a matter of minutes! We must finish the task and escape at once!"
"What kind of guide 'forgets' about something like a waterfall that removes all enchantments?" snarled Ron as he scrambled to his feet. "Do we even have time to get to the Lestrange vault? And how in Merlin's name are we going to get out of here, even if we get what we're after?"
"We already know we can't apparate or portkey out, and even with Griphook's help, we can't hope to stay hidden while the goblins search for the intruders." Hermione was barely able to keep panic out of her voice. "We're already this far, and they'll be able to figure out who we were impersonating. It stands to reason that they'll remove the object and secure it somewhere else if we can't get it now. I think we have to push ahead."
Harry hated to admit it, but if Voldemort realized they were hunting horcruxes, things were going to become impossible almost immediately. He wasn't sure if it was possible to create any additional horcruxes; how much soul did Voldemort have left to split? But even so, once Voldemort knew that his secrets had been found out he would no doubt redouble his efforts to hide them away and protect them.
"Hermione is right. Griphook, can we reach the Lestrange vault on foot?"
"Yes, Harry Potter. The passage ahead will lead us to the vault. We will still need Bogrod to open the vault doors and the clankers to make it there safely."
"Good. Let's hurry there and see what we can find. Everyone be thinking of ways to get out of here once we've got what we came for. Imperio!"
With that, Harry quickly followed Griphook and Bogrod into the dimly lit passageway, with Hermione and Ron right behind.
Soon they stumbled into a larger cavern with several sets of ancient doors built into the walls. Despite the warnings from Griphook and the preparations they had made, Harry couldn't help skidding to a stop when faced with the enormous dragon chained to the middle of the room.
With a roar that seemed to shake the very foundations of the caverns, the dragon let loose a blast of fire towards the stalactites that held to the roof over a hundred feet up. The metal chains binding the legs of the dragon creaked as it stepped towards the passage opening where the five of them were standing and staring.
"The clankers! It is mostly blind, but it knows to expect pain when it hears them. Quickly! Give them to me!" Griphook snatched the metal tools from Ron's grasp and set about making a racket. The dragon immediately recoiled, giving Harry the impression of a dog that had been abused by her owner.
They made their way to the doors of the Lestrange vault, which were right where the goblin had indicated. Harry pointed his wand at Bogrod, whose eyes remained glassy as he raised his palm to the door for a quick caress. The doors seemingly melted away, and the trio rushed inside. Griphook, after shoving the clankers into Bogrod's hands, barreled in behind them. The sound of a frustrated snort of the dragon was cut off as the doors rematerialized, plunging them into darkness.
"Lumos!" called out Ron. The light from his wand glittered off of the mountains of gold. The vast room was bathed in a kaleidoscope of colors, as beams refracted through gems the size of apples and off of countless priceless treasures.
"Remember the enchantments!" cried Hermione, as Ron reached toward a jewel-encrusted chest. "We've got to find the cup while touching as little as we can. The flagrante and gemino curses will be on the entire hoard, and there's likely to be more protection on the most important items!"
"Hermione, you and Ron start here at the front. Griphook and I will check the back and meet you in the middle. Call out if you see anything!"
Hermione gave a nod before beginning to peer around the entrance to the vault, while Ron (who had quickly brought his hand away from the chest) used his wand to carefully maneuver items out of the way of his search. Harry led Griphook cautiously towards the far end of the vault, his eyes roaming for treasures of higher value, though this was complicated by how opulent everything appeared. His eyes raked over the treasures, every second feeling more and more that their chances of success were slipping.
Harry jumped when he heard a clanging from behind him. Hermione's swearing almost caused him to laugh, especially since her word choice was precisely what she'd chastised Ron for using two days prior. An irritated, "I'm fine, Ronald!" barely reached Harry's ears as he returned focus to the task at hand.
And then he saw it. Gleaming from a shelf attached to the wall, a small golden cup sat perched about 12 feet off the ground. Though it was surrounded by several other ornate chalices and cups, Harry was immediately certain that he had found the horcrux when his scar twinged with pain as he stared at it.
"It's over here!" he called out and heard a whoop from Ron as he began considering how to obtain the cup without falling victim to the enchantments on the surrounding gold. Hermione reached Harry just a few moments after Griphook, with Ron sprinting up to them.
"We're not going to be able to reach it without touching all this gold," said Harry as he pointed to the cup on the wall. "Can one of you lift me up so I can grab it?"
"I don't know that we should try to grab it at all." Hermione winced as she hugged one hand to her chest. "What if we use the sword on it now, so that we don't have to worry about whatever curses might be protecting it affecting us as we escape?"
She produced her beaded bag and pulled the Sword of Gryffindor from its depths. "I burned my wand-hand pretty badly, so I don't think I should swing it. I might be able to wingardium one of you close enough, though…"
Ron stepped forward. "Not with your hand like that. Harry, you've got a steadier hand than me. If you'll lift me over there, I'll take care of it and we can get to work escaping this bloody place."
There wasn't enough time to argue back and forth. Ron grasped the sword and gritted his teeth as Harry pointed the wand at him. "Wingardium leviosa!" The taller boy was quickly airborne, and it took some concentration on Harry's part to keep him aloft.
"Easy does it, Harry! I don't fancy a nosedive into cursed gold." Ron wiggled a bit in midair, trying to position himself for a clean swing. "Just like taking a beater's bat to a bludger…" he whispered to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see a nervous Hermione holding Bellatrix's wand with her uninjured hand.
Suddenly, his scar exploded with pain.
Voldemort was apoplectic. A terrified Bellatrix watched as Rodolphus writhed in pain. "My Lord…" she began but felt the cruciatus rip through her body before she could finish.
"To Gringotts! Now!" Voldemort bellowed, and Bellatrix shot up from the ground in time to see her master disapparate.
Hermione's screams were in Harry's ears before he could reopen his eyes. With Harry's focus lost, Ron had fallen just before he could swing the sword. His long arm had reached forward and grabbed the shelf, but the cup tipped over and fell into the pile of galleons beneath him.
Harry started groping along the ground as soon as he realized that he'd dropped his wand and his glasses. He instead brushed against several coins and trinkets near where he had stumbled to his knees. Angry red burns burst onto his hands and arms wherever he touched the gold, which magically multiplied.
"Hold on, I'll get you back!" Hermione concentrated as she leveled the wand at Ron, who was hanging by one hand to the shelf, with another hand holding tightly to the sword. "Wingardium leviosa! Wingardium leviosa! Levicorpus! Wingardium leviosa! Damn this wand!" An ancient suit of armor near Ron rose a few inches before collapsing under its own weight. A bag of gold zoomed up to the ceiling, burst, and rained down on them, burning and multiplying around them all.
Harry frantically grasped at what looked like his wand, but it turned out to be a splintered antique chair. He yelled in pain and surprise as he felt his skin begin to blister. Identical chairs began materializing, further constraining the already limited space at the back of the vault. The mounds of treasure were quickly rising, and Ron's lower half was soon blocked from Harry's view.
"I've got an idea!" called out Ron. "The cup is right under me! I'm going to drop on it with the sword, then we make a break for it!"
"NO! Ronald Weasley, you can't! We've got to all get out together!"
"Mione, I can't hold on! Head for the exit! I've got this!"
Harry's oozing hand finally grasped his wand as he shouted, but Ron had already let go of the shelf. A blurry, black-robed body topped with blurry red hair sank behind the pile of multiplying gold and landed with a sickening crunch.
The lights extinguished as Ron hit the ground, his Lumos no longer active. Harry and Hermione both cried out as the clanging and jingling of dozens of gold pieces became a roar of a breaking wave of gold. A rough hand caught Harry by the scruff of the neck, and Griphook's magic pulled him and Hermione out of the vault, away from the burning cascade that had swallowed their best friend.
Hermione's cry of anguish pierced Harry's very being. This couldn't be happening. Through all the close calls and near misses, through his own doubts about whether he would be able to survive himself, the thought that Ron might not make it had never quite sunk in.
Tears were already streaming down Harry's face. He stared unblinkingly ahead as the sound of Hermione's pain washed over him.
They had lost Ron. He had lost Ron. His first friend. Harry hadn't been able to save him before Griphook swept them out of the vault.
"How could you? You left him to die!" Harry tried to grab Griphook by the arm, but couldn't hang on due to the searing pain in his hand, already wet with blood and burn-ooze.
"There isn't time! We will soon be overrun! He knew what he was getting himself into!" Griphook's countenance did not betray an ounce of sorrow or regret. "There is but one chance of escape. The oldest vaults have means of connecting with the outside world. You are the heir of the Potter vault. We must make haste!" The goblin took off towards another passage without a second look.
Another cry from Hermione wrenched through Harry. A mixture of anger, grief, and fear surged in his mind. He started to grab for her to pull her to follow Griphook when an explosion of heat and light pulled his attention.
Bogrod had not ceased making noise with the clankers, but the dragon appeared ready to reclaim dominion over the cavern, especially as the sound of angry goblins came closer. Its fiery breath flowed into the tunnel in which Griphook had just vanished. The great head turned towards Harry and Hermione as shouts from the horde of goblins carried through the passageways.
With the lightning-quick reflexes of a seeker, Harry pushed off of Hermione, sending them both sprawling across the stone floor as flames belched forth from the dragon's mouth over the spot they had just been standing. Harry scrambled behind a small outcropping of stones before realizing that Hermione had no such cover. As the great beast rose back to ready a swipe at his exposed prey, Harry yelled, "Accio Hermione!"
A claw tore through Hermione's calf as she was summoned away from the spot. Harry's hand covered her mouth immediately as the dragon began sniffing the ground where its mighty blow had just landed.
"We're getting out of here, Hermione," whispered Harry as he muttered a hasty healing charm on her leg. The wound kept bleeding, but the blood flow seemed to slow considerably.
The dragon was disappointed to find nothing beneath its claws. Before it could consider where the morsel had escaped to, a dozen goblins burst into the cavern with clankers sounding. Such a sudden influx of noise startled the beast, which reared back on its hind legs, spewing fire towards the ceiling. Behind the goblins, a pale figure in black robes swept into the cavern, flanked by a witch on one side and a wizard on the other.
The three began firing spell after spell at the dragon. Old scales, worn from years of malnourishment and abuse, sloughed off in spots where it was hit with particularly nasty curses, though the magic of the animal repelled most spells away from its hide. Several unlucky goblins were mowed down by ricocheting curses.
Unused to such a painful onslaught of spellfire, the dragon roared in anger and shot fire at the attackers. Rabastan dove to the side to avoid the flames while Bellatrix and Voldemort stood still. With the flick of his wand, the fire was parried to the side, engulfing Rabastan and two goblins in the inferno. Bellatrix did not glance to the side to see her husband's body quickly becoming a heap of ash, keeping her gaze fixed on Voldemort.
Harry was trying to pull Hermione backwards, away from the fighting, when his hand pressed up against a set of double doors. He instinctively looked up, and read the words inscribed over the doorway. Toujours pur.
Before his mind could process the thought, he heard Bellatrix cry out "Sectumsempra!" A deep gash on the dragon's partially exposed stomach started pouring blood onto the floor of the cavern. But the spell collided with several magical scales, which caused the cutting curse to rebound in multiple directions. Voldemort summoned one of the remaining goblins to use as a shield, and its body was shredded by the curse.
As the magical doors began to react to Harry's touch, he looked back to see a reflected jet of light strike Hermione. She gasped in surprise as the curse struck her stomach.
Voldemort's red eyes darted to the open doorway from which the screams emanated. He saw Harry desperately trying to pull an eviscerated girl past the doorway. As he walked past the convulsing dragon, he saw a flash of spell light from the young witch's wand blast Harry backwards into the depths of the vault, and the doors to the vault rematerialized.
Bellatrix cackled. "The little mudblood thought she could steal from my vault? Thought she could hide Potter in the vault of my forefathers? She must be far stupider than we were told. Well, since our playtime at Malfoy Manor got cut short, let's see if you can survive long enough to have some fun with us."
Hermione's vision was fading as she lost more and more blood, but the thought of torture at the hands of Voldemort and the Death Eaters kept her focus resolved. "Harry will… find a way… to beat you…"
"Potter has already lost!" snarled Bellatrix "He's trapped with no hope of escape!"
"He's resourceful…" Hermione wheezed, as she pushed herself into a sitting position against the doorway. The manic glee on Bellatrix's face at the thought of another round with Hermione was offset by the almost-inquisitive look on the face of Voldemort."I learned a bit of that… from him…"
Before either of them could stop her, she brought the wand at her side in front of her. Impenetrable shields sprang forth in front of Bellatrix and her Dark Lord, but Hermione didn't fire a spell. Instead, she firmly grasped the wand and snapped it cleanly into two pieces. Bellatrix began to laugh.
"No need to use the last of your strength to snap your wand, Mudblood! I'd have been happy to do that for you. Your kind don't deserve to have a wand of your own."
Hermione couldn't help the small smile that broke through the pain. "Actually… that wasn't… my wand…"
Bellatrix's laughter cut off abruptly. She reached down to grab the pieces of the now broken wand. A crazed look flashed through her eyes. With a cry of rage, she leveled her borrowed wand at Hermione's face. A green light burst forth, and the brightest witch of her age knew no more.