A/N: This is an answer to Mugglegirl's Great Genfic Challenge. So no Hermione/Snape lovin' in this one, although Ron might blush a bit when she's around. Leave a review and let me know if I should stick to romance.
Rowena's Medal: Prologue
It had taken weeks, but Hermione's due diligence in the face of any problem had led them to this place, this ramshackle and ruined castle that looked as though no human had visited it in well over a hundred years.
"Are you sure this is the place, Hermione?" Ron asked.
"This is it. Can't you feel the Dark Magic surrounding it?" she replied, shivering despite the summer heat.
"Let's go," Harry said. "Wands out." It was an unneeded command as all three already had their wands at the ready.
"Constant vigilance," Ron said in perfect imitation of Mad-Eye Moody. Hermione giggled, more from nerves than from thinking that Ron was funny, but she quickly stopped when Harry turned to glare at her.
"Sorry, let's go," she said sheepishly.
The tall wooden door opened on its own as they approached, its rusty hinges creaking with disuse.
"Creepy," Ron commented.
Harry nodded in agreement. "Ready?" The other two nodded. They entered with hesitant nervous steps. Looking from side to side, their wands were drawn and ready with a dozen spells on the tips of their tongues, but the front hall was empty.
"Lumos," Harry said, lifting his wand to get a better view. They stood in a tall room with a fireplace at one end and rubble scattered around where parts of the ceiling had collapsed. The stark stone walls gave the room a chill, and a dim haze obscured the floor.
"Definitely creepy," Hermione said as she lit her wand and looked around. Quickly, she began reciting the same Location Charms that had led them to this place. Her wand tip glowed yellow, then green, and finally a bright fuchsia color.
"This way," she said, motioning towards a door on the opposite end of the room. The door led down a rickety set of stairs ending in an old wine cellar. Hermione repeated her charms, her wand pointing this time to a bunch of shelves.
"That can't be right," Ron said, looking at her skeptically. "Are you sure it isn't upstairs instead?"
But Harry knew, even without the locations spells, that this was the right place. He could feel it. There was something in this castle. It crept up his spine and into the corners of his brain, trying to tell him to stay away. But he knew that they had to press forward.
"She's right, this is it," he said.
"This appears to be the way in, but I can't get it to open," Hermione murmured, repeating every spell she knew from Alohomora to more advanced Opening Charms. She had barely noticed the exchange between Harry and Ron, so focused was she on her task. Anything less would distract her from why she was there. Whatever dwelled in this place would convince her to leave and never come back.
"Blood," Harry said.
"It demands blood for entry," he explained. Hermione blanched. Ron gulped, looking away.
"I'll do it," Harry said, pointing his wand at arm. Bracing himself, he whispered the spell. His skin split open, bright red drops oozing forth. Holding up his arm, the wall vanished revealing another set of stairs leading down into the dark.
"Ingenious," Hermione commented as Harry healed his wound. "It allows an enemy to enter, but he must weaken himself in order to do so."
"But Voldemort wasn't counting on me to have friends to help me," Harry said. His skin knitted back together, a puckered red scar in its place; not as nice as the one on his forehead but a souvenir from Tom Riddle just the same.
In the lead, Harry descended into the dark. The light from his wand did little to warn what was to come ahead, casting only eerie shadows on the wall. He expected to find a gloomy dungeon at the bottom. Instead, his foot sank into a rich carpet. As he crossed the room, candles along the wall sprang to life with light. The first thing Harry noticed were the skeletons—thin twisty bones surrounded by piles of dust.
They had found the right place.
"Did You-Know-Who k-kill these people?" Ron asked in a hushed voice as if he was afraid the many skeletons might hear him.
"I think so," Hermione said. "Look at them. They're arranged as if they were sitting down to…to…." She couldn't continue.
"To dinner," Harry finished for her. A long wooden table sat in the center of the room. Large candelabras adorned the table along with large centerpieces, the flowers long dead and wilted. Plates, glasses, and silverware were arranged in front of each place. It was if one moment they had all been enjoying a formal dinner party and then in the next they were dead. Some still had forks in their hands. Another had its arm raised as though taking a drink. Broken glass was scattered around from where the goblet had slipped and fallen. Harry didn't think he had ever seen anything quite as disturbing. It was a show of Riddle's power. These people might have fought fiercely before dying, but Voldemort wanted it to look like he had murdered them all in one fell swoop. Harry steeled himself. They didn't have time to dwell on the dead.
"But where is the Horcrux?"
"There." Hermione pointed to the head of the table. There sat a skeleton, a gold medal hung round its neck. They moved closer to get a better look. It hung from a satin ribbon that Harry though might have once been blue, but after centuries, it had faded to a light grayish color.
"Is that it then?" Ron asked, swallowing hard. He reached forward as though he might prod it—just to see it if it were real.
"No, Ron!" Hermione cried, slapping away his hand. Ron reddened a bit, ashamed to have been caught out doing something stupid and embarrassed that Hermione had caught his hand and hadn't let go. Harry thought it ironic that his best friend could snog Lavender Brown senseless in front of the whole Gryffindor common room, but that Hermione holding his hand in view of no one other than Harry made him blush the same color as his ginger hair. It must be love. But that was besides the point, they needed to focus on the task at hand—getting rid of the Horcrux.
"Did Dumbledore tell you how to—eliminate—the Horcruxes?" Hermione asked, her eyes never leaving the skeleton or the medal that hung around its bony neck. Harry's heart dropped. He had been so excited to find one—the first of four—that he had neglected to consider that they were to do with it once they found it.
"No," he answered.
"No?" Hermione asked, sounding incredulous. "What did you do in all those lessons? I thought he was supposed to be teaching you how to defeat You Know Who!"
"We watched scenes from Voldemort's childhood in the Pensieve," Harry answered.
"But what about that…that night in the cave?" Ron asked.
"It wasn't the real thing, remember." Harry clenched his fists in frustration. What was he supposed to do? Frantically, he searched the recesses of his mind for any clue Dumbledore might have left him, but he came up empty.
"I destroyed the diary with the Basilisk's fang," he offered weakly.
"I really don't think that's an option here," Hermione said.
"Right," he said, nodding his head in agreement. She was right. But what then?
"Did he tell you how he destroyed the ring?" Ron asked.
"No, just that he had. Although he did say Snape had helped him afterwards, when he came back." Harry spat Snape's name with all the hatred he could muster, which was no small amount. He still shook with rage to think that Snape had betrayed the headmaster's explicit trust and killed him.
"Harry, you're not going to like this, but I think…," Hermione paused. Harry shook his head, already knowing what she was going to suggest.
"But, Harry, the headmaster might have told Snape what he did to destroy the ring. And he's very skilled in the Dark Arts…" Hermione argued.
"Yeah, very skilled," Ron scoffed. But he looked chagrined when Hermione dropped his hand.
"What makes you think that he would help us, Hermione?" Harry asked, his voice rising ever so slightly. "He killed Dumbledore; he's a loyal Death Eater. Why would he help us defeat Voldemort?"
"Do you have any better ideas?" she retorted.
"No." And that was the problem. Harry had no idea how to destroy the Horcrux. The first time, he had almost died fighting the Basilisk that the Horcrux had released, and the last time, Dumbledore had been so weakened that he had been unable to defend himself against Malfoy and Snape. What would happen this time if they even tried to remove the medal from the skeleton's neck?
"All right then. He turned away once. He had to," Hermione said quickly as both Ron and Harry made to protest, "or Dumbledore wouldn't have trusted him, and not with the certainty that he did. The headmaster never would've let him teach at Hogwarts if he didn't trust him."
"Just because he was a teacher doesn't mean he was perfect, Hermione," Ron said. Hermione reddened at the comment.
"I've never thought he was perfect, Ronald," she huffed. "But maybe letting him teach Defense Against the Dark Arts was a bad idea. He was seduced back to his old ways. But he felt remorse once, maybe he can again, maybe he already does, and we just need to find him and take advantage."
"I doubt that he feels anything. The man is a monster. I've always thought there was something off with the whole situation. You have to really hate someone to kill them with the Killing Curse; you have to enjoy it. Snape is evil," Ron said firmly.
Harry watched as his two best friends argued. He rather agreed with Ron, but Hermione looked at him with an intent gaze.
"What else can we do, Harry? There are no books about Horcruxes, believe me I've looked. There is no information on how to create them and no information on how to destroy them."
Harry didn't answer, didn't meet Hermione's eyes. Instead, he focused on the medal—Rowena Ravenclaw's medal, awarded to the top student in her House century after century, until it had mysteriously gone missing so many years ago. He wondered who had died so that Tom Riddle could continue his quest for immortality. Who were these people that had just wanted to enjoy their dinner? When he turned back, he saw that Ron and Hermione were staring at him, awaiting his final decision.
"No," he said. He would not ask Snape to help him. This quest was his and his alone. He did not need the help of a cold-blooded killer. All three of them turned back and stared at the medal that mocked them.
"Maybe we could trick him," Ron said after several long silent moments.
"What?" Harry asked.
"I don't think he would tell us anything, but if he thought we were someone else…well you know how he likes to be recognized. He went mad when he realized he wasn't getting the Order of Merlin, first class in our third year, and the man calls himself the Half-Blood Price. I bet if we stroked his ego, he would tell us how much Dumbledore trusted him, how he had the old man fooled..." Ron explained.
"Including how he helped him after the headmaster destroyed the ring," Hermione interrupted. "He was the first person that Dumbledore went to. It might just work!"
"Harry?" Ron turned to him, placing a tentative hand on his arm.
"I don't like it," he said, watching Ron's face fall. "But it's the only plan we've got."