One Step at a Time

One Breaks Rank for Their King

Voldemort was not a patient man by any means.

Still, he'd had no choice but to wait for his loyal Death Eaters to bring him Harry Potter as he began the process of casting the eighth level of the Septem Circulorum Inferni Curse, which would take a good fifteen minutes at the very least.

He kept a few Death Eaters nearby to do his bidding; like fetching him the body of a downed auror to use its blood for his spell and then using one of his own quite alive peons as his sacrificial lamb to ignite the first level of hell. He'd almost felt bad about killing poor Blarney like that, but the man had proven quite worthless at any sort of assigned task and this was the best way he could serve.

He had had to take a valuable moment though to assure the remaining help that no, they would not be needed as sacrifices for the rest of the levels. He would kill them later though for being so fearful of death. Absolutely pathetic and a stain on the name of his followers.

Nagini remained loyally by his side and she would be the final piece to the puzzle. The curse called for the summoning of a snake made of hellfire to take the mortal body of another snake. There was no serpent he trusted more than his beloved Nagini and she would do anything to please her master. It was not clear if the snake survived the curse and Voldemort hated to put in harm's way the only thing he truly loved, but Nagini understood. This curse could not go wrong and she would do everything within her own power to make sure it succeeded.

He wished all of his Death Eaters were as competent as her, but quite a few of them were rather expendable. They joined up with cries of Pureblood supremacy and hatred of muggles and the desire for power. They would get all of that. If they survived.

Unfortunately it appeared that incompetence seemed to be the common theme of this excursion, as he'd progressed into the sixth circle and there was still no sign of Harry.

Before he'd ordered his servants to not disturb him as he descended into the more deadly circles, he did hear from them that Bellatrix had engaged the traitor and Lucius was fighting against Dumbledore. He supposed that excused them and at least in Lucius' case he was keeping Dumbledore occupied as he was the only one present that could pose a challenge.

There was also word that there was no sign of Harry, but Voldemort knew the boy too well to think he'd be waiting out the battle. No, he was likely up to something. Some last ditch effort likely to stop him, even though it was futile.

Voldemort congratulated himself again for not revealing any details of the prophecy to Snape other than the fact there was one; even if he'd passed that on the Order of the Phoenix would have nothing to work with. Simply knowing one existed meant nothing. He knew all about that, he thought with a scowl.

Harry was likely still in the battlefield somewhere, and Voldemort could assume that if he was not with Dumbledore than he was within the safety Hogwarts offered. He would have to head there himself then and deal with it himself.

Descending into the eighth circle was more painful than he'd imagined and he was reminded vividly of trying to get past Harry's mental defenses on his last ill-fated trip. Flames licked at his flesh and he could hear the hiss of sparks as well as that of his beloved snake.

"Nagini," he'd hissed, as fire seemed to burn down his throat and his entire world was lost in the colors of red, orange and yellow. Braving the hellish fires, Nagini had slithered over to him, her body already decorated in archaic runes of blood.

Each breath pained him then, but he pushed through it. The pain of failure should he not succeed was even greater than any physical agony he suffered now. "Unlock the eighth circle," he hissed in Parseltongue, making a circle with his wand around Nagini's head before placing his hand upon it.

Flames exploded around him and he dimly heard the screams of nearby Death Eaters as they were caught up in the curse and crumbled to ashes. Pain erupted through every pore of his body, but he grit his teeth and endured.

And then it was over. The pain was gone replaced with the feeling of coursing power. He'd opened ruby eyes to survey the scene, and smirked victoriously at the sight of the rings of fire wrapping about his body, Nagini and in a circle all around him. He took an experimental step forward and the flames shifted with him.

The final part of the curse called for unleashing the circle, which would send Nagini forward to the deadly bite. There was no shield charm, no spell or counter-curse to block her fangs and once she set for her target she could not be physically moved. It was a near perfect spell for eliminating an enemy, minus that odd drawback involving souls. All of the stages of the Septem Circulorum Inferni Curse had that blasted clause, but considering it was incredibly vague Voldemort was not worried. In the few instances that the eighth and ninth circle had been performed in history there was a 100 percent success rate. His would be no different.

And unlike the Killing Curse, this one could not backfire on him. Harry would not be able to repel it with that horrible love or with his wand like he did in the graveyard. There was no counter and no way for him to survive. And once he was gone… well, the rest of the wizarding world would soon follow.

Now all that was left to do was enact it. He would only have once chance, or else he'd have to go through the entire ritual again and there was not enough time for that if he wished to make his 2:01 deadline. A quick timekeeping spell revealed he had just under seven minutes to reach Harry and then cast it.

No problem. He could easily move through the battlefield, as the curse would absorb any spell and burn anyone that it touched. He was an unstoppable force.

And that vision held true. He'd crossed the field in mere minutes and had laughed at the Ministry shield that dared try to impede him. The few aurors and officials stationed in front of the obvious blue shield spell only solidified his hunch that Harry was planning something in the background.

The only moment of concern was when a giant boarhound had charged his barrier and taken a swipe at Nagini, and Voldemort realized that the curse did not affect animals. There were always loopholes to such complicated magic, after all.

But a quick hex at the beast had it yelping in pain before falling silent as it fell to unconsciousness from the pain. The aurors were mere annoyances easily dispatched with one large explosion charm and then he was rounding the corner to finally seize his victory.

Only, there were two young people standing in his way. Despite his many encounters with Harry, he had never personally met these individuals, but he knew immediately who they were.

"What do we have here?" he chuckled, eyes sweeping past them to see Harry, completely oblivious to him and encircled by a ring of stones. His prey didn't make any motion to indicate he'd heard or seen Voldemort and he had to assume that whatever he was doing his circular rune seemed to be soundproof. What a pity. He wanted him to hear his friends' dying screams.

Neither student answered, although the girl gripped her wand tighter and the boy shifted slightly to stand somewhat more in front of her. Chivalry. How archaic.

"No?" he inquired at their silence. "Nothing to say?"

"Harry will defeat you," the girl said, dark eyes flashing with conviction.

At that, Voldemort outright laughed. "Oh, the courage of Gryffindors. I must say, Hermione Granger, you are not quite what I thought you would be."

She flinched at the sound of her name coming from him. "How did—?"

"I know everything," Voldemort cut in. "For instance, that you're here helping Harry with… oh, what's this, a spell to defeat me? Ah, and now you're raising some mental walls. Clever, but not good enough."

Voldemort flipped through her surface memories picking up that it was something called the Etaonaf Spell, but he had never heard of it and all the components that made it up were so jumbled he did not have the time to put it together. Still, there was nothing his own curse could not undo and anything they tried was futile. But it was fun to play with his food.

"The Etaonaf Spell, hmm?" he mused, delightedly watching as both sets of eyes widened. "It's no match for my own, I'm afraid for you."

"And you, little blood traitor," he said, turning his attention to Ron. "Let's see." Here his own eyes widened slightly. The boy thought himself a knight? But how could he… He plowed into this more susceptible mind, the redhead crying out with pain at the forceful mental intrusion and the girl's cry of "Ron!" went completely unheeded.

The prophecy! They knew about the prophecy! But how? He churned quickly through memory after memory until the haggard looking face that looked very much like a young version of Nirav appeared, asking the gathered audience that included his traitorous potions master if they had seen the memory he sent.

He roared in anger and the boy collapsed, screaming and clutching his head. But he calmed himself almost immediately. So what if they knew it? They had clearly come to the wrong conclusion and his victory was imminent. There was no need to worry. He had just four minutes left and then his rule as Dark Lord over all of Europe would begin.

The Mudblood had rushed to the Weasley's side and was helping him up, the boy standing, if shaky, which was rather remarkable considering many after such an onslaught would be down for a while.

Voldemort smirked. At least they would make these last four minutes before the main event entertaining.


Elsewhere on the battlefield, a girl suddenly stiffened and glanced around. She swore she'd heard someone calling her, but she did not see anyone who appeared to be looking for her.

Only fellow students and aurors and Death Eaters were to be found and she shook herself out of the odd trance she'd found herself in as a Killing Curse sailed narrowly past her head.

Trying to shake the odd feeling that something wasn't quite right, she threw herself back into the fight.


"We have to stall him," Hermione whispered, one hand splayed across Ron's back to support him as much as comfort him after that searing mental attack. "Harry still needs time."

"How?" he rasped, jerking his head at Voldemort who was eyeing them like they were as threatening as flobberworms, the flames licking up and burning all around him doing nothing to inspire confidence that they could delay him.

"Whatever he's planning has something to do with those flames," Hermione said quietly, but under no impression that Voldemort could not hear her. She was projecting everything she had to keep him from using Legilimency on her, but she knew it would only hold him back for seconds at most if he really did try to pry. "Water beats fire."

Ron nodded. "Makes sense to me."

"Quickly," she said, "he's waiting for something so we need to finish this fast. We're not going to give him the opportunity for whatever he's planning."

Voldemort did not seem concerned as they readied their wands and that worried Hermione to no end. She had no idea what those flames around him were for, but whatever they were allowed him to make his way across an entire battlefield and through a ministry shield charm that not even she could figure out how to replicate. That did not bode well at all.

She didn't allow it to deter her though, as with every ounce of magic she possessed she shouted out, "Aguamenti!" and swooped her wand in a downward wave pattern. A huge gush of water flew from her wand and she noted a similar spout from Ron's, although smaller. Magical exhaustion, she noted. He had to be almost drained at this point so they really would have to finish this quickly.

Both waves hit the flames with a hiss and steam blanketed the field, temporarily shrouding Voldemort from their view.

"We get him?" Ron wondered aloud, hunched over and exhaustion showing clearly on his face.

"No," Hermione breathed, fear starting to settle in the pit of her stomach as the screen cleared and Voldemort and his circle of fire remained untouched. Amusement danced in Voldemort's eyes and he showed no sign of even retaliating yet.

Like a cat batting at a captured mouse. It knew it had won, but would allow the mouse to think it might still escape if it just tried hard enough.

Hermione raised her head defiantly though. She was no mouse. She was a lioness and she would not be so cowed.

"Bombarda!" she yelled, the bright yellow light shooting off her wand and aimed straight for Voldemort. It could kill a person if impacted directly, but as she thought it didn't even reach its target. The flames circling Voldemort seemed to rise up and absorb the curse.

She hastily fired off several more spells of different elements; a blinding light spell, fire and a gust of air, but all were absorbed by the flames. All she took away from that was that spells had no chance of reaching Voldemort and she really, really did not want to get hit by those flames.

Ron joined her, shouting out Harry's favorite spell and even sending a patronus at the flames. The last one proved to be a terrible idea, as his terrier yelped in pain and Ron echoed its cry, stumbling away as angry burns appeared on his hands and arms, an invisible fire eating away at his robes.

"Ron!" Hermione cried, doing the first thing she could think of and casting Aquamenti on him. Although it had no effect whatsoever on Voldemort, the water did seem to put out the remnants on Ron, although he still moaned in pain at what Hermione guessed were at least second-degree burns and collapsed to his knees, wand trembling in his hand.

She rushed to his side, suspicious and grateful when Voldemort let her still without firing anything offensive at them.

"I can't grip my wand," Ron gritted out, the thin piece of wood shaking terribly in his burnt fingers. He turned fearful eyes to her. "I c-can't feel my hands, Mione."

He'd felt the initial pain from the fire and it had burned white-hot all down his hands and arms until Hermione had doused it. But now he felt nothing, not even as Hermione gently placed her smaller hand over his. Nothing.

"It's probably just nerve damage," she said. "Nothing Madam Pomfrey can't fix, I'm sure." But her voice was too bright and Ron knew from that tone that everything was most definitely not all right.

"It appears the knight has just been about taken out," Voldemort called, disrupting anything else. "I say it is time to eliminate him so I can move onto the queen. I grow tired of this futile resistance."

Hermione rose to her feet and stood protectively in front of Ron. "You need to get to the castle," she said softly. "I'll cover you."

"I don't think I c-can," Ron shakily replied, feeling terribly cold all of a sudden and his legs refusing to obey him to get up. Shock, he think Hermione had called it once following a particularly brutal hit in a Quidditch game. He also couldn't leave her here. Couldn't leave Harry. His best friend was still completely unawares of what was happening just feet away, his back turned to them as he addressed a pile of stones.

Ron faintly wondered if that was the last image he'd see of Harry. Talking to rocks. He felt a grin tugging at his face and realized that yes, he was most definitely going into shock.

A bright green light came hurtling his way and only Hermione saved him from the instantaneous death as Voldemort cast the Killing Curse, done with waiting.

Hermione blasted another one away with a shield charm, planting her feet and pushing back at the overpowering deadly curse with everything she had.

"Do you trust me?" she asked, blocking a third although she could feel her strength flagging from the lethal intent being thrown at her.

"With my life."

"I will protect Harry," she promised. "And I'm going to protect you. Hang on, this might be rough."

She cast a shield spell in front of them and prayed it would hold itself against another Killing Curse and turned her Ron on wand. She smiled sadly at him. "I love you. Volare ieiunium." The Rocket Charm had him blasting off from the ground and sailing the few hundred feet to the very base of Hogwarts staircase.

She couldn't spare any time to check to make sure he was being assisted into the castle, but he was out of immediate harm's way now and she prayed that would be enough.

Cinnamon eyes flashing she turned back to Voldemort. "You and me," she snarled.

Voldemort inclined his head, a sly smile playing across his bloodless lips. "Then let us dance, queen."


Dumbledore was beginning to feel frustrated and it was an odd feeling for sure. But Lucius Malfoy was not playing by the rules and this duel was dragging on for much longer than it ever should have.

The man had items and potions of every sort that kept preventing Dumbledore from taking him down. There had been some type of dark powder that blinded him, but somehow Lucius was still able to see and he'd taken a rather hot burning curse before he'd managed to blow the smoke away.

Then a bottled vapor that had his lungs seizing up and while he'd been struggling to draw breath Lucius had moved in for a Killing Curse. Only sheer dumb luck had saved him as another Death Eater stumbled into their fight and had taken the curse and allowed Dumbledore to chomp down on a Bezoar stone he'd had the good foresight to pocket.

Draco had not stirred from the explosion and as such Dumbledore had to maintain a position in front of him at all times, lest Lucius try to get a cheap shot in. And he did not doubt the man would resort to that if it gave him the desired result. Besides the fact Draco required medical help, he needed to get out of this and assist in the rest of the battle because he was the one person other than Harry who had a chance of trading equal blows with Voldemort.

It was only when he felt the barrier fall, as he had contributed to its construction, that he realized what the prophecy meant when it said both bishops would fail. Lucius must have sensed something too, as without warning he erected a giant glass dome around them.

It was similar to the spell that had been used back in November that had prevented Harry from getting out, Dumbledore thought. Unfortunately, the counter-spell did not seem to work from inside.

Because now he was stuck inside and he could not protect Harry. He could not protect anyone from in here. And so he had failed.

Lucius looked irked as well. Dumbledore did not know what his task had been, but he doubted it was as vital as his own. He knew he could not protect Harry in the sense that the boy was determined to carry through with the Etaonaf Spell. But he had hoped to be there to provide any support until the spell could be cast.

Unfortunately, the battle had become too one-sided and he realized he needed to assist from there, or there would be no point in protecting Harry if they were all overrun. He had believed Hermione when she said she felt he might duel Lucius, but he did not realize what the failure meant until now.

"There's no use trying to get out," Lucius smirked. "It can only be de-activated from the outside, as you well know."

"That is true," Dumbledore said, the twinkle long gone from his eye as he realized what his second failure was to be this night. "But all spells such as this will also be removed if the caster no longer draws breath."

Lucius sneered although inside he felt fear clench at his heart. "You don't have it in you."

"To cast the Killing Curse? No, I do not," Dumbledore said evenly. "But we both well know that is merely a single spell designed for that purpose. There are many, many others, and even some that were never meant to be used in such a manner can cause deadly results."

"Go ahead and try," Lucius taunted. "You've never killed in your life and you're not going to start now."

"I suppose there is always time to commit the gravest of sinss," Dumbledore said quietly. "I am sorry that it has come to this, but I must protect Harry. Even at the cost of my own humanity."

He locked eyes with Lucius. "Prepare yourself."


She definitely felt something that time. She glanced wildly around, hand reaching up to touch her shoulder where she would swear she just felt someone brush it.

"Hello?" she whispered, voice disappearing in the screams all around her.

No one answered.

"Is anyone there?"

"Duck!" screamed a very real voice from behind her, and only the warning saved her from being struck by the curse.

She glanced back behind her, spotting only Padma who had yelled for her to get down.

"Did you—?" she started, but the older girl grabbed her hand.

"Hurry, we're losing the rest of the group!"

And she allowed herself to be pulled back into the fray.


Hermione was nothing if not clever.

She'd realized quickly that no spells were going to make a difference in stopping Voldemort. Physical objects, via a tree branch she sent whizzing at him, did nothing either as they were incinerated immediately in the flames.

He'd started moving forward now and Harry still had a few more piles to go, plus for the spell to activate. She had to continue to stall for a few more minutes at least, but it seemed that Voldemort was nearly done waiting for whatever timeline he himself was on.

So she did the only thing that still seemed like it might work. She cast an extremely powerful earthquake charm at the ground directly in front of him.

Dirt heaved and trees fell and to her surprise and delight Voldemort actually stumbled backwards as the ground beneath him violently shook and moved. Apparently whatever spell he was using could only absorb physical items and spells thrown at it; it could not prevent anything in its outside surroundings.

She did not give him time to gain his footing and retaliate. She sent another shockwave barreling across the ground, forcing him further back as small hills erupted in front of her from the force.

Constructing more shield spells to give her time to work, she pointed her wand at the ground in front of her and cast the magma bubble spell. She'd never used it before, for obvious reasons, and prayed it worked as well as it had for Gildefriend the Great in the history texts.

The only trouble with a spell such as this one as she had almost no control over it once it started, and the magma was spreading fast, already popping up through the fissures made and blowing angry lava bubbles into the air. Hopefully though someone like Dumbledore had some good ideas from stopping it from spreading so Hogwarts wasn't swallowed by a lava lake once this was all over.

For the first time since Voldemort had rounded the bend, amusement was gone and was replaced by anger. He was further now, the two separated by the growing lava, but Hermione could still see as his eyes narrowed and his lips thinned into a frown.

She allowed herself a small smile at this victory. Whatever his plan was, this had to have disrupted it somehow. And he was further from Harry now and the more distance between them the better.

"I am done with your games," he said, all traces of false joviality gone. "This ends now. He raised his wand at her. Avada Kedavra!"


Again. She felt it again. Something was telling her to stop and listen.

And although such a thought went against the very nature of being in a warzone, she did just that. It wasn't so much words as feeling that ghosted across her then and her feet stumbled on their own accord.

"Harry?" she whispered and the feeling intensified. Hurry, hurry, it seemed to say.

And so she did.


Curls plastered with sweat across her face and chest heaving from exertion and the intense heat from the lava, Hermione frantically blocked again.

But no matter what she did, Voldemort continued to stalk closer. He had cast a levitation charm on himself and was hovering just above her lava pool and jagged ground that she continued to pitch even though it was doing little to deter him.

Every spell she cast though disappeared into the flames and she was running out of options. He was close, much too close now, and she could feel not just the lava but his fire.

Voldemort seemed to be growing impatient and was firing curses as fast as she could block them, leaving her no time to even try to go on the offensive.

She didn't dare risk a glance backwards at Harry, but she prayed that he was about done. Because they were both almost out of time.

Her shield spell shattered once more in front of her, and she was too slow to stop the next curse, a crucio, from slamming right into her.

With a scream she fell backwards, her very insides feeling like they were on fire. Somehow though she maintained a grip on her wand and stuttering cast the shield charm again, breaking up the connection and ceasing the curse for a split second.

"Crucio," Voldemort cast again, the haughty smile back on his face as he stood just feet away from her and Harry.

Hoarse cries broke free from her throat once more and this time she could feel her wand being jostled from her grip as her body writhed in agony.

"Crucio," he whispered once more.

And she continued to scream.


Faster, the feeling cried, as she forced tired legs into a sprint. You don't have much time!


Hermione clung to consciousness through sheer willpower alone. She couldn't stop now. Harry was… Harry was…

From her angle on the ground she could make out a second circle of flames by Voldemort's feet, and dazedly realized it was a snake. What did that mean? It hurt too much to think and her thoughts were already growing foggy.

"I suppose it is time to move onto the main event," Voldemort said, whether to her or the snake she could not tell.

"N-no," she stuttered, somehow finding the strength to push one hand beneath her. He could not get to Harry. He could not. She would stop him.

She had to stop him.




"I no longer have time for you," Voldemort said disdainfully. "Crucio."


Harry needs you, the presence whispered as she made her way to where tongues of fire seemed to dance in the sky and lava spread out in an endless lake before her. You can save him! Hurry!

And so she jumped.


Still conscious but unable to move an inch, Hermione could only watch numbly as Voldemort turned from her to look at Harry, who was facing front now but his eyes were closed and still unaware of the danger right in front of him.

"Nagini," he hissed and Hermione watched as the snake part itself from the flames and the entire ring was absorbed into its body to the point where it was physically painful to stare at.

The snake coiled around him and he placed a hand on its head.


Almost there!


"Unleash the eighth circle," Voldemort commanded. "And kill Harry Potter."


She could see Harry. And she also saw what she needed to do. And she knew without a doubt she would do whatever it took to save him.

Even if she knew it meant her own life.


The snake hissed obediently and turned towards the one person who stood in her master's way.


One more step!


Nagini lunged forward, fangs bared and flames streaming from her mouth.


"No," Hermione gasped, struggling to rise but not able. "Harry…"


"Harry!" she screamed, diving for him.


"No!" roared Voldemort as a figure from out of nowhere appeared between Nagini and her prey.


An inhumane shriek was pulled from her lips as the serpent sunk fangs of poison and fire into her body.

And then with a huge explosion of fire and light, Ginny Weasley was engulfed in the flames from Hell itself.

Author's Notes:

What a way to end it all, huh? I hope you enjoyed the chapter; it was definitely a ride to write.

One Step at a Time is now officially on an undetermined hiatus. It could be six months, a year, five... someday I will come back and finish this fanfic, but for now I am moving onto other pursuits and fandoms that I am truly enjoying. I thank you all who are still reading this fic and especially to those who do drop nice comments. I appreciate them.

I'm not entirely sure still how this fic is going end, but let me say that it eventually it will be a happy one.

Take care, everyone.

Updated: February 11, 2018; now on indefinite hiatus