A/N: On January 19th, I was discussing with my husband the fact that it was Edgar Allen Poe's birthday. Brilliant man that he is, he suggested doing a fanfic story Poe-style. This is the result. I must admit to using, verbatim, lines from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." I salute his genius.
Disclaimer: All characters and settings belong to J.K. Rowling, and not to me.
"The Tell-Tale Hex"
It loomed in front of them. A ghostly edifice, the stones so grayed with age that the building seemed to fade into the rocky face of the cliffs behind it. Presenting almost an illusion, it seemed to appear and disappear, now fading from view as clouds scuttled over, now standing out in jarring clarity as the wan light of the moon shone through. Sparse vegetation and withered trees, their trunks gnarled and twisted, bent in submission before the blasts of frigid air that swept in from the sea.
Pulling at the edges of her hood in a vain attempt to protect her chapped face from the wind, Hermione shivered. The hand she'd raised was stiff and sore…and dirty, still rusty with the streaks of blood that had dried upon it. She felt soiled in every aspect of her being. Months… after months, turning into years, they'd sought the Horcruxes, destroying them one by one, and still the Dark Lord continued, with no change in his existence. Perhaps this time… but she no longer dared to hope, just to force herself forward with dogged determination. And it had all led to this.
She looked around. The rest of the group appeared just as bone weary as she did. Another blast of icy wind brought stifled groans and gasps. Her voice, competing with the chattering of her teeth, asked a question to no one in particular.
"Why is hell always depicted as hot? This feels much more like the place to which one would be sent to endure eternal damnation."
"Miss Granger, do you really feel that this is the time and place for a philosophical debate?" The dark figure to her right spoke quietly and sourly.
The others moved in closer. Harry's scarf was wound around his neck, and pulled over his mouth and nose. "I don't suppose it will be any warmer inside that place."
"You didn't warm up enough in that last battle?" Draco Malfoy staggered slightly, putting out a hand to brace himself against Hermione's shoulder. She stared at him with concern, noticing how he was favoring his leg.
"Are you going to be able to go on, Malfoy?"
"I intend to. Don't waste your time worrying about me."
"If you can't carry your own weight, Malfoy…" Ron's statement was cut off by a snapped command from Snape.
"Silence, you fool. Settle your personal grudges later. The fact that we have managed to fight our way through the perimeter guard does not mean that we can enter with impunity."
"Right." Harry took command. "We'll split into the usual teams. Ron and I will circle the house to the west. Snape, Malfoy, and Hermione will circle it to the east. We'll meet back here. If anyone runs into trouble of any kind, send off the usual signal."
Without another word, they separated. Beside her, Hermione was aware that Draco had straightened up, and removed his arm. Certain that the leg must be hurting him badly, she waited until she was sure that Harry and Ron were out of sight. Then she reached over and pulled his arm to her again.
Snape raised an eyebrow, or she assumed he did; his face wasn't easy to see in the pale moonlight. "Support him with your left arm. Keep your wand hand free."
She nodded. Draco swore softly.
"Bloody… it's fine. You healed the break yourself."
"True," Snape replied. "But it is too soon for you to be bearing weight on it."
"There was no choice," Hermione whispered. "We couldn't leave him behind back there. Not with more Death Eaters arriving."
They paused, and scanned the side of the building. No light shone through any window, and there were no entrances on this side. Without any intentional signal, they began moving again. Around the back of the edifice, they were sheltered slightly from the wind. No one moved within their sight, and the building remained dark. Nearby, an owl screeched. Snape muttered a quick charm, and the cry repeated… this time from where they were standing. Harry and Ron joined them seconds later.
"Nothing around that side," Ron hissed. "No entrances either. Looks like the front is the only way in."
"I don't like it," Harry said. "We could be picked off, one at a time, trying to enter the place."
"I don't see that we have any choice," Hermione spoke softly. "A couple of us are going to have to try to get inside."
"Agreed," Snape replied. "Let us return to the entrance."
The full brunt of the icy wind hit them as they returned to their original positions. A whispered conference was held, and it was decided that Snape and Harry would make the first attempt to enter the building. The remaining three would be prepared for any attack that might come from behind them.
"Good luck," Hermione whispered. As Snape and Harry moved towards the door, she moved away from the others, drawing her wand and scanning the area behind her. Draco and Ron did the same.
"What the… !" At Harry's startled exclamation, they spun around again. The doors were opened wide, and light poured out over the cobbles of the entryway. Both Harry and Snape had their wands out, drawn on the man who stood silhouetted in the light.
"Shit!" Draco spat out the words. "It's my father."
Lucius Malfoy seemed unperturbed by the weapons aimed at him. His bow was as dignified as if he were the host of an elegant party in Malfoy Manor.
"Severus… how very good to see you. And I see you've brought Mr. Potter along with you. Come in, come in! It's far too nasty a night to be standing out here."
He raised his hand, and Hermione gasped. The expected hex didn't materialize. Instead, Malfoy made a broad gesture towards the darkness.
"Draco, son, where are your manners? Bring your guests inside, and show them proper Malfoy hospitality."
He turned and moved farther into the building. After a moment's hesitation, Snape called quietly, "Come." Still glancing nervously around and behind them, they joined Harry, following Snape inside. The doors swung shut, with a decisive click.
"Please, come into the parlor. There's a fire, and I can offer you some fine cognac." Lucius Malfoy was being very charming. Snape was looking at him quizzically, and catching his look, Lucius laughed and took his arm.
"Come, Severus. Such suspicion from an old friend. You are always welcome in my home, or anywhere I happen to be. This place may not offer all the amenities of the Manor, but I can make you comfortable." He led them down the hall, and into a large room. "Make yourselves at home."
Hermione stared around in dismay. The room was nearly empty, its wooden floors scratched and dust-covered. A couple of threadbare armchairs flanked a fireplace with a meager flame failing to provide any warmth. Against one wall stood a wooden bench, a small footstool against another. Shutters were closed tightly over the windows; no sliver of moonlight filtered through.
Lucius settled himself in one of the armchairs, as grandly as if it were a throne. He gestured for Snape to take the other. With his wand still in his hand, and never taking his eyes off of Lucius, Snape seated himself.
"Draco, please… what are you thinking? Provide chairs for your guests."
Harry motioned towards the wall, and he and Ron dragged the wooden bench forward. Hermione did the same with the footstool, and sat on it, facing the boys on the bench. Clutching her wand, Hermione tried not to shake. If this wasn't a trap, then there was something very strange happening.
Very casually, Lucius pulled out his own wand, and they all came to their feet, wands at ready. But he merely spoke a few words, and a small table appeared between the armchairs. On the table were a couple of dirty glasses and a bottle of some liquor, nearly empty. Sheathing his wand, he picked up the bottle and turned to Snape.
"You'll join me, won't you, Severus? I can assure you…" He seemed to lose his train of thought, and for a moment, his eyes darted wildly around the room. Just as quickly, he smiled and continued, "assure you that this is some of the very best of my personal stores." Picking up the bottle, he attempted to pour the liquid into one of the glasses, and managed to spill half of the dose onto the table. Grasping the glass, and ignoring the spill, he took a drink, and relaxed back into the chair, apparently having forgotten his intention to pour a second drink for his 'guest.'
"Father, what are you doing in this place?" Draco was even paler than usual, and Hermione watched him anxiously.
"What kind of a question is that?" Lucius snapped out. He swung his glass, and more of the liquid spilled out, splashing across the dirty floor. "I am serving my Lord, of course. He wishes me to be here, and so I am… here." His anger disappeared, and he was staring at the floor, looking absolutely miserable. "I will stay here forever, Draco… forever and ever, until the Dark Lord sees fit to recall me."
With a sick feeling, Hermione remembered her words earlier. Eternal damnation. Apparently, Lucius Malfoy was already experiencing it, for once again, he was staring wildly around the room.
"You hear it, don't you?" His words were barely whispered, and he was watching them desperately. "It never stops… more than a man can bear."
"Lucius!" Snape tried to recapture his attention. "Surely, your being here is a mark of the Dark Lord's trust in you. After all, he trusts you to guard his most precious possession."
The suave and controlled Malfoy was back. "Indeed, Severus. Our family is honored that he has chosen me. But a precious object? You dissemble poorly. If you mean Horcrux, why don't you just say it?"
Hermione stifled a gasp. Harry and the others on the bench were leaning forward.
Snape eyed Lucius warily.
"Indeed, Lucius. Let us speak plainly. We had to fight our way through contingents of Death Eaters to even gain access to this place, as remote and foul a location as the Dark Lord could find. And you are here, for no other reason than to lose your life, if necessary, to guard the Horcrux." Lucius was nodding, taking sips of the liquor. "We are here for it, Lucius. Where is it?"
Lucius laughed, put his glass down on the table, and rose. "Look around you, Severus. There is nothing here. I am a decoy. This place is a decoy. You have fought your way here, searched for months, for nothing!" He threw his arms wide, encompassing the room. "You have betrayed the Dark Lord, dragging my son down with you." He took a few steps in Draco's direction; Harry and Ron raised their wands. "My son… the scion of the Malfoy's." He laughed again, and Hermione saw Draco wince. "Mudbloods, and blood traitors, and other filth – can you find nothing lower to associate with? You…"
He stopped, suddenly. The wild look was back, something akin to terror crossed his face, and his eyes darted around the room. "Always… it never ceases. Torment, torment without end…"
Snape left his chair, and put an arm around the stricken man. "Lucius, come and sit. We will help you if we can."
Seated once again, he was back… the head of the Malfoy family, proud and self-assured. "So tell me the news of Hogwarts. Has Dumbledore given up yet?"
Hermione gasped, and Harry went rigid. He came half off the bench, his fists clenched. "Dumbledore is dead. You know that!"
"Really?" Malfoy Sr. seemed perfectly calm. "I had forgotten. Pity, that. No doubt his funeral was well done. Can't let the niceties slip, you know."
"Oh dear god," Hermione whispered. "The man is mad."
"Father," Draco tried again. "Tell us where to find the Horcrux."
"The Horcrux, Draco?" Lucius smiled at him. "My dear boy, do you even know what it is you're looking for?"
Harry answered for him. "Whatever it is, this time we know it's the last. We thought it was Nagini, but the snake's death changed nothing. This time, we have to be right! Where is it?"
"Nagini?" Lucius appeared mildly surprised. "You killed his snake. That can't have pleased him."
"I hope it pissed the hell out of him," Ron blurted out.
"Please, Mr. Weasley, do try to conduct yourself with something of the manner of a pureblood, even if that failed excuse of a wizard father of yours is the only example you have."
Ron was on his feet. "Look, Malfoy!"
And Lucius laughed. "Sit down, you ignorant boy."
Harry pulled Ron back to the bench. "He's nutters," he hissed. "Here he goes again."
Lucius was back on his feet, pacing nervously, the tap of his heels against the wooden floor echoing in the room.
"All this talk of Horcruxes. They don't exist, Severus. I've told you, this has all been a wild goose chase, a mare's nest." He began flailing his arms, wildly. "There are no Horcruxes, there is nothing here. Nothing. Nothing." He stopped in front of Hermione, bending over her. "Filthy little Mudblood, do you see anything?"
Hermione shook her head, mutely.
Lucius continued his pacing and flailing. His eyes were moving over all of them. "You think that I don't know? Do you take me for a FOOL? You try to hide it, to act as if you are all unaware, but you hear it!!" He swung towards Severus, pulled out his wand, and aimed it wildly. "You, Severus… you hear it!" Swinging around again, pointing the wand at his son, whispering, "You hear it, don't you, Draco? Don't you?"
"Father, please…" Draco was struggling to his feet. Behind him, Severus had risen.
"Arghhhhhhh!" His scream brought the remainder of them to their feet. Dropping his wand, Lucius pressed his fists to his forehead. "You hear it! I know you hear it!"
Falling to his knees, he crawled into the center of the room, and began beating on the floor with his fists. "Dissemble no more! Tear up the planks! Here! Here!-- It is the beating of his hideous heart!"
Draco reached his father, and was pulling him away. Hermione joined him, and together they moved Lucius back towards the wall. Snape, Harry, and Ron rushed to circle the spot where he'd been beating his hands. Aiming his wand, Snape snapped out a command, and the wooden floor boards began to peel away as if they were made of paper. Harry and Ron stared into the opening, as it gaped wider and wider. And finally, there… in the center, a glass case, edged in silver, with something dark and horrible incased within.
"Wait!" snapped the Potions Master, but Ron was already dropping into the hole. He picked up the case and handed it out carefully to Harry. Carrying it over to the small table, Harry set it down, and they all gathered to examine it.
"I don't believe it. Is it really his heart?" Draco asked.
"It would seem so," Snape answered. "He was unable to maintain a corporeal form after the attack on the Potters. This must have been done in advance of the attack, so that his continuance was guaranteed."
"It's horrible," Hermione said. "Like something out of Edgar Allen Poe."
"Who?" Ron asked. The others ignored him.
"Then this is finally it," Harry said. "I destroy this, and Voldemort dies."
"There is considerable risk, Mr. Potter," Snape cautioned.
"I've spent nearly five years of my life hunting these things down. I don't intend to spend another day." His expression brooked no argument. "I'm destroying it… now."
"But how?" Hermione grasped his arm. "It's unlikely that this is unprotected, which means a wand spell probably can't do it."
"With this." Harry reached inside his robe and pulled a small pin out of his shirt. At his command, it enlarged and elongated, until he was holding in his hand… the sword of Godric Gryffindor. "You'd all better back up."
Hermione hesitated, but Snape caught her arm and dragged her back. "Don't be a fool, Miss Granger. We've known all along that the final blow must be his."
They huddled against the far wall, eyes on Harry. He glanced at them once and nodded, his face set. Taking his stance, he raised the sword, and then so fast that they almost failed to follow the movement, he plunged the sword through the glass, and entirely through the heart inside. Glass shattered, and blood spurted, hissing and sizzling where it fell.
The room erupted in screams. Hermione spun around, not sure who to go to first. Harry dropped the sword, falling backwards, his hands clamped over his scar, screaming and writhing on the floor. She had only a second to grab Snape as he crumpled, his left arm held to his chest, crying out in agony. In a corner, Lucius Malfoy convulsed, Draco bent over him in alarm. It seemed to go on forever. She could see Ron, attempting to hold Harry still.
The blood that had spilled was bubbling, sending up steam that was grey and smelled horrible. Within a few moments, it was gone.
And everything stopped.
Snape slumped, and Hermione examined him with alarm. He was breathing, but appeared stable. Leaving him, she hurried over to where Ron held a motionless Harry.
"Hermione, look at him!"
She fell to her knees, pushing his hair from his forehead, to be certain she hadn't overlooked it. "Ron, his… the scar. He doesn't have the scar!"
Ron was staring down at Harry, and tears were running down his face. "He did it, Hermione. He's killed Voldemort."
She was crying now herself. Touching his face gently, shaking his shoulder. "Harry, wake up. Please."
He barely opened his eyes. "M'tired."
She kissed him, on the broad expanse of his forehead that bore no mark. "Sleep, Harry. There's time for that now."
Behind her, Snape was stirring. She rose, not leaving Ron with any instructions, knowing without anything being said, that Ron would keep watch over him until Harry awoke.
Snape had pulled himself into a sitting position, slumped against the wall. "Potter, is he…?"
"I think he'll be fine, but, Severus, let me look at your left arm."
He shook his head, exhausted. "I can't raise it."
Lifting his arm, she carefully folded back the sleeve of his robe, only to be blocked by the cloth of his coat and shirt. "Really," she huffed. Pulling out her wand, she cast divestio leaving him uncovered from the waist up. Before he could even form the words with which to berate her, she'd raised his left arm, exposing the clean bare skin where the Dark Mark has resided for so many years. He raised his eyes to hers, then dropped his head, allowing his black hair to cover his face and conceal his emotion. Another quick casting, and he was clothed again, protected from the cold. She left him alone, and made her way over to Draco.
He was sitting in the corner, his father stretched out, face down on the floor beside him. A mixture of emotions crossed his face… grief, amazement, and something that looked like vindication. She dropped down beside him, and took his hand.
"Dead." At her started exclamation, he shook his head. "He was too far gone, couldn't take the shock, I guess."
"I'm sorry for your loss, Draco."
He dropped her hand, reached out and put his arm around her. "The loss was long before this. When I failed to… when I turned my back on everything he believed in…" He sighed. "It doesn't matter anyway. We've won."
"Yes, we've won."
"So, what happens now?"
Hermione didn't really want to think beyond this moment; exhaustion was taking its toll on her, too. "We head back to London, to Grimmauld Place, and find what's left of the Order. There'll be work to do, putting the wizarding community back on its feet, finding the remaining Death Eaters and turning them over for trial." She smiled… it had been a long time since she'd felt like smiling. "Tonight, we rest, and tomorrow, we'll see what life is like without a Voldemort out there."
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