It has been a long time, I know. Apologies for that, and a big thank you to everyone who has stuck with the fic in the intervening time. I have got my act together now. I adore hearing what you think - it will take me a little while to catch up on comments, so please bear with me!
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre -
To be redeemed from fire by fire
- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
A traitor. It was only logical that someone would be desperate or greedy or frightened enough to see salvation in Voldemort. It had happened before. It would undoubtedly happen again. Hermione supposed it was a minor miracle that it had taken so long; a thousand nights. Only Scherezade had held off death with such grim tenacity.
It did not lessen her repugnance one whit.
"Do you have any idea who it might be?" she asked.
Ron's laugh was rickety and hollow. "I have a hundred ideas, and no bloody way to test them." He slumped against the wall, defeat in the lines of his body. "Every person I pass, I wonder if it's them. They've all got reason enough. Flitwick – his niece is in Azkaban. What's her freedom worth? Or Daphne Greengrass, she was a Slytherin, and even though she's fought with us and bled with us, I keep wondering if her sad story's a front. And I tell myself that that's what Voldemort wants – he wants us divided and suspicious, but I can't stop wondering."
The anguish in his voice resonated with her. Wasn't that exactly how she felt about Malfoy? Even an Unbreakable Vow could not allay her misgivings; his life was tangled around hers and whether it was a safety net or a noose, she simply did not know.
"Some strategist I am," he muttered. "I don't even know who I can trust."
"Lavender," she offered, gentle.
His smile was faint, but it chased some of the doubt from his eyes. "Yeah. Always. And Gin, I guess, even if we don't see eye to eye about...well, anything, these days. Neville, too."
"Luna," she suggested. "Not about Nargles or Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, but when it comes to fighting the forces of evil, I'd trust her with my life." She paused. "I did."
He nodded, straightening. "You."
"Yes," she said, and smiled. For a moment, it felt like the old days.
"Well, it's a short list, but it's a start." Ron sighed. "We've got to find out who it is. Especially now – the rest of us, we've been careful since Bill and Fleur were taken. We hardly leave this place." He arched an eyebrow. "But I have this feeling you won't – can't – do that."
"No," she confirmed. "I can't hide away any more, Ron. I can't watch the world go by, not like this. I'm the only one who can go between Malfoy and the Order. He won't trust anyone else..." She bit off the words, but the truth of them was acid in her throat.
He hardly trusts me.
He acknowledged that with a grimace. "Then we need to take extra measures."
She caught a glimpse of the future in those cagey words. Days subsumed in magic, cloaked in illusions, swaddled in charms, weighed down with amulets and suspicion. But what was the alternative? If there was a way to catch the traitor, to turn their trap back on them, she couldn't fathom it.
But...she knew someone who might. Set a thief to catch a thief: she'd trapped hers with a vow, with fire and magic and his own savage need.
"I have an idea," she said slowly. "Let me talk-"
She did not finish her sentence or even her thought. Inevitable as ghosts weeping on the midnight air in this ruined world, destruction came.
X - X - X - X - X
The world explodes, and Blaise can only watch it happen.
He does not comprehend what is before his eyes: orange light opens upon the faded shopfront of Purge and Dowse, bright, almost beautiful, and for a mazed moment it is sunrise he thinks of, summer sunrises where the sky is liquid gold and the world is so silent it feels almost holy.
But like the gullet of a monster yawning open, roiling darkness subsumes the light, carrying on it a roar that rattles the sky.
Then he understands: it's fire, death, horror, and it's coming for him.
The blast bats the car into the air as if it's a toy. His shoulder cracks against the window. As he fights gravity and entropy, his own weight is an enemy, the seatbelt a garrotte around his neck. It dissolves as the security spells trigger and he gasps in breath. Air swaddles him: Blaise floats in eerie silence as the car tumbles around and around. Through the windows he sees flashes of the pavement, streamers of smoke, glittering glass, everything shattering around him.
The car lands hard, with a crash that vibrates through his spells. Somehow, he is alive.
He can think again – and he remembers that he was not alone. The groaning heap beside the door is Dennis, blood trickling down his temple. The photographer clutches something against his stomach, his eyes dazed but open.
"Are you all right?" Blaise asks. His voice sounds like it's filtered through water. "Can you move?"
Dennis focuses, slowly. The reply is indistinct, but Blaise can read his lips: Yes. The driver?
Gingerly, Blaise peers between the seats, a hand pressed to his aching shoulder. The driver is sprawled across them and his neck is at an impossible angle. The spells must have failed-
No. He knows better in this time, this place, this forsaken shadowy life.
The driver was not important enough to live.
He takes a deep breath to find the air saturated with a scent that alarms him. Petrol. The haze he sees through is more than mere fear.
"He's dead," he reports. "We have to get out. Can you open the door?"
Dennis struggles up, and the object he strove to protect is revealed: his camera. He pulls uselessly at the door. Stuck, he tells Blaise. Your side?
He fumbles for the handle with clumsy fingers. It won't open either.
Panic surges over him: he hefts his weight against it, desperate to get out, desperate to live. His shoulder is agony, but he dares not stop. Once, twice, then it pops open with the screech of tortured metal.
He scrambles out and pulls Dennis after him. The photographer is favouring one leg, and Blaise supports him as they stagger away from the wreck of the car. The pavement has never seemed so hard, his legs so heavy.
He's hot – why is he hot? It's winter, but he's sweating and it can't be merely fear.
There's a bench in front of them. He guides Dennis to it, and only then does he think that he is safe. It is over, whatever it is. The survival instinct that kept him moving fades.
Then Blaise sees what they walked over. Broken glass. Charred detritus. And there, that thing...
It must be the hand of the mannequin. But mannequins do not have bitten, ragged fingernails. Mannequins do not wear gold rings.
And he hears the Dark Lord's words, a promise, a threat, a fact: I have made arrangements.
X - X - X - X - X
The impact shook the room. Hermione pitched sideways, words disintegrating in a hail of dust and pebbles. Above them, the lightbulb guttered, offset by a flurry of multicoloured sparks as the charms activated. Somewhere in the mess, they found one another and clung grimly together as the walls juddered.
The noise died away, and she was left staring into his ashen face. It could only have lasted seconds.
"What was that?" she breathed.
"I don't know. Doesn't sound good. Come on."
The door was dented, but Ron wrenched it open with a strength that matched the wild look in his eyes. In the corridor, people were filing past in a purposeful way that spoke of long rehearsal. One or two glanced over, and the change in Ron was instant.
He squared his shoulders and every trace of anxiety vanished from him. It had been her friend curdled with fear in that room: it was a leader who stepped out, calm. He turned aside the questions flung at him like paper planes with the only answer he had, and it was no answer at all, yet something in the way he spoke soothed them.
Hermione followed him, hugging the wall as they made their way back to the wards.
Ron paused by Flitwick, who was bent over a shivering woman. "Is everyone-"
The professor glanced up. Dust spattered his hair like dandruff but he managed a crooked smile, the scars on his mouth white with the motion. "Lots of shock, two panic attacks, but the worst so far is a nasty bruise from a falling book. Your charms did exactly what you intended them to. Congratulations, Weasley."
"First time for everything," said Ron, nonchalant as if there was no emergency. Eyes were on them, faces pinched. "Which book?"
Flitwick snorted. He spoke slowly, careful to make his words comprehensible. "A History of Hogwarts. Which was about the only way that doorstopper was ever going to leave the shelf."
He tipped her a wink: she caught the thread of the game at once.
"It's a very worthy book," she protested, loud enough for their listeners to hear.
"It's a very weighty book," said Flitwick dryly. "Goodness knows which brave soul had the dedication to lug it all the way here. I can only assume it was a concealed weapon."
"Only a philistine would use a book as a weapon!" she said.
He wagged a finger at her. "Then someone ought to have words with the author, young madam, because it is etymological warfare if ever I read it."
She heard a laugh or two, tired, startled, from their watchers. And it made her feel oddly proud, more than her spells or her clever plans, because those were magic and logic. But this: this was a victory that Voldemort could never have, the kind he would not even think to win, of hearts, of hope.
"Then it's fighting the right battle," she said. "Same as us."
Flitwick's eyes twinkled, as they had when she'd cast a spell to perfection. "And I had best let you get on and fight it."
Ron gave her a nod of approval as they made their way through to the strategy room. It was still quiet in the wards, but a low buzz of conversation had begun, and she felt the tension seeping away like air from a balloon.
The room was empty except for Ginny and Neville. A large whitewashed wall occupied Neville, who was sketching an extremely complex charm on it. Ginny sat at the head of the table, a series of communication spells squawking at her.
Rowdy in Barrack 2, bloody kids – three missing, but they've been sighted.
Triage completed in the wards. All the immobiles have a watcher. We're waiting on you.
Lots of questions, here, Ginny. People want to know what's happening. Aside from that, packs and maps distributed, ready to go.
"What's happened?" demanded Ron.
"We're trying to find out," said Ginny. "But this isn't a direct attack on us, which is good news. Our wards are intact. Whatever it was tripped five early warning spells half a mile away. The sparrows are out, so we should get a picture any minute now."
"Sparrows?" Hermione said.
"Neville's idea," Ron said. "Take a Snitch, paint it brown and fit a camera inside it. Unnoticeable in the city."
There was a brilliant flash of yellow light and the whitewashed wall rippled as if it were a watery surface.
"Done," declared Neville, wiping sweat from his brow with a grubby sleeve. "Now we'll see what's out there."
All four of them turned to the wall. Ginny silenced the communication spells with a slash of her wand, eyes blazing. A view came into focus in a quarter of the wall: swirling black clouds. Another picture popped into life, but this showed only empty blue sky and the gleaming high-rise buildings. The third quarter leapt into view with more smoke, dark as a starless night except for...something, a swirl of green.
The final quarter flickered into clarity, and there it was.
X - X - X - X - X
Blaise turns, knowing what must await him, his sawing breath more than mere exertion.
St Mungos has been torn apart. Smoke pours through the broken windows, black and toxic, through the twisted remnants of the door, bleeding through the destroyed brickwork. Strange things are scattered on the road – a green bag, contents spilled out like innards, a book that is as pristine as if it were new, funny mounds of colour that he can't explain.
And this…this he must pass off as the work of the Order.
Defiance rises in him, sharp as the grief. He is grimy and aching and heartsick. He will not do it. He will not perpetuate this farce any longer.
"Merlin's grave," croaks someone – hands clutch his arm. An old man is gazing at him, mouth agape, eyes wet. "Who would do this? Why, please, why?"
His lips are dry. He knows what he ought to say, faithful government puppet that he is. And he knows it is sacrilege.
A boom, like thunder cracking open the sky. Green light shoots up through the smoke and unfolds into an unmistakable shape.
Someone screams. And then the voice is not alone: there is clamour, chaos, agony filling the air. They have seen it before, over battlefields, in graffiti, tattooed on those who dare claim its allegiance openly. For three years, it has defined a rebellion.
And now it defines a massacre.
A confession, a signature, a vicious, damning lie: painted in fire above the ruins flies a phoenix.
X - X - X - X - X
"No!" It was Neville who screamed, Neville who saw those strange sterile corridors as a sort of home, who had so very much to lose in the crumbling walls. "My mum...my dad...I have to go, I can't-"
"No, you can't," interrupted Ginny, and though her words were implacable, for the first time Hermione saw a glimmer of sympathy in her face. "Neville, you know it's madness."
He made a choked noise, chest heaving. "Don't talk to me about madness. Don't you think I know it when I see it, when I see them. They're in there, my parents are burning and don't you dare tell me to stay!"
He started for the door – and blue ropes of magic lashed around him, tethered to Ginny's wand. Her face was a calm mask.
"Let me go!"
"Do you remember when Voldemort destroyed Kilkarney Green?" said Ginny, her voice very soft, as if she was talking to an animal trembling in a trap. "Seamus wanted to go, too. You stopped him, like this. You taught me this charm, Neville, do you remember?"
"That was different-" There were tears in his eyes, tremors in his straining muscles.
"You told him it was a trap, designed just for him. You told him that you were sorry. You held him for five hours while he cursed you and me and all of us, until the others came back. His sister and his mother had been killed long before the fire started." She stared him down, as true and immovable a sorceress as Medusa, but it was her eyes that were stone, her magic the snakes.
Ron watched, quiet. He was clenching and unclenching one fist, but he didn't move between them.
"So I'm telling you now, Neville, that this is a trap and it's designed for you. And I will hold you here while you curse me, because I know that monster on his stolen throne, and I know how he can crawl inside you and twist your soul so tight it'll choke you. If you go there, and you're seen – because he wants this seen, he wants us blamed – then he will own you. He will make you The Boy Who Killed, Neville, because he needs an enemy and it would amuse him if it's you."
"You talk like you can see inside his head," said Neville dully.
"Once." Her mouth quivered: it was momentary, and gone, but Hermione saw a glimpse of the old Ginny there. "Let someone else go."
"No one can go, though, can they?" he said. "If they're caught-"
"I can go," said Hermione before she had even thought about it.
The silence was charged. Then Ginny nodded, thoughtfully. Ron grimaced, but he too nodded.
"I'm the only one," Hermione said. "All of you – you're too vital. They'll expect you. Wipe my mind, so I can't tell anyone where you are."
Ginny smiled, a grim flash of teeth. "That's not a worry, Hermione. You were shown here because only our Secret Keepers can get in. The minute you leave, you won't remember a thing about King William Street."
She was unsurprised. "Can I Apparate out?"
"Out but not in," said Ron. She could tell he wasn't happy about this, but he understood. Of all of them, he understood. "Take some Polyjuice Potion. Less risk."
"I'll cast your charms," said Neville, his voice husky. The ropes around him dissolved, and he came forward to clasp her arm with iron fingers. The hope in his eyes was painful. "Hermione, thank you."
"Don't, Neville," she told him. "Don't thank me for doing what's right."
"We'll be in touch with you," said Ginny as Neville began to wind layer upon layer of spells around her. Those green eyes met hers, giving nothing away. "Be safe."
"Be smart," said Neville with a sad sliver of a smile. "Like always."
Ron gave her a one-armed hug, brief and hard. There was an edge of irony on the words as he handed her Polyjuice Potion, which bubbled in a dented cup, and said, firmly, "Be yourself."
X - X - X - X - X
In Malfoy Manor, its dispossessed heir knelt at the feet of his conqueror. White fingers rested on his head as if he was a dog, tamed, cowed. There were days when that was not so far from the truth. This was one of them.
"I have a task for you."
He was careful to keep his face down, his shoulders relaxed. "I am yours to command."
"Yes. Yes, that is true." A tightening of the fingers: brief pain in his scalp, nails digging in. "I have thought long and hard on our enemies, Draco. The time has come to crush them, once and for all. I have been tolerant in these years. I have been merciful, against my better judgement, in the hope that the misguided and the misinformed would come to see the glory of the world I have created. But it is not so. Indeed, whispers have reached me of change. The Order of the Phoenix is testing its wings."
"Yes, Great Lord."
Voldemort moved away. He stroked the hourglass. "Do you know how a phoenix is killed, Draco?"
He glanced up, startled. "They're immortal, aren't they?"
"A thousand fools have believed so. But a pair of wise men knew differently. Perhaps you have heard of them. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm."
Draco met those red eyes, as amused and empty as a demon's. "Jacob Grimm was my great-great-grandfather."
"Tell me what you know of them." Curious intensity in that soft, pitiless voice.
"They were famous cursebreakers. That's where their stories came from. When my great-grandmother married into Foys of Wiltshire, she demanded that she keep their name. Of course, the Prussian wizarding families were in decline then and the French magi were on the rise, so Grimm became Mal, and we became the Malfoys."
"A pretty version of the truth," breathed Voldemort. "Sanitized. Cursebreakers, yes, the Grimms were that. But they were also dark wizards of considerable power, and they laid their secrets into their stories, to be unearthed by only the most observant of readers. There is truth in there, to eyes that can see."
"My lord?" he said, cautious.
"One of those truths is that the phoenix can die. It is only fire, Draco. Like all flames, it needs air to burn. Just as a resistance needs hope." A thin smile split his face like a crimson wound. "Take away the air and the fire is gone. The story ends."
He feels a quiver, deep in his gut. It is not terror but something more insidious: despair.
"We have begun this noble work today, Draco." A touch down the back of his neck, like the caress of a noose. "But it is not enough. No, it is not even close to enough. The key lies in a story. To be precise, in a book written by the Brothers Grimm, which only one of their bloodline may read. Your father read it to me once, but he was fool enough to let it slid from his hands in my absence. He can no longer be trusted, no, no, though he begs and pleads and weeps like a cur. You though...you are faithful, are you not?"
He stares past that spidery figure, out of the window where the mists are unwinding like fraying fabric. The same flowing shapes are under his skin, written in fire and not vapour. "I am, my lord."
It is a strange faith, a dark creeping thing that scuttles from shadow to shadow in his heart. It is the faith of the condemned man, who knows that the noose will tighten, the drop will come, the end is nigh. Yes: he has faith in the end of it all, faith that he can choose how to face it.
"Then go to Hogwarts and bring me back the book. It is in the Headmaster's library. None but you may touch it. Leave now."
He rises, knees stiff and aching. As he leaves, he hears a murmur and glances back. The Dark Lord is a silhouette against the window, black on grey, still against the shifting fog. His voice is vicious, a curse in the air.
"The Order have declared war – and war they shall have, to the grave and beyond."
X - X - X - X - X
Blaise cannot watch the phoenix. It is too painful. Instead he watches the building, and then he sees it.
In a window on the fourth floor, the pale oval of a face. He thinks it is a trick of the smoke, but there it is again – and the man beside him sees it too and cries out.
"There's someone alive in there..." croaks Dennis. He is trembling, but his hands half-raise the camera in a motion he seems hardly aware of.
And Blaise knows what he must do. He sees it, with the eye of a visionary. It is an excuse so seamless that it cannot be questioned, the only way to answer the rage and the mutiny boiling in his blood.
"I'm going to get them," he says.
Dennis stares at him like he's gone mad. Maybe he has. "You can't!"
Blaise draws out his wand. He casts charms on himself until his skin smarts with the amount of magic clinging to him. "I shouldn't, perhaps. But I certainly can. And you are going to capture every instant of it."
Dennis gazes down at his camera, and there is a look on his face that Blaise has seen before. The picture is in his mind: the angles, the shot that elevates him from a photographer to an artist.
"It will make an excellent story, don't you think?" he says airily.
Dark eyes meet his. Dennis looks at him like he is as monstrous as the flames. "I suppose it will, Minister," he says flatly.
Blaise hesitates no longer. He walks towards the building, the heat boiling like a dragon's breath. He walks because this is theatre, and camouflage, and he must be what he needs them to believe he is. A gloryhunter, for the cynics. A showman, for the press. A mouthpiece, for the Dark Lord.
The doorframe is swollen and cracked. His bubble charm barely holds as he enters the building, the air in it dangerously thin. He is out of sight now, the inferno all about. Then he runs, up the stairs, rising like the phoenix; he runs for his life and for theirs.
X - X - X - X - X
The world folded around her like elaborate origami, then magic spewed her into a back street. Her first breath tasted acrid and gritty: smoke veiled the alley. Plenty of clouds, but not a sign of a silver lining.
Hermione had expected to see cordons and officials and lightning masks as she hurried towards St Mungos. But there seemed to be only chaos.
Ginny's words came back to her. The longer Voldemort dallied, the more people saw the phoenix hovering over this abattoir. The more chance that the press would arrive, unconstrained by propriety or government rules. They would smell the smoke, the blood, the burned flesh. And so would their readers.
Revulsion churned in her stomach. It was too close to the last battle, bringing memories to the surface like sharks rising to a slick of blood. Harry, fallen before the walls of Hogwarts. The faces of her friends fixed in death, light refracting in their indifferent eyes.
She would stop him. Whatever it took, she would stop him.
"How could they?" A woman sobbed, crumpled in the street. A businessman dabbed at her bleeding temple with a tissue. "Monsters. All of them, monsters."
A man was cradling an old lady in his arms. He told her it would be all right. He told her she was safe. He told her help was coming. He lied and he lied and he lied, and Hermione saw the despair in his eyes.
She paused, just for a moment, and drew out her wand. "Please, let me."
He gazed up at her, mouth slack. A wand lay beside him, as if he'd thrown it down. "My spells don't work," he said. "Nothing works."
No wonder with the way he was trembling. In his arms, the old lady wheezed. Her stomach was a slick mess of blood and worse things, lurid on her pastel cardigan.
"I'm here to help," Hermione told her. She cast a charm.
And it rolled off the old lady like rain from waxed paper.
Doubt niggled her. She had cast the spell a hundred times. She cast it again.
It slid off. Bemused, she cast it on herself and felt minor aches vanish. Not the spell, then. She tried another. Again. Again, panic bubbling in her veins because she didn't understand what could do this. Desperate now, Hermione drew stronger and stronger spells from her repertoire, casting until her throat was sore.
None of it worked. As the sixteenth spell twisted from her wand, the old lady wheezed once more and died on a dirty city street, staring up at the phoenix in the smoke while a stranger told her she was fine, just fine.
The next incantation melted into slush on Hermione's lips.
The man stared at her with red-rimmed eyes. "I was annoyed with her," he said in a croak. "She was walking so slowly, and I wanted to get by – I had a meeting, and she was so slow. Then…then...if she hadn't been in front of me, it would have been me."
Dazed, she didn't know what to say. "My spells..."
Her magic had never failed her. But as she looked around, she saw the scene repeated across the street. Disbelief warbled on the air.
She could not help here, and she could not stay any longer. The building towered before her, the fire a crackling, spitting, vicious thing that seemed to challenge anyone who came near.
She clenched her fist: the Vow, it seemed, tingled there, and the promise echoed in her as she burst into St Mungos. To the best and to the end.
X - X - X - X - X
Draco landed by the gate of Hogwarts, thick with creepers and poison berries, He purposely did not glance at the spot where he'd picked off fleeing survivors like a sniper in bolts of red and gold and electric blue.
He knew exactly what he had done here. Some of it he regretted.
Vegetation had already devoured the tunnel that he and Granger had used to escape. As he carved another, the leaves crowded around him, closing the world out until he moved through a greenish gloom with the creak of branches in his ears.
At last the leaves gave way to musty air and the vast entrance hall, which didn't seem as big as it once had. He remembered feeling small when he'd first come here – and hating it, hating that he could not fill the immensity of the space with his mere presence as his father seemed to so effortlessly.
It will come, my boy, his father had said indulgently, when Draco had grumbled about all that Hogwarts lacked: light, warmth, a bit of damn respect. You come from great leaders. It's in your blood – breeding and dominion. Play the long game.
His father's sneer could have shamed a queen. –is irrelevant. A mere celebrity. Do you think that scars make a man? No. No, Draco, scars only say that you let your enemy get close enough to leave his mark.
For all his faults – many, varied, and requiring the Dewey decimal system to properly catalogue them - Potter had no choice about the mark he wore.
His father, on the other hand, had embraced the enemy, and worn his mark with pride.
Doesn't it tell your enemy that he tried to destroy you and failed? he'd asked, leaching the insolence from his voice.
His father looked at him with something like surprise, as if one of the topiary animals had turned and swiped at him with its paw. But it vanished quickly, replaced by an amused smile. When you're older, Draco, you will understand. There is a subtlety to it: you mark them as dead men walking, so the living men run. To you, or from you – it matters not..
From, today, he thought.
The stairs creaked under his weight as he made his way up them. Shadows moved around him, a kaleidoscope of dark and light that he fended off with his wand. Once, he heard a screech of laughter, far away. Once, the chime of a music box, clinking through The Nutcracker Suite.
Then he was before the door, which dangled from its hinges like a drunk slumping down into the gutter. Yet even ruined, it held power over him.
He had never liked Dumbledore – never – but in the end...
(and what an end, that long fall down, the call of the void; what must it have been to tumble in icy darkness, knowing that there was no return – only the immensity of pain and death.)
...yes, in the end, he'd respected him.
The door screeched as he wrestled with it and slithered through the jagged gap. He knew the room well from Umbridge's days, though it was a blackened skeleton of its former self, littered with debris. The library was in the far corner, little more than a shoebox lined with shelves and concealed by a bookcase of mouldy almanacs.
He picked his way across the floor. It had already been torn open, of course, pages lying begrimed on the floor, books like collapsed dominoes on the shelves. Patiently, he began to sift through the rubble.
"Is it you?"
He started, and Cruciatus had twisted from his lips before he was aware of it, a barbed whip of pain that lashed out-
And through the ghost who watched him with her ever-wounded eyes, huge in her glasses. "Draco," said Myrtle. "You came back. Where is she?"
The question made him start. "Who?"
"Hermione Granger. That snooty swot. She was the last one, you know. The others are all dead." She giggled. There was a chilly sort of music to the sound. "I saved her for you."
"That was thoughtful." Myrtle was not as he recalled. There was something a little off about her: she flickered every now and then, a guttering candle.
She smiled like a starstruck schoolgirl. "It was, wasn't it?" she said. "I gave them all the others – I had to, you know, I had to – but I kept her, just for you. It was right, wasn't it?"
She darted in like an angry wasp, and he saw desperation distorting her face, vast in her eyes, in her trembling mouth.
"Tell me it was right," she whispered. "I can't tell any more. They put me inside one…I felt death all around me…death, the pain, and she was still there too, she knew what she was!"
A scream tore from her – she whirled like a leaf tossed on the breeze and the remaining pages rattled in her wake. He covered his ears, grimacing.
"Myrtle!" he shouted, but she was oblivious. He took a breath, then grabbed for his wand and cast Silencio with such force that the silence boomed as loud as her shriek.
Like a dervish she whipped around the room in noiseless anguish. He shuddered every time a strand of her essence brushed him; he doubled over when she shot through him like an arctic wind. At last whatever demon drove her was gone, and she slumped into a corner, forehead pressed to her drawn-up knees.
With some trepidation, he undid the spell.
Her whimpers filled the air, the soft heartbroken sobs of a child. And she was a child, he realised, however long she had been here. An unloved child, who had lived a life of misery, alone, and could not even escape in death.
Draco remembered something of how that felt. He remembered that she had comforted him when his world was teetering on its axis above a great abyss.
"Myrtle," he said gently. He crouched in front of her. "Myrtle, what did they do to you?"
She did not look up. Her fingers were scrunched into her long woollen socks. "They...they said there were worse things than death," she said, voice muffled. "I didn't believe them. I laughed at them. And they chained me in magic and they cast me into one of the Ragged Walkers. And…and...there was dead flesh all around me, and the hunger was so terrible but the pain was worse, and I screamed and screamed, and then I realised that she was in there with me, the girl they'd raised, this pretty girl who'd laughed at me the week before..."
She stopped; great gulping sobs wracked her.
"They put you into an Inferi?" he said, the horror rolling over him like waves of nausea.
"Yes. I did what they wanted, Draco. I couldn't bear it. But I kept her – Hermione – I kept her from them because I knew you wanted me to. I saw you save her, in the library."
"You followed me?"
She looked up. "I would follow you anywhere," she said. "No one was ever nice to me until you came along. Even Harry Potter was horrid in the end. You were the only one."
He didn't know what to say. "Can I...can I do anything to help you?" he said awkwardly.
A tiny smile, rueful, appeared. "Will you come and visit me again?"
"Maybe. I'll try." And to his surprise, he meant it. "Myrtle, can you help me? I need to find a book from the Headmaster's collection."
"Oh. Then you're looking in the wrong place."
"What do you mean? This is the Headmaster's secret library."
"This is Hogwarts, Draco," she said, traces of irony in her words. "Secrets in secrets. Chambers full of them. I know all its secrets, now. Come with me."
And he followed her as she drifted through the castle like a will o' the wisp, followed her into the bathroom that became her tomb, and down into the tunnel that led to a basilisk's lair.
"Dumbledore moved it here, you see, before that woman took over," said Myrtle. "He knew I was watching, but he didn't seem to mind. He said I would know when it was time to tell again. He said that Tom Riddle didn't like to stare his failures in the face, so he wouldn't look here."
The lair was dank and cold, full of dark corners. She led him to a wall, and pointed to a stone that – now he looked closely – didn't seem to have any mortar holding it in. With a murmur of Wingardium Leviosa,, he drew it out and behind it was a stack of tomes, six or seven.
He drew out Grimm's Fairy Tales carefully. The others, he left, sliding the stone back in place.
"Thank you, Myrtle."
She had her arms wrapped around herself. "Do you have to go?"
"Yes. The Dark Lord is expecting me."
"You're still his then," she said, her voice flat. "I wish I hadn't shown you."
"Not entirely," he said. And he wasn't sure he should do it – but then he thought of Myrtle protecting Granger although she loathed her, clutching the knowledge to her unbeating heart. "Keep my secret for me, Myrtle."
And he recited the Vow, voice low and intimate in the dark until it glowed along the arm he bared to her, until the belief shone as bright in her as he wished it did in him.
X - X - X - X - X
It is another world inside the inferno, a world of looming shapes that twist away into nothing, of darkness and heat and claustrophobia. The smoke surges along the smooth walls of his magic like a strangler's fingers, ready to choke and to conquer.
A body spins into him, a thrashing mess of wild-eyed girl. She claws and clutches at him, her face smeared with soot, her eyes streaming and red. Blaise steadies her, charming his voice so it rises above the roar of fire.
"I'm here to help you. Don't be afraid."
Her cracked lips part and her tongue darts out to moisten them, snake-like. "Look at you, look at you!" she says, her voice hoarse. "Oh, the shadows coat you – I see them, in your hair and your eyes and your soft, soft mouth. Let the fire burn him out of you. Let the fire burn the world."
Her words turn his stomach, but Blaise doesn't let it show. He steers her towards the exit. "Go! Down the stairs and straight on, keep running, there are people who can help you."
The mad glaze seems to drop from her eyes. She looks at him, unmoving while the smoke drifts over her like veils, and he sees something – an echo of her before she was in St Mungos, whoever she was. "No one can help me now."
"Then be helpless and live!" he snaps, and she laughs, a thin screech that dissolves into coughs. Doubled over, she staggers away, leaving Blaise with his shadows.
The stairs creak dangerously under him. He tests each, sweat a steady trickle on his temples and down his back.
Smoke shivers away as he climbs, revealing pieces of this crumbling world. A portrait is in flames, and its subject screams horribly. There is a woman slumped on the stairs, her head pillowed in her arm. He bends to check her pulse, but she is dead. He goes on, because he cannot go back.
The devastation on the second floor is worse. The corridor is badly warped, the ceiling bulging as if it near breaking. Blaise treads lightly, barely breathing as he puts his weight on the floorboards.
Up and up he goes, his protective spells too close to fading. He recasts them, but the magic will not stick. Too tired, too drained. The third floor is barely visible as he crawls along it, ignoring the scrapes he collects. He grabs for the staircase and hauls himself up it. His bubble charm is as flimsy as the skin on boiled milk, close to collapse. He breathes shallowly, preserving what time remains to him.
Then he has reached it: Blaise lurches onto the fourth floor. The floorboards here are dark with gaps and he picks his way over them, the smoke streaming past him like coils of grey ribbon. The air is fresher. A set of double doors are hanging from their frame before him. In gold stencilling Janus Thickery Ward is discernible, barely.
The rooms either side are gone, obliterated by the collapsing building. He is at the centre of the explosion – twisted doorframes, jagged edges. The bodies here are charred, and the smell of cooking meat sets his stomach roiling. Some have sheets laid over them like shrouds.
Somehow, the floor in here is mostly intact, bar a smouldering crater at one side. Its contents are strewn against the walls as if a giant hand swept them aside in a fit of temper. A jigsaw of body parts litters the floor, which is blackened and bloodstained. Blaise does vomit then, breaking his bubble charm.
"You came." The voice is barely audible, deep and surprisingly calm. "Are you here to save me?"
He looks over. A man huddles behind an overturned bed. There are burns on his arms and a great gash across his naked chest, but he is remarkably unscathed.
"I'm here to try," he says. "Can you walk?"
The man edges out. He has the uneasy grace of a colt, as if he is not quite used to his legs. Blaise catches him when he stumbles and the man looks into his face. "I know you, boy."
"I doubt it."
"Are you so blind that you cannot see the truth when it stands before you? Or do you think that labelling someone mad means they can be dismissed and denied, like all those other smooth-tongued liars?"
"I'm Blaise Zabini," he snaps, a touch offended, and surprised to feel something as trivial as offence in the middle of a raging inferno.
"Blaise..." the man breathes it like a prayer. "Yes...my boy, though you're nearly a man."
And suddenly he recognises the face – behind the broken teeth and the scars, the eyes are the same, dark and calm and sober. That man, all those years ago, who took him to Nurmengard.
If you rise high, don't do it by climbing on corpses.
And for the first time in years, he recalls his name. "Actaeon?" he whispers.
"You have her eyes." He seems to struggle for lucidity, hands pincers in Blaise's arms. "But do you have her faithless heart, Blaise? Did you rise or fall?"
And the words slip out unbidden, barely audible. "I don't know."
"Like her. She never knew – she could never make up her mind. I saw it the first time I met her - she was my first prophecy, your mother. I saw that she changed like the moon – light to dark and dark to light, that she would make a lunatic of me." He shudders. "And she did. But I loved her anyway, loved her despite it and for it, loved her even when there was only darkness left and the swamp filling my eyes."
His words are too like the girl's. Blaise has kept them separate in his mind: the Black Widow and the Dark Lord, and yet here are the people they have cast aside like gnawed-on bones – the same.
"My mother," he says bleakly. My mother, a dark lady whose life is strung with epitaphs instead of sonnets. My mother, whose crimes I have supported with my silence.
No wonder the Dark Lord thought me fit for his purpose.
"We must go," he says at last.
Actaeon shakes his head. "Not yet. She will come."
He is as gentle as he can be. "Actaeon, I am sorry but my mother is far away."
Those eyes are calm still, strange and wise. "No. There is another: the lady of silence and white light, she who walks between. I have seen her in my dreams, my darkest and my brightest. She comes, carrying your redemption, wearing the years in her hair and the dead under her skin. Only wait, and hope."
It is madness to stay. And yet...and yet...
He is stood in a lunatic asylum. Where better to be mad?
X - X - X - X - X
By the time she reached the Janus Thickery Ward, Hermione was dizzy from coughing so hard. Her Polyjuice Potion was failing as if she'd sweated it out in the immense heat, and none of her protective spells were faring any better. Each time she cast, it became harder and harder until smoke seeped through her shields and the air toasted her skin.
She staggered in, not entirely sure if she could make it out again.
Through the webs of smoke she saw something wavering – a figure.
Please, let them be alive.
"Hermione Granger?" said an astounded voice, and she paused, wary, as a silhouette emerged as Blaise Zabini. "You?"
She gazed back, knowing she didn't have so much as a defensive spark left in her wand and determined not to show it. "Zabini. I should point out I took out an entire wing of Special Services."
To her surprise, he raised a weak smile. "I should point out I was deeply impressed by that."
She paused. "That sounds dangerously close to treason."
"Then I'll go further," he said, raising his voice above the crackle of the inferno. Both of them flinched as a screeching crash announced the corridor collapsing. "I want to help the Order."
He looked at her: he laughed, and it had a frantic edge. "Why?" He gestured: smoke swirled about his hands, made him double over into a fit of coughing that tore his voice to ragged shreds. "Because the world is burning, Granger, and I fanned the flames. Because tomorrow I'll get up and tell the press that you did this and the only way I can live with myself is if I know it will end. Because a madman told me you can save me, and even that's better than living like this."
He stared at her with bloodshot, anguished eyes and she saw he was trembling. Then a man limped up behind him in tattered hospital pyjamas and put a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, my boy."
Zabini's look was full of gratitude. It was that which made her believe him, that moment of warmth.
"I'm looking for the Longbottoms," she said. "Alice and Frank."
"They are gone." The other man spoke through broken teeth, but his voice was clear and strong. The smoke didn't seem to affect him. "The others are all gone."
"Are you sure?"
His face was grave as he said, "I can show you."
She didn't want to see, but nothing less than the proof of her own eyes could be enough for Neville. "Please."
He trundled through the wreckage to a begrimed sheet. He did not look down as he lifted its edge and gestured to her to look.
A thin cry strangled in her throat at the sight of Neville's mother, her face to one side so that she seemed closer to sleep than death. Only the ghastly wounds on her shoulder and neck made it apparent that this man had hidden the worst of the damage. Beside her lay his father's body, twisted like dough into a contorted mess that ended abruptly where the sheet was flat and claggy with blood.
Hermione turned away, feeling sicker than ever.
"We have to go," she said in a choked voice. "I don't know how much longer the building will hold."
"I can Apparate us." Zabini held out a hand. She gripped his wrist as the other man took hold of his upper arm. He focused, then cast-
Nausea swamped her; the world bent and warped and shivered, then settled back into the grim sight of the Janus Thickery Ward.
Zabini was staring at his wand with faint horror. "It won't work. Granger, can you...?"
"My spells don't work."
They looked at each other, and she saw the knowledge reflected in his eyes. They could not make it out without magic.
"Allow me," said the other man. He held out a scarred hand, missing the last two joints of his little finger. "Please."
They rearranged around him. The arm Hermione grasped was surprisingly strong, corded with muscle and sinew. She closed her eyes as the man breathed the spell, hoping.
The cold hit her like icy water and she lost her balance, landing on hard earth. For a moment, she lay there, sweat drying on her skin, gasping in lungfuls of fresh sweet air.
"How did you do that?" she heard Zabini say, sounding as dazed as she felt. "Why didn't our spells work?"
There was a silence. She cracked open an eye to see grey sky looming above her, piles of clouds as thick as dust balls.
"The answers are here, my boy," the other man replied. "It's time you found them."
"Where's here?" she said groggily, scrubbing at her face. She stood unsteadily, feeling like every piece of her had been beaten like a dusty rug. At first, she could see only grey on grey: then it emerged from the rocky landscape, a vast dark fortress made of spiky towers and caged in iron. In front of them stood a vast rusting gate that had a twisting design laid over it – no, words.
For the greater good.
"Nurmengard," murmurs Blaise Zabini.
And the man says, "The beginning."
X - X - X - X - X
Thank you so much for reading. Comments as always, very much adored.