They had destroyed Hufflepuff's cup in the Chamber of Secrets. They destroyed the Diadem in the Room of Requirement. All that stood between them and victory – all that stood between Voldemort and death – was one more Horcrux. All that was left was Nagini, and then Harry would be able to defeat him.
The battle raged furiously in the castle. The tight halls were filled with flashes of curses and dust hung in the air as the ancient stones cracked and crumbled with the force of Voldemort's attack. The open spaces were filled will yells and bangs and dozens of duels raged simultaneously. The dead lay where they fell, and were stepped on and stepped over by the living who were still fighting.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione were careful to avoid the bodies as they raced down the stairs toward the Great Hall. They had to find Nagini. They had to kill the snake. They sped past witches and wizards locked in fierce duels. There was no time to stop. No time to mourn the dead – no time even for Ron to cry over his brother's body. There would be time for that later. For now, all that mattered was their mission. One way or another, this would end tonight.
They saw two people fall from a balcony overhead. A gray blur that looked more animal than human sped four-legged across the hall to sink its teeth into one of the fallen. "NO!" shrieked Hermione. She saw who it was. He turned at the sound of her voice and his lips pulled back in a feral smile. His eyes gleamed in the dim light and Hermione felt her knees buckle as she trembled under his gaze. A flood of memories rushed over her and she froze: his hands on her hips, his body thrusting against hers, his throaty growls of pleasure as she screamed... He turned to the young woman sprawled on the stones in front of him. Hermione was trembling. I have to move. I have to do something. But her fear at seeing him paralyzed her.
His teeth tore into the throat of the woman before him and a gush of blood spurted out, coating his face. Steam rose from the open wound as hot blood felt the brush of cold air. Hermione yelled as she stepped forward, all her rage and fear flowing down her arm and giving fuel to her spell. With a deafening blast from her wand, Fenrir Greyback was thrown backward from the feebly stirring body of Lavender Brown. He hit the marble banisters and struggled to return to his feet. Then, with a bright white flash and a crack, one of Trelawney's crystal balls fell on top of his head, and he crumpled to the ground and did not move.
Hermione felt no joy at his death. She had expected to feel… something. Relief, maybe. A sense of closure. Something other than this emptiness. She had hesitated. She had allowed her fear to paralyze her and now Lavender was dead. Instead of relief at Greyback's death, all she felt was guilt and shame that she had not acted only a few seconds sooner.
The heavy wooden front doors burst open and gigantic spiders forced their way into the entrance hall. Screams of terror rent the air: The fighters scattered, Death Eaters and Hogwartians alike, and red and green jets of light flew into the midst of the oncoming monsters, which shuddered and reared, more terrifying than ever.
Hermione felt Ron's hand grab hers. The arachnophobic young man's hand was slick with sweat and he was visibly shaking at the sight of the spiders as he pulled Hermione away from the fray. "How do we get out?" yelled Ron over all the screaming. Harry didn't answer, but dashed forward, darting between spiders and spells. Ron swallowed hard. He and Hermione had to run bent double to avoid the curses that illuminated the whole hall. They crossed the expansive lawn beside the castle, avoiding swipes from giants and trolls as they ran. When they arrived at the Whomping Willow, Ron directed a twig to jab at the place near the roots and, at once, the writhing tree became perfectly still. They slipped through the tunnel that led to the Shrieking Shack – the tunnel that had seemed so large in their third year, but which they now had to crouch to pass through. Finally, they heard voices coming from the room directly ahead of them, only slightly muffled by the fact that the opening at the end of the tunnel had been blocked by what looked like an old crate. Hermione and Ron waited, crouched in the dark, damp tunnel as Harry slipped ahead alone, under cover of his Invisibility Cloak, to spy on Voldemort and Snape.
A few hours before dawn, Voldemort spoke again. His words echoed in the hearts and ears of every which and wizard in Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. "You have fought," said the high, cold voice, "valiantly. Lord Voldemort knows how to value bravery. Yet you have sustained heavy losses. If you continue to resist me, you will all die, one by one. I do not wish this to happen. Every drop of magical blood spilled is a loss and a waste. Lord Voldemort is merciful. I command my forces to retreat immediately. You have one hour. Dispose of your dead with dignity. Treat your injured.
"I speak now, Harry Potter, directly to you. You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself. I shall wait for one hour in the Forbidden Forest. If, at the end of that hour, you have not come to me, have not given yourself up, then battle recommences. This time, I shall enter the fray myself, Harry Potter, and I shall find you and I shall punish every last man, woman, and child who has tried to conceal you from me. One hour."
Hermione stared at Harry in the dim light of the Shrieking Shack and shook her head frantically. She could see his resolve strengthening. She could see that he had made up his mind – perhaps without realizing it himself yet – to meet Voldemort even if it meant his death.
"Don't listen to him," said Ron.
"It'll be alright," said Hermione wildly. "Let's – let's get back to the castle. If he's gone to the forest, we'll need to think of a new plan –" She knew before she spoke that it was useless. Harry would meet Voldemort within the hour. And they still had one Horcrux to destroy. They crawled back through the tunnel, none of them talking, and Hermione wondered whether Harry and Ron could still hear Voldemort ringing in their heads, as she could.
The castle was unnaturally silent as they approached. Ron led the way across the blood-stained flagstones of the deserted entrance hall to the Great Hall. The House tables were gone and the room was crowded. Survivors stood in small groups, Madam Pomfrey and her helpers treated the injured, and the dead lay in a row down the middle of the Hall. The Weasleys clustered around Fred's body. Ron and Hermione went to join them as Harry stood back. Hermione hugged Ginny, whose face was swollen and blotchy. Ron stood in frozen silence with Bill, Fleur and Percy.
Over Ginny's heaving shoulders, Hermione saw as Harry tentatively approached the group. He froze at the feet of two bodies laid out next to Fred: Remus and Tonks, pale and still and peaceful-looking, apparently asleep beneath the dark, enchanted ceiling. Hermione watched as he reeled back in shock. She almost pried Ginny's arms away from her to follow as Harry fled the hall. But she didn't. Hermione wrapped her arms tightly around the red-headed girl. She knew that, before sunrise, Harry would meet Voldemort. She could afford to spend another minute comforting her friend. Then she would find the snake. Hermione was determined that Nagini – the last Horcrux – would be dead before Harry went to the Forbidden Forest.
After a few minutes, Hermione sidled over toward Ron. "We have to find the last Horcrux," she whispered.
Ron looked around. "Where's Harry?"
"He's gone," said Hermione simply. Her face was drawn and her voice tense. "We have to finish this. Harry is going to the Forbidden Forest before sunrise and we have to be sure that Voldemort is mortal before then."
Ron paled, but he straightened his back and stepped away from his family, still circled around Fred. "Let's find that snake."
Their hour elapsed more quickly than they could have imagined. Every tracing spell Hermione tried failed to pick up the snake. Ron finally suggested a locator spell that would indicate every snake in a three-mile radius, but that showed up thousands of snakes in the Forbidden Forest. They managed to alter the spell to show only snakes over five feet long, since they remembered Mr. Weasley's description of the giant snake that had attacked him in the Ministry of Magic. There will still hundreds of snakes – far too many to track down.
Precious time slipped away. The hour had elapsed but they had not heard anything more from Voldemort or the Death Eaters. There was still hope. Until they knew otherwise, there was always hope. Hermione ran a weary hand through her tangled hair. "It has to be with him," she said. "The snake has to be with Voldemort. He was protecting it at the Shrieking Shack; he has to be protecting it still."
"How do we kill it, then?" asked Ron.
Hermione bit her lip. "We have to find Voldemort."
"You-Know-Who will be surrounded by Death Eaters," he reminded her. Even after all this time, Ron was still the most reticent to say his name.
"It doesn't matter," Hermione snapped. "Harry is going to fight Voldemort and if we don't kill the snake, he will die. Are you coming with me or not?"
"Of course I am," Ron replied.
"We have to hurry. We don't have a lot of time left." They started toward the mangled remains of the wooden doors of the entrance hall. "And, Ron –" Hermione added, "all that matters is killing the snake. No matter what happens to you or to me, we have to kill the snake. It's the only way Harry or anyone else will have a fighting chance against Voldemort."
They were too late. Before they even reached the threshold, they heard a terrible scream.
"NO!" McGonagall's voice split the air in a cry more desperate and terrible than either of them could ever have imagined from her. A second voice followed, the sound of a woman laughing. Hermione cringed – it was the sound of Bellatrix Lestrange reveling in someone's pain.
Ron and Hermione ran forward, joined quickly by the throng of survivors that poured out of the Great Hall and onto the stone courtyard.
Hermione stumbled forward, pushed from behind by the weight of the people behind her. Then she saw him. Harry was dead. Hagrid – bound by thick ropes and guided by a swarm of Death Eaters – cradled the limp body in his arms. Tears streamed down Hagrid's face and soaked his beard. Hermione felt her own eyes stinging as well.
Ron, Hermione, and Ginny all cried out together, their voices tumbling over each other. Hermione was not even aware of screaming; the words tore from her throat without conscious thought. She rushed forward, into the open expanse that separated the Hogwartians from the Death Eaters. At her side, Ginny ran forward too, screaming Harry's name. Ron's arms looped around Hermione and pulled her back as his father did the same for Ginny. Hermione sobbed uncontrollably as Ron held her against his chest. "The snake," he whispered. His mouth was so close to her ear that she could feel the movement of his lips rustle her hair. "We still have to kill the snake." Hermione nodded almost imperceptibly and Ron eased his encircling grip, allowing her to pull away.
"SILENCE!" cried Voldemort, and there was a bang and a flash of bright light and silence was forced upon them all. The survivors who crowded the steps of Hogwarts continued to wail soundlessly, as Hermione had writhed in silent pain at Malfoy Manor. She shook her head violently, as if that motion could wipe away the memories.
"It is over!" Voldemort continued. "Set him down, Hagrid, at my feet where he belongs!" Tears ran unchecked down Hermione's face, but she felt Ron's feather-light touch against her wrist. She slipped her hand into her pocket and found Bellatrix's wand. It felt hot and heavy, rebellious against her touch. Hermione gripped it tightly – she would not let this wand fight her any longer. A wave of determination surged through her and ran down her arm into the wand, overwhelming its resistance and forcing it to her will.
"You see? Harry Potter is dead! Do you understand now, deluded ones? He was nothing, ever, but a boy who relied on others to sacrifice themselves for him."
"He beat you!" yelled Ron, breaking the Silence charm that Voldemort had cast on them.
Hermione eased the wand free from her robes, but kept it hidden from view. Nagini was slithering among the Death Eaters, curling between their legs. Wait, she told herself, wait until you know you can't miss.
Nagini left the crowd of Death Eaters and Hermione's grip tightened on the wand as the snake slithered out of view. Her eyes scanned the rubble of fallen and broken stone, waiting for Nagini to reappear.
"He was killed while trying to sneak out of the castle grounds," lied Voldemort triumphantly, "killed while trying to save himself –"
But Voldemort broke off: Neville Longbottom lunged forward with a shout, his wand drawn and aimed directly at the Dark Lord's face. Bellatrix waved her wand and, with a bang and a flash of light, Neville hit the ground. He grunted in pain and stood to his feet, now alone in the stony patio between the two armies. Voldemort had caught the flying wand and he tossed it aside with cavalier disregard. "And who is this?" he said in his soft snake's hiss. "Who has volunteered to demonstrate what happens to those who continue to fight when the battle is lost?"
Bellatrix gave a delighted laugh.
Hermione shivered and her fingers clenched around the wand still hidden behind the folds of her robes. Not yet, she told herself. First we have to kill the snake. We have to destroy the last Horcrux.
"It is Neville Longbottom, my Lord," she screeched happily. "The boy who has been giving the Carrows so much trouble! The son of the Aurors, remember?"
"Ah, yes, I remember," said Voldemort, looking down at Neville, who stood, unarmed and unprotected, in the no-man's-land between the survivor's and the Death Eaters.
Neville was brave, but when the Sorting Hat descended over his eyes and burst into flames, he screamed. And the sound of his pain split the air, freeing the rest of the survivors again from Voldemort's Silencing charm. The Death Eaters raised their wands, holding the rest of the survivors back from helping Neville.
Hermione felt sick as she watched, but she caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye: Nagini. The snake curled atop a pile of rubble, twisting in on itself and preparing to strike. Hermione stepped back, so that when she raised her wand, it would be hidden still behind Ron and others in the Hogwarts crowd. It didn't matter anymore if the Death Eaters killed her when they saw her raising her wand, she realized. All that mattered was that she manage to kill the snake before they killed her.
Before Hermione could strike, Neville broke free of Voldemort's Body-Bind curse. The flaming hat fell off him and he drew from its depths something silver, with a glittering, rubied handle that shone in the early dawn light. The slash of the silver blade drew every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake's head, which spun high into the air. Voldemort's mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake's body thudded to the ground at his feet.
The battle resumed. There was no more pretense of Voldemort trying to convert the Hogwartians to his side; he was determined that everyone who fought him would be slaughtered.
Centaurs poured over the broken walls. Grawp challenged Voldemort's giants with a loud cry of "HAGGER!" Thestrals and Hagrid's herd of hippogriffs scratched at eyes. The human battlers, defenders of Hogwarts and Death Eaters alike, were forced back into the castle. Charlie Weasley and Horace Slughorn led a group down the stairs – they had brought reinforcements through the passage from Hogsmeade into the Room of Requirement. The house-elves of Hogwarts swarmed into the entrance hall, led by Kreacher. They wielded knives and cleavers, and hacked at the ankles and shins of every Death Eater in reach.
The witches and wizards were pushed into the Great Hall. Voldemort soon found himself occupied dueling McGonagall, Slughorn, and Kingsley all at once, and there was cold hatred in his face as they wove and ducked around him, unable to finish him. Hermione scanned the crowd, looking for her own target. Bellatrix was fifty yards away, watching her master's battle. Hermione attacked first, firing curses at Bellatrix as she ran across the Hall. Bellatrix blocked the spells easily and turned to meet her young challenger.
"Ah, my little Mudblood! Come to play?" mocked the dark-haired witch.
Hermione felt a cold rage swell within her. She remembered the dark halls of Malfoy Manor. She remembered the pain. She remembered her own helplessness as Bellatrix tortured and toyed with her. She remembered the fear, the anguish, the humiliation that Bellatrix had inflicted upon her. Hermione raised her wand. "Crucio!"
Bellatrix deflected the curse, but her smile vanished. She snarled and took up a dueler's stance.
Hermione was a powerful witch, but she quickly realized that she was no match for Bellatrix. After that first attack, she had little chance to go on the offensive – all of her energy was devoted to shielding herself from Bellatrix's fierce spells. The stones beneath her feet grew hot as spells whipped between the two witches. And then a third joined in – Luna appeared at Hermione's side, her pale face set with determination. She did not look at Hermione or speak, but simple set her wand to work.
Bellatrix laughed, her voice high and cruel. "Mudblood and blood-traitor – my two little toys. Surely you know that you have already lost. There is no hope for you in the Dark Lord's world."
Neither Hermione nor Luna responded to Bellatrix's taunts. They were both too focused on the battle at hand to risk engaging in a verbal battle that would only distract them.
Ginny soon joined them and the three young witches together were able to match Bellatrix in power. They took turns throwing curses and holding the Shield Charms that protected them. Sweat rolled down Hermione's face and her wand-arm shook as she threw every spell she could think of at Bellatrix. The Death Eater raged, attacking each of the three girls in turn with increasingly violent curses.
Bellatrix's face was tight with focus. This duel was more challenging than she liked and she realized it was one she might not win. It was time to change the odds. She snarled and turned her wand on Ginny. "Avada Kedavra!"
Ginny leapt to the side as the spell shot so close that she missed death by an inch. She hit the ground and her hands burned where they connected with the super-heated stones. Bellatrix smiled and aimed her wand again.
"NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"
The four duelers – Bellatrix, Ginny, Hermione and Luna – were all distracted by Mrs. Weasley's war cry. The red-headed woman threw off her cloak as she ran, freeing her arms. Bellatrix spun on the spot, roaring with laughter at the sight of her new challenger.
"OUT OF MY WAY!" shouted Mrs. Weasley to the three girls, and with a swipe of her wand she began to duel. Molly Weasley's wand slashed and twirled, and Bellatrix Lestrange's smile faltered and became a snarl. Jets of light flew from both wands, the hot floor around the witches' feet began to crack under the strain of the spells; both women were fighting to kill.
Hermione stepped forward to rejoin the fight. There was something in her – some dark, terrible part of herself that she hadn't known existed until now – that wanted to be the one to kill Bellatrix. She could feel Luna at her side, a little hesitant but still willing to follow her lead. Bellatrix belongs to us, Hermione thought cruelly.
"No!" Mrs. Weasley cried, as Hermione and Luna moved in to her peripheral vision. "Get back! Get back! She is mine!"
"What will happen to your children when I've killed you?" taunted Bellatrix. "When Mummy's gone the same way as Freddie?"
"You — will — never — touch — our — children — again!" screamed Mrs. Weasley.
Bellatrix laughed, a haughty, exhilarated laugh. Molly's curse soared beneath Bellatrix's outstretched arm and hit her squarely in the chest, directly over her heart. Bellatrix's gloating smile froze, her eyes seemed to bulge: For the tiniest space of time she knew what had happened, and then she toppled.
Voldemort screamed. McGonagall, Kingsley, and Slughorn were thrown backwards as Voldemort's fury at the fall of his last, best lieutenant exploded with the force of a bomb. He raised his wand and directed it at Molly Weasley.
"Protego!" A massive Shield Charm expanded in the middle of the Hall.
Everyone in the hall looked around for the source and Hermione felt hope flare in her chest. I know that voice. Hermione screamed in joy as Harry pulled off the Invisibility Cloak. The rest of the Hall quickly fell silent in fear – waiting to see which one would win this final battle. Hermione felt no such fear – she knew that Voldemort was mortal now and she knew that Harry could defeat him.
After the Final Battle – after Voldemort was dead – the survivors rejoiced. Sometime in the milieu, Luna found Hermione. The Ravenclaw pulled her aside to a secluded corner of the Hall. They sat together on a broken stone statue of a knight – one of the many statues McGonagall had called forth to protect the castle.
"It died with her," Luna stated.
Hermione started. "How do you know?"
"I just know."
"We'd have to test it to be sure." They both looked at each other. Neither of them wanted to risk activating the spell if it was, in fact, still in effect.
Luna took a deep breath. "Bellatrix Lestrange raped me while I was a prisoner at Malfoy Manor." When nothing happened, Hermione left out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. Luna was right: Bellatrix's spell had died with her.
Hermione gave no reaction other than a slight nod. "I thought that it would be better once they were dead. But it's not."
"They?" Luna questioned.
"Bellatrix… and Greyback." Hermione pulled her knees up, wrapped her arms around her legs, and rested her chin on her knees. She felt drained.
Luna reached out a hand to touch Hermione softly on the shoulder. The Gryffindor flinched.
"We've fought a war," Hermione said slowly. "We have killed and we have seen friends die. We've seen such awful things. Why should it matter so much what she did to us?"
Luna was silent for so long that Hermione thought she was ignoring her. When she finally spoke, her words were soft and quiet. "Because she did it to us – it wasn't just something that we saw, it was something we experienced, something we were completely helpless against. And then her curse meant that we couldn't talk about it, couldn't get help." Luna paused. "We were already prisoners, already powerless. She did it because she could and because we couldn't do anything to stop her. Even afterward, she still had power over us because we couldn't say anything."
"But now we can."
"But she's still there," Hermione said. "Every time I close my eyes, every time I'm alone… it's like I'm back in that place."
Luna closed her eyes. "Hermione," she said softly, "even though we can talk about it now…. I really don't want to."
"Oh." Hermione tilted her head and looked at the girl sitting next to her. While Hermione sat with her knees curled protectively against her, Luna sat stiffly, her back ramrod straight and her hands resting tensely on the stone surface at her sides.
"You might talk to Ron, though," said Luna, nodding toward the main crowd in the Great Hall. A distinctive head of red hair was moving toward them. "I think he's looking for you."
"Yeah." Hermione stood slowly. "You'll… you'll be alright though?"
Luna nodded. "Don't worry about me."
Hermione and Ron left the Great Hall together and sat in the entrance hall, on the stairs that led up to the rest of the castle. The stairs didn't seem to want to shift any time soon, so they were able to sit still without worrying about the ground shifting under them. After the sudden kiss they had shared earlier, Hermione worried that Ron might want to talk about where their relationship was going. But – like her – Ron was burned out and exhausted. Too many had died. Too many had suffered in this battle. There would be time for them to talk later. For now, it was enough that they were alive and they were together. There would be time to deal with all that had happened later.
A/N- I didn't really think about this until I was working on this chapter, but I figure I'll toss in a mention of IRL stuff. War rape is a real thing and tens of thousands of women in conflict zones are raped and never given the chance to report it or prosecute their rapists. Google for more info. It's shockingly under-reported and even more under-prosecuted.
For my SVU and NCIS readers - now that I am home from Christmas, I have a week or two before the new semester begins. Hopefully that means I'll be able to get lots of writing done!