Disclaimer in Chapter One

This chapter turns a bit gory a the ending. Fair warning here.

A/N: First of all, I apologize for the long wait. I think that really was the longest I ever had. Is Tomione even still a thing? lol I hope so, I still like those two ;) Anyway, sorry, you guys. I don't even know what happened. I just couldn't write anymore. Every time I tried it was shit. And I'm not being coy here. It really was shit. I thought, all that writing I've done before was just a fluke and now that's gone.

So, yeah, that was a thing. Anyway, I hope you guys still want to continue this story. Thank you all for being patient with me. To make it up to you I'll give you an extra-long chapter.

Thank you all who reviewed! XD You're all awesome.

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Chapter Forty-One: The Emperor

'Meet us in an hour at the edge of the Forbidden Forest.'

Tom had found the message in the Heads' chambers. How Black had delivered it, he didn't know nor care. The Nothingness still ate away at him and he couldn't tell how much time had went by since he'd spoken to the man. Tom was unsure how to proceed. His flimsy connection to the Spell was still there. It was like a hand holding his head above the water, but only just. The Nothingness pulled him down relentlessly. It felt strange as his mind dissolved into it. Were thoughts finite or infinite?

Tom's hand closed around Black's message, crumbling the parchment. The Spell still protected him but he could feel its power slip. Soon, the Nothingness would prevail. Tom's eyes slid shut. The bond had grown thin like spider's web, stretched out and disappearing into obscurity.

Tom abruptly got up from his chair and threw Black's message in the fireplace. He grabbed his cloak before he left the Heads' chambers. He didn't trust Black but the prospect of finally obtaining the Spell brought precious clarity to his mind. Steps echoing purposefully, Tom strode through Hogwarts' corridors.

His steps led him to the Slytherin common room, guided by the call of the Nothingness. It was right. So right. There was something he had to do before he could retrieve the Spell. Maybe he shouldn't. Tom ran a weary hand over his face. Then again, what could stop him? There was no one who could. No one. A smirk travelled over Tom's face and he enjoyed to bathe in the feeling of superiority. He was crumbling and dissolving, maybe, but still better than the shadows wasting away in their own uselessness. On this, he concurred with the Nothingness.

Tom opened the Slytherin common room and the smirk still hung from his lips. Upon his entry, a hushed silence fell over the crowded room and Tom enjoyed their fear. He crossed the room and could feel the other Slytherins' anxious eyes following him. He hadn't come for them. They hadn't betrayed him. Tom wouldn't forget and he didn't forgive. As he reached her, Bellatrix didn't seem surprised by him seeking her out and a smile played around her red lips.

"Are you ready?" the girl asked, eyeing him from under her thick eyelashes.

Tom inclined his head. "Yes."

Bellatrix' eyes lit up and she giggled gleefully. She jumped up from her armchair and playfully swirled on the spot, curly hair bouncing. Then she reached for Tom's hand and pulled him with her out the common room. He frowned down at her fingers curling around his hand but still followed her. Soon they had left the crowded common room behind and were welcomed by the silence of an abandoned classroom.

Bellatrix dark eyes expectantly looked up at Tom, mad glint in them. He found that he liked them. A smirk curled his lips. Bellatrix' gaze interestedly wandered over Tom. Then she opened her mouth and said,

"Did you know I had a brother? A tiny little baby brother." She curled one of her locks around a finger and cooed happily, "So cute. His fluffy hair was dark like mine."

Tom narrowed his eyes and replied icily, "That's not why I wanted to speak with you,"

Bellatrix took a step towards Tom and the happy, innocent smile dropped from her face. Her eyes hardened as she whispered, "I know what you want to speak about. Then speak: Why did you kill Regulus?"

Tom flashed his white teeth in a scornful smirk. "Because I wanted to."

"Why did you want to? Tom?" Fury stormed in Bellatrix' eyes and she snarled, "Can't you see? Don't you know?" She ran a long nailed finger up Tom's chest and hissed, "It's everything. Family. Blood."

"Not this again," Tom cruelly scoffed. "Regulus wasn't my blood. Even if, you're being delusional if you think I care at all."

The fury dropped from Bellatrix and she laughed, mad glint in her dark eyes. "No one cares. Everyone cares."

Fed up with her insanity, Tom pulled his wand. "I'm here because you betrayed me. You talked with Dippet."

Bellatrix arched an unimpressed eyebrow. Completely discarding the angry magic bristling around the tip of Tom's wand, the girl leaned towards him. In a soft voice, she whispered, "You know what happened to my baby brother?" A smile twisted her red lips. "He wasn't my blood after all. There was no magic." A disgusted look etched its way on her features, dispelling the smile. "None!" Bellatrix spat. "I held him like a brother and he didn't belong. He did not."

Tom's eyes narrowed and his angry magic crackled around him. His voice dripped from his lips like poison, "I don't care about your squib brother."

Bellatrix sneered at him, "You should. It explains. My brother wasn't family and now he is gone. He didn't have the right, but Regulus did. He belonged." She tugged at a strand of her locks. "Do you belong, Tom?"

"Stop with this nonsense," Tom replied cuttingly. "Regulus was a pathetic excuse for a wizard. We both know it."

Bellatrix nodded. "He was weak, yes. But you know what? He was our blood." She leaned closer, eyes boring into Tom's. "You don't belong, Mudblood."

Tom's magic reacted on its own. It slammed into Bellatrix and tightly curled around her, holding her in place. Tom didn't touch her, but stepped closer. His magic alone was enough to brutally keep her in place. The angry force stormed around him and Tom enjoyed the singlemindedness. That's why he was here. No talking. Everything still shifted and his mind crumbled around him like decaying flesh. Bellatrix couldn't be so blind. Tom needed her. He took a step towards the witch, standing close enough to feel the her breath fanning over his face.

"I'm not like you," Tom whispered softly. "You always say that I am. But I'm not. Not anymore."

Tom raised a hand and ran his fingers gently through Bellatrix' silky hair. Bending even closer, he placed a soft kiss on her forehead. Against her skin, he breathed,

"You stand at the edge. I jumped."

Tom straightened up. Bellatrix' brown eyes stared up at him for a moment. Then the anger suddenly dropped from her. She tilted her head to the side as if seeing him for the first time. Mesmerised by him, a smile curled her full lips. The previous disgust had left her completely, forgotten as awe was painted on her beautiful face.

"You did?" Bellatrix asked, eager admiration lacing her tone once again. "You didn't fall?" Tom inclined his head. A mad laugh fell from the witch's lips. "What did you see?"

Tom shook his head. "Nothing." A deep furrow appeared between his eyebrows. "Just Nothing."

Bellatrix looked up at him in confusion. "Are you sure?"

Tom's blue eyes gazed down at the witch. His magic still held her in place. He could feel where the force connected with her warm body. It clashed. Everything clashed. Tom's pale wand still lightly lay in his hand. He raised his wand and gently pushed it into Bellatrix' chest. Tom stared into her brown eyes as he opened his mouth and whispered,

"Avada kedavra."

The witch's eyes widened a fraction in shock. A surprised gasp fell from her lips. Then there was nothing. Tom's magic released her, and with a soft rustling sound Bellatrix fell to the floor like a puppet with cut strings. Tom watched the whole process and a strange happiness blossomed in the pit of his stomach. It spread and painted a content smile on his face. Of all his followers, he'd always liked Bellatrix most. She'd been the best. He didn't have any, but Bellatrix Black had certainly come closest to being a friend. Tom's blue eyes fondly wandered over her. He was glad she'd understood.

Tom again waved his wand and Bellatrix' body shrunk. He watched on as his magic transfigured her until a tiny bone bead lay on the corridor floor. Tom stooped down and picked it up. He conjured a silver chain and threaded it through the bone bead. Then Tom clasped it around his neck. He could feel the bone bead resting against his chest. It was a comfort in a sea of confusion.

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"We shouldn't be here," Lupin growled under his breath.

The werewolf crouched on the floor, yellow eyes gazing at Hogwarts' castle. Sirius sighed deeply,

"I know. But he's our only chance to find her."

At his reply, he could see Lupin's fingers ball into an angry fist, ripping a handful moss from the wet forest floor. A snarl appeared on the werewolf's face.

"I want to kill him," Lupin hissed darkly.

At this very moment, Sirius could understand why werewolves were feared. A mirthless smile flittered over his face and he replied,

"I know that, too. But what else is there left to do? We tried finding her."

"I don't know," Lupin growled irately. He got up from his crouched position, eyes still trained on the castle. "We can't trust him. He's going to betray us. Just like he betrayed her."

"He's right," Moody butted into the conversation.

Sirius peered at the older man. Moody leaned on his staff. One of his eyes was directed at Sirius. The artificial one swirled around and Sirius couldn't even guess what it saw. Lupin and Moody were both right. Dread knotted up Sirius' stomach. It had been there since Hermione disappeared. …since I lost her.

"We won't let Riddle get the better of us," Sirius replied firmly, trying to hide his own doubts.

Lupin's agitated magic continued to swirl around him and Moody merely sniffed at Sirius, clearly unconvinced. A sigh left Sirius. Of course, he wouldn't be able to convince them.

"Are the others still at HQ?" he asked Moody.

"Yes," Moody replied curtly. "All of them, aside from Kingsely. He's still at the Ministry."

Sirius nodded shortly. He'd told Alice, Kingsley, Tonks and the Weasleys to sit this one out. Riddle mustn't see the other members. They needed to keep their covers. Being caught with the leader of the Order of the Phoenix would probably jeopardize that. Sirius smirked wryly.

"You should leave too," he told Moody tonelessly.

The man simply shrugged. "Yeah, probably should."

He still didn't move. Sirius grinned. He wanted to reply something but was startled by one of Lupin's men suddenly stepping out of the thicket of the Forbidden Forest. Merlin, still creepy, Sirius thought as he eyed the werewolf in the greenish uniform. The man leaned towards Lupin, telling him something. Lupin nodded. Then he turned to Sirius.

"He's coming."

Sirius swallowed nervously. "Alone?"

The werewolf in the green uniform nodded. "Yes, sir."

Sirius rubbed his hands over the fabric of his jeans. He felt sick. He didn't want to meet the man face to face. Sirius shook his head, trying to get rid of his doubts. This is for Hermione. Lupin's man had been right, of course. Just a few minutes later, Sirius spotted a figure walking towards them. He immediately recognized Riddle. The man was clothed in a black cloak. Underneath, Sirius saw plain clothes. He'd somehow expected a Slytherin uniform. Riddle's magic stifled the air around him as he finally reached them. Sirius stared at Riddle's pale, expressionless face and he could barely hold himself back. Images of Regulus flashed through his mind and his hand wandered to the wand in his pocket. A hand on his shoulder and a calm voice in his ear brought him back.

"Keep it together," Lupin's rough voice whispered to him. "We need him."

Sirius' fingers released their tight hold of his wand. He sucked in a sharp breath of air. Hermione. Hermione needed their help. Sirius pushed that ball of inconsolable fury into a back corner of his mind. Not now.

"Riddle," he greeted that murderer. "Could you find her?"

The dark wizard's face was unreadable as his gaze landed on Sirius. Sirius gritted his teeth. His whole body was tense to the point that it hurt. Barely noticeable, Riddle gave a nod. Sirius released a puff of air. There was still hope. His throat felt raw as he inquired,

"Where is she?"

Riddle's eyes were strangely empty as they gazed at Sirius. They looked glassy and dead. Sirius shuddered. Something was terribly wrong with Riddle. It made Sirius sick how they were dependant on him.

"I can't tell," Riddle finally replied in a voice cold as ice. "I can only follow the bond and see where it leads me."

Sirius' hands balled into tight fists. Was this a cruel trick? Was it a lie? He hadn't planned to take Riddle with them. He didn't want this murderer anywhere close. At that moment, Sirius needed to kill Riddle. He wanted to throttle the life out of that blank, disgusting wizard and he'd do it with his bare hands. The rage was unbearable. It threatened to choke Sirius but he kept it from his voice,

"Will you lead us to her?"

Again, there was an odd lag in Riddle's reply. It wasn't long, barely a few seconds, but it was still noticeable. Sirius could tell that Riddle wasn't stalling to ponder his answer. No, it was as if time was distorted around Riddle.

"Yes," the dark wizard said in the same passionless voice.

Hollow. The word suddenly spooked through Sirius' head. Riddle was hollow. There was nothing to him. Sirius' nose crinkled in disgust. It didn't matter. They needed to get Hermione back. After that, he'd never waste any thought on this repugnant excuse of a man ever again.

"Then let's go," Sirius growled. "We have to get Hermione."

A small frown appeared between Riddle's eyebrows as if he needed to remember who Hermione exactly was. Sirius wanted to punch him and see the blood covering that blank face.

Eventually, Riddle replied, "We will travel by Portkey."

Lupin took that as his cue and signalled for his men to get closer. Out of nowhere, six werewolves stepped from the forest. They were all clothed in the typical combat uniform of the Corps. The usual blacks had been traded in for camo green. Their lower faces were covered by olive balaclavas, making them basically unrecognizable. Sirius was honestly glad Greyback had assigned them a whole fireteam. He never really said it, but he was immensely grateful to the old bastard.

Riddle remained to be oddly unimpressed by the werewolves' intimidating presence. Calmly, he picked up a fir cone from the forest floor. Sirius stiffened as Riddle pulled his wand. The dark wizard waved his wand over the cone, making it flash in a blue light. Then he offered the Portkey with the words,

"We should leave."

Sirius gritted his teeth. He did not like this one bit. It smelled like a trap. Moody gazed at Riddle suspiciously, now with both eyes. Swiftly, Sirius pulled a silvery necklace over his head. Its twin remained around his neck. He pushed the necklace into Moody's hands.

"Return to HQ," he said firmly. "Keep a watch on us, will you?"

Moody didn't look one bit happy with this turn of events. Still his gnarled fingers closed around the silver chain and he nodded sharply.

"Don't do anything stupid," were his parting words before he apparated away.

Sirius turned back to Riddle. Despite his doubts, he reached for the fir cone. Lupin and his men mirrored him. Riddle flicked his wand and Sirius felt the familiar hook behind his navel as the Portkey pulled him away. They reappeared, seconds later, at a rugged cliff side. Foaming angrily, waves clashed against the cliff. The sea was a cold grey colour, almost hidden behind a bank of fog. Sirius could immediately taste the salt on his tongue. He turned his head. There was nothing here. Only the angry sea in front of them and a dark forest behind them.

"Where is she?" Lupin angrily yelled over the thundering waves.

Riddle stood at the edge of the cliff. Wordlessly, he raised a hand and with his index finger pointed to the open see. Sirius gritted his teeth as ice-cold realization crashed into him. He couldn't breathe as he stared over the see.

"Azkaban..."

Lupin turned to him, barely able to hear over the wind. "What?"

Sirius cleared his throat and turned to his friend. "She's in Azkaban. That's why we couldn't locate her. The wards around Azkaban disable all tracking spells."

Lupin's eyes widened and trepidation flickered through them. "Damn it."

The werewolf's gaze was stuck on the ocean. Then he turned to his men. With a gesture, he ordered them to be on the lookout. Then Lupin stepped closer to Sirius, so they could talk without screaming themselves hoarse. Meanwhile, Riddle just stood on the cliff, empty eyes staring over the ocean, while cold salt water from the waves rained down on him.

"My men can conjure up a boat to cross over the sea. They're good. We'll get close without being noticed," Lupin told Sirius grimly "We'll keep open an escape corridor, but the team that's entering…" He swallowed nervously.

He didn't have to say it. Sirius knew it was a suicide mission. Their chances of success were shrivelling away. Panic bubbled up in the pit of his stomach. He'd escaped Azkaban once. The fortress was nearly impenetrable. Despite the fear wrenching at him, Sirius replied calmly,

"I'm going in. I have to take Riddle with me. Only he can find Hermione."

"I can't order any of my men to do this," Lupin replied. Then he decided harshly, "But I'll be with you."

Sirius looked at the fierce expression on his friend's face. They both knew there was a very high chance they wouldn't get out again. No use wasting time to talk about it, then, Sirius thought wryly. He sent his friend a small smile. Lupin returned the gesture. Then he turned to his men to give them their orders.

Tom stared over the open sea. He could feel the bond stronger now. He was close. Soon, he'll be reunited with the Spell. His magic bristled over his skin, agitated, excited. He liked the feeling of the magic and the Spell. Powerful.

"Let's go," a voice interrupted his musings.

Tom turned around. Lupin and his men had conjured up a sleek black boat. It looked disgustingly Muggle, but Tom could feel the intricate web of magic spun around it, hiding it. He stepped on the boat, Black on his heels. The man's hateful eyes followed him suspiciously. Tom ignored him. One of the werewolves operated the vehicle and soon the boat raced over the sea, wind whipping around its occupants. The boat's rigid hull bumped over the waves at flank speed while the salty water pelted down on its inflatable sides. Tom didn't notice any of that. He could only feel the bond between him and the Spell. Over the whipping wind, he instructed the werewolf steering the boat. They were so close.

The coast had long since disappeared behind the fog as a dark mass appeared in front of them. A small barren island stuck out of the foaming ocean. There was nothing but harsh rugged stone, washed out by salty water. Tom's gaze wandered to the only structure on the island. Built from the black rock of the island, there stood a fortress. Its thick walls were corroded and roughened by the salty water. Tom's eyes narrowed slightly as he could feel magic humming in the air. There was a powerful ward spun around the fortress. More powerful than the wards around Hogwarts' castle. Tom's own magic bristled in reaction to the hum of the heavy ward. A sharp smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. Soon. Soon he'd have the Spell.

Sirius felt like screaming as he saw Azkaban appearing from the angry ocean like a demon from hell. He'd sworn never to return to this place. He'd rather die. His cold fingers fisted around the fabric of his coat. He kept the storm of emotions bottled deep inside him and turned to Lupin.

"Let's anchor over there," he yelled over the waves and the wind.

He gestured at a huge boulder that would serve to hide their boat. Lupin nodded and passed the order on to his men. As they neared the island, Sirius threw a glance at Riddle. The man's face was still an unreadable mask. His eyes were fixed on Azkaban and shimmered with mad excitement. Sirius shuddered as he saw that insane look on Riddle's face. As they reached the island, he jumped off the boat to help the soldiers pulling it a bit on shore.

"What's your plan?" Lupin asked. "You're the expert here."

"It's the wards we have to worry about first," Sirius replied as the tied the rope around a heavy stone. "Then a ton of guards and the Dementors."

Lupin nodded, fierce look on his face. It was Riddle who replied though.

"I can rip an opening into the ward," the dark wizard said, voice eerily composed and ice cold. "temporarily."

Sirius knew that Azkaban's ward was one of the strongest in Britain. How would Riddle be able to disable it? He sneered at the man. It didn't matter. If Riddle couldn't do it, Sirius would slip by the wards using his animagus form. He might have to leave Lupin behind, but honestly maybe that was for the best. This way, his friend wouldn't get hurt.

Lupin stepped back to Sirius and said, "I ordered my men to keep a route open for us. From the border of the wards onward, we're on our own, though."

Sirius threw his friend a wry grin. "In and out, then. Should be easy, right?"

Lupin smirked back at him, showing his pointed teeth. "Piece of cake."

"Let's go." Sirius waved his wand, casting an invisibility charm on himself, before he started the trek towards the black fortress.

Two of the werewolves stayed with the boat. The others followed their captain as they trekked over rugged rock towards the fortress. As they neared the ward, one by one, the werewolves dropped back, ensuring their escape route. By the time Sirius reached the edge of the ward only Lupin and Riddle were with him. The heavy magic feeding into the ward was audible as a low hum now. Sirius couldn't get closer than maybe two metres until the magic got so strong it threatened to rip him apart. He turned to Riddle and said coldly,

"Let's see how good you really are."

Riddle completely ignored the jibe and pulled his wand. The pale white wand lay lightly in Riddle's hand as the wizard eyed the ward pensively. He stepped closer to the ward, close enough to touch. The heavy magic crackled over him but didn't manage to harm. Riddle raised his left hand and ran it gently over the ward like caressing a lover. A sneer travelled over Sirius' face. After a moment of doing nothing, Riddle finally raised his wand and suddenly an incredibly strong rush of magic rolled over Sirius. He could feel the hair at the back of his neck stand on end. Riddle's pale wand danced through the air, twisting and forming not only his own magic but pushing the ward's magic. It was slow to react, but then the ward sluggishly followed Riddle's lead. It twisted and twitched, humming in in even lower tone now. Riddle laid the tip of his wand directly on the ward. In a deliberately slow movement, he brought his wand down. Sirius couldn't help but be in awe as he felt the ward giving in. Soon there was an opening in the ward, large enough for them to pass. Riddle already slipped through. Instantly, Sirius could sense the opening closing again. He reacted quickly. Sirius grabbed Lupin by the arm and passed the ward, pulling his friend with him. The heavy magic managed to singe their clothes and skin at places. Riddle already continued his journey towards the fortress, not waiting for them.

"Nice of him to make sure we're alright," Lupin said, harsh sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Sirius threw a hateful look at Riddle's back. "He's scum. What did you expect?"

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"What do you think you're achieving with this?"

Hermione's whole body hurt as she tried to raise her head. She blinked her eyes open, one crusted over with blood. Umbridge was back. The woman stood in the small cell and looked down at Hermione. The smile on her face was meant to be sweet but looked nothing but shark-like.

"Did you have enough?" Umbridge asked saccharinely.

The man that Hermione had come to know as her torturer stood beside her. Umbridge raised an eyebrow, as if chiding an unruly schoolgirl.

"Can't you see that this is pointless?" the woman said, shaking her head sadly. "Why make it so hard on yourself."

Hermione's head fell back to the stone floor. She swallowed dryly. A smirk curved her cracked lips and she replied, voice hoarse and rough from all the screaming,

"It really is pointless. I won't tell you anything. Just kill me."

Umbridge released a girlish laugh. "Killing you? No no, little Mudblood. I like you too much to let you die."

She gestured for the man. He stepped over to Hermione's prone body, grabbed her by the arm and wrenched her up. Hermione gasped. Shortly her sight blacked as pain shot through her whole body. The man brutally pushed Hermione on the metal chair. She breathed heavily, shoulders hunched forward. Umbridge sat down in the chair opposite from her, metal table in between them.

"I've already wasted a lot of time on you," Umbridge said, still that sickly sweet smile on her face. "I'm getting tired of this." She turned to the uniformed man. "Are you getting tired of this?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied politely.

Umbridge nodded contently and her gaze flipped back to Hermione. "I have an important meeting with the Minister in a little more than three hours. I'd like to bring him good news," Umbridge explained in a kind voice. "You know what? I'll give you those three hours, little Mudblood. You have three hours to tell me where Sirius Black is. And if you do, I'll be merciful and let you die." Umbridge's smile sharpened into a smirk. Then she leaned closer and said, voice cutting through Hermione like a knife, "If you decide to keep your silence, I'll have this nice gentleman here burn your face away so no one could ever hope to recognize you. Then I'll have your tongue cut off and your ears and eyes stabbed." Hermione stiffened as she stared at the sadistic glint in Umbridge's eyes as the woman continued, "Once I've done that I'll sell you to the cheapest brothel I can find and make sure that you never leave that establishment ever again." In a whisper Umbridge added, "But don't worry. I'll have you looked after. I'll make sure that you live a long, long life."

Abruptly, Umbridge leaned away again. Hermione sat on her chair, petrified with fear, and stared at the woman with wide eyes. Panic clouded her mind and her hands balled into tight fists. Umbridge once again smiled her sweet smile. She clapped in her hands, happy look on her face,

"Good. Now that that's cleared up." She threw a look at the uniformed man. "I have to prepare my meeting with the Minister. But I'll be back in three hours."

The man nodded, face a blank mask as usual. Umbridge got up from her chair and straightened down her pink blouse. Then she turned around to leave. Before she reached the door, Hermione's broken voice held her back,

"Wait."

Umbridge turned around, already a triumphant smirk curled her lips. "Yes?"

Hermione looked at the woman. She couldn't think straight. Fear curled around her chest mercilessly, constricting so Hermione could barely breathe.

"I…"

"What is it, dear?" Umbridge asked innocently.

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. Tell her! A voice yelled at her. Just tell her! All of this would be over. The pain, gone. Hermione opened her eyes and looked down at her hands on the metal table. They were dirty, caked over with blood, and some nails were ripped out. Tears flowed over and ran down her cheeks. This was hopeless.

Hermione gritted her teeth. The fear was still there, sharp and cruel. Her hands balled into fists, sending pain shooting up her arms. Hermione ripped through her fear. Her eyes burned and her teeth were revealed in an angry snarl as she spat,

"I'll never tell you anything!"

With that, Hermione raised her arm, two fingers extended, and slashed it through the air. Desperation, fear and anger were the wild mixture that fuelled her magic. It formed into a crude spell and raced towards Umbridge. The woman was too surprised to defend herself. Hermione's magic crashed into her and hurled her into the wall behind her. A deep cut appeared across Umbridge's face and the woman howled in pain. Blood flowed down her skin, soaking into her blouse in a sharp red contrast to the pink.

The uniformed man reacted instantly. He pulled his wand and waved it at Hermione. She could feel something impact brutally with her. A yell left her as she was flung away. She crashed hard into the stone floor and pain shot through her whole body. Weakly Hermione lay there. She couldn't move at all, her magic drained and her body broken. She looked up through glassy eyes. She saw the uniformed man hastening to help Umbridge up. One hand was holding her face, blood seeping through her fingers, as Umbridge glared at her hatefully. Hermione's sight blurred.

"You've made your decision," Umbridge hissed venomously.

The uniformed man supported her as he led her out the cell. The metal door fell shut and locked. Hermione's sight turned dark and she finally blacked out.

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Azkaban was designed like a maze. Each dark corridor looked the same. Everywhere, the same metal doors greeted the passer-by, identical locks barricaded the way. Sirius didn't know how he'd survived the years locked up here. Crouching low, he snuck down yet another dark, cold corridor. Riddle was right behind him while Lupin brought up the rear.

"We have to get to the lower levels," Riddle's icy voice whispered once again.

"I know," Sirius replied tersely. "I'm trying to, okay?"

Indeed, he really was. The problem was avoiding all the guards, though. They had spun concealment charms around them, but Sirius knew that wasn't enough. He pressed his back into the cold wall and peered around the next corner. Steps echoed as a guard passed by some metres ahead. Riddle's icy blue eyes followed the man.

"I could simply get rid of him," he offered in a disturbingly calm tone.

Sirius shook his head and whispered back, "No. Someone'll notice."

Riddle's willingness to kill was disgusting to say the least. Sirius tried not to think about it. The guard had passed by and they continued. It was just a few metres and they slipped through a door to the staircase. Sirius peered down. Climbing even deeper into the bowels of Azkaban was a decidedly bad idea. Lupin seemed to share his thought. Under his breath, the werewolf asked Riddle,

"Are you sure Hermione is in the lower levels?"

Riddle was frustratingly unimpressed by Azkaban's grim atmosphere and inclined his head smartly. Lupin sent a significant look at Sirius and slightly nodded his head. Once again, Sirius took the lead and they slowly climbed down the stairs. He felt like being buried alive. The air turned colder and colder the deeper they got. Panic constricted around Sirius' chest and he swallowed thickly, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat.

The stairs led them to another level. The same dark corridors greeted them. Sirius again took the lead and snuck down the corridor. Riddle followed him. The wizard's cold eyes searched around for something Sirius apparently couldn't see. They had crossed another corridor as suddenly Sirius felt a wall of coldness hitting him. It took away his breath. His eyes widened and fear shot through him. Down the corridor there was a dark mass. The darkness seemed to waft around, moving like a living being. Dementors. The corridor was full of them. He'd never seen so many. Sirius' fingers tightened around his wand nervously.

"We need to go back," he whispered to the others, panic lacing his tone.

It was too late. One dark shadow broke free from the mass and floated into their direction. Sirius' heart stopped as he felt the temperature drop drastically. He stiffened as suddenly Riddle passed him. Sirius stared at the dark wizard in disbelief as he walked towards the Dementor.

"What…?" Lupin hissed under his breath.

Riddle just stood there in the middle of the corridor. By now the Dementor had reached him and hovered right in front of him, close enough to touch. Sirius had no idea how the wizard managed to keep standing. The Dementor leaned in closer. Even from where he was pressed against the corridor wall a few metres away, Sirius could hear the sucking sound coming from the Dementor. Riddle didn't even so much as flinch. Instead, his empty eyes wandered over the Dementor, a curious glint in them. For a moment, the Dementor didn't move and Sirius was convinced he'd start to suck the soul right out of Riddle any second now. Sirius already planned to use that distraction to hurry away. Then, the Dementor abruptly pulled away. It circled Riddle one time as if needing to observe him from all sides. Then it lost interest in the dark wizard and floated back to the other Dementors. Sirius released a long breath of air. His relief was short-lived, though.

"Halt! Who are you?" a voice suddenly echoed through the corridor.

Lupin cursed colourfully under his breath and Sirius was inclined to join him. His head whipped around. One of the guards had walked up on them. Sirius gritted his teeth. They'd been too focused on the Dementors. Lupin threw a curse at the guard. The man lunged out of the way and the curse harmlessly crashed into the corridor wall. The guard pulled a tiny blue crystal from his robe. Sirius sent another curse at the man, but it was already too late. The guard activated the crystal. The lights around them flickered. Then some alarm blared off loudly, alerting everyone in the fortress.

"Damn it!" Lupin hissed furiously.

Sirius jumped up from his crouched position on the floor. Riddle re-joined them.

"This way," he hissed at them furiously.

He led them straight towards the mass of Dementors. Sirius didn't know what made him follow the crazy dark wizard. Probably the desperation ripping at him. As they reached them, though, the Dementors scattered and let them pass undisturbed. Sirius didn't have time to ponder that. They sprinted down the corridor and around the next corner. The alarm still blared shrilly and Sirius could feel the adrenaline rushing through his system. He gasped as suddenly a curse rammed into the wall right beside him. Stones rained down on them. Lupin reacted quickly and spanned a shield over them. Another curse brutally crashed into it, taking it down.

"Shit!" Sirius cursed.

He grabbed Lupin by the arm, pulling him behind one of the stone braces, reinforcing the walls. More curses pelted down on them, now impacting with the stone brace. Sirius dared sticking out his head and peering down the corridor. Almost, a curse slid it right off his neck. He pulled back.

"Guards," he told Lupin breathlessly. "A shit-ton."

"We need to get out of here," Lupin hissed under his breath as he flattened himself against the wall.

The brace already started to crumble under the attack. Over the loud noise of the curses impacting with the stone, Riddle snapped,

"We need to go down another level."

Sirius snarled at him, "We're lucky we don't go down period."

Lupin already swirled his wand, throwing curses in the guards' direction. Sirius joined him. He smiled grimly as he could see one of his curses hitting a guard. The man painfully grasped his arm, his wand falling from his hand. The wounded guard was instantly replaced by two new ones. Sirius had to take cover as their counter attack hurtled towards him. He gritted his teeth. They were too many. Too many.

"Watch out!"

Lupin's warning came a split second too late. Sirius gasped in pain as a curse cut into him. His hand flew too his side, only to find it drenched in blood. Panic threatened to override him as he spotted more guards, this time attacking from the other side of the corridor. They were surrounded. Lupin swirled his wand, erecting a strong shield.

"They've got us crammed in," the werewolf growled.

Sirius pressed a hand against his side, ignoring the sick feeling of blood seeping through his fingers. His other hand still held his wand tightly. The guards were attacking from both sides now and they were stuck in the middle. Baring his teeth in an angry snarl, Sirius brandished his wand, attacking again.

.

The men still attacked. Tom watched Sirius Black and the werewolf returning curses. Black brandished his wand in a well-practiced manner, the movement resulting in powerful curses. Yet his attacks were futile. There just were too many guards. It was a matter of time. Black and Lupin would tire. They would lose. Tom's fingers gently held his pale wand, the wood's surface smooth under his touch. The guards still attacked. There was anger boiling up in Tom, seething hot it flooded him and burned everything in its way. He didn't have time for this. He needed to get to the Spell. He needed to get rid of this confusing mist in his head. He needed to…

Tom breathed in deeply. There were still parts slipping away from him. Even now. It just broke away from him. And he needed the Spell. He couldn't think. Tom glanced at Black and the werewolf. Useless. He gritted his teeth. Why did he allow them to join his quest? He couldn't remember. Did he even have a plan? Tom's gaze flickered back to the guards. They flooded towards him, barely hindered by Black and Lupin. How dare they stand in his way? How… dare they? Tom's wand slipped from his fingers and both hands fisted into his own hair. He sagged to the floor, knees hitting the stone, and he tugged at his hair. He just couldn't… He needed the Spell. The Nothingness would get him. He needed the Spell to break it. Or he would disappear.

Tom opened his eyes and stared down at his pale wand. It lay on the stone floor, calling him. His fingers slowly let go of his hair. Who could ever stop him? Him? Tom reached for his wand. His fingers lovingly closed around it and his magic flowed into the piece of wood. Tom still stared at the wand in his hand and he felt his lips curve upwards into a smirk. Did they truly think they'd ever be able to stop him? A cold laugh fell from him. Somehow Black must have heard it, because he cast a glance at him, frowning. Tom didn't pay the man any mind. His thoughts burned with one desire only and he wasn't going to hold back anymore.

Parts and pieces might crumble from him, but Tom's magic was as powerful as ever. Always, it had been there. Now that his mind was falling into the Nothingness, he finally saw it, his magic. He had tamed it. So long ago, he had locked it up. First the psychiatric clinic and then Hogwarts had demanded he hid it. His magic had been clipped, so no one would see, no one would know.

Tom's fingers tightened around his wand and he got up from the floor. The Spell would need all his magic. There was no need to hold back. No need to conceal the true nature of his magic anymore. The smirk still hung from Tom's lips. Finally, every lock and barrier he had erected to keep his magic controlled fell. It was bristling over his skin, roiling the air around him. Tom felt ecstatic as he finally, after all these years, could just let it run wild. It was bliss.

.

An especially brutal curse collided with the wall, sending stone splinters all over Sirius. Their cover was long since gone, crumped into a pile of dust. Driven by adrenaline, Sirius' heart hammered away in her chest. His wand already felt warm from all the curses that had rushed through it. He raised a shield, warding off an attack. Swiftly, he fired a curse of his own. He managed to hit one of the guards, but they still pressed on.

Sirius glanced over to Riddle. He crouched on the floor, only a few steps from Sirius. A frown formed on his face as he spotted an eerie smirk on Riddle's face. Why wasn't he helping? Anger rushed through Sirius. Was Riddle just going to watch? Of course, the Slytherin wouldn't risk anything important for Hermione. With renewed force, Sirius hurled more curses at the guards. A grim smile appeared on his face as he hit one man in the chest. Still, the ball of panic that had formed in the pit of his stomach didn't diminish. More and more guards reinforced their already overwhelming number. Sirius stood back to back with Lupin. He was glad it was him. The werewolf attacked fiercely. Yet Sirius could see it was futile. There were simply too many guards.

Suddenly, Sirius was hit by a strong wave of magic. It pushed him into the stone wall. His head whipped around. Eyes wide, he realized the magic came from Riddle. By now the dark wizard had stood up from his crouched position. The smirk from earlier still twisted his lips. Sirius swallowed nervously as he felt the dark wizard's powerful magic storming around him. It already painfully tugged at Sirius and left a strange taste in his mouth that reminded him strongly of blood and brimstone. In stunned silence, Sirius watched Riddle's normally blue eyes turn red like embers, giving him a demonic appearance.

"What the fuck?" he heard Lupin's raspy voice.

There was a moment that Riddle's magic washed over the whole corridor, filing it up. After a moment of shock, the guards gathered their wits and again attacked. Riddle didn't seem to care at all. He didn't even try raising a shield. The curses pelted down on him, but his thick magic in the air seemed to simply absorb them. Riddle advanced towards the door to the staircase, not paying the guards any mind. The guards now focused their attacks on Riddle, but none of their curses could reach him. Even from this distance, Sirius could feel Riddle's dark magic rushing towards his wand. Almost, Sirius opened his mouth and yelled a warning to the guards as Riddle raised his wand. He waved it and there was no flourish to the sheer force behind his curse. It wasn't even a real curse, but simply Dark Magic solidified. Like a blade it ripped through the air. It rammed into the guards, sending them flying, blood spraying everywhere. One guard raised a shield but it was breached instantly. There was a look of shock on the man's face as Riddle's magic cut into his body, neatly separating his left arm and half his torso from the rest of his body. The guard was dead even before his body hit the ground. Riddle continued his way towards the door. One of the guards managed to get closer and attacked. Riddle didn't turn to him. As if in an afterthought he lazily flicked his wand at the man. The guard tensed, his wand slipping from his fingers, eyes wide. Then his mouth opened and a bloodcurdling scream tore from him. His skin turned red before suddenly blisters appeared everywhere. Sirius swallowed dryly as the process continued and the man's skin simply melted. The horrible screams continued as the skin dripped from the body like molten wax. Sirius felt sick as he saw the red muscle tissue underneath. The man had by now turned into a twitching, screaming anatomy model, contorting in agony on the floor. Bile rose in Sirius' throat. Riddle didn't pay the man's horrible death any attention, but continued. Sirius shuddered as he spotted the smile ghosting around Riddle's lips. Again, his pale wand danced through the air and more guards fell, never to get up again. To Sirius the merciless wizard looked like death himself, wielding his scythe. Terrible and strangely captivating. Another guard found a grizzly end as Riddle's magic cut into him, ripping his torso open. His blood joining the others' on the floor. Riddle gracefully stepped over the fallen bodies, blood sticking to his shoes. Sirius was horrified by this wizard, this monster, and still couldn't look away from him. He realized that it wasn't a malicious smirk adorning Riddle's face as he mercilessly killed those men. It was an open smile, happy somehow. Riddle looked blissful.

As he reached to door to the staircase, the door's metal bent outward, like hit by a large force. It was ripped from its hinges just in time for Riddle to step through. The wizard disappeared into the staircase.

"Sirius!" he was ripped from his stunned state.

Turning around, Sirius was met with Lupin's yellow eyes. The werewolf packed him by the arm, shaking him slightly.

"We need to retreat," the man yelled.

Sirius shook his head, trying to get himself back under control. "But Hermione is still here."

Lupin gritted his teeth. Despite the bloodbath Riddle had left behind, more guards flooded the corridor.

"We'll never make it past them," Lupin replied, voice controlled, and gestured at the advancing guards. "There're too many."

Sirius stared at them. His side still throbbed painfully and he could barely stand. "She needs us," he told Lupin, desperation leaking from his tone.

"I know," Lupin snarled, furiously glaring at the guards. "I know…"

Sirius felt Lupin's fingers painfully tightening around his arm. A feral growl left the werewolf. Then his gaze snapped back to Sirius and by now his fingers trembled.

"We can't help her," Lupin hissed through gritted teeth. "If we try, we'll die. We have to retreat."

Sirius felt his eyes burning and he shook his head, trying to ignore the truth glaring at him. Lupin's sharp teeth were bared into a furious snarl as he glared at the guards but Sirius could also see the pain etched in his eyes. He was right. Damn, Lupin was right. Sirius released a furious snarl. They were lucky if they made it out alive. There was nothing he could do. Sharply, Sirius decided,

"We retreat."

The werewolf nodded and Sirius could see the pain in the other's eyes.

"Maybe Riddle can find her," Lupin hissed through gritted teeth.

"We can only hope," Sirius muttered under his breath.

He clutched his bleeding side as they retreated down the corridor. The guards' curses following them.

Tom's magic crackled around him. It was everywhere. He was the magic. It was exhilarating. A wild smile twisted his lips. There were more of those guards trying to stop him. Tom's magic ripped into them. He could feel their flesh and bone break under his force. He drank up their pain as if it were the sweetest wine. He saw the terror in one of the men's eyes. A cold laugh fell from Tom's lips. So sweet. He flicked his wand and the man turned into pain. His blood splattered on the floor and stuck to Tom's cloak.

The Spell was close. He could tell. It was here. Excitement rushed through Tom. His wand again slashed through the air and more men fell. The Nothingness… the Nothingness would stop torturing him soon. He stepped over the corpses. They were still warm and Tom enjoyed the sticky feeling of their blood under his boots.

Another corridor, more blood, and then he reached it. A metal door that looked like all the others. For Tom, though, it glowed with inviting magic. Tom's own magic wrapped around him tightly, suddenly agitated. The Spell's magic seeped through the cracks and beckoned him closer. Tom stopped in front of the door. It was ridiculous how nervous he suddenly felt. He could feel his heart beating incredibly fast in his chest. Hermione would probably laugh at him and insist that he didn't even have a heart.

Hermione. Who was…? Tom frowned. His powerful Spell. Yes, that was the reason he was here. Tom tentatively raised his hand to open the door. He was feeling sick. Dizzy. But the void had backed off a little. The Nothingness slowly released him. He could think straight again. Was that because… Hermione was right behind that door? Tom swallowed as the nervousness rushed back to him. He needed to find that Spell, person, Hermione.

The metal door creaked softly as Tom opened it. For once, the sound was not muffled by the Nothingness, but clear. He liked it. It must be Hermione's doing. His stomach was knotted as Tom entered the room. It wasn't a room. It was a cell. Sterile white walls and stainless steel. Bright. He hated it. An artificial light illuminated everything harshly, leaving no place for darkness. Reluctantly, Tom stepped into the white room. Something hung in the air, heavy. Metallic. Blood. It made him tense.

This time, Tom could see everything clearly because the Spell's, Hermione's, nearness had driven away the Nothingness. No blurry vision. Not for now. Only light, soothingly clear, smell and touch. Tom blinked, unused to such clarity. He was grateful that his body worked again. To make it last, he needed to find the Sp- Hermione was not a spell. Tom ran a shaky hand over his face. He needed to concentrate. He couldn't drift off again.

In one corner of the cell, like a foreign object in all the sterile cleanliness, Tom saw a body. Someone was lying there. Quickly he rushed over to the person. He stood stock-still as he stared down at her. She lay motionless, her head turned to the side and her face hidden behind curly hair. Tom could barely breathe as he recognized that curly frizzy hair. It was her. It really was. He had found her. Relief washed over him, but also fear. Fear because she was not moving at all.

Slowly Tom crouched down beside her. Her body was clothed in a ragged and torn grey chemise. It barely covered anything. The pale skin of her slender long legs was exposed and Tom gritted his teeth as he saw the blood soiling her skin. Cuts and purple marks covered her legs and arms and were a sharp contrast to the paleness of her skin. Anger was boiling up in Tom. For so long he had felt nothing. Now there was worry and insatiable fury almost strangling him. He crouched down beside her and raised a hand to gently wipe the curly hair from her face.

Hermione.

How stupid of him. He had thought she was a spell? An incantation? She was so much more. Tom's eyes greedily wandered over her features, taking her in like a starving man. If only her beautiful face hadn't been disturbed by dark bruises and blood. So much blood. Another painful jab of worry hit him hard. He barely dared to breathe as his hand wandered to her neck. His fingers gingerly skimmed over her soft skin. Then he could feel it. A steady pulse beat under the tips of his fingers.

A breath of air left Tom. Hermione was hurt, but still alive. Carefully he scooped her unconscious body in his arms. Then he lifted her. She still didn't wake. Her head fell against his chest and rested there. Tom pressed her even tighter against him. Now that he touched her, the Nothingness released him completely. Just as if a curse had been broken, his thoughts were no longer hazy. The pain was gone. He stopped to dissipate and shift. Tom bent his head down to Hermione and buried his face in her curly hair. It felt so soft against his skin and smelled wonderful.

"Hermione," he sighed contently.

He let his magic wrap around them both. Then he swirled his wand. Azkaban's wards cracked loudly as Tom cut through them and apparated away.

{{{{{{{{+}}}}}}}}

'Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,

And lifted up his brow against his Maker,

Well may proceed from him all tribulation.

O, what a marvel it appeared to me,

When I beheld three faces on his head!'

- Dante Alighieri

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