With a gasp I jolt forwards, forehead cracking into my best friend's nose.
"Ugh," I groan, seeing smears of white and red as Ron drops backwards with a howl. "What - what the - ?"
"Potter," says Mad-Eye, somewhere to my left. No - right. Remus is holding my left. Everything's a confusion of light and sound as I try to knit the world into a single discernable image.
"Geroff," I mutter, realising I'm pinned to the wall. "Get off me."
"Not yet," says Remus. "Tell me your name."
"Harry Potter, Moony, now get off me."
"Do you remember what happened?" hisses Mad-Eye, breath like old milk.
"I swear by my magic, if you two don't let go I'll tear you to fucking pieces."
A pause. I wonder vaguely where on earth that had come from.
They let me go. I sink to my knees immediately and Remus moves to help Ron, repairing the red-head's face with a grunt and heavy swish. Still panting, I take in the scene - the Hog's Head. A dead old man in the corner, crashed through his own shelving. A greenish half-light drifting in through the shutters, taking the edge off the dim. Chafed wrists. Lips still swollen from the gag. A total fucking mess, all told.
"Didn't think that'd work," says Mad-Eye, standing over me.
Ron, glaring murder at me from his newly repaired face, uses a staff to haul himself into a chair. Remus moves over to the fresh corpse in the nearby wreckage, and prods at it with a steel-toed boot.
"Didn't think what would work?" I sigh, looking up at Mad-Eye's jagged profile.
"Your 'Restorer', or whatever you called it," says Moody, spitting onto the floorboards. "What's the last thing you remember?"
I shrug, shaking my head and rubbing vainly at a temple. In truth, I can't remember anything. A weariness is starting to descend over me, starting to breed an indifference to the whole situation.
"You got caught," continues Mad-Eye sharply. "By this old goat fucker, no less. By the time we got here he'd already wiped your mind."
"Thought we'd lost you," says Ron, not sounding at all upset at the prospect.
I reach for my wand and find a staff instead. It feels heavy and unfamiliar in my hands, the wood coarse and splintering. It begins to occur to me that I don't know where I am.
"We need to move on," says Remus before I can string together a question, standing next to the body in the corner. "That was hardly quiet."
As we emerge into Hogsmeade - or what remains of it – I begin to feel more and more uneasy. With every second I become less certain of where I am and, to some extent, who I am. I know I'm Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, and I know who the people with me are... or who they're supposed to be. Everything else, though? I peer up into the greeny-black mist over our heads, drifting aimlessly and eerily above us like some pale, sickly impression of the Northern Lights, and frown.
As desperate as I am to ask a question, everything about my three companions indicates the need for silence - the way they move, from shadow to shadow amongst the ruins, the way they signal to one another instead of speaking, the midnight-blue robes they wear, and that looking down I find myself in... I keep trying to figure out what's going on and come up at a loss in each avenue of thought. The only possibility I can conjure is that of Voldemort. Had the Dark Lord won? The dark, greenish hue that the entire world had descended into, the complete lack of any source, the unsettling feeling in my gut... but my scar is silent. I rub at it with a calloused hand - nothing.
We come to the road that leads to Hogwarts. Without Hogsmeade's abundance of rubble and charred wood to conceal us, Mad-Eye taps each of us on the head in turn, disillusioning silently. The knock makes me see white, my already sore head pounding even harder, but I find the pain lessened slightly when I see that the old ex-Auror didn't let up on himself when it came to his turn - if anything, the staff clunking into his head seemed to have been swung harder than any of the others he'd inflicted, and his snarling, obstinate grimace is the last thing I see before his visage melts into the woodland behind.
As the rippling outlines of my companions begin to move up the road, I heft the staff in my hands, deciding to try it out.
"Silencio," I whisper, jabbing it above our heads. I feel the magic rush from it, as though poured from a bucket, and sure enough the sounds of the forest die instantly.
"What are you doing?" hisses Remus from somewhere in front of him.
"This might sound strange," I say, my voice sounding loud in my own ears, "but where the hell are we? What's going on?"
There are a few moments of silence before Ron swears. I feel someone move towards me.
"It didn't work?" spits Mad-Eye, inches from my face. "The Restorer - I knew it. Experimental charms, off of staffs no less. I knew it."
"Do you know who we are, Harry?" asks Remus.
"Yes. I think so. I know you're Moony, this is Mad-Eye, and Ron obviously, but... but I don't know what the hell is going on. Why was Hogsmeade burnt down?"
"If this is a joke, it's badly timed," says Ron, the furthest away of the three.
"When was the last time he made a joke?" Remus growls, from the sounds of it over his shoulder. "Harry - if you know who we are, the Restorer worked. When we found you... you couldn't even speak. You were barely breathing."
"I get that, but I'm not sure what's going on," I say bluntly, unease and weariness making me simply want to sit down.
"What do you last remember?" asks Remus. "Who do you think you are?"
"Uh... Harry Potter... son of James and Lily, godson of Sirius Black, born - "
"Let's try something else. Where is - no. Hmm... How old are you?"
I try to think, my head still aching, as hard as I can. I fight for any recollection. Nothing. Not even a hint.
"I don't know."
"Damn it all," hisses Moody suddenly. "We don't have time for this now. Maybe it takes a while for memories to fully return. It doesn't matter. We have to keep moving."
"We can't keep moving if he really doesn't know what's going on," says Remus.
I feel my ire rising very slightly at that comment - do they think I'm pretending? - until Ron speaks and my stomach drops.
"Let's just leave him here, then."
There's another pause, as though they're considering it. I start to feel very cold.
"We aren't leaving anyone," Mad-Eye says finally. "Just stick close behind us, Potter. Things'll start coming back to you."
"What if they don't?" asks Ron quietly. "We going to have a half-memory-charmed guy guarding our backs?"
"Alastor and I might," says Remus. "But I'm going to cut your throat if you say another word, Ron. Move."
Astonished and more than a little frightened by the vitriol in everyone's tone, I take a moment before following the retreating shadows. The din of the forest pops back into existence as I leave the silencing charm and the sounds of our footsteps are once again lost in the night.
In a cruel parody of normalcy, the Hogwarts gates - gargoyles and all - are in perfect condition. Bar the sickly green atmosphere, looking at them I can hardly believe that Hogsmeade itself is burnt to the ground, a mess of uprooted foundations and black tinder, less than a mile away.
What's more; they're open, inviting, as though the start-of-term carriages are about to come trundling in at any moment and continue up the lane to the looming silhouette of the castle in the distance. Though for all I know, they are.
We four unlikely companions are just off the lane, in view of the gate. I'm kneeling and I think the others are too - disillusioned as they are, I've given up trying to figure out where people might be standing.
"Don't forget," Mad-Eye's saying, "that we're scouting. If we find 'em, we are not prosecuting targets. You understand? I'm looking at you, Weasley."
"We should have a portkey," says Remus. "We should make one. I have no idea whether or not we can apparate from inside."
"The wards fell," says Ron. "We'll be fine."
"When was the last time you said that?" Remus shoots back. "Gringotts, wasn't it? Care to remind us how that turned out?"
"Shut up, both of you," says Mad-Eye. "Like fucking babysitting, with you, Weasley. Speaking of - you remembered any more, yet, Potter?"
I shake my head, knowing Mad-Eye can see it. I'm confused and unnerved, but above all disinterested. I'm starting to think I might be dreaming. One too many butterbeers – I'll wake up with a sore head on one of the Common Room chairs any minute. Any minute now.
"I'm making a portkey," says Remus.
"Not this close to the castle," says Moody sharply, for the first time a hint of panic in his voice. "Come on. We've wasted enough time."
There's a rustling as the others stand and I follow the noise and oily outlines out of tree cover and towards the gate.
"Weasley, come with me," says Mad-Eye. "Lupin take Potter. Nice and quiet, 'round the boundary. We'll meet at the far side of the lake in two hours."
Nothing else to be said, two of the outlines move through the gates and are gone. The Remus-shape left turns to me.
"Are you feeling alright?"
"Apathetic," I reply truthfully. Aaaany minute now.
"About the same as normal, then," says the older man with a sigh. "But rushing a five year St. Mungo's rehabilitation course in a single spell… we hardly had any other options, but still."
"Moony... I have no idea what's going on," I say, huffing slightly at the strangeness of it all and feeling almost light-headed. "What's happened to everyone? What's happened here?"
"There really isn't time to explain, Harry," says Remus, clumsily grasping my invisible shoulder. "I'll try and tell you a little as we go, but if we don't meet them on time - well, Mad-Eye will freak. Just hold tight to your staff and search the castle for any signs of life. And I'll try to tell you... well. What's happened. Anything you can remember would be helpful to start us off."
Remus' outline moves towards the gate and I follow – our pace is brisk. The gargoyles loom in the darkness, spiny shadows edged with green, and I feel a shiver run up my spine.
"I remember..." I struggle with the headache, and search for anything of my past that springs to mind. Of all the damned things, it's Myrtle in the Prefect's Bath with me that does it. "I remember the Tri-Wizard tournament."
Remus stops sharply, just before the threshold of the castle grounds. I bump into his back and frown at where his head is.
"That's the last thing you remember?" asks Remus quietly.
"I'm not sure," I say. "It was the first thing that came into my head."
"That's where it all started," says the older man, starting to move forwards once again. "Thereabouts. Do you remember the rebellion?"
"Re - ?"
I don't get to finish my repetition. The answer was a no, anyway. The moment we cross the threshold I find I can't talk, can't even form the words. From outside the castle grounds had looked just as empty, desolate and dark as the rest of the world, but on this side...
It's swarming. Hundreds of thousands of tiny figures skittering like insects, swelling into one huge mass near the middle. The sudden onslaught of light drives me to near blindness - the sun is up! - and everything blurs.
"Merlin," I hear Remus breathe.
Two dots through half-closed eyelids, I see two figures in dark robes being hefted over the crowd, one red-haired and one fair. I can just about hear the two yelling as they're carried over the hundreds of tiny heads towards Hogwarts, the ancient structure standing magnificently in the middle of it all, glowing almost ethereally white. Everything around it is a blinding mesh of colour and movement. I can no longer see Mad-Eye and Ron.
"Run," Remus is shouting at me. I turn - our disillusionment charms have been wiped away, a piece of magic I vaguely remember as being some kind of waterfall. The older man's expression is contorted with terror as he drags at my arm. "RUN!"
I can't get more than a glimpse at what the small figures are as I allow himself to be dragged back into the sucking darkness of the outside world, but I feel the sting of magic across the back of my neck and realise the hot wetness that follows is blood trailing down my back. When had that happened?
"Can you apparate?" screams Remus, eyes wide, the noise of his shouting almost perverse in the renewed silence.
Before I can shake or nod my head – I'm not sure which I would have done - a force like a freight-train slams into my back and knocks me flying into Remus. My heavy staff slips from my sweating palms and catches the man on the jaw, cracking it audibly.
I land in a heap on top of the older man as he disapparates, the air displacing itself in front of me as I land face first in the wet, spiny mud... no, not mud. I push myself away from the ground, green and black swimming before my eyes, to see that Remus has splinched himself, and left his broken jaw behind. I brush a stray molar from where it's digging into my cheek.
Everything is a mess of confusion and I can't really tell what's happening, not sure if I even want to look up, not even sure if I can. What seems like a thousand angry, jabbering voices has surrounded me and is flooding my consciousness. My staff is gone. My fingers flex for want of a wand. I barely even feel it as spells begin to beat at my back.
I come to rather suddenly, all things considered. That's probably due to the light.
The walls are a crisp, clean white, so polished as to be almost reflective, and I stare around in confusion as I stand. Before a large oak door that reeks of varnish, a tray of quarter-cut sandwiches sits untouched, the crusts cut off and each little triangle packed to bursting with different fillings. The bedroll in the corner feels like it was constructed purely out of cushioning charms.
It was, all told, the nicest prison I could ever have imagined.
I spend a few minutes testing the bare, glistening walls, an ear to them, tapping my knuckles on them, searching in vain for some sort of exit. I try the handle-less oak door, pushing at it and trying to wedge my fingers down the side of it. I even try wandless magic, my 'Alohamora!' echoing slightly in the space but having no other worldly effect.
I'm not sure how long it's been when I hear footsteps on the other side – a rush of adrenaline flows through me, I step a pace or two away from the door, one of the sandwiches stuck to my bare foot where I'd trodden on the tray, and I ready myself to go down swinging.
But they aren't here for me. With what sounds like dozens of pairs of feet scuffling up the hallway beyond the door, another door nearby swings open on smooth hinges, barely even audible, and then comes shouts…
"Ron?" I yell, recognising the voice. "Ron! Can you hear me?"
Either Ron can't, or is choosing to ignore me. He yells at his captors as they drag him past my cell, in a voice of rage and desperation all at once.
"LET ME GO! Let me go, you vermin! You filthy fucking vermin! Get your hands off me – get off me! YOU! YOU DARE – HOW COULD YOU? HOW COULD YOU! Please don't – please don't do this – let me go, I'll go peacefully, you'll never see me again, you'll never – please! PLEASE! WE WERE FRIENDS! LET GO OF ME, YOU RATS – WE WERE FRIENDS, YOU BITCH! YOU'RE MENTAL – YOU'RE FUCKING MENTAL!"
His voice dies out at the end of the corridor. Movement on the other side of my door.
I lean down and pick up the tray, sandwiches flying, and step to one side of the oak frame, readying myself. My jaw is set. I'm thinking of my best friend.
The next thing I know I'm on my back. Black and white stars swim in my vision as I sit up awkwardly on the bedroll, wondering how the hell I'd been beaten, fists up to fend off my attackers, to see the last person I could have ever expected to see.
She stands in the doorway. She looks beautiful, in an otherworldly way. Long, flowing robes, hair down to her waist, her gown embroidered with golden pictures of…
No, I think. I swallow and grimace and sure enough, there by her knees… House Elves. Dozens of them, long floppy ears creasing off each others' heads, all wearing a scowl that seemed entirely out of place on their small, round faces.
"Hermione," I croak.
"I'm sorry about this," she says, looking around her at the magnificent cell. "But you've made things awfully inconvenient."
"Her – Hermione… what's going on?"
"We caught you, Harry," she says, almost admonishing, a small smile on her face. "It was bound to happen, sooner or later. I don't know why you didn't search in Hogwarts months ago. We've been here since the beginning… this is where it all began, Harry. This is where the world was set to change."
I stare at her for a few moments. I'm certain by this point that this is all some elaborate dream.
"This isn't real, is it?" I venture. "This is – I think I've been inhaling potions fumes. You're telling me that this is – this is SPEW?"
She laughs a musical little giggle and the House-Elves' scowls deepen.
"This is the next logical step, Harry – but you know this. You've been fighting me for almost a year." Hermione takes a few steps into the cell, her magnificent robes dipping in and out of the sandwiches around her feet. She cocks her head and looks at me strangely, frowning. "But what act is this? The 'I don't remember', Harry? The 'Aren't you my best friend?'"
"It's not an act," I grumble. "I was Memory Charmed. I haven't a fucking clue what's going on. You're suggesting that – that you've led some sort of - "
"Revolution," she finishes for me, breathing for word with relish. "Yes. But you must remember, Harry – our first step, to destroy wizardkind's wands? Your beautiful Holly-and-Phoenix-Feather, snapped in your very hands? Your little resistance resorting to staffs, of all things, after we hunted down all the wandmakers?"
"I remember you knitting hats for the House-Elves, and them not wanting them. I remember them refusing your gestures of 'Elven Welfare'."
She looks a little rankled at this, before stating flatly, "Things change. You'd be surprised at how resilient I can be."
No, I wouldn't, I think.
We stare at each other for a little while, as though we're simply two old friends catching up, sizing up the other, working out what's changed and who this person might have become. She's smiling, though – I'm not.
"Who Memory Charmed you?" she asks ponderously. When I don't answer, she sighs. "Your resistance was doomed to fail from day one, you know? So much infighting. Every time a new pocket of life is found, a firefight ensures. Everyone fighting to stick to their old homes, their old ways, wary of strangers, wary that any crack in the night could be an Elf… it's beautiful, from an objective standpoint."
"What about Voldemort?" I venture.
"You honestly don't remember?" she asks, her smile dropping. "The Ministry in fifth year? Once his wand was snapped, he was virtually useless. Put up a fight, certainly, but nothing on Dumbledore's scale, or even yours."
"I'm flattered," I say. "So what now? You have a thousand House-Elves at your every bidding - "
"Don't say that," she snaps, casting a glance at the crowd over her shoulder.
"What, you don't think I figured that out?" I ask – I hadn't, but she's given me an idea and I'm going to run with it. "You don't think I realise that the only way for you to 'free' all of the House-Elves was to indenture them to yourself?"
Her expression tells me the guess was right.
"They're happy," she breathes, chin jutting out slightly.
"Are you?" I ask the tiny figures behind her.
"If Mistress Hermione commands it, then - "
"NO!" Hermione yells, turning on the spot. "I've told you! I command you to live freely, to be happy – or unhappy if you want! And don't call me 'Mistress' - "
I'm laughing by now, the sound booming in the small cell. She turns back to me, fury illuminating her deep brown eyes, with… a wand in her hand.
She sees me eyeing it and grins slightly maniacally, shaking the tip from side to side slowly, as though wagging a finger.
"So you've replaced slavery and oppression with slavery and genocide, Hermione," I say, eyes still on the wand, calculating my chances. "Wiping out the human population of Wizarding Britain? Your own people, Hermione? And for what?"
"The Elves are my people," says Hermione, legs squatting slightly subconsciously. "Adolf was right, Harry – there is a master race. It just isn't the human race."
"Think of all the evil mankind has been responsible for," she insists.
"I hope you're including your own efforts in that estimation," I say.
"But this is in the name of freedom, Harry!"
"Oh, please - don't think I haven't noticed the state of this place – it's cleaner than it's ever been. We're still in Hogwarts, right? Now the cleanest castle on the planet. Can't stop them cleaning, eh? Polishing, varnishing, buffing, wiping, cooking – all on your orders, or is their nature just shining through at the cracks?"
"Fuck you," she growls, and I am truly surprised for a moment. The sensation doesn't last long.
"I'm hardly familiar with this whole getup," I say, sneering at her. "But it looks to me – from an objective standpoint - like you're completely insane."
Annoyingly, she doesn't lose her cool. If anything, that was what she needed to hear.
"I was going to give you a chance, Harry – you were always sympathetic to the S.P.E.W., in the beginning, but - "
"Only to comfort my best friend, who I seriously worried was losing her marbles."
She still doesn't lose it. I curse her silently. I need her to lose her temper if I have a chance of doing anything. Even if it's just an AK to the chest to wake me up from this nightmare. I should have gone when she was talking to the Elves, I realise, groaning inwardly.
"Hogwarts is where it all began, Harry, for us. For me. For this. It's where I gathered all the Elves and lit the fuse on this glorious revolution. A movement that has required hard decisions, and so much death… It's where it shall end, too, for you Harry. Poetic."
And now she's rambling. Now or never.
I lurch to my feet and launch myself at her – to find myself suspended in mid-air. She sighs. I'm unnerved, dangling in front of her – I hadn't even seen her wand move. Then the Elf who caught me walks around her robes and frowns up at me. Forgotten about them. Crafty little buggers. I didn't get within three feet of her.
"Bring him to the Great Hall," she says, sounding a little sad. Not as sad as I am, I think. "But for good measure, Harry – Petrificus Totalus!"
I think the point I decided I wasn't dreaming was on entry to the hall. I couldn't say the exact moment – whether it was the stench of roasting human that caught in my throat or the sight of another of my former best friends slowly turning on a spit in the corner. Strange, too, lurching suddenly back to dreamland when I noticed the House-Elves, seated at the four old House tables, taking turns to serve each other from his corpse. Some added a little garnish to their slice, some potatoes, a heap of vegetables, a suspicious gravy… Ron would have been proud.
On the realisation that this nightmare might be real, I felt a little panic grip me, and decided to start looking for viable exits. The front doors… chock full of House-Elves, crowding the entrance hall, waiting for their turn to eat some of my friend. The ceiling, no, the huge, cathedral-like window above the dais, no, the little ante-room… maybe.
But I hadn't received the chance. I'm at this moment still floating, still petrified, right on the dais where the staff table used to sit, raised a little above the heads of all those below, wondering if this was – barring the consumption of Human flesh – what Dumbledore had looked out at for all those years. Chaos.
Hermione is engaged in an animated conversation with two Elves, each sitting beside her where she took a place at the table, glancing at her warily. I sigh internally – she looks happy. She really thinks that what she's doing – has done – is the right thing. What might have happened to her in the interim, to make her hardly bat an eyelid at the ex-crush they were all chewing on, I can only guess at. I find myself wondering what my fate will be. Dessert?
After what seems an age, the smells in the hall making my stomach rumble treacherously – by far the most demoralising thing about this entire experience, so far – Hermione stands and directs two Elves to my side. There they wait. Here I wait. Wishing I could move my limbs.
I'm still struggling to comprehend how this can all be happening.
She steps up to me, looking healthy and vibrant, s confident as anything at the head of her army. I search her eyes in vain for any semblance of the friend I once had.
She released the curse and looked me over, seeming to try and come up with some creative way to dismember me. Her wand is held loosely, out of sight of the Elves nearest.
"Where's you mum and dad?" I ask her.
"In Australia, Harry," she says. "Safe."
"Can I join them?"
She looks startled at the prospect for a moment before giggling that same, lilting little tune.
"Perhaps once," she says. "Not now. We've come too far now. We'll be international, soon. You know, for every free Elf in Britain, there are ten enslaved elsewhere in the world?"
Dark Lady Hermione, I think. At the Head of the House Elf Liberation Army. Complete and total madness.
"She has a wand," I say instead, loud. Hermione looks at me, puzzled, thinking I'm talking to her. "There isn't a Free Elf in Britain – not one – because she has a wand. She's bound you to her, forced you to betray your masters - "
My mouth snaps shut on its own. Her eyes are narrow and she furtively lowers her wand again.
"Now, now, Harry," she says. "No need for any of that."
I try to communicate with my eyes, but even if they were able to swear vociferously, she wouldn't have gotten the message. I look down, seeing the wand once again.
Accio Wand! I think, pushing everything I have into it. Wandless, wordless… I might as well have been trying to catch a snitch while blindfolded. I try again, and again, whilst desperately trying to come up with a brilliant idea.
But the only image that I can see in my head is, perversely, a newspaper headline – 'Boy-Who-Lived Served as Elven Hors d'Ouvre'.
My stomach lurches when one of the Elves steps up with a skewer. My eyes flash from angry to pleading, but Hermione is watching two Elves dance at her command, clapping and laughing. She's already forgotten about me. The Elf steps closer with the skewer.
I'm lowered slightly by the Elven levitation. Onto my front, a foot above the ground, my hair in front of my eyes and making it hard to see the – there. The skewer. The Elf is lining it up in front of my face.
I try to imagine a more horrible way to die, and come up short. I wonder how long Ron survived – did he live until he was put over the flame? Or did he die when the skewer impaled his midsection, eyes rolling back in his head as his innards were pierced and he suffocated on the thick, metal rod.
The cool metal meets my closed mouth. Still clamped shut by Hermione's spell, the Elf jabs the skewer against my lips, splitting one and tapping against my teeth. The moment my mouth is open, the hex breaks.
White hot horror floods me as the Elf puts his weight into a shove.
"Echshelliarush!" I managed to scream, mouth contorting around the skewer.
The tiny House-Elf shoots backwards with a flash and the skewer rolls away. The levitation on me breaks and I drop those inches to the floor, but with every nerve in my body alight, I'm on my feet again in the blink of an eye.
"ACCIO WAND!" I scream, hand towards Hermione, who was still only turning towards me –
I catch it, the wood sliding slightly in my clammy grip, and raise it triumphantly, an incantation on my lips.
"Wand!" scream the House-Elves, pushing themselves away from me. "WAND!"
Yes, WAND! I think.
"Expulso!" I cry… to no effect. I stare dumbly at my hand. It's holding a snapped wand. The Elf I'd disarmed of the skewer lowers his fist, snapped fingers all it took, and my chances of a daring, action-packed escape dissolve in front of my eyes.
"No…" I breathe.
"No!" Hermione screams, correctly assuming that – yes, indeed, the Elves are all turning to her. "Stop!"
She looks, perversely, at me, entreating my help. Even in as bad a place as I am, I can't help but feel indignant at her gall. She sees my expression and turns back to the crush of Elves.
"Kill him – I command you. All of you. Kill him. Please!"
"Mistress…" one House-Elf says quietly, almost to itself, rolling the word around in its mouth. "Mistress."
Without a second's further hesitation, the skewer is levitated – I feel a lurch in me – but then pointed at Hermione. The Elf waves a finger lazily and the iron rod shoots towards her, whistling through the air. I look away – even though a far cry from the best friend I remember, I can remember it. The sound itself is horrible enough – a wet thud as it pierces her, carries her into the wall, a sound like a pickaxe as the skewer digs in, the last, shuddering breath of her…
I look. Sure enough, she's skewered to the wall. Just like that.
The Elves all turn to me. I smile sheepishly.
"I firmly support your right to freedom," I say, wondering if I sound as unconvincing as I think I do. "And will happily just go on my way."
The Elf who'd snapped the wand – which I realise I'm holding and drop – purses his lips.
"I hate cooked meat," he says.
The full ramifications of this don't hit me, however. Instead, a large chunk of glass does, in the shoulder. Too shocked to feel the pain, the noise that then follows – of the huge window overlooking the Great Hall imploding – is devastating. I feel the very ground shift beneath my feet, and drop onto my back, seeing the light of the glistening Great Hall reflected off of a thousand tiny pieces of glass in the air above me.
Shit, I have time to think, putting my forearms over my face.
It doesn't come. There's a noise like wind through a tunnel and the glass is swept away from its descent, bar one or two pieces such as the one in my shoulder, and into the crowd of House-Elves.
I hear a thousand glass shards pierce skin, and the screaming to match. Surprised, I ease myself up, not particularly wanting to inspect my own injury and curious about what is happening.
Only twenty or so of the Elves are badly injured. The rest look annoyed. Some still look at me, others correctly assume that the magic didn't come from me and seek out the new threat. I look over at – no, it wasn't Ron. Stupid, really, to hope for something like that at a time like this. Ron's dead. Ron's well done. No more Ron. Concentrate, Harry.
With a great, shuddering groan, the doors that led to the Entrance Hall simply burst into splinters, tiny stakes of wood embedding themselves in all of the nearest Elves. I find myself impressed at the magic, and wondering where – and who – the hell it's coming from.
The House Tables then lift up. My eyebrows go with them. The buzz of House-Elves quietens as they realise that the tables have all lifted, and are pivoting onto their sides –
I realise just as the House-Elves do collectively what's going to happen. I grin. Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables slam together on their sides, crushing a good body of the Elves between them. Many have the sense to banish or at least duck before Slytherin and Ravenclaw follow, at which the invisible caster simply pulls the two table-cum-cymbals apart and claps them together again.
An Elf is suddenly on me – the skewer Elf, no less – and does some sort of banishing charm on my face. I feel my nose crunch and realise I'm sliding across the dais, then off, onto the stone floor of the Great Hall. The glass piece in my shoulder crunches and really starts to hurt. Blearily, my eyes see the little bastard approaching again. I raise my fists stupidly. The Elf raises his, but I go with them.
Ironically, the floor rupturing beneath us saves my life. I'm not quite comprehending how it's happening, but as though there's an earthquake tearing the school asunder, the floor pitches and cracks and drags House-Elves down into an abyss – including my captor. I float gently down onto my feet, trying to find a stable patch of stone.
There's a scream on the other side of the hall. Over the valley of carnage and wreckage I see a group of House-Elves jointly levitating … another House-Elf. I feel my spirits lift as I see the struggling little figure.
"Dobby!" I croak.
Somehow the Elf hears me. With a cry of "Master Harry Potter, sir!" the Elf waves his arms wide, banishing the figures beneath him. He lands gracefully on his feet. I see then what he's wearing – bar the fluffy knitted hats, the other Elves in the hall all wear pillow-cases, rags and sacks. Dobby, however, is dressed in what can only be described as some sort of medieval battle-wear, an inch thick, which serves to protect him as broken plates and knives are cast against them.
With a legendary fury, Dobby levitates what's left of the Hufflepuff table – or half of it, at least – and waves it like a giant bat, seemingly weightless in his grasp. I want to cheer as it bashes hundreds of Elves away at once, sending their tiny bodies tumbling, but black is starting to cloud my vision, and every movement is making the glass in my shoulder crunch and splinter.
With a forward roll, Dobby hurls the table onto a crowd of buzzing House-Elves and snaps his fingers. He pops to my side. I gaze up at him, not sure how I ended up on my back, and he smiles his strange, tennis-ball-eyed smile at me. I try to smile back.
He puts his hand on my shoulder, deflecting incoming missiles with a heedless wave of his other hand, and before I know it we're in the Forbidden Forest.
I stare around, shocked and in pain, and oh so very tired, wishing harder than anything else in my life that I was dreaming and could wake up, but Dobby instead helps me to my feet where I sway, unsteadily, feeling sick with the pain in my shoulder.
"Thank you, Dobby," I manage.
"Dobby has saved Master Harry Potter, sir," the Elf says. "Dobby has saved him."
"Yes," I agree, holding back vomit, wanting to fall down. "Dobby… can you send me back? Is there a way I can go back in time, before all this happened, and right the wrongs of the past? Stop Hermione from doing what she did? Can you help me do that, Dobby?"
The Elf peers up at me, big eyes wide.
"Time-Travel, Master Harry Potter, sir?" he says, before considering. "That's just crazy."
~ fin. ~