April 22, 1992. Midnight, just outside the Hogwarts grounds.
Theo had been warned, but he still nearly fell over when he was abruptly outside. It wasn't at all like Apparition, and despite bearing no actual resemblance to the experience of being on a staircase while it was moving, somehow felt more similar to that. He'd managed to avoid most of the weirder bits of geometry in the castle, where you'd walk up three flights of stairs and still be in the dungeons, or whatever, but he'd run into it once or twice, and it was the same feeling: Hogwarts had decided he was somewhere else, with no concern for the petty problem of the actual space in between the two points.
His father was standing on the path just by the edge of the grounds, pacing. The gloom made the hollows of his eyes look like nothing but shadows, and the faint breeze rustled his great black robes dramatically around him. He looked like a terrifying real-life version of the cartoon Death from the Tales of Beedle the Bard.
"Um," said Theodore, trying to keep the anxiety from his voice. "I hope this is really urgent, Father, because everyone is going to think I'm the Heir of - "
"Lucius Malfoy is attempting to discredit our entire family so that he can install the Parkinsons as the new Noble House," explained the terrifying harbinger of doom. "I expect he was hoping to get me to fund it with ransom money, but he can afford to pay himself if necessary."
That did seem sort of urgent, yes. "And then he'd basically have two noble votes," realized Theodore. "Since they basically do whatever he says. ... how?"
"Correct." His father was still pacing, his heavy boots making muted crunching sounds on the damp grass. "Lord Malfoy," he growled, the honorific very nearly an insult, "has captured the Mudblood girl's parents. I had planned to simply kill them but when I attempted to retrieve them for questioning I underestimated his ability to use his father's traps against me. The Muggles are still in his possession and he almost certainly has verifiable evidence of my presence, which means he can credibly argue that I tried to retrieve them alive. No one will give a damn that I was planning to kill them after I'd found out what they might have told Lucius. Anything I do now will appear defensive and weaken my case."
"Um," said Theodore again, and took a deep breath. "Um, what can I do to help?"
His father sighed. "If I go to Augusta bloody Longbottom and ask for help, she will laugh in my face. If you go, she may actually help you, because you are small and harmless and she has been known to experience a heartbeat once every few decades."
"Oh," said Theodore in a small voice. "What - do I ask for?"
Theodore was sort of impressed that his father was managing to speak clearly through the aggressive degree to which he was grinding his teeth. "Your beloved cousin is being targeted by the young Malfoys through no fault of her own," explained the old wizard, very dryly. "Her pet Muggles have been captured and must of course be rescued. Augusta may find it entertaining if you tell her I'm not doing anything because I'm evil, rather than because it would be blindingly stupid of me. My best prediction is that she will ask in return that you help her find out what attacked Draco Malfoy and various Weasleys. She will probably also threaten you, but don't take it seriously."
"Oh, um, okay," said Theodore shakily. "Do you suppose she might also testify that I am definitely not the Heir of Slytherin, if Lord Malfoy - "
"With any luck we will not actually end up in front of the Wizengamot," sighed his father. "But if you are reasonably helpful to her, yes. Take this, you will leave presently." He handed Theodore a spent match, which he supposed must be a Portkey, and then reached out and tapped the purple crescent moon pinned to the front of Theo's robes with one bony finger, making it ring faintly in the darkness. "In substantial extremity, break your cloak pin," he instructed. "It will bring you home through most wards, though it will not work in Hogwarts. Further questions?"
Theo considered for a moment whether this question was a good idea, and eventually decided he might as well. "Did you tell Hermione?" he ventured. He wouldn't go so far as to admit that he liked his fake cousin, but she was very powerful and very clever, and it was hard not to at least tolerate someone when you were going about pretending they were family.
"Oh, yes, I sent her an owl several days ago," said his father. "She pleaded for their lives, it was disgusting. And sent her friends to rescue them, apparently. I caught and disabled them, they were obviously inclined to cause trouble, but they vanished during the time I was dealing with Abraxas' legacy. If they actually manage to do anything useful I may refrain from punishing the girl. At least this is genuinely not her fault; Lucius would have chosen some other route if this were not available and there's really no way she could possibly have been responsible for Draco." The old man paused, and narrowed his shadowed eyes at Theodore. " ... you didn't assault Narcissa's son, did you, Theodore?"
"No!" exclaimed Theodore at once. "No, of course not! We're friends ... sort of ... anyway no! I definitely didn't do anything, everyone just thinks it's me because apparently everyone and their brother heard that Lord Malfoy said so."
"I see. Well. Further questions?"
"I, um, what are you going to ... do?"
"Pace angrily and wait," grumbled his father. "I am considering assassinating Camellia Parkinson. It would be a great deal of fun but I am undecided on whether it would help. Portkey in five seconds."
Theodore took a deep breath.
Somewhere above Oxford.
"I JUST HAD A REALLY BAD THING OCCUR TO ME," yelled Hermione, over the wind of broomstick travel.
"WHAT," yelled Adriana. "WHAT BAD THING."
"WE DON'T KNOW ANY TRACKING CHARMS," Hermione explained.
Adriana did not respond to that, possibly because she, like Hermione a few moments ago, was taking a moment to absorb their sheer stupidity.
Natalia could find Malfoy Manor, because she knew the charm that had allowed her to narrow it down farther than an entire county. They couldn't.
"UM," yelled Adriana, "MAYBE WE SHOULD STOP," and then they slowed down and hovered, high over what Hermione was pretty sure was London. "Um," Adriana said again, and then, "I cannot believe we didn't think of that. Jarek is going to judge us so hard."
"I'm judging us," sighed Hermione. "I know sending owls to Muggles doesn't work or that'd've been my original suggestion but can you follow an owl? We could send one to Natalia just fine, I assume."
"I've never tried that," replied Adriana thoughtfully. "I don't see why not. Where're we gonna get an owl though?"
Hermione pointed downward. "Diagon Alley."
It was a bit of a hassle to find but not as much as she might have expected; Diagon Alley was actually quite visible from the air to a witch's sight. The great white marble structure of Gringotts nearly glowed in the darkness, though most of the other shops were dark and shuttered. They landed in the quiet and deserted street without incident, and Hermione led the way towards the post office she'd used to send lies to various people a year and a half ago. Their footsteps sounded unnaturally loud on the cobblestones, and Gringotts loomed like a judgmental ghost. "This is weird," murmured Adriana, fidgeting with her wind-ruffled hair and re-tying the ribbons. "I'm going to feel so weird if I ever come here in the daytime now."
"It's kind of weird in the daytime anyway," offered Hermione apologetically. "Lots of nonsense all the time. The ice cream parlour is lovely though. Here we are!"
The doors were closed, but to Hermione's intense relief, there was a light on, so Adriana pounded on the door. Hermione was starting to worry that she'd have to break in and steal an owl after all, but after a few minutes the door creaked open, and a middle-aged witch with brilliant yellow hair sticking out in every direction squinted down at them in the gloom. "Whatchoo want at this hour?" she demanded, nearly as creakily as the door. "Can't wait 'til the morning? Shouldn't ya be in school or somethin'?"
"I'm sorry, yes, this is actually very urgent," said Hermione apologetically. "I need to send an owl to my friend Natalia Sokolova, just a short note, but I haven't a quill - "
"Well, fine," grumbled the witch, "but I'm charging you extra." She stumped irritably around the building and eventually came up with a ruffled barn owl and a scrap of parchment, which she handed to Hermione along with a ragged quill. Hermione scratched a note as quickly as she could write Cyrillic without it becoming illegible, which wasn't very (извините, мы плохо следуем), and handed it back. "Two Galleons," said the witch, "five if it's leaving the country."
Hermione winced. That was a substantial upcharge. But then it really wasn't normal business hours and she couldn't very well complain. She was lucky Nott had given her some money to keep up appearances, because she didn't have nearly that much left from what her parents had given her for school shopping. (She winced a little at the thought of her parents. She had lied to them to try to protect them and it hadn't even helped.) "Shouldn't leave the country, I think she's in Wiltshire," she said, and handed over the coins. The postal witch nodded and flung the owl into the air at once. Hermione watched it fly out the window in mild alarm. "Thanksverymuchbye!" she said hastily, and scrambled out of the building with Adriana right behind her.
Fortunately, broomsticks can keep up with owls, so even though it took them some time to get mounted, they were able to keep the message in sight.
Hermione squinted at it as they gave chase. It was flying north, she was pretty sure.
How odd. She could have sworn Wiltshire was west of London.
Deep under Hogwarts.
The wide pipe was surprisingly smooth, but not at all clean; it was slick with grime and dirt. Ron resigned himself to having to admit to his mother that he had yet again made a mess of his school robes doing something insane. He yelped as the pipe leveled out and dumped him out like a wobbly fish onto a surface that crunched when he landed. "Ow," he muttered, and put his hands down to push himself back to his feet, and realized what exactly he was lying on. "Aaaaaaah what the bloody hell," he squeaked, and scrambled upright in a hurry, breathing hard. Bones. A whole room full of bones. "Percy?" he yelled back up the tunnel. "Percy this place is full of dead things!"
There was no answer. Percy was probably still out cold.
Ron took several deep, steadying breaths, and headed down the corridor. It was surprisingly easy to adjust to the crunching sound underfoot, when you had other things to worry about. Such as Slytherin's Monster, and your baby sister. Once or twice he forgot, though, and was startled all over again. At least it only smelled like dust; most of these bones were very, very old. But the sound echoed against the high stone ceilings, loud against the silence. There weren't any of the sounds you would normally expect in a cave like this - no distant dripping water, not even from the bathroom just right there, no sound of scurrying mice. Perhaps Slytherin's Monster had scared all the vermin away, or something. At least, he supposed, that would mean there weren't any spiders.
The hallway began to open up a bit, to a larger room. The sight of an enormous shadow lying across the floor made him flinch backwards into the hallway, but once his eyes adjusted to the torchlit gloom, Ron realized that it wasn't actually alive. No, it was a frighteningly huge empty snakeskin, rolled neatly into place like a sleeping monster, but without head or eyes or mass. He stared at it for a long moment. "A giant snake," he said aloud. "Of course it's a snake. I cannot believe we thought Slytherin's Monster might be anything more creative than a huge-arse snake."
His voice echoed strangely against the walls, high-pitched and frightened, and Ron shivered.
("Snake - snake - snake.")
He forged onward.
After what felt like an eternity of walking, the torches began to change color. Each was slightly yellower than the last, and then greener. At last, when the torches had become entirely bright Slytherin green, he arrived at a door. A huge, ornate door, to be specific, made all of heavy stone and metal, covered in intricate carvings of snakes crawling over one another. Most of them had little jet-black stones for eyes, but a few had glowing emeralds, and in the sickly green torchlight the general effect was extremely unpleasant. It felt like he must have gone miles, but the distance didn't really matter, even though his legs were kind of tired.
No, what mattered was that the door was locked.
Slightly north of Blackpool.
They tumbled into an unceremonious and extremely painful heap on an very nice carpet. The elderly witch with the ridiculous hat promptly levitated them onto nearby couches and incanted a series of charms over them, weaving her wand in complex motions they were in entirely too much pain to appreciate. Afterwards, however, they could sit up and look around. On inspection, they were in the sitting room of some large mansion, with a large glass window overlooking rolling grass and, in the distance, greenhouses.
"Welcome," said the witch with the ridiculous hat, "to Longbarrow." She was still speaking German. "Home of the ancient and proud family Longbottom, or what's left of it, anyway. I am Madame Augusta Longbottom, regent of the family in the name of my grandson." She frowned briefly at the bloodstain on her carpet. It went away, and the carpet wiggled in a way that managed to seem apologetic. "You should be largely healed but you will not be able to do anything strenuous for at least a day," she continued briskly, "I am, alas, not a professional mediwitch. Introduce yourselves, children, name and nationality."
Natalia said, "I am Natalia Alexeyevna Sokolova of Russia, and this is Viktor Krum of Bulgaria. We are students of Durmstrang."
"And you are, as you explained earlier, here to rescue Muggles from Lucius Malfoy. Will wonders never cease," murmured Augusta. "Have you any other useful information for me before I go investigate what has currently become of Miss Hermione's, ah, poor enchanted pet Muggles?"
"Er-mee-ny - whatever, Dravya - and our friend Adriana are also on their way to the Malfoys' house and are probably in the country by now?" offered Viktor.
"Ah, that is a concern," said Augusta. "I shall keep an eye or three out for them."
She vanished with a pop.
"This is weird and terrible," said Natalia. She picked up a nearby table ornament, which took the form of an elaborate open rose carved out of some sort of dusty brown rock, and frowned suspiciously at it.
Viktor shrugged. "At least we're not bleeding to death anymore?"
"There is that," conceded Natalia. She put down the ornament and continued to look around the room. It was very tastefully decorated, mostly in muted browns and greens, and entirely free of anything that even vaguely resembled information. No books, no paper, no portraits. "Does she seem kinda insane to you?"
"A little, but the good kind of insane, maybe. What are you looking for?"
Natalia, craning her neck to try to look through the doorway, made a frustrated noise. "Anything! We don't know anything about this witch, she could be lying to - "
There was a familiar-sounding shriek from outside, and then the sound of a broomstick impacting the side of the building.
"Um," said Viktor.
Distantly, another yell, and words they could only catch about a quarter of. "Theodore? What in the - [muffled yelling] - Malfoy Manor - [more muffled yelling] - why - "
Then, Adriana, deeper and louder, and probably closer: "Natalia!"
"IN HERE!" yelled Natalia. "NO DANGER BUT WE CAN'T MOVE."
"Alohomora!" they heard Hermione say, and then a crackle, and a yelp. "Reducto!", she tried next, which yielded a louder crackle and a thump and an "Ow," from an unfamiliar reedy voice of a boy probably around Hermione's age.
"We can't get through the door!" said Adriana. "It's warded!"
"Well, that makes sense, honestly," said Viktor. He raised his voice to be heard on the other side of the door which was on the other side of the room from the couches they couldn't get up from. "THIS HOUSE BELONGS TO SOMEBODY CALLED AUGUSTA LONGBOTTOM. SHE RESCUED US AFTER PROBABLY YOUR GREAT-UNCLE NOTT SHOWED UP AND BROKE LIKE HALF OUR BONES."
"HE WHAT," screeched Hermione.
"I'm holding you to that bet," said Viktor to Natalia, somewhat smugly.
"Nah, I still think she'll do Apparition first, she hates flying too much," disagreed Natalia.
"Why are you all speaking German or something?" yelled the unknown voice.
Hermione's response, in English, was not clearly audible but it contained the word "Anglocentrism" and was composed almost entirely of derision. Viktor snickered. "She's yelling at him for thinking the British are better than everybody else," he explained helpfully to Natalia. Natalia laughed.
"Where are the Muggles?" asked Adriana, who was so far winning the 'make yourself understood through a wall without sounding like you're screaming' contest handily.
"WE DON'T KNOW," yelled Natalia back. "MADAM WHATEVER-SHE'S-CALLED RAN OFF TO FIND OUT I THINK."
There was a pop, and Augusta Longbottom appeared.
"Good news and bad news, children," she said brightly, and then, " ... why are there more children here?"
She opened the door with a wave of her hand, and peered down at Hermione, Adriana, and a dark-haired boy as reedy as his voice in extremely well-tailored black robes, with a cloak-pin shaped like the same purple crescent moon Hermione was currently wearing emblazoned on her chest. "Well," she said, "Theodore, I suppose this must be your cousin Hermione."
"Yes, Madam Longbottom," said, apparently, Theodore. "I had come to ask for your help on her behalf, actually, but she got here about ten seconds before I did."
"She's not the one who crashed into the wall, though, that was me," said Adriana brightly. "Sorry about that. I'm Adriana Dalca, I am here mostly for moral support."
"Why are Viktor and Natalia here?" asked Hermione.
Madam Longbottom laughed. "Come in, children. It seems we have more to discuss than I was anticipating."
The Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"GINNY," yelled Ron, for lack of better ideas. "GINNY, CAN YOU HEAR ME?"
Distantly, muffled through the layers of stone, he heard the sound of laughter.
It was not a pleasant sound.