Chapter 19: The Boy Who Didn't
In 1976, the Who were declared the record holder for the loudest rock band in the world after a concert in Charlton. They held that record for eight years until they were barely beaten out by metal band Manowar.
Fiona's mother was at that concert in Charlton and sat right by one of the speakers. She'd never fully recovered hearing in her left ear, and often claimed that sometimes, on a silent, windless night, she could still faintly hear "Baba O'Riley."
If all twenty-seven thousand members of the audience were carrying an active, gas-powered chainsaw, the combined noise would be almost half as loud as that heard by Fiona's mother.
If every show ever performed by the Who had been as loud as the one in Charlton, their combined noise would be one hundred thousand times louder than the level required to cause nausea. It would be fifty thousand times louder than the point at which your vision starts to blur. It would be ten thousand times louder than the point at which your throat is vibrating so hard you can no longer swallow. It would be one hundred times louder than the point at which glass shatters. The noise would be so loud that, beyond simply being deafening, it would destabilize the fluids in your ear, inhibiting your balance as if you were on the far side of a bender worthy of the rock band in question.
It would have been almost as loud as the noise produced by the flashbang grenade thrown through the window of the grimy, prewar brick house.
And that's not even getting into the flash part of flashbang. Let's just say, for the sake of brevity, that it was pretty gosh darn bright and leave it at that.
Klaxons and auto alarms across the neighbourhood blared in protest and lights flicked on in windows all down the street as the residents were disturbed from their slumber.
Before their perp would have any chance to recover, nine of London's finest (and Fiona, bringing up the rear) stormed in, leaving the cheap wooden door hanging on its splintered hinges. More police were outside, securing the back or blockading the front to catch runners. Not, of course, that it would help much—these wizards could flee without needing doors.
"POLICE!" someone bellowed.
Inside was a single black-robed figure, sprawled out on the floor. Carrow, presumably.
Every man and woman of the team had already memorized the layout of the building, so they broke into three prearranged teams to clear the remaining rooms while Fiona cuffed the one on the ground.
It is a common misconception that police around the world read from the same script when making an arrest. It had got to the point that there was a traditional response among Fiona's coworkers in Staines when, in a movie, a British copper read someone their very-American Miranda rights. That response was throwing popcorn at the screen followed by humming "God Save the Queen," for reasons no-one still around could remember.
There was a script they were supposed to follow, however, although Fiona may have editorialized it somewhat.
"You're under arrest under suspicion of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, witchcraft, carrying an offensive weapon, having an offensive face, being an ugly git, being a part of a criminal organization, and for numerous general counts of being a really obviously bad guy. You have the right to remain silent, but anything you do say—what was that?"
The dark wizard groaned inaudibly.
"You say you're resisting arrest?"
The wizard moaned in discomfort, his eyes unfocussed and dazed. His ears were bleeding slightly.
"You say you're a danger to yourself and others? That you need to be sedated for your own safety? Well, if you insist. How convenient that we all just so happened to be issued just such a drug in addition to our standard equipment. Must have been in error. I'm sure the guys in Logistics will sort it out. But in the meantime..."
Fiona shot Amycus Carrow full of enough juice to down a rhinoceros and called in the arrest on her radio.
"Some great and powerful dark wizard you were," she added. "Bit disappointing, really."
Milo crept along through the Chamber quietly, Thinblade of Warning held tightly in one hand. His identical, illusory doppelganger walked twenty feet in front of him, looking—and smelling—identical to him, surrounded by the four glowing pinpoints of a Dancing Lights spell. He was protected by as many magical defences as he was capable of, though, as always, he was uncertain of the practical effects of, say, a high Armour Class in battle with an opponent who didn't seem to have an Attack Bonus at all.
Stone pillars lined the hallway, carved with hollow-eyed snakes that seemed to move whenever he looked away. There was a weird, greenish glow in the place with no discernible source, except for the obvious: magic. Aside from the light and the serpentine columns, the vaunted Chamber of Secrets seemed to be sort of plumbing nexus, which suited Milo just fine. He'd first cut his teeth in adventuring in a sewer full of kobolds, after all. Of course, back then he'd had a Rogue, a Cleric, and a Fighter backing him up. He sometimes wondered what had ever happened to Wellby, Gerard, and Zook. What had they done after defeating Thamior? He knew Wellby, their Rogue, was planning on discovering some long-forgotten draconic heritage and dipping into Sorcerer, despite Milo's urgings to the contrary. With the sort of regular adventuring Milo had been denied in this bizarre world, Wellby was probably well on his way to maxing out Unseen Seer by now.
If he ever did make it home, Milo would probably have to do some serious grinding to catch up.
Milo shook his head, focusing on the task at hand. He could daydream about his home later.
The fact that the Basilisk lived in Hogwarts' sewer system explained the smell that Mordenkainen had picked up. The snake couldn't simply use Prestidigitation to maintain perfect hygiene, the way Milo could.
Milo kept walking, hiding in the shadows behind his illusion, when he encountered a dead end.
This he hadn't been expecting. It was a sheer stone wall behind a hideous statue of a rail-thin, bearded fellow in robes. Probably Salad Tsar Slytherin himself, Milo figured. He'd walked the length of the Chamber, but he hadn't found the snake. Could he have missed it somehow? Were there secret, branching corridors? Maybe he should walk back to that weird door with the snakes and the emerald eyes. Maybe he'd missed something. (He hadn't missed the emerald eyes themselves, naturally, which currently sat happily inside his Belt of Hidden Pouches and would do so until he next found a shop).
"I think it's about time we had a chat, face-to-face, you and I."
Milo whirled around. Behind him, a tall, black-haired boy was leaning casually against a pillar, idly twirling a wand between his fingers. He was, quite simply, beyond handsome.
Handsome in the way that nothing that was entirely, good-old-fashioned, vanilla human could ever be.
His face was perfect. His face was perfectly symmetrical, his hair was perfectly combed, his skin perfectly clear. Even his robes were perfectly ironed. Perfect, as if painted by a middling artist. Good enough to look just like a human, but not good enough to look like a person. The boy looked... unfinished. There wasn't a freckle, pimple, pore, or any sort of blemish on him.
A middling artist... or a dabbling illusionist.
Slytherin's Monster was on them.
That much was obvious to Hermione.
She'd heard it slither past just a moment ago, hissing as it went. It had almost knocked over the decorative suit of armour she was hiding behind, which, unfortunately, she shared with Draco Malfoy. Mordenkainen the rat sat on her shoulder.
"What's going on?" Draco whispered.
"Shhh!" Hermione hissed.
Harry and Ron were hiding in an identical alcove just across the hall, or, at least, had been running there last time Hermione's eyes had been open.
If only she could figure out just what the creature was. It mostly sounded like a basilisk—the sheer size of the creature, based off the noise it made, backed that up—but basilisks killed people with a look, they didn't Petrify them. Milo, who had handled most of the research on the monsters in the first half of the alphabet, had insisted it couldn't possibly be a basilisk. If only she could somehow ask McGonagall, she'd seemed to know immediately what it was.
And, for that matter, how was the bloody beast getting around? The monster sounded enormous. It would be noticed immediately if it just slithered down the main hallways, so it had to have some alternate route. Of course, Hogwarts was chock full of secret passages and rooms. For all she knew, it could have its own secret network riddled throughout the school, connected to the Chamber of Secrets at its heart. Or, actually, maybe the Chamber was a network of secret tunnels.
She dismissed that train of thought. If the Chamber was so massive and pervasive, it would have been discovered long since, secret or no. Heck, the damage done by the Troll last year would probably have revealed it.
More likely the monster was utilizing a more obvious way of sneaking around. A second set of passages that mirrored Hogwarts' actual hallways, that allowed one to pass unseen. One that people couldn't—or wouldn't use.
The answer to that question was fairly obvious. Well, obvious to her, at least. The pipes. There were multiple bathrooms on every floor, and some places, such as Snape's potion dungeon and the greenhouses, had additional requirements for water. The monster could be moving unseen through the pipes of the school, where nobody would think to look.
No, that was ridiculous. There wasn't a chance that a creature as big as this one could fit through ordinary plumbing. She'd seen the pipes in the walls and under the floor when her parents had renovated their house three years ago. An ordinary snake would have trouble fitting through most of those. Could the monster perhaps shrink?
Hogwarts was magic to the core. The lamps and torches on the walls never needed relighting or replacing. The hinges never needed oiling. The paintings never faded.
And the toilets never, ever backed up.
Could it be that the pipes themselves could expand? It wouldn't even be that hard. If a simple Growth Charm in Transfigurations could double the size of a rat, why couldn't one double the width of a pipe? It would have to detect when the pipe was blocked and expand as needed, increasing the complexity slightly, but that was hardly beyond the skill of the founders.
Especially if one of them had ulterior motives.
Expanding pipes was only one possibility. Likely the founders had access to spells with capabilities Hermione had never even heard of.
But the closest bathroom was on the far side of the floor. It didn't explain how it could get close enough to Petrify Crabbe and Goyle without being spotted by anyone. Well. Anyone who spotted it would be Petrified or dead, but surely someone would have seen the bodies by now.
Hermione frowned. Could the monster have another set of secret passages?
There used to be a little-used hallway that ran right from the girl's bathroom on this floor to the library. It was a handy shortcut she used on long days spent in the library.
But the hallway had been one of several that disappeared in autumn. Flitwick had still been unable to determine what had happened to them; it was written up as typical mysterious Hogwarts behaviour.
But what if that hallway was still there? What if it was just... hidden?
A horrible thought struck Hermione.
Milo had used his illusion magic to hide several hallways, hadn't he? It was one of the precautions he'd taken in securing their War Room.
Where was Milo, anyway?
"Who the hell are you?" Milo asked, his words muffled somewhat by the magic bucket on his head. He was well aware that he looked patently ridiculous, but, in fairness, he hadn't expected to encounter Mr. Charisma down here. He hadn't exactly dressed for company. Besides, this boy, whoever he was, would make even high-level, ultra-fashionable Bards and Sorcerers insecure.
"I," the boy said, "am Tom Riddle."
He said it like someone might say 'I am your King,' or even 'the Lord, your God.'
"Is that supposed to mean anything to me?" Milo asked. "Because I still have no idea who you are." Or what you are. Still, the name did seem familiar.
"But I know exactly who you are," Riddle said. "Milo Amastacia-Liadon, Wizard from beyond. The boy with no past, and no dreams beyond power. The Sorting Hat made a mistake, with you. You would have done very well in my house."
It didn't take a genius to figure out which house that was. "You're the Heir of Slytherin," Milo said.
Riddle bowed in a manner so elegant it would have shamed the knights of Myra (City of Light! City of Magic!). "The one and only," he said, then laughed. "Miss Granger was wrong, you know. There aren't thousands of us. The line of Slytherin was never a prolific one. There are but seven of us."
"How do you know what Hermione said?" Milo asked.
"I listened in," Riddle admitted. "Terribly rude of me, I know. It's a flaw I have."
"Are you... a ghost?" Milo asked. It was the only way he could see Riddle managing to spy on him without getting caught. Ghosts can move through walls, so, if Riddle was a ghost, he could simply lurk inside the wall, out of sight.
"A ghost? No. Not a ghost. A memory. Preserved in a diary for fifty years."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Milo said.
"No," replied Riddle. "I'm quite serious."
"I would like to register a complaint," Milo said to the ceiling.
"Oh? I'm all ears," Riddle said.
"No, not with you. I'll get to you in a minute." Milo said, still looking up. "This was poorly foreshadowed! Who the hell is this Riddle character? What happened fifty years ago? What in the Prime Material plane does it mean to be a memory of all things? For gods' sakes, at least when I went up against Quirrell, I knew who the hell he was, at least. Bad form."
"Who are you talking to?" Riddle asked. "You must realize your gods can't help you here."
"Screw the gods," Milo said to Riddle. "I'm going over their heads. The DM really fumbled this one."
"Dimensional Maestro. Whatever. Bring out your damn snake so I can kill it, already."
"My Basilisk isn't here right now," Riddle said.
"Of course it is," Milo said. "I used magic to pinpoint its location. It's in this room somewhere; there's no use hiding it."
"The Basilisk is on Hogwarts' second floor," Riddle said matter-of-factly. "It's in the hallway between the old Transfiguration classroom and the library, killing your friends."
"What?" Milo said. "That's impossible. My Divinations..."
"Lied to you, I'm afraid." Riddle flashed him a smile. "Or rather, I did. I do that sometimes. It's another flaw of mine."
Milo rolled his eyes. "All right, all right. Out with it."
"You know you want to. You've got that look. Adventurer's can spot them quicker than they can spot the Rogue going for their purses. You're just dying to monologue at me. So out with it. I even promise to say 'you fiend!' and 'you'll never get away with this!' at the opportune moments, if you want. Then I get to kill you. See? Something in it for the both of us. We both go home happy. Well, sort of."
"Why should I... monologue... when you already know what happened?" Riddle asked.
Milo rolled his eyes. "Fine, fine. We'll do it your way. So your name is Tom Riddle and you're a memory in a..." Milo finally realized where he'd seen the name Tom Riddle before. He suddenly felt very small. Very small indeed. Small and overconfident. "...in a diary."
"Now you're catching on," Riddle said.
"It was that book we found on Quirrell, wasn't it?" Milo asked. "Last year, when he went after the Philosopher's Stone. He had the diary." It all seemed so obvious, now. "That's the book the Death Eaters were after. They snuck in, posing as students, to get you."
Riddle smiled. "Go on," he said, as if talking to a favourite dog. "You're getting it, now."
"The diary that... that I..."
"Just say it," Riddle said. "The first step, when you have a problem, is admitting it, I've been told. Or was it the last step? It's the same in the end, either way."
Milo's voice fell to a whisper. He felt weak, as if the he'd been drained by a Wight. Somewhere in the unimportant background, his sword clattered to the ground. "But I was protected!" he said desperately. "I'm wearing an amulet!"
"But you weren't always wearing it, were you?" Riddle asked. "You took it off..."
"When I freed Quirrel," Milo said. He slid against the wall. Dimly, he was aware that Riddle seemed to be getting more substantial, more real, as they spoke. "I clamped my own amulet around his neck to free him of You-Know-Who's influence. I was vulnerable. I..."
"I made another amulet!" Milo practically shouted, pulling it out from under his robes. The Eye of Boccob carved on the amulet seemed to wink at him reassuringly. "I'm wearing it right now!" Milo pulled himself together and stood up. He hadn't realized he was on the floor. "Kelgore's Fire Bolt!" he shouted. He didn't care that it wasn't the most efficient or effective spell. He wanted that smug, perfect face to burn.
Milo blinked. That was weird.
"Glitterdust!" Nothing. "Evard's Black Tentacles!" Nothing. "Summon Skeletal Troll!" Nothing. He didn't understand. He executed the somatic and verbal components perfectly. His Dancing Lights were still floating around, so he wasn't in an antimagic field. It was as if he was out of spell slots, but that was impossible. He'd been keeping track of them rigorously. He had plenty of spells left for today. Didn't he?
"The funny thing about your abominable brand of magic," Riddle said, "is that it's based on memory. You memorize your spells in the morning, and you forget them when you cast. You have to remember what spells you have ready and what you don't. And of all people, I know best the strength of a memory. The strength... and the weaknesses." Riddle smiled again. "In particular, memories are all too easy to... forget."
"The amulet is cursed," Milo realized. He'd had a similar idea when making amulets for the Ministry. "You made me make a cursed amulet. It works against everything but you. I did it right after I..."
There was no use denying it any further. Milo knew exactly what had happened.
"I cast Scholar's Touch. I read your book."
"You did more than just read it," Riddle said. "You did what nobody's ever done before. You read every page. Every page. Every possible page. Everything that I could ever say, ever do, ever remember. Everything. Every possibility. You didn't just read me," Riddle said, "you copied me."
"That's impossible," Milo said flatly. "Scholar's Touch specifically has no effect when reading a magical book. It's right there in the description."
"But I wasn't magical, was I?" Riddle said. "Not in the way the designers of that spell meant, anyway. Not magical in the way you and your... kind are concerned."
"But the creators of the spell clearly intended it to prevent this sort of..." Milo trailed off. He couldn't believe that he of all people just resorted to an argument that hinged on the intent of the text. It made him feel slightly dirty, as if he'd betrayed his core principles. In a way, he had.
Milo suddenly remembered something that made this so much worse. "The original," he said. "Ron was going to give it to Ginny."
"Just a ratty old book, now," Riddle shrugged. "I checked. Or rather, you did. One of many things you've since conveniently forgotten. I could tell you why, but, well, then I'd have to kill you."
"So why not tell me anyway?" Milo asked. "I mean, what have you got to lose? It's not like I could tell anybody, even if I wanted to." It was the bane of villains everywhere: they're all just dying to tell you their clever plans. How else will they get the appreciation they desperately crave?
"Fair point," Riddle said. "But I think the explanation would be quite wasted on you. It all revolves around souls, of course, and you know less than nothing about those anyway. Believe me, I'd know. I was in your head all year. Let's just say it takes a... special sort of ritual to split a soul, and you weren't up to it. So I was transferred, rather than copied."
"So... why?" Milo asked. "You were Petrifying people completely at random. Why bother? How could that possibly help you?"
"Why, revenge, of course," Riddle said. "As well as planning for the future."
"Ah," Milo said. "Dumbledore."
"Exactly. When it came time for my triumphant return, I would need Dumbledore out of the way. Dumbledore was always most powerful as a figurehead, a rallying point. I could simply kill him, of course, but that would just make a martyr out of him."
"So you disgraced him," Milo said. "Made him seem incompetent. Like he didn't care about the safety of people's children."
"Naturally. I can always kill him later. Then I had to take out his Deputy, because, well, she's his puppet, obviously. I wanted Hogwarts under someone more... amenable to my position. Snape would do nicely. I couldn't simply kill the undesirables, no matter how much I wanted to, or they'd close down my school. So I had to Petrify them. You would not believe the lengths I've had to go through to set that up. It was a fine line to walk, but it's quite beside the point now."
"That doesn't explain what you meant by revenge," Milo said. "Or why the Basilisk is upstairs, fighting my friends."
"Killing," Riddle snapped. "Killing your friends."
There was a crash and a series of tinkles, as if glass had been broken. Then again, and again. What was going on? What was the monster breaking? The only thing Harry could think of that was glass nearby were the picture frames, but why would Slytherin's monster attack them? Where was Milo? Had the monster got him? Was he enacting a clever plan?
"What do we do?" Ron whispered.
"I could distract it," Harry whispered back, "while you put on my Cloak and run for help. Try to find Flitwick or Sprout. Or even Lockhart, I guess."
"What," Ron said, "and leave you to get eaten by a giant bloody snake? Not likely. How about I distract it while you run for help?"
"Stop being such a bloody Gryffindor," Harry said. "I'm a better duellist than you. It should be me that fights it."
"The snake's resistant to magic and you know it," Ron said. "How about we both slink away under the Cloak?"
"And leave Hermione to the snake? Besides, Milo said magic items only work on one person."
"Then how about Draco distracts it while all three of us escape under the Cloak?"
"Oh!" Ron said. "Use Parseltongue!"
"What?" Harry asked.
"You're a Parselmouth! Tell it to go away. Or eat Malfoy, then go away."
"Ron, you're a genius!" Harry couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it earlier. Of course he should use his snake-controlling ability to control the giant snake monster. It was blindingly obvious. He fished the Cloak out from his school bag. "Here, hang on to this," he said, pushing it into Ron's hands.
"Oy!" Harry shouted into the hallway. "Slytherin's Monster! Bugger off!"
"English!" Ron hissed frantically. "That was just English!"
Harry tried to concentrate—though he wasn't sure what to concentrate on, he'd never really been aware of when he was speaking Parseltongue and when he wasn't—and spoke again.
"Beast of Slytherin!" he tried again. "Begone!"
"Yup," Ron said. "Snake language, that time.
The sound of breaking glass stopped.
"what's this? the master? has the Power... but different..."
"I'm your master, now! Begone!" Harry shouted again. Or at least he thought he did; he wasn't entirely certain what it sounded like to Ron.
"...come out then, young master..." Slytherin's Monster replied. "...let me see you... so I will know who to spare..."
"What's happening?" Ron asked.
"It wants me to come out," Harry said.
"Fat chance of that," Ron muttered.
"Yeah..." Harry whispered back. "I have a plan. Run when you get the chance, right? Right."
"What? Hold up!" Ron said.
Harry stood up and drew his wand. The monster was obviously playing a trick on him—it had all the subtlety of a nursery rhyme villain—but he might be able to buy time enough for the others to get away.
Something hard and heavy hit him in the forehead. It was so surprising that he couldn't help but flinch.
Harry's eyes snapped open reflexively, if only for a millisecond. It was long enough, however.
He saw a snake, but not the one he was expecting.
Carved onto the back of the wooden picture frame was a small, neat glyph of a snake in sepia.
"Your name isn't Tom Riddle, is it?" Milo asked. "Not anymore."
"No, it isn't," Riddle answered, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Voldemort," Milo spat. "You're after Harry because he killed you."
It only lasted for a moment. Under other circumstances, Milo would have attributed it to a trick of the light, but it was impossible. The light here was green; there's no way it could have made Riddle's eyes flash red.
"That raving lunatic upstairs said it," Riddle said. "I thought he was mistaken, so I made you Apparate away—"
"Teleport," Milo said. "By means of the Astral Plane. Please, get your facts right."
"So I made you teleport away and interrogated you. Turns out he was right, somehow. I'd always assumed it was Dumbledore who put an end to me, the other me. He's the only one who it made even a lick of sense to have done it."
"Which explains the revenge aspect," Milo said. "That must sting, though. Finding out you'd been undone by a newborn." Milo knew he was in no position to talk; he'd been defeated by a book.
"A two-year-old, thank you very much," Riddle bristled.
"Oh, well then. That made all the difference, I'm sure. He must have over-powered you, with his superior strength and cunning."
"I'd show some respect, if I were you," Riddle snapped, brandishing what Milo recognized finally as that carried by the Death Eater he had switched places with.
"What have you ever done that deserves respect?" Milo asked. "You were defeated by an infant."
"You're attempting to goad me into rash action," Riddle said, lowering his wand. "It won't work. I'm well aware that, for the moment, I need you alive or I will cease to be."
"For the moment?"
"For the moment. Shortly, the point will be moot. I continue to grow in strength, and you will fade. In a matter of minutes, young Wizard, you will die, and I will rise again. It's been very inconvenient, operating through you. You can't do any magic—real magic—whatsoever, so I've had to rely on your inferior variety. Then there's that rat you have such an unwholesome relationship with. That pest was almost my undoing. How would I ever get you alone with it tagging along? Then you made a blunder."
"The Sorting," Milo realized. "I left him to keep an eye on it while I went to spy on Lockhart."
"And do certain other things, as it turned out. Favours for me, you could say." Riddle smiled. "You made your first visit here on that day, before returning. I implanted the idea in your head to use that rat to patrol the corridors at night, freeing you for my purposes. From that moment, your soul was mine. I could implant ideas, and smother others. Didn't you ever wonder why you never thought to investigate the last opening of the Chamber? That it never led you to that great oaf Hagrid?" Riddle grinned wickedly. "When was the last time you saw Hagrid anyway, Milo? The lack of... foreshadowing... you were complaining about earlier? That was my doing. You're mine now, freak."
"And you used me to... what, take out Peeves? For what possible reason?"
"To test my control of the Basilisk using you as a proxy," Riddle said. "If it went poorly and the Basilisk got out of control, it wouldn't do enough serious damage to have the school shut down. Well, likely not. Besides, I despise that poltergeist. There is no place for it in my new world."
"So, now what? Take out the Boy Who Lived so there will be nothing standing in the way of your return?"
"Precisely," Riddle said. "And thanks to you, I've even got my very own cell of Death Eaters, following my every order, heralding my return."
"Oh," Milo said. "Crap. That's why I let them go. You made me do it."
"And as my first act as their new leader," Riddle said, "I will sow the seeds of death and chaos. I'm afraid the Muggles are in for a bad day. Their first of many."
The other police filed back into the room, pulling down their intimidating black balaclavas, and reported. The team leaders—McTavish, Buckley, and Lyndon—said they hadn't found anyone else.
"But the kitchen was empty," Lyndon, a tough brunette who might have been pretty if her nose hadn't been so severely broken, said. "As in, really empty. Bare shelves. Didn't they say that we found this guy because he was at a supermarket?"
"Yeah..." Fiona said. "Huh." She frowned. "Did anybody find a wand anywhere? A plain wooden stick of about a foot or less?"
There was a collection of shrugs.
Fiona patted Carrow down. There was a pocket sewn into his robe that looked like it might be a wand holster, but it was empty.
What the heck? If she had a little stick that gave her unrivalled supernatural powers, she'd make certain it was always within easy reach. In fact, she'd probably get a spare, just in case.
"I think—" McTavish said. Fiona never did find out what it was that he thought, because Baldwin shot him in the head.
The lights flickered out, and there was a short series of loud, popping noises. The door slammed shut.
Then the dying started.
The world flickered green and black, like a strobe light of death.
The moment the lights went out, Fiona had hit the ground. She knew what was coming.
Some of the other officers either hadn't taken her warnings seriously, or they hadn't had the time to act. She saw Buckley and a pair of policemen whose names she didn't know—a fact she deeply regretted, now—collapse, limp.
She wasn't sure who started it, but someone panicked and started shooting. Others joined in soon after. Uneven, staccato bursts of panic fire further lit up the unnaturally dark room. She cursed whatever idiot was doing it—in the mad lighting and chaos, they were as likely to hit one of their own as... well, as whoever was doing the magic. Unless they weren't acting under their own will. She was sure Baldwin, at least, was under their spell.
There was a pounding on the front door, a solid, rhythmic sound. It took her a moment to realize it was from a police battering ram. She'd never before heard what that sounded like from this side of the door. But it meant help was coming, at least.
The pounding continued.
Or was it? It had only taken them a single hit to open the door the first time, and it had been locked. The door was a cheap, faux-wood model. No earthly force could keep intact under that kind of impact.
She was trapped.
"You've made a mistake," Milo said. "A critical mistake. Four, actually."
"And what might they be?" Riddle asked.
"Mistake one," Milo said, holding up one finger. "Snakes aren't the only animals that hunt by smell."
"Now!" Hermione shouted. She heard a slight whoosh as the rat on her shoulder fired one of his bracer-launched knuts.
Slytherin's Monster was resistant to magic. Hermione had to assume that covered Milo's sort of magic as well as her own, so monster would ignore the Explosive Runes scratched onto the knut as if it were a light sea breeze. It was a hopelessly futile plan that would, at best, distract it for a moment before it ate the lot of them.
But that was why Mordenkainen, who had pinpointed the monster by its distinctive scent, hadn't fired at the snake itself.
It had fired at the ceiling above it.
Multiple tonnes of ancient stone bricks poured down onto the monster. The dust and wind from the rock avalanche was enough to make Hermione stagger backwards.
"Did we get it, Mordy?" Hermione asked. "One squeak yes, two squeaks no."
Hermione let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
She could hear stones rolling over each other, now. If only she could see. She had no idea what was going on...
A thought struck her.
"Harry!" she said. "Pass me the Cloak!"
"Uh," it was Ron's voice. "It sort of... got Harry."
"What?" Hermione was shocked. When had that happened? Had the monster killed one of her only friends while she cowered behind a suit of armour? "What do you mean?"
"He's stuck in one of those... one of Milo's amber things," Ron said. "Like the one in Gryffindor Tower."
"Then we're dead," Hermione said. She could hear more bricks rolling off of each other. One touched her foot, making her jump. That Cloak had been her only plan.
"Squeak squeak squeak squeak!" Mordy kept insisting.
"He gave it to me," Ron said. "Here..." She heard footsteps as Ron blindly staggered in her general direction. She reached about with her arms clumsily to try and find him. It was like playing a morbid game of Marco Polo.
Eventually, her hands brushed his shoulder, and he passed Harry's Invisibility Cloak into her hands.
"Wingardium Leviosa. I'm going to float this thing over the snake's head. If it's head is invisible, we don't need to worry about meeting its gaze. So, Mordy, squeak once if I should go left, twice if I should go right..." Then she realized, abruptly, how stupid that plan was. Mordy could smell, he couldn't see. There was no way he would be able to pinpoint the location of the Cloak in the air that way.
More debris rolled across the floor.
"SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEAK!"
"Fire another one!"
There was second blast, and stone flew everywhere. The next thing Hermione knew, a freight train slammed into her.
Hermione was flung from her feet and landed awkwardly on her side before sliding into something solid and mercilessly unyielding.
"Mistake two," Milo said. He was lying on the ground. When had that happened? "Muggles are pretty badass." Milo had already made that particular mistake, once.
Fiona hadn't waited for the magic to start before she dropped to the ground. The visibility was poor, the situation was confusing, the enemy's capabilities were unknown and friend and foe were mixed haphazardly. It was complete, utter, merciless, unmitigated chaos.
But there was no reason that that couldn't work for her as well as it did for these wizards.
Nobody was paying any attention to her. There were people dropping left and right; what was one more harmless Muggle?
The wizards were using mobility and deception as their primary defence. They were Apparating or Disapparating or whatever whenever one of the surviving policemen or women aimed at them, and more often than not by the time the trigger was pulled, the police hit nothing but the wall. It was fast. Anarchic. They were nigh-unhittable.
But they weren't invincible.
Fiona saw Lyndon make a snap-shot connect with one robed figure's shin before he could Disapparate. The wizard's leg buckled underneath him, and he fell to the floor in a cry of pain. Another wizard grabbed the first and winked out of existence. A moment later, when he returned, it was alone.
The wizard aimed his wand directly at Lyndon's back. She would be dead in seconds, and she had no idea. There was nothing she could do, even if she knew.
Fortunately, Lyndon wasn't alone. The wizard had made the critical error of Apparating within a meter of Fiona, presuming her dead.
Fiona kicked the wizard in the knee with everything she had, which was probably overkill. Knees have to support a lot of weight but also have a wide range of mobility, and as a result they're extremely vulnerable. The kneecap popped, and the wizard screamed in agony as he fell to the ground. Fiona grabbed the wand from his hand and tossed it across the room.
A masked witch noticed Fiona's surprise attack and aimed her wand at her, already in the process of casting a spell. In desperation, Fiona grabbed the fallen wizard by the shoulders and rolled him on top of her. The wizard put up a struggle, but had absolutely no sense of the co-ordination and control needed in a hand-to-hand struggle like this. There was a green flash, and the wizard went limp in Fiona's arms.
The momentary distraction was all Lyndon needed. Her gun roared and the witch crumpled.
Two more wizards and another witch whirled to aim at Lyndon, but she dived through the door into the next room over. Green pinpricks of light shot through the open doorway after her.
That left Fiona as the only active officer left in the room. Baldwin was still standing with his gun in hand, aiming at empty space. He hadn't moved since killing McTavish. Evidently, the witch or wizard controlling him had other things on their mind. Cooper lay propped up by the door to the kitchen, bleeding from a bullet wound to the gut.
Fiona was about to die. That was the long and the short of it. There were now five cold killers of supernatural power aiming lethal weapons at her, and she was largely without cover, save for the corpse of their friend lying on top of her. She'd been told, largely from movies, that in such situations time slowed down. As if she would have the good fortune. Her heart pounded, and she could taste nothing but adrenaline. Time seemed to be going faster and faster, as if in a race with her racing heartbeat.
It was an awkward angle, but she could probably draw her handgun from beneath the dead wizard. Not that it would do much could—she was a lousy shot. Ordinary British police generally didn't carry firearms, and the only reason she had one now was because McTavish had insisted she not be defenceless. If she could just take out the one that was controlling Baldwin, then he could potentially help. Or if she got the one keeping the door closed, maybe it would allow the reinforcements hammering at the door to get in. The only problem—well, aside from those previously mentioned—was that she had no idea who it was who was doing that. Come to think of it, she didn't even know if the spell would end if its caster died.
Screw that, she decided. She had time to do one thing, and that one thing didn't necessarily need to keep her from dying. All she needed to do was distract them, and hope that Lyndon—if she was still alive—could take it from there.
Fiona ripped a flashbang grenade from her vest and tossed it in the general direction of the cluster of dark wizards and witches.
The stun grenade would certainly daze the murderers into inaction. They would be disoriented, blind, and deaf. Using magic or Disapparating would be impossible.
It was the winning move.
The only problem, a teeny little glitch in the overall plan, was that the grenade had a two-second fuse.
Fiona estimated that it only took about a second, a second and a half tops, to cast a killing curse.
A gun roared once, twice, three times.
Here's the thing about gunshots. All loud noises, really. Unless you're used to them—and it's very hard to get used to them—it's extremely difficult not to look around for their source when you hear one. At the very least, its nigh-impossible not to flinch, even a little. It's a hindbrain response, a gut instinct. You can't avoid it just by being tough or menacing, you have to be trained to be used to it.
And Fiona would bet her life—was betting her life, really—that not one of these Ringwraith-wannabes had ever had their headgear slip on the firing range.
A little flinch. But when all you're aiming with is a wand that weighs an ounce or two at the largest and your hand is already shaking from adrenaline and panting and two of your comrades had just died in front of you and its dark and beneath everything you're scared...
Well, sometimes a little flinch is all it takes.
Fiona kicked the dead wizard from off of her and dived left, landing in a roll. She could tell by the fact that she was still alive that the death curses had missed her.
Fiona had a split-second to remember to slam her eyes shut and cover her ears.
Then the world went white.
"Mistake three," Milo held up a third finger. He had to use his left hand to support his right, now. "Hermione Granger."
"Ron?" Hermione called out tentatively.
There was no response.
Her left arm hurt. It hurt so much that simply saying 'it hurt' seemed laughably inaccurate. It really, really hurt. The pain in her arm was her whole world. She suspected she'd been hit by one of the falling rocks.
"Malfoy?" she asked.
"Y-yes?" Draco stammered back.
"How about you run and get help?"
Judging by the footsteps, Draco was gone faster than the snacks at a ten-year Hufflepuff reunion party. Hermione wanted nothing more than to follow him, but that would leave Ron and Harry to the creature. Assuming, of course, they were alive. She only had Milo's increasingly-suspicious word that the Snake Sigil spell was harmless, and she had no idea what had happened to Ron.
"Do you still know where the Cloak is?"
"Squeak squeak." Curses. It probably wound up buried, or worse, wrapped around a rock or something. It could take hours to find, if so.
"Do you have any more of those knuts?"
"Figures. You got anything else up your sle—"
"SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEAK!"
The monster moved. Clearly, it had finally freed itself from the mountain of rubble Mordy had dropped on it.
A creature as big as this one seemed—and Hermione really was just guessing here; she'd obviously never seen it—would likely have a hard time manoeuvring in the narrow hallway. Its speed wouldn't help it, then. Actually, it might work against it: there was every possibility it would keep moving past her for a second or two if she could just avoid its initial charge.
Hermione, panicking, decided to roll to the left, which was sort of a mixed bag as it turned out. On the one hand, she was still alive, which meant she'd avoided the monster. On the other hand, she'd placed the weight of her whole body on her injured limb, which was bad. Really bad.
Hermione screamed and clutched her shoulder reflexively, which just seemed to make things worse. The rest of the world seemed distant, unimportant, compared to the agony of her arm.
By the time she'd managed to refocus, she'd already squandered her brief advantage.
The basilisk—she was pretty certain that's what it was, it being obvious if you ignored everything Milo had said—was coming back towards her.
Panicked, she reached about with her good arm for something, anything, with which to defend herself. It was futile, she knew, but what else could she do?
She could smell the creature, now. A foul stench of death and decay mixed with an open cesspool that made her want to gag.
She felt a crushing weight on her legs as it slithered on top of her, its hot, damp breath smelling of rotten meat. It hissed something unintelligible in Parseltongue, wrapping her up in its coils. She could imagine its hooked, fanged maw opening up to swallow her like a mouse.
Her hand grasped something cold, round, and heavy. She had no idea what it was, but she swung with everything she could, putting her whole body into it.
Hermione barely felt any resistance at all. The hissing stopped, followed by a pair of heavy thuds. Hermione shuffled out from under the still snake, finally daring to open her eyes.
The basilisk was dead. Really, incredibly dead. She doubted, in fact, that anything could possibly be more dead.
Its head was completely severed from its body; scales, flesh, and bone sheared through like a knife through warm cliché.
In her right hand, she held a ridiculously ornate sword. Its golden hilt was studded with rubies, and its blade shone like silver. It belonged in a museum, or, frankly, on the Queen's wall. A clinical, investigative part of her brain noted idly that its handle must have been enchanted—it didn't slip despite her hand being coated in sweat.
She recognized it, of course. There was a picture of the Sword of Godric Gryffindor in the chapter headings of Hogwarts: A History. She remembered thinking that it must have been an artist taking liberties; no non-ceremonial weapon would be so... garish.
Clearly, she'd been wrong. It had cut through the basilisk so cleanly that there wasn't even any blood on the blade. It was like Slytherin's Monster had only realized it was dead afterwards.
Where in Merlin's name had it come from?
She tabled that mystery for later, first going to check on Ron and Harry.
Harry was, as Ron said, trapped in the telltale amber force field of Milo's Sepia Snake Sigil. This meant, horrifyingly, that he would miss the Charms exam next week—assuming the spell would actually end when Milo said it would. Milo... she'd deal with him, later.
Ron was sprawled across the floor, an ugly welt on his head. He was breathing, but apparently unconscious. He could have serious internal injuries or a fractured skull, but Hermione wasn't certain either how to check or what she should do if he did, so decided to wait for Madam Pomfrey to handle it if Draco ever actually returned with help.
Mordy was sniffing the sword curiously. He was so coated in dust that he looked gray rather than brown. He looked slightly battered, but otherwise fine. Hermione wasn't particularly worried—Mordenkainen worked like Milo did. As long as he wasn't actually dead, he'd recover in a few days.
At some point, she'd have to find her wand, the Invisibility Cloak, give the Sword of Godric Gryffindor to the proper authorities, and explain why there was a schoolbus-sized dead snake in the hallway, but first, she decided, lying down seemed very attractive.
"Mistake four," Milo said. He couldn't even raise his hand, anymore. "Your last mistake. And it's a big one."
Riddle kicked Milo squarely in the stomach.
"And what could that possibly be?" he asked, his wand pointed at Milo's forehead. "What mistake could I have possibly made that will save you, now? The process is almost complete. Your soul is mine. All I have to do is finish you off, and I will be free, and you will be dead. You are alone. You have no weapons, no magic, no tricks, no power, and no friends. You are completely, utterly, pathetically helpless."
Milo grinned. "You'll see."
Riddle shrugged. "Crucio."
There is no adequate way to convey what the Cruciatus Curse feels like, because it doesn't feel like anything. It's easy to describe what a burn feels like because most people know what it feels like. Anyone who's learned to cook know the feeling when some boiling hot water or oil flies out of the pot and sears your arm. Anyone who's fallen on concrete knows what a skinned knee feels like.
Nobody who hasn't experienced the Cruciatus Curse firsthand—fortunately, a very small pool of people—can imagine what it feels like.
The Cruciatus Curse isn't, for example, the physical equivalent of being cursed with the last breath of a dying loved one. It isn't that because it's quite possible for the human brain to imagine what that feels like with a reasonable degree of accuracy, extrapolating from past experiences. And it isn't like being slowly dipped into boiling hot water, or like being lit on fire, because massive physical trauma will eventually sever nerve connections. At the very least, they will eventually cease functioning as intended. The Cruciatus Curse will keep your nerves functioning perfectly for the duration. The Cruciatus Curse causes the Platonic ideal of pain. All other pains are but imperfect approximations of what the Cruciatus Curse can cause.
But for all of that, it's only pain, and pain is only a feeling. Pain is a signal from your nerves to your brain for your benefit. It is to teach you that what you were doing was stupid, and you shouldn't do it again.
But people knew that, and it doesn't stop them from giving in to pain. People betray families, ideals, and nations to escape pain. But those are the people of this world, this plane.
To the people of Milo's world, pain is something else entirely.
Some feelings are real. Fear is real, and it could make or break battles. Exhaustion is real. Courage is real, and is a Bard's most powerful weapon. Temperature, hunger, and thirst are real.
But pain? Pain is imaginary. There is no status effect called 'Pain'. One of the few spells that weaponizes pain, Symbol of Pain, is deadly not for the torment it causes, but the hefty penalty to attack rolls it imposes. Pain isn't even fluff. Pain is less than fluff.
Pain is roleplaying.
Milo shut down the part of his character that cared about pain for the moment. The agony was still there, but it simple ceased to matter. He stopped thrashing around on the ground.
"Crucio," he cast again. "CRUCIO."
Free of the pain, Milo was able to consider his plan. It was a gamble, but if it worked, it would be Riddle's death blow.
It was memory. This was all about memory. Riddle was a memory, and he was controlling Milo through his memories. Milo's memories were malleable; they could, demonstrably, be removed and altered. Riddle could make Milo forget his memorized spells (or, and Milo found this more likely but less glamorous, make him repeatedly cast them at the wall until they were gone and then make him forget).
But there was a part of every adventurer's memories that were sacred, and no force in the multiverse could affect them. The gods couldn't touch it, and not even the Destiny Manipulator had any power there.
The greatest weapon of adventurers is not their weapons, or their magic, or their skills, their feats, their powers, or their class features.
It is their backstory.
There are constraints on a backstory. A backstory cannot grant any information not represented by the appropriate Knowledge skill, a backstory cannot grant any possessions beyond starting gold, and a backstory cannot grant followers beyond those attainable by Leadership.
But a backstory can do pretty much anything else.
As long as it happened before he became an adventurer, Milo could remember pretty much whatever he wanted.
Riddle was preparing to cast his death curse, but that didn't matter to Milo. If talking is a free action, then thinking sure as hell is.
Harry Potter defeated the greatest dark wizard that ever lived using his backstory, and right now, Milo was in a position to do exactly the same thing.
All it would cost him is his mother.
All Milo needed to do was remember that his mother had given her life to save him from a dark wizard, and he was protected, the same as Harry.
He might even 'remember' that he had a cool, magic scar. Adventurers love cool scars.
That would be all it took. If Milo did that, he would walk away from this unscathed, and Voldemort would once more be defeated.
"My mother..." Milo said. Or tried to, anyway. His throat felt terribly weak.
All it would cost him was something he didn't really have to begin with. Unless he specifically remembered doing so, he effectively had no family. It wasn't as if was sacrificing anything. It wasn't as if he was killing her, was it? For all intents and purposes, she didn't even exist, yet. Most adventurers were orphans, or missing at least one parent. It wasn't like Milo would be unusual in that regard. It was easier, that way. Fewer names to think of for one's backstory.
"What was that?" Riddle asked. "Crying for your mother already, are we? I'm terribly disappointed. Not surprised, mind. But disappointed." Riddle—no, Voldemort—pinned Milo to the ground with his foot and pointed his wand directly at Milo's forehead. "No matter. Stoic or begging, It's all the same once I kill you."
Milo knew what he had to do. It was the smart thing to do. The rational thing to do. The optimal thing to do. What was one semi-existent life in comparison to the death and destruction that a second Voldemort would wreak? The choice was obvious, after weighing the pros and cons for even a moment.
Milo cleared his throat. He could taste blood. "My mother is a baker." A baker. That was good. It explained Milo's newfound obsession with sweets. "Her name is Ley Amastacia, and she's famed far and wide for her gourmet desserts." He was new at this. Untested. "She's a retired Wizard, but she refuses to use magic to assist in her baking. She says she likes it better that way, that using magic ruins the fun of it. Besides, she wants to be able to say she's the best without resorting to performance-enhancing spells. It's something I never understood until right now. But none of that's what's important. The important thing is she's happy. She misses me, but she's got my dad, my brothers, and my sisters. She's happy. She's really, incredibly, obnoxiously happy and there's not a damn thing you can do about that."
"Fascinating," Voldemort said. "Avada Kedavra."
Author's Notes: Yes, this is the end of Part Two (saving an Epilogue, coming soon), but no, it is not the end of Milo's adventures or of Harry Potter and the Natural 20. Stay tuned for Part Three, tentatively named Harry Potter and the Save-Or-Die, coming in Summer.
One fundamental flaw with traditional paper novels is that you always know exactly how close you are to the end of the book, simply by virtue of there being few pages left. In that sense, it was refreshing to write in a medium such as this, because the end could be a surprise (especially because HP books traditionally end in early summer/late spring, not early winter).
I would like to thank everybody for the awesome reviews, kind PMs, suggestions, and support! You guys are just about the best community of readers an author could ask for. It was especially fun seeing people's reactions to some of Milo's more obvious Possession-induced fumbles and their guesses as to why he would be acting that way. I branched out a little further from canon in this book, adding in a subplot with original characters (always a risk in any fan work), but I think it worked out overall, so don't be surprised if things diverge a little further in the future.
tl;dr: You guys are awesome and should feel awesome. Epilogue and sequel coming soon.