It occurred to Hermione that her meetings with Malfoy were the perfect opportunity to try and find more Horcruxes. He knew far more about Dark objects than she, Harry, and Ron combined; and his familiarity with magical folklore was an advantage that she did not possess. Of course, she could never tell him what she was researching. But she was already asking him tons of questions about Dark legends—a few more would hardly strike him as out of the ordinary. And as Harry—who was highly supportive of the plan—pointed out, Malfoy's instincts might be sharper than hers when it came to identifying what Voldemort would find valuable.
Not satisfied with simply keeping her eye out for potential Horcruxes, she suggested to Malfoy that they venture out of school to investigate their leads on significant artefacts.
He stared at her as though her eyebrows had disappeared.
"You mean, actually leave Hogwarts?"
"You want us to sneak out?"
"Well, not exactly—but, well, um, yes."
"Why can't we just turn in our lists like McGonagall's asked us to do?"
"I mean, wouldn't it be more exciting this way?" she asked, trying to hide the note of desperation in her voice. "We could actually look at some of these objects we've been reading about, study them for ourselves… you know. Adventure, and all that."
"Merlin's beard," he said, looking astounded. "And here I thought all that crock about Gryffindor bravery was just hot air."
"I'm not suggesting we endanger ourselves—"
"I think that's exactly what you're suggesting, actually. You're going to get me killed, aren't you? That's what I get for working with a bloody Gryffindor." He sighed and tossed his quill onto the table. "All right. Let's go. There better be an unreasonably flattering obituary in the Prophet tomorrow."
Hermione tried to suppress a smile and failed miserably. "It'll be fun," she said reassuringly.
"Granger, this isn't the first time I've objected to your idea of fun."
They started off in antique shops, looking at more old trinkets than they could ever remember. Some were worthless, some were not; but overall, these initial trips proved uneventful.
Spurred on by the pressure of not yet having found anything worthy of being chosen as a Horcrux, Hermione became more and more daring in her choices for their outings. She dragged a reluctant Malfoy to dangerous neighborhoods, to abandoned houses, to desolate areas. And still they found little of substance—until their trip to the Temple of Zora.
The temple was a monument that Muggles had built in honor of some pagan deity and later abandoned. Wizards had converted it into a small museum of Muggle history and culture, but it had been destroyed in the First Wizarding War and never rebuilt. Rumor had it that some wizards had used it as a hiding place, leading Hermione to wonder whether they'd left their valuables among the rubble when they fled.
Malfoy was skeptical. Looters would have long since taken anything of value, he said. But she insisted, and so they went.
She found him in a side chamber, standing amidst heaps of debris and abandoned junk, his back to the entrance. The room was mostly dim and grey with dust; and as light filtered in through a small window, it mingled with floating ash that danced in its rays.
"Did you find something?" she asked, but he gave no response.
She suddenly noticed that his shoulders seemed to be shaking uncontrollably. "Draco?" she asked cautiously, but again, she received no answer. It was only as she approached him that she realized he was crying.
Drawing closer to him, she saw that he was holding something—a large jar of some sort, almost like an urn—and he was staring into it as though it contained the universe. His face was bright red and frozen in an expression of horror, and tears streamed incessantly down his cheeks as he started to shake his head.
"No—no," he whispered, as if in a trance. "No!"
"Draco," she said again, reaching out to touch his arm, but he did not seem to hear her. His eyes grew wider and wider as he stared down into the jar in his hands; and when wisps of black smoke began to rise from it, Hermione suddenly understood. Jumping forward, she wrenched the vessel out of his hands and threw it across the chamber, where it clattered loudly to the floor.
For a moment, the only sound in the room was their breathing. Malfoy was no longer crying, but his face was still wet with tears as he blinked wildly, as though trying to refocus his eyes.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes," he said weakly, but he looked dazed and uncertain of his answer.
She, too, was unsure of what to say. They were not friends, exactly—although she felt an urge to comfort him, she didn't know how he would respond.
"I know what that thing was," she finally managed to get out. "It's a legendary Dark weapon called Pandora's Box. I read about it in one of our books. It's supposed to consume you—drive you mad—if you look into it for too long."
He did not reply.
"They say it shows you everything you hate and fear," she went on, her voice wavering. "Everything that is evil about your world. It's supposed to show you the darkness in your own life."
Malfoy's eyes flitted to the ground, and she knew the book had been right.
His expression was impassive as he stood rigidly in place, making no attempt to move, but his shoulders still trembled. Hermione shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as she tried not to watch him recover. What more was there to say? She considered reaching out and placing a consoling hand on his back, but decided against it.
"Do you know the myth it's named after?" she asked feebly, and he shook his head. "The Greeks said that Pandora was the first mortal woman, and the gods gave her a beautiful jar that she was not to open under any circumstance. But her curiosity drove her to open the lid, and all the evils on Earth—which had been safely contained inside the jar until then—flew out into the world and corrupted it."
"How uplifting," quipped Malfoy, but his voice was hoarse and uneven.
"That's not the ending," she said. "There was one last thing in the jar."
His watery eyes rose to meet hers.
"Pandora released all that darkness into the world, but she also gave us the one thing we need to overcome it. Something stronger than all those evils combined."
"Kindness?" he scoffed, in a weak attempt at a sneer.
The word echoed through the chamber. They stood in the temple for what felt like an eternity, listening to the echo and the sound of their breath and saying nothing.
"Tell me if this stings."
They were the first words they'd spoken to each other since Hermione had entered the room.
She was applying a salve to the numerous gashes that covered Draco's body, and though she knew the ointment to cause a strong burning sensation, he had been stoically silent until then.
He added, "But I don't mind."
Hermione stopped what she was doing for a moment to look at him, and he returned the gaze with an intensity that made her shiver. She had forgotten what it was like to be looked at by Draco Malfoy. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, she returned industriously to her task. It was better not to speak to him, she thought, unless absolutely necessary.
"I thought I wouldn't make it, you know. You saved my life."
She shook her head. "You wouldn't have died," she lied. "Your injuries weren't fatal."
"They could have been." He paused. "Hermione. Thank you."
He looked so earnest, so sincere—so vulnerable lying there with his many injuries—and yet she could not stop her doubts about his disappearance from racing through her mind. Conflicted, Hermione gave a small nod in response and moved on to magically cleaning his broken leg.
"What are you doing alone in this hidden house, anyway?"
After a moment's hesitation over whether to answer, she said, "Harry wanted me to live apart from the rest of the Order. Something about how I'd become a prime kidnapping target—too many threats on my life, and so on. This place is safer than headquarters or any other hideout we have."
"A secret location that only he and Weasley know about?"
"Yes. Only they can Apparate directly in."
"So you're completely isolated?"
"It's not like I can't leave. And the others have ways of contacting me."
"That's not like you," he remarked thoughtfully, with a hint of surprise. "Standing on the sidelines just because Potter told you to."
Hermione looked away. "He wasn't just being paranoid. There were some close calls."
It was not the whole truth, but she could not tell him that. She might have already said too much. Instead, she conjured a fresh bandage and said darkly, "Maybe it's not such a huge loss. After all, I'm not a very good soldier."
Draco made a dismissive sound. "Your spellwork was the best in our year. Better than Potter's."
"I'm not good under the stress of battle," she said, still not facing him. "I can defend myself, but I have trouble hurting people before they try to hurt me."
"That's not necessarily a bad thing."
She turned to find him looking at her with an unreadable expression. Suddenly wary, she hastily finished her task and rose. "Get some rest."
She was gone before he could reply.
"Are you sure this isn't dangerous?" Draco asked nervously.
They were traveling in a small boat that was enchanted to steer itself, and a large cave had started to come into view on the distant island.
"We'll be fine," Hermione insisted. "Stop fidgeting like that."
The boat docked itself at the shore, and upon disembarking, they resumed their journey by foot. As they neared their destination, Draco lowered his voice to a whisper. "I don't trust gypsies. They hate other wizards, you know—"
"Don't make me use a Silencing Charm on you."
The cave was inhabited by a well-known band of gypsy prophets that had lived there since the Middle Ages. Hermione was intensely skeptical of their divination abilities, but Voldemort—back in the days when he was still known as Tom Riddle—was thought to have deemed them important enough to pay a visit, and thus, so had she. Voldemort had supposedly sought the gypsies' unique insight into the future, but Hermione wondered whether he might also have been interested in their rumored collection of magical relics.
They were greeted at the entrance by a woman wearing a dark shawl draped over most of her body. She was waiting outside the cave and watched as they approached. "You are the girl who wrote to me?" she asked Hermione.
"Yes, I'm Hermione Gra—"
"Please, come in."
She led them inside and through an area filled with unusual-looking divination tools. Excited and unsure where to look first, Hermione felt a twinge of disappointment when the woman quickly passed into the next section of the cave—but her disappointment vanished when she saw where they were headed. At the end of the long, dark corridor, she could just barely make out a glimpse of a sea of flickering lights.
The gypsy finally brought them to an alcove lit only by what seemed like hundreds of glimmering candles. Gesturing dramatically, she announced, "The Votives of Truth."
Hermione could not stifle an amazed gasp as she looked around the grotto-like room. The very air seemed to glitter with the light of the magical candles. The votives were all of different colors, shapes, and sizes; and some burned brightly while others seemed to barely emit any light at all.
"How do you read them?" she asked.
"An ancient practice only gypsies understand," the woman said mysteriously. "We study the votives to know the future. When we look at them, the present becomes clear, and through the present we see what is to come." She waved her hand around the room vaguely. "The answers to all human questions lie here."
She had not, however, answered Hermione's question. When Hermione opened her mouth to repeat it, the gypsy cut her off.
"Our methods are secret."
"Does each candle represent something different?"
The woman smiled. "You are a perceptive girl. Yes, each votive has a different story to tell. There is the Votive of War, The Votive of Desire, the Votive of Changing Tides, the Votive of Coming Doom." She indicated the other side of the alcove. "Prosperity. Mutinous Thoughts. The Votive of Future Generations, the Votive of Unrest—there are too many to count."
Turning back to her visitors with a shrewd look in her eyes, she asked, "And which is it that you seek for answers?"
Just at that moment, they began to hear a voice calling from elsewhere in the cavern. It appeared to be in search of their guide, for she said suddenly, "I will be back. Feel free to examine the votives, so long as you do not touch them." Then she hurried off into the darkness.
Hermione turned to Draco. "Isn't this amazing? They're beautiful."
Draco nodded, transfixed by the innumerable candles that surrounded them.
"Do you believe her?" she asked.
"Our guide. Do you believe that they can really know the future just by looking at these?"
Draco made a scoffing sound. "You're not serious?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I didn't say I believed it; I was asking what you thought."
"Well, of course I don't believe that."
She paused for a second, lost in thought. "Do you think the Death Eaters know about these?" She lowered her voice. "We know Voldemort puts a lot of stock in prophecies. Wouldn't he be interested in knowing the future?"
Draco looked at her keenly. "Why would you worry about him finding these unless you thought they worked?"
"I don't know," she replied, flustered. "I'm skeptical, but who's to say they don't? And what if the Death Eaters got to the gypsies and used their knowledge against us?"
He grinned. "Look at that. The ever-sensible Hermione Granger, enchanted by an old gypsy tale."
"You've really been taken in by the atmosphere, haven't you? Candles and caves and—"
"I said, shut up."
Draco laughed. "You've nothing to worry about. Gypsies hate the Death Eaters. They hate any wizard who isn't one of their kind."
"The Death Eaters could use that hate against us."
"No. The Death Eaters treated the gypsies terribly during the first war. They're not liable to forget that anytime soon."
"What if they tortured or threatened them into reading the candles?"
"I think you'd be surprised how proud gypsies are."
"How do you know so much about gypsies, anyway?"
He smiled patronizingly at her. "Just one of the many benefits of a magical upbringing."
"Too bad a triple-digit IQ isn't one of them," she said crisply, but he was already walking away from her.
"What other votives do you think there are, aside from the ones she mentioned?" he asked, inspecting a row of lambent pastel-colored candles. "It's a pity there isn't a Votive of This Year's N.E.W.T. Questions."
Hermione couldn't resist smiling. "She never said there wasn't."
A small, blood-red candle that burned particularly brightly caught her eye, and as she glanced around the room, she noticed that no other votive shone as fiercely. "Look at this," she said, drawing close to it. "Which votive do you think this is?"
As Draco approached, it burned even more brilliantly. "I don't know, but that flame looks dangerous."
"I bet the gypsies would say that that means something. What I can't figure is why some of these flames are so much stronger than others."
He turned to look at her, and she suddenly realized how close they were standing. His face, mere inches from hers, was illuminated by the soft glow of the candles, and tiny lights seemed to flicker in his eyes as they reflected the fire of the alcove. "Why are you always so curious about the unknowable?" he asked.
"I don't believe in it."
"You think it's possible to know everything?"
"Magic used to be unknowable for me. But nothing's unknowable once you study how it works."
"What if some things don't want to be known?"
She didn't understand his question, but she felt strongly that they were no longer talking about candles. He was staring at her very intently, and she could not see past the twinkling lights reflected in his eyes, which made her nervous. His face seemed even closer than before, and for a confusing moment, she thought he might kiss her—but then the gypsy returned, and the moment was gone.
She had brought an old man with her, and Hermione instinctively stepped away from Draco as the two approached.
"I have brought you the Damion," the woman said. "The Master of Truths. He sees the Votives better than any of us."
Hermione couldn't help but feel there was something faintly blasphemous about his title, but she put the thought out of her head as she moved forward and held her hand out to him with a bright smile. "Hello, I'm Hermione Granger. How do you do?"
The white-haired man smiled benevolently in response, but did not take her hand. His eyes darted to the unusually radiant blood-red candle, then back and forth between her and Draco. "What truth are you here to seek?"
"Oh," she stammered, retracting her hand, "we're not actually here to seek—um, we don't have a question about the future or anything like that. We just wanted to ask you about your relics."
"Relics?" the gypsy woman asked sharply. "What relics?"
"We heard that you had a collection of ancient relics, dating back from Roman times, and we were wondering—"
"Our only relics are the ones we use for the purpose of divination, and we do not reveal our methods."
"Oh, I understand completely," Hermione said hurriedly. "We just wanted to take a look, you know, for a history project we're doing, and perhaps ask some questions—"
"I'm afraid that is out of the question," the woman snapped, but the Damion raised his hand to silence her.
"I see you are not here to learn the future," he said quietly. "Nor, indeed, to learn how one learns the future. So I think, Elvira, that we have little to fear from our young visitors."
Looking inquisitively at Hermione, he continued, "We once owned many such relics. But what we cannot use to see beyond mortal sight, we have long since sold."
"Sold?" she asked with alarm. "When?"
"Neither in your lifetime nor mine. For centuries, the only thing of value in this cave has been our skill."
He moved closer and turned his gaze to the candles behind them. "What you seek is not with us." Gesturing to a distant blue flame, he murmured, "The Votive of Restless Search is strong in your presence. And the Votive of The Lost Being Found is not. You shall not find what you seek for some time."
For a moment, he appeared lost in thought, but then he went on. "I can, however, answer your unspoken question. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did come here once, long ago. He was young then, and full of ambition. But the Damion saw the darkness in his heart and refused to help him. The Dark Lord neither forgave nor forgot the rejection. When he rose to power, he made sure the then-Damion paid the price for daring to deny him. But we have not seen him since he first came many years ago."
The Damion looked back at Hermione. "You must have patience. I see trials and tribulations ahead for you, but you must not give up. You fight empty-handed now, but it will not always be so. What you seek—you shall find."
His serious gaze wandered to Draco. "You, young man, are on a road, a quest of which you have not yet learned. You will be tested. You will not remember who you are. But remember this—you are not alone."
Hermione glanced over and saw Draco staring back at the Damion, his bewildered eyes still sparkling with candlelight.
"The path will be dark, but you will not be alone. You must not forget that. You must find strength in that."
The Damion faced her once more. "There is victory in your future, young girl. It is distant, but it is clear."
"Victory?" she asked timidly, and the old man nodded.
"Your search has a purpose. You do not seek these relics idly." He smiled. "And you shall succeed. All truths are written in these flames."
It was nearly midnight when Harry finally returned. The instant Hermione saw that he had Ron in tow—and that they both had triumphant smiles plastered on their faces—she knew what had happened.
"You complete bastards—"
"Hermione, you bloody genius!" Ron cried joyously as he threw his arms around her. "How do you do it?"
"I can't believe you two did this to me again!" she spat furiously as she wrenched him off of her. "Harry, how could you?"
"I'm so sorry, love," said Harry, though he hardly looked sorry at all as he tried to take her in his arms.
"I know, but it was Bellatrix's home, and we just couldn't risk it—"
"You should have at least told me—"
"You know you would have insisted on coming along if we'd told you, and you know there's no one who would be more thrilled to get her hands on you than Bellatrix—"
"It was Bellatrix Lestrange," Ron chimed in. "Of all the bloody psychos it could have been—"
"I was the one who found the Horcrux," she interrupted angrily. "I at least deserved to know that you were going. Something could have happened to you, and—"
"Hermione, we're terribly sorry—"
"I hope you both know that I won't forgive you for this!"
"We know," said Harry, but his smile remained infuriatingly bright as he held her tightly so that she couldn't storm off. "And we owe you everything, Hermione, we really do. But we just couldn't risk it this one time."
"Come on, Hermione," said Ron, removing a golden goblet from his robes that looked badly burnt. "We should be celebrating, really!"
"Is that the cup?" she asked.
Ron nodded, beaming. "You're a genius, you really are."
Hermione snorted, but the sight of the destroyed Horcrux had calmed her down somewhat, and she was no longer as livid as before. "Let me see it."
Ron went off to find champagne while she carefully inspected the markings on the cup. "It's a shame," she said sadly. "All these important historical artefacts—and he's desecrated them."
"Thank Merlin he never got his hands on Gryffindor's sword," said Harry.
She nodded in agreement. "Still. It's unfortunate he had such a hankering for anything significant that belonged to the Founders. I mean, Hufflepuff's Cup—really. Such a waste."
"Say," said Ron, returning with champagne and glasses, "isn't Malfoy still upstairs? Maybe we'd better keep our voices down."
"Hermione's placed a charm on his room so he can't hear us."
"Brilliant," said Ron approvingly.
"Cheers, you guys." Harry raised his glass. "To another Horcrux down."
She looked at them warily before joining their toast. "I'm coming next time. Don't even think about going after the diadem without me."