First, there was the sound of glass breaking (beakers thrown to the ground). This was followed by an argument in English—involving two men, some name calling and obligatory shoving—and then several folding chairs were flung at a wall, for good measure. The cherry on top of the lure sundae was a short, sharp scream from one of the female lab members.
In short order, all four guards burst through the laboratory doors to determine just what the hell was going on. They were confronted with the confounding sight of Draco and Blaise wrestling on the ground, or, more to the point, Blaise had Draco pinned to the floor and appeared to be strangling him. Other lab team members stood around the fighting pair, looking hapless and alarmed.
Belikov rushed forward, a study in long-suffering resignation. "Gentleman, will you please stop these two hot-headed fools before they break anything else in my lab!"
Hands that had been nervously hovering over weapons relaxed. Belikov was clearly not in a panic. This was no emergency. This was what happened when stress and fatigue caught up with you. Even the eggheads were not immune, it seemed. The guards knew all about short fuses that could be lit by weeks of tension and fatigue.
"Here, now," admonished one of the guards. He repositioned his automatic rifle across his hip and buried his hands into the back of Blaise's jacket. He pulled. "Stop this!"
The other members of the lab team tightened the circle, herding the guards closer to the tussling wizards. Blaise spun around as soon as he felt the guard's hands on him. A chloroform-soaked rag was immediately pressed up against the startled man's face. He crumpled to the ground beside Draco, who struck out with his foot, knocking a second guard under the chin just as he reached for his pistol. The man staggered backwards and was promptly smothered with chloroform by two female lab technicians. This left two additional guards, who were beset by at least a dozen scientists. They jumped on top the men, pinning them to the ground and divesting them of their weapons and walkie talkies. There was quite a bit of yelling and an unfortunate woman caught a flailing fist to the face, but the guards' struggling was quickly remedied with chloroform and the enthusiastic application of masking tape.
After it was done, Blaise tossed the rag into the corner and swaying a little on his feet. Draco grabbed Blaise's arm to steady the man.
"I did tell you not to breathe it in."
"Yes, you did," said Blaise. He shook his head vigorously, to rid himself of the woozy feeling. "How did you manage to make this stuff?" This question was directed at Belikov, who had been in charge of concocting the chloroform.
"With a combination of bleach, acetone, ice, and happily, the oversight of thugs who know nothing about chemistry," Belikov replied.
Draco was assisting the lab team in tying up the unconscious guards. Presently, he stood back to admire their handiwork. Now came the tricky bit. He slipped off his white lab coat and began distributing the pilfered weapons.
"We're going to be doing a fair bit of running, so only carry what you need," Draco told Blaise and Belikov. "The weight won't feel like much now, but it will when we're on the move." He slung a rifle across his chest and tucked a pistol into the waistband of his trousers. One of the walkies was clipped onto his belt. Belikov showed him how to mute the volume and change channels. Draco then retrieved an elastic band from a drawer and tied his hair back. Several shorter strands escaped, but he tucked these behind his ears. "Take your lab coat off," he instructed Belikov. "Nothing bright, white or likely to show around corners when we're skulking. We'll be noticed soon enough, but the later that happens, the better."
One of the three remaining walkies crackled. There was a brief static buzz, followed by a long stream of heated Russian.
"What's being said?" Blaise asked. He had removed his coat and jumper and was now, like Draco, more suitably attired in dark colours. A member of the lab team handed him a backpack loaded with Molotov Cocktails. He very carefully slipped it on.
Draco listened with a frown. "The guards are unsettled. They're talking about the unscheduled fight in the Pit." He paused and then looked across at Blaise. "There are apparently two combatants."
"Two?" Blaise looked up with a frown. "Who is the second?"
But the chatter ceased. There was no more information coming through.
"Two against many is better than one against many," Blaise said. He was clearly recalling Draco's unexpected assistance in the Pit.
"It will buy Miss Granger some time," Belikov added.
If all this was meant to reassure Draco, he gave no indication that it did, or that he needed it. He walked to the lab entrance and checked the corridor outside. It was clear.
The sunshine was piercing.
Hermione instinctively screwed her eyes shut and brought up an arm to shield her eyes from the painful glare. Her arm felt encumbered, thicker than usual. Her bare wrist brushed against something fine and soft, suspended just above her face. Curious, she splayed her fingers apart and felt what she registered to be long, unbound hair thread through them. Confused and groggy, she attempted to sit up, only just noticing that her head was pillowed on…why yes, that was a lap.
"Easy now. I have no idea what they gave you, but it was bloody strong."
Hermione blinked rapidly. She raised herself up into a sitting position, using Padma's arms for support. This simple movement caused the meagre contents of her stomach to roil back and forth. She swallowed audibly, hoping to quell the acute sensation of seasickness. All the while, the sun burned down over them. Only, there was no heat. It was bitterly cold, in fact. As Hermione regained her bearings, she discovered that they were not outdoors. The glare of sun was the massive spotlight that shone over the Pit.
Padma's returning stare was one of grave concern. "They brought me in first. And then they dropped you at my feet, unconscious. That was about half an hour ago."
Hermione pulled her ankles into a cross-legged position. Presently, she was not too out of sorts to ignore the fact that there were bits and pieces of people littering the floor. She stared down at her clothing, only just noting that the confining sensation was due to her being dressed in some sort of workman's jumpsuit, with rubber boots. No sign of the bathrobe. At least they had given her clothing.
"I was tackled in my room by Renauld and Dr Prestin. They stuck me with something…knocked me out."
"Yes, well I think they dearly wished they'd done that with me, too." Padma held up her hands so that Hermione could see the blood and bits of skin under her fingernails from where she had presumably scratched the men who'd taken her. "I've heard of the Games, of course. We all watched on helplessly when they took Wallen away and then brought him back. But I've never been allowed to witness any of the matches. Have you?" Padma's baleful stare was heartbreaking.
"Are we being made to fight zombies today?" Padma asked, in such a matter of fact tone of voice that Hermione felt the rage rise up inside her.
The question was insane. It belonged in an alternate universe.
Using her hand to shield her eyes against the bright spotlight, Hermione got to her feet and peered up into the stands. There, on the first level of the viewing gallery, was the familiar large shape of the Fatman.
Renauld was alone. Hermione was not surprised. There was no doubt in her mind that the fight was unsanctioned. Amarov was back on land, likely unaware. And where was Honoria? Surely Renauld had not taken such drastic action without her involvement?
"Think about this," Hermione called out. Without a crowd, the Pit was so silent that she did not need to shout. Her voice carried easily.
Renauld walked to the railing and sneered at her. "We have given it much thought. You are a danger to the fleet."
"How exactly am I a danger?" Hermione asked. "Amarov keeps me locked up almost twenty-four hours a day!"
"It is precisely because of Alexander that we are doing this. Since your arrival, he has been…distracted."
"By distracted you mean he's managed to reconnect with his sodding humanity!" Hermione swept her arms wide to indicate the Pit, letting the bleak reality of the situation colour her expression and her tone. "What the hell do you think this is, Mr Renauld? This is not a means to maintain order or exact penalties. This is monstrous! This is torture and sadism! To call it anything else is delusional!"
"The delusion works, Miss Granger."
Hermione laughed. It was a full-throated laugh that conveyed the depths of her incredulity. "It works for people like you, you mean?" She nodded as she said this. "For the elite in this fleet who make the rules? History will judge you by how you treat the most vulnerable in your care."
"We are not exempt from the rules, either! You saw what happened with Vadim!" Renauld's voice cracked.
"That scared you, didn't it?" Hermione stated, nodding. "I see it now. Amarov dared to put one of you into the Pit, rank, station and utility be damned. If you have a problem with Amarov's brand of consistency, why take it out on me? It's him you have an issue with. Talk to him. Counsel him, if you must."
"You are the issue, Hermione. Not Alexander," answered a female voice. It was Honoria. She appeared at the fourth level of the viewing gallery carrying a duffle bag. Renauld was relieved to see her. She climbed down the metal staircase to join him. Clearly, Honoria had just boarded the vessel. She was dressed for the outdoors in trousers and a thick, dark coat. Her long, straight brown hair was windswept.
"You're back earlier than expected. Where is he?" asked Renauld.
"Still at Avonmouth loading the desalination unit into the boat. We don't have much time."
Renauld frowned down at Hermione and Padma. He spoke to Honoria again, but this time, it was in Russian and he was making an attempt to whisper.
Hermione could not make out what was being said, but she recognised a disagreement when she witnessed one. She felt Padma come to stand beside her.
"What's going on, do you suppose?"
"Dissention within dissention, it would seem," Hermione replied. "Whatever they decide to do, they're going to have to do it soon before Amarov finds out."
"What's your relationship with this man? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like he doesn't want you in here."
"You're probably not wrong."
"You have a plan, then?"
Hermione sighed. "Stall these two until Amarov returns?"
Padma appeared to be thinking. "You know, it's not that big a fleet. Word gets around quickly, especially among the guards. If anyone else knows about this impending game, the news is likely to have reached the labs by now…"
"He's not going to come," Hermione said, giving Padma a sceptical look. "Not even Malfoy is going to be able to singlehandedly fight his way through guards on both vessels in order to reach us. And he wouldn't put himself at such risk. Not when there is so much at stake."
"Now who is the delusional one?" Padma hissed. "And I don't think you have full comprehension of what that man is capable of. Did you know he and some other allies have been sneaking supplies to the Magical captives on this ship?"
This was news to Hermione. Damn it, it was all news to Hermione. She'd been cloistered away for so long.
"And if you're going to refer to what's important to Malfoy in terms of his priorities, I daresay you rank higher than the wellbeing of those captives!"
"Don't Padma me," said an annoyed Padma. She exhaled some of her frustration. "All I'm saying is that if Draco Malfoy knows we're in here, it's very likely he's going to try to do something about it."
Hermione was terrified by this prospect. "What could he possibly do?"
Padma shook her head "I don't know." She stared around the arena. Her gaze dropped to her feet. "Hermione, I don't want to die here today."
No. Padma was not going to die there today.
With renewed resolve, Hermione took a step forward and addressed Honoria, who was still in heated debate with the Fatman.
"Honoria, pray tell how does killing Padma solve the problem of my alleged influence over Amarov? Are you so spiteful that you're willing to dispose of one the few fleet doctors because you have a problem with me?"
It was clear that Renauld felt similarly disturbed by the prospect. He gave Honoria a pointed look.
"Padma is here because she matters to you," was the simple reply.
Hermione didn't think she had it in her to be even more horrified. "You're really that malicious?"
"I suppose I must be."
"Why put us in the Pit?" Hermione demanded. "Why bother with all this when you could just shoot us?"
"Because finding you in here will remind Alexander of the responsibility he took on when he created this fleet!" Honoria screeched. She was holding onto the railing with both hands, leaning over and fairly screaming at them. "Don't you see? He needs to remember! I have given everything to him. I have done things in his name that would turn your stomach! I have acted against my own people for him! What has it all been for if he is permitted to change his mind on a whim? Because of a witch, of all things! This is where we pass judgement! This is how we deal with anything that threatens our order! He will remember that fact!"
"Merlin on a broomstick, she's stark raving mad," Padma muttered.
"You don't really believe that, though," Hermione implored. "You know this is wrong, that it has always been wrong. You're doing this because you love him."
Honoria was apoplectic. She looked like she'd been struck across her face.
Hermione turned her attention to Renauld, staring at him with unwavering intensity. "Amarov may very kill you for this. Is your life worth her jealousy?"
Renauld paled, but said nothing. He managed to cast a sideways glance at Honoria, but was quelled by the white-hot mania in her eyes.
"Open the hatch," she ordered, in English this time. Renauld retreated into the darkness. Shortly thereafter, the familiar dreaded buzzer sounded.
"You cowardly little bitch!" Padma yelled, with such ferocity that would have captivated the late Alec Mercer. "You want to take it out on us, come down here and do it yourself!"
Hermione thought this was a capital idea.
Honoria smiled. "The pair of you would not fare so well, I assure you. But I suppose it would be more dignified than being taken apart by zombies."
"We are not fighting zombies today!" Hermione roared.
"You're correct; not just zombies," Honoria said. "You see, only one person leaves this Pit alive. As soon as one of you is dead, the Game ends. "Think on that."
She bent down to unzip the bag she had brought with her. Weapons were tossed into the Pit, scattering across the metal-grated floor with loud clangs—machetes, an axe and a length of pipe. "Never let it be said that I don't play by Amarov's Rules. Good luck, ladies. May the best witch win."
I'm getting laid off at the end of November, so it's been a mad scramble to try and find new work. At the moment, I have 3 jobs that do not include writing a book chapter, editing another book, in addition to school and side projects and trying to make sure my soon-to-be 7-year old gets all her homework done and a clean school uniform to wear in the mornings. For some reason I'm also climbing a lot of indoor walls (OMG horizontal overhangs=much fun!). In other words, it's HARD for me to find time to write, but write I must, if I am to keep sane. I also need to sleep (harder to schedule, but necessary). This chapter was going to be much longer originally, but the second half would take me another month to tweak, so I thought I'd post this section first. To keep the ball rolling!