It made its slow, lumbering way back to the nest after an unsuccessful morning of trying to catch woodland animals near the greenhouse. This was a difficult task when the weather was wet, but sometimes there were birds, red squirrels and the occasional stoat. Very rarely, there might even be a deer and during those times, they ate very well indeed.
However, on this morning it was distracted from its hunt because something was happening inside the castle. Something important. It had felt the expending of powerful magic, as if a large stone had been thrown into water, creating concentric ripples that travelled outwards.
Like others of his ilk, it was sensitive to magic. This was why they had made the big stone castle their home. The castle had a name and perhaps some of the others knew it from the time before, but names were not important any longer. The walls pulsed with magic. The air was thick with it. Magic was the beacon that had summoned them here from far flung villages across the Highlands. Those who were lucky enough to make the journey were rewarded with the nurturing effects of the castle's magic, raising them from mindless, ravaging beasts into a new way of…being. Death was not the end. A lucky few even developed the ability to wield wands.
Those who sheltered at the castle were like pieces of many jigsaw puzzles. They were remnants of past lives. What kept them together, what enabled them to recognise each other, co-exist, communicate and for some, use magic, was necessity. They knew there was strength in numbers. Most had managed to regain some memories from their former lives once the decay to their bodies was slowed. It was never a complete picture, for their brains were irreversibly damaged. Even so, the creature knew it once had a vocation, a home, and a family. It had even owned a pet — a shaggy, brown, rangy looking animal that followed its master everywhere.
It could picture the dog if it cared to dig deep enough for the necessary information. It remembered the feel of fur under palm, the salty, dank smell as the animal bounded out of the shallows, holding a stick in its mouth. Of its human family, the creature had fewer recollections. These were made of swirling darkness, heat and fire, the wail of a woman, the feel of its hand wrapping around a much smaller one. They were not pleasant memories and so the creature did not seek them out.
It knew other things. It knew, somehow, that it came from Loch Lamond. It had made its unknowing way through abandoned towns, passing burnt-out husks of buildings and vehicles, and bodies and bones picked clean. There was the occasional whimpering terror of a person. It remembered digging its fingers into skin and ripping. It'd torn hair from bloody scalps, muscle from bone. It would fit it thumbs into eye sockets and pushed all the way into wet, squelching warmth, until the kicking and fighting stopped. It remembered the sound of tendons snapping, of cartilage popping, of bones being snapped in two and the buttery smell of marrow.
Once the problem of daily survival was overcome, old human habits eventually came to the fore. As much as they tried to mimic their past lives, merging old wants and needs with their new lives, there was one yearning which could not be so easily satisfied. They could not increase.
They were an unchanging number and this meant they were doomed. They would be the first and last of their kind. Contentment turned to resentment. This was a cause of much sorrow for the community. What good was a flock that had no young to tend? Some among them had ventured away from the castle, far beyond the point where the magic could exercise its healing effects. They were brave, these few. Two had returned with a child – a small, pink, squirming thing that made loud noises for two days, and then less so on the third. On the fourth day, it was silent. Living children seemed to need more than just magic to survive.
The creature was about to re-enter the castle when it was stopped. A living man appeared before it, seemingly out of the mist itself. Tall, fair and golden, he was the antithesis of walking death. He carried a Quidditch bat.
The first swing was at the creature's legs, instantly breaking the kneecaps. It found itself on the ground, confused and afraid. The next swing was aimed at the head, but was thwarted because the creature's arms came up instinctively to shield itself. It opened its mouth to cry out for help, but there was no one to hear it.
The bat sought an alternative target. The third swing came down upon the creature's chest with such force that the brittle rib cage collapsed into the chest cavity. Sharp shards of bones punctured organs and protruded outside of the body.
Stop. I want to live. I want to be, the creature might have protested, but it could not make the words.
The man began to search it, divesting the creature of its precious wand. Another blow came, this time, a kick to the head.
"Plssssss," it said, trying to turn over so that it could crawl away.
But the living man was merciless. He brought the bat down one last time. The creature's face caved in.
The last thing that passed through its plague addled brain was the phantom sensation of a dog's warm, sandpaper tongue licking its hand.
"Nicely done." Amarov peered down at the corpse. "Is it dead?"
Draco crouched beside the body, wiping blood from the wand he had just taken. "Yes. Properly dead."
Amarov's cobalt gaze rested on the wand, looking curious. There was a glint of…something else in his eyes. Envy, perhaps? Loathing, probably. "How do you speculate they're able to use magic?"
"I imagine the same way I do."
"Hmm. This phenomena needs...further study."
Draco shot him a cool look. "You're just the person to run that operation, aren't you? Seeing as you're no stranger to using magical beings as lab rats."
"We do what we think is best in difficult times," said Amarov, not in the least bit perturbed at being reminded of his crimes. His blue eyes hardened "Like you did, when you left Honoria and I in the pit to be eaten alive by the Withinshaw girl."
"That was a mistake."
Surprise flashed across Amarov's fine featured face. "You think so?"
Draco rose to his feet. At full height, he was able to look down his nose at the Russian. "I should have stayed to make sure she finished the job."
This wrung a snort from Amarov. "You're a mismatched pair, you realise? You and Hermione Granger."
"So everyone keeps reminding us. Come on, we need to keep moving."
It was likely the dead child had been acquired from a living family and had probably starved to death or died exposure, after being taken by the creatures. Eager to replace it, they appeared to be planning to cut Hermione's baby from her body. The pain of the intermittent contractions and her injured hands was all but forgotten as a renewed surge of adrenaline kicked in.
This was not time for anthropological speculation. There was a thrill running through the ranks of creatures. They were positively wild with excitement. She tried to locate the one who had captured her, with the notion of snatching her wand back, but it was lost in the throng. Hermione made a run for it before creatures could sufficiently organise themselves. They may be conscious, and thinking beings, and perhaps even capable of feeling, but they were still animated corpses. Despite being heavily pregnant and in the middle of labour, she was sharper and quicker.
With her hands all but useless, she shoulder barged into open doors to get through them. Luckily, the creatures were not in the habit of using door handles to close or locking anything. Hermione had already decided on a route of escape. The safest way to get out of the kitchens and back to the ground floor was through the inconspicuous little tunnel and hatch used by the house elves to transport food to and from the Great Hall. During her S.P.E.W days, Hermione had through the route demeaning and hazardous for the poor elves. But now, she couldn't have been more grateful for its existence. The corridor was so narrow that if the creatures decided to give chase, they would be forced to come after her in single file. In the absence of a defensive or offensive strategy, the best way to escape a horde was to prevent a horde from forming in the first place.
She located the long abandoned corridor, hidden behind empty grain sacks, rusted metal buckets and a pile of ancient firewood covered in layers of cobwebs. It felt about five degrees colder inside the corridor due to the damp that leached through the stone from the underground channels of water that ran deep beneath the castle. There was moss and slime and the sound of dripping water, not that this slowed her down any.
As she travelled further away from the kitchens, the light gradually disappeared. Hermione extended her forearms to feel her way along the tight passage, ignoring her growing anxiety as the corridor grew narrower and narrower. She had taken the same route once or twice with Ron and Harry during their numerous school days escapades. Perhaps she had misremembered how small the space was, how low the ceiling? She could no longer stand up. The moss and slime eased her passage, but not nearly enough to slip her along at her preferred pace.
Behind her, she could hear them coming. The snarling, hissing, skittering and low, baleful moans echoed along the stone walls.
A contraction seized her. Hermione stopped. For the space of a few breaths, all she could think about was getting through each wave of excruciating pain and was simultaneously terrified the creatures would reach her before she could gather her wits once more.
The space in front of her was suddenly illuminated by a bright, white flare. The sight of Draco robbed her of breath. He was standing in what looked like plenty of space. This ought to have been impossible, but then things often seemed that way when magic was involved. She saw the wand in his hand and made an inarticulate sound of utter joy. There was no time for pleasantries, however.
"There're coming," she gasped. And even as she spoke, the walls around her expanded. She could move freely once more.
"Get behind me," he ordered, with a ferocity that might have been frightening if it wasn't being employed in her defence.
As Hermione predicted, the creatures at the head of the line didn't stand a chance. Draco picked them off, one by one. Still, they kept coming. It must have been mere minutes, but felt much longer by the time Hermione reached the wooden ladder leading up to the hatch. The ladder's incline was incredibly steep.
"Climb!" Draco roared. She could barely hear him above the cacophony of screeches and snarls.
The floor was saturated in gore. Hermione's feet squelched and slipped in the muck. Her clothing was sticky and wet. She could not climb. Not easily, at least. Draco was not to know her hands were broken.
One of the creatures burrowed through the bottleneck pile of its dismembered comrades, squeezing itself through the plug of human remains. It launched itself at Draco, knocking him backwards against Hermione. Draco stabbed the wand directly into the creature's eye socket. The spell that followed caused its head to explode wetly over the both of them.
"Amarov!" Draco shouted, wiping grime from his face. "Now would be a good time!"
To Hermione's astonishment, the hatch at the top of the ladder flipped open, flooding the chamber with light. Alexander Amarov reached down for her. When her feet were on solid ground in the Great Hall, she spun around and was relieved to see Draco standing on top of the hatch. Amarov hurriedly slid the metal bolt back into place.
Draco was unrecognisable. He was completely drenched in dead blood; from his hair—which was dripping a dark, thick red—to his shoes. Hermione saw his familiar, beautiful eyes, uncanny and bright in his bloodied face. He took quick stock of her, lingering a moment on her ruined hands.
"Can you hold a wand?" he asked in a hoarse voice.
She shook her head, quite aware that they seemed to be simply staring at each other.
"Potter is safely hidden where you instructed," Amarov interrupted. "I had to tie him to a post to keep him from floating away like a God damned balloon."
"Harry!" Hermione suddenly remembered where she had left him. "Is he OK? Where is he now?"
It was Draco who answered. "He'll be alright once we get his arm mended. We've hidden him in one of the Quidditch stands."
Of course! Just as she and Draco had done during their visit to the library more than a year ago, they would be able to Disapparate from the Quidditch pitch, where the wards were weakest.
"Granger, give me your hands."
She did as requested and had to bite her lip from crying out when Draco worked on them.
"What happened?" He used the same stabilizing spell he would have cast on Harry's arm, though Hermione suspected the analgesic charm was working a lot better on her than on Harry's open wounds.
"There was an explosion during my wand fight with…uh, one of those things."
Draco frowned as he noticed her singed eyebrows. "Any other injuries?" He was lifting her hair, running his sticky fingers along her neck, collarbone, down her arms and back.
Well, I'm about to have your baby.
"Can you walk?" His eyes narrowed at her in scrutiny. She wanted to tell him, but the fact was that no good could come of it until they were safely away. Plus, Harry would just worry even more.
To her silent relief, he didn't bother waiting for a response. Instead, he picked her up and strode quickly with Amarov into the west wing, across the overgrown court yard, and towards the Quidditch pitch.
A wave of sparkling, soothing warmth bubbled through Harry, starting from his chest and expanding outwards to his extremities. The throbbing pain that had set up residence in his injured arm lessened. He blinked, raising a hand to shield his eyes against the glare of the sun overhead.
Sunlight? He was outdoors. He could feel and smell wet grass under him. There was no stench of death here. He tried to sit up.
"Take it slow," said a voice. "I've just pulled you out of a rather solid faint." It was Draco, but it was also a monster from a nightmare. He looked like he'd been dipped head first into a vat of blood.
"Hermione." Harry whispered.
"I'm here." Her face appeared in his field of vision. She did not look any less macabre than Malfoy. "I'm fine," she assured, taking in his concerned expression. "It's mostly cosmetic, I assure you. How are you feeling?"
Harry grabbed her shoulders and squeezed, immensely glad to see her. "Light headed, but OK. Dear God, you two look like you've been through hell and back..."
Draco's face loomed over him once more. "We're not quite out of it, yet. I need you to return us to the fleet. Do you think you can do that, Potter?"
"He can't take us anywhere," Hermione protested. "Look at him! We can Apparate someplace else in the interim—"
"The fleet is safest," Draco interrupted.
"What if the same thing happens again and we end up stuck in a stone wall, like Grey?" said a third voice. Harry turned to it, squinting to focus his vision. It was Amarov.
"What the bloody hell is he doing here?"
"You brought him with us, remember?"
Harry sat up, brushing away concerned hands. He was not going to fuck things up like he had done with Blaise Zabini at Grimmauld Place. Ever since Zabini's death, Harry had been preparing. "I can get us back. All of us," he said, starring daggers at Amarov.
Draco leaned back on his heels, looking skeptical. "Is the fleet still in Boston?"
"That's more than 3000 miles, Potter."
"I can do it."
"If we do this," Draco cut in, looking between Harry and Hermione, "we need to clear our minds so that Potter can focus." He stood up and held out the wand for Harry. "Alright then, Potter?"
With a grim expression, Harry took the wand and then accepted the hand that Draco extended. When Draco hauled him up, he bent low and said, "It will be easier with less people."
Harry knew what was coming, and realised that in his own weird way, Malfoy was seeking his approval. Harry nodded.
Malfoy turned to Amarov next. "Do you still have the weapon you found?"
Obligingly, Amarov reached into his jumpsuit and pulled out what looked like an old dueling pistol.
"I'm afraid that cannot travel with us."
"Ah," conceded Amarov, handing the weapon over to Draco. He probably assumed it was a technicality relating to Apparition, or perhaps a question of their lack of trust in him. Too late, however, Amarov saw the expression of confusion on Hermione' face, and the more telling look on Harry's.
The Russian took a cautious step back from Draco, who by now had cocked the gun and raised it.
"Tell me, does this still have the one shot?"
Amarov didn't run. He didn't plead. He looked at Hermione.
Hermione was stunned. Even more so, when Harry's arm held her so that she could not intervene. "Draco, you can't. Not like this! Harry, tell him!"
"I'm sorry for what I did," Amarov said to her. His unflinching blue stare was the last thing she saw before Draco pulled the trigger, firing the small, round lead bullet into his head.
For all its age, the pistol fired perfectly, leaving a white puff of acrid gunpowder smoke in the air. Draco tossed it to the ground beside Amarov's body.
Harry took Hermione's face in his hand. "Time to go. Are you ready?"
"I…" she stared at Amarov's body. "Yes."
"Clear your mind."
She felt Draco envelop her from behind, holding her securely between himself and Harry. She felt the beginnings of the spell coalesce around them.
A/N: Nearly at the end!