Three students in Slytherin were not sleeping.
One of these students never slept if they could help it. Nightmares were known to breed in the dark, particularly when eyes were closed and breathing slowed down into even, unhurried rhythms. Better to substitute bedtime with midnight strolls on the deserted grounds, or with spell practice and ritual.
The other student had a brain too full to shut down. Regret over error, despite being pointless, still burned hot enough to leave more than one scar.
Finally, someone was too awake to fall asleep.
Hogwarts was on lockdown.
A murderer roamed the castle unknown, and in the past three weeks, a teacher and student had both died mysteriously on the school premises.
No later than seven o' clock that morning, the Owlery had begun to overflow with anxious letters from parents, and Howlers for Headmaster Dippet demanding that their children were returned home immediately – all to no avail, considering no soul was allowed in or out of the castle for the time-being.
The owls had begun to pour in around the same time that every Daily Prophet in Great Britain was dropped on a wizard's front stoop, with the headline MURDERER LOOSE ON SCHOOL GROUNDS IN SCOTLAND; TWO DEAD blasted above the moving image of Alliah Shacklebolt leading a team of Aurors into Hogwarts the night before.
On the sixth page, another article read NO ONE IN, NO ONE OUT UNTIL KILLER IS DISCOVERED! and further explained that the gates of Hogwarts School were sealed by the powerful magic of Albus Dumbledore. Which officially ruled out any wild escape plans.
But the Daily Prophet was missing half of the story. It had failed to explain that no one who was not a professor or house elf could leave their house, or that every Slytherin in the Common Room was so silent you could hear the sparks crackling on Regulus's wand as he cast a spell to light the fireplace. It did not explain how still and blank Elphy's green eyes had looked dead.
As for Elphy, all the paper had bothered to say about her was 17-year old girl of high societal standing murdered by the Unforgivable Curse last night, in squint-tiny print under her yearbook picture. Hermione stared at the black-and-white Elphy for a moment, who brushed her bangs away from her eyes before she flashed a pretty, close-lipped smile at the camera.
She didn't look like she was going to die.
But she had.
"Hey, are you finished with that?"
Hermione looked up, blinking at the sight of a gawky fifth-year with glasses and messy hair. "Harry?" she mumbled. The boy frowned. "No, Patrick." He nodded at the newspaper in her hands, shoving a Chocolate Frog wrapper in his trouser pocket. "You finished yet? I wanted to have a look at the Quidditch column," he said.
Patrick said, not Harry.
1944, not 1998.
Hermione closed the paper and passed it over wordlessly, rubbing her sore eyes on her sleeve as the Common Room murmured around her. Rosy had been the one who thought to intimidate a house elf into sneaking them a copy of the Daily Prophet, so they could all see what the world had said about Elphy, and what lied in store for the rest of Hogwarts; Hermione was the one to convince her that saying please would work better with house elves than fear tactics.
She met Tom's eyes across the crowded Common Room and went still, her throat drying up like a used oasis under his inscrutable gaze. A second that felt more like ten minutes went on in this way – until Tom's dark eyes slid away, back down to the book he was reading.
For the first time ever, Hermione wished a sliver of the bond had been left unravaged by neglect, solely for the reason that she would know what Tom thought when he looked at her.
She knew something had changed between them last night, she knew Tom hated her. Hermione had replayed their conversation in her mind over and over all night – or she had whenever she could peel her mind away from the perturbing thoughts of Alliah Shacklebolt and Elphy, of the doomed future and all her stupid mistakes in the past.
Tom's voice whispered in the back of her head, jaded. Unsure. I felt differently before. Hermione's chest pinched whenever she thought about it.
Something sharp grabbed her ankle.
"Hello, Cat." Hermione sighed at the sight of her feline companion, recently reanimated, and stuck claw-deep in her stockings. She flicked her wand his way and Cat's paw sprang free.
Cat sat back on his haunches, green eyes wide and guileless as she slipped off her chair to sit down on the floor with him. The familiar crawled into her lap, to busy himself with licking the leftover taste of biscuits and jam on her palms with his sandpaper tongue. She found it painfully amusing that a cat was the only thing left in 1944 that still cared about her.
Everyone else she'd ever cared about was either dead or better off that way.
Did Tom have anything to do with what happened to Elphy? Did he kill her? It wasn't the first time she had asked herself that. But only one person knew the answer to that question for sure…and she was dead.
Hermione didn't know much about necromancy, but she knew enough to know that Elphy's lifeless state was not necessarily an obstacle. Not an obstacle that couldn't be crossed anyway.
Then again, there were other ways to finding out the truth.
"Come along, you," she told Cat, letting him have a final lick before she stood. Hermione glanced at Tom, who was still pretending to read, one last time before heading upstairs to the girl's dormitory. She didn't see him look up to watch her go.
The smell of tears hit Hermione the moment she walked into the dorms, followed by the mingled sounds of sobbing and snot-filled hiccups. She wandered past Meredith's bed, but the hangings were drawn, and she didn't hear anything from inside. Maybe she had finally gone to sleep.
Hermione went to the lavatory, Cat right on her heels. A trio of girls stood around the sinks inside, comforting a short brunette girl Hermione had never seen speak to Elphy as she cried helplessly into a hankie.
"Shush, Jane," said the tallest girl softly, rubbing Jane's back. "Elphy's in a better place now, and besides, Headmaster Dippet and Mrs. Shacklebolt are going to find out whoever did this. They'll make it right."
The girl glanced at her silent friends pointedly, who at once jumped into vigorous agreement. Jane's sobbing, however, didn't lessen – if anything, it got worse. Hermione tiptoed past them and shut herself into a stall.
The air smelled dank and putrid, but Hermione sat down on the toilet, waiting silently. Usually, the lavatories were immaculate, but the house elves hadn't had the chance to clean in the midst of the school's pandemonium; it was atrocious enough that they had to cook food and risk their necks by delivering meals to students when a killer was loose in the castle.
Hermione was snapped out of thought by Cat, who leapt onto her lap to get away from the filthy floor. The ring of scar-like runes on his head transfixed her, she traced each one with a finger, trying to commit them all to memory. Perhaps one day, she would be able to find out what language the runes were written in, and where it originated from.
Or maybe she would be dead or convicted of illegal time travelling before she had the chance.
When the girls finally left with a soft click of the door, Hermione slowly stepped out of the stall, looking around warily. "Is it clear?" she asked. Cat quickly ran back and forth down the line of stalls to check, and sat down to lick his nethers. Hermione took that as a yes.
Before anyone else had the chance to come in, she walked over to the door, pointing her wand squarely at the knob. "Colloportus!" she cast. A string of golden sparks shout of her wand, leaping into the lock to fortify it. She reached out to wriggle the knob experimentally, but the door stayed put.
Cat watched curiously as Hermione returned to the opposite side of the room, where the only window stood tall and narrow with iron-lattice bars. She twirled her wand between her fingertips like a baton, then blasted out the window grate with a resounding SMASH. They both winced at the sound of shattered glass and bars falling hundreds of feet to the ground.
Hopefully no one else had heard that.
"Helena," Hermione called, carefully sticking her head out of the broken window to see. Swaths of morning mist hit her, followed by a draft of icy-cold air that gave her gooseflesh. "Helena, are you out there?" she shouted loudly.
The room temperature plunged, and she tightened her robes with a sharp shiver – at the same time, a smooth voice suddenly spoke from behind her.
"Miss Granger," the voice said. "You would do well to keep your voice down lest someone catch you breaking bathroom windows without permission."
Hermione spun around and sighed in relief. Helena Ravenclaw was floating in the center of the girl's lavatory, an undead relic of the Medieval times with her plucked eyebrows and long, modest dress – and a medium expression of annoyance. "Why, pray tell, did you break that unfortunate window?" she asked haughtily.
Under Helena's disdainful stare, Hermione grew hot around her collar. "I was trying to get your attention."
"And why is that?" The ghost drifted closer, bringing the piercing chill of late winter and death in her wake. "I assume," she said at length, "that your intention was not to irk me by interrupting a highly important game of Wizard Chess between Sir Nicholas and I - which I was on the verge of winning, mind you - but I have been wrong before." At this last part, Helena's face darkened, and the temperature dropped even further.
Hermione could feel her lips beginning to turn blue.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know you were busy or I would've-" she began, but then changed tack when she realized she still would have called on the ghost regardless of any game, and Helena only proceeded to look surlier. "Listen," she said, in a contriter voice. "I need to ask you an important question, and it may seem strange, but… but I need you to answer as honestly as you can."
"You may ask your questions, Miss Granger, but I guarantee no answers," Helena replied with a curious curl of her chalk-white lips. She added, "Honest or otherwise."
"Fine." Hermione crossed her arms over her chest, staring at Helena levelly. "Have you spoken to Tom Riddle recently?" she inquired.
"That depends," said the ghost. "How do you define 'recent'?"
"Yesterday, for instance." Her breath caught on yesterday, she studied Helena's serene face for signs of a lie. If only Helena hadn't been alive for over eight hundred years, she might have had a chance at reading what few emotions the ghost was capable of feeling. "So did you?" she demanded, when Helena only stared at her.
Helena cocked her head to one side. "Did I what, Miss Granger?" Her eyes glinted with amusement, Hermione supposed this was the most excitement Ravenclaw had experienced in the past century.
Hermione breathed in slowly through her nose, out through her mouth. "Did you, or did you not speak to Tom Riddle yesterday?" she inquired, straining to sound civil instead of testy. Helena's smirk said she did not succeed.
"Yes…" said Helena softly, tapping her pointed chin with a long-nailed finger. "Now that I think of it, I do recall having a word with him."
Hermione waited, but all Helena did was tap the side of her nose with a knowing smile. She scowled.
"Fine, don't tell me," she snapped. Sensing her distress, Cat abandoned the sink pipes he was climbing, and scurried to her side. "I already know anyway," she said to herself, reaching for her wand.
"I do not recall you having a familiar." Helena's eyes were narrowed at the jet black cat by Hermione's side, her white eyes intent and suspicious. Cat hissed back at the ghost, teeth bared. Helena frowned. "Your familiar does not seem keen to strangers," she remarked sourly.
"Oh, he likes strangers," Hermione replied. "But they have to be alive or dead. You're a bit…" She cocked her head at Helena's glaring face, searching for the right word. "…caught in-between worlds, wouldn't you say?" she said coolly. Helena's face pinched – and it was in that moment that Hermione knew exactly what Helena and Tom had spoken about together.
"Tom told you he could change that though," she said in dawning realization. "Didn't he?"
Helena turned away. "You are liberal with your words, witch," she replied. "Perhaps you oughtn't to be."
Hermione pursed her lips and walked around Helena to avoid her contagious chill on the way to the door. Before she left, however, she turned back at the last minute to speak. "Did you see who killed her?" she asked. "Elphy."
"But you know who did it. Don't you?"
Helena turned around slowly, and when she faced Hermione, her features looked so hard they seemed to be carved out of white rock. "What are you suggesting, Miss Granger?" she demanded, her voice a punctuated shred above a hiss. "That I am responsible for the death of a student I hardly know? I am a phantom! I cannot detect the odor on the air, much less cast an Unforgivable Curse to kill your mortal companion with."
"But you wish you could, don't you?" Hermione retorted. Her voice became higher and shriller with every word. "You wish you were alive, you would do anything to be that way."
"Of course I would, you insolent brat!" Helena screamed.
Hermione's eyes widened in astonishment, she had never seen Helena look anything other than indifferent or vaguely derisive. Now, however, Helena's face – in fact, her entire body glowed with an iridescent radiance that froze the very air around them, making the lavatory tundra-reminiscent.
Hermione could see her breath clouding in front of her eyes as Helena's frostbitten fury grew, fogging the mirrors above the sinks, and forming particles of frost on the stall locks. Her toes turned painfully cold in her slippers.
"But I cannot, can I?" said Helena bitterly. "I am trapped here in this ancient castle with children who do not understand me, while the only living soul who has ever bothered to sympathize with me will be gone from here within months, while I remain here, timeless."
"Who sympathized with you? Tom?" Hermione guessed, her curiosity overcoming her wariness for a moment. Helena said nothing, and that was answer enough. "You know you made yourself this way, Helena," she said lowly. "You're the one who didn't want to die."
Helena laughed at that, the sound cruel and ill-used. "Ah yes, I dug my grave and now I must lie in it. But who said anything about wanting death?" she chuckled.
Hermione's eyebrows drew together in confusion, but as she opened her mouth to reply, Helena glanced at the door behind her and vanished without another word, taking all the venom-tinged chill with her. Quickly, Hermione turned around and cancelled the Locking Charm – as soon as she did, the door fell open. Along with Meredith Smith.
"Meredith?" Hermione said, surprised. She reached down to help her up, but Meredith slapped her hand away, climbing to her feet with a huff. "What are you doing here?" she asked bewilderedly. "I thought you were asleep."
"My mind is a bit too preoccupied for sleeping," Meredith said, in a voice just shy of scathing.
As she dusted herself off, Hermione had the chance to take her in for the first time, and what she saw was…unusual. Meredith, who typically prided herself on relentless perfection, had puffy red eyes, a swollen face, and frizzy, knapped hair instead of her normal silky tresses. When she was finished wiping the strands of strangers' hair off her skirt, Meredith looked up and scowled.
"What are you looking at, Mudblood?" she snapped. The insult struck like lightning, Hermione's face hardened, fingers twitching toward the wand in her pocket. "Meredith," she said icily. "I might remind you that you're not the only one here who lost your friend last night."
Meredith rolled her eyes, but the self-righteous effect was diminished by the fact she had clearly been crying. "Whatever," she sniffed. With a flip of her hair, she marched over to Hermione and poked a sharp finger in her chest, making her yelp in surprise. "You are going to tell me what happened to her, Granger-"
"But I don't know what happened to her-"
"Well then, you're going to help me figure it out," said Meredith menacingly, and the look in her eyes made Hermione's protest fall short. "I heard you talking to the Grey Lady in here. You think she and Riddle had something to do with what happened to…to-" Meredith paused, as if a painful rock was stuck in her throat and needed dislodging. She seemed to concentrate for a moment.
"What happened to Elphy," Hermione finished. At her name, Meredith recoiled as if she had been slapped. "It's only a guess, Smith," she said tentatively. "I don't have any proof-"
"That doesn't matter," Meredith interrupted. There was a wildness about her, a desperateness too raw to look at for long. Hermione studied the floor to avoid it. "I believe you, Granger. Most importantly, I wouldn't put killing past Riddle." Meredith said his name like it was a dirty word.
Hermione thought of the way Tom stared at her in the Common Room, intense but impossible to put a name to, and of what he'd said to her last night. How he might have cared for her, at least for a moment. Part of her wanted to sprint full speed ahead toward that part of Tom, toward the chance that he could feel for others, for her.
The smart part of her knew everything Tom said was a lie.
"I know you care about him, I did too…once," said Meredith, seeing the look on her face. She walked over to the sinks and turned on the faucet, splaying her fingers under the freezing-cold spray. "But you can't," she continued. "Because people like Riddle will always give you the short end of the stick, and if it comes down to you and him, you can bet on your ancestor's grave that it isn't you he's going to be choosing. Guys like Riddle would sooner throw somebody else to the dogs than risk fetching a stick."
Meredith's words echoed in the vacant bathroom painfully, but Hermione remained silent. The other witch bent down and splashed a handful of water onto her face to lessen the swelling. She paused. "Riddle is a monster," she said softly. "Monsters can't love, you know. They can only destroy."
Hermione turned away. Dragged her sleeve across her face. "I know," she said in a quiet voice. "I know."
They didn't wait to get started on finding out if Tom really killed Elphy.
Hermione pulled her old enchanted handbag out from under her bed, tying it to the belt loop of the trousers she had changed into under her school robes. Meanwhile, Meredith lay stretched out across her mattress like a scheming warrior queen, her dark brown eyes narrowed at the ceiling as she mindlessly bit the manicure off her shaped nails. She caught a glimpse of Hermione's beaded handbag and frowned.
"What's that?" she demanded.
"It's a bag I charmed to fit all of my, uh, important items," Hermione said carefully. Meredith stared at her for another moment before shrugging. "Fine, as long as it has some secret map that will get us out of here without anybody seeing, then I will not pass judgment on your offensively ugly accessories," she replied.
Hermione laughed, not because of the slip on her fashion, but rather due to the fact Meredith had unknowingly guessed right. The Marauder's Map, tucked in her pocket, reminded her of the Weasley twins, which made her smile even wider. Meredith looked at her oddly. "You are strange, aren't you, Granger?" she said, slightly disgusted by her. "And what is wrong with your cat!"
"Nothing," said Hermione defensively. She forced herself not to laugh again when Cat hissed at Meredith, who bared her teeth right back at the feline with an audible snap. Cat's green eyes shrank into slits.
"Maybe he thinks you stink," she suggested, at which Meredith gave her a glare that encompassed all seven hells. "I'll have you know that I am wearing a very expensive fragrance shipped directly from France," she said furiously. Hermione shrugged, Cat sneezed in what seemed to her like agreement.
Before they left the dorms, Hermione paused and checked on the locket under her shirt. Beyond the gem-encrusted veil of gold and emeralds, she could sense the darkness lurking within Slytherin's Locket. The severed soul that Tom had banished.
She would destroy it soon, but not yet. First, she needed to find the second Horcrux that Tom had created – before he recovered his strength and transformed his diary next. She still remembered where he had hidden in it, in between dresser drawers like any common Muggle.
But he wasn't common. And he certainly was not a Muggle.
"It's in here?" Meredith whispered, snapping Hermione out of her thoughts. She looked up from the two names on the Marauder's Map Meredith Smith and Hermione Granger, which were right on top of the secret corridor leading to the Potions classroom.
"Yes," she said slowly. "At least, the map says we're there." Hermione frowned, examining the stone brick wall while Meredith glanced back and forth down the hallway in paranoia. She checked the map again. "We should be right on top of it!" she muttered under her breath.
Meredith looked back at her, one eyebrow quirked. "On top of it?" she echoed.
In unison, they looked down at the floor and frowned. Meredith dragged her foot along a strangely straight crack in the ground. It was almost invisible in the dim glow of the torches, she tapped the point of her boot against it experimentally. "Sounds hollow," she said.
"Step back," Hermione ordered. Meredith started to protest, then changed her mind at the sight of Hermione's drawn wand, and doubled back several feet. Hermione waved her wand over the square outlined in the floorboards, announcing in a clear voice, "Alohomora."
Bolts unclicked on the opposite side, Hermione jumped back a step when she felt a lock unhinge under her left foot. Meredith tapped her buffed, brown boots on the floor anxiously, arms crossed, and debated between staring at the opening trap door in astonishment, and scanning the empty part of the corridor for unwelcome visitors.
"Why is it taking so long?" she demanded at last. The door had only slid halfway open, she stomped forward to peer inside it, but Hermione held up a hand to stop her. "Wait," she said warningly. "You don't know what's down there."
"I know what's up here," Meredith retorted, "and it's going to result in our expulsion if we don't get moving!"
"Just give me one second to check it out." Hermione knelt close to the opening, lighting her wand and holding it up to view the mysterious depths below. Meredith stood over her shoulder, squinting into the darkness.
"No stairs," Meredith remarked without enthusiasm. "What do we do? I don't have a broomstick, although I suppose we could kidnap Abraxas's-"
"There's no time for that," Hermione interrupted. She stood and studied the darkness below, searching for signs of deadly vegetation or hungry creatures. "We have to get out of here before they figure out that we're gone and start looking for us," she said. "We're going to have to jump." At Meredith's disbelieving stare, she added impatiently, "Do you want to help Elphy or not?"
The scowl dripped off Meredith's lips, her eyes left Hermione and judged the fall for an extent of time. Behind them, they heard someone approaching. "Hey, is anyone down here?" called a boy's voice. "This area is off-limits."
"Drat! It's Wizelby." Hermione raised an eyebrow at Meredith, who waved her hand dismissively. "He's a Prefect wannabe," she elaborated. "If he finds us, he'll go straight to Riddle and the others like a little rat. Then we'll be ruined."
"Right." Meredith nodded and stared down at the open door. Flexed her fingers.
With a large eye roll, Hermione sighed and shoved her in – Meredith gasped, wavering long enough to curse Hermione's grandchildren to agonizing deaths – right before she grabbed Hermione's sleeve, dragging them both down. The girls screeched as they plummeted.
Above them, the door slid shut.
"What on earth is this foulness?" Meredith shuddered. Her voice came from somewhere ahead of Hermione, who was hunting the mystifying spongy wetness they had landed in for her wand. Finally, she gave up and Summoned it. A whistling noise pierced the air and… "OW!" Meredith shouted indignantly – and then Hermione's wand landed safely in her hand.
"Sorry," she shouted to Meredith, who grunted in reply. "Do you have your wand?"
"I-I think I lost it."
Hermione struggled to her feet, swaying on whatever jellylike substance they had been swallowed by, and pointed her wand above her. "Lumos!" she cried out. A soft yellow light slowly filled the void of black, revealing swaths of violet-colored…jelly…? Chunks of it were stuck to Hermione's robes and hair, she searched the glob sea for Meredith, and found her dark face scowling at her from half a yard away.
"Can you see your wand now?" Hermione asked.
"Yes, but I can't exactly get to it," said Meredith, sounding peeved. "Or move, for that matter."
Hermione peeled her feet out of the gelatin-like substance, almost losing her shoes in the process. "Hold on, I'm coming," she said. "Reducto!" A giant square of jelly blasted apart ahead of her, Hermione sliced her wand through the air as she cleared a path toward Meredith.
By the time she reached her, she was breathless and covered in thousands of pieces of gook. She made the mistake of licking her lip and gagged. "Ugh, it tastes like beeswax!"
"So I gather that you've eaten beeswax before?" Meredith smirked from her jelly trap. Hermione rolled her eyes and got to work on freeing her. "Agh!" Meredith screeched, when Hermione's reducto missed a sliver of its target. Meredith glared up at her, one part of her hair smoking. "Be careful with that, would you?" she said waspishly.
"Sorry." Hermione stuck out her hand for Meredith to take, grunting in effort as she hauled the girl to her feet. When Meredith finally snapped free with a squishy bluuurp, she pulled off her slippery robes, and retrieved her wand from a small mountain of purple slime.
"What is this nasty stuff?" she muttered, wiping her wand clean on her skirt. "I think some got in my nose."
"I'm not sure," Hermione said uncertainly. She swiped a gooey piece onto her fingertip, holding it in the wandlight for inspection. "Clearly, this place hasn't been cleaned in a while. It must be some form of mold or-"
"Mold?" Meredith said, repelled. "You mean to say I have mold in my hair-"
"It's just a guess," said Hermione impatiently, throwing the goo back – it sailed straight for Meredith, who ducked out of the way with a yelp. "It's lucky that this stuff was here to break our fall though," she went on, "otherwise we would have broken our necks."
"I'd rather have a broken neck than mold in my bloomers," Meredith grumped. Hermione was glad for the darkness, it hid her wide smile.
They began to form a trail going toward the side of the cavern that seemed to have less slime. As they worked, bright tiny fireworks of red spiraled off their wands and lit the damp walls in flashes. It was incredibly humid between the moist jelly and close walls, and not long before Meredith and Hermione were both sweating bullets despite the fact they had stripped down to minimum layers.
"Ok, we should be at the exit soon," said Hermione tiredly. She had finally found a good use for Professor Portebello's Cleaning Charms when she magicked the Marauder's Map free of slime; in the flickering light of their wands, she watched their written names drift closer to the door of the Potions room. They were climbing upward, although the floor didn't seem to be getting any steeper. She put the map away in her bag.
"How much longer d'you reckon," Meredith panted, "until we're out of this retched hole?"
"Ssh! Get down, quickly." Hermione dropped down on her stomach and Meredith followed suit, pinching the end of her wand to put out its light. The stone tunnel went dark. Not too far above them, they could hear a floor groaning under someone's feet.
Sweat dripped down Hermione's neck in a cold, wet tendril. She gripped the rocky floor and waited with bated breath for the footsteps to recede, but instead they stopped right above them.
Suddenly, bright white light invaded the tunnel.
Meredith cringed, covering her eyes with a pained cry, and Hermione squinted past the glaring brilliance. A form dropped into the tunnel with a solid thud, raising an illuminated wand to reveal an angular face, wavy hair, and onyx eyes.
"Tom," Hermione whispered through numb lips. "How did you know-"
"You weren't exactly discreet," said Tom smoothly. He strode forward and Hermione pushed herself into a sitting position, although he still towered over her. She tasted blood and realized she had bitten through her tongue.
Tom glanced at Meredith, edging back the way they had come, her eyes big and frightened. "I had already realized you were missing, Hermione," he said, "but as soon as Wizelby told me he had heard a disturbance in the hall off the boy's dorms I knew what you were up to for sure." He smiled, his perfect teeth luminous in the steady light of his wand. "Funny that you took the difficult way, I find Salazar's portrait is much more efficient."
When Hermione only glowered at him, Tom's fake smile dropped. "Not feeling conversational, are we, pet?" he said.
"I'm not your pet," she snarled.
Tom shrugged. "Suit yourself. I assume you came down here to somehow foil me, seeing as you must know all about my 'evil schemes' being the little smartarse that you are." He nodded at Meredith, who went rigid under his dancing black gaze, and frowned slightly. "But what's she doing here? That one isn't very useful with self-defense, I'm afraid."
"I wanted to come actually," said Meredith. Her voice trembled, and she didn't meet Tom's eyes – but her words were solid.
"Poor choice on your part," Tom replied with a lovely smile. Turning to Hermione, he tilted his head, and thoughtfully touched his bottom lip with the end of his wand. "But poorer for you, Hermione," he said. "I have been a bit too preoccupied as of late to properly deal with the harsh way you disposed of my…affections. But fate seems to have brought us here today. Right here, right now." His voice softened on us, but his face did not change to match it. Like a marble statue, his features seemed to be carved into one permanent expression – stony indifference.
That scared her the most.
Because if Tom could not feel, then he had to power to do anything. To hurt anyone.
Hermione's fingers inched across the ground, toward the place where she had dropped her wand – Tom grinned and crooked his finger. The air shifted as Hermione's wand flew off the ground toward him, he grabbed it out of the air with a savvy wink at her.
"Always fighting back," he murmured appreciatively.
A flash of red light lit the tunnel and arced toward them, Hermione's eyes went wide at the same time Tom looked up in astonishment – and was thrown back by the force of Meredith's spell, ricocheting off the ceiling before it came down and tore a long gash across his chest. He crashed into the wall, where an avalanche of rocks fell down around his slumped body.
"Come on, Hermione!" Meredith screamed when she stared. "We have to go!"
Hermione blinked, scrambling to her feet, and stumbled after Meredith in the direction of the trap door that Tom had come through. She boosted Meredith's feet up, heart pounding and muscles aching, while Tom groaned, beginning to crawl out of the pile of rubble. "Hurry up!" she shouted.
Meredith clawed herself out and turned around, grabbing Hermione's wrists to pull her up next. She swore extravagantly as they strained, sweating and heaving. Hermione swung her legs back and forth to build momentum, until she caught a bit of risen rock under her foot, and used it to push herself up. Meredith pulled her out the rest of the way.
"Shut the door and stand on it," Hermione gasped. Meredith crawled around her, slamming the trapdoor down just as a jade-colored spell hit it from the other side. Sparks sliced through the slats in the wooden planks, singing her hands. Meredith screeched in pain.
"Give me your wand!" said Hermione sharply. Meredith felt around her robes and clumsily threw it at her, body shaking. Hermione cast a Moving Spell at the potions cabinet on the opposite side of the classroom – but Meredith's wand rebelled against her will. She cursed, trying again, and the cabinet budged an inch.
Underneath Meredith, the trapdoor started to tremble.
"Come on, move, you stupid thing!" Hermione yelled. The cabinet tipped onto its side with a resounding BANG – and charged toward them at full speed, knocking desks and cauldrons out of its way left and right. "Get out the way, Meredith," she screamed, jumping out of the crossfire just as the cabinet went roaring past her.
Meredith's head snapped up at her outburst, she scrambled off the smoking trapdoor and ran toward Hermione, arms and legs pumping wildly. The cabinet screeched to a graceless halt once it landed on top of the trapdoor, effectively blocking it. Hermione thought she heard laughter from the other side.
"You have to go without me," she said abruptly. The look Meredith gave Hermione made it clear she thought she was insane – and maybe she was right, Hermione was feeling a little off-kilter. "Go get help from Professor Dumbledore," she instructed, opening the bag on her hip, and pulling out a shimmery midnight cloak. Meredith goggled when Hermione wrapped the cloak around her, and all of her body except for her head disappeared.
"It's an Invisibility Cloak," Hermione said in explanation. "Pull the hood over your head and go through the castle to find Dumbledore, not Auror Shacklebolt, and tell him exactly what's happened. Tell him to look in the Room of Requirement or the first floor girl's lavatory-"
"The lavatory?" Meredith balked. "Hermione, have you gone mad-?"
"No," said Hermione quickly. "But if you stay here, then he's going to kill you just like he did Elphy." Meredith glanced back at the trapdoor warily, where broken vials of potions had leaked all over the floor to create a noxious combination of ingredients. Smoke filled the room, not black or grey but ranging between the colors of putrid green and malevolent red. It smelled like melting metal.
Around the edges of the cabinet, a glowing blue light shone, slowly building in iridescence. Getting closer to the spilled potions. Hermione's heart sank.
"He's going to blast the whole door off," she said in horror. "Get out, Meredith. Get out!" But Meredith was already running away, and as she sprinted out of the door she pulled the hood of the Cloak over her head, vanishing from sight.
Hermione went after her, heart racing, and was halfway through the door when she was suddenly lifted off her feet by the blast of Tom's curse, exploding throughout the Potions room with a vicious roar. She imagined the spell reacting with the deadly chemicals on the floor inside as her body was propelled through the air, and the walls were ripped to shreds around her.
Then the world went dark.
AN: Countdown to the end!