AN: As always, I love hearing what worked for people and what didn't.
The sense of safety that Hermione had been nurturing in her heart for months vanished in a single day. Discovering that the Heir of Slytherin was still on the hunt had a bracing effect on the entire school. The fact that a pureblood had finally fallen victim to petrification made those who had previously considered themselves off the target list start to reconsider, though Hermione still felt the divide that her blood status created between herself and her housemates.
The student body's mood was not helped by the announcement that Dumbledore had been removed from his position as Headmaster "pending official investigation." It was hard to say which was worse: the loss of the protection offered by Dumbledore's presence, or the official acknowledgement that Dumbledore's protection had been tried and found wanting.
The other teachers did their best to provide for student safety in Dumbledore's absence, enacting an overbearing set of protective guidelines. Students were ordered to remain in their common rooms at all times, only let out for meals and for classes. When they were let out, they would be escorted to and from their destination by a prefect. Even the prefects weren't immune from the new rules, as they were forbidden from patrolling the castle alone.
Hermione had a hard time believing that the Heir to Slytherin could be defeated by something as simple as the buddy system, but she had to admit it was better than nothing.
The new restrictions didn't do anything to stop rumors from flying around the castle. The most popular theory was that Harry Potter of all people was the Heir of Slytherin. Apparently he and Ron had had some kind of fight the day after it was revealed that Harry was a parselmouth, the evening before Ron was petrified.
Hermione didn't think somebody as slippery as the Heir would indulge in such a blatant attack, although people did sometimes do foolish things when they were angry. Still, though, she didn't think Harry had it in him to terrorize the school.
One person who agreed with her was Neville Longbottom. Though she didn't get a chance to talk it over with him, all of the rumors agreed that Neville was Harry's staunchest defender. He roundly denied any chance that Harry was the Heir, and he wouldn't stand for anybody else to accuse Harry in his presence. She thought it was admirable, really.
When she walked into the Potions classroom that Friday she gave Neville a smile to let him know that she appreciated his actions. Actually talking to him about anything but potions was out of the question. If Snape was a strict instructor under normal circumstances, in the current crisis he was positively draconian. It did keep people from gawking at Harry, but Hermione found it a little frustrating to be sitting right next to Neville without being able to have a real conversation.
When Neville patted her hand goodbye at the end of class, Hermione had to force herself not to react as she felt him slip a note into her hand. She casually dropped the note in her pocket as she was tidying up her workstation, a small smile playing over her lips.
The smile was gone when she read the note. After getting back to the Slytherin common room, she had excused herself to her dorm to have a chance to read in private. It didn't take long to finish the simple message: "Harry needs your help. Meet by the second floor girls' bathroom after dinner."
Honestly. If Harry really needed help, he should be asking a teacher. Hermione was half tempted to take the note to an adult herself, although the only one she had easy access to was Professor Snape, and she knew better than to think that he would go out of his way to help Harry Potter.
At the end of the day she couldn't turn Neville-or Harry-aside if they needed her help. She would certainly give them a piece of her mind before she did anything for them, though.
Fortified by that thought, Hermione tucked her wand in her pocket and joined her housemates in milling around until it was time for dinner. She worried throughout the meal about what she was about to do, but when the time came it turned out to be pretty simple.
As Slytherin house left the Great Hall, Hermione allowed herself to drift to the back of the pack. The prefect bringing up the rear guard was more concerned at looking all around them to spot any incoming attacks than he was in keeping track of every little underclassman. Once he was looking away, Hermione simply stepped to the side and tucked herself behind a suit of armor in one of the alcoves lining the hall.
Slytherin House marched on without her, and Hermione soon found herself alone in the hallway. Frowning at the thought of getting caught, Hermione couldn't deny feeling a little excitement at breaking the school rules to make a secret rendezvous with Neville. She kept a sharp eye about her as she headed for the meeting point, arriving at the designated bathroom without running into any trouble.
Well, any trouble other than the fact that Neville was nowhere to be seen. Shaking her head at the thought that Neville might be waiting inside the bathroom, Hermione pushed the door open and stepped inside. Looking around the room, she saw no sign of him.
Feeling nervous now, Hermione reached for the pocket containing her wand. She seemed to be all alone in the room, but something just seemed off. The only warning she received was the appearance of a slight distortion like heat waves rising off a hot road, visible in one of the bathroom mirrors. Before she could react, a red spell came rocketing out of the distortion straight towards her. She tried to step out of the way, but the spell caught her squarely in the back and she knew no more.
Hermione experienced a moment of disorientation when she woke up. Her vision was a mess of dark shadows and flickering lights, and the room was swaying crazily around her. Making everything worse was the fact that she couldn't seem to move to steady herself.
After that first terrifying minute she was able to put things into context. The swaying sensation was from some kind of spell that had her floating along a few feet above the ground. She was positioned on her back, staring at a torch lit ceiling that reminded her a little bit of the Slytherin dungeons, albeit much more rough hewn. And she couldn't move because she was trussed up from head to toe in heavy ropes.
As she became more aware of her situation, Hermione found her blind panic being quickly replaced by a more rationally supported terror.
Looking from side to side, she saw that she wasn't alone. Harry Potter was floating along beside her, bobbing gently from side-to-side in his cocoon of ropes. His head was lolling along with the motion in a fashion that suggested he was unconscious. His presence was a little comforting, but any reassurance he provided fled when they rounded a corner to reveal something that looked like a shed snakeskin from a snake approximately the size of a school bus.
Her restraints kept her from moving her arms and legs, but Hermione was able to crane her neck far enough to look over her toes and see what was ahead. She saw the back of a wizard who seemed to be around her age. She didn't have much to go on other than their height, as they were wearing a formless robe with a hood drawn forward to hide their head. She saw torches flaring into life as they moved forward through the tunnel that must be deep beneath Hogwarts, though her captor didn't bother looking from side to side as they moved forward.
Their progress halted momentarily as their way was blocked by an enormous silver door. The door was wreathed by a decorative pair of snakes entwined around themselves in some sort of twisted embrace. Hermione tried and failed to suppress a shudder as an unnatural hissing noise came from the wizard ahead of her. It must have been some kind of password, as the snakes surrounding the door wriggled out of the way and the door swung open under its own power.
When her captor stepped through the doorway a series of torches lit up in response that gradually revealed more and more of the enormous space. The huge room was worthy of a grandiose title like the Chamber of Secrets. Hermione couldn't believe that something like this could be hidden beneath Hogwarts-although if anybody could do it, it would be one of the legendary founders of Hogwarts. Craning her neck, she could see that the back wall of the room had been carved out to resemble a wizard, sitting on a throne and coldly surveying those who had dared to enter his secret chamber. It was hard to judge, but she thought the carving had to be at least thirty feet high.
The wizard before her hardly broke stride, walking towards the statue. As Hermione followed helplessly behind, she became aware of a more subtle feature of the room: it was filthy. The floor of the room was covered with a layer of muck and mud several inches deep. She could hear the squishing noise of her captor's footsteps and, besides that, a steady sound of water dripping down from the room's ceiling. Looking more closely at the statue as she approached it, she could see signs of neglect. The haughty face of the wizard-she could only assume it was a representation of Salazar Slytherin-was streaked with grime and discolored by the dirt that had accumulated over a thousand years of neglect.
She was distracted from her musings when her captor reached the base of the statue and turned to face her. He reached up with a flourish and tossed back the hood of his robe, revealing the face of Neville Longbottom. Hermione was too shocked to do anything but watch as Neville's expression shifted from a triumphant smirk to a sort of confused stare as he swayed in place for a moment before collapsing to the ground in a faint.
At the same time, the spell that had been holding Hermione off the ground ended, dropping her to a landing that was thankfully cushioned by the thick layer of mud on the ground. She shuddered instinctively as some of the slime worked its way through her bindings and down the back of her robes. When she looked back up, she couldn't suppress a gasp.
Where Neville had been standing was the ghostly outline of a student that Hermione had never expected to see in person. It was hard to believe what she was seeing, but as a moment passed and he gained more solidity it became impossible to deny the evidence of her eyes.
"Hello, Hermione," Tom replied, as casually as if she had just arrived for one of his tutoring sessions. He wore an easy smile on his face as he stretched, obviously taking great satisfaction from his newfound physical existence.
"I... I don't understand," Hermione said, still too shocked to be properly upset at the situation.
"Poor Neville never could work up the nerve to ask you out himself," Tom said. "I have to admit, I never expected to find somebody who would volunteer to be possessed."
"Possessed? What did you do to him?" Hermione felt a dawning sense of horror bearing down on her like an avalanche.
"I did him a favor. As if a milksop like that could seriously hold your attention," Tom said, giving Neville a disdainful look. "He did say he would give his soul for just one kiss... although I suppose he might have thought it was mere hyperbole."
"Tom... are you the Heir of Slytherin?" Hermione asked, desperately trying to find a reasonable explanation for what was happening. "What are you doing?"
"Relax, Hermione. You're going to be a hero," Tom said, smiling broadly at her. "You'll be the one to end Harry Potter's reign of terror."
Tom began to pace back and forth, then paused. He crouched down and pried Neville's wand from the unconscious boy's fingers, then resumed pacing, casually twirling the wand around his fingers as he continued.
"Everybody knows the Heir of Slytherin has to be a parselmouth. How else could he command the loyalty of a basilisk?" Tom said, and Hermione started as she realized the likely source of the snakeskin she had seen outside. "They'll wonder why he did it. Was he just born bad? Did he crack under the pressure? He's told people all year he's been hearing voices in the walls, you know."
Hermione tried to focus on the technical details Tom was letting slip rather than the overall horror of the situation. A basilisk's gaze killed... but if it was seen indirectly, it was possible that it might just petrify. She couldn't recall exactly what she had read about the beast that was semi-mythical even to wizards, but it was a possible fit. And apparently Tom was in a position to know what was going on. She was drawn out of her thoughts as he continued speaking.
"Who knows how long he could have kept terrorizing the school if you hadn't stopped him? It's just too bad you weren't in time to save poor Neville," Tom said, shaking his head sadly.
"I don't-why? Why are you doing this?" Hermione asked. Tom was-had been-her friend. She couldn't understand what had possessed him to do something so horrible.
"This society is rotten to the core. You know, muggleborns weren't even allowed to vote while I was in school?" Tom said. "And no matter what sort of vile crime a wizard commits against a muggle, they call it 'muggle-baiting' and let him off with a slap of the wrist? And the idea of a muggleborn in a position of power at the Ministry is right out, of course."
"I want to fix it. All of it."
He stopped pacing and fixed Hermione with a serious look. She did not recognize anything of the cheerful mentor she had grown to care for in his expression. Hermione could see nothing but the fervent belief of a zealot burning in his gaze.
"In the end, the plan is simple," Tom said. "I'll be the villain that tears the whole mess down, and you'll be the hero who puts it back together again."
"Tom... this is insane. Impossible," Hermione said, holding onto the hope of talking him out of this madness.
"Is it, really? I thought I made a pretty good go at it last time," Tom said, then snapped his fingers in realization. "I suppose I did discourage you from looking up what had happened to poor old Tom Marvolo Riddle."
Hermione stared at him in shock. She had in fact tried to look up Tom Riddle, but she hadn't found anything in the first couple of references that she had checked, and after that... she had lost interest. Had Tom influenced her somehow? He was dragging his wand through the air, spelling out his name in letters of flame that matched her sudden burning desire to understand the mystery behind his behavior.
Hermione thought about famous wizards of the last fifty years. No, not famous wizards, famous parselmouths-that ability must have come from Tom, not from Neville. As Tom finished writing his middle name and started in on his last name, the "VOL" in MARVOLO seemed to jump out at her.
"Voldemort," Hermione said, hardly more than a shocked whisper. "Lord Voldemort."
"Ah, yes," Tom said, waving his wand to rearrange the letters before him to spell out his introduction. "You know, the most wonderful thing about this year has been talking to somebody who's not an idiot."
"You lied to me!" Hermione said, as the feeling of personal betrayal became more acute now that she knew their whole relationship had been a sham.
"I would say that I simply omitted to inform you of some facts that weren't relevant at the time," Tom said-it was hard to think of him as anything other than Tom, hard to think of somebody who seemed so nice and so normal as the fearsome Lord Voldemort-especially as he casually shrugged after he spoke, not seeming particularly apologetic.
"Omitted-you just said you care about muggleborn students!" Hermione said, indignant. "And what about all those things you said about Dumbledore?"
"Albus Dumbledore was a great man. You've seen what he used to be like. Confident. Brilliant. Daring. Magical," Tom said, and as far as she could tell he was perfectly sincere. "He had such plans, too. He wanted a world free from those idiots at the Ministry, a world where the best among us would manage society for the greater good of all."
Tom paused, looking off into the distance as if he was seeing a memory play out before him.
"After he beat Grindelwald, it was all there for the taking. The whole country was ready to pass any law he wanted; they were ready to make him king if he asked," Tom said, shaking his head. "But he came back from that duel a broken man, content to spend the rest of his days puttering around this castle. The shell of Albus Dumbledore is more of a wizard than most will ever be, but it still pains me to see him so diminished."
"They say he's the only one you ever feared," Hermione said, feeling somehow even more upset that he could identify himself as Lord Voldemort and then pretend to be reasonable.
"Fools say such things when they speak about matters beyond their understanding," Tom said, snorting in disdain. "The truth is, he's the only one I've ever respected. How could I strike him down before I finish making his dream a reality?"
The sheer audacity of that claim left Hermione speechless, but not for long.
"Dumbledore's dream? I've read about the kind of things Death Eaters did during the war, there was nothing in that that Dumbledore would have supported."
Tom shook his head as though disappointed, and Hermione experienced a surreal flashback to Professor Snape's reaction whenever Neville asked a question in Potions class.
"Well, of course the man who defeated Grindelwald would not have had to resort to such base tactics. But for somebody like me, the only way to wipe out the old bigotries was to wipe out the old bigots," Tom said. "Tell me, did you ever look at the names of the people who actually died in the war?"
He took her silence as the admission of ignorance that it was.
"It's the same old names you'll see in any wizard's history books: Bones, Potter, Prewett, Black, Weasley, Malfoy... really, it was a fight between old families who already hated each other." Tom said, and it was hard to believe that the disgust he claimed to feel for the established purebloods was feigned. "Old Charlus Potter hated how Pollux Black treated muggles for the same reason you would hate a man who beat his dog-and you'd have that dog sitting up at your dinner table before Charlus would sit down for a meal with a muggle."
Hermione blinked, still not quite sure he was serious.
"You can't seriously be trying to convince me that Lord Voldemort was a muggleborn rights activist."
"Is it really so hard to believe? I killed off so many of the old purebloods, and branded the worst of them with a mark that would keep them from ever re-entering polite society. Though I seem to have over-estimated polite society," Tom said, then shrugged. "No matter, though, so long as we don't run into another Harry Potter we should be able to see things through to the end this time."
"If you really are Lord Voldemort, what could you possibly want my help with?" Hermione asked. The histories she had read had been quite clear that You-Know-Who was legendary both for his depravity and for his narcissism.
"I told you, you're the hero. I'll walk out of here and spend a few years reestablishing myself. Maybe I'll keep the old name-although it might be fun to pick something stupid like Lord Tom and teach people to fear it," Tom said, then shook his head to dismiss the thought. "You stay here and graduate at the top of your class, then join the aurors. You'll show remarkable insight and ability to track me down, and our duels will be the stuff of legends-they might even say you're the only one I ever feared."
Tom started pacing once more, twirling his wand between his fingers as he sketched out his vision of the future.
"Once you finally defeat me, well... Hermione Granger, Minister of Magic. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?" Tom asked, but didn't wait for her response. "By the time I'm done, there won't be anybody left who will oppose your agenda. You'll go down as the greatest Minister of all time. Isn't that what you want?"
"Not like that. Not like that," Hermione said. Sure, she had daydreamed about reforming the Ministry of Magic, but to hear Tom talk about it like it was as simple as shopping for groceries... something about it brought the whole horrible reality of the situation crashing back down on her. "Please, just let my friends go. Then maybe we can make some kind of deal."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible. As clever a wizard as I am, I was only able to leave a piece of my soul in the diary. Neville's contribution is necessary for me to regain my full strength," Tom said. The crazy thing was that he actually did sound sorry, although Hermione had to admit that her ability to read Tom's sincerity was apparently pretty poor. "As for Harry... let's be honest. Your star is never going to shine as bright when you go to school with the Boy Who Lived. For one legend to rise, another has to fall. Besides, somebody has to be the Heir of Slytherin."
"I won't do it! If you hurt them, I'll never help you." "Do you hear me? Never-"
Hermione's desperate pleas were cut off as Tom seemed to tire of the conversation and sent a silencing spell in her direction. For all of her efforts to continue talking, she couldn't make a sound.
"Then you'd better get started on a better story to tell the aurors," Tom said, before he walked over to where she floated. He ruffled his hand through her hair-his hand didn't feel completely tangible, but she could still feel the oddly affectionate gesture. "Don't worry, I'm not upset. It took Bella some time to come around to my way of thinking, and look how she turned out."
Tom turned to meet the eyes of Harry Potter, and Hermione realized with a start that the Boy Who Lived was awake. She couldn't remember seeing him wake up, and she wondered just how much of that last conversation he had heard.
"Now, Mr. Potter. I'm afraid your story is going to end here," Tom said, and all of the affection had left his voice. "But I have to admit that I am curious. How could an infant barely more than a year old defeat the greatest wizard of his time?"
"Dumbledore is the greatest wizard I know of," Harry said. He seemed to Hermione to be remarkably unconcerned by his current predicament.
"Dumbledore is an old man," Tom said, before spreading his arms wide in a questioning gesture. "If he's so great, why is it that he was never able to defeat Lord Voldemort?"
Harry was silent for a moment, and Hermione began to wonder if he had seen the danger in provoking their captor.
"Well, if that's how you want to figure things," Harry finally said, "I reckon maybe I'm just the greatest wizard of all."
Hermione cringed, expecting a violent outburst from the boy who had grown up to become Lord Voldemort. Instead he threw back his head and laughed. When he brought his wand to bear on Harry it wasn't to launch a destructive curse but rather to cause the ropes binding the boy to disappear. Harry stood and eyed Tom warily, clearly as surprised as Hermione at his reaction.
"I can see you're a true Gryffindor. I couldn't have picked a better representative of your house," Tom said, smiling at Harry. Hermione wouldn't have described it as a friendly smile. "But are you prepared to face the might of Slytherin without Dumbledore around to hold your hand?"
"As long as there are people in the castle who believe in him," Harry said, the humorous tone gone from his voice, "Dumbledore is always here."
"You know as well as I do that the Ministry-"
Tom was cut off by the appearance of a fireball near the ceiling of the chamber. When the flames cleared Hermione saw a magnificent bird flying through the air. The brilliantly colored orange and red plumage-not to mention the unique method of entry-meant that it could only be a phoenix. As the bird circled the room, Hermione saw that it had something clutched in its claws. It winged towards Harry and Hermione felt a sense of hope rising in her chest as it dropped... a hat. On Harry's head.
True, it was the Sorting Hat, but Hermione didn't see how any hat was going to help them in this particular situation. Then Harry ducked his head as though he had been struck, before sweeping the Hat off of his head and reaching into it, grasping onto something within and withdrawing a sword.
It was a marvelous sword. The blade shone in the torchlight, and the rubies set on the hilt were the largest gemstones Hermione had ever seen in person. It was better than being completely unarmed, but she was pretty sure wizards had a saying about somebody who brought a sword to a wizard's duel.
Tom was apparently familiar with the saying, as his only response to Harry's actions was to chuckle.
"It was good of Dumbledore to send you assistance consistent with your spellcasting ability," Tom said.
Harry looked at the sword, then back at Tom.
"You know, when Neville introduced us you seemed like a good sport."
"Appearances can be deceiving," Tom replied. "Still, I suppose a closer matchup will be more entertaining. Instead of facing me, I'll let you challenge a less formidable representative of Slytherin's house."
Tom turned toward the back of the room and started to hiss. Hermione flinched back in reflexive terror as the unsettling notes of parseltongue echoed off of the chamber's walls. Then she flinched again as she realized the only possible entity Tom could be addressing. When the mouth of the statue at the back of the chamber started to grind open, Hermione closed her eyes and tried to press herself down further into the mud covering the floor.
Even with her eyes closed it was impossible to miss the entrance of the basilisk. It hit the ground with a resounding thud that Hermione could feel as well as hear. The hissing noise continued-Hermione could only assume that Tom was instructing the beast.
The parseltongue conversation was interrupted by the shriek of a hunting bird. There was a cacaphony of sound, capped off by another enormous crash and what sounded like an oddly sibilant roar of pain.
"Ouch, I didn't think Fawkes had that in him," Tom said, casually. "Pity about the eyes, but at least now it's safe for you to watch the show."
Hermione didn't want to take a chance, but if Tom wanted her dead he hardly had to resort to trickery to make it happen. When she opened her eyes she smiled for the first time in a while: the basilisk's eyes had indeed been destroyed by the Headmaster's phoenix, which even now was harassing the great serpent.
"Of course, snakes hardly need to use their eyes to hunt," Tom said. "Marvelous creatures."
Hermione watched in horror as, despite the phoenix's best efforts, the basilisk was slowly turning to orient itself on Harry Potter. Its tongue flicked out once, then it charged forward. Harry immediately turned and ran. Hermione couldn't blame him at all-even without its deadly gaze, and setting aside its terrible poison, the basilisk was the size of a locomotive.
She could feel the ground shake as the basilisk passed her by, giving her a new perspective on the sheer length of the thing. The phoenix was attacking it relentlessly, its talons digging ragged furrows into the basilisk's hide, but it paid no mind to such distractions as it pursued Harry Potter. She gasped as it suddenly lunged forward. Fortunately Harry, alerted by some preternatural instinct, dived to the side just in time to avoid being swallowed whole.
"Quick little bugger, isn't he?" Tom said. "You know, I just realized, thanks to my help our Quidditch team might finally win a match against Gryffindor. This year's fixture was a bloody disgrace. That's something to look forward to, hey?"
Hermione wasn't sure if he had forgotten that she was under a silencing charm or if it was just a rhetorical question. She still did her best to shout something insulting at him, but the charm unfortunately remained in effect.
In the meantime, Harry sprang to his feet after his dive and brought his sword down in an overhead chop aimed at the main body of the basilisk. The attack bounced off with a ringing sound of metal striking metal. Hermione thought she saw a mark where the sword had struck, but it was far too small to be called a serious wound. Harry raised the sword up for another attack, but the tail end of the basilisk flicked out and caught him in the chest with the force of a sledgehammer.
"Tsch," Tom said, clucking his tongue. "That should about do it. The problem with the hero business is you really can't make any mistakes."
Harry was sent staggering back several paces and seemed to be having trouble catching his breath. He put that difficulty to the side, however, when he saw that the basilisk had rounded about and was bearing down on him once more. He took off running, but Hermione could see that he wasn't able to move as quickly as before. Even worse, he didn't see Neville's unconscious body lying on the ground and was sent sprawling when he ran into his friend at full speed.
It was a mess. Neville was flipped over, the contents of his pockets spilling out into the mud of the chamber floor. That same mud was the only thing that kept Harry from being seriously injured as he did a full body face plant into the ground. Somehow he managed to keep a hold on his sword, and he even maintained the presence of mind to roll himself over and up into a sitting position. It seemed to be all for naught, though, as the basilisk was now far too close for Harry to even try to evade. Hermione screamed in frustration as the giant serpent drew itself up to loom over her friend, though Tom's spell prevented any sound from coming out.
The basilisk's head dropped down towards Harry like a thunderbolt from the sky, mouth wide open as though to swallow the boy whole. At the very last second Harry swung the sword he was holding from a horizontal position to point straight up towards the sky. The basilisk couldn't see the motion, and even if it could it was far too late to react. Sword, serpent, and arm all came together in the same frozen instant.
Hermione suddenly gasped for air as she realized she had been holding her breath, and that the lack of motion wasn't just a trick of perception: the basilisk had frozen in place with Harry's arm-and the sword-buried in its mouth. A shudder visibly traveled down the body of the great beast and it slowly tipped over to fall to the side, shaking the chamber for a final time as it came to rest.
"I have to admit, Harry, you surprised me," Tom said, drawing Hermione's attention to the spectral figure as he strode toward his downed opponent. "Perhaps someday you would have been a worthy adversary. Pity you didn't have your arm just a little to the left."
Hermione followed Tom's gaze and felt her eyes fill with tears when she saw what had prompted his comment. One of the monster's fangs was embedded in Harry's right arm, sunk in so deeply that it had been wrenched free of the creature's jaw. It seemed so unfair that Harry could triumph over such long odds and still be doomed to die.
"Born a hero. Lived life as a hero. And now doomed to be remembered as a villain, slain by his own pet monster. Sometimes life just isn't fair," Tom said, an obvious note of mockery in his voice. Harry ignored him, reaching up with his left hand to pull the fang out of his arm with a small gasp of pain. "I'm afraid it's too late for that, Harry. You've already been exposed to far too much venom to expect to live."
Harry continued to ignore Tom's taunts, staring fixedly down at the ground as he raised the fang above his head like a dagger. Blinking away her tears, Hermione could just make out what he was looking at: a familiar leather bound book that must have fallen out of Neville's pockets when Harry had collided with him earlier. Tom seemed to realize what was happening at the same moment, hastily swinging his wand across his body, no doubt intending to bring a terrible spell to bear. He was too late to stop Harry as the boy who lived plunged the fang straight down through the cover of the book to bite deep into its heart.
Tom screamed, a terrible high pitched wail that made Hermione wish she could cover her ears. A gout of ink sprayed out from his chest, splattering on top of the mud that was already coating Harry's robes. There was a final flash of light and then only silence, as Tom Riddle had been destroyed.
"Bloody arsehole," Harry mumbled as he flopped over onto his back, the strength in his body finally abandoning him now that his foe had been vanquished.
Part of her wanted to chide Harry for his language, but it seemed like a petty complaint given the circumstances. Instead, she studied the boy. He didn't look like a story book hero, covered in mud as he was and sprawled out on the ground. But what he had done... Hermione had begged Tom to let her friends go, had tried to bargain with him.
It had never occurred to her that Tom could be defeated. It had never occurred to Harry that he couldn't.
His heroics had come at a terrible cost. Hermione could see him weakening as he succumbed to the poison. Though she worried for Harry, she couldn't help but also worry for herself. She was still tied up and unable to move, she didn't know when-or if-Neville would wake up, and there was no telling if anybody would be coming to rescue them. All in all, things didn't look good.
Despite all that, a feeling of hope bloomed in her chest as she heard a burst of song. It was coming from the phoenix, which landed gently to rest on Harry's chest.
"'lo Fawkes," Harry mumbled, apparently calling the bird by name. He reached over with his good arm as though to pat Fawkes on the head, but the arm fell back to the ground with a plop as he ran out of energy. "S'ry about that."
Fawkes seemed to mirror Hermione's sense of sorrow as it bowed its head. It almost seemed to be studying the wound left behind by the basilisk fang. As Hermione watched, a single tear dripped down onto Harry's arm, then another, and another.
The effect on Harry was electric. Color rushed back into his face, chasing away the pale tinge that had been marking the venom's progress. He sat up suddenly, forcing Fawkes to relocate himself with an indignant squawk. The phoenix didn't seem truly upset though, settling back down on Harry's shoulder to accept a grateful scratch behind its ears.
It took Hermione a moment to figure out what had happened, and when she did she wished she could kick herself. Of course, phoenix tears! They were said to possess legendary healing properties, able to bring somebody back even from the brink of death. The books she had read had sniffed at such claims as unverified-phoenixes were beyond rare and were hardly the sort of creature to cry on command-but after seeing this display Hermione was a believer.
Harry finished fussing over Fawkes and stood, stretching his back once he was on his feet. He walked over to where Tom had last been and bent over. When he stood, Hermione saw that he had three wands in his hands. He looked over at her, then at Neville, apparently torn.
"Please," she said, happy to find she was now able to talk, "see how Neville is doing."
Harry nodded, then walked over to his fellow Gryffindor. From where Hermione was positioned Neville did seem to look a little better, and when Harry started shaking him he eventually responded by shoving Harry away. When Harry backed off Neville's arms dropped back by his sides again. Whether he was asleep or unconscious Hermione couldn't say.
"Looks like he'll be all right," Harry said as he approached her. "Reckon I'll need a hand getting him back up, though."
He carefully cast a cutting charm that freed Hermione from her restraints. She sat up, grateful to be able to move again, then immediately groaned and started trying to rub some feeling back into her muscles. After a minute she started feeling human again and accepted Harry's help in clambering back up to her feet.
Harry didn't make any move to offer her wand back. Hermione wasn't sure if it was because he forgot or because he didn't trust her, and a part of her didn't want to know. She didn't know how much of Tom's speech he had heard, or what he thought of any of it. It was the kind of thing that would eventually have to be confronted, but she would rather wait until after she had had a hot shower and a cup of tea.
Harry walked past Neville to where he had left the diary, removing the basilisk fang and tossing it to the side before slipping the book into his pocket.
"Professor Dumbledore will probably want to have a look at it," Harry commented.
Hermione nodded, then hesitated, worrying at her upper lip for a moment before she spoke.
"Harry, you know I would never-I mean, Tom, he-"
"We should get Neville to the hospital wing," Harry said, interrupting her, before turning and walking over to Neville's side.
Rather than press the issue she followed Harry's lead and helped lever Neville onto his feet. With one arm draped over each of them it was a little awkward to walk, but they eventually settled into a decent rhythm and made their way back towards the door. It seemed like Neville was helping by moving his feet a little bit, but that may have just been wishful thinking on Hermione's part.
They were halfway to the door when Harry suddenly shoved Neville to the side, hard. Neville in turn slammed into Hermione, sending her sprawling to the ground. She was still falling to the ground, too surprised to be angry, when she heard a voice call out "Obliviate!"-an incantation to a spell she thought she had read about, but couldn't recall offhand. She hit the ground at the same time that a flash of spell-light caught Harry in the chest, flinging him and Neville back to land on their backs.
Turning to see where the spell had come from she thought she saw the tip of a wand hanging a few feet above the ground for just an instant before it vanished into thin air.
Disappearing wands were hardly the craziest thing Hermione had seen so far today and she wasted no time staring at it before she jumped to her feet and darted over to where Harry lay on the ground. She was dimly aware of a spell hitting the ground behind her, most of her attention focused on recalling exactly where Harry had tucked her wand away.
Fortunately she guessed right, pulling her wand out of his front pocket and bringing a shield spell up just in time to reflect yet another attack. Hermione looked, but she hadn't seen where the spell had originated, and no telltale wand stood out as she slowly turned and surveyed the room.
She kept most of her focus on keeping the shield up. The mud on her hands made gripping her wand a little tricky, and she made a mental promise to clean it later if she ever got out of the chamber. She tried to remain calm and figure out what was going on, but she couldn't help but grimace as she felt mud seeping down the tops of her shoes. She hated having wet feet.
Really, she hated this whole stupid chamber. What kind of a megalomaniac built an enormous statue of themselves, then built a secret room to hide it in? And why couldn't he have arranged to keep it clean? The room was disgusting, and she was sick and tired of standing in inches-deep mud-Hermione stopped stock still as a thought occurred to her.
She tried not to give anything away as she resumed her slow spin, finally stopping when the entrance was in view. Through the slight distortion caused by the shield spell she could see two sets of footprints in the mud by the chamber entrance. One was a well worn track leading to where Neville had stood before the giant statue. The other wandered about before ending in a clear set of footprints not twenty feet away from her.
Hermione started turning once more, as though searching the room for her adversary. Just before she was facing the footprints, she brought her wand to bear, casting the painting spell that Neville had shown her so long ago.
Her shield dropped as she concentrated on the new spell, and Hermione dived off to the side as soon as the spray of paint had left her wand. She cast the shield spell once more before standing and looking for the results of her handiwork. She smiled at the splash of paint hovering in the air over the suspicious footprints.
Her attacker seemed to realize that the jig was up. The paint splotch fell to the ground along with the invisibility effect, revealing a sheepish looking Gilderoy Lockhart.
"Well, Miss Granger, this is awkward," he said, scratching the back of his neck with his left hand.
Hermione noticed that he kept his wand ready in his right hand, and she didn't let her shield waver as she glared at him.
"Awkward?" She replied. "I'd say it's criminal! Why on earth did you attack us?"
"Well, I was doing Harry a favor, really. You know how Harry doesn't like being famous," Lockhart said, letting both hands fall to his side before shrugging. "I'm simply shifting some of that unwanted fame from his shoulders to mine."
"You what?" Hermione asked. She let her shield drop now that she was no longer being held at wand point-keeping it up was starting to give her a headache.
"Well, as long as the Heir has been defeated and the school is safe, does it really matter who killed who?" Lockhart asked. "As long as everybody remembers the same thing, why quibble over the details?"
"Remembers... that spell you cast was a memory charm," Hermione said. "You want to take credit for what Harry's done."
Professor Lockhart looked as though he wanted to argue with her, but visibly held himself back from saying anything and simply responded with a nod. Peering closely at him, Hermione thought that something about his demeanor seemed a little off. For somebody caught in the act of committing what had to be a fairly serious crime he seemed far too composed.
"You've done this before, haven't you?"
"Well spotted Miss Granger," Lockhart said, breaking into a sheepish grin. "I'd give points to Slytherin, but it would be a little difficult to explain to the Headmaster."
Hermione didn't respond to his smile other than to continue giving him her best disapproving stare. Lockhart seemed to take that as an invitation to explain himself.
"When I was fresh out of Hogwarts I managed to get a job working for the Daily Prophet. Under Rita Skeeter, actually," Lockhart said, sounding slightly lost in the memory. "She put me on the dangerous creatures beat-stories about a housewitch who holds off a rampaging hippogriff and gets her children to safety, that kind of thing."
"I thought it would be exciting work, interviewing real heroes. But they were all so bloody boring!" Lockhart said, raising his hands in frustration. His voice took on a mocking tone as he continued. "I was just in the right place at the right time, I just did what anybody would have done, I'm just a guy on vacation... how was I supposed to write a story with that kind of material?"
He looked at Hermione as though expecting her to commiserate with him. It seemed like he had been waiting for an opportunity to share this story, but Hermione remained an unsympathetic audience.
"The worst part was, they had the gall to complain when I tried to punch up my stories a bit to make them sound interesting!" Lockhart continued, the note of wounded pride clear in his voice. "Rita was understanding about those kind of problems, but still. I thought life would be so much easier if I could just write about more interesting people."
Lockhart lost the far-off look in his eyes as he squared back up to Hermione and flashed her his award-winning smile.
"Then I realized I was overlooking the obvious, the best possible person I could write about: me," Lockhart said, gesturing to point at himself with his thumbs. "Of course, people would notice if I wrote about a banshee being defeated that was still around, but dropping by to interview people who had actually done the vanquishing was easy enough. A little tea and sympathy... and sleeping potion and memory charms, and I was all set to be a hero."
He paused as though to give her a chance to compliment him on his ingenuity. When Hermione remained silent he continued on without skipping a beat.
"The problem was, once I was famous, everybody wanted a piece of me. It started to get a little awkward, begging off every time some town elder pleaded with me to come drive of a nest of vampires and the like," Lockhart said, shaking his head. "Hogwarts was supposed to be my refuge from all that. You know what they say: those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. Then all this mess happened and, well, here we are."
He straightened up as though a weight had just fallen off his shoulders, favoring her with another winning smile.
"I've been wanting to share that with somebody for so long, now," Lockhart said, "I've never had a co-conspirator before."
He sounded almost eager.
"What?" Hermione asked, shocked. "I'm not a co-conspirator!"
"Come now, Miss Granger," Lockhart said, conspiratorially. "Are you really ready to fight a duel so that Harry Potter can be a little more famous?"
Hermione looked around the room. Neither Harry nor Neville looked likely to come to her aid any time soon-more than that, neither one seemed to have moved since she last checked-leaving her alone to face down a teacher. Perhaps she could infer that he was also feeling some doubts based on the fact that he was trying to talk her around rather than just duel her into submission, but she was still nervous about picking a fight with any adult, let alone her defense teacher.
Come to that, what did she care if Harry got credit for saving the school? She pushed aside the nagging thought that she was being motivated by Tom's barb about being outshone by the boy-who-lived and tried to think rationally. Harry never had seemed keen on being famous-and he certainly never had gone out of his way to become any more famous.
She wasn't even sure if he would be grateful for her for putting her life on the line just to make sure he got credit for what he had done. Harry seemed more of the "doing good is its own reward" school of thought.
"I... I guess not," she finally admitted. Even though she was avoiding a fight, she felt more guilty than relieved.
"Well then, there we go. I'll just need to check the memory charm to make sure that Mr. Potter and Mr. Longbottom see things our way," Lockhart said, all charm. "Then all that's left is writing out Battles With Basilisks. You can even be my co-author."
Hermione perked up a little at that. Being a published author before entering her third year at Hogwarts would be unprecedented, as far as she knew. Still, she couldn't quite shake that nagging feeling of guilt.
"Just like that? All I have to do... is lie."
A slightly pained expression crossed Lockhart's face, as though a thought had just occurred to him.
"Well, there is one more thing, I'm afraid," Lockhart said, "Unless you've picked up occlumency along with all of your other extra-curricular studies?"
"Occlumency?" Hermione had never heard the word before.
"I suppose I should be relieved that there are still some branches of magic you've never heard of," he said. Hermione didn't join in his chuckle. "But this could be a problem. You see, occlumency allows you to protect your thoughts from wizards like Albus who have mastered legilimency. I happen to be somewhat accomplished at it myself, of course, otherwise I'd have been exposed years ago."
Hermione recoiled in shock.
"Professor Dumbledore can read minds?"
She couldn't even begin to figure out the problems that could cause. Not that she interacted with the headmaster that often, but the idea that her very thoughts weren't private...
"Rather frightening, eh?" Lockhart said, knowingly. "Of course, it's dreadfully illegal to rummage in somebody's mind without permission. What you really have to worry about is the little abilities that go along with it... like how he can tell when somebody is lying."
Hermione thought she saw where Lockhart was going with his explanation.
"So I'll have to make sure not to lie."
He smiled ruefully and shook his head.
"I'm afraid it won't be that simple. The only way to be sure is to make sure that your memories match up with our story."
Hermione stared at Lockhart in disbelief, then crossed her arms defiantly.
"I'm not letting you Memory Charm me."
"Are you quite certain?" Lockhart asked. "I promise I'll restore your memories once the heat dies down. You have my solemn word."
"A promise that I won't even remember isn't worth much. And neither is your word when you've made a career out of lies," Hermione said, shaking her head. "No deal."
Lockhart pulled himself up and did his best to look intimidating. It didn't come as naturally as his attempts at charm.
"Miss Granger... do you really want to duel a fully trained wizard?"
"You're not leaving me much choice," Hermione said, readying her wand. "Besides, after all these years, you're still afraid to be a hero for real... maybe this won't be such a mismatch."
"I can assure you that while I may not be as formidable as I portrayed myself in my books," Lockhart said, "I am still quite capable of defeating a second year student."
"We'll see," Hermione said.
Lockhart replied with a full body bind, and the duel was on. Hermione cast the shield charm once more, this time focusing on anchoring it to her arm. She intercepted the body bind, and was lucky enough to have it reflect straight back at Lockhart. She followed up with a stinging hex.
Lockhart didn't move as both of the spells harmlessly dissipated against his clothing.
"Protective clothing isn't as good as a proper shield charm, but I've always found it to be galleons well spent," Lockhart said. "It's certainly more than enough to handle any schoolyard jinxes. This is one fight you can't win, Hermione."
Hermione sent the next stinging hex at his face. Lockhart scowled at that, ducking out of the way before sending a retaliatory curse her way. As Hermione blocked and dodged his attacks, she was reminded of her duels with Harry. Lockhart didn't seem to be able to cast any faster than Harry could, and his spell repertoire didn't seem to be much broader. The problem was that none of her attacks did anything. Lockhart's hands and face were the only part of him not covered by his protective gear, and she couldn't hit such small moving targets.
It was hard to think. Maintaining a shield charm took considerable focus, and when she tried to cast a jinx along with it she couldn't spare any attention for anything besides making sure the spell succeeded. Still, it was clear that she wasn't going to win with the strategy she was following.
She waited for Lockhart's lastest leg-locker jinx to sail harmlessly over her shoulder, then allowed her shield to drop and focused all of her mind on how badly she wanted to defeat her conniving professor.
The spell left her wand and flew straight and true... only to crash into an invisible wall before it reached Professor Lockhart. Translucent ripples caused by the impact revealed a plane of force between the two of them that stretched above Lockhart's head and beyond his arms' reach. She could see his face through the spell.
He wasn't smiling any more.
The spell he sent back her way was another body bind, but as Hermione sidestepped it she saw him reach down to his belt and grab something with his left hand. He lobbed it underhand in her direction, and Hermione responded by casting the strongest shield charm she could manage.
The object turned out to be a potions vial. It cracked when it hit her shield, before detonating in an explosion that obscured her view of Lockhart entirely. The force of the blast annihilated her shield, and Lockhart's folow-up curse only missed her because the explosion had sent her staggering backwards.
The next time he lobbed a potion her way, Hermione tagged it with the same impediment jinx she had used to take out the rogue bludger at the Quidditch game-a time that seemed to have happened more than just a few months ago. The vial detonated spectacularly, but this time Lockhart was the one sent staggering backwards.
Hermione immediately followed her success with a stunning charm. Then another. And another. As strong as she could make them, they still deflected harmlessly off of that protective wall.
When the dust from the explosion cleared, Lockhart was glaring at her. He had another potion in hand, but he wasn't positioned as though to throw it, but rather to drop it. Hermione felt the blood rush from her face when she saw Harry and Neville lying unconscious at Lockhart's feet.
In the chaos of their duel, they had more or less swapped positions. Hermione stood between Lockhart and the exit. She could see the gloomy visage of Salazar Slytherin's statue over his shoulder. More importantly, though, Lockhart had managed to place himself between her and her friends.
"Enough of this, Miss Granger," Lockhart growled out. "I don't want to hurt anybody, but if you continue to fight me... well, I can always rewrite the ending of my next book."
Hermione felt her heart racing as she tried to decide what to do. She couldn't batter her way through Lockhart's protections before he could hurt Harry and Neville. She wasn't even sure she could get through his protections at all. Whatever spell he was using was similar to the shield charm, but seemed to hold up to attack better than anything she or Harry had ever managed.
She glanced around the chamber, hoping to find a way out. She found her eyes caught by Slytherin's expression. Was this what the Founder would have expected, an uppity muggleborn suffering ignominious defeat in his secret room? She shifted her gaze downward, to Professor Lockhart, a smug grin already forming on his face as he realized he had the upper hand. Then down further, to the churned up mud on the chamber floor.
And, behind Lockhart, the basilisk fang Harry had discarded when he pocketed Tom Riddle's diary.
Hermione didn't stop to think. She swept her wand up toward the ceiling and called out "Accio fang!" in a clear voice, wanting nothing more in that moment than for it to come to her. Lockhart stared at her, momentarily puzzled by her choice of spell. She saw dawning realization in his eyes, but it was too late.
The fang flew straight and true towards Hermione's outstretched wand... until it was interrupted by Lockhart's upper thigh. The tip of the fang ignored whatever protections he had placed on the seat of his pants, sinking several inches deep in his flesh.
Lockhart spasmed, his wand flying out of his hand to land with a plop in the mud several feet away. He fell to his knees, although he managed to keep a hold of the potion vial in his hand. As Hermione watched, momentarily frozen, he reached back and plucked the fang out with his right hand. He studied it momentarily, then tossed it away. She saw his hands starting to quiver, and his motions were exaggeratedly careful as he tucked his potions vial away and withdrew a small stone from his pocket. He brought it to his mouth with now violently shaking hands and managed to swallow the thing. That seemed to exhaust the last of his strength, and he fell onto his back with a sigh.
Hermione approached cautiously.
"Professor Lockhart," she called out, "will you be all right?"
"I'm afraid not," he replied. Although the cheerful confidence he normally wore about himself like a cloak was gone, he still seemed strangely calm to Hermione. "Bezoars are handy things, but against basilisk venom the best they can do is delay the inevitable."
"But you can't-I didn't mean to-" Hermione said, a note of hysteria entering her voice as she realized what she had done. She sank to her knees besides her professor, wanting to help but all too aware that no conventional first aid could neutralize the poison racing through his veins.
Hermione sniffled, then brought her sleeve across her face to wipe her nose, careless of the mess her actions tracked across her face. She saw a flash of orange out of the corner of her eye and turned to see the headmaster's phoenix perched on the doorway leading out of the chamber. She wondered if it had been watching the entire duel and why it hadn't bothered to intervene, then dismissed those stray thoughts to focus on something more important.
"Fawkes!" She was pretty sure that was what Harry had called it. "You have to help us! Your tears are the only cure."
The phoenix trilled something that sounded distinctly negative, then turned its head and began grooming its feathers. Hermione felt a flash of rage at the casual dismissal of her plea.
"How could you? I thought-I thought..." Hermione trailed off. Tears were flowing freely down her face now, and she didn't even bother to wipe them away.
"Now, let's be fair, Miss Granger," Lockhart said. "I've hardly led a life Fawkes would approve of."
Hermione started at the reminder that Lockhart was still conscious, then glared at her teacher.
"How can you joke about something like this?"
"I suppose I've had more time to think about something like this happening. I know Rita would have said it's poetic justice for me to be killed by a pain in the ass," Lockhart said. He chuckled briefly, but soon trailed off in the face of Hermione's continued distress. "I never expected that I would die of old age, Hermione. Of course, I never expected I would be killed by a second year student."
"But I didn't mean to..." Hermione said. She hated how it came out sounding like a whine.
"I've found that often things happen that I didn't really mean to do. I can hardly say this wasn't deserved," Lockhart said. "Look, if it really bothers you, just make sure to live your life so I was killed by somebody famous, all right? It will be a lot less embarrassing if I was taken out by the next Dumbledore instead of some kid who got lucky."
Hermione stared down at him in disbelief. Lockhart was starting to visibly struggle to draw breath, but he was still thinking about his image.
"One other thing," Lockhart continued. "The purple trunk in my office will unlock if you give it a 'shave-and-a-haircut' knock... I can't ask you to treat me kindly, but please... please don't leave my work unfinished."
Lockhart summoned some inner reserve of strength as he finished speaking, reaching up to clasp Hermione's hand and pull himself up slightly to stare straight into her eyes. Her breath caught in her throat and all she could do was nod.
That seemed to be enough. He let go and sank backwards, then gave a great shuddering sigh and lay still.
Hermione was, for the moment, all alone in the Chamber of Secrets.