A/N: This chapter contains some bad language. I don’t use such words lightly, but they are a realistic representation of what a grown man might say under such circumstances. As always, your reviews would be appreciated as they help me to write what’s yet to come.
Chapter 15 - Dante’s Inferno
“He who has faith has... an inward reservoir of courage, hope, confidence, calmness, and assuring trust that all will come out well - even though to the world it may appear to come out most badly.”
B. C. Forbes
Hermione looked around in order to try and locate the irritating scraping sound. The instant she raised her head from the gritty surface of the cave, however, she wished that she hadn’t bothered. A wave of nausea swept over her and she vomited weakly, barely having the energy to spit the blood-tinged bile out of her mouth.
Whatever was making the sound was getting closer.
Her head swimming, she tried to marshal her thoughts and remember where she was. She was laid out on the floor of a cave and couldn’t move. Violent spasms racked her slim frame and her hair was plastered to her forehead by the great beads of sweat rolling down her face. Even when she kept her eyes focussed on one spot of the stalactite above her, the roof still moved in circles.
“Hermione?” rasped a voice she did not recognise.
She turned her head lazily towards the sound. It was that complicated little man from Hufflepuff; the short one with mousy hair. He was crawling towards her, dragging his seemingly useless legs behind him.
“Hermione!” croaked Bob. “Look at me, love; don’t close your eyes! Come on, pet, talk to me! My name’s Roberto, but I hate that, remember? Only Jerry and Iain call me that; everyone else calls me Bob.”
“Bob?” she whispered by way of reply. Her eyes were slowly closing. “Bob, tell Ron I’m sorry.”
Panting from the effort of dragging his broken legs behind him, he finally reached her side. He pulled another of the miniature potion vials off the necklace he wore and quickly upended it into the girl’s mouth. If it hadn’t been for the analgesic potion he had swallowed, he would undoubtedly have been unable to crawl the short distance to her side.
“Come on, sweetheart, what did I say? I need you to keep your eyes open. Why don’t you tell me about Ron? Here I am gallivanting around the world’s more exotic locations with you and Harry and I’ve never even spoken to the lad. Tell me about him, Hermione. What’s he like?”
He began to open packets of self-tightening bandages which, like any good Auror, he kept a supply of stashed in the various pockets of his robes. Feeling faint himself, he risked swallowing a second potion: he would do them no favours if he were to pass out. Concentrating on his Auror training, he ran through in his mind what he could do to help her survive her horrible injury. Stop the bleeding, elevate her legs and keep her conscious.
Fingering the remaining glass tubes, he found the slightly fatter one and poured it over the stump of her left arm, gagging at the sight of it as he did so.
They were up Shit Creek and no mistake.
“Bloody Hell!” exclaimed a girly voice somewhere to his left.
“Hell being the operative word,” Jerry observed wryly to himself. Frowning, he looked out across the vast expanse of the caldera; both awed by the sheer size of the thing and disgusted by the stinking sea of fumes which it contained. From even further to his left, he caught Bob’s not-so-subtle contribution to the proceedings.
“I hate Moody; he’s a complete arsehole! Every bloody time I agree to work with the prick I end up nose-deep in shit!”
Iain had merely laughed at Bob’s explosion.
Looking first to his left and then to his right, Jerry checked that everyone was in position. He was stalling and he knew it; nobody in their right mind would want to descend into that wicked fug. Inhaling deeply, he heard his breath echo in his ears thanks to the Bubble Head charm which would be keeping him alive in that acidic haze. Thank Merlin they were wearing standard-issue Auror field kit which was magically toughened to survive just such environments. One day, he thought sourly, I’ll end up on a sunny beach or in a sun-dappled meadow with nothing to do except lie on my back and look up at the sky. Tutting at himself for his negative attitude, he took a deep breath and held up his left arm. Dropping the palm of his hand so that it was facing the ground, he committed them to moving forward into Merlin alone knew what.
The instant they crossed the lip of the caldera and started their descent, they were forced to close ranks. Never before had any of the Aurors seen such a thick, unmoving mist as the one which now enveloped them. The light dropped off to the level of dusk in spring but was imbued with none of its beauty. An all-pervading sickly sulphurous green coloured everything captured under the mantle of the volcano’s breath. Such was the uniformity of the diffused light that it was difficult to judge distances to the few landmarks which they could see. Indeed, little of anything existed on the upper slope of the crater; just a few of the larger boulders ejected at the last eruption of this titan.
It was strange to note that as they continued to slip and slide their way down the ever steepening side of the crater, the light didn’t seem to diminish. They stayed close enough to each other that Bob and Iain, who were at both ends of the bow-shaped line, were still able to make one another out in the murk. In tactical terms this wasn’t the best of situations as they were bunched up enough that they would be vulnerable in the event of an attack. Silence reigned supreme as the party made their way even further down into the volcano.
After what seemed to be an eternity of peering into the gloom in front of his nose and willing the crater floor to come into sight, Jerry spotted something. It wasn’t anything he could put his finger on, but something had changed in the environment ahead of them. Signalling the others to stay put, he slowly made his way forward until he was almost, but not quite, out of sight. Turning slightly, he nodded in the direction of Iain who instantly made his way to his friend’s side. Together they went forward.
Harry was surprised to feel a tap on the shoulder. He whirled around with his heart in his mouth, but found that it had only been Bob throwing a piece of pumice stone to gain his attention. He pointed at Harry and Hermione in turn and brought his hands together, indicating that they should move closer to each other. Secretly glad to follow this order, Harry turned to find that his friend had already closed the majority of the gap between them. Apparently, she was no less unnerved by this situation than he himself was.
“Harry!” gasped Hermione as they met and she reached for his hand. Her voice sounded slightly muffled, but it was unmistakably shaky.
“Gryffindors know no fear,” he reminded her as he put his arm around her and pulled her towards him, “which means that I’m not a Gryffindor,” he half-joked, looking above his head in search of clear sky. There was none.
They immediately began to feel better, the physical contact working wonders for their morale in this alien environment.
“Harry, do you think it’s here? The Horcrux, I mean,” said Hermione in a small voice.
“Yes,” he answered after a brief pause. “Look at Bob,” he said, nodding in the Hufflepuff’s direction. The Auror was watching the surrounding area like a hawk. Not only was he turning full circles, but he was also regularly checking above their heads.
“He’s all business, but it’s more than that,” he noted. “This place is perfect for hiding something small; it’s dangerous, difficult to search and you could hide an army in here.”
“An army?” gasped Hermione.
“That’s not all,” continued Harry as if he hadn’t heard her. “As soon as we crossed the lip of the crater...”
“Caldera, Harry; the proper word is caldera. It comes from the Spanish word for cauldron. A crater is a hole left by any sort of geological activity or even a meteor. The word ‘caldera’ is exclusively for volcanoes.” She sounded indignant that Harry hadn’t known this. He smiled at her and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Sorry, I suppose I ought to have known that if it means cauldron.”
“I’m nervous, Harry. Sorry, I interrupted. You were saying?”
“As soon as we crossed the lip of the crater my scar started to itch,” he stated heavily.
She looked at him, her eyes as round as coins.
“Don’t worry, it’s not that sort of feeling; Voldemort’s not here!” he hurriedly explained looking at the expression on her face. “He isn’t, but something connected to him is; something dark,” he concluded sombrely.
Upon going forward, Jerry and Iain had discovered an unnaturally smooth wall of obsidian curving as far as the eye could see in both directions. It seemed to mark a boundary of sorts and emanating from behind it was a constant stream of the foul mist which now enveloped them. They looked at each other and then back at the wall. Potter had tipped them the wink about his scar earlier on, but such an artificial feature in what was otherwise a natural and chaotic environment served only to confirm their worst fears: they were on to something.
“Let’s get back,” muttered Jerry, “I don’t want to leave the kids alone any longer than is strictly necessary. Potter could probably manage to find trouble if he was locked in a Gringotts’ vault.”
They began to work their way back up the slope, the small pieces of pumice crunching and squeaking beneath their feet.
“Should’ve brought Ron,” grunted Iain by way of reply. “At least he can carry an intelligent conversation about Quidditch.”
Jerry grinned at his friend’s forced despondency. He clapped the larger man on the back as they started back towards the other three.
“You mean he’s capable of boring any sane individual to tears by drivelling on about obscure Quidditch statistics, don’t you?” he joked.
“Humph! You know, I’ve never managed to fathom how you bribed the Sorting Hat into placing you in Hufflepuff,” rumbled Iain in his deep voice. “You’re so boring and rational you should’ve been with the bean-counters in Ravenclaw.”
“Shut it!” growled Jerry in mock anger.
“Or what, dwarf?” Iain shot back.
Laughing quietly, the two old friends caught sight of their companions in the distance. They closed the gap between them and motioned for everyone to gather around. When all five of them were crouched down in a circle, Jerry laid out his plan.
“Well, it looks like we’re on to something, all right,” he said with a sigh. “This place meets all the requirements for a halfway decent hidey-hole for a Horcrux. To begin with it’s remote, inhospitable and has nothing much of interest or value to anyone. If someone was stupid enough to come here, their chances of stumbling across anything would be remote to say the least.
“Just out of view over my shoulder we have an artificial wall which seems to circle the entire inner crater. I can’t say for sure, but if it’s not charmed with some form of alarm spell, I’m a Sphinx’s uncle. That would seem to point towards the presence of something that is under guard.
“The chances are that it isn’t here, of course, but we started with this location as it was the strongest possibility we could find in Dumbledore’s notes. If we have hit the jackpot, however, we need to be prepared. To date the Horcruxes have been very heavily guarded. Riddle’s diary was protected by a Basilisk and by Tom Riddle himself and the fact that neither Harry nor Ginny Weasley was killed was a miracle. We have to be careful as we’re not lucky enough to have a Phoenix to hand.
“Albus Dumbledore was the most powerful and knowledgeable wizard alive in the world, yet he still fell foul of Salazar Slytherin’s ring. Despite the fact that he shielded himself in ways which nobody else could even begin to comprehend, he still lost the use of his hand. Had it been any other wizard or witch, they would have lost their lives and probably failed to destroy the damned thing.
“Slytherin’s locket is a mystery which still sees the best minds we have pacing the boards of their bedrooms in the small hours of the morning. Somebody got past the Inferius and the potion which managed to weaken Dumbledore to the point of death. He...”
Jerry came to a halt and looked each of them in the eyes.
“If the Horcrux is here, I don’t believe that we will all leave this place alive. We’re not that good; it’s as simple as that. We move together and we do not separate under any circumstances. Harry and Hermione, are we perfectly clear on this point? If you pull any heroic Gryffindor crap we will stun you and abort the mission. Understood?”
“Understood,” said Harry with a nod.
“Yes, Jerry,” added Hermione in a small voice.
“Good. Leave the gross physical stuff to the Aurors; we’ve been trained for it and we’re good at it. You’re here due to your past experience and for your ability to think out of the box. If we get in trouble it’s up to you to save our bacon. We don’t know what we’re going to find, so keep your eyes peeled.
“Okay then, finger-five formation! Bob, you’re on point; Harry to his right, Hermione to the left. Iain and I will take the flanks - move!”
As they hopped over the obsidian wall in perfect unison, they all felt it; a slight shiver detectable only to a magic user which indicated the triggering or casting of a spell. The Aurors didn’t indicate that they were aware of it, but the two Gryffindors looked a little wild around the eyes. They pressed on immediately, making it all the more difficult for any enemies to locate them in this twilight world. Not that it would be too demanding to find them with the constant squeaking of the pumice being ground under their feet. Together they sounded like a herd of Centaurs. Whilst it was true that the thick, swirling mist had a deadening effect on sound, it couldn’t possibly mask the racket they were making.
Immediately upon crossing the wall they were faced with an entirely different terrain. The smooth, gently sloping walls of the outer crater were gone and in their place was a nightmarish world of jagged spires of rock and deep crevices. Worse yet, visibility was now down to about ten metres due to the thickening fumes of the volcano. Occasionally thick billows of the acrid sulphurous vapour would isolate them all from each other, marooning them in their own claustrophobic little world.
As Bob went forward a few metres to check that a narrow passage between the rocks wasn’t a dead end, Hermione was amazed to find herself appreciating a certain stark beauty to the place. She was standing in a natural nook in the wall, unable to see very much at all due to the fact that she was sandwiched in between Iain and Harry. Not three metres in front of her face was the other wall which formed the gully in which they were now standing. From the dark, porous surface of the rock, streamers of gas were issuing forth. These jets of gas were under high pressure and therefore disturbed the fog around them, creating wonderful swirls and patterns. For a full five minutes she watched this most peculiar of sights, entranced by the thought of finding beauty in such a threatening place.
Though she experienced it less often these days, she had never lost the feeling that the Muggle-born daughter of two dentists didn’t belong in this world; that one day she would be told it had all been a mistake and that she had to hand in her wand and go back to her previous life. She would rather die than do that. She would never stop going back to visit her parents, but she had precious little in the way of family or friends to draw her back to the mundane world of the Muggles. After all she had seen and done, going back wasn’t an option.
Iain’s enormous hand on her shoulder brought her back to reality with a jolt as he pointed to indicate that they were moving out. Nodding her understanding she cast one last glance back over her shoulder to the jets of gas. Iain frowned and looked back too, but looking as he did with his Auror’s eyes he saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Moving quickly through the narrow passage way they came to a bowl about ten metres across and three deep, formed long ago by cooling lava. Besides the passage leading in there were a further three leading out, although one of them was too small to be of much use. Bob was hovering around the entrances to the two larger gullies, pulling out various gadgets from his pockets to try and determine which one they should take. Hermione, ever anxious to learn new things, drifted over to his side to try and work out why he had two sneakoscopes on either end of an extendable pole.
Iain, meanwhile, was keeping an eye on the surrounding terrain but listening to Knatchbull who was having a pop at Harry. The big man wasn’t the greatest wit in the world but what he lacked in spontaneity he made up for in tenacity.
“Me Gryffindor!” grunted Iain, thumping himself on the chest. “Where monster? Me slay monster!” he continued with his jaw thrust out in a pugnacious manner. Screwing up his face in order to look like a perplexed gorilla, he said “Monster, where are you?” He took on the posture of a gorilla, hunching his back to almost drag his knuckles on the ground.
“Get lost!” huffed Harry.
“Here monster, monster, monster! Gryffindor want to be your friend!” he continued as he pretended to try and attract a kitten with food. Jerry smiled despite himself; subtle it wasn’t, but seeing a Gryffindor taken down a peg or two was always funny.
“Get lost!” repeated Harry.
“Is that it?” asked Iain feigning mock surprise. “All you can come up with is ‘Get lost!’? You’ll need to do a lot better than that if you want to survive Auror College! Why, I remember a time when two idiots, they were Slytherin naturally, tried to...”
In an instant the five had their backs to each other and their wands raised to cover the lip of the depression. The cry had been made by a living thing and a very large one at that. They waited for a full minute without hearing anything else, Harry and Hermione desperately trying to convince themselves that the sound had been nothing more than out-gassing from the volcano.
The sound was more felt than heard; a reverberation that travelled up their legs and was so strong as to be felt in their lungs. Hermione looked down at her feet as they bounced ever so slightly off the ground.
Something enormous was disturbing the miasma beyond the three passages leading out of the bowl.
“Iain!” urged Jerry.
“I’m working on it!” was his reply as he raced to the side, jumped up onto a boulder and poked his head up to try and see what was coming. Information would help them now: fleeing blindly would not. He frowned as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. At the angle he was looking up from and the distance from them which he estimated the fog was being faintly disturbed, the thing would have to be over ten metres tall.
He frowned. That was impossible; nothing could grow that big in this atmosphere. There was no creature, magical or otherwise which could grow to that size in an atmosphere rich in sulphur and poor in oxygen.
This time they all felt their heels leave the ground. Hermione actually bounced a couple of inches but failed to notice as she was deep in thought. She looked at Iain.
“The noises are too far apart for it to be bipedal,” she said.
“And it’s too tall to be so close; it would be here by now if it were that size,” added Iain.
This time they could here a faint sound of volcanic rock grating. Dust and small pieces of pumice fell from the wall of the open cave.
“It’ll be here any second now!” shouted Bob. “What the bollocks is it?”
“It’s not walking, it’s jumping!” shrieked Hermione as the terrible revelation came. Iain’s eyes widened with the same knowledge.
“Shit! It’s a Fachan!” cried Iain.
“Fachan!? Into the bloody passages, you idiots; move your bastard arses!” shouted Jerry. Pushing Harry ahead of him, he threw himself into the left passage with Bob. Iain literally threw Hermione into the right passage as he too struggled to get out of the way of the coming horror.
The centre passage all but collapsed as an enormous shape blocked out what little light there was. Something gigantic was just a metre above their heads as they cowered under the hail of rock, fearful that the walls would collapse and bury them all.
There was a sound like an enormous snake hissing which went on and on. The enormous shape was the shortest of distances from them, yet they could not see it clearly. As it seemed to rotate its body, there came a grating sound as the centre passage collapsed completely. Jerry winced as a large piece of rock caromed off his shoulder guard.
Hermione strained to see anything of this ancient mythical monster. She had learned about it in Care of Magical Creatures, or rather from her extra-curricula reading of that subject. Last seen in ancient Greece, though rumoured to have been sighted by Roman Legionaries in Syria a mere two thousand years ago, these beasts were universally held to have been hunted to extinction by Cave Trolls. Their intelligence was a matter of some debate, but it was known that they had bartered for weapons.
Even for magical creatures they were bizarre. They grew to a maximum of six metres tall and had a tough, grey hide which looked like rock; perfect for their mountain habitats. But the most curious thing of all about them was their physiology. A Fachan had but one mighty leg supporting its massive body which itself sprouted just a single arm. The beast’s head had an enormous mouth lined with dagger-like teeth set below a single lidless eye. It travelled by great leaps and was able to cover ground at a frightening rate.
Magical beasts were birthed in an environment governed by the rules of evolution, magical rules to be sure, but no natural conditions had given rise to such a monstrosity. Someone or something had tampered with nature to create the uncontrollable madness that was a Fachan. It hunted without rest, pity or indeed any sense of satisfaction when it killed; it simply existed for violence.
It was a horror that never should have been.
From above their heads came an obscene snuffling noise, as if the monster were trying to suck them up through the narrow openings of the passages. All five of them stood stock still, hardly daring to draw breath for fear of attracting the fearsome creature’s attention. It didn’t move an inch from above them, perfectly aware that they were there. Maddened by the scent of its quarry, but unable to see anything due to its grotesquely awkward body, it did what came naturally: to attack.
Hermione squealed as a huge ball of metal lodged scant inches above her head between the walls of the passage. It was easily as large as her head, was studded with spikes and pitted with rust. An enormous chain with links the size of Knatchbull’s hands rattled as the Fachan took up the slack and prepared to attack again. Lunging forward, the big man wrapped his arms around her and threw himself back out of the passage, landing flat on his back with Hermione squarely on top of him. Jerry had been the last to dive into the left hand passage and happened to be looking at her face as she looked up. It was an expression of sheer terror that would haunt him for the rest of his days. Cursing the Auror armour which hampered his movements, he struggled to work his way back out of the passage. They would face the behemoth together.
Iain shoved Hermione roughly to the side and saw what Jerry was about.
“No!” he shouted. “You go on and do what needs to be done; we’ll draw it off!”
“Knatchbull, you tit...”
“Muffliato!” yelled Iain, ensuring his friend couldn’t be heard by the beast. Moving deceptively quickly for such a big man he sprang to his feet and once again grabbed Hermione. He twisted on the ball of his right foot and launched himself towards the mouth of the passageway from which they had entered the bowl.
For a split second Jerry relaxed. Iain was, as usual, on the ball and had saved the girl. They would all just keep under cover until they could work something out. If the Fachan wanted to waste its time trying to outwit five Hogwarts alumni it was on a hiding to nothing.
The thud of the huge ball as it crashed into the rock by Knatchbull’s feet was deafening. Jerry’s heart missed a beat but he could see that they were going to make it. His heart dropped again, however, when the chain continued on its trajectory and whipped the big Auror squarely across his back. Hermione toppled into the passage and its relative safety whereas Iain hit the side of the bowl square on. He dropped to the floor completely motionless.
Bob landed lightly in the bowl having scrambled cat-like over Harry’s head. Before Jerry could move or say anything, the little man committed them all to a course of action.
“Ejectus!” he screamed with his wand pointed at Puddicombe’s feet. The stinging cloud of rock particles blasted from the floor threatened to breach Jerry’s Bubble Head charm and forced him to fall back into the passage.
“Lumos!” he cried with his wand held aloft.
The Fachan whipped its head around to follow this painfully bright light. As Bob raced across to join Hermione, Harry caught a brief glimpse of the creature as it vaulted clear across the bowl. Its body folded like a concertina both before and after its jump and it was obviously immensely strong.
“Move!” screamed Jerry as he started pushing Harry further down their passage.
“Wait, we have to help Iain!” he shouted back over his shoulder.
“We can’t help him if we’re dead, you bloody fool! Whichever group it doesn’t follow doubles back to get him. Now shut your hole and move!”
The witch and the wizard were both small and it was this fact that probably saved their lives. They were both fast moving and the fact that their clothes blended in with the volcanic rock, coupled with the creature’s poor eyesight, made them difficult targets.
“Stay ahead of me!” screamed Bob. “Keep your eyes on the ground. If we fall, we die!”
The little man was waving his wand over his shoulder, intent on keeping the Fachan after them. It seemed to be enraged by the painfully bright point of light which clearly didn’t belong here. Try as it might, though, it couldn’t seem to land a telling blow.
“Bob, go left!” cried Hermione as she came to a fork in the path. Without pausing she hared around the path only to find herself in a wide open valley.
“Follow me!” Bob cried as he barrelled past her. “There, to the left!”
In the side of the valley there was the opening to a small cave; much too small for the Fachan to follow them. If they could make it there they’d be safe.
She fell. As her head snapped back over her shoulder, she saw the creature swing its chain and ball horizontally along the ground, scything it at waist level towards the Auror. She screamed in anticipation of his death but was amazed when he gave a little hop and drew his legs up to his chest in an attempt to jump over the chain. It was too late. He was caught mid-shins by the weapon and sent tumbling head over heels. The light went out as he lost his wand.
Immediately the beast rounded on Hermione. She was going to die but would do so on her feet. Grabbing her fallen wand in her left hand, she stood up and prepared to cast her final spell. Every part of her body felt like jelly.
“Bombarda!” she cried, whipping her left arm towards the beast just as it lunged and brought its enormous jaws together.
The sound of the explosion wasn’t loud, but it was out of place in this environment.
Harry skidded to a halt and raised his head. Jerry had already turned around and was heading back in the direction they had just come.
Bob was chafing Hermione’s right hand in an attempt to keep her awake. She was splattered from head to toe in the monster’s gore.
Her face was as white as a sheet and her lips blue.
“Come on, Hermione,” he encouraged her. “Hang on! They’re coming now, I know they are!”
Her breathing was very shallow. He had stopped the bleeding from what was left of her arm and made her as comfortable as possible. All he could do was wait.
“I hate Mad-Eye Moody” were his last whispered words as his eyes began to droop.,
When Jerry burst in the cave that was how he found them; two small, motionless figures lying side by side.
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