Chapter 2 : II.
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“This is taking ridiculously long.”
Hermione swallowed the profanity itching to escape her tongue and closed her eyes. “I don‘t understand what I‘m even supposed to see.” she sighed, opening them again. The stone corridor still stretched before her, insulting in it’s refusal to do as it was told and transform into something else. “Can’t you give me a clue?”
“Stop allowing yourself to be confined. You’re in a dark, damp and dingy tunnel because of how bloody narrow-minded you are.” the voice replied, oozing exasperation. Hermione bit her tongue. “Shut your eyes and remember that you are not a body anymore, bound by the earthly rules. You’re dead. Use your imagination already.”
“Oh shut-up.” Hermione muttered, folding her arms and turning away from the torch.
Where moments ago there had been a dark stone wall, covered with a damp sheen that glittered in the dancing torchlight, there was now a door. A broad wooden door with no handle and an ugly gargoyle-shaped knocker in the centre.
“Progress.” the voice said, once again sounding bored. “Off you trot.”
“Off I-? Through the door?” Hermione addressed the torch. No reply came. “But I… shouldn’t…? Oh never mind.”
Face set with grim determination, she turned back to the door and pushed against it, palms against the uneven surface of the wood. It didn’t move an inch. Then the logical part of her brain, which seemed to be following suit to her heart, reminded her that the twisted bit of crude metal stuck to the middle of the door was a knocker, generally used to gain entry to a room. She winced at her own density and reached up to raise and drop the heavy circle of iron.
It clanged against the gargoyle, echoing painfully down the corridor. Hermione cringed. There was something about how dark it was outside the circle of torchlight that was starting to make her nervous; the last thing she wanted was some kind of post-mortem soul-devouring monster from a gothic novel creeping up on her and-
“I wouldn’t advise it.” the voice interjected lightly. “Bear in mind that it is your subconscious controlling what you see. If you start thinking too heavily about monsters you might just find one behind that door.”
The door creaked open an inch in lieu of a response. Hermione, eyes wide as saucers, slowly turned toward it and heaved a sigh of relief when she found herself illuminated by a sliver of escaping light. Well, at least whatever was beyond the door wasn’t another dark tunnel. Feeling a little less petrified, she jammed her shoulder against the wood and threw her weight against it - considering that it had opened itself with ease it was surprisingly heavy.
But it was worth the aching muscles to emerge out of the dungeon-like corridor and into what at first-glance appeared to be daylight.
Hermione felt her jaw drop.
It was the strangest room she had ever laid eyes on. Even Trelawney’s classroom wasn’t this bizarre. Two or three feet ahead of her were four steps, leading down onto a white flagstone floor - the kind of stones you found on expensive garden paths or sullied with mud and dog hair on the floor of Hagrid’s cabin. In a way the whole room made her question whether she was actually still indoors or not; the light was so bright and natural, and she couldn’t seem to find it’s source.
In the centre of the stones, the only other thing in the room beside herself, was a thin and twisted tree growing out of a circular gap in the floor. It looked a little dead. Leaves were scattered across the ground, blood-colored and crisp, although whether they had fallen from the tree in the middle of the room or not Hermione couldn’t guess. She didn’t dwell on it long anyway. Before she had even opened her mouth to find out whether her disembodied companion was still present she noticed another sound in the room. Low and barely noticeable, but definitely there…
The sound of something breathing.
“Don’t concern yourself with it.” the voice appeared, following her thoughts. “It’s nothing important. Ignore it. There’s someone waiting to meet you.”
Shrieking, Hermione jumped and spun around so fast that her feet got caught, sending her tumbling down the steps. She was surprised to notice that she didn’t feel any kind of pain - her mind registered the touch of the floor against her back as she landed, but there were no sharp stabs of discomfort, no pulsating aches… which was odd, because her shoulder was still throbbing from when she lunged at the door.
She looked up quickly at the figure standing over her from the top of the steps. It was a girl, her own age or younger, in a red dress so long that it followed her like a procession when she trod down the stairs to offer Hermione a hand.
“Who are you?” Hermione asked, scrambling to her feet and pushing hair out of her eyes.
The girl smiled pleasantly. “I don’t have a name. You can call me what you like.” she said. “How are you feeling, Hermione?”
Good question, Hermione thought dryly. “I… A little confused. Why don’t you have a name? You’re not a product of my imagination too are you?” she added, desperately.
The girl grinned appreciatively. “No. I’m definitely here.” she said, reassuringly touching Hermione’s wrist. Her fingers were cold. Alarmingly cold… almost as though there was no life in the veins behind her skin. “How are you finding the labyrinth so far, Hermione?”
Still trying to recover from the shock of being told that she was dead and wandering around inside the wall of a labyrinth that had to be bigger than a city, Hermione didn’t know how to answer. Instead she shrugged pitifully and looked around the room. On the very edge of her hearing she could still pick out the sound of something taking deep, struggling breaths… although where it was coming from completely eluded her. She couldn’t even tell if it was in the same room…
“It’s a nice room, isn’t it?” The girl remarked lightly. Hermione turned back and found the other girl watching her carefully. “It’d be nicer without the dead tree, of course…”
“Uh… I guess so.” Hermione shrugged uncomfortably. Making the room pretty wasn’t really on her list of priorities. Once she figured out what the heck was going on, sure, she could go for some therapeutic interior design, but first she wanted to find out where she was and who exactly the blonde girl in the dress was. “So… what’s this room for?” she asked, stepping away from the girl and meandering around the tree.
The girl’s eyes followed her. “Nothing important. It’s just…”
Hermione had stopped listening to her once she was around the other side of the plant. The closer she stepped to the branches, the clearer the struggling breathing got - still quiet but just loud enough to bring her to the conclusion that whatever was panting was inside the tree…
“It really is ugly.”
Hermione jumped. The girl had appeared behind her, making no noise, and was once again staring at her face. “Uh… yeah I suppose. Um… just hold on a second would you?” Sidestepping the girl and her yards of dress, Hermione walked back up the steps and stood by the open door. “Hello? Are you still there?”
“Well I’m unlikely to go on holiday, am I?” the voice countered lazily. “Learnt anything fascinating from Red?”
‘Red’ had moved to Hermione’s left side, gazing out into the corridor and apparently entirely unsurprised at the sardonic voice drifting out of the darkness.
“What should I be doing now?” Hermione asked, avoiding the question. “Does the tree hold some significance to why I’m here?”
Which was apparently all the help she was getting. Once again dragging the cluster of logical brain cells out of hibernation, Hermione turned back to the tree and strode down the steps. As far as she could tell from the time she had been here, she was only getting out of the room when she had realised just why she was in the room in the first place. And seeing as Red had sat down on the steps to observe her, and her not-so-helpful voice had fallen silent, it looked like Hermione was on her own in this.
Which suited her just fine. They had both done little more than confuse her anyway.
Shoving a lock of unkempt hair out of her eyes, Hermione stepped up to the tree and began to examine it. The first thing she intended to do was find out just what it was that was struggling to breathe behind the dead bark.