Her first thought was that she was in the same basement as before, but a quick glance around disproved that. This cage was in a large room with a cold cement floor. The walls and ceiling were stark and whitewashed. The room smelled of mold and mildew and was lit by a flickering fluorescent light. The dripping came from a leak in the ceiling and appeared to be simply water, thank Merlin.
The floor was damp from the dripping water but was at least free of blood. Her hand, still covered in blood from the one prisoner that she had been able to save, shook as she held it in front of her face. Tonk’s blood still streaked her face.
“Gary?” Hermione repeated softly. Where was Gary? She hoped against hope that he had gotten out all right.
She could see other cages, but they were all empty. Only silence answered her. Panic threatened to overwhelm the young brunette witch, but she took a deep breath to calm herself.
She examined herself for wounds. She was unharmed but for a residual pain in her back; the vest she’d been wearing had blocked the worst of the curse, and it looked like she hadn’t been cursed while unconscious. She was wandless, and her pockets had been emptied. Her cloak and vest were gone, leaving her in just her shirt, pants, and shoes. They had taken every one of her bottle caps, discovering even the one she’d tucked into her shoe as a last resort.
Next, she examined the cage. It was made of steel, with a magical lock on the door that she would never be able to pick, even if she’d had the tools. The bars were just wide enough for her to get her arm through, and much too strong for her to even hope to bend. She sank back against these thick bars in despair, wincing as they hit her bruised shoulders. How would she get out of this? Would they use her to test out one of their hideous curses? And however would Harry be able find her? She was in a different building than the one they had raided. They’d clearly moved her since the Aurors had raided the other.
Maybe Malfoy could help her, she reasoned. He would know where she’d gone from the note that she had left him. But would he risk his safety and/or his position in the gang simply for her? And even if he would, how long would it take him to wake up? Hermione had no way to tell how long she had been out. Her body was still exhausted, though, so she figured that it couldn’t have been more than a few hours at most.
The door creaked as it opened, alerting her to the entrance of a woman. Sleek red hair framed a slim, elegant face that was quite familiar. “Hermione Granger,” she said triumphantly. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
“Lorelei,” hissed Hermione. She refused to show any fear out of sheer stubbornness.
“I have a special curse to test out on you,” Lorelei said, a cruel smile twisting her face. “Consider it retribution for imprisoning my dear brother.”
Hermione was speechless. How could Lorelei be behind this? How could Malfoy not have known? Had he lied to her? A man walked in, drawing Lorelei’s attention. It was one of the Irish brothers that Hermione had battled.
“Who are you?” snapped Lorelei. Her shoulders, bared by the strapless shirt she was wearing, squared in suspicion and anger.
“I’m Connor,” he said, seeming confused.
“Until I know all of you by sight, wear a damn nametag!”
“Is there a problem, Lorelei?” August Sappington walked into the room.
Lorelei seemed unaffected at August’s harsh voice, while Hermione shuddered at hearing it once more. “Since you were careless and had your headquarters raided, I was generous enough to let you work here. In return for my generosity, I expect that you have your men wear nametags until I know them all so I can tell if they belong here! They could be Magical Law Enforcement for all I know!”
“I will instruct them to do so,” August said, nodding. He looked to Hermione in an effort to take Lorelei’s attention from him. “Is the curse for that one ready yet?”
“Almost.” Lorelei turned to grin mockingly at the pale Hermione. “Maximilian is putting the final touches on it.”
Hermione’s eyes lit up at hearing a name. Maximilian! Could he be the creator of the curses? Though her death seemed imminent, it didn’t stop her from wanting to solve this mystery.
“I’ll see you soon,” whispered Lorelei, her ruby-red lips blowing Hermione a false kiss as she and August left the room. Connor left as well, flipping off the light as he went.
Alone in the dark, Hermione rested her head on her knees. To stave off the fear, she processed the information she had just been privy to. There were two different, but connected, groups of the same gang. She assumed that Lorelei was the head, with August a close second. She had no idea where this Maximilian fit into the hierarchy, however. Malfoy was a part of August’s group, so it followed that he didn’t know Lorelei was involved and vice versa. He hadn’t moved up far enough in the hierarchy to warrant meeting her.
There were other possible reasonings, many involving Malfoy lying to her, but for once Hermione decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. If she was going to die, she might as well do it thinking the best of people.
Silence took over the room, and it was all Hermione could do to stay awake. By this time it was probably very late at night, and her body wanted to sleep. Though she knew she should stay awake, her eyes slid closed and dragged her into sleep.
Much later, light flooded the room. She jolted awake, muscles stiff from the uncomfortable position. She blinked to clear her eyes as she heard the sharp tap of high-heeled shoes enter the room, followed by the heavier thud of a man’s shoes.
Lorelei crossed the room in quick, impatient steps. “If it kills her, you’ll have to find another muggle for me to use tonight at auction.”
August, who had followed her into the room, nodded confusedly. “Do you always test out the curses before the auctions? You’ll go through twice as many subjects that way!”
Lorelei paused, her eyes as cold as ice. “You keep saying things that make me wonder why I even allowed you to be in control of the London group! If you don’t test them out,” she said slowly, as if talking to a small child, “then you will make mistakes and look like a fool in front of your customers!”
August looked down, abashed, and Lorelei turned her attention to Hermione. “This curse is one that I’m quite proud of,” Lorelei proclaimed. “It’s a torture curse that affects both the mind and body.”
“Why not just use the Cruciatus Curse?” asked a smooth voice. Lorelei whipped around surprise. Draco Malfoy stood in the doorway, looking as impeccable as usual. He wore a pristine black suit; silver rings glinted on his fingers. He definitely didn’t look like he’d been on the losing end of a fight the previous night.
“Draco!” cried Lorelei, clearly surprised to see him. She didn’t look altogether displeased. “Come to save your little pet?”
“Lorelei?” Draco was just as surprised to see her as she was to see him, but he hid it faster. “No, of course not. I work for August.”
“And August works for me!” exclaimed Lorelei. “What a lovely coincidence!”
“You two know each other?” August inquired, looking rather confused by the whole exchange.
“Lorelei and I have some history together,” Draco purred, never even glancing towards Hermione. He turned to Lorelei. “Rest assured, I’m here purely for my own curiosity.”
“Don’t think I’ve forgiven you for your role in my brother’s imprisonment,” Lorelei said, but her eyes softened as she took in the sight of the striking bachelor. Hermione suspected that the "history" they'd shared had been romantic, judging by the way Malfoy had said “history.” “But perhaps you can make it up to me somehow.”
“I’d be happy to try,” Draco murmured silkily.
“August, you may leave,” Lorelei said suddenly. “Draco will assist me from here.”
August’s eyes flashed angrily. “Draco just started working for me! I have seniority—I demand to be here.”
“Consider Draco promoted,” Lorelei said sweetly, staring him down. The two glared at each other, the contrast between them quite shocking. The slender, casually-dressed redhead had to look up to meet the angry gaze of the solidly-built older man, but to Hermione’s surprise, August was the first to look away. He turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.
“Back to my question,” Draco said smoothly, as if they hadn’t been interrupted. “Why is your curse better than the Cruciatus Curse?”
“Two reasons,” Lorelei said, happily taking Malfoy’s arm. Her anger seemed to have evaporated with frightening speed. Now that she had Hermione to blame for Mark’s imprisonment, it was easy to forgive to handsome blonde for any part that he had played. “First, and most obviously, it’s not illegal. Using the Cruciatus Curse gets you a lifetime sentence in Azkaban, but since this curse was just created, it’s not illegal, and it won’t become illegal unless the Ministry gets their hands on the incantation. They can’t make a curse illegal if they don’t know what it is.”
Draco nodded, unimpressed. The illegality of the Cruciatus Curse had never bothered him before. Sensing this, Lorelei hastened on to her next part of the explanation.
“Secondly, it mixes pleasure and pain to intensify the torture. It starts with pleasure that brings forth ecstatic feelings and memories—then it switches to pain. The contrast between the two is staggering,” Lorelei explained. “It will elicit more a much greater level of pain than the Cruciatus Curse.”
Hermione’s palms began to sweat as she heard the sort of torture that she was slated to undergo. She willed Malfoy to look at her, to save her, to tell Lorelei that this was wrong—something, anything! But he remained impassive.
Lorelei’s face fell by a small margin when she saw that Draco wasn’t as thrilled with the curse as she was. “You know what? Let me show you.”
As Lorelei raised her wand, Hermione saw Malfoy grab his own wand. She realized quickly that he was about to attack Lorelei to save her.
“No!” Hermione cried; if Malfoy attacked Lorelei now, they would never find Maximian.
Lorelei paused, a sneer on her face. “Begging will get you nowhere, you little whore.”
Malfoy likewise halted, his eyes questioning. Hermione searched her brain for words to communicate to Malfoy without letting Lorelei know what she was doing. As she gazed intently at Malfoy, she saw his wand wave subtly. His grey eyes met bored into her and he mouthed the word “Legilimens.”
The familiar presence of his mind settled over hers. She felt and watched him carefully sift through her most recent memories of the night. Hermione was dimly aware of Lorelei mocking her, but she barely heard it as she focused on Malfoy. He finally came across the memory of Lorelei letting the name Maximilian slip. As she words “Maximilian is putting the final touches on it” left the lips of the memory of Lorelei, an intense chill swept through Hermione’s body.
Lorelei had begun the curse.
A barrage of physical sensations coursed through her skin at once. It was the feeling of sunshine on her skin, a cold drink of water after exercising, the feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold night, the gentle caress of a man’s fingers. A startled gasp left Hermione’s mouth; the intensity of the sensations forced Malfoy out of her mind.
Hermione cringed back against the bars, dizzy from the onslaught of feelings. It was too much. Her eyes focused dazedly on Lorelei, who was watching the effects of the curse with elation. Her wand waved back and forth in a slow, peaceful motion. Every good physical feeling that Hermione had ever felt was somehow present at once on her body. It was an assault on her mind, and she struggled not to scream.
The feeling of Malfoy’s lips on hers joined the rest of the sensations, nearly driving her over the edge.
Malfoy watched, his eyes anxious as he replaced his wand in his pocket. He knew now that he couldn’t attack Lorelei, lest he risk losing “Maximilian.”
“Now watch the contrast,” Lorelei lilted. She changed the pattern of her wand movement so that it swished back and forth swiftly in a jagged line.
The sensations instantly changed. The feeling of sunshine turned into a burning fire; the cold drink of water became icicles stabbing into her skin; the warm blanket began smothering her. Malfoy’s lips turned violent, bruising her skin and hurting her lips. More painful sensations joined those, overwhelming the woman. She was attacked in every direction, the pain choking her. No outward signs of injury showed on her body.
So lost in the agony, Hermione didn’t even notice that she was screaming hysterically and flailing in the cage. Her arms and legs crashed against the bars, making Malfoy cringe a little bit inwardly.
The sensations swarmed and overwhelmed her, and after approximately a minute of pain, she passed out.
The next thing that Hermione felt as she slowly became aware of her surroundings was heat. Heat rushed through her body; she was drenched in sweat. Her head pounded and her arms and legs ached terribly. She opened her eyes slowly, realizing how leaden her limbs felt. The room was empty, but the light was still on. The door opened as she watched. Malfoy strode quickly over to her, glancing suspiciously around the room.
“You’re awake,” he stated.
“Where is she?” Hermione asked hoarsely. Her throat was raw from screaming.
“Having her curse-maker fix the fact that you passed out so quickly,” he answered, sliding a short metal key into the lock of her cage. “Torture curses aren’t effective if the victim falls unconscious after a mere minute. Come here.”
Ignoring the blood on her face and hand, Malfoy pulled her out of the cage and helped her stand up.
Hermione leaned heavily on him for support, grimacing at the pain in her head. “I have a fever,” she realized aloud as the room spun around her. Poorly-cast curses could sometimes cause physical symptoms such as fevers, headaches, or nausea.
“There’s nothing I can do about that now,” Malfoy snapped, his harsh tone surprising Hermione. His grey eyes were dangerous as he thrust a vial of thick, black potion in her hand. “Drink. It’s Polyjuice Potion from your room.”
“But she’s going to wonder where I—”
“Just do it,” Malfoy snarled, cutting her off.
His tone left no room for discussion—Hermione shot him a glare and downed the potion in one gulp, closing her eyes as her body twisted and transformed into that of Brooke Locke.
“Put these on,” Malfoy ordered, handing her a black shirt and jeans that Hermione recognized as Brooke’s; he must have taken them from her room at The Leaky Cauldron. He turned his back while she quickly stripped off the remnants of her Auror uniform and put on Brooke’s clothes.
“Do you have a plan for getting out of here?” she asked once she was dressed in the clean clothes.
Malfoy vanished her old clothes and magically cleaned the blood from her face and hand. “Yes,” he said bluntly, tucking his wand in his pocket. “It’s called keep your mouth shut and let me handle this.”
The heat of her body’s fever was no match for the heat of her anger at his dismissive, angry attitude. “Listen, Malfoy,” she began hotly, but he cut her off.
“No, you listen.” In a whirl of movement, his hands were suddenly on her shoulders, gripping tightly. His fingers dug into her shoulders while he brought his face very close to hers. His soft breathing felt cool and soothing on her flushed face, smelling of peppermint. “I warned you about the dangers of this group, but you charged ahead and rushed into this anyway. You have no idea what I went through to find you. I’m risking my life now too, as well as the success of our mission. So forgive me when I tell you that it is time for you to step back and let me handle this,” he hissed, his voice low and dangerous.
Dizzy from the fever and surprised by his ferocity, Hermione fell silent. She didn’t have the energy to argue the point. “Fine,” she muttered.
Malfoy abruptly let go of her and began striding towards the door.
Hermione hastened to keep up with him, taking deep breaths to try to clear her head. Malfoy held the door open for her, frowning as she stumbled while walking through. His catlike reflexes allowed him to dart forward and catch her before she fell. “You need to act normal, for both our sakes,” he stated, his face set with determination as he stared directly into her eyes. “You’re safe with me as long as they don’t suspect you’re anyone but Brooke Locke. I spoke to August before you were tortured and he has agreed to hire ‘Brooke’ for Ariana’s old position.” He pinned a nametag that said “Brooke Locke” to her shirt.
“All right,” Hermione agreed, nodding. The movement made her head ache even more. Malfoy supporting her body with his was a huge relief to her aching, feverish limbs.
Malfoy made as if to let go of her, but she clung to him. “Just one more minute,” Hermione begged, trying to compose herself. She could tell that her temperature was well above normal. Pain, exhaustion, and fear were all warring to engulf her. Her legs trembled.
“Keep it together, Hermione,” Malfoy hissed, glancing down the mercifully-empty hallway.
Bristling at his condescending tone, Hermione drew on the last dregs of her strength and forced herself to release Draco and stand without his help. “Let’s go,” she said firmly.
Malfoy rolled his eyes at her stubbornness and led the way down the hallway. Hermione was too busy trying to keep herself from passing out to notice much about her surroundings other than the fact that the building seemed to be some sort of half-finished construction site. Some walls were only partially finished, and construction equipment was randomly strewn about.
A clattering of high heels from behind them made Malfoy whirl around and whip his wand out, grabbing Hermione and pulling her behind him.
“Draco!” shrieked Lorelei, running up to him. She was so frantic that she didn’t notice Draco’s knee-jerk reaction to protect the unknown girl. “She’s gone! Hermione Granger’s gone!”
“Who was guarding her?” Malfoy asked, very realistic anger infusing his tone. He lowered his wand.
“One of your lot,” she spat, her eyes wild. “Dmitri. I found him unconscious in a closet.”
“Relax,” Malfoy said. “She can’t have gone far. She’s probably hiding out here somewhere. Get everyone together and we’ll find her.”
Some of the anxiety left Lorelei’s face. “Who’s that?” she asked curiously, pointing at Hermione.
Hermione concentrated hard on staying focused and acting as if she wasn’t about to pass out. “I’m—”
“Her name is Brooke Locke,” Malfoy interrupted smoothly. “She’s our current auction girl. Not much brains, you understand, but pretty enough to get the job done.”
Hermione swallowed her pride and gave Lorelei a vapid, simpering smile. Lorelei rolled her eyes dismissively, turning her attention back to Malfoy. “Help me get people together,” she ordered. “I’ll take the left wing, you take the right.”
Without waiting for confirmation, Lorelei stalked off down the hallway.
Suddenly energized, Hermione grabbed Malfoy’s arm and said urgently, “We need to find Gary before leaving.”
Utterly displeased, Malfoy freed his arm and began walking down the hallway. “Who’s Gary?” he snapped.
“He’s my friend—an Auror. I’m not leaving without him.” Her eyes blazed with determination.
“Granger, you’re not well,” Malfoy said, trying to remain calm as the stubborn girl crossed her arms defiantly in front of him. “You need to get out of here before you blow our perilously-thin cover story. How long do you think it’ll take for them to think of using a locator spell to see if you’re still in the building? Once they do, it’s only a short leap of logic to assume that it’s you!”
Torn between her fierce loyalty to her friend and her sense of logic, Hermione hesitated. She looked down, biting her lip as she warred with herself. It took her only a moment to decide. When she looked up, fire flickered in her eyes as she said defiantly, “No. I’m not leaving without him.”
“Oh, you think I was actually giving you a choice,” Malfoy hissed, grabbing her arm and pulling her with him down the hallway.
“Let go!” yelped Hermione, trying to loosen his grip. “We have to find—”
“Fuck this. Stupefy!”
A red light shot from the end of Malfoy’s wand and struck Hermione squarely in the chest. With a look of despair, Hermione’s eyes fell closed and she grew limp in Malfoy’s arms.