Chapter 25 : Life for Life
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He floated. Time seemed to move irregularly, occasionally jumping forward rapidly but other times slowing rapidly to a halt. In his near-delirious state, he almost didn’t realise the implications of the distant crashes and screams, but eventually his mind began to adjust to reality and his consciousness began to reassert itself. Blearily, he blinked, struggling to focus on something simple; the ground. It took a while, but eventually he identified the grass below in its usual sharpness, drifting sideways as he floated over it. He swallowed, giving his head the briefest of shakes, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
The crashes became louder, as did the screams. The castle’s walls had been breached, he realised abruptly, struggling to fight off the darkness that threatened to descend across his eyes. Now that the Dark Lord was inside the barriers, he would head straight for Potter, sweeping through whatever obstacles remained. A swell of desperation mounted in Draco’s chest; he found himself thinking of Granger, and the danger that she was now in, and a shiver of fear set his skin atremble. There was nothing he could do to protect her now.
Presently, they slowed to a halt, Draco hearing robes rustling around him and figures muttering lowly nearby. Without any warning, he was dropped unceremoniously to the floor, the fall expelling all the air from his lungs. Coughing, he raised his head blearily, and, finally, he set eyes on the face that he had hoped never to see again.
The Dark Lord’s face was pale, and emotionless. His serpent’s eyes, narrow like slits, watched Draco without pity or triumph. Still coughing, Draco sought to rise, but the figure in front of him twitched a wand contemptuously, forcing him back to his knees. Behind the Dark Lord, Hogwarts rose grimly into the sky, explosions marring the weathered stone and towers buckling as all manner of dark creatures smote great holes in the architecture. Every few moments, a flash of white, amber, or red light was briefly, and impotently, seen amidst the chaos, as someone somewhere fought against ruin. Dully, Draco returned his gaze to the Dark Lord’s face, knowing that it would likely be the last sight he would ever witness.
“Your parents,” the voice, as high in pitch as the shrieking wind, began, “begged for your life as you screamed. They hoped that I would grant you mercy, that perhaps I would take them in your place.” he paused. “Lord Voldemort is not so kind to traitors. Bring the other prisoners forward, I wish them to witness this.”
Feeling numb, Draco could only watch as his parents were brought forward and hurled to the ground. Their clothes were dirty and stained with blood, and when his father raised his head Draco saw that his lips were cracked with thirst and his eyes empty of hope. His mother was crying silently, tears digging trenches through the caked mud on her face as she struggled with great effort towards Draco, her hand reaching into a wandless pocket over and over again, finding nothing each time. Looking into their eyes, Draco tried to silently reassure them, wanting them to know that he was willing to pay the price; that he did not regret anything.
“You have failed.” the Dark Lord continued calmly, “The castle is lost, and you will die. Such is the fate afforded to those who would dare oppose me.”
Draco stared quietly at the wand as it was lowered to point at his chest.
Draco screamed as the pain returned in full measure, needles of agony piercing his skull and hot blades pressing against his nerves. Halfway through the ordeal, he thought he was going to die; by the end, he was certain. Panting on the floor, unable to focus on anything, he experienced only fragments: a nearby cry; a distant thunder; a coldness on his skin. When his thoughts at last coalesced, and he could move again, he pushed himself upward on trembling arms, wanting to see the end when it arrived. The Dark Lord smiled; the smile of a corpse, or a ghost. Draco clenched his fists tight.
And then the Dark Lord did something Draco hadn’t been expecting; he paused. Frozen, somewhere between life and death, Draco barely breathed, his eyes on the Dark Lord’s face, which had twitched with surprise moments before he failed to speak the final, condemning word. Time passed.
“What is that?” the Dark Lord breathed, his eyes on Draco’s chest.
Looking down, Draco understood. The wind had opened his robes, revealing the thin chain of the Horcrux. With shaking hands, he opened several buttons of his shirt, until the silver links could visibly be seen to pass straight through his skin. With difficulty, he lifted his head to gaze towards the wand that had been about to end his life. It was trembling; the Dark Lord’s eyes were wide with shock. For a moment, he looked almost human, but the moment soon passed.
“My locket…” the Dark Lord hissed, his voice wavering slightly, “you have it, and yet… I see.” The pale face shifted, and Draco was reminded of a snake shedding its skin. “It appears I may not kill you quite yet, for fear of… damage.”
Stunned, Draco lowered his gaze to the area of his chest that held the object that was both a curse and, seemingly, a temporary salvation. He didn’t have long to be shocked, however, because almost as soon as he bowed his head, the Dark Lord spoke again.
Before he could even react, a sense of utter peace descended across Draco’s mind and he found himself adrift in an ocean of blissful tranquillity. He wished only to test the depths, to drown in the waters. Soon, the castle had faded into the periphery, and he could no longer hear the distant sound of fires raging uncontrolled. It was a prison of fiction and illusion, but he recognised this only distantly, as if the thought were unimportant. And as the waves rolled and the sea churned beneath him, he forgot.
Hermione glanced backwards nervously as she hurried through the castle down towards the Great Hall. The hallways were dark and suffocating, cold places filled with a silence punctuated by the occasional distant scream or loud shattering of windows. Harry, Ron and Blaise accompanied her, and each had their respective wand at the ready, hoping to be prepared for the inevitable interruption.
“We’re getting close.” said Harry, breaking the quiet, and Hermione jumped slightly, startled by the sudden noise. “When we reach the Great Hall, we might have to fight our way through.”
Still nervous, Hermione nodded. Already, the sound was increasing, and they were still several corridors away from the Great Hall. Shouts and shatters from nearby were sending dull vibrations through the floors and walls; it felt almost as if the castle itself was splitting apart. Gripping her wand grimly, she breathed in a shaky breath, continuing onwards; if Blaise’s plan was going to succeed, they needed to reach Voldemort. Before long, the noise had risen to a crescendo and they were standing outside the doors that marked the entrance to the Great Hall. After a final, quick glance behind her to ascertain whether the others were ready, she cast a disillusionment charm on herself, then reached out and, with great care, pulled the door open marginally.
The noise hit her like a shockwave, and the door flew open wide immediately, her hands unable to stop it. Thunderous explosions and the riotous clamour of a hundred incensed voices blended together to create a hurricane of sound that acted almost like a physical object, threatening to push her back into the corridor. The hall was filled with a million different colours of light as spells shot back and forth, a full-spectrum rainstorm of danger that would be almost impossible to avoid. There were teachers, students, Death Eaters, and almost every dark creature that she had ever heard or read about, and each was engaged in multiple battles at once. As she stared, aghast, into the hall, watching as the mayhem escalated, a low rumble shook the floor and, for a moment, everything seemed to go still.
With a titanic, explosive noise, half of the Great Hall surged upward, wooden beams shattering as the enchanted ceiling tore in half, a vast, grey hand plunging through it and pulling it ruthlessly skyward. Hermione staggered backwards, stumbling to the floor as falling debris felled both monsters and people indiscriminately. The noise was unbearable, so she clapped her hands over her ears. Blinking against the sudden wind, which was thick with a fetid stench that turned the stomach, she looked up, wanting to know what had happened; bewildered. Her breath stuck in her throat.
A giant, far larger than any she had ever seen before, was staring into the hall, its black eyes sunk into thick, leathery skin. Faint with terror, she realised that the wind which she’d thought had entered the Great Hall had in fact just been the breath of the titanic monster ahead. Those who had been fighting were scattering, with several people heading for the doorway in which Hermione was standing, maniacal creatures pursuing them with deadly intent. The running faces blurred into one, covered as they were with blood and dirt, each framing the same expression of despairing fear. Knowing that she couldn’t afford to waste any time, Hermione somehow managed to step forward, grateful for the disillusionment charms that were veiling them from view, and sprinted for the grass which the giant had exposed, running around the pillar-like leg onto damp ground.
They ran. The sky was black like tar, the occasional spell shooting upward towards the dim stars. The moon was bright, the moisture on each individual blade of grass shining like polished silver. Hermione ran until she ran out of breath, and the sounds of battle had faded; by then, they were in the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest. Stumbling awkwardly to a halt, she turned around, desperately searching the air for the shimmers of people cloaked by disillusionment charms.
“Harry, Ron, Blaise?” she said, in as loud a voice as she dared.
When three people cancelled disillusionment charms, she sighed with relief. Each had a pale face, but was alive. A distant boom shook the trees, so she turned briefly to face the castle, just in time to see a whole tower topple, dark stone drifting downward with an eerie slowness to shatter against the roof of another building, which buckled dangerously. Her heart thundering, she turned back to her friends.
His eyes were wide with horror; he too had seen the tower falling. At her word, however, he returned his attention to her. At first, he looked bewildered, but then he suddenly nodded, seeming to remember what he was doing, and retrieved the Marauder’s Map shakily from his robes. For a few moments, he stared at it, and then he looked up.
“He’s on it. I see them both; Tom Riddle and Draco Malfoy.”
He was alive. The information hit her like a punch to the gut, and her knees nearly gave out underneath her. Tears gathered in her eyes, but she blinked them away, desperately keeping her composure. Even if he was alive, there was no way of knowing what condition he was in; they would need to go to him to find out.
“G-good. How far away are they?”
Harry lowered his eyes to the map once more.
“Not far.” he said eventually, in a quiet voice.
Hermione took another deep breath. The war would end soon, one way or another. Her skin trembling both from the cold and from anticipation, she smiled, as much to reassure herself as anyone else. The castle might be crumbling, but there was more to Hogwarts than just an old building; it could still be saved.
“And everyone knows the plan?”
When she received three nods, she nodded.
“Then we should leave.”
And with a quick flick of her wand, she dispelled the disillusionment charm on Theodore Nott, who blinked and smiled, the Imperius curse still holding sway over his mind. She could feel him fighting her control, his mind scratching at her own; he knew what they were intending to do, and he wanted to stop them. Grimly, she pushed back his resistance, ruthlessly crushing his feeble attacks; he had taken Draco, but perhaps, with his help, they could get him back.
A/N: Thanks for reading this far :) the end approaches... I hope you all enjoy it.
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