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Chapter 20 : Assault on the Ministry, Pt. 2
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Still slightly groggy from the explosion, Harry was sure that he was hallucinating. There could be no other explanation of the fact that Neville – who Harry couldn’t remember seeing for months – was currently peering around the door to the Department of Mysteries, attempting to prevent the Death Eaters from encroaching on the corridor which Hermione had entered. Blinking once – very heavily – Harry opened his eyes slowly, only to see that Neville had not vanished. Continuing to stare, he began to shake his head, even as curses peppered the wall outside the door.
“Harry!” Neville’s voice was desperate. “I know this must be very surprising, but you have to help me! I can’t do this alone!”
As he spoke, a particularly powerful spell tore a chunk out of the doorframe, sending wood and stone splintering outward like shrapnel. Some of it landed on Malfoy’s prone body; he had been hit early, and hard, but Neville had carried him on his shoulder through the door at the end of the corridor. They were now in the Department of Mysteries, in a room populated by obviously rare and dangerous oddities: nearby, a mummified hand squirmed as it sought to free itself from the wooden stake which pinned it to one of the shelves; a pink flame burned within a dome of thick glass; and a jar filled with tiny, sinuous creatures which looked a little like miniature eels wobbled precariously on a table top.
Neville looked… different. His brown hair had lost its unruliness, and much of its length, and had become cropped and restrained. The shadows beneath his eyes hinted at many long and nervous nights. The Death Eater robes which he was wearing fit him uncannily well, but he wore them with such obvious awkwardness that Harry found it hard to believe that he could have been playing his part convincingly for any particularly lengthy period of time. The decision to wear a disguise must have been taken recently, and hastily.
“HARRY!” Neville bellowed, as a reductor curse tore one of the hinges from the door.
A bolt of horror shot through Harry as he belatedly realised the direness of their current circumstances, and he surged to his feet, flanking the door on the opposite side to Neville and firing several curses down the corridor. Peering around the frame, he almost had his head torn off immediately by a barrage of spells, but he managed to catch a glimpse of roughly twenty Death Eaters, some standing brazenly in the open and others peering cautiously out from behind walls. None of them were making any kind of a move for Hermione’s corridor; they looked to be after him. After all this time, he reflected wryly, he still seemed to be priority one.
Firing another salvo of spells blindly down the corridor, he was rewarded with a chorus of howls of pain and anger, but any temporary satisfaction which he might have gained was instantly overpowered by horror as a retaliatory volley struck the other side of the wall, causing it to rattle ominously, thin streams of dust trickling down from the ceiling. Leaping away from the suddenly-fragile structure, Harry turned wildly to Neville, who had also staggered away from the door.
“We have to move further in!” he yelled, over the shattering of brickwork and the bellowing of the Death Eaters. Neville nodded his agreement strongly.
Levitating Malfoy, Harry turned and ran, picking a door at random from the several which were available. A plaque on the wall aside it proclaimed:
The Room of Extinguishing.
Barrelling through, not having the time to pause for consideration, he found himself in a large, circular room which sloped downwards towards a central nadir. What looked to be water had pooled in this area, which was surrounded by a golden railing. A chair had been positioned close to the water’s edge, a thin ring of metal hanging suspended over the backrest; a crown for the person who chose to stare into the depths of the silver pond. For some reason which he could not place, Harry found the sight extremely disturbing; so much so, in fact, that he was almost tempted to turn around and face the Death Eaters head-on. Only when Neville bumped into his back, jostling him, did sense reassert itself in Harry’s mind.
“Harry!” Neville’s voice was desperate, and Harry nodded his understanding. They could not afford to delay.
Circumnavigating the room, Harry quickly arrived at a second door, throwing it open and leaping wildly through. He barely had time to register that it was a large room – wide and open – before Neville cannoned into his back, staggering him. The reason for his haste soon became clear, however, as a killing curse sheared a path through the air in front of Harry. On reflex, he span, blasting a stunning spell into the chest of the masked Death Eater who seemed to be heading the vanguard. The figure thundered backwards into the railing around the small pool, head lolling forward as they slumped, unconscious.
For a moment, there was a hush in the fighting. As he leant into the wall next to the door and peered through into the pool room, Harry noted that the Death Eaters appeared reluctant to follow them, and it was obvious why. The Room of Extinguishing was a bottleneck; circling the pool would require them to move in single-file. If they attempted entry, an ambush would be little more than target practice. Permitting himself a small, grim smile, Harry let out a slow breath. He could already hear them muttering discontentedly amongst one another, but for now it was an impasse. Glancing sideways at Neville, he saw relief etched into every line on his face.
“Looks like we have some time,” Harry said quietly, careful to keep his voice low so as not to attract the ire of the Death Eaters. Neville nodded, taking up position on the other side of the door.
“Looks that way. It’s good to see you again, Harry. As soon as we read the paper, we knew that we would have to come here today. We jumped a couple of Death Eaters for the robes and just walked right in with a bunch of them – we’ve been following their movements for a while so it was easy, really.”
“You and Luna?” Harry leant his head back against the wall, his head swimming with questions. “How did you…” He struggled for the right words. “How did you both… survive?”
A ghost of a smile passed across Neville’s face, but there was more than a trace of sadness in his expression.
“I suppose that that is the biggest question, isn’t it? I was staying with Luna at her father’s house near Ottery St. Catchpole when the Arc went up.” When Harry’s eyebrows jerked upwards, he smiled again – this time, more of a grimace. “At first, I didn’t believe her father when he told me what it was… I mean, you know the sorts of things he believes in, Luna too. But they were right about what was going to happen afterwards; if they hadn’t made the house Unplottable, we’d probably all be dead. Everybody – and I mean everybody – who we had been in contact with just stopped responding. It was…” He grimaced again. “Frightening, really.”
Nodding soberly, Harry glanced down at the floor. “After the trial, we went to Azkaban. We were…” Swallowing a sudden lump in his throat, he paused for a while. “We were… held there for some time. Hermione… and Malfoy… they managed to free me, but we- we couldn’t get Ron as well. We’re here to make things right.”
Neville chuckled softly to himself. “That’s quite a task.”
Harry knew exactly what he meant. As he stared around the frame of the door towards the other entrance to the Room of Extinguishing, he found himself wondering if everything even could be put right again. Never before had any Dark Wizard achieved anything near the power which Voldemort now seemed to wield, and the world now was scarcely comparable to the world which had gone before. He could barely remember what real sunlight looked like, hardly recall the taste of fresh air or the warmth of a summer breeze. Time had been swallowed by the mist, even the seasons themselves having vanished into the milk-white fog, leaving behind pallid, unchanging lands. Such lands were not places for hope.
“That’s true,” he said quietly, “but we need to try.”
“Do you think that Voldemort will be here? He seems…”
Neville suddenly tailed off. Caught a little by surprise, Harry glanced sidelong at him.
“He seems what?”
But Neville didn’t respond. He had turned his back on the wall, and in doing so had caught sight of something inside the room which they were occupying, something which had suddenly stolen his undivided attention. His eyes were bulging, his lips beginning to part in awed fascination. For a long moment Harry did not want to look; Neville’s expression promised only greater and more trying horrors, and there were so many already. But he drew himself together, steeled himself, and turned.
He knew, immediately.
“No way,” whispered Neville. As he spoke, the recently-kindled flame of hope which had been burning inside Harry rose to a sudden, towering blaze.
In the very centre of the room, surrounded by assorted miscellanea - they looked to have stumbled onto a storage room of some kind - stood an object. It was bleach-white, each vast vertebra as large as a small car. From the ground it rose upward, curved like the blade of a scythe, flawlessly symmetrical and exuding a transcendental beauty which defied its origins.
It was an arc; that much was obvious. But it wasn’t just any arc – it was the arc. Voldemort’s Ineffability Arc.
Gripping his wand involuntarily in his sudden, overwhelming excitement, Harry turned to Neville again, who was visibly trembling. In that moment of giddy disbelief, it really seemed possible – it really felt like things could someday go back to how they had been before. So much may have happened to make the new world seem so immutably forever, but at its core it had the same structure as the old – a set of dependencies; objects and people which kept it alive. In the end, it was nothing without Voldemort, the Death Eaters, and the mist.
It would be different without the Arc.
“Neville,” Harry said, his own voice sounding faint and ephemeral in his ears. He began to walk towards the Arc. “Stop anyone who tries to come through that room.”
“Harry…” Neville’s eyes were wide as they flicked between Harry and the Ineffability Arc. The importance of the moment was not lost to him either.
“It’s alright,” Harry murmured, thinking back to what he had endured throughout his time in Azkaban. “I know. It begins now.”
As she raced down the stairs towards the courtrooms, Hermione’s heart was pounding in her ears. Luna was following close behind, her breathing audibly rapid. Stepping gingerly over the still-prone body of Maxwell Harris, Hermione practically flung herself down the next set of steps, staggering to a halt once she reached the level ground of the corridor beyond.
Blue candlelight illuminated the approach to the courtroom. The world was eerily quiet, the crashes and blasts which echoed through the ceiling from the Department of Mysteries above seeming dampened and otherworldly. Hesitantly, Hermione took a couple of steps forward, finding herself suddenly uncertain. As Luna drew up alongside her, Hermione glanced sideways towards her, noting the smudges of dirt and the fatigued, weary way that she was blinking. She was desperate to know how Luna had managed to survive, but the story had to wait; they were so close, now – Ron had to be nearby.
At the end of the corridor, Hermione knew, lay the Court of Dark Wizardry. She’d been there herself, not so long ago. She could only recall snippets of the day: the time when the tall man had passed judgment over Harry and Ron; the time she was given a different sentence; Umbridge’s curt dismissal; how Avery had led them at wand-point back up to the Department of Mysteries, where they had taken the lift up to the Atrium, there to be led away to Azkaban. She swayed slightly on her feet, feeling suddenly lightheaded, and felt a hand gently touch her elbow.
“It’s OK,” Luna said, smiling brightly. “This must feel very strange to you, but we will be alright. It’s not far now!”
“Th- thanks,” Hermione said, though she wasn’t quite able to banish the feeling entirely.
They walked side-by-side up the length of the corridor, their footfalls echoing off the narrow walls and low ceiling. Anybody waiting at the end would have more than enough time to prepare a trap.
She froze, mid-step, her nerves brought suddenly to the edge. Somebody had called her name; somebody whose voice had sounded very familiar.
“Ron?” she whispered to herself, troubled by how much her response carried a questioning inflection. It had certainly sounded like his voice.
“Hermione, where are you…?” the voice moaned, sounding frail and wispy as it echoed down the tunnel.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Suddenly, Hermione felt the same wild, eclipsing fear which she had felt when she and Malfoy had travelled into the Depths of Azkaban, and this time she could place its origins. It was the fear of something worse than death, of greater and deeper darknesses than those into which mankind has delved before.
All was silent ahead. The sounds of the battle had all but vanished, leaving nothing in their wake. Beyond the final blue candle; some ten metres away; darkness reigned supreme. The Courtrooms of the Wizengamot were veiled in shadow, the torches which ringed the room hanging cold and unlit. Tears of panic filled Hermione’s eyes as she strained to see just a little further; to perceive the person who she so desperately wanted to see…
“R-Ron? Lumos… is that- is that y-you?”
Luna’s fingers curled around her free hand as they reached the exit of the tunnel, Hermione’s wand trembling as she stepped forward into the courtroom, holding it aloft to force the shadows into temporary retreat. As she and Luna took another step, a chair rose out of the gloom; a chair of black wood, framed in iron. There was someone sitting on it; someone…
“Oh no,” said Luna, though Hermione barely heard her. “Oh no.”
Hermione’s wand slipped from her grasp, spinning as it tumbled. Somebody was screaming, but she wasn’t sure who it was: it didn’t matter; nothing mattered anymore. It was all over; the war was lost and she was finished, broken. She was conscious, barely, of running to his side, her fingers curling around his arms and shaking desperately, vainly. His eyes, frozen open, could have been made of porcelain, so fragile did they seem in that moment. Tears flooded her cheeks as she touched his face, his hands, his hair, his fingers, searching for life and seeking to draw it out from where it was hiding somewhere far below the surface. He had been dead for some time; that much was obvious. The voice which had spoken to her out of the darkness had been nothing more than a cruel enchantment, designed to strike at her heart and empty her of hope.
“Don’t,” she sobbed raggedly, slumping to the ground in front of the chair as grief overpowered her body. “Oh don’t, Ron, please… please, no.”
“Hermione…” Luna’s voice wavered as she spoke. “Oh it’s all so terrible. It’s all so very horrible.”
Turning towards Luna, Hermione saw tears dripping from the chin of the usually-airy, detached girl who had braved both the Death Eaters and Voldemort’s new world to try to help. In the end, it had all been worth nothing.
A thunderous noise suddenly shook the Ministry; an explosion which rippled into the distance like a thunderclap. Though Hermione barely noticed, she was vaguely aware of the vibrations passing through her body. They held little to no significance; whatever event had just transpired was meaningless. As she cried silently into her hands, she shook her head slowly, wanting nothing more than oblivion and an end to the misery; she wanted to remember the walks beneath the willow trees and the Burrow in the summer, not the bowels of the eviscerated Ministry of Magic where Ron had spent his final moments alone.
“Oh Ron, we should never have come here,” she wept. “We should have stayed for you at Azkaban, we never should have left.”
A series of cracks sounded suddenly nearby. Through her blurred eyes, she saw the faint outline of Harry, who had somehow managed to Apparate into the Courtroom.
“Hermione?” His eyes fell straight to her. “Are you…”
She saw him sway, as if struck a sudden and mortal blow. A desperate, agonised sound left his mouth, and she knew that he had seen Ron. His knees shuddered, threatening to buckle, and it was only through the efforts of another figure, who rushed to his side to support him, that he was able to stay standing. He choked out a couple of disbelieving, horrified sobs, his face going pale as the mist high above. For a long moment, he simply stared at Ron’s face, as if he couldn’t believe the sight.
“H-Hermione,” he croaked eventually, his voice suffused with grief and pain; she could tell that speaking had required a monumental effort. “Oh God… we- we need to go. We- we have to…”
“N-no. I want to stay,” she whispered, shaking her head, “stay here, on the floor right here… I just don’t want to move anymore.”
“Hermione, please…” Harry’s voice was a desperate imploration. “I need- I need you not to give up, even- even if this is real. He wouldn’t…” Harry’s throat seized up. “He wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“WE LEFT HIM!” Hermione howled, unable to stop herself from screaming aloud her despair, “WE LEFT HIM THERE TO D- DIE, HARRY! WE LEFT HIM!”
“I know.” He sounded truly broken; as ruined as she felt. “I know. But we can take him with us this time.”
“No…” she sobbed, inconsolable. “No I won’t, I can’t…”
Harry stumbled aside as someone shoved him roughly out of the way. As Hermione wrapped her arms around one of Ron’s legs, she felt a hand grip her shoulder, spinning her forcefully on the spot. Tears trembling on her chin, she found herself staring into Malfoy’s face, his eyes burning with that strange mixture of rage and fear which, while frightening, also made him seem very vulnerable. She was already shaking her head, knowing what he was going to say.
“Get up,” he snarled.
“GET UP, GRANGER!” he bellowed; behind him, she saw Harry start forward, only for another figure – Neville, she realised dully – to place a hand upon his shoulder and halt him.
“I can’t,” she whispered, imploring him silently to understand; she couldn’t feel anything anymore.
A flash of fury passed across his face, but his expression eventually sobered. For a few moments, he regarded her in silence, watching without apparent judgment as she cried silently, choking on her tears and dismay. After a while had passed, he reached out slowly – almost gingerly – and put a hand on her shoulder. Silently, she begged him not to ask again; she could not endure another second of Voldemort’s world, not when all of her hope had been so soundly dashed.
“Do you remember, Granger, how you used me?” he asked quietly, his words somehow penetrating the pall of pain which had made a mist of Hermione’s mind. “You asked me to rescue you from Azkaban, to give up my old life for you, someone I despised. Do you remember what happened, then?”
Sensing the direction of the conversation, but helpless to prevent it from progressing, Hermione nodded with difficulty, her breaths coming in short, sharp gasps as pain sought to claim her completely.
“You,” she choked, “you s-saved… me.”
“That’s right.” His voice became stronger, and he leant forward, his voice becoming steel. “So don’t you even dare, Granger. Don’t you dare give up, not even now Weasley has died. Don’t you dare give up, even if Potter and everyone you care about dies!” He gripped her other shoulder with his other hand, glaring into her eyes. “You used me once, and now I’m using you. You owe it to me not to give up!”
Burying her face in her hands, Hermione could feel her lips trembling against the heels of her hands.
Cold hands closed over her own, parting them gently to reveal the world once again. Malfoy’s face was set and resolute.
“I’m not asking you to go beyond this. I’m not telling you to ignore it. All I am saying is that you will get up. You will leave here – you owe it to me, to Weasley, to everyone.”
“I hate you,” she gasped, desperate to ignore his words, filling her voice with as much venom as she could muster. “I h-hate you. How can you ask s-so m-much of me? I’m not… I can’t…”
She tailed off, unable to continue, and for a long moment, he didn’t reply. Again, he just seemed to watch her.
“You don’t even know how to hate, Granger,” he said eventually. “I doubt you’ve ever really hated anyone. And you’re lying to yourself if you think that you could stay here and give up; it’s not in your blood. You’re a Gryffindor.”
And in that moment, she knew that he was right. Even though misery had filled every cell in her body, and every fibre of her being was suffused with pain, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t do it to Harry – it was a torment which they would both have to bear; another, greater agony for them to endure. Bursting into sobs again, she hurled her arms around Malfoy’s neck, dragging him into an embrace, not caring in that moment what else he might represent or how he might take to such an action, only feeling the desperate need to bury her head into his shoulder and not think about all the things that had happened. She couldn’t bear to think.
“Harry, we should leave.” Dimly, Hermione recognised Neville’s voice; he was audibly shaken. “He’ll be coming. Now that the Arc is gone, anybody could Apparate in at any moment. We have to go, quickly.”
“I know. Malfoy, Hermione, we need to go-”
And then someone gasped out loud, and Harry yelled out a word of warning. There was the sound of a scuffle, and Hermione lifted her head blearily from Malfoy’s shoulder, crying out herself when she saw the sight ahead of her.
Luna was struggling in the grasp of someone; someone whose wand-tip was pressed against her torso, just above her stomach. The wand was black oak, and the hand which held it was neatly lacerated in several places, the wounds continuing up the arms to create spider-webs of scars and gouges. Hermione’s stomach dropped like a stone when she realised that it was Harris, the Warden.
“Wait, don’t!” Harry’s voice was desperate. “What do you want us to-”
The first blast took them by surprise, Luna’s body convulsing with shock as the spell seared through her body, Harry’s question freezing in his mouth before he could ask it. Luna’s lips parted slightly as she gasped, the pupils in her always-wide eyes dilating. The second blast lifted her briefly off her feet, a small hole opening at the point where the wand met her body.
Luna’s eyes drifted downwards to the point of impact, a faintly-dazed expression descending across her face. As she looked up, her eyes met Hermione’s, a trail of blood trickling lazily down from the corner of her mouth to her chin, where a droplet beaded before dripping to the ground.
Neville’s cry was one of the most harrowing sounds which Hermione had ever heard. As a third and fourth spell thundered into Luna’s body, she jolted like a puppet on strings, her head lolling back limply as she lost consciousness. And then, as green light gleamed from Maxwell Harris’s wand, a second series of popping noises echoed throughout the courtroom.
The voice was unfamiliar, but suddenly Luna was falling forwards, Harris’s wand pinwheeling skyward, the green light dying for the second time that day. And as it span, a man leapt out of the shadows. He looked to be in his late twenties, with hair of coal black and vibrant, blue eyes which gleamed powerfully, radiating intelligence. In his hand, a different wand flashed green once, twice, three times, and suddenly it was Maxwell Harris who was jolting on his feet, the long limbs crumpling as life departed his body. As the Warden dropped, his expression frozen in incomprehension, Neville leapt forward, catching Luna before she hit the ground.
As he leaned over her, brushing the hair from her face with trembling fingers, a woman rushed to his side. She looked to be a similar age to the man, who after killing Harris had rushed to the chair to which Ron was bound to check for signs of life, but had blonde hair much the same colour as Luna’s, if a little shorter. Barging aside Neville, who was shaking with horror and desperation, she levelled her wand to Luna and began to whisper healing spells, many of them extremely complex and powerful. Before Hermione’s eyes, the skin around the wounds began to merge back together. However, Luna’s eyes stayed closed.
“We need to get out of here, James,” the woman called, her tone that of an urgent reminder. “This girl is very hurt and I can’t treat her here!”
The man; James; drew back from Ron – his expression was one of real regret. “I agree. They must have left Harris here to…” His eyes flicked to Hermione, and then away. “To… tackle the problem, but they can’t be far away. It’s a strange tactic; it’s almost as if they don’t want to fight alongside one another…”
“Not the time, James!” the woman called again, James giving her a sharp nod of acceptance.
“You there!” He turned to Hermione again. “I know that this must be a very hard time for you, but my name is James Wheeler. I’m an agent of the SIA; do you know what that is?”
A shock of surprise passed through Hermione. She did.
“Intelligence… agency?” she ground out, hoarsely.
“That’s right.” The man’s eyebrows shot up, as if he were impressed. “Your friends have destroyed the Ineffability Arc. Lord Voldemort’s Dominion Spell broke just as we made our final approach to the Ministry. I’m sorry… we wanted to be here in time to stop this.”
“It’s not even time.” Hermione’s eyes blurred with tears again. “They killed him before they said they would. I- I wish… I wish we’d…”
She couldn’t bring herself to talk about Azkaban; the last time when she had seen Ron alive. The man seemed to understand, however, because he bowed his head. When he lifted it, there was nothing but sorrow in his expression.
“You have done a great thing today. Without the spell, Voldemort’s power over the population is fragile. But we need to leave here. Do you understand?”
Hermione’s gaze slipped to Malfoy, who was still close-by. Looking into his eyes, she nodded slowly.
“Good,” he said, turning to the woman again. “Rachel, let’s go.”
The man walked across to Hermione, holding out his hand. Taking it, she rose unsteadily to her feet, feeling as if the pain which she was carrying with her was almost a physical weight, threatening to drag her back to the floor. She suffered for every step which she took away from the chair, walking to the centre of the courtroom and waiting as the man called James and the woman called Rachel made ready Luna and the body of Ron for travel. Harry followed her, pulling her into an embrace, his own tears falling in her hair and threatening to unravel her.
They were too tired to think, too agonised to talk to or argue with or inquire about the strangers who had arrived in time to save Luna’s life. As Malfoy came and stood alongside them, he made no comment whatsoever; no snide remark, no sarcastic gibe; and for some reason this fact resonated in Hermione’s chest, bringing the grief rising to the surface to cascade down her cheeks in fresh tears. Burying her head in Harry’s chest, she closed her eyes again, willing herself to wake up from the nightmare.
“Do you have a safe place? Somewhere that you can rest?” said a voice; in her state, Hermione could not tell if it was James or Rachel.
“We d-do,” said Harry, brokenly.
“Good.” A pause. “Let’s go, now.”
And the world twisted, becoming liquid and flux as the fabric of the world seemed to dissolve. As they Disapparated, Hermione kept her eyes open, watching as all reality folded in on itself, closing in and constricting before flying apart, becoming disorder, anarchy, and chaos.
At its peak, it seemed as if the entire universe was collapsing into nothingness and oblivion. In the face of the ruin, Hermione felt little at all.
She found she didn’t care very much.
A/N: Thanks for reading. I hope it was OK!
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