The skies over London rumbled ominously, and Hermione felt the first cool raindrop splash against her forehead. Pulling the collar of her jacket closer, she picked up her pace, weaving through the pedestrian traffic, not wishing to get caught in the promised downpour. The weather forecast called for storms all night long.
She probably could have done something about the rain if she truly had the inclination, but it had only been a few weeks since they had defeated Voldemort and his followers, and the land was healing. The dark and evil seemed to be washing away. Even the muggles could feel the change in the air, and everyone walked with more pep in their step. Ron was currently at the Ministry of Magic, working with his father and others in order to straighten out internal affairs and seek out any Death eaters that had escaped justice. Hermione would have liked to be there with him, but in the wake of the second Dementor invasion in as many years, the wizarding world's political and magical leaders had questions, and she and Harry were the ones best equipped to answer them. Since Harry's recent death made him, in their vaunted opinions, a reliable source, he was now, somewhat unbelievably, tapped as the foremost expert on horacrux phenomenons.
In the muggle world; the death eaters had done a huge number of unprecedented destruction. It wasn't just Hogwarts that had been destroyed in the war. Thousands of well placed Confundious charms and chalking it all up to terrorist attacks cured most of the issues, but the London skyline was still littered with cranes and the jagged thrusts of shattered buildings. Television reports had not done justice to the scale of the destruction.
They had hosted a conference at the Ministry, which was still in the process of being rebuilt. At least most of Diagon Alley was fully functional, whereas the rest of the city seemed held together with scaffolding and duct tape.
It seemed like every time Harry and the ministry crossed paths, they all ended up being manipulated, managed, and outright lied to. At least this time she was fairly sure she had escaped their notice unscathed, though she couldn't say she liked the fact that she'd just spent the past two weeks of her life explaining horacrux anomalies and science/magic theory to Kingsley Shacklebolt. But it had been worth it to meet Nicolas Flamel, who everyone was surprised to find still alive. The idea that geniuses like these were listening to her, Hermione Granger, the former a simple muggle-born of the magical community, was beyond her wildest dreams. Her title of "brightest witch of her age" was being passed around the wizarding world like wild-fire. A petty little part of her wanted badly to send a howler to Draco explaining her success and shout "so there!" in his ear and hang up on him. But the Malfoys were...on an extended vacation. Meaning they had fled the country and were in hiding.
Today had been the last day of the conference; everyone claimed they were up to speed on the pertinent information surrounding the incident, and Hermione's part in it was now done; it was time for all the powers that be to decide what to 'do' about it. Hermione found this a rather pointless overreaction, since the threat was already past; she, Harry, Ron, along with Hogwart's professors and student body had already 'done' it all for them. But people like Dumbledore, Professor Snape, Professor Moody, and countless others who had sacrificed their lives had also done it. It was a team effort.
She had been at Hogwarts the week before the conference, helping the other students and teacher magically rebuild. It was a difficult endeavor, requiring true magical prowess to weave the wards and spells that the founders had created together. Luckily she caught onto it quickly and was able to give instruction to the others.
She breathed another sigh of relief that it was all over as she walked in the chilly humid air. It seemed like every time, this time being an exception, that she had entered into the Ministry of Magic she came out of it feeling violated from the horrible violence and pain. If she had had her way; she would not set foot in that building again for all the gold in Gringotts bank. They would probably offer her a job there though...
Her mind uncontrollably went back to the first time she had gone there with Dumbledore's Army to save Sirius. She would never forget it. She and Ron had run after Harry while the rest of the group continued battling the death eaters. Both she and Ron stopped short when they saw Voldemort terrorizing Harry.
Cringing inwardly, Hermione drew her collar even closer and picked up her pace. Ever since she'd arrived in London she'd been struggling not to think of him. Surrounded on all sides by the city he had destroyed, it was next to impossible.
And yet whenever she remembered Tom Riddle, it was her very first glimpse of him that sprang to mind first: his face bright with cynical amusement as his eyes seemed to have pierced her from across the room, towering over Harry who was unconscious on the floor; his smirk irreverent and so frustratingly self-assured that she instantly hated him...but also feared him. She'd had nightmares of him ever since that she never told anyone except Harry and Ginny. Nightmares that she didn't remember but that she'd wake up trembling from, his face being the only thing she remembered. Harry seemed to understand, but not like Ginny. No, Ginny understood what Hermione wasn't saying. What she refused to say and would take to her grave. They both found comfort in each other and Ginny became a much closer friend after that.
Hermione felt an uneasy pang and looked around herself at the burnt out shells of abandoned storefronts, the boarded-up windows, barricades surrounding dangerous craters in the streets. All the rubble had at last been cleared away, but it only served to show just how much of the city had been eaten up by Tom Riddle's selfish ambition. If Hermione could truly hate Tom, as she had at that first meeting, she should feel it right now. It would be so much simpler if she could. It frustrated her that she couldn't.
It all had changed once she, Harry, and Ron were captives at Malfoy's manor.
There were only bits and pieces that she could remember. It was hazy, obviously due to the intense torture she suffered there. But Voldemort wasn't merely some faceless monster to her now, as the news channels and survivor accounts painted him. There was nothing so straightforward about him anymore. He was now a complete and utter mystery to her. While at the manor Hermione had met him, spoke to him, learned that he was a dangerously intelligent and frighteningly unpredictable individual and yet...
Her experiences served to convince her that there had to have been more to him than an egomaniac with delusions of grandeur and no regard for human life. She didn't remember everything from her experience, but she would always remember that she had been in Voldemort's... protection? If that could adequately describe it.
Scenes from the recent past, many of them tinged with high adrenaline, flashed across her mind. Sharp blue eyes as he gazed at her from across the high-vaulted room of Malfoy Manor where she had been tortured. Strong arms bearing her up and hauling her away. The bruising pressure of unyielding fingers propelling her out of the blast radius of an implosion spell. And at the battle of Hogwarts...a graying form, shivering and molting away like ash in the wind as the most powerful wand on earth turned against him.
She remembered that she had been laying on the floor, drool coming out of her mouth and tears leaking from her eyes after being intensely tortured by Belatrix Black. Slight spasms swept through her body here and there as a result. She barely had even felt Belatrix's knife carving "Mudblood" into her soft arm flesh.
She had wished she could die instead of feel any more pain.
Her eyes had been gazing blankly towards the door, longing for death and freedom, when who should come in but the Dark Wizard himself? He walked in, about to say something to Belatrix but had stopped cold when he saw her lifelessly staring at him from the floor. It was good that her head had been facing in that direction as she lay there listlessly, otherwise she may not have seen his expressions. He looked shocked. As if he had not been expecting to see a girl broken at his feet. Then he looked afraid. Imagine, Voldemort, looking afraid of her? Or...for her? Then his eyes turned red and he looked murderous.
She remembered a brilliant flash of green as he sent an unmentionable spell toward...Belatrix? Why hadn't he sent it towards her? Her memories came to her in halting images and feelings after that, everything seeming to be cut up and glued together in odd jolts. In fact she had no guarantee that it was even real. Part of her hoped it wasnt as that would make things a whole lot easier. The feeling of being picked up from off the floor...arms swaying gently as she was carried out the doors that she had been gazing at longing...words being whispered into her hair to stop her trembling and easing the pain...feeling relief for not having to be tortured anymore...a strangely unusual feeling of feeling safe...Voldemort standing near a large fireplace, looking at her, telling her that he needed to explain...Dobby popping into existence as she sat on a sofa (a red sofa she remembers vividly)...a harsh yell from across the room, no doubt from Voldemort...and then apperating with Dobby to a sandy sunny beach where Harry and Ron were already waiting with the Goblin Griphook from the bank? Odd.
It had been… well, 'awe-inspiring' seemed a bit dramatic, but Hermione couldn't think of a better way to describe the feeling it had engendered. As she had sat there on the sand with Harry and Ron hugging her, trying to snap her out of her trauma induced shock she had wondered... had Tom Marvolo Riddle, the most feared wizard of her time, actually taken care of her? But why?
In the battle of Hogwarts she did her best to stay away from him. After all, it was Harry's destiny to defeat him, not hers. But she had found herself in the courtyard at one point, Ron by her side (like always), when she saw him dueling with 6 teachers all at the same time. It had occurred to her upon reflection, after watching him analyze, coordinate and execute each motion of each spell with dizzying timing and precision that his intellect was his greatest asset, ruthless though it was. He had proven that undeniably with his own death. The brutally efficient mind of a master strategist, still thinking and executing his plans even as he died; even knowing he had used his intelligence to cause so much pain in the past did not diminish her appreciation of his brilliance. After all, intelligence was also her greatest asset as well.
Hermione sighed and shook her head. No, he wasn't someone she could simply put in her 'bad guy' file and write off as 'better off dead'. Even though he WAS a bad guy. And he WAS better off dead.
Yet somehow, so far removed by time, distance and circumstance, she had let herself forget the magnitude of his crimes.
Now, standing in the midst of the decimated city that had been part of his chosen battlefield, she knew she really should despise him. Even if she couldn't hate him – and what would be the point of hating a dead man? –there was no way to forgive him either. The sheer scale of gratuitous, wanton devastation was beyond the scope of her ability to excuse. What about all of the countless dead who were caused by him? She thought again of him at Hogwarts, trying to kill her best friend with the Elder wand...and floating away lying on the ground… even as she walked the broken streets of London, she wondered if her inability to forgive him made her heartless.
Where was the line? Hermione knew it existed, but she kept chasing it around in circles, and could make no clear sense of its boundaries. The harder she thought, the more the crisp black and white of conventional morality kept running together into watery shades of gray. She should hate him...but she didnt. it wasnt in her nature to hate.
She shivered against the cold of the coming rain, and wished Ron was with her. She didn't like thinking about Tom Riddle, and it was completely unavoidable here. Things always seemed simpler when Ron was close by. His strong, decisive presence and hard-line, almost obstinate moral compass constantly drove away all doubts about herself and others. It was easier to see the world in black and white, perfect wrong and perfect right; perhaps not always accurate, and certainly a lot more goofy, but so much easier.
Sighing at the morose direction of her own thoughts, Hermione stopped impulsively at a street vendor's cart to buy a hot dog, glancing up and down the boulevard. Though the shops on this street were themselves largely empty, there were numerous pavilions, stands, stalls and tarps spread out on the sidewalk in front of the broken storefronts, and commerce continued even in the midst of destruction. Hermione contemplated a bit of window shopping. She still needed to find a souvenir for Luna, and she could stand to burn off a little extra mental energy with a pleasant distraction for once. She should be exhausted after a long day, but she had been sleeping extremely well ever since she arrived in London, probably courtesy of the high quality mattresses in the high quality hotel that Shacklebolt was paying for in exchange for her services. That, and she was finally sleeping alone for the first time since Ron had gone off with his father for a while. She loved falling asleep in Ron's arms, but she wasn't used to sharing a bed with anyone, and Ron took up rather a lot of it.
Another drop of rain splashed against her wrist as she passed her money to the vendor and took her hot dog, and she reluctantly thought better of it. Better to get back and enjoy her last night in her fancy hotel room.
Biting into her junk food, she turned to go, when a hand closed on her wrist.
"A curse!" croaked a heavily accented voice.
Hermione jumped and turned to find a little old lady beside her, her bony hand curled around Hermione's wrist like a knobby claw. Her rheumy eyes where enormous behind the thick, wide lenses of her glasses, and her white hair was pulled back in a loose bun. She wore a purple knit shawl around her bony shoulders, covering a floral patterned dress with an old-fashioned cut, and around her neck were hung so many necklaces and pendants that Hermione was amazed she could support her own head. The old lady had no wand though, and so Hermione's finger merely twitched as she debated whether she would needs hers or not.
"E-Excuse me?" Hermione stammered. She tried to pull out of the old woman's grip, but she was surprisingly strong for someone so small and frail-looking.
"You!" the old woman exclaimed. "The Darkness, they leave mark here!" She waved her other hand in the general direction of Hermione's forehead. "Powerful magic. No good! Very bad! You come, I give charm. For to protect."
She started to pull Hermione back the way she'd come, and Hermione noticed for the first time the nearby cart. It appeared to be pedaling occult wares, like one of those new age shops, loaded down with tarot cards, crystals, incense and various other obscure objects with obscure uses. Hermione felt a surge of irritation, and fought not to role her eyes. She'd actually been worried for a second, but apparently this was just another pushy Professor Trewlany, albeit a much OLDER version, accosting pedestrians out of desperation for business. Hermione didn't need teacups to tell her her own future, no thank you.
"Thanks, but I really need to be going… no, I don't really want… look, let go!" Hermione rotated her wrist; the old woman's long fingernails scraped at her skin as she twisted out of her grasp. "Come on! I'm sorry, but I'm not interested in buying anything today!" She then held her wand up to the woman's face in warning, but she either was a muggle and didn't know what her wand was or she didn't care because she continued to frantically wave her arms.
"No, no! You! A mark! A curse! Protection for you. Come, I show you. Come!"
"No, really, thanks, but I can protect myself…"
Hermione was about ready to zap her with a particularly nasty spell when the old woman suddenly peered up into her face, her eyes wide and haunted, "Dangerous!" She whispered. Something in her expression made Hermione's breath catch in her throat. "He is dangerous!"
"Grandmother? What are you doing?"
Hermione startled again, and turned to see a younger woman approaching; she was dressed in more modern clothing, but there was an eclectic air about her that matched the cart, and said it belonged to her, or she belonged to it, whichever.
The old crone turned to the woman and started speaking rapidly in a language Hermione didn't know. The woman spoke back quietly, then placed a hand on the old woman's shoulder and gently coaxed her in the direction of the bench next to the cart. She turned to Hermione with an apologetic smile.
"Forgive her, please," she said; her accent wasn't as thick, but it was there. Hermione wished she could place it. "These times have been hard on everyone, and my Grandmother believes it is her duty to help however she can, whether it is wanted or not."
"Um, it's fine," Hermione said, shaking her head and smiling reflexively. She pocketed her wand in her jacket, "No big deal."
She was about to turn to go, when the woman stopped her. Hermione noticed her eyes kept drawing up to her forehead, the same area that the old crone had been waving at as she ranted.
"Please, let me…" the woman paused, her eyes flicking again and again up towards Hermione's forehead; her kind smile faltered with a worried look. "Let me give you something as compensation for the trouble my Grandmother put you to."
"No, really, that's okay," Hermione assured her, wanting now more than ever to get back to her hotel room and shut out the chaos of the city.
"Please, I wouldn't feel right, otherwise." Turning to her cart, she opened up a series of small drawers in the side, sorting through them for something, then turned quickly back and held out her hand. "As a favor to me?"
Hermione opened her mouth, closed it, then sighed and tried to smile as she held out her hand to take the offering. Opening her palm, she found it to be a small metal pendant, surprisingly weighty, hung on a black cord. There was a symbol cut into the metal, and otherwise it was bare of embellishment and unremarkable.
"Uh, well, thanks," Hermione said, nonplussed, trying to edge away without seeming rude. She glanced down at the symbol and then paused. She frowned as she didn't recognize this symbol from any of her Runes books. "What is this symbol?"
"The rune is emhagalaz" the woman said. "Wear it for protection." She paused, pursing her lips, then looked Hermione hard in the eye. "Wear it when you sleep." Then she smiled kindly again and turned away to tend to her grandmother. Hermione was left to blink away her perplexity in the middle of the crowded sidewalk.
"O…kay…" she muttered under her breath. She shook her head, pocketed the pendant and beat a hasty retreat before the disturbing old woman could notice her again. She munched on her hot dog as she walked trying to let her eyes wander over the outdoor stalls rather than the destruction that surrounded them, and made an effort to forget the strange encounter. She couldn't quite put it out of her mind. Something about the way they had looked at her… It didn't sit right with her. The pit of her stomach was tied in knots by the time she made it back to the hotel, and she didn't think it was from the hot dog.
Without quite meaning to, she walked past the elevators and went straight to the hotel's computer center. There were a few business men occupying some of the cubicles, so Hermione moved to the computer in the farthest corner of the room; not wanting the muggles to see her looking up magical symbols.
She brought up the internet browser, opened the search engine and typed in the "emhagalaz". It was worth a shot, she reasoned. Muggles sometimes knew more about this sort of dinky magic, if it could even be called that. If it didn't work out, she could always ask Ron or Harry for their old Divination books. Pulling the pendant out of her pocket, she compared it to the image that appeared on the screen. So far so good. Unsure where to start – she clicked on the first link she found. Here she discovered that it was one of twenty four runic symbols of the Ancient Fae alphabet. Fae? Huh. She scrolled down to its entry.
Emhagalaz: Hail. (precipitation); Meanings: Loss, trials, destruction, change; Uses: Protection from unwanted influences; breaking destructive patterns;
Analysis: Emhagalaz represents hail, the ice that falls from the sky. It is often associated with terra fae issodon, the end of the world. However, the ending is considered metaphorical rather than literal. In divination, emhagalaz represents drastic, sometimes violent change, an ending that brings a new beginning; it drives away safety and complacency, forces us to examine our decisions. It may bring disappointment as well, and realization that our current path is not the one we are meant to follow. It's magical uses include helping one to break negative personal habits, and protection from dangerous external influences. It reveals hidden truths and clears away obscurities to show the real nature of things.
Hermione gave a huff of annoyance and chewed on her lip. She hated divination. It wasn't quantifiable. Yet she was unable to put her finger on why this was bothering her so much. It was a weird gift, sure, and she supposed she could see how it could be a pathetic attempt at protection, but as she read through the entries, some of the other runes appeared to have qualities more directly related to protection. Yet the woman had searched through her drawers for this rune in particular. Why? It felt… oddly specific.
Her eye caught on a few dark pixels at the bottom of the screen, and she realized there was another line of text under the 'emhagalaz' entry. She scrolled down. Her eyebrows shot up as she read:
Associated myths and deities: Fae magic, Dark Wizards, Horacrux
Hermione didn't believe in coincidences. In her experience, the universe wasn't that sloppy. A+B blessedly equaled C. So her first instinct was to let her mind race, wondering how a strange crone and the woman on the street had known to hand her a symbol associated with Dark Wizards when doubts and questions about Lord Voldemort had been weighing so heavily on her mind.
Rationality quickly reasserted itself. Even though she was a witch, she didn't dabble in the occult side of magic. And she certainly didn't believe Tom Riddle was around, or that wearing a normal piece of metal around her neck would protect her from anything. It was all superstition; thinking about it logically, this was the city that Voldemort had leveled with his invasion force. Of course strange people who had no magic would want some kind protection against "terrorists", even if it was merely a false sense of metaphysical security. That made sense. That was all there was to it.
Relief swept through her to have an explanation for the unexplained; it was very nearly enough to subsume the lingering sense of unease that plagued her.
Nevertheless, later that evening, after a more substantial meal and a bit of light reading (Her book of choice this week was the Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements), her mind winding down towards the promise of that comfortable mattress and the eight hours of uncommonly blissful undisturbed sleep, her eyes fell on the rune pendant lying where she had tossed it carelessly on the dresser. As she pulled on her night gown, an irrational urge stole over her. She picked up the pendant, running her thumb over the mark thoughtfully. She rolled her eyes, put it down and walked away. Then she sighed, turned around and picked it up again. Quickly, before she could think too hard about how idiotic she was being, she pulled it over her head and swept her hair out from beneath the cord. It fell just below the hollow of her neck.
"Can't hurt," she muttered, embarrassed in spite of the fact that she had used necklaces with charms before. Why should this one be any different?
Avoiding the mirror, she switched off the light and climbed into bed. Her skin tingled, prickling with little chills as her muscles relaxed and unwound against the inviting surface; it was both enticing and oddly unnerving, leaving her strangely energized. For a long moment, she considered rising again, though she didn't know what for. The urge was curiously powerful. But the smooth, crisp slide of fresh sheets against her skin was soothing, and she practically melted into the softness of the mattress and pillows. The metal of the pendant was cool, tingling against her collar bone. She drifted swiftly to sleep as fat raindrops of the storm began to spatter hard against the window.
A crash of thunder startled Hermione awake.
Or something like awake.
Aware would be a better word. Her mind felt wide awake. But her body felt incredibly heavy, and her breathing remained slow and even. In fact… it was so dark in the room, and she was still so muddled from sleep that she couldn't actually tell right away, but… she was pretty sure her eyes were still closed.
Which meant it was extremely strange that she could see the undulating pattern of light on the ceiling, caused by rivulets of water swirling down the windowpane in the howling wind, reflecting and refracting the lights of the city far below. She watched it, fascinated, through her closed eyelids.
That's not right…
Maybe she wasn't quite as awake as she first thought.
All she knew for sure was that her heart was pounding. Racing. She felt like there was a weight pressing against her chest. After a moment, she realized that it must be the rune pendant. Had it always been this heavy?
She wanted to look down at it, but she found that she couldn't move. She tried to blink, to lift a hand in front of her face, to turn her head, but her muscles seemed frozen in stone. No matter what she did, her body refused to respond to her commands. A curse! A knee-jerk surge of panic jolted through her before she seized hold of it. Who had cursed her? She was alright, she was breathing, she was fine. Sleep paralysis, her intellect supplied. She had read about it once, years ago; an effect of interrupted REM sleep, causing temporary extreme muscle weakness that mimicked paralysis. The thunder had obviously woken her at an inopportune moment in her sleep cycle. It would pass eventually.
A very fearful voice inside her reminded her that wasn't quite how sleep paralysis worked. Or the fact that it did not even slightly explain how she was seeing with her eyes closed…This had to be a dream. Or a product of sleep paralysis. Or some trick of the storm. Her mind worked itself into a frenzy of possibilities designed to bring back that wash of relief she'd felt in the computer room earlier that day. They were all perfectly good, rational explanations. Except Hermione was a realist and couldn't lie to herself. The charm that she had put around her neck must have paralyzed her. But for how long? She wondered to herself. She cast a few wordless spells to try and counter the curse. Nope nothing. This was one very strong curse.
As she focused more on her surroundings, she became aware of something she had not noticed before. There was a faint purplish glow coming from somewhere just below her chin. From the icy weight of the pendant.
It's reflecting the lights from the windows…she thought to herself.
Except that neither the metal nor the lights were purple.
The light pulsed slightly, and she couldn't help but notice that it seemed to trail, like a ribbon of faint purple mist, off to her left into the shadows. She would have swallowed hard, if she could make herself do anything as complex and voluntary as swallowing. Instead, she only managed to make a little humming noise of disquiet and shift in her sleep. Her head turned slightly on her pillow, conveniently following the trail of purple light. It was so faint that she wasn't sure it was real.
She wanted badly to be able to shiver in fear. Because now she could see it.
There was someone standing in the shadows by the window.
Hermione's whole body crawled with an electrical surge of terror. Someone was in her room. She wanted to scream, to run, to grab her wand, to at least be able to squeeze her eyes closed in fear to shut out the sight. All she managed was to sigh again in her sleep and feel her fingers curl loosely against the sheets over her abdomen.
It's sleep paralysis! she shouted at herself, her mental voice sounding frantic. It's a common symptom of sleep paralysis to have frightening hallucinations. Like an intruder in the room! They used to call it sleep possession. People thought they saw demons! It's characteristic! Textbook! This is all just a kind of dream!
The trail of purplish non-light ended at the still form, barely more than a silhouette of deeper darkness against the shadows; she thought she could just see the outline of a pair of hands, stretched out in the light from the window, and the purple seemed to pool there, pulsing insubstantially.
An eternity seemed to pass, which in reality could have been anything from minutes to hours, but the intruder made no move. After a time, she began to wonder if it was less a case of sleep paralysis, and more a simple case of paranoia letting her imagination carry her away – as though, if she could get up and turn on the light, she would find that what she'd thought was a human figure was in reality just the curtains hanging strangely, or a piece of furniture that caught the light at an angle that made it look alive. But what was that ghostly purplish glow?
"It's ok, Hermione. It's all in your head," she reminded herself; but the words sounded small and frightened, seeming to echo inside her head.
A bolt of lightening shattered the night sky.
For barely an instant the room flickered bright as day. Hermione's eyes would have widened with disbelief if they weren't still closed. And then she would have screamed in terror. In the flash of light, she had seen the face and form of the man in the shadows.
It's not real…
It can't be…
But there was a dead man standing in her room.
No copyright, I own no characters here. Another story similar to this one would be "Feed the Rain", by Elven Blood, but I already shot her a message asking for permission to use elements from her story before I even began writing. Review if you enjoyed!