With no clue as to why the castle felt so empty, we had no way of knowing if this was a stroke of luck or a bad omen. More than likely it was the latter. As we walked through the hallway, I was reminded of how awed I'd been by the castle in my first year. Back then it held a mystery, a wonder that is placed in us the minute we stepped onto the boats to cross the lake. Now, in the dark of night, with only the moon and some torches lighting the empty halls, it was difficult not to be afraid of what lay beyond the next hall.
"Creepy." His casual assessment of our current situation was somewhat amusing.
"Quite." We came to the Great Hall, empty of any and all inhabitants, with little light coming from the magicked ceiling above. Before, there had at least been a few Death Eaters about. The Great Hall was never a place I thought could be possible of emptiness. Obviously I was wrong. Weasley pressed forward, something at the back of the hall catching his eye. I proceeded with caution, suddenly nervous but in no way inclined to voice my thoughts.
"Shit…Malfoy, look." He was behind the faculty table, his face suddenly draining of any color. When I reached him, my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. At our feet was a puddle of blood. It wasn't just the mark of death, but the mark of an extremely violent death, with none of the finesse of an Avada. I wouldn't put it past Voldemort to kill his own, but to do so in such a violent way wasn't like him. If there was one thing I knew about Voldemort and his obsession with purity, was that he wouldn't want to soil himself with blood, muggle or otherwise. "Do you recognize the wand?"
Perhaps the worst part was that there wasn't a body, but simply the wand amidst its previous owner's life force. I bent down to examine it closely, wiping it on my sleeve to see it better. If I hadn't gone paler than usual at the sight of blood, I did now.
"This is Pansy's wand."
"Parkinson?" For whatever reason, a knot formed in my throat. I never thought I'd be upset at Pansy's death, but it seemed Hermione had rubbed off on me. Pansy and I were friends, albeit forced ones. Or, at least, she'd been forced upon me. Despite how annoying she was, though, she was one of the few who genuinely liked me. I swallowed the knot, unwilling to let whatever small affection I'd once felt for her show to Weasley.
"Yeah." I pocketed her wand, looking away from the blood. There was a noise somewhere behind us, and I immediately whipped around.
"So what do we-?" I shot an arm out, stopping him. With my other arm I pointed in the direction the noise had come from. In the shadows was the vague outline of a four-legged animal. A growl emanated from it, and I immediately froze. Every possible known beast was going through my mind, as I tried to decipher what it was. Weasley beat me to it. "M-Manticore…" But he wasn't pointing at the one I had. He was pointing off to our left, where there was another one.
"Shit…" My voice was a hissed whisper, and I had to do my best not to simply run. "Weasley, on the count of three, aim for the tables, and cast a Confringo." I had to give him credit. Even though his hand shook, he didn't argue with my order. "One, two, three!"
"Confringo!" Our voices reverberated in unison, and the tables exploded, pieces of the rich mahogany going straight for the two beasts. I grabbed Weasley's sleeve and pulled, running through the smoky aftermath and towards the doors. The explosion had only managed to subdue the monsters temporarily, but it gave us enough of an edge that we had the chance to outrun them. "Malfoy, where are we going? They'll catch up to us and kill us no matter what we do!"
"Shut up and keep running!" I shot a look behind me, noting that the manticores were indeed gaining on us. I shot a few more blasting curses behind us, Weasley following suit. Unfortunately, manticores are high-level thinkers with human intelligence. They could outsmart us easily, if given the chance.
As we continued to run, we went deeper into the castle, in the opposite direction of where we entered. The only place I could think of to run to was the Room of Requirement, not knowing if the manticores knew about it or were clever enough to figure it out. There was more blood spilled throughout the halls, wands marking where their owners had died. It was only a matter of time before we shared their fate. Weasley and I continued to shoot curses, most of them either missing the manticores or bouncing off their skin. More of them had appeared, attracted to the chase by the first two manticores' calls.
How had Voldemort gotten them into the castle? Better yet, why? There was no need for such a violent massacre, as Voldemort could have done the killing easily. No. They were placed in the castle for another reason. By now, we had four after us, with no way of knowing how many were in the castle. Only luck kept us from being their next meal. We rounded the corner to the Room of Requirement, but our luck seemed to have run out. Pacing up and down the hall was a fifth manticore, as if ordered to be there. Of course, Voldemort would know about the Room. I'd used it to let Bellatrix and the others into the castle.
We were surrounded, with our backs pressed together, wand arms outstretched. Offensive spells wouldn't work on them, and defensive spells could only hold them off for so long.
"Malfoy, what are we gonna do? We're dead!"
"Shut it Weasley! I'm thinking!" The manticores circled around us, every other step one of them lunged towards us, forcing us against a wall as we shot shield charms. I hated to admit it, but Weasley was right. We were dead.
"Accio broom!" I hadn't expected Weasley to speak again, but when he did, he was pointing it out a window, towards the quidditch pitch. The manticores would be on us by the time a broom reached us. One of the beasts poised itself to attack, its tail coming up like a scorpion's. If that stinger got either one of us, we were dead. The other manticores followed suit.
"Take cover Weasley!" Before they shot, I sent a blasting curse at the floor, stone and mortar exploding everywhere. The smoke was enough to momentarily distract them, and enough for the broom to make it through the window on time. Weasley climbed on first, stretching a hand to me. We shot out the window, heading towards the Astronomy tower. We were safe, for now.
"Manticores." I was in a daze, utterly and completely confused. Narcissa had overheard her husband and Voldemort speaking of what they'd planted in Hogwarts. From what Narcissa had gathered, they were killing off all the youngest Death Eaters in anger at Draco's escape. There was something more, but Narcissa hadn't stayed to listen, opting to come tell us in hopes that we could save Draco and Ron. It seemed to take a while for all this to sink in, my fear too great to let out.
"He did what?" Remus was as shocked as anyone. Before Narcissa could explain again, I spoke.
"Manticores…he put manticores in the castle…Draco and Ron are…" I couldn't say it. Manticores were impossible to subdue with magic, being magically cross-bred themselves. Draco and Ron were going to die.
"But why? It seems absurd that he'd go to such extreme measures for a simple killing." Tonks' voice was rational, calm, trying to keep me from panicking as she placed a hand on my shoulder. At her words, something sparked in my head.
"He put them in the castle to guard something. That's what they were originally bred for. Like acromantulas." My voice was monotone, as I did my best to restrain myself from losing control.
"What could he possibly need to guard that he couldn't carry around with him?" Harry's question was more like thinking out loud; he didn't expect an answer.
"The Elder Wand?" Everyone turned to look at Luna.
"Why wouldn't he take it with him, though?"
"It's not working for him the way it is…I doubt he wants another failure. He hasn't attacked yet, so he's probably trying to figure out why before he attacks again. He probably figured we would go back to Hogwarts, and left them there as an easy way to dispose of us." Luna's voice was cold, calculating, and we all knew she was right.
"We need to go. Now. They'll die if they're outnumbered…" I stood, unable to sit still anymore. I grabbed the nearest invisibility cloak and made for the fireplace.
"Hermione." Harry grabbed my arm, holding me back. "You were the one that said we can't rush in. We need a plan, or we'll all die." My mind worked overtime.
"Dobby." The house elf in question appeared before me. "Go to Hogwarts and find the Elder Wand. Be careful of the manticores. Look in the Headmaster's office first, and then report back. If you come across Ron and Draco, bring them back as well." I sent him alone, as it would be easier for him to run away without worrying about too many of us. I turned to everyone else. "As for the rest of us, we need to figure out a way to dispose of the manticores." Everyone looked at me in shock, as I rattled off order after order. I wasn't willing to lose my friends. I wasn't willing to lose Draco.
I hadn't realized how exhausting the run had been until we landed on the Astronomy tower, breathing heavily. I had a suspicion as to where the Elder Wand could be, but at this rate we would die trying to get to the Headmaster's office. This was just a recon mission, after all. We should leave to report back to the Order. Something inside me nagged me not to, though, and I couldn't help the need to find the wand. Worse yet, if I was wrong, the danger I'd put us through would be for naught. That's why we needed the Room of Requirement first. Inside, we'd be safe, at least long enough to come up with a better plan.
"So what now?"
"Same plan as before. Head for the Room of Requirement." Weasley looked at me like I was insane.
"We almost died, Malfoy. We should go back." I shook my head. He'd sat down on the floor, and I followed suit, asking him for the map.
"I understand that, but I think I know why the manticores are here. They're guarding something. Probably the Elder Wand. It failed once against Potter, Voldemort probably didn't want to risk it. There's no safer place than Hogwarts for anything, even without Dumbledore. Leaving the wand here, under the school's protection and the added safety of manticores is the perfect precaution."
"You think it's in the Room of Requirement?"
"No. The Headmaster's office, but we should go to the Room and try to find something that can help us against manticores. Clearly, magic is near useless." Weasley nodded, but still looked doubtful. "You can return, if you'd like, let the others know what's going on."
"And leave you to fend for yourself? Hermione would have my head, mate." For a second I was taken aback by his term for friendship. When had he grown this comfortable around me? I decided not to point it out, and simply mounted the broom again.
"First things first, then. We need a faster broom." Weasley climbed on behind me, and we headed to the quidditch pitch, towards the locker rooms. We bypassed Gryffindors' and went to Slytherins' instead. I said the password, something that thankfully hadn't changed since my seventh year, and walked in. Ignoring Weasley's clear disdain for where we were, I went towards the brooms we had as back-ups. Nimbus 2002s.
"Only the best for Syltherins, huh?"
"Obviously." My tone didn't hold the pompousness it once did, but more disgust than anything else. These had been gifts from Voldemort himself, during Snape's brief term as Headmaster. We both mounted our separate brooms and made our way back up to the castle. Hopefully by now the manticores had gone back to their posts. After a quick glance through the broken window we'd come out of, my suspicions were correct, and all we had was one manticore to get through. I was about to go into the castle, when Weasley stopped me.
"Wait. Let me try something first." The manticore seemed to hear us, but couldn't figure out where the noise had come from. It stood stock-still, trying to listen, facing down the opposite end of the hallway. Carefully, Weasley used the levitation charm to grab a particularly large piece of rubble, courtesy of my recent blasting curse, and slowly poised it above the manticore. In a quick swoop of his wand, he slammed the boulder down, a sickening crunch accompanying the creature's cry.
"Impressive." Weasley gave a proud smirk. Manticores were flesh and blood, too, after all. It was only a matter of time before the other manticores made their way to their dead comrade, so we hurried into the castle and into the Room of Requirement. We walked into a room full of medieval weaponry, and this didn't bode well for us. If actual physical attacks were the only thing that could take down a manticore, much like that boulder, we would be outnumbered and killed before we could get all of them.
"Well, Mr. Weasley, Mr. Malfoy, I was wondering when we'd meet again." Dumbeldore's voice caught me off guard. His portrait hung on the opposite side of the room, Snape still beside him.
"H-Headmaster…" Dumbledore smiled kindly at Weasley, while Snape simply looked on, almost looking bored.
"There are manticores in the castle. We think Voldemort is using them to hide the Elder Wand. I have a feeling it's in your office." Something else twinkled in Dumbeldore's eyes, unnerving me slightly.
"Yes. It's the only explanation as to why he would place those monsters here…"
"I see. Well, as you probably figured out by now, manticores can't be killed by magic."
"Yeah, but we're not particularly skilled with ancient weapons…" It was the first time Weasley spoke, as I made my way towards some of the racks.
"Speak for yourself Weasley. I took swordsmanship classes growing up." As much as Lucius hated all things muggle, they did value being prepared for any and all scenarios. My mother, ever overprotective, insisted that I learn to handle some kind of weapon. My dad, being so old fashioned, made me learn to use a sword. A plan was quickly forming in my mind. If we could simply reach the headmaster's office, we'd be fine. Getting there would be easy, as long as we could encounter the manticores one by one. Outnumbered, I'd more than likely be dead. But, with Weasley covering me with magic, we stood a fighting chance. I shared my plan with him.
"You've gone insane, Malfoy. Utterly and completely insane." I picked up a long sword, weighing it in my hand, experimenting with some maneuvers. It had been ages since I'd picked one up.
"It's our only choice, Weasley. It's that, or let Voldemort win." The ultimatum obviously wasn't appealing, and after a second's thought, Weasley agreed. After a moment's preparation, we turned back to the portrait. "Anything else we should know?"
"Aim to kill, not subdue. Manticores heal quickly, and have a penchant for revenge. The password to the office is Unity." This time it was Snape who spoke. Weasley and I both nodded. With a deep breath, we exited the room.
The hallway was empty, save for the single, dead manticore to our left. There was blood pooling around it, and I had to look away to keep from being sick. The smell was horrid.
"Maybe we'll get lucky, and not run into one?" Of course, our luck held until he said that, five minutes into our walk towards the office. We were two halls away, and now a manticore stood between us and the entrance. It called out to the others, surprisingly human. It spoke Greek in a enraged tone.
"Cover me!" Weasley and I separated, flanking the beast on either side. The manticore focused on me, as I was the one with the weapon that could hurt it. It lunged and I sidestepped, as Weasley cast a shield charm on me. He picked up one of the suits of armor's axes, maneuvering it with magic. The manticore turned towards him. He kept it at bay, its tail dangerously close to me. He lunged towards Weasley, and I sent a Protego his way. As the beast jumped back, I swung the sword, removing the poisonous tail in a clean swipe. It wailed in agony, whipping towards me. Distracted by its own pain, it didn't notice when Weasley swung the awe again, knocking it on its side. In a moment, I was on it, slicing clear across the neck. Two down, at least three left to go. Hopefully, it wouldn't have to happen.
We ran towards the office entrance, as a manticore had just turned down the opposite end of the hall. It rushed towards us at the sight of its dead kin. I muttered the password, unwilling to let it hear, for fear that it would follow. I lunged in ahead of Weasley. As he dashed into the entrance, one of the manticore's claws lashed out, clutching onto him from behind. He cried out in pain, and I immediately lunged with my sword, as the manticore was about to take a bite from him. In a clear swing, the top of the manticore's head came off. It fell back, releasing Weasley. I grabbed the redhead and helped him up, his arm around my neck for support.
Once in the office, we both collapsed. I ignored the bare walls, all of Dumbledore's belongings torn apart and blown to pieces, and focused on the blood quickly escaping Weasley.
"Shit." I pulled him to the center of the room, quickly muttering as many healing spells as I knew. I did the best job I could, conjuring up some bandages and removing his sweater and shirt. After covering up my less than perfect mending job, I tried to wake him up. "Weasley, Weasley get up." He came too, blinking a few times.
"Ouch…dammit Malfoy, you can't do healing spells to save your life, can you?"
"I could have left you to bleed, so shut up." I got up, helping him up slowly. Suddenly, Dobby appeared in the room. "Dobby!" He turned around to face us, a smile breaking out on his face.
"Weezy and Master Draco are alive! Miss Hermione is very worried. She sent Dobby to retrieve Elder Wand and recue Master Draco and Weezy." I couldn't help but smile slightly at Hermione's thought. I continued to look around the room as Dobby fussed over Weasley's' wounds, more used to mending injuries than I was. Behind the desk, where Fawks' perch had once been, was a case floating in midair, inside it a wand I'd only seen in Dumbledore's hands, more recently in Voldemort's as well.
"Accio Elder Wand." It didn't move, and a part of me had figured as much. It was protected by magic, and wouldn't respond to my request. I reached out, my fingers brushing the casing. A soft voice echoed in the room.
"Only the blood of the worthy can release me…" Blood of the worthy? Did that mean only the master of the wand could release it from the case? I noted the pool of blood beneath the spot, and it seemed Voldemort had placed this protection on it to figure out who he had to kill to become the owner of the wand. I knew Potter was its current master, but perhaps it would respond to me? I sliced my palm with the sword, wincing slightly with the pain.
"Have you lost your mind, Malfoy?"
"Shh!" I placed my palm on the case, watching as my blood dripped down to the floor. After a moment, the wand followed suit, the case disappearing and the wand cluttering down to rest among the blood.
"It worked for you?" Weasley moved towards me as I picked up the wand, examining it closely. Did this mean I was still its master? It felt warm, alive in my hand, strangely similar, yet different to how my own wand had felt when it first chose me.
"I suppose." Something told me to pocket my wand, and use this one instead, for now. A scream from the foot of the stairs to the office's entrance brought our attention away from the wand. "Dobby, take Weasley back. He's in no condition to fight. Let the others know what's happened."
"Weasley, you're severely injured. Go."
The halls of Hogwarts were a blood bath. We landed in the Astronomy tower, the need to hide from Death Eaters no longer present. All we had to worry about was manticores. The only others with me were Luna and Tonks. However, upon reaching the school, we realized even some of the manticores were dead. Had Ron and Draco done this? We didn't encounter anything until we reached the hall to the Headmaster's office. Here, two manticores were dead, and a third and fourth one had approached the scene. By the looks of it, someone had taken refuge in the office.
"We need to push the manticores away somehow." There was a discarded axe on the floor, and Luna immediately aimed her wand at it, poising it to attack. The manticores noticed us, one of them focusing on Luna, the other eying Tonks and me. Luna's lunged at her, and she swung her axe, nearly missing, but managing to injure it severely. "Kill it! They recover quickly!"
Tonks took up control of the axe, causing the other manticore to target her in an attempt to protect the first one. She finished it in two swings an unearthly screech escaping the animal. I was so focused on the dying manticore, and protecting Tonks from the other, that I hadn't realized it had shifted its attention towards me. The next thing I knew, Luna screamed.
"Hermione! Look out!" But it was too late, in its rage, the manticore charged at me, knocking me back and pinning me to the ground, its jaws inches from my face. I could see every row of teeth, its black eyes staring hungrily, angrily, at me. It spoke in its native Greek, and I was able to decipher some of it. He was going to kill me, and make me suffer for the death of the other manticore. Its tail began to rise, poised to strike me with its sting.
I struggled to break free, and Tonks and Luna shot spell after spell at it, but it was no use. Tonks wasn't using the axe, the probability of hurting me all too high. Its claws dug into my shoulders, triggering pain induced tears to trickle down my face. I was going to die.
I dashed out of the office, coming to a scene straight out of my nightmares. Tonks and Lovegood were shooting useless spells at a manticore, and the monster had Hermione pinned to the floor, about to kill her. Without a second thought, my grip on the sword tightened, and I lunged towards them, swinging as its tail nearly struck Hermione. With a thud the appendage fell, and I kicked it away. The monster turned to me in anger and we stared down, the monster circling me as I did the same, until I was shielding Hermione's body. Tonks and Luna were beside her in seconds.
The Elder Wand was still in my hand, and it began to grow hot, unbelievably so.
Use me. Kill it. The voice was much like the one that had emanated from its encasing, but it reverberated within me. Despite my better judgment, and the knowledge that magic didn't work on manticores, I raised the wand and pointed it at the beast.
"Avada Kedavra!" The green bolt shot from my wand and struck the monster in the chest, just as it was about to strike. It fell back, thrown against the wall. For a moment, I waited to see if it would move, if it was still alive. It wasn't.