Hermione couldn’t say how much later it was when her eyes flickered open. It was still dark, her surroundings lit only by the full moon’s sickly glow. A bruise throbbed on her forehead. She pressed her fingers to it; they came away sticky.
Groaning, she tried to sit up, but gave in, instead peering into the gloom from her horizontal vantage point, her face pressed into the sodden ground. She was in a small, almost perfectly round clearing in a young forest. Any more detail was obscured by deep blue shadows, but she thought she was alone. A lone bat flitted overhead.
If only her head didn’t ache so much, maybe she could organise her tattered memories into something approaching an explanation for her current state. The last thing she could remember was standing on Dartmoor, and that enigmatic expression on Cygnus’s face.
Cygnus! Where was he? She’d been knocked out, so what had happened to him? Her heart rate sped. He’d spoken of his old coven, how they wanted him dead… surely they hadn’t….? A whimper escaped her.
“Ah, you’re awake.”
Hermione started, twitching away from the gravelly voice. She fumbled in her pocket for her wand. It was gone.
“Who are you?”
The voice chuckled. “Me? Darling, it’s not me you ought to be worried about.”
Something in his – for the voice was male – tone sent shivers running down Hermione’s spine. With a force of will, she sat up, head whirling. Suddenly, she saw him, sitting cross-legged and watching her, and didn’t know how she could have missed him before.
For a second she thought he was an angel: he had fair hair, blue eyes, perfectly pale skin, in sharp contrast to the blackness he sat in, and was astonishingly handsome, as if he had been plucked straight from the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
But no angel was surrounded by such an air of coiled menace, nor wore such a mocking smile. No angel had fangs.
Hermione dug her fingers into the damp grass, forcing back terror.
“Don’t you know me?” he asked.
“No –“ She began, then paused.
She did. The connections had always been there, but now her subconscious pushed them forward. He had stood, smeared in blood, outside her flat at midnight; he had winked as she passed the restaurant after her fight with Ron; he had sat outside her house for weeks, dressed in a battered parka.
“Yes,” she breathed.
His smile became satisfied. “I, of course, know you rather better.”
Hermione couldn’t speak. It didn’t make sense. He was from Cygnus’s old coven, he had to be. So why wasn’t she already dead?
She glanced at him. His expression was intent, but his attention was directed at something in the forest. Carefully, she levered herself to her feet, pins and needles slicing her legs. The vampire’s eyes remained focused on the forest. She took a step backwards, towards the trees.
“Where might you be going?”
She swallowed, and ran. The trees weren’t even within reach when she crashed to the ground, the vampire pinning down her legs. “Sorry, darling. I can’t let you go. Chairon would very probably kill me.”
Hermione screwed her eyes shut so she couldn’t see his face inches from hers, but she could still smell his heavy gingery scent. It almost made her gag. Dimly, she heard him stand up and back away. “Not much longer to wait now.”
What did he mean? Who was Chairon?
Questions chased themselves around her still-throbbing head until she realised that the quick drumming noise that was growing louder and louder was not just in her imagination. She sat up again, opening her eyes. The sound was accompanied by a sort of thrashing; the sound of people approaching through the undergrowth at huge speed.
There were more of them, then. This was what the fair one was waiting for. Her teeth began to chatter; the cold was seeping through her robes. The trees at the far edge of the clearing, directly opposite her, swayed and snapped. Three patches of shadow stepped out from between them. One spoke rapidly in a breathless voice to the others, too softly for Hermione to hear.
Hermione couldn’t see their faces, or even bodies, in any detail – the moon shone from behind them – but she could tell that two were male and the smaller one, the one speaking, was female. She and one male paused after clearing the trees, like actors awaiting a cue, while the first stepped forward into the light.
It washed over his long feline features, his lips curling over bright teeth, his glinting dark eyes.
“Cygnus!” she gasped. Her hopes lifted. If he was here, alive, if he knew the others, surely the situation couldn’t be that bad. “What’s happening? Where are we – who are –“
The words caught in her throat at the look he was giving her. It was pity and menace and disdain all mixed together. Every drop of blood in Hermione’s veins stood still. It couldn’t be. It shouldn’t be.
“Has she behaved, Bryn?” he asked. The fair vampire smiled. He had returned to his cross-legged position, totally at ease.
“Very well, don’t worry.”
“I wasn’t.” Now he looked down at Hermione. She turned her face away, betrayal and confusion and a horrible fear breaking over her. She didn’t know what to think. She had almost forgotten how.
“Hermione, look at me.”
She clenched her teeth, suddenly angry. How could he use her name so casually, standing there – it was clear now; he had broken her wand, he had knocked her unconscious. “What’s going on?” she forced out.
“I take it you didn’t fill her in, Bryn?” he said, still using that unruffled tone that wasn’t his.
“She only woke minutes ago. And I didn’t want to rob you of the pleasure.”
“It would have saved time,” Cygnus said, “but it doesn’t matter.”
He glanced at Hermione with a cold smile, and laughed, most likely at the expression of realisation he must have seen there. “Is this a shock? Really now, I thought you were intelligent.”
“I don’t understand – who are these people?”
“My coven,” he said, completely at ease as he gestured to them.
“You said you left your coven – “
“Ah, but this is my new one. They’ve been dying to meet you.”
Hermione let out a little involuntary choked sob. Instantly Cygnus was beside her, pulling a strand of hair from her eyes. His breath was cold on her face.
“Perhaps you would like an explanation now?”
She nodded shortly, trying not to cringe away from his touch. He stood, looking away for a moment. Then he gathered himself and spoke, in a slightly weary tone, as if he had learned his story by rote.
“I did leave my old coven, in Lancashire. There were ...differences of opinion, shall we say. Afterwards I drifted for weeks, searching for a new one. We are not a solitary species by nature. Chairon came across me,” - he gestured to the taller figure by the trees – “and offered me a place in his. The only catch now was that I had to prove myself worthy.”
He looked back at Hermione. “I had to be tested. It’s how this has always been. I was back in Lancashire, sorting out a few things, when Artemis came to me and told me I had to return to London that night.”
It was almost the beginning of the story he’s told her in the Dungeon – but then, it was always easier to base a lie on the truth. Artemis must be the blonde woman shifting from foot to foot next to Chairon. Hermione processed all this through her numb brain, and so missed Cygnus’s next few words.
“…to find five Muggles dead and a note telling me my task was to be arrested, brought to trial and found not guilty of their murders - in other words get away - despite the evidence and prejudice against me. Only then could I join. Trickery and deceit are prized qualities in a coven member.”
Hermine frowned. He had been found guilty. But that was where she had come in, wasn’t it? He would be dead by now if not for her; even if he hadn’t been guilty of the crime he had been charged for after all, it made her sick to think she had helped him with this bizarre initiation. She’d been used, pure and simple. It had all been a part of that.
“I’m quite proud of all this, actually. Did you honestly think that the Ministry could catch me under normal circumstances? Nobody imprisons a vampire unless that vampire has a purpose for it. And it all went to plan – I was pleased to hear you weren’t listening to that ginger idiot’s warnings. Your loyalty was very impressive.”
Her brain was having trouble processing his words. Nobody was that good of an actor. But she knew it hadn’t been that difficult. She had been so foolish, all along – loving a vampire! It was like believing in a fairytale, in Beauty and the Beast. Except her beast was no prince in disguise.
“It could have been anyone,” he continued. “But you were the best. And friends with Harry Potter! But I knew the Wizengamot wouldn’t believe you, even so. The story didn’t add up – I knew Chairon had planned it that way. I had to try another way… maybe I could be found guilty and still escape. My only thoughts now were of survival, never mind the coven. My plan was so easy, and it worked so well… you never suspected me, did you? Not even with the others getting closer –“
“Bryn was watching you for weeks. Artemis too, although more heavily disguised.”
He gestured at the woman. Something about her seemed familiar in a vague way, as if she had been an actress in an old Muggle movie, now playing a different character.
“Remember me?” The woman asked.
It was too much for Hermione. “You – you – “
“Both dressed as Muggles,” Cygnus went on. “Artemis maybe more convincingly – “
“All it took was a scarf and some false teeth,” Artemis interjected. Her tone was mocking. She too stepped forward, and Hermione could recognise the turned-up nose and bright blue eyes. Her stomach twisted with horror. The costume had been so simple, and maybe if Hermione had dug a little further, she would have connected the pieces – she hadn’t been at the trial, no article had ever appeared in the Prophet -
And she had never seen Deborah Kirwan out in the sunlight.
“But why?” Hermione asked. “None of this makes sense …”
“She had to pose as a reporter, first of all to convince the reluctant Ministry to bring me to trial at all, then to keep an eye on you, make sure you didn’t notice anything amiss and reveal our plan – though we needn’t have worried about that, oblivious as you were.”
Hermione shook her head. The whole thing was so fucked up, in every way imaginable. “But then why did you try so hard to persuade me to give up on him?” she asked.
Bryn laughed at this. “Dear Artemis has had her own agenda,” he said, “And I’ve had to persuade her that it will not be tolerated.”
A flash of memory hit Hermione – the second figure on the darkened street, holding its injured arm – just as she noticed the awkward angle of Artemis’s wrist and the just barely visible semi-circle ring of wounds on her forearm.
Chairon’s head snapped up at this. He was completely ordinary-looking, middle-aged in appearance, with light brown hair and beady eyes. It was his hands that were eerie; they were very angular and thin, the fingers rubbing together twitchily. “What’s this?” he growled. “Artemis?”
The woman glared at Bryn. “Nothing of importance at this moment. Hadn’t we better hurry before the dawn?”
“We have an hour yet. Now speak!”
Artemis shook her head. Chairon grabbed her arms and thrust his face into hers. Even though Hermione was a good twenty feet away, she could still feel the force of that commanding, threatening stare.
“Alright!” she snarled. “You know how I feel about these challenges. They’re barbaric – unnecessary. Even had Cygnus passed this test correctly, it only displays his willingness to go along with bizarre games.”
Here Chairon twisted her bad arm viciously and she yelped with pain, continuing at a higher, defensive pitch: “I simply tried to dissuade her from taking the case, and when that failed, I came to her house to tell her the truth, frighten her away, but Bryn intercepted me and –“
“Did I just hear you say,” Chairon pronounced each syllable with dark menace, “that you deliberately contradicted an order, to protect a human?”
“Yes,” She said, tossing her mane of gold curls defiantly.
A rumbling snarl erupted from Chairon’s throat, but Cygnus laughed. “You tried to dissuade her? If anything, you only spurred her on – I’m afraid you don’t understand Hermione well at all, Artemis.”
“And you do?” Hermione spat.
Cygnus stroked her cheek with one icy finger. “Yes, I believe I have the right to say I do.”
“That’s all very nice,” Bryn interrupted, “But I agree with Artemis, for once – dawn’s approaching, and we must get to the point.”
“Ah, yes,” Chairon said, wrenching Artemis’s arm one last time before hurling her to the ground. He leered at Hermione. “Your choice.”
“I have a choice?” Hermione said, trying to interject a note of insolence into her tone.
“Why, yes. It’s a choice we give to all humans we capture – why else do you think we wasted time telling you how our plans fitted together? We are not complete barbarians, whatever Artemis may blather.”
The three men laughed, Cygnus the loudest. Artemis staggered to her feet, edging away from Chairon resentfully.
“Your choice is simple.” He paused, and chuckled. “Become a vampire, or become our food.”
His fingers ran over each other, like albino spiders protruding from his sleeves.
“No,” She said. It was all she could really say. Escape wasn’t an option anymore. “I helped you…” She was almost begging; it was disgusting, really.
“You seem to be labouring under a delusion,” Cygnus said smoothly. “We are not human. We do not feel. We are above all that – creatures like us don’t need emotions, or regrets, or friends to weigh us down. We are free to come and go, take what we want, lie and steal and slip away unnoticed. The ultimate predator.”
Here he crouched beside her once more, placing a finger under her chin and raising her head so her eyes met his gaze. “You can’t tell me you don’t want what we have.”
“Never.” Hermione hissed. “I could never be like you.”
Bryn let out a protracted fake yawn at this point. Cygnus ignored him. “Of course,” he said. “But it’s easy to learn when your motivation is the knowledge that otherwise, we will drink you dry, then cast your shrivelled corpse aside and move on to our next meal.
“What we have – it’s beautiful, beyond belief. I know you’d just love it.”
“It hardly matters what her decision is,” Bryn said, lazily. “Just choose fast, darling, the sun is rising … and I can smell your blood from here.”
A tear spilled down Hermione’s cheek. She wasn’t even aware what had prompted it; she couldn’t distinguish her feelings anymore.
Cyngus leant down and pressed his cool lips to her neck. “What’s it to be?” he whispered against her throat. She could feel his fangs, hard and smooth against her exposed skin. Behind him, the three others shifted restlessly, faces alight with hunger. Nothing else in the clearing moved. High above, the Milky Way cut a swathe of white across the sky’s fading black. The sun wouldn’t save her.
She thought of Ron. Of Harry and Ginny. Her parents and friends, her job, of all the things she loved in her life. It was all going to end, whatever she chose. It was going to end with Cygnus’s teeth in her jugular vein.
The night held its breath.
Then suddenly, all around was blazing light. The vampires fell back, clutching at their eyes. Hermione squinted, and could make out figures in billowing green robes silhouetted against the brightness, with arms outstretched, more light, dazzling and brilliant – red, green, gold – emitting from their hands. No. Wands! They had wands - they were wizards - she was saved.
Two figures detached themselves from the group, ran over to her. One stood close, on guard. The other knelt by her, clutched her to him. Her heart soared. It was Ron.
“Hermione – oh God - thank God – you’re ok, you’re ok…”
Another voice, this one soft, mocking. Hermione shook her head, and the scene around her swirled and refocused. Cygnus’s fangs were still cold against her skin. The other vampires paced impatiently around the clearing’s perimeter. No rescuing Aurors. No Ron.
The mind played cruel tricks.
She looked up to the sky, and saw it still inky black. She sighed, her breath a plume of fog. No escape. No rescue. She had dug her grave deeply.
She drank in air, knowing that either way it would be her final gasp. Then she closed her eyes, steeled her soul, and spoke.
Her words floated out into the silence.
The clearing was motionless, as if it too were pondering her choice. She was acutely aware of her heartbeat pounding in her chest. She’d betrayed it so quickly, and it was stammering a frantic rhythm in protest.
Then Cygnus grinned.
“As you wish,” he said.
Then, with one smooth slice of fangs, her blood poured hot and wet, and everything was dark and thoughtless and cold.
Hermione’s heart shuddered once, and stopped.
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