Hermione Granger was unpleasantly awoken by the harsh sounds of a Muggle alarm clock. She really did not want to get up; she was warm and rather sleepy, having had such a horrible, frightening experience the day before.
Fully awake now, she reached over and slapped the off button, hoping the alarm had not woken Ron. She knew that Harry would still be sound asleep; that pain potion was reputed to have knocked out a giant for hours. Sure enough, he was still out like a light, his body straight as a board and face pulled into a slight frown.
Ron, on the other hand, was sprawled out as wide as he could go on the queen-sized bed, blinking at her blearily on Harry’s other side.
“Good morning, Ron.”
“G’ morning, H’mione,” he yawned.
Bracing herself for the cold February morning air, Hermione pushed off the layers of blankets and stood up, stretching her tired limbs. She knew she looked a fright; for months now she had been past caring about her frizzy brown locks or what clothes she wore or even slept in, especially as the trio followed good – and bad – leads and came closer and closer to the location of Helga Hufflepuff’s engraved gold cup. She was still wearing one of Ron’s old jumpers, a pair of blood-splattered jeans, and to her amusement, yesterday’s shoes. She cast the appropriate cleansing charms and sighed contentedly as she breathed in the scent of her favorite citrus shampoo.
“I’m off to the apothecary, Ron. Go back to sleep; I’ll take the invisibility cloak.” Ron murmured something unintelligible and turned over, his snores reverberating throughout the abandoned tin barn they had made their current safehouse. They had found it in September, sitting on a moor in Northern Scotland, the nearest sign of civilization fifteen kilometers away. It was perfect; Auchininna had a small wizarding community, so they were able to sneak into town and hear the latest news. The boys had put several protective wards on the shelter in order to keep them safe from nosy trespassers; Bill Weasley had taught them loads before the trio had left, for good, in August.
After an apple for breakfast, Hermione gathered Harry’s invisibility cloak and their moneybag together, sneaking across the barn quietly. Before she left, she checked on Harry’s current condition. He still felt feverish, and his breathing was just a little too shallow for her liking. Underneath his bandages, the slashes across his body were still bleeding, though thankfully, not profusely.
Hermione had never liked to admit her weaknesses, but she was scared. Terrified. She had no idea what kind of poison could be coursing through Harry’s veins – in fact, she didn’t even know if it was a poison for sure – what if it was a curse? She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to find a cure in time to help Harry – she had fibbed slightly when she had told him that poisons that wouldn’t allow flesh wounds to heal were never fatal. There were several ones – obscure ones – that could kill. She prayed to God that none of those were flowing through her best friend’s bloodstream.
A part of her could not help but wonder if maybe Harry would not have been quite as bad off as he was if he had been taking care of himself. Obviously, he had no control over what effects the potion had on him, but maybe he wouldn’t have succumbed to the hallucinations as quickly, if at all.
Ever since the three of them had reunited at the Burrow and began researching the mysterious R.A.B. and the unknown Horcruxes, Harry had been constantly tense and worried. He had thrown himself into the research, and while Hermione normally would have been pleased that Harry was taking this so seriously, she knew he was taking it too far. He hadn’t been eating or sleeping well, and as a result he was pale and skinnier than ever. His weight loss, along with yet another huge growth spurt, had left him looking almost skeletal.
When he wasn’t brooding and quiet, he was often frustrated and angry about the lack of progress they had made. Even as they had got closer and closer to finding the cup, he had been extremely anxious, to the point of making himself ill on occasion. Hermione had tried to talk to him, but her ‘nagging’ had only made him even more upset and irrational. Now that they had destroyed the cup, maybe they could relax at the Burrow for a few days. Maybe she could even see her parents.
Hermione shivered as she quietly closed the barn door behind her and pulled both her heavy woolen cloak and the invisibility cloak tighter around her. She trudged across the snow-covered ground, and once she passed through the wards, she Disapparated with a sharp ‘pop’.
Hours later, Hermione found herself in Diagon Alley, disguised with limp, dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. She had so far been unsuccessful at the apothecary shops in both Auchininna and Hogsmeade – the grizzled old woman in Hogsmeade had only been able to tell her that it most likely was a poison, not a curse – and she was hoping that if the apothecary here could not help her, they would firecall Knockturn Alley. She had a feeling that they would be more helpful, especially if – and it probably was – the poison was obscure and Dark.
A bell dinged brightly as she pushed open the door to the apothecary’s shop, sounding out of place in the tense silence that pervaded both the store and the deserted street outside. The store was empty as well, but for the balding, portly man who was sitting behind the counter with a gloomy look on his face. Once he saw her, however, he bounded to his feet and rushed over to her, smiling.
“’Ello, lassie, wot can I getcha today?”
Hermione grinned nervously at the man and gripped her wand tighter inside the folds of her cloak. She had no idea whether the man was friend or foe, and besides that, she knew that asking about an obscure, and most likely Dark poison, would probably bring suspicion onto herself.
“Hello. Um, I actually just have a question for you. I can’t tell you why, but a friend of mine was injured recently; he’s very ill, and I have no idea what’s wrong with him, or how to heal him. I was hoping you could help me.”
“Well then, let’s just step up to me counter, an’ I’ll see if I can ’elp you,” the shopkeeper said, his voice tinged with disappointment. “Wot are the symptoms?”
“High fever, hallucinations, shallow breathing, and –” Hermione hesitated, “– a greenish pus that is leaking out of the numerous, and still bleeding, cuts that he has across his body.”
“Great Scott!” the apothecary spluttered. “That sounds right Dark, that does. Wot’s a pretty girl like you doin’ wit’ Dark Magic?”
Hermione steeled herself, withdrawing her wand and praying that her hand would be steady. “Sir, I can’t tell you that. But please tell me everything you know; I won’t hurt you.”
The apothecary stared at her, stunned, for a moment, then cleared his throat. “All right, lass, just don’t ’urt me; I’ve got a wife and three kiddies at home.” He turned around and pulled two thick books off the shelf behind him, shoving one, entitled Obscure Poisons and Curses I Shouldn’t Even Be Telling You About, at her. “Look in the index, an’ if you can’t find it then leave; the quicker I wash me hands of you, the better.”
They had passed the next twenty minutes in uninterrupted silence, poring over the massive indexes of their respective books, occasionally flicking back through the book on a lead, when Hermione let out a shout of triumph. “Promiscus inficio is an obscure, Dark poison comprised of several snake venoms, the most dangerous – and subsequently the main ingredient – of which is the venom of the boomslang snake!” she read aloud excitedly. “The most common side effects include high fever, delusions and/or hallucinations, and a greenish discharge (mixed with blood) that oozes from any and all lacerations, cuts, and openings in the bloodstream, and hours prior to death, from the body’s orifices,” Hermione continued, her voice slowly tapering down to a more sober tone. “Only an antidote made from boomslang skin, blood of a Demiguise, and the nonpoisonous venom of a Painted Bronzeback Snake (common in Southeast Asia) can reverse the victim’s fate of a certain and painful death.” She looked up at the apothecary, who was gazing at her with a slightly horrified look on his face. “Can you help me?” she asked urgently.
“I – I don’t even know where to start, lass. I sell boomslang skin, of course, an’ you’re lucky I’ve got a bit of that Demiguise blood ’ere in the back, but you’ve gotta go to Knockturn Alley for the venom. I’ll not carry that. Though it’s not poisonous, it’s too potent an’ volatile, that stuff is.”
“Could you possibly firecall –”
“Are you bleeding crazy, girl? The apothecary – if you can really call it that – in Knockturn Alley’s run by a mad old witch that’ll try to take your own blood for ’er own personal use! No, I’ll not be talkin’ to ’er. You’ll have to go talk to ’er yourself,” the old man snapped. “Now be off with you.”
“Okay,” Hermione said calmly. Then, just as she had done in both Auchininna and Hogsmeade, Hermione raised her wand. “Obliviate!”
The short man’s countenance immediately changed from angry to peaceful. “Well, ’ello there, lass! Wot can I do for you today?” he asked placidly.
“I need –” Hermione looked at the book again, “– one kilogram of boomslang skin, and a vial of Demiguise blood.”
“Bit of an unusual selection. You’re lucky I’ve still got a little Demiguise blood left back here in me storage room.” The apothecary disappeared into a back room, returning shortly with a small bag and a large flask. “’ere you go, lass. That’ll be one Galleon and four Sickles.”
After paying for the ingredients, Hermione slipped them, as well as the book, into the inner pockets of her cloak, pulled up the hood, and exited the shop, ignoring the apothecary’s befuddled “Now, where’s me book got to?”
Hermione stood in the empty street for a moment, unsure of what to do. Suddenly she darted into a nearby alleyway, quickly pulling Harry’s invisibility cloak over her head. Molly Weasley and Fleur were hurriedly walking down the street, clutching their wands and looking alert. Hermione watched them disappear into Gringotts, a sharp pain in her chest, before she turned around and headed into Knockturn Alley. The difference between the two alleys was distinct. The air was heavier there, and had a musty, foul odor.
Luckily, the apothecary was not too far in. When she pushed the door open this time, a faint clatter could be heard from the back of the shop. Closing the door behind her quietly, Hermione made her way to the adjacent wall, where a sign read Poisons and their antidotes in curling black letters. Jars and bottles lined several shelves, most filled with dark, murky solutions in varying colors.
“How can I help ye, missy?”
Hermione started, cursing herself for not being more careful. A wizened, tiny old woman had appeared right beside her. While she was sure that the Diagon Alley apothecary’s dire warning was mere fable – a rumor – she couldn’t be sure that the old witch meant well. “I – I just need the venom of a Painted Bronzeback Snake.”
“Just Painted Bronzeback Snake venom? That’s it? Sweet, I’ve got far more interesting venoms and poisons. They can do whatever you fancy.... They can make your victim go mad, cry blood, eat the flesh off of their own bodies, die in the most painful and fascinating fashions –”
“Thanks, but I just need this particular venom,” Hermione interrupted hastily.
“Well, all right then,” the aged woman croaked, sounding disappointed. “I’ll ring you up at the counter.” She picked up a flask of grayish white fluid and headed over to the counter, motioning for Hermione to follow her. “That’ll be five Galleons.”
Hermione frowned as she dug into her pocket. The price was high, and normally she would have haggled, but she was running out of time. She also wanted to leave Knockturn Alley as soon as possible.
At last, she pulled out five of the huge coins, holding them out for the woman to take. Instead of grabbing the money, however, the witch’s hand latched onto Hermione’s forearm, her long, yellow fingernails digging into the soft skin, making Hermione gasp.
“Such soft, supple flesh,” the old hag whispered, gazing at Hermione’s arm in wonder. Her nails finally cut into Hermione’s skin, causing tiny rivulets of blood to trickle down her arm. “Look at the blood... bright, beautiful red... so pure, so flawless....”
Hermione stared in horror at the ancient witch’s face. Her skin looked like paper that had been crumpled into a tiny ball and spread back out. Whipping out her wand, Hermione pointed it in the witch’s face. “Let me go,” she bit out.
Staring at Hermione’s wand warily, the old woman slowly let go of Hermione’s arm and took the money, still in her hand. Slapping the flask of venom onto Hermione’s palm, the hag abruptly turned around and left the room.
Breathing heavily, Hermione stumbled to the door, pulling the invisibility cloak around her as she went. Once outside, breathing in the putrid air, she flicked her wand and Disapparated with a sharp ‘pop’.