It was the morning after Harry's disappearance when the attack came. Shaken and grieving, Hermione and Ron were just sitting down to breakfast in the Great Hall. All the Gryffindors present were visibly upset; Ginny sat with a few of her friends, eyes red and face tear-streaked, staring unseeing at the empty plate in front of her. Only the Slytherins seemed undisturbed by Harry's disappearance.
Suddenly, a huge dark funnel cloud appeared in the sky overhead, blotting out the bright autumn sunshine pouring through the enchanted ceiling. A cold wind swirled around the Hall, lifting robes and blowing loose bits of parchment to the floor. A bolt of lightning ripped through the air and, improbably, struck the floor just inside the Hall, producing a cloud of thick gray smoke. Neville, who had been sitting at the end of the Gryffindor table with his head in his hands, yelped and fell backwards off the bench to the floor. Hermione gripped Ron's hand tightly.
As the smoke cleared, Hermione craned her neck, trying to see through the gloom. A stunned hush fell over the Great Hall as the distinctive black cloaks and hoods of a dozen Death Eaters became visible within the dissipating smoke. Then, from the middle of the group, a tall figure emerged and pushed its hood back. The red eyes and silted nostrils were unmistakable, as was the high cruel laugh that rang out through the Hall. How did he get through the wards? wondered Hermione. Somehow, Voldemort had breached all the defenses of Hogwarts to stand before them. He fixed his eyes on Dumbledore, who was rising from his seat at the head table.
"At last, old man, our final reckoning has come. Did you really believe your wards could keep me out when I wished to enter?"
"Ah, Tom," replied Dumbledore, "I suspected you would find a way back sooner or later. Very clever, I must grant, to find the weakness in the enchanted ceiling. However, I'm afraid I cannot allow you to remain." The headmaster's demeanor was as serene as ever, but Hermione heard an anxious note in his voice.
Voldemort sneered. "Allow me? I scarcely think you will be able to stop me. No, today I mean to put an end to you and your foolish Order once and for all. As long as I am in the company of my faithful Death Eaters, you will find yourself quite unable to harm me. I believe you are familiar with Servitorum Defensus?"
Hermione shook her head, trying to remember. The name suggested something about being protected by servants –
"Indeed," Dumbledore replied, "As long as you remain with all of your... companions... who were present when the spell was cast, you will be quite well protected. Once again, I am impressed. And once again, I must caution you to leave at once, or I cannot be responsible for the consequences."
Again, that icy laugh rang out, chasing shivers up and down Hermione's spine. "Consequences? Ah, my dear Dumbledore, brave to the last. All the more touching, really, when your great defender Harry Potter has gone missing. Perhaps he knew his time was running short, and he abandoned you all to your fates? No matter. I will appoint a new champion for you. If he can defeat me, I will allow the students here to depart before I attend to my business with you. Now, who among you would be a fitting second for the great Mr. Potter? Ah yes..."
Voldemort stooped down and grasped an ankle that was valiantly trying to hide under the Gryffindor table. He pulled on it and dragged its owner, a terrified Neville, out to the center of the floor. "You will do nicely. Mr. Longbottom, I believe? Excellent. A pureblooded family of the most impeccable reputation. You have learned dueling, have you not, at this venerable institution?"
Neville sat stunned in the middle of the floor, face chalk white, mouth open in a silent scream. Without thinking, Hermione stood, oblivious to Ron's horrified gasp, and faced Voldemort. "Leave him alone! I'll fight you instead."
A murmur of astonishment and shock rippled through the Hall. "Fight me? You, a filthy Mudblood, presume to challenge the Dark Lord?" Hermione shrank back in spite of herself at the sheer malevolence in the voice. "Most unwise of you, Miss Granger, most unwise. I shall enjoy watching you die in a moment. Business must come before pleasure, however, and I cannot allow you to interfere. Crucio!"
Hermione screamed and fell to her knees as a million burning shafts of agony tore through her. Dimly, through the pain, she saw Neville stand and face Voldemort, trembling. "Stop it!" he whispered. "Please, just stop. I'll duel you if you want."
Voldemort eyed Neville with cold amusement and something like mild surprise. "Ah, Gryffindor bravery. How touching. Very well, then, I will grant you a duel... instead of merely killing you where you stand." With a contemptuous glance, he flicked his wand away from Hermione and into the duelist's ready position. Hermione sank to all fours, gasping for breath, choking back sobs.
Neville shakily raised his wand to mirror Voldemort's. His face was pasty white and coated with sweat, but he met his opponent's red eyes with his own. The Dark Lord nodded. "Good, good, face me and die like a man. Your parents would be proud, if they could see you, boy... wouldn't they, Lucius?" He turned to one of the hooded figures at his side, who flinched at being named, but then bowed to his master. "But I digress. To prove my generosity, I will even grant you the privilege of the first strike. Do not waste it, boy, you will not get another."
Neville drew himself up to his full height (such as it was) and took a deep breath. A spark of anger flickered in his eyes. He raised his wand over his head and brought it down in a whistling swish as his voice rang out through the hall. "Rictusempra!"
The charm flew from his wand and struck Voldemort, who made no attempt to dodge. Instead, he sneered. "A Tickling Charm?" He laughed incredulously. "Really, boy, is that the best you can think of? And to think, Lucius, that you were a governor of this fine institution..." He laughed harder and raised his wand over his head. "Cruci-... Cru-..."
His incantation was washed aside by gales of increasingly hysterical laughter. Watching the scene from her hands and knees, Hermione realized with sudden astonishment that the laughter was no longer voluntary, and Voldemort's face was contorted with fury and agony as he gasped for breath. "You... boy!... you..." he sputtered, and the wand fell from his upraised hand and clattered to the floor. Neville seemed to suddenly realize what was happening, and he took a step forward towards Voldemort, who had fallen helplessly to his knees.
"Crucio!" he shouted, and once again his charm hit Voldemort in the chest. The Dark Lord screamed in helpless, baffled agony, rolling from side to side on the floor. "That was for my parents, and for Harry, and everyone else you've hurt! I hate you! I hate you! Incendio!"
A line of fire shot from Neville's wand to Voldemort's robes, which immediately flared into powerful, weirdly flickering flames. Squinting through the brilliant green-yellow light, Hermione saw the helpless body crumple, shrivel like paper... and disappear.
For three long heartbeats, the entire Hall stood transfixed and silent. Then, as if rehearsed, all the hooded Death Eaters crumpled bonelessly to the floor, except for one. Only Lucius Malfoy remained standing, staring at the blackened spot on the floor where Voldemort had lain. "Nooooo!" he screamed. "Master! Nooooooo!" He looked up just in time to see a ring of students tightening around him, Neville and Hermione among them. With a crazed look in his eyes, he swung his wand wildly at the ground and shouted "Obscuro!" A cloud of purple smoke billowed up from the floor, and when it cleared, he was gone.
Everyone began babbling at once. Neville looked the most stunned of all. "But... how..."
"It must have been a Portkey," said Hermione, shaking her head and looking down as the room suddenly spun around her. "No other way he could have got away... but Neville, you did it! You beat Voldemort!" She turned back to him. "You..." But Neville's eyes fluttered shut without warning, his knees buckled, and he fainted dead away. Hermione felt Ron's strong arms encircle her, and as she sagged gratefully against him, she thought to herself, if only Harry had been here to see this...
WWN Special Report
Reporter: "Bringing you the latest on the defeat of Voldemort, an exclusive interview with Neville Longbottom. Mr. Longbottom, a Tickling Charm was quite the unusual choice for a first attack in a duel. How did you settle upon such an unorthodox approach?"
Longbottom: "I thought he might not be expecting it. And besides, it was the only spell I could remember how to cast at the time! I say, have you seen my toad? He was here just a moment ago…"