Author's note: A summary for previous chapters may be found in my profile.
Chapter 10 – Webs
It was chaos.
Hundreds of voices rose at once, dozens of screams threaded through the noise, amplifying it, the fear and tension like a palpable thing – heavy, thick.
Harry was standing before he was even aware of it, staring at the ceiling, his hand dropping to his hip, palm slapping the faded leather of his father's holster, fingers tightening around the well-worn holly, mind blank.
The bloody letters on the ceiling of the Great Hall twisted and writhed – and dropped. They lost cohesion as they fell, blending into a deluge of red with the volume of a swimming pool. Harry's hand twitched, his wand sketching the outline of a Shield Charm, knowing even as he did that it would be too late, it wouldn't be enough –
A golden line shot across the Hall in the blink of an eye, twisting and expanding into a sheet, shimmering and solid. It covered the entire room like a second ceiling, darkening into translucence as the torrent of blood splashed against it. Harry's eye was drawn to the High Table, where Aberforth Dumbledore stood with his wand thrust into the air like a torch, his profile framed by the throne-like Headmaster's chair.
"SILENCE!" The Headmaster's voice was plenty loud without magical amplification. The crescendo of voices ebbed, and settled into a low, rumbling murmur.
Harry slowly slid back into his seat, ignoring the questioning looks from Fred and George, and the alarmingly inquisitive stare of Hermione.
Up at the front of the room, the staff was buzzing with activity. Aberforth stood like the masthead of a ship, his wand aloft, maintaining the shield, as he calmly issued directions. McGonagall stepped forward and murmured something, flicking her wand sharply at the ceiling. Blood started pouring over the side of the Headmaster's shield, flowing into McGonagall's wand like movie footage of a fire hose played in reverse. Another murmured aside from the Headmaster sent Snape and Flitwick down to the side door and the still, silent body of Filch.
"What… was that?" asked Fred, his usual mischievous expression replaced by a shocked one.
Harry looked across the room and caught Cedric's eye. Cedric looked back with a grim expression. He obviously hadn't missed the implications of the bloody message: that they weren't the only ones interested in the Founders' Rooms.
"That," said Harry, "was not part of the plan."
"Everyone will stay in their seats." Aberforth's voice cut through the murmurs once again. "The professors and I are going to investigate this incident. You may talk quietly amongst yourselves. Prefects, coordinate with the Head Boy and Girl. Keep things orderly." The Headmaster's eyes swept over the room as he lowered his wand, the golden shield dissipating as the last drops of blood flowed into McGonagall's wand. "Everything is under control."
The babble of voices started up again as Aberforth stepped down from the High Table and started a whispered conference with the rest of the staff. Snape and Flitwick – now levitating Filch's prone body – exited the Hall. The teachers broke into teams and started fanning out, leaving two by two, until only a beleaguered-looking Professor Sprout, a baffled-looking Sybill Trelawney, and a blank-faced Professor Doge and one of his Auror guards remained.
"So," said Fred, pitching his voice low as he turned to Harry and George. He needn't have bothered – absolutely everyone in the Great Hall was talking in furious whispers. "What d'you reckon?"
"Chamber of Secrets, huh?" said Fred. "We've never run across anything like that, have we?"
George nodded towards the Slytherin table, where a few of the older students were surrounded by a rapt audience. "Reckon they know something about it? Messages in blood would be right up their alley."
A few of the bolder students stood up and scurried from group to group, going to find friends in other Houses. The prefects tried to put a damper on it, but some of them seemed more interested in joining the growing conversations than with enforcing the rules. Strangely enough, Percy Weasley was in the latter group – he stood near the front of the room, nodding distractedly at the gaggle of prefects forming their own gossip circle, making no real attempt to snuff out the activity of the students.
Harry waited until there was enough mingling going on that he wouldn't stand out, then slipped away from the Gryffindor table and made his way to where Cedric was holding court at the end of the Hufflepuff table.
"We need to talk," muttered Harry, tapping Cedric's shoulder. "Meet me over by the Gryffindors." Without waiting for a reply, Harry moved to the Ravenclaw table.
The conversations in the Great Hall were getting louder, and Harry overheard snippets as he made his way through the increasingly mobile crowd.
" – see the way Filch looked, all stiff like that?"
" – wouldn't be surprised if the Ministry sent people to investigate – "
" – jog my memory, but I think I heard something about a Chamber of Secrets in a history book – "
" – all that blood. It was scary, I just looked up and it was there – "
Cho, as usual, was part of a gaggle of female Ravenclaws. As Harry approached, however, he noted that she wasn't the center of attention to the degree she usually was. She looked slightly irritated, and though Harry was loathe to analyze the social dynamics of third-year girls, it looked like she'd been subtly shuffled out of the way. She had her chin in her hands, slightly slumped over onto the table. Her eyes tracked Harry as he moved into her vision, and she nodded as Harry gave her a meaningful wave.
With as much discretion as he could muster, Harry ambled back to the Gryffindor table and took a position near the end. Most of the House was clustered on one side, where Hermione had pulled a textbook from her bookbag and appeared to be reading from it to an enraptured audience, which was the first time Harry had ever heard himself think that particular sentence.
After a few minutes, Cho and Cedric slid into the seats across from him. Harry eased his wand out of its holster and cast a muttered Muffliato under the table.
"You'll have to teach me that spell sometime," said Cedric. "It's been good to us."
"Maybe later for that," said Cho. She looked up at the ceiling, where the enchanted night sky twinkled merrily, as if hadn't just been the scene of something horrible. "This is bad, isn't it?"
"It is," said Harry. "It means someone else is after the Rooms, and the announcement didn't exactly scream 'friendly competition'."
"What happened to Filch?" asked Cedric. "Is he dead?" His voice was quite steady.
"I don't think so," said Harry. "Snape and Flitwick cast an awful lot of spells for that. Dead is dead. I think they just couldn't quite figure out what had happened to him. He looked frozen, or petrified. Maybe some kind of magical suspension. Whatever it was, if Snape and Flitwick couldn't reverse it right away, it was probably something pretty Dark."
Cho shuddered. "I don't like Filch, but nobody deserves that."
"We need to meet," said Harry. "We shouldn't talk in the open like this, but there are things I need to tell you both."
"And the keys?" asked Cedric. "Are we still going after them?"
"Yeah," said Harry. "And the sooner the better. This whole Chamber of Secrets thing makes things complicated. But yeah, I think your Hagrid brainwave was spot-on, and we should talk to him tomorrow."
Cho leaned forward. "If he has them, and we get them, then we still need two more people. And one of them has to be a Slytherin."
"Hermione and Daphne," said Harry. He looked between his two friends. "If either of you have a problem with either of them, now's the time to speak up."
"You just decided?" asked Cedric, arching an eyebrow.
"No, I'm just putting it out there," said Harry.
"In a way that makes it seem like you've already made a decision," said Cedric, leaning back and shrugging.
"I'm not," said Harry. "I'm just – look, do you have a problem with the two of them, or not?"
Cedric opened his mouth – then closed it and shook his head. "No, they're fine."
Harry stared at him doubtfully. "If you – "
"I said they're fine, Harry."
"I'm still not sure about Daphne," said Cho, "but she's the only Slytherin I'd even consider, so I suppose she'll do."
"Well, as long as you're both enthusiastic about it," said Harry, looking between his friends in consternation. He felt like he was missing something, but before he could press Cho and Cedric, they were interrupted by a commotion from the other end of the table.
While he'd been focused on his friends, a group of Slytherins had made their way over. The groups were arrayed in opposition, a dozen or so on each side. Harry picked out Hermione's voice right away.
"… have any facts at all. You're just trying to scare us."
"Oh, am I?" said Draco Malfoy. He was at the head of the Slytherins – mostly lower years, as well as the entire Slytherin Quidditch team. Harry also spotted Daphne and Tracey off to the side, clearly separate but still a part of the conversation. Tracey, in particular, was glaring daggers at Draco.
"Piss off, Malfoy," said Oliver Wood, backed up by an impressive array of Gryffindor scowls and crossed arms. "No one's buying the tripe you're peddling."
"It's common knowledge, if you know the right people," said Malfoy. He seemed to be almost glowing, his face gleeful and pinched at the attention. "The Chamber of Secrets is only a danger to… lesser wizards."
"The message said none of you are safe," said Hermione, glaring at him.
"Exactly," said Malfoy. "You. Salazar Slytherin saw that this school had started to accept all sorts of riffraff, and the monster's going to clear you people all out."
"What do you mean, you people?" said George, moving forward to get in Malfoy's face.
Malfoy's two henchmen – Harry couldn't remember their names – stepped forward, and Malfoy sneered from between them. "You know who I'm talking about, Weasley. You and your loser family might scoot by, but I hope not. Blood traitors are just as bad as mudbloods, if you ask me. Slytherin's likely to be the last House left, when it's all over."
There was a collective intake of breath, and Harry could practically feel a wave of curses – both literal and figurative – about to be sent Draco's way from the Gryffindor side. He took a step forward, wanting to forestall a potential firefight in the middle of the Great Hall during an emergency – but Tracey Davis beat him to the punch.
"Oh, sit down, Malfoy. You haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about." Tracey shouldered her way through the crowd and fixed Malfoy with a look of such scorn and contempt that Malfoy actually took a step back. "That's not what Slytherin's about at all, and you know it. A proper Slytherin doesn't give a shit about blood status, she gives a shit about advantage. We're realists, and you're making us look stupid."
Malfoy's face went very pale. "You dare – "
Tracey ran right over him. "Salazar wasn't some pureblood fanatic. He was worried about the fact that Muggles were tying suspected wizards to wooden stakes and setting them on fire. He saw that they hated magic and were cruel, vindictive, stupid sheep, and he said 'let's go ahead and stay away from that.' The monster isn't for Muggleborns, it's for enemies of magic."
The reaction to her words was mixed – both the Gryffindors and the Slytherins were giving her uncertain, almost nervous looks. Draco Malfoy simply turned his back on her and crossed his arms, evidently pretending that she didn't exist.
Daphne, standing at her friend's side, gave Tracey a commiserating look and tugged on her arm, trying to draw her away from the crowd.
"See?" said Lee Jordan, scoffing at Malfoy. "Even the other Slytherins know you're full of shit."
Malfoy plunged his hand into his robes, and for a wild moment Harry thought he was going for his wand. Instead, he came out with a small, cream-colored envelope. He took two steps forward and thrust it into Harry's hand, all the while favoring Harry with a disdainful, snooty expression.
"Here, Potter." The letter secure in Harry's hands, Malfoy stepped back and brushed off his robes. "My father told me to give this to you. Best get it over with and then remove myself from this den of idiots."
Harry felt the letter between his fingers. It was expensive, heavy paper, and his name was scrawled in an elegant twist of ink. Harry was very aware of the eyes of the crowd on him. "Why'd you hand-deliver whatever this is, Drake?" The blond's eyes narrowed at Harry's misnomer. "Could have just sent me an owl."
"That's an interesting story, Potter," said Malfoy. His eyes crinkled gleefully with a look Harry had seen all too often on Dudley when he was about to do something particularly vicious. "You see, my father wanted to make sure this actually made it into your hands. Had a bit of a problem with our house-elf, you see. Unreliable, filthy little creature. Obsessed with you, you'll be thrilled to know."
"Are you going somewhere with this, Malfoy?" Harry waved the letter in his hand. "You're picking a pretty odd time to play delivery owl."
"I just want it over and done with," said Malfoy, sniffing. "I told father you were a lost cause, but he was adamant for some reason. Read it or don't read it, I don't really care."
Harry, aware of the speculative looks directed at the formal-looking letter from Lucius Malfoy in his hands, tucked the thing in his pocket and tried for breezy. "Whatever, Malfoy. I swear, if this is some offer to sell official Boy-Who-Lived bobblehead dolls or something, I'm going to be really disappointed. And I'd love to meet your house-elf sometime. He sounds loads more fun than you."
Malfoy's eyes glittered with malice. "A pity we had to get rid of him, then. Permanently."
An uneasy murmur made its way through the crowd, and more than a few Slytherins were looking askance at Malfoy. Harry opened his mouth to ask Malfoy what he meant…
"What's the meaning of this? What are you all doing?" Percy Weasley barged into the middle of the crowd throwing around glares like they were going out of style. "The Headmaster clearly told everyone to stay seated. Back to your House tables, all of you, before I start taking points off."
Over the sound of the crowd dispersing, Harry clearly heard Hermione turn to Ron Weasley and ask, "What's a house-elf?"
"I have to say, this wasn't what I was expecting."
Daphne glanced around, inching her chair back and looking irritated as it bumped against the wall. Her eyes wandered over the shelves and the lab table before settling on Cedric. "It's an interesting use of an expanded trunk, and I'm curious what we're doing here, of course, but it's a little… cramped."
The interior of Cedric's trunk – usually home to Cedric's potions equipment and a shelf of ingredients and textbooks – was currently playing host to five people. Harry was slouched against the desk, Cedric was sitting next to him, Cho was using the ladder that led to the trunk's ceiling as an impromptu chair, and Hermione was standing in pensive silence in the middle of the small room. It was, as Daphne had said, cramped.
"I'd like to know what we're doing here as well," said Hermione, half-raising her hand. "Harry, your message was a bit cryptic."
"It was," said Harry, crossing his arms, accidentally bumping against Cedric, who made an annoyed noise. "And I'm sorry about that, but it couldn't be helped. There are a few things going on, and a bunch of things I want to keep just between the five of us, and this is the safest place I could think of to talk."
"Well," said Daphne, "if nothing else, you've piqued my curiosity."
Hermione leaned forward. "Is it about the Chamber of Secrets? Or… or that letter Malfoy gave you? It's obvious you've got a secret, just by watching the way you acted last year…" she held up her hands, as if warding off something. "Not that I was, er, watching you or anything."
"I'm sure," said Cho, raising her eyebrow at Hermione.
"It does have something to do with that, yes," said Harry, shooting Cho a look, then turning to Hermione. "But to explain it, I kind of need to start at the beginning. And before we even do that, I need to make sure nothing we say leaves this room."
"Trunk," said Cedric absently.
"Right, trunk," said Harry. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a rolled parchment, smoothing it out on his knees. "Before I tell you all what this is about, I need everyone to sign their names here."
Daphne craned her neck forward. "It's blank."
"It's just a normal piece of paper," said Harry. "But there's magic in the agreement itself. Which I'll have someone far more skilled than I tap into later and make it a binding promise, sort of. It won't curse you or anything, it'll just make the knowledge of the things we talk about kind of… slippery? It's a complicated spell."
"That sounds... a bit dodgy," said Hermione. Her forehead creased. "That kind of spell would have to be an offshoot of mind magic, combined with some kind of diffuse Charm, like the ones they don't even teach at Hogwarts. Who could you possibly know who could cast a spell like that?"
"Why don't you sign your name and find out?" said Harry, throwing her a cheeky smile.
Daphne turned to Cho and Cedric. "You two are okay with this?"
"We already know most of it," said Cedric. "And yeah, I guess." He shrugged.
"I don't know, Harry," said Hermione, casting apprehensive looks between Harry and the parchment on his knees.
"Look," said Harry, "it's not committing to anything. This is important stuff, and it has to do with what happened at the feast - you know, with the ceiling and the blood and Filch - and how I think the five of us can actually make a difference, but all you're saying by signing is that you won't tell anyone about it."
"Even Tracey?" asked Daphne.
"Sorry," said Harry. "It's important."
"Hmm." Daphne fixed Harry with an unblinking, considering look.
"I don't think I've ever seen you look so serious, Daphne," said Cedric, tilting his head and looking at the black-haired girl like he was seeing something new and possibly strange.
"There's more to Daphne than how she acts in public," said Harry, earning himself a pointed look from the girl in question.
"I'll sign," said Hermione abruptly. She looked around, as if daring someone to challenge her pronouncement. "I want to know." She snatched the parchment from Harry, drew a quill from her robes so fast Harry wondered if she hadn't used magic, and scrawled her name in surprisingly precise handwriting considering the uneven surface of her knee.
"Cedric and I are in, of course," said Cho.
Daphne nodded slowly.
They passed around the parchment and everyone signed it. No words were exchanged – it was somehow unstated but known that it was a moment, something heavy and real. The scratching of the quill was very loud in the enclosed space of Cedric's trunk.
"That's that, then," said Harry, looking up after signing his own name. He rolled the parchment carefully and set it on Cedric's desk. He squared his shoulders. "Okay. The easiest way to do this, I guess, is to start at the beginning and fill in the blanks. Hermione, what do you know about the Headmaster?"
Hermione drummed her fingers on her legs for a moment, as if marshaling her thoughts. "Aberforth Dumbledore is most famous for defeating Grindelwald alongside his brother, Albus. He was the Care of Magical Creatures professor at Hogwarts for nearly forty years, and then became Headmaster after his brother was exiled from Britain."
"And Albus?" asked Harry.
"The Headmaster's brother," said Hermione, words coming faster, facts spilling from her mouth. "He was instrumental in Grindelwald's rise – they were partners, and it was Albus Dumbledore's rhetoric of wizard dominance that swayed many people onto their side. He's supposed to be a very powerful wizard, and it was only when Aberforth convinced Albus of the error of his ways that Grindelwald was defeated, and that duel is one of the most famous in history."
"And after Grindelwald?"
Hermione slowed, her face scrunching a tad as she thought. "He taught at Hogwarts, too. He was the Headmaster, for a while. And then, during the war against You-Know-Who, he started a vigilante group. He was the Chief Warlock, and involved in the ICW, but he kept butting heads with the Ministry, according to Modern Magical History. He went behind their backs and started his own private vigilante group, and some of the worst death tolls of the war happened when that group interrupted battles between Aurors and Death Eaters. After You-Know-Who was defeated…" Hermione blinked, looking at Harry owlishly. "This has something to do with that, doesn't it? He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and what happened when he tried to kill you?"
"Good guess," said Harry. "Keep going, though. Put the official version on the table, and then I'll fill in the gaps."
Hermione took a deep breath. "Albus Dumbledore lost his position of Headmaster and Chief Warlock after evidence came out that his group, The Order of the Phoenix, engaged in dangerous, ethically questionable actions during the war. He had a very public falling out with his brother, who condemned him during a trial in absentia at the Wizengamot. The trial ended with Albus being exiled from Britain, and the public outcry was so great that the Ministry enacted a spell, using the blueprint of the Trace, over the entire country. If Albus Dumbledore sets foot in England, the Ministry will be instantly alerted."
Hermione's recitation ended, and Harry looked around the room. Cho and Cedric looked a touch bored – they'd heard this part of the story, after all – and Daphne focused and neutral.
"That was pretty comprehensive, Hermione, thank you," said Harry. He leaned forward and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Okay. What you need to understand – the first thing, I mean – is that everything you just said is true, pretty much, but it's true through the lens of the Ministry. That book you talked about – Modern Magical History – that's not objective fact. The Ministry leans on the newspapers and the publishers in magical Britain."
"You're starting to sound like Luna Lovegood," said Cedric, rolling his eyes. He turned to Hermione. "They do, though. My dad works at the Ministry. It's not exactly a secret."
"Thank you, mister helper," said Harry. Cedric shot him an annoyed look, and Harry held his hands up. "No, sorry that was uncalled for. I'm just stressed, is all. I really hope you guys can help me untangle this mess, because I can't."
"Go on, Harry," said Daphne.
"Albus Dumbledore did all those things. He helped Grindelwald gain power, and he went outside the law to fight Voldemort – oh, get a grip," he muttered as everyone else winced. "But you have to understand, he's a great wizard. Voldemort would have absolutely won without Dumbledore and the Order. They weren't perfect, but they were countering the Death Eaters the way a big organization like the Ministry just wasn't equipped to. He had charisma, too. When he talked, people listened. Combine that with his raw magical power – he was the only one who could stand toe-to-toe with Voldemort – and you can see why the Ministry feared him."
"How do you know all this?" asked Hermione
"Because I was raised by him," said Harry. "Dumbledore, and Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel, and my godfather Sirius Black and his best friend Remus Lupin."
That was met with a resounding silence, and then Daphne and Hermione jumped in at the same time.
"Sirius Black, the mass-murderer?"
"Nicolas Flamel, the alchemist?"
"No, and yes," said Harry. "Sirius was framed – I can tell you the details later, but the short version is that Peter Pettigrew betrayed my parents and framed Sirius. Sirius escaped Azkaban, went to Dumbledore, and planned how they were going to keep me safe, because they knew Voldemort wasn't dead."
Hermione's eyes were wide, and she leaned back. "That's… a lot to take in."
"I know," said Harry, "and I can tell you don't quite believe me. Voldemort was defeated when he tried to kill me, but he didn't die – he's still out there, a shadow of himself, looking for a way to return to his body. Just take my word for it for now, and know that I can prove it in the future, if you let me."
"I suppose that'll have to do," said Hermione.
"Right," said Harry. "Now, here's where it gets complicated – did either of you know that Albus and Aberforth Dumbledore have a sister?"
Hermione and Daphne looked at each other, then shook their heads.
"It's not widely known. Ariana is… ill. She had an accident as a child, and she's never been, er, quite all there in the head. Together, Albus and Aberforth could stabilize her, give her a normal life, but it took a prodigious amount of time and effort, and it was a day-to-day job. Which they did, gladly, because they love her. And then Albus got busy – Headmaster, Chief Warlock, the ICW… and Voldemort."
"He stopped taking care of her," murmured Hermione.
"He did," said Harry. "She got worse. Aberforth wasn't happy, which is the source of the widely-publicized bad blood between them. It isn't the case now, by the way. They don't agree on everything, but they're on the same side." Harry blew out a breath. "Now, here's the wrinkle – Ariana Dumbledore, today, is Ariana Doge."
"As in…?" asked Daphne.
"As in, she's married to our Defense professor, who's a longtime friend of the Dumbledores. This is where it gets tricky. Doge fought with Albus and Aberforth and Sirius and Lupin and my parents in the Order against Voldemort. He had a falling out with Albus after Ariana regressed – she's in St. Mungo's now, permanently – and they haven't spoken in years." Harry reached under his chair and rummaged around his book bag for a moment before drawing out a small journal. "My first year, Doge passed me this."
Hermione eyed it speculatively. "What is it?"
"My mum's journal," said Harry, cradling it lightly, almost protectively. "Doge was an Unspeakable, and he says mum was considering joining, and they were friends, and that's why he had it – but the journal itself doesn't say anything about that. What it does talk about, however, are the Founders' Rooms. My mum was obsessed with them. Each one of the four Founders had a secret room in the castle, a place of protection and knowledge and secrets and power."
"The Chamber of Secrets," said Daphne, putting the pieces together, her eyes alight with curiosity.
"Exactly," said Harry. "That was Slytherin's. There are three more."
"Why are they important?" asked Hermione. "I mean, of course they'd be fascinating from a historical standpoint, but…"
"Doge said there was something he could use to heal Ariana in Hufflepuff's room," said Harry. He opened the journal to a well-marked page, running his finger down the scrawl of his mother's writing. "There's supposed to be some kind of monster in Slytherin's room, kind of a guardian of Hogwarts. Ravenclaw's room 'bends to one's desires and creates reality from fantasy,' which sounds, you know, nice. Gryffindor's room 'shines a flame onto the deepest secrets.' And lastly" – he snapped the book shut – "all four together are apparently the foundation of Hogwarts's thousand-year old, insanely complex, near-impregnable array of protective enchantments."
Cedric shifted from his perch on the desk. "And now we know someone else is going after them. Someone powerful enough to twiddle with the enchantment on the ceiling of the Great Hall."
"It's worse than that," admitted Harry, looking down for a second. "I, ah, forgot to mention another thing. You see, this is one of those things that sounds worse than it actually is, but I kinda came up with a plan to start a rumor that the Flamels had to hide the Philosopher's Stone here at Hogwarts in order to lure a Death Eater to school."
"Harry…" said Cho, her tone at once worried and exasperated.
"No, no, there's a good reason, I promise!" said Harry, looking around a trunk full of dubious faces. "See, we know that Voldemort's back. Snape's Dark Mark – uh, Snape used to be a Death Eater, by the way – has been gradually getting clearer, and we think he's got some sort of toehold on life, like a golem or a homunculus, and the Stone would be the perfect way to bring him all the way back. So instead of waiting for whatever diabolical plan he comes up with, we're going to make him plan around this, and then hopefully trap Peter Pettigrew or whomever Voldemort sends to Hogwarts to get the Stone."
Cedric rubbed his forehead. "So the message about the Chamber of Secrets…"
"May or may not have anything to do with my plan," finished Harry. He spread his arms in what little personal space he had around him. "You can see why I wanted to get all this on the table."
"Why us?" said Hermione suddenly. She'd drawn into herself, absorbing Harry's words, but now she leaned forward and fixed him with a stare. "Cho and Cedric I get. They're your friends. You don't know Daphne and me as well."
"I'd like to," said Harry quietly. He shifted in his seat and steamrolled right over the slight moment of awkward silence his comment had engendered. "The main reason, though, is that we need five people, one from every House plus an extra. Last year, the three of us found the Hufflepuff room. The Gallery of Refuge. Well, the antechamber, I guess. We can't get in without four keys and four people to use them, and a fifth to open the door."
"It takes teamwork and inter-House cooperation," said Hermione.
"And you're here, too, because you get it, just like that." said Harry.
"And why am I here, Harry?" Daphne was cool and inscrutable, a far cry from the bubbly persona she usually had. From the look Cho was giving her, Harry wasn't the only one who'd picked up on the difference.
"You're here because you're the only Slytherin I even remotely trust," said Harry, matching her look for look. "Plus, with the whole I.H.C.C. thing, you've proven you want to reach out, that you want to make a difference and make things better. That means something."
Daphne arched an eyebrow. "Unless starting the club was part of my cunning Slytherin scheme."
"Oh, please," said Harry. "If any of the Slytherins actually have cunning plans beyond cheating at Quidditch or selling knock-off Wit Potions before exams, I'll eat…" he glanced around "…Cedric's shoes."
"Please don't," said Cedric.
"Anyway," said Harry, "that's the basic idea. Things are happening this year, possibly beyond my ability to control by myself. I want the five of us, generally, to help each other figure things out, and specifically to get into the Gallery."
"It's… quite a lot to think about," said Hermione.
"I know," said Harry. "It's probably too much. This whole thing with Voldemort, it hardly seems real to me sometimes, but I know it is. I know he's out there, and I have to be ready. But I can't – I don't want to… I mean, I'm not dragging anyone else into this if they're not sure."
"Harry…" said Hermione, and just as exasperated and worried as Cho had said the same single word a few minutes ago, Hermione sounded almost grateful – gentle, accepting, reaching out. "Of course I'll help you. I couldn't not. I read about You-Know-Who, about what he did. It isn't even a question." She looked down for a moment. "And… and it would be nice to have, well, not friends, but… someone to talk to, I suppose. Besides Neville and Padma, I mean. Not that I don't…" she shook her head ruefully. "Yes, I'm in."
Harry smiled at her, and it was warm and genuine. "I appreciate it. I mean, if you're okay putting your vendetta with Draco on the back burner…"
Hermione's face turned to stone. "That absolute…" she struggled for words. "I'll never let it go. Not ever. House-elves… living things, treated like that, thrown away." She glanced over at Cedric. "I don't suppose he could have been lying? Just trying to shock people and be seen as cruel?"
"It's a possibility," said Cedric. He hesitated. "But it's probably true. A lot of the old families have house-elves, and they're not exactly… it's kind of a two-way thing. Pride in excellent service, and a family that demands excellent service, they kind of feed off each other."
"So a house-elf would really just off himself if his family told him to?" asked Harry. "That's barmy." He shook his head. "Utterly barmy."
"It depends on the elf," said Cedric, shrugging. "Not all elves have the same personality, and not all families are that draconian. The Malfoys, though… I could see it."
"I hate him," said Hermione, almost visibly shaking, "I think I actually hate him. I know people can be cruel, but this is so far beyond that…" She looked away.
Daphne hadn't said a word throughout the entire exchange. Harry turned to her. "So, are you in?"
"I'm in," said Daphne. "You weren't wrong about me."
"Just like that?" asked Harry.
"Just like that." She nodded almost to herself. "Because you trusted us enough to tell someone, not just because you had to, but because you chose us. You know what secrets cost."
Harry looked at Daphne, and she looked at him, and a current of something, some emotion, some understanding, ran between them. Harry couldn't put a name to it, and the closest he could come was like recognizing like. He could see himself answering like that if he'd been her, if he'd been in that chair. Harry shook his head, clearing out the fleeting, confusing thought. He looked around the trunk at the four of them. Together, now, in some loose conspiracy.
"Well," said Cho brightly, clapping her hands together, "where do we start?"
"The keys," said Cedric. "I had – well, Luna had, I suppose – the idea that Hagrid would know where they'd be. Keeper of the Keys, and all."
"That's… obvious," said Daphne.
"It's really not, though," said Cho. "Hagrid's sweet, but he's the last person you'd think to ask about a centuries-old mystery that doesn't involve bloodsucking wereseals or something like that."
"Getting to Hagrid might be a problem," said Harry, leaning forward to rest his hands on his knees. "The Headmaster said they were bringing in Aurors to investigate what happened at the feast, and we need to avoid coming under too much scrutiny by them." He sighed at Hermione's inquisitive look. "I can explain that part later."
"Definitely later," said Cedric, covering a yawn. "I know we have tomorrow off, but I'm beat. Quidditch practice."
"Already?" asked Harry.
Cedric hummed an affirmative. "We should meet tomorrow and hash things out. I know there's a lot to figure out, long-term, but it shouldn't be too hard for us to just go down to Hagrid's after dinner. The three of us have been before. Nothing suspicious about that."
"Fine," said Harry. "Tomorrow." Everyone looked around, and Harry stood, an uncertain grin worming its way onto his face. "Meeting adjourned, then."
Daphne was first up the ladder, giving a curt nod to Harry before wordlessly ascending.
Hermione paused at the first step, turning to Harry. "It's really true? You-Know-Who is really back?"
"He never really left," said Harry.
She pursed her lips. "And the reason we're not shouting that fact from the rooftops?"
"It's related to why I have to be careful around the Aurors," said Harry. "Essentially, whatever Albus Dumbledore is for, the Ministry is against. I could say Voldemort's back, and maybe some people would listen to me, but no one important at the Ministry would without proof, and any proof I have is tied to Dumbledore."
"So it's just us," said Hermione.
Harry shrugged. "For now. And we've got people in our corner."
Hermione put a hand on the ladder, and then paused again. "What did the letter Draco gave you say?"
"Oh, that." Harry pulled out the envelope – still sealed but now slightly rumpled – from his jeans. "To be honest, I haven't opened it."
Cho looked at him appraisingly. "And you're not going to, right?"
Harry blinked. "You just knew that?"
"We know you pretty well, Harry," said Cedric. "Whatever's in the letter, Malfoy's dad is either trying to help you, or trying to hurt you. And you don't want Lucius Malfoy's help. So…"
"Right," said Harry slowly, drawing his wand from its holster. The faded leather was a comfortable, familiar presence at his side now. He held the tip of his wand to the letter and muttered, "Incendio." The letter burst into flame, and he held it away from his body as he looked at his friends. "Surely I'm not that transparent?"
"Surely you don't think you're the only one who can have a clever thought?" asked Cedric, crossing his arms.
Again, Harry felt a twinge of unease, something missing or eluding him. It was nothing more and nothing less than the thought that Cedric was acting weird.
"That's not what I meant," started Harry, but Cedric had already eased by Hermione and started climbing up the ladder.
Cho gave him a commiserating look, nudging his shoulder with hers, before following after Cedric.
That just left Hermione and an awkward silence.
"I should go too," said Hermione. "I've got some reading to do."
"We don't even have homework yet, Hermione," said Harry.
"Of course not. Thank goodness, too. That will give me time in the next few days to read everything about everything you just said."
Harry grinned. "Of course." He gestured at the ladder, and she went up. Harry followed after her.
The kitchens were warm and smelled like baking bread. Cedric's trunk was tucked away in a corner, inconspicuous alongside cartons of empty milk bottles. The house-elves scrubbing copper pots nearest their corner of the room gave Harry a cheerful, but respectful wave. Daphne was nowhere to be seen, and Cedric and Cho were just moving out of view up the stairs to the second floor.
Tracking them with his eyes, Harry muttered, "see you later, make sure the elves get Cedric's trunk back to his room," to Hermione, then hurried after his friends. He had an idea. It was a bad one, and he knew it was bad, but he knew he was going to do it anyway.
At the top of the stairs, near the fruit still-life portrait, Harry peeked out into the hallway and saw Cedric and Cho walking away, their backs to him. Ducking back into the stairway, Harry whipped his Invisibility Cloak from the small, magically expanded pocket in his robes where he also kept his mother's journal.
Harry threw the Cloak over himself and followed his friends.
Even as he hurried after them, he pre-condemned himself. It was stupid. It was wrong. It would probably backfire. But having thought of it, he couldn't not do it.
He shadowed Cedric and Cho as they made their way through the second floor hallways, saying little. After a few minutes they passed the hospital wing. The door was open, and Cedric slowed, sticking his head in. Harry, following behind, moved in closer to see what he was looking at. Cho gasped softly, moving past Cedric to stare.
Argus Flich lay supine on a bed, white sheets crisp and undisturbed underneath him. His face was frozen in an ugly rictus of anger and fear, one hand held up to his face as if warding off something.
Mrs. Norris was curled at his feet, her tail tucked under her body, eyes closed; her grey, matted fur rising and falling slowly, in and out, a sharp counterpoint to Filch's frozen visage. Cho made a noise in the back of her throat, like the beginning of a sob.
"They say he'll be okay when we get the right potion," said Cedric. He wasn't looking at Filch; rather, he was looking at Cho with an expression of such softness that Harry felt a squirm of embarrassment for intruding.
"I know," said Cho. She kept her voice down. The hospital wing had a way of doing that to people. "It's sad, though. Even Filch doesn't deserve this. And his poor cat…"
"They'll be back to their grumpy old selves soon enough," said Cedric. He grimaced. "And I expect we'll have more important things to worry about before too long."
That broke Cho out of her reverie. She turned to Cedric and looked at him steadily. "What's wrong?"
He moved away from the hospital wing, walking a few steps down the hall. "Nothing."
Cho followed. "It's Harry, isn't it?"
Cedric stopped, half-turned, put his forehead up against the stone wall of the hallway. "Yes. No. Sort of." Cho just stood there, waiting. Eventually, Cedric sighed. "I don't like what it says about me that it bothers me."
"I met your dad, Cedric. Your mum, too." Cho put a tentative hand on his shoulder. "I know they think you're supposed to be the guy. The one everyone follows. The star."
"I'm going to be Quidditch Captain next year," said Cedric, still not looking at her. "It's in the bag. Heidi took me aside before the feast and let me know."
"That's great, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Cedric finally turned to Cho, his expression miserable. "But what am I supposed to do, throw a party for myself? Harry comes in with these big, actual problems, like, life and death. He's talking about plots and secrets and adventures, and I wanted all of that - I just didn't know I'd be the sidekick."
"You're not." Cho's expression turned resolute and she pinned him to the wall with her gaze. "You'll never be. Do you want to know how other people see you? How I see you?" She closed her mouth abruptly.
Cedric sighed. "I know, you're right. It's just… you know, how many kids fantasize about being a Quidditch captain at Hogwarts? I mean literal fantasies. I did that. With a toy broomstick that barely got above the ground. That's all I wanted. It's this huge, important thing and I just know it'll get shuffled off to the side and lost in everything else, and what really matters, what people will really say about me was how I stood next to Harry when it counted."
"That's what friends do," said Cho quietly.
"Yeah," said Cedric. He turned away, and then back, and then put a slightly awkward hand on Cho's shoulder. "Yeah." This time he said it with some conviction. "You're right. Er, thanks."
"Anytime," she murmured, and they walked down the hall, perhaps closer together than they had been.
As they moved out of sight, Harry slipped off the Cloak and stood there, staring at the place they'd been. He stood there for a long time.
Breakfast in the Great Hall was subdued the next morning. It was Sunday, and classes would start tomorrow, and students trickled in at odd intervals, bleary-eyed and hungry. As they ate, Harry noticed that a few times a minute, someone would look up at the ceiling quickly, almost surreptitiously, as if afraid of what they'd find there.
They were sitting at the Ravenclaw table. Harry sat next to Cho, who was avidly reading the latest issue of Which Broomstick?. Daphne, looking bright and cheerful, had dragged a beleaguered-looking Tracey over to sit with them, and the latter was currently stabbing at a plate of scrambled eggs with one hand, her entire demeanor suggesting a longstanding blood feud with mornings. Either that, thought Harry darkly, or Malfoy was giving her hell for challenging him so publicly.
Across from Harry, Cedric sat next to Hermione. He looked cheerful enough, and if there was tension or ambivalence still rolling around Cedric's mind, Harry couldn't detect it. He was animated and friendly, going over the finer points of Proto-Germanic rune derivations with Hermione.
Harry hid a smile behind a sip of tea. They're weren't friends, but they were friendly. It was a start.
"Are we still going to visit Hagrid later today?" asked Cho. She caught Harry's eyes over the top of the magazine, and though her tone was casual, her expression was anything but.
"After dinner, I think," said Harry. "Hagrid's usually out working during the day."
Cho made to reply, but looked up at the sound of dozens of owls swooping into the Great Hall. Harry spotted Hedwig immediately; she broke off from the flock and glided down to the end of the Ravenclaw table, great white wings back-beating as she alighted on the table in front of Harry.
Without pause, she dipped her beak into Harry's plate and started gobbling down sausages. "Help yourself," said Harry dryly.
"You've such a beautiful owl," said Hermione, sighing as she watched Hedwig eat. "I wish my parents would let me get a pet."
Harry unfastened the letter tied to Hedwig's leg. "Have a good trip to France?" he asked, and Hedwig barked something noncommittal without even raising her head from Harry's meal.
"So that's from your French pen pal?" asked Daphne, leaning forward, chin resting on her hands.
"How did you hear about her?" asked Harry, unrolling the letter.
"People talk," she said.
"Well, that's just peachy," muttered Harry. His eyes dropped to the letter.
You will be happy to know that Gabrielle was quite enthusiastic about my stories of England, and that you yourself had much to do with that. My time with Ollivander was fascinating and educational, but a bit dry for her. She was, however, quite taken with stories of the irrepressible charm of the famous Boy-Who-Lived.
It's possible that I may have embellished a bit.
Beauxbatons is beginning to feel small to me. I wonder if you have felt what I've felt, in this. My thoughts and goals are beginning to eclipse this place.
One thing I love about school, though, is that I may fly, and not just fly, but compete. Speed is thrilling, but winning is satisfying. You must visit me, or I you – a good challenge is irreplaceable, no?
I hope you are well, Harry. I think of you often. There is more to you than meets the eye, and one day, I look forward to unraveling the mystery.
I've enclosed a recent photo. You were right, by the way. My former relationship is a faded memory, and I have already cast it aside as a trifle. We will see where this new one goes. If nothing else, it will not be boring.
Harry's eyes tracked to the end of the letter, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. There was a polaroid attached to the bottom with Spello-tape. Harry pried it off the letter, eyes widening slightly.
"What is it?" asked Cedric.
"Er, just a picture of Fleur. Apparently she started dating someone." Harry squinted at the bottom of the photo, where the words Fleur & Dominique were scrawled. "Dominique, it says."
"Never liked that name for a guy," said Cedric. "Too…" he waved his hand, "…I don't know, pretty."
"You're in luck, then," said Harry, trying to keep a straight face as he slid the photo across the table to Cedric.
Daphne scooted over to look at it, and Hermione leaned over Cedric's shoulder. Cedric froze. His face turned steadily redder.
Harry knew exactly what he was seeing. The grounds of Beauxbatons, looking regal and immaculate in fall colors. In the foreground, standing in front of a fountain, were Fleur and another girl, practically draped in each other's arms. The other girl was a brunette, shorter than Fleur, with a mischievous smile, big, sea-green eyes, and a lush figure.
"Oh my," said Hermione, her face looking like it couldn't quite decide what expression to project.
Daphne cocked her head, peering at it appraisingly. "She's quite pretty, isn't she?"
"Which one?" asked Cho.
"Take your pick," said Daphne.
Cedric stood abruptly. He cleared his throat and tore his gaze away from the photo.
"I'll be in my trunk."
And with that, he walked away.
The sun was down, and in the fading light Harry could only barely make out the line of smoke rising from Hagrid's hut. The five of them – Harry, Cedric, Cho, Daphne, and Hermione, made their way across the grounds of Hogwarts, saying little.
The mood was tense. The Headmaster had announced at dinner that the investigation into the attack on Flich was ongoing, and would be carried out by Aurors from the Ministry. Aberforth's vagueness, combined with hard-faced Aurors roaming the corridors, had everyone on edge.
"We need to make this quick," said Hermione quietly. "Curfew is in an hour."
Cedric glanced back at the castle. "Shouldn't take long. He either has the keys or he doesn't."
"I still can't quite believe it'll be that easy," said Harry.
"Who knows, maybe there'll be another door behind that door, and to get the keys for that one, you have to arm-wrestle an Inferius or something," said Cho.
"Ha ha," said Harry, as they came to a halt. He stepped forward and knocked on Hagrid's door. The acrid but not altogether unpleasant smell of cooking, earth, and animals practically radiated from the interior.
"Who's there?" came a loud, gruff voice.
"It's Harry and Cedric and Cho," said Harry, "and a few more."
The door swung open, the vast figure of Hagrid framing it. "Oh, it's you lot. What're yeh all doin' out so late?"
A huge canine head poked its way through the door past Hagrid, tongue lolling as it panted happily. Hagrid pushed him back with an easy shove and a muttered, "get back, Fang."
"We just wanted to talk for a bit," said Harry. "Well, that's not quite true – we actually had a question for you."
Hagrid frowned. "One question won' hurt, I suppose." He shuffled back from the door, waving them in. "Who're these, now?" he said after they'd come inside, gesturing at Hermione and Daphne.
"Hermione Granger and Daphne Greengrass," said Harry.
"Pleasure to meet yeh," said Hagrid. "Yer both good in my book if yer a friend o' Harry's."
Cedric stepped forward, craning his neck slightly to look up at Hagrid. "Hagrid, look, like Harry said, we've got a question for you. Do you have the keys?"
Hagrid blinked. "Keys? Have quite a few keys, don't I?" He dug his beefy hand into his pocket and came out with a key ring easily the size of a dinner plate, the iron circle bulging with what had to be at least a hundred keys of all shapes and sizes.
"No, the keys," said Cedric. He looked at Hagrid meaningfully.
"Er…" Hagrid looked puzzled, looking back and forth between the key ring and Cedric.
Cho nudged Harry. "What was the phrase? Something you said when you tapped your wand against the wall to get into the Gallery?"
"Oh, right," said Harry. He stepped forward, shoulder-to-shoulder with Cedric, and looked Hagrid straight in the eye. "We seek refuge."
"Yeh what?" said Hagrid, and then a note of dawning comprehension came over his face. "Oh! Never thought I'd hear that one. Musta been, oh, thirty years at least, since I thought about those things. Groundskeeper before me mentioned it, even said it was important. Dunno what they're for, but Ogg made sure I kept 'em on me."
Harry was almost bouncing on his toes with excitement as Hagrid opened one half of his coat, digging around a very deep pocket for what felt like minutes. "Oho!" said Hagrid happily as he drew out a short, thin golden chain. The burnished metal gleamed in the firelight, and hanging from the loop of gold were four small, ornate, triangular keys.
"I don't believe it," said Hermione breathlessly.
"Could I…?" asked Harry, holding out his hand. Hagrid, with no hesitation at all, turned over his hand and dumped the keys into Harry's waiting palm. The metal was warm against his skin, the keys heavy.
There was a knock at the door.
Everyone froze, and Fang started barking. Harry stuffed the keys into his pocket.
"Hagrid?" The voice was deep and commanding. "Open up, please. We're Aurors, and we need to ask you a few questions."
"Yeh lot need to hide," said Hagrid, staring at the door, his tone serious.
They sprang into action, but there was nowhere to go. It was a mass of silent confusion for a few seconds.
"Be right there!" said Hagrid loudly, making frantic shooing gestures at the rest of them.
"There's only one door, Hagrid!" whispered Cho furiously.
Harry pulled out the Cloak. "Everyone into the kitchen, I think we can hide…"
Cedric, Cho, and Hermione piled into Hagrid's small kitchen, Daphne a half-step behind, and Harry threw the Cloak over them. They squeezed themselves up against the cabinets.
"No good," whispered Harry. "Daphne, I can see your legs."
"Let us in now," said the deep voice from outside the hut.
Harry cursed, looking around frantically. He saw a chance. "Come on!" he grabbed Daphne's hand, yanking her to her feet, drawing his wand with his free hand in the same motion.
Hagrid was moving to the front door, casting nervous glances behind him.
"Harry, what – " Daphne squeaked as Harry pulled her into his arms, drawing her tight.
"Just go with it," he said, pointing his wand at the small window high above Hagrid's sink. "Alohomora!" The window popped open.
Now for the tricky bit. Faster than he ever had before, he tried to force-but-not-force his way into the particular kind of lopsided mental state it took to do what he was trying to do. To his surprise, he slipped into it easily.
His grip tightened around Daphne's waist, and he pointed his wand behind him. Arresto Momentum.
Daphne, to her credit, stifled her shriek before it became too loud. They shot out the window like a cannon, Harry twisting in the air, pulling his legs up to keep from clipping the edge of the window. As they cleared the window, Daphne pushed against his chest, and for a split second Harry thought she was attacking him, but it quickly became clear she'd thought one step ahead of him: the ground came rushing up, and, separated from Daphne, Harry threw out a hand and dipped a shoulder, hitting Hagrid's pumpkin patch in a skidding, flailing roll.
Harry popped to his feet, dirt and the remains of a pumpkin sloughing off his jeans. He grinned. "That was bracing."
"Shhh, keep your voice down." Daphne was all business. She hadn't gotten to her feet yet, and was cradling her left arm.
"Are you okay?" Harry moved over to her – pitching his voice low, and knelt beside her.
"I'm fine," she snapped – but quietly. She craned her neck towards Hagrid's cabin. "Can you hear what they're saying?"
"No," said Harry. "You reckon we should move closer?"
"Yeah, I want to hear what they're…" Daphne trailed off, and then her head snapped up and she jumped to her feet.
Harry saw it a second later. Wandlight, coming down the grounds towards Hagrid's hut. "Another Auror, you think?"
"Maybe," said Daphne, edging back away from the hut. "Can't risk staying here."
Harry looked left and right, and pulled a plan from the ether. "Let's back up into the Forest, and then cut across to the Lake. We can make it to the castle from there."
"Okay," said Daphne. She glanced back at the hut. "Do you think the others will be okay?"
"They have the Cloak," said Harry. "They'll be fine." He said it to convince himself as well as her.
It was well and truly dark in the forest. The night noises of insects and wind rustling through the trees was far from comforting – the fact that they were running from something cast everything in a sinister light. Daphne kept looking around uneasily, and after a minute, she pulled her wand out.
"Better safe than sorry," she murmured. "Think we can chance a bit of light?"
"I wouldn't," said Harry, picking his way around a stump. "The moon's not bad, and light attracts attention."
They were quiet for a moment. A dog barked in the distance. The snap of branches when Harry stumbled was very loud in his ears. After a minute, he balanced his wand on his fingertips and said, "Point Me." The wand spun in his hand, quivering and finally settling on true north. Harry hummed, using his hand to estimate an angle away from the wand.
"We should head right, now," he said. "The Lake's that way."
Daphne frowned, her expression shadowed in the slanting lines of moonlight coming through the trees. "You just know that?"
"I know a lot of spells," said Harry.
"I'm beginning to realize that." They started walking again. Daphne held a branch aside for Harry. "You have more than a few secrets, don't you?"
"And you have just the one," said Harry. "I wonder what it is."
"I know part of it already," he said, "and I don't want to pry or anything, but…"
"… it's just, now that you know more about me, I figured – "
"Harry!" Daphne threw out a hand and stopped him in his tracks.
She moved her hand forward and pointed. "Look!"
He followed the line of her finger, pushing his glasses up his nose and squinting. In the distance, dancing in and out of sight through the small gaps in the trees, was a small but noticeable red-gold light.
"The phoenix," said Daphne, a current of strong emotion threaded through her voice. She took a step towards it.
The light receded, flickering in the distance. Daphne let out a soft, almost anguished cry and darted forward.
"Whoa, hold on, wait!" Harry followed, grabbing her shoulder. "We can't just… I mean, I want to find it too, but…now?"
"Yes, now!" she snapped, whirling to face him.
"Why? Why is it so important to you? It can't just be the Rooms." Harry let out a frustrated breath of air. "You just learned about them yesterday. And yes, that's what I'm looking for. The Gryffindor room, the Hall of Honor, I think the phoenix that lives in the Forest could be a clue, or know how to get there, or something."
"Then you want to find it too. Great, come on," she said, tugging on his arm, and Harry reluctantly fell into step beside her as she strode forward.
"It's personal for you, though," said Harry.
"Yes, it is," she said, glaring at him sidelong as they crashed through the underbrush. "And I can see you'll not let it go until I tell you."
Harry held his hands up defensively, but didn't deny the charge. "I... admit I can be nosy." Harry thought back to yesterday, to spying – there was no other word for it – on Cedric and Cho, and felt a flush of shame. "I'm trying to work on it."
Daphne was quiet a moment, her eyes intent on the light in front of them. It seemed to be ever on the edge of their vision, always on the brink of disappearing. Harry could practically taste Daphne's anticipation.
"It's a family thing," she said at last. "Before Astoria was around, before I had a stepdad, it was just my mum and I. We had it a bit rough for a while, but we were happy."
"What happened to your dad?" asked Harry, ducking under a tree branch.
"That's what I'm trying to find out," said Daphne grimly. "She refuses to tell me who he was. Adamant. Won't budge. No matter how much I beg. She knows it's killing me, not to know. She has to see how much it just… wrecks me." The hard edge of pain, both raw and dull with repetition, crept into her voice.
"Oh," said Harry, kicking himself for that being the only thing he could think to say. "I don't quite see, though, how…"
"I'm getting to that part," said Daphne. They hopped over a small stream, the light looking a bit closer, though still receding. "The only thing she'd ever say was that they went to school together, and he was a Gryffindor. Years ago, I stole her journal. She'd ripped out huge chunks of it. She must have hated him, I think. Or loved him a lot. I don't know."
Her voice was sad, now.
"There was only one part of her journal that said anything about him: 'Daphne keeps asking about her father – how can I tell her about the man who showed me phoenix song, and then turned my heart to ash? What if Daphne follows in his footsteps?"
"Was she a poet, or something?" Daphne didn't react, and Harry felt a twinge of guilt for teasing her when she was opening up. He quickly changed the subject. "You don't think she was just worried about you getting Sorted into Gryffindor?"
"It's all I have to go on, Harry," she said.
"And even if there really is some connection, are you expecting the phoenix to, you know, tell you? I know they're supposed to be quite smart, but…"
"Harry, I know," said Daphne, eyes still locked ahead of them, focused on the light. "I know all of that. I've thought about it a thousand times. You know the first thing I thought of when Cedric showed us his potions setup? I thought, maybe if he's that good, I could bribe him into brewing me Veritaserum and feed it to my mum. I thought that. I just… I have to know. I have to believe it's possible."
Harry let that roll around his mind as they moved through the dark trees. "I can appreciate that. If it were me… I think I'd have to know, too."
"Thanks," she said, and then stopped dead.
The phoenix was just there. It had turned around, and it glided through the trees in front of them, no longer a diffuse light, but a reality. Harry took an unthinking step forward. The phoenix was magnificent. It glowed with some inner radiance, its red-gold feathers sparkling and majestic, its body moving with sinuous grace as it lazily flew just a few feet off the ground.
It looked back. The glittering coal eyes were alight with sharp intelligence.
"Hello, Fawkes," said Harry, his voice coming out in an awed whisper.
"It has a name?"
"He, actually, and yes. Aberforth has a story about being saved by him, once. Apparently Fawkes helped the Order out of a few jams."
"He is smart, then," murmured Daphne. "Maybe…"
"Good and evil smart, Daphne, not people smart."
Fawkes turned, his long, red tail swishing behind him, and he took flight, moving away.
"No, wait!" cried Daphne. "Please!"
Fawkes looked back, and those coal eyes held an unmistakable warning.
Daphne didn't hesitate, but Harry did, reaching out to stop her. "He's going deeper in the Forest. It's getting really late. We still don't know if Cedric and the others made it back okay."
She just looked at him, her eyes big and pleading in the moonlight. "Harry…"
Harry grimaced, and folded like a cheap card table. The thrill-seeking part of his mind was already rubbing its metaphorical hands together in glee. "Fine. But carefully."
They ran after Fawkes.
The phoenix outpaced them, and soon Harry and Daphne were truly running, the footing treacherous in the darkness.
"Should we… split up?" said Harry, panting, his breath coming a bit ragged. He swung around a bush, then jumped over a fallen log. "Try to… box him in?"
"No," said Daphne, a few steps ahead of him, zigzagging through a copse of scraggly, bare pines. "We'd just get – oh!"
Daphne stumbled a halt, her body twisting madly, and Harry skidded to a stop. Daphne's arm – her left one, was tangled behind her somehow. Harry approached and jogged to a halt in front of her.
"Hit something," said Daphne, hissing in pain.
"I can't see…" Harry muttered. "Ah, screw it. Lumos." Harry squeezed his eyes shut at the brightness, then opened them fractionally. Daphne's arm was held up, dangling and wrapped around a strand of what looked like thin, white rope.
Harry moved behind her, looking for a good position try to untangle it. "Looks like you caught something. What even is this?" He reached out, prodding the rope and found it sticky to the touch.
"Harry." Daphne's voice was dead flat with a very, very serious undercurrent of fear. He looked up. She wasn't looking at her arm, she was looking around them.
The harsh light of Harry's wand revealed a scene straight out of a nightmare. The thin strand around Daphne's arm led up into a tree, where it joined another strand, and another still, a tapestry of gauzy white. A tapestry that was repeated on every tree Harry saw around them.
His mind curiously blank, he flicked his wand at a point above Daphne's arm. Diffindo. The strand of web severed, and Daphne's arm came free. She cradled it to her chest with a stifled cry of pain.
"We have to get out of here," she whispered.
Wildly, almost shockingly, Harry had to stifle an actual laugh. No shit. He reached for something – a spell, a bit of knowledge, an escape route – and found his mind just empty. Blank.
He heard rustling in the treetops, and skittering from the darkness surrounding them.
Daphne screamed. He acted. In the half-second it took to raise his wand, his mind now clear, not blank, it occurred to him that it was hard to act, for him, until there was something concrete to act against.
Which there was. Harry dragged his wand up in a vicious arc and roared "Protego!" The shield that sprang into being extinguished the light of Harry's wand, but it was strong and it covered them both. Even as it formed, golden and glowing, a chittering, wiggling thing hit the top of it, a mass of hair and legs and far too many eyes. It was the size of a large dog.
Daphne screamed, a high note of pure terror, but brought her wand up even as she did so. "Petrificus Totalus!"
The acromantula's legs snapped together, and the force of the spell blew it back into the air, twisting madly as it arced away into the darkness. Harry's shield…vibrated. Harry could feel it resonating. Something about Daphne's spell interacting with it… he dropped the shield. He could feel more acromantulas closing in on them, could feel hundreds of eyes glittering in the dark.
Harry swept his wand from side to side. He glanced at Daphne. "We have to run. I'll cover us. Incen – "
A heavy weight slammed into his midsection, and he went flying towards the ground. Instinctively, he shot out his hands to protect himself…
…and his wand went spinning into the darkness.
For a long, timeless moment, Harry simply couldn't believe it had happened.
And then time sped up, he hit the ground, his palms stinging with the impact. He rolled, coming to one knee, turning towards Daphne. She was on her feet, her eyes wide, pupils dilated with sheer adrenaline. Two acromantulas circled her, both easily as large as Fang.
"Arania Exumai!" Daphne's hand was shaking, but her aim was true, and one of the monstrous spiders went crashing down to the ground, its many legs buckling.
The other, with an almost casual jump, hopped on her back. She screamed.
Harry scrambled to his feet.
He had a bad moment, about a quarter of a second, where he considered running. He didn't see any spiders behind him, and he had nothing, no wand, no weapon. But he took a step forward, and then another one, and then he was sprinting.
He hit the acromantula in a flying body-tackle, clotheslining the giant spider across the middle with his arm. They hit the ground together, the thing shrieking, its hairy, spindly legs flailing for purchase as Harry grappled with it, crushing it to his chest, trying to contain it any way he could. It was a wriggling, writhing mass, and Harry almost wanted to close his eyes when the thing's head came into view, its too-many eyes all staring, unblinking, as it struggled.
Harry felt something dull and wet and painful along his side, and glanced down to see one of the acromantula's front legs had opened a long gash across his ribs. Harry cursed, tightened his grip, and spat in the thing's face.
Another sound, this one a roar, filled his ears, and Daphne's voice, yelling something unintelligible, rang out as a heavy whump knocked Harry off-balance. The spider fared worse, one of its legs crumpling in on itself as it whirled to face its new attacker.
Breathing hard, blood staining the shoulder of her t-shirt, dripping down her arm, Daphne held a heavy stick menacingly above her head.
"Thanks," said Harry, coughing, wincing at the pain in his chest at the motion. "Your wand?"
"Lost it," she said grimly. She took a swing at the spider and connected, bashing its head, and it dropped without ceremony, unmoving.
"Nice one," said Harry, struggling to his feet. Daphne reached out and hugged him tightly, just for a second, and Harry gripped her back. It was a relief, just to touch another person and know that they were there.
"We need to run," said Daphne.
"We need our wands," said Harry. "Find yours and I'll use it to summon mine."
Daphne looked to the tree where her arm had gotten tangled. "Should be there somewhere." They started to limp over.
They made it about halfway when another three spiders dropped out of the tree onto them.
Harry lost track of Daphne as he went down, trying to roll away from the chittering monstrosity on his back. He felt the thing's mouth bite at him and catch the fabric of his shirt. Daphne cursed from somewhere behind him. Harry rolled onto his back and tried to slam the spider into the ground with little success. This time, it was Harry who was caught around the middle, six legs wrapping, dragging. He flailed, felt his heart beating so hard he thought it might explode.
His hands scrabbled for purchase, found some sort of root, grabbed it, snapped it.
He felt himself being dragged away.
I can't believe it ends like this. Eaten by a giant spider. Sirius wouldn't think that was a very cool death at all. Dumbledore would be so disappointed that it wasn't more symbolic…
He felt, rather than saw, a warm, golden light. It was very far away, and at the same time, very, very close. Harry looked up, and through the large, hairy legs of the spider, he saw phoenix fire. He imagined, from this great distance, that he could see Fawkes's eyes.
A flash. The spider screamed and released its grip. Harry reached out blindly, and, thinking he was going to grasp the warm tail feathers of a phoenix, was surprised, instead, to feel something cool and metallic.
Opening his eyes, standing up, Harry looked down, not quite believing it. The sword was long and straight, double-edged and deadly sharp. It looked like something from another age, another time. The light of the moon caught the blade, and it shone, the hilt a filigree of gold and rubies that somehow felt comfortable and secure in his hand. The moonlight revealed writing engraved just above the hilt in a fine, elegant scrawl.
Harry turned. The spider that had been dragging him off had righted itself, and was preparing to leap at Harry again. It leapt. Harry pivoted neatly and caught the spider with the tip of the sword, and it skewered itself on the blade, sliding down nearly to the hilt. Harry jerked back in surprise, and the blade bisected the creature. Harry felt almost no resistance.
Without sparing a moment, he turned and sprinted back. Daphne was cornered, the other two spiders pinning her to the tree. She kept swinging her stick at them, but they never quite came close enough.
He didn't slow down; he just bent his arm high, like he was chopping wood, and drove the sword down in a broad arc, severing four of one of the spider's legs and sending it toppling to the ground. The other acromantula reared to face him, and Harry planted his feet, gripping the sword two-handed, and swung it like a baseball bat.
The giant spider's head fell to the forest floor with an audible thump, the limbs and body wiggling to a stop on top of it.
Daphne dropped her stick and sank to the ground, moaning, clutching her shoulder.
It caught up with Harry, too, at that moment, and suddenly the sword was heavy, his side was burning, and he felt weak, cold, and about to keel over with adrenaline burnout.
"How… where….?" asked Daphne weakly as she looked at the sword in Harry's hands.
"Fawkes," he replied.
And the phoenix in question was there, bursting into existence in a torrent of flame. He crooned, a single, pure note, and Harry felt his heart settle, his blood warm, and his hand steady.
"Fawkes," repeated Daphne. Her eyes were bright. She held out a hand, stretching forward…
And in another burst of flame, Fawkes was gone.
Daphne's hand closed around a single feather.
Harry let her sit there for a moment, just looking at it. She was blank-faced, but Harry could see a maelstrom of emotions brewing under the surface.
He held out his hand. "C'mon, we have to go. It's still not safe. Your wand?"
Daphne looked up, dazed. Then she nodded, got to her feet. With infinite care, she tucked the feather into her shirt pocket. Limping, she made her way around the tree, hands reaching out to prod at the disturbed dirt and broken sticks on the ground, evidence of the struggle that had so recently taken place.
After a minute, she made a little sound of relief and straightened up. Without speaking, she walked over and slapped her wand into Harry's hand. "You know any first-aid spells?"
Harry shook his head. "Nothing that would cover this." He grimised at the way Daphne cradled her shoulder - it looked bad.
Daphne's wand felt strange in his hand, but it responded to him. Harry pointed it out into the darkness. "Accio wand." A few seconds later, Harry's wand came whizzing back, and he felt a surge of his own relief as he held it. He handed Daphne hers. As Harry stepped back, he caught Daphne looking at the Sword.
"I don't understand," she said, her hand going to the shirt pocket where she'd stowed the phoenix feather. "Was it all just a test? A challenge to get the sword?"
"Magic and symbolism," said Harry, hefting the Sword of Gryffindor, looking down its length, the black blood of acromantulas dripping from its edge. "You can't just find the Sword. You have to prove that you deserve it."
"And what am I, in this?" asked Daphne softly, dangerously. "Someone for you to save?"
"No," said Harry, wiping the sword on the bottom of his shirt, which was itself stained with his own blood. He nodded at Daphne's shirt pocket meaningfully. "You got your answer."
"I suppose I did," said Daphne, her hand closing over the pocket again, almost protectively. "I just wish I knew what it meant."
"Let's go back," said Harry. "That was enough adventure for one night."
"Understatement," said Daphne.
Harry used another Four-Point spell. "Castle's this way."
They started to walk, but after a minute Daphne stopped. "We're leaving a pretty noticeable trail." She was right, Harry saw. Daphne's shoulder was bleeding freely, and the gash in Harry's side was no better. Harry lit his wand and saw a trail of blood-splattered plants and branches behind them.
"That's no good," said Harry. "We can't let anyone know we were out here. Especially the Aurors."
"I'm open to suggestions," said Daphne.
Harry thought about it for a minute.
In the end, they stood back-to-back. Daphne held Harry's hand and guided him as she walked forward and he walked backwards behind her.
Every few seconds, Harry would wave his wand and mutter an Evanesco.
And so they made their slow, painful way back to Hogwarts, vanishing the trail of their blood as they went.
For now, I've decided to leave the summary as-is. Too many people told me they were fine with it. I will, however, give out the prize I promised in the last chapter.
So, congrats to JukedSolid, whose summary idea was the direct inspiration for the new one I've been tinkering with:
"A great wizard courts danger, uncovers ancient mysteries, hordes secrets like gold, guards true friends closely, comprehends magic on a deep level, and always knows where his towel is. Harry Potter has all the makings of a great wizard. A re-imagining of books 1-7 with an AU twist or two."
I may or may not end up actually using it. As you can see, it still needs a bit more... something. I also want to give a shout-out to RookieReads, whose thoughts on summaries in general were quite insightful.