Last chapter. Here we go.
The Man Behind the Mask
The professors ran the entire way to the Great Hall, and Harry was right behind them. This entire situation was untenable. Two Heirs still running around, neither of them people anyone would suspect of being behind this until it was too late, and one of them had a giant monster that could kill with a glance and had a bite no one had ever survived. If there were such things as living weapons of mass destruction, a basilisk would be one.
"Why are they doing this?" Sprout panted. "They wanted the Muggleborns out of the school. They're getting it. Why do any of this now?"
Flitwick looked over at her, his own breath just as sharp. He might not have the excess weight his colleague did, but he still had to run twice as fast as Sprout and Harry if he wanted to keep up. "Possession. Two very different minds cannot dwell in a single body at the same time. Not without damaging each other. They've lost sight of their goal and are focused just on killing now. At least, that's what I think. A Mind Healer needs to see them to be sure. We have to stop them before they can kill anyone else, by any means necessary."
"Any means necessary? You don't mean killing them, do you?"
"We might not have a choice," he admitted. "But I hope we can avoid that. These girls are victims, too. Just as much as the people they hurt."
"So we need to take them down fast. The longer the fight goes on, the bigger the risk we might kill them." The professors both turned to look at him, but before they could deny his inclusion, he reminded them, "They attacked me. Like it or not, I'm already involved."
"…You have a point." Looking ahead, Flitwick shook his head with a loud groan. "Fine. But leave the actual fighting to us. If you know a good shield charm, protect the other students from any ricochets. If not, attack them only if you have a good shot at their backs. Do anything else, and I will see you in detention."
Harry smiled at the absurdity of that threat. Right now, with the school closing and a killing machine on the loose, detention was the least of his concerns.
They turned the corner into the corridor leading to the Great Hall, and their worst fears were realized. The body of an enormous snake filled the space, the far end shifting around as the head moved to and fro inside the Great Hall itself. Without warning, the snake reared back, and Harry did not have time to shield his face. Because of that, he saw the material plastered over the top of the serpent's head to cover its eyes, and strangely enough, the substance had lines and whorls that strongly reminded him of wood.
"Minerva, you crazy, clever witch!" Flitwick's shout attracted the basilisk's attention, and it turned its unseeing head towards them before a barrage of spellfire caught it on its flank. "Mister Potter, change of plans. You head inside. Do you know what Theresa Jordan looks like?"
Looking over at Lash, he caught her firm nod and gave the same to Flitwick. He knew she would know whom he was looking for.
"Good. She has to be the last Heir. Help Minerva capture her and Ginny Weasley. We'll handle the snake."
"Coming through!" he shouted as he ran into the Great Hall. He really did not want to be hit by one of the older students who had organized themselves in a firing line because he startled them. Spotting the black-haired professor, he skidded to a stop. "Professor, the Heir's in here!"
"Nonsense!" Her eyes never turned from the fight against the basilisk, though she did not cast anything at the beast. Between Flitwick leading it around by the nose, Sprout doing something that Harry could not make out, and the students who were still shooting whenever they saw a chance, the chance of friendly fire was too high. "No one came in after the basilisk attacked!"
He shook his head and started looking around the room. "There are multiple Heirs! We need to find—" His eyes fell on the girl in question, and she could not hide her expression of hatred quickly enough to fool him. "Theresa Jordan."
McGonagall did not even have time to turn around. Grabbing the tall boy beside her – her brother, perhaps, given the similarities of their facial features – she threw him between herself and Harry. The older boy then rocketed through the air and crashed into Harry and McGonagall both. Shouts and curses rang out while they tumbled to the stony floor.
The other boy's attempts to help hindered Harry's climb to his feet more than anything, and he finally shoved the Gryffindor off so he could get up. What he found was not great, but not as bad as it could have been. Other students had been quick to move against the Heir, but Jordan had grabbed another girl and was using her as a human shield. How she could sling the already-unconscious girl's dead weight around like it was nothing, he could only guess. With a hostage in her grasp, the defending students were forced to be careful in their choice of attack. Jordan, on the other hand, had no such restriction. Several people were already on the ground; none dead if their moans were any indication, but they were out of the fight nonetheless.
"Accio!" McGonagall bellowed from beside him, and the poor girl being used to defend her attacker was yanked toward the elder witch. Jordan, as a result of her tight grip, was pulled along for the ride.
Now that was a trick he could use. Waiting until the pair got close enough, Harry threw his right hand out. "Herranal!" His blast was mostly spent negating Jordan's own speed, but the two spells working in opposition were enough to rip the Heir's hostage out of her grasp. She tumbled to the ground and rolled a few feet away from them before coming to a stop. Raising her head, she sent Harry a murderous glare.
And then she was promptly buried under a hailstorm of curses.
"I dearly hope you were telling the truth, Mister Potter. Her reaction leaves little doubt, but…." McGonagall sighed and shook her head. "How did you even know she was the Heir?"
"Professor Flitwick figured it out. There were four Heirs, and we already caught two of them." Pulling the slim book out of his pocket, he held it up for her to see. "They all read from this grimoire, and apparently it implanted someone's memories—"
The book was ripped out of his grasp and flew to the far side of the room into Ginny Weasley's hand. Before anyone could aim a wand at her, she dashed away, blasting the older students who were on guard against the basilisk into their fellows as she slipped into the corridor.
McGonagall glanced between the fight still going on against the gigantic snake and the front door of the castle, torn on which enemy needed to be taken care of first. Harry decided to make it simpler. "I have my broom on me," he said while pulling the homemade broomstick out of his expanded pouch. "I can catch up to Weasley before she gets away if you help them with the basilisk."
"Go." He threw his leg over the broom while she ran towards the serpent, and so he nearly missed her next command. "Be careful."
He could not help the smile that appeared. That was undoubtedly the nicest thing the Transfiguration professor had said to him since he first met her. Kicking off the ground, he pushed as much speed as he could out of the focus and zipped through the air and out the door. Weasley had not had that long to run, so she still had to be…. There! He raced after her, but she slipped into the trees of the Forbidden Forest before he could catch up.
Ascending quickly, he shook his head when he saw just how thick the forest's canopy was. There was no way he would be able to follow her from the skies, and the limbs of the trees were interlaced to create a thick wall not far past the edge. He had no other choice; he would have to follow her on foot if he wanted to follow her at all.
"Lash, how bad would it be if she got away?"
A weight at his back revealed where the former Fallen was. "I do not know. If her mental state is degrading as rapidly as Flitwick assumes, she will eventually become a greater danger to herself than to anyone else, but there is no way to predict how long that will take. She is not the true threat here, though. The grimoire is. There is no way to know how many people the personality contained within can infect, but considering the damage four eleven-year-olds were capable of…."
He shuddered at that thought. They were looking at potentially dozens of artificial psychopaths, and if all of them worked together the way the Heirs had at the end? That was something to be avoided at all costs. Looking down at the forest, he sighed. Yes, even if those costs involved chasing after Weasley in the Forbidden Forest.
Barely had he walked twenty feet into the forest before he started feeling hemmed in. A glance behind him, just to check that there was still a route back if necessary, left him confused and worried; unless he had gained the ability to walk through solid objects without knowing it, the tree that was obscuring the school from view had not been there before. He had walked in a straight line.
Or, at least, he thought he had.
Harry wordlessly asked his guardian angel for help, but she could only turn to him with a lost expression. "I do not know what to tell you. I saw no signs that your vision was being manipulated, but genius loci as a general rule do not have the power to reshape themselves like that."
"I guess I'm stuck trusting the forest not to send me into a bear's den, then."
As it turned out, the bear was not the problem he had to worry about. He estimated that he spent approximately fifteen minutes moving deeper into the forest, and now he was thoroughly lost. With a huff of frustration, he turned to Lash. "Where am I?"
"I have tried to map out your path, but every time you look behind you, the placement of the trees is different from what it was earlier. I do not know where you are any better than you do."
"Great." He pulled his foot back to give a nearby an irritated kick, but his foot stopped at the peak of its curve when a thought occurred to him. Would that even work? He had no idea, and it relied on another party choosing not to mess with him, but it was still worth a shot, wasn't it? Lowering his foot, he instead stretched out his hand and laid it on the smooth bark of the tree. "I don't know if you care. I don't even know if you're listening. But the girl who ran in here? She's dangerous. I don't think she cares who she has to hurt or who she has to kill to get what she wants." He leaned back but did not remove his hand from the tree, thinking about what he had said. That was something he would say to a person, but he was not talking to a person. He was talking to the spirit of a forest. What would a forest care about? "It's…. I don't think she would only attack people, either. Any creature that got in her way? She'd probably kill it. If she needed to, I don't think she would think twice about knocking down all the trees.
"I need your help. I'm not asking for you to stop her, though if you did, I'd be thankful. I just need help finding her. I'm lost, and maybe that's just me, or maybe that's you. But I need to find her if I'm going to stop her, and right now, I'm the only one here. So… please. Help me."
He did not know what he expected, but nothing changed as a result of his plea. The trees did not move. No helpful woodland creature popped out to be his guide. Everything was the same as it was before he tried talking to the spirit of the forest.
Finally, he pulled away. He had given it a try. With a shake of his head, he plunged back into the woods.
He ran for barely three minutes before he noticed something strange. In front of him, the natural trail divided. This by itself was no great surprise; the paths had been doing this since he entered the forest. No, what was odd was that while the path leading to the right looked just the same as they all had – an uneven surface with roots crisscrossing all along its length and the occasional branch laying on the ground as an additional tripping hazard – the one going left did not. It was smooth, and the roots were all turned parallel to the path so that they looked almost like they were meant to be borders. But that made no sense; why would there be a single cultivated path here, in the depths of the forest? The only reason that would be the case was….
Turning to the nearest tree, he gave it a sunny smile. "Thank you."
The left-hand path sloped slowly and gently upwards, with a small patch in the middle where the ground had actually been carved into five uniform steps. Golden sunlight soon peeked out from between the trees, and he swerved around a trunk to gaze upon a beautiful sight. A clearing, sheltered from sight, where bright green grass covered the earth and multiple strains of birdsong could be heard coming from the edges. There was even a pair of deer at the far end; they looked up and gave him no more than a passing glance before they sedately wandered away into the shadows.
The idyllic atmosphere was broken when a sulfurous voice came from the other end of the clearing. A moment later, Weasley broke through the underbrush and looked around with a scowl. "Where am I?"
"T'ak'un." The veil hid Harry from sight before she spotted him, and he started running as quietly as he could towards her. He needed to get closer if he wanted to hit her with a Stunning Spell; from this distance, she would have all the time in the world to avoid it. Thirty feet away. Twenty-five. Twenty.
Her eyes shot to the ground at his feet, and she slashed her wand and barked some unintelligible word. The grass rippled as a wave of force swept over it, and then it slammed into him. He hit the ground hard, tumbling over and over before finally coming to a stop. Climbing to his feet, he scowled when he saw that his veil had fallen at some point. There went the element of surprise.
"Harry Potter." Weasley smiled, the expression cold. "I hoped you would be the one to come after me. I didn't think you would, not with you being such a coward, but I hoped. I've wanted to meet you my entire life, did you know that? Even last year, when you became a Slytherin. I was sure there was something nobody was telling me, something that would explain everything. There wasn't."
He frowned. There was something off about this. Then again, that might just be what he had to expect from someone who had two different minds trying to meld together. "It seems strange for someone who went around claiming to be the Heir of Slytherin to be so condescending about his House."
"I can respect the man's philosophy and dislike what has become of his legacy."
"Yeah, about that. Where'd all the hate for the Muggleborns come from?" While he was talking, he sidled over to the left and turned so she would not see him reach for the thorn wand he had slipped back into his pocket. "Your family is about as pro-Muggle and -Muggleborn as they come. Seems strange that you'd grow up with such a different opinion. Is that something else you learned that from your little book of yours?"
"My family," she spat, "is blind. Muggle-lovers, all of them, but have any of them ever met a Muggle? Only my father, and he is too busy talking about how clever they are that they can do little tricks to pay attention to what else they do. I was blind, too, but Tom opened my eyes." She lifted the hand carrying the grimoire and stroked it as though it were a favorite pet. "He was forced to live with the Muggles. He saw what they're really like. They're vile, violent little beasts. They turn on each other without provocation over the least important things. They're a blight on our world, and they deserve to be wiped out."
"Vile, violent little beasts." Harry shook his head. "So you're saying wizards and witches aren't? After you and your friends attacked other students, you honestly think you have the moral high ground?"
"We did what was necessary! The Muggleborns and the blood-traitors would see us become just like Muggles! They have to be stopped! Whatever it takes, even if they all have to die! We're saving our world!"
Wow. Okay, she was legitimately crazy. With his thorn wand gripped firmly, he gave her a single nod. "I think I see what you're doing. But if— Ayrvel!"
The unexpected fireball flying at her face caught her off-guard, but she rallied quickly enough that she could spray water out of her wand like a hose to quench it. That gush of water turned into a torrent, and the blow smashed into his chest and flung him into the air so he could crash into the ground for the second time in as many minutes. Barely had he staggered to his feet before he noticed that he was having difficulty moving. Frost covered his clothes, and in front of his eyes that layer of ice grew and merged into a thick shell that trapped him.
"You're just like them, aren't you?" said Weasley with a sneer. "You don't even try to understand. You just—"
Harry kept an eye on the ranting girl, but so long as she did not raise her wand, she was giving him time to escape. He whispered the incantation for his fire this time, letting his magic pour out both hands. He did not want a fireball, not with his hands pinned to his sides by the ice as they were; all he needed were the flames themselves. Lash had told him even before he entered Hogwarts that his own magic was incapable of harming himself. Now he was going to put that to the test.
Two minutes later, and she was still talking. That was fine. The ice wrapped around his arms sloughed off.
The motion caught her attention, and she hurled a violently purple curse at him without saying a word; he barely managed to call up his shield in time to deflect it. One of these days, he really needed to find out how these girls were all able to do that. A different spell came at him this time, and then she smiled and started walking to the side far too calmly for his peace of mind. What was she planning now?
"This is becoming a battle of attrition," Lash whispered in his ear. "She does not need to cast any magic at you, but you need to keep your shield up or risk being cursed. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that she will be the victor. You need to end this quickly!"
With that warning ringing in the air, he cast a Leg-Locker Hex through his shield. The spell splashed on a golden shield, and Weasley smirked at him like a particularly satisfied cat. Much as it galled him to admit it, this girl was better with a wand despite the difference in age, even if she had cheated to get there. How could he gain the advantage?
Then again, that might be the answer.
Weasley's wand slipped from her grasp, but she snatched it back before it could escape. "Clever," she said, her voice anything but pleased. A jet of blood-red light flew into the blue circle and missed by a wide margin. With his feet and legs still frozen, he was never more glad that he had modified his shield bracelet to redirect spells as well as physical objects.
His eyes widened. Moving his hand slightly and focusing on something else, he repeated the incantation.
This time Weasley's wand raced towards him, but that was only because it was the girl herself he had summoned. She was unable to throw another curse before she slammed face-first into his shield, and then flew over him to fall awkwardly onto the ground. It was a good thing she had been sent to his right; had she gone left, instead, she would have been directly behind him. Before she climbed to her feet, he pointed at her once again. "Nirh!"
A bolt of lavender, and she collapsed like an abandoned marionette.
He laughed, the sound tired and relieved. It was over. Finally.
His fire made quick work of the remaining ice, which was already starting to melt on its own, and he cast a Stunning Spell at the unconscious girl to make sure she did not wake up. Levitating her, he turned to the nearest tree. "Thank you. Really, I'm grateful."
The walk back to the castle was not as clear as the path the forest had formed, but it was still easier than the initial plunge, and only a few minutes passed before the edge of the woods and the school beyond came into view. "Even if it wasn't entirely your fault," he told Weasley, "I hope you understand just how much trouble you and your friends caused. Flitwick better destroy that grimoire as soon as he can."
If the tiny professor was still alive. He could not hear the sounds of battle, but that just meant the fight was over, not that humanity was the survivor.
"If that snake is still alive, it would be the cherry atop this utter disaster of a day."
The mood on the Hogwarts Express as it chugged its way south was somber. Students did not flutter from one compartment to the next, choosing instead to stay in their seats. The trolley of sweets did not make its way along the train. And the rearmost cabin was silent as death, for that was where the bodies of the dead had been laid. Twenty-three students were murdered that morning, of all years and all Houses, as well as two teachers. Lockhart, who according to witnesses had screamed and tried to run before he looked in the basilisk's gaze, and Sinistra, who had looked over to see what was causing the disturbance.
Considering that all a basilisk needed to do to kill was to meet someone's eyes, it was honestly a miracle that only twenty-five people had died. A miracle and McGonagall's quick thinking.
Hannah and Susan had eschewed a compartment with their fellow Badgers to sit with Harry instead, and though he did not know if they had done it so they would have somewhere to grieve in private or so he would not be alone, he appreciated their company all the same.
"Hogwarts won't reopen next year," Susan said, breaking the silence that had filled the compartment for the last two hours.
Harry sighed. "Probably not."
"It might never open again."
No one said anything for several minutes, and finally Hannah sighed. "My mum wrote me last week that she signed me up at Anthony College for next year. After the troll last year, and then the Heir? She wouldn't let me come back even if it was open."
"Auntie hasn't said where I'm going next year. What about you, Harry?"
"I don't know. I don't know where any other schools are." Or even if he wanted to go to one. He had never run into dangers like these before attending Hogwarts, and this was the perfect time to slip back into the normal world as he wanted to do. "I might try homeschooling. That or go to Beauxbatons; my French is pretty good."
"I didn't know you spoke French," Susan said quietly.
"No one at Hogwarts does."
That thoughtless comment stifled the conversation for a long minute. Hannah sighed. "I tried to tell people in our House that you weren't the Heir, but they didn't believe me."
"I know. I overheard you and Finch-Fletchey arguing with Macmillan in the library." The blonde blushed at that admission. "Thank you, and if you see him, tell him thanks, too. It meant a lot that you'd stand up for me like that."
"It's just what friends do."
The Express rolled into King's Cross as night was falling, and the students poured out into the arms of anxious adults. Harry watched the girls reunite with their families until a soft hand was laid on his shoulder. "I know," he told his angel. "It's time to go."
"It is. We have no way of knowing what will come next, but we need to be ready for it. Two disasters occurring around you in as many years, and both of them involving a murder possessing someone? I do not like the pattern that is developing."
"So lots more work, right?" He smiled faintly. "Then we better get home and start on it.
And then he was gone.
So…. Not my original plan, but it seems like a good place for the book to end. We'll just have to see if or when my muse decides to give me ideas for part 2.
Silently Watches out.