Chapter 26: The way in

"Too many classes today," Merlin complained while going down the stairs to the Potions classroom.

He needed time to think, to plan, to investigate. The school was in danger and what was he doing? Sitting in a classroom, pretending to be clueless.

"I know what you mean," Colin murmured and looked around him with worry.

Ever since Halloween, Slytherins had been even nastier than usual to Colin and other Muggle-born students. Dumbledore said nothing to the students besides an assurance that whoever attacked Mrs. Norris would be dealt with. If Merlin was the Headmaster, he would have handled it very differently, but he couldn't do anything about that, so he focused on what he could do—find who was responsible and keep his friends safe. It started with telling them the truth. It was safer for Colin to know what danger he was in.

His mood lifted when he noticed just how miserable Snape was. The grumpy Potions Master remained standing during the entire lesson. He sauntered around the tables, his hands forming a triangle in his front with only the fingertips touching. His usual chair was nowhere to be found. He probably vanished it in a fit of rage. Merlin was specific in his curse: only chairs would break under Snape's weight. If he sat on a table or leaned on a desk, nothing would happen. But Snape wasn't the type of person who would relax on top of a desk. Casual demeanor wasn't part of the image he worked so hard on.

Now came the challenge to make the wizard understand why he was cursed. Merlin considered sending him a letter instructing him to treat all students equally and to punish those who used inappropriate language in his class, which any respectable teacher would have done. But he chose to wait a while, let the message You've been cursed sink in a little deeper. Also, he didn't want the message to be associated with the Chamber of Secrets message, seeing as both events happened at such close proximity to each other.

A lot was happening at the same time. An additional task was bestowed upon him by Jack. While thinking over which first-year student could have been responsible for the events on Halloween, Jack was the first that came to his mind because the boy showed up to the feast late. His reluctant suspicions increased when he noticed Jack act very uncharacteristically over the next couple of days. He feared that the behavior was a result of guilt or fear of being caught, but then, the boy surprised him in the most unexpected way. Jack was upset about the morality of magic practiced at Hogwarts.

Oh, what a refreshing problem to have! The boy reminded him of himself when he was young. He too had been young and innocent once upon a time, but with time, he'd been placed in many situations where his principles were tested. Each experience further expanded the gray zone with "the ends justify the means" philosophy and he grew insensitive to issues that used to bother him. It was nice to be reminded of what mattered. Jack was right—all lives mattered. The option that caused less harm to others, human or not, should always be the first choice.

Considering the innocence of it all, Merlin dropped his suspicions of Jack and wanted to help instead. After mulling over the idea of what he could do, he finally came up with the best option—he would officially introduce him to Old Religion.

The timing was not ideal. With the Chamber of Secrets threat looming over them, it wasn't the best time to split attention into multiple directions, but Merlin had to make it work. He was going to do it all.

The sound of breaking wood and an angry grumble snapped Merlin back to the present time. Snape, apparently, leaned on a chair of one of the Slytherin students, and it broke.

"He's still breaking chairs?" Jack whispered and Merlin tried to remain calm even though he was in stitches on the inside. He might have cursed him to teach the wizard a lesson, but the effect was even more comical than expected.

After the lesson, Colin kept recalling the look on Snape's face when the chair broke.

"He looked like, Oh, no. I didn't even sit in it. And then he looked like, Are they laughing? They're laughing at me! And then his face was like, I'll kill you all with pieces of this broken chair. And I couldn't take it anymore. I had to look away before he noticed me and made me drink my Herbicide Potion as punishment. I don't know how long this chair thing will last but I love it."

They arrived at the Great Hall and took their usual spot in the middle of the Gryffindor table.

"He didn't come," Jack said, craning his neck to see the staff. "He hasn't shown up for the last few meals. You think he doesn't eat anymore?"

Merlin felt a lot of satisfaction at the thought that Snape was afraid to show up in public.

"He probably eats in his office, while standing."

While they ate, he told the boys the story of the Chamber of Secrets and warned them about the danger it posed.

Colin was understandably disturbed. "Slytherins must know. That's why they've been extra mean the last few days."

"I'm guessing that someone told them already."

Jack's eyes were lit up with fascination. "I wonder what's inside the Chamber."

"Wouldn't the monster be old and shriveled up by now?" Colin asked.

"Nah," Merlin said. "With enough magic, some creatures can live for thousands of years."

"Maybe it's a skeleton, like one of those we saw during the Halloween feast." Colin's eyes widened. "Merlin, it makes sense! One of the skeletons opened the Chamber of Secrets!"

Merlin imagined a clackety skeleton walking through the Hogwarts halls, opening secret chambers and leaving messages on walls. "How can you write in blood if your hand falls off every couple of minutes?"

"Maybe the Chamber is invisible and that's why no one found it?" Jack asked thoughtfully.

"No," Colin said, trying to be serious but failing. "Mrs. Norris was the monster and the message meant that the monster has been slain."

Jack gasped and slammed both hands on the table. "Whoever opens the Chamber becomes the monster!"

Colin wanted to laugh but then didn't. "That actually sounds plausible."

"Right? Some kind of spell that gets released when you open it."

Merlin had no idea what monster or spell was contained within the infamous Chamber. Anything was possible, even clackety skeletons.

"Where do you think this Chamber is? Could we go look for it?"

"Jack, don't even think about it," Merlin said while pointing his fork at the boy in a warning. Unfortunately, the fork wasn't empty and the potato which Merlin had stabbed with it earlier shot out of it. Jack dodged it and the spud flew over his shoulder, landing under the Ravenclaw table.

"Missed me." Jack chuckled and threw his own potato at Merlin who swerved out of the way. Behind him, a Hufflepuff girl got hit with it in the head.

"Food fight?" Colin asked hopefully, and their eyes sparkled with mischief.

Jack loaded a spoon and launched a carrot missile at the small boy. Colin grabbed a sausage in each hand and threw both at Jack and Merlin. Merlin managed to avoid getting hit, but then, Jack swatted the one thrown at him and it bounced off of Merlin's nose.

"That's enough. What have I done?" Merlin lamented.

His protests were of no use as the boys now hurled various vegetables at each other and other Gryffindors. The Weasley twins joined in and threw chicken bones back at them. Jack protected himself with his plate and used it like a ping-pong paddle, sending bones flying around. One fell into Colin's pumpkin juice with a splash. Colin retaliated by throwing a half-eaten lamb chop at Weasley the twins, but he missed, and it fell onto the plate of a girl sitting nearby. The girl threw a whole chicken leg at Colin, and Merlin caught it in midair with a spectacular finesse.

"Ooooh," everyone nearby sounded, and Merlin felt slightly smug. Being able to see things with magic came in useful.

But then, someone splashed him with the stew, and he didn't care who it was. It was time to level up the fight. Using magic, he made chips float and fired them at both boys like from a machine gun. Jack dipped his hand into a bowl of mashed potatoes and threw it blindly around. Some of it hit Colin in the eye and stayed on like a white eye patch. Colin closed his eyes and grabbed random items and threw them without aiming. Plates flew around like frisbees and Merlin noticed that Peeves the Poltergeist had joined them at some point and was cackling in his high pitch voice, a tureen in his hands. Was that who splashed him earlier? Merlin conjured a pot of oil above the spirit and emptied it in a slow fashion. He soon regretted it when Peeves shook off his hat, sprinkling them all with oil.

A recognizable click-clacking of heels sounded among the laughter and Merlin took action.

"Teacher alert!" he hissed.

He vanished the bits of food from the table, their robes, hands, and faces, and threw a hex at Peeves to send him away. The boys were still laughing and didn't even notice.

The clacking stopped behind him.

"What is happening here?" McGonagall asked.

"Nothing, Professor," Merlin answered with an innocent smile. "We were just passing food to each other."

His friends snorted simultaneously.

"Passing?" She put both hands on Jack's shoulders and he tensed up.

She looked around, searching for evidence of the fight, but there wasn't any. Everything was in order. Everything except for the chicken bone which was still inside Colin's mug. She looked at Merlin intensely like she wanted to punish them with no evidence but then a hint of a smile played at the corner of her lip.

"Impressive cleanup," she said calmly. "Do try to behave, boys."

They watched her walk away and all three of them breathed a sigh of relief.

Colin tried to take a swig of juice from his mug, noticed the bone, and pulled it out. Watching the drops of pumpkin juice slowly fall off the bone did it for Merlin. He bent over in a fit and banged his fist on the table.

"We should pass food more often," Jack said to Colin. "If that's what it takes to make him drop the serious face."

The Weasley twins walked over and clapped them on the back.

"We'd like to offer our congratulations on your first official Great Hall Food Fight."

"Excellent technique."

"Flawless execution."

"Graceful finale."

"Next time, let's scale it up to other house tables."

"We can assist you with that."

"You know where to find us."

The twins walked away and Merlin wondered if he was going to take them up on their offer. He wouldn't mind a repeat. He was starting to see the benefits of being a kid. Adults were missing out.

Regretfully, it was time to go. Herbology awaited.

As they were walking out, Colin asked him, "Did you do that?"

"Do what?"

"The mess disappeared before McGonagall got to us. Did you do that?"

Merlin hoped that the boys were so lost in their fun that they wouldn't notice, but Colin was an observant kid, wasn't he?

"Yeah. I learned a vanishing spell."

"That's really cool. Thanks."

Once they were in the corridor, by coincidence, Harry Potter walked just a foot away from them and a strange thing happened. A Hufflepuff student was approaching them from the other direction, looking at his feet. Harry said "Hello," and the other boy jumped startled, turned around, and ran away. Harry froze in place, confused by the strange reaction.

"What did I do now?" he asked no one in particular.

"Is that boy Muggleborn by any chance?" Merlin asked.

Harry looked surprised that someone answered his rhetorical question. "Yeah, Justin is Muggleborn."

"Hiya, Harry," Colin said excitedly.

"Hi, Colin," Harry said quickly but his attention was on Merlin only. "Why does it matter that he's Muggleborn?"

Merlin shrugged. "There's a rumor going around that you opened the Chamber of Secrets so he's probably scared. You didn't, right?"

"I had nothing to do with it!" Harry's voice slightly rose.

Merlin put up his hands. "I believe you. I'm on your side, Harry."

"What does any of this have to do with Muggleborns?"

A brilliant thought struck Merlin. This was his way into Harry's circle of friends.

"Meet me in the common room after dinner. I'll tell you all about the Chamber."

"He knows the whole story, Harry," Colin added enthusiastically. "You wait till you hear it. It's fascinating. I have so many theories now. I can share them with you once Merlin fills you in. I don't know if you're the Heir. Are you? Would you even know? We could all be related to him after all. Hey, Harry, for all we know, I could be related to you through some ancestor. We could be cousins!"

Harry shuffled a step back as if afraid he could catch a disease from Colin. He said quickly to Merlin, "Tonight, you will tell me everything," and he scurried away.

"Sure thing. Bring your friends," Merlin shouted after him.

Merlin watched the boy walk away and felt like he could dance from joy. He finally found how he could get closer to Harry. The way in was in offering something Harry wanted—Merlin's knowledge. But maybe he shouldn't bring Colin with him.

After dinner, Merlin waited for Harry in front of the common room fireplace where the trio liked to hang out. He was in high spirits. Everything was working out for him today. Nearby, Percy Weasley tried to comfort his sister whose eyes were red and puffy. She looked as if she hadn't slept in a week.

"Don't worry, Ginny. It will soon be over. Whoever did it to Mrs. Norris will get caught and expelled from the school, I'm sure of it."

The more he talked, the more frantic the girl became. His words were not reassuring her at all.

"Do they have any clues as to who did it?" she asked in a shaky voice.

"Once they do, I'm sure they'll tell us, Prefects, first, and you'll be the first person I give the good news to. You look tired. Go to bed early today."

Ginny hung her head and shuffled to her dorm. Harry arrived with Hermione and Ron and took seats next to Merlin. Percy's eyes lingered on Ron for a moment but then he huffed and left, holding his head high.

Ron crossed his arms and pouted. "I can't believe that git of a brother took away five points from Gryffindor for nothing."

Merlin said, "That doesn't make sense. What did he say the points were for?"

"He wanted us to stay away from the corridor where it happened."

"Everyone's on edge about the event. Ginny is taking it rather roughly," Merlin said.

"She loves cats so she's upset about Mrs. Norris," Ron said with a shrug.

"Speaking of," Hermione said. "Harry said that you know about the Chamber."

All three leaned in and were waiting. Merlin got comfortable and began, happy to share the tale with them.

"It all started a millennium ago with Salazar Slytherin. While he was a skilled wizard and a good teacher, he was very prejudiced. I don't know the details, but I believe that a loved one of his suffered at the hands of Muggles and as a result, his heart had nothing but hate for them. The times were hard for those who possessed magic. Muggles persecuted wizards out of fear. In revenge, wizards like Slytherin persecuted Muggles. This conflict is the reason why we go to such lengths to hide our existence now. No one wants a return of that war, especially since we're the minority.

"Salazar was not accepting of students who came from Muggle families. He considered them unworthy of being educated in the school he co-founded even if they were born with magic. He did not accept Muggle-borns into his House and wanted the other founders to follow his ideology, but they did not agree with his views. This began a great disagreement between them.

"When Salazar accepted that he couldn't win his argument, he eventually left the school. But before leaving, he left something behind, something that would complete his mission to cleanse the school of those who were unworthy. He built a secret chamber underneath the castle and hid something inside that when released, would rid the castle of Muggle-borns. No one ever found this chamber even though many looked. The legend says that Salazar enchanted the entrance so that only his heir could find it and unleash whatever is inside."

"What's inside the Chamber?" Harry asked.

"Some kind of monster, I imagine."

"Enemies of the Heir beware," Hermione repeated. "That's what the message on the wall meant. Slytherin's descendant has arrived at Hogwarts."

"A thousand years is an awfully long time," Ron cut in. "How come no other heir opened the Chamber in all this time?"

"Who said they didn't? In fact, the Chamber was most likely opened just about fifty years ago."

"What?" all three of them asked in unison.

"There was a string of attacks on Muggle-borns," Merlin answered. "Also petrified. One died and then the attacks stopped."

Harry said, "I thought the point of it was to rid the castle of all Muggle-borns. Why did they stop on just one?"

"Maybe Slytherin's Heir was about to be caught? I don't know."

"Who could it be this time?" Hermione asked, lost in thought.

"Let me see," Ron said. "Who do we know that believes in that whole blood-supremacy thing?"

Merlin said, "Surely, you don't mean Malfoy."

"It makes sense. His whole family has been in Slytherin for many generations. They pass the secret from father to son and every few decades one of them opens the chamber."

"I'm not convinced," Merlin said. "The way he was acting when Mrs. Norris was discovered—if he was the one that did it, he would've stayed quiet so no one would suspect him."

"I wouldn't dismiss him that easily," Harry said. "You don't know him as we do. Malfoy is still a suspect, but we need proof if he's the heir or not."

"He won't admit it to us," Hermione said. "He'll only tell someone he trusts."

"What can we do?"

Hermione thought for a moment and seemed to have an idea she was struggling with. "There's a way but it would be difficult, and dangerous," she looked around them if anyone else was eavesdropping on them, "and it would break so many school rules."

"Are you going to tell us or what?" Ron said impatiently.

"Polyjuice Potion."

"What's that?" Harry and Ron asked together.

"Snape mentioned it in class. It's a potion that will make us look like someone else. We could look like his Slytherin friends and then Malfoy would tell us everything."

Harry was skeptical. "Are you sure that potion is safe? I don't want to end up stuck looking like Goyle."

"Of course it is," she dismissed his concern. "The difficult part is getting the recipe. It's in the book called Moste Potente Potions which is in the Restricted Section of the library."

"How do we get it? Madam Pince won't allow anyone in there unless they have permission from a professor."

"I'll get it for you," Merlin offered, seeing a way to cement his involvement. "But under one condition."

Ron looked at him skeptically. "You're just a first-year. You think they'll let you in?"

Merlin smirked. "Leave it to me. I have my ways."

"What's your condition?" Harry asked.

Merlin rubbed his hands together. He'd been waiting two months to get to this point. "We're doing this together."