Chapter 23

The Skull and Serpent

Harry moved across the Hogwarts lawn subconsciously, trading off making no noise for traversing the distance quickly. He had to get to a lot closer or he would lose this strange group if they got too far ahead. Harry reached the edge of the Forbidden Forest about twenty seconds after the last figure entered, just in time to allow him to follow the retreating students. From that point it was considerably easier as the group seemed less concerned with stealth once in the thick cover of the trees and even chatted a little as they walked along. Harry caught snippets of conversations about lessons and teachers, someone who sounded familiar commented that they thought Snape had gone soft and was cut off by a sneer that Harry instantly recognised as Malfoy's saying he was still head of their house. Confirming Harry's suspicions that most, if not all, of this group was comprised of Slytherins.

As the group proceeded into the wood along a little used path, Harry tried to work out numbers and put names to as many voices as he could, besides Draco, Crabbe, and Goyle where definitely amongst them, but he still couldn't place the first voice he had recognised. The group, followed silently by Harry under his fathers old cloak, carried on along some hidden path for another ten minutes winding their way deeper into the dark wood, never once lighting their wands, which annoyed Harry further as he tripped over several large roots and had scrapes on his hands where he had prevented himself from falling flat on his face. When they finally came to halt Harry was surprised to see a little stone structure protruding from the forest floor, almost like a sunken flat roofed cottage, but over the years grasses and vines had grown over its surface and Harry assumed it would be completely unrecognisable from the air, even if you were looking directly at the tiny clearing.

Several voices started a low chant and a sort of entrance appeared as a large slab that had been perfectly matched and seamless, so it was completely indistinguishable from the rest of the wall, slid down into the ground leaving a small straight set of stairs which the group started to descend. Harry could clearly see, as they filed into the entrance, that this group of students contained thirteen members. Harry didn't dare risk following them, but skirted round the outside of the structure and found a small slot in the far wall just above the ground and while the angle made it possible to only view the tops of the heads of the group. Harry's position did facilitate eaves dropping on the students and their meeting turned out to be a rather unusual. There was a discussion of how they had failed three times already but the fourth time wouldn't fail, which was accompanied my murmurs of approval, Draco had spoken next advising the members that their target was adapt at escaping impossible situations and they must be patient. Draco who was obviously in some sort of position of authority said something about 'The Chapter of the Skull and Serpent' and how they had never failed to succeed to complete a task in its thousand year history. The blonde Slytherin's little speech continued saying that the members here where the best at Hogwarts and their futures as leaders and decision makers of the future was secured. These comments where met with the sound of stomping of the members feet and a couple of animated affirmations and what followed seemed like some sort of weird chanting ritual in a language Harry didn't understand.

These students really did seem to be in some sort of weird cult, 'trust Draco to be their leader.' The 'Chapter of the Skull and Serpent' now that was obvious, the Dark Mark was a skull with a serpent protruding from it's mouth, this group must be like junior Death Eaters. Questions spun through Harry's head, 'How were they getting away with it?' and 'How long had it been going on?" being the most prominent.

Harry thought to himself that maybe this group was the reason Hogwarts had been different this year. Were they really talking about him though? Had these people really helped orchestrate the attacks by the Death Eaters? What was the third attempt? If they were talking about attacks on Harry, they must be in league with Voldemort, the evil wizard's followers had attacked at Kings Cross and at Sirius's memorial, but he didn't know of another attempt. He was so deep in thought Harry almost missed the group's departure from the strange meeting place and he was lucky he snapped to attention in time to catch the last stragglers leaving for he had no idea where he was or the way back to the castle. So Harry followed this strange group back to the castle and he realised who another member was. Harry was trying to convince himself otherwise, because he couldn't believe it, she couldn't, and wouldn't, but Harry was almost positive. One of the shorter figures walking at the back of the group was most certainly Cho Chang. It was this revelation that made him forget the other voice he had recognised, Harry's mind was in turmoil she had been Cedric's girlfriend then Harry's last year and a member of the DA. Admittedly they hadn't really spoken since the end of last term but what would make someone join a society in league with a man who killed your first boyfriend. Did Cho really hate him so much that she would be part of a group trying to kill him, or at best, a group that was dedicated to causing someone else grievous harm.

As the group got closer to the edge of the forest Harry could see the glow from the windows and left the path into the slightly thicker wooded area that was the forest. Harry moved as quickly as he could in the limited light and thick tangle of undergrowth around him, still managing to overtake the returning students. Harry hurried back to the entrance opening it only slightly before slipping through and heading straight for the Gryffindor Common Room removing his cloak as he approached and giving the password to the fat lady. When inside he immediately sought out his friends, not that he wanted to talk about what he had just seen, he was still in a state of disbelieving shock. Harry wanted to be with them because he knew they offered a line of defence against the unwanted attention Harry had been getting recently. He sat in a chair next to Ron who was beating Neville at chess, glad of the temporary distraction Neville asked him where he'd been. Harry had responded that he was sorry, but couldn't tell them right now he just needed some time to think and get things together in his head, which granted him some looks of both curiosity and a hint of fear. Harry couldn't really blame them their looks of fear. Remembering back to the previous year, he shuddered, he might have lost everyone of his friends due to intentional solitude, only that his friends were all very special people was he saved from a very lonely life.

After a couple of hours just sitting around, the common room had all but emptied, Harry's friends had tried to carry on with what they had been doing but kept throwing glances at their friend, it was Ginny who first spoke to him encouraged by a couple of gestures from Ron and Hermione. Harry inwardly smiled at this, some unspoken word now had the redhead as official speaker of the group and they probably remembered the previous year. During that year the only one of his friends to ever tell him off and stand up for them had been the youngest Weasley, smiling inwardly she normally got her way too, especially with Harry.

"Right I've had enough Harry James Potter." Harry looked up and saw the girl standing in front of him hands on her hips, looking quite oddly like Mrs Weasley about to reprimand the twins and Harry knew she meant it she never used his full name. "What's going on? If you think we're going to let you shut us out anymore you can forget it, you'd have thought you'd learned your lesson from last year, we all care about you and I for one am not going to let you do it and don't you dare think about arguing." the heads of all his friends nodded in agreement as Ginny paused for breath about to resume her verbal attack, but Harry accepted her comments and interrupted.

"Okay I'll tell you, Hermione can you make sure we aren't over heard." He didn't need to ask the slightly bushy haired witch twice. Hermione already had her wand out and cast a silencing charm around the group. After it was completed, Harry took a couple of deep breaths and proceeded to tell the captive audience about the events of the night. When he had finished his companions where all stunned, it was Hermione who recovered first and vocalised what they were all probably thinking.

"I can't believe she's so messed up, sorry Harry, but she must have gone mad and I wonder who the other person was you said you recognised."

"Well they where pretty short and they all seemed to be in the sixth year up, so I think it must have been a girl." deduced Harry.

"You're going to have to be careful Harry, it definitely sounds like they are out to get you." added Ron "We should probably try and keep an eye on the ones we know about."

"I think you should tell Dumbledore, Harry they might have had something to do with the attack on the school." Ginny stated. There was unanimous approval for this idea and Harry promised he would do it first thing in the morning, the group chatted for another hour about what they should do, throwing ideas around. Some of Ron's where completely unfeasible but being chastised by Hermione no longer seemed to affect his confidence and he was not less active with his suggestions. The month of learning tactics in DADA, had taught Ron that sometimes being extreme proved to be the most effective solution to a problem. Finally Harry told the others he was tired and was going to bed and this signalled the departure of the group of friends to their dorms.

The following morning Harry woke early and washed and dressed wanting to go to the Headmasters office before anyone else woke but was surprised to find Ginny waiting for him in the common room, "I thought you might like a bit of moral support." said the pretty girl smiling at him.

"That and you wanted to make sure I went to see the Headmaster?" questioned Harry and was given his answer when Ginny blushed and shrugged. Harry laughed "Well I guess after last year I can't complain too much." and the smile returned to his friends face. "Come on then, I have no idea what the password is so we might be outside for a while. The pair walked together to the gargoyle that guarded the entrance to the Headmasters office. Harry was smiling when he used the same password and was admitted entrance to the castle's inner sanctum, no matter what was happening spending time with Ginny always seemed to leave him feeling happier than before. The pair walked into the Headmaster's study to be greeted with a quick burst of song from Fawkes and a 'Good morning' from the old wizard. The Headmaster proceeded to ask how he could help the pair, Harry explained his previous evening's excursion and the members he had recognised, by the time he had finished the twinkle that usually inhabited the wizard's eyes wasn't present. Albus Dumbledore asked Harry several questions concerning the evening and thanked the pair for coming to him first. The Headmaster told them it was probably best if the fewer people that knew of this society the better, so after their brief meeting Harry and Ginny returned to the common room, to find the rest of the group waiting for them.

"I'm starting to get the feeling you lot have my life planned out for me." said Harry with a smile.

"Just the important stuff Harry we know how you sulk when people tell you how to play Quidditch." replied Hermione and Harry laughed when he saw the look she got from Ron when he realised she was implying Quidditch wasn't important. Harry and Ginny informed them of the meeting with Dumbledore and the need for secrecy and after they had all finished the short question and answer they set off for the Great Hall for breakfast, which turned out to be quite light hearted.

The following weeks progressed quickly, lessons remained taxing and the requirement for long hours of study was no less necessary. Harry and the two youngest Weasleys practised Quidditch as hard as always and DA continued to be a very popular study aid. Hermione, Ron and Ginny all being prefects had taken on the roll of keeping an eye on some of the members of the 'Snake and Serpent Chapter' which Harry had identified. They had the advantage that they regularly had to patrol the corridors and they had a perfectly good excuse if they happened to be in the dungeons or near either of the towers which housed the rest of the students. They all claimed to be a little bit mystified everything was extremely quiet, apart from reporting that they appeared to be completely normal students and as far as they could tell not up to anything untoward, they had nothing to report. Harry had a sneaking suspicion that they had continued their activities they had just discovered a way to do it undetected, that or they had help. When Harry voiced his opinion Ron whole heartedly agreed saying that Professor Snape was bound to be helping them. As much as Harry disliked the man he really knew that there was no way he was helping this weird cult as they where almost certainly junior Death Eaters.

It was towards the end of the fortnight that Harry, feeling the morale of his friends was ebbing, approached Professor McGonagall following a Transfiguration lesson. "Ah Mr Potter, I'm pleased you have stayed I have something to show you." And the teacher produced an official looking certificate from her drawer handing it to him, "You are now the eighth official Animagus this century." Harry smiled as he studied the document that clearly stated his markings and breed and type of animal and it was signed by the Head of the Department for Control of Magical Creatures, which Harry thought was unusual and asked the Professor about it. She had a scowl on her face as she told him that for some reason Animagi when transformed where considered magical creatures and he could tell from her tone she didn't approve.

Harry thanked her and then was asked what he wanted to discuss, to which he replied, "Well the students have been kept on Hogwarts grounds for quite a while now, I know it is the safest place to be Professor and I just get the feeling they need cheering up a bit. I remember how excited everyone was about the Yule Ball in the fourth year and thought that maybe if a ball was organised for the end of term it might give everyone something to look forward too."

The stern Professors face softened just slightly. "While I can not speak for the rest of the staff, personally I think that it is an excellent suggestion and I very much doubt there will be any objections. When did you think would be the most appropriate time to hold this function."

"Err ... Well I know most of the students enjoy being with their families over Christmas, so perhaps we could have it on the last Saturday of term so no one has lessons the following day, would it be better to restrict it to third years and above again Professor? I mean I don't want to exclude anyone but the last ball continued till quite late.

"The date is most suitable, it will also give the elves sufficient time to prepare the hall, and I believe for a formal event it is always better to restrict the attendance to older students who are also more inclined to behave properly. I will discuss your suggestion with the rest of the staff but I am in no doubt it will gain majority approval." she stated "And if that will be all Mr Potter I have to prepare for my next lesson I have found since the creation of your Society the Gryffindor fourth years have been one of the most demanding." she added with a slight smile. "I don't think I have ever had to answer so many questions asked in my classes."

Harry, boosted by his successful trip to Professor McGonagall, hurried from the Transfiguration teacher's classroom to the Gryffindor house to collect his things for the next lesson where he met Hermione in the common room obviously with a free period writing a letter, he fill her in on his most recent meeting and she grinned back at him commenting she thought it was an excellent idea. Harry really wanted to find Ginny straight away but knew if he didn't hurry he'd be late for charms and he was looking forward to duelling the professor, as over the last weeks he had perfected the 'Plenus Aegis' charm and was gradually strengthening it to a point his higher level shield could deflect most of the obscure jinxes, hexes and charms the little wizard could throw at him. Curiously this absolutely delighted Professor Flitwick who seemed pleased that he was constantly being pushed to find more and more ancient magic to use against his student. Harry was always happy after these lessons, you couldn't help enjoy the manic energy the tiny wizard seemed to have in bountiful supply, and the fact that he was always smiling seemed to rub of on anyone who spent the time to share his company.

First of all a huge apology for the time I've had away from this story, my life needed to be put back in order.

Many thanx to Hermione Green who has become my new editor and I reckon has done a great job. Thank you too for all the reviews they are much appreciated and I read every one of them.

Next chapter should be up in a few weeks so if you enjoy the story keep a look out.

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